David GrayEngland's David Gray has the haughty imprimatur of the electronica crowd and the devotion of the less technologically minded emos, peculiar audiences for someone who makes thinky piano rock. He's not all that modern a singer-songwriter, recalling the swanker end of '70s soft rock with his James Taylor voice, Elton John keyboards and mellow Gordon Lightfoot groove. Where "Babylon," a U.K. favorite released in the United States in 1999, introduced Gray as a writer of chill, pleasant aural wallpaper, his latest, "A New Day at Midnight," covers more musical and personal ground: Now he's evoking something other than the idea of evocation. "A New Day" finds Gray working through his father's recent death, and he sounds sorrowful but steeled. The arrangements are at once grand and spare, with swelling washes of sound softening the edges of his hooky melodies and tinny production. The lyrics are full of "tears," the love songs determinedly optimistic. Grief hasn't lightened Gray's mood, but it has brought out his passion, palpable on "Last Boat to America," soulful on the angry kickoff "Dead in the Water" and the bare-bones "December." In a world full of whiners with microphones, Gray's laserlike focus is refreshing -- his misery has purpose, and he explores the sympathetic colors of each searing emotion like the prism that adorned "Babylon's" cover. "The world in all its clarity is glorious," he sings on "Real Love," and it sounds for a blessed minute as if David Gray might find some peace.

-- Arion Berger


Gato Barbieri

Argentine-born saxophonist Leandro "Gato" Barbieri has one of the most distinctive, and affecting, sounds in jazz. It's a broad, lyrical tone with an edge of a growl that gives it a seductive, rough-but-tender quality. No wonder it was the perfect soundtrack for Bernardo Bertolucci's "Last Tango in Paris." Or that, earlier, it was the vehicle for Barbieri's passionate fusion of Third World politics, Latin American folk music rhythms and avant-jazz aesthetics captured in superb albums such as "Fenix," "Under Fire," and "The Third World."

But that was then. After a few commercially successful pop-jazz albums in the late '70s, Barbieri, beset by personal problems, faded from view and recorded only sporadically. He came back in 1997 in a decidedly smooth-jazz mode. "The Shadow of the Cat" is his third album since.

Musically, it has not been a felicitous second act. The juxtaposition of the Barbieri sound with the utter banality of the material and accompaniment in these recordings suggests a Tiffany's diamond on a Woolworth's ring. In "The Shadow of the Cat," the pieces, some by Barbieri himself, are resolutely nondescript. He is a superb melodist, but dressed-up vamps such as "El Chico" or "Tierra Del Fuego," inanities like the title track or generic-sounding ballads like "Beautiful Walk" and "Blue Habanera" go only so far. For many years now, Barbieri has been a musician with a beautiful sound in search of a song. Here's to a happy find, soon.

-- Fernando Gonzalez