We love Adele’s poise, her earthy attitude, the roiling emotion in her voice. So why don’t we love the newly crowned six-time Grammy winner’s album 21? Blasphemy, right?
Read on as we share are thoughts on several of those who walked away with 2012 awards last night, including Tony Bennett and Amy Winehouse, the Foo Fighters, Corinne Bailey Rae, Booker T. Jones, Christian McBride, the Tedeschi Trucks Band, Levon Helm, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, Paul McCartney, Pat Metheny and Bruce Springsteen.
But first to 2012′s undisputed star. No question, Adele’s got the chops. Just not the material. Perhaps she is hampered by the time in which she lives. Maybe we give her too much credit for moving with startling ease past Madonna-bes like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. She also has an almost primal spiritual force that shames fly-away countrypolitan stars like Taylor Swift.
Yet Adele’s music doesn’t always match that dizzying promise.
“Rolling in the Deep,” the everywhere-you-looked breakout single from 21, certainly seems to be heading in the right direction as it kicks off. Adele’s sultry croak is matched with a moonshine-swilling country-blues stomp, and she positively glows in this new light. But then, the song makes a mid-course correction into a same-ole too-smooth R&B vocal showcase. There’s a similar trickery on “Don’t You Remember,” one of four tracks from 21 produced by Rick Rubin — who unfortunately, fails to pull off a Johnny Cash-level reinvention here. The hollow desolation of its opening moments, stark and revealing, is suddenly swallowed whole by an MOR ballad. Same with “He Won’t Go.”
When Adele isn’t disappointing with these sharp turns into measured mediocrity, 21 is driving headlong into it. “Rumour Has It” could be Leona Lewis, or Duffy, or any of a number of other faceless of-the-moment belters. “I’ll Be Waiting” aspires to Stax Records-style greasy grooves, but instead sounds like a naked attempt at capturing American chart success. Adele’s all but lost in the billowing overproduction of “Set Fire to the Rain.”
That makes her delicately wrought reading of the Cure’s “Lovesong,” given a nifty bossa nova makeover here, all the more overwhelming. Adele — real name: Adele Laurie Blue Adkins — has a honey-smoke tone with cracks that reach out like tree branches in winter. Given the proper context, she can imbue a song with this striking complexity.
Of course, we all know that Adele ultimately reaches that potential with “Someone Like You” — the follow up everywhere-you-looked single from 21. Positioned beside a trembling piano figure, she tries to sort through the jumble of emotions surrounding a lover who has moved on and found happiness. Every word holds its own history, its own sense of bittersweet reverie. Lonesome and shattering, it’s positioned so far into the album that it becomes a triumph too long in the making.
Ultimately, 21 could have been a game changer for the big-voiced Adele. Instead, despite her coronation at the Grammys this year, it’s just another weigh station for a gifted young singer still searching for the right set of songs.
Here’s a breakdown of our thoughts on other key Grammy award winners for 2012. Click through the titles for complete reviews …
ADELE – 21 (Album of the Year; Best Pop Vocal Album); “ROLLING IN THE DEEP” (Record of the Year; Song of the Year; Best Short Form Music Video); “Someone Like You” (Best Pop Solo Performance): Adele is one of those things that I should like more than I actually do. So, pairing her with Rick Rubin seemed like a canny idea. I’m still trying to find her Johnny Cash moment, though. — Nick DeRiso
BELA FLECK AND THE FLECKTONES – “LIFE IN ELEVEN” (Best Instrumental Composition): The music harkens on Fleck’s Rocket Science back to the earlier efforts with the returning harmonica/pianist Howard Levy, if a little unfocused, but not less joyfully. The album’s's greatest gift to both the fans and to the band itself is that it is the sound of musicians having a blast. There’s no denying the spirited “Prickly Pear,” with Levy’s distorted harmonic driving the song and a fun break for some stride piano, or “Life In Eleven” where he gets to show off more of his piano skills. — Tom Johnson
