Their apostate drummer notwithstanding, these erstwhile-CCM, ska-inflected ruckus raisers still push biblical buttons. (“I Am Jack’s Smirking Revenge” advises fishers of men.) They’re literate too. “Against a Sea of Troubles” honors Hamlet as surely as “Blizzards and Bygones” honors The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’s always-winter-and-never-Christmas motif. If the target of “Zen and the Art of Xenophobia” weren’t a Red State straw man, one might even say they have the courage of “Someone Else’s Problem”’s profound social-gospel convictions.
By the time he scored with “It Was Almost Like a Song,” Ronnie Milsap had pretty much become the Barry Manilow of crossover country. The difference was that Milsap had—and has—a big, likable voice and an inspirational backstory. So hearing him sing his favorite oldies on this album is a minor pleasure. “Minor” because no matter how much he loves Wilson Pickett, Ray Charles, and Russell Thompkins Jr., he’s not in their league. Tommy Edwards’ “It’s All in the Game,” however, is right up his alley.
If anyone has the right to sing “Love’s for Babies and Fools,” this album’s opening track, it’s this venerable septuagenarian survivor of British folk’s halcyon days. Her astringent alto, still as gorgeous as it is inevitably weathered, embroiders such jaded sentiments as simply and convincingly as the stripped-down acoustic accompaniment to which she has remained faithful ever since rebounding from her mid-’80s dalliance with electro-pop. Better to have lost at love, she seems to be saying, than to have won and been stuck gilding lilies.
It feels weird, even wrong, to say, but Webb is more interesting agitating against what he perceives to be the morally myopic aspects of conservative Christianity than he is devoting an entire album to the ups and downs of long-term marriage. Or maybe it’s just that controversy brings out his better musical instincts. Whatever the case may be, I Was Wrong ... gets over, to the extent that it does, on its lyrics, the painstakingly accurate emotional details of which no long-term husband or wife will gainsay.
Oh, for the days when new albums by first-rate R&B performers didn’t include X-rated fare as a matter of course. No matter what Smokey Robinson, Al Green, Stevie Wonder, Teddy Pendergrass, or Luther Vandross may or may not have been up to behind closed doors, their recordings passed the general-public test, usually with flying colors, and both they and the general public were better off as a result.
Pharrell Williams’ GIRL (Columbia) suggests that those days may be irretrievably gone. Buoyed by the irresistible worldwide hit “Happy” and surrounded with catchy, high-quality filler, GIRL should be a pan-demographic contender for album of the year. Instead, it’s besmirched with “Lost Queen,” “It Girl,” and “Gush,” songs of the sort that got Prince blacklisted by Tipper Gore’s PMRC in the days before her then-husband Al began courting the MTV vote. Verdict: Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a talented musician without discretion.