Secret, Profane and Sugarcane
(Hear Music ***)
nolead ends Elvis Costello's third collaboration with T-Bone Burnett splits the difference between his first two: It's better than 1989's all-over-the-place Spike, but not as good as 1986's sharply focused King of America. It's a set of ballads with subtle acoustic country and bluegrass backing, not quite so atmospheric as Burnett's most recent noteworthy production, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' Raising Sand.
The cable talk-show host is never at a loss for words or new songs, but here he also reinterprets tunes previously targeted for other projects. The standout, and one welcome up-tempo cut, "Hidden Shame," for instance, originally was written for Johnny Cash and also was released as a demo version on Costello's 2001 album All This Useless Beauty.
Emmylou Harris sings harmony on the quite lovely fiddle-fired "The Crooked Line," cowritten by Burnett, and "I Felt the Chill" is a choked and touching lament cowritten with Loretta Lynn that's a comeback, of sorts, to Lynn's "When the Tingle Becomes A Chill." Too many mid-tempo tunes lined up back-to-back, but otherwise a solid addition to the Costello oeuvre.
- Dan DeLuca
nolead begins Art Brut
nolead ends nolead begins Art Brut vs. Satan
nolead ends nolead begins (Downtown ***)
nolead ends You have to love any band that cops influence from the Fall, and even takes its name from French painter Jean Debuffet's outsider aesthetic. In his wonky, witty work, singer/lyricist Eddie Argos inherits the mantle of clever punk held by Johnny Lydon, Ian Dury, and Damon Albarn, preserving the best qualities of each.
Yet fans of Art Brut's first hit - the bluntly caustic "Formed a Band" - are in for an odd treat. With Frank Black of the Pixies behind the board, the sound of Satan is raw and powerful, as if the mix were pushed into the red without losing clarity.
It's a musical and lyrical thrill ride, from the punch of "What a Rush" to the poignancy of "Am I Normal?". But don't let that touching moment fool you. Argos is a caustic everyman, a goofball extraordinaire. "Slap Dash for No Cash" makes fun of Eno's belabored sonic endeavors, and an equally contagious "Mysterious Bruises" winks at the Bobby Fuller Four with the lyric "I fought the floor and the floor won." And who but Argos can sing a love song to DC Comics and chocolate milkshakes and make it sad and sarcastic?
- A.D. Amorosi
nolead begins The Sounds
nolead ends nolead begins Crossing the Rubicon
nolead ends nolead begins (Amioki/Original Signal **1/2)
nolead ends Once hailed as Sweden's answer to Blondie but actually not far removed from Canada's Metric, the Sounds tackle this third album as if being timed, visibly itching to launch into every neon-bright chorus. Maja Ivarsson's heavily treated vocals combine with '80s-tinged guitars and synths for big, punchy pop that doesn't bother being particularly original. Yet the first half of the album is spoiled by Ivarsson's smug delivery and condescending lyrics. The tacky "My Lover" mars its fluttering electronics with woefully willful singing, and "Beatbox" takes a lame stab at replicating Blondie's "Rapture." The second half, thankfully, is less in-your-face and overproduced, free of self-conscious kiss-offs and concessions to radio. The result is an album that teeters uncomfortably between smarmy and sweet, bloated and efficient.
- Doug Wallen
nolead begins Eels
nolead ends nolead begins Hombre Lobo
nolead ends nolead begins (Vagrant ***)
nolead ends "I am an hombre lobo," Mark Oliver Everett howls on "Tremendous Dynamite." That he steals the cadence of Howlin' Wolf's "Back Door Man" is just one example of the sly wit typical of Eels albums. He's also alluding to one of his own songs, "Dog Faced Boy" from 2001's Souljacker, and Hombre Lobo is in part the story of the dog boy turned wolfman. It's subtitled 12 Songs of Desire, and desire is a scary thing in Lobo's world, simmering with violence both physical and emotional.
Eels' eighth leans on heavy blues. For instance, "Fresh Blood" cribs from Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You." But not exclusively: seemingly sincere ballads ("All The Beautiful Things," "Ordinary Man") get juxtaposed with unhinged old-school rockers such as "Lilac Breeze," which borrows from Elvis Costello's "Mystery Dance." Lobo is typical eclectic Eels, and it's worthy of desire.
- Steve Klinge
Man of Somebody's Dreams:
A Tribute to the Songs
of Chris Gaffney
(Yep Roc ***1/2)
nolead ends With maybe one or two exceptions, the artists paying tribute here to Chris Gaffney are all better-known than the late honoree. One listen to Gaffney's songs, however, and you'll realize why everyone from Boz Scaggs, John Doe, and Los Lobos to Alejandro Escovedo, James McMurtry, and Dan Penn wanted to be part of this.
The set was organized by roots-rocker and fellow Southern Californian Dave Alvin, who employed Gaffney in his band, the Guilty Men; he delivers a touching spoken reminiscence before launching into Gaffney's poignant "Artesia." The uniformly top-flight performances show just how good Gaffney was in styles ranging from Tex-Mex-spiced rockabilly ("Lift Up Your Leg," by Joe Ely) to roadhouse R&B ("Six Nights a Week," by Peter Case), classic country ("King of the Blues," by Robbie Fulks), and accordion-laced border ballads ("The Gardens," by Freddie Fender).
