-- Brian Falk
Duke Ellington and his Orchestra -- ... And his Mother Called him Bill (Bluebird/BMG) 1967. The Summer of Love. Sgt. Pepper's. Are You Experienced. Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington's long-time musical partner, died that year, and it didn't exactly do a seismic number on the national psyche. Clearly, it resonated with Ellington and his orchestra, though, who three months later lovingly recorded an album of all Strayhorn songs: "Blood Count," "After All," "Lotus Blossom" (a solo Duke and a trio version), "Raincheck" and others -- but, oddly, no "Lush Life," which Ellington refused to include. ...And his Mother Called him Bill, fleshed out with six bonus tracks, is simply 72-and-a-half minutes of radiant, sophisticated music. Strayhorn's luxuriant melodies are wrapped in epic arrangements that emphasize the sensitivity of the tunes. The music swings smooth and easy, the horns caress instead of careen. This disc is, in every conceivable way, gorgeous. -- Eric SniderEva Cassidy -- Imagine (Blix Street)Discovered posthumously by the independent Blix Street label, Cassidy -- who died of melanoma in 1996 -- went to No. 1 in Britain and developed a sizeable cult following in the States with "98's Songbird. Despite worries that Imagine might've been dredged from the bottom of the barrel, this set of standards and covers (Lennon's "Imagine," "Danny Boy," "Fever," "Tennessee Waltz" and more) is of generally high quality. The disc accomplishes essentially one thing, the only thing it really had to: showcasing a truly extraordinary, angelic voice. Part folkie, part jazz diva, part blues chanteuse, Cassidy had the whole package: clarion tone, impeccable chops, natural interpretive savvy and that intangible ability to get inside your heart. -- Eric Snider Jimmy Fallon -- The Bathroom Wall (Dreamworks) There's no shorter road any comic can take to Hasbeenville than the one down which his or her frustrated musicianship begins to overshadow the humor. And despite his reported protestations to the contrary, Saturday Night Live marquee player Jimmy Fallon's first CD seems an obvious bid for musical credibility. While split evenly between songs and live stand-up, the five tracks of tuneage place slick production values and somebody's idea of commercial listenability far above actual comedy. Of the soul song, the hip-hop song, the country song, the power-pop song and the punk song, only the soul song (first single "Idiot Boyfriend") is even marginally funny, because it doesn't try to take its songcraft seriously. Ignoring that Fallon is a comedian and digesting the other tracks simply as songs finds them mediocre at best. Even the stand-up is largely music-oriented, consisting mainly of hit-or-miss impressions of pop stars and other comics doing jingles. Fallon's presence on SNL is undeniable, but listening to The Bathroom Wall, one's gotta wonder how he got there in the first place. -- Scott Harrell
Los Lobos -- Good Morning Aztlan (Mammoth)
The band from East LA continues its streak of great albums. For at least the last ten years, Los Lobos has somehow managed to make each new release better than the one before. Whether or not you believe Good Morning Aztlan continues that trend depends on how much you liked the dreamy, semi-psychedelic sounds they made with producers Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake. If you loved those sounds, you'll miss them on this album, which focuses instead on the direct lyrics and basic rock and roll that have always made up most of the Los Lobos style. The hard-hitting rock and blues still mix with the positive messages, and the Latin elements are still strong with the beautiful "Luz de mi Vida" and "Malaque."
-- Brian Falk
No Knife -- Riot for Romance! (Better Looking Records) Possibly the most under-appreciated rock/postrock outfit ever to emerge from San Diego's fertile scene, No Knife have over the course of three full-lengths carved out their own inventive brand of guitar and melody-driven sci-fi psychedelia. Riot for Romance! continues the evolution, binding the quartet's inimitable snaking, trebly guitar lines and airtight, off-kilter grooves to more subtle and mesmerizing effect. Less bombastic than Fire in The City of Automatons (1999), Riot nonetheless bristles on occasion, as in "Swinging Lovers," the noisy breakdown of "Parting Shot," and "Flechette." Largely, though, the disc is a near-perfect marriage of rhythm and atmosphere, a spaced-out headphone-listener's dream that rocks with danceability, too. No Knife reinvent Fugazi's familiar post-hardcore milieu as a gentler New Wave, Pink Floyd and Wire-damaged moonscape. And it works unbelievably well.
