VARIOUS ARTISTS "I'm Not There: Original Soundtrack" (Sony, 3 stars)
Todd Haynes' Bob Dylan movie, "I'm Not There," is an art project that aims to explain the Bard as a shape-shifting cat whose multiple facets are explored by seven performers, including Cate Blanchett and 11-year-old African-American actor Marcus Carl Franklin.
The movie's soundtrack, thankfully, is a much more straightforward affair, and a surprisingly successful one, even if, at two CDs and 34 songs, it runs a little long. Some of the exemplary performances, like the mystical cover of "Goin' to Acapulco" by Jim James of My Morning Jacket (with Mex-Tex band Calexico behind him), are sung onscreen by the artists themselves.
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Others, such as Stephen Malkmus' "Ballad of a Thin Man" and John Doe's gospel-rock "Pressin' On," are lip-synced (by Christian Bale and Blanchett, respectively). And many, like Yo La Tengo's "Fourth Time Around," Los Lobos' "Billy 1," and Karen O's "Highway 61 Revisited," are not heard in the film at all.
Dylan, of course, has been covered ad nauseam. But what makes most of I'm Not There worth hearing are savvy song choices such as Mark Lanegan's spooky "Man in the Long Black Coat" or Iron & Wine's (and Calexico's) reimagined "Dark Eyes." (There are also less rewarding, more conventional covers by Mason Jennings and Charlotte Gainsbourg.) By the time Dylan himself shows up to sing the title song - a collaboration with the Band that didn't make it onto "The Basement Tapes" - the INT soundtrack has shown his bottomless catalog to be endlessly renewable.
ROBERT WYATT "Comicopera" (Domino, 3 stars)
Robert Wyatt has been a cult artist for 40 years, beginning with his days as drummer in the British prog-rock band Soft Machine. He's an enigmatic artist who blends jazz complexity, avant-garde experimentalism, and pop melodicism.
"Comicopera" is sometimes whimsical but rarely comic; more often, it's political. The collection is divided into three "acts": the first of strange love songs, the second of glimpses of a war-torn world (including one from a bomber's perspective followed by one from someone being bombed), the third of songs sung in Italian and Spanish as a form of protest against Britain and America, including an ode to Che Guevara. Phil Manzanera, Brian Eno and Paul Weller appear, as do several female vocalists, but the focus is on Wyatt's keyboards, trumpet and percussion, and, especially, his tender but eerie, boyish but aged, soulful but unsettling voice. It's an instrument perfectly suited to these conflicted songs.
CHRIS BROWN "Exclusive" (Jive, 3 stars)
There are always more than a few young MCs around; maybe now more than usual what with kids like Soulja Boy and Hurricane Chris and Lil' Mama out and about. This must make Chris Brown feel like an old man. At 18.
Perhaps that's why Brown's sophomore effort sounds as if he's ready to ripen, to ease into old age gracefully, beyond the chirpy R&B and shiny hip-hop of his debut. Brown's got a heavier musical bag to high-step around here - some crotchety rock and gospel twists in his mix; some dense funk and blips of go-go to be found. That's fine. The simmering soul pop of "Picture Perfect" and the grand "Wall to Wall" are delicious examples of how Brown reacts to thicker tracks with real melody lines. But it's Brown's swaggering style throughout Exclusive that's sort of impressive. Thuggish? No. Brown's no gangsta. But he's dashingly rugged in a `tween way (think the Jacksons meet G Unit), holding his own with T-Pain on "Kiss Kiss" as well as the wily "I'll Call Ya."
And he's driving age.
SOULSAVERS "It's Not How Far You Fall, It's the Way You Land" (Columbia, 3 ½ stars)
Soulsavers are two British producers, Rich Machin and Ian Glover, who work in the Massive Attack tradition of mixing down-tempo electronics with traditional instruments. This album is their second. But what really matters is that Mark Lanegan sings on eight of 10 tracks (the other two are cinematic instrumentals).
Lanegan, the former Screaming Trees singer, has lent his growling, bluesy baritone to collaborations with Queens of the Stone Age, the Twilight Singers, and Isobel Campbell, but this one may be his best guest appearance yet. He's backed by a gospel choir on the rumbling "Revival," one of five tracks he cowrote with Machin and Glover. He covers songs from Neil Young, Spain, the Stones (a hypnotic "No Expectations"), and an old one of his own. He's spooky and sexy, eerie and earthy. While the album won't save souls, it may well enrich them.
BETTYE LAVETTE The Scene of the Crime (Anti- (ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)(ASTERISK))
With the 2005 release of the monumental "I've Got My Own Hell to Raise," Bettye LaVette finally began to get the attention she deserved after a 40-year career full of bad breaks and crushing disappointments. Now the never-say-die soul diva is back with another jewel in "The Scene of the Crime."
Recording at the iconic Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., with the excellent Southern rock band the Drive-By Truckers - Muscle Shoals vet Spooner Oldham's piano is also prominent - the singer again molds a disparate collection of songs by such writers as Willie Nelson, John Hiatt, Don Henley and Elton John into an uncompromising soul masterpiece that's pure Bettye LaVette. "I've been this way too long to change now," she declares at her grittiest on the Eddie Hinton opener, "Take Me Like I Am (Still Want to Be Your Baby)." Thank goodness for that.
DWIGHT YOAKAM "Dwight Sings Buck" (New West, 3 stars)
THE DERAILERS "Under the Influence of Buck" (Palo Duro, 2 stars)
Dwight Yoakam's whole career has practically been a tribute to Buck Owens, so it's no surprise he would record an album of songs by the prime architect of country's Telecaster-fueled and timelessly vibrant Bakersfield Sound. Over the 15 familiar and not-so-familiar Owens tunes here, Yoakam generally stays faithful to the originals. He does, however, bring some welcome new touches, whether it's stretching out and slowing down "Close Up the Honky Tonks," adding his own atmospheric touches to ballads such as "Only You (Can Break My Heart)," or digging especially deep for the great, soaring version of "Together Again" that closes the set.
