Lou Reed: Animal Serenade (Reprise)
Lou Reed's new live double-CD opens with the familiar chords of “Sweet Jane,” but then he abruptly stops. “So I thought I'd explain to you how you make a career out of three chords,” he says to howls of laughter. He then notes that the riff is actually made up of four chords, but he never does get back to “Sweet Jane.” Oh well. Dust off your copy of Rock 'n' Roll Animal for that one. But Reed fans will find a lot to like here, as the New York icon serves up 20 songs spanning his Velvet Underground days to his most recent studio works, Ecstasy and The Raven. The small-group arrangements are dominated by Reed's ragged but effective electric guitar work, which turns out to be the perfect sonic bed for his unique sung/spoken urban poetry. It's an acquired taste, to be sure (but I've had it since the '60s). Among the most effective pieces on the set are the chilling “Street Hassle,” a hypnotic rendition of the VU classic “Venus in Furs,” a rockin' “Dirty Blvd.,” “All Tomorrow's Parties” and the four tunes from the relatively obscure (and underrated) Berlin, most notably “Men of Good Fortune” and “How Do You Think It Feels.” Reed takes you to places you might not ordinarily go and introduces you to people you might not ordinarily meet; surely, that is one of art's greatest functions. This set is a good crash course in what he does best.
Producers: Lou Reed and Fernando Saunders. Recorded by Biff Dawes/Westwood One at the Wiltern Theatre, L.A. Mixed by Nick Launay at Platinum Studios. Mastering: Emily Lazar/The Lodge (New York City).
— Blair Jackson
John Pizzarelli: Bossa Nova (Telarc)
At some point, every self-respecting jazz guitarist gets seduced by Brazilian music — by the bossa nova and the samba — and that means worshipping at the temple of Antonio Carlos Jobim (“Girl From Ipanema,” “Desafinado” and “One Note Samba” fame). This is perfect territory for the smooth stylings of guitarist/singer John Pizzarelli, and on his latest CD, he and a small group cruise through the classics above, as well as newer tunes by Brazilian writers such as Ivan Lins and Toninho Horta. Pizzarelli sounds right at home with the gentle rhythms and mellow vocal lines, and if he lacks the breathy sensuality of, say, Bebel Gilberto, he has plenty of spirit and fantastic guitar chops; in fact, if I have one complaint with this CD, it's that there's not enough guitar, which has always been Pizzarelli's strongest suit. I'm not sure, too, about attempting to transform songs like James Taylor's “Your Smiling Face” and The Gershwins' “Fascinatin' Rhythm” into the album's stylistic bag. Pizzarelli's own “Soares Samba” is right on the money, and the CD is a bright and breezy escape to a very colorful musical world.
Producer: Russ Titelman. Recording, mixing and mastering engineer: Robert Friedrich. Additional engineering: Dave O'Donnell, Hans Liebert. Studios: Avatar, Sony and Secret Studios (all in New York City).
— Blair Jackson
Damien Rice: O (Vector Recordings)
Since his beginnings in Ireland with the now-disbanded rock group Juniper, Damien Rice has designed a completely new musical identity. Often mislabeled as the “new David Gray,” Rice has actually made an undeniable effort to develop his own sound using an eclectic group of instruments, vocalists and production methods. His debut album, O, has won him a devoted fanbase stateside and worldwide, selling out intimate venues on his first tour. Rice has put his heart into O — as lead vocalist, multi-instrumentalist (playing clarinet, piano, bass and guitar), songwriter, engineer and producer, there's no question that this project is his own. In fact, the entire album was recorded via mobile studio on European backroads. O flows along, well-constructed but unafraid of improvisational moments, using heavy doses of cello and violin to harmonize with Rice one moment, and opera singers and Gregorian chants the next. Tender songs like “Volcano” and “Cannonball” are balanced by studies in remorse and unrequited love (“Cheers Darlin',” “I Remember”). Like a collage, O works dissonant sounds into patterns that artfully come together — vocals on top of strings, piano and electric guitar — all lashed together by lyrics that hit directly at the organs responsible for nostalgia or impulse.
Produced, recorded and mixed: Damien Rice. Additional credits for “Amie”: Produced by David Arnold, recorded by Steve Orchard at Air Studios, mixed by Rice, and orchestrated and conducted by Nicholas Dodd. Mastered by Robyn Robins at Mid Atlantic (Co. Fermanagh, Ireland).
— Breean Lingle
The Bad Plus: Give (Columbia)
Jazz music often comes off, especially to the un-Monk-trained ear, as complicated and pretentious, leaving some to dismiss the entire genre with a flippant “I don't like jazz. I don't understand it.” Well, maybe they could be won over by the Bad Plus, an über-talented acoustic trio that's well-schooled in improv and odd time signatures, but comfortable enough in their virtuosity to stretch progressive jazz boundaries and even cover a heavy metal tune if they want to. The lead track on the group's sophomore release, “1979 Semi-Finalist,” introduces us to David King's often brutal drumming, Ethan Iverson's melody-rich piano playing and Reid Anderson's slippery bass. “Cheney Piñata,” one of eight Bad Plus originals, bursts forth with bright Latin melodies and ample percussion, while tracks such as “Frog and Toad” show the group's adept subtlety. Covers include the spooky and chaotic “Street Woman” (Ornette Coleman); an impressive “Velouria” rearrangement (The Pixies) that's led by rapid-fire percussion and progresses from sparse to cacophonous to gorgeous; and a must-hear version of Black Sabbath's classic “Iron Man.” Yes, the Bad Plus is bad-ass!
Producer-engineer: Tchad Blake. Assistant engineer: Claire Lewis. Studio: Real World Studios (Wiltshire, England). Mastering: Bob Ludwig/Gateway Mastering.
— Heather Johnson