CD reviews

By Jon Caramanica, Jon Pareles and Nate Chinen  /  NY Times News Service

Thu, Jan 23, 2014 - Page 11

Is There Anybody Out There?, by A Great Big World

The competition show So You Think You Can Dance? has popularized — or maybe resuscitated — a particularly maudlin strain of pop that it uses when dancers are performing what the show refers to as “contemporary” dance: think extended erotic embraces, liquid body movements and lots of flowing tulle. The music they often choose for these routines is spare, generally with piano, overlaid with cloying vocals that have pluck but not power. The goal is to create a stark backdrop over which the dancers can emote without interference, a verdant field that’s actually bare.

Last year, Say Something by A Great Big World was one of those songs, used to good effect but still essentially anonymous. But then, in an unlikely turn, it caught the attention of Christina Aguilera, who invited the duo — Ian Axel and Chad Vaccarino — to re-record it with her. That version reached No 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, opening the pipestream of twee to come.

And oh, does twee reign on Is There Anybody Out There?, this duo’s painfully executed major-label debut album. Like a starter folk album, it’s gentle and plain-spoken and free of any artifice. And also dull. Axel especially has a grating voice with no color, almost digital in its simplicity. And lyrically, the duo is clumsy, approaching musical theater at their best, and rarely even that — Shorty Don’t Wait is the sort of song Jason Mraz would toss for being too simple. Land of Opportunity and the dim empowerment anthem Everyone Is Gay land with the blunt-force good cheer of a Dan Zanes children’s album. Occasionally, A Great Big World only ends up suggesting better options: Rockstar has purposeful echoes of Vanessa Carlton’s A Thousand Miles, a far better piano-pop tune, and also of Billy Joel’s signature stop-start piano revving.

Last month, Say Something ended up on another reality show, The X Factor, sung by the show’s eventual winners Alex & Sierra, a button-cute duo with occasional bursts of intense vocals. The lyrics are still limp, but their delivery forgoes some of the restraint of the original, and even the contrived dignity of Aguilera’s version. Theirs is the version worth seeking out.

— Jon Caramanica, NY Times News Service

Ah!, by Linnea Olsson

Swedish songwriter Linnea Olsson’s debut album, Ah!, is a thoroughly solo production. Her voice and her cello are the only sounds she uses for nearly the entire album; and now and then she might whistle or clap her hands. Her lone collaborator plays hand drum on just one song, Ah! — the one where she sings, “I have been alone for so many days.”

That doesn’t mean the music is austere. Using overdubs, loops and echoes, Olsson multiplies her voice — or more accurately voices, since she can sound elfin, breathy, forthright and confiding. And with the cello she constructs string orchestras, while using pizzicato, tapping the bow on the strings or knocking on the cello body to give herself a rhythm section.

Olsson sings about falling in and out of love, about bliss and longing. “I was helpless as I walked toward you/I was talking nonsense/I got dizzy when I looked into your eye-eye-eye-eye-eyes,” she sings in All 4 U, building her voice into two anti-phonal choirs and stacking her cello parts into an arrangement that pushes constantly even as it sits on one chord. In Guilt, she starts out confessing, “Ooh, it hurts/It hurts so much I want to cry” over nothing but stark, bowed doublestops; later, a contrapuntal cello melody becomes her companion in loneliness.

Olsson rarely uses the same approach twice. She summons the Baroque chug of a Vivaldi suite in Dinosaur, the insistent plucking of Joanna Newsom in Giddy Up!, quivery tremolo chords in the whispery ballad Fortune, and the unswerving pulse of Minimalism under a wordless chorus in the song whose only lyric is its title, Summer. And for all the studio craftsmanship that goes into the songs, they end up sounding like simple declarations of emotion, like her final words on the album, tearfully confided over elegiac chords in Never Again: “I have tried so many times to be a good and forgiving girl. It is through.” With this album, Olsson joins the international ranks of loop enthusiasts — songwriters like Andrew Bird, Theresa Andersson, Ana Laan and Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards — whose ingenious methods disappear into their songs.

— Jon Pareles, NY Times News Service

Gathering Call, by Matt Wilson Quartet + John Medeski

One common complaint in jazz circles is that the music has grown too labyrinthine and interior for casual comprehension, sealing itself off from a lay audience. Whether or not you buy into that argument, there’s no way to pin the problem on Matt Wilson.

A drummer and bandleader drawn to exuberant gestures, he has held fast to a value system that prizes simplicity and sincerity, rugged effort and sturdy design. This is especially true of any and all albums by the Matt Wilson Quartet, from the late 1990s onward. Gathering Call, the newest of these, augments the current edition of the quartet — Wilson, cornetist Kirk Knuffke, saxophonist Jeff Lederer and bassist Chris Lightcap — with a featured guest pianist, John Medeski.

It’s an album of unabashed swing and unassuming expedition, drawing no distinctions between the two. Wilson, who will turn 50 this year, seemingly leads from his ear as a composer, forming each tune around the spine of a melody. He isn’t afraid to repeat himself: The same fanfare, effectively the last four notes of a major scale, appears as a refrain in Some Assembly Required and the album’s title track. When he reaches for a meditative air, as on Hope (For the Cause), he finds room for stillness and starkness.

As usual, he also forages in some of the neglected corners of jazz repertory, coming up with choice morsels by Charlie Rouse (Pumpkin’s Delight), Hugh Lawson (Get Over, Get Off and Get On) and Butch Warren (Barack Obama), along with Duke Ellington (Main Stem and a later, lesser-known theme, You Dirty Dog). The strong performances by his band, and the subtle but serious lift provided by Medeski, makes Wilson’s choice of tunes seem both wise and like no big deal.

The garish outlier is a version of If I Were a Boy, the 2008 Beyonce hit, that Wilson has been playing live for a few years. At this point it’s neither timely nor transformative, and its inclusion feels too much like a bid for popular appeal. But that’s assuming Wilson hasn’t simply fallen in love with playing the tune. I wouldn’t put it past him.

— Nate Chinen, NY Times News Service