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'FRONT PARLOUR BALLADS'
(Cooking Vinyl, sss)
As its title suggests, "Front Parlour Ballads" finds Richard Thompson settling into the salon for a spell of acoustic storytelling. Funny, then, that the disc cover shows the bearded Briton playing an electric instrument. He never does plug in on this baker's dozen of original numbers, many of which sound as if they could be centuries-old Elizabethan or Celtic folk songs.
This is Thompson's first all-acoustic effort since 1981's instrumental "Strict Tempo!," and as anyone who's ever witnessed a Thompson solo gig knows, the droll and dour guitar god is unsurpassed at self-accompaniment.
However, "Ballads" is not quite the cause for celebration that Thompson fans may have anticipated.
There's nothing as scintillating as, say, "1952 Vincent Black Lightning." And while there's many a powerful meditation such as "My, My Soul," it's too bad he didn't balance the grimness with a few more cuttingly clever upbeat compositions, such as the opening charmer "Let It Blow," about a man who goes through marriages the way Larry Brown does basketball teams.
'GROWN & amp; SEXY'
With the exception of 2001's "Face2face," Babyface has always made soul that's rub-u-down mature.
Why must the artist born Kenny Edmonds, already the king of Drambuie-soaked chords and sophisticated sentiment, try so hard for a ripened burnish?
Sure, he likes a "Mad, Sexy, Cool" girl. But he wants that woman to know he's all about her -- not "the club, his ride, his clothes." But on "Tonight It's Goin' Down," he sings of the "final round," pinning it to "making babies." Dag. Whatever happened to just getting sexed-up?
Nevertheless, this is a Babyface record, crammed with simmering melodies catchier than their lyrics are wild.
And he manages some humor on "Goin' Outta Business," a May/September romance in which the girl gets the "ghetto chain" but he keeps "the diamond rings."
Babyface ain't that sexy anymore. But he ain't stupid.
(Warner Bros., ss)
It's a shamelessly transparent stab at image adjustment: On the first single from her new album, Faith Hill assures us she's still just a "Mississippi Girl" -- regular down-home folks.
This from a singer who gladly shed every last trace of country on her climb to pop stardom.
"Girl" sets the strategy for "Fireflies." Mandolins and steel guitars abound, and the restrained production is welcome after all the power-ballad bombast of the past. But all the rootsy touches are just window dressing for the usual hack work.
For every nuanced portrait such as "Stealing Kisses," we get three howlers, like the simple-minded "Sunshine and Summertime"; the off-the-rack ballad "I Want You" (with her husband, Tim McGraw); and the ill-fitting "The Lucky One," in which Hill laughably steps into the shoes of a scuffling soul.
And that's the other thing: When it comes to conveying emotion that rings true, Hill is still sadly lacking.
With even its title being a play on Jason Mraz's name, the artist has gone word-crazy on his well-intended but overly self-impressed sophomore album.
Glitzily produced by Steve Lillywhite, the disc has its radio-friendly merits.
But despite Mraz's strong vocals and ridiculously hummable songs, the disc almost plays like a crash course on the perils of believing one's own PR, in this case pegging Mraz as a wittier, edgier John Mayer.
Mraz created a niche as a jazz-scatting, hip-hop folkie, but his verbal wizardry, now overwrought with lines like "I'm the wizard of oohs and ahs and fa-la-las," seems to have him stuck in a shtick he can't get out of.
'THE COMPANY WE KEEP'
The Del McCoury Band
(MCM/Sugar Hill, sss 1/2)
"Don't never let it be said, darlin', that what I do don't bring me joy," Del McCoury sings in his high, pinched tenor on the semiautobiographical "Never Grow Up Boy." The 66-year-old singer-guitarist has been spreading that joy for a long time, and -- thanks to his band's association with Steve Earle, Dierks Bentley and other stars -- not just within bluegrass circles.
For "The Company We Keep," McCoury and his group stick to the bluegrass basics.
There are no well-known rock or blues songs, but the solid material eloquently expresses heartache and happiness and homespun wisdom, mixing humility with occasional swagger.
