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Listening Post / Brief reviews of select releases

>Pop

Rachael Yamagata, "Elephants...Teeth Sinking Into Heart" (Warner Bros.). Four years on from the relative success of the easy-to-love "Happenstance," Rachael Yamagata returns with the wholly challenging, low-key beauty of the twin-disc "Elephants...Teeth Sinking Into Heart." Much more subtle and demanding than its predecessor, "Elephants" initially comes across as a bit of a broken-hearted buzz-killer, but spend any quality time with the record and you'll find a depth, both musically and lyrically, absent from the work of many songwriters in Yamagata's age group (she's just into her 30s). Like Cat Power, Yamagata conjures a late-night, dimly lit, wine-soaked atmosphere somewhere between Dusty Springfield's Memphis and Conor Oberst's heartland. Her voice is rich and emotive, particularly during the "Elephants" disc, where, repeatedly, spare piano figures expand into lush string arrangements and culminate in emotional codas. The tempos don't so much crawl as walk stoically through whipping rain at an unhurried pace. If Yamagata sounds pretty bummed-out a lot of the time, the record avoids being maudlin, instead making itself comfortable in the darkness with the knowledge that it, too, will pass. The second disc -- the "Teeth" collection -- hits harder right out of the box, and is morning to "Elephant's" night. Together, these songs make for a vivid listening experience. Review: 3 stars (Out of 4) (Jeff Miers)

***

>Folk

Jackson Browne, "Time the Conqueror" (Inside Recordings). Interestingly, though he's known as a deeply liberal composer of sociopolitical commentary songs and the occasional broadside, Jackson Browne's most revered works -- "Late for the Sky" and "Running on Empty" -- steer clear of what can't help be referred to as "protest music," in favor of lilting song-poems deftly navigating the terrain of the human heart. Browne's best work of the '80s, "Lives in the Balance," and its follow-up, "World in Motion," blended his folk roots with mild splashes of world beat, and they were his most blatantly "political" records. (No American songwriter documented the adventures of the Reagan administration in Latin America better than Browne, who was paying close attention, even if few others were.) In the time since, Browne fell back on his subtle, poetic, romantic works, to mostly great effect. "Time the Conqueror" is his first record to perfectly marry "Late for the Sky's" romanticism to his '80s work's unflinching theses on U.S. foreign policy shenanigans. It opens with two of Browne's finest tunes ever, the wistful title song and the world-weary but defiant "Off of Wonderland." Fantastic stuff, followed by the far more in-your-face Bush-basher "The Drums of War," Browne's finest in this vein since "Lives in the Balance." Throughout, Browne and his lithe band are aided by the deeply soulful backing vocals of Chavonne Morris and Althea Mills, who lend a low-key gospel feel to many of the tracks. Not really a return to form, since Browne has never really slipped, but a stirring, convincing statement of purpose and intent from an artist who has grown up with grace. Review: 3 1/2 stars (J.M.)

***

>Jazz

Vince Mendoza, "Blauklang" (ACT). One of the great jazz records of 2008 and what a gorgeous disc this is. The label is German as are most of the musicians (allied with the WDR Big Band, arguably the world's greatest jazz orchestra). But it's Mendoza who has finally succeeded, I think, in making the jazz masterwork that so much of his music over the years has pointed to. Known mostly as an arranger, his masterpiece by far for someone else is his work arranging Joni Mitchell's launch into jazz standard repertoire called "Both Sides Now" (one of the great records of the past 20 years). A terrible misfortune happened decades ago when the great collaborations of Miles Davis and Gil Evans appeared at approximately the same time as "Third Stream" confluences of jazz and classical music. Unfortunately, all potential for a movement was co-opted by the life-draining polemics of Gunther Schuller, its most tireless exponent. Think of this disc as a 2008 outgrowth of what should have happened 4 1/2 decades ago. Which means Gil Evans' "Blues for Pablo" is one of the pieces Mendoza adapts as well as a gossamer version of "All Blues" (clearly related to Maria Schneider's Orchestra). But it's on the six-movement "Blue Sounds" -- which is how the title translates -- that Mendoza the composer comes into his own. The great soloists here are Karlheinz Stockhausen's son Markus on trumpet and the great Vietnamese guitarist Nguyen Le. The music is really too beautiful to classify. Review: 4 stars (Jeff Simon)

***

>Classical

Mozart, Early Piano Concertos, K. 175, 238 and 246, David Greilsammer, piano, Suedama Ensemble (Naive). Here are lively treatments of early Mozart piano concertos that, as the liner notes attest, should be heard more often. It's not childhood music -- Mozart wrote K. 175, otherwise known as No. 5, when he was 17. Already, you can hear that power in the music that would culminate, in just a few years, in the "Great 12" piano concertos. Greilsammer's confident, lively style on a modern Steinway brings out this power. He embellishes modestly -- he could have done more in that direction -- and even adds his own cadenzas. The graceful final minuet of K. 246 is a special delight. Review: 3 stars (Mary Kunz Goldman)

*

Bartok, Divertimento for Strings, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta and Popular Rumanian Dances performed by Les Violons du Roy conducted by Jean-Marie Zeitouni (Atma). The Bartok Divertimento for Strings has got to be among the most misleadingly titled masterworks of 20th century music. Anyone expecting some nice little string orchestra pleasantry collecting, say, dance movements, is in for a glorious awakening by the music itself which is a "Divertimento" only in the sense that it was slightly easier to play by the musicians of its commissioning conductor Paul Sacher than the amazing masterpiece Bartok wrote for him two years earlier, his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Performances here by the French chamber string orchestra are excellent though the immense Bartok discography certainly contains better versions of all three pieces. What distinguishes the disc most of all is the elementary canniness of putting them all together on one disc -- not earth-shattering but not that commonplace either. Review: 3 1/2 stars (J.S.)

*

Eroica Trio, "An American Journey" (EMI Classics). The Eroica Trio, who have been heard twice in recent memory with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra playing Beethoven's "Triple" Concerto, appear here in a different guise. Barefoot in white shirts and blue jeans, they present a custom-arranged trio medley from George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess," and another special arrangement of music from Bernstein's "West Side Story." The biggest piece, half an hour long, is the Trio No. 1, subtitled "Poets and Prophets," commissioned for the trio from the pen of the celebrated composer Mark O'Connor. It's a tribute to Johnny Cash, "champion for society's downtrodden." O'Connor has been getting a ton of exposure, and his country-fiddle shtick can wear thin. But the trio gives the piece an exuberant performance, and the movement "My June" has a Copland-like charm. Review: 3 stars (M.K.G.)

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