Pop

Harps and Angels

(Nonesuch ***½)

All those years lining his pockets scoring Pixar movies might have dulled the mordant wit of a lesser songwriter than Randy Newman. But not to worry.

Harps & Angels

, the first album by the sardonic songwriter since 1999's

Bad Love

, is every bit as pointed and barbed as Newman's patiently waiting fans could have hoped. The headline-grabber is "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country," originally released as an iTunes download in 2006, in which Newman argues that current U. S. leaders are not so bad, after all, when compared to such greedy despots of the past as Caligula and King Leopold of Belgium. But Newman's also in fine form on the likes of the strutting title cut, in which a New Orleanian narrator has a brush with death and receives tips on leading a happier life from a Francophone deity, and the mini-musical theater "A Piece of the Pie," in which he assesses the state of the American Dream ("The rich are getting richer, I should know") and needles John Mellencamp and Jackson Browne. The gorgeously bummed-out love song "Losing You" is bound to be covered many times over by singers with prettier voices than Newman's, to less emotionally wrenching effect than it has here. The rest of

Harps & Angels

is all gloriously, grumpily and singularly Newman's own.

- Dan DeLuca

Didn't It Feel Kinder

(Daemon ***)

When Amy Ray steps away from Emily Saliers, her partner in Indigo Girls, she stresses her punk rock / indie roots. Her first two solo albums, 2001's

Stag

and 2005's

Prom

, were immediate, raw and spiky.

Didn't It Feel Kinder

adds some polish - backing vocals from Brandi Carlile, some full-bodied arrangements with help from the band Arizona, an outside producer - and shades toward her Indigo work.

But only slightly: it still has a welcome edge and sounds less suited for coffee shops than for dingy rock clubs. Ray sings with Clash-like fervor about the Virginia Tech shooting, about radio censorship, about the idea that "Blame Is a Killer." She's still a folk-rocker, writing topical songs of social activism and unflinching examinations of personal politics, but the emphasis is on the rocker rather than the folk.

- Steve Klinge

Preteen Weaponry

(Jagjaguwar/Brah ***)

Eight albums in, the iconoclastic Brooklyn trio Oneida checks in with the first part of a planned triptych, the second being

Rated O

, scheduled for release early next year. The 39-minute song "Preteen Weaponry" appears here in three parts and was recorded in one day, although the band reportedly developed it for several years. It's a largely instrumental and partly improvised psych sprawl that's equally garage and cosmic. Such headiness is nicely anchored by expansive drumming, and the Kraut-rock-inspired mechanics are knotty but reveal glints of folky melody toward the end of the song's first part. The second is more swirling and surreal, complete with trippy singing, and the third at once more driving and diffuse, something no ordinary band could ever hope to pull off.

- Doug Wallen

The Greatest Story Ever Told

(Universal **1/2)

Like the Hulk that this MC/producer borrowed his name from, David Banner comes on strong, but this Banner certainly isn't green.

The depths of his Dirty South pedigree have found Banner the producer bringing loping rhythms and a mix of acoustic and steely sounds to Lil Wayne and T. I. Since his 2003 breakthrough album,

Mississippi

, Banner's raps have run roughshod over street-greasy beats with a flow that's as soulful as it is gruff and lyrics as rude as they are personally relevant.

But Banner is going for something bigger on

Greatest Story

. And it doesn't always work.

Along with the blissed-out guitars and pulsing drums of "Cadillac on 22's Part 2" and the complex tale of sublimation and human frailty that is "Syrup Sipping," there are lame club jams ("Shawty Say"), lyrics of brutish misogyny ("A Girl") and dunderheaded gangstas ("9 mm"). There's an existentialist dilemma here, as if Banner wants the dumb and the clever, the vicious and the celebratory to live as one. They could easily coexist if they weren't so extreme. Each side of Banner's argument has great points ("9 mm" is as unrelenting as it silly). I just wish they could all get along better.

- A.D. Amorosi

Country/Roots

I, Flathead: The Songs of Kash Buk and the Klowns

(Nonesuch ***1/2)

With

I, Flathead,

Ry Cooder completes the California trilogy he began with 2005's brilliant and moving

Chavez Ravine

and continued with 2007's less involving

My Name Is Buddy.

This time the singer-guitarist takes the concept angle a step further: He penned a novella to accompany the album.

You don't need to read the book - entertaining as it is - to get into the music of "Kash Buk," a country singer, drag racer, Korean War vet, and all-around character. Cooder/Buk takes you into the seedy underbelly of a Southern California that has largely disappeared, mixing colorful atmospherics and roadhouse raunch as he sings about an aging carny, a mean old watchdog named "Spayed Kooley," or doing the "Pink-O Boogie." But it's also obvious, from his mariachi-flavored opener "Drive Like I Never Been Hurt," to his classic-sounding tearjerker "5,000 Country Music Songs," that Kash Buk has a lot of heart amid his lowlife tendencies. He's a fascinating figure.

