February 4, 2008 / 5:11 AM / 10 years ago

k.d. lang's latest fails to elevate itself

NEW YORK (Billboard) - “Watershed,” k.d. lang’s new torch-and-twang exploration, will hover delicately in the background of many a coffee shop, but it does little to elevate itself to a more conscious musical experience. Instigating passionate encounters might have been lang’s intent; alas, the record is more befitting an aromatherapy session. While her lyrics are drenched in l‘amour, lang’s dulcet voice floats like mist. The pure 5 o’clock lounge of “Sunday” is like time travel back to a 1960s bachelor pad, complete with discreet xylophone, padded bass notes and martinis you can nearly taste. “Flame of the Uninspired” draws a shade over the album’s subtle glow; beyond that, “Watershed” boasts delicate country traveling songs and oh-so-hushed romantic standards.

ARTIST: KENNY G

ALBUM: RHYTHM AND ROMANCE (Starbucks)

Kenny G’s got a love jones going. On his Starbucks debut, the saxophonist cooks up a set of samba, bossa nova and salsa tunes that range from a fluid version of the staple “Besame Mucho” to eight originals co-written with co-producer Walter Afanasieff. Focusing on one genre works to G’s advantage; backed by a stellar cast of musicians that includes bassist Nathan East and Weather Report drummer Alex Acuna (with Afanasieff on piano), he coaxes a richer and more muscular tone from his instrument. “Sax-O-Loco” and “Salsa Kenny,” which bookend the 12-track set, take a more upbeat tone, while the vocal numbers -- “Mirame Bailar” with Barbara Munoz and “Es Hor de Decir” with Camila -- provide welcome counterpoints to G’s melodic excursion. G doesn’t discard the light touch he’s known for, but there’s a headier sense of ambition on “Rhythm and Romance” that makes us hope he doesn’t get his heart broken anytime soon.

ARTIST: HOT CHIP

ALBUM: MADE IN THE DARK (DFA/Astralwerks)

From Casiotone swells, a drummer-killing time signature and a guitar-and-tambourine hook that could prompt hand-jiving, this set’s first two minutes prime your pump like an action sequence before the opening credits. What follows is a proper blockbuster from the nerdy Brit quintet that continues where 2006 breakout “The Warning” left off. This is the same pop-wise Hot Chip, only wilier and with a more dastardly sonic arsenal. Check out “Shake a Fist,” which uses a 1972 spoken-word Todd Rundgren sample to introduce the indie children to the glorious squelch of acid house. “One Pure Thought” laments not having one, over blissed-out reggae, while “Hold On” writes off the notion entirely (“I‘m only going to heaven/If it feels like hell”). Mashed-up comparisons aside (the Sea & Cake meets Tom Tom Club while listening to Weezer?), this stuff is singular, and flat-out great.

ARTIST: SPEAK IN TONES

ALBUM: SUBARO (AlphaPocket Records)

This double CD is, in a manner of speaking, the logical conclusion of a two-year series of concerts led by Daniel Moreno and Mike Ellis at 56 Walker St. in New York. The album was recorded in Salvador do Bahia, Brazil, and features a mix of jazz, Latin and world music players from the Big Apple, Mali and Bahia. The tunes are a provocative intermingling of jazz and world styles. A perfect example of what’s going on here is “Douson Foly (Take 2).” The song has a pronounced Malian rhythmic feel, deepened by Lansine Kouyate’s balafon (a tuned percussion instrument from West Africa) and Cheick Tidiane Seck’s vocal. The hypnotic rhythm percolates beneath jazz horn riffs and a nimble balafon solo, building a monster groove. Elsewhere, “Subaro, Part 1” gets a major funk-jazz vibe going, fueled by a low-riding saxophone and a flurry of vocalizations.

ARTIST: NADA SURF

ALBUM: LUCKY (Barsuk Records)

“I only wanna make you happy,” Matthew Caws sings on “I Like What You Say,” a cut from this Brooklyn trio’s new album. As with most of the tunes on “Lucky” -- and like most of the guys in his indie-pop cohort -- Caws is singing about a relationship. But he might also be addressing Nada Surf’s audience. Caws’ great trick as a songwriter is devising tunes that start out in melancholy minor-key mode but end up as hopeful-sounding odes to the human spirit, and “Lucky” is full of jangly little gems that could put a skip in the step of even the saddest of sacks. The finest among them might be opener “See These Bones,” during which Caws makes a visit to an ancient crypt in Rome seem like a perfectly cheery way to spend a Saturday.

ARTIST: BULLET FOR MY VALENTINE

ALBUM: SCREAM AIM FIRE (20/20 Entertainment/Jive)

Determined treatise “Scream Aim Fire” is a joy ride of sleek, “Guitar Hero”-ready metal that’s indoctrinating both genders into the fold. The record exhibits fierce intent to prove that Bullet for My Valentine’s music shouldn’t be painted “pretty boy” because of the group’s good looks. But the foursome doesn’t completely abandon the sensitive interludes that gave it the emo tag it’s trying to shake. Finale “Forever and for Always,” the band’s Queen-inspired valentine to fans on the communal experience of playing live, climactically builds and then strips away one hook-laden riff at a time to end on a revelatory note that will crack the coldest doubter’s heart.

ARTIST: RONNIE FREEMAN

ALBUM: GOD SPEAKING (White Apron Entertainment/Koch)

During a recent Nashville showcase for this record, nearly every key player in the Christian music community was in attendance to lend support. One listen to this collection and it’s easy to see why Ronnie Freeman commands such a devoted following. He has a warm, accessible voice and a gift for penning engaging songs that explore faith from a unique, insightful perspective. This finely crafted project should propel Freeman from Christian music’s best-kept secret to highly successful artist.

Reuters/Billboard

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