near the middle of the road
Santa and Scrooge
you favor Santa or Scrooge, chances are you'll soon need to stuff
at least a few stockings.
perfect gift? Maybe, maybe not.
One year I gave my brother-in-law what I believed
was the perfect gift a book of blank pages called "Everything
Men Know About Women." I was unaware that he'd soon be my
ex-brother-in-law; he and my sister didn't seem to think the gift
was so great. But I still say it's a decent stocking-stuffing
Even so, it's worth remembering that you may be
in the room when the gifts you give get opened. And, after grandma
gives her favorite Celine Dion Christmas album its umpteenth spin,
the situation might call for something a little fresher in the
family boom box. Wise gift-givers know that any CDs they begift
stand a better chance of making the cut on Christmas Day if some
degree of common denominator is found.
With all these things in mind, here are a few ideas
from somewhere near the middle of the road:
Perhaps the best thing about hearing someone sing in a different
language is that it can be totally transporting. For those who
struggle to appreciate foreign-tongue singing, I say close your
eyes, relax and let the music take you away. This concept, of
course, can be a lifesaver around the holidays.
And Mariza, whose music is related to the plaintive
Portuguese folk-music idiom called fado, offers a 41-minute Mediterranean
vacation with her third album, Transparente. Purists might
call it a sellout a slick sacrifice to commercial overreach.
Most of us, however, will simply see it as an intro to fado.
"It enfolds the ears like silk," writes
Rolling Stone's reviewer. According to the scribe at All Music
Guide, "[Mariza is] the music's biggest star for a reason:
She sings it not as musty nostalgia but as exuberant 21st-century
pop, with a low, mesmerizing alto that's as commanding as any
pop singer today."
That sounds about right. Transparente is
exotic, melodic and very easy to like a great opportunity
to close one's eyes and wade into some fado, which literally translates
Who might like this album? World travelers. Wannabe
world travelers. College kids. Parents. Grandparents. Virtually
anyone with ears.
Botti: To Love Again
Chris Botti To Love Again
Chris Botti's latest, To Love Again: The Duets, finds the
Oregon-born trumpeter jazzing his way through the songbook of
standards with an interesting batch of popular singers.
Botti, the prototypical local boy made good, is
dating celebrities these days, while touring and recording with
the likes of Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin and Sting.
On this album, his ninth, Botti enlists vocal help
from Sting, Gladys Knight, Jill Scott, the Blue Nile's Paul Buchanon
and even Aerosmith's Steven Tyler, who croaks out a touching rendition
of the old Charlie Chaplin composition, "Smile."
While most of the songs feature vocals, even those
offer intriguing instrumental passages often before the
singing even starts. And yes, Botti sounds like he loves the haunting
muted-trumpet sound of Miles Davis. Where's the harm in that?
The album's standout is Paula Cole singing "My
One And Only Love," but there's not a bummer in the bunch.
Botti mixes in a handful of pure instrumentals and one original
song, while the London Session Orchestra adds the lushness of
strings without going overboard. Here the purists will argue that
things are too polished; Botti has long been painted with the
smooth-jazz brush. To Love Again, however, is anything
but. In fact, it's a solid slice of 21st-century jazz.
Who might like this album? Those who love pop
singers and the great American songbook. Those who love the sound
of Miles Davis (although it might irk some). Those afraid of jazz.
Anyone looking for background music or romance. And, yes, even
jazz-lovers (although it might irk some of them, too ... but even
they should at least give a listen).
Like: Are You Thinking What I'm Thinking?
The Like Are You Thinking What I'm Thinking?
These three young women, all offspring of indie-music
types (Mitchell Froom, Tony Berg and Pete Thomas), formed the
Like in 2001 while in their mid-teens. By 2005 the band has the
rocking girl-group thing down cold as long as listeners
don't put the words under a microscope.
The songs, all credited to Z Berg, are musically
very strong. And while there's nothing exactly new, it's a time-tested
idea (a pile of great-sounding songs) given an updated twist.
Whether up-tempo or down, these girls sound like they know exactly
what they're doing and could be in it for the long haul.
To compare is to take the easy way out, but the
Like is remindful of Harriet Wheeler and the Sundays (my player
has repeated the mid-tempo "You Bring Me Down" dozens
and dozens of times). And, maybe best of all, Berg sounds like
a deep-voiced full-grown woman when she sings.
