Melissa Etheridge (Island)
Melissa Etheridge needs a good editor, someone to challenge her to work harder to avoid the cliched writing that keeps “Skin” from being anything more than a solid, unexciting song cycle that dissects a relationship's demise.
As it is, Etheridge hasn't met a tired turn of phrase she doesn't like. Lovers are dressed to kill when they go out at night. Breakup victims are left high and dry. The naked truth makes people run away from each other.
On the embarrassingly amateurish “I Want to Be in Love” Etheridge fires off three cliches - climbing the highest mountain, sailing the sea, and wrestling with demons - just to start the song.
Oh, and she wants someone with a heart of gold, too.
It's a shame, really, because as usual Etheridge's melodies are wonderful, her voice remains a distinctive rasp, and the production is pristine. “The Prison” is especially affecting with its sweetly melancholy melody.
The take on “Skin” is that Etheridge is picking at the scab of her breakup with Julie Cypher, with whom she formed a celebrated relationship. Maybe so, but that doesn't excuse how a veteran songwriter working on her seventh release could lapse into such hackneyed turns of phrase to propel her songs forward.
-- ROD LOCKWOOD
THE MERRY SISTERS OF FATE
Lunasa (Green Linnet)
IN GOOD COMPANY
Kevin Crawford (Green Linnet)
Here are two sprightly assortments of Irish traditional instrumentals played by remarkably talented musicians. The quintet Lunasa, hailed as one of Celtic music's best ensembles, has been wowing audiences for five years. Before forming this group, the members were veterans of many renowned Irish acts. The double-bass, fiddle, flute, guitar, and pipe rarely sounded better together. Crawford, the frontman and flutist for Lunasa, gets solo billing in a package of duets with eight of Ireland's finest fiddlers. Of course, the sound is a bit more sparse than the full fivesome, but the lift is just as high.
-- KEN ROSENBAUM
John Williams (Warner Bros.)
Steven Spielberg and John Williams have become one of Hollywood's best director-composer duos since the days of Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann. In fact, the captivating score Williams has penned for Spielberg's A.I. flirts with some Hitchcock-like tension before settling in as a beautifully flowing, graceful body of work. This soundtrack is intelligently written classical, and vocalist Lara Fabian displays a Streisand-like quality in her voice in the only two songs that feature singing, one a solo and the other a duet with Josh Groban. Certainly one of the better soundtracks of the year.
-- TOM HENRY
Kate Rusby (Compass)
On her latest disc, Rusby blends self-penned material with traditional fare, and a cover of Richard Thompson's “Withered and Died.” The instrumentation is acoustic and restrained, with guitars, whistles, bass, accordion, and fiddle. Rusby is at her best when telling sad stories, and her own “Let the Cold Wind Blow” encapsulates her talent and appeal. The melody is haunting, the pace slow, and the arrangement restrained and empathetic. And Rusby's voice, of course, provides a full measure of pathos. With “Little Lights,” she underlines her position as one of folk music's most respected interpreters and singers - and an increasingly accomplished songwriter.
-- RICHARD PATON
COLE AFTER MIDNIGHT
Marcus Roberts Trio (Sony/Columbia)
Pianist Marcus Roberts has taken on the task of presenting singer Nat “King” Cole and the composer Cole Porter, and he does so inventively and expressively by interpreting their works rather than just rendering them. There is more interpretation of the pieces sung over the years by Nat “King” Cole than those penned by Porter, but even intense improvisations give way to whimsy with “It's Only a Paper Moon.” As for Roberts' handling of Cole Porter, his choices and styles were selected to match renditions by the late Ella Fitzgerald, and the pianist captures the 1920s and 1930s time period with ragtime-style melodies and an aggressively complementary left hand.
-- LARRY ROBERTS