Bieber shows his age — and promise on '2.0'
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
"My World 2.0"
Teen pop hero Justin Bieber has already enjoyed the flattery of platinum record sales and YouTube play counts in the hundreds of millions, to say nothing of his eternal life as a Twitter trending topic.
The 16-year-old has earned the respect of pop-music graduates such as Usher and Justin Timberlake, and he can allegedly play more instruments than most seasoned pros.
It comes as some disappointment, then, that his music gives away his age. The uncharacteristically genuine album-closer "That Should Be Me" — a passionate piano ballad fueled by junior-high jealousy — is a rare and fleeting glimpse of potential in Bieber, but the radio-sealed sterility of "My World 2.0" otherwise makes the Jonas Brothers sound visionary.
"Scratch My Back"
After an eight-year hiatus, Gabriel, the most protean pop artist of boomer vintage, returns with an audacious, challenging studio collection.
"Scratch My Back" contains covers of 12 other artists, from Neil Young to Bon Iver. But Gabriel has transformed all the songs, using slow, stark, at times lugubrious accompaniments.
It's essentially chamber music with piano, brass, and woodwinds sprinkled around. The tone is tremendously vulnerable and grave, resembling both in mood and sound an adagio version of the British band Tindersticks.
The string arrangements are opulent, allowing songs such as David Bowie's "Heroes" to ebb and flow from desolation to urgency. Gabriel throws a shroud over other selections, notably Paul Simon's "The Boy in the Bubble." Even interpreting other people's music, Gabriel is a true original.
Catchy and certainly lovely, the Queens quintet Freelance Whales are amiable on first exposure but quickly work themselves into a rut.
So much fragile playing and doe-eyed introspection give this debut a twee vibe, as well as the nagging feeling we've heard it all before. Leader Judah Dadone has a strong vocal resemblance to Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie and the Postal Service; the glitch-pop anomaly "Starring" is a dead ringer for the latter.
Other songs blend harmonies, electronics, and folk twang into familiar TV-sound-track textures. At least "Kilojoules" is cheeky and winsome, but there are other problems here. Namely, the band never manages a song as assured and complete as the opening "Generator First Floor."
"Making of an Underdog"
Jay Z and Kanye West have used string players for effect — silly props for award shows, perhaps. But to North Philly MC Thee Phantom (Jeff McNeill), blending the beats and rhymes of hip-hop with the sweep of cellists and violinists is serious business.
Thee Phantom's epic, stately sound makes more sense on the Kimmel Center's stage (where he has appeared) than it might during a basement rap bash. The songs on this, his second album ("Hero Complex" came out in 2006), feature handsome arrangements of strings, rich choral vocals, and warm brass.
His rap's clarity, its singsong flow, and the simmering instrumentation behind his melodies allow ample room for Thee Phantom's positive lyrics. As a storyteller, he makes his point on "Underdog" and "Inspiration" and gets out of the way of the grand, elegant music.
Thee Phantom played Underdog's release-day gig at the Wachovia Center during a 76ers halftime. "Hip-Hop's Love Ballad" is cheery and romantic. "B-Boy Meets Beethoven" seems as silly as it does stoic. But none of this means that this MC, his Illharmonic Orchestra, or his drum programmer/pianist L.F. Daze lack grit, hardness, or humor. Thee Phantom is one overachieving underdog.
"The Open Road"
The open road is a familiar image, one that carries the possibility of freedom and rebirth. That's what the characters in the title song of John Hiatt's new album are after: "The open road, where the hopeless come, to see if hope still runs." And it's an image that has obviously inspired and focused him, as Hiatt gets back on track after 2008's uneven and somewhat flat "Same Old Man."
"The Open Road," in fact, finds the grizzled songster operating near his peak. From the title track to the ruefully ironic "Wonder of Love" and the unabashedly openhearted "Carry You Back Home," his tales of flawed and damaged individuals brim with life.
And so does the rootsy music: "Haulin' " chugs along like Chuck Berry's "Promised Land"; "Like a Freight Train" slows to down-and-out blues; "Fireball Roberts" serves up hangdog honky-tonk; and — speaking of career peaks — the punchy rocker "What Kind of Man" sounds as if it came straight off "Bring the Family."
"Way Out Here"
"As for my honky-tonk ways, I blame it on Waylon" and "all them other Outlaws," Josh Thompson declares on the second track of his debut. A lot of young country singers invoke country greats these days, as if it lends them more credibility. Thompson sounds as if he actually did learn a thing or two from his influences.
"Way Out Here" is an engaging blend of swagger and humility. Rocking honky-tonkers like "Beer on the Table" and "Blame It on Waylon" are balanced by ballads like the God-fearing "Sinner" and the tenderly reflective "Back Around." "Name in This Town" echoes the musical snap and defiant pride of Steve Earle's "Guitar Town."
Thompson wrote or co-wrote all 10 songs, and while the Wisconsin native lays on the superiority-of-the-country conceit a little thick on the title song and "You Ain't Seen Country Yet," he never makes any slick pop moves, either — no power ballads here.
And you have to like the way he undercuts the bravado of "Won't Be Lonely Long" with an almost throwaway line at the end, showing he possesses another key ingredient to success — a sense of humor.
SID SIMMONS, MIKE BOONE, BYRON LANDHAM
"Keep the Faith"
The cover makes this collection seem like a trio outing. But crack open the CD and a dozen additional guests spill out. The trio — pianist Sid Simmons, bassist Mike Boone, and drummer Byron Landham — make up the core. But this recording, with its profligate guest policy, provides a neat take on the Philly scene as heard from Ortlieb's Jazz Haus on North Third Street in Philadelphia.
While one tune dates from 1998 — a tinny but combustive take of "Just in Time" — most of this set was recorded live at Ortlieb's last year with such stalwarts as trombonist Clifford Adams, trumpeter John Swana, altoist David Lackner, and violinist John Blake Jr.
"Boom Tic Boom"
We are talking diverse here. Drummer and leader Allison Miller goes to the avant-garde woodshed and back again, stopping along the way to linger a bit on standards.
The wide-ranging set is not for the faint of heart, but tunes such as "Cheyenne," with its discordant piano strikes, develop and contain some amazing solo work.
"Fead" is more strictly modernist, with Miller drawing some unusual sounds from her drum kit, while Hoagy Carmichael's "Rockin' Chair" makes for a pretty stopover.
Sometimes the inspiration starts with quirky rhythms. The trio, with guest Jenny Scheinman on violin, make one such liftoff on "CFS (Candy Flavored Sidewalks)," which nearly becomes a jazz hoedown. It marks yet another stylistic foray for a versatile set.