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Wonderful Crazy Night
Wonderful Crazy Night
Price: $9.55
121 used & new from $3.49

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Joy Is a Wonderful Thing, February 5, 2016
This review is from: Wonderful Crazy Night (Audio CD)
It wasn’t a bad record – as a matter of fact, it was anchored by a handful of tunes among the best of his career – but 2013’s "The Diving Board" was something of a snoozer for Elton John, a classy, elegiac listen that felt important and serious, although not necessarily fun. The Rocket Man seems to have gotten the message that it was not what the public wanted. 2016’s "Wonderful Crazy Night" finds him moving 120 mph in the opposite direction without a trace of subtlety, and enough moments groove and sizzle with appropriate finesse to convince those who miss the levity of 70s and 80s Elton that this is a return to form.

The full-bodied sound of the Elton John Band, anchored by longtime stalwarts Nigel Olsson and Davey Johnstone, makes a welcome return after two albums rather starkly recorded with session musicians. Their rejoining the fold is apt for an album that makes no bones about courting neon lights and sour candy colors. They rise to the objective with grace and professionalism.

Lead single “Looking Up” is an obvious example, a difficult-to-turn-off swashbuckler anchored by a spirited solo that is vintage EJ, and the itchy, restless “Claw Hammer” follows suit with a mercurial melody filled with lilting textures and grooves that draw no comparison to anything else in John’s catalogue, topped off with an unexpected, buttery horn section. “In the Name of You” benefits from a similar driving swagger.

The handclap-filled “Guilty Pleasure” is a rousing, ebullient highlight that makes it clear John and producer T-Bone Burnett have been inspired by Mumford and Sons. Joy and freedom abound in John’s vocal performance, a characteristic that applies to the bulk of the album.

“Blue Wonderful” achieves something thoroughly remarkable – it sounds like a classic Elton John love ballad while also seeming an adventurous stretch of his artistic imagination, aided by lyricist Bernie Taupin’s free-form, surprisingly straightforward lyric. John’s voice nearly cracks with emotion as he sings the opening verses. The hook is instantly memorable and unshakably warm. “A Good Heart” continues this strong current of optimistic, soothing songcraft.

“Wonderful Crazy Night” stands up to John’s best albums from the 80s, where the stronger tunes stand out and those remaining fill out the proceedings in classy, highly listenable fashion. The difference is that the sound here is rich, unadorned, fresh and made to last, with an adventurous, hungry musician’s spirit plastered all over the arrangements, making even more meditative pieces such as “The Open Chord” uniquely intriguing. It is also his sunniest album to date, with the possible exception of his soundtrack to “The Road to El Dorado.”

It’s fair to say John doesn’t break new ground here, but more than 30 albums into his career he doesn’t have to pretend to. His enthusiasm and drive to record strong songs is remarkable, especially when many of his peers rest on their laurels or bathe in nostalgia. Nearly 50 years after his debut, “Wonderful Crazy Night” finds John still a vital, entertaining force.


Rebel Heart [Deluxe Edition][Explicit]
Rebel Heart [Deluxe Edition][Explicit]
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8 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars She Came. She Saw. She Conquered., March 11, 2015
Critics and listeners who have written off Madonna's recent albums, even with casual dismissal, are listening for the wrong thing - the sound of the past. In many cases, that means the sound of their childhood. For that, you stick with greatest hits compilations.

Madonna is an artist who looks forward, not backward, and "Rebel Heart" continues with experimental genre mashes and innovative soundscapes that push her into the future and prove her relevance is unabated without any kowtowing to current gimmicks or trends.

“Living for Love” ingratiates itself with repeated play, melding elements of house, soul and pure pop to create one of the funkiest – and strongest – lead singles of her career. It is also the album’s most danceable moment, placing “Rebel Heart” starkly in contrast to her more recent LPs with their surplus of club-ready confections. "Rebel Heart" often harks back to her 90's glory days where gorgeously executed Madonna ballads were a frequent – and welcome – occurrence.

