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Disc reviews: Madonna, Steven Wilson, Martial Solal, Kathryn Rudge

Pop

Madonna

Rebel Heart

[Interscope]

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Madonna’s 13th album is a mess. Sometimes it’s a fun, hot mess. Sometimes it’s almost embarrassing to behold. Which side of the fence you fall on depends how much faith you place in Madonna as a personality capable of providing a sense of continuity throughout an album that is basically a personality crisis set to music.

Let’s be generous and suggest that there are two Madonnas living in “Rebel Heart.” One of them wants to be hip and relevant and refuses to act her age. The other wears the years that have passed as scars that even plastic surgery would not be able to hide. One has no way of knowing if these warring factions have been reconciled in “Madonna the actual person,” but “Madonna the pop icon” does not make a convincing argument that they have been, even slightly.

This unreconciled dichotomy makes much of the album a hoot. (“Holy Water” and “Body Shop” both float by like a pleasing breeze, unburdened by their inconsequence and unashamed of their superficiality – this is what Madonna does best.) But when Madonna employs overwrought power ballads to come clean on the costs of a long life with many loves, there is no real fun to be had. This is Madonna as adult contemporary artist. When she acts her age, she’s actually pretty dull. Take from that what you will.

The best tunes are the most innocuous, like the pure disco raver “Living For Love,” or the shameless kowtowing to EDM’s supremacy that takes place in the “so awful you can’t look away” car crash that is “Unapologetic Bitch” and its twin sister “Bitch, I’m Madonna,” the latter with a typically freakish cameo from Nicki Minaj.

Madonna fans have always found their idol’s blatant narcissism fascinating, and it’s likely that they will continue to do so with the release of “Rebel Heart.” For them, the schizophrenia that runs like a twisting vine throughout the album will not present a problem. Others might simply feel that she’s trying too hard to be all things to all people. But aging gracefully never really seemed to be part of Madonna’s plan.

– Jeff Miers

Pop

Steven Wilson

Hand.Cannot.Erase

[K Scope]

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Steven Wilson had an awful lot to live up to with “Hand.Cannot.Erase,” the follow-up to the worldwide critical smash “The Raven That Refused To Sing.” So bold, adventurous and deeply musical was “Raven” that one wondered what the erstwhile Porcupine Tree leader, producer and remix engineer du jour, and prolific collaborator, could possibly do to top it.

Wisely, Wilson did not let such high expectation daunt him. Instead, he grabbed hold of a conceptual theme – the story of a young British woman who passed away alone in her apartment and was not discovered for several years, roped in his virtuosic touring band, and basically went for broke. The result is perhaps the high watermark of his career to date. It’s a stunning album that rewards close and repeated listening.

Wilson still can drop audio clues to his broad batch of influences, and you can certainly hear the inspiration provided by progressive music giants like Genesis, Pink Floyd, Rush and King Crimson. Fans of the fiery and dynamic interplay, challenging time signatures, and knotty multimovement arrangements that have made Wilson a hero to progressive fans young and old will not be disappointed; the musicianship is breathtaking.

But the difference this time is in the depth of the compositions, all of which – be they short connective tissue vignettes, or full-blown, vocal harmony-laden magnum opuses – are rich in harmonic detail and bolstered by strong, fat-free melodies. There is intention and clear purpose in Wilson’s writing.

There also is an abundant sense of pathos underlining the entire album, which is best viewed as one piece of music with separate, fully developed movements. Wilson is much more Edgar Allan Poe than Stephen King as lyricist – even when dealing with subject matter that might be perceived as grim, he refuses to play the macabre card for cheap thrills, instead finding both poetry and glimmers of universal truth in what is often a thick, hypnagogic sadness. As a result, much of “Hand.Cannot.Erase” is at once heartbreaking and uplifting.

Wilson has delivered another masterwork. This is demanding music that offers a bountiful payoff to those willing to invest their time in it.

– Jeff Miers

Jazz/Classical Fusion

Martial Solal

Works for Piano and Two Pianos

[Grand Piano]

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Martial Solal is unique in the jazz world. Because the Algerian-born pianist has long been hopelessly, immutably French – and not exactly well-traveled about it – we don’t think of him as one of the greatest living musicians of the eldest jazz generation (he is 87). But he is.

What you have here is a totally successful example of that historically brutalized fusion of jazz and classical music that was polluted for decades by Gunther Schuller’s “Third Stream” occupying far too much shelf space and scaring everyone off. Solal is a magnificent virtuoso jazz pianist – one of the most brilliant and angular of modernists but also a man who could provide brilliant accompaniment once upon a time for Sidney Bechet.

But that’s not all or even close. Solal wrote the music for Godard’s pivotal New Wave film “Breathless” and for Orson Welles’ version of Kafka’s “The Trial.” And, as we discover here, performed with gymnastic agility by his younger friend Eric Ferrand-N’Kaqua, he wrote solo piano classical works meant for classical performance but fully congruent with jazz piano tradition. In contrast, think of Oscar Peterson, a similarly swinging jazz pianist whose essays into classical suites were just an excuse for him to become boring.

Just to make sure the point is proved by the end of the disc, Solal joins his younger colleague in his 1985 “Ballade for Two Pianos.”

Says Ferrand-N’Kaqua about Solal: “Martial Solal is purely and simply a musician of today looking towards tomorrow. Without neglecting the past, he has no time for nostalgia. Too elegant ever to repeat himself, as a born showman, he is horrified by the very idea of being bored or boring.”

– Jeff Simon

Classical

Love’s Old Sweet Song

Kathryn Rudge, mezzo soprano

James Baillieu, piano

[Champion Hill Records]

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This enchanting disc explores songs of British composers between 1823 and 1945. Most of the songs are from the 20th century, though they hark back to the Romantic era.

The best songs stand out for their long shelf life. The title song was recorded beautifully by tenor John McCormack but got a more recent lease on life thanks to the Irish Tenors. Ivor Novello’s lovely “We’ll Gather Lilacs” was sung by Frank Sinatra and Julie Andrews. Haydn Wood’s wartime classic “Roses of Picardy,” you knew that would be here, and it is, along with another beautiful creation of his, “Brown Bird Singing.” These are songs of unabashed sentimentality, and with her warm, graceful voice, Kathryn Rudge gives them to you straight up. The intimacy of the voice and piano, as opposed to an orchestra, heightens the nostalgia.

Discs like this are never perfect, and there are some ponderous songs. Benjamin Britten’s accompaniment to “The Last Rose of Summer” seemed pretentious and makes me doubt that he “got” the simple song. (Beethoven “got” it. They should have used his arrangement.) But there is so much to love. The songs by Edward Elgar, with their intricate accompaniments, made me think of Richard Strauss. Roger Quilter’s “Love’s Philosophy” clearly recalls Brahms. The songs by Eric Coates, by Frank Bridge – it seems a pity that these songs have been shoved aside by singers in favor of drab, atonal stuff.

If you don’t get tears in your eyes hearing one or another song on this disc, I think you must have let yourself become too jaded.

– Mary Kunz Goldman

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