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Gaining Power

The Sixfifteens
Let’s Not Think About It (Fake Chapter)

Saratoga’s Sixfifteens, whose lineup includes former Dryer men Bob Carlton and Joel Lilley, have a bit of an identity crisis on their debut album—which is not a bad thing at all. The most ambitious tracks come in the album’s opening and closing moments: the towering melody-meets-noise thunder of the opener “Dusk and Dawn” and the breathless batteries of the final track, “Auto-Stop.” Here they stand the arm hairs on end much the way . . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead did with 2002’s Source Tags & Codes (and the way Mission of Burma did two decades back). It’s the transmutation of a simple rock group into powerful, emotional machinery.

The rest of the album (a short one, at seven tracks) is full of short, sharp, clever songs of power-pop/punk that wouldn’t be out of place on early efforts by fellow Saratogians the Figgs (with the exception of the mellow, Sonic Youthish “5 Minutes”): good tunes, with strident hooks and often delightfully nasty wordplay. But listening to the more resilient “Dusk and Dawn” and “Auto-Stop” (and having witnessed the group’s remarkable live energy), I hear an even more powerful band emerging. One can find it in the album’s grand final moments: Carlton’s hoarse-throated desperation yields way to the id and ego of two guitars (Carlton’s pummels, Jeff Fox’s worries out a ringing melody line) and a crashingly martial display at the drum kit by Lilley. Here, the Sixfifteens leave nothing on the field.

—Erik Hage

Stephen Sondheim
Bounce (Nonesuch)

Stephen Sondheim’s most Broadway-sounding show in 40 years won’t be coming to Broadway any time soon. After many years of workshop productions, Bounce premiered in Chicago last summer and then moved to Washington, D.C., where reviews were tentative enough to pull the plug.

But it was recorded there, giving us a 74-minute trip through a score that has all the hallmarks of latter-day Sondheim wrapped in a peppy, upbeat score that harks back to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Wilson and Addison Mizner were entrepreneurs whose ventures—especially Wilson’s—soon turned into cons, culminating in their participation in the Florida land boom of the 1920s. Originally conceived as a sort of vaudeville show, Bounce (book by John Weidman) gives an episodic look at the brothers’ exploits and their tumultuous relationship.

Some vaudeville flavor remains, especially in the title song (reminiscent of “Everybody’s Got the Right” from Assassins, a song sung at a carnival), but behind it is a carefully crafted score that reworks and develops musical elements to go with an evolution of lyrical ideas, tracing the concept of finding and seizing opportunities in life.

This includes opportunities for love, of course (or it wouldn’t be a musical theater piece), and Sondheim provides some less-cynical-than-usual songs like “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened” and “You,” in which simple, direct lyrics underscore aching melodies.

The Sondheim wit sparkles here, too: Wilson’s honeymoon begins with a reprise of “The Best Thing” and quickly turns into a side-show of his proteges in “I Love This Town,” heralding his advance upon New York. And “Talent,” sure to become a cabaret staple, is the plaint of a man grappling with his love of art: “I had this dream of becoming an artist/A painter, a poet, who knows?/I had a nice little talent for drawing/And a natural feeling for prose/I even began to compose.”

Like the scores to his other shows, particularly unsuccessful ones like Merrily We Roll Along and Anyone Can Whistle, it benefits from repeated listening. This may be Sondheim’s curse. A Lloyd Weber score reveals what mysteries it contains the first time through and then grows tiresome; Sondheim’s stuff gets better.

The Bounce recording at least gets us familiar with a show that warrants a New York production. The cast, by and large, is very good, the orchestra is terrific and recording quality is excellent. The austere packaging includes no production photos or bios, which is unfortunate, but it’s better to have this much rather than nothing at all, I suppose.

—B.A. Nilsson

George Michael
Patience (Aegean/Epic)

Patience is George Michael’s best album since the mega-selling Faith made him a pop superstar in the late 1980s. Alternating uptempo tracks like “Flawless” and “Amazing,” the memorably hooked leadoff single, with the more ruminative “Cars and Trains,” the delicately written and sad “My Mother Had a Brother” and “John and Elvis Are Dead,” it showcases a candid, thoughtful artist who no longer hides from his homosexuality. Eight years since his last album, six years since the Los Angeles arrest for lewd conduct that outed him, Michael is crafting some of the best music of his career.

Despite its glossiness, this feels authentic and heartfelt. Michael’s supple, bluesy voice, which made tunes such as “Careless Whisper” and “Father Figure” so haunting, is flexible enough to animate tunes as disparate as the ballad “American Angel” (about his lover), the urgent, revelatory “Round Here” and “Freeek! ’04,” a techno pumper with a harsh, weary worldview. Michael isn’t pulling punches here. Beneath the highly refined production and the startlingly contemporary beats is a dual, but not contradictory, message: Dance to the world but take it seriously, too.

Michael had a tumultuous ’90s. He sued Sony in 1993 to get out of his contract with Columbia Records. He recorded Older, a spotty album for DreamWorks, in 1996. Then came the arrest and the controversy, and then the resigning to Sony. Now comes Michael’s most personal album, far more than a comeback. It affirms Michael’s complexity and contemporaneity with variety, assurance and an unerring sense of pop form. Patience was well worth waiting for.

—Carlo Wolff

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