Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Critical Condition: Cockburn! Mehldau! Young! Serenity!

Time to round up this week's new releases. We'll start with a pair of instrumental releases from a couple of veteran artists. Bruce Cockburn turned sixty years old this year but he shows no sign of slowing down; today marks the release of Speechless, his first ever collection of instrumental guitar pieces. If Thom Jurek is right-- and he often is-- this record promises to be much more compelling than the other recent instrumental release by a renowned Canadian singer/songwriter:

The most remarkable thing about Speechless, is though it lies firmly in its own subcategory in Cockburn's catalogue, it remains, despite the improvisation and textures, a recording of songs. Their composer's need to establish the fact even in abstraction and extrapolation is commendable. Speechless is not only accessible, it's downright beautiful, poetic and seductive.

Today's also the release day for Day is Done, the latest instrumental jazz recording from the great pianist Brad Mehldau. If you're not a Mehldau fan then give a listen to his take on Radiohead's "Paranoid Android"; it's all it'll take to convince you of this man's talents. His new record boasts yet another Radiohead cover-- "Knives Out"-- and another rave review from Thom Jurek:

This is Mehldau's most energetic and rigorous recording to date. These ten cuts are comprised mainly of covers, though aside from "Alfie," there isn't anything here approaching a standard. There are tunes here by the Beatles ("She's Leaving Home" and a glorious solo version "Martha My Dear" with a Scarlatti-esque study in counterpoint to usher it in), Paul Simon (a jaunty read of "50 Ways To Leave Your Lover"), Nick Drake (the title cut), and even Radiohead (in the crackling energy of "Knives Out"). There are two fine originals as well: there's the shimmering "Artis," with its striated right hand work, and the Latin tinged "Turtle Town," a somewhat breezy ballad that is nonetheless knotty and off kilter enough in its melody and in Mehldau's solo to become complex and challenging.

Things don't sound quite so rosey for Neil Young fans. Stephen Thomas Erlewine reviews Prairie Wind:

For despite all of its strengths, neither the recording nor the songs are as memorable or as fully realized as his late-'80s/early-'90s comeback records -- Freedom, Ragged Glory, and Harvest Moon -- let alone his classic '70s work. Nevertheless, it's the closest Young has come to making a record that could hold its own with those albums in well over a decade, which means it's worthwhile even if it's never quite as great as it seems like it could have been.

Finally, as a big fan of Firefly-- the greatest sci-fi adventure series to ever hit TV-- I'm slightly disappointed by this review of the Serenity soundtrack, from the big-screen adaptation that opens this week:

While composer David Newman -- he has a famous composer brother named Thomas (Shawshank Redemption, Six Feet Under) and even more famous cousin named Randy -- retains little of Greg Edmonson and Whedon's original music on the series' big-screen adaptation, Serenity is still occasionally kissed by a flurry of guitar and banjo, percussion, and pan-Asian flute motifs. Newman has taken some of the quirkiness out -- to many a fan's dismay -- and replaced it with chilly and bombastic action cues that scream mediocrity, but for the most part no great injustice has been done.


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