Featuring guests such as new grass master Sam Bush and yacht rock's last crowned king of soulful sincerity, Michael McDonald, Turn Around kicks Timberlake's narrow white-negro hips to the Amen Corner and back via blazing guitar licks and true Memphis grit. Lang also goes further than any other nice guy in this gallery by letting his wife play God on "Only a Man."
Adopting an inevitable singer-songwriter vein, considering his country-rock-confessional-chansonnier heritage, Chris Stills's album title said it all: When the Pain Dies Down — Live in Paris (V2). Referencing Buckley's keening as well on "Landslide" and covering Americana's most revered purveyors of sincere music, the Band, en Français on "Fanny (The Weight),” Stills strums his way simply and soulfully into the hearts of the Studio du Palais audience and any listeners tolerant enough to separate him from his famous parentage.
On the urban front, Robin Thicke transmuted Stills's blue-eyed soul crooning in a less twangy and more radio-friendly direction. While Beyoncé was declaring a false state of independence this fall and assuming Diana Ross's mantle with finality, Thicke was telling the fellas you don't always have to be hard, that thug love has had its day, on The Evolution of Robin Thicke (Interscope). Besides the boilerplate sagas of escape from music biz demigods and monsters and an interesting cod-reggae interlude ("Shooter"), Thicke strove to bring the love back instead of the sexy. And the vulnerability on display in "Would That Make U Love Me" and "Everything I Can't Have" versus the robotic rump-shaker "Wanna Love U Girl" seems to suggest that's more disturbing.
Even 1970s and ’80s relic Ray Parker Jr. got in on the singer-songwriter act, dropping I'm Free (Raydio) independently and attempting to bum-rush a perhaps nonexistent market for a horndog sepia Jimmy Buffett. And, up to the moment, "freak folk" pied piper Devendra Banhart and his Hairy Fairy boyz posed in dresses for the New York Times Magazine, the black-and-white images meant to invoke both old-fashioned guileless authority bootlegged from the prewar era and the liberated power of hirsute girly men brave enough to transcend gender boundaries. These New White Savages might be too bohemian to actually cook and change a diaper — yet, as with their ’70s profem forebears, they're unafraid to let their lady muse wear the mustache in the relationship and concoct weird sonic utopias of her own.
Utopias of any kind eluded the musician refugees dispossessed by Katrina: to wit, beautiful bleeding-heart releases like The New Orleans Social Club: Sing Me Back Home (Burgundy) and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band's reprise of Gaye's antiwar masterpiece What's Goin' On (Shout Factory). These discs are suffused with sincere calls for peace, love, understanding, and an end to greed and environmental destruction that no listener in 2006 could refute or afford to ignore.
What's happening, brother? Gnarls Barkley's landmark release of St. Elsewhere in the spring encapsulated the 2006 response to Gaye's eternal query and signaled a subtle yet seismic shift in pop possibility. Sensitive singer-songwriter, soft rock poster boy, Hip-Hop Nation troubadour — Cee-Lo was all of these personae, armed with poetic confessional lyrics and complex, distinctive melodies. Soundwise, courtesy of brilliant Danger Mouse, St. Elsewhere is a very liberated recording, trumping ATLien superstars OutKast and their problematic Idlewild (La Face) in the act of aesthetic and racial revolt. Although enigmatic and evocative lyrics abound (especially moving are the title track, "The Boogie Monster," "Online," and of course, "Crazy"), my favorite song is "The Last Time." What's more sensitive and sincere than: "Under an endless sky/ Wish I can fly away forever/ And the poetry is so pure when we are on the floor together"?