(As published in the Times of Acadiana unless otherwise noted...)
Casey Kasem Presents The Long Distance Dedications (Top Sail Productions/WEA)—“Dear Casey, my name is Asra, and since last November I have been the chairperson for a grassroots committee to see that Barack Obama receives the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party in 2008. At first my motives were selfless. I believed that the time had come for our country to live up to its noblest ideals and elect an anti-war, Muslim-reared, half-Kenyan-American who believes that the threat posed by global warming is greater than the threat posed by illegal immigration or by so-called Islamofascist terrorism (and who, unlike our current president, can speak in complete sentences). No sooner had I made a New Year’s resolution to build an eight-foot wall of separation between my heart and my head, however, than I found myself succumbing to Senator Obama’s charm: the freshness of his face, the seductiveness of his progressivism. The fact that he is already married only made him more John F. Kennedy-like (not to mention Bill Clinton-like) in my eyes. So imagine my heartbreak when I recently discovered that my dream man is a murderer: that’s right, he smokes—and not something harmless like marijuana either, but cigarettes, the second-hand fumes of which are not only making Al Gore sweat but also killing more potential Democratic voters than Hurricane Katrina and abortion combined. Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s no one I’d rather comfort through the ravages of chemotherapy than (*sigh*) Barack Obama. But somehow I don’t think I could do so without feeling a lot like Eva Braun. So, while I wish I could ask you to play him (in case he’s listening) “Against All Odds,” “Right Here Waiting,” or “You Are So Beautiful,” would you please play him “Springtime for Hitler” from The Producers instead?” Rating: Two formerly nicotine-stained fingers out of five.
The Kingston Trio: Nick, Bob & John: The Final Concert (Collector’s Choice)--The date: June 17, 1967; the club: the legendary Hungry i; the set list: one only a Peter, Paul & Mary fan could love--except he won’t. If the suffocating moral earnestness peddled by PP&M and their ilk sounds staler all the time, the fun that Nick Reynolds, Bob Shane, and John Stewart were having as they bade the world goodbye sounds as fresh as prime Smothers Brothers. Of course, knowing that it’s one’s last hurrah and having an audience packed with longtime friends and associates can go a long way toward loosening one (or in this case three) up. Whatever the reason, these versions of “Greenback Dollar,” “Tom Dooley,” and “Wimoweh” come off like rousing pub sing-alongs, with the Dylan, Donovan, Woody Guthrie, Gordon Lightfoot, and Eric Andersen covers not far behind (and the Johnny Cash-like “Reverend Mr. Black” way ahead). Even “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” belongs. Best of all is the ’tween-song patter, which takes up twenty-three minutes (out of seventy-two) yet, because it’s hilarious, actually feels too short. My favorite joke: “We took Scott McKenzie’s advice and came to San Francisco with flowers in our hair. We were attacked by locusts down near San Jose.” The liner notes explain the chicken-suit references. Rating: Four-and-a-half mighty winds out of five.
Diana Krall: From This Moment On (Verve)--No duller than Rod Stewart or Carly Simon, and better these chestnuts (Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Sammy Cahn, Rogers & Hart, the Gershwins, et. al) than Krall’s own compositions. Rating: Three-and-a-half more American songbooks out of five.
Alison Krauss: A Hundred Miles or More: A Collection (Rounder)--Like Rosanne Cash, her only serious competition, Alison Krauss has never made a weak album. Unlike Cash or anyone else, Krauss has resisted the temptation to fulfill the compilation clause of her recording contract by merely tacking a handful of unreleased songs onto a body of work that her fans already own. Of the soundtracks, tributes, other people’s albums, and one TV show represented on this collection, only her contribution to O Brother, Where Art Thou? is likely to be widely redundant, and five of the best songs are previously unreleased. Krauss is generous in other ways too, showcasing little-known but deserving talent (two of the sharpest new ones are by Julie Lee) and long-forgotten has-beens (two better-than-you’d-think duets with John Waite). One cavil: She could’ve replaced the hokey “Sawing on the Strings,” the overt bluegrassiness of which stands awkwardly out given the album’s otherwise meditatively modern gestalt, with her excellent performance of Ricky Nelson’s “Anyone Else but You” as recorded with the Flying Burrito Brothers in 1999. Rating: Four daughters of the golden west out of five.
John Legend: Once Again (G.O.O.D. Music/Sony Urban/Columbia)—He hasn’t lived up to his chosen surname yet, but the music, call it soul with a bluesman’s attention to detail in the lyrics, benefits as much from the fact that nobody else is doing anything quite like it these days as it does from the fact that nobody else is doing it quite as buoyantly. Or as dramatically: taken together, “P.D.A.” and “Again“ illustrate both the seductiveness of sexual sin and its bitter aftermath, skillfully leaving out what’s better left to the imagination anyway. And, if his feel for things cosmic is naïve by contrast (“O God of love, peace, and mercy, / why so much suffering?” he sings, as if unacquainted with Job and-or Milton), something in his tone suggests he’s not beyond hoping there’s really an answer. Rating: Three-and-a-half half-full glasses out of five.
Benjamin Loeb: Scott Joplin: Piano Rags 2 (Naxos)--Ragtime experts don’t approve of Loeb’s every interpretative detail, but they do approve of many of them, and there’s no questioning Loeb’s confident establishment of an overall tone, which doesn’t so much preserve the sepia associated with these century-old pieces as burnish it until it gives off the melancholy glow just beneath their surface. It helps too that these compositions represent some of Joplin’s lesser-known work. Not only is there no “Maple Leaf Rag“ or “The Entertainer” to turn one’s mind off, but there‘s “Eugenia” followed by “The Creole Collision March” followed by “Reflection Rag” to turn one’s mind on. Rating: Four syncopated musings out of five.
Helen Jane Long: Porcelain (Warner Classics & Jazz)--Ignore the record-company name. Neither classical nor jazz, these melancholy New Age piano ditties (with occasional cello, violin, and viola) beat George Winston (not that hard to do) but not Fresh Aire Interludes by Jackson Berkey. So ignore the music too. Rating: Two ceramics out of five.
Nick Lowe: At My Age (Yep Roc)--The fourth installment in Lowe’s fifteen-years-and-counting flight from the power-popping pub-rock of his youth isn’t all that different from installments one, two, or three. The increased presence of trumpet, flugelhorn, sax, clarinet, trombone, and organ gives the late-night jazz-club jukebox melodies a more retro feel than usual, but the intricately wrought romantic wisdom of Lowe’s lyrics, both those he wrote and those he found, is strictly modern in its psychological maturity. The tension resulting from that combination finds a perfect tonic in Lowe’s magnificent singing. He once called himself the “Jesus of Cool”; now he’s more like a “Saloon Sinatra”--cool but aware that in doing it his way he risks breaking his woman’s heart. Rating: Four parties of one out of five.