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Reviews of new albums by Donald Fagen, Martha Wainwright

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Updated: November 17, 2012 6:07AM

Donald Fagen, “Sunken Condos” (Reprise) ★½ After three solo records he called “The Nightfly” trilogy, with each LP at least a decade apart, Steely Dan leader Donald Fagen returns to the scene in record time, dropping a fourth album a mere six years after “Morph the Cat.” This certainly isn’t a departure. There’s little music on “Sunken Condos” that couldn’t have slotted seamlessly into any of the previous albums. No creative left-turns here — it’s the same impeccable playing, starchy horn charts and detached tales of beautiful urban losers.

The only added element this time around is a slight, tight feistiness lurking underneath the usual surface sheen of Fagen’s elegant Ellingtonia. Chalk it up to his recent touring not only with the now well-worn road version of Steely Dan but also Fagen’s two tours with Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald as the Dukes of September, playing their favorite old roots rock and R&B. With a backward glance the actual Nightfly would indeed appreciate, Fagen slips in nervous bebop trumpet to shake up “The Memorabilia” and some subtle but rougher-than-usual blues guitar into “The Weather in My Head.” Then he turns around and covers “Out of the Ghetto,” turning Isaac Hayes’ original funk into a winking old hipster groove. A lighter touch, for sure, even if it’s still the same alarmingly consistent, overly professional groove.

Martha Wainwright, “Come Home to Mama” (Cooperative) ★★★½The secret weapon in the Wainwright family, Martha is a wicked and potent genealogical branch bearing her father Loudon’s sometimes uncomfortably honest confessional songwriting, her brother Rufus’ occasional grandiose musical ambitions and her mother Kate McGarrigle’s talent for modernizing and enlivening old, staid folk traditions. Recorded at Sean Lennon’s home studio and produced by Cibo Matto’s Yuka Honda (and featuring guests such as Wilco guitarist Nels Cline and Dirty Three drummer Jim White) “Come Home to Mama” is Wainwright’s third outing (fourth, if you count the knock-down awesome Piaf record). It’s a blend of the singer-songwritery angst of her 2005 debut and the rock leanings of 2008’s “I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too.” “I really like make-up sex / It’s the only kind I ever get,” she sing-songs in “Can You Believe It,” like a forlorn-yet-upbeat mix of Cat Power and Liz Phair. The album’s title comes from the ballad “Proserpina,” the last song McGarrigle had written before her death in 2010. The ache of that recording (its lyrics, as well as its circumstances), the confidence of her voice (her tone, as well as her words), the wisdom in “Everything Wrong” and the bright flair of “Some People” — everything seems finally to come together into what must be Wainwright’s first singular album.

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