Folk Pop

Billy Bragg, “Tooth & Nail” (Cooking Vinyl). The first album in five years by the bard of Barking, Essex, is a largely subdued affair that plays to Bragg’s underrated strengths as a writer of tender, subtly revealing love songs. Bragg is best known as a political firebrand and the guy who collaborated with Wilco on the Woody Guthrie project “Mermaid Avenue.” “Tooth & Nail” is produced by Joe Henry and features a stellar band of backing musicians, including pedal steel player Greg Leisz. The CD nods to both the firebrand and the musicologist in Bragg, with a downcast cover of Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home” and “There Will Be A Reckoning.” Alas, on that track, frankly, Bragg sounds enervated and ineffectual. That song and the Golden Rule positivity of “Do Unto Others” come off stale, but elsewhere, the 54-year-old song craftsman is effective in his middle-age comfort zone, whether pondering big issues in “No One Knows Nothing Anymore” or promising that he can compensate for his sorry home-improvement abilities with his skills with a guitar and pen in “Handyman Blues.” Three stars (Dan DeLuca, Philadelphia Inquirer)


Lutoslawski, The Symphonies and Fanfare for the Los Angeles Philharmonic performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen (Sony Classical, two discs). The notes to this disc hyperbolically call Witold Lutoslawski the greatest Polish composer since Szymanowski and “arguably since Chopin.” What is inarguable is that Szymanowski and Lutoslawski were the greatest Polish composers to appear between Chopin and those universally considered the great postmodern masters, Penderecki and Gorecki. None of that makes such a full outlay as this – no matter how superbly performed by Salonen and his Los Angeles Symphony – any more ear-friendly than they are. Salonen met Lutoslawski in Helsinki, Finland, in the mid-’70s and has written that the Polish composer’s symphonies “possess the beauty of a giant organism, like a tree, or maybe a forest. We are moved by the logic of the form and the inevitability of growth. We perceive the music in shapes and lines, overall characteristics of the musical texture, and contrasts between movement and static situations.” All of which makes it virtuosic to the point of heroic for a modern symphony orchestra and therefore a perfect challenge for a conductor like Salonen. A listener can, at times, feel lost in Lutoslawski’s tonal forest without the enchantment, say, of Villa-Lobos’ tropical rain forest. There are four symphonies here along with the composer’s 1993 Fanfare for Salonen’s orchestra. The third is the most immediately appealing without in any way being as broadly attractive as the best of Szymanowski, Penderecki and Gorecki. This much needs to be said: no composer could ask for a better hearing than Salonen and his Los Angeles forces give him here. Three stars (Jeff Simon)


Gregorian Chants: The Chants of the Holy Spirit performed by the Gloriae dei Cantores Women’s Schola (Gloria Dei). With a new pope in office on this Easter Sunday, this slightly unusual recording of Gregorian Chant couldn’t be timed better. Recordings of Gregorian Chant have had their vogue reasonably often in the past 60 years – probably greatest in the era of the inordinate success of Gorecki’s “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.” Usually, the most popular and best-known have been performed by male choirs. What is further unusual in these performances is the prevalence of so much vibrato from the female choir at times that it is almost unprecedented in music where vibrato couldn’t be more foreign. A beautiful disc, in any case. Three stars (J.S.)


Depeche Mode, “Delta Machine” (Columbia). Strangely, British synth-pop’s first hitmakers Depeche Mode has long had an obsession with Mississippi Delta music. As with previous albums, Dave Gahan musters a soulful falsetto and a gutsy baritone wail on “Delta Machine” to go with his deadpan monotone croon. Guitarist and primary composer Martin Gore likes his blues licks and gospel choirs, heard on dozy numbers such as “Slow” and “Goodbye.” Where “Delta Machine” veers from the last several Depeche Mode records is in its willingness to get dirty and creepy. After the rote bigness of the so-so “Heaven” and “Welcome to My World,” the rest is an oddball electronic dream. “Should Be Higher” is nu-doom-disco at its most delicious, with Gahan’s tender lyrics toying with memories of his own onetime addictions (“Your arms are infected/ they’re holding the truth”). And while Gore is still DM’s principal songwriter, Gahan gets several compositions into the album’s mix, each murkier and eerier than anything he has penned previously. Three stars (A.D. Amorosi, Philadelphia Inquirer)


