Barbra Streisand, "Guilty Pleasures"
So Babs is back. She got some good advance press for her new album, "Guilty Pleasures," a few weeks ago when her war-themed video for the song "Stranger in a Strange Land" hit the Web and was linked to by bloggers right and left with either loathing or joy. She's also getting some mileage out of the record's lineage: Streisand and producer Barry Gibb last teamed up for the Grammy-winning album "Guilty," a fact to which the new record's title unsubtly refers.
As for the album itself? The reunion of the Funny Girl and the Bee Gee is happy to the point of being saccharine, writes the Times: "If there's such a thing as hypoglycemic bliss in pop, it is to be found on 'Guilty Pleasures,' the 25th-anniversary reunion album of Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb. The lush, celestially oriented collection, co-produced by Mr. Gibb with John Merchant, is a sustained musical sugar rush (sweeter even than their 1980 multiplatinum blockbuster 'Guilty') guaranteed to make you swoon (if your taste runs to musical Mallomars) without leaving you comatose."
The Los Angeles Times (two and a half stars out of four) finds that the album has a "something-for-everyone approach that works quite well ... sometimes." Its wide musical range takes Streisand "from Sade-like world pop to Madonna-Mariah dance-floor territory to theatrical pop ballads. But if a song is the singer's vehicle, a lot of these create the impression of Dale Earnhardt Jr. trapped behind the wheel of a Ford Escort. Streisand's magnificent instrument cries out for long stretches of road on which it can truly open up, and the conventional pop song form in which Gibb is most at home as a writer rarely gives her the long melodic straightaways and gentle curves to show us what she's truly capable of." Billboard disagrees on this point, writing "Gibb again elicits the very best from the songbird -- not only the sky-high vocal delivery that made her famous, but also a rare, indulgent playfulness," while USA Today (three and a half stars out of four) notes that "adult-contemporary pop doesn't come smoother or creamier than this collection."
Overall, the Philadelphia Daily News (B+) feels less of the pop princess and more of the throaty diva, saying, "There's a bit of that deja-vu, dance-pop, Bee-Gees feeling, but more often the set revels in Bab's mature, theatrical, balladeering nature," and Billboard chimes in by arguing that "nothing beats Streisand belting a ballad, and 'Stranger in a Strange Land' and 'Golden Dawn' are nothing less than classics." "(Our Love) Don't Throw It All Away" also comes in for special mention, being called "graceful" (USA Today) and "lovely" (Billboard). As the Times wonders, though, the album may still be trying too hard to trade on the fame of its ancestor: "The question remains: what does this style and substance mean in 2005? 'Guilty' rode the tail end of the 'Saturday Night Fever' craze. 'Guilty Pleasures' gambles on locating a nostalgic ground swell."
-- Scott Lamb
Bon Jovi, "Have a Nice Day"
When he's not lambasting recent easy target Tom Cruise, Jon Bon Jovi occasionally finds time to record an album, and most critics tend to think that New Jersey's second-favorite son does pretty well with his rock anthems. Bon Jovi's latest, "Have a Nice Day," "has a nice way of slapping a crooked grin on the grim state of mainstream rock," according to USA Today (three out of four stars). The necessary hoping-to-be-classic anthems are there, and Rolling Stone even goes so far as to say "powerhouse anthems like 'I Want to Be Loved' pack almost as much singalong potential as 'Livin' on a Prayer' did back in the day." The album's not just all Meadowland-shaking lighter-in-the-air rockers; Bon Jovi attempts some crossover appeal with the song "Who Says You Can't Go Home," a duet with country singer Jennifer Nettles of the band Sugarland. In fact, Bon Jovi will perform the song alongside Nettles and her band as part of Country Music Television's "Crossroads" series, airing throughout September.
Although they're generally pleased with the music, a point of contention among critics is the record's lyrical content. While the New York Post (three and a half stars out of four) applauds the band's new lyrical efforts -- "The band stays close to its signature sound, alternating between power ballads and arena-rock anthems, the difference lies in the intelligence of the lyrics. Bon Jovi voices political dissatisfaction and questions the illusion of fame. Interesting stuff for a band known best for hooks and good looks" -- Rolling Stone notes that "Jon Bon Jovi philosophizes like Forrest Gump in leather pants," and E! Online (C-) says the "nucklehead cuts 'Welcome to Wherever You Are' and 'Last Man Standing' make the band's cheesy '80s chart-toppers like 'You Give Love a Bad Name' and 'Wanted Dead or Alive' sound like PhD theses." E! Online ultimately concludes, "Nice Day? Bad music," but its harshest criticism is that "the title track is loaded with more clichés than a Fred Durst blog entry." A Limp Bizkit comparison? Low blow, guys. Low blow.
-- Joe Charap
Earth, Wind & Fire, "Illumination"
One of many low points for the Emmy Awards last weekend was Earth, Wind & Fire doing a duet with some members of the Black Eyed Peas to a rewritten version of EWF's "September," with the new lyrics all about TV. The bit, part of a play by Emmy producers to seem more "hip," may have failed, but that doesn't mean that EWF's similar bid for relevance on their new album suffers the same fate. "Illumination," as Billboard writes, "borrows inspiration from Carlos Santana's momentous 'Supernatural,' as its members trade vibes with like-minded practitioners of contemporary R&B/hip-hop." While this premeditated mainstream nod could be considered forced, "the best of these collaborations eloquently captures EWF's classic horn-and-harmony sound, absent the taint of forced hipness" -- like Raphael Saadiq's "sparkling" duet with Maurice White on "Show Me the Way," which was nominated for a Grammy in 2004. Other guests include Will. I. Am, Brian McKnight, Floetry, Big Boi, Sleepy Brown, and Kelly Rowland. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer (A) argues that it is precisely these collaborations that makes "this album a winner": "Talk about aging gracefully. Earth, Wind & Fire's 23rd album rekindles the excitement of the band's horn-driven funk/soul heyday, while embracing the modern world of R&B-inspired hip-hop and new soul." (One slightly terrifying detail: "Giving the album a cross-generational shot of silky smoothness is saxman Kenny G on a fabulous cover of OutKast's 'The Way You Move.'")
In a feature about the dearth of R&B groups -- as opposed to soloists like Usher and Alicia Keys -- in today's musical world, the Boston Globe disagrees with all the hype around the collaborations, saying, "what's most extraordinary is that Earth, Wind & Fire is an R&B group, in an era when such ensembles have seemingly gone out of style." Still, band member Philip Bailey wants to keep the emphasis on the new, describing the resemblance of the project to the wildly successful "Supernatural" as totally intentional: "What Santana did was a masterpiece, but it would not have gotten played the way it did without the guest artists that he had. Superstars are coupling with other artists because the playing field is so competitive now. Earth, Wind & Fire collaborating with the new soul movement made sense because the thrust of their music is still about playing instruments and utilizing vintage sounds, only in today's setting."
-- Joe Charap