Madonna: True Bleu … Hiatt, Harris: Muddy Good

Madonna: True Bleu

Let’s face it: Though we may find ourselves compelled to consume chunk after nugget of faux news about Madonna, her children, her yoga or the continent she happens to be visiting, none of us really knows a damn thing about this woman.

And after listening to the genuinely melancholy Music (Maverick/Warner Bros.), one suspects that Madonna may be tiring of this whole persona thing herself. Music sounds considerably more intimate than anything old Madge has done since 1989’s Like a Prayer , an indication that, though she may not be more comfortable with herself, as the E! Entertainment Network has been telling us, the time spent on the analyst’s couch may be paying off.

Madonna has always been a bit of an obsessive-compulsive; hence the cabala studies, yoga and Pilates, as well as all those spooky songs about losing control such as “Deeper & Deeper,” “Borderline” and the strongest track on Music , “Impressive Instant.” Her last album, 1998’s Ray of Light , practically shook us by the shoulders, screaming “I am at peace!” Still, producer William Orbit’s minor-key hippie-isms and pseudo-Bhangra beats remain pretty likable, and the record has yet to sound dated, as all Madonna releases sadly and inevitably do.

On Music , that nervous energy has been replaced by a weariness with it all, and not the Weimar kind Madonna was advocating in the early 90’s. Music isn’t a jaded album. In fact, it takes most of its cues from the French club sounds that have been all the rage among nerdy music geeks in this country for the last half-decade. And that Technicolor western-wear look that she sports on the album’s cover? Sally Timms of the Mekons got there first on last year’s Cowboy Sally’s Twilight Laments for Lost Buckaroos album , but even then it was played out in New York. Still, don’t be surprised if girls in Dallas and Oklahoma dust off their Stetsons because of Madonna. She has long known that the leading edge of the mainstream exists slightly behind the curve.

Over half the tracks on this 45-minute record are produced by the French D.J. Mirwais Ahmadzai, and like the hipper French acts–Cassius, Daft Punk, Mr. Oizo, Laurent Garnier, Air–he has a sound that contemporizes and crystallizes 70’s nostalgia, which is apt for an aging pop star who always appears and acts 10 years younger than she is.

If Madonna’s embrace of this music style means that it’s about to enter the mainstream, I could deal with it. On one hand, you could remove the vocals from the Mirwais tracks and it would sound like the sort of abstract electronica the Williamsburg soundboys wet themselves over (which makes sense, as that stuff was dance music in the first place). Add vocals, though, and it becomes ladies’ night out. One of the persistent misconceptions concerning Madonna’s career is that she has posited herself as some sort of sex symbol for men when she’s always been more of an Eros adviser for girls–the older sister who assures her 16-year-old sibling that it’s all right to masturbate. And the dreamy “What It Feels Like for a Girl” is aimed right at the Virgin Suicides crowd. It begins with dialogue from the film version of The Cement Garden spoken by actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, who once lolled around in bed with her singer dad, Serge Gainsbourg, in his “Lemon Incest” video. “[Y]ou think that being a girl is degrading. But secretly, you’d love to know what it’s like, wouldn’t you? What it feels like for a girl,” Ms. Gainsbourg says with plummy sensuality. Then, over an emasculated U2 guitar sound, Madonna sings an homage to female stoicism: “Strong inside but you don’t know it / Good little girls they never show it.”

So, why so sad? Well, the protagonists of Madonna’s songs usually have had a pretty hard time of it. Their papas are preaching at them, they need to express themselves, guys are wronging them and so on. This time around, however, the relative sparseness of Music ‘s production highlights an autumnal vibe that hasn’t been evident on her previous works. And Madonna’s deadpan vocalizations–her precise pronunciations can make her sound like a speech therapist; a British one, as of late–only serve to heighten the Weltschmerz . “Tell the leaves not to turn / But don’t ever tell me I’ll learn / Take the black off a crow / But don’t tell me I have to go,” she sings in “Don’t Tell Me,” which features a string arrangement by the great Michel Colombier of Psych Rock fame, and a co-writing credit for her singer/songwriter brother-in-law Joe Henry (who will now be able to buy that new house). It’s a shame that that’s the song in which she actually sounds like another Crow: groupie-turned-Grammy-grabber Sheryl.

