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Discs

>Pop

America

Here & Now

[Burgundy/Sony]

Review: 3 stars (Out of 4)

America melded folk and pop in the '70s and created a string of massive AM and FM radio staples with the help of Beatles producer George Martin. For many, the band's sound -- heavenly harmonies, strong chorus hooks and a general "nice guy" persona -- came to represent the negative aspects of the "California sound," that earnest, easy-going, listener-friendly strain of rock music in the vein of Jackson Browne and the Eagles. For others, America's songcraft is timeless and transcends ever-changing notions of what's hip.

None of this would be worth pondering if Dewey Bunnell and Gerry Beckley simply stuck to the county fair and free outdoor summer show circuit, reprising "A Horse With No Name" and "Sister Golden Hair" for the millionth time to the delight of the "stroller and draft beer" crowd. But, as has been the case since Rick Rubin made it clear to a whole new generation of listeners that Johnny Cash will always be cool, Bunnell and Beckley have benefited on "Here & Now" from the enthused involvement of musicians with that ever-elusive hipster quotient. James Iha of Smashing Pumpkins and Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne came out of the closet as unabashed America enthusiasts last year, taking over production duties for "Here & Now" and assembling a cutting crew of contemporary alternative and rock musicians to aid in the creation of a modern America album. Ryan Adams, Ben Kweller, members of My Morning Jacket, Maplewood and Nada Surf all appear to both pay respect to the past and suggest contemporary relevance for Bunnell and Beckley.

It works. Bunnell and Beckley still sing beautifully, harmonize exquisitely, and revel in an irony-free celebration of strong songwriting, memorable melodies, smart lyrics and sturdy musicianship. The new America compositions are a lot like the old ones -- bittersweet, catchy, an immediate guilty pleasure to behold. "Chasing the Rainbow" might've been recorded in 1975, such an unstudied, natural continuation of the America sound does it conjure. A cover of the My Morning Jacket hymn "Golden" is gorgeous and convincing. Nada Surf's "Always Love" is shimmering power-pop. There's not a dud in the bunch.

A second disc offers a 2005 concert and covers the nostalgia end of the package admirably. What's telling is how well the new material shares space with the classics.

-- Jeff Miers

***

>Classical

Beethoven

Piano Sonatas Op. 7, Op. 10, No.3 and Op. 57 "Appassionata"

Performed by Angela Hewitt

[Hyperion]

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

She's armed and ready. You say that yet another disc of the Beethoven piano sonatas is "superfluous"? Well, Angela Hewitt would respond by saying that "while many of the sonatas have become far too hackneyed and distorted by "tradition," there are others, such as the Op. 7, that are much less often performed and which give special delight to those not yet familiar with them."

So, for her first roundelay in a Beethoven piano sonata cycle, the wonderful British pianist Angela Hewitt is mixing "one very popular one" (the "Appassionata") with one lesser-known (Op. 7) and "one which is favored by piano students" (Op. 10, No. 3).

Hewitt is of that cadre of exceptional pianists/scholars/writers who are not only stellar at the piano keyboard but also on the word-processing keyboard. The result here is a disc whose performances of these three sonatas are brilliant and utterly fresh but come with Hewitt's own programming notes, full of admiring quotes from Donald Tovey and Carl Czerny and the like. (Czerny on the conclusion of the final movement of the "Appassionata": "The waves of a sea on a stormy night whilst cries of distress are heard from afar.")

Her "Appassionata" is, in fact, clear-headed and formidable, and her equally serious rendering of the Op. 7 has the exact, bracing wonderful effect intended. Hewitt's huge Bach cycle is justly famed as one of the most valuable in our time. That she is now embarking on Beethoven is great New Year's news.

-- Jeff Simon

***

>Rock

Switchfoot

Oh, Gravity

[Columbia]

Review: 3 stars (Out of 4)

Switchfoot is likely to alienate a portion of its Christian-rock audience with "Oh, Gravity," its most ambitious and least overtly "religious" record to date. Early buzz on Christian-music sites concerning the new record hinted at displeasure with songwriter Jonathan Foreman's tendency to raise spiritual questions without providing preconceived answers -- which is something Christian rock all too often does, essentially offering cliched, Bible-based solutions to big problems.

Foreman never stoops to this level, instead concentrating on present-day American troubles -- war, political deception, rampant materialism masquerading as Christian-based compassion -- and couching them in a thoroughly contemporary alternative rock blend of huge guitars and anthemic choruses. Think U2 and Coldplay, not overtly Christian pop-rock.

Musically, Switchfoot has emerged as a fairly adventurous ensemble. Happily, much of the overproduced sheen of the band's previous efforts has been sacrificed in favor of a more visceral, and at least partly "live" sound. There is some real fury and abandon in hard rockers like the title tune and "Dirty Second Hands," and there is enough of the arena pop-metal populism of a piece like "Circles" to keep the old fans -- at least the ones who aren't judging the group by how strictly it adheres to Christian-rock commandments -- happy.

A promising step forward from a band beginning to claim some sonic and harmonic territory of its own.

-- J.M.

***

Rock

Kim Taylor

I Feel Like A Fading Light

[Independent]

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

Fans of Mazzy Star, Cat Power, Edie Brickell and Beth Orton, rejoice -- Kim Taylor has made a record for you, one that revels in dimly lit atmospherics, a sleepy soulfulness tempered by smart songcraft and the sort of narcotic ambience that places thick velvet curtains over the windows, only allowing bits of refracted light to enter the room.

Taylor anchors her songs in the dependable warmth of her National guitar and lush overdubbed vocal harmonies. Her melodies never meander; "I Feel Like a Fading Light" boasts a gauzy, billowing production ethic that casts the songs in a forgiving light, but Taylor's greatest gift is clarity. All of these songs have strong melodies, subtly smart chord progressions and an unfailing sense of narrative consistency in their delivery.

A sleeper release, perhaps, but it's likely to be Taylor's last record to creep just below the mainstream radar.

Taylor will open for Ron Sexsmith inside the Buffalo Icon on Jan. 8.

-- J.M.

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