Transcending His Lousy Choice of Collaborators, Once Again

Ol’ Willie isn’t a mere songbird, but a damned song-hawk with an unerring eye for the emotional nutmeat of almost any musical number—a knack that has redeemed him in situations that might stain most others’ credibility. (Duets with Julio Iglesias, anyone?) And it sure serves him well on this mishmash meet-up with alt-douche enfant terrible Ryan Adams and his Cardinals, in a move that feels more like record label franchise building—”And let’s get Willie to sing a Grateful Dead song!” “Cool!”—than an actual, like, album. Case in point is Christine McVie’s title song (from the gazillion-selling Rumours), which is a kick to hear Nelson sing, but really, did either the singer or the song need it? Similar can be said of three redux Nelson numbers where Adams, in his typical ADHD fashion, gilds the lily into a gaudy Rose Parade float, which also obscures the piquant pairing of Nelson with Gram Parsons’s “$1000 Wedding.” The only things that really click are a dignified reading of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and the way NYC-based steel savant Jon Graboff—ironically, this set’s true star—gorgeously interstices with Nelson and Willie’s longtime harp warbler Mickey Raphael like he was born into the Family. Otherwise, file under “Dud.”


The Partisans

About two-thirds into this rather grating hagiography, U2’s Bono truncates his spew of superlatives, makes his best cut-the-crap face, and asks if we can “get serious” for a moment. Get serious? This Last Waltz–like doc is almost funereal, full of reverent banalities spliced between overly folksy takes on melancholic Leonard Cohen bombshells. At the film’s core is the “Came So Far for Beauty” Cohen tribute concert held last year in Sydney, for which producer Hal Willner organized a lineup of musicians to interpret Cohen’s songs.

Always loving but at times soporific, these renditions range from a dull Beth Orton version of “Sisters of Mercy” to an unironically anthemic “Anthem” by Julie Christensen and Perla Batalla. Kate and Anna McGarrigle can usually be counted on for loopy banter, but aside from breezy-bitchy Rufus Wainwright, who also delivers a musical highlight with “Chelsea Hotel

2,” the chatty levity is left to the sly and spry old rumbler himself. Oddly, director Lian Lunson sabotages even Cohen’s bits with ominous whooshes and psycho-synth tones. Cohen so doesn’t need to be edged toward eerie. He projects creepy poet poon-hound Dionysian-Buddhist tricksiness all by himself. These spooky sonics skew Cohen’s engaging account of his years spent in seclusion as an ordained Mt. Baldy monk.

Longtime fans won’t need the Edge’s Moses comparisons to convince them that Cohen is indeed their man. And for newcomers, full performances from Sydney might make a better introduction than Nick Cave saying the usual stuff about Songs of Love and Hate making his teenage self feel cool. Performance-wise, Antony’s withering “If It Be Your Will” simply kills, though Willner might have squashed the distracting background vocals. Teddy Thompson proves again that while he carries a pretty tune, he didn’t inherit his parents’ compelling vocal serration. Martha Wainwright does “The Traitor” justice, even if Rufus still petulantly skirts the key rhyme in his oft performed cover of “Hallelujah.” But as you might suspect, with U2 behind him in a tight cabaret, Cohen, his sad eyes dancing and his growl coyly teasing, dusts ’em all with the graveyard smash “Tower of Song.”


The Songs, Not the Pianists

The trouble with Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, a new documentary featuring excessively singerly performances by Rufus Wainwright, among others, lies in director Lian Lunson’s failure to understand that what the Edge calls Cohen’s “Biblical authority” emanates from the honoree’s unadorned singing voice and only incidentally from his songs. The same problem vitiates most jazz tributes, because so many pantheon figures were defined by their approach to improvisation, not their tunes. Peter Madsen’s Prevue of Tomorrow is an exception and then some. It’s a salute to 10 left-of-mainstream pianists, living and dead, who—save Lennie Tristano, represented by his line on the chord changes to “Love Me or Leave Me”—also qualify as overlooked composers: Mal Waldron, Andrew Hill, Hasaan Ibn Ali, Muhal Richard Abrams, Herbie Nichols, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, Randy Weston, and Richard Twardzik. No chameleon—and no fool—Madsen knows better than to try to emulate each of these mavericks in turn. The point could be that an idiosyncratic piano style is one thing and a composition by an idiosyncratic piano stylist another—the latter allows for expansion. Madsen acknowledges the echoes of Hasaan’s pounce, Nichols’s savior faire, Taylor’s percussive arias, Tristano’s bass clef rumbles, Hill’s italicized lyricism, and so on embedded in these pieces—how could he not? But these echoes never obscure his own technical prowess or improvisatory reach. He’s the maverick’s maverick, and this could well prove the year’s most unlikely tour de force.


