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Published: Saturday, 12/20/2008

Britney Spears delivers a solid disc

Let's admit upfront that it is difficult - maybe even impossible - not to filter, to some extent at least, an appreciation (or otherwise) of an artist's music through a perception of that artist as an individual, or at least as a public persona.

So what about Britney? The single from this disc, "Womanizer," has been a monster hit, a validation of Spears' continuing musical clout. But at the supermarket checkouts last week the cover story wasn't the disc, but her physique.

Can we set aside what we think of her and her very public travails, and just listen? We should, because while "Circus" isn't a great record, it is very good in parts.

Mostly, Spears comes across as strong, tough, raunchy, confident, and assured, and it suits her, musically speaking. "Womanizer" is a pumping dance/pop song, and she takes a feisty stance on the photographer smackdown "Kill The Lights," while looking at a broken relationship to a strutting house track on "Shattered Glass." The title track also cops an attitude as Spears sings "I call the shots."

Yes, there's some coquettish posturing, some rather mundane electro/pop musical settings, but there also are nice touches like the popping bass of "Lace And Leather" worthy of the funk era, and two soft, appealing ballads in "Out From Under" and "My Baby" that show a softer side of Spears.

The world Britney Spears inhabits may indeed be a circus. It certainly seems so at times from the outside. But on the strength of this solid, 13-track disc, she is doing OK. And who knows? Maybe now we can start focusing on her music again.

- RICHARD PATON

Womack's stock-in-trade is what she delivers as good as or better than anyone in the business: modern country songs that are sad but not weepy, forlorn without being downers. On these 12 gems she takes listeners through a gamut of broken dreams, but leaves just a little optimism or ray of hope in each track.

"Call Me Crazy" will call her to the top awards shows once again on a regular basis. It has been 3 1/2 years since her last release, which won the Country Music Association's album of the year title in 2005. This time around she can expect similar accolades for her sort of country torch songs that are getting considerable airplay.

Womack's voice is crystal clear with a feeling of genuine emotion as she sings about love lost, failures, wrong turns, and opportunities missed. The topics are not strangers to country singers, yet rarely does a singer pack as much realism into the lyrics as does Womack. This is stuff that goes down especially good when you're alone and staring into your beer glass at the corner honky-tonk.

- KEN ROSENBAUM

This is one of those discs that's fun and worthwhile, even if it's just for the moment.

But it won't make history as a remake of the 1950s/1960s rhythm-and-blues era that Chess Records captured so well. So, let's poke around the edges: First, the star attraction, Beyonce Knowles, who plays Etta James in the film, does her usual fine job as a performer but she seems the most comfortable, sweet, and alluring with one of the songs she wrote herself, "Once In A Lifetime," which certainly shares nothing beyond the title of a Talking Heads song by the same name.

The minor beef: Although Beyonce does a wonderful job on R&B standards such as "At Last" and "I'd Rather Go Blind," she reminds listeners there's a difference between classy singing performances and reaching down deep and delivering heartfelt, gutbucket blues.

Other covers - including those by Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters and Mos Def as Chuck Berry - are overall pretty solid and carry a general air of authenticity, though they're not making new statements, either. There are two versions of this soundtrack; one that's a single disc (reviewed here) and another that's an extended two-disc deluxe edition.

- TOM HENRY

How can you stand there and let a disc get by you that honors Detroit Tigers' Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell with a jazz song entitled "The House By the Side of the Road?"

In this case, that would be hard to do even if there wasn't the reference to Harwell's famous moniker for batters who get caught watching a third strike sail by. Michigan-based jazz composer Paul Keller has simply done his job of delivering a pair of fresh and inviting discs, blending a good mix of brass, woodwinds, piano, and even vibraphone.

One pays homage to Keller's beloved home state with songs such as "Big Mac," which he was inspired to write after hearing the rhythm of his tires rolling over the Mackinac Bridge's metal grates.

The other is a Christmas disc that separates itself from the pack with a cheery, multidimensional version of "Deck the Halls" and other favorites, ending with a robust version of "O Come All Ye Faithful" that features a tight performance by a children's choir. The musicians include Keller on bass and Sean Dobbins on drums, the latter of whom has played with and recorded with The Murphys of Toledo.

There's something to be said about Keller's fine arrangements. Forget the novelty of them. They're just good examples of what well-written, well-executed regional music can offer.

- TH



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