Sunday, April 26, 2009

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.

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