-- Scott Harrell
Linda Thompson -- Fashionably Late (Rounder)Shortly after her marriage to acclaimed songwriter Richard Thompson ended in 1982, Linda Thompson released one solo album before tragedy struck and she was diagnosed with a psychological disorder that left her unable to sing. But with gentle coaxing and assistance from her son Teddy, Linda gradually regained the use of her voice and returned to the studio. The result is the quiet, folksy and entirely engaging Fashionably Late, featuring mostly original songs by Linda, with a good deal of songwriting assistance from Teddy. The set opens with "Dear Mary," a Thompson family treat with vocals by Linda and Richard (his only guest spot on the disc) and their children, with a wee bit of Richard's guitar in the background. Utterly wonderful, it's just a prelude to the depth and variety that fills this understated, yet brilliant set of songs. While Linda's voice no longer has the power she exhibited on 1982's "Walking on a Wire," her singing is still full and warm, marked by the intimate beauty that only Linda could bring to a song. The material sparkles with folk influences, revealing Linda (and Teddy) as potent songwriters, and her songwriting ranks with some of the best of her work with Richard. There's not a weak song on this extraordinary set. She may have returned to us late, but Linda's stolen the show with this stunning record.
-- Gene Hyde
Eric Truffaz -- Mantis (Blue Note)
This music is tough to describe but easy to like. The French trumpet player is virtually unknown on these shores, despite having two previous releases on Blue Note Records. Truffaz is adept at fusion in various forms. Much of his music uses an open structure with lots of space, similar to Miles Davis' early electric work. Some passages, though, have the speedy, intricate approach of later jazz fusion. Guitarist Manu Codjia fits right in, whether the tone is rock, fusion, bebop, acoustic or avant-garde. Truffaz also fuses the music of other cultures, including the Middle Eastern oud and a Tunisian singer. Along with Codjia, the other star of this session is drummer Philippe Garcia, who goes from atmospheric to straight-ahead to funky. Believe it or not, with all the sounds mentioned above, Garcia plays a techno beat in most of the songs. Somehow, Truffaz pulls it all together into a natural style. Don't try to describe it to your friends; just tell them it's good.
-- Brian Falk
The Who -- My Generation: Deluxe Edition (MCA Chronicles) In 1965, The Who was a nascent band running more on youthful insouciance than clear-cut vision. Which is why this two-disc Deluxe Edition of the band's debut album is ultimately so rewarding. Part amped-up R&B combo, part garage-rock outfit, part Brit invasion popsters, the quartet caroms all over the place. The swoony Beatles cop "The Kids are Alright" is followed by a sleazy run at James Brown's "Please, Please, Please." The driving "A Legal Matter" shows hints of Townshend's budding rapier wit. Foremost, My Generation still sounds every bit an indisputable classic. Of all the songs on the original album, the most bizarre is "The Ox," a pumped-up satire of the surf classic "Wipe Out" (replete with Nicky Hopkins' boogie piano). In fact, what most set The Who apart at this early juncture was Keith Moon's bruising drum work. No other mid-60s stickman was playing with such hurricane ferocity. The 47-minute bonus disc is, for the most part, an R&B throwdown, with Roger Daltrey laying the soul-shout on thick. The highlight is a punchy take on "(Love is Like a) Heat Wave." Weirdness comes in the form of Townshend's "Instant Party Mixture," a tongue-in-cheek pass at doo-wop. And for further posterity: two more versions of "My Generation," one being the first-take instrumental (making the stops all the more jarring) and the other a mono single with guitar overdubs, probably the most familiar version to American ears. -- Eric Snider