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Greater Richmond Children's Choir, "A Light to the World" (GRCC)

The Greater Richmond Children's Choir is one of our town's most acclaimed musical exports, having dazzled audiences from New York's Carnegie Hall to the Concorso Internazionale di Canto Corale in Verona, Italy. Director Hope Armstrong Erb and her choristers (ages 8-18) are now prepping for a tour of China next June.

A new Christmas disc by the Pro Arte Choir, the group's first-tier ensemble, features "A Ceremony of Carols" by the English composer Benjamin Britten, alongside a sampling of American and European carols spanning a millennium and styles as diverse as medieval chant and the African-American spiritual.

Britten wrote this set of 10 carols with processional and recessional with young voices in mind, and the piece has been recorded by many leading youth choirs. Erb and her choristers, joined by Richmond Symphony harpist Lynette Wardle, stand up to comparison with the best in sonority, diction and achieving this music's balance of austere purity and warmth of spirit.

The balance of the disc showcases some fine soloists -- Ruth Larsen is a standout in "I wonder as I wander" — and displays the choir's fluency and versatility. — Clarke Bustard

The Greater Richmond Children's Chour performs Britten's "A Ceremony of Carols" and other seasonal music Dec. 9 at 7 p.m. at Huguenot Road Baptist Church, 10525 W. Huguenot Road. Admission by donation. 201-1894.



Trio Mediaeval, "Folk Songs" (ECM)

After I listen to this collection of Norwegian folk songs by the 10-year-old Scandinavian ensemble Trio Mediaeval, one song in particular is running through my head. It's called "Det Lisle Banet," and while the Norwegian words aren't exactly catchy, the spirit is. The voices of Anna Maria Friman, Linn Andrea Fuglseth, and Torunn Ostrem Ossum create a trio with a direct and pure sound, sans vibrato. Their voices blend so well, it's hard to tell them apart — except in songs like "Rolandskvadet" where one voice rises much higher above the rest and takes on a thinner, less natural tone. The unique percussion and jew's-harp provided by Birger Mistereggen serve as a runway that the voices take off from and soar above while transporting the listener to old Norway, right from their living room.

For the fans of Anonymous 4, the energy of this music is especially catching — and it should be. After all, the true test of good folk music is its ability to be passed down. And if my experience is any indication, the listener of this music soon becomes an active participant. — Chantal Panozzo



Jesse Dayton & Brennen Leigh, "'Holdin' Our Own' and Other Country Gold Duets" (Stag Records)

Following in the grand tradition of Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn, George Jones and Tammy Wynette, and Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, country guitar slinger Jesse Dayton has teamed up with Austin spitfire Brennen Leigh for an album of country duets that pit female concerns against male waywardness. As songwriters and singers, Leigh and Dayton (who has played with Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings) address the ongoing battle of the sexes with wit, good humor and surprising sensitivity. Bolstered by a crack backing band, Leigh's forceful, expressive voice proves a good foil for Dayton's low, earthy country growl. It helps that the duo has little regard for contemporary Nashville country, but favor more traditional country and model themselves on the examples above. They pour the nostalgia a little too thick on the divorce drama "We Lost It" and the dusty Western "We Hung the Moon," but the rest of the album, true to its title, plays like country gold. — Stephen Duesner



Jay-Z, "American Gangster" (Roc-A-Fella Records)

Just when you thought Jay-Z was letting Lil' Wayne's prolific output captivate hip-hop, Hova returns with the soundtrack to "American Gangster." It hits harder than "Kingdom Come," which seemed more focused on Jay-Z being a statesman for hip-hop and making maturity sexy. Having watched the movie and secluded himself in the studio, Jay-Z spits here with the laser focus of a hustler.

The intro casts a wide net as to what the definition of a modern-day gangster is, ultimately including anyone willing to stand up against odds or work the system to his advantage. "Pray" opens with Beyoncé blessing the song with a prayer that sounds heaven-sent for street soldiers. "American Dreamin'" features one of the best samples of Marvin Gaye's work since Mary J. Blige's "My Life" album. All of Jay-Z's songs are inspired by scenes in the film; one should check out the movie to see what brought about the haunting "No Hook," where Jay-Z appears to fall back into the hard rationalizations of his drug-dealing days "servin' fiends" in the Marcy projects. Finally, "Fallin'" flips the perspective back to dealers incarcerated and full of regrets. Jay-Z presents the full spectrum of the game with an album that may well stand as a classic, the perfect companion to the highly touted movie. — William Ashanti Hobbs



Michael Hurley, "Ancestral Swamp" (Gnomonsong Recordings)

Now in his mid-60s, former Richmonder Michael Hurley is a national folk treasure. You probably didn't see him play much when he lived here (I heard he hated smoky bars), and now he resides near the hipster hotbed of Portland, Oregon, embraced as an elder statesman by the new young folkies.

Like an outsider's John Prine or Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Hurley sings evocative story songs about oddball characters, hobos and crapshooters he has met throughout his rambling life on the road, in a rich and complex voice that reminds me of the gnarled branches of an old valley oak tree, rooted in a solid, grumbling baritone, but still able to stretch into beautiful, warbling tendrils — always pulling the listener into an introspective space. His latest album (his 20th) is a stripped-down affair, with Hurley performing rich, Delta-blues flavored songs on guitar, fiddle and fretless banjo, occasionally backed by longtime Holy Modal Rounders partner Dave Reisch, as well as Tara Jane O'Neil and Lewi Longmire. The entire album is mesmerizing, but highlights include a haunting rendition of Lightnin' Hopkins "Lonesome Graveyard" with Hurley solo on electric piano; a recycled old Hurley tune "Light Green Fellow" from his indispensable 1971 album, "Armchair Boogie," and the opener, "Knowcando," a worn and whispered folk nugget with a fragile chorus, "Can you hear the cracklin' heart of the old pine wood?" Gorgeously imperfect, heartwarming stuff from an undisputed master.

— Brent Baldwin





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