Manhattan Music

Stan

Ridgway:

Murky Holiday

For the generation that came

of age with MTV, the name Stan Ridgway is sure to remind people of one image:

Mr. Ridgway’s face pushing its way out of a giant vat of baked beans in the

video for Wall of Voodoo’s “Mexican Radio.” I know people who can’t help but

shiver when they hear the words, “I feel a hot wind on my shoulder …. “

It’s apt that Mr. Ridgway’s music is so closely associated with

such a memorable visual. He’s always paid heavy homage to the movies, especially

the silents and film noir; many critics have compared Mr. Ridgway’s sad-sack

sketches to Raymond Chandler stories, and the singer’s first solo effort was

titled The Big Heat .

His latest album, Holiday in Dirt (New West Records),

continues to mine this vein, although it’s more reminiscent of the twisted,

paranoid fantasies of Jim Thompson than the sleek, hard-boiled work of Mr.

Chandler.

Mr. Ridgway’s voice has mellowed a bit, but retains its ranting,

metallic edge. “Operator, Help Me,” set to a minimalist mellotron and ominously

persistent piano chords, feels as if it could be the soundtrack to a serial

killer’s internal monologue: “Operator, help me / There’s a sound out in the

street and it just keeps getting louder as we speak …. Operator, help me / I

can hear them by the door / And they’re laughing at me, stuck in here / I can’t

hold out anymore.”

Not all of Holiday in Dirt is as evocative as

this. The album is a collection of B-sides and previously unreleased songs, and

when the singer strays from the knife-edged pop he’s best at, he tends to

flounder. But there are enough small morsels here to make the whole meal worth

trying. “Garage Band ’69” sounds like They Might Be Giants, and both versions

of “Silent Movie Star”-there are Billy Wilder and C.B. DeMille mixes-display a

genuine affection for the type of actress portrayed in Sunset Boulevard . Holiday in

Dirt is not a great album; Mr. Ridgway probably doesn’t have one of those

in him at this point. But it is the latest worthwhile chapter in a consistently

eccentric, engaging career.

Norah

Jones:

Baby Billie

There’s a small number of singers whose voices evoke a certain

delicious weariness-an ever-gnawing realization that life is hard and painful.

Billie Holiday had such a voice.SodidJohnny Hartman.

NorahJones may someday be countedamongthisgroup. Thoughshe

doesn’t have the vocal authorityofHoliday, she’sagorgeous singer, and it’s easy

togetlostinher

performances.

Twenty-two years old and too infusedwith aching to be precious,

Ms. Jones has been one of the mosthypedjazz artists to come along in the last

decade. Blue Note Records has been pushing her for months, even though her

debut album, Come Away with Me , won’t

be out until late February.

Last month, Ms. Jones’ label unveiled her at two press showcases

at the Bottom Line. And at the Nov. 26 concert, it was clear that the singer

has a ways to go before she fulfills the expectations that have been placed in

her. Although her voice was as languorous and beautiful as it is on her

upcoming disc, she did not always seem in charge of her performance, and there

were moments when she seemed downright listless.

The same is sometimes true on

Come Away with Me . The CD is being

positioned as a pop album, but it’s rather subtle-too Joan Armatrading, not

enough J. Lo-for that playing field. It should, however, succeed as a

remarkably sophisticated album by a gifted cabaret singer. “Don’t Know Why,”

the album’s opener, sets the tone perfectly, as Ms. Jones wades into the song

with a disarming innocence while purring through lines like “I don’t know why I

didn’t come.” “Shoot the Moon,” with its unrushed accompaniment and

behind-the-beat phrasing, is just waiting to be reborn as a tearjerker of a car

commercial. And though Ms. Jones’ reach exceeds her grasp on “The Nearness of

You,” she leaves no doubt that we’ll be paying attention to her in the near

future.

Royal Tenenbaums :

Mothersbaugh, humbug!

Great soundtracks are a lot harder to pull off than great films;

they must remind the listener of the film towhich they’re attached as well as

stand on their own. There needs to be both a narrativearcand a musical payoff. TheBig Chill wasa greatsoundtrack.Sowas Pulp Fiction .

Many people think that the

soundtrack to Wes Anderson’s last film,

Rushmore , was a great soundtrack. They’re wrong. Though I’d love to bestow

plaudits on anything that highlights the Kinks and the Faces, the Rushmore soundtrack, like the movie

itself, was too precious. There were too many Mark Mothersbaugh interludes and

one too many Cat Stevens songs. But Mr. Anderson, who compiled the soundtrack

in addition to directing the film, left the distinct impression that he had a

great soundtrack in him, not to mention a great film.

Now I’m beginning to wonder. The soundtrack to The Royal Tenenbaums has its moments,

prime among them being Nico’s ice-cold cover of Jackson Browne’s heart-stopping

“These Days.” “I don’t do that much talking these days,” Nico sings in that

singular voice that makes you wonder if she has any idea what she’s talking

about. “Don’t confront me with my failures / I had not forgotten them.” It’s

the type of song that makes you want to get in an old car with a shitty heater

and cue it up again and again as you drive home through the icy December night

to your dysfunctional family. It’s beautiful.

But that song, the first on the disc, is the high point. A little

of Nico goes a long way, but Mr. Anderson includes another of her  tunes, the far inferior “The Fairest of the

Seasons.” He also goes way overboard with Mr. Mothersbaugh’s work again,

including nine of the former Devo member’s compositions. (Separated from the

movie, these tracks sound like nothing so much as the music to over-caffeinated

toy commercials.) At the same time, the Rolling Stones’ woefully obscure “She

Smiles Brightly,” which functions as a real showstopper in the film, isn’t

included. The Velvet Underground’s “Stephanie Says” and Nick Drake’s “Fly” are,

which makes for a noxiously wistful and winsome affair.  Enough already.

Borah

Bergman:

Rolling on The River

It’s fashionable to wonder where avant-garde jazz has to go these

days. And indeed, the didactic, tendentious “experiments” that are often passed

off for music leaves the non-academic listener wondering if he needs an

advanced degree to enjoy what’s being made to the left of the Lincoln Center

Jazz Orchestra.

Then there are discs like

Borah Bergman’s new trio recording, The

River of Sounds (Boxholder Records). Here, Mr. Bergman-the John Coltrane of

the piano, according to Down Beat

magazine-teams up with the phenomenal German trombonist Conny Bauer and

Brooklyn-based violinist Mat Maneri. I know, I know: A bass-less, drum-less

trio recording sounds dicey. But Mr. Bergman is a visceral musician, and Mr.

Bauer can produce such ribald delights that fans of the trombone would be well

served by buying everything he plays on.

“Jim,” the album’s first track, opens with lots of room, with

single piano notes spaced out over a dirge-like cry from the trombone while Mr.

Maneri’s violin evokes shtetl weepers

rather than Grappelli arpeggios. When the trio does pick up the pace, Mr.

Bergman’s outpouring of notes-with pounded declamations and frenetic

chordings-lead what sounds like a marching band from an insane asylum.

Some of the songs on The

River of Sounds do sound like soundtracks to experimental art-house movies,

but for the most part, Mr. Bergman and his band infuse their songs with an

emotionality and tenderness that’s still too rare in the avant garde.