(As published in the Times of Acadiana unless otherwise noted…)
Yo Yo Ma: Apassionato (Sony Classical)—Romantic music for cello and various ensembles, composed circa 1600-2000, recorded circa 1978-2006 (“The Mission: Gabriel’s Oboe” [Morricone], “Soledad” [Piazzolla]).
Eleni Mandell: Miracle of Five (Zedtone)—This is the sexiest singer-songwriter album from beginning to end since Leonard Cohen’s Various Positions. Like Cohen, Mandell goes for hushed intensity, and, also like Cohen, she evokes the erotic so powerfully by coming at it indirectly. But whereas Cohen’s subterfuge was Old Testament religion and spooky French-café music, Mandell’s is boy-meets-girl sweetness in a haunted country dancehall. The lynchpins are “Make-Out King” and “Girls.” In the latter she fantasizes; in the former she gets what she wanted and wants what she’s gotten. In each song she remains in the moment, neither taking the long view nor short-changing the present, and in “Wings in His Eyes” and “Perfect Stranger” she extends that moment, the better to explore why she wants it to last forever and why at its best it seems to. Rating: Four-and-a-half invasions of privacy out of five.
Wynton Marsalis: From the Plantation to the Penitentiary (Blue Note)--Unlike, say, the genius of Elvis Presley, Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie, or A.P. Carter (to cite examples from rock ’n’ roll, blues, folk, and country, respectively), the genius of Wynton Marsalis can be established apart from his music. Whether in interviews or in pedagogic excursions like his 1995 PBS series Marsalis on Music, Marsalis stands out as that rare musician who’s as gifted intellectually as he is musically. He’s also ambitious, as geniuses tend to be, and productive, making it as challenging to keep up with his output as it is to keep up with his sophisticated musical and cultural ideas. Compounding this difficulty is that he sometimes sets creative goals too lofty even for himself, so that a work like 1997’s Blood on the Fields (a three-disc literal and metaphorical history of slavery in America) fails at a level of such complexity it takes years to realize that, to quote Gary Giddins, it’s one of those “oversized, strangely fascinating, hard-to-reproduce oddities” that make up the “tradition of American music’s white elephants.” What distinguishes this similarly ambitious album from the white-elephant herd (other than, at fifty-nine minutes, its relative brevity) is the performance of the Marsalis-led quintet. In keeping with their technical libretto descriptions (“alternating two-beat country groove, soca, cumbia, swing”; “second-line swing with Motown vamp”), the songs have a vibrant musical life apart from their discursive, ideological lyrics. Nevertheless, it’s the lyrics, sung for the most part by newcomer Jennifer Sanon, that make this album a lightning rod. Squarely in the vein of the black independent thought recently popularized by Bill Cosby, Juan Williams, Larry Elder, Tim Reid, and Marsalis’s friend and librettist Stanley Crouch, the lyrics constitute a plainspoken essay on the destructiveness of contemporary black culture, from its vocabulary (“I ain’t your bitch, I ain’t your ho, / and public niggerin’ has got to go”) to its reliance on victimization as power (“Don’t turn up your nose. / It’s us that’s stinkin’. / It all can’t be blamed on the party of Lincoln…. / Liberal students and equal-rights pleaders, / what’s goin’ on now that y’all are the leaders?”). The words wouldn’t mean a thing, of course, if the music didn’t have that swing. But it does. So they must. Rating: Four relatively young men with a horn out of five.
John Mayer: Continuum (Columbia)—As an acoustic singer-songwriter evolving toward electronic blue-eyed soul, Mayer gets catchier and more experimental with each release. But he still has nothing special to say and no special way to say it. Which isn’t to imply that he has nothing to say at all. Like his fellow deep thinker Paul McCartney, Mayer thinks that religion (or “belief,” as he puts it) causes wars and “puts the folded flag inside [a soldier’s] mother’s hand.” Someone should tell Mayer about Trotsky, Lenin, Hitler, Mao, and Castro. Rating: Two-and-a-half fifth Beatles out of five.
Pat Metheny/Brad Mehldau: Quartet (Nonesuch)--The style is a breezily somnolent virtuosity for acoustic piano (Mehldau) and electric guitar, forty-two-string guitar, acoustic guitar, and guitar synthesizer (Metheny). The red-herring title is “Fear and Trembling” (nothing Kierkegaardian here), the give-away titles “Secret Beach,” “Santa Cruz Slacker,” and “The Sound of Water.” The overall result is all-too-indisputable proof that Metheny and Mehldau have been at this sort of thing long enough now to be able to do it in their sleep. Rating: Three ebbs and flows out of five.
Paul Michel: Quiet State of Panic (Stunning Models on Display)—The album title captures the feel of the songs, songs that, despite their apparent fragility (not one but two with cello!), are solid enough to support Michel’s slightly oversensitive, creaky-voiced singing. Any of them could hold its own on The Last Kiss and Garden State soundtracks, and “This Weary Boy” (which goes “Love is an old piano”) and “Expire” (which begins either “If love is a semaphore” or “If love is a centerfold”) might even improve them. Not all of Michel’s panic is quiet either. Some of it almost rocks. Rating: Four zircons out of five.
