1998 Records To Die For Page 2
BACH: Six Motets, BWV 225-230
René Jacobs, Academy for Old Music; RIAS Chamber Chorus, Berlin
Harmonia Mundi HMC 901589 (CD). 1997. Eberhard Geiger, prod.; Michael Glaser, eng. DDD. TT: 72:36
For lovers of choral singing, Bach's Motets are more fertile ground than the Cantatas, in which the voices must compete with an orchestra. Here, conductor Jacobs uses instruments to double voices, but keeps many sections for voices alone. He also uses soloists selectively, most obviously in the aria of Komm, Jesu, komm. Most striking, though, is the splendid singing of the RIAS Chamber Choir, which, despite its unglamorous name, is one of the finest choruses in the world. The conclusion to Singet, to pick one example, is almost unbelievably well done: firmly rhythmic, vital, and reverent in a way that brings tears to the eyes. Sonics show the proper balance between clarity and choral blend.
BRUCKNER: Mass in F Minor, Te Deum
Jane Eaglen, Birgit Remmert, Deon van der Walt, Alfred Muff; Linz Mozart Choir, London Philharmonic, Franz Welser-Möst
EMI 5 56168 2 (CD). 1996. Simon Woods, prod.; Simon Rhodes, eng. DDD. TT: 79:26
This is young man's Bruckner—more taut and exciting than probing and spiritual. Welser-Möst chooses fairly quick tempos, but never slights Bruckner's quiet, reflective moments. The chorus is large enough to have terrific impact, and also handles the thorny, chromatic passages with impressive precision. The sonics are particularly fine—close enough for good diction and clarity, but not in your face. While these sonics won't flatten your nose, they will envelop you in wonderful concert-hall ambience.
TOOTS & THE MAYTALS: Funky Kingston
Mango MLPS 9330 (LP), MAN 9330 (CD). 1973. Warrick Lyn, Chris Blackwell, Dave Bloxham, prods. AAA/AAD. TT: 32:56
This was my second reggae experience, discovered from a cut on the seminal—for me—soundtrack to The Harder They Come, in which Jimmy Cliff starred as a "persecuted" bad guy. Toots and the Maytals came off so great on that album that I just had to have more.
This is reggae for the not-too-serious, but it harks back to a time when that's what reggae was. Reggae was in its infancy in this country when Funky Kingston was released in 1973 (The Harder They Come came out in '72). Mega-concerts and mega-money were far in the future—these guys were just having a good time making music.
As you can see from the LP's total playing time (I haven't heard the CD), those were the days when $6.98 bought only a half-hour of music. The compensation is that every song on the disc is excellent—great covers of "Country Road" and "Louie, Louie," plus a bunch of original stuff from F. Hibbert (Toots).
It saddens me to think that some Stereophile readers have spent the last 20 years without this record. If you're one of them, don't let the error continue. The recorded sound is pretty good for the era and technology available to these guys, but it's not a system demo disc. It will make you feel great, and might even inspire some dancing.
THE ARC CHOIR: Walk With Me
The ARC Choir, Curtis Lundy, dir.
Mapleshade MS 04132 (CD). 1997. Hamiet Bluiett, prod.; Pierre Sprey, eng. AAD. TT: 51:15
I heard this choir live in New York and just had to get the record (fortunately, they were selling them at the concert). This is a recording that will set you on fire.
"ARC" doesn't, in this instance, stand for Audio Research Corporation, but for Addicts Rehabilitation Center, a Harlem-based organization that helps people pull themselves out of the depths of despair and get their lives back. I gathered that some of these singers still reside at the Center, but most are out on their own.
Listening to this record, you'll realize that salvation isn't something they take figuratively or metaphorically. Their a cappella voices manage to convey terrific unity when singing in chorus, and fierce individuality when singing solo (all soloists are drawn from the choir). They're mainlining personal salvation by Jesus Christ—it may or may not be your cup of tea, but you'll never doubt His importance in these singers' lives. These people are saved every day, and you won't come away from this record with any question about it.
Most important for this feature, they sing great! I found myself addicted to the sounds these people produce. The first time I put the CD on, I listened to the title song six times. The combination of harmonies, rhythms, arrangements, and just plain great singing had me going nonstop.
Mapleshade has done a sensational job of delivering the music, with full annotation of ARC's offbeat, sonically purist techniques. You'll want to play the disc loud—imagine 32 people singing their hearts out in your living room. It'll lay some serious licks on your system's midrange.
I can imagine you disliking Walk With Me if you can't stand gospel, or perhaps a cappella singing, but otherwise you should be prepared to lose a large amount of time not doing anything but listening to this record—and thinking about the experiences behind what it's saying. If you have problems finding the CD, call Mapleshade at (301) 627-0525.
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Vocal & Orchestral Music
Serenade to Music, Flos Campi, Five Mystical Songs, Fantasia on Christmas Carols
Thomas Allen, baritone; Nobuko Imai, viola; 16 soloists, Corydon Singers, English Chamber Orchestra, Matthew Best
Hyperion CDA66420 (CD). 1990. Mark Brown, prod.; Anthony Howell, eng. DDD. TT: 68:16
"Listening to Vaughan Williams...," said Aaron Copland, "is like two hours of watching cows eat grass." I know what he means. There is a pastoral serenity to much of the English composer's work. But that disguises deep passion that is only revealed in glimpses, as in the enigmatic masterwork for the viola on this disc, Flos Campi (Fields of Flowers). A dotted rising-fifth figure is repeatedly thrown from viola to orchestra and back again before the work's coda raises tension from a base of contemplative calm that can be resolved only by the joyous sound of the wordless choir. In fact, all the works on this Hyperion CD pull the listener between the opposed poles of tension and emotional release, whether it be secular passion—the Shakespeare-inspired Serenade to Music—or sacred. "Rise Heart..." is how "Easter," the first of the Five Mystical Songs, begins, and to hear this superbly engineered disc, with its wide dynamic range echoing the emotional range of the music, is to feel your own heart rise in response.
