Billboard CD reviews: Eminem, Cyndi Lauper, Macy Gray
NEW YORK (Billboard) - Throughout "Recovery," the rapper's first album since overcoming an addiction to pharmaceuticals, Eminem is unsparing in assessing the weakness of character that led to his descent into drugs. But the strong-selling rapper is even more severe in assessing the weakness of the work he made during that addiction: "Them last two albums didn't count/'Encore' I was on drugs, 'Relapse' I was flushing them out," he insists on the track "Talkin' 2 Myself," where he also admits that he considered taking shots at Lil Wayne and Kanye West. (""Thank God that I didn't do it," he raps with audible relief. "I'd have had my ass handed to me, and I knew it.") Eminem certainly sounds recharged on "Recovery," delivering nearly every verse with the kind of breathless, amped-up energy that defined early hits like "Lose Yourself." But it's an oddly morose comeback album, as suffused with regret ("Going Through Changes," based on a sample of Black Sabbath's "Changes") as with triumph ("Won't Back Down," featuring Pink). Leave it to Em to continue confounding expectations this late in the game.
ARTIST: CYNDI LAUPER
ALBUM: MEMPHIS BLUES (Downtown Records)
Everyone knows this girl just wants to have fun, but Cyndi Lauper means business on her new album, "Memphis Blues," a guest-studded trip toward Beale Street. And we'll give her a pass for treating Buddy Johnson's "I'm Just Your Fool" more like Chicago than Memphis, especially since Lauper wraps her elastic voice around all 11 tracks with such taste and passion. Allen Toussaint's piano lends gravity to Lowell Fulson's "Shattered Dreams" and Memphis Slim's "Mother Earth," while he and B.B. King team for a slinky take of the Louis Jordan signature "Early in the Morning." Other guests include Ann Peebles, Kenny Brown, Charlie Musselwhite, Jonny Lang and some of Memphis' most credentialed session cats. Only Lauper's take on the staple "How Blue Can You Get?" comes off a bit stiff. But her rustic spin on Robert Johnson's "Crossroads" (featuring Lang) more than makes up for it, and closes "Memphis Blues" on the best possible note.
ARTIST: MACY GRAY
ALBUM: THE SELLOUT (Hollywood Records)
Hindsight is always 20/20. And in the case of Macy Gray's latest -- which she says "reflects my true identity" -- it makes you wonder if her career would have lost as much steam if this had followed her 1999 breakthrough, "On How Life Is." During "The Sellout," the emotive, raspy-voiced singer delves deeper into the left-of-center vision that still feeds her engaging melodies and compelling lyrics throbbing with irony, humor and realness. Those characteristics shine on the life-affirming anthem "Beauty in the World," the torchy "Still Hurts," soul-pop gem "Lately" and "Real Love," a duet with Bobby Brown that skillfully balances the line between tongue-in-cheek and cheesy. Shifting effortlessly into rock mode, Gray delivers one of the album's best performances on "Kissed It," teaming with rock act Velvet Revolver on the spicy missive with a naughty-but-nice hook. Not every track is a slam-dunk, but Gray definitely recaptures her earlier promise.
ARTIST: OZZY OSBOURNE
ALBUM: SCREAM (Epic Records)
After surveying his life to this point in a best-selling autobiography ("I Am Ozzy"), Ozzy Osbourne incorporates some fresh blood -- to good advantage -- into his first new album in three years. On "Scream," longtime guitarist Zakk Wylde is gone, replaced by Firewind's Gus G., and Tommy Clufetos (Rob Zombie, Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent) takes over on drums. The changes have certainly goosed Osbourne to create a heavy-hitting, 11-track set on which he sounds fully engaged and focused, from the opening declaration, "I'm a rock star," to the closing appreciation of his fans' dedication, "I Love You All." Most impressively, Osbourne's new band displays a tempo-shifting aptitude similar to vintage Black Sabbath -- particularly on longer songs like "Let It Die," "Diggin' Me Down" and "I Want It More" -- and is just as adept delivering gentler and more melodic pieces ("Life Won't Wait," "Time"). The single "Let Me Hear You Scream" gallops with neck-snapping ferocity, while sludgy grooves put some muscle behind "Soul Sucker" and "Fearless."
