Rhapsody Streamnotes: November 5, 2010

Post-Jazz CG, post-vacation, felt more like listening to new (non-jazz) stuff than ever, so went to town here. Also helps being pushed by Michael Tatum's column and correspondence.

These are short notes/reviews based on streaming records from Rhapsody. They are snap judgments based on one or two plays, accumulated since my last post along these lines, back on October 9. Past reviews and more information are available here.

No Age: Everything in Between (2010, Sub Pop): Third album from a Los Angeles group, actually a duo that tipped their hand calling their first album Weirdo Rippers. Loosely classified as "noise pop" they seem to be getting both clearer and fuzzier at the same time. A-

Robert Plant: Band of Joy (2010, Rounder): Album title resurrects the name of Plant's pre-Zeppelin folk-rock group. Producer Buddy Miller provides a country roots feel with a touch of gospel, cowriting one song with Plant and selecting obscure filler from Los Lobos to Richard Thompson, with a couple of contributions by Trad. Works when it works, mostly when the arrangements are most primitive, which lets the singer hint at glories past. B+(*)

The Vaselines: Sex With an X (2010, Sub Pop): Scottish group, extant 1986-89, disbanded on the even of their debut LP, which found a famous fan in Kurt Cobain, leading to the 1992 release of The Way of the Vaselines, subtitled A Complete History. Last year, Sub Pop decided that complete wasn't enough, so they reissued the disc with one more as Enter the Vaselines, probably as a prologue to this return of ex-couple Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee, backed by members of Belle & Sebastian. Gone is the lo-fi hum and low-life antics, which leaves the songcraft more pro forma but also better rounded, with the same pop vibe as the Jenny and Johnny album, minus the gliss of falling in love, plus the sense of getting on: "I hate the '80s because the '80s were shit" goes one song that forgets that they were an alternative to Duran Duran. Summing up: "feels so good it must be bad for me/let's do it, let's do it again." B+(***)

Brian Harnetty/Bonnie "Prince" Billy: Silent City (2009, Atavistic): Harnetty teaches at a college in Ohio which gives him access to a large cache of Appalachian field recordings, which he samples and integrates into musical tapestries that veer between bluegrass and something much better than new age. This is the second to get released on a real label -- the previous American Winter worked marvelously on many levels, but this one tends to rattle between the two styles. Billy is Will Oldham, who first emerged in country-grunge band Palace Music and has become very prolific under his latest pseudoynm, but still remains someone I have little sense of. B+(**)

The Corin Tucker Band: 1,000 Years (2010, Kill Rock Stars): I never was sure which of Sleater-Kinney's singers I found most unbearable, but it was probably Carrie Brownstein, the other one. Sleater-Kinney released seven albums 1995-2005, all Christgau A-list, only two with minuses attached. First I heard of the band was a visit to his apartment, where he had just finished his first piece on the band, and assumed I would know who they were. I dutifully bought five of the albums, and grudgingly granted three B+, never to play them again. Something about the voice(s) grated on me, because the guitar thrash and songcraft and political sense were undeniable, and they had a real good drummer in Janet Weiss. Tucker came from Heavens to Betsy and had a spinoff group Cadallaca, and now this, her "middle-aged mom record." Doesn't grate so much, and has some snap to it. B+(*)

Sleater-Kinney: The Woods (2004 [2005], Sub Pop): Having avoided their universally praised swansong, I figured this would be the least painful way to give it a chance. Still, the pent-up resentments make me wonder whether ignorance isn't bliss. They are obviously very talented: "Wilderness," in particular, jumps and twists and thrashes, high risk tricks most rock bands can't imagine, so marvelous the vocal screech is tolerable; a couple cuts later they subside into something more normal, also tolerable. Then there's something like the overbearing 11:01 "Let's Call It Love," which has no small lyrical insight but feels like bludgeoning, the trademark screech finally getting to me. B+(**)