Second single “Ghosttown” is one of the best such ballads, with its dystopian imagery, stark romanticism and huggably warm melody, anchored by a particularly stirring vocal. “Inside Out” flits in and out of chunky, haunting beats with evocative, downright steamy lyrics and a golden melody that is one of her best in recent memory, while “Veni Vidi Vici” (on the deluxe LP) slips between smooth pop verses, addictive vocal coos and witty self-references, sandwiched between powerful interjections from Nas.

Madonna also reveals her tender side on “Hold Tight” and “Joan of Arc,” the latter of which veers back and forth from simple guitar and vocals as the Queen of Pop wraps her throat around phrases such as “I’m only human” and “Hold me while I cry my eyes out” – words which humanize an icon who more typically embodies resolute strength and stoicism. The results of such vulnerability flatter her greatly, coming off both sincere and eminently graceful.

She also has her fun, naturally. The deceivingly sweet “Body Shop” is a feather-light, buoyant piece of pure pop that benefits from rambunctious – and numerous – vehicular metaphors, while “Holy Water” is unrepentant, literal, saucy and in-your-face – that is to say, so Madonna. Nicki Minaj concurs on the teasingly cheeky “B**ch, I’m Madonna.”

“Rebel Heart” proves Madonna is still as hungry as ever to rechristen herself as the years go by. Even if the hooks don’t have quite that bubble-gum-stickiness that they did in her early days, they are still populous and, if anything, now benefit from added individuality and panache. More than thirty years into a career, seemingly with nothing to prove, she still has an unceasing, restless creative spirit. What an attractive spirit is is.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 12, 2015 6:00 AM PDT


YES!
YES!
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26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars You Can Rely On Him, July 15, 2014
This review is from: YES! (Audio CD)
Cool as a cucumber and fit as a fiddle, Jason Mraz is back again crafting what is by now his signature security-blanket pop on his excellent fifth studio album "Yes!"

Thanks to the songstresses of Raining Jane, with whom he collaborates for most of the record, Mraz sounds nearly as earnest and fresh as he did when he first hit worldwide charts (and hearts) in 2003. This is particularly assuring, coming as it does on the heels of 2012's "Love Is a Four-Letter Word," an effort that, while certainly strong and tuneful, found him hitting something of an creative wall. Now he sounds utterly relieved of any burden to craft hits or to maintain any sort of image, and the music itself is similarly free and easy.

Mraz's criminally underrated voice hasn't changed a bit in a decade - for all of its strength, able to employ low, dusky warmth one minute and octave-stretching power the next, he still has the vocal coloring of a doe-eyed high school graduate ready to take on the world. This suits his utterly uncynical style to a tee, as evidenced on "Back to the Earth" or the genuinely touching "You Can Rely On Me." One of Mraz's greatest assets is the natural reassurance and comfort of his presence, and "Yes!" contains many songs that bring that quality to the forefront.

"Love Someone" has an insistent hook that ingratiates itself more with repeated listening. The same goes for "Hello You Beautiful Thing," one of the best slices of radio-friendly pop he has ever crafted - its fancy-free ease and lack of concern for conventional song structure is the classic Mraz that was mostly missing from the previous LP.

"Long Drive" and "Everywhere" have the power to satisfy radio programmers looking for hits and listeners who say Mraz's studio efforts are overproduced. The latter has an ethereal, spacious atmosphere that at once sets it apart from his other material, utilizing his lyrical strengths with a drivingly catchy melody, while the former ruminates romantically over a soothing chorus that laps gently up and down like waves on the shoreline.

Mraz also radiates genuine heartache with Boyz II Men's "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday." The song is as much an optimistic look toward tomorrow as it is a bittersweet moment of taking stock - it ideally sits among the album's original songs.

Sounding relaxed and yet invested is a rarity that Mraz pulls off in spades on "Yes!" If it is not exactly a return to form (he never lost it) then it is a return to making music for the simple, pure pleasure of craft without any concession to mass appeal or pressure to make hits. Song after song exudes grace, wisdom and a melody stronger and more surprising than the last.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 12, 2014 8:52 PM PDT


Me. I Am Mariah...The Elusive Chanteuse
Me. I Am Mariah...The Elusive Chanteuse
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Out of the Cocoon, Diva Spreads Her Wings Anew, May 27, 2014
Mariah Carey takes flight with a grand resurgence on the long-awaited "Me. I Am Mariah...The Elusive Chanteuse," with comfortable finesse, radio-ready records, solid album cuts and, of course, that generation-defining voice known the world over.

