Andrae Crouch, "Mighty Wind"
Ralph Stanley, "A Distant Land to Roam: Ralph Stanley Sings Songs of The Carter Family"
Susana Baca "Travesias" (V2)
Various Artists, "'80s Hits Stripped"
"Mighty Wind" (Verity)
Andrae Crouch's songs became gospel classics so quickly that younger church-goers might be surprised to know that the man who wrote "My Tribute (To God be the Glory)" is still alive and writing today.
Well he is, and he's celebrating his 40th anniversary with a new album, "Mighty Wind," a collection of new songs and reworkings of his past hits.
Fred Hammond shows up on "O Give Thanks," kicking the energy up a notch with his gospel grunts and moans. Another highlight is the pairing of Crystal Lewis' voice with the theatrical drama of "We Give You Glory." She commands Crouch's original straight into the heavens. The salsa-flavored "Jesus Is Lord" is a fresh update of the Crouch classic, with a tight brass section and Latin percussion.
Crouch's fiery voice is not prominent on this, his first album since 1997, but his signature is in the clarity of the production work, the contemporary arrangements and the collection of original worship songs from his pen. (Aimee Maude Sims)
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Bluegrass music icon Ralph Stanley has been performing songs by The Carter Family for 60 years, going back to when he and his late brother Carter Stanley introduced themselves on a rural Virginia radio station in 1946.
No one knows these mountain music tunes better than he does, but his familiarity doesn't keep him from finding fresh ways to deliver both the classic tunes ("Motherless Children," "Worried Man Blues") and the lesser known ("Little Moses," "On a Hill Lone and Grey").
At age 79, Stanley's stark, otherworldly tenor has lost much of its strength and clarity; since his triple-bypass surgery in June 2005, his voice has had a throatier tone and a more constricted range.
But, working with the perfectly pitched acoustic arrangements of co-producers Bob Neuwirth and Larry Ehrlich, Stanley brings a moral weight and an earthy, for-the-ages power to these old-time tunes. When he sings, "It takes a worried man to sing a worried song," he conveys as well as any living artist how singing about hard times can help transcend them. (Michael McCall)
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On "Travesias," Afro-Peruvian singer Susana Baca coos like a school girl, flushed and woozy after a first kiss.
Baca, with her innocent yet sensuous voice, masterfully conveys the variety of emotions contained in this collection of songs. But the album is also augmented by an infusion of international influences that give the album a refreshing tone.
Baca sings in Haitian Creole, English and Italian, and has the uncanny ability to make each language sound like her mother tongue. On "Ne Quelque Part," an electric guitar adds its sinewy strands, a perfect complement to Baca's lovely voice.
The Tosca String Quartet is also featured, serving as a wonderful addition to Baca's backup musicians. They give the traditional Peruvian Christmas song "Palomita Ingrata," originally sung by slaves, a rootsy, Appalachian feel.
Baca's last album, the compelling "Espiritu Vivo," was recorded in Manhattan in the aftermath of Sept. 11. "Travesias," which means passages, was recorded just before Baca was to begin studying Creole music at Tulane University in New Orleans; she escaped before Hurricane Katrina hit.
Once again, Baca delivers stirring songs that soothe during difficult times. (Aimee Maude Sims)
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There's nowhere to hide on "'80s Hits Stripped," which features acoustic versions of some of the most popular songs from the most awesome decade, like, ever.
Without the protection of overproduced, synthesized sounds, the artists either prove they can sing, or they can't — and the songs themselves either withstand the test of time, or they don't.
Most of them don't.
"Down Under," which Men at Work lead singer Colin Hay performs solo, was so gimmicky and peculiarly of its era, it still sounds dated despite an updated arrangement. Same with Thomas Dolby's "She Blinded Me With Science" and Tommy Tutone's one-hit wonder, "867-5309/Jenny."
Other songs, though, come off better than ever and inspire nostalgic pangs for the innocence of the time. "Jessie's Girl" makes you fall in love with Rick Springfield all over again. He sounds so intimate and cute and sexy, it's like it's 1981 and Dr. Noah Drake from "General Hospital" has come to make a house call — and he just happened to bring his acoustic guitar!
"No One Is to Blame" by Howard Jones, one of those great teen-angst tunes you'd play over and over just to torment yourself — surely I'm not the only one who did this — surprisingly becomes warm, reassuring and inclusive in concert. It's just you and hundreds of your closest friends, singing along with Jones on the piano.
Conversely, John Waite's "Missing You," which was already melancholy to begin with, sounds even sadder here as it's softened and slowed a bit. It's also among the songs on the album that reveal the strength of the vocals in stripped-down form. We already knew Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart could flat-out blow — to borrow a phrase from Randy Jackson — but that fact is clearer than ever on a live performance of "These Dreams."
But then, Asia never should have touched "Heat of the Moment"; its kitschy bombast was on ideal display in its original form in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin." Naked Eyes' perky "Promises, Promises" just feels anemic accompanied solely by Spanish-styled guitar.
And on Berlin's "The Metro," one of the disc's most synth-heavy songs in its original state, singer Terri Nunn could be any wannabe at any coffee house on open-mike night. She's alone — sitting with her broken glass, and an acoustic guitar — and you can just imagine customers milling around in the background, sprinkling cinnamon on their lattes and trying to ignore her. (Christy Lemire)
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