- Nick Cristiano

Same Old Man

(New West **1/2)

As self-descriptions go, "same old man" is not exactly an enticing come-on. The title song of 55-year-old John Hiatt's new album, however, is meant to be an endearing declaration of marital devotion from a guy who's well aware of his faults. The tune reflects the theme of the album, which is how love can save us from ourselves, even if we sometimes do our best to ruin the opportunity.

Hiatt has always been a perceptive and self-aware writer, and on numbers such as "Hurt My Baby," he is as soulfully affecting as ever. Overall, however,

Same Old Man

tends to lie a little flat, perhaps because the rootsy, acoustic-textured arrangements have the same old pace - slow to mid-tempo. The material may be solid, but the record is short on the kind of sparks that have animated Hiatt's best work, from

Bring the Family

to

Beneath This Gruff Exterior.

- N. C.

Jazz

The Anthology

(Concord ***1/2)

Chick Corea's Return to Forever, like Herbie Hancock's Headhunters, John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Joe Zawinul/Wayne Shorter's Weather Report, had its roots in the Miles Davis electric bands of the late 1960s.

RTF had three lineups in its brief life from 1972 to 1977. The opening group, which produced the tune "Spain," was gentler and more sensual. The second group, the most popular and heavily electric, released the four albums anthologized here:

Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy, Where Have I Known You Before, No Mystery,

and

Romantic Warrior

.

The main lineup - pianist Corea, guitarist Al Di Meola, bassist Stanley Clarke, and drummer Lenny White - is also the crew that will play the Mann this week.

This remains dynamic fusion. Think of progressive rock bands like Yes, but on soloing steroids. The occasional Latin tinge wafts through. Di Meola wails throughout. Corea plays some fiendishly technical stuff while Clarke, who served in all three RTFs, is well into developing his flamboyant style. Their collaboration holds its value.

- Karl Stark

Worrisome Heart

(Universal/Verve ***)

The Philly-based singer Melody Gardot is poised for big things. After getting hit by a car in Center City several years ago, leaving her still sensitive to light and noise, the sensual singer doesn't get much past purring here. And she still uses a cane to get around. But that hardly mattered as she scored strong reviews during a swing through London last month.

Joining with coproducer Glenn Barratt and guitarist Jef Lee Johnson, Gardot makes a smoky set of originals that are likable and moody. The tunes are simply arranged and full of quiet force; the title track is slinky while "Love Me Like A River Does" conveys some amorous intent.

The 10 tracks are often reminiscent of Norah Jones, but not dismayingly so. "One Day" smacks of country. "All That I Need Is Love" has the feel of an old standard, while the finger-snapping "Goodnight" makes for a steamy lullaby.

- K.S.

Classical

Kenneth Tarver, Corinna Mologni, Lorenzo Regazzo, Marco Vinco and Simon Bailey. Czech Chamber Soloists, Brno; Alberto Zedda conducting.

(Naxos two discs ***)

Opera cynics who believe the bel canto era was mainly a compositional treadmill rather than a creative process might do well to access this humble, one-act opera from 1812, written as a light intermezzo (the genre word is

farsa

) and (given Rossini's productivity) probably inside of five minutes. But against all odds, the piece is a little miracle. And the odds, in the cast from a concert performance at the Rossini in Wildbad Festival, include a cast that has only hints of the vocal charisma that the composer's opera tended to count on. In fact, leading soprano Corinna Mologni as barely up to her big aria, which is one of the best things in the opera.

The hero here, and in so many Rossini enterprises, is veteran conductor Alberto Zedda, who has the orchestra play with a charm and lightness one associates not just with Mozart, but with

early

Mozart. From that gentle sound world, he creates a wonderfully amiable air about the piece, and the orchestral scoring is full of surprises that ambush you on subsequent hearings. Expect little; receive lots.

- David Patrick Stearns

Marek Konstantynowicz, viola, Cikada Ensemble, Norwegian Radio Orchestra, Christian Eggen conducting.

(ECM ***1/2)

Of all the 1960s avant-gardists, Morton Feldman (1926-1987) was perhaps the most extreme. Even John Cage comes with explanations; Feldman's pieces defy usual logic and speak to one's intuition, often for five hours at a stretch. This ECM-label disc isn't necessarily the greatest Feldman recording in years, but it's the most manageable, given that it contains four pieces (none longer than 15 minutes) that are part of the same series of pieces dominated by the viola.

First listening suggests the music is George Crumb outtakes: Though the composers both explore new sound horizons, Crumb seems to do so more cogently, while Feldman leaves you unmoored from nearly everything you thought you knew about music, with dabs of color here and there but little melody, harmony or rhythm. But only two hearings are really required to pick up on Feldman's disembodied, dream-like manner. His musical spareness creates such a re-ordering of one's perceptions that the entrance of each new sound is a huge event.

Though the first three pieces are chamber works for varying lineups, the final one is for full chamber orchestra. And at that point, your ears are so attuned to hearing so little that the chamber orchestra has the impact of Mahler's

Symphony of a Thousand

. It's great summer listening: You finish the disc feeling like you've been on vacation (though a very strange one).

- D. P. S.