2004 Records To Die For Page 4
THE MOVE: Message from the Country
Harvest/EMI SHSP 4013 (LP). 1971. Roy Wood, Jeff Lynne, prods. AAA. TT: 39:20
Before the Electric Light Orchestra there was the Move, a pop group from Birmingham that had a solid string of UK hits in the mid- to late 1960s, despite their propensity for stylistic hopscotching. But when group leader Roy Wood brought in fellow Brummie Jeff Lynne, their sound snapped into focus.
Message from the Country was their last album as the Move (and before Wood's eventual departure), and while it's very much a studio album—cellos, recorders, and a Univox electric harpsichord compete for attention with electric guitars, fuzz bass, and very compressed drums and percussion—the sound is more muscular than you'd think. The songwriting is consistently good (although the writing credits are different on literally every iteration of this album), the arrangements are imaginative, and a sense of fun pervades. Think: a youthful ELO, but with texture and attitude. If "I Am the Walrus" is your favorite Beatles song, you'll adore this record.
THE TONY RICE UNIT: Manzanita
Rounder 0092 (LP). 1979. Tony Rice, prod.; Billy Wolf, eng. AAA. TT: 37:52
The difference between albums that are important and albums that are good is like the difference between Utopia and Arcadia. But Manzanita is a milestone and a hell of a lot of fun: an unselfconscious melding of bluegrass and "new acoustic" music.
Where too many bluegrass musicians are proficient in a slick, mechanical way, Rice and his supporting players—including the great David Grisman—sound human and soulful even when playing impossible phrases at breakneck speeds. The songs run the gamut from jazzy instrumentals (the title track, a Rice original) to traditional fiddle tunes, country classics, and contemporary songs by Norman Blake and Gordon Lightfoot; the sound, by longtime Rice cohort Billy Wolf, is superb.
Great guitarists come and go, but few have equaled Rice's technique or melodic inventiveness, and none have approached his tone: a limber, mellow twang as unmistakable in its own way as Miles' trumpet or Jascha's fiddle. Tony Rice has continued to make brilliant records, but if you're new to him, or to flat-picking in general, this is where to start.
THE ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND: At Fillmore East
Mercury B0000401-02 (CD). 1971/2003. Tom Dowd, prod.; Aaron Baron, Larry Dahlstrom, engs. AAD. TT: 2:14:03
In an era when every concert performance is bootlegged and bands themselves release numerous shows—heck, entire tours—on CD, live albums have become passé. In some ways, they've ever been thus. Live albums often have been used as a means of closing out contractual obligations, milking minimal chart success, or stoking rock-star egos. The Allman Brothers' At Fillmore East flies in the face of all that: It's simply the hottest live band of the early '70s delivering the most stunningly virtuosic performances of its career. From the dynamic "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" (perhaps the greatest driving song ever) to the incendiary "Whipping Post" (better pull over to the side for that one), it's the live album that puts almost every other one to shame. The recently released deluxe edition only adds to the legend. (XV-8)
PUBLIC ENEMY: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
Def Jam CK 27358 (CD). 1988. Rick Rubin, exec. prod.; Bill Stephney, prod. supervisor; Hank Shocklee, Carl Ryder, prods.; various engs. AAD. TT: 57:57
Chuck D's stentorian delivery of news, politics, and all things urgent (he memorably tagged rap "CNN for Black people") and Flavor Flav's clowning was a one-two combination unequaled in the annals of hip-hop. Chuck's politics could be wrongheaded (follow Farrakhan? no thanks), but he brought a revolutionary point of view to the charts, and along with the Bomb Squad's dense sonic experiments, songs like "Bring the Noise," "She Watch Channel Zero," and "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" defined hip-hop's leading edge in the late '80s. Most of today's stuff isn't a quarter as creative as this.
BOB DYLAN: John Wesley Harding
Columbia/Sundazed LP5123 (mono 180gm LP). 1967/2003. Bob Johnston, prod.; Charlie Bragg, eng. AAA. TT: 38:57
Dylan's 39-minute set of Bible-infused, post-motorcycle-accident, Woody-Guthrie-just-died, three-chord mystical morality tales were quickly and simply recorded in Nashville using mostly drums, bass, and Dylan's high-strung, capo'd guitar. Cast against the simple, winding progressions, Dylan nails the coffin shut on his fast-talking urban wise guy and is born again as a straight-talking morality playwright.
The purposeful production roughness and, more important, the musical economy of the Nashville cats accompanying him are best captured on Sundazed's new mono LP—which is as good as Sony's new stereo SACD. Feel the music's unburnished edges, revel in the tape hiss, and ride the visceral impact of Charlie McCoy's granite bass lines as never before.
THE WHO: Tommy: Special Edition
Geffen/Chronicles B0001386-36 (2 SACD/CDs). 1969/2003. Pete Townshend, reissue prod.; Damon Lyon-Shaw, orig. eng. ADD. TT: 111:46
Pete Townshend's "Happy Jack" Hummer commercial bummer (the ad's lesson: cheating pays) can almost be excused by this superb-sounding reissue and its startlingly effective, thankfully understated 5.1-channel remix. The second "rock opera" (the first was The Pretty Things' sadly overlooked S.F. Sorrow) stands the test of time because of its musical brilliance and the band's insistence on going it alone in the studio so it could take the show on the road unassisted. Keith Moon's drumming is breathtaking. Finally, digiphiles can hear Moon's power, and the rest of the recording, as original UK Track vinyl owners have for 24 years—and even better in 5.1. Also included: outstanding packaging, and a useful stereo bonus disc of demos and outtakes.
