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Audio Files

Cat Power, The Greatest (Matador)

Published January 22, 2006

On The Greatest, Chan Marshall, who records under the name Cat Power, assumes the role of an indie rock Dusty Springfield right down to the classic Memphis soul band she enlists to back her.

Actually, scratch that.

On The Greatest, her seventh album, Chan Marshall invokes the Memphis soul tradition, thanks to a simmering band. But she rewrites what it means to be a diva, supplanting Springfield's brassy style for a pared-down, chilling intensity/self-consciousness that flickers through her stunning new album. Unlike Springfield's stylized image, all part of her appeal - who can forget her iconic beehive? - Marshall hides behind her stringy brown hair. She has fashioned a career of acting fragile and tentative despite her commanding, fierce songwriting. Let's attribute some of that intensity to her Southern roots; her music seems to uphold that gothic tradition, and plenty of tunes on The Greatest feel haunted and grim.

Take the title track, which opens the album with its sumptuous string-led melody - it nicks the tune from Moon River - where Marshall warbles, "Once I wanted to be the greatest /no wind or waterfall could stall me," her husky alto melting into the rich imagery. Living Proof achieves a steady gait, thanks to its fusion of brass and electric guitar. The song swings, and Marshall's voice soars: "You're supposed to have the answer," she implores as an organ bleats away in the background.

Amid the countrified arrangements - making this album Marshall's most musically accessible - are still those classic Cat Power elements: penetrating, self-critical lyrics; the silky voice that registers resolve and craggy emotion; and a knack for narrative. The resigned Willie, with its supple, sashaying piano and Marshall's echoing voice, combines all three elements, weaving together a bittersweet and characteristically plaintive love story. "Please don't let me go," she sings, "my heart is a worried thing," investing her verse with a weighty urgency that belies her gingery singing and the song's gauzy setting. A

- BRIAN ORLOFF, Times correspondent

* * *

Blake Sennett's the Elected, Sun, Sun, Sun (Sub Pop); Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins, Rabbit Fur Coat (Team Love)

Blake Sennett and Jenny Lewis are the two primary songwriters for Rilo Kiley, a band whose profile has risen with its opening slot on Coldplay's summer tour and a catchy, smart single, Potions for Foxes. While Rilo Kiley is going strong, Sennett and Lewis took some time off to work on solo projects that, coincidentally, are being released on the same day. But unlike Rilo Kiley's twangy power-pop, the solo albums reveal Lewis as a deft soul singer and Sennett as quite the cheeky band leader, though Rilo Kiley fans could have guessed as much.

Sennett's side project, the dreamy rock outfit the Elected, has cranked up the volume on Sun, Sun, Sun, its second album, preferring a live feel while letting Sennett belt occasionally. His airy, sweet voice carries the album, which tiptoes around pop that, without wit, could be cavity-inducing. But luckily Sennett's sharp writing - consider Fireflies in a Steel Mill with its line, "the landlord's at the door/ saying, your check's signed in disappearing ink" - and clever use of understated brass in his orchestrations keep things pleasantly buoyant. On Did Me Good, Sennett sings with a clear wink, making a soulful send-up of cheesy crooners with his ribald delivery.

Like Sennett, Lewis loves alt-country, and her album, influenced heavily by Laura Nyro and LaBelle's 1971 touchstone, Gonna Take a Miracle, opts for a soulful approach to roots music. Lewis teams with gospel singers the Watson twins for a stripped down disc that sports salvation and damnation imagery while giving Lewis ample room to emote. The rootsy orchestrations highlight Lewis' crisp singing, ornamenting her moralistic tunes with spare handclaps, for instance, on the relatively rocking The Big Guns. Rise Up With Fists! benefits from its lush, pastel-colored harmonies (courtesy of the Watsons), and a cover of the Traveling Wilburys' Handle With Care (with guests Bright Eyes and Ben Gibbard) is sassy fun. The centerpiece, of course, is the title track, a finger-picked autobiographical story-song in which Lewis narrates childhood hardships, intoning her words with palpable dread and resignation. The Elected: B+, Lewis: A-

- B.O.

* * *

Miles Davis, The Cellar Door Sessions 1970 (Sony)

Jazz's greats are dead. They nevertheless turned in some of the best instrumental music of 2005 - rediscovered live recordings by the Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane, Coltrane's classic quartet and Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Now comes Miles Davis' The Cellar Door Sessions 1970, an ear-opening document of a four-night stand that must have sounded like jazz from another planet to fans of the trumpeter's acoustic music.

