Archive for November, 2007

The Dupe!

Friday, November 30th, 2007

When I was in high school, in a pleasant but sleepy suburb of New York City, my friend Eugenia was THE COOLEST.

One of the many reasons was her cool, mysterious extra life, where she’d go into the city – we all did that – but she’d go to the Duplex, “New York’s Legendary Piano Bar,” where all kinds of cool, mysterious people with cool, mysterious lifestyles drank and sang uncool, not very mysterious show tunes.

Now I’ll admit it: mumblety-mumble years later, although I’ve lived in New York and environs most of my life, I’d never been to the Dupe. Until last night, that is, thanks to Susan Gregory’s birthday party, which featured all the cookies you could eat. Mmm… cookies.

More Soul, More Blues, More Jazz

Friday, November 30th, 2007

Just a photo from Wednesday night’s Soul of the Blues show at Cornelia Street Cafe. Jazz singer Sarah DeLeo, a newcomer to the Cornelia St. stage, opened the show with a set of blues-inflected jazz numbers including a great, obscure Ella Fitzgerald tune called “Too Young To Have the Blues.”

Pictured is our headliner Mala Waldron who tried out some unusual stuff and kicked Soul of the Blues butt as always.

Mala Waldron

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Jake Stigers, Kenny Vance

Wednesday, November 21st, 2007

Jake Stigers, I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got and Live & Loud in the UK

Jake Stigers hasn't slowed down since Comin' Back Again, touring and bringing the rock and roll flame to – well, I guess mostly Europe. His new CD has a loose, energetic flavor, and Stigers's facility with catchy tunesmithing has not deserted him. Several tracks have a folk-rock feel – Jeff Buckley meets James Taylor – while "Girl" is a straightforward, Beatle-esque pop nugget and "Love Is Spoken Here" has a Tom Petty twang. "Miss Reality," "Let Us Take You There," and the title track – which reminds me a lot of Joe Walsh and a little of the Rolling Stones, and that's never a bad thing – hark back to heavy southern and classic rock.

Style aside, good songs are good songs, and these are good songs, arranged with the right amount of, in some cases, sweetness that touches, and in others, gruffness that busts loose without going over the top. Above all, these songs are so good-natured you can't help smiling as you listen, right down to the excellent closer, Stigers's folk-gospel original tune "Jesus Said." The CD can currently be purchased at Koolkatmusik and will soon be widely available.

Also available is a live CD, Live & Loud in the UK, which testifies to the roadworthiness of Stigers and his band. It's a more straight-ahead rock and roll set, tempered with just a couple of power ballads, all very well recorded and mixed, but without the stylistic variety of the new studio album. So it's not as good an introduction as I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got is to Stigers and his band, but it will definitely appeal to those who are already fans. The live tracks are available for purchase through his Myspace page.

Kenny Vance and the Planotones, Countdown to Love

Kenny Vance, a founding member of the seminal doo-wop group Jay and the Americans ("This Magic Moment," "Cara Mia"), went on to a distinguished career as – among other things – music director for important American films including Animal House, Eddie and the Cruisers, and American Hot Wax, which was based on the life of legendary DJ Alan Freed. For that film, Vance created The Planotones, an initially fictional group which took on a life of its own.

Since re-forming the Planotones in 1992 Vance has continued carrying the doo-wop tradition to old and new audiences through concerts and new CD releases. His latest disc, Countdown to Love, is both a worthy torch-bearer of the doo-wop tradition and a valuable musical statement on its own terms. Most of the selections are typical doo-wop style songs, but there are some departures. His vocal-heavy version of the garage classic "Louie Louie" is fun, and "The Way You Look Tonight," with its Moonlight Sonata triplets, is quite lovely. So is the Bacharach-David classic "Anyone Who Had a Heart." The driving version of "There Goes My Baby" is refreshing when one is accustomed to the somber way it's usually played, and the a capella "My Girlfriend" closes the CD on a light, quirky note.

Tying them all together are the velvety vocals, sometimes in falsetto, other times in a sweet tenor. The arrangements have, for the most part, an easygoing texture that's clearly not the work of actual teenagers. But they bring the teen-inspired wails of doo-wop softly, comfortably into the 21st century.

