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Various Artists
Drive Time P.M. Commuter Classics DORIAN

Various Artists
The Eternal Harp DORIAN
With longer commute times translating into more hours stuck in vehicles, our only aural outlets have become cell phones, the radio, CDs/tapes, or screaming until we turn blue. Cell phones cost lives, and too many radio stations base their playlists on rating surveys rather than on a desire for variety and exploration. This makes these two light-filled compilations welcome indeed. The Dorian label is known for crystal-clear, sonically superb Early Music recordings that emphasize timbral variety and expansiveness--very different from your typical romantic excess or hackneyed baroque trio. Drive Time P.M. offers small ensemble instrumental and vocal selections. Tracks include lute and flute solos by Ronn McFarlane and Chris Norman; medieval Celtic music by the Altramar Medieval Music Ensemble; lovely Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Lully, and Massenet selections; medieval Spanish music by Ensemble Alcatraz; and Bach played by guitar duo and famed ensemble Les Violins du Roy. The Eternal Harp--which includes vocals by Kitka, tenor Paul Rendall, and soprano Custer LaRue--offers an inviting variety of delicate European harp sounds and mostly traditional, medieval, and Renaissance repertoire. While some of this music would be obliterated by noise coming through open windows, its pristine delicacy, heard in an air-conditioned environment, is a welcome antidote to the drive-time blues. --Jason Serinus

Only R.E.M. can make you burst with happiness when singing along to lyrics such as, "c'mon c'mon no one can see you cry." They've been writing anthems for social outsiders for years, so it's no wonder then that they've gotten damn good at making us all feel a little less alone in this crazy world. Reveal, the second album since the departure of drummer Bill Berry, is some of their best work in years and hasn't left my stereo since it arrived. The songs get stuck in your head like commercial jingles. There's a touch of psychedelia and an abundance of strings, mixed in a way that brings the sound up to date while still feeling like vintage R.E.M. That's largely due to the moving, bittersweet quality of the songs, both epic like the soundtrack to a life and intensely personal. Songs traversing such topics as growth, reflection, and suicide are spelled out in organic images of small animals, candy, seasons, skies, and astrology; adding up to an album that's as spacey as it is grounded. Its rainy-day sorrow quality and lolling hot-days-of-summer bliss make it a year-round option. --Amrah Fatale

Charlie Parker with Quartet and the Orchestra
Washington Concerts BLUE NOTE

Duke Ellington & His Orchestra
The Ellington Suites PABLO
Pundits will tell you that Duke Ellington hit his peak around 1939-40, and that Charlie Parker hit his ten years later, but while no one will argue that Ellington ever assembled a more perfect band than the one that featured Jimmy Blanton and Ben Webster, his arranging and compositional skills continued to develop. Some particularly interesting writing went into various suites composed in later years, as the two early-'70s entries on The Ellington Suites clearly demonstrate. But the real attraction is the suite dedicated to Queen Elizabeth II, recorded in 1959 when Billy Strayhorn and Johnny Hodges were still aboard. "Sunset and the Mockingbird" and "Single Petal of a Rose" are among the most beautiful of Ducal melodies. Though '52 and '53 were supposedly years of decline for Parker--and his studio recordings are indeed less important than his earlier work for Savoy and Dial--on the best live recordings of the period, Bird flies higher than ever. He manages to expand on his amazing vocabulary and develop the art of improvising over set changes to a level that only two or three players would ever challenge. Bird's playing on the three sessions presented here is so good that you may not even notice the indifferent sound quality. --Duck Baker

Tremendous Efforts BLOODSHOT
Toronto's Sadies are maybe the worst nightmare for music marketers since the way eclectic '60s band Kaleidoscope. Superficially an alt-country band, they have an instrumental side (the Tortoise-meets-the-Ventures-in-Nashville "Pass the Chutney," the coolly dramatic, Ennio Morricone-like "Empty the Chamber"), a mid-'60s garage-band rave-up side (the Sonics/Paul Revere & the Raiders-style treatment of "Wearin' That Loved on Look"), and a bluegrass side (the straightforward "Ridge Runner Reel"). Rather than facile-hipster smugness, the Sadies invest a lot of panache and an admirable leanness and restraint in the styles they inhabit, and have good taste in unusual covers: the Gun Club's "Mother of Earth" and Gerry Goffin/Carole King's "Wasn't Born to Follow." Their originals convey a tone of fatalistic, world-weary resignation similar to that of the Band or the Grateful Dead--matter of fact, the vocals on "Before I Wake" are a ringer for 1970 Jerry Garcia. Tremendous Efforts makes for a darkly haunting listen, perfect for those very overcast days or sleepless nights. --Mark Keresman


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