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Hip-hop

The Roots

… And Then You Shoot Your Cousin…

[Def Jam]

4 stars

If you only know the Roots as the house band on Jimmy Fallon’s late-night show, and have grown accustomed to them playing along as Fallon acts the fool, or participating in the odd hilarious skit, then you don’t really know the Roots. Drummer Questlove and lead MC Black might be all smiles during their “day gig,” but after they clock out at the Fallon show, the Roots are hip-hop’s greatest band, and they take their responsibilities seriously. And those responsibilities include bringing some realism to the great American conversation.

“...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin...,” the band’s 11th album, arrives like a shovel to the back of the head. It is a sophisticated, ambitious and deeply musical affair, but its outlook is one of all but complete despair. A message in a bottle thrown from deep within an urban hell, the album pulls no punches, speaking in a language of existential hopelessness that remains consistent throughout all but one of its 11 tracks. If you’re uncomfortable by halfway through your listening experience, well, mission accomplished. “Cousin” isn’t here to make you feel good about yourself, your country or your future prospects as part of the 99 percent.

The magic that has always set the Roots apart from their peers – an ability to call on a serious musical education, a plentiful instrumental virtuosity, and a musicologist’s understanding of the history of American music – is all over “Cousin.” The band’s hip-hop always has been informed by jazz and funk, but much of the rhythmic and harmonic information underpinning these new songs comes from a time before funk; a 1960s-era soul-jazz vibe permeates, and is married with a seemingly effortless grace to the band’s progressive conception of what hip-hop might be.

Anger, despair and emptiness inform the texts, and MC Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter seems to be engaging in a bit of satire here, as if giving voice to what the media often delivers as stereotypes of urban characters. “When the People Cheer,” “Black Rock,” “Understand” – these riveting pieces of music are married to narratives that depict the underside of American life, one rife with violence, drugs, busted families and broken possibilities. The tenor is forbidding, harrowing, bereft of hope, the atmosphere claustrophobic, and the band’s impeccable musicianship serves to underscore this gritty realism.

It’s a tough but worthwhile ride, and if you make it to the end, you’ll be rewarded with the album’s sole optimistic piece. “Tomorrow” arrives like a rainbow after a particularly violent storm, and seals the deal. “...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin...” is a dynamic and masterfully paced gem, and one of the finest hip-hop albums of this, or any other, time.

– Jeff Miers

Classical

Wagner

Wesendonck Lieder

“Tannhauser,” “Tristan and Isolde”

Anne Schwanewilms, soprano

ORF Vienna Radio

Symphony Orchestra

[Capriccio]

3 stars

Born in 1967 in the German industrial city of Gelsenkirchen, Anne Schwanewilms is a lyric soprano associated with German late Romantic music. Her voice is on the bright side, with coloratura high notes.

Singing Wagner takes great stamina and she can sometimes sound harsh or strained in the high registers. But she sculpts her notes artfully and has a beautiful way of beginning a high note, easing into it. (In a different Capriccio CD, devoted to lieder of Schumann and Wolf, she gives us some exquisite singing.) I like a Wagner disc that mixes vocal and orchestral selections. Her “Liebestod” is gripping. Manuel Lange, who accompanies her on piano in her Lieder disc, conducts the Wagner with a nice jolt of energy.

– Mary Kunz Goldman

Pop

Sarah McLachlan

Shine On

[Verve]

2.5 stars

It’s fair to say that Sarah McLachlan peaked early. Her 1993 effort “Fumbling Towards Ecstasy” married the influences of Sinead O’Connor and Kate Bush to McLachlan’s inventive songwriting, sublime singing, and the then-edgy production of collaborator Pierre Marchand. It was a breathtakingly beautiful piece of work.

Like all groundbreaking works, “Ecstasy” was oft-imitated, and badly, to the point that, within a few years of its release, McLachlan sounded redundant simply because so many female singer-songwriters were imitating her.

In the years since, McLachlan has pretty much been in a holding pattern. She still works with Marchand – his signature sound is in ample evidence throughout the new “Shine On” – she still sings absolutely beautiful, and she still writes with poetic flair concerning matters of the human heart.

What is not in such ample evidence is anything resembling excitement or edge.

That’s not necessarily much of a criticism, nor is it likely a major problem for McLachlan’s biggest fans. They’ll be happy with beautifully crafted, grandiose ballads like “Broken Heart”; they might shed a tear over the heartrending, finger-picked elegy “Song for My Father”; they will marvel at the manner in which McLachlan wrings such nuance from the melody of “Brink of Destruction.”

And it will be enough.

J.M.

Classical

KornGOLDmark

Orsolya Korcsolan, violin

Emese Mali, piano

[Solo Musica]

Four stars

This is the kind of gilded, exquisite late Romantic music we have become happily accustomed to here in Buffalo thanks to the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. Michael Ludwig, the orchestra’s departing concertmaster, performed the violin concertos of both Korngold and Goldmark in very recent memory, and the orchestra has done wonderful explorations of the late Romantic style.

There is so much to love about the music of these two composers, whose names this CD wittily combines into a single title. The Korngold excerpts include music from “Much Ado About Nothing” – even as a boy, Korngold had an affinity for Shakespearean drama, hinting ingeniously in his music at the Elizabethan era as well as his own. Korcsolan and Mali also play arrangements of music from “Der Schneeman,” “Das Wunder Der Heliane” and “Die Tote Stadt” (the bittersweet, famous “Marietta’s Lied” and the more arch “Tanzlied des Pierrot”). The disc ends with Goldmark’s beautiful Suite Op. 11 in E, and in between comes the “Plaintive Air,” a world premiere recording of a lovely piece by Carl Goldmark’s nephew, Rubin Goldmark. This is all music to treasure.

– M.K.G.