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George Michael's take on great American tunes really shines

| Saturday, March 22, 2014, 4:45 p.m.
This CD cover image released by Island Records shows 'Symphonica,' the latest release by George Michael. (AP Photo/Island Records)

‘Symphonica'

George Michael (Islands)

Forget about the health issues and personal problems — George Michael sounds just fine, super in fact, on his first new album in seven years, recorded live during his 2011-12 “Symphonica” tour in Europe. Time has not taken a toll on Michael's voice, which, if anything, sounds more supple and emotive than during his earlier pop incarnations. Gone is the swagger and blatant “come and get it” sexuality, replaced by a more subtle singer happy to pay homage to Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye and other giants as the album unfolds. He strikes a wistful tone, lamenting lost youth, in “John and Elvis Are Dead,” and captures the yearning and loss at the heart of the old standard “Wild Is the Wind.” There's a jazzy feel, with some swing, to his cover of the timeless “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” and he captures perfectly, without overdoing it, the pathos of the American depression-era classic “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” The quality of the singing puts Michael head and shoulders above the other middle-aged and older English rockers looking to the Great American Songbook for inspiration. Michael sounds effortless and free, as if he could do this for decades to come.

— Associated Press

‘Louder'

Lea Michele (Columbia Records)

On some of the songs from her debut album, Lea Michele is convincing. On others, it's like she is acting. The “Glee” star, known for her big voice, provides the pipes on “Louder,” but some songs sound empty and don't show much emotion or personality from the 27-year-old talent. The dance-flavored title track is typical and forgettable, as is “Don't Let Go.” “Empty Handed,” co-written by singer Christina Perri, comes off like an unimpressive Coldplay cover, while other songs echo Kelly Clarkson, but lack the energy that Clarkson's learned to build on her songs. Michele, who has appeared on Broadway in “Spring Awakening” and other shows, gets it right on the piercing “Burn With You.” But, all in all, “Louder” is jagged. The songs don't play well together, and the collection sounds more like a demo, instead of a Golden Globe- and Emmy-nominated singer-actress' debut album.

— Associated Press

‘Divergent: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack'

Various artists (Interscope Records)

The latest dystopian young-adult big-screen adaptation, “Divergent,” has high expectations for the box office, though its soundtrack offers an uneven bag of tracks. The film, highlighted by teenage angst overwrought by societal structure, could translate into a group of edgy, resonating songs, but the reality is that few rise up to the challenge. Ellie Goulding over-contributes with her brand of manic-pixie dream-girl electro pop on four tracks (three only on the non-digital version). The first single — Zedd's piano ballad turned triumphant dance song “Find You” — is neither convincing nor very inspiring to anyone other than the Saturday-night club crowd. And Goulding's “Beating Heart” is a stroke away from flatlining. A$AP Rocky's contribution, “In Distress,” is probably the most alienating and enticing of the whole album — the barky electro background is stabilized by his rapping, which turns into a melodic howl. Overall, though, the soundtrack barely passes the aptitude test into the Dauntless.

— Associated Press

‘Girl'

Pharrell Williams (Columbia)

As singer, composer, and collaborator, Pharrell Williams has had a starry year under his production moniker, the Neptunes. His hits with Robin Thicke (“Blurred Lines”) and Daft Punk (“Get Lucky”) were summer 2013's soundtrack. His “Despicable Me 2” theme, “Happy,” pumped up this year's Oscar ceremony. And now we have “Girl,” Williams' second solo album, steeped in inventive soul, eccentric electro-disco and melodic-tinged tunes dedicated to his muses. Justin Timberlake, Alicia Keys, Miley Cyrus and the helmeted Daft Punk duo (their computerized, hooky “Gust of Wind” is the best teaming here) make appearances, but it's Williams alone — that falsetto, that control — that makes this “Girl” gorgeous. Starting with the swelling strings (courtesy Hans Zimmer) of “Marilyn Monroe,” Pharrell moves with bravura from dramatic drone to a discoesque groove. That same energy and panache are in evidence in the sexy “Hunter,” the Neptunes-ish “Gush,” and the minimalist “Lost Queen” (“I'm half good and half nasty”). And you also have the joyful “Happy”! With such riches, “Girl” could well be the “Thriller” of the 21st century.

— Philadelphia Inquirer

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