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Listening Room: Vampire Weekend, Ringo Starr and more...
Vampire Weekend were 2009’s coolest new band — and the quartet’s Ivy League-educated (Columbia University) members knew it. “Vampire Weekend” was all poetic intelligentsia woven into Afro-pop flavored indie rock, a blend of Paul Simon’s “Graceland” and the Strokes “This Is It” executed with deft, infectious craft. It’s a recipe so delicate that pulling it off a second time seemed challenging if not unlikely, but VW does it even better on “Contra.” The cleverer-than-thou component is still there; frontman Ezra Koenig’s opening salutation about “In December drinking horchata/I’d look psychotic in a balaclava” sounds more like brainstorming Scrabble words than singing a pop song. But the 10 songs here, while continuing to explore cascading rhythms and a pan-global set of styles and textures have a taut focus and meaty attack that builds on its predecessor’s brimming virtues. “Horchata” doubles Koenig’s vocal melodies with Kalimba thumb piano, while synthesi “Taxi Cab’s” array of piano, harpsichord and upright bass. “Holiday” and “Cousins” are fiery ska workouts, “California English” peppers a calypso dynamic with autotuned vocals, “Run” mixes rock and reggaeton, and “Giving Up the Gun” finds a deep groove within a spare instrumental arrangement. VW is at its most ambitious on the suite-like six minutes of “Diplomat’s Son,” which samples M.I.A.’s “Hussel” and reworks Toots & the Maytals’ “Pressure Drop,” then follows with ethereal ambience of “I Think Ur a Contra,” a paean to personal politics rather than world affairs. “Contra” is brainy stuff, to be sure, but its hip-swiveling attitude is what really passes the test.
Ringo Starr, “Y Not” (Hip-O/UMe) **1/2
The Beatles drummer gets a little help from his friends on his 15th solo album, which contributes to making it one of his most satisfying and best-sung efforts in years. Fellow Fab Paul McCartney delivers an echo vocal on “Walk With You” and lays a loping bass line into “Peace Dream,” in whichechecks the late John Lennon. Joss Stone duets on the hard-hitting album-closer “Who’s Your Daddy,” and All-Starr Band alumni Joe Walsh (Starr’s brother in law), Gary Wright, Edgar Winter and Billy Squier are part of a potent musical cast that also includes Don Was, Ben Harper and Benmont Tench from Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers. Starr sings that he’s “tired of being negative” at the start of the album; fortunately “Y Not” is a positive addition to his canon.
New & Noteworthy:
All Time Low, “MTV Unplugged” (Hopeless): A CD/DVD souvenir of the modern rockers’ six-song acoustic set, with outtakes and an interview on the DVD.
AM Conspiracy, “AM Conspiracy” (Burnhill Union): The debut album from the new group fronted by former Drowning Pool singer Jason “Gong” Jones.
Olof Arnalds, “Vio og Vio” (One Little Indian): The Icelandic folk singer brings her debut album to these shores after winning rave reviews overseas last year.
Findlay Brown, “Love Will Find You” (Verve Forecast): The British singer’s debut album was produced by former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler.
Al Di Meola, “World Sinfonia: Live From Seattle and Elsewhere” (Valiana): The guitar virtuoso’s latest documents some 2009 performances with his acoustic World Sinfonia band.
Lauren Hoffman, “Interplanetary Traveler” (self-released): Singer-songwriter Hoffman recorded her fourth album, and first in three years, in Israel with fellow musician Assaf Ayalon.
Ray Wylie Hubbard, “A. Enlightenment, B. Endarkment (Hint: There Is No C)” (Bordello): The Oklahoma troubadour gives us tastes of Americana, blues and even gospel on his follow-up to 2006’s lauded “Snake Farm.”
Freedy Johnston, “Rain on the City” (Bar None): M.I.A. for eight years, at least on the recording front, Johnston traveled to Nashville to record this diverse 11-song set.
Katharine McPhee, “Unbroken” (Verve): “American Idol’s” Season 5 runner-up goes for a classier sound on her second album but also takes on Melanie’s winsome 1971 hit “Brand New Key.”
O.A.R., “Rain Or Shine” (Everfine/Atlantic): A four-CD set that captures a pair of June 2009 live shows in Chicago, with Robert Randolph guesting on a rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “Fool in the Rain.”
OK Go, “Of the Blue Colour of the Sky” (Capitol): Songs from the treadmill-riding modern rock quartet’s third album have already been previewed on soundtracks from “New Moon,” “90210” and “One Tree Hill.”
Omarion, “Ollusion” (Music Works): Gucci Mane, Jay Rock, Marques Houston guest on the former B2K member’s third solo album.
Ellis Paul, “The Day After Everything Changed” (Black Wolf): The Boston singer-songwriter’s first album in five years features five songs co-written by Sugarland’s Kristian Bush.
Gail Pettis, “Here in the Moment” (Origin/OA2): The Kentucky-born, Seattle-based jazz vocalist dips into staples such as “Night and Day,” “The Very Thought of You” and “In the Still of the Night” on her sophomore album.
Seabird, “Rocks Into Rivers” (Credential): The Cincinnati modern rock troupe, whose debut album was a favorite of TV drama song selectors, worked on their sophomore album with Aqualung’s Matt Hales
Sidewalk Prophets, “These Simple Truths” (Fervent): The second full-length album from the contemporary Christian band from Indiana.
Soundtrack, “The Road” (Mute): Bad Seeds mates Nick Cave and Warren Ellis composed the score for the critically lauded film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
Laura Veirs, “July Flame (Dig)” (+1): My Morning Jacket’s Jim James sings falsetto harmonies for several tracks on singer-songwriter Veirs’s seventh studio album.
From The Vaults:
Elvis Costello, “Live at Hollywood High” (Hip-O/Universal); King Crimson, “Lizard” (Discipline U.S.); Elvis Presley, “Elvis 75” (RCA/Legacy); Diana Ross, “Touch Me in the Morning: Expanded Edition” (Hip-O Select)
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