I took a lot of shit a couple of Fridays ago for saying some negative things about the Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar” in a Chart Attack! entry. I still stand by what I said (I can’t remember what exactly that was, but I’m sure profanity was involved), but I’m all about giving the people what they want — so here, you tasteless dopes, is an album of Christmas songs from the fictional band led by vocalist Ron Dante. You can apparently hear samples of the album by following this link, but I can’t verify that, because nothing can make me click on it. You’d think The Archies Christmas Album featuring Betty & Veronica would be perfect for Mellowmas, and you’d be right — but there’s still no way I’m ever listening to this.
Joseph Arthur and the Lonely Astronauts: Temporary People (RED)
In which Arthur caps off a madcap year (he’s released four EPs) with the full-length record his fans have been waiting for. The AMG’s John Bush has already compared Temporary People to the Replacements and early Wilco. Personally, I’ve never heard much ‘Mats in Arthur’s music, but I’m still intrigued…despite People‘s abominably crappy artwork. Hear some samples here.
Mary Chapin Carpenter: Come Darkness, Come Light: Twelve Songs of Christmas (Rounder/ZOE)
Another Christmas record? In late September? You betcha. In fact, as you’ll soon see, this week brings seasonal releases from a slew of artists, most of whom would seem to make for rather unlikely yuletide singers. Not Carpenter — she can tackle an uptempo, country-flavored tune when she wants to, but she’s always been at her best when she slows down and drapes that beautiful voice in a ballad’s quiet spaces. She does just that here, delivering an introspective set of Christmas tunes that focus on the traditional (read: non-commercial) aspects of the season. Twelve tracks and not a “Rudolph” in the bunch — you’ve got to like that.
Ani DiFranco: Red Letter Year (Righteous Babe)
I haven’t listened to anything she’s done since Living in Clip, but I might need to break that streak with this, Ani DiFranco’s 18th(!) studio release — early indications are that moving full-time to New Orleans has colored her music in all the right ways, and with the suddenly ubiquitous Rebirth Brass band popping in, I’m cautiously optimistic that Red Letter Year might live up to its title. Hear some early samples here.
Dion: Heroes: Giants of Early Guitar Rock (Saguro Road)
Time Life continues its latest run on exhuming commercially left for dead artists with this CD/DVD set from Mr. DiMucci, which features covers of moldy oldies including “Summertime Blues,” “Come on, Let’s Go,” “Be-Bop A-Lula,” and “I Walk the Line.” You can bet every single member of Sha Na Na already has Heroes in heavy rotation.
Enigma: Seven Lives Many Faces (Virgin)
I’m not sure which is more surprising — that Enigma is still around and making records, or that Virgin is still a label. I’d have thought EMI would have sold the rights to the logo for office furniture by now, but I guess there’s still enough life left in both franchises to keep ’em around. If you’ve heard one Enigma album, you’ve pretty much heard them all — but the same could be said for Jim Brickman, Yanni, and John Tesh, and people don’t seem to have gotten tired of their shticks yet, so why not another one from Enigma? Hear samples, if you must, at this link.
Melissa Etheridge: A New Thought for Christmas (Island)
There was a time in the mid ’90s when, try as I might, I couldn’t date a woman who didn’t looooooooove Melissa Etheridge. I’m not sure how many times I’ve heard “Come to My Window,” but I do know it’s up there in the “many too many” range — and still, I have to admit, I’m sort of intrigued by the idea of a Christmas album from Etheridge. As a vocalist, she has essentially one speed (gritty ‘n’ bluesy), and judging from the track listing, A New Thought for Christmas plays to that strength, with Etheridge tackling stuff like “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” “Merry Christmas Baby,” and the 10,000th cover of “Blue Christmas,” along with a handful of new originals. Head here to hear before you buy.
