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Ry Cooder
(Vincent Valdez)

Sound check

New album reviews

CHOICE

Ry Cooder

My Name is Buddy
(Nonesuch)
Essential: "Strike!"

Misadventures in theme and sound

Ry Cooder had his commercial moment in the sun when he produced the Buena Vista Social Club, which helped reinvigorate Cuban jazz on the world stage. But the ever-stubborn Cooder has gone back to the fringes lately. His 2005 solo album, "Chavez Ravine," was a noble, Latin-jazz attempt to remember the forgotten, mostly immigrant souls displaced when Dodgers Stadium was built there. And the new "My Name Is Buddy" (modestly subtitled "Another Record by Ry Cooder") is a strangely eccentric but musically sublime concept album about an imagined pussycat named Buddy who rambles through the land and becomes a symbol for workers' rights during the Dust Bowl era. Cooder relives that era musically, returning to Delta blues, country, and old-timey folk and bluegrass, along with some vintage Tex-Mex music (with longtime friend Flaco Jimenez on accordion) he has visited with previous albums. Buddy is deemed a "Red Cat," of course, and comes upon union meetings (the song "Strike!" follows a coal miner's strike) and a pig in "J. Edgar" (an allusion to FBI heavy J. Edgar Hoover), as well as the likes of Lefty the Mouse and Reverend Tom Toad. It's a bizarre travelogue, but the music is casually brilliant, spiced by Cooder's evocative acoustic guitar, the twin banjos of Pete and Mike Seeger, and the piano of Van Dyke Parks. The music can be enjoyed apart from the story, but either way, this is a must-have for true Cooder fans.

[Steve Morse]

ELECTRONICA

Air

Pocket Symphony
(Astralwerks)
Essential: "Somewhere Between Waking and Sleeping"

At the risk of sounding like a bad parent (or a bad music critic): "Pocket Symphony," why can't you be more like your older brother, "Moon Safari" ? Of course, no one wants a band to make the same album repeatedly. We already have Nickelback for that, thanks. But in the case of "Pocket Symphony," Air, the French duo that has built a following for its quivering electronic landscapes and quirky Gallic pop, is strongly hinting at the tone of "Moon Safari," its 1998 breakthrough album. Unlike recent efforts, such as 2004's "Talkie Walkie," "Pocket Symphony" takes a mostly introspective turn toward instrumentals and free-form songs. Ten years ago, Air perfected this genre with the breathtaking loneliness of "Le Soleil est Pres de Moi." On "Pocket Symphony," the beauty is there, but the gorgeous sadness seems to be replaced by boredom on tracks such as "Space Maker" and the particularly tedious "Night Sight." Where "Pocket Symphony" springs to life are tracks when Nicolas Godin and J.B. Dunckel dabble with 1960s-influenced folk-pop. By the time Air collaborates with Neil Hannon on another demure and lovely folk-pop tune, it becomes clear that perhaps "Pocket Symphony" needs to be less like "Moon Safari" and Air needs to get in touch with its inner Harry Nilsson once and for all. [Christopher Muther]

POP

Rjd2

The Third Hand
(XL)
Essential: "Beyond the Beyond"

As recent discs by Pharrell and Money Mark have shown, sometimes star producers and DJs need to check the ego, do what they do best, and leave the singing to those who can really pull it off. Indie hip-hop producer supreme Rjd 2 should have heeded this as he stepped up to the mike for this expansive 15-song set, which he produced and played all the instruments on. For someone who has dazzled with his sonic imagination in the past, Rjd 2 sounds very tentative here. The problems stem from his lack of vocal presence, though musically he acquits himself with a batch of keyboard-driven tracks. But for such a sharp producer, oddly, the songs are in dire need of hooks and rarely memorable. The record doesn't pick up a head of steam until more than midway through with the funky "Beyond the Beyond" and the neatly executed "Sweet Piece." There are little traces of his hip-hop track record as he tries to deliver a pop epic worthy of Brian Wilson or Fleetwood Mac. These songs really need a nuanced singer with serious pipes to work. [Ken Capobianco]

JAZZ

Patti Austin

Avant Gershwin
(Rendezvous Entertainment)
Essential: "Swanee"

