"New" albums from Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley offer cheer for the ears and fodder for debate. Also in the spotlight - the very-much-alive female talents Jazmine Sullivan, Beyonce and Imogen Heap.
ACTION JACKSON: While just out today, the Michael Jackson album "Michael" (Epic, B) has already raised protests from the likes of producer/performer Will.I.Am, who declared it "disrespectful" for Jackson's label to release music that the artist didn't finish and approve himself, and which required a bit of vocal tweaking (as acknowledged by project participant Teddy Riley).
Uh, but let's make a few things clear. For starters, Will has an ax to grind. He recorded tracks with Jackson that didn't make the cut for this set, sure to sell like ice cream in July. In the wake of his death on June 25, 2009, MJ albums sold more than 8 million copies last year - by far the most of any artist in the world.
Now on to other concerns. What artist doesn't use Auto-Tune and Pro Tools these days to fix vocals? Or rely on others to flesh out sounds they've heard in their heads? (Check out MJ's answering-machine-recorded demo that opens "(I Like) The Way You Love Me.")
And, come on, shouldn't we finally be over the shock of a record label exploiting a dead star by digging and dressing up discards?
While boasting just 10 tracks, "Michael" covers all the expected bases, from warm, anthemic songs of encouragement such as "Hold My Hand" (recorded with Caribbean-toned Akon) and "Keep Your Head Up," to the strident, self-referential paranoia of "Breaking News," and another sultry tale of a woman corrupted by the glamour profession, "Hollywood Tonight."
Also hitting familiar MJ notes: the guitar-driven funk rocker "(I Can't Make It) Another Day," co-written and performed with Lenny Kravitz; another screeching, B-movie horror sequel, "Monster"; and, as closer, his sadder-but-wiser life-lesson, "Much Too Soon."
Jeez, the guy really was prescient.
So, does it matter that Jackson didn't cut all the backing vocals? Or that 50 Cent recorded his rap for "Monster" without MJ hovering in the control room?
I'd say "no" to both.
It would have been appropriate to give the fans more to chew on, though. HIStorically, this artist overstuffed his sets. "Michael" leaves you waiting for the next morsels (see below) to drop.
LESS CONVERSATION, MORE BURNING LOVE: Having previously triumphed with the radical slicing/dicing/reconnecting of Beatles songs for their Las Vegas extravaganza "Love," the cutting-edge performance-art troupe Cirque du Soleil has been emboldened to foist "Viva Elvis" on the adult-playground town.
I can't attest to the merits of the stage show, but the soundtrack album (RCA Legacy, A-) produced/engineered by talents like Erich van Tourneau and Brendan O'Brian is a major kick to the head, updating the King's singing and speaking voice with sharp sampling technology and pumped arrangements performed by a walloping stage band.
Talk about a great career move!
At turns gritty and grand, a rejuvenated "Heartbreak Hotel" seems as twitchy and explosive as El was in his prime. "Burning Love" is newly torched with rocking guitar and slamming percussion akin to the Who attacking "Won't Get Fooled Again."
A freshly buttered "Love Me Tender" could be a hit anew on modern country and Americana stations. Even "Bossa Nova Baby" has earned a new coat of slaphappy charm.
Now I can't wait to witness what magical career moves Cirque foists next on (who else?) Michael Jackson, with a 2011 traveling arena show "Michael Jackson: The Immortal" already announced and landing here at the Wells Fargo Center come April.
PHILLY'S FINEST: Many's the popular soul/pop talent peddling a new album this season, from Cee-Lo Green to Duffy, the Black Eyed Peas to T.I.
Let's hope the ultra-gifted Jazmine Sullivan doesn't get lost in the deluge with "Love Me Back" (J Records, A), as it's best of the bunch.
Nurtured in the local Black Lily music-club scene that also boosted neo-soul talents Jill Scott, Jaguar Wright and Floetry, Sullivan has a pungent, gospel-fueled voice akin to a young Aretha Franklin or Missy Elliott, and a social-realist perspective that compresses a whole lot of truth into a four-minute song.
The cumulative effect is truly intense, as Sullivan piles on a dark tale of "Redemption," gives a guy (Ne-Yo) the boot on "U Get on My Nerves," deals (in a richly dramatic, piano-based ballad) with the roadblocks of "Stuttering" and dreams out loud of being a role model for others in "Famous."
Note how the percussion on that last track is built from sampled claps of applause. The woman missed nothing.
FINESSING THE STONE: Most musical artists maintain an air of mystery to keep private and "magical" all the hard work that went into an album or tour. But two new long-form video documentaries take an opposite stance, reveling in the star sacrifices.
There are several startling moments in the course of Beyonce's "I Am . . . World Tour" (Columbia, B+) concert extravangaza where you see Ms. Knowles unmasked on the bus or backstage, looking like a teenager without her makeup and on the verge of tears from the rigors of her 104-show, globe-hopping tour.
Just watching the location IDs change could tire a person out. And every song's a singing, dancing, film- and lights-enhanced major production number, as she puts on her Sasha Fierce attitude to "Smash Into You," get "Bootylicious" and even heat up "Ave Maria."
An odd choice, that one, though revealing of her pipe power.
English art popster Imogen Heep set out to renovate her childhood home into a recording studio and also make her new album, all in six months. Fool. As "Everything In-Between, The Story of Ellipse" (RCA, B) reveals, three years was more like it!
The journey proves fascinating, though, starting with an exotic vacation to get the creative juices flowing, then focusing on this endless experimenter's many all-nighters, sideline projects and ultimately her inability to resolve that a song was finished even after she'd polished it 30 times over.