Bleak Songster Canters South, Worries About Paws, Shouts ‘Fuck All Y’all’

Bill Callahan has been camouflaging himself in Smog—w/ or w/out ( )s—and clandestinely cutting foggy lo-fi bleariness for nigh on 20 years. River keeps getting called his “rebirth” record, but that’d make it his 13th. Twelve albums and summers ago, this Chicagoan decreed “I am Star Wars today!”; embarrassed now by such sentiment, the beaten stepchild takes his horse with no name deep into the Texas hill country, to find his redheaded estranged Darth father, Willie Nelson, and flatly greet the walls in his studio.

The son is filled with ice, while coyotes play jowl’s harp and ladyfriend Princess Joanna Newsom p’Leia’s piano, backing Callahan as he ice-picks a waltz on the guitar he bought for “Rock Bottom Riser.” The stripped-bare trad “In the Pines” is whistled among the mesquite and huisache brambles. Elsewhere Smog drain bottles at the dam, shout down a well, wet dry river beds, cover a heart in dew-dew. Callahan’s long, humid ride exchanges hiding for rawhide, as if on the trail with Leonard Cohen and some other winking existentialist. “God is a word and the argument ends there,” Callahan spits, and it’s the kind of nausea that Jean-Paul Sartre must’ve got when swallering his plug of tobacky.

Smog play the Bowery Ballroom August 12.


Dada Salamanders in the Beer Hall, Pissing the Night Away

If you’ve always felt that the only thing missing from Leonard Cohen was a little Charles Manson, then let me direct you to Alvarius B—a/k/a Sun City Girl Alan Bishop—and his reworking of down-easter creaky-barn-door-core combo Cerberus Shoal’s track “Ding,” off of the recent Cerberus and Al split Vim & Vigor Of EP. It’s a mildewy stream of creepy unconsciousness and Dada as death-folk that will warp your floorboards. Trying to pick a favorite line is almost as hard as choosing your favorite member of Acid Mothers Temple. “We’ll drink newt urine slingshotting candles into the firmament” is hard to beat, however.

Two solo Alvarius tracks are next. And then his simple, bare-to-the-chopped-up-baby-bone takes on rural dementia are subsequently fleshed out by the Shoalsters, twice. The first of these numbers, “Blood Baby,” is given the old Weimar Republic/Weill treatment that’s all the rage; the second, “Viking Christmas,” is given a more modern beer-hall treatment—it sounds like it was recorded at a desolate T.G.I. Fridays at a particularly unhappy hour.

Finally, Cerberus retake “Ding,” renaming it “The Real Ding,” and give it their own inimitable stamp. Their version—with its female vocals, haunted youth-camp chorus, beautious harmonies, crowd noises, chitty chitty bang bang percussion, and clacking typewriter—just keeps blooming and writhing and snaking its way down a dark path. It’s a pleasure to keep up with.



In this heyday of the re-repackage, if you don’t own Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ 1995 two-CD Anthology, skip everything in this annual Xmas-gift roundup except the Holiday and purchase that singing group’s 2002 two-CD Ooo Baby Baby: The Anthology, which is slightly better and, goody, twice as space-efficient. Honored below are less redundant finds, examined statistically as well as artistically.


