IRON & WINE
Our Endless Numbered Days
Sam Beam sings like a man telling secrets. There isn't a moment on Our Endless Numbered Days, Beam's second record under the name Iron & Wine, when he isn't murmuring. He sings straight down into that massive beard of his, the words escape muted and muffled. But for all outward appearances, there's nothing inherently "folkie" about Iron & Wine. Beam's land is not our land; he has no truck with either John Henry or Stack O'Lee. While it would be easy to mistake Beam's resistance to electricity and percussion as a deliberate evocation of roots, there's a weird current of hostility and mysticism running beneath his music that ends up aligning him closer to Bill Blake than Bill Monroe. In Beam's universe, love and violence occur at the same gentle rate. When he coos, "There will be teeth in the grass," on the song of the same name, it's unclear how those teeth got there or whose bloody jaw they were knocked from. You can miss lines like these if you just focus on the superficial elements of Beam's songs: nimble acoustic plucking, banjo drawl, a lap-steel that warbles like a swallow. But even Beam's tender moments are built from unnerving images. "Your brother's left here shaved and crazy" goes one line, "those Band-Aid children chased your dog away," delivered in that same timid whisper, line after line gurgling like some constant country river, until you start to consider that maybe it isn't secrets but visions that he's selling. J. EDWARD KEYES
Iron & Wine play Neumo's with Holopaw and Patrick McKinney at 8 p.m. Tues., April 6. $10 adv. $12.
CHARLES LLOYD/BILLY HIGGINS
Which Way Is East
When a saxophonist improvises in the kind of knotty, whispery, slippery tones that Charles Lloyd does, the music can seem conflicted. But not for Lloyd: The 68-year-old, Memphis-born saxophonist's latest inhales several avant-garde ideas and returns them across a range of intelligent story lines. Which Way Is East is two discs of spacious, ethereal duets with percussionist Billy Higgins, who died of liver disease four months after recording. Lloyd's current tour pays tribute to Higgins, who chants on the album in prayerful Portuguese and Arabic and takes turns at Syrian one-string, wood box, guitar, and hand drums. Higgins adds sublimity and glitchy bottom to music that's alternately sleepy and aggressive. His drums get brittle on "Civilization," which sounds denser than the carefree ditty "Blues Tinge," an airy, playful tune that styles guitar and vocals in Delta-blues throwback: "Blues is the blues/Blues is the blues [chuckle]/Blues is hard to lose." The intimate "Sea of Tranquility" sets Lloyd's hands in motion across dark, sagging piano chords. Few avant-garders since Coltrane and Ali's 1967 pairing in the Van Gelder studios sound as creatively matched as these guys, but where that duo sought disjunction, Lloyd and Higgins aim for consonance. This album's more meditative than the pair's previous collaborations on ECM—1999's Voice in the Night, 2000's The Water is Wide, and 2001's Hyperion With Higgins—but who needs anarchy when you actually have something to say? DANIEL KING
Charles Lloyd, Eric Harland, and Zakir Hussain play Town Hall at 8 p.m. Sun., April 4. Part of the Earshot Jazz Spring Series. $18–$35.
Get Away From Me
Listen to teenager Nellie McKay and free-associate the mature acts she manages to suggest without falling into retro cliché: Peggy Lee, Suzanne Vega, Blossom Dearie, Pizzicato 5 . . . Christ, listening to her breathy, humpy, '70s stalker anthem, "Baby Watch Your Back," you'd swear she was having a laugh and channeling the Andrea True Connection. McKay's fresh, chameleonic voice and mischievous musical instincts are the main reasons to get worked up about her CD debut—though she spends most of it sounding like an alternately woozy and worked-up lounge chanteuse, there's a bite to the songs and delivery that insists she's no post-modern toy. Even when she fizzes like Cole Porter, it's got a little acid in it (on "Won't U Please B Nice" she coos, "Salute the flag/Or I'll call you a fag"). A lot of people are probably going to go nuts about McKay—who wrote and arranged all the material here, and plays nearly half the instruments—and they should. Based on this evidence, the girl has the potential to compose her own pop encyclopedia before she's 30. You do wish, though, that Columbia and producer Geoff Emerick had kept calm heads and not encouraged McKay to so completely blow her wad; 18 cuts is almost a bit too much of her edgy exuberance. Some of the truly adventurous selections—bitter-tongued musical hybrids that might best be labeled hip-hop cabaret—are more easily admired than they are enjoyed, and aside from the dizzying, poisonous charm of that voice, not much comes boomeranging back at you a day later (maybe the chorus of "Ding Dong," a they're-coming-to-take-me-away-ha-ha ditty she puts across like an updated Dearie). Still, you get that excited feeling that the best is yet to come. STEVE WIECKING
Nellie McKay plays the Crocodile Cafe at 9 p.m. Fri., April 2. $8 adv./$10.