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Snuggly, cuddly stuff for Valentine’s Day

Stewart OksenhornAspen, CO Colorado
The bird and the bee - the duo of Inara George and Greg Kurstin - has released its debut, self-titled CD. (Autumn De Wilde)
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You’ve got your dinner reservations, your sexiest lingerie, a box of chocolates, candles. You’ve banished the kids from the house (or at least from the bedroom) and turned off the cell phone. You remembered to say the right things, and avoid the wrong things, and drop your dirty clothes in an acceptable place.Now all you need is the proper music, and you’ve got all the ingredients for that most artificial of holidays.the bird and the bee, “the bird and the bee”produced by Greg Kurstin (Metro Blue)Sounds like a great title for a Valentine’s Day record, “the bird and the bee.” And in a way, it is. The duo of vocalist Inara George (daughter of the late Little Feat founder Lowell George) and multi-instrumentalist and producer Greg Kurstin update lush, melodic, girl-singer ’70s pop – think Laura Nyro or Karen Carpenter – on their debut CD. But the bird and the bee has a definite sting to it, one that only begins with the futuristic, post-hip-hop rhythmic sensibility. There’s an attitude Carpenter never dreamed of (though Nyro may have, but only dreamed).

Start with “f*cking boyfriend,” whose title – and chorus – belie the feathery feel that runs through the whole. Much of this wondrous album takes desperate situations and subverts them with George’s chirping voice and Kurstin’s chiming, meticulous orchestrations. “i hate camera” reflects on media saturation (“Oh how the camera has misspoke”); “i’m a broken heart” gets to the core of heartache; and “my fair lady” tries on the shoes of Eliza Doolittle, pre-transformation. This soaring CD is buzz-worthy.Norah Jones, “Not Too Late”produced by Lee Alexander (Blue Note)Not exactly a Valentine’s Day CD, but Norah Jones’ latest wasn’t released this week for no reason. A good number of the 405,000 sold this week are certainly going to be wrapped in red and pink with a pretty bow.But givers beware: “Not Too Late” is not exactly the sunny, warm Jones we have come to expect after two albums. Songs like “Not My Friend” (“You seem really glad that I am sad / You are not my friend, I can’t pretend that you are”), “Broken” and “The Sun Doesn’t Like You” all seem to attest to rough romantic times the singer has gone through. Jones, credited as writer of co-writer of all the songs here, hedges some, with a few hopeful songs (tucked in toward the end), and even a wade in thick political waters (“My Dear Country”) that marries overly overt lyrics (“Nothing is as scary as election day”) with a naked piano score. Still, “Not Too Late” adds up to a first-person perspective on making it through a different kind of heartache.So this is one for those spending valentines alone, yes? Not necessarily. Love lost seems to make Jones only more romantic, but in a sad way. The paces here are even slower, and Jones’ voice doesn’t suffer a bit in the transition from the more playful and upbeat tones of “Come Away With Me” and “Feels Like Home.” Barry Manilow, “The Greatest Songs of the Sixties”produced by Manilow, Clive Davis and David Benson (Arista)There’s not much need to quibble with Barry Manilow’s notion of what were the greatest songs of the ’60s, even if this Valentine’s-centered collection includes only the great romance tunes of the decade. And if Manilow wants to focus almost exclusively on the pop music of the ’60s, and overlook the fact that the ’60s were the decade of rock ‘n’ roll, that’s OK, too. Though it would have been far more interesting if the pop icon had taken a real rocker – how about the Doors’ “Touch Me”? – and given it the treatment.The reason it’s easy to skim over those issues is that Manilow’s concept here gives no cause to pass over the originals of these great songs. There is little attempt to freshen up “This Guy’s in Love With You,” “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” or “Blue Velvet.” Instead he gives us alternate, inferior versions that could have come right out of the decade in question. This only goes to prove that Manilow really isn’t much of a singer; the songs consistently outshine the performer.

Rod Stewart, “Still the Same … Great Rock Classics of Our Time”produced by John Shanks (J Records)The only distinguished thing about this collection is the way Rod Stewart races through these oft-heard classics (“Have You Ever Seen the Rain,” “The Best of My Love,” “Father & Son” – and you can imagine the rest). And who can blame him? Everything about this schlock is mailed in, from the dead middle-of-the-road arrangements to the song selection to the cover art, reminiscent of the K-Tel “only on TV!” offers from the ’70s. You can practically hear Stewart running out of the studio, presumably headed for the bank. Maria Muldaur, “Heart of Mine – Love Songs of Bob Dylan”produced by Muldaur (Telarc)Maria Muldaur was born and raised in Greenwich Village and came of age when Bob Dylan ruled that Manhattan neighborhood with a snakelike elusiveness and sharply critical tongue. But Muldaur skips over that Dylan in favor of the one who wrote unambiguous love songs. Her slinky voice goes well enough with the blues-lite arrangements here. More fun is surveying the selections, and seeing that Dylan turned out straightforward romances as far back as 1969’s “Nashville Skyline” (“Lay Lady Lay,” needlessly renamed “Lay Baby Lay” here, and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”) and all the way through 2001’s “Love and Theft” (“Moonlight”). Muldaur picks lesser-known tunes like “Golden Loom,” “On a Night Like This” and “Wedding Song” to shine a light on one of Dylan’s less-appreciated facets.The highlight comes, from all places, from Dylan’s bleak, 1997 album “Time Out of Mind”; Muldaur’s reading of “Make You Feel My Love” is heart-grabbing from the first words. Too bad this was recorded before last year’s “Modern Times,” one of Dylan’s most tender and heartfelt albums.”A Date with John Waters”(New Line Records)A few years ago, John Waters – yes, the John Waters behind such naughty, perversely satisfying films as “Hairspray” and “Pecker” – curated a Christmas compilation CD. It was as offbeat as one might imagine, with “Here Comes Fatty Claus” and Alvin & the Chipmunks’ version of “Sleigh Ride” bumping up against Stormy Weather’s obscure doo-wop gem, “Christmas Time Is Coming (A Street Carol).” It is quite possibly the only Christmas CD that comes with an “explicit lyrics” warning.

“A Date with John Waters” doesn’t get such a warning. Though it could; the punky, homoerotic “Jet Boy Jet Girl” could hardly be more to the point (“Jet boy I’m gonna make and penetrate / Gonna make you be a girl”). Waters’ notion of good bad taste ranges from the humorous (John Prine’s “In Spite of Ourselves,” in which duet partner Iris Dement speaks about catching her honey “sniffing her undies”) to the amorously suggestive (Ray Charles’ “The Right Time”) to the menacing (“Sometimes I Wish I Had a Gun,” by frequent Waters associate Mink Stoll). Waters even allows some good good taste to seep through, as in Dean Martin’s swinging “Hit the Road to Dreamland.”What really sets Waters apart though is his ability to find the romance in Clarence “Frogman” Henry’s croaking out “Ain’t Got No Home” or the ’80s pop of Josie Cotton singing “Johnny Are You Queer,” and finding anything at all to love in Edith Massey’s atrocious take on “Big Girls Don’t Cry.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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