Pop As a Hasidic Jew singing dancehall reggae and rapping, Matisyahu is so outside the realm of expectation as to be beyond any questions of authenticity, and he's too skilled to be dismissed as a novelty. Born Matthew Miller (in West Chester), Matisyahu is on a mission to spread positive messages on Light, his third studio album.
(Epic nolead ends nolead begins **1/2 nolead ends nolead begins )
nolead ends As a Hasidic Jew singing dancehall reggae and rapping, Matisyahu is so outside the realm of expectation as to be beyond any questions of authenticity, and he's too skilled to be dismissed as a novelty. Born Matthew Miller (in West Chester), Matisyahu is on a mission to spread positive messages on Light, his third studio album.
The album ranges widely, from widescreen electro to triple-time toasting to loping reggae to splashes of hard-rock guitars, and it features guests including reggae legends Sly & Robbie, members of the L.A. ska-punk band Fishbone, and, for "On Nature," a boys choir and bagpipes.
But all the positivity ends up feeling relentless over the course of the 13 anthems, and Matisyahu too often relies on platitudes and sloganeering: "Freedom!", "Strive to be alive every day," "There's something wrong with a system that leaves its children victims." It's hard to disagree with the sentiments, but it's also hard to be inspired by truisms.
- Steve Klinge nolead begins
nolead begins King of Jeans nolead ends nolead begins
(Sub Pop nolead ends nolead begins ***1/2 nolead ends nolead begins nolead ends nolead begins )
nolead ends No longer just a dated South Philly clothing store whose charmingly garish sign rules over a cockeyed East Passyunk intersection, King of Jeans is also the third album from Pissed Jeans. (The band is Allentown-born but largely based in Philadelphia, so the album title probably is a conscious if ultimately fleeting reference.) Often darkly humorous, this KoJ is a royal ripper, a tighter amalgam of lurching post-hard-core and caustic semi-noise rock than 2007's impressive Hope for Men, PJ's previous Sub Pop collection.
New bassist Randy Huth - a.k.a. Randall of Nazareth, also in Pearls and Brass, and a PJ pal since Lehigh Valley school days - joins with drummer Sean McGuinness for rugged rhythms that alternately explode, roll (the Birthday Party-esque "Half Idiot"), chug, or lumber.
Guitarist Bradley Fry fuzzily splatters, squeals, or doom-riffs (the Sabbath-y "Spent"), but never to excess, regularly enhancing the hooky melodic thrust ("R-Rated Movie"). Vocalist Matt Korvette seals - or, for the timid, breaks - the deal, a volatile howling presence who brilliantly expresses everyday ennui, making you care whether the rant concerns premature balding, getting a massage, or bothering with anything ("False Jesii Part 2").
If "heavy rock" is a category, King might easily stand as Philly's best for '09 (and compete in any overall Top 10); the group already is contending internationally.
- David R. Stampone
nolead begins K'Jon
nolead ends nolead begins I Get Around nolead ends nolead begins
(Universal Republic ***)
nolead ends Detroit's auto industry may have money problems, but the Motor City's R&B scene is booming, what with its biggest star, the laid-back K'Jon, breaking through to the majors after several independent releases.
By mixing the more passionate aspects of Marvin Gaye and R. Kelly with a Bill Withers weariness in his supple voice, K'Jon shows off soul-sonic resources at a time when the Auto-Tune blanches all in its path.
"Fa Sho" and "On the Ocean" would be torch songs if it weren't for K'Jon's youthful swagger - the hustler's shuffling step, an occasional pitter-patter of scat, a musky sensuality. While the title track benefits from breezy vocal melody and jazzy sway, "Fly Away" is robotically synthetic without being icy or distant. I Get Around isn't perfect. The club-hop of "After the Club" is typical stuff, of which the best that can be said is "not bad." Yet K'Jon manages something oddly innovative on the electronic tip during "On Everything." Here, a sultry vocal, a sparsely arranged melody buoyed by its piano line - elegant, simple, memorable - and a chopped-'n'-screwed rhythm commonplace in Southern hip-hop meet for something sleepy, sensual, and kicking. Impressive.
- A.D. Amorosi
nolead begins Third Eye Blind
nolead ends nolead begins Ursa Major nolead ends nolead begins
(Sony RED Distribution nolead ends nolead begins *1/2 nolead ends nolead begins nolead ends nolead begins )
nolead ends Even after six years, it seems front man Stephan Jenkins hasn't spent enough time away from Third Eye Blind. Comeback album Ursa Major is just as much a product of his struggles with writer's block as were its repeated delays. Retreads of his Californian trio's sunny alt-rock tunes lack their predecessors' infectious hooks. Awkward appeals to lesbians and rap stars abound. And the instrumental closer "Carnival Barker" inexplicably aborts after less than 90 seconds, fading out just as the pretty thing begins to coalesce. It's hard to expect much from a band that was good only for its singles over a decade ago, but considering that Ursa Major's most salvageable song is the pleasantly modest "Monotov's Private Opera," maybe it's time for another break.
- Jakob Dorof
On "Trimmin' Fat," Tommy Castro offers a somewhat lighthearted lament about the current lean times. One thing's for certain: There's no fat to trim in Castro's brand of rocking R&B. The Bay Area singer-guitarist continues to refine a style that's full-bodied, muscular, and brimming with soul.
With Hard Believer, Castro ranges from the intense, Stax-like balladry of the title song to the slippery swamp-funk of "Monkey's Paradise" and the hell-bent roadhouse rocking of "Make It Back to Memphis," with its blasting horns and pounding piano. It's a tour de force that extends to the album's covers, which include songs by Dylan, Allen Toussaint, and the Righteous Brothers, and a take on "Ninety-Nine and One-Half" that gives Wilson Pickett and John Fogerty a run for their money.