Dan Evans: Goin’ All Out (Universal/Fontana/EMG)
Fans of My Biggest Loser will remember Evans as the bespectacled, troublingly androgynous contestant who signed up last season with his mom, and nearly walked away with the game. Personally, I have no desire to hear Evans’ musical stylings, but I’m of the opinion that anyone who gets up on national television and exposes his man-boobs in a desperate bid to get healthy (and succeeds!) is well within his rights to use any newfound notoriety to jumpstart the career of his choosing. In other words, I’m not clicking on this link, but I refuse to pass judgment on anyone who does.
BÃ©la Fleck and the Flecktones: Jingle All the Way (Rounder)
Yep, it’s a holiday album from Mr. Fleck and his Flecktoned combo. A horrible title? Absolutely, but if you’re at all familiar with Fleck’s music, you know it’s rarely dull — and that applies to Jingle All the Way, too, thanks to arrangements that make room for bluegrass-tinged classical, klezmer, and Tuvan throat singing. As you’d expect, the album is heavy on songs in the public domain (“Jingle Bells,” “Silent Night,” “O Come All Ye Faithful”) and seasonal classics from Guaraldi and Torme. Nothing that’s going to make you stop hating Christmas music, certainly, but it’ll liven up an office holiday party nicely. Sample it here.
Ben Folds: Way to Normal (Epic)
We covered this in our Fall Music Preview, and as I’m still waiting on my copy, I don’t have much else to add yet — except that, having heard “You Don’t Know Me” and “Hiroshima (B B B Benny Hit His Head),” I’m optimistic that Way to Normal will prove a more entertaining, durable listen than the uneven Songs for Silverman.
Faith Hill: Joy to the World (Warner Bros.)
…And it’s another Christmas album! If you’re looking at this and thinking “I could have sworn Faith Hill already had a Christmas album,” you’re not alone, but apparently not — Joy to the World, featuring a cover photo that makes Hill look like Barbie after swallowing an entire bottle of Paxil, is being billed as her first. The trend in recent years has been for artists to try and put their own personal spin on their holiday releases, but Hill takes the opposite approach here, relying on the standard orchestras ‘n’ swingin’ combos approach that you’d expect from a ’50s Christmas record. It seems unlikely to reverse Hill’s commercial slide, but if your grandparents are coming over for dinner this Christmas, make them happy and drop a few bucks on Joy to the World.
Jennifer Hudson: Jennifer Hudson (Arista)
I’ve never watched an episode of American Idol and I haven’t seen Dreamgirls, so all I know of Hudson’s singing is what I’ve read — which has been mostly complimentary. Except, that is, for this album’s advance reviews, which accuse Jennifer Hudson of being unnecessarily loaded down with trendy guest spots and over-the-top production unbecoming a vocalist with actual talent and power.
Jack’s Mannequin: The Glass Passenger (Sire)
I wasn’t a fan of Something Corporate, but Andrew McMahon’s debut as Jack’s Mannequin, 2005’s Everything in Transit, was a pleasant surprise — equal parts power and pop, with urgent piano and muscular rhythm tracks adding heft to McMahon’s mewling vocals. The Glass Passenger was written during and after his struggle with leukemia, which obviously lends his love songs some extra weight; unfortunately, according to our esteemed David Medsker, it’s also given a traction-free production sheen befitting its title. You can read his disappointed musings on the new album here. (I’d add my own two cents, but the promo copy Warner Bros. sent me is watermarked and copy-protected, and my computer wouldn’t recognize it. Right into the trash.)
Jeff Lorber: Heard That (Peak)
What does it take for a smooth jazz keyboard player to get a little extra attention for his 19th identical-sounding studio album? I don’t know, but recording a cover of a hit from a younger artist — like, say, Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” — certainly can’t hurt, right? You know you’re intrigued now, so head over here to check it out.
Taj Mahal: Maestro (Heads Up)
I haven’t heard Maestro yet, but Taj Mahal is one of my favorite artists, so I’m totally picking this up, and probably writing about it here. Timed to celebrate Taj’s 40th anniversary as a recording artist, Maestro features a slew of special guests, including Los Lobos (hooray!), Ben Harper (boo!), and Jack Johnson (what?). No matter who he’s playing with, though, Taj is still Taj. Do not miss this album.