Sleater-Kinney (1995, Chainsaw): Might as well be completist. This was the group's first album, low budget, a tiny Portland queercore label, basically a side project with Corin Tucker taking leave from Heavens to Betsy, clashing with Carrie Brownstein from Excuse 17, and drummer Lora Macfarlane. Primitive, punkish, the vocal clash disorienting but within the bounds of the music -- less impressive than what came later, but I find it more agreeable. B+(**)

Marnie Stern (2010, Kill Rock Stars): She'd probably describe herself as a guitarist first, singer-songwriter somewhere down the pecking order, but the songs are tuneful enough, noisy and pulsing with energy that the guitar juices up. Third album on same label, so the eponymous title may mean she's found herself, or that the label wanted to put an end to 30-word titles like the last one. B+(**)

Steve Reich: Double Sextet/2x5 (2009-10 [2010], Nonesuch): Two pieces of relatively lush minimalism: "Double Sextet" divides into Fast/Slow/Fast movements, played by Eighth Blackbird -- a sextet with flute, clarinet, violin, cello, percussion, piano; and "2x5" also divided Fast/Slow/Fast and played by avant vets Bang on a Can -- not sure of the exact lineup there. The slow bits work as intriguing interludes sandwiched between fast repetitive patterns. A-

John Adams: Doctor Atomic Symphony (2009, Nonesuch): Early on Adams was an interesting minimalist composer, but with his opera Nixon in China he moved into more conventional classical terrain. That's certainly evident here, as David Robertson conducts the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra through a maze of postmodern symphonic maneuvering. I usually react viscerally against this instrumentation, but the pent up drama and industrial overtones intrigues me. B+(***)

John Adams: I Am Love [A Film by Luca Guadagnino] (2010, Nonesuch): Soundtrack, picks up various pieces including the title track to Adams's pre-operatic The Chairman Dances. Not sure if they're redone and if so by who. I'm also hedging on the grade since Rhapsody isn't dealing the full deck here, but what is available is enchanting post-minimalism, which means both more varied and more willing to make a statement. It stands well on its own. B+(**)

Gidon Kremer: De Profundis (2001-08 [2010], Nonesuch): Violinist, from Latvia. I'm not really on a classical music kick, although I may be giving Nonesuch extra creedence -- I recall that they used to have a series of inexpensive modernist music, including a Pierrot Lunaire that I was surprisingly fond of and a lot of works by later composers like George Crumb and Charles Wuorinen. I was intrigued by this partly crediting the label and partly because I've previously heard Kremer twice: a very good Piazzolla Maria de Buenos Aires and a pretty good Bach. This, recorded with his Latvian group Kremerata Baltica, comes off heavy-handed and rather dreary, although with a quasi-soundtrack sense. Pieces by Sibelius, Part, Schumann, Nyman, Schubert, Shostakovich, Piazzolla, Schnittke, a couple others I don't recognize. B

Belle and Sebastian: Write About Love (2010, Matador): Glasgow group, with Sarah Martin and Stuart Murdoch the vocalists, and a band lineup that has remained pretty consistent over fifteen years. They have a light and dreamy pop sound, although Murdoch certainly seems like a serious young man. The first couple songs are bursting with life. I have quibbles later on, but not much. In fact, looking back I wonder if I shouldn't revisit their first two US albums, regarded by most critics as their best but graded down around B by myself. In contrast, I later got to their first album, Tigermilk, released only later in the US, and enjoyed it almost as much as this. A-

Sufjan Stevens: All Delighted People EP (2010, Asthmatic Kitty): Nothing if not prolific, discounting this eight cut, 59:15 digital dump -- includes two takes of the title cut (one 11:38, the other 8:07) and the 17:03 final cut, "Djohariah" -- with another "full length" album scheduled for release a month or so later. Hated the cluttered title track at first, but I can't guarantee it couldn't eventually win me over -- the second take is more intriguing. Found the simple guitar ballad "Heirloom" completely enchanting, but the equally simple "From the Mouth of Gabriel" struggles with listenability, frequently coming up short. B

