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Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise
Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise
(RCA Records)

The late rock critic Lester Bangs once wrote that he would pay almost any price to hear Aretha Franklin sing; he didn't especially care what she sang. That's how it is with certain singers. Marvin Gaye, John Lennon, and Janis Joplin come to mind for me; their simple act of lifting words into melody makes joy manifest.

You can add to this esteemed list one Robert Bradley, a blind, 46-year-old singer/songwriter from Detroit. After listening to his ecstatic debut, I would pay good money just to hear Bradley sing a laundry list. A cappella. Fortunately, that's not necessary. Bradley has assembled a bracing four-piece band to back his sonic boom of a baritone; throughout the eleven-song collection, he and his recruits let it rip.

The music ranges in mood from shimmying blues ("Bellybone") to Motown soul ("Comin' Down") to barn-burning funk ("Shake It Off"). Guitarist Michael Nehra and keyboardist Jimmy Bones supply lush melodies, while bassist Andrew Nehra and drummer Jimmy Fowlkes set down a swaggering thump. But what sets the band apart from a hundred other competent R&B outfits is Bradley's voice, an instrument at once intense and relaxed, rough as gravel and smooth as single-malt Scotch.

Honed during years of street performing, Bradley's singing combines the unrestrained emotionalism of gospel with the sly lyricism of the blues. His intuitive sense of when to sustain a phrase and when to ad lib manages to illuminate lyrics that might appear routine on paper. And his love songs ("After Your Love" in particular) are searing lamentations.

It'll be a damn shame -- though hardly surprising -- if Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise gets quarantined to the ghetto of R&B. Don't be fooled. Like the singers Bradley celebrates in "Once Upon A Time" (Gaye, Sam Cooke, Elvis Presley), Bradley possesses one of those voices that defy genres and invoke the universal urge toward song.

-- Steven Almond

Gidon Kremer
Hommage a Piazzolla
(Nonesuch)

Sometimes life is like a sad tango. The late Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla knew that, as many of his compositions so eloquently attest. Musicians who lived behind the former Iron Curtain knew that too, as they danced around the cultural commissars, trying to get their works heard by the public. Therefore, a disc of Piazzolla arrangements featuring classical performers (notably violinist Gidon Kremer) and composers from the former Soviet Union not only makes artistic sense but is very poignant as well. (As American composer John Adams writes in the notes to Hommage, "Piazzolla's music is fundamentally a tragic statement.")

Piazzolla did for the tango what Chopin did for the mazurka, and he did it with a structural and harmonic rigor that would not have embarrassed Bach. His music sighs of death, sexuality (both repressed and surrendered to), and sad truths about the human condition, but it's also about two people dancing. What we have here, then, is a CD of music equally capable of moving souls and moving soles.

These intimate arrangements for violin plus one to four players preserve the feel of Piazzolla's music even when unpredictable instrumental choices are made (a harpsichord in "Buenos Aires Hora Cero," a Russian folk accordion replacing Piazzolla's beloved bandoneon in "Escualdo"). The disc's grand finale is the twelve-minute "Le Grand Tango" in an astonishing arrangement for violin and piano by former Soviet composer Sofia Gubaidulina. Piazzolla's romantic and tragic muse gives off illuminating sparks when struck by her avant-garde sensibility, but pretty much the same can be said about the entirety of this intriguing CD.

-- Raymond Tuttle

Alan Jackson
Everything I Love
(Arista)

Stuck next to another lame Shania or a Brooks & Dunn country-rocker, Alan Jackson's singles stand out on country radio like Shaquille O'Neal in Munchkin Land. Jackson's unabashedly twangy vocals and his stubborn devotion to fiddle and pedal steel make him the old-school real deal in a plastic Hot New Country world. His latest, Everything I Love, will only enhance his already formidable reputation. Especially on the title track and on a heart-wrenching country power ballad called "Between the Devil and Me" (both written by the songwriting team of Harley Allen and Carson Chamberlain), Jackson shows off the kind of bottom-of-the-bottle soul that has been missing from country radio since George Jones and Merle Haggard stopped getting regular airplay more than a decade ago.

But despite Jackson's brave adherence to C&W tradition, there's something about his music that doesn't satisfy nearly as much as it should. Partly that's because, when unfairly compared to the legends of that tradition, Jackson's voice and singing come off as plain and forgettable. On Everything's "It's Time You Learned About Goodbye," he could be any hat act going. And even when compared to the work of second-tier country greats like Jack Greene or Gene Watson, Jackson's choice of material here often comes off as slight (a hot take of Tom T. Hall's not-as-deep-as-it-wants-to-be "Little Bitty," for instance) or just plain bad (Jackson's own "Buicks to the Moon" is too in love with its premise). So there's no denying that Alan Jackson is about as good as mainstream country radio gets these days. But sometimes that's really disappointing.

-- David Cantwell

 
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