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CD Reviews:
Listening Room: Common, Brandy and more...

Of the Oakland Press

Posted: Monday, December 8, 2008

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Common, “Universal Mind Control” (G.O.O.D. Music/Geffen) ***

Common hasn’t made too many missteps in the generally upward trajectory of his 18-year career, and his eighth studio album finds him taking even more chances — and gleaning just as many rewards for it. The follow-up to 2007’s Grammy Award-winning “Finding Forever,” “Universal Mind Control” is the lightest entry in the Chicago rapper/actor’s canon, a compact (10 tracks in 38 minutes) and uptempo set that was designed as a “feel good” outing for summer release. That it comes out closer to the winter solstice may impact its resonance at radio, but “Universal Mind Control” still sounds “fresh like I’m wrapped in plastic,” as Common and Pharrell Williams note on the title track, a percolating electro homage to Afrika Bambaataa (who appears with Common in a Zune commercial that features the song). The rest of the album — produced by the Neptunes and Mr. DJ — veers from the deep consciousness and jazzy intellectualism of its predecessors; it’s also Common’s most un-Commonly bootylicious outing yet, as he tells a concubine in the slinky “Announcement” that “Brah’s say are you a philosopher?... I’ll philosopha on top of ya.” He gets his freak on some more on the “sexual eruption” of “Punch Drunk Love” (with homeboy Kanye West) and “Sex 4 Suga,” while he takes on haters in “Gladiator,” celebrating his “heart full of glory and a fist full of pain.” “Make My Day,” meanwhile, is a bouncy and extremely musical pop confection with Gnarls Barkley’s Cee-Lo providing the irresistible hook. “What a World” channels Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” and the album-closing “Everywhere,” with Martina Topley Byrd doing most of the vocal heavy lifting, references Pat Benatar’s “Love is a Battlefield,” but Common doesn’t completely forsake his topical tact, weighing in on president-elect Barack Obama (another homeboy) on the brimming-with-optimism “Changes.” All told, Common affirms with “Universal Mind Control” that yes, he can change his ways and still come out a creative winner.


Brandy, “Human” (Epic) ***

Brandy Norwood describes herself as “a work in progress” on her fifth studio album, but “Human” shows that the work she’s done in the four years since “Afrodisiac” has yielded impressive progress. Working with longtime collaborator Rodney Jerkins, as well as hitmakers Brian Kennedy, RedOne and James Fauntleroy, the singer has shed the more cloying vestiges of her multi-platinum teen sensation years, now sounding more like a contemporary pop/R&B crossover artist complete with highly produced, layered vocal weaves a la Beyonce or Mariah Carey. But a mid-album sequence of the emotive “Long Distance,” the pensive singer’s showpiece, “Camouflage” and the earthy, “Torn Down” is as stellar as Brandy gets, and she shows similar growth in her songwriting chops on “Warm it Up (With Love)” and the album-closing “Fall,” a torchy collaboration with Natasha Bedingfield. Being “Human” this time out is a pretty divine situation for Brandy.


Avant, “Avant” (MJM/ Capitol): The fifth album by R. Kelly’s cousin features collaborations with 50 Cent, Snoop Dogg, Lloyd Banks and Mario.

Ken Block, “drift” (Rock Ridge Music): The first solo album from Sister Hazel’s frontman and chief songwriter.

Boyz II Men, “Motown — A Journey Through Hitsville USA — Live” (Decca): The vocal group’s first full-length concert DVD pays homage to the legendary Detroit label that was the Boyz’ first musical home.

Bullet For My Valentine, “Scream Aim Fire” (Red Ink): The Welsh hard rockers update their latest album with bonus tracks and a DVD that includes a music video for the title track and some behindthe-scenes footage.

Foreshadow, “Nations of Failure” (Blastzone/Koch): The Florida headbangers’ debut gets an earlier release, moved up from its original January date.

Jimi Hendrix, “Electric Ladyland (Collector’s Edition)” (Experience Hendrix/UMe), “At Last ...The Beginning: The Making of Electric Ladyland” (Experience Hendrix/UMe): The late guitarist’s final studio album and only Billboard No. 1 release is enhanced by this documentary about the recording process. It comes in separate DVD and CD/DVD packages.

Justice, “Across the Universe” (Atlantic): A live album and DVD tour documentary from the trend-setting French electronic/hip-hop duo.

Mark Kozelek, “The Finally LP” (Caldo Verde): The Red House Painters/Sun Kil Moon auteur’s compilation album features his stylized covers of songs by Low, Husker Du, Stephen Sondheim and others.

Maroon5, “Call and

Response: The Remix Album” (A&M/Octone): Fourteen of the groove-loving pop group’s tracks are shake ’n’ baked by the likes of David Banner, the Roots’ ?uestlove, Deerhoof, Of Montreal, Pharrell Williams, Paul Oaklenfold and more.

Musiq Soulchild, “OnMyRadio” (Atlantic): Mary J. Blige and Damian Marley show up to help the Philly soul stirrer on his fifth studio album.

Pavement, “Brighten the Corners (Nicene Creedence Edtion)” (Matador): The indie rock fave’s 1997 album is expanded into a two-disc set with radio live tracks, B-sides and other rarities.

Soundtrack, “Music From ‘Degrassi: The Next Generation’ ”(Verve): A modern rock compendium that includes Jakalope’s theme song plus songs by Paramore, The Academy Is ..., All Time Low, and others.

Thrice, “Live at the House of Blues” (Vagrant): A live CD/DVD set that captures the California modern rockers in Anaheim, near their home turf

Various Artists, “Motown: The Complete No. 1’s” (Motown/UMe): Ten CD’s worth of the revered label’s top songs, all of which topped various charts in the U.S. and other countries. A veritable party in a box — one shaped like the old Hitsville U.S.A. headquarter, to boot. (See story, page D-1).

Various Artists, “The Price of Silence” (Nacional): Stephen Marley, Natalie Merchant, Jurassic 5’s Chali 2na, Angelique Kidjo, Rachid Taha and Colombia’s Aterciopelados are among the international array taking part in this Amnesty International benefit EP.

Paul Weller, “At the BBC” (Yep Rock): An expansive (four-CD) compilation of the former Jam and Style Council leader’s British radio appearances from 1990-2008.

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