Johnny Cash's place in popular-music history was already secure before producer Rick Rubin midwifed a late-career resurgence, but Rubin's latest reclamation project stands on slipperier ground. Neil Diamond is responsible for some of the snappiest hits of the late '60s, like "Cherry Cherry," "Solitary Man," and "Sweet Caroline," but he's never been a slave to quality control, and his catalog is littered with rhinestones. More people think of him as an adult-contemporary schlockmeister than a classic pop craftsman. Rubin had Diamond tone down some of his Middleville Performing Arts Center theatrics for the new album 12 Songs, and the result is an intimate recording with a rocker's restlessness and a showman's confidence.
For a snapshot of what of 12 Songs is all about, skip past the pleasantly plaintive opener "Oh Mary" to the album's second track, "Hell Yeah," a classic slow-building anthem that has Diamond grunting out affirmations over swirling acoustic instrumentation, as though trying to convince himself of his own worth. It's a dramatic, stirring performance, matched in hushed intensity by a few other songs on the record, like "Evermore," "Man Of God," and "Delirious Love." Listeners unfamiliar with the range of Diamond's oeuvre may overrate 12 Songs, giving it credit for virtues found on any well-chosen Diamond anthology. The new album sounds great, but it has its share of filler, and Rubin's narrow vision means he lets some songs lie motionless when they might be improved by old-fashioned sweetening. But anyone who's ever bopped around the house to "Cracklin' Rosie" will undoubtedly be brightened by the dirty electric piano and vibes of "I'm On To You," which sounds like one of Diamond's exuberant '60s hits made endearingly soft and shady.
Burt Bacharach's rep has been pretty well rehabilitated over the past decade, which has seen box sets, tribute concerts, and acclaimed collaborations with the likes of Ronald Isley and Elvis Costello. In its own way, Bacharach's new record At This Time is as daring as 12 Songs, though it doesn't wear as well. Bacharach constructs the album as a series of bitter questions about the state of the world today, and he hits an angry peak with "Who Are These People?", which has Costello berating the Bush administration over the sound of a funky synthesizer. But aside from "Go Ask Shakespeare," which scores with a late-song appearance by Rufus Wainwright (whose voice is perfectly matched to Bacharach's fussy light-pop orchestrations), At This Time holds back too much, sticking to a tasteful, soft R&B mix that undercuts the urgency of Bacharach's "what the hell's going wrong" pleas. Unlike Diamond, Bacharach doesn't dare to be mocked.