Thursday, February 28, 2013

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A wonderfully sparse and subtle offering from guitarist Philip Catherine, featuring Tom Harrell on flügelhorn and Hein Van de Geyn on bass. This drumless trio pays memorial tribute to Chet Baker with a tranquil, melancholy set of standards and originals, beginning with Miles Davis' "Nardis" and continuing with an extended Catherine original titled "Twice a Week." The set also includes a swinging "I Remember You," a mid-tempo "My Funny Valentine," and a nod to hard bop with Hank Mobley's "Funk in Deepfreeze." Harrell contributes two originals, "From This Time, From That Time" and "Songflower," while Van de Geyn weighs in with a dark waltz, "Soul Role." Catherine closes the album with his own angular, altered "Blues for G.T." Catherine's bright, twangy sound and tasteful use of vibrato, harmonics, octave leaps, and volume and chorus effects distinguish him from many other straight-ahead jazz guitarists. Van de Geyn proves himself to be not only an excellent timekeeper, but also a conversational ensemble player. And this stripped-down setting especially flatters the velvety, lyrical brilliance of Tom Harrell.


Wednesday, February 27, 2013

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A collaboration between an avant-garde modern classical composer and a traditional Indian/Hindi composer/performer seems as unlikely as ice hockey on the River Styx. However, Passages is a collaboration between Philip Glass and Ravi Shankar and it works quite well. Shankar's smooth style fits nicely with Glass' dissonant orchestrations. There is a great deal of technical data involved here. Both of these artists have long taken intellectual approaches to music. Thus, the liner notes are a bit heavy-handed. The music is brilliant. The symphony dominates the soundscapes, but Shankar's atmospheres are integral to the success of this project. This CD will appeal to fans of John CageTerry Riley, and Steve Reich.


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Natacha Atlas has never lacked ambition and desire in her music, and there are times here where she seems to be trying to channel the spirit of the great Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum. The strings sweep along and are twists that keep it from being a straightforward Egyptian album, such as the addition of piano that crops up so often, or the programming on "Batkallim" (actually the CD's most ambitious track, as it fuses Middle Eastern culture with the 21st century quite successfully). One of the cover versions doesn't fare as well as the original material (or as well as the version of Francoise Hardy's "La Nuit Sur la Ville," which drops easily into place); her take on Nick Drake's "River Man" is simply too mannered, adding vocals details that detract from the pastoral evening atmosphere of the song. Whether the sampled speaking voices that keep cropping up between tracks are necessary is debatable, too. Cut away those parts, however, and the remainder gives further proof that Atlas is certainly becoming the Egyptian diva for the Western market. The arrangements are superbly lush and the singing keeps getting better and better.


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John Vanderslice is nothing if not consistent. He's never made a bad record, and although his idiosyncratic songwriting and production have only grown more confident and compelling with his last several releases, neither has he made one that is truly, unabashedly great. Romanian Names does little to change any of that, news that should be at once heartening, slightly disappointing, and ultimately entirely unsurprising to his followers. A couple of minor, outward things are different this time around. After six albums on Barsuk, Vanderslice has jumped ship to the increasingly eminent Dead Oceans imprint. He's also decided to shake up his writing process by hammering the songs out in a new basement studio at home before fleshing them out at Tiny Telephone, his usual HQ. Songwise, the results are subtle and few: save perhaps the sprightly, hummable "C&O Canal" and a pair of lovely ballads, "Too Much Time" and "Hard Times," these numbers aren't discernibly more direct or immediate than prior efforts. The album's sound is a typically Vanderslicean mix of inventive chamber orchestration, dappled electronic overtones, and scruffy acoustic indie pop guitars, a step back from the mildly more organic orientation of Emerald City to the variegated textures of Pixel Revolt, though in keeping with both of those albums' gentle, accessible veneer. In terms of the lyrics -- always a crucial factor with Vanderslice -- this may rank as his most oblique work, and not merely because the liners, atypically, lack a lyric sheet (although that could be taken as a clue to his intent). His familiar character-driven approach is largely intact, but the details are sketchier than usual, with few clear narratives emerging despite recurrent references to fraught romantic exploits, loss, violence, memories of summertime, and isolation in wilderness settings. The lack of specificity can be refreshing, with simple chorus phrases and potent, isolated images (notably, of fetal horses galloping in the womb) taking the place of involved story lines. Too often, though, the songs just feel enigmatic and empty. Aside from "Fetal Horses" and the several standouts mentioned earlier, there's strangely little here to hold on to, lyrically or otherwise, makingNames an oddly evasive, impenetrable listen, even if only one song -- the repetitive and slightly grating "D.I.A.L.O." -- comes close to being unpleasant. Not great then, though not bad, Romanian Names holds the unfortunate and surprising distinction of being the very first John Vanderslice album to feel like just another John Vanderslice album.


