Billie Joe & Norah


[Warner Bros.]

3 stars

This should be awful. Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day and folk-pop-jazz siren Norah Jones teaming to take on the Everly Brothers’ timeless “Songs Our Daddy Taught Us”? Sounds like a train wreck waiting to happen, mostly because one suspects Armstrong’s punk-pop snarl to be the wrong fit for the Everly’s sugary country harmonies. And yet, as it turns out, Armstrong and Jones harmonize in a beautifully mellow, organic manner throughout “Foreverly.” The close-harmony the Everlys traded in is translated into male/female two-part, much like that employed by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss on their sterling “Raising Sand” album. That’s where the comparison should end, though – Plant and Krauss crafted a distinctly individualized and broad take on Americana and roots music, while Armstrong and Jones embrace a decidedly more narrow focus.

Sparse instrumentation – softly strummed guitars, mostly, with the occasional appropriately blue and moody piano and an unobtrusive rhythm section – allow the listener’s attention to gravitate toward the vocals. That’s a good thing, because all of “Foreverly’s” charms can be found in the delicate and supple interplay between the two singers. Armstrong’s occasionally adenoidal vocalisms in the Green Day oeuvre are absent here. Instead, the singer plays it straight, seemingly embracing the disciplined harmony singing that is the Everly Brothers’ trademark.

“Songs Our Daddy Taught Us,” originally released in 1958, was never a massive commercial success for the Everlys. It was much more of a country and folk venture for the siblings, largely forsaking the pop sheen and often more sophisticated structures of their “pop” hits. Yet this was clearly the right choice for Armstrong and Jones, who embrace the intimate, easygoing nature of the vocal harmonizing and the gentle, ambling gait of the music with aplomb, and underscore the thinly veneered darkness at the album’s lyrical heart. A surprisingly lovable musical meeting of the minds, this one.

– Jeff Miers


Thelonious Monk

Paris 1969

[Blue Note, disc plus DVD]

3½ stars

It is the contention of Thelonious Monk biographer Robin D.G. Kelley in the notes to this wondrous visitation from beyond that it proves Monk’s best days didn’t end “in the early to mid-1960’s … Recorded live at Paris’ renowned Salle Pleyel concert hall on Dec. 15, 1969, the performance proves that the elder Monk, even with the backing of a young and inexperienced rhythm section and a veteran saxophonist anxious to move on to other pastures can hold an audience awestruck. The music is powerful and original and fresh as anything Monk played a decade earlier.”

To be frank, there’s a wee bit of overstatement there. But what is undeniably true about this marvelous sonic apparition 44 years later is that Monk is in terrific shape, not always true late in life on record. He’s playing his own patented standard repertoire in his own by then patented standard way but, especially in his piano solos, he’s revealing less-percussive sides of his instrumental self you won’t often hear anywhere else.

Both he and Rouse were audibly on their best behavior and razor sharp here. Not only were they clearly happy to be playing for the most sympathetic audience possible in Paris, but they were undoubtedly behaving well as an example for young bassist Nate Hygeland and drummer Paris Wright. Just because you may not have heard of either is no reason to dismiss them. Wright may not be up there with the great Monk drummers (Roach, Blakey, Frankie Dunlop, Ben Riley) but they’re a good Monk rhythm section.

Just a few years earlier, Monk and Rouse played at Buffalo’s Royal Arms and proved how troublesome they could be when they had a veteran rhythm section they counted on and disappeared during the intermission, only to return to the bandstand under the influence. (The gig was aborted a day early.)

The DVD of the Paris gig is excellent though the camera operators largely missed a couple of the most striking visual features of Monk in performance – not only the occasional little dances but the slashing of his feet into the air under the piano in rhythm as he played.

Nevertheless, a terrific later-life musical moment from one of the greatest of all jazz figures.

–Jeff Simon


Death Grips

Government Plates


3½ stars

Epic Records fired them in less than a year, and fans are used to being burned by concert cancellations and no-shows, but give Death Grips due credit: They don’t hold back on a great album. That’s true in many ways for “Government Plates,” the fourth full-length release from one of the most unlikely but deserved cult bands to emerge in years.

For starters, this is their second album in the past year to materialize online as a free download, without a moment’s notice. Yet unlike the last freebie, “No Love Deep Web” – which cost Death Grips their major label deal, but ironically scaled back the insanity of their previous albums – “Government Plates” perfectly captures the shock and suddenness of its release.

The first five seconds are enough to scare most people away: A bottle breaks, a tetanus-inducing siren starts shrieking and MC Ride jumps into his raving-homeless-man rapping, barking words that might as well be gibberish. As expected, things don’t get easier from there, since the 35-minute “Government Plates” is Death Grips’ leanest, meanest assault yet. It’s also a dissent from any possibility of mainstream acceptance, as one might expect after Kanye West basically imitated Death Grips on his latest album, “Yeezus.”

Death Grips always refused to fit nicely with the expectations of punk or hip-hop, but here they distort and deform those genres more than ever. With the exception of “Birds,” the deadpan, almost Dadaist single, each track is built around car-rattling, club-ready beats and loops, with most of MC Ride’s raps chopped and screwed into threatening mantras: “This is violence now,” “I don’t need your help” and a few unprintable battle cries. “Government Plates” could almost be party music, if it weren’t so unfriendly and characteristically defiant. It’s an album that can get stuck in your head even as it’s giving you a headache.

– Jason Silverstein


Palestrina, Volume 4

The Sixteen, Harry Christophers, director


4 stars

The Sixteen, who also have a Christmas CD new this season called “Joy to the World,” are in the middle of an ongoing exploration of the transcendent music of the Italian Renaissance master Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. I believe this is music of near-universal appeal. It spent a week in my car stereo, and no one could hear even a little bit of it without becoming intrigued by it.

You can see how that might happen: the music begins simply, often with a line of Gregorian chant, and then it grows out from there like a tree. Lines of chant descend as if falling from heaven. It is an amazing thing to hear, and the Sixteen sing it with great balance and simplicity.

The centerpiece of the album is the rarely heard “Missa o Magnum Mysterium.” It’s followed by three stunning double-choir motets such as an “Ave Regina Caelorum” and a “Jubilate Deo,” and excerpts from “Song of Songs” including the famous verse about the king’s wine cellar and “Comfort me with apples.” Christophers, founder and director of the Sixteen, is the artistic director of Boston’s august Handel and Haydn Society.

– Mary Kunz Goldman