New Tunes On Monday: Yusuf (Cat Stevens), Ben Harper and Relentless7, Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band, New York Dolls, and Paul Potts

06/03/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Yusuf - Roadsinger

Ever since Cat Stevens changed his name and embraced Islam, the West (more specifically, the U.S.) has been clueless when it comes to accepting the former superstar/singer-songwriter and his faith. But an attentive listen to his latest release, Roadsinger, is a good start in rebuilding that emotional bridge to the pacifist who created the gentle Tea For The Tillerman and Teaser And The Firecat, the overtly spiritual "Morning Has Broken," and the ever-relevant "Peace Train." Yusuf's new album does not pick up where his last project, An Other Cup, left off. Instead, it could be considered the followup to Teaser And The Firecat, as if all the albums since were in Pam Ewing's pre-Bobby-in-the-shower dream (not that we'd want that, there were some pretty good LPs in that propsed imaginary batch). There is some spiritualism scattered about his new songs, but remember, Cat Stevens heavily peppered his A&M records with it (Buddha And The Chocolate Box anyone?).

Our fresh start begins with "Welcome Home," its lyrics, "Never did I imagine what a dawn could be 'til I opened my eyes to see it was welcoming me," summarizing its message best. Next, it's time for a love song with "Thinking 'Bout You" in which Yusuf sings, "No matter what they say, no matter what they do, I'll always love you," as sweetly and simply as his innocent "How Can I Tell You." In the Tracy Chapman-ish "Everytime I Dream Of You," the artist gets a subtle horn section to emphasize its bluesy melody and lyrics. Accompanied by a dramatic string arrangement reminiscent of "Sad Lisa," "The Rain" talks about creating a new world while briefly discussing that little matter of building a modern ark. That intensity continues through "World O' Darkness" ("Some sons dream of leaving while they're young at heart, a few choose the path to war, it's the land beyond the dark"), and also through "Be What You Must" whose intro cops, note-for-note, Catch Bull At Four's "Sitting." Right before its children's chorus and piano solo start, Yusuf informs us, "On this boat called Near & Far, to be what you must, you must give up what you are."

The brief "This Glass World" starts off like "The Wind," then evolves into a sing-along that seemingly grabs passersby (like Gunnar Nelson and The Hollies' Terry Sylvester) to help emphasize lines. And in the title track, Yusuf spins an adult fairytale that ponders where children will go to avoid a dark world in a kind of updated "Where Do The Children Play?" "All Kinds Of Roses" addresses diversity, and the last track, "Shamsia," is more of a poem set to minor keyed-strings that completes his Roadsinger's journey. When you think about it, that journey started years ago when a young man named Cat Stevens was "On The Road To Find Out." Decades later, a more mature Yusuf resurfaced with knowledge about that road and the world it led to. As the ending of the song "Welcome Home" reminds us, "Time rolls on, ain't no time to sit and moan..."

1. Welcome Home
2. Thinking 'Bout You
3. Everytime I Dream
4. The Rain
5. World O' Darkness
6. Be What You Must
7. This Glass World
8. Roadsinger
9. All Kinds Of Roses
10. Dream On (Until...)
11. Shamsia

Ben Harper and Relentless7 - White Lies For Dark Times

Not everything on Ben Harper's latest will hit you like the blues-rocker, "Lay There And Hate Me." That's not to say the album fails in any way...actually, it's pretty good. But with a new band in tow, there could have been more musical twists and turns in Harper's latest than a seventies classic rock sound with Lenny Kravitz meets early Steve Winwood affectations. White Lies For Dark Times definitely will please older demo Harper fans that admire Steve Miller and ZZ Top, and a younger skew that prefers Dave Matthews and a more rocking Chris Cornell. And although the standard logic is to put your strongest singles up front when sequencing, delivering a one-two-three punch with the rockers "Number With No Name," "Up To You Now," and "Shimmer And Shine" sets up a more casual listen than this artist deserves.

Like on every past album, there's lyrical depth on many songs such as the confessional "Skin Thin." Harper sings Cat Stevens-style, "Now that you've grown up, you can finally learn to be a child...we made it to the end of the world, but we'll never make it out alive," and the track "Fly One Time" revisits the melodic, anthem-spouting Ben Harper jangle of albums past. While "Boots Like These" (as in "you gotta live my life to get boots like these...") grooves along with a refreshing fratty chaos, "Keep It Together" gets a bit too jam-band-y to be taken as seriously as the lyrics suggest. On one of the album's best tracks, "The Word Suicide," we're dreamily waltzed to the chorus' hook "love is a lonely room," and its moodiness perfectly sets up the beautiful acoustic closer, "Faithfully Remain." The song tells us, "Some things you have to let be lost," which, of course, is a beautiful sentiment--that is, as long as it doesn't coincide with Harper's perfected honest intimacy, something that's a little lacking on White Lies For Dark Times. But the album is solid, and for those left wanting more, perhaps the deluxe CD/DVD version containing live and interview footage in its Keep It Together documentary, a photo gallery, plus the video for "Shimmer And Shine" could do the trick.

