- - Monday, November 28, 2011

Live at the Royal Albert Hall

Adele

XL Recordings/Columbia

★★★

Adele has been absent for the past two months, holed up in her London apartment recovering from emergency throat surgery. Weeks before she went under the knife, she wrapped up the British leg of her 2011 world tour with a performance at Royal Albert Hall. That sold-out show is documented on her first live album, released this week in conjunction with a full-length concert DVD.

“Live at the Royal Albert Hall” is best enjoyed as an audiovisual package. It’s fascinating to watch Adele at the microphone, her hands flying skyward with each high note and her face registering every heartbroken lyric. To drive home the fact that a powerhouse singer like Adele needs no additional props, the DVD focuses squarely on the diva herself, with few camera shots capturing anything else onstage.

Still, it’s Adele’s voice - a booming, supersized contralto - that truly steals the show, which makes the CD version of “Live at the Royal Albert Hall” just as enjoyable. Backed by a five-piece band and several harmony singers, she croons her way through a mix of originals and covers, running through all of her radio hits in the process. “Chasing Pavements,” “Rumour Has It” and “Rolling in the Deep” make appearances, as does a stirring, piano-led version of Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.”

There’s a sense here that Adele’s voice isn’t operating at 100 percent. She abandons the high notes in “Someone Like You,” improvising a lower refrain instead, and lets the audience sing some of the more challenging parts during an encore performance of “Rolling in the Deep.” Regardless, Adele singing at 90 percent capacity is still a force to be reckoned with, and the frailties exposed in her Teflon-strong voice are sort of endearing.

Compare “Live at the Royal Albert Hall” to Taylor Swift’s “Speak Now: World Tour Live,” a record so sonically airbrushed that it might as well be a studio album with crowd noise piped in, and Adele’s vocal flaws almost feel like a certificate of authenticity. Here’s one of the best singers of the 21st century, newly recovered from laryngitis and days away from a career-pausing vocal hemorrhage, and she still manages to sound incredible.

“Live at the Royal Albert Hall” isn’t perfect, but it’s real. As far as live albums go, that may be preferable.

Whatever

Hot Chelle Rae

RCA

★★

Stuck halfway between Maroon 5’s dance-rock and Rihanna’s electro-pop, Hot Chelle Rae’s second album looks to the mainstream for all of it’s cues. Here is a record that desperately wants to be part of the cool crowd, and it stops at nothing - not even replacing the drummer’s contributions with programmed electronic percussion - to fit in.

For better or worse, “Whatever” does sound like the chart-topping artists it so willingly apes. Disney’s favorite bad girl, Demi Lovato, sings her usual vocal acrobatics on the gauzy ballad “Why Don’t You Love Me,” and producers S.A.M & Sluggo make sure the other songs sound as slick as a Slip ‘N Slide. If this sort of club-worthy pop/rock feels familiar, it’s because “Whatever” takes meticulous pains to recycle the popular sounds of 2011.

What happened to the balance between style and substance, though? “Whatever” focuses entirely on the former, even crediting Hot Chelle Rae’s groomer and stylist - those are two different jobs, mind you, occupied by two different people - in the liner notes, right alongside the band’s producers and sound engineers. If only that groomer had brushed a little grit onto the band’s squeaky-clean sound, “Whatever” might be worth a second listen.

Corgan gets in the ring

For those who always thought “Siamese Dream” sounded like a killer wrestling name, here’s a bit of unexpected news. Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan has teamed up with two wrestling promoters to create Resistance Pro, an indie wrestling company based out of Chicago.

Resistance Pro held its first match on Friday evening and hopes to expand beyond Illinois in the coming years. None of the athletes involved has modeled his wrestling persona after Smashing Pumpkins songs - although seriously, how cool would a muscle-bound “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” be? - but the company still boasts a roster of unique characters, including “Sassy Stephanie” and “Donny Dominion.”

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