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Listening Post / Brief reviews of select releases

>Pop

Miranda Lee Richards, "Light Of X" (Nettwerk). As ever, while the bigwigs look for the next female singer-songwriter with the perfect package of deep musical talent and great looks in all the wrong places -- karaoke bars, shopping malls, and strip clubs, by the look of it -- the genuine article sneaked through the back door unnoticed and unannounced. Miranda Lee Richards offered her lovely debut "The Herethereafter" in 2001, and spent most of the time following that release touring, showing up in hip indie films like Ondi Timoner's "Dig!," and performing with the likes of the Jesus and Mary Chain and Tim Burgess of the Charlatans. Now, with her debut for Net werk records, Richards has crafted a gorgeous collection of softly lit chamber-folk songs that highlight her lilting, understated singing. Think Mazzy Starr after a few cups of coffee. The production is warm and billowing, but the generous amounts of reverb only underscore Richards' subtle, dreamy singing, never obscuring it. Sensitive, mellow, deeply feminine folk music that isn't boring or overtly precious -- well, that's a rare thing. "Light of X" is stuffed with it. Review: 3 stars (Out of 4) (Jeff Miers)

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Graham Nash, "Reflections" (three-disc box set, Rhino). Man, what a career. Graham Nash had already made pure pop magic with the Hollies by the time he met Stephen Stills and David Crosby, poised to form what turned about to be the first rock supergroup -- one that would soon include no less a personage than Neil Young. Nash's gifts may have been overlooked a bit because of the company he kept. Neither as mercurial as Stills, as careless with his considerable talents as Crosby, nor as raggedly charming as Young, the Brit played diplomat between the often warring camps. Similarly, it was his high, sweet, yearning harmony that perfectly buffered the voices of his bandmates. He could write tunes, too, couldn't he? So many of the best of them are collected here, from the Hollies ("King Midas In Reverse") through CSN/CSNY ("Marakesh Express," and of course, "Our House," plus the yearning-infused "Just A Song Before I Go") and the best of the solo works, including a few from the (also recently remastered) definitive first strike, "Songs For Beginners." A life in song, then, and by the sound of it, a life well-spent, so far. Review: 3 1/2 stars (J.M.)

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>Many Genres

Lift Every Voice -- Honoring the African American Musical Legacy (Sony Legacy, two discs) Released in conjunction with Jessye Norman's collaboration with Carnegie Hall on "Honor! A Celebration of the African American Cultural Legacy" in locations around New York City, this double-disc set is of classic music related only in the sense that it could have been created by African American performers in Carnegie Hall (and probably was). The result is that Paul Robeson's "Old Man River," Harry Belafonte's "Matilda," Duke Ellington and Mahalia Jackson's "Come Sunday" and Miles Davis' "So What" share a double-disc set with Marian Anderson singing Bach, Leontyne Price singing Puccini and Jessye Norman singing Alban Berg. Which begs the question: who on earth is this disc for? It proves a point about the African American presence in all possible genres of American music but doesn't that virtually condemn the artists within to their skin color and nothing else? And wouldn't you like to hear what Miles Davis, Paul Robeson and Duke Ellington would say about that if they came back to earth? Assuredly, these are some of the great recorded performances in music, but I think they're misused here. Review: 3 stars (Jeff Simon)

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>Classical

Guarneri Quartet, The Hungarian Album: Music of Zoltan Kodaly and Erno Dohnanyi (Sony Red Seal). A milestone of sorts. After 45 years of touring, the much-lauded and near-universally revered Guarneri Quartet announced plans to retire after the current tour. A lesser quartet might mark the occasion with a series of discs meant to put exclamation points on its sky-written history. Instead, the Guarneri is going out -- to begin with -- with a gorgeous recording of string quartets by the 20th century composers who weren't lucky enough to be Bela Bartok (not that his genius made anything "lucky" about his tempest-tossed and ultimately impoverished life). In other words, it's an absolutely smashing investigation of a grand corner of the quartet repertoire -- Dohnanyi's post-Romantic masterpiece, the String Quartet No. 2 in D-Flat Major from 1906 and entirely different Quartet No. 3 in A-Minor from 20 years later and Kodaly's early modernist String Quartet No. 2. It's the Dohnanyi second, in the Guarneri's magic hands, that makes the most fervent and best possible case for the composer to emerge fully from the shadow of Bartok, a composer only four years younger. Review: 3 1/2 stars (J.S.)

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Humori by Les Voix Baroques and Les Voix Humaines (Atma). God bless the scholars and musicologists. Carnival is the period just before Lent which, as the superb notes here remind us, was called by Goethe "a festival that people give to themselves and not one given to the people." This madrigal comedy by Orazio Vecchi was intended, then, to take place over three days during Carnival and devoted to the four "humors" of medieval medicine -- blood, phlegm, yellow and black bile. By comedy's end, all were supposedly ready for Lent. Composers on the disc include Roland de Lassus, Praetorius, Scheidt, Dowland, Gibbons and Monteverdi. The whole thing is delightful. Review: 3 stars (J.S.)

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Erik Satie, Avant-dernieres pensees (Next to last thoughts) performed by pianist Alexandre Tharaud and friends (Harmonia Mundi, two discs). Time performs the greatest wonders of all. All those Erik Satie titles that might once have seemed the apex of whimsy and phantasmagoria can now be individuated into discrete parts that are altogether different. Satie's "Next to Last Thoughts" has a whole historic and melancholy connotation now when used as a title for one disc of Satie's solo piano music and another of his duos, whether songs with voices or another pianist. The young French pianist is most impressive in the piano music where he avoids both the trances of Reinbert deLeuuw and the wiseacre boisterousness that some pianists think passes for modernist avant-gardism. Especially fascinating is the pre-Dada "Le Piege de Meduse" ("Medusa's Trap") which uses paper between the piano strings in a precursor to Cage's Prepared Piano. The songs are rather more problematic -- though the performance of the great Satie two-piano masterpiece "Three Pieces in the Form of a Pear" is a beautiful one. Review: 3 1/2 stars (J.S.)

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