PJ Harvey, "White Chalk" (Island Records)
Everything about Polly Jean Harvey's eighth studio release is as dry and lifeless as its title might suggest. "The Devil" starts off the disc with promise led by pounding keys and a stripped-down sound audiences might not expect from the songstress. Soon thereafter, everything flatlines and one austere song bleeds miserably into the next. From time to time, there are instrumental moments of sheer beauty where harps and strings tangle in haunting choruses, but overall, Harvey spends too much time straining vocally at the top of her range. Not once does the growl of guitar reverb or signature Harvey sass enter the picture as it has in the past with cutting tracks like "Rid of Me" or "C'mon Billy." Lyrics are so forgettable that they may as well have been an afterthought and will disappoint those who have followed the songwriter's cleverly crafted career. Harvey has taken a swing at simplicity and missed considerably. Fortunately, the disc is a mere 30 minutes long and will be easily forgotten. -- Hilary Langford
Charles Mingus Sextet with Eric Dolphy, "Cornell 1964" (Blue Note)
Recent years have seen great, rediscovered performances by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and especially, the pivotal collaboration between John Coltrane and Thelonius Monk at Carnegie Hall. This isn't in the same class of rarity -- one of Mingus' most famous concerts followed this appearance at Cornell by only three weeks. But it is a great recording of an amazingly creative, funny, passionate band operating at the peak of its powers. For those who want historical significance, it marks the earliest band performances of one of the bassist's great works -- "Orange Was the Color of Her Dress The Blue Silk" -- and an extended, quote-filled version of "Fables of Faubus," mocking Orval Faubus, the Arkansas governor who tried to stop the desegregation of Little Rock schools exactly a half-century ago. There is also a kicking version of "Take the A Train," an extended "Meditations," and given that the day before the concert was St. Patrick's Day, "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling." The band included Jaki Byard on piano, Johnnie Coles on trumpet, Dannie Richmond on Drums, and Clifford Jordon on tenor. And, of course, it features Eric Dolphy on alto, flute and bass clarinet. Dolphy is one of the legendary innovators of the era, collaborating with Coltrane on "Africa Brass," recording the classic "Out to Lunch" and being a key part of what may have been Mingus' best band. He was at the tail end of his association with Mingus at this point; barely three months later, Dolphy would die of complications from diabetes. "So Long Eric," Mingus' farewell, would become an elegy, but the version here, between "Meditation" and "Irish Eyes" is all bluesy joy. There are a lot of great live performances, but few are so full of life. Peter McElhinney
The Mingus Awareness Project presents an ALS benefit concert at The Camel Sunday, Oct. 21, 4-7 p.m. Admission is $12. Performers at the all-Mingus event (the bassist died from ALS in 1979) include the Brian Jones Guitar Quartet, John D'earth and the M.A.P Quintet/Big Band conducted by Doug Richards.
Jill Scott "Real Thing: Words and Sounds Vol. 3" (Hidden Beach Records)
Somewhere between "Who Is Jill Scott?" and 2004's "Beautifully Human," Jill Scott's long-awaited third album branches out into rock and gospel with the poetry of her acclaimed debut. Above all, "Real Thing" is testimony to the fact that sophisticated, dignified and (newly divorced) women still have needs. "Hate on Me" shines with its bra-strap-snapping kiss-off to Scott's ex-husband, Lyzel Williams. Killer tracks like "Crown Royal" bring out a more sensual, restless Scott with a groove made for the VIP room of finer gentlemen's clubs. "Epiphany" pits the dignified, queenly role she's known for against the torrid heat of her own sexuality. The album slips into a monotonous tempo in the middle, but comes out of it just in time with "Celibacy Blues." This song is rich with blues phrasings and wit, with Scott suffering her "gangsta type of need"; all those weary of Scott's regal air may find her refreshingly familiar on this outing. The "Real Thing" is a bona fide Jill Scott project, complete with social commentary and pleasing wordplay. William Ashanti Hobbs
Luther Vandross "Love, Luther"(Sony Records)
As is the case with most legendary artists, master songwriter, producer and opulent-voiced crooner Luther Vandross continues to please his fans posthumously. The singer's first career-spanning compilation, "Love, Luther," has all the songs you would expect and then some. The four-disc set includes every hit from Vandross' expansive career, including "Never Too Much," "A House Is Not a Home" and "If This World Were Mine." Duets with Mariah Carey, Beyoncé and Dionne Warwick are also thrown in for good measure. For the true Vandross aficionado, there are songs from his two releases on the Atlantic/Cotillion label, which are long out of print. The set also boasts six previously unreleased tracks, an early promotional recording and commercial jingles. All that's missing is his answering machine message set to a Babyface beat. The handsome collection includes a 60-page book insert with a 1,700-word essay and a timeline of Luther's life and career along with 56 tracks. Too much? Never. --Maree Morris
Cloak/Dagger, "We Are" (Jade Tree records)
The bombastic debut album by Richmond's own Cloak/Dagger is a thoroughly raw 25-minute punk rock assault that drives a train over you on the first track, then lassoes your flattened skull and drags it down the line. None of these early hardcore-influenced songs ever runs over 2 minutes and 50 seconds, keeping a frenetic, balls-to-the-wall pace highlighted by the spastic drumming of Colin Kimble (who sounds like his ass barely touches his seat) and the edgy guitar work of Collin Barth, who reminded me at times of a rabid Joey Santiago (The Pixies) enunciating precise guitar lines by keeping the distortion to a minimum. Deceptively sloppy, the band remains tight at breakneck speed and the album feels like an in-your-face live performance, thanks partly to solid production work by Lords' Chris Owens. Lead screamer Jason Mazzola barks out lines perhaps inspired by his hometown: "We're proud of ourselves, we wear our egos so well/in a city this small where everybody looks the same/in a city this small what's the point of having names."
Cloak/Dagger play on Halloween in Richmond with Shook Ones and Permanent at a venue to be announced. Check the band's MySpace page for updates.
Various Artists, "The War: A Ken Burns Film: Deluxe Edition Box Set" (Sony)
Say what you will about the facts in Ken Burns' historical documentaries, the director usually makes compelling human drama through his use of interesting characters, aided by his attention to period details. This box set of moody soundtrack music to his seven-part series on World War II features four different themed discs (67 songs) filled mostly with predictable hits from the big band era of the swinging '40s. Disc one, the most interesting and diverse of the bunch, features the only previously unreleased material: namely, a lovely track by Norah Jones -- her hushed piano ballad version of Gene Scheer's patriotic "American Anthem" -- plus some haunting blues instrumentals from Wynton Marsalis that are among the most effective in the film. Disc two ("Sentimental Journey") begins the onslaught of hits straight from a wartime jukebox, recognizable tunes by the likes of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller. Disc three ("I'm Beginning to See the Light") picks up the pace with more big band dance instrumentals, but nothing revelatory. Finally, disc four ("Songs Without Words") may be the most moving, as it contains the classical adagios and dirges that colored the series' mesmerizing moments. It is complex, emotional stuff (other composers include Liszt, Dvorak, Fauré, Copland) that could leave some people curled up in a ball. But unless you need a beginner's guide to wartime oldies, you're better off purchasing the single CD edition of the soundtrack (disc one here) -- which presents a good mixture of everything the box has to offer. Brent Baldwin