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Notable CDs

Notable CDs | Five new pop-rock releases reviewed by Arsenio Orteza

Issue: "2011 Books of the Year," July 2, 2011

Born This Way

Forget the former Stefani Germonatta's PR-generating antics if you can. What she's really about is harnessing the noise zeitgeist and maximizing its woofer-working potential. In other words, despite her knack for provocative titles ("Government Hooker," "Judas," "Black Jesus + Amen Fashion"), she's nobody's go-to girl for deep thought. And, as only one of her latest album's five producers, she might not even be the main reason millions of people are currently going to her for music guaranteed to turn even the most domestically tranquil setting into a rave.

How To Compose Popular Songs That Will Sell

Geldof hasn't composed any popular songs that have sold since "Do They Know It's Christmas?" in 1984. And these new ones probably won't sell either. But they should. Each sounds like a tribute to an entirely different pop genre-and better with each listen. "How I Roll" could be Mark Knopfler honoring the Lovin' Spoonful, "Here's to You" George Harrison bidding farewell to his fans. Appropriate to Geldof's age (he turns 60 in October), introspective mellowness predominates. Appropriate to his Irishness, he goes out on a drinking song.

John Wesley Harding

It's no surprise that the months surrounding Bob Dylan's 70th birthday should yield a bumper crop of covers (the most obscure so far: Vininicio Capossela's Italian-language "When the Ship Comes In"), but so far only Thea Gilmore has had the nerve to cover an entire album. Fortunately, she also has the talent. Subtly punching up the drums and the electricity, she doesn't so much bring Dylan's 1968 classic up to date as catch up with it. Which, frankly, is more than many Dylan fans can say for themselves.

Cottonwood Farm

The media hook behind this project is that Jimmy Webb is now old enough to record with his sons, one of whom, Christiaan, was the titular subject of a Webb song 34 years ago. And, yes, the trading of lead vocals lends variety. But the best reason to listen, even more so than the welcome revisiting of "Where the Universes Are," is the 12-minute title track, in which Webb, his sons, and his 86-year-old Baptist-minister father survey the family farm and movingly reap what they've sown.

Spotlight

"Kate and Anna," writes producer Joe Boyd in the liner notes for Kate & Anna McGarrigle's Tell My Sister (Nonesuch), "resisted being filed under folk. . . . [T]hey occupy an uncharted landscape on the border between Cole Porter, Quebecois traditions, Stephen Foster, and the innocent early years of the folk revival." Boyd would know, but even his assessment will strike people hearing the music on this three-disc collection (the McGarrigles' eponymous 1975 debut, its 1977 follow up Dancer with Bruised Knees, and a disc of 21 previously unreleased early recordings and demos), whether for the first or the thousandth time, as insufficient.

Delicate, tender, and unabashedly gorgeous though their singing was, they never sounded sentimental (even when they were) or any more beholden to their impressively varied subjects (childhood, adulthood, even "Travelling On for Jesus") than, say, Emily Dickinson did to hers. Dickinson-that's who's missing from Boyd's description of the McGarrigles' landscape. Because, as well as they sang, they wrote even better.

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