Tuesday, February 26, 2013

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In 2005, Rhino Handmade, the Internet-only mail-order specialty label dedicated to limited-edition reissues from the vaults of Warner Bros. Records, released Scratchy: The Complete Reprise Recordings, by Crazy Horse. The two-disc set contained Crazy Horse's two albums for the Warner subsidiary Reprise Records, Crazy Horse (1971) and Loose (1972), on the first CD, with the second CD containing rehearsals and outtakes, plus two tracks recorded by the group in its '60s doo wop days as Danny & the Memories. Only 2500 copies of the set were printed, and they sold out quickly. So, the British branch of Warner Bros. decided to re-create the album for conventional retail, minus the Danny & the Memories tracks, asThe Complete Reprise Recordings 1971-'73Crazy Horse went on to make several additional albums for other labels over its career while, of course, gaining its greatest recognition as a backup band for Neil Young. But even on the material heard here, the group's essential nature is clear, confusing as it is. In essence, the history of Crazy Horse, not unlike the history of Fleetwood Mac, is one of a rhythm section, in this case bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina, backing a changing population of singer/songwriter/guitarist frontmen (and that's even leaving Young out of the discussion). It didn't look like that would be the story at first, however, as TalbotMolina, and singer/songwriter/guitarist Danny Whitten made up the core of the initial group, as they had Danny & the Memories and the Rockets, another early configuration. Adding two talented journeymen, veteran pianist/arranger Jack Nitzscheand young guitarist Nils Lofgren, as quasi-members, they made Crazy Horse, a highly regarded country-rock effort in the style of the Young/Crazy Horse albums Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and After the Gold RushWhitten, with his singing and playing, and with standout songs like the future Rod Stewart hit "I Don't Want to Talk About It," was the obvious star, but he was also the band's first casualty, suffering from a heroin addiction that caused him to be dismissed from the group shortly after the LP was released. That sabotaged promotion for the album, and it never found the audience it deserved. Nitzsche and Lofgren went back to their other activities, and Talbot and Molina were forced to recruit three new members to make Loose, which, not surprisingly, sounds like the work of an entirely different, and vastly inferior, band. This means the first 11 tracks on the first disc here are the only essential ones, although some of the playing in the outtakes is powerful. Even two tracks shorter, the package is an important one for fans of '70s country-rock.


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If To Survive is any indication, Joan Wasser's life after Real Life is calmer, but no less thoughtful, than it was before her beautifully stormy debut album. Real Life was a major statement, filled with a lifetime's worth of catharsis. To Survive doesn't try for that scope -- as the title suggests, these songs are about day to day concerns that are no less vital: aloneness, togetherness, love, hope, and righteous anger. However,Joan as Police Woman's "beauty is the new punk rock" aesthetic is used just as powerfully here, with the same kind of delicate bravery and strong vulnerability. Wasser can still set a scene like few others: "Honor Wishes" drops listeners into a sultry heart to heart, and the way she draws out "Would you love me? Would you trust me?" as she sings is as wounded as it is seductive, turning the song into a dance of understanding between two people in the middle of the night. A pair of songs make up To Survive's heart: "To Be Loved" is hopeful but bittersweet, celebrating new love and recognizing what it took to get to it with soulful brass and realizations like "when you found me I could not be loved, but then I found me and I'm happy to be loved." "To Be Lonely" is bittersweet but hopeful, wishing for lasting love with hypnotic, incantation-like simplicity and yearning pianos. These mirror image songs reveal the yin-yang chase of love and loneliness so well and so intimately that everything else on To Survive could be mediocre and it'd still be well worth hearing, but the rest of the album is nearly as strong. The easy, elegant sensuality that peeked out on Real Life from time to time is in full flower here, playfully on "Holiday" and more insistently on "Hard White Wall," where soft harmonies and keyboards contrast with driven rhythm guitars. Rebirth and gratitude are also major themes on To Survive, and though it's often more challenging to write about happiness in a meaningful way, Wasser finds unique ways to channel those feelings on the luminous tribute "Start of My Heart." Sonically speaking, To Survive is softer and cleaner than Real Life, in keeping with its more serene outlook. This works especially well on "Magpies'" sparkling melody, but the polished production distances some of the album's more intense moments, as on the politically charged "Furious," where Wasser's outrage and impatience feel a bit removed. To Survive is most affecting with songs like "To Survive," when it feels like you're sitting next to her on her piano bench. While Real Life was so fully realized that it seemed to have a life of its own, To Survive feels more like songs written by somebody than something that materialized because it had to. On those terms, the album is very, very good, and when it closes with fireworks on "To America," it might not be a completely happy ending, but it shows that in order to survive real life, it's necessary to embrace the uplifting parts of it as well as the desperate ones.