Ken Burns Jazz


Where MVP’s Roots of Jazz Funk Volume One showcased hard bop’s pop heads, here the tendency’s greatest bandleader accommodates the jazz of a profusion of not-quite-pantheon improvisers. Clifford Brown, Monk, and then take your pick—Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Horace Silver, Johnny Griffin, Bobby Timmons, Wynton Marsalis, not one a titan but here you’d never know it. Heads are pretty catchy too. Plus a whole lot of drummer. A PLUS


The Essential Leonard Cohen


Nothing’s perfect, and most of his albums are worth purchasing separately, but at least this double CD picks all the indelibles off the supple 1968 Songs of Leonard Cohen, and half of them off the stark 2001 Ten New Songs. Also, true peace-on-earthers will appreciate the depressive gesture, as well as a seasonal party game: a Bush-era rewrite of the cultural-revolutionary threnody “First We Take Manhattan.” Take it from: “They sentenced me to 30 days of rehab/For trying to have my coke and eat it too/I’ll show those pricks the silver spoon that we have/First we take the statehouse, then we take D.C.” A


The Very Best of Lee Dorsey: Working in a Coal Mine

(Music Club)

Supplanting Arista’s “definitive” Wheelin’ and Dealin’, this duplicates “Ya Ya,” “Do-Re-Mi,” “Holy Cow,” “Ride Your Pony,” “Get Out of My Life Woman,” and “Working in a Coal Mine” natch, all essential, plus the slightly less essential “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky (From Now On).” Unlike the Arista it also has the essential “Yes We Can” and the slightly less essential “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley.” And it’s cheaper. But further comparison of its 16 tracks to the Arista’s 20 establishes that it’s not the “very best.” Since Dorsey’s lifework was grounding a handful of stone classics in a loamy swamp of beguiling oddities, there’ll never be a very best. But don’t you hanker for some ya ya, not to mention some do-re-mi? A



Will Shade didn’t invent jug bass, which began in Louisville, but he sure professionalized it, leading an aggregation whose shifting cast of dozens recorded more than 60 tracks between 1927 and 1934. On the pop side, leaving the likes of Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman out of it, they were the best small group in America before Louis Jordan’s Tympany Five: prophetic going-up-the-city worldview, crowd-pleasing songbag of happy hokum and well-remembered folk tunes, infectious beat, and drolly soulful singers, topped by lowdown party girl Hattie Hart. But this former double LP, reduced in its reprogrammed 1991 digital version from 28 to 23 tracks, is a fine place to begin even if it skips the seminal bait track of Yazoo’s recent and redundant The Best of the Memphis Jug Band, “Memphis Shakedown,” which in turn omits both “Lindberg Hop,” which leads this CD, and the metathematic “The Old Folks Started It.” Haphazard-on-purpose Yazoo guarantees, however, that you’d be better off with several of the five omissions, especially “I’ll See You in the Spring, When the Birds Begin to Sing,” which leads the vinyl version, and the spelunking tragedy “Cave Man Blues.” It’s enough to make me mention the well-selected, budget-priced double-18-track of Classic Blues’ The Essential Memphis Jug Band sound quality unheard. A


30 #1 Hits


By my unofficial All Music Guide tally, this makes 385 Elvis comps, some as collectible as his soundtracks themselves, not one definitive. Although pursuing his pure essence is a fool’s mission, only fools gainsay The Sun Sessions. A Valentine Gift for You is something to cherish. And there’s use value in the five-CD The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Complete 50’s Masters, which duplicates 13 of these selections. But this chart-seeking slice-and-dice feeds off his schlock power. It validates his audience. And it suggests that his life was a continuous whole, not the tragically bifurcated mess of current convention. What holds it together? Think lightness, even on the supposedly feral “One Night.” A PLUS


(Koch International)

The label is per the late, lamented CDNow, which listed this 66th of 68 Reinhardt albums for $8.49; the copy I bought my wife for Christmas a few years ago says Koch Präsent. It has a purple-and-green cover, track listings indicating years, times, and composers but not personnel, and liner notes comprising two blank squares of paper. So it goes with the Roma guitarist, whose discography is as impenetrable as any in jazz. Take for instance Bluebird’s high-profile 2002 Djangology, which proves a warmed-up remaster of Bluebird’s 1990 Djangology 49 in different order with prettier packaging for a few dollars more. The ’49 session reunites the classic Quintet of the Hot Club of France, which means mainly violinist Stefane Grappelli, who as a Chuck and Jimi fan I like as much as the eclectic three-fingered melody master. Probably because he was getting old, I find Djangology mellower than guitar music should be. The material and players on these ’36-’37 sessions are a mess, but recognizable standards are the rule, with anonymous vocalists and obstreperous big bands intruding only occasionally. More important, this CD is hot—hotter than two 2001 releases also at hand, Naxos Jazz’s Vol. 2 and Music Club’s Swing Jazz. Blistering, in fact—what pace. He “swings,” all right—like Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie. A MINUS



