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Tori Amos

Unrepentant Geraldines

[Mercury Classics]

3 stars

Back in the days before there was a Lilith Fair, back when no one had yet heard of Jewell, back when Kate Bush was still releasing new albums on a fairly consistent basis, Tori Amos released her debut, “Little Earthquakes,” and created a little earthquake of her own. It might seem quaint today, when so many have taken Amos’ influence and stripped it of the barmy aspects that helped to make her a rivetting artist, but the first time you heard “Crucify,” “China,” or Tear In Your Hand,” you felt you were in the presence of strange greatness, even if that greatness owed a clear debt to the work of the aforementioned Kate Bush.

It has been five years since Amos released an album of new songs that sounded at all like the work of the same woman who gifted us “Little Earthquakes.” The arrival of “Unrepentant Geraldines” settles that issue. It’s a weird and beautiful album that rather impossibly makes Amos’ seemingly idiosyncratic concerns seem like universal ones. It’s also a relatively stripped-back affair boasting the strongest melodies Amos has conjured in more than a decade.

There is a vaguely English sense of the pastoral at play here, and it haunts “Geraldines” from the get-go, as the heartbreaking inflections and nuances Amos graces the melody of “America” with bring us right back to “Earthquake” territory. “Trouble’s Lament” tells the story of a feminine presence on the run with a horned goat-lord hot on her heels, and is at once disconcerting and gorgeous. “Weatherman” finds Amos alone at the piano, as if abandoned on the foggy moors, a distressed damsel intent on unearthing the wistful sadness at the heart of love and longing. Amos has done this kind of thing before, but rarely with such subtle mastery.

There are the requisite circus freaks here, of course, the most obvious one being “Giant’s Rolling Pin,” a bit of sunny music hall that takes on the NSA with determined glee. “16 Shades of Blue” blends jazz-informed chord voicings with strange electronic undertones, and is awfully close to sublime. These two songs stand apart from their fellow “Geraldines,” but they help the album feel of a complete piece.

Amos has never really wandered too far off course, but “Unrepentant Geraldines” still feels like a return to form.

– Jeff Miers

Pop

Natalie Merchant

Natalie Merchant

[Nonesuch]

3½ stars

“You know the sweetest wine, it’s a witches’ brew, pours like honey down and then burns a hole in you/Yeah, you may think you’re done but you’re never through, spitting out the bitterness to get the little sweetness you do/And you don’t know how to leave, and you don’t know where to fly, and you’ve got a lot of things to lose”.

Natalie Merchant is back following forays into classical music and children’s poems transformed into tunes with an album of stately, refined songs centered around the best singing of her considerable career, and run through with a world-weariness that on occasion borders on downright disgust. Which is to say, this is Merchant doing what she has always done best, now with a maturity that appears to have been hard-earned.

Merchant writes not so much from the perspective of a woman as from the perspective of the feminine itself. “Ladybird,” the song quoted above, is redolent of Merchant’s best work with 10,000 Maniacs, with its easy-but-sensual gait and supple marriage of folk and pop tropes, but this is far from sunny pop. Lyrically, the song posits a feminine power at odds with an overbearingly masculine hegemony, and Merchant sounds, appropriately, both resilient and saddened. This, it turns out, is the overarching emotional tenor “Natalie Merchant” summons, and its one that her gorgeous voice - thickened and grown more resonant with age - is extremely well-suited to.

Merchant has always come across as quietly irreverent, a woman who suffers no fools, one well aware that, though life has many gifts to grant us, it can also be, to quote Hobbes, nasty, brutish and short. “Natalie Merchant” is a demanding listen, thematically speaking, but the transcendent melodies, smart and supple string arrangements, and beautifully subtle instrumentation and production combine to create an uplifting, if ruminative, effect.

– Jeff Miers

Jazz

Vincent Herring

The Uptown Shuffle

[Smoke Sessions]

3 stars

There is nothing very ambitious or adventurous about this series of live discs from New York City’s Smoke Jazz Club. They’re comprised mostly of workmanlike blue collar bebop by stalwart jazz musicians in live concert playing splendidly in each other’s company.

This is one of the better ones – Vincent Herring, a disciple of Phil Woods and perhaps the leading inheritor of the Cannonball Adderly alto saxophone estate, in a quartet where his pianist is the redoubtable Cyrus Chestnut (a crowd-pleaser in any number of Buffalo jazz gigs.) Brandi Disterheft is the bassist and Joe Farnsworth is the drummer.

Herring has some of Cannonball Adderly’s passionate hoarse tone when he heats up if not exactly the warm basic funkiness or the wild, jaw-dropping floridity of some of Cannonball’s lines that always made every Adderly solo a completely fresh and unpredictable adventure, even if the tunes they appeared on had become war horses. The Adderly connection is so strong that Herring spent a long time in Nat Adderly’s band. And while he was in the neighborhood, he played a lot with Cedar Walton.

Put it all together and Herring is a very fine alto saxophone player in current jazz. What you’re hearing here in his quartet at Smoke’s is the comfort food of jazz – mainstream bebop with heat but without anyone trying to blow the house down.

Chestnut’s gospel past and all those years with singer Betty Carter make him an ideal pianist for Herring, whether he’s stomping or singing an alto saxophone aria on “Tenderly.”

– Jeff Simon

Classical

Various Artists

“Creating Timeless Classics”

[Pentatone]

3 stars

I like this idea Pentatone has, of marketing a disc that promotes its other discs. I actually took the step of checking online to make sure that “Creating Timeless Classics” was really for sale. It is! Which is nice, because this grab bag is a good introduction to a variety of music and artists.

It’s great to see Korngold’s Violin Concerto entering the mainstream; the disc gives you Arabella Steinbacher performing the finale, based on Korngold’s stunning score from “The Prince and the Pauper.” There’s also the Adagio from Bach’s Concerto for oboe and violin, BWV 1060, achingly romantic in that peculiar way Bach sometimes is. And it’s sweet how the first piece you hear is the “Eintritt,” or entrance, of Schumann’s “Forest Scenes,” played by Martin Helmchen. Into the woods!

Newcomers should keep in mind that the excerpts are sometimes awkward and in many cases do not do the music justice. It’s weird, for instance, to walk into Beethoven’s “Waldstein” sonata in the middle, at that magical moment when the slow movement melts into the last (and pianist Mari Kodama’s playing is kind of dry). It’s almost torture to hear only the Andante of Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet.

Finally, it’s hilarious how Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C Sharp Minor is still the big hit, after all these years. It’s played here by pianist Nareh Arghamanyan.

– Mary Kunz Goldman