Canada brings out best in k.d. lang

Canada brings out best in k.d. lang

POP

k.d. lang, “Hymns of the 49th Parallel”

Rating: Nonesuch

Listening to the stately elegance of this disc, it’s hard to recall k.d. lang as the tangy and twangy gal from Alberta who flew south in the late 1980s.

Lang enjoys concept albums, and this is her best yet — a tribute to the songwriters of her native Canada. She anchors it with two songs each from Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and Jane Siberry and slips in her own composition, “Simple,” that matches the others in mood and quality.

We might have cut back Siberry, featured more from the perpetually overlooked Ron Sexsmith and found a better Bruce Cockburn tune, but any fan would bring similar ideas.

Her voice has always been a formidable instrument and has rarely sounded better. She shows subtlety and finesse, never overwhelming the compositions, like a basketball coach who coaches to his players instead of vice versa. The idiosyncrasies of Mitchell’s “A Case of You” — lang goes with the mood and plays with the lyrics — the formalism of Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and fragile beauty of Sexsmith’s “Fallen” are all well captured. This disc fits nicely next to Norah Jones in the CD player.

Still, it’s hard not to listen and wonder: Does anyone in Canada rock? A Neil Young song has rarely sounded so formal, so mannered. No one expects rock ‘n’ roll — the album is called “Hymns” for a reason — but more shifts in mood and tempo would have been welcome.

We know she can do it.

— David Bauder,

The Associated Press

Gavin DeGraw, “Chariot ‘Stripped'”

Rating: J Records

Gavin DeGraw is far from being a heavy-metal artist, so recording an acoustic version of his 2003 debut, “Chariot,” is somewhat redundant. DeGraw and his band spent two days in the studio creating “Chariot ‘Stripped’, ” a live, back-to-basics recording that is being repackaged with the original as a two-CD set. Nothing on “Stripped” is mind-blowingly different.

But the imperfections and rawness that come with recording live make the songs of “Chariot” more interesting and intimate. Instead of relying on electric guitar crescendos and double-tracked choruses, DeGraw has to make an impression with only his voice and his piano.

He presents lovely, slowed-down versions of the title song and “(Nice to Meet You) Anyway.” Also included is a fun jangly remix of “Chemical Party” and a respectable remake of Sam Cooke’s “Change Is Gonna Come.” Taking away the bells and whistles doesn’t correct the missteps of the original, however. “Belief” was boring on “Chariot” and the “Stripped” version is equally plodding. Still, anyone who hasn’t heard DeGraw in concert should pick up “Stripped.” It’s the next best thing to being there.

— Rachel Kipp,

The Associated Press

Maria Mena, “White Turns Blue”

Rating: Columbia

Mena, an 18-year-old songwriter from Norway whose father is a New Yorker, is already on her second album — although this is her first release in the United States. She had a hit in Norway two years ago with a ballad about her parents’ divorce, “My Lullaby,” that is on “White Turns Blue,” and the song fits in with an album full of an articulate introvert’s self-doubts. “What could you possibly see in me?” she sings in a voice that sounds perpetually shy but determined to make her feelings known.

Mena writes songs with her producer and arranger, Arvid Solvang, and he steers her toward folk-rock that occasionally boils over; they have clearly been studying Alanis Morissette for words and music. In song after song Mena details her failings, as she does in “Just a Little Bit,” which carefully lists her areas for self-improvement; she could be prettier, thinner, wiser, more self-aware, less needy.

Through the album, she proffers her share of teen-poetry clichs, and she is not above wallowing. But as she tries to hold on to a boyfriend and find herself in songs such as “You’re the Only One,” there is something endearingly unguarded about the way she is willing to admit to every awkwardness and faux pas.

— Jon Pareles,

The New York Times

ROCK

The Old 97s, “Drag It Up”

Rating: New West Records

It’s been more than three years since the last album of rock ‘n’ twang from this Texas-born quartet. “Satellite Rides” was the band’s best bet for the big time and, as it transpired, their last for Elektra Records.

“Drag It Up” puts them back in the land of the independent label, and it’s tough to imagine a better marriage of band and record company. New West is the home of the Flatlanders, Georgia’s Drive-by Truckers and Vic Chesnutt, and the Old 97s’ rootsy exuberance is the perfect companion for the rest of the label’s roster.

Without the big-label cash behind it, “Drag It Up” sounds less polished and more relaxed. Nothing here pokes up its head and screams “play me on mainstream radio,” a distracting trait shared by a couple of the tracks on the popped-up “Satellite Rides.” That doesn’t mean those tunes were bad. The Old 97s don’t make bad records, but “Drag It Up” is a corporate world away from its predecessor.

Longtime fans who prefer more pedal steel and less polish should be pleased with “Drag It Up.” Much of the album sounds like it was recorded live in the studio. It has a raw, impulsive sound that complements a powerhouse live band like the Old 97s. These guys still have an unerring way with hooks and melodies, but it feels like they had a lot more fun making this record.

The band’s renewed freedom is palpable in every note, but you can’t help but wonder if there’s any bitterness . “The New Kid” might be about being replaced by a new lover, but lines such as “The new kid he’s got the money I deserve” and “every year there’s another one here” could just as easily be barbs aimed at the music industry.

–Shane Harrison,

Cox News Service

They Might Be Giants,

“The Spine”

Rating: 1/2 Idlewild

Nearly two decades after burning up college radio stations with clunky melodies laden with lyrics of postmodern absurdities, They Might Be Giants is probably big enough to do whatever it wants.

And after several attempts at children’s albums, John Linnell and John Flansburgh have returned on “The Spine” with the spare ditties that earned them a near cult following. But even now, it takes a true fan to trudge through 15 two-minute songs fired off in quick succession. C’mon, the album lasts 36 minutes.

But there is something different with the humor on this album. The twentysomething Johns have become fortysomethings, and the songs carry real-life weight.

Take “Memo to Human Resources,” which describes a man taking his problems to the ledge of a building. It’s not the same as a heady student boggled by history.

“I’m searching for some disbelief that I can still suspend … then the people came to talk me down,” the song goes. In itself, it’s far from funny. But like most They Might Be Giants songs, you laugh and never know why.

More to the point is “Experimental Film,” an homage to those college days when the absurd, at least as it appeared in student art films, carried a weighty meaning and a time when They Might Be Giants wasn’t a periphery band.

It’s hard to say what place “The Spine” will hold in a music world ruled by trends far removed from 1986, the year the band released its self-titled debut.

Yet perhaps there’s no better time for a reintroduction to Giant- style absurdities then right now. The band always did best when it came unexpectedly.

— Ryan Lenz,

The Associated Press

The Concretes, “The Concretes”

Rating: Astralwerks

The prestigious Mazzy Star School of Dreamy Pop has graduated another class. Here they come now, calling themselves the Concretes. And they’ve traveled all the way from Sweden to pick up their diploma! Isn’t that precious? But not too precious. This band is not supercutesy. Just a little bit cutesy, with deliciously bored female vocals singing over creamy pop melodies and soothing washes of drone.

Clearly, they studied the texts of the Velvet Underground — those drum sounds, that atmosphere! — but they skipped the chapters on jagged, ear-splitting noise. That’s probably for the best. We’ve got plenty of noise in this world, and not nearly enough songs like “Seems Fine,” which boogies with ecstatic horns and the bounciest of bouncy melodies, a dissertation on summery bliss.

— Nick Marino,

Cox News Service

Copyright Copley Press Inc. 2004

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