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New CDs: Charlie Haden, Kings of Leon, TV on the Radio
Charlie Haden Family & Friends (Decca)
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The stereotypical disconnect between the worlds of jazz and country music was beautifully crystallized many years ago when celebrated drummer Buddy Rich was in the hospital. Just before going into surgery, Rich was asked by a nurse if he was allergic to anything. "Yes," Rich famously replied. "Country and western music."
Fortunately, not all jazz masters share his view. Wynton Marsalis teamed up with Willie Nelson last year at Lincoln Center for an illuminating demonstration of how naturally those two worlds can intersect, echoing the historical precedent country music founding father Jimmie Rodgers set nearly 80 years earlier when he invited Louis Armstrong in for one of his recordings sessions.
Renowned jazz bassist Charlie Haden comes by his affinity for country honestly. Before he moved to L.A. and joined saxophonist Ornette Coleman's border-smashing quartet in the 1950s, before he'd made up his mind as a teenager to devote his career to jazz after hearing Charlie Parker play, Haden was the youngest member of the traveling Haden Family, which toured the Midwest and South, playing traditional country and bluegrass.
At 71, Charlie Haden decided to convene a new-generation Haden Family act for this project, in stores today: his wife, Ruth, triplet daughters Petra, Rachel and Tanya, son Josh and son-in-law Jack Black invited friends, including Elvis Costello, Vince Gill, Pat Metheny, Ricky Skaggs, Rosanne Cash, Bruce Hornsby, Dan Tyminksi and a core of top-drawer instrumentalists.
It's a truly heartwarming outing that, despite his jazz résumé, sticks mostly to country tradition. The triplets harmonize exquisitely on the Carter Family chestnut that opens the album, "Single Girl, Married Girl," and Josh gets the spotlight on his own song, "Spiritual," which Johnny Cash sang so hauntingly on his "Unchained" album. Charlie closes things out with a rendition of the traditional "Oh Shenandoah," in a touching salute to his birthplace of Shenandoah, Iowa.
As far as we know, Buddy Rich never apologized for his jab at country music; Haden, thankfully, is more interested in building bridges than walls.
Kings of Leon make the leap
Kings of Leon "Only by the Night" (RCA)
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If it ever felt silly to still call Kings of Leon a "Southern rock band," the group's "Only by the Night" should do away with that tag entirely. Here the Kings are making a claim to join the upper echelons of arena-ready guitar bands, taking cues from Radiohead and onetime tourmates U2.
Lord knows that's not the sound likely to revitalize rock music in 2008, but it's generally a convincing fit for the extended Followill clan, whose salty earnestness grounds some epic production.
Caleb Followill's voice still sounds like a desperate ex-boyfriend yelling up to his lady's bedroom while her dad polishes the shotgun in the living room. Yet on "Only by the Night," he's dipping a toe into some dicey Lothario terrain. "Sex on Fire" is a song title that should only appear on a Prince record, and while "17" tries to best Steely Dan in critiquing barely illegal youthful indiscretions, complimenting the "rolling of your Spanish tongue" should put the band on some kind of watch list.
But Kings of Leon doesn't play its pickup lines for laughs -- it's playing for lighters-up transcendence. In an age when overwhelming sonics are as accessible as a laptop, it's reassuring to see a band reach for them with presence and conviction.
New territory for TVOTR
TV on the Radio "Dear Science" (DGC/Interscope Records)
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What does it actually feel like to be haunted? Children, squealing with delight at Halloween stories, think it's kind of fun. Horror movie makers portray the experience as a series of startles, full of crisis and romance. In reality, everybody lugs around a few ghosts, some personally generated, others inherited. We dance, fight and make love with them grabbing at our wrists.
"Dear Science," the third album from the Brooklyn-based art rock band TV on the Radio, is a vivid, angry, sensual soundtrack to the haunted life. A leading cult band in the post-Radiohead era, when cult rock is an end unto itself, TVOTR digs out some hooks from the deeply layered mulch of its sound on "Dear Science." The "ba ba ba" vocal line in the album's opener, "Halfway Home," and the bratty electroclash beats and rap-punk ranting on "Dancing Choose" are just two examples of the sunlight now hitting the band's deep post-punk noise-collage grooves.
But TVOTR's take on pop is still highly intellectual, more connected to Warhol's Factory than to the Brill Building or Timbaland's Virginia Beach, Va., studio. For this quintet, more accessible songcraft isn't an end in itself as much as an entryway into new thematic territory. If past efforts found beauty in urban decay and post-millennial tension, "Dear Science" takes a risk on the opposite impulse: exploring how desire and the drive toward self-expression survive in an America that's falling apart.
Singer-songwriter Kyp Malone gets explicit on "Lover's Day," a long, heavy come-on that would be a dirty blues if not for its chamber-pop arrangement. That might be a bagpipe in there along with the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra horns or just a twist of guitarist-producer Dave Sitek's knobs. Either way, it's a clever reworking of the usual musical seduction. Tunde Adebimpe, the band's other vocalist and main songwriter, gives his longing a more gentlemanly cast on "Family Tree," whose resonant string arrangement lends a Victorian sheen to a melancholy marriage proposal.
In the lyrics, Adebimpe refers to the "gallows of your family tree" -- a gothic image that means more when considered in the light of an old folk song, the hanged man's lament "Gallows Tree," and the history of lynching that it invokes. Four of TVOTR's members are black, and more than ever on this funk-infected set, its music reflects the struggle to love, hope and speak truth that all compassionate people face in a society that hasn't outlived the legacy of those hangings.
On "Dear Science," TVOTR embraces emotions of the here and now -- lust, anger, the dancer's bliss -- but still asks us to honor the ancestors whose grip we can't shake off.