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Record Rack

Simon freshens up her oldies

October 27, 2009|Randy Lewis; Margaret Wappler; Greg Kot

Carly Simon

"Never Been Gone"

Iris Records

* * *

Artists who re-record touchstone songs from their catalogs, as Carly Simon does on her latest full-length collection, take on the burden of coming up with something different enough to make that material newly relevant. Perhaps not surprisingly, her tour through her nearly four-decade catalog succeeds best when she mixes things up the most.

The opening reading of "The Right Thing to Do" is pleasant, but it seems eerily close to what the song might have sounded like in the hands of her ex, James Taylor -- the presence here of their musician son, Ben, could have something to do with that. Things pick up, however, with the vintage R&B groove of "It Happens Every Day," then deepen with a sophisticated treatment of "Boys in the Trees."

"You're So Vain" turns wistful rather than spiteful, while "You Belong to Me" is given a sultry Latin jazz arrangement, possibly an outgrowth of her Brazilian-tinged 2008 album "This Kind of Love." "That's the Way I've Always Heard It Should Be," is more melancholy than when she released it in 1971 thanks to simple finger-picked guitar backing sweetened with strings and flutes.

What Simon does here is flip through the musical photo album and talk honestly about what place those old memories hold in her life now.

-- Randy Lewis

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Drifting tunes by Banhart

Devendra Banhart

"What Will We Be"

Warner Bros.

* * * 1/2

When Devendra Banhart released "Oh Me Oh My . . ." in 2002 on Young God Records, critics immediately crowned him the prince of the burgeoning New Weird America scene. It didn't quite fit the Texan-cum-Venezuelan who's also spent time in Topanga Canyon: Banhart's not a ruler, he's the people's troubadour.

On his latest recording "What Will We Be," the 28-year-old Banhart steps back from his early, raw intensity with a creased collection of drifting tunes freshly produced by A Band of Bees' Paul Butler.

He filches from a variety of genres -- Brazilian Tropicalia, glam rock, lounge jazz, Zeppelin-like psychedelia -- but it never sounds awkward. He loosens the stitches on each to fashion his own unique costume. "Take me as I am or might become," Banhart sings in a slurry whisper on "Goin' Back," one of the most laid-back songs he's ever recorded, with its finger-picked chords and beach-sandy drums.

Playing with the same ensemble that backed him on 2007's "Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon," Banhart's first outing on a major label is not a concession to the big guns, but rather an attuned jog through their artistic obstacle course.

-- Margaret Wappler

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The aftermath of 'Once's' love

The Swell Season

"Strict Joy"

Anti-

* * * 1/2

Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova essentially played romanticized versions of themselves in the 2007 movie "Once": He a thirtyish Irish journeyman singer, she a teenage Czech pianist. In the movie, the unlikely couple bonded over music that loosely chronicled their evolving relationship. Was it art imitating life, or vice-versa? Either way, the public was charmed.

Two years and one Oscar victory later (for best original song), the duo's band the Swell Season has become the new darling of the indie-folk set.

"Strict Joy" is the much anticipated follow-up to the "Once" soundtrack, which sold more than 700,000 copies, and it expands the singers' sound without significantly altering it. Producer Peter Katis (who has worked with the National and Interpol) ornaments the duo's foundation -- Hansard's battered acoustic guitar, Irglova's piano, co-ed harmonies -- with nuanced orchestration and a spacious mix that flatters the singers' interplay.

Hansard's heat-and-devastation ebb-and-flow is fully on display on the Van Morrison-like opener, "Low Rising," and he is the album's focal point. Irglova's backing vocals are essential, however, austere and haunting in contrast to Hansard's lacerating transparency. When Irglova sings lead on a couple of heartbreakers, "Fantasy Man" and "I Have Loved You Wrong," she brings a mixture of stately dignity and fragile beauty.

The lack of melodrama is refreshing, given that many of these songs reflect on the couple's two-year romance and eventual breakup. Its flickering embers are extinguished on the final song, "Back Broke," with Hansard singing barely above a whisper over Irglova's piano and some Spanish-flavored guitar.

If "Once" was an album about falling (slowly) in love, "Strict Joy" is about the bittersweet aftermath.

-- Greg Kot

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