nolead ends Brought to most Americans' attention with the 1999 collection Everything Is Possible, the Brazilian troupe Os Mutantes was active in the late '60s and '70s, juggling politics and romance while reconfiguring psych-, pop-, folk-, and later prog-rock. Haih is the band's first album in 35 years, though you wouldn't know it. There are giddy vocal harmonies, countless ear-popping revelations, and more than two dozen instruments on display, while fellow Tropicalia legend Tom Zé cowrote much of the album. Politics remain in view, from the Iraq-focused "Baghdad Blues" to the Castro-skewering "Samba Do Fidel." Sung mostly in Portuguese, such defiant lyrics don't translate as easily as the playful, vibrant music, but they're the urgent engine driving Os Mutantes' welcome new chapter.
- Doug Wallen
nolead begins Pitbull
nolead ends nolead begins Rebelution
nolead ends nolead begins (Polo Grounds/J/RCA ***1/2)
nolead ends Miami bass meets Southern crunk on the Latin American bilingual tip? Armando Pérez, the MC known as Pitbull, pretty much invented that vibe when "Culo" had success back in 2004.
Not since Cypress Hill did Latin rap get such a good rap.
Since "Culo," Pitbull has been all rough-hewn voice and lyrical blend of Cuba- and cash-consciousness. True, he has created slick synth hooks and Euro-trance production on his last two albums - The Boatlift (2007) in particular - but nothing to rob the music of its guts.
Rebelution may not show the dedication Pitbull once did to his Cubano roots. "Across the World" is about the only tune that embraces something beyond his money, his mind, and his women. Though anxiously anthemic, "Juice Box," "Hotel Room Service," and the Swizz Beats-produced "Triumph" are a wee sleek for those weaned on Pitbull's lava-like Latin sway. But his need to make memorable music touched by Cuba remains potent. Perhaps Pitbull doesn't want to be categorized exclusively as a Latino artist. There just might have been a spicier way to embrace that.
- A.D. Amorosi
nolead begins Yo La Tengo
nolead ends nolead begins Popular Songs
nolead ends nolead begins (Matador ***1/2)
nolead ends Few current bands have been on as long a winning streak as Yo La Tengo. Aside from 2003's lightweight Summer Sun (and discounting the group's myriad secondary releases, such as the all-covers set released earlier this year under an unprintable pseudonym), every album the Hoboken, N.J., trio of Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley, and James McNew has released since 1992's May I Sing With Thee has been good to great. Popular Songs is no exception: it's excellent.
The first half - nine songs in 36 minutes - focuses on pretty, jangly ditties and soul-funk nuggets, buoyed by strings and/or organ, with detours for a fuzzed-out garage rocker and an Ira and Georgia back-and-forth duet in the style of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell or Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra. The second half - three songs, 37 minutes - has one droning meditation (solid), one minimalist atmospheric noodling (negligible), and one feedback freakout jam (great).
For a 25-year-old band that's never had a commercial hit, the album title is mostly ironic. But this is one band that deserves to be more popular.
- Steve Klinge
nolead begins Arctic Monkeys
nolead ends nolead begins Humbug
nolead ends nolead begins (Domino ***)
nolead ends What a funny band Arctic Monkeys is: Alex Turner's screechy Yorkshire accent and veddy British lyrics, warily detailing the minutiae of pub life, politics, and pulling birds; the band's rapturously scrappy mix of music-hall lilt and punk-rock disgust.
Ray Davies, Ian Dury, and Damon Albarn have spun like-minded tall tales and sing-along melodies throughout Brit pop's history. Arctic Monkeys somehow made it fresh again, sprier.
That's why at first listen it's hard to take the broken heaviness of Humbug. There's a psychedelic density within their wonky personae. Blame producer Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age) for turning chipper pianos into spook-house organs and transforming their guitar attack into something resembling Cream or Black Sabbath. But can it be Homme who's turned Turner into a showbiz crooner with a baritone swoon? Homme does sing that way, at times, on his own albums.
Rather than approaching vocals with his usual cunning curtness, Turner daffily elongates phrases. Deliciously, too. Whether it's the cranked-up "Pretty Visitors," the oozing "Crying Lightning," or the slurring ballad "Cornerstone," the attitude remains - but it's gotten older, golden, and wearier if not wiser. Cheeky Monkeys.
- A.D. Amorosi
Somewhere Beyond the Roses
nolead ends Back in the '90s, the great band Morphine developed a distinctively noirish style built on two-string bass and baritone sax. On his new solo album, Americana stalwart Kieran Kane offers an equally striking and more rustic variation on that approach, with his own banjo accompanied by the baritone sax of Lambchop's Deanna Varagona.
