Genius Loves Company
In the case of Ray Charles, there was no rummaging through the vaults and slapping together B material for a quickie posthumous release. That's a blessing. Instead, we're treated to an honest-to-goodness final album, a duets record cut from July 2003 to March '04, just three months before the legend died at age 73. The label didn't even move the release date up to capitalize on his passing; instead it stuck to the planned Aug. 31 street date.
At times, Ray sounds like his vibrant, celebratory self — especially on a handful of country-esque tunes: "Here We Go Again" with Norah Jones, "Do I Ever Cross Your Mind" with Bonnie Raitt (spiced up by her inimitable slide guitar work) and "You Don't Know Me" with Diana Krall.
Ray also sounds shaky at times (you would too), as on "Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word," a meeting with Elton John that provides the disc's most poignant moments. (This was reportedly the last session, and Charles' health was rapidly failing.) Even in a weakened state, with his pitch wavering, Brother Ray could get to the emotional core of a tune.
Genius Loves Company has all the earmarks of a star-studded duets album. Full, slick production (by John Burk, three songs by Phil Ramone) occasionally pushes to overblown levels. A few songs feature enormous orchestral arrangements. Two of them work: "It was a Very Good Year" with Willie Nelson and "Over the Rainbow" with Johnny Mathis are the kinds of timeless ballads that withstand such sonic smother. A third, the '60s pop/R&B tune "Hey Girl" with Michael McDonald, comes off as stilted.
The overproduction can be forgiven, though, because of the palpable chemistry Charles forges with his microphone partners. Unlike Frank Sinatra's disastrous duets records late in his career, where pretty much everyone phoned it in, the love between the artists resonates throughout Genius Loves Company. The guest singers actually showed up at Charles' Los Angeles studio for mostly one-day sessions, and the benefit from that cannot be overestimated.
Here are the rest of Charles' comrades in duetdom: B.B. King on the blues "Sinner's Prayer" (with Billy Preston playing a mean organ line); James Taylor on his own, bouncy "Sweet Potato Pie"; Natalie Cole on the playful "Fever"; Gladys Knight on the gospel rave-up "Heaven Help Us All"; and a live version of "Crazy Love" with Van Morrison. 1/2
Let's Bottle Bohemia
The Thrills throw a lot of mixed signals at a body. First of all, there's the name, which automatically elicits expectations of coolly posed, No Wave-affected garage rock. (Note to forming bands: only The Ills is still available.) Then there's the title of this, the group's sophomore full-length; maybe it's just me, but Let's Bottle Bohemia sounds more like a mediocre power-pop CD self-released by a bunch of older, willfully out-of-touch local musicians than the work of scruffy, critically acclaimed young hipsters. And finally, there's the music itself — crashing, hugely dynamic and quintessentially American West Coast pop, firmly and proudly lodged somewhere between The Beach Boys and The Court & Spark. And what's wrong with that? What's wrong with that is, these guys are Irish!
You'll forgive any conscious or unintended confusion, though, after Let's Bottle Bohemia plays through a few times, because this album is gorgeous and yearning and catchy and everything else this type of music is supposed to be. The orchestrations are spot on, the rave-ups hit exactly where and when they need to, and the lyrics are alternately clever and evocative. Even vocalist Conor Deasy's ostensibly practiced Neil Young-isms come off as endearingly honest, though God knows they probably shouldn't. There's nothing strikingly original here, but every single tune is immaculate, and continues to evoke and elate over repeated listens. The Thrills put the parts together perfectly, and their obvious enthusiasm for doing so shines.
It'll Be Cool
Touch and Go
The tombstone for Indie Rock the Movement may have already been written and planted firmly above the genre's grave, but such efforts ignore the tremendous records the scene has produced during the past few years (as well as the fact that most of its practitioners would have laughed at the idea that it was ever a capital M Movement anyway). Meanwhile, the scene continues to casually toss up charmers like Silkworm's It'll Be Cool. The songs are roomy and (for the most part) mid-tempo, full of empty space (what a paradox) and acoustic touches. Steve Albini's production, excuse me, "engineering," is surprisingly warm and affectionate. The songs are lengthy, but don't come off like jams: they seem considered and formal, but still full of detours and potholes. The opener, "Don't Look Back," charges ahead with lyrics about hearing a song and feeling as if the singer had somehow ripped off your own thoughts, a not uncommon sensation. "Shitty Little Yacht" references Italian auteur Michelangelo Antonioni and wonders, "Wouldn't it be wonderful if we lived as grand/ As our thoughts take us?" But ultimately the lyrics are resigned: "We're doomed to squint hard/ Won't see the yacht lying in the boneyard." Far from a masterpiece, the album is nevertheless a gem, and proof positive of the indie league's perennial power.
—COOPER LANE BAKER
Land of the Sun
The acoustic bass wizard returns to the fertile territory of Latin ballads for Land of the Sun, which showcases sumptuous renditions of songs by the late Mexican composer Jose Sabre Marroquin (as well as one each by Agustin Lara and Armando Manzanero). Haden's 10-piece band — featuring piano master Gonzalo Rubalcaba, drummer Ignacio Berroa, four horns, two acoustic guitars and bongos — plays the gorgeous melodies with tender sophistication, then engages in a revolving series of graceful, measured solos. Rubalcaba is especially engaging, with his warm, romantic tone and laconic, spare playing leavened by the occasional fleet run. Lovely music through and through.