One of the most inspired moments, considering that the band includes McCoury's two boys, is the version of Gary Nicholson's poignant "Fathers and Sons," with Rob and Ronnie helping their father on the vocals.
'SUITE FOR JOHN A. WILLIAMS'
(Dreambox Media, sss 1/2)
Bassist Tyrone Brown, who has played with drummer Max Roach and Philly saxophonist Odean Pope, has been experimenting with strings in recent years, and this set continues the trend in cool directions.
Brown's tribute to author John A. Williams -- whose best-known novel, "The Man Who Cried I Am," describes a plan to arrest black leaders amid a national emergency -- is a great, madcap swing through jazz, written in six movements. It's also a good place to hear some vital Philly players.
Bobby Zankel's ardent alto is a constant presence. So are Craig McIver's propulsive drums and Brown's bass, which kicks off the Second Movement with mournful aplomb.
Brown has fashioned five movements of taut music that swings big and often feeds off the blues. The Sixth features strings playing as Williams reads from his poetry book, "Safari West." It's both odd and mystical.
'AN ITALIAN STRAW HAT' NATIONAL BALLET OF CANADA ORCHESTRA, ORMSBY WILKINS CONDUCTING
(Ecstatic Records, ssss)
Michael Torke's rhythmically effervescent music has addictive qualities, and those of us suffering from Torke withdrawal will gladly put up with this CD's silly cover and the prosaic title to hear this two-act ballet score, which premiered this year. It's a rare instance of a full-length ballet score worth hearing on its own.
Although the music serves the narrative and atmospheric elements with echoes of tarantellas and other Italian dances, there's virtually no vamping or purely descriptive moments that require specific awareness of stage action.
The piece is yet another milestone in the escalating richness of Torke's music. Harmonically, "An Italian Straw Hat" resembles Stravinsky's chic, neo-classic ballets, but it also puts on display Torke's trademark rhythmic punchiness and a wide range of melodic types, from short, fun tunes to broad anthems. His robust orchestration has never been more dazzling. (For more information, consult the composer's Web site www.michaeltorke.com.)
(Fortress, sss 1/2)
Camden-born pianist Eric Lewis, 32, has been quietly picking his shots as a sideman for trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, singer Cassandra Wilson and drummer Elvin Jones. But as his late June performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" on a specially outfitted car for a NASCAR race attests, he's moving toward a higher profile.
His first disc as a leader comes with a DVD of a live performance plus interviews with Marsalis and others that nicely capture Lewis' uniqueness and outsized abilities.
For at least half the set, Lewis plays in a classy and accessible mode, lulling you into a carefree zone with his trio mates, bassist Paul Beaudry and drummer Ralph Penland.
But then Lewis lets out the beast on a wonderful, rambling take of the standard "Cherokee." And his solo version of "Thanksgiving" is a ripsnorter, full of bluesy licks that slather on the sauce.
Then Lewis grows gradually more magical. "Puerto Rico" displays a Latin fierceness, and "Blessed Assurance" is tuneful and gossamer-winged. "The Philly Groove" exudes a danceable, soulful burn, as it should.
SYMPHONY NO. 13 ("BABI YAR") SERGEY ALEKSASHKIN, BASS; CHORUS AND ORCHESTRA OF THE BAVARIAN RADIO, MARISS JANSONS CONDUCTING
This orchestral setting of poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko was pretty volatile stuff when it premiered in 1962.
Though the subject is a mass execution of Russians in Kiev during World War II, the words were taken as a criticism of the Stalin regime, effectively thwarting the piece's dissemination.
Although some conductors try to convince the listener that this is a proper symphony, this recording embraces the piece's hybrid identity as a symphonic cantata -- even though the manner, if not the message, of Yevtushenko's verse is a bit dated.
The main attraction is bass Sergey Aleksashkin, who articulates and colors the text with great passion and invention, framed by Mariss Jansons' crisp sense of animation. The chorus and orchestra are superb; the sound quality is excellent.