Although 2009's "Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel" was filled with tuneful, catchy songs, the album itself lacked variety and scope. This time Carey veers between several different styles without losing focus or sounding scattered. Hopscotching from swashbuckling retro dance floor throwbacks ("Meteorite") to gospel-infused soul ("Heavenly," the astounding "Cry.") to classic pillow-padded balladry ("You're Mine"), she keeps the proceedings invigorating and rapturous.

Importantly, she proves without a doubt she's still got the enemy-vanquishing pipes without pounding the message home - this set of tunes may be the classiest and most understated of her career.

The guest spots are fabulous. Wale sizzles on "You Don't Know What To Do," and Carey's energetic vocal is spot-on, seizing and funky. It is a song that absolutely cries out to climb to the top of the charts by summer's end. Similar can be said of the infectious "Dedicated," which rides atop an instantly memorable beat. Nas - every bit the music industry vet that Carey is - ideally assists her in (quite deliberately) evoking nostalgia. It sounds like an early 90s R&B crossover hit in the best way possible.

Mariah and Fabolous also have another potential hit on their hands with "Money." After a mercurial verse/rap structure and atmospheric arrangement it settles into a creamy, delicious chorus, each instrument and beat focusing attention. "Thirsty" is also a likely radio contender with its insistent rhythm, coolly leaving Carey's million dollar high register largely out of the mix in favor of clipped, rueful attitude as she dismisses an unworthy hanger-on and reclaims her throne - after all, the spotlight ain't big enough for two, and there's only one Mariah.

Some of the tunes call less attention to themselves. "Camouflage" has the feel of one of Carey's soul-searching interludes from prior albums, and while it disrupts the flow of the record, it showcases her voice with gorgeous, meticulous production values. Where the album is less successful, such as on the offspring cameo-featuring "Supernatural" (a companion to the lackadaisical "The Impossible" from the last record), it is endearing and highly listenable - and a banging hit is just around the corner.

Carey is back in a big way with "...Chanteuse." She has never sounded so relaxed, relieved of the often stifling need to come up with a blockbuster single. The glass-shattering voice and intelligent songwriting are not only still in abundance, but they are informed by a clearly increasing maturity that does wonders for a diva of Carey's insurmountable stature. This is an album that will satisfy fans in every demographic - and "...Chanteuse" reminds us why she has so many of them.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 27, 2014 4:59 AM PDT


Me. I Am Mariah...The Elusive Chanteuse
Me. I Am Mariah...The Elusive Chanteuse
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Price: $10.51
89 used & new from $3.80

15 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Out of the Cocoon, Diva Spreads Her Wings Anew, May 27, 2014
Mariah Carey takes flight with a grand resurgence on the long-awaited "Me. I Am Mariah...The Elusive Chanteuse," with comfortable finesse, radio-ready records, solid album cuts and, of course, that generation-defining voice known the world over.

Although 2009's "Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel" was filled with tuneful, catchy songs, the album itself lacked variety and scope. This time Carey veers between several different styles without losing focus or sounding scattered. Hopscotching from swashbuckling retro dance floor throwbacks ("Meteorite") to gospel-infused soul ("Heavenly," the astounding "Cry.") to classic pillow-padded balladry ("You're Mine"), she keeps the proceedings invigorating and rapturous.

Importantly, she proves without a doubt she's still got the enemy-vanquishing pipes without pounding the message home - this set of tunes may be the classiest and most understated of her career.

The guest spots are fabulous. Wale sizzles on "You Don't Know What To Do," and Carey's energetic vocal is spot-on, seizing and funky. It is a song that absolutely cries out to climb to the top of the charts by summer's end. Similar can be said of the infectious "Dedicated," which rides atop an instantly memorable beat. Nas - every bit the music industry vet that Carey is - ideally assists her in (quite deliberately) evoking nostalgia. It sounds like an early 90s R&B crossover hit in the best way possible.

