New Recordings

Posted: September 19, 2010

Pop

Wake Up!

(Columbia ***1/2)

Wake Up! is a winning proposition for both parties. Roots drummer and producer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson flips through his record collection and picks out choice sides both prominent and obscure, with an eye toward the '60s and '70s heyday of socially conscious R&B.

Gospel-schooled neo-soul man John Legend digs into Les McCann's "Compared to What," Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes' "Wake Up Everybody," and Bill Withers' Vietnam protest song "I Can't Write Left Handed," with his rich and raspy voice rolling out over one expertly played, percolating groove after another. Legend's own "Shine" is a relatively weak link, but the likes of "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free" (written by Billy Taylor and Dick Dallas but associated with Nina Simone), Ernie Hines' "Our Generation," and even Prince Lincoln's little-known reggae gem "Humanity (Love the Way It Should Be)" are sanctified and funky, and frustrated and hopeful, in just the right measures.

- Dan DeLuca

Hurley

(Epitaph ****)

Maybe it's the result of years of diminished expectations, but Hurley, Weezer's eighth album, sounds genuinely fantastic. Coming from the band that broke our hearts with half a decade of tedious retreads, Hurley recalls Weezer's glory days.

Poised between the histrionics of Pinkerton and the sunshine pop of The Green Album, Hurley boasts the kind of universal appeal this band once churned out effortlessly.

Thanks to Hurley's harder edge, notably on "Ruling Me" and "Trainwrecks," Weezer has finally reclaimed a power-pop thrill that's anything but the limp nostalgia of Raditude and The Red Album.

Standouts include the massive single "Memories" and the gleefully stupid "Where's My Sex," a Pinkerton-style number that gets a fair share of giggles from the substitution of "sex" for "socks." Genius? No. But for the first time in years, Weezer sounds relevant, sharp, and most important, fun.

- Emily Tartanella

The Sound of Sunshine

(Capitol ***)

Michael Franti does happy really well. The Sound of Sunshine follows 2008's All Rebel Rockers and its hit "Say Hey (I Love You)," and it takes that irresistible song as a starting point for a set of bubbly, reggae-tinged hip-hop. For an artist who trafficked in zealous political commentary for much of his career, The Sound of Sunshine sounds safe.

But that does not mean it's lightweight. Franti grew up on AM radio pop hits, and he has said he respects the power of cheery tunes to unite people. He also recently survived a life-threatening burst appendix. These uplifting songs, some produced by reggae legends Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, celebrate sunshine, friendship, angels, and love, and they have the hooks and the positive thinking to induce communal sing-alongs, happily and safely.

- Steve Klinge

Flamingo

(Island **)

Give him credit: Brandon Flowers is a restless soul, but he puts himself to work. Over three albums fronting the Killers, he took the band, with mixed results, from the icy textures of post-punk to Springsteen Americana to carefree pop-rock. For his solo debut, Flowers continues the search, from what sounds like the sterile casinos and bar stools of Vegas. He hasn't arrived at any great conclusions, jogging back and forth when he should be letting his voice build and soar, as it does a handful of times here (notably on "Only the Young" and "Magdalena"). He manages to dig up some interesting new influences - country rock on "The Clock Was Tickin'," show tunes for "On the Floor." That's admirable, if confusing. At his best, Flowers is a convincing solo artist yet to find his groove. At worst, he comes off as Neil Diamond backed by Dire Straits. Why the rush to be so old?

- Michael Pollock

Country/Roots

The Guitar Song

(Mercury ***1/2)

The title song of Jamey Johnson's new album, sung as a duet with cowriter Bill Anderson, drops some big names - "Haggard," "Marty," "Lefty," "Johnny." Johnson obviously sees himself as a torchbearer of the country traditions defined by those greats. With The Guitar Song, a two-disc, 25-song set that expands in more ways than one on the success of 2008's darkly gripping That Lonesome Song, Johnson is doing a good job of it.

The first song, "Lonely at the Top," shows Johnson in his bedrock element, as a rough-and-tumble barroom honky-tonker with a deep Alabama drawl. But he ranges beyond that stylistically and emotionally. "Poor Man Blues" is as stark and menacing as "Dog in the Yard" is tongue-in-cheek, well, hang-dog. As he does with "The Guitar Song," he anthropomorphizes "Heartache" to vivid effect. He rocks it up a bit on "California Riots" and he eases back on "Front Porch Swing Afternoon." (There might be a little too much easing back here: The album could use a few more up-tempo numbers.)

"That's Why I Write Songs," done solo acoustic, is terrific as a heartfelt statement of purpose and a paean to unsung songwriters, while his version of Kris Kristofferson's "For the Good Times" shows Johnson is also adept at being a Ray Price-like balladeer.

- Nick Cristiano

Jazz

Live

(Motema ***)

Pianist Geri Allen has the audacious and old-school idea of featuring tap dancer Maurice Chestnut with her trio on this live recording. The effect is like adding a second percussionist and injects some dancing oomph to "LWB's House," which is both discordant and free-flowing.

Allen goes deep inside here and invites us along. Once part of the highly theoretical M-Base collective, the Detroit native is always pushing past the mainstream, and her unconventionality both attracts and rebuffs.

So while this isn't a warm set, it's dramatic to hear her meld her tune "The Western Wall" with Mal Waldron's "Soul Eyes." "Philly Joe" builds to some well-earned heat, while her walk through "Embraceable You" which segues into Billie Holiday's "Loverman," makes for a sassy experiment.

- Karl Stark

Classical

Daniel Behle, Marlis Petersen, Daniel Schmutzhard, Sunhae Im, Anna-Kristiina Kaappola, et al. RIA Kammerchor, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, Rene Jacobs conducting

(Harmonia Mundi, three discs, ***1/2)

Freshness at any cost? Such is the question that will greet this inevitably controversial recording, which treats Mozart's singspiel with the leeway of, say, a classic Broadway show revival. Just in the first scene, significant score tampering allows the Three Ladies to have a group cadenza (which is high-handed even by the standards of conductor Rene Jacobs). The fortepiano is a near-constant presence in the orchestra, adding all sorts of ornamental effects, while dialogue is more integrated into the music than what's usually heard on disc or onstage. And as always, Jacobs is likely to make any given phrase speak differently than you ever imagined.

Approached with a healthy sense of adventure, though, the recording is full of beautiful orchestral playing with the often-heard overture exuding more vigor and joy than the best of them. Though not the most glamorous cast ever assembled, the singers treat the words so thoughtfully that even the one-dimensional Queen of the Night has an inner life that takes her subplot out of the simplistic realm of good versus evil. When appropriate, the performance also has a knockabout playfulness few recordings have dared to achieve.

- David Patrick Stearns

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