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Mike Ragogna

Mike Ragogna

Posted March 30, 2009 | 05:41 AM (EST)

HuffPost Reviews: Leonard Cohen - Live In London / Yeah Yeah Yeahs - It's Blitz! / Nickel Creek's Sara Watkins - Sara Watkins


Leonard Cohen - Live In London

"About fourteen or fifteen years ago, I was 60 years old, just a kid with a crazy dream," cracks Cohen on his sensational live album that casts him alongside Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Paul Simon as an intelligent, sophisticated music elder statesmen. He then says, "I've also studied deeply in the philosophies, but cheerfulness kept breaking through," and if you know absolutely any of Leonard Cohen's songs (everybody's covered them) or heard any of his recordings, then you get that "cheerful" makes his vocabulary by way of accident or miracle. With a voice as bottomless as a pit (like Chris Rea's, Jon Mark's, kind of Neil Diamond's, and sometimes Robbie Robertson's), Leonard Cohen emotes from an even deeper source as he gets real personal with the listener and his characters like "Suzanne" ("...and you know that she's half-crazy, but that's why you want to be there..."), "...Marianne" ("...you know that I love to live with you, but you make me forget so very much..."), or even those "Sisters Of Mercy" ("...if your life is a leaf that the seasons tear off and condemn, they will bind you with love that is graceful and green as a stem...").

Recorded July 17, 2008 at the O2 Arena in London, England, this was meant to be some sort of farewell tour, though Leonard's voice really has grown better over the years. Unlike many of his heralded contemporaries, some of his more recent compositions actually are as engaging as his older works, and some are as brilliant as tracks found on his classic Songs Of... series of albums. Spanning two CDs (and an identical DVD), on Live In London, we get the mostly fedora'd band cranking out 25 of those songs, our star crooner growling out familiar phrases that uninitiated cynics might compare to Tom Waits (even though Cohen doesn't haunt the same gin-soaked joints). As mesmerizing as a saintly Svengeli, song after song, Cohen throws out sometimes disturbing confessionals like "In My Secret Life"'s "...I smile when I'm angry, I cheat and I lie, I do what I have to do to get by..." and we nod along with each phrase. In many songs, his evil eye stares down hypocrisy and society's ills, his serious, bass voice adding even more gravity to songs such as "Anthem" ("...yeah, the wars they will be fought again, the holy dove, she will be cut again..."), "Democracy" (as in "democracy is coming to the USA..."), "Everybody Knows" ("...everybody knows the war is over, everybody knows the good guys lost..."), and "First We Take Manhattan" ("...they sentenced me to 20 years of boredom for trying to change the system from within, I'm coming now, I'm coming to reward them, first we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin...").

In some cases, the master has learned from his disciples. His "Hallelujah" now takes on Jeff Buckley's version's vibe and tempo, and his "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye" morphs itself into any one of its numerous mid-tempo covers. The band's updated, intimate arrangements cure some of the dated and distracting approaches of many of Cohen's later songs' gimmicky studio recordings. But the essentials are intact, such as his mostly pared-down instrument casting, and I-Threes-style background vocal section that serves as an underline to his texts. Cohen's frequent co-writer, Sharon Robinson, accompanies him on a few tracks like "Boogie Street" where the soulful vocalist owns the first few lines with the spirit of a gospel singer but the soul of a subdued Roberta Flack before she joins him in unison for the song's remainder. And exotic instrumentalist, Javier Mas, extracts every bit of passion he can from "Suzanne," the very Pink Floyd-ish "The Gypsy's Wife," and "Who By Fire," and the soloists get introduced after every performance.

The roster gets a real workout on "I Tried To Leave You," a jam in which the band isn't trying all that hard to leave. Musician after musician goes front and center, starting with Bob Metzger (guitar), and Dino Soldo (sax and wind instruments), Neil Larson (B-3, keyboards), Sharon Robinson (vocals), Javier Mas (stringed instruments), The Webb Sisters (vocals), Roscoe Beck (bass), and Rafael Bernardo Gayol (drums) all following. Speaking of The Webb Sisters, their heavenly duet on "If It Be Your Will" is pure McGarrigle Sisters, almost completely sung in harmony with one or two unison lines for accent. The duo has another shining albeit brief moment backing Cohen's Kris Kristofferson-voiced take on the traddy, "Whither Thou Goest," after which you realize you've been attending the artist's dark Revival.

