Dangerous and Moving (2 stars)
As far as pop gimmicks go, it doesn't get much better than "Russian lesbian schoolgirls." That was the selling point for t.A.T.u.'s 2002 American debut, which flaunted the duo's supposed sapphic tendencies with a lascivious video for single "All the Things She Said." The music was overprocessed Euro-trash, but it had catchy hooks to back up its lyrics about forbidden lesbian love, and a certain sleazy charm.
Now that the duo have broken from the Russian svengali who initially packaged them and revealed the lesbian bit to be a sham (leaving the world shocked, no doubt), all that's left for their second album is a bunch of disposable pop nonsense. It's not even particularly memorable pop nonsense, although lead single "All About Us" is brash and sort of fun. You could even imagine it to be about forbidden lesbian love if you wanted to retain the illusion, except that two songs later, "Loves Me Not" finds one of the two interchangeable singers professing her love to a dude. It's enough to break your heart.
Catching Tales (4 stars)
Comparisons to Harry Connick Jr. have doubtless grown tired over the last few years, but there's no shaking how eerily similar Cullum can sound to the New Orleanian, who himself had to withstand the Frank Sinatra comparisons for some time.
But Jamie goes a few better than Harry, taking a creative approach to some compositions that sees him using sampling and programming, such as on "Our Day Will Come," venturing into pop-music terrority with "London Skies" and "My Yard," and playing with the expected jazz lyrical lexicon on "Nothing I Do," such as "Next day I called you back/ And you called me a stupid twat" set to a bouncy, finger-snapping rhythm evocative of the best of late '50s lounge.
"21st Century Kid" sees Cullum venturing into war-protest territory, but in a mournful fashion, bemoaning violence in a general sense with a maturity that belies his 26 years. Driving that point home is the ensuing track, a lush rendition of the Jimmy Dorsey classic "I'm Glad There is You," where he exhibits a masterful sense of pacing and emotion.
12 Songs (4 stars)
As producer Rick Rubin knows, aging boomers appreciate rehab projects, restoring old artists to some version of authenticity—it's probably just an acceptable form of nostalgia. Regardless, 12 Songs is fantastic. Rubin's greatest insight is that Diamond's voice is so arresting and dramatic that even with minimal backing (some guitars, a keyboard and light percussion), it already contains the strings that swell up on so many of his hits.
But there are also 12 great songs to work with. Listening to Neil Diamond proclaim on "Hell Yeah," it's hard not to be sad that he wrote it too late in the game for Sinatra to record. But Diamond has always had a way with a song, from "Sweet Caroline" to "Kentucky Woman." It is as an album artist that Diamond's ambitions have always collapsed in the face of his need to mix schmaltz and easy pleasure in equal measure. (Anyone remember the concept album, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, from 1973?)
As a result, until 12 Songs, Diamond was best experienced on hits collections and live albums. 12 Songs, therefore, isn't just Neil Diamond's best original disc, it is his first worth purchasing, an amazing feat for such a veteran artist.