Album reviews: New CDs from M. Ward, Lushlife, Brad Mehldau
Pop M. Ward
A Wasteland Companion
Merge, 3 stars
It's easy to underestimate Matt Ward. In the indie supergroup Monsters of Folk, the guitarist, singer, and producer isn't the one with the eerily beautiful voice or the cryptically Dylanesque lyrics. (That would be Jim James and Conor Oberst, respectively.) And in She & Him, he's not the cute-as-a-button ingenue who wins big points for her retro-pop songwriting skills. (That's Zooey Deschanel.)
Even on his own albums, Ward is self-effacing. He favors fingerpicked explorations of all manner of American vernacular music, rather than show off his formidable instrumental and arranging attributes for any purpose other than to serve the best interests of the song at hand. This applies to the Alex Chilton-inspired ruminative original "Clean Slate" or the reworked delight that is his cover of Louis Armstrong's "I Get Ideas." Despite its downbeat title, A Wasteland Companion is comparatively cheery by Ward standards, mixing elegantly elegiac moments, like the wordless title track, with upbeat pop such as "Primitive Girl," which features Susan Sanchez on backup vocals while Ward sings the praises of a muse "who don't like to boast … but has a lot of what they call the most."
M. Ward plays with the Lee Ranaldo Band at 8:30 p.m. May 12 at Union Transfer, 1012 Spring Garden St. Tickets: $22-$25. Information: www.utphilly.com
Western Vinyl 3.5 stars
The second release from Philadelphia hip-hop artist Lushlife is one of the strongest albums to come out of the city this decade. The 11 tracks on Plateau Vision feature both live instrumentals and a variety of electronic melodies, topped with Lushlife's quick enunciation, aggressive delivery, and compelling rhymes. Although a few songs are less memorable than the remainder of the album, Lushlife's ability to codify various influences into bona fide hip-hop tunes is commendable. From the smooth R&B of "She's a Buddhist, I'm a Cubist" to the classic soul cuts featured on "Glistening," to the Baltimore club and trip-hop on "Hale-Bopp Was the Bedouins," the album is cohesive and inventive. Lushlife's sincerity and earnestness are perhaps the tie that binds: Shout-outs to Point Breeze and Camden, along with musical homages to hometown heroes the Roots and the city's many jazz legends, intertwine the music and the community.
— Katherine Silkaitis
Sweet Heart Sweet Light
(Double Six/Fat Possum 3 stars)
Once fueled by his love of mind-bending drugs and the guttural aplomb of the Velvets and the Stooges, English guitarist/singer/composer Jason Pierce made Spiritualized sound like an airy embrace of punk primitivism. Its 1997 album Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space became classic for its detached, primeval yawn, dreamily open, smugly complex yet somehow claustrophobic.
Near-death illnesses toward the end of the 2000s left Pierce with a deep voice and a deeper understanding of human frailty, which gave rise to 2008's Songs in A&E and this year's somewhat happier Sweet Heart Sweet Light.
Known for his expanses of psychedelic layering, Pierce has crunched his usual sound into something blunter and peppier this time out. Sweet Heart's melancholy tunes are still grand, and their choruses rousing, even Phil Spector-like, but more tightly wound than before. The ambient hum of "Huh?" is like a man waking from a nightmare sickness, only to find the love of his life ("Hey Jane") and self-realization (the cocky, gospel-ish "I Am What I Am") for his troubles. Some of Pierce's lyrics are dumb, and his observations on immortality are naive, but it's hard not to root for a man who, on the soaring "Life's a Problem" and "So Long You Pretty Things," seeks God's salvation. Amen.
(Thrill Jockey 3.5 stars)
Sidi Touré, from Mali, plays varieties of traditional African blues akin to his late countryman, Ali Farka Touré; they share a musical lineage but not a familial one. His first album for American indie label Thrill Jockey, last year's Sahel Folk, was a low-key acoustic set of convivial and hypnotic duo recordings made at his sister's house. On Koïma, the guitarist and singer expands his palette: He recorded it in a Bamako studio with a quintet that includes a lead guitarist, bass player, vocalist, calabash player, and soukou (violin) player. It's a livelier and brighter album, but it's no less entrancing.? On the album's centerpiece, the nearly eight-minute "Ishi Tanmaha (They No Longer Hope)," the mood is somber and cyclical, but elsewhere the rhythms quicken with lightning runs on guitar and violin and vibrant call-and-response vocals that contrast Touré's deep voice with Leïla Gobi's high-pitched one. Koïma means "go hear." It's good advice.
Big Shoes: Walking and Talking the Blues?(VizzTone 3.5 stars)
The "big shoes" Scissormenfill are not just the size 12s of singer-guitarist Ted Drozdowski pictured on the cover. They're also the metaphoric ones of the blues giants who preceded them. The goal of Scissormen is to honor the traditions those artists established while carrying them forward.? Drozdowski and drummer R.L. Hulsman continue to do that on this scorching live set, which accompanies a 90-minute Robert Mugge film that follows the duo on a tour of the Midwest (the DVD comes with the CD). They pay overt homage to some of their heroes. Two of Drozdowski's songs are named for and about Mississippi Hill Country greats R.L. Burnside and Jessie Mae Hemphill, and his "Mattie Sweet Mattie" was inspired by the Delta's Mississippi Fred McDowell.
Even when Scissormen use well-worn blues images ("I'm on a hell-bound train," from "Whiskey and Maryjane"), they sound bracingly fresh and vital, thanks to a sure sense of song dynamics that both keeps the eight-minutes-plus pieces from dragging and sustains the incendiary intensity of Drozdowski's slide playing.
"The blues ain't dipped in amber," he declares on the title song. "Gonna fill my own big shoes." And Scissormen deliver on that promise.
Brad Mehldau Trio
For proof that evolution exists, look no further than this transformative trio CD from pianist Brad Mehldau, bassist Larry Grenadier, and drummer Jeff Ballard. The three have been together for much of the last seven years. And these originals have changed along with them.
By now, they come off like sonic DNA; no one else could make these liquid beauties.
The session is, at root, a series of tributes. The flowing "M.B." (for Michael Brecker) honors the late Cheltenham-bred tenor saxophonist, while "Kurt Vibe" is for the vanguard-leading Philly-born guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, whom Mehldau cites as a serious influence.
The set is melodic and kind of daring. It flows into some groove places and creates lots of little electric moments that the best trios make.
Ferruccio Furlanetto, Anna Kiknadze, Andrei Serov; Mariinsky Orchestra, Valery Gergiev conducting (Mariinsky, two discs 4 stars)
The opera world has long wanted/needed a good version of Cervantes' celebrated Don Quixote story. And though this amiable, late-period Massenet opera (1909) has long been an obvious candidate, the recorded evidence has suggested the piece is pretty thin soup — until now. Although not a masterpiece by any means, the opera is indeed reborn.
Gergiev's characteristic electric-fast tempos and the forthright Mariinsky chorus do wonders for the Spanish-flavored choruses, while also keeping the often-repeated tunes from wearing out their welcome. Over-the-hill casts have been a problem in past recordings, but these singers are well cast and dramatically adept. In the early scenes, I wondered whether a bass of Furlanetto's magnitude was best for the title role. But such questions disappear amid the depth of pathos he gives the role. The recording acoustic is radiant.
David Patrick Stearns