Keep It Simple
(Lost Highway ***)
"Soul is not the color of your skin," Van Morrison observes on his new album. He would know: The great Irish bard has been proving the truth of that statement for decades now. With
Keep It Simple,
Morrison may keep his Celtic soul on low flame, but it still burns true.
The Belfast Cowboy has become the bruised voice of experience - a graduate of the "School of Hard Knocks" who has given up his hard-living ways ("Don't Go to Nightclubs Anymore"). But his clear-eyed view of life and its disappointments comes with a sense of acceptance and understanding, rather than churlishness and self-pity, and he's still capable of joy and wonder ("That's Entrainment"). It's a mood that's reflected by the inviting warmth of the easygoing R&B grooves that dominate the album.
- Nick Cristiano
(Island/Def Jam ****)
Of all the divas in divadom, only Mariah Carey's got the right to so much devotion. A mid-career breakdown, lousy material, banal movies, too many vocal tics, squeaks and whistles - so what? The woman's got pipes that on
show off her subtleties and her gymnastics - something she hasn't done in some time - all while making beats banging and melodies dramatic.
With lyrics ranging from syrup to snark to holy verse (the latter on
's sparest song, the rousing gospel of "I Wish You Well," with Philly's James Poyser), the productions given Mimi by the likes of Jermaine Dupri and Stargate are grandly showstopping even at their softest. That means Mariah howling through some ex-hubby hate on the crunchy power ballad "Side Effects" and roller-discoing to the sinewy stomper "I'm That Chick."
There's club thudding, there's reggae rump-shaking with Damien Marley snagging a verse. But no sound, guest or producer outshines Mariah even when she's on Auto-Tune through the bang-hop of "Migrate." Now fully
-ed, Mimi digs down deep and finds every voice within her, whether it's cocky-cool ("O.O.C."), snarlingly gnarly ("Thanx 4 Nothin' ") or flutteringly sweet ("Bye Bye").
Mimi, you're so smart.
- A.D. Amorosi
Saturdays = Youth
Considering M83's longtime affection for heady synthesizers and New Age-y backdrops, it's not so strange to hear the French band - helmed by Anthony Gonzalez - opt for the dreamily earnest British pop of the '80s as the big influence for its fifth album. The single "Graveyard Girl" adds ringing guitars to the usual ascending synths and ephemeral vocals, as well as spoken-word interludes by actress Morgan Kibby of the L.A. band the Romanovs. Kibby's doe-eyed delivery of Gonzalez's teenage-sounding poetry appears throughout the album and might be hard to swallow for those even slightly touched with cynicism. The good news? Gonzalez maintains a solid grip on cinematic shoegaze in massive scope, nodding to My Bloody Valentine and Sigur Ros as much as to Tears for Fears.
- Doug Wallen
(J Records **1/2)
Endorsed by Oprah, faster-selling than the Arctic Monkeys, and so stupendously marketable that both Simon Cowell and Clive Davis had to get a piece of her, Leona Lewis darn well better be huge, or the 23-year-old Englishwoman will be a colossal disappointment. And we're not talking Amy Winehouse huge. We're talking Mariah Carey huge. (Watch out, MC, they're coming for you.)
Lewis won Cowell's Brit TV talent competition,
, in 2006, and
, upon its release in Britain in November, promptly broke the Monkeys' record as the quickest-selling debut act in Brit history. In her favor, Lewis comes across as a poised, nascent pop starlet with a touch of suffering in her soaring voice. Though she can effortlessly elevate to a fluttery soprano, she largely avoids unnecessarily ornate ululating. But though her version of Ewan MacColl's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" doubtless makes Cowell's cold, cold heart swell with pride, it's stilted and doesn't hold a candle to Roberta Flack. This is industrial-strength, ready-for-the-radio romantic pop done with care and a couple of catchy songs, like the already chart-topping "Bleeding Love," but most of
is essentially characterless. Which is not to say it isn't going to be huge.
- Dan DeLuca
West Side Strut
The "West Side" of the title refers, of course, to the blues hot spot in Chicago where Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater cut his musical teeth in the '50s after arriving from the South. Here the 73-year-old guitar-slinger and songwriter shows that the neighborhood and its blues legacy remain a potent source of inspiration.
Working with guitarist-producer Ronnie Baker Brooks, son of his old compadre Lonnie Brooks and an estimable bluesman in his own right, Clearwater delivers hard-driving Windy City blues, but as usual he proves capable of much more: swinging R&B, soul-tinged balladry, acoustic country blues, and socially conscious gospel uplift. He also reunites with Lonnie Brooks for some good-natured duetting and fretboard fireworks on "Too Old to Get Married."
- Nick Cristiano
Roamin' and Ramblin'
Now in his early 90s, David "Honeyboy" Edwards is a living history of the blues, with a career that goes back 70 years, to when he crossed paths with such titans as Robert Johnson and Son House. Now, capitalizing on his exposure on the Grammy-winning
Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen: Live in Dallas
and Kenny Wayne Shepherd's Grammy-nominated
Ten Days Out
, Edwards is showcasing his skills as a performer and writer on a new album of his own.
