Reviews of new pop, country / roots and jazz releases
SLEIGH BELLS "Reign of Terror" (Mom + Pop, 3 stars)
On Sleigh Bells' delectable 2010 debut "Treats," the car-crash pileup of Derek E. Miller's overdriven guitars and gargantuan drum-machine beats laid a violently explosive foundation for charismatic front woman Alexis Krauss to coo over sweetly. It worked so well, in part, because there were discernible melodies beneath the maelstrom of noise. For the most part, that's still true on "Reign of Terror," though Miller's production strategy of intensely compressing the sound before turning it all the way up to 11 can create barriers to entry quite difficult to overcome, as on the well-titled "You Lost Me." And while the whole of "Reign of Terror" gleefully blasts away with a wall of noise to make the Jesus & Mary Chain blush, the concise, essentially pop architecture of the arrangements turn initially abrasive tunes like "Comeback Kid" and "Road to Hell" into earworms.
LYLE LOVETT "Release Me" (Curb, 2 1/2 stars)
Iconoclastic Texas song stylist Lyle Lovett has spent his entire career recording for one record label, and with this, his 11th album, he fulfills his contract and sets himself free. That's the joke of the title track _ the often-recorded Engelbert Humperdinck and Esther Phillips hit, here done as a duet with k.d. lang. The joke extends to the cover photo, which features the dapper, high-haired troubadour wound tightly with rope as if he were a damsel in distress. The contents of the 14-song album are by no means a joke, but it is slight by Lovett's standards, including only four originals, and incorporating a three-song Christmas EP he released last year. Lovett is an impeccable craftsman and an underrated singer; it's satisfying to hear him have a go at songs by Chuck Berry, Townes Van Zandt and Martin Luther (!) _ the Protestant hymn "Keep Us Steadfast." But mainly "Release Me" whets the appetite for more of the finally-free Lovett's new material.
ANDREW BIRD "Break It Yourself" (Mom + Pop, 3 stars)
Andrew Bird writes thoughtful songs that are as prone to flights of fancy as they are to academic diction. He is a casual and sensitive singer, an even better whistler, and an even better-than-that violinist. And on "Break It Yourself," his first album of new songs since 2009's Noble Beast, all of those talents come together in a near-perfect balance.
It's a mostly subdued album with songs that flow gradually and often end up in very different places from where they started. "Orpheo Looks Back" begins in plucky syncopation, but violins begin sawing, looping and conversing, and Bird whistles a refrain between verses that allude to Orpheus, the mythic Greek musician. "Desperation Breeds ..." begins with a murmuring pulse as Bird considers "accidental pollination in this era without bees," and the song builds to an arabesque of "peculiar incantations." It's gorgeous, as is the rest of this impressive album.
MOUSE ON MARS "Parastrophics" (Monkeytown, 3 stars)
Mouse on Mars has been around since 1993. Pretty good for a German post-everything duo that once specialized in trendy niche stuff like jungle. The only thing more remarkable than this pair's endurance in an ever-shifting electronic universe is how restless, warm, and consistently inventive Andi Toma and Jan St. Werner have been.
After genre experiments that found MoM dabbling in future-funk ("Glam"), electro-pop ("Radical Connector"), and noise-techno ("Varcharz"), "Parastrophics" is more of a giddy pastiche, one that finds the duo rummaging through the diverse fields of electronic music, past and present, while creating melodies that stay strong and certain. There are dense, tense moments, as in the stormy weather-house music of "Polaroyced" and the drone of "Syncropticians." "Parastrophics," however, leans more toward blips, beeps, and Kraftwerk-ian pulses to make its point through the Polynesian lilt of "Baku Hipster" and the joyfully jumpy "They Know Your Name." For Toma and St. Werner, electronic music is far from cold and calculated. Their sound is messily fleshy and crowded, fuzzy rather than fussy. To quote its electronic godfathers the Human League, Mouse on Mars is only human.
Country / roots:
RUTHIE FOSTER "Let It Burn" (Blue Corn, 3 1/2 stars)
Ruthie Foster wrote only three of the 13 songs on her new album _ two of them being gospel numbers on which she is backed by the Blind Boys of Alabama. But "Let It Burn's" canny selection of covers highlights Foster's strengths as a powerful and often soul-stirring vocalist and a striking interpreter.
Mostly, Foster reaches back for material. She duets with soul veteran William Bell on his "You Don't Miss Your Water," offers a supremely moving take on the Band's "It Makes No Difference," and joins again with the Blind Boys for David Crosby's "Long Time Gone." But she also goes contemporary with Adele's "Set Fire to the Rain" and the Black Keys' "Everlasting Light."
In some cases, Foster turns the songs inside out, refreshing familiar material with new arrangements while remaining true to it and maintaining her cohesive vision. The up-tempo Johnny Cash hit "Ring of Fire" becomes slow and simmering _ a moody torch song, if you will. Pete Seeger's "If I Had a Hammer" likewise is slowed down and spellbinding: Built on piano, bass, and sax, it becomes less a folk anthem and more a deeply personal statement of purpose.
AKA RAINBOW CROW/JEF LEE JOHNSON "Black & Loud" (Dreambox Media, 3 stars)
Guitarist and vocalist Jef Lee Johnson is a singular fellow. No one but Johnson, whose credits range from McCoy Tyner to Aretha Franklin to the David Letterman band, could have made this wide-ranging set of 19 originals and two covers.
Working here under his alter ego Rainbow Crow, Johnson spritzes on commercialism. You get to listen here to the firings of his neural net. He uses guitar lines as artist Jackson Pollock might have.
He melds dollops of funk, rock, blues and jazz into confections of sheer tunefulness or shrill effluent. Repetition is part of the hypnosis. And while his shaky voice is a cross between that of Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Wonder, that just gets you in the neighborhood.
Only Johnson could find the inner neurosis of Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti." But being different has its own rewards.
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