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Pop Terry Anderson plays with Dan Baird and Eric Ambel in the roots-rock supergroup the Yayhoos. But over the last few years with his own first-rate band, the Olympic Ass-Kickin' Team, the singing and songwriting drummer has been doing the best work of his unsung career. With National Champions, the North Carolinian and his team raise their level of studio craft while delivering another hook-happy blast of fun rock and sweet pop.


National Champions

(Doublenought ***1/2)

nolead ends Terry Anderson plays with Dan Baird and Eric Ambel in the roots-rock supergroup the Yayhoos. But over the last few years with his own first-rate band, the Olympic Ass-Kickin' Team, the singing and songwriting drummer has been doing the best work of his unsung career. With National Champions, the North Carolinian and his team raise their level of studio craft while delivering another hook-happy blast of fun rock and sweet pop.

Anderson presents more ingenious variations on his usual touchstones - Chuck Berry, Rockpile, NRBQ foremost among them. Within that framework, however, are some new turns: "Pow'ful 'Merka" offers pointed commentary about ask-no-questions patriotism, and "Willie Mays" is less a salute to the Say Hey Kid than a slicing and dicing of his godson, Barry Bonds. The hoot-and-a-half "You Had Me at Get Lost" pushes up to and probably past the boundaries of PC ("That restraining order really got me hot"), while "Wrong for That" is a dead-on bedroom-soul parody, complete with recitation, that finds Anderson breaking into a falsetto. It's just one of the many high points, so to speak, on this championship effort.

- Nick Cristiano

nolead begins Mos Def
nolead ends nolead begins The Ecstatic
nolead ends nolead begins (Downtown ***1/2)

nolead ends His Geffen years were lame and movies like Be Kind Rewind didn't make him much of an actor. What's so great about Mos Def?

The Ecstatic is what.

There have certainly been dynamic ripples of wonderment and experimentation to be had in the critically maligned likes of The New Danger (2004) and True Magic (2006). Yet there's been nothing to truly prove Def's 360 degrees of smugly socio-conscious thought and slice-n-dice verbal flow since 1999's Black on Both Sides.

The Ecstatic finds Def's groove back in every-which-way. The MC nestles into a crooning soft spot on "Roses," makes hay while the jazzy Miles-esque syncopation of "Priority" unfurls, and touches down on dub and Latin shuffles with his craggily flowing raps intact. Through the cinematic grime of "Life in Marvelous Times," Def rolls vowels and finds the poetry of love and holiness amidst ruinous frustration and the pastimes of Bed-Stuy. To a spare, thumping rumble, Def warns his brothers to "lay off the bacon and smokes," among other pitfalls, on "Revelations."

At every turn, from the buoyant "Casa Bey" to the job-worrying toasting of "Workers Camp," Def betters everything he's done in the last decade. That's something to be ecstatic about.

- A.D. Amorosi

nolead begins Dirty Projectors
nolead ends nolead begins Bitte Orca
nolead ends nolead begins (Domino ***1/2)

nolead ends Dirty Projectors can be off-putting: Leader Dave Longstreth croons with a seemingly random sense of melody that swoops and dives, and song structures seem exploded in shards of myriad styles. Seems is the operative word, though, because initial disorientation can gradually give way to fascination and absorption, as it did on 2007's Rise Above, which reimagined Black Flag's seminal 1981 album, Damaged, and as it does even more so on the new Bitte Orca.

This is art music, with affinities to Björk and David Byrne (both of whom DP recently backed), the Minutemen, Captain Beefheart, high-concept prog rock (complete with chamber orchestra), and African highlife and juju.

DP used to be Longstreth alone, but now he leads a solid band, and Bitte Orca shows off the voices of Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian, especially on the anomalously accessible disco song "Stillness Is the Move." Pointillistic, with moments of real beauty (the string-buoyed "Two Doves") and dense confusion (the twists, turns, and screeches of "Useful Chamber"), Bitte Orca merits the full attention it demands.

- Steve Klinge

nolead begins Teena Marie
nolead ends nolead begins Congo Square
nolead ends nolead begins (Stax ***)

nolead ends Despite starting out 30 years ago on Motown, Teena Marie has landed on its revived rival Stax for her 13th album. A slinky R&B affair at once retro and modern, it opens with duets with MC Lyte and Faith Evans. Marie wrote, produced, and contributed guitar, keys, or percussion to every song, her famously soul-informed vocals still dripping with confidence. Aside from bold come-ons and fraught cooing, Marie here looks to Aretha Franklin and Sarah Vaughan for inspiration, while the New Orleans-set title track lingers on jazz heroes. Her daughter guests on "Milk & Honey," which, despite its overtures to hip-hop, meditates on gifts passed from parent to child. There are definitely cheesy moments, but fans of Marie and R&B should sink easily into this set.

- Doug Wallen


Journeyman's Wager

(Thirty Tigers ***)

nolead ends As one of the lead voices of BR549, Chuck Mead helped make old-school honky-tonk and hillbilly music hip in the '90s. His first solo album is a natural extension of the Nashville group's approach, adding some rock and pop touches (the only nonoriginal is a ripping take on George Harrison's "Old Brown Shoe"). And, echoing BR549's welcome evolution, Mead steers clear of shtick and countrier-than-thou smugness.

Journeyman's Wager shows that Mead still has a knack for catchy honky-tonk. "She Got the Ring (I Got the Finger)" is a classic-sounding (except for the sax) mock lament, while "I Wish It Was Friday" seems destined to be another crowd-pleaser. But Mead digs deeper, too, with story songs like the brooding, morally complex "Gun Metal Gray" and the wistful country-rocker "A Long Time Ago."

