Album reviews: Ian Anderson; Willie Nelson; Marshall Gilkes
Pop Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull
Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull
Thick as a Brick 2
OK, it won me over. After several listenings, some alongside Jethro Tull's original, famous/notorious 1972 smash Thick as a Brick (40 years old this year), I gotta tell ya and no kiddin': This is a fine album, more than worthy of its namesake. TAAB2 revisits Gerald Bostock, the little boy who supposedly wrote the impenetrable lyrics for the original TAAB. The sequel is a direct, coherent, sustained meditation on a worthwhile theme: fate, and possible lives taken or not. The tracks are uniformly interesting and moving, with (or despite?) Anderson's trademark neck-breaking segues among folk, heavy rock, ballad, and Asian modalism. None of the other old Tulls are here, but Anderson has assembled a team of blindingly talented players. The music is tight, biting, live-in-studio (as the original was!), and Anderson is a better flutist than ever. And lyricist. To call his tunes "busy" is like saying, "There are many tuna," but it's a thrill ride. Wait for the package, coming later this year, of TAAB2 with TAAB — but know this is one of Anderson/Tull's better albums, all sneering energy and humane concern. Highpoint: the exquisite, unearthly "Changing Horses," among his best single tracks ever.— John Timpane
The Legendary Demos
(Hear Music ssss)
It's a Carole King moment. Her memoir, A Natural Woman, is out, and here is The Legendary Demos, fascinating. And too short. King, a founder of the singer/songwriter movement, is one of the few 1960s pop tunewrights to become true performance royalty. Here's a window on that progress: 13 demos (in various arrangements, from full-on band to hasty guitar and voice) of tunes she and various lyricists (most often, then-husband Gerry Goffin) wrote for the Shirelles, the Everlys, Bobby Vee, and the Righteous Brothers. It's a mere taste of the 50 hit tunes King shoveled into the marketplace in the 1960s. They're not in chronological order, but they tell a story. A couple could have been hits on their own. King leads a full, driving band on "Pleasant Valley Sunday," without the Beatlesque Monkees gallop into the reverb, but nicely '60s in its tart satire on the 'burbs. I admire her brave singing on "For Once in My Life," written for the Righteous Brothers as a follow-up to "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling"; it's emotionally naked, better than the Brothers' version. Often channelling the target artist in her singing, King can do both the bubbly girl-group thing and the soul thing: Here is one woman who could hear gospel. That comes through in the heartfelt demo of "(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman," which Aretha Franklin made her own in 1967. (Amazing how well Goffin could write lyrics that worked for female singers.) When we come to demos for the watershed album Tapestry (which postdates King's 1968 divorce from Goffin), the advance is breathtaking: She grew up and found her style. "It's Too Late" is great, "Beautiful" perky and encouraging, "Way Over Yonder" even more likable than the album version, and "You've Got a Friend" indelible.— J. T.
Damon Albarn has been a serial collaborator, from his leadership in Blur and Gorillaz, to his cross-cultural experiments with African musicians, to his participation in "supergroups" such as The Good, The Bad & the Queen and the recent Rocketjuice & the Moon. He's rarely put his own name in the subject line. But anyone expecting Dr. Dee to be a personal statement, akin to Jack White's new album, will be disappointed: It's an opera about an Elizabethan polymath, John Dee, mathematician, astronomer, and alchemist, said to be the inspiration for Shakespeare's Prospero.
