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click to enlarge Elliot Yamin - NICK SPANOS
  • Nick Spanos
  • Elliot Yamin

Elliott Yamin, "Let's Get to What's Real" (eOne Music/Purpose Music Group)

Listening to the new Elliott Yamin album hints at the makings of a potentially relevant artist who's only now beginning to flex his artistic wings. "Real" officially is the Richmond native's third studio album (discounting a couple of Christmas music efforts), and it's something of a creative breakthrough. Yamin's sophomore project, "Fight for Love," failed to make much of an impact and suggested that his career already was in decline. But now Yamin has made an 11-song album full of tasteful contemporary and vintage R&B, replete with live instrumentation and Motown-inspired sonic references. It's a surprising artistic leap forward, following the nondescript adult pop and mid-tempo R&B that dominated his first two studio albums. On "Real," the singer and songwriter's appealingly raspy voice shines on cuts such as "Up, Down, All Around," with its inspirational leanings, and "Gather Round," which sounds like something that the Funk Brothers might have played on back in the day. "Self-Control" excels as a bit of grown-ass-man R&B, as does the confrontational title track, which actually is a well-executed relationship song. Then there's "Virginia," one of the best recorded love letters to the Commonwealth ever made, in which Yamin proclaims, "How sweet it is, to know that I'll be coming on home to you." — Jerome Langston

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Nick Waterhouse, "Time's All Gone" (Innovative Leisure)

Author Milan Kundera once said that the Greek word for "return" is nostos and algos means "suffering." "So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return." I don't like to over-think the recent emergence of neo-retro soul groups – including the late Amy Winehouse, Sharon Jones, Charles Bradley and nearly every other Daptone group. To me it's simply heartfelt music that requires real emotion and musical talent to pull off. Is it breaking new ground? Nope. But people have fun with throwback music partly because they missed it the first time; it's also impressive how these bands respectfully capture analog period sounds in the studio. Case in point: The accomplished debut by San Francisco young 'un Nick Waterhouse is a moody blast of overmodulated, '60s R&B, from the slightly distorted lead vocal to the reverb plate platter of strong female backing vocals, horns, and maracas — all recorded to mono on the same Gold Star Studios equipment once used by Phil Spector. These swinging tracks would sound like lost Little Willie John or Sonics nuggets, were it not for Waterhouse's slick, urban-chic vocals that are more like Bobby Darin on Adderall. Even at his tender age of 25, Waterhouse has a veteran lounge singer's confidence. Check out the golden-hazed love ballad, "Raina," which would make Frankie Valli's lipstick roll out, or the strong first single, "Some Place," a jumpin' piece of boogaloo that hearkens back to the '60s "Popcorn" scene. With instant jukebox credibility, this debut will appeal beyond those who hoard 45s. If this is musical suffering, then I forgot my safe word. — Brent Baldwin

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Theo Bleckmann, "Hello Earth! The Music of Kate Bush" (Winter & Winter)

It's probably time you heard about Theo Bleckmann, because you've probably already heard him. If not at the memorable Claudia Quartet performance at the Camel last year, where he was the featured vocalist, then in the "Men in Black" movies, for which he created the polytonal alien voices. There's something otherworldly about his gifts. At the same time, there's no difficulty in immediately finding conventional beauty within them. "Hello Earth! the Music of Kate Bush" is the latest in his series for Winter & Winter (a German label distinguished by adventurous projects in beautiful packaging). Bush was something of a proto-Bjork, a 19-year-old icon of the early days of MTV, where her literary leanings (her first hit was based on "Wuthering Heights") helped produce hyper-dramatic progressive rock. One of the best songs on "Hello World" is "Cloudbursting," an affectingly odd song about the arrest of visionary and quack William Reich, who believed, among other things, that he could cause rain by harnessing the sexual energy of the cosmos. Bleckmann treats Bush's fierce and naive blend of intelligence and romanticism with a warm, meticulous sensitivity; she couldn't have asked for a more sympathetic interpretation. The band, anchored by Claudia Quartet founder and drummer John Hollenbeck, creates an uncluttered, chamber feel. —Peter McElhinney

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George Harrison, "Early Takes Vol. 1" (Hip-O Select)

Presented as the soundtrack to the Martin Scorsese documentary on the Quiet Beatle, "Early Takes Vol. 1" is a collection of 10 George Harrison songs in primitive form. Six of the selections are sketches of tunes that appeared in full form on Harrison's post-Beatles solo breakthrough, "All Things Must Pass." You wouldn't say this rendition of "My Sweet Lord" is better than the known version, because it lacks those glorious background vocals and the whole building-as-it-goes momentum; yet it's great to hear the song in this lazy, loping form that makes it sound like it could fit on Neil Young's "Harvest." A jaw-dropping demo of the title track from "All Things Must Pass" easily is the highlight of the release. The set is rounded out by trial takes of two of Harrison's later '70s tunes, as well as covers of Bob Dylan's "Mama You've Been on My Mind" and the ballad "Let It Be Me," which was popularized by the Everly Brothers. There's nothing exactly revelatory here, but who wouldn't want to hear intimate versions of six tracks from "All Things Must Pass"? — Brian Greene



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