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In The Groove

Barry Goldberg

The words in the only song that has any are sung by Les McCann and—according to one source—address Donald Trump (antagonistically, of course). Otherwise, the producer Carla Olson keeps the focus off virtue signaling and on Goldberg’s Hammond B3, Joe Sublett’s sax, and the slinky R&B melodies of the covers (including those of Doc Bagby, Milt Bruckner, Johnny and the Hurricanes, and Sil Austin) and Goldberg’s own compositions. Target audience: anyone who thinks that Goldberg’s roots only go back as far as Newport ’65.

Tokyo Bay

Nick Lowe

This four-song EP (two 7-inch singles in the vinyl version) is being heralded as Lowe’s return to “rocking hard while hardly rocking” after 20-plus years of crafting crooner-friendly country-and-soul-tinged gems. But Lowe has been performing “Tokyo Bay” for at least six years, and his deep reading of Dionne Warwick’s biggest ’80s hit hardly qualifies as a sayonara to introspection. What’s new is the way that his Christmas-tour collaborators Los Straitjackets have tailored their surf-rock into a genuine Cowboy Outfit.

Jon Savage’s 1965: The Year The Sixties Ignited

Various artists

Because it follows the same modus operandi, Savage’s latest musical yearbook is as enjoyable as his others, creatively sequencing songs that were hits on at least one side of the Atlantic with songs that were obscurities on both. Their common denominators are that they’re good and that they enliven Savage’s memories of himself at 12, tuning into pop-music TV shows and pirate radio to pan for gold amid, in his words, “what seemed like oceans of dreck.” “Oceans of dreck”? Now there’s a compilation waiting to happen.

Back Being Blue

Kelly Willis

Willis and her cohorts deliver these enjoyably no-frills songs with one of their collective feet in country and the other in pop. Make that pre–Shania Twain (hence pre–Taylor Swift) country and pop—the simplicity and the immediacy of the sentiments, Willis’ mellow alto voice, and the instrumentation (especially Eleanor Whitmore’s fiddle and Geoff Queen’s steel guitars) suggest zero interest in, or awareness of, the digital era. Maybe that’s why Willis’ most convincing original is the one in which she seeks release from the “modern world.”

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Photo illustration: Krieg Barrie (Kidjo: Dave Hansen/The Daily News via AP; Baez: Charles Sykes/Invision/AP; Owen: Mike Pont/Getty Images; McKay: Seth Wenig/AP)

Empathetic albums

Recent releases bring subdued interpretations of familiar songs

One of the few traditional gender-based assumptions that it’s safe to reiterate in public these days is that women have, or at any rate demonstrate, a greater capacity for empathy than men do.

But even if practically every study on the topic didn’t suggest as much, prolonged exposure to the latest albums by Joan Baez, Angélique Kidjo, Nellie McKay, and Judith Owen would.

Of the albums’ 41 total songs, none were written by the performers themselves, making the songs empathetic by definition. And 33 were written by men, raising the empathy bar, at least theoretically, for any woman who would inhabit them convincingly.

But inhabit them convincingly the women do. And they don’t make a big deal about it, settling comfortably for the most part into subdued, predominantly acoustic interpretations.

The exception is Kidjo’s Remain in Light (Kravenworks), which is both exuberant and electric. But as it’s a track-by-track re-creation of Talking Heads’ polyrhythmic, West African–inspired masterpiece of the same name, exuberance and electricity are in order.

Kidjo’s Remain in Light stays close to Talking Heads’ arrangements. Anyone familiar with the originals will easily identify the songs. But Kidjo departs from the blueprint too, altering melodies and, of course, singing and enunciating like her West African self instead of like the performance-artist-turned-rock-star that David Byrne was 38 years ago.

She also oversees instrumentation that subtly shifts the music’s balance of afrobeat and the avant-garde in favor of the former, making her version of Remain in Light an affectionate act of cultural re-appropriation.