Gaffney himself makes a cameo at the end, but his performance, recorded just weeks before his death, only hints at the fact that he was just as good a singer as he was a writer.
- Nick Cristiano
nolead begins Various Artists
nolead ends nolead begins Keep Your Soul:
A Tribute to Doug Sahm
nolead ends nolead begins (Vanguard ***1/2)
nolead ends In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Bob Dylan spoke of his deep connection with Doug Sahm, and you can hear some Sahm influence on his new album. Dylan isn't part of this tribute, but a host of other rock and roots luminaries do the late, great Texas groover proud.
Fittingly, the cast is Lone Star-centric, with the likes of Alejandro Escovedo, Flaco Jiménez, Delbert McClinton, and Jimmie Vaughan. Outsiders include Dave Alvin, Los Lobos, and Little Willie G., who gets things off to a raucous start with a Ry Cooder-backed take on the Tex-Mex stomper "She's About a Mover," Sahm's signature hit with the cheekily named Sir Douglas Quintet. The performances all serve to remind that Sahm was a hipster with a heart: As he gleefully mixed rock, country, R&B, and conjunto, he made sure the grooves were deep and infectious, even when the deceptively substantive lyrics belied the good-time feel of the music. In other words, he really did keep his soul.
Take to the Sky
(Convivium Records ***)
nolead ends Every generation gets to reinterpret the Great American Songbook.
Kat Edmonson, 25, more than leaves her mark.
She puts her kewpie-doll voice here to a succession of familiar standards, from George Gershwin's "Summertime" to Carole King's "One Fine Day," and comes out with reasonable marks. She's direct and packs an eerie voice that has the markings of personality.
The singer, based in Austin, Texas, sang Peggy Lee's "Fever" on American Idol in 2002 and was dismissed, though not before prickly judge Simon Cowell compared her to Doris Day.
Norah Jones would be closer to the mark. Edmonson is spookily delicate and a bit of an acquired taste, but her china-doll sensibility scores points in a jazz room. The settings with reedman John Ellis, bassist Eric Revis, and producer/pianist Kevin Lovejoy give a rich finish to this accessible set.
- Karl Stark
nolead begins Darcy James Argue's
nolead ends nolead begins Infernal Machines
nolead ends nolead begins (New Amsterdam Records ***)
nolead ends Some cats fit into jazz because it's the broadest tent out there.
For Vancouver, British Columbia-born composer Darcy James Argue, 33, jazz is but one way station among many. The composer and blogger creates a textured soundscape full of driving rhythms and elegant horns that dip into progressive rock, electronica, and the furthest reaches of jazz.
The result is way too big to absorb easily. Yet it's not modernist claptrap. Certainly for listeners who seek a challenge, there's mystery here.
Argue's 18-piece band has been battle-tested on the bandstand by playing around New York clubs for the last four years. Much of his work is documented at http://secretsociety.type
pad.com, but this debut recording is both a summation of his influences - trombonist Bob Brookmeyer and composer Maria Schneider were among his teachers - and a powerful assertion of self.
Argue doesn't play on the set, which features fine blowing from fellow Canadian Ingrid Jensen on the ardent "Transit." His darkly neurotic "Habeas Corpus" is dedicated to Ottawa's Maher Arar, whom the U.S. government packed off to Syria, where he was tortured.
nolead ends nolead begins Dufay
nolead ends nolead begins John Potter and others
nolead ends nolead begins (ECM ***)
nolead ends Whether because early music survives in limited notation or is just plain old, 21st-century musicians consider it fair game for some highly personal adaptations. Considering that this may be the only way some people ever hear the 12th-century Hildegard of Bingen or the 15th-century Dufay, why not? The Hildegurls is a particularly impressive band of performer/composers - Eve Beglarian, Kitty Brazelton, Lisa Bielawa, Elaine Kaplinsky, and Grethe Barrett Holby - who obviously revere this cloistered feminist cult figure, who had visions and enough talent to portray them in song and this liturgical drama, Ordo Virtutum.
Some of the more impassioned vocal harmonies sound like the "Oh, Doctor Jesus" chorus in Porgy and Bess; the more extravagant glissandos are like air-raid sirens. Instrumental aspects suggest Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho at her most enigmatic, with electronic washes of sound containing voices murmuring things that are probably important. Passages that initially seem to be random sound collages are meticulously designed. Hildegard's original music is hardly lost. Her melodies are surprisingly durable and, for all their modern innovation, the Hildegurls do indeed take the meaning seriously. Harmonic implications are realized; meaning is underscored.
John Potter targets songs and parts of the Mass written by Dufay, with a huge conceptual difference. Dufay's music and its meaning is left to take care of itself (it can) while Potter provides something akin to an orchestration, and one that's best appreciated by fans of the Moody Blues. What's added to Dufay, then, is mostly atmospheric, which is fine for casual listening but not the easiest thing to accept in the wake of the more earnest Hildegurls.
- David Patrick Stearns