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THE SHINS

PORT OF MORROW (COLUMBIA/SONY)

IF we loved The Shins, it was because they made music to give shape to a life.

They did it on their explosively creative 2001 debut, Oh, Inverted World; two years later, quirky sophomore album Chutes Too Narrow took them across the world. In 2007, they clinched their rising star with Wincing the Night Away, a luscious aural soundscape that was only slightly more ambitious than it was sublime.

Yeah, well, a lot can happen in five years.

To wit: a swell of unrest swept through Shins land. Frontman and creative force James Mercer fired his bandmates and stashed the Shins name on the shelf while he pursued a new outfit, Broken Bells.

And the Shins slipped into silence, and fans ached for more.

Now, with Port of Morrow we have it -- though perhaps not the satisfaction we were hoping for. Where the album breaks the Shins' long rest with delicate -- and sometimes precious -- musical elegance, what it lacks is real aplomb.

This isn't to say it's bad. It's a beautiful record, thoughtfully crafted and artfully produced by Mercer and Greg Kurstin. It steps back from Wincing's trippier experiments, filling its gentle songs instead with light touches of twang electric guitar and starry keyboards.

But unlike their earlier albums there is no instant classic, nothing to draw a luscious sigh. The album's first single, Simple Song, comes close with its crashing sunrise chorus, but it all feels like something we've heard from Mercer before, like an afterthought from the Shins of yore.

Still, the moment Mercer's keening voice pierces album-opening The Rifle's Spiral and the tingle travels down your spine -- it's worth it. Three and a half stars

-- Melissa Martin

 

LEE RANALDO

Between the Times and the Tides (Matador)

LEE Ranaldo wasn't the most prolific songwriter in Sonic Youth, but he was consistent and each album included one or two gems from the guitarist. With the future of the legendary New York indie-rock group in doubt following the separation of Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon, we get to hear a full set of material from Ranaldo, and the results should please fans of SY's last few albums.

Ranaldo's previous solo works have mostly steered towards his avant-garde side, but Between the Times and the Tides instead goes for the heart with 10-tracks that veer from catchy indie-pop to quasi-pastoral folk to tender ballads with story songs, psychedelic poetry and melancholy emotions laid bare.

He and guests such as Nels Cline, Jim O'Rourke, Bob Bert, Steve Shelley, John Medeski and Leah Singer (his wife and former Winnipegger) take the occasional experimental diversion, but on the whole this is an album that shows Ranaldo knows not only how to make his guitar sound like a train crash (or anything he wants, really), but knows a thing or two about crafting a song. Four stars

-- Rob Williams

 

VARIOUS ARTISTS

The Hunger Games: Songs from District 12 and Beyond (Universal)

THE book-turned-film The Hunger Games is about children killing children, so the soundtrack is definitely not a party. The majority of the 16-track T-Bone Burnett-produced album is sparse and haunting, with the more upbeat selections by the likes of Kid Cudi, Glen Hansard and the Decemberists sticking out uncomfortably, despite their individual strengths.

In the dystopian Suzanne Collins novel, District 12 is located in the Appalachian Mountains so there is an overall rootsy vibe to the set, highlighted by tracks from the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Taylor Swift and the Civil Wars (both together and on their own tracks), Miranda Lambert and the Secret Sisters. The biggest surprise might be Maroon 5, with Adam Levine trading in his slick Jagger moves for a slow-burning tribal-sounding duet with Rozzi Crane.

The majority of Burnett's past work is probably unknown to the teenage market the film is aimed at, but he introduced artists that Hunger Games fans might not know. If those fans are lured in by Swift or Maroon 5 and find themselves expanding their musical horizons then it's a win-win. Three stars

-- RW

 

SHANE KOYCZAN & SHORT STORY LONG

Remembrance Year (Independent)

DEPENDING on your personal view of how poetry should or shouldn't be delivered, Canadian Shane Koyczan is absolutely at the top of heap in the world of spoken word. With his kudos ever mounting, performance poet Koyczan and his backing band Short Story Long have created an album that is above all listenable and may even change your own perceptions about the form.

