Sometimes, it takes outsiders to find fresh perspectives on a musical culture that natives take for granted. On this brilliant album, Argentine rock producer Gustavo Santaolalla teams with Kronos, the experimental U.S. string quartet, to create a revealing, impressionistic portrait of Mexican music, from the corrido to the classical.
Though the 14 tracks span a century, the album's innovative interpretations earn its title, which means "new." Most of its bold arrangements are by Osvaldo Golijov, the Argentina-born composer and longtime collaborator of the San Francisco quartet, which has made a career of cross-cultural explorations.
Like the deliberately off-key country band in Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony, the group opens playfully with screechy, wobbly strings on "El Sinaloense," evoking a rough-hewn rural band on this bawdy bar tune. Far from typical tourist fare, "Nuevo" reaches deep and wide into the country's repertoire for genuine vintage gems (Alberto Dominguez's "Perfidia"), offbeat novelties (Juan Garcia Esquivel's "Mini Skirt") and complex, progressive works (Silvestre Revueltas' "Sensemaya," Cafe Tacuba's "12/12"). Agustin Lara's mournful torch song "Se Me Hizo Facil" is even more soulful in this exquisitely slow version, with its courtly waltz crescendo.
Interlacing the tracks are the hypnotic street sounds of Mexico City, where musical director David Harrington discovered a one-armed minstrel eliciting improbably perfect melodies by blowing on an ivy leaf, sampled here on "Perfidia" (street recordings were made by co-producer Anibal Kerpel). Like good cultural anthropologists, the Kronos musicians have created an enlightening musical document by keeping their ears close to the ground.
Crow's first studio album since 1998's "The Globe Sessions" (due in stores Tuesday) mixes several songs that wrestle with the price of fame and celebrity with her usual exposes on making and remedying lousy choices in love.
Although she writes and sings mostly as the observations of one person to another, it's hard not to read many as inner conversations between the struggling artist Crow was a little more than a decade ago and the rock star and media celebrity she's become.
"Steve McQueen" celebrates the rebel spirit as she bemoans its disappearance. "Soak Up the Sun" is a breezy paean to simple pleasures that contains the album's most concise philosophical expression: "It's not having what you want/It's wanting what you've got."
One upside in Crow's world of getting what you want is that you get to pal around in the studio with people like Emmylou Harris, Stevie Nicks, Lenny Kravitz, Don Henley and Liz Phair--even Gwyneth Paltrow adds her voice to one track.
Musically, Crow skillfully taps her classic-rock influences, adding some fleeting hip-hop hues for color, without moving them forward much beyond a surprise modulation here or there.
"The Naked Dutch Painter
... and Other Songs"
With his second solo outing, the leader of L.A.'s offbeat popsters the Negro Problem continues to explore his sensitive side. These quirkily evocative portraits of interesting people and defining moments have a kind of stealth catchiness. That is, you may find yourself humming along even while wondering how the heck Stew comes up with this stuff.
Not that the experiences he recounts are so alien. The title song has an understated self-reproach that is both hilarious and poignant. The sense of infatuation in the soulful groove "Reeling" and the joy of a reunion in "Love Is Coming Through the Door" are simple, familiar feelings recounted in a poetic but unpretentious way. Indeed, any given instant here comes across as palpably honest, even when the material is as high-concept as "The Drug Suite," a three-part tale connecting discrete casual-use scenarios.
The collection was in part recorded live at the AlterKnit Lounge during a residency last summer, and although the album is nicely polished, the concert setting gives it an intimate, casual feeling that keeps the focus on Stew's eye for detail and kaleidoscopic pop style. And despite his wry wit, he sings as warmly as any sincere crooner--rather like the title character, who seems so aloof but ultimately reveals all. Natalie Nichols
*** Deepsky, "In Silico," Kinetic. The L.A. (via New Mexico) duo of J. Scott Gianquita and Jason Blum has worked with the likes of BT, Carl Cox and Sandra Collins. The pair brings all that experience to its savvy full-length debut, mixing old-school style (the '80s techno-pop of "Mansion World") with progressive dance beats (the funky "Atia") for a techno album that satisfies brain and body.
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.