Dig These Discs :: David Bowie, Drake Jensen, Megan Hilty, Madeleine Peyroux, Devendra Banhart
Rock legend David Bowie drops his first album in a decade, proving he only gets better with age. Chanteuses Madeleine Peyroux and Megan Hilty belt out the tunes. Devendra Banhart releases his eight studio album, and out country star Drake Jensen looks to make his mark. Good things are blooming in Dig These Discs!
"The Next Day" (David Bowie)
On the short list of history’s best rockers, David Bowie sits at the top, a study in punk, funk, new wave and glam rock. Now, after 10 years of radio silence, Bowie adds to his impressive catalog with "The Next Day."
Bowie’s classic voice would never be confused with anyone else’s. In "Here I am, not quite dying," he sings in the title track, a tightly formulated pop tune with keyboard and electric guitar. The chorus is reminiscent of The Talking Heads’ classic "Once in a Lifetime." Among the best tracks are his strutting "You Will Set the World on Fire" and "Dirty Boys," in which Bowie’s sotto voce delivery" reminds one of an early Doors release, without all those dusty mystics. A late horn break gives it a real ’80s feel. Sometimes this feels dated, like in "The Stars Are Out Tonight," but at other points, as in "Love is Lost," the pounding intensity of drums and guitar give an intensity to haunting lyrics like, "your country’s new, your friends are new, your house and even your eyes are new." Like the dual colors of his eyes from acquired heterochromia, Bowie has always presented a Janus-faced look at his music. In some songs, like the discordant "If You Can See Me," or the death-obsessed "Where Are We Now," he comes across foreboding and forlorn. In others, like his new track "Dancing Out In Space," he is a dreamy optimist. He makes the most of percussion in the catchy "Valentines Day," the upbeat tempo of which belies the tale of a teen who dreams of gunning down his schoolmates. He tackles war in "How Does The Grass Grow" and "I’d Rather Be High," an anti-war tune with the lyrics, "I’d rather be dead or out of my head than training these guns on those men in the sand." He comes close to a rock ballad in "Boss of Me," singing, "Who’d of ever thought of it, who would ever dream that a small-town girl like you would be the boss of me?" The album peters out at the end with the "You Feel So Lonely You Could Die" and the lethargic "Heat." At 66 years old, Bowie could have easily rested on his laurels. But as they say, the cream rises to the top. "The Next Day" isn’t just good for an aging rock icon. It’s good in its own right.
"The Blue Room" (Madeleine Peyroux)
Jazz singer and songwriter Madeleine Peyroux is a Georgia-born chanteuse whose vocal style has often been compared to Billie Holiday. She counts the singer among her long list of influences, in good company with Edith Piaf, Leonard Cohen, Bessie Smith, Patsy Cline and Bob Dylan. Her 1996 album made waves for her startlingly good covers of classic songs, and she continued to rise toward critical acclaim with a new album about every other year. Producer Larry Klein helps put together this seventh studio album, what some critics have called a moody mix of rootsy favorites. And to truth, some of the selections are a bit sad and sleepy for everyday use, borrowing as they do from Ray Charles 1962 classic "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music," with tracks from Leonard Cohen, Warren Zevon, Buddy Holly and more. Notwithstanding, "The Blue Room" debuted as number one jazz album on iTunes and Amazon, and continues each month in the top 100. And with good cause. Peyroux makes these classic songs her own, imbuing them with her own brand of élan. A string orchestration opens her cover of Zevon’s "Desperadoes Under the Eaves," giving it a sad, slow patina, as she sings, "I was thinking that the gypsy wasn’t lying and all the salty margaritas in LA, I’m going to drink ’em up." She meanders through Cohen’s signature song, "Bird On the Wire," but gets things a bit more swinging in Hank Williams "Take These Chains." She moves through Eddy Arnold’s often-covered classic "You Don’t Know Me" with few alterations, but faithfully revives Glen Campbell’s old cowboy chestnut, "Gentle on My Mind." She sings slowly through "I Can’t Stop Loving You," gently pulling on those heartstrings with a moody keyboard backing her. She brings deep blues to Patsy Cline’s "I Love You So Much It Hurts," singing, "I’m afraid to go to bed at night, afraid of losing you." Peyroux’s voice is stunning, a blues powerhouse that somehow fell into the lap of this unassuming white girl. But her arrangements on this new album leave something to be desired, a bit too slow and melancholy, lacking the necessary longing and ache even to be blues. The only song that even comes close to imparting this urgency is her cover of Newman’s "Guilty," miles removed from the crushing song of heartbreak that Bonnie Raitt took it to, singing, "I got some whiskey from the barman, got some cocaine from a friend...it takes a whole lot of medicine for me to pretend I’m somebody else." At the end of the day, is there much anyone can add to the overworked, "Bye Bye Love"? Peyroux is blessed with a voice that made artists like Holiday and Smith legends, and let generations of listeners tap into their visceral pain. So why not let it swing, sister?
