Valentine's Day is this weekend, and if you're planning to avoid the crowds at area restaurants and spend a quiet, romantic evening at home, you might stop a moment to consider what your musical backdrop will be. Rhino Records has released several discs with R&B oldies in its Smooth Grooves compilation series, and Columbia has just issued a Songs From The Heart compilation including ballads taken from new or recent albums in its catalogue from Harry Connick Jr., Julio Iglesias, Michael Bolton, Shawn Colvin, James Taylor, Johnny Mathis, Billy Joel and more. If it's instrumental fare you want, last week I wrote about the Windham Hill Records collection of piano instrumentals Songs Without Words which includes gentle piano ballads by Jim Brickman, Stephen Sondheim, Carole King, David Foster, and more. Below are three brand new albums which can help set a variety of moods for your Valentine weekend.
Think Like A Girl
"If it's love you want from me, then take it," King breathes in a silky tone in the midst of her cover of Culture Club's "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me." It's one of two well-chosen remakes on Think Like A Girl, and makes for a perfect Valentine's backdrop of romantically understated reggae.
King is Jamaican by birth (she now lives in Florida) and in her music blends smooth American R&B with her native reggae flavor for a cross cultural musical mix that's often entrancing. In the ballad "Just A Little Tenderness" King offers a sweet melody of "lights down low" love that would easily sit between Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston ballads on the adult contemporary radio dial. With a lightly strummed guitar and exotic but understated percussion she sings "Just a little tenderness at the end of the day/is all a woman needs to take her fears away."
But don't get the idea that this is an album of candlelight ballads. King updates Burt Bacharach's "I Say A Little Prayer" with a punchy piano, gospel background vocals and a dance beat to create an anthem of celebration. And the album's title track and opening song, "Think Like A Girl" is a reggae-dosed bit of girl power that brings to mind reggae-pop crossover hits by Shaggy and Musical Youth. This could have women everywhere singing along with King as she declares: "A girl she needs affection/a man he needs direction...if you could think like a girl/it would a be such a perfect world." The boys might beg to differ, but it's an amazingly catchy anthem.
In "L-L-Lies," where King complains about two-timing lying men, she manages to drop more stuttering reggae toasting consonants than I've ever heard in a four-minute song. It's probably the most true "island-music" piece on the album and shows King's heritage off well.
This is really a well-produced disc that's got just the right amount of reggae to put up a party atmosphere, but enough soft moments to make it also playable for evening relaxation.
Autour de Lucie
Want something French to play for your Valentines mood? How about the second album from Parisian trio Autour de Lucie. Musically, the band fits into the expansive modern rock set of bands like Lush and Frente and the band was featured on some legs of the Lilith Fair tour last summer. The catch is, all of the lyrics to their songs are sung by Valerie Leuillot in French. It's probably one of the few French pop albums you're likely to find in an American record store.
Featuring more of the band's guitar strumming than their debut, Immobile is a mysterious-sounding bit of romantic mood rock. If you're adventurous (or studying French) check it out.
The cover of Loeb's second album features the singer-songwriter looking very 1950-ish in a pastel watercolor picture painting. The look suits Loeb's pristine guitar pop. She's a modern girl with old fashioned sensibilities (and glasses). In "I Do" she has crafted a hit single about the inner turmoil of feeling ignored in love. And in "Falling In Love," she notes with a certain cynicism that "the time between meeting and finally leaving is sometimes called falling in love."
Love dominates Loeb's easy listening acoustic guitar creations, but she manages to keep it from getting too saccharin of a subject through these 12 tracks. And she does also manage to avoid simply banging out one same-sounding guitar riff after another. In "Falling In Love" she soars with an orchestra and a country-tinged guitar tone. "Truthfully" is based around piano chording and a falsetto chorus. And "Let's Forget About It" moves in a Jules Shear-sounding perfect pop mode with a bouncing bassline and singalong chorus.
There are a couple tracks that tend to flow on by without calling any attention to themselves ("How," "Jake") and Loeb makes one serious misstep in "Furious Rose," which features a soundtrack-heavy dose of string arrangement and an almost spoken word reading of the story lyrics. It's an interesting experiment for Loeb, but not one that begs repeated listening.
She recovers quickly though; "Wishing Heart" sounds like a Paul Westerberg pop rocker and "Dance With The Angels" which weaves in a nice jazzy guitar and keyboard feel, features a great poetic chorus: "you want to dance with the angels?/then embroider me with gold, and I will fly with the angels and you can dance with me."
Loeb is like the shy girl next door who comes alive when she picks up the old acoustic guitar and sings with clear, unaffected emotion. With Firecracker this "girl next door" offers a refreshing, relaxing and yes, sometimes romantic, listen.