MUSIC REVIEWS: Leona Lewis, Sister Fa, Rod Stewart, Star Fucking Hipsters, Animal Collective, The Do, Robert Earl Keen

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Leona Lewis
Echo
(Syco Music)

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My expectations for this British pop diva’s sophomore album were far from high, as “Bleeding Love” was the only major song I had to judge her from. After listening to the thirteen tracks on Echo, however, my appreciation expanded for this mature young lady with vocals that could someday be compared to those of Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston.

While this album is far from upbeat, the songs bring you through an array of emotions and moody tones. Lewis’s debut album Spirit was about showcasing the talent that she introduced to the world on the talent show “X Factor.” This second album is about showing her vocal range. Her songs don’t make you want to jump up and down or sit in the corner, but rather to appreciate the notes this young lady can hit and the experiences she’s been through.

Lewis opens with “Happy,” stating “Someone once told me that you have to choose/what you win or lose, you can’t have everything/don’t you take chances, you might feel the pain…” Immediately she shows her maturity, admitting that she knows taking chances could lead to pain, but preferring to be happy now and worry later.

This is followed by my favorite; a slow ballad entitled “I Got You.” “Love Letter” and “Can’t Breathe” are soft sweet songs that anyone in love can appreciate. “Outta My Head” speeds up the tempo and is one of the few songs you would dance to. “Brave” and “My Hands” slow it down and are mellow and catchy. “Alive” is another somber song but has the right elements to make it a catchy pop song that you’d keep on if it played on the radio.

“Don’t Let Me Down” is a refreshing change of pace as Leona collaborates with Justin Timberlake to one of his slow signature beats. This song is more inspirational than its predecessors, saying “Fighter, that’s your name…Trying to hide but it’s obvious you’re a survivor.” The album closes with “Lost Then Found,” a duet about lost love. It’s not a positive song to end on, but that’s just the point. This album is not one to listen to straight through, but there are some key tracks that make the album decent. Lewis has shown much progress since her album in 2007 and it alludes to even more to come.

Kate Hollinger

Sister Fa
Sarabah: Tales from the Flipside of Paradise
(Piranha)

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In the male-dominated world of hip hop, it can be hard for a female to break through. An emcee from Africa? Even harder. Meet Sister Fa, otherwise known as Fatou Mandiang Diatta, a 27-year old Senegalese rapper, who’s representing as Senegal’s Queen of Hip Hop.

Though recorded entirely in Wolof, Manding, Jola and French, Sarabah: Tales from the Flipside of Paradise is fundamentally and exceptionally hip hop: from the heavy basslines to Sister’s smooth delivery and catchy hooks. With an obvious Afro-European vibe, Sarabah is an easy addition to any conscious listener’s collection.

As winner of the 2005 “Best Newcomer of the Year” award at Senegal’s Hip Hop Music Awards, Sister Fa self-organizes tours in an effort to bring awareness against female circumcision, and the war on AIDS in her native Dakar. She’s definitely one to watch.

With the exception of the line “I don’t give a f**k” on “Poum Poum Paya,” I’ve no idea as to what she’s saying! But based on the rock-ability factor, favorite tracks are: “Milyamba,” “Selebou Yoon,” “Sarabah,” “Hip Hop Rek,” “Soldat” and “Sister Fa La.”

ND McCray

Rod Stewart
Soulbook
(J Records)

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Stewart’s more-recent covers are the kind of music I sing to myself while indulging my inner schoolgirl romantic (think Sandy Olsen shamelessly singing “Hopelessly Devoted to You” to a bird-bath reflection of grinning Danny Zuko, and I think you pretty much get the picture). So, you can imagine my anticipation for a new album entirely full of guilty pleasures.

But it’s time to face the music: I love Rod Stewart. I love soul. I did not love this album. Hot Rod Stewart has an amazing quality to his voice. That alluring rasp has done great things in Stewart’s career, but as of late it could probably stand to be challenged a little more.

That being said, there are a few tracks here I’m going to add to my bedroom karaoke session repertoire: His version of The Four Tops’ “It’s The Same Old Song” with its slowed-down intro that showcases his voice, his decent take on “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” and his joint vocal effort with Smokey Robinson on “Tracks of My Tears.”

There were a couple other musical collaborators on the album. It features duets with Mary J. Blige and Jennifer Hudson, and Stevie Wonder plays harmonica on one track. But, collaborators or no collaborators, I’m ready to hear something original.

So, Rod “The Bod” Stewart, “I think I got something to say to you.” Please tackle something new. Oh, and if you want to go ahead and tour with The Faces in 2010, it’ll give you the opportunity to bust out your new material and make this Pink Lady poser doubly happy.

Amy Hamblen

Star Fucking Hipsters
Never Rest In Peace
(Alternative Tentacles Records)

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Star Fucking Hipsters are trying really hard to be a relevant punk band. Let’s start with their name. I guess they think they are making some kind of brash statement that people will be drawn to but it just feels like a deliberate attempt to be ironic or defiant. As for the music, Star Fucking Hipsters can’t decide which brand of punk suits them best (or which will sell the most records) so they just try it all. The majority of the album is speedy, anthemic punk which they do a perfectly decent job with. “Look Who’s Talking Now!” is a pretty good one that’s both catchy and fierce. After a few songs though they just go off in every direction that they can pull off. The metal of “Church & Rape” is followed by a ska tune called “The Civilization Show” and neither one is that good. They are just half-hearted replications with groan-worthy clichés like a trombone solo and a “pick it up, pick it up” call. Then there’s “Heaven” which was clearly only added just in case emo is still popular.

