Kate Bush, "Aerial"
It has been a long wait: 12 Kate-less years since 1993's indifferently received "The Red Shoes." Perhaps it was last year's Futureheads cover version of "Hounds of Love" that reminded everyone of how great Kate Bush once was; perhaps it was EMI's decision to invite "a group of journalists to the Royal Academy of Music, in London, for a one-off listen" to the new record that sent the message that, as noted by the BBC online, "this album is not to be dismissed lightly"; either way, the excitement levels around Bush's new double CD, "Aerial," are, at least among the British press, at fever pitch.
As the Guardian (five stars out of five) points out, during the dozen-year hiatus "the Kate Bush myth that began fomenting when she first appeared on Top of the Pops waving her arms and shrilly announcing that Cath-ee had come home-uh grew to quite staggering proportions." Many reviewers are thus preoccupied with just what it is that she has been up to. Having been apparently "variously reported to have gone bonkers, become a recluse and offered her record company some home-made biscuits instead of a new album," it is a relief to find that "she seems to have been doing nothing more peculiar than bringing up a son, moving house, and watching while people made up nutty stories about her." It follows, then, that the Independent (five stars out of five) should identify "a core of contented domesticity" in what it terms a "marvelous, complex work which restores Kate Bush to the artistic stature she last possessed around the time of 'Hounds of Love.'" "Aerial's" down-home theme is arguably most explicit on the song "Bertie," what the Observer calls "a gushing ode to Bush's son." As the Guardian describes it, "Bush sings beatifically of smiles and kisses and 'luvv-er-ly Bertie.'" But, the reviewer asks, has she really thought her tribute through? "You can't help feeling that this song is going to cause a lot of door slamming and shouts of 'oh-God-mum-you're-so-embarrassing' when Bertie reaches the less luvv-er-ly age of 15." And this on top of being named Bertie
Snickering aside, the Observer offers the most earnest analysis of Kate Bush's unique perspective: "With its songs about children, washing machines going 'slooshy sloshy,' Joan of Arc, Bush's mother, not to mention the almost pagan sensuality that runs through here like a pulse, 'Aerial' is, arguably, the most female album in the world, ever." This shouldn't preclude male appreciation of the album, though, as "the artistry here is so dizzying, the ambition and scope so vast, that even the deafest, most inveterate misogynist could not fail to acknowledge it."
Not that it is all effusive praise for Bush. Nearly all critics offer the caveat that, as the Observer states, "her beats are dated: unchanged since the Eighties." Remembering a time when "you sensed that Kate Bush knew a vaguely contemporary production when she heard one," the Times U.K. (three stars out of five) warms to the dated-Kate theme: "Recalling Mike Oldfield's recent attempts to rebrand himself as the clanging harbinger of 'chill out,' 'Nocturn,' a New-Agey hymn to the imminent dawn, is as unpleasant as it is unexpected." The Guardian posits that all this might be a result of Bush's seemingly blissful home life: "You can't help feeling she might have thought twice about the lumpy funk of 'Joanni' and the preponderance of fretless bass if she got out a bit more."
Unusually for a double album, critics are divided as to which of the two halves of the project is the more essential. Take the second CD: Where Rolling Stone (four stars out of five) hears "fantastically gorgeous strings, a brief smattering of Spanish guitar, one slinky protracted groove built for 'Nocturn,' and a duet of laughter and birdcalls on the throbbing title track," the Chicago Tribune finds only "an extended mood piece that nods toward Bush's British art-rock roots but then nods off into a new age bubblebath." Conversely, while the Tribune sees Bush as "more focused on the first half" of "Aerial," Rolling Stone thinks "the first disc rarely rises above a musical whisper."
While most reviewers are in concurrence that "Aerial" is an "important album" worthy of the pomp and circumstance of EMI's preview, no one seems to agree on quite why. The Observer offers a string of adjectives by way of explanation: "tearjerking, laugh-out-loud funny, infuriating, elegiac, baffling, superb and not always all that great." Billboard, meanwhile, manages to be a little more succinct: "Despite her prolonged absence, Bush sounds as vital as ever."
Kenny Chesney, "The Road and the Radio"
While the demands of domestic life apparently caused Kate Bush to take 12 years to make one album, Kenny Chesney has managed to release two records in less than 12 months -- a year that also saw the entire duration of his marriage to actress Renée Zellweger. January's "Be as You Are (Songs From an Old Blue Chair)" was an acoustic album, themed around the Caribbean vacation home at which he wrote the songs, and a departure from what Chesney is most known for: slick country-pop tunes to sing along loudly to while driving the roads of America's heartlands. As the title suggests, "The Road and the Radio" sees the country superstar returning to old ways, although not before giving the Nashville Scene a scare: "The title track opens the album with an ambient wash of synthesizer that could be the intro to a tune by indie-rockers Sigur Ros or Death Cab for Cutie."
Initial shocks aside, the Nashville Scene finds much to love on "The Road and the Radio," and reassures readers that despite having made his "most ambitious album yet," Chesney remains "a committed populist and a consummate radio star who picks songs with an ear for what will work on the air and onstage." Billboard concurs enthusiastically with this analysis: "Bottom line: This is Chesney doing what he does so very well, and his legions of fans will eat it up."
