ARTIST: MASSIVE ATTACK
NEW YORK (Billboard) – Throughout the '90s, "trip-hop" was the best anyone could do to describe Massive Attack and the head-nodding family of talents it inspired,
ARTIST: ALLISON MOORER
ALBUM: CROWS (Ryko)
Trying to pigeonhole the restlessly creative Allison Moorer remains as gratifyingly fruitless as ever. Her latest release (and Ryko debut), "Crows," finds the erstwhile Nashville fixture moving further away from country music and the roots rock she explored on her two albums for Sugar Hill Records. Embracing an approach presaged on "Mockingbird," her 2008 covers album, "Crows" opts for a mostly stripped-down acoustic sound that provides the perfect setting for Moorer's marvelous, R&B-inflected voice. With the compositions on "Crows" alternating in tone between hopeful and foreboding, she explores themes of regret, loss and new beginnings with a deft hand and some of the best singing of her career. Highlights include "It's Gonna Feel Good (When It Stops Hurting)," the lovely title track and the affecting piano ballad "Easy in the Summertime," a reflection on her Alabama childhood.
ARTIST: DEE DEE BRIDGEWATER
ALBUM: ELEANORA FAGAN (1915-1959): TO BILLIE WITH LOVE FROM DEE DEE (DDB Records/Emarcy)
No stranger to musical experimentation, Dee Dee Bridgewater mixed jazz with West African rhythms on her 2007 multicultural expedition "Red Earth: A Malian Journey." She brings the same no-holds-barred approach to her latest project, "Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie With Love From Dee Dee," a tribute to jazz pioneer Billie Holiday. But this is more than just a covers album. Bridgewater digs beneath the darkness and pain associated with Holiday's music, delivering a joyful take on -- and deep respect for -- her predecessor's strengths as a vocalist and songwriter. The usual and not-so-usual suspects from Holiday's legacy are here (including "Good Morning Heartache" and "God Bless the Child"). But they're infused with new arrangements (courtesy of Bridgewater's longtime bandmate Edsel Gomez) that shed a modern light on Holiday's work. "Lady Sings the Blues" swings to life through its fusion of African polyrhythms; "Lover Man" shines with a sexy, sassy sheen; and "Miss Brown to You" gets a feisty makeover. Pulling it all together are Bridgewater's expressive, unrestricted vocals -- especially riveting on the sparsely arranged "Strange Fruit."
ARTIST: JOSH TURNER
ALBUM: HAYWIRE (MCA Nashville)
Josh Turner's 2004 breakthrough hit, "Long Black Train," reminded country fans how rare and celebrated such thrilling, deep-baritone voices have been throughout the genre's history. And while Turner is a worthy heir to such barrel-chested baritones as Don Williams, Randy Travis and Trace Adkins, his fourth album, "Haywire," is a study in inconsistent use of his vocal gift. On the single "Why Don't We Just Dance," Turner avoids oversinging, instead letting his voice communicate through the song's message, resulting in one of the album's best tracks. Conversely, on the remake of Williams' 1987 hit ballad "I Wouldn't Be a Man," Turner overuses his low register, when a more restrained approach would've improved the take. Trite and sometimes awkward lyrics diminish some tracks that contain great instrumentals. The album's finest moment is the choir-backed spiritual "The Answer," where Turner sings, "If you're lookin' for somebody you can talk to/When the heartache and the troubles overcome you/There's a man you can count on."
ALBUM: ODD BLOOD (Secretly Canadian)
Brooklyn-based rock act Yeasayer gained acclaim with its 2007 debut, "All Hour Cymbals," by achieving an impressive balance between world-influenced, experimental noise and disciplined, memorable pop-rock. For its sophomore effort, "Odd Blood," Yeasayer has maintained its standards of hybrid artistry. But like a number of its indie-rock contemporaries, the outfit has turned to synthesizers for soundscape inspiration. The single "Ambling Alp" is a dynamically percussive new wave self-respect anthem, while "I Remember" has all the melodic flourish and vocal loveliness of an early Erasure aria. Modified African rhythms visit in dance-friendly tracks "Madder Red" and "O.N.E.," and "Rome" is a steadily building strut with drum and vocal effects that reach out and grab from dark alleys. Between the folds of intricate sound on "Odd Blood" float Yeasayer members Anand Wilder's and Chris Keating's expressive vocal harmonies, giving this seemingly disparate, indefinable music a clear identity.
