Lez rockers of Hunter Valentine impress with short set. Plus: Toni Braxton's strong 'Pulse'

By Chris Azzopardi

Hear Me Out

Hunter Valentine, 'Lessons From the Late Night'

Hunter Valentine play tough, but underneath the rowdy rock spasms of the all-lesbian band's music lies heartbreak and relationship woes. The Toronto threesome's third album - the follow-up to their first full-length released in 2007 - is impressive, embracing the quality-over-quantity adage at just seven songs totaling a measly, but mighty, 23 minutes. Each one baits with irresistible hooks and Kiyomi McCloskey's rousing temper tantrums, shredding the angsty lyrics like a lawn mower plowing through a field. If radio would embrace real lez love, and not just in the cheap doing-it-drunk way, Hunter Valentine could have a shot at seizing a wider audience of punk-rock peeps that dig hardcore queer bands like The Cliks. They thrash through the first five songs with aggressive control, singing of broken promises and trust on the defiant "Treadmills of Love" and the in-your-face "Revenge." There's a frenzied sprint to "Barbara Jean" and a sing-along refrain to the grunge-rock of "The Stalker," but these girls clean up nicely, too: "A Youthful Existence" is a quieter tale of belonging, emoting with lines like, "There is some place left for you." Hunter Valentine might not fit in, but they sure do stand out. Grade: B+

Toni Braxton, 'Pulse'

What a bitch it's been for past-their-prime pop divas like Mariah, Whitney and Toni Braxton. To stay cool, they've had to take cues from the "kids," indulge in Auto-Tune and hang with rappers. But if Whitney can take a crack at it (excuse the pun) and muster something that's decent enough to endure, Braxton can pull it off with flying rainbow colors even if she's swinging outside her R&B roots. She can still sing, for one - though almost everything she's released in the last decade has been meager compared to her '90s output. So what's a diva to do? Go gayer. "Make My Heart," the second single, is a supersonic disco-dance song with the clubs in mind. It's not bad, but it isn't a showpiece for her voice's multi-toned dexterity. For that, the album is brimming with ballads, and though there's nothing as epic as the career-catapulting "Un-Break My Heart," that doesn't mean she can't cut a solid slowie nearly 15 years later. "Yesterday" meddles in the omnipresent modern-day mold. If not remarkably original, it's still a damn good diva moment. Better are the goosebumps-giving vocals on "Woman" (dramatic pause included!) and "If I Have to Wait," making it clear that Braxton's still best when she's breaking hearts. Grade: B

Also Out

Kate Nash, 'My Best Friend is You'

As "I've Got a Secret" fizzes out and this British alt-rocker intones "homophobic pricks" in this coming-out cut, how can you not like her? The sophomore CD from the MySpace-launched wonder is almost as likable, exploring relationship facets with a hard-edged bite and lots of bad language. Sometimes going R-rated over radio-friendly works, like on retro-ed "Do-Wah-Doo," but when she pushes too hard with the sexual spoken-word riff "Mansion Song" she risks alienation with indignation.

Natalie Merchant, 'Leave Your Sleep'

This isn't how Natalie Merchant left us before going on a seven-year hiatus. Whereas 2003 found the former 10,000 Maniacs front-woman doing straight-up folk, this sprawling literary double-disc undertaking shifts into fairytale whimsy and Celtic-sounding songs - all complimented with an elaborate storybook that's definitely something to marvel over. As for the 26 songs, they're all non-mainstream, ambitious and off in their own world. One that brings sleep more than leaves it.

Reach Chris Azzopardi at chris@pridesource.com.
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