2005 Records To Die For Page 3
YO LA TENGO: Fakebook
Restless/Bar None 7-72641-2 (CD). 1990. Gene Holder, prod.; John Siket.; eng. AAD. TT: 44:21
Back when Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley were about the songs as much as the sound, they turned down the feedback, gathered up their favorite vinyl, and made as impeccable a covers album as you've ever heard—so good that five of the band's own songs blend in beautifully alongside spirited, sweetly melancholy interpretations of (to name a few) NRBQ, the Kinks, the Flamin' Groovies, The Scene Is Now, Rex Garvin, The Escorts, Peter Stampfel, and Gene Clark. There's only one thing flawed about it: there hasn't been a Fakebook 2. (XIV-6, XVI-2)
THE WATERBOYS: A Pagan Place
Island 21542 (CD). 1984/ Capitol 537704-2, 2002. Mike Scott, prod.; John Brand, Jim Preen, Ted Sharp, Stephen W. Taylor, eng. ADD? TT: 41:03
Mike Scott's ever-changing band is best known for the sweeping Eire folk of 1988's Fisherman's Blues, while 1985's This the Sea is a more fully realized epic. But A Pagan Place is where Scott first erected The Big Music: grandly overreaching post-punk bombast openly inspired by Springsteen and Van Morrison, and heaving with saxophones, soul, and metaphysics. It's earnest, raw, and often pretentious, but even the record's most unwieldy anthem, "Red Army Blues," written from the POV of a 17-year-old Russian soldier, has a thrilling adolescent charm that never fails to take hold—in the same way you'd sometimes rather hear "Wild Billy's Circus Story" than "Born to Run."
MINDY SMITH: One Moment More
Vanguard 79736-2 (CD). 2004. Steve Buckingham, Mindy Smith, prods.; Gary Paczosa, Neal Cappellino, Marshall Morgan, Scott Baggett, Bart Pursley, Paul Hart, engs. DDD? TT: 45:59
Records, like women and wine, need to age to achieve true distinction. Rarely, if ever, should a new release and a debut album be named a "Record To Die For." But One Moment More is not exactly a record. It is, in Mindy Smith's phrase, "a diary of songs"—both a document of and a means to her survival. She gets inside your mind, does Mindy Smith, with quiet guitar lines that cut like razor wire, and that undefeated waif voice singing about loss and hope and moving on, in words so stark and clear.
BRAD MEHLDAU: Anything Goes
Brad Mehldau, piano; Larry Grenadier, bass; Jorge Rossy, drums
Warner Bros. 48608-2 (CD). 2004. Matt Pierson, prod.; James Farber, eng. AAD? TT: 63:05
Anything Goes is Brad Mehldau's best record to date. Given the fact that he's made some of the most important piano-trio recordings of the last 10 years, this is a large claim. Anything Goes contains five ballads that reveal: a) how far Mehldau's gift for melodic and harmonic disassembly and elaboration and reconfiguration has evolved; b) how deeply below the surface he will search to find a great song's unspoken truths; and c) the fact that truly listening to improvised music is a creative act. As ostensibly familiar songs such as "Smile" and "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" unfold in luminous procedures, we understand them anew at almost the same moment as Mehldau. (XXVII-8)
TOM WAITS: Closing Time
Asylum SD 5061 (LP). 1973. Jerry Yester, prod.; Richie Moore, eng. AAA. TT: 46:21
I've collected an extensive catalog of Tom Waits' albums, and I'm never more than a day or two away from spinning one—yet I've never included one in R2D4. Mostly, it's because I've never wanted to pick just one. But I must, so it's Closing Time. I can't say it's his best or even my favorite, but, like most of Waits' work, it's beautiful, insightful, and evocative. The music and lyrics paint images and summon up bittersweet feelings that perfectly match the album's title. The performances are letter-perfect, and the sound is clean, open, and natural.
AHMAD JAMAL TRIO: Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing: But Not for Me
Ahmad Jamal, piano; Israel Crosby, bass; Vernell Fournier, drums
Argo LP-628 (mono LP). 1958. Dave Usher, prod.; Malcolm Chisholm, eng. AAA. TT: 31:38
I often play Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing for people who've never heard high-end audio. I sit them down, cue up the first cut, and watch them go from skepticism to curiosity to delighted amazement as they're transported to Chicago's Pershing Lounge and swept up in the performance. I'm still surprised by this classic LP, compiled from three sets recorded on January 16, 1958. The performances are incredible, and the sound... wow! It's mono, but At the Pershing is still one of the most realistic recordings I've heard. The 1983 Chess/MCA CD reissue is okay, but find the LP if you can.
