Record reviews: Second place winners

Susan Boyle and Adam Lambert have nothing in common other than the fact they both came in second place in national talent contests and they both vaguely resemble a female.

Here’s something else they now have in common: they both released albums on the same day and, though worlds apart in mood (but not theatricality), they both demand a good listen and deliver.

Susan Boyle is the 47 year-old Englishwoman who stunned audiences (and Simon Cowell) on Britain’s Got Talent when she opened her mouth and sang beautifully. The audience was stunned because they have been trained by a discriminating and shallow MTV culture to only expect beautiful people to be allowed on their TV screens and or in their faces.

The song she sang was “I Dreamed a Dream” from the play Les Miserables, and though on the surface you might assume it to be some harmless uplifting pap, listen closer and you’ll discover a much darker song about how that ‘dream’ was shattered by “this hell I’m living;” which, in the eerie coincidence of her life imitating art, occurred when Boyle was stunned herself to only get the runner-up award and promptly had a nervous breakdown.

So, in an ironic touch, that song is also the name of her debut album … which sold 410,000 copies in Britain alone the first week. So, maybe there is karma in the world. Or a hell of a lot of people who are sick of mediocre-talented former cheerleaders (Paula) or Mousekteers (Britney) getting recording contracts based on how they look instead of how they sing.

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote a great song when they composed and recorded the original “Wild Horses” some 40 years ago. But the true test of a classic song is how it can be twisted and re-interpreted, and Boyle’s producer, Steve Mac, delivers a haunting and original arrangement here. Even Mick was blown away.

Boyle probably had some songs she has sung her whole life that she wanted to include, so you get the spirituals, “How Great Thou Art,” “Amazing Grace,” and the Christmas Carol, “Silent Night.” But, somehow it all works with the ethereal mood of the album.

The producer also brings slow, haunting, and original arrangements to such sixties chestnuts as “Daydream Believer,” and “The End of the World.” I think Madonna’s flamenco-edged version of “You’ll See” fared better than the one here, even though Boyle has an infinitely better voice. You also can’t top Patty Griffin for interpreting her own songs, so “Up to the Mountain” doesn’t quite reach the summit on Boyle’s version.

Still, overall, this is a really satisfying album of creatively arranged and tastefully produced covers sung by a voice that can provide the necessary goose bumps.

Adam Lambert’s debut album “For Your Entertainment,” on the other end of the spectrum, is designed to give you a hard-on. The solid, pumping, dance floor action never stops (well, for at least 11 out of 14 tracks). It also plays like a history of all the gay-influenced dance music of that last quarter century (which was always a positive thing for dance music), from Freddie Mercury in Queen, to David Bowie, to Animotion, to Abba, to Jimmy Sommerville, Erasure, and the Scissor Sisters. You don’t have to be gay to spot the influences or enjoy the outcome.

Everything is way way over the top, but it gets your blood going, your feet moving, and  it has more hooks than a cold storage meat warehouse.

“Soaked” offers this great Mid-eastern flourish up front, before dropping into a very eerie almost a capella vocal that Freddie Mercury would have shaved his moustache for.

The most obvious hit track is “Whataya Want from Me,” which pretty much sums up the whole attitude of expectations foisted upon Lambert after his American Idol notoriety. Getting simulated blown by a male dancer on the American Music Awards was apparently not the response most prime time viewers were looking for as an answer to that question.

I don’t follow all the contemporary writers and producers who jumped on board to showcase ‘Glambert’ on this album, but I appreciate the sheer energy and enthusiasm (and hooks) they brought to the project.  I haven’t done the disco scene in many years, but this disco-rock-infused extravaganza will keep the clubs pumping for weeks to come.  And isn’t that what was really really wanted from him?

Someday, maybe when he gets all his ya yas out, and his shock rebel streak out, we’ll get that beautiful vocal album that his fantastic cover of “Mad World” hinted at. But you’ll find nothing remotely subtle here. Either get into it, or get over it.

— A. Wayne Carter

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