Sunday, May 20, 2018
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Sounds: Without Mercury, Queen's a little down but not out


Queen without the late Freddie Mercury is like the Rolling Stones without Mick Jagger, The Who without Roger Daltrey, U2 without Bono, or the East Street Band without Bruce Springsteen. You get the point.

Mercury, who died of AIDS-induced pneumonia 17 years ago this month, gave Queen more than a voice; he gave it its quirky, psuedo-punk attitude and distinctive out-of-kilter style.

The verdict on Queen's second Mercury-less album, one which has Paul Rodgers, formerly of Free and Bad Company, filling in for the legendary singer: It rocks, though it's largely a more refined, meat-and-potatoes rock.

Conventional, but good.

"The Cosmos Rocks" is Queen's first studio album since 1995. The collaboration with Rodgers began in late 2004, evolving into a global tour that has been virtually continuous since 2005.

Featured are 13 new songs that draw in listeners with themes of faith, loyalty, friendship, and redemption. It's a coming-of-age album for Boomers that, while at times overly simplistic, has its catchy and irresistible moments, even if it's not as consistently invigorating as it could be.

You can hear elements of Bad Company in the lyrics, probably more than the hints of Old Queen. There's great harmonization and inviting sing-along moments. Rodgers, along with Queen's guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor, is part of a trio that meshes well.

The album stands on its own, but it falls short of the bizarre, fun-loving original Queen experience.


Looking to the past, whether to pay respect or to gain inspiration, has long been a part of pop music, but in recent times it seems to be more pronounced across a wide spectrum of performers, from Duffy to Robin Thicke, and on this masterful disc, Raphael Saadiq.

Is it a trend? A coincidence? Either way, if it gives us albums like this, bring it on.

Saadiq, a notable producer and former member of Tony! Toni! Tone!, returns to the sounds of the '60s and '70s on a collection of original songs that magnificently capture the very essence of soul music of the period, its organic feel, unfiltered and unprocessed.

There are influences to be heard, of course. The Temptations, Booker T., Smokey Robinson are evident here. But don't think this is a dusty, musty, so-respectful-it's-dull tribute. Not at all. This is vibrant, funky, heartfelt new music that tells it like it means it from the opening track, "Sure Hope You Mean It," that locks into a soul/blues rhythm.

With guests Joss Stone on "Just One Kiss" and Stevie Wonder on "Never Give You Up," with a tip of the hat to doo-wop on "Calling," and the simply outstanding ballad "Oh Girl" (an original song, not that of the Chi-Lites) the disc pitch-perfectly captures the sound of four decades and more ago, but makes it sound so right for today.


Reflective country songs about pain, loss, and longing succeed especially well if they are believable. For openers, Johnson draws on personal experiences throughout these 12 tracks. He knows the agony of divorce and the futility of seeking solace in a whiskey bottle, and his anguish is at times palpable.

That alone gives him an edge in his ability to bring life to his music and convince country fans of the realities in his songs. He's helped enormously by his gritty baritone, straightforward lyrics, and unobtrusive less-is-more instrumental work.

Johnson wrote or co-wrote 10 of these 12 numbers, showing flashes of his songwriting skills that other singers, including George Strait and Trace Adkins, have ridden to the tops of the charts. There's a down-to-earth attitude in his tunes that immediately gets listeners to share his feelings and maybe even identify with him. This is a top-notch package loaded with talent and with no weakness.


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