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Now Hear This

Reviews of recent music by Ratatat, Yuja Wang, Bungalo6 and Leon Huff.


Yuja Wang, “Sonatas & Etudes” (Deutsche Grammophon)

This may be the most eagerly anticipated debut album by a classical pianist in a generation. Yuja Wang, a 22-year-old from China by way of Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music, has been stunning audiences and driving critics to their thesauruses since she was 14. 

Wang's first disc reprises music she played two years ago in a University of Richmond concert with Shanghai Quartet as well as a solo recital there two months later: Franz Liszt's massive Sonata in B minor; the shorter but no less challenging and intense “Sonata-Fantasy” in G sharp minor by Alexander Scriabin; and two brief but eventful Actudes, “Fanfares” and “The Sorcerer's Apprentice,” by GyArgy Ligeti. To those, she adds Frederic Chopin's “Funeral March” sonata (No. 2 in B flat minor), which resonates in spirit, if not style, through the other works.

This program constitutes a critical mass of technically challenging music for the piano, and Wang produces a 74-minute detonation of dazzling finger work, brilliant sprints across the keyboard undergirded by seismic bass lines. Her energy, power and stamina are awesome; so is her firm grasp of music that could easily spin out of control, especially at the speedy tempos she takes.

But this is more than a collection of finger-busters: Wang has ordered these pieces into a primer on the art of the musical fantasy, as developed by the romantics and reflected through modern prisms. By placing the Liszt at the end, she reminds us that so-called modern harmonic language was spoken in the mid-19th century. Fast and loud as it gets, however, this music is poetry — free verse in sound. Wang gets that, too, phrasing lyrically and airing out phrases with silences in which the imagination has room to play.  HHHHH — Clarke Bustard

Ratatat, “LP3” (XL Recordings)

On its third release, instrumental Brooklyn duo Ratatat creates multilayered electronic rock with a hint of melancholy that calls to mind composer Jon Brion's quirky soundtrack work for Charlie Kaufman and P.T. Anderson films. 

Marking a shift away from their former riff-based guitar music, the musicians crafted “LP3” in a Catskill mansion filled with unusual instruments from mellotrons and harpsichords to the Iranian goblet-shaped drum known as a zarb.

Guitarist Mike Stroud and beat maker and multi-instrumentalist Evan Mast thread a sense of playful experimentation through these hip-hop-tinged, East-meets-West tracks that one minute evoke '70s talk-box funk (“Falcon Jab”) before shifting gears into Ennio Morricone spaghetti-western territory (“Mi Viejo”) or minor dub workouts (“Flynn”). One of the standouts, the blip-happy, twin-guitared “Mirando,” already has been remixed into a 10-minute techno piece by Animal Collective, the first remix under its own moniker. Should be interesting to see how Ratatat pulls off its textural, laptop-edited music in a real-time setting in Richmond — and whether the audience consists of a sea of bald John Malkoviches staring at each other. HHHII — Brent Baldwin

Ratatat performs at the National on Wednesday, April 15, at 8 p.m. with Tussle and Black Pus. Tickets are $15. 612-1900 or

Leon Huff, “Here to Create Music” (Epic Legacy/Sony)

Leon Huff and his partner, Kenny Gamble, were responsible for the “Philly Sound,” an upbeat soulful movement that pushed the careers of the O'Jays, Teddy Pendergrass, Billy Paul and others. Unlike Gamble, Huff attempted to step out of the shadows as a recording artist with his own record “Here to Create Music,” originally released in 1980.

Though Gamble is absent from these proceedings, the Philly sound is all over the place, with Pendergrass and members of the the O'Jays and the Jones Girls dropping in. Despite the name-brand cameos, the album isn't packed with radio-friendly music and most of the album is instrumental. It's easy to see how soul-and-jazz workouts such as “Tasty” failed to distinguish themselves in the post-disco era.

Many successful producers are unable to match the music they've created for others, and Huff is no exception. The standout cut, “I Ain't Jivin', I'm Jammin',” isn't as dated as the title suggests. The song borrows from a riff from another Huff-produced hit and places it within a soulful gospel context, with brilliant results. Also included is the sought after B-side to “Tight Money,” the creatively titled “Money's Tight” and the never-released “Sassy.” HHHII — Craig Belcher

Bungalo6, “Radio Ready — Mark Ingraham presents Bungalo6” (Self-Produced)

The biggest surprise from the new Bungalo6 CD is the accuracy of the title. This is a flat-out, audience-friendly product from musicians whose goal goes beyond making a reputation to making a living. Most of the songs clock in at about four minutes, with intelligible pop lyrics and flashes of instrumental brilliance all in the service of concise composition.

The CD kicks off with a minisong cycle with lyrics by vocalist Margaux LeSourd. “Strong Enough” combines modern R&B polish with metal guitar crunch;  “Leaving It Up to You” pits dueling guitars against unison horns; “Not the One” starts as a straightforward slow ballad with a double-time bridge. At this point it seems pretty clear to which musical neighborhood this CD is going, except it isn't. The next song is the '70s soul mashup “Talking Dirty,” followed by a funk instrumental, the two-part Spanish-tinged “Hasta La Madre.” LeSourd shows up again on “I Miss You Baby,” quavering apologetically until the funk kicks in, then she disappears as the guys take a left turn into the mix of tight playing and goofy-nasty vocals with “Call Me the Butcher.”  By the time it closes out with the “Thank You,” it's clear that leader and composer Ingraham has accomplished something noteworthy. The album is a spin along the radio dial, experimenting with every station in Ingraham's imagination. Most local band recordings are, at best, a recreation of the live experience; the variety and polished production of “Radio Ready” adds a new and compensating dimension. HHHHI — Peter McElhinney

The band's CD release party will be held Saturday, April 11. There will be an early show at Plan 9 Music in Carytown at 3 p.m. and another show that evening at the Camel at 9:30 p.m. 358-4901.


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