REVIEWS: New music by The Decemberists, Wire, Tennis, Keri Hilson, Todd Wolfe Band, Lee Ritenour, Philip Glass
The Decemberists - "The King Is Dead," (Capitol, 3 1/2 stars): With 2009's proggy "The Hazards of Love," the Decemberists' leader, Colin Meloy, went all-in with his fanciful British folk fixation, spinning a rock opera about fairy queens and shap...
- "The King Is Dead," (Capitol, 3½ stars): With 2009's proggy "The Hazards of Love," the Decemberists' leader, Colin Meloy, went all-in with his fanciful British folk fixation, spinning a rock opera about fairy queens and shape-shifting woodsmen that made for an arduous listen. "The King Is Dead" is a welcome pull-back that returns to the Portland, Ore., band's collective strengths, with 10 concise, country-flavored songs marked by memorable melodies that call immediate attention to themselves.
Not that "The King Is Dead" lacks for ambition. Though it benefits from being freed of "Hazards'" narrative straitjacket, it's also a song cycle of sorts, with pared-down lyrics that fruitfully ruminate on love and war, time and loss. And it does so with the aid of alt-country songstress Gillian Welch, whose voice twines most effectively with Meloy's on seven songs, and R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, who contributes chiming guitar on two tracks and plucky mandolin on one.
- "Red Barked Tree" (Pink Flag, 3½ stars): In two short years and three albums spanning 1977-79, London's Wire did just about everything a band could do with punk, then added some more. Things haven't been the same since: Extended hiatuses and side projects are common, and original fourth member Bruce Gilbert has been absent since 2007.
But on this, the band's 12th studio album, not much has changed, either. Wire stomps and grinds with a mechanical guitar-and-drum approach ("Moreover," "Smash") as easily as it veers off into a daydreaming atmosphere ("Down to This"). Here, though, the transitions and touches are more unexpected -- acoustic strumming on the title track; piano on "Adapt"; a pinch of New Order on "Bad Worn Thing." These surprises are what make "Red Barked Tree" oddly comfortable. Outside of the band's late-'70s trifecta, this is as good a place as any to start, or renew, a Wire fascination.
- "Cape Dory" (Fat Possum, 3½ stars): Before they recorded their debut as Tennis, husband and wife Patrick Riley and Alaina Moore spent six postcollegiate months sailing the Eastern seaboard. That explains the nautical and geographic references that inundate Cape Dory, in songs like "Waterbirds," "South Carolina" and "Seafarer." It doesn't, however, account for the sunny nostalgia that is the album's main charm.
Moore sings with youthful swing and swagger, with lots of sha-na-nas and whoah-uh-ohs that blithely echo the Chiffons, Shirelles and other early-'60s girl groups. Riley plays trebly guitar in shimmery and jangly lines that sometimes recall early-'80s United Kingdom bands such as Orange Juice or the Pastels. The homemade, lo-fi sound of these brief songs -- the 10 clock in at less than 29 minutes -- contrasts winningly with the classic melodies and Moore's extroverted vocals. Fans of Camera Obscura, the Raveonettes or Best Coast should smile.
- "No Boys Allowed" (Mosley Music/Interscope, 2 stars): Keri Hilson has composed hits for Britney Spears and Usher. She nabbed gold for "In a Perfect World . . ." her 2009 debut. Her smooth scream and soulful songcraft are solid. This sophomore recording, in name and lyrical theme, points toward empowerment for herself and calls on all the women in the house to look for strong men to take up with. The lyrics and swing of "The Way You Love Me" certainly work toward that last point.
But Hilson should have really stuck to her guns: It's the fellows she collaborated with here who let her down big-time. Her producer/label boss, Timbaland, has run out of ideas; his signature sizzle and swerve sound mighty tired here. Though MC Rick Ross gets his bossiness across, Kanye West seems winded on "Pretty Girl Rock." And why any woman would insist on using girlfriend-beater Chris Brown is beyond me. The childishly breathy Brown adds nothing to the already tepid "One Night Stand."
Next time, Hilson should take her own songs' advice, stay strong, and look for stronger men.
The Todd Wolfe Band
- "The Todd Wolfe Band Live" (American Home Ent., 3 stars): Todd Wolfe played guitar in Sheryl Crow's touring band for nearly five years after she hit big with Tuesday Night Music Club. You won't, however, find Crow's brand of light rock on this CD (or the DVD).
The Todd Wolfe Band is a power trio whose style is blues-rock. And on this 71-minute set recorded at McCool's Arts Place in Quakertown, Pa., power is operative word as the band hits hard and heavy. An obvious model is Cream -- one number, "Change Will Come," even quotes "Sunshine of Your Love." But Wolfe, a native New Yorker now of Easton, Pa., and his rhythm section manage to give it a fresh take. Theirs is a finely honed attack: The numbers stretch out without losing momentum or devolving into meandering jamming, and Wolfe -- as singer, writer, and soloist -- conveys some real feeling amid all the musical muscle.
- "6 String Theory" (Concord, 3 stars): This CD from last year is amazing for the sum of its parts. Guitarist Lee Ritenour plays with celebrated guitarists on all 15 tracks, each in the idiom of the guest. Philly guitarist Pat Martino teams with organist Joey DeFrancesco and Ritenour on a cool run through "L.P. (For Les Paul)," while George Benson delivers a ballad, "My One and Only Love," and a romp through "Moon River."
Then it's off to a grungier blues vibe with guitarists Robert Cray and Joe Bonamassa. Or some regal musings from B.B. King on a stinging slow ditty, "Why I Sing the Blues," with guitarists Keb' Mo', Jonny Lang, and Vince Gill. There's a rock groove with Steve Lukather and, later, Mike Stern, or some acoustic ones with Andy McKee. And yet more with Australian bush phenom Joe Robinson and classical Canadian Shon Boublil.
The performances don't always rise to the level of the guest list, but if you get bored, a phenomenal new guest will appear shortly.
- "Kepler" Martin Achrainer, Cassandra McConnell, Karen Robertson, et al. Bruckner Orchestra Linz, Landestheater Linz soloists and chorus, Dennis Russell Davies conducting (Orange Mountain Music, two discs, 3½ stars): Only in a Philip Glass opera are scenes likely to be titled "Questions" and "Hypotheses" -- and that's the case with yet another of his operas dedicated to abstract historic figures, in this case the 17th-century astronomer Johannes Kepler.
At its U.S. premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the piece was alternately described as a creative breakthrough and business-as-
usual Glass. This German-language recording from Linz suggests both are right. Like many Glass theater works, this piece isn't a dramatization as much as a portrait, dissecting the title character's intellectual life against the backdrop of the Thirty Years' War, with poems by Andreas Gryphius. Lots of familiar musical earmarks are there, with the heaving and undulating ostinatos framed by questioning wind solos.
But there's also a richness in the score, reflecting Glass' collaborations with non-Western musicians as well as the intensity of conviction and emotional range heard in his best recent opera, There's a strong sense of the composer, now in his 70s, using something close to all that he knows -- and with more cumulative impact than ever, in this impassioned performance led by conductor Dennis Russell Davies.