"I was drinking with my old teacher...he's 102 now," Cohen states while introducing "Tower Of Song." "He was 97 at the time. I poured him a drink, he clinked my glass and said, 'Excuse me for not dying,' and I kinda feel the same way...I wanna thank you for the many years that you've kept my songs alive." Cohen announces this like a man who is about to take off somewhere, like Bill Adama with Laura Roslin (shameless Battlestar Galactica reference). But like he did with his 102-year-old mentor, you just want to buy the guy a drink and assure him he ain't goin' nowhere, so pipe down. And if that really were the case, he's probably leaving bordello-style like his scene in "Closing Time" in which "...the women tear their blouses off and the men dance in (their) polka dots." In any case, what a cannon he someday will be leaving behind. In "Bird On A Wire," Cohen's overly-matured voice sings, "If I have been unkind, I hope that you can just let it go by, if I have been untrue, I hope you know it was never to you." He's done neither, although he has brutalized us over the years with wisdom, sincerity, and honesty, something he should never, ever apologize for.

Tracks

Disc One:
Dance Me To The End Of Love
The Future
Ain't No Cure For Love
Bird On The Wire
Everybody Knows
In My Secret Life
Who By Fire
Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye
Anthem
Introduction
Tower Of Song
Suzanne
The Gypsy's Wife

Disc Two:
Boogie Street
Hallelujah
Democracy
I'm Your Man
Recitation w/N.L.
Take This Waltz
So Long, Marianne
First We Take Manhattan
Sisters Of Mercy
If It Be Your Will
Closing Time
I Tried To Leave You
Whither Thou Goest


Yeah Yeah Yeahs - It's Blitz!

After their radio and video hit "Maps," lead singer Karen O's Adidas super-commercial "Hello Tomorrow," their tours with the Strokes and the White Stripes, and a couple of critically-loved albums and an EP, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs always have been in the public eye but have yet to become the cultural fixture their label's mission statement on the trio probably poses. However, this time out, this still slightly fresh-faced New York City art-punk/alty ensemble returns with It's Blitz!, a concise, ten-track adventure that is the most melodic and -- let's go there -- "commercial" album of their recorded run. Surfing even more of the seventies' and eighties' new wave on their trek to the dance clubs, the group's Karen O still sounds like Chrissie Hynde's younger sis (and looks less like Kate Voegle, or is it the other way around?); Nick Zinner's guitar is not as raw as in past grooves, but it's syncopated and glittery in all its glorious hooks and answer backs; and Brian Chase's drum kit obviously had sex with a cylon (another shameless BSG shoutout) resulting in a non-stop, proto-programmed sound that you don't really notice after the first nine songs. But that's just fine, it's playing its part in these past-pop permutations.

As soon as you open It's Blitz!'s jewel box and lift the platter off its tray, this cute little three-headed CD pizza (artwork) feeds ours computers about 42 minutes of electronically retro-licious pop. Its first three tracks -- "Zero," "Heads Will Roll" (ala a channeled Siouxsie Sioux), and "Soft Shock" -- immediately compete for best over-played dorm room darling. The winner obviously will be "Zero," whose clever video tracks Karen O's prance from the backstage of a pending show to the curtain rising on grittier city streets. She chants, "You're a zero, what's your name, no one's gonna ask you, better find out where they want you to go...can you climb, climb higher?" that throws, among other things, the whole fame versus cred thing out there for all to punkfully ponder. "Skeletons," with its tinkly drumsticks and thousands of layers of keyboards is probably the most enjoyable, least accessible potential single of the package, and the thankfully rocking "Dull Life" mates U2 guitar figures with early Annabella vocal stylings.

After what could be classified as "side one," we get Bow Wow Wow cum Avenue C in "Shame And Fortune" with its inside-out "Not Fade Away" drum beat and hardest rocking guitars on the album. "Runaway" is one of the best retro nods, though "Dragon Queen" flaunts hooks that seem inspired by Madness' "Our House" (including the use of a unison two octave chorus) and Steve Lillywhite guitar sounds from U2's Boy album. The pulsating, hypnotic "Hysteric" is the sexiest track here with so many eighties influences that its lyrics "...the cinders, the cinders they light the past and these strange steps take us back, take us back..." serve as both the love song's chorus and an afterthought of what was just digested over nine tracks. The album could have ended there, but it closes with the ballad "Little Shadow" whose chord pattern and melody line, in another era, could have been one of those "experimental" songs Linda Ronstadt explored. Instead, its nice after hours vibe serves as the wrap-up to a late-night, 42 minute hang with the roomies.

