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Listening Post / Brief reviews of select releases

>Pop

James Morrison, "Songs For You, Truths For Me" (Interscope/Polydor). There was a time when Hootie & the Blowfish was considered a hip act. Bearing that in mind, it's tough to fault British sensation James Morrison for dumbing down a Jeff Buckley-influenced croon, blending it with light blue-eyed soul, and splattering the above atop a thoroughly white, sugary cake. Tough, but not impossible. When Morrison sold more than a million copies of his debut album, "Undiscovered," it would have been wrong to call his middle-of-the-road craftsmanship a cynical ploy. Now that he's famous, though, it's far easier to criticize him for being as exciting as a warm glass of fat-free milk on a Saturday night. "Songs For You, Truths For Me" is an album that will appeal to folks whose idea of a brilliant film is one that stars Hugh Grant. Nothing against Grant, and nothing against Morrison, either -- he's a good singer, and his songs are insanely catchy -- but sometimes, one finds oneself craving something a bit deeper, more complex on an emotional and musical level. Review: 2 1/2 stars (Out of 4) (Jeff Miers)

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>Punk

Rise Against, "Appeal to Reason" (DGC). Among the current crop of Warped Tour types -- contenders and veterans alike -- Chicago's agit-punk outfit Rise Against stands head and shoulders above the rest. Aligning itself with classic protest-punk bands of the past -- Bad Religion, early NOFX and the like -- the quartet offers an alternative to cookie-cutter angst-punk. Part of the reason for this is the band's ability to get itself all fired up about something that actually matters. That gives its angst a focus, be it the Iraq War's effect on the soldiers who fight it, the pressure on every successful band to toe the corporate line, or the frustration that sets in when a band fears its own audience isn't quite getting the message. It also helps if you can write a tune that makes sense, musically speaking. So much punk-emo-hardcore stuff just pastes illogical macho riff to illogical macho riff, with no attention paid to harmonic logic, pacing, or craft. Rise Against know that song structure is more important than mere attitude. This CD packs plenty of both into its 12 tracks. Review: 3 stars (J.M.)

***

>Jazz

Javon Jackson, "Once Upon a Melody" (Palmetto). A good but curiously disappointing disc from a solid quartet -- Jackson on tenor, pianist Eric Reed, bassist Corcoran Holt and drummer Billy Drummond. Who can possibly dislike a tenor player earthy enough to want to rock the house like Ramsey Lewis in a new version of "The In Crowd?" But at the same time, there's a conspicuous lack of urgency (a Joe Henderson record once called it the "inner urge") in his melding of Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Stan Getz, three tenor saxophonists who never picked up their horns without leaking urgency in every direction. Jackson reveres his greatest forebears that's for sure. It's just that when he plays, say, "My One and Only Love," a tune tenor players can make you die for (Coltrane, Ben Webster), he's not really playing anything much beyond his own sense of instrumental duty. Nor really does his pianist Reed help him all that much to find that "inner urge." Review: 2 1/2 stars (Jeff Simon)

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Yoshie Fruchter, "Pitom" (Tzadek). What on earth is this? Well the happily pugnacious leader seems to call it "punka-- Jew jazz." Or, "radical Jewish music" marrying Klezmer, Frank Zappa and the West Village avant-garde in music you can, by turns, tap your foot to, dance a punk hora to and scare small children with. Actually, it isn't all that radical. Much of it sounds like the bastard music that might have come out of a kosher version of John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra in another era. It's a quartet of drums, bass, guitar and violin, but they make a splendid amount of rock noise while they wail at their own hilarious downtown version of the wailing wall. Are you ready for music that seems to juggle heavy metal and the theme music from "The Munsters?" It's great noisy fun from the outer fringes of Manhattan music. Review: 3 1/2 stars (J.S.)

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>Classical

Vivaldi, The Four Seasons and Tartini's "Devil's Trill" Sonata performed by violinist Joshua Bell and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (Sony Classics). Is Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" the most recorded classical work in history? Probably. What aren't all that common, though, are versions from ambitious, world-touring violinists. This one, by Joshua Bell and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields pairs it with another Baroque masterwork, Tartini's "Devil's Trill" sonata performed by harpsichordist John Constable. It's not nearly as headlong as many performances, which means that this particular kind of virtuosity is thoughtful music-making rather than neurotic display and speed-racing. A nice inclusion are Vivaldi's original accompanying sonnets to the seasons. Review: 3 stars (J.S.)

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Beethoven, The Complete Piano Concertos performed by pianist Evgeny Kissin with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Colin Davis (EMI Classics, three discs). Evgeny Kissin was self-evidently one of the piano giants of his virtuoso generation from the first minute the world laid ears on him. He just celebrated his 37th birthday last week and every disc he's made since the Russian pianist's advent on Western discs and in Western concert halls has been a continual celebration of the one pianist in his generation who harkens back to the pianism of the Horowitzes, Rubinsteins, etc. This set of complete Beethoven concertos with Colin Davis and the London Symphony was much-awaited and doesn't disappoint. Kissin is a thinking musician in the Richter tradition, which even means that there are one or two times in this marvelous set where the tiniest of clams indicates that no one wanted to interfere with the elegance of his musical line. Among the world's greatest music for piano and orchestra, then, nobly played. Review: 3 1/2 stars (J.S.)

*

Schnittke, Piano Concertos 1-3 performed by pianist Ewa Kupiec with pianist Maria Lettberg in the Concerto for Piano four hands, with the Berlin Radio Symphony and conductor Frank Strobel (Phoenix Edition). The tidal wave of music that washed West along with Russia's glasnost brought no composer more remarkable to us than the late Alfred Schnittke, who described himself as "a Russian without a single drop of Russian blood" and some of whose music was once described wittily by Richard Taruskin as "socialist realism without socialism." Schnittke was nothing if not prolific, so even now it's not uncommon for discs of his music to take the West by a little surprise. These three piano concertos -- the last for four hands -- deserve to be better known. What we'd call brilliantly eclectic music, Schnittke called "polystylistic." It is hugely varied music and the second for piano and string orchestra from 1979 is even more than a little reminiscent in its finale of a masterwork that has become tragically obscure in our time: Bohuslav Martinu's 1938 Double Concerto for two string orchestras, piano and timpani. It's played as well as such music deserves to be for those of us hearing it for the first time. Review: 3 1/2 stars (J.S.)

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