Spin Control


October 22, 2006



John Legend, "Once Again" (Sony)

Critic's rating: 3 stars

Released in late 2004, the former John Stephens' phenomenally successful debut "Get Lifted" seemed like a bold move on an R&B scene dominated by the musically uninventive, lyrically lewd sounds epitomized by R. Kelly. It wasn't the revolution (sadly stillborn) promised by D'Angelo's "Voodoo" (2000), but it was a breath of fresh air nonetheless, marking a return to more natural, less synthesized sounds (Stephens/Legend had earlier been an in-demand session keyboardist working with Kanye West, among others), more enlightened and uplifting lyrics and the sort of virtuosic but soulful genre-hopping songwriting that hasn't been heard since Stevie Wonder.

Even more old-school in both the songwriting and the production, despite the presence of such cutting-edge sonic craftsmen as West, will.i.am and Raphael Saadiq, the immediate reaction to "Once Again" is that it isn't as fresh as its predecessor, and that we've heard much of this before. Yet if some songs turn saccharine on the subject of romance -- witness the more Stevie than Stevie "Each Day Gets Better" and "Where Did My Baby Go" or "P.D.A. (We Just Don't Care)," which manages to sound sappy despite being an invitation to make love al fresco in the park -- the beauty of Legend's melodies is undeniable.

"Stereo," "Save Room" and "Show Me" are the sort of instant classics that justify Legend's bold stage name, while the closing "Coming Home," an emotional tune about a returning veteran, indicates he may have much, much deeper music in store for us in the future.


Sting, "Songs From the Labyrinth" (Deutsche Grammphon)

Critic's rating: Zero stars

If you've only read about the former Police man's latest album on the Net, you'd swear that somebody was parodying his ever-growing high-art pretensions: Could this really be an album of 16th-century lute music written by the Elizabethan songwriter John Dowland, performed by master lutist Edin Karamazov, with der Stingle on vocals and something called an "archlute"?

The former English teacher turned luxury car pitchman revamps these fragile chamber sounds with a modern New Age sensibility, heavy on the digital clarity, and he intersperses songs such as "Wilt thou unkind thus reave me" and "In darkness let me dwell" with dramatic readings from a letter written by Dowland. "Men say that the King of Spain is making great preparation to come for England this next summer, where if it pleased your honor to advise me, I would most willingly lose my life against them," Sting oh-so-solemnly intones before going on to lute a little more.

This is the man who wrote "Roxanne"? He has to be kidding, right? Right?!


Califone, "Roots and Crowns" (Thrill Jockey)

Critic's rating: 3 stars

From his earliest efforts with Friends of Betty through his astounding work with Red Red Meat and into Califone, Tim Rutili has been one of the Chicago underground's buried treasures, producing an incredible body of diverse music stemming from his basic but ever-evolving vision of bluesy folk-rock distorted by decadence, depression and/or alien abduction. The Windy City may have lost him as one of its own -- after the release of "Heron King Blues" (2004), he moved to L.A. to benefit from film soundtrack work -- but thankfully his collaboration with his Califone mates (including MVP Ben Massarella on drums and percussion) and producer Brian Deck continues.

The emphasis on "Roots & Crowns" is on more acoustic stringed instruments -- banjo, viola, mandolin and even a bowed balalaika -- though, as always, Rutili warps even the most traditional sounds via atmospheric tape loops, intriguing ambient noises and unexpected digital ruptures, pairing these distinctive and entrancing grooves with a similarly fractured lyrical approach rife with images of rebirth. "Candy glass sun on red tile / This winter bed lives and breathes," he sings at the close of the disc on Eno-styled "If You Would," and it's nice to hear that the California sun is agreeing with him.