NEW YORK (Billboard) - She’s proclaimed emancipation before, but Mariah Carey’s never sounded as free as she does on her 10th album. The usual hummable radio hip-hop and bold ballads are here, in pristine form. (“Bye Bye,” a memorial for a lost loved one, is particularly effective.) But so are some coy surprises, like the irresistible “I’m That Chick” (which covertly samples “Off the Wall” for an early Michael Jackson disco bounce) and the Swizz Beatz-produced “O.O.C.,” which is catchy enough to make that the vernacular’s standard abbreviation for “out of control.” Carey even digs deep and pulls up “Side Effects,” a Scott Storch-produced, dark hip-hop track that follows a passive woman’s descent into domestic abuse (“Sleeping with the enemy/ Aware that he was smothering every last part of me”). Capping it off with Bible-quoting, upright-piano gospel (“I Wish You Well”), Carey’s made a pop album with equal parts levity and gravity.
Overseas, the pop-classical movement steams ahead, with acts like Andrea Bocelli, Il Divo and Three Graces consistently topping album charts. Comely Canadian-based identical twins Ryan and Dan Kowarsky have already hit the top 10 at home, and now their sights are set on the United States. Opener “Like the Sun” sets the stage, with abundant vocal bravado and a melodramatic torrent of orchestral strings. More restrained “The Face” is utterly luscious, as is a sweetly reinvented cover of “I’ll Be There,” the poppiest offering here, and stirring finale “Tears of an Angel,” which the boys wrote about the passing of their young niece.
The Kooks aren’t exactly redefining the sound of British pop/rock on their sophomore album, but they certainly aren’t giving it a bad name either. The midtempo “See the Sun” doesn’t bring the heat as much as the title implies, but single “Always Where I Need to Be” is the real scorcher, with heavy guitar lines and Luke Pritchard’s boyish yelp carrying the tune. “Do You Wanna,” with the sublimely familiar refrain of “Do you wanna make love to me?,” could be an easy commercial hit. But it’s on tracks like “Gap” and “Tick of Time” where the young foursome earns its stripes, with stripped-down, soulful songs that show off its wit and musicianship.
This exceptional blues album began with a shrewd decision: Michael Burks went into the studio with his road band instead of session players. Wayne Sharp (organ, piano), Chuck “Popcorn” Louden (drums) and Don Garrett (bass) joined Burks to hammer together what is definitely his most forceful CD to date. Burks’ exquisite growl of a voice and his fierce lead guitar rule this record from the get-go. “Iron Man” opens at a fever pitch with “Love Disease,” which strikes like a hammer blow, the heavyweight rhythm section underwriting Burks’ howling lead guitar. For a further dose of diamond-hard blues-rock, cue up “Quiet Little Town.” The song cuts a mean groove, and Burks assays an appropriately wicked solo. He also dips into the well of classic soul and comes up with a beautiful original tune, “Don’t Waste My Time.”
It’s been 25 years since the original lineup of Asia released an album, and “Phoenix” picks up right where 1983’s “Alpha” left off. Everything, from the Roger Dean album artwork to the overslick ‘80s production sheen, remains intact. Opener “Never Again” could fit in right alongside earlier hits “Don’t Cry” or “Heat of the Moment.” Several songs, like closer “An Extraordinary Life,” are informed by vocalist/bassist John Wetton’s recent heart surgery and subsequent recovery, giving them some gravitas and a sense of hope. But with the exception of the aforementioned new songs and the proggy “Parallel Worlds/Vortex/ Deya,” there aren’t many standouts.
Cece Winans possesses one of those magnificent voices that knows no boundaries, and indeed she’s found success in gospel, R&B and contemporary Christian formats during the past two decades. “Thy Kingdom Come” finds her targeting the church with a powerful collection of songs. The reverent, majestic opener “We Welcome You” sets a worshipful tone, leading into the effervescent “Forever” and the single “Waging War,” which calls on believers to fight a spiritual battle against the darkness in the world. It’s a credit to the album’s cast of different producers (Tommy Sims, Percy Bady, Luther “Mano” Haynes, Victor and Cedric Caldwell, and Winans’ son, Alvin Love III) that “Kingdom” is so cohesive.