Years of Refusal
Review: 3 1/2 stars (out of four)
Is it mere camp, or simply Morrissey? Is the guy for real, or must everything the former Smiths singer does be interpreted through the prism of irony? Is he kidding or is he simply incredibly adept at marrying high drama to low-down rock?
In the '80s, the cool kids revered the Smiths. It was easy to find the band both hilarious and strangely affecting, at least for some. Morrissey tickled the ribs with his melodramatic melodies and bedsit poet's narcissism. Guitarist Johnny Marr, however, was no laughing matter, so deftly did he redefine "part-writing" for electric guitarists, smack-dab in the middle of the age of bad hair and worse guitar solos. So deeply did the converted take to the Smiths that many seemed to miss the fact that that Morrissey was often winking. Too often, the band's fragile, sensitive, alienated alt-rock followers were missing the funny bits and taking it all a bit too seriously.
Morrissey as a solo artist has been at least as divisive as was his former band. If anything, his vocalizing has only grown more dramatic and over-the-top, and since the alternative rock the Smiths helped create is anything but alternative by now, "Moz" doesn't really seem like the exotic, mysterious creature he once was. Now, it's all about the music, not the image. Those who primarily fancied the latter have largely fallen by the wayside. Morrissey has successfully replaced them with a new generation of devotees, and he's one of the few of his generation's icons who has been able to do so.
The man has crafted some killer albums on his own, though he didn't actually do it alone. The fantastic band at the heart of "Years of Refusal" -- with guitarist Boz Boorer the longest-serving -- crafts a muscular, rich sound that blends glam rock and pop without apology. As a result, Morrissey has become much more keen to construct genuinely touching melodies, rather than cramming as many pages from his diary as possible into each and every tune. 2004's "You Are the Quarry" proved that this powerful pop was as lovable as it was idiosyncratic, and "Refusal" deepens this strain. It's a great record, and even if you never cared for the Smiths, there's plenty here to dig.
Given, as ever, to the grand, sweeping, misty-eyed romanticism of a wordier, more effete Roy Orbison, Moz doesn't skimp on the heart-rending balladeering here. "It's Not Your Birthday Anymore" is the best of these songs, so ably does it illustrate the singer's ability to be simultaneously biting, cruel and heart-on-sleeve romantic. "I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris" is pure power-pop, to the point that guitarists Boorer and Jesse Tobias join to create arpeggios as grandiose as something off of one of Springsteen's last two albums. "One Day Goodbye Will Be Farewell" marries a heavily distorted bass figure to a march-based rhythm and chord progression that suggests what Richard Hawley might sound like if he drank high-test coffee instead of creamy Guinness. Oh, and there are mariachi trumpets in the house, too, in case you were worried.
At turns sweepingly romantic and cruelly vindictive, both lyrically and sonically, "Years of Refusal" is prime-cut Morrissey. With current bandmembers acting as more than capable songwriting partners, and the help of a few key guests (Jeff Beck, Roger Joseph Manning, Mark Isham), Morrissey has managed to craft an album on par with classics like "Viva Hate" and "Vauxhall and I." That means he's at the top of his game.
-- Jeff Miers
Morrissey plays the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts on March 19.
Joe Zawinul and Zawinul Syndicate
Review: Four stars
Joe Zawinul made it all look so easy that everyone thought they could do it.
They couldn't, which is why 80 percent of the jazz rock fusion perpetrated in this world since he wrote "In a Silent Way" for Miles Davis has been rubbish.
Here is what the late composer/pianist and musical director of Weather Report recorded in 2007 concerts in Switzerland and Hungary in honor of his 75th birthday. He would, quite literally, be dead a month after the second of the two concerts, and yet it is also true that he was making some of the greatest music of his entire life at the very end of it, which makes the spectacular energy of his Zawinul Syndicate here a bit of a recording miracle. (See also his second-last disc, where some of his greatest compositions for Weather Report were arranged for the German WDR Big Band and sound far better than they ever did on his synthesizer.)
What Zawinul had done in his Syndicate -- again, seemingly without effort -- is to fuse jazz and rock with African percussion, Middle Eastern chant and Indian music. And yet the result is so far beyond seamless that it's as if one spectacularly creative jazzman had single-handedly invented the hilarious folk and art music of his wholly created much-overrun Southern European country.
The percussion virulence of Raco Serv, Jorge Bezerra and Aziz Sahmaoui on this disc is, in the strictest dictionary sense of the word, phenomenal (i.e. a phenomenon in the world complete unto itself). And, at the end of the record in Hungary, Zawinul's old Weather Report partner and friend Wayne Shorter shows up to play "In a Silent Way" with him, and the disc becomes one of the greatest musical finales in the entire history of jazz.
Which is to say that the music is too magnificent for tears.
-- Jeff Simon
The Lonely Island
Review: Four stars
When Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone were struggling comedians sharing a cramped apartment they'd dubbed "the lonely island," they spent their free time working on what Samberg has called "joke music." Now that Samberg has become a star of both "Saturday Night Live" and YouTube with his side-splitting parodies of modern pop music tropes, it makes perfect sense that he and his buds have returned to perfect their cut-and-paste tear-downs of everything from "The Chronicles of Narnia," to hip-hop's sacred cows and even Carlos Santana. Naturally, the trio dubbed itself the Lonely Island. Less naturally, but wholly appropriately, the Island's debut has been christened "Incredibad." As in, so bad it's incredibly good.
Like the best pop parodists of the past, Samberg and company have studied the music they're choosing to make fun of. When the three take on hip-hop -- which is most of the time here -- they do so atop tracks that are fully in keeping with the form's present-day production techniques. That "Who Said We're Wack?" is as strong as pretty much any contemporary hip-hop record only makes it funnier.
Samberg, Schaffer and Taccone enlisted an eclectic list of cameos for the project, among them Julian Casablancas of the Strokes, E-40, T-Pain, Jack Black, Norah Jones, Justin Timberlake and Natalie Portman. It's their own twisted sense of the absurd -- melding obsessions that are decidedly Caucasian and suburban to a hip-hop vernacular, or marrying embarrassing confessionals to German synth-pop -- that pervades, however. Some might find this offensive. Everyone else will most likely blow a gasket from laughing.
A companion DVD offers all the Lonely Island videos, including the ones that made Samberg a YouTube sensation. (Yeah, the one with Justin Timberlake is on there, too.)