record reviews


GEOFFREY GURRUMUL YUNUPINGU

Album: “Gurrumul”

Grade: A

An indigenous Australian singer-songwriter blind from birth, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu has become an unlikely breakout star across the world since releasing this hour-long debut album at home and in Europe. He’s duetted with Sting on French TV, opened by personal request for Elton John at the Sydney Opera House, and seen the album go double platinum and win several awards in Australia. Rightly so: Singing primarily in regional dialects of Australia’s Arnhem Land Aboriginal Reserve, Yunupingu’s voice is transfixing and somehow universal. He uses his left hand to play a guitar strung for a right-handed player, taking the familiar low-key DNA of folk music into unexplored places. Often embellished with nothing more than double bass and vocal harmonies, Yunupingu reveals a serene, soulful resonance.

—Doug Wallen, Philadelphia Inquirer

SUSAN COWSILL

Album: “Lighthouse”

Grade: B

“From Katrina to Super Bowl Champs, this is our story,” Susan Cowsill writes in the liner notes of her second solo album. If the name sounds familiar, yes, the New Orleans-based singer and songwriter was a member of the ’60s family group the Cowsills. You won’t find their kind of effervescent pop here; instead, Cowsill, in the manner of her work with the Americana supergroup the Continental Drifters, delivers something deeper and richer.

“Lighthouse’s” elegant folk-rock, at times augmented by violin and cello, is suffused with loss and dislocation. Besides great material loss, the temporarily displaced Cowsill also lost one of her brothers, Barry, in the 2005 hurricane. (In tribute, she covers his “River of Love” with vocals by three other siblings.) But this story’s arc has a cumulative power, and it ends on a note of hope with “Crescent City Sneaux.” As Cowsill references both the city’s storied musical tradition and its new football champions (“Oh when dem Saints come marchin’ in / They’ll all be singin’ / Who Dat, Who Dat say they gonna beat them Saints”), the joy and optimism are as palpable as they are hard-earned.

—Nick Cristiano, Philadelphia Inquirer

SARAH MCLACHLAN

Album: “Laws of Illusion”

Grade: C+

Except for Sarah McLachlan’s voice gliding over images of needy animals on the ASPCA commercials once parodied by “Saturday Night Live,” the Canadian singer-songwriter and Lilith Fair co-founder has barely been heard from in the past seven years. This year, though, she returns with the latest incarnation of the all-female touring festival and her first album of new material since “Afterglow” in 2003.

“Laws of Illusion,” much like Lilith Fair 2010, provides an opportunity to reassess the legacy of McLachlan, whose 1994 album, “Fumbling Towards Ecstasy,” went triple-platinum. As far as her concert concept goes, Lilith Fair 2010, with its remarkably varied lineup of R&B, country, indie and Top 40, feels in sync with our genre-fluid world now more than ever. That the lineup is all female seems almost incidental, a victory compared to 1997-99, when seemingly every conversation about Lilith centered on gender, not even at large, but as constructed by the music industry.

Timing has been equally kind to McLachlan the artist, though it doesn’t result in a similarly shifted perception. “Laws of Illusion” easily could have been released in the late ’90s, so little has changed about McLachlan’s style of songwriting and delivery. She still has a deft sense of song construction, with parts that link together in revelatory ways. But in the execution of these songs, “Laws of Illusion” often disappoints. Too many times, a cringe-inducing guitar tone rings out that’s become so synonymous with adult contemporary trappings that it mostly suggests the perfumed sanctum of the local Anthropologie store.

The last song of the album, “Bring on the Wonder,” is one of the album’s most beautiful departures: silvery layers of McLachlan’s voice singing over only the barest slip of piano. If only McLachlan would’ve stripped out the more unoriginal instrumentation on other tracks and relied solely on her voice; it’s a haunting, evocative thing we’d follow anywhere.

—Margaret Wappler, Los Angeles Times

THE GASLIGHT ANTHEM

Album: “American Slang”

Grade: C+

When the Gaslight Anthem’s breakthrough album, “The ’59 Sound,” landed in 2008, it made excellent use of a very out-of-fashion instrument: absolute earnestness. On tracks such as “High Lonesome” and “Old White Lincoln,” the New Jersey quartet channeled both the widescreen Americana of their state’s favorite rock god, and the three-minute fervor of such Garden State street punk as the Bouncing Souls. Even the terminally hip couldn’t help but be disarmed.

For “American Slang,” they dig even deeper into their source material — Otis, Elvis, Replacements. It’s to dutiful and evocative effect, but a little bit at the expense of the punky pluck that leavened their highway-wide serious streak.

“The Diamond Church Street Choir” imagines a world in which Phil Spector had decided his core audience should be Detroit plant-line workers instead of lovelorn teenage girls. “Stay Lucky” and “Boxer” come closest to the top-down singalongs of “The ’59 Sound,” with restless guitar trilling and dynamic drum breaks, and Brian Fallon’s gruff tenor still taps a deep vein of American male loneliness.

But though “The Queen of Lower Chelsea” and the deep burn of “We Did When We Were Young” show impulses to broaden Gaslight’s songwriting palette, one color that hasn’t entered is humor. This band is way too young to be singing about its “aging bones” yet.

The Gaslight Anthem is working in such an old strain of rock, it might be inevitable that history caught up to it. But any band this unafraid to mean it still needs to be savored.

—August Brown, Los Angeles Times

HANK III

Album: “Rebel Within”

Grade: B

You could say Hank III is really getting the hang of this honky-tonk thing. Although it may seem odd to use the word maturing for someone who still likes to strike a rebel pose and who also performs punk/metal as Assjack, as a country artist he is doing well by the family tradition. As with his physical features, his style is closer to that of his gaunt, nasal-voiced grandfather, Hank Williams Sr., than his burly, country-rocker daddy, Hank Jr.

The punk side of Hank III surfaces on the profane “Tore Up and Loud.” The rocker is the album’s weakest track and points up that Hank III is much more credible — and appealing — when he drops the self-conscious attitude. The bluegrass-flavored “Lookin’ for a Mountain” has just as much energy as “Tore Up ...,” as Hank III expresses longing for a home. He also delivers several striking down-and-outers, from the booze-fueled self-pity of “Gettin’ Drunk and Fallin’ Down” and “Drinkin’ Ain’t Hard to Do,” to “Gone But Not Forgotten” and the junkie’s lament “5.” In that same vein, “Lost in Oklahoma” is another one that reveals an artist who has found his voice.

—Nick Cristiano, Philadelphia Inquirer

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