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Discs

> Pop

Prince

3121

[NPG/Universal]

Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)

Prince and Bruce Springsteen have little in common musically, but they're bonded by one thing: Both have spent their time since the mid-'80s trying to outrun the burden of their biggest hits. "Purple Rain" and "Born in the U.S.A." were both multimillion sellers, and both were misunderstood masterpieces. Springsteen has been attempting to deflate that false image ever since, and in very different ways, so has Prince.

"3121" is the Purple One's latest, and the backhanded compliments are already beginning to roll in, with various forms of the mantra "his best work since his '80s heyday" tagging nearly every review. In order to appreciate this masterful new album, however, it is necessary to dispense with such a critical tack. Since Prince didn't do his best work in the '80s, but has instead, steadily built a consistently creative canon of work from his first album to this newest one, it makes far more sense to claim that this is Prince's best work since 2004's "Musicology."

The ingredients are familiar: stellar musicianship; a startling blend of soul, funk, pop, rock and a touch of jazz; lyrics that delve with equal enthusiasm and insight into issues of the sacred and profane, the mind and the body, the spiritual and the sexual; and a production ethos that is fully actualized and insular in the positive sense of the word. Prince expertly crafts his own little universe and invites you into it.

Prince is a genius, clearly, even if that word is thrown at far too many pop stars. He's as pop as you want to make him; listening to "3121," you're reminded that dance music doesn't have to be dumb, repetitive, cold. Nor does a true artist -- even a pop star -- have to kowtow to the strictures, real and imagined, that seem to plague the music industry right now, urging the creation of cookie-cutter "product" instead of real, living, breathing art.

There are some serious, Sly and the Family Stone-worthy funk jams here -- the record opens with a killer one in the form of the title tune; first single, "Black Sweat," is truly greasy and well-oiled; "Lolita" is a nasty, '80s synth-fueled slab of funk-pop. The Latin-tinged chord changes underlying the gorgeous ballad "Te Amo Corazon" have no trouble sharing album space with the bluesy guitar throwdown "Fury," the song Prince tore up a few weeks back on "Saturday Night Live."

It all works, because our man is master of all he chooses to survey; a blend of soul, wit and unerring musicality informs "3121" from start to finish. This is no comeback, though. Prince is simply carrying on his own tradition.

-- Jeff Miers

> Jazz

Cassandra Wilson

thunderbird

[Blue Note]

Review: 3 stars

And not just Cassandra Wilson either. Her producer and collaborator here was the great T-Bone Burnett, fast becoming the truly indispensable man in American music, the pan-vernacular specialist in pop music verite and miracle worker who can take charge of turning Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, as singers, into something vaguely resembling Johnny and June Carter Cash.

Cassandrites know the drill, especially fans who have worshipped her for almost 20 years. She is, unquestionably now, the greatest living female jazz singer, but she is also, far and way, the most willful and difficult. She has always insisted on singing any and every kind of music that turns her on, with results on record that are often magnificent but are always erratic and sometimes wildly so.

For every stunning recomposition here, like her remarkable version of Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Easy Rider," there will be a decorative and forgettable original like "It Would Be So Easy" or "Tarot." For every witty blues piece, like her version of Willie Dixon's "I Want to Be Loved" -- which she insists on singing a la Muddy Waters as "I Wants to Be Loved" -- and magical transformation of "Red River Valley" into the soul flowing through the very artery of American music, there will be a so-so version of Jakob Dylan's "Closer to You." Wilson is going to drive her own car, and if that means you wind up lost in the Mojave when you had hotel reservations in Portland, that's just too bad.

So gorgeous, though, is that dark, pillowy contralto -- as amazing a vocal sound as exists anywhere in current American music -- that you simply acquiesce to all of her stubborn detours around her own genius.

To be just a singer, after all, is, traditionally, to be little more in America than a tool of the record industry -- the musical equivalent of an awl or a socket wrench. Wilson is so much an artist and her own woman that her hopeless failures at carpentry are probably as much a source of pride to her as her masterpieces. Which, happily, keep on coming.

-- Jeff Simon

> Classical

Tavener

Lament for Jerusalem

Soloists, Choir of London and Orchestra, conductor Jeremy Summerly

[Naxos]

Review: 4 stars

The languages are Greek and English, and the texts are Judaic, Christian and Islam. The dynamics and tempi are relatively uniform, and its structure is cyclic and simple. But Tavener's "Mystical Love Song" to the cradle of world religions would break your heart and capture your spirit even if you had no idea of its title or couldn't understand a word of the texts.

A cynic might well say of the music turned out by Tavener since his conversion to the Orthodox church that, like Virgil Thomson's description of Alan Hovhaness' music, it's just so much aural wallpaper and given the eternal need of churches for soothing and soul-cleansing neo-Gregorian sounds to fill lofts and naves, Tavener has turned himself into the English-speaking world's major contractor for soul repair.

But if you merely wanted great music to listen to, you'd have to concede that in a career of creating some of the most radiant musical scores of his time, this is as beautiful as anything he's ever done. Music, we know, can't heal the world. But if it could, this disc just might.

J.S.

> Rock

Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs

Under the Covers Vol. 1

[Shout Factory]

Review: 3 1/2 stars

An unexpected treat, this collaboration between the 1990s' greatest gift to power-pop, Matthew Sweet, and Susanna Hoffs, leader of the Bangles. Right out of the gate, you have to admire the unlikely duo's taste: "Under the Covers" finds Sweet and Hoffs cherry-picking their favorite songs from the '60s and early '70s, and lovingly re-creating them with a pleasing blend of reverence and audacity.

Albums full of covers always raise the question: "Why bother?" This might've been doubly so for the Sweet-Hoffs project, for the pair went straight for the jugular, grabbing tunes from Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Who, Neil Young, the Beach Boys and the Velvet Underground, a body of work clearly resonant of a golden age of rock.

Happily, they chose the proper path, performing the songs with both discipline and passion, giving clear evidence that they've bothered to work out the arrangements in detail, playing the right chord voicings, etc. To this bedrock, Sweet and Hoffs add their own very particular magic, sweetening harmonies here, adding a dynamic flourish there, but always making it clear that their aim is to celebrate the music, not arrogantly seek to better it -- as if that could even be done, in most instances.

The songs that seem the most daunting when perusing the sleeve notes -- the Beatles' "And Your Bird Can Sing," the Who's "The Kids Are Alright," Dylan's "It's All Over Now Baby Blue," Young's "Cinnamon Girl" -- are beautifully performed and astutely produced by the pair and a few musical compatriots. But it's the lesser-known tunes that sparkle most readily.

I eagerly await the next volume in this series. Sweet and Hoffs generate real magic here.

-- J.M.

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