(As published in the Times of Acadiana unless otherwise noted…)
Mark Padmore: As Steals the Morn … (Harmonia Mundi)--Subtitled “Handel Arias and Scenes for Tenor” and co-credited to the Andrew Manze-conducted English Concert (a chamber orchestra), these selections from Handel’s operas and oratorios represent the logical next step for those who know only The Messiah. It will also expose admirers of “classical crossover” performers to the vocally glorious iceberg of which Andrea Bocelli, Josh Groban, and Il Divo are merely the tip. Padmore, a veteran of international stages and over fifty other recordings, thrillingly embodies roles ranging from the secular (Tamerlano, Rodelinda) and the pagan (Alceste, Semele) to the biblical (Samson, Esther, Jephtha), before going out on Handel’s Milton song cycle (“L’Allegro,” “Il Penseroso,” “Ed Il Moderato”) and the title track (one of two duets with the soprano Lucy Crowe). In short, he opens doors into the past through which those who feel undernourished by the present can eagerly rush. Rating: Five consummate gentlemen out of five.
Pagoda: Pagoda (Ecstatic Peace)—Rock-film buffs who watched Michael Pitt play a doomed, Kurt Cobain-like grunge-rock superstar in Gus Van Sant’s Last Days won’t be taken off guard by Pitt’s real-life doomy grunge rock, especially if they remember Kim Gordon’s cameo. In short, this intermittently arresting caterwaul and doggerel is what you’d expect if Cobain had fronted Sonic Youth. And thought he was auditioning for the role of Jim Morrison. Rating: Three lives imitating art out of five.
Alan Parsons Project: I Robot (Arista/Legacy)—Circa 1977; not as good as the novel, better than the film.
Alan Parsons Project: Eye in the Sky (Arista/Legacy)—Circa 1982; Orwellian concept obscured by titling track seven “Psychobabble” instead of “Newspeak” and by “Sirius”’s becoming the theme song of the Michael Jordan Bulls.
Alan Parsons Project: The Essential Alan Parsons Project (Arista/Legacy)--At last, all of their prettiest, criticism-impervious “symphonic rock” melodies (“Eye in the Sky,” “Don’t Answer Me,” “Time,” “Day After Day [The Show Must Go On],” “Silence and I,” “Old and Wise”) and their Chicago Bulls theme (“Sirius”) in one place. Rating: Three-and-a-half jock (and schlock) jams out of five.
Parthenia/Alexandra Montano: Will Ayton: A Reliquary for William Blake (MSR)--Blake’s mystical lyricism has made the setting of his verses to music irresistible to everyone from Allen Ginsberg (ridiculous) and Robin Williamson (sublime) to William Bolcom (both) and Van Morrison (neither) to name just four. For sheer consistency and elegance of tone, however, no other musical Blake I know equals this recording’s title song cycle. Composed by the American composer/professor Will Ayton and performed with passionate but restrained delicacy by the Tudor-period specialists Parthenia (“a consort of viols”) and the late mezzo-soprano Alexandra Montano, it creates a musical context for fourteen Blake texts that, like Blake’s writing itself, is simple enough on its surface to draw listeners into the richer goings on just beneath. Particularly striking are the settings for “The Garden of Love” and “The Clod & the Pebble,” but at no point, not even during Montano’s recitations, does the cycle grind to a halt or give short shrift to the pervasively religious nature of Blake’s poetry. Meanwhile, the disc’s second half constitutes a primer on less well-known sources both literary (“Two Settings of Songs of Thomas Campion,” Phyllis McGinley’s “Ballad of the Rosemary”) and musical (“Four Pieces from Songs of the British Isles,” “Fantasia on a Theme of Henry Purcell,” Francis Pilkington’s “Rest Sweet Nymphs,” Ayton’s own “Incantations”) while sustaining the mood of the Blake half as well as its intent, which is to render the echoes of what Ayton calls his “hereditary legacy” resonant to the modern ear and thus make them part of our hereditary legacy as well. Rating: Four-and-a-half fearful symmetries out of five.
