Paul Simon, Graceland: 25th Anniversary Edition (Sony Legacy) * * * *
Few albums merit the lavish reintroduction Paul Simon’s landmark Graceland earns in Sony Legacy’s new boxed set. This four-disc 25th Anniversary Edition includes a pristine remastering of the original album. The joyous, buoyant and rhythmic songs haven’t lost any of their considerable charm. The set also includes demos, music videos, and a full Graceland concert. A photo and story book, plus a copy of Simon’s hand-written lyrics, also feature in the beautifully presented package.
The selling point of this must-have set is a DVD featuring director Joe Berlinger’s documentary, Under African Skies, which recently hit the film festival circuit, including the Miami International Film Festival this year. Berlinger’s revelatory and powerful work recounts the controversies Simon set off when he traveled to South Africa to jam in spite of the UN’s cultural boycott.
There’s a touching moment when Ladysmith Black Mambazo visits New York to perform with Simon on Saturday Night Live. Wide-eyed with wonder, the vocalists — who elevated Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes with their sculpted harmonies — ask for a permit to visit Central Park, unaware that they are free to visit. The South Africans, who subsequently enjoyed a successful career in America, tout Graceland for its positive outcome on so many of the lives involved.
Download: This time you really want the physical product.
R. Kelly, Write Me Back (RCA) * * *
R. Kelly’s brand of lascivious seduction might have made Marvin Gaye consider celibacy back in the day. After going too far into the rated ‘R’ part of his name, producer/songwriter R. Kelly offers his second throwback disc to the classic soul era.
If Love Letter in 2010 sent him back to the 1960s for a lesson at Sam Cooke’s school in charm, Write Me Back makes a claim on the territory Gaye carved out with 1973’s Let’s Get It On. Full of creamy, sexy come-ons, Barry White-styled bedroom disco and a funky party jam or two, Kelly’s welcome nod to real soul music puts him far ahead of his peers both vocally and as a songwriter. A midpoint retreat into modern production banalities threatens to break the mood (don’t bother with the expanded Deluxe Edition) but all in all, Kelly has found his most appealing groove yet.
Download: Love Is, Lady Sunday, Share My Love.
Kenny Chesney, Welcome to the Fishbowl (Columbia) * *
Someone find Kenny Chesney’s lost shaker of salt fast. The unusually dour, depressing Fishbowl, the country superstar’s unlucky 13th album, reveals little about Chesney we didn’t know already. He likes to have fun (the numbskull Feel Like a Rock Star, a pairing with touring mate Tim McGraw); cruising to a bucolic island will cure all of life’s ailments ( Time Flies) and he’s unlucky in love. “I don’t think I can take this bed getting any colder,” he complains on Come Over.
But the overwhelming preponderance of well-crafted but dull, wistful ballads muddies the waters of Fishbowl. Chesney, who delivers rousing Buffett-like parties in concert, has seldom felt less believable than he does here, especially the Alzheimer’s tale, While He Still Knows Who I Am, in which he casts himself as a son lamenting the loss of his father. If Chesney, who relies on some of Nashville’s top songwriters, displayed any emotional connection to his material, the songwriting might resonate. But that tune, and the rest of Fishbowl, just drifts by as empty, bland Nashville driftwood.
Download: Chesney’s last album, the fine Hemingway’s Whiskey, instead..
Rush, Clockwork Angels (Roadrunner/Anthem) * * *
Asia, XXX (Frontier) * * *
Forget Rock of Ages. The real rock rush this summer comes from two veteran acts who’ve improbably remained active forever.
First up, the progressive component. Equal parts Candide and Cirque du Soleil, Rush’s 20th album follows an optimistic man’s quest to survive in a steampunk society as he encounters pirates, anarchists, carnies, storms and a rigid ruling overlord, the Watchmaker. Oh Lord Rolex, the venerable Canadian band’s first truly major conceptual work since its 1976 opus, 2112, already has Rush-heads excited that the hands on the clock on the album cover point to 9:12 — or 21:12 in military time.
Thankfully, Rush has set the philosophical yarn to some of its most convincing, inspired and technically accomplished music yet. Clockwork Angels taps the muscle and darkness of ‘90s metal but takes it out of the lumbering metal graveyard by applying prog rock’s complex time signatures. The gorgeous orchestral closer, The Garden, should prove a centerpiece of the fall tour.
By comparison, Asia, working once again with its original lineup, offers prog rock for people who don’t like prog rock. Asia sticks to the accessible formula that made its first two albums platinum hits at the dawn of MTV: serious musicianship played by members of prog acts Yes, ELP, King Crimson and the Buggles but in service of infectious pop hooks, with a heavy accent on melody. Asia’s new songs don’t rock quite as hard as those from the eponymous 1982 debut, but XXX also loses the bombast critics once moaned about. Singer John Wetton’s scotch whiskey voice hasn’t lost any range, and its interplay with guitarist Steve Howe and keyboardist Geoff Downes proves irresistible. Now if only MTV would play music videos again.
Download: The Garden, Caravan, BU2B (Rush); No Religion, Al Gatto Nero, Bury Me in Willow (Asia).
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