Albarn has called the music "strange pastoral folk": It's impressionistic and somber, using acoustic instruments (including the African kora), pipe organs, and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. Albarn sings several meandering ballads, some of which recall the work of Robert Wyatt, amid chorales and countertenors, scale-singing and three-minute percussion tracks. Dr. Dee was well-received as a theater piece when it debuted in England last year, but as a discrete listening experience, it's amorphous and often pretentious.— Steve Klinge
Train's front man, Pat Monahan, has one of pop's great voices, ideally suited to hooky hits like "Drops of Jupiter" or more recently "Hey Soul Sister." But his Wikipedia Brown lyrics more often than not derail the trio. He presents his idea of the afterlife on "You Can Finally Meet My Mom": "?'Cause I'll be hanging out with you?/?Not Jimi Hendrix, Jesus or the dude?/?Who played the sheriff in Blazing Saddles?/?You, not Chris Farley, Mr. Rogers?/?And oh, I've waited so long?/?You can finally meet my mom." In "This'll Be My Year" he name-checks Pete Rose, Boris Yeltsin, Tony Blair and The Simpsons. On those rare instances, like "We Were Made for This," when Monahan lets the music do the talking, the result is quite winning.
– David Hiltbrand
Country / Roots
The second cut on Willie Nelson's new album is the jaunty country-gospel of "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die," with Snoop Dogg, Kris Kristofferson, and Jamey Johnson. It's a fun little number that, of course, slyly alludes to Willie's well-known affection for weed, and, like most of the rest of Heroes, due out May 15, it shows the 79-year-old legend can still hit the mark when he wants to.
OK, even Willie Nelson can't make Coldplay ("The Scientist") sound worthwhile. That misfire aside, he succeeds by keeping things in his wheelhouse, whether it's spare ballads accented by longtime accompanist Mickey Raphael's trademark high-lonesome harmonica, or Western swing chestnuts ("My Window Faces the South," "Home in San Antone"). Likewise, the many guests elevate the proceedings, rather than seem superfluous, from Merle Haggard on a reprise of 1989's "A Horse Called Music" to Sheryl Crow on the country-soul of Tom Waits' "Come on Up to the House" or Ray Price on "This Cold War With You."
For all the big names, however, the guest most prominently featured is Nelson's son Lukas. He wrote or cowrote three of the 13 songs, sings on seven of them, and sounds uncannily like his old man. We'd say that lends the album an element of torch-passing, except Willie doesn't sound ready to fade away.— Nick Cristiano
Willie Nelson and Family, with Drake White, at 7:30 Sunday at the Keswick Theatre, 291 N. Keswick Ave., Glenside. Tickets: $69.50 and $75. Phone: 215-572-7650.
(Alternate Side Record sssf )
Trombonist Marshall Gilkes puts his silky 'bone to good use on this accessible quintet recording. The Juilliard School graduate and 2003 Monk competition finalist, whose father was an Air Force musician, presents 11 originals that are about equal parts frenetic and melodic.
Gilkes calls his approach orchestral and there's some truth in that. His tunes aren't exactly hummable but they develop and ripen. They also lead to much swinging and significant beauty, and the solos mean something.
Tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin provides horn heft while pianist Adam Birnbaum dispenses pretty patches of color alongside a sympathetic rhythm section of bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Eric Doob.
The quartet interplay is intelligent and firmly in the straight-ahead tradition.
At the heart of it is Gilkes whose elegant lines curl nicely around a tune. His ballad playing is definitely sound.
— Karl Stark
Love and Longing
(Deutsche Grammophon sssf)
Considering how little Magdalena Kozena records these days, this substantial disc of Dvorak, Ravel and Mahler songs with the Berlin Philharmonic is a major event, and shows how dramatically she has changed from a Handelian coloratura to a Mahlerian mezzo. As rich as her voice has become in recent years, her main virtue is her linguistic intelligence. Dvorak's Biblical Songs aren't among the composer's masterpieces and sound overly busy in the orchestrated form in which they appear here. But her conviction with the Czech text sustains the 10-song cycle.
No special magic is needed for Mahler's oft-heard Ruckert Songs. But her depth of comprehension with this music puts her in something close to the Lorraine Hunt Lieberson zone. Often, Kozena has been a singer whose grasp exceeds her reach, and you hear that in the upper reaches of Ravel's Sheherazade. But with the hyper-alert accompaniment by her husband, Simon Rattle, this is one of the more notable recent recordings of this piece. The disc's sound has the customary Berlin Philharmonic intensity — almost to the point of claustrophobia.— David Patrick Stearns