2000 Records to Die For Page 2
SCHUBERT: String Quintet
Alban Berg Quartet; Heinrich Schiff, cello
EMI 66942 2 (CD). 1983/1998. Gerd Berg, prod.; Johann Nikolaus Matthes, eng. DDD. TT: 47:33
As I look back over the 75 or so new CDs I've heard this year, I see that reissues account for about half—and the more interesting half, at that. When this performance was first issued some 15 years ago, I thought it as fine as any I would ever hear. The balance between drama and lyricism was superbly struck, and the playing was beyond criticism. The performance overall is unrushed and deeply moving, particularly in the slow movement, where Schubert's unique union of beauty and desolation are perfectly captured. Later recordings, even the Emerson/Rostropovich, have failed to dislodge this one from my favor. This is Schubert at his absolute best, played as well as you will ever hear it. The recording comes from the early '80s, hardly a golden age for digital recording, and the violins sound a little harsher than on the LP, but this disc is good enough for my desert island. A short CD (with no exposition repeat, I'm happy to say), but given the choice, wouldn't you take quality over quantity? (XVII-2)
BRAHMS: Sacred Works for A Cappella Choir & Organ
Jörg Straube, Norddeutscher Figuralchor; Ulfert Smidt, organ
Thorofon 2301/2 (2 CDs). 1998. Bernd Hanke, eng. DDD. TT: 2:23:28
When you think of most performing media—orchestras, string quartets, opera singers, etc.—the level of accomplishment today is not much higher than it was 30 years ago. Indeed, some would feel the level has fallen. In choral singing, however, today's best groups are far superior to what we heard in the previous generation. This disc of Brahms sacred works from Jörg Straube's North German Figural Choir are superb in intonation and control, with no loss of involvement or passion. Compared to rival recordings, chiefly those from the Berlin RIAS Chamber Choir and the Arnold Schoenberg Choir, these are on the slow, contemplative side, particularly in Warum ist das Licht gegeben. In Straube's hands, the choral blend and beauty are top-notch.
The second disc is given over primarily to the organ works, beautifully played by Ulfert Smidt. He plays the 1885 Ladegast organ at St. John's Church in Wernigerode—a fairly thick-sounding instrument. (We should note, however, that Brahms admired the Ladegast organ in the Musikverein concert hall in Vienna, so the heavy sound here is probably consistent with Brahms' vision for organ music.) Smidt plays with lots of rhythmic freedom and registral changes (not indicated by Brahms) to give the music a wide range of color. This is a lovely collection, and preferable to rival versions by Bowyer, Danby, and Nordstoga.
Both discs are well recorded in an unobtrusive way. The organ recording gets about the right reverberation and hall feel, but be warned that no Brahms organ recording is likely to be the best demo disc for your new speakers. The choral recordings balance the conflicting goals of clarity and blend quite well. If your knowledge of Brahms is limited to the orchestral music and the German Requiem, this would be a logical next step.
ELVIS COSTELLO with BURT BACHARACH: Painted from Memory: The New Songs of Bacharach & Costello
Mercury 314 538 002-2 (CD). 1998. Burt Bacharach, Elvis Costello, prods.; Kevin Killen, eng.; recorded, mixed at Ocean Way Studio. AAD? TT: 52:26
It's easy to become so familiar with greatness that you fail to recognize it. Thus it was with Elvis Costello when he blossomed out of the English pub-rock scene in the mid-'70s. Sure, I'd heard the carefully crafted Attractions singles, but it was just AM-radio fare, know what I mean? Then I heard Elvis' "Shipbuilding," sung by ex-Soft Machine drummer Robert Wyatt, and his "Girls Talk," sung by Dave Edmunds. To my shame, I had missed a major talent. I hastened to play catch-up, following Mr. MacManus' ventures through the next 20 years into country, string quartets—you name it, he tried it.
And then came this collaboration with one of the finest tune crafters of the second half of the 20th century, a CD that has hardly left my player since I bought it. Bacharach's intricate yet hummable melodies and Costello's thoughtful lyrics are allied to sparse, intelligent arrangements that couple an understated rhythm section with occasional highlighting and coloring instruments, and a sympathetic recorded sound quality. But it is the vocal risk-taking that had me coming back for more. Whatever musical talent Mr. C. has in his genes, he didn't inherit the voice of his dance-band singer father. But he wends his way along these melodically wide-ranging vocal lines, sometimes only just in tune, with surprising sophistication. My only regret is that the duo's superb excursion on Bacharach-David's "I'll Never Fall In Love Again" is not on this album. For that, you have to buy the soundtrack to the awful The Spy Who Shagged Me.
