(V2 Records ***)
nolead ends Last year, blues-rock revivalists the Black Keys teamed with left-field hip-hop producer Danger Mouse for the sorely overlooked Attack & Release. That concept continues with Blakroc, a collaboration born out of the Keys' friendship with Roc-a-Fella cofounder Dame Dash. Here, though, lead vocal duties have been turned over to a random helping of MCs - Mos Def, Q-Tip, Jim Jones, Jay-Z sound-a-like NOE, and M.O.P.'s Billy Danze among them - and R&B crooner Nicole Wray. All of it unlikely, sure, but what looks like a mess on paper is rather impressive on record. The drums are thick and the rhythms - driven by jarring guitars and organs - are warm and woozy, giving things a psychedelic feel. It's a backdrop that fits well with lyrical warnings on sex, love, money, and betrayal, themes owned by the blues long before rap gave them a fresh makeover.
- Michael Pollock
nolead begins Justin Bieber
nolead ends nolead begins My World
nolead ends nolead begins (Island Def Jam ***)
nolead ends Not many singers have performed on a thronged plaza for Today before they've even put out an album. But Bieber, a 15-year-old pop sensation from Canada, is updating the mold. He got signed after posting dozens of videos on YouTube as an adolescent, singing covers of R&B hits.
His first album, while skimpy at seven songs, has already produced four Top 40 hits. No surprise. My World is a catchy, well-executed treat. Particularly the frisky romps about puppy love like "One Time." Sure, Bieber is less convincing on a breakup ballad such as "Back to Earth." But there's no denying that this baby-faced soul boy has talent. And he's cute. Let the young girls scream!
- David Hiltbrand
nolead begins Tegan and Sara
nolead ends nolead begins Sainthood
nolead ends nolead begins (Sire ***)
nolead ends Canadian twins Tegan and Sara Quin have made their bones in the Calgary music scene since 1998 as a punk-pastoral duo known for contagious, piano-based power pop and interesting haircuts. Before the prissiness of Feist or the roustabout ideal of Rilo Kiley, the Quin girls were hitting pop hard and moving on fast - stopping only at 2007's The Con for spaciousness and texture - while looking great doing so.
Their return to the rapier-swift thing of its start makes Sainthood punchy and blunt with tracks such as "Northshore" showing off the sisters' spunky indie-rock roots. If "Night Watch!" doesn't curl your eyelashes, nothing will. Sainthood also clarifies the differences between the two singer-songwriters' respective skill sets - a subtle distinction that first emerged on The Con. Tegan likes her tunes simple and sharp, à la the rip-snorting anthem "The Cure," while Sara's melodies, choruses and subject matter are slightly more elusive and open-ended - e.g., "Alligator." Rather than concentrate on these slight differences, focus on the idiosyncratic beauty of their harmonies as they ripple through their most potent full-length yet.
- A.D. Amorosi
nolead begins Red Baraat
nolead ends nolead begins Chaal Baby
nolead ends nolead begins (Sinj Records ***1/2)
nolead ends Ethnomusicological sourcing of rhythm-based world-music fusions has its own edifying appeal - but if the jams are no fun, who cares? Can't fake the funk. That's not a problem with Red Baraat, an irresistible "dhol 'n' brass" nine-piece from New York City directed by acclaimed drummer Sunny Jain. It's got the infectious allure of a rolling New Orleans brass band (bottom-ended by some deep sousaphone) crossed with the giddy beats of bhangra, the North Indian feel-good style that has taken root all over the world, particularly in subcontinental immigrant communities (see the dancing wedding-goers in Bend It Like Beckham).
Raised in Rochester by Punjabi parents, Jain has drummed since age five, including jazz gigs, with international Sufi-rock band Junoon, on Broadway in the Bombay Dreams production, and in numerous ensembles of his own. Red Baraat originally formed to play at Jain's own nuptials a few years ago. The debut album's lead track is indeed "Punjabi Wedding Song (Balle Balle)," and baraat is a Hindi term for marriage procession. In the last year, RB has captivated crowds beyond the wedding circuit with Jain leading the funked-up action on the two-sided Punjabi dhol drum. He invented "dhol 'n' brass" - and this record proves that Red Baraat rules it.
- David R. Stampone
Bend in the Road
nolead ends nolead begins Wink Keziah
nolead ends nolead begins Hard Times
nolead ends nolead begins (Great South ***1/2)
nolead ends In some ways their new albums represent new beginnings for Mark Stuart and Wink Keziah. The two friends have both moved to Austin, Texas - Stuart from California, Keziah from North Carolina - and both have dropped their old bands - Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash and Delux Motel, respectively. One thing hasn't changed, however: Both continue to make terrific country music.
Stuart opens with Billy Joe Shaver's "I'm Just an Old Chunk of Coal," which is pretty audacious in a way. But his plainspoken work stands up well against that of the great honky-tonk song poet. Bend in the Road confidently mixes the rowdy and the reflective, and with songs ranging in mood from "Lonestar, Lovestruck Blues" to "Everything's Goin' My Way," it takes the listener on a journey whose twists and turns mirror real life.
