2000 Records to Die For Page 5

Brian Damkroger

LUCINDA WILLIAMS: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
Mercury 314 558 338-2 (CD). 1999. Lucinda Williams, Roy Bittan, The Twangtrust, prods.; Ed Thacker, Steve Churchyard, engs. AAD? TT: 51:50
Lucinda Williams has one of those unique voices that, once heard, can never be expunged from your mind. It sounds kind of like one part Carlene Carter, one part Warren Zevon, and maybe a bit of Chrissie Hynde and Tom Petty thrown in, but most of all it sounds like a direct connection between her soul and her vocal cords. In Car Wheels on a Gravel Road she's crafted a series of evocative, sharply focused stories of loves and lives gone by, each one as engaging as a well-written short story. The arrangements vary from country to country-rock, but it's about as far from the safe, mainstream fare of today's country pinup queens as is imaginable. The supporting cast is simply outstanding: Steve Earle, Roy Bittan, and Emmylou Harris. The band is tight, every note is dead on, and Williams' performance is amazing—completely honest and unaffected. Last but not least, the sound is wonderful as well: detailed, warm, and rich—the sort that makes any system sound good, and a good one sound fantastic. (XXI-10)

Reprise 45950-2 (CD). 1995. Rickie Lee Jones, Russ Titelman, prods.; Dan Kasting, Derek Featherstone, engs. AAD? TT: 69:28
Rickie Lee Jones is one of those artists who needs to be heard live to be fully understood and appreciated. It's not that her studio recordings aren't good, but that so much of her art is in how she performs the songs, not just the songs themselves. Rather than being liberated by studio tools and techniques, she seems bound by them, truly coming to life only on stage.

Played on a good system, Naked Songs is as close to the live concert experience as I've ever heard from a recording. Jones covers gems from throughout her career, but brings in new twists and turns on the fly, trading stories and songs with her audience for a little over an hour. Except for Rob Wasserman's bass on a couple of tracks, this is a solo acoustic set; the performance is intimate, and the incredible sound will bring to life all of it—performers, ambience, stage, audience—in your listening room. This is definitely one to listen to with the lights out; it'll remind you why you got into high-end audio in the first place. (XIX-3)

Robert Deutsch

Varèse Sarabande 302 066 074 2 (HDCD). 1999. Bruce Kimmel, prod.; Vincent Cirilli, Stephanie Gylden, engs. DDD. TT: 59:55
The musical may be going through some rough times, but it's certainly not because of a lack of talented performers. Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner are two of the best. They starred as Siamese twins in Side Show, and their voices blend so well you'd swear they are sisters. Ripley can sing in a sweet, legit soprano style, which she demonstrates in "My White Knight," but she can also belt with the best of them. Skinner's voice has a center of gravity that's about a third lower than Ripley's, which is just right for singing harmony. The songs chosen for the CD are an eclectic mix of Broadway classics and more obscure musical-theater pieces. "Unsuspecting Hearts," from the legendary flop, Carrie, gets its first recording here, and, as performed by Ripley and Skinner, it's powerful enough to make you wonder why that show flopped. Unusual choices that work to great effect include songs originally intended to be sung by men, like "Pretty Women" (which, incidentally, Ripley and Skinner are), and "Live With Somebody You Love," from Martin Guerre. Each singer has some outstanding solo moments—I loved Skinner's "Alto Lament," a very funny song that turns unexpectedly touching—and when their voices unite, in a number like "Old Friend," it's pure magic. Varèse Sarabande's sound is still in the up-close pop style, but, perhaps partly because of the HDCD encoding, it's cleaner, less hyped than is usual for them.

THOMAS HAMPSON: Operetta Arias
Thomas Hampson, baritone; Franz Welser-Möst, London Philharmonic Orchestra; London Voices, Terry Edwards, chorus master
EMI 5 56758 2 (CD). 1999. David Groves, prod.; Simon Rhodes, John Kurlander, engs. DDD. TT: 60:11

Widely considered to be today's foremost American operatic baritone, Thomas Hampson has made numerous forays into the lighter musical-theater repertory, but his efforts have always struck me as too stiff, too studied. However, he appears to be entirely comfortable and relaxed singing Viennese operetta, and seems less intent on making sure that he sounds like a serious artist. His high baritone is ideally suited to the music of Lehár, Johann Strauss II, Kálmán, et al, allowing him to sing some arias written for tenor as well as the usual baritone pieces. He does a lovely job with "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz," floating the last note of the middle section in the best Richard Tauber style, and sounds properly dashing in "Als flotter Geist" (known in English as "Open Road, Open Sky"). He gets fully idiomatic support from Welser-Möst and the LPO. EMI's sound is wide-ranging and offers a good balance between singer and orchestra. Operetta is viewed by some as too sweet, too romantic, and too far removed from reality. So be it. If you can use some sweetness and romance, and if reality has got you down, then this recording could be just what you need.

