2 1/2 stars (out of 4)
If you witnessed Carlos Santana and his namesake band during its prime -- let's say, any time between the original Woodstock festival and the late 1980s -- you may have experienced confusion when confronted with the man holding an armload of Grammys for his Clive Davis-directed 1999 "comeback" album, "Supernatural." He sure looked like Carlos Santana, and he still played guitar solos that could make the hair on the back of your neck stand at attention. But what had happened to the music surrounding those solos?
In the time since that pop crossover smash, things have gotten even worse for fans of the fiery Latin-rock-jazz-pop fusion that made Santana one of the most influential guitarists and bandleaders of the late 1960s and '70s. In the recording studio, at least, that man seemed to have gone missing, as he repeatedly acquiesced to the pairing of his immaculate band and soul-searing guitar playing with pop trifles and of-the-moment pop star cameos.
"Shape Shifter" is supposed to represent a return to form for Santana and his band, and simultaneously, acts as a gift to fans who would much prefer to hear their man play guitar than listen to the likes of Rob Thomas or Everlast guesting in an attempt to make Santana "hip" again. In many ways, the (almost) all-instrumental debut effort on Santana's own Starfaith imprint succeeds in these ventures. In a few others, it falls short.
The good news is that Santana is playing sublime guitar throughout the record, with both his trademark, thick, singing, heavily sustained electric tone, and a lovely nylon-string acoustic-electric sharing the honors. Around these vocal-like guitar performances, a smoking band -- drummer Dennis Chambers, bassist Benny Rietveld and keyboardist Chester Thompson -- works its collective, groove-centric magic.
Sadly, there are moments that come off a bit too cold, clinical and pop-inflected. Cheesey synth sounds don't help matters much. The best Santana albums are marked by beautifully organic keyboard sounds -- Hammond organs, pre-digital electric pianos, warm analog synths -- and those are largely absent from "Shape Shifter." As a result, many of these songs sound far more "new age/Latin pop" than they would have been with a bit more grit.
A decisive step in the right direction for Santana, then, but sadly, still not quite the perfect album that the guitarist and his stellar band still clearly have in them.
-- Jeff Miers
Andreas Staier, fortepiano
It is often overlooked that, when music publisher Anton Diabelli put out the call for composers to write variations on his little waltz, he got a lot of takers besides Beethoven. Beethoven beat most of them by a mile -- it was like killing an ant with a 10-ton weight -- but it's fascinating to hear the other entries. (By the way, they have an old book of a lot of them in our downtown library. I once paid a massive overdue fine for it. It's fascinating.)
Andreas Staier precedes his Beethoven performance with 10 other composers' variations. There is a take by Carl Czerny, pretty and twirly like many of his exercises. Franz Liszt, then just 12, was already himself, contributing a Lisztian rant, also in the minor. It is poignant to hear an earnest contribution from Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart, born the year his famous father died. One quiet variation, shifting between major and minor, stands out for its originality, its constantly twisting harmonies and keys. That one -- Staier saves it for last -- was by Franz Schubert.
Staier himself has composed a stormy interlude to set the stage for the main event. The moment when it finally goes into the Beethoven is a thrill. Which is high praise.
I have often guiltily thought it hurts Beethoven's masterpiece that Diabelli's theme is so annoying. Beethoven builds it into something great, sure, but wouldn't it -- shhh? -- have been even greater with a better theme? The homage people pay to the "Diabelli" Variations -- witness the cheerless play "33 Variations" -- seems so dutiful. You don't get the joy out of it that you would from, say, the shorter, less important "Eroica" Variations. Well, it is what it is, and Staier brings out its angular energy and forbidding genius. The fortepiano gives a nostalgic tinge to the variation I love -- Variation 8 -- in which Diabelli's clumsy dance morphs into a full-bodied, romantic waltz. It sounds almost like ragtime. Altogether this is a great idea, wonderfully carried out.
-- Mary Kunz Goldman
3 1/2 stars
If you want to know how economics corrupts music, consider modern jazz discs. Seemingly because of the royalties involved, everyone, it seems, wants to be known as a jazz composer. But the truth is that only one current jazz musician in five seems to have any compositional gifts at all, let alone major ones.
The great bassist Eddie Gomez is heard here in glorious form with an all-Italian band that in every case has a clear gift for composition. Gomez is a gifted melodist who knows them when he hears them, which is why so are the Italian musicians playing with him here, especially flutist Matt Marvuglio and tenor saxophonist Marco Pignataro and pianist Teo Ciavarella (whose gorgeous tune dedicated to his daughter Arianna is mistakenly attributed to Gomez).
-- Jeff Simon
Only Marilyn Manson could make Shakespeare's words sound like they'd been culled from the script of a deviant horror movie. The "Out, out, brief candle" quote from the Bard's "Macbeth" that prefaces the truly terrifying "Overneath the Path of Misery" just might make your skin crawl. Particularly if you happen to be cranking Manson's eighth album, "Born Villain," through a good pair of headphones, in the dark. It's just plain creepy.
Which is exactly what a great Manson album should be. Sadly, we really haven't had one in a good while. The last effort that might reasonably be branded brilliant was "Mechanical Animals" in 1998. So Manson was overdue. "Born Villain" is the record that does the trick.
Having guitarist/bassist and artistic foil Twiggy Ramirez back in the fold has done wonders for vocalist/artistic director Manson. He's the macabre Lennon to Manson's twisted McCartney, each sharing the other's taste for jarring sounds, walloping rhythms and melodies that suggest an unholy union between glam rock and hardcore industrial music. Interestingly, there are memorable pop hooks lurking in the dark corners of this gothic mansion, and the light/shade dynamic they provide when butted up against the Manson-ite dissonances makes "Born Villain" the hunch-backed imp little brother of "Mechanical Animals."
Anyone who thinks Manson is nothing but a Tim Burton-esque cartoon character shouldn't delude themselves -- his lyrics here prove familiarity with Shakespeare, Baudelaire and various mythological texts, and the psychological areas these songs explore and exploit are still menacingly creative. "Born Villain" isn't likely to make a fan of a Manson-hater, but lovers of "Mechanical Animals" should rejoice. It's a return to that album's deformity.
-- Jeff Miers