Short Takes: James McCartney, Little Willies, Neil Diamond And More

Videos by American Songwriter

Stew & the Negro Problem
Making It
[Rating: 3 stars]

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that an African American who names his band The Negro Problem would title a song “Black Men Ski” but Stew (Mark Stewart) has never done things the easy way. On this, his ninth release, he and ex-partner Heidi Rodewald trade vocals on a sprawling 50 minute concept album loosely about their own (now broken) relationship that shifts from discordant horn oriented jazz, to 60s styled torchy ballads, acoustic folk pop, slinky funk, soul and indie rock. It takes a few spins to absorb it all, but this artistic and genre pushing music demands your attention and rewards listeners with layered, lyrically challenging tunes that seldom go where you think they will.

James McCartney
The Complete EP Collection
(Engine Company)
[Rating: 2.5 stars]

To his credit, even though Papa Paul co-produces, there is little here that anyone would say sounds particularly McCartney-ish. Unfortunately, there’s little that’s memorable either, which may be a reason these two EPs were previously available only as digital downloads. They’re now packaged in a slick double disc package (although both are short enough to fit onto a single platter) with some extra tunes added for the physical release. McCartney’s affable voice and innocuous pop rock is pleasant enough and well crafted but after playing both CDs, it’s unlikely you’ll return to many of the songs for a second listen. That could never be said of his dad, even at his lowest creative ebb.

Neil Diamond
Very Best Of
[Rating: 3 1/2 stars]

He’s had his commercial and critical ups and downs, but from 1966 through to the present, Neil Diamond has accumulated an impressive catalog of hits and this single disc is the first time all of them (for Bang, MCA and Columbia), in their original studio versions, are collected on one disc. At 23 songs and 79 minutes it’s an expansive journey through four decades stretching from the singer/actor/songwriter’s early American radio pop classics such as “Solitary Man” and “Cherry Cherry” to the mini-epics of producer Tom Catalano’s “Sweet Caroline” years, the Vegas schmaltz of “America” and some recent Rick Rubin recordings. You may not like it all, but there is no denying the craft and sheer chutzpah of Diamond’s extensive career.

Time Machine 2011: Live in Cleveland
[Rating: 3 1/2 stars]

The veteran Canadian hard rock/prog trio recorded the live album documenting its 2011 tour, in the city that first supported them back in their scuffling mid-70s days. The concert celebrated the 30th anniversary of the band’s Moving Pictures release—its most commercially popular album—and features that disc in its entirety. With their extended songs, complex– some might say obtuse– lyrics and Geddy Lee’s piercing vocals, Rush largely plays to a cult audience, albeit one that has kept them arena headliners for the majority of their career. But one listen to the amazingly intricate musicianship on display over this expansive double-disc set is enough to realize that the group’s chops are as sharp now as anytime in its storied run.

The Little Willies
For the Good Times
(Milking Bull/EMI)
[Rating: 3 stars]

Named after Willie Nelson, this is also known as the occasional side project of Norah Jones where she and like minded jazzy friends convene for a relaxed set of classic country and countrypolitan music played for fun. This follow-up to the ad-hoc act’s 2006 debut is cut from the same cloth with obscurities such as “Foul Owl on the Prowl,” (a novelty grabbed from the soundtrack of In the Heat of the Night) alongside better known fare like Dolly’s “Jolene,” Loretta’s “Fist City” and Kristofferson’s classic title track. It’s another charming, laid back, predominantly acoustic set that feels as unforced, genuine and heartfelt as its participants intended. Still, it probably would not be released by a major label if Jones’ languid, sumptuous vocals and supple approach were not involved.

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