Matthew Dear has crafted a soundscape that feels like Manhattan in August, if you can imagine the city as a loud, clanging machine.
MATTHEW DEAR Black City (Ghostly International)
The word is sexy. As you listen to Black City, those four letters appear before you as if materializing out of the smoke of a back alley or the fog on a windowpane. Producer and bandleader Matthew Dear has crafted a soundscape that feels like Manhattan in August, if you can imagine the city as a loud, clanging machine — one that gives off steam and sweats in the humidity — and the only respite is slipping into a neon-lit nightclub. With a backdrop of throbbing electronic beats that alternately remind listeners of Kraftwerk, Nine Inch Nails, and Berlin-era David Bowie, Dear sings in a masculine, computer-tinged baritone that evokes the Thin White Duke at his most seductive. On the opening track, “Honey,” I almost sensed a polished version of Tom Waits’ strange, smoky jazz. That’s a highlight, as is “You Put a Smell on Me,” in which the bass buzzes like power tools and keyboard squiggles rise and fall while Dear takes a lover on a date that ends with him singing “little red nightgown” over and over. Even when he delves into self-loathing (on “More Surgery”) and absurdism (“Monkey”), it’s sultry stuff — about sex, even when it’s not. But then, much of the time, so is life, and this album is alive. — Robert B. Ker
VIVALDI Gods, Emperors & Angels (Avie)
Listening to Vivaldi concertos is rather like watching episodes of Law & Order — after a few hundred, you may have trouble recalling whether you’ve encountered a given installment or not, but at least you can sit back and enjoy the thing knowing that the basic formulas will be manipulated with considerable ingenuity. For years Vivaldi seemed blandly predictable, but in the past decade groups like the Venice Baroque Orchestra and the Concerto Italiano started showing that Vivaldi concertos could sizzle and even shock. The British period-instrument orchestra La Serenissima mediates between the extremes in this winning handful of Vivaldi concertos (plus a sonata) for an array of instrumental groupings. Unusually good program notes by violinist Adrian Chandler, the group’s director, alert us to quirks of these pieces, some of which were indeed written to evoke gods (Apollo, for instance), entertain emperors (especially the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI, king of Bohemia), and inspire angels (say, one of Vivaldi’s pupils in Venice of whom it was said, “She plays the violin in such a way that anyone hearing her is transported to Paradise, if indeed it is true that up there the angels play like that”). Special applause goes to bassoonist Peter Whelan and recorder-player Pamela Thorby; when the latter plays stratospheric tones on her sopranino recorder, your neighbors’ dogs may come running to join in the admiration.
— James M. Keller
THE THERMALS Personal Life (Kill Rock Stars)
The Thermals’ 2006 album, The Body, The Blood, The Machine, is a hard record to follow. Recorded in the middle of the Bush years, the dystopian concept album mixed Old Testament imagery with blistering melodic punk chords to narrate what the band said was “the story of a young couple who must flee a United States governed by fascist faux-Christians.” Now four years later, the Portland, Oregon, trio returns with an album of pop punk, more personal than political, with throbbing riffs as catchy and angry as anything Fugazi or Black Flag put out during their heyday. “Only for You” uses Hutch Harris’ nasal snarls to brilliant effect against the band’s grimy garage guitar sound. “I Don’t Believe You” is a characteristic fist-pumping tour through a young, troubled relationship: “Say you’re going through a phase/You’re just acting your age.” The same could be said of the band. While it’s usually a slam to say a group hasn’t updated its sound, in this case it’s a compliment. Five albums into it, the band still makes brash, exuberant, three-chord jams, and its appropriation of ’80s punk lacks even a drop of irony. Yes, we’ve heard this sound before, but just like previously witnessing slam dunks, skateboard flips, and snowboard tricks, it doesn’t make a new stunt any less astonishing. — Casey Sanchez
JOHN MCLAUGHLIN AND THE 4TH DIMENSION To the One (Abstract Logix)
The first time I witnessed John McLaughlin’s fusion band Mahavishnu Orchestra live, it was playing “Birds of Fire”; the guitarist’s complex, machine-gun playing sounded like an awakening dragon. It’s hard to believe the ol’ Mahavishnu magician will be 70 the January after next. He has covered a lot of ground, but he has been steadfast in his spiritual attitude toward music and in his devotion to the one who brought that dimension to jazz: John Coltrane (McLaughlin cites “A Love Supreme” as inspiration for this album). First up is “Discovery.” The quartet starts off in powerhouse jazz-rock form: ecstatic drumming by Mark Mondesir, thrumming bass guitar by Etienne M’Bappe, and searing declarations by one of the most athletic and inventive guitarists ever. The band’s fourth member, keyboardist Gary Husband, delivers a hot midsong solo. The mood softens a mite for “Special Beings,” the second of McLaughlin’s six new compositions here. The steaming “Recovery” is bookmarked by two tunes on which the leader switches to guitar synthesizer: the mystical-tinted “Lost and Found” and the bright title song, which features McLaughlin entrancingly quoting “Lila’s Dance” from the 1974 Mahavishnu Orchestra album Visions of the Emerald Beyond. Here’s a great guitar album and a great band album. — Paul Weideman