2000 Records to Die For Page 6
NITTY GRITTY DIRT BAND: Will the Circle Be Unbroken
EMI America CDPB 7 46589 2 (2 CDs). 1972. William E. McEuen, prod.; Rick Horton, Rex Collier, engs. AAD. TT: 119:30
When I was a high school student back in the late '70s, one of my part-time jobs was as a Saturday-night deejay at a country radio station in rural Missouri. Country's Top 40 was utter dreck then, as it pretty much is now, so every week I'd dig into the station's archives for a few things to play that would make it seem worthwhile coming in for another week. I was delighted when I discovered Will the Circle Be Unbroken, the album that perfectly matched my reverence for classic country music with the idea that a younger generation might be receptive to it. I played many, many cuts from Circle over the course of a few months, plus healthy doses of outlaw country and—okay, I admit it—country rock. Eventually, the program director called up to ask what the hell I thought I was doing. "Playing country music," I told him. He said, "Play what's in the box," meaning the Top 40. Soon enough, I told him, in the parlance of the Johnny Paycheck hit of the day, "Take this job and shove it." I may not have literally died for Circle, but quitting that job was probably enough.
SOUTHSIDE JOHNNY & THE ASBURY JUKES: Hearts of Stone
Epic JE 35488 (LP), Epic/Legacy EK 35488 (CD). 1978. Stevie Van Zandt, prod.; Jack Malken, eng. AAA/AAD. TT: 34:24
Growing up in the Italian section of South St. Louis, Joe Garagiola was a major-league talent, but still only the second-best baseball player in his neighborhood: A few doors down lived future Hall of Famer Yogi Berra. Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes faced a similar situation in the barrooms of New Jersey, always playing second fiddle to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. The Jukes leaned on Springsteen through their first couple of albums, recording such Boss songs as "The Fever" and "I Don't Want to Go Home." In fact, Hearts of Stone consists solely of songs by Springsteen and guitarist/producer Miami Steve Van Zandt. But what songs they are—fiery tracks such as "Talk to Me," "Take It Inside," and "Trapped Again," and the title tune, a killer ballad. Southside Johnny's soulful delivery and the Jukes' brassy arrangements are perfect, making this an album for the ages.
JASON FALKNER: Can You Still Feel?
Lovitt 016 (LP), Elektra 62205-2 (CD). 1999. Jason Falkner, prod.; Nigel Godrich, prod., eng. ADD? TTs: ca 52:00 (LP), 46:27 (CD)
In the world I grew up in, the handsome young Mr. Falkner, a former member of Jellyfish, would be declared a sexy pop/rock genius, would be on the cover of Rolling Stone, and would sell a million copies of this superb, self-produced album, for which he wrote all of the songs and on which he plays almost all of the instruments, and well. But this is a different world, and since Mr. Falkner does not sport visible tattoos, dress like a professional wrestler, rap, or pepper his songs with the F-word, this tuneful, ingeniously entertaining, lushly produced set has not set the musical world on fire. The album title says it all. If you value melody, hooks, intricate production craft, lyrical intelligence, and listening to music that makes you feel good, even inspired—in other words, if you like The Beatles—èt this and you won't be disappointed. If Falkner's achingly gorgeous "Revelation" doesn't make you "feel" something, your answer to Falkner's challenging question of an album title would have to be "No"—in which case, you should seek professional help. For the rest of us, there's this great pop album. The CD, mastered by Alan Yoshida at A&M, sounds decent, but don't expect audiophile fireworks. For the usual unexplained reasons, the LP, mastered from DAT, is much better-sounding, and features two tracks not found on the CD, one of which is Falkner's take on Eno's "Burning Airlines Give You So Much More"—and there's different cover art. Order online for $8.
