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Songs We Should Have Written
FIREWATER
Jetset
New York's self-proclaimed "wedding band gone wrong" fully embraces the description by making its fifth full-length an album of covers. The brilliant New York collective, fronted by ex-Cop Shoot Cop bassist Todd A, brings the same sort of dark menace to this eclectic bunch of songs as it does to its originals. Todd A's vocals remain the focal point. His craggy voice is a bit like Shane McGowan's without the brogue and the slur, a little like Tom Waits', only more youthful and pitch-conscious. His singing is brawny and expressive, with a cabaret-esque swagger to spare. And it sounds great on everything from a stomping version of Nancy Sinatra's "The Beat Goes On" (in tandem with Luna's Britta Phillips) to a punchy take on The Beatles' "Hey Bulldog" to a riotous run at Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues." Firewater stays essentially true to the flavor of the originals — with the notable exception of an exotically dirgey "Paint it Black" — and as such puts much of its penchant for ethnic rhythms and exotic instrumentation on the shelf. But the arrangements include plenty of enhancing detail: the slurry guitar licks on "This Town," a Lee Hazelwood song popularized by Frank Sinatra; the distant violin lines that wind around a choppy marimba part on Waits' "Diamonds and Gold"; the shimmering bazouki on Robyn Hitchcock's "I Often Dream of Trains." In all, Songs We Should Have Written succeeds the same way other good covers albums do: by bringing a sense of newness and ownership to the songs, while always showing them the utmost respect. (www.firewater.tv) —ERIC SNIDER

The Absolute Best
AL GREEN
Hi/The Right Stuff
Dear readers, are there any among you who do not own so much as a single Al Green compilation, which is to say that you are a person completely bereft of Al Green music? This is cause for alarm, to be sure, but by all means don't panic. The problem can be easily rectified with The Absolute Best. This two-disc set is the most recent in a long string of the singer's hits collections, and it's also the best, um, the absolute best. Very simply, Al Green is among a handful of essential R&B legends. With Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, Sly & the Family Stone, The Temptations, Roberta Flack, Bill Withers and others, he forged a flowering of soul music in the late '60s/early '70s. His gospel-soaked voice possesses all the elasticity and melismatic oomph of the best soul belters, yet his singing is intimate at its core. Green's collaboration with producer/songwriter Willie Mitchell and his extraordinary Hi Records house band yielded some of the greatest records of any pop music genre: "Let's Stay Together," "I'm Still in Love with You," "Look What You Done for Me," "Love and Happiness," "You Ought to Be with Me" and others. The Absolute Best also showcases Green's brilliance with covers, most notably his sexy takes on Willie Nelson's "Funny How Time Slips Away" and "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart," which easily bests the Bee Gees' original. As far as curios, the twofer includes two solid songs previously unreleased in North America and, most intriguing of all, "Love Ritual (Remix)." Released in '89, the only track here not put out in the '70s, it finds Green going Afrobeat, with the Hi band dishing out its best Fela flava. The Absolute Best is absolutely devoid of padding. —ERIC SNIDER

Deeply Faulted Area Resembling An Upright Deck of Cards
ELECTRONIC BARNACLE ISLAND
KiraKira Disc
Look, I'm all for showcasing a little creativity with regard to titles — my CD rack is not monopolized by records called Rock for Pussy! or Burn Down America or Sheila Broke My Heart, and Here are 11 Songs About It. But there are some so glaringly, insultingly pretentious that you just know you're in for a less-than-engaging ride (De-Loused in the Comatorium, anyone?). And, in that sense at least, Electronic Barnacle Island doesn't disappoint. It does so, however, on virtually every other level. KiraKira Disc is a small Florida label specializing in progressive electronica; EBI is the brainchild of one Aaron Noel. And this, the project's debut outing, seems meticulously crafted to creep around the extreme outer edges of the listener's consciousness, save when presenting its highlight-and-a-half. Once the initial atmospheric surges sink in, one hardly knows there's a disc playing at all, until there's an occasional slight shift in the songs' otherwise wholly innocuous, softly bubbling beats. "Servo Paw" is a welcome exception, with its big, sparse rhythm sounds and unsettling melodic vibe that's akin to an extremely pared-back instrumental remix of one of John Vanderslice's warm yet disturbing tunes. The closing "Tender Snap Compartment" likewise breaks the mold with loud beat-sounds, but offers little beyond a cool, wonky groove. The rest of Deeply Faulted Area (hey, if you want the whole title repeated in the body of the review, stick with Roman numerals) flies so far below the radar, it barely qualifies as background music, due to the fact that it creates only the smallest square footage of background imaginable. That might be a feat in itself, but I don't want to not hear it. (www.kirakiradisc.com) 1/2—Scott Harrell

The Fred Hersch Trio + 2
FRED HERSCH
Palmetto
Prized largely for his probing, Bill Evans-esque style in a trio context, pianist Fred Hersch extends his sound to a quintet on Trio + 2 with terrific results. Hersch, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Nasheet Watts are joined by trumpeter/flugelhornist Ralph Alessi and tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby, who collectively come off like a seasoned fivesome. Playing all Hersch compositions, the band covers a lot of ground: bluesy ("Down Home"), abstract ("Black Dog Pays a Visit"), boppin' ("The Chase") sedate ("Miss B."), playful ("Lee's Dream") and beyond. The instrumentation lends Hersch's melodically rich writing a more textured tonal palette. And the arrangements never resort to the pat format of simply leading with a horn melody and breaking into solos. Occasionally, the horns peer out later in a song as subtle punctuation marks. This technique is best heard on the album's most beguiling track, a mesmerizing version of Lennon/McCartney's "And I Love Her," where Hersch opens solo, lovingly caressing the melody, then invites in spectral bass and drums; the whispering horns don't show up until the bridge. Instruments delicately interweave throughout the disc, allowing a sublime ebb and flow of improvisation. (www.palmetto-records.com) —ERIC SNIDER

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