City Dictionary, Pt. 1

Wednesday, November 21st, 2007

Bus [buhs]noun – [shortened from "omnibus," from Latin "omni" (many) + "bus" (stop)]

  1. A partially hollowed-out rectangular solid, usually affixed to a road surface; a hillock
  2. Shelter from the storm

Dog [dawg]noun – [from the Lenape "nadagga" (chipmunk)]

  1. A domesticated chipmunk
  2. A rat in a bag

Rat [rat]noun – [from Latin "rattus" (rat)]

  1. A wingless pigeon
  2. A subway track maintenance device

Scaffolding [skaf-uhl-ding, -ohl-]noun – [from ME "skaffle," a game, related to ninepins, in which fieldworkers atop haystacks urinated onto passing sheep]

  1. A “temporary” structure abutting a building
  2. Shelter from the storm

Tourist [toor-ist]noun – [from OE "tor," a small hillock]

  1. An obstruction in the road
  2. A plastic bundle atop a bus (rainy days only)

Virgin [vur-jin]noun – [derivation obscure]

  1. A retail store selling CDs, DVDs, and sundries
  2. A watertight scaffolding for homesick tourists; shelter from the storm

A Thousand Years, A Couple of Blocks

Sunday, November 18th, 2007

New York City can’t boast 1,000 years of history, but it’s not hard to find ancient music within its walls. Yesterday I caught the Ivory Consort‘s CD Release concert at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, where this beatific-looking dude keeps watch outside.

Outside St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery

The present building dates from the late 18th century, but Peter Stuyvesant, the Governor of New Amsterdam, was buried in 1678 on the site, under the earlier chapel. I don’t know what he would have thought of the music being played upstairs. The Ivory Consort presented a program of Arabic, Christian, and Jewish music from what is now Spain and southern France in the 12th century and thereabouts. What the Dutch colonists were listening to in the 17th century, I have no idea (if anyone knows, please enlighten).

Ivory Consort

One of the cool things about the Ivory Consort is that, unlike some early music groups, the members have colorful personalities. You might think of them the way we used to think of our favorite rock bands. Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, the Who – these weren’t just groups, they were made up of distinct personalities who were, as individuals, almost as important to our enjoyment of the band as the overall sound. Singer-viellist Margo Grib manges to slither while standing in one spot – she’s like an operatic, grown-up Shakira (but with a much lovelier voice). Group director Jay Elfenbein is the avuncular, slightly goofball spokesman, a low-key Peter Schickele. Oud player Haig Manoukian is the star soloist; Percussionist-vocalist Rex Benincasa howls in Arabic like a musical Allen Ginsburg; Daphna Mor swings her red tresses while sexily blowing through a variety of tubes with holes in them; Dennis Cinelli is the “quiet” one, calmly playing the saz, gittern, and mandora while observing the others’ antics with a glint in his eye.

Walking home, I snapped this picture down 11st St. from the front of Webster Hall, the historic nightclub that’s soon to be given official Landmark status by the city. I thought this was a nice shot, with the 19th century architectural detail, the 21st century bands on the marquee, and the spire of Grace Church in the background. Grace Church was designed by James Renwick, Jr., who was later responsible for St. Patrick’s Cathedral uptown, and the Smithsonian Institution castle in Washington DC.

Webster Hall and 11th St.

Radio Nowhere and the End of the Hit Parade

Saturday, November 17th, 2007

The very notion of “popular” music is evolving before our eyes and ears. The appeal of a catchy tune hasn’t changed, but we are no longer the mass audience we were during most of the 20th century. Hence, massively popular hit songs are becoming fewer and farther between. We go off by ourselves and listen to new music that appeals to us individually. But when we get together in large numbers we keep using the old songs, over and over again.

Two recent observations have reinforced for me the idea that as a society we are coming to experience and use pop music very differently than we did during what I am starting to think of as the “golden age” of recorded music.

