Just because the lovely Dark Matter is only his 11th solo outing since 1968 doesn’t mean singer/songwriter/composer Randy Newman isn’t a super-busy guy.
His main efforts, of course, are directed at composing for films (the Toy Storyseries and dozens more), which he does immeasurably well.
Yet, there is his certain way with memorable melody and a sardonic lyric that makes his solo work so interesting, enjoyable and just plain different from his scores. Not unlike his film work in scope, is the opening track The Great Debate. The song is a mix-’em-up of spoken word, gospel and orchestral music tied to a theme of a debate between scientists ("We got biologists, biometricians... we got a cosmologist, a cosmetician... we got an astronaut, we got Astroboy") versus the "true believers" ("We got the Baptists, the Methodists... we got the Shakers, the Quakers, the anti-inoculators...") about space (the Dark Matter of the title), Charles Darwin and the giraffe. If it sounds nonsensical, it is, slightly — yet, under the hand of Newman the song is both boisterous and a bit bawdy.
Putin puts the Russian tyrant’s gargantuan ego in its place, while the splendid Sonny Boy is a tale of the heaven-bound, original, Sonny Boy Williamson ("from Jackson, Tennessee") and his feelings of awkwardness at being the only bluesman in the clouds. She Chose Me and Wandering Boy present Newman’s sensitivity and wisdom perfectly, and On The Beach details the story of Hobart Alter, the originator of both modern surf and skateboards. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another nine years for Randy Newman to release his next set of eccentric gems. ★★★★
Stream: Wandering Boy, Putin
— Jeff Monk
POP / ROCK
Grizzly Bear Painted Ruins (RCA)
Grizzly Bear’s breakthrough a decade ago established the Los Angeles-based indie rockers as the poster boys of what was possible in hipster Williamsburg, as well as what the next-generation Radiohead could sound like.
After opening for Radiohead in the summer of 2008, the quartet landed two top-10 albums in a row, as well as a major-label deal. But after the tour for 2012’s Shields album, Grizzly Bear took some time off, only reappearing now with its new album, Painting Ruins.
And it’s clear the sound has changed. Mourning Sound puts Christopher Bear’s drums and Chris Taylor’s bass groove up front, creating an ‘80s-influenced dance-rocker with unusual synth flourishes to maintain some edge, as Ed Droste and Dan Rossen trade vocals. As upbeat as the song sounds, Rossen keeps singing, "I woke to the sound of dogs, to the sound of distant shots and passing trucks," which actually could be mournful.
Losing All Sense is also unusually straightforward for them, a mix of guitar rock and keyboards that sounds like it could have come from Side 2 of Billy Joel’s Glass Houses.
However, Grizzly Bear hasn’t abandoned all of its hallmarks. There’s a bit of swooning Radiohead-like vocals in Glass Hillside, mixed with a bit of Steely Dan-styled prog rock. And Three Rings conjures a bit of the dreamy magic that made Veckatimest so arresting, though even here the rhythms remain at the forefront.
Throughout Painted Ruins, Grizzly Bear sounds like it has loosened up. Maybe making Los Angeles its home base has affected the group, but things here seem far less precise and uptight, especially when compared to Shields.
Even on something as lofty as the sweeping Four Cypresses, with its epic scope built through layers of sound held together with a near-constant snare drum, the joy feels palpable. "It’s chaos," they sing through an increasingly cluttered soundscape, "but it works." ★★★
ROOTS / COUNTRY
Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer Not Dark Yet (Thirty Tigers)
Sisters Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer have never sung together on the two dozen albums they’ve recorded between them. And though they both are standout songwriters, on this initial collaboration — a second is planned — the Alabama-born siblings almost exclusively stick to covers, picking and choosing masterfully for the most part, from Bob Dylan’s sensitively rendered title cut and Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires’ haunting The Color of a Cloudy Day to rootsy classics by the Louvin Brothers, Jessi Colter, and Merle Haggard, and unexpected choices from the Killers, Nick Cave, and Nirvana. (The latter’s Lithium is the only misstep on the album, which was expertly produced by Teddy Thompson.)
The country-soul sisters save the most powerful moment for last with their own deeply moving Is It Too Much, addressing the tragedy they witnessed as teenagers when their father killed their mother and himself, and asking a question that only they can answer: "is it too much to carry in your heart?" ★★★1/2
— Philadelphia Inquirer
Mike Downes Root Structure (Addo Records)
Bass player and Winnipeg native Mike Downes’ new quartet album is an excellent example of contemporary jazz that pleases without qualification. With Robi Botos on piano, Ted Quinlan on guitar and Larnell Lewis on drums, the music soars with melody and lush solos along with powerful rhythmic foundation. Drummer Lewis drives several tracks and pulls his colleagues along with him.
This quartet is extremely egalitarian, meaning that each member gets lots of time to shine, and there is clearly a "team" sensibility. This is perhaps no surprise, in that all four musicians are on the faculty at Humber College in Toronto, Ont. As well, there are several Junos among the members. Tracks such as Moving Mountains really fly, while gentle tracks such as Flow are quite beautiful. Jazz versions of classical tunes are common, but this group’s interpretation of a Chopin’s Prelude shows how such a crossover should be done. It is absolutely not a criticism to comment that while there might not be anything startlingly new here, this is a satisfying and highly enjoyable album by four confident and accomplished musicians. It is unfortunate that many excellent Canadian jazz musicians don’t have a wider national recognition, as Canadian jazz is alive and well across the country. ★★★★
Stream: Momentum, Heart Of The Matter
— Keith Black
Tigran Mansurian Requiem (ECM Records)
This compelling newer release on the ECM label features leading Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian’s Requiem, dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Armenian Genocide that occurred in Turkey between 1915-’17. Structured as a traditional Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead, Mansurian infuses his interpretation with haunting Armenian chant from his homeland, while also reconciling disparate faith and musical traditions into a brilliant melting pot spanning both time and space.
Co-commissioned by the Munich Chamber Orchestra and the RIAS Choir Berlin led by Alexander Liebreich, the 2016 Berlin recording features guest soprano Anja Petersen and baritone Andrew Redmond in the Tuba Mirum, and Domine Jesu Christe movements, respectively, while Dies Israe drives forward with biting choral commentary and dramatic, constantly shifting orchestration. Other highlights include the Lacrimosa with close shimmering harmonies, and finale Agnus Dei, which provides plaintive repose for this deeply moving memorial to human tragedy and the plight of refugees as timely as ever. ★★★★★