CD reviews: Space, soul, strings and surprises

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesFormer Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart has released "Mysterium Tremendum," the debut album by the Mickey Hart Band.

produced by Hart and Ben Yonas (360˚)

While Phil Lesh and Bob Weir, both of whom were songwriters with the Grateful Dead, spend their post-Dead years putting new spins on Dead material, Mickey Hart – who was a drummer, not a songwriter, with the Dead – searches out truly new musical landscapes. On “Mysterium Tremendum,” the marvelous debut by his new Mickey Hart Band, Hart looks to space for inspiration – not “Space,” the term given to the amorphous jams the Dead played each concert, but outer space. More specifically, the sound and energy from the Big Bang that still reverberates through the cosmos; Hart says the songs on “Mysterium Tremendum” were built around the cosmic microwave background radiation – the fallout from the creation of the universe – that were measured a few years ago by Nobel-winning astrophysicist George Smoot.

“Mysterium Tremendum” doesn’t require an interest in astrophysics. Nor does it require any affection for the Grateful Dead. Hart and his mates – the eight-piece Mickey Hart Band, which includes two vocalists (Crystal Monee Hall and Tim Hockenberry) and Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools; plus a slew of guest drummers, including Zakir Hussain and Babatunde Olatunji – make groove-based songs that touch on jazz fusion, gospel and African polyrhythm. Not surprisingly, the songs, with titles like “Time Never Ends” and “Through Endless Skies,” address the big-question mysteries – but the words are provided by Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, which should ease any concerns that these subjects are treated with a heavy hand.

While the music rarely put me in mind of the Dead, it sounded, at least when Hockenberry was at the mic, akin to the solo work of the Band’s Robbie Robertson. Not a bad path to follow. It also has a strong connection to the 1996 album “Mickey Hart’s Mystery Box” – an indication that Hart has a strong musical vision outside of the rhythms he laid down under the Grateful Dead.

produced by Danger Mouse (Blue Note)

Given her honey-sweet voice, her looks, a musical style that sat comfortably between soft jazz and country, Norah Jones seemed built for the mainstream. Her 2002 debut “Come Away With Me” sold millions and millions of copies, and her follow-up albums, while basically satisfying, have only inched away from the model she laid out from the beginning.

“… Little Broken Hearts” is Jones’ way of emphatically signaling that she’s capable of something different. The splashing news is the collaboration with Danger Mouse, the producer (Gnarls Barkley, Black Keys, Beck) who co-wrote the songs here and produced the album. Danger Mouse’s presence is more than just for show; he helps Jones explore a new way of using her voice – dark, whispery, even a little strange. The musical setting, with Jones on keyboards and guitars, bears little resemblance to how Jones has operated in the past, the sound echoey and atmospheric.

And yet the album still sounds, of all things, safe. Maybe it’s because Jones’ voice is as lovely as ever; maybe it’s because she looks lovelier than ever (the cover art should be LP-sized); maybe it’s because Danger Mouse is as crafty a producer of pop music as there is. “… Little Broken Hearts” might not be so obviously mainstream, but it sure is easy to listen to. Not quite as risky as it seems on the surface.

produced by Nathan, John and Jonathan McEuen (Ingrooves)

A family album in every way. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s John McEuen and his sons, Nathan and Jonathan, get together not just for some hot picking, but they pick the songs carefully to create a coherent story of musical heritage. “For All the Good” opens with “Long Hard Road,” a Rodney Crowell-penned hit for the Dirt Band that speaks of being away from home. Similar in tone is Dan Fogelberg’s “Leader of the Band,” a touching song of having a musician for a father, and handing down musical gifts. The title track was written by Jaime Hanna, son of the Dirt Band’s Jeff Hanna.

The sound itself, all through “For All the Good,” is a demonstration of musical genetics. The younger McEuens have picked up from their dad excellent instrumental chops, and a desire to take the roots and move them forward – check out the rock ‘n’ roll banjo on a cover of Dave Mason’s “Only You Know and I Know.” And dad doesn’t seem to mind if his kids have surpassed him in ways: John isn’t much of a singer; his kids are.

“Moody Theater” produced by Haynes (Stax); “Everybody’s Talkin’ ” produced by Trucks (Sony Masterworks)

Last year, guitarist Warren Haynes and guitarist Derek Trucks, bandmates in the Allman Brothers Band, both unveiled new projects: the former, the Warren Haynes Band; Trucks, the Tedeschi Trucks Band, with his wife, singer-guitarist Susan Tedeschi. Both groups were oriented toward classic soul music; each featured horns and a female vocalist – more or less new elements for each of them. The two bands each released their debut albums last spring, a few weeks apart; each featured mostly original tunes with a couple of covers of soul tunes.

This spring, each has a live, 2-disc set; each fills out the two discs by adding some soul classics to their repertoire.

Apart from that, I see no parallels between the two. Aside from the fact that both of them absolutely rock, both in and outside of the Allmans.


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