Anita, it's great to have you back. Your voice is a force, a luxuriant, pliable alto that oozes emotion, caresses the listener, and hits sweet spots that are warm and sexy and just damn lovable. Your singing lost none of its luster during a 10-year hiatus. That said, did you have to make essentially the same album as the one before you left, or the one before that, or the one before that? My Everything is a perfectly charming set of songs deeply entrenched in the Anita Baker milieu: mostly medium tempo, a tad jazzy and heavily (or heavy-handedly) produced.
When the singer contacted Blue Note head Bruce Lundvall about a return to recording, she suggested a jazz direction. The exec countered with: Let's make an Anita Baker record. It made business sense. After the multi-platinum breakout of Norah Jones, Blue Note ceased to become just a storied jazz label, and a full-scale Baker record certainly has a chance to notch good sales numbers. But for those fans, such as myself, who found her sound a little restricted in the late '80s and early '90s, it's disappointing that My Everything comes from the same mold as its distant predecessors.
Most of the songs are tagged with little production descriptions like "live rhythm section" or "live rhythm section & vocals, no edit." A reach at some sort of jazz cred, perhaps? In the end, it doesn't matter. The arrangements, whether performed in real time or meticulously layered, too often come off as overblown and overly processed. Worse than that, they crowd Baker's voice, even though she retains the power to cut through the sonic bombast.
With My Everything, it's clear that commerce won out over art. Yet it's still a winning CD because, well, that voice is back. Let's hope that Baker and Blue Note took the tried-and-true approach for her comeback, and that some more ambitious work is in the offing.
The New What Next
HOT WATER MUSIC
Since signing with Epitaph Records right around the turn of the millennium, Gainesville's populist live punk 'n' roll juggernaut Hot Water Music has taken distinct and cumulative strides away from the straightforward gravel-throated anthems with which the band made its bones. The group's members (particularly drummer George Rebelo and bassist Jason Black) have always been better musicians than their genre-associations might suggest, and hey, ya gotta grow, right? And their forays into more textured and dynamic material have generally served them well, particularly when they've returned to familiar territory with new ideas garnered on trips beyond it — as they did for most of 2002's excellent Caution.
Their third Epitaph LP continues the trend. Here, however, the quartet's reach exceeds its grasp with a disconcerting frequency; for the first time, the trade-off — less top-notch burn in exchange for more interesting new ideas — seems somewhat less than even. While The New What Next begins ("Poison," "The End of the Line") and ends (the blistering "Giver") on definite high notes, in other places the album is alternately turgid, plodding and conspicuously lacking the act's trademark visceral conviction.
"All Hands Down" meanders moodily and pointlessly; "Keep It Together" supplies the bombast but not the compulsion; "The Ebb and Flow" does neither. There's definitely worthwhile material in the thick of things — "There Are Already Roses" and "Bottomless Seas" ably remind what they're capable of, and "Ink and Lead" is easily one of the best Hot Water Music songs yet, old or new. But the combo's exciting, superior catalog holds it to a higher standard than most, and What Next's handful of near misses and curiously distracted vibe dilute HWM's expected force-of-nature impact. Not enough to render it less than good, mind you, but enough to hold it short of great.
Hot Water Music plays St. Pete's State Theatre on Thurs., Sept. 23, with Don't Look Down and Strikeforce Diablo. 1/2
THE DILLINGER ESCAPE PLAN
The Dillinger Escape Plan are at least as widely known for their frenetic, often injurious live presence as for their cacophonous, ADD-afflicted tech-metal. And with good reason: for anyone other than musicians, exceedingly open-minded jazzheads, or teenaged males pathologically driven to use musical taste as a weapon with which to dominate their girlfriends, critically acclaimed DEP releases like Calculating Infinity are often dense, incomprehensible and annoying.
Before Miss Machine, listening to the band without the benefit of anarchic visual accompaniment was like being attacked by a swarm of musical notes, and most of them were going fast enough to leave a pretty good dent in the skin. But apparently there were some people out there who enjoyed that sort of thing; the problem with the new album is that it risks offending those Dillinger die-hards by reaching for a broader audience that may or may not materialize.
Miss Machine is by far the most accessible thing the rogue outfit has ever let see the light of day. And sure, the proggy noise-core scene is littered with newcomers of late, but is that really any reason to try to dive into the even more glutted metalcore genre? Maybe it has something to do with the arrival of versatile new vocalist Greg Puciato (new to CD, anyway; Puciato's actually been in the band since before their Mike Patton-fronted EP Irony Is a Dead Scene was released in 2002), who's obviously at home singing as well as shredding his larynx. Whatever the instigation, the more commercial tracks and passages here come off as little more than generic creepy heaviness with a few extra bells and whistles. Maybe it'll pay off in crossover success, but there's a distinct possibility that Dillinger Escape Plan will end up dividing their core audience over what sounds more like compromise than evolution. 1/2
ERNEST DAWKINS' NEW HORIZONS ENSEMBLE
Veteran Chicago saxophonist Dawkins, a long-time member of that city's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), leads his quintet through a hard-hitting set of post-bop that brushes up against the avant-garde. Most of the tunes swing with a vengeance and feature angular, sometimes jagged melodies. Soloists Dawkins (alto, tenor), Maurice Brown (trumpet) and Steve Berry (trombone) bring plenty of skittering energy and fair doses of skronk to the party. Dawkins, in particular, deftly walks the line between narrative logic and over-the-top blowing. 1/2