Spin Factor

Wednesday, April 15, 2009 at 1:00am

Ray Charles
Genius: The Ultimate Collection

These tunes serve as a blueprint for both Ray Charles’ incomparable skills and the evolution of 20th century popular music. Whether he was doing R&B, jazz, country or standards, Charles made every selection a personal masterpiece.

This collection ranges from early hits like “Hit the Road Jack” and “What’d I Say” into the magnificent covers of Don Gibson (“I Can’t Stop Loving You”) and Harlan Howard classics (“Busted”), as well as his trademark pieces “America the Beautiful” and “Georgia on My Mind.”

Plus, occasional magical originals like “Hallelujah I Love Her So” and “ A Fool for You” remind listeners that he was a remarkable songwriter as well as superb vocalist, pianist and bandleader.

There are many boxed sets and anthologies available containing all or most of these songs, yet Genius does succeed in documenting the range, versatility and prowess of the great Ray Charles on one excellent 21-song package.

Keith Urban
Defying Gravity

Last week, Keith Urban’s new CD Defying Gravity became his first release to top the pop charts, but that’s more important to marketers than music fans. The more cogent fact about his latest is that it’s also a tremendous work and a signal that you can write and perform upbeat, positive material yet not make it so sentimental and sweet that it becomes trite and generic.

The title is a joyous, rousing number, and the same feel and tone are the case on “Sweet Thing,” “Only You Can Love Me This Way” and “Thank You.”

But Urban’s vocals and playing stays fresh, intense and spirited throughout, while ace producer Dann Huff varies the backgrounds and support accordingly.

It’s also a showcase for Urban’s compositions, as he wrote or co-wrote every number except for a sparkling cover of Radney Foster’s “I’m In.”

Sales strength doesn’t always reflect creative value, but in this case Defying Gravity’s commercial success is a justified reward for the excellence of Urban’s content.

Franz Ferdinand

Franz Ferdinand’s third release blends appealing grooves with skittering punk beats, while alternating its tones and influences between ambient and exotic, intense and reflective.

When he wants to become animated, Alex Kapranos can amplify, bend and energize his voice, particularly on such songs as “Turn It On” or “Ulysses,” a number that’s already enjoyed a healthy online push.

However, the set’s best number is arguably “Lucid Dreams,” an eight-minute number whose whirling backdrop and extensive length make it a prime club piece, but whose sophistication and edge reveal there’s just as much happening up front as with the rhythmic base.

This is still predominantly pop-rock with solid, often delightful beats underpinning many selections, but Tonight also highlights producer Dan Carey’s savvy and ability to update the sound while still retaining the sonic qualities and charm that initially broke them out the synth-rock underground.

Nashville Symphony/Leonard Slatkin
Abraham Lincoln Portraits

Abraham Lincoln’s bicentennial provides the occasion for a wonderful two-CD tribute work that combines exacting arrangements with soaring vocals and spoken word narration.

The Nashville Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin expertly performs works from famed composers like Aaron Copland (“Lincoln Portrait”), Morton Gould (“Lincoln Legend”) and Charles Ives (“Lincoln, the Great Commoner”), while Barry Scott’s moving recitations and equally memorable vocals from Mezzo-soprano Sharon Mabry (particularly on “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight”) provide additional fireworks.

The project sometimes utilizes Lincoln’s own words, other times the musings and reflections of poets inspired by him, with all this combining to offer a musical and literary view of Lincoln that both celebrates and reaffirms his position in the American landscape.

The discs were recorded at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center’s Laura Turner Hall last summer, and are also immaculately engineered and produced.

Various Artists
Oh Happy Day: All-Star Musical Celebration

The church and gospel music has served as the launching pad for numerous secular careers, and this new collection of material that’s either spiritual or inspirational offers some interesting and often novel collaborations.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers roar and buttress Jonny Lang on “I Believe,” while Jon Bon Jovi joins the Washington Youth Choir on “Keep the Faith,” and 3 Doors Down merge with the Soul Children of Chicago on “Presence of the Lord.”

Mavis Staples and Patty Griffin (“Waiting for My Child to Come Home”), Al Green and Heather Headley (“People Get Ready”) and Michael McDonald with the West Angeles COGIC Mass Choir are some of the other joint ventures whose marvelous efforts help make Oh Happy Day a significant example of the impact religious training and experience has enjoyed in the popular music sphere.