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By Times staff

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 29, 2002

PULP, WE LOVE LIFE (SANCTUARY) Is this the same Pulp? With brilliant but cynical songwriter Jarvis Cocker at the helm? The British band more known for singing "birds are something you shag" than singing about birds twirping in the trees?

PULP, WE LOVE LIFE (SANCTUARY) Is this the same Pulp? With brilliant but cynical songwriter Jarvis Cocker at the helm? The British band more known for singing "birds are something you shag" than singing about birds twirping in the trees?

Does We Love Life mark the turning of a new leaf for Pulp, with city slicker Cocker now turning to nature and things pastoral for subject matter? The titles: Weeds, The Trees, Sunrise.

Cocker's acid tongue has got to be planted firmly in his cheek, right?

We Love Life is beautiful, with baroque instrumentation that recalls vintage Burt Bacharach or, more weirdly, Pink Floyd. (The album was produced by 1960s British pop icon Scott Walker.) The result is gorgeous. The melody of The Trees is the prettiest in recent pop. Weeds is another sweet-sounder, but it's hardly lacking in muscle. The sound of acoustic guitar over complex arrangements and orchestrations color many a tune on We Love Life, with a title that can only be an exercise in irony.

Cocker's still cocksure, witty and sharp, as evidenced on the hilarious Bad Cover Version, comparing a failed romance with the later, disappointing episodes of Tom & Jerry cartoons. So this nature bag, it's ironic, right? Clues are in Cocker's titles, not all of which boast of nature's glories: Roadkill. Cocker celebrates the trees, sure. But why? Because "they produce the air that I am breathing." A.

-- GINA VIVINETTO, Times pop music critic

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BECK, SEA CHANGE (GEFFEN RECORDS) Sea Change is a headphones album; it demands intimacy.

Beck is typically generous with his over-the-top orchestrations and spastic sense of irony. Take 1998's Midnite Vultures, a dance party and a barrel of hoots. Beck's the master of erudite fun.

So Sea Change came as a shock, almost a letdown when its first plaintive notes emanated from the stereo. But under scrutiny, the album is nearly perfect: highly orchestrated, intelligent, introspective.

The acoustic strumming in The Golden Age is languid, as Beck almost purrs, "let the golden age begin." But the new era is not ushered in with enthusiasm. Instead, Beck's vocals drag, sounding elegantly lethargic. The backdrop flows with a lo-fi magnetism, thanks to muted electronic production. Beck sings, "gotta drive all night/just to feel like you're okay," and the song carries listeners along the windswept journey through Beck's sonic desert.

Other tracks boast opulent strings, such as Paper Tiger, with sweeping violins that make the song come alive. Guess I'm Doing Fine is masterful in its faux sense of serenity. Even as Beck sings about bluebirds, his vocals depress.

Though Beck claims to be a Lost Cause, Sea Change is proof that he is ever so vibrant. The proof is in the headphones. A.

-- BRIAN ORLOFF, Times staff

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JAMES TAYLOR, OCTOBER ROAD (SONY ENTERTAINMENT) James Taylor's five-year absence from recording has been all too noticeable to fans of his folksy, unplugged sound of peace and love, especially with so many others of that genre also missing from the scene.

Carole King tried -- and failed -- to woo the younger set with hip-hop on her release last year. Linda Ronstadt has veered from traditional country to Mexican ballads in her search for new musical ground. Cat Stevens, well, he's an Islamic cleric.

In many ways, October Road is what many have been waiting for. (If you don't believe it, note its rapid sales.) Taylor's voice is as beautiful and steady as ever, his band and production team in top form, and the music simple and relaxing, though reminiscent of much of his catalog.

But there's no Fire & Rain or Sweet Baby James in this collection of songs that finds Taylor rhapsodizing about growing old and advocating -- you guessed it -- peace and love. September Grass, Taylor's attempt to use the seasons to describe aging, is but a faint shadow of the bittersweet Maxwell Anderson/Kurt Weill classic September Song. And Mean Old Man pales next to Randy Newman's more caustic 1999 tune in the same vein, Shame.

In On the 4th of July, Taylor offers a still grieving nation an antiwar message -- "Love forever and ever must stand" -- that might have worked 30 years ago but maybe not now. Perhaps the sentiment needs to be said. But how many listeners really want to hear it after Sept. 11? B-

-- JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times staff

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KELLY WILLIS, EASY (RYKODISC) Blessed with film-starlet looks and an insistent, twangy voice crackling with emotion, Kelly Willis seemed like a no-brainer bet for stardom. She signed with MCA Records in the late '80s and proceeded to churn out albums bursting with insanely catchy, hard-driving, would-be hits. She was virtually ignored by country radio.

