KEYSHIA COLE "Just Like You" (Imani/Geffen, 2 stars)
Here's the story with Keyshia Cole. Between signing a record deal at 21 and this, her second CD, the rugged-but-righteous soprano whose silken voice never lost its feel for the real conquered the R&B-hop world.
She collaborated with Eve and Kanye.
She debuted with "The Way It Is" - a record as raw in its heartbroken emotion as it was in its groove.
She was cooler than Ashanti, harder than Kelis, and darn near ready to take on Beyonce.
That's why this sophomore effort is disappointing. Cole still possesses a gem of a voice that portrays busted-up-ness better than most. And the rough-edged likes of "Didn't I Tell You" (featuring nasty old Too Short) and "Let It Go" (with Missy Elliott and Lil' Kim) still hippity hop. But too often Cole surrounds her vocals with plush strings and plaintive pianos. It would have seemed impossible to dwarf her. But the rush to lushness that is "Heaven Sent" and several other tracks makes Keyshia seem small. Better is the bare beats-driven romancer "Last Night." Even Diddy's listless rap can't screw it up. Make more of those, Keyshia.
THE MEKONS "Natural" (Touch n' Go, 3 ½ stars)
"Natural" as in au naturel, stripped-down, and folkie. That's a bit unexpected coming from the Mekons, the punk rock consortium of Jon Langford, Tom Greenhalgh, Sally Timms and other subversive pranksters that came together at Leeds University thirty years ago. But if the Mekons aren't making such a big noise this time around, their excursion into British folk minstrelsy around an end-of-days campfire is as winningly ramshackle as always, if a tad darker than usual. "Dark Dark Dark," to be exact, as Greenhalgh puts it on the first song. Still, this music is as resilient in its own way as high-volume rebellions like the 1989 album "Rock `n' Roll," and songs such as Langford's reggae bounce "Cockermouth" and Greenhalgh's clangorous "Zeroes and Ones" spread the bad news with mischievous glee.
JOSE GONZALEZ "In Our Nature" (Mute, 3 ½ stars)
Jose Gonzalez's "In Our Nature" may be the loudest quiet album of the year. With little more than his acoustic guitar and soft tenor voice, Gonzalez works up a tense, insistent atmosphere built on droning bass notes and percussive finger-picking. A Swede of Argentine descent, Gonzalez recalls South Americans such as João Gilberto and Caetano Veloso and Brits like Nick Drake and John Martyn. However, his second album doesn't sound like an echo of the past: its exploration of the nature of violence and war are fully contemporary.
"How low are you willing to go before you reach all your selfish goals," Gonzalez sings to open the album, addressing a certain someone whose goals include "invasion after invasion." While his voice rarely rises above an intimate murmur, there's nothing soothing about the simmering anger that is "In Our Nature."
THURSTON MOORE "Trees Outside the Academy" (Ecstatic Peace, 3 ½ stars)
Preemptively blocking criticism that his second solo album is self-indulgent or erratic, Thurston Moore closes the disc with a tape snippet of his 13-year-old self experimenting with household sounds for the benefit of an unknown audience. Exhausting the sonic possibilities of aerosol spray cans and clattering pocket change, he muses, "What am I going to do next for your ears to taste? I do not know."
Moore's previous solo outings have been scattershot affairs, but Trees Outside the Academy fruitfully confines itself to a small patch of ground, one distinct from Sonic Youth's well-tilled soil. Built around churning acoustic guitars, swooping violin lines, and even (gasp) the occasional harmony vocal, the album's songs bring Moore's melodic skills to the forefront and might even help a few Sonic Youth holdouts hear through all that noise.
RASCAL FLATTS "Still Feels Good" (Lyric Street, 1 star)
How did such wimpiness get so popular? These guys have already proven themselves the undisputed champions of mush on their march to the top of the charts. With "Still Feels Good," Rascal Flatts is not about to give up the title.
"Winner at a Losing Game" is an atypically restrained country ballad that hints at real substance and taste. The rest - big shock - is all overblown and formulaic power ballads with some laughable attempts at sounding macho ("Bob Your Head"). It adds up to a stupefyingly soulless affair. But what do we know?
JOHN FOGERTY "Revival" (Fantasy, 3 stars)
"You can't go wrong if you play a little bit of that Creedence song," John Fogerty wails over the slippery swamp-rock guitar that is his trademark. He's essentially paying tribute to himself, of course, but he's right on the money. Creedence Clearwater Revival is a daunting legacy to live up to, however, and Fogerty hasn't quite done it in his solo career.
