Santana, "All That I Am"
It's an age-old pop question. You're the guitarist and frontman of a briefly successful 1960s jam band: How to keep things fresh and relevant on that difficult 38th (38th!) album? The answer, as far as Carlos Santana is concerned, is to carefully repeat the gimmick that made his 36th (36th!) record wildly popular, and his 37th rather less so. That is, to pair his trademark guitar stylings with a record company-selected, focus group-approved, genre-spanning parade of pop vocalists. Where 1999's "Supernatural" boasted Rob Thomas, Everlast and Dave Matthews, "All That I Am" offers Joss Stone, Mary J. Blige and Steven Tyler. But is this foolproof formula beginning to seem perhaps a little contrived?
Not according to the Denver Post, which finds Carlos "as humble and spiritual as ever." The Guardian (two stars out of five) is less convinced, pointing out that "All That I Am" often sounds like "the world's greatest latin-rock guitarist jamming along to the radio." Not that this should be a problem, because, if the Los Angeles Times (two and a half stars out of five) is to be believed, "Carlos Santana could jam along to your cellphone's ring tone and make it sound meaningful." Rolling Stone continues on the "Carlos will strum along to anything" theme, imagining him as a sort of house guitarist at a "bumpy high school talent show."
If most critics are wise to the cynical ploy behind "All That I Am's" box-checking collaborations, the crucial "Is the album any good?" factor rests on the perceived chemistry with the various guests. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer lustily recommends the "lovelorn power ballad 'Just Feel Better,' where Santana's warm, bluesy cascades meet with Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler's deliciously rugged voice." Rolling Stone disagrees about "Just Feel Better" ("so histrionic it is likely to make you feel worse"), but instead gets hyped up about the presence of Black Eyed Pea Will.i.am on "I Am Somebody." Noting that the rapper ups the stakes by throwing down an "intense hook" and a "message of affirmation that just feels plain good," the magazine comes across all Tenacious D in its praise: "You can tell this one has some juice by the way the wily Santana responds, with guitar thunderbolts."
-- Matt Glazebrook
Trey Anastasio, "Shine"
After 13 years as the most recognizable face of the jam band juggernaut that was Phish, it's little surprise that Trey Anastasio's first solo effort since the group went belly up last year is being compared first and foremost to his own former work. That "Shine" is more poppy than any Phish album is beyond doubt (it could never be any more jammy); the question reviewers seem to have is whether the new, hook-laden incarnation is an example of a man casting off the shackles of stardom and finding his true self, or just a musician straying too far out of his area of competence. Billboard falls enthusiastically into the first category, saying, "On his first solo album since the 2004 breakup of Phish, Trey Anastasio focuses on succinct songwriting and clever hooks instead of the elaborate pieces and endless improvisation for which the seminal jam band was celebrated." The Boston Globe invites Phish devotees to get aboard the new Trey train, gushing that "it's a sweepingly upbeat record that should prompt open-minded fans to shout a hearty congratulations. Appropriately, the new CD is called 'Shine.'" E! Online (grade: C) wholly disagrees, even with the title: "'Shine'? Um, not so much. Though not terrible, Trey Anastasio's latest is miles below what he's done before, both on his own and with his former jam band, Phish." And where Billboard writes that he sounds "comfortable in his own skin" and the Globe thinks "fans who appreciate the tougher side of Anastasio's muse are going to revel in this music," E! sees only bland pablum: "'Come As Melody' is so awkward sounding we just can't get over it. But the worst offensive is the album's overly slick feel, with such tunes as 'Invisible' sounding as if they've been polished within an inch of their life."