RCA Country Legends

(RCA/BMG Heritage)

Having seen the world like a true railroad man, Rodgers moved beyond hillbilly showbiz (Dave Macon, Frank Hutchison) without stooping to respectability (Bradley Kincaid, Vernon Dalhart). Thus he spawned tens of thousands of singers who sounded like themselves as they sang at the whole round world, and their collective achievement dulled our ear for his originality. With the country space he opened up so crowded, what can it mean to say that he outsang all but a few of his progeny? Maybe, as Bob Dylan says, “his refined style . . . is too cryptic to pin down.” But inventors have a way of conveying that they’re inventing something. So start with his diffident sense of hip, sincere and sly at the same time, anticipating two crucial structures of feeling: the laid-back and the cool. Add that he was also exuberant in there somewhere. Don’t forget that yodel. Mention that he could swing à la Merle or Lefty when he wanted. And then admit that unvarnished Rodgers still requires a certain suspension of disbelief. That’s what’s so nice about the gloss here—Rodgers in jazz, pop, jug-band, Hawaiian, and just plain backed settings, from Louis Armstrong to local pros, all of whom make this his most listenable collection. Some of the songs are classics, some obscurities. Now try to tell one from the other without a scorecard. A


(World Music Network import)

For a while I niggled my compilation niggles. Sunny Ade old-timers know, Tony Allen hipsters know, I’ve already recommended the albums whence spring the E.T. Mensah, Eric Agyeman, Stephen Osita Osadebe, and A.B. Crentsil tracks at the end, and it’s quite a reach from highlife and juju of varying vintages to Adewale Ayuba’s fuji drumming and Allen’s Afrobeat abstractions. Soon enough, though, I was struck by how naturally it all held together, with a fundamental sound distinct from South Africa, Sahel, and the Congo nexus. Both rhythms and voices are lighter, and however much these pop styles emphasize showmanship and innovation, talky singing and associative structures impart a folk feel throughout. Thus they suggest an innocence and archaicism that need have nothing to do with their historical context or cultural intent. It’s sound. And as such pure delight. A


Greatest Hits

(Arista/BMG Heritage)

Utilitarian, which suits them. At least it’s sequenced with a sense of continuity, and unlike the deleted Profile job, it abjures remixes, live collectibles, and Back From Hell. Sure Run-D.M.C. and Raising Hell are good-to-excellent historical artifacts that render it superfluous. But what no one dares say is that by the standards of the aesthetic they made possible Run-D.M.C. are a little crude. Their rock-solid funk is more Memphis than New Orleans, their declamation the opposite of flow as Rakim defined it, their blunt rhyming neither spontaneous beat prosody nor the blaxploitation real of gangsta’s true lies. In fact, for such big influences their straightforward sound is kind of unique, and their greatness harder to hear than it’s supposed to be. On these 17 tracks, the consistency and reliability their hard-working music implied is a reality worthy of the lower-middle-class ‘hood they represented. A


Dial-a-Song: 20 Years of They Might Be Giants


With invention keeping annoyance at bay for two-times-twice-13 selections, why list omitted faves? Guys who feed songs to their pet answering machine are supposed to write more than anyone can keep track of. The Eurohit is here, the TV theme, the Austin Powers-certified Shirley Bassey parody. But I’m won over by the dozens of songs I’d never heard before, or just never noticed. Yeah their unsexxxy voices and avoidance of notes that might confuse an answering machine can be off-putting. But the wit and tunes are nonstop, not to mention the historical sketches, the music lessons, the surrealist riddles, the love songs—and more faith, hope, and charity than they let on. A



Genius: The Best of Warren Zevon


For any owner of the 1996 Rhino double CD I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead to buy this one too would impart new meaning to the term “sentimental hygiene,” which could use it. Only five of its 22 tracks aren’t nestled down in the twofer’s squooshy stuff. But those who resisted the squooshy stuff then now get their reward, which sure beats the one that’s laying for Zevon. All that’s missing is the epithalamion “Let Nothing Come Between You” and the old Rhino title raver, presumably omitted for reasons of taste. A little late for that. The sardonic unlocks his humanity as well as his vitality, which is why this collection never wusses out. Stronger than sentiment are the melodies that proved him a pro. A



