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Rock

The Winery Dogs

The Winery Dogs

[Loud & Proud]

Rating: 3 stars

The Winery Dogs is a supergroup composed of three revered and fully tenured virtuosos. One of these virtuosos is Billy Sheehan, the Buffalo native widely held to be one of the finest rock bassists of the past three-plus decades. The other two aren’t exactly slouches. Mike Portnoy is one of the most influential hard rock drummers of the past 25 years, principally through his work with prog-metal outfit Dream Theater. Guitarist/vocalist Richie Kotzen is probably the least well-known of the three Winery Dogs, though anyone who has read Guitar Player magazine with any consistency has doubtless come across Kotzen’s name. Kotzen is revered by fans of shred guitar, though he is capable of much more than mere shredding, having proven himself in fusion, funk and various hybrid styles over the years.

It’s not particularly surprising that these three virtuosos ended up playing together. Kotzen spent some time playing in Sheehan’s power-pop outfit Mr. Big, after all. What is surprising, however, is the fact that “The Winery Dogs” is one of the finest projects the three have attached their name to over the years. It’s a strong collection of soul-drenched, blues-based hard rock with dashes of prog-rock complexity and power-pop tunefulness thrown into the stew. Sheehan is his usual brilliant self, playing incredibly flashy runs in his trademark overdriven bass tone while simultaneously laying down grooves that simply won’t quit. Portnoy, however, seems eager to be understated, and the lack of overt business in the engine room helps this album move with an organic ease.

Kotzen is a revelation as a lead vocalist. He sings with considerable soul, has a broad range and steers clear of the oversinging that can be associated with heavy rock. Kotzen at times sounds a bit like Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, but he also is clearly a student of Paul Rodgers’ work with Free and Bad Company. He’s a class act.

“The Winery Dogs” comes across as a rather effortless endeavor, as if these three fine musicians were just marking time until they could finally get together and lay down the sort of soulful heavy rock that is in such short supply these days.

– Jeff Miers

Classical

Great Voices Sing John Denver

[MPE Music]

Rating: 2 stars

Opera singers sing John Denver! Whether you like this disc will depend on if you are coming from the John Denver side or the classical side. If you’re a die-hard Denver fan, you will like his songs being glorified by the likes of Placido Domingo (“Perhaps Love”), Thomas Hampson (“Sweet Surrender”) and Nathan Gunn (“Calypso”). Opera fans will be more ambivalent. Danielle De Niese’s light-timbred voice gives an appealing Broadway bent to “Rhymes and Reasons.” Soprano Patricia Racette does a surprisingly good job with a brooding “Leaving On A Jet Plane,” and good for her, because it’s rare to find an opera singer with that ability, not that it matters that much. (I read up on Racette because she sounded so good, and sure enough, her first ambition had been to be a jazz singer.)

Aside from those two numbers, my enthusiasm faded pretty fast. Nice as the songs are, they’re repetitive and simple, meant for a folk singer. They grow boring in a classical framework. You find yourself thinking, oh, no, not another verse. The great Dresden-born Wagnerian bass Rene Pape, who is used to singing Wotan, performs “Follow Me” as if he couldn’t care less what the song is about. Thomas Hampson, singing “Sweet Surrender” as if it were Mozart, sounds similarly ridiculous.

Some tracks just sounded wrong. The line “Sunshine almost always makes me high” sounds dumb sung by the dignified Denyce Graves. And though John Denver could sing “lay” instead of “lie” and it was no big deal, the bad grammar seems wrong coming out of the mouths of opera singers. (Well, to me, anyway.) A few songs were unlistenable, including an “Annie’s Song” in which all the performers joined in.

Apparently this was the brainchild of Domingo, who knew Denver. It wasn’t a bad idea, it just doesn’t work, partly because the singers, with the exception of Pape, seem trying so sincerely to sell it. It does makes you appreciate Denver’s unique touch. His songs could stand up to those of any modern Broadway composers. But he was the person to sing them.

– Mary Kunz Goldman

Pop

Franz Ferdinand

Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action

[Domino]

Rating: 3 stars

It’s been four years since Franz Ferdinand released an album, and a full eight since the Scottish dance-rock foursome, named after the Austrian archduke whose assassination triggered World War I, sounded as vigorous and as entertaining as they do on “RT, RW, RA.” When last heard from, on 2009’s sluggish “Tonight,” torpor was setting in.

But this time around, Franz Ferdinand is clearly on again, making music for all the correct reasons. The guitars are razor-sharp, and locomoting tunes like “Treason! Animals” sport jagged grooves and lacerating self-criticism. “I’m in love with a narcissist,” Alex Kapranos sings as he gazes into a mirror of self-awareness. Add a previously undiscovered knack for melody to go with the band’s trademark rhythmic flair, and this album amounts to a stylishly energetic comeback of the first order.

–Dan DeLuca,

Philadelphia Inquirer

Pop

Belle and Sebastian

The Third Eye Centre

[Rough Trade]

Rating: 2 stars

“The Third Eye Centre”: When most groups might throw together a maxi-single with one strong track surrounded by a cover, a demo and a moldy oldie from second guitarist’s first band, Belle and Sebastian never considered such offerings as merely something to tide over its growing fanbase between albums, instead taking advantage of each opportunity to try new approaches and develop its craft.

For any other band, “The Third Eye Centre” would be a strong enough original album, much less as a collection of b-sides and rarities. But since this band is hardly any other band, especially working in this kind of format, the hit-and-miss compilation is much more of a spottier proposition for a group with as strong and distinctive a profile as Belle and Sebastian have.

– Arnold Pan,

Popmatters.com

Hip-hop

A$AP FERG

Trap Lord

[RCA]

Rating: 3 stars

A$AP Rocky is the leader of the weirdly swaggering, Southern-inspired A$AP Mob. He’s the Frank Sinatra of their Rat Pack. But the chairman of the board, the hip-hopping Dean Martin of Mob, is A$AP Ferg, a formidable, salesworthy (especially on tracks such as “Work”) equal whose style balances the Rock’s spite-and-sweat-filled provocations.

Ferg, a debonair but diabolical Harlem rapper, is certainly as bugged out, boastful, and darkly frank as Rocky. “Cocaine Castle” is a deliciously evil anthem of greed, gall and avarice. But on tunes such as “Murda Something” and “Shabba,” there’s a salty, old-school, thug romanticism to what Ferg does (to say nothing of his throaty voice) that’s vaguely reminiscent of Notorious B.I.G. There’s also more variety in soundscape and rhythm, and more lyrical depth, in Ferg’s work than in anything the A$AP camp has done.

While A$AP’s Southern soul-hop roots come on strong in “Make a Scene,” Ferg shows he’s a fan of lush melody and cool chorales when he teams with Bone Thugs-N-Harmony for the most epic track on the album, “Lord.”

– A.D. Amorosi,

Philadelphia Inquirer