Back before pop diva Lisa Loeb became a household name, she and Elizabeth Mitchell performed together at Brown University. While Mitchell didn’t achieve Loeb’s fame, she possesses no less talent—and on her album for children, You Are My Little Bird (Smithsonian Folk ways), she demonstrates how the simplest music-making can be the most moving.
The world’s most popular rock band lives in constant contradiction. As U2 itself put it in the 1988 hit “God Part II”: “I don’t believe in riches, but you should see where I live.” The group at times proclaims Christ with power and passion, but it seems equally capable of cunning calculation.
This collection ranges from the merengue of Dominican superstar Reynold to the earthy Hungarian folk of Marta Sebestyen (knit with Arabic textures on “Bethlehem, Bethlehem”). The Cox Family’s dawn-in-Appalachia rendition of “Go Tell It on the Mountain” is a highlight. Other tracks sample holiday pieces from Sweden, Italy and Africa.
The late Curtis Mayfield integrated music and message in a way that changed history. Four-plus decades after achieving renown, his talent shines in the film Movin’ On Up: The Music and Message of Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions (Reelin’ in the Years Productions). More than a documentary, Movin’ On Up presents 22 complete songs, along with interviews.
Nick Cave might not be well known, but time spent with this complex Australian rocker is well spent. He doesn’t shy away from dense theological issues, which he explores in a rambling, lyrical style that recalls Jim Morrison at his poetic peak.
The band R.E.M. is easy to love—and hate. In the 1980s the group from Athens, Georgia, defined college and indie rock. It grafted locomotive Rickenbacker guitar and bass onto the no-nonsense beats of Bill Berry and the barely audible but alluring vocals of Michael Stipe.
Down in New Orleans
The Blind Boys of Alabama
Time Stand Still
Honoring the Fathers of Bluegrass: Tribute to 1946 and 1947
New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, largely inhabited by poor African-American residents, looks not much different now from when the floodwaters receded. You have to wonder how Washington would have reacted if Katrina had hit a wealthy, white gated community.
The Pigeons Couldn't Sleep
The Best of Jonathan Rundman: 20 Songs from the 20th Century
Peter Himmelman, formerly the bushy-haired hero of the New Wave band Sussman Lawrence, has transitioned into a middle-aged rocker, and his music reveals only the best results. His songs have a muscular, energetic groove that begs comparisons with Bob Dylan—his father-in-law. The lyrics balance pungent humor and well-versed, poignant observations.
If Abe Lincoln were to once again borrow from Jesus—but for C-SPAN’s cameras—he might say, “A house divided against itself cannot stand each other.” Partisan rancor is everywhere, leaving a few brilliant minds—Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart and Bill Maher among them—to revel in and play with the fray on TV.
David Bowie called them his favorite iPod download. U2 used their song “Wake Up” as the walk-on anthem for their last tour. Coldplay and David Byrne are unabashed fans. Not bad for a band that just debuted its second album.
Rickie Lee Jones broke into the music business in 1979 with the jazz-pop novelty hit “Chuck E’s in Love,” and she has been a maddening enigma ever since. At best she’s inconsistent, at worst she’s the embodiment of the tortured artist: all tantrum and attitude with little worthy fruit to show.
Those who discovered Joanna Newsom’s full-length debut The Milk-Eyed Mender (Drag City, 2004) fell without exception into two camps: either they ran screaming from her Betty-Boop-on-helium voice and tales of bridges, balloons and beans or found themselves enchanted and amazed.
Psalm 96 issues an invitation repeated throughout the Old Testament: “Sing to the Lord a new song.” Today’s Christian musicians follow that call into vistas that David could never have foreseen, from Celtic folk to speed metal to reggae.
In the two-CD effort Why Not Sea Monsters? Songs from the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament,(CarpetSquare) Justin Roberts steers clear of any ham-fisted agenda while staying faithful to the power and majesty of the Bible stories, and making them his stories. On the “Hebrew Scriptures” CD, Roberts gets things off to a clever start with “Why Not a Spark?” Singing in a style that suggests John Lennon, James Taylor and Glenn Tilbrook, Roberts lays out the tale of creation as if God were a smiling child in a swirling cosmic sandbox: “On the fourth day / God said, Where are the stars? / Where’s Mercury, Venus and Mars?/ Where’s all those old rusty cars? / Wait, that’s later!”
The British band Delirious has always been smart, drawing comparisons to U2, Radiohead and Blur. With the album The Mission Bell, the band shoots for added lyrical depth and force. “Our God Reigns,” a key-of-D dirge built around spare acoustic guitar, keyboards and thunderous percussion, may be the hardest-hitting piece, tacking issues like abortion and the AIDS pandemic. (“My Chinese take away/ Could pay for someone’s drugs.”) “Love Is a Miracle” alternates between smoldering, soulful verses and wide-open, gospel-flavored choruses, while “Paint the Town Red” rocks as hard as anything Delirious has ever cut.