DELTRON 3030: Deltron 3030
75 Ark 75033 (CD). 2000. Dan "The Automator" Nakamura, prod.; Scott Harding, eng. AAD. TT: 60:30
Talk about flipping the script: It was only a matter of time before hip-hop produced its own science-fiction concept album to rival the intergalactic madness of Sun Ra and the cyborg fantasies of Styx. On Deltron 3030, the mission is accepted by Dan "The Automator" Nakamura (the producer-svengali behind the Gorillaz), eccentric rapper Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, and a cast of dozens, including Blur's Damon Albarn. Orchestral samples, underwater beats, and Kid Koala's wicked turntable tricks form the soundtrack for Del's post-apocalyptic plot, wherein "post-amplification" is rhymed with "alien annihilation." In space, apparently, no one can hear 50 Cent or Jay-Z rap about cars and money.
THE WEAKERTHANS: Reconstruction Site
Epitaph 86682-2 (CD). 2003. Ian Blurton, prod.; Rudy Rempel, James Heidebrecht, engs.; Adam Kasper, mix; Joao Carvalho, mastering. AAD. TT: 40:47
Musically, the Weakerthans' third album is the perfect synthesis of singalong pop-punk (the album is on Epitaph, after all), Wilco's cut-up Americana (backward guitars, pedal-steel flourishes), and Neil Young's flaming-arrow guitar heroics. But bookish types will be drawn to the short-story verse of singer-guitarist John K. Samson, who does for his hometown of Winnipeg what William Faulkner did for Yoknapatawpha County, etching out portraits of troubled characters surrounded by constant defeat. Almost perversely, Samson's lyrics are structured like Elizabethan sonnets. You've heard of DIY punk's all-ages edict? Listen closely, and Reconstruction Site is one for all the ages.
MARY GAUTHIER: Filth and Fire
Signature Sounds SIG 1273 (CD). 2002. Gurf Morlix, prod., eng. DDD. TT: 47:34
I first heard about Mary Gauthier on an NPR broadcast featuring the Louisiana-born singer. She earned her scars as an adoptee, runaway, and addict, and her songwriting shows it all. This record became an indispensable part of my life—its blues connects in a truthful way to the down-and-out gritty existence I've encountered in only two other places: the stories of alcoholic lives in the simple prose of Raymond Carver, such as "Why Don't You Dance," and the brutal films of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, such as 21 Grams. Both depict a helpless existence in which people "waste away minute by minute," as the New York Times' Elvis Mitchell stated in his film review. Sure, the CD is well-recorded, with lots of dynamics, transients, deep bass, steel drums, harmonium accompaniment, and what have you. Forget that stuff. Mary Gauthier's blues are all that counts. Just listen to her stark, brutal description of hapless rejects searching blindly through one-night stands in "Camelot Motel," or the searing refrain about the no-way-out existence of heroin addicts in "Merry-Go-Round," or the homeless derelicts huddled in their beach chairs under the Florida stars in "Cow Key Bridge." Once you've listened to this record, there's no forgetting it. And you shouldn't.
RAVEL: Boléro, La Valse, Pavane pour une Infante defunte
Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, Minnesota Orchestra
Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 4002 (SACD/CD). 1975/2003. Marc Aubort, orig. prod.; Joanna Nickrenz, orig. eng.; Paul Stubblebine, Shawn R. Britton, remastering. AAD. TT: 70:19
I'm voting for this disc mainly because it's become my touchstone for sheer sonic beauty in orchestral recording. During Stereophile's Home Entertainment 2003 show in San Francisco, I visited Paul Stubblebine's recording studio on 1340 Mission Street. That afternoon, I heard the original master tape of this legendary recording session of 30 years before. As I sat spellbound, Paul played the original 4-track, ½", 1-mil master tape of the Minnesota Orchestra's 1974 performances of Ravel's Boléro and Daphnis et Chloé. I had never before heard such rich ambient information, such delicate tonalities from an orchestral recording. Stubblebine fed the discrete four channels from a specially modified ReVox reel-to-reel tape deck to a modern-day surround system. This enabled me to hear the female choir placed in the rear channels in Daphnis. It was the cleanest, purest reproduced music I had ever heard, and became an epiphany that rejuvenated my interest in recorded music. Eight months later, this recording of Boléro, Pavane pour une Infante defunte, and Daphnis produces an instant flashback to that Saturday in May when I sat, eyes closed, leaning back, letting wave after wave of clear, translucent, reach-out-and-touch-it sound sweep over me.
NEIL YOUNG: On the Beach
Reprise 48497-2 (CD). 1974/2003. Neil Young, David Briggs, Mark Harman, Al Schmitt, prods.; Tim Mulligan, mastering. AAD. TT: 39:40
When it comes to digital audio, Neil Young's a cranky guy. Years ago, he put a stop to his back catalog being reissued on CD before they got to this one—which was okay for those of us with a copy of the original LP pressing, but not so good for Young's newer fans. Finally, we get On the Beach on CD, and it sounds pretty good. The DVD-Audio version was supposed to be here too, but Young keeps tinkering with it—it might be out by the time you read this. OTB was considered a "down" album, but I still think it's the best he's done, and it sounds as fresh as the day it was minted, almost 30 years ago. What was once old is now Young again.
JON HASSELL: Power Spot
ECM 1327 (CD). 1986. Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, prods., engs. AAD. TT: 48:29
It's tough to pick just one of Jon Hassell's "future primitive" works, but I decided to go with the disc that has stood up best over the years. Hassell has created his own fully formed musical dialect by perfecting a trumpet-playing technique in which the valves are held only partway down. The result can sound at times like a high-pitched foghorn, but it's surprisingly musical. Hassell blends long, breathy, sonorous tones with atmospheric ethnic percussion that sounds almost authentic, suggesting a culture that has yet to emerge. Collaborators on this disc include Brian Eno, Michael Brook, and Richard Horowitz.