"I Love You," Diana Ross
Whether on Supremes classics like "Stop! In the Name of Love," or on solo disco vamps like "Love Hangover," Diana Ross' blank slate of a voice always proved itself remarkably adaptable to hit-making trends. Now a 62-year-old showbiz legend, Ross has every right -- and enough money -- to stop caring about the charts, but she (or her handlers) lacks the gumption to record the emotionally searing lioness-in-winter Diana Ross album of my fantasies. "I Love You" is merely Ross' attempt at the glossily produced classic covers record that folks like Rod Stewart have been doing so well with lately.
The album offers a tease of what could have been by opening with Harry Nilsson's sneakily cynical "Remember," which features a nicely controlled performance from Ross as she sings the line "Love is only in a dream," surrounded by some wistful woodwinds. But that hint of subversion quickly gives way to a more obvious selection of songs ("The Look of Love," "Take My Breath Away," "You Are So Beautiful") drowned in even more obvious arrangements, full of synthetic guitar and keyboard tones that belong to the strange sonic terrain between softcore porn and Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movies.
Her rendition of the Beatles' "I Will" and a take on "This Magic Moment" are the rare instances when the flow of syrup slows to a trickle, providing Ross with a humble frame more suited to her age-thinned voice than the supper club bombast of the rest of the album. I would have loved to see Ross do something like Neil Diamond did in 2005 with "Twelve Songs," when he hooked up with Rick Rubin and allowed himself to be pushed further and to dig deeper than he had in years. It revealed a more humane side to an artist that, like Ross, was prone to empty studio slickness. Maybe next time.
Favorite track: "Remember"
"State of Grace," the Holmes Brothers
The Holmes Brothers (Wendell and Sherman, along with Popsy Dixon), unlike Diana Ross, have never been able to bend to the popular will; they toiled away in obscurity for almost three decades until 1990's "In the Spirit" broke them through to a larger, though still small, audience. The Brothers' inability to hitch a ride on the hit train no doubt resulted in some lean years, but it also produced some glorious music, of which "State of Grace" is the finest example yet.
The full-throated passion of Wendell, Sherman and Popsy's voices unmistakably reveals roots in the church, but when it comes to music, the Holmes Brothers are anything but orthodox. It takes a special kind of sinner to see a stately gospel plea hiding inside Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me," or that the old Nick Lowe/Elvis Costello chestnut, "(What's So Funny 'bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," was waiting to be reborn as a slowly simmering country-soul charmer. Not everything on the album works so well -- a zydeco treatment of "Bad Moon Rising" adds nothing to the original -- but when it does, we're reminded of the value of musicians who make music rather than sell product.
Favorite track: "I Want You to Want Me"
"Here & Now," America
Golden-hued soft-rock tracks like "A Horse With No Name" and "Sister Golden Hair" helped America earn a run of early-to-mid-'70s successes, but when the hits dried up, the band disappeared to the land of bargain bins and cheap compilation albums. Now, almost 25 years after their last Top 40 hit, America are back with the two-disc "Here & Now," and they've come armed with hip young guns like Ryan Adams, My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James, and Fountains of Wayne bassist Adam Schlesinger.
As far as comebacks go, "Here & Now" is closer to "Rocky V" than "Rocky Balboa." An entirely inoffensive listen, the album makes a weak argument for the idea that America were somehow underappreciated. Aside from "Golden" -- which James and My Morning Jacket previously recorded -- and some nice lead guitar by Adams on "Ride On," the youngsters mostly stand aside and let Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell work the same comfy harmonies, sugary lyrical banalities and warm acoustic guitars you may or may not remember from their earlier records. If the album does anything, it makes you realize "A Horse With No Name" was really pretty awesome. You can find that song, and the band's other hits, on disc two.
Favorite track: "A Horse With No Name"
"The Autumn Defense," the Autumn Defense
A partnership between longtime Wilco bassist John Stirratt and his musical compadre Pat Sansone, the Autumn Defense's self-titled third record is soft all over (flutes are everywhere), but it's never weak or flabby. Nifty little touches like the gentle Brazilian groove of "This Will Fall Away" and some pizzicato strings and baroque harpsichord on "Estate Remains" help make the Autumn Defense's gentle, well-crafted record better than any album with this much flute on it has the right to be.
Favorite track: "Estate Remains"