Thursday, February 14, 2008


Yes, sweet Virginia, there is more to life than politics, even in this heady campaign year. As the clash of the titans who would be president unfolds, we can use a break from that inevitability swirling around us. Music was always a safe harbor before all this started, so ... here's some of what's lately been on the 'Vox box:

The more you listen to In Rainbows, the latest from Radiohead, the more its sound — seductive, almost hypnotic in spots, by turns sad and raging — becomes something irresistible. The emotional palette of Thom Yorke is richer, fuller now than before. Our subterranean homesick Everyman ricochets from plaintive melody to the driving, insistent rhythms that have endeared this Oxfordshire-based band to legions of fans for a decade.

The power and pulse of "Bodysnatchers," the muted passion of "Nude" and "All I Need" — it's all animated by Yorke's soaring voice and able support by the band, including Jonny Greenwood (still one of rock's underrated guitarists). Underlying everything here is an embrace — sometimes rueful, other times achingly sad — of our mortality. "I am trapped in this body and can't get out," Yorke sings in "Bodysnatchers," in a lyric that seems to embody our universal imprisonment, all of us stuck in moments we can't get out of.

It may be the imagination, or ear-wax buildup, but it seems the digital downloaded version — the one that led everyone to say Radiohead had revolutionized modern music (we thought iTunes did that already) — isn't quiet as crisp, the highs and effects not as delineated, as they are on the CD release. But that's a quibble. Download or disc, "In Rainbows" is a foundation garment for a properly turned-out musical wardrobe. The tour starts in Florida in May. Yeah, you'll be there.

On his latest release in a long recording history, bassist extraordinaire Stanley Clarke submerges his smooth-jazz tendencies to produce The Toys of Men, a record of sonic and thematic expansiveness, and Clarke's best release in years.

The big artists take on the big themes, and these days, war's about the biggest there is. A world rife with tragedies from Iraq to the Sudan to the streets near Paris sparked Clarke's opening track, an 11-minute suite that is a return to the big-canvass approach he's taken in the past. Working with violinist Mads Tolling and Israeli pianist Ruslan Sirota, Clarke encompasses the calm and the chaos of armed conflict. In their hands the weave in the music's narrative reflects the transition from war to peace as a fluid process, if a painful one.

Later, Clarke returns to his legendarily funky form, working with a propulsive and blazingly talented drummer, Ronald Bruner Jr., on "Come On" and "Bad Asses," two tracks that show off Clarke and Bruner, well, showing off. Here and elsewhere, Clarke explores (again) the possibilities of the bass as a melodic instrument — not just with the funk-style slap he basically invented, but even using the instrument itself, strings, wood and all, a a foundation for melody and rhythm. Thirty years after changing everything for anyone who picked up a bass, the so-called Lord of the Low Frequencies has reinvented himself. Again.

Is there something they put in the water in Athens, Georgia, that makes powerhouse rock & roll such a frequent thing? The hometown of R.E.M. (but you knew that) and groups from the B-52s to Bubba Sparxxx has spawned the Whigs, a fierce young trio with a signature sound, lyrical gifts and a creative self-assurance more common to veteran bands. The Whigs' sophomore effort, Mission Control, released in January, recalls the Who, the Replacements and other groups, in its fiery, anthemic approach to rock, yet Athens' newest also summons regional aspects. Jon Pareles, our former colleague from The New York Times, said that “like Kings of Leon and My Morning Jacket, they give what they’ve learned from indie rock a distinctly Southern stamp: a drawl in the vocals, twang and resonance in the guitars, a sense of continuity with the past.”

Rolling Stone swooned in March 2006 that the band “may well be the best unsigned band in America.” Well, not no more. The group’s since been picked up by ATO Records — Dave Matthews’ label, go figure — after the band’s roaring self-produced and –financed debut, “Give ‘Em All a Big Fat Lip.”

Feast your ears on such anthems-to-be as "Like a Vibration" and "Right Hand on My Heart" (the single getting much play of late). Now, Parker Gispert, singer-guitarist-songwriter, drummer Julian Dorio, and bass player Tim Deaux are polishing their chops on the road and calling their spots in certain high-profile places. The band played on "Letterman" recently, and they're due to stop by the Conan O'Brien show on Feb. 20. It's all a long way from playing places with beer on the floor.

In fact, one of those places was probably central to the band's identity. Interviewed recently on NPR, Gispert said the group's name was an open question until he called up a bar to book the nameless band’s first gig. The owner asked for the name of the band, and Gispert realized … they didn’t have one. He told the bar owner he'd call back. After a half-hour parking-lot conference, "The Whigs" were born.

It’s that kind of loose but purposeful attitude — the soul of intelligent improvisation — that already makes the Whigs endearing as hell. You gotta love a band like that: They’re making it up as they go along, and they’re doing it brilliantly.

Herbie Hancock, a musical shapeshifter if there ever was one, has been changing his colors for two generations now, starting with his early days as a prodigy of the piano trafficking in the hard-bop Blue Note heyday, continuing to his more recent associations with rock and pop figures (helping to reinvent the funk genre along the way).

Likewise, Joni Mitchell, who began her career as a folksinger, invested that music with a bittersweet, feminine poetics it never really had. Then the doyenne of Woodstock gravitated to the supperclub, moving on to work with talents of jazz — Charles Mingus among them — as she broadened her musical palette to embrace the improvisation native to the form.

You just knew they had to hook up, eventually. In River: The Joni Letters, Hancock’s spirited Grammy-winning love letter to Mitchell and her music, Mitchell’s melodies are refigured, often brilliantly, by Hancock and a host of talents whose vocal ranges speak well of Mitchell’s own.

The songs on “River” — ranging from Norah Jones’ torchy rendition of “Court and Spark” to Tina Turner’s treatment of “Edith and the Kingpin” to Corinne Bailey Rae’s sweetly expressive title track, and more — gain a fresh interpretation under the guidance of Hancock the master.

Hancock & Co. break down Joni Mitchell songs you only thought you knew, with pianistic interpretations you probably never imagined. Example: Get your ears around the world-weary rasp of Leonard Cohen on “The Jungle Line.” The song “River,” Mitchell’s evocative tale of a melancholy Christmas, is especially affecting. Bailey Rae, voice almost childlike, is ably supported by the band, whose nuances (and Wayne Shorter’s subtle sax shadings) lift the recognizable melody into a realm of thoughtfulness the original only hinted at.

Hearing these other powerful voices in tribute to Joni Mitchell, then, it’s a little startling when we hear Joni Mitchell herself: on “Tea Leaf Prophecy,” it's there: The singular timeless voice, rueful and romantic, with her talent for gently crowding a lyric into a passage in a way that perfectly reflects the pace of a private conversation, a poem between two people.

This is the voice we grew up with in our days of patchouli and incense. This is music -- translated by singers for our time and a pianist for all time -- that promises to leave today’s listeners spellbound.

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