Bria Valente, Prince's latest protege included in his three-CD release earlier this year, should be looking over her shoulder. On her debut album "Pretty Mess," Angeleno Erika Jayne makes no bones about emulating the luxurious, erotic sounds trademarked by the Minneapolis mack daddy. She even covers Apollonia's hit "Sex Shooter" and enlists Sheila E's quaking drums on "Time to Realize."
Influences are unavoidable and Prince's ocean is many fathoms deep, but Jayne's obsession with one-note sexual fantasies keeps her bound -- albeit in satin handcuffs with feather trim -- to imitation instead of inventing her own style.
Jayne also loves a certain Detroit dancer, spinning as many dance-floor seductions as she does silky cocoons for lovers -- but both modes lack counterpoints, nor does she fully surrender to the id. We won't lose our bodies to the music if the singer sounds like she's waiting for Madonna's approval.
In "Beautiful," the prismatic beauty of diamonds, crystals and an aqua pool at midnight are all conjured, but it's not plush enough.
The production of the album (from dance-world luminaries Eric Kupper and Peter Rafelson, among others) excels at creating glistening surface texture, but it's impossible to sink deeply into "Pretty Mess." It's too ingratiating in lyric and intent; not only does Jayne want to sit in Prince's lap, she wants to sit in ours too.
There are some lively, inspired moments. The Parisian cabaret intro to "Everybody Wants Some" quickly scorches into hard candy synths, and "Roller Coaster," with its risque chants, will suit a frothed-up dance floor just fine, but "Pretty Mess" is too obvious. If only Jayne had played hard to get.
-- Margaret Wappler
Meet George Strait, songwriter
* * *
When the Academy of Country Music recently crowned George Strait "artist of the decade" of the '00s, they commissioned a song for the occasion, sung to Strait and his family by Lee Ann Womack, called "Just Stand There and Sing."
Strait is lionized for his uncomplicated approach to country music, as well as his skill at identifying and recording hit songs mostly written by others. But on this outing, there's evidence of another facet of his talent that doesn't often get the spotlight: his craftiness.
"Twang" serves as a pretty nifty summation of what commercial country is, circa 2009. Strait's albums have sometimes suffered from stylistic predictability, and this one, like his others, doesn't dive very deep into emotional territory, but it's still a standout in a long, hit-filled repertory.
The snappy title track, written by Jim Lauderdale, Kendell Marvel and Jimmy Ritchey, opens the album with a self-reflective celebration of the classic sounds that spill out of a honky-tonk jukebox every Saturday night.
From there, Strait and his team touch all the bases on the geographical and musical map of the south: Nashville stop-and-smell-the-roses balladry ("Where Have I Been All My Life"), Gulf-flavored romanticism ("I Gotta Get to You"), Memphis country soul ("Same Kind of Crazy"), Louisiana pepper ("Hot Grease and Zydeco") and a traditional rural folk narrative ("Arkansas Dave"). In perhaps the biggest surprise Strait's delivered in years, he turns in a fully authentic and openly emotional reading, en espanol perfecto, of the border mariachi classic "El Rey." Otra vez!
Even more significant is the appearance at this late date of George Strait, songwriter. Almost exclusively an interpreter of others' compositions for the last three decades, the Texan, at 57, has written three of these 13 numbers, with help from his son, Bubba, who also snags a solo songwriting credit on "Arkansas Dave," a tale of moral comeuppance that Johnny Cash might have appreciated.
Strait's own songs -- "Living for the Night," "Out of Sight Outta Mind" and "He's Got That Something Special" -- focus on guys who don't realize the good thing they had until it was too late.
It would seem that Strait is crafty enough not to miss that message as it applies to the music lurking within him.
-- Randy Lewis
One singer, but many styles
* * *
This English art-pop eccentric has said that "The Bachelor," his fourth studio disc, was originally intended to be the first half of a double album about "my father's cancer, my solitude, my true love, my Irish roots, everything that has touched me to the core in the last year," as he wrote recently in a typically grandiloquent MySpace post.
Don't let the fact that "The Bachelor" now arrives on its own lead you to believe that Wolf has scaled back his artistic ambitions; this is the only record likely to be released in 2009 with guest spots from both actress Tilda Swinton and Alec Empire, the German digi-punk guru.
Wolf covers a staggering amount of creative ground across these 14 tracks: In "Damaris," a lover's lament presumably titled after the New Testament figure, he's in winsome Pet Shop Boys mode, complete with heavy-breathing over booming synth stabs. "Hard Times" reimagines Arcade Fire's sweeping indie rock as a kind of handmade disco, while "Battle" thrashes with fuzzy heavy-metal guitars. Built atop a hushed organ hum, "Who Will?" is a hymn in all but name.
Listeners who are not acquainted with the idiosyncratic vocal stylings of Wolf's Britpop predecessors (think of Bryan Ferry, Dave Gahan and especially Morrissey) might find his singing too over the top to take seriously.
The way Wolf sees it, though, very serious topics require very dramatic treatment.
-- Mikael Wood