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|August 14-20, 2008
Carla Bruni, Comme Si De Rien N’Etait
by Dan DeLuca
Former Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton dater and current French first lady Carla Bruni’s third album can’t help but underscore the impression that the French are somehow fundamentally different than us (even if the guitar strumming Mrs. Nicolas Sarkozy is Italian, after all). Still, the supermodel turned chanteuse sings en francais on all but one of these diversely diverting tracks — a bittersweet cover of Pee Wee King’s “You Belong to Me.” And it’s hard to imagine Laura Bush fitting the time to make such a disarmingly enchanting disc into her social and diplomatic calendar. (Though had Hillary Clinton won the White House, one can imagine saxman Bill keeping busy recording an album of Junior Parker covers.)
It might be to Bruni’s benefit that non-Gallic speakers will be unable to discern what she’s singing about. (The coy title translates “As if nothing had happened.”) But with production assistance by Dominique Blanc-Francard and string arrangements from Benjamin Biolay, unfailingly pretty Bruni-penned “Rien” tracks, such as “La Possibilite D’Une Ile” (adapted from Michelle Houllebecq’s novel of the same name), the bluesy “Tu Es Ma Came” and the autobiographical “L’Amoureuse,” all navigate wistful Euro folk-pop territory with a certain j’e ne sai quoi, not to mention an admirably understated elan that avoids the kitsch factor which spoils so much French pop.
Conor Oberst, Conor Oberst
by Dan DeLuca
Still wearing his heart on his sleeve at 28, indie songwriting godhead Conor Oberst continues his self-conscious maturation process on his first solo album in 15 years. (For the record, this album is not credited to Bright Eyes, the group Oberst has long been synonymous with, because partner Mike Mogis was busy with other projects when it was recorded in Tepoztlan, Mexico, earlier this year.)
On Conor Oberst, Oberst’s songs are as well crafted and laced with poetic imagery as ever. And his nuevo Americana musical approach is as deeply relaxed, as the cover shot of him lying in a hammock would suggest. He does work himself up a bit, though, on the rollicking boogie woogie “I Don’t Want to Die (in a hospital),” one of a handful of tracks, along with “Danny Callahan” and the delicate closer “Milk Thistle” that continue Oberst’s obsession with his own mortality.
Oberst’s rewards are undeniable, first among them being “Moab,” another travelin’ song from a guy who’s already written “Another Travelin’ Song,” and who this time around tries to make himself believe that “there is nothing the road cannot heal,” though he knows that’s a lie. But for all of its attributes coming from an artist who models his career after classic rockers such as Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty, Conor Oberst is still a minor disappointment. That’s because in the six years since Bright Eyes knocked on greatness’ door with “Lifted ...” in 2002, Oberst still hasn’t quite managed to turn the handle and walk on in.
The Baseball Project, Volume 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails
by Nick Cristiano
Even for an effort that combines two of our favorite things — baseball and rock-and-roll — the Baseball Project exceeds expectations. The heavy hitters here, Steve Wynn and Scott McCaughey (with the help of guitarist Peter Buck and drummer Linda Pitmon), knock this baby right out of the park.
The wildly inspired songs by Wynn and McCaughey celebrate the National Pastime from the perspective of two boomers who know the game inside out and love it, warts and all. The tunes are sharp-witted, but they can also be bittersweet — witness the first-person tales of pioneers Jackie Robinson and Curt Flood. And while “Sometimes I Dream of Willie Mays” is a poignant reverie about witnessing the decline of Willie Mays, the two writers never slip into maudlin sentiment. And to make sure all the bases are covered, these ace pop craftsmen couch their baseball mania in exceptionally tuneful, hook-heavy music.
Paul Weller, 22 Dreams
by Steve Klinge
Paul Weller may not be the beloved father figure here that he is in England, but between the Jam’s mod-punk firebombs and the Style Council’s svelte soul, his place in rock history is secure. His solo career, however, has been hit or miss, and the UK press, in an Oedipal move, derided much of his late ’90s work as “Dad Rock.”
22 Dreams isn’t a triumphant return, but it’s a success. It’s a coherent hodgepodge, a 21-track compendium of familiar forays into blue-eyed soul, rousing rockers (including a collaboration with Oasis’ Noel Gallagher) and thoughtful ballads, plus some new diversions: a jazzy instrumental (a tribute to Alice Coltrane), a spacey keyboard experiment (“111”) and a spiritual manifesto (“God”). At nearly 70 minutes, 22 Dreams could use some pruning of a few momentum-killing piano ballads, but the 50-year-old Weller is still pushing, and that’s exciting.
Steve Cropper and Felix Cavaliere, Nudge It Up a Notch
by Nick Cristiano
Back in the ’60s, they were both prominent soul figures in their own ways. As guitarist for Booker T. and the MGs and Otis Redding’s main collaborator, Memphis’ Steve Cropper was a key developer of Stax Records’ gritty, gospel-infused sound. New York’s Felix Cavaliere, meanwhile, approached the music from the pop side, taking blue-eyed soul to the top of the charts as singer, writer and keyboardist for the Rascals.
Nudge It Up a Notch combines the two approaches, from the “Groovin’”-like vibe of “If It Wasn’t for Loving You” to the Sam & Dave urgency of “Still Be Loving You.” It’s less an exercise in nostalgia than something new, and if it sometimes threatens to get a little slick, the deep, often funky grooves, Cropper’s stinging guitar, and Cavaliere’s still-wondrous vocals help keep the soul quotient high.
Eddie Floyd, Eddie Loves You So
by Nick Cristiano
Like Steve Cropper, Eddie Floyd is a veteran of Stax’s glory days, the singer of 1967’s immortal “Knock on Wood.” Now he, too, is back on the newly revived Stax, and he’s also looking back, in a way.
Eddie Loves You So highlights the 73-year-old Alabama native’s skills as a writer, as it features soul numbers he wrote for other artists, going back to his pre-Stax days with the Falcons, and a couple of newer compositions. Not to slight his singing — Floyd sounds great. His devastating rendition of “Consider Me,” a pleading deep-soul ballad he cut in his previous Stax tenure, makes this once-obscure album cut sound like a should-have-been classic.
Ellis Marsalis Quartet, An Open Letter to Thelonious
by Karl Stark
Pianist Ellis Marsalis is rich in musician sons (Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason), as well as former students (trumpeters Terence Blanchard and Nicholas Payton, saxophonist Donald Harrison and singer Harry Connick Jr.)
But hearing the man himself remains a unique pleasure. This set of 10 Monk tunes with son Jason on drums is an orthodox romp through a major songbook. The songs are familiar and respectfully rendered but Marsalis, 73, makes them sound daring again.
He is eloquent with few notes; his minimalist playing is so deep that it sneaks up on you and knocks you out quietly. He doesn’t advertise his mastery with feathery runs of high-wire technique. Instead, he projects more substance than flash, and his efforts are all about the total quartet sound anyway.
Saxophonist Derek Douget, whose 2002 debut CD featured several of the Marsalis clan, is a young blower of the old school, full of fire. And bassist Jason Stewart keeps the wheels on for a set that affirms true family values.
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