Ray Charles -- Friendship and George Jones -- My Very Special Guests (both Sony/Legacy): These recent reissues from 1984 and 1979 don't capture either artist at his best, but of the two, the George Jones disc is more successful. Charles duets with country stars such as Hank Williams Jr., Ricky Skaggs and Johnny Cash, but the songs ring hollow as the joviality sounds forced. Charles singing duets sounds like a capitulation to the marketing department because there's a solitude to his blues that feels intruded upon by guest stars.
On his duet album, George Jones sounds right at home with company on a track. Perhaps because you never get a sense of Jones as anything but a singer, so there's nothing for his guests to crowd. Similarly, the songs are just more songs -- there's no attempt to create give-and-take between the singers -- so the tracks are just tracks, recordings of good songs by great singers.
When the album was initially released, it was only 10 songs, not two discs. At the time, it was met with guarded reviews, many focusing on the awkward duet with Elvis Costello on Costello's "Stranger in the House." At the time, he was deemed by the press as unworthy to share a track with Jones, and Costello still sounds awfully mannered next to such a pure voice. Today, though, Dennis Locorriere and Ray Sawyer from Dr. Hook seem far more out of place. In the 27 subsequent duets culled from a host of albums, the only other obviously awkward one is "If I Could Bottle This Up" with Shelby Lynne, who sounds like she was still trying on voices, trying to discover who she would become.
It's easy to be suspicious and think of these duets as Jones biding his time, waiting for ideas and stabbing at something to make him relevant again, and that's pretty much what they were in their moment. Now, heard outside the context of an ongoing, healthy career, they sound like good-natured fun. Unlike Ray Charles' Friendship, though, it doesn't sound like anybody's laboring.
Belle and Sebastian -- Push Barman to Open Old Wounds (Matador): It's hard to listen to Belle and Sebastian and not feel like a British art student in the '60s, living in a cold-water flat and inviting some bird you've fancied to go to an Italian cafe for cappuccino before seeing Antonioni's Blow Up for the sixth time. This two-disc set collects the band's EPs, and it captures everything good about the band. Stuart Murdoch's voice recalls Donovan and Nick Drake, telling stories about young, misunderstood people whose lives are beautifully melancholy, usually because their desire is thwarted in one way or another.
The best track here is "Lazy Line Painter Jane," which also has the most fully fleshed out arrangement. It is acoustic guitar-based, as are most of these songs, but with a female vocalist and a vibrato guitar, it emulates the sound of records by the Shangri-Las. More often, the band's sound shares indie rock's affection for strummed, scrubby sounding guitars and undersold emotions, but the lovely melodies and wise, wistful recollections of life in bohemia are engaging in very traditional ways.
Various Artists/Jazzanova -- Lookin' Back Movin' On (Blue Note) and Various Artists -- Brazilectro Session 7 (SPV): What does it say that I'm now fairly pleased if there are four or five songs I like on a CD? Is it that CDs suck now? Maybe, or maybe I also remember that this has always been a problem. For decades, albums have only had four or five good songs, so this demand for albums that are end to end wonderful is a wish for a beast that has rarely existed. Nonetheless, that demand for non-stop quality and the growth of DJ culture has led to the remix tape and CD. At its best -- M.I.A. and Diplo's Piracy Funds Terrorism V.1 from last year being a great example -- that aesthetic produces the most contemporary music, music that is plugged into global culture in a number of complex ways.
Jazzanova's Lookin' Back Movin' On isn't quite a remix disc, or if it is, it's a very subtle remix. The German DJ collective compiles tracks from the Blue Note library for these two discs, if anything, adding some percussion to segue from track to track. To the DJs' credit, they shy away from the label's biggest stars and signature tracks and create an attractive flow. If this were the background in a club, it would feel pretty magical, as the cool jazz tracks took on a contemporary vibe. On record, the tracks aren't sufficiently transformed to sound completely new -- last year's Blue Note Revisited did that -- and they're sequenced to groove together. Emphasizing the sameness of beats and sounds makes focusing on the artists difficult on all but a handful of tracks, so it's hard to hear the jazz in some of these tracks.
Brazilectro Session 7 doesn't try to recreate the club experience the way remix tapes and CDs do, so these tracks all stand as individual tracks. They mine jazz for elegant grooves, just as the Blue Note set does, but the results have much of the same charm as dub reggae -- they're hypnotic in the insistence of their beat, but the remixing gives them a trippy quality.
Some stand out, such as the Non Material's "Dano do Arcoiris," with its Moog synthesizer and high school marching band drum break near the end, and the Latin Project Remix of Bebel Gilberto's "Aganj," which respects Gilberto's sexy vocal -- the heart of the original. It's not easy to remember individual tracks because of all the spacy electric piano and shaken percussion here, but it succeeds as background music in a way the Jazzanova CDs don't. It refuses to entirely fade away into a background groove, and it occasionally grabs your attention and rewards you for playing it.
Abdel Wright -- Abdel Wright (Interscope): The songs by this Jamaican singer-songwriter are driven by his acoustic guitar and sit comfortably next to those by Dave Matthews and the acoustic guitar-based rock bands that have emerged in his wake. Unlike many of them, though, Wright has subject matter. After growing up in an orphanage and spending time in prison, he has had time to meditate on justice, the choices people make and their consequences. His background in reggae is most evident when he drops into a dancehall vocal style, but his affection for Bob Marley is clear throughout. Wright shares Marley's knack for addressing significant themes using metaphors and slogans that should be too simple to work -- but they do -- and in language that's not provocative, even when he's talking to the bad guys.