"Smokey & Friends"
(Verve Music Group)
Smokey Robinson doesn't want to be a relic and that's understandable. He deserves for people to know his role as a chief architect of the Motown Sound and bard of the American romantic songbook, while remaining a vital, inspiring voice today.
Therein lay the catalyst and challenge of "Smokey & Friends," which finds him pairing with artists young and old on classics he composed, performed or both. Some duets boost the mission while others backfire.
On "Cruisin'," Jessie J offers a spoken-word testimony that includes how joining Robinson is "a dream come true." It's pleasant enough but hard to get past the pedestal upon which he's been placed. On "Quiet Storm," John Legend intones: "Bob Dylan called Smokey Robinson one of the greatest poets of all-time. Smokey, it's an honor to sing with you." Just sing -- that's honor enough.
The collection clicks when the gushing takes a backseat to grooving. Steven Tyler approaches "You Really Got a Hold on Me" less reverentially and the result is something beautifully bawdy and bluesy. It's less of a remake and more a reboot that doesn't instill longing for the original. Other songs that work and curb pining for the past are "The Way You Do (The Things You Do)" with CeeLo Green, which romps and rolls in a sonic workout that respects the Temptations' version while adding something new, and "Ain't That Peculiar," which ain't as peculiar as it might seem to feature James Taylor and the low-key gravitas he brings.
The same can't be said about takes on two of Robinson's most enduring, essential works: Elton John is his soulful best on "The Tracks of My Tears" and Sheryl Crow delivers Motown-worthy harmonies on "The Tears of A Clown," yet you'll find yourself waiting for Robinson to come in.
The album proves Robinson retains that vital, inspiring voice and provides nice moments. The biggest success would come if it sends new fans back to the originals, which were not only nice, but necessary.
-- Jeff Karoub
A Tribute To Motley Crue" (Big Machine/Eleven Seven)
Country artists have long paid tribute to rock acts compatible with country music, from the Eagles to Buddy Holly to country-loving British acts the Beatles and Rolling Stones. But a heavy metal act like Motley Crue? For anyone listening to the arena-rock crunch in country music in recent years, country covering the Crue isn't a surprise at all.
What may be surprise, though, is how ferociously some of country's more mild-mannered acts rise to the occasion. Rascal Flatts has never come close to rocking as hard as on its version of "Kickstart My Heart," which rightly opens the album and sets the bar for others to match.
Florida Georgia Line pales in comparison with the formulaic "If I Die Tomorrow." The same goes for Cassadee Pope, who went from rock to country after winning the third season of "The Voice," but lacks authority on "The Animal In Me," even with Cheap Trick's Robin Zander as a duet partner.
Highlights include Justin Moore's "Home Sweet Home," with its Lynyrd Skynyrd-guitar tone and soulful vocals, The Mavericks using a Latin rhythm on "Dr. Feelgood" to bring out its dramatic story line, Eli Young Band's sweetly melodic "Don't Go Away Mad" and Lee Ann Rimes' swinging "Smoking In The Boys Room."
-- Michael McCall
"Ignite the Night"
On "Do It Like This," country singer Chase Rice suggests he and his friends prefer pulling out a fiddle at a back-country bonfire to dancing under a disco ball. But the track contradicts that sentiment by employing several pop and hip-hop influences more befitting an urban dance floor than a rural, electricity-free setting.
"Do It Like This" from his new album "Ignite the Night" opens with the sound of a scratching turntable, a vocoder-altered voice track, and an electronic drum pattern -- even the banjo sounds like a looped sample. Those conventions put Rice on the side of those country artists currently pushing a crossover style of country music that openly draws on pop and contemporary R&B.
That isn't a big surprise, considering Rice is the co-writer of the monster crossover hit "Cruise" -- and a former finalist on TV's "Survivor." Rice takes a wholly modern approach on his debut major-label album. Recent radio hit "Ready Set Roll," uses the mix of rap and singing heard on hits by Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan.
Like those artists, Rice won't be heralded by tradition-loving country fans. But the huge crowds rallying behind the singer's contemporaries will find plenty to like about "Ignite The Night" and the clever ways he's found to enliven this new country trend.
-- Michael McCall
"In Motion - The Remixes" (Sparrow/Capitol)
Amy Grant never has shied away from experimentation and change. Having transformed herself from devout singer-songwriter to upbeat pop star more than 20 years ago, she now leaps from the reflective tone of recent work to the electronic dance music beat of "In Motion - The Remixes," which gives a glow-stick tweak to her catalog of hits.
A Christian music star who balances sensitive reflection with positive celebration, Grant might seem a tad wholesome for dance music's hedonistic culture. But "In Motion" proves that positive lyrics set to a wicked beat can provide the juice to quench a raver's thirst.