- Nick Cristiano
nolead begins Rick Estrin and the Nightcats
nolead ends nolead begins Twisted
nolead ends nolead begins (Alligator ***)
This band used to be known as Little Charlie and the Nightcats, named after gifted guitarist Little Charlie Baty, who has retired from the road. Rick Estrin, however - singer, harmonica player, and principal songwriter - has always been the front man.
Baty expanded on basic blues and R&B by showing a sophisticated jazzer's touch. New guitarist Kid Andersen displays a similar feel on "Cool Breeze," but he also veers into the wild surf-rock of "Earthquake" and the propulsively rocking twang of "Bigfoot." Still, the essential character of the band has not changed. Estrin, a true character with slicked-back hipster flair, offers more colorful variations on the lighter side of the blues. But with numbers like "Catchin' Hell" and "Someone, Somewhere," he shows he can also be drop-dead serious.
(Concord nolead ends nolead begins ***1/2 nolead ends nolead begins nolead ends nolead begins )
nolead ends Vibraphonist Stefon Harris' new CD is just the coolest Stevie Wonder album never made. It projects a sly old-style funk and a gentle tunefulness that intermixes electronic instruments with subtlety, as if Harris were cooking with just the right amount of herbs.
"Gone," Harris' riff on the Gershwins' "Gone, Gone Gone" from Porgy and Bess, is a most relaxed melding of pop and hip-hop, while "For You" finds Casey Benjamin singing 1970s style through the wavy lines of a vocoder. Peter Frampton never sounded so good.
The quintet, which occasionally is expanded with strings and woodwinds, unrolls a gentle take of Wonder's 1974 tune "They Won't Go (When I Go)" that doesn't displease. Jackie McLean's "Minor March" juxtaposes a marchlike madness with a cooking jazz interlude. Benjamin proves to be mean on alto here, too, and the bandmates - keyboardist Marc Cary, bassist Ben Williams, and drummer Terreon Gully - are clean and pure.
It's rare for a top-flight jazz band to break it all down so amicably. The closing "Langston's Lullaby," for Harris' son, sounds like Weather Report getting beautiful.
- Karl Stark
nolead ends nolead begins Dance Mania nolead ends
(Sony nolead begins ***1/2 nolead ends nolead begins )
nolead ends This reissue reintroduces us to percussionist Tito Puente's best-selling recording. The two-disc set from 1957 is full of the Latin dance craze that was coursing through Manhattan's Palladium Ballroom at the time.
Puente, who was born in Harlem of Puerto Rican parents and died in 2000 at 77, was an excellent leader who arranged well and played a plethora of instruments, from his signature timbales to piano, saxophone, and congas.
The tempos here were likely a few clicks short of his live performances. But they go down easily. The collection is full of great dance tunes as well as muscular horn lines, ardent vocals, fierce solos, and a consummately free spirit. Ray Barretto and Mongo Santamaria are two of the great musicians represented here.
Carpenter, viola; Philharmonia Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach conducting.
nolead ends If there's such a thing as an overnight-star violist, it's David Aaron Carpenter. Only a few years ago, he was a lanky Princeton University student who had won a prestigious gig on a Philadelphia Orchestra youth concert. Now, having studied with Roberto Diaz and been an official Rolex protege of Pinchas Zukerman, the Long Island-born Carpenter is making an ambitious recording debut with a viola transcription of Elgar's Cello Concerto plus Schnittke's 1985 Concerto for Viola and Orchestra. It's impressive, to be sure, though the kind of explosive energy that Carpenter generates in live performances has yet to be captured.
Purely on the basis of tone and technique, he makes an excellent case for the viola version of Elgar's concerto, so much that you can't help making slightly unfair comparisons between him and recordings by the world's great cellists. Carpenter is in a league with the best, but if you're expecting him to seize the concerto with the revisionist passion of, say, Jacqueline Du Pre, you'd best listen further into the disc. The Schnittke concerto, which is among the composer's most popular pieces in that medium, is played here with great imagination and identification. Much credit is no doubt due to Christoph Eschenbach, who has recorded lots of Schnittke concertos with great conviction. Official release date is Tuesday. - David Patrick Stearns
Concerto in Pieces,
Violin Concerto No. 1
nolead ends nolead begins Erik Heide, violin; Matthias Reumert, Aarhus Symphony, Thomas Søndergård conducting.
nolead ends nolead begins (Dacapo ****)
nolead ends Danish composer Ruders is long-established for any number of challenging works, such as his operatic adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale. But would you ever guess that some of his music plays like stand-up comedy? That's certainly the case with the 1995 Concerto in Pieces, which challenges Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide to Orchestra by exploiting some of the more extreme possibilities of the symphony orchestra. As with the Britten, a Henry Purcell theme is the piece's basis, though Ruders disassembles it into discrete layers that are juxtaposed at different speeds. The 1981 Violin Concerto No. 1 is full of all sorts of witty Vivaldi references with his distinctive sense of time manipulation.
But what makes this an almost ideal encapsulation of Ruders' art is the disc's concluding piece - the serious 1988 Monodrama, which has been described as "New Rage as opposed to New Age." Percussion virtuoso Matthias Reumert acts as a frame for a troubled landscape of aggressive, atonal adventures in all sections of the orchestra with an apocalyptic climax. Performances of these often crowded musical collages will never be easy, but there's no hint of struggle and many flashes of comprehension on this disc. - D.P.S.