2006 Records To Die For Page 3


Peter Kiesewalter, keyboards, programming, backing vