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CD reviews: Byrne, Newsom, Lynne and more

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Annabel MehranCalifornia singer-harpist Joanna Newsom's new album is the triple-disc "Have One on Me."
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When David Byrne appeared at the Jazz Aspen June Festival, in 2005, I marveled that Byrne, accompanied by a string quartet, managed to meld influences from America, South Africa, Europe and Africa. Apparently, this was not enough; now, Byrne, with British DJ Fatboy Slim, has discovered Asia.”Here Lies Love” is an ambitious project (two CDs, DVD, 20 guest singers and a hardcover book in the deluxe package) about former Philippine first lady, Imelda Marcos. It’s not the shoes; Byrne’s song cycle focuses on the relationship between Marcos and the nanny who raised her, Estrella Cumpas, to get at issues of privilege, celebrity, betrayal and politics. The story is from Southeast Asia, but the sounds are not. Byrne started with the tidbit that Marcos loved the discos of the late ’70s and early ’80s, a scene Byrne knew well. With Fatboy Slim as beatsmaster, Byrne updates the dance music of three decades ago with a touch of electronica. He also pulls in handfuls of female singers to bring the songs to life, including era-appropriate Cyndi Lauper and Kate Pierson, more current voices Nellie McKay and Theresa Andersson – and Tori Amos, Allison Moorer, Sharon Jones, etc. Two men are included: Steve Earle, who takes the role of President Ferdinand Marcos in “A Perfect Hand,” and Byrne himself, who gets the catchiest, most up-to-date song, “American Troglodyte,” a critical observation of those things we Americans do that catch the world’s attention (“Americans are surfing that Internet/ Americans are listening to 50 Cent”).Esoteric, for sure. But you don’t need to be interested in the history of Filipino royalty to dance to Byrne’s soundtrack of it.

The comparisons to Joni Mitchell may be a lot to bear for 28-year-old Joanna Newsom, but they are fair. Newsom, raised in hippieville, northern California, has a gentler take on the world, and plays harp and piano rather than guitar and piano. But like Mitchell, she is not just thinking outside the box; she acts as if there were no box. Newsom makes you think of jazz, classical, Celtic and folk, but those are just trace elements, not really influences. Her willowy, gossamer sound is unlike anything you’ve heard. On “Have One on Me,” the follow-up to the 2006 breakthrough “Ys,” she acts outside of all norms. It is a three-CD set, with songs ranging from the 11-minute title track to the ditty “On a Good Day,” which clocks in at less than two minutes. There are no choruses or verses or hooks, just linear, ever-changing ideas that would be sprawling if they weren’t so original and eccentric. When Newsom sings “In your arms” on “No Provenance,” the effect is intimate and vulnerable to the point of feeling you’ve stepped into someone else’s reality.

After going rock ‘n’ roll (“Love, Shelby”), stripping down to folkie levels (“Identity Crisis”), and paying tribute to Dusty Springfield (“Just a Little Lovin'”), Shelby Lynne goes back to “I Am Shelby Lynne,” the 1999 Memphis soul-type album that is her masterpiece. Or at least, it teases doing so. Lynne’s band includes players from Muscle Shoals, the Alabama studio where much classic soul was recorded, and “Tears, Lies, and Alibis” kicks off with two songs, including the catchy “Why Didn’t You Call Me,” that recall the fleshed-out sound of “I Am.” But then Lynne backs off, giving her songs of heartache quieter, more somber tones. Artistically, there’s no problem: the longing is thick in “There’s Something to Be Said” and “Old No. 7.” But a lot of fans will play the first two songs of this album repeatedly, hoping for a full-on return to “I Am.”

The hip L.A. duo The Bird and the Bee – singer Inara George and keyboardist Greg Kurstin – interpret Hall & Oates, rather than reinterpret, or deconstruct, or radically alter, on their tribute album. It makes sense; the Bird and the Bee not only grew up on Hall & Oates, but their usual modus operandi, even when not covering ’80s pop stars, has a lot to do with ’80s pop, in particular, the use of synthesizers. Here, they achieve a natural soul groove that has much in common with the original article. The album opens with the original “Heard It on the Radio,” a tale about falling in love to a Hall & Oates soundtrack that comes from the heart.Two small complaints: The original album title, “Guiltless Pleasures,” said so much more than the bland title they settled on. And the album sticks exclusively to the hits; it would have been nice for them to uncover one hidden gem. But they sure do find the hip factor in “I Can’t Go For That,” “One on One,” and the like.The Living Sisters – a trio comprising Inara George (aka, “The Bird,” or daughter of Little Feat founder Lowell George), and fellow singer-songwriters Eleni Mandell and Becky Stark – bring ’60s girl group ideas into the ’10s. Their debut is built on old ideas – gospel, country, doo-wop, vocal jazz – but the result is fresh, and when the vocal harmonies are right on, which is often, even breathtaking.

From the outfits to the photos, the font used for the credits to the 39-minute duration, everything about “I Learned the Hard Way” is hardcore old-school. Of course, that extends to the music – Brooklyn singer Sharon Jones and her band make sounds that could have come straight out of 1965. The horn arrangements are tight; Jones’ love-hardened voice is backed by hand-claps and human voices, not electronic blips and samples. If it weren’t done so well, it would feel like a useless nostalgia trip.stewart@aspentimes.com


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