Shannon Dickson

YO-YO MA: Solo
Kodály: Sonata for Solo Cello. O'Connor: Appalachia Waltz. Sheng: Seven Tunes Heard in China?. Tcherepnin: Suite for Solo Cello. Wilde: The Cellist of SarajevoI.
Yo-Yo Ma, cello
Sony Classical SK 64114 (CD), SACDSK 64114 (SACD). 1999. Steven Epstein, prod.; Richard King, Todd Whitelock, Mark Betts, Billy Rothschild, engs.; Gus Skinas, DSD eng. DDD. TT: 64:39

Solo is a real treasure for cello lovers, and one sure to convert those not yet initiated into the breadth, power, and sublimity that instrument can convey in the hands of one so skilled as Yo-Yo Ma. This title is a collection of five carefully selected pieces reflecting divergent cultures, each infused with a universal thread of tone and texture that ties the album together into a seamless sonic delight.

First is an adaptation for solo cello of Mark O'Connor's wonderful Appalachia Waltz, originally composed for solo violin, followed by Seven Tunes Heard in China, Bright Sheng's lovely collection of refined and intricate melodies that blend oriental and western flavors. English composer David Wilde contributes his powerful, moving The Cellist of Sarajevo, while Russian Alexander Tcherepnin's Suite for Solo Cello—one of my favorites—is a rich tapestry of influences from both occidental roots and his long teaching stay in mid-century China. Zoltán Kodály's well-known Sonata for Solo Cello rounds out a disc that brims with Yo-Yo Ma's awesome virtuosity and range.

Sony Classical employed the new Direct Stream Digital (DSD) process for this recording, then converted it to CD format using their new Super Bit-Mapping Direct noise-shaping technique. The result speaks for itself. The cello perspective is slightly larger than life (as is often the case on solo recordings), but the clarity, consistency, and incredible dynamic range of the new encoding system serves the music beautifully. I found it interesting how very close in quality the stand-alone CD version sounded to the DSD version on the SACD, once I'd properly matched the levels of the two discs—more evidence that most of the inherent benefit from the new high-resolution formats is captured at the recording/encoding end of the chain.

LORNA HUNT: All in One Day
Lorna Hunt, vocals, acoustic guitar; Dave Piltch, acoustic bass; Danny Frankel, percussion; Greg Leisz, pedal steel, lap steel, electric guitar, mandolin, Weisenborn; Dave Jackson, accordion
Classic RTH-1015 (LP), RTHCD-1015 (CD), DAD-1015 (24/96 DVD). Lorna Hunt, prod.; Michael Hobson, exec. prod.; Paul duGré, prod., eng., mix; Josh Turner, prod. asst.; Thomas Matherly, tech. asst.; Bernie Grundman, mastering eng. A-D. TTs: 58:45 (CD, LP), 65:31 (DVD)

Though comparisons to Joni Mitchell and Rickie Lee Jones come easily to mind, singer/lyricist Lorna Hunt stands on her own in this evocative and moving collection of songs about pain, loss, and the vagaries of life, conveyed with the emotional intensity of one who's lived much longer than her relatively few years.

Save for killer covers of "Piece of my Heart" (popularized by Janis Joplin) and Gregg Allman's "Whipping Post," Hunt wrote all the lyrics and music here. The three-day, June 1998 session was recorded direct to two-track by accomplished recording engineer Paul duGré in the excellent acoustic of the old LomPoc movie theater, north of Santa Barbara. To help bring Hunt's creations to life, duGré assembled not only his quiver of vintage mikes and tube recording gear, but also the services of the outstanding session musicians listed above.

The 24-bit/96kHz DAD version shows off the sonic advantages of the new DVD format, and offers one extra tune. However, the levels on the CD version are 2dB louder than on the DAD disc, and the LP is a good 4-6dB louder than the DAD; you'll need to adjust for this before making any comparisons. All in One Day has become an invaluable reference disc for me, yet one that I treasure most for its seductive and engaging melodies.