As always, purchase links are embedded in each artist/title listing; playlists/videos/samples follow the review.
Artemis, In Real Time: This second album delivers on the promise and potential of Artemis’ 2020 debut. As I recently discovered in concert, here’s a jazz sextet with a forceful front line (Nicole Glover and Alexa Tarantino on woodwinds, Ingrid Jensen on trumpet) and an assertive rhythm section (founder Renee Rosnes on piano, Noriko Ueda on bass, Allison Miller on drums) that revels in both challenging and collaborating with each other. Whether hurtling through the post-bop twists of Miller’s “Bow and Arrow” and Jensen’s “Timber”, reaching for the skies on Ueda’s open-hearted “Lights Away From Home” or tenderly exploring Rosnes’ spacious ballads “Balance Of Time” and “Empress Afternoon” — not to mention their unique spins on tunes by departed giants Lyle Mays and Wayne Shorter — this is a group of top-rank players that mesh marvelously as an ensemble, delivering a whole lot of serious, elegant fun.
Brian Dunne, Loser on the Ropes: It’s true that I wouldn’t have come across this New Jersey-born, Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter if my nephew hadn’t played drums for his recent tour. But I’m glad I did! Dunne’s vivid lyrics — questing, skeptical, bemused, and poignant all at once — hitch a ride on his insistent verbal rhythms, catchy melodies and tightly constructed tunes, sung with his direct, inviting voice to impressive effect. He rocks out on “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors” and “Bad Luck” and whips up midtempo singalongs on “It’s A Miracle” and “Optimist,” slowing down for more reflective efforts like the title track and the closer “Something to Live For”. There are sonic echoes of mid-period Dire Straits and (inevitably?) 1980s Springsteen, but this is fresh, thoughtful music with both forthright appeal and subtle intensity, well worth hearing.
Bill Evans, Treasures: from the late 1950s to his premature demise in 1980, Bill Evans changed jazz piano forever with what Miles Davis called his “quiet fire”, reshaping the piano trio format as a conversation of equals in the process. The latest in a rich harvest of archival discoveries from jazz detective Zev Feldman and his compatriots, Treasures captures Evans’ steady, probing artistic growth in the late 1960s via a series of visits to Denmark. Whether captured solo, in full flight with various bassists and drummers, or even at a heart of a suite for big band and orchestra, Evans is consistently engaged, shaping jazz standards, rarified pop tunes and his own compositions into things of sheer beauty with his intense lyricism and sense of swing. As good an introduction to this titan of the genre as any!
Guardians of the Galaxy, Awesome Mix, Vol. 3: Fair warning: this semi-soundtrack to the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe blockbuster probably won’t give children of 1970s radio like me the same nostalgia buzz as the first two volumes of Awesome Mix. Sure, there are still great throwbacks from Heart, Rainbow, Earth Wind & Fire, Alice Cooper and Bruuuce; but this time around they share playlist space with the American slacker punk (X, The Replacements) rock-rap (Beastie Boys, Faith No More), and post-indie dream pop (Florence and the Machine) that followed over the decades. So it’s a more diffuse experience, with tracks that are actually eminently forgettable (Spacehog? The Mowgli’s?) — not to mention a missed opportunity for a prog shout-out. On the other hand, any compilation that includes The Flaming Lips’ hospice anthem “Do You Realize?” and EHAMIC’s “Koinu No Carnival” — Chopin filtered through an electronica mixmaster! — deserves at least a listen, and possibly space on your shelf or hard drive.
