A musical 'Valentine's Day gift' from Taylor and friends

Tuesday, February 9, 2010 at 9:45pm

After getting very little criticism during an unpredecented sweep of award shows throughout 2009, Taylor Swift encountered predictable backlash at the Grammys Jan. 31 after a less than sterling live performance preceded her winning Album of the Year.

But that blip aside, Swift remains enormously popular with audiences and her Friday appearance in the film Valentine's Day has been heavily touted. In addition, Swift's two new songs are the feature attraction on the Valentine's Day - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Big Machine) CD that is being officially released Tuesday.

Both the disc's leadoff single "Today Was A Fairytale" and "Jump Then Fall" frame her leads against acoustic guitar accompaniment plus enhanced production, and offer entertaining variations on the theme of finding true love (or at least some degree of happiness) in unexpected fashion at just the right time.

"Today Was A Fairytale" accelerates its pace and her exuberance, while "Jump Then Fall" is less frenzied, but boasts an equally brisk vocal. Sleek teen pop with a light country sensibility has been the blueprint for Swift's appeal, and these compositions don't abandon that formula. Either could be a hit, though "Today Was A Fairytale" expertly defines both her sensibility and the film's thematic direction.

The disc's roster has both venerable performers and current stars, though in many cases the lure comes in hearing contemporary types trying their hand at classic numbers. the bird and the bee nicely cover Herman Hermits' "I'm into Something Good," but Anju Ramapriyam's mix of Motown and Asian elements on Stevie Wonder's "Signed Sealed Delivered I'm Yours" is rather jarring, and Sausalito Foxtrot's version of Buddy Holly's "Everyday" captures the mood, but lacks the original's feeling and depth.

Still, hearing Maroon 5 put its spin on Frank Sinatra ("The Way You Look Tonight") proves intriguing. Willie Nelson also brings his distinctive flair and delivery to yet another standard ("On The Street Where You Live"), while Nat King Cole's class and impeccable diction resonate on "Te Quieto Dijiste." But Amy Winehouse's overly loud rendition of Sam Cooke's "Cupid" lacks charm or control.

Thankfully, Joss Stone's assured and more capable "4 x 20" obscures the Winehouse misfire. Diane Birch, Ben E. King, Jewel and Michael Franti & Spearhead are other strong contributors to what's overall a surprisingly good soundtrack despite the varying degrees of success in its wide range of styles, references and approaches.


Lady Antebellum
Need You Now

Music City's hottest trio has seen their second release soar to the top of both pop and country charts on the strength of its dynamic title track, which features superb harmonizing and exchanges between Charles Kelley and Hillary Scott, plus the multi-instrumental contributions of Dave Haywood that fortify the angst-ridden lyrical setting. Though their main virtue is precise, memorable collective performances, the set's other prime highlight is Kelley's brilliant lead turn on "Love This Pain."

Kelley and Scott alternate between country, folk or rock settings, and are comfortable whether songs call for a sophisticated turn, sentimentality or raw edge. The consistent musical quality and vocal authority displayed on Need You Now presents ample proof Lady Antebellum's emergence as both fan and critical favorites is quite justified.

Patty Griffin
Downtown Church (Credential)

Patty Griffin's simple, stunning vocals reaffirm gospel's warmth and fire on this wonderful session partly recorded at the Downtown Presbyterian Church as well as producer/bandleader/vocalist Buddy Miller's home studio and on the road.

There are no exaggerated segments or ego clashes, just poignant singing on 14 memorable collaborations between Griffin and numerous great guests. From Emmylou Harris ("Little Fire") and Raul Malo ("Virgen de Guadalupe") to Julie Miller ("Coming Home To Me" and the duos of Regina and Ann McCrary ("Death's Got A Warrior," "If I Had The Way") or Mike Farris and Regina McCrary ("The Strange Man," "Wade In The Water"), Griffin and company's performances repeatedly demonstrate the connection between black and white spiritual traditions. She also occasionally does a secular number (Leiber & Stoller's R&B chronicle "I Smell A Rat").

But these mostly praise and salvation pieces fully spotlight Griffin's vocal mastery.

Lil Wayne
Rebirth (Universal Motown)

With the specter of a year's imprisonment now at hand [he began a one-year prison sentence on Feb. 9], the much discussed and anticipated Lil Wayne rock project has plenty of sonic fury and combative, offensive energy, though the production is rather heavy handed and overuses autotuning on Wayne's vocals and raps.

"Ground Zero" and "On Fire" feature Wayne's brusque voice raging against or augmented by churning guitar barrages underneath, while frequent partner Shanell AKA SNL sometimes effectively complements him ("American Star," "Runnin" and bonus track "I'm So Over You"), and on other occasions verbally challenges him ("Porn Queen"). Kevin Rudolph ( "One Way Trip") and Nicki Minaj ("Knockout") are additional partners, though the disc's heavily hyped faceoff with Eminem ("Drop The World") never jells, even as both participants vigorously try to elevate it.

Rebirth is a noble, conceptually interesting failure instead of the stylistic knockout Wayne hoped it would be.

Soldier of Love (Epic)

Hard to believe a band could take a decade off from recording and return with a flawless work that perfectly presents its signature mix of smooth, sensual vocals and appealing arrangements. Sade Adu's demure, hypnotic voice sounds ultra-cool on "Soldier of Love," "The Safest Place" and "Skin."

When she shifts into controversial lyrical territory Sade never becomes accusatory or shrill, even as she bemoans the demise of a relationship and her unending devotion to a former lover ("The Moon And The Sky"). "Babyfather" is an ode to paternal instincts, while "Be That Easy" nearly invokes a country vibe, and "In Another Time" puts bluesy saxophone licks and slashing violin behind another lush Adu lead.

Though they always sound more polished than hot, Sade shows on Soldier of Love they're still at the top among bands mixing sophisticated R&B and light jazz.