Roamin' and Ramblin'
pairs the gruff-voiced singer and guitarist with top-notch harmonica players including Billy Branch and Bobby Rush. The results, easygoing yet elemental, capture the raw-boned warmth that is the essence of Edwards' appeal. The new material is complemented by older tracks, two of them being mid-'70s recordings with Little Walter on harp, and their inclusion here serves to point up Edwards' enduring vitality.
Something For You: Eliane Elias Sings & Plays Bill Evans
(Blue Note ***)
As a teenager growing up in Sao Paolo, Brazil, pianist Eliane Elias would write out Bill Evans' solos to sharpen her skills. Scroll forward more than 30 years to find Elias working through Evans' solos again after current husband Marc Johnson, the bassist in Evans' last trio, found an old cassette tape of the master, working on songs just before his death in 1980.
This emotional trio CD is the result. Elias, who has served as musical director for Brazilian superstar Gilberto Gil, insists on singing, and she's spectacularly lousy at it. But she's an amazing pianist, with supercharged technique that hits the heart here - and the charts - with Johnson and drummer Joey Barron covering some great standards and Evans originals.
Elias' solo on the iconic "Waltz for Debby" jumps off the keyboard, while Evans' "Five" surges with Thelonious Monk abandon.
The trio channels more of the Evans mystique when Johnson uses the bass of Evans' legendary bassist, Scott LaFaro, and pulls off a delicious version of "My Foolish Heart."
Evans is caught playing on the last cut, though Elias finishes the tune, and her singing gets the last word.
- Karl Stark
Karrin Allyson sings with a little ache in her voice. Her pipes are like distressed jeans, riven with character and maybe some wisdom.
She digs here into a Brazilian vibe that takes in some lesser-known Antonio Carlos Jobim tunes - including the title track, which he wrote at age 20 - and a few more popular Brazilian ditties.
The Kansas-born Allyson was a jazzy fixture on the Kansas City, Mo., scene in 1992 when she talked her way onto the Concord label. That was 11 recordings ago.
Now in her mid-40s, Allyson can be sensual or tough-sounding, depending on the mood.
Her 11th disc has her working in English and Portuguese lyrics, though the latter sometimes sound as if she's reading from a script. She sings Jobim's "Vivo Sonhando" in both languages, with the dreamy Anglo words written by the late, great jazz singer Susannah McCorkle.
Some of the coolest moments are the simplest: Allyson singing over a guitar on Jobim's "Felicidade" and with her own piano work on Jobim's "Double Rainbow." Gil Goldstein's keyboard and accordion add to the sense of Brazilian mystery.
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Gerard Schwarz conducting.
(Artek, two discs, ***)
Tonhalle Orchestra of Zurich; Luba Orgonasova, soprano; David Zinman conducting.
Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Haitink conducting.
(CSO Resound, two discs, ****)
London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev conducting.
(LSO Live! ***1/2)
BBC Philharmonic, Kurt Sanderling conducting.
(BBC Legends ***)
BBC Philharmonic, Gianandrea Noseda conducting.
The excess and repertoire duplication of the 1990s is back, but for different reasons. Mahler recordings aren't mercantile entities so much as calling cards to show how well any given orchestra or conductor is doing. Bernard Haitink's new Chicago recording arrives just seven years after he recorded the same symphony with Orchestre National de France. This is one case, though, with no artistic redundance. The new
Symphony No. 6
is 13 minutes longer, and goes deeper into the music's tissue. In the French performance, the opening of the fourth movement is about color and style; the Chicago recording is a rhetorical pronouncement, and that takes more time.
A more significant chapter in Mahler performance history is Gianandrea Noseda's outing with Deryck Cooke's completion of the unfinished
Symphony No. 10
. While Simon Rattle's Berlin Philharmonic felt carved in granite - much the way his new, highly recommended
Symphony No. 9
does - this more yielding but hugely inspired performance explores the music's logic as never before and makes its five movements sound all of a piece.
The other recordings are good for taking the temperature of their star conductors. In the first installment of a complete Mahler cycle, Valery Gergiev's hard-driven
Symphony No. 6
has a particularly cataclysmic final movement. David Zinman's
Symphony No. 4
is elegant, buoyant, heartfelt and beautifully recorded. Gerard Schwarz, the embattled Seattle Symphony music director, delivers a cogent, subtle and exceptionally songful
Symphony No. 9
, though his
Symphony No. 1
is nothing special.
The BBC Legends recording shows Noseda's Manchester orchestra 25 years earlier in a 1982
Symphony No. 9
under Kurt Sanderling. The orchestra wasn't close to world-class at that point, and the recording quality isn't great. But the performance simmers and explodes with the authority of a conductor who seems to have lived the symphony. Then again, there are so many.
- David Patrick Stearns