Elliott's 'Cookbook' is less than stirring

Music Notes

July 14, 2005|By Rashod D. Ollison

IN THIS WEEK'S playlist of new releases, Missy Elliott, one of hip-hop's true innovators, takes the road most traveled. Acclaimed indie pop artist Jeff Klein goes hardly anywhere. Eclectic singer-songwriter Shannon McNally bravely dives into the earthier side of country-pop. And soul man Anthony Hamilton is rediscovered.

Missy Elliott, The Cookbook: Critics and fans dismissed Elliott's last album, 2003's This Is Not a Test! And for good reason. Her third set in three years, the CD felt recycled and labored, as if the rapper-singer-songwriter-producer-video artiste was trying to duplicate the brilliance of 2002's Under Construction. (Actually, 2001's Miss E ... So Addictive was even finer and more balanced than its successor.) Unfortunately, on her new disc (her sixth overall), the hip-hop superstar seems to remain stuck in a creative rut. Noticeably absent from The Cookbook are Timbaland's tasty recipes. The mad scientist-like beat maker was Elliott's trusty sidekick on her previous efforts, supplying some of the most daring, wonderfully complex soundscapes pop has ever known. But even Timbaland's two productions on The Cookbook -- "Joy" and "Partytime" -- are tame and pedestrian. (Maybe homeboy is a little drained, too.)

Elliott invites others to help stir her idiosyncratic style. The Neptunes provide "On & On," a rowdy track with a squishy synth bass line and stomping beat. But the number never really takes off. Rich Harrison, the man behind Amerie's thrilling "1 Thing," contributes one of his trendy, percussion-heavy tracks: "Can't Stop." But Elliott's so-so rhymes and tepid vocals on the hook don't match the production's kinetic energy. So the whole thing ends up feeling like an afterthought. The nostalgic "We Run This," produced by Rhemario "Rio Beats" Webber, fares a little better as it samples the Sugarhill Gang's "Apache." But Elliott did the fun, back-in-the-day hip-hop thing much better on Under Construction.

As we all know, the Virginia native likes to croon when she's not spittin' rhymes. Lauryn Hill she's not, but Elliott boasts likable enough singing chops. The R&B slices on the album are a bit more engaging than the listless raps. The easy "Remember When" is a highlight. Overall, however, The Cookbook isn't as delectable as it could have been. Coming from a gifted, flavorful artist like Elliott, the new servings are surprisingly bland.

Jeff Klein, The Hustler: For his latest album, the New York-born singer-songwriter went down to New Orleans to record. But the city's rich, lively, soulful musical spirit doesn't seem to have influenced the dark, mostly stagnant tunes of The Hustler. The CD is the follow-up to Klein's enthusiastically applauded Everybody Loves a Winner from 2002. Like the songs on that album, the lyrics on The Hustler are mostly melancholic and strained by forced poetics. Check out these lines from the title track. "The city is making love to itself / And my eyes are red with envious thoughts / And the smoke that pours out of its mouth fills my lungs and breaks my will down." Oh. OK.

The rest isn't very memorable. The tunes tend to meander. And Klein's slurred, brooding vocals are overly affected. "The hustler" really needs to flip his game.

Shannon McNally, Geronimo: She reminds me of Shelby Lynne, whom I love. Like Lynne, McNally is a gutsy chick whose music is smart and plenty soulful with inflections of the blues glimmering here and there. The native New Yorker, like Klein, recorded her latest album in Louisiana. But homegirl dug much deeper. In 14 sweltering days last summer, the singer-songwriter recorded Ge-ronimo at Dockside Studios, deep in bayou country. The result is a dusky, well-executed album with a comfortable, lived-in feel. The grooves are mellow, warmed by acoustic guitars, pedal steel and tasteful organ swells. McNally delivers thoughtful, inspired vocals throughout, recalling at times a young Bonnie Raitt. There's not one dud on the 12-song set. But "The Worst Part of a Broken Heart" stands out for its lilting, elegant arrangement and the artist's vivid, sensitive storytelling. Fluid and satisfying, Geronimo, the follow-up to McNally's slightly cautious 2002 debut Jukebox Sparrows, is a bold, beautiful jump forward.

Anthony Hamilton, Soulife: Some of you probably thought the gritty soul singer made his debut two years ago with the excellent, platinum seller Comin' From Where I'm From. But Hamilton, a short dude with a rough beard and an affinity for net-and-foam caps, has been making records since 1995. Nobody heard 'em, though. MCA released XTC, the singer's debut, in 1996 -- a full year after it was recorded. But with no promotion the CD fell into a black hole and is no longer in print. About three years later, Hamilton signed on to the Soulife label, whose roster included Sunshine Anderson. But just when the singer was about to drop his sophomore effort in 2001, the company folded and the album never hit store shelves.

Until now. After selling a million copies of and receiving a Grammy nomination for Comin', Atlantic / Rhino Records decided to finally issue that canned sophomore album. If you fell in love with the spare, dusty grooves and emotive vocals on the North Carolina native's breakthrough, Soulife may catch you a little off guard. The artist's vocals are consistently stellar, but the musical backdrop is very slick and too dominant. A gifted singer like Hamilton needs air, some room to let his voice work its wonder.

Though the tunes are generally well-crafted, they aren't as penetrating as the ones on Comin'. One album standout is "Love and War," a brilliant duet with Macy Gray, that was previously released on the Baby Boy soundtrack. In essence, Soulife is an interesting, if sometimes unremarkable, look back at a performer who's just beginning to push his art forward.

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