1. I’m at a college hockey game. What do you think they are playing over the P.A. to get the fans excited for the home team’s appearance on the ice? A new song by the Foo Fighters? Something off Jay-Z’s new hit album? Guess again. It’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” a 36-year-old track by The Who. And what does the pep band play in the stands during a pause in the action? “Jungle Boogie,” by Kool & The Gang, from 1973.

2. I’m watching TV. A commercial comes on for some baby product or other. The music: Steppenwolf’s 1968 hit, “Born to be Wild.” Too much time has gone by for it to be meant as a nostalgic appeal to the parents; this music predates the formative years of most of today’s baby-mommies and baby-daddies. It’s simpler than that: “Born To Be Wild” is a song just about everyone knows, whatever your age.

If you had told me, back in the 1970s when I was in high school, that the records my friends and I were playing at our parties would still be supplying the theme songs for sporting events – and college sports, at that – three decades in the future, I’d have said you were nuts. After all, 30 years before my musically formative period, big-band swing and Frank Sinatra were all the rage, and no one was listening to that any more (except “old” folks experiencing nostalgia). As a rule we didn’t appreciate, or even like, the music of one or two generations back.

And we didn’t have to. We had our own defining songs and bands that everyone our age listened to. Sure, tastes varied – some liked southern rock, some liked the Dead, some liked the heavier stuff, and some got into disco – but whether you liked or hated “Sweet Home Alabama,” whether “Hot Stuff” made you boogie or cringe, you knew those songs, and so did everyone else.

How many recent songs – and by recent I mean since the age of downloads began – can we say that about? I can think of a few monster hits, like “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley and “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” by Green Day. But mostly all I can come up with are 1990s hits like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Oops! I Did It Again,” which, while they still feel recent to me, date from before the Great Splintering.

It’s not that songs with catchy melodies and great hooks aren’t being written anymore. On the contrary, with recording technology accessible to just about anyone, excellent independent projects abound, and talented songwriters flower more and more readily. While the ability to write “hit-worthy” pop tunes remains relatively rare, it can be found all over if you pay attention to indie music.

But 99.9% of the great pop tunes being written today will never reach a substantial audience, not to mention penetrate the culture at large. The releases are far too numerous, the audience much too splintered. Most of the more traditional obstacles to commercial success haven’t gone away either. So where and how are you going to hear these great new songs?

Even the most popular music websites and blogs have vastly fewer readers than the big radio stations had listeners in their glory days. You might discover a great new song or band, you might tell your friends, but even if you’re today’s version of a tastemaker – an Originator, as the psychologist and media consultant David Jennings calls it in his recent book Net, Blogs and Rock ‘n’ Roll – your “public” is still a very small subset of the culture at large. Hence the same will be true of the audience for your new favorite song.

So where will the next “Born To Be Wild” come from? The next “Mysterious Ways”? The next “Oops! I Did It Again,” even? It’s the wrong question. The right question is, how will they spread? – and there’s no good answer right now.

Is there something inherently good about the existence of mega-hit songs? Maybe not; maybe the new paradigm isn’t fundamentally a bad thing. But it certainly seems like a sad thing – not because I’m still going to be singing Beatles tunes in the shower in the year 2040, but because a kid born today might have to be doing the same thing.

Note: for a more succinct (and tuneful) expression of the point I’m making, listen to Bruce Springsteen’s new hit “Radio Nowhere.”

Update: a discussion of this post has been happening over at Uncertain Principles.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Lynn, Sasscer, Abdel-Gawad, LittleHorse

Friday, November 16th, 2007

The cream of this week’s musicalicious crop is oh, so creamy.

LittleHorse, Strangers in the Valley

I’ve been listening for the last couple of weeks to LittleHorse’s new album, their third, and it’s a keeper. (Also, judging from the somewhat lesser quality of the two songs they’ve remixed here from their previous CD, it’s probably the best.)

Led by two brothers, LittleHorse is a two-piano power-pop band that sounds a little like (take a deep breath) Queen plus a Latin band, and Billy Joel, backing up Joe Jackson, with Jellyfish on vocal harmonies. Or something. Whatever it is, it’s one of the year’s highlights – inventive but accessible, loaded with creamy harmonies, top-drawer musicality, and joyful fun. Highly recommended. Listen at their Myspace page, or at CD Baby where you can also buy it.