Such a personal stamp is largely lacking from the Derailers' tribute. The Texas country-rockers deliver 13 songs (only six of them common with the Yoakam CD) with plenty of energy and affection. But the precise reproductions of the music extend even to the vocals, where lead singer Brian Hofeldt seems to be consciously imitating Owens' voice.
EVERETTE HARP "My Inspiration" (Shanachie, 3 stars)
Some of this new CD by saxophonist Everette Harp sounds like the Crusaders. Or maybe it's Grover Washington's sound circa "Mister Magic." Either place is not a bad locale.
A Houston native, Harp cut his teeth working with such stars as Anita Baker, Patti LaBelle and Rachelle Ferrell. He's a smooth jazzer with an R&B pedigree who can play.
Pieces of a Dream's James Lloyd stops in to drop some funky doo-wop on his "Juke Joint." Keyboardist Jeff Lorber gives some fortitude to "Funky Palisades," while fellow keyboardist George Duke lays down some ardency on the leader's "Chasin.'"
The smoothness and big throbbing bass can get repetitive, but Harp keeps things interesting with a vivid horn section and some snap to the pulse, thanks to Teddy Campbell on drums and Lenny Castro on percussion.
THE JIMMY AMADIE TRIO "The Philadelphia Story: The Gospel as We Know It" (Jimmyamadie.com, 3 stars)
Pianist Jimmy Amadie is one tenacious dude. A veteran of bands run by Woody Herman and Mel Torme, Amadie blew out his fingers from overuse 40 years ago, and has mostly practiced in his head for years.
Now 70, Amadie still has managed to make six recordings by just playing the notes that count. Here he joins a rhythm section of drummer Bill Goodwin and bassist Steve Gilmore with three virtuoso Philadelphians: tenor saxophonists Benny Golson and Lew Tabackin (who doubles on flute) and trumpeter Randy Brecker.
Amadie plays a standard and three originals with each guest, and the result is a sumptuous offering. The rhythm section is superb, and it amounts to a public service to capture these Philly cats.
The session has this rich, supper-club feel. It could be the late 1950s but for the digital recording and the whiffs of modernity that pass by. Amadie impresses with his compositions, including "Marching With Benny G.," a riff on Golson's famed "Blues March."
Brecker waxes lyrical on "Michael's Lament," a minor-key ditty Amadie wrote for Randy's brother Michael, who died in January of a rare leukemialike syndrome.
LORRAINE HUNT LIEBERSON
"Songs by Mahler, Handel and Peter Lieberson" With Roger Vignoles, piano (Wigmore Hall Live, 3 ½ stars)
"Spanish Love Songs" With Joseph Kaiser, tenor; Steven Blier and Michael Barrett, piano (Bridge, 4 stars)
As a longtime follower of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, my initial reaction to the live Wigmore Hall disc, recorded in 1998, was "I've heard better - from her at Wigmore Hall." Be that as it may, the excellent isn't the enemy of the superlative in the posthumous discography of this much-missed mezzo-soprano - especially one featuring Mahler's Ruckert Lieder (which suits her so well it could have been written for her) as well as a scene from her husband's opera, Ashoka's Dream, the piece that first brought them together. As good as Roger Vignoles' keyboard contribution is, you can't help missing the usual orchestra in the Mahler, and the absence of the masterful, Ravel-influenced orchestration in Ashoka does compromise the music. Still, this is a prime example of Lieberson's intense, entrancing art, even though, like many great artists, the very best came at the end.
One such concert is the 2004 recital at the Caramoor Festival titled "Spanish Love Songs." Much of the seldom-heard repertoire by Enrique Granados, Joaquin Rodrigo and Federico Mompou was learned for this one-time-only occasion in an evening filled out with more familiar songs from Hugo Wolf's Spanish Songbook. She wanted to make a studio recording of this highly attractive program - with an aside muttering "while I still can do it," according to pianist Steven Blier - but none of the dates worked out. But the tape survives, with pleasing contributions from tenor Joseph Kaiser. The recital ends, idiosyncratically, with the Stephen Sondheim song "Barcelona" in which Lieberson, with a masterfully ingenuous lack of vibrato, plays a comically air-headed airline attendant.
-David Patrick Stearns
NED ROREM "Piano Concerto No. 2 and Cello Concerto" Simon Mulligan, piano; Wen-Sinn Yang, cello; Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Jose Serebrier conducting (Naxos, 3 ½ stars)
If ever there was a disc that defied Ned Rorem's detractors while also giving them fodder, it's this one. These two concertos are separated by roughly 50 years, and what a difference a half-century can make in a composer's creative arc. The 1951 piano concerto, cast in the typical three movements, is shamelessly derivative: So specifically are Ravel, Poulenc and Gershwin referenced, the piece is an act of musical ventriloquism, albeit a brilliant, engaging one that I enjoyed thoroughly.
The 2002 Cello Concerto comes from a different world, consisting of eight movements, some as short as 90 seconds, some as long as seven minutes, none of them following the usual format, often expressing unfiltered anguish and rage. It's as great an answer as I can imagine to those who say Rorem only knows how to write songs and lacks depth. This concerto, one of his very best pieces, has a life-and-death edge - and is played as such by the Swiss/Taiwanese cellist Wen-Sinn Yang (suddenly he's everywhere) in an all-around well-played, well-recorded enterprise.