The 2nd Law
(Warner Bros.)
4 stars
It’s the end of the world as we know it (again), and Matt Bellamy of Muse feels fine.
So fine that he’s done gone and penned a gloriously over-the-top concept-ish album of epic, bombastic rock tunes documenting those end times, and leaning on the second law of thermodynamics – entropy, basically, or the concept of things burning too bright and too hot for too long, and ultimately burning out – for a bit of help in the verisimilitude department.
If this sounds grim to you, kick that notion to the curb right alongside the paper and plastic you didn’t bother to recycle this week cuz, really, who has time? No, Bellamy, the helium-throated Brit, is not trying to bum you out too much. Otherwise, he and his bandmates in Muse – bassist Chris Wolstenholme and drummer Dominic Howard – wouldn’t have bothered to fill “The 2nd Law” with so much audio giddiness. Fiddling on the roof while the city burns below, and all of that.
Rather than coming off all po-faced and “I told you so,” the 2012 edition of Muse is instead busy smirking, raiding the mini-bar and slurring “I told you so,” though you can’t necessarily hear what they’re saying, because the boombox is too loud. That makes a considerable difference.
I am not the first scribbling hack to point out Bellamy’s Queen obsession, but here, instead of imagining every single tune dressed in the sartorial splendor of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” he and the guys are dressing up to do the funky “Dragon Attack” (“Panic Station,” a downright groove-alicious ode to existential breakdown) and “Hot Space”-era “Freddie Mercury in full moustache” techno-pop (“Madness”). There’s an ineffable joy here – ineffable because finding joy in dissolution is not, well, normal.
Don’t worry, Muse fans – the boys can still slap on the furrowed brow and get seriously prog-rock whenever they feel like it, and they feel like it plenty here. Check out the earnest, operatic “Survival,” the Radiohead-esque “Animals,” or the brutally beautiful and unabashedly ridiculous “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable” for proof.
Yeah, humankind, we’ve pretty much made a massive mess of what we’ve been given. But this new Muse album is completely awesome! It’s a Band-Aid on a raging hemorrhage, certainly, but hey, I’ll take it!
– Jeff Miers

3 stars

The last truly outstanding studio album from Kiss was delivered in 1977. It arrived in the form of the both shamelessly and hilariously dubbed “Love Gun.” In the time since, there have indeed been high points – parts of “Creatures of the Night,” “Revenge,” even “Carnival of Souls” and the most recent “Sonic Boom,” have had their hints of the old sleazy majesty. But Kiss has been trading on the past for decades by now, something the band has been able to pull off because it is still amazing in concert.
“Monster” may not be as deliciously disgusting as “Rock and Roll Over” or even “Hotter Than Hell,” but it is easily the strongest record the band has made since the original lineup – Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss – first split up, some 30 years back.
The album’s main strength is its lack of fussiness and self-importance. This is the sound of the band playing live in the studio with a minimum of overdubs – mostly guitar solos and “gang” vocals – and very little outside influence. There are no co-writers – hallelujah!– and Stanley has handled the production largely on his own. So the guitars are raw, old-school, loud in the mix, unsweetened.
Guitarist Tommy Thayer and drummer Eric Singer, who have been filling in for Frehley and Criss on stage for a good while now, finally come into their own in the studio – particularly Thayer, who spits gnarly pentatonic solos all over the 45 minutes it takes “Monster” to make a case for itself.
The opening trio of “Hell Or Hallelujah,” “Wall of Sound” and “Freak” is sturdy, vintage-style Kiss. Simmons and Stanley share the lead vocals, and both sound better than their ages might suggest. At least as significantly, the guitar, bass and drum sounds are properly vintage – consistently employing the no-frills Gibson-through-Marshall tone the group relied on throughout the ’70s, to often stunning effect.
The lyrics, too, are vintage Kiss – they’re about sex, how awesome it is to be in Kiss, and occasionally, how awesome it is to have sex while being in Kiss. Which is exactly what we should expect from Simmons and Stanley. There’s life in this old beast yet, it seems!
– Jeff Miers

Elizabeth Shepard
3 stars

It’s Elizabeth Shepard’s version of “Poinciana” that is especially favored by Toronto’s splendid CJRT-FM (91.1) these days – an irresistible jazz favorite since Ahmad Jamal’s classic version (a permanent lesson for all overly busy musicians in the creative use of musical space) but, before that, an MOR radio favorite in the first transitional rock era in its version by the now all-but-forgotten Caterina Valente.
The sweet, girlish-voiced Canadian singer does it as a bossa nova duet with guitarist Reg Schwager and it’s completely irresistible. But then it’s very difficult not to be charmed by almost every bit of this disc, which, said the singer, was begun in the recording studio at almost the same moment she found out that she was pregnant with her daughter, Sanna.
It’s hard not to be charmed – at least a little – by Shepard’s explaining that so much of the classic familiarity of the repertoire was chosen to “connect me to an aspect of myself that wasn’t changing as every other piece of my being was.” She’s a sweet and sensitive singer, longer on appeal than aggressive presence, but she’s also a creative one who likes spare textures (full of prominent bass playing) and, for every standard like “Born to Be Blue,” “Midnight Sun,” “Prelude to a Kiss” and Cannonball Adderly’s “Sack of Woe,” a rarity like Kurt Weill’s “Lonely House” and Gershwin’s “Buzzard Song” from “Porgy and Bess” (given an especially eerie, even ominous treatment, full of earth tones and hollow knocks from the bass).
– Jeff Simon

“Cinderella,” Collector’s Edition
(Walt Disney Records)
3 and 1/2 stars

The soundtrack to Disney’s 1948 “Cinderella” doesn’t hold up as easily on its own as “Mary Poppins” or “Pinocchio.” You sit through a lot of orchestral goofiness meant to accompany some shenanigans on screen. Plus the Mice Chorus dominates (it’s what people remember most). But there is a lot that’s lovable about this disc.
The overture conjures up the ’40s as no photograph is able to do, with yearning, shimmering strings, and then the chorus singing “Cinderella! Cinderella! Though you’re dressed in rags, you wear an air of queenly grace ...” Definitely a gentler era. “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” is a sweet ballad, and the Fairy Godmother’s song, “Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo” still has bounce.
“So This Is Love,” the “Cinderella Waltz,” is so lovely. Even orchestral interludes have moments of interest. A quote from Rodgers and Hart’s “My Romance” can’t have been an accident.
The disc also includes “Lost Chords,” songs cut from the movie. Some are by the show’s songwriters, Mack David, Al Hoffman and Jerry Livingston. One of them is “I’m in the Middle of a Muddle,” a song Cinderella sings about work that was seen as too much complaining. Other discarded songs are by Larry Morey and Charles Wolcott, including “I Lost My Heart at the Ball,” which was perhaps too sophisticated. And “Sing a Little, Dream a Little,” which I found preachy, though it was cut because it was too much like “Whistle While You Work,” from “Snow White.” Notes give insights into how Disney minds worked, why certain songs were retained and others were not. There are going to be more of these “Lost Chords” discs. I can’t wait.
– Mary Kunz Goldman