Finding Faith ... and losing it:
Gladys Knight - the finest rock singer that never truly was. If only the hardcore belter of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and "On and On" had come up fronting a blues-rock band in San Francisco rather than apprenticing at church in Hot'lanta. Oh well. This gap in pedigree has not stopped Knight from joining the ranks of Rod Stewart by attempting the retronuevo classics pathway to record sale gold. As produced by legend Phil Ramone (he of Frank Sinatra's Duets and Ray Charles' Genius Loves Company), Before Me (Verve) aims straight for the adult contempo heart with covers of songs popularized by Lena Horne ("Stormy Weather"), Dinah Washington ("This Bitter Earth") and Billie Holiday ("Good Morning Heartache"). It's another Holiday song (co-written with Arthur Herzog, Jr.) that troubles the relations of deity and man: "God Bless the Child." Knight's interpretation is a righteous blues, a standout on a disc of fine performances, but this doesn't deny the lyric's strange affirmation of the "go for yours/gotta get paid" ethos now popular in hip-hop.
Alice in Chains is currently attempting one of the most impossible rock moves: reconvening sans the band's iconic lead singer, the late Layne Staley. If you're only a casual fan or have no desire to evolve with the quintessential early 1990s metal quartet beyond its grunge heyday, then The Essential Alice In Chains (Columbia/Legacy) is for you. Reckon it never much occurred to me before, but Disc Two of this set features several faith-related titles - "What the Hell Have I (Remix)," "Get Born Again" and "Heaven Beside You" (plus, well, "Died") - in addition to a sound-meshing Zeppelinisms with ecclesiastical airs and dirges. "Heaven" is the most vital and indelible here - aside from "Would?" - a virtually folksy electric blues with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. Disc One includes Dirt's "God Smack," surely a fount of inspiration for devout Wiccan Sully Erna (now, if only he'd reconsider that his hero Staley likely wouldn't have loaned music for military recruitment).
Sam Moore knows all about southern soul and grit. The original "Soul Man" has overcome decades trapped in career amber and a heroin habit to get a new lease on life. Moore's golden era as one half of Sam & Dave may have long since receded into the pop mist, but his voice still thrives. His latest, Overnight Sensational (Rhino) could be dismissed on the surface as yet another cynical Duets cash-in. And that's likely just what Moore's handlers, including American Idol judge/producer Randy Jackson, have in mind. Despite all-star collaborations with the likes of Springsteen, Sting, Nikka Costa and Charlotte's own Fantasia, this CD is still imbued with certain organic realities of the genre and good playing from Robert Randolph (pedal steel) and the late Billy Preston (keys). And Moore's finely-tuned tenor instrument is treated like the temple it is -- especially on a gospelized version of "None Of Us Are Free." Moore's delivery here, supported by Sting and Sheila E.'s understated percussion, is sufficient to lead non-believers to the light.
Jonny Lang was amongst the mid-90s horde of towheaded blooze tots that emerged with axes to grind and sugarplums of Stovall Plantation dancing in their heads. Now that the heat and hype is off Lang and he's shorn of his long locks, he seems to have found his true métier as an inspirational singer on his new Turn Around (A&M). The disc excels not by proselytizing but reaffirming the good version of the Christian Life. D'après Robert Cray, Lang foregrounds Memphis grit, country gospel and testifying as much as blues in his mix, and electric riffs are somewhat leashed in favor of the chorale. When he inevitably hears Lang trading vocals with blue-eyed soul's godhead, Michael McDonald, on "Thankful," Justin Timberlake may kick himself for not considering such a project first. Especially when Lang channels Rev. Al on "On My Feet Again." You can't help but be swayed to the Amen Corner by Lang's fervor on the must-burn title track, too. "Only A Man," good country gospel guest starring Sam Bush, even features a female voicing the Lord. The sole weak song is "My Love Remains" - too saccharine and jazz lite for these ears. Still, I must admit this is southern soul at its finest - and so I'm glad Lang's regrouped fit to attempt longevity in this business. Also, having arrived at an effective approach to postmodern ecclesiastical sound, Turn Around deserves to win the gospel Grammy.
Bonus track: Having struggled in vain to like Tori Amos since her debut, her new A Piano (Rhino) box (fashioned to mimic her beloved Bösendorfer) was most welcome. However, I still find most compelling Disc B's "God," on which she counters Christianity with the primordial power of the sacred feminine. It rocks like a backwoods snake-handling church.