Mariah and Fabolous also have another potential hit on their hands with "Money." After a mercurial verse/rap structure and atmospheric arrangement it settles into a creamy, delicious chorus, each instrument and beat focusing attention. "Thirsty" is also a likely radio contender with its insistent rhythm, coolly leaving Carey's million dollar high register largely out of the mix in favor of clipped, rueful attitude as she dismisses an unworthy hanger-on and reclaims her throne - after all, the spotlight ain't big enough for two, and there's only one Mariah.

Some of the tunes call less attention to themselves. "Camouflage" has the feel of one of Carey's soul-searching interludes from prior albums, and while it disrupts the flow of the record, it showcases her voice with gorgeous, meticulous production values. Where the album is less successful, such as on the offspring cameo-featuring "Supernatural" (a companion to the lackadaisical "The Impossible" from the last record), it is endearing and highly listenable - and a banging hit is just around the corner.

Carey is back in a big way with "...Chanteuse." She has never sounded so relaxed, relieved of the often stifling need to come up with a blockbuster single. The glass-shattering voice and intelligent songwriting are not only still in abundance, but they are informed by a clearly increasing maturity that does wonders for a diva of Carey's insurmountable stature. This is an album that will satisfy fans in every demographic - and "...Chanteuse" reminds us why she has so many of them.


Kiss Me Once
Kiss Me Once
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Price: $5.84
119 used & new from $0.01

23 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Kiss Her Once? Don't Mind If I Do., March 18, 2014
This review is from: Kiss Me Once (Audio CD)
A veritable soufflé of one bite more delectable than the last, Kylie Minogue's "Kiss Me Once" is the work of a diva not only perfectly in her element but relaxing and reveling in it.

Between upscale calls to the dance floor, fist-pumping anthems and quiveringly sexy slow-jams, Kylie manages to offer the pure candy corn pop listeners have come to expect, yet with a chilled, liberated atmosphere that ultimately adds up to an album with a burnish and feel entirely distinct from the past eleven she's made.

The only listeners who will find filler on this record are rock critics and music snobs - not the audience Kylie has ever made any pretense of courting in the last 15 years. This is celebratory, feelgood pop of the finest vintage, with world class arrangements and performances.

Pharrell Williams, who recently proved with Gloria Estefan that he knows how to craft unshakeable tunes tailor-made for reigning pop divas, contributes the giddy "I Was Gonna Cancel," one of the LP's most impressive moments. The cute, freewheeling "Sexy Love" contrasts with the downbeat, slinky R&B of "Feels So Good." The synth-heavy "If Only," in common with the title track, harks back to the joyful, jittery sound of late 80s pop. They sound like Tiffany (or, early Kylie) in the best way possible.

Second single "Beautiful" is a tad overproduced and a touch too languid - despite being a duet with Enrique Iglesias, who complements Minogue well, the deliberately cool arrangement definitely obscures the personality of their vocals to a degree - yet it will likely find favor with audiences with its sentimental content and strong melody.

"Million Miles" is fated to burn up the club charts with its irrepressible chorus and ingenious production values. Its lyrical content (the isolation of looking for depth in a sea of anonymous pleasures) is deftly achieved without sacrificing the fun of the sun-kissed beats and thunderous chorus. It's every bit as single-worthy as "Into the Blue," which is state of the art pop craftsmanship at its very best - both are mature, classily-executed and hook into Kylie biographically without being glaringly obvious. The result is perfectly rapturous.

Kylie has looked as of late like someone celebrating her 25th birthday, not her 25th anniversary in the music industry, and the sounds of "Kiss Me Once" correspond to that - youthful, free-spirited, uninhibited and out for a good time. Its contents could - and should - pour out of speakers in SUVs, clubs and shopping malls for a good, long while. It's unapologetic escapism at its purest and most listenable, and Kylie proves here she still holds the corner on that market.


