Late Registration (3.5 stars)
Kanye West has great taste in music: in both his loves (Ray Charles and Etta James) and the creations he makes by freely sampling those songs into his beats.
On Late Registration, the musical boundaries are further pushed by West's intriguing choice of producer Jon Brion (Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, Rufus Wainwright) as a collaborator throughout. In fact, the choice of Brion in music industry terms is daring; Brion has never worked in rap, and more importantly, has never been associated with a disc that has had anything near the commercial big-league expectations facing the follow-up to West's debut, The College Dropout.
The results can be breathtaking, as on "Diamonds From Sierra Leone (Remix)," where a sensuous musical mix of beats and a sample of the famed chorus from the Bond theme are added to a live rock band, finishing it all off with a show-stealing cameo from Jay-Z: "Difficult takes a day/ Impossible takes a week."
Still, Late Registration isn't perfect. West's dependence on recognizable samples can sometimes overwhelm his own contributions, as on "Gold Digger," where West's rapping comes off as a guy talking too loudly at a Ray Charles concert. In short, this disc isn't going to win West any new fans, but when you have as many as he does, it is miracle enough that Late Registration is sure to equal all their hope and expectation.
Our Lady Peace
Healthy in Paranoid Times (3 stars)
On their last album, 2002's Gravity, Canadian rockers Our Lady Peace switched guitarists and enlisted veteran producer Bob Rock (Metallica, Motley Crue) to give them a thick, arena-rock sound. The result was their most immediate and accessible album in years. Rock is back for the band's sixth album, Healthy in Paranoid Times, but the meaty guitars and arena choruses have been tempered in favor of a very U2-esque grandeur and slightly more subdued sound.
Singer Raine Maida, who spent much of the time between OLP albums working with the international charity Warchild, channels his inner Bono and decries the state of the world in vague terms over sometimes lilting, sometimes aggressive guitar riffs. But nothing here has the pure hook-driven appeal of Gravity tracks such as "Somewhere Out There"; not even lead single "Where Are You," with its rich harmonies and catchy chorus.
There are still some strong tunes, and Maida's unique voice combined with Rock's slick production makes for a perfectly enjoyable album. But it can't help feeling like a step back for the band.
Mr. Freedom (3 stars)
The second album from the Italian duo of Massimo Bottini and Filippo Cary builds on the groovin' success of their 2002 eponymous release. A lounge-fusion of electronic, blues, rock and the vibe of the 1950s Rome nightclub scene, Mr. Freedom will have even the squarest cats kicking back, watching their kittens shake their fringed skirts atop cocktail tables.
Grammy-winner (and part-time Las Vegan) Dee Dee Bridgewater lends her smoky vocals to the bookend tracks, "Into My Soul" and its Nicola Conte remix. Like all of the 10 tracks, they're rich, juicy numbers, with guitars, horns, stand-up bass, xylophone and scratching. In between are Jho Jenkins, Edwyn Collins, lead singer from Scotland's Orange Juice, and perhaps best of all, Bridgewater's daughter, China Moses.
Moses, who inherited her mother's Eartha Kitt-like purr and growl, takes the lioness' share of the album. The sole instrumental, "Midnight Café," is a welcome chaser to the rest of Mr. Freedom's musical bar set, with Bottini and Cary working magic with samples. Jenkins injects soul into "It's Gonna Be" and Collins makes the title track about a bachelor with too much time on his hands as solid as a cold martini.