Wire, “Change Becomes Us” (Pinkflag). Change has always become Wire. Witness the band’s opening salvo, 1977’s “Pink Flag,” with its 90-second blasts of British art-punk perfection; 1978’s “Chairs Missing,” with its dark, ominous textures; and 1979’s “154,” with its post-punk anthems. After that brilliant trifecta, the band took a hiatus to regroup and reinvent; over the subsequent three-plus decades, Wire constantly shifted its balance of conceptual artistry, visceral punk rock and catchy pop melody. “Change Becomes Us” returns Wire to its early period. Original members Colin Newman, Graham Lewis and Robert Grey, plus newcomer Matthew Simms, took extant song blueprints from 1979-1980, including a few that appeared in much different form on 1981’s chaotic live album, “Document and Eyewitness,” and reimagined them. It’s a Janus-faced project that looks backward to move forward, not so much as an effort to reclaim the past as a gambit to reinvigorate the present. It works. Three stars. (Steve Klinge, Philadelphia Inquirer)


Eric LeLann with Nelson Veras and Gildas Bocle,I Remember Chet” (Bee Jazz). And he does, too. Here is what the French trumpet player Le Lann has to say about it: “I often went to see him play, especially to the Petit Opportun, and one night after the club we were walking in Les Halles and I said to him that three trumpeters really influenced me: it was Miles Davis, Clifford Brown and him, Chet Baker.” Baker’s mix of “vulnerability and strength” was inimitable, but the French trumpet player is a very good amalgam of those three trumpet players indeed, even if his recipe sounds stronger on Baker and Clifford Brown than Davis. It’s a reasonably irresistible drummerless trio with guitarist Nelson Veras and bassist Gildas Cocle. Strong European chamber jazz, if not exactly on the same musical level as Baker’s best. Three stars (J.S.)


Aaron Diehl, “The Bespoke Man’s Narrative” (Mack Avenue). Fear not. The title of this piano/vibraphone quartet disc makes it sound as if it might fall into the dreaded category of jazz orchestra with spoken word. “Bespoke” after all, is a word for custom-made clothing, and “narrative” could easily indicate a verbal tale to be told obliterating most musical interest. Not so. Pianist/composer Diehl leads vibraphonist Warren Wolfe, bassist David Wong and drummer Rodney Green in what they’re calling a tribute to the Modern Jazz Quartet, but this piano/vibe outfit couldn’t sound less like the neo-Baroque artful bluesmanship of the MJQ. Think of it as much more reminiscent of some terrific hard-swinging quartets led by vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson (including one with Herbie Hancock called “Happenings,” which has the finest extant version, I think, of Hancock’s tune “Maiden Voyage”). As a pianist, Diehl says he nods to Ahmad Jamal, Marcus Roberts and Kenny Kirkland. His own classical allusions – Ravel’s “Tombeau de Couperin” for instance – couldn’t sound less like the punctilious burn of the MJQ’s John Lewis. An interesting player and a good band. Three and a half stars (J.S.)


Lisa Hilton,Getaway” (Ruby Slippers). All you really have to know about pianist Hilton’s 15th and newest disc is that it’s a trio record with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Nasheet Waits (son of the late great Freddie). Grenadier and Waits could make your 10-year-old piano student nephew sound good if he only played a chord or two every few bars. Hilton hasn’t needed anyone to refer to her conspicuous blond beauty in more than a decade. She’s a worthy jazz composer as is lavishly proven here. And when she pays tribute to Earl Hines on “Stormy Monday Blues,” she’s nothing if not sincere, if far from idiomatic. On the opposite end of the chronological spectrum, she also pays tribute to Adele on “Turning Tables.” She still proceeds most often by decorating undulant ostinatos with sensitive right-hand filigree which is why Adele’s chord changes do her a world of good. All Hilton piano discs are pretty to one degree or another, and this one is no exception. Three stars (J.S.)