EW reviews two experimental titles -- We take a closer look at eyebrow-raising new albums by Willie Nelson and Paul Anka

By David Browne
July 08, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT

EW reviews two experimental titles

Willie Nelson passed official retirement age seven years ago; Paul Anka will be 64 next month. Neither milestone has prevented these two laid-back crooners from two different generations from doing what few pop geezers do: trying something radically different.

Countryman, Nelson’s stab at reggae, was recorded — and shelved — ten years ago, the casualty of industry shake-ups. But was quality also a factor? The meshing of the ponytailed one’s casual, bone-dry delivery with Jamaican riddims is meant to be Nelson’s Graceland; instead, it’s a one-toke-over-the-line mismatch. The beats, often tinny to begin with, only make Nelson seem lackluster, even when singing bleak originals like ”Darkness on the Face of the Earth.” Nelson hasn’t sounded this silly since ”To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” but at least he was in on that gag.

Anka’s Rock Swings should have been a joke too: The last thing anyone needs is another old-school crooner tackling post-MTV rock in a nonstop kitschathon. But the album’s arrangers — and Anka himself, with his lost-child-of-Sinatra swagger — approach everything from Spandau Ballet’s ”True” to Oasis’ ”Wonderwall” to Bon Jovi’s ”It’s My Life” as substantial songs deserving of big-band reworkings, and inventive ones at that. No smirks are apparent, for instance, in the transformation of R.E.M.’s ”Everybody Hurts” into an after-hours lament. Granted, not even the best intentions can salvage ”Eye of the Tiger” or Lionel Richie’s ”Hello,” and Anka is at best a serviceable balladeer. But the results are that genuine rarity: a novelty album worthy of begrudging respect. Countryman: C- Anka Swings: B

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