Artpop
Artpop
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Price: $4.92
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75 of 112 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This Lady Deserves an Ovation, November 11, 2013
This review is from: Artpop (Audio CD)
Lady Gaga keeps the momentum going strong on her adventurous roller coaster of a third album. "ARTPOP" is a giddy, swirling, unfailingly intriguing look through her singular and ever-surprising mind. It is often clever, sometimes eyebrow-raising and always entertaining - descriptions which befit the songstress herself.

Rather than simply deliver a collection of chart-aimed retreads of past pop-savvy hits (no one would complain to hear a "Poker Face" or "Love Game" soundalike, since those tunes were so strong) Gaga channels her inner Tori Amos for the better part of the album, allowing for an album defined more by eccentricity and insularity than accessibility, even though the likes of "Gypsy" or previous hits "Applause" and "Do What U Want," both strong indicators of the LP as a whole, are not without strong hooks and radio friendly rhythms.

Her declaration of wanting to craft "reverse Warhol" art with "ARTPOP" certainly works in that she has designed the album to reach the listener from its surface energy - this is music that makes a blaring, willfully garish, neon-lighted impression on the listener but ultimately leaves her exact intent up to interpretation. Just how tongue-in-cheek are these messages? How much is sarcasm? How much is parody? One thing is certain - Gaga set out to make a record that would get people talking, and she succeeded.

Although this is an album more about overall feel than individual moments, "Venus" and "Sexxx Dreams" are riper than most of the bunch to arrest clubbers on the dance floor, and "Gypsy" and "G.U.Y." are single material with hooks-a-plenty construction and compelling performances. "Swine" is giddy fun, the title track is cheeky and slinky with its retro 80s synths, and "Dope," written as a repentance from a damaged, downtrodden addict, is a surprisingly powerful ballad. Gaga's cocktail hour vocal is honest and heartfelt.

So much is outwardly crass and openly superficial - that is, so 2013 - about "ARTPOP," and that appears to be Gaga's superobjective, a writhe commentary in and of itself - as she continually channels her inner Marie Antoinette, hedonistic pleasures battling each other to get to the threshold, she has her cake and eats it, too. She has an album that works as a cultural statement without sacrificing entertainment value, and in so doing justifies her pop culture prominence.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 12, 2013 5:54 AM PST


Loved Me Back to Life
Loved Me Back to Life
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18 of 25 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Dion Plays It Cool, With Hits and Misses, November 7, 2013
This review is from: Loved Me Back to Life (Audio CD)
Celine Dion supplies the energy, charisma and powerhouse presence befitting her reputation on "Loved Me Back to Life," her 11th English studio album. The material doesn't always - or even often - match her vivacity and bite, but her professionalism and staggering vocal prowess mean that the album is worthwhile even when it wouldn't be in the hands of a lesser talent.

Dion makes these songs sound strong whether or not they are - a testament to her power and skill - but it remains unfortunate that a singer of her command and stature is not being given better songs. Too many of them simply do not leave their fingerprints on the listener.

The title track is an adventurous, intriguing piece of modern pop that proves Dion can keep up with the Rihannas and Adeles, yet it does not make any unnecessary concessions. It, and the heartbreaking ballad "Water and a Flame," work as individual triumphs. She has never sounded better or more invested in her material. "Somebody Loves Somebody" also sizzles and sparkles with a gutteral, effervescent arrangement that gives her a real vocal workout.

Cloying, often obnoxious production peppers several of the album's selections, underscoring the anonymity and facelessness of the songs themselves rather than buffing them away. "Break Away," a chunk of inconsequential angst-ridden rocky-pop that does not suit Dion's style or, importantly, give her listeners what they want to hear, is layered with a melodramatic, in-your-face arrangement that is not a pleasure to the ears. "Unfinished Songs," a faint reminder of songwriter Diane Warren's former glories, is also too busy with cheap-sounding swirls and loops, and the unremarkable "Incredible" with Ne-Yo is much the same. These songs yield an oppressive, rather than welcoming, sound that distracts from Dion's number-one asset - her voice.

Of course, pipes like hers can never be truly compromised by colorless production values - the startlingly moving "Thank You" is proof enough of that.

