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Mike Ragogna

Mike Ragogna

Posted February 24, 2009 | 05:40 AM (EST)

HuffPost Reviews: The Annie Lennox Collection/Simply Red 25 - The Greatest Hits


THE ANNIE LENNOX COLLECTION

Spanning seventeen years, a proper Annie Lennox retrospective of her solo material finally arrives. Heavily built on '90s-era hits, The Annie Lennox Collection is a mix of grooves, ballads, and two new recordings, and it is the artist's first official assembly of top charters and best tracks that represent her albums Diva (1992), Medusa (1995), Bare (2003), and Songs of Mass Destruction (2008). Much like the artist, all of these recordings have aged very well, with main producer Steve Lipson's synth-dominated soundscapes still as engaging as when they first were released.

Lennox's smart sequence perfectly juggles song keys and topics that pace the collection with a loose storyline filled with love, feminism and self-exploration. From the opening song's vibrant "ah" crescendos to the last track's lone "yeah..." backed by a solo piano, this project proceeds more like a well-conceived, original album than a simple retrospective. And though lyrics are included in the white eco-friendly packaging, Lennox emotes so much through her icy-to-passionate phrasings that it's almost distracting to be reading along while the CD plays.

In the collection's opener, "Little Bird," Lennox observes the creature's freedom as it glides across the sky. Though the song starts out with self-doubt, she concludes, "...this little bird's fallen out of that nest now...so I've just got to put these wings to test," and both she and the collection soar from that point on. In one of her biggest hits, "Walking On Broken Glass," Lennox rolls out its words Joan Armatrading-style, proclaiming, "Every one of us is made to suffer, every one of us is made to weep." Then, almost to prove the opposite point, she happily gavottes with the groove in both the CD's track and in her tongue-in-cheek, period piece video that features guests Hugh Laurie and John Malkovich. Lennox's original material tends to play like this--no literal translations need apply. However, in "Precious," Diva's international hit, though the groove's the thing, the lyrics literally are precious and quite clear as Lennox sweetly thanks her baby daughter for being in her life, even sharing with her, "I was lost until you came."

By the middle of the collection, on the ambitious track "Sing," Lennox assembles over twenty international female recording artists that include Madonna, Fergie, Celine Dion, Sarah McLachlan, Shakira, KT Thunstall, Dido, Gladys Knight, Melissa Etheridge, Faith Hill, Beth Orton, Bonnie Raitt, Martha Wainright, k.d. lang, and Anastacia, creating a charitable revenue stream for the AIDS foundation, Treatment Action Committee. The recording's choruses chant, "Sing, my sister, sing, let your voice be heard, what won't kill you will make you strong," during which Lennox's vocals soar above the women's congregation. The track reveals just how powerful a singer--and socially-conscious humanitarian--she really is.

However, the majority of this album's songs showcase Lennox, if not in crisis, in heightened drama. One sensational four-song sequence starts with the emotionally drained artist walking against the "Pavement Cracks" of a gray-skied city, asking, "Where is my comfort zone, a simple place to call my own." We may find a clue as to why she's feeling so drained in "Love Song For A Vampire" from Francis Ford Coppola's Hollywood take on Bram Stoker's Dracula. In that piece, Lennox sings the poem, "Once I had the rarest rose that ever deigned to bloom, cruel winter chilled the bud and stole my flower too soon," slyly transporting us from Stoker's world to that of Anne Rice's without our realizing. Its imagery and line, "Let me be the only one to keep you from the cold," cues-up "Cold," whose clever lyrics, "Dying is easy, it's living that scares me to death," serve as a potential alternate conclusion to "...Vampire." Then comes her "Dark Road" (with its slight melodic pilfering of Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'") that, as Lennox writes in the package's notes, is a "metaphor for life's journey"--the artist on "a dark way" that leads to her "house." Like the house, she has an open door that "didn't get there by itself," so we're left wondering if this is a warning, an invitation for love, or evidence of a great escape.

Mostly, The Annie Lennox Collection is a testament to her strength. In her biggest hit, "Why"--with a vocal approach that evokes Sting and Paul Simon--she declares, "This is the book I never read, these are the words I never said, this is the path I'll never tread," but then adds, "These are the dreams I'll dream instead," making this her sideways stab at creating her own "My Way" (as the artist points out in the notes). Going back to "Little Bird," Lennox admits in its lyrics, "I am just a troubled soul...weighted to the ground," and that sentiment hawks her track to track. Still, it seems that through all the loneliness, darkness, and personal confessions she weaves into this collection's tapestry, Lennox always comes out the other side stronger and wiser. You especially can hear a celebration of that growth in the last track, "Shining Light" (originally, an award-winning recording by the Irish alt-rock group, Ash), in which she pumps out affirmations such as, "You are a force, you are a constant source" and "You are a shining light, incandescent in the darkest night," like she was tossing around fistfuls of Halloween candy.

Every song--whether it be her subtle covers of Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade Of Pale," John Hughes' and David Freeman's "No More 'I Love You's'," and Tom Chaplin of Keane's "Pattern Of My Lifetime," or even her own lush "A Thousand Beautiful Things" and luscious "Cold"--gets equal amounts of Lennox luv. Over the years, no matter how profound the subject was, truthfully, it almost didn't matter what she sang about (did anyone really want details on "Sweet Dreams" or "Here Comes The Rain Again"?). It's her powerful, rapturous voice that always seals the deal, and it conquers all fourteen pitch-perfect tracks, a feat seldom achieved by CDs (or CD/DVDs) with the word "Collection" in the title.

