Music News

Short Cuts

Various Artists

Down through the ages, one art form has always had the potential to inspire another, and rock 'n' roll is no exception. Patti Smith's obsession with Rimbaud, Bill Nelson's fascination for Cocteau, Tom Waits' idol-worship of Jack Kerouac -- all of these musical talents have found some spark for their creative output at the cross-genre shrine. Film director Paul Thomas Anderson found so much inspiration in the words and music of emotionally charged pop poet Aimee Mann that he set out to write a movie based on Mann's oeuvre.

The project -- his latest film, Magnolia -- underwent significant alteration on the journey from idea to finished script, but its final iteration features Mann's melancholy pop masterworks as the sonic centerpiece, along with a handful of atmospheric tracks.

Magnolia begins with Mann's naked spin on Harry Nilsson's "One," first heard on the 1995 tribute For the Love of Harry, and proceeds through a handful of new songs, including the anachronistic jazz pop of "Momentum," the muscular mellotron-fueled dirge "Deathly," and the Beatlesque baroque of "Build That Wall" and "Driving Sideways." The instrumental workout "Nothing Is Ever Good Enough" actually appears in a vocal version on the preview EP for Mann's upcoming full-length disc Bachelor No. 2, slated for release early this year. Besides that slight return, the reprise of "Wise Up" from the Jerry Maguire soundtrack, and the reappearance of "One," this is all new musical terrain for Mann, great news for fans who have been waiting patiently since 1996's I'm With Stupid. The soundtrack is rounded out by a couple of Supertramp chestnuts from 1979's megahit Breakfast in America, a dancey number from Gabrielle, and an all-too-brief score piece from Jon Brion (Jellyfish, the Grays), Mann's partner in pop crime.

There is another dynamic at work in Magnolia -- the indisputable law that success on the previous project will never grant you success on the next one. Mann's worldwide recognition as lead vocalist for 'til tuesday ("Voices Carry," "Love in a Vacuum") in the early '80s has not translated into anything even remotely comparable in her solo career, which has been plagued by bad luck and bad labels.

If Magnolia's soundtrack is any indication, Mann way be on her way back to prominence. She has rarely been in better -- or more emotionally vulnerable -- voice, and the accompanying songs are brilliant reflections of that graced state. Mann's contributions to Magnolia mirror the best of her recent work, with a strong minor key pop direction and a lyrical artistry that references everyone from Lennon and McCartney to Brian Wilson to Andy Partridge. Whether or not the film soars, the soundtrack shows us a songwriter at the top of her game and worthy of renewed attention. -- Brian Baker

Various Artists
Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles (1921-1956)

Although it's best remembered today as the birthplace of late-'50s cool jazz, Los Angeles has been the breeding ground for an amalgam of blues-based styles, from the urbane tinklings of Nat "King" Cole to the honking jump blues of Big Jay McNeely and the improv mayhem of numerous bebop trailblazers. Rhino's boxed set Central Avenue Sounds offers a magnificent survey of the city's rich jazz heritage, a compilation of genre standards and obscurities, of legendary icons and overlooked journeymen. Along the way the four discs chronicle not just 35 years in the evolution of jazz and R&B, but popular African-American music during one of its early innovative zeniths.

Named in honor of L.A.'s major thoroughfare for black commerce and nightlife, Central Avenue Sounds kicks off with Kid Ory's seminal New Orleans stomper "Ory's Creole Trombone," presented for the first time at the correctly mastered speed, and the solo piano romps of Jelly Roll Morton. Three of Louis Armstrong's early Okeh recordings are here (including the lovely "If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight") as are two magnificent examples of Art Tatum's wildly influential keyboard work and Lionel Hampton's blazing "Central Avenue Breakdown." This is music that 70 years later still bristles with the thrill of discovery, that throttles you with its energy, passion, and rhythmic force.

By the '40s and early '50s, jazz was changing, venturing into several directions: the ornate compositions of Duke Ellington; the smooth, after-hours stylings of Nat "King" Cole and Charles Brown; the polished blues of guitarist T-Bone Walker and his many acolytes, among them Pee Wee Crayton; the raucous boogie-woogie of jump-blues shouters Big Joe Turner and Joe Liggins; and the spectacular bebop flights of Lucky Thompson, Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Dexter Gordon. Neither a behemoth for completists nor a mere sampler for novices, Central Avenue Sounds pulls together these myriad strains of jazz, using both classics and previously unissued sides to tell its story. Everyone's heard T-Bone Walker's "Call It Stormy Monday," but Charles Mingus' "Bedspread" and "Mingus Fingers" -- from 1946 and 1949 respectively -- have been elusive items in the brilliant bassist's canon.

Although you could argue that a fifth disc representing the cool jazz of the late '50s would have been nice, Central Avenue Sounds is nothing less than a masterwork, a testament to innovation and a celebration of sound, and one of the finest boxed sets of the year. -- John Floyd

Sheila Nicholls
Brief Strop
(Hollywood Records)

In the parlance of Nicholls' native England, stroppy is often used to describe a willful little girl. And it doesn't take long to understand why Nicholls would invoke this bit of slang for her auspicious debut. The ballad "Elevator" contains the following lines: "So we have sex instead/and we go so far and we do that for days/till we're knee deep in cum/dehydrated, exhausted, insane." Ahem.

Although cheeky in content, Nicholls' arrangements are sparing and often beautiful. Brief Strop tends toward showcasing her plaintive piano melodies and supple alto. Comparisons to Tori Amos will be inevitable. But Nicholls is at once more jagged and extroverted than her fellow Brit. "Peanuts" is a jeremiad against the evils of consumerism that sets Nicholls' syncopated phrasing against Luis Conte's energetic conga. Cellists Cameron Stone and Hope Easton drive the frantic lamentation of "Eiderdown," while Dave Stringer's harmonium fleshes out the sweet crooning of "Fallen For You." At the center of each composition is Nicholls' deft melodic sense, which calls to mind the balladry of Paul McCartney on weepers such as "Don't Die on the Vine" and "Perfection." Unfortunately Nicholls' more overt lyrical efforts fall flat. The dime-store feminism of "Medusa" and the naive pacifism of "The War Isn't Working" are not so much offensive as uninteresting. In the realm of the neofolkie, a little strop goes a long way.

Nicholls is a genuine talent, though, and the 14 frisky tracks collected here grow only richer with repeated play. True, the singer may overstate her case occasionally. But at least she has something to say. -- Steve Almond

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Steve Almond
Contact: Steve Almond
Brian Baker
John Floyd