Marillion, Seasons End Deluxe Edition: The final reissue in the set of Los Marillos’ eight EMI albums, boxed up in typically comprehensive fashion. Layering his and John Helmer’s words atop the veteran band’s latest soundscapes (often repurposed from a futile final effort at working with original vocalist Fish), new boy Steve Hogarth brought it all back home with melodies that tacked closer to folksong than operatic recitative and scenarios that evoked slice-of-life drama as well as existential soliloquies. In retrospect, Seasons End was just the start of H-era Marillion’s evolution, but the end result still rocks hard, smart and sharp after all these years, from the atmospheric intro of “The King of Sunset Town” to the unnerving claustrophobia of closer “The Space”. In addition to a remix of the 1989 original, we get b-sides, demos and early versions of multiple album tracks — plus three high-energy live sets (audio and video from 1990, plus 2022’s British Marillion Weekend) and two documentaries on the CD Blu-Ray version. Like the entire series, this re-release is great listening and great value for money. (And deluxe boxes of post-EMI albums have been promised by manager Lucy Jordache. Stay tuned …)
Paul Simon, Seven Psalms: Designed as a unified song-cycle to be heard in its entirety (it’s one 33-minute track on CD and streaming audio), Simon’s new work is a dreamlike meditation unlike anything else in his catalog. His subdued voice and acoustic guitar carry the musical weight, hinting at gospel, folk and blues as the suite unfurls, with ambience courtesy of composer Harry Partch’s “cloud chamber bowls”, British choir Voces8 and full orchestra. Anything but orthodox, metaphor-packed portraits of “The Lord” — who Simon compares to, among other things, a virus, a virgin forest and a record producer — become a recurring theme, punctuating scattered thoughts on life past and present. Scattered, that is, until the finale “Wait” (“I’m not ready/I’m just packing my gear”), where Simon abruptly, delicately drills down to our common endpoint. Ruminating on what’s been becomes a stoic stock-taking of what we’ve become, a bracing reminder of what awaits us all — and, just possibly, a call to hope in what might lie beyond. Subtle and devastatingly effective, Seven Psalms is a momento mori for the Boomer generation — and for anybody else with ears to hear.
U.K., Curtain Call: When keyboardist/violinist Eddie Jobson locked in with guitar genius Allan Holdsworth and the then-defunct King Crimson’s rhythm section — John Wetton on bass & vocals, Bill Bruford drumming — sparks flew thick and fast. U.K.’s 1978 debut album was a sleek, captivating blend of progressive rock and jazz fusion; 1979’s Danger Money slimmed down to a more focused power trio as Zappa drummer Terry Bozzio replaced Bruford and Wetton’s writing veered toward proto-Asia pomp-rock. The inevitable semi-reunion happened in the 2010s, with Jobson coming off a productive career in film and TV scoring and Wetton rebounding from a hard-fought battle with substance abuse for a extraordinary final run. Joined here in 2013 by hot young virtuosos Alex Machacek (guitar) and Marco Minnemann (drums), the duo triumphantly roar through U.K.’s complete repertoire to an enthusiastic Tokyo crowd. From the crash/bash technoflash of “In the Dead of Night”, “Alaska/Time To Kill” and “Carrying No Cross” to the glowering, tasty tension of “Thirty Years” and Rendezvous 6:02″, this foursome whips up a level of excitement and energy that was unstoppable on the night and remains irresistible on disc. Now remastered and reissued by Jobson in tribute to his late partner, this reasonably priced video (on BluRay & DVD with a bonus audio Blu-Ray) is an immensely satisfying summation for long-time fans, and a glimpse of what the fuss was all about for curious newbies.
Yes, Mirror to the Sky: After the stodgy fiasco that was Heaven & Earth and the modest charm of The Quest, Steve Howe and the rest of Yes’ current line-up actually raise a ruckus this time around. Large helpings of vocal and instrumental interplay in the grand tradition, plenty of fresh, arresting guitar licks by Howe, and lots of splendidly evocative harmonies from Jon Davison and Billy Sherwood make Mirror to the Sky a real pleasure to hear. If you expect the peak inspiration and combustible drive of Yes’ classic era, you’ll be disappointed, but this release is a convincing mix of extended epics like the title track and proggy pop like the singles “Cut from the Stars” and “All Connected”, with only the bonus disc’s “Magic Potion” sounding like a dud to my ears. For me, the most enjoyable new Yes album since 1999’s The Ladder. Check out Time Lord’s review here.
— Rick Krueger