Some critics have objected to the fact that Bertrand Cantat, who has done time for killing his girlfriend, is one of the featured co-stars on this Malian duo's latest mother lode of infectious global blues. On one level, the umbrage makes sense. But on another it detracts unnecessarily from the sheer joy that Amadou and Mariam, at 57 and 54 respectively, still take in making music you don't have to speak the languages they sing in to love. Thankfully, it's a point that their other co-stars got.
The nimbus-like shimmer that pervades much of this album is sonically impressive. But it also requires the lead singer Orlando Butler to enunciate like just another instrument. Not until "Pelican" do intrusive elements like stuttery guitars, crisp drums, hooks, and intelligible lyrics come into play. And, catchy though it is, "Pelican" exposes Butler as a not-too-deep thinker. "One thing's for sure," he sings, "we're all getting older. ... / Before you know it, pushing up the daisies." Translation: Life is nasty, brutish, and short. That we knew.
Although the flow with which this American Idol alumna goes stays within pop-R&B parameters, she delivers more than might first meet the ear-a grasp, for instance, of the dramatic trajectory of what she's singing. Getting from the flirtatious bounce of "Oh My!" to the soulful heartbreak of "Undone" in just five tracks is impressive. Getting from the proto-disco of "Now That You're Here" to the blue-eyed gospel of "Walking On Heaven" in the five that follow is amazing. And, man, can she sing.
Chris Smither is so consistent and consistently good at setting existential conundrums to brisk folk-blues and singing them in a husky baritone soaked in stoicism that his albums have begun to sound nearly identical. But little things keep setting them apart. This time he has eschewed covers, thus laying sole claim to the many quotable lines that abound. And although he questions how great "the great I AM" is, he's open to the possibility of a heaven that you can get to if you "know the score."
From a collective that hasn't seriously assayed new material since 1985, the Beach Boys' That's Why God Made the Radio (Capitol) album is hardly a washout. But it could've been stronger-and not just because the late Carl Wilson's voice is sorely missed. Joe Thomas, who oversaw Brian Wilson's more negligible '90s music, has co-written almost everything and, for the most part, settled for spume. "Spring vacation, good vibration, / summer weather, we're back together," "We'll find the place in the sun / where everyone can have fun, fun, fun"-surely, even Wilson's discredited former therapist Eugene Landy could have done better.
There are, however, pleasant surprises: Mike Love's "Daybreak over the Ocean," Brian's reality-TV commentary "The Private Life of Bill and Sue," and the concluding three-song suite, in which Brian finally admits "Summer's Gone." Of course, the harmonies are pleasant too, especially with the group's longtime sideman Jeffrey Foskett keepin' the high notes alive. But they're no surprise.