When Sinead O'Connor set off to make Theology, she began with the notion of recording acoustic-only tracks — just her and a guitar, the way she performs some of her live encores. But just as she and producer Steve Cooney were capturing intimate versions of these beautiful new songs in Windmill Lane, O'Connor was also working with producer Ron Tom with the idea of recording a future project in the way most of her albums have been made: combining hip hop beats with orchestral strings and electric guitars as a backdrop for the singer's magnificent, reverb-magnified voice. O'Connor found herself totally attached to both versions of this album, and so she's releasing both. It's easy to see why; the acoustic disc 1 (dubbed the Dublin Sessions) and electric disc 2 (London Sessions) are equally intoxicating. The acoustic disc is simple and sweet, with delicate guitar work and pure focus on song and voice. Disc 2 is by turns bright and moody, and includes the first UK single (a song that's not on Disc 1), O'Connor's version of the Rice/Webber opus from Jesus Christ Superstar, “I Don't Know How to Love Him.” More exemplary of the compositions on this double-CD is the U.S. single, “Something Beautiful,” which O'Connor says she wrote as sort of a prayer for the inspiration to create something beautiful in a dangerous world. The overall feeling on Theology is somehow simultaneously personal and Biblical. Most important, acoustic or electric, O'Connor's sound is unmistakable, and always remarkable.
Producers: Sinead O'Connor, Steve Cooney, Ron Tom. Engineers: Graham Bolger, Ron Tom, George Renwick. Studios: Windmill Lane (Dublin), Mayfair Recording Studios (London). Mastering: Disc 1 — Bob Katz/Digital Domain (Altamonte Springs, FL); Disc 2 — Chaz Harper/Battery Studios (NYC). — Barbara Schultz
A songwriter's muse can come from anywhere: Nicole Atkins is a self-proclaimed metal-head, yet what comes out of her mouth is smooth, luscious and elegant. Her debut, named for her New Jersey seaside hometown, is dreamy, with hints of Loretta Lynn coming through with a hint of pop sensibilities. Backed by her band, The Sea, Atkins eases into the album with soft lyrics, minimal drumming and an easy swing. As you progress through this effort, you suddenly realize that you're hearing more politically oriented lyrics while holding true to a “love lost” foundation. The moods flow easily from soft ballads to more folk/pop stylings to a smoke-filled Paris cafe without too much drama. Atkins is someone to keep your eye on.
Producer: Tore Johansson. Engineer: Acke. Mixing: Johansson. Studios: Varispeed Studios (Klagerup, Sweden), The Bubble. Mastering: Morten Blue at Audioplanet (Copenhagen).
— Sarah Benzuly
THE COUNTRY GENTLEMEN
Going Back to the Blue Ridge Mountains
Like Flatt & Scruggs, bluegrass artists The Country Gentlemen gained most of their fame from the “Folk Revival” of the '50s and '60s. Their traditional, virtuosic sound may have been fairly commonplace in their home state of Virginia, but Northern music lovers couldn't get enough. This CD was originally released in 1973 and comprises live performances that the producers think took place throughout the '60s. Smithsonian Folkways has reissued Going Back in celebration of the Gentlemen's golden anniversary, and it includes a 28-page booklet detailing the history of the group, and offering a critical view of bluegrass of that era. The album may not be spotlessly clean, but passionate playing, high lonesome singing, and surprisingly good separation of instruments make the release just as enjoyable as it is historical.
Sound supervision and mastering: Pete Reiniger.
— Barbara Schultz
Low Country Suite
King Wilkie play a moody brand of string band music that occasionally brushes up against a traditional bluegrass approach, but often veers in other directions simultaneously, adding such instrumental touches as ukulele, pedal steel guitar, accordion, percussion, even kazoo. Mandolinist Reid Burgess and guitarist John McDonald have a wonderful vocal blend on this collection, which is dominated by country/folk ballads. “Crazy Daisy” shows their debt to Sweetheart of the Rodeo-era Byrds, but mostly they have an original sound that mixes melancholy with melody quite beautifully. Songs such as “Stone & Steel” and “Captivator” are quietly powerful and emotional, whereas the excellent “Wrecking Ball” jumps from the disc. And though there's no flashy playing at all, the instrumental work throughout feels just right.
LISTEN: Must Play
Produced, engineered and mixed by Jim Scott. Recording and additional engineering: Steven Rhodes. Studio: Plyrz Studio (L.A.). Mastering: Joe Gastwirt/Gastwirt Mastering (Oak Park, CA)
— Blair Jackson
After the Big Rain
I first encountered New York trumpeter Avishai Cohen's atmospheric work on a pair of luminous albums by the French singer Keren Ann. The quieter parts of this album have some of that reflective and introspective quality, but much of what's here has a distinctly African feel to it, thanks in part to the presence of Benin-born guitarist and singer Lionel Loueke (who recently signed his own deal with Blue Note). The title song and “Miryama” are in the Fon language of West Africa, and the disc's longest track is called “African Daisy” (though it's less overtly African-sounding). Not surprisingly, Cohen occasionally echoes Miles Davis in his playing, but he also favors electronic treatments on his horn, which take it to another place altogether. File this intriguing outing under “World Jazz.”
LISTEN: Must Play
After the Big Rain
Producer: Avishai Cohen. Engineer: Frederik Rubens. Studio: Puremix (NYC). Mastering: Allan Tucker/Foothill Digital (NYC)
— Blair Jackson