New Recordings

Posted: July 29, 2012

Pop

Gossamer

(Columbia ***1/2)

Passion Pit's 2008 debut EP, Chunk of Change, and 2009 full-length CD, Mind Your Manners, were both marked by such frantically hyper-indie-pop energy, and singer-keyboardist-auteur Michael Angelakos' chipmunk falsetto, that figuring out what the difficult-to-decipher songs were about seemed unnecessary and beside the point.

But with Gossamer, the band's long-in-the-works major-label debut, content has become just as crucial as form to the Passion Pit experience. That's thanks to a lyric-writing approach that makes its seriousness apparent from the get-go with the opening immigrant's song "Take A Walk" and continues throughout a gleaming, finely crafted, keyboard-heavy confessional pop album that lays bare Angelakos' struggles with bipolar disorder and alcoholism.

That might sound like a downer, but Gossamer's song surfaces shimmer and its melodies insinuate, and the album lifts up, playing like an extended love letter and thank-you note to Angelakos' fiancee, Kristy Mucci, to whom it is dedicated. "Just believe in me, Kristina," Angelakos sings in "On My Way" - "All these demons, I can beat them."

Here's hoping he's up to the task. Passion Pit is scheduled to play the Made in America festival in Philadelphia on Labor Day weekend, but the band has canceled several recent dates because of Angelakos' "mental health issues."

- Dan DeLuca

Russian Roulette

(Decon)***

The Alchemist (real name Alan Maman) possesses a star-studded hip-hop resume going back to the early '90s. He has worked as a DJ/producer with Cypress Hill, Mobb Deep, Ghostface Killah, Eminem, and Linkin Park. He also has released several solo albums and mixtapes, some instrumental, some featuring him rapping alongside guests.

On Russian Roulette, the Alchemist leaves the rapping to younger guys - Danny Brown, Fashawn, Action Bronson, Mr. MFN Exquire, among a dozen others - who often boast of violent exploits in tracks with titles such as "Decisions Over Veal Orloff" and "Oleg's Flight." It's the backing tracks that surprise, though. Inspired by a recent trip to the former Soviet Union, the Alchemist builds Russian Roulette's tracks from a kaleidoscopic range of sources - Russian songs, jazz and soundtrack samples, bits of dialogue from movies and interviews, old-school hip-hop beats - often overlapping them within each of the album's 30 brief, phantasmagoric tracks. It's dizzying, trippy, and impressive.

- Steve Klinge

Life Is Good

(Def Jam ***1/2)

As far as breakup records go, Marvin Gaye's 1978 Here My Dear is the catty divorce-disc gold standard. Life is Good, Nas' best album since 1994's raging Illmatic, nearly rivals Gaye's epic in its wry wrath and cold-shoulder soul. Yet it does so much more, namely for Nas. It shows what it takes to get the too-righteous rapper's goat and incur the sort of disgust he reserves for street cred and thug warfare.

Previously married to club-hop chanteuse Kelis, with a tween between them, the dad/ex-husband can be as poetically pragmatic as he is irked. For every ticked-off soliloquy ("Where's the Love") and ruined reminiscence of love gone wrong ("You Wouldn't Understand"), there is always something there to remind him of what once was cool, like laughingly looking into his offspring's dalliances ("Daughters") and cheerfully remembering the best parts of lost love ("Bye Baby").

Life is Good doesn't dwell exclusively on lousy marriage. Producer No I.D. and guests like the late Amy Winehouse ("Cherry Wine") aid the MC through surprisingly sprightly arrangements and catchy melodies on the summery old-school-themed cuts "Stay" and "Back When." But when Nas gets around to marital diss, his rough-edged prose is laser-focused and bittersweet.

- A.D. Amorosi

Carnaby Street

(Gonzo Multimedia ***1/2)

Michael Des Barres describes his new album as "authentic rock-and-roll, based in American blues, R&B . . . three-chord, unabashed rocking music." That pretty much nails it.

