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Published: Wednesday, 8/25/2010

Lang Lang dazzles on 2-disc set

BLADE STAFF AND NEWS SERVICES

Think classical is mundane?

This captivating two-disc set which was released Tuesday features a vibrant and electrifying performance by the great Lang Lang, a young concert pianist who made Time magazine's list of “100 Most Influential People in the World,” performed for 5 billion viewers at the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and was a guest soloist at Nobel Prize events in 2007 and 2009. In addition, he played alongside Herbie Hancock at the 50th annual Grammy Awards.

Performed in Vienna's famous Musikverein concert hall, this is Lang Lang's second live recorded recital and is a follow-up to 2004's best-selling “Live at Carnegie Hall,” his international breakthrough.

There are pianists who interpret, tweak, finesse, and bring to life the classics with flair; Lang Lang is one who utterly takes command of the music and puts his own stamp on it with bold and unwavering confidence.

Included is Lang Lang's first-ever recording of Beethoven sonatas, not exactly a composer for the meek and timid. These two discs capture an incredible performance that jumps out at you, stirs your senses, and makes a lasting impression, with works from Prokofiev and Chopin included.

— TOM HENRY

Asleep at the Wheel, fronted by lead singer Ray Benson, have collected nine Grammy Awards in their 40 years as the post-modern kings of Western swing. Benson has been the stabilizing force through nearly 100 members, 20 studio albums, and a busy touring schedule.

Here, for the first time, the septet reaches out for a vocal assist from a singer who performed with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, the most famous of all the Western swing bands that popularized the genre in the 1930s and 1940s. Leon Rausch, now 83, started with Wills in the 1950s and is one of the few original Texas Playboys still performing.

The song selection on this package — 12 tunes over 42 minutes — is typical of the stuff Benson and his group have been doing all along, mostly standards with no surprises. The fiddles are smooth, the lap steel resonant, the horns bright, and the guitars sharp in punctuating the old-timey music with a steady swing beat.

Alas, what becomes evident to the careful listener is an unfortunate decline of the lead singers' voices, an inevitable affliction with age. The musicianship, however, makes up for that slight shortcoming. The Wheels' signature song, “Get Your Kicks (On Route 66),” still sounds fresh.

— KEN ROSENBAUM

Katy Perry is young, beautiful, successful, and set to marry the hilarious Russell Brand. You expect her to apply herself too? Please.

When she works hard, Perry can hold her own against any of pop's 20-something leading ladies — from Lady Gaga to Britney Spears. Sure, her current smash “California Gurls” is a fizzy-pop concoction of empty calories, but it sure does stick with you. That kind of craftsmanship takes effort, though, and judging from the number of lazy, unfocused songs on Perry's new “Teenage Dream,” she kind of lost interest in that.

“Think I need a ginger ale,” she concludes in “Last Friday Night,” a tale of drunkenness so slapped together it relegates her to Ke$ha-wannabe status. “That was such an epic fail.”

“Do you ever feel like a plastic bag?” she wonders in “Firework,” cribbing from Lady Gaga's little-monster esteem-building classes.

What makes these songs so annoying isn't that they're awful, it's that they could have been great. Perry lays her often-clunky lyrics over state-of-the-art up-tempo pop built by the likes of Max Martin and Dr. Luke. Give the backing tracks from “Hummingbird Heartbeat” or “The One That Got Away” to any one of hundreds of artists to write to, and they would have built them into hits. Perry turns them into vague filler.

“Teenage Dream” has its moments. The ballad “Not Like the Movies” shows both Perry's vocal and emotional range, while “Pearl” with its lush, '80s-styled drama, is masterfully handled. Too bad Perry doesn't strive for that more often.

— GLENN GAMBOA, Newsday



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