Now That's What I Call Music -- 39
2 1/2 stars (out of 4)
You can't beat these periodic international anthologies from disc behemoth EMI for quick whirlwind trips through what's currently big in pop music -- not for those who need introductory crash courses in Pop Music 101.
That's why they've been marketed everywhere, up to (and including) your local neighborhood supermarket.
That, however, doesn't mean that all that commercial success and pop music currency means that each individual anthology is a tiny fraction as good as it is representative. This one, in fact, isn't -- not by a long shot. (Especially when you compare it to "Now That's What I Call Music -- 38" which was an altogether dandy way for the curious to consume tasty little hit spoonfuls of Lady Gaga, the Black Eyed Peas and Chris Brown with Lil Wayne and Busta Rhymes.)
As are they all, No. 39 is mostly one long dance mix, suitable for party music which, in this case, heavily rewards those who are listening to it the least attentively.
That doesn't mean, of course, that current commercial royalty aren't here -- the omnipresent Lady Gaga (with her lesser "Edge of Glory"), Katy Perry in "Last Friday Night," Britney Spears with "Till the World Ends," Jennifer Lopez and Pittbull's "On the Floor," the Black Eyed Peas' "Just Can't Get Enough." All of it is substandard compared to earlier editions of NTWICM (as they call these anthologies in the trades).
By the time the fatiguing dance mix sameness gets to Bruno Mars' "The Lazy Song" -- a kind of dimwit reggae version of "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" -- you might be actively calling this something else entirely than "music."
All is not lost. Jessie J and B.o.B. reveal something resembling a human soul in "Price Tag" and Blake Shelton, Maria K. and Chiddy Bang are still to come.
Sometimes you take a drive in the country and everyone in the family has a good time. And then sometimes everyone gets in the car and is bored stiff through the whole trip.
-- Jeff Simon
Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
"I got me a deuce and a quarter, babe/She will ride you right," John Hiatt boasts on "Detroit Made," singing of General Motors' Buick Electra 225. The celebration of automotive style, craftsmanship and durability is fitting, since these qualities continue to mark the work of the 58-year-old Indiana-born singer and songwriter.
"Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns" shows Hiatt's muse to be as sharp as ever. Amid another earthy amalgam of rock, soul, blues and country, Hiatt still writes about restless, haunted and on-the-edge souls with the penetrating power of someone who's been there. ("Have you ever been broken, really broken?" he asks on "All the Way Under.") "Down Around My Place," meanwhile, sounds like an allegorical State of the Union that's all dark and foreboding. But "I Love That Girl" is unabashedly upbeat, and the somber remembrance of 9/1 1 that closes the album, "When New York Had Its Heart Broke," ends on a note of stubborn resilience. It's a trait that applies to many of the characters here -- and to the artist himself.
-- Nick Cristiano, Philadelphia Inquirer
The Revolution Will Be Jazz: The Songs of Gil Scott-Heron
His official influence among the great jazz singers is Eddie Jefferson. But I think it might help to think of Giacomo Gates as a cross between Mark Murphy and your mischievous uncle who acts up at the Thanksgiving dinner; or maybe Bob Dorough and your cheerful friendly neighborhood grocer.
He's almost always on key but his is not one of the great jazz voices, by any stretch of the aural imagination. But the man can scat and not kid around about it. He's seldom, though, made a disc as timely and welcome as this one -- a tribute to Gil Scott-Heron, one of the original "Last Poets" whose death in late May, at 62, was routinely met with pronouncements that he was probably the uber-rap artist.
Whether he was or not, Gates, it turns out, has been digging Heron and singing him for years. He says in the notes here "if some folks find this music unusual for me, that's their misconception. It may be because they don't know me, or know where or how I grew up. I picked GSH tunes that I could connect to 'Show Bizness' Hello! 'Madison Avenue' All of us have been exposed to advertising, etc."
The band is a workmanlike straight-ahead jazz band -- guitarist Tony Lombardozzi, bassist Lonnie Plaxico, drummer Vincent Ector and pianist John DiMartino. It would, then, take a good deal of stretching to hear this music as sharing much DNA with rap. It's not exactly a jazz tribute on the order of Duke Ellington's "And His Mother Called Him Bill" either. But as a tribute to a major American figure who died much too early, it's impressive in a way that Gates' discs have seldom been.
Piano Works by the Mighty Handful -- Balakirev, Borodin, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Cui
Performed by pianist Philip Edward Fisher
If only the playing and the piano sonority were completely equal to the idea of this disc, it would have been, for sure, one of the greatest classical discs of the year. This was a magnificent idea here -- 80 minutes (no less) of piano music by the most important school of Russian composers in the 19th century, including a couple whose piano music was among the greatest of its time, Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" and Balakirev's fiendishly difficult "Islamey" which open and close the disc. It's a rarity and treat to hear them in the context of the other composers with whom they formed a school -- Cui's "Nocturne," Borodin's "Scherzo" and "Petite Suite," and Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scherzino," "Romance" and "Waltz." Fisher is nothing if not capable as a pianist but this music demanded, perhaps, the most sumptuous piano sound possible as well as some of the most expansive playing. And that, unfortunately, is not here.
Music for Violin and Piano
Performed by Michi Wiancko, Violin, and Dina Vainshtein, Piano
3 1/2 stars
I love how Naxos makes it its mission to put out forgotten old music like these chamber gems by virtuoso violinist Emile Sauret (1852-1920). This is music of lavish loveliness. Sauret was likened in his lifetime to Paganini. One critic quoted in the notes wrote: "There is something demoniacal about his playing. His audience must follow him, must feel, laugh, weep, jest, or be sad with him."
His music is programmatic in old style, mostly in travelogue nature: "Scenes villageoises," a Spanish-tinged "Souvenir de Los Angeles" and "Souvenirs d'Orient." Still, the pieces stand on their own. But they are light, soulful and entrancing -- and demanding, I am guessing. Sauret sounds, at times, like a French version of Fritz Kreisler.
-- Mary Kunz Goldman