TAYLOR SWIFT’S “SPEAK NOW” (Big Machine)
Not a fan.
Measured against Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus and other teen favorites of the last decade, Swift is a major advance. For one thing, she tries to actually say something in her songs. Plus, she’s got a fabulous touch for big, sweeping, hit-bound choruses. But she starts running into trouble when higher standards are applied. The strength of the songs, until now, is that they have been built around stories that are easy for young hearts to embrace. In trying to show she’s almost 21, she attempts to give the stories a bit more edge, but they still seem juvenile. There are lots of complaints in the songs, but precious little insight. Is there a respected songwriter in America who would begin a song with these lines, “Words can break someone into a million pieces, but they can also put them back together”? In the end, we are just left with the swooping choruses. The big X factor here is her youth. Maybe she can begin showing depth as she gets older, but I think the odds are against her. I’d love to hear someone with the promise of a young Patsy Cline or Dolly Parton or Emmylou Harris. At this point, Swift seems little more than the country-pop daughter of the relatively soulless Shania Twain.
THE AVETT BROTHERS’ “Live, Volume 3” (American)
√ Bob Recommended
This rootsy Americana-based band from North Carolina’s major label debut, “I and Love and You,” was one of the most memorable albums of 2009 and this follow-up gives us a chance to hear some of that music live (including the exquisite title tune) as well as catch up with some of the band’s inviting earlier tunes. They come with the weighty stamp of approval of producer Rick Rubin and it’s easy to see why he signed the Avetts to his American label. There is a fresh, endearing spirit to the music that makes it seem both comforting and inspiring. “Head Full of Doubt, Road Full of Promise” is the title of one of the group’s older tunes, but it conveys nicely the sense of youthful optimism and awakening that is at the heart of the Avetts’ musical vision.
ELVIS PRESLEY’s “VIVA ELVIS: THE ALBUM” (RCA/Legacy)
Yes, it’s Elvis voice on this album, but that’s about the only thing that it has going for it. “Viva ELVIS” was put together by Legacy Recordings and the folks behind “Viva ELVIS by Cirque du Soleil,” the stage show at ARIA Resort and Casino in Las Vegas. The idea was to have some record producers (including Brendan O’Brien) and contemporary musicians surround Elvis’s vocals with aggressive new arrangements to give the music a more pulsating, modern sound. The problem isn’t the goal. It would be great to hear Elvis’ music in a re-imagined setting. But these remakes—with touches of everything from punk rock to hip-hop thrown in the mix—are plodding and hollow. The guy sure can sing, though.
SEAN WILENTZ’S “BOB DYLAN IN AMERICA” (Doubleday)
√ Bob Recommended
This history professor and author was practically born to write about Dylan. His family owned a bookstore in Greenwich Village in the 1960s and Wilentz grew up amidst the emerging folk music and beat literature scenes. He devotes the first 16 pages of the book to growing up in that environment and how seeing Dylan perform at Philharmonic Hall in 1964 kindled an interest in the singer-songwriter that has only intensified over the years. He has even served as historian-in-residence for Dylan’s official website. He sometimes get a little diffuse in trying to document some of the forces in American culture that influenced Dylan, but the book’s most compelling sections represent showcase the most stimulating and insightful writing ever about rock’s greatest songwriter. The sections devoted to Dylan’s “Time Out of Mind”-“Love and Theft” period are almost breathtaking in the level of imagination and discovery. A must for Dylan admirers.
Has its moments
O.K., O.K., “Due Date” isn’t as good as “The Hangover” or “Planes, Trains and Automobiles," and it’s not as consistently funny as the trailer suggests, but cut the film some slack. Despite the uneventful interludes in the script, Robert Downey Jr. and Zack Galifianakis struggle gallantly to inject some humor and some pathos into the story of two ill-suited (or so we think) characters pushed together by unlikely circumstance. It’s easy to see how they could have just given up half way through the film and phoned in their parts. But they work in every scene to find a connection to each other and to us—and they frequently succeed. Kudos, too, to the French bulldog.