LYLE LOVETT AND HIS LARGE BAND "It's Not Big It's Large" (Lost Highway, 3 stars)
It looks like a live album, but it's not. Lyle Lovett's ninth studio disc goes out of its way to showcase his sizable supporting ensemble, starting with a vibrant take on the Lester Young instrumental "Tickle Toe." And once the outfit's all warmed up, Lovett gives his backup singers a robust workout on the gospel standard "Ain't No More Cane," which seamlessly flows out of his own spiritual "I Will Rise Up." From there, the focus shifts to the high-haired Texan's folkish songwriting, which is as impeccable as the performances on an album that may be Large, but is never overstated. That goes for sly jokes like "No Big Deal" as well as subtle, more sober fare such as "Don't Cry No Tear" and the gorgeously elegiac "South Texas Girl." The inclusion of two versions of the not-all-that-stellar "Up in Indiana" is puzzling. But otherwise Lovett's superb taste and refined roots-music sensibility win out on an album that doesn't dazzle but nonetheless lives up to Lovett's high standards.
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IMPERIAL TEEN "The Hair the TV the Baby & the Band" (Merge, 3 ½ stars)
Fizzy odd pop done with righteous infectious frenzy is Imperial Teen's metier. Even if its members aren't exactly teens (the CD's title refers to what the seasoned quartet has been up to since its last record), they're sounding like overgrown kids, imperial ones at that. Yet they never extend themselves to trend or fancy. The results - in line with the band's first smash, "Yoo-Hoo" - are party-ballers like "Sweet Potato" and "Shim Sham," with girl/boy harmonies and dippy rhythmic kicks.
But cut into "Shim's" sugary mood is this ruminative lyric: "Now and then seems like a different scene." They're not fooling themselves. Still, there's nothing tarnished or tired about the ringing "Room With a View" or the buzzing "One Two." Imperial Teen isn't as dynamic as Neil Young. But no rust this good ever sleeps.
MANU CHAO "La Radiolina" (Nacional/Because, 3 ½ stars)
Manu Chao's gift is to make his multicultural melange sound both effortless and joyful. Born in Paris of Spanish parents and currently based in Barcelona, Chao broke through to American audiences, including the Bonnaroo jam-band crowd, with 2001's vivacious "Proxima Estacion: Esperanza." "La Radiolina" is the long-overdue studio follow-up and a worthy sequel.
Multilingual and pan-global, "Radiolina's" kinetic, politically charged songs build on Jamaican reggae and ska, North African rai, and Anglo-American punk rock, but touch on all sorts of other styles. "13 Dias," for instance, opens the album by quoting the guitar line from Elvis Presley's "That's All Right" (and Chao returns to it in "Besoin de la Lune"). Chao's tendency to remix himself is the one drawback: "Rainin In Paradize" is dense and exciting with sirens and screeching guitars but they get cannibalized and diluted when they reappear in "Panik Panik" and "El Kitapena."
CARIBOU "Andorra" (Merge, 4 stars)
With each release, Dan Snaith, the man behind Caribou, becomes both more accessible and more complex, as if running away from pop has only gotten him closer to the other end of its spectrum. There were pronounced electronics on his jagged glitch-hop debut, "Start Breaking My Heart," while its follow-up, "Up in Flames," carried these flourishes into something bigger and warmer. ("Start Breaking My Heart" and "Up in Flames" were released under the name Manitoba and later reissued as by Caribou.) By the time of 2005's "The Milk of Human Kindness," Snaith was sharing chunky hip-hop beats with atmospheric tinkering and nods to Kraut rock.
On "Andorra," Snaith finally seems to get the whole songwriter thing. His gift for aching melody has always been present, but here it flows into great choruses and among tight structures, surfacing above a cloud of layered, ringing guitars, echoing vocals, wall-to-wall percussion, flute, glockenspiel - all supplied by Snaith. It's trippy, all right, but not to the point of losing anyone; "After Hours" has departures that push the whole song in new directions, rather than pull it apart into fragments. By the time of "Sundialing," it's clear "Andorra" is no joke: Snaith is capable of keeping his attention - and craft - focused for an entire sitting. Two songs later, "Niobe" closes the album. It's a nine-minute, synthesizer-driven symphony of anticipation and paranoia that reminds us that Snaith's talent lies in delaying pleasure as much as it does in delivering it.
JOE NICHOLS "Real Things" (Universal South, 3 ½ stars)
Joe Nichols had never quite lived up to the exceptional promise of his 2002 debut, "Man With a Memory." With his fourth album, however, the young neotraditionalist finally does.
"Real Things" contains some fun throwaways, but no embarrassments like the last album's "Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off," and Nichols delivers them with a sure, easy touch. As usual, however, the real meat is the ballads, and here Nichols sinks his Haggardesque baritone into a solid collection of them. The result is a combination of taste and depth that, culminating with a magnificent version of Blaze Foley's "If I Could Only Fly," makes the most compelling case yet that Nichols, too, is the real thing.
WAYLON JENNINGS AND THE WAYMORE BLUES BAND "Never Say Die" (Columbia/Legacy, 3 ½ stars)
When Waylon Jennings delivered the Nashville performance of January 2000 that is captured here, he was in failing health and forced to play sitting down. That doesn't mean the country legend, who would die two years later, was fading away. "I can still kick ass - you just got to bring them up here," he jokes.
