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Discs

>Rock

Ryan Adams

Easy Tiger

[Lost Highway]

Review: 4 stars (Out of 4)

Ryan Adams tapped so deeply into the veins of his talent that it was beginning to look like he'd become powerless to turn that tap off. Witness the flood of album releases -- nine in seven years -- and the initial onslaught of media coverage that pegged the prodigiously talented Adams as both tormented genius and accident waiting to happen. The same folks who blew Adams out of proportion after the one-two punch of "Heartbreaker" and "Gold" were more than willing to tear him down when records like "Rock 'n' Roll," "Cold Roses" and "29" revealed an artist who was riding his talent like an unbroken horse. Adams' tours around this time had evolved from the short-and-sweet alternative-country critics hailed him as the poster-child of, into expansive, improvisation-heavy head-trips. This did little to endear him to "the base."

Stretching the limits of "alt-country" did wonders for Adams the songwriter, however. The new, aptly titled "Easy Tiger" gives us a man firmly in control of his gifts and able to do with them what he likes. As one of his four finest albums -- the others being "Heartbreaker," "Cold Roses" and "Jacksonville City Nights" -- it proves just how inspiring a writer, performer and record-maker Adams can be when he's focused. (Read "focused" as "sober," if you like.)

"Easy Tiger" is credited to Adams alone, not to Adams and the Cardinals, though that was probably a marketing decision designed to distance this new record from the last few, which, supposedly, no one liked. The Cardinals -- now comprised of Brad Pemberton, Jon Graboff, Neal Casal and Chris "Spacewolf" Feinstein -- are all over the place here and are granted writing credit on many of the tunes as well. The band's ability to ease between power-pop ("Halloweenhead") romantic country-pop ("Everybody Knows") and the Grateful Dead-ish psychedelic folk that made "Cold Roses" so great ("Goodnight Rose") is simply masterful.

Adams, in remarkably rich and emotive voice throughout, is at his best during the album's sublime selection of ballads. "Tears of Gold" is a weeper with sterling pedal steel and stirring vocal harmonies. "Two" finds Sheryl Crow adding subtle harmony as Adams does his best "I'm pathetic, please take me home" routine -- something he does better than just about anyone. "The Sun Also Sets" is mildly Beatle-esque "Heartbreaker" fare, and it fades gently into "Off Broadway," which could make a marble statue weep.

This is Adams at his absolute best. Let's hope he doesn't release an album right on top of this one, as he has done in the past. "Easy Tiger" deserves our intense attention for a good while.

-- Jeff Miers

***

Folk/Rock

Sinead O'Connor

Theology

[Koch]

Review: 3 stars

"Theology" signifies Sinead O'Connor's return to the music industry after her outspoken nature all but derailed a flourishing career more than a decade back. O'Connor has been missed since then. Her maverick attitude, distaste for playing the music-industry game and incredibly powerful voice combined to make her one of the most vibrant pop artists of the late '80s and early '90s, and a role model for the likes of Alanis Morissette and Fiona Apple. Then, for all intents and purposes, she was gone.

O'Connor stuck her toe back into the pool with 2002's collection of traditional Irish tunes, "Sean Nos Nua," and once again with 2005's reggae effort, "Throw Down Your Arms," but "Theology" feels like the biggest statement of intent in the bunch. With the exception of a Curtis Mayfield cover, and a tune from "Jesus Christ Superstar," O'Connor wrote the songs herself. On disc one of the twin-disc set, she performs them live with her own minimal acoustic guitar and the more ornamental playing of guitarist Steve Cooney. It's stark and beautiful, and a suitable environment for O'Connor to flex her still-incredible pipes.

On disc two -- the more inviting of the pair, though both are strong -- O'Connor offers fully fleshed band versions of the same program, and it's here that the material really takes off, rivalling her strongest work and hinting at plenty of unfinished business ahead.

"Theology" is not likely to return O'Connor to mainstream acceptance. That's something she clearly doesn't want anyway, as the album's deeply religious texts -- written in the stark poetics of Bible verse throughout -- make plain. Whatever. It's nice to hear O'Connor singing with such conviction again, and coming up with material worthy of that conviction.

