1994 Records To Die For Page 8

Beth Jacques

THE COMMITMENTS: Original Soundtrack
MCA/Beacon MCAD-10286 (CD only). Paul Bushnell, Kevin Killen, Alan Parker, prods.; Kevin Killen, record/mix; Tim Martin, eng. AAD. TT: 46:54

Why a "soul" band? "The Irish are the [blacks] of Europe," says the wannabe-manager in this straight-from-the-shoulder Alan Parker film about a bunch of Dublin council-house kids trying to be somebody by way of Stax/Volt---a fine film for a thousand reasons (novel by Roddy Doyle and screenplay by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, for three). This CD, recorded concert-style and mixed and co-produced by the respected (if not revered) Kevin Killen, is one of the best-made, most meticulously thought-out soundtracks ever---though, ipso facto, the CD soundfield is tight, practically linear straight back through the vocals. It's intriguing academically and for its sincerity, tonal purity, and "primitive" vocal-performance values---pure magic, coaxed from current, real-life, young musicians probably more atuned to Lollapalooza than Wilson Pickett. (XV-1&6,XVI-2)

BILLY JOEL: River of Dreams
Columbia CK 53003 (CD). Dan Kortchmar, Dave Theorner, Joe Nicolo, prods.; Niko Bolas, re$*cord/mix; Carl Glaniville, eng. TT: 49:19

Sadder-but-wiser LonGuyland piano-man Billy Joel, now in his 40s, has earned the right to sing the blues. In something of a comeback to studio recording, Joel works with a new producer---Dan Kortchmar, the lightning rod behind James Taylor---who gives him a stylistic stretch, an astonishingly apt selection of musicians, and the good taste to keep things simple. "Not many people have symphony orchestras in the bedroom," notes Broadway arranger Ira Newborn, who backs Joel's solo "Goodnight, My Angel" (the most moving lullaby since Gershwin's "Summertime'') with a string quartet. In your face ("Shades of Grey," "No Man's Land'') or out of this world ("The River of Dreams''), if Joel never cuts another album ("Famous Last Words"), at least he's hit one line-drive right into the stands.

Barbara Jahn

NYMAN: The Essential Michael Nyman Band
Sarah Leonard, soprano; Linda Hirst, mezzo; Michael Nyman Band, Michael Nyman
Argo 436 820-2 (CD only). Michael J. Dutton, prod., eng. DDD. TT: 67:18

This disc is a summation of Michael Nyman's work and his band's development over the past ten years. Although all the music featured has appeared in Peter Greenaway films---A Zed & Two Noughts, Drowning by Numbers, The Cook, the Thief, his Wife & her Lover, Water Dances, and Prospero's Books, it amply demonstrates the scope and versatility of Nyman's unique voice. I'm a sucker for his pastiche-like minimalism, and his musicians play with such zest that the sheer fun of their performance takes my breath away; it's as if the one can only exist in the reflected light of the other. In a wonderful, tightly focused recording, this disc fills me with instant joy. (XVI-6)

RACHMANINOFF: Symphony 2, Vocalise
Sylvia McNair, soprano; David Zinman, Baltimore SO
Telarc CD-80312 (CD only). Robert Woods, prod.; Jack Renner, eng. DDD. TT: 68:00

I'm a sucker for this Rachmaninoff Symphony too. But the competition for this Symphony in the catalog is mind-bending, which makes me ultra-critical. Yet if I'm moved by the sheer beauty and sensuality of phrasing that Zinman has coaxed from the orchestra, and if my euphoria in the very nature of Rachmaninoff's language is fueled by that of the performers, niggling details become irrelevant. Here, everything has been given Zinman's utmost care and consideration, and the tranquility and sense of timelessness he creates around Sylvia McNair's hauntingly beautiful Vocalise have me hardly daring to breathe, lest I break the spell. Add a typically radiant Telarc recording and...pure hedonism! (XVI-8)

Geary Kaczorowski

JOHN CAGE: Indeterminacy
John Cage, reading; David Tudor, music
Smithsonian/Folkways SF 40804/05 (2 LPs, 2 CDs). Moses Asch, John Cage prods.; Mel Kaiser eng. AAA/AAD. TT: 90:22

It's weird, it's wacky, it's pure Cage. Ninety stories in 90 minutes, each read to fit the one-minute time limit, and each accompanied with strange music from longtime collaborator David Tudor. As Cage reads in his wispy voice, Tudor, with piano, whistles, tape machines, and an amplified Slinky, plays without regard to Cage or the stories. But the mix works, because Cage's stories are so often touching, odd, bizarre, or straightforward, while Tudor's "playing" is exactly the same. A wonderfully curious way to hear stories.

JOHN COLTRANE: First Meditations
John Coltrane, tenor sax; McCoy Tyner, piano; Jimmy Garrison, bass; Elvin Jones, drums
Impulse GRD-118 (CD). Bob Thiele, John Coltrane, prods.; Rudy Van Gelder, eng. AAD. TT: 52:19

From the opening note of Coltrane's tenor sax to Jimmy Garrison's final bass note, First Meditations is a full-blown excursion into the inner workings of this finest of Coltrane's quartets. Each player roams freely, creating a tonal feast that i equal parts traditional jazz and experimentation. The interplay between Coltrane's free-form blowing and Tyner's sharp piano reaches its zenith here, with Tyner underscoring everything Coltrane plays with pithy notes or glissandos. It's a battle of titans---the listener is the clear winner.

HÜSKER DÜ: Zen Arcade
SST 027 (1 CD, 2 LPs). Spot, HÜsker DÜ, prods., engs. TT: 70:25

With sonic blasts from start to finish, Zen Arcade, a sprawling trip through the American underground, firmly established Hüsker Dü's reputation among punks. Bob Mould, with his ultra-loud, piercing guitar, trades songs with drummer Grant Hart---their musical power stuns and amazes, with Mould's vitriolic and Hart's more restrained vocals and songwriting style. Zen Arcade is an intense journey through a world created by a pissed-off punk power trio.

Sub Pop SP-34b (CD). TT: 42:45

This is the album that started it all. Bleach's execution is brutal and honest, its production very raw. Nirvana had nothing to prove---they played what they felt and reveled in the excitement of being in a band. I find Bleach more inspiring than Nevermind, because the production on Bleach is so low-fi---like true rock'n'roll. It's a smoking debut. Of course, the real stars are Kurt Cobain's guitar and voice. There's angst aplenty, and tons of guitar-scratching and screeching to keep any real music fan entertained.

DGC DGCD-24485 (CD). Butch Vig, Sonic Youth, prods.; Butch Vig, Edward Douglas, engs. AAD. TT: 59:07

Despite all the bullshit that Sonic Youth sold out when they signed with DGC, Dirty, their second major-label release, is the furthest thing from a sellout. Sonic Youth is at their most complex and challenging here, with their beautifully crafted songs and unique guitar tunings. This album flows seamlessly, with Lee Renaldo's and Thurston Moore's fierce guitars leading the way. All bands should sell out this way.