1998 Records To Die For Page 3

Les Berkley

KATHY MATTEA: Untasted Honey
Mercury 832 793-1 (LP). 1987. Allen Reynolds, prod.; Mark Miller, eng. AAA. No time listed.

I guess it's Ladies' Night this year, and maybe the LP swan song for me. I mostly listen to CDs now; they sound better than they used to, and LPs are getting tougher to find and to deal with. These two are treasures, though, and make it well worth keeping a turntable around.

Kathy Mattea started her musical life as a demo singer in Nashville; a folkie at heart, she combined her own sensibilities with country-music realities. Untasted Honey is a great record, no matter what genre you try to put it in. All of the songs are covers, and all are love songs, which is fine by me. Mattea can phrase with the best of country singers, and her choice of material is a nice blend of reflective and straight-ahead tunes.

Mostly, I love this record for two tracks: "Life As We Knew It," which is more folk than country, and the gorgeous "Battle Hymn of Love." (I know "Battle Hymn" is a bit corny, but the vocal harmony redeems it completely.) Some of Kathy's later stuff went over the top, but this is Tennessee gold. Production is fabulous, with sidemen like New Grass stalwart Pat Flynn on acoustic guitar, and Roy Huskey Jr. on bass, in clean, honest sound of a sort you don't usually hear in Nashville.

Columbia C 45209 (LP). 1989. Jon Leventhal, prod.; Steve Addabbo, prod., eng. AAA? No time listed.

Shawn Colvin started her career as the quintessential urban folkie; I've always seen her as an example of how far a performer can get with very little equipment and very good production (and marketing). Steady On is an exception, one of those first albums that seems to contain years of accumulated material. "Shotgun Down the Avalanche" gets me every time: the hair on the back of my neck still reacts after dozens of hearings. I also use the record as a system demo to amaze friends and acquaintances. ("It's not digital. How can it sound good?")

Larry Birnbaum

Henny Alvarez, Willie Garcia, Carlos "Caito" Diaz, vocals; Virgilio Martí, vocals, percussion; Alfredo "Chocolate" Armenteros, trumpet; Reinaldo Jorge, José Rodrigues, trombone; Gonzalo Fernandez, flute, sax; Oscar Hernandez, piano; Nelson Rodriguez, tres; Andy Gonzalez, bass; Jerry Gonzalez, Milton Cardona, Manny Oquendo, Frankie Rodriguez, Gene Golden, percussion
Salsoul SAL 2-400 (2 LPs). 1975. René Lopez, Andy Kaufman, prods.; John Laico, Don Puluse, Lou Waxman, engs. AAA. TT: 60:58

Released at the height of the '70s salsa craze, this landmark double LP broke through to a deeper level of Latin consciousness, uniting young Puerto Rican players with their Cuban elders and exposing the music's Afro-Cuban roots. On rumbas, guajiras, Santería chants, and extended jazzy jams, the sprawling ensemble of studio veterans captures the raw intensity of folk tradition with hypnotic power and lustrous precision. Unfortunately, the group couldn't sustain the magic and soon disbanded. The brilliant recording quality is best heard on the out-of-print vinyl version, as the currently available CD is slightly abridged and poorly remastered.
MBUBE ROOTS: Zulu Choral Music from South Africa, 1930s-1960s
Rounder 5025 (CD). 1987. Various prods., engs. AAD. TT: 42:63

Around 1939, Solomon Linda's Original Evening Birds, a South African a cappella group, recorded "Mbube," which lent its name to a musical genre best known today through the work of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Linda's "Mbube," later covered in the US by the Weavers as "Wimoweh" and by the Tokens as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," is the glorious pinnacle of this historical compilation, but it's only one of many epiphanies here. Some of the early sides are a bit crude, but by the '60s groups like the Durban Crocodiles and the Scorpions had evolved harmonies more mind-blowing than LSD.

Howard Blumenthal

Music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters; Musical Direction by Paul Gemignani
RCA RCD1-5042 (CD). 1984. Thomas Z. Shepard, prod.; Paul Goodman, Anthony Salvatore, engs. DDD. TT: 69:14

Sondheim's masterpiece. By "bringing order to the whole through design," Sondheim re-creates Georges Seurat's visual concepts and ideals by approaching musical composition as an impressionist—and, more remarkably, a pointillist. And still, the songs are catchy, the humor is funny and always builds character, and the recording reproduces the full measure of a big Broadway stage with astonishing accuracy. Bernadette Peters has never owned a better character than Seurat's mistress, Dot. And Mandy Patinkin represents every artist, every creative person who must spend time "Finishing the Hat" rather than participating in real life. Every tone and sound is a tiny colored point of musical light.
RCA LSP-4197 (LP). 1969. A Nilsson House Production; Rick Jarrard, prod.; arr., cond. by George Tipton; Groover Helsley, Dick Bogert, Mickey Crofford, engs. AAA. No time listed.

John Lennon and I (and my wife, before we met) all considered this to be one of the best pop albums ever recorded. Nilsson's voice is crystal clear, a total delight in all of its many octaves. The arrangements are genius—borrowing from jazz, blues, vaudeville, rock, and gospel, always with exquisite taste, always with careful attention to sonic detail. Nilsson's range of emotions is stunning: late-'60s paranoia on "Fairfax Rag" ("Don't you wish that you were anyplace else but here?"), compassion on the portrait of the homeless called "Morning Glory Story," and pure joy on Randy Newman's "Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear." Never released on CD!

Lonnie Brownell

ALEX CHILTON: Like Flies on Sherbert
Aura AUL 710 (LP). 1979. Alex Chilton, prod., eng.; James Luther Dickinson, prod.; Richard Roseborough, John Hampton engs. AAA. TT: 29:13

Others might vote for his work in Big Star, but for my money this little star shines more brightly, if somewhat crudely. This is prototypical punkabilly (maybe a little drunkabilly), the roots of a style that the Cramps (whose debut EP Chilton would later produce) and Tav Falco's Panther Burns (Chilton was a member) would further develop. Soundwise, you might think it was recorded at the sound-check before a gig at a biker bar. Clean and pristine it ain't, but positively electric it is. A line from side 2's opener, "Rock Hard," sums it up: "Still wet from crawling outta the swamp / Rock hard."
BRIAN ENO: Before and After Science
Polydor Deluxe 2302 071 (LP). 1977. Brian Eno, prod.; Rhett Davies, prod., eng.; Dave Hutchins, Conny Plank, engs. AAA. TT: 40:00

Eno, the other Brian (besides Wilson) who took the art of studio recording into new territory, produced a handful of albums in the mid-'70s—this, Another Green World, and Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)—that successfully blended the artful rock of his earlier work with the ambient soundscapes that were becoming his primary focus. The songs here are, by and large, pop tunes, but they bounce merrily over some novel sonic territory. This isn't a natural-sounding recording—no, supernatural would be more like it—and it's a bit murky, which only adds to the ambience, but there's a lot going on in there. It'll keep you coming back for more.