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Listening Post/1Brief reviews of select releases

> Pop

Natalie Cole, "Leavin' " (Verve). No harm, no foul. It's not terribly good either. On the other hand, if you think the world desperately needed a disc of Natalie Cole going cover-mad and singing Fiona Apple, Neil Young, Shelby Lynne, Kate Bush, Sting, the Isley Brothers, etc., this is your ideal disc. Her trouble is that she's never really burned enough for great R&B, never been smart or soulful enough to sing great pop music and never been sophisticated enough to flourish in the same genre as her father. She occupies a very professional pop middle ground where she's obviously a lot better singing Aretha Franklin's "Day Dreaming" than paying obeisance to Neil Young's "Old Man" (where her glossy voice will only make you remember Young's heart-struck bleat.) Still, it's pleasant enough, even if it's hard to believe a single note or a single word. Review: 2 stars (Out of 4) (Jeff Simon)

> Classical

Danny Elfman, "Serenata Schizophrenia" conducted by John Mauceri (Sony Classical). Sooner or later this disc had to happen. So rich, inventive and sumptuously eclectic have Danny Elfman's symphonic film scores been (think "Batman" and "Spider-Man" -- for that matter the opening theme of "Desperate Housewives"), that it was only a matter of time before some purely classical aggregate would somehow convince him to compose non-representational and non-programmatic music exclusively for them (it's a long way from Oingo Boingo.) This is it. It was commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra in New York "with very few restrictions" and premiered in February 2005. With thoroughly unnecessary apology, he describes the six movements as "improvisational" and connected in some "abstract, absurd way" to a "stream of musical consciousness." Elfman's own sonic film, that is, composed partly of Kurt Weill, partly of Duke Ellington, the major classic era film composers and all the greatest 20th century titans (Bartok, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, etc.). Its delights are as predictable as its very existence. Review: 3 stars (J.S.)

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Richard Strauss, Lieder, Aline Kutan, soprano, Louise-Andree Baril, piano (Analekta). Canadian soprano Aline Kutan has a light, timbral voice of great flexibility and loveliness. Since so many of Richard Strauss' frothy songs seem to call out for a coloratura -- he married a soprano, after all -- you'd think she'd be right at home with these Lieder, and in some ways, she is. She negotiates them beautifully and gracefully. What she doesn't do is bring across the sexuality of the songs. In the delirious "Ich schwebe" or the erotic "Standchen," she sounds standoffish, as if she doesn't get the point. She needs a glass of wine, or something. She needs to let go. Review: 2 1/2 stars (Mary Kunz Goldman)

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Martha Argerich and Friends, "Live from the Lugano Festival 2005" (EMI Classics, three CDs). Chamber music doesn't get much more vibrant and variegated than this. The mercurial Argentinian pianist Argerich sounds full of energy and fire as she joins with colleagues including pianist Gabriela Montero in Rachmaninoff's "Suite No. 2 for Two Pianos" and with Mauricio Vallina on "Three Argentinian Romances." A lot of the repertoire is delightfully odd. There's an early Beethoven piano quartet, WoO 36, No. 3, in which he lifts whole stretches of Mozart, Haydn and who knows what else. They've also dusted off the number Grieg did on Mozart's Piano Sonata K. 545 (Grieg added a superfluous part for second piano) and Brahms' occasionally maligned two-piano version of his famous "Variations on a Theme by Haydn." (The Brahms is joyous and clangorous, but the Mozart/Grieg can make you cringe, especially in the slow movement.) It's all tremendous fun. The choices say a lot not only about Argerich's great spirit, but of the company she keeps. Review: 4 stars (M.K.G.)

> Jazz

Bethany and Rufus, "900 Miles" (Hyena). When you first hear the opening of the title tune, you do a double, then a triple take: Is that Patricia Barber singing the old folk blues with her breathy, gorgeous, across-the-pillow contralto? Nope, it's Bethany Yarrow, daughter of Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary and she's singing an entire disc over the multitracked pluckings and bowings of cellist Rufus Cappadoccia. They do a whole folk songbook in this cabaret way -- Leadbelly's "Linin' Track," "St. James' Infirmary," Rev. Gary Davis' "If I Had My Way," Phil Ochs' "No More Songs." It's inventive and often haunting. Review: 3 1/2 stars (J.S.)

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Lynn Arriale Trio, "Live" (Motema, disc plus DVD). She's certainly beautiful enough. Her left hand, though, can be as bombastic as McCoy Tyner's -- but without the ecstatic dancing. Nor will you catch her suffering from too much Bill Evans worship or lyric introversion. Don't give up on her too easily, though. Anyone smart enough to play Abdullah Ibrahim's "Mountain of the Night" and to make such a creative abstraction out of Monk's "Bemsha Swing" deserves your attention. Review: 2 1/2 stars (J.S.)

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Vince Guaraldi, "A Charlie Brown Christmas" (Fantasy). Yes, it's probably obscenely early to even think of dropping the "C" word, but this disc is such an oldie but goodie that it's news of a sort when it reappears in such a splendid repackaging as this. After "Cast Your Fate to the Winds" (which gave jukeboxes four decades ago something that almost sounded like a jazz trio), Guaraldi faded briefly but then came back to compose some of the best-loved animation music of all time and one of the most endearing Christmas records -- this one -- ever. Who would have thunk it? Review: 3 1/2 stars (J.S.)

> Rock

Tori Amos, "A Piano: The Collection" (Rhino). Although she often gets lumped in with other artists beneath the rather sexist and generic umbrella of "Lilith Fair" music, Tori Amos is and always has been a singular songwriter and performer with an agenda all her own. Testament to this fact is "A Piano," a five-disc collection of her works featuring remixes, alternate takes, B-sides, and the entire "Little Earthquakes" album resequenced. Amos' early '90s music has aged incredibly well, and can now be seen for exactly what it was back then -- bold, ambitious, as punk rock as anything coming out of Seattle at the time, and marked by high points of genuine brilliance. Amos never tried very hard to be a mainstream artist, and happily, she never became one, instead following her own muse (muses?) wherever they wanted to lead. The result is a body of work that stands up to serious scrutiny, and is strange enough to have pushed Amos to the margins of the mainstream. That's where she belongs, in the company of peers of her worth. Review: 3 1/2 stars (Jeff Miers)

> Alternative

Various artists, "A Life Less Lived: The Gothic Box" (Rhino). Across the space of three discs and one DVD, Rhino has attempted to tell the story of "goth," an offshoot of early punk and alternative music that emphasized soul-baring and huge amounts of eyeliner. The form was always a bit death- and self-obsessed, favored minor keys and linear, mantra-like guitar patterns and, at its worst, devolved into a sort of cartoonish, Vampire Lestadt-in-a-rock-band offshoot of the early-'80s post-punk alternative explosion. At its best, though, goth rock was imaginative and image-rich, recalling both David Bowie and the Velvet Underground. Grandiose, creepy, occasionally maudlin, but more often than not, quite compelling. Rhino does a good job of offering a primer on the form here, though some hard-core fans and collectors might quibble with the track selection. Still, Joy Division, the Cure, Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Love and Rockets, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Echo and the Bunnymen, the Cocteau Twins, Sisters of Mercy and Ministry all make the cut on what is a carefully selected and well-presented collection. Review: 3 stars (J.M.)

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