Dig These Discs :: Linda Rondstadt, Billy Porter, Betty Who, Thievery Corporation, Shonen Knife
Just days before her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, famously versatile singer Linda Ronstadt releases "Duets," fourteen of her most memorable pairings with artists from Don Henley to Dolly Parton. "Kinky Boots" star Billy Porter drops his second album, "Billy’s Back on Broadway," covering hits from the Great White Way. All-girl Japanese trio Shonen Knife releases their 20th studio album. DC-based duo Thievery Corporation releases their seventh album of bossa nova longing. And Aussie transplant Betty Who follows her hit single "Somebody Loves You" with her new EP, "Slow Dancing."
"Duets" (Linda Ronstadt)
Just days before her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, famously versatile singer Linda Ronstadt releases "Duets," fourteen of her most memorable pairings with artists from Don Henley to Dolly Parton (Ronstadt rules their duet of "I Never Will Marry"). These musical partnerships range from her 1976 cover of a Hank Williams song to her 2003 recording of "Sisters" with Bette Midler, plus a previously unreleased collaboration with Laurie Lewis, the a capella stunner, "Pretty Bird." She reaches beautiful vocal harmonies with Ann Savoy in "Walk Away Renee" and "I Can’t Get Over You." Ronstadt’s soprano has great range, allowing her to sing jazz, folk, country, Latin and Motown, all with ease. Her country-fried duet of "I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)" teams her up with Emmylou Harris for results that simmer to perfection. She swings with James Taylor in "I Think It’s Gonna Work Out Fine." Among the two best pairings on the album are with Aaron Neville in the memorable "Don’t Know Much" and "All My Life." This is the best a duet can be. Ronstadt hits commercial high peaks with "Somewhere Out There," the theme song to "An American Tail," with James Ingram, and the old chestnut "Moonlight in Vermont" with Frank Sinatra. Ronstadt is at her best when her fine voice is allowed to shine, and her inclusion in the Rock Hall is long overdue.
"Billy’s Back on Broadway" (Billy Porter)
Yes, he is! It’s been 10 years since the Pittsburgh-born singer has released a solo album, but what a difference a decade makes! Billy Porter is now playing to packed houses every night as "Lola" in the hit musical "Kinky Boots," which landed him a Tony Award (and every other theater award there is). And he’s back with a new collection of 10 classics made famous on the Great White Way -- with a nod to Sammy Davis, Jr.’s similarly named album. A lot of the mix is happy; an understandable reaction, under Porter’s present conditions. He starts things off with Liza Minnelli’s "But The World Goes ’Round," singing, "Sometimes you’re happy and sometimes you’re sad/ But the world goes round." He then launches into the "Gypsy" classic, "Everything’s Coming Up Roses," singing, "I had a dream, a dream about you baby." He’s no Bette Midler but he brings a sharp edge to this hit. He mellows out the Judy Garland combo "Happy Days Are Here Again/ Get Happy," which she sang to great effect with Barbra Streisand, with some help from Cyndi Lauper. Porter also tackles Streisand’s "Don’t Rain on My Parade" with élan, and brings crisp enunciation and a husky treble to the Loewe and Lerner hit "On The Street Where You Live." He presents the "Kinky Boots" cut, "I’m Not My Father’s Son," and it’s a bona fide transie tearjerker. This former gospel singer brings that sounds to the "Dreamgirls" hit "I Am Changing," and has great pipes, able to tackle soul and R&B, but his turn as a gender-bending drag queen has tacked on a sultry timbre to the work that is very welcome. In this case, his gospel cover of Frank Sinatra’s "Luck Be a Lady" might as well be his cri de coeur. "It’s been unbelievable to be given the opportunity to circle back to the original dream, which for me started way back in the ’80s in Pittsburgh, when I dreamed of one day being a Broadway star," said Porter. With all his dreams having come true, Porter’s ready to start working on some of yours.
