Sunday, April 26, 2009

2007 Album Reviews: A

(As published in the Times of Acadiana unless otherwise noted…)

Air: Pocket Symphony (Astralwerks)--You don’t have to feel particularly friendly toward the French to enjoy Jean-Benoit Dunckel and Nicolas Godin’s latest offering. In fact, you only have to stay awake through this music-to-dream-by once to notice such universal details as pop melodies and catchy rhythms. (“Mer Du Japon” is even upbeat.) Stay awake twice and you’ll recognize the guest whisper-singing of Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker (“One Hell of a Party”) and Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon (“Somewhere Between Waking and Sleeping”). Stay awake long enough to peruse the lyric booklet and you’ll discover that Hannon has even come up with some genuinely Air-headed lyrics (“Without blindness, there is no sight. / You’d see further if you’d only close your eyes”). Frenchmen to the end, Dunckel and Godin cite Satie and Ravel as influences. The real influence here, though, from the multi-vocalist cast to the music’s symphonic underpinnings, is Alan Parsons, whose projects, love ’em or hate ’em, were generally easier to stay awake through. Rating: Three-and-a-half lullabies out of five.

Anjani: Blue Alert (Columbia)--Wish I had more enthusiasm for this hauntingly elegant chamber jazz for solo piano and voice, now reissued just one year after its initial release with a documentary DVD as bait. Perhaps I don’t for the same reason that Columbia still emblazons the cover with “Produced by Leonard Cohen”: Although it’s Anjani who’s doing the singing and who set the words to music, both the lyrics (from unpublished notebooks) and the singing style (“transparent, weightless, luminous,” to quote “Half the Perfect World”) are the producer’s, making the project feel at times like a Cohen album in drag. Anjani gets closer to Cohen’s essence than Jennifer Warnes, another Cohen amanuensis who once devoted an album to his songs, and “Thanks for the Dance,” “Innermost Door,” and “The Mist” are featured in the DVD for a reason. Alas, there’s a reason the others aren’t: They’re dull. Rating: Three parasites of heaven out of five.

Arms and Sleepers: Bliss Was It in That Dawn to Be Alive (Fake Chapter)--Trancey electronica hasn’t been fresh or cutting edge for years, maybe decades, but, like many another pop sub-genre, it still sounds cool when done right, or, in this case, right when done cool. Although electro-beats emerge here and there, the overriding vibe is so laid back as to be supine, with the horns and voices used to enhance the dreamlike textures generated by the keyboard-bass-programming mix. That this Boston duo’s live show comes enhanced (according to the best Web info I could find) with “visuals by the Boston artist Dado Ramadani,” is, given the music’s cinematic feel, no surprise. What is a surprise is that, unlike your typical fall-asleep soundscapes, these sound pretty good to stay awake to as well. Rating: Three-and-a-half nocturnal transmissions out of five.

Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built (Atlantic)--This bio-documentary masquerading as a history of 20th-century America or vice versa reveals the late Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun to have been a pop-music Zelig. Instrumental in signing, promoting, and sometimes composing for over fifty years’ worth of best-selling acts (the A-list: Ray Charles, Bobby Darin, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, Genesis, Bette Midler, the Stax Records roster via distribution agreement), Ertegun arguably exerted a greater influence over American pop culture than any other one musical figure, an influence all the more remarkable considering his roots. The son of a devoutly Muslim Turkish diplomat, Ertegun fell in love with America via jazz. So it was that upon his arrival in the U.S. as a seventh grader he was as immune to the nation’s residual racism (his motto: “There’s black music, and there’s the white imitation”) as he was by anti-American or anti-Semitic hostility (among his beneficiaries and friends: the Jewish hit-writing duo Leiber and Stoller). Of course, whether the music of Ertegun’s most successful latter-day discovery, Kid Rock, will engender similar good will among today’s less diplomatically inclined Muslims remains to be seen. Rating: Four-and-a-half Turkey delights out of five.

Arthur Alexander: Lonely Just like Me, The Final Chapter (Hacktone)--This reissue of Alexander’s 1993 comeback album would be welcome even if it weren’t enhanced with live tracks, “hotel room” demos, and interview excerpts from NPR’s Fresh Air. It would also be welcome even if Alexander weren’t a “legend” whose songs had been recorded by the Beatles, Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan. Despite having been musically inactive for over a decade when he recorded this album’s original dozen tracks, Alexander sang like the confident R&B/soul/pop pro he’d been, gracefully easing into material both classic (“If It’s Really Got to Be This Way,” “Every Day I Have to Cry”) and merely classic-sounding (the rest), his skids greased by a Who’s Who of Memphis musicians. The comeback that the album was supposed to launch never took off because Alexander died upon its release, but what a way to go. Rating: Four better lates than never out of five.

Devon Allman’s Honeytribe: Torch (Livewire)—No one familiar with Gregg Allman will be surprised by his son’s white-blues voice or the Southern storm he makes it sound easy to whip up. With second-generation rockers, though, surprise matters. So while oldsters merely wishing to refresh their Allman buzz will feel friendly toward re-greased boilerplates like “Why You Wanna Bring Me Down” and “Nothing to Be Sad About,” the rest of us will prefer “No Woman, No Cry” (which Devon’s smart enough not to imbue with Rastaman vibrations) and the two on which he shuts up and plays guitar: “Mahalo” (really “All Along the Watchtower,” more Santana than Hendrix), and “544 Texas Avenue” (1:29 of solo acoustic sunshine). Rating: Three-and-a-half peaches almost falling far enough from the tree out of five.

Herb Alpert: Rise (Shout Factory)--The title cut was the follow-up to “Feels So Good” that always eluded Chuck Mangione and a better song to boot, with the rest of what used to be Side One suavely recycling Alpert’s 1960s’ stylistic template with a light disco feel. What used to be Side Two recycles Side One. Rating: Two-and-a-half loves made in the rain out of five.

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