A Musical Romance


Last year’s belated twofer (four repeats) sums her up, and I should mention the 10-CD box—better completist Holiday than Sinatra or Fitzgerald or George Jones. The year’s other reshuffles, Lady Day Swings and Blue Billie, are useful product. But there’s never been a Holiday record I’ve replayed as spontaneously as this one. Nor, and this is connected, have I ever found her so credible uptempo (meaning midtempo, and fast enough). Her disdain for the trifles her ’30s producers fed her can be bracing but also wearing, and while none remain trifles, some remain unnecessary. Here, that’s not a problem. In love or in pain, she’s smiling, she’s swinging, she’s dealing with it, dropping so little hint of the tragedies to come you wonder whether they were inevitable after all. She just needs the support of a man as hip and confident as Prez sounds—relaxed, savvy, off-center but that just makes him more fun. On no record, including the excellent Ken Burns, will you ever hear him so unmistakably. In real life, unfortunately, guys who play that often have a mean streak and/or a dependent side. You wonder why couldn’t she make do with the worldly wisdom of Teddy Wilson, the friendly sarcasm of Buck Clayton. Because here, they too keep her smiling and swinging. A PLUS


The Rough Guide to Youssou N’Dour & Étoilé de Dakar

(World Music Network import)

With Étoilé’s Stern’s Africa CDs gone the way of all licensing deals, how can I say no? Maybe somewhere there was more exciting music circa 1980—punk L.A.? soukous Montreuil? hip-hop South Bronx? But don’t bet on it. Exploding out of this one band and the mad rivalries it engendered, early mbalax is the grail, the very essence of musical conflict resolution not least because the groove can’t quite resolve the conflict. Great singers jostle for space among spiky tamas. Horns and guitars augment and one-up each other. You never know what’ll happen next. But everything they do gonna be funky. A PLUS

Additional Consumer News

Given how essential both bands’ regular albums are, Nirvana and the Clash’s The Singles aren’t, but both are superb high-focus introductions. Ditto for The Best of Louis Armstrong: The Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings, which crosses purposes with two worthy boxes, and The Best of James Brown—Volume 2—The ’70s, a budget boil-down of the funk Star Time canonizes. Tricky: A Ruff Guide is his second-best UniMoth album, not least because it re-makes/re-models half of Maxinquaye—without mentioning ass-fucking once. What a nice present.


Leather Cohen

Today’s beat klatches have it backward. Instead of using their dancefloor cred to get so popular they can sit back recounting their postpunk, ’80s roots with the and-your-point-is obviousness of a Chris Farley interview skit (“Remember we all used to like punk and play guitar? That was cool”), Daft Punk/Basement Jaxx/Air/etc. could take a few cues from Richard Morel and start out with the postpunk stuff—and then, guys, if the DJs wanna hop on your dicks anyway, hey great. Morel is a Washington, D.C.-based leather queen-cum-beat poet who dresses like Rob Halford, emotes like Leonard Cohen, but most of all has the nasally majesty and lyrics to hold together an album that revels in new wave as much as it does BPMs.

He can bust with the queer-as-carrying-your-dog-in-a-baby-Snugli wooze of “Cabaret 1 + 2” (as if the name isn’t clue enough) and its smoky-breathed torch haiku like “With your Nazi balloons and your parties/Did the German boy let you down? I do all I can to remember what it was like having you around,” only to launch into plush, Jesus and Mary Chain nuggetry like “Ride.” Morel’s songs are as unafraid to be camp as they are to be full of conviction. “Wake-Up” even samples “Gimme Shelter” ‘s reverb guitar to sing the postcoital blues.

Morel’s real guilty pleasure, though, is having the dancefloor and telling it to eat it, too. The originally waltzy “True” (then subtitled “The Faggot Is You,” after being remixed into a heaving Love and Rockets-gone-death-disco club hit by Deep Dish, who were trading favors for using Morel’s vocals on their “Mohammed Is Jesus” single) wound up as the studs-and-straps centerpiece to John Digweed’s otherwise tame 1999 Bedrock mix CD. The thought of thousands of Twilo refugees high out of their little straight-queen minds singing, “He said, ‘You’re a pussy like RuPaul’/I’m a man, that is all/It’s true, the faggot is you”—now, that is punk rock.