Eliza Lynn, The Weary Wake Up

Although I wasn’t terribly impressed with Eliza Lynn’s song on Putumayo’s recent Americana compilation, I like the label’s work so much that I almost automatically give a listen to anything from an artist they have included in the past. Lynn’s new CD turns out to be a solid, if not spectacular, set that embodies the term “Americana” in its broader sense, drawing on folk balladry, rock, blues, bluegrass, and jazz, but projecting a single characteristic voice.

Part of that consistency comes from Lynn’s literal voice, a cocky, cutting, but cloaked instrument that curls around cryptic lyrics like “You don’t know when it comes, cause it’s here before you’re ready. But if you walk it out the door, you’ll be begging it back on your knees.” In the brighter numbers, like “Hold My Breath,” “How Many Times,” and the Dixieland-style “Puddin’ Pie,” her smiling twang reminds me a little of Ellen McIlwaine, while her darker moments, like the trippy banjo-and-bass tune “Conrad” and the newgrassy “Bound,” express more of a snarly, Lucinda Williams sensibility.

“Intolerance Blues” is one of the more vivid political songs I’ve heard lately (and I’ve heard a lot). Lynn nails jingoistic country singers and right-wing hate radio with one swipe: “A country station is playing a song of vengeance, riding on patriotic hate… The country they sing of sounds like an angry drunkard – blinded and happy on his drug.”

And she picks a banjo as mean as her fights. Altogether, this is a nicely put together CD that grew on me with each listen. Sample the CD at her website or listen and buy at CD Baby.

Dave Sasscer, Quiet Mind

Here’s another artist who does a good job with a variety of styles.

First off: making relaxing soft rock that doesn’t get smarmy or sentimental is a neat trick, and David Sasscer pulls it off nicely here on several songs.

But as the set progresses one hears nods towards Santana, reggae, soul, funk, country, Eastern mysticism, and groovy, late 60s-style pop. Each song, though, has a simple, sweeping flow, even when rocking, which some of them do. The lyrics flow too, soulful and compact.

The only weakness, and it’s pretty minor, is that Sasscer’s singing, while sensitive, doesn’t have much power. Still it works all right in this easygoing, modest music. In fact just about everything about this CD is “all right,” in the best possible sense of the phrase. And playfulness does break up the meditative proceedings. The fun rocker “Dynamite” sounds a little like Jefferson Airplane, while “Jon Stewart is God” takes a good-natured poke at celebrity worship: “Jon Stewart is God / He made the earth and sky… from Genesis through Psalms / If you read between the lines / It’s Jon you’ll find.”

A lot of talented new indie artists mix and match from an assortment of musical styles. Not too many do it as smoothly and assuredly as Sasscer. Highly recommended. Hear and buy at CD Baby.

Riad Abdel-Gawad, El Tarab El Aseel: Autochthonic Enchantment

Living in New York City, I’m exposed to a fair amount of Arabic music. But I know very little about it. So I don’t have much context in which to place this recording by violinist Riad Abdel-Gawad. It sure sounds tasty and interesting, though.

Abdel-Gawad was born in Cairo, and although he was educated at Harvard and in western music conservatories, he explores his musical roots in the four pieces on this disc, mixing the taqasim (improvisational) tradition with tarab, the “performance practice of musical ecstasy.” Adbel-Gawad and his group use the oud (Arab lute), riqq (Arab tambourine), qanun (Arab zither), and nay (Arab flute), all traditional acoustic instruments, together with the violin, which has been co-opted into Arab music (replacing the indigenous two-stringed kamangah).

My untrained ears can’t tell for sure where composition ends and improvisation begins, or where the music adheres to historical forms and where it doesn’t, but I am enjoying it just the same. And on that latter point, Abdel-Gawad says something very interesting in his liner notes: before the advent of recording technology, it was the natural state of musical traditions to evolve. Afterwards, certain recorded performances became canonical, and so a distinction arose between historically “accurate” performances and “evolutionary” or “experimental” music. This is just as true of Western musical traditions as Eastern. And it is, in a sense, an artificial distinction.

