This week we look at Nellie McKay's debut album, Lambchop's most ambitious venture, a hip-hop collection and dramatic Beethoven album.
Lambchop, “Aw C’mon,” “No You C’mon”
If you’ve never heard of Lambchop, they’re somewhat hard to describe. Based in Nashville, Tenn., and led by singer and chief songwriter Kurt Wagner, the band consists of anywhere from six to 15 players. The music this soulful collective produces is part-R&B, part-indie country and complete American original.
Their latest and most ambitious sonic venture is the release of two separate albums on one date, amusingly titled, “Aw C’mon” and “No You C’mon.” Both are filled with pleasing instrumentals and hazy ballads. Lush string arrangements performed by the Nashville String Machine grace most of the songs and are consistently gorgeous.
“Women Help to Create the Kind of Men They Despise” is the sparsest, strangest and perhaps strongest two-and-a-half minutes of both sets. Wagner plays a piano bar psychiatrist out of the gate, before abruptly breaking into Zappa-like doo-wop.
As for the instrumentals, “Sunrise,” the “No You C’mon” opener, initially written for a film of the same name, could be the musical equivalent of waking up in a great mood.
The two albums, though sprawling in scope, never lag, and surprisingly, there really isn’t any filler. These 24 cuts of Lambchop are all meat.—Jake O’Connell
Various Artists, “The Beat Generation”
The phrase “The Beat Generation” conjures up images of literary outlaws who broke convention in the 1950s with literature that followed the groove of bebop jazz.
But for the last few years, it has served as a fitting moniker for another group of unconventional artists: hip-hop producers who step out from the shadow of a sound board to become artists, unencumbered and stripped bare.
The brainchild of BBE Records founder Peter Adarkwah, “The Beat Generation” series returns to hip-hop’s roots with purists that include DJ Jazzy Jeff (former sideman to Will “The Fresh Prince” Smith), DJ Spinna, King Britta and Pete Rock.
From the upbeat, distinctly Philly sound of DJ Jazzy Jeff on “Are You Ready” and “We Live in Philly,” to J.Dilla’s gangsta attitude on “It’s Like That” and “Think Twice,” the album features the best of producers returning to the rhythm roots of hip-hop. The commonality that unites these artists is the beat, throbbing like a pulse.
And fans of old school hip-hop will feel it. Just bob your head and know that this bling-bling has nothing on the power of the beat.
Nellie McKay, “Get Away From Me”
Nellie McKay’s debut album, “Get Away From Me,” is the kind of complex offering that’s likely to draw comparisons to a wide array of artists, from Fiona Apple and Carole King to Eminem.
The Eminem comparison is most evident in the track “Sari,” on which McKay balances apologies for her views and attitude in a rap rant by saying “but really I’m sorry for you.” (“Sari” — get it?)
Similarly, the sarcastic “I Wanna Get Married” is a bluesy song delivered in perfect torch-singer style — only McKay is crooning “I wanna get married, I wanna cook meals, I wanna pack cute little lunches for my Brady Bunches, then read Danielle Steele” with her tongue so far in her cheek it never comes out. And the juxtaposition is perfect.
Despite many high points, some of the tracks can feel a little disjointed and, well, goofy. For example, “Change the World” is vocally flat and “Ding Dong” just doesn’t make much sense.
But overall, McKay’s debut is a compelling effort ripe with witty songwriting and solid musicianship, especially from someone who’s only 19 years old.—Angela Watercutter—Ryan Lenz
Various Artists, “Christus am Oelberge” Conductor Kent Nagano, a champion of contemporary music, has recorded Beethoven’s only oratorio, the story about Christ on the Mount of Olives. The 52-year-old Californian leads the musical forces of orchestra, chorus and soloists in this rarely performed curiosity. It’s worth many listens.
“Christus,” one of the early pieces of Beethoven’s choral canon that later produced the Mass in C Major, Missa Solemnis, and culminated in the Ninth Symphony, was indeed a heroic effort. A few months before the first performance, Beethoven wrote his Heiligenstadt Testament, in which he reveals his hearing loss, expresses his fears of a life of isolation and talks of suicide.
The oratorio reflects his angst. The tragic minor key opening sets the mood. The slow introduction with wails of the low brass answered by the sighs of strings and separated by faint taps of the timpani evoke the agitation of Jesus’ suffering. It eventually leads to a triumphant ending in major key with a Handelesque fugue that even alludes to the Hallelujah Chorus.
Who better to sing the role of Jesus than Placido Domingo? His pure tone — strong and tender — captures the biblical passion. Soprano Luba Orgonasova, whose sweet voice in the upper register flies smoothly to high E-flats, is angelic in the role of the Seraph. Bass Andreas Schmidt belts out the small role of Peter, starting with a recitative that has hints of the “Ode to Joy.”—Martin Steinberg