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Now Hear This

New discs from the Apples in Stereo, Jay-Z, the Wingdale Community Singers, Whitney Houston and Verbatim.

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The Apples in Stereo, “#1 Hits Explosion” (Yep Roc)
Once part of the famed Elephant 6 lo-fi collective (which includes Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control), the Apples in Stereo have been recording their own brand of hyperactive power pop for almost 15 years. “Fun Trick Noisemaker,” their 1995 debut, set the college radio world ablaze with its blast of hook-laden bliss. While an argument can be made that the Apples never quite matched the charm of that first release, other albums, such as “Tone Soul Revolution” ('97), “Her Wallpaper Reverie” ('99) and “Velocity of Sound” (2002), all have their share of melodious, happy-making highlights. In 2007 the band ended a long recording hiatus and issued “New Magnetic Wonder,” and it was like it had never gone away. The sarcastically titled “#1 Hits Explosion” collects 16 standout tracks from the Apples' recorded output.  At times, they can sound like a Guided by Voices with flat songwriting. But in their best moments they sparkle with energy so infectious and armed with vocal melodies so irresistible, you want to jump out of your seat and do cartwheels while singing along. HHHHI — Brian Greene

The Wingdale Community Singers, “Spirit Duplicator” (Scarlet Shame Records)
It must be nice to have a top-notch novelist in your band — you really don't need to worry about lyrics much. The second effort from old-timey-influenced Brooklyn quartet, the Wingdale Community Singers, finds the group settling into cosmopolitan folk mode, highlighted by the lovely and strong-willed vocals of Hannah Marcus and Nina Katchadourian, the tasteful instrumentation of indie-rock vet David Grubbs (Gastr Del Sol, Red Krayola) and subtle and evocative lyrical imagery from acclaimed writer Rick Moody (“The Ice Storm” and “Purple America”). These songs may point to the past musically, but most have contemporary themes. Marcus confidently leads the way on numbers such as “Naked Goth Girl,” the gospel-tinged sing-a-long “AWOL” (“from the army of the lord”) and the Bakersfield country of “Tears in My Tequila.” Moody-penned tunes that he also sings, working within his limits, half speaking, half gently singing —such as the piano-led ballad “Let My Ship Pass By” — have a quiet power and seem more confident since I last saw the group at a party in Manhattan a few years ago. Various friends provide string instruments and trumpet backup, often evoking a kind of baroque chamber pop, but nearly all the songs have the simple appeal of good community folk, buoyed by exceptional song writing and sweet harmonies. The beautiful closing cover of the A.P. Carter classic, “Death is Only a Dream” is the perfect capper for a group that understands its roots.  HHHHI — Brent Baldwin

Whitney Houston “I Look to You” (Arista Records)
Faithful Whitney Houston supporters will champion this album as her true comeback, but it lacks any chemistry between her vocals and the arrangements. “Million Dollar Bill” has an old, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes feel, and Houston sounds weary. “I Didn't Know My Own Strength” is the closest testimony of Houston's battles with substance and spousal abuse, even though she never lets loose vocally. Worse yet, the title track lacks the tearful, dramatic punch now expected of a Houston ballad. The poignant “A Song for You” is marred by a plastic disco treatment that will leave many scratching their heads; only “Nothin' But Love” and “Call You Tonight” appropriately match her now mellowed delivery. Those of us with objective distance may choose to accept the album and detest, all the more, the toll that hard living exacts. HHIII — William Ashanti Hobbs

Jay-Z, “The Blueprint 3” (Roc Nation)
Jay-Z the rapper really did retire after “The Black Album.” Since then, Jay-Z the mogul has been the one making records, lavishly overspending to make futuristic-sounding albums that perpetuate yesterday's business models. Like “The Blueprint 2” and “Kingdom Come” — both expensive but baroquely empty records — “The Blueprint 3” is a wildly overstuffed effort that has absolutely nothing to say but a slick way of not saying it. This isn't ambition, per se, but Jay-Z's idea of ambition is recruiting nonhip-hop collaborators (Luke Steele of the Sleepy Jackson), sampling '80s hits in their entirety (Alphaville's “Forever Young”), tolerating a lame Kanye verse and indulging an extravagant running time. There are some high points (notably “Empire State of Mind” with Alicia Keys), but they sound like flukes. This blustery release proves money can't buy credibility, which is something Jay-Z the rapper knew instinctively but Jay-Z the businessman has yet to learn.  HHHHI — Stephen M. Deusner

Verbatim, “S/T” (Self-released)
During the summer many local bands go on tour or on hiatus, leaving the field open for experimental combinations of players. None of these new bands was more stripped down than Verbatim, a duo featuring Fight the Big Bull and Ombak trombonist Bryan Hooten and drummer and RVAJazz blogger Dean Christesen.

The group first played last spring at Christesen's junior recital; since, it has played multiple gigs around town and gone on a minitour of the East Coast. The eponymous CD was recorded at Spacebomb Studios — aka Fight the Big Bull leader Matt White's attic — in a single session as a product to sell on the road to defray expenses. The most impressive thing about the band is the ultratight interplay of Hooten and Christesen; lines on the horn are mirrored and expanded on the skins, and vice versa.

Ideas are expressed with precision and clarity. There are references to thermodynamics, Tuvan throat singing and the sci-fi planet Arrakis (better known as Dune from the novel of the same name). Hooten is always willing to take his instrument to the edge while Christesen keeps everything grounded in crisp, chamber complexities. There are some weaknesses: There's more calculation than passion in the compositions, and, inevitably, with the limited sonic palette, dAcjA├┐ vu starts to creep in. There may not be vast horizons for Verbatim to explore, but this CD captures a clever collaboration in sharp focus.  HHHII— Peter McElhinney

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