The album’s final track, “Gone,” is plaintive and acoustic-guitar driven. Sounding alone, Madonna sings that “selling out is not my thing.” Neither is letting go. She also says “I’m not very smart” and “I’m not what you think”–and when you hear this confessional-sounding stuff coming from the Madonna, the woman whose confidence made Warren Beatty look insecure, you start to wonder if maybe she’s lost the thread a little. As a conceptualist who’s always been too hyper-aware to ever let go, this bodes well. And it’s about time.

–D. Strauss

Hiatt, Harris: Muddy Good

The cover of John Hiatt’s new album shows him holding a tambourine in front of his face. Another photo depicts the singer-songwriter’s intertwined hands, framed by part of his right arm and leg. They are fitting images for a man who has spent most of his three-decade career loping in and out of shadows, penning songs that have been made into hits by other performers such as Bonnie Raitt (“Thing Called Love”) and, most recently, Eric Clapton and B.B. King (“Riding With the King”).

On his own, Mr. Hiatt always seemed less cocksure. Earlier in his career, his bouts with alcoholism, rehabs and personal tragedies–his second wife committed suicide in 1985–threatened to doom him to a Townes Van Zandtian life. Musically, he veered between genres and styles. In the 70’s and early 80’s, he dabbled in new wave, bubblegum pop and three-chord rock before settling on an amalgam of folk, blues and old-school rock ‘n’ roll that drove his hallmark album, 1987’s churning, soulful and personal Bring the Family .

Now, with Crossing Muddy Waters (Vanguard), Mr. Hiatt has finally made another album that lives up to his promise. It’s all there: great songwriting, greasy musicianship and gritty harmonies.

Building on the spare ballads of Bring the Family , Crossing Muddy Waters is the singer’s first entirely acoustic effort; Hiatt plays guitar and dobro, Cracker’s Davey Faragher plays bass, “foot stomping” and “metal folding chair,” and David Immerglück handles the assorted mandolins and electric slide.

The album starts with its strongest track, “Lincoln Town,” a swaggering number in which Hiatt, whose distinctive voice can go both husky and high, says he feels like a freight train churning down the track to claim his lady: “When you hear me blow / Honey, babe, you know I’m near.” Hiatt’s trio sounds like at least twice as many people, with overflowing guitar runs filling every available space.

The rest of this slight masterpiece–the entire disc clocks in at under 40 minutes–trades in the delicious bravado of “Lincoln Town” for mourning and regret; indeed, much of Crossing Muddy Waters deals with the death of love. On the indelible “What Do We Do Now,” Mr. Hiatt examines a failed marriage and a wasted life over a slowly unfurling guitar. Building on nuanced repetitions of the song’s title, his voice conveys the acute pain of loss with verses like “Do we call the kids / Or call the cops / Can you hold me till / This howling stops.”

While Hiatt forged his recording career on the backs of other artists’ renditions of his work, Emmylou Harris has, for the most part, used her sparkling voice to interpret the work of other songwriters. With Red Dirt Girl (Nonesuch), Ms. Harris’ first studio release since her stunning Wrecking Ball , the platinum-haired beauty showcases her own craft: She wrote or co-wrote 11 of the album’s 12 songs. And if there’s any justice, the lone exception, Patty Griffin’s “One Big Love,” will bring attention to a shamefully overlooked singer-songwriter.

With shimmering waves of reverb and thick washes of electric guitar , Red Dirt Girl is startling in its beauty, and it makes me wonder why Ms. Harris has released only one other album of her own compositions, 1985’s The Ballad of Sally Rose .

Though not produced by Daniel Lanois, the album has Mr. Lanois’ Acadian influence tattooed into its reflective skin and takes full advantage of the saturated yet understated sound Mr. Lanois used to great effect on Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind and Willie Nelson’s Teatro , to say nothing of Wrecking Ball itself. Unlike Mr. Hiatt, who writes songs from a kind of everyman’s perspective, Ms. Harris’ compositions are deeply personal and often obscure. “Our path is worn, our feet are poorly shod,” she sings on “The Pearl.” “We lift our prayer up against the odds / And fear the silence is the voice of God / And we cry Allelujah.” On “I Don’t Want to Talk About it Now,” an eerily threatening tale of sexual obsession, Ms. Harris moans, “I’d be drawn and quartered / If I could keep you in my bed.”

The rest of the album’s subject matter is just as rich. The title track, inspired by the movie Boys Don’t Cry , paints a novelistic picture of a young woman trapped in her dead-end life; the dirge-like “Bang the Drum Slowly” tells of Ms. Harris’ unfulfilled wishes for her relationship with her father.

