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Eels

The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett

[PIASS America]

∆∆∆∆

Mark Oliver Everett has been observing half-empty glasses for a good while. He populates his album releases as Eels with those observations. As he drops album No. 11, “The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett,” it’s obvious that he’s gotten damn good at it by this point.

Wry, sardonic and brutally honest, Everett the lyricist suffers no fools, and generally seems to consider himself the biggest fool of them all. Coupled with his consistently compelling way with melodic structures and a production ethic that might be seen as the definitive one within the world of indie rock, Everett’s lyrics speak directly to the heart of the attuned listener, and generally worm their way in there for good.

Many past Eels triumphs balanced Everett’s depressive tendencies against sunny, uplifting, occasionally even downright chipper chord progressions and tempos, thereby allowing the listener an escape route from the unsettlingly frank narratives. But “The Cautionary Tales of Mark Everett” is so stark and intimate as to be heartbreaking. Perhaps surprisingly, these songs are no less lovable for this fact.

“The pressure in the clouds has changed/Death rattles our window panes/Honey, we’re in a lockdown hurricane,” Everett sings atop a mournful electric piano figure during “Lockdown Hurricane,” as strings swell in the middle distance, combining to create a setting more wistful and resigned than ominous and foreboding.

Elsewhere, “A Swallow in the Sun” layers supple guitar figures above a funereal drum pulse, Everett’s husky voice bathed in gorgeous reverb, but not sounding particularly elated, nonetheless. “Series of Misunderstandings” commences with toy piano and vibes and finds Everett singing in a beautiful, near-whispered falsetto. Again, the song trades in Everett’s talent for stark intimacy and almost cruel penchant for unflinching honesty.

“The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett” is a downbeat affair that recalls Beck’s career-defining “Sea Change” album in tenor, though it outshines that earlier album in the lyric department. Laments for a misspent past rarely sound so life-affirmingly beautiful. This album might make you cry. But it will be worth it.

– Jeff Miers

Electric Jazz

The Nels Cline Singers

Macrocope

[Mack Avenue]

ΩΩΩ½

No, they’re not really singers. You’ll definitely hear a voice, very much in passing, doing a sub-Pat Metheny wordless vocalise but otherwise, Wilco’s guitarist Nels Cline was playing games while giving this name to his sensational new electric jazz trio with bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Scott Amendola.

All the past dreck that has gone by the name jazz rock fusion makes it impossible to throw this terrific new disc into that category. It’s electric jazz in the experimental Miles Davis tradition in which Cline is having phantom dialogues with some great guitar forebears. Imagine one of them as John McLaughlin between his straight-ahead youth playing jazz on “Extrapoloation” and his performance of “Dance of Maya” on The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s ground-breaking “Inner Mounting Flame.” Imagine another as Cline in dialogue with Metheny in full adventuring mode; and a couple of others as dialogues with John Scofield and Marc Ribot.

“I’m not in any one genre and never have been,” says Cline, who proves the point brilliantly on this disc. “I was a rock and roll kid but after hearing Coltrane and Miles and Weather Report, then Indian music and Nigerian pop and that sort of thing, there was no turning back. From that point on, the idea of purism just was not possible.”

It’s no accident that electric guitarists seem to be the most polymorphic musicians in vernacular music. Ever since Les Paul’s – and certainly McLaughlin’s and Jimi Hendrix’s – exploration of sound and doing a little bit of everything at once seems to be the birthright of so many of them.

It’s only the final cut, “Sascha’s Book of Frogs” where Cline and his musicians seem to be wandering aimlessly through a sonic laboratory where they fail to feel at home. Everything else is brilliant rock-influenced electric jazz that Cline intended to go beyond being polymorphous. What he wanted, he says, is “to arrive at a point that has no boundaries, that’s totally amorphous. It’s like sunshine or mist, it’s everywhere and nowhere.”

This is a brilliant disc. I’d say he’s there.

– Jeff Simon

Classical

Beethoven

The Beethoven Journey: Piano Concertos

No. 2 and 4

Performed by Leif Over

Andsnes with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra

[Sony Classical]

ΩΩΩ½

I could do without Leif Over Andsnes uncompromisingly dour demeanor. It gives this album a cheerless feel. Two different photos show his frowning face, and a few more show overcast skies. But I do like Andsnes’ robust playing, and it goes well with this robust music.

I want to describe Andsnes’ tone as “trumpet style,” like Earl Hines’ jazz piano. The notes are clear and assertive – much more percussive, at times, than other pianists. You hear all the lines and patterns in the concluding Rondos of both these marvelous concertos. The slow movements are sincere and straightforward. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra also has a good energy, and the sound is crisp and clear.

– Mary Kunz Goldman

Lounge R&B

Louis Prima Jr. and the Witnesses

Blow

[Warrior]

ΩΩ

Nobody ever said that the “Juniors” ever had it easy in American show business. If, for instance, you were Will Rogers Jr. or Frank Sinatra Jr. or Louis Prima Jr., you would almost think that your professional fate was mapped out for you at birth. And it probably didn’t include being a dentist or an accountant.

The voice of Louis Prima Jr. is nothing like the high, witty, hoarse wail that the old man brought to some of the greatest and most influential lounge jump tunes of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s – the house style of the best blue-collar Vegas lounges and all those lounges around the country in Vegas style.

He’s not exactly the trumpet player the old man was either. And, though the band is called The Witnesses, daddy’s main man on tenor saxophone Sam Butera went to witness that great celestial lounge in the sky in 2009. That leaves the Prima musical estate in Junior’s care and he does the best he can with the shuffle-beat Vegas lounge jump genre (more or less) in a voice that sounds more like Huey Lewis (with, alas, no news to deliver).

But he does an overdub duet with daddy on “That’s My Home” and he’s got some of his spirit. The music isn’t much here but you’ve got to admire his dedication to the family business.

– J.S.