I don’t have time to undertake a study of Arab musical traditions, and most likely you (dear Western reader) don’t either. What you can do is listen to these long, twisting, alternately trance-like and dramatic pieces, and I’ll wager you’ll find it a rewarding experience.

No Degrees of Separation

Thursday, November 15th, 2007

A gaggle (a phalanx? a castleful? a stupefaction?) of New York City musical royalty (and some who should be) swirled through Gizzi’s Coffeehouse this evening. I went to see Leo (pictured), who, accompanied by the fine artist-guitarist Amura, delivered an intense and energetic batch of socially conscious, playful, powerful, rough-folk songs of his own cockeyed and cantankerous devising. In attendance, along with your humble correspondent: songwriting legends Bobby Stewart and Elisa Peimer, and, performing after Leo, NYC violin legend Deni Bonet, who not too long ago lent her talents to a Bobby Stewart recording on which I also appeared.

Leo

Deni performed backed by guitarist extraordinaire David Patterson, who had just finished a recording session with Halley DeVestern, and who had backed up jazz-pop vocalist Cybele Kaufman at one of my recent Soul of the Blues shows. David P. also appeared on the David Sasscer album, which, by pure coincidence – as I’d never heard of Sasscer until his publicist sent me his new CD recently – I’m reviewing right now for my Indie Round-Up column this week.

Got that? There’ll be a test tomorrow.

Music Review: Rachel Barton Pine, American Virtuosa: Tribute to Maud Powell

Wednesday, November 14th, 2007

Ever heard of Maud Powell? I hadn’t, and I fancied myself at least a semi-knowledgeable classical music buff. My guess is that today’s classical music fans are much more likely to be familiar with the contemporary violinist Rachel Barton Pine, a renowned, award-winning soloist based in Chicago, than with Powell, the turn-of-the-last-century concert hall star to whom Pine pays glowing tribute in her new CD, American Virtuosa.

In these performances (and her liner notes) Pine argues for a place for Maud Powell in the violin pantheon with the likes of Jascha Heifetz and Fritz Kreisler. More detailed notes, by the Powell expert Karen A. Shaffer, explain how each of these selections was transcribed by, written for, or dedicated to Powell during the 1890s through the 1910s. In the process Shaffer makes the case for her designation of Powell as “the first great American violinist.” It’s pretty clear that she was, as Wikipedia puts it, “the first American violinist to achieve international rank.”

“At a time,” Shaffer writes, “when much of North America was still a vast wilderness and travel was dangerous and difficult, Maud Powell braved conditions that few would tolerate today in order to bring classical music to people who had never heard a concert.” By programming light, homey fare together with weightier works, Powell “built a bridge of understanding spanning from the simplest melodies to the large, complex sonata forms.”

By chance or not, these selections also comprise, for us, a good survey of the musical styles in vogue in the American concert halls of the time. (The CD also includes Powell’s only transcription of a true popular song, “Silver Threads Among the Gold.”) Great European composers like Chopin, Sibelius, and Dvořák are represented, but American composers dominate – Amy Beach, Percy Grainger, Cecil Burleigh, Marion Bauer – as do Americana pieces, like Max Liebling’s “Fantasia on Sousa Themes,” Herman Bellstedt, Jr.’s “Caprice on Dixie,” and most notably Bauer’s “Up the Ocklawah,” a sophisticated, modernistic piece which is also one the CD’s most beautiful and romantic.

Historical interest aside, on purely musical terms Pine’s recordings are wonderful. Dvořák’s famous “Humoresque” is weirdly slow and contemplative – perhaps that’s how Powell performed it – but on the whole, Pine renders the classical selections with impeccable taste to match her sweet, warm, but sprightly and crowd-pleasing tone. (Pine’s accompanist, pianist Matthew Hagle, deserves much credit for his careful contrasts and sensitive settings.)

However, the real high spots of the CD come from the west side of the pond. I’ve already mentioned Bauer’s piece. “Romance for Violin and Piano, Op. 23,” written by Amy Beach for Powell when both were only 25, is a knockout of a work, gorgeous and mature. Carl Venth’s “Aria” is filled with lovely, dramatic melodies, and Burleigh’s “Four Rocky Mountain Sketches,” while not compositionally adventurous, are full of American energy and charm.

