Aural Pleasure 

There will never be a shortage of singers interested in interpreting the Great American Songbook. But vocalists with the right combination of nuance, authenticity, emotional commitment, and pipes — they get rarer with each passing year.

That’s why when a gifted stylist like Maude Maggart comes along and dedicates herself to songs composed nearly two generations before she was born, the New York cabaret scene rushes to embrace her and the Algonquin Hotel rolls out its red carpet.

Maggart, musical-cabaret’s hottest star and the older sister of singer-songwriter Fiona Apple, possesses a rich voice that effortlessly floats to dangerously high registers and delivers the kind of siren trills (the musical equivalent of fluttering eyelids) that few singers have attempted since the World War II era.   

Her sense of commitment is quickly established on her first live album during a performance of the Vernon Duke-Ira Gershwin standard “I Can’t Get Started.” As she hits the last verse, Maggart stubbornly sticks to Gershwin’s Depression-referencing line, “In 1929 I sold short,” although it’s obvious that the only way she could have done anything in 1929 was with the aid of an H.G. Wells time-travel machine.

This strict adherence to original texts makes sense for Maggart because, like a singing method actor, she’s chosen to immerse herself in every aspect of the period that produced these songs. At the same time, without really trying, she can’t help but inject a youthful energy and sexuality (e.g., her seductive near-whispers on “I’m In The Mood For Love”) into everything she sings.

Unlike pop-standard dilettantes such as Rod Stewart, who relied on Clive Davis to tell him which tunes to scavenge, Maggart carefully builds her sets around a specific theme. In this case, she explores the love story of her maternal grandparents, who met in 1937 as members of the Johnny Hamp Band, by singing songs that they either performed or would have listened to as their relationship flowered.

With a spare piano accompaniment only occasionally bolstered by reeds or strings, Maggart’s vocal presence is the unquestioned attraction, and she brings a rare beauty to highly familiar numbers such as “Deep Purple,” “My Funny Valentine,” and “Skylark.” It’s with “I Hadn’t Anyone ’Til You,” however, that the depth of her interpretive skills emerge. Simultaneously brooding and relieved, she proves that her emotional pitch is as perfect as her tonal one.

— Gilbert Garcia



The last time that Stax Records’ catalog was mined for an ambitious reissue, the result was a 244-track collection of every single released by the Memphis soul label from 1959-68. Great as Stax’s legacy is — and, along with Motown and Sun, it’s one of the three greatest American indie labels of the rock era — that amounted to exhaustive (and exhausting) overkill.

The new, remastered two-disc set might err in the other direction, but its tight, lean programming suits a company whose best music was compact, rhythmically propulsive and dripping with what label jester Rufus Thomas would have described as chicken-gravy-on-a-white-shirt nastiness. One listen to Carla Thomas (Rufus’s daughter) and Otis Redding trade lines on “Tramp,” and it’s obvious that this was the dirty-south krunk music of its time.          

Established classics such as “Soul Man,” “Knock On Wood,” and “Green Onions” are always welcome, and sound better than ever in this context. But the real lure comes from more obscure gems such as the Astors’ irresistible “Candy” (which weds Curtis Mayfield-style falsettos with funky mid-South grit), Mable John’s waltz-time kiss-off “Your Good Thing (Is About to End),” Linda Lyndell’s “What a Man” (the basis for Salt-N-Pepa’s similarly titled hit), and Eddie Floyd’s sweeping “I’ve Never Found a Girl (To Love Me Like You Do).”

That last track signaled Stax’s move toward a lusher, less regional sound, and while the second disc is loaded with great moments, it documents the period when Stax ceased to be a sound and became a mere imprint. Much like Motown, Stax surrendered to the new realities of the 1970s: artists asserting their creative autonomy, and staff writers and studio musicians no longer willing to take one for the team. The kind of communal, interracial hit-factory created at Stax couldn’t last forever, but it was a miraculous run nonetheless.

— Gilbert Garcia


With 2004’s Funeral, Arcade Fire created a stunning debut that transported listeners into the band’s dramatic world of tunnels and neighborhoods — and created high expectations for the band’s next release.

But instead of hiring a super-producer and setting up shop in a cushy studio, the band took sanctuary in a church to write and record their latest work, Neon Bible, and the result is a majestic, sweeping album that tops their debut.

Neon Bible expands, strengthens and deepens the band’s original “indie-folk-meets-new-wave” sound. Adding a full string section, horns, a hurdy-gurdy, a military choir, and a monster church organ (which announces the epic “Intervention”) could result in a murky mess — but it all serves to create a sound that’s darker, richer, and more textured than anything on Funeral. While instruments swirl and clash, ratcheting up the tension, Win Butler’s brooding, plaintive voice (this guy’s vocals possess more gravity than an entire planet) and wife Régine Chassagne’s piercing Frenglish shriek rise above the dense layers with honest urgency.

The urgency fits the subject matter. Neon Bible chronicles people who are persecuted, impoverished, and powerless to do little else but hope to be delivered, through faith (“My Body is a Cage”) or flight (“Keep the Car Running”). The makeshift church studio definitely wasn’t lost on Butler, as religious imagery abounds — from the golden calf of the title track to the lions, lambs, and resurrections in “The Well and the Lighthouse.” The threat of war also haunts the record, as expat Butler hides from World War III and resolves to escape America in the sullen “Windowsill.” Butler even takes a shot at Joe Simpson (yes, Jessica and Ashlee’s dad/manager) on the over-long “(Antichrist Television Blues),” questioning his motives for turning his children into pop-star puppets.

Yet, it’s superficial to interpret Neon Bible as simply anti-American or anti-Christian (or anti-Joe Simpson, for that matter). Rather, the lyrics condemn those who would harm others out of greed, lust for power, religious fervor, or a combination of all three. When Butler rallies all the little babies, women and children, and old folks to the place that “No Cars Go,” he’s trying to spare innocents from the “vial of pain” that the world has in store for them.

That’s the real message to be read in the Neon Bible. Things may be dire, but there are things worth protecting, and if you can’t fight, you can flee — which is a form of rebellion in itself. There’s not much chance for survival — but together, we might make it … so keep the car running.

— Chuck Kerr


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