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O'2L, O'2L (Peak)
Jane Mangini is a jazz-trained keyboard player who makes a living composing music for adverts. Al Pitrelli is a guitarist much in demand as a session player for heavy rock and nu-metal groups. Not too promising so far, eh? Surprisingly, O'2L (O'Toole) are a pretty impressive double-act and, if they don't find themselves falling between too many stools, should gain recognition as the brains behind one of this year's more oxymoronic offerings, an experimental AOR album. It's not an unqualified success, as it contains horrors like the pompous "Celtic-Rock" of "NYC/Dublin/NYC". Skip that and concentrate instead on Mangini's piano work throughout (tunes like the melancholy "Something Missing" are truly beautiful) or some of the more "nu-jazz" episodes such as "Shopping for Camels". The music has a self-conscious rootlessness about it, cosmopolitan and globe-hopping -- but in a Business Class rather than a "World" fashion. The mood is a little too energetic to be simply aural wallpaper. Also, much of the playing is too intense and angular to sit easily with the carpet-slipper tinklings one might expect from this label. Even so, its most satisfactory sections do demonstrate a certain ambient new-ageism. Combining jazz, folk, rock, percussive, and neo-classical elements, this project, at its best, provides a series of pleasantly articulate soundscapes and deserves an unprejudiced hearing.
Don McLean, Legendary Songs of Don McLean (EMI/Capitol)
He seems such a non-player on the American folk-pop scene these days, it's sometimes hard to remember just what a tremendous impact Don McLean made on the music scene in 1972 with the single and album American Pie. Not only was the beguiling, addictive song about five times longer than any other AOR hit, there was tons of chatter as people tried to dissect the meaning of the lyrics (i.e., "the joker" was Bob Dylan, "the day the music died" referred to Buddy Holly's untimely death in a plane crash). But "American Pie" gave the public only a slice of McLean's talent; there are many other songs that have rightly earned him a place in our collective musical consciousness. Legendary Songs of Don McLean showcases the singer's talents past and present. There's his '70s classics "Vincent" and "Castles in the Air" but also some lesser-known numbers, too, like the previously unreleased "Empty Chairs." His over-produced contributions from the '90s -- "Headroom " and "Have You Seen Me" -- seem a bit out of place amid the sparse arrangements, but still, this is remains a definitive collection of an under appreciated talent.
Various Artists, Cheap Date (Columbia)
The major label roster sampler. It's not a particularly inspired art form. About all it's good for is picking up a few singles from up-and-coming artists that you've read about, heard on the radio, or seen on TV for whom don't feel particularly compelled to buy (or download) whole albums. Columbia's Cheap Date sampler, which features male rock bands and artists almost exclusively, achieves exactly this purpose. You get the catchy "In a Young Man's Mind" by the Mooney Suzuki, a cut from Pete Yorn's newest album, and some mildly cute-but-generic pop punk from the Ataris. You also get some sludge rock with an '80s power ballad vocal from Stereomud, a track from Crossfade that sounds so much like Nickelback it hurts even more than the original, and a fair number of hard rock songs from bands who probably can't even tell themselves apart. Stylistically limited as it is, Cheap Date doesn't hold together as a cohesive listening experience -- the people who go for the hard rock tracks are unlikely to also be into the quirky blue-eyed soul of the Coral's "Dreaming of You", those who like the electronica of Overseer will despise the pop-punk of Trouble Is -- but then, it's not intended to. Like most cheap dates, there are moments of enjoyment but probably not enough to make you respect yourself in the morning.
