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Leonard Cohen doesn’t try to play it cool

Aging crooner doesn't want to be a rock star anymore
/ Source: The Associated Press

This week offers new albums from a couple of alternative legends. Leonard Cohen is still cranking out anachronistic tunes at age 70. Meanwhile, Nick Cave still proves he can produce down and dirty rock with his latest. Famed electric keyboard player Joe Sample is bound to surprise with his first ever acoustic solo piano album. Finally, for the kids, a collection of chirpy Disney tunes.

Leonard Cohen, “Dear Heather”
Leonard Cohen is an old man now, but the Canadian-born crooner once was cool.

Just being himself gave the world a new breed of ladies man — a mix of dark suits, an I-don’t-give-a-damn smirk, and an esoteric gaze focused on something no one else could see.

Unfortunately, his albums have become spoken-word duds lost in industry blur, and the old man’s songs don’t have the poetic poignancy they once did.

The irony is that Cohen at 70 knows this better than anybody. He’s a hip anachronism that’s been around long enough to see the fads come and go, and his new album “Dear Heather” isn’t another attempt to redefine cool.

Instead it reveals with the stark honesty of a love letter, the reflections of a poet who reluctantly became a rock star long ago.

And in some ways, that honesty is the album’s charm. Cohen, who changed identities with his 1988 release “Death Of A Ladies Man,” is now an aging gentlemen longing for memories but settled in the life he made.

“Because of a few songs wherein I spoke of their mystery, women have been exceptionally kind to my old age,” Cohen speaks in “Because Of,” his voice ravaged by cigarette smoke and no longer the majestic baritone it once was.

It seems Cohen doesn’t want to be a rock star anymore. He’s grown tired of couching his visions in song.

But he’s still the wiseman with unanswerable questions. Not even he knows what he’ll be next. “From better searching of the heart,” Cohen sings, his voice rising, “we will rise to play a greater part.”—Ryan Lenz

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, “Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus”

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds still believe in down and dirty rock.

But you’ll find it in an unlikely place on the group’s new double album, “Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus.” Billed as the mellower half of the release, “The Lyre of Orpheus” remains truer to the Bad Seeds’ sinister, smudged reputation, while “Abattoir Blues,” the more rocking half, often lacks weight.

Cave brought in a London gospel choir to pump up the songs on “Abattoir Blues.” They do the job on “Hiding All Away” as they chant with Cave amid the smashing crescendo, “There’s a war comin’.”

But “Messiah Ward” and the rock lite of “Nature Boy” and “Let the Bells Ring” sound too clean and artificial, bereft of the sweat-soaked growlings that made earlier Bad Seeds records so gripping.

“The Lyre of Orpheus” picks up that thread. The spare, folk-tinged tunes don’t crowd Cave’s singing. Songs like “Spell” and the title track ring with a palpable menace.

Cave’s vocals are the focal point on both discs. Mixing a guttural blues growl with theatrical phrasings, it’s never clear what he’ll say next. Cave stays close to his favorite subjects here: death, dankness, beauty and myths (“You race naked through the wilderness/You torment the birds and the bees/You leapt into the abyss, but find/It only goes up to your knees...”). The lyrics alone make “Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus” worth the listen.

Despite a hollowness in some places, Cave and the band fill in the rest with classic grime.—Mark Donahue

“Soul Shadows,” Joe Sample

If you thought you knew Joe Sample through his work playing electric keyboards in the contemporary soul/funk jazz ensemble the Crusaders, you are in for a big surprise here. On his first-ever acoustic solo piano recording, the 65-year-old Sample returns not only to his own roots playing piano in the living room of his mother’s Houston home, but also to the roots of jazz itself. Sample began his professional career playing acoustic piano in hard-bop groups in the ’50s, but here he looks even further back into pre-jazz and early jazz styles.

The CD opens with a rumbling version of a song he learned from his father, a World War I veteran — “How You Gonna Keep ’Em Down on the Farm?” — which was performed by the African-American military bandleader James Reese Europe, who is widely credited with introducing jazz to Europe in 1918-19. Sample dispenses with the need for drums and bass by drawing on such older piano styles as ragtime, stride and boogie woogie — in which the left hand performs the rhythm section functions while the right plays and embellishes the melody — on many of the tunes such as Scott Joplin’s syncopated rag “The Entertainer” and Jelly Roll Morton’s hot “Shreveport Stomp.” Sample puts a more contemporary stamp on some of the standards — for example taking Fats Waller’s happy-go-lucky “Ain’t Misbehavin”’ and reinterpreting it in a more pensive, bluesy style.

Sample also turns to some swing-era standards by the Gershwins (the rapid tempo “I Got Rhythm” and the romantic “Embraceable You”) and Duke Ellington (“I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good” on which he covers a broad spectrum of the keyboard). His stride-style version of “Avalon,” a tune popularized by Benny Goodman, starts off slowly before accelerating into an exuberant hard-swinging drive. The pianist also reworks two of his own standards, “Spellbound” and “Soul Shadows” and they don’t sound out of place, particularly the reflective title track, which Sample says refers to the “soul shadows” left on his mind by the music of Waller, Morton and Louis Armstrong.

In the past, Sample’s playing in the Crusaders was sometimes dismissed as superficial as the keyboards gradually came to play a diminished role. With this heartfelt “roots” CD, Sample should make even some of his harshest critics see him in an entirely different light as a pianist.—Charles J. Gans

Christy Carlson Romano, “Greatest Disney TV & Film Hits” There’s nothing really that great about Christy Carlson Romano’s “Greatest Disney TV & Film Hits.” The sappy collection of tunes isn’t as rockin’ as Ashlee Simpson nor melodramatic as Hilary Duff.

The Disney Channel star and Broadway actress’ CD brings together songs like the chirpy “Let’s Bounce” from the “The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement” soundtrack and the overproduced “Colors of the Wind” from the upcoming “Disneymania 3.” Romano sounds fine when diffused with other artists on previous soundtracks and compilations. But alone on this eight-song outing, she’s reminiscent of an “American Idol” reject.

Family-friendly fare includes “Dream Vacation,” a repetitive Beach Boys-esque farce, and “Say the Word,” a valley girl dance track that is, like, totally about best friendship. “If you find the world is caving in, you can bet you’re gonna need a friend,” Romano chants.

You can bet only Romano’s bestest friends are gonna pick up her “Greatest Disney TV & Film Hits.”—Derrik J. Lang