Like with her 2002 salute to Ella Fitzgerald, singer Patti Austin tries to leave her R&B/smooth-jazz roots behind on this pleasant but unremarkable tribute. Making Austin's jazz ambitions clear, "Avant Gershwin" opens with a dizzying medley of "I Got Rhythm," "Fascinating Rhythm," "Slap That Bass," "Clap Your Hands," and "Strike Up the Band." "Swanee" is a surprising standout here; backed by the WDR Big Band , Austin nimbly picks up the tempo and transforms Al Jolson's ode to Dixie into a sassy, swinging affair. Austin sparkles on the Latin-flavored "Who Cares" and scats nicely for "Lady Be Good," but she's buried by the band on "Funny Face." A "Porgy and Bess" medley starts out promisingly with the under-appreciated "A Woman is a Sometime Thing," but ultimately it sinks beneath the weight of bland retreads of "Summertime" and "It Ain't Necessarily So." Even though Austin's voice is capable enough, moving with relative ease through Gershwin's complex melodies and chord changes, her sound is too beige. It lacks the richness and depth -- as well as a fresh point of view -- that luminaries like Ella, Sarah, and Billie have already brought to this classic yet well-worn material. [Christina Pazzanese]

ROCK

The Frames

The Cost
(Anti)
Essential: "People Get Ready"

Rock comes with so many qualifiers these days: art rock, dance rock, indie rock, punk rock. It's refreshing to hear Dublin's the Frames play some good old-fashioned rock on their sixth album, "The Cost." Not that there's anything retro or naive about its sound. Rather, the album is sophisticated and layered with deft orchestration. And yet, the band's songwriting and delivery display an earnestness and lack of pretension that's pure rock. The veteran band has mastered its craft, but it maintains a loose immediacy. The album was recorded live in the studio with longtime producer and former Frames guitarist David Odlum . Its songs continue singer-guitarist Glen Hansard's obsession with dissecting the difficulties of love and lust and manage to shift moods seamlessly, without ever sounding schizophrenic. Whether atmospheric or anarchic, the Frames always play as if their lives were on the line. [Sarah Tomlinson]

METAL

Hella

There's No 666 in Outer Space
(Ipecac Records)
Essential: "Ungrateful Dead"

Text messaging, terrorism, MySpace, Iraq, Gmail. It seems the volume of data that we are forced to consume daily is rapidly overwhelming our ability to generate real, informed opinions. "There's No 666 in Outer Space," the new record from Sacramento prog-punk band Hella, is the meta soundtrack for our fractured, super-connected new reality. Formerly a two-man band but now a five-piece, Hella begins with "World Series," a jazzy metallic freak-out that sounds like 666 songs compressed into a single track. "Ungrateful Dead" is the standout song , as Hella allows the music to slow to a sprint, letting a millisecond of quiet creep into the cacophony . The title track is a sonic hodgepodge of frenzied drum 'n' bass, guitars, and vocals playing independently of one another. This is a challenging album that Frank Zappa, Rush, Miles Davis, or Slayer could each call their own. [Matt Landry]

Free loading

"Girlfriend"

Avril Lavigne
I've always loved Avril as much as the next 13-year-old girl, but she's been wandering in the power-ballad wilderness a bit too long. On "Girlfriend," she returns to bratty pop-punk form. It's a snarly come-on, fueled by playground hand claps and playful, pseudo-angry energy. Stream it at myspace.com/avrillavigne. [Luke O'Neil]

ONLY ONLINE

Confetti didn't rain down on Michael Brennan last December when he downloaded the song "Diamond Ring," from bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell's album "This Ain't No Rock 'n' Roll." But it was a momentous occasion.

It turned out the song was the 100-millionth download on eMusic.com, a digital music retailer. To commemorate the download, Brennan has been immortalized in a biographical song written especially for him by the Canadian rock band Barenaked Ladies. "Michael Brennan" (clever title, eh?) is as catchy and ridiculously upbeat as any Barenaked Ladies tune, and it's available as a free download on eMusic starting today. It'll be free for one month and then added as a bonus track to BNL's latest album, "Barenaked Ladies Are Men."

Elsewhere on the site, it seems everybody's favorite Balkan band du jour, Beirut, may be abandoning its roots. The band's new EP, "Pompeii," another eMusic exclusive, features two new songs with nary a blaring horn or whirling accordion in sight. Rather, frontman Zach Condon is accompanied by what appears to be a canned synthesizer melody on "Fountains and Tramways" and by a piano on "Napoleon on the Bellerophon." It's a nice detour, but let's see if fans warm up to it after Beirut's last EP, "Lon Gisland," continued the Balkan beats set in motion with "Gulag Orkestar."

[James Reed]

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