Now Hear This 

In which Norah Jones takes the Fall, Adam Lambert is perfectly ordinary, and Nirvana plays live again.


Norah Jones  “The Fall” (Blue Note)
Since the release of her massively popular “Come Away with Me” in 2002, Norah Jones has been handicapped by sounding too much like Norah Jones. The soft jazz sweetheart was hemmed in by a style both distinctive and narrow and surrounded by hoards of imitators who, like her, wanted to see if lighting would strike twice. It didn't help that for all of its success, “Come Away with Me” is after the first few cuts pretty much a poppy, pretty snooze. The good news is that “The Fall” is a bit of a breakout.  The fires are still mostly banked, and more than a few songs just lie there moodily in electronic Chris Isaak mode. But there are songs that get up to about walking speed — the kinetic “Young Blood” and the dirty keyboard of “It's Gonna Be.” Both songs show flashes of dark Tom Waits humor; the closing blues “Man of the Hour” is musically slight but funny (and a bit surprising to those who envisioned Jones to be the vegetarian, cat-fancying type).  In sum, there's a good record here cushioned inside less interesting material. By itself “The Fall” is probably not enough to keep Jones from becoming a 21st century Sade. But, like her spirited country collaboration with the Willies, it suggests some interesting, if less commercially rewarding, directions. HHHII — Peter McElhinney

Adam Lambert, “For Your Entertainment” (Octjay)
Glambert is yet another perfectly packaged American Idol veteran poised for mainstream radio consumption and the occasional, well-played controversy. Despite his ardent desire to be something a little different, by today's standards he's just another pop star. Not the next Bowie or Queen, but a plain ol' hit maker. And he's a pretty good one in that Gaga-glitter-drenched kind of way. On his debut disc, Lambert is strong out of the gate with his dance-floor cuts surrounded by dizzying synths, electrobeats as thick as his signature eyeliner, and vocals that hold up to great expectations. When the tempo slows, it's simply ordinary and rather boring. Thankfully, most of the tracks stick to the formula that works and suggest that the 27-year-old shows promise in the confectionary genre of clichAcd pop rock. HHHII — Hilary Langford

Nirvana, “Live at Reading” (Geffen)
Hearing a great band play live when it is at its peak is a treasure to be savored. Nirvana was certainly at its best when it headlined the Reading Festival in England in 1992. The trio won top billing at the event, which also included performances by Mudhoney, Public Enemy, Teenage Fanclub and other early ‘90's alterna-rock favorites. Riding high on the tidal wave of critical praise and vast record sales generated by the grunge masterpiece, “Nevermind,” the band thrived on the mass adulation as it took the stage at Reading, coming off as both easy-going and tight, ready to share a laugh with many fans yet dead serious about delivering an energetic set. The trio played many of the instant classics from “Nevermind” and its predecessor “Bleach,” and previewed a few from the then-forthcoming “In Utero.” Try listening to the live version of “In Bloom” without singing along to the chorus, try getting through “Come as You Are” without bobbing your head in appreciation. Over and over, we are reminded why this band mattered. Sadly, the Reading performance was a peak in more ways than one, as the band would soon begin a downfall that culminated in Kurt Cobain's suicide in 1994. HHHHH — Brian Greene

MC Paul Barman, “Thought Balloon Mushroom Cloud” (Househusband)
The tongue-twisting, skinny white protAcgAc of Prince Paul is back, and not much has changed except for a seven-year hiatus, marriage and kids. MC Paul Barman came out of nowhere in 2000 with an oddball and often hilarious EP called “It's Very Stimulating …” that was largely produced by Prince Paul, producer of De La Soul's first three albums. The release triggered massive arguments between rap purists frustrated by the nasally rapper's arcane academic references — lyrics befitting a snotty Brown University graduate — and those able to laugh at his ridiculousness. While “Thought Balloon” will sound very familiar to the Barman faithful, his new offering doesn't sound tired or like he's reaching for his former glory. The word play and blue humor are all there (“I've also got a great tip / You should see pregnant women screenprint”) but it's hard to hear out how he's moved us, himself or hip-hop forward. Still, it's a solid offering from one of the genre's most eclectic and polarizing rappers. For the uninitiated, this will either be an exciting discovery or a highly disturbing distraction. HHHII — Daniel Poarch

Various artists, “Where Will You be Christmas Day?” (Dust to Digital)
Among the hordes of Christmas-themed music CDs to choose from, it's tough to find something different. This diverse 2004 collection of 24 songs dating from 1917 to 1959 manages to fit the bill by casting a wide musical net backward, when Christmas didn't involve online shopping or beating someone to a pulp at the mall for a discount off the latest computer console. There's a little of everything here: Southern fiddles, jazz bands, choirs, iconic blues singers, and festive sounds from Puerto Rico, Italy, the Ukraine and Trinidad, representing the sacred and the secular. It's great stuff for those tired of Bing Crosby standards. Among the highlights: the soul stirringly powerful Alabama Sacred Harp Singers (“Sherburne”); the lowdown blues of “Christmas in Jail — Ain't That A Pain” by Leroy Carr; sizzling electric blues by Lightnin' Hopkins (“Happy New Year”); the hypnotizing bagpipe and reed pipe of “Tu Scendi Salle Steele (Pastorale Di Natale)” by Pasquale Feis, and Vera Ward Hall's mournful a cappella delivery of “The Last Month of The Year.” Personally, I can appreciate colorful Caribbean dance songs such as “Christmas is a Joyful Day” by Lord Executor, or “Christmas Morning The Rum Had Me Yawning” by Lord Beginner while sipping holiday eggnog in front of the flickering flat screen. Nothing against Bing Crosby. HHHHI — Brent Baldwin



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