“Sparkle: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack"
Time for real talk: The “Sparkle" soundtrack was never going to be Whitney Houston’s comeback.
Houston appears on only two songs — the lackluster single “Celebrate" with Jordin Sparks, where she takes a backseat to the younger singer, and the stunning version of the gospel classic “His Eye Is on the Sparrow," where she showed how the power (if not the range) had returned to her voice. Despite her one-time superstar status, Houston wasn’t supposed to carry “Sparkle," Sparks was. And this album, completed before Houston’s death in February, sounds like it was created for a modest, midlevel project, not the return of a superstar.
Cee Lo Green’s contribution, “I’m a Man," comes off as a likable castoff from one of his albums, while the movie’s fictitious trio — played by Sparks, Carmen Ejogo and Tika Sumpter — handles Curtis Mayfield’s “Something He Can Feel" less like Aretha Franklin and more like an “X Factor" tryout. It’s not that they’re bad, it’s just that they sound a bit uninspired on that song, as well as on “Jump" and “Hooked on Your Love."
Sparks does shine on the gospel number “One Wing," showing how she was able to win “American Idol" so easily and why she certainly had the voice to build this remake around.
“Sparkle" may end up being a nice movie, but the quality of this soundtrack shows that the unplanned attention that the project received from Houston’s untimely death probably won’t help it in the long run.
“A Thousand Miles Left Behind"
When Gloriana arrived on the scene in 2009, they played like a country Fleetwood Mac, complete with tight harmonies and rock leanings. On “A Thousand Miles Left Behind," Rachel Reinert and brothers Tom and Mike Gossin turn down the rock and turn up the harmonies, with sunnier, upbeat results.
Their sophomore album is packed with radio-ready country, songs like the lovely current single “(Kissed You) Good Night," the sassy “Go On ... Miss Me" and the vulnerable “Can’t Shake You," which have a sweet core and enough power to help them challenge Lady Antebellum as Nashville’s reigning trio.
Hank Williams Jr.
“Old School, New Rules"
Last year, if you’ll recall, Hank Williams Jr. lost his longtime gig on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football" after making an analogy involving Hitler and President Obama. Bocephus doesn’t go quite that far here, but he still fills “Old School, New Rules" with noxiously reactionary and dim-witted rantings.
“Hey, Barack, pack your bags," Williams sings on “Takin’ Back the Country," which includes the refrain “Don’t tread on me." He complains about “the United Socialist States of America" in “Keep the Change" and warns that “We Don’t Apologize for America." (It’s sad to hear Merle Haggard join in on the latter, even if it does include a bit of his old hit “The Fightin’ Side of Me." In his twilight years, the country immortal has taken on more thoughtful and less belligerent views in matters like these.)
It’s a shame Williams lets his worst traits run free here because he really is a talented musician who has done a lot of fine work, and the music here smokes the pants off most commercial country. His pungently bluesy take on his father’s “You Win Again" is an inspired reworking, and “I’m Gonna Get Drunk and Play Hank Williams" (with Brad Paisley) is an irresistible honky-tonker. Of his originals, though, best of all is “That Ain’t Good," a scorching country-rocker and workingman’s lament that skirts partisanship — and is all the more powerful for it.
Antony & the Johnsons
“Cut the World"
If Antony Hegarty had a dime for every goose bump he’s raised with his emotive voice, he could pay off the national debt. His haunting, expressive cry gets the backing of the Danish National Chamber Orchestra on his new album “Cut the World," which was recorded live in Copenhagen, Denmark.
On it, songs from Antony & the Johnsons’ four previous albums are gloriously worked over to spine-tingling effect. “You Are My Sister," “I Fell in Love With a Dead Boy," and “Kiss My Name" all shimmer magnificently in the orchestral light. “Another World" — Hegarty’s conservationist plea to save the planet while we still can — is so profound here, listeners may actually take up its cause.
Antony’s voice has always had the power to move mountains. On “Cut," it moves something altogether more impressive: people.
“CHRISTIAN ATUNDE ADJUAH"
The declarative mode comes easily to Christian Scott, a fiendishly gifted young trumpeter born and raised in New Orleans, and now residing in New York. “Christian aTunde Adjuah" announces a new name and look for Scott, drawing from his Mardi Gras Indian heritage and beyond, to his roots in West Africa.
Scott has been a force on his instrument since his early teens, and at 29 he’s still growing as a narrative improviser. He can manage breathy tension as well as clarion confrontation, (and his impressive young band) oozes style, employing chord progressions suggestive of atmospheric indie-rock and layering devices adapted from hip-hop.
On a tune like “Spy Boy/Flag Boy," their balance of elements — driving rhythm, minor-chord intrigue, stirring melody — feels fully realized. “Of Fire (Les Filles de la Nouvelle Orleans)" convincingly echoes the most recent sonic strategies of Radiohead. And a trio of ballads dedicated to his twin brother (“Kiel"), his mother (“Cara") and his fiancee (“I Do") achieve poignancy without tipping too far toward sentimentality.
But the album’s unity of mood becomes a haze over the course of its nearly two-hour running time. That’s a problem, especially given the burden of individuality bestowed by song titles that allude to Florida’s Stand Your Ground law (“When Marissa Stands Her Ground"); U.S.-bred Islamic extremism (“Jihad Joe"); a case of mass sexual assault in Sudan (“Fatima Aisha Rokero 400"); and a breakthrough in HIV treatment (“The Berlin Patient (CCR5)").
And on an album so ostentatious about its social convictions, Scott seems to have grappled most with insular matters. “Pyrrich Victory of aTunde Adjuah" refers to the skepticism he has encountered (or sensed) since adopting an African name; it follows a track titled “Who They Wish I Was," which refers to the jazz traditionalists who would have him sound more like Miles Davis or Wynton Marsalis. If that makes him seem like a touchy solipsist, comfort yourself with the thought that Scott doesn’t actually budge from his moorings, not an inch.