Sia, "Some People Have Real Problems" (Hear Music)
Sia has worked with everyone in the world of trip-hop, from Massive Attack to Zero 7. But she's most widely known for her achingly beautiful "Breathe Me," which finished off the last episode of "Six Feet Under" on HBO. Her latest finds the Aussie successfully dishing out more signature, semi-soul vocals over eased beats and a few piano tinkles here and there.
The vibe of these 13 tracks, however, is slightly lethargic. With cuts such as "I Go to Sleep," "Beautiful Calm Driving" and "Lullaby," the sound Sia is going for this time around is obvious. The only upswing on the disc comes by way of "The Girl You Lost to Cocaine," a confident number led by drum kicks and just-above-a-whisper choruses.
While the drowsy mood is fine for a slight departure from her massive dance hits "Drink to Get Drunk" and "Little Man," let's hope Sia doesn't land alongside Enya in the easy-listening bin at Borders anytime soon. -- Hilary Langford
Livia Sohn & Benjamin Loeb, "Opera Fantasies for Violin" (Naxos)
As long as there have been singers, there have been instrumentalists trying to imitate them. In the 19th century, instrumentalists such as Liszt and Paganini took opera themes and created new works. These transcriptions became showpieces in their own right, amazing audiences with virtuosic renditions based on opera melodies that were so embellished they could, in their new alterations, never be sung.
The extent to which this genre has developed can be heard in the new release from young violinist Livia Sohn, who says her "ultimate goal is to sound like a singer." Ironically, an operatic fantasy is not the best way to showcase the ability of an instrument to sing but a couple of the pieces here do allow the violin some splendid melodies.
The best example is "Desde mi ventana" from Osvaldo Golijov's 2003 opera, "Ainadamar" transcribed for the first time by its original composer along with Stephen Prutsman. Sohn's playing is at its most vocal here as she displays a seamless range and a lovely legato line. This piece, the highlight of the CD, culminates in a beautiful melancholy duet between Sohn and her husband, violinist and violist Geoff Nuttall.
Other works, such as Hubay's "Fantaisie brillante on Bizet's Carmen," begin with bravo, but then over-embellishment steals it back as we lose the essence of "Carmen" in the process. To be sure, Sohn has an innate ability to make the violin sing as well as impeccable technique. But opera fantasies, paradoxically, show off more of the latter. Chantal Panozzo
Joe Jackson, "Rain" (Rykodisc)
There's nothing wrong with writing music for piano bars. Joe Jackson's new album, however, has plenty of piano and not enough bar: These 10 songs, with their jazzy appointments and moody drama, sound so polite and refined, yet lack any compelling rough edges. They sound so polished and slight that you might forget that Jackson started out orbiting London's new-wave scene or that he's since forged a career as an urbane pop craftsman.
On "Rain," despite some characteristically complicated piano playing, Jackson mistakes slick for smart and sophisticated. "Wasted Time" and "Citizen Sane" are show tunes in search of a show and in search of a character. Perhaps because time has ravaged his voice or because he has severely over-polished these gems, the songs lack the personality to sell their conflict, even when he tosses in a new-wave bass line (on the unbearable "King Pleasure Time") or a well-timed expletive ("Solo [So Low]"). "Rain" simply washes away. Stephen Duesner
Various Artists, "The Big Stiff Box Set" (Salvo UK)
This handsome, four-CD box set with the slightly pornographic name contains a mixed bag of nearly 100 singles from legendary pub-rock-turned-punk-rock UK label, Stiff Records. Known primarily for releasing early work from Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and The Pogues (as well as introducing Britain to new-wave American acts such as Devo), Stiff Records had impeccable taste, whether rock, ska or punk. As the label moved into '80s pop, some of the material suffered, but to their credit, the producers of this set have included everything. Most of the material is exceptional, even brilliant (Costello's "Less Than Zero" or the classic Devo rocker "Be Stiff"), while a small portion, such as Tracey Ullman's saccharine sweet "They Don't Know," are grating to these ears.
The first CD kicks things off strong with straight-ahead rock (including The Pink Fairies and Motorhead) and memorable tracks by punkers The Damned. Disc two features winners by Madness, Desmond Dekker and Joe "King" Carrusco & The Crowns, among others (the cover "I Think We're Alone Now" by half-Bosnian, half-British Lene Lovich is far better than the Tiffany hit).
Disc three may be the weakest, concentrating on lesser-known artists (Nigel Dixon and Billy Bremner), but it still has its moments; while disc four basks in the glory of salty classics by The Pogues and The Untouchables, as well as a telling excerpt from "The Wit and Wisdom of Ronald Reagan" a 45-minute album of complete silence. Overall, this is a consistently entertaining box set of great, mostly U.K. singles. Brent Baldwin
The Pogues perform at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., Sunday, March 9.