Reviews of recent CDs.
Glenn Gould A State of Wonder (Sony Classical): Not many classical-piano recordings include the performer humming along in the background. But Glenn Gould's originality and intensity expressed themselves in unique ways. As conductor George Szell once said of him, "This nut's a genius."
Sony's remastered versions of Bach's Goldberg Variations, recorded in 1955 and 1981 and now rereleased on the 70th anniversary of Gould's birth, are testament to that genius. The first, done when he was 22, launched Gould to superstar status. The recording has a strutting energy and sometimes wildly fast tempo, although it never loses his trademark clarity. The second, recorded 26 years later, and released only months before his death, has a more deliberate and at times achingly tender tone. The tempo is slowed and repeats are added, stretching the recording an additional 13 minutes.
Interestingly, Gould disliked the 1955 recording. In a somewhat scripted interview in 1982, the last he gave before his death (and included on the third CD), he said: "Variation 25 represents everything I mistrust in the early version.... It wears its heart on its sleeve; it seems to say 'Please take note this is tragedy; it doesn't have the dignity to bare its suffering with a hint of quiet resignation."
Yet that 1955 recording turned the Goldberg Variations from what had largely been viewed as an academic exercise into a vivid and engaging piano piece that drew rave reviews and a huge audience.
The two recordings, so radically different, have a lifetime's experience between them. And the depth and meditative mood of the second communicates that maturity.
The boxed set's title, "A State of Wonder," is from a statement Gould made in 1962: "The purpose of art," he said, "is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but rather the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity." Susan Llewelyn Leach
India.Arie Voyage to India (Motown): On the follow-up to her "Acoustic Soul" debut last year, the talented soul singer from Atlanta takes joy in the little things in life, gives advice to men on how to treat a lady, and speaks directly to her significant other about love and friendship. Wrapped around these honest and straightforward lyrics are finger-snapping rhythms and pleasing acoustic guitar hooks. The happy and upbeat "Can I Walk With You" is by far the catchiest tune on the album. India.Arie was nominated for seven Grammys last year, but she walked away empty-handed. Here's hoping that this won't happen again next year. Lisa Leigh Connors
Beck Sea Change (DGC): What's bluer than the blues? Whatever they are, Beck's got 'em. Every track on his heart-baring CD is sad and morose. The funky, good-time hipster of 1999's Midnight Vultures has given way to Mr. Sensitive. On first listen, all the songs have a mid-tempo sameness and few seem to distinguish themselves or bubble up through the mire. But given another chance, the qualities of each paean to lost love (he broke up with a longtime girlfriend last year) begin to emerge. The production by Nigel Goodrich (Radiohead) is varied and surprising, wrapping Beck's confessional folk dirges in lonesome steel guitars, Strawberry Fields-era strings and textural electronics. Not a party record, unless it's a party of one. John Kehe
Coldplay A Rush of Blood to the Head (Capitol): The sophomore album can be a daunting hurdle, but the British quartet has vaulted over it with effortless agility, eclipsing their stellar debut, "Parachutes." Gone is the minimalism of before in favor of a fuller sound, but the band's grasp of simple arrangements remains undiminished. And Chris Martin's gorgeous voice sounds even better. From the Moby-like piano on "Clocks," to a chorus that unfurls like an umbrella on the title track, the marvel of this album is how many of its tunes jostle for airtime on one's mental jukebox. Stephen Humphries
Dixie Chicks Home (Open Wide/Monument/Columbia): A more traditional style of bluegrass is alive and well on the Dixie Chicks' latest release. The album has topped the charts since its debut earlier this month. Little wonder. "Home's" more rootsy approach to bluegrass crackles with the energy of artists free to focus on a musical style closest to their hearts after a difficult legal battle with their former label, Sony.
"Long Time Gone," the CD's first cut, sets the tone with its "I'm outta here" message. The concept of change permeates the song list, which includes a cover of Stevie Nicks' "Landslide," as well as a moving Vietnam-era ballad "Traveling Soldier" and lullaby "Godspeed." Truth to tell, this was my first encounter with the Chicks. I'm hooked. Peter Spotts
Nickel Creek This Side (Sugarhill): Two years ago, Nickel Creek's debut CD added a refreshing dash of youthful inventiveness (and vocals free of faux drawl) to bluegrass, a genre that often can seem hidebound by tradition and dripping with twang. In its latest CD, the group ably shows that guitar, mandolin, fiddle, and tight harmonies are not just for bluegrass anymore. Down-home licks no longer are the main course. Instead, they spice compositions that fuse elements of bluegrass, pop, jazz, and blues. The result is an engaging array of songs whose lyrics display a new level of maturity and depth for the trio. P.S.