Lili Haydn – Place Between Places

lili-places.jpgThe violin – please don’t call it a fiddle – is thoroughly marginalized in contemporary music. For jazz, there’s Regina Carter, but Robert Plant is meeting Allison Krauss in bluegrass territory, not the other way around. The instrument belongs either at a hoedown or high tea, and nowhere in between.

Then along comes Lili Haydn, a virtuoso who brooks no such boundaries. This is her third record in 10 years, and to say it’s hard to pin down is an understatement. The many layers of “Place Between Places” keep inviting one back in, trying to pry more insight from it.

“Strawberry Street” is a Beatlesque jaunt that could be a breakthrough hit (too bad she and her band had to shave a minute from it when she played it on the “Tonight Show”). Her nod to John Lennon continues with the raga-meets “Jealous Guy” sounds of “Saddest Sunset.”

In “Can’t Give Everything” Haydn dispenses with the electronica that marred 2003’s “Light Blue Sun,” delivering instead a raw musicality that’s equal parts Prince and Jean-Luc Ponty.

Parliament/Funkadelic leader George Clinton has aptly called her “the Jimi Hendrix of the violin,” and she returns the favor by reinterpreting his 1971 guitar fireworks on “Maggot Brain.” The album’s other instrumental, “Place Between Places,” is a trance inducing tour de force.

Haydn’s top-notch singing voice shines on the anti-war “Children of Babylon” and Tori Amos-like “Unfolding Grace.”

But comparisons don’t do it justice. A record like this hasn’t come along in … well, maybe since her last one. But with “Places Between Places” a mature Lili Haydn trusts her instincts and eschews surface sheen and needless window dressing.

“I’m nobody’s baby,” sings the violinist, “I’m just who I am.” Gifted and fully grown, Lili Haydn has made an album for the ages.

Van Morrison – Keep It Simple

van-simple.jpgNot to say he’s phoning it in on this, his 34th studio album, but on the record’s final track, “Behind the Ritual,” Van Morrison simply sings five lines of “blah, blah, blah, blah” – quote unquote.

Van the Man has a reputation for stream-of-consciousness, but it’s a bit much.

“Keep It Simple” isn’t as lazy as all that, but it’s a pretty easygoing affair – and by no means unpleasant. Morrison has gone out of his way to challenge listeners in the past, so the loping blues of “How Can A Poor Boy?” is a welcome respite.

The many strands of influence that inform the Morrison muse are all present here. The gentle ballad “Lover Come Back” blends Celtic echoes with gospel soul. “No Thing,” sounds like it was lifted from a mid-1960’s Ray Charles album – no surprise considering his last disc, “Pay the Devil,” was a modern-day doppelganger for Charles’ two “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” records.

“After many demands, I’ve destroyed all my plans,” he sings on “End of the Land,” and for much of “Keep it Simple” the finicky Irishman is playing to the mirror, fashion be damned. In anyone else’s hands, that would be a disaster, but he manages to pull it off.

Other highlights include the banjo-driven “Song of Home” – though the fiddle’s a bit too buried for these ears. The jazzy, go with the flow “That’s Entrainment” best sums up the record’s toss-it-all demeanor.

“Keep It Simple” is as fickle as Van Morrison’s mood; he’s not stretching out, breaking into a trot or even breaking a sweat. But it’s all quite enjoyable nonetheless.

Counting Crows – Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings

crows-saturday-and-sunday.jpgThe latest from Counting Crows is two distinct works. The six songs of “Saturday Night,” recorded in New York City, are boisterous, balls-out rock and roll peppered with Adam Duritz’s wry bouts of self-analysis.

Ryan Adams lends a hand with lyrics on the goofy, star-fatigued “Los Angeles,” while the autobiographical “1492” shows Duritz can laugh at himself (“I’m a Russian Jew American/Impersonating African Jamaican”).

“Sundays” is the best of the New York material, a calliope ride of self-doubt, while “Insignificant” succeeds with more clever wordplay (“black as a bedroom/white as a lie”). “Cowboys” edges near punk rock anthem territory, and will probably sound great played live – the Crows are well known for reinventing material every night.

All the high-flying abandon comes crashing down for “Sunday Morning” – a stripped-down elegy that could and should stand on its own. It’s timeless music – Paul Simon could have looked back in longing from 1964 London and come up with “Washington Square” as readily as Duritz did from Berkeley in 2007.

The weary beauty of “When I Dream of Michelangelo” and “Anyone But You” provide two of the record’s best moments. The anti-love song “You Can’t Count on Me” will probably be mis-sung a hundred times; God help the first bridegroom who chooses it for wedding music without first giving it a close listen.

“Le Ballet D’Or” begins as a delicate flower, punctuated with mandolin and feedback strains, all roiling beauty, exploding by song’s end.

When you’re in the mood to beat up the night, to metaphorically cross against the light with a bottle in one hand and who knows what in the other, cue up track one of “Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings” – but stop at track six.

Or skip to “Come Around” – the record ends on a joyous note after all.