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Rock

Nine Inch Nails

Hesitation Marks

[Columbia Records]

2½ stars

“Hesitation Marks” is Nine Inch Nails’ first album in five years. In that time, Reznor, the group’s founder and sole recurrent member, has focused on film scores with collaborator Atticus Ross (“The Social Network,” “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”) and his How to Destroy Angels project with Ross, Rob Sheridan and wife Mariqueen Maandig.

That work further proved Reznor’s range to adults and snobs who had known him only from his angsty hits “Hurt” and “Head Like a Hole.” More important, they illustrated a musician whose talents with texture and musical construction seemed barely tapped.

As on that output, NIN’s new music showcases a master programmer at the peak of his power, a creative brain so filled with circuitry that what he envisions he perfectly executes. Few electronic composers working today have engineered such an immediately identifiable sound as Reznor. He builds tones that crystallize with a coldness but that can melt into liquid warmth in one quick measure. It’s a uniquely Reznorian sound.

It’s hard to argue with a creative mind who uses on guitar both Adrian Belew (King Crimson) and Lindsey Buckingham (Fleetwood Mac). Reznor and his band on “Hesitation Marks” deliver buzzing, vivid electronic mantras – and a few surprisingly accessible electronic rock songs – that will feed his many devoted fans.

The simple ascending and descending synth line that arrives in the middle of “All Time Low” shimmers like a star within the darkness of Reznor’s melodrama. The synthesizer run then doubles, then triples, then quadruples until it encircles itself. It’s a magical moment, one of many.

“While I’m Still Here” is a minimalist click-and-cut jam with Buckingham on guitar, which sneaks in near the end for a well-placed accent. Nine Inch Nails has seldom sounded so sonically nuanced and patient – and the last few moments of the song are some of the funkiest Reznor’s ever made. But lyrically and vocally, he is hardly nuanced. His humorless, monochromatic tone tempers “Hesitation Marks” with many shades of dry bummer, the well-worn path winding through a field of flowers. This is a man who reflexively falls toward darkness and pain, sees menace in everything and expresses it similarly. Which is to say, how much self-flagellation does one man need to convey in his artistic life, and at what point should he think about heading to Nepal or taking a chill pill?

With all the sonic chaos going around him – a new wave flair on “Various Methods of Escape,” the experimental noise of “Black Noise” – the human tone in the middle remains consistently, frustratingly similar, like we’ve been eavesdropping on the same therapy session for too many years.

“Hesitation” is best when he messes with his voice with equal abandon. “Came Back Haunted,” a highlight, features gargantuan vocal arrangements.

Reznor would do well to open up the windows and let in some sunlight and fresh air more often. He long ago proved himself a master of musical dynamics. If only he’d pay equal care to the voice at the center of it.

– Randall Roberts,

Los Angeles Times

Classical

Homeward Bound

Bryn Terfel, bass-baritone and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir

[Deutsche Grammophon]

3 stars

Seriously, ask yourself: When was the last time I heard someone singing “Home on the Range”? That song is just one reason why this album is like a glorious leftover from the 1950s. I loved it. Bryn Terfel sings “Home on the Range” as if it were Wagner. He presents every song with such passion that if you try to call it corny, you’d be wrong, because the feeling is so genuine, not only in that chestnut but in “Shall We Gather At The River?,” the stirring British folk song “Blow the Wind Southerly” and the spiritual “Deep River.” There is a “Battle Hymn of the Republic” with multiple key changes that the chorus sings that sounds right off a vintage Robert Shaw record, and a “Guide Us All O Great Jehovah,” complete with a verse in Welsh.

This disc apparently means a great deal to Terfel. He is more a pop celebrity in the UK than he is here, and England has been full of gossip recently over his divorce (his wife left him, as I understand it, for another man) and his association with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, a collaboration he heartily enjoyed. Good on him. I wish that when it came to familiar songs like “How Great Thou Art” and “Shenandoah,” that the harmonies were not so weird and distracting. (“How Great Thou Art,” especially, does not work. It sounds as if they are playing the accompaniment to the wrong song.) Other than that, anything Terfel wants to boom out in that thrilling voice of his is OK with me. It’s a grand tradition, after all, for big opera voices to churn out albums like this.

– Mary Kunz Goldman

Pop

Ry Cooder and Corridos Famosos

Live at the Great American Musical Hall

[Nonesuch]

3½ stars

You’d have to be made of carbonized steel to resist this compendium of the best from Ry Cooder’s two-night 2011 engagement in San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall.

Combine irrepressible wit (“Lord Tell Me Why” is sarcastically dedicated to the “white man” and begins “Lord, tell me why/A white man ain’t worth nuthin’ in the world today”), the greatest electrified slide guitar playing you’re ever likely to hear and a Tex-Mex border sensibility that musically anticipated “the browning of America” a couple decades before it was noticed by any self-congratulatory journalists and you’ve got a few reasons why Cooder’s first live record in 30 years is as delightful as live records get.

While you’re in his neighborhood, you’ll celebrate Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs’ “Woolly Bully” with Cooder’s outrageously funky zydeco version. Then, for good measure, you’ve got Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene” to remember and Woody Guthrie’s “Vigilante Man” to either rediscover or discover for the first time.

The last live Cooder record was “Show Time” from, are you ready, 1977 and also recorded at the Great American Music Hall.

How, on earth, you’ll wonder did a live performer this joyful evade live discs for so long? Well, no more.

–Jeff Simon

Jazz

Mike Jones

Plays Well With Others

[Capri]

3½ stars

Let’s face it. Among Buffalo jazz lovers, there’s no more beloved native-son Western New York musician on the national jazz scene than Mike Jones, the reigning lion of mainstream jazz piano now that Dave McKenna’s left hand is rocking other higher realms entirely. He makes his living accompanying Penn and Teller, but his discs are cherished when they happen.

Among the living, there is no more wondrous left-hand among jazz pianists than Jones’ which makes the title of “Plays Well With Others” a double-edged irony. It’s Jones’ first disc on a new label and instead of the usual solo piano recitals that both stagger and amaze his usual listeners, this is a good mainstream jazz trio disc with bassist Mike Gurrota and the redoubtable Jeff Hamilton on drums.

It’s still very much a two-handed jazz disc but the huge difference is that, except for the intro to Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’ ” we have a different kind of two-handed Jones here – one who’s fond of playing huge, lock-handed block chords a la Milt Buckner.

It makes no difference how Jones chooses to swing, though. He does it with a roar whatever the methodology and on standard repertoire that is never a cliche and is invariably choice, everything from “Besame Mucho” and “Detour Ahead” to Harry Warren’s “I Know Why and So Do You” and Jerome Kern’s “I’m Old Fashioned” – which Jones is in only the liveliest and freshest possible ways.

A first-rate Jones disc and let’s hope it augurs well for a long and happy Jones/Capri relationship.

– J.S.