nolead ends From cover art courtesy of found-sound guitarist John Fahey to titles referencing Beat poets and hard-core giants, there's no mistaking this as anything but another record from America's arbiters of avant-everything, Sonic Youth.
But after 18 years and nine CDs with Geffen, there's a formidable difference in this Youth. Indeed, there are touchstones to all SY has been (Detroit punk enthusiasts on "What We Know") and played (oddly tuned, bell-chiming guitars on "Massage the History"). They've returned to their indie-label roots but emboldened that sound to include sly, sexier melodies with the three singers acting as a united front on contagious tunes like "Leaky Lifeboat (for Gregory Corso)." While Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore, and Lee Ranaldo have their way with "Lifeboat" (listen hard and hear Led Zep within its riffs!), the vocalist/ instrumentalists find even newer tricks to exploit. Ranaldo's gorgeous "Walking Blue" is lovingly ruminative, Gordon's got black humor and caustic sensuality on her side ("Sacred Trickster," "Calming the Snake"), and the usually laconic Moore sounds annoyed throughout. On "No Way" and the cleverly pretentious, war-damning "Anti-Orgasm," Moore actually comes across as snottily disgusted.
The Eternal proves Youth isn't always wasted on the young.
- A.D. Amorosi
nolead begins Iggy Pop
nolead ends nolead begins Préliminaires
nolead ends nolead begins (Astralwerks ***)
nolead ends Hot on the heels of his reunion with noise-punk godfathers the Stooges, few expected Iggy Pop's next move to be a hot N'Orleans jazz and clunky acoustic blues-imbued recording based on Michel Houellebecq's scorched-earth novel, The Possibility of an Island.
A stinging brass section that would be at home on a Fats Waller 78 swings, while Pop's baritone croon creases the nihilistic lyrics of "King of the Dogs" like a hot knife on butter. Along with talk-singing in French to the accompaniment of a swelling ambient hum on a cover of "Les Feuilles Mortes," Pop caresses the bossa nova classic "How Insensitive" with loving care.
Pop's done quiet throughout his career - the sub-tone sax-filled "Tiny Girls," tender bits of Fun House - and talked about the influence of Coltrane as often as Howlin' Wolf. Yet, this is a rounder exercise in jazzy blue and smoldering red notes, even as Pop approaches the grimy synth-pop clink of "He's Dead/She's Alive" and the tentative Latin balladry of "Spanish Coast." What make Préliminaires so charming is Pop's disarmingly bleak romantic lyrics and the way they kiss each of his melodies.
nolead begins Black Eyed Peas
nolead ends nolead begins The E.N.D
nolead ends nolead begins (Interscope ***)
nolead ends Black Eyed Peas don't get enough respect for doing the same things right as "legitimate" rappers. In "Boom Boom Pow," the enormous first single from The E.N.D., the Peas' fifth album, Fergie rhymes "style" and "pow" with rubbery dexterity and the resourcefulness of a grocery bagger.
The spacious effects in lieu of a beat and the mechanical echoing of will.i.am's final syllable before the chorus mimic less commercial predecessors: the Neptunes producing Clipse, or Thom Yorke fiddling with his laptop.
The next track, "Rock That Body," fiddles with switches Mirwais plugged in for Madonna's relatively avant Music.
It took them a while to shed their skins, but the Peas are the most enthusiastic pop act to incorporate rapping since - who, Prince? After a few mindlessly hooky albums, they make another left turn into a dance paradise here, at least as Autotune-crazy as Kanye and at least as good as Madonna's Confessions on a Dancefloor. Fergie plays yearning disco-diva on "Meet Me Halfway," and "Imma Be" makes excellent use of a hi-res squiggle synth. "Electric City" reclaims some of Dizzee Rascals' eight-bit Nintendo noises, and "Out of My Head" dubs in horns and slap bass like some kind of futuristic KC and the Sunshine Band. None of these are classics, but all are bumping enough for your 2008 ("2000-late")-themed party.
- Dan Weiss
nolead begins Astrid Williamson
nolead ends nolead begins Here Come The Vikings
nolead ends nolead begins (One Little Indian **1/2)
nolead ends From her beginnings with the British band Goya's Dress, Astrid Williamson has established herself as a seductive and sensitive vocalist whose flexible voice can soar to ethereal heights. Her previous work, particularly 2006's Day of the Lone Wolf, has tended to be lush and melancholy. But on her fourth solo album, Here Come The Vikings, she often rocks out - to mixed success.
On the one hand, the jangly pop of "Sing The Body Electric" and the rumbling, reverberating "Slake" work well, as do the Tori Amos-like piano ballads that are more typical of Williamson's prior work. But the buzzing "Shut Your Mouth" seems a willful ploy for modern-rock airplay, and Williamson's weakness for lyrical cliches disrupts several songs. It's hard to overcome awkward lines like "They say a little information can be a dangerous thing / but first impressions seldom are proved wrong," and "Falling Down" doesn't.
- Steve Klinge
Honkytonk and Vine
(Harbor Grove ***1/2)
nolead ends If you didn't surmise from the title of his new album that David Serby is from Southern California, then the music should provide more of a tipoff. Like his earlier work, it's a classic style at the intersection of Buck Owens' Bakersfield twang and the progressive traditionalism of more recent artists such as Dwight Yoakam and Gary Allan.
Serby manages to bring a fresh voice to it all, and why not? His life could be a country song - or several: put up for adoption at 6 months, a bad early marriage, finding out his biological father was also a country musician. Singing in a dry tenor, he digs into age-old country themes in crisp, catchy fashion, from revving up the barroom bonhomie with "Permanent Position" ("sittin' in this honky-tonk . . .") to wallowing in heartache with "I Only Smoke When I'm Drinking." Serby didn't turn to music until after he hit 30, but this late bloomer has obviously found his calling.
