21 Adele (XL/Columbia)
Some records invite you to bask in a voice, and this is one of them. English singer Adele Adkins has a voice that many people are going to spend a lot of time wallowing in this year. 21, the follow-up to her Grammy-winning debut 19 (the titles indicate her age while she was making the records), is a lot about love, and even more about displaying a rich voice that seems to connect with deep subjects even when her lyrics don't.
The voice is big and colourful, with a clear fluty timbre on top, and a bit of brass to cut through when horns, strings and backup singers pile on (as they often do on this record). It's a warm and inviting instrument most of the time, but Adele isn't afraid to let it go a bit rough as she reaches for the expressive peak of a chorus.
Lead producer Rick Rubin, whose clients more often run to rock masculinists such as Metallica and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, has built a roomy yet intimate temple in which to worship this strong but vulnerable voice. Most of these tracks are like architectural studies in how to imply large volumes and fill them up with sound, while ensuring that the voice always comes through as crown and focal point.
Most of the songs are about disappointments in love, and at first the subject pulls Adele into darker territory than she explored in 19. Rolling in the Deep is a bluesy lament with a stomping vertical beat that has the blunt energy of a field holler; yet much else about the production is classic Motown, with a big reverberant sound and a dramatic build to the big choruses.
Rumour Has It courts the kind of spooky-love vibe that worked so well for Peggy Lee and Nina Simone, with a crashing distant beat and a lyric that's both direct and mysterious ("rumour has it, I'm the one you're leaving her for"). I'll Be Waiting has the disc's loosest, coolest beat, great harmonic drive and a sense of vitality that grates intriguingly against the lyrics' hints of self-loathing ("I'll be someone different, I'll be better for you"). He Won't Go shows a more prickly style, with a nimble bass-and-drums line that has a slight Jamaican accent.
Much of the rest of the album consists of ballads that start small and billow up to something huge. Here's where a somewhat deadening sameness sets in, both in the production strategy and in the lyric-writing. It's hard to write a broken-hearted love song without covering familiar ground, but the point is driven rather too hard by the abundant clichés in Adele's lyrics: "We almost had it all; I can't do it on my own; we were the greatest, me and you; everything I do is for you; nobody's perfect; I will always love you; I wish nothing but the best for you."
After encountering these blighted evergreen sentiments in song after song, you begin to think, again, that this whole keep-it-real, write-your-own-lyrics thing is a bad idea for many singers. A couple of generations ago, someone like Adele would have had professionals putting words in her mouth that might have reached the ear with a hint of freshness. She needs a Hal David or an Oscar Hammerstein II.
If you're here mainly for the voice, you may not mind, and Adele's still very young. Maybe with time, she'll find more to say, to match her compelling way of singing it.
ALSO NEW THIS WEEK
Bach: Strange Beauty Simone Dinnerstein, piano Kammerorchester Staatskapelle Berlin (Sony Classical)
When pianist Simone Dinnerstein says "a lot of people don't think about Bach's music as being expressive - they think it's just about structure and form," she's either setting herself apart under false pretenses, or she's identifying her target audience: those who don't know Bach. Who else would fail to grant him expressivity? Certainly Dinnerstein unfurls a melody with a supple lyricism that is affecting. Her lines sing, despite pedalling that can be kitschy and an orchestra that sounds old-fashioned in the concertos. But Dinnerstein approaches individual movements more like 19th-century character pieces than 18th-century dances or concertos. The expressivity, albeit appealing, is applied rather than revealed. It's unapologetically contemporary and a bit too obvious. There are more eloquent spokesmen for Bach on the piano - David Fray, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Murray Perahia, for instance - who leave more to the imagination. Elissa Poole
It's Not You, It's Me Spring Breakup (Label Fantastic!)
Mathias Kom recently moved to Newfoundland, and Kim Barlow lives in the Yukon. Their voices intersected somewhere over the stony Canadian Shield, for this witty, highly entertaining disc of songs about the trials and pratfalls of love. They have a shared faith in the power of absurdity in human affairs, and in a rootsy, go-ahead-and-pluck-something musical style. There are no weak songs here (each musician contributed about half), and many leave the world slightly altered when they're done. Kom, who also leads the Burning Hell, dispenses his pearls ("the world is my oyster, but I'm allergic to shellfish") in a drooping deep baritone, while Barlow's lightly rusted soprano seems just right for songs about what happens after you're pushed beyond your limit and your dead horse is still dead. Buy this record. Robert Everett-Green
Spring Breakup plays the Shadbolt Centre in Burnaby, B.C., on Feb. 12; Vancouver's Biltmore on Feb. 13; the Port Theatre in Nanaimo on Feb. 14; the Marigold in Truro, N.S. on Feb. 16; Fredericton's Playhouse on Feb. 17 and the Astor in Liverpool, N.S., on Feb. 25.
Key Laura Peek (Just Friends)
The gracefully accurate indie-pop singer, songwriter and pianist Laura Peek from Halifax took three years to make this, her second album. And that seems about right. Her untangled songs, marked by somewhat informal lyrics and a nursing assurance, seem strikingly unforced - politely dancing melodies must come to her in dreams, complete with gentle but committed arrangements involving cellos and alto flutes. Where you and I may try at a frustrating deadbolt futilely with everything we have, Peek instead holds one key, waiting for the right lock to make its way to her. Brad Wheeler
The World Is Yours Motorhead (EMI)
When Motorhead says The World Is Yours, it means it mockingly. On its 20th album, the metal-headed Ace of Spades singers see the world as a pitiful place, particularly on Get Back in Line, a lean, onrushing rocker about subservience - "the way we live is running scared," Lemmy Kilmister offers gutturally, "I don't like it much." To hear Motorhead tell it, the situation is dire: "When the music changes," it is supposed on the doom-guitar of Brotherhood of Man, "then all is broken down." Thankfully, for Motorhead, its lean, bristling music doesn't change. The ace is the only spade it has ever needed, so why shuffle the deck? B.W.
Motorhead plays Winnipeg on Saturday; Kitchener, Ont., Feb. 25; Toronto, Feb. 26.