Tuesday, April 28, 2009


(As published in the Illinois Entertainer...)


For Boz Scaggs, September 11 was supposed to be a red-letter day. Not only was Dig, his first album of original material in seven years, due to hit the streets, but he was packed and ready to fly to Miami for a music-industry convention at which he would launch the disc with interviews and a performance. Then three hijacked airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. “We were at the airport,” Scaggs recalls. “Of course, everything was cancelled.”

One can hardly imagine music less likely to serve as the soundtrack to international cataclysm than Scaggs’. For more than a quarter of a century, his songs have set standards of button-down class and urbane sophistication undreamt of in the philosophies of most other R&B-rooted rockers. Yet in retrospect several lines on Dig do seem prescient. “I rode that beast down into the ground,” Scaggs sings in “King of El Paso.” “That devil carried me. / Watch a few go down / to the fire or the rope. / You leave little to chance / and nothing to hope.” Perhaps even more to the point, and less rhetorically than one would at first suppose, “Payday” finds Scaggs asking the musical question, “Do we really need an apocalypse now?”

Chuckling, he insists that any similarities between himself and Nostradamus are purely coincidental (“You’re so overwhelmed by the real event of that day that, you know, it’s hardly worth considering”), but in a strange way the music he’s created on Dig does suit the current mood. For one thing, it’s all pensive rhythms and after-hours tempos, with singing both soulful and soul-searching. Second, it’s calming, the ideal tonic at the end of a long day crammed with wars and rumors of wars--calming, that is, in a somber sort of way.

“If there is a thread that runs through this album,” says Scaggs in an interview contained in Dig’s enhanced portion, “it’s that pretty much song-for-song you’re talking about a string of losers who’ve lost out in one way or another. From sort of a world-weary attitude of a ‘Thanks To You’ song to maybe a vet who came back from Viet Nam and never could put it together on ‘Payday,’ to ‘Desire’ to ‘I Just Go,’ they’re a series of dead-ends in some way.”

The music itself, on the other hand, feels like a through street, one that forms intersections with jazz, blues, R&B, and gospel (cf. the Staples-like “Call That Love”) and that Scaggs, now fifty-seven, can ride for another quarter of a century should he so choose. Crafted in large part by Scaggs, David Paich, and Danny Kortchmar with state-of-the-art digital technology, it boasts the deepest and warmest bottom of any Boz Scaggs album while also introducing such sparingly and sensitively deployed details as the gossamer trumpet of the up-and-coming jazz star Roy Hargrove, Jr. In short, after listening to Dig, even die-hard fans of Scaggs’ all-time best-selling LP--1976’s Silk Degrees--will have to admit that Scaggs’ current degrees are in many ways silkier.

It’s unlikely that there’s a Silk Degrees fan more die-hard than Craig Kilbourne, the late-night talk-show host on whose CBS show Scaggs appeared in early October. No sooner had Kilbourne announced Scaggs as part of the evening’s entertainment than he held up a copy of Silk Degrees and proceeded to claim that it, not Dig, was and always would be his favorite Boz LP. He had, he said, encountered the album in junior high school, and had loved it ever since. What followed was a not unfunny bit in which Kilbourne played the role of an infomercial pitchman for Silk Degrees, his every rhapsodic reminiscence followed by the uncomprehending comments of one of his youthful assistants, whose job it was to reiterate that, unlike Kilbourne, he was “too young” to know anything about the album.

The skit points up two bitterweet aspects of the Silk Degrees phenomenon. First, while it’s better to be loved for one album than not to be loved at all, it’s even nicer to be loved for more than one album. “Silk Degrees is an easy thing for people to focus on because it was so visible,” Scaggs concedes, “but it certainly gets old, and I just think it’s kind of lazy sometimes of people to just stick on one thing. Of course, in a situation like ‘The Late, Late Show,’ he genuinely knew, and knew all about, that record. He just was kind of relentless with it. Of course, you can‘t knock that kind of enthusiasm. I have the same sort of feelings myself for certain records that were really pivotal in my experience. So I can understand. But, yeah, I think I’d rather people recognize the body of work rather than one thing.”

The other point that Kilbourne’s skit makes is that there now exists an entire generation of pop-music lovers for whom the name “Boz Scaggs” and songs such as “Lowdown,” “Lido Shuffle,” and “What Can I Say” mean nothing. (Perhaps it was such a young person who so programmed the spell-check functions of Windows 95 word-processing programs to suggest “Booze Scabs” upon encountering the Dallas-bred musician’s moniker. By way of an upgrade, Windows 98 spell-check functions suggest “Bozo Skaggs.”)

One reason for Scaggs’ low name recognition among today’s under-thirties is that since Silk Degrees he has averaged over four years between albums, with no fewer than eight transpiring between Middle Man (1980) and Other Roads (1988) and six between Other Roads and Some Change (1994). In a 1988 interview with Rolling Stone, Scaggs attributed the first of his two hiatuses to a desire to “step outside” the demands created by one who’d had as much “fortune and fame” as he’d had, and, although he avoided specifics, many assumed that between starting and maintaining the San Francisco nightclub Slim’s and fighting his ex-wife for custody of his sons, he’d simply run out of the time and energy to tour, write, and tour.

Unfortunately, the album that was supposed to mark his return--Other Roads--ended up prompting the second hiatus, albeit inadvertently. “I started working on that album in probably ’85 or ’86,” he recalls, “and in that time period a whole new regime had come into my record company, CBS Records at the time. I didn’t know the president or the CEO. Well, I delivered my album as I always had, and then we got a reply saying, ‘There are no singles on this record. Go in and cut five or six more tracks.’ I was dumbfounded.”

Scaggs, who had never had any of his albums rejected before, was at an impasse. “Of course, the choice was either cut some more tracks or let them throw the record away. Literally, they’ll trash it. They’re big enough and powerful enough, and they’ve got other records to work. So we cut some more tracks, wrote some more stuff, and in the end we ended up using some remixes and cutting some new tracks with a new producer. Then I went back to the original producer, and we cut another track. The album ended up being just a sort of hodge-podge, and I left the label.”

Eventually, however, just as it was a record company that convinced him to resume his retirement, it was another record company that wooed him back. Since signing with Virgin Records in ’94, Scaggs has recorded Some Change and Come On Home (’97), the latter primarily a collection of the kind of blues and R&B oldies that made up the bulk of Scaggs’ live repertoire during the ’80’s. Like such pre-Silk Degrees albums as Slow Dancer and My Time, the Virgin albums featured meticulous, top-notch studio work but generated more in the way of positive reviews than they did in the way of revenue.

Still, Scaggs has nothing but praise for Virgin, who in addition to giving him free reign in the studio (“They’re probably the last label left in the world that does that,” he says) have also gotten behind the new album in a big way, releasing both a regular edition and a deluxe cloth-bound edition containing the audio disc and an image-enhanced DVD-friendly version. “To find a label,” says Scaggs, “that genuinely likes a record and believes in it and is willing to put their resources behind it makes a lot of difference.”

So does patience, or so one would think. After all, it’s not every superstar who can wait six-to-eight years between records for the sake of a principle. Surprisingly, Scaggs does not consider patience to be one of his virtues. “Patience was a good part of the process of making Dig,” he admits, “but I wouldn’t call myself a very patient person. It doesn’t come easy, or naturally, to me sometimes. I’m a perfectionist, but I like to work really fast, and I think that’s another thing that has to do with how these things come out.”

As far as Scaggs’ fans are concerned, of course, as long as “these things” keep coming out at all--and as long as they’re as good as Dig--the nomenclature can be settled later.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Rod Stewart: Stardust ... The Great American Songbook Volume III

(As published in the Illinois Entertainer in early 2005...)

