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Published May 15, 2005

RYAN ADAMS AND THE CARDINALS, COLD ROSES (LOST HIGHWAY) Leave it to pesky alt-country crooner Ryan Adams to stir things up. Known for his reckless, divalike behavior sometimes more so than his lilting tunes, Adams says he will release three albums this year. He has settled down, he swears, and will focus on the music and not let rock 'n' roll excesses derail him. Cold Roses, a double disc of 18 ornamented country tunes, returns the focus to the roots rock that marked Adams' most sterling album, his touchstone, 2000's Heartbreaker. The supposed focus, and clarity, pay off: Adams sounds especially strong, if not completely vulnerable, heartbroken and melancholic on the spectral-sounding tunes. Of course, with such prolific output there are some stale tunes, but there are enough gems - like Sweet Illusions, Adams' bourbon-soaked croon, angst-y and crackling with intensity - with ample room to shine. When Will You Come Back Home marries countrified piano and plucky acoustic guitar with arresting effect. And the piano-led Blossom finds Adams strumming the bass, adding a bit of twang to the supple melody. B+

FEIST, LET IT DIE (CHERRY TREE) & KEREN ANN, NOLITA (METRO BLUE) Leslie Feist and Keren Ann have more in common than the fact that they record minus surnames. Both singers have released astounding, seductive albums this year. Both singers have tangible connections to France: Feist now calls Paris home despite being Canadian by birth, and Keren Ann is half Israeli/half French. And both singers are earning an appropriate share of attention from hipster music fans and critics alike.

Feist's stunning debut, Let It Die, melds genres - everything from bossa nova to trip-hop - but stays unified and inviting thanks to her warm, clarion croon. There's the airy opener Gatekeeper that will delight fans of Astrud Gilberto's pastel-colored tunes, and then the zippy Mushaboom, which swells with delightful, carnival-esque instrumentation (think sashaying pianos, chimes and twinkling percussion). And as Feist keeps it protean - mixing styles and adding her share of covers (like the Bee Gees' Inside and Out, reproduced here as a slinky, sultry danceable track), Keren Ann settles on a consistent, somewhat more somnolent, low-key vibe. Nolita is nevertheless instantly memorable. Enjoy the hushed, Arabesque sounds of Que N'ai-Je? or the English language Chelsea Burns, which effectively fuses piano and lo-fi, country-sounding production, granting the tune an ambient, folksy quality that's positively intoxicating. Let It Die: A-; Nolita: B+

AIMEE MANN, THE FORGOTTEN ARM (SUPEREGO) Singer-songwriter Aimee Mann goes high concept on her sonic novella, The Forgotten Arm, a fetching song cycle about a drug-addled Vietnam veteran, his girlfriend and their rocky romantic road trip across America. It sounds dense, but you needn't be a literature fan, or even really follow the plot, to glean meaning from Mann's economically crafted tunes. First, there's the '70s-era sonic palette Mann employs: the Elton Johnlike piano rock, the flinty guitar chords and an alt-country vibe perfected by flecks of mandolin and slide guitar. In the brittle-sounding King of the Jailhouse, Mann issues the plangent call, "Baby, there's something wrong with me that I can't see." The song conjures cinematic images of the heartland as well as heartbreak. Mann's rich voice is bathed in warm-sounding instrumentation, but it's her smart lyrics, redolent with images of destruction and allusions to Vietnam ("Life just kind of empties out/less a deluge than a drought/less a giant mushroom cloud" from Little Bombs) that make The Forgotten Arm so affecting. A-

RAVEONETTES, PRETTY IN BLACK (COLUMBIA) Danish duo the Raveonettes have long nursed a strong affection for the American culture of yesteryear. On Pretty In Black the band - Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo - has eased up on the restrictive rules that governed earlier recordings (like recording in only B-flat minor, for instance) and expanded their retro, dreamy sound with the help of synthesizers and fuzzed-out guitar. Love in a Trashcan, the album's first single, features a kicky enough drumbeat, and finds the two trading gauzy harmonies, sounding lovelorn and slightly aloof. The album maintains a subdued, almost sexy vibe thanks to the production that wraps the duo's lovely harmonies in a tangle of atmospheric guitar. And the band earns retro points for its faithful cover of the Angels' My Boyfriend's Back, warbled by Foo with a commanding, defiant sexual swagger. B

SPOON, GIMME FICTION (MERGE) Austin, Texas-based rockers Spoon reliably deliver solid indie rock driven by rolling keyboard lines and tautly structured melodies. And Gimme Fiction, the band's fifth album, is just as soulful as Spoon's prior work. Based on the album's art - its cover depicts a woman concealed by a burka and, inside, the sleeve shows a finger dipped in purple ink - it's fairly evident that the current political situation has impacted the Britt Daniel-fronted band; perhaps the title is even an ironic gesture, a retort to the purported misrepresentation and dishonesty by politicians about Iraqi policy. These concerns are reflected lyrically, too. On the jangly The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine, with its simmering cello and piano-kissed melody, Daniel sings, "You think things are straight but they're not what they seem," perhaps a political allusion. Things get funky on Was It You with eerie coils of bass, techno-sounding bleeps and Daniel's digitally manipulated croon. The result is positively experimental but unmistakably Spoon-like. B+

