'U.S.A. [UNITED STATES OF ATLANTA]'
Ying Yang Twins
Ying Yang Twins are the most accurately named pop group since the Dixie Chicks. The Atlanta duo of rappers Kaine and D-Roc (not brothers, though their gruff voices sound exactly the same) make Southern-fried crunk hip-hop that is a study in stark contrast.
Half the songs on their fourth album are devoted to such noble sentiments as fraternal love ("My Brother's Keeper"), opposition to war ("Ghetto Classics"), and, uh, sympathy for the plight of strippers ("Live Again"). But the other numbers are strictly misogynistic sex raps. "Wait [The Whisper Song]," already a hit, simultaneously repels and seduces with its artlessly raunchy and threatening lyrics and addictive minimalist groove.
'OKEMAH AND THE MELODY OF RIOT'
(Transmit Sound/Legacy) sss
New players surround Jay Farrar in Son Volt 2.0, which is still the former Uncle Tupelo member's show. And while his High Plains yarl and gift for finding the ethereal sweet spot in a torrent of Dust Bowl twang remain, the turbulent political times have profoundly affected Farrar's worldview.
On the lurching "Jet Pilot" he calls out the fortunate sons of Washington like an alt-country Michael Moore over a see-saw guitar dynamic. That song's carefully aimed vitriol eventually lapses into naive sloganeering on "Endless War."
Farrar's other concerns are less dire, but he airs them with equal passion.
'DIVORCING NEO 2 MARRY SOUL'
The title of Jaguar Wright's second album means to repudiate all things faux, secondhand and not hard-core. "Out with the new, and in with the old," the Philadelphian sings at the start of "Dear John," disassociating herself from the neo-soul tag that was hung on her as well as artists such as Erykah Badu and Musiq Soulchild.
"Divorcing" doesn't make a clean break -- the polished instrumental backing is hardly gritty Stax/Volt stuff. But as a singer who can growl, purr and coo in take-no-mess songs such as "Free" and "Been Here Before," Wright is convincingly old-school, in the best way.
'THINK ABOUT IT'
Coming right from the heart of the country -- Springfield, Mo. -- the Morells are masters of Americana, especially rock 'n' roll, country and vintage AM-radio pop. "Think About It" is another fun foray into that territory.
The Morells don't write much, although they can -- guitarist D. Clinton Thompson's twang-fueled "She's Gone" and jazz-flavored instrumental "Popbelly" are among the fine originals here. But whether they're doing their own material or digging into Chuck Berry's "Nadine" or the Raiders' "Ups and Downs," or letting bassist Lou Whitney enhance the humor of the spoken-sung "How Come My Dog Don't Bark," the band brings an offhand virtuosity and playful sense of adventure that are hard to resist.
Margaret Leng Tan, piano; Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Jose Serebrier conducting
Don't be put off by composer Ge Gan-ru's reputation as China's first avant-garde composer. His music is indeed forward-looking, but is most notable not for breaking ground (which it doesn't), but for clarity of intention. Once accustomed to his feverish, restless style, listeners aren't likely to have a problem following his train of musical thoughts.
The 20-minute orchestral work "Chinese Rhapsody" is a true journey in that new musical vistas are constantly opening before you -- with no turning back.
'SOME KIND OF SIGN'
The Domino Kings
(HighTone) sss 1/2
'WALK THROUGH WALLS'
On the Domino Kings' "It's All Over But the Crying," the singer's woman is about to leave because "she got tired of the cheating and tired of the lying." Naturally, you think at first that he is the guilty party, but as the twangy barroom shuffle progresses it turns out she is the one who has strayed. That's just one way the Springfield, Mo., group led by singer and guitarist Steve Newman puts fresh spins on age-old honky-tonk on the ruggedly energetic "Some Kind of Sign," the Kings' best album.
Brian Capps is no longer a Domino King, but he still retains an affinity for classic country. Although his album and the Kings' set were produced by the Morells' Lou Whitney, he establishes his own identity as he delivers strong originals including "The Bottom" and "I Wouldn't Say That's Living."
Kim Criswell, Audra McDonald, Thomas Hampson, Brent Barrett, Berlin Philharmonic, Simon Rattle conducting
(EuroArts DVD) sss
Usually, European orchestras celebrate the New Year with breezy, aristocratic Strauss waltzes. In wild defiance of that, Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philharmonic and a hand-picked cast of smart, brassy theater talents in a concert version of Bernstein's lightest, silliest Broadway musical, "Wonderful Town." The cast alone is worth the DVD's price.
Though Rattle often isn't at his best in pop/jazz pieces, this is an exception. He's thoroughly idiomatic and makes the whole performance heaps of fun.
(ECM) sss 1/2
To mark his 60th birthday, pianist Keith Jarrett doesn't so much play this solo performance as channel it.
The tunes aren't composed. Jarrett connects one idea to another, and his rolling reverie drifts along for 17 pieces over two discs. The result is either monumentally indulgent or pure genius -- or some of both.
That Jarrett can play at such a high level by himself is news. A former Allentown prodigy who became one of jazz's most significant pianists, he was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome in 1996, and spent four years off his instrument or severely limited. This session, recorded live in Tokyo and Osaka in 2002, represents another marker in his return to solo playing, recalling his celebrated 1975 Koln Concert.
If you wanted to use one set from one artist to show what the piano is capable of, this might suffice. The overall effect can be magisterial. Jarrett's magic is more than back.
'FOUR ON THE FLOOR'
The Eric Mintel Quartet
Pianist and bandleader Eric Mintel plays a sweet, digestible brand of jazz. A devotee of pianist Dave Brubeck who has gigged at the White House and the Kennedy Center, he understands what it takes to sustain a working jazz band.
His quartet -- with saxophonist Neil Wetzel, bassist Dave Antonow, and drummer Jeremy Berberian -- sounds bright and pleasant but not cravenly commercial. The 11 Mintel originals here often have the feel of a Broadway musical with some advanced bop thrown in.
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