Towers of Slog

Record all the benefit singles you want, but sometimes the only honest response to crisis is to wallow in your own confusion. And Goths and Smiths aside, have any popular musicians made more of moping around than Leonard Cohen and New Order? Obviously, their methods differ wildly. Cohen has sounded like an old man from the jump—partly because he was, at least in the pop terms of youth-saturated 1968, when he recorded his debut at 34—and partly because of his famously dry, low-key voice, which would turn into a biting rasp by the mid ’80s. New Order, on the other hand, have always evoked the voice of white suburbanite ur-adolescence, no small breeding ground for angst its own self. Having been forcibly purged of their original guiding force, Ian Curtis—whose voice at 23 sounded like it had been through as much as Cohen’s would in his fifties—they brought themselves back from death by getting high on life. But no matter how caffeinated the blips and beats surrounding him, vocalist Bernard Sumner continued to sound as preternaturally confused as his adolescent fan base felt. Then, odd side project and World Cup anthem aside, they took eight years off, appropriate for shut-in icons and one year fewer than Cohen. And like Cohen’s Ten New Songs, their new Get Ready is neither as bad as you might fear nor as good as you might hope.

Of course, good and bad aside, how much different could you expect a new Leonard Cohen album to be? Nine years away from the studio since 1992’s The Future, five of them at a Zen monastery near Los Angeles (and at least one of them, rumor has it, thinking up the current album’s title), he’s the same as he ever was—ruminative, droll, whispery, and as has been the case since 1988’s I’m Your Man,keyboard-heavy. Instead of the fire-and-brimstone fervor that marked that album and The Future, and whose timing would be as fortuitous as his old compatriot Bob Dylan’s “Love and Theft” is turning out to be, Ten New Songs is all introspection, closer in sound to a technologically updated Songs From a Room. The closest he comes to a declarative statement à la “Democracy” or “First We Take Manhattan” is the low-key “The Land of Plenty”—even if “For what’s left of our religion/I lift my voice and pray” is about the Mount Baldy monastery, it connects to recent events.

The stumbling block, at first, is the music. I’m Your Man and The Future rolled over folkie niceties with a crude sense of purpose. But on Ten New Songs, the spare synth backdrops of Cohen’s longtime backing vocalist and co-songwriter Sharon Robinson, depicted on the CD’s cover, initially sound chintzy and thin, like they’re just sitting there waiting for something stronger than Cohen’s parched whisper to make themselves felt. Eventually, though, the Casio-lounge grooves sink in—mostly because they stay out of the way of the words, which rank with the most careful of Cohen’s career: spare, colloquial, occasionally wry (“I’m wanted at the traffic jam/They’re saving me a seat”). If he sounds a little absent, he sort of is, having added his vocals only after Robinson composed and produced and performed almost everything else. Cohen professes himself satisfied with the results in a recent LA Weekly cover story, and there’s no doubt that he is. But I wonder how much of a coincidence it is that two separate songs here find him declaring, “I do what I am told.”

New Order, on the other hand, sound like they’re chomping at the bit. Their attitude is as vital as ever, maybe more: Sumner sounds eternally youthful and not particularly angsty this time around. In fact, Get Ready is even being hailed in some quarters as a return to form. This is less wishful thinking (though it’s that, too) than an acknowledgment that they haven’t quite sounded like this before. In fact, the band on Get Ready has the kind of Euro-sheen of a rock band whose production has been refracted through techno and industrial, à la early-’90s U2, or rave & rollers like Happy Mondays and Primal Scream: in short, like an updated take on the bands that ripped off New Order in the first place. The techno touches themselves are minimal, mostly limited to filtered, expanding/contracting keyboard textures ripe for remixing. (Wonder how much A&R man and superstar DJ Pete Tong had to do with this.)

