New albums: Enya, Tom Jones, and Cool Uncle
By virtue of sales, Enya is one of the world's best-selling musical artists. And yet "New Age" and "world" music - genres with which she is associated - are still dirty words in criticism. But there's no denying the listenability of he
Dark Sky Island
(Warner Bros, **1/2)
nolead ends By virtue of sales, Enya is one of the world's best-selling musical artists. And yet "New Age" and "world" music - genres with which she is associated - are still dirty words in criticism. But there's no denying the listenability of her music, which she without fail performs entirely herself (with the help of constant production partners Nicky and Roma Ryan). The Irish superstar singer regularly turns out vocally layered, synthesizer- fueled and ambient recordings, with hits including her breakout 1988 song, "Orinoco Flow," and "Only Time" from her 2000 album, A Day Without Rain. Her newest album, Dark Sky Island, is a welcome return to form after a 10-year silence punctuated only by a winter-theme 2008 release, And Winter Came. . ..
"Echoes in the Rain" is the Dark Sky single, a buoyant, rhythmic track that features pizzicato strings and her piano work. It focuses on the album's central themes - traveling through time, journeying through life, and the power of memory. Another standout is "Even in the Shadows," where she gets excellent double-bass support from Eddie Lee, dutifully keeping time and anchoring the song. Enya's songwriting is remarkable, if challenging to decipher on first listen, but the ephemeral, gauzy ethereality of her recordings wraps you in sonic solace. Enya's expertise, and it's not slight, lies somewhere between yoga music and meditative chant.
- Bill Chenevert
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nolead ends Long Lost Suitcase continues Tom Jones' late-life effort to show he's more than just the purveyor of cheerfully cheesy pop hits like "What's New Pussycat?" and "Delilah." Working for the third time with producer Ethan Johns, the 75-year-old Welshman again comes across as an Americana master rather than a Vegas showman.
The music is rootsy and organic. The stark country balladry of Willie Nelson's "Opportunity to Cry" rubs up against the exuberant hoedown of "Honey Honey" (a duet with Irish spitfire Imelda May). A down-home take on the Rolling Stones' "Factory Girl" segues into the raucous electric blues of Billy Boy Arnold's "I Wish You Would," with Jones flashing some of that old brio. That kind of diversity continues throughout the set, with the singer also tackling numbers by Willie Dixon, Hank Williams, and Los Lobos.
Only Gillian Welch and David Rawlings' "Elvis Presley Blues" strains for effect - not Jones' empathetic reading or the song itself, but the arrangement, which is built on a pulsating riff that sounds uncharacteristically synthetic. But the album gets right back on track with the folk standard "He Was a Friend of Mine," in which just a solo acoustic guitar evocatively mirrors Jones' tender vocal.
- Nick Cristiano
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nolead ends With angelic voice, blue-eyed soul, and jazz both smooth and funky, Bobby Caldwell is a godsend. Yet, other than his 1978 world smash, "What You Won't Do for Love," his work has rarely entered pop's mainstream beyond sampling. Now he has created the act Cool Uncle, and its namesake album, with Jack Splash, a hip-hop producer/composer whose credits include Mayer Hawthorne and Kendrick Lamar. Their vision is retro without sounding kitsch, with sonic beds that give this vocalist and his guests a sympathetic, dynamic backing.
Caldwell is in exquisite voice throughout Cool Uncle, whether in the reverie "Game Over" or the optimistic disco-jazz of "My Beloved." Guests such as Hawthorne, CeeLo Green, and Jessie Ware stop to visit Uncle, and their stays are pleasant - especially in the buoyant "Break Away" - with Deniece Williams' gospel stop on "Breaking Up" the standout. But Caldwell is best on his own. On "The Cat is Back" and the lounge-hopping "Lonely," he's front, center, and funky in the good company of a dynamic producer. Here's hoping Cool Uncle stays in circulation.
- A.D. Amorosi