ROD STEWART: Stardust … The Great American Songbook Volume III (J)

Those befuddled by Rod Stewart’s foray into pre-rock ’n’ roll standards are overlooking the obvious—namely, that for years Stewart’s main objective in cutting a song has been whether it will make some voluptuous blonde more susceptible to his bedside manner. With this in mind, the Great American Songbook series makes complete sense.

For while Stewart has long demonstrated a predilection for marrying women young enough to be his daughters, he must know that his days as a hot item on their CD-shopping lists are over. So he zeroes in on their mothers, many of whom no doubt first became mothers to the resistance-weakening strains of “Tonight’s the Night (Gonna Be Alright)” or “Hot Legs.” Now pushing fifty if not sixty (if not wheelchairs), these women have reached the stage at which the timeless appeal of a classic Broadway tune can, if done right, function like female Viagra. Also, between alimony payments and Social Security, they’re awash in disposable income.

So does Rod do right by these songs? For the most part, yes, and, as he could be applying his voice to compositions considerably more vacuous, more power to him (better “Embraceable You,” “For Sentimental Reasons,” and “But Not for Me,” in other words, than whatever’s rolling off Diane Warren’s production line). His persistent weakness for gaucherie shows only when he succumbs to the obvious (“What a Wonderful World”) or hams it up with women better seen than heard (Dolly Parton, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”).

Sunday, April 26, 2009


(This piece was accepted for publication by the Wittenburg Door in the fall of 2007; the issue in which it would've appeared, however, has never seen the light of day due to the magazine's financial difficulties.)

Kenneth Hoagland--a.k.a. "Jacob," the founder and public face of Evangelical Wrestling Entertainment--is bloody (figuratively, for once) but unbowed as he faces the reporters assembled to discover why he has called this press conference. "EWE has run the course and fought the good fight," Hoagland eventually says. "But now, to quote someone with whom I think we’re all familiar, ‘It is finished.’"

At this moment, clean shaven and dressed to the nines, Hoagland is barely recognizable as his pro-wrestling alter ego: a bearded, loin-cloth-girded "Israelite" whose EWE "stairway to heaven" match with the mysterious, masked "Angel" was supposed to be the climax of the much anticipated tithe-per-view extravaganza Armageddon. Instead, the event has been cancelled--and with it, apparently, the entire EWE operation.

"I mean, the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away, right?" Hoagland continues, his voice trembling. "So, like, blessed be the name of the Lord. Any questions?" But before any of the reporters can say a word, Hoagland bursts into tears. When he finally collects himself, he apologizes, pulls a handkerchief bearing the EWE logo from his blazer pocket, wipes his eyes and blows his nose. Loath to put the besotted accessory back into his pocket, he holds it for the remainder of the press conference, waving it with absentminded nervousness like a flag of surrender.

Hoagland’s fortunes weren’t always this bleak. Indeed, his many nay-sayers and detractors notwithstanding, it looked for a time as if his unlikely enterprise would succeed. Originally relegated to TBN’s late-night ghetto, it quickly earned a semi-weekly primetime slot with an audacious (some would say ingenious) combination of evangelism, sound doctrine, and violence--violence that even at its most obviously choreographed was seldom for the squeamish.

There was, for instance, the notorious "head on a platter match," during which "Herod" defeated "John the Baptist" by hitting him over the head with the platter when the referee was distracted by the dancing of Herod’s sexy manager/valet "Salome." Although the post-match beheading was halted when a dressing-room’s worth of "baby faces" (i.e., "good guys") led by Eutychus ("Master of the Sleeper!") rushed into the ring and literally saved John’s neck, many seated at ringside swear that some genuine neck-slicing had begun.

Similar controversy arose when, after defeating a series of Israelites in both single and handicapped competition, "Andre the Goliath" faced the "Boy Named David" in a no-holds-barred match (a stipulation that was necessary to allow for David’s climactic use of a slingshot and stones). Although that post-victory beheading was not televised, David often carried a frighteningly realistic Goliath head by its hair into the ring during subsequent matches, up to and including his much-hyped showdown with the "Rebel Absalom."

But violence wasn’t EWE’s only thorn in the flesh. There was also the matter of insensitivity, with feuds between the midgets "Zaccheus" and "Bildad the Shuhite" and the immodestly dressed lady wresters "Rahab" and the "Whore of Babylon" coming under particular fire. Others questioned the quoting of "imprecatory Psalms" by angry wrestlers in the broadcasts’ frighteningly realistic interview segments. And, while EWE touted itself as "non-denominational," many perceived a distinct anti-Catholic bias in the "heel" (i.e., "bad guy") known as "Torquemada the Inquisitor."

With such high and volatile "negatives," it’s somewhat surprising that EWE lasted as long as it did. One insider, who spoke on condition of anonymity, believes that the organization "would’ve folded even sooner if not for the influence of the many former members of the Power Team [an internationally well-known troupe of itinerant Christian weightlifters] for whom EWE served as a de facto halfway house between Christian showmanship and getting a real job."

Perhaps the best known of the former Power Team members was "Samson," a muscular behemoth who entered the ring carrying the jawbone of an ass, accompanied by "Delilah." Prominently featured in a regular succession of "squash" matches against various "Philistines," his winning streak was broken when Delilah betrayed him with a post-victory kiss that was actually a sign for the many Philistines whom Samson had defeated to ambush him and shave his hair in the middle of the ring. Since then EWE broadcasts had included brief "hair-regrowth" updates, leading many to expect a revenge match that would literally bring the house down.

Despite its controversial reputation, however, EWE remained untainted by at least two common ministry-identified transgressions: financial mismanagement and altar-boy molestation. "Keeping honest ledgers was the whole point of having [female tag-team champions] the Mighty Widows chase [male tag-team contenders] the Money Changers from the ring," says EWE spokeswoman Stephanie Glass, "right when they were on the verge of beating [male tag-team champions] Paul and Silas." Similarly, Glass says, taking a public stand against sexual perversion was the "point" behind the decision to turn the Sodom and Gomorrah battle royal into a "lights out" match by ending it with (simulated) hell fire and brimstone.

But several problems proved perpetually challenging and eventually impossible to solve. First, there were the storylines. Because most of them were based on well-known Bible stories, there was seldom if ever any doubt as to their ultimate outcome. No matter how good a fight "Abel" put up against "Cain," for instance, everyone knew that Cain would win. (Admittedly, casting the former WWF superstar Jake "The Snake" Roberts as a guest referee was a clever touch.) And when EWE tried to introduce lesser-known Bible characters, there was usually confusion. (Many viewers, apparently unfamiliar with Judges 3, mistook the match between "Ehud" and the 500-pound "Eglon" to be a match between Jonah and the whale.)

Second, there was sometimes doctrine-based confusion over how to determine winners. One traditional method, that of a wrestler’s using an excruciating hold to make his opponent "submit," was problematic because "submission" is widely understood by Christians to be a prerequisite for victory. As for the venerable "pin fall," would pride have to go before it and thus prohibit baby faces from ever pinning their adversaries? Then, having won, would a victor have to be immediately declared a loser because "the first shall be last"?

"It may sound overly Calvinistic," admits Hoagland at the end of his press conference, "but maybe we were doomed from the start.

"I mean," he concludes, "the ultimate heel is Satan, and while we had many wrestlers who could play him, we never found anyone who could play God."

2007 Album Reviews: Young Rascals/Rascals Reissues

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

The Young Rascals: The Young Rascals (Collectors’ Choice)--Other than the Groovin’ album cover’s brief visibility, Eddie Brigati, Felix Cavaliere, Gene Cornish, and Dino Danelli get unfairly overlooked in the Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built documentary. Enter Collectors’ Choice Music, with reissues of all seven of their Atlantic albums, the first four in single-disc stereo/mono versions. I’d have preferred twofers myself, since “I Believe” on this, their 1966 debut, is bad enough once--and since when it comes to “Mustang Sally,” “In the Midnight Hour,” and “Like a Rolling Stone” I prefer Wilson Pickett and Bob Dylan respectively. But “Good Lovin’” remains their greatest hit, and the non-hit “Baby Let’s Wait” was wise (and pretty) beyond its years. Rating: Three Spankys out of five.

