CD reviews: A fall soundtrack | AspenTimes.com

CD reviews: A fall soundtrack

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado

Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesK'Naan has released "Troubadour."

A soundtrack for a quiet, slow autumn. Some folk, some jazz, some rock, some bluegrass, some hip-hop. Two Dianas. And a lot of blood.

Growing up in New York in the ’80s, Diana Jones found herself attracted to country music, with a preference for the rootsy stuff: Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris. Unusual, but not unheard of. But it turns out Jones had been adopted, and as a young adult, she found her birth family. In Tennessee. Among which was Robert Maranville, her grandfather, who had played with Chet Atkins and had an encyclopedic knowledge of old Southern songs.Which goes a long way toward explaining why Jones sounds so unforced and genuine on “Better Times Will Come.” Her songs, all originals, speak of God, guns, hard times and death in a language and style that recalls something as ancient as the Civil War. The backing – including unobtrusive contributions from guest vocalists including Nanci Griffith and Mary Gauthier – is plain but elegant; the tempo is slow. Which leaves all the emphasis on Jones’ affecting voice and uncanny grasp of song-craft.

The combination of a collection of Great American Songbook standards, the big string section and the title “Quiet Nights” left me so excited that I let Diana Krall’s new album sit on my desk for a few months before opening. And Krall herself doesn’t get my blood pumping – too made-up and calculated.The music confirms all my preconceptions; it was as if I had already heard this before. In a sense, I had: “Quiet Nights” can be considered volume two of “The Look of Love,” Krall’s 2001 album of standards. All the elements – the breathy vocalizing, the oh-so-tasteful arrangements, the selections of “Walk On By,” “I’ve Grown Accustomed to His Face,” “The Boy From Ipanema” – are … well, standard. There are no surprises here till the first bonus track, a nice take on the Bee Gees’ “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.”I am open to the suggestion that I complain too much. Krall’s voice is warm, her piano-playing is tasty, these are songs worth revisiting. But damn, scrub off some of that make-up, lose the fancy dress and cut loose.

Over the past decade, Joe Henry has produced records by Solomon Burke, Bettye Lavette, Loudon Wainwright III, Aimee Mann and Elvis Costello; scored the soundtrack to the comedy “Knocked Up”; and released five albums of his own. Every bit of it has been excellent. (If you want to know where to start on the Henry oeuvre, I recommend Burke’s “Don’t Give Up on Me,” the film “Knocked Up” – not really Henry’s creation, but the best work yet by the Judd Apatow crew – and “Civilians,” Henry’s 2007 album.)Two of his most recent projects were bluesy albums, by Allen Toussaint and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and the blues seem to have gotten inside Henry. Not that “Blood From Stars” would be considered mainstream blues; Henry never paddles in the mainstream. But the emotion of “All Blues Hail Mary” is nothing but the blues; and “Bellwether” grinds along on bluesy piano and New Orleans horns. Consider this a raw but expansive twist on blues, with Henry aided by such modernists as pianist Jason Moran and guitarist Marc Ribot.

More blood. Lots of blood. “Blood on the door” in “Black Wind Blowing”; “blood in my mouth” and “blood on my hands” in “Ain’t No Friend of Mine.” “Blood of man” shows up not only in the title track, but also in “Sing Out.” There’s also an overdose, screams and shootings. Mason Jennings wrestled with issues of spirituality and religion on 2007’s “In the Ever,” but now it seems that life has pinned the low-key Minneapolis-based folk-rocker to the mat. While he may be down, he’s not completely out. On “Ain’t No Friend of Mine,” he trades the acoustic guitar for a strutting, nearly Hendrix-like guitar groove, and the song of human distance becomes defiant rather than defeatist.

