4 stars (out of 4)
Sure, the Strokes have always come across as a snide bunch of NYC brats. You wanted to hate the band when it emerged and promptly became the "it" factor of the early 2000s, as if everything had come to this young fivesome far too easily. Listening to the debut "Is This It" made such a position entirely untenable, but hey, this is rock 'n' roll -- one is not expected to be fair and reasonable in one's assessments. Apparently.
So, snotty and kinda punky, yeah. But purposefully manipulative, in a postmodern sense? Who knew the guys had it in them?
With the release of "Angles" this week -- the band's first new effort in five years, and its fourth overall -- the cat is officially out of the bag. The Strokes giddily revel in the employment of false signifiers throughout the album, masking what was surely the true intent of the "Angles" recording sessions -- the creation of a pop masterpiece.
You see, from its gaudy day-glo cover art, through its skittish stop/start rhythms, Roy Thomas Baker circa-1979 drum sounds, and plethora of slick pop hooks, "Angles" sounds and looks like a retro pastiche, or a tribute to the hipper side of those fabulous (so they keep telling us) '80s. What lurks within this Trojan Horse, however, is a record that turns New Wave tenets on their heads, and suggests how artists might acknowledge their influences while simultaneously pushing those influences into completely unexpected, surprising and irreverent positions.
At first blush, you think, "This sounds like the great lost album from the Cars," and you're forgiven for as much. But dig in -- a few thrilling key changes, shifts in meter, left-leaning harmonic and melodic tangents, and lock-step twin guitar figures later, and what you're left with is a vibrant collection of mutilated pop and rock tropes that sound remarkably, jubilantly fresh.
Singer Julian Casablancas shared the writing duty in democratic fashion with guitarists Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr., bassist Nikolai Fraiture and drummer Fabrizio Moretti. Wise move. The resulting caldron of collective ideas helped make "Angles" dizzying in its display of invention.
The guitars are brilliant throughout -- picture the astute music-nerd interplay of Television's classic New Wave masterpiece "Marquee Moon" aped by two mind-up players in the first rush of a serious Red Bull & Vodka buzz, and you're past the velvet rope. When Hammond starts to interject a rapid-fire riff recalling Steve Howe's figure at the head of the Yes masterpiece "Heart of the Sunrise" into the chorus of "You're So Right," you'll forget that the Strokes were supposed to be too cool to care about virtuosity. Every tune, in fact, finds its insanely catchy vocal hook matched by equally memorable guitar refrains. It's sick!
Fans of the "I can hardly be bothered to sound like I'm trying" affectations of the (admittedly awesome) "Is This It" might find themselves screaming "Sell out!," but this begs the question -- sell out to what? The forces clamoring for highly inventive and twisted pop music? Really? I was unaware such forces existed.
Nah. For the Strokes, the fourth time is clearly the charm.
-- Jeff Miers
Three Cabinets of Wonder
Performed by Michael Andriaccio, guitar, Anastasia Khitruk, violin, the London Symphony Orchestra and Ira Levin, conductor
[Fleur de Son]
3 1/2 stars
Buffalo knows composer Michael Colina from the 2010 JoAnn Falletta International Guitar Concerto Competition. He was a judge, and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra premiered his piece "Mambosa." Colina's music is wide and expansive, like film music. It is programmatic -- sometimes overly so, you could argue, depending on whether you feel, as I do, that music should be able to stand on its own. The violin concerto on this disc pays tribute to Fanny Mendelssohn. "Los Caprichos" are short bursts of music, most under two minutes long, vividly evocative. Many have a bittersweet cinematic feel. "Goyescana," Colina's guitar concerto, is a paean to the painter Goya. The guitar concerto is clearly close to the composer's heart.
Colina, who is of Cuban heritage, gives the music a lovely Spanish feel. There are declarative phrases by Andriaccio, distant percussion and varied textures. With the dearth of guitar concertos, this one could prove a valuable addition to the repertoire. Fleur de Son recently reached an agreement to distribute its offerings through Naxos, so it will be good for this music to reach a wider audience.
-- Mary Kunz Goldman
Wynton Marsalis, Willie Nelson and Norah Jones
"Here We Go Again: The Genius of Ray Charles"
It is sometimes the genius of commerce that it makes for strange and wonderful bedfellows. The very idea of an alliance between Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis is so delightful for most of us to even contemplate that it scarcely matters if the fruits of their collaboration (this is their second disc together) seldom soar much above mediocrity.
This disc, taken from a live concert in Marsalis' ultra-clever Jazz at Lincoln Center series is, by virtue of basic idea alone, a winner. The idea is newfound buddies Wynton and Willie collaborating on the music of Ray Charles with very special guest star Norah Jones.
That's where commerce is what puts it over the top. EMI -- Blue Note especially -- is this disc's godfather and Jones, bless her, turns out in her soft, gentle way to be a far more spectacularly appropriate singer of Ray Charles' repertoire than Nelson. It isn't that Nelson isn't one of the more soulful figures in American vernacular music. And it was Charles himself who bucked at stodgy musical boundaries and made country music so soulful in the first place.
It's just that Nelson's soul and Charles' soul repertoire aren't quite in one-to-one soulful sync -- even when Nelson sings "I'm Moving On," which was Charles' version of a Hank Snow country song in the first place. Still, it's nothing if not an enjoyable disc with Marsalis and his bunch having a raucous time as one of the world's greatest backup bands -- especially tenor saxophonist Walter Blanding.
Marsalis calls it all "roots groove music" which implies more perfect compatibility than the disc achieves, but it's likability is 99 and 4 4/1 00 percent pure.
-- Jeff Simon
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers
The Sesjun Radio Shows
[Out of the Blue]
Some worship him. Some, though, think of him as the man who presided over more tedious hard-bop blowing than any other single jazz figure.
And then there are those of us who think of drummer Art Blakey as a little bit of both. And it is for us that this two disc set is just perfect. These performances are from Dutch radio from 1978 to 1983. As editions of Blakey's Jazz Messengers go, this group was solid but nowhere near the legendary outfits that included the likes of Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard, the Marsalis Brothers (who memorably played with Blakey in Buffalo together). The tenor players here are David Schnitter, Billy Pierce and Jean Toussaint, the trumpet players Valery Ponomarev and the great Terence Blanchard (in 1983). It's on alto that things are consistently exceptional throughout, with Bobby Watson replaced in 1983 by Donald Harrison, who'd split off from Blakey with Blanchard to create a fondly remembered group of their own. As always with standard Messengers, high in proteins and carbs, not much in either vitamins or special sauce.