Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds has pretty much always liked his romantic soul smooth and slow, Drambuie-soaked and fluid. Still, we don't necessarily love the direction that lover man Babyface is heading in at present - the path of least resistance that finds the 49-year-old doing middle-of-the-road FM-lite ballads; covering the catalog of James Taylor, Dan Fogelberg and Bread on his most recent playlist. But that's just a show of maturity, right? And that's the dreamy road he's been on (other than the seven-year-itchy funk of
) for a while on albums like the graceful
Grown & Sexy.
But that record had oomph. Besides, we'd kill to hear Babyface pop some mad sexy cool tunes like those from his days in The Deele when he and writing partner (now label head) Antonio "L.A." Reid made their "Body Talk."
- A.D. Amorosi
Seriously, who doesn't like CAKE? We like all the sweet but snarky lyrics and all the complex musicality and near-irksome (but not) interludes that put the Sacramento outfit in league with the sardonic rock-and-electro hop of Soul Coughing and Eels, to say nothing of its kitschy homemade cover art. Tongue-in-cheek without preening pretension, singer John McCrea could keep you laughing (sometimes creepily so) without detracting from the radical import of CAKE's sound or its incandescent melodies. I don't mean to make it seem as if CAKE has crumbled - far from it. After 15 years, five major-label albums and one hit ("The Distance"), CAKE releases
B-Sides & Rarities
itself and stuffs it with snazzy clashing covers of Black Sabbath tunes and Sinatra saloon songs as well as brashly slashing live versions of its own old faves like "Short Skirt, Long Jacket."
- A.D. Amorosi
They've been at it for nearly 70 years, but the Blind Boys of Alabama are still lifting spirits with their gutsy and graceful brand of gospel singing. They have already expanded their repertoire, and their audience, by including secular songs with a spiritual message, and they are still trying new things. While this show will have a holiday theme, their next album,
Down in New Orleans,
due Jan. 29, marks the Blind Boys' first recordings in the Crescent City. So it's fitting that they are paired with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, an ensemble that repopularized the New Orleans brass band tradition and has sounded revitalized itself in the last few years. The Dirty Dozen's latest album,
What's Going On?
, was prompted by the Katrina disaster and is an inspired, cut-for-cut reimaging of Marvin Gaye's landmark album of the same title.
- Nick Cristiano
What do you get when you cram Philly's top practitioners of pop melody - members of Windsor for the Derby, the Capitol Years, National Eye, the War on Drugs, Buried Beds, Make a Rising, Like Moving Insects, BC Camplight, Fan of Friends, Mitch Fiction - into one ensemble? Surprisingly nothing noisy or ego-driven. That's the Silver Ages: Dan Matz, Shai Halperin, Dave Hartley, Gianmarco Cilli, Rick Flom, Heyward Howkins, Dave Wayne Daniels, Josh Newman, and Todd Starlin singing in close barbershop harmony sans instrumentation. "It's become special to all 10 of us," says leader Charlie Hall, who turned on to tight "a cappella" harmony in high school as a fan of the Ink Spots, Mills Brothers and Four Freshman - who all had profound impact on pop godhead Brian Wilson. Rather than take to the beach, the S-Ages repertoire rips through vocal music of the Roaring '20s, drinking songs, jazz standards, some Randy Newman, and holiday faves for the occasion. The Silver Ages' goal "is to show our love of music in a form that's pure to the core without worrying about labels, hustling for gigs or selling merch," says Hall. And they don't wear corny barbershop stripes either.
Even if under the radar to many, Brooklyn's Dirty Projectors have delivered one of the most consistently satisfying shows on the last year's indie rock circuit. Singer-guitarist Dave Longstreth coos and dips in straining tones, fortified by a killer falsetto - imagine an idiosyncratic Jeff Buckley-meets-Prince proposition - while picking out nimble avant-Afro-pop lines with his left hand or clanging away with No Wave abandon. Philly's own Brian McOmber pushes all on drums (he works at a Penn science lab when not touring) as guitarist Amber Coffman and bassist Angel Deradoorian orchestrate DP's ringer element: sweet melodic vocals, stop-starting in arresting arrangements or in soulful unison recalling Marley's I-Threes. Their Plug Award-nominated
Longstreth's re-imagining of Black Flag's 1981 classic
, is among this year's best albums.
- David R. Stampone