The latest Neil Young has been billed as a return to his "Harvest"-style acoustic greatness, but to quote the title track, "Prairie Wind blows long and hard." Not to rag on a guy who just had a brain aneurism, but the only thing consistent in Young's career has been his inconsistency, and his latest is mostly as corny as the title suggests. Here, maudlin lyrics of nostalgia for "the good ol' days" carry an almost meaningless sheen. And though still capable of producing some chilling moments, Young's trademark warble is not as reliable as it once was.
Familiar backing performers Ben Keith and Spooner Oldham provide some respite, but the album often sounds over-produced horns, strings, backing vocals and gospel choirs detracting from simple acoustic songs. Too many of these melancholy tunes are ruined by not enough mystery and melody (once Young's forte). At its best, "Prairie Wind" hearkens back to the mellow country rock of 1978's "Comes a Time," but don't place it among Neil's classics. ** Brent Baldwin
Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane "At Carnegie Hall" (Blue Note)
It's difficult to overstate the value of this recording. Until this tape was found in the Library of Congress stacks, the only documentation of the pivotal Monk/Trane band was fragmentary: five studio songs and an extremely low-fidelity amateur recording.
In 1957, Monk was more of a cult figure than a recognized giant. Coltrane was at the low point of his career; Miles had just fired him for nodding off on heroin in the midst of a gig. Their live shows during an extended engagement at New York City jazz club The Five Spot became the stuff of legend. At long last the reason is clear.
Monk is at the height of his powers, combining a modernistic take on stride with an idiosyncratic, hunt-and-peck-style attack in which compositional ideas take shape in real time. Coltrane's harmonic "sheets of sound" exploration is starting to be channeled into the disciplined playing of his mature style. It's vital and surprising an instant classic 48 years in the making. ***** Peter McElhinney
Calexico/Iron and Wine "In the Reins" (Overcoat Recordings)
After winning acclaim for two barebones albums, bearded folkie Sam Beam (aka Iron and Wine) has teamed with Calexico, the Southwestern-fusion ensemble led by Joey Burns and John Convertino. It's a promising partnership: Calexico's tight horns lift Beam from the musical doldrums, while his poetic songwriting lends sobriety to their desert gothic. On most of the EP's seven songs, the pairing works. "A History of Lovers" is an upbeat acoustic pop number neither could have managed alone; part-Beach Boys, part-murder ballad. The acoustic blues of "Red Dust" becomes full and funky with the addition of organ and harmonica.
On other tunes, however, Calexico seems smitten with Beam's airy melancholy, adding little more than understated drumming and strains of steel guitar. The closer, "Dead Man's Will," evokes Iron and Wine's widely circulated home recordings. Calexico has recorded everything from dub to mariachi to jazz in the past decade, and Iron and Wine's last EP delved into roots rock. It's difficult to fault their joint display of nuanced song-craft, save that it wants for a few surprises. ** Nathan Lott
Calexico/Iron and Wine will play the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., Nov. 30.
Depeche Mode "Playing The Angel" (Sire Records/Warner Music Group)
Get out your eyeliner, don your black attire and lament till your broken heart's content. During the past 25 years, Depeche Mode has evolved from '80s new wave darlings to purveyors of seductive synth that wallows in the misery of loves lost, addiction and overall despair. The band manages to deliver all this, however, in an achingly beautiful and mature way that makes today's pseudo-Goths sound like whiny schoolchildren. Combining smart pop structure with soundboard mixes, tweaks and layers of pulses, the band's 11th disc explores more complex territory where 2001's "Exciter" left off. Industrial edges pierce programmed, driving rhythms (a la the lighter side of Trent Reznor) on the opening track, "A Pain That I'm Used To," and show up again on the danceable "Suffer Well." Martin Gore's bruised words are cradled by soft piano melodies and delicate throbs that make their way out of the album's digital landscape on "The Darkest Star" and put an end to glorious sadness. While this disc doesn't deliver another hit like 1990's "Personal Jesus," it proves the boys of Depeche Mode are still the kings of pain. *** Hilary Langford
Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives "Souls' Chapel" (Universal South)
From the first softly stinging guitar tones and warmly caressing harmonies, you can tell this one's a keeper. For his Mississippi-style country gospel record, Marty Stuart wanted to capture the sound and feeling of the legendary Staples Family, and he succeeded. Stuart lays down his mandolin and takes up electric guitar, capturing the trademark sound of Pops Staples, a shimmering rhythmic shudder and delicacy. Elsewhere, he tosses in some fleet Nashville picking, and even throws the riff from Them's classic version of "Baby Please Don't Go" into the original "Way Down."
Alongside cuts by Pops Staples, Albert E. Brumley and Steve Cropper are six tunes Stuart wrote or co-wrote. The collection dovetails into one righteous and reverent mood while sterling harmonies flow throughout. An obvious contender for gospel record of the year, this is a landmark for the ageless Stuart, who does so many things well, and always with soul. **** Andy Garrigue
Sword "Lord By Fire" EP (We are the Label Records)
The words "brutal" and "crushing" were created for records like this one. At the end of its debut EP, Richmond's own Sword leaves you feeling dirty and used. Plodding through six songs of stoner-rock/metal hybrid intensity, Sword refuses to let up; this is the musical equivalent of Andy Dufresne's journey through the sewage system to freedom in "The Shawshank Redemption," except more pissed-off (really, really pissed- off). All the tracks run together and deny the listener breaks between songs. I find this kind of hard to bear but I'm sure that there's someone in his or her dorm room, staring at the walls and listening to this record, humbly whispering "dude " over and over again. If you're a fan of surly sludge rock, you won't be disappointed. The cover art of an octopus is pretty sweet, too. *** Jeff Byers
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