Hear Me Out
Published Thursday, 03-Jun-2010 in issue 1171
What a bitch it’s been for past-their-prime pop divas like Mariah, Whitney and Toni Braxton. To stay cool, they’ve had to take cues from the “kids,” indulge in Auto-Tune and hang with rappers. But if Whitney can take a crack at it (excuse the pun) and muster something that’s decent enough to endure, Braxton can pull it off with flying rainbow colors even if she’s swinging outside her R&B roots. She can still sing, for one – though almost everything she’s released in the last decade has been meager compared to her ’90s output. So what’s a diva to do? Go gayer. “Make My Heart,” the second single, is a supersonic disco-dance song with the clubs in mind. It’s not bad, but it isn’t a showpiece for her voice’s multi-toned dexterity. For that, the album is brimming with ballads, and though there’s nothing as epic as the career-catapulting “Un-Break My Heart,” that doesn’t mean she can’t cut a solid slowie nearly 15 years later. “Yesterday” meddles in the omnipresent modern-day mold. If not remarkably original, it’s still a damn good diva moment. Better are the goosebumps-giving vocals on “Woman” (dramatic pause included!) and “If I Have to Wait,” making it clear that Braxton’s still best when she’s breaking hearts.
‘Lessons From the Late Night’
Hunter Valentine plays tough, but underneath the rowdy rock spasms of the all-lesbian band’s music lie heartbreak and relationship woes. The Toronto threesome’s third album – the follow-up to its first full-length released in 2007 – is impressive, embracing the quality-over-quantity adage at just seven songs totaling a measly, but mighty, 23 minutes. Each one baits with irresistible hooks and Kiyomi McCloskey’s rousing temper tantrums, shredding the angsty lyrics like a lawn mower plowing through a field. If radio would embrace real lez love, and not just in the cheap doing-it-drunk way, Hunter Valentine could have a shot at seizing a wider audience of punk-rock peeps that dig hardcore queer bands like The Cliks. They thrash through the first five songs with aggressive control, singing of broken promises and trust on the defiant “Treadmills of Love” and the in-your-face “Revenge.” There’s a frenzied sprint to “Barbara Jean” and a sing-along refrain to the grunge-rock of “The Stalker,” but these girls clean up nicely, too: “A Youthful Existence” is a quieter tale of belonging, emoting with lines like, “There is some place left for you.” Hunter Valentine might not fit in, but they sure do stand out.
The new-wave band Andy Bell was born from, Erasure, had a knack for bundling heavy issues in breezy, head-hogging synth-pop. On Bell’s second solo outing, his approach is both celebratory and world-weary, but lost in a monochromatic mix that distills its colors over time. It’s a disco-glam frenzy of drum machines and electro madness, but several of the 10 songs instantly snap: “Running Out” is a robotic, laser-laden listen and “Will You Be There,” a heart-to-heart whoop. One of a couple ballads, “Subject/Object,” never ignites, rhythmically flatlining unlike its much better mate, the hypnotic soul of “Slow Release.” There, his voice ripens to its 46-year-old age, and, in fact, rarely ever reaches for that famous falsetto throughout the set’s entire 37 minutes. Bell and producer Pascal Gabriel – who has Kylie Minogue and Little Boots cred – certainly play to their club-hungry queers. “Non-Stop” is a druggie’s dream come true, pure blitz that’s as euphoric as they come. After that, he goes even gayer: “DHDQ” is an über-campy tribute to drag queens who try to outdo Debbie Harry and, with Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell, “Honey If You Love Him” summons something as nauseatingly dizzying as drinking while dancing ... non-stop. (Available June 8)
‘Lifted Off the Ground’
Country got a queer recently – at least publicly – and now everyone’s questioning the timing of Chely Wright’s “I’m a lesbian” announcement and the release of this, her seventh album. However you feel, as someone born and bred in a conservative platform, it was a bold move. Yet this collection of heart-on-sleeve songs, drifting from Wright’s country upbringing into folkie territory, is hardly as audacious as her big reveal. Not a bad thing, necessarily: Wright’s musings on doubt, relationships and freedom don’t shout her lesbianism from the rooftop (pronouns are nil), instead shooting for a mysterious haze that allows for open interpretation. One of the album’s few insta-melodic moments, “Heavenly Days” feels like more than it should because of her outing with lines like, “Dare to be different, dare to be true.” “Wish Me Away,” a lovelorn weepie that sounds like a lullaby, is also sublime. But otherwise, Lifted Off the Ground is mostly standard singer-songwriter turf: the sagging production isn’t often piquing and her lyrics aren’t exactly as cutting as probably intended, both of which fault the clumsy “Object of Your Rejection.” But, as Wright said, this feels like her first album; she’s just been lifted. Wait till you see her fly.
Even with more singing, the masterful guitarist’s wistful fifth album is an inescapable Bermuda Triangle of dreamy and hypnotic sounds. King’s a better guitar player than vocalist, as she’s proved with early instrumental-only projects, but still a genius capable of creating crescendos that suck you deep into their epicenter. No surprise, then, that the best cut on the album is one of the few without vocals: “My Nerves that Committed Suicide” –so moving that it speaks to you even without a voice.
‘My Best Friend is You’
As “I’ve Got a Secret” fizzes out and this British alt-rocker intones “homophobic pricks” in this coming-out cut, how can you not like her? The sophomore CD from the MySpace-launched wonder is almost as likable, exploring relationship facets with a hard-edged bite and lots of bad language. Sometimes going R-rated over radio-friendly works, like on retro-ed “Do-Wah-Doo,” but when she pushes too hard with the sexual spoken-word riff “Mansion Song” she risks alienation with indignation.
‘Leave Your Sleep’
This isn’t how Natalie Merchant left us before going on a seven-year hiatus. Whereas 2003 found the former 10,000 Maniacs front-woman doing straight-up folk, this sprawling, literary double-disc undertaking shifts into fairytale whimsy and Celtic-sounding songs – all complimented with an elaborate storybook that’s definitely something to marvel over. As for the 26 songs, they’re all non-mainstream, ambitious and off in their own world. One that brings sleep more than leaves it.
‘Shout it Out’
Boy band, whaaat? Even if this trio of “MMMBop” brothers carries that limiting label on their eighth album (!?), it’s breaking out the blues for some big-people pop that’s about as sunny as cruising the SoCal coast. It doesn’t get much more fun than ‘Thinking ’Bout Somethin’,” a getting-over-you groove that’s infused with a summertime sweetness, or the piano pop of “Make it Out Alive.” Clouds roll in on “Me, Myself and I,” a mature breakup song with a big (broken) heart, beautiful harmonies and the proof that Hanson is so much more than naysayers thought. (Available June 8)
Court Yard Hounds
‘Court Yard Hounds’
Even if Natalie Maines sat this one out as the Dixie Chicks sisters – Emily Robison and Martie Maguire – returned to music with this side project, the spitfire’s voice on “Ain’t No Son,” about a father rejecting his gay kid, is there in spirit. Otherwise, this is like a Sheryl Crow sound-alike, rich in affection and melody, especially on “The Coast,” a breezy road-trippy tune, and the life-isn’t-what-it-seems “Fairytale.” Some is coffeehouse forgettable, but that last song, “Fear of Wasted Time,” really hits you hard.
‘Glee: The Music, Vol. 3 – Showstoppers’
How gay can Glee go? Way over the rainbow, apparently: More Kristin Chenoweth, two Lady Gaga covers (“Poker Face,” acoustic; a by-the-numbers “Bad Romance”), Neil Patrick Harris doing “Dream On” and the Olivia Newton-John/Sue Sylvester “Physical” pairing. That ’80s camp classic hits the ’mo mark, but the vocodored remake ... showstopping? Hell no. These, however, are: “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” “Beautiful” and a version of “I Dreamed a Dream” that shows Susan Boyle who’s boss.