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Fear and Longing

The Residents

Demons Dance Alone
(East Side Digital)

America’s musicians and artists have poured forth a flood of material over the past 13 months in response to (if not in an effort to heal) the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001. On Demons Dance Alone, the ever-mysterious Residents, still anonymous after 30 years, add their own heavily accented voices to the ongoing national elegy and eulogy—without a single overt reference to the events that inspired it. “Having been written, for the most part, in the days following September 11th,” says a press release from the group’s equally elusive managers, the Cryptic Corp., “this album captures a quite different side of the Residents, where a vulnerable uncertain Eyeball asks questions which have no answers.”

Which makes Demons Dance Alone one of the most powerful and haunting records of this scary, newer world order, as it explores themes of loss, longing and fear, without resolving or assuaging those dark primal emotions through appeals to, or trust in, higher powers—be they spiritual, political or personal. Behind cover art featuring a solitary grinning demon holding one of the Residents’ trademark top-hatted eyeballs, dripping blood as a rain of disembodied fists falls from the sky, Demons Dance Alone takes listeners on an unsettling psychic journey, delivered with the observational acuity that defines the Residents’ best works.

And this is one those periodic landmark works that makes ongoing Residents watching so very, very rewarding. The Singing Resident (the only recognizable constant over the group’s 30-plus albums) is in fine declamatory mode throughout, his Louisiana-drenched baritone world-weary and strong at the same time. Vocalists Isabelle Barbier, Molly Harvey and Carla Fabrizio (the latter two holdovers from the group’s recent Biblically inspired Wormwood and Roadworms projects) add sonic variety in both lead and support capacities, while Toby Dammit’s “assorted noises” and Nolan Cook’s guitars make this the Residents’ most organic-sounding work since longtime collaborator Snakefinger died in 1987.

It’s also one of the group’s most melodic efforts: With different, less difficult arrangements, “Mr. Wonderful,” “The Car Thief,” “Betty’s Body” or “Caring” could conceivably exist as shopping-center-friendly hum-along pieces—once they’d been stripped of their lyrics documenting life’s regrets: death by auto fire, obsession for lover and mother, and fatal zoo accidents, respectively. What do those things have to do with Sept. 11? Nothing . . . and everything, as loss by everyday tragedy and loss by universal catastrophe feel just as terrible to the one(s) experiencing the pain. By averting their collective gaze from the thundering skies over Manhattan and Washington, D.C., the Residents have come closer to capturing that day’s confusion and consequence than any other creative aspirants to date.

—J. Eric Smith

David Krakauer’s Klezmer Madness!

The Twelve Tribes
(Label Bleu)

Clarinetist David Krakauer, who grew up listening to and studying rock, jazz and classical, shifted his focus to klezmer music in the late ’80s, and has become one of the leaders of the so-called neo-klezmer movement. He imbues his current explorations with a potent range of depth and experimentation, and on his new release, there’s even a collaboration with the wonderfully named Socalled, utilizing his sampler and sequencer on the closing track, “As If.”

Krakauer’s fourth album, The Twelve Tribes, is filled with a raw edginess that’s more in keeping with the older klezmer 78s. Eschewing the restrained re-creations of many contemporary ensembles, his music is full of the passions that still spring to life in recordings from the 1920s. In seeking a voice of his own, Krakauer has infused his compositions and arrangements with an enduring sense of respect. On the composition “Table Pounding,” Krakauer’s clarinet lines entwine with those of a gently distorted electric guitar, which are then joined by exuberant drumming and rolling accordion washes, making this music sound like the past, the present and the future.

—David Greenberger

Rod Stewart

It Had to Be You . . . The Great American Songbook
(J Records)

It may be comforting to some that Rod Stewart has a new home with Clive Davis, the legendary record mogul behind J Records. Davis’s track record—he’s responsible for hits by everyone from Janis to Aretha to Aerosmith to Patti Smith to Alicia—suggests that Stewart may have a hit this time out. The songwriting is impeccable, spanning Kern, Gershwin, and more contemporary tunes. The production is top-shelf, too: Phil Ramone and Richard Perry give Stewart his most creamy, sophisticated setting yet. Problem is, Rod is no longer the Mod or even the Bod, his days as a sexy rocker long past. This album is a reinvention, or, more accurately, a brand extension; Davis is treating it that way, unleashing infomercials, commercials and press releases celebrating how seamlessly his intuition blends with Stewart’s distinctive, raspy voice.

Stewart’s last album for the Warner Bros. family, Human, an anemic stab at soul that he released on Atlantic in 2001, was a stinker; it was the sound of slumming and desperation. It Had to Be You is better, if only because the songwriting is superior, risk-free and demographically unassailable. Backed by smooth jazzer Dave Koz, the more versatile Michael Brecker on saxes, and other highly competent players, Stewart treats the 14 chestnuts with ease, if not authority. “These Foolish Things” is pretty cool, “Every Time We Say Goodbye” doles out its rue in well-mannered teaspoons, and “I’ll Be Seeing You” is a promise Stewart is bound to keep on another J Records date. But the album is rarely more than soothing and, contrary to entertainment-business gush, it’s not a breakthrough. It’s been years since Stewart made an album with personality and passion; he’s been too busy being a celebrity. Here, Stewart is making a foray into Tony Bennett’s territory, but he gets stuck in the foothills of Barry Manilow.

—Carlo Wolff

Pick

Untie Your Mind
(Pick)

Untie Your Mind marks the recording debut of Pick, a sextet of promising young Guilderlanders offering an amiable, original spin on contemporary college rock. While Matthew Oates’ violin work may evoke the Dave Matthews Band, and Matthew Dillon’s hand percussion certainly brings shades of Guster to mind, Pick’s overall effect falls somewhere further into the pastoral end of the modern music spectrum than either of those groups, with singer Justin Centi’s wispy vocals even occasionally taking the band into an intriguing Nick Drake sort of zone. The lack of reeds and keyboards, too, keeps Pick’s sound rooted in a very organic musical topsoil, a place where the Grateful Phish Matthews Brothers Band people (and all those inspired by them) don’t often venture, but probably should—since that sonic spare room gives Centi and Matthew Hulihan room to tell some pretty interesting shaggy-guitar stories instead. Untie Your Mind’s centerpiece and high point is the 12-minute-long “Ocean Drowns,” which unfolds evocatively atop Matthew Pickering’s restrained, (velvet) undergrounded drum cadence, and which carries an odd sort of studio aura and ambience that makes it sound like an outtake from a promising lost session of Danny Kirwan-Bob Welch era Fleetwood Mac. All told, an intriguing first step from a band who seem ready to and capable of turning today’s college-rock conventions on their head—creating something potentially timeless in the process. Worth watching, for sure.

—J. E. S.


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