New This Week: Madonna, Mirel Wagner, Billy Hart & More

J. Edward Keyes

By J. Edward Keyes

on 03.27.12 in Spotlights



Madonna decided to wreak a little havoc by releasing her 12th album, MDNA, yesterday instead of today, which caused a host of other acts to do the same thing. To which I say: NICE WORK, SHEEP. We’ll forgive you this time. Here’s what I found. Tell me what I missed in the comments.

Madonna, MDNA: Madonna’s 12th album finds her reuniting with producer William Orbit on several tracks, teaming with M.I.A. and Nicki Minaj on another and, in general, being Madonna. eMusic’s Barry Walters lets you know what that means:

Like most chart-conscious discs, MDNA front-loads its singles: The substandard pop of “Girl Gone Wild” and the brutal but empty “Gang Bang” suggest that Madonna’s heart is more invested in the more personal — and musically substantial — tracks that occupy the album’s final third. All of them are co-produced, and mostly co-written, by William Orbit, the U.K. electronics whiz who helmed Madonna’s mature milestone, 1998′s Ray of Light. Swinging on a ’60s-R&B chord progression, a litany of saints and her underused but effective upper register, “I’m a Sinner” is classic, capricious stuff from this quintessentially conflicted Catholic girl.

Mirel Wagner, Mirel Wagner: This is my PICK OF THE WEEK. A genuinely haunting, unsettling folk record that lays Wagner’s unnerving voice over acoustic guitar and lets her brutal, image-driven lyrics do the rest. Truly unsettling, in the best possible way. eMusic’s Mikael Wood has more:

A stark minor-key blues made only of voice and guitar, “No Death” turns out to be one of an exceedingly small handful of tunes about the joys of necrophilia. “Her body is cold/ Well, it’s gonna get colder,” Wagner acknowledges over carefully fingerpicked arpeggios, “But my love will ignite what was left to smolder.” (Think she was tempted to sing “what was left of her shoulder”?) Elsewhere on this haunting nine-track set Wagner dials down the lyrical shock-and-awe a bit; in the relatively jaunty “No Hands” she even pauses a bike ride long enough to admire “the sun filter[ing] through the trees.” But there’s never any of the sweetening you expect from folks working in this kind of post-Nick Drake mode.

Paul Weller, Sonik Kicks: The first song sounds pretty electronic, which was alarming, but it soon settles into some surprisingly spry, gliding pop from this former Jam man. This is the toughest and most energetic he’s sounded in a while — let’s say Arctic Monkeys as fronted by David Bowie, just for fun. Anyone looking for a new mod con is going to be let down, but the album certainly shows Weller is trying to push his sound forward.

Zeus, Busting Visions: Strutting ’70s-style rock and roll from these Canucks is glammy and fabulous — not too far off from the roads traversed on the latest Portugal. The Man record, with a healthy helping of Elton John tossed in for good measure.

Quakers, Quakers: THIS! Geoff from Portishead teams up with a small army of MCs to make this vaguely throwbacky hip-hop masterpiece. I’ve listened to this a few times now, and am fully in love — doomy, boom-bappy style production tracks that sound lifted from the late ’90s topped with sharp, nimble rhymes. Reminds me of classics like A Prince Among Thieves. This one is RECOMMENDED

Orchestre Super Borgou De Parakou, The Bariba Sound: More reliably simmering Afropop from the good people at Analog Africa. Intoxicating afro-rock from Benin.

La Sera, Sees the Light: Lovely, smoky indie pop not too far from, say, Mazzy Star. Katy Goodman grows as a songwriter a little more with each new record, and this is her most mature and accomplished to date. eMusic’s Ashley Melzer says:

Goodman spins out 10 garage-pop tunes that dismiss heartbreak in favor of charming melodies and hazy guitars. “I love my life without you,” she sings in the first seconds of album opener “Love That’s Gone”; “I don’t want you to be my man,” she clarifies a few tracks later on “It’s Over Now.”

Civil Twilight, Holy Weather: Sprawling, emotive guitar pop with earnest, desperate vocals and skyscraping guitars — songs with breadth and scale and grandeur.

His Clancyness, Always Mist: Revisted: I really like this dude. His Clancyness is Jonathan Clancy, who’s also in A Classic Education. The stuff he records on his own is a little more mysterious and atmospheric, but still loaded with pop hooks. If Colin Meloy made a bedroom chillwave record, this is roughly what it might sound like. In a good way. For real! A few moments remind me of the first Shins record, too.

Macy Gray, Covered: This is pretty weird. Macy Gray covers everyone from the Eurythmics to Radiohead to My Chemical Romance. I don’t have much to say here except that the cover of “Here Comes the Rain Again” is downright creepy. Like, almost witch house. I am unnerved. The cover of “Creep” that follows it is similarly spooky. Who knew?