His delivery is pretty straightforward, reading his words with some rolling affectation, while the band and a host of guest artists create a gentle musical undertow of soft sounds that enhance his style. His stories are varied, covering everything from a last meal request from a death-row prison inmate (Restaurant) to a smitten lover describing the subtle nuances of sleeping next to his partner. There's even a bit of humour in To This Day, describing events in Koyczan's youth and recognizing the almost calamitous difference between karate and pork chops. Some tracks constantly rise in tone so that they sound something like an overblown I Am Canadian! Advertisement, but in the end Remembrance Year is a memorable listen. Three stars

-- Jeff Monk

 

COUNTRY AND ROOTS

ROSE COUSINS

We Have Made a Spark (Outside)

ROSE Cousins found the sparks she needed in Boston.

On her third album, the Halifax-based songwriter collaborated with a few prominent members of Boston's music scene including Kris Delmhorst, Mark Erelli and Jennifer Kimball, along with Brooklyn-based Ana Egge.

Alison Krauss style bluegrass haunts The Darkness. Pedal steel and pump organ adorn Cousins' charming duet with Erelli (sounding like Jimmy Rankin) on Springsteen's If I Should Fall Behind. Go First laments knowing it's over but not wanting to make the initial move. All The Stars opens with a heartbreakingly plaintive fiddle accompanying that powerfully sweet voice, a voice that sounds confident and all-knowing. You never doubt Cousins' conviction as she shares her most intimate thoughts on stark piano ballads like One Way with lines like: "I break where you bend/I take what you send/We both pretend/But I start where you end."

Cousins and crew have crafted one of the year's finest recordings. They've not just made a spark... they've built a roaring fire. See for yourself when Cousins plays the West End Cultural Centre Wednesday. Four and a half stars

-- Bruce Leperre

 

LIONEL RICHIE

Tuskegee (Universal)

IF Lionel Richie didn't become a pop star he easily could have been a country hit maker. The proof is on his new album, Tuskegee, which finds Richie covering his old singles with a roster of commercial country artists such as Kenny Chesney, Billy Currington and Rascal Flatts.

With the exception of some pedal steel here, a twangy Telecaster solo there and better production, none of the arrangements offer much new and there are no out-and-out reimaginings of the songs. It's like Blake Shelton just added some vocals to the original You Are or Jason Aldean stopped by during the Say You, Say Me session. Having someone like Shania Twain join Richie on Endless Love does nothing but remind you how perfect a love song it already is.

Richie's voice is still in fine shape at 62 and his lyrical themes work perfectly in the country realm, but none of the material surpasses the already solid originals that are burned into our brains. Tuskegee is an interesting concept, but wholly unnecessary. Two and a half stars

-- RW

 

JAZZ

AHMAD JAMAL

Blue Moon, The New York Session (Jazz Village)

PIANIST Ahmad Jamal adds percussionist Manola Badrena to the trio mix to spice up a set of mainly standards on his latest CD, Blue Moon.

Jamal, in his early 80s, sounds fresh and vital fronting bassist Reginald Veal and drummer Herlin Riley. The quartet makes tunes such as the title track, Gypsy, Laura and Woody'n You more percussive, and it works wonderfully.

Weather Report veteran Badrena and New Orleans native Riley are up front in the mix with Jamal. Veal moves back and forth, and shines with his relentless bass pattern too open Blue Moon.

Jamal's less-is-more style serves these nine tunes well, and he still sits high atop the jazz heap. Four and a half stars

-- Chris Smith

 

CLASSICAL

JULIAN LLOYD WEBBER, JIAXIN CHENG, JOHN LENEHAN

Evening Songs: Music of Delius and Ireland (Naxos)

JOHN Ireland (1879-1962) and Frederick Delius (1862-1934) were inspired songwriters. Neither composer is heard with any frequency on this side of the Atlantic, which is a shame, especially in Delius's case since his music is both individual and treasurable. Cellist Julian Lloyd Webber supplies a program of 21 "songs without words," evenly chosen between the two, arranged for cello and piano. The performances of the calm reflective pieces are perfectly sensitive. He's joined on two by his wife, cellist Jiaxin Cheng.

Ireland's Sea Fever from the text by John Masefield is the best known piece here. Some of the early Delius songs were Norwegian-inspired and you do sense Grieg's presence. Later songs reveal Delius's distinctive harmonies and uniquely reflective sense of longing. Ireland admired Delius and shows an equal gift for expansive melody characteristic in English romantic song. Enjoyable listening, though rather sedate without the words. Three stars

-- James Manishen

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 24, 2012 G4

History

Updated on Sunday, March 25, 2012 at 3:48 PM CDT: adds images

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