And boy does he ever - kick tail, that is. This two-CD-plus-DVD set expands on a previous single-disc release and features the entire performance. The years and his ever-gruffer baritone deepen the tenderness and soulfulness of the ballads, but the tone is more often one of joyful rambunctiousness. Backed by his great band, enhanced by horns and fiddle, along with his wife, Jessi Colter, and guests John Anderson, Montgomery Gentry and Travis Tritt, the onetime country rebel sounds as triumphantly full of life as ever.
BRUCE HORNSBY/CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE/JACK DEJOHNETTE "Camp Meeting" (Sony BMG Legacy, 3 stars)
Bruce Hornsby, the soft-rocker with a feel for the heartland, has always been a seeker. Steeped in the musical hothouses of Boston's Berklee College of Music and the University of Miami, Hornsby has jammed with guitarist Pat Metheny and filled in on keyboards with the smokin' improvisers known as the Grateful Dead. And that was after he had ridden such hits as "The Way It Is" to pop stardom.
It's freaky-deaky jazz that inspires him here. Joining with bassist Christian McBride and master drummer Jack DeJohnette, Hornsby fashions a session that is surprisingly reverent. Unlike other genre benders, Hornsby doesn't sound like a gate-crasher. His personal sound, often produced as disconnected single notes, comes with flecks of pianist Keith Jarrett, whose "Death and the Flower" receives a handsome airing here.
Hornsby's delicate lines and unusual conceptualization come out on Miles Davis' "Solar," which gets interpreted through a pleasant, impressionist sensibility. The title track creates a glow as McBride's bass soars to the fore.
This serious effort makes no obvious concessions to popdom. It is just different enough.
LOUIS PRIMA "Jump, Jive An' Wail: The Essential Louis Prima" (Capitol, 3 ½ stars)
The brash showman Louis Prima sure goes down good these days.
The New Orleans-born singer and trumpeter, who was discovered by fellow Sicilian Guy Lombardo, nearly flamed out in the early 1950s with the demise of swing. Then he opened in Las Vegas as it was cresting and is credited with helping to invent the lounge act. The rest is history.
This compilation of tracks from his rebirth in the late 1950s, some made with wife #4, singer Keely Smith, is pure biscotto. Prima, who died in 1978, goes from big-band crooner to Latin balladeer in about the time it takes to boil angel-hair pasta.
The cat scats over "Buona Sera" and makes all kind of gassy riffs as he imitates a monkey for Disney's "The Jungle Book."
No wonder all those women said yes. "I'll join in matrimony, with a gal who serves spumoni," he sings on "Angelina." "I'll eat soup and minestrone, just to be with her alone."
JOAN TOWER "Made in America" Nashville Symphony, Leonard Slatkin conducting (Naxos, 3 stars)
Though this disc's title and cover photo suggest patriotic music written by a composer in sensible shoes, the contents are rather the opposite and definitely significant. The title piece, "Made in America," refers partly to its being commissioned by 65 smaller-budget orchestras. Far from jingoistic, the piece takes "America the Beautiful" through a lot of thematic transformations, most of them full of eloquent struggle and anguish that could be applied to many periods in American history, but seem particularly apt now.
The other works are older, including the 1998 Tambor and 1991 Concerto for Orchestra, which codify the Tower aesthetic. Forget, mostly, about melody: Thematic material exists for the overall dramatic gesture the composer is out to create. Tower is a rhythm-based composer with high-energy modules that enjoy near-constant metamorphosis. Occasionally, she lapses into all-purpose galloping, as in the first movement of the concerto. Also, an entire disc of such aggressive music with brawny orchestration can be hard to take. Best to take each piece on its own. The performances show Leonard Slatkin and the excellent Nashville orchestra in high heat.
-David Patrick Stearns
ROYAL OPERA HOUSE
Mozart's "Don Giovanni" With Cesare Siepi, Geraint Evans, Leyla Gencer, Sena Jurinac, Mirella Freni, Richard Lewis. Covent Garden Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Georg Solti conducting. (Royal Opera House Heritage Series, three discs, 3 ½ stars)
Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" With Victoria de los Angeles, John Lanigan, Barbara Howitt, Geraint Evans. Covent Garden Chorus and Orchestra, Rudolf Kempe conducting. (Royal Opera House Heritage Series, two discs, 3 stars)
Some releases from the Royal Opera House's rich archive of live performances - most released for the first time - require explaining: Nostalgia for the original occasion is the driving force behind some of these choices, which isn't meaningful to those who weren't anywhere near London at the time. The main appeal of the 1957 "Madama Butterfly" is Victoria de los Angeles in the title role and conductor Rudolf Kempe - two artists that sensible collectors can't get enough of. The recording captures the star soprano in her prime, but so do her two studio recordings of the opera. Kempe brings polish and objectivity to Puccini's orchestration, but others do, too. Others are solid, but aside from Geraint Evans, not world-class.
In the crowded "Don Giovanni" discography, this stands out for its Italianate fury. Though conductor Georg Solti was among the first to use a seriously reduced orchestra size for Mozart operas, that trend has gone so far since then that this performance is from another time - one worth revisiting. The singing isn't as clean as what we're used to, but all cast members more than pull their weight, and have moments of arresting vocal originality. With Solti making the musical side crackle and then-young director Franco Zeffirelli inspiring the cast to greater theatricality, the performance barely requires a libretto translation to tell what's happening. Particularly notable is Cesare Siepi in the title role, Evans as Leporello, and Sena Jurinac as Elvira.