Fresh tracks: CD reviews
October 19, 2006
Whenever I hear someone say there’s no good music being made anymore – and I hear some variation on that pretty regularly – it makes me think I’m not doing my job. I only wish I had enough time to listen to all the good music that’s out there.Yes, there’s plenty worth listening to. Not everything below will be to everyone’s tastes. (Some of it isn’t even to my taste.) But don’t give up on music just yet. Robert Randolph & the Family Band, “Colorblind”(Warner Bros.)Robert Randolph is aptly described as a gospel singer and steel guitar player. (The roots of both his gospel style and choice of instrument are traced to the House of God church, whose signature sacred steel music is a gospel form based around the steel guitar.) But on his second studio album, the 20-something New Jerseyite scales back both the gospel and his guitar skills in favor of a foot-stomping, mood-lifting, Sly Stone-like soul that will capture those who don’t care about the gospel or insane technical ability. Both Christ and Randolph’s steel haven’t exactly been packed away. Songs like “Angels” and “Blessed” express a general sort of faith in a benevolent spirit; more specific is a version of “Jesus Is Just Alright” (featuring God – make that Eric Clapton – on guitar). And while Randolph’s guitar is proclaimed, it is more in the context of the song, rather than extended soloing.Solomon Burke, “Nashville”produced by Buddy Miller (Shout! Factory)
Joan Osborne, “Pretty Little Stranger”produced by Steve Buckingham (Vanguard)Solomon Burke and Joan Osborne are both known best as soul singers, and each has taken a side trip into countryish territory on their latest CDs. Neither adopts a twang in their voice (thankfully); the country feel comes from the material and the instrumentation. Apart from that, the results vary quite a bit.From the opening song of “Nashville,” a take on Tom T. Hall’s “That’s How I Got to Memphis,” Burke takes command here. At times, it’s reminiscent of Dusty Springfield’s blend of country and soul. At other time, it even transcends that high-water mark, with producer Buddy Miller giving Burke’s authoritative voice all kinds of settings, from lonely acoustic guitars to full honky-tonk arrangements. Burke and Miller choose the duet vocalists superbly (Gillian Welch, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris) and the songwriters (Welch, Jim Lauderdale, George Jones) even better.There’s nothing wrong with Osborne’s voice on “Pretty Little Stranger,” nor the concept of her fooling with country sounds. But the arrangements here are plain, to the point of unimaginative. And while she covers the Grateful Dead, Kris Kristofferson, Rodney Crowell and more, she can’t make the songs – almost all about lost love – stand out. Her own writing has its moments – “Who Divided” is a clever look at how time passes for the heartbroken – but doesn’t always measure up.Or maybe it’s just that everything this year is going to pale in comparison to Burke’s trip to “Nashville.”
Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood, “Out Louder”(Indirecto Records)So can the avant-jazz forces of guitarist John Scofield and the trio of Medeski, Martin & Wood match the groove they laid down on their first collaboration, 1998’s memorable “A Go Go”? Yes, and then some. For one thing, “A Go Go” was largely a one-groove record – a great groove, but little of the outside thinking these four are accustomed to. Much of that can probably be chalked up to the fact that the original was a Scofield recording, with MMW his sidemen. Here, it’s all four at the fore – “Out Louder” is the first release on MMW’s own label – and that means all kinds of sounds: the frenetic “Miles Behind,” a tribute to ’70s-era Miles Davis; the mesmerizing avant-Latin of “Tequila and Chocolate”; and a thoughtful, Scofield-led take on John Lennon’s “Julia.”Bob Dylan, “Modern Times”produced by Jack Frost(Columbia)Bob Dylan’s been on a hot streak – with the pen, in the studio and on the road – and Dylan has converted that roll into a palpable, music comfort zone. He has turned the croak into high art, and developed a band that complements his voice and mood to perfection.Inside that zone, Dylan is having fun like never before. On “Modern Times,” his first CD in five years, that sense of fun includes making jokes, referencing pop culture (Alicia Keys?!) and, more than anything, taking on the guise of a frisky, warmhearted lover. From the thumping “Thunder on the Mountain,” to the elegantly chiming “Spirit on the Water” to the charging “Rolling and Tumbling,” Dylan is either chasing women, or being chased by the memories of women. This sort of activity inevitably comes with pain, but “Modern Times” has a lightness and humor that comes from somewhere other than the blues. Bad love is inescapable even here, but Dylan breezes through it on nothing more than the line of a song: “This woman so crazy, I swear I ain’t gonna touch another one for years,” he sings, and you can almost hear him laughing. In the impossibly sweet-tempered “Beyond the Horizon,” Dylan concludes “I’ve got more than a lifetime to live lovin’ you.”Sounds to me like Dylan is pitching some considerable woo. It may not be directed, exactly, at Alicia Keys. But whoever she is, she’s lucky to get this incarnation of Dylan, who at 65 is eager-to-please, thoroughly at ease, and down on his knees.
