ANTONY & THE JOHNSONS "Cut the World" (Secretly Canadian, 4 stars)
If Antony Hegarty had a dime for every goose bump he's raised with his emotive voice, he could pay off the national debt. His haunting, expressive cry gets the backing of the Danish National Chamber Orchestra on his new album "Cut the World," which was recorded live in Copenhagen, Denmark. On it, songs from Antony & the Johnsons' four previous albums are gloriously worked over to spine-tingling effect. "You Are My Sister," "I Fell in Love With a Dead Boy," and "Kiss My Name" all shimmer magnificently in the orchestral light. "Another World" - Hegarty's conservationist plea to save the planet while we still can - is so profound here, listeners may actually take up its cause. Antony's voice has always had the power to move mountains. On "Cut," it moves something altogether more impressive: people.
- Brian McManus
JANKA NABAY AND THE BUBU GANG "En Yay Sah" (Luaka Bop, 3 1/2 stars)
Bubu originated in Sierra Leone as a communal music, built on percussion and bamboo flutes, to accompany processions during Ramadan. In the '90's, Ahmed Janka Nabay revived bubu as a popular, political, and cultural force. After emigrating, Nabay spent a few recent years in Philadelphia; he's now based in Washington, D.C., although on "En Yay Sah," he is accompanied by members of mostly Brooklyn-based indie bands.
This is hyperkinetic, propulsive music, with Nabay's gruff voice intertwined with serpentine guitar lines and Boshra Al-Saadi's sweet-voiced responses, and with electric percussion and keyboards that often scan as modern rather than traditional. At times, it sounds a bit like Konono No. 1's "Congotronics"; at other times, one hears traces of Jamaican dub or Fela's Afrobeat. Nabay sings mostly in Krio or Temne; the lyrics often address the troubles in Sierra Leone, but the music is built for dance parties and celebrations.
- Steve Klinge
THE GASLIGHT ANTHEM "Handwritten" (Mercury, 3 stars)
The openers on the Gaslight Anthem's major-label debut are a starter kit in both loving and hating the earnest Jersey rockers. "45" finally makes room for the careening riffage that Brian Fallon's songwriting always lacked, and climaxes with his best singing ever. But "Handwritten" flaunts the uneasy rhyme of "forgiven" and "handwritten" pronounced with the portentous syntax of the Verve Pipe. Fallon's blocky tunes used to tend toward the latter, mistaking E Street lore for a daytime soap. Luckily, his best album is more in line with "45" - now he worries about putting "too much blood on the page" - and after some early "sha-la-la" losers comes the dynamite: "Keepsake," "Biloxi Parish," the wonderful "Desire." The deluxe edition adds "Blue Dahlia" and a fine Nirvana cover. There's even a tasteful ballad closer.
- Dan Weiss
VARIOUS ARTISTS "'Sparkle' Original Motion Picture Soundtrack" (RCA, 3 stars)
In 1976, composer Curtis Mayfield and singer Aretha Franklin teamed for the soundtrack to "Sparkle." The film, a trifle about the pitfalls of rising to stardom, was promising but its songs (the righteous, romantic "Something He Can Feel," the heated "Hooked on Your Love" among them) highlighted the best aspects of both R&B superstars' effortless range. Thirty-six years later, the movie has been remade into something less kitschy than the original, yet it's the sounds of this "Sparkle's" new stars, "American Idol" victor Jordin Sparks and the late Whitney Houston doing her final work, that get the headlines.
Rightly so. Along with the inclusion of several Mayfield tunes from the first "Sparkle" glowingly updated by Sparks ("Look Into Your Heart" is particularly earthy), there are stormy songs penned by R&B lover man R. Kelly for the new film's stars to tackle. Cee-Lo Green eats up the robust "I'm a Man" with his usual gruffly soaring gusto, while Houston and Sparks fill Kelly's Motown-like "Celebrate" with dueling diva dynamism. Houston, though, gets the last word with "His Eye Is on the Sparrow," based on Jesus' words in the Gospel of Matthew. The always-emotive Houston makes each phrase her own.
- A.D. Amorosi
HANK WILLIAMS JR. "Old School, New Rules" (Bocephus, 2 stars)
Last year, if you'll recall, Hank Williams Jr. lost his longtime gig on ESPN's "Monday Night Football" after making an analogy involving Hitler and President Obama. Bocephus doesn't go quite that far here, but he still fills "Old School, New Rules" with noxiously reactionary and dim-witted rantings.
"Hey, Barack, pack your bags," Williams sings on "Takin' Back the Country," which includes the refrain "Don't tread on me." He complains about "the United Socialist States of America" in "Keep the Change" and warns that "We Don't Apologize for America." (It's sad to hear Merle Haggard join in on the latter, even if it does include a bit of his old hit "The Fightin' Side of Me." In his twilight years, the country immortal has taken on more thoughtful and less belligerent views in matters like these.)
It's a shame Williams lets his worst traits run free here because he really is a talented musician who has done a lot of fine work, and the music here smokes the pants off most commercial country. His pungently bluesy take on his father's "You Win Again" is an inspired reworking, and "I'm Gonna Get Drunk and Play Hank Williams" (with Brad Paisley) is an irresistible honky-tonker. Of his originals, though, best of all is "That Ain't Good," a scorching country-rocker and workingman's lament that skirts partisanship - and is all the more powerful for it.
- Nick Cristiano
SHOSTAKOVICH "Symphony No. 4 and Orango" Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting (Deutsche Grammophon, two discs, 4 stars)
Once thought to be an unruly anomaly in Shostakovich's output, the "Symphony No. 4" emerges more and more as the summation of an era, one that also includes his increasingly performed early opera The Nose, as well as recently discovered unfinished works, such as "Orango," a satire about a mythical half-ape, half-human being displayed in Moscow early in the Stalin era. The symphony and the "Orango" prologue (the only part that's finished) make a revealing pair in conjunction with deeply insightful notes from director Peter Sellars (who staged "Orango" in its L.A. premiere) that explicate the symphony's many quotations of previous works. He calls the symphony a graveyard for music that might never be heard again.
The symphony is given a beautifully paced performance that achieves, more than most, a strong sense of through line despite a deeply fractured musical narrative. Though many passages that earned the symphony its reputation for raucousness are downplayed to serve the long-term trajectory, every episode fully makes its points in this performance. As for "Orango," Shostakovich wrote some pretty crazy satirical works, but none that spiral so far over the top as this. Imagine Offenbach on crack - and then some. Esa-Pekka Salonen and his Los Angeles cast perform the piece with a confidence that suggests they could have written it.
- David Patrick Stearns
© 2012 The Philadelphia Inquirer
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