ARTIST: THE MAGNETIC FIELDS
ALBUM: REALISM (Nonesuch Records)
The Magnetic Fields' latest studio album, "Realism," is the final -- and most convincing -- installment of the band's "no synth" trilogy, which began in 2004 with "i." On the new set, Magnetic Fields founder Stephin Merritt continues to move away from the band's usual dependence on effects to explore the innards of folk without using electric instruments. Merritt and his troupe mostly succeed in achieving a natural sound on "Realism," but the results are sometimes shaky. With lyrics like "Do-si-do down/To our hoedown/Our rootin'-tootin' hootenanny," the song "We Are Having a Hootenanny" straddles the line between playful and ridiculous. But the alluring "I Don't Know What to Say" and "Better Things" find the band inching back toward its comfort zone -- Merritt's songwriting thrives, and nontraditional percussion like the tabla and tree leaves satiate the need for unusual sounds. Ultimately, the electronic-free approach on the closer of the trilogy results in the Magnetic Fields' most organic effort to date -- and it doesn't stray too far from Merritt's pop-leaning background, making it the most successful of its synth-free siblings.
ARTIST: RECKLESS KELLY
ALBUM: SOMEWHERE IN TIME (Yep Roc Records)
It takes a certain amount of belief in one's abilities to attempt an album of covers, let alone a tribute to a musical hero. And it takes talent to actually pull it off. Meet Austin-based country-rock band Reckless Kelly -- a group that has the chutzpah and chops to properly honor Idaho singer-songwriter Pinto Bennett, who with his band Famous Motel Cowboys influenced a generation of Northwestern musicians. Reckless Kelly's latest album, "Somewhere in Time," is made up of Bennett-penned tunes. (Bennett himself guests on two tracks.) Among the highlights is "The Ballad of Elano De Leon," with a guest appearance by Joe Ely. The rollicking "Bird on a Wire" is perhaps the album's best cut, mixing smart lyrics and sizzling guitar work, while honky-tonk "I've Done Everything I Could Do Wrong" will probably fill the floors in dance halls all across Texas.
ALBUM: THE COURAGE OF OTHERS (Bella Union Records)
With its layered melodies and gentle guitar progressions, Midlake's 2006 breakout album, "The Trials of Van Occupanther," was a hypnotizing riff on classic-rock conventions. For third album "The Courage of Others," the Texas-based band draws upon its strength while delving more deeply into the lush sounds of British folk music. Themes of self-discovery and natural beauty swirl around tracks like the midtempo jam "Small Mountain" and the gorgeous ballad "Fortune." "The Courage of Others" doesn't offer anything as immediately captivating as "Van Occupanther" gems like "Roscoe" and "Young Bride," but the new songs slowly take shape and are unafraid to choose interesting detours. Singer/guitarist Tim Smith's saccharine voice still commands the spotlight, but the band's blossoming vocal harmonies elevate the album and give such tracks as "Acts of Man" and "Children of the Grounds" their swelling climaxes. Midlake has moved into more complex territory with "The Courage of Others," making forward-thinking folk music that is at once both universal and privately felt.
Consider the fourth disc of the set. It begins with what seems to be a radio transcription of a duo-piano version of "I Must Be Dreaming," from the 1949 college show All That Glitters, a track that I don't suppose many of us have ever heard. One song later, we go into four numbers from a 1954 backer's audition of the early musical Saturday Night (which went unproduced until 1997). We have indeed heard these songs by now, with two complete recordings of the show on our record shelf. Here, though, we get a bright young cast singing the songs back when they were written. Jack Cassidy was a young, strong-voiced singer with one major role to his credit - as the romantic waiter who got to sing the title song in Wish You Were Here - and the promise of a major career ahead if he didn't mess it up, which he did. But listen to him sing "Class." The excitement is palpable, as they say: This is a bright new show tune by a bright new songwriter with a bright new Broadway star, nothing but talent ahead. Arte Johnson, who only made it to Broadway (and briefly) some 43 years later but found fame on TV's "Laugh-In," scores laugh after laugh with "Love's a Bond." One can't tell what he was doing, but he certainly has the crowd in stitches (and not from the lyric).
