Technically, this coy attempt to laugh in the face of turning 64 is a solo album by one half of Steely Dan. But, from its sleek pop jazz to its cerebral cynicism, it sounds like a Steely Dan album-and-a-half. Some of it’s naughty, some of it’s nice. As for the political ramifications of a white man’s singing an Isaac Hayes song that goes “I took you out of the ghetto, / but I could not take the ghetto out of you,” those remain to be seen.
At 75, Wanda Jackson is the latest septuagenarian to release an album of new material this year. She doesn’t outdo Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, but she’s livelier than the Beach Boys and Bobby Bare and wrestles Ian Hunter to a draw. So until Maria Muldaur turns 70 next year, Jackson has the still-vital-female turf to herself. Highlights: the blues (Sonny Thompson’s “Tore Down”), country (Greg Garing’s and producer Justin Townes Earle’s originals), jukebox rock (“It’s All Over Now”), and Jesus (Townes Van Zandt’s “Two Hands”).
Krall’s album-cover bordello-wear pays tribute to both the hot-house climate in which these (mostly) old jazz and blues songs first bloomed and her desire to evoke their whiff of early-20th-century disreputability while capturing their enduring glow, thus enabling them to shed light on the hole in the 21st-century soul. A tall order, that. And mainly Krall sounds tentative. By the time she gets to Julie Miller’s contemporary spiritual “Wide River to Cross,” she almost sounds relieved to be back in the present.
The liberties that this 66-year-old soul journeywoman takes with Bob Dylan’s “Everything Is Broken” include an infelicitous f-bomb. Besides that, she leaves the intensifying to her voice, a powerful, raw instrument that suits the unvarnished sentiments of the songs she’s chosen to cover. Ewan MacColl, Neil Young, and Tom Waits are hardly soul staples. Yet LaVette invests them with as much emotion as she does her Sly & the Family Stone title cut. And her mystically attuned country-blues backing musicians follow suit.
First, there’s the chutzpah. Macy Gray, a soul singer a decade past her commercial prime, takes on one of the best albums by one of the greatest soul-pop-R&B performers ever, Stevie Wonder. Then, there’s the astonishment. Although Gray’s vocal similarities to Billie Holiday haven’t guaranteed her perpetual popularity in the Auto-Tune age, they’re the ideal vehicle for making it possible to hear and appreciate the wonder of Wonder before he became an ossified icon and a Democratic Party shill.
Talking Book (429) isn’t the first noteworthy cover of a classic 1970s album this year. The Darcys beat Gray to that punch by electronically redoing Steely Dan’s Aja. But rather than similarly re-imagining Wonder from scratch, Gray meets him on his own terms, locating a gritty, feminine perspective within such heretofore masculine-only masterpieces as “Maybe Your Baby,” “You’ve Got It Bad Girl,” “Superstition,” and “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever).”