Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Life, Life, Love

New Recordings: Kelis, Carlene Carter, Gil Scott-Heron

Singer Kelis performs during the NPR 2014 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive show at Stubbs on March 12, 2014 in Austin, Texas.  (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for SXSW)
Singer Kelis performs during the NPR 2014 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive show at Stubbs on March 12, 2014 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for SXSW) Getty Images for SXSW

Ratings: **** Excellent, *** Good, ** Fair, * Poor




(Ninja Tune ***)

The concept on Food, the sixth album by art-pop R&B diva Kelis Rogers, is, shall we say, somewhat half-baked. Sure, she trained as a saucier at the Cordon Bleu cooking school and scored her biggest hit with "Milkshake," off her 2003 album, Tasty. So she has culinary cred to spare. She even took her own food truck to SXSW this year.

But although Food, which was produced by Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio, will make your mouth water with songs such as "Jerk Ribs" and "Biscuits 'n' Gravy," those titles are really just nonsense placeholders used in the recording process, kind of like The Beatles' "Yesterday" was once known as "Scrambled Eggs." Which is not to say that Food, which takes an old-school soul turn after Kelis' last experimental project, the 2010 electronic-powered Flesh Tone, is not often delectable. The grainy grit of Kelis' powerhouse voice is put to effective use on "Cobbler," "Hooch," and the open-hearted "Bless This Telephone." Food would have benefited if Sitek's production had been less restrained, but the 13-song platter provides ample sustenance nonetheless.

- Dan DeLuca

Carlene Carter
Carter Girl
(Rounder ***1/2)

She's the granddaughter of Maybelle Carter and the daughter of June Carter Cash (as well as stepdaughter of Johnny Cash), so Carlene Carter is part of the first family of country music. With Carter Girl, the singer best known for her vivaciously smart country-pop hits of the early '90s pays tribute to her musical legacy, and, as usual, her aim is true.

Working with producer-bassist Don Was and other topflight musicians, Carter offers her loving take on Carter Family material, from the rocking country-gospel of "Little Black Train" to the heartbreaking balladry of "I'll Be All Smiles Tonight" and the uptempo but downbeat closer "I Ain't Gonna Work Tomorrow," which features the voices of the late Carter Sisters - June, Helen, and Anita. Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Vince Gill, and Elizabeth Cook also contribute vocals.

Cementing her stature as a worthy heir to the family tradition, Carter reprises one of her own best songs, "Me and the Wildwood Rose," and with "Lonesome Valley 2003" updates a Carter Family classic for a moving account of the deaths of June and Johnny.

- Nick Cristiano

Gil Scott-Heron
Nothing New
(XL ****)

The nicest thing about Record Store Day is seeing what greats are left on shelves after the mad rush. One such gem is Nothing New, a collection of the sketches of brilliance that Gil Scott-Heron recorded quietly and alone during the sessions for his cluttered last studio effort, I'm New Here, recorded before his death in 2011. Currently on vinyl, this album is scheduled for CD and digital release in 2014.

He called himself a "bluesologist," but Scott-Heron, godfather of the singer/spoken-word movement underway since at least 1970, was a true griot whose poems blended tall-tale telling with the sociopolitical, and whose melodies fused jazz with soul and blues. Nothing New is completely and complexly less than that and more magical for it. It's a stripped-to-the-bone collection of smart songs, just his fragile vocals and his piano. The tracks are gloriously random, from 1971 to 1994, without touching on hits, and have the loose intimacy of being off the cuff yet played with the jazzy classicism of a Lennie Tristano. With Scott-Heron's rhythmic vibe to guide them, woeful stories of the working class ("Blue Collar," "Pieces of a Man") and looking beyond the past ("Better Days Ahead," "95 South") are told with epochal verve.

- A.D. Amorosi

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