Then comes the "At the Movies" sequence, and it is quite something. Alice Ghostley, who made a splash singing Sheldon Harnick's "Boston Beguine" in New Faces of 1952, hysterically delivers all Sondheim's lines about Vilma Banky's hanky panky and Conrad Nagel. (Unlike Cassidy and Johnson, Ghostley is not singled out in the song listings but that is unmistakably her.) Listening not to the song but to the audience at the backer's audition, though, you might pick up a hint as to why Saturday Night did not get produced in the era of The King and I and The Pajama Game; the laughter is vociferous but cliquish, oddly recalling the reaction to the '50s work of Franklin Shepard in Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along. ("Write more, work hard, leave your name with the girl.") Along comes the composer singing "Truly Content," his nifty "glamorous mooovie star" song for the pre-Apple Tree version of Jules Feiffer's "Passionella." (If she was a movie star, Ella would be truly content like Fay Wray or George Brent.) Incidental music for two Arthur Laurents plays is included, as well as five tracks from Alain Resnais' 1974 film "Stavisky," which contains some of Sondheim's most ravishing music in his Little Night Music-Debussy-Ravel mood. If you don't have the full soundtrack of "Stavisky," seek it out.
That's only half of what comes on the fascinating fourth CD of the set. Which brings us to the other side of the coin. If "The Story So Far" exists to highlight the SonyBMG catalogue of Sondheim music, they understandably need to include said holdings in the box. But consider Chita Rivera's "America," Larry Kert and Carol Lawrence's "Tonight," Ethel Merman's "Everything's Coming Up Roses," Elaine Stritch's "The Ladies to Lunch," Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou's "A Little Priest," Mandy Patinkin's "Finishing the Hat," and Bernadette Peters' "Children Will Listen." All are present, along with another 16 selections from Sondheim's popular original cast albums. Do Sondheim fans need a four-CD box containing song hits from West Side Story?
As far as I'm concerned, anyone with a strong interest in musical theatre should know the original cast recordings of West Side Story, Gypsy, Company, A Little Night Music, and Sweeney Todd by heart. If you do indeed know the original cast recordings of West Side Story, Gypsy, Company, A Little Night Music, and Sweeney Todd by heart, and might even have been listening to one or the other just recently, do you need to have excerpts included on "The Story So Far"? If the intention, on the other hand, is to present a celebratory overview for people barely familiar with Sondheim, maybe they should spend more time on the hits and less on Saturday Night, "The Enclave" and "Dick Tracy."
The true collector, though, will hardly mind remote-controlling past the old faves so that they can hear the gems on disc four as well as seven composer-demos of cut songs including "Happily Ever After" from Company, "Can That Boy Foxtrot?" from Follies, and two each from Night Music and Into the Woods. All of which, on balance, combine to give us way more than enough to justify the overly-familiar tracks on this four-CD set.
Adding to the value is the accompanying 80-page, two-CD-sized booklet, which is crammed full of black and white photographs. Some of which we've never seen before, like a contact sheet of Mr. Sondheim (circa 1965?), jacket rakishly thrown over his arm, in the process of lighting a cigarette. Although one has to wonder whether he rues the day he bought those plaid trousers that he wore to the Company recording session. Hal Prince has written a four-page piece to open the booklet, amusingly attempting to describe his indescribable friend. Various colleagues offer brief quotes, peppered throughout. More to the point is an extended essay by Mark Eden Horowitz, who oversees most of the important musical theatre collections at the Library of Congress and who produced the Library's 2000 concert in honor of Sondheim's 70th birthday. (Mr. Horowitz is as knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the library's Rodgers, Berlin, and Bernstein troves as he is about such recently arrived archives as those of Strouse, Ashman, and Jonathan Larson.) Horowitz takes dozens of strands - songs, shows, facts and collaborators - and ties them into a masterful portrait of our most indispensable theatre artist.
[PAGE] JESSICA MOLASKEY: A Kiss to Build a Dream On [Arbors ARCD 19384]
Having only recently loved John Pizzarelli's sparkling CD of Richard Rodgers tunes ("With a Song in My Heart") and the current John Pizzarelli/Jessica Molaskey stint at the Café Carlyle, I was a bit skittish about immediately turning to Molaskey's new CD. No hesitation needed, as it turns out; "A Kiss to Build a Dream On" is just as good as Ms. Molaskey's first four CDs. Something must be in the water over at Chez Pizzarelli; in goes the aqua, out comes torrents of refreshing, cascading melody.
