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Folk Music of China, Vol. 2

Various artists

Like the similarly estimable Folk Music of China, Vol. 1 (subtitle: Folk Songs of Qinghai and Gansu), this multi-vocalist collection presents recent a cappella recordings of songs from the Chinese public domain (subtitle: Folk Songs of Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang). But whereas the keys to appreciating Vol. 1 were the hilarious routines of Guo Jianming and Guo Changhai, this volume’s Rosetta Stone is Nei Shumei’s yearningly soulful “In Retrospect.” You won’t understand the lyrics, but play it a dozen times and you’ll know exactly what it means.

Circle Line

Lautten Compagney

This 13-member Berlin ensemble won’t convince everyone of its latest album’s thesis—that the music of the 20th-century avant-gardists Philip Glass, Steve Reich, John Cage, Meredith Monk, and Wim Mertens has roots in the predominantly sacred music of the 15th-century composer Guillaume Dufay. But give the company’s director, Wolfgang Katschner, this much: He has chosen pieces that serve as mutual and uncommonly euphonious foils and sequenced them for maximum flow. One would never guess that in other contexts minimalism sometimes comes across as dull.

Heirlooms

The TENG Ensemble

According to the TENG Company’s director Samuel Wong, one of the purposes of these pieces and the Forefathers Project of which they’re a part is to “put a fresh spin on” Singaporean folk melodies. How fresh, you ask? A bona fide trance-music throb runs throughout the aptly named “Contemporary.” Mainly, though, it’s traditional instruments or their descendants making the past-present connections. “Hang Gai” moves with playful, feline grace. The florescent “Remembering” begins and ends in evanescence. Would requesting a follow-up be asking too much?

Morton Feldman: Piano

Philip Thomas

One way to get at the otherness of Feldman’s radically unconventional piano music as replicated on these five-hour-plus discs is to think of it as the “note music” analogue of “language poetry.” Another way: Using your favorite audio-editing software, chop the 90-minute “Triadic Memories” into five 15-minute segments, layer them atop each other, export them as a single file, and hit “play.” Vistas unthinkable in Feldman’s lifetime, and quite possibly at odds with anything that Feldman himself would have ever approved, unfold.


 

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Amy Harris/Invision/AP

Audacious and good

Kanye West uses his undeniable talent well with Jesus Is King

“Everybody wanted Yandhi. / Then Jesus Christ did the laundry.”

So raps Kanye West in “Selah,” one of 11 tracks from his new album, Jesus Is King (Getting Out Our Dreams II/Def Jam). Perhaps you’ve heard of it. It’s only the most talked-about (and written-about) album of the year so far.  

And the Yandhi that “everybody wanted”? It’s the album that Jesus Is King almost was. Initially scheduled for release in September 2018, it fell victim to West’s infamous procrastination, during which time West, in his own words, got “radically saved” and let the author of his newfound faith put Yandhi through the wash cycle. (And, yes, based on the version that leaked earlier this year, there was plenty to launder.) Jesus Is King is the result.

Leave aside for the moment whether Jesus Is King is any good and simply savor the fact that, thanks to West, the expression “Jesus is King” is now on the lips of anyone conversant with pop culture and will probably remain there until some other social-media superstar achieves mega-meme status by going rogue vis-à-vis the dominant narrative. Even people who hate the music or the message (or both) of Jesus Is King won’t be able to say that they hate Jesus Is King without saying “Jesus is King.” Strictly in terms of Top 10 album titles doing double duty as (for lack of a better term) passive-aggressive evangelism, Jesus Is King sure beats Slow Train Coming.  

And, still leaving aside whether Jesus Is King is any good, savor its audacity. In addition to being an unabashed gospel album made by a (formerly) foul-mouthed rapper and member (by marriage) of the Kardashian family, it’s also a beats-savvy hip-hop album that’s home to a mellow, acoustic-guitar-accompanied funny-yet-serious love song—to (drumroll please) Chick-fil-A restaurants. 

That’s not the funny part.

The funny part is that West doesn’t love Chick-fil-A for its sandwiches or waffle fries but for its lemonade (!) and for its chainwide, Sabbath-observing policy of staying “Closed on Sunday.” (That’s the serious part.) While some songwriters think outside the box, West denies the box’s existence altogether.  

There are other not-very-hip-hop tracks as well, including the first one, “Every Hour,” a 1-minute, 52-second gospel-choir explosion courtesy of West’s own Sunday Service ensemble. “Water” follows six songs later, its subject’s spiritual symbolism and the 14 one-line prayers to Jesus that West offers up midsong buoyed by aqueous, billowing synthesizers. “Jesus Is Lord,” in which West sings a paraphrase of Philippians 2:10-11 for 49 glorious seconds, brings the album to a worshipful close. 

So, yes, Jesus Is King is good.

The only song that raises more questions than it answers is “Hands On,” particularly the reference to the 13th Amendment (which West would like to see amended), the paranoia about Christians judging West hastily, and the line dissing “religion,” which could portend some risky theological free-styling down the road. For the most part, however, he charts and sticks to a straight-and-narrow course.             

The tragedy of West’s output until now has been his symbiotic attachment to lyrics all too deserving of the parental-warning label. But there was never any denying his gift for whipping beats, melodies, and samples into a sumptuous hip-hop blend. He is, in other words, someone to whom much has been given and from whom therefore much will be required. 

Consider Jesus Is King a thrilling first deposit in his new account.

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Notable recent CDs

Nobody’s Fault But My Own 

The Sensational Barnes Brothers

If you passed on the obscure-’70s-gospel-singles compilation The Soul of Designer Records five years ago because its low-budget, one-take sound obscured what was good about the best of its 101 selections, this album will reward your patience. Chris and Courtney Barnes have rerecorded eight of them (plus three others from the Designer vaults) with a clarity of vocal and instrumental attack that not only shows what all of the fuss was about but that also deserves a fresh fuss of its own.

Johnny Costa Plays Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood Jazz

Johnny Costa

It was Art Tatum himself who called Johnny Costa the “white Art Tatum,” and insofar as the term means that Costa could play chords up and down the piano like nobody’s business, it fits. Tatum, however, didn’t live to record Fred Rogers’ melodies. Rogers produced this instrumental jazz-trio album in its original 1984 incarnation and for 18 years employed Costa as his show’s music director. Longtime viewers will recognize the tunes. Thanks to Costa’s exuberance, they’ll also feel as if they’re hearing them for the first time.

Okie

Vince Gill

Gill has put so much thought into this heartfelt album that he should’ve put a little more. Whether it’s the song about his mother, the song about his father, the song about Amy Grant, the song about Guy Clark, or the song about Merle Haggard, each stops just short of capitalizing on the emotional investment. Then there’s the song about the Bible’s “red words.” Yes, “they come from Jesus.” But in implying that they mean more than the black ones, Gill risks ceding ground to the Jesus Seminar.

Desert Dove

Michaela Anne

One of the motifs in Ken Burns’ recent Country Music documentary is that in the ’70s there existed nobody more crucial to uniting old country and new than Emmylou Harris. And if Michaela Anne keeps evolving at her current rate, someone will someday make an analogous and equally convincing claim about her. This album’s formal breakthrough: an echoey mix that enhances rather than obscures her melodies, lyrics, and singing, each of which keeps getting closer to a perfection that it wasn’t all that far from to begin with.

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