Old 97's: The Grand Theatre: Volume One (2010, New West): Ninth album since 1994, qualifies them as a long-running group, all the more remarkable given that Rhett Miller has also managed something of solo career since 2002. Most of the songs here run hard, and the group plays them tight and slick, hard to fault but also to credit. Slow 'em down and they open up a bit, and sometimes they have something to say. Hurts their case that Rhapsody fumbled 3 of 12 songs. [Bought a copy later on Tatum's recommendation and quickly kicked it up a notch.] B+(***) [cd]

Maximum Balloon (2010, DGC/Interscope): Side project for TV on the Radio producer-guitarist David Sitek -- also has a couple dozen other production credits since 2000, including all the Yeah Yeah Yeahs albums. Fairly catchy stuff, but with the guests vocalists constantly changing never finds its own niche. B+(*)

Richard Thompson: Dream Attic (2010, Shout! Factory): Live album, compiled from seven February 2010 shows, totalling 73:12. Not sure how many of these songs have been around how long before, but they strike me as sharper and stronger than his average -- I've heard plenty of his solo albums, and even seen him live, but ever since he and Linda split he always seemed to be a bit limited. I don't get that feel here, perhaps because his limited voice has something to say, certainly because he reminds you he's one of the outstanding guitarists of the age. A-

Die Antwoord: $O$ (2009 [2010], Cherrytree/Interscope): South African rap group, name translates from Afrkians as The Answer. Consists of male rapper Ninja, female foil Yo-Landi Visser (or Vi$$er), and DJ Hi-Tek. Album came out last year in South Africa and has been remixed and reshuffled for US release, which may mean more English but they're likely to keep the Afrikans as long as it makes them seem like they're saying "fuck" a lot. The two voices make for cosmic comedy, and the beats are hard and the samples swishy. But I do wish they'd drop the "$$$" nonsense, so I'm docking them a notch for that. B+(**)

Rachid Taha: Bonjour (2009 [2010], Knitting Factory): Algerian rai singer, long based in Paris. Album came out on Wrasse in 2009. Strikes me as a little soft compared to previous records, like he's sneaking up on the beats rather than riding them. Still, most cuts deliver nice payoffs. B+(**) [later: B+(***)]

Etran Finatawa: Tarkat Taiji/Let's Go (2010, Riverboat): Blues band from Niger, formed shortly after 2003's Festival in the Desert introduced a bunch of Saharan groups to western ears -- most notably Tinariwen. Third album released on UK's Rough Guide spinoff, finds a modest little groove and sticks to it. B+(*)

Mariem Hassan: Shouka (2010, Nubenegra): Saharaui singer, stands out on The Rough Guide to the Music of the Sahara and other Saharan comps. Third album, although I can't swear that's all there is. Emphatic singer, a little shrill for my ears, with a primitivist band that suggests blues but is more exotic. Several cuts fit together nicely, but there are plenty of rough edges. B+(*)

Aloe Blacc: Good Things (2010, Stones Throw): First album, I gather, is considered rap, but he sings through this one with plenty of backing chorus, tuneful, definitely not slick or smarmy. Don't have song credits, so not sure whether the obscure ones are original -- "Femme Fatale" is an odd cover choice that doesn't work so well. B

Black Milk: Album of the Year (2010, Fat Beats): Detroit rapper, Curtis Cross, b. 1983, has a stack of discs since 2003. Sharp beats, slings a fair amount of shit but can be clever, winding up with a mixed bag that promises more than it delivers. B+(**)

Bruno Mars: Doo-Wops & Hooligans (2010, Elektra): B. 1985 as Peter Gene Hernandez, another boy wonder from Hawaii, or at least the next Pharell Williams. Has a featured role in a couple of hit singles I need to check out ("Nothin' on You" by B.o.B., and "Billionaire" by Travie McCoy). He's plenty smooth here, making it all seem effortless, where "it all" means transposing the sweetness and innocence of doo-wop into a much rougher world. Still haven't heard it all -- Rhapsody hangs on the first and sixth song, maybe another. Of what I've heard, only one song gives me doubts. So take this grade as more tentative than most, but my guess is that if I change it it'll be to bump it up. A- [later: A]

