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Reviews: Jesse Malin, Scissormen, Orrin Evans

Thursday, 08 Jan 2009 11:27 AM

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Pop:

JESSE MALIN "Mercury Retrograde" (One Little Indian, 3 stars)

Jesse Malin's 2008 covers album, On Your Sleeve, was heavy on '60s and '70s singer-songwriters, from Fred Neil and Neil Young to Paul Simon and Jim Croce. This live album, recorded in December 2007 in his hometown of New York, highlights those same influences as it presents a clutch of the urban troubadour and former glam-rocker's best songs (plus Young's "Helpless") in an engaging new light.

The mostly acoustic accompaniment, occasionally colored by piano, cello and violin, provides a folk-rock setting that veers from the more straight-up rock of Malin's studio albums and brings a new appreciation for the winning melodicism of his songs and the heart behind them. His jokey between-songs storytelling, meanwhile, deftly lightens the earnestness. (As bonus tracks, the album includes five studio performances, including three from "On Your Sleeve.")

-Nick Cristiano

PLIES "Da Realist" (Slip-n-Slide/Atlantic, 3 stars)

Florida rapper Plies' third album in less than 16 months furthers the hazy bounce of his first two albums, but don't confuse his relaxed swagger for laziness. When it comes to versatility, Plies is something of an ultimate fighter, effective on the street ("All Black"), in the bedroom ("Spend the Night"), and at the lectern ("Gotta Be"). He's also effective at the dinner table _ "Family Straight" talks of impossible reunions _ and in the car, where Da Realist's hypnotic beats are sure to sound best. As for the album's title, the misspelling would lead you to believe Plies is more concerned with flexing his street cred than having you think he's down to earth. Surprisingly, he cares about both.

-Michael Pollock

DEERHUNTER "Microcastle" (Kranky, 3 { stars)

Indie-rock has long since rediscovered the grandeur and mystery of the shoegaze/dream-pop era of two decades ago. But few albums have reconstituted that source material with as much unselfconscious verve as Deerhunter's "Microcastle." Guided by Bradford Cox, who also fronts Atlas Sound, Atlanta's Deerhunter blends trace elements of Ride and the Spacemen 3 with a dose of early Pink Floyd psychedelia. But remarkably, "Microcastle," Deerhunter's third album, does not sound at all nostalgic.

It jumps between abstract meditations and grandly cathartic guitar-rock, sometimes within one song, with everything colored in gauzy reverb. The standout "Nothing Ever Happened" is a euphoric exploration of repetitive riffing; "Twilight at Carbon Lake" begins in dreamy introspection before exploding into nightmarish power chords; and "Never Stops" is compact and tightly structured enough to qualify as a pop tune in "Microcastle's" blissed-out, trippy world.

-Steve Klinge

ANTHONY HAMILTON "The Point of It All" (So So Def/Zomba, 3 { stars)

The church-reared Anthony Hamilton has been singing silken R&B touched by gospel traditionalism since the '90s. There's purpose and direction to each lyric that the Southern gentleman's gritty voice takes to heart. His music has never sounded trite or retro, and his storytelling has never come across as preachy or dumb.

"The Point of It All" is another near-perfect Hamilton epic in which regret ("Please Stay") and romanticism ("The Point of It All") are given such heartfelt nuance that the singer seems to be sculpting each emotion. Then "Her Heart" stops you: Its feather-light sentiment and moping contemporary soul of the blandest sort slaps you in the face. That's how good Hamilton is: one slip and you feel it.

But Hamilton's richly etched baritone soars to new heights on the "Superfly"-like "The News." And on "Cool," Hamilton and rapper David Banner manage to make the very best out of being broke without resorting to cliche. That's better.

-A.D. Amorosi

Blues:

GINA SICILIA "Hey Sugar" (Vizztone, 3 stars)

Just 23 years old, Gina Sicilia has already made a name for herself in the blues world. Her debut album, "Allow Me to Confess," earned her a nomination for best-new-artist debut at 2008's national Blues Music Awards.

"Hey Sugar" keeps the 2007 Temple University graduate on an upward course. Once again she displays impressive range and depth as both a singer and a writer _ she again penned most of the material herself _ while also leaving the impression that she's going to get even better with age. With her alluringly husky alto, she's tough and assertive on the vintage-sounding jazz

R&B of "So Attracted to You," oozes sexiness on the swamp-tinged "Jack and Jill," and is open-heartedly vulnerable on the ballad "I Pray Every Day."

This time out Sicilia also highlights her affinity for country, with her own "What the Moon Could Never Do" as well as moving versions of Jimmie Davis' "Nobody's Darling But Mine" and Dolly Parton's "Coat of Many Colors."

-N.C.

SCISSORMEN "Luck in a Hurry" (Vizztone, 3 { stars)

As it turns out, Ted Drozdowski can play the blues as well as he writes about them. Previously best known to us as the sharp blues critic for Tower Records' old Pulse magazine, Drozdowski is the singer, guitarist and songwriter for the Scissormen, and the driving force behind this exceptional set.

Drozdowski salutes north Mississippi's late Junior Kimbrough with one number, and in the liner notes he mentions Otis Taylor among his "spiritual advisors." Throughout "Luck in a Hurry," you can hear traces of the mesmerizing drone those two masters have conjured. But Drozdowski's electric slide guitar sounds downright lethal in its own right: Listen to him slash and burn through his own "Move Baby Move" and "Do Wrong Man" as well as Son House's "Death Letter" and "John the Revelator" (the only two nonoriginals). Heightening the down-and-dirty immediacy and the lived-in sense of these performances are the various small-combo settings, which include drums, piano, fiddle, and, at one point, xylophone.

-N.C.

Jazz:

ORRIN EVANS "Tar Baby" (Imani Records, 3 stars)

Pianist Orrin Evans begins his CD with sampled words of the late White House spokesman Tony Snow, who said, "I don't want to hug the tar baby" in declining to discuss a surveillance program mentioned by the president.

That jarring moment is just for starters. The music that follows proves to be calamitous, intense and oddly beautiful.

The Philly-based Evans, 33, a leading jazz pianist of his generation, seems keen to set his quintet's music in a political context. In that way, he's a throwback to 1960s free players. The group's take of progressive trumpeter Don Cherry's "Awake Nu" recalls an earlier time with a frenetic lovefest, full of intuitive ripostes and discordant slashes.

But Evans is also about making his own mark. His tune "Iz Beatdown Time" generates lots of good heat.

Two Michiganders, J.D. Allen and Stacy Dillard, fill the tenor chairs.

Bassist Eric Revis and drummer Nasheet Waits keep the energy flowing for this challenging session.

-Karl Stark

VIRGINIA MAYHEW "A Simple Thank You" (www.renmarecordings.com, 3 stars)

I wish I'd heard this spring 2008 release sooner. Saxophonist Virginia Mayhew, a breast cancer survivor who lives in North Jersey, seems to have returned from her illness with more focus and ardor. Her horn-heavy septet is a model for straight-ahead playing, full of lively tunes, clean arrangements, and well-crafted solos. The septet revolves around four horns: trumpeter Scott Harrell, trombonist Noah Bless, saxophonist Lisa Parrott, and Mayhew, while guitarist Kenny Wessel provides another soothing voice.

The title track, by the enigmatically named bassist Harvey S, is a handsome tune that gets nicely reworked by the leader and the fine Canadian-born trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, in a guest appearance.

Monk's "Rhythm-A-Ning" has lots of the requisite snarl and funk, courtesy of drummer Victor Jones.

- K.S.

Copyright 2009, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Reprinted Via Newscom.

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