TAVENER: String Quartets 1 & 2 (The Last Sleep of the Virgin, The Hidden Treasure)
PÄRT: Summa, Fratres
Chilingirian Quartet; Iain Simcock, handbells
Virgin Classics CDC 5 45023 2 (CD). 1994. Tryggvi Tryggvason, prod.; Andrew Halifax, eng. DDD. TT: 72:12
It's rare that classical works have their performance space and sound-pressure level specified. But in the notes to his string quartet The Last Sleep of the Virgin on this sonically stunning CD, John Tavener writes, "The work must be performed in a building with a resonant acoustic, with the performers at a distance from the audience, and with the sound at the threshold of audibility." He sternly adds that "this track should be played at a barely audible level." And, indeed, as the sound of the string quartet whispers forth from the speakers, each melodic entry highlighted by caressed handbells, the music, composed in homage to Dame Margot Fonteyn, carries the listener off into a serene world of contemplation. Recorded reverberation can often sound too cold, too redolent of tiled spaces, but here the acoustic of All Saint's Church, Petersham, England supports the musicians' efforts with a warm, enveloping ambience. Hats off to producer Tryggvason (who engineered the superb-sounding Gale LPs more than two decades ago) and engineer Halifax for recording a perfectly formed miniature of a masterpiece. (XVIII-5)
THE REIVERS: End of the Day
Db/Capitol CDP 7 90119 2 (CD). 1989. John Croslin, prod., eng.; Andy Metcalfe, prod. AAD? TT: 39:57
Originally known as Zeitgeist, this Austin, Texas band led what came to be known by the too-cute name of the "New Sincerity" movement. Live and on record, being "sincere" translated to low-key guitar pop whose lyrics could get downright pastoral. Rising at the same time as the pumping fist of Seattle grunge, the Reivers were Nirvana's antithesis: melody was king, the Byrds echoes were audible, and although they could get moderately loud and rockin', most of their songs hovered in the midtempo to ballad range. Although much of what they did could be called "folk rock," their music was full of angst, and could switch from delicate to driving in a blink.
After a name change to the title of Faulkner's last novel (necessitated by a Minnesota group already named Zeitgeist), the Reivers quietly moved from Atlanta indie Db Records to Capitol. Here, on their sophomore major-label flop—which, of course, is beloved by all in the cult of Reiverdom—John Croslin-penned tunes like "It's About Time," "Almost Home," and "Discontent of Winter" (co-written by guitarist Kim Longacre) are brilliant melodic gems that paradoxically share a strength with Kurt Cobain's tunes: the evocative use of loud/soft dynamics. While the soundstage is often flat, the sound is surprisingly crisp and well defined.
Perhaps this band's greatest charm was its division of labor. Longacre and bassist Cindy Toth were equally important (at least in terms of playing), as were drummer Garrett Williams and John Croslin—the band's singer, songwriter, guitarist, and mood ring. The vocal interplay between Longacre and Coslin gleams throughout this disc, and Longacre also shines on her solo take of "Lazy Afternoon" (a show tune Babs once cut). For seasoning, the band usually threw in an instrumental; here it's the hooky, slacker-titled "Dude Man Hey." Since they broke up in 1991, The Reivers have become one of America's great lost bands. Everything in their now-out-of-print catalog is worth seeking out.
BILL LLOYD: Set to Pop
East Side Digital ESD 80892 (CD). 1994. Bill Lloyd, prod.; Byron House, Scott Baggett, Tim Coats, John Hampton, Rick Will, engs. AAD? TT: 59:52
What is pop? Well, in my unhumble definition, almost everything that's accessible—Eine kleine Nachtmusik to "My Way"—can be classed as "pop." When it comes to guitar pop, no record has ever stood taller than Bill Lloyd's Set to Pop. Ignore the stupid title and equally moronic artwork—this isn't just a record to die for, it's one of my discs of the millennium. Recorded over a 10-year period by session ace Lloyd (who was also—don't hold it against him—half of Foster and Lloyd), this disc contains a clutch of big, melodic knockouts: "Trampoline" (co-written with Greg Trooper), "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (co-written with Marshall Crenshaw), "In a Perfect World" (co-written with Cindy Bullens), "A Beautiful Lie," and this album's single, "Channeling the King"—which, as you may have guessed, is about people who want to use Lloyd's connection to Elvis to ask questions. The hilarious video for this tune was on MTV for about a week before being canned.
The mass of killer, killer songs here is truly astonishing. Most songwriters don't hit this many times in a lifetime, let alone a single album. Hooks of every description rain down. And having help from folks like E Street bassist Garry Tallent, Al Kooper, Marshall Crenshaw, Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, Poco's Rusty Young, and Lloyd's old pal Kim Richey doesn't hurt either. Sonically, the quality varies from very good to the edge of listenability. Sad to say, this disc is also hard to find. But take my word for it: It belongs at the top of your want list.