Now Hear This 

Reviews of recently released music from Regina Spektor, Vanessa Williams, Jarrard Anthony and others.

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Regina Spektor, “Far” (Warner Bros)
Yes, the Soviet-born Spektor does a dolphin impression on this disc. Yes, it's weird. There are also the lyrical references to macaroni computers, a lake turned thick as porridge and a lost Blockbuster card that are more fable-friendly than most pop-music fare. Spektor is good at these sorts of things, though, and she always seems to find that balance between freak show and fine musician. There's a sleekness to her fifth album that will expectedly furrow the brows of old-school fans and critics alike, but despite the polish, Spektor remains as loveably bizarre as ever. This time out, her ivory tinklings and chirps are joined by perky beats and the occasional blurting horns. In the same breath that she muses about people's perceptions of God, her cartoonish warble escapes like a thing untethered, leaving you to wonder where she's going — which is usually right back to a catchy melody. She's abstract as hell and oddly simple. Therein lies her gift.  HHHII— Hilary Langford

Vanessa Williams, “The Real Thing” (Concord Records) 
Listening to Vanessa Williams' first studio record since 2005's “Everlasting Love” conjures images of that bygone era of female singers, singing in front of a big band or propped on a stool in a smoky jazz club. Using songwriters and collaborators responsible for such career-defining hits as the ubiquitous “Save the Best for Last” and the reflective gem, “The Sweetest Days,” Williams entertains throughout this 11-song set of covers and classic-minded originals. With the loud exception of track one, “Breathless,” every song succeeds in its musical ambition. “Hello Like Before,” the Bill Withers' nugget covered better by jazz chanteuse Nancy Wilson, still excels atop its lush strings arrangement and a lightly muscular vocal by Williams that demonstrates the subtle beauty of restraint. Elsewhere, bossa nova and erstwhile Latin jazz flavors Stevie Wonder's “The Real Thing” and the Bebel Gilberto-penned “Close To You,” which finds Williams singing in properly accented Portuguese. It's just one of the quiet, bravura moments on “The Real Thing” that serves as a potent reminder of her artistic life before “Ugly Betty.”  HHHII — Jerome Langston

Christian McBride and Inside Straight, “Kind of Brown” (Mack Avenue)
“Kind of Brown” is an invigorating, fresh record from a first-rate band reveling in a sleekly classic vibe. The ambidextrous title evokes McBride mentor Ray Brown and Miles Davis's “Kind of Blue.” The band name “Inside Straight” reflects both the material — straight-ahead jazz, played inside the changes — and was also the title of one of the last albums by McBride hero Cannonball Adderly. Many recordings have attempted to recapture the hard-swinging conventionally melodic explorations of the '60s, but few transcend their model as “Kind of Brown” does.

McBride, 37, may be the best bassist of his generation, but he hasn't led a band like this in years. During the five years (2001-2005) that he was artistic director for the Modlin Center Summer jazz festival, he always brought his brilliant post-fusion group, the Christian McBride Band, and there was always some grumbling from the more conservative listeners. That anti-electric bias was shared by New York Village Vanguard owner, Lorraine Gordon, and a conventional acoustic band was the price for playing in her club. McBride formed Inside Straight to comply.

In any setting, McBride's an astoundingly powerful player with a huge sound and great sense of dynamics. His rhythm section includes former Wynton Marsalis pianist Eric Reed, who shifts with chameleon ease from old-school blues to McCoy Tyner massed chords. Carl Allen is equally adept on drums and Virginia Commonwealth University graduate and New York A-list player Steve Wilson gets a chance to shine in the lead solo position. But the revelation is Warren Wolf Jr. on vibes, a fluent player who leans into the melodies with the propulsive confidence of a veteran. HHHHI — Peter McElhinney

DVD: “Reggae in a Babylon,” directed by Wolfgang BA¬ld (MVD Visual)
The final installment in German director Wolfgang BA¬ld's trilogy of England's rock scene of the late '70s, “Reggae in a Babylon” offers a behind-the-scenes look at the mobile reggae sound-system scene once hyped by revolutionary punk rockers.

Best known for his early work covering the Sex Pistols, the Stranglers and the Clash, BA¬ld has a fly-on-the-wall approach featuring brief, straightforward interviews and rare period footage of British reggae artists such as Steel Pulse (there's a brilliant full practice of “Ku Klux Klan”), Matumbi, Errol Dunkley, Jimmy Lindsay and others. Unfortunately, no narration and little historical context is provided, which can be rough on the unfamiliar. Many artists interviewed comment on the early shunning of reggae music by BBC radio, hinting at internal politics and veiled racism. However, before this was rereleased, someone who wasn't high should've made the helpful decision to include some titles so we know who's speaking or singing at any given time — nobody is ever identified. At only 45 minutes, the documentary is mostly a time-capsule glimpse of British reggae, especially noteworthy for Steel Pulse fans, or those who want to marvel at some fashion trends that have made a comeback since then. Dig those fly hats and skinny slacks. HHHII —Brent Baldwin

Jarrard Anthony, “Decade of Dreams” (Boobop Records)
 One of the hidden treasures of the indie soul scene, Richmond native Jarrard Anthony's independent CD releases have received scant mainstream attention throughout his decade-plus career. Yet “Decade of Dreams,” the singer and songwriter's recently released retrospective album, hints at an artistic identity worthy of broader notice.

The 15-song collection begins with the melodic, midtempo “I Never,” a song that lyrically explores the oft-covered subject of romantic love as catalyst for personal growth. What distinguishes “Never” is Anthony's soulful delivery, as well as an interesting electro-sonic backdrop that layers the record. Another standout, “The Dream,” skips along charmingly with a jazzy, snare-heavy rhythmic lilt — referencing Erykah Badu's classic “On & On” record. “So Divine” picks up right after that, capturing a moody, reflective aesthetic that befits the singer's tenor.

It's not until track 10, “Right From Wrong,” with its lush down-tempo arrangement and harmonic structure, that the album dazzles. Culled from the artist's previous “Synergistic Energy Xchange,” this trippy track illustrates Anthony's knack for creating genre-defying, black-rooted art. Here's hoping for more of that vision on his upcoming major label debut, “The Message,” now that Anthony has signed to Bungalo Records, which houses Anthony's indie imprint. It's distributed by Universal music. It's the kind of major label partnership that's becoming frequent within the industry these days. HHHII —Jerome Langston

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