In all, the majority of these songs (produced by
former Prince protégé Wendy Melvoin) really rock
and Are You Thinking What I'm Thinking is a totally satisfying
listen although you should probably wait till after grandma
has had her third eggnog before peeling off this one's shrink
Who might like this album? Anyone who likes the
Cars or the Bangles. Lovers of ringing, chiming, loud guitars.
Youngsters. Anyone who says there's never good new music anymore.
Lauper: The Body Acoustic
Cyndi Lauper The Body Acoustic
And for the stocking of my young friend Troy, who doesn't yet
believe in Cyndi Lauper, it's The Body Acoustic. Cyndi
usually manages to get things right and this new CD, essentially
a greatest-hits collection turned on its ear, is mostly superb.
"Money Changes Everything," for instance,
gets a foot-stomping six-minute back-porch treatment that starts
with a fiddle and ends with the 50-something Cyndi singing from
her heels while displaying trademark style, passion and grace.
The album is laden with unexpected instrumentation, offbeat percussion
and an odd assortment of guests including Shaggy, Jeff
Beck, Vivian Green, Sarah McLachlan and Ani DiFranco.
Rolling Stone's reviewer says: "Many rockers
lose their fire and much of their vocal range while journeying
through middle age. But the ever-unusual Cyndi Lauper now sings
with more power, more nuance and with more notes at her disposal
than she had at her mid-'80s popularity peak." All Music
Guide adds: "... Lauper has always possessed a talent that
goes beyond the material she has sung and she can sing
Too true. But maybe the best review came after loaning
a copy to a friend headed for a family reunion of four generations.
The Body Acoustic, the friend reported back, was the one
CD nobody'd heard but everyone enjoyed.
Who might like this album? Cyndi Lauper fans.
Pop music fans. Mainstream and offbeat music lovers of all ages
and stripes. Troy.
Fade Into Light
Boz Scaggs Fade Into Light
Boz Scaggs carries forward this growing trend of established
singers dipping into their past to update familiar material.
This "new" one, Fade Into Light,
actually came out in Japan in 1999 but only gained stateside release
Scaggs got his start in a 1959 version of the Steve
Miller Band, then had one of the most popular albums of the mid-'70s,
Silk Degrees. But Scaggs has remained fairly busy and,
in fact, has released solid albums in recent years: Dig
(new material) in 2001 and But Beautiful (standards with
a jazz trio) in 2003.
Fade Into Light jazzes up several signature
songs from Silk Degrees: "Lowdown" and "We're
All Alone" are given the unplugged treatment, while the showstopper,
a piano-based version of "Harbor Lights," deviates only
subtly from the original's sublime arrangement but manages its
own repowered appeal. The album hits a few weak spots but it's
at least 75 percent to the good.
Who might like this album? Baby boomers and more
Martina McBride Timeless
Last but not least is Martina McBride's Timeless,
which covers well-chosen old-school country classics that ooze
authenticity even to those of us who don't care all that
much for country music in the first place.
In fact, this album features understated singing
to go with tasty pedal steel guitars, rambunctious honky tonk
piano, sharp string and choral arrangements and songs like "Thanks
a Lot," "Make the World Go Away," "Heartaches
by the Number" and, maybe best of all, a spectacularly faithful
version of Joe South's "(I Never Promised You A) Rose Garden."
Depending on your kinfolk, this album could be the
hit of the season and they might still be playing all 18 songs
come the 4th of July.
Who might like this album? Country bumpkins and
city slickers alike. My sister.
Meanwhile, a few words of caution for last-minute
shoppers: Stay away from the latest by Neil Diamond, Madonna and
Burt Bacharach; they're not horrible, they just don't stack up
against the middle-of-the-road's recent best.
And, finally, one more thing worth mentioning: Back
in the '60s, when my age was still in single digits, an older
cousin gifted me with the Beatles' groundbreaking Revolver.
Thinking myself extraordinarily wise, I decided that the lads
from Liverpool were already ancient history and returned the unopened
vinyl to a store where I exchanged it for the latest by
All these years later, I still don't know exactly
what lesson was to be learned except maybe to keep your
ears open because sometimes Santa (or even your small-town cousin)