Two transcriptions of African-American songs bear witness to Powell’s very unusual (for the time) championing of music from the black American experience. She was, in fact, the first white, classical music solo artist to perform an African-American spiritual in concert. Her transcription of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s “Deep River,” and Pine’s performance of it, approach the sublime.

Musically rewarding and historically interesting, American Virtuosa will be a fine addition to the shelf of anyone who enjoys great violin playing, and to the library of anyone interested in the history of American music. It illuminates a time we rarely think about any more when we think about the arts in America. Brava Maud Powell, and Brava Rachel Barton Pine for bringing her back to life.

Bobcats

Monday, November 12th, 2007

OK, so it doesn’t always rain in Connecticut. This weekend we traveled to Quinnipiac University where Elisa sang the national anthem before the men’s ice hockey game against St. Lawrence University. Here’s a fabulous action shot.

quinnipiac

In the event, the Bobcats fought St. Lawrence to a 2-2 tie. (And fight they did.) But halfway through the game we had to leave, to drive up Route 10 for our gig at Jitters in Southington. Not a spot of rain the whole time. Not much traffic, either. Same on the way home. My spidey sense was tingling. We left late, yet arrived early. The Jitters coffee didn’t taste quite the same as last time. The price of gas seemed to rise and fall over the course of a few hours. The small but friendly audience actually paid attention to our songs, even listening to the words. Strains of “Don’t Stop Believing” welled up through a mysterious gap in the space-time continuum. What was up? I had to find out.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up

Thursday, November 8th, 2007

An unusual amount of original-sounding music has burrowed its way out of my listening pile recently. See, in particular, the first two reviews below. But first a quick note for our New York readers: punk-pop dynamo Kirsten DeHaan, an Indie Round-Up favorite, is starting a residency this Thursday at Club Midway on Avenue B. I wrote about her last year here. Do check her out if you’re in town.

Kelli Hanson, Our Buildings

Contemplative but energetic, Kelli Hanson’s music is a strange bird. With a few exceptions – like “Foolish Champion” and the opening track, “Doesn’t Even Matter” – the songs aren’t particularly hooky, and between Hanson’s drawling pronunciation and the deep reverb on her voice it’s hard to make out the words. But the music draws you in with a mysterious power. One can detect touches of an acoustic singer-songwriter vibe, featuring Hanson’s woodsy guitar picking, as well as R&B, Europop, mystical she-magic, modernism, the obscure edges of classic rock, and other strands. There’s even what sounds like prepared piano on the captivating little instrumental “Fall in Canandaigua.” But Hanson is really her own animal. Her tunes might not follow you into the shower, but her thoughtful, atmospheric sounds very well might. I’m keeping this one.

Hear some full tracks at her Myspace page, or sample and purchase at CD Baby.

Mama’s Cookin’, Mama’s Cookin’

Hip-hop beats and rap-like lyrics merge with heavy blues and strong musicianship in the third album from the young Colorado quartet Mama’s Cookin’. The band has come up with a distinct sound, which is quite a rarity. Slide guitar, organ riffs, and live drums alternate with moody jangle and funk grooves, all propping up singer-guitarist Zeb Early’s impassioned vocals. It’s refreshing and worthwhile.

My only caveat: Early’s half-sung, half-rapped style works less well in some of the smoother tracks, like “Lampin’” and “Tough Times” – this sort of music recalls authentic soul sounds like Marvin Gaye’s, and, to my ear, seems to call for real singing. (Listen to Kevin So for a more fulfulling modern interpretation of this feel.)

By contrast, in the band’s higher-energy rock tracks, like “Run Up Quick,” “What I Am,” and “Black Reign,” the medium matches the socially and politically conscious message, and you can feel the power. Great stuff.

Sample the sounds of this original new band at their website or listen and buy at CD Baby.