Banjo and sax (with occasional drums and electric guitar) may seem an odd pairing. But it works. The elemental grooves exert the same sort of ineluctable pull as the songs, which are typical Kane. From the fire-and-brimstone sentiment of "Way Down Below" to the more hopeful title song and the road-weary resignation of "More to It Than This," these taut numbers cut to the bone in a manner as unflinching as it is understated.
- Nick Cristiano
nolead begins The Bottle Rockets
nolead ends nolead begins Lean Forward
nolead ends nolead begins (Bloodshot ***1/2)
nolead ends "I ain't broke down, I'm just out of gas," Brian Henneman spits out defiantly on "Hard Times." It's a hard-luck tale that suits the times - no surprise coming from roots-rockers who have always worn their everyman sensibilities proudly. Musically, however, the Bottle Rockets are still fueled up and running on all cylinders.
Lean Forward reunites the Missouri quartet with producer Eric Ambel, and it rocks with crisp toughness. Henneman and his writing mates, including bassist Keith Voegele and drummer Mark Ortmann, haven't lost any of their edge, either. Celebrating the journey over the destination in "The Long Way" or the communal fun of public transportation in "Get on the Bus," solemnly personalizing the losses of war in "The Kid Next Door," or taking a hard look at a dying relationship in the soul-tinged "Solitaire," the songs are honest and unsentimental, and lead singer Henneman again comes across as a true-blue workingman's bard.
nolead ends Pianist Eldar Djangirov is a young man in a hurry. The émigré from the former Soviet Union, now 22, puts out his ninth recording here since starting at age 14, and it's the typical Borscht-Belt burner we have come to expect. Eldar seems to have endless facility, pulling effortlessly from Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, Keith Jarrett, and beyond. Eldar also can get funky and draw from a deep well of Soviet classical training.
All of which makes him an inspiring and forbidding performer. Eldar has the amazing quick-twitch reflexes of a world-class sprinter. At the same time, the CD should come with a triple espresso coupon for listeners to keep up.
"Lullaby Fantazia" is an example of his fearless technique that challenges listeners, while "Iris" captures him in more of a lush, romantic mode.
"Blackjack," with guest trumpeter Nicholas Payton, is a touch funky, fueling Eldar's push onto keyboards. "Exposition," with tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman, is a mélange of fusion that's hard to get your head around.
- Karl Stark
nolead begins George Benson
nolead ends nolead begins Songs and Stories
nolead ends nolead begins (Concord Records/Monster Music **1/2)
nolead ends A smooth time is had by all on guitarist George Benson's new CD.
A Pittsburgh native, Benson focuses on tunes by great songwriters, such as Lamont Dozier of Motown fame. Benson plays guitar and sings à la his monster hit "This Masquerade" (which isn't on the recording), while his producers apply a breezy R&B vibe.
The set opens with a respectful take of James Taylor's "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight." It cuts a sensual swath on "Rainy Night in Georgia." Benson is likable on Smokey Robinson's "One Like You," while Bill Withers comes out of retirement to write "A Telephone Call Away," enabling Benson and Lalah Hathaway to do the typical baby-baby stuff but with more panache.
Guitarist Lee Ritenour, bassist Marcus Miller (who coproduced), and saxophonist Tom Scott are among the slick studio cats enlivening this one.
The session is pretty much as expected - and even boring at times - except the occasional moment when Benson's playing hits a sweet spot. The guy can still juice up a moment.
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Peter Breiner conducting
nolead ends These three discs, issued over the last year or so, attempt to reclaim Janacek from the opera house: His orchestral works are few but exhilarating, and these suites from six of his best operas attempt to add to his symphonic presence. All are engaging, and, taken together, show how adaptable the composer's feverishly dramatic ostinatos were, from the lighthearted fantasy of Cunning Little Vixen to the Dostoyevskian brutality of From the House of the Dead. Yet only half the suites easily stand out when out of their element: The loopy, almost dance-hall-style waltzes of Vixen and the near-Puccinian lyricism of Kat'a Kabanova and Jenufa.
The Makropulos Affair and House of the Dead don't fare as well because the music is so subverted by the piece's dramatic needs that it loses eloquence without the characters that inspired it. The delightful Excursions of Mr. Broucek seems strangely bland in suite form. Most of the performances are extremely capable and sympathetic, though one misses the sure hand of that Janacek oracle, Sir Charles Mackerras, in his series of Janacek opera recordings.