Her cover of Janis Ian's "At Seventeen" is one of the best moments on the album because its stark bossa nova arrangement not only suits the contemplative nature of the evergreen tale of teenage heartache but allows Dion's considered, lovely interpretation to really shine.

Though only moderately remarkable tunes, "Save Your Soul" and "Didn't Know Love" are noteworthy for bringing Dion into novel territory. The former is a cool piece of funky, modern blue-eyed soul that she confidently sails through with an appealing lightness and conviction, and the latter explores the full breadth of her register, including deeper, huskier tones she rarely accesses.

She also cannot help but enchant alongside Stevie Wonder as they sing his mid-80s gem "Overjoyed." Their voices blissfully blend.

A living legend at the peak of her talents, Dion has nothing left to prove, which may account at least partly for the uneven quality of "Loved Me Back to Life." This casual, untroubled approach to record-making also opens the floodgates for a handful of genuine, intimate moments that would have been left on the cutting room floor in her "Falling Into You" days. The compromise is a considerable one - except for the title track, there's no big, brassy hit single in sight, and less time seems to have been invested in the final product - but listeners will be happy to hear Dion again regardless.


Closer To The Truth
Closer To The Truth
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6 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Queen Holds Court Once Again, September 24, 2013
This review is from: Closer To The Truth (Audio CD)
Cher is never even the slightest bit phoney in an industry where phoney is the name of the game. That matter-of-fact generosity of spirit informs 2013's aptly-titled "Closer to the Truth" and makes it a more winning formula than it would be in the hands of a lesser vocalist. Her large, purple voice propels the songs, regardless of their intrinsic value, making her long awaited return a welcome one.

While the album lacks the big, bursting energy of singles like "Strong Enough" and "Song for the Lonely," tunes that beckoned repeated plays and airwave saturation, it has a more varied style of songs and a consistently higher quality of material. While the second half of the "Living Proof" album, for instance, contained smatterings of definite filler, with "Closer to the Truth" that is not the case. Each selection showcases a facet of Cher's outsized personality.

The album is frontloaded with tunes ripe for the dance floor. Lead single "A Woman's World" is fluffy, infectious fun - when she cries out that she's "strong enough to rise above - this is a woman's world!" it's hard to do anything to believe her, the sentiment coming as it does from the mouth of a woman who seemingly survives all.

"Take It Like a Man" featuring Jake Shears and the attitudinal "Dressed to Kill" also get the sweat dripping and the grooves flashing. Even though her delivery could perhaps benefit from a little more menace on the latter, her understatedness is also a statement in itself - with a track record like hers, what is there left to prove or question?

"Lovers Forever," which Cher co-pens, is arguably the best of the dance-pop selections, with its insistent, chugging and swirling synths. The up-and-down nature of the melody gives her singing ability a highly listenable workout. It's destined to fill dance floors and workout playlists.

Of particular importance are "I Walk Alone," "Red" and "Favorite Scars." All three accent the niche she has carved with her extreme sustenance and longevity. "Red" in particular is a shot of grizzled, worldy-wise near-cynicism perfectly suited to Cher, anchored by a repetitive but catchy pop hook and anthem-sized production values. The mercurial "I Walk Alone," one of two tracks co-penned by Pink, is tailored to Cher with its themes of independence and coming-of-age.

The ballads, surprisingly, are what work best of all. Cher seemingly weaves gold from the rather formulaic "I Hope You Find It," actually a Miley Cyrus cover, meaning it's finally getting sung by proper pipes. Though the emotions run a little treacly and the production, as on most of the album, is too heavy-handed, the results stand up because of Cher's bold vocals and investment in the lyrical content. Time has simply not weathered her instrument.

"Sirens" is certainly the album's most valuable moment. Her earnest, precise execution of the soul-bearing lyrics affords the listener a look into her remarkably large heart. She sounds both vulnerable and dazzling - a better rendering of the song does not seem possible.

It was a long, long time in coming, but "Closer to the Truth" is finally here, and it's a definite pleasure. Welcome back, Cher - we're glad to have you.


