LINDA THOMPSON "Versatile Heart" (Rounder, 3 ½ stars)
There was a 17-year gap between Linda Thompson's first album and the cheekily titled "Fashionably Late" in 2002, so the sterling "Versatile Heart" comes along sooner than might have been expected. Not that the uncluttered 13-track collection, which is bookended by a beautifully brittle acoustic guitar instrumental by Thompson's chief collaborator, her son Teddy, sounds the slightest bit hurried.
Thompson is the most stately and soulful of British folk sirens. She works here alongside various family members and friends - her daughter Kami wrote one song, as did Rufus Wainwright (the stunner "Beauty"), whose sister Martha Wainwright also turns up. Thompson again distinguishes herself as a songwriter whose talents were hidden during her years with her ex-husband Richard. (He provided the "idea" for "Versatile's" "Blue & Gold," and is referred to in the notes as "a little known, but extremely useful guitarist.") From the understatedly seething title cut to the country lament "Give Me a Sad Song" to "Go Home," a clear-eyed kiss-off to a married man, "Versatile" is just that, as well as being warm and inviting.
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Along with Teddy's new album of country covers, "Up Front and Down Low," this is another excellent addition to the Thompson family oeuvre.
UGK "Underground Kingz" (Jive, 3 ½ stars)
Formed in the late `80s, the Port Arthur, Texas, duo of Bun B and Pimp C finally release "Underground Kingz," their much-delayed and anticipated double album. Surprisingly on sale for $7.99 at Amazon.com, the album is chock-full of lush, slow to mid-tempo Southern beats and UGK's trademark Texas twang. Steeped in funk and oozing with sexuality, it's classic UGK. "Int'l Player's Anthem (I Choose You)" enlists Outkast's Andre 3000 to create a whimsical, poetic cut, layered in song yet ready to bump from even the most basic stereo system. Bun and Pimp deliver on "Swishas and Dosha" and the Jazze Pha collaboration, "Stop-N-Go." "Like That" and several other tracks are steeped in the type of degrading sexist lingo for which rap is often knocked. Remove some of the unnecessary vulgarity, slash the 29 tracks in half and it's a great album.
ULTRA NATE "Grime, Silk & Thunder" (Tommy Boy, 3 ½ stars)
Due to the startling proliferation of modern dance genres, house - disco's electronic offspring - and its diva-laden sister, vocal house, have received a less than fair reception. Once its cha-cha heels left the parquet, listeners forgot how formidable house's sound was off the dance floor. Y'all nearly missed out on Ultra Nate. Since 1991's "Blue Notes in the Basement," Ultra has shown off a lustrous set of baritone pipes to go with a singular charm where shade and subtlety connect with theatricality and strength.
Now, Nate brings that same brassiness to her first CD in a diva-dog's age. While tracks glitzy (the hard-slapping "Scandal") and glammy (the Moroder-esque "Love's the Only Drug") recall lovely days of dance-y yore, there's plenty to indicate where vocal house should go in the future. Against a scratchy violin and an undulating wave of rhythm and mood, Ultra breathily minces few words during "Loosely Based On," makes sex an ordeal throughout the sassy jungle of "Slow Grind," and does just fine by syncopated blip-jazz on "Lethal Shot." Brava.
VARIOUS ARTISTS "Billie Holiday: Remixed and Reimagined" (Columbia/Legacy, 2 stars)
Yes, it's sacrilege to remix Billie Holiday, but the problem with "Billie Holiday: Remixed and Reimagined" is less with the idea than the execution. Holiday's defining characteristic, her masterful phrasing, gets lost amidst these coffeeshop-friendly, gently percolating re-settings. Holiday often sang behind the beat, savoring the slow pull of the rhythm. But the various DJs and producers here, many of whom worked on last year's similar Nina Simone project, are by definition less interested in jazz-cafe swing than in dance-club thump.
Many of these tracks begin with Holiday singing a straight verse before the beat kicks in - a steady house-music rhythm is the default setting - and she gets reduced to a disembodied voice repeating a line or two. Nikodemus and Zelo's horn-happy version of "Trav'lin' All Alone" is fun, and Lady Bug's raps on "Spreadin' Rhythm Around" work better than one might expect. But too often, Holiday's voice becomes secondary, lost in the remix. And that's a travesty.
At least no one attempts a groove-happy version of "Strange Fruit."
EILEN JEWELL "Letters From Sinners and Strangers" (Signature Sounds, 4 stars)
On her song "In the End," Eilen (pronounced EEL-in) Jewell conveys a plaintive world-weariness that very much recalls Lucinda Williams. That old-soul quality pervades the rest of the 27-year-old singer and songwriter's national debut; but the way she insinuates herself into classic country, folk and blues styles is very much her own, and makes this insistently low-key performer one of the freshest and most exciting new voices in Americana.
Jewell's sultry soprano has an intimate, Billie Holiday air that's perfect for the hillbilly jazz of "High Shelf Booze" and the humid atmospherics of "Too Hot to Sleep," but also for the more twangified country of "Rich Man's World" and "Blue Highway," and the bluesy soul of the aforementioned "In the End." Those are all Jewell originals that stand up well against songs by Dylan, Charlie Rich and Eric Andersen, making for a seamless connection between old and new, one that points up the invigorating timelessness of both.
