ANNIE LENNOX "Songs of Mass Destruction" (Arista/Sony BMG) 4 stars
With a voice as emotive and soulful now as it was back when she sang in the `80s synth-pop duo Eurythmics, Lennox is in commanding form on this classy effort. The 52-year-old Aberdeen, Scotland, native has not exactly been prolific in her solo career since taking time off to raise her two daughters. "Songs of Mass Destruction" is only her third album of new solo material in 15 years, but one listen will take you back to the glory days of "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" and "Here Comes the Rain Again."
Lennox burns the torch at both ends on the intense rocker "Love Is Blind," delivering a bravura performance as she pleads, "Oh lover make me yours again/Even though your thrill is gone." Driven by funky piano chords and chunky drums, all the music eventually fades out and leaves Lennox alone and bemoaning her fate ("Tired of being down on luck/Tired of being beaten up/Tired of being so screwed up"). Lennox may be a self-described loser in love, but romantic desperation has rarely sounded this thrilling.
"Sing" is sure to draw a ton of attention. It features close to two dozen top-notch female vocalists, including Madonna, Faith Hill, Anastacia, K.D. Lang, Melissa Etheridge, Bonnie Raitt, Shakira, Angelique Kidjo, Celine Dion and Sarah McLachlan. A self-empowerment anthem whose purpose is to draw attention to the African HIV/AIDS crisis, the track avoids polemics in favor of an inspiring and hopeful message.
Lennox is majestically powerful when she slows things down on "Smithereens," "Lost" and "Through the Glass Darkly," allowing herself the time to deliciously stretch out the phrasing of her lyrics and making it abundantly clear why VH1 named her the greatest living white soul singer. "Coloured Bedspread" also makes a big impression because it's the song closest in feel to vintage Eurythmics.
Whether she stays at ballad speed on "Fingernail Moon" or ratchets up the energy on "Ghosts in My Machine" and tosses in some accordion for good measure, Lennox is incapable of any missteps here. Producer Glen Ballard, best known for his work on Alanis Morissette's "Jagged Little Pill," has the good sense to keep Lennox in the spotlight and the musical backdrops uncluttered. All told, "Songs of Mass Destruction" is a compelling adult-pop record you can purchase proudly.
HERBIE HANCOCK "River: the Joni Letters" (Verve) 3 stars
Pianist Herbie Hancock's recordings in the past decade have been wildly uneven, and his new Joni Mitchell tribute, "River," raises all sorts of red flags, from the trendy thematic nod to pop to the eclectic vocalists, among them Norah Jones, Mitchell, Corinne Bailey Rae and Leonard Cohen. Turns out, however, that the CD is a beaut, a ballad album offering beguiling reinterpretations of Mitchell's uniquely lyrical and intelligent songs wrapped in subtly adventurous jazz improvisation.
The A-list ensemble makes a difference, with soprano and tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter contributing sorcerous obligatos and solos, and the rhythm section of bassist Dave Holland, guitarist Lionel Loueke and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta floating on air. Hancock's empathetic accompaniment is worth the price of admission - he says more with a quick harmonic turn than others with cadenzas of notes - and the vocals are mostly winners. Tina Turner's restrained phrasing on "Edith and the Kingpin" is the biggest surprise, Luciana Souza's sinuous "Ameilia" the most alluring.
Jazzers will be heartened by the three instrumental interludes, including Shorter's "Nefertiti." And the focused concentration of "Both Sides Now" ranks as one of Hancock's finest recorded ballad performances since his salad days with Miles Davis.
MATT HAIMOVITZ "After Reading Shakespeare" (Oxingale) 3 stars
Lacking companion pieces to play alongside Ned Rorem's solo cello piece "After Reading Shakespeare" (1980), the adventurous cellist Matt Haimovitz commissioned substantial new solo works by Paul Moravec and Lewis Spratlin. Haimovitz's compelling new CD documents all three, opening with Rorem's set of nine dramatic miniatures, which suggest songs without words, tersely lyrical and muscular. Each movement takes its inspiration from a Shakespeare couplet (or stage direction).
The eight movements of Moravec's "Mark Twain Sez" (2006) are each tied to a Twain witticism that Haimovitz reads before leaping into the music. Like Rorem, Moravec favors unabashedly melodic writing, given an extra dash of expression by the cellist's virtuoso control and subtle phrasing. Spratlin's "Shadow" (2006) is the most abstract and aggressive music here, exploring the metaphor of the title with extreme dynamics and gestures that evoke music receding into darkness or bursting with light.