CD reviews: Feist, Jayhawks and more (many more)
produced by Feist, Chilly Gonzales, Mocky and Valgeir Sigurdsson (Cherrytree/Interscope)Leslie Feist, the Canadian singer who goes by the single name Feist because, well, it’s a great name, reminds me of Laura Nyro. It’s a comparison I don’t make lightly; when I think of the all-time underappreciated talents in rock music, the late Nyro is the first that comes to mind. In the big fold-out photo of Feist in the liner notes to “Metals,” her fifth album, she even resembles Nyro – straight black hair, wanting to be innocent, but too smart and knowing for that. They both sing and write and play piano.And on “Metals,” Feist shows a similar approach to song-making – arty, deep, mysterious, lovely, soulful, completely out of the box. On “Metals,” it’s the mystery part that comes to the fore; Feist asks unanswerable questions (“How come you never go there/ How come I’m so alone there?” “Is it wrong to want more/ Is this the right mountain for us to climb?”) and hints at the unknowable; “A Commotion” refers repeatedly to “It” (“It flickered to light/ It turned broke what was right”) without really defining “it.” The obvious “it” is “a commotion,” but the word is chanted by a chorus in an industrial tone, and is barely discernible. That “it” isn’t a good thing, clearly, but the specifics of it are hazy, suspended.The tones of “Metals” are likewise hard to pin down; the textures range from thumping-hard to gentle. “The Circle Married the Line” is particularly non-metallic, but folky, woodsy and bright. Feist moves fast and slow, is intimate one song and remote the next. But whatever the mood, I would always describe “Metals” as Nyro-esque: worthy of much attention.
produced by Gary Louris (Rounder)Jayhawks fans could feel something coming: First there was “Ready for the Flood,” an album of new songs credited to the duo of Gary Louris and Mark Olson – the Jayhawks’ two frontmen; then a career anthology; then the first CD release of the early “Bunkhouse” album. And finally, there is a Jayhawks album, the first of new material since 2003’s “Rainy Day Music,” and the first featuring both Louris and Olson since 1995’s “Tomorrow the Green Grass.””Mockingbird Time” spends a lot of energy explaining the long absence; the title track and the opening song, “Hide Your Colors,” both speak of being appreciative of getting back to the business of making Jayhawks music. “I’ve really gone back, you’re all that I have,” goes the lyric in “Mockingbird Time,” and it’s an expression of gratitude. Jayhawks fans should be equally grateful. Simply having new Jayhawks music to listen to would have been enough; the fact that “Mockingbird Time” makes you wonder how the band could have spent so much time not making music is a bonus. Louris, Olson and Co. play their Byrds-like folk-rock here as if they had never paused.
produced by Steven Epstein (Sony Masterworks)In the realm of adventurous string-band music, there have emerged a handful of groundbreaking, touchstone recordings: John Hartford’s “Aereo-Plain,” the first David Grisman Quintet album, Tony Rice’s “Manzanita,” Bla Fleck’s “Drive,” Nickel Creek’s debut. Now the list grows by one. “The Goat Rodeo Sessions” gathers four profound talents – cellist Yo-Yo Ma, bassist Edgar Meyer (a member of the Aspen Music Festival and School faculty), mandolinist Chris Thile and fiddler Stuart Duncan – and they make the most of the opportunity, sensing, perhaps, that this is a one-time fling. (Aoife O’Donovan, of the band Crooked Still, adds vocals on two tracks.)A “goat rodeo” is an aviation term for a situation in which a hundred things need to go right to avoid catastrophe. While getting Ma, Meyer, Thile and Duncan together is never going to be a musical plane wreck, they’re going for something more challenging here than easy coasting. The tunes are magnificent and complex, and most of all, transcendent, reaching to bring string music to a place that is both familiar and new. Which they surely do. Expect acoustic music fans to be talking about this one for a long time.
produced by Brad X and Mike Kumagai (Suburban Noize)In the realm of stoner bands, the Orange County sextet Kottonmouth Kings take things to new highs … er, heights. Careful of a contact buzz when visiting their website, where every click takes you to another pot spoof (their upcoming tour, for instance, is Jingle Bowls; the poster has Santa with a bong at his mouth). The music on “Sunrise Sessions” is more of the same; the middle of the album has a three-song run of “Ganja Daze,” “Stay Stoned” and “Stoned Silly.”But the Kings take their addiction seriously; their mix of reggae, hip-hop and hardcore is tight, fun and distinctive. And while they can seem single-minded, the songs show a wide range of musical ideas. I’d even go so far as to say, you don’t need to be in any particular state to enjoy “Sunrise Sessions.”Kottonmouth Kings play Thursday, Dec. 1 at Belly Up Aspen.
