JILL SCOTT "The Real Thing: Words & Sounds, Vol. 3" (Hidden Beach, 3 stars)
Jill Scott's third album is supposed to be all about heartache, since it's the Philadelphia R&B singer and poet's first since splitting with husband Lyzel Williams. After all, he was the subject of "He Loves Me (Lyzel in E Flat)," which none other than Beyonce covered her last time through town. But if I were Lyzel, I'd be blushing, because "The Real Thing," with a few exceptions like the notably rocked-out and raging "Hate on Me," is a steamy, sexy, slow-jam record that doesn't hold back in the slightest when it comes to Minnie Riperton-style make-out (and more) sessions such as "Crown Royal" and "All I." Working with a variety of producers, including Adam Blackstone, J.R. Hutson and Vidal Davis, Jilly from Philly, who has starring roles in movies directed by Tyler Perry and Anthony Minghella, comes across as confessional, confident and candid, as always. She's on top of her game, whether rapping over Scott Storch's minimalist beat on "Epiphany," calling out an absent lover in "Whenever You're Around," or opening up emotionally on "Wanna Be Loved."
PJ HARVEY "White Chalk" (Island, 3 stars)
This is PJ Harvey's Bronte sisters album, a set of chilling ballads sung by a woman locked away in the attic in "Jane Eyre" or lost out on the moor in the middle of the night in "Wuthering Heights." It doesn't rock in the slightest, and it's often sung in a high-pitched near-whisper that bears little resemblance to the alarming growl that the diminutive Harvey brought to such fearsome rockers as "Meet Ze Monsta" or "50 Ft. Queenie." But the music's hushed quality doesn't make it any less gripping. In fact, "White Chalk's" strongest moments, such as the ghostly "When Under Ether" or the haunted title track (whose thrumming guitar and drums slightly depart from the album's piano-only parameters) or the final, shrieking moments of the closer "The Mountain," only accentuate its gothic grip.
MESHELL NDEGEOCELLO "The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams" (EmArcy, 3 ½ stars)
At its poles, the newest Meshell Ndegeocello project comes off as bass-thumping neometal with ace jazzmen Oliver Lake, Pat Metheny and Robert Glasper following the bassist/composer into a noisy black hole. The hymnal "Relief: A Stripper Classic" and the frantic "The Sloganeer: Paradise" would suggest this was Ndegeocello at her most vicious. But there's a caramel center to this rock-hard bittersweet shell, and that oozing liquid core is chock-full of moist, slinky funk and dark dub balladry that allows Ndegeocello, the singer, to do what she does best: babble, rant, chatter and croon, in a low, gorgeous, whispery voice, lyrics that dare to be contagious before drifting dolefully into the ether. Few people could name a song "Elliptical," make it mean as much, and get away with it successfully.
Few artists are Ndegeocello; precious few.
JENS LEKMAN "Night Falls Over Kortedala" (Secretly Canadian, 3 stars)
Sweden's Jens Lekman belongs to the current generation of pop classicists that includes Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy, Stephen Coates of the Real Tuesday Weld, and Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields. Lekman writes artfully constructed pop songs that hark back to at least the `60s if not the `40s: They favor toe-tapping rhythms and grand orchestral flourishes.
On "Night Falls Over Kortedala," Lekman writes of extravagant emotions ("And I Remember Every Kiss") and quotidian events ("The Opposite of Hallelujah"), and he has a penchant for self-referential twists, as when the father of his lesbian date puts on one of Lekman's records.
Lekman's singing may not be the equal of his writing and arranging - "I'm Leaving You Because I Don't Love You" longs for the perfect pitch that Lekman lacks - but that makes this album a charming piece of indie-pop rather than an over-the-top set of cabaret-style standards.
BROOKS & DUNN "Cowboy Town" (Arista, 2 stars)
Watch where you step in this "Cowboy Town." On the self-congratulatory leadoff and title track of their new album, Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn drop one cliche after another ("solid as a rock," "salt of the earth," etc., etc.). It's emblematic of an album long on energy and short on inspiration.
The superstar duo balance the sober-minded and the party hearty. But the serious stuff tends to come off as pious or smarmy, while the fun material has a musically recycled feel. There's a nice, loose-limbed salute to Jerry Jeff Walker - do B&D fans know who he is? - featuring the man himself. But there's also "Johnny Cash Junkie (Buck Owens Freak)," one of those tiresome exercises that use the names of country greats less as a tribute than a transparent attempt to puff up the singers' own country credentials.
