An art-pop performance artist reared in New York's early-'80s postpunk cross-media scene, Laurie Anderson always has been nothing if not studiously topical, dealing with current events primarily as a means of exploring larger issues of disillusion and disaffection. “Homeland” by its very title engages powerfully with the America sprawled out around her, and Anderson holds forth on terrorism, bailouts, the economy and the environment, which are simply springboards for discussing the hollow concepts of power and security. Working with Antony Hegarty, John Zorn and Four Tet, she creates and sustains a deeply eerie ambience that nicely underscores her ideas, especially on the 11-minute centerpiece, “Another Day in America,” in which she distorts her voice to create an otherworldly doppelganger. Offsetting the almost unbearable gravity of the album is Anderson's subtle humor, which comes through her precise phrasing on “Only an Expert” and “Bodies in Motion,” reminding you there's a real human being behind these strange songs and unruly ideas. **** — Stephen M. Deusner
John Prine, “In Person & On Stage” (Oh Boy)
John Prine is one of America's best original songwriters — he's proven it so often since the early '70s that it's almost taken for granted. Deceptively simple and evocative, his earthy folk songs have a down-home charm that makes them feel instantly recognizable, like old friends. Recorded over the last few years, this crisp-sounding live album is a great primer on classic fan favorites and captures the warm intimacy of his concerts better than his previous live discs. The now gravel-voiced Prine talks frequently and gives insight into the songs' various back stories, such as the touching and funny “In Spite of Ourselves,” performed with original guest Iris Dement (and written for the credits of the quirky Billy Bob Thornton film, “Daddy and Them”). The guests here sparkle as Prine's trio is joined by Emmylou Harris (“Angel From Montgomery”), Nickel Creek's Sara Watkins (“The Late John Garfield Blues”), Kate Welch Kaplin (“Paradise”), and Josh Ritter (“Mexican Home”). Nitpickers could point out that the 72-minute collection lacks classics “Sam Stone” or “Illegal Smile,” but why complain when you have such a cross-section to admire? Even the four newer songs from his 2005 Grammy-winner, “Fair and Squared,” hold up well among the classics. The album is dedicated to departed No. 1 fan, Tom “Crusher” Reynolds, who couldn't have asked for a more stirring tribute. On its heels comes another release, “Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine,” a tribute album featuring covers by the likes of Conor Oberst, My Morning Jacket, Avett Brothers and Justin Townes Earle. **** — Brent Baldwin
Vibracathedral Orchestra, “Joka Baya” / “The Secret Base” / “Smoke Song” (VHF)
Too often, drone as descriptor gets confused with drone as actuality. There are different drones just as there are different sources of drones. They're not all the same. Vibracathedral Orchestra avails itself of sources both traditional and unexpected to produce a wide variety of drones on these three excellent discs. Rock examples played on electrified instruments draw on the same inspirations that John Cale-era Velvet Underground did with similarly satisfying results; “Get It? Got It? ... Good?” on “Smoke Song” gallops through the general area of “Sister Ray.” Elsewhere, traditional plucked strings echo more traditional Indian forms, such as on the title track of “Smoke Song.” What's best here is how two generations of drone — the traditional form and the Westernized experimental electric form — are constantly merged and cross-referenced, as on “Rag Alap IV” (off “Joka Baya”) with its rich string drone interrupted by sudden blasts of distortion and feedback. Each song seems cut hot from home jam sessions, and there's a confident but never sloppy looseness of structure that only comes from musicians intimately understanding each other. These albums are best heard as a set, but if you're broke and want an adequate sampler of all of their wares, go with “The Secret Base.” ***** — D.R. Tyler Magill
What seems an unlikely collaboration turns out to be a fine match. David Karsten Daniels sings spare, folk-tinged poetry at a slow tempo in a keening, untutored voice. It's a very human-scale approach, drama and intensity coming from rising pitch and volume and his ability to hold a mostly steady note for at least as long as necessary, maybe longer. His is an appealingly ragged talent, and one that meshes exceptionally well with the controlled muscular mayhem of Fight the Big Bull. “I Mean to Live Here Still” is a series of music settings of poems and fragments by Walden Pond-dweller Henry David Thoreau. The lyrics are full of artfully split infinitives and natural imagery, and Daniels delivers them with swelling conviction, occasionally multitracking the vocals in shimmering layers of pastoral stillness. The pace is often dead slow, and in one song, “Each Summer Sound,” there are only seven words. Keeping the project from slipping into dreamy stasis are the constantly bubbling, swelling and idiosyncratically subversive and supportive arrangements of Matt White. For the most part the band's avant-garde fires are banked, but every once in a while they flare with a bracing bit of blistering sax, metallic trumpet or growling trombone. The Big Bull has been together long enough to develop an intuitive, loose-limbed collegiality, and the counterbalance of its roiling complexity and Daniels' heartfelt, timeless delivery of Thoreau's blank verse give the recording a winning organic integrity. **** — Peter McElhinney
Fight the Big Bull performs an album-release party with David Karsten Daniels at the Camel on July 8 at 9 p.m.