Risky Business

Heaven-Sent: Parton's cover of the Led Zep anthem "Stairway to Heaven" emphasizes the song's blues roots over its rock sentimentality.Photo: Photograph by Annie Leibovitz

Dolly Parton’s voice, which can hit intense, almost squealing high registers or whispering, soft low notes, can carry her through even the shabbiest of songs. On her new album, Halos and Horns (which revisits the bluegrass of recent albums like Little Sparrow and The Grass Is Blue), she renders even cutesy sentimentality (“We were just kids exploring nature / learning more than we should have known”) or cliché (“It’s either horns or halos”) compelling. When the material is worthy – like the beautifully melancholic “Not for Me” – there are few singers more moving or emotive. And it is her voice that makes the big gambles of Halos and Horns – particularly a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” – pay off. With her aching cry and plaintive phrasing, Parton emphasizes the song’s quiet bluesiness over its rock-and-roll grandiosity, reviving the reflective power of this most familiar (and covered) of rock songs. Its conclusion – where Parton is backed by an ethereal-sounding gospel choir – could easily be mawkish or camp, but she gamely matches their bombast with her country squall. Like her cover of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” with South African a cappella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Parton’s risks here bring great, unexpected pleasures.

With its straight-outta-Bollywood chants and slinky, percussive rhythms, “Addictive,” from an R&B singer who calls herself Truth Hurts, is tailor-made for the current pop moment, when sonic wunderkinder like Timbaland and the Neptunes raise the stakes for outré sounds on an almost weekly basis. Like Tweet’s “Oops (Oh My),” “Addictive,” from Truth Hurts’s debut, Truthfully Speaking, is meant to make listeners think: Did I just hear that? But “Addictive” falls apart under any real inspection: Its chorus (“He’s so contagious / returns my pages”) plays up ghetto fierceness to such cartoonish heights that it could have been uttered by Tracey Ullman’s boorish African-American airport-security-guard character. And unlike Timbaland’s sampling of tabla drumming on Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” – which had an effect nearly as stunning in its recontextualization as hearing James Brown drummer Clyde Stubblefield looped for the first time – the much-gushed-over snatches of Indian chants here (which can be heard booming out of just about every car in the city these days) simply serve as background exotica. The rest of Truthfully Speaking – which only provides heavier, blunter doses of similarly expressed take-no-shit sneer (“Queen of the Ghetto,” “I’m Not Really Lookin’ “) – proves that Truth Hurts’s worldview is as narrow as her self-important, I-told-ya-so name.

Like a Beatles tribute band that switched mid-set into Pharoah Sanders, Oasis paid a heavy price with its fans for embracing non-rock sounds like ambient music on its last album, Standing on the Shoulder of Giants. So it’s not surprising that brothers Noel and Liam are comfortably back where their followers want them to be – in full regressive mode – on their fifth album, Heathen Chemistry. With its combination of Eastern musical influences (perhaps the most endlessly recycled of revivals) and up-front drug references on songs like “The Hindu Times” and “Born on a Different Cloud,” the effect, however, is more George Harrison than Lennon-McCartney. Yet psychedelia is really only compelling when ego takes a backseat to kaleidoscopic music, and the Gallaghers are, of course, incapable of such a gesture. “Yeah, I feel like a force of nature,” Noel Gallagher boasts on one song. “I could make you sing like a bird released.” None of this feels like release – it’s more like forced Jell-O shots served by a beefy fraternity brother. The indulgences of sex, drugs, rock and roll, and sundry vision-questing on Heathen Chemistry might have all the hallmarks of liberation, but in the hands of the Gallaghers, it’s more like what drug-abuse experts call “macho ingestion syndrome.”

Dolly Parton
Halos and Horns
(Sugar Hill Records).
Truth Hurts
Truthfully Speaking
Heathen Chemistry

Risky Business