John Legend, Once Again, Columbia
It's hard not to feel underwhelmed by this follow-up to Legend's major-label debut Get Lifted. The lunge for the mainstream is too pronounced, and probably ill-advised, inasmuch as it places him in direct comparison with more expressive, adept singers. The better tracks make best use of Legend's vocal mix of Bill Withers' warmth with the reflective nature of Donny Hathaway: the smooth, Philly soul-styled "Each Day Gets Better", and "Slow Dance". But too many seem like water-treading cast-offs from Legend's high-profile producers Kanye West, Raphael Saadiq and will.i.am. Subtle Tropicalia influences, such as the backing vocal section of "Save Room" and the bossanova groove of "Maxine", add colour, as does the quietly discursive, Hendrixesque guitar on "Show Me", but elsewhere the tracks seem bland and hurried, and in the case of the bizarre blend of chamber music and cabaret ballad that is "Where Did My Baby Go", simply wrong-headed.
Clinic, Visitations, Domino
Liverpudlian avant-popsters Clinic are concerned with matters of family and identity on their fourth album, which seems imbued with tribal notions of seasonal ritual. It's most openly expressed in tracks such as "Family", which opens the album with a juddering Velvets-style riff streaked with slide guitar, and "Harvest", in which the tribe is instructed to "batten down and button up/'cause all the family needs you". The farming imagery continues in "Gideon", where Ade Blackburn advises one to "just pitter-patter to her farm", over a decidedly non-agrarian slab of psychedelic rock. Visitations' appeal rests on the diversity of musical invention, from the pummelling of "Children of Kellogg" to the extraordinary Animal/Human, the two identities characterised by a mix of flute and percussion, and a sort of Bo Diddley klezmer music with infectious rhythms. Very weird indeed.
Ty, Closer, Big Dada
Like Sway's This is My Demo from earlier this year, Ty's Closer confirms the impression that UK hip-hop is at last developing a confident character of its own, informed by, but not beholden to, its American influences. Those influences are anyway more old-school daisy-age rap than gangsta, with contributions here from Arrested Development's Speech and De La Soul indicative of the intelligent, concerned attitude taken by Ty himself on tracks such as "Oh!" and "Closer". The latter is an impressive address in which Ty considers the parlous condition of contemporary hip-hop: "Rap is trapped, and that's so scary/ Just sex, no message, no text," he frets. Ty fights his corner with an engaging blend of articulate wordplay, political suss and gentle humour, ignoring the amoral glamour prevalent in the genre. "I'm really not into that reach-for-the-stars s***," he explains in This Here Music, "I'd rather speak from the starship/ HMS Hardship". It's the harder road to take, but the more righteous.
Amy Winehouse, Back to Black, Island
It's rare to find any artist changing their approach between albums, and virtually unknown if their debut was a huge success, but for her follow-up to Frank, Winehouse has shifted her emphasis from jazz to soulful R'n'B. It's a measure of her talents that the shift should be so effective. With Back to Black, she has nothing to prove; each time she starts a song, there's no need to impress with technique, just a direct, immediate expression of the core emotion. Productions are perfectly sculpted to reflect the updated soul mode, with Motown-like grooves, Otis-style horn arrangements, and a rich, smoky Southern soul feel. But, for all its musical purchase on the past, what sets Winehouse's album apart from those of her peers is its rejection of genre clichés.Reuse content