(Warner Bros. Records)
College Rock is dead after a long illness. The genre was 21.
Georgia’s R.E.M., with a little help from the Violent Femmes, created an entire style in the 1980s, defining something loosely called “college rock.” Its fiery energy, crisp guitars and literate lyrics offered Gen-Xers welcome relief from the heavy-metal glam rock spawned by Van Halen and the bloated pop fathered by Michael Jackson. It is not too much to say that Michael Stipe and crew were the fathers of alternative rock. Critics routinely called R.E.M. the best band of the 1980s. It managed to survive the transition to mainstream success in the early 1990s and continued to produce the vintage R.E.M. sound — energetic, enigmatic and tinged with the rich folk tradition of the group’s native South.
So it is a profoundly unpleasant shock to hear how dramatically the band has declined in just a few years. “Reveal” wraps Mr. Stipe (and buries without a trace guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills) in a bloated swirl of overproduction that is the antithesis of what R.E.M. was about in its heyday. The songs on “Reveal” are electrified and mechanized, full of useless beeps and swirls and drum-machine beats pathetically unable to replace drummer Bill Berry, who left the band in 1997. R.E.M. apparently has lost its way, signaling that the exuberant brand of music it created has nothing left to say.
— Sean Scully
Could it be that the finest purveyor of American storytelling since Bob Dylan is not American at all, but Canadian?
The Cowboy Junkies leave behind the optimism of 1998’s spiritual “Miles From Our Home” by heading down a dark road of mortality and desperate introspection — telling tales through the eyes of nameless strangers.
The dark journey of “Open” begins with the haunting “I Did It all for You,” a brooding, mystical piece that sets the stage for the remainder of the Toronto band’s album.
Singer Margo Timmins’ voice is complemented by a capable supporting cast of brothers Michael and Peter Timmins (guitar and drums, respectively) and bassist Alan Anton.
“Open” grabs listeners with an icy hand and leads them from locale to locale, revealing — starkly and honestly — various glimpses into the human psyche.
— Andrew Helmers
Windows: Windham Hill — 25 Years of Piano
(Windham Hill Records)
This CD is a collection of the wonderful piano music that has been recorded for the Windham Hill label the past 25 years. The label was founded by guitarist Will Ackerman in 1976 to showcase artists who used their training in jazz, classical and folk music to create a different sound. Windham Hill signed artists that traditional labels thought were financially risky and would not touch. In the process, the company released some of the best material around.
Featured on this album are some of the label’s best artists during a quarter-century. One is George Winston, whose album “Autumn” helped establish the label as a new force in instrumental music. On this album, Mr Winston performs “Dubuque” and “Loreta and Desiree’s Bouquet — Part 1.” Also featured is Jim Brickman, whose popularity has soared recently with albums that include both piano solos and vocals and produced the hits “Valentine” and “The Gift.” Mr. Brickman contributes on this new album with “If You Believe” and “Rocket to the Moon.” Liz Story joins the lineup with the song “Wedding Rain,” which was included in the training disc for every original Apple Macintosh computer.
A highlight is W.A. Mathieu’s “To the Well.” Bobby McFerrin’s vocals provide an unforgettable backdrop to Mr. Mathieu’s exceptional piano solo. Among the other talented artists on this 13-track album are Michael Harrison, Philip Aaberg, Fernando Ortega and Richard Dworsky.
Some of the performers have moved on to other labels, but the music all have given to the label’s catalog is definitely a treasure.
— Amy Baskerville
State of Grace
Pierce Pettis revisits his Southern and spiritual roots in his latest recording, yet pushes his envelope with “State of Grace.”
Mr. Pettis has one of the most poetic voices in modern folk music. His evocative imagery combines with thoughtful wordplay to take his songs to a higher level.
Although his is not a household name, country music listeners might recognize the name of one Pierce Pettis fan — Garth Brooks — who sang a Pettis composition on his album, “Sevens.”
The song, “You Move Me,” co-written with frequent Pettis collaborator Gordon Kennedy, won a 1999 Country Music Award from the American Society of Composers, Artists and Performers. The two team up again on this disc in “Long Way Back Home,” which continues this album’s sense-of-place theme.
On “State of Grace,” Mr. Pettis reflects on his teen-age swimming hole, growing up and trying to go home again in a gem of a song, “Little River Canyon.” He sings, “This song is just an echo/This song is just a ripple from a stone that was tossed into the water long ago.”
With soulful dignity, Mr. Pettis frames his Southern heritage in songs such as “Moontown,” co-written with fellow Alabamian Claire Lynch, and “A Mountaineer Is Always Free,” a catchy tune set in West Virginia and co-written with fiddler Tim O’Brien.
As he has for his previous two Compass Records releases (after three albums on Windham Hill/High Street, now out of print), Mr. Pettis opens the record with a song written by his mentor, the late contemporary Christian folk singer Mark Heard. The theme continues in the title cut, which starts with an instrumental doxology. Mr. Pettis also tips his hat to one-time Christian songwriter Bob Dylan with a rousing version of “Down in the Flood.”
The songs are deeply spiritual but they don’t proselytize.
Woven throughout the songs are strains from Alison Brown’s banjo and Stuart Duncan’s fiddle, giving the record a distinct Southern flavor and expanding Mr. Pettis’ sound beyond the simpler folk-rock, guitar-based music of his earlier work.
— Jay Votel
Avalon’s latest CD, “Oxygen,” is marked by moments of musical genius all but lost in an 11-song morass of contrived sounds and lyrics.
This album, which runs the gamut from techno to soft rock, has no identifiable style. Although the contemporary Christian group’s versatility has virtue, the style is schizophrenic. The beats and melodies seem more like spinoffs of popular secular favorites than inspired, musically exceptional pieces.
Inasmuch as an overtly religious message might prevent most groups from advancing in the mainstream music culture, Avalon is crippled more by painfully simplistic and trite lyrics. Every song contains the word “heart” either in a context of a heart beating, a heart being broken, a heart changing or a heart otherwise being acted upon.
Avalon has been hugely successful in the contemporary Christian music scene and has received music awards consistently since its inception in 1995. But “Oxygen’s” only redeeming feature is found in the voices of Avalon members that transpierce but remain unable to salvage songs generally lacking originality.
— Emily Rahe