Reviews of new pop, country/blues, jazz and classical releases
THEOPHILUS LONDON “Timez Are Weird These Days”
It’s easy to understand why the haters attack Theophilus London. Even before this, his first album, arrived, the young hip-pop New Yorker garnered endorsements from upscale brands such as Bushmills and Cole Haan. He’s been featured in fashion and lifestyle mags for his retro look (on the cover of Timez Are Weird These Days, he mimics the pose from a 1982 album by obscure Motown songwriter Leon Ware), and he’s not shy about his grand ambitions.
But London is aware that he cannot ride on his sartorial sense alone: On the elecro-anthem “I Stand Alone,” he states, “Clothes don’t make the man; it’s the man that makes the clothes.” This is a man who seems to have studied his Prince, his Andre 3000, and, especially and perhaps most surprisingly, his PM Dawn. London is least persuasive when he dabbles in hardcore, as on the pornographic “Girls Girls $,” but like Kid Cudi, he’s great at catchy, accessible pop, such as the twangy “All Around the World” or the tracks that enlist Holly Miranda or Sara Quinn (of Tegan & Sara).
TIM ROBBINS AND THE ROGUES GALLERY BAND “Tim Robbins and the Rogues Gallery Band”
Yes, this is the Oscar-winning actor. According to his press bio, however, Tim Robbins has been singing and writing all his life. He’s just kept it under the radar — until now. The seasoning strategy seems to have paid off. The 52-year-old sounds ready for his musical close-up.
Rogues Gallery may evoke the image of a band of rowdies. Indeed, “Time to Kill” is a stinging blues-rocker, and the accordion-laced “You’re My Dare” would sound right at home as a sing-along in an Irish bar. For the most part, however, Robbins and producer Hal Willner keep things more subdued and atmospheric. That fits the folkish narrative bent of Robbins’ songs and where he is best as a singer — low-key and conversational, reminiscent of folk-bluesman Chris Smither (or Lou Reed — “Book of Josie” has a “Walk on the Wild Side” vibe).
Robbins at times flirts with the ponderous and pretentious. In most cases, however, from the yearning “Dreams” to the harrowing “Time to Kill,” he doesn’t come close to that line.
WASHED OUT “Within and Without”
There aren’t many acts that could get away with a title such as “Within and Without,” one that conjures up psychedelia and psilocybin. Atlanta’s Ernest Greene can get away with it. Not because he’s made an album worthy of the Woodstock Nation. Rather because the chillwave linchpin has made a coolly narcotizing synth album as spacey as any acid ‘60s classic, with grooves of a delicate density that’s truly magical.
Produced by odd rhythm expert Ben Allen (Animal Collective, Gnarls Barkley), Greene’s cotton-candy vocals, often multitracked, float above the washes of faux strings and muted brass tones. On “Echoes” and “Eyes Be Closed,” the doubled-up voices and ethereal instrumentation take on a druggy luminescence made more prominent by the softly stuttering rhythms, clicking snares, and occasional strikes of a robotic tom-tom. This pulsing gentility carries over to the tremulous samba of “Far Away,” in which Greene’s tentative vocals mix with a disco-ish bass line and what sounds like a live cello whine. Even without that bass bottom end, the notion of heavenly disco is quietly alive throughout the calmly tripping “Within and Without,” from its start to its fluttering, piano-filled finale.
GOMEZ “Whatever’s on Your Mind”
For hipsters, Gomez begins and ends with the ‘90s. They have a Mercury Prize to show for being one of the last gasps of “eclectica,” which I’ll use for that string of acclaimed acts in the Beck mold who combined sincere roots affectations with trip-hop studio experiments. As purer music fell back into favor, with the Strokes and electroclash, Gomez wasn’t very hip by the time they signed with Dave Matthews. On “Whatever’s on Your Mind,” their best album since the ‘90s, choruses like “you’re the song in my heart” don’t help — but how about 10 songs you’ll hum in three plays? “Equalize,” “Options,” “That Wolf,” and the slushy “Whatever’s on Your Mind” are just great melodic ideas, accompanied by a surprising knack for string arrangements. It no longer matters what they’re like or who they’re for. (But since you asked: everyone.)
BLAKE SHELTON “Red River Blue” (Warner Nashville, 2.5 stars)
“Where did all the good ole boys go?” Blake Shelton wonders on his new album. Well, one of them went to Hollywood, helped make the singing-competition show “The Voice” a hit, and now is enjoying a level of stardom that far transcends country.
That good ole boy would be Shelton himself, of course. With “Red River Blue,” which has already hit No. 1 on Billboard’s all-genres Hot 200, the Oklahoma native again displays the qualities that made him an engaging if not great Nashville star — country-boy sincerity and a knack for not taking himself too seriously. “Baby, all I know how to do is speak right from the heart,” he declares on the hit single “Honey Bee.”
Beyond the terse workingman’s lament of “Get Some” and its sing-along chorus, Shelton never gets too rowdy here. But numbers such as the barroom come-on “Drink on It” and the swaying “Sunny in Seattle,” along with the aforementioned “Good Ole Boys” and “Honey Bee,” play to his strengths and let his country colors shine through (even if the album’s often overmiked drums are an annoyance). On the other hand, “God Gave Me You,” “I’m Sorry,” and “Over” are generic power ballads that don’t suit Shelton at all. Much quieter, and more powerful, is the acoustic-textured title song, which, despite its downbeat tone, closes the record on a high note.
BEN WILLIAMS “State of Art”
With a passel of awards, a seat in Stefon Harris’ hip-hop-influenced Blackout band, and a master’s degree from Juilliard, bassist Ben Williams would seem to resemble a young Christian McBride, the bassist who emerged so memorably in the 1990s.
Williams, whose mother worked for a jazz-loving congressman (John Conyers), has assembled a mature and politically adept first outing. The vibe is contemporary, but the solos — from tenor and soprano saxophonist Marcus Strickland, altoist Jaleel Shaw, and pianist Gerald Clayton — are honest and deep.
LIVE FROM MARLBORO MUSIC FESTIVAL
“String Quartets by Ravel and Debussy” (Marlboro Recording Society, 3.5 stars)
“Mozart’s String Quintet (K. 593)” and “Beethoven’s Piano Trio in B flat (Op. 97, ‘Archduke”’)
“Songs by Respighi, Shostakovich and Cuckson”
Few live recordings have come out of the Marlboro Music Festival in recent years. But, suddenly, three discs are available on ArkivMusic.com that give a cross-section of what these chamber music summers are about. Ensembles mix veteran, mid-career, and emerging musicians; repertoire is both mainstream and unfairly marginalized. The latter is particularly evident in the song-cycle disc featuring mezzo Jennifer Johnson in Respighi’s Il Tramonto for voice and string quartet plus “The Spirit of the Storm,” a new, mid-weight work by Robert Cuckson for voice and chamber group. The real prize is Shostakovich’s quirky, inventive “Songs on Hebrew Folk Themes” from 1967 with a trio consisting of Benita Valente, Glenda Maurice, and Jon Humphrey, all singing from their souls.
Mitsuko Uchida’s presence in Beethoven’s “Archduke” Trio makes the performance a major occasion. Though not much different from the piece’s extensive discography, it has a microscopic flexibility that allows the individual musicians, also including violinist Soovin Kim and cellist David Soyer, to make their own exclamations without interrupting the flow.