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Listening Room: Jordin Sparks, Matthew Sweet And Susanna Hoffs and more...
Jordin Sparks, “Battlefield” (19 Recordings/Jive) **
The quality that makes “American Idol” finalists successful — the chameleon-like ability to sing anything and never really achieve a distinctive style — is something that works against many of them as they go on to become recording artists. This week’s case in point — Jordin Sparks, the Season Six champ who’s coming off a platinum 2007 debut album but who, at 19 years old, still sounds like she’s singing to please Simon, Paula and Randy (and maybe Kara) rather than separating herself from the pack. “Battlefield” does demonstrate the same confidence as “Jordin Sparks” along with a bit of maturity and some subtle new directions; the rock-styled choruses of the title track, the album’s first single, and “Let it Rain,” have a harder bite, while “S.O.S. (Let the Music Play)” brings Sparks into the dance orbit, though it leans hard on the sample of Shannon’s “Let the Music Play,” that provides the song’s backbone. Mostly this 12-song set is dogged by sheer, unapologetic anonymity. There’s little that separates the Arizona singer’s voice, produced and layered to a fault throughout the album, from any number of others working the pop/R&B divide — up to and including inaugural “Idol” champ Kelly Clarkston, who’s something of an unacknowledged model for “Battlefield’s” ebb-and-flow arrangements and swooping chorus crescendos. Sparks, who co-wrote four songs this time out, still sounds most comfortable on the ballad tip, too, with torchy deliveries of tracks such as “Let it Rain” and “The Cure” and a convincing gospel-flavored turn on “Faith.” She’ll need more than that, though, to wage a successful campaign on the pop music “Battlefield” in the future.
Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs, “Under the Covers, Vol. 2” (Shout! Factory) **1/2
The rock veterans return to their Sid and Susie alter-egos for the follow-up to 2006’s successful covers collaboration, touching on a number of favorites and influences. The trap, of course is that their renditions really are too faithful, but they’d be hammered if they took them too far afield. So it’s best to just simply enjoy these capably sung and played treatments of material by the Grateful Dead, the Raspberries, Derek & the Dominoes, Carly Simon, Todd Rundgren, John Lennon, Tom Petty and more, and check out appropriate cameos by Lindsey Buckingham (on Fleetwood Mac’s “Second Hand News”), Steve Howe (Yes’ “Your Move”/”All Good People”) and Dhani Harrison on his father George’s “Beware of Darkness.”
New & Noteworthy
Aimee Allen, “A Little Happiness” (Side Tracked):
The singer and songwriter goes solo after splitting with Unwritten Law’s Scott Russo, co-writing one song here with hitmaker Linda Perry.
Assembly of Dust, “Some Assembly Required” (Missing Piece/Rock Ridge Music): The roots rockers recruited a stellar guest list, including members of Phish, moe., the Buffalo Killers, Richie Havens, Martin Sexton, Bela Fleck, Grace Potter and others, for its latest endeavor.
David Bowie, “VH1 Storytellers” (Virgin/EMI):
The rock icon takes on a careerspanning set of his favorites on this CD and DVD souvenir from the TV show.
Jennie DeVoe, “Strange Sunshine” (Sony Red): The soulful singer-songwriter’s fourth album was produced by PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish.
Marie Digby, “Breathing Underwater” (Hollywood):
The singer-songwriter builds on the success of her 2008 cover of Rihanna’s “Umbrella” with the release of her sophomore album.
Four Year Strong, “Explains It All” (I Surrender/Decaydance): The Massachusetts quintet’s covers album features punked-up versions of songs by Sugar Ray, Everclear, Nirvana, No Doubt, Smashing Pumpkins and more.
The Hooters, “Both Sides Live” (Megaforce): The “And We Danced” guys are still around and rocking, as evidenced by this two-disc concert set featuring electric and unplugged performances.
Ian Hunter, “Man Overboard (New West): The 13th solo album by the former Mott the Hoople frontman comes just as the group is reuniting for some British shows this fall.
Crosby Loggins, “Time to Move” (Jive): The major label debut by Kenny Loggins’ son, a singer and songwriter in his own right.
Kenny Loggins, “All Join In” (Disney Pearl): The veteran singer-songwriter goes the family music route with gently arranged songs by Traffic, Randy Newman, the Del Vikings and the Beatles, whose “Two of Us” reunites Loggins with former partner Jim Messina in the studio for the first time in nearly three decades.
Demi Lovato, “Here We Go Again” (Hollywood): The teen Disney Channel star’s second album features collaborations with John Mayer, William Beckett of The Academy Is... and Jon McLaughlin.
Lovehammers, “Heavy Crown” (self-released): The fifth album from the Chicago band whose lead singer, Marty Casey was the runner-up on the 2005 reality series “Rockstar INXS.”
Michael Jackson, “The Stripped Mixes” (Motown/ UMe): One of the first posthumous releases is this collection of Jackson 5 and solo tracks that, as the title says, are stripped of certain sonic elements to better showcase Jackson’s vocals.
Megafaun, “Father, Form & Fly” (Hometapes): The North Carolina trio mixes roots and contemporary touches on its sophomore album.
The Moog, “Razzmatazz Orfeum” (Musick): A strange title? You’ll forget all about it when you sample the wellcrafted pop from this Hungarian quintet.
Our Lady Peace, “Burn Burn” (Independent Label Group): The Canadian rock quartet recorded its seventh album at frontman Raine Maida’s home studio in Los Angeles.
Sugar Ray, “Music For Cougars” (Pulse/Universal/ Fontana): The California quintet enlisted a heavyweight producer, Josh Abraham (Staind, Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park) and guests such as Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo and Donovan Frankenreiter for its first set of new material in six years.
Paul Taylor, “Burnin’” (Peak): The Denver-born saxophonist hopes he’s still hot in the wake of his 2007 smooth jazz success with “Ladies’ Choice.”
Wheat, “White Ink, Black Ink” (The Rebel Group): If nothing else, the Massachusetts duo’s fifth album has a much shorter and somewhat less oblique title than 2006’s “Everyday I Said a Prayer for Kathy and Made a One Inch Square.”
Brooke White, “High Hopes & Heartbreak” (June Baby): “American Idol” judge Randy Jackson executive produced this maiden venture by Season 7 finalist White.
New Music DVDs
Reel Big Fish, “Live! In Concert!” (Rock Ridge Music); Raphael Saaadiq, “Live From the Artists Den” (Artists Den/Columbia)
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