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CD Reviews:
Listening Room: Kem, John Mellencamp and more...

of the Oakland Press

Posted: Sunday, August 15, 2010

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“Intimacy: Album III”

Universal Motown

★★ 1/2

Intimacy takes time to develop, and that was certainly the case with Detroit artist Kem Owens’ “Intimacy: Album III,” which comes five years after his gold-certified “Album II.” Fortunately Kem has made it worth the wait, crafting a smooth set of carefully constructed and mostly positive odes to relationships, using deceptively sparse arrangements to showcase a subtly powerful voice that’s clearly the star of these 10 songs. Few singers, after all, could carry a six-minute track such as “Can You Feel It” on vocal power alone, without relying on instrumental solos at any point of the song, and “Love Never Fails” succeeds without percussion, as Kem switches from falsetto to Barry White-style murmurs framed by delicate piano and guitar accompaniment. “When I’m Loving You” kicks the set off with a gentle samba, while jazzy overtones propel the sexy “Human Touch” and Kem strikes a Lionel Richie vocal tone, to good effect, on “Share My Life.” “Intimacy” also finds the usually self-contained Kem expanding his musical universe a bit more, working with a co-producer, Rex Rideout, and bringing in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra string section to play an arrangement by the late Motown producer David Van de Pitt on “Why Would You Stay.” Jill Scott busts a spoken-word affirmation on “Golden Days,” and Melanie Rutherford duets with Kem above the soft funk pulse of “If It’s Love.” Despite the good company he keeps, however, it’s Kem who shines brightest here, making “Intimacy” an album any fan of R&B love music will want to cozy up to.


John Mellencamp, “No Better Than This” (Rounder) ★★★ 1/2

Nearly three years removed from “Jack & Diane,” John Mellencamp is making music that’s more creative than commercial — but still merits our full attention. His 25th album is one of his most experimental, recorded with a single microphone and 55-year-old reel-to-reel player and recorded with producer T-Bone Burnett in historical locales such as Sun Studios in Memphis, the hotel room where Robert Johnson recorded in San Antonio, Texas, and America’s inaugural black church in Savannah, Ga. Fortunately both the sound — raw and intimate like he’s sitting a few feet away from you — and the songs live up to Mellencamp’s ambitions, with haunting, folky fare such as “Save Some Time to Dream,” “A Graceful Fall,” “Clumsy Ol’ World” and “Love at First Sight” mingling comfortably with rockabilly rave-ups like the title track and “Each Day of Sorrow” as well as country romps like “Coming Down the Road.”

New & Noteworthy

Trace Adkins, “Cowboy`s Back” (Show Dog/Universal): Country’s deep-voiced Alpha male tells us how to “Hold My Beer” and “Whoop a Man’s Ass” on his ninth album. Yes, sir.

American Hi-Fi, “Fight the Frequency” (Megaforce): The fourth album from the Boston group fronted by Stacy Jones, who moonlights as Miley Cyrus’ music director.

Andrea Bocelli, “Carmen: Duets and Arias” (Decca/Universal): The Italian tenor and his friends recreate Georges Bizet’s most famous opera.

Boris & Ian Astbury, “BXI” (Southern Lord): This four song EP represents the first recorded output from Cult frontman Astury’s new side project.

Eliza Carthy & Norma Waterson, “Gift” (Topic): Mother and daughter team up for a set of traditional and contemporary songs with spare, rootsy accompaniment.

Chief, “Modern Rituals” (Domino): The psychedelic California rock of the 60s is a, well, chief touchstone on the debut album from this quartet of New York University alumni.

Matthew Dear, “Black City” (Ghostly International): The Detroit electronic/dance artist’s latest includes a nine-minute track, “Little People (Black City),” that he intends to release as a single — unedited — in September.

The Dollyrots, “A Little Messed Up” (Blackheart): The pop-punk trio, whose founders have been friends since eighth grade, delivers its second album for Joan Jett’s Blackheart Records label.

Filter, “The Trouble With Angels” (Rocket Science/Nuclear Blast): Filter’s fifth studio album takes a slightly heavier direction thanks to noted hard rock collaborator Bob Marlette’s co-production.

David Gray, “Foundling” (Mercer Street/Downtown): The British troubadour wrote and recorded the songs for his quiet ninth album at the same time he worked on 2009’s “Draw the Line.”

Iron Maiden, “The Final Frontier” (UMe): For its 15th studio album, The venerable British headbangers returned to Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas, where it recorded early releases such as “Piece of Mind” and “Powerslave.”

Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs, “God Willin’ & the Creek Don`t Rise” (RCA): LaMontagne produces himself for the first time in four albums, recording with his road band at his farmhouse in western Massachusetts.

Lissie, “Catching a Tiger” (Fat Possum): The Illinois-born singer and songwriter follows up her well-received 2009 EP, “Why You Runnin’,” with an impressively diverse full-length collection.

NOFX “Longest EP” (Fat Wreck Chords): The title doesn’t like; the California punk rockers’ new disc features 30 tracks, which is more than some groups put on three full albums.

Red Line Chemistry, “Dying For a Living” (Bulldog): The sophomore album from the hard rocking Kansas City quintet.

Duke Robillard, “Passport to the Blues” (Stony Plain): The former Roomful of Blues guitarist kicks out another 13 songs showcasing his guitar and vocal skills.

Esperanza Spalding, “Chamber Music Society” (Heads Up International): The singer, bassist and composer mixes jazz and classical styles on the follow-up to her lauded 2008 debut.

The Toadies, “Feeler” (Kirtland): The Texas troupe unearths an album it originally recorded in 1997 but was rejected by its label, this time re-recording some tracks and adding others.

Various Artists, “The Switch -- Music From the Motion Picture” (Rhino): Vintage tracks from the Eels, Jamiroquai, Nu Shooz and more populate the soundtrack to Jennifer Aniston’s new comedy.

Brian Wilson, “The Gershwin Songbook” (Walt Disney): Besides his own versions of George & Ira Gershwin favorites, the former Beach Boy mastermind was given access to the family vaults to create a pair of new songs.

From The Vaults: Aretha Franklin, “The Best of Aretha Franklin (Quadrophonic Mix)” (Rhino Handmade); Ra Ra Riot, “The Rhumb Line” (Barsuck)

New Music DVDs: Jackson Browne, “Going Home” (Eagle Rock)

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