BOOKER T. JONES, THE ROAD FROM MEMPHIS (Best Pop Instrumental Album): His name is linked forever with the town, and the sound, of Memphis. But Booker T. Jones’ influence moves beyond Beale, into hip hop and today’s rhythm-and-blues — something that was underscored on The Road from Memphis, co-produced by The Roots drummer/bandleader ?uestlove. Not that Jones, a three-time Grammy winner and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, didn’t stake his claim to all that is fonky. “Walking Papers” and “The Vamp” boasted a Meters-level greasy grind, while “The Hive” sounded like an outtake from a sizzling James Brown session. Jones even sang a bit, lending a gruff soulfulness to “Down in Memphis.” But the album wasn’t content with confirming his fidelity to such things, so much as showing how the sound that Jones helped shape in the 1960s has continued to resonate across the decades. — Nick DeRiso
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN – THE PROMISE: THE ‘DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN’ STORY (Best Boxed Or Special Limited Edition Package): The remastering here is full of subtle improvement without the addition of unnecessary sonic bombast. Corrections were made exactly where they were needed. This makes for a more aggressive sound without excessive compression coming in to spoil the fun. Go ahead, turn this one up loud. It can take it. — Mark Saleski
CHRISTIAN McBRIDE BIG BAND – THE GOOD FEELING (Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album): The talented jazz bassist’s interest in this format began almost 20 years ago when he crafted the still-fonky “Bluesin’ in Alphabet City” for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, under the direction of Wynton Marsalis. A new version — which, dare I say it, is fonkier still — can be heard here. Together with a brilliantly cohesive 17-piece band, McBride presents six originals to go with five standards, though none of them is so rote as to become a distraction from the album’s broader ebb and flow. They move with confidence and purpose from a brawny, Count Basie-ish bounce on “Broadway” through to McBride’s ambitious, nearly 12-minute tone-poem “Science Fiction.” A treat for anyone who still longs for challenging, forward-looking big band music. — Nick DeRiso
CORINNE BAILEY RAE – “IS THIS LOVE” (Best R&B Performance): Corinne Bailey Rae isn’t the same singer, maybe isn’t even the same person, that she was at the time of her celebrated 2007 debut. Three Grammy nominations couldn’t shield her from this world’s knifing truths: Her husband, 31-year-old saxophonist Jason Rae, would be dead of an overdose just a year later. But whereas Bailey Rae’s most recent longplayer was framed as a catharsis in the wake of that shattering moment, The Love EP seemed more about moving back into a new acceptance of love’s great promise, as well as its great risks. This five-song cycle boasts such an emotional specificity, even while featuring nothing but cover tunes. Bailey Rae doesn’t settle for the easy notion. — Nick DeRiso
DEREK AND THE DOMINOES – LAYLA AND OTHER ASSORTED LOVE SONGS/SUPER DELUXE EDITION (Best Surround Sound Album): We talked to Dominoes keyboard player Bobby Whitlock in advance of this sweeping new commemorative reissue. Discover which soul singer Whitlock had in mind when he, Eric Clapton and the rest of the Dominoes were ready to record “Tell The Truth.” Go inside the sessions that produced Harrison’s smash solo debut, “All Things Must Pass.” And find out how Whitlock left all of that behind to get his personal life together. — Nick DeRiso
FOO FIGHTERS – WASTING LIGHT (Best Rock Album); “WALK” (Best Rock Performance; Best Rock Song); “WHITE LIMO” (Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance); “BACK AND FORTH” (Best Long Form Music Video): This is a big album. Foo Fighters blew up years ago, making themselves a household name, but for the first time it feels like maybe they’ve created something beyond themselves, something so surprisingly good that it should be almost a crime to dislike. Maybe that’s an overstatement, but this feels like reinvention of what the Foo Fighters are, and a triumphant one at that. — Tom Johnson
LEVON HELM – RAMBLE AT THE RYMAN (Best Americana Album): Ramble At The Ryman, Levon Helm
We’re reminded again here that Levon Helm was the loamy voiced, rail-jumping rhythmic center point of the Band, its yearning storyteller and gritty soul. Their records were drawn from continuity, bringing in dizzyingly diverse, age-old influences and performed in a chorus as if by brothers. That has always made a treasure hunt out of selecting any individual triumph on their old records. Not here, as this Ramble becomes a showcase for Helm. It’s also an important reminder: The Band’s principal songwriting credits may have gone to Robbie Robertson, but they were then — and are here, again — often completely inhabited by Helm’s carnal Arkansas drawl. — Nick DeRiso