Midnight Special: The Legendary Performances, More 1973 (Guthy Renker)--Rebels (Jerry Lee Lewis, NY Dolls) vs. wimps (Denver, Chapin, Seals & Crofts), with scattershot pop visionaries (Steely Dan, Curtis Mayfield, Todd Rundgren) making the difference (“Personality Crisis,” New York Dolls; “Chantilly Lace,” Jerry Lee Lewis).
Midnight Special: The Legendary Performances, More 1976 (Guthy Renker)--Barry Manilow, Rick Dees, and Brick are lamer than you remember and Starbuck, Franklin Ajaye, and Keith Carradine sharper, with the Sylvers so scrumptious they transform the middling acts (Walter Murphy, Vicki Sue Robinson, ) into tasty hors d’oeuvres (“Boogie Fever,” the Sylvers; “[Shake, Shake, Shake] Shake Your Booty,” KC & the Sunshine Band).
Modest Mouse: We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank (Epic)--The music is self-consciously (sometimes too self-consciously) arty and subconsciously (sometimes too subconsciously) hooky, the lyrics confused and semi-articulate. Yet a lot of the time the overall effect seems to have been worth Isaac Brock’s trouble, with the significantly titled Lou Reed-impersonation “Spitting Venom” a particular attention getter. Call it the last quarter decade of underbelly rock as mixed in a blender and poured down the throat of a frontman made desperate by the realization that if he quits adding to it he’ll have to get a real job. Rating: Three-and-a-half hickory dickory docks out of five.
Gabriela Montero: Bach and Beyond (EMI Classics)—If classical pianists must improvise, they may as well improvise on the best.
Thurston Moore: Trees Outside the Academy (Ecstatic Peace!)--Fun booklet: Not only does it include the lyrics, but it also contains photos of a teenaged Moore posing with Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music and Patti Smith’s Horses as well as letters that he wrote to his family while on vacation (“Did mom get August issue of CREEM?”) and an unidentified rock mag detailing the late-’70s NYC punk scene (“Joey Ramone was telling me that years ago Wayne [County]’s group was a better stage band than the original Dolls”). The music? Surprisingly quiet, with acoustic guitars, gentle vocals, and Samara Lubelski’s violin setting a mood appropriate to lyrics such as “Mellow realism / the pleasure of peace / backstage is a prison / your wink is my release.” Verdict: peaceful very, ecstatic not so much. Rating: Three-and-a-half national daydreams out of five.
Van Morrison: Still on Top--The Greatest Hits (Exile/Polydor/UMe)--Morrison’s third major-label U.S. compilation of 2007 shares ten songs with February’s At the Movies: Soundtrack Hits (twelve if you count Movies’ live versions), three with June’s The Best of Van Morrison Vol. Three (six if you count Vol. Three’s alternate versions), two with 1993’s Best of Vol. Two, and ten with 1990’s Best of Vol. One (eleven if you count--oh, never mind). It adds “Wavelength” and “Tore Down a la Rimbaud” to the pantheon. It (still) ignores 1983’s excellent “The Street Only Knew Your Name.” Rating: Two-and-a-half superfluities out of five.
MxPx: Secret Weapon (Tooth & Nail)--As a non-proselytizing Christian, Mike Herrera has always tried to express old ideas in new wineskins. This time he gets two songs’ worth of mileage out of MxPx’s disillusioning stint on A&M, cynical rhymes included (“Punk-rock celebrity is an oxymoron.… Put all your best clothes, all your best makeup on”; “They said, ‘You need to play it better. / “They said, ’Just sing like Eddie Vedder”). He also indulges neo-Luddite umbrage on “Shut It Down,” the central lyric of which--“Throw away your cell phone. / You can talk to yourself”--sounds like ancient wisdom in the iPhone age. Musically, only the vocal-harmony-enriched “Sad Sad Song” escapes the mid-’90s skater-punk mold, but the others shuffle the power chords, syncopations, and hooks with enough skill to suggest these fellows aren’t spent yet. Rating: Three-and-a-half fangs and claws out of five.
Myracle Brah: Translator (Hip-O)— If “You’re wonderful / in spite of all the things / you say and do to me” isn’t rock & roll haiku of the first order (well, it’s one syllable shy, but still), I’ll eat my M.F.A. And if this isn’t the strongest album of power-pop in a decade if not two, I’ll eat my Marshall Crenshaw, dB’s, Shoes, Raspberries, Big Star, and Dwight Twilley records. No kidding, Andy Bopp is that best kind of backwards looker—the kind who knows that the present is nothing without the past and that the present is nothing if you can’t easily imagine it sounding good in the future. And, as this album is a compilation of tracks stretching back to the ’90s, the matter of its sounding good in the future is largely settled—at least for the present. Rating: Four-and-a-half rainbow quartzes out of five.