CD reviews: What’s playing in Stewy’s office this week

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesTift Merritt has released the album "Traveling Alone."

produced by Tucker Martine (Yeproc)Tift Merritt was raised in North Carolina and lives in New York City, and the singer-songwriter has feet in both places on her fifth studio album. At the center of “Traveling Alone” is country-rock, rooted in the American Southeast; Merritt’s rootsy Appalachian voice is spotlighted on the peppy “Still Not Home” and on the aching “Feeling of Beauty.”But “Traveling Alone” was recorded in Brooklyn, and the guest list includes guitarist Marc Ribot, violinist Rob Moose and singer Andrew Bird, all known for their off-center sensibilities. It ends up a brilliant marriage; this is Merritt’s finest recording yet, allowing her to live up to all those comparisons to Emmylou Harris.

produced by Annie Clark, John Congleton, Pat Dillett and David Byrne (4AD)Former Talking Heads singer David Byrne has included pretty much every corner of the world in his musical personality; his last appearance in Aspen featured elements of North America (rock ‘n’ roll), Europe (a string quartet) and Africa (funk beats), as well as the South American rhythms that Byrne has shown such affection for. Byrne always filtered those influences through his offbeat, art-school, New Yorker mind to come up with a singular, always recognizable sound. But for “Love This Giant,” Byrne has outdone himself. Bringing along the female indie singer known as St. Vincent along for the ride, Byrne doesn’t visit other worlds here; he and St. Vincent create one of their own. The primary building material is horns; “Love This Giant” features horn sections from not one, but two New York groups, the Afropop band Antibalas and the retro funkers the Dap-Kings. The rhythms are complex, the horn arrangements are sui generis, St. Vincent’s voice is as distinctive as Byrne’s, the songwriting is downright weird, and “Love This Giant” is unlike anything I can think of in pop music.

produced by MMW (Indirecto)Medeski, Martin & Wood is probably the only jam-band that wouldn’t get alarmed by a Superstorm Sandy-type situation, where the power is out for a few weeks. A good amount of MMW’s success can be chalked up to the way they have electrified the standard jazz piano trio, with John Medeski using samples and moving from piano to a variety of plugged-in keyboards, and Chris Wood often strapping on the electric guitar. But “Free Magic” is all acoustic – MMW’s second, following 2000’s “Tonic” – and all the magic is intact. Recorded live in 2007, on the combo’s first-ever acoustic tour, the five tracks here, none under nine minutes, finds MMW investigating all corners of the jazz realm, with moments of funk, dissonance, high-speed be-bop and percussive jams. This is a band built on musical dynamics, a dialogue between musicians, and a determination to explore – elements that count whether the instruments are plugged in or not.

produced by Billy Harvey (Rockingham)Singer-songwriter Charlie Mars was raised in Mississippi, lives in Brooklyn and dreams of moving to Austin. The first lines from “Blackberry Light,” though, could make him an honorary Aspenite: “I had a dream I was in the mountains/ where the snowflakes fall,” Mars sings in “Nothing But the Rain,” a peacefully atmospheric song about getting lost in the snow, water and waves. Losing oneself seems to be a theme. “Blackberry Light,” Mars’ sixth album, features “Pictures of an Island,” about escaping, if not to an actual place, then at least a mental image of it, and “How I Roll,” where he laments that “I musta smoked too much weed.” Listeners could well get lost in Mars’ melodic, keyboard-based, reggae-touched tunes. They might also wish they’d brought something a bit more rough-edged to bring with them while they’re