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CD Reviews:
Listening Room: Gwen Stefani, Ciara, Brian McKnight and more

Of the Oakland Press

Posted: Sunday, December 3, 2006

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Gwen Stefani, “The Sweet Escape” (Interscope) ***

Ciara, “The Evolution” (LaFace/Zomba) ***

Ciara opened for Gwen Stefani on tour last year, but the songstresses share much more in common as they each bring out their sophomore albums. Each is following a multi-platinum 2004 success — No Doubt singer Stefani’s “Love*Angel*Music* Baby” sold 7 million copies, Ciara’s “Goodies” moved 3 million — and both have a knack for not letting the obvious influences they wear in their songs usurp their individual personalities. In Stefani’s case, there’s still a major Madonna fi xation (“Early Winter,” “4 in the Morning”) on “Sweet Escape,” and she also mines Depeche Mode (“Wonderful Life”) as well as No Doubt’s “Hella Good” (“Fluorescent”). All spun together, however, it works well, making “The Sweet Escape” a dance-pop album that flows even smoother than “L*A*M*B.” The dark lyrical tone seems surprising given what’s said to be a happy marriage, to former Bush leader Gavin Rossdale, and motherhood, but the buoyant title track (with Akon) and “The Sound of Music” yodels in “Wind it Up” — as well as production and co-writing contributions from the Neptunes, No Doubt mate Tony Kanal, Keane’s Tim Rice-Oxley and Linda Perry — certainly insure that this “Escape” sounds sweet.

Ciara, meanwhile, channels a blend of hip-hop soul that nods deeply to Mary J. Blige and Beyoncé; “The Evolution’s” cover even apes Blige’s 2003 release “Love & Life.” And Ciara has her Madonna moment, too, on the electrocharged “Get In, Fit In,” produced by Black Eyed Peas’ will.i.am. But the now 21-yearold comes even more into her own this time, living up to “The Evolution’s” title. Lil Jon, her patron on “Goodies,” provides some (literal) shout-outs on “That’s Right,” a convincing shot of girl power, and she hangs tight with Chamillionaire on “Get Up” (from the “Step Up” soundtrack) and on the muscular hip-hop throw-down “Bang It Up.” The hooky “C.R.U.S.H.” is a pop smash in waiting, Ciara is equally convincing on gentler, late-album tracks such as “I’m Just Me” and “I Found Myself.” The layered vocals, spoken interludes and tracks like “Promise” and “Like a Boy” remind us that Ciara is defi - nitely of a particular school of pop/R&B, but she’s quickly carving out a spot near the head of the class.


Brian McKnight, “Ten” (Warner Bros.) **

The R&B lover man has a few burrs under his saddle on his 10th album in 15 years, possibly stemming from his own divorce. The opening track and first single, “Used to Be My Girl” — a col-Stellar laboration with the Shining “Thong Song” team So-so Sputters of Tim & Bob — slyly kisses off an ex with cautionary words to her current lover over a moody and spare but still rhythmic groove. “Unhappy Without You” and “Shoulda Been Lovin’ You” are among the other tracks that mourn lost love and find McKnight also willing to take his share of the blame. But “Ten” also has the requisite booty ballads (“Comfortable,” “What’s My Name,” “More and More”) and love songs, while the country trio Rascal Flatts join him for the solemn soldier’s paean, “Red, White, and Blue.” It’s a formula that works, and one of the reasons McKnight is still around for a “Ten”-th anniversary.

New and noteworthy

Drake Bell, “It’s Only Time” (Universal) — Album number two from the Nickelodeon star of “Drake & Josh.

Black Eyed Peas, “Live From Sydney to Vegas”

(will.i.am/A&M) — The Peas put this concert DVD together from a pair of shows on its 2005 concert tour.

Lil Scrappy, “Bred 2 Die Born 2 Live” (Reprise) — Lil Jon and 50 Cent helmed this Atlanta rapper’s sophomore set, which also features Young Buck, Mase, Young Dro and more.

Metallica, “The Videos — 1989-2004” (Warner Bros.) — The headbangers’ fi rst video compilation includes 21 clips, including two MTV Music Video Award winners.

Soundtrack, Dreamgirls: Music From the Motion Picture” (Columbia) — The Broadway hit gets overhauled for the big screen with Beyoncé, Eddie Murphy and Jamie Foxx, but it’s newcomer Jennifer Hudson who steals the show.

Alison Ray, “Downside Up” (Chime) — The fi rst fulllength outing by the Memphisborn singer-songwriter, already making waves at radio with “There’s Always Tomorrow.”

Matthew Ryan, “From a Late Night High-Rise”

(00:02:59) — The Nashville singer-songwriter’s fi rst album in three years follows his work with the side project Strays Don’t Sleep.

Roger Sanchez, “Come With Me” (Tinted/Ultra) — The New York house artist aims to keep the dance fl oor thumping on his latest album.

Slipknot, “Voliminal: Inside the Nine”

(Roadrunner) — An impressionistic film about the band by M. Shawn “Clown” Crahan highlights this two-DVD set.

Various Artists, “Eminem Presents the Re-Up” (Shady/Interscope) — Slim Shady is hands-on for this mix tape-style release designed to promote his label’s latest signings. (See story, Page C-4.)

Various Artists, “OC Mix 6: Covering Our Tracks” (Warner Bros.) — New artists including Lady Sovereign, Tally Hall and Pinback and more cover modern rock favorites that have been part of “The OC’s” radar.

Various Artists, “Rocky Balboa: The Best of ‘Rocky’ ” (Capitol) — Yo, all the big theme songs and scores, plus new songs by Natasha Bedingfi eld and Three 6 Mafi a.

J Xavier, “Young Prince of tha South” (Noo Day/Music World) — The 14-year-old Houston rapper debuts with help from Mike Jones, Lil KeKe and funk legend George Clinton.

Yes, “Essentially Yes”

(Eagle) — A box set of Yes’ 1997-2001 studio albums with a bonus never-released 2003 concert set.

Frank Zappa, “Mofo Project/Object” (Zappa) — The long-waited “audio documentary” about the making of Zappa’s “Freak Out” album, available in single and four-CD sets.

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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