The resilient Willis has bounced back. On Easy, her aptly titled second CD for Rykodisc, the nervous energy of her early years and the unexpected melancholy of her 1999 album What I Deserve give way to a more open-hearted embrace of life. Willis lays out her new world view on Getting to Me, co-written with the Jayhawks' Gary Louris: "So let go your mind when you're feeling it slip/And let go your heart when you're feeling it dip/Sometimes there's not much a poor soul can do/But dream of the life you've got coming to you."

The loose, laid-back stance does wonders for Willis' singing, which is the best of her career. It's hard to imagine the Willis of a decade ago infusing the same kind of tenderness into a song as she does on the self-penned title track and a lovely bluegrass cover of Australian singer-songwriter Paul Kelly's You Can't Take It With You. This one's a keeper. A

-- LOUIS HAU, Times staff


BRYN TERFEL, CLAUDIO ABBADO/BERLIN PHILHARMONIC; WAGNER: ARIAS. DGG. To bathe this magnificent recording in superlatives would fail to do it justice. If there were any doubts about Claudio Abbado maintaining the exemplary musicianship of his predecessor, Herbert von Karajan, this production dispels them.

From the opening string and horn salvo of the opulent symphonic overture to the Flying Dutchman, it is apparent that this is music making of the highest order. While every line is tautly drawn and every decrescendo lovingly attenuated, not a phrase goes by that is not deftly articulated. Abbado's grasp of compositional and intonational nuance is so sophisticated and subtle, nothing of the work's spiritual prescience is compromised as he sets the stage for the ensuing aria from the opera, and for the rest of the album.

Bryn Terfel, one of the great Wagnerians of our day, makes things only better. With his rich baritone and probing intelligence giving voice to the psychological recesses of the notes, Terfel is the music personified. As he intones the Dutchman's famous lament, "The Time is Up," he wraps urgency and white-hot passion in a single acoustic envelope, yet with admirable restraint.

Terfel has the lungs of a horse: How he can sustain a line for endless stretches while exploiting the myriad colors of his voice is impressive. Wolfram's splendid Evening Star aria from Tannhauser has long been an evergreen to Wagner devotees, but it has rarely, if ever, been more soothingly served. Terfel paints this tribute to twilight with velvety luster, adroitly supported by the Berlin's shimmering strings and Abbado's exquisite sensibility.

As the sky-God Wotan, whose farewell aria from Act 3 of The Valkyrie fills out this disc, Terfel has no rivals. Oddly, he has never performed this character onstage.

What a pity that Abbado, a perfect match for Terfel, is ill and has retired from his post as principal conductor of the Berlin.

Kudos to the producers, Christopher Alder and Sid McLauchlan and their team of expert engineers, for bringing us one of the first great recordings of the century. It should become a collector's item. A-plus

-- JOHN BELL YOUNG, Times correspondent

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EVGENY KISSIN, MUSSORGSKY: PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION (RCA) As a 10-year-old and through his teens, Evgeny Kissin dazzled the public with his fleet, flawless fingers, ardent lyricism and musical maturity. Great conductors, such as Karajan, recognized the spark of genius in the boy and wasted no time engaging him with major symphony orchestras. More remarkable is that Kissin accomplished this without having won a major -- or even a minor -- international competition.

Now 30, Kissin continues to astound with his magisterial technique and the pouty, bad-hair-day demeanor that has long been his trademark. But to judge from this recording, his playing, though still articulate, mechanically impeccable and interpretively rigorous, has grown cold and brutal.

In his popular Pictures at an Exhibition, Mussorgsky codifies the rhythms and cadences of Russian speech through 16 character pieces that evoke peasant life and the hardy people who embodied it. Kissin blazes note-perfectly and at warp speed, for example, through the otherwise chatty but delicate Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks, eviscerating it of all charm. He settles for a kind of perpetual pianistic shouting that often degenerates into relentless banging. By the time he reaches the majestic Great Gate of Kiev, he cannot play any louder than he has.

Granted, Kissin's prevailing interest these days is in the architecture of a work. That's commendable, but when so totally divorced from poignancy, quiescence and tenderness of expression, what remains is the ruthlessness of a prison warden, eager to make sure no one escapes. That much is true, too, in Kissin's belligerent romp through Bach-Busoni's Toccata and in an arid reading of Balakirev's wistful arrangement of Glinka's The Lark. Evidently, Kissin has some private war he hopes to win. Let's hope he moves beyond pugilistic piano playing and learns that in the scent of a single rose blossoms a universe of affect, idea and vision. B.

-- J.B.Y.

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