-- J.M.

***

>Jazz Fusion

Nguyen Le Duos

Homescape

[ACT]

Review: 3 stars

*

John McLaughlin, Jaco Pastorius and Tony Williams

Trio of Doom

[Columbia/Legacy]

Review: 3 1/2 stars

*

John McLaughlin

The Essential John McLaughlin

[Columbia/Legacy]

Review: 3 1/2 stars

Except for Miles Davis and Chick Corea, everything great about jazz fusion came from Europe. Listen to the great French/Vietnamese guitarist, sonic magician and explorer Nguyen Le, and you'll be convinced it still does.

Where Americans tended to feel the pitless constrictions of society, color and commerce, the Europeans saw an open musical frontier to be explored in ecstasy.

If there are any guitarists in the world who picked up where Jimi Hendrix left off -- and kept on running -- you'd have to say they're the recently reactivated David Torn and the astonishing, if little-known 48-year-old French guitarist Nguyen Le, who spoke Vietnamese until he began school. Not everything on "Homescape" is equally brilliant, but at its best, the music is haunting and a meld of things no one else could have imagined -- Middle Eastern music, Far Eastern music, classic jazz (would you believe Billy Strayhorn's "Chelsea Bridge"?), whatever else Nguyen and his friends Paolo Fresuom on trumpet and Dhafer Youssef on oud think might fit. Its joyous lack of category or restrictive "home" is stunning.

While Nguyen is rocketing through outer worlds of sound and ethnicity, the great John McLaughlin remains the outermost development in virtuosity of the fingers on his instrument. No fusion guitarist could ever match McLaughlin's reckless invention and restless velocity. That's why the first complete disc appearance of "Trio of Doom" with bassist Jaco Pastorius and drummer Tony Williams is something of a jazz disc milestone.

The five previously unissued tracks from a 1979 concert in Havana's Karl Marx Theater (no kidding) are a sulfurous brew of the angelic and the demonic from one of the greatest of all fusion super-trios (the other is Williams' Lifetime, with McLaughlin and organist Larry Young). But then so are most of the studio tracks. For anyone with any regard for one or more of the group's momentous members, "Trio of Doom" (a typically hyperbolic Pastorius group name) is a must disc -- a landmark from a frustrating era manhandled by compromise.

"The Essential John McLaughlin" has its share of blind alleys and misfires, but what McLaughlin has been doing on his guitar from 1963 ("Doxy" with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker) to now has never lost its ability to stun, not least for his stylistic versatility (interestingly, the sound of "The Dance of Maya" from 1971 but the music hasn't really dated at all). He is a musician of as much blues conviction and power as musical gymnastics. The first public performance, by the way, of McLaughlin's "Apocalypse" conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas was in Buffalo with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.

-- Jeff Simon

***

>Classical

Borrowed Treasures

Debra Wendells Cross, flute; Robert Alemany, clarinet; JoAnn Falletta, guitar (Virginia Arts Festival)

Review: 3 stars

Here is a disc full of light, life and conviviality. (Although the disc oddly doesn't come out and say it, Alemany is Falletta's husband.) Falletta enjoys the combination of clarinet, flute and guitar and, because works for that particular trio are almost non-existent, has either found or made her own arrangements of short pieces by Granados, Piazzolla, Rossini, Bartok, Villa-Lobos, Saint-Saens, etc. Her creativity shines in 22 short pieces. Falletta's transcription of the pastoral Intermezzo from "Carmen" works extremely well, with the guitar bringing out the opera's Spanish ambience. The clarinet takes the lead in her transcriptions of three Gershwin preludes for piano. Alemany gives the tunes a jazzy feel. His playing is particularly subtle and lovely on Falletta's transcription of the Romanza from Poulenc's Sonata for Clarinet and Piano.

These pieces are like chocolate truffles. You get hooked.

-- Mary Kunz Goldman

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