King Animal

[Universal Republic]

4 stars

“But it’s fate/I only ever really wanted a break/I’ve been away for too long.”

So begins Soundgarden’s first album in 15 years, and just like that, it’s as if those 15 years never actually passed by at all. “King Animal” is so self-assured an album as to override such conceptions as “return to form” or “comeback.” It simply sounds as if the Seattle foursome of singer Chris Cornell, guitarist Kim Thayil, drummer Matt Cameron and bassist Ben Shepherd picked up the thread where they dropped it back in 1997, following the tour behind the “Down On the Upside” album.

“Been Away Too Long,” the above-cited opening tune, arrives like a fist to the face, Cornell sounding like a man on fire running full-tilt down a pitch-black, deserted back road with a pack of rabid hellhounds slobbering and nipping at his heels. It’s a re-upping of the band’s statement of purpose, a primal sledgehammer riff moving with a dancer’s grace in and out of shifts in meter, as if Black Sabbath had somehow been reborn as a progressive rock band. As album openers go, fans who have been waiting for what feels like forever for a new Soundgarden album couldn’t have hoped for anything stronger.

Happily, this opener is no anomaly. “King Animal” has for its closest kin in the Soundgarden canon the group’s seminal “Superunknown” album, and like that classic collection, this new disc boasts songwriting credits for all four members, and with the exception of three solo-penned compositions, is marked by writing collaborations on every tune. This means much variety, within the sonic spectrum we accept as being Soundgarden’s stomping grounds. Shepherd handled the music, while Cornell and Thayil collaborated on the lyrics for the skewed post-punk/art-metal romp “Non State Actor,” whose lyrics can’t help but seem incisive in this barely post-election climate. (“We’re not elected, but we will speak/We’re not the chosen, but we believe/And we settle for a little bit more than everything,” runs the rousing chorus.)

All four members gathered for the writing of “By Crooked Steps,” which boasts the stop-start rhythms and unexpected syncopations common to tunes by drummer Cameron for his other band, Pearl Jam. Thayil and Cornell handled “A Thousand Days Before,” a vaguely Eastern-tinged piece with “Presence”-era Led Zeppelin overtones. Shepherd and Cornell’s co-written “Taree” is ruminative and mildly ominous, though its chorus arrives as if attempting to beat the darkness into submission. “Rowing” is another Shepherd/Cornell project, and it’s a stunning piece of music, suggesting a contemporary urban field holler in construction and “The Myth of Sisyphus” in terms of its lyric imagery.

The result of all of this interplay is a collection of songs that in every way suggests a band eager to work together, and grateful for the opportunity to do so. Yes, they’ve been away for too long. But the folks who believe that rock can be both heavy and intelligent, ferocious and sophisticated, fueled by anger and touched by beauty – are damn lucky they’re back.

– Jeff Miers


Duke Ellington

The Complete Columbia Studio Albums Collection 1951-1958

[Sony Legacy]

4 stars

With the upcoming Black Friday signaling the beginning of serious gift season, the luxurious jazz box sets coming from SONY Legacy have to be accounted treasures with little parallel for the most dedicated jazz listeners. Despite the huge Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong boxes released at the same time as this (reviews of those to come), it seems to me that this music from Ellington is the most extraordinary music of all, full of imperishable jazz orchestral masterpieces that have never dated one iota since release and never will (even magnificent Armstrong masterworks like “Weather Bird” and “West End Blues” can’t escape the sonic primitivism of commercial recording’s first era).

Nor can you pretend that everything on these nine discs is on the same level – not by a long shot. His suites “Such Suite Thunder” (from Shakespeare) and “Black, Brown and Beige” (mostly a set of variations on his “Come Sunday” sung hauntingly and forever by Mahalia Jackson) are on one level, but “A Drum Is a Woman” is on another lower level entirely. By the same token, the music on the long underrated “Uptown” and “Masterpieces” is among the greatest Ellington of any era, while “Ellington Indigos” is merely acceptable dance band Ellington, and “Blue Rose” with Rosemary Clooney is a permanent reminder that his taste in singers, while not uniformly impeccable, was great often enough that it remains towering Ellington.

The least-known records here – “Bal Masque” and the nonet, solo-filled “The Cosmic Scene” are so unusual that even though they’re not apex Ellington, they distinguish the box in their own way. And when you get to the outtakes, wait until you hear Jackson during one take of “Come Sunday” cough and mutter “oh, Jesus.” The fact is that Ellington was, by a great distance, the greatest of all composer/bandleaders in jazz history. That means the great music in this box is irreplaceable to American music. It elevates even the commercial toss-offs.

– Jeff Simon


Baiba Skride

Violin Concertos


3 and 1/2 stars

The program on this excellent and well-played disc is nothing if not peculiar. Well, sure, why not have fine young Latvian violinist Baiba Skride play the violin concertos of Stravinsky and fellow neo-classicist Frank Martin together (along with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Thierry Fischher)? And as long as we’re in the neighborhood, why not add two of the greatest works by Martin’s Swiss contemporary Arthur Honegger, the “Pacific 231” and “Rugby”?

But what on earth is Stravinsky’s “Circus Polka” doing ending it all? Annotater Chris Walton tries to get away with it all by saying “each of the composers respresented here was in his own way a man far from home” – Martin in Germany, Honegger in Paris and Stravinsky wandering throughout the Western world. Which has got to be one of the most far-fetched unifying themes ever attached to an otherwise excellent disc of 20th century music by composers whose virtues nicely balance one another – Honegger’s dynamism with Stravinsky’s dry-point neo-classicism with Martin’s suggestions of Ravel and late-Romanticism. It’s haphazardly related 20th century music of idiosyncratic strengths and vague currency played well and thrown together on one disc. One could do far worse.

– J.S.


One Direction

Take Me Home


3 stars

With this epically energetic follow-up, flash-in-the-pan boy band One Direction threatens to take over the kitchen. The CD is loaded with revved-up pop anthems like “Live While We’re Young” “C’mon C’mon” and “Kiss You,” all with rousing, chanted choruses. The lyrics are more boldly hedonistic this time around: “Let’s go crazy, crazy, crazy till we see the sun / I know we only met but let’s pretend it’s love.” The material is expertly tailored for their voices – all pleasant, but none exceptional, which is why they work so well in a homogenized group setting. One Direction is actually best suited to sugary ballads such as “They Don’t Know About Us,” the standout track on the adorable quintet’s stronger and more consistent sophomore effort.

– David Hiltbrand,

Philadelphia Inquirer