But the album’s title is the first sign that something is amiss—not so much in the “Get ready for what?” sense as in, “Why should we get ready?” New Order are classic observers—even at their most directly emotional, there’s a brittleness that puts them at a critical distance from messes they found themselves in. Their soul is in their distance. Calling the album Get Ready feels as if they’re psyching themselves up for the task at hand—like they’re raring to go but aren’t exactly certain where they’re going, or even necessarily why they’re doing it. The songs carry this out—it’s them, not the sonics, that make this the second disappointing New Order album in a row. “Rock the Shack” sounds like a played-straight version of one of those jokes they used to end their albums with; it’s not embarrassing, exactly, but the tone is just off enough to leave you feeling queasy. “Someone Like You,” with its ooh-ooh-ed chorus, serves mainly to illustrate that New Order’s “Temptation” really does contain the greatest “ooh-ooh” ‘s in recorded history, and that no one should bother trying again. Of course, nobody knows those jokers’ shtick better than they do. But it does sort of make it hard to identify with them even in an abstract way, even in moments. The closest the new album comes, frustratingly, is at its end: “I wanna live till I die/I wanna live to get high.” A useful sentiment these days—it’s hard not to wonder if doing that might not have been a more productive use of their time.



At CB’s Gallery earlier this year, I was transfixed by a boozy, moonstruck song about an ephemeral girl who smokes in “little sips” and finally “dissipates [like a] sky-written word.” The small, gray-haired singer accompanied himself on keyboards: slinky jazz runs during the descriptive verses, and a flurry of hopeful chords on the chorus, where the girl merges with the music. My first guess was “Leonard Cohen cover,” and I stuck around to find out. But the song was “The Beautiful Changes” by the singer Kenny White, who continued to unpack gems of narrative and musical detail to rather stunned applause.

Those songs are collected on White’s just released CD, a debut that’s been simmering over a 25-year career in music. White has played keyboards on, arranged, and produced records for Peter Wolf, Shawn Colvin, and the Neville Brothers. He wrote commercials for 12 years. He’s scored films. He’s written songs before—Marc Cohn recorded one that’s in a Kevin Costner movie—but says he’d always been driven by “what’s mainstream,” adding, “These are the first songs I ever felt connected to.”

The catalyst was the dissolution of White’s 14-year marriage last year, and some psychotherapist’s loss is music’s gain. Bleak and intricate as a tree in winter, the new songs mourn love’s passage into strangeness with the rue of Stephin Merritt, the tenderness of Joni Mitchell, and the deceptive simplicity of John Prine. The album’s called Uninvited Guest after one of the love-gone-wrong tunes (“You might as well be speaking underwater/When I hear ‘It’s all for the best’/All I know is every day I feel more like an uninvited guest”). White also chose the title because, he says, laughing, “Who really wants to hear the debut album of a 47-year-old guy?”

A roomful of graybeards at Fez did back in March, when White played with his touring band of fellow studio vets, including Saturday Night Live drummer Shawn Pelton, guitarist Larry Salzman, and Paul Ossola on upright bass. White’s wary humility was charming onstage: He seemed to be discovering along with the audience just how good this stuff is. Though everything he plays falls under the “adult contemporary” umbrella, the styles range to fit the songs. The bouncy “One Step Up” is as twangy and lyrically compressed as “I Walk the Line,” the menacing “Don’t Go Out Tonight” is straight-up blues, and the piano pop of “Every Time You Walk Away” would work equally well in a cabaret or on WFUV. White ended with “In My Recurring Dream,” which starts out spare and nightmarish—a plane full of “carry-on coffins,” a father’s corpse residing on the living-room couch—and ends in a rave-up where the singer is “fearless,” “hopeful,” “and giving up the fight.” White’s hands were a blur by the end, leaping over each other on the keyboard like tarantulas zapped with current. The crowd leaped to its feet when he finished, and the band looked happily dazed.

For a divorce album, Uninvited Guest is surprisingly free of rage—there’s no “Idiot Wind,” no “Dry.” This makes more sense after White tells me he’s the one who left the marriage and that he started out writing from his wife’s point of view (“Uninvited Guest,” “Cold Winter Wind”). The newest songs, like “Recurring Dream” and the marvelous, Cole Porter-esque “Going Now,” a live staple that didn’t make it onto the album, take a stab at his side of the story, knitting together guilt and sadness with elation over the possibility of a second act.