2001 Records to Die For Page 5
SUSSAN DEYHIM: Madman of God
Sussan Deyhim, vocals; Dawn Bukholtz Andrews, cello; Will Calhoun, wavedrum, udu; Reza Derakhshani, setar, kamancheh, tar, ney; Hearn Gadbois, dub zarb; Karsh Kale, nocturnal sigh, tabla, synth pads; Raz Mesinai, zarb; Dave Soldier, violin; Glen Velez, daf, percussion; Reggie Workman, acoustic bass; Michael Harrison, tamboura; Richard Horowitz, strings and sample arrangements
Crammed Discs craw 22 (CD). 2000. Sussan Deyhim, prod.; Tim Nye, Manije Mir Damad, assoc. prods.; David Cook, John Yates, James Nichols, engs. TT: 47:05
Sussan Deyhim has shown up in my "short stack" in one form or another for three years in a row, but until now has always at the last minute been elbowed out by the competition. This year was close again, with her sometime collaborator Richard Horowitz getting honorable mention for his wonderful soundtrack to Three Seasons. But Deyhim has finally prevailed. In Madman of God, she channels Persian vocal techniques through the sensibilities of someone who has traced an arc to the outer reaches of experimentation and made it back safe and sound. Deyhim has converted classic Persian melodies and centuries-old Sufi poetry into a personal and ecstatic expression. By multi-tracking her voice and harmonizing with herself she has created a trademark vocal style that has no equal. And just one reading of the list of primarily acoustic instruments deployed tips you off to the richness of the sonic landscape around her. Although this is a very-well-recorded album, you'll probably never hear it at a hi-fi show. Take that as a compliment.
MEREDITH MONK: Book of Days
Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble
ECM New Series 1399 (CD). 1990. Manfred Eicher, prod.; James Farber, Jan Erik Kongshaug, engs. DDD. TT: 49:39
My second choice this year is also an exotic female vocal album. Meredith Monk pushes the boundaries of what we know as "singing" by making serious sonic art from every conventional and unconventional vocal sound imaginable. At times, her albums assault the listener with cascading sheets of caterwaul. I find Book of Days the strongest of her works for its mesmerizing combination of sublime musicality and Monk's trademark hyperactive technique. It's as if she's distilled all of the bleating, whooping, humming, whirring, and yelping she had explored up until 1990 into as popular and accessible a form as she could muster. The album also contains one of the most beautiful melodies I've ever heard. In the same way that Japanese calligraphy can convey a sense of beauty and meaning to someone who has no idea what the characters mean, Monk's textless vocalizations evoke meaning through their form and sheer emotive power. Her expressive singing itself carries the message, providing a more direct connection with the music while allowing the listener a little more space in which to dream. I'm probably drawn to this music because there are no words to get in the way.
WAGNER: Der Ring des Nibelungen
John Tomlinson, Wotan; Günter von Kannen, Alberich; Anne Evans, Brünnhilde; Siegfried Jerusalem, Siegfried; Paul Elming, Siegmund; Nadine Secunde, Sieglinde; Graham Clark, Loge, Mime I; Helmut Pampuch, Mime II; Philip Kang, Fafner, Hagen; Waltraud Meier, Waltraute II; others; 1991-92 Bayreuth Festival Orchestra & Chorus, Daniel Barenboim
Das Rheingold: Teldec 91185-2 (2 CDs). TT: 2:29:09
Die Walküre: Teldec 91186-2 (4 CDs). TT: 3:53:08
Siegfried: Teldec 94193-2 (4 CDs). TT: 4:00:09
Götterdämmerung: Teldec 94194-2 (4 CDs). TT: 4:27:03
All above: John Mordler, prod.; Gerhard R. Westhäuser, eng. DDD.
Daniel Barenboim has taken over from the late Georg Solti as the world's greatest living conductor of Wagner, and though such portentous pronouncements must be qualified by personal taste, by anyone's standards Barenboim offers a great deal in these live performances taped at the 1991 and 1992 Bayreuth Festivals: levels of orchestral precision, grace, and ensemble playing heretofore unknown even to that band, and an attention to microdivisions of the rhythmic pulse that I have never heard in this music before. Barenboim's infinitely flexible but always supremely disciplined beat packs rubato into places where other conductors don't find places, and he is a master of this vast work's long, long rhythms. Barenboim can make the orchestra paint with single-camel's-hair precision or slather the aural canvas with whole bucketsful of gorgeous orchestral color: choirs of brass, swaths of strings, forests of woodwinds.
The singers and their characterizations are not as timelessly right as in Solti's cycle—that sort of casting seems to happen only once per century. But the exponents of all the crucial roles are vital and committed: John Tomlinson's Wotan, Anne Evans' Brünnhilde, Günter von Kannen's Alberich, Graham Clark's Loge and Mime, Paul Elming's Siegmund, and Waltraud Meier's Waltraute.
The sound is absolutely ravishing. Teldec has been recording at Bayreuth for 50 years, and by the early '90s they seemed to have achieved the impossible: plenty of high and bottom end, all the orchestral heft you could want, and an absolutely convincing representation of the unique acoustics of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. I've heard the Ring there, and this is how it sounds.
