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The Globe and Mail

Damon Albarn's 'Dr Dee': Undeniably fresh - and best forgotten

Damon Albarn at work


Dr Dee Damon Albarn, with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra (Parlophone/EMI)

Pete Townshend once said, "I'd realized I'd become a genius." Modesty doesn't work for rock stars, and thank goodness for the rest of us that the Townshends and Damon Albarns of the world put their affluent minds to work with no budgets when it comes to things novel or grandiose. Townshend conceived Tommy and Quadrophenia – rock operas from the Who, and works of, yes, genius.

Dr Dee, the new album from Blur front man and Britpop polymath Albarn, is the studio version of an opera that premiered last summer at the Manchester International Festival. Alas, as an album, this work of early English choral music and dainty bucolic folk, inspired by the life of the 16th-century philosopher and alchemist John Dee, feels more quaint than ambitious. Still, if Dr Dee is less than a masterpiece, it does represent the continuing adventures of a liberated musician.

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Using the Google, you might find the term "Afro-pastoral folk opera" when it comes to the nutshell of Dr Dee. Yes, there are a couple of tribal-drum passages from percussionist Tony Allen here. But, really, Femi Kuti funk this ain't.

Indeed, birds chirp and church bells ring on the opening of The Golden Dawn. Keyboard instruments evoke a Phantom of the Prog-Rock Opera on the moodier passages. Often, Albarn strums acoustic instruments, recalling the gentle melodic touch of Syd Barrett, that late crazy diamond.

I suppose not many people will listen to this thing much at all, even if its modest length makes for an undemanding listen. The lack of the visual drama that would be seen onstage is a big problem. Think of Fleet Foxes in leotards and lutes dancing around maypoles, with soaring sopranos coming and going.

In short, this is unlike anything we've ever heard from Albarn, a promiscuous collaborator and creative force who knows no rules. It is the opposite of Song 2, the Blur anthem with the "woo-hoo" hook – one of rock's all-time greatest exclaims. It isn't anything like his cartoon-fronted Gorillaz project with the comic artist Jamie Hewlett. (Comic-book writer Alan Moore was originally involved with the staged Dr Dee, but dropped out.)

Drummer Allen was part of the side project band, The Good, The Bad & The Queen, with Albarn and thumb-slap bassist Flea. Albarn has done soundtracks, and Monkey: Journey to the West, a 2007 stage adaptation of a 16th-century Chinese novel, involved Hewlett and Chinese actor-director Chen Shi-zheng.

The immodest Townshend recently said in an interview that another one of his conceptual pieces, Who's Next from 1971, was "great," but that it would have been greater if people's attention spans were longer. Albarn pays no mind to the limitations of others.

Ironically, with this knowingly obscure album, an audience with a short attention span might be desirable. Let's quickly forget it, and all move on to his next unexpected thing.

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Radio Radio Havre de grâce (Bonsound) 3 stars

"Hello, good morning – is everybody awake?" The party night is over, and Radio Radio's Havre de grâce is the trilingual rap trio's trippier, eclectic response to the offbeat music amusements of its past. On a vécu Des is a cool blast of rasta chic. Y'en a qui connais glides and beats smoothly, with an accordion textured just right. Acid blues happen. Auto-Tune is involved occasionally, for good and for bad. Recorded in Montreal, Nova Scotia and Louisiana, the album's travel is its strength. New days and new roads, then, for Radio Radio. Brad Wheeler

Radio Radio plays Kingston, May 10; Toronto, May 11; Ottawa, May 12.

Headwaters Del Barber (Six Shooter) 3.5 stars

Where did this guy come from? I'm sure there's a story, or nine – nine songs of melody, everyday desperation and occasional arrivals of harmony. A Winnipegger, but home on the roam, the worn-in Barber will appeal to fans of Jim Cuddy or Justin Rutledge (though he's less earnest than the latter and dustier than the former). He writes about Monday-morning mirrors, streetlights that serve for stars, and often about fire: "Choking on the smoke, trying to get warm." There's thought to the arrangements; this stuff isn't rough cut. Barber's put in the miles. We get his trip. B.W.

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A Tribe Called Red A Tribe Called Red ( 3.5 stars

Sampling is like painting or writing: Getting started is easy, but proficiency is elusive. Ottawa's A Tribe Called Red displays its mastery subtly; the three DJ/producers in the crew chop up North American powwow chants and drums over dubstep bass wobbles in a way that seems basic at first. Focus on the rhythm, though, and you realize that the powwow elements in their songs are positioned to accent the syncopation in the electronics – an innovative, respectful way to bring traditional music into contemporary practice. From the stadium-ready Native Puppy Love to the dancehall-sampling synthfest Good to Go, ATCR's fine debut album proves that choosing source material is just a first step – you have to know what to do with it. Dave Morris

The Long Waiting Kenny Wheeler Big Band (CAM Jazz) 4 stars

The waiting has indeed been long — it's been a decade since Wheeler's last album of big-band compositions – but this was worth it. Working with a mostly English crew featuring pianist John Taylor (a regular collaborator) and singer Diana Torto, Wheeler reminds us why he is one of the most esteemed composers in jazz. In addition to a masterful command of the big-band palette – the trombones and voice at the beginning of Comba No. 3 are simply ravishing – he retains his knack for balancing complex harmony with memorably lyric melodies, something that makes even large-scale work like Enowena seem song-like. A stunner. J.D. Considine

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