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Out of Tunes

Stewart Oksenhorn
Nickel Creek mandolinist Chris Thile plays some 20 instruments on his pop-rock solo album Deceiver. Aspen Times photo/Stewart Oksenhorn.
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My ears have seemed tired lately, unable to find much to feast on. Rather than dismiss it as the failings of the entire music industry, I opted to abandon my usual CD diet, heavy on bluegrass, jam bands and groove-jazz, and dig into the kind of sounds that usually just sink further and further toward the bottom of the stacks.It seems to have worked; I have found favor with recent hip-hop, gospel, hard rock, pop and classical releases. Here’s what I found.Elvis Costello & the Imposters”The Delivery Man”produced by Dennis Herring and Costello (Lost Highway)”Il Sogno”produced by Sid McLauchlan (Deutsche Grammophone)Elvis Costello can rest. With his latest two CDs, the crooner of standards, composer of ballads and string quartets, collaborator with everyone from Burt Bacharach to Los Lobos to Paul McCartney, and husband to Diana Krall is now officially all things to all people.

“The Delivery Man” is Costello’s country album, but several giant steps from his 1981 country album, “Almost Blue.” Where that was a stab at assuming a recognizable country persona by doing covers of Merl Haggard and Gram Parsons, on “The Delivery Man,” Costello makes up his own idea of hard rock-edged country, with the connections to country often frayed beyond recognition. The strongest country flavor are the vocal partners – Emmylou Harris, and Lucinda Williams, who outwails her host on the heartbreaker, “There’s a Story in Your Voice” – and the label, Lost Highway, home to Johnny Cash and Lyle Lovett. No matter. Costello is energized here, spinning out a cycle of heavy-duty songs connected more by desperation and anger than the characters Costello says inhabit the album.It is, somehow, the same musical mind behind “Il Sogno,” an orchestral suite that is subtitled “Ballet after Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.'” Recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, “Il Sogno,” which recalls Bernstein and Gerswhin in its references to swing, is surprisingly lovely, cohesive and solidly within classical parameters.Buddy Miller”Universal United House of Prayer”(New West)Nashville singer/guitarist/songwriter is conquering fans on several fronts. His recent albums, sometimes credited to Miller and his wife and musical partner Julie Miller, have been masterful displays of soulful alt-country. He sparkles as Emmylou Harris’ right-hand man; in Harris’ Wheeler Opera House performance this past winter, Miller left an impression as more than a mere sideman.With “Universal United House of Prayer,” Miller aims to convert the already faithful. It’s not exactly a gospel album in material, and definitely not in style. But Miller – who gets assistance from Harris, fellow alt-countryman Jim Lauderdale, and singing sisters Regina and Ann McCrary – trains his eyes consistently heavenward.

It’s not revivalist fire that Miller breathes, but the humility of a man trying to live up to the ideals of his faith. He and Julie contribute “Wide River to Cross,” on which he claims he’s “only halfway home,” and the prayerful “Shelter Me.” Miller also covers the Louvins Brothers’ “There’s a Higher Power” and Dylan’s anti-war plaint “With God on Our Side.” Through it all, Miller embodies the soul of a sinner vowing to do better.Ben Harper with the Blind Boys of Alabama”There Will Be a Light”produced by Harper (Virgin)Ben Harper has always had a spiritual bent to his songs, and his voice seemed fueled by the Almighty himself. On past albums, Harper mixed secular themes (kissing, pot) with the more godly, but he has been inching his way toward the light. With “There Will Be a Light,” Harper arrives at the gates. Joining forces with the reigning kings of gospel, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Harper never strays from the path. On 11 original tunes, Harper’s youthful soul-rock sound. and the Blind Boys’ deeper voices of experience backing him, go together like frankincense and myrrh. The styles range from upbeat soul (“Wicked Man”) to old-school rock ‘n’ roll (“Where Could I Go”) to standard gospel-blues (“Church House Steps”). By the time Harper and Blind Boy Clarence Fountain are trading verses on the title track, your spirit should be elevated.Blues Explosion”Damage”(Sanctuary)

