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The Major Lift

By Erik Hage

For the past 20 years, Lenny Kravitz has been churning out albums packed with style and gestures but relatively thin on substance. I wouldn’t exactly say that It Is Time for a Love Revolution shifts the whole paradigm, but there is a whole lot to recommend it, and it seems somewhat less anemic than much of his previous work.

“Bring it On” borrows from the Jimmy Page riff book and filters that through Velvet Revolver sensibilities, adding up to a tough-as-nails guitar assault that rises and falls on Kravitz’s blood-simple lyrical revelations (“It’s getting heavy/But I’m ready/To take on this world and rock steady/So come on, bring it on”). Kravitz has never been much of a lyricist, but here it works: The blunt lyrical expressions are simply flotsam in the guitar roar. (Led Zeppelin seem to be a common reference point on the album.)

Then again, the Kravitz Principle holds that for every several “Are You Gonna Go My Way”-style riff-fests, there must be an obvious and smarmy love ballad. That distinction goes to “I’ll Be Waiting,” which possesses pretty much the same lyrics you would expect if you sent home a creative-writing class of 16-year-olds to compose a poem around that theme. To make matters worse, the execution is pure power-ballad. (You can hear it in the back of Lenny’s mind: “This could be my ‘Can’t Fight This Feeling.’ ”)

Nevertheless, since (in my mind at least) there is little rhyme or reason for Kravitz’s longevity, this is a surprisingly solid album. He’s best when the guitars wail, though, and not when he’s gone all dewy. And if you really want to know how deplorable the State of the Union is, consider the fact that every recording artist and their mother has an antiwar song, even the Krav, who obtusely opines in “Back in Vietnam,” “We’re going to fly over the world inside a giant eagle/We do just what

we want and don’t care if it isn’t legal/We’re on a horse that is high, we think we’re so damn regal.” Take that John Ashcroft: That’s where your eagles fly.

On the R&B side of the tracks, Def Jam Records and producer Rodney Jerkins have taken an interesting approach with Janet Jackson: Instead of running from her wardrobe malfunction, they have made that aspect the raison d’etre for Discipline, her first album with the label. The title track has her engaging in a little awkward S&M wordplay, while she claims to be “heavy like a first-day period” amid the techno gymnastics of the first single, “Feedback.” (Odd and hardly titillating stuff, to be sure.) This is a genre ruled by name producers, with the singers often an afterthought; nevertheless, Jackson’s limber and sassy vocal approach shows that there is a world of difference between plugging a real woman into that equation versus a troubled little girl—for example, try this back-to-back with Britney’s recent star-producer-studded LP.

Unlike Jackson, English singer Natasha Bedingfield stamps more of her own personality on her new album, Pocketful of Sunshine; like Jackson, she is trolling the R&B/pop waters. Bedingfield’s vision is cheerier, though, and she steers clear of the hypersexualized hijinks. There is nothing here as distinctive or as likable as her breakaway hit “These Words,” and the album is a bit less soulful and original than 2005’s Unwritten. Nevertheless, this is a strong effort and a refreshing change of pace from the desperately sleazy pimping or American Idol Stepford-children, jazz-hands bullshit that characterizes most of her American counterparts. The title track is relatively straight-ahead but well-executed R&B pop, while “Love Like This,” despite featuring reggae pop star Sean Kingston, is much of the same. Still, there’s a levity and real emotional sense of feel that sets this album ahead of the pop-soul pack.

Jack Johnson is known for a similar groovy lightness, but on Sleep Through the Static he reaches for darker, less paradisiacal regions. Much like Lenny Kravitz, he’s not feeling so good about the world, so he’s decided to make a statement. But even Johnson’s most apocalyptic and bleak visions seem to bounce like sun dapples on the morning surf. And on the title track, when he’s offering up harsh, phantasmagoric platitudes (“Just show your teeth and strike the fear/Of God wears camouflage, cries at night and drives a Dodge”), it doesn’t sound too far afield from the Curious George soundtrack (unless one listens closely). This album is supposed to be a departure, but it is pretty much another prototypical Jack Johnson record. So if that’s your bag . . .

Sheryl Crow has had one of those Tom Petty-like careers, one that has kept her in the pop zeitgeist while remaining critically unassailable (relatively). A lot of this has to do with the fact that, like Petty, she writes a whole lot of good songs and occasionally an outstanding one. And she’s done it again, offering up an emotionally rigorous, well executed and strongly written album with Detours. There are lots of biographical contexts one could throw at the reader here—her bout with breast cancer, her failed relationship with Lance Armstrong—but the real story is of a truly blue-chip artist. She’s still making strong albums and still doing it under her own steam. “Love Is Free” has a Phil Spector-like girl-group bounce, while the heart-wrenching “Shine Over Babylon” picks up on a favorite reference point—late-’60s Rolling Stones acoustic balladry—while also nodding to her earliest efforts. (That could be courtesy of producer Bill Bottrell, who also helmed her 1993 breakout, Tuesday Night Music Club.) Crow also is not afraid to get raw and stark, such as on the acoustic-guitar-and-voice beauty “God Bless This Mess” and the grim, personal “Make It Go Away (Radiation Song).” Crow is simply a contemporary classic.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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