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Listening Room: Masters of Funk, Soul and Blues, John Mellencamp and more
Masters of Funk, Soul and Blues, “A Soulful Tale of Two Cities” (Soul Renaissance Records) **1/2
The concept behind this long-delayed two-CD set is solid; two soul music capitols, Detroit and Philadelphia, giving each other props by having artists from one camp cover the others’ songs. These 30 Motown and Philadelphia Internationalrelated classics still sound good in the hands of any hack bar band, so the capable singers and players that take them on here have a good enough time with the material and certainly sound comfortable working in each others’ sonic camp — even if there are several moments (the strained vocals and stiff arrangement of the Soul Survivors’ “Expressway (To Your Heart”) or the dentist offi ce treatment of “T.S.O.P.,” for instance) when we’re reminded that they’re not quite in their ’60s and early ’70s primes anymore. That said, it’s still a hoot to hear George Clinton, so deeply associated with cutting edge funk, dig into the heart of a jazzy treatment of Major Harris’ “Love Won’t Let Me Wait,” or the Vancouver’s Bobby Taylor emoting his way through the O’Jays’ “Sunshine” and the Spinners’ “Sadie.” Lamont Dozier’s strong vocal overcomes another weak arrangement on Billy Paul’s “Me & Mrs. Jones,” and former Temptation Ali “Ollie” Woodson punches the (metaphorical) lights out on “For the Love of Money,” another of several O’Jays tunes on the set. The Philly camp does right by Motown, too, with Sister Sledge’s Kathy Sledge delivering a joyous “Dancing in the Street,” Ted Mills nailing a keening treatment of the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination” and Bunny Sigler leading a spirited vamp through Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up.” Not one of these versions will replace the originals in your ears or in your heart, and there’s maybe a single disc’s worth of truly good stuff here, but it’s an admirable show of mutual respect that merits at least a listen — and, in some cases, more than one.
John Mellencamp, “Freedom’s Road” (UMe/Universal Republic) ***
Say what you will about the Chevy truck campaign using “Our Country,” one of the 11 tracks on the Indiana rocker’s latest album; it succeeded in putting John Mellencamp back on the map for another poignant collection of heartland rock. Recorded in the garage of his Belmont, Ind., studio facility, “Freedom’s Road” is a texturally rich set that traverses “the road of madness and trouble ... paved with intolerance, ignorance and fear” — and still comes out the other side with a positive outlook (“There’s plenty of goodness in the world/I hope someday to find it all.”). Mellencamp makes a couple of fierce political statements — with Joan Baez on “Jim Crow” and on the hidden closing track “Rodeo Clown” — but mostly deals with broader social and personal issues. And, fortifi ed by backing vocals from Little Big Town, it wrings its hands tunefully through rockers such as “My Aeroplane,” ringing Midwest anthems (“Our Country,” “The Americans,” “Forgiveness”) and somber, cinematic ruminations like “Ghost Towns on the Highway” and “Rural Route.” A “Road” well worth traveling.
New and noteworthy:
The Affair, “Yes Yes to You” (Absolutely Kosher) — The debut full-length from the pop quintet that has ’em buzzing in New York and the U.K.
(Domino) — The non-fab Liverpool quartet’s fourth album comes out on these shores after generating excitement in its homeland last year.
The Good, the Bad & the Queen, “The Good, the Bad & the Queen” (Virgin) — The first disc, produced by Danger Mouse, from the new all-star band formed by Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz) and former Clash bassist Paul Simonon.
The Grateful Dead, “Live at the Cow Palace: New Year’s Eve 1976”
(Rhino) — The seams of the Dead’s brimming vaults bust loose again for this document of one of the group’s most legendary annual New Year’s Eve shows.
Lee Hazelwood, “Cake or Death” (Ever) — What purports to be one fi nal album from the man who wrote “These Boots Were Made For Walkin’.”
Kristin Hersh, “Learn to Sing Like a Star” (Yep Roc) — The resolute and resilient singer-songwriter hooks up with former Throwing Muses bandmate David Narcizo for her ninth solo album.
Dustin Kensrue, “Please Come Home”
(Equal Vision) — The Thrice singer takes a surprising acoustic direction on his fi rst solo album.
moe., “Conch” (Fat Boy) — The jam band cracked open “Lord of the Flies” to fi nd a title for its first studio album since 2003.
Peter Rowan and Tony Rice, “Quartet” (Rounder) — The latest collaborative meeting between these two roots music virtuosos.
Saliva, “Blood Stained Love Story” (Island) — The fourth album, and fi rst since 2004, from the Memphis headbangers.
Kenny Wayne Shepherd, “Ten Days Out (Blues From the Backroads)” (Reprise) — A DVD/live album project exploring the blues roots of the American South, with a guest list including B.B. King, Clarence “Gatemouth Brown” and members of the Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters bands.
The Shins, “Wincing the Night Away” (Sub Pop) — The fourth album from the tres cool New Mexico indie rockers famously favored by Zach Braff of TV’s “Scrubs.”
Soundtrack, “Black Snake Moan” (New West) — The Black Keys, the North Mississippi Allstars and costar Samuel L. Jackson contribute songs to accompany the film that also features Justin Timberlake, who’s acting rather than singing.
Various Artists, “Casey Kasem Presents the Long Distance Dedications”
(North Star Entertainment) — Tear-joking moments from Kasem’s radio countdown show. Keep the hankie handy.
(Kemado) — The Brooklyn buzz band’s second album features guest appearances by Jenny Lewis and former A Perfect Circle and Zwan member Paz Lenchantin.
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