ON THE RECORD | What's hot in albums, tapes and discs

Frank Black
(Back Porch) sss
The first solo album in nearly a decade from Frank Black is a surprisingly sedate affair and a far cry from his crazed, high-energy work in the '80s post-punk band the Pixies, who finally re-formed last year amid great hoopla.
At loose ends a few years ago when his marriage came to an end, Black decided to fulfill a dream of making a rock 'n' roll record in Nashville with the best available studio players, & agrave; la Bob Dylan's "Blonde On Blonde." After booking such session aces as Steve Cropper, Spooner Oldham, David Hood and Reggie Young, the Pixies reunion became a reality, leaving Black only five days to record an album with musicians unfamiliar with his past work and his new material.
This recipe for disaster turns out to be quite a joy, with Cropper and Oldham's work particularly outstanding, as they provide mellow and rootsy backup to Black's noncookie-cutter lyrics and chord progressions. With songs by necessity captured in just a take or two, the whole affair has a directness and warmth that brings out a kinder, gentler side to Black, although we probably could have done without his remake of "Song of the Shrimp" from Elvis Presley's film, "Girls, Girls, Girls."
Chris Whitley
(Messenger) sss
Not content to simply be a fabulously talented National Steel Guitar player and equally adept singer-songwriter, Texas-born Chris Whitley has a restless muse that has taken him all over the map geographically and musically. Based for the past few years in Dresden, Germany, where he met his current rhythm section of drummer Matthias Macht and bassist Heiko Schramm, Whitley mixes electronic rhythms and ambience with more earthy, organic ingredients to come up with a challenging work that will reward patient ears but won't likely increase his fan base beyond its cult status.
The title of Whitley's 12th album is taken from a poem by surrealist Andr & eacute; Breton, and the word "surreal" comes pretty close to capturing the effect these eerie, otherworldly songs have, with Whitley's percussive guitar attack joined by the clattering rhythm programming and out-of-this-world atmospherics of producer Malcolm Burn.
Even rabid Whitley devotees may have trouble with the album's centerpiece, the overly long and self-indulgent "City of Women," but this misstep is quickly overshadowed by the more succinct and in-the-pocket tracks "Fireroad," "As Day Is Long" and "Her Furious Angels."
At its best, "Soft Dangerous Shores" gets under your skin with its haunted songs of despair and desire that are a strange hybrid of folk-blues and quasi-Kraftwerk.
Various Artists
(New Line) sss
Because I was too busy laughing at the funniest comedy of the summer, I barely noticed the music, save for the reception standard "Shout!" by the Isley Brothers, a selection that neatly connects the film to its '70s antecedent "Animal House." So I'm hard-pressed to tell you exactly which of the songs on the soundtrack are actually featured in the film, or, as has become common in the era of tie-ins, the selections that were "inspired by" the story.
For most people, the reason to acquire this collection will be a new track from Flaming Lips, "Mr. Ambulance Driver," which composer and bandleader Wayne Coyne says was inspired by both the death of his mother, and the death-rock power-ballad "D.O.A." by fellow Oklahomans Bloodrock, a band that owed no small debt to Grand Funk Railroad. But the compiler of this record clearly has taste: Alongside previously issued songs by Spoon, Rilo Kiley and Death Cab for Cutie, and a fine B-side by the better-than-you-thought Jimmy Eat World is "Circus," a true gem from Detroit power pop stylists the Sights. A 2004 single also contained on the band's recent self-titled album, it showcases the brilliance of a band that creates something totally new from remnants of the Small Faces and old T. Rex.
Bill Charlap
(Blue Note) ssss
With the possible exception of Brad Mehldau, none of the current generation of jazz pianists has had a longer string of solid recordings than Bill Charlap, who also has found time to provide outstanding sideman dates and duets. This collection of songs by the jazziest of the composers of the great American songbook is Charlap's best since his 1997 album "Distant Star." Accompanied by his usual rhythm section of drummer Kenny Washington and bassist Peter Washington, and on three songs by an all-star horn section including Phil Woods, Nicholas Payton, Frank Wess and Slide Hampton, Charlap swings more and harder than he did on tributes to Leonard Bernstein and Hoagy Carmichael. He discovers nuance in old chestnuts like "S Wonderful" and "Somebody Loves Me," in which he sounds uncannily like late Detroit legend Tommy Flanagan.
Detroit Free Press

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