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The Major Lift

By Erik Hage

Consider Mary J. Blige the salva tion of R&B. In a genre that frequently lapses into tackiness, frivolity and laughable lewdness, Blige’s Growing Pains stands out as mature, complex and one in a great line of soul/R&B albums that stretches through Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, and Off the Wall-era Michael Jackson.

Lyrically, the rigors of self-improvement are all over the album, and Blige makes it clear that she’s come a long way from slugging gin and hosing coke on her Seagram’s-sponsored tours of the late ‘90s. This is also a feminist manifesto of sorts, touting the feminine mystique in a manner that steers clear of boilerplate. (Not the suburban-white-girl-taking-graduate-classes-in-a-Toni-Morrison-novel brand of feminism. Another kind.)

Consider the genius lyrical sleights in the two best tracks here: “Work That” and “Just Fine.” On expectation alone, one would think that, thematically, they have to do with “the booty” in the former and sexual attraction in the latter. (I’m not being silly here; this is a genre that has a whole subgenre of booty poetry, led by the Hamlet of the form, R. Kelly’s “Feelin on Yo Booty.” To wit: “Feelin on yo booty/yo booty, yo booty/Yo boocka boo-ooty, booty/booga, booga, booga, booga, booga-ooty.”)

But “Work That” is actually about working your own personal stuff out to the point where you’re comfortable in your own skin, and “Just Fine” is not about being hot or sexy, but literally about being . . . just fine: “No time for moping around, are you kidding?/And no time for negative vibes, cause I’m winning.”

All of which is not to say that it’s all gender politics here; there’s also a whole lot of fun, and some incredible musical beds for Blige’s sentiments. “Work That” piano-plinks, slams and staggers along gloriously to the percussive rap-singing that Blige has made her hallmark; “Just Fine” is a wheeling, rhythmically complex paean to house music; and the powerful “Stay Down” hunkers into some deep quiet-storming.

Blige cowrote most of the stuff here, but is smart enough to assemble a dream team of producers and collaborators, with guest spots by Ludacris and Usher, and production by the Neptunes, Dre and Vidal, and Tricky, among others. Here’s a prediction: Blige will win more Grammys . . . and she will thank God for them. This is a tough and smart album.

By contrast, Rufus Wainwright chooses to dwell in less tough, less sexy and less smart regions by re- creating a 1961 concert by Judy Garland. (Yes: punchlines aplenty, but they are impolitic, aren’t they?) Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall has been hailed as daring, challenging and even (yowza!) “performance art.” This is curious, as I don’t think that Wainwright takes the dynamic of “young man doing big band standards of a bygone era” shtick any farther on this album than Harry Connick Jr. did in the late ‘80s or Michael fucking Buble does as we speak.

The only difference here is context: Judy was a woman and a gay icon. Rufus is a flamboyantly gay man. But void of context the songs are no more illuminating than the latest Buble dreck. The album is a stunt, plain and simple, and Rufus should return to what he is: An outstanding and challenging singer-songwriter in his own right.

Weezer leader Rivers Cuomo has built a career on a whole different maxim: that the more inscrutable you are and the less you say, the more people tend to lean forward with interest. That’s why tipping his hand to his own personal process in Alone: The Home Recordings of Rivers Cuomo 1992-2007 is a surprising move. This could be retitled Cuomo Does Guided by Voices-Style Lo-fi, as it’s still the same charging, cheeky sugar-pop brilliance that Cuomo does so well. It’s just sloppier and a bit off-kilter.

But despite such melodically goose-bumpy songs as “Superfriend” and such fun silliness as the a cappella-driven “Dude We’re Finally Landing” and a cover of Ice Cube’s “The Bomb,” even the most diligent Weezer fans needn’t rush out and buy this culmination of 15 years spent tinkering.

It’s been well established over the years that Celine Dion is the most wolf-shit crazy French Canadian songstress in history, so I won’t beat that dead horse. Rather, let’s take a serious critical approach to her new album, Taking Chances. . . . Oh, god, I can’t do it: It’s called Taking Chances, for crying out loud! Is covering Heart’s power ballad “Alone” in inflated, histrionic fashion “taking chances”? Is a five-year residency in Vegas doing the exact same show every night for a gazillion dollars “taking chances”? I wanted to take a fresh angle on Celine Dion, but there just isn’t anything to say based on this sentimental, über-dramatic hogwash. Easy target, you say? Try having to listen to this album—nothing easy about that, dear readers.

Wu-Tang Clan are slightly less crazy than Celine, and have released The 8 Diagrams, blowing the collective Wu-Tang conch shell to assemble all of the clansters from the diverse reaches of Staten Island. In the six years that have elapsed since 2001’s Iron Flag, thankfully not much has changed. The clan still master the raunch-hop like no others. “The Heart Gently Weeps” is more Diddy than Wu-Tang, architecting street-violence commentary out of George Harrison without much reinvention. But Ghostface Killah is the star here, with his creatively kooky romps through “Walk Around” and “White Linen Affair.” A good palate-cleanser following Celine.

 

 

 

 


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