Sufjan Stevens: The Age of Adz (2010, Asthmatic Kitty): Full-length album, meaning 74:43 as opposed to 59:15 for last month's EP. He's prolific enough and young enough he might actually have pulled off his 50-state strategy had he not gotten distracted after Michigan and Illinois (far and away his best albums). This lacks an obvious point, and tends to get cluttered and complicated -- the best parts are the simplest, mostly near the end where Rhapsody started getting tripped up. Best thing is the 25:34 closer, "Impossible Soul," which is practically a whole other record. B+(*)

Bryan Ferry: Olympia (2010, Virgin): All original material, which is tougher to hack in this day at Ferry's age (65, my my) and harder to tune into, with several collaborators recycled from Roxy Music days (Eno, Manzanera, MacKay). Which unsurprisingly makes this is closer to Roxy Music, albeit an extension of the obscure atmospheric jangle of the later records, not as sweeping or as consistent as Avalon, but nicely detailed nonetheless. B+(**)

Elton John/Leon Russell: The Union (2010, Decca): Two has-beens, piano playing rockers joined at the ankle through a pair of competing 1970 hits -- John's "Your Song" and Russell's "A Song for You." Both had good albums early on, and both continued to crank them out regularly ever since, but the last ones I rated in my database were Russell's 1975 Will o' the Wisp [C+] and John's 1976 Blue Moves [C-] -- unless you count Russell's 1979 Willie Nelson duet album One for the Road [B-]. Good news here is that Russell's gospel mojo gives John a shot of much needed soul, while John's straightforwardness keeps Russell from slipping off the tracks. Still, they need this much more than you or I do. B

Shakira: Sale el Sol (2010, Sony Latin Music/Epic): Mostly Spanish, a couple of songs recycled in English -- doesn't help but not a dealbreaker either. I haven't heard her early hits and downgraded the Spanish Fijación Oral, but by now her voice sails through and her beats are beyond language. Not a lot of techno glitz this time, but Latin has always had its own musicality. Rhapsody gave me a bad time here, but by the time you read this I'll have picked up a copy. A-

Liz Phair: Funstyle (2010, Rocket Science Ventures): Estranged from major (and not quite major) labels, she released this on her website a few months back, getting a handful of hateful or bewildered reviews, then a daring pick hit designation in Michael Tatum's debut "Downloader's Diary" column. I liked Exile in Guyville as much as anyone, but not two later releases Christgau rated full A, then skipped her last one, 2005's Somebody's Miracle, so I decided to wait until this one turned real. Looks like the copy in stores has been reordered and packed up with a second disc called "Girlysound" -- ten tracks, presumably from the much-bootlegged 1991 demos sampled by the 1995 Juvenilia EP. But Rhapsody just has the re-ordered first disc, so that's all I can review here. A mixed bag, of course, with some unusually vivid straight rockers, two songs that reference the south Asian subcontinent, a bit of rap, , some odd intros and outros, and a readymade for the critics called "U Hate It" which is too funny to hate, although the music begs it. A-

Avey Tare: Down There (2010, Paw Tracks): Second album by one of the principals in Animal Collective, first solo given that the previous Pullhair Rubeye was a collaboration with then-wife Kría Brekkan (also in Múm). Vocals sound like they are buried in the mix, way down somewhere, probably down in spirit as well as fact, but the music sort of lunges ahead in broken but rhythmic steps, an interesting effect. B+(*)

The Secret Sisters (2010, Universal Republic): Laura and Lydia Rogers, from Muscle Shoals, AL, produced by T-Bone Burnett. Eleven songs, two originals, two by Trad., done quickly and smartly at 29:05. B+(**)

NERD: Nothing (2010, Star Trak): Pharrell Williams's sometime band. Loved their first album, the first flush of having the world by the ass, but later albums -- this is the fourth since 2002 -- seem like side projects, outlets for sketches that he/they can't sell to higher bidders. Some familiar riffs, whiffs of pop genius, nothing out of their ordinary. B+(**)

