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Gift Guide: CDs Off the Beaten Path

by David Greenberger on December 6, 2012 · 1 comment

While there’s access to more music than ever, the reality is that most new music has little chance of being heard outside of the following that already exists for it. With that in mind, here are a handful of recent releases, by both familiar and unfamiliar names.

The self-titled CD by Universal Thump (Universal Thump) features the writing and singing of Greta Gertler. The band essentially are a duo of her and drummer-producer Adam D. Gold, but this beautifully sprawling double disc calls on more than five dozen musicians to carry out the gorgeous orchestral sweep of the 18 songs. Piano based, the settings embrace everything from chamber-like portraiture to cabaret, from the gusto of a small-town parade to the undulating seas of a modernist philharmonic. There are passages that vividly set scenes for a film that builds itself in your mind. Judiciously deployed harmony vocals vary the sound and create tensions with Gertler’s gentle sonorities.

Over the past three decades, Clay Harper has appeared in a number of Atlanta-based bands (the Coolies, Ottoman Empire, the Bogues) and has released a series of 45s under his own name and a few children’s albums that featured the likes of Wreckless Eric and Ian Dury. His first new release in 10 years is Old Airport Road (Terminus Records). While he’s the lead singer on most of it, in his role as writer and producer he steps aside for guest vocalists when it’s an apt match, such as on the haunting title track featuring Errol Moore (along with Atlanta’s crown prince on the electric guitar, Glenn Phillips). The set plays out like one cool radio program, as it moves with ease through songs that are soulful, funky, sassy, angular, and rocking.

Locally-based drummer Chris Corsano has recorded with a list that includes Bjork, Nels Cline, Thurston Moore and Joe McPhee. Cut (Hot Cars Warp Records) offers 19 solo improvisations recorded earlier this year. Besides his array of drums, Corsano goes to town on metal racks, funnels, and blocks of wood, sometimes adding to the proceedings with saxophone mouthpieces, plastic tubes and violin bows. The variety from cut to cut is both staggering and uplifting.

Van Morrison’s latest finds him making ever dumber front covers and more cumbersome album titles, but man oh man, this guy can sing, and he and the band deliver. Van’s lyrical identity still has him hopping back and forth between being a romantic seeker and campaigning to be named International Grump Laureate. Born to Sing: No Plan B (Blue Note) is about the sound, the groove, the mood and how to ride it across a four to eight minute landscape.

Election Special (Nonesuch) is Ry Cooder’s fifth album of original material since 2005. Besides the impressive release schedule, what’s remarkable about this is that prior to Chávez Ravine, Cooder was not writing his own songs (he did compose for sountracks). Following on the heels of last year’s Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down, Cooder is continuing to explore the realm of social broadsides, or protest songs. As the title suggests, these nine numbers directly address issues swirling around this year’s election. There’s a directness to the presentation that underscores the urgency he felt, recording it quickly (playing guitars, mandolin and bass) accompanied by just his son on drums.