New music: Reviews of this week’s CD releases

Reviews of this week's CD releases

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Pop / Rock Sharon Van Etten

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This article was published 31/01/2019 (1333 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Pop / Rock

Sharon Van Etten

Remind Me Tomorrow (Jagjaguwar)

Almost hidden in the epic mess of the kid-destroyed room on the cover of this album is a record-cover-shaped photo of the singer-songwriter. It’s hard not to think of the image as a nod and a wink to the current state of American life, and to Van Etten’s recent life as a college student and mother of a toddler. It may also refer to the notion that her pure alto voice and brave-hearted songwriting can still be found amid all the newfangled noise of her fifth full-length record.

In choosing to work with producer John Congleton (who helped Annie Clark define the modern sound of St. Vincent), Van Etten signalled her intent for Remind Me Tomorrow, and when the album’s first single, the soaring Comeback Kid, was released in October, its icy beat and bleeping, squawking new wave synths confirmed that the full-length record would be leaps and bounds removed from the spare, guitar-and-vocals-based indie-folk/alt-country of her first efforts.

Countless others have shifted shapes in mid-career only to fail miserably, but this move works for Van Etten because she and Congleton have achieved a near-perfect union of songs and sonics. She’s said the tunes were written on keyboards, organ and piano, instruments which can be both percussive and melodic, and in the hands of artist and producer, those basic elements have become a swirling, mind-bending, yet atmospheric blend of bittersweet melancholy and hopeful romanticism.

The key, of course, is Van Etten’s voice, which cuts through the skronks and clicks and squalls and always, always cuts to the heart of the matter, whether she’s reflecting on loves old and new (I Told You Everything, No One’s Easy to Love, Malibu), addressing her younger self (Comeback Kid, Seventeen, You Shadow) or, ultimately, embracing her new life (Hands, Stay).

★★★★½

Stream these: I Told You Everything, Seventeen, You Shadow

— John Kendle

Roots / country

Watermelon Slim

Church of the Blues (Northern Blues Music)

Bill Homans, a.k.a. Watermelon Slim, has been performing since the 1970s, giving him the absolute right to call himself a true blues man. Strictly speaking, though, he doesn’t necessarily toe the artistic confines of the genre on his latest 14-tracker, the thoroughly enjoyable Church of the Blues.

For his part, Homans is a master of lap-style slide electric guitar and some pretty spot-on harmonica wailings. On the loping That Ole 1-4-5, he explains that standard blues chord progressions don’t necessary turn his melodic crank so much anymore, but then contradicts himself righteously on the soulful Post-Modern Blues, where he also proclaims “I’m obsolete, livin’ in the 20th century.”

Slim covers a lot of musical ground here, revealing his estimable skill at interpreting all kinds of roots-based styles. Allen Toussaint’s classic Get Out My Life, Woman is re-energized perfectly, along with J.B. Hutto slide-guitar homage Too Much Alcohol and a reinterpretation of the Howlin’ Wolf classic Smokestack Lightning. The moving a capella track Holler #4 is a treat, a song that places this artist in a singular category based on his ability to deliver extended notes clearly and with the kind of emotion reserved for journeyperson artists.

On the more topical side of things, Slim gets a tad political (“My daddy fought at the beach of Anzio, he did his duty to fight the Nazi surge, what’s up with us putting up with Nazis on our streets, sieg heiling when they get the urge…”) on Charlottesville (Blues for My Nation), which, along with all the other songs on Church of the Blues, proves Slim is a master who continues to please his considerable congregation of fans.

★★★★

Stream these: St. Peter’s Ledger, Mni Wiconi — The Water Song

— Jeff Monk

Jazz

Dafnis Prieto Big Band

Back To The Sunset (Dafnison Music)

Latin jazz has been a lively part of the jazz world for decades. Current examples are proof that the genre continues to develop in new directions and speaks clearly to those of us who love jazz.

Drummer Dafnis Prieto has a fine history of albums that exemplify that opinion. This album has been nominated for a Grammy, which will be handed out Sunday, Feb. 10, and earns full marks for the recognition. Prieto’s compositions and his stellar personnel provide terrific rhythmic foundation for a range of moods and great solos.

Without naming all of the ensemble, trumpeters Alex Sipiagin and Nathan Eklund stand out, along with saxophonists Román Filiú,, Peter Apfelbaum, Joel Frahm and Chris Cheek. Pianist Manuel Valera shines on tracks like Una Vez Mas (“one more time” or “once more again”). There are several guests who play on one track each, like trumpeter Brian Lynch and alto player Henry Threadgill, who is explosive on the title track.

The overall effect of the music is perhaps not as experimental as some Latin jazz musicians like David Virelles or Miguel Zenon, but the powerful foundation provided by drummer Prieto and other percussionists is both familiar and absolutely contemporary. Tracks like the gently swinging The Sooner the Better offer a change in pace from the more directly uptempo selections. Without totally straining definitional boundaries, this is ultimately a terrific romp.

★★★★

Stream these: Una Vez Mas, The Sooner the Better

— Keith Black

Classical

Phil Salathé

Imaginary Birds — Music for Oboe & English Horn (Ravello Records)

This winsome new release captures the imaginative spirit and voice of American composer Phil Salathé, featuring five chamber works penned for longtime collaborators Oboe Duo Agosto, among others.

First up is Mandarin Ducks, featuring real-life husband-and-wife team, Ling-Fei Kang on oboe and Charles Huang on English horn, in seven short movements suggesting the antics of the Asian ducks, from frolicking in the water to bickering for slugs. The players’s crisp attack and effervescent approach to each miniature bring each to life, including honks and squawks in a wholly contemporary idiom.

The decidedly more introspective The Heart That Loves But Once, inspired by the lushly romantic music of 19th-century composer Robert Schumann, grows even more haunting with the addition of a ghostly celesta to the mix that also includes oboe, viola harp and piano. The Wood Between The Worlds also becomes another introspective journey through mystical landscapes, ranging from halting textures to hypnotic ostinati that particularly fuel its third movement.

Imaginary Birds of the Frozen North for solo English horn returns listeners to the avian theme, with its three descriptive movements teeming with extended instrumental effects, pregnant pauses and full exploitation of the instrument’s range that also showcases Huang’s virtuosity.

The album rounds out with Expecting the Spring Breeze, grounded in pure lyricism, including Salathé’s arrangement of a melody composed by Taiwan’s Teng Yu-hsien. It offers gentle reassurance that all is still well in a world inhabited by strange and wondrous, imagined fowl.

— Holly Harris

 

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