Saturday, December 5, 2009

Illinois Entertainer Reviews 2009 (Part IV)

I published twenty-nine reviews in the Illinois Entertainer in 2009. Below are five of the brief ones.

IAN HUNTER: Man Overboard (New West)--Picking up where he left off with 2007’s Shrunken Heads, the erstwhile Mott the Hoople frontman has now become the first major rocker to release an album at the age of seventy. More impressively, you’d never know it to be the work of a septuagenarian. If anything, Hunter’s awareness of his mortality seems to have tapped an autumnal wellspring. True, “Arms and Legs” begins with him seeing a “ghostly shadow of a man” in the mirror, but it develops into a full-bodied love song, and by the next track, “Up and Running,” he’s up and running. The primarily acoustic instrumentation and Hunter’s increasingly raspy pipes may suggest early Rod Stewart more than vintage Mott, but early Rod Stewart was really good. And “Girl from the Office” is as exquisitely charming as klassic Kinks.

KEITH JARRETT: Testament: Paris/London (ECM)--Two more improvised solo-piano jazz concerts from the master of solo-piano jazz improv, the first (Paris) clocking in at sixty-nine minutes, the second (London) at ninety-three. And, as has been the case for the last thirty-plus years, if you didn’t know Jarrett was making each track up as he went along, you’d never guess he was. The tension between his left hand’s repetitive rhythms and his right hand’s melodic virtuosity still provides the suspense--a suspense made all the more gripping because it holds its own creator in its grip--and he still draws upon the full range of his vast musical knowledge (pretty much everything from classical to Miles Davis). Most of what results is as impressive as the occasional slow, simple changes of pace are beautiful.

TOMMY KEENE: In the Late Bright (Second Motion)--It’s hard to believe that twenty-five years have passed since Tommy Keene released Places That Are Gone. More than any other middle-aged pop-rocker, Keene seems stuck in a moment that he can’t get out of. Not that it’s a bad moment: His attractive setting of bittersweet vignettes to wistful melodies sprinkled with Rickenbacker-sounding fairy dust and sung in a gruff Paisely Underground voice serves as a perennial rebuke to the vicissitudes of fashion. But it is weird that he sounds exactly the same as he did when it appeared he would accompany his then-indie peers R.E.M. and the Replacements into high-profile glory. Those who argue that Keene does too evolve will cite “Elevated,” this album’s sole--and Keene’s first-ever--instrumental. R.E.M. and Replacements fans will say big deal.

THE KINKS: Picture Book (Sanctuary)--Nineteen years after their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and twelve years after their breakup, the Kinks finally get their box set. Has it been worth the wait? Other than the fact that “Come Dancing” appears only in a demo version and “(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman” is omitted altogether, yes. The eighty-two songs on Discs One through Three, which chronicle 1964 (when “You Really Got Me” exploded on both sides of the Atlantic) through 1970 (when “Lola” did the same), find the Kinks not only keeping quantitative and qualitative stride with the Beatles, the Stones, and the Who but also sometimes outstriding them. Alas, as Picture Book‘s lengthy booklet painstakingly documents, they could also be uncommonly volatile, insularly British, and bewilderingly inclined toward concept albums (see Disc Four). It took the back-to-basics Sleepwalker, Misfits, and Low Budget albums (Disc Five) to pave the way for their early-eighties success. Disc Six proves that their barely noticed late-’eighties and early-’nineties failures had their share of highlights as well.

ELENI MANDELL: Artificial Fire (Zedtone)--You’d never guess from the care evident in these fifteen songs that there’s an economic downturn or that 2008 saw a 20% decrease in CD sales. It’s almost as if Eleni Mandell feels liberated by her reduced chances of striking it rich as a pop star--liberated to forgo obvious radio-friendliness for offbeat syncopation, occasionally dissonant instrumentation, and folk-jazz melodies that unfold as slowly and as unpredictably as a reverie. Her lyrics unfold the same way. Essentially a miniaturist (kissing plays a central role in five songs), she also writes about macrocosmic matters (“God Is Love,” “I Love Planet Earth”) with no hint of sentimentality or agitprop. More than anything else, what draws you in is her solid-smoke voice, whether tough (“Cracked”) or tender (the rest).

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