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News & Entertainment for Mason City, Clear Lake & the Entire North Iowa Region

Reviews of new pop, country/roots, jazz and classical releases

The Philadelphia Inquirer –


GARY CLARK JR. “Blak & Blu” (Warner Bros., 3 1/2 stars)

Gary Clark Jr., the 28-year-old guitarist from Austin, Texas, 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 & Blu” is both his major label debut and 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 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 & Blu” makes it clear the guitar slinger can back it up in the recording studio.

—Dan DeLuca

DONALD FAGEN “Sunken Condos” (Reprise, 3 stars)

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.

—A.D. Amorosi

TAME IMPALA “Lonerism” (Modular, 4 stars)

This branch of the overrated psychedelia revival isn’t annoying like Black Moth Super Rainbow or indulgent like Dungen. Under an hour, Tame Impala’s second album contains not only their sprawl, but provides tunes, from the buoyant drift of “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” (note self-deprecating title) to the swirling chords-in-a-blender of “Endors Toi” and the truly interstellar “Keep On Lying,” which it wouldn’t be a stretch for a trippy R&B star like Miguel to remix. “Elephant” changes tack entirely, from its garage groove to the internal title rhyme with “hell of it.” Only the confusing opener “Be Above It” is a mild irritant, but even that one’s invigorating — this fuzzed-out, drum-led stuff moves. But “Music to Walk Home By”? That’s an unpretentious enough goal.

—Dan Weiss

ULTRAÍSTA “Ultraísta” (Temporary Residence Ltd., 2 1/2 stars)

Given how much time producer Nigel Godrich and drummer Joey Waronker have spent backing Thom Yorke’s brilliant musings, it’s no surprise how much their own band’s first record resembles one of the latter’s. Godrich is the world-renowned sound architect responsible for each epochal Radiohead masterpiece since 1995’s “The Bends,” while Waronker has manned the kit behind Godrich in Yorke’s side project Atoms for Peace since 2009. On “Ultraísta,” the tumbling kraut-rock drum beats and gauzy Boards of Canada synth sheets sound like a reduction of Radiohead’s own Can and IDM obsessions, à la last year’s “The King of Limbs.” But as these casual tunes begin to run together beneath Laura Bettison’s competent but scarcely compelling vocals, they reveal their uniting flaw: this album needs a genius.

—Jakob Dorof


Country/ roots:

JASON ALDEAN “Night Train” (Broken Bow, 2 stars)

Jason Aldean has been a huge success with what you could call arena country. It’s basically steroidal rock with lots of power chords and big choruses; the music is country only in the occasional lyrical theme and token touches of steel guitar.

Aldean sticks to that formula on “Night Train.” More precisely, he bludgeons you with it. The slow, spare passages are just a respite for the next assault. This dynamic might be more effective if the material were just a fraction as memorable as the R&B standard from which the album borrows its title. Alas, except for the 15th and final track, “Water Tower,” in which Aldean ably works the age-old country theme of aching for home, that’s not the case.

If “Night Train” is good for anything, it’s that it might revive interest in the country singer Joe Diffie, whom Aldean repeatedly references in “1994.”

—Nick Cristiano



MEDESKI MARTIN & WOOD “Live: Free Magic” (Indirecto Labs, 3 stars)

Now in its third decade, Medeski Martin & Wood is sprouting projects. Bassist Chris Wood, for example, has been working with his brother, guitarist and singer Oliver, to make the Wood Brothers, an acoustic duo spanning blues, jazz and country.

Here, MMW presents five acoustic pieces, recorded live in 2007 in such venues at Wilmington, Del.’s, Grand Opera House and Princeton, N.J.’s, McCarter Theater. The tunes are pretty free, ranging from a Wood original like “Doppler” to a nifty merger of Charles Mingus’ “Nostalgia In Times Square” with Sun Ra’s “Angel Race.”

The set has a concert feel of pretty intricate music that takes time to ripen and mimics nerve twitches at times. As the title suggests, this is one of the trio’s freer sessions. Yet it still finds time to slam. The climaxes are satisfying.

—Karl Stark




“Preludes Books 1 and 2” Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Deutsche Grammophon, 4 stars)

“Preludes Books 1 and 2” Philippe Bianconi (La dolce volta, 3 1/2 stars)

“Pour le piano, Estampes, L’Isle joyeuse” Rafal Blechacz (Deutsche Grmamophon, 3 1/2 stars)

“Suite bergamasque, Childrens Corner, Pour le piano etc.” Angela Hewitt (Hyperion, 2 1/2 stars)

The mystery, abstraction and sheer malleability of the sound in Debussy’s piano music all but guarantees that few recordings of his music in this 150th anniversary year of his birth will be redundant. The young Rafal Blechacz makes Debussy as imposing as Rachmaninoff, though he’s alert to the music’s quieter poetry. Provocatively, Blechacz devotes half his disc to Karol Szymanowski, who shared Debussy’s taste in saturated harmonies though, in his early “Sonata in C minor Op. 8,” hadn’t found his voice.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Philippe Bianconi stand at opposite ends of the Debussy continuum: Aimard is all about symbolism and rhetoric while the more comtemplative Bianconi explores the music purely as musical constructions — though Aimard has more luminous sound quality. The baffling disc is Angela Hewitt’s. Her approach is casual, not taking any particular viewpoint, almost as if Debussy doesn’t really interest her. Odd.

—David Patrick Stearns

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