Unity of opposites: The best and worst of the latest in music
Below the Belt
“Solitary Pleasure,” principally speaking, was little more than the next Black Diamond Heavies album. James Leg (John Wesley Myers) simply traded bandmate Van Campbell for a guitar firing squad; it’s like the Black Keys as a dictatorship via Tom Waits — yes, his music always owes something to one or both, but who cares? The Reverend Leg is filthier than either one of them, and on “Below the Belt” he rips through the late Bob Reuter’s “Dirty South” and sounds right at home on the oft-neglected Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Up Above My Head” to go with a delightfully arbitrary revival of the Cure’s “A Forest.”
Covers are something modern rockers avoid, but Leg demonstrates how they can give context to the originals, which in this case often do them one better: the frenetic “Casa de Fuego” and “Glass Jaw” are remarkable, and the piano on “October 3rd” and “What More” are fuller and more memorable than anything this side of Nicky Hopkins. Leg tones it down for exactly the right amount of time: the length of “Disappearing,” written by one-time bandmate Mark “Porkchop” Holder. Through that and most other cuts, Leg makes a case for the continuing relevance of styles and trends that have sadly fallen out of favor: blues, gospel, and feedback. More than that, it’s the most invigorating and outright best rock album in years — and he did it all in 36 minutes.
“Glassheart” flopped because it dared to tweak the formula. Seemingly more producers and songwriters than ever before came up with more complex arrangements that thrust Leona Lewis’ flawless soprano into duller relief. The approach for “I Am” is stripped back and refined. On one hand, this results in less bloat, but on the other, it never peaks. There’s no “Better in Time” or even a “Love Letter”; the formulaic rise-from-the-ashes of “Thunder” doesn’t do it and neither does the brand-new Diane Warren composition.
Lewis sounds great, obviously, perhaps better than ever before, but the “I Am” concept feels weak — how it can be said that reliance on Warren, Toby Gad, and a smattering of others for some percentage of the songwriting is “the essence of me” is anyone’s guess — not that it’s a lateral move for a pop diva, but Lewis was supposed to be the anti-diva: humble, mild, focused on artistry. If this is who Leona Lewis is, she’s nothing but safe. The bonus cuts don’t redeem it either.
Travis Johnson lives in New London. He has a music blog that can be found at theoldnoise.blogspot.com. Follow him @ThisOldNoise or contact him at email@example.com.
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