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Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2006 08:23 pm

Change of pace

John Legend impresses while Gwen Stefani yodels

John Legend, Grammy-winning pianist
SINGLES ONLY We’ve stood at the edge of commercial crap with Gwen Stefani before, but with her new single, “Wind It Up,” we have fallen off the cliff. Not only does the Hollaback Girl yodel badly, but she’s also yodeling to the chopped-up “beats” of The Sound of Music’s “The Lonely Goatherd”! A little discretion would have been nice; if Stefani hadn’t yodeled the first line off Julie Andrews’ jam, the sample would have been interesting tethered to the drumline-style beats. It’s the same ol’, same ol’ with Stefani’s lyrics — “club, euphemism for sex, her clothing line, club.” Vinyl Static says no to sampling songs from The Sound of Music — if we let this slide, what’s next? Cats, that’s what.

CD EXCHANGE John Legend’s sophomore effort, Once Again, finds the Grammy-winning piano crooner climbing from Kanye West’s sidecar and revving the motor on his own ambitious lounge-style tunes. Tackling a sound that has been parodied to death could have easily marked the end of Legend’s reign. He’s pulled out another well-built record, albeit a noticeable departure from the wildly successful Get Lifted. There’s nary a Snoop Dogg drawl, a West A-B rhyme scheme, or a hip-hop beat — welcomed additions that peppered his debut album — on Once Again. It’s a gutsy move for the G.O.O.D. Records associate who stood side by side with Common and West on the cover of Vibe as they portrayed themselves as some sort of triple threat or package deal. Instead, Legend sings solo and dips down deep into the back catalogs of such legendary songsters as Jeff Buckley and Tony Bennett for inspiration.

Fans of the monster hit “Ordinary People” won’t find that kind of magic here (although West and will.i.am produce this record, too), but there are plenty of strong, mellow tracks to sway to. There is loads of nostalgia to be had on these tracks, which inject authentic Philly soul, R&B, and jazz sounds into Legend’s smooth piano-man routine. The album leads off with the first single, “Save Room,” a lush Bennett-inspired number accompanied by a warbling guitar and an organ sample of “Stormy” by Classics IV. Legend steps away from his piano on “Show Me,” a guitar-heavy ballad on which his vocals climb a few octaves higher. It’s beautiful, and it stands close to Buckley’s brilliance.

On “Slow Dance,” Legend falls back into his gravelly coo and plays a plucky piano line accompanied by R&B?guitar. “Maxine” employs a Latin-tinged groove coupled with bongos and rich, femme background vocals. Just before the album closes out, the dexterous piano lines begin to wear, and a poppy boom-boom-bap would be a welcome change of pace. Alas, the final track is a sentimental piece of adult-contemporary drivel outfitted with an inspirational choir.

Once Again is a musician’s album, with seamless genre-bending and impressive instrumentation, but often the tracks seem a little bloodless. Listeners may have a hard time latching on.

Contact Marissa Monson at mmonson@illinoistimes.com

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