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Pop Tracey Thorn has always seemed an old soul. In Everything but the Girl, Thorn and her musical and life partner, Ben Watt, started off dabbling in bossa nova and cool jazz back in the mid-'80s before moving into club territory later in a career that's been on hiatus since 1999. No matter the setting, though, Thorn's restrained, unaffected alto conveyed a somber wisdom and heartfelt experience.


Love and Its Opposite

(Merge ***1/2)

nolead ends Tracey Thorn has always seemed an old soul. In Everything but the Girl, Thorn and her musical and life partner, Ben Watt, started off dabbling in bossa nova and cool jazz back in the mid-'80s before moving into club territory later in a career that's been on hiatus since 1999. No matter the setting, though, Thorn's restrained, unaffected alto conveyed a somber wisdom and heartfelt experience.

That's even more true on Love and Its Opposite. After 2007's percolating Out of the Woods, Thorn tones down the beats (although noted remixer Ewan Person produced the album) in favor of subdued ballads that contemplate the difficulties of adult love: friends divorcing, a daughter's hormones ("yours are just checking in / mine are just checking out," she sings), a sad visit to a singles bar. The unadorned spareness of "You Are a Lover" recalls Thorn's earliest days in the Marine Girls, but she's a better singer now, with more control, more depth, and more truth to share.

- Steve Klinge

nolead begins Christina Aguilera
nolead ends nolead begins Bionic
nolead ends nolead begins (RCA ***1/2)

nolead ends It's awkward when tried-and-true artists look for new collaborators or tweak their sound. Is the switch organic or motivated by pop's prevailing winds? Christina Aguilera - she of the huge, soulful, theatrical voice - always had au courant producers and songwriters on her side. She also is a talented enough conceptualist to embrace change. For Bionic, Aguilera reached into nu electronica and eclectic hop (Santigold and M.I.A. each cowrote tunes) for a unique production that doesn't sound foreign within her body of work.

Keeping an ace in the hole, Aguilera places a hearty Linda Perry ballad, "Lift Me Up," at Bionic's center. The spunky Le Tigre-produced "My Girls," featuring the ever-naughty Peaches, doesn't sound odd - Aguilera is famous for playing dirrrrty. Rather, the differences in Bionic come from her willingness to use her voice in a less robust manner than we're used to hearing from the full-throated howler. Her cooler-head approach to club technology sounds more integrated than it has in the past - on the snapped crackle of "Glam," the angular hip-hop of "Woohoo" (with MC Nicki Minaj), and the anthemic shiver of "Not Myself Tonight."

Don't think of Bionic as a future shock - it's more of a joy buzzer.

- A.D. Amorosi

nolead begins Paul Weller
nolead ends nolead begins Wake Up the Nation
nolead ends nolead begins Island/Yep Rock ***

nolead ends Wake Up the Nation, the 10th solo album from influential British rocker Paul Weller, isn't nearly as ambitious as its title might suggest, but it is a high point in an often frustrating solo career.

If the entire album lived up to the promise of its jittery opener, "Moonshine," Weller would truly have a stellar solo record. But forgettable tracks like "She Speaks" and "Aim High" substitute aimless riffs and falsetto warbling for genuine substance.

It's not until Weller looks backward musically, on the Bowie-inspired "Andromeda" and the punky "Fast Car - Slow Traffic," that the album begins to come together. A solid (if unspectacular) song set, Wake Up could do with less filler, but its highlights make this icon's latest work worthy of repeat listening.

- Emily Tartanella

nolead begins Hot Hot Heat
nolead ends nolead begins Future Breeds
nolead ends nolead begins (Dangerbird ***)

nolead ends Even back when Hot Hot Heat hit it big in 2002, with their debut LP Make Up the Breakdown, there was something a bit quirky about the band's music. Their songs were catchy and poppy, but melodies were unpredictable and lyrics were disjointed and disconcerting. Eight years later, with five albums under their belt, they've managed to remain both odd and appealing. The 12 tracks on Future Breeds present a band encumbered with angst and urgency - vocalist Steve Bays still sings with a slight snarl and a manic undertone, while reverb-soaked guitars and keys aggressively lurch to the pulsing beat. They've created another album of pop tunes that defies the standards of pop music - this is the stuff indie kids will dance to, but it has a heart and a soul, and an element of musical and mental consciousness that prevents it from becoming cultural ephemera.

- Katherine Silkaitis


Up on the Ridge

(Capitol ***)

nolead ends On the smart mainstream country albums that made him a star, Dierks Bentley always unplugged for a bluegrassy number. For Up on the Ridge, the Arizona native goes virtually all-acoustic, with the help of several well-known guests, and it's an inspired move: The album represents an artistic rebound from 2008's somewhat tepid Feel That Fire.

Bentley contributes strong cowritten originals, including the opening invitation to go "Up on the Ridge" and the somberly moving "Down in the Mine." Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers, not usually favorites in this corner, help power strong takes of Dylan's "Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)" and the traditional "Rovin' Gambler," adapted by Bentley and producer Jon Randall Stewart.

Kris Kristofferson performs a duet with Bentley on the former's "Bottle to the Bottom," which includes a long instrumental passage to give the pickers a chance to cut loose. "Bad Angel" is a terrific slice of barroom honky-tonk with Miranda Lambert and Jamey Johnson. Even with the help of the great Del McCoury, however, Bentley can't make much worthwhile out of U2's "Pride (In the Name of Love)."