The Beautiful Girls, Ziggurats

On their new CD, and especially on its first half, the Beautiful Girls indulge in a harsher sound than I was used to hearing from the band – more electric guitar, is what it comes down to. But they retain the precision ska-reggae feel and the sharp, straight-ahead songwriting sensibility that distinguish them from the pack of bands that take inspiration from the Islands.

The evolution works well, but still, some of the best songs come on the quieter second half of the CD: “In Love,” “She’s Evil,” and the gentle “Dela” among them. That’s not to detract from the harder tracks, like “Royalty” and “I Thought About You,” with their heavy riffage. I found them to be a positive development in the band’s sound, and this CD is certainly up there with the Beautiful Girls’ best work, as well as a good introduction to their music for those new to the band.

Hear some of the new tracks at their Myspace page.

Darius Lux, Arise

Darius Lux, an excessively talented one-man band, weaves textured, hooky power pop into coruscating R&B with strong tenor vocals and harmonies. It’s a winning musical recipe.

“Xtraordinary” and “Every Single Moment” are what used to be called radio-single worthy. So is the formulaic “You Take My Breath Away.” But every song on the CD boasts skilled arrangements and hooks, from “World Keeps On Turnin” with its tasteful acoustic guitar intro to the religio-political hidden track at the end, and from the forceful power pop of “The Great Unknown” to the spirited boy-band soul of “Life Goes On.”

The CD’s only problem is that the words are sometimes preachy, and often very cliched. Sappy sentiment sells, of course, and for the most part the positive, powerful elements of this work outweigh the obviousness of the lyrics. The overall feel suggests Seal, or more currently, Marc Broussard, and it’s right up there in quality. But my enjoyment of the CD would have been significantly stepped up if the lyrics weren’t so full of platitudes and “messages.” This is particularly frustrating when the music is so good.

Listen up.

The Passive Agressives, Reloaded

Liquid, almost twangy female vocals front this rough and ready dry-punk outfit. The contrast catches the ear; the funky, hard rock song constructions and Raggedy-Ann-in-the-gutter grit retain it.

“Evil Clown Song” sounds exactly like you’d think, while “Sweet Lisa” is a dark offspring of Heart’s “Magic Man.” I enjoyed the nearly tuneless “Casino” too. Lead singer Keren Gaiser’s back-and-forths with the other musicians’ shouted male vocals are fun, and guitarist Jose Santiago lays down bluesy licks over the rhythm section’s punked-out pounding.

Altogether the musicianship on this five-song EP is fabulous, and the production is clever, up front, and crystal clear – I really enjoyed the sound of the CD even when I wasn’t paying attention to the vocals. This is a highly promising young band. Hear and buy.

Down the Line, For All You Break

Down the Line is a warm, friendly, acoustic rock band with a soothing sound you can also bop your head to. They take a bit from the Allman Brothers’ sound in “Midnight Rider,” add vocal harmonies from flower-power era pop and CSNY and Jackson Browne and especially bands like America and the Guess Who, and stir it up with modern musical precision and construction. High points often come courtesy of the band’s excellent four-part harmonies, especially in the rockers like “Slip On Through.” But the lead vocals could use more oomph, and ultimately the CD feels rather bland, with unexceptional lyrics and tame hooks.

A couple of tracks that rise above that feel are “She Wears the Sun,” where the band takes more musical chances and ends up with something that stands out, and the soul-flavored “I Can’t Break Away,” with its Freddie Mercury-inspired vocals and sha-la-la harmonies. The guys in Down the Line have talent and taste, but I’d like to see them hit a few more shots cross-court.

Music Review: Aretha Franklin – Jewels in the Crown: All-Star Duets with the Queen

Tuesday, November 6th, 2007

Big record labels have to mine their catalogs; these days it's the only way they can stay in business. With Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, there's plenty of material to draw from, and not just from decaying archives. But this collection of collaborations further demonstrates what we already knew: duets between stars are usually far less than the sum of their parts.

The good stuff on here includes a few well-known recordings, like the hit "Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves" with Annie Lennox, and some new numbers, like "What Y'All Came To Do," a repetitive but crisp dance number with John Legend in which the nu-soul crooner shows some uncharacteristic spunk, singing the chorus and bantering with Aretha. Backed up by Bonnie Raitt and Gloria Estefan on "Natural Woman" and by Mariah Carey on "Chain of Fools," the legend sounds great, but how could anyone (especially Herself) screw up those classics?

