THE BLESSED UNREST
Sara Bareilles sings Manhattan with heavy exhaustion, like a woman beaten down by the marathon she’s just finished. “You can have Manhattan, I know it’s for the best,” she exhales, over a dark, slow-moving piano, redolent of the early, elegantly pugnacious Billy Joel. “I’ll gather up the avenues and leave them on your doorstep/And I’ll tiptoe away so you won’t have to say you heard me leave.” She’s not snide or colorfully melodramatic — just spent.
That’s the fourth song on The Blessed Unrest, her new album, and it speaks loudly. It especially shouts down the songs that precede it, which — including the single Brave — are booming and jangly, songs that announce in scale what Bareilles’ sweet and sometimes nervy voice doesn’t always do on its own.
Still, it’s a surprise that Bareilles’ best song on this album is her most morose. She’s never matched the pep of her 2007 debut single, Love Song”a song about what sort of song she’s unwilling to write. That theme — writing about writing — re-emerges on the first couple of songs of this album, like an early college writing experiment.
The album is suffused with that kind of seriousness — not the emotional sort, as on Manhattan, but the stylistic sort. Worse, The Blessed Unrest isn’t as smilingly eclectic as her better earlier work, especially the often masterly Kaleidoscope Heart, from 2010. Those albums bore traces of cabaret, girl-group pop, college a cappella groups — a whole host of future karaoke repertory — and were built around Bareilles’ good cheer, which buoys her even in down moods.
Bareilles is hiding behind styles that aren’t her own. Only on Little Black Dress does that strategy pay off. It sounds like an Amy Winehouse sketch, with a zippy horn-led arrangement. Vocally, Bareilles sounds bright, too, and comfortable — doing her familiar trick of making the melancholy chirp.
— JON CARAMANICA, NY Times News Service
Heads Up International
Tucked away near the end of George Duke’s new album is a track called Burnt Sausage Jam, which sprawls out over an intense and soulful 15 minutes. Featuring Duke on keyboards, Jef Lee Johnson on guitar, Christian McBride on electric bass and John Roberts on drums, it’s an in-the-pocket tune that meanders to a few unexpected places. It has an abrupt beginning, a false ending and a convincingly live feel, down to the crisp solos from all involved. It’s unfocused but oddly riveting — and that’s before it segues into the album’s straight-faced valediction, a gospel cover of Happy Trails.
There’s reason to cheer any sign of loose digression from Duke, who at 67 has comfortably settled into his role as a sage of jazz-funk, smooth R&B and various other crossover hybrids. DreamWeaver is a typically all-over-the-map effort for him, complete with a post-Parliament freakout jam (Ashtray), some cooled-out cosmic fusion (Brown Sneakers) and a smoldering near-bossa nova (Stones of Orion). A track called Trippin’ has him singing about his early exposure to jazz, in what feels partly like a testimonial and partly like a therapy session.
DreamWeaver is Duke’s first album since the death of his wife, Corine, last year. That loss hangs heavily over Missing You, a slow jam with Rachelle Ferrell on lead vocal, which begins with an uncomfortably earnest voice-over by Duke.