He comes pretty close with "Revival." His bayou snarl is in full force on such blistering protest rockers as "Long Dark Night" and "I Can't Take It No More" (about the "fortunate son" in the White House). "Don't You Wish It Was True," on the other hand, is all sweet yearning, while "Broken Down Cowboy" is a countrified lament and "River Is Waiting" has a soothing, hymnlike quality. It's kind of funny, though, to hear him offer an apparently unironic salute to the "Summer of Love," when Creedence stood as an enduring antidote to all that nonsense.
TERENCE BLANCHARD "A Tale of God's Will: A Requiem for Katrina" (Blue Note, 3 ½ stars)
For New Orleans native, trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina was personal. His mother's anguished return to her Crescent City home just after the storm is captured in Spike Lee's documentary "When The Levees Broke."
Blanchard, who wrote the music for the documentary and other Lee films, expands on those themes and solicits tunes from his sextet for this deeply felt recording, which sounds far more like a soundtrack than a night at the city's legendary watering hole, Tipitina's.
The opening "Ghost of Congo Square" offers up the African drums that are at the root of the city's amazing amalgam of musical styles, and Blanchard's snaky horn lines honor that tradition.
But then it's off to the strings of the Northwest Sinfonia. Much of the rest of the recording is softly tragic and melancholy, albeit in a majestic and film-centric way.
Blanchard's recording has to be considered with John Coltrane's "Alabama" as a poignant response to real events.
Occasionally, though, the playing descends into Hallmark-card land. The overwrought lines of pianist Aaron Parks' "Ashe" hang as heavily as the city's humidity.
JACKY TERRASSON "Mirror" (Blue Note, 3 ½ stars)
Pianist Jacky Terrasson is a rare player who can remake a standard without violence. The son of a French mother and an American father, Terrasson, winner of the 1993 Thelonious Monk Piano Competition, reassembles the sonic clues of a song on this solo piano outing in some spectacular ways.
The guy can sound firmly Monkish at times. Terrasson finds the quirky nubs in "Just a Gigolo," a ditty the master also explored.
Yet Terrasson's approach and sound carry a unique charisma. His "Juvenile" sounds quaint and classically French, with a dash of chordal whimsy thrown in.
His respectful take on Carole King's "You've Got a Friend" definitely makes the earth move, and he takes a gutbucket look at "Tragic Mulatto Blues," complete with gospel uplift. "America The Beautiful" starts as a modernist collection of disparate high tones before it emerges with some soul into a jaunty ditty with an exquisitely soft ending.
"Mahler Symphony No. 4" Christine Schafer, soprano; Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam (RCO Live, 3 ½ stars)
"Bruckner Symphony No. 7" Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO Resound, 3 stars)
Conductor Bernard Haitink is truly the darling of orchestra-produced live recordings; in addition to the new Amsterdam and Chicago discs, he's also a staple on the London Symphony Orchestra's "LSO Live!" These latest arrivals, both works he has conducted for decades and recorded before, are typical Haitink in the best sense. Interpretive decisions aren't out to challenge the status quo, though any number of subtle touches enliven the music, from the primary to the secondary elements. For all its grandeur, the Bruckner symphony is phrased in ways that make its manner disarmingly intimate, though the Chicago brass section, for all its majesty, has a vulgar edge that spoils more than a few moments. Clearly, this orchestra needs a fulltime music director.
The Mahler can be recommended much more highly. Oddly, the performance isn't that of an elder statesman; tempos are anything but reflective and timbres are anything but demure. The discursive journey and ultimate apotheosis of the third movement emerges with a combination of logic and conviction that not only makes it the core of the symphony, but perhaps Mahler's single greatest creation. The Amsterdam orchestra, which has often sounded too comfortable under Haitink, seems tanked up on espresso. Soprano Christine Schafer lacks the freshness of past years, but finds a coloristic tint for each of the final movement's verses, projecting the celestial descriptions of the words with rare comprehension.
-David Patrick Stearns
KIM KASHKASHIAN AND ROBERT LEVIN "Asturiana" (ECM, 3 ½ stars)
Conceptually, this disc makes little sense. Why transcribe songs with such soulful texts for viola? And why an instrument whose dusky sound often lacks the emotional specificity and flexibility of other string instruments? The answer is that violist Kim Kashkashian and pianist Robert Levin simply wanted to - badly - which carries this extremely attractive collection of Falla, Granados, Ginastera, Montsalvatge and others. For those who crave the emotional starting points of these transcriptions, the song lyrics are printed, in English, in the CD booklet. This is a true classical feel-good disc that doesn't make you feel stupid afterwards.