Two duets with Mary J. Blige turn out well, especially the gospel track "Never Gonna Break My Faith." But a lot of the rest is just '80s (and 80s-style) hokum, bland songs with no purpose but for a singer to exercise his or her lungs. One could imagine Aretha teaming successfully with the likes of Elton John, Whitney Houston, Michael McDonald, Luther Vandross, and George Benson, but one will have to keep imagining. Without a halfway decent song to sing, what was the point of wasting the time of all those musicians and engineers (not to mention ours)?

Of note, but not in a good way, is the disappointing new duet with Fantasia, who can light up a stage on her own terms, but comes off as a lightweight when trying to match vocals with the Queen of Soul. And the less said about the grafted-on duet with Frank Sinatra's recording of "What Now My Love," which was crappy in the first place, the better. Aretha sounds great on it, but it was very, very far from Ol' Blue Eyes's finest moment, and whoever decided to resurrect it for this purpose should be stripped of his or her license to practice A&R.

The disc ends with Aretha's famous rendition of "Nessum Dorma" from the 1998 Grammy Awards broadcast, when she stepped in for the ailing Luciano Pavarotti at almost literally the last minute. Aretha sang the aria, in the tenor's key, with a 72-piece orchestra, and brought down the house. It was a truly magic moment in the history of music, one of many Aretha has given us – but given us, virtually always, entirely on the strength of her own matchless voice and peerless soul. This CD ain't gonna change that.

Syndicated through Blogcritics to the Advance.net network and Boston.com.

Theater Review (NYC): IXOMIA by Eric Sanders

Friday, November 2nd, 2007

IXOMIA: an imaginary town. IXOMIA: an entertainingly odd, and oddly entertaining, play by Eric Sanders, presented as part of the Crown Point Festival.

This cleverly staged, funny work may not be as innovative as it thinks it is, but it’s a lot of fun. In its crude tomfoolery and brightly fake local color, it’s a bit like Spamalot; in absurdity, it suggests Tzara; in spirit it recalls Futurism, which looked forward with a rush to technological and social advancement. “Recalls Futurism” sounds like a strange phrase, but it fits, because the town of Ixomia inhabits a limbo state that feels like a hundred years ago.

After a colorful, computer-generated light show is projected on a white canopy above the audience, an ensemble cast takes the stage to introduce us, in a quick succession of scenes, to an assortment of townspeople preparing for their first direct elections. But, alas and alack, the devil comes to town, bringing stylized and symbolic death and destruction.

“Liberal media” are hawked as such. A proper gentleman threatens a child-woman named Angel. Irish, Jewish, and Chinese stereotypes are flagrantly celebrated. A charismatic politician falls to his death. The story, such as it is, suggests a political allegory, but at heart it seems only glancingly political. Mostly it’s dreamlike. Bits of reality collide with absurdities. The former make the characters interesting; the latter make us laugh, as does the persistent scatological and sexual humor.

An onstage narrator intones stage directions like “As Satta [sp?] drowns, music from the inside of an oak tree plays,” and “[He] goes to follow, but freezes, and shatters into 1000 pieces.” “Can you see in the dark?” asks Deke, the hapless election worker whom the lascivious devil has targeted. “Only when it’s lit from behind,” she replies. “I love it from behind.”

Sparkplug performances, fizzy lighting and staging, and rich sound design make the show a treat for the eye and ear. (The only technical flaw was that early on, the music cues occasionally drowned out the dialogue.) The innovative set consists mostly of a room-sized structure in the shape of a church, which is pushed around the stage to form varied rooms and houses as needed, both interiors and exteriors.

Each night of the Festival features not just a theatrical work but short films and live music as well. So for your money you get diverse stimulation. And you get to spend an evening at the Abrons Art Center, which is at the historic Henry Street Settlement. It’s worth a trip to the deep Lower East Side just for the building.

IXOMIA runs through November 10, but not every day, so check the schedule. The Festival itself runs through November 17.