For those whose lives have been changed by this music, as has mine, this set is essential. If you can afford two Rings, the recommendation is easy: Solti and Barenboim. (XVII-3 & 12)
John Mark Ainsley, Dardanus; Véronique Gens, Iphise; Laurent Naouri, Anténor; Mireille Delünsch, Vénus; Jean-Philippe Courtis, Isménor; Russell Smythe, Teucer; Les Musiciens du Louvre, Choeur des Musiciens du Louvre, Marc Minkowski
Archiv 463 476-2 (2 CDs). 2000. Arend Prohmann, Michael Gache, prods.; Yves Baudry, Bruno Ronciere, engs. DDD. TT: 2:35:43
In this exquisite, wildly dramatic performance of Dardanus, John Mark Ainsley is ideal; the high-lying music doesn't phase him, he still sounds virile, and he's positively towering in his tragic prison scene. Véronique Gens is no less superb—her character, Iphise, goes through the opera with some very mixed feelings, and her torment is palpable. Laurent Naouri is manly and noble; Jean-Philippe Courtis' Magician is spooky and potent; Venus, in the person of Mireille Delünsch, is truly divine; and Russell Smythe is all dignity as King Teucer. There is no praise high enough for Minkowski and his Musiciens du Louvre—their spirit, understanding, and accuracy in the face of this challenge are extraordinary. The sonics are as outstanding as the performance, with great depth to the sea-monster scene (free of hokum), and enough emphasis given to the low strings and timpani. (XXIII-11)
19 songs; Variations in E for Flute & Piano
Ewa Podles, contralto; Garrick Ohlsson, piano; Elizabeth Mann, flute
Arabesque Z6746 (CD). 2000. Adam Abeshouse, prod., eng. DDD. TT: 57:35
Chopin composed only 19 songs, but they cover almost his entire compositional career, from 1829 to 1847. They are direct and uncomplicated, each dealing with a particular scenario or emotion: nature, lovesickness, death, and yearning are all examined in their manifold manifestations. They are relatively easy both to sing and play, and Ewa Podles, using every one of a fine singer's interpretive and vocal gifts, is outstanding, whatever mood is called for. Garrick Ohlsson is a fine partner at the piano. As a bonus, Elisabeth Mann joins Ohlsson in Chopin's variations on "Non più mesta," from Rossini's La Cenerentola.
BEASTIE BOYS: Hello Nasty
Grand Royal/Capitol 95723 1 (LP), 95723 2 (CD). 1998. Beastie Boys, Mario Caldata, Jr., prods.; Steve Revitte, Sue Dyer, engs.; Howie Weinberg, Andy van Dette, mastering. AAA/AAD.
When the Beastie Boys first emerged in the mid-1980s and their fans went around nicking VW badges, few could have suspected that, 15 years later, they'd reinvent themselves as a fine hip-hop act. My 22-year-old son reckons some of their earlier material was superior, and that better hip-hop can be found among the sharper-edged independent labels, but I find Hello Nasty a load of fun. It's altogether more acceptable/accessible than its predecessor, Ill Communication, and fulfills one of my core criteria for R2D4 inclusion: that I still play it regularly two years down the road.
That's partly because it has proved a very useful tool in assessing equipment. The complex mix layers every trick in the modern recordist's book to create a high-density confection, but what might seem opaque at first hearing gradually reveals its complexities on high-class equipment.
The Boys still shout much too much, which is a shame, but their music shows wonderfully eclectic imagination, full of wit and with a good slice of irony, and there's a surprising amount of gentle delicacy to counterbalance the noisy bits. Favorite tracks include "The Move," with its marvelously incongruous "El Rey y Yo" sample at the end, and the splendid, rock-steady "Dr. Lee, Ph.D.," featuring Lee "Scratch" Perry himself.
GOMEZ: Bring It On
Virgin 45592 1 (LP), 45592 2 (CD). 1998. Gomez, prods.; Ken Nelson, eng. TT: 54:14
Five teenagers from Manchester, England pick up their guitars and form a rock group. Sounds very '60s or '70s. Post-Nirvana, the guitar band might seem to have lost its way, creatively speaking, but Gomez gives the lie to such a bland assumption, and new hope for air guitarists the world over.
Gomez has produced two albums so far: Bring It On (1998) and Liquid Skin (1999). Though Liquid Skin is fine in its own right, I prefer Bring It On's freshness, rawness, and better songwriting.
Part of Gomez's appeal is nostalgic, and the guitar lineup makes it pretty inevitable that the band remind one of the sounds of yesteryear. I can hear echoes of classic bands from the past—a touch of the Hollies in the vocal harmonies, something of Little Feat in the chugalug rhythms on many tracks—but Gomez is original enough to have its own quite distinctive identity, well down toward the "soft and melodic" end of the rock spectrum.
The standout track is the infernally catchy "Whippin' Piccadilly," complete with 1960s-style Ping-Pong stereo effects; although Gomez is quintessentially an album band, this song was a hit single in the UK. But there are few fillers on an album that shows remarkable all-around maturity, considering the youth of its creators, and that also enjoys a quality of recording distinctly superior to that of the pop/rock norm.