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POP ALBUM REVIEWS

Yet again, Ross goes her own way

January 17, 2007|Ann Powers;Richard Cromelin

Diana Ross

"I Love You"

EMI/Manhattan

** 1/2

Diana Ross is a legend; that's a given. She is one of the most successful women in pop, with a string of hits extending well past her pioneering work with the Supremes to encompass disco, smooth 1980s soul and an American songbook of her own construction. She's been (unflatteringly) immortalized in "Dreamgirls," the Broadway hit that's now an Oscar-worthy film. Her saucer-eyed pout has inspired a legion of drag queens and R&B debutantes, and she's still pulling out the designer duds for photo sessions with Herb Ritts.

Despite her stranglehold on immortality, Ross is a star whose worthiness many love to doubt. It's not just her notorious imperiousness, endless self-love or nouveau riche glam-itude. The deeper problem is her music. Discussion of Ross tends to focus on what she's not (a big-voiced mama, a trained jazz singer) than what she is: a pop stylist who responded to the freedom of the rock era with a style based on her patented sighs and coos, her candy-sweet upper register, instead of on traditional "chops." Ross has been unfairly dubbed a lightweight, when she's really an individualist.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday January 18, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Herb Ritts: A review in Wednesday's Calendar of Diana Ross' new album said the singer was "still pulling out the designer duds for photo sessions with Herb Ritts." Fashion photographer Ritts died in 2002.

"I Love You" is a covers collection as curiously distinctive as the voice of the diva it serves -- a voice that's remarkably supple at 62. In the accompanying DVD, Ross says she was inspired to record it while leafing through family photographs as Harry Nilsson's "Remember" played in the background; this Hollywood moment led her to contemplate the essence of love, and select songs meant to guide people through their own love lives. Enlisting producers Peter Asher and Steve Tyrell, she set off on a journey basically to make the perfect wedding album.

Cheesy, yes, but it's actually believable that Ross, not a marketing team, designed this mix. The Nilsson tune, in an arrangement unfortunately reminiscent of Kermit the Frog's "The Rainbow Connection," sets up a grab bag of golden oldies, prom songs, soul semi-obscurities and what-the-heck picks that apparently resulted from an afternoon Ross spent with her old vinyl bins. There's a Beatles tune and one by Bacharach and David; there's a ballad from "The Color Purple" soundtrack, a pet project of Ross' pal Oprah Winfrey. The odd material is more fun than the calculated efforts of Rod Stewart and other covers mavens, but it seems to have unsettled Ross, who rarely locates the emotional core of the songs.

Uniformity comes in the lush arrangements, though a bit of Ross' disco past seeps through. The album's title track and its one original song is a clean-lined, unapologetically sentimental ballad that would, in fact, be great at a wedding, and Ross' interpretation is lovely, as simple as a white dress. Too bad few people will notice this pop gem amid the quiet chaos of another Diana Ross expression that's ultimately just too much.

*

-- Ann Powers

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The Good, the Bad & the Queen

"The Good, the Bad & the Queen"

Virgin

*** 1/2

"Stroppy little island full of mixed up people.... " That's how Damon Albarn memorably sums up England in this latest chapter of his ongoing chronicle of his homeland's heart and soul.

That's been his mission with the band Blur anyway. His other projects, notably the "Mali Music" album and the Gorillaz, had a global perspective that now broadens and invigorates his music as he turns his focus back to Britain.

In The Good, the Bad & the Queen, his new group whose debut album was released Tuesday, the singer is accompanied by former Clash bassist Paul Simonon, Verve guitarist Simon Tong and Nigerian drummer Tony Allen, and produced by his Gorillaz studio collaborator, Danger Mouse.

They sound like a seasoned team, an understated unit where nothing dominates and everything contributes to enhancing the moods of Albarn's songs. With equal emphasis on groove and hook, and given an experimental spin by the production, they craft a catchy form of art-rock, at once more casual and immediate than Blur's Britpop.

Those moods are melancholy, downbeat and yearning as Albarn presents concise images of a country gripped by tension and uncertainty. "The call for prayer is common around here in the morning," he sings in "Herculean," evoking London's shifting cultural makeup. War is the recurring motif, in memories of earlier, clearer ones and encounters with the more ambiguous ones that pervade modern life -- not just in England, but all over this island Earth.

-- Richard Cromelin

---

The Bird and the Bee

"The Bird and the Bee"

Metro Blue/Blue Note

***

Ever since Audrey Hepburn pressed her pert little nose against Tiffany's window, feminine urbanity has been joined at the hip with neurosis. (Before that, we had Nora Charles, martini and wit extra-dry.) Smart young ladies know how boys and life can betray them; playing gamine can be a fool's game, or at best a worrywart's.

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