On our playlist this week, we have a young pop diva wannabe with the potential to deliver a knockout album. But on her new release, the singer's first in three years, she is still in need of tighter material. A highly acclaimed artist on the list has a more focused effort this time around, but it takes a few spins to get into. A successful goth-inspired rock band from my hometown of Little Rock, Ark., has just released what is ultimately a flat album. But on the more consistent side, we have a brilliant British-based collective whose latest set is a gorgeous masterstroke.
Monica, The Makings of Me: The Atlanta-based pop star released her multiplatinum debut, Miss Thang, a decade ago. Although she was just 14 at the time, her gutsy vocals (a bit reminiscent of a young Evelyn "Champagne" King) belied her years. Since then, Monica's release schedule has been a bit sluggish. She has put out three more albums. One was excellent (1998's The Boy is Mine); another was uneven and mostly forgettable (2003's After the Storm).
Although The Makings of Me reveals Monica's vocal maturation, the record is still inconsistent. On it, the new mother apparently wants to show us more of her "real" self. (She appears topless on the album cover.) Monica didn't write any of the new material, which is puzzling because the self-penned tunes on After the Storm showed promise. However, she manages to sound connected to the songs written for her -- lyrics that focus mostly on love's ugly side.
Missy Elliott, who produced the artist's last hit singles "So Gone" and "Knock Knock," oversees the new album's standout tracks: The creamy, nostalgic "A Dozen Roses (You Remind Me)" samples generous chunks of Curtis Mayfield's 1970 classic "The Makings of You," and "Doin' Me Right" is a sexy, breezy midtempo joint built on the Whispers' "Chocolate Girl." The Makings of Me is dotted with a few boring, go-nowhere club tracks (namely "Raw" and the first single "Everytime Tha Beat Drop").
On the new record, it is clear that Monica wants to re-introduce herself as a gritty 'hood diva a la Mary J. Blige, but this role isn't very convincing. She may rock blond tresses and tattoos these days, but underneath it all Monica is still a pop singer, albeit a soulful one. The artist should do herself a favor and sing material that better showcases her vocal style, which has evolved into a smooth, elegant approach.
Beck, The Information: Even when he's playing it safe, Beck still challenges his listeners. The Los Angeles native and his producers freely smear colors and textures, crafting inventive soundscapes that reveal something new with each listen. The same can be said about the artist's new CD, which comes with sticker pages and a blank front so that you can design your own cover. It's more exciting and colorful than his previous set, last year's slightly listless Guero.
As with all of Beck's albums, The Information takes a few listens to absorb. But is it worth it? Well, if you're a fan, the collage of sound, produced by Nigel Godrich, is a welcome return to the experimental spirit and artful noise of 1996's masterful Odelay. Though meticulous, the production still comes off as fresh and spontaneous. If you're new to the artist, The Information may be a bit overwhelming as Beck veers from hip-hop to disco to country motifs, sometimes all within the same song.
But the contained wildness is irresistible, the grooves fat and punchy. During the first half, Beck extends his quirky white-guy funk on "Elevator Music" and "Nausea." Although the kaleidoscopic music often overshadows his rhythmic, at times melodic, ramblings behind the mike, the artist manages to keep the music interesting throughout, which is no easy feat given all the styles he bends, chops and mixes together.
Evanescence, The Open Door: This band is perhaps the biggest thing to come out of Arkansas since former President Bill Clinton. With Fallen, its 2003 debut, the goth-inspired rock outfit twisted together elements of Linkin Park and Tori Amos into a polished if unoriginal sound that garnered two Grammys. The album sold more than 6 million copies worldwide. But to paraphrase Biggie Smalls, with "mo' money" came "mo' problems."
Because of "creative differences," songwriter-guitarist Ben Moody abruptly left the fold during the band's 2003 European tour. His replacement, guitarist Terry Balsamo, suffered a stroke last fall, and bassist Will Boyd bolted a few months later. So it's a wonder Evanescence, spearheaded now by lead singer-pianist and focal point Amy Lee, even released another album.