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Genre-Bending Gems

Surprises abound in three new discs released on the cusp of the holiday season

Surprises often lurk in unlikely locales. That's what makes them surprises, of course. An Irish band known for reshaping local folk genres suddenly embraces Spanish Gypsy and Balkan sources. A workmanlike disc from a Buena Vista Social Club alumnus explodes into lucid jazz on a single standout cut. And a Celtic singer-songwriter turns an often mannered approach into pop music manna, demonstrating that nothing succeeds like excess.

On Luna Park (World Village) by Irish band Kila, Celtic music takes an unexpected turn via a flamenco merger augmented by Mexican singer Luis Rodriguez's operatic turn on guest vocals. Then there's the clattering belly-dance drumming or the orchestral crescendo that climaxes in a beautiful roar, almost literally reaching a fever pitch.

And that's just the first song on this unpredictable disc. "The Mama Song" extends the Caledonian flamenco connection eastward toward the Balkans with Gypsy influences, strings played at full tilt, accordions, reeds, hammered dulcimer, exuberant vocals, frantically funky electric bass, and go-for-broke pacing that meshes all the bits together into a galloping shout of joy. "Baroki," one of three compositions clocking in at over nine minutes, begins somberly with soft guitar strums, dripping water, and pastoral violin colored by Irish pipes. It gains intensity as it turns into a flute-led Celtic raga. Guitars, lutes, and bouzouki ratchet up the piece until it sails out on clouds of guitar, piano, and purring oboe like a storm that has broken and passed. Nothing on Luna Park hies too tightly to tradition, yet it doesn't stray so far from its roots that you would confuse it for anything else.

Easily the most charming cut on folk musician Barbarito Torres's self-titled second album (Pimienta Records) is "La Comparsa." This high-energy reimagining of the Ernesto Lecuona standard boasts his fleet-fingered laoud cascades and guest Chucho Valdes's far-reaching piano forays. The cut begins with a deliberate pacing that turns fluid as Valdes parses harried note clusters and skittering treble key runs and Torres chimes brightly in counterpoint. Jorge Reyes slides in between them on acoustic bass, maintaining a bouncy pulse that allows the soloists to artfully stray.

More of this genre-bending fun would have given Torres's second solo disc the freshness that's frequently missing. It lacks nothing in exuberance. Every song hits the ground running, but the backing vocalists sound a little too blandly uniform from song to song, even as the music shifts from guajira to son to cha cha cha. The disc closer "El Cuarto de Tula" provides a nice excuse for Torres to make his ten-string lute sound like a pair of guitars executing unison hairpin melodic curves, but did we really need another rendition of the Buena Vista Social Club showpiece? Still there's lots of variety here, and Torres sparkles even when taking a back seat to torrid vocalist Conchita Torres, as is witnessed by his harplike laoud accompaniment to "Amarrala." Guests Omara Portuondo, Pio Leyva, and Jesús Bello add snap and depth to this nice collection of polished rural nuggets.

If Van Morrison had been born in the Seventies and, instead of listening to R&B, hooked his ear to, well, Van Morrison, Tim Buckley, and Nick Drake, you might end up with Ireland's latest Celtic pop visionary Damien Rice on O (Vector). His songs can be powerful, thanks to his top-notch songwriting, singing, and crisp small-combo setting. "Volcano" meditates on a couple's perceptions of each other's codependency, pairing him with Lisa Hannigan in an edge-of-the-bed disagreement that is both wry and affecting as the duo first alternates verses then sings on top of one another. "The Blower's Daughter" turns on the phrase, "I can't take my eyes off you," as he repeats it and rephrases it until we can almost see the object of his obsession.

The effect is impressive, but it is also an affect. While Morrison's vocal idiosyncrasies flow directly from the same uncontrollable id that reportedly makes him an unpleasant soul to spend an hour with, Rice's frequent contrasts between clutched midrange notes and falsetto sighs owe as much to technique as to emotion. "Eskimo" ends the disc with a sixteen-minute whimsical extension of melodramatic soul baring as opera-voiced diva Doreen Curran lends a slab of Finnish-language gravitas to his otherwise wispy ditty in three movements. But the sudden jolt of a bombastic, classically trained voice is so over the top, the song ultimately works. It even cuts. Not to the bone, like vintage Morrison -- but it cuts.

 
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