Madeleine Peyroux, “Half the Perfect World”produced by Larry Klein(Rounder)Happy news for fans of vocalist Madeleine Peyroux: “Half the Perfect World” trails her last album by just two years, roughly one-quarter of the time between her debut, “Dreamland,” and its 2004 follow-up, “Careless Love.”More good news: “Half the Perfect World” follows, more or less exactly, the template of “Careless Love”: same producer (Larry Klein), same mixture of impeccable songwriters (Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits), and best of all, Peyroux’s same way of getting under the skin of a song with languid, mellow phrasing. If it weren’t for a somewhat broader instrumental palette, and a greater emphasis on original songs (by Peyroux, Klein, and Jesse Harris, who also writes for Norah Jones), this could well be called “More Careless Love.” “Half the Perfect World” even pays a weird homage to Shawn Colvin’s “Cover Girl,” just as “Careless Love” did. Peyroux’s previous album had a version of Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” which Colvin had covered on her album. This one has Waits’ “(Looking For) The Heart of Saturday Night,” also featured on “Cover Girl.” The bassist on “Cover Girl”? Larry Klein, who should be made aware that there are other Dylan and Waits songs to tackle.Beck, “The Information”produced by Nigel Godrich(Interscope)So who or what is Beck? The dance-floor party boy of “Midnight Vultures”? The bummed-out folkie of “Mutations”? The ultimate postmodernist of “Odelay,” the 1996 pastiche classic that attempts to make use of most every sound known to man?The one-name wonder’s latest, “The Information,” not only unites all those Becks, but also raises the mad scientist facet up a notch. The album is a triumph of sonic sculpture, integrating sounds from every stop on our information superhighway to nowhere. It’s everything from funk riffs (the one in “Cellphone’s Dead” happens to be ripped from the Headhunters’ “Chameleon”) to mad percussion beats over a techno-rap (“1000BPM”) to the expansive pop of “Strange Apparition.” The final stroke is the closing medley, “The Horrible Fanfare/Landslide/Exoskeleton,” 10-and-a-half minutes of cut-and-paste starts and stops, blues guitar and spoken word.Virtually all of it “The Information,” even the most hip-shaking moments, have a downbeat vibe, thanks to Beck’s distant, robotic vocal phrasing. Beck may be taking a swipe at our hyper-informed way of living here. That he does so using every bit of technology at his command is his juiciest ironic statement since his breakthrough “Loser.”
Ladysmith Black Mambazo, “Long Walk to Freedom”produced by Joseph Shabalala(Heads Up)Creating an album of duets in a meaningful way is a tricky thing. Oh, how many “So-and-So and Friends” CDs I’ve filed in the dark recesses, dismissed as ill-considered stabs at publicity and widening one’s audience base.Bringing a long guest list to a Ladysmith Black Mambazo is especially fraught. The South African a cappella group makes such a unique sort of music – known as isicathamiya – that finding a way to blend outside voices into the intricate style seems difficult to do without altering the group’s essential character. But on “Long Walk to Freedom,” Natalie Merchant, Taj Mahal and Emmylou Harris are folded comfortably and without compromise into the Ladysmith way of singing. On a version of Paul Simon’s “Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes,” Melissa Etheridge sings the lead vocals, while Ladysmith expands what it did on Simon’s original. On “Hello My Baby,” African-European vocal group Zap Mama meets Ladysmith for a gorgeous choir duet.Ladysmith digs into its own past with Sarah McLachlan joining the group on their signature song “Homeless,” and they explore American gospel, a medley of “Amazing Grace” and “Nearer My God to Thee,” with Emmylou Harris.Ladysmith Black Mambazo performs Nov. 9 at the Wheeler Opera House.
Pat Metheny & Brad Mehldau, “Metheny Mehldau”produced by Metheny(Nonesuch)Guitarist Pat Metheny and pianist Brad Mehldau are contemporary giants of their instruments. But that is no assurance that a meeting will yield great results. The two never played together before making this recording, and guitar and piano are not the most common duo pairing. (Most of the album is duets of Metheny compositions; Mehldau’s rhythm section of bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard joins for two tunes.)Talent and collaborative will win out. On this collection of mostly introspective pieces, Metheny Mehldau sounds, as the name suggests, as one musician with four hands.Metheny & Mehldau perform March 16 at the Wheeler Opera House.Del McCoury Band, “The Promised Land”produced by Del & Ronnie McCoury(McCoury Music)The Del McCoury Band is – inarguably, to me – the best and most creative true bluegrass band in the land. Gospel is close to their hearts and they do it so well; their version of “Get Down on Your Knees and Pray” brings me as close to the Christian God as I ever get.So recording an all-gospel album – including seven tunes by Albert Brumley, a prominent and prolific musician born in 1905 Oklahoma – seems almost too easy, too confining for the McCourys. Sure it sounds great, but it lacks the broader approach that brings in blues, honky-tonk and even instrumental flashiness of their secular albums. “The Promised Land” is a great gospel album, but only a very good Del McCoury Band effort.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org