Emerson String Quartet
DON'T let the bucolic title fool you -- Tchaikovsky's string sextet Souvenir de Florence is as Russian as can be. From its opening phrase, the Emerson String Quartet (ESQ), bolstered by violist Paul Neubauer and cellist Colin Carr, swing into high gear, hurtling forward until they encounter the short romantic interlude. Even here they play with an edge and never lose the restless sensation the score demands.
Dense chords introduce the adagio, the melodic line in the violin and cello singing with luscious emotion. But although well-matched, they reveal a disappointing thinness of tone, devoid of resonance.
The finale is a lithe, kick-up-your-heels Russian dance that, while executed with gusto, lacks underlying richness.
Arnold Schoenberg can be an acquired taste, but this interpretation of his string sextet, Verkl§rte Nacht (Transfigured Night), is a good place to start. The ESQ's urgent reading keeps the listener riveted as they eloquently convey the story behind German author Richard Dehmel's poem. Even their tone is lusher and more satisfying in this engrossing work. ***1/2
-- Gwenda Nemerofsky
The Ballad of Boogie Christ (Bonsound)
WHEN you initially tour through this creatively expansive dozen-tracker by Ohio born Joseph Arthur you may come away shaking your head and wondering what this fascinating chap has for breakfast. The album is a kind of a topsy-turvy folk-rock-tinged-with-classic-pop bohemian rhapsody that keeps on giving the more you pay attention to it.
Arthur is a lyrics man. A songwriter. And a few tracks, not many, suffer from a Leonard Cohen-styled, patience-thinning tonne of words that are quite lovely, but there are just too many of them. It's beatnik prose with heart, and if this guy isn't living the life he's singing about in the Waits/Dylan bar-room blues plaint of I Miss The Zoo ("I miss the drunk, I miss the fiend, I miss the simplicity of addiction, and the scene") then we've seen no better aspirant. There's even a paean of sorts to the Adele/Winehouse school in opening soul thumper Currency Of Love and the old-school Randy Newman-inspired slow burner, I Used To Know How To Walk On Water, kills ever so gently.
Above all, even with his errant wordiness, Arthur has constructed an album thick with promise of continued gratification. It's his tenth studio album and it appears he has hit this one out of the proverbial ballpark. Juliette Lewis, Garth Hudson, Jim Keltner and Ben Harper, among others, guest. Boogie on, Joe. ****
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-- Jeff Monk
The Howlin' Brothers
Howl (Readymade Records)
OLD-TIMEY music has been making a comeback of late, and it's a full-on musical magnet for shaggy hipsters that take pleasure in the timbred plonk of a banjo, the lethargic saw of an errant fiddle and the quick strum of acoustic guitar. Whether these bands actually attain the necessary dynamism to make this music sound authentically frozen in time is for any listener to decide. Nashville-based the Howlin' Brothers make a strong case for bona-fide roots-music righteousness on their new twelve-tracker Howl and may even lead the pack of the unwashed beardos making this kind of unplugged goodness.
The trio (with a little help from their friends) plays fast and loose with the form yet manage to make it all hang together. Producer Brendan Benson (The Raconteurs) keeps the album sound as low to the ground as is necessary without sounding like he's trying too hard to be earnest or shifting into tongue-in-tobacco-chewing-cheek Hayseed Dixie territory. Tracks like My Dog Can't Bark, Julia Belle Swain and Hermitage Hot Step blend their traditional sound well with the Dixieland roll of Delta Queen and baggy sway of Tennessee Blues.
With so many other pretenders shuffling around the territory it's a pleasure to hear some traditionalists are still able to cross the creek without drowning. ***
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-- Jeff Monk
Preservation Hall Jazz Band
That's It! (Sony/Legacy)
WITH high-profile collaborations at Bonnaroo (Jack Johnson) and the Grammys (The Black Keys), the Preservation Hall Jazz Band has been reaching out to a wider audience. That's It!, co-produced by Jim James of indie-rock band My Morning Jacket, continues this trend as the first album of entirely new compositions in PHJB's 50-plus-year history.
