By Gregg Shapiro
The most senior of the seniors in this column, the late Leonard Cohen was the true definition of something (and someone) who got better with age. You Want It Darker (Columbia), produced by Cohen’s son Adam, is nothing less than a religious experience, opening with the title cut in which the Congregation Baar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir sings “Hineni Hineni/I’m ready, my Lord.” (Hineni translates from Hebrew as “Here I am.”) There is water turning into wine in “Treaty,” an angel and a devil in “On the Level,” and turning the other cheek and grace in “It Seemed the Better Way.” There is also a timeless love song (“If I Didn’t Have Your Love”) and useful advice on “Steer Your Way” (featuring Alison Kraus and Dana Glover on backing vocals). Cohen’s death ranks among the most devastating losses of 2016, a year in which music lovers have already mourned the passing of David Bowie, Prince, Leon Russell, Sharon Jones, Glenn Frey, and others.
Neil Sedaka started his songwriting and recording career a few years before Cohen, making his name as one of the songwriters housed in New York City’s legendary Brill Building. Like Cohen, Sedaka also achieved massive success by having his songs recorded by others. Interestingly, Sedaka’s greatest professional triumph occurred during what could be considered a second-stage resurgence. After experiencing acclaim overseas, Sedaka was signed to Elton John’s Rocket Records label, resulting in the 1975 album Sedaka’s Back. The album included the comeback single “Laughter in the Rain,” as well as the Captain & Tennille hit “Love Will Keep Us Together.” So began Sedaka’s return to the limelight. More than 40 years later, Sedaka is back, again, with the uneven I Do It for the Applause (neilsedaka.com). Ill-fitting dentures aside, Sedaka accompanies himself on a dozen songs recorded between 2010 and 2015. Tunes such as the title cut, “Tonight We Gotta Call It a Day,” “Distant Memories,” and the uplifting “Nothing Is Impossible” show that he can still write and sing decently. But some of the songs disappoint, including the cliché-packed “Just Call Me,” “I Hit the Jackpot,” and “Phantom in a Song.” “Super Hottie,” the unintentionally gayest song Sedaka has ever written (in the voice of a “woman”), which includes the line “your Speedos are showing your desire,” tells you all you need to know.
One can only imagine what would have happened if Sedaka had done what rock-guitar god Jeff Beck did on his new album Loud Hailer (Atco). By teaming up with two young musicians, Rosie Bones and Carmen Vandenberg (of the band Bones), Beck freshens up his vintage sound for this decade of the new century. Still metal-loud and as bluesy as all get out, the youthful female energy provided by Bones and Vandenberg nevertheless has a lively effect on Beck. The best examples can be found on “Live in the Dark,” “Scared for the Children,” “Right Now,” “Shrine,” and “The Ballad of the Jersey Wives.”
Barry Gibb, the last surviving Gibb brother (or Bee Gee, if you prefer) has released In the Now (Columbia), his first solo album in many years. A musical collaborator throughout most of his career, Gibb worked closely with sons Stephen and Ashley on the album’s 12 tracks. The album mostly alternates between pleasant numbers that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Bee Gees album, including “Star Crossed Lovers,” “Meaning of the Word,” “Shadows,” and the title track. Songs in which Gibb attempts to unleash his inner rocker, including “Grand Illusion,” “Diamonds,” and “Blowin’ a Fuse,” are embarrassing misfires. Gibb brings the disc to a close with the country-tinged heart-breaker “End of the Rainbow,” dedicated to his late brothers Robin, Maurice, and Andy.
Heart’s Beautiful Broken (Concord) finds the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees (and sisters) Ann and Nancy Wilson re-imagining hand-selected deep album cuts as well as performing three new tunes. Among the new selections is the Ne-Yo tune “Two” featuring Nancy on vocal duty. Other standouts include the aptly titled “Sweet Darlin’” and “Heaven,” as well as “City Burning” and “One Word.”
Like the aforementioned Cohen and Sedaka, Stephen Bishop has had success both as a songwriter for others and a performer of his own songs. His debut album Careless, released 40 years ago, contained his hit single “On and On,” as well as his renditions of songs that would be covered by artists such as Phoebe Snow (“Never Letting Go”), Barbra Streisand (“One More Night”), and Art Garfunkel (“The Same Old Tears on a New Background”), to name a few. Therefore, it’s interesting that he should open Blueprint (General Records), his first studio album in two years, with a cover tune. Of course, it’s not just any song. It’s the wonderful “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon,” and Bishop does a lovely rendition. The other cover song, “It Might Be You,” is a remake of his 1982 hit (written by Alan & Marilyn Bergman) from the movie Tootsie. Among the recommended original numbers are “Holy Mother” (co-written with Eric Clapton), “Before Nightfall,” and “Blue Window.”
You may be familiar with Alejandro Escovedo from his early trendsetting days with the (pre-alt-country) cowpunk band Rank and File. You may also know him from the solo career that he’s been working at for nearly 25 years. Regardless of how you came to be aware of Escovedo, you must drop everything and listen to his hot new album Burn Something Beautiful (Fantasy). Co-produced by Scott McCaughey and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, the 13 bracing songs benefit from guest appearances by guest vocal diva Kelly Hogan (“Suit of Lights,” in addition to “Heartbeat Smile,” “Sunday Morning Feeling,” “Shave the Cat,” “I Don’t Want to Play Guitar Anymore,” and “Beauty and the Buzz”), as well as Corin Tucker, Steve Berlin, and, of course, Buck and McCaughey. The glam-rock side trips “Johnny Volume” and “Beauty of Your Smile” are also not to be missed. Buy this album now—before you have a senior moment!
Gregg Shapiro is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.