Michael Jackson’s This Is It

7.5 out of 10: Even though it’s the King of Pop and three excellent demos are included, there are better best-ofs around

I wouldn’t be surprised if in every neighbourhood in the world there’s at least one copy of a Michael Jackson record stashed away somewhere; I wouldn’t be surprised if by 2020 there’s at least one other posthumously released Michael Jackson record along with it.

This Is It is pretty much just another Michael Jackson best-of collection. Don’t be fooled by the promotion or packaging – there’s really no significant connection between the film and the music. And as a best-of collection, it’s reasonable even though others released before Jackson’s unfortunate death contain a better selection of songs.

The main gripe: This Is It focusses too much on Jackson’s lesser later works. Regrettably, the glory of Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough, Rock With You and Bad is overlooked for the ordinary to execrable Earth Song, Man in the Mirror and I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.

Nevertheless, This Is It does set itself apart from other best-of collections by including six previously-unavailable tracks: two versions of the same unreleased song, three demos of previously-released classics and an awful spoken-word piece masquerading as poetry. The spoken-word is laughable, the two versions of the same unreleased song pleasant if not brilliant. The three demos, though, are awesome.

The first of the three, She’s Out of My Life, features nothing more than Michael Jackson accompanied by a guitar, is surprisingly affecting and far better than the syrupy version from Off the Wall. The multi-layered vocal-only demo of Beat It is a sensation even if it is a curio and only two minutes in length, while the stripped back Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ makes it easier to notice what often goes unappreciated: how plain funky Jackson’s voice was.

Off the Wall and Thriller are still the best Michael Jackson albums going round; The Essential Michael Jackson a better best-of collection. But if you do want those few extra tracks worth listening to, head on over to iTunes — it was made for the very purpose of singling out the wheat from the chaff.

Nicky Bomba’s Planet Juice

8 out of 10: A light-hearted summery triumph.

Only Mike Patton could be involved in more projects than Nicky Bomba. Amongst other activities, he’s the drummer for the new incarnation of the Jon Butler Trio, he’s the conductor of the Melbourne Ska Orchestra, he’s the calypso master in Busta Mento and he’s just released his first solo album, Planet Juice.

Bomba brings all these varied musical interests to bear on Planet Juice. Inspired by a musical homecoming of sorts to the hills of Jamaica, Bomba’s Carribean heart filled to overflowing and this album is a splendid result. Given the odd assortment of musical styles for an album out of Melbourne, it’s not surprising that Dial PBS appears, a shining calypso urging your subscription to just about the only radio station that will broadcast the song in Australia.

And that’s the real tragedy: these songs are worth much wider airplay than what they’ll ever get. Anyone who has had the pleasure to see Bomba perform in any of his many guises will know of his charming, positively winsome ways, all of which rubs off on Planet Juice and makes it a delight to listen to. The songs are light-hearted, happy excursions into the musical traditions of the Caribbean. Crush on You every lovestruck male should learn by heart, and Maybe You Should Try Some should be the soundtrack to every stoner’s bong session. Perhaps the album’s biggest surprise: even what is essentially an extended drum solo, Kruptonite, is ridiculously entertaining.

Planet Juice is the perfect summer record. Lolling away the hours by the beach, mojito in hand, is the best way for this fine retreat from the heat to be heard. It’s a relaxing, joyous sparkle that should be enjoyed before autumn’s leaves obscure the sizzling summer sun.

Ian Moss and Soul on West 53rd

5 out of 10: A good collection of covers, but why bother when the better originals are so freely available?

You can’t sing rock or pop as you do soul, and you can’t sing soul as you do rock or pop: the many awkward interpretations of Beatles songs by soul singers looking for a wider audience and Jimmy Barnes’s bombastic collection of covers on Soul Deep are proof of that.

Although also a member of Cold Chisel, Ian Moss always sang silkily, lilting effortlessly through the melodies on such Oz rock classics as Bow River and When the War is Over in a manner reminiscent of soul music’s finest. Nevertheless, it took a stint on TV’s abysmal It Takes Two for anyone to realise that Ian Moss is the real soul singer of the rocking world, not his former frontman.