Tracks
1. Zero
2. Heads Will Roll
3. Soft Shock
4. Skeletons
5. Dull Life
6. Shame And Fortune
7. Runaway
8. Dragon Queen
9. Hysteric
10. Little Shadow


Sara Watkins - Sara Watkins

The Grammy-award winning trio Nickel Creek comprised of the brother/sister team of violinist/vocalist Sara Watkins and guitarist/vocalist Sean Watkins, plus mandolinist/vocalist Chris Thile, and together, they created some of the most legit folk music of our time. They aren't from Maine, Massachusetts, Upstate New York, Washington State, or even Appalachia -- they're from California's San Diego County, not exactly known for its folk music. Yet their amalgam of styles and influences invented a sound that, simultaneously, was new and old, and that furthered folk with the younger demo as they impressed and accumulated many generations of older fans. Individually, their talents were dispersed among various projects and modest side-band assemblies. Their contributions enhanced recordings by an older guard, with Sara having appeared as a harmony vocalist and/or fiddler on projects by Bela Fleck, the Chieftains, Ben Lee, Richard Thompson, Alex Woodard, and Dan Wilson. Now, after years of recording with others, Sara is releasing her first solo album on the prestigious Nonesuch Records, and her self-titled, 14-track debut is quietly authentic as it mesmerizes. Penning about half of the project's songs, Sara's strong yet sometimes whispered vocal approach on these tracks conveys all it needs to without one ounce of overkill...picture Emmylou Harris with touches of Edie Brickell and Rickie Lee Jones.

Cutting off a lover on the album's seductive starter, Sara's composition "All This Time" sets the emotional tone that follows. The acoustic waltz mourns with simplicity, and its sad harmony vocals emphasize just how commanding "subtle" is when used in the right hands. Her other originals are just as musically engaging, and they also reveal Sara as a serious lyricist with a mission. Songs such as "My Friend" ("...my friend is worn and torn, he's badly wounded, I don't know what he really needs...") "Where Will You Be" ("...when my face is not the face you want to see everyday, and my hand is not the hand you want to hold when you're afraid...where will you be?"), and especially her fiddled and harmonized toxic, backwoods dirge "Bygones" (played like strained, rhythmic breathing), paint varying grades of sepia across Sara Watkin's canvas.

We never stray from her portrait of relationships and Americana, not even in her original, instrumental bluegrass tracks, "Frederick" and "Jefferson." That also can be said about her choice of cover material that includes John Hartford's "Long Hot Summer Days," Jimmie Rogers' "Any Old Time," and Tom Waits' "Pony" (that is so well cast, it might as well be a Watkins original). Even the "single" candidates that pop up (like Jon Brion's "Some Mistakes" and David Garza's "Too Much") are very respectful of Sara's folk-roots vision, one that was overseen by producer and Led Zeppelin bassist, John Paul Jones. "A couple years ago, I saw John Paul Jones at the Cambridge folk festival," the artist recalls. "He came up after Nickel Creek's performance and said that if I didn't let him produce my record, he would never talk to me again!" Obviously, this association will generate comparisons to the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss project; but where the latter duo created an atmospheric folk union, Sara's is more traditional and pure. All of her guest side artists and band mates--Gillian Welch, Dave Rawlings, Jon Brion, Benmont Tench, Tim O'Brien, Ronnie McCoury, Rayna Gellert, Chris Eldridge, and yes, even Nickel Creek's Sean Watkins and Chris Thile--interpret the album's mood, perspective, and John Paul Jones' understated sonic blueprint without ever trying to redesign it.

In a perfect world, this album wouldn't be categorized as folk since it really is what country music should be--simple, deep, an unassuming voice of the people, and descended from the House of The Louvin Brothers and Bob Wills. Regardless, Sara Watkins carries the flag for folk on an album so rich that, in the very least, it should be an obvious Grammy nominee to anyone who really understands the genre. Had she recorded this album in the seventies and been signed to one of the larger labels...let's say Warners, Elektra, Asylum, or even Capitol...Sara Watkins probably would have earned an Emmylou Harris level of appreciation. Nonesuch now has that task and honor, so everyone keep your fingers crossed. Regardless of all that (and Nickel Creek's history and continued relevance), in the hear and now, Sara Watkins firmly establishes the woman as folk's newest herald, and a future force of nature to be reckoned with.

Tracks
1. All This Time
2. Long Hot Summer Days
3. My Friend
4. Freiderick
5. Same Mistakes
6. Any Old Time
7. Pony
8. Lord Won't You Help Me
9. Jefferson
10. Give Me Jesus
11. Bygones
12. Too Much
13. Will We Go
14. Where Will You Be


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