Christine Di Bella
Ruff Endz, Someone to Love You (Epic)
If you are a Soul fan go straight to track 8 and enjoy one of 2002's mid-tempo gems, "Sure Thing". Well sung and with a sinuous arrangement this song is already on its way to rare groove classic status. Unfortunately, the rest of the album is R&B-by-numbers rubbish -- crass, deeply cynical and occasionally, and (I think) unintentionally, hilarious. The duo are superior vocalists. The production is fine. The tunes are largely dull with lyrics as inept as any I have come across in a genre hardly bursting at the seams with sparkle and wit. Masochists and those with a mordant sense of humour will particularly relish "Threesome". This puerile tale of getting two women into bed is sung in post Boyz2Men maudlin-pleading style and is undoubtedly the silliest "love" song ever recorded. As for the rest, well, one track is called "Cars, Money, Cars, Clothes" and is every bit as moronic as that banal list would suggest. Part of me vainly hopes that there is a parodic intent in all of these stale cliches. Sadly. Sales figures, Billboard charts and MTV have convinced me otherwise. If you want this sort of thing, others have done it already and with much greater panache. Yet, "Sure Thing" shows that there is real talent here. What Ruff Endz (and the R&B scene in general, need, given the unlikelihood of a shift in sensibilities, is a decent songwriter. Disappointing.
Zemog, El Gallo Bueno (Aagoo)
Zemog stirs up a unique and fresh-sounding Latin music for the unsuspecting public. Adventurous, bold, and brash, this is experimental salsa as inspired by the Sun Ra Arkestra. The man with the vision, Abraham Gomez-Delgado, rounded up major talents in Latin music and avant-garde jazz and then set them loose in experimentation. Maybe they're really not accelerating the evolution of salsa, but they're certainly pushing salsa into the outer limits. A crazy mix of international elements, everything from heavy-metal riffage to jazz free-styling simmer up to the top of Zemog's musical cauldron where even a rumba is not just a rumba. Try to imagine Eddie Palmieri's delicate "mozambique" Cuban dance rhythm converging with the soaring of free jazz, and you'll have "Rumba Pa'la Niņas". In other intersections, the normally tame Puerto Rican plena is loosened up with conga riffing, startling accents, and a molten rubber bass. Found sounds, bells summoning the faithful ("Domingo En Pisac"), or the reliable chug of a small cycle engine ("Cemi Snowmobile") intersperse the slinky, sassy mix. The brash virtuosos who create the horn section are just as easy soaring like Ornette, wailing like Balkan brass, or punching it up like a high-life orchestra. These are the sounds of cultures colliding and the groove is utterly inspired musical lunacy. I love it, I just love it when they bobalu.
John Pizzarelli, Live at Birdland (Telarc)
Where is the love in jazz performance these days? I'm not talking about the sincere appreciation of this great American art form that chokes the blood from the veins and makes it little more than American chamber music or the smooth strains of instrumental white noise that gets piped out of speakers in public spaces. I'm referring to the fun and the showmanship that dares to take itself seriously and gives me a little credit, too. I want all that jazz. John Pizzarelli celebrates the 10th anniversary of the John Pizzarelli Trio with a spirited two-disc set Live at Birdland. Guitarist John along with brother Martin on bass and Ray Kennedy on piano constantly entertain and amaze with sharp musicianship and a healthy dose of cornball humor that never feels like a slick, commercial come-on. While nearly every singing instrumentalist strives to emulate the elegant sophistication of Nat King Cole, Pizzarelli fearlessly employs his goofy wit without shame. His rendition of Joseph Cosgriff's "I Like Jersey Best" is the perfect showcase of instrumental chops and comic hijinks. He appropriates a number of clever pop and jazz snatches into an extended medley to complement the song and engage the audience in a game of spot-the-riff-and-sing-along. Few jazz musicians would dare to quote Paul Simon, the Beach Boys, Billie Holliday, Lou Reed, the Police, and Lou Rawls, complete with some spot-on vocal imitation. Pizzarelli knows his way around standards like "They Can't Take That away from Me" and "The Frim Fram Sauce", and while he doesn't dumb down the music, he's definitely more interested in making sure that his audience enjoys the show. With Diana Krall playing to the serious supper crowds and Harry Connick Jr. doing his "now you see him, now you don't" appearances on Will & Grace, we can only hope Pizzarelli doesn't jump to the stuffy high road or quit working the crowds. The man's got personality and maybe that's what has been missing from jazz performers.