RACHEL MARTIN, host:
That means it's time for new music. And this week we've got new releases from three big names, three women who've been at the top of their game at some point in their careers: Janet Jackson, Dolly Parton and Erykah Badu. Since their relative peaks, they've each reached beyond their trademark sounds to varying degrees of success. And that raises the question, how do you experiment, stay fresh, develop as an artist, and still sell lots of albums? Not so easy, really.
Have these three very different women, very different artists, managed to do it with their newest releases? Here to answer that question is Carl Wilson, pop critic for the Globe and Mail. That's Canada's national newspaper. He recently published a book about Celine Dion titled, "Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste." Hey, Carl.
Mr. CARL WILSON (Pop Critic, Globe and Mail; Author, "Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste"): Hi.
MARTIN: How you doing?
Mr. WILSON: I'm okay, Rachel.
MARTIN: You've been on the road talking about your book for the last couple of months. Are you ready to dive back into the world of pop music?
Mr. WILSON: Yeah, absolutely.
MARTIN: Okay, let's do it. We're going to start first with Janet Jackson. "Rhythm Nation" was like one of the first CDs I ever owned. I have a soft spot in my heart for her. We're going to listen first. Before we start our conversation, let's listen to a song off of this new album called "Feedback" Get a little sense of what's going on here.
(Soundbite of song, "Feedback")
Ms. JANET JACKSON (Singer, Songwriter): (Sings) You can work me out. Yeah, that sexy, sexy, sexy. Let me show you how. Yeah, that sexy, sexy, sexy. So here's my demonstration, a peep show. Tonight my body's an exhibition, baby. Though it's on display don't be scared to touch it. It said so. So come and get it babe. Strum me like a guitar...
MARTIN: Okay. So that's a track called a "Feedback" off the album of "Discipline." Anything new in here from Miss Jackson?
Mr. WILSON: Well, I'd say the main thing that's new this time around is the kind of freshening up of the beat more than anything else. She's trying to sort of catch up with what's been happening in dance floor music in the past couple of years, while she's had a couple of sort of not-so-successful albums. So she's changed up the team of producers that she's working with and trying to get that sound.
MARTIN: I have to tell you it sounds, kind of, not that distinctive. Is that just me?
Mr. WILSON: It really varies over the course the album. That's the first single, "Feedback," which came out a little awhile ago. And it's definitely sort of one of the less successful at really sort of blending what Janet's good at with the kind of dance floor sound they're trying to get. There are tracks on the record that do that a little bit more appealingly. There's a track called "2nite," for example, which manages to sort of get this teen pop/soul filtration thing going, but also really sort of drawing on her vocal strengths. And then there are some things where they go further out with really extreme, sort of, vocal modification. Which may not be necessarily be so soulful, but does kind of go for a distinctiveness that kind of works in a fun cartoon way.
MARTIN: Okay. Let's bring up another track for that album. It's called "Rock with You." It's reminiscent of another "Rock with You" song. Let's listen to a little bit of this.
(Soundbite of song, "Rock with You")
Ms. JACKSON: (Singing) I want to rock with you. Let's converse. Talk with your body. Don't say anything at all. Rock with you...
MARTIN: So someone else in her family did a song called that, right?
Mr. WILSON: Yes, famously, her brother Michael's hit years ago, "Rock with You," which this song doesn't cover and doesn't sample directly, but does kind of pay this nice subtle tribute to, and does it with some sounds that are coming from the more sort of fresh French house music tradition, but kind of using that to pay tribute to sort of the disco era and the kind of glamour of Michael Jackson's early career.
ALISON STEWART, host:
Yeah, I picture a disco dance party in my house to that song.
(Soundbite of laughter)
STEWART: I have to be honest, all by myself, actually.
Mr. WILSON: (unintelligible) strobe lights make everything sexier.
STEWART: Get out your flashlight and make it a strobe.
Mr. WILSON: Yeah.
STEWART: Hey, you know what I'm doing later. Okay.
MARTIN: So all in all are you happy with this album?
Mr. WILSON: I think there's some strong moments, but it's the kind of album -you know, "Discipline" is kind of an ironic title for it because Janet often needs an editor and doesn't seem to be a good one for herself.
MARTIN: We all need editors.
Mr. WILSON: And that's the problem here too. I think that there's lots of things that will put people off. And there's kind of, you know - there's 22 tracks, nine of them are these kind of irritating skits with the computer voice. And then there's some songs that really don't work. And if it could be boiled down, you do it at home on your iTunes and get it down to the album you want to hear. And then it's fairly strong, but you do need to go through that process.
MARTIN: Okay. Well, let's move on to another very big name, very different woman, very different artist, Dolly Parton. Her new album, "Backwoods Barbie," she's putting out on her own Dolly Records. Let's listen to a song from the new record called "Jesus & Gravity."
(Soundbite of song, "Jesus & Gravity")
Ms. DOLLY PARTON (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) I'm to the point where it don't add up. I can't say I've come this far with my guitar on pure God love. That's not to say I know it all. But every time I get too high, upon my horse I fall. 'Cause I've got something lifting me up, something holding me down, something to give me wings and keep my feet on the ground.
MARTIN: Okay. So we started that clip, and both Trish McKinney, our editor in the studio, and Alison, everyone kind of got a little sentimental feeling, started bop their head around.
STEWART: I put my hand over my heart and I mouthed, I love Dolly.
MARTIN: Is this classic Dolly, or is she doing something different here? What's your take on that?
Mr. WILSON: Well, you know, the difference for her right now is that she's kind of been doing something different for most of the past ten years. Most of the albums that she's put out have been sort of bluegrass folk albums and really far away from the kind of mainstream...
MARTIN: Or even pop, sometimes.
Mr. WILSON: ...(unintelligible) sound that she was know for. Yeah, and she did an album of like sort of '60s classics. So she's kind of going back to the sort of mainstream country pop market and sort of reintroducing herself to that audience.
MARTIN: Okay. Well, we are going to move quickly along 'cause I do want to get to Miss Erykah Badu. She had made - she has had, rather, a strange and varied career working all across everything: hip-hop, soul, blues. People call her iconoclastic or just difficult sometimes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: She's got a new record now, one she's apparently calling the real follow-up to 2000's "Mama's Gun," and it was proceeded by this single, "Honey." Let's listen.
(Soundbite of song, "Honey")
Ms. ERYKAH BADU (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) So tell me, Slim, what it's going be? It don't be like it usually. When it comes to what it do, I don't fall for that whoop-de-whoo. Ohh, boy, can you tell me please? I want to know if you're feeling me. Oh, Slim, boy, you feeling me?
MARTIN: So, Carl, she's releasing this on Savior's Day. That's the national day of celebration for the nation of Islam. What's the connection there? Or is there anything particularly political on this album?
MARTIN: Yeah. No, this album's really heavily political and there's certainly sort of references to the nation of Islam terms and that kind of thing just peppered through it. The thing about that single is that it's a bit misleading as a flavor for the album 'cause it's a much more straightforward R&B song. But most of this album are like six, seven minute long, really dense kind of experimental pieces, really focusing on social ills - from drugs, to the war in Iraq, to visions of where things need to go from Erykah's point of view. It's a really, really naughty and kind of difficult to get used to album. But it's actually really catchy. It's not meandering the way that her last record, 2003's "Worldwide Underground" was.
MARTIN: Okay. Carl Wilson, pop critic for the Globe and Mail, Canada's national paper, thanks for walking us through three very different women, very different sounds, new albums out this week. Thanks so much, Carl.
Mr. WILSON: You're very welcome.