Kurt Elling, The Mountain Goats
Kurt Elling, "1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project" (Concord Jazz)
"There's a melody in stillness I can't seem to play," Elling sings yearningly, during one of several muted but breathtaking moments on his new album. The lyric is his own, part of an extended flourish following the bridge of Carole King's "So Far Away." And as is so often the case with Elling, the artistry lies in some intangible harmony of musical arrangement, interpretive detail and sheer vocal expression.
When any one of those elements skews the balance, the result can feel stagy or arch, overripe or overworked. So "1619 Broadway" might seem like a perilous exercise. It's a concept album dedicated to the New York City pop factory known for its songwriting teams. The repertory amounts to a mother lode of boomer nostalgia, and Elling could easily have made it solicitous or cloying.
As if to disarm that preconception, the album opens with a taut, harmonically unsettled arrangement of "On Broadway." Elling sounds unstoppable, as does his band. Here and on a few other tunes, like "I'm Satisfied" and "Tutti for Cootie," a Duke Ellington chestnut, singer and background achieve a swinging symbiosis with the material. Elsewhere it's a little hit-or-miss.
Perhaps a listener of George Bensonian allegiance might find something to like about this version of Sam Cooke's "You Send Me," which feels suffused with candlelight and bath oils. Who could find genuine wit in Elling's treatment of the Coasters' "Shoppin' for Clothes" or much satirical edge in his cover of the Monkees' "Pleasant Valley Sunday," despite its zombie references? But what works best works gorgeously: "So Far Away," a stealthily creeping "I Only Have Eyes for You," and especially the stark reading of Paul Simon's "American Tune" that is one of Elling's purest and most restrained performances.
Elling performs Oct. 23 at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis.
NATE CHINEN, NEW YORK TIMES
The Mountain Goats, "Transcendental Youth" (Merge)
John Darnielle's songs are always psychologically astute. They're first-person narratives, full of self-incriminating details and plainspoken insights, from characters in situations of psychological conflict with either themselves or loved ones. During the 20-plus years he has released albums as the Mountain Goats, the edges have softened on the presentation of his songs but not on the subject matter.
"Transcendental Youth" sounds inviting and often pretty, but it depicts characters wrestling with demons. "In Memory of Satan" is a nightmarish tale of someone "locked up inside [him]self," set to a gentle, stately piano ballad with soft horns. "Cry for Judas" opens with the declaration, "Some things you do just to see how bad they'll make you feel." It's a perky acoustic guitar tune with a jaunty horn arrangement. "Even awful dreams are good dreams," Darnielle claims in "Harlem Roulette," and "Transcendental Youth" proves it.
Mountain Goats perform Oct. 24 at the Varsity Theater in Minneapolis.
STEVE KLINGE, PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER