CDs in brief

CDs in brief

Music: in concert, CDs

December 11, 2003

Aesop Rock

Bazooka Tooth (Definitive Jux) ** 1/2

"Have a midlife crisis when you're 10 years old," raps this New Yorker in the song "Babies With Guns," and indeed, childhood has changed a lot since his namesake spun morality fables for kids. But with his second album for the intense indie label Definitive Jux - known for hip-hop as resolutely outsider in tone and dark in sound as anything since the heyday of Public Enemy and its Bomb Squad production team - Aesop spins dizzying rhymes and stern warnings as reflective of these complex times as the Greek guy's tales were for his. Throughout, he honors hip-hop roots (including a nod to slain Run-DMC DJ Jam Master Jay) without seeming stuck in old-school conventions.

But where on the 2001 album Labor Days the music told as much of the story as the too-fast-for-the-ears words, this one, with production mostly by Aesop himself, lacks the sonic undertow usually associated with Def Jux projects.

Aesop (real name: Ian Bavitz) avoids trite samples or overt gimmickry, but as distinctive as the music is, it doesn't provide enough to hold on to, to compel you to give the words time to sink in.

The moral of the story: If you've got something to say, give it a setting that will keep people listening.

The Autumn Defense

Circles (Arena Rock) ***

Wilco bassist John Stirratt is moonlighting again with fellow multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone on their second album as the Autumn Defense. Circles traffics in harmonious mellowness: It's a 37-minute Bread-meets-Pet-Sounds escape from the anxieties of urban life. The lyrics are downcast - "Why am I sad?" Stirratt wonders at the start of "Silence," then goes on to luxuriate in lightly orchestrated loneliness. The delicate melodies of "The World (Will Soon Turn Our Way)" and the pedal-steel-kissed "The Sun in California" finally break through the cloud cover. A Sunday-morning record if ever there was one.

The David Leonhardt Trio

In the Moment (Bing Bang) ***

He played for six years in saxophonist David "Fathead" Newman's quintet and four years backing singer Jon Hendricks, the master of vocalese, or putting words to jazz solos. He also has introduced thousands of children to jazz, and has recorded specially for tap dancers. And, as he shows here, Easton, Pa., pianist David Leonhardt leads a trio that plays a strong blend of Cadillac swing, full of long lines and swirling licks that give pleasure without pain.

This trio recording is a straight-ahead affair with few surprises except good taste. Leonhardt, who studied with jazz educator Jamey Aebersold and served as musical director for the Manhattan Tap troupe, is an easy guy to dance to. Six of nine tunes are originals, and they are highly approachable, as is Leonhardt's "Jazz for Kids" disc. Drummer Taro Okamoto and bassist Tony Marino provide the slick locomotion for Leonhardt's amiable style.

His discs are available at davidleonhardt.com/recordings/.

Celine Dion

1 Fille & Four Types (Epic) ***

Celine Dion is always easiest to take when she relaxes and sings as if she has nothing to prove.

And, as a rule, this is the Celine Dion found on her French CDs. The Francophile market generally shuns the bombast common to American pop recordings.

On 1 Fille & Four Types, there are unfussy folk, blues and Irish accents one generally wouldn't find on Dion's English CDs.

For some, there may be a language barrier. The melodicism and emotion transcend that obstacle.

Dixie Chicks

Top of the World Tour Live (Open Wide Columbia) *** 1/2

Like the early Eagles, the Dixie Chicks have mastered the art of the timeless American country-pop crossover hit. Also like the Eagles, the Chicks' live act offers exact re-creations of its recorded work.

If reinvention is the hallmark by which great live albums are heralded, Top of the World Tour Live is not a classic.

However, if an up-to-date retrospective of some of the best, and best-played, country music of the past two decades counts for anything, this two-disc set is nearly flawless.

One nit: Most of singer Natalie Maines' stage chatter has been edited out. Adding some, especially after all the attention the trio weathered this year, would have made the package feel more like a true document of this summer's popular tour.

Live is also available as a 5.1 audio DVD.

Frog Holler

Railings (Record Cellar) *** 1/2

Frog Holler's self-styled "Pennsylvania Dutch rock" is as much about country as rock. Acoustic guitar, banjo and dobro weave together with electric guitar, drums and piano, and on the Reading, Pa.-area sextet's fourth album, these seamless sounds are presented with particular clarity.

Like the music, the exceptional lyrics of singer-guitarist Darren Schlappich also exhibit elements of rock and country, and they do so with a profound, plain-spoken eloquence. We get defiance and idealism, but also a whiff of weary fatalism, of wondering whether it's better to remain in or to leave the comforting but sometimes suffocating confines of his small town.

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