Reviews of new pop, jazz, rock and classical releasesKnight-Ridder Newspapers
GEORGE STRAIT ``Carrying Your Love With Me''(MCA Nashville) 3 stars
As the '90s country-music craze rides off into the sunset, it's appropriate that George Strait should be the one to see it off with one for the horse it rode in on. Yes, the days when country artists dominate the pop charts as Garth Brooks once did are probably over, beaten to death by an industry that prizes repetition over innovation. All the giants of commercial country have seen their economic intake dissipate with each recent release. But Strait has a devoted enough following that his latest debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard album charts last week. Will his career have the legs that others lack?
If the answer is yes, then I would attribute it to the fact that what Strait produces isn't really ``commercial country.'' It is, in fact, an old-fashioned kind of honky-tonk swing that leans heavily upon fiddle and pedal steel guitar, and it long predates the kind of pop country plied by Brooks, McEntire and the lot. Strait often sounds as if he fancies himself a modern-day Hank Williams, and he's wise to realize there will always be a market for those who fashion themselves after legends.
``Carrying Your Love With Me'' is a typically reliable Strait release, with no new ground broken. Each of the 10 tunes has a touch of clever wordplay, and the understated Strait never oversings, clearly understanding that he gets by more on spirit than pipes. Alas, the material isn't as strong as in the past, with a couple of songs that probably would have been considered too superficial or pretentious for Strait's other albums. He can still pump it out with some conviction, but I wonder when he'll have the nerve to do something surprising.
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DOC CHEATHAM & NICHOLAS PAYTON``Doc Cheatham & Nicholas Payton''(Verve) 4 stars
The spirit of Louis Armstrong hovers over this marvelous matchup of trumpeters Doc Cheatham and Nicholas Payton.
There's magic in the music made by elder statesman Cheatham (he's a youthful 91!) and Payton, who at 23, is about one-quarter Cheatham's age. But they're both descendants of Armstrong (what jazz trumpeter - or musician, for that matter - doesn't owe a debt to ``Satchmo''?) and are schooled in the New Orleans traditional jazz style.
Added to that, the CD was recorded in the Crescent City, using mostly Nawlins musicians: trombonists Lucien Barbarin and Tom Ebbert, clarinetist Jack Maheu, banjoist/guitarist Les Muscutt, bassist Bill Huntington and drummer Ernie Elly. Then there's Twin Cities pianist Butch Thompson, who, as someone who broadcasts and writes about New Orleans jazz and has spent a great deal of time playing and learning there, fits in beautifully.
Both Cheatham and Payton play sweet 'n' sentimental and swing up a storm. In fact, it's sometimes difficult to tell one from the other - especially when they're trading solos - although Payton plays with a bit more bite than Cheatham, who has a breathy, sort of fragile (but not feeble) tone. Although most elderly musicians suffer some loss of technique as they age (and long before 91), you'll be amazed at Cheatham's excellent intonation.
He's also a distinctive, expressive vocalist, with a soft, melodious voice that's not the least bit creaky. Using half-spoken or recited passages, he's a wonderful storyteller, as he demonstrates on many of the 14 vintage songs here: ``How Deep Is the Ocean?'' ``Stardust,'' ``Dinah,'' ``Jeepers Creepers,'' ``I Cover the Waterfront,'' ``Jada,'' et al.
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VOICES OF ASCENSION CHORUS AND ORCHESTRA; Young Singers of Pennsylvania; Dennis Keene, conductor; John Aler, tenor; Mark Kruczek, organ``Berlioz: `Te Deum''' (Delos) 2 stars
In the golden, olden days, recordings like this were marketed as ``stereo spectaculars.'' During the brief reign of quadraphonic sound, they became ``quad spectaculars.''
Now, with CDs having pushed every other format into the shade, there is still an audience for vast assemblages of chorus, orchestra and, as here, organ. There are other versions of the Berlioz ``Te Deum'' in the catalog, but the point of this one is to convey a sense of place and occasion. The place is the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, the largest Gothic space in the world. The occasion was the 1996 convention of the American Guild of Organists.
Even the best amplifier and speakers can give only a hint of what it is like to hear music at St. John's. Even a simple hymn or Anglican chant seems larger than life there, and such gigantic music as the Berlioz must sound apocalyptic. This recording provides as much as the home listener can expect, and the Aeolian-Skinner organ, though reputed to be in disrepair, sounds forth like a choir of Valkyries, challenging a large chorus and full orchestra.
The performance, presided over by Dennis Keene, is sometimes slack. His Voices of Ascension Chorus and Orchestra sing and play bravely, however, augmented by the Young Singers of Pennsylvania. Tenor John Aler, a natural for this repertoire, sounds pushed and tremulous in this setting. His voice is a basically lyric one, and to fill the vast space of St. John's is beyond his powers.
