Campbell: Tuned In: Sheryl Crow, Kelis, Kira

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Sheryl Crow’s not natural for Memphis sound

“100 MILES FROM MEMPHIS,” Sheryl Crow (A&M)

Sheryl Crow sings with lots of heart, but not so much soul, as listeners will come to realize when they hear her new “100 Miles From Memphis.”

Crow long ago established herself as an effective rock singer — employing her girlish/raspy vocal to convey vulnerability in her introspective confessions and determination in her philosophical jags about enjoying life.

The new release is a departure from the usual Sheryl Crow release; “100 Miles” is a theme album celebrating the traditional Memphis sound (Crow grew up not far away, in southeastern Missouri). And her voice simply isn’t a comfortable fit for the buoyant arrangements.

Production-wise, “100 Miles From Memphis” is Crow’s biggest project to date, and she gets help from co-producers Doyle Bramhall II and Justin Stanley plus guests ranging from Keith Richards on guitar on the reggae-lilting “Eye to Eye” to Citizen Cope singing along with her sultry take on his “Sideways,” to Justin Timberlake on backing vocals for her simmering cover of Terence Trent D’Arby’s “Sign Your Name.”

Sonically, “100 Miles From Memphis” is impressive, a retro blast of horns and strings and major chords that balances ’70s soul with roots music. And despite her atypical dependence on cover songs, Crow doesn’t compromise herself lyrically, as she dispenses a blend of hopeful vibes, moody tangents, political jabs and seductive suggestions.

Crow is also a sport about her vocal disconnect with the sound, smoothing out the awkwardness into something serviceable without resorting to unnatural crooning or belting. In addition, she eerily channels her former employer, Michael Jackson, on a rendition of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.”

No doubt “100 Miles From Memphis” is Crow’s most ambitious release so far. But between the heavy production, the abundant covers and the singer’s ill-suited vocals for the material, it’s also her least personal.

Rating (five possible): 3-1/2

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Kelis fleshes out electrified persona

“FLESH TONE,” Kelis (Interscope)

Not only has Kelis divorced her rapper husband Nas, she’s dumped all traces of hip-hop from her sound on her new “Flesh Tone.” The vocalist ditched her sassy/bossy urban persona to become a futuristic techno-fembot queen who reigns over incredibly aggressive surges of electric rhythms and pounding beats.

It’s eccentric, but Kelis has always been something of a weirdo. Even her irresistible hit “Milkshake” was a bit bizarre, though accessible.

Her Grace-Jones-like turn on “Flesh Tone” works, thanks to Kelis’ rich, husky voice and the indefatigable energy of the songs.

Kelis becomes one with the arrangements, a rarity in modern dance music. On “4th of July (Fireworks),” she’s the middle layer separating a thumping foundation from a glitchy overlay, and as if yielding to the relentless drive of “Home,” she segues from the role of an echoing emcee to a compliant seductee: “With you I close my eyes and let you take control.” Also, unswayed by the grainy jabs of “Emancipate,” she declares, “Let me tell you what love is/It’s when you meet each other halfway” and engages in repetitions of the mantra “emancipate yourself.”

Although Kelis isn’t bullied by these songs, she doesn’t quite rule them, either. No one could. During the intense banging and bleeping during the choruses of the turbo-hypnotic “Scream,” for example, she becomes a robotic announcer issuing instructions, presumably for a packed dancefloor: “Sound the alarm/Raise your arms/You’re on your own/But not alone.”

Perhaps most heartening is that despite the calculating, uber-tech sound, Kelis brings waves of soul. The new mom (of son Knight) overflows with joy in the rolling ecstasy of “Song for the Baby,” charming with what could be a trite line: “I love you more than you’ll ever know.” And she emerges from the chunky stew of “Acapella” with a transcendent, “Before you, my whole life was a cappella/Now a symphony is the only song to sing.”

Nas appeared on Kelis songs in the past, but he isn’t on “Flesh Tone.” And he isn’t missed.

Rating: 4

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Bleak Kira could make Barbie cry

“RUN WHERE NO ONE GOES,” Kira (SIN/Sony Music Independent Network)

If Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” is the song the world most associates with Danish pop music, Denmark has an antidote in Kira.

Quite the opposite of the cartoonish-sounding “Barbie Girl” (which has a biting satirical edge in its lyrics, though that is often overlooked), Kira (last name Skov) is an earnest singer/guitarist who unleashes her trembling vocal on an array of ominous rock songs on “Run Where No One Goes,” her United States debut.

It’s heavy and bleak, the kind of release that layers electric tension with cold despair a la early PJ Harvey. Yet it doesn’t have quite the same resonance.

There’s undeniable Scandinavian soul pouring out in Kira’s dramatic delivery, as in her feral storytelling in the discordant “King’s Kitchen,” where she sings, “I’m still so angry, my skin is turning gray.” Also, she’s having a meltdown on the foreboding “Save Me,” pleading, “Save me, save me/From this loneliness and fear” before the song launches into a rocking denouement, and “Riders of the Freeway” is a forceful jangle that catapults into an otherworldly realm, fueled by Kira’s commanding presence.

However, even for a seven-song EP, “Run Where No One Goes” is somewhat undermined by a sameness in songs. Kira’s voice is practically a one-note warble, there are few genuine hooks, and at times the over-the-top theatrics comes at the expense of musicality. As a result, some listeners might feel more manipulated than moved.

Kira pulls it together for a riveting closer: On “Losing You,” she’s focused on her troubles, dealing plainspoken lyrics such as, “Tonight I’ll go to bed unsatisfied/My world is caving in, and I’ve got no place left to hide.”

Her songs might not loop repeatedly through your brain like a calculated pop refrain, but they will likely embed in your psyche.

Rating: 3-1/2

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Comments » 1

MikeT writes:

"singer’s ill-suited vocals for the material"

Umm, for two or three songs, ok, but for the most part her vocals works rather well for the material (take the title track, "roses and moonlight", "summer days" and "sideways" as examples).

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