Willie Nelson, "You Don't Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker"
Cindy Walker is a Texan songwriter who attained cultural importance, if not popular fame, writing hits for groups like Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Willie Nelson grew up listening to Wills, and there is a sense of a return to familiar territory with "You Don't Know Me," the legendary country singer's first release since last year's album of reggae covers, "Countryman."
It's good to be back, apparently. Singing Walker's country standards with a minimal backing group including a former Texas Playboy, Nelson "has rarely sounded more comfortable in his skin," according to Billboard. As far as Pop Matters (eight out of 10) is concerned, this "comfort -- with the songs, their milieu, and their emotions -- is no doubt part of what makes his renditions shine so bright." Rolling Stone joins in with the chorus welcoming Nelson back to doing what he does best: "He sounds forlorn, but he also sounds like a man who has come home." Only All Music (three-and-a-half out of five) gives it a cautious reception, with worries that "the very casualness of the performances ... makes this a little bit less than a major record." There are no such concerns for the Orlando Sentinel (five stars out of five), which observes that while Nelson could indeed "do these songs in his sleep," he never "lets his exceedingly off-hand style slip into carelessness."
Devo 2.0, "Devo 2.0"
You're the members of a hugely influential '80s art-punk troupe best known for darkly satirizing consumer culture and the supposed "de-evolution" of modern society through robotic electro pop -- how best to reintroduce yourself to an unsuspecting pop landscape in 2006? For the members of Devo, the answer is to rerecord a bunch of your hits with preteen kids providing vocals and release the result on, of all things, the Disney record label.
For Devo co-founders Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh, this unique way of relaunching the group isn't actually so strange: "At one point, we even thought about sending out a couple of different groups as Devo. When Disney came to us about doing a children's record, we thought, 'Why not put together a kids' band?'" And the fact that Disney censored lyrics isn't, apparently, a problem either: "If the kids listen to Devo 2.0 they may eventually seek out Devo albums and wonder why the lyrics were changed," Mothersbaugh tells the San Francisco Chronicle. So, are we talking high-concept subversion or corporate sellout?
Stylus Magazine (grade C+) agonizes over the question before offering one of its own: "Are all these questions beside the point because Casale and Mothersbaugh have produced something both funny and unsettling, just like the original Devo?" Rolling Stone, on the other hand, refuses to engage in any high-minded debate, calling the project "pointless," while Billboard takes the whole thing at face value, concluding, "This endeavor works as fun, electro pop for the tween generation."
Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan, "Ballad of the Broken Seas"
For many reviewers, the very fact of a collaboration between delicate one-time Belle and Sebastian vocalist and cellist Isobel Campbell and hard-living, ex-grunge hero Mark Lanegan is entertainment enough: "This sounds like the plot of a Disney movie -- or a porn film," offers E! Online (grade B+). "Baby-faced Isobel Campbell wanders off from her cozy Scottish environs and meets up with the raspy, tattooed former Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan," the Web site says. "Even as a lonely hearts ad it sounds unlikely: ethereal Scottish chanteuse seeks grunge rocker for long-distance one-night stand," comments the Guardian (three stars out of five), before suggesting that this is "the most unlikely fling since Nick Cave convinced Kylie to sing a murder ballad."
The project took shape in a manner as unconventional as the pairing, with the two artists countering their geographical dislocation by exchanging vocal and musical components via mail and FedEx. For the Los Angeles Times (three stars out of four), this results in Campbell and Lanegan sounding "disappointingly disconnected from each other." E! Online, by contrast, contends that "the music is as fine as the pairing is strange." Pitchfork Media (rating 7.2) provides another thumbs-up, stating that the record "manages to be consistently engaging and sufficiently memorable without making too much fuss about it." Dusted magazine, meanwhile, is happily ambivalent: "In the end, there is nothing too paradigm-shifting to be found here, just a nice genre pastiche from two unique talents who won't disappoint their fans."
-- Matt Glazebrook