“Xscape” (Epic Records)
Michael Jackson was such a perfectionist about his music that he was notorious for releasing albums on a painfully slow timeline: His last album of new music was 2001’s “Invincible” – eight years before his death – and that record was a six-year wait for Jackson’s fans.
His estate is less discerning when it comes to his music. There are now two albums that have been released under Jackson’s name since his 2009 death – 2010’s “Michael” and now “Xscape.”
Like “Michael,” this latest posthumous release is a compilation of Jackson outtakes that includes material from decades ago, so there’s already a dated feel to much of the album, despite the wizardry and production under the helm of Epic Records CEO L.A. Reid, who worked with Jackson in the studio for one of the tracks.
But that doesn’t necessarily negate the music, and some of the most enjoyable songs are the oldest: The first single, “Love Never Felt So Good,” with its mirror-ball disco groove, is infectious and irresistible, with Jackson’s youthful falsetto sounding like it is gliding. It was recorded in 1983.
The magic continues through the funky jam “Chicago” as well as “Loving You,” a smooth, dreamy track given a fresh, modern sound, thanks to the magic of well-placed keyboards and Timbaland, the album’s main producer (the deluxe version of “Xscape” lets you compare the originals with the finished works). Songs like this make you wonder why Jackson shelved them.
Things start to falter a bit with “A Place With No Name,” which has the same beat and sound as “Leave Me Alone” from the “Bad” era and is lyrically weak: We can tell why Jackson left it on the cutting room floor. And it’s a sentiment that most will share for about half of the eight-track album.
There will likely be more posthumous Jackson records, given his penchant for overproducing, but will it be music the world and Jackson’s fans will cherish? Jackson may have been neurotic about recording, but it worked: In his adult career, he created two albums considered masterpieces and others that range in the spectrum of excellent to very good to good, which is an amazing track record.
Putting out music that falls below Jackson’s standards – even if overly high – detracts from the carefully constructed catalog the King of Pop spent decades creating and protecting. The holders of Jackson’s estate would be wise to apply some of the same standards the next time they consider releasing another posthumous album.
“Rewind” (Big Machine)
Rascal Flatts may have named their ninth album “Rewind,” but musically the country-pop trio takes a much-needed step forward.
Punching up arrangements with rock energy (“Payback”) and synth-pop flourishes (“Honeysuckle Lazy”), the band undergoes a contemporary country makeover as it celebrates its 15th year. The result makes for a more fun, mature and diverse sound – washing away the stale taste of recent outings.
On “Rewind,” lead singer Gary LeVox, bassist-pianist-singer Jay Demarcus and guitarist Joe Don Rooney take a bigger hand in their production, cutting more than half of the album on their own. Led by Demarcus, who has co-produced albums by Jo Dee Messina and the rock band Chicago, the trio moves the needle forward on the engaging “DJ Tonight” and the title cut, a recent country Top 10 hit.
The group also brought in pop veteran Howard Benson, who produced five cuts, including the dance floor-ready “Powerful Stuff.” Old hand Dann Huff, who had produced the band since 2006, worked with the group on the catchy “Life’s a Song,” which sounds more like the old Rascal Flatts. But what makes “Rewind” exciting is that Rascal Flatts has fast-forwarded into the future.
“Turn Blue” (Nonesuch)
Right off the bat, the Black Keys calm any fears about the mainstream success of 2011’s Grammy-winning “El Camino” album and breakthrough hit “Lonely Boy” going to their heads.
Their eighth album, “Turn Blue” opens with the seven-minute, guitar-solo-heavy epic “Weight of Love” that shows how far singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney have come since their days as a duo who made all their blues-rock sounds themselves. The impressive “Weight of Love,” along with the grand, Eric Clapton-esque solos of “In Our Prime,” also show, however, that the Black Keys will never really stray far from their Akron, Ohio, indie-rock-and-blues roots.
The inclusion of Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse) into the band’s inner triangle, as “Turn Blue” producer and co-writer, doesn’t change its mission, only enhances it. While “Turn Blue” spans a variety of styles – from the loping ’60s soul groove of “In Time” to the frantic, organ-driven dance party of lead single “Fever” to the power-pop closer “Gonna Get Away” – they grow more from Auerbach and Carney than Burton and his numerous projects like Broken Bells and Gnarls Barkley.
The most impressive part of “Turn Blue” is how the Black Keys have managed to expand their palette and artistic vision without losing their focus. Everything here is tight and hard-hitting, still built on the solid bond between Auerbach’s distinctive bluesy vocals and rock guitar and Carney’s inventive, dynamic drumming. Once again, “Turn Blue” finds the Black Keys at the top of their game – a game that just keeps getting bigger and bigger.
Joseph Arthur does the near-impossible on “Lou.” He brilliantly summarizes the career of his friend, the late Lou Reed, not by using the usual music industry criteria, but emotional ones. With only acoustic guitars and piano to support him, Arthur captures Reed’s grit and innocence, his unflinching storytelling and earnest dreaming throughout his career in classics like “Walk on the Wild Side” and “Heroin” and lesser-known gems like “Magic and Loss” and “Coney Island Baby.” The stripped-back arrangements let Reed’s lyrics speak for themselves. But Arthur’s voice, especially when he creates a chorus of his own harmonies, serves as a knowing guide in this celebration.
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