New on CD 3/28/03

Friday, March 28, 2003

'One Step Forward'The first album from the French-African sister duo Helene and Celia Faussart, "Princesses Nubiennes," was a delight -- a smooth, soulful mix of music and vocals that grabbed the listener's attention from the first note.

That makes listening to their sophomore effort, "One Step Forward," that much more difficult.

It's not nearly as intimate -- the sounds are larger, with more instruments used, and there are guest spots from well-known names such as Talib Kweli and Morgan Heritage. But it loses something in the step up -- personality.

There isn't a song that stands out, as "Makeda" did on Les Nubians' first album. Instead, there's just track after track of perfectly reasonable but ultimately unfulfilling music.

"One Step Forward," unfortunately, is more like one step back.

'The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan'He has been all things -- troubadour, social conscience, rebel, jester. But Bob Dylan, man of many faces, has yet another, drawn from a faith found later in life and from his endless appetite for the byways of American music: He is a gospel singer.

In "Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan," an assortment of gospel artists try their hand at music from "Slow Train Coming" and "Saved," two late 1970s Dylan albums. The result is not only entertaining but also fascinating.

In renditions funky and heartfelt, intricate and simple, these tracks allow others to filter Dylan's visions in unique ways -- from Shirley Caesar's take on the title track right down to "Gonna Change My Way of Thinking," which unites Dylan himself with Mavis Staples for a gravelly finale.

These artists prove again that Dylan compositions, though chockablock with specifics, are the best kinds of empty canvases. And by album's end, another corner of American music has, appropriately, claimed Dylan as its own -- just as he has done himself with so many forms of music for so many years. And the cycle goes on.

'Ringo Rama'Former Beatle Ringo Starr brings hound dog smiles with new songs of love, hope and lament on "Ringo Rama" and its accompanying DVD.

The album includes "Never Without You," a stirring tribute to bandmate George Harrison; "Missouri Loves Company," a country road ode with folksy lyrics; and the hip-shaking "Memphis on Your Mind."

In the modern rock track "Eye to Eye," which sounds like Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in verse and London Suede in chorus, Ringo asks, "Remember when I said, 'It don't come easy,' that seems so long ago -- Well nothing's changed and if you don't believe me, look out your window."

Pink Floyd's David Gilmour peels the guitar solo in "I Think, Therefore I Rock 'N' Roll," which features some sweet boogie-woogie piano. Shawn Colvin lends her uplifting vocals to "Trippin' on My Own Tears," while Ringo trades verses with Willie Nelson in "Write One for Me."

Happiness is Ringo's All-Starr Band (and radio programmers) playing songs from "Ringo Rama."

Park Avenue South'After five decades in the music business, probably the only venue Dave Brubeck hadn't played is at a Starbucks. Now the jazz great can scratch that off his list. "Park Avenue South" is a live performance at one of the coffeehouse chain's Manhattan stores.

On the disc, Brubeck offers a mixture of new compositions -- and new twists on old favorites. On Cole Porter's smoldering "Love for Sale," he delivers an up-tempo version that's reminiscent of the original, but still complements his own bebop-swing style.

His classic "Take Five" sounds a bit different with its new snappy saxophone and a crisp drum solo (on the original, the saxophone and drums were significantly smoother).

However, the most compelling songs are the new compositions. The haunting but beautiful "Elegy" immediately hypnotizes listeners with only a few piano bars, then captures them with flute and arco bass.

'Lovers Speak'Returning after an eight-year recording hiatus, British singer-songwriter Joan Armatrading applies her reggae, soul and folk-infused sound on "Lovers Speak," a collection of songs that are mostly ruminations on the ups and downs of couple-dom.

The title track sets the tone for much of the album, as Armatrading sings about the secret language that exists between people in love. She moves on from there, tackling the age-old adage of "opposites attract" ("Fire and Ice") and the happy-sad-insane feelings of taking the plunge for the first time ("Love Bug"). The common theme and the spare, guitar and piano-dominated arrangements provide a pleasing cohesiveness.

