Norah Jones "Not Too Late" (Blue Note)
Norah Jones has proven again that she can do no wrong. The follow-up to 2004's "No Place Like Home" finds the singer flanked once again by longtime friends Jesse Harris and Lee Alexander, who help deliver 13 tracks that verge on perfection. Devoid of bells, whistles and production tricks, Jones and company embrace a more organic style that defies genres and glows with authenticity. Her buttery vocals remain effortless and spill over sparse arrangements made up of brushed drums, warm bass plucks, lap steel slides, and even pots and pans.
At times, the Blue Note artist is surprisingly more Patsy Cline than Billie Holiday. "Sinkin' Soon" playfully tangles plucky banjo, tinkling keys and lighthearted lyrics, while surefire hits, "Be My Somebody" and "Thinking About You," are throwbacks to blues-meets-Motown territory showcasing Hammond organ drawls and radio-friendly refrains. Jones has matured considerably as a songwriter, and her lyrics now envelop beautiful landscapes, vignettes and even subtle political commentary. This is the ideal disc to accompany a lazy Sunday morning and will undoubtedly satisfy old and new fans alike. *** Hilary Langford
Various Artists "A Date With John Waters" (New Line Records)
It's time for another eclectic mix from Hall of Fame weirdo John Waters. Following his delightfully bizarre Christmas album, the king of sleaze is back with a campy tribute to the lovers' holiday, featuring 14 tunes dating from the 1930s to today. Kicking off with the first record Waters ever shoplifted, the cutesy Patience & Prudence hit "Tonight You Belong to Me," this collection trips merrily through gay punk rock ("Jet Boy Jet Girl"), a classic white-trash love duet by John Prine and Iris DeMent ("In Spite of Ourselves"), sultry jazz from a sour Mink Stole ("Sometimes I Wish I Had a Gun"), dippy '80s new wave ("Johnny Are You Queer?") and sappily upbeat oldies ("If I Knew You Were Comin' I'd've Baked a Cake").
But there are also some heavyweights, as Waters pads the tragically ludicrous numbers with nuggets from Ray Charles ("The Right Time"), Dean Martin ("Hit the Road to Dreamland"), and Ike and Tina's smoldering live rendition of "All I Can Do Is Cry." Sadly, none of these tracks is ultraobscure, and few grossly offend in the fine Waters tradition. Still, the CD satisfies with quirky variety and a playful naiveté sure to put you in the mood for ... naughtiness. As a sentimental Waters writes, "May all your Valentines be kind, raunchy, beautifully alarming, and know how to reciprocate." *** Brent Baldwin
Uri Caine "Moloch: The Book of Angels, Volume 6" (Tzadik)
John Zorn's Masada projects started out with a quartet playing an "Ornette Coleman meets klezmer" songbook. Since then, it has expanded and deepened into something like a movement, a recombinant swarm of ensembles featuring leading New York downtown scene musicians playing Zorn's seemingly bottomless well of clever and appealing compositions.
Estimable pianist Uri Caine, whose wide-ranging and ambitious projects have blurred the lines between classical, world music and the avant-garde, is a natural, arguably overdue choice to assay his second set of Masada compositions, "The Book of Angels." Every polished melody becomes a starting point for multifaceted solo explorations: Stride slides into impressionism, which angles into bop, and everything is illuminated by flashes of atonality and an underlying glow of spirituality.
Each of the 300 pieces in "Book" is named for a specific angel; the relationship between tune and title is obscure. (The titular "Moloch" isn't an angel but a god associated with child sacrifice.) The packaging is equally cool and cryptic, but none of that would matter if the music weren't brilliant. Caine's fluency crosses styles and centuries. If the wealth of ideas is sometimes overwhelming, it is never boring. **** Peter McElhinney
Local Bineighth blackbird "Strange Imaginary Animals" (Cedille)
University of Richmond-based eighth blackbird plays contemporary chamber music, the mere thought of which intimidates some people and brings on hivelike symptoms in others. The sextet's latest recording is wild, as its title promises, but not wildly esoteric. The album's six selections are mostly rooted in identifiable tunes and insistent riffs. None of them is intellectually chewier than a Bach fugue.
The composers of these pieces run the postmodern stylistic gamut, from minimalist-plus (Steven Mackey's "Indigenous Instruments") to effervescent neoclassical (Jennifer Higdon's "Zaka") to artsy heavy metal (David M. Gordon's "Friction Systems") to electroacoustic-otherworldly (Gordon Fitzell's "evanescence").
Several composers exploit the kaleidoscopic colors and cavernous resonance that pianist Lisa Kaplan and percussionist Matthew Duvall can produce. All take advantage of the group's eagerness to reach for any sound, known or not previously made, and make it musically organic. Dennis DeSantis' sassy, groovy "strange imaginary remix" is the hit single-in-waiting. **** Clarke Bustard
Eighth blackbird will play Gordon's "Friction Systems" in its Feb. 21 concert at UR's Modlin Center for the Arts.
Alabama Thunderpussy "Open Fire" (Relapse)
As wholesome as its name sounds, Alabama Thunderpussy isn't meant for polite company. That is, unless your idea of company involves Vikings, bikinis and spent ammunition. "The 'Pussy," as its Web site refers to the band, unleashes a relentlessly aggressive hybrid of American metal and Southern hard rock fueled by technically impressive musicianship, particularly from guitarist Ryan Lake and drummer Bryan Cox. What is it about Richmond bands, anyway? They all seem headed straight for the cover of Guitar Whiz magazine.
The group's latest CD also introduces new lead singer Kyle Thomas (Exhorder, Floodgate), whose gruff yet decipherable vocals have just enough range and spitefulness for metal theatrics. Moving easily from insidious growling to higher-pitched wailing that reminded me of grunge alt-rock singers of the '90s, Thomas seems ready for his close-up. Recorded at the Etching Tin Studio in Richmond by Ian Whalen, the album plows ahead with a straightforward, no-nonsense approach perfect for this kind of gritty truckstop metal (check out the catchy riffs and melodic changes in "Void of Harmony"). Simply put, this is the sound of a hungry rock band serious about its future. **** B.B.