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Marva Wright

After the Levees Broke

(AIM)

Late-blooming blues queen and former McMain High School secretary Marva Wright stormed onto the New Orleans R&B scene as a pro with a recording of Ruth Brown's no-nonsense, assertive blues scorcher "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean," in 1989. That's the kind of material her full, take-no-prisoners voice is made for, and that may be why the two songs that open her latest record -- "The Levee Is Breaking Down," recorded in Australia during her most recent tour, and "Katrina Blues," (both penned by her longtime bassist and producer Benny Turner) -- though heartfelt after her long exile from the city, fall short of their intentions. Wright's voice is one that reads you your rights and tells you your business, and her powerful intensity as a vocalist finds a better venue in her gospel-inflected tunes on this record, particularly the shattering closer. A cover of Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come," it starts deceptively soft and leaves God-fearing listeners quaking in their pews. The album features some fine players, not least of which is a guest spot from Allen Toussaint on piano on the understated gospel number "God's Good Hand" and funkmaster June Yamagishi on guitar. All in all, a worthy homecoming effort by a blues queen retaking her throne after too much time spent away. -- Alison Fensterstock

The bALLY who?

Keep on Dawn

(Yea Sayers)

The slightly mysterious, code-talking oddity the bALLY who? is a pair of brothers who have been purveying tongue-in-cheek prog-rock with a side of intellectual pop catchiness in New Orleans for several years. The duo's sound is consistently difficult to pin down, and Keep on Dawn is no exception. Its noisy, psychedelic experiments recall the Beatles, if only because it never jettisons solid pop sensibility. The long spoken-word digressions may or may not be completely serious, and if they are, then they may want to reconsider. And the overall effect is so dense, so textured and so layered that when songs jangle and jump, reminiscent of the Kinks' smarty-pants pop fun, it's hard to tell whether it's good clean fun or if there's a joke and the butt of it is you. As so many recent projects still are, Keep on Dawn is the group's post-Katrina record -- with recording largely funded by FEMA checks and MusiCares -- and songs like "Lake NOLA" evidence that without being overbearing. It could be that several bands had too much time on their hands to experiment with tape loops and multilayered tracks after the storm, or it could be that we're onto a new fad in fuzzy, noisy, trippy swamp music, with local acts like Rotary Downs, the Good Guys and others all getting into this kind of soup -- but the bALLY who? version is one of the smarter and more well-realized expressions of that sound. -- Fensterstock

Rob Wagner Trio featuring Hamid Drake and Nobu Ozaki

(Valid Records)

On his latest release, Rob Wagner's saxophone playing and writing continue the strong arc of his previous releases. His compositions, which sometimes meander on his other CDs, are lean and focused. The tracks consist of loping, "Caravan"/journey tunes such as "Desoparia (They handed out $12 billion in Iraq and couldn't even give New Orleans drinking water)," more meditative, deliberate pieces like "Childhood Memory," and slow building burners like "Shock, Awe, Sham, Shame." Wagner's special guest in this trio is drummer Hamid Drake, one of the premiere percussion magicians of our time. Drake's drumming allows both Wagner and bassist Nobu Ozaki to play within and against his beats. There is also a confidence and almost swagger in Wagner's playing, the same type of confidence that Sonny Rollins has on his trio's records from the 1950s and '60s. "Desoparia" leads off the CD with Wagner playing long lines on soprano that reach into the instrument's upper range while Drake pushes the rhythm by adding accents beneath the beat. Wagner's tone is controlled and precise over Drake's multiple drum rolls and Ozaki's solid bass. Ozaki is also featured with Wagner on a duet, "La Madrugada," that shows his legato bow work as Wagner's tenor saxophone climbs and ducks phrases that grow in intensity as the song continues and Ozaki switches to a slow, simple line that is a great foundation for Wagner's solos. But Ozaki and Drake never sound like side players, and Wagner gives them lots of room to express themselves, Drake especially on his frame drum at the beginning of "Freedumb (Aren't you glad to vote in America?)." Drake will be coming to town to join Wagner and Ozaki on Sunday, June 3, at Blue Nile. Saxophonist Kidd Jordan joins them at Dragon's Den, on Monday, June 4. -- David Kunian

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