1. Number With No Name
2. Up To You Now
3. Shimmer And Shine
4. Lay There And Hate Me
5. Why Must You Always Dress In Black
6. Skin Thin
7. Fly One Time
8. Keep It Together (So I Can Fall Apart)
9. Boots Like These
10. The Word Suicide
11. Faithfully Remain

Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band - Outer South

After releasing a truckload of albums and EPs as both a solo artist and band participant, after co-founding the indie label Saddle Creek Records (originally called Lumberjack Records) with his brother Justin, and after becoming the flagship of what has been classified as the "Nebraska" sound, Conor Oberst has the chutzpah to sing, "Potential, well, you're a loaded line, the veil between the world and a faceless bride," on the semi-slacker anthem, "Slowly (Oh So Slowly)." Though it obviously doesn't apply to him personally, that's one of many lyrically rich songs Oberst and his previous album's entourage traverse across Outer South--his new collaborative effort with returning guitarists Taylor Hollingsworth and Nik Freitas, bassist Macey Taylor, keyboardist Nathaniel Walcott, and drummer Jason Boesel. Outer South's sixteen Americana-driven original songs (with contributions by Mystic Valley's Freitas, Hollingsworth, and Boesel) have a bit more reflective fun than our usual Bright Eyes or Conor Oberst outing, especially on the fully fleshed-out quickies "Air Mattress," "Cabbage Town" (with its slight Elvis Costello snarl), and "Nikorette" (that nips a bit from "Willie And The Hand Jive").

On the other hand, the sparse track "Ten Women" finds Oberst in Dylanland, with a chord structure and phrasings that would make the master proud. The band approaches "Difference Is Time" like The Band crossed with The Wallflowers and an end vocal section that might as well have been arranged by fellow Nebraskan, Matthew Sweet. "Bloodline" has the best shot at "hit single" (if it can muscle past pitch-corrected chart competitors), but the finest track is the emotionally-wrought, cavern-echoed "White Shoes" that demands repeated listens to make sure one doesn't miss a moment of either the lyrics or delivery of this stellar offering. Another emotionally-charged song (complete with references to Hunter S. Thompson, Ernest Hemingway, and Omaha Beach) is the acerbic, political rant, "Roosevelt Room," that takes machine gun aim at politicos, especially during its biting chorus, "What good, what good are you!" It's like the spiritual love child of an immediately post-Buffalo Springfield Neil Young, a youthful, angrier Bob Dylan, and a punk of your choice.

Extremely prolific and often profound, Conor Oberst is very much a forward thinker, so it's ironic to hear him sing lyrics in "Slowly (Oh So Slowly)" that state, "My mind keeps slippin' back into the past, I hope someday that I can get it back." What's more appropriate is his line in "To All The Lights In The Windows": "That's the thing about charisma--it makes everyone believe." Over the last few years, Oberst has elevated his critical status (while approaching critical mass) by delivering an endless stream of quality projects as Bright Eyes (especially Cassadaga), an enlightening "Oberst" album, and now this collaborative group effort. Though his recording "Lua" still is a college classic, Outer South's more "commercial" band approach may deliver that big radio acceptance and extended tour that will help Oberst introduce his multi-faceted story to what's left of the masses still unfamiliar with his work. If you're in that category, this is the album to come in on, but you'll want more, so get Conor Oberst next, then Cassadaga. And regardless of whether or not Outer South sells millions, this artist's future releases always will sound like they're the next big thing.

1. Slowly (Oh So Slowly)
2. To All the Lights in the Windows
3. Big Black Nothing
4. Air Mattress
5. Cabbage Town
6. Ten Women
7. Difference Is Time
8. Nikorette
9. White Shoes
10. Bloodline
11. Spoiled
12. Worldwide
13. Roosevelt Room
14. Eagle On A Pole
15. I Got the Reason #2
16. Snake Hill

