Thursday, April 30, 2009

As you've never heard him before ...

Chris Cornell
Score: 5

Last time around, Chris Cornell covered Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean." This time, he steps into some springy and contemporary R&B that might befit another Chris: Chris Brown, who, along with Ne-Yo, has been eying Jackson's mantle, long cold as it is. But those young hot-trotters bob and weave and with an inborn agility; for them, an album of Timbaland-produced tracks would be second nature. For Chris Cornell, who was howling across grunge stages before Ne-Yo hit puberty and before Chris Brown learned to walk, it's a different story.

Scream feels like a "Dancing With the Stars" experiment, Cornell in his clodhoppers, Timbaland walking him through some moves:

Tim: "Now, lemme see some bounce."

Chris: "Like this?"

Tim: "Naw, loosen up a bit more. Shake your shoulders."

Chris: "Shake my shoulders?"

Tim: "Yeah, it'll loosen you up. There, that's better. But you gotta get rid of those boots, man."

As surprising a pairing as it is, Cornell and Timbaland at least sound as if they practiced for a while before committing to an album. Cornell sings with conviction and adopts some of the techniques more common to dance-focused R&B, such as short vocal phrases delivered rapidly. This is evident on "Sweet Revenge," which also employs Auto-Tune. But the single most-abused production toy today actually works in this case. It pairs well with the synths and the manipulated backing vocals, and, for the most part, stays in the chorus, rather than dripping all over, as in T-Pain's "Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin')" or Rihanna's "Disturbia." This is perhaps the fastest Cornell has sung before, and it's a style far removed from his usual approach, the soaring calls of rock 'n' roll. Even when he was headbanging through "Cochise" with Audioslave, he held his notes about twice as long.

Now, the idea of combining Timbaland, hit-making producer extraordinaire, with Chris Cornell, grunge legend, was not a bad one. Scream does, however, bring into being some moments of rarefied cheese.

Like the album's opening. (Sheesh.) Here, renaissance-fair trumpeting precedes a spoken-word introduction by Gollum or his closest associate. It's so over-the-top and amateurish that it has the potential to make Scream a guilty pleasure down the road. Less flagrant, but more comical, is when Cornell -- perhaps a little too loosened up -- utters over the organ runs in "Time," "Make a little love / make a little war," as if he's riffing on KC & the Sunshine Band.

Although those moments are brief, they do affect how a listener will view the album, and they can be instructive in how to assess the work as a whole. Is it a lighthearted romp? Is it a focused plunge into new territory? Is it an irredeemable mess?

Cornell and Timbaland are savvy guys. The medieval opening seems like a joke somebody cooked up to bug out first-time listeners. A fake intro for laughs. Like, "OK, now here's the real album."

The music of Scream has no shortage of bounce: Programmed and live drums keep things hoppin', with loads of studio effects blipping in and out. Cheeky synths flounce about over the chugging of guitars on "Enemy"; they turn backward on "Get Up." A chubby electronic pulse gyrates on "Part of Me." Auto-Tune resurfaces on "Get Up." "Take Me Alive" throws in tribal beats and sitar. (It works, but you could argue that it belongs on another album entirely.)

The sheer oddity of Scream, taken in conjunction with the reputations of its creators, makes it a curiosity to consider rather than forget. Still, the title track, the album's single, a rock-structured song ensconced in Timbaland's studio-club sonics, is probably destined to be the only one included in the inevitable Chris Cornell greatest-hits package; a mere note in the historical record, a reminder of that kooky time when he got loose with Timbaland.

As if to signal that he's already moving back to tradition, the hidden track finds Cornell in a bluesy setting --- breaking out harmonica, even --- and being "two drinks away from crying." At least Timbaland's buying the next round. Right?

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