- Nick Cristiano
nolead begins Diana Jones
nolead ends nolead begins Better Times Will Come
nolead ends nolead begins (Proper American ***1/2)
nolead ends The hopeful note of the title song, which leads off Diana Jones' new album, seems at odds with much of what follows: an adopted child (like herself) seeking family, a trapped miner expressing his love for his wife in his final hours, an abused wife threatening vengeance, a lament for a ravaged Appalachia. But it turns out to ring perfectly true, one element of the rich emotional tapestry that Jones weaves through this spare, spellbinding set.
The simple acoustic arrangements and Jones' even, low-key delivery evoke old-time folk and mountain music, linking Jones to a long tradition. But with the brilliant economy and literate grace of her writing she creates vivid, breathing portraits, bringing out eternal truths that make this ancient style still resonate powerfully.
(Big O Records ***)
nolead ends Organ jazz was, back in the day, largely a Philly thing, and Groovadelphia is a Lansing, Mich., trio's gentle tribute.
Organist Jim Alfredson and guitarist Joe Gloss hooked up at Michigan State in the late 1990s, and their collaboration with drummer and harmonica player Randy Marsh juices up the genre.
Organissimo layers in R&B, groove, and some pop sensibilities that range as far afield as Frank Zappa. Whereas organ jazz used to be a soloist's domain, these guys make a balanced chamber-group statement. No one gets too far in front. And the trio doesn't quite get to frothy states of climax, as the Philly tradition long demanded. But it's still artful and respectful stuff, and the title track reaches reasonable heights of abandon.
There's also more range here. "Bleecker" is a big dollop of funk, while "Rhodesia" makes for churchy and mystical fare, and "Traces" heads in a suave pop direction.
nolead begins Madeleine Peyroux
nolead ends nolead begins Bare Bones
nolead ends nolead begins (Rounder ***)
nolead ends It's cool to hear Madeleine Peyroux progress. When she debuted in 1996, she sounded eerily like Billie Holiday, in a one-dimensional way.
But eight years later, on her second recording, the French-American singer had gotten together musically with producer Larry Klein, Joni Mitchell's producer and former husband. And now again with Klein, she's in a world where folk, jazz, and blues coexist.
The kick here is that all 11 tunes are originals, and Peyroux joins with several cowriters, including Walter Becker of Steely Dan. Their "You Can't Do Me" sounds like dissonant and vintage Steely Dan. She can turn a lyric, too. On the handsome "Our Lady Of Pigalle," she sings, "You're an empty altar who can make me whole."
Peyroux still has an old two-step feeling at times, as on previous recordings. But she's more mysterious now.
Sandrine Piau, Veronica Cangemi, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Philippe Jaroussky, Topi Lehtipuu, Sara Mingardo, and Christian Senn. Ensemble Matheus, Jean-Christophe Spinosi conducting
(Naive, 3 discs, ****)
nolead ends Though Naive's Vivaldi Edition has been full of surprises that can't help but prompt a positive reappraisal of this ultra-productive composer, this particular opera recording promises to be one of the ultimate landmarks. Though Vivaldi's operas tend to have their ups and downs, this one not only doesn't slip into autopilot but shows the composer in a ceaselessly dazzling level of invention. Written in 1732 for Verona, the opera is about some sort of silliness with pirates on the island of Naxos, but it easily rivals Handel operas with its star-turn opportunities and has a less codified format allowing for more duets and ensemble passages.
Though Naive's past Vivaldi opera recordings have all been well-cast, this one has an unusually high density of star names, including the much-adored countertenor Philippe Jaroussky. The performance's primary catalyst, however, is charismatic early-music conductor Jean-Christophe Spinosi, who has great instincts for projecting the specific personality of each aria - a crucial quality since Vivaldi is traditionally dismissed for rewriting the same music over and over again.
- David Patrick Stearns
nolead begins Elliott Carter
A Nonesuch Retrospective, 1968-1985
nolead ends nolead begins Chicago Symphony Orchestra, New York Chamber Symphony, London Sinfonietta, Composers String Quartet, Paul Jacobs, Jan DeGaetani, Gilbert Kalish, Gerard Schwarz, James Levine, and others
nolead ends ( nolead begins Nonesuch, four discs, ***1/2)
nolead ends nolead begins String Quartets No. 2, 3 and 4
nolead ends nolead begins Pacifica Quartet
nolead ends nolead begins (Naxos ***1/2)
nolead ends The well-priced Nonesuch box brings together many ground-breaking Elliott Carter recordings made by Nonesuch during the height of American modernism - plus a Variations for Orchestra recording by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by James Levine, licensed from Deutsche Grammophon. Music as knotty as Carter's is usually best heard in second- and third-generation recordings, if only because a new musical language usually requires new performance techniques. That said, these recordings hold up well, no doubt because artists such as pianist Paul Jacobs and mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani were strong-minded, big-personality pioneers who were not just giving a performance but furthering a cause. Not all of the pieces, however, have held up: Early ones such as the Piano Sonata seem like thin soup compared to the richness that was to come.
The brand-new Pacifica Quartet recordings are the latest to take on the imposing Carter string-quartet canon, and they're an excellent, low-budget way to investigate these towering works, with performances combining the technical strength of the Arditti Quartet and the comprehension of the Juilliard Quartet. Next to the Nonesuch recordings, they lack the explosive sense of discovery that came with knowing these recordings might well change the world. Pacifica will easily bring more listeners to Carter's scintillating, high-velocity, superbly witty musical conversations, but the world has already been changed.