Star Fucking Hipsters have two lead vocalists (and apparently two drummers as well but who could tell). Nico is a competent punk singer and the presence of a female voice adds another welcome dimension. Sturg on the other hand sings like he’s in the process of taking a painful dump. His anguished screams get incredibly tiring by the third track. The lyrics, as well, are nothing remarkable. They try to have a political message but there is just no nuance in their sloganeering. When I listen to Dead Kennedys or System of a Down I feel enraged and inspired. This band just sounds like they are singing the lines that make them sound cool. But punk is a spirit, not just a genre. There are a couple of ok songs here but Never Rest In Peace is really nothing special. It’s just a trendy album that I doubt too many people will fall for. Rebellion never sounded so manufactured. Give it to your 14 year old sister and she’ll think she’s pretty fucking hip.

Jonathan Zuckerman

Animal Collective
Fall Be Kind EP
(Domino Records)

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As the decade without a name comes to a close, a look back reveals a strange amalgam of musical developments, but without question one of the most exciting bands to surface was Animal Collective. The Baltimore natives put out an amazing album this year but may have even raised the stakes with their new 5 track EP, Fall Be Kind, which pushes the sonic envelope a bit further, offering new developments and, if possible, a more complex sound.

The intro track “Graze” begins with a theatrical note and has a feeling reminiscent of a late 70’s progressive rock concept album ala Pink Floyd or Yes. It’s followed up with “What Would I Want? Sky” which samples the Grateful Dead’s “Unbroken Chain” from Mars Hotel (the first ever licensed use of a Dead sample). The song changes pace a bit with the addition of strong percussion and a spacey, tribal feel, which develops into a brilliant movement that approaches a more traditional rock song format with an almost hip-hop quality.

This track alone makes the album worth picking up but it’s followed with an ambient layered interim entitled “Bleed” and “On a Highway” which continues the tribal, echo chamber feel but with a more pronounced 1980’s pop/rock edge. The EP closes with a Frankensteinian track entitled “I Think I Can” which blends together a drive to the beach in 1986 with deep space “wall of sound” production and a dash of medieval troubadours to create something inherently Animal Collective in every way.

Tim Needles

The Do
A Mouthful
(Get Down!)

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Hailing from different parts of Europe, The Do, have clearly incorporated the mixture of different cultures surrounding them into their music. They comfortably intertwine their way through different styles ranging from tribal-dance, folk, rock and hip-hop. Amazingly enough, even with all of the changes, nothing seems out of place on their debut album, A Mouthful. No matter which style they are tackling, singer/guitarist Olivia B.Merilahti ‘s voice suites the track.

The first half of the album alone will conjure up thoughts of such artists as Cibo Matto, The Cardigans, Feist, Mazzy Starr and Bjork. Last I checked, that’s pretty good company to be in. It almost seems like The Do’s musical interests were so wide-ranging that instead of going with one genre they decided to create their own by mashing them all together. What’s left is a very fresh sounding album that doesn’t get boring because things change interestingly enough from track-to-track. You may listen to a moving, soft composition like “Song For Lovers” (which for some reason brings Failure’s “The Nurse Who Loved Me” to mind) and then find it difficult to believe it’s the same band or even the same vocalist pummeling you with the hard-hitting hip-hop edge of “Queen Dot Kong” just a few tracks over.

Some bands that experiment with different sounds can sometimes get carried away and end up with a jarring mess of an album. The Do finds a nice balance throughout A Mouthful, weaving in and out of various sounds with much finesse. Many of the album’s tracks could easily be singles but the two I’ve already mentioned really stuck out for me, as well as “On My Shoulders” and “Stay (Just A Little Bit More). It’s no easy task to explore numerous musical avenues on the same release and have it remain a cohesive, fun piece of work, but on A Mouthful, The Do has passed with flying colors.

E. Grey

Robert Earl Keen
The Rose Hotel
(Lost Highway Records)

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Unlike Hotel California, if you leave your bags with Robert Earl Keen at his new The Rose Hotel you’re bound to have a pleasant stay. Sounding like a less talky, but just as creative John Prine (big praise that!), Keen delivers a stellar collection of funky kinda- country tunes with solid musicianship, showing off why he has built the name for himself that he has.

There’s the funky bat beat of “Something I do,” with its wha wha-y guitar, Keen’s lower yet-still-effective lower vocal of “On and On,” with some perfect harmonies (heard throughout every room of the hotel actually) and interesting modulation changes near the end I never expected. The absolutely fantastic lyric to “Wireless In Heaven” makes this one song worth the price of a room, really it is Keen at his funniest, with just superbly placed and played fiddle, banjo and lap-steel making this commercial satirical rocker.

“The Man Behind The Drum” is another very commercial tune, with Keen showing off his amazing knack for solid lyrical imagery and a sweeping full band arrangement infrequent on much of the simpler tunes here. The slower “Village Inn” has a nice, jangle guitar pushing this sweet song along, another of the more powerful moments on a very powerful CD. Go grab The Rose Hotel, check in and check it out. Robert Earl Keen is an original worth your time.

Ralph Greco, Jr.

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