ARTIST: MILEY CYRUS
ALBUM: CAN'T BE TAMED (Hollywood Records)
Miley Cyrus recently admitted that she listens to "zero pop music" and insisted that with her own material she's "not just sitting here trying to sell glitz and glamour." Cyrus proves her point on "Can't Be Tamed," the full-length follow-up to last year's "The Time of Our Lives" EP. Compared with that set's irresistible title track, these 12 new tunes sound like the work of someone who can't wait to move into her stripped-down singer-songwriter phase. The music arrives buffed to an immaculate studio sheen, of course, with production by Mouse House regulars John Shanks and Rock Mafia. The track "Who Owns My Heart" is as synth-heavy as recent singles by the Black Eyed Peas, while "Permanent December" sports a killer electro-disco bridge. But throughout "Can't Be Tamed," Cyrus seems checked out of her vocal performances, singing with neither the tween-queen enthusiasm of her "Hannah Montana" material nor the confrontational energy of 2008's "Breakout." The lone exception is a delightfully campy robo-country cover of Poison's "Every Rose Has Its Thorn."
ARTIST: ROBERT RANDOLPH & THE FAMILY BAND
ALBUM: WE WALK THIS ROAD (Warner Bros. Records)
With the help of renowned producer T Bone Burnett, pedal steel guitarist Robert Randolph takes a backward glance at American roots music to discover the true soul of sacred steel on his latest album, "We Walk This Road." The uplifting set includes takes on lost gospel and blues numbers as well as reworkings of Bob Dylan's "Shot of Love," John Lennon's "I Don't Wanna Be a Soldier Mama" (featuring guitarist Doyle Bramhall II) and Prince's "Walk Don't Walk." The album opens with a vocal melody from a 1930s recording, then segues into the soulful "Traveling Shoes." From there, Randolph and the Family Band take a groovy approach to the Will Gray-penned "Back to the Wall." And Ben Harper makes an appearance on "If I Had My Way," where he lends slide guitar and vocals. Randolph's nuanced steel weeps with almost vocal expressiveness behind singers Danyel Morgan and Lenesha Randolph on the gospel closer "Salvation," which features Leon Russell on piano.
ARTIST: SCISSOR SISTERS
ALBUM: NIGHT WORK (Downtown Records)
The Scissor Sisters' third nightlife-themed album, "Night Work," is a return to the glittery, flamboyant pop of the group's 2004 self-titled debut. Inspired by the New York music scene of the late '70s/early '80s, when disco was morphing into house, the set showcases some intensely fun and lively material. The title track features catchy guitar riffs, quirky synths and a bass line reminiscent of the one in Lipps, Inc. hit "Funkytown." Produced by dance music extraordinaire Stuart Price, "Night Work" is dominated by stripped-down dance grooves, as heard on the songs "Whole New Way" and "Any Which Way." Scissor Sisters singer Jake Shears shows a darker side on "Harder You Get," where over a metal guitar riff he swaps his familiar falsetto for a low, creepy delivery. And actor Ian McKellen makes a guest vocal appearance on the slow-cooked house anthem "Invisible Light."
ARTIST: THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS
ALBUM: FURTHER (Astralwerks)
The Chemical Brothers make giant gut-wallops of electronic sound that carry best in an arena or open field in England. But the visual cacophony is as essential to the live Chems experience as the aural one -- scrambles of psychedelic delight that have been created by designers Adam Smith and Marcus Lyall since the band's live debut in 1994. For the duo's seventh studio album, "Further," Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons lead with the pictures, developing each of the set's eight tracks with a mini-movie in mind. The result is a less song-based effort than previous works -- no distinctive collaborators like Q-Tip or Beth Orton -- that nonetheless tells a story. Yes, that's an equine braying heard on the eight-cylinder "Horse Power," a longhaired techno-hippie riff on "Dissolve" and a slightly dewy, almost Air-like French-ness on "Swoon." There's nothing here that even the Chems themselves haven't done before, but that doesn't make the sensory thrills any less giddy.
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