Sam Bush’s “Circles Around Me” is backward-looking. There are traditional songs with old-sounding titles (“Midnight on the Stormy Deep,” “Apple Blossom”); even the new songs have a musty scent, like “The Old North Woods.” There are old friends (John Cowan, Edgar Meyer, Jerry Douglas), and a friend who is old (septuagenarian Del McCoury, who adds vocals to two tunes). There’s even some genuinely old music: the fiddle tune “Apple Blossom,” a duet with the late banjoist Courtney Johnson, was recorded in 1976.Most of all, and best of all, the approach is back-to-basics – an adventurous take on string music, with a pronounced emphasis on acoustic sounds. And, at least on record, Bush has never been better. The picking is hot (check out the burning “Blue Mountain”), and old-fashioned doesn’t mean a lack of sophistication (try the elegant “Junior Heywood,” co-written with bassist Meyer, and featuring the Meyer Family Strings: Meyer and violinist Cornelia Heard, his wife and fellow Aspen Music Festival faculty member, plus their son, violinist George, in his recording debut).As far as I’m concerned, Sam Bush doesn’t need to play another reggae song again. To go further, he never needed to play one in the first place.

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Rap has been in rapid decline. What to do? “Troubadour” suggests getting away from the outdated ideas of East Coast/West Coast, and start looking to more foreign shores – like the Somali coast, on the Indian Ocean.K’Naan, a 31-year-old rapper, was born in Mogadishu, and while he spent his teenage years in Toronto – and learned English by listening to Nas and Rakim – his sound borrows from Africa (as well as Jamaica, on the pointed “If Rap Gets Jealous,” featuring Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett). Moreover, he takes an outsider’s angle on mainstream hip-hop, going for hope and helpful political criticism rather than cheap gangsta-ism. Guests include Mos Def, Chali 2Na and Damien Marley.

Singer-banjoist Kieran Kane has demonstrated a taste for the experimental in a series of albums with stringmen Kevin Welch and Fats Kaplin. On his own here, Kane, a native of Queens, breaks into another realm, thanks largely to the presence of Deanna Varagona and her baritone sax. The instrument fits oddly well with Kane’s downbeat songs of cheating and more cheating, and “Somewhere Beyond the Roses” lands somewhere between Johnny Cash, Joe Henry and Morphine.

Gov’t Mule has never been a band to show much of a humorous side. But the second track on “By a Thread” features what could be taken as a musical joke. The song is titled “Steepin’ Lightly,” and starts with two of the biggest, full-throttle power chords imaginable. The song rides on a repeated power riff by guitarist/frontman Warren Haynes, and moves into some blistering guitar solos.Gov’t Mule doesn’t do anything lightly. “By A Thread” finds the quartet at its most eclectic, dabbling in Texas blues (“Broke Down on the Brazos,” “Railroad Boy”), ’60s psychedelia (“Inside Outside Woman Blues #3”), reggae (“Frozen Fear”) and soul (“World Wake Up”). But filtered through the Gov’t Mule sensibility, it all comes out the other side as hard rock. Heavy rock.

The Brazilian band Os Mutantes formed in the ’60s, influenced by both their native Tropiclia and psychedelic rock. “Haih … or Amortecedor” is their first studio album in 30-plus years and, aside from guitarist and composer Srgio Dias, features a revamped lineup. But the emphasis is still on eclecticism, as they romp through progressive rock, twisted takes on Brazilian rhythms, freak folk, mellow Eastern-inspired chants, campy lounge tunes and more, often in the same song. The most accessible tune, “O Mensageiro,” sounds like something they lifted from David Byrne – which is OK, since Byrne was influenced by early Os Mutantes.

Who’s the happiest band in the world? Hot Buttered Rum, a bluegrass-rock band from San Francisco that travels in a biodeisel bus, has got to be in the running, based on “Limbs Akimbo.” “I guess luck has always been on my side/ Yes it’s always been a fairly easy ride,” they sing in “Brokedown, which glides along on smooth high harmonies and a fiddle solo that knows no minor notes. And that qualifies as a blues compared to “Beneath the Blossoms,” a chugging rocker that starts with the wide-eyed line, “I can’t tell you what a difference you’ve made in me.” Only occasionally – the overly exuberant “Sexy Bakery Girl” comes to mind – do they go over the top. These guys know how to do happy.stewart@aspentimes.com