Even the positive reviews of the album are tinged with some criticism, as though Anastasio needed to do something completely different from Phish before really embarking on his own. Rolling Stone is very conditional in its embrace of the album: "On Shine, uptempo cuts such as the easy-rolling title track are shored up by Anastasio's spicy guitar work, natch, but also by Rage Against the Machine producer Brendan O'Brien ... Elsewhere, Anastasio -- a financially secure father of two -- sounds a bit too content for his own good, dropping cheese-ball poetry on 'Love Is Freedom' and the acoustic closer 'Love That Breaks All Lines.' Those musings are like the gentle reassurances of an old friend -- one without too much to say." The Los Angeles Times senses a wee bit of complacency as well: "His lyrics are dependably humane and too often bland, but it's the music here that flows and flows, allowing this formidable guitarist a mid-career escape from an extremely lucrative rut."
Whatever the listeners think, it's clear Anastasio himself hopes the record marks the beginning of a new musical life, telling Reuters in an interview that he got some sage words from Bruce Springsteen during recording. "As soon as you become celebrated for something, that's the point where it becomes crystallized," the Boss told him. "And that's when you have to change." Anastasio took the words seriously: "In your heart you feel like you're doing the right thing, because, ultimately, honesty is your gift to these people who are willing to listen to your music. Changing is part of that. You've got to change, and that's hard."
-- Scott Lamb
Burt Bacharach, "At This Time"
You know things are going south when smiley, happy lounge-meister Burt Bacharach is getting depressed. "Things are getting really bad," he tells the the New York Daily News. "Young men and women are dying in an unwinnable war in Iraq, there's Hurricane Katrina, and this President shows so little empathy. I'm scared for the future." It's this sense of angst that fuels a lot of the music on Bacharach's newest, "At This Time," as the New York Times notes in its (only four-sentence long) review: "The windows of the world are covered with rain in Burt Bacharach's new album of downbeat mood music with vocals. The suite of 11 new Bacharach songs composed in his signature Wagnerian lounge style announces that the world has gone to hell in lumpy original lyrics he wrote with Tonio K." (Most reviews can't refrain from punning -- USA Today [three and a half stars out of four] opens with the favored "What the world needs now" joke -- but the irony, of course, is that Bacharach didn't write the lyrics he is famous for.) This isn't to say the album is all dour frowns, writes Billboard, as "his trademark melodicism and gorgeous arrangements remain intact."
Bacharach collaborated with Dr. Dre on a few tracks, and the song "Who Are These People," done with longtime friend Elvis Costello, gets praise from a number of writers -- it's called "a plaintive highlight" (USA Today) and "most arresting" (Billboard). Dre's appearance is clearly meant to lend some street cred to the record, but it also signals a shift of aesthetic concern, as the Independent writes: "At 77, Austin Powers's spiritual father has suddenly gone hardcore, dressing hip-hop loops hatched by 50 Cent and the Eminem producer Dr Dre with biting, self-penned lyrics that take the Bush administration to task." Other guests include Rufus Wainwright, Prinz Board (of the Black Eyed Peas) and producer Denaun Porter.
If the combination of political lyrics and rap beats makes the album difficult to imagine as Bacharach's work, the N.Y. Daily News has perhaps the best summation of its sound: "'At This Time' is an odd beast, comprising seven long suites, which often have the abstraction of instrumental mood pieces. They're broken up by vocal sections that waft in and out, often at the least likely moments." As Bacharach tells the Independent: "I'm just being honest about this reflective time in my life. Other people can write what they feel in their Newsweek column, but I put it in my music. I won't get on stage with the Buffalo Philharmonic [with whom he plays this weekend] and say something derogatory about Bush, but my feelings are on the album." Bacharach has been talking with a lot of outlets in the publicity push for the album, but there's a nice, long interview over at All About Jazz that seems worthy of highlighting: "All my life, I've written love songs. And you know what's involved, hearts being broken, you know? Relationships. 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart,' you know what I mean, you can go down the list, you know? ... But this image from this writer was: These are still love songs about being broken-hearted, about hearts being broken. But instead of another person, the relationship breaking your heart, it's the situation: The war."
-- Scott Lamb