By BRUCE DENNILL
Natasha Meister: What Goes Around… 8
Sam Smith: In The Lonely Hour 5
Kacey Musgraves: Same Trailer Different Park 7
Barbra Steisand: Partners 7
Having made her name locally as a hugely capable blueswoman, Natasha Meister’s latest EP What Goes Around… repositions her as a commercially certified pop star (on collection opener I Hope You Know and second new track Shadows) a la Kelly Clarkson – obviously radio friendly, but with chops that far exceed those of the average. That change of pace in itself is not a signal of a desire to play it safer for a higher chance of market viability. But the fact that the other three tracks on this EP are all stripped-down reruns of tracks from Meister’s debut album Halfway suggests that risk was definitely taken into account. Two new songs, written to appeal to radio playlisters and three older tunes used both as padding and as a timely reminder of the strength of Meister’s songwriting, singing and playing. The new singles, particularly I Hope You Know, are easily the equal of any American or other international effort in the same segment of the industry, and if chart results reflect any difference, it’s misplaced bias – nothing less. And the old songs (This Desire, Drowning and Burn The Water) are perhaps better – matured, perhaps, or maybe it’s that these arrangements reveal previously hidden depths – than they were the first time. What Goes Around… is a calling card that can’t be ignored. Don’t miss out.
The success of Sam Smith’s monster singles – Stay With Me, I’m No The Only One, Like I Can and Lay Me Down (well, the version featuring John Legend, which is not featured here – has made him, to some extent, untouchable in critical terms. But the rest of the now near nine million-selling In The Lonely Hour is simply not up to the same standard. Smith’s keening high range still catches the ear; he’s still a unique vocal talent; but that voice, without the right song to embellish, can feel like a novelty – a hook, but without real body to it. When Smith sticks to blue-eyed soul, all is well – the results of his endeavours speak for themselves. When touches of dance music or disco sneak in, as in Money On My Mind, Restart, or the frankly irritating La La La, the arrangements are not as powerful and the songs not as enjoyable. What Smith should claim as the major success to come out of this album – beyond mainstream exposure for his distinctive vocals and even those phenomenal sales figures – are his triumphs as a songwriter, with all of the above-mentioned singles being current standards that will continue to shore up the songbooks of great singers for years into the future. There’s greatness here, but there’s filler too.
As suggested by the album title, Same Trailer Different Park, young singer-songwriter Kacey Musgraves is able to deliver her lyrics even while her tongue is buried in her cheek. She doesn’t have the biting insight of the Dixie Chicks, but she still doesn’t pull her punches, with lines like “Brother’s hooked on Mary Jane, Daddy’s hooked on Mary two doors down”, “Just like dust, we settle in this town” and “Jack and Jill went up the hill, Jack burned out on booze and pills” in Merry Go ‘Round confirming that though Musgraves looks like a cheerleader, she doesn’t think like one. Her songs are deceptively simple, with the arrangements kept relatively empty, allowing the melodies and lyrics to be what makes each tune memorable or otherwise. For the most part, there is something notably striking about each song.Opener Silver Line is a classic country single, beautifully emotive, while My House is as suitable as the soundtrack to a square dance as it is a deadpan entry on The Onion. I Miss You and Step Off are sequenced back to back, keeping potential suitors on their toes, while Follow Your Arrow is a paean to ignoring petty criticism.
Barbra Streisand is one of that handful of artists who no-one would turn down should she phone and say, “Want to record a song with me?”. So the impressive line-up of duet partners on this covers album should – and do – count themselves lucky (bar the deceased ones, mind). As ever where Streisand is concerned, there’s a legacy aspect, so the inclusion of People (written for Funny Girl); Evergreen (a Streisand co-write) and Memories (written for her by Marvin Hamlisch and Alan & Marilyn Bergman) is no surprise. That Stevie Wonder’s contribution to the former is a touch to fiddly and fussy and that Babyface’s demo version of Evergreen became the template for the final cut is less expected. As an aside, another aspect of this theme is that part of the album was recorded on the Streisand Scoring Stage at Sony Pictures in Culver City – the singer still has extraordinary influence… There is unevenness throughout Partners, but that shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a weakness. For instance, while Michael Buble audibly grinning through It Had To Be You is enjoyable and John Mayer’s stepping up for Come Rain Or Come Shine is impressive, they’re simply not in the same class as Billy Joel, the first vocalist to match (and exceed) Streisand for authority and drive – perhaps because the song in question is one of his own (New York State Of Mind). Later, Andrea Bocelli opens the taps on I Still Can See Your Face, giving Streisand a rare chance to really stretch herself. Happily, How Deep Is The Ocean, featuring Streisand’s son Jason Gould, is no novelty, but pleasing, unscientific proof that talent is carried in the genes. John Legend adds the sort of soul you’d hope he’d bring to What Kind Of Fool, but Josh Groban – even though he and Streisand recorded Somewhere live, with a 70-piece orchestra – is not given the requisite room by the arrangement to soar as much as he’s capable of doing. Of the second act of the album – older recordings of duets that Streisand has been involved in over the years, the version of I Finally Found Someone with Bryan Adams is just as powerful now as it was in 1996 and Guilty, sung with Barry Gibb in 1980, reinforces the argument that great songwriting (and the Bee Gees are among the greatest songwriters in history) never gets tired. This is an album of carefully, conservatively, crafted classics and it’s an notable addition to a phenomenal catalogue, though it doesn’t dim the desire for new, original material from a unique performer.