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Joan Wasser spent most of the '90s and 2000s playing with everyone from the Dambuilders to Antony and the Johnsons to Jeff Buckley (with whom she was involved when he died), but of all the projects she's been involved in, Joan as Police Woman is the the finest. Real Life seems like an immediately brilliant debut, but, as is usually the case, years of experience went into it. You can hear it in Wasser's voice, womanly and raspy; in the way she and the rest of the band fuse soul, post-punk, and '70s-style singer/songwriter pop into something familiar, unique, and seemingly effortless; and in the remarkable vulnerability and strength on display throughout. Wasser took "beauty is the new punk rock" as the manifesto for Joan as Police Woman, and while it's certainly catchy and describes the group's music, there's more to it than that: in Joan as Police Woman's world, it's more challenging, more unexpected, to honor hope and beauty instead of just tearing things down. Real Life's music and words are filled with plenty of spine-tingling beauty, as well as honesty, from how the simmering strings slowly overtake the lilting piano melody on the title track, to the way Wasser offers up her heart on "Anyone": "Try me please/I'm a better dancer than it seems." Even in the supposedly confessional realm of singer/songwriters, it's rare to hear this kind of genuine, nuanced emotion; it's even rarer to have it surrounded by music that's beautifully structured and elegantly played. There is no contrived edginess inJoan as Police Woman's work -- in fact, Real Life's warmth and accessibility might be the most (pleasantly) surprising thing about it. Most of the album is rapturously quiet, drawing listeners into powerful yet gentle songs like "The Ride" and "Feed the Light," which breezes in and out on delicate piano and strings that feel like sunbeams. The band raises the volume for a few gently powerful moments like the smoldering "I Defy," a duet between Wasser and Antony Hegarty that is equal parts drama and intimacy, and the brilliantly guitar- and yearning-driven "Christobel." While most of Real Life shines with hard-won optimism and hope, Joan as Police Woman deals with more difficult emotions just as eloquently. "Eternal Flame" sets a tale of having the strength to walk away from a potentially disastrous relationship, no matter how appealing it seems, to luminous guitars and backing vocals, while "We Don't Own It"'s subtly profound acceptance of the ends of things ("it's in the mystery") makes it the perfect final song. Real Life is an almost eerily flawless album, but as intense as it is, it's also incredibly comforting. This album is necessary.

Monday, February 25, 2013

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Defying the trend of shoving a bunch of songs together for unit-shifting, the soundtrack to the Bill Murray movie The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou is a cohesive and entertaining collection of songs. Sven Libaek's score pieces are remarkable, from the dreamy jazz of "Shark Attack Theme" to the watery, hypnotic "Open Sea Theme," while Mark Mothersbaugh's offerings are as consistently good as ever. From lilting horn orchestrations ("Loquasto International Film Festival") to bright beautiful pieces ("Let Me Tell You About My Boat"), Mothersbaugh triumphs. Filmmaker Wes Anderson contrasts such instrumentals with outstanding '70s rock choices like Iggy & the Stooges' proto-punk Molotov "Search and Destroy," Devo's "Gut Feeling," and a pair of Hunky Dory-extracted David Bowie classics like the rollicking "Queen Bitch" and the somber brilliance of "Life on Mars?" A second version of the latter, sung in Portuguese by Seu Jorge, is one of five absurd but likable Bowie covers, making for an eclectic but compelling collection.

1 0:57

2 4:40

3 3:43

4 3:21

5 1:38

6 2:24

7 2:52

8 4:07

9 2:01

10 3:12

11 3:07

12 3:56

13 3:27

14 2:58

15 3:24

16 4:15

17 3:41

18 1:27

19 1:33

20 5:47