- Nick Cristiano

nolead begins Holly Golightly
and the Brokeoffs
nolead ends nolead begins Medicine County
nolead ends nolead begins (Transdreamer ***)

nolead ends London-born Holly Golightly (yes, that's her real name) got her start with the garage band Thee Headcoatees. In recent years with her partner, the Texas-raised singer and multi-instrumentalist known as Lawyer Dave (he's the Brokeoffs), she has taken a rootsier turn.

Medicine County was recorded in an abandoned church near the duo's new home in rural Georgia. And they sound right at home bringing a bracing garage-rock rawness to the ramshackle blues of "Two Left Feet" and the dobro-inflected "When He Comes," or the twangy country of the title song and "Eyes in the Back of My Head." Unsentimental, but not without a light touch, they take the same approach to two traditional numbers, "Blood on the Saddle" and "Jack O'Diamonds," connecting with the long lineage of the music while also carving out their own place within it.

- N.C.


Mystic Journey

(Furthermore Recordings ***)

nolead ends At 21, tenor and soprano saxophonist Azar Lawrence was on tour with Miles Davis and got onto the master's maniacal "Dark Magus," a far-out jam session recorded live at Carnegie Hall in 1974. He moved on to pianist McCoy Tyner's group, recorded three albums as a leader, and left jazz for R&B in the 1980s, joining Earth Wind and Fire. Then he flamed out and disappeared.

Now Lawrence, who's in his late 50s, returns in a full-throated way. This sextet CD starts out as unrepentant free jazz. The title track features Lawrence in full squealing mode. Lawrence cites his Coltrane cred, which comes partly through Tyner and Rashied Ali, the drummer here who died just a few months after the session was recorded. Tyner's "Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit" gets done here with a cooking vibe and muscular solos.

But Pharoah Sanders seems to be a bigger influence. Lawrence channels that kind of wildness on "Quest," though the ballad "Say It Over Again" allows everyone to calm down in a beautiful way. Eddie Henderson plays a complementary role on trumpet and flügelhorn. Pianist Benito Gonzalez, bassist Essiet Essiet, and alto saxophonist Gerald Hayes comprise this fiery, old-school group.

- Karl Stark

nolead begins Dave Posmontier Quartet
nolead ends nolead begins Posterity
nolead ends nolead begins (Dreambox Media ***)

nolead ends This quartet set from Dave Posmontier showcases the breadth that the Cheltenham-based pianist and composer has shown throughout his career. It starts with bluesy directness and some earnest gospel. The players alight on the standard "It Might As Well Be Spring," linger on a Johannes Brahms melody, and get both funky and Monkish in the same tune.

The album even ambles into some R&B homeyness, albeit with a handsome solo from bassist Chico Huff and support from drummer Erik Johnson. But mostly, this stuff plays. It's accessible. It's been bandstand-tested.

Posmontier long ago established his cred in an organ trio with two Philly titans, drummer Mickey Roker and tenor saxophonist Bootsie Barnes. More recently, he's been hanging with violinist John Blake and the crack-up Klingon Klezmer band, which certainly gives him more cosmic moves.

Tenor and soprano saxophonist Bob Howell, a Berklee-trained musician whose credits range from backing Aretha Franklin to teaching at Widener University, is the able lead horn, deftly keening on the traditional "Down by the Riverside."

- K.S.


Soloists plus Schola Cantorum de Venezuela, Orquestra La Pasion, Maria Guinard and Robert Spano conducting

(Deutsche Grammophon, two CDs, one DVD ****)

nolead ends A new recording already? The piece that made Osvaldo Golijov's reputation almost overnight roughly a decade ago has been rerecorded by most of the same forces that premiered it - but with a purpose.

The first recording was made when nobody could have accessed what sort of hybrid musical animal this is. Thus, the CDs strive for a fuller sonic representation. Golijov's stylistically far-reaching work reinterprets Christ's crucifixion in ways that both draw from and rebel against the tradition of Bach's St. Matthew Passion with a surprisingly congruent combination of Hispanic ethnic influences and orchestral effects that could only be conceived in the age of electronic music. The hugely imaginative but freewheeling storytelling style is the polar opposite of linear Germanic rigor.

Also in the package is a separate live performance on DVD from the 2008 Holland Festival with some of the same forces but conducted by Golijov champion Robert Spano. The performance has some shaky moments as well as great peaks of excitement - plus its share of visual quirks emanating from the performers' combination of inner passion and steel-trap concentration. Both versions are great to have if only because, while this great piece of music should be experienced widely, its dissemination may be impeded by its atypical performance requirements.

- David Patrick Stearns

nolead begins Baltic Runes
nolead ends nolead begins Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Paul Hillier
nolead ends nolead begins (Harmonia Mundi ****)

nolead ends For seasoned but uninformed ears, this disc shows every sign of exploring cutting edges in Baltic-authored choral music we never knew existed. That conclusion is half right. Some of the ultra-descriptive vocal techniques used here - ones so far beyond typical European singing that you can't imagine how they're notated - have no doubt rarely been heard beyond Baltic realms. Yet the most recent music on this disc dates from 1995, and much of it is considerably older.

The most radical piece is Erik Bergman's Lapponia Op. 76, written in 1975 and drawing on "yoik" singing from Lapland - wild, often ethereal stuff, especially as executed by this technically fearless, sonically adventurous Estonian group directed by the great musical omnivore Paul Hillier. Folk-based composers Veljo Tormis and Cyrillus Kreek are both well represented, along with some disarmingly simple Sibelius (Rakastava Op. 14) near the beginning of the disc to get your feet wet. This disc's appeal is no doubt limited - to those who enjoy being amazed.

- D.P.S.