Herbie Hancock does Joni Mitchell

Plus: Puscifer's "V" Is for Vagina

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River: The Joni Letters
HERBIE HANCOCK

(Verve)

Joni Mitchell put out an album last year, a dreary, preachy affair titled Shine. She talked of retiring from music in the early 2000s, and Shine made me think she should've stuck to her guns. Then pianist Herbie Hancock rode in to burnish the Mitchell legacy a bit with River: The Joni Letters, a classy set that jazzily re-imagines several of her songs via guest vocalists and instrumentals, as well as sprinkling in a couple of ad hoc jazz pieces ("Nefertiti" and "Solitude").

With commercial stakes at major labels becoming increasingly high, River emits a strong whiff of crossover intent. That effort appears to have worked: Hancock and company's disc is up for the Best Album Grammy, next to The Foo Fighters, Kanye West, Amy Winehouse and Vince Gill.

What's the first thing you do when the project description is basically "renowned jazz artist enlists all-star cast of singers and players to interpret the music of a legendary singer/songwriter"? Why, you go get Norah Jones, of course. Her laconic reading of "Court and Spark" doesn't exactly kick the album off to a stirring start. But then Tina Turner steps in for "Edith and the Kingpin" and shows she can handle jazz material with phrasing that's by turns strident and subtle — and above all, passionate.

The album could've used more passion. Mitchell's livelier numbers were passed over in favor of more obscure titles that lend themselves to jazz harmony. River's main fault is its reliance on slow to medium tempos, making the project a tad too ethereal and, at times, numbing. The instrumental rendition of "Both Sides Now" goes beyond a makeover into near-total abstraction. Wayne Shorter weighs in with some wispy tenor sax lines laced with pregnant pauses, as if he and Hancock were gently tossing a beanbag back and forth.

Shorter is far more effective when adding soprano-sax filigree to the vocal pieces. He's played that role on several Mitchell albums over the years, and his reed commentary is no less effective on River.

The CD's most fetching cut is "River," featuring that adorable British chanteuse Corrine Bailey Rae. She adheres closely to the dreamy melody and brings a coquettish slur to her vocals. (And Shorter's punctuations add a welcome element.) The song brings the most pop currency to the project.

Despite my reservations about River being a bit too market-directed, it manages to retain a high degree of musical integrity — and Joni Mitchell should be grateful. 3 stars —Eric Snider

"V" is for Vagina
PUSCIFER

(Puscifer Entertainment)

Since becoming an alter-nation hero in the early '90s, art-metal mastermind Maynard James Keenan has seemed incapable of doing any wrong — at least in terms of musical output. The singer/songwriter's groundbreaking alt-prog outfit, Tool, and his more melodic-leaning side project, A Perfect Circle, are two of the most consistently interesting hard-rock ensembles of the past decade or so.

The prank Keenan pulled on April Fools' Day of 2005, announcing online that he had found Jesus and scrapped the upcoming Tool album, surely irked gullible fans, but nothing in terms of betrayal compares to what Keenan has done with the release of his new Puscifer full-length debut, "V" is for Vagina, one of the most banally disturbing albums of recent memory. Tool-heads will recognize the Puscifer moniker as the fictional band Keenan appeared in during an episode of the mid-1990s HBO comedy sketch series Mr. Show. Unfortunately, it has become a reality, one that features perhaps the sorriest stab at humor and sexual expression ever recorded.

"V" is for Vagina begins with a steady dance beat enhanced by pedestrian industrial squiggles over which Keenan lazily raps: "This lady got the thickness/ Can I get a witness?" In the background, what sounds to be a chorus of stoned monks moan away. The song is titled "Queen B" (it's also the album's lead single), and just in case the opening couplet didn't offend whatever female fans Keenan might maintain, he follows it with the locker-room brick: "Grab them saddle bags and toss 'em over me/ And let's ride on."

Well, at least "Queen B" is interesting, albeit in the most base way possible. As in, "What the fuck did he just say?" Not as much can be said for the rest of the disc. Over dark meandering beats, warehouse noises and predictably trippy flourishes programmed by pals like Brian "Lustmord" Williams (who worked on Tool's 10,000 Days) and Tim Alexander (Primus' drummer), Keenan mostly raps tepidly or growls like a disinterested Captain Beefheart about cryptic bullshit and his unsatisfied libido — sounding like a D&D-obsessed teen griping about not getting laid. 1.5 stars —Wade Tatangelo

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