Go Tell it on the Mountain
BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA
Worst thing about the holidays: the music. When they're playing "Frosty the Snowman" in the mall five days before Thanksgiving, I wanna hurtle myself through the store window. And it doesn't go over much better on Dec. 24. I tell you this so that you'll clearly understand that I DON'T LIKE CHRISTMAS MUSIC when I say that the Blind Boys of Alabama's Go Tell it on the Mountain is one great Christmas album. The Blind Boys are seven old African-American dudes who specialize in the earthiest of Southern gospel. Their harmonies are a true gift from God, as if they were sent from heaven and detoured through 30 miles of tilled earth before blessing our ears. For Go Tell it on the Mountain, the fellows are joined by an array of very cool guests: Tom Waits, in full throat, on the title song; Aaron Neville sliding his falsetto through the Blind Boys' rumble on an a cappella "Joy to the World"; George Clinton commenting through "Away in a Manger," while pedal steel ace Robert Randolph rips a solo over the sultry shuffle groove. Producer John Chelew has crafted some punchy rhythm tracks, played by an all-star crew, including guitarist Duke Robillard, organist John Medeski and, especially, bassist Danny Thompson, whose huge, woody sound gives the music extra heft. Best of all, this Christmas music, while it definitely works on a secular level, captures a gut spirituality that's rare for the genre.
Room on Fire
Don't bother pulling the CD out of your player to make sure some packaging error hadn't occurred in whatever Third World country major labels are currently exploiting for cheap labor. That is, in fact, the new Strokes album in there, and not, as you momentarily worried, a copy of their debut Is This It wrongly inserted into the new artwork. Upon first listen, the New York hipsters' highly anticipated follow-up sounds not just incredibly similar to its predecessor, but rather exactly like it. Exactly. Upon the second or third listen, the differences begin to register: slightly heightened dynamics, a wider array of tempos, less reliance on bass melodies to provide the hooks, and the guitarists' conscious efforts to include different rhythmic signatures and melodic styles. And a few daring highlights ("Reptilia," "Automatic Stop," "The Way It Is," "The End Has No End") assert themselves. On the whole, however, Julian Casablancas' bored-phone-call vocals, drummer Fab Moretti's anonymous precision, and that trademark sinewy near-jangle conspire to make one wonder why they bothered making another record at all. Room on Fire isn't bad, it's just that Is This It, by and large, contained more of the better songs. Fans who think the band can do no wrong will appreciate another platter of clever, tight, austere cool, but those who were hoping The Strokes would improve on their admittedly interesting style may come to the conclusion that they copped out by simply rewriting their breakthrough.
Tribute to Lester
ART ENSEMBLE OF CHICAGO
Lester Bowie, longtime trumpeter and flamboyant frontman for legendary avant-gardists Art Ensemble of Chicago, died in 1999. With charter member Joseph Jarman on extended hiatus, that left a trio to create this homage to their late cohort. The leaner instrumentation allows the AEC's dense improvisational sound to breathe more. Very seldom does the group dive into free cacophony. The threesome emphasizes the blues, a passion of Bowie's, with a handful of hard-swinging gutbucket numbers built around riffs and drones, which give way to edgy improvisation. The closing "He Speaks to Me Often in Dreams," a 14-minute space workout, is a less-than-satisfying divergence. Multi-reedman Roscoe Mitchell alternates between slurry swing and frenetic swells. His finest work here is strutting bass saxophone solo on "Tutankhamun," while his 11-minute soprano spew on "As Clear as the Sun" overstays its welcome. Drummer/percussionist Famoudou Don Moye and bassist Malachi Favors Moghostut exhibit command and elasticity throughout. Collectively, the trio oozes musical wisdom; there's nary a callow or pat note played. 1/2
Rock N Roll
It's been so long since former alt-country poster boy/Gap commercial star Ryan Adams actually put out a proper full-length that the mainstreamers who ate up 2001's Gold probably don't remember who the hell he is. But he's subsequently released enough music of wildly varying quality — and said enough patently ridiculous shit in the press — to keep the hipsters interested, and to inspire critics to sharpen their knives in anticipation of this disc. According to insider lore, the double album Adams recorded as a follow-up to Gold was deemed unworthy of release by Lost Highway (some of it has since appeared in the form of a couple of EPs). And Rock N Roll definitely sounds dashed off, something Adams might've written and cut in a week while stewing over the treatment his last batch got. But the album is neither the triumph nor the trash that reviews alternately claim it to be. Rather, it's a better-than-average pop-rock album whose mediocrities seem more disappointing than they actually are next to the disc's real highlights. Said highlights: dynamic opener "This Is It"; new wave-inflected surprises "So Alive" and "Luminol"; the melancholy "Anybody Wanna Take Me Home" and "Do Miss America"; and the Replacements-steeped penultimate track "Boys." The record's other half isn't horrible, but it lacks the thought and emotional investment of the standouts, and suffers conspicuously as a result. And most of the insurgent-country twang that characterized both Adams' former band Whiskeytown and his unimpeachable solo debut Heartbreaker is gone, which might irk longtime fans holding out for a return to form. But it seems like what really keeps Rock N Roll from greatness is Adams himself: if nobody thinks this is the best rock album ever, he can always say he wasn't really trying that hard. 1/2
OVER THE RHINE
The heartache and anguish evident on Ohio is directly descended from the late '60s/early '70s golden age of country-rock. Over the Rhine rely on the clarity of their simple melodies and pitting slick studio production against sparse instrumentation. Although these songs are born of the coal mines of the Ohio Valley, Karen Bergquist and Linford Detweiler (the only full-time band members and songwriters) are veterans, intellectuals based in the mini-metropolis of Cincinnati. The city/country theme joins their other preoccupations on this two-disc effort — loss, love, redemption and Jesus. Though at times humorous, Ohio is pretty straightforward and serious. Bergquist's voice sounds dramatic without effort. Ultimately, OTR know what's important: producing tight, impeccable arrangements, showcasing a vocalist strong enough to carry the melody by herself, but more important, having something worthwhile to say. 1/2