The real treat here is how well the British musician and actor and his four-man band grasp those rock-and-roll basics, stirring echoes of the Stones and the Faces (with the rasp in his voice, the 64-year-old Des Barres sometimes brings to mind Rod Stewart). "You're My Pain Killer" begins the album on a slow burn, and "Please Stay" is a pleading, gospel-inflected ballad that sounds like a lost Stax classic. Mostly, though, Carnaby Street is glorious, pedal-to-the-metal riff-rocking, played with swagger and panache and - beginning with Des Barres himself and his thoroughly unpretentious, hook-heavy songs - plenty of heart.

- Nick Cristiano

Country/Blues

Live at Billy Bob's Texas

(Smith Music Group ****)

One of the two terrific new songs on Billy Joe Shaver's new live set is the autobiographical "Wacko From Waco," in which the Lone Star legend somewhat humorously recounts a recent contretemps - he just happened to shoot a guy (in self-defense). "You best not mess with me," he warns, before adding later, "It's nice to be important, more important to be nice." (A bonus studio take of the song is a duet with cowriter Willie Nelson.)

"Wacko" pretty much distills the fascinating paradox that is Billy Joe - a rough-hewn, ready-to-rumble honky-tonker with the soul of a poet and the wisdom to match. He's one of country's great songwriters, and this well-paced performance reaffirms that greatness as it presents Shaver delivering many of his best songs backed by a lean, sharp trio.

Numbers such as "Georgia on a Fast Train" and "Black Rose" (with its quintessential Outlaw line, "The devil made me do it the first time, the second time I done it on my own") have a snarling rock edge, while "Live Forever," "Old Five and Dimers," and others take a gentle acoustic turn. Perhaps most touching is the a cappella "Star in My Heart," which Shaver concludes with "Love you, Eddy" - a reference to his late son, who at one time accompanied him brilliantly on guitar.

- Nick Cristiano

Jazz

Four MFs Playin' Tunes

(Marsalis Music)***

The final track of Four MFs Playin' Tunes is "Treat It Gentle," just a fabulous, New Orleans-influenced tune with dark changes and a beautiful vibe. That it comes at the end as a bonus track is odd because it helps humanize this heady session.

On first hearing, this quartet set, with pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis, and Philadelphia-born drummer Justin Faulkner, comes off as cold. But a couple of ballads and the bonus track cracked it open for me. I went back and thought Branford's jazz imperial but worth the time.

"Brews" is Monkish in the extreme, full of querulous angles, while "The Mighty Sword" goes boppish with a hint of Latin and "Teo" comes full of swagger, courtesy of a jaunty beat from Faulkner, who was a high schooler here when Marsalis took him on in 2009. Faulkner has made quantum leaps since then.

- Karl Stark

Classical

Filia Sion

(ECM ****)

Though this 12-voice Estonian vocal group has been around since 1996, this new disc is its first solo release on the high-profile ECM label, and it's a gently insinuating wonder in the vein of Anonymous 4. Directed by Jaan-Eik Tulve, the group's focus is chant as the basis of Western music, though the disc also encompasses music stretching into the 15th century, with a particularly ingratiating contribution from the 12th century's Hildegard of Bingen.

The singing is beautiful: Unlike chant discs sung by practicing monks, this one is performed by vocally cultivated civilians who don't exactly neglect the music's devotional aspect but are clearly keen to explore the pieces for their purely musical value. What sets this apart from many like-minded discs, though, is the sequencing. The sameness that often afflicts chant-oriented discs is completely avoided by varying the chant according to amassed and solo voices, switching between male and female and interspersing works of greater harmonic sophistication. Thus, one doesn't become desensitized to the serpentine vocal lines that never try to express the words specifically but practice alternative methods of musical persuasion. The final track, in particular, leaves you wanting more: "Ma Navu," a chant from the Jewish enclave of Cochin, India, that has its own kind of uplifting harmonies.

- David Patrick Stearns

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