John Phillips: Jack of Diamonds (Varsese Sarabande)--There’s cool and there’s gauche, and often the nearly forty-year-old John Phillips of these mostly 1972-1973 sessions embodies the latter. With no Mamas or Papas to rein in his drug-fueled delusions of solo grandeur, he harnesses embarrassingly exhibitionistic lyrics (“Papa likes big tits,“ he sings over and over again in “Too Bad”) to jaded session pop that at its best sounds like Lou Reed (“Black Broadway,” “Last of the Unnatural Acts”) and at its worst meanders so woozily it’s unclear why anyone would bother releasing these mostly previously unreleased songs now. Then up pops the title cut, a Phillips composition that turns out to be the Grateful Dead’s “Me and My Uncle,” and suddenly everything gets better. By “Cup of Tea (Skyjacked),” “Yesterday I Left the Earth,” the instrumental “Flawless Space,” and the two unreleased Mamas and the Papas demos, Phillips is getting so much out of his delirium you almost want to turn on, tune in, and drop out yourself. Rating: Three-and-a-half California dreamers out of five.
Robert Plant/Alison Krauss: Raising Sand (Rounder)--It’s hard to say who’ll take the longest to warm up to this album: fans of Plant (ain’t nothin’ in the way of Led Zeppelin here), of Krauss (who sings not one but two implicitly lesbian songs!), or of producer T Bone Burnett (who foists upon the principals the most echo-drenched, woofer-rattling production of their careers). Initial surprise aside, however, anyone who’s ever gotten with Plant, Krauss, or Burnett before will admit that this project finds all three singing and producing talents with a relaxation resulting no doubt in part from their willingness to entrust themselves to each other in unusual contexts. Patient listeners will also eventually notice that the contexts aren’t all that unusual. “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us” (written by Burnett’s ex-wife Sam Phillips) is only a somewhat more oblique type of gospel than Krauss usually performs when she feels the Spirit, and it’s easy to imagine the Everly Brothers’ “Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On)”--which has seldom if ever rocked harder--as having been a favorite of Plant’s, Krauss’s, and Burnett’s for years. As for “Please Read the Letter,” it’s certainly been a favorite of Plant’s, as he co-wrote it and recorded it with Jimmy Page nine years ago. And Krauss, what with her unerring ear for plaintive nuggets, would’ve probably recorded Dillard & Clark’s “Through the Morning, Through the Night” sooner or later. Not every experiment works. But Doc Watson’s “Your Long Journey” and the Mel Tillis-penned, Everly Brothers-recorded “Stick with Me Baby” sound as contemporarily charming in these light-as-air versions as anything in heavy rotation on Triple-A radio. And if Krauss’s take on Tom Waits’ “Trampled Rose” is too slow for commercial airplay, it’s still nice to hear someone with a voice as gorgeous as Krauss’s cover a song by someone with a voice as ugly as Waits’. Rating: Four-and-a-half omega bands out of five.
A Prairie Home Companion Duets (Highbridge)—Clever concept, this: take twenty-one years of acoustic duets as performed on radio’s pre-eminent roots-music showcase, skim the cream, and bookend the whole thing with the Everly Brothers singing songs their daddy taught them. It would’ve been less self-serving, however, if Garrison Keillor weren’t singing on five of the them and fresher if one weren’t yet another version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Has Keillor been missing the DNC global-warming memos or something? Rating: Three-and-a-half powder-milk biscuits out of five.
Prince: Planet Earth (Sony/NPG)--Prince is still the most talented and visionary rock-pop-soul-funk musician on the planet after which this album is named, but nowadays even his best new music sounds a lot like his second-best old music. In other words, whereas most performers nearing the thirtieth anniversary of their debut would kill to sound like their youthful selves, Prince sounds trapped by a downright Dorian Gray-like incapacity to age. He sings the same, he waxes hippie-apocalyptic the same, he likes potentially reproductive activity the same, he rock-pop-soul-funks the same--he even looks the same--at forty-nine as he did at thirty and maybe twenty-five. And if such eternal youth has spared him the same mid-life musical crisis that afflicted such all-too-obviously aging musical visionaries as Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Neil Young at a similar stage, it has also prevented him from conveying anything like discovery, depth, or wisdom. So while I first took him at his word when he couched his massive London giveaway of this catchily disposable CD in anti-corporation rhetoric, I now think he just knows that his latest batch of hooks is no longer news enough to get him into the headlines. Rating: Three master baiters out of five.
John Prine & Mac Wiseman: Standard Songs for Average People (Oh Boy)--The standards are of the quaint, Western-swing and country type, with “In the Garden” and “Old Rugged Cross” thrown in for people who, being average, still attend church. And if in the long run this lovingly crafted album serves no greater purpose than to introduce these songs to new generations, well, there are worse such artifacts. Besides, it can’t help also introducing them to Prine and Wiseman, the former of whom possesses one of the most consistently high-quality catalogs in modern folk and the latter of whom holds his own here if only by singing at eighty-one a lot like Willie Nelson at seventy-four. Rating: Three-and-a-half memory lanes out of five.