The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion has become just the Blues Explosion, but “Damage” is the kind of album anyone would want to have their name associated with. Post-modern blues riffs and Stones-style swagger collide with punk noise and hip-hop beats, and political raps smash up against Hendrix-esque come-ons for a post-modern take on mid-70s rock. Public Enemy’s Chuck D lends his voice to the socially charged “Hot Gossip,” and DJ Shadow takes a turn at the mixing board on the thrashing “Fed Up and Low Down.” Raunchy, loud – and explosive for sure.Mos Def”The New Danger”(Geffen)Mos Def has proved to be a star in several arenas, from Broadway to the big screen to the hosting Def Poetry. With “The New Danger,” his second solo album. Mos Def shows he not only hasn’t relegated the recording studio to an afterthought, but that he can bring to his music that same kind of broad thinking that has allowed his multi-faceted career.

Mos Def defies easy categorization from the beginning, opening “The New Danger” with the soft, beguiling “Boogie Man Song.” He moves through rap-rock (“Freaky Black Greetings”), boogie blues (“Blue Black Jack”) and, most definitely, innovative, soul-heavy, collage-like hip-hop (“Sunshine”). Mos Def is infatuated with the guitar here, and not just the cutting, rap-rock version of the instrument. Gary Miller – Dr. Know from Bad Brains – stands strong behind Mos Def with funky wah-wah chords, genuine Delta-blues licks and machine-gun rock. On the lyrical side, Mos Def covers a similar spread, from the defiant social commentary of “The Rape Over” and “War” to the “yeah, yeah, yeah” sexual come-on of “Blue Black Jack” to the cocky-but-positive “Close Edge.” File this with “The Love Below” – Andre 3000’s half of last year’s Outkast two-sided album – as hip-hop that dares to be as soulful, smart and musical as it is brash.Chris Thile”Deceiver”produced by Thile & Gary Paczosa (Sugar Hill)Nickel Creek mandolinist Chris Thile doesn’t want to be thought of as the Nickel Creek mandolinist. On “Deceiver,” Thile takes it to the extreme. He plays more instruments (25) than he has years on the planet (23). Thile explodes most limitations on the music, much like Nickel Creek did on their 2002 album “This Side” – except more so. On “This Side,” you could make out the bluegrass foundation that Nickel Creek had been built on; here, the bluegrass is often swept away by the larger pop context.”Empire Falls” and “The Believer” follow the guitar-bass-drums formula of pop-rock, with Thile’s sophisticated picking – on electric guitar on the latter – distinguishing the tunes. “I’m Nowhere and You’re Everything” uses acoustic sounds, but the free form and Thile’s unique vocal approach come from no apparent tradition. For those who thought Nickel Creek’s debut album achieved the perfect balance of adventurousness, there is the brief, bright mandolin instrumental “Jessamyn’s Reel.””Deceiver” adds up to more than a display of insane amounts of talent. Underlying all of Thile’s works is an extraordinary sense of harmony and song structure. If Thile wanted to show off, he could do so with nothing more than his mandolin. “Deceiver” isn’t going to grab fans like the two Nickel Creek albums; it’s too eclectic for that. But Thile’s stylistic experiments cannot be dismissed as musical wanderlust. It’s too accomplished for that.

Bruce Hornsby”Halcyon Days”produced by Wayne Pooley and Hornsby (Columbia)I don’t have enough good things to say about Bruce Hornsby. His music is fun and substantial. He put on one of the best performances I’ve seen at the Wheeler. As a part-time member of the Grateful Dead in the early ’90s, he contributed to the Dead’s last decent era. And he only got better with each subsequent album.When Hornsby released “Big Swing Face” in 2002, it was a major disappointment – but with an explanation. Hornsby was working out his desire to use electronic instruments and gizmos, instead of the piano that had been his trademark. The experiment failed, and naturally he would go back to what had worked so well next time up.It pains me to say that it’s not working out that way. On “Halcyon Days,” Hornsby doesn’t look at strike three as on “Big Swing Face” – but he isn’t making solid contact either. Hornsby is all over the place here – bringing in duet partner Elton John on the pop lullaby “Dreamland”; mixing Vaudeville humor and piano on “What the Hell Happened”; getting hip-hoppy on the repetitious “Candy Mountain Run,” which features sideman Eric Clapton. What we get precious little of is Hornsby being Hornsby. The album opens with “Gonna Be Some Changes Made” – words Hornsby would do well to heed.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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