The Young Rascals: Collections (Collectors’ Choice)--The year: 1967, and if “Land of 1000 Dances” and two Motown semi-obscurities suggest that the band’s taste in cover songs had improved, “More” proves it hadn’t. The highlights: “I’ve Been Lonely Too Long,” their second-greatest hit, and “Come On Up,” which rips off Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels proud. Rating: Three Darlas out of five.

The Young Rascals: Groovin’ (Collectors’ Choice)--Still 1967, and if the title cut could’ve been the Drifters out from under the boardwalk, “How Can I Be Sure” could’ve been the Zombies singing for their supper in an Italian restaurant. The cover tunes were down to one, and the filler, which ran the blue-eyed soul gamut and then some, was up to snuff. Rating: Three-and-a-half Chubbys out of five.

The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream (Collectors’ Choice)--1968, and, at an average age of twenty-two, the Rascals were “young” no more. They celebrated their maturity by weaving together a collection of all-original misses that was as enjoyable as Groovin’ and as hippy “political” as Freedom Suite without the overkill--and by nodding to Sgt. Pepper with sitars and psychedelic segues. Rating: Three-and-a-half Buckwheats out of five.

The Rascals: Freedom Suite (Collectors’ Choice)--1969, and, with 1968’s Time Peace hits compilation behind them, they felt ready for a double-length counterculture concept album. The title of the fourteen-minute drum solo, “Boom,” reflects the overall level of imagination. Rating: Two Peteys out of five.

The Rascals: See (Collectors’ Choice)--Still 1969, and, like Hollywood breathing a sigh after Brokeback Mountain, these guys sound relieved to have gotten their obligatory protest album out of the way. Unfortunately, the time they’d wasted allowed Three Dog Night to move in on their turf. Rating: Three-and-a-half Stymies out of five.

The Rascals: Search and Nearness (Collectors’ Choice)--1971, and though the end was near, the search wasn’t. The finds: a killer jazz instrumental (“Nama”), a catchy psychedelic anachronism (“Fortunes”), a buoyant Cavaliere original (“I Believe”), and a cover worth writing home about (“The Letter”). Rating: Three Alfalfas out of five.

2007 Album Reviews: W-Z

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

Loudon Wainwright III: Strange Weirdos (Concord)--Although it’s subtitled “Music from and Inspired by the Film Knocked Up,” Strange Weirdos never feels written to order. One reason is that the subject of Judd Apatow’s latest film (the less casual consequences of casual sex) is right up Wainwright’s alley. Another is that only six of the album’s forty-eight minutes are given over to soundtrack-like instrumentals (“Ypsilanti” and “Naomi,” both composed by co-producer Joe Henry). In other words, Wainwright being Wainwright, he probably would’ve written and recorded “X or Y“ (about chromosomes in general and the sex differentiation of the unborn in particular), “Final Frontier” (a “Cobwebs”-like song about love), and “Doin’ the Math” (“You used to believe that you would live forever / and a world without you couldn’t be, no way, never”) with or without Apatow’s patronage--and covered Peter Blegvad’s “Daughter” (like “Year” meets “The Swimming Song”) and Mose Allison’s “Feels So Good” (a worthy “So Damn Happy” sequel). Rating: Three-and-a-half last men on earth out of five.

The Dale Warland Singers: Lux Aurumque (Gothic)--Those, like me, who are unacquainted with this sixty-eight-voice choir will learn from the annotation that Lux Aurumque is the “last CD recorded before [the Dale Warland Singers’] disbandment in 2004.” Such listeners will also experience self-recrimination at having heretofore denied themselves the delights that the Singers provide. Aside from their unaccompanied singing--which, to quote the liner description of their performance of Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria,” is “luxuriant to the point of sensuousness, yet also deeply reverent”--there is imaginative eclecticism in their repertoire. I was familiar with Rutter and Rachmaninoff but had never heard of Biebl, Alexandre Gretchaninoff, Howard Hanson, Pavel Chesnokov, or any of the other composers represented (by one piece each) herein. (It’s to Gothic Records’ credit that, in anticipation of such ignorance, they’ve provided educational liner notes.) The real pleasure, however, is, of course, the music. Intensely ethereal, it will appeal not only to listeners already well acquainted with sacred vocal music but also to dabblers who fell for the Gregorian Chant craze a decade ago only to find the primitive simplicity of monks insufficient to induce the meditative state in a mind battered by post-Freudian forces. Rating: Four-and-a-half pied beauties out of five.

Muddy Waters, Johnny Winter, & James Cotton: Breakin’ It Up, Breakin’ It Down (Epic/Legacy)--This previously unreleased document of Muddy Waters’ 1977 Hard Again tour is as loose as Hard Again was tight but every bit as masterly (same dream-team band: Winters, Cotton, Pinetop Perkins, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Bob Margolin, Charles Calmese) and maybe more fun. With Winter, Cotton, and Perkins taking lead-vocal turns and a spirit of call-and-response enlivening the songs most likely to feel over-familiar (“Caledonia,” “Got My Mojo Workin’”), the program goes from strength to strength so effortlessly that you eventually forget the absence of anything from Hard Again itself except “Can’t Be Satisfied.” In other words, the songs most conspicuous by their absence (“Mannish Boy,” “The Blues Had a Baby and They Named It Rock and Roll”) are made up for by songs conspicuous by their presence, most notably the very slow and--with its false endings suggesting a serious reluctance to die--very Faustian “Dealin’ with the Devil.” Rating: Four cross-eyed cats out of five.

Dale Watson: From the Cradle to the Grave (Hyena)--Like the “Hollywood Hillbilly” about whom he sings in the song of the same name, Watson’s stereo almost certainly “blar[es] Willie, Johnny Cash and Hank and Lefty,” and like his heroes Watson specializes in tiptoeing right up to the razor wire between common-man profundity and common-sap corn without stepping in the fertilizer. Warning: His tradition-soaked voice (Cash again, but mixed with Haggardisms) will test a generation reared on Keith, Chesney, McGraw, Rascal Flatts, or anyone else whose singing is better suited to sports arenas than to the roadhouses where the not-so-beautiful losers about whom Watson sings burn out and fade away. Rating: Three-and-a-half gunsmokes out of five.

Wattstax--Music from the Wattstax Festival and Film (Stax)--Twenty-six acts (many legendary), 112,000 fans, and (finally) no fake-live after-the-fact add-ons make this the definitive audio document of the August 1972 event known as the “black Woodstock.” And although it’s the music that keeps this historical moment alive, the moment’s enduring socio-political relevance cannot be denied. There’s the irony, for instance, of Richard Pryor’s nonchalant use of the very language that got Eddie Griffith’s plug pulled last month at a Black Enterprise conference in Florida. And there’s power in the unresolved sacred-secular tension of the Staple Singers performing their greatest hits, the red-hot Rance Allen Group leading into the even hotter Bar-Kays, Carla Thomas’s closing her set with “I Have a God Who Loves,” and the Soul Children’s setting up their adultery comedy “Hearsay” with their Jesus rave-up “I Don’t Know What the World’s Coming To.” In other words, while Martin Luther King, Jr., had been dead for four years, it’s his spirit that permeates these proceedings. Admittedly, except for Mel & Tim’s “Backfield in Motion” (extended to over five minutes to accommodate Tim’s explanation of whose in-motion backfield inspired the song), no song surpasses its better-known studio version, but neither does any version suffer much by comparison. And while the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s introductory exhortation packs good rhymes, my favorite couplet comes courtesy of David Porter on Disc Two: “Just because there’s no money in the pocket doesn’t mean there’s no joy in the socket!” Rating: Four-and-a-half knocked-on woods out of five.

