Bryan Ferry Orchestra, “The Jazz Age” (BMG)
As a youth, Ferry immersed himself in the “trad jazz” scene thriving in pre-Beatles England, and began a lifelong fascination with Louis Armstrong’s early combos, Dixieland and ragtime. “The Jazz Age” is Ferry’s payback for that formative influence, but it’s one that only the singer’s most ardent fans may want to indulge.
Four decades after releasing his first album with Roxy Music, the singer sets aside his microphone and surveys his career from a 1920s point of view — aging in reverse, in a way. The period-style arrangements are performed by an octet led by longtime Ferry pianist Colin Good. The ensemble incorporates the signature sounds of the era, right down to the clarinets, bass saxophones, banjos and ukuleles.
Ferry’s musical aim is off, though. The project tries to demonstrate the durability of his songs, to set them off as timeless melodies that remain buoyant in any context, even without his distinctive vocals. The ensemble finds the dark undercurrent in “Love Is the Drug,” but sleek Roxy burners such as “Do the Strand” and “Virginia Plain” come off as creaky antiques. “Avalon” and “Slave to Love” turn inappropriately jaunty, and “This Island Earth” loses all its menace. Ferry’s best songs bubble with double-edged nuances and pastiche-style textures, drawing on influences from many eras. “The Jazz Age” diminishes that complexity, turning many of these brilliant tunes into period caricatures.
Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune
Holly Williams, “The Highway” (Georgiana)
Williams is an heir to music royalty — granddaughter of Hank Williams, daughter of Hank Williams Jr. and half-sister of Hank Williams III. And true to her genes, she has natural talent, a vulnerable voice that often seems on the verge of heartbreak, plus good melodies that play to her fragile delivery.
Producer Charlie Peacock (the Civil Wars) and Williams assembled her third release with a deft-but-not-overly-polished alt-country veneer blending Americana and folk. Her grandfather would likely be proud, though he had something she fails to muster: authenticity.
Obviously songwriters are allowed their hyperbole and fiction. Yet Williams’ tear-in-her-beer melodrama is contingent on buying her as a woman with a hardscrabble upbringing, a lonely troubadour with an old backpack and Kerouac in tow (and not the owner of an upscale boutique in Music City). On “Gone Away From Me,” she sings, “I grew up in a town with one light ... Mama kept me warm and she kept me fed,” and it’s hard not think about her real youth as a child of privilege in Nashville.
For those who need to wallow in self-pity, “The Highway” does sound beautiful, and guest vocalists (including Jackson Browne and Gwyneth Paltrow) are fun to discover. However, as Williams piles on the manipulative cliches, listeners might succumb to detached apathy.
Chuck Campbell, Scripps Howard News Service