Snow Borne Sorrow
Review: 4 stars (Out of 4)
Nine Horses is a band, but for all intents and purposes, "Snow Bound Sorrow" is the new David Sylvian album, for it is his ethos hanging over the affair and shading it with gorgeous melancholy, rich, detailed composition and arrangement, and hypnagogic production.
Begun as a collaboration with Sylvian's brother, drummer/percussionist Steve Jansen -- with whom Sylvian worked throughout his tenure as leader of the group Japan, at various points throughout his solo career, and again on the Japan not-quite-reunion masterpiece "Rain Tree Crow" -- Nine Horses morphed along the way. Sylvian came across electronic composer Burnt Friedman, and began blending Friedman's works into the broader fabric of the music he and Jansen had been working on. Sylvian wrote all of the resulting album's lyrics, as well as the majority of the music.
Although this could've arrived as a cobbled-together affair, it most assuredly does not. It is a fully actualized, meditative song-cycle centered around Sylvian's alarmingly intimate, rich, sonorous singing, compositions that at first sound stark and stripped-down, but reveal onionlike layers of harmonic and melodic depth with repeated listenings, and lyrics that blend Eastern thought with Western poetry.
Fans of Sylvian's "Secrets of the Beehive," "Dead Bees on a Cake" and certain aspects of "Gone To Earth" will delight in "Wonderful World," a warm, twilit melodic haiku thick with the musty elegance of Keith Lowe's upright bass figure. "Darkest Birds" blends the ambient avant-electronica Sylvian revelled in on 2004's "Blemish" with the more assertive choruses that marked his early-'90s work with Robert Fripp. Friedman's soundscape smolders beneath Sylvian's slightly askew melodic lines on "The Banality of Evil," a song redolent with the sublime creepiness of "Rain Tree Crow."
Throughout, the songs are constructed largely from the ground up, with firm compositional structures allowing for rich, tapestrylike overdubbing. Arve Henriksen's achingly breathy trumpet adds bittersweet counterpoint to Sylvian's singing on "Darkest Birds" and "Atom and Cell." Thomas Hass and Theo Travis add ethereal interwoven sax lines during "Banality," and various pianos, keyboards and wind instruments provide delicate, thoughtful commentary throughout the album, adding to the masterful manipulation of tension and release that is at the core of its genius. A delight for Sylvian fans, and for fans of richly-textured, ambitious rock music in general.
-- Jeff Miers
Mozart 250 -- A Celebration
Review: 3 stars (Out of 4)
Two hundred fifty is a whole lot of candles. But that's OK, because there was no one around a couple weeks ago to try to blow them out. Consider this three-disc Mozart anthology in honor of his 250th birthday the cake -- or rather just the frosting from a cake in honor of one of the most amazing musical careers.
Here, as the consummately philistine TV ads used to say, is "all the Mozart you'll ever need" -- if, that is, all you're looking for is a jukebox of Mozart's Greatest Hits. It's three discs of truly immortal Mozart for the "tunes, not artists" generation and is it ever iPod ready. The idea, then, of this three-disc anthology of bejeweled snippets is the usual megaton kitsch. But if kitsch it must be, you'll be unlikely to find it made of grander and more glorious stuff than this Mozart jukebox.
Just get the cast on this anthology: Alicia de Larrocha, as sublime as any Mozart pianist of the past century, in most of the piano selections (with help from Rudolf Serkin); the Budapest String Quartet with Walter Trampler, no less, playing the allegro of the E-Flat Quintet K. 614; George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra; Rafael Kubelik and the Bavarian Radio Symphony and various orchestras under Colin Davis among those doing the orchestral honors. Add Leontyne and Margaret Price as well as Judith Blegen among the singers, James Galway as the flutist and, when fiddlers are needed, Cho-Liang Lin, Jaime Lardeo and Pinchas Zukerman.
Here is a Mozart all-star team for the ages. And, should lowered blood pressure be the intent (as well as ambient noise to elevate the kids' IQs -- the so-called "Mozart effect"), the third disc is called "Serene and Sublime: Mozart's Most Relaxing Melodies."
There are certainly even more lowbrow ways of compiling a Mozart jukebox than this, but if you're going to take the low road to the castle of this musical genius, you'll seldom have company as good as this and travel accommodations this plush. That's what happens when corporate giants merge and you've got the Columbia AND the RCA catalogs to cherry-pick for one three-disc set.
-- Jeff Simon
The Ultimate Adventure
Review: 3 stars
Oy, as Lenny Bruce might have put it. Chick Corea -- revered jazz composer/pianist and somewhat regretted jazz luminary on the Famous Scientologist team -- was yet again drawn to the fiction of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard for his newest long-form suite in the manner of "The Leprechaun," "The Mad Hatter," "My Spanish Heart," etc.
Wait, though. Don't panic. His reasons were that he wanted to write music for a story that would use "my love for Spanish and African music and the talents of the musicians in my new band." So ignore the Hubbard connection and just let your ears feast on his new band and such gloriously Corea-friendly guest stars as Hubert Laws and, yes, his original percussionist Airto Moreira and drummer Steve Gadd.
The melodic content may not be all that much more memorable than it is in the long-form work of Wynton Marsalis, but it's a jazz rule of thumb that any disc in which Corea's piano-playing conspicuously remembers that he's the son of a conga player and, in fact, started off his musical career on congas, is worthy Corea, even if he is playing a lot of electric piano.
The Celtic Tenors
Review: 2 1/2 stars
Leg warmers are back -- so why not Air Supply? The '80s group gets a nod from this crossover album by three Irish singers, one of whom is a priest and all of whom have tenor voices that are, in their unpretentious way, lovable. By this time, everyone knows what to expect from crossover classical tenors. You've got your strings, guitars, canned beats and amplified slick sound. But the Celtic Tenors earn points for treating Air Supply's "All Out of Love" as fine art, and performing it with that overblown '80s sound. "Ten Thousand Tears" takes up where the Humming Chorus from "Madame Butterfly" leaves off. (I love the description of Pinkerton as a "sexist, racist love-rat.")
There are a few trite tracks like "Angel of Mercy" (by Ronan Hardiman, who wrote the music for "Lord of the Dance") and movie music "Eric's Song," with lyrics by an Arkansas death row inmate. But there's also a spectacularly harmonized, a cappella "Danny Boy."
-- Mary Kunz Goldman
I'm A Mountain
Review: 3 stars
For her third effort as a solo artist, following her tenure with the lovable Weeping Tile, Sarah Harmer finally comes clean; while her last effort, "All of Our Names," seemed somewhat hesitant to fully embrace country, folk and bluegrass, and ended up offering a somewhat compromised blend of all of them, "I'm a Mountain" is an honest-to-goodness country-folk album.
This is good news, for Harmer has long hovered quite close to the brink of full-on brilliance, always threatening to topple one way or the other. "Mountain" is full of songs that do what Harmer does best -- break your heart.
Check "Goin' Out," which sounds like the sort of tear-jerker Ryan Adams perfected on "Heartbreaker." A strong melody only makes the knife go deeper. "Oleander" is a bit more upbeat, but again, Harmer has really come into her own melodically, and she seems to realize that the slightly bummed-out and bleary-eyed is her forte.
"I'm Aglow" is a hit in waiting, although I have no idea what radio format it might possibly fit. Here, Harmer plays pop, but still, her reference points are Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Lucinda Williams, not Sheryl Crow. (Harmer offers a stellar take on Parton's "Will He Be Waiting for Me?" here, in fact.)
Harmer has fully arrived with "I'm a Mountain." It's a touching album with a soft, lambent glow, and it boasts astute songwriting and killer pickin'.