2001 Records to Die For Page 6
STEVE EARLE: I Feel Alright
Warner Bros. 46201-2 (CD). 1996. Ray Kennedy, prod., eng.; Richard Bennett, prod. AAD? TT: 38:54
When, in 1995, Steve Earle returned from his self-imposed years of exile in the fogs of heroin and cocaine with Train A Comin', he didn't quite have his songwriting legs back under him. The comeback was complete a year later, however, when he released I Feel Alright.
From the opening, snarling exuberance of the title track's slap at those who thought he would never again scale the heights he'd known in the late 1980s, you knew that not only was Earle back, but that he was better than ever. The album is a nearly flawless mix of styles and subjects, including the full-bore, roots-rock tribute to Townes Van Zandt, "Hardcore Troubadour" (which ends with a lyrical nod to Bruce Springsteen for a melodic debt owed), a bluesy "Hurtin' Me, Hurtin' You," the chunka-chunka, Buddy Hollyesque "Poor Boy," the heartbreak ballad of "Valentine's Day," and the honky-tonk/bluegrass glory of "Billy and Bonnie."
Earle makes more vibrant, compelling contributions to country and rock on this one album than most artists you hear on the radio today do in their entire careers. If that statement seems too grand and sweeping, you haven't heard Earle when he's feeling alright. (XIX-4)
JIMMIE DALE GILMORE: After Awhile
Elektra/American Explorer Series 61148-2 (CD). 1991. Stephen Bruton, prod.; Dave McNair, eng. AAD? TT: 38:27
Jimmie Dale Gilmore has never had a hit and probably never will. His sweet, natural warble of a tenor voice and the simple grace and depth of his lyrics are too honest for Nashville these days. There isn't a speck of glitz or glam in the man or his music.
After Awhile, released 10 years ago on Elektra's American Explorer Series, is proof positive that all that glitters is not gold or platinum. Its dozen songs glow instead with a palpable emotional integrity. From the stately, delicate pickings on mandolin and acoustic guitar accompanying the lonely musings of "Tonight I Think I'm Gonna Go Downtown," which opens the album, to the tender philosophical contemplations of "Story of You," which closes it, Gilmore creates a personal, progressive folk music coupled with traditional country and touches of blues.
Other highlights include "Chase the Wind," a softly soaring story of lovers who've become friends; the understated honky-tonk of the title track; the sly humor of "My Mind's Got a Mind of its Own"; and the reflective "Don't Be a Stranger to Your Heart" and "Treat Me Like a Saturday Night."
If you discovered Gilmore via One Endless Night, released last year on Rounder, do yourself a favor and pick up this hitless wonder from his back catalog.
TOM PETTY: Wildflowers
Warner Bros. 45759-2 (CD). 1994. Rick Rubin, Tom Petty, Mike Campbell, prods.; Jim Scott, David Bianco, Richard Dodd, engs. AAD? TT: 62:48
It starts with the sweet, upbeat manifesto of "Wildflowers" and ends with a dignified eulogy, "Wake Up Time." The latter's resigned vibe and muted Michael Kamen orchestration suggest elegantly dressed Southern belles and their suitors engaged in a bittersweet, close-of-an-era plantation waltz, even as Petty underscores the inevitability of and necessity for change. And even though Petty's moving-on album wouldn't arrive until 2000's Echo (about his divorce), it's hard not to sense in this song cycle an artistic life on the cusp of transition. Musically speaking, it's Petty's Music from Big Pink: laid-back but intense, full of multiple-layered sonic richness and diversity. (XVIII-6)
BILL LASWELL: Axiom Ambient: Lost in the Translation
Axiom/Island 524053 (2 CDs). 1994. Bill Laswell, prod.; Robert Musso, eng. ADD. TT: 2:01:11
A Laswellian "translation" hews literally to definition: "a rendering from one language into another." Indeed, Material mainstay Laswell signs up some of the planet's finest sonic linguists, from worldbeat jazzniks Shankar, Pharoah Sanders, Ginger Baker, and Nicky Skopelitis, to electronic artists Terre Thaemlitz and Tetsu Inoue, to most of the Parliament-Funkadelic crew. This two-CD sojourn touches down in exotic African and Mideast climes, rifles through a well-stocked dub medicine cabinet or two, and even caresses the titular ambient muse for instructions in meditation and transcendence. A deeply spiritual vibe prevails, and small wonder—it's dedicated to the late guitarists Sonny Sharrock and Eddie Hazel, whose sleekly sampled fretboard lines are among the set's many pleasures.
