WEEN "La Cucaracha" (Rounder, 3 ½ stars)
They say actors are the ultimate existentialist icons because they get to have many lives, while the rest of us have to settle for just one. Similarly, there is something admirable about Ween's 25-year quest for the ultimate buzz, musical or otherwise, and their Zelig-like ability to utterly inhabit any genre they choose - country, metal, funk, psychedelia, even jazz - and satirize it at the same time. That's again the case with "La Cucaracha," the 11th full-length collection by Dean and Gene Ween. It's yet another peerless revolving-genre spin-cycle that includes but is not limited to: Santana-esque prog; faux-sexist redneck-rock; woozy nitrous-soaked pop; "Looney Tunes" country & western; deep-dish dub reggae; and a couple of baroque-pop charmers. Detractors tend to dismiss Ween as a "South Park" lounge band, making music for people who never got over Mad magazine. But given the size, scope, and authenticity of their put-ons, I'd say Dean and Gene Ween are something closer to Zen tricksters than holy fools.
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ANGIE STONE "The Art of Love & War" (Stax, 3 stars)
It's telling that Angie Stone is one of the first signings to the reconstituted Stax Records. The Mississippi-born R&B label and the South Carolina-raised soul singer were cut from the same raw cloth, with hints of silk within their funky fabric. The confessional lyricist with the powerful pipes (a producer/multi-instrumentalist, too) has always been the creme of old-school soul with just a hint of hip-hop. Yet after two platinum albums, Stone's third (2004's "Stone Love") got lost in the dreaded post-NeoSoul shuffle. She's back to form here. Stone's "Art" plays with jazzy tones bluntly bopping on "Play Wit It" (written with Patrice Rushen) and windingly grand on "These Are the Reasons." Her stormy but buoyant "Baby" (featuring Betty Wright) and smoky "Here We Go Again" are romantic mid-tempo R&B at its most lustrous. There are obvious clunkers, like the bland "My People" with a syrupy James Ingram and a kid choir. There are some lulls here, too. Get it into your head: Stone doesn't trill like the kids and doesn't do drama like Mary J. Then again, she doesn't have to.
ROBERT PLANT/ALISON KRAUSS "Raising Sand" (Rounder, 3 ½ stars)
The collaboration between the Golden God of Led Zeppelin and the dulcet-voiced bluegrass fiddler seems unlikely on the surface, but works like a beautifully sorrowful dream. The third finger in the pie belongs to T-Bone Burnett, and, as usual, the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" producer makes everything sound like it was recorded in a Smoky Mountain cabin. The all-covers song selection (the lone exception being the Plant-cowritten "Please Read the Letter") is full up with excellent choices, including a delicately understated reading of Mel Tillis' "Stick With Me Baby," a devilish and almost rocked-out take on Allen Toussaint's "Fortune Teller," and a gorgeously rendered duet on Roly Salley's fabulously melancholy "Killing the Blues." Plant and Krauss' voices twine together effortlessly, and they suffuse everything they sing with mystery. Here's hoping the Zeppelin reunion is this good.
CARRIE UNDERWOOD "Carnival Ride" (Arista, 3 stars)
Carrie Underwood's "Some Hearts" didn't sell an unheard-of (in this downloading age) 6 million copies solely on the strength of her "American Idol" success and girl-next-door appeal. Simon Cowell's favorite heartland honey turned in a well-made debut album that deftly walked the country-pop divide and, in "Before He Cheats," smashed headlights with an expertly delivered blast of girl-done-wrong rage.
"Carnival Ride" resists the temptation to soften up with too much gauzy pop balladry, instead consolidating its country credentials, and leaving no doubt that Underwood has moved confidently into Faith Hill's and Shania Twain's spot as mainstream country's most formidable female star. For those who like it rough, there are the pedal-to-the-floor "Get Out of This Town" and "Last Name," in which our innocent little girl wakes up in Vegas with a tequila hangover and not knowing her new last name. That one is a little too cutesy, as is "The More Boys I Meet," whose title is followed by "the more I love my dog."
But then there's the pep-talk of "Crazy Dreams" (one of four Underwood cowrites), and the downright daring "Just A Dream," in which an Iraq war widow is forced to realize that the folded-up flag she's presented at a military funeral is part of a nightmare she's never going to wake up from. Maybe it says something about America that even Carrie Underwood is singing songs about a war that has no end in sight. Or maybe there's more to this gal than we all thought.
MERLE HAGGARD "The Bluegrass Sessions" (McCoury, 3 ½ stars)
This album is Merle Haggard's first foray into bluegrass, but in essence it's just Merle being Merle, which means it's pretty darn great. This is less about the country titan following the strictures of the all-acoustic form than it is Haggard bending the form to suit his own, mostly honky-tonk-informed rhythms and range, while imbuing it with his usual gravitas and feeling.
Haggard delivers superb new versions of some of his classics, including "Mama's Hungry Eyes" with Alison Krauss on harmony vocals, and he again indulges his love of the Singing Brakeman with "Jimmy Rodgers' Blues." His new songs, however, show his muse to be as sharp as ever. "What Happened?" is not the simple-minded nostalgia piece it might seem to be - there are a ton of ways you can read the key line "Where did America go?" And "Learning to Live With Myself" is a simply devastating ballad, one of the best he has ever written.
OVER THE RHINE "The Trumpet Child" (GSD, 3 ½ stars)
Since forming in 1990, Over the Rhine has ranged beyond its origins in conventional rock and pop. With "The Trumpet Child," the husband-wife duo of Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist continue to synthesize American sounds in their own captivating way.