HIM: Sworn Eyes
Bubblecore BC-024 (2 LPs), Perishable PER009 (CD). 1999. Doug Scharin, prod.; Brian Deck, eng. AAD? TTs: ca 60:00 (LP), 55:23 (CD)
With labels like Perishable, Thrill Jockey, Touch and Go, Quarterstick, and Drag City leading the way, Chicago has quietly become the unlikely center of American musical innovation and experimentation. Best known for blues, the Windy City today hosts such post-avant-garde luminaries as Tortoise, Gastr del Sol (David Grubbs and Jim O'Rourke), Isotope 217, June of '44, and many, many others. This mostly instrumental music is an enticing mix of jazz, percussion, and electronica, with some folk thrown in for good measure. Best of all for audiophiles, thanks to another local hero, recording engineer and analog purist Steve Albini (also a member of the rock group Shellac), the sound quality of almost all of the releases by these groups is absolutely superb, with many of them available on vinyl as well as CD. HIM revolves around drummer Doug Scharin and cornetist Rob Mazurek, who, along with guitarist Jeff Parker and bassist Bundy K. Brown, produce here what can best be described as "post-Bitches Brew" jazz-rock, or maybe Miles meets Eno. Though the emphasis is on rhythm and there's lots of sampling and electronica, the overall vibe has a flowing, organic, minimalist quality that is soothing, mesmerizing, and utterly pleasurable. The five tunes work equally well as background and foreground music. If you liked Tortoise's TNT, you'll like this too. If you don't know from either, this is as good a place to start as any. The two-LP set, available direct from Bubblecore for $12, stomps all over the good-sounding CD.
EMMYLOU HARRIS: Spyboy
Eminent EM-25001-2 (CD). 1998. Emmylou Harris, prod.; Buddy Miller, prod., eng., mix; Dean Norman, Doug Dawson, engs.; Greg Droman, mix. AAD? TT: 67:07
It helps to read this magazine. I have to thank Robert Baird for choosing this CD as his December 1998 "Recording of the Month." Since then, it has become my standard musical source. Why? Harris' "birdlike soprano, fragile as spun glass," and the "spaciousness and pristine quality of this live recording"—RB's words—pull me into the music.
Examples of this CD's magic abound. The sinisterly throbbing, churning bass/synthesizer vortex that opens "Deeper Wells" thrills me. Which is the real Harris: the open translucency on "Prayer in Open D"? the dark, rich, slightly nasal timbre on "Calling My Children Back Home"? or the weary, too-thin, broken notes heard on "The Maker"? I don't know, but they all pull me into the music. Right now, I'm most taken with that final track, on which drummer Brady Blade erupts into one of the most explosive percussion solos I've heard on a live album. Yes, this one's a keeper! (XXI-12)
JEROME HARRIS QUINTET: Rendezvous
Stereophile STPH013-2 (CD). 1999. Jerome Harris, Wes Phillips, prods.; John Atkinson, exec. prod., eng., editor, mix. DDD. TT: 60:30
Call me a company man, but I love this CD. Featuring the Jerome Harris jazz quintet, it's John Atkinson's first nonclassical recording for the Stereophile label. Rendezvous has extraordinary instrumental timbre and resolution of fine musical detail, due in part to John's expertise and to the warm acoustic of Chad Kassem's Blue Heaven Studios in Salina, Kansas. My favorite track is Duke Ellington's "The Mooche," which I've used to evaluate five different loudspeakers so far. Depending on the speaker, "The Mooche" can sound somber, dark, blurred, and distant—like a train passing in the night—or focused, up-close, energetic, and dramatic. The opening cymbal work shimmers on the best equipment, but sounds like static on the others. Different tensions of the tom-tom heads in Billy Drummond's kit can be heard. Trumpet and trombone solos blossom into a biting, "brassy blattiness." Soundstage width can be awesome, with vibes far stage left to stage center, trombone just right of center, sax far right, bass guitar and kick drum center, and drums spread across the room. But don't take just my word for it that Rendezvous is a great CD—it was shortlisted for a 2000 Grammy nomination in the "Best Engineered Album (nonclassical)" category.