POP / ROCK
The Rolling Stones
Blue & Lonesome (Interscope)
People will be surprised by how good this record is. The story goes that the Stones, along with bassist Darryl Jones, were meant to work on new rock material when they convened in December, 2015. Keith and Ronnie had learned Little Walter’s Blue and Lonesome as a "warm-up tune" but when they played it, Mick picked up a harmonica, got locked in and engineers just kept the tape rolling as song after song poured out. Three days later, the band had an album of blues covers in the can, replete with a couple of guitar solos from studio visitor Eric Clapton. Pianist Chuck Leavell and producer Don Was finished the material at sessions in New Orleans and the end result harkens back to the Stones’ earliest days, when they’d gig at pubs and clubs in Richmond and on Eel Pie Island, playing covers of songs by Buddy Holly and the American bluesmen whose music they worshipped.
Naturally, the band sounds tight but the real revelation here is Jagger. At 73, his take on singing the blues is no longer that of a callow, nasal youth; he sounds loose, mean yet playful and truly invested in these tunes by the likes of Willie Dixon, Little Walter, Jimmy Reed and Eddy Taylor. His blues harp playing is rich and raunchy and the resultant combination of swingin’ band and dialed-in frontman means Blue & Lonesome pulses with unadulterated joy. You’ll hit repeat often. ★★★★
DOWNLOAD: Blue and Lonesome, Everybody Knows About My Good Thing, Hoo Doo Blues
— John Kendle
POP / ROCK
Be the Media (Independent)
Montreal singer-songwriter Annabelle Chvostek is best remembered around these parts for her short stint with local folk trio the Wailin’ Jennys and her contributions to their 2006 album Firecracker.
Since then, Chvostek has continued to record and perform; with her latest set, the eclectic Be the Media, she has taken enormous steps away from her traditional folk-inspired leanings. The opening title track has the kind of undulating indie-rock swagger that gets your attention immediately. With drummer Tony Spina and bassist Jérémie Jones in tight formation alongside her, Chvostek drives the song with a simple electric guitar figure that doesn’t let up. The lyrics seethe with a personal political rage ("We cut the sticky ties of a system where profit is the bottom line") that speaks perfectly to the times.
It doesn’t end there, either. The screeching, Velvet Underground-inspired violin in Jerusalem, the Jacques Brel-esque Carnal Delights, firestarter Inside the Scream and even the slow-motion cover of Neil Young standard Like a Hurricane show Chvostek’s willingness to play outside her comfort zone. Her old folkie self is represented in the delicate You Can Come Now, and while older fans may have some anxiety about this artist taking a new direction, BTM is rock-solid confirmation Chvostek has chosen the proper path. ★★★★
DOWNLOAD: Be the Media, Carnal Delights
— Jeff Monk
Another Helpful Medicine (All Set!)
The Canadian quartet Aurochs — Ari Berkok on piano, Pete Johnson on bass, Jake Oelichs on drums and Mike Smith on electronics — makes music that is another example of the pointless struggle to define clearly what contemporary jazz is.
The 10 tracks (written to be listened to, if possible, as one continuous set) shift from ambient, minimalist and meditative to experimental electronic post-modern rock and beyond with musical ease. The effect is extremely effective and has had people approaching me to say, "What is that? It’s great." It perhaps could be called chamber jazz or new age music at times, but the rhythmic and improvisational jazz sense prevails throughout.
And what about the name of the band? Aurochs is an extinct brand of wild cattle, the ancestor of our modern cattle. As a dominant species of the current cattle scene is called Bos, all the tracks are names of cattle breeds within that overall category. (I had to look that up.) If there is a backstory here, it is unknown to me. But putting the descriptors aside, this is challenging, rewarding music that is serious, innovative and accessible. All Set!, a small Canadian label, is releasing music that is worth your attention. ★★★★ 1/2
DOWNLOAD: Two: Bos Javanicus, Three: Bos Gauris
— Keith Black
National Symphony of Cuba
Intersections: Cross-Cultural Collaborations in Sound (Ansonica Records)
This new release by Ansonica Records, born in the dawn of thawing Cuban-American relations, intrigues with its melting pot of disparate stylistic forces.
While arguably not an album for the proverbial desert island, it is still to be admired for daring to tackle new musical vistas, as the Communist country continues to navigate seismic social and political change. Five works are performed by the National Symphony of Cuba (Enrique Perez Mesa, conductor) as well as smaller ensembles, including the aptly titled Awakening. This moody, single-movement piece, which begins with tolling bells before growing in expansiveness, also features composer Jeffrey Jacob on piano.
The multi-sectioned Untouched by Morning and Untouched by Noon includes a dissonant male vocal line, while one of the CD’s most compelling pieces, Puttin’ It Together, evokes the idiosyncratic jazz-fuelled textures of Cuban music. The close harmonies during a cappella vocal set Dearly Beloved and Dearly Departed shimmers as waves on an ocean, while And the Huddled Masses plunges listeners into choppier waters, heralding new worlds of cross-cultural possibilities. ★★★
— Holly Harris
On My New Piano (Deutsche Grammophon)
Christmas came early for Argentine-born pianist Daniel Barenboim, who proudly shows off his brand new shiny toy — in this case, a custom-made Steinway concert grand — on this album.
Inspired after playing composer Franz Liszt’s restored piano during a trip to Siena, Italy, in 2011, Barenboim commissioned Belgian instrument-maker Chris Maene to build his "Barenboim-Maene," with its strings strung straight and parallel rather than diagonally, more akin to the historical design.
The album features a whirlwind chronological tour through solo piano repertoire, first bolting out of the gate with Renaissance composer Domenico Scarlatti’s sonatas K159/L104; K9/L413; and K380/L23. Also included is a satisfying interpretation of Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor on an Original Theme, while Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor op. 23 comes across as unsettlingly brittle (its not helped by equally unsettlingly recording noise/static throughout the recording).
Barenboim also turns his hand to Wagner/Liszt’s Solemn March to the Holy Grail from Parsifal S450, and Liszt’s Funerailles S 173/7. But it is during the latter composer’s fiendishly difficult Mephisto Waltz No. 1: The Dance in the Village Inn where his bravura is fully unleashed, as he pounds out its opening chords and rips through gravity-defying runs as though having struck a pact or two with the devil himself. ★★★
— Holly Harris