THE BEATLES: The Beatles
Apple CDP 7 46443 2, CDP 7 46444 2 (2 CDs). 1968/1998 (re-remastered). George Martin, prod. AAD. TT: 93:32
The White Album is the Beatles at their expansive best. From the opening jetliner FX on the Beach Boys-ish pop rocker, "Back in the U.S.S.R.," to the schmaltzy orchestral arrangement of the closing lullaby, "Good Night," this double album, more than any other Fab Four endeavor, shows the versatility and stylistic curiosity of a band at its creative apex and on the verge of imploding. It rocks with full-scale gusto ("Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey," "Helter Skelter"), soothes with lyrical beauty ("Dear Prudence," "I Will"), bubbles with smiley pop ("Honey Pie," "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da"), gets down with gritty blues ("Yer Blues," "Why don't We Do It In the Road?"), explores a range of genres (from "Rocky Raccoon" country to the avant-garde collage of "Revolution 9"), and fully introduces George Harrison as an important songwriter in his own right ("While My Guitar Gently Weeps," "Piggies"). The Beatles still sounds fresh more than 30 years after its debut. It helps that few of these songs have ever been covered. (XI-2)
MILES DAVIS: On the Corner
Miles Davis, trumpet; David Liebman, soprano sax; Carlos Garnett, soprano & tenor sax; Bennie Maupin, bass clarinet; John McLaughlin, David Creamer, guitar; Colin Walcott, Khalil Balakrishna, electric sitar; Herbie Hancock, Fender Rhodes, synthesizer; Chick Corea, Fender Rhodes; Harold "Ivory" Williams, organ, synthesizer; Michael Henderson, bass; Badal Roy, tabla; Billy Hart, Jack DeJohnette, Al Foster, drums
Columbia/Legacy CK 63980 (CD). 1972/2000 (digitally remastered). Teo Macero, prod.; Bob Belden, reissue prod.; Stan Tonkel, Russ Payne, engs. ADD. TT: 54:47
Chameleon Miles Davis was always pushing forward, restlessly imagining new means of expression. Perhaps his most controversial and easily his most underrated album was his visionary 1972 recording, On the Corner, an edgy, electric masterpiece that presaged the hip-hop, ambient, and trance movements. A commercial failure in its day because Columbia didn't have a clue about how to market it, the disc is driven by the funk grooves of the time (nods to Sly Stone and James Brown), reflects Davis' fascination with Indian classical music, and is influenced by an array of musicians, including electronic composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, contemporary classical composer Paul Buckmaster, and free-jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman. Last year saw several excellent digitally remastered reissues of Miles material from Columbia/Legacy; the most intriguing of the pack was this gem of a funk collage.
BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas 1-32
Robert Silverman, piano
Orpheum Masters KSP 830 (10 CDs). 2000. Jim Turner, prod.; John Atkinson, eng. DDD. TT: 10:16:00
This traversal of Beethoven's towering edifice of pure music is one for the ages. Robert Silverman's technical mastery is undeniable, but it's his intensely thought-out performances that delight and fulfill: an outstanding musical interpreter brings a lifetime's contemplation of these works to our greatest composer's most personal works. The resulting performances are as direct and immediate as a conversation between a great artist and a great composer. And John Atkinson's hi-rez recording—see January 2001, pp.99-107— places a Bösendorfer 290SE in a small hall with uncanny accuracy.
SHOSTAKOVICH: String Quartets 1-15
Emerson String Quartet: Eugene Drucker, Philip Setzer, violin; Larry Dutton, viola; David Frankel, cello
Deutsche Grammophon 289 463 284-2 (5 CDs). 1999. Emerson Quartet, prods.; Da-Hong Seetoo, eng. DDD. TT: 5:59:19
Recorded in concert over the course of several years' residence at the Aspen Music Festival, the Emerson Quartet plays with a muscular intensity that delivers the music with startling visceral impact. It's hard to imagine these works played at a higher technical level, nor can I imagine a finer-sounding recording. Da-Hong Seeto's transparent, startlingly alive sound is as natural and bracing as a mountain spring. (XXIII-6)