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Crooners - Released September 26, 2006 | RPM

Tony Bennett has so many adoring celebrity fans it should come as no surprise that when a major duets album is planned, he's able to draw a roster of the biggest recording stars from the rock and vocal worlds, plus a pair of country music wildcards. (This despite the fact that he recorded an album with several duets in 2001, and a full-album collaboration one year later with k.d. lang.) One surprise is how well producer Phil Ramone paired Bennett with both duet partners and fitting standards -- among them Barbra Streisand on the optimist's anthem "Smile," Dixie Chicks for the flapper standard "Lullaby of Broadway," Bono on the wickedly spiteful "I Wanna Be Around," Tim McGraw on "Cold, Cold Heart" (the Hank Williams song that was Bennett's biggest country crossover hit), Stevie Wonder on his own "For Once in My Life," Juanes for "The Shadow of Your Smile" (which was a hit first for the Brazilian Astrud Gilberto), and Sting on the torch song "Boulevard of Broken Dreams." (Even the title of "How Do You Keep the Music Playing?" seems fit for George Michael to sing.) Each performance was recorded with Bennett and his duet partner live in the studio -- it could be no different for such an old-school vocalist -- and the setup allows for maximum warmth and congeniality. Yet, aside from the novelty of the billings, Duets: An American Classic doesn't thrill like Bennett's solo recordings of the previous ten years. The arrangements of Jorge Calandrelli are heavy on serene strings that wrap the melodies in layers of soft gauze, and few concessions are made to the needs of the material; virtually every song is either a soft vocal pop number or a finger-snapping swinger. As befits an all-star affair, every edge is polished to a fine sheen and, more than a few times, the feelings his duet partners attempt to summon sound quite superficial. Of course, every vocal interpreter in the business sounds a little forced when compared to Tony Bennett. © John Bush /TiVo
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Rock - Released January 20, 2004 | RPM

Singer/songwriter Mike Viola names names on the third album by his nom de band, Candy Butchers, starting with the title, Hang On Mike. As usual, his autobiographical messages recur in his songs, the self-assuring title song echoed on the closing track, "Hunker Down." And why does Viola need to hang on and hunker down? Because, after two albums released by RPM (the imprint run by his manager, Danny Bennett, son of Tony) and manufactured and distributed by Sony, Hang On Mike, while still manufactured by the major label, is not being distributed or promoted by it, which means, essentially, that he has been reduced to indie label status. As a result, the album is a noticeably more modest production, its arrangements stripped down, its vocals and instruments close-miked in a dry sound that comes off more like a good demo recording than a professional album. But then, you might say that that sound is an appropriate one for Viola's songs, which are unusually personal even for him. Or, put it this way: in Candy Butchers' career-long Beatles obsession, which continues here, having aped the sound of British Invasion and psychedelic Sgt. Pepper's-style Beatles on earlier records, Viola is doing his version of the back-to-basics approach of The Beatles (aka "The White Album"). So, there is a warts-and-all approach, with count-ins and off-mike remarks, and no attempt has been made to clean up Viola's sometimes rough voice. All of that works to the benefit of songs in which he celebrates a successful relationship, starting with the leadoff track, "What to Do With Michael," to the extent of declaring "Let's Have a Baby." "Kiss Alive II" is a celebration of his friendship with longtime associate Todd Foulsham that even lists their presents of records to each other: "I gave you "'Bennie and the Jets'"/You gave me Kiss Alive II." But despite the love and friendship, Viola remains self-deprecating and clearly is encountering a career crisis. And that brings listeners back to hanging on and hunkering down, which it can only be hoped Viola will do, since his ongoing autobiography-in-music is just as touching, funny, and fascinating as ever. © William Ruhlmann /TiVo
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Pop - Released March 12, 2002 | RPM

On their/his full-length debut album, Falling Into Place, Candy Butchers' Mike Viola (the group name is really a polite fiction) came off as a successor to Graham Parker and early Elvis Costello in the romantically angered post-punk new wave vein, a worthy enough position that tends to delight critics without engaging the critical mass of fans it takes to maintain a major-label record contract. On his/their second album (this time the billing is Candy Butchers instead of Mike Viola & Candy Butchers), Viola often comes off as a Marshall Crenshaw-style power popper, steeped in the sound of mid-'60s pop/rock and its fascination with unusual sounds audible on the margins of tracks dominated by electric guitar riffs and hooky choruses. "Baby, It's a Long Way Down," for example, is distinctly Beatlesque, while "My Monkey Made a Man Out of Me," apparently a celebration of addiction, boasts an intro and outro that recall George Harrison's flirtation with Indian music. On Falling Into Place, Viola seemed to be writing the same song of romantic disappointment over and over; here he is still disappointed, but his frustration is more global. "The older I get the more it seems/I watch my dreams get smaller," he begins on "It's a Line," and this sense of diminished expectations pervades the songs. The romantic element is not absent, but things are more specific and more desperate, notably on "I Let Her Get Away," in which a pregnancy is compared to mold. By album's end, Viola has practically abandoned the studio trickery to return to a Parker/Costello-like stance on "Make No Mistake," singing over acoustic guitar accompaniment with bitter wordplay that continues into the elegiac closer, "Call Off the Dogs." The album makes another impressive, if severe, statement likely to play well to the brainy and miss the masses. © William Ruhlmann /TiVo
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Pop/Rock - Released August 28, 1999 | RPM

In the mid-'70s, British singer/songwriters like Graham Parker and Elvis Costello launched careers with music that tempered the onslaught of punk to a more melodic rock sound reminiscent of mid-'60s Beatles music and its many followers, and, while retaining punk's lyrical anguish, explored more complex emotions with more eloquent words. On his debut album, Mike Viola, whose voice most people heard for the first time singing "That Thing You Do!" in the movie of the same name, resurrects the sound of Parker & the Rumour's Howlin' Wind and Costello & the Attractions' This Year's Model, fronting the rhythm section known as the Candy Butchers, with occasional added keyboards by the Band's Garth Hudson. Viola's rough voice has much of Parker's urgency to it, and his songs, less substantial than those of Costello, are nevertheless concerned with many of the same elements of romantic disappointment and its attendant frustration. Indeed, he seems to be rewriting the same song over and over: "All day I'm thinking about you, " he sings in "Give Me Some Time," and "You are always on my mind" in "Can't We Do Anything Right," a title followed one song later by "Doing It the Wrong Way." One song is called "Falling into Place," another "Falling Back Down." Viola's music for these confused and ambivalent sentiments is raucously played by the Candy Butchers, and occasional horn and string charts add grace without robbing the tunes of bite. Mixer Bob Clearmountain has given the album an explosive sound in which every instrument seems simultaneously very loud and distinct. Chip-on-the-shoulder sensitivity is a good combination of feelings in the ever-adolescent world of rock & roll, and it works as well for Viola on this debut album as it has for others in the past. The next question is whether, like Elvis Costello, he'll evolve out of it or, like Graham Parker, keep repeating it. © William Ruhlmann /TiVo