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This article was published 5/7/2018 (1114 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
POP / ROCK
From her gig as judge on the vocal competition program The Voice to her odd, dramatic turn in the movie Burlesque, where she out-camped Cher and Alan Cumming, Christina Aguilera has spent a good chunk of the last decade not using her primary skill to the best of her ability. As one of modern pop-soul’s most dynamic singers, Aguilera has proved she has power, range, theatrical emotion and nuance over and over again.
Think of her soaring rendition of the Linda Perry ballad Beautiful. That immense, musical moment bears witness to all that Aguilera contains. Liberation, her first new album since 2012’s limp Lotus, is intended to be a return to the reach, stretch, and breadth of her past.
The album is endearing where Aguilera’s lustrous, full-blooded voice is concerned. The up-tempo swing of Like I Do finds the singer juking her way wildly through new trap-inspired pulses. Ballads, such as Deserve, allow Aguilera to be winsome, sorrowful and cocksure all at the same time. Searching for Maria gives her a moment to indulge her rangy a cappella skills (and the Sound of Music fandom), before lurching into the barnstorming Maria, produced with genuine Motown shimmer by Kanye West and Hudson Mohawke. Sadly, West can’t save Accelerate from being murky hip-hop. Rapper-turned-knob-twiddler Anderson .Paak can’t pull Sick of Sittin’ from its nothing melody and soul-hop doldrums. Fall in Line, a duet with Demi Lovato, wastes both powerhouse singers’ time by giving them nothing to rise against.
Many of Liberation’s production tricks are lame, and its lyrics unliberated. Still, this is album manages to be a good (not great) reboot for one of R&B’s greatest voices. ★★★ out of five
Stream these: Like I Do, Deserve
— A.D. Amorosi, Philadelphia Inquirer
ROOTS / COUNTRY
Samantha Martin & Delta Sugar
Run To Me (Fontana North/Gypsy Soul)
Torontonian Samantha Martin’s new album with the 10-member-strong Delta Sugar Band is the kind of soulful, quasi-blues album fans of the genre sometimes wait too many years to hear.
Martin’s voice has personality and power and she gets fully behind every lyric she belts out, and even adds a bit of Janis Joplin meets Etta James-like burr to some of her vowels. Lyrically, Martin digs deep into the world of the youthful relationship tango. For her, or whichever character she is writing about, it’s a combination of love yearned for, then lost and then repeat until something kind of sticks.
The guitar-riff driven opening track You’re The Love sets the table for the ups and downs that are to follow. Some may find some solace in these scenes and the earnest way Martin delivers her stories. In a nutshell it goes from "What are you lookin’ for?" (Gonna Find It), to "You say we shouldn’t be lovers, here we are under the covers" (Will We Ever Learn), forward to "I’ll get over you someday" (Over You), back to "Find Yourself Good Trouble" (Good Trouble), to the final denouement pair "Mama’s been thinkin’ about askin’ him to leave" (Only So Much) and "Tell me where you been all night long" (All Night Long). Puzzled? It doesn’t matter. Delta Sugar gets the job done so well musically that the highs and lows of the characters in the songs make little difference once the band starts cooking. Extra points go to the pair of co-vocalists, Mwansa Mwansa and Sherie Marshall, for sounding splendidly professional, and producer/bassist Darcy Yates for keeping the sound crisp and warm. ★★★ out of five
Stream these: Good Trouble, Gonna Find It
— Jeff Monk
Echo Painting (Songlines)
If you are of a certain age, you probably associate the name Peggy Lee with the pop vocalist who wondered if that was "all there is." But in the current jazz world, this Peggy Lee is an extraordinarily talented cellist from Vancouver who is comfortable in both classical and jazz forms, and is usually extremely avant-garde and adventurous in her releases.
This new album reflects Lee’s broad interests, as it moves from mainly melodic tracks, like Incantation and Hymn, to wildly edgy tunes like Snappy and Out on a Limb. Her 10-piece ensemble includes other West Coast regulars like Brad Turner on trumpet, saxophonist Jon Bentley and drummer Dylan van der Schyff. The last track, The Unfaithful Servant, includes a vocal by Robin Holcomb.
The overall tone of the album is one of constantly shifting moods which creates a surprising and unpredictable pleasure. Without doubt, it’s very "out there" at times, the album represents a group of musicians at the top of their game who can create challenge and enjoyment in equal measure. Some aspects of contemporary jazz clearly stretch one’s understanding of what is being attempted. New ideas incorporate elements from many sources, and the restlessness of the best jazz musicians is legendary.
Peggy Lee’s music is at once unique and profound, with aspects of humour never far from the surface. There are no boundaries in her music, and the depth of this album assures that for this Peggy Lee that’s not all there is. ★★★★ out of five
Stream these: Incantation, A Strange Visit
— Keith Black
Hipster Zombies from Mars
Piano Music for a Post-Ironic Age (Navona Records)
It’s nearly impossible to ignore an album with a title — or cover art — like this new release by Navona Records.
But its nightmare-inducing graphics belie an arresting 2-CD recording of three large-scale piano works by Australian composer Nicholas Vines, which are breathed into life by Ryan MacEvoy McCullough.
Billed as "piano music for a post-ironic age," some listeners will arguably find this densely packed music difficult to listen to. However, more intrepid ears will be rewarded with Vines’s imaginative vision, with the fierce artistry of MacEvoy McCullough the icing on the cake.
The oldest piece, Terraformation, composed in 1999, offers enough stylistic contrast to appeal to contemporary taste with its four movements fuelled by plentiful tone clusters. Uncanny Valley, dated 2011, draws on traditional forms, with its principal theme spun into six variations titled after robots, a stuffed animal, corpse, zombie and Bunraku puppet, teeming with extended instrumental techniques and crackling pointillism.
Finally, Indie Ditties Twelve scapes for piano, composed 2014-17, is a set of 12 preludes in different keys a la J. S. Bach’s Preludes and Fugues. Each compact piece reflects tenets of indie/alternative/hipster culture, from "spunky funksters" to a tattoo-loving stigmatophile lamenting his lack of fresh skin, with each wildly conceived movement grounded in solid craftsmanship as an album for our modern, unrelenting times. ★★★★ out of five
— Holly Harris
Charles Lloyd & the Marvels Featuring Lucinda Williams
Vanished Gardens (Blue Note)
The collaboration between tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd — at 80, one of jazz’s elder statesmen — and singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams is less unlikely than it might seem.
Both have recently worked with guitarist Bill Frisell and pedal steel player Greg Leisz (Lloyd on 2016’s I Long to See You; Williams on 2014’s Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone and 2016’s The Ghosts of Highway 20), and last year, Williams joined Lloyd on a cover of Bob Dylan’s Masters of War.
Williams appears on half of Vanished Garden’s 10 tracks, her cracked drawl buoyed by the liquid tones of the guitars and in conversation with Lloyd’s often lyrical sax.
She’s not a jazz singer here — on Unsuffer Me, Ventura and Dust she follows the melodies of the original versions on her albums, although she pulls back between verses for Lloyd or Frisell to take the lead. She sings a stripped-down version of Jimi Hendrix’s Angel, but best of all is a new Williams composition, the gospel-blues protest song We’ve Come Too Far to Turn Around. The tracks without Williams are excellent, too, from the meditative Defiant to the subtly jaunty Blues for Langston and Larue (with Lloyd on alto flute) to the Lloyd/Frisell duet on Monk’s Mood. ★★★★ out of five
Stream these: We’ve Come Too Far to Turn Around, Monk’s Mood
— Steve Klinge, Philadelphia Inquirer