- Steve Klinge
Sun is the first album in six years for Cat Power, a.k.a. Chan (pronounced "Shawn") Marshall, and it represents a significant makeover for the now 40-year-old indie heroine. Along with a new short haircut, the pianist and songwriter has a new way of making music on her self-produced eighth album, relying on electronic keyboards and beats and eschewing the dusky piano musings of her '90s work and the Memphis soul moves of 2006's The Greatest. Sun also has the clear-eyed severity of a breakup album, and at its best, as on "Cherokee," "Real Life," and the terrific single "Ruin," it winningly mixes languorous beauty with carpe diem. Sun hits a rough patch in the middle, but recovers toward the end with the unexpectedly effective 11-minute "Nothing But Time," a rewrite of David Bowie's "Heroes," featuring moral and vocal support from Marshall's fellow Miamian, Iggy Pop.
- Dan DeLuca
Novelty bands require a professionalism that tricks you into hearing genius. When they have success, such bands crack a code that has eluded many a would-be humorist band before. It's hard to crack that code, even harder to do it more than once. Most novelty bands just stop - and like that, it's as if the magic never existed. The Darkness' wondrous hair-'n'-glam send-up Permission to Land had a worthy successor. One Way Ticket to Hell . . . and Back was genuinely bizarre and a couple of times brilliant (as on "Dinner Lady Arms," their own "Big Bottom"). But after too many addiction-cum-hiatus years, the labored Hot Cakes is no comeback (in either sense). With all riffs competent Angus Young knockoffs and jokes indistinct, even the one shimmering pop gem, "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us" lacks a single quotable line. Title irony notwithstanding.
- Dan Weiss
Based on a T.R.U. Story
(Def Jam **1/2)
2 Chainz is this year's rapper de l'été. Drake dragged him on tour. Kanye featured 2C on his seasonal hit "Mercy." Lil Wayne is holding up release of his own record so that Chainz can bask in No. 1 Billboard glory. Why 2 Chainz, a member of Atlanta's Playaz Circle, is getting such affirmation isn't completely certain. His rough lyrics and flow do contrast intriguingly with the glossy tracks he's on. On his mix tape "Codeine Cowboy," the title tune features an inelegant drawling style that attests to an innate nastiness. That nagging malevolence and downright distastefulness are solidly rendered even if they get tired fast. As in Yuck! Chainz seeks ladies not experiencing "their monthlies" while a soundtrack of bristling beats and plush tones waft below his misogynist treachery. On "Extremely Blessed," he takes a date to the Waffle House - then calls her a chickenhead. Luckily, producers like The-Dream soak Chainz in a crème caramel velvetness while his aforementioned pals and other guest artists help tell (sell) this T.R.U. Story. More of the cool blue Rap&R&B that silks the track "Stop Me Now" would have worked wonders. Still, this Story is a salacious, audacious treat.
- A.D. Amorosi
Country/Blues Out of the Shadows
Out of the Shadows is a title that aptly describes what is going on here: The debut solo album of a singer who has made a career, going back to the late '70s, of being a backup vocalist. It may be a long time coming, but Etta Britt has certainly made the most of her chance. The Nashville-based Britt shows the kind of versatility that has made her a singer's singer, while still lending the album a cohesive feel. She goes toe-to-toe with Delbert McClinton as they tear through the roadhouse rave-up "Leap of Faith," but she is equally at home uptown on the smoother and more sensual R&B of "High." Country-soul comes to the fore on a standout version of "The Chokin' Kind," but the set's rootsy thrust also gives way in a couple of places to elegant piano-and-strings ballads. Amid writing contributions by Gary Nicholson, Paul Thorn, Michael McDonald, and Harlan Howard, Britt contributes some originals - most notably the poignant and deeply personal "Quiet House" and "She's Eighteen" - that reveal she is more than just a powerhouse interpreter.
- Nick Cristiano
Jazz Wonderful! Wonderful!
(High Note ***1/2)
Organ jazz is practically a Philly art form, and nobody does it better than Joey DeFrancesco. The Philly-born wunderkind, now 41, just blisters. His agility is astounding, his sense of drama impeccable. Even his trumpet, which he pulls out for the customary one tune, creates some respectable noodling on "Old Folks." He and drummer Jimmy Cobb are both alumni of the Miles Davis bands, albeit in much different epochs. Cobb, 83, was on the 1959 classic Kind of Blue session, while DeFrancesco stepped in as a teenager in the late 1980s, but they share an unerring sense of swing. Larry Coryell is the welcome wild card. The guitarist, known more for his jazz-rock fusion forays, shows himself to be comfortable in the hard bop-drenched environs of this trio recording. Every so often, he does something different, but the effect is like fresh water. And his ability to throw in a soulful cadenza is much appreciated.
- Karl Stark
Classical Rolando Villazon, Sophie Koch, Eri Nakamura and Audun Iversen. Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Antonio Pappano conducting.
(Deutsche Grammophon ***1/2)
Tenor Rolando Villazon was a powerful Werther long before two career hiatuses, and chose this role for his 2011 Royal Opera comeback, captured here in all its heart-in-mouth intensity. More than most operas, this one requires complete conviction from performers if its story of the lovesick Werther, who kills himself when he can't be with the woman he loves, isn't to seem like outdated victim art. And here, the strength of the total package - thanks to conductor Antonio Pappano - is such that the opera truly feels like a matter of life and death.
Sophie Koch (Charlotte), Audun Iversen (Albert) and Eri Nakamura (Sophie) are all well cast, even if they don't eclipse the classic Jose Carreras/Frederica von Stade recording. But the linchpin is Villazon, whose voice isn't as fresh as in years past but is far more dramatically focused. Previously, he seemed to sing loud just because he could; now he doesn't even need the usual romantic pathos, so specifically does he reveal his character's terrifying psychology. Has any other tenor on record so completely inhabited this role?
- David Patrick Stearns