Lucinda Williams: West (Lost Highway)--This poet’s daughter is apparently too talented to make a bad album, and it’s not only the words that don’t give her trouble. She’s also skilled at choosing the sort of forward-thinking roots musicians necessary to incarnate her melodies and at singing as if she both means and feels what she says. (Only on “Unsuffer Me” does she overact.) At least a half-dozen of these songs will tear your heart out whether or not you’re feeling particularly vulnerable (or acquainted with the recent death of your mother, a subject that inspires at least two songs), and the others function well enough as breathers to make up for their occasionally fatal flaw (sentimentality). Meanwhile Williams remains as sharp as ever on that most enduring of subjects: the turbulent emotions attendant upon the realization that you’ve once again fallen for the (usually very) wrong person. Rating: Four miller’s tales out of five.

Robin Williamson: The Iron Stone (ECM)--As the co-leader of the Incredible String Band, Williamson discovered, wrote, and performed some of the most truly mind-expanding folk music of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Characterized by a disarming and often magical blend of Western mythology and Eastern instrumentation, the ISB went well beyond the dilettantism of George Harrison’s “Within You, Without You” in their hiking of roads less traveled. Williamson’s latest adventures include mixing his own songs (most new, some old ones revisited) with his setting of famous poetry to music. This time out “Sir Patrick Spens” and one poem each by Emerson, the Sirs Thomas Wyatt and Walter Raleigh, and John Clare get the treatment, which, now as forty years ago, includes exotic sounds (Celtic harp, mandola, Chinese flute, drone flute, shawm, clarino) and Williamson’s voice, a voice that, even more than that of Bob Dylan's or Lou Reed's, will strike inexperienced listeners as, shall we say, eccentric. Leprechaun-like in tone, ever in search of the lost chord, beguilingly serpentine whether singing or speaking, it’s one of a kind. And once used to it you’ll be hooked. Rating: Four snake charmers out of five.

Amy Winehouse: Back to Black (Universal Republic)--Only twenty-three, Winehouse is already the stuff of tabloid headlines in her native England (the latest: she’s recently shrunk several dress sizes thanks to an obsessive workout regime and may be anorexic), and if AOL’s musicians-to-watch blog is any indication, she may soon be tabloid material here too (the latest: she drinks a lot and won’t apologize--with a name like Winehouse, what do people expect?). So it’s no surprise that of all this album’s hard-hitting songs, “Rehab” cuts the deepest (she “won’t go, go, go”). What is surprising is what Winehouse cuts with (a voice forged from every major ’60s soul/jazz/R&B female singer and several minor ones) and what she cuts through (a wall of sound built from Spector, Bacharach, Motown, Stax/Volt). Keeping the project just this side of retro are two small but significant aural details (the abuse-ravaged patina on Winehouse’s voice, the electronica-ravaged patina on the programmed drums) and one conceptual one (“Me and Mr. Jones” is not a gender-switched Billy Paul cover). Rating: Three-and-a-half Britain-y spears out of five.

Neil Young: Live at Massey Hall 1971 (Reprise)—Acoustic live greatest hits, volume one, replete with context (a reprinted newspaper review that begins “All of a sudden ... Neil Young of Winnipeg and Toronto has arrived as a major pop star, someone to reckon with on the rich, heady, crowd-drawing level of James Taylor”), nine minutes of introductory applause and spoken song intros., and fifty-nine minutes of compelling performances and appropriately rapturous applause. Rating: Four more journeys through the past out of five.

A Rob Zombie Film: Halloween Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Hip-O/UMe)--Like whoever assembled the Dazed and Confused soundtrack fourteen years ago, Zombie ransacks the ’70s with an affection that makes even his obvious selections (Blue Oyster Cult’s “[Don’t Fear] The Reaper,” Nazareth’s “Love Hurts”) vicariously re-enjoyable. That he has gone for somewhat less obvious selections from Kiss, Alice Cooper, Peter Frampton, and B.T.O. and included an ’80s live Iggy Pop cut, Nan Vernon’s clever updating of “Mr. Sandman,” and funny spoken bits from the film is a bonus. Favorite dialogue snippet, given a certain Atlanta Falcon’s recent travails: “Are you saying Michael did this? Michael loves animals!” Rating: Three-and-a-half knights of the living dead out of five..

2007 Album Reviews: T-V

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

Johnnie Taylor: Live at the Summit Club (Stax)—Circa 1972, and, like Solomon Burke’s Soul Alive, the songs showcase the patter and not the other way around.

Carla Thomas: Live at the Bohemian Caverns (Stax)--Those wanting a document of Carla Thomas onstage should check out disc three of the recently released Wattstax soundtrack. Recorded five years after this Washington, D.C. club show, her Wattstax set includes good versions of this album’s two best songs (“Gee Whiz [Look At His Eyes],“ “B-A-B-Y”) and excludes this album’s padding: eight minutes of lame patter and twelve minutes of equally lame music by Carla’s father Rufus. Wattstax also finds her rising to the challenge of revving up a football stadium. Here she demonstrates to an apparently small and definitely subdued crowd her jazzy show-tune chops, which aren’t bad but are nothing that would’ve had Lena Horne, Lola Falana, or Eartha Kitt looking over their shoulders. Rating: Two-and-a-half zip-a-dee-doo-dahs out of five.

Carla Thomas: The Queen Alone (Stax)--Until now I didn’t know her for anything besides “Gee Whiz” and “B-A-B-Y,” but more there definitely was, including a buoyant “Any Day Now” to rival Chuck Jackson’s heavier one. Rating: Three-and-a-half volts out of five.

Linda Thompson: Versatile Heart (Rounder)--Linda Thompson is one of the greatest singers to emerge from the British folk scene of the late ’60s, and, thanks to this attractively stark album, fans as young as her son Teddy (versions of whose acoustic-guitar instrumental “Stay Bright” begin and end the disc) won’t have to locate her old recordings for proof. Despite suffering (and repeatedly recovering) from a vocal disorder that has occasionally silenced her during the last twenty years years, she still possesses a voice that‘s as sad and beautiful (in that order) as the one she had when she was stealing the show on albums with her top-billed ex-husband Richard. And if “Do Your Best for Rock ’N Roll” (weird honky-tonk gospel, sort of) and Tom Waits/Kathleen Brennan’s “Day After Tomorrow” (yep, war is still bad) clash with the romantic melancholy of the rest, the rest, which range from hauntingly pretty to quietly stunning, more than compensate. Highest point: the traditional folk song “Katy Cruel.” Second-highest: “Blue & Gold” and “Whisky, Bob Copper and Me,” songs that sound traditional but that Thompson wrote or co-wrote herself. Rating: Four overcast vistas out of five.

The Traveling Wilburys: The Traveling Wilburys (Rhino/WEA)--Four rare or previously unreleased tracks, five videos (though not “Nobody‘s Child“), and (in the “limited-edition deluxe edition”) a 40-page book join the two original albums, which have been unavailable for over a decade. Album two (Volume 3) was jolly good fun; album one (Volume 1) was that and more--namely, Bob Dylan’s and Jeff Lynne’s best record of the ’80s and Roy Orbison’s, Tom Petty’s, and George Harrison’s best record ever (well, not counting Harrison’s Beatles records, of course). Rating: Five cool dry places out of five.

Randy Travis: Songs of the Season (Word/Curb)--The babies born during the year that Travis released his last Christmas album are now old enough to vote, so it’s not as if the finest male country singer since Merle, George, and Willie hasn’t had time to plan this follow-up. Still, it feels haphazard: some carols, some shopping-mall favorites, some stripped-down Texas swing, some moderately deployed string ensembles. What saves it is what has saved Travis since the mid-’90s: religion. The contemporary cover “Labor of Love” and his own “Our King” reverberate with quiet conviction. Rating: Five swans a swimming out of seven.

