John Grant, “Pale Green Ghosts” (Partisan). John Grant’s second solo album – following the critical droolfest that was “Queen of Denmark,” voted “Album of the Year” by MOJO upon its release in 2010 – is perhaps the most disquietingly beautiful singer-songwriter collection to hit the ether since Rufus Wainwright released “Poses” in 2001. Grant’s intimate low tenor and penchant for achingly romantic refrains makes him easy to like rather quickly, but beneath these open-armed melodies lurks the dark heart of a thousand shattered dreams. Grant is a jilted idealist, but his immense gift for self-deprecating humor masks what is clearly genuine hurt. This dichotomy makes Grant the Harry Nilsson of his generation, but one needn’t break out the Kleenex for an all-night pity party when indulging him – he consistently makes fun of himself in just the nick of time, deflating his maudlin tendencies before they overtake the proceedings. “Pale Green Ghosts” boasts a saucy electronic music undercurrent, and the marriage of electronic and organic instrumentation is consistently inventive and well-negotiated throughout the album. There’s much wit here, a dash or two of camp, and abundant melodic sophistication. The arrangements are brave, odd, and yet somehow familiar in their late-night, dimly lit, several-drinks-in logic. Fans of Nilsson, Wainwright, American Music Club and Midlake will likely welcome “Pale Green Ghosts” into their lives without much resistance. 3½ stars (Jeff Miers)

Vintage Pop

Willie Nelson and Family, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” (Sony Legacy). It’s none of our business how an 80-year-old musical legend wants to celebrate his longevity at the apex of our musical esteem. If Willie Nelson wants to gather his family around him for a lot of music from the Not-All-That-Great-American-Songbook, who are we to argue? You have to admit there’s something kind of wonderful about hearing Willie’s sprung rhythms and phrasing on Irving Berlin’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” (Fred Astaire, who introduced the song, would, no doubt, grin knowingly from ear to ear at Willie’s radical departures from his example). Unfortunately, that – the disc’s opening tune – is virtually the last time there’s anything at all wonderful about the disc. “Walking My Baby Back Home” doesn’t really benefit from Willie’s old-shoe homestyle clunkery. Sometimes, there’s just no replacing Nat “King” Cole’s incomparable pop suavity. Willie is Willie, a happy fact of American life like a national park or a new summer “Star Trek” movie. But some national parks are bigger and better than others – and more satisfactorily kept up in their visitor areas too. 2½ stars (Jeff Simon)


Various Artists, “True Blues,” (Telarc, available late May). Lest anyone think of Delta blues as a kind of quaint souvenir music from a kind of itinerant version of “local color” in sound, this terrific anthology disc will disabuse them in a hurry. These are live performances co-produced by great current bluesman Corey Harris (a MacArthur genius grant winner, no less) from various venues around the United States – Jazz at Lincoln Center concerts in New York, the House of Blues in Los Angeles, Howard Theater in Washington, D.C., Ram’s Head On Stage in Annapolis, Md. The performers are Harris, the great Taj Mahal, Shemekia Copeland, Phil Wiggins, Alvin Youngblood Hart and Guy Davis. “Blues is life,” says Taj. “It’s the food. It’s the people. It’s the walk. It’s the dance. It’s the breathing. It’s the fat lady singing. It’s the skinny lady singing. It’s all of it.” And there isn’t a single performance on this disc of modern itinerant blues singers – mostly from instrumentations and versions that would have been completely at home on the Mississippi Delta in the ’20s (Taj’s “Mailbox Blues” is the only real exception) – that doesn’t do a gorgeous job of illustrating Taj’s thesis. What is it that the great country music songwriter used to call it – “Three Chords and the Truth?” Well that, with a different eminently American flavor, is what you hear all the way through here. 4 stars (J.S.)


Bach, The Cello Suites performed by cellist William Butt, (Warner Classics, two discs), performed by Jan Vogler (Sony Classical, two discs). It is, assuredly, something of a shock that almost every cellist of note now feels it necessary to give us a complete traversal of the once-rare Bach Unaccompanied Cello Suites. It was Pablo Casals who discovered them and gave us one of the greatest traversals we’ll ever hear. Also on that level are Janos Starker and Yo-Ya Ma. Fournier, Isserlis and Tortelier are good. And so are several younger performers. These two are more in the neighborhood of “dutiful” performances of the greatest music ever written for the solo cello (and really rivaled for solo string instrument only by Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin). Even with his much-vaunted Stradivarius, Vogler’s versions seem both lighter and fussier than those of William Butt (whose recording of Britten’s Unaccompanied Cello Suites is widely and justly praised.) It is Butt whose rhapsodic through-line here more closely resembles the cellists whose versions of this towering linear music is up to the Olympian standards of the music itself (Starker, always, in every one of his several performances of these works from different stages of his virtuoso career). What both these versions do, though, is underline for anyone who needed reminding how very much the reputation of this music has soared over the past 60 years into a stratosphere where it is now considered among the greatest music by the composer many would be eager to nominate as the central composer in the history of the West. 2½ stars for Vogler, 3 stars for Butts (J.S.)


Stravinsky, Le Sacre du Printemps performed by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein (Sony Classical). “Wow,” according to the great critic Jonathan Cott (who serves as annotater here), is what “a galvanized Igor Stravinsky reportedly exclaimed after listening to Leonard Bernstein’s astonishing recording with the New York Philharmonic of “The Rite of Spring,” a performance that Columbia Records captured more than a half century ago in a single electrically charged recording session on Jan. 20, 1958, at the Hotel St. George in Brooklyn, New York.” Nor was the great composer of the 20th century’s pivotal modernist masterwork alone. Teenage music listeners discovering the piece felt the same way (I can offer personal testimony there). So did middle-aged record buyers who had never heard a recording of “The Rite of Spring” that was either as clear and lucid or as exciting. It is, quite literally, one of the formative recordings of American musical life. And now, in the work’s centennial year, this reissue of it is something of a grand celebration of the work itself and its unfailing ability to both astonish and keep pulses pounding. If, after all these years of hearing new performances, there seem to be others that are even better, what Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic achieved in 1958 is as good a way on disc to mark the work’s 100th birthday as any there will be. 4 stars(J.S.)


Ivan Lins and the SWR Big Band conducted by Ralf Schmid, “Cornucopia” (Sunnyside). Anyone who still thinks of bossa nova and Brazilian music as the kind of sweet, wistful and zephyrous beach music that Stan Getz first brought to us with friends Joao Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim needs to hear what the great Ivan Lins does here with one of the greatest of the great European Jazz Orchestras, the SWR Big Band of Stuttgart. Forget sighing when “The Girl from Ipanema” passes by in her bikini, this is the boisterous music of Carnival, to be danced to vigorously in the sand before plunging into the ocean to cool off (or in a nightclub before carrying your drink out into a cold night). Its African influences are pronounced and its rare Lins instrumental tribute to Miles Davis (performed by trumpet player Joo Kraus) is gorgeous. Lins’ stateside reputation was never a fraction what it should have been. A terrific disc. 4 stars (J.S.)