Rod Stewart: Fly Me to the Moon: The Great American Songbook, Volume V (2010, J): A great singer, long in decline when his last conventional album hit rock bottom -- giveaway title: Human, I missed it -- as I had everything since 1976's A Night on the Town (actually the last grade in my database was 1972's still noteworthy Never a Dull Moment) but AMG gave it a rare single star -- so his standards turn has been a career-extender. He can be graceful even in front of schmaltzy orchestras, which cuts down on having to think up new arrangements. This is the third of five I've heard. They haven't been getting better, not so much because he's running out of material as because he's basically a lazy sod and he's getting a better feel for what he can get away with. His "That Old Black Magic" is as limp as any ever recorded, and he coasts through two Cole Porters that anyone could clobber. But when "Moon River" threatens to capsize he miraculously pulls it out. Note that you can buy this in two editions: the cheaper one with 12 songs running 39:43, or for $5 extra you can get a "deluxe edition" with six more songs on a second disc, even though they could have fit the 61:26 on one with room to spare. The bonus starts with a truly atrocious "Bye Bye Blackbird"; it's highlight is an "Ain't Misbehavin'" that could have used more mischief, and fewer strings. B

Sheryl Crow: 100 Miles From Memphis (2010, A&M): A singer-songwriter I've never much liked nor disliked. First song reminds me she's hung out with the Stones. Gradually the Memphis proximity makes itself felt, first with the horns and eventually with the soulful backup. Or maybe she's not that much of a songwriter: her name is on most of the songs, but the records hits a wall on the only one with no co-writer, and never quite recovers . . . at least until she salutes Michael Jackson on "I Want You Back." B+(**)

Tom Zé: Estudando a Bossa: Nordeste Plaza (2008 [2010], Luaka Bop): Brazilian psychedelica, for lack of a better term -- like Ornette Coleman, he plays things that are obviously wrong yet somehow they wind up making sense. Or mostly -- I should go back to his two early Brazil Classics albums that I didn't think I liked at the time; the first one I got much out of was 1998's Com Defeito de Fabricaçao (Fabrication Defect), which like everything since has seemed like a freakish one-shot. I do hear the bossa nova here. I don't hear Sergio Mendes, or for that matter Stan Getz. The rhythms are a bit tricky and the vocals slippery, except for the one I recognize as David Byrne, still one of our hippest squares. A-

Swans: My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky (2010, Young God): Michael Gira's heavy-handed no wave group, cut a bunch of records 1983-97 then took a break until this comebacker. I've meant to check them out, especially after they surfaced on Atavistic -- in fact, for years now I've had Soundtracks From the Blind unplayed on the shelf. The industrial klang and dark moan sound like where Joy Division might have gone if shorn from the guys who became New Order. On the other hand, it can fall back into horror movie soundtrack mode. B+(*)

Buddy Guy: Living Proof (2010, Silvertone): Lead song is "74 Years Young" -- makes me think he's got a ways to go. As squarely old school as blues gets, which means quite a lot. Loud, too, which is no substitute for feeling. Still a pretty great guitarist. Still a pretty ordinary singer. Still can turn out a lyric like, "I smell a rat/cause it stinks all over you." I guess that's proof that he's living. B

Deerhunter: Halcyon Digest (2010, 4AD): Atlanta group, fourth album, don't recall the only other one I've heard but thought it was more, like, out there. This one sounds like the work of a pretty good alt-mainstream pop band, the sort of thing that could become memorable once snagged by a couple of well set hooks. The closer, dedicated to the late Jay Reatard, comes close. B+(**)

Paul Thorn: Pimps and Preachers (2010, Perpetual Obscurity): Born in Wisconsin, grew up in Mississippi, passed through Memphis not Nashville but I filed him under country on the strength of a drinking song ("Tequila Is Good for the Heart") but "Weeds in My Roses" is old-fashioned rock and roll. Muddy voice, muddy keybs, good sentiments, wish he were funnier ("I Don't Like Half the Folks I Love" starts to tie this together). B+(*)

