Musician Johnny Marr performs onstage during the 2013 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, Calif.
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Johnny Marr (Warner)
When Johnny Marr completed his first solo album, The Messenger, in 2013, the man behind the beautifully maudlin rhythms of the Smiths didn't rest on his laurels. He continued to write, and his sophomore effort, Playland, is the pleasant result of that work ethic.
Playland is strong with guitar certainly, but is also rich with hooks and a decidedly energetic pace. If you're waiting for sad Smith-ian sand kickers, you won't find them here. Marr is ready to embrace the pell-mell pace of the universe on "Back in the Box." ''Just everything is breaking us out/ From the inside and the outside," Marr sings on that track.
Marr airs out things into a larger wall of sound, offering the solid song "Candidate" about living in the moment. I'm tempted to play that song backward to discern if there's a hidden clue about a reunion of the Smiths. Mercurial Smiths frontman Morrissey and Marr remain publicly at odds over the proposal, but there's always hope.
Meanwhile, Marr's solo effort on Playland proves he's capable of going it alone.
— RON HARRIS,
Jennifer Hudson (RCA)
Jennifer Hudson's new album, JHUD, would fly off the shelves if every copy included a tiny stage, complete with miniature Jennifer Hudson singing live.
Her voice — that powerful instrument capable of toppling pillars, and sending wigs into a tailspin — is what enraptured American Idol audiences in 2004, and the rest of the world in 2006 with Dreamgirls, which won Hudson an Oscar.
But three albums into Hudson's music career, the Grammy-winning star still sounds like she's singing other people's music. That is to say, while JHUD is a solid collection of tracks, Hudson seems to be conforming to fit a sound and persona not her own.
"Daddy do, do or die, tatt my name so I know you're mine," she sings on opening track "Dangerous" — a far cry from the "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" of yore. That soulfulness takes a backseat to the tough-chick-in-love persona that drives JHUD, rippling through the sassy Walk It Out, featuring Timbaland, and "He Ain't Goin' Nowhere," with Iggy Azalea.
The songs are fun, admittedly, but they beg the question, "Jennifer, is that really you?"
Other tracks are more believable, and more enjoyable, too. There's the disco-tinged "It's Your World," featuring R. Kelly, and Hudson's interpretation of "I Still Love You" from British house DJ Switch.
Her vocals float effortlessly from honeyed to heavy on "Bring Back the Music," and she sets off goose bumps in a stirring tribute to her late mother on "Moan," which closes the 10-track set.
Still, there's no getting around the disappointment of an OK, but not amazing album from Hudson. Here's hoping that her next set is as unique and powerful as she is.
— MELANIE J. SIMS,
Henry Butler, Steven Bernstein and the Hot 9 (Impulse!)
Vampy, bouncy, playful, and saucy: Here's an incredibly fun take on resurrecting hot jazz from yesteryear, courtesy of 64-year-old Henry Butler, one of the best living New Orleans pianists (and, trust me, it says a lot to be mentioned in such fine company) and 52-year-old ace trumpeter-arranger Steven Bernstein of New York.
Viper's Drag is a kick-up-your-heels romp through ragtime and early jazz classics, some written nearly 90 years ago by the likes of Fats Waller and Jelly Roll Morton, yet modernized in a swingin', yet subtle and respectful way. The disc is noteworthy both for its irresistible music and for the fact it's the latest incarnation of the Impulse! jazz label, which used to record none other than John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, Sonny Rollins, and other legends.
Impulse! fell on hard times in the late 1970s, then was revived with Butler's 1986 debut, Fivin' Around, before fading into obscurity again in 2004. Now, it's back in a big way as a division of Universal Music France with this awesome pairing of Butler, Bernstein and the Hot 9, the latter named in recognition of Louis Armstrong's Hot 5 and Hot 7 groups — although much of the music is steeped in pre-Satchmo days, especially with three of ragtime icon Morton's songs.
Included are Butler originals going along with Bernstein's great new arrangements. Butler showcases his husky baritone voice on a couple of solos and, as usual, plays like a house on fire. There's also a wonderful mixture of horns, clarinet, and drums throughout offering anything from funk to Dixieland to salsa and other genres. The title track, written by Waller, was first popularized by Cab Calloway in 1930. The disc ends with Butler doing "Some Iko," a new take on the New Orleans anthem-like classic, "Iko Iko."
— TOM HENRY,
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