2006 Records To Die For Page 4
THE BAND: The Band
Capitol STAO-132 (LP). 1969. The Band, John Simon, prods.; Joe Zagarino, Tony May, engs.; Robert Ludwig, mastering. AAA. TT: 44:01
Holed up in Sammy Davis, Jr.'s, Hollywood Hills pool house, the Canadian-American aggregate known as The Band produced and recorded one of the great albums of the 1960s—one that somehow managed to capture the feel of Civil War America with the authority of a Matthew Brady daguerreotype. "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and "Up On Cripple Creek" may be better known, but the album's quiet masterpieces are "Whispering Pines" and "King Harvest." The album's sound was originally considered bloated and bass-heavy, but the problem resided in the poor gear used by most listeners back in 1969. In fact, an original green-label Capitol with "RL" (for Robert Ludwig) in the lead-out groove area is a stupendous-sounding LP and the only version worthy of the music. JVC tried to issue an XRCD a few years back, but the master tape couldn't be located. Capitol's 2000 CD edition, with seven bonus tracks, may have been mastered at "24-bit resolution," but from what? The heavy tape hiss and opaque sound on some tracks say "not the master tape!" (XX-2)
JOHN LENNON: Plastic Ono Band
Apple (UK) PCS 7124 (LP).1970. John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Phil Spector, prods.; Phil MacDonald, Richard Lush, John Lickie, Andy Stevens, Eddie, engs. AAA. TT: 38:42
Too raw for wounded, abandoned Beatles fans when first released, Lennon's brutal, confessional solo masterpiece is still way too harsh for many fans, but it's the one that brought to adulthood (and quick) those capable of stomaching the awful truth that "the dream is over." Lennon abandoned far more than the Beatles and childhood here: he renounced God and religion, rejected his fawning fans and told them to get a life, and, worst of all for a hero, confessed to his acolytes that he was scared, in pain, and alienated. The worst blow of all? He revealed that though he still believes that "all you need is love," all he needed was Yoko Ono. If you get to hear "I Found Out" on an original UK Apple pressing, you'll know it's the only one to have. Yoko's misguided remix, issued on CD and 180gm vinyl by Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, doesn't sound bad, but it betrays Lennon's memory by exposing his carefully concealed and electronically manipulated signature vocals.
THE NATIONAL: Alligator
Beggars Banquet BBQCD 241 (CD). 2005. Peter Katis, prod., eng.; Paul Mahajan, eng. AAD. TT: 48:05
Maybe it's foolish to spill blood for an album that's not yet 12 months old, but Alligator earns its honor the hard way. The National's third album doesn't boast huge hooks, splashy singing, or catchy choruses; rather, it's a bittersweet fruit that takes time to ripen on the vine. Applying the tense, post-punk guitar tones of fellow New Yorkers Interpol and Calla to the dour pace and baritone vocals of British acts Tindersticks and Nick Cave is only half The National's genius. Singer Matt Berninger writes himself into a metaphorical stupor with such lines as "I'm a birthday candle in a circle of black girls."
HOT SNAKES: Automatic Midnight
Sympathy for the Record Industry/Swami SFTRI 602/SWA 2002 (CD). 2000. John Reis, prod. AAD. TT: 45:43
Any old punks can strangle their guitars and gargle with anger, but it takes real professionals—guys who are into the Wipers and the Who—to make you see all the different shades of red. Hot Snakes, a trio comprising veterans of San Diego bands Rocket from the Crypt and Drive Like Jehu, hurls the entire palette at your forehead and lets it bleed: Automatic Midnight benefits from some smart tape saturation. But you may not notice this as you pop a vein just listening to the crimson-faced shouts and furiously stabbing guitars of "If Credit's What Matters I'll Take Credit."
DEADICATED: Various Artists
Los Lobos, Bruce Hornsby & the Range, the Harshed Mellows, Elvis Costello, Suzanne Vega, Dwight Yoakam, Warren Zevon, David Lindley, Dan Baird, Indigo Girls, Lyle Lovett, Cowboy Junkies, Midnight Oil, Burning Spear, Dr. John, Jane's Addiction, Estimated Prophet
Arista ARCD 7822-18669-2 (CD). 2004. Ralph Soll, prod.; Roy Loft, eng. DDD. TT: 74:46
No, I didn't misspell the album's title. The pun refers to the composers of this music: Robert Hunter, John Barlow, Bob Weir, J. Dawson, and Jerry Garcia, aka the Grateful Dead and friends. The artists here are donating Deadicated's proceeds to the Rainforest Action Network and Cultural Survival movement, a favorite charity of the Dead. VTL's Luke Manley used Lyle Lovett's version of "Friend of the Devil" to demonstrate his new 6.5 preamplifier at Home Entertainment 2005, and it captivated me. Lovett's clear, undistorted voice materializes in a sonic hologram between the speakers, and has become my test of speaker imaging. The opening of the Indigo Girls' cover of "Uncle John's Band" frames their voices between two acoustic guitars, one per speaker. I could listen to Elvis Costello's wry rendition of "Ship of Fools" all day and never tire. Estimated Prophet pumps a powerful, reverb'd reggae beat into "Burning Spear" and makes my feet move. Dr. John never disappoints, and he gives his all on "Deal," the best blues track here. Dan Baird, whom I nominated for another year's R2D4 for his Songs for the Hearing Impaired, rocks "U.S. Blues," and Midnight Oil's intense rendition of "Wharf Rat" has the best drama and atmospherics. But it's Suzanne Vega who best captures the spirit of the Dead, in "China Doll." If any recording meets all my criteria for a record to die for, it's this one. (XIV-12)
JEFF GBUREK: Energariums
Nurnichtnur LC 05245 (CD). 2004. Dieter Schlensog, prod. DDD. TT: 59:52
Guitarist Jeff Gburek uses techniques traditional (field recordings) and experimental (signal processing) to create music that plays with the boundaries between musical form and pure sound/noise. I was drawn to this Experimental Sound Productions Nurnichtnur recording, made in Berlin, Germany, for its resemblance to the work of Harry Partch, an American composer well known for inventing bizarre orchestral instruments. Partch's influences can be heard best here in "Oum Kas'r, Mother of All Ports," while more traditional guitar chords create layers of harmonics in "Vitrines." The sad, haunting melody and shifting textures of "Afghanopsis" create dense atmospherics, and in "Improvisation 2," reverberation emphasizes the acoustic guitar's tonalities, which emerge from a mixture of flamenco and jazz riffs.
THE BEE GEES: Odessa
Polydor B25-451 (CD). 1969. Robert Stigwood, Bee Gees, prods.; P. Wade, E. Sharp, A. Barber, engs. AAD. TT: 62:31
When the Bee Gees entered the studio in 1968, they were enjoying an early creative jag. They had already released two very good albums that year and were ready to record a third, a two-disc concept album. In a dispute with producers, the band scrapped the concept idea, but they still churned out a flood of beautifully orchestrated melodies, from the classic, pop-flavored "Edison" and "Melody Fair" to the rootsy "Marley Purt Drive" and "Give Your Best" to the supremely dramatic "Odessa" and "Seven Seas Symphony." Many put Odessa alongside Blonde on Blonde and The Beatles as one of the three deepest double albums of the 1960s.
Geffen 24117 (CD). 1986. Todd Rundgren, prod. AAD? TT: 46:50
When Andy Partridge's extreme stage fright forced XTC to abandon touring and retreat to the studio, the band turned potential career disaster to advantage by conjuring up brilliant material with startling regularity. Skylarking is the culmination of Partridge's studio megalomania, a carefully constructed set of brilliant pop tunes (including a few written by songwriting partner Colin Moulding) that combines superbly offbeat wit with the pop smarts of the Beatles and the Beach Boys. The record smooths the band's saw-toothed musicality, but Partridge and Moulding don't skimp on their magnificently serrated wit. (XVIII-6)
CREAM: Royal Albert Hall, London May 2-3-5-6 2005
Reprise/Rhino R2 970421 (2 DVD-Vs). 2005. Martyn Atkins, video dir.; John Beug, exec. prod.; James Pluta, Scooter Weintraub, video prods.; William Bullen, video edit.; Simon Climie, audio prod.; Mick Guzauskie, audio mix; Bob Ludwig, audio mastering. Linear PCM (16-bit/48kHz) two-channel, DTS Surround & Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks. DDD. TT: 2:10:00
Trying to choose between the DVD and CD releases of this event, I realized that when I wanted to listen to the music, I preferred watching the DVDs in DTS surround. The entire band is in top form (although a few of the higher vocal notes are missing), and playing better than when they left the Royal Albert Hall 37 years earlier. Easily one of the best live recordings and mixes of a rock band out there—you can focus your sonic attention on any of the players at any time and study what he's doing—and the hi-rez, no-nonsense camera work only adds to the music's overall impact. John Atkinson, who was there, says this sounds better. One disappointment: What happened to the epic wah-wah guitar solo in "White Room"?
DARKO RUNDEK & CARGO ORKESTAR: Ruke
Piranha CD-PIR1894 (CD). 2004. Isabel, prod.; Darko Rundek, Vedran Peternal, Dani Pervan, prods., engs.; Davor Rocco, eng. DDD. TT: 58:43 audio + 4:38 video
Great music! Excellent sound! Exotic acoustic and electric instruments and sound effects! What more could you want? At times sounding like an Eastern European Gypsy version of It's A Beautiful Day (whose debut album from 1969 should be on everyone's list of R2D4s), Ruke instantly grabbed my ears and my heart. Self-described as "The comédie des sens of Paris meets the European spleen of Zagreb," the songs are primarily sung in Croatian, but they have such life in them that it doesn't matter if you don't understand the words. I don't think it's "world music," but who knows? Who cares? "Out on a remote Venetian square, kids are playing; / the laundry is swinging on the windows in a narrow street, / someone listens to the gramophone with 'Fa una canzona' playing..."