2005 Records To Die For Page 4


WILHELM FURTWÄNGLER: An Anniversary Tribute
Deutsche Grammophon 477 006-2 (6 mono CDs). 2004. Alfred Kaine, Ursula von Rauchhaupt, artistic dirs.; Karl-August Naegler, Wolf-Dieter Karwatky, remastering. AAD/ADD. TT: 6:30:28
Despite his skepticism that audio technology could ever do justice to orchestral music, Wilhelm Furtwängler's recordings have an intensity and rightness that most others lack, and this newly packaged set, timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the conductor's death and concentrating on the last 12 years of his life, offers more than six hours of evidence. Of special interest are a Bruckner Symphony 9 recorded in Berlin in 1944 at the height of the Allied bombing—whether that accounts for the unusually brisk and often terrifying Scherzo is anyone's guess—and a previously bootlegged but otherwise rare Strauss Metamorphosen, a piece with its own wartime vibe. The mono sound is fair at best, but even so—as on a thrilling Schumann Symphony 1 with the Vienna Philharmonic—the sound of conductor and orchestra performing spontaneously as one is impossible to miss.

JOANNA NEWSOM: The Milk-Eyed Mender
Drag City DC263CD (CD). 2004. Noah Georgeson, prod., eng. DDD. TT: 52:17
Joanna Newsom writes and sings the most audaciously wise, playful, and utterly charming songs I've heard in a very long time, accompanying herself on a full-size Lyon & Healy harp. How's that for unexpected?

There may be a catch: As much as I love the 22-year-old Newsom's childlike voice, others consider it an acquired taste. Be that as it may, nothing else in popular music could prepare you for the songs on The Milk-Eyed Mender—the title is a line from Newsom's extraordinarily moving "Sadie," which may or may not be about a deceased pet. If you're like me, you'll find it impossible to cue this up without listening to the whole album straight through. Extra points for rhyming master with disaster and poetaster. A brilliant record.


AC/DC: Back in Black
Epic EK 80207 (CD). 1980/2003. Robert John "Mutt" Lange, prod.; Tony Platt, eng.; Jack Newber, Benji Armbrister, asst. engs; George Marino, remastering. AAD? TT: 42:08
Sometimes, it's not what a band accomplishes, it's what they overcome. In 1980, AC/DC was set to cash in on the success of their breakthrough album, Highway to Hell, when singer Bon Scott died of alcohol poisoning. The Australian band replaced him with the similarly leather-lunged Brian Johnson and went on to record their best album, Back in Black. From the portentous, pealing opening of "Hells Bells" through such hard-rock perennials as the title track, "Shoot to Thrill," and "You Shook Me All Night Long," Back in Black reveals a band that is irredeemably loud, justifiably proud, and startlingly unfazed by death.

EMMYLOU HARRIS: Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town
Warner Bros./Rhino R2 78111 (CD). 1978/2004. Brian Ahern, prod., eng.; Bradley Hartman, Donovan Cowart, engs. AAD? TT: 42:55
Emmylou Harris' luminescent reading of Dolly Parton's "To Daddy" likely saved my job as a part-time country deejay in 1978. Once, I tried to spice up the format with a few of my own country-rock records. The program director called, barked "Play what's in the box," and hung up.

"The box" foamed over with the sort of crossover glop that ruled the day. But it also contained Harris' hit, "To Daddy," and, soon after, "Two More Bottles of Wine." Spinning those songs—and sneaking in a few Quarter Moon album tracks, such as "Easy from Now On," "Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight," and "I Ain't Living Long Like This"—made a lousy job somehow seem bearable. Well, that and the princely sum of $6 an hour. (XXVII-5)


RADIOHEAD: Hail to the Thief
Capitol CDP 84543 2 (CD). 2003. Nigel Godrich, Darrell Thorp, Graeme Stewart, engs. DDD. TT: 56:40
The only rock album to convincingly target the absurdity of the Bush Administration, Radiohead's latest opus earned the group an overwhelming mandate as Commanders in Chief of Progressive Rock—no recount required. Already clear heirs to Pink Floyd, the Oxford quintet's electronica-tinged experimental Britpop continues to shatter the boundaries of rock in a remarkably intelligent yet accessible manner not achieved since the Fab Four. The single "There, There," with its heartbreaking lyrics, angular melody, lush orchestration, and enveloping, Björk-inspired percussion, has my write-in vote for best song yet this century.