Preservation Hall's original mission was to preserve the authentic sounds of New Orleans jazz by presenting musicians with direct links to jazz's founding fathers in the early 20th century. Now under the leadership of tuba player Ben Jaffe, whose parents founded the Hall, the band's current lineup is preserving New Orleans jazz in the 21st century with a fresh-sounding repertoire that keeps the brass-heavy acoustic instrumentation and rhythms from the past.
The title track gets things off to an exuberant start with blaring horn section blasts prefacing Mark Braud's blistering trumpet solo. Some tunes sound as if they were lifted from the band's standard repertoire, including the gospel-inspired Dear Lord (Give Me the Strength) and Come With Me, a love song to the Crescent City sung by the band's oldest member, 81-year-old reedman Charlie Gabriel.
The humorously spooky Rattlin' Bones with trombonist Freddie Lonzo's gravelly vocals evokes Dr. John's R&B style. August Nights" is a smoky ballad with Clint Maedgen providing sultry vocals and Braud playing muted trumpet. The instrumental Yellow Moon draws on Afro-Cuban influences.
But most of all what the band preserves is the infectious joy of New Orleans jazz sure to get listeners tapping their feet if not dancing. ****
-- Charles J. Gans, The Associated Press
Stars Dance (Hollywood Records)
SELENA Gomez has gone into a studio and recorded her new album Stars Dance, which consists of 11 pop songs she didn't pen herself backed by instruments she isn't playing. It might be fun for the causal young summertime listener, but it begs the important question: Why bother?
Artistically, there's very little Selena Gomez here. This is merely the veneer of Selena Gomez, the look and feel of the pop starlet set atop a middling musical effort. There are lightly emotional lyrics that appear to reference her high-profile romance with ex Justin Bieber, but it is surface stuff and less than revealing.
Gomez's lead single and Billboard top 10 hit, the catchy Come & Get It, is about the best offering here, thanks to Stargate's club-heavy beat. Songwriting and production assists from Ester Dean, the Cataracs, Rock Mafia and Desmond Child add polish, but it would be nice to unveil more of Gomez and less of the production team pros.
Stars Dance is the 21-year-old's first album without her band the Scene. She sings the word "baby" 22 times and "dream" 27. She makes stars dance on, wait for it, Stars Dance and takes on a hokey, reggae-inflected tone on Like a Champion. If the pace fuels your body with dancing energy then Gomez has, one can only assume, done her job.
Indeed, this feels like a job. This feels like a vibrant young woman of Disney pedigree simply punched the clock and worked through an already cooked musical plot foisted upon her. Gomez might be an incredibly talented and interesting person with much to offer artistically, but we'll never find out at this rate. **
-- Ron Harris, The Associated Press
Alasdair Roberts & Friends
A Wonder Working Stone (Drag City)
THE 'wonder working stone' of this album's title is love, and Alasdair Roberts' music truly is a labour of love.
The son of a Scottish folk guitarist, the Glasgow-based folksinger/songwriter has been immersed for the past dozen years in the centuries-old traditions of Scottish folk song and poetry, recording collections of traditional songs along with albums of new material that sound as if it was lifted from the traditional canon, such is its depth of musical and lyrical authenticity.
A Wonder Working Stone is all Roberts' material, though his extensive liner notes point out all his touchstones and musical and literary reference points. To a casual listener, it may all sound a bit twee, but there are layers upon layers of musicality, knowledge and thought put into this material, from its marriage of traditional instrumentation with guitar-bass-drums to its lyrical explorations of Scottish history, mysticism, nationalism and, of course, thoughts of love and loss and death (he is Scottish, after all). It's cheery and sad, angry and philosophical, but it's not hard going at all. After a while you'll find yourself reading the booklet closely and Googling obsessively while tapping your toes to the tunes.
Roberts plays the West End Cultural Centre on July 29 with bassist Stevie Jones and guitarist Ben Reynolds. ****
-- John Kendle