Jim Branch (with the Jason Jenkins Trio) "Branching Out" (self-released)
While America's great singing idols are supposedly chosen in a glitzy televised karaoke contest, there is something to be said for vocals on a more human scale. Perhaps from his day job as one of the area's best tailors, Jim Branch understands how to fit material elegantly to a personal form.
"Branching Out" is intimate in concept and resolutely human in execution. With four standards, stretching out over a bit more than 20 minutes, it does anything but outstay its welcome. Branch approaches each song from the inside, building conversationally from the lyrics. There is space between the lyrics for the trio (Jenkins on bass, Keith Willingham on drums and Anthony Dowd on piano) to shine through. There's no stunt singing or distracting vocal pyrotechnics, just familiar words warmly delivered by someone who inhabits their meaning. ***1/2 Peter McElhinney
Ani DiFranco "Knuckle Down" (Righteous Babe Records)
For the first time, DiFranco wrote to a deadline, recruited a co-producer, Joe Henry, and involved a handful of additional musicians. However, the sound remains solitary and relaxed. Clean arrangements, minimal percussion and upright bass plunks frame 12 new tracks by a folksinger whose last release is barely a year old. Finger plucks tiptoe over guitar strings and patches of poetry; talk of politics is kept subtle with a simple ode to grassroots democracy (this may come as a surprise given DiFranco's outspoken nature and work to register young voters). Elsewhere, she takes an intuitive look at relationships, family and even the banality of a Sunday morning. The mellow tone and ease of the album are punctuated by the eerie spoken word of "Parameters" and quickened tempo of tracks such as "Knuckle Down" and "Manhole." More short story than soapbox, this disc is truly righteous. ***1/2 Hilary Langford
M.I.A. "Arular" (XL Records/Interscope)
Pop music rarely grabs you by the throat which is why this hip-hop-flavored album will be one of this year's best. Maya Arulpragasam (M.I.A.) is a 28-year-old Sri Lankan war refugee and daughter of a militant Tamil group founder. She escaped to London and became a successful painter before making sizzling, politically conscious dance music on her Roland MC-505 Groovebox.
Her debut album reverberates with a hypnotic fusion of dancehall, electroclash and hip-hop. Think of M.I.A. as the eye-of-the-tiger, world-music soul sister of Missy Elliott and Bow Wow Wow spitting lyrically sharp, in-your-face club tunes with synthetic Miami bass grooves.
Her propulsive 2003 single, "Gulang," is included, but what consistently stands out is the culture-defying flow of M.I.A.'s cross-pollinated slang and playful rhymes. "[She got] the bombs to make you blow!" Yes, her father (for whom the album is named) is linked to the inventors of modern suicide bomb jackets but the daughter is destroying barriers with new-school rebel music. ***** Brent Baldwin
Emma Kirkby and Fretwork "William Byrd Consort Songs" (Harmonia Mundi)
In soprano Emma Kirkby's recording of "William Byrd's Consort Songs," she displays not only a voice that's filled with warmth and clarity, but a deep understanding of the text as well as the period in which the music was written the late 16th century.
The English consort songs, a style of song that Byrd single-handedly sculpted, recall four-part Franco-Flemish chansons but are played instrumentally with an additional high, texted line. The string group Fretwork and soprano Kirkby's interpretations of these songs are both expressive and intimate. The CD leads off with "My mind to me a kingdom is," and Kirkby's voice seems to dance with the rhythms. Her inflections of the words sparkle with a natural fluidness. The virtuosity of Fretwork not only provides thoughtful accompaniment, but also shines in several solo fantasias that incorporate many dancelike qualities. From the quiet, introspective pieces like "Oh Lord, how vain" to the lighter "My mistress had a little dog," Kirkby and Fretwork perform with a compassion and style that give centuries-old music significance to listeners in the 21st century. ***** Chantal Panozzo
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