When Britney Spears dropped an “open letter” declaring that her upcoming album would be “her most personal yet,” perhaps that should have been a red flag. One supposes that, when an artist is truly crafting something deeply personal to themselves, the art is likely to speak for itself. It’s not like Bob Dylan ran around telling every scribe within screaming distance that “Blood on the Tracks” was going to be his most personal album yet. It was pretty obvious that this was the case as soon as you dropped the needle into the first groove. In the case of Spears, perhaps the lady doth protest too much.
As it turns out, “Britney Jean” may be personal for its creator, but regardless, it lacks personality. Spears may indeed have “dug deeper,” as her open letter insists, but this album sounds more like a confused mermaid splashing around in shallow waters than it does a reflective artist fathoming the depths. After all, how do you “get deep” when … well, when you aren’t deep?
Was Spears ever really a leader? I think not, though it has been suggested that her marriage of teen-pop and sleazy nightclub soft-porn was somehow groundbreaking a decade back. However, even those who touted Spears as a leader in the past would have to admit upon enduring “Britney Jean” that the star of stage and checkout tabloid is chasing trends rather than forging them here.
Electronic dance music is the order of two days ago, and Spears is here to jump on its bandwagon. Similarly, club stompers with mildly esoteric sound effects are firmly Lady Gaga’s terrain by this point, which does nothing to dissuade Spears from attempting to grab them and present them as her own.
Most of the music presented here is uniformly lame – whether it’s the liberal use of AutoTune attempting to rescue the singer’s weak vocal exhortations during album opener “Alien,” the abundantly clichéd employment of electro beats flitting around Spears’ faux-Gaga whine during “Work B**ch,” or the arena-sized synths obfuscating the lack of melody during “Body Ache.” The album capsizes rather quickly, as it has taken on the weight of far too many clichés.
It’s unclear who Spears is making albums for these days. Most of her initial crowd of followers is likely to have grown up and moved on by now. And the more grown-up EDM and dance-pop fan probably will find Gaga or even Katy Perry more interesting than Spears. Bearing all of this in mind, “Britney Jean” is a tree falling in a forest with no one there to mark its fall.
– Jeff Miers
Archie Shepp and the Attica Blues Orchestra
I Hear the Sound: Live
In the dark, just before going up on stage during this 2012 concert at the Villette Jazz Festival, Martin Sarrazac’s notes to this disc tell us that the great Chicago jazz drummer Famadou Don Moye told Archie Shepp, “I had a friend and a cousin in Attica. They never came back. It could have been me; without music, it could have been me.”
The Attica prison uprising and riot took place in September 1971. Less than four months later, Shepp recorded “Attica Blues,” a strange omni-directional combination of jazz and R&B by Shepp and Cal Massey that remains one of the most memorable – if not necessarily convincing – pieces of purely topical jazz ever created. Shepp was, earlier during this period, a highly irregular member of the University at Buffalo in the Black Studies Department.
There were repeat performances of the Attica music live in France in 1979. And then, Shepp was asked to re-create it for both disc and video at jazz festivals in 2012 and 2013.
With Amina Claudine Meyers singing and on keyboards, Jimmy Owens conducting, Reggie Washington on bass and Shepp on tenor, they re-created it all with strings and a huge contingent of Parisian jazz players. The results, if you don’t mind the heresy, are a good deal less bracing than they once were but weirdly more convincing now in the full flush of passion and indignation.
What happens to Shepp under such circumstances is that you get a full, uncut blast of Shepp as more R&B musician than avant-garde saxophonist. He was a great jazz figure in his time; a truly great jazz saxophone player is another matter altogether.
But wait until you hear him sing one verse of Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday” (from “Black, Brown and Beige”) here. It’s that raw spirit that has been beautifully decorated throughout this re-creation.
– Jeff Simon
The Last Concert
A historic record and a tragic one.
It was recorded in concert Dec. 4, 1988. Thanks in no small measure to David Lynch’s hallucinatory film “Blue Velvet,” Roy Orbison had been launched into an almost entirely new career for both adoring old fans and those who had never heard his virtuoso rockabilly tenor. “The Traveling Wilburys” had put him in the company of Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty – company he more than deserved to be in and that, at long last, secured where people should always have thought of him.
He’s in great shape for this Cleveland concert. His voice live is as strong as it is in studio recordings, which are easy to soup up. His rockabilly arias (“Crying”) are astonishing. His outright rockers (“Mean Woman Blues,” “Go! Go! Go! Down the Line”) are terrific.
Sure, it’s very much a “greatest hits” show, but everyone is in exemplary shape, especially the main man himself. It’s so enjoyable you won’t even mind the saccharine synthesizer work.
Orbison had all kinds of plans for the future, according to his son Alex, including the purchase of a new Corvette.
Two days later, he was dead of a heart attack.
His musical last will and testament is a beauty. Included is a DVD of interviews and fine 1980s performances from California and Texas.
Inventions and Sinfonias
Here are 30 beautiful short Bach pieces, first 15 inventions, then 15 Sinfonias. Anyone who has studied any classical piano at all should recognize a lot of them. Simone Dinnerstein plays them all with lovely delicacy. After hearing her with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra recently, I am starting to think that is all she has. Everything is correct, every note just so, but she takes no chances, expresses nothing of herself, and on this disc, as at that performance, there isn’t much warmth. Maybe she is being restricted from lionized too soon.
The liner notes’ frontispiece is a pompous photograph titled “Simone at the Piano, Fall 1980.” There is another album called, ahem, “The Berlin Concert.” Dinnerstein is a promising pianist who got a very deserved break. She is not a legend.
In any case, and for whatever reason, the performances here are just what Bach ordered in his scholarly little introduction the liner notes prominently quote: “An Honest Guide by which lovers of the clavier … are shown a plain way, not only (1) to learn to play neatly in two parts, but also, with further progress, (2) to play correctly – and well in three obligato parts.” Dinnerstein does all of that, no more and no less. It’s a scholarly and correct album, but kind of dull.
– Mary Kunz Goldman