Review: 2 1/2 stars (Out of 4)
For his first effort in four years, Seal wraps his earnest, emotional folk-based pop tunes in the gossamer of Madonna producer Stuart Price's production, which is straight-up mid-'90s Euro-dance. Perhaps that's the stringent play-it-to-code ethic the "System" of the title refers to. The record pines for a time that, if memory serves us well, wasn't that great to begin with. It's a schizophrenic affair -- a deeply felt pop-soul collection centered on Seal's still emotionally affecting singing and yearning-tinged lyrics, with (by now) well-worn dance beats wrapped around it.
For some reason, the listener is compelled to give Seal a pass on the unresolved dichotomy at the heart of this "System." His faux-gospel folk-soul is dated, and Price's production makes it even more so. Yet there is considerable heart in this music, and if Seal is eager to maintain his relevance at the club level, who can really blame him? It worked for Madonna.
It's the text of Seal's tunes that keeps the bulk of "System" from sounding like something Chris Kattan and Will Ferrell would dance to in "A Night at the Roxbury." For the singer, this is a record centered on domestic intensity -- marriage (to model Heidi Klum), kids, the intermingling of pure joy and the fear of losing it that is that joy's mirror-image. So the weak Depeche Mode retread passing as a backing track during "Loaded" is pushed to the background by Seal's performance, which has flesh and blood enough to counter the redundant plasticity of Price's track.
Similarly, opener "If It's in My Mind, It's on My Face" boasts enough vocal edge to carry the ear past the "Ray of Light"-era Madonna nods. And if the Seal-Klum duet "Wedding Day" is almost unforgivably corny, it sounds so genuinely felt that we're willing to follow Mr. and Mrs. Seal in their journey toward the big bliss. For the four minutes it takes to listen to the tune, at least.
Seal could certainly do better. But "System" is dance music with more open heart than bouncing booty. That makes it interesting.
-- Jeff Miers
Red Carpet Massacre
Review: 3 stars
Duran Duran set themselves up for ridicule by enlisting with Timbaland, Danja and Justin Timberlake -- the team responsible for, among other mega-hits, Timberlake's "SexyBack" -- for help on their new record. This is merely a case of aging, formerly stylish poseurs attempting to align themselves with "Generation Text-Message" by hiring the Ringtone Ringmasters themselves, right? Maybe. But for the majority of Duran-squared's "Red Carpet Massacre," it sure doesn't sound like it.
If the Duranies -- Simon LeBon, John Taylor, Roger Taylor and Nick Rhodes -- were cynically going for 2007-style gold, they've certainly picked a strange collection of tunes to do so with. That, ultimately, is "Massacre's" saving grace -- it's completely wacked out, far more "Notorious" and Duran side project Arcadia than it is "Seven and the Ragged Tiger," or a blatant Timberlake rip-off. And Duran Duran has always been best when its pop is a twisted, glam-slam artifice with one foot firmly in the art-rock camp.
Timbaland and Danja bring the beats, make no mistake, and yes, Justin sings a bit, but this remains an obtuse Duran Duran album, a twisted blend of Japan and Roxy Music tropes with the effete dance-pop and Nile Rodgers-on-ecstasy funk that made the best Duran and Duran-related projects -- both Arcadia and the Power Station -- so (mostly) delightful.
Happily, it's not the cameos that make "Massacre" work. It's Duran Duran itself, revealed here in all its goofy-chic glory. This is the band's finest work in ages.
Review: 3 stars
Gabriela Montero, who will be coming to Buffalo on April 29 to take part in the grass-roots Ramsi P. Tick Memorial Concert Series, plays an interesting mix of jazz and classical music. She likes to take themes, most frequently from the Baroque era, and improvise on them. Sometimes it comes out too New Age, but sometimes it's a lot of fun.
This disc contains bracing boogies as well as contemplative, lovely takes on slow numbers, like Pachelbel's "Canon" and Handel's "Largo." I found myself wishing that almost all the selections weren't Greatest Hits, but I guess knowing the themes is central to enjoying what Montero does with them.
Also, I'm not sure if I want her riffing on Bach arias I hold sacred, so this collection is OK with me. P.S.: Ms. Montero announces on the back cover that she will be jamming live from her living room on the Internet twice monthly until further notice. Find info at www.gabrielamontero.com.
-- Mary Kunz Goldman
The Music of "Star Wars"
30th Anniversary Collector's Edition
Review: 3 stars
Odd as it seems in the infinitely commemorative world in which we live, but one of the least-celebrated anniversaries this year has probably been the 30th anniversary of "Star Wars." In observance of it, here is the ultimate presentation of John Williams' "Star Wars" music: an eight-disc set including music from all the "Star Wars" films, including rehearsals, and something called "Star Wars: The Corellian Edition," which collects, on one disc, the most familiar themes from all the films.
Wait. That's not all.
The eighth disc is a CD-ROM of all the initial disc gatefolds and posters originally packaged on the LPs. You get a full poster with it, too, as well as stickers and full notes. All of which is reminiscent of nothing so much of Mel Brooks' parody of "Star Wars" merchandising in the semi-immortal "Spaceballs" (get it now, "Spaceballs" the lunch box).
For all its fame, Williams' music for the "Star Wars" franchise is not really among his greatest film music (he was, arguably, far more creative for Spielberg than he ever was for George Lucas), which makes this undeniably gaudy and stunning set a perfect artifact only for the most died-in-the-wool "Star Wars" fans -- the ones who can tell you the name of the interplanetary cafe in the original "Star Wars" and all the characters in it, not to mention every planet in the entire series that was ever visited by Han Solo.
For them, this "collector's edition" is probably priceless.
-- Jeff Simon