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'The List' by Rosanne Cash

Also reviewed: 'Love 2' by Air; 'This Is Us' by Backstreet Boys; 'Music for Men' by Gossip; 'Sonic Boom' by Kiss

October 07, 2009|Randy Lewis; August Brown; Greg Kot; Mikael Wood

Rosanne Cash

"The List"

(Manhattan Records)

* * * *

When Rosanne Cash was 18, her father, music legend Johnny Cash, gave her a list of 100 country, blues, folk and gospel songs he felt it vital that she learn to love. For her latest full-length release, she's chosen a dozen songs from that master list, and she brings the wistful mood that's infused much of her own writing to the material, which uniformly focuses on loss and heartache.

The instrumentation is spare yet elegant; this isn't the stripped-down music Johnny made with producer Rick Rubin in his final years, but it is often haunting just the same. Rosanne's voice pierces to the heart of the traditional "Motherless Children," Merle Haggard's "Silver Wings," Hank Cochran's forlorn "She's Got You" and, dipping into her extended-family's musical wellspring, A.P. Carter's "Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow."

Some high-powered friends pop in: Bruce Springsteen delivers a knockout duet on "Sea of Heartbreak," Elvis Costello goes uptown honky-tonk on Harlan Howard's "Heartaches by the Number" and Jeff Tweedy is appropriately gothic for "Long Black Veil."

The presence of such bright stars never feels like gimmickry, however. Their contributions serve only to enhance Rosanne Cash's renditions of songs that Johnny Cash understood to delineate cornerstone facets of American culture.

-- Randy Lewis


Trying to feel their way through

Backstreet Boys

"This Is Us"


* *

The best song on Backstreet Boys' new album, "This Is Us," is also by far the weirdest and creepiest. "PDA," an ode to the pleasure of public groping, splits the difference between the exhibitionist euphoria of Usher's "Love in This Club" and Andy Samberg's "Saturday Night Live" skit about the travails of overly, um, sensitive men, the title of which cannot be reprinted in a family newspaper.

Coming from a band better known for its blow-out Max Martin ballads, it should be an embarrassing bit of lechery. But it's just absurd enough to enter the pop vocabulary, which can't be said for much else on "This Is Us," a competent but very late-adopted pop-trance slurry.

Though the Boys were one of the biggest pop acts of the '90s, they largely hand the reins off to their producers here, who include Lady GaGa's hit-maker RedOne, Jim Jonsin and OneRepublic's Ryan Tedder.

Cuts like "Bye Bye Love" and "Straight Through My Heart" have au courant hotel-lounge decadence to them, and "She's a Dream" benefits from the light melodic touch of guest T-Pain. But when the boys extol a lady's virtues because "she don't even know I'm a celebrity," the lyric rings of self-fulfilling prophecy.

-- August Brown


A big-voiced singer restrained


"Music for Men"


* *

Beth Ditto, the singer in this Portland, Ore.-via-Arkansas trio, has become a celebrity overseas because of her anti-diva attitude, robust physique and gutsy voice. Her outspoken views on feminism and gay rights, combined with her band's exuberant dance-punk, have turned her into an unlikely star.

After three independent albums and a breakout hit, the 2006 single "Standing in the Way of Control," she and bandmates Brace Paine (guitar) and Hannah Blilie (drums) make their major-label debut, "Music for Men," with producer-to-the-icons Rick Rubin ensuring everything is polished for a big mainstream roll-out.

The sound is a bouncy mix of new-wave guitars and disco beats. Though Rubin has made the band crisper than ever, the smoothness doesn't suit Ditto.

She has a gritty voice big enough to knock down walls, but on "Music for Men" she sounds muted. The singer cuts loose only as "8th Wonder" winds down, building to the kind of fury that causes one to wonder what this album could've been with less polish and a lot more Ditto, unfiltered.

-- Greg Kot


For sale now on Aisle 5 . . .


"Sonic Boom"


* *

It's amazing that another rock band thought of selling its new album through a big-box retailer before Kiss did: If these greasepaint glam gods didn't invent the notion of pop-as-commodity, they definitely perfected it. Some 35 years after the band's debut album, they're back selling a fresh studio disc exclusively through Wal-Mart, where you'll presumably find "Sonic Boom" stocked near the toilet paper and the Pop-Tarts.

Perhaps there's a discount if you buy more than 10 copies at a time.

Not surprisingly, given Kiss' bigger-is-better ethos, "Sonic Boom" is actually more than just a new studio album -- it's a three-disc package that also includes a rerecorded greatest-hits set and a live DVD, all for $12. That works out to about one riff for every 10 cents, pretty reasonable, even during a recession.

The 11 new songs, Kiss' first since 1998's "Psycho Circus," hardly deviate from the band's time-proven formula. That means whoa-whoa-whoa vocal chants, thundering arena-rock grooves and many, many suggestions from Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons that the women in Kiss' audience -- that women anywhere, really -- are wearing more clothing than they need to.

Will any of these tracks make the next greatest-hits set Kiss is sure to release in a couple of years? It seems unlikely; nothing here is as catchy as "Rock & Roll All Nite" or "Detroit Rock City," both of which still sound insanely great when Kiss plays live.

See for yourself when the band hits Staples Center on Nov. 25.

-- Mikael Wood

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