Trio Mediaeval: Folk Songs (ECM)--Twenty mostly traditional Norwegian ballads, Christian hymns, and lullabies arranged for a cappella female trio and occasional primitive percussion, and, no, you don’t know any of them. And, chances are, even if you did, the vibrato-free voices of Anna Marie Friman, Linn Andrea Fuglseth, and Torunn Ostrem Ossum blending in an Austrian monastery would have you marveling afresh at the otherworldly power of the performances. Rating: Four-and-a-half virgin springs out of five.

Frankie Valli: Romancing the ’60s (Motown)--Forget Barry Manilow; this seventy-something singer with the eternally youthful pipes is the way to re-hear these songs if re-hear them one must (“Take Good Care of My Baby,” “On Broadway”).

Ralph van Raat: John Adams: Complete Piano Music (Naxos)--Although inspired by minimalism’s first wave, Adams has been intent from the beginning on blending form and content in such a way as to avoid the latter’s being all that anyone noticed. So while these four compositions spanning 1977 to 2001 employ minimalism’s trademark repetition and utilize the piano more as a percussive than a melodic instrument, they also convey strong, often intense, emotion, thus serving not only as a kind of missing link between nineteenth-century romanticism and the twentieth-century avant garde but also resisting merely hypnotic effects in favor of more kaleidoscopic ones. Pianist van Raat’s liner notes describe “American Berserk” as “fractured boogie-woogie,“ and, sure enough, it sounds like what a player piano might give out if fed conventional piano rolls doctored by William S. Burroughs. My favorite piece, though, is the luminously locomotive “Hallelujah Junction,” which, as a composition for two pianos, makes up in some ways the album’s least minimal sixteen minutes. Named after a real-life truck stop, it suggests as much “hallelujah” as “junction,“ making it an exhilarating soundtrack for driving off into the sunset. Rating: Four final frontiers out of five.

Stevie Ray Vaughan & Friends: Solos, Sessions & Encores (Epic/Legacy)--The electric roots mish-mash to end all electric roots mish-mashes (“Pipeline” with Dick Dale, “Oreo Cookie Blues” with Lonnie Mack).

2007 Album reviews: S (Part Two)

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

Mindy Smith: Long Island Shores (Vanguard)—The millions who’ve bought Carrie Underwood’s overstated girl-next-door persona are short-changing themselves if they don’t check into Smith’s far more understated version. As one might expect from her folk-identified record label, Smith comes on acoustic, soft, and pretty but seldom so much so that you want to check her collection for post-Tapestry Carol King records. Helping keep her in line are the likes of Dan Dugmore and Buddy Miller, the latter of whom has made an art of doing similar favors for his wife and Emmylou Harris and whose duet with Smith on “What If the World Stops Turning” is the highest of the album’s highlights. Rating: Four peaces of mind out of five.

Paul Stanley: Live to Win (New Door)—At first you think it doesn’t matter that Stanley’s fifty-five, that his undiminished voice and barely diminished looks, even without the Kiss makeup, qualify him to emote hard-rock banalities as if he weren’t old enough to be the grandfather of the average iPod-wearing teen. Plus, you think, his first solo album was hardly the worst album of 1978. Of course, it was hardly the best either. And, come to think of it, you can’t hum one song from it, though you played it a lot when you were sixteen (and he was twenty-seven). Odds are, though, it sounded a lot like this one, which was hardly the worst album of late 2006 but which you also won’t remember when you’re seventy-two (and he’s eighty-three). Rating: Two-and-a-half gods of drizzle out of five.

Mavis Staples: We’ll Never Turn Back (Anti-)--The combined moral and musical authority of Mavis Staples and her producer-guitarist-mandolinist Ry Cooder is so great that it’s hard to believe they’ve teamed up for a dud, but they have. Where to start? Well, for one thing, their material dates back to the genesis of the Civil Rights Movement (“Eyes On The Prize,” “We Shall Not Be Moved,” etc.), and, as the biblically literate Staples no doubt knows, pouring new wine into old wineskins is always tricky business. Of course, it may be argued that at sixty-six Staples is hardly new wine, and indeed the problem here is not her singing. What really bogs the album down is that these anthems were originally conceived to accompany public protests, to be sung by and to unify crowds around a righteous cause, not to be enjoyed in the privacy of one’s home, car, or headphones. Or, to put it another way, the music is utilitarian, a means to an end rather than an end in itself, and no amount of modern production can transform into entertainment beats, melodies, and sentiments that, frankly, weren’t intended as such. Only “99 and a Half” and “My Own Eyes” come near to catchy, and even their catchiness is fairly rudimentary as catchy goes. The lyrics present another problem--namely, that they’re dated. Just as the political battleground has shifted in the last fifty years, so has its vocabulary, and no matter how much Staples thinks that referring to Hurricane Katrina makes “My Own Eyes” contemporary, her linking the suffering caused by a natural disaster to the suffering caused by George Wallace-era Southern racism only makes her seem confused. Granted, Staples doesn’t believe that the battleground has shifted. For her, the murders of Medgar Evers and Emmett Till (whose deaths she cites among others in “I’ll Be Rested”) are as symptomatic of what’s wrong with America now as they were when she was growing up. Much evidence, however, exists to the contrary. Perhaps a more accurate title would’ve been We’ll Never Move On. Rating: Three kumbayas out of five.

Starcastle: Song of Times (Prog Rock)—Like Kansas, Starcastle was from the Midwest, and, like Yes, Starcastle sounded like Yes. And in the mid-to-late ’70s, when these guys last recorded, their shimmeringly cosmic prog-rock punch was dampened by Yes’s and Kansas’s having beaten them to it. Now that they have that narrow world all to themselves, however, they bestride it like colossi. Visual bonus: jewel-box art by Renaissance’s Annie Haslam in memory of the late Gary Slater. Rating: Three-and-a-half celestine prophecies out of five.

Stars of Track and Field: Centuries Before Love and War (Wind-Up)—By naming themselves after a Belle and Sebastian song, these Oregonians have given themselves a lot to live up to. So perhaps it’s wise that they’ve hit upon an electronica-based sound that has as little in common with B&S as the melancholy mood that it conjures. Of course, electronica-based melancholy and not sounding like B&S hardly make a band unique these days, but at the moment these guys are doing it a little better than the competition. Rating: Three-and-a-half medals out of five.

Stax 50th Anniversary Celebration (Stax)--Obviously nobody who has already invested $360 in the three Complete Stax/Volt Soul Singles boxes needs this two-disc, fifty-song skimming of that crop’s cream. Those, however, who passed on those collections finally get their patience rewarded. Their wallets too: the $19.99 list price means that they can now enjoy history’s second-greatest black-pop catalogue (after Motown’s) for a mere forty cents per song. And a close second it is. Motown had Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson; Stax had Otis Redding and William Bell. Motown had Mary Wells; Stax had Carla Thomas. One could go on (the Temptations or the Four Tops vs. Sam and Dave, Jr. Walker and the All Stars vs. Booker T. and the MGs, James Jamerson vs. Cropper and Dunn), and, frankly, for quality if not quantity, Stax often managed a tie if not a victory. Admittedly Stax had no match for the Supremes, but then Motown had no match for the Staple Singers. Or for Eddie Floyd (“Knock on Wood”), the Bar-Kays (“Soul Finger”) or Jean Knight (“Mr. Big Stuff”). And, in the one head-to-head show down (“Never Can Say Goodbye”), Isaac Hayes teaches young Michael Jackson why it’s important to grow up. Rating: Four-and-a-half R-E-S-P-E-C-T’s out of five.

