National Bohemian (Woodberry Records/Thirty Tigers)
These local roots rockers smartly enlisted Los Lobos's Steve Berlin to produce this CD. Although The Bridge is blessed with two excellent songwriters—Cris Jacobs and Kenny Liner—they've had a tough time getting their distinctive styles to mesh seamlessly on disc. Berlin knows all about such a challenge, having watched his band balance Cesar Rosas's blues-inflected rockers with David Hidalgo and Louie Pérez's more atmospheric and impressionistic songs over the past few decades. Here, Berlin creates a sonic template that accommodates Jacobs's earnest Americana and Liner's jaunty bluegrass tunes without sacrificing any of their passion or pluck. Berlin is "the bridge," so to speak, using instrumental passages to connect the material and give it an overall coherence that was lacking on previous efforts. He even finds a good spot for Liner's beatboxing—which, in the past, felt more like a novelty—as a percussive segue from the giddy-up tempo of "Chavez" into the mildly funky "Big Wheel." Such sublime moments make National Bohemian essential listening for anyone who enjoys a genre-bending jam, or two.
Hammersmith Odeon (Vaulternative Records)
Culled from a series of 1978 London concerts, this three-CD set was released to commemorate the Baltimore native's 70th birthday—in fact, it even comes with a balloon and party hat! Co-produced by Zappa's widow, Gail, it features one of his finest bands—including guitarist Adrian Belew, bassist Patrick O'Hearn, drummer Terry Bozzio, and keyboardist Peter Wolf—and an astonishing selection of songs. Many of these songs turned up on 1979's Sheik Yerbouti record, and, here, they sound fully realized and incredibly well-rehearsed, which is a testament to Zappa's skills as an arranger and bandleader. And the playing on older favorites such as "Dinah-Moe Humm" and "Camarillo Brillo" is equally accomplished and tight, which is no small feat considering the music's elaborate swerve.