The new CD originated in an impromptu jam session, with Mr. & Mrs. Pizzarelli joined by father Bucky (on guitar), brother Martin (on bass), and violinist Aaron Weinstein. As Molaskey relates in the liner notes, they sat there simply "pulling music out of thin air. There were no set lists, no rehearsals, just four musicians, with various sized pieces of wood, with strings attached and two sets of vocal cords, a family calling tunes that we loved, and existing for 60 minutes to create a joyful noise. . . At one point, John said 'Okay, key of G, ready: one, two, three.' And I replied, laughingly, "That sounds great, but can you give me a hint as to what song we might be doing in the key of G?'"
That's the love of music within this clan, and that's the kind of set that you'll hear on this recording (although the vocals are mostly by Jessica, with John chiming in on only two). The songs are mostly old standards, of the "Baby Face," "Breezin' Along with the Breeze," "You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You" variety. Molaskey throws in two songs by the same Mr. Sondheim whose "Story So Far" is referred to above. "Everybody Loves Louis" comes from Sunday in the Park with George, in which Ms. Molaskey made one of her occasional theatre appearances last spring at Studio 54. "Isn't He Something" is from Bounce, in which Molaskey appeared back in 1999 when it was still called Wise Guys. Both songs are presented in the Pizzarelli manner, which is to say friendly-cool jazz; "Isn't He Something" sounds especially lovely. The Pizzarellis also give us two of their homegrown songs, "Take Me to You" and "Hiding in Plain Sight." The latter is especially felicitous, a modern-day homage to Arlen, Gershwin & Harburg's "Let's Take a Walk around the Park." Let it be added that on more than a few of the tracks the irrepressible John playfully misleads us, prefacing the song Jessica is going to sing with an intro to something else altogether. ("Breezin' Along with the Breeze" is prefaced by "every little breeze seems to whisper Louise," for example.)
As always, the secret of the success of both Ms. Molaskey and Mr. Pizzarelli is not so hidden: canny song selection, impeccable musical instincts, and an unconditional love for the material. They always seem to be having a holiday on guitar strings, but we - the listeners - are the ones who benefit.
(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)
"He would teach us a rock 'n' roll song, a gospel song, a country song, all different types of roots music," Luther Dickinson said in the back of his tour bus during a recent stop in Jackson. "I learned to play with a piano player and I learned to play different types of music that he loved. And that's always been a huge aspect of our career."
The Allstars have carved out a unique niche with their Hill Countrified blend of rock and blues. They just wrapped up a 20-city tour in support of their sixth album, "Hernando," an homage to the Memphis suburb of their childhood that turned out to be the perfect incubation chamber for a couple of aspiring musicians.
Twelve years after forming, the Allstars have been nominated for three Grammys, played hundreds of gigs around the world and are secure in their careers. They've achieved the kind of success every father hopes for, but Dickinson wasn't always sure his sons were headed in that direction as they banged away on clunky chord changes and slightly arrhythmic beats.
The Hardly Can Playboys was Dickinson's way of passing on a legacy and a career to his sons.
Considering what they'd given him, it was the least he could do.
"It's always about fathers and sons to me," Dickinson said. "You've got to understand that they saved my life. It was the '70s and the drugs and the lifestyle that we were all a part of. I have a graveyard full of dead friends and my boys very definitely saved my life. I owe them for that. I always will."
As he has in an eclectic career as artist, sideman and producer, Jim Dickinson, 67, turned conventional wisdom upside down after his sons were born. He showed rock 'n' rollers don't have to live the rock 'n' roll lifestyle. And he subverted the idea that a great dad has to be a 9-to-5 square.
"My first experiences with live music were his bands, Mudboy and the Neutrons particularly," Cody Dickinson said. "I continue to mine my father's repertoire for material, and it's really working out."
Music was everywhere as the boys grew up, from the blues- and R&B-informed rock their father played to the ancient bluesmen he befriended to the itinerant sidemen who ate in their mother's kitchen and slept out back in the barn.
Dickinson's credits stretch back four decades to when he first met his wife of 44 years, Mary Lindsay. He's managed an outsider's career in an insider's industry, recording and producing with greats like Aretha Franklin, Big Star, the Rolling Stones and Sam and Dave.
It wasn't until his sons came along that he found his true calling, though. Luther, now 35, said their father tried to discourage them, but the kids were "goners."
When dad wasn't teaching them chords, he was giving them lessons in musical taste with his expansive record collection. They first heard R.L. Burnside and Otha Turner mining that stack of vinyl.