When Wink Keziah declares, "I met my daddy through a chain link fence," he's not giving voice to a fictional character. His bootlegger father was doing time for shooting Keziah's maternal grandfather. Keziah's acquaintance with life's often unforgiving vicissitudes comes through on "Chain Link Fence" and the rest of his album (coproduced by himself and Stuart). In facing hard times head-on, with his familiar barroom honky-tonk and songs of a more searching and spiritual nature, Keziah presents an ultimately uplifting set that shows those times have only made him stronger - and sharpened his muse.
- Nick Cristiano
nolead begins nolead ends nolead begins nolead ends nolead begins nolead ends nolead begins nolead ends nolead begins nolead ends nolead begins nolead ends
Carla's Christmas Carols
(Watt Works/ECM ***)
nolead ends Jazzy versions of Christmas songs tend to be true snores, hokey beyond belief. Here comes composer and pianist Carla Bley, who turns to the genre with a brass quintet and a relatively pious attitude (for her). It all combines to make one of the best jazz collections of holiday songs in memory.
Bley imagines the familiar tunes along with two Bley originals in beautiful horn tones without a drummer. There's no schlock allowed at this inn. The surprisingly reverent takes are spiced with humor. Bley's tuba parts can be really funny.
Some of the choicest lines come from bassist Steve Swallow, whose jaunt through the melody of "O Holy Night" makes the manger seem like a very magisterial place. The whole tune is killer. Bley's "Jesus Maria" proves to be gorgeous, while her "Hell's Bells" is a swinging concoction that presages the almost reggae-sounding "Jingle Bells."
While the CD sheds no light on such mysteries as the virgin birth, it posits something nearly as rare: a jazzy Christmas CD not in need of resurrection.
- Karl Stark
nolead begins Vince Guaraldi
nolead ends nolead begins The Definitive Vince Guaraldi
nolead ends nolead begins (Concord ***1/2)
nolead ends This two-CD set documents pianist Vince Guaraldi's long association with Fantasy Records from 1955, when he was running his own jazz trios, to 1966, after his Peanuts fame had gone national.
The Sicilian-American pianist is most famous for his poignant sound tracks to the Charlie Brown television series, and those tunes are well-represented here, from the delicately picked lines of "Oh, Good Grief" to the iconic "Linus and Lucy" and the sweetly flowing "Skating."
But less well known is Guaraldi's jazz history, from sideman in the Cal Tjader and Woody Herman bands to fronting his own jazz small groups. His trio found tragic lines in Luiz Bonfá's "Samba de Orfeu," from the 1959 film Black Orpheus. Guaraldi was a working jazz guy who mixed it up with Brazilian guitarist Bola Sete on several sessions. He also recorded with alto saxophonist Jerry Dodgion, drummer Jerry Granelli, and bassist Eugene Wright.
The discs set the Peanuts years in context. Guaraldi, who died in 1977 at age 47, served up the champagne of cocktail jazz.
Soile Isokoski, soprano; Marita Viitasalo, piano
nolead ends Many consider Hindemith's song cycle about the Virgin Mary with the hyperimaginative poems of Rainer Maria Rilke to be the summit of his huge creative output. Though such a statement might be hard to believe while hearing some of the more labored recordings from the past, it's not here.
So much is packed into this music, from Rilke's poetic abstraction to vocal lines that feel completely independent of the eventful piano writing, that this performance often feels like a miracle of expressive simplicity. Pianist Marita Viitasalo eschews the usual motoric approach toward Hindemith's passagework, while Soile Isokoski's soft-grained soprano and intelligent attention to the words create a package that works on a purely musical level while also being more cosmetically attractive than most recordings that have come before. Certainly, this disc should further the piece's cause.
- David Patrick Stearns
nolead begins Schubert
Piano Sonata in A, D. 959; Piano Sonata in C ("Reliquie")
nolead ends nolead begins Jonathan Biss, piano
nolead ends nolead begins (Wigmore Hall Live ***)
nolead ends nolead begins Sonata in C, D. 958; Sonata in G, D. 894; Impromptus 1-4, D. 935; Moment Musicaux, 1-6 D. 780
nolead ends nolead begins Imogen Cooper, piano
nolead ends nolead begins (Avie, two discs, ****)
nolead ends nolead begins Moment Musicaux 1-6, D. 780; Impromptus 1-4, D. 899
nolead ends nolead begins David Fray
nolead ends nolead begins (Virgin ****)
nolead ends Three distinct approaches to Schubert here - objective (Jonathan Biss), romantic (David Fray) and consolidation of both (Imogen Cooper). To say that Fray is the most novel shouldn't imply superficial excitement: He's a hugely imaginative pianist given to Byronic flights, and has both the personality and fingers to pull it off. Of the three discs, this is the one that showed me more aspects of the music that I'd never heard before.
Cooper, in Volume II of her Schubert Live series, is emerging as the most complete oracle of this composer since Mitsuko Uchida. Her Schubert is tougher and flintier than Fray's and more frequently confronts matters of life and death. Yet Cooper always maintains a strong structural sensibility that, as much as any one performance can, delivers the best of all worlds.
Biss is least likely to offend or excite anybody in something close to supremely objective ur-text performances of Schubert. The music certainly works on that level. The most distinctive element here is the way Biss frames Schubert with two works by Gyorgy Kurtag (Birthday Elegy for Judit and Hommage a Schubert), whose extreme spareness provides a valuable context for parallel qualities in Schubert.