Of Montreal: False Priest (2010, Polyvinyl): Athens, GA group, been around since the late 1990s with more than a dozen albums. Only other one I bothered to check out was 2007's Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, which showed up in a lot of year-end lists and I mostly hated. There are things I don't like about this record either, but all the swishy, pompous pop candy is so concentrated in the opener, "I Feel Ya' Strutter," that it must be the year's most delirious single. That carries through the next two songs until they slow it down a bit and contemplate "Godly Intersex" -- I'd rather not. But something reggae-ish is quite enjoyable, bits of lyrics ring true (one I failed to jot down was about being "overmedicated"; one I did jot down was "everyone searching for a cause/to blow themselves up"). The latter is from one called "You Do Mutilate?" which is as close to redeeming social value as they're likely to get. Only two plays, so in the long haul I could get sick of it, but the second play shaped it up and I seem to have survived the worst. A-


Records I looked for but didn't find on Rhapsody:

  • Allo Darlin' (Fontana Pop)

Recycled Goods

The following were written during this period for Recycled Goods:

Barbara Dane: Anthology of American Folk Songs (1959 [2006], Empire Music Group): Political singer, trained her voice to project from picket lines, then as she turned pro gravitated to jazz, working with George Lewis and Kid Ory, and blues, working with Lightnin' Hopkins, but cut this one album of thirteen trad folk songs plus two by known authors -- A.P. Carter and Woody Guthrie, solid and forthright but more important unflinching. A-

Walter Gibbons: Jungle Music (1976-86 [2010], Strut, 2CD): Subtitle: Mixed With Love: Essential & Unreleased Remixes 1976-1986. Gibbons (1954-94) was a DJ who produced a number of extended remixes of NYC dance music, especially for the Salsoul label -- haven't heard either of their presumably choice 2004-05 compilations, Mixed With Love and Disco Boogie, but this set of esoterica stretches out luxuriantly, wrapping pop and soul vocals up in long strings of danceable beats. B+(***)

John Lennon: Plastic Ono Band (1970 [2010], Capitol): With the Beatles break up, all four principals scurried to release solo albums: George a double given all his pent-up auteurist ambitions, Paul and John the songwriting team of record and reputed rivalry, Ringo because, well, everybody liked Ringo and even Ringo could make money off that. The only album that defied expectations was Lennon's: while there are a couple of perfectly proportioned Beatles songs here, he mostly went anti-Beatles, and while he attributed a band on the cover, not to mention his wife, the record comes off as intensely personal, the introspective songs keyed to little more than piano and voice. A-

John Lennon: Imagine (1971 [2010], Capitol): The title song transcends "Give Peace a Chance" as an antiwar anthem, resolving what troubled the author circa "Revolution" in a clear vision of no nation, no God. It may be too simple to think all it takes is imagination, but Lennon's genius was simplifying. "Crippled Inside" was every bit as deep, light only on the ricky-tick surface. The songs keep coming, easier and more self-assured than on the introspective debut, with "How Do You Sleep?" as final a final word on the Beatles as Lennon felt the need to work out. A+

John Lennon/Yoko Ono: Some Time in New York City (1972 [2010], Capitol, 2CD): Originally attributed to "John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band" with side comments about Elephant's Memory and other things wrapped up in broadsheet cover art. First disc features topical political songs -- John Sinclair and Angela Davis were trivial celebrity issues of the day, "The Luck of the Irish" one of songs that give politics a bad name, and the feminist anthems not much deeper. But there was something to celebrate in being in New York, and the sax adds grit to the dirtyass rock and roll. The second ("Live Jam") disc is more fun, even with Yoko still grinding her tonsils down thinking the point of art is to provoke. B-