MARY CHAPIN CARPENTER: Party Doll (and other favorites)
Columbia CK 68751 (CD). 1999. Mary Chapin Carpenter, John Jennings, prods., with Mark Isham, Blake Chancey; Ron Fierstein, exec. prod.; too many engs. to credit; Bob Ludwig, mastering. AAD? TT: 72:55
It was the 12-string guitar in "The Hard Way," recorded live at the Wolf Trap Farm Park in Virginia, that grabbed me first: punchy, jangly, but essential to the song's development in the way that George Harrison's and Tony Hicks' Rickenbackers punctuated so many Beatles and Hollies tracks. And the '60s comparison is apt: as I dug deeper into this collection, the light dawned that I was wrong these past years to have dismissed Ms. Carpenter as yet another Nashville nightingale. This is not country music, but pure 1990s pop with lyrics that transcend the inherent limitations of the form and content, sung by a woman in full command of her instrument. Her handling of "10,000 Miles," orchestrated and produced by Mark Isham and excerpted from the Fly Away Home soundtrack, raises goosebumps even after repeated listening.
Considering that every track on Party Doll was recorded and mixed by a different engineer between 1989 and 1999—though the songs are familiar, these are all live, soundtrack, or alternate takes—there is a uniform excellence to the recorded sound that I assume is a tribute to mastering engineer Bob Ludwig. In general, the balances are more open than the studio mixes, with a more realistic handling of dynamics, particularly regarding the drums. The 1994 BBC Radio recording of "Stones in the Road" is one of the most honest balances of singer, guitar, and piano I have heard—deceptively, sensitively simple, yet overwhelmingly powerful as a result. And "Down at the Twist and Shout," her 1997 Super Bowl XXXI collaboration with Beausoleil, has me reaching for my dancing shoes every time I hear it!
TELEVISION: Marquee Moon
Elektra 1098-2 (CD). 1977/1984. Andy Johns, prod., eng.; Tom Verlaine, prod.; Jim Boyer, eng. AAD? TT: 45:52
I didn't choose this disc previously because, for one, I expected other writers—many other writers—to get there first; and second, it seemed like too obvious a choice. But after not seeing Marquee Moon pop up in the last few "R2D4"s, I decided it was time to sally forth and preach the well-worn gospel of Tom Verlaine and this seminal session.
Besides Verlaine's songs, what's still amazing about this eight-song collection of mid-'70s guitar rock is its creative riptide. It smooths out the rougher punk-rock corners that made Television's live shows so great with inventive pop song structures and gobs of tingly, knifelike guitar innovations, while rising miles above the then-fashionable and sappy new-wave genre with risky stylings, Verlaine's hound-dog voice, and dashes of punklike urgency. It was Frank Sinatra meets the WCW in a Fender factory, and it was, in a word, influential. Talking Heads and David Bowie—along with, years later, hundreds of poorer alternative bands—have incurred mountain's worth of bad karma for the years they spent shamelessly mining this disc and its 1978 followup, Adventure. Sonically, while not pristine by any stretch, this Seventies milestone has enormous presence and life.
LOU ANN BARTON: Read My Lips
Antone's ANT0009CD (CD). 1989. Paul Ray, Lou Ann Barton, prods.; Derek O'Brien, asst. prod.; Stuart Sullivan, eng. AAD? TT: 50:03
If there's one thing that makes this nasty, put-up-yer-dukes collection of white-hot Texas electric blues singing essential, it's the way Barton, once the female half of Stevie Ray Vaughan's Double Trouble, pronounces certain words like "thang," "hips," and, especially, "man." That, and the fact that no white woman blues singer has ever possessed the dirty, growling, sexy-as-hell tone that Barton routinely lays on tunes like the Excello classic "Sugar Coated Love," the rocker "Mean, Mean Man," and Slim Harpo's epic grinder, "Shake Your Hips"—in the last one, her snarl blows the more famous Rolling Stones version off the map. Of course, having players like Kim Wilson (harp), Derek O'Brien, Denny Freeman, David Grissom, Jimmie Vaughan (guitars), and David "Fathead" Newman (sax) behind you doesn't hurt. While the occasionally murky, undefined sound could be better—even though it seems like blues records should sound like this—this session is sweet oil to pour on the flames of any riotous party.