THE NEW MOON
Music by Sigmund Romberg, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Rodney Gilfry, Christiane Noll, Brandon Jovanovich, Burke Moses, Alix Corey, Lauren Ward; Rob Fisher, conductor
Ghostlight 4403-2 (CD). 2004. Joel Moss, prod., eng. DDD. TT: 59:51
"Lover, Come Back to Me," "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise," "Wanting You," "Stouthearted Men." If these song titles mean nothing to you, then perhaps you should just forget about getting this record. No, that's not right: If these titles are not familiar to you, then your musical experience has been sadly lacking, and you must buy this record.
The New Moon is one of those operettas that features gorgeous tunes and a less-than-believable plot. As such, it's ideal for a concert presentation—or a recording. This one is based on a City Center Encores! concert production, and features the same leads. Rodney Gilfry is an internationally known operatic baritone who started out in musicals, and has just the right voice and style for this material. Christiane Noll—who sings "One Kiss" better than I've ever heard it done—has been mostly in musicals, but she's no stranger to the world of operetta: I saw her in a superb production of The Student Prince at the Paper Mill Playhouse. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich was her partner in that production; he does a great job here with the demanding "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise." The rest of the cast is similarly topnotch, including Burke Moses, who was a terrific Fred in Kiss Me, Kate! on Broadway. Conductor Rob Fisher knows exactly how this music should be played. The recording reflects an audiophile sensibility in the engineering, with the orchestra, chorus, and soloists in the same large studio, without the baffles that normally prevent the blending of different sections, and it sounds more natural as a result.
WICKED: Original Broadway Cast
Music & lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Stephen Oremus, conductor
Decca B0001682-02 (CD). 2004. Stephen Schwartz, prod.; Frank Filipetti, eng. DDD. TT: 71:17
At one of the "Ask the Editors" panels at the Home Entertainment 2003 show in San Francisco, we were all asked what was the best thing we'd seen or heard since we'd been at the show. My response was "Wicked," which was playing in previews across the street at the Curran Theater. Wicked, a sort of "prequel" to The Wizard of Oz, is currently enjoying tremendous success on Broadway, with tickets almost impossible to come by. A major contributor to Wicked's success is Stephen Schwartz's score, which, while it has its share of take-home tunes, is more complex and subtle than may be apparent on first hearing. This Original Cast CD, although recorded with a more close-up balance than I like, fully captures that score's subtleties.
Wicked has great performances by its two leading ladies, Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth. Just listen to Menzel's "The Wizard and I" and see if you don't have tears coming to your eyes. Chenoweth scores with "Popular," a song with a catchy tune that has some clever observations on the nature of popularity. Their final duet, "For Good," is a modern equivalent of "You'll Never Walk Alone," and is just as moving. My advice: If you haven't seen Wicked yet, start calling for tickets now. (The North American tour begins in Toronto in March '05; although I've already seen the show four times, you can bet that I'll be in the audience.) To tide you over, get this CD.
MATTHEW SHIPP "STRING" TRIO: Expansion, Power, Release
Matthew Shipp, piano; Mat Maneri, violin; William Parker, bass
HatOLOGY 558 (CD). 2001. Art Lange, prod.; Carl Seltzer, eng. DDD. TT: 56:04
An apotheosis of chamber jazz as a formal concept, this spare and elegant session capped a remarkable decade for Matt Shipp, the most original pianist to emerge in jazz during the 1990s. The disc fits together, as Shipp's albums often do, as a sequence of often fragmentary compositions that brim with improvisatory verve: each track is like a neuron sparking the cells that surround it. While the chemistry (with colleagues Parker and Maneri, here a wizardly firebrand: check out the noirish exorcism of "Connection") is potent, what's winning is the lighter touch that lends a dusky cinematic air to tracks such as "Waltz" and "Functional Form." The album also stands as a high note in the career of engineer Carl Seltzer, who recorded many memorable jazz sessions in his home studio in New York's Chinatown before his untimely death in 2003.
VIC CHESNUTT: Is the Actor Happy?
New West NW 6056 (CD). 1995/2004. John Keane, prod.; Bill Cooper, eng.; Vic Chesnutt, Peter Jesperson, reissue prods.; Bob Irwin, remastering eng. AAD. TT: 69:52
Perhaps the least likely songwriter ever to have been covered by Madonna, Vic Chesnutt has always grasped the gravity of his situation. "I'm a reluctant rebel," he sings. "I just want to Aaron Neville." Instead, confined to a wheelchair since a car accident in his teens, Chesnutt blossomed as the most idiosyncratic tunesmith in Athens, Georgia—a kind of folk-grunge Flannery O'Connor stoked on whiskey and mirages glimpsed in the Spanish moss (though not even O'Connor could cook up a line as perfect as "Her freakish nipples were akimbo"). Actor is the best of the albums Chesnutt made for the small Texas Hotel label (now reissued, with non-integral bonus tracks, in a spiffy Digipak by New West). By turns haunting and haunted, profane and pixilated, its tilted reveries are driven home by sheer gentility and words that "stick like a flounder gig."