Hot rockers MGMT throw listeners for a loop, while Foxy Shazam, Jeff Beck and Raul Midon perk ears, too, in this week's new-music parade.
MISS MANAGEMENT? If "Oracular Spectacular" was MGMT's beer party soundtrack for 2008, is "Congratulations" (Columbia, A-) their 2010 head-trip score?
Shimmering in psychedelic cues and bug-eyed wonder from virtually the first questioning notes of "It's Working," the duo of Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser celebrate the fine art of tripping in tune with shimmering, floating-in-space vocals, time-warp mixes of rock and going-for-baroque keyboarding, abrupt mid-song redirection, seriously suite-like pieces and a whole lotta existentialist questioning and kidding about the "Flash Delirium" that deceives us all.
So what does it all boil down to? As the cooks cynically stir, in another song: "You start with a simple stock of waste, and flavor to taste."
Name-checked influences include "Brian Eno" and a "Song for Dick Treacy" (of the British group Television Personalities). Coproducer Sonic Boom adds Spacemen 3 magic. I'm also feeling the love for Arthur Lee in epics like "Siberian Breaks."
OVER THE TOP: There's no staying neutral about Foxy Shazam, another band that rockers are either gonna celebrate or hate.
Grandly operatic pomp-rock has always been one of my guilty pleasures, from the glory days of Bruce Springsteen, Meatloaf and Queen to the likes of Andrew W.K. and Mika. So I'm on board with these dudes' way-over-the-top, self-titled album (Sire, B+).
Reaching-for-the-rafters lead singer Eric Nally would be perfect to play Freddie Mercury in a Queen biopic. (Though Nally makes a point of his straightness early on.)
BECK'S BACK: The way he peels through the aria "Nessun Dorma" - and the equally classic "Over the Rainbow" - is especially telling. But throughout his new "Emotion & Commotion" (Atco/Rhino, B+) album, you'll hear Jeff Beck "singing" through his guitar, treating it as a dramatic voice as he solos atop a lush, strings-swept orchestra.
In the vein of his classic "Blow By Blow," this largely instrumental, tightly segued set also flows entertainingly from the pumped-up jazz-rock fusion of "Hammerhead" to gritty blues, including two tunes ("I Put a Spell on You" and "There's No Other Me") featuring vocals by Joss Stone.
MERCHANT IVORY: OK, so I was bored silly with Natalie Merchant's graciously gurgly folk-rock sound. Evidently, so was she. The woman took an eight-year leave from the recording scene and her return, "Leave Your Sleep" (Nonesuch, B+), travels interesting new paths.
Merchant has opted to cast other people's poems as songs. Funny nursery rhymes and lullabies dominate, though there's also a sprinkling of darker, more adult-themed work adapted from the pens of Ogden Nash, Edward Lear, Robert Louis Stevenson, e.e. cummings and others. Note how Natalie dresses them in a variety of sonic garbs, from the New Orleans jazz of "Bleezer's Ice-Cream" to the reggae-toned "Topsyturvey-World," with stellar backing by the likes of the Wynton Marsalis Quartet; Lunasa; Medeski, Martin & Wood; and the Klezmatics. Available in single and two-disc versions.
SINGING FOR YOUR SUPPER: With his smooth, soul-pop crooning and, OK, the blind man's dark glasses, too, Raul Midon used to draw serious comparisons to Stevie Wonder. There's still a bit of that going on in Midon's "Synthesis" (Decca, B). But the singer/songwriter's catchy and thoughtful tunes and the ever-tasteful, Larry Klein-helmed production aims for an even breezier crossover sound closer to the reggae- and jazz-tinged stuff that Sting often has going on.
Seasoned saloon singer Catherine Russell puts a nickel in the jukebox to take us "Inside This Heart of Mine" (World Village, A-), summoning a scrumptious set of trad-style jazz. Old-school tunes (by Lil Armstrong and Willie Dixon) are restored with her emphatic, bluesy vocals and the band's complementary, Basin Street style. Only the bright, warm engineering reminds that this set is of-the-moment.
Kaki King keeps inching farther away from her "virtuoso folk guitar improviser" identity. On "Junior" (Rounder, B-), she sings on many tracks and summons up pained paeans that wouldn't be out of place on a Pink Floyd (or Roger Waters solo) album.
Kimberly Caldwell remains one of the most powerfully voiced of "American Idol" near-misses (7th on season 2), someone who could "sing the phone book." The romantic pop on "Without Regret" (Vanguard/Capitol, C+) is better than that, though not much, early on emphasizing her big-belting self (with a lead tune, "Heart of Mine," coauthored by the ubiquitous Kara DioGuardi), then letting her softer side out.
SHOWSTOPPERS: Isn't it rich? Aren't they a pair? Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones, that is, luring 'em in to the new Broadway production (and double-disc album) of Stephen Sondheim's romantic dalliance "A Little Night Music" (Nonesuch, A-). In my book, it's his most effervescent, inspired score.
Math professor by day, topical/satirical songwriter by night, Tom Lehrer is honored with a best-of set, "The Tom Lehrer Collection" (Shout Factory, B+), that even die-hard fans will crave for the bonus DVD. Contained therein is a 1967, black-and-white Lehrer concert from Oslo, busting the Cold War balloon and racism of that age with tunes like "We Will All Go Together When We Go" and "National Brotherhood Week."