Review: 4 stars (Out of 4)
Progressive rock has been getting a bad rap for decades thanks to the film "Spinal Tap." The blend of mysticism and elaborate musical design that's prog-rock's bread and butter is easy to mock.
British act Porcupine Tree may not have set out to make prog-rock a legitimate contemporary force once again, but that's exactly what the band's brilliant new album, "Deadwing," does. It's ambitious, complex and multifaceted, and it's also the sort of thing that indie-geeks and punk rockers hate. There is a fine line between brilliant development and exposition and bloated self-indulgence, but throughout the sprawling "Deadwing," Porcupine Tree -- led by songwriter/producer/vocalist/guitarist Steven Wilson -- stays on the right side of that line.
The genius at the heart of "Deadwing" can be pinpointed to its ability to manipulate texture and fully indulge in a sound and approach that is its own. Thus, you'll hear elements of ambient music, "space" rock, a dash of metal, some avant-garde, three-part folk-based vocal harmonies and bizarre shifts in time signature. All of the above can be found in the 10-minute album opener (and title song), which begins as noir-folk and develops into a creepy minor-key section punctuated by a breathtaking guitar solo from King Crimson's Adrian Belew. It'll make your head spin, and encourage you to grab the headphones, dim the lights and light the lava lamp.
Like the best prog-rock, "Deadwing" demands to be listened to as one continuous piece, though looking for conceptual unity is not at all necessary. At 70 minutes, the album ran the risk of growing dull and repetitive past the halfway mark, but it's a testament to the agility and persistence of vision of Wilson and crew that this never happens.
-- Jeff Miers
Review: 3 stars
A Walk in the Park
Review: 3 1/2 stars
Not even Lea Delaria would claim that among all of her life roles -- comic, actress, lesbian activist -- jazz singer would rate at the top. Even so, she's not at all bad, not even her scat singing. (She has jazz in the family, it seems.) What distinguishes her debut disc as a jazz singer though is less her voice and talent than her band whose core is pianist/arranger Gil Goldstein, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Bill Stewart. When you've got musicians playing the riff to Mingus' "Haitian Fight Song" behind Delaria's singing a pop swinger, you've got musical canniness way above and beyond the call of duty.
More convincing is pianist-singer Dena Derose's "A Walk in the Park." She's got pretty fair piano chops and more than her share of power as a songwriter ("Home"). But as a jazz singer she's very much the real thing (as her drummer here, Matt Wilson, attested before his Buffalo visit). She started out as a pianist, in fact, and only came to singing during a brief period when arthritis kept her from the keyboard. That, it seems, is how a full blooming jazz artist was born.
-- Jeff Simon
... Something to Be
Review: 3 stars
Finally, Matchbox Twenty frontman Rob Thomas delivers on the promise suggested by "Smooth," his mega-hit collaboration with Carlos Santana. That song proved Thomas could sing with soul and conviction, something that hasn't always been apparent in his work in a band that is the very definition of modern middle-of-the-road radio rock.
"His heart and voice are one -- I feel his heart through his voice," Santana has said of Thomas, and though this might be tough to swallow based on his Matchbox work, it is the very core of "... Something to Be," Thomas' solo debut. Thomas is making pop music through and through, but the singer possesses a surprisingly sturdy vision, and his melodies, arrangements and production are perfectly married throughout. The result is a pleasing blend of white soul with gospel overtones and glossy rock guitars backed by R&B/funk-infused rhythms.
Thomas sings with a blend of grit and grace throughout and is ably backed by a consistent core group of musicians, including Wendy Melvoin and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell. The guy deserves kudos for making an unashamedly pop album that has depth and is spurred throughout by a vibrant imagination. Here's something that belongs on the radio; commercial, yes, but classy.
-- Jeff Miers
As I Am
Review: 2 1/2 stars
Kristin Chenoweth, the beautiful blond who plays Annabeth Schott on TV's "The West Wing," is quite the singer, too. As Glinda the Good Witch on Broadway's "Wicked," she earned a Tony nomination. She sang "Candide" with the New York Philharmonic and starred with Matthew Broderick in an ABC version of "The Music Man."
On this pop-inspirational album, she projects warmth and sincerity. But she'd sound better, I think, if her accompaniments sounded less canned. Also, with the exception of a chirpy take on Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" (don't ask) and a pretty nice version of the Burl Ives standard "Wayfaring Stranger," none of these tunes is exactly memorable. One song, though, is a hoot. "Taylor, the Latte Boy," a folksy, acoustic number about a cute Starbucks guy, shows off Chenoweth's comic skills. "And I said, 'My name is Kristin, and thank you for the extra foam'/And he said, 'My name is Taylor,' which provides the inspiration for this poem.' " To carry off lines like that, you have to have a certain something.
-- Mary Kunz
The Stanley Brothers
Earliest Recordings: the Complete Rich-R-Tone 78s
Review: 3 1/2 stars
In the late 1940s, Ralph and Carter Stanley took the first steps toward legend, emerging form the shadow of Bill Monroe to record 14 songs on 78s released on Rich-R-Tone, a label that resonated in the cradle of bluegrass -- the hills, hollers and peaks of southwest Virginia, and eastern Kentucky and Tennessee. The result was kind of a localized Stanley-mania and appointments with big-time labels -- fist Columbia, then Mercury, which would release the brothers' most famous recordings.
Long out of print, the Rich-R-Tone recordings are a vintage treat, an intimacy actually embellished by the omnipresent hiss of ancient technology. Carter and Ralph's golden harmonies put an indelible stamp on these selections, many of them old-time hill standards like "Little Maggie," "Little Birdie" and the "Rambler's Blues." But it's a creepy sacred song, "Death Is Only a Dream," that channels the brothers' verve that would reward them handsomely in the years ahead.
-- Randy Rodda