On Soul on West 53rd, Moss covers thirteen soul standards with an American band of session musicians. The slower, more graceful numbers such as Let’s Stay Together and Hummingbird are a natural fit for Moss’s natural vocal clarity and restrained expressiveness. What Becomes of the Broken Heart, upon which Jimmy Barnes and — oddly enough — Joan Osborne make an appearance, is also a highlight, gaining as it does from the contrast in vocal styles.

Unfortunately, Moss sings from too many people’s songbooks. He falters without the requisite grit on the funkier, rowdier numbers such as Shake and Use Me, the kind of songs that even Al Green – a singer whose style Moss’s vocals most resemble – rightly never attempted to sing. Making matters worse, the seasoned soul veterans backing Moss sound as harmless as the It Takes Two band when trying to dirty things up.

Most problematically, though, there’s no reason why anyone would listen to these covers over the originals. Other than some needless guitar solos, Moss’s covers don’t diverge enough from the classics, and despite his comfort in the genre, you can’t help asking yourself: why bother?

Break Up by Pete Yorn and Scarlett Johansson

5 out of 10: Meander, meander… Oh Scarlett, how I wish you were mine.

Pete Yorn got his break writing the soundtrack to the Farrelly Brothers’ film Me, Myself & Irene, and it’s perhaps those links to the film industry that landed him the job of a lifetime: writing an album for Scarlett Johannson to sing on.

Yorn conceived of Break Up as an update on Serge Gainsbourg’s recordings with Brigitte Bardot. The passion of the relationship between Gainsbourg and Bardot, details of which Gainsbourg would sordidly reveal in his dotage, seeped into the recordings that were the equivalent of a French film on SBS: replete with sex and nudity, but artfully so. Conversely, Yorn’s collaboration with Johannson is more American teen flick: the everyday kid daydreaming of going home with the prom queen.

Yorn is another folksy, sensitive balladeer with an acoustic guitar in hand who sings nondescript songs in an anonymous, breathy, contained voice. The first track, Relator, is certainly hummable, but from there things turn decidedly humdrum. The songs meander inoffensively at a mid-tempo pace, an electronic flourish here and a pleasant string arrangement there, without anything memorable to speak of going on. What’s most surprising, though, is that Johannson’s voice is the most memorable accompaniment to Yorn’s lacklustre music. In fact, Yorn does the album a disservice by singing so much and using Johannson’s raspier vocals as an accompaniment rather than the central focus. Where Johannson chanelled Nico on last year’s album of Tom Waits covers, Anywhere I Lay My Head, Hope Sandoval seems the inspiration on Break Up, and her artful vocals reminiscent of such hipster starlets demonstrates why Johannson continues to be the indie pin-up girl of our times.

No one will still be listening to Break Up forty years on from its release as people still do Gainbourg and Bardot’s Bonnie and Clyde. That’s not to say Break Up is terrible — it’s not — but Pete Yorn ain’t Serge Gainsbourg, nor is he likely to ever get into the pants of the more famous actress singing by his side.

Os Mutantes and Haih… ou Amortecedor…

5 out of 10: A legendary band that’s seen better days.

Despite the establishment of a right-wing military dictatorship, somehow the musical arm of an art movement, Tropicalismo, whose catch cry was “it’s prohibited to prohibit”, flourished towards the later end of the 60s and laid the foundation for Brazilian popular music. In opposition to the political atmosphere of the time, the tropicalistas drew from the tenets of the Cannibalist Manifesto written by a Brazilian poet of an earlier generation and ate up influences from all directions. Tragically, the government made good on its veiled threats by incarcerating and exiling many of the movement’s members, thereby stalling Tropicalismo’s continued development.

Os Mutantes, or, in English, The Mutants, were at the heart of Tropicalismo. They released three ground-breaking, genre-bending albums that did justice to their choice of band name before moving into a largely-forgettable prog-rock direction, and now, more than twenty years after their last release, Haih… ou Amortecedor… extends that portion of their legacy labelled forgettable.

Although there are seven of them on this release, only a single member of the original trio, Sergio Dias, is part of the current line up. Nevertheless, the music is suitably genre-bending and the lyrics political when not light-hearted fun, but the samba, forro, salsa, rock, soul and middle-eastern oud that’s heard from song to song, if not within the same one, sounds too much like pastiche bordering on parody that’s weird for weirdness’s sake. The bane of much Brazilian music, a too-clean production reminiscent of muzak or beige lounge, also serves the album poorly.

