Paul McCartney "Memory Almost Full" (Hear Music)
Sir Paul returns with his first non-EMI product in decades and yes, it's the flagship release for the Starbucks Coffee label. Who better to start with than the 64-year-old McCartney, a safe, cutesy icon for baby boomers who still has his melodic voice largely intact, but whose lyrics and drive-through song ideas have become as convenient, predictable and bowel-cleansing as a monster blast of cappuccino.
While fans will no doubt be humming away, those hoping for Sir Paul's post-divorce "Blood on the Tracks" album will be sadly disappointed. He begins with a simplistic porch stomp built on mandolin and a metronomic bass drum ("Dance Tonight") and, for the first half, continues in a nostalgic vein showcasing his well-honed ability at cranking out saccharine-sweet pop.
About midway through, he starts taking more chances. Juggling angelic, Queenlike choral blasts with fuzzed-out rock guitar and assorted studio polish, McCartney sounds as if he wants to write sexy stadium rockers for the kids, albeit with classical flourishes. A more interesting song on the generally uneven album is "Vintage Clothes," a pop-rock hybrid about nostalgia ("Don't live in the past what we are is what we are/and what we wear") that sounds like Wings remixed by Jim O'Rourke. A meditation on his looming mortality, "The End of the End," is the most serious song here, but McCartney sounds sedated at his piano as if his memory is too full to rage, instead whistling away at the dimming of the light. Brent Baldwin
Various Artists, "Anchored in Love A Tribute to June Carter Cash" (Dualtone Music)
Throughout their long and (in the early years) tumultuous careers, June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash created music that was earnest, gritty and full of deeply felt emotion and thoughtful songwriting. This tribute album, produced by their only child, John Carter Cash, seems driven by good intentions.
But alas, the album brings together a number of big names who present sterile and slick renditions of songs better left underproduced. It opens with Willie Nelson and Sheryl Crow singing harmony on "If I Were a Carpenter," sounding as though they recorded vocals in different studios on different dates. Equally disheartening is the unfortunate matching of the voices of Kris Kristofferson and Patty Loveless, and Elvis Costello's limp take on "Ring of Fire."
The two tracks that stand out are "Wildwood Flower" and "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" traditional songs ably sung and tastefully arranged by Loretta Lynn and Dr. Ralph Stanley, respectively. Johnny and June were full of heart and fire; the same cannot be said for this album. Josh Bearman
R. Kelly, "Double Up" (Jive)
"Double Up" is nowhere near as introspective as you might expect from an artist as embattled as R. Kelly. Collaborations from Swizz Beatz, Snoop Dogg and others simply feel like artists dropping in to tell Kelly to keep his head up and oblige him with talent on lukewarm tracks.
"Tryin' to Get a Number (featuring Nelly)" fails with a melody that sounds like Nelly's "Air Force Ones" on life support. But then cuts like "Get Dirty" (featuring Chamillionaire) come on, banging a Lil John-ready groove that will likely catch up to you in some club this summer. "The Zoo" beats out "Sex Planet" and "Sweet Tooth" as the most laughable attempt at metaphor in R. Kelly's career by referring to his impending lovemaking as "monkeys swinging on vines." (This is not only a bonanza for white-power groups, but also the best reason why R&B singers should never do ecstasy and watch Animal Planet while composing).
Kels brings wit and conviction with Usher to "Same Girl," but a tribute to the Virginia Tech tragedy, "Rise Up," seems too short and out of place alongside the subject matter and sound of the rest of the album. Overall, this feels like Kelly and his attorneys flicking you (and his child pornography charges) a diamond-ring-encrusted bird, implying that R&B doesn't have to be soulful anymore, just salable. William Ashanti Hobbs
Betty Davis, "They Say I'm Different" (Light in the Attic)
Betty Davis might be too much for you. She sings about whipping her man with a turquoise chain, eating chitlins and sloppin' hogs. You probably ignored this record when it was originally released in 1974 and didn't notice when it slipped into obscurity. Betty Davis is now flat broke and living in a Pittsburgh ghetto. You should know this is partly your fault.
But you can fix this, because thanks to this rerelease, the former Mrs. Miles Davis is finally getting paid for her work. Davis was a maverick artist for her time, bragging about the absurdities of her sex life ("He Was a Big Freak") over the wah-wah guitars and thick beats usually reserved for male artists. Her voice sounds like a raw nerve, sensitive and vibrating with pain.
A softer side is only glimpsed on the mellow "Special People," which sounds like a groove Funkadelic would've traded its diapers for. Unlike the potty-mouthed singers of today, Davis' raunchy and inspired lyrics drip with a conviction and sincerity that's utterly compelling. Betty Davis has been waiting for the rest of world to catch up to her; maybe you should stop running. by Craig Belcher