Updated: August 9, 2012 6:10AM
Joe Jackson, “The Duke” (Razor & Tie) ★★
Standards, songbooks, classics — they’re buzzwords that raise the neck hairs of any modern rock fan. When your golden god covers Ella Fitzgerald, it’s usually hella hellish. It’s a wonder, however, that it’s taken Joe Jackson more than 30 years of an eclectic career to finally get around to tackling Duke Ellington. Classically trained, Jackson scored early New Wave hits (“Is She Really Going Out With Him?,” “Stepping Out”) and has dabbled ever since in everything from symphonies to the Ellingtonia of Steely Dan. He’s a perfect fit for the playful breadth of Ellington’s catalog, even if his resulting charts here are a teensy bit bland. The miracle of this album is that Jackson brought so many new ideas to such an iconic body of work. But he backs off, arranging the selections for his players (as Ellington did) — and no one really steps up to fill the resulting space adequately. Sussan Deyhim singing “Caravan” in Farsi is a nice touch, and lawd knows Sharon Jones nails “I Got Nothin’ but the Blues,” but the tinkling arrangements and occasional stale synths date the sound in all the wrong ways. Other guests include bassist Christian McBride, violinist Regina Carter and Iggy Pop on “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” a childlike but aimless, indicative romp. Ultimately, it sounds as if Jackson didn’t quite get what he wanted (because he didn’t know what he wanted).
The dB’s, “Falling Off the Sky” (Bar/None) ★★½
The Feelies opened last year’s comeback album singing, “Is it too late to do it again? / Or should we wait another 10?” The dB’s, early-’80s power-pop contemporaries, have been absent even longer — 30 years — and return to action with an important caveat, “There’s no going back / All those times are finished with and done / You better wake up, wake up, wake up / That time is gone.” Designed with the expected ringing melodies and just-manly-enough harmonies (and, interestingly, some peppy horns and dirty organ), “Falling Off the Sky” isn’t better or much worse than any of the lost dB’s classics. The original lineup of singer-guitarists Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey, plus bassist Gene Holder and drummer Will Rigby (and produced by Mitch Easter and Scott Litt), possesses a rich chemistry that’s mellowed with age. These songs don’t have the same bite of “that time,” but when Holsapple (during a showcase at SXSW) described this as “a great summertime record,” he wasn’t wrong. Power-pop, lyrically and riff-wise, is a young man’s game, but this is a perfect record to play once the kids have gone out for the night, and there’s beer on the deck.
In other power-pop news: Memphis label Trashy Creatures has unearthed, spiffed-up and reissued a lost gem, “Portable Pop” by the Late Show. The only LP by the Indianapolis quartet (recorded live on a loading dock) features swooping Raspberries harmonies and Shoes-leather guitars. The reissue adds four bonus tracks.
And speaking of the Shoes, the pride of Zion is back, releasing its first new album since 1994. “Ignition” is due Aug. 14, featuring original bassist-vocalist John Murphy, guitarist-vocalist Jeff Murphy and guitarist-vocalist Gary Klebe, plus longtime stage drummer John Richardson. There’s also a book coming: Boys Don’t Lie: A History of Shoes by Mary E. Donnelly.