John Lennon: Mind Games (1973 [2010], Capitol): Lacks the personal feel of the first two albums. Lacks the socio-political thrust of Some Time with Yoko -- not that he's no longer against killing but he's stopped trying to belong to any sort of movement. He tries to make up with studio layering -- for a while I wondered if he was trying to out McCartney Paul, but his hooks aren't that tacky, and he knows better than to play up vapid as a virtue. C+

John Lennon: Walls and Bridges (1974 [2010], Capitol): Cover has some childhood artwork. "Whatever Gets You Through the Night" was an atypical single -- strikes me as uncharacteristically cavalier but at least it's catchy, which is more than can be said for the rest of the overproduced tripe here. Ends with a fragment of Lee Dorsey's "Ya Ya" -- a hint at what came next. C

John Lennon: Rock 'n Roll (1975 [2010], Capitol): Oldies album, a project that's always easy to think up and in this case promises to restart a career gone awry. Still, he makes it feel like a chore -- unlike Paul McCartney's 1999 Run Devil Run -- which it may have been in working off a law suit. Or it may just be that Phil Spector carries so much concept it's hard not to get bagged down. B

John Lennon/Yoko Ono: Double Fantasy: Stripped Down (1980 [2010], Capitol, 2CD): After cranking out an album per year 1970-75, Lennon took a five year hiatus, a househusband with a new son, then returned to the studio on Yoko's terms, alternating his songs with hers. I wish I could say more. I don't disapprove of the idea, but despite real gains in Ono's songcraft that keep her side from unseemly sagging, I find the pieces spotty, their love less convincing the discursions on their "Beautiful Boy," which is something else I can only imagine but not relate to. Marketing gimmick this time is to provide two versions, the remastered original and a remix that unmixes the excess glitter. The difference mostly comes down to removing backing vocals, which should make the lead vocals clearer. If only they were. B+(*)

John Lennon/Yoko Ono: Milk and Honey (1980-83 [2010], Capitol): Not sure whether Lennon's half of this posthumous release were outtakes from Double Fantasy or demos for a follow-up. I'm inclined to believe the latter because they are much stronger tunes -- indeed, Lennon hadn't sounded so distinctly himself since Imagine. The three-year delay also gave Ono time to sharpen up her pieces: "Don't Be Scared" has a bit of far east dissonance, and "O Sanity" resolves affirmatively only after raising the question. The relative simplicity may have suggested stripping down its more oblique predecessor. A-

John Lennon: Power to the People: The Hits (1970-80 [2010], Capitol): The 11-CD Signature Box includes eight albums on nine discs plus two extras: a six-cut "Singles" to mop up non-album cuts and a thirteen-cut "Home Tapes" to sample the trivia troves that have been appearing regularly ever since Lennon's death. This compilation gets you five of those singles plus ten scattered album cuts -- three each from Imagine and Double Fantasy, none from Plastic Ono Band or Milk and Honey (or, no surprise, from Some Time in New York City). A pretty useless set: the good albums have better filler than can be rescued from the bad albums, and the political singles are much better framed on The U.S. Vs. John Lennon (Music From the Motion Picture). B

African Pearls: Sénégal: Echo Musical (1970s [2010], Syllart, 2CD): A second set following 2009's Musical Effervescence, this one meant to focus more on the Cuban crossings, although it's mostly more, scratching the dry desert and exploding here and there with percussion and voice -- the best turns out to be Youssou N'Dour, of course. B+(***)

Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster (2004, Emergent): Eighteen Stephen Foster songs, including some of the most indelible remnants of 19th century American song, mostly done reverently by folk-oriented artists of minor renown. I recall this as a celebrated item when it came out but somehow missed it -- showed up while searching Mavis Staples, whose "Hard Times Come Again No More" is a highlight. John Prine's gravelly "My Old Kentucky Home" is another, but Roger McGuinn's Byrdsy "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair" slips badly into shtick. B+(***)

Jazz Prospecting

The following were written during this period for Jazz Prospecting:

