Out of the Game
Finally, Rufus Wainwright returns to pop. Since 2007's Release the Stars, Wainwright has written an opera (Prima Donna), released a ponderous album of Shakespeare sonnets turned into songs (All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu), and re-created, lovingly, Judy Garland's Live at Carnegie Hall set. For Out of the Game, Wainwright drafted producer Mark Ronson, who in turn brought in the Dap-Kings, the R&B band he borrowed from Sharon Jones for Amy Winehouse's Back to Black. They crafted a '70s FM sound inspired by Elton John, Young Americans-era David Bowie, and Steely Dan. It's sometimes extravagant ("Welcome to the Ball"), sometimes languorous ("Respectable Drive"), and mercifully free of pretension (almost — the overly complicated melody of "Montauk" falls flat). It's good to have Wainwright back in the pop game: Like his father, Loudon Wainwright III, he's witty and pointed; like his mother, the late Kate McGarrigle, he's emotionally forthright and nuanced. He doesn't shy from ambition, but these sophisticated pop productions suit his sly, often cynical, songs well.
— Steve Klinge
Not a lot of rappers can say they're feuding mercilessly with critical darlings Odd Future, modeling for fashion lines, or collaborating with Chris Brown, Taylor Swift, and Morgan Freeman, all at about the same time. That's B.o.B.'s job.
The North Carolina-reared hip-hop singer/MC made his first album, B.o.B Presents: The Adventures of Bobby Ray, into a genre-jumping, conceptually schizoid affair. The follow-up, Strange Clouds, benefits from his debut's messed-up musicality. "So Hard to Breathe" is a hook-heavy honey of a cut with a handsome jumble of tenderly acoustic and epically electric guitars. "Where Are You (B.o.B vs. Bobby Ray)" reflects his Southern upbringing. "Arena," featuring T.I. and salty crooner Chris Brown, is aerated and arena rock-hopping grand.
Although it lacks Adventures' fantastical thematic through line, Clouds still has the same melodious singsong quality to B.o.B.'s raps, whether going it alone ("Circles"), doing a brown-eyed soul routine ("Castles," with Trey Songz), making nice with the voice of God (Freeman on "Bombs Away"), or doing a duet with Swift, country-pop's sweetheart of the rodeo. Together, B.o.B. and Swift make "Both of Us" into a buoyantly sentimental blend of ukulele-filled folk and syrupy dubstep-lite. That's some dumb — but weirdly effective — genre-jumping.
— A.D. Amorosi
Willis Earl Beal
Willis Earl Beal is a well-traveled nut job à la Daniel Johnston or Tom Waits. He's been on reality TV, in the military, homeless, will draw you a picture if you mail him a postcard, etc. The crude warmth of his debut proper (on Adele's label) recalls lo-fi cult leaders as recent as tUnE-yArDs and Cody Chesnutt. His vision isn't as funny or crafty as those two, but from Waitsian bellow-and-stomp ("Take Me Away") to gently cracked fingerpicking ("Monotony") to the off-kilter rap song he punctuates with a hearty "I'm freewheelin' like Bob Dylan," his compelling abrasions earn the "freak-folk" tag far more than Devendra Banhart or Joanna Newsom ever did.
— Dan Weiss
Martin Zellar and the Hardways
(Owen Lee sssd)
This has got to drive an artist nuts. Martin Zellar has done a lot of stellar work, first with the Gear Daddies and later on his own, but the Minnesotan's best-known song is probably the novelty "I Wanna Drive the Zamboni," which was originally just a hidden throwaway on a Gear Daddies album.
You won't find anything so lighthearted on Roosters Crow, Zellar's first album in 10 years. Thematically, it's the downer you'd expect with titles such as "Took the Poison," "Seven Shades of Blue," and "The Skies Are Always Gray." But as anxious, guilt-ridden, and regretful as Zellar may sound, he always skirts tedious solipsism. Helping greatly to counter the gloom is the clean, spare accompaniment, which encompasses ringing rock and rootsy touches such as Lloyd Maines' pedal steel and Dobro on selected cuts. "I will be OK," Zellar concludes on the finale, "It Works for Me." Works for us, too.
— Nick Cristiano
Country / Roots
Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives
Nashville, Volume 1: Tear the Woodpile Down
(Superlatone/Sugar Hill ssss)
Since he teamed up in 2001 with the Fabulous Superlatives — guitarist Kenny Vaughan, drummer Harry Stinson, bassist Paul Martin — Marty Stuart has been making the best music of his career, even if the onetime "Hillbilly Rock" champion is no longer having hits as he did in the '90s. He continues on that roll here.
As Stuart puts it in the liner notes: "Today the most outlaw thing you can possibly do in Nashville, Tennessee, is play country music." OK, that's a bit of hyperbole, but make no mistake: This is country music, no holds barred, from the propulsive twang of the title track to the aching balladry of "A Matter of Time" and the hot picking of the instrumental "Hollywood Boogie." And the material matches the excellence of the music. Stuart wrote seven of the 10 numbers, augmented by the cautionary tale "Sundown at Nashville," the honky-tonk lament "Holding on to Nothing," and Hank Williams' "Pictures From Life's Other Side," on which the always history-minded Stuart duets with Hank III.
Bill Frisell/Matt Chamberlain/Lee Townsend/Tucker Martine
(Savoy Jazz sssf)
Can producers be as creative as musicians?
That concept gets tested on the second CD of this unusual "quartet." Guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Matt Chamberlain lay down themes, and then producers Lee Townsend and Tucker Martine go to work, layering in a supporting quartet that includes trumpeter Ron Miles and violist Eyvind Kang and shaping the groove-laced results.
The set of 13 originals cooks along, racing across cultures with élan, from sitarlike sounds to techno-funk to the blasts of Americana Frisell is known for.
The grooves occasionally misfire like the sorry Muzak of a too-hip Miami hotel. Yet the frames shift quickly. The inventiveness impresses, and there's nothing cynical about the melodic results.
— Karl Stark
Brahms Violin Sonatas
(Wigmore Hall Live sssf)
Stravinsky Complete Music for Violin and Piano
Anthony Marwood has long been one of England's high-integrity violinists, premiering new concertos by Thomas Adès and Sally Beamish while playing in the acclaimed (now disbanded) Florestan Trio. Now he's concentrating more on a solo career, the initial calling card being the Stravinsky set that consists mostly of melody-oriented transcriptions by Samuel Dushkin. He performs them with ease and articulate playfulness that, combined with the high-comprehension factor of composer Adès on piano, sets new standards for this repertoire, uncovering untapped wit and meaning.
With the Brahms set, Marwood is in a more competitive repertoire arena, though with the cultivated, thoughtful qualities of a middle-aged musician — and then some. Unlike anyone else of his generation, his manner of phrasing has a gracious Viennese lilt that's very much a part of unguarded expressivity in these emotionally direct works. At times, you might want a larger sound, but the conviction of Marwood's musical rhetoric more than projects the music's emotional scale. What's less apparent in this live Brahms disc is the importance of his pianist, Aleksander Madzar, who is perfectly alert here but revealed an artistry at least as profound as Marwood's in last weekend's recital at New York's Frick Collection. — David Patrick Stearns