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VARIOUS ARTISTS ``Hot Rod Rock: Big Boss Instrumentals'' (The Right Stuff) 3 stars
Of the five volumes in this ``Hot Rod Rock'' series, ``Big Boss Instrumentals'' comes closest to satisfying both the collector and the casual listener. ``Big Boss'' mixes a few familiar hits (``Green Onions,'' ``Walk, Don't Run'' and ``Theme From Route 66'') with an interesting array of obscure, hard-to-find dragster oldies by the Deuce Coups, the Darts, the Super Stocks, the T-Bones and Jack Nitzsche - differentiated from surf oldies primarily by dubbed-in sounds of revving engines.
``Rev It Up'' is probably the most commercially appealing set in the series, featuring vocal hot-rod hits by the Beach Boys (``409,'' ``Little Deuce Coupe''), Jan and Dean (``Drag City,'' ``Dead Man's Curve'') and Ronnie and the Daytonas (``Little GTO'') with a couple of rare tracks (``Boss Barracuda'' by the Surfaris and ``Little Hot Rod Suzie'' by, of all groups, Randy and the Rainbows.)
The lamest collection is ``Hot Rod Rebels,'' with inexplicable oldies like Fats Domino's ``Ain't That a Shame,'' Gene Vincent's ``Be-Bop-a-Lula,'' the Outsiders' ``Time Won't Let Me'' and Johnny Burnette's ``You're Sixteen'' grafted together to no apparent automotive advantage. But even this volume contains a pair of hidden gems: the bluesy ``Goin' Back to Memphis'' by Gene Simmons (``Haunted House'') and the wonderful (and impossible to find on CD) ``Roadrunner'' by the Gants.
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PAPAS FRITAS ``Helioself'' (Minty Fresh) 4 stars
One of last year's best releases was Olivia Tremor Control's ``Dusk at Cubist Castle,'' a soundtrack for an ``unrealized film'' that was a retro-fied pop/psychedelic excursion with its fair share of modern pranks (sound samples, loops).
One of this year's best records is Papas Fritas' sophomore release, ``Helioself,'' similar to OTC in its co-optation of past pop forms, yet Papas Fritas handles its pop with more finesse and purist fanaticism than OTC, opting for simple grace rather than layered and dense mind-warping weirdness. (Even Papas Fritas' name, which is Spanish for french fries, is a relatively straightforward take on Western culture.)
Vocalist/percussionist Shivika Asthana lends a girlish innocence throughout ``Helioself,'' gently prodding listeners with such simple queries as ``Who needs a myth when you're young and free?'' Rounded out by pianist/guitarist/vocalist Tony Goddess and bassist/vocalist Keith Gendel, the trio delves into the last three decades of rock 'n' pop, including ``Pet Sounds''-era Brian Wilson, the Beatles, Phil Spector, '80s Britpop and new-wave, and even weighs in with snippets of Middle Eastern and maritime music.
With this fun, fuzzy and freaky mix, Papas Fritas gleefully delivers chewy bubblegum melodies (``Hey Hey You Say,'' ``Sing About Me'') and thoughtful ballads (``Live by the Water''). But what Papas Fritas does best is make the case that indie rock doesn't have to be about skronking, low-fi noise and disjointed melodies - it can be sweet and simple - and memorable enough that you'll still be singing along long after the album's stopped spinning.
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SOUNDS OF BLACKNESS ``Time for Healing'' (A&M) 2 stars
Like much of the artist formerly known as Prince's ``Emancipation'' and Erykah Badu's ``Baduizm,'' Sounds of Blackness' fourth major-label release (and first without singer Ann Nesby and producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Harris) is a paean to positivity. But unlike those highly unique, highly individualistic records, Sounds hit the listener over the head with their messages, and paint their proclamations of faith with such broad strokes, it is equivalent to a preacher putting her congregation to sleep with an uninspired, uninspiring sermon that sheds little new light on the word of the Lord.
Symbolically, the record's soft core is exposed by the sticky-sweet cover of the O'Jays' ``Love Train,'' the chorus to which (``people all over the world join hands'') may have rung true in the '60s, but today, it comes off as simplistic and frivolous. Still, as we've come to expect from Sounds, there are plenty of technically terrific vocal moments, in a variety of styles, including cameos from rappers Craig Mack and Salt-N-Pepa.
Amidst the mundane material, there are a few exceptions, including ``Hold On (Change Is Comin'),'' which plays like a buoyant updating of Sam Cooke's ``A Change Is Gonna Come,'' and singer Mindy Waters' hushed reading of ``Familiar Waters,'' the disc's highlight. A little more of that, and a lot more interpretations of how it feels to be a spiritual person in the '90s, and this ``Healing'' process would rise above its Band-Aid status.
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(c) 1997, Saint Paul Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.).
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