Billy Bragg 'Tooth & Nail' (Cooking Vinyl)
3 stars = Good
The first album in five years by the bard of Barking, Essex, is a largely subdued affair that plays to Billy Bragg's underrated strengths as a writer of tender, subtly revealing love songs.
Mr. Bragg is best known as a political firebrand and the guy who collaborated with Wilco on the Woody Guthrie project "Mermaid Avenue." "Tooth & Nail" is produced by Joe Henry and features a stellar band of backing musicians, including pedal steel player Greg Leisz.
The CD nods to both the firebrand and the musicologist in Mr. Bragg, with a downcast cover of Guthrie's "I Ain't Got No Home" and "There Will Be a Reckoning," a vow that justice will one day come for the downtrodden. Alas, on that track, frankly, Mr. Bragg sounds enervated and ineffectual. That song and the Golden Rule positivity of "Do Unto Others" come off stale, but elsewhere, the 54-year-old song craftsman is effective in his middle-age comfort zone, whether pondering big issues in "No One Knows Nothing Anymore" or promising that he can compensate for his sorry home-improvement abilities with his skills with a guitar and pen in "Handyman Blues."
-- Dan DeLuca, Philadelphia Inquirer
Depeche Mode 'Delta Machine' (Columbia)
3 stars = Good
Strangely, British synth-pop's first -- and, once, fussiest -- hitmakers Depeche Mode has long had an obsession with Mississippi Delta music. As with previous albums, Dave Gahan musters a soulful falsetto and a gutsy baritone wail on "Delta Machine" to go with his deadpan monotone croon. Guitarist and primary composer Martin Gore likes his blues licks and gospel choirs, heard on dozy numbers such as "Slow" and "Goodbye."
Where "Delta Machine" veers from the last several Depeche Mode records (too clean, too close to windswept, U2-like grandeur) is in its willingness to get dirty and creepy. After the rote bigness of the so-so "Heaven" and "Welcome to My World," the rest is an oddball electronic dream.
"Should Be Higher" is nu-doom-disco at its most delicious, with Mr. Gahan's tender lyrics toying with memories of his own onetime addictions ("Your arms are infected/ they're holding the truth"). "My Little Universe" and "Soft Touch/Raw Nerve" toss around the timeworn sonic cliches of minimalist house, techno, and industrial-tronics and come out victorious.
And while Mr. Gore is still DM's principal songwriter, Mr. Gahan gets several compositions into "Machine's" mix, each murkier and eerier than anything he has penned previously. Nice show of progress after 33 years in the synth biz.
-- A.D. Amorosi, Philadelphia Inquirer
Kacey Musgraves 'Same Trailer, Different Park' (Mercury Nashville)
4 stars = Outstanding
Hard as it might be to believe, this is Kacey Musgraves' fourth album, her first for a major label. The 24-year-old Texan, who'll appear with Kenny Chesney at Heinz Field June 22, recorded three independent albums, the first when she was 14. She co-wrote Miranda Lambert's hit "Mama's Broken Heart" and "Undermine," heard on ABC's "Nashville" and was recently the subject of a glowing, if at times uninformed, New York Times profile.
Like Taylor Swift, Ms. Musgraves has songwriting in her DNA. Moreover, "Same Trailer," which she co-produced with Luke Laird and Shane McAnally, is refreshingly free of the die-stamped, formula production that ensnares nearly everyone trying to succeed in today's Nashville.
Ms. Musgraves examines blue-collar life with a jarring, unsentimental directness. The most obvious example: "Merry-Go-Round's" straightforward look at the realities of small-town life, a contrast with the many fawning, idealized Nashville tunes on that subject. On "Follow Your Arrow," she attacks judgmental thinking and absolutism. "Blowin' Smoke's" raw look at a waitress's life rings so true the dialogue could have been captured on a cell phone. Wit and vivid imagery drive "My House," an acoustic paean to mobile home life. "Step Off" reveals a caustic view of romance; "Stupid" inveighs against its darker sides.
It's not that Ms. Musgraves is totally hard-line. "Back On the Map" looks at the pain of love not through torment and anguish but wounded desperation. "It Is What It Is" views an imperfect relationship as a pragmatic safe haven until something better comes along for both. It adds up to a work of uncommon power from a youthful voice forging an iconoclastic path of her own choosing. Believe me, we need more such mold-breakers on Music Row.
-- Rich Kienzle, for the Post-Gazette
'Verdi: The Complete Works' (Decca)
4 stars = Outstanding
The world celebrates Giuseppe Verdi's 200th birthday this year, along with that of his most significant musical contemporary, Richard Wagner. No less amazing than the Italian composer's creative genius, perhaps, is the scientific miracle that all his music can be contained on 75 compact discs, fitted into a container the size of a small shoebox, priced lower than two seats to a single performance at a major opera house.
From the Overture to his first opera "Oberto," composed 1839, to the great fugue that concludes his last opera "Falstaff," the stamp of Verdi is on every note. There is the high energy -- raw in his early years, more contained as the composer grew older -- the element of patriotism that runs through the works composed during the struggle for Italian unification, and not least the infectious melodies that stick in the ear long after each opera is over. There is even a hint in "Oberto" of the opening of Act 1 of "La Traviata," still to be written 14 years hence.
Verdi would follow "Oberto" with 27 more operas (more if you consider a few operas that he substantially revised), and his Requiem (which is an opera in all but the staging), and the composer would grow with each new work, not only refining his music and increasing the acuity of his instrumentation, but using music to define character and enhance the drama. Hearing these operas in sequence illustrates how Verdi learned with each success or failure, adding musical subtlety and theatrical know-how. One cogent thread is the series of magnificent father-daughter/soprano-baritone duets that spans his works from "Nabucco" (1842) to "Aida" (1871).
The present recordings have been culled from the archives of three big record companies -- Decca, Deutsche Grammophon and EMI -- and they include just about every acclaimed Verdian singer and conductor of the past half century. One might quibble, according to personal taste, over the selection of one performance over another, but they're all on a very high level.
It's unlikely, for example, that a rarity like "I Lombardi" will ever receive a better performance than the one here: Metropolitan Opera forces conducted by James Levine in 1996, with June Anderson, Luciano Pavarotti and Samuel Ramey in leading roles, supported by future stars Patricia Racette, Richard Leech, Anthony Dean Griffey and Ildebrando D'Arcangelo in small parts. The perennial "Aida" is represented by a classic 1959 Vienna recording conducted by Herbert von Karajan, with Renata Tebaldi, Giulietta Simionato, Carlo Bergonzi and Cornell MacNeil. You may think this is as good as it gets, until you listen to the Requiem conducted by Georg Solti (Vienna Philharmonic and Chorus) with soloists Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne, Pavarotti and Martti Talvela.
An unusual bonus is the rarely heard original St. Petersburg version of "La Forza del destino," with a high-powered Mariinsky Theater cast (singing reasonable Italian) led by Valery Gergiev -- followed by the more familiar revision, with an acceptable, although not outstanding cast conducted by Giuseppe Sinopoli. We also get to compare "Don Carlo" in alternate French and Italian settings.
"La Traviata" is marred by a drab Violetta from Ileana Cotrubas, but the nuanced conducting of Carlos Kleiber compensates, and the male contingent -- Placido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes -- is top drawer. Verdi's final opera "Falstaff" is a sparkling ensemble production taken from a live performance with Carlo Maria Giulini conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1982. The closing fugue, adapted from Shakespeare's "All the world's a stage" speech, comes through an unmitigated outpouring of joy in music and life.
-- Robert Croan, Post-Gazette senior editor