GLASS: String Quartets 2–5
Kronos Quartet
Nonesuch 79356-2 (CD). 1995. Judith Sherman, Kurt Munkacsi, Philip Glass, Robert Hurwitz, prods.; Craig Silvey, eng. DDD. TT: 68:16
While much of Philip Glass's large-scale work feels contrived, his intimate String Quartets, written from 1983 to 1991, find the American master at his most inventive and introspective. Glass had abandoned a highly reductive style in favor of a more expansive harmonic palette. Though motivic repetition certainly defines the structure of the Quartets, missing are the endless arpeggios and ostinatos that have become Glass's signature. Glass took a different approach in the Quartets, focusing on musicality rather than seriousness, and the result is organic, unpolished gems, here joyously played by the Kronos Quartet—the right group at the right time for this music. (XVIII-5)


Vapor/Reprise/Classic 48699-1 (3 200gm Quiex SV-P LPs, 1 45rpm green single). 2004. Neil Young, L.A. Johnson, prods.; John Hausmann, eng. AAA. TT: 86:24
Like Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle, Neil Young and Crazy Horse are one of those special, long-lasting, pleasure-giving musical synergies—despite being built on a flimsy foundation of three chords in wobbly time. Maybe it's the cumulative effect of seeing the brilliantly choreographed show live, reading Shakey, Neil Young's illuminating biography, and watching the bonus DVD that accompanies the special-edition CD, but this project is simultaneously as comfortable as an old shoe and surprisingly provocative. My musical love affair with Young began with Buffalo Springfield in 1966 and hit a new peak in 2004, especially on this superb-sounding, beautifully produced, all-analog, three-LP boxed set. Thanks, old friend!

J.S. BACH: Suites 1–6 for Unaccompanied Cello
János Starker
Mercury Living Presence/Speakers Corner SR3-9016 (3 180gm LPs). 1966/2004. Harold Lawrence, prod.; Robert Eberenz, eng.; Willem Makke, mastering. AAA. TT: ca 110
You don't have to know a Bourrée from a crème brûlée to be moved by this music. You can listen without the annotation and appreciate both Bach's emotional power and Starker's prowess. Or you can read along and understand the music's intellectual and structural underpinnings. This Mercury release from 1966 has long been treasured by music lovers and audiophiles for both the performances and the sound. Thanks to Speakers Corner, this beautifully produced, three-LP boxed set—mastered by Willem Makke at Universal's Berliner mastering facility in Hanover, Germany, from the original tapes—restores this historic set to the catalog. The updated annotation includes new notes by the 80-year-old Starker.


RAY CHARLES: Genius Loves Company
Duets with Natalie Cole, Elton John, Norah Jones, B.B. King, Gladys Knight, Diana Krall, Johnny Mathis, Michael McDonald, Van Morrison Willie Nelson, Billy Preston, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor
Concord/Hear Music CCD 2248 2 (CD). 2004. Phil Ramone, John Burk, Herbert Waltl, prods., engs. DDD. TT: 51:40
Back in the late 1950s, I would listen to Ray Charles' first albums while chilling after high school. Half a century later, in the year of his passing, I've encountered him again in television specials, a blockbuster biographical movie, and this CD. I purchased the album in Starbucks, thinking it was just a promotional piece for the coffee. Wrong! This album is selling everywhere, and with good reason. What talent! Charles' voice is rich, vibrant, raw, full of life—hardly the last murmuring of a dying man. He keeps up and sometimes out-sings his vocal partners. Listen to how he blends with and harmonizes with Norah Jones on the first track, seeming to push her voice an octave lower. Take in the hip, sophisticated path he carves for the rich, sultry huskiness of Diana Krall's voice to follow on "You Don't Know Me." By the time you finish listening to track 5, get someone to take your pulse if you haven't started snapping your fingers to Charles strutting through Little Willie John's "Fever," with Natalie Cole as his partner in the call and response. Bonnie Raitt and Charles harmonize on "Do I Ever Cross Your Mind," on which Raitt also plays an awesome slide guitar. She has never sounded better. "Sinner's Prayer" combines B.B. King on vocals and guitar, Billy Preston on Hammond B3, and Charles on piano and vocals, all of them pushing things over the limit. Wow! If any recording meets Stereophile's criteria for "R2D4," this is the one!

HOLST: The Planets
Walter Susskind, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 4055 (SACD/CD). 1975/2004. Marc Aubort, orig. prod.; Joanna Nickrenz, orig. eng.; Paul Stubblebine, Shawn R. Britton, Dawn Frank, remastering. AAD. TT: 49:40
This is the second year I'm boosting the work of Paul Stubblebine at MoFi, because he's remastered another album of one of my favorite classical warhorses first recorded by Marc Aubort. The original master tape of Holst's The Planets captures the ambience of a wide, deep soundstage, delicate detail and tonalities, and raw power from a legendary 1975 performance by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra under Walter Susskind. Stubblebine fed the signal from the master tape, played back on a specially modified ReVox deck with 60kHz bandwidth, into an A/D converter with a 2.8MHz sampling rate. Mastering of the hybrid SACD was accomplished using electronics in his Greater Ambience Information Network (GAIN) mastering system. Even when played back in two channels, this SACD of Holst's huge orchestra, including many percussion and wind instruments, gives a brilliant palette of orchestral tonal color. This is heard in the pounding ostinato rhythm of the first movement, Mars, the Bringer of War. Mercury, the Winged Messenger stresses ambience, a wide soundstage, and superb transparency in the bells and xylophone. The remastering captures the full, rich timbre of massed strings in Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity. For the deepest bass, listen to Uranus, the Magician, which uses bowed double basses and the lowest pedals of the pipe organ to portray the giant's footsteps. The light, delicate suggestion of a female choir that ends the final section, Neptune, the Mystic, reveals the ability of this recording to capture the smallest, faintest sonic details.