(Indirecto)When guitarist John Scofield brought in the avant-jazz trio Medeski, Martin & Wood to back him on his 1998 album “A Go Go,” it was a pairing made in funk heaven, greasy and grooving. A second go-’round took its time coming, but when “Out Louder,” credited to MSMW, was finally released, in 2006, the initial concept of easy groove music was expanded to include more adventurous jamming.They aren’t done. The two-disc set “In Case the World Changes Its Mind” captures the foursome live. No details are provided as to where and when the recordings were made, but I can tell you where they come from – the place where funk, intensity and go-for-it recklessness meet. When every cylinder is firing, like in the middle of “Hottentot,” it can be sublime.
produced by Jon Tiven & Cropper (429 Records)Steve Cropper pays tribute to the 5 Royales. Which raises the questions: Who is Steve Cropper. And who are the 5 Royales?Cropper was the guitarist for Memphis’ Stax Records, and for Stax’s house band, Booker T & the MGs, who backed Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. It was work that landed Cropper an impressive No. 36 on Rolling Stone’s list of the greatest guitarists. The 5 Royales were a ’50s North Carolina r&b band fronted by Lowman “Pete” Pauling that influenced James Brown, Ray Charles and Eric Clapton.Just how highly Cropper and the 5 Royales are thought of can be told by the guests Cropper lines up for this tribute album. Steve Winwood, almost unrecognizable in r&b mode, sings the opening stomper, “Thirty Second Lover.” B.B. King is impossible to miss, on guitar and vocals, on “Baby Don’t Do It.” Lucinda Williams pulls a double, singing on “Dedicated to the One I Love” (which had been a hit for both the Shirelles and the Mamas & the Papas) and “When I Get Like This.” Also getting in on the fun are John Popper, Delbert McClinton, Sharon Jones, Keb’ Mo’ and Cropper’s old Stax colleagues, keyboardist Spooner Oldham and bassist David Hood. They breeze through the material, giving it a straightahead feel, making this more fun than provocative.
(Columbia)I get a call the other day from a guy named David, says he read my review a few years ago of Dylan’s “Tell Tale Signs,” a collection of alternate studio versions, live recordings and a few never-released songs; says the review persuaded him to buy the package. Asks, did I know there was a deluxe edition (no), and would I want a copy of the deluxe edition’s third disc (ummm … sure).Astonishing – and I’m not just referring to my ignorance of this third disc. Start with the version of “Mississippi” – this is the third alternate version, and each one is different, and essential for the Dylan follower (as is, of course, the official version, from “Love and Theft”). This one is slow, and with a keyboard sound that recalls “The Basement Tapes.” There are two more previously unreleased songs: the traditional “Duncan and Brady,” which rips, and the solo acoustic “Mary and the Soldier.”The next piece of information I’m waiting on: an actual release date for that promised second volume of Dylan’s memoir, “Chronicles.”
(Subpop)On their debut album, London’s Still Corners echoes another British band, Morcheeba, with their darkly cinematic, trippy songs – the kind you think you’re hearing through a fog. (Add a touch of twang, and the apt comparison would be Cowboy Junkies.) Like Morcheeba, Still Corners has a female singer, Tessa Murray, who supplies the beauty, while a group of guys, led by songwriter Greg Hughes, places the vocals in an atmosphere of ghost guitars, floating keyboards and wandering beats.
produced by Mike Vizcarra (Rock Ridge Music)On this album of cover tunes, Tony Lucca’s influences apparently include Hendrix, the Stones, Springsteen, Tom Petty and CSN – just like thousands of other musicians. Personally, I’d be far more interested in someone who did a covers album of the Tool, My Bloody Valentine, Duran Duran, Lisa Loeb and the Buzzcocks – even though I like Hendrix, Petty, Springsteen more. I’d feel as though I were learning something. What caught my eye about “Under the Influence” was the Steely Dan cover “Dirty Work” – hardly anyone covers Steely Dan, and “Dirty Work” is a great, lesser-known tune. Lucca’s version is big and pounding, and he brings a similar gusto to Hendrix (“Angel”), Petty (“You Got Lucky”) and Springsteen (“State Trooper”). But the choices are too common to be compelling; you could walk into any aprs-ski gig to hear these email@example.com
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