Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan "Ballad of the Broken Seas" (V2)
Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan — the former cellist/vocalist of Scottish indie pop band Belle & Sebastian and the former frontman of Seattle grunge group Screaming Trees, respectively — seem an unlikely pop pairing. Their debut disc has garnered favorable U.K. notice, invariably referencing Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood in keeping with Campbell's acknowledged debt to the classic 1960s duo.
But Campbell-Lanegan is much darker stuff, minus their role models' vocal sparkle and soul. Song titles like "Scarborough Fair" soundalike "Black Mountain" (sung solo by Campbell) and "The False Husband" hint at typically bleak subject matter, the latter track resembling a portentous Angelo Badalamenti-David Lynch collaboration. In such context, the voices juxtapose well: Lanegan's tired, Leonard Cohen-like low murmur and Campbell's high, feathery whisper. But she can get so wispy that on the sweetly melancholic "Saturday's Gone" (another solo outing) that the words are barely discernible.
Campbell also borders on intolerably cute in her breathy counterpoint to Lanegan's lead on an alt-country cover of Hank Williams "Ramblin' Man." But she has an undeniable charm, and the songs (most of them are her originals) have sparing, acoustic-oriented arrangements that are certainly pretty enough. Best is "Honey Child What Can I Do?" which is buttressed by a string orchestration recalling an Elmer Bernstein western score.
Neko Case, "Fox Confessor Brings the Flood" (Anti- Records)
The smoky alto of chanteuse Neko Case would be right at home in a nightclub or honky tonk. The young lady can sing nearly anything — even mediocre pop songs, which is what she does on "Fox Confessor Brings the Flood."
As the title suggests, Case sometimes tries too hard. Often shunning the typical verse-chorus song structure, she presents 12 original tunes that go beyond quirky to off-kilter and plain annoying.
At times Case sounds as though she's singing in a well, which is bad, because with a sultry voice that can make knees buckle and spines shiver, she requires no such studio trickery.
Case's voice is so appealing that she can pull off a line like, "They placed an ingot in her breast to burn cool and collected." She shines brightest on "Hold On, Hold On" and "The Needle Has Landed," country-tinged songs that verge on being catchy, while the gospel tune "John Saw That Number" lacks only a snappy bass to become a crowd pleaser.
One verse of "Maybe Sparrow" showcases Case at full throttle. It's enthralling — and a reminder of what's missing elsewhere. Case the writer needs to give Case the singer better material.
David Gilmour, "On an Island," (Sony BMG)
Since "On an Island" is David Gilmour's first solo album since 1984's "About Face" (and first studio recording since Pink Floyd's 1994 "The Division Bell"), his label — perhaps wanting to jog the memory of music fans — is selling the point that he's "the voice and guitar of Pink Floyd."
No need to worry: "On an Island" matches up with the best of Floyd — unlike "Ca Ira," last years operatic effort from the group's departed founding member, Roger Waters.
The opening foghorn sound and billowing, classical-tinged overture herald the album's aquatic undercurrents and lead into an atmospheric title track buoyed by the familiar backup voices of David Crosby and Graham Nash. Present, too, are Pink Floyd's organist Richard Wright and early guitarist Rado Klose; broadening this Floyd stylistic base are co-producer Phil Manzanera (Roxy Music's guitarist) and orchestrator Zbigniew Preisner, the renowned Polish film composer.
"The Blue," then, offers a languorous seascape, while instrumental "Then I Close My Eyes" dreamily employs dobro-like Hawaiian guitar, cornet and even glass harmonica. "Take a Breath" starts a three-song centerpiece with Gilmour's guitar play emptying into his jazzy saxophone instrumental "Red Sky at Night," which, in turn, flows into the bluesy "This Heaven."
The ironically titled finisher "Where We Start" caps Gilmour's auspicious return with an airy melody and time-themed, Floyd-worthy lyrics.
Goldfrapp, "Supernature" (Mute)
If you're looking for the best the world of electronica has to offer, look no further than Goldfrapp. The English duo, Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory, surpasses all expectations with their latest album, "Supernature," powered by smart lyrics weaved among lush melodies.
Goldfrapp is plenty big in Britain and have already watched this album debut at No. 2 on charts there. But American audiences too should appreciate this hipster-paced approach to electronic music that comes close to the noisy chaos of the electro clash genre — without giving in to the useless experimentation that many fall prey to.
On "Ooh La La," Goldfrapp's sexy vocals ooze through the speakers and seduce the listener in a dreamy disco-esque haze. "Switch me on, turn me up/ Oh child of Venus you're just made for love," Goldfrapp sings, while deeply fuzzed, electronic synthesizer keeps up behind her.
She's upbeat on the dance tracks, but Goldfrapp shows she can handle the down-tempo stuff perfectly as well. On "Time Out From The World," her voice is blissful and blends beautifully with the soaring, spacey arrangement.
The instrumentals are so well constructed, Goldfrapp's vocals are like a tasty cherry on top of an already very edible sundae. With apologies to Madonna, electronic music hasn't had it this good with a front woman since Berlin's Terri Nunn.
"Supernature" is one the young year's best releases.
Kris Kristofferson, "This Old Road" (New West)
Perhaps it's Kris Kristofferson's upcoming 70th birthday. Perhaps it's the recent death of friends Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and songwriter Harlan Howard. Perhaps it was just time.
Whatever the reason, the groundbreaking songwriter has created a late-in-life collection as uncompromising and as personal as the classic '70s albums that launched his career.
Focusing on songs about his country and his craft, Kristofferson explores the American ideal and the ongoing struggle — in relationships and in society — between freedom and security. He celebrates musical heroes and outlaws who speak their own truths without conforming and, in a song inspired by Willie Nelson, "Final Attraction," he explains his theory of how great songs heal by exposing pain and heartbreak in universal terms.
Producer Don Was strips down the arrangements to acoustic guitar and minimal rhythmic support, allowing Kristofferson to stay within an intimate vocal range that works for him. He no longer repeatedly shows his limitations by trying to push his voice into a range he can't handle.
These days, the Texas-born former Air Force pilot is more likely to be recognized for his acting than for his music. But "This Old Road" proves again that songwriting is where he finds his truest, strongest voice.
Van Morrison, "Pay the Devil" (Lost Highway/Universal)
Of all classic-rock singers, Van Morrison and his elastic, emotion-rich voice may be the best-suited for country songs. So it's logical that after albums of Celtic, skiffle, jazz, old-time rock, R&B and Mose Allison songs, the legendary Irishman known as the Belfast Cowboy would get around to honky tonk and roadhouse blues, as he does on "Pay the Devil."
Unfortunately, "Pay the Devil" suffers from too many lightweight, by-the-numbers covers and too few tunes in which Morrison reworks the tunes to find their emotional core. He takes on three songs associated with Hank Williams and three with '50s rhinestone star Webb Pierce, but each suffers from overly reverent arrangements that sound dashed off.
He fares better on three new songs, especially the title tune and "This Has Got to Stop," a reminder that Morrison is at best at communicating his personal struggles with love and the modern world.
Give him a mournful country blues like Rodney Crowell's great "'Til I Gain Control Again" or George Jones' hit "Things Have Gone to Pieces," and he shows what could have been if he'd spent more time finding songs that fit his talent.
The Pinker Tones, "The Million Colour Revolution" (Nacional)
If you were to have locked two musically gifted infants into a room filled with electronic instruments and an expansive record collection of pop music from the 1960s through, say, 1982, you might have opened the door years later to find The Pinker Tones.
This Barcelona duo's second album is an eclectic, electronic mix of everything from Burt Bacharach harmonics to Thomas Dolby-styled synthesizers; organ solos a la The Doors; and Curt Mayfield-like falsetto vocals tracked over a funky beat.
It's clear these fellows love music, and they're out to have fun.
From the introductory track which opens with a "Hawaii-Five-O" drum crescendo to the closing cut 15 tracks later (a lush, sober dance groove urging the listener to "wake up, baby, wake up, get on your feet"), The Pinker Tones carry this album through a dizzying variety of genres and influences that work surprisingly well together — in no small part thanks to a superb sound mix that shows off the musical samplings.
The Pinker Tones — Mister Furia and Professor Manso — thrive on disco, and ably throw in the unexpected: samba; French raps; German vocals that sound like they were revived from a 1920s cylinder recording; Western cowboy rhythms; futuristic space sound effects; and even a lazing Hawaiian guitar. There are clever vocal tracks put together from samples, such as on a brief 37-second track which states authoritatively, "Many years ago, man invented color, which is a wonderful invention."
Their songs are bouncy, joyful, at times nutty, but never dull.
Listen to "The Million Colour Revolution," and you might just feel a little bit better about your day.
The Wood Brothers, "Ways Not To Lose" (Blue Note)
The guess here is that Chris and Oliver Wood grew up listening to a lot of great '50s music, from "Mystery Train" to "Got My Mojo Working" to "Freddie Freeloader."
On their debut disc as a duo, the Wood Brothers use the stripped-down instrumentation of early Elvis — guitar, standup bass and some percussion — to play a stark but appealing mixture of genres that includes folk and the blues.
It helps that Oliver is a convincing singer and excellent on guitar, both acoustic and electric, while Chris (moonlighting from his day job with Medeski Martin & Wood) is a note-bending wiz on bass.
The album includes one cover ("Angel Band") and a batch of smart tunes written or co-written by Oliver, all possessing a timeless quality that enhances the album's rustic mood. Among the highlights are the raw rock of "Where My Baby Might Be" and Oliver's solo performance on the lovely closing ballad "That's What Angels Can Do."
Then there's "Tried and Tempted" which provides a candidate for couplet of the month: "I'd like to be the wind; don't want to be the sail. I'd like to be the train, not the rail."