The Bad Plus: Never Stop (2010, E1 Entertainment): Piano trio, debuted in 2000 as a semi-supergroup after bassist Reid Anderson and pianist Ethan Iverson had knocked off several super albums for Spain's Fresh Sound New Talent label. Third member is drummer Dave King, whose Happy Apple albums started in 1997 and have continued at least through 2007. First two Columbia albums at least had the posture of a breakthrough arena act as opposed to the chambers and clubs and cocktail bars most piano trios aim for, and drove the point home with innovative covers of classic rock. Since then, they've wavered and wandered (including a dud last one, wonder if that has anything to do with why I'm not on the mailing list?). In some ways this feels like a return to form, but all originals -- if you're scoring at home: Anderson 5, King 3, Iverson 2 -- some muscling up and modulating the volume, some rollicking out, some just schmoozy. B+(**)

Henry Grimes/Rashied Ali: Going to the Ritual (2008, Porter): Wrote up pretty extensive notes on this duo of 1960s avant-garde heroes for their later Spirits Aloft, which was so good I figured I had to check out their earlier album. This is more like what I was expecting, which means that Grimes plays much more bass than violin, and Ali's drums are more up front. Neither of those are problems, although it does take more listener effort to follow bass than violin. Ali died in 2009, a heart attack, but seems to have been quite active in his last years. His discography includes four 2009 albums on Blue Music Group with a very unusual mix of players. Grimes also has a double-disc solo album on ILK which offhand seems like way too much, but he's surprised me more than once. B+(***)

The Wynton Marsalis Quintet & Richard Galliano: From Billie Holiday to Edith Piaf: Live in Marciac (2008 [2010], Rampart Street Music): Live in France, kicked out on a vanity label -- don't know whether that means that Marsalis is through with Blue Note or this is just too low concept to bother them with. Accordionist Galliano arranged the pieces. A binational singers tribute sounds like the sort of idea Marsalis would have come up with, but neither party brought a singer -- just as well, I'm sure -- so what we get is a standards roast. "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" is done so boisterously it trips over the top, but most of the material holds together better, especially the closing "La Vie en Rose." B+(*)

"Buck" Pizzarelli and the West Texas Tumbleweeds: Diggin' Up Bones (2009, Arbors): Bucky, of course, the most straightforward of the nicknames the band adopted -- his sons "Rusty Pickins" and "Marty Moose," along with fellow travelers like Hoss [Aaron] Weinstein and Dusty Spurs [Tommy] White. Leans toward western swing, starting up with "Right or Wrong" and returning now and then, but also picking up "Your Cheating Heart" and "Ghost Riders in the Sky" and "Act Naturally" and "Promised Land." Three Pizzarelli originals -- probably John's, who sings the witty "Ain't Oklahoma Pretty." Rebecca Kilgore leads with six vocals, Andy Levas five, and Joe West two, and Jessica Molaskey fills in some background. Lots of fiddle and pedal steel in this Jersey hoedown. Group has an encore not up yet, called -- what else? -- Back in the Saddle Again. B+(**)

The Pizzarelli Boys: Desert Island Dreamers (2009 [2010], Arbors): Guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli and family, sons John (guitar, vocals), and Martin (bass), with Larry Fuller (piano), Aaron Weinstein (violin), and Tony Tedesco (drums), plus a Jessica Molaskey vocal at the end ("Danny Boy"). Second album under this moniker, sandwiched around their PIZZArelli Party with lots of Arbors All-Stars, although Bucky and John have a bunch of duets, Martin has been sitting in with either or both, and Weinstein's practically adopted. Gentle swing, mostly coddling standards that aren't up for anything harder -- "Over the Rainbow" is a nice one; "Stairway to Heaven" barely kicks into second gear, and "Danny Boy" is even slower. B

Grant Stewart: Around the Corner (2010, Sharp Nine): Retro tenors saxophonist, b. 1971, close to a dozen albums since 1992, has developed a very clean sound, easy swinging, especially with Peter Washington on bass, Phil Stewart on drums, and Peter Bernstein on guitar. He's never swept me away like Scott Hamilton or Harry Allen, but this is a very steady, quite likable album -- good showcase for Bernstein too. B+(***)