"Slow Dancing" (Betty Who)
Australian singer/songwriter Jessica Anne Newham, aka Betty Who, got her start at four years old as a classically trained cellist, attending Interlochen Center for the Arts while during her teen years. She went on to Berklee College of Music in Boston, and met producer Peter Thomas, who paired her songs with a dreamy, anthemic style. The result was her debut single, "Somebody Loves You," which got immediate praise. By March 2014, it reached number one on Billboard’s Dance/Club charts. It didn’t hurt that gay man Spencer Stout proposed to his boyfriend Dustin in a choreographer routine to the song that went viral on the Interwebs. Now relocated to New York City, Betty Who drops her five-song EP, "Slow Dancing," this April. Her first single, "Heartbreak Dream," is an upbeat jumper with lyrics like, "it’s us colliding, it’s never finding when we should say when." Her bouncy pop songs are in the vein of Robyn or Katy Perry, two artists Betty names as influences. Her ballad "Alone Again" has a very Perry-esque chorus of "so come a little closer, closer/let me know if you’re coming over, over." She begs her man to "kiss me like you mean it" in the ’80s-vibed cut "Giving Me Away." Her poppy "Lovin’ Start" has a good beat, and she finishes up with "Silas," an acoustic ballad that shows her range. Check it out so you can say you knew her back when...
"Overdrive" (Shonen Knife)
All-female Japanese pop-punk band Shonen Knife are back with their 20th studio album since they formed in 1982 as a DIY ’60s era girl group incarnate. Shonen Knife founder and lead vocalist Naoko pens 10 new songs bassist Ritsuko and drummer Emi in "Overdrive," and their garage rock sound is safely locked in place, embellished only by a ’70s hard rock patina. After 33 years together, these women know how to find harmony, and their presentation of these retro riffs are like Osaku punk meets Thin Lizzie. They open up with an upbeat song with a downer title, singing, "This ’Bad Luck Song’ may be my good luck song." They channel Sonic Youth and Black Sabbath in "Black Crow," chanting, "Come back to the mountain," and careen dangerously close to pop in the fast-moving karaoke killer "Dance to the Rock." Shonen takes a bite out of whimsy in the foodie tracks "Ramen Rock," "Green Tea" and the hilarious "Fortune Cookies," which advises on the benefits of sage advice and lucky lottery numbers. The crew sings of their love of "Shopping," a song so simple only they could get away with it. They meow in "Like a Cat" and end the album on an edgy note with "Robots From Hell" and "Jet Shot." These ladies broke ground with their bold mash-up style more than three decades ago, and they continue to do so today. They are hitting the road to tour in the UK and Ireland, and will make pit stops at New York and points west starting in September. Don’t miss this Knife!
(Good Charamel Records)
"Saudade" (Thievery Corporation)
The Washington, D.C.-based recording artist and DJ duo of Rob Garza, Eric Hilton and friends drop their seventh album. The band mixes dubstep, acid jazz, reggae, Indian, Middle Eastern and Brazilian sounds -- the name of their current album is a Portuguese word for melancholy and longing. They lay down liberal doses of bossa nova and electronica in this new album, while at the same time keeping the traditional vocal/chord patterns against an acoustic backdrop. LouLou Ghelichkhani jumps in on the first track, "Decollage," and it’s like "The Girl from Ipanema" all over again. She chimes in again at the end for "Bateau Rouge," an exquisite track. The following dozen foreign language cuts in Spanish and Portuguese are equally delectable. "Meu Nego" taunts and flirts with bedroom eyes, and "Quem Me Leva" benefits from Elin Melgarejo’s fine voice. Natalia Clavier lends her whispery vocals to "Claridad" and Karina Zaviani sings "Nós dois abraçadinhos na" in "Nos Dois." The title track "Saudade" is replete with fine percussives and a metered pace that leaves you wanting more, while "Para Sempre" moves along at a rapid pace. They dip into other foreign languages with the Italian "Sola in Citta" (a straight-up James Bond seduction track) and the French "Le Coeur." Their English-language tracks are equally sultry, with "Firelight" springing to mind as an example of "visions of lust." And the lush musical landscape of "No More Disguise" has the singer, "lost in the skies." "Endless colors they are swallowed by the sun," sings Shana Halligan in the final track, "Depth of my Soul." These Beltway insiders are known for the strong political stances they take on issues from human rights, exploitative trade agreements, wars and hunger; they are vocal advocates for the World Food Programme. If you like the louche lounge music of Astrud Gilberto or Edith Piaf, you will love "Saudade." Catch them in Red Rocks in June, and New York City this August.