November 22, 2008

Sheryl Crow Comes Home For Christmas

In past years, Sheryl Crow has contributed select performances to various holiday music compilations, most notably to the Special Olympics benefit series, A Very Special Christmas. This year, she has released her first full-length holiday album, Home For Christmas, which is available exclusively from Hallmark.

Covering nine yuletide standards as well as one original song, Crow is at turns playful and poignant, summoning a warmhearted, musically eclectic set.

Some songs accentuate a thick blanket of brass, encouraging Crow to deliver particularly spirited and soulful performances. She spruces up “Blue Christmas” a new recording, not her 1997 rendition with a chugging arrangement highlighted by Booker T. Jones’ agile organ flourishes. On the spiritual, “Go Tell It On The Mountain,” Crow leads a rich and stirring recital enlivened by a gospel choir. As well, she jazzes up “White Christmas” as bassist David Hayes anchors a swinging rhythm; and she works up a loose and boisterous version of “Merry Christmas Baby” that revels in mischievous delight.

Other songs embrace more of a majestic yet unassuming resonance, drawing out melodic subtleties that envelop Crow’s sinuous voice. “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” is interpreted with grace and sincerity, the singer inflecting a tinge of melancholy amid a veil of strings. Similarly, “The Bells of St. Mary” assumes a sort of resplendence as Crow enriches its deft orchestration with, arguably, her finest vocal on the album.

With her self-penned offering, “There Is A Star That Shines Tonight,” Crow takes to the piano in an earnest prayer for world peace while, on the traditional, “All Through The Night,” she conveys reassurance, intoning its lyrics like a lullaby.

On the whole, Home For Christmas not only makes for an engaging complement to Sheryl Crow’s catalog, but would be a worthy addition to any holiday music collection as well.

November 19, 2008

Beyonce Makes A Name For Herself

For all of the images introduced in various aliases or alter egos in the rock ‘n’ roll era — from David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust to Chan Marshall as Cat Power — what has ultimately mattered most is not so much a name as the quality of the music such personas represent. As for Beyonce, who on her latest album assumes the fictitious role of Sasha Fierce — a name she’s long ascribed to her onstage semblance — she demonstrates how giving a character a voice has, in turn, enabled her to reveal far more of her own. 

I Am… Sasha Fierce finds Beyonce at her most creatively daring to date, exploring the breadth of her talent while broadening the scope of her sound. Over the span of this double album, she melds elements of rock, hip/hop, folk, and R&B into a cohesive soundtrack that refreshingly renders her as less an elusive superstar than it does a visceral (and vulnerable) woman.

In pensive songs of self-examination, Beyonce contemplates her demons as well as her desires with maturity and music to match. Amid an understated, folkish vibe of “Disappear,” she comes to terms with her own commitment issues, at one point conceding to a lost love, “I missed all the signs, one at a time / You were ready.” Conversely, as a similarly organic rhythm strengthens and softens like a fist clenching open and shut in frustration, she laments being unappreciated in “If I Were A Boy,” telling her ex that, if the roles were reversed, “I’d listen to her / ‘Cause I know how it hurts.”

Indeed, themes of loneliness and isolation surface throughout the album and Beyonce imparts them with unflinching candor and empathy. Such is perhaps most palpable on “Satellites,” a gorgeously ethereal song in which she implores, “If we don’t communicate / We’ll exist in our own space.”

Like an analgesic to such alienation, Beyonce toys with the ways and means of attraction — and, ultimately, connection — on the album’s unabashed dance tracks. On “Sweet Dreams,” she turns what could have easily been a disposable synth remix into a delirious, urgent dance-floor grind. And with sex appeal in spades, Beyonce is the bomb on “Video Phone,” tantalizing with sly, round-the-way sass — “What, you want me naked?” — atop throbbing beats and groove.

Some cuts, particularly ones that fill out the deluxe edition, don’t hold up to those on the album proper. “Ego,” ostensibly Beyonce’s tribute to her husband, Jay-Z, comes off as lyrically trite and superfluous. And with its manic pace (that she barely keeps up with), “Hello” stumbles into chaos.

Such blunders are fortunately rare, though, and not indicative of the album overall. To the contrary, I Am… Sasha Fierce marks an ambitious and rewarding turning point in Beyonce’s music. Assuming an alter ego — to take a risk, to strive for integrity rather than complacency — suggests her curiosity and determination as a recording artist; the fruits of that endeavor illustrate that they were well worth the effort.