Share this article

print logo

Listening Post / Brief reviews of select releases

> Rock

Patti Smith, "Outside Society" (Columbia/Legacy). The first all-inclusive career overview from the legendary poet, punk icon and front-woman nonpareil Patti Smith would make a wonderful gift for a teenager interested in music, but perhaps unaware of how magically interwoven powerful music and smart, image-rich writing can be. Anyone over the age of 30 unaware of Smith's significance in the world of post-'60s rock might also consider it an honor-bound duty to get a firm grasp on her art, and "Outside Society" is a great place to start. The album commences with the giddy but somehow still ominous "Gloria," moves through the most in-your-face early Patti Smith Group material -- "Pissing in A River," "Free Money" -- and includes the closest thing Smith ever had to a mainstream hit, her heartrending take on Bruce Springsteen's "Because the Night." Oft overlooked but no less moving later-period gems like "Summer Cannibals," "Lo and Beholden" and "Glitter In Their Eyes" drive home the realization that Smith has never stopped being the Rimbaud of rock 'n' roll. Review: 3 1/2 stars (out of 4) (Jeff Miers)

Stephin Merritt, "Obscurities (Merge). "Obscurities" hearkens back to a time when Merritt was being hailed as the next great American songwriter, compared not so much to his contemporaries, but to all-time greats like Berlin, Gershwin and Sondheim. So even though "Obscurities" consists of out-of-print singles, compilation tracks and unreleased treats, its indicative of how Merritt can channel what's a decidedly singular songwriting perspective into pieces that are sweet, sappy and touching in an almost universal way. Review: 3 1/2 stars (Associated Press)

Dave Stewart, "The Blackbird Diaries" (Surfdog). The former Eurythmics member offers up the most atypical record of his career to date with this Nashville-recorded effort. It's arguably one of the most successfully executed sidesteps in pop music. Featuring guest turns from new NPR darlings the Secret Sisters, plus Stevie Nicks, Martina McBride and Colbie Caillat, "The Blackbird Diaries" further cements Stewart's reputation as an ace writer and performer. Review: 4 stars (Jedd Beaudoin, Popmatters.com)

> Country

Jeff Bridges, "Jeff Bridges" (Blue Note). Very few actors play musicians with conviction. How often has an otherwise fine music-themed film been thrown way off the course of believability by some well-known thespian's inability to even effectively mime the playing of a musical instrument? Or even worse, by said actor's failure to parlay the inner life of a seasoned musician on the big screen? Jeff Bridges is one of the very few who have offered convincing portrayals of music men, be they the frustrated pianist in "The Fabulous Baker Boys" or the road-work country troubadour in "Crazy Heart." T Bone Burnett helped Bridges turn the success of "Crazy Heart" into what turns out to be a pretty darned wonderful collection of dusty back-roads Americana and country-folk songs. Bridges' singing is well-served by Burnett's woodsy, ambient production and the musicians he assembled to sympathetically surround and support it. Picture Kris Kristofferson, or even present-day Bob Weir as reference points. Bridges sings with the authenticity of the seasoned storyteller. He also sounds like a man who has been around the block a time or two. There's no acting going on here. Review: 3 stars (J.M.)

> Classical

Minsoo Sohn, "Goldberg Variations" (Honens). Isn't this a funny sign of the times: Bach's name appears nowhere on the front cover of this CD. The name Minsoo Sohn is in big letters, and underneath, in tiny letters, it says, "Goldberg Variations." It's as if, following the precedent set by Glenn Gould, pianists claim this piece as their own. Sohn, a competition winner now on the faculty at Michigan State University, plays the piece without pretention. Like the B Minor Mass, the "Goldberg Variations" bring out Bach's joyous, tender side -- a less forbidding, more likable masterpiece can hardly be imagined. Sohn lets it shine. He gives it a classical performance, generously pedaled and full bodied. He sounds relaxed, which I admire when someone is dealing with music like this. Review: 3 1/2 stars (Mary Kunz Goldman)

Chopin, The Complete Waltzes, Stephen Hough, piano (Hyperion). British pianist Stephen Hough is an illustration of how social networking changes the way we listen to music. I know him, as do thousands of others, from his lively blog. He feels like a friend. That makes me more disposed to this disc. These performances are very quirky. Hough brings out a lot of voices and harmonies that can be surprising. He even plays notes I never knew were there -- maybe they are, maybe they aren't. That is all interesting and illuminating, and I like it. I also like how Hough includes a couple of lovely, simple waltzes not generally included in the usual set, and a few pieces whose authenticity is in question. Where he loses me is when he takes phrases I love and treats them too light-heartedly, when he puts in his own dotted rhythms, when he plays games. He tacks on a version of the famous E Flat Nocturne that I found all but unlistenable. But then, that is me. Every pianist knows this music inside out, and many listeners do, too. You will have to decide for yourself. Review: 3 stars (M.K.G.)

> Pop

Beirut, "The Rip Tide" (Pompeii). Steve Martin once had an album titled "Let's Get Small," named after the refrain in a very funny Martin routine. For Zach Condon of indie band Beirut, "Let's get small" is a way of life. Four years after the indie success of Beirut's richly layered "Flying Club Cup," band and main man are making music that's mature and stately while re-establishing the intimately miniature and zealous brand of foreign intrigue that started when he first recorded as a kid of 19. "The Rip Tide" is brief and does offer Condon's usual mix of Baltic cabaret, French chanson and Mexican mariachi. But such complex mood swings are present in understated poppy fashion, quietly implied on the dramatic up-tempo swash of "Santa Fe" and the psychedelic twitch of "Payne's Bay." Sparer-than-usual settings leave more room for Condon's impressionistically arcane ruminations (as in "East Harlem") and his singular vocals. Against the distressed, elegant brass of "The Peacock," Condon's voice, now huskier, sounds like a grizzled elder's with immaculate range. As a balladeer, he has the command of Tony Bennett, but with the supple roundness of a French horn. Condon always wanted to sound older than old. On "The Rip Tide," he gets his wish. Review: 3 stars (A.D. Amorosi, the Philadelphia Inquirer)