Laila Biali

Laila Biali

Smooth jazz might be an even worse idea than soft rock or light beer, which makes Laila Biali’s self-titled album a miracle of sorts. The pianist masterfully mixes jazz and pop, bringing virtuosity and unpredictability to songs that are concise and catchy.

Biali has toured with Sting and Chris Botti, and operates in territory those artists have explored. Her intricate arrangements are filled with lovely ornamentation but don’t become busy. George Koller’s bass provides plenty of backbone as part of an extensive supporting cast.

Biali’s appealing alto shines most of all, and while she’s no showboat, there’s a wow factor when she climbs the scale. Some of the best vocals are wordless as they float, dance, weave and pingpong.

And almost everything swings. Biali wrote nine songs and includes three covers, all excellent. She transforms Coldplay’s Yellow into a swirl of dynamics and rhythms, brings out the beauty of Randy Newman’s I Think It’s Going to Rain Today and slowly builds to a closing jam on David Bowie’s Let’s Dance. It’s intoxicating, and way better than light beer.

— Steven Wine

Associated Press

The Wife

Alafair Burke

The issue of sexual harassment and assault gets a new spin in Alafair Burke’s gripping The Wife. With a fine eye for believable characters and what motivates people, Burke sculpts a solid domestic thriller that’s fresh and timely.

Angela is the wife of Jason Powell, a highly respected economics professor and best-selling author. Her pampered, predictable life gives Angela a sense of control and peace.

When she was a teen, Angela was held captive for several years. She has kept that past a secret from most people.

Then Jason is accused of sexual harassment. His account of what happened seems plausible, but a second woman comes forward claiming rape. Angela wonders just how well she knows her husband.

Burke keeps readers off-kilter regarding the characters’ motives. Is Angela a reliable narrator or are her views tainted by her experiences? Not only does she worry about Jason, she also worries about her own life and losing her shroud of privacy. The author enhances the brisk plot with solid details about police procedures and legal maneuverings.

— Oline H. Cogdill

Associated Press

I Like Fun

They Might Be Giants

They Might Be Giants have a spring in their step on I Like Fun, their 20th studio album. As is often the case, their gait is of the kind endorsed by Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks, with a special dispensation here from the Dead Poets Society.

Yes, death becomes TMBG and there’s a funereal bouquet of approaches to inevitable expiry among the 15 tracks, including Mrs. Bluebeard, I Left My Body and the dark-until-it’s-goofy Last Wave.

Let’s Get This Over With relies on a foundation of piano and drums and is one their catchiest songs in a career densely populated with them. It makes for a fantastic opener and one of its maxims is that “Even when you’re out of work/you still have a job to do.”

By the Time You Get This is an all-too-optimistic prediction of the future — no barking dogs, hatred or lies — made in 937, “the dark and troubled past.” The Motown-style telegraph guitar across Push Back the Hands of Time sounds almost incongruous in a tune that’s otherwise less agitated than its intro.

Instrumental support from their live band supplements the duo’s musicality. Though the sound effects may be more conventional than on their early albums, the two Johns, Flansburgh and Linnell, continue to be as effective as ever.

I Like Fun demonstrates the band’s inimitable talent for earworm melodies and zany subject matter. Now go and gather those rosebuds.

— Pablo Gorondi

Associated Press