LOVED ME BACK TO LIFE, by Celine Dion, Columbia
Certainly the most sass-less pop superstar in recent memory, Celine Dion is a reliable war horse, and a plenty appealing one most of the time, provided pageantry and volume are your catnip. She is the iceberg, destroying all Titanics.
That she’d bother to innovate at all on the strong Loved Me Back to Life, her first English-language album in six years, is worthy in and of itself. Compared with her usual motor-powered balladry, this album is positively peppy. You can just register the faint outline of contemporary R&B and even hip-hop, thanks to a pair of productions by Tricky Stewart. (On the vinyl version of the track Save Your Soul, there’s a rap interlude by Malcolm David Kelley, late of Lost and now of the pop-hip-hop duo MKTO). There’s also an implicit embrace of current dance-pop on the title track, which was written in part by Sia, the Australian singer and songwriter whose Titanium (made with the producer David Guetta) was one of last year’s most vocally ambitious dance-diva hits.
Bigness, not variety, is Dion’s true weapon — often it’s impossible to distinguish between when she’s singing about empowerment and when she’s singing about heartbreak — and her voice is almost impossible to maneuver with any deftness. Most songwriters for Dion know that and get out of the way, letting her extravagantly spread a few of their words over as many bars as she likes.
But Dion wants to be nimble, too, now. On this album, she’s singing with more rhythm, if not more clarity, than usual. And consider her cover of Janis Ian’s 1975 soft-rock hit At Seventeen, an intricately detailed diary of childhood awkwardness, with more words and images in one stanza than Dion typically packs into a whole album. It’s not a success — she is the Titanic, here — but it shows a curiosity that she’s rarely displayed before.
That song is part of the setlist at Celine, her show at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, where she has performed since 2011 and a showcase that has perhaps pushed Dion to new levels of pizazz. Several of the album’s new songs would fit seamlessly into that revue — Water and a Flame has genuine R&B swagger, Save Your Soul is a direct descendant of early-1980s Michael Jackson, and Somebody Loves Somebody is begging for a live version with a dozen taiko drummers and a band dressed in clingy black outfits moving around on motorized pedestals.
But her most decadent move on this album is the nervy duet with Stevie Wonder on Overjoyed, one of his signature numbers. (It’s also a part of the Celine revue.) Wonder, lush and flexible, is the exact opposite of Dion as a singer. On paper, it’s a severe mismatch. But Dion isn’t out of tricks — when Wonder shimmies, she shimmies back, dodging her own shadow.
— JON CARAMANICA
ANTIPHON, by Midlake, Bella Union/ATO
Midlake, a prog-folkish indie-rock band from Denton, Texas, named its fourth album, Antiphon, after the liturgical practice of response singing, often delivered by a congregation after a citation of Scripture. Under the circumstances, this rings of either an earnest declaration of purpose or a desperate glimmer of hope. Maybe both.
Around this time last year, Midlake’s chief singer and songwriter, Tim Smith, left the band to start making music under the moniker Harp. Rather than falling to pieces, the group, which formed in 1999, made major adjustments: Eric Pulido, its lead guitarist, stepped into the foreground as a singer, and the songwriting became a communal affair.
Pulido favors the same warm-blooded but affectless style, often laying into his open vowels as if to evoke a French horn. Antiphon still reflects Midlake’s admiration for late-’60s psychedelic folk and early-’70s folk-rock, though the rhythms skew more muscular than before.
But what sort of band is Midlake now, exactly? During the reign of Smith, its air of careful antiquarianism seemed to come from a well-guarded but convincingly guileless place. The songs on Antiphon are messier but more artful, sometimes with awkward implications. It’s Going Down has the ghostly autoharp, chiming guitar part and softly juddering toms of a track by Grizzly Bear. The Old and the Young rides a soft-rock shuffle that brings Fleetwood Mac to mind.
The lyrics of that song, incidentally, reflect the band’s often stiffly overwrought syntax. “Time will have warranted / All that the foliage brung,” Pulido sings at the top of the first verse, repeating it later as a callback. Similar formalities crop up on Ages and Aurora Gone and especially Provider, which includes the couplet “With bird in hand, a cry for all the land / Joy to gain.”
Then again, Midlake didn’t choose this album’s framework arbitrarily. The title track paints a picture of cynical leaders and obedient masses, gradually slipping into a muted defiance. The final line, sung in a fading haze of feedback: “To the call, a response.”
— NATE CHINEN