That’s not to say there aren’t successes: Anagrama is possessed of a fantastically odd melody that well-suits the sweetness of the lyrical sentiments; and O Careca is a fantastic, modern-soul update to an old Brazilian standard. What’s missing, though, is that prepossessing joy and naive fun in experimenting which made Os Mutantes justifiably famous and will remain the standard by which any group that goes by the same name will be compared to. This album ain’t half bad, but even though the band’s reincarnation has at least partially fulfilled the wishes of many fans, even Kurt Cobain’s, it’s not a patch on what’s come before.

Kisschasy’s Seizures

3 out of 10: Many influences manhandled into an overreaching mess

Oscar Wilde once noted that all bad poetry springs from genuine feeling. I have no doubt that on the panegyric to a love an ocean away, Dinosaur, that the sentiments expressed on the song spring from genuine feeling. Nevertheless, “our love is a dinosaur, hear it roar” and “our love could survive a war without the slightest sore” is just execrable poetry.

Seizures is replete with such hamfisted lyrics. Instead of setting his sights lower and settling for less-challenging, fun-loving pop lyrics, the band’s singer-songwriter, Darren Cordeux, makes himself appear foolish by failing miserably in his every attempt at achieving any kind of profundity.

Of course, lyrical concerns are of little overall import when rocking out is the aim, and Seizures does feature a number of hummable choruses abounding in hooks. Kisschasy schooled themselves on the indie-pop kings of the late 80s and early 90s — Nirvana, The Pixies, Pavement — so their odd jangles and fills are tempered by a delight in melody. And in this regard, Kisschasy have been served well by Rob Schnapf, producer on albums by Beck and Powderfinger amongst others, whose clear and layered production adds the right anthemic sheen to what could have been a sonic mess in less-able hands.

What big choruses can’t make up for, though, is a lack of songcraft. The verses are generally non-events: unmelodic, meandering, forgettable. And without the setting of a stage, a build up, the choruses seem to hit from nowhere, without purpose. A lack of variety in tempo or song structure only exaggerates the sense that the verses, choruses and the bridges which make up the songs on Seizures could be swapped around without anyone noticing, as if all the bits and pieces were slapped together without forethought.

On Strawberry Jam, Cordeux opines “I’m just regular, regular”.


Pink Martini’s Splendor in the Grass

5 out of 10: Classy, yet too clever by half

It ain’t New York or San Francisco hipsters in the United States head to these days, it’s Portland, Oregon. Not surprisingly, then, Pink Martini were formed in this haven of environmental progressiveness and liberal values by multilingual, multiethnic, socially-conscious Harvard graduates originally from somewhere else and became the hipster band par excellence.

On Splendor in the Grass, Pink Martini follow the same trail they blazed on earlier albums and mix elements of lounge, latin, pop, jazz, Bacharach and cabaret into a palatable whole. The eleven-piece band cover all bases with aplomb, professionally jumping from genre to genre from song to song. The mostly-instrumental Ohayoo Ohio — the pick of the bunch — showcases their skill, the latin groove and dynamic interplay between melodic and rhythmic elements reminiscent of Herbie Hancock’s finest work.

Sadly, such tasty musicianship too often takes a backseat to bland singing. Much of the music leaves room for the vocals to take charge, but China Forbes, who’s the primary singer on the album, sings plainly, cloyingly and without vigour. The singing is dull enough when Forbes sings in English, but when certain songs have her singing in Neapolitan, Italian, French or Spanish, her accent imbues the songs with a grating inauthenticity that has one wishing Pink Martini would just play instead of attempting to impress us with their worldly outlook.

Pink Martini try to do too much and never sound as good as the real thing despite their musicianship. This is put into stark relief when Pink Martini call on Chavela Vargas, the legendary ninety-year-old Mexican ranchera singer who was once Frida Kahlo’s lover, to sing on a well-arranged cover of the classic Piensa en Mi. Vargas does a heart-breakingly good job — too good in fact, because she ends up demonstrating exactly what the rest of the album lacks: sincerity, heart, conviction.