WILD FOR YOU
The work of the singer-songwriter era of the early 1970s was so drenched in direct emotion, it's little wonder that baby boomers still find those songs rattling around their heads. The expression of sexual passion, ensuing romance and its inevitable disappointments -- the very heart of popular song since Day One -- took on a straightforwardness and frankness that could cut to the core, particularly the core of an adolescent. Confessional lyrics, united with crafted melodies and can't-miss hooks, produced songs that, while still lurking outside the approved canon, continue to stand the test of time as surely as those standards of the '30s, '40s and '50s that make up the Great American Songbook.
Karrin Allyson, who's been recording acclaimed vocal jazz albums for the past decade, is another boomer who, having grown up on early '70's pop, finds it impossible to dislodge it from her internal hard drive, no matter how much Porter, Ellington and Rodgers and Hart she normally sings. Although Allyson has flirted with singer-songwriter anthems before, "Wild for You" is her full-fledged trip down memory lane. With unabashed affection she takes on signature songs from the likes of Carole King, Elton John, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and Jimmy Webb.
Keyboard player and accordionist Gil Goldstein's stylish arrangements for a compact, hornless jazz ensemble retain enough of the original forms to jog the memory, yet also bring in a wealth of novel musical detail -- a modified reggae beat on Mitchell's "All I Want," a lyric acoustic piano threading through James Taylor's "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight," time-signature shifts on King's "It's Too Late." Through subtle but telling tweaks of harmony and melody, Goldstein and Allyson invest emblematic period songs with contemporary vitality.
-- Steve Futterman
Karrin Allyson is scheduled to appear Sept. 16 at the Rams Head in Annapolis.
UH HUH HER
Back before the jangly, jazzy, suspiciously happy "Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea," Polly Jean Harvey used to make records like this one. Airless and spare, cloaked in the requisite misery, self-absorption and rage, "Uh Huh Her," while not a better record than its predecessor, channels the raw brilliance of Harvey's early work more effectively than anything she's done in years.
For the most part, "Uh Huh" (on which Harvey plays every instrument except drums) traffics in slight, bluesy rock, the fuzzier and more minimally instrumented the better. The best lyrics can't be reprinted here, nor the titles (one seems to concern a particularly bad haircut, but it might be better not to know). Suffice to say that "Uh Huh" can be divided between the murderous (the Nick Cave-esque "Pocket Knife"), the slightly-less-murderous (the grim, thudding opener "The Life and Death of Mr. Badmouth") and the tolerably unhappy (everything else).
"Uh Huh" occasionally flirts with the sublime: "The Letter," suggestive of the best moments on Harvey's long-ago debut, "Dry" ("Who is left that writes these days? / But you and me / We'll be different"), is simple and perfect. But the disc has an inordinate number of clunkers as well, especially for an artist as usually fastidious as Harvey. The central metaphor of "Cat on the Wall" ("You got me jumping / Like a cat on the wall") isn't exactly one for the ages, and one track contains nothing more than seagulls chirping, precisely the sort of offhand, I'm-brilliant-even-when-I-don't-try silliness that Harvey would be better off leaving to Radiohead.
-- Allison Stewart
For an art-rock totem reared on experimentation and a shifting image, Sonic Youth has become an unlikely model of an elder band making new sense of its own legacy. The New York group's reputation was built on tangles of guitars tuned to snarl and growl, but the past few Sonic Youth albums have helped rescue the songful murmurs that always hid beneath their noisy surfaces.
"Sonic Nurse," the band's 14th proper album, traffics in raw rubs and bristly dissonance, but the foreground is a moving picture of soft dissolves and melodic glow. After opening with a sassy blast of noise, the first song, "Pattern Recognition," trails a spell of conversational guitars long past shouting to make their point.
Primary string-benders Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo know each other's every design after more than 20 years together, and their newfound concision becomes them. In "Dripping Dream," they hook up for a muscular riff display that wouldn't sound out of place on classic-rock radio, save for its serpentine melody and celestial sense of dynamics. New band member Jim O'Rourke helps push such directness to the front, playing firm bass lines that give a gravitational core to guitars that would be just as content to float away.
Vocally, Sonic Youth sounds as pointed and evocative as it ever has. Kim Gordon winds her disaffected coo through a workshop's worth of complex roles, from a giddy girl squeezing out sly messages to Mariah Carey ("your bounce to the ounce makes us want to pounce!") to a haunted muse singing a breathy love song in "I Love You Golden Blue." She sounds sensual and scary, two character threads that Sonic Youth keeps braiding into one.
-- Andy Battaglia