Kellie Pickler: Kellie Pickler (BNA/19)
Again, I’ve never watched an episode of American Idol, so I can’t speak to Kellie Pickler’s vocal prowess or lack thereof. I can, however, tell you that looking at the cover of Kellie Pickler makes my eyes hurt, and cripples my already-shaky faith in major label artwork departments. Isn’t she a country singer who made a big deal about being a small-town girl? In fact, wasn’t that the title of her debut? So why has she been made to look like a thrice-divorced alcoholic grandmother on the cover of her second album? There are some Idol contestants whose work I actively avoid (hello, Taylor Hicks!), but I really don’t have any anti-Pickler prejudice — and yet, after looking at that album cover, I’m 90% certain that what lies within is a garish, poorly produced attempt at pop crossover status. Click on this and let me know if I’m right.
Joshua Radin: Simple Times (RED/Mom & Pop)
This is one I’ll be reviewing in a few days, so I’ll limit my comments here, except to say that I’m ever more baffled that the whole “I’m going to whisper while I strum my acoustic guitar” thing hasn’t played itself out yet — and that I still can’t see Radin’s name without thinking of Joshua Kadison, which always makes me queasy.
Todd Rundgren: Arena (Hi Fi)
Here’s another one we’ll be reviewing soon. How soon? For all I know, Robert Cass’ writeup will have already run by the time this posts. I’ve heard mixed things about Arena, which is par for the course as far as Rundgren is concerned; the only real question is, Rundgren being Rundgren, which course we’re talking about.
Pete Seeger: At 89 (Appleseed)
At last, an album I’ve already reviewed (for Bullz-Eye). It shouldn’t surprise you at all that I gave At 89 four stars, or that the more I listen to it, the more I like it, or that I wish I had enough money to buy a copy for every man, woman, and child in America. Pete Seeger is a hero, a living treasure, and a man whose music is still every bit as fresh and vibrant as it was 60 years ago. Am I making myself clear? Buy At 89.
James Taylor: Covers (Hear Music)
Seriously, what is it with the horrible album covers this week? According to Covers‘ booklet, the cover shot was taken by Timothy White; I’m guessing it was the Timothy White, and Taylor picked it for this album as a tribute to the late, great Billboard man. However, I’m also reasonably certain that some hack with an Intuos pad has colorized this photo, turning an already unflattering shot into an album cover most foul. As for Covers itself, meh; Taylor selected mostly predictable stuff for this set, like “Hound Dog,” “Summertime Blues,” “On Broadway,” and “Wichita Lineman.” (The one relatively recent song is the Dixie Chicks’ “Some Days You Gotta Dance,” probably sparked by the episode of CMT Crossroads they taped together.) On the other hand, Taylor’s such an old pro — and such a craftsman — that none of it is bad, just rather dull. Which is what many people have been saying about his records for 30 years, I guess.
Brian Vander Ark: Brian Vander Ark (Red Eye/Second Motion)
You may remember Brian Vander Ark from his old band, the Verve Pipe, and their annoying ’90s hit “The Freshmen”; this self-titled effort is his third solo release, and accompanies Red Eye-distributed reissues of his first two albums (2003’s Resurrection and 2006’s Angel, Put Your Face On). I hated the Verve Pipe when they were successful, but enjoyed their later, mostly unheard work; for an idea of which Vander Ark shows up here, visit his MySpace page.
Various Artists: Les Paul & Friends: A Tribute to a Legend (immergent)
In which a slew of special guests (including Slash, Richie Sambora, Mick Hucknall, Joan Osborne, Joe Bonamassa, Peter Frampton, and Johnny Rzeznik) gather to fete the 93-year-old legend, producing combinations both strange (Rzeznik covering U2’s “All I Want Is You”) and wonderful (“The Good Luck You’re Having,” featuring a guitar summit between Paul and Bonamassa). In a sadly ironic twist, the featured star being honored posthumously here isn’t Paul, but Hiram Bullock, who succumbed to throat cancer during the summer.