"And when I first saw Jimi Hendrix on a public TV station," Luther Dickinson said, "he was like, 'Oh, here, you'll like this.'"
He took them to see everybody from Guns 'n' Roses to Junior Kimbrough and they tagged along on gigs if the club wasn't too sketchy.
They both started on toy drum kits and Luther eventually turned to the guitar. Their first gig was in elementary school as the Rebelaires. The Dickinsons thought they were their kids' biggest fans, but found they were just members of the club.
"They just tore down the house," Mary Lindsay said of that first gig. "They were late coming out and Jim says, 'Luther, where were you?' And Luther said, 'Well, I had to talk to all the girls.'"
The boys spent all their free time in the basement. The racket was a joyful noise to Jim Dickinson.
"I'd hear them playing what appeared to be chaos only they were doing it together, you know," he said. "And they're still largely unaware of it when it happens because it's so natural. And it enables them to improvise in a way even really great jazz musicians can't."
Cody, 32, proved a polyrhythmic natural. By 12 "he was playing like a man" and taking solos in concert. Luther didn't have the same gift. Though his first word was "studio" and he was fascinated with his father's reel-to-reel tape players, he had to work for every note he played.
"I'm not going to lie to you," Jim told Luther. "Keep practicing. I'm not going to tell you you can play until you get somewhere with it."
When the boys began writing songs, Dickinson took them to Sam Phillips' studio. If anybody could get a record out of them, it was the veteran Memphis producer Roland Janes. But they weren't ready.
So he recruited a couple of friends to play bass and sax and set up the Playboys. Those were among the best gigs of Jim Dickinson's life. But at the same time he was teaching the boys, they had an impact on him.
"If you look back at my records that I've made as a producer, they're pretty left wing," he said. "It's some pretty off-the-wall stuff. Especially in the punk rock days. I literally took clients because I thought it would impress my children."
After a year, Dickinson decided the kids were all right. Luther remembers that day with pride: "When I was 16, he was like, 'Son, you've got a car, a guitar and an amp. Go see what you can hustle up. There's nothing more I can do for you.'"
On the Net:
Zebra Ranch: http://www.zebraranch.com
North Mississippi Allstars: http://www.nmallstars.com
Jim Dickinson discography: http://koti.mbnet.fi/wdd/jimdickinson.htm
Starring the incomparable Andre De Shields as both the narrator and a somewhat devilish preacher, director Alfred Preisser has updated Hughes' version of the nativity story to 1973 Times Square, through which Mary and Joseph wander in search of a room for the night.
This joyous musical celebration draws in the audience as part of the preacher's congregation as he sermonizes about Mary's journey, the birth of Jesus and the current spiritual state of the world.
Prowling the stage in a sharp red suit, De Shields sings, dances, preaches, keeps time for the chorus and occasionally conducts the gifted cast as they enthusiastically shake the rafters with song and dance, clapping and stamping out the rhythms of the often-jubilant score.
Lively choreography by Tracy Jack, who also plays Mary, and colorful Motown-inspired outfits designed by Kimberly Glennon, make this production a treat for the eyes as well as the ears. The gospel-singing church choir alternates between their purple and red robes and flashy, glamorous costumes worthy of the Supremes, Temptations and Jackson Five.
The 1970s setting enabled Preisser and musical director Kelvyn Bell to creatively arrange familiar gospel songs and hymns, such as "Go Tell It on the Mountain," "Joy to the World" and "Silent Night," both traditionally and in various pop music styles including rhythm and blues, soul and even some funk. Bell also wrote a couple of original numbers for this production and plays lead guitar, alongside talented musicians Kim Davis, Christopher Eddleton and Carlos Homs.
Literally poking fun of the occasional hypocrisy of "church folks," a trio of female choir members is transformed into slinky Motown singers who perform "Pity and a Shame," about how nobody will help the pregnant Mary, while pointing their own gloved fingers of shame at her.
There are also quiet, reverential songs, including several hymns performed by the Shangilia Youth Choir of Kenya. These teenagers, who were rescued from the streets and given performing arts education along with regular schooling, enchant the audience with their heartfelt singing. Some of them also impress as somersaulting street performers in the boisterous finale.
This energetic troupe truly makes a joyful noise unto the Lord. "Black Nativity" runs through Dec. 30 at off-Broadway's Duke Theater.