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When it’s great, ‘Gatsby’ soundtrack subtly evokes the ’20s

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Updated: June 8, 2013 6:41AM

Various artists, “Music From Baz Luhrmann’s Film ‘The Great Gatsby’” (Universal) ½

This is not, thank gawd, one of those retro-hipster jazz projects that comes along whenever pop music gets too boring (see Joe Jackson’s “Jumpin’ Jive” or the Squirrel Nut Zippers). It is merely another anachronistic hootenanny by Baz Luhrmann, mashing up modern music with his latest overstylized antique visuals for his adaptation of “The Great Gatsby.” How all this will mesh with the movie remains to be seen, since Luhrmann’s track record as a jukebox filmmaker is sketchy, but at least the album itself is not overstylized. Like, at all.

As with any soundtrack, this one’s hit or miss. The hits, though, are pretty stunning, with nods to the Roaring ’20s without attempts at replicating them (except for the Bryan Ferry Orchestra’s tracks, including a dynamic ragtime reading of Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love,” sung by the superb Emeli Sandé). Most performances are restrained and pull at the various taut threads of Gatsby’s unraveling. Beyoncé, approaching an overexposure now at the level of some of Luhrmann’s frames, surprises by downshifting into indie-chanteuse mode; in a duet with André 3000, she delivers a cover of Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black,” with a sad sexual tension that approaches torch song but never ignites it. Sadness and torchiness infuse Lana Del Rey’s effortless and sweeping “Young and Beautiful,” and Sia’s very Adele-like “Kill and Run,” both ballads saturated with strings but still sturdy. On paper, The xx seem out of place here, but the band’s “Together” evokes the narrative’s palpable desperation in its hushed tone and nagging heart-monitor beat.

Like the story, the women hold the power here. Producer Jay-Z opens the set with “$100 Bill,” a hum-drum rumination on (surprise) money and power;’s “Bang Bang” is a dud dud; Jack White’s U2 cover (“Love Is Blindness”), the set’s only previously released track, is still a bit histrionic. In the end, this set won’t have many swooning like, say, Vladimir Tostoff’s “Jazz History of the World,” but at least it’s not as cynical.

Savages, “Silence Yourself” (Matador) 

If the instructive title blows past you, the opening song reiterates the point: “Shut Up.” The buzziest band at this year’s SXSW, Savages are a serious post-punk quartet, and it’s worth hushing up to hear the intricacies at work amid all the carefully wrought guitar squall and gleefully bleak observations. Singer Jehnny Beth applies a quivering Grace Slick vibrato to her frequently tuneless, deeply earnest delivery, not unlike a more alarmed Morrissey or, given the song structures and the album’s penchant for occasional odd urban noise, the Fall’s Mark E. Smith. Songs massage as much fierce feedback (“Waiting for a Sign”) as they do surprisingly supple melody (“She Will”); producers Rodaidh McDonald and Johnny Hostile have masterfully manipulated it for grand effect whether one has quieted down or not. A great rock album destined to top most rockist’s best-o’-2013 list. (Wild Flag, we hardly knew ye.)

Natalie Maines, “Mother” (Columbia) ½

Ending her self-imposed seven-year spiral of silence, after the backlash to her criticisms of President George W. Bush, former Dixie Chicks leader Natalie Maines eases her way back into music with an album of covers. It’s a frustratingly safe choice, but her song selections make their own statements — particularly the title track, a dry but bold reading of Pink Floyd’s Freudian opus from “The Wall.” This album, produced by Ben Harper (whose band backed her in March at SXSW), is touted as a rock record. It ain’t country, for sure, but her Texas lilt lubricates the otherwise stiff connective tissue of Dan Wilson’s “Free Life” and the timid verses of Jeff Buckley’s “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over.” Great to have her back, and “Mother” is pleasant enough. But I’d rather hear what she herself has to say.

Rod Stewart, “Time” (Capitol) ½

Rod Stewart wrote a memoir (“Rod: The Autobiography”) and suddenly remembered that he used to kinda rock. So he made “Time,” his first album in 15 years from his own songbook. Co-written, of course — “Time” bills plenty of it, with six writers credited to the debut single, “She Makes Me Happy.” The album sounds that crowded, with lots of thin ideas corn-starched into a thick, radio-ready gloss. But its unsurprising shamelessness isn’t wholly unappealing, and tracks like the satiny “Sexual Religion” and the horn-driven groove of “Finest Woman” are also reminders that, yeah, Stewart used to kinda rock and, at age 68, still sorta can.

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