Red Dirt Girl ‘s only misstep is an odd little duet with Dave Matthews on “My Antonia.” I’m willing to believe that Mr. Matthews is great on his own and that his concerts are rife with inspired improvisations. But vocally, he sounds pale and lacking next to Ms. Harris’ rich voice–a voice that can convey a range of emotions in a single syllable.

Ms. Harris finishes a three-night run at Joe’s Pub on Sept. 20; then, on Oct. 19, she plays the Beacon. Mr. Hiatt plays the Bottom Line on Oct. 11 and 12. Both of these artists should be playing larger halls and getting longer runs. If you don’t catch the shows, listen to the albums: both Crossing Muddy Waters and Red Dirt Girl are satisfying works from two artists who know their way around life’s many quagmires.

–Seth Mnookin

Mehldau: Welcome To His Places

Jelly Roll Morton famously said that good jazz needs to have a “Spanish tinge.” With all due respect to that pimp and genius pianist, I offer a modern variation: Good modern jazz piano needs a “classical tinge.”

Of all the instruments in jazz, the piano–with its severe limits on timbral variation and its enormous harmonic flexibility–draws the most sustenance from the European classical tradition. Certain modern jazz pianists have taken the classical connection especially to heart–Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett spring immediately to mind. In the early 90’s, their ranks were joined by Brad Mehldau, whose two-handed pianism can smack of Baroque counterpoint and whose sometime predilection for lush, yearning harmonies can bring to mind the great Romantic sensitivos, Brahms and Chopin.

The wonder is not that the 30-year-old doctor’s kid from West Hartford, Conn., plays the way he does but that, by the anemic standards of the jazz record business, he’s proved himself a commercial hit. His brooding nice looks and all-too-well-documented drug history didn’t hurt either.

Indeed, the Warner Bros. label was so enamored of Mr. Mehldau, it gave him the proverbial rope to hang himself. On his 1998 album, The Art of the Trio Vol. 2, Live at the Village Vanguard , Mehldau could be positively intoxicating, oscillating on a Cole Porter tune between swinging single-note runs and something close to Bach. But on his 1999 Elegiac Cycle , Mr. Mehldau, solo and unfettered in his search for the Romantic sublime, often sounded self-conscious and naïve. If he was going to pretty well dispense with jazz rhythm, you wished his teenage classical instruction hadn’t stopped at the early 20th century.

The latest effort, Places , is a far more satisfying fusion of solo ambition with a jazz trioism that Mr. Mehldau has refined to a startlingly high level. All the tunes are originals; half are solo, half with his long-standing trio of bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossy, who will be playing with Mr. Mehldau at the Village Vanguard through Sept. 24.

Because Mr. Mehldau is one of the younger jazz generation’s few reliable concert draws, he spends most of his time on the road. Accordingly, Places is a musical travelogue that begins and ends chez Brad in Los Angeles, and takes in the likes of Paris and Perugia along the way. But Mr. Mehldau’s primary residence is his own head, as can be surmised from the philosophical meditations that are his unique contribution to the art of jazz liner notes. (He has a real gift for the epigrammatic, to wit: “If there is a deity out there, it is probably the one who always snatches the infinite away from us.”) In Places , what passes for musical geography are a few melodic motives that he embellishes over the course of 13 tracks.

Unfortunately, Mr. Mehldau’s inner landscape is not an infinitely varied one, and there are moments when you long for some melodic or harmonic fresh blood of the sort he has routinely extracted from Tin Pan Alley. Mostly, though, the approach works–the album’s first two tunes, the trio piece “Los Angeles” and the solo “29 Palms,” add up to 10 minutes of the best piano jazz I’ve heard in a good long while–the rhapsodic expertly counterpoised by a tough-minded rhythmic sensibility that manifests itself in spare repeated figures and spiky treble runs.

In previous liner notes, Mr. Mehldau has gone on about jazz being a romantic quest for beauty and meaning, but I think that’s true only to a point. Much of what is distinctive about the jazz tradition comes from the earthiness and aggression and humor of the blues, and it’s a pleasure to hear the pianist integrate the anti-romantic side of the equation. In fact, on Charles Lloyd’s excellent new album, The Water is Wide (ECM), Mr. Mehldau in sideman’s guise provides a kind of secular anchor. Mr. Lloyd, whose quartet plays the Knitting Factory on Oct. 6 and 7, blows the tenor saxophone in his keening, incantatory fashion, and it is Mr. Mehldau, with his sharply etched, slightly dissonant chords, who keeps him tethered to the complexities and contradictions of this world.

– Joseph Hooper