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Jubilant and purposeful songs

R. Kelly puts his legal strife aside in a fine new set

August 22, 2004|Richard Cromelin; Robert Hilburn; Steve Hochman; Steve Appleford

R. Kelly

"Happy People"/"U Saved Me" (Jive)

****

One of the great things about certain pop records is their ability to fill you with a feeling of well-being when there's not much reason to be feeling good. The world might be going to hell in a handbasket and your personal life might be unraveling, but it doesn't matter if "Dancing in the Street" or "Help Me Rhonda" is on the radio.

It's only natural to assume that R. Kelly has worse days than most of us as he awaits trial in his hometown of Chicago on 14 counts of child pornography. Maybe it's compensation for his tribulation, or maybe just fierce denial, or maybe an attempt at mass jury-pool contamination, but Kelly has imbued the first half of his new two-CD album (due in stores Tuesday) with an intoxicating, grin-inducing, body-moving, spirit-lifting effervescence.

Charming, unpretentious and effortless, the singer presides over a party whose pace never flags and whose soul is fun-loving and wholesome. There's only one excursion out of G-rated territory and into the bedroom, "The Greatest Show on Earth" (guess what it is, ladies). Instead of bump and grind, Kelly's favored body movement is a dance called "steppin'," and the album's sonic signature is a celebrative clap.

Kelly crafts his sunny kingdom with the light artillery of old-school R&B, channeling Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye in a sound that's live and uncluttered, played rather than programmed, classic without being retro. It melts all resistance, and Kelly's insistence that love will prevail and that a good heart is all you need is irresistible.

Every Saturday night has its Sunday morning, and for those who want a taste of a more troubled soul, Kelly provides "U Saved Me," a second disc that's rooted in gospel forms and church vernacular about the passage through the wilderness and into salvation.

It takes awhile to adjust to the slower tempos and darker themes, but Kelly's arrangements and the spontaneity of the performance keep the sparks flying as it builds toward three soaring inspirational ballads packed with celestial power and one dramatic key change after another. The finale, "Peace," is a tour-de-force, with Kelly's high-pitched vocal evoking Jimmy Cliff, and the African-flavored track unfolding into a series of startling textural shifts.

So how does it make sense that music this embracing and inspired would come from someone in Kelly's shoes? Depending on the truth we might or might not learn someday, it can serve as a reminder that great art isn't necessarily the product of a morally admirable artist. And no matter what eventually happens to R. Kelly's world, it carries a message right out of one of those Sunday sermons: Judge not, lest ye be judged.

*

A troubadour's songs from the front lines

Steve Earle

"The Revolution Starts ... Now" (Artemis)

*** 1/2

A lot of pop-rock figures are suddenly speaking out about the state of the union, but Earle has been going on the record ever since his tales of blue-collar alienation on his superb "Guitar Town" album almost 20 years ago.

The Nashville-based singer-songwriter, whose music blends country, folk, blues and rock into a winning Americana sound, has written eloquently about matters ranging from the death penalty to the bleakness of national politics. In 1997's "Christmas in Washington," Earle evoked the spirits of Woody Guthrie and labor martyr Joe Hill in longing for a return of political heroes.

But his commentaries have become even more aggressive -- first with the post-9/11 warning about the governing treading on civil liberties in his song "John Walker's Blues" and now on this album, whose themes range from the Iraq war to outsourcing of American jobs. The CD is due in stores Tuesday.

As Bob Dylan pointed out in an interview last year, Earle has a remarkable way of getting beyond social stereotypes (from prison guards to death row inmates) by writing from the subject's viewpoint.

It's a strength Earle again demonstrates in "The Revolution Starts

"Rich Man's War" is the most heartbreaking. Though the theme is an obvious one, Earle brings it to life by contrasting an American who joins the Army because he had no other place to go ("There ain't nobody hirin' 'round here since all the jobs went down to Mexico") and a young Iraqi who is taught there is honor in suicide bombings.

Earle too writes about the disillusionment of others, including a truck driver who signed up early to go to Iraq to haul supplies because the pay is good only to find he has landed in a battlefield. Elsewhere, Earle turns to humor and anger in attacking the shadow of censorship on the nation's airwaves.

Through it all, however, he clings to hope. He tries to shake off the blues in "Comin' Round," on which he's joined by Emmylou Harris, and he surrenders to the optimism of "The Seeker."

A couple of songs (including the goofy "Condi, Condi") seem out of place, but the heart of "The Revolution" carries the stamp of an artist and a patriot.

*

Furnaces' introspection stands up to inspection

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