Al Stewart: The First Album (Bedsitter Images) (Collector’s Choice)--By the time he teamed up with Alan Parsons for the glossy-coated “Year of the Cat” in 1976, this Scottish singer-songwriter with the mellow-yellow voice had already spent years disavowing this 1967 album, possibly because by 1976 he considered the orchestra that his producer had hired to set the atmospheric tone a relic of a musically Atlantian past. Stewart’s agreeing to this reissue, however, suggests that he now remembers the music more fondly, and he should. His youthfully confessional lyrics remain as charming as his acoustic picking, his orchestra is more understated than the ones hired and-or simulated by Deep Purple and the Moody Blues circa the same time, and the instrumentals “Denise at 16” and “Ivich” would not only sound at home on Sting’s recent lute projects but also improve them. Meanwhile, years before he’d name-drop Peter Lorre, Stewart, according to the blog of one Chris Ellicott, caused quite a stir by mentioning Jacqueline Bisset in “Clifton in the Rain” and, to maintain a rhyme, pronouncing her surname “Bissay”: “I was living in Clifton when Al wrote the song, and there was always raging controversy over the Bissitt/Bissay issue…. [A]rguments were always breaking out in the queue for the fish-and-chip shop. I still remember a hell of a fight outside a pub in the middle of Clifton between the Bissay and the Bissitt gangs. From what I remember, the Bissay mob got slit up a treat.” Rating: Four time passages out of five.

Al Stewart: Love Chronicles (Collector’s Choice)--Legendary for its impressively not-boring 18-minute title track and that track’s use of the “f-word’ as a gerund, this masterly 1969 folk suite is also home to the three-minute “You Should Have Listened to Al,“ the catchiest song that this gifted love chronicler ever recorded. Rating: Three-and-a-half Scots on the rocks out of five.

Sting: The Journey and the Labyrinth: The Music of John Dowland (Deutsche Grammophon)--Like many musicians with messianic tendencies, Sting often undercuts his good intentions and his music with pomposity. But in tackling the songs of John Dowland (1563-1626) with the Sarajevo-born lutenist Edin Karamazov, Sting has checked his ego in two ways: first by refusing credit for re-discovering Dowland (he admits recording the songs only after much prodding) and by willing to appear vulnerable in his struggle to do the songs justice. Because his struggle is only partly successful, listeners may want to bypass last year’s music-only Songs from the Labyrinth in favor of this two-disc set, which tells Songs’ behind-the-scenes story. In addition to a CD of Sting and Karamazov in concert (the highlight: their performing one song apiece by Robert Johnson the Elizabethan composer and Robert Johnson the American blues legend), The Journey contains a documentary DVD that, because it’s as informative as it is artful, may prove more effective than the music itself in persuading rock fans to investigate the glories of the past. Rating: Three-and-a-half dreams of the blue turtles out of five.

Switchfoot: Oh! Gravity (Columbia)—They’d never have happened without U2, with whom they share a penchant for echoey guitars and impassioned vocals. And, like U2, they’d never have happened without Jesus Christ. If the lyrics don’t evangelize, they provide clues to the band’s worldview and benefit as a result. Minus the implied spirituality, “American Dream” and “4:12” would come off like mere anti-materialism rants, “Burn Out Bright” like so much spitting into the wind. None of which would matter if those songs, like most of the rest, weren’t catchy as hell. They are. Rating: Four pence some the richer out of five.

2007 Album Reviews: S (Part One)

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

The Sadies: In Concert Vol. 1 (Yep Roc)—If what you enjoy about the Sadies in the studio is their transformation of a mythical roots past into timeless reveries, this live, two-disc set will shake, rattle, and roll your preconceptions. Taped live just eleven months ago, it rouses the rabble so thoroughly that you’d swear at times the band is a different Sadies. In a sense it is, as twenty-five special guests (Jon Langford, Neko Case, and Garth Hudson among them) garnish the proceedings. They’re relegated mostly to Disc Two, though, so those who prefer their Sadies unadulterated should stay with Disc One, which sounds as mythically rootsy as a fan could want until “16 Mile Creek” seven songs in, after which they start mixing in a historical rootsiness replete with hillbilly imitations and “Higher Power.” Overall effect: a mishmash that works often enough not to seem too long, though it is. Rating: Three-and-a-half spaghetti westerns out of five.

The Sadies: New Seasons (Yep Roc)--Having spent 2006 getting their live and soundtrack albums out of their system, the Sadies buckle down and make the best long-player of their none-too-shabby career. In one melancholy folk-rock original after another, Dallas and Travis Good lead their band through a reinvigoration of not only their sonic trademarks (the setting of minor-key melodies to spaghetti-western guitars and surf-rock drums, the paying of tribute to the McGuinn-Crosby-Clark Byrds vocal harmonies of yore) but also the concept of the album as a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. In other words, while individual highpoints do stand out, the most immediately arresting of them--the spooky love-gone-weird song “Anna Leigh,” for instance, leading into the spooky breakup-gone-weirder song “The Trial”--mutually reinforce each other’s sense of mystery without exhausting it or making the hauntingly evocative instrumentals “Wolf Tones” and “The Last Inquisition (Pt. V)” seem redundant. Rating: Six-and-a-half miles high out of eight.

Doug Sahm: Live from Austin TX (New West)--Sahm was tighter in the studio than onstage (and in the ’60s, ’80s, and ’90s than in the ‘70s), but this 1975 Tex-Mex/blues/swamp-pop Austin City Limits show is good, loose fun.

The Sandinista Project (00:02:59)--What made the Clash’s Sandinista! special was that even at three vinyl LPs (now two full-length CDs) it never felt too long; what makes this multiple-artist re-recording almost as special is that it only sometimes does (most notably on “Lightning Strikes [Not Once but Twice],” performed by a Clash tribute band). What keeps the Clash’s Sandinista! special is that, even twenty-six years after its release, it can still stop party conversations and have partygoers with no use for first-generation punk in general or the Clash in particular asking the host what’s playing; what makes this re-recording almost as special is that it functions like good party background music and good solitude foreground music simultaneously, like a well-programmed alternative-music radio station playlist (which--thanks to the stylistic diversity of the template--it more or less is). What makes the Clash’s Sandinista! special is that, even now, when the Communist revolution to which its title refers stands revealed as the naïve exercise in self-enslavement that mature people always knew it was, its ideological subtlety and shape-shifting unity keep it rockin’ in the free world; what makes this re-recording almost as special is that its thirty-five-performer roster (the Mekons’ Jon Langford and Sally Timms appear twice) suggests E Pluribus Unum at least as much as “Workers of the World, Unite!” Rating: Four career opportunities out of five.

Santana: Ultimate Santana (Arista/Columbia/Legacy)--The last Santana compilation consisted of two discs and had the word “essential” in its title. And, assuming there is such a thing as essential Santana (some days I’m not so sure), the adjective fit. This compilation consists of one disc and has the word “ultimate” in its title. Now, “Ultimate” can mean “best of its kind” or “last in a series,” so which is it? Well, if you think latter-day Santana duets like “Smooth,” “Put Your Lights On,” and “The Game of Love” (included here in both Tina Turner and Michelle Branch versions) represent his finest moments, you’ll say “best.” But, if this collection is his best, why did Arista re-include only six of the “essential” songs? Because they go with the overridingly contemporary flow? (Nah, ’cause they don’t.) So kids, who tend to prefer the duets, and their parents, who tend to prefer the essentials, can pack only one Santana disc on their next vacation? (Maybe. Family values are “in” during election years.) Because I’m not the only one who’s unsure on some days that more than six of Santana’s essential songs are that great? (I’d have replaced the ’70s non-hit “Samba Pa Ti” with 1985’s semi-hit “Say It Again” myself.) Of course, if “ultimate” means “last,” everything makes sense. That is, unless the wily Woodstock survivor has a new album’s worth of songs “featuring” Kanye West, Dave Grohl, and Taylor Swift in the pipeline. Rating: Three soul sacrifices out of five.

