* 1/2, Warner Bros. Nashville
Memo to Warner Bros. Nashville Records: Thanks for the advance of the new Faith Hill album. You must be looking for some feedback before signing off on it, right? I can understand why. Faith's last album sold 8 million copies, but someone needs to talk to her about this record. "Cry" is so filled with vocal histrionics that it borders on the unlistenable.
No one should blame Faith for not wanting to be Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette. But why did she want to be Celine Dion? There are brilliant singers -- Emmylou Harris, Shelby Lynne and Alison Krauss -- who have moved beyond traditional country without sacrificing their soulful edge.
With regard to "Cry," you should start by scrapping tracks 3, 5, 6, 7, 10, 12 and 13. The songs (mostly overwrought power ballads) are mediocre, her vocals are rarely convincing, and the arrangements are ham-fisted. The material is promising enough elsewhere to salvage the tracks by bringing in some advisors. Alanis Morissette could help Faith and the band convey some true romantic fury in the title tune; Lucinda Williams could suggest ways to achieve the lonely barroom ache needed in "When the Lights Go Down"; and Beck could show the way to the vulnerability aimed for in "Stronger."
Or maybe you could just have Faith and her team go back into the studio and simply study the album's one truly outstanding track: "You're Still Here," a tender, intimate reflection on how someone's spirit stays with you even after the person passes out of your life. Faith sings it with touching restraint that makes the rest of the album seem all the more jarring.
You do have time to rethink this album, right? What's that? It's coming out Tuesday? Oh my.
"Let It Rain"
Tracy Chapman is the poster woman for a zero-tolerance policy on unhealthy relationships. So what's going on in "You're the One"? "Some say you're bitter / Think you're mean ..." she sings. "I think you're sensitive and sweet / Stay as you are don't change a thing." It's almost Randy Newman-esque in turning romantic conventional wisdom inside out.
An emotional cloud envelops many of the songs in Chapman's powerfully dark sixth album, as lovers often fall just short of fulfillment ("Almost") or confront their ignoble side ("In the Dark"). The downcast tone -- almost existential in its gloom -- on the surface is heightened by Chapman and co-producer John Parish's sonic touches from the Tom Waits back-alley-at-2 a.m. school.
That mood is leavened periodically by a gospel-music solace, which is most pronounced in the spare and swinging minor-key "Say Hallelujah," which revisits the age-old theme that there'll be joy in the afterlife because there sure isn't much in this one.
Chapman is musing on the fine art of acceptance when life doesn't turn out the way we hope: "So far from perfection, not truth or transcendence will set you free." She ends with "I Am Yours," with more resignation than celebration of faith in love's ability to make things OK, if not necessarily different.
-- Randy Lewis
More songs for social change
"Red Hot + Riot:
The Music of Fela Kuti"
This is the 14th album released by the Red Hot organization to promote AIDS prevention, and none has done a better job of matching the artist with the concept, the music with newly conceived interpretations. Fela, who died in 1997 of AIDS complications, was one of the first African superstars to aggressively speak out about social inequities, often triggering violent reaction by the Nigerian government against him, his family and his associates.
Songs such as "Zombie" and "Shuffering and Shmiling" -- both included in this collection -- are compelling examples of the penetrating manner in which the bandleader addressed social issues. Fela was also one of Africa's most determinedly contemporary artists, with the funk-driven spontaneity of his live performances deeply tapping into the changing cultural landscape.
So it's appropriate that his music is interpreted here in similarly contemporary fashion by a lineup of artists eclectic enough to include Sade, Macy Gray (with Roy Hargrove), Meshell Ndegeocello, D'Angelo, Nile Rodgers, Archie Shepp, Baaba Maal and Fela's supercharged son, Femi Kuti. In the process, this valuable collection affirms Fela's importance as a performer, an artist and a catalyst for social change.
-- Don Heckman
"No Stranger to Shame"