Utne Reader Music Reviews: May-June 2010

For more, listen to sample tracks from all of these albums.

Rhymes for the Ages
by Natalie Merchant (Nonesuch)
Natalie Merchant has always had a literary bent, and she fully indulges this passion on Leave Your Sleep, a dazzlingly ambitious album of historic poetry set to a wide range of music. “It is the most elaborate project I have ever completed or even imagined,” she has written, noting that it took a year to record and involved 130 musicians.

One moment a string section is backing Rachel Field’s “Equestrienne,” a celebration of “a girl in pink on a milk-white horse”; then a jaunty fiddle drives the whimsical Edward Lear poem “Calico Pie”; and soon a Chinese music ensemble sets the stage for “The King of China’s Daughter” by an anonymous poet. There’s jazz, reggae, and Celtic music, among other forms, and poems from the 1700s to the contemporary era.

This could all be unwieldy–but it’s not. Merchant marries melodies to various rhyme schemes cannily, and the music is full of inviting entry points. The album is available in long (26 songs) and short (16 songs) versions, probably a smart marketing move–but I’d suggest that if you’re going to dive in, dive deep, and you’ll feel refreshed and enlightened when you resurface. –Keith Goetzman

Read a full interview with Natalie Merchant atutne.com/Merchant.

The Fastest Turtle
by Trampled by Turtles (Banjodad)
Trampled by Turtles play acoustic music with a rock and roll heart, often pushing the speed limit with their lineup of guitar, bass, banjo, mandolin, and fiddle. But just when you think they’re going to get pulled over by the bluegrass police, they ease back and deliver a pensive folk number that’s just as pretty as you please. The contrast between the two tempos is part of what makes it all work, with sweet surprises waiting around every corner. –K.G.

The Rap on Optimism
by Dessa (101 Distribution)
The first full-length album by rapper, singer, poet, and essayist Dessa is the odyssey of one young woman determined to remain optimistic despite all evidence she shouldn’t. She calls out bullies, chauvinists, and poseurs in a flurry of songs whose sonic imprints are as diverse as their subjects. It’s cohesive and organic: The samples sound earthy, strings heighten the drama, and Dessa’s voice remains the nucleus, whether she’s spitting rhymes or singing a cappella, her alto overdubbed into a postmodern chamber choir, each voice a facet of its owner’s magnetic personality: brave, vulnerable, playful, wary, and honest. –Jake Mohan

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