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Jazz

Madeleine Peyroux

The Blue Room

[Emarcy/Decca]

4 stars (Out of 4)

Let us now praise the once-despised Vanilla Fudge.

In its heyday, Carmine Appice’s band was the victim of no end of teasing and outright demolition for its penchant for taking huge hits by others and turning them into massive, molasses-slow cauldrons of molten metal.

And now consider Madeleine Peyroux, the heavenly jazz/folk singer who has finally delivered the unquestioned masterpiece her fans have been awaiting since her first disc. It’s called “The Blue Room,” and whatever doubts you may have about its masterwork status may well vanish completely six tracks in when you hear her version of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire,” which proceeds at about half the tempo of Judy Collins’ version and, yes, quite a few notches on the metronome slower than Cohen’s own. The result is absolutely stunning, with every word of Cohen’s poetry coming through with heart-rending power that even the composer himself couldn’t give it. (It’s a similar situation obtained with Jeff Buckley’s version of Cohen’s now-iconic masterwork “Hallelujah.”)

The combination of Peyroux’s achingly sensitive re-creation of Billie Holiday for the 21st century and Vince Mendoza’s string arrangements is almost as powerful in a slightly different way as Joni Mitchell’s standards masterpiece with Mendoza called “Both Sides Now.”

The intent on “The Blue Room” was something else entirely. Peyroux’s estimable producer Larry Klein (who produced “Both Sides Now,” too) originally thought of “The Blue Room” as her tribute to Ray Charles’ epochal “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.” Instead of investing the songs with Charles’ literally incomparably raw blues feeling, Peyroux would give them her almost equally incomparable angelic fragility.

She’d be the yang to Charles’ yin.

What wound up happening, though, is that Klein and Peyroux kept adding to Charles’ original classic repertoire – Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire,” Buddy Holly’s seldom-heard “Changing All These Changes,” Randy Newman’s “Guilty.” The result is the disc that her listeners and most faithful fans always knew was in her but finally came together in a way that was fresh and completely unimaginable.

Charles redrew the musical landscape when he brought his soul to country classics. Peyroux isn’t doing anything nearly that radical. At the same time she – as she does in her classic version of “Bird on a Wire”– is forcing us to hear the lyrics of these songs in a way we might never have heard them before.

What Mendoza’s strings bring to the enterprise is imperishable.

A great disc, regardless of what direction you first come to it. The result is the same.

– Jeff Simon

Pop

Biffy Clyro

Opposites

[14th Floor]

3 stars

Scottish trio Biffy Clyro’s sixth album is a study in dichotomies. A double-disc set originally intended as two separate releases, “Opposites” has been divided into disc 1, “The Land at the End of Our Toes,” and disc 2, “The Sand at the Core of Our Bones.” A general thematic opposition between the two bears out the album’s title, with “Land” presenting a more skeptical, occasionally downright negative world view, and “Sand” offering tunes tinged with existential possibility. Musically, the discs pursue markedly different approaches, with “Land” presenting more mainstream aspects of the band’s alt-rock sound, and “Sand” more inclined to indulge in the progressive and post-rock tendencies of Biffy Clyro’s earliest work.

The ambitious nature of this project should not be taken particularly lightly – there’s an awful lot of music here, and the amount of care and craft that went into its creation is apparent at every step of the journey. That said, “Opposites” displays a bit of a fissure in Biffy’s musical psyche. Particularly during the first disc’s 40 minutes, it seems that the band – led by guitarist/vocalist Simon Neil, and anchored by bassist James Johnston and drummer Brian Johnston – is making a concerted effort to break through to the mainstream. That in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, but unfortunately, part of what has made Biffy Clyro such an interesting band is the fact that it wore its idiosyncrasies proudly. Most of those idiosyncrasies took the form of the unexpected compositional twists and turns and time signature shifts commonly associated with progressive rock and post-rock. Strip those interesting ticks back, and what you’re left with is essentially the more substantive version of Coldplay-style alt-rock balladry that fills much of “Land.”

This might help Biffy Clyro to fill the arenas that many of these fine arena-style anthems seem destined to resound within. Tunes like “Black Chandelier” and “Different People” never quite stoop to the cloying nature of most alternative ballads weighed down by their own self-import, but they come closer than fans of the band’s past work might find comfortable. Happily, the stuttering, jagged complexity of a tune like “Sounds Like Balloons” helps restore the balance on disc 1, and hints at what’s to come during the album’s latter half.

The “Sand” disc is clearly the one that deserves the album’s cover art, which was crafted by Hipgnosis mastermind and longtime Pink Floyd confidante Storm Thorgerson. This is the bit where Biffy Clyro gets its modern day prog on, sounding more often than not like a less bombastic version of Muse or a “Bends”-era Radiohead, rather than Coldplay or the Postal Service, the mainstream alt-pop acts most clearly referenced during “Land.”

An ambitious effort with mostly positive results, then. But perhaps pulling the strongest pair of tracks from disc 1, adding them to disc 2 and releasing the thing as a single album would have yielded a less schizophrenic result.

– Jeff Miers

BLUES

Eric Clapton

Old Sock

[Bushbranch/Surfdog]

2 stars

Eric Clapton is an eloquent, gifted guitarist and an incredibly soulful singer. This is not news. The man has nothing to prove to anyone. Unfortunately, throughout “Old Sock,” he sounds like he knows it.

It’s disappointing that following his stellar set as part of the “12/12/12” concert to benefit those most affected by Hurricane Sandy, Clapton sounds so comfortable here that he’s barely conscious. At “12/12/12,” he played with fire, conviction and abandonment. Backed by drummer Steve Jordan, he asserted his rightful place as a god in the pantheon of rock and blues. On “Old Sock,” it sounds like it was a toss-up between recording an album or hitting the beach for the day, and recording won out by barely an inch.

Most of “Old Sock” is comprised of covers. After opening with a rather flacid “Further On Down the Road,” Clapton takes on Peter Tosh’s “Till Your Well Runs Dry,” and the relaxed reggae groove is polite to the point of near banality. “Born To Lose,” most strongly associated with the Ray Charles version from “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music,” is presented as a cozy country-blues waltz. It’s not bad, but it’s hardly inspiring, nor does it sound particularly inspired. The standard “All Of Me,” with guest Paul McCartney helping out, just strikes the listener as unnecessary. Clapton and Macca sound like they were having a good time passing a few hours together, but none of that fun is parlayed to the listener, who is left wondering why this song needed yet another recorded version. The strongest song here is “Gotta Get Over,” a funk-blues-rock hybrid that features the record’s only truly fiery soloing, and can boast of background vocals from Chaka Kahn. But even this doesn’t measure up to the weakest song on Clapton’s last truly great album, 1999’s “Pilgrim.”

Clapton owes us nothing at this point. But it is abundantly evident that he is still capable of giving us much more than this musty “Old Sock.”

– J.M.