"It Happens All the Time" (Megan Hilty)
With the success of the NBC show "Smash" and her March 8 Carnegie Hall debut with the New York Pops, the timing couldn’t be better for Megan Hilty to release her new album, "It Happens All the Time." With this dozen new songs, Hilty shows that she is Broadway-tested and true, although her songs lean more to the acoustic and mature pop than Broadway standards. Her sense of urgency is palpable in "It Happens All the Time," a classic love story. Her voice soars in "Be A Man," a slow track with crisp acoustics, with the no-nonsense lyrics, "It’s gonna hurt but you make it worse when you keep hanging on/ Just be a man about it, don’t try to dance around it, just have the decency to say to me that you got other plans." A country vibe surfaces in "No Cure," and the no-excuses song "Walk Away." Her vocals cascade in the survival song, "Safe and Sound," as Hilty sings, "Just close your eyes the sun is going down/you’ll be around, no one will hurt you now." Well-orchestrated strings flesh out this track. "I can’t take my eyes off of you," she sings in "The Blower’s Daughter," and belts it out with a bouncy pop sound in "Hopin’." Hilty continues to dish her sage advice to a boozehound "Wise Up," and sends out a wide net in "Dare You to Move," with its plinky acoustic orchestration and the lyrics, "Dare you to lift yourself off the floor...like today never happened." She is reserved in her cover of Don Henley’s "The Heart of the Matter;" Hilty would have hit her mark better by belting out this impassioned song about self-love and acceptance. Overall, she comports herself well in this new album, which is sure to seal the deal on her reputation as a Broadway stage to small screen star.
"OUTlaw" (Drake Jensen)
Get along little doggies, because Canadian gay country music singer Drake Jensen has released his second studio album, "OUTlaw." Jensen’s first track, "When It Hurts Like That" was released via video on Jan. 30, and got more than 100,000 views within a month. The song outlines a late-night, whiskey fueled booty call about which Jensen said "ain’t no harm in a little fun," but not when it leaves him staring at the ceiling at 3 a.m., wondering if he’ll ever again see the man he loves. Coming out in Feb. 2010, Jensen admitted to a youth of severe abuse and bullying, and dedicated his song "On My Way to Finding You" to Ottawa teen Jamie Hubley, who committed suicide after being bullied. Proceeds from digital downloads of the similarly-themed track "Scars" will also go to the charity Bullying.org. An upbeat pace with fast guitars pairs nicely with the lyrics, "got someone who likes my pace and that’s fast enough for me/ Everybody’s trying to get ’er done and I’m just here lying in the sun, a long, slow kiss on a sandy beach: that’s fast enough for me." Jensen’s romantic touches describing his baby’s hand on his knee make these songs accessible to any country fans, not just gay ones. The slow hand drums help tell the story in "Checotah, Oklahoma," about a man who wrestles with more than just steer. This fight arises again in "Crazy Beautiful," a tune with the advice, "dare to be something wonderful." Jensen is a man’s man, no pun intended, as evidenced in his track "Leave the Healing to Me," where he promises his lover he will wrap his arms around him and make the pain go away. "One of the chosen, one of the lucky ones, one in a million to write about," Jensen sings in "Vega Star." He wishes the world would slow down in "I Don’t Want to Know," and remembers a lover in "Every Other Day." Jensen goes a bit overboard in the track "Midnight Forest Cricket Chorus," singing "Just sit back and relax to nature’s soundtrack." Country music is ready for an openly gay star, but it remains to be seen whether Jensen is it. His voice remains a bit unremarkable, and his songs go a bit too far to cement his ’everyman’ status, with little to distinguish them as being sung specifically for a gay audience.
"Mala" (Devendra Banhart)
Singer/songwriter Devendra Banhart releases his eighth studio album, recorded in his home studio in L.A. before he relocated to New York City, and his 14 tracks cement his reputation as a striving guitarist. This Venezuelan American was born in Houston, and dropped out of the San Francisco Art Institute to perform music. His folksy style (often referred to as New Weird America) has been widely embraced, leading him to gigs at Carnegie Hall, the Hollywood Bowl and Coachella music festival. His "freak folk" stylings feature hippie-esque guitar tracks and tonal poetry, beginning with his short intro, "Golden Girls," in which he croons, "you believe in visions and prayers, but you don’t believe in what’s really there." His voice is reedy and thin in "Daniel," but haunting in "Für Hildegard von Bingen" and "A Gain." His catchy ditty, "Never Seen Such Good Things," welcomes love as a stranger. Banhart sings lustily in Spanish in "Mi Negrita," and in German in "Your Fine Petting Duck," a take on an old girl-band ditty about a new lover, with a twist -- her old lover advises against leaving this new man, saying, "If he ever is untrue, please remember I was, too/ If he doesn’t have a clue, please don’t forget how much I always had a few." "The Ballad of Keenan Milton" is a fine instrumental guitar piece, as is the whispery "Mala." A folk-pop sound arises on "Won’t You Come Over," like a slowed-down Cars cover; ditto for the guitar-strummer "Hatchet Wound." He finishes up with the hipster-beatnik track "Taurobolium," complete with snaps and all. In addition to being a singer, Banhart is also a visual artist. In retrospect, this collection of short tunes with vastly different takes is akin to an exhibit, with Banhart showing us a small slice of what is going on in his rich inner life.