CD Tracks:
1. Little Bird - from the album Diva
2. Walking On Broken Glass - from the album Diva
3. Why - from the album Diva
4. No More "I Love You's" - from the album Medusa
5. Precious - from the album Diva
6. A Whiter Shade Of Pale - from the album Medusa
7. A Thousand Beautiful Things - from the album Bare
8. Sing - from the album Songs of Mass Destruction
9. Pavement Cracks - from the album Bare
10. Love Song For A Vampire - from the movie Bram Stoker's Dracula
11. Cold - from the album Diva
12. Dark Road - from the album Songs of Mass Destruction
13. Pattern Of My Life - new
14. Shining Light - new

DVD Tracks:
1. Little Bird
2. Walking On Broken Glass
3. Why
4. No More "I Love You's"
5. Precious
6. A Whiter Shade Of Pale
7. A Thousand Beautiful Things
8. Sing
9. Pavement Cracks
1o. Cold
11. Dark Road
12. Something So Right
13. Waiting In Vain

SIMPLY RED 25 - THE GREATEST HITS

"Go Now"? But we just got here! And we are so digging this non-chronological, Simply Red collection that features all of their US hits (plus the aforementioned Moody Blues cover) while celebrating their 25 years of existence. Mick Hucknall's band of merry men began its musical sojourn back in Manchester, England, circa 1984, and conquered our Billboard charts by 1986 with the hit, "Holding Back The Years." This blissful little record-that-could hit the number one spot and was an instant classic, its sad but romantic, muted trumpet serving as a greek chorus to Hucknall's raspy voice and delivery of the sensitive lyrics. The song's "Strangled by the wishes of Pater...hoping for the arms of Mater" played to the droopy, pre-emo crowd, and its "I'll keep holding on" served as a positive mantra for the masses. Everyone loved this record, and Mick's group contained the right mix of progressive musical arrangements and Euromystery to offset any criticism that it merely was a pop band (not that there's anything wrong with that). In fact, when Simply Red's ballsy version of the Valentine Brothers' "Money's Too Tight (To Mention)" hit the airwaves during the Reagan era with its lovely, rude lyrics, "Did the earth move for you, Nancy," it had everyone but conservatives cheering in the streets. Okay, no, it didn't, but still, it was a great left hook to Reagan's lack of economic oversight or concern (ah, don'tcha miss The Trickle Down Theory?).

Amazingly, during an era of booming conservatism, stations lifted the group's come hither single, "The Right Thing"--complete with the not-so-subtle lines "I'm getting harder" and the repeated "Feel I'm getting harder now"--to a number twenty-seven chart position. That was followed by another muted-trumpet extravaganza, "It's Only Love," that became a dance club darling; and then came their second number one single, a cover version of Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes' "If You Don't Know Me By Now." To this day, many younger folk of that era believe that Simply Red's version is the classic, and truth-be-told, it did out-rank The Blue Notes' hit (their version stalling at a piddly number three). Another two US hits came down the pike in "Something Got Me Started" and "Stars," and in the UK, "Fairground" topped the charts. But the 2003 radio staple "Sunrise," constructed atop the copped Hall & Oates intro riff for "I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)," is (for obvious reasons) one of Simply Red's most memorable recordings. It features one of the longest recognizable, melodic samples this side of Spandau Ballet's "True," the brick and mortar of P.M. Dawn's "Set Adrift On Memory Bliss."

All of the above singles are featured on Simply Red 25, and the collection outmaneuvers the group's 1996 Greatest Hits release by expanding the track list from fifteen to seventeen, switching out less popular US tracks for international hits such as "Say You Love Me," "Home," "You Make Me Feel Brand New" (with a note-for-note, multi-octave vocal mimic of The Stylistics' smash), and 2007's "So Not Over You." The booklet is more stylish than its predecessor, and it includes quick liner notes by and artsy photos of Hucknall, a complete listing of the group's albums and singles with month and year annotations, and a two-page spread of every US and UK Simply Red picture sleeve and LP cover. But really, you're buying this package for Mick Hucknall's undeniably sick vocal chords that should be preserved and cloned for the populace after his passing eighty years from now (singers live longer). Overall, this is a helluva lot of soulful pop fun, a great guilty pleasure (if one needs to rationalize), and one of Razor & Tie's best retrospective releases in years.

Tracks:
1. Sunrise - from the album Home
2. Stars - from the album Stars
3. A New Flame - from the album A New Flame
4. Holding Back The Years - from the album Picture Book
5. Your Mirror - from the album Stars
6. For Your Babies - from the album Stars
7. It's Only Love - from the album A New Flame
8. The Right Thing - from the album Men And Women
9. Something Got Me Started - from the album Stars
10. So Not Over You - from the album Stay
11. You Make Me Feel Brand New - from the album Home
12. Say You Love Me - from the album Blue
13. Home - from the album Home
14. Fairground - from the album Life
15. Money's Too Tight (To Mention) - from the album Picture Book
16. If You Don't Know Me By Now - from the album A New Flame
17. Go Now - new

Here is the video to Simply Red's cover of The Moody Blues' classic "Go Now":