Cats on Fire, All Blackshirts to Me: This is on Matinee records, so if you asked me to guess what it might sound like, I’d say “Fey, British, sparkling twee.” GUESS WHAT. It’s fey, British, sparkling twee. Afternoon twee? Twee and sympathy? TAKE YOUR CHOICE OF BAD PUNS.

Meshuggah, Koloss: Big, brutal new record from metal masterminds hammers and hollers and howls — pummeling riffs and scorched vocals, proving their power has not faded.

Races, Year of the Witch: Never mind that witch house cover art — this is sparkling indie pop from a California six-piece, some songs topped with a kind of dreamy sparkling sonic gloss.

Human Teenager, Animal Husbandry: Pretty cool! Some moments are warbly and weird, like Blank Dogs, some of them are more meditative and immediate. Fans of the stuff Wierd Records puts out will love what’s going on here.

Cowboy Junkies, The Wilderness: Smoky, atmospheric adult alternative from these enduring faves. Tiptoeing tempos and a heavy folk influence make this one for quiet nights and warm blankets.

Oberhofer, Time Capsules II: Indie rock! Cascading pianos, jittery tempos and Brad Oberhofer’s nervous new wave voice have already made this a favorite with fans of Arcade Fire and other grand-scale indie rock bands. The songs are rich and multi-layered — you can hear about 25 instruments in any 15-second stretch.

Justin Townes Earle, Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now: Latest effort from the son of Steve is full of taut, polished, rustic country-rock, putting Earle’s voice front and center. eMusic’s Austin L. Ray gets more specific:

Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now hits remarkable high points. The rollicking, horn-dappled “Baby’s Got a Bad Idea” stands out, as does the hip-swinging “Memphis in the Rain,” which shows off Earle’s gruff baritone. It’s heavy on understated ballads, which he pulls off better than many country singers twice his age. The shadow of his father, Steve, hangs heavy over everything, as it has on Earle’s previous releases, with references to the veteran songwriter’s material bookending the record’s 10 songs.

Ministry, Relapse: I used to love this band. This is their new record. Sounds pretty lean and furious to me, definitely more thrash than industrial.

Cynic, The Portal Tapes: Back in the ’90s, art-metal band Cynic briefly broke up and recorded a bunch of songs under the name Portal. The results are even more outre than you might expect. eMusic’s Jon Wiederhorn has more:

[Cynic's Paul] Masvidal and [Sean] Reinert strove to preserve the atmospheric and jazzy elements of Cynic without all the noise. So they recruited wraithlike vocalist and keyboardist Aruna Abrams and recorded a textural rock album informed by jazz acts like Allan Holdsworth and ethereal pop performers such as Kate Bush.

Black Sheep Wall, No Matter Where it Ends: New outing from LA sludge-metal band on the generally reputable Season of Mist label is a bruiser, topping doomy riffs with demonic roars for an album that splits the difference between stoner and death metal.

Sedition, Hour of Penance: Full-on furious machine-gun thrash on Prosthetic. Stunningly fast drums and spiraling, super-technical riffs. Whiplash time-changes and angry tornado vocals.

Jazz Picks, by Dave Sumner

This week seemed to be weighted heavily in favor of anyone who likes healthy doses of dissonance with their jazz. Intriguingly, the dissonance shows itself through a disparate set of jazz’s facets, so this is definitely not a one-size-fits-all set of recs. Let’s begin…

Billy Hart, All Our Reasons: Drummer Billy Hart has been a part of some of the more inventive jazz projects of our time. This particular quartet has been around for years, but this is their first recording as a group for the ECM label. Thankfully, none of Hart’s fire is extinguished by the label aesthetic; plenty of life here. Hart is just as likely to slide the rhythm on ice as tattoo it on the listener’s ear, and this recording allows him to show the breadth of his talent. Mark Turner on sax continues to amaze, best heard on the tune “Nigeria,” which has a languid appeal to it. Recommended.

Medeski, Martin & Wood, 20: Medeski, Martin, and Wood have been creating some of the most catchy, danceable jazz funk of the last twenty years. Apropos of that mark, over the course of 2011, they released twenty new tracks a few at a time. This album is the compilation of those tiny releases. A trio of keyboards/piano, bass, and drums/percussion, with some effects thrown in for good measure. Too quickly written off by some as being just a jazz jam band, all three of these guys can flat out play, as has been proven time and again as part of their trio and in collaboration with other musicians (John Zorn’s Book of Angels: Zaebos, notably).

