Neil Young and Crazy Horse (Reprise)
Only Neil Young, faced with a dearth of new songs but eager to make music, would think of this:
How about taking 11 songs that are steeped in American musical tradition -- stuff like "This Land is Your Land," "Oh Susannah," "Clementine" -- and radically rework them with his blustery rock comrades Crazy Horse?
"Americana" is Young and Crazy Horse in full throttle with arrangements that bully the songs into submission, reworking melodies and lyrics that are part of our cultural fabric. The process is imperfect and a little jarring -- who would consider "Clementine" as a John Hiatt-like rocker? -- because many of these songs are rendered virtually unrecognizable from the versions you grew up singing in school.
But the concept also is brilliant because Young and the band blow the dust off these hoary old standards with full-throttle rock and roll. They stick to folk music traditions by rearranging the basic songs, finding new lyrics or adding their own, and essentially revising your image of America's history.
For example, "Clementine" is pretty creepy when you actually consider the lyrics that were left out of the kids' version. She drowned and the song is about her death. Young restores Woody Guthrie's protest lyrics in "This Land is Your Land" and it takes on fresh meaning.
There's an element of fun to "Americana," with studio chatter included at the end of many of the songs that indicates these were the results of loose jams.
But this doesn't feel like a loosey-goosey, one-off gimmick because Young and Crazy Horse are challenging listeners to revisit the original meanings of songs that are at the root of this country's musical experience.
-- ROD LOCKWOOD, The Blade
A THOUSAND MILES LEFT BEHIND
Gloriana (Emblem/Reprise/Warner Bros.)
Nashville trio Gloriana, rebounding from the departure of fourth member Cheyenne Kimball, manage to make their sparkling musical arrangements and sweet harmonies come across more engagingly than ever on their second album, "A Thousand Miles Left Behind."
Still working an acoustic-based string sound made contemporary through rhythms and musical accents, Rachel Reinert and brothers Mike and Tom Gossin prove that losing Kimball's instrumental virtuosity doesn't slow down their musical growth.
However, another new development hampers their forward movement. Group members co-wrote all 11 songs after contributing only one to their 2009 self-titled debut. The step proves a bigger challenge than they can handle.
Their potential as songwriters comes through on the album's best cuts, including "(Kissed You) Good Night," written by Tom Gossin and Josh Kear -- and Gloriana's first top 10 country hit. Mike Gossin's "Turn My World Around" and Reinert's "Where My Heart Belongs" also connect by conveying real emotions.
But the autobiographical nature of several lyrics -- such as "Sunset Lovin'" and "Go On. Miss Me" -- fails to transform intimate experiences into universal themes. The trio's sound is golden, but some of the songs need more polish. Gloriana will perform at the University of Toledo's music festival Sept. 14.
-- MICHAEL MCCALL, Associated Press
SPARKLE: ORIGINAL MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK
Various artists (RCA)
Time for real talk: The Sparkle soundtrack was never going to be Whitney Houston's comeback.
Houston appears on only two songs -- the lackluster single "Celebrate" with Jordin Sparks, where she takes a backseat to the younger singer, and the stunning version of the gospel classic "His Eye Is on the Sparrow," where she showed how the power (if not the range) had returned to her voice. Despite her onetime superstar status, Houston wasn't supposed to carry Sparkle, Sparks was. And this album, completed before Houston's death in February, sounds like it was created for a modest, midlevel project, not the return of a superstar.
Cee Lo Green's contribution, "I'm a Man," comes off as a likable castoff from one of his albums, while the movie's fictitious trio -- played by Sparks, Carmen Ejogo, and Tika Sumpter -- handles Curtis Mayfield's "Something He Can Feel" less like Aretha Franklin and more like an X Factor tryout. It's not that they're bad, it's just that they sound a bit uninspired on that song, as well as on "Jump" and "Hooked on Your Love."
Sparks does shine on the gospel number "One Wing," showing how she was able to win American Idol so easily and why she certainly had the voice to build this remake around.
Sparkle may end up being a nice movie, but the quality of this soundtrack shows that the unplanned attention that the project received from Houston's untimely death probably won't help it in the long run.
-- GLENN GAMBOA, Newsday