Tue, Mar 19, 2013 - Page 12 News List

CD reviews

By Jon Caramanica; Ben Ratliff and Nate Chinen  /  NY Times News Service

What about now, by Bon Jovi.

What about now, Bon Jovi, Island

Bon Jovi is a big band, but which kind? Neutrality has been its bag for most of its mature period, which spans roughly the past decade, and followed its early days of thin-leather arena-rock, notional gestures to hair metal and power ballads.

But aging elegantly is still an option for this group, which has a platform but rarely a firm idea of what to use it for. What About Now suggests a few paths for progress, and an ambivalence about committing to any one of them, all under a haze of undifferentiated, low-ambition, lightly rootsy hard rock.

Take album closer The Fighter, which is a vote for Jon Bon Jovi – frontman, primary songwriter, moral center as introspective troubadour. It’s gentle, but maybe not quite sad enough. Or What About Now, which is a step in the maybe inevitable Springsteen-ization of Bon Jovi. “You want to start a fight, you’ve got to take a swing / You got to get your hands in the dirt to see what the harvest will bring,” Bon Jovi groans, though not altogether convincingly. (Age alone can’t turn Bon Jovi into the Boss.)

Maybe pulpy emotion is the way, as on I’m With You, which has a very blatant nod to the morbid cover of Tears for Fears’ Mad World by Gary Jules that was a hit a few years back following its inclusion in Donnie Darko. Or perhaps motivational-speaker positivity is the path, as on the banal Because We Can.

Bon Jovi is all of these bands, and therefore none of them. Even when it’s pushing itself, it remains extremely legible. Its most natural analogues in contemporary pop lie in country, a connection the group made literal a few years ago with the Sugarland collaboration Who Says You Can’t Go Home.

To that end on this album is What’s Left Of Me, which follows a familiar country-songwriting shtick, with each verse detailing the trials of a different character who all suffer in similar ways. But there are curveballs here — one character is a former newspaper reporter who became a Marine, and then came home to find himself unappreciated. Another is an ex-punk rocker who curses. Is this a protest song? A modern folk ballad? In different musical hands, perhaps, but Bon Jovi is not any of those kinds of bands. Or at least, it will never let itself be.

— JON CARAMANICA, NY Times News Service

Rumba de la isla, Pedrito Martinez, Calle54/Sony Music

There’s rumba in Afro-Cuban music, and there’s rumba in Andalusian flamenco. They’re not the same thing; they don’t denote the same rhythms. But the word indicates a connection between two musical cultures, and that may be enough for Rumba de la Isla, an album of songs associated with the great Spanish cantaor Camaron de la Isla, who died in 1992, and reworked by Pedrito Martinez, a 39-year-old Cuban-born, New York-based percussionist, singer and progressive rumbero.

What’s fine on paper turns out to be profound in the ear. Martinez doesn’t try to incorporate the rough tremors or hard semaphore shouting of the flamenco cante jondo style into his singing; he’s a Cuban rumba singer, floating unbroken, fluid melodic lines over busy polyrhythms underneath. And as these musicians find a consensual rhythmic center, Camaron’s songs become deeply reworked, rhythmically and harmonically, with improvisations trickling out from the tangle.

The band on Rumba de La Isla, recorded in a New York studio a few years ago, weighs more toward new-world than old: besides Martinez it includes the percussionist-singer Roman Diaz and the violinist Alfredo de la Fe, both Cubans, as well as the Puerto Rican electric bassist John Benitez. They’re set up alongside two Spanish virtuosos, the percussionist Pirana (playing the cajon, the box-shaped wooden instrument used in a lot of modern flamenco) and the guitarist Nino Josele, whose sudden alert shifts and filigreed picking sometimes gets eclipsed by the sheer volume of other fascinating things happening at the same time, at different rhythms, coming from different languages and imperatives.

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