Tuesday, July 8, 2008


Wynton Marsalis and

Willie Nelson

Never mind the title of this 2007 Jazz at Lincoln Center concert recording. The somewhat unlikely but chummy pairing of Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis wouldn't be nearly so enjoyable if it weren't for several musicians who know their way around the blues. Besides harmonica player and longtime Nelson band member Mickey Raphael, the supporting quintet boasts saxophonist Walter Blanding, who threatens to steal the show at times.

Performing mostly a collection of pop and jazz standards, Nelson sounds perfectly comfortable in this jazz setting -- most of the time, anyway. No one would mistake him for a blues or jump-band belter, so it isn't surprising that his laconic take on "Caldonia" brings to mind more robust and compelling performances.

The ballads, slow blues and vibrantly animated novelties are winners, though. "Stardust," "Georgia on My Mind" and Nelson's own "Night Life" aren't exactly surprising choices, but Nelson gives his all in typically effortless fashion, delivering engaging performances that are shaded or illuminated by Marsalis's trumpet, Blanding's sax and Raphael's blues harp.

There are more than a few sparks of spontaneity, too. A lifelong fan of Django Reinhardt, Nelson frequently fires off staccato runs on his nylon string guitar, while Marsalis deftly exploits a rich palette of blues tones and casually trades vocals with the country music legend. The New Orleans brass band favorite "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It" and Merle Travis's gospel-charged "That's All" help bring the concert to a spirited close.

-- Mike Joyce

DOWNLOAD THESE:"Night Life," "That's All"


The Melvins

The Melvins began life in 1984 as ahead-of-their-time Seattle area metalheads infatuated with the sludgy sound Black Sabbath sired during its '70s heyday. And while Melvins guitarist King Buzzo and drummer Dale Crover have spent the past two decades experimenting with electronics and tossing off tongue-in-cheek covers of rock radio chestnuts, among other conceptual giggles, they've never lumbered far from their comfort zone of very slow, very loud, very heavy rock.

With the rhythm section's death-march tempo and Buzzo's ear-scouring guitar tone, the Melvins existed on rock's periphery even when signed to a major label during the '90s. Which is why it's surprising, and enjoyable, that the new "Nude With Boots" flirts so openly with pop. Sure, some songs, such as the 7 1/2 -minute "Dog Island," still sound like the perfect accompaniment to a killer suffocating his victim in a straight-to-video horror movie. (In other words, they sound like classic Melvins.) But opener "The Kicking Machine" owes more to the stadium-filling likes of Grand Funk Railroad than the room-clearing noise that's made the Melvins infamous.

His comic bellow more intelligible than ever, Buzzo also displays a knack for clean, classic '70s guitar hooks, as on the title track; the band writes more catchy tunes than caustic riff workouts this time out. Still, at a moment when mainstream heavy rock isn't particularly heavy, "Nude With Boots" is probably still too raw to get the Melvins on the radio, even if their dogged longevity means they deserve it more than most.

-- Jess Harvell

DOWNLOAD THESE:"The Kicking Machine," "The Smiling Cobra," "Nude With Boots"



Feeling nostalgic for the sound of vintage Nintendo blip-bleep-bloops? Or maybe the hazy pulse of '90s trip-hop? How about the guitar solo from "Hotel California"? Then meet Ratatat's Mike Stroud and Evan Mast, two Brooklyn buds making earbud-friendly instrumentals that effortlessly, shamelessly blend all three.

The duo's third album, "LP3," sounds as coherent as it does motley. Setting eight-bit gurgles and glossy guitar licks to a trim disco beat, "Shempi" is the only cut from "LP3" that approaches the schizophrenia Ratatat's myriad influences might suggest. The rest of the disc is impressively tidy, with prog-rock keyboards, trip-hop atmospherics and loping reggae cadences all happily coexisting in one utopian soundscape.

Of course, Ratatat's sonic signature is still firmly intact: harmonized guitar solos that find catchy common ground between the Eagles and Iron Maiden. (Stroud's talents on the fretboard come as no surprise -- he's done stage and studio time with the likes of Ben Kweller and Dashboard Confessional.)

Yet, despite the proggy six-string heroics, "LP3" still feels more Super Mario Bros. than Supertramp. The songs often suffer from elliptical arrangements, chasing their own tails like the music score of an old-school video game. (The middling "Bird-Priest" practically refuses to reach its conclusion until some errant turtle shell knocks Mario into a nearby pit.) Thankfully, that isn't the case with album opener "Shiller," a sleek, mesmerizing track that proves Ratatat's arcade is still certainly worth a visit.

-- Chris Richards

DOWNLOAD THESE:"Shempi," "Shiller"

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