The tear-jerking ballad is an important weapon in any country radio star's arsenal, and Billboard cites, in particular, "the deeply sad leadoff single 'Who You'd Be Today'" as a fine example of this. The New York Times, meanwhile, sees the entire album as "rather subdued." Not that this is a bad thing because, "like lots of singers (and, for that matter, lots of people), Mr. Chesney is a bit more likable when he's a bit less happy, and these country-rock songs are as wistful as they are slick." Furthermore, after reading the liner notes, the Times concludes that "'Beer in Mexico' is the most melancholy song ever written during a Sammy Hagar birthday bash."
Notably missing among all this poignancy are any songs specifically about the brief Chesney-Zellweger marriage. E! Online (grade: B-) comments that "the goofy 'Tequila Loves Me (Even If You Don't)' is the closest the songwriter gets to dishing the dirt on his failed love affair" before concluding, rather disingenuously, that "frankly, that's about as close as we'd like to get."
But maybe the problem is that the four-month fling wasn't really heartbreaking enough to deserve the full country treatment. Certainly, from his recent comments on ABC's "The View," Chesney seems rather upbeat about the whole thing: Zellweger "and I fell in love like a couple of school kids. I'm glad to know that that can happen. That that exists. And we really still care about each other a lot."
Neil Diamond, "12 Songs"
What do you get if you cross easy listening's glitziest old ham with a grisly rock and rap producer most recently celebrated for his bare-bones treatment of Johnny Cash's final recordings? Why, a Diamond in the rough of course! Top marks to E! Online for spotting that screamingly obvious, but deeply satisfying, pun. Back to school for the rest of the critics who missed it.
As unlikely as it might seem, the aforementioned quip is perfectly apt to describe "12 Songs," a collaboration between Neil Diamond and Rick Rubin. Unlikely because, while cynics might see Rubin simply repeating the emotive trick he played with Cash's American recordings, and Diamond craving that project's crossover pay dirt, the Man in Black came with a certain amount of low-key gravitas already. The Man in the Sequined Jumpsuit, meanwhile well, let us just note that he recorded his seminal "Hot August Night" at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles rather than at Folsom Prison.
While acknowledging the slightly dubious concept, the critical response to "12 Songs" mostly consists of a slightly bemused thumbs-up. The Los Angeles Daily News sums up things nicely, stating that, "stripped of the fancy production and show-biz bluster" he is known for, Diamond, with Rubin's help, has made "one of the year's most unexpectedly satisfying albums." Billboard, on the other hand, eschews contemporary comparisons and assesses "12 Songs" in the context of the Diamond back catalog, finding it "arguably his best album since 1972's 'Moods,'" while observing that the record features the singer's "own guitar playing, which has not been heard on record for decades." E! Online (Grade A) also looks to Diamond's discography and concludes that Rick Rubin has pushed "the 64 year-old to reconnect with the raw folk singer-songwriter of his early days and deliver a dozen sincere, spirited, acoustic-based tunes."
If Rick Rubin's production, and Neil Diamond's "humble" acoustic guitar, have successfully banished bombast and schmaltz from the music on the "12 Songs" project, other reviewers address the spotlight this casts on the singer's lyrics. The New York Times finds the album "the ideal environment for someone confiding hard-won profundities" and approvingly notes that "two break-up songs -- the mournful 'Evermore' and the bitter 'I'm On To You' -- are both succinct and bleak." Rolling Stone (four stars out of five) goes even further, insisting that "the hushed '12 Songs' isn't easy-listening" and giving serious analysis to the thematic concerns contained in the lyrics: "The album's bulk deals with a solitary man searching for profound love in his autumn years. He's as direct as he's ever been with his lyrics, which give them an extra poignancy: In the pained break-up ballad 'Evermore,' Diamond asks in a weary, world-worn voice, 'Have we come this far to have gone astray/I've been lost before but not lost this way.'"
The Chicago Tribune offers a rare voice of dissent, complaining that "in presenting the singer as a Serious Songwriter somberly facing up to the autumn of his life and career, Rubin also does Diamond a disservice. The drama that crackles through this singer's best music is missing." Continuing in spoilsport mode, the Tribune makes the pedantic but undeniable point that "for unexplained reasons, Diamond and Rubin tack on two tracks, so that '12 Songs' is actually 14," and concludes that "it's the rocking side of early Diamond, the 'Kentucky Woman' flair, the 'Hot August Night' showmanship that '12 Songs' sorely lacks." You can't please everybody.
Finally, in the Los Angeles Times, there is a long review and interview that offers insights into the Diamond/Rubin creative process, including this on Neil's guitar playing: "'We argued about the guitar literally every day,' Diamond says, again smiling. 'I hadn't played guitar on my records since 'Cherry Cherry' and 'Kentucky Woman.' There were better guitar players around. Let me just concentrate on singing. But ultimately, I realized Rick was right. There was something different about my singing when I played guitar. It let me connect with the song in a more emotional, more personal way.'"
-- Matt Glazebrook