The Diving Board [Deluxe w/ Exclusive Vintage Troubadour Poster]
The Diving Board [Deluxe w/ Exclusive Vintage Troubadour Poster]
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Elton Dives in, Headfirst, September 24, 2013
(Note: The Amazon exclusive poster here is actually a small fold-out of a 1973 Elton from his Hammersmith Odeon performance, not from the Troubador. It's really pathetic no one pays attention to actual authenticity in a day and age when it's easier than ever to do so.)

The concept behind "The Diving Board," Elton John's sophisticated new offering - his first solo outing since 2006's criminally underrated "The Captain and the Kid" - is one of simplicity, of intentionally harking back to the stark, literate sound he quietly descended upon downtown Los Angeles with in 1970 when he powerfully made his American debut at the Troubador.

That alone makes it a worthy, often harrowing listen, though the songwriting itself is unquestionably ripened, wizened and mature in perspective - that John and lyricist Bernie Taupin are no longer the two lads who wrote "Your Song" and "The Greatest Discovery" is quite clear - making for an intriguing, if at first alarming, and not always successful, musical dichotomy.

When Taupin is at his best it is something to behold. Lead single "Home Again," the most radio-friendly tune among the dozen, is achingly beautiful and universal in its sentiments without a trace of treacle, beckoning one of John's most buttery, ingratiating melodies. "Oscar Wilde Gets Out" is as epic as one of his early 70s story songs, and John responds with a bone-chilling performance.

"Oceans Away" is a classy, dignifying, and, above all, poetic tribute to the Greatest Generation and those they left behind in World War II. John's matter-of-fact, graceful vocal underscores the pathos and power of Taupin's key points, and his playing is arresting and rapturous.

There are also moments where one cannot help but be reminded of Taupin's claim that he is writing lyrics now by and large as "a hobby." While the results of songs such as "Mexican Vacation" and "A Town Called Jubilee" are certainly listenable, with John's piano obscuring some of their lesser qualities, they call no individual attention to themselves and are not memorable, with no huggably warm sounds to anchor them. In the past, such as on 1997's "The Big Picture," John has been able to squeeze out juicy melodies to some of Taupin's worst lyrics, but on "The Diving Board," where his once-in-a-lifetime way with a piano is front and center to achieve a certain sound, by necessity lessening the importance of melody, the lyrical shortcomings are more obvious, especially because John has long been keen to giftwrap Taupin's words, regardless of poetic worth, in maximally melodic packaging.

Still, selections that impress and comfortably remind of previous majesty cannot be denied. Taupin's lyrics for "Voyeur" bring out the ever-adventurous side of John's pallette, with kinetic, undeniable energy. It is the kind of song that might have been compromised by the loud, overproduced atmosphere of albums like "The Big Picture" or 1992's otherwise powerful "The One."

"I'll come away with something to keep you in my heart," John sings with uncommon passion before diving into a brazen, enchanting solo, the likes of which longtime listeners associate with albums such as "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road."

Furthermore, "The Diving Board" is anchored by three instrumental solos that, quite predictably, are marvelous and attention-seizing. The third of these, "Dream No. 3," is easily one of the best moments of John's career, winding down into the loungey, bluesy title track.

One unique trait of Sir Elton's is that his compound professionalism and genius as a musician has never eluded him, not even in periods where his life was at a particularly low ebb. The result is that he has never crafted an album without something wortwhile resulting - those mid-80s LPs may have had filler, but the gems, once found, were unquestionable. Similar can be said here, only this time the highlights are less radio-friendly, yet more plentiful and with more weight and substance, and now instead of personal demons creeping into the music he has two lovely young boys and a happy, healthy marriage which mean even more to him than his career. That comfortability waves in some less than compelling moments into "The Diving Board" but is also its asset - relieved of the burden to find a hit single or cater to the casual listener, John presents himself with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude, making the gambles really count and giving the highlights extra grist.

One does hope, however, that he will return to the atittude of 2001's "Songs from the West Coast." Though more reined in than "The Diving Board," it proved he could go back to the template of his classic albums without sacrificing those instantly memorable melodic hooks.

(A 21-track deluxe edition featuring two exclusive tracks is available only at Target.)
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