PAUL McCARTNEY – BAND ON THE RUN: McCARTNEY ARCHIVE COLLECTION/DELUXE EDITION (Best Historical Album): A terrific reissue that reveals this anew as the most personal of McCartney recordings — though, even now, the album’s unifying theme of escape is more subtle (and thus more commercial) than the blunt confessional style of his former partner John Lennon. McCartney, instead, uses broader storytelling brushstrokes — skillfully weaving his own desire to break free of the Beatles with the age-old myths of ne’er-do-wells, hitchhikers and outsiders. No McCartney effort yet has taken so many chances, nor so successfully blended his interests in the melodic, the orchestral, the rocking and the episodic. — Nick DeRiso
PAT METHENY – WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT (Best New Age Album): It was, on its face, a hard one to get excited about. We had Metheny redoing songs that were in the Top 40 during his teen years, including such bedraggled pop tunes as “The Sound of Silence,” “Slow Hot Wind,” “The Girl from Ipanema,” “And I Love Her,” and “Betcha By Golly Wow.” Great songs in their time, to be sure. But undead old saws by now — played to death, and then some. Even “Alfie’s Theme,” thanks to a game-changing reinterpretation by Sonny Rollins, has become rote. Yet, the format here — typically, Metheny recorded alone, on his custom baritone guitar — added a twilight poignancy. As our Mark Saleski says: “This isn’t just Pat turning out well-behaved versions of vintage pop tunes; it is, instead, a tour of Metheny’s pop music past by way of his entire career’s arc.” By the end, this album moved well beyond its adult-listening trappings and into real emotional revelation, feeling less like a private rumination than a very public celebration of Metheny’s more mainstream influences. — Nick DeRiso
REBIRTH BRASS BAND – REBIRTH OF NEW ORLEANS (Best Regional Roots Music Album): Founded nearly three decades ago by brothers Phil and Keith Frazier (tuba and bass drum, respectively) along with the departed trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, Rebirth happily performs many of its signature moves here — from the Fat Tuesday stomp of “Exactly Like You,” to the Latin-tinged groove on “The Dilemma.” But the standout moment is “Shrimp and Gumbo,” another in the long line of lip-smacking New Orleans songs about food. As with its original version, written by legendary Fats Domino producer Dave Bartholomew, the song bears little resemblance to any Bourbon Street cliche — instead shivering, clattering and shaking with a Creole-inspired island flare. Trumpeter Glen Andrews and Co. expertly revive that cool-rocking mambo beat, updating the track with a winkingly small lyrical change: After rattling off a series of gumbo delights (including file, seafood, okra, and so on) they add: “Rebirth gumbo!” — Nick DeRiso
TEDESCHI TRUCKS BAND – REVELATOR (Best Blues Album): Ever since Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi married in 2001, the two have frequently contributed to each other projects and performed together. But through (and likely because of) the rigors of the Allman Brothers, the Derek Trucks Band, Tedeschi’s own band, and the rigors of raising two kids, they never fully consummated their musical marriage. That is, until now. Tedeschi, a pretty good guitar player and a phenomenal singer and Trucks, a great guitar player and an all-world slide specialist, finally join forces full time to form a band that from the mere mention of its existence already becomes one of the premier roots rock bands in the land. Culling together members of the Derek Trucks Band, the Allman Brothers Band and elsewhere, the eleven member Tedeschi Trucks Band is a grand collection of backup singers, horn players, a rhythm section, and, at the core, Trucks and Tedeschi. — S. Victor Aaron
TONY BENNETT, with AMY WINEHOUSE and others – “BODY AND SOUL” (Best Pop Duo/Group Performance); Duets II (Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album): You hear, for one final time, the promise of Amy Winehouse — if only in the way she can so expertly imitate the memorable phrasing of Dinah Washington. No, it’s not a virtuoso performance in the traditional sense of the word. She sounds too much like her sultry mid-century forebear, right down to Washington’s sharp, blues-cut pauses. But it was enough, in the wake of Winehouse’s untimely passing in 2011, to land Duets II at an unlikely spot atop the Billboard album chart — his first ever such honor. Best to head straight to Bennett’s track with Norah Jones, a moving take on “Speak Low.” — Nick DeRiso