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Less Talk, More Rock

Cobra Verde
Easy Listening (MuscleTone)

Cleveland’s most confident and complex band, Cobra Verde, roar out of the gate with “Riot City,” one of the toughest tracks on their fourth, and best, CD. Recorded for MC5 icon Wayne Kramer’s MuscleTone label, Easy Listening again highlights John Petkovic’s tortured, live-wire lyrics and guttural, oddly seductive voice. Since the 2000 release of the longer, less cohesive CD Nightlife, Frank Vazzano’s metalloid guitar (augmented by the occasional contribution from J Mascis, the Dinosaur Jr. icon who tours with the band) has replaced Doug Gillard’s more pop stylings, Mark Klein has taken Dave Swanson’s drum position, and Edward James Sotelo has replaced Don Depew on bass. No trace of predecessor Death of Samantha remains; this is a new band with new power and purpose, and an uncanny command of rock’s heritage. There’s more rock, less glam now. There are power ballads, like “Throw It Away” (Mascis soars all romantic and boozy here) and the sultry “The Speed of Dreams.” There are rockers, like “My Name Is Nobody,” “Terrorist” (“You gotta burn to shine, you gotta build to burn,” Petkovic howls) and “Whores,” a wildly successful evocation of the Stones circa “Complicated.” The subtext is duality and contradiction, the dynamic a distinctive blend of poetics and power. Easy Listening gives rock readymades like the Stones, Zep and Bowie a hard, modern and convincing polish.

—Carlo Wolff

The Iguanas
Plastic Silver 9 Volt Heart (Yep Roc)

The New Orleans-based Iguanas have a history that dates back to the late ’80s. Their latest release makes them apt ambassadors for the Crescent City’s musical breadth. Elements of R&B, Tex-Mex, Latin, Caribbean, blues, and jazz course through the songs on Plastic Silver 9 Volt Heart. None of it has the edgy intensity found in the sometimes dark and pulsing heart of the individual genres, as diversity often begets a certain friendly middle ground. Produced with care and sonic precision, some of the songs on the disc pass by without the intensity that accompanies a live performance. Others are further sidelined with lyrics that seem too intent on clever hooks at the expense of riveting and believable characters. That said, the Iguanas are five great players, rolling out undeniable grooves laced with sultry and subtle surprise. But they can cast only as much magic as the songs will allow: Fans of Santana will find their horizons expanded, while fans of Los Lobos may experience the opposite.

—David Greenberger

Jools Holland & His Rhythm & Blues Orchestra
More Friends (Rhino)

This 22-track collection from Jools Holland & His Rhythm & Blues Orchestra is a blast. Not every track on More Friends works: Marianne Faithfull’s honky-tonk reworking of Dylan’s God-fearing “You Got to Serve Somebody” is a mite wrongheaded, and Huey of the Fun Lovin’ Criminals is out of his depth on “Fly Me to the Moon.” On the other hand, most of the cuts rock hard, and Holland, who came to prominence in the chronically underrated pop band Squeeze, is an indefatigable bandleader—not to mention an astonishing keyboardist. The hottest tracks are “Snowflake Boogie,” a roof-raising blues romp by Edwin (“War”) Starr, who recorded this last October (and died in early April); Bryan Ferry’s smoky original “The Only Face”; “Don’t You Kiss My Cheek,” a Tom Jones number so salacious and funky you wonder why the ageless Welsh heartthrob hasn’t recorded a soul album; and Beverley Knight’s stirring take on “Change Is Gonna Come,” a Sam Cooke classic. This expertly played, imaginatively conceived collection shows why Holland and his big band are so popular in Europe. Every guest artist seems to enjoy working with Holland and his boys, from Dionne Warwick to Ray Davies to Robert Plant and Jeff Beck. These cuts are neither cameos nor rehab projects, however; they’re full-bodied, swinging and fun. Count on a gang of Brits to put the freshness back in funk.

—Carlo Wolff

Michael Gregory
Towards the Sun (Golden)

Michael Gregory first appeared on the music scene in the mid-’70s (under his full name, Michael Gregory Jackson). Barely in his 20s, he established himself as a bracingly innovative guitarist and composer, working the jazz frontier with such other uncompromising musicians as Leo Smith, Oliver Lake and Julius Hemphill. By the end of that decade, he’d jettisoned his last name (to avoid confusion with another Jackson) and moved from instrumental avant-garde jazz to a blend of soul, funk, pop and jazz, singing songs that sound today like they must have been hits back then. They weren’t. The ensuing couple decades found Gregory working in various capacities (production, songwriting, session player) in and out of the music business.

Towards the Sun picks up with graceful aplomb as if there were no gap in time at all. In fact, it was recorded over the whole of the ’90s. While fans of soulful ’70s and ’80s artists (Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie, etc.) will find easy entrance into Gregory’s music, it’s also filled with subtle surprises that acknowledge his background in the gleefully iconoclastic fringes. All is not as it appears, with layering and compositional flourishes embedded in the songs, revealing themselves in slyly gentle ways. From the graceful modulations of “If I Only Had a Minute” to the thick guitar dazzle of “Love’s Parade,” this is an album filled with rich singing, inventive playing, and alluring, mesmerizing and cliché-free hooks.

—David Greenberger

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