A torrent of unflinching honesty and sophisticated soul crooning, Toledo rhythm and blues man Lyfe's first release belies the inexperience and rawness of a young artist who spent a good portion of his life in prison.
With the full support of the Columbia publicity machine behind him, Chester "Lyfe" Jennings is poised to succeed for good reason: he's a serious talent with a great voice who is a refreshing antidote to cookie-cutter soul.
"268-192," named after the number he was assigned in prison, bears a passing resemblance to Lauryn Hill's classic "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" thanks to the spoken interludes that introduce each cut and provide a consistent narrative thread. And like Hill, Lyfe tackles issues of relationships, surviving on the streets, and making it in a world where the odds always seem stacked against a young African-American.
The key to the disc's freshness is that Lyfe anchors each song around his supple acoustic guitar work, something that is rare in urban soul. There's an organic quality to the arrangements that shields them from sounding too slick or contrived.
His finger-picking is subtle but pervasive on a number of cuts, especially "I Can't" and "Hypothetically," keeping the arrangements balanced between the heavy bass and thickly layered backup harmonies.
By the time the 15-song cycle ends, Lyfe has tackled everything from infidelity, fatherhood, the thug-life, and prison to, ultimately, the redemptive power of true love. It's a powerful work from an articulate man who has something to say.
- ROD LOCKWOOD
The core of Sweetback - Stuart Matthewman, Andrew Hale, and Paul S. Denman - is probably best known for its work with Sade. But the group's second CD - its first was released eight years ago - should gain it recognition in its own right with a collage of hip urban sounds. "Stage 2" is musically rich, mixing together its influences with a high standard of performance by the band and guests. And it's that breadth, combined with the mix of vocal and instrumental tracks, that helps to give the disc its style and appeal.
- RICHARD PATON
Hilary Duff and her sister, Haylie, effortlessly cover one of the Go-Go's biggest hits, "Our Lips Are Sealed," and beyond songs by Edwin McCain, Goo Goo Dolls, and a couple of lesser-known rockers, this fresh and upbeat soundtrack is largely about advancing Duff's career past the bubble gum phase. She's featured on five songs - four new and one hit from her triple-platinum debut, "Metamorphosis." Good stuff for the younger set, without being too adolescent.
- TOM HENRY
In a wide-ranging collaboration of contemporary talent, some of the Carters' notable songs are done as a highly successful tribute. The album, due in stores this week, succeeds for several reasons besides the fine music. The individual artists, including such stalwarts as George Jones, Emmylou Harris, John Prine, Willie Nelson, and others, do not stray far from the originals in feeling and musicianship. Also, a few of the pairings are downright magical, such as joining Ricky Skaggs with the Whites on "Will My Mother Know Me There?"
- KEN ROSENBAUM
Blue Note's reissue of Dexter Gordon's 1961 album brings forth memories of a jazz icon who began in the years of big bands and before he left us, with his Academy Award acting nomination in the movie Round Midnight, had managed to fuse bebop and hardbop into his style with a lyricism and sense of humor that makes jazz fun. Before his 1962 self-exile to Europe, he played with a vigorous band that included the then-young trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, who traded solos with Gordon throughout the seven session selections. Gordon was not as widely known as his contemporaries Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, but this recording reveals just how much the latter two were influenced by Long Tall Dexter.
- LARRY ROBERTS