Some of Grant's repertoire easily adapts to the re-mix concept: Dave Aude's ramped up "Baby Baby" capitalizes on the sunny energy of the 1991 hit. Similarly, "Every Heartbeat" lends itself well to the hyper-drive of electronic duo Moto Blanco.
But other cuts required more ingenuity. Tony Moran and Warren Rigg are surprisingly sublime in retooling the emotionally layered "Stay For Awhile." The same goes for probing Grant gems like "That's What Love Is For" (by producer Chris Cox) and the more recent "Better Than A Hallelujah," which doesn't lose its tender message amid the inventive production of DJ Mark Picchiotti.
Grant has never taken the expected path -- and once again creates an unexpected triumph.
-- Michael McCall
With seven-plus years of sobriety under his belt, the original Kiss lead guitarist has recorded his best solo album since his groundbreaking self-titled album in 1978.
With walls of wailing guitars, droning feedback and snarling solos, Ace Frehley launches an old-school '70s-style hard rock jam fest. It kicks off with him talk-singing his way through the title track, about a well-intentioned extraterrestrial who comes to save the Earth, and it includes a sudden tempo change for the guitar solo just like he did on "Snowblind" and "I'm In Need of Love" on his first solo record.
"Gimme A Feelin"' is a timeless rocker, with thick guitar chords, and "I Wanna Hold You" and "What Every Girl Wants" could be melodic hits.
On "Change" and "Inside the Vortex," Frehley showcases some impressive growth as a songwriter and arranger, with complex chord progressions and melody lines.
The only weak track is a vanilla remake of Steve Miller's "The Joker" that adds nothing to the plodding original, but apparently was too much for Frehley to resist with its "Space Cowboy" intro.
-- Wayne Parry
A musician walks into a bar. A female stranger kisses him. He flees.
For Murali Coryell, this is no joke. Love-life dysfunction is a recurring theme on "Restless Mind," and luckily for us, Coryell's woes inspire warm, embracing R&B to soothe the soul music fans.
Coryell's lyrics aren't much -- the bar scene in "Crime of Opportunity" is silly, while "Sex Maniac" is worse. And the 44-year-old son of veteran jazz-rock guitarist Larry Coryell can't match his dad's instrumental chops. Few can.
But the younger Coryell's smoky tenor more than compensates. He's a Huey Lewis sound-alike who can pull off a pop burst such as "Waiting and Wasting Away," a jazzy ballad like the title cut, the blues of "I Need Someone to Love," and even the closing seven-minute cover, "Let's Get It On." While it's risky business to take on Marvin Gaye, Coryell gives the chestnut fresh fizz with an inventive vocal arrangement.
He sings a lot about heartache, but as "Let's Get It On" makes clear, Coryell has his act together.
-- Steven Wine
"Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash's Bitter Tears Revisited" (Sony Masterworks)
Throughout his career, Johnny Cash sang about the downtrodden, giving a voice to the voiceless. But his 1964 concept album, "Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian," started a new conversation about social awareness.
The collection of songs written by Cash and Peter La Farge provided strong commentary about the U.S. government's mistreatment of Native Americans. Cash's record label tried talking him out of releasing the album, fearing it would alienate his country music fan base, but his regard for speaking out against injustice was more important.
Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, The Milk Carton Kids and others transform Cash's political statement into a rootsy collection in the new album, "Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash's Bitter Tears Revisited."
Kristofferson handles the original album's biggest track, "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," with help from Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Other standout performances include Harris taking on "Apache Tears," a heartfelt version of "The Talking Leaves" with Nancy Blake supported by Harris, Welch and Rawlings, and Rhiannon Giddens' haunting cover of "The Vanishing Race."
The cover album also includes three additional tracks: reprises of "As Long as the Grass Shall Grow" and "Apache Tears," and a track left off the original called "Look Again to the Wind."
-- John Carucci
Tank made a mark in R&B over the years for earnestly pouring his heart out on ballads such as "Maybe I Deserve" and "Please Don't Go," as well as writing songs for Jamie Foxx, Aaliyah and others.
Showing passion is Tank's strong suit, but the singer lacks some of that fervor on his latest release, "Stronger." He sounds like a different version of himself on the first half of his sixth album, and that's not a good thing. On the upbeat tracks "Dance With Me" and "I Gotta Have It," he fails with simple lyrics and draggy production. "Same Way" is also an unattractive melody that lacks spirit and swagger.
But Tank finds his stride toward the end of the 10-track album, especially flourishing on "Hope This Makes You Love Me," as he looks to prove his worth to his mate. His lyrics are more fine-tuned on the smooth piano-driven songs "If That's What It Takes" and "Thanking You."
The title song is also a winner, saving Tank's album from being a total disappointment.
-- Jonathan Landrum Jr.