Even those familiar with Davis' innovative electric studio explorations on In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew were probably unprepared for what happened when Miles brought musicians from those recordings - keyboardist Keith Jarrett, playing organ and the Fender Rhodes electric piano he said he hated; drummer Jack DeJohnette; Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira; guitarist John McLaughlin - plus saxophonist Gary Bartz and Motown bassist Michael Henderson to the Washington, D.C., nightclub in the title.

It's damn the melody, full riff-digging ahead on loose-limbed tunes that often sound as if they're being constructed from the bottom up: What I Say, heard in five incarnations, is grounded by Henderson's sticky stair-stepping funk riff, in tandem with the drummer's spacious backbeat. Jarrett's Rhodes fights fierce and nasty with that groove in the version on Disc 4, which also features sprawling displays by an open-horn Davis and Bartz on soprano, plus one of DeJohnette's most ferocious solos. Davis, throughout, spouts an aural rainbow of sounds, using his wah-wah to fuel nasty shrieks and barks, and sometimes, as on the same disc's Sanctuary (by Wayne Shorter), simply feeding gorgeous long tones into electronic delays.

Thirty-five years later, the six-disc Cellar Door, portions of which were released in edited-down, truncated fashion on 1970's Live-Evil, sounds like the imprimatur for jazz-informed jam bands from Phish to Medeski Martin and Wood to the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey. As always, Miles was up to future jazz. A

- PHILIP BOOTH, Times correspondent

* * *

Rossini: Il Signor Bruschino; Claudio Desderi, conductor (Naxos)

Rossini's best-known operas are heralded not only for their incredible wealth of melody and for taut, sure-handed construction, but also for innovative turns of harmony and an unsurpassed geniality.

Each of these traits may be detected in his early Il Signor Bruschino, premiered in Venice in 1813. Bruschino is a one-act farsa, a variety of comic opera that includes, in addition to spoken dialogue, a paper-thin plot that incorporates any number of operatic cliches: innocent love, identity deception, unwarranted incarceration and unpaid debts.

The opening instrumental sinfonia is skillful in its handling of instruments, and one marvels that Rossini was but 19 when he crafted it. It is most noteworthy for the percussive tapping of the violin bows, accomplished at the time by beating on music hall candle lamps.

The trio Per un figlio gia pentito is a highlight. Here Bruschino (Dario Giorgele), Gaudenzio (Maurizio Leoni) and Florville (Alessandro Codeluppi) begin duping one another about the identities of father and son. Silly stuff, but the singing captures the absurdity of the situation precisely, and the men's voices blend marvelously.

Elena Rossi's Sofia, the object of the affection of several, is virtuosic in her only solo in this opera, the splendid recitative and aria, "Ah voi condor volete . . . Ah donate il caro sposo."

Il Signor Bruschino is a delightful little creation, and since you are unlikely ever to hear it in live performance, this disc is worth a listen. A

- BILL F. FAUCETT, Times correspondent

Mahler, Symphony No. 8; City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra & Chorus; Simon Rattle, conductor (EMI)

Mahler's symphonies can be difficult for musicians and audiences. Fraught with technical challenges for players and conductors, sometimes excruciating length and formal structures that defy reasoned analysis, their psychological content is almost always serious.

The result is music that can be perplexing and emotionally draining, and Mahler's Eighth Symphony (Symphony of a Thousand) is a case in point. But if you are up to the challenge, Simon Rattle's recent recording of this strange and alluring work offers an extraordinary vision of it.

Cast in two huge movements, the first is based on the medieval hymn Veni creator spiritus (Come, Creator Spirit), and the second is a setting of the final scene of Goethe's epic Faust. How do these two divergent influences result in a cohesive, traditional symphony? They don't. If the first movement can be shoe-horned into some version of sonata-allegro form, the second simply cannot be codified. Inspired by drama, it must be considered more like a series of brief music-theatrical scenes.

Here is where Rattle's version excels. He treats each section of this vast work as small individual vignettes, lending his full attention to each without regard to the symphony's overall form.

But Rattle's tempos, once established, are steady, and he is careful not to let his forces overwhelm the listener. Rattle's Mahler is reserved, yet it retains its warmth and power.

This entire disc is inspiring, but the final segment - the beautiful, chilling and triumphant Chorus mysticus - is alone worth the price. Rattle leads eight soloists, a double choir and two children's choirs, in addition to the stellar City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Together they put in a performance that can only be described as magnificent, unmatched in precision, clarity and expression. A

- B.F.F.

[Last modified January 19, 2006, 10:02:03]

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