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Listening Post / Brief reviews of select releases

>Pop

Jose Feliciano, "Light My Fire, The Very Best of Jose Feliciano" (RCA/Legacy); John Denver, "The Essential John Denver" (RCA/Legacy, two discs.) OK. No laughing now. Not even up your sleeve. Tell me if you can think of anyone else who resembles -- in any way -- either John Denver or Jose Feliciano. In an era of cookie-cutter pop and "American Idol" templates, their hopeless individuality sounds impressive, no matter how suspicious it might seem that mainstream America once embraced them so eagerly to its conformist bosom. Remember that blind, Puerto Rican singer/guitarist Feliciano not only triggered an expansion of the Latin disc market, he also paved the way for every ballgame version of the "Star-Spangled Banner" since his once scandalous 1968 version (heard here). And Denver's sometimes goopy folk/country/pop is, whatever else, the real thing. The fact that it lent itself so well to parody (it was, after all, how Chevy Chase got famous before "Saturday Night Live") only indicates how fiercely individualistic it is (and real "purty" sometimes, too, -- not to mention spirited a la "Thank God I'm a Country Boy"). There's an abundance of authentic music on both collections. Review: 3 stars (Out of 4) for both. (Jeff Simon)

***

>Progressive rock

Porcupine Tree, "Fear of a Blank Planet" (Atlantic) Porcupine Tree is, with the exception of Tool, the sole contemporary rock band holding aloft the progressive rock flame. Led by songwriter, guitarist and vocalist Steven Wilson, and featuring former Japan/Rain Tree Crow keyboardist Richard Barbieri, the band has endeared itself to a sizable worldwide cult audience on the strength of its brazenly cinematic blend of alternative, metal and ambient music with the extravagant compositional acumen of '70s prog-rock. All of the group's albums are grand, sweeping and interesting, but "Fear of a Blank Planet" is as close to perfect as Porcupine Tree is likely to get. It's at turns disturbing, aggressive, sensitive and melodic, and it's always interested in making big statements, both musically and lyrically. Wilson's concerns here are with the deadening effects of television, video games, mood-altering drugs and relentless advertising on a generation of young people -- nothing less! -- and his gaze is unflinching. This is not an easy listen, but it is quite a worthwhile one. Some great cameos -- Alex Lifeson of Rush soloing with intent to maim during "Anesthetize" and King Crimson's Robert Fripp lending his soundscapes to "Way Out of Here" -- add additional textures to a wonderfully ambitious record. Review: 3 1/2 stars (Jeff Miers)

***

>Rock

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, "Baby 81" (RCA) 2005's "Howl" found Black Rebel Motorcycle Club -- or at least two-thirds of it, following the departure of drummer Nick Jago -- stripping away the fuzzy psychedelia that had made it My Bloody Valentine for a new generation, and unearthing a raw, dusty, mostly acoustic and organic sound. It was one of that year's most endearing (and enduring) rock albums, but it didn't fare well commercially, or with many among the group's fan-base. "Baby 81" will solve that problem. Jago has returned, and the group has taken the hazy eclecticism of "Howl" and shoved it into the same sleeping bag as the big, bold, noisy psychedelic rock of the earlier "Take Them On, On Your Own." The result? This strong band's finest to date. Review: 3 1/2 stars (J.M.)

***

>Classical

Haydn, "Sonatas, Fazil Say, Piano" (Naive). Turkish pianist Fazil Say's intuition shows in words as well as music. "Haydn's music touches us with its great love," he writes. "About children, for example: from time to time I have an impression of two little girls playing in a garden. Haydn has set their conversations, their voices, their cries, their reactions to music . . . In his music we meet so much that rings true." Haydn is experiencing something of an overdue renaissance these days. Occasionally, say in the brief slow movement of the D Major Sonata, Hob. XVI, No. 37, the music on this disc could be called haunting -- definitely not the impression previous generations had of old "Papa." But even when the music is witty, sunny and robust, these imaginative performances make you marvel at its fine architecture and, as Say says, truth. Review: 3 stars (Mary Kunz Goldman)

***

Bach, "Goldberg Variations arranged for string trio by Dimitry Sitkovetsky, performed by violinist Julian Rachlin, violist Nobuko Imai, and cellist Mischa Maisky" (Deutsche Grammophon). An interesting idea, for sure. Sitkovetsky arranged Bach's great keyboard masterpiece in 1985 in honor of the Bach tercentenary and in memory of Glenn Gould, whose 1955 recording of it is one of the recorded landmarks of our age. Unfortunately, it turns out, unsurprisingly, to be thin when arranged for string trio, even if the performing cellist is Mischa Maisky. The keyboard, after all, is, in its way, a kind of small orchestra. Review: 2 1/2 stars (J.S.)

***

Vaughan Williams, "Symphony No. 5, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and Serenade to Music performed by Robert Spano, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Chorus" (Telarc). There's something quite unusual on this excellent new disc of the greatest works of Ralph Vaughan Williams, though it's not immediately apparent. Given the number of available performances of the Tallis Fantasia -- one of the most beautiful and best-loved masterworks of 20th century music -- you'd think it would be reasonably common to encounter it on disc along with the Thomas Tallis hymn that inspired it. Not so. And yet here, you'll hear it in Tallis original "Why Fum'th in Fight?" sung a capella by the Atlanta Symphony Chamber Chorus. Vaughan Williams' Fifth is, not-so-arguably, the greatest of his symphonies and these performances, while not the best on record by far, are truly sumptuous. Review: 3 1/2 stars (J.S.)

***

>Jazz

David Torn, "Prezens with Tim Berne, Craig Taborn and Tom Rainey" (ECM). Guitarist David Torn and Tim Berne are among the true venerables of the jazz avant-garde and have been for decades. Go to guitarist/"anti-guitarist" Torn's Web site and you find this self-description "(aka as 'Splattercell') is a composer, texturalist, guitarist, producer and whatnot of actual international stature, renowned for his unique musical voice which seems to span and un-define a range of idioms and styles." His Everyman Band decades ago was, in its way, the most creative fusion of jazz and rock outside of Miles Davis (even Pulitzer winner Ornette Coleman's Prime Band didn't quite match it). Alto saxophonist Tim Berne is one of the most venturesome and fascinating minds in all of jazz. This is Torn's first disc in 10 years, his first for ECM in 20. What it achieves is a splendid "un-definition" of all manner of musics as well as an absorbing sonic narrative -- more than 70 minutes of heroic "beauty and noise," just as his Web site promises. Review: 3 1/2 stars (J.S.)

*

Chu Berry, "Classic Columbia and Victor Sessions" (Mosaic Records, seven disc set available by mail only from Mosaic Records, 35 Melrose Place, Stamford, Conn. 06902 or from www.mosaicrecords.com). Leon "Chu" Berry is the least-known of the great swing tenor players and, therefore, probably one who most benefits from the nonpareil Mosaic box treatment. Born within a year of Lester Young and Ben Webster and declared a genius by the ur-swing tenor giant Coleman Hawkins, he and a couple of bandmates with Cab Calloway in 1941 were en route from Youngstown, Ohio, to Canada in a car, with the intention of leaving the car in Buffalo and rejoining the Calloway band bus here after a brief stay in town. They never got here. He died after an accident on the road in Ohio at the age of 33. He left a lot of music behind and swung like a powerhouse on a good deal of it. You get a cornucopia of contexts here, from early work in 1933 with Benny Carter's legendary Chocolate Dandies to the same Cab Calloway band from which Dizzy Gillespie was fired for American music's most famous "spitball incident." The kind of package which has made Mosaic indispensable in jazz recording. Review: 3 1/2 stars (J.S.)

***

Reggae / Ska / Punk

Fishbone, "Still Stuck in Your Throat" (Sound in Color) For the first time in six years, the progenitor of the Los Angeles alternative rock scene of the '80s and '90s has deemed us worthy of a new album. The return of Fishbone is worth celebrating. Few groups that followed in the group's wake -- and almost invariably grabbed a larger slice of the commercial pie than was afforded Angelo Moore, Norwood Fisher and Co. -- can boast mastery of the eclectic stew of influences comprising the Fishbone sound. Modern hip-hop producers cut, paste and sample their way toward such a vibrant collision of styles. Fishbone does so the old-fashioned way -- by writing and performing this stuff themselves, on instruments, not laptops. Welcome back, 'Bone. Review: 3 stars (J.M.)

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