Beyond Playlist: Leona Lewis and More

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Leona Lewis Spirit (J Records)

Leona Lewis has quickly developed a huge gay following, and no wonder. She resembles a particularly gorgeous cross-dresser – a fact that’s no doubt made marketing to both the male and female gay demographic a helluva lot easier. How does any of that relate to her first single, “Bleeding Love”? Only her personal physician knows the answer to that question.

Vocally, though, she’s like a slightly non-descript Mariah: better on softer passages, like the introduction to “I Will Be,” and less prone to swooping/whooping histrionics during belt-it-out sections – although she does attempt to pierce the sky a few times during the closing moments of “Take a Bow.” The material, meanwhile, is as generically divalicious as executive producers Clive Davis and Simon Cowell can make it – and that’s pretty damn generically divalicious.

Clearly, Lewis’ look is a lot more distinctive than her sound. If any movie producers out there thinking about remaking The Crying Game, call her first. -- Michael Roberts

Jackie Greene Giving Up the Ghost (429 Records)

Singer-songwriter Greene is the sort of artist who’s easy to underrate. Since his songs utilize standard elements drawn from rock and soul, and because his voice has an instantly recognizable feel, he may come across like a mere journeyman as opposed to a unique talent. Yet the sturdiness of his material and the skill with which he puts it across makes him worthy of more praise than seems deserved at first blush.

Giving Up the Ghost is nothing if not consistent. Every tune offers tangible pleasures, including the slinky, insinuating “Animal,” the loping “I Don’t Live in a Dream,” the heartland-happy “Follow You” and more. Greene’s singing recalls plenty of R&B loving white boys before him, including Peter Wolf, but he puts his all into each syllable whether he’s rasping quietly while delivering “Prayer for Spanish Harlem” or wailing “Come on!” at the conclusion of the blues-rocking “Ghosts of Promised Lands.”

On his latest, Greene doesn’t take listeners to new places. But he makes the visit worthwhile anyhow. -- Roberts

Various artists African Party (Putumayo World Music)

Since 1993, the Putumayo imprint has specialized in compiling music from various far-flung locales. But rather than trying to find the absolute finest examples of a given nation's musical art, assemblers seem to make selections with accessibility in the forefront of their mind. As such, the sets work better as introductions for somewhat timid listeners who are testing certain waters for the first time, as opposed to people with more adventurous instincts.

That’s the case again with African Party, which draws on artists who operate “from South Africa to the Ivory Coast,” according to the disc’s jacket. Even though Sekouba Bambino’s “Famou,” Oliver Mtukudzi’s “Kunze Kwadoka,” Chiwoniso’s “Nguva Yekufara” and the rest boast their share of charms, they’re also slick and safe. They don’t offend and they sound nice in the background, but they only give a hint of the joy and excitement sounds from the region can convey.

This Party should have been a lot more fun. -- Roberts

Monade Monstre Cosmic (Too Pure)

Stereolab is reportedly very much alive, with a new album due this August. In the meantime, though, fans will be able to get a new-music fix from Monade, led by Stereolab vocalist Latetia Sadier, which borrows liberally from the group’s well-established template while giving the music as a whole a somewhat dreamier feel. “Etoile,” for instance, dials down the hyperkinetic tempo of many Stereolab airs in favor of a comparatively placid arrangement, and although “Lost Language” quickens the pace, accoutrements like an electro-by-way-of-Philadelphia International synth-string arrangement soften the edge that makes ‘Lab work thrilling to some listeners but rather jarring to others.

Of course, Stereolab has lost much of its ability to jolt in recent years, with works such as 2004’s Margerine Eclipse failing to build on the buzz established by exhilarating early ‘90s efforts such as Emperor Tomato Ketchup – a situation that Sadier’s mellowness may partly explain. Instead of throwing herself into a project totally unlike her main gig, she’s come up with a minor variation. For that reason, it’s difficult to get too worked up about Monstre Cosmic – but Sadier is an interesting-enough performer to turn this busman’s holiday into a mildly diverting stopgap. -- Roberts

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