- Nick Cristiano

nolead begins Steve Martin
nolead ends nolead begins The Crow: New Songs
for the Five-String Banjo
nolead ends nolead begins (Rounder ***)

nolead ends Though he's famous for being a comedian and a comic actor, Steve Martin has long been serious about the banjo. Sure, he's surrounded by a host of ringers - including Earl Scruggs, Jerry Douglas and Tony Trischka - but The Crow reveals that Martin has real chops and compositional ability.

The songs, most of them instrumentals, show that Martin possesses not just technical prowess but also an ability to strike various emotional chords. He takes one vocal turn, on the animatedly comic "Late for School," but he leaves the rest of the singing to pros like Vince Gill, Dolly Parton, and Mary Black. As with the guest instrumentalists, they tend to enhance Martin's own vision rather than overwhelm it.

- N.C.


Live in Italy

(Jazz Eyes ***1/2)

nolead ends Tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake's Philly stops are always a treat.

The English-born, Canadian-raised leader was a 2002 winner of the Thelonious Monk saxophone competition, and the longtime New Yorker has risen to be a fixture with the Mingus Big Band.

On this double-CD set, Blake leads a quartet with Philly-raised drummer Rodney Green, pianist Dave Kikoski and bassist Danton Boller, documenting parts of three live concerts along Italy's northern Adriatic coast and down in Palermo, Sicily.

You get a feel for this group on the handsome take of Claude Debussy's String Quartet in G minor. The work's stately melancholy unleashes all kinds of expressive playing.

Blake makes similar connections throughout with listeners. His "Way Out of Willy" is quirky and funky, with wawa-pedal-like effects, while "Fear of Roaming" is muscular and pleasant, a players' romp.

Kikoski, Boller, and Green are worthies too, as evidenced by the deep swing of Ellington's "The Feeling of Jazz" and the sensuality of Brazilian composer Djavan's "Ladeirinha." Blake & Co. pay sizzling tribute to one of his mentors on John Scofield's "Dance Me Home."

- Karl Stark

nolead begins Tierney Sutton Band
nolead ends nolead begins Desire
nolead ends nolead begins (Telarc ***1/2)

nolead ends Singer Tierney Sutton infuses a Bahá'í prayer into the opening of "It's Only a Paper Moon," creating a mystical space where others have made aural cotton candy.

Taking risks is what you can expect from the Los Angeles-based Sutton, a Russian lit major from Wesleyan University who trained at Boston's Berklee College of Music and teaches voice at USC.

Her treatment of "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" is an occasion for intense exploration, while "Fever" of Peggy Lee fame is suitably steamy.

Betty Carter sounds like an influence.

Sutton doesn't shirk from songs; she embraces them and makes new, often intense combinations, whether it's stretching the melody of "It's All Right With Me" or finding the reverie in "Skylark." These are the kinds of chances good jazz singers take.

- K.S.


BBC Symphony, Igor Stravinsky conducting

(BBC ****)

nolead ends nolead begins With Canticum Sacrum
and Requiem Canticles
nolead ends nolead begins SWR Symphony Orchestra and Vocal Ensemble Stuttgart, Michael Gielen conducting
nolead ends nolead begins (Hanssler Classic ***1/2)

nolead ends Stravinsky's late works remain a controversial fascination: Though the 1957 ballet Agon was his last undisputed masterpiece, everything thereafter shows a composer accessing new compositional systems, but without great clarity of purpose. Conductor Michael Gielen is one of the most penetrating musical intellects this side of Pierre Boulez, has far wider tastes, and remains steeped in the German tradition in the best way, so if there's a chance of apprehending the 1971 Requiem Canticles, this is it. Also, the disc has one of the most piquant performances of Agon since Michael Tilson Thomas' recording.

The live, 1958 BBC recording is conducted by the composer, which isn't necessarily a recommendation. His studio recordings tend to be more dry and correct than colorful. Whether because the musicians were particularly excited to be playing under Stravinsky or because his right-hand person Robert Craft prepared the orchestra particularly well, these performances are among the best directed by the composer, not just because of the unusually high energy level, but because there's such a strong sense that everybody knows what these pieces are about. The sound quality from Royal Festival Hall is good mono but a tad distant.

- David Patrick Stearns

nolead begins Elina Garanca
Bellini: I Capuleti
e I Montecchi
nolead ends nolead begins With Anna Netrebko, Joseph Calleja, the Vienna Symphony, Fabio Luisi conducting
nolead ends nolead begins (Deutsche Grammophon ****)

nolead ends nolead begins Bel Canto
By Donizetti, Rossini
and Bellini
nolead ends nolead begins Filarmonica del Teatro Comunale di Bologna, Roberto Abbado conducting
nolead ends nolead begins (Deutsche Grammophon ****1/2)

nolead ends Mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca was a sensation at the Metropolitan Opera's spring simulcast of La Cenerentola with her vocal virtuosity, intensely blond glamour, and acting ability even in an opera that doesn't necessarily encourage much of that. These excellent recordings reveal a virtuosic sense that can feel chilly on first hearing, but not on any subsequent ones. In the Capuleti recording, she couldn't be in better company, with Anna Netrebko delivering some of most deeply felt bel canto singing of her career, tenor Joseph Calleja with his style and tone reminiscent of Jussi Bjorling, and the strong-minded conducting of Fabio Luisi.

Unlike many aria collections recorded in a single time period, Bel Canto shows Garanca uniformly well prepared, even if the voice shows its limitations in some of the more heroic characters that she portrays. Like most bel canto collections, a certain sameness sets in with the music's content. Some of that is offset by welcome cameo appearances by the likes of Matthew Polenzani and Ildebrando D'Arcangelo, a strong conducting presence from Roberto Abbado, plus tidbits in the booklet that tell you Garanca was reading off an original manuscript when recording an aria from Bellini's little-known Adelson e Salvini.

- D.P.S.