Jeff Johnson & Brian Dunning - Music of Celtic Legends (Windham Hill): A collaboration between composer/instrumentalists Brian Dunning and Jeff Johnson in which they create a musical soundtrack to stories based on ancient Celtic tales, written by best-selling fantasy author and professor Stephen Lawhead. The stories, chronicling the adventures of Taliesin the bard and cChulainn the warrior, are provided in the CD booklet. Johnson, on keyboards, and Dunning, on such instruments as flutes, pennywhistle, accordion, and Uillean pipes, provide an evocative and beautiful musical soundscape that updates traditional Celtic music.
- Frank Scheck
Kathy Mattea - Love Travels (Mercury): Since her debut in 1984, Kathy Mattea has developed into one of the best female country singers, with albums of consistently high quality. Her newest effort, one of her most heartfelt, has her tackling typically strong material, written by the likes of Gillian Welch, Jim Lauderdale, and Cheryl Wheeler. Filled with rich, contemplative songs about the vagaries of the heart, it updates the traditional country sound with funk, Caribbean, and Celtic influences. Mattea's expressive phrasing and rich, warm voice give the material its due. One highlight is "Further and Further Away," a duet with Suzy Bogguss.
- Frank Scheck
Chris Smither - Small Revelations (Hightone): Although Chris Smither's country-blues roots are never too far from the surface, his latest release continues to move to a more modern folk sound. With better production and more tasteful accompaniment than his recent "Up on the Lowdown," this CD shows his mastery of the country-blues idiom as well as his more reflective singer/songwriter side. The music works best when he combines the two as in "Help Me Now" and "Winsome Smile." Still, the quieter numbers succeed in their own way, and his cover of "Sportin' Life" with Mickey Raphael on harmonica is worth the price of the CD.
- Jef Scoville
Philip Glass - The Secret Agent (Nonesuch): Christopher Hampton's movie "The Secret Agent," starring Bob Hoskins and Patricia Arquette, was too sluggish to equal Joseph Conrad's masterly novel or to capitalize fully on the Philip Glass music that rippled through its soundtrack. Liberated from the film, Glass's score is vastly more impressive, combining his usual pulsing rhythms with a smooth, enveloping texture that recalls his hugely popular "Glassworks" suite of the early 1980s. Performed by the English Chamber Orchestra with additional artists including Glass's longtime associate, conductor Michael Riesman.
- David Sterritt
The Cardigans - First Band on the Moon (Mercury): This Swedish band captures perfectly the supersweet, jazzy pop sound of the 1960s, especially led by Nina Persson's sugarcoated girlish voice. The hit single "Lovefool" is truly retro-pop at its best. "Your New Cuckoo" also rolls happily along as a pop tune should. But too bad the band doesn't try anything different. All the songs sound similar, and too much sugar makes us want some salt. "Losers" offers a tempo change; now the band needs vocal variety. The lyrics need help, too. The woman-as-doormat theme ("Oh don't do that/ Don't use that bat/ That's all it takes to make me falling flat") may try for tongue-in-cheek, but it's nauseating. Great pop should sound simple, not be simple.
- Liz Brown