TAMMY COCHRAN "Where I Am" (Shanachie, 3 stars)
Once a rising young Nashville hitmaker with a real country bent - her biggest hit was "Angels in Waiting," about the deaths of her two younger brothers to cystic fibrosis - Tammy Cochran had not released an album in five years. This independent release is a welcome return.
On the title track of "Where I Am," Cochran declares, "I've had to go through the worst to get to the best I've ever been." The whole set chronicles personal highs and lows with the convincing authenticity and hard-earned wisdom of someone who has made that journey - Cochran wrote or cowrote all 12 songs. And while there is plenty of commercial potential in these real-life tales - it would have been nice to hear a little more of the sass she displays in "As Soon as I'm Over You" - the Ohio native is still keeping it country.
CHARLIE HUNTER TRIO "Mistico" (Fantasy, 3 ½ stars)
Guitarist Charlie Hunter's new CD keeps moving in a rock direction, but that's not unwelcome. The links to jazz are still there. And this highly tuneful outing will get you moving.
Hunter's longtime sax player, John Ellis, is off pursuing a solo career. So in his new sax-free trio, Hunter joins with drummer Simon Lott and keyboardist Erik Deutsch for what sounds at times like a TV show theme on acid or a soundtrack to a whacked-out spaghetti western.
Hunter's tone is distorted throughout. "Balls" has this magisterial sound that could have come from a high-flying Southern rock band. And "Speakers Built In" finds Hunter all quivering and distorted on a rockin' tune that grinds effortlessly.
The title track is too repetitive - Deutsch's keyboard sounds hokey, like a child's instrument - and Lott's drums are sometimes predictable on this set. But there's always the invitation to dance. These guys can rock.
ANDY AND THE BEY SISTERS "`Round Midnight" (Prestige, 3 ½ stars)
Fans of the great jazz singer Andy Bey know that he established himself with his sisters Salome and Geraldine as Andy and the Bey Sisters back in the 1950s.
This 1965 set was the group's second recording - it broke up two years later - and it still startles the speakers after all these years. The Newark, N.J.-born singers sound like a full-throated gospel group as they find the emotion in "God Bless the Child." They launch "Squeeze Me" as a lighthearted ballad, but it gradually escalates into a stomping swinger.
There's a lot of the period in the group's quaint take on "Tammy," a Debbie Reynolds staple. At least a Ray Charles standard, "Hallelujah, I Love Her So," gives them firmer ground on which to boogie. Andy, who plays piano throughout - Milt Hinton is the bassist and Kenny Burrell appears on five tunes - gives a convincing scat on the group's sultry "Everybody Loves My Baby," though he sounds even better on some of his recent recordings.
Not quite gospel, not all jazz, the Beys must have been hard to characterize at the time. But they did not lack for soul.
FRANK MARTIN "Le vin herbe" Sandrine Piau (Iseut), Steve Davislim (Tristan), Jutta Bohnert (Branghien), RIAS Kammerchor, Scharoun-Ensemble, Daniel Reuss conducting. (Harmonia Mundi, 4 stars)
Those who know the 20th-century French/Swiss composer Frank Martin are rightly puzzled over why he isn't heard more often. However, he favored ensemble configurations that don't fit easily into standardized concerts - a problem that can impede even something as masterly as his two-hour World War II-vintage oratorio, "Le vin herbe." The piece itself takes on the legend of Tristan and Isolde in ways so fundamentally different from Wagner's great opera that comparisons cast Martin's personality traits in higher relief. Martin drew from the more medieval-based Le roman de Tristan et Iseut with a narrative that's less compact and more saga-esque than Wagner's, following the characters through years rather than weeks.
The piece's sound and manner are circumscribed with great specificity: Instrumental ensembles are varied but spare, with choruses performing a recitative-like function not unlike those in Berlioz's Romeo et Juliette. Solo vocal writing explores the story's volatile emotions with eloquent restraint and, at times, detachment. The 1961 recording conducted by the composer favored more aggressive singing and vivid coloration, almost as if Martin was apologizing for his own lack of Wagnerian grandeur. This two-disc performance has plenty of intensity, but filtered through airy, microphone-friendly sonorities that better reveal the shifting quality of sound in the choral and instrumental writing.
-David Patrick Stearns
LUYS DE NARVAEZ "Musica del Delphin" Pablo Marquez, guitar. (ECM, 3 stars)
Though the 16th-century Granada-born composer Luys de Narvaez is hardly unknown, few discs are devoted entirely to his music for lute or its Spanish cousin, the vihuela. Wisely, Pablo Marquez juxtaposes pieces that explore abstract musical problems with music that's more freely expressive, creating almost a double-vision view - one that wears well over the 46-minute disc - of a composer who owed much to the Elizabethan composer William Byrd but clearly had his own abstract musical theories and brand of emotionalism. Compared to instruments of the period, modern classical guitar is imposing but a bit blunt, though there's no lack of sympathy in these poised but introspective performances.