Etta James “The Dreamer” (Verve Forecast, • • • 1/2)
By all indications, this will be Etta James’ last album – the 73-year-old R&B great is reported to be in the last stages of leukemia. If it is, then the singer of such immortals as “Tell Mama,” “At Last,” and “I’d Rather Go Blind” is going out on a high note.
“The Dreamer” presents James’ trademark blend of sophistication and sass. She can still display some grit, as she does on the jump-blues chestnut “Too Tired” and a groove-heavy reworking of Guns ‘N Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle.” She sounds just as at home, however, with the elegant balladry of Ray Charles’ “In the Evening” and Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “That’s the Chance You Take.” And her versions of two Otis Redding slow-burners – “Champagne and Wine” and “Cigarettes and Coffee – are about as deep as soul gets.
– Nick Cristiano
Guided by Voices “Let’s Eat the Factory” (GBV, Inc., • • • 1/2)
Robert Pollard broke up Guided by Voices at the end of 2004, vowing that was it for the band he started in Dayton, Ohio, in 1986 and of which he was the sole constant member. The demise of GBV didn’t slow Pollard’s output: He continued releasing a prodigious flood of recordings, solo and in various band configurations. But 2010 saw him reunite the “classic” GBV lineup of 1993-96, and it’s that lineup of Tobin Sprout, Mitch Mitchell, Greg Demos and Kevin Fennell that made “Let’s Eat the Factory,” the first new GBV album in eight years.
It’s a self-conscious return to the days of “Bee Thousand” and “Alien Lanes,” two records that helped invent indie rock. Full of brief, fragmented songs that bristle with guitar hooks, cryptic lyrics, and melodies that can soar, rock out, or be the calm declamatory center of stormy distortion, “Let’s Eat the Factory” is a throwback, but it’s everything one could hope for from a new GBV album.
– Steve Klinge
Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention “Carnegie Hall” (Vaulternative, • • • 1/2)
In the lifetime of a floating band constantly shifting personnel, more than a few Mothers did their inventive best for the late Frank Zappa – master guitarist, enigmatic composer, satirical lyricist – since that band’s 1965 start. Arguably, though, this never-before-released 1971 event (two shows, one October night) at the venerated classical music hall featured Zappa’s finest, if not weirdest, assemblage of adventuresome musicians and vocalists to have embraced Motherhood.
A British session giant (drummer Aynsley Dunbar), an improvisational woodwind/keyboard player (Ian Underwood), the jazziest of original Mothers (keyboardist Don Preston), and two pop-singing Turtles (Flo & Eddie) aided Zappa in some of his most cleverly complex compositions of the period. Although these Mothers cover Zappa’s most impish psychedelic tracks (“Call Any Vegetable”), oddball doo-wop numbers (“Any Way the Wind Blows”), linear instrumental workouts (“Peaches en Regalia”), and avant-classical epics (a 30-minute take on “King Kong”), it’s the childishly comic mini-opera “Billy the Mountain” and its blues-inspired brother, “The Mud Shark,” that are Carnegie Hall’s highlights. On these tunes, Flo & Eddie show off their highest voices and silliest soliloquies. Still, as with every Zappa concert recording, it’s Frank’s magnetically adroit guitar playing (truly rivaling Hendrix, Beck and Page) and dippy dramaturgy that you’ll remember most.
– A.D. Amorosi
Skrillex “Bangarang” (EP) (Big Beat, • • • )
There’s a recurring section in “Right In,” the opening cut on Skrillex’s third and final EP of a banner year, that keeps sounding like it will break into 2 Unlimited’s “Get Ready for This.” Then it dawns on you that Sonny Moore’s much-derided brand of dubstep (“bro-step,” technocrats sneer) is a spiritual update of ’90s “jock jams.” Not only should this stuff be accepted as popular time and again, but it should be welcomed: 2011 was astonishingly short on rock ‘n’ roll. With tracks such as “Rock and Roll Will Take You to the Mountain,” Moore at least attempts to fill that gap, and “Bangarang” – which is as thought-out (Arabian Nights synth, human beat-box battle) as it is crass and head-banging – will satisfy any open nonbeliever. Y’all ready for this?
– Dan Weiss
Sean Costello “At His Best – Live” (Landslide, • • • 1/2 )
Sean Costello died in April 2008, one day before his 29th birthday. By then, the onetime blues-rock guitar prodigy had developed into an exceptional all-around talent. And all that talent is on display in this collection of 16 live cuts spanning 2000 to 2007.
Costello could dig deep into the blues, as he does here with such numbers as Magic Sam’s “All Your Love.” But he also has a nimble touch with R&B – check out “The Hucklebuck” and “T-Bone Boogie.” With his raspy voice, he also recalls the great Southern-soul singer and guitarist Eddie Hinton on several numbers, including Bobby Womack’s “Check It Out.”
The live setting allows Costello to stretch out and show his chops. The first number is the Freddie King instrumental “San-Ho-Zay.” But while he fires off some intense and crowd-pleasing solos, he remains more focused on crafting a taut, dynamic ensemble sound.
By the time of his death, Costello had also become a formidable writer. The selections here are all non-originals, but they speak to his impeccable taste and his ability to make even the oldest and most well-worn material sound fresh.
– Nick Cristiano
Michael Feinstein “The Sinatra Project, Vol. II: The Good Life” (Concord, • • • 1/2)
Talk about a New Year’s CD! Singer Michael Feinstein puts the squeeze on the Sinatra songbook, but with a personal touch. The resulting dozen tunes are surprisingly glamorous. Here on Feinstein’s second CD on Sinatra, the strings surge a la Nelson Riddle. The horns are blistering at times. And the tunes are full of Tin Pan Alley panache.
The first five cuts are just boffo, especially the James Bond-like brass on “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?” The set becomes quieter and tamer after that. Feinstein also takes a more Broadway approach, characteristically for him.
Overall, though, while the tunes are recognizably Sinatra’s, they sound impressive and different. Feinstein, who worked early on as Ira Gershwin’s archivist, celebrates these tunes by breathing life into them.
– Karl Stark
“Chopin Etudes Op. 10 and 25” (Testament, • • • • )
“Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1” Staatskapelle Dresden, Christian Thielemann conducting (Deutsche Grammophon, • • • )
The revered Maurizio Pollini is heard at opposite ends of his career on these two discs, the Chopin a previously unreleased studio recording from 1960, the Brahms a live recording from 2011. And if the juxtaposition proves anything, it’s that Pollini’s worst enemy is comparisons with his younger self.
The Chopin dates from the pianist’s short, ill-fated association with EMI. Having won the 1960 Chopin Competition in Warsaw, Pollini seemed to have a career death wish: Among other things, he refused to approve the release of this splendid Chopin recording. His combination of clarity, vitality, velocity and stylish lyricism are a far cry from the almost stoic objectivity that’s heard on the Brahms disc, Pollini’s first recorded concerto outing in years.
The Brahms is an honorable effort that renders this big-boned concerto with fine-etched details, lovingly framed by conductor Christian Thielemann. The music’s heroism, though, is projected more through implication than by sound – unlike Pollini’s 1979 recording of the piece with the late conductor Karl Bohm, which has it all. While the Brahms is for Pollini fans, the Chopin is for everybody.
– David Patrick Stearns