Robert Plant: Lullabye…And The Ceaseless Road (Nonesuch) It has always been known that Robert Plant, aside from being blessed with one of the most remarkable voices in rock ‘n’ roll, has had freakishly good taste in music. Though the blues and its related forms have been in evidence since Led Zeppelin made their colorful debut, there’s be odd snatches of dialog in older interviews in which names like Arthur Lee, Skip Spence and Tim Buckley would surface; back then, not many people dropped those names. So it’s no major surprise that while the early Zeppelin albums are getting current exposure a set of terrific reissues, the man himself continues to focus on what’s now, what’s new, and what’s not necessarily known. And good for him. Because this record sounds like a man with extraordinary good taste—and ability—has made it. His voice has never sounded warmer or more appealing in its lower registers—where one tends to sing when one is one’s mid-60s—and the deliberately eclectic, world-music stew blending blues, rock, African, Welsh and other music forms sounds wholly organic and absolutely genuine. And that is a rarity. Rather than dwell in past glories—and he could, justifiably—Robert Plant once again looks forward, and has never sounded more contemporary. He’s quite good.
The Beatles: The Beatles In Mono [Vinyl Box Set] (Capitol) As the basics of music consumption have shifted from owning “things”—whether 78s, 45s, LPs, 4-track or 8-track cartridges, cassettes, CDs, Super Audio CDs, and whatever other squiggly things you can think of—to simply streaming those things on demand, otherwise sane record collector-types are now looking like they’re one season away from a guest stint on Hoarders. But if you believe—and I certainly do—that there is something to having the actual thing, whether it be a physical recording, a t-shirt, or even a custom bobblehead of your favorite artist, then here, in all its glory, is the Ultimate Thing To Own. A beautifully constructed, sturdy box containing the original classic U.K. Beatles albums, newly mastered in mono from the original analog tapes, pressed in deluxe 180-gram vinyl and accompanied by a lavish 12”x12” book, it’s about as good as this stuff can get—as music, as a comprehensive reissue, as a vinyl box set, as a piece of history that is designed to be a permanent object rather than a collection of files manufactured to meet consumer demand in the early 21st Century. Included, as you might suspect, are Please Please Me, With The Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night, Beatles For Sale, Help, Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Magical Mystery Tour (U.S. format), The Beatles, and, on 3 LPs, the Mono Masters collection. They are all very good, which is the point—many, many times over.
Banks: Goddess (Harvest) Poised for very big things—it’s almost scary how poised she is for that—here’s Banks’ very first full album and it’s as good, and as genre-busting, as expected. There’s three tracks from her earlier London EP here, but that’s fine as 1) they’re good and, 2) they’ve gotten people buzzing about this, which is even better. An LA-bred singer-songwriter who manages to merge the hippest contemporary rhythm approaches with a near confessional-pop style that some have compared to Fiona Apple—they must be young—Banks is for the most part riveting. Goddess is a solid, fully formed arrival, the singer already has a very large fan base (with her debut album coming out this week, for god’s sake), and she is positioned within the industry to the 2014 Biggest Breakout Artist or something similar. Frankly, she could have it much worse.
Interpol: El Pintor (Matador) A co-worker and I were recently discussing the irony of one-time groundbreaking, upstart rock ’n’ roll bands involuntarily taking on the air of seasoned vets or, er, members of the Old Guard—and who fast that seems to happen. I believe the two bands being discussed were the Strokes and Interpol—both of whom I like but have never loved, and thus still like but, as I had little personal investment in their worth as groundbreaking pioneers, by no means feel let down by. Do you know what I mean? I like the way this new Interpol album sounds, I miss their style, that jangly, multi-string guitar picking, that reverberated voice that sounds like someone or other, and there’s a lot of songwriting here that sounds more substantial than I remember. I guess I missed them, which is a surprise. That said, while I like the new album title, I’m surprised they ignored Petrol In, Lone Trip, Inert Pol, Pert Loin, Let Rip On or the inevitable Re Nip Lot. But that Latin market is alluring.
Billy Childs: Map To The Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro (Sony Masterworks) If there’s someone whose career could absolutely use some reimagining right now, it would be Laura Nyro—the pioneering, enormously creative and emotionally compelling singer-songwriter who died in 1997 but left behind a distinguished catalog of classic material. This polished product, the work of jazz pianist Billy Childs, spotlights many of Nyro’s best songs via Childs’ creative orchestrations and the marvelous guest performers—typically varied, top-flight, and each a perfect fit. Among them: Renee Fleming, Yo-Yo Ma, Rickie Lee Jones, Esperanza Spalding, Wayne Shorter, Lisa Fischer, Alison Krauss, Dianne Reeves, Shawn Colvin and even more. General pop music fans will be familiar with such Nyro classics as “Stoned Soul Picnic,” “Save The Country” and “And When I Die”—and they’re all in evidence—but it is the lesser-known tunes, such as album opener “New York Tendaberry,” the title track of her 1969 classic, that linger the longest and shine the brightest light on Nyro’s work. Highly recommended.
Simian Mobile Disco: Whorl (ANTI-) In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, before synthesizers, sequencers, and laptops became accepted tools of entry into the music business, artists often had to wing it a lot, rather than just press buttons. In a sense it is exactly that—the ‘70s creation of the digital sequencer—that rendered the later, more “automated” works of German band Tangerine Dream in the ‘80s less interesting than their work from a decade earlier. So it’s refreshing that with Whorl, the latest set from Simian Mobile Disco’s James Ford and Jas Shaw, the pair has deliberately dropped their multitudes of electronic gadgetry and pursued a more simple course here. Recorded live this April near Joshua Tree National Park, the album features the pair with just “two suitcase-sized boxes each—no laptops, no racks of hardware, just one synth and one sequencer each.” The result is spectacular: Sometimes quietly moody, sometimes pulsating loudly, but always well-thought out and never directionless or—as was the intent—overly mechanical. Really good stuff here.
Loudon Wainwright III: Haven’t Got The Blues (Yet) (429) Given that this is his 26th album, that both this album and its predecessor Older Than My Old Man Now share similar age-related concerns, and that Loudon Wainwright’s brilliant career has been suitably boxed-up via 2011’s 40 Odd Years compilation, one might expect the distinguished gentleman to be less than at his best here. But not so. Energetic, topical, serious, humorous, and as always darkly humorous, Wainwright simply can’t stop. He’s one of our very best, and he’s still going strong. Show the man some appreciation, please.
Various Artists: The Midnight Special [6-DVD set] (Time Life) I know there’s a technical term for it—something to do with the rate of frames–per-second—but there is something inherently liver—with a long “i”—about seeing something on video rather than film, a peculiar sensation that what you’re seeing not only took place just a few hours ago, but maybe even in the next room. That is just one of the profoundly fascinating aspects of this massive 6-DVD collection of Midnight Special performances. A 90-minute NBC show running throughout most of the ‘70s—and watched by a younger, awestruck audience well before MTV was invented—the program featured just about anyone who was anybody in pop music back then. There are almost 100 live performances to be had on these six discs, and the artists represented include the Bee Gees, Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, the Electric Light Orchestra, Robert Palmer, Earth, Wind & Fire, Peter Frampton, and, well, essentially everybody. The sound is great, the artists are young and wrinkle free, the various onstage wardrobes are jaw-droppingly great—and the picture quality looks like it’s all being shot in Hollywood at this very moment. No one in their right mind would watch all 6 of these discs in one sitting; maybe, as the song has it, you should be dancing, no?