Country, jazz, cabaret and gospel echo through songs that are both straightforward ("I don't want to waste your time/With music you don't need") and evocative, with Bergquist's full-bodied, torchy vocals enhancing the late-night intimacy of it all. There's a clattering tribute to Tom Waits ("Don't Wait for Tom"), and Randy Newman seems an obvious influence. He's not named in the songs, but the other artists who are give an idea of the wells Over the Rhine draws from. They include Satchmo, Patsy Cline, Emmylou Harris and John Prine.
CYRUS CHESTNUT "Cyrus Plays Elvis" (Koch, 3 ½ stars)
Elvis Presley hasn't traditionally been a mainstay of jazz players, who tend to eschew popular acceptance as well as jumpsuits. But leave it to pianist Cyrus Chestnut to discern the blues and gospel bubbling up in the King's work and use those influences to turn his hallowed chestnuts into jazz standards.
This mostly trio recording - saxophonist Marc Gross sits in on two cuts, giving a curious smooth-jazz feel - is a stomping, enjoyable affair overall.
Elvis was drenched in black music, especially early on, and Chestnut shows he knows what to do with the blues changes on a sizzlin' "Hound Dog" and a slinky take of "Don't Be Cruel."
Chestnut's view is a jazzy one with bassist Dezron L. Douglas and drummer Neal Smith. He tackles "In the Ghetto" with a storyteller's verve. And he's fearless in taking "Heartbreak Hotel" completely out of rhythm and rendering it darkly tragic.
It makes for a curious series of reinterpretations that Chestnut somehow makes work. The Baltimore native, who has paid tribute in previous recordings to Duke Ellington and Charlie Brown, makes Elvis seem like the logical next stop.
JOSH NELSON "Let It Go" (Native Language, 3 stars)
Pianist Josh Nelson is that rare breed: a Los Angeles jazzman.
Just 28 at the time of this recording, Nelson trained at Boston's Berklee College of Music and was a semifinalist in the 2006 Thelonious Monk Piano competition. He gigs a lot with the promising singer Sara Gazarek. And while his work is reminiscent of Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau and a long list of other worthies, he sounds like no one else exactly, which in jazz means that you have achieved something.
This debut recording has its film-score moments. Playing with bassist Darek "Oles" Oleszkiewicz, drummer Matt Wilson, guitarist Anthony Wilson, and tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake, Nelson shows a cool, clean and melodic style; he delivers open-hearted stuff that's occasionally whimsical and includes listeners in his musings.
"Abandon Post" is a graceful, autumnal kind of jazz, while the title track is oddly electric but still tuneful and even danceable at times.
"Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5; Ode to the End of the War" Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski conducting (Pentatone, 3 stars)
"Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 and Piano Sonata No. 28 Op. 101" Helene Grimaud, piano; Dresden Staatskapelle, Vladimir Jurowski conducting. (Deutsche Grammophon, 4 stars)
One of the world's most hotly discussed young conductors (and one the Philadelphia Orchestra just adores), Vladimir Jurowski has a maddeningly insubstantial discography that here takes a weightier turn. The Prokofiev symphony is one of the greats of the Russian repertoire, and in a generally well-played, probingly interpreted recording, Jurowski feasts on so many of the first movement's details that the music nearly loses momentum. Then come the surprises: While the symphony's piano contributions usually lie buried in the orchestral texture, they're often at the fore here, along with, curiously enough, the bass clarinet. Interesting but odd. Add to that the seldom-heard but ultimately tiresome "Ode to the End of the War," and you have a disc loaded with curiosity value, but a bit far from classic status.
The big question around Jurowski is how well he conducts the standard Germanic repertoire, and this Beethoven disc with pianist Grimaud is a tantalizing glimpse of that: All of the thrust and grandeur he brings to the Russian repertoire is heard here. But there's also a classical-era crispness, giving the music an airiness that makes Beethoven feel even more heroic. The star of the disc is Helene Grimaud, and rightly so: She usually has a firm intellectual and technical grasp on whatever she's performing, and that's particularly the case here. It's penetrating, dry-eyed Beethoven rendered with such technical clarity that you realize there's even more to the piece than what usually meets the ears. The Op. 101 sonata feels almost confrontational. The second movement usually has a crowded sonority; with Grimaud, it feels clogged - gloriously so - thanks to inspiration overload.
-David Patrick Stearns
BACH "Six Suites for Cello"
Jean-Guihen Queyras, cello (Harmonia Mundi, 3 ½ stars)
Wen-Sinn Yang, cello (Arthaus Musik, 4 stars)
More Bach cello suites? Why not, if they're this good? The latest pair of the six suites for unaccompanied cello represents a reversal of expectations. Most obviously, both are issued with DVDs (even though, with a single performer, there's not a great variety of visual possibilities), the Queyras set having a single documentary DVD, the Yang all six suites on two DVDs in addition to two CDs. The other surprise is which of the two belongs in the upper echelon of recordings of this repertoire - occupied by Pablo Casals on EMI and Pieter Wispelway on Channel Classics.
Queyras, whose brilliant discography includes difficult modern works by Dutilleux and Boulez, has welcome suaveness and subtle poetic qualities, but not a great deal of originality. That distinction definitely goes to Yang, who was born in Switzerland to Taiwanese parents and, for six years, until 2005, was principal cellist of the Bavarian Radio Orchestra. Where Queyras sings, Yang intones. Where Queyras makes interpretive points with concise precision, Yang displays a strong, personal sense of rhetoric and expansive, bass-heavy sound - not in the fashion of Casals, but definitely in that spirit. Also, in his hands, each suite has its own, overall sonic tint. And the DVDs? With good looks like Queyras' and artistry like Yang's, who wouldn't want to see as well as hear?