'LIVE TO WIN'
Paul Stanley (Universal)
Underneath the Starchild makeup and atop the 7-inch platform heels, Kiss lead singer Paul Stanley has always had the heart of a talented songwriter. On "Live To Win," he casts off the shackles of Kiss and dishes up a second solo disc that's more Foo Fighters than Frehley.
But the modern sound is welded to a firm foundation of '70s and '80s rock and proves there's a lot more to this man than pouty red lips and a rose tattoo.
Many of the songs appear to deal with the recent turmoil in Stanley's life, including a divorce, remarriage and the birth of a child, and the title track drips with angst, tempered with an "I'm-not-giving-in" defiance. "Lift" is about a quest for forgiveness and redemption from a broken love, and "Wake Up Screaming" is perhaps the most infectious track here, with its electronic drum beat giving way to a thundering chorus amid the kind of catchy hook Stanley has been dishing up for three decades.
"Bulletproof" is the closest thing to classic Kiss here. It sounds a lot like 1988's "Rock Hard," and could have fit in easily on 1989's "Hot In The Shade" LP. "It's Not Me" weds a Prince-like groove to more memorable melodies and scorching guitar.
The downside of a solo album is there's no one around to say, "What are you, kidding?" when particularly cheesy ballads are proffered, and he has three chunks of cheddar here that make the much-maligned "Hold Me, Touch Me" from his 1978 solo album sound like "Stairway To Heaven."
--Wayne Parry, Associated Press
'SONGS FROM THE LABYRINTH: MUSIC BY JOHN DOWLAND'
Sting and Edin Karamazov
Sting -- ex-Police captain, star of "The Bride" -- has long suffered critics' ravings that this super smart golden boy is nothing but a pretentious twit.
What about us critics? We've had to endure the smothering preciousness of "History Will Teach Us Nothing," "The Soul Cages," covering Prokofiev for "Russians."
And we have. We even delighted at his mention of "Nabokov."
But 17th-century music with lutes and Elizabethan verse? Come on, now.
Fans of Sting's thespian efforts (both of you) will take pleasure in his actor's rasp crisply intoning the high, slow "Flow, my tears (Lachrimae)" and the busy "Can she excuse my wrongs?" But melancholy madrigalist Dowland (1563-1626) surely didn't mean for his four-part harmonies to sound like a third-rate Queen or to have his prose seem dippy.
And when Sting in his best Renaissance Faire oration says something about jarring sounds during, it's all one can do to cease from tittering so.
Roxaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaanne, please come home.
--A.D. Amorosi, Philadelphia Inquirer
'STRAIGHT OUTTA LYNWOOD'
"Weird Al" Yankovic (Volcano)
The title of "Weird Al" Yankovic's latest, "Straight Outta Lynwood," is intended as an homage to his California hometown and to N.W.A's seminal 1989 album, "Straight Outta Compton." But it inadvertently serves as a reminder that Yankovic and his good-natured parodies might be sadly outdated.
He takes aim at present-day chart-toppers such as Usher's "Confessions Part II" and Taylor Hicks' "Do I Make You Proud" with his cleverly twisted rewrites, but the execution is uninspired. Yankovic's most incisive and appropriate parody, a spoof of James Blunt's "You're Beautiful" ("You're Pitiful"), is curiously absent from the album. His originals, a vital source of originality and sophistication in recent albums, fall flat here. Of these, only the bizarre Brian Wilson-esque "Pancreas" demands repeated listens.
Yankovic and his extraordinarily versatile bandmates are still the best at what they do, but the dwindling dominance of pop music and the increasing edginess of pop culture have made their vocation more difficult.
--Jason Hammersla, Hartford Courant
Sarah McLachlan (Arista)
Sarah McLachlan takes Christmas seriously. Her new "Wintersong" isn't a festive collection of holiday tunes. There are no kitschy covers of "Santa Baby;" no boisterous versions of "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas;" no joyful "Sleigh Rides;" no giddy "Let It Snows." That's not McLachlan's style.
Perhaps "Wintersong's" most gleeful moment is the faint piano riff of "Jingle Bells" that floats out like an apparition toward the end of her textured version of Joni Mitchell's melancholy "River." And even if she projects an uplifting message with "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," the song is hardly awash in levity.
Yet while "Wintersong" isn't a party album, it's an unusually gorgeous one -- regal and reverent, with only a trace of the stagy preciousness that sometimes hounds somber artists such as McLachlan.
No one could cover John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" and make it their own, but McLachlan makes a poignant go of it. She also delivers lovely, understated versions of "What Child Is This? (Greensleeves)" and "I'll Be Home for Christmas" -- though the line that jumps out on her version of the latter is "... if only in my dreams."
"Wintersong's" other highlights include a "Silent Night," featuring appropriately angelic backing vocals, and a lush collaboration with pianist Diana Krall on "Christmas Time Is Here" (from the cartoon "A Charlie Brown Christmas").
--Chuck Campbell, Scripps Howard
'SOME PEOPLE CHANGE'
On "Redder Than That," Eddie Montgomery and Troy Gentry sing about attending a high school reunion and realizing, to their obvious delight, that they and their friends remain as redneck as ever. With "Some People Change," the dependable country-rocking duo remain at their rousing best when they let that unapologetic good-old-boy side show, whether warning an ex-lover that "Your Tears Are Coming" or delivering the general flip-off "What Do Ya Think About That." Not that these tough guys can't show a tender side -- they do it well with "Lucky Man" and the father-son saga "Twenty Years Ago."
All of that almost makes up for the serious PC mushiness of "Some People Change" (not as quickly or as cleanly as the racist and the alcoholic here, they don't) and "Takes All Kinds" (you know, to make the world go 'round). "Clouds," meanwhile, is a howlingly bad ballad that sounds more like a parody of a tearjerker than the real thing.
--Nick Cristiano, Philadelphia Inquirer