Swift's 'Red' shows she's more than country
Taylor Swift (Big Machine)
Taylor Swift's fourth album, “Red,” plays like a meticulous musical scrapbook of her eclectic adventures. She comes across as some sort of Lady Bono on the U2-inspired anthem “State of Grace.” There's a dubstep-inspired drop in the bouncy “I Knew You Were Trouble.” And by now we're all familiar with the Max Martin-produced pop chant-along “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” so willful that you can practically hear Swift rolling her eyes as she talks about the breakup. Though she's traveled so far from her country roots, even teaming with Snow Patrol's Gary Lightbody on “The Last Time” and British up-and-comer Ed Sheeran on “Everything Has Changed,” when Swift returns to familiar ground it's actually a thrill. The banjo makes the charming “Stay Stay Stay” even sweeter. The alt-country ache of “All Too Well,” which seems to conjure up details from her breakup with Jake Gyllenhaal filtered through Patty Griffin wisdom, is the album's high point — both in drama and execution, with Swift's vocals at their most emotional and her lyrics at their sharpest. Her mastery of a broader range of musical tools and styles on “Red” only solidify her position as music's unassuming girl-queen.
‘1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project'
Kurt Elling (Concord Jazz)
Only Kurt Elling could succeed with a musical tribute to a building. Of course, the building in question is the Brill Building, the home to songwriters from Sammy Cahn to Paul Simon, so he does have great material for “1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project.” One of the most creative singers in music, Elling offers crafty versions of songs including “On Broadway,” “A House Is Not a Home,” “I Only Have Eyes for You,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and “American Tune.” His versions of “Come Fly With Me” and “So Far Away” are perhaps the most telling of this effort. They are his and his alone, far removed from the signature recordings by Frank Sinatra and Carole King, respectively. Elling explores harmonies as no other singer does, giving all of these familiar tunes fresh lives. He is accompanied by a group led by his long-time pianist, Laurence Hobgood, with visits by saxophonists Joel Frahm and Ernie Watts and by Christian McBride, who uses his voice instead of the bass for which he is noted.
— Bob Karlovits
Lionel Loueke (Blue Note)
“Heritage” is another display of the way Lionel Loueke is forging a role in current jazz without leaving behind the sound of his African roots. Midway through “Tribal Dance,” for instance, the rhythm slides into a Western-sounding pattern, but then the voices of the guitarist and guest-singer Gretchen Parlato call it back to its source. “Hope” also could be given English lyrics and exist as a mid-tempo ballad. But it, too, is from another continent. Nearly all the numbers have dual personalities: Taken just a little different direction “Freedom Dance” and “Goree” could be rather standard jazz tunes. But the lean, metallic playing of Loueke and the drums of Mark Guiliana give it a steady African sound. Pianist Robert Glasper also sits in on six of the 10 tracks. This is an album that will not draw a mass audience, but Loueke's work makes it worth investigating.
— Bob Karlovits
Tony Bennett (Columbia)
Tony Bennett, on a never-ending quest to improve his voice and delivery, is always searching for new inspiration. The 86-year-old legend finds it for his new “Viva Duets” album by teaming with Latin music's biggest stars, including Shakira, Thalia and Marc Anthony. The new duet partners often draw something new out of Bennett, especially in the playful, bilingual back-and-forth with Thalia on “The Way You Look Tonight” and the jazzy virtuosity he shares with Christina Aguilera on “Steppin' Out With My Baby.” The crowning achievements, though, come with the drama of faceoffs with Romeo Santos (on “Rags to Riches”) and Gloria Estefan (on “Who Can I Turn To?”).
Donald Fagen (Reprise)
Donald Fagen has never lacked for any words of discouragement when it comes to love. Years of touring with the snarky Steely Dan and his all-star Dukes of September cover band have sharpened the vocalist-composer's shtick (to say nothing of his feel for slick soul grooves) in the ruined-romance department. With his wriggling voice, icy-dry wit and sensual way with ticklish electric piano play, Fagen is still a coy seducer. His album's brass and reed arrangements are more sophisticated than a Noel Coward play. The vibe is noirish, no doubt. Only this time, the feel is lighter than previous outings as a solo artist or a Dan — an early dusk rather than a midnight mood. Along with a slinky take on Isaac Hayes' “Out of the Ghetto,” Fagan's own melodies ooze through cool-headed lyrics like hot caramel dripping onto ice cream. The grumbling blues of “Weather in My Head” and the swinging “Memorabilia” are dashing. Lyrically, Fagen's in fine fettle, playing both the wise old man (“The New Breed”) and the jovial jilted lover (“I'm Not the Same Without You”). When he squeaks “I'm evolving at an astounding rate” on the latter tune, you believe him.
— The Philadelphia Inquirer
‘Blak and Blu'
Gary Clark Jr. (Warner Bros.)
Gary Clark Jr., the 28-year-old guitarist from Austin has been killing it with regularity out on the road for the last couple of years, from the South by Southwest festival in his hometown to Made In America in Philadelphia to the White House, where he shared the stage with Buddy Guy, Mick Jagger and President Obama. Though the former teen prodigy has released independent albums before, “Blak and Blu” is his major label debut and his chance to properly introduce the range of his talents to the non-festival-going public. He makes the most of the opportunity. Opening with the aptly titled “Ain't Messin' Around,” Clark has already showed off his Jimi Hendrix/Stevie Ray Vaughn chops by the time the second song, “When My Train Comes In” has arrived. From there, he demonstrates various and sundry moves, from the pop hooks of “Travis County” to the hip-hop-flavored beats of “The Life” to the doo-wop woo pitching of “Please Come Home” and the still more impressive contemporary soul of “Things Are Changin'.” Anybody who's seen Clark on stage knows he's already a devastatingly good live act. “Blak and Blu” makes it clear the guitar slinger can back it up in the recording studio.
— The Philadelphia Inquirer