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Mary J. Blige, The Breakthrough (Geffen)
Mary J. Blige's new album begins at full boil. The opening song, "No One Will Do,"fades in during the middle of a crescendo with Blige's huge, emphatic voice rippling over a choir. For 16 more songs, the intensity scarcely wanes. Melodrama is Blige's stock in trade—she became the widely acknowledged "queen of hip-hop soul" by harnessing the sounds and fervor of both genres to wrenching confessions ripped from her romantic life. Two years ago, when Blige married record producer Kendu Isaacs, her fans may have feared that the singer's happiness would stifle her muse. (Her 2003 album Love & Life was her most lackluster to date.) They needn't have worried. Blige's seventh studio release is reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen's Tunnel of Love: a marriage record that takes in both conjugal contentment and conjugal doubt. It may be her finest album, which makes it one of the best R&B records of the last 15 or so years.
You can hear the gospel tinge in Blige's powerful voice, but whereas the soul singers of previous generations were steeped in the church, the voice work on The Breakthrough reflects another orthodoxy: Blige sings Oprah soul. The new album tells an addiction and recovery story, the singer's triumph over a history of abusive relationships and low self-esteem. In "So Lady," she confides: "I really love the new me/ And it's because of you/ She's who I want to be." Elsewhere, she apologizes to her lover for burdening their relationship with the "baggage" of her past: In "Father in You," she sings, "When I was a baby/ I didn't get a hug from daddy/ That's why I need a hug from you."
Pop therapy has had a dreary effect on music in recent years (c.f., grunge, postgrunge, emo, etc.), but Blige manages to make this stuff moving. Part of it is her generosity. She is concerned not just with her private woes, but with those of, as she says in "Good Woman Down," "all my sisters, my troubled sisters." Ultimately, Blige's songs sound more empathic than self-involved. But the real force here is the music itself: lush '70s soul arrangements, pointed hip-hop rhythms, and, especially, Blige's enormous, bright, dexterous voice, which simply levels everything in its path—even lyrical insipidities.
Toward the end of the album, Blige encounters a heretofore immovable object: Bono. In a live recording from the Hurricane Katrina relief telecast, she joins U2, one of the few acts in the world with a comparable mastery of the grandiose, to perform "One."Bono sings the song's first verse beautifully. Blige then steps forward and steals the song from him completely—swooping, growling, leaping into a supple falsetto and unleashing spiraling melismas—recasting U2's anthem as a troubled sister's condemnation and lament. Bono may have planned to sing another verse; he doesn't bother. What do you call a woman who can storm U2's stage and reduce rock's biggest ego to a shrinking violet? Diva seems too mild a word.
The Strokes, First Impressions of Earth (Sony/RCA)
In 2001, the Strokes made a celebrated debut, Is This It, which they followed up two years later with Room on Fire, a virtual carbon copy. Now album No. 3 has arrived, with a new producer (industry heavy-hitter David Kahne) and lots of buzz about "studio experiments" and a revamped sound.
I'm delighted to report that the rumors are hogwash. First Impressions of Earth is an extremely Strokesian Strokes record, good news for those of us who savor their brittle, meticulous songs—the Fabergé eggs of the garage-rock revival. Yes, there are some audible differences. The guitar sound is thicker and less trebly. There is more sprawl and ambition in some of the arrangements. (Unlike the first two Strokes albums, several songs here surpass the four-minute mark.) Lead singer and songwriter Julian Casablancas, a cucumber-cool ironist given to deadpan crooning, sings with more abandon in songs like "Fear of Sleep," and the band does its best to play along, letting go of its perfectionist impulses for a bar or two and having a good bash.
But the plentiful pleasures of the past Strokes albums are here. They begin with the rhythm section of bassist Nikolai Fraiture and drummer Fab Moretti, who are always deft, whether stomping, swinging, or doing anything in between. Then there are the guitarists, Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi, the band's heroic voices. Their lead guitar counterpoint snakes through every song, complementing Casablancas' singing even as it threatens to upstage him. (Songs like "Vision of Division" play out like mini wrestling matches: a three-way tussle for the spotlight.) Much of the talk surrounding the Strokes has been about their influences—the echoes of the Velvet Underground, Television, and other storied New York rock bands whose lineage they are extending. But the Strokes have their very own aesthetic, and it's all about impeccability; on First Impression of Earth, they feint at a more raggedy sound, they keep locking into grooves, as sleek and precise as a funk band. Don't be fooled by the ratty Chuck Taylors and the messy hair: Get these boys a good horn section and they could be Earth, Wind and Fire.
As for Casablancas: again, it's plus ça change. As usual he specializes in bitchy hipster laments, mixing (some) self-loathing with (notably more) loathing for others. In "On the Other Side"he sings: "I hate them all, I hate them all/ I hate myself/ For hating them/ So drink some more/ I'll love them all/ I'll drink even more/ I'll hate them even more than I did before." For all the criticism the Strokes have received for knocking off their forbears, it's really only Casablancas' dissolute pose that feels studied; I don't really buy it and can't get emotionally invested in it. But his voice makes a great sound, especially when it's nipped at on all sides by barking guitars. The Strokes don't have much to say, but they say it so well.