There’s nothing subtle, on the other hand, about Owen’s balance-shifting RedisCOVERed (Twanky). Whether decelerating, and thus improving, songs that zipped past too quickly as chart toppers (Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling!,” Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You”), or decelerating, and thus neutering, something that was just fine to begin with (Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music”), she confounds expectations.

In between, there are spot-on renditions of Joni Mitchell “deep cuts,” neither-here-nor-there Soundgarden, Beatles, and Donna Summer covers, and—speaking of confounding—a one-woman take of the Grease duet “Summer Nights.”

Nellie McKay’s Sister Orchid (Palmetto) could also be said to confound expectations—that is, if her previous output had made an album’s worth of Tin Pan Alley–era standards unthinkable. But coming from someone who sandwiched an album of her own compositions between tribute albums to Doris Day and ’60s rock, Hoagy Carmichael seems almost like a logical next step.

McKay takes an occasionally mischievous but mostly deadpan approach to the piano and the mic, giving the program a quietly surreal, wee-small-hours-of-the-morning vibe. On one level, she obviously loves the material and the material just as obviously loves her back. On another, though, the two are still sizing each other up. The resulting tension helps Sister Orchid resist the pull of the nostalgia in which it traffics.

Joan Baez has populated her new album, Whistle Down the Wind (Proper), with elegies and in so doing made what sounds a lot like a final statement. It may be: Her once crystalline voice now sounds weary, and she’s calling her 2018 concerts the Fare Thee Well Tour.

But, for someone who has never met a “progressive” cause that she didn’t love, Baez goes easy on the agitprop. Her anti-Trump song “Nasty Man” is absent, and her pro-Obama song (Zoe Mulford’s “The President Sang Amazing Grace”) is pretty mild.

You’d almost get the impression that her increasing proximity to the “great equalizer” could have her empathizing with “deplorables.”

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Recent classical releases

Vaughan Williams: Mass in G Minor 

The Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge

A utilitarian in matters of religion—he valued Christian liturgy and King James Bible expressions primarily for their culturally unifying properties—Vaughan Williams was, nevertheless, both reverent and bold in his handling of spiritually lofty themes. And, on these mostly a cappella performances, so is the Choir of St. John’s. As put through its dynamics-sensitive paces by the director Andrew Nethsingha, the choir achieves transcendence whether in pianissimo or fortissimo mode. The five-movement Mass is the masterpiece, but the eight stand-alone pieces that follow belong.

Vaughan Williams: Songs of Travel

James Gilchrist, Philip Dukes, Anna Tilbrook

The title refers to the nine Robert Louis Stevenson poems that Vaughan Williams set to music for solo tenor voice (Gilchrist in this case) and piano (Tilbrook), achieving a robust, and at times a contemplative, lyricism. The subtitle, Songs and Chamber Works, refers to the eight other pieces, each of which reinforces or develops the mood of the first nine. In the songs with words, the melodies are singing Gilchrist as much as he’s singing them. In the two without, something similar goes for Dukes’ piano-accompanied viola.

Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 5, Symphony No. 6 

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

The conductor Andrew Manze knows what he wants and how to get it. Under his baton, the Pilgrim’s Progress–inspired Symphony No. 5 in D reveals Vaughan Williams’ ability to synthesize disparate echoes (of Ravel, Debussy, folksong, Tudor-era melodies) at a practically subconscious level, intuiting rather than seeking out their less-than-obvious affinities. The Symphony No. 6 in E Minor, meanwhile, composed in the years immediately following World War II, retains its associations with the expenditure of martial energies and, more importantly, the corresponding emotional turbulence.

Vaughan Williams: Piano Concerto, Oboe Concerto, Serenade to Music, Flos Campi

Toronto Symphony Orchestra

If you buy only one new Vaughan Williams album, make this all-Canadian-cast recording the one. The Elmer Iseler Singers rise to the considerable challenges of Flos Campi, a suite drawn from the Song of Solomon and therefore often characterized as “erotic” (although “sensuous” would be more accurate). The Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the four solo vocalists ennoble, and are ennobled by, the Serenade to Music. And no less beautiful in their streamlined lushness are the Oboe Concerto in A Minor and the Piano Concerto in C

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