LUCINDA WILLIAMS, LIVE AT THE FILLMORE (LOST HIGHWAY) Alt-country diva Lucinda Williams releases a double-disc live album after delays and nearly a year's wait. Although the album is a solid and comprehensive "best of" set, a perfect introduction to Williams' career for neophytes, as a whole it unfortunately offers little to longtime fans. Capturing a multinight stand at San Francisco's famous Fillmore club, the double-disc documents Williams' gritty, gravely voice in all its emotional raggedness. And her band adds necessary primal rhythms, fleshing out Joy, from Williams' universally heralded album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road with sputtering intensity. But Williams is merely an able live performer. Her live sets are hardly transcendent, never mind worthy of commemorating on record. True, she invests each line she sings with emotional intensity. And there are some sterling readings of classics like the manic Change the Locks and the bluesy Ventura, but the standard track listing - there are few bonuses, rare or unreleased songs - does little to make this lovely and undoubtedly listenable album an essential. B-

- BRIAN ORLOFF, Times correspondent


Bonnaroo Music Festival, if nothing else, demonstrates the pliability of the extravaganza's identity, in terms of the kinds of genres welcomed into the neo-Woodstock, the third edition of which raided rural Tennessee last summer. The double-disc package, complete with 24 carefully recorded live tracks and a hefty, photo-splattered booklet, makes a worthwhile audio souvenir of the event.

Sure, it's a jam band thing, as suggested by the presence of such sprawling, groove-digging pieces as the Dead's taffy-colored Self Defense; Gov't Mule's acid-washed Blind Man in the Dark; Umphrey's McGee's semi-spacey Nemo; the rhythm-tricked Curlew's Call, played by former Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio's 40-piece orchestra; the String Cheese Incident's bouncy Desert Dawn; and Moe's attitude-heavy Not Coming Down.

But acoustic jazz, of a sort, is here, too, with the Bad Plus' hyperactive, quick-morphing Big Eater, and Americana is represented by Gillian Welch's vintage-sounding Caleb Meyer. Los Lonely Boys turn in their patented Tex-Mex roots rock, on Crazy Dream; David Byrne goes moody and lush, with the strings-enhanced Dialog Box; Primus reprises the familiar, metallic punk funk of Frizzle Fry; and exuberant ska enters the mix, thanks to the Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra's Ska Me Crazy.

It's diverse, yes, and several other name artists - Dave Matthews, Steve Winwood, My Morning Jacket, Kings of Leon, Ween, Gomez, Guster - turn in various other shades of joyful noise along the way.

But it's the sly elder statesman who steals the show, on the opening track. Bob Dylan, sounding absolutely invigorated, tears into Down Along the Cove, from 1967's John Wesley Harding album. He spits, snarls and growls the lyrics over the churning guitars and thrashing rhythms of a cantankerous band that all but defines the nature of real rock swing. So when do we get to hear the rest of Dylan's set? A-

- PHILIP BOOTH, Times correspondent


MESSIAEN: ECLAIRS SUR L'AU-DELA, BERLIN PHILHARMONIC, CONDUCTOR SIMON RATTLE (EMI) Olivier Messiaen ranks as one of the most enigmatic composers of the last 100 years. A philosophical and deeply religious man, his best-known works approach life's most arresting issues in an exquisitely complex musical language. One unfortunate result of that complexity has been that, while his music is revered by many knowledgeable musicians, the average listener often finds it dense, incomprehensible, and even noisy. Another result is that his large works receive fewer performances than they probably deserve precisely because they are difficult to play. I should confess here that I like Messiaen more than I like his music. But his Eclairs sur l'Au-dela . . . (Illuminations on the Beyond . . .) - completed only in 1991, a year before the composer's death - is more approachable than many of his earlier works for orchestra.

Eclairs is a tone poem in 11 movements and features many of Messiaen's trademark musical strokes. Its massive first section, Apparition du Christ Glorieux, is stark and dissonant, eerily impressionistic, and unlike anyone else's notion of an apparition of Christ. Airy, gossamer textures are nowhere to be found. They have been replaced by brassy and unrelenting blocks of harsh chords. Early on in his career Messiaen stirred critical interest by his use of birdsong, a feature he regularly incorporated into his later music. Here, in the third and ninth movements, its use is effective, but it is most often mere mimicry - the composer rarely develops his ideas fully.

Nevertheless one marvels at Messiaen's sure control of orchestration and his clever use of both string and wind instruments. Messiaen's love of the orchestral palette and wafting sheets of sound comes across in the marvelous fifth movement, Demeurer dans l'Amour. It is one of his most poignant and moving creations, truly an inspired vision of the afterlife, and a quiet prelude to a thunderous sixth movement. The Berlin Philharmonic's performance is naturally superb. Conductor Simon Rattle ably navigates some tough passages and lends plenty of depth to Messiaen's already thought-provoking score. B+

- BILL F. FAUCETT, Times correspondent

[Last modified May 12, 2005, 10:14:04]

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