ALBUM REVIEW Neil Diamond, Dreams (Columbia)
Neil Diamond is now, officially, the William Shatner of rock. He's always been an overtly eyebrowed ham, but with age, the icon has become a cross between Hamlet and T.J. Hooker. On his latest album, the covers collection Dreams, the 69-year-old salutes 14 of his favorite rock songs with sermon-on-the-mount gravitas. This includes one of his own, the otherwise incandescent I'm a Believer, which he has turned into a late-life lament built with wispy guitar plucks, burbling keyboard and a delivery that borders on the morose. I'm a Depressive is more like it.
One of the finest songwriters in pop history, Diamond has certainly earned the right to put down the pen and do a tribute record. But Dreams often plays like an SNL parody, perhaps with Will Ferrell tearing off a Diamond rip in which every word is delivered with spooky eyes and solemn profundo. Part of the problem is that the singer's voice is now reduced to a thick middle range. As a result, a song such as Midnight Train to Georgia becomes a spoken-word slog — like being stuck on Amtrak with a windbag bemoaning a breakup. Even worse? The Beatles' Blackbird and Yesterday have been rendered inexcusably comical with clenched-fist dramatics.
Every now and then, the Neilosity works as intended: Randy Newman pretty much "talks" his songs anyway, so Diamond's versions of Feels Like Home and Losing You are effectively heart-wrenching. Gilbert O'Sullivan's Alone Again (Naturally), a lost classic for sure, is given fresh meaning, too. That said, for every great moment, there's Gorgonzola to follow. The Eagles' Desperado now sounds like a directive Capt. Kirk would give from the bridge of the Enterprise.
ALBUM REVIEW N.E.R.D., Nothing (Star Trak)
Pharrell's phunky return
As part of the Neptunes production crew, Pharrell was the preferred hip-hop architect of the early '00s: Nelly's Hot in Herre, Gwen Stefani's Hollaback Girl, Britney Spears' I'm a Slave 4 U, pretty much whatever Justin Timberlake did to become a solo star. But after saturating the market with club-banging synth thrusts, the Virginia Beach player dropped from the charts and acknowledged his weirdo side, forming hip-hop collective N.E.R.D. with Neptunes partner Chad Hugo and rapper Shae. Beats and boasts didn't have to be hits; they just had to be cool.
Mission accomplished. N.E.R.D.'s fourth album, the new Nothing, is once again a neck-snapping travelogue through Pharrell's musical psyche, where undulating sex bombs (Hypnotize U) commence the party but quickly give way to intricate diversions: conceptual soul similar to Marvin Gaye's political flights (I've Seen the Light/Inside of Clouds), quasi-Fab Brit cheek (Victory), haunted New Orleans stomp (It's in the Air).
Remember Terence Trent D'Arby, who didn't know whether he wanted to be Prince or Donovan? Yeah, like that. N.E.R.D.'s first album, 2002's In Search Of . . ., was a cerebral gander at sexual politics that still hovered on hip-hop's borders. But in 2010, a N.E.R.D. song is layered and layered again with way-out stuff, the influences spanning the life of rock, rap, R&B and jazz. Pharrell is too much of a showman to get forever lost in space, so he'll occasionally cut the experimental noodling and speechifying with a giddy, good-natured grind (Hot-N-Fun feat. Nelly Furtado). The randy party is sexy and smooth. But the pillow talk will blow your mind. GRADE: A