KT TUNSTALL "Drastic Fantastic" (Virgin, 2 ½ stars)
The title of Scotswoman KT Tunstall's second CD - not to mention the white minidress, matching go-go boots, and silver-spangled guitar she's sporting on the cover - would seem to announce that something fabulously exciting is about to happen. Alas, it is not to be. Not that "Drastic Fantastic" is a disappointment, exactly. The follow-up to Tunstall's slow-breaking hit debut, "Eye to the Telescope," again plays to her strengths, working a Sheryl Crow-Sarah McLachlan folk-pop axis, albeit with a bit more of a glossy sheen. From the acoustic bounce of "Hopeless" to the genuinely catchy, coo-coo-cooing "I Don't Want You Now," "Drastic Fantastic" is uniformly pleasant and mildly captivating. But it never lives up to either of the words of the title.
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JOE HENRY "Civilians" (Anti-, 3 ½ stars)
When it comes to songs about home-run-hitting San Francisco Giants outfielders, Joe Henry's "Our Song," has it all over Kanye West's "Barry Bonds." Henry's song, a centerpiece of the starkly beautiful Civilians, begins with the line "I saw Willie Mays at a Scottsdale Home Depot," and goes on to express sorrow about American dreams gone awry. He does this with dignity and grace. The same can be said for the rest of "Civilians," which is informed, but not overcome, by anger about the Iraq war, and employs a superb cast of musicians, including guitarist Bill Frisell and multi-instrumentalist Greg Leisz. Henry's work with Solomon Burke and Bettye Lavette, among others, has earned him acclaim, and his croaking singing voice and predilection for snail-paced minor-key melodies have often made it seem a better idea to listen to a record Henry produced than one of his own. Civilians fixes that with an excellent set of finely wrought songs whose mournful tone fits their subject matter perfectly.
IRON & WINE "The Shepherd's Dog" (Sub Pop, 3 stars)
"The Shepherd's Dog," Iron & Wine's third full-length album, completes the transformation hinted at in two EPs from 2005, "Woman King" and "In the Reins," the latter a collaboration with Calexico. What began as a solo bedroom project by Floridian Sam Beam featuring little more than his hushed, murmuring voice and acoustic guitar has blossomed into a full-blooded band, and this album is full of quiet textures: cello and fiddle, marimba and other hand percussion, steel guitar and sitar, accordion and organ, harmony vocals from Beam's sister Sarah.
While "The Shepherd's Dog" never rocks out - the New Orleans-flavored "The Devil Never Sleeps" comes close - its attention to rhythm sets it apart from the gossamer poetics of early I&W. Check the dublike interludes in "Wolves," for example. Still, the focus is on Beam's intimate vocals. Like Nick Drake or Elliott Smith, he commands through his reserve, and his parablelike songs merit attention.
BABYFACE Playlist (Mercury, 2 stars)
When Babyface (Kenny Edmonds) said he was getting "Grown & Sexy" in `05, who knew "grown" would win the race so decisively for this lover-man's next project. But here he is, covering the middlest of middle-of-the-road hits from James Taylor, Dan Fogelberg and such.
Now, it's not as if Babyface has spent his career playing hard funk and MOR is some weird turn. Edmonds has been taking it slow and making it acoustic since "For the Cool in You" in 1993. It's not even that ballads done Babyface's way aren't lovely. Taylor's "Fire and Rain" and a pastoral "Shower the People" as funneled through Edmonds' honeyed voice are delectable and nearly soulful. Bread's beatific "Diary" and Fogelberg's "Longer" are shimmering and quaint. But Edmonds fails himself. Not just in that there's little instrumental oomph to Playlist. Rather, in that he has chosen dull, dire songs ("Time in a Bottle"), awful songs ("Please Come to Boston"?!??), and Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" to which he adds nothing. The voice is there but the spirit is weaaaak.
MARIE KNIGHT "Let Us Get Together" (M.C., 3 ½ stars)
For 22 years, starting in the late `40s, Marie Knight was the singing partner of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the electric-guitar-wielding gospel dynamo. For this new album, the 82-year-old is again singing gospel, but not quite the same kind.
"Let Us Get Together" features the songs of the Rev. Gary Davis, whose syncopated brand of country blues/gospel differed from the proto-rocking boogie of Tharpe. With guitarist-producer Larry Campbell sometimes picking solo and sometimes accompanied by a rhythm section - harmonica man Kim Wilson and singer Catherine Russell also appear on a couple of cuts each - Knight doesn't flash the firepower of old. But she doesn't have to. Her voice still strong, she displays a conviction and command that makes these stripped-down acoustic performances as joyously soul-stirring as anything she's done.
THE BELLAMY BROTHERS "Jesus Is Coming" (Curb, 3 stars)
"Jesus Is Coming" is the first gospel album for the Bellamy Brothers, the veteran country-pop duo. Except for the standard "I'll Fly Away" and a "gospel mix" of their big `70s hit "Let Your Love Flow" that doesn't sound very gospel, it consists of new original material.