New York Dolls - 'Cause I Sez So

The proto-punkers are back! Kind of. Todd Rundgren has reunited with his glammy chums of yore to produce their best time-warping romp since their '73 debut, New York Dolls. Right off the bat, lead singer David Johansen--sans his Jagger swagger--spews lines such as "I'm gonna kick your ass" ("Better Than You"), "I give the finger to the eye in the sky" ("'Cause I Sez So"), and "Heirs of the flagellants spreading that joy around" ("Muddy Bones") like he was spitting punched-out teeth. Of the original members, only David Jo and guitarist Sylvain Mizrahi attend the reunion that includes Rundgren-retrofied rockers (the above-mentioned tracks), mid-tempo visits to the mid-'6os ("Lonely So Long," not The Rascals' version), bluesy graveyard shuffles ("This Is Ridiculous"), J. Geils Band impressions ("Nobody's Got No Bizness"), rock romps ala The Animals ("Drowning"), and latin-laced Morricone marches ("Temptation To Exist"). Guitarist Steve Conte, bassist Sami Yaffa, and drummer Brian Delaney fill-in nicely for past members (except for the irreplaceable founding member, Johnny Thunder) as everyone scoots along Memory Lane. As the album winds down, the re-record of "Trash" revisits the band's classic track with a detour through Jamaica, and the album closer, "Exorcism Of Despair," rocks as hard as the old days, when five androgynous founding fathers in makeup and platform shoes glam-punked their way into the music books.

1. 'Cause I Sez So
2. Muddy Bones
3. Better Than You
4. Lonely So Long
5. My World
6. This Is Ridiculous
7. Temptation To Exist
8. Making Rain
9. Drowning
10. Nobody Got No Bizness
11. Trash
12. Exorcism Of Despair

Paul Potts - Passione

In "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," its composer, Ewan McColl, continued that title's sentiment with the lines, "I thought the sun rose in your eyes, and the moon and the stars were the gifts you gave to the dark and the empty skies, my love." To many, these lyrics were poetry, especially when seductively phrased by Roberta Flack in her career-igniting hit of the seventies. But that song's melody communicates an equally poetic message, and Paul Potts' lushly-orchestrated Italian translation on his latest album, Passione, spotlights the song's extremely romantic nature while wringing emotion out of each phonetic regardless of its national origin. That mission is continued across this project's ten tracks (pared down from sixty potential candidates), the result being a mix of classical works and American and English pop songs that were converted into operatic Italian. Expanding on the direction of his previous album, One Chance, this project's recordings are structured around the '07 winner of Britain's Got Talent's exploration of each song's true romantic nature. "The whole philosophy behind this album is about passion," says Potts, explaining the collection's title. "I wanted to make sure it was an album about passion, and not simply a 'love' album or an 'arias' mix which have been done a lot. I wanted to make sure it was an album that showed different sides of me, and showed different sides of music."

"There are many sides to passion," Potts adds about his disparate choices in material. Unified under its theme, Passione reinvents and translates such pop hits as Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" (his father-in-law's favorite song of all time), Nina Rota's "A Time For Us" (featured in '68's Franco Zeffirelli-directed Romeo & Juliet), and even Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats highlight, "Memory," turning them all into modern arias. A particularly intriguing conversion is his duet with 22-year-old Hayley Westerna on their cover of the Josh Groban/Sarah Brightman collaboration, "There For Me." His assertive vocals, Westerna's warm set-up and vocal replies, the perfect blend of their unison lines, plus the song's translation into Italian, surprisingly outshines the original with a broader emotional appeal. "I think it's good when people realize that classical music, or any music, isn't just for select groups of people," says the singer. "It's there for everyone to's all about what makes people feel good."

But as well as these pop makeovers work, tracks such as "Tristesse" and "E Lucevan Le Stelle" suggest that a serious arias album--despite that being too stereotypical as Potts suggests--might be an eventual wise career move since he has the pipes, and it could be an impressive, challenging next step for him. "It's something I'd love to do at some point," Potts reveals, "but only when I'm ready. I continue to work on my technique, to challenge myself to perform better. I'm my own harshest critic." So, for the moment, the contest winner turned cultural icon is growing as an artist, treading smartly on his preferred creative path as he is continuously supported by his loving wife, Julie-Anne, who he credits for energizing him as she stood by his every past endeavor to pursue music. He also is well aware of his audience's passions and its tastes. "I'm only doing what I'm doing because people have been good enough to support me," he acknowledges. "They've gone out and bought the albums, and watched me perform. Without them, I don't have a career, and that's something I'll never forget."

1. La Prima Volta (The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face)
2. Sei Con Me (There For Me) - featuring Hayley Westernra
3. Un Giorno Per Moi (A Time For Us)
4. Il Canto
5. Senza Luce (A Whiter Shade Of Pale)
6. Piano (Memory)
7. Mamma
8. Tristesse
9. Bellamore
10. E Lucevan Le Stelle

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