Rihanna, Talk That Talk
Rihanna doesn’t beat around the bush – and that’s not meant to be a dirty-minded pun, though her sixth, and worst, studio album is full of them. She’s sex on CD, recording some of her raunchiest come-ons since… well, her last album’s “S&M.” In quickie cut “Birthday Cake,” she invites a boy to “put his name on it” before spelling out what she really wants: to screw. On “Watch n’ Learn” she’s smearing her makeup all over his thing during Sex 101; she gets more basic with “Roc Me Out,” which has her doing seesaw motions with “daddy.” Split between sonic porn and sweet songs about love, Talk That Talk walks that walk when RiRi isn’t vapidly filling space with her bedroom fantasies; the barely masked naughtiness of “Cockiness (Love It),” where she wants you to eat “it,” is just the kind of cheeky sex song that would fare better if you were actually doing half of what she’s asking you to. Otherwise, it’s filthy fill to round out an album that feels awfully anorexic and absurdly desperate, and not just because of its 37-minute run time or rampant superficiality. There’s an empty, rushed-to-release sense – especially on the Dr. Luke-produced “You Da One,” an obligatory nod to her Barbados roots – that deems it lesser than her last album, released almost a year earlier, and what still remains her best work, 2009’s dark detour Rated R. “We Found Love,” though, is electro-house done right, featuring Calvin Harris’ stutter-crazy, hyper-dance style and RiRi’s most euphoric singing. The album’s last song, “Farewell,” is a thoughtful if forgettable monster ballad – a moment of reflection that might follow a night of eating, uhh, birthday cake.
Mary J. Blige, My Life II... The Journey Continues (Act 1)
Not until the end of Mary J. Blige’s sequel to My Life, a game-changer that bridged hip-hop and soul, does the singer come full circle with her 1994 breakthrough. “So many don’t survive, they just don’t make it through,” she muses, “but look at me, I’m the living proof.” True that the soul diva transcended her, well, life by finding the no-more-drama other side, but as MJB mellowed, so did her music. So you have “Need Someone,” perhaps her most adult contemporary song ever – and, surprisingly to those who miss the drugged-out diva, one of her best. Instead of stomping all over the simplicity of out musician Matt Morris’ guitar-led song, she carries it with an unassuming gentleness that’s vocally sophisticated and powerful enough to melt a grown man. The rest is really just family affair as usual: Blige’s alter ego sasses up her generic hook-up jam “Midnight Drive” with a spirited rap, and Beyoncé shows up for “Love a Woman,” a clumsy missed opportunity. If Bey can’t bring something to the table, then you know it’s in trouble. What’s wrong? Aside from songs like “25/8” and the downright inspiring “The Living Proof,” nothing really stands out. And, most disappointing, My Life II doesn’t build musically on the classic from 17 years ago – with its leanings on dance-floor fodder instead of throwback soul songs (even a remake of Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody” is tailored for max club play) – nor does it really attempt to aside from its strange reflection with P. Diddy, her collaborator on the original who doesn’t appear on any tracks but the spoken-word intro. Perhaps his presence is missing more than she knows.
Kate Bush, 50 Words for Snow
Few could pull off what Kate Bush does on 50 Words for Snow, a far-reaching opus of seven mellifluous, seasonally themed songs that flow as gently as flurries falling from the sky. More than 30 years into her career, the British alt-pop etherealist stretches notes into lovely piano-string lilts that are breathtaking, mysterious and meant for late-night introspection. “Snowflake” floats about in its melancholy state, where Bush conjures imagery cut between two worlds. Loss is also at the core of her duet with Elton John, “Snowed in at Wheeler Street,” a romantic stunner about two lovers reuniting in the afterlife. Elsewhere, she uses actor Stephen Fry to speak the 50 words, and makes “Misty” a 13-minute epic. Just one word for it, really: Beautiful.
Sigur Rós, Inni
The Icelandic dream-weavers do what they’ve been for nearly two decades: lay down some of the most gorgeous notes you’ve ever heard. Even if their new live-from-London set treads closer to a greatest-hits package to tide over fans craving fresh material, it’s no matter – this CD/DVD reels you in instantly with its otherworldly ambiance, even if the “live” experience only feels live because of the deservedly wild applause. Jónsi Birgisson is blissed-out on the joyous thrill of “Inní mér syngur vitleysingur,” and then fragile – even more so here – during “All Alright.” The overwhelming feelings that come with a Sigur Rós show are difficult to duplicate on MP3, but it may be – because the uncertainty of the band’s future – the closest you’ll ever get to them.