With songs such as "Grandma's God" and "Faith Came Back to Me," the Bellamys sing like ones who have been out in the world and returned to embrace the bedrock values they grew up with, but they do so in a way that's not judgmental or self-righteous. As with their secular material, they sometimes inject humor, whether it's the cornball wordplay of "Drug Problem" or "Lord Help Me Be the Kind of Person (My Dog Thinks I Am)." Believe it or not, when they declare that "Jesus Is Coming" and add, "And boy is he p-," the reasons they give are much like those Mavis Staples sang about on her own gospel album earlier this year.
EDDIE DANIELS "Homecoming: Live at the Iridium" (IPO, 3 ½ stars)
If you've wondered what's happened to jazz clarinet since Benny Goodman, one answer lies here. Clarinetist Eddie Daniels, a Juilliard grad circa 1966, is an underappreciated talent on an underrated ax.
Daniels, who made a splash in the mid-1980s on the GRP label, makes the kind of live jazz you can curl up to on this two-disc set.
The guy's tremendous facility goes down like a mimosa, sweet and bubbly. And he's formidable on tenor too, charting a blistering course through "Falling in Love With Love" that never seems like a forced march through the scales.
His quintet with vibraphonist Joe Locke projects a burnished sound reminiscent of the Modern Jazz Quartet. The MJQ associations grow especially during the group's two live takes of John Lewis' "Django" and the three-part "Deja Vu," a silken, Roger Kellaway ditty you'll definitely want to hear again.
Pianist Tom Ranier and drummer Joe La Barbera, two of Daniels' West Coast compadres, join with Philly native David Finck on bass to make an expressive, fall-weather kind of session.
WARREN OREE & THE ARPEGGIO JAZZ ENSEMBLE "Man Bites Dog" (SilkSkin (ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)(ASTERISK)½)
Philly bassist Warren Oree has created a sextet with serious drive and rhythmic urgency. The group steers through a dozen originals, often with the hard bop neon lamp lit.
But this is not yesterday's band. Hints of funk lurk like chocolate chunks in a Ben & Jerry's flavor, thanks to the Afro-centric influences of conguero Doug "Pablow" Edwards and drummer Greg "JuJu" Jones. Oree even performs a sensuous rap over percussion on the grunt-worthy "Black Cherry."
Guitarist Frank Butrey adds some rhythmic spice and soloing heft while tenor and soprano saxophonist Umar Raheem combines snake-charming lines with moments of pure electricity.
Overall, the arrangements snap and crackle while singer Nina Fletcher lays some tasty mojo over the slinky "Looking and Seeing" and purrs some Sicilian love poetry on "Figghi Beddi." All of which makes Arpeggio one of the city's most reliable jazz bands.
BEETHOVEN "Symphonies 1-9"
Russian National Orchestra, Mikhail Pletnev conducting (Deutsche Grammophon, 3 ½ stars)
Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Philharmonia Orchestra, Sir Charles Mackerras conducting (Hyperion, 3 stars)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, Eugen Jochum conducting (Philips, 4 stars)
"Symphonies 3 and 8" Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie, Bremen. Paavo Jarvi conducting (RCA, 3 ½ stars)
Beethoven symphonies are suddenly everywhere again, each with a niche, none of them redundant. Charles Mackerras waited until age 80 to return to recording Beethoven, but there's nothing venerable about these vital, sometimes-explosive, though not-always-original performances. His Beethoven thinking grows out of the historically informed performance camp, though he has evolved considerably beyond. Every interpretive decision is backed with integrity and rich points of reference. I only wish the Scottish Chamber Orchestra didn't have so many ensemble lapses in these live recordings.
Mikhail Pletnev is the fox to Mackerras' hedgehog (to use Isaiah Berlin's famous analogy). The restless, inconsistent Pletnev sometimes favors the kind of terse, clipped phrases and brisk tempos of those who take Beethoven's metronome markings literally. The usual strolling tempos of the Symphony No. 6 feel like a sprint. Elsewhere, he has the tempo flexibility of pre-World War II conductors. But few Beethoven cycles have so much to say, or so earnestly shake these symphonies out of their routine.
Paavo Jarvi's single disc shows what a range of interpretive possibilities lie within the historic-performance realm; his have a healthy force but are never strident.
But if you long for the years before such scholarly revelations, no old-school Beethoven conductor has aged as well as Eugen Jochum. This late-1960s cycle shows him at his peak with beautifully rounded, gorgeously recorded interpretations you can live with, played by this great Dutch orchestra at its most alert.
-David Patrick Stearns
GABRIELA IMREH "Piano Transcriptions" (Arabesque, 3 ½ stars)
The program inspires skepticism: Though the art of piano transcription is far more respected now than a decade ago, using it as an overarching concept for this disc produces a less-than-cohesive program, from Bach's ultra-imposing Toccata and Fugue in D minor transcribed by Carl Tausig to Liszt's own reduction of his piano/orchestral work Totentanz to a dozen George Gershwin songs. But the Romanian-born Gabriela Imreh is hard to resist, partly because she believes the Gershwin songs are extremely important matters, and doesn't buy into the imposing pretensions of the more virtuosic stuff. Though she can summon thundering, steel-fingered bass notes, it's the distilled delicacy of her treble playing that tells you she's a world-class talent.