From her gig as judge on the vocal competition program The Voice to her odd, dramatic turn in the movie Burlesque, where she out-camped Cher and Alan Cumming, Christina Aguilera has spent a good chunk of the last decade not using her primary skill to the best of her ability. As one of modern pop-soul’s most dynamic singers, Aguilera has proved she has power, range, theatrical emotion, and nuance over and over again. Think of her soaring rendition of the Linda Perry ballad “Beautiful.” That immense musical moment bears witness to all that Aguilera contains. Liberation, her first new album since 2012’s limp Lotus, is intended to be a return to the reach, stretch, and breadth of her past.
Liberation is endearing where Aguilera’s lustrous, full-blooded voice is concerned. The up-tempo swing of “Like I Do” finds the singer juking her way wildly through new trap-inspired pulses. Ballads such as “Deserve” allow Aguilera to be winsome, sorrowful, and cocksure all at the same time. “Searching for Maria” gives her a moment to indulge her rangy a cappella skills (and Sound of Music fandom), before lurching into the barnstorming “Maria,” produced with genuine Motown shimmer by Kanye West and Hudson Mohawke. Sadly, West can’t save “Accelerate” from being murky hip-hop. Rapper-turned-knob-twiddler Anderson .Paak can’t pull “Sick of Sittin'” from its nothing melody and soul-hop doldrums. “Fall in Line,” a duet with Demi Lovato, wastes both powerhouse singers’ time by giving them nothing to rise against. Many of Liberation’s production tricks are lame and its lyrics unliberated. Still, this is album manages to be a good (not great) reboot for one of R&B’s greatest voices. — A.D. Amorosi
The Blues Is Alive and Well
(Silvertone/RCA *** stars)
When Buddy Guy sings about “The End of the Line,” the 81-year-old blues giant is not talking about the finish of his own storied career – he doesn’t sound ready for that at all. Rather, the Louisiana native and onetime Muddy Waters protege means he feels like the last of a breed – in this case, those Southerners who migrated to Chicago and electrified the blues, both literally and figuratively.
On the aptly titled The Blues Is Alive and Well, the singer-guitarist with a flair for showmanship (and occasional showboating) continues his fruitful collaboration with Tom Hambridge – producer, drummer, and writer or cowriter or 13 of the 15 tracks. Guy sounds as robust as ever on storming up-tempo numbers such as “Guilty as Charged,” “Old-Fashioned,” and “Ooh Daddy.” But he also knows that in the blues, energy is no substitute for feeling, and he digs deep on such smoldering ballads as “A Few Good Years” and “Somebody Up There.”
Of course, there are guest appearances by acolytes. Keith Richards and Jeff Beck contribute guitar on “Cognac” (or “Coney-ac,” as Guy pronounces it); Mick Jagger blows some harmonica on “You Did the Crime”; and James Bay duets with Guy on “Blue No More.” But they never divert attention from the main attraction, and instead help to underscore Guy’s enduring vitality and refusal to go quietly. As he puts it in “The End of the Line”: “I still can get this damn job done.” — Nick Cristiano
Charles Lloyd & the Marvels Featuring Lucinda Williams
(Blue Note, ***1/2 stars)
The collaboration between tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd — at 80 one of jazz’s elder statesmen — and singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams is less unlikely than it might seem. Both have recently worked with guitarist Bill Frisell and pedal steel player Greg Leisz (Lloyd on 2016’s I Long to See You; Williams on 2014’s Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone and 2016’s The Ghosts of Highway 20), and last year, Williams joined Lloyd on a cover of Dylan’s “Masters of War.”
Williams appears on half of Vanished Garden’s 10 tracks, her cracked drawl buoyed by the liquid tones of the guitars and in conversation with Lloyd’s often lyrical sax. She’s not a jazz singer here — on “Unsuffer Me,” “Ventura,” and “Dust” she follows the melodies of the original versions on her albums, although she pulls back between verses for Lloyd or Frisell to take the lead. She sings a stripped-down version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Angel,” but best of all is a new Williams composition, the gospel-blues protest song “We’ve Come Too Far to Turn Around.” The tracks without Williams are excellent, too, from the meditative “Defiant” to the subtly jaunty “Blues for Langston and Larue” (with Lloyd on alto flute) to the Lloyd/Frisell duet on “Monk’s Mood.” — Steve Klinge