DOYLE BRAMHALL "Is It News" (Yep Roc, 3 stars)
He may not be as well-known as his son, the blues-rocking guitarist of the same name, but Doyle Bramhall has had quite a career of his own. An integral part of the Texas blues/roots scene for four decades, he played with both Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan and wrote some of Stevie Ray's best-known songs.
"Is It News" showcases Bramhall's talents as singer, songwriter and drummer. Produced by Louisiana swamp-rocker C.C. Adcock, the album ranges easily from the primitive jungle-beat rock of "Lost in the Congo" to the sweet soul of "I'll Take You Away." "Ooh Wee Baby" falls in between: It's a New Orleans-flavored ballad with a corrosively tough guitar solo by Denny Freeman, one of several six-string aces - Doyle II and Jimmie Vaughan are among the others - who spice up the set without overshadowing the man at the center of it.
EZRA WEISS "Get Happy" (Roark Records, 3 ½ stars)
Pianist Ezra Weiss is a happening 28-year-old composer, who was schooled at Oberlin and Queens College's Aaron Copland School of Music. He has worked extensively in the Portland, Ore., jazz scene.
His solo run through the title track (the Harold Arlen/Ted Koehler standard) is a dissonance-filled quickie and a bit of a fun throwdown.
Mostly this is a graceful, mainstream listen manned by small ensembles up to a quintet, playing standards and four originals.
Weiss, whose influences appear to range from Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers to arranger Gil Evans, creates a sensitive portrait with tweaks of dissonance on "Once Upon a Time," though he really could have done without the vocal.
A driving beat often prevails beneath the eclecticism, especially on "It's You or No One" with tenor saxophonist Kelly Roberge, bassist Corcoran Holt, and Billy Hart on drums. Even more upbeat is the funky "Run Under the Fountain" with Roberge, Holt, singer Elif Caglar, and drummer Jason Brown.
A bit earnest at times, this set still scores more often than not with tasty arrangements and some bold soloing.
JOHN CORIGLIANO "Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (The Red Violin)" "Sonata for Violin and Piano" Joshua Bell, violin; Jeremy Denk, piano; Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop conducting. (Sony, 3 ½ stars)
John Corigliano's oft-promoted "Chaconne," written for the 1999 film "The Red Violin," was greeted with typical crossover skepticism, though it's hard to say why eight years later, now that it's embedded into a larger concerto that ought to be a welcomed regular item in symphonic concert programs. The earlier "Chaconne" occasionally glances over its shoulder at the film-music-based Korngold Violin Concerto, and ends with a finality unusual within a larger piece.
However, the delightfully discursive second movement perhaps has the concerto's best music, thanks to its bristling tension between tight organization and an almost Ivesian sense of dissimilar ideas arranged in close proximity. The third movement wanders about with dreamy lyricism, while the final movement has wit, showmanship and flashes of hot, Americana fiddling, all done justice by the excellent Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under Marin Alsop. The much-earlier sonata was clearly written under the spell of Leonard Bernstein, his "Serenade for Violin, Harp and Strings" to be specific, and with music this charming, there's nothing wrong with that.
-David Patrick Stearns
BEETHOVEN "Violin Concerto and Sonata No. 9 (Kreutzer)"
Vadim Repin, violin; Martha Argerich, piano; Vienna Philharmonic, Riccardo Muti conducting. (Deutsche Grammophon, 3 ½ stars)
Isabelle Faust, violin; Alexander Melnikov, piano; Prague Philharmonia, Jiri Belohlavek conducting. (Harmonia Mundi, 3 stars)
Two recording labels and groups of artists had the same idea at the same time: new recordings of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, but paired not with the usual orchestral works (like his Romances) but with his mightiest violin sonata, the "Kreutzer." The Vadim Repin disc may become a classic: Though the violinist hasn't the most effortless technique, he has depth in a performance full of romantic-era emotionalism, seconded by his glamorous collaborators, including conductor Riccardo Muti (whose Beethoven is less swaggering and more deeply felt than in his Philadelphia years) and the always electrifying Martha Argerich. After this, is the Harmonia Mundi disc worth bothering with?
Yes - very much so. The concerto takes a more classical-era approach with less vibrato, thinner orchestral textures, more pulse-driven tempos, as well as some cadenzas you've maybe never heard and in places where you haven't heard them, such as between the second and third movements. Similarly, the sonata feels driven (not inappropriately) with clipped rather than lingering phrases from Isabelle Faust. Alexander Melnikov has an attractive, crystalline sonority and many bright ideas. Some "Kreutzer" performances reach for symphonic magnitude; this one accepts the music's sonata status and within that finds a more wiry power. Though Faust seems a tad straightforward next to Repin, Repin (in comparison to Faust) shows his emotions as much as he acts on them.