Andy Clausen, The Wishbone Suite: Brilliant release by trombonist Clausen, who rounds out a quintet with piano, accordion, clarinet, and drums (drummer Chris Icasiano also doubles on Glockenspiel). Clausen finds a way to fuse these disparate musicians and their seemingly ill-fitting instruments into an alluring, whimsical, and just-plain-cool mix of jazz, classical, and experimental music. Challenging music that doesn’t shy away from also being pretty. Released by Table & Chairs, a small Pacific Northwest based label, who thus far has displayed an adventurous choice of music it puts its name on. Pick of the Week.

Joel Harrison, Search: Guitarist Joel Harrison brings an exhilaration to stringed instruments in jazz that’s pretty much unequaled in the present day. Whether through the sound generated from his own guitar or through that of other stringed instruments via his compositions and arrangements, there is a soaring lightness to his album, even when weighted down with emotion. On Search, Harrison leads a septet that includes Donny McCaslin on tenor and Gary Versace on piano and organ, as well as adds violin, cello, bass, and drums. Some moments of swing, some moments of classical influence, and overall, an absolute joy to hear. Highly Recommended.

Red Trio + Nate Wooley, Stem: Engaging free jazz session with Lisbon-based Red Trio and Brooklyn’s Nate Wooley. Wooley’s trumpet arcs overhead, warning of danger, as the piano trio sometimes spurs the rhythm the ahead, sometimes prowls menacingly after it. Growls, jangles, screeches, and breaks down the door. Like ferocity in your jazz? Then hit the download button on this one.

John Surman, The Rainbow Band Sessions: Saxophonist John Surman is typically viewed in light of his introspective, austere recordings on ECM, but that certainly doesn’t sum up the totality of his sound. Back, now, with a big band ensemble, Surman shows that he hasn’t forgotten how to swing. Plenty of the large ensemble warmth and the richly textured drama inherent in the best big band compositions. I like plenty of the ambient sparseness of Surman small group works, but it sure is nice to hear him step up with a straight-ahead jazz album.

Chicago Underground Duo, Age of Energy: Sixth release as the Duo from Chad Taylor and Rob Mazurek. A mix of free jazz, world jazz instruments, and a Sonic Boom dose of electronic effects. Cornet, drums, mbira, drum machine, and electronics are the arsenal of choice. Much of the album was recorded live with no overdubbing. Switches seamlessly between music of fire, air, and water. Really a wonderful album that throws enough curveballs to keep the album perpetually interesting and uncategorizable. The sort of avant-garde music that could appeal to a wide cross-section of genre fans. Highly Recommended.

Interlunio, L’ennui Riot: Interesting quintet date featuring trumpet, trombone, bass, tabla/percussion, and bass & soprano clarinets. Has plenty of avant-garde flavors to go along with a strong world jazz (via Portugal) sound. End result is something that sits in the same chamber jazz territory of, say, Wayne Horvitz’s Gravitas Quartet. An unusual beauty, unconventional melodies, and a peacefulness even during moments of chaotic interaction. Recommended.

Michel Mandel & Yves Gerbelot, Tuyaux: A duet of saxophones and clarinets. Vacillates between the peaceful end of things and the fiery side of the spectrum. Quite an alluring album, one that would, I imagine, get even better with repeat listening. And it’s always nice when a clarinet gets some time in the spotlight to really stretch out and remind everyone what a sublime sound it is able to achieve.

Ablaye Cissoko & Volker Goetze, Sira: Cissoko doubles on kora and vocals: Goetze mans the trumpet. A 2008 release, but new to eMusic, this might be the prettiest, most serene album that hits the site this year. Feet both planted firmly in the world jazz subgenre. Fans of Toumani Diabate’s music should definitely be checking this out. So beautiful, it’s heartbreaking. Find of the Week.

LED, The Ocean: A sextet album that covers the Led Zeppelin songbook. Definitely heavy on the improvisation; group pretty much plays peek-a-boo with Zep’s melodies throughout the album. It’s a cute idea and rife with possibilities, but the value of this album isn’t so much for its cleverness as just by way of it being a solid jazz album. Strong play throughout. Ensemble instruments include trumpet, alto & bari saxes, clarinet, trombone, flute, tuba, and drums.

Chris Plansker Trio, Inside the Bubble: Nice little piano trio date. Nothing complicated, laid back with a vibrant sound, definitely with at least one foot in the modern jazz composition setting, but nothing that makes it inaccessible to classic jazz fans. Quite pretty at times.

And for our weekly Probably-shouldn’t-be-filed-under-Jazz is from…

Polylis, Hills: Electronica, rock, a little jazz perhaps. Will likely appeal more to fans of Radiohead than Coltrane. Some ambient moments, some free moments, some experimental. Keyboards, some horns and reeds, various percussion and electronic effects. Whatever you call this, it’s pretty neat and has got its hooks in me good.