Boz Scaggs: Silk Degrees (Columbia/Legacy)—This blue-eyed soul classic is now thirty-one years old, the same age Scaggs was when he recorded it, and, yes, it sounds a little dated, but the moment it captures deserves to be preserved. From its swinging strings and singing backup chicks to its fast-dance/slow-dance pacing, you can tell it was crafted at the exact moment that Thom Bell passed the baton to Giorgio Moroder. Of its three deviations from the formula (not including this edition’s three bonus live versions), only “Lido Shuffle” hit the bull’s-eye, with all 5:11 of the barrelhouse-blues “Jump Street” still grinding what used to be side one to a halt. But pop-music formulas become formulas because, if ever so briefly, they illuminate afresh much that we thought was stale, and “What Can I Say,” “Georgia,” “Lowdown,” and “It’s Over” still do. Rating: Four silk Ph.D.’s out of five.

Billy Joe Shaver: Everybody’s Brother (Compadre)--Sony’s finally having granted permission, Shaver gets to include his early-’80s Johnny Cash duet “You Can’t Beat Jesus Christ” on one of his own albums . And it’s not alone -- not as a duet (other guests: John Anderson, Tanya Tucker, Kris Kristofferson), not as a Johnny Cash reminder (producer: son John R.; sole cover: Cash’s “No Earthly Good”), and not as gospel (other titles: “Jesus Is the Only One That Loves Us,” “Get Thee Behind Me Satan”). The love and friendship songs are all right too when they’re not outright heartbreaking, benefiting as they do from the prevailing acoustic honky-tonk ambience, Shaver’s weather-beaten voice, and one’s hearing them in the context of the “shooting incident” for which Shaver is currently under investigation. But the gospel songs steal the show, especially the one that goes “If you don’t love Jesus, go to hell.” Rating: Four Sunday morning‘s coming down out of five.

Billy Joe Shaver: Storyteller--Live at the Bluebird 1992 (Sugar Hill)--Son Eddy was still alive and on guitar, multiple ex-wife Brenda was still alive and in the audience, and the audience was quiet, all of which combined to bring out both the storyteller and the performer in the then-fifty-two-year-old star.

Shaw-Blades: Influence (VH1 Classic)--Talk about sophomore slumps. Twelve years after their first album (which consisted of original material ranging from not bad to pretty good), the Styx/Damn Yankee Tommy Shaw and the Night Ranger/Damn Yankee Jack Blades reunite for an all-covers disc. The theme is in the title: these songs “influenced” them, and--surprise!--they turn out to have had the same taste as the rest of us, from the good (the Zombies’ “Time of the Season,” the Hollies’ “On a Carousel,” Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work,” the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’,” Yes’s “Your Move”) to the crappy (Seals and Crofts’ “Summer Breeze,” ELP’s “Lucky Man,” Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” and “I Am a Rock”), and most of the time their versions sound either just like the originals or as ours probably would were we to record any. For what it’s worth, they also cover Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” just so we know they’re anti-war. Betcha they don’t play it around Ted Nugent. Rating: Two grand illusions out of five.

Simply Red: Stay (simplyred.com)--Simply Red is best known in the United States for its now-twenty-one-year-old original “Holding Back the Years” and its now-eighteen-year-old cover of the then-seventeen-year-old “If You Don’t Know Me by Now.” So if you don’t know the now-forty-six-year-old Mick Hucknall by now, this collection of his latest singer-songwriterly blue-eyed soul might seem like too much adieu about too little. Only it isn’t. Having continued recording and touring apace in his native England during the eleven years since Simply Red’s Greatest Hits, he’s kept his engine not only running but also well oiled. His reward? The best-selling “contemporary jazz” album according to Billboard. Only it isn’t--jazz, that is. (Apparently the appearance of Simplified on Verve Forecast in 2005 confused the bizzers.) And, despite such titles as “They Don’t Know,” “Lady,” and the title track, there’s not a cover in the bunch. There’s material worth covering though. With a little sympathetic retooling, “So Not over You” (a bittersweet ballad) and “Oh! What a Girl!” and “Good Times Have Done Me Wrong” (non-bittersweet non-ballads) could return Britney Spears and the Rolling Stones to the charts, respectively. Not that Hucknall’s versions need redoing; they have a life of their own. But they also have an openness that suggests the possibility and the desirability of further development. “I’ve been the master of low expectations,” he sings in “The Death of the Cool.” These songs demonstrate why these days he’s the master of something more. Rating: Four more brand-new flames out of five.

Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby: Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby (Legacy)--The trouble with recordings by veteran acoustic virtuosos like Skaggs and Hornsby is that they tend to cater to diehard fans while implicitly ignoring the public at large—to focus inward, in other words, instead of out. It’s a problem largely avoided on this album because Skaggs and Hornsby come from the opposite ends of just about every spectrum. Skaggs is a gospel-loving string picker with roots in bluegrass and country, Hornsby a secular-progressive ivory tickler with roots in pop, jazz, and the Grateful Dead. So if they were to accomplish anything together, neither could retreat into his musical comfort zone. The standout serious track is Hornsby’s “Mandolin Rain” recast as a minor-key Appalachian ballad (sort of). The standout joke is Rick James’ “Super Freak” transformed from a 'ho-down into a hoedown. In between they find fertile common ground in their mutual respect of the public domain. Rating: Three-and-a-half colliding worlds out of five.

Sly and the Family Stone: Stand! (Epic/Legacy)--The hits that first appeared herein (“Everyday People,” “I Want to Take You Higher,” “You Can Make It If You Try,” the title cut) suggest that there would there have been no Prince, Michael Jackson, or George Clinton as we know them without Sylvester Stewart, but it’s the Stewart-composed, fourteen-minute instrumental “Sex Machine” that suggests even James Brown owed him a shout-out. And not only does a previously unreleased bonus track matter for once (check out “Soul Clappin’ II”), but the non-hits “Somebody’s Watching You” and “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey” retain their freshness as well. Rating: Four-and-a-half riots goin’ on out of five.

2007 Album Reviews: R

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

Ramones: It’s Alive 1974-1996 (Rhino Home Video)--The Ramones weren’t the first or even the best punk band. Such titles, their inaccuracy aside, only obscure what the Ramones really were: the greatest American rock-and-roll band of all time. Several of the thirty-three “chapters” on this almost comprehensive, two-DVD set were shot by amateurs and are so technically deficient that even diehard completists won’t select the “play all” option twice. (The two 1988 Rochester Institute of Technology performances are the worst, but the Austin, Houston, Chicago, and, alas, CBGB material ain’t so hot either). But the best is great enough to make imagining who the Ramones’ competition was, is, or might ever be seem futile. Start with Disc One, Chapters Thirteen-Fifteen (four from Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, three ace Leave Home lip-synchs, and half the legendary 1977 London New Year’s Eve show respectively). Then proceed to Disc Two, Chapters One-Three, Six-Ten, and Twelve (twenty-four songs from mostly European TV shows, 1978-85). Conclude with Chapter Eleven, which proves that, for nine songs at the 1982 US Festival anyway, American audiences had as much common sense as the rest of the civilized world. Rating: Four motor heads out of five.

The Rat Pack: Christmas with the Rat Pack (Capitol)--Caveat emptor: Most of these performances have been released before. And with Sammy Davis, Jr., singing only three songs (Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin split the other eighteen) and Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford nowhere in sight, the billing is obviously manipulative. But it’s always heartening to recall the days when singing Christmas songs with a martini in one hand and a cigarette in the other was not a politically incorrect hat trick. Rating: Three-and-a-half golden rings out of five.

Eddi Reader: Peacetime (Compass)--The main difference between this Eddi Reader album and the ones that washed ashore via Warner Bros. distribution in the ’90s is drums and original material: the older albums had both, and this one has little to none of either. (Seven songs are “traditional” Scottish folk ballads.) The main similarities are Reader’s unerring ear, her quietly desperate agnosticism (“Prisons,” “Should I Pray?”), and her stunningly beautiful voice. Rating: Four fairground attractions out of five.

The Receiver: Decades (Stunning Models on Display)—I’ve been waiting for three months now for the charms of this moody electronica to wear thin, only to find myself more charmed all the time. Imagine Yo La Tengo without any mad-guitar rave-ups and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what Casey and Jesse Cooper are up to: minor-key melody fragments in (and atop) which Casey’s voice and an electric piano (as opposed, say, to a synthesizer, although there may be one or more in here somewhere) create a mystically wintry haze so captivating that you won’t even notice how lame the lyrics are unless you log onto thereceiverband.com and read them yourself. Rating: Four daydream believers out of five.

Jim Reeves: Anthology (RCA Nashville/BMG Heritage)—You want subversive? How about a quaintly playful Western-swing ditty called “Beatin’ on the Ding Dong” delivered with the same stoic dignity that characterizes the bulk of this forty-song testament to late-night romantic misery? And how about wrapping that misery in singing and instrumentation so suave that even housewives and truckers who’ve never heard of Leonard Cohen will end up swallowing whole a sorrow that’s every bit as heavy as his? In the dark night of Reeves’ musical soul, it was always three A.M. Rating: Four tenders are the night out of five.

Relient K: Let It Snow Baby … Let It Reindeer (Capitol/Gotee)--Half rip-off, half revelation: The five songs not on 2003’s punky Deck the Halls, Bruise Your Hand (included here in its entirety) suggest that, unlikely as it seems, meaningful new Christmas songs remain to be written. If “Merry Christmas, Here’s to Many More” and “Boxing Day” are merely solid filler, the Narnia-inspired “In like a Lion (Always Winter)” is a simpler yet richer musical adaptation of C.S. Lewis than anything dreamt of in the philosophies of Steve Hackett or the 2nd Chapter of Acts. Overall, though, the jarring juxtaposition of the punky and the reflective suggests maybe Matt Thiessen should re-read the fifth chapter of Luke. Rating: Two-and-a-half calling birds out of four.

Diana Ross: Last Time I Saw Him (Hip-O Select)--This got lost back in 1973, and, no, it’s not spectacular enough for this lavish two-disc, alternate-version-enhanced treatment (quadraphonic mixes, anyone?). It does, however, catch Ross with her guard down, trying on style after style in search of a perfect fit that she almost finds in a handful of numbers better suited to Helen Reddy or Dusty Springfield, comes nowhere near in the one about not caring about money or Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors,” and eventually locates in, of all things, “Turn Around,” written by Harry Belafonte long before anyone knew he was a nutcase. Rating: Three-and-a-half ladies singing the light browns out of five.

2007 Album Reviews: P

(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.

2007 Album Reviews: N-O

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

Anna Netrebko: Russian Album (Deutsche Grammophon)--It’s an insider truism that the major labels sabotaged classical music’s marketability when they quit nurturing it like a garden and began slaughtering it like a fatted calf--by going, in other words, for the kill with big but not necessarily substantial names instead of by patiently keeping alive time-tested music that is its own best gimmick. With Netrebko, however, the industry may have the best of both worlds. Sure, she’s a looker with a lunatic fringe of followers for whom her singing is only one attraction. But she’s also, at thirty-five, an opera veteran and, by all accounts, only getting better. Certainly it’s a good sign that at this point in her career, when she could’ve made a killing herself by applying her magnificent soprano to an album of Broadway standards, she’s recorded songs by Rachmaninov, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and Glinka with the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre instead. Rating: Four Volga boatwomen out of five.

Ted Nugent: Love Grenade (Eagle)--Given his relatively undistinguished recordings in the Reagan ’80s and Crave Man from 2002, it would seem that it takes Democratic Party dominance to bring out the best in Ted Nugent. Whether on “Cat Scratch Fever” (unleashed during Jimmy Carter’s only term) or on the entire Spirit of the Wild album (Bill Clinton’s first), Nugent flourishes as a rabid underdog, biting the hand that feeds because he’d rather feed himself, preferably with the victims of his latest hunt. Or, as he proclaims on this album’s “Stand,” “Rugged independence is a lot of fun. / I laugh so hard when I see ’em run.” And laugh he does, especially in the song where he identifies the university from which he got his “magnum cum loudmouth” (“Funk U”) and the double-entendre-laden “Girl Scout Cookies.” It is, in fact, his bulldozing of anything--whether it be drugs, government interference, or good taste--that stands between him and life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that makes pigeonholing him as “conservative” a mistake. What conservative musician do you know who’d sandwich a blistering instrumental called “Eaglebrother” between songs called “Geronimo and Me” and “Spirit of the Buffalo”? And, for those who’ve been with him from the beginning, he offers a new-and-improved “Journey to the Center of Your Mind.” Rating: Four stiff middle fingers out of five.

Sinead O’Connor: Theology (Koch)--O’Connor calls this half-acoustic, half-electric double album of predominantly Old Testament-based songs her “attempt to create a place of peace in a time of war,” but it will probably just further her reputation for mixed-up confusion. While it establishes some continuity with 2005’s Rastafarian-influenced Throw Down Your Arms (O’Connor replaces “Yahweh” with “Jah” throughout), its heavy reliance on the Psalms and her arresting cover of the Mary Magdalene-identified “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” suggest that while you can take the girl out of the Catholic Church, you can’t take the Catholic Church out of the girl. Nevertheless, the songs, especially the unplugged versions, are moving, suggesting less a “place of peace” than the sense that, this side of eternity, such places do not exist. Rating: Three-and-a-half dona nobis pacems out of five.

Christopher O’Riley: Second Grace--The Music of Nick Drake (World Village)--There are good reasons not to trust whatever positive reactions one may have to O’Riley’s latest solo-piano treatment of a beloved pop oeuvre. First, although as an accomplished performer of the Romantic repertoire (Debussy, Rachmaninoff) and the host of an NPR classical-music program he should be smart enough to write decent prose, his liner notes consist mainly of juvenile gaffes (“utterly unique,” “masterful” for “masterly”), florid overwriting (“The songs of Nick Drake continue to radiate their lifegiving, though cautionary, force like a sudden flush of migrating birds….”), and boilerplate sentimentalism (“… the obliviousness of the public more than likely sending him further and further into himself”). Second, as the most distinguishing and appealing quality of Drake’s music was his voice, the very idea of performing Drake without vocals seems misbegotten. That O’Riley’s faithful if clustery renditions often “work” anyway (I prefer his concise, recognizable “River Man” to Brad Mehldau’s distended, improvisational one) doesn’t mean he’ll teach Drake fans anything they don’t already know. Rating: Three-and-a-half parasites out of five.

Dolores O’Riordan: Are You Listening? (Sanctuary)--O’Riordan’s tart, Irish-accented singing was always the best and the worst part of the Cranberries. Softly aglide atop the band’s prettier melodies, it provided the perfect distraction from O’Riordan’s at-best competent lyrics; blaringly harsh on the band’s angrier numbers, it drew attention to how little she had to say. Whether owing to maturity, marriage, motherhood, or all three, this solo outing finds O’Riordan in “glide” mode, with a band that faithfully (as opposed to slavishly) re-creates the Cranberries’ sound (no mean feat, given that bassist Marco Mendoza was last glimpsed hereabouts on tour with Ted Nugent). The result is that her (still obnoxious) anger gets short shrift. Only on “Stay with Me” (not The Faces’), “Loser” (not Beck’s), and “October” (not U2’s) does her jugular bulge, leaving nine songs that won’t sound outclassed by “Linger” or “Dreams” when fans sequence them into their homemade best-ofs. Rating: Three-and-a-half potato famines out of five.

2007 Album Reviews: M

(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.

2007 Album Reviews: K-L

(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.