YO LA TENGO "Fade" (Matador, 3 1/2 stars)
Yo La Tengo's continued relevance 27 years into their career is remarkable. The Hoboken trio of Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew have yet to release a bad album, and they've made a handful of great ones. "Fade" is one of them. With producer John McEntire of post-rock experimenters Tortoise, they've created an album that is intimate and thoughtful, urgent and fun.
The band hasn't reinvented itself. No need, since Yo La Tengo's expertise in catchy, jangly rock, gentle acoustic folk-pop, and noisy feedback excursions allows endless room for triangulation. But they have added new colorations over the years. Credit McEntire for helping with the swelling strings in "It's Not Enough" and "Before We Run," the precise, giddy funk of "Well You Better," and the motorik chug of "Stupid Things." And while the album eschews epic guitar solos, it has room for electric rave-ups such as "Ohm" and "Paddle Forward." Yo La Tengo is still looking to build on what they've perfected, to shine and not fade away.
CHRISTOPHER OWENS "Lysandre" (Fat Possum, 2 1/2 stars)
Last summer, Christopher Owens announced that he was breaking up Girls, the kind-of-glammy rock band with whom he and chief collaborator J.R. White released two terrific records, "Album" (1999) and "Father, Son, Holy Ghost" (2011). Lysandre, the lanky songwriter and sometime fashion model's first solo outing, is a concept album he has described as "a coming-of-age story, a road trip story, a love story." In short, it's an autobiographical tale about falling in love with a French girl in San Francisco, following her home across the Atlantic, and - quelle surprise! - ending up with a broken heart. At many points, Lysandre, named after the paramour in question, is too precious by half, and its delicately baroque, bordering-on-easy-listening arrangements lack the muscle that put the power in Girls' pop.
A$AP ROCKY "Long Live A$AP" (Polo Grounds Music/ RCA, 3 1/2 stars)
A$AP Rocky sums up the last few of his 24 years on the plush and lovely "Suddenly" when he intones, with wonder, the phrase "from ugly to comfortably." Just-out-of-the-gate rappers rarely espouse happy bewilderment so nakedly, busy as they are with hard heartlessness. Such emotional openness is part of the charm of rap/hip-hop's $3 million man. The Harlem-raised Rocky shows gentle shock and awe while remaining raw and true to rap's street code throughout this debut artist album. Add to that his fluid changes of speed and flow and his flips of script - musically and lyrically - and you've got quite a stunner.
What's audacious about Long Live is how eagerly A$AP jumps before sonic booms provided by producer/electronic music-makers Skrillex and Danger Mouse. The former provides A$AP with a juiced-up mix of weird reggae and screeching noise. The latter offers him billowing rain clouds through which to dance and loll. Vocal guests such as Santigold (on the hooky "Hell"), Drake, and Kendrick Lamar are good, ample duet partners.
In 2013's second week, we surely have a year's-end best.
JESSIE WARE "Devotion" (PMR/Island, 3 stars)
"Need your devotion," repeats Jessie Ware on her debut's opener and title tune, crawling like Tracy Thorn about to gauze over a Massive Attack beat. Single-note synth and guitar braids wobble around it like a toddler's mobile. Indie-rockers think this is pop, which is fine; so was Sade. But that should tell you everything about how much the music asserts itself until the caveman drums of "Wildest Moments" boom in. Never again does Devotion unspool such a classic melody or forceful chorus like "Baby in our wildest moments/ We could be the worst of all." That's because with "Running" we settle back to pawn-shop synths, fake-or-real horns, and cheesy guitar solos. But Ware's 11 songs do bob and weave with shrewd seduction. She keeps you running.
VARIOUS ARTISTS "The Return of The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of" (Yazoo, 3 1/2 stars)
This two-CD set of American traditional music of the 1920s is a sequel that, instead of focusing on rarities as the 2006 original did, homes in on what the liner notes call "the great, iconic recordings that no collection should be without."
Thus you get many well-known names, such as bluesmen Charley Patton, Blind Willie Johnson, and Furry Lewis, and, on the country side, Uncle Dave Macon and His Fruit Jar Drinkers, Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers, and Eck Robertson and Family. The mix of blues and country - Geeshie Wiley's haunting "Last Kind Words Blues" followed by Carter Brothers and Son's Cajun-flavored fiddle tune "Old Jaw Bone," Lulu Jackson's wrenching "Little Rosewood Casket" sandwiched between a polka and a reel - make for a comprehensive and highly entertaining overview of the sound of rural America at the time, one that also illuminates the ties that run among the seemingly disparate musical strains.
RYAN TRUESDELL "Notes on Centennial" (artistShare, 3 stars)
Composer Ryan Truesdell has pulled off a monumental feat of detective work. Working in archives for bandleaders such as Claude Thornhill and interviewing musicians such as trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, Truesdell has discovered more than 50 works by legendary composer and arranger Gil Evans that were neither recorded nor released.
Truesdell released what he considered the 12 best on this CD last year to honor the 100th anniversary of Evans' birth.
Certainly anyone who knows Evans' classic work for Miles Davis, such as "Sketches of Spain," will appreciate what Truesdell has done. But I found the music a mixed bag, both intriguing and uninteresting. Yes, it was great to have these works excavated, but some carried on too long. So the result felt a bit academic, filling in important blanks but not adding much either.
"Keyboard Music Vol. 4" Kristian Bezuidenhout, fortepiano (Harmonia Mundi, 3 1/2 stars)
"Piano Concertos K. 453 and 482" Kristian Bezuidenhout, fortepiano; Freiburger Barockorchester, Petra Mullejan conducting (Harmonia Mundi, 4 stars)
Specialists in early pianos come and go, but Kristian Bezuidenhout sustains an increasingly mainstream career that includes Chicago Symphony Orchestra appearances and an ability to convert staunch fortepiano skeptics. The South African's latest discs exemplify the range of expression and imagination that he brings to these forerunners of the modern piano. The opening notes of the solo keyboard disc use the instrument's bass range to command the ear in a way you never thought the fortepiano could. Though this disc has its share of Mozart oddities - his Bach-like Prelude and Fugue in C and the Variations on "Je Suis Lindor" - Bezuidenhout's fascination is unflagging and contagious.
The concerto disc is a serious alternative to conventional-performance recordings: The vitality of Bezuidenhout's rhythm and phrasing would be welcome on any instrument, but the fortepiano's clarity seems to lift a sonic veil from the music. He doesn't try to make the instrument compete with modern piano; if anything, he looks back to the pinpoint sound of the harpsichord. The incidental wind solos of the Freiburg orchestra and turn-on-a-dime dynamics only heighten the sense of hearing this music for the first time.
-David Patrick Stearns
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