One standout track is "In These Times." While it probably wasn't her intended subject, the song is eerily appropriate for the situation in the Middle East.

With "Lovers Speak," Armatrading aptly captures moods that are universal.

'Algeria'Wayne Shorter agilely skates the line between jazz and classical composition on "Algeria," mixing the influences of his hard bop past with the mannered and mellow sounds of the orchestra pit.

The saxophonist, known for his work with Art Blakey, Miles Davis and jazz-fusion group Weather Report, leads an acoustic group with a jazz core of drums, bass and piano, but augments it on six of the album's 10 tracks with oboe, clarinet, flute and cello.

This combination makes the songs light and airy, so Shorter's thin, bright horn cuts through.

It sounds best on the moody "Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5," a song originally written by Heitor Villa-Lobos. Shorter matches the sad moan of a cello with his spare, lonesome sax while cymbals and bass bubble underneath.

Shorter also reworks some of his older material, altering the once-frantic Miles Davis piece "Orbits" for gentler tones, with woodwinds fit for Debussy.

"Algeria" shows that Shorter has a fresh vision for jazz not shackled to the past or afraid of the future.

--From wire reports

'Here Comes The Sharp Things'When pop groups add strings and horns to their recordings, it's often an attempt to hide uninspired songwriting behind a glossy sheen.

That's not the case with The Sharp Things' debut album, "Here Comes The Sharp Things," which is both intricately orchestrated and intensely melodic.

You'll hear everything from cellos to fluegelhorns on this disc, and the gorgeous songs -- mostly by band leader Perry Serpa -- are strong enough to warrant the complex arrangements.

The best tracks -- "Demon of Love," "Lonesome for the Man" and "Precious" -- recall the work of classic tunesmiths such as Burt Bacharach and Beach Boy Brian Wilson. Like those writers, Serpa knows how to craft a hummable melody with enough left turns to keep your ears perked.

Fans of well-crafted pop can't go wrong.

'97th & Columbus'There's a reason a lot of downbeat jazz and lounge music gets derided as "elevator music" -- records such as Doc Powell's "97th & Columbus."

The album was horribly overdone in the studio. So it's difficult to fight through the layers of synthesizers, drum tracks, string arrangements and muddy background vocals to discover that Powell is a skilled jazz guitarist.

His version of Earth Wind and Fire's classic "Sun Goddess" doesn't swing; not even the thunderous sound of Marcus Miller's bass can save this track. And the Bobby Womack composition "Breezin" doesn't blow anywhere. Powell's version, with its ugly synth bass, lies languidly still -- like hot air on a stifling summer's day.

Powell's original compositions, such as "The Flavour" and "Thank You," are only slightly less lackluster. He states these melody lines in a far too obvious way, as if desperately begging for a listen. A slight deconstruction of the melodies in spots would have added a little interest.

Powell is a talented player, but his style would best be served by smaller combos and sparser arrangements.

'Who's Next'Any music fan is likely to have at least one copy of The Who's 1971 radio-friendly classic "Who's Next" in their collection.

Those copies should be thrown away and replaced with the newly remastered deluxe edition.

This isn't the first time the album has been remastered for compact disc release, but it is the first time the original master tapes were used as the source.

The difference is stunning.

The drumming of Keith Moon and the penetrating bass lines of John Entwistle sound more alive than ever. They mesh perfectly with Roger Daltry's vocals and Pete Townshend's guitar riffs.

With songs such as "Won't Get Fooled Again," "Going Mobile," "Behind Blue Eyes" and "Baba O'Riley," novice fans may assume the album is a greatest hits collection instead of a snapshot of The Who at their peak.

As a bonus there is an entire disc of live tracks from a 1971 concert, along with six alternate versions and out-takes from the album.

-- From wire reports

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