Review: 1 star (Out of 4)
"Believe," Justin Bieber's second full-length album, and his first bid to be taken seriously as a post-teen, offers a glaring example of modern R&B-based pop's inability to create meaningful new fusions.
The disc pairs Bieber with a few hip-hop star cameos, drowns his voice in an absurd amount of auto-tune, and wraps it all in cliche-ridden synth patches and tired percussion loops. If Bieber's attempting to reveal his adult soul to us, well, he never had a chance. It is impossible to discern an actual musical persona. It's as if Bieber is simply the cute mascot for the corporation that is "Justin Bieber."
Much of "Believe" is cringe-inducing, and some of the record's most embarrassing moments come right off the bat in "All Around the World," a faux-electronica piece that attempts to posit Bieber as some sort of stud. Trouble is, he sounds like Mickey Mouse making a sad sales pitch to a dancer at a strip bar, and frankly, it's pretty creepy.
Bieber heavy breathing and attempting to come on like Prince during "Boyfriend"? Ridiculous. "If I was your boyfriend, I'd never let you go/I could take you places you ain't never been before," coos our hero. Really? Like where? The mall?
Later, Nikki Minaj shows up to add to the creepy factor during a head-scratching tune known as "Beauty and A Beat." The combined effect of the lite-pop dance mix backing, Bieber's helium-coated auto-tune-o-rama, and Minaj's "advertisements for myself" interjections is decidedly odd -- like Alvin of the Chipmunks doing karaoke with his quite possibly drunk big sister. It's both hilarious and gross.
Sadly, considering how terribly he comes across here, Bieber is a talented young guy. He's a decent drummer, he can dance, he can sell a song, and he can probably sing pretty well, too. Though we get no proof of this last possibility from "Believe." It is absurdly overproduced, it lacks warmth, and it represents no discernible artistic growth for Bieber. That's a shame, really, though it probably will not be much of a problem for Bieber's fans. As the old blues song song says, "the men don't know, but the little girls understand."
-- Jeff Miers
All the Way
Review: 2 1/2 stars
It can't have been easy to be a female Canadian jazz singer when the heavens opened up and suddenly appointed Diana Krall a transformative musician in the world of vernacular American music -- not just an immensely popular musician in jazz but, as a sort of female Harry Connick Jr., a hugely important figure in popular music, as much because of conspicuous visual statement as superb music.
Susie Arioli of Montreal is undergoing a major star push after a career of Canadian renown for more than a decade with many discs -- including those with her band -- to prove it. Even Wynton Marsalis seems to have blessed her, considering her scheduled appearance last Tuesday in Dizzy's Coca Cola Club at Lincoln Center.
On top of all that, she's far more eccentric than most in the thronging hordes of female jazz singers wending their way through the Great American Songbook. This is a singer, after all, who, with her band, has made a full disc of the music of homespun country wacko Roger Miller (the 2005 disc was called "Learn to Smile Again").
With all that, it would be nice to report that her latest disc in the company of longtime associate, guitarist Jordan Officer, is a great record of the Great American Songbook, but it's not. In fact, there's a reason why a colleague is sometimes wont to characterize such efforts as the latest explorations of GAS.
Her voice is usually low and warm and breathy. Her relationship to her microphone is often so intimate that it's surprising none of her musicians held an intervention during the recording session. The trouble is there's nothing remarkable or even all that notable going on here, whether it's a version of "What a Difference A Day Makes" in French (called "Un Jour de Difference") or her version of such relative songbook rarities as "There's a Lull in My Life" and "Looking for a Boy" or her loving foray into the compositional world of Jimmy Van Heusen (Sinatra's classic title tune as well as "Here's That Rainy Day" and "It's Always You").
A pleasant jazz vocal disc to be sure but no more than that.
-- Jeff Simon
Piano Sonatas III
Performed by pianist Mark-Andre Hamelin
Review: 3 1/2 stars
Haydn sonatas are a fascinating time capsule. They follow the history of the piano. As the instrument developed, so did the music Haydn wrote for it, and he was long-lived and forward thinking enough so that his sonatas tell quite a story. On the other hand, he is cooler than Mozart or Beethoven, the firebrands he influenced, and listening now, in this different era, it is hard to feel the emotion that listeners heard in his music in his time. Careful listening, though, pays off.
If there is some tiresome repetitiveness, there are also beautiful and rare chord progressions, exquisitely crafted counterpoint and other hallmarks of a first-rate master. Just the first movement of the Sonata in C Minor, which the liner notes call Haydn's "Appassionata," has all these features. The sonatas' slow movements are lovely and suggest a constrained passion. (Haydn was a romantic man considered alluring by women.) Whatever you think or feel from the music, Hamelin's playing is, as always, a delight in itself. His ornaments and trills are crisp, his pedaling perfect, the melodies flawlessly delineated.
-- Mary Kunz Goldman
Performed by Janne Rattya, accordion
Review: 3 stars
The earth moved! It wasn't the music, though, strictly speaking: It was a ripple effect from a Toronto earthquake caused by Glenn Gould rolling around in his grave. Because finally, someone has gone and done it, played Bach's "Goldberg" Variations on accordion. With alternative takes! Finnish accordionist Rattya's instrument is described as a "classical accordion" and listening to it, I envision the Mighty Wurlitzer, with colored lights jumping and flashing.
He is a flawless virtuoso and he nails the music, in a way that sometimes left me agog. Alas, there are some things he cannot fight. More mechanical than a piano, an accordion does not allow for subtlety in playing the various lines against each other. If one line dominates, it continues to dominate. Also, whatever you are playing on the accordion -- Brahms' "Vier Ernste Gesange," Britten's "War Requiem," take your choice -- it would still sound as if you are in a cafe. Rattya seems to know this, and magnifies it by throwing in a little lilt whenever he gets the chance.
But still. Something is thrilling about history's most maligned instrument taking on one of the most exalted masterpieces of all time. Also, it's just, well, fun. Though Gould might object, I do not think Bach would. What's next, the "Goldbergs" on harmonica? We can only hope.