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Published: Thursday, 10/25/2012

‘Red’ alert: Taylor Swift moves away from country to pop

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RED

Taylor Swift (Big Machine)

Taylor Swift's "Red," the Grammy winner's fourth album, is a 16-track set that has the singer continuing to step away from her country roots to take on a more rock and pop sound. The album features songs that are big and stadium ready (she has a U2-like moment on album opener, "State of Grace") and others that are soft and slow.

But while "Red" contains its share of winners, many of the songs lack the colorfulness and vitality the album title suggests, leading to an overall letdown. Lyrically and sonically, the album lacks oomph and feeling: It sounds like we've heard it all from her before (check "Starlight").

Hooking up with some new -- and popular -- producers seemed like a good move for Swift, who has worked with a supertight group of writers and producers on her first three albums (half of "Red" is produced by her longtime producer Nathan Chapman). Unfortunately, stepping out of her comfort zone doesn't always work.

Max Martin and Shellback, who have helmed No. 1 smashes for Maroon 5, Pink, Kelly Clarkson, and others, have given Swift her first No. 1 pop hit with the juvenile-sounding anthem "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," which echoes Avril Lavigne in her teen years. "22," another Martin and Shellback collaboration, is an improvement, but not by much, with weak lines like: "Everything will be all right if we just keeping dancing like we're 22." The producers fare better on "I Knew You Were Trouble," an adventurous track with Swift sounding aggressive over an electrified and electronic beat.

The main issue with "Red" is that it sounds empty. There's nothing close to the country-soul ballads like the heart-wrenching "You're Not Sorry" and "White Horse" from her "Fearless" album, or even the emotion -- and magic -- on songs like "Never Grow Up" and "Enchanted" from 2010's "Speak Now." She gets close to reaching those touching heights on "I Almost Do" and the album's duets.

English singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran -- and Swift's falsetto -- shine on "Everything Has Changed," produced by Butch Walker (Lavigne, Pink, Dashboard Confessional). On "The Last Time," Swift takes a back seat to Snow Patrol lead singer Gary Lightbody, whose heavy and gravely vocals ride beautifully over the haunting beat, courtesy of producer Jacknife Lee. Too bad there's not more where that came from.

-- MESFIN FEKADU, Associated Press

EL OBJETO ANTES LLAMADO DISCO

Cafe Tacvba (Universal Music Latino)

The great Mexican rock band Cafe Tacvba has made its first album in five years, and as usual, it tried a new idea. "El Objeto Antes Llamado Disco" was recorded before studio audiences of a few hundred people in Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Los Angeles, and Santiago, Chile.

There are no applause or interruptions. Aside from the room tone audible through Joselo Rangel's atmospheric electric guitar sound, and a few deep intakes of breath by the singer Ruben Albarran, you wouldn't guess that the songs were recorded live. (It's a feat of audio, and of producers understanding a band; though Cafe Tacvba has a general philosophy of discontinuity -- including switching the u to a v in its name a few years ago -- it has held steady for 20 years with its producers Gustavo Santaolalla and Anibal Kerpel.) The band did it this way, Albarran has explained, because songs get better when played in front of people who don't know them. These sessions were a more-controlled form of public debuts.

Perhaps even better, the band tried an old idea: using a rhythm machine instead of a live drummer. That had been part of its sound through "Reves/Yo Soy" in 1999, before making two albums with Los Angeles session drummers. Those earlier albums favored thin, cheap-sounding beats made with early digital equipment, which gave the songs modesty even as the group moved toward greater depth and complexity in every other part of its music, and became one of the most popular rock bands in Latin America.

And so it is here. It's good to have it back. Some of the new songs connect to Tacvba's past: the implication of son jarocho, the traditional Veracruz string-band music, in "Olita del Altamar" (combined with surf guitar and beats); the warped disco in "Yo Busco"; the episodic structure and changes of key in "Andamios"; the postmodern bolero of "De Este Lado del Camino," the album's first single, a song that seems to be about accepting one's circumstances in life with humility.

But what really seems new on "El Objeto" is its degree of introspection. Also while its lyrics can be as fractured and imagistic as ever, emotionally it's the warmest album Cafe Tacvba has made. "Zopilotes," in waltz time with a chiming guitar line, sounds like a wedding-dance standard, though the words describe buzzards circling in the sky.

"Andamios" is Cafe Tacvba at its best: it proceeds from straight, spiky eighth-note new-wave to a brief middle-Easternlike bridge, moving through two key changes that you feel in your stomach. It its final strain, Albarran yields the microphone to two other members in the band, and by the time it's finished, the song has built a completely different atmosphere than what it started with.

-- BEN RATLIFF, New York Times

COME HOME TO MAMA

Martha Wainwright (Cooperative Music)

2012 is the year of the Wainwrights.

Rufus Wainwright gave us a smooth, poppy record with the Mark Ronson-produced "Out of the Game," and now his little sister delivers a top-notch album with her third CD.

On "Come Home to Mama," Martha Wainwright acknowledges there were two main sources of inspiration for the album: becoming a mother and becoming motherless.

The album gets its title from the song "Proserpina," a track written by her mother, folk singer Kate McGarrigle. It was the last song McGarrigle wrote before she died in 2010. Her daughter's version uses simple piano chords and strings, and its simplicity keeps the focus on the song's touching lyrics and Wainwright's soft vocal range.

Another highlight is "All Your Clothes," a beautiful open letter from Wainwright to her mother with lyrics like: "The baby is doing fine, my marriage is failing, but I keep trying" (Wainwright gave birth to her son in 2009).

Wainwright's voice works nicely on songs that take on an electronic direction, like "Four Black Sheep" and "Some People." The latter is littered with emotional conflicts as she sings "I don't love the way I used to" and "If only I believed in God, then I would ask God to help me find my way." Honesty like that makes "Come Home to Mama" a must-listen.

-- SIAN WATSON, Associated Press



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