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Of all the lines an artist can spend her life crossing, the one between “cute” and “cutesy” is one of the riskiest. Seriousness attaches itself to explicit violence or sexuality -- think of Eminem and Madonna, discussed in the halls of church and state. Going deep into the realm of childlike wonder and whimsicality has the opposite effect. People smile at art rendered in pretty colors and a sunny voice, but they don’t think about it too hard; doing so might result in sugar shock.
Regina Spektor traffics in cuteness as a form of alienation, a way of distinguishing her perceptions from the “normal” way of viewing things. The 29-year-old Jewish “anti-folk” star is a classic outsider: She emigrated from Moscow to the Bronx as a child, and from concert piano to pop during high school.
Now a cult performer whose songs frequently turn up in the background of prime-time television dramas, Spektor is a more daring artist than her quirky surfaces indicate. Her approach seems guileless and folk-artsy at first, but behind her odd vocal effects is the desire to break through the bonds of any one language, as her magic-realist lyrics seek to comprehend the human condition of not fitting in.
Spektor’s new album, “Far,” comes after the breakthrough success of 2006’s “Begin to Hope,” and shows the effects of semi-stardom. Its songs are carefully polished by a cluster of A-list producers (including David Kahne, who helmed her last one, and Jeff Lynne, of ELO/Traveling Wilburys fame). The fables and fantasy lives they depict are rendered in fairly understandable terms. Yet “Far” still shows the range that Spektor can travel within her dreamy world.
Sometimes, here, she’s a bit obvious. Going cyborg in “Machine,” Spektor puts on a robot voice; in “Dance Anthem of the ‘80s” she basically rewrites a B-52’s song.
When she’s too straightforward, Spektor’s writing can be a touch smug, finding easy poignancy in the story of a lost wallet or reminding cynics that “no one laughs at God in a hospital.”
But even on that song, “Laughing With,” Spektor uses cuteness to go a little further. She puts on a squeaky voice for the chorus, getting at the discomfort that comes when something serious (spirituality, in this case) is trivialized.
She’s more on target when she’s more ambiguous -- intertwining an ascendant vocal line with piano arpeggios to describe a local mystery in “Genius Next Door,” or playing around with the creation myth on the slowly building “Blue Lips.” Best of all is “Eet,” a meditation on how language relates to memory that’s as literary as it is nonsensical.
Somebody’s going to use this song in a commercial soon, playing it behind a slow-motion shot of flowers opening up. It deserves better. It’s not just cute.
-- Ann Powers
More admirable than enjoyable
“A Man’s Thoughts”
A founding member of the pioneering mid-'90s R&B; crew that also included Missy Elliott, Aaliyah and Timbaland, Ginuwine emerged at the beginning of soul music’s current era of technological obsession; his debut single, “Pony,” still sounds like something beamed back from the future.
Now, on his first album since 2005, the Washington, D.C., crooner seems determined to prove he can make an impression minus state-of-the-art studio science. “A Man’s Thoughts” is long on uncluttered slow jams with old-fashioned titles like “One Time for Love” and “Even When I’m Mad.” In most, Ginuwine ladles on the melisma like it’s Hollywood Week on “American Idol.”
The vocals are fine. In fact, Their relatively rough-hewn humanity is kind of refreshing in the Age of Auto-Tune. But with only a few exceptions -- such as “Bridge to Love,” a hard-swinging duet with Brandy, and “Lying to Each Other,” in which Ginuwine admits to his lady, “I’d rather watch cable than see you with a negligee on” -- the material here doesn’t live up to his performances, making the music easier to admire than to enjoy.
When Timbaland and Elliott finally show up for one cut, the space-age disco jam “Get Involved,” the uptick in energy is striking.
-- Mikael Wood
Gentle thoughts, with a riptide
Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs
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“People say they like to go to the edge,” the multi-instrumentalist Otis Taylor recently said in Guitar Player magazine. “But I believe you have to go to the edge and fall off, because if you don’t fall off, you will not know where the edge is.”
Those words aptly define the 61-year-old Boulder, Colo.-based bluesman’s musical approach. Gentle upon first listen, blending the austerity of Delta blues with the expansiveness of free jazz, Taylor’s ancient-sounding, avant-garde “trance blues” has a dangerous pull.
Love is the subject on Taylor’s 11th album, “Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs.” Its songs cast the universal emotion as gentle on the surface, with a riptide, and some bubble with quickening desire. Others, like “Dagger by My Side,” about a man who kills his mistress, capture far-gone pain, plain and eloquent.
Taylor’s fragmented, moaned and groaned lyrics are like prayers inscribed on paper boats carried forward by a river current. His collaborators -- including the guitarist Gary Moore, the pianist Jason Moran, the cornetist Ron Miles and Taylor’s daughter Cassie, who plays bass and sometimes murmurs a lead vocal -- modestly state their parts to create a hypnotic whole.
It’s a strange and subtle sound, not for those who turn to the blues for nostalgia or a party soundtrack. Fans of Cat Power, the late Chris Whitley or the freak-folk scene will appreciate it. But the eeriness of these songs doesn’t diminish their emotional immediacy.
“I’m not mysterious, girl,” Taylor sings in one, about an 8-year-old black boy kept from courting his white schoolmate. “Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs” is as simple as that -- and as entangled in the cruelties of history and the heart.
-- Ann Powers
Genre-morphing invigorated jams
“Beacons of Ancestorship”
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Tortoise, Chicago’s venerable crew of rock-'n'-roll boundary breakers, has an illustrious history of dazzling first tracks. Any old band knows to frontload an album with a party-starter but few do it with such an unimpeachable sense of brainy fun.
“High Class Slim Came Floatin’ In,” the opener to “Beacons,” Tortoise’s sixth full-length and its first release of new material in five years, is a cold funk telegram informing us that Tortoise is turning out its most invigorated set of omnivorous instrumentals since 1998’s “TNT.”
The eight-minute-plus jam trips with heavy synth chunks, high-finesse drums and an ending that sounds like a chillier version of the kaleidoscopic intro to the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
“Beacons of Ancestorship” is still typical Tortoise. The five-piece appropriates form any genre, including rampaging punk, techno, twitchy jazz and desert-baked samba, but with renewed adventure. The 11 tracks burble and skitter to new corners and heights.
At times, the gentlemen feel like they’re retreating to their comfort zone: “Minors” seems hardly more than a bridge to the calmer closing numbers, but after “Yinxianghechengqi,” a crazed tiger of a track, or “The Fall of Seven Diamonds Plus One,” the stormy love child of John Coltrane and Ennio Morricone, a little catnap seems in order.
-- Margaret Wappler