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CD Reviews:
The Listening Room: The Throne (Jay-Z and Kanye West), Jeff Bridges and more...
 

By GARY GRAFF
for Journal Register Newspapers

» See more SOUND CHECK

HIP-HOP

The Throne (aka Jay-Z and Kanye West)

“Watch the Throne”

(Roc-A-Fella/Roc Nation/Def Jam)

★★ 1/2

The sheer weight of expectation that comes with a collaboration of this nature could easily have buried it — and certainly came close during the hyped and confusing pre-release ramp-up to “Watch the Throne’s” oft-delayed release (now available via iTunes and Best Buy, everywhere on Aug. 23). Jay-Z and Kanye West are stalwart talents, however, so as messy and at times overblown as their set is, it never feels like external pressures exerted any undue influence on these tracks — 12 on the Standard edition, 16 on the Deluxe. The two MCs bring their A-game to this — “I’m definitely in my zone,” West declares on “... in Paris” — and it may be heightened ambitions, complementary rather than competitive, that are responsible for the over-abundance of influences and experiments that keep the album earthbound. There are clever uses of soul samples — Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” on “Otis,” Curtis Mayfield’s “The Makings of You” on “The Joy,” James Brown on four tracks — some well-deployed guests (Jay-Z’s wife Beyonce and Seal for “Lift Off,” Frank Ocean” on “Made in America” — and some pointed socio-political commentary on “Murder to Excellence” and “New Day,” the latter an enlightened ode to the rappers’ unborn sons. Much of “Watch the Throne,” however, suffers from sonic piling-on, and while some chest-thumping is certainly expected from these two acknowledged icons of the genre, the celebrations of material acquisitions (from cars to private plans to expensive watches and designer clothing) grow tiring — and even insulting when West laments, “Your life’s cursed? Well, mine’s an obscenity.” And the album cries for a more balanced give-and-take between the two rather than a schematic where West dominates and Jay-Z seems like a significant but still secondary partner. The Throne is a formidable pairing, but it comes off as something less than what should be the sum of its parts.



AMERICANA

Jeff Bridges, “Jeff Bridges” (Blue Note) ★★

Thanks to his Academy Award-winning turn in “Crazy Heart,” the idea of Jeff Bridges as a country singer is not far-fetched. But his debut album shows he’s not exactly Bad Blake on his own. There’s a tentativeness to these 10 songs that, to be fair, is reasonable from someone who’s essentially a novice artist — and comes out surrounded by first-rate helpers such as producer T-Bone Burnett, singing partners Rosanne Cash, Ryan Bingham and Sam Phillips, ace songwriters (Stephen Bruton, Greg Brown, John Goodwin) and a hot band that includes guitarist Marc Ribot and Detroiter Jackson Smith. The result is a listenable if unspectacular, mostly low-key and gentle set of paeans with Bridges’ writing hand in three of the 10. He describes himself as “buddhistly bent” at one point, which is certainly a line that could only come from this particular Dude.



New & Noteworthy

Blue October, “Any Man in America” (Up/Down): The Texas rock group’s latest album is its first for its own label as frontman Justin Furstenfeld mines a nasty divorce and child custody battle throughout its 13 songs.

The Bottle Rockets, “Not So Loud: An Acoustic Evening” (Bloodshot): The Missouri rabble rousers still manage to sound pretty good even with the volume turned down significantly.

Chimaira, “Age of Hell” (eOne Music): The Cleveland headbangers’ sixth studio album features guest appearances by members of Whitechapel and Daath.

Guy Clark, “Songs & Stories” (Dualtone): The venerable Texas singer-songwriter offers a “Storytellers” style look at the songs he’s written, for himself and others, over the decades.

The Cool Kids, “When Fish Ride Bicycles” (Green Label Sound): The Chicago-Detroit rap duo’s second full-length release features guests such as Travis Barker, Mayer Hawthorne, Bun B, Asher Roth and others.

Kris Delmhorst, “Cars” (Signature Sounds): The Brooklyn singer-songwriter pays tribute to, as the title suggests, the Cars, a favorite band of her teenage years.

The Duke & the King, “The Duke & the King” (So Recordings): The Catskills country-soul group, fronted by former Felice Brother Simon Felice, taps the best of its two overseas releases for its homeland debut.

Eli Young Band, “Life at Best” (Republic Nashville): The Texas country quartet’s fourth album, and first in three years, follows the Top 5 success of 2008’s “Jet Black & Jealous” and its hit “Crazy Girl.”

Eric Gales, “Transformation” (Blues Bureau International): The Memphis left-handed blues, rock and rap guitarist lets fly with another new album, which is becoming an annual event.

Jewel, “The Merry Goes ‘Round” (Fisher-Price): The singer-songwriter’s second family music collection features a dozen originals and four standards, including “My Favorite Things” and “Oh! Susanna.”

Candye Kane, “Sister Vagabond” (Delta Groove): The roots rockin’ cancer survivor’s 11th album was co-produced with her guitarist, Laura Chavez.

Jonathan Davis & the SFA, “Live at the Union Chapel” (Koch): The Korn frontman documents his 2008 solo tour with a concert set recorded in London.

Ollabelle, “Neon Blue Bird” (Ollabelle Music/Thirty Tigers): The old-time roots ‘n’ folk troupe recorded its firsts new album in five years at The Band veteran Levon Helm’s studio in Woodstock, N.Y.

Ana Popovic, “Unconditional” (Eclecto Groove): The Yugoslavian blues-rocker’s latest release includes collaborations with guitarist Sonny Landreth and harmonica ace Jason Ricci.

Psychostick, “Space Vampires vs. Zombie Dinosaurs in 3-D” (Rock Ridge Music): The third full-length album by the good-humored Arizona headbangers.

Sly Stone, “I’m Back Family & Friends” (Cleopatra): The reclusive funk pioneer’s first album in nearly 30 years mostly reprises his past glories with friends such as Jeff Beck, Johnny Winter, Bootsy Collins, Ann Wilson of Heart, the Doors’ Ray Manzarek and more.

Various Artists, “Big Ol’ Nasty Getdown Volume 1” (Getdown Entertainment): A jam-styled project that features playing by members of P-Funk, the Meters, Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and many others.

Various Artists, “Dexter: Season 5 — Music From the Showtime Original Series” (Milan): A compilation of musical moments form the most reason season of the award-winning serial killer domestic drama.

Wagons, “Rumble, Shake & Tumble” (Thirty Tigers): The latest from these insurgent country rockers shows that Keith Urban isn’t the only Australian who knows how to play with a little twang.

Warren Wolf, “Warren Wolf” (Mack Avenue): The vibraphonist’s debut features backing from bassist Christian McBride, pianist Peter Martin and others.



From The Vaults: Breaking Benjamin, “Shallow Bay: The Best of Breaking Benjamin” (Hollywood); Deep Purple, “Scandinavian Nights,” “In Concert 1970-1972),” “Live in London” and “MK III: The Final Concerts” (all Eagle Rock); Rory Gallagher, “Defender” (Eagle Rock); Jerry Jeff Walker, “Jerry Jeff Walker Plus” (Raven); Junior Wells’ Chicago Blues Band with Buddy Guy, “Hoodoo Man Blues (Expanded Edition) (Delmar)”



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