This week: Rodney Crowell gets political, Keith Jarrett takes an introspective turn, and Sufjan Steven hits a pleasurable nerve
All this narrative drama occurs over a backdrop of jangly alt-country with strains of organ, plucky mandolin, violin sections and vocal back-up from Emmylou Harris. Crowell gets a little preachy with “Ignorance is the Enemy,” which sounds too much like a college graduation speech. And he drains all energy from a molasses-slow version of Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm.” But the disc ends on an upswing with “We Can’t Turn Back,” an optimistic, light-hearted fiddle tune about living for the moment and pressing on with efforts for peace. While Steve Earle calls for revolution, Crowell’s pensive take on activism is easier on the ears.
Add to this legacy of solo piano Jarrett’s most recent release, Radiance , a double CD of live performances in Japan from October, 2002. For those familiar with the pianist’s most famous double LP, a number of characteristics of this recent recording stand out: the clarity of tone and phrasing is quite predictably recognizable as Jarrett (as is his annoying background vocalizing), both piano and recording quality are vastly superior to the Köln release, and Jarrett’s characteristic lyricism is here upstaged by a more introspective approach.
Radiance opens with a 12-minute exploration that glancingly alludes to “All the Things You Are,” indeed creating the unfulfilled expectation of an extended intro to the standard. Of the 16 cuts that follow, however, the music inclines more to the abstract than melodic, not until late in the first CD (“Part 8”) delivering one of Jarrett’s totemic blues hymns. The second CD is more evenly divided, meditative investigations sharing space with a blues, a ballad, and one of Jarrett’s signature vamps, for which he receives perhaps his most enthusiastic applause.
This album is as delightful and surprising as picking out the muffin with an explosion of blueberries inside. It has 22 tracks, and the majority of them are good. The orchestral reveries and choral parts sung by the “Illinoismaker Choir” utilize dramatic crescendos and periods of lull to decorate Stevens’ musing. According to the liner notes, Stevens himself played 21 instruments, including the glockenspiel, a borrowed “rickety accordian” and a Casiotone MT-70. All that plus a string quartet create a lushness that Chris Martin only dreams about.
Though the instrumentation comes across as a sedate indie rock blanketed in a thick layer of classical sound, Stevens’ lyrics are strictly folk, covering scads of topics, from the-world-is-ending fears to personal narrative. And even though the brittle intricacy of the music has the tendency to put one on edge, Stevens’ breathy boyish voice soothes any discomfort with lullaby-ish ease.