Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, “Working on a Dream”“Dream” appears to be the possibly unprecedented sound of Bruce Springsteen at recess — at least putting aside his perfectionism for the moment. An E Street album mostly in theory — the record is about 93 percent Clarence Clemons-free, and the guys tend to be played down in the mix — “Dream” is quite the variety show. It opens with the eight-minute spaghetti western “Outlaw Pete,” weaves through a love song to a checkout girl, a Beach Boys-flavored candy bar and a bit of bayou stomp-blues before getting back to basics on the bracing, quintessentially Bruce-y “The Wrestler.” Springsteen (and producer Brendan O’Brien) bring on the sonic tricks like kids slathering around in finger-paint: multitracked vocals, loads of “la la las,” epic-sounding strings, Morricone harmonicas and at least one grocery store scanner. Big-sounding proclamations about faith and dreams are few and far between, replaced by sneakily complex love stories all washed down with sudsy pop. If “Dream” feels looser and more scattered than Springsteen’s usual deliveries, it’s probably because that seems to be the idea.
Various artists, “Notorious: Music from and Inspired by the Original Motion Picture”The “Notorious” film soundtrack not only assembles the best of the Notorious B.I.G.’s work, it includes gems like the rapper’s first demo tape, two new tracks from Jay-Z and a “One More Chance” remix featuring B.I.G.’s son, CJ Wallace. On the demo cut “Microphone Murderer,” B.I.G. gruffly performs his first lyrics over the rhythm of Big Daddy Kane’s “Ain’t No Half Steppin’.” Jay-Z and Santogold contribute the hipster-friendly “Brooklyn Go Hard,” while Jadakiss delivers the heartfelt “Letter to B.I.G.,” featuring Biggie’s widow, Faith Evans. It’s a bit awkward to hear the young Wallace, who plays his father as a youth in the film, rapping about how “Navajos creep me in their tee-pees” — but not enough to lessen the album’s impact or its reminder of B.I.G.’s legendary prowess on the mic.
Keith Jarrett Trio, “Yesterdays”Keith Jarrett’s concerts with his trusty trio of bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette are not quite as free-form as his legendary solo performances, but they’re experimental and challenging in their own ways. And while repertoire dictates where the trio takes its improvisations, there’s a baseline level of musical camaraderie that permeates their playing and makes each concert album a must-listen. The track list for this 2001 Japanese live recording is all standards, allowing for a range of moods and approaches. The group is nearly manic on the Dizzy Gillespie/Charlie Parker chestnut “Shaw’nuff,” with Jarrett humming along to his rippling piano leads in apparent glee, and Parker’s “Scrapple From the Apple” keeps the vibe light and the tempos peppy. Jarrett and company are more reflective on Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s “Yesterdays” and Carl Fischer and Bill Carey’s “You’ve Changed,” proving they can tow a straight line as deftly as they can throw the rule book out the window.
Animal Collective, “Merriweather Post Pavilion”The wildly excessive buzz around the new Animal Collective album could have ruined the record before it was even released. But “Merriweather Post Pavilion” is so gorgeously confident that it fulfills expectations and more, with its sparkling choir of electronics, lingering chord changes and effervescent vocals that burble and drip as if sung underwater. Songs like “My Girls” and “Brother Sport” glide over catchy beats made of strange noises like rubbery echoes, while “Summer Clothes” is a sun-baked and touchingly peculiar/sincere ode to love. All of the familiar African chant and Brazilian beat influences of past Animal Collective albums are here, but masterminds Panda Bear and Avey Tare have perfected their use, which might help introduce one of the best, and weirdest, contemporary bands to a wider audience.
Antony & the Johnsons, “The Crying Light”On the follow-up to Antony’s acclaimed 2005 breakthrough album, “I Am a Bird Now,” the band uses strings, horns and percussion to create subtle soundscapes as support for the primary instrument: Antony Hegarty’s inimitable warbling voice, which shoulders his melodies like a wounded angel. On “Daylight and the Sun,” he holds notes with a powerful vibrato, building to an exultant climax. “Dust and Water” uses a more muted musical palette, and Hegarty’s vocals keep pace, singing almost wordlessly at times and playing up his unique accent, which makes the title phrase sound like “distant woo-a-ture.” Worth the price of admission is emotional centerpiece “Aeon,” with its overlapping vocal harmonies and bluesy guitar hook. At the song’s pinnacle, Hegarty drops all flowery pretense and reaches for a depth of feeling his art sometimes only hints at.
Novalima, “Coba Coba”This extraordinary album is grounded in the visceral grooves of Afro-Peruvian music, though the real genius of the disc is how the group brings other musical elements into play. The irresistible, nonstop percussion that anchors the tracks is a special trademark of the Afro-Peruvian sound, and the musicians performing here are second to none. The album opener, “Concheperla,” is a traditional piece imbued with something of a dub reggae feel and a taste of Cuban son. “Mujer Ajena,” which finds its genesis in salsa dura, simmers in tantalizing fashion amid the elaborate interplay of percussion, horns and vocal. Another major treat is “Africa Landu,” a lazy, sensual number based on a poem by Nicomedes Santa Cruz that unfolds in a sneaky-wicked groove.
Jane Monheit, “The Lovers, the Dreamers and Me”The severely sultry jazz singer has issued a ready-made Valentine with this slow-boiling collection of elegantly delivered smooch songs. And while it’s not the kind of record that reaches out and grabs you, it will do a nice little whispery dance around your head. Monheit goes for a couple of pop-world nuggets here, including tracks by Corinne Bailey Rae and Fiona Apple, though she and her band melt them all down to simmers highly similar to that of standards like “Lucky to Be Me” and “Something Cool.” “I’m Glad There Is You” rises and falls especially right where it needs to, and the title track takes a nice place on the ever-growing rainbow of jazz versions. “Dreamers” may have a certain lack of fireworks moments, but lovers could do a lot worse.
Fiction Family, “Fiction Family”On paper, the combination of Switchfoot’s Jon Foreman and Nickel Creek’s Sean Watkins seems improbable — and risky. But as Fiction Family, the two San Diego musicians find plenty of sonic common ground and, most important, a dozen richly crafted and intriguingly rendered songs. “When She’s Near” and “Out of Order” kick off “Fiction Family” on a trippy note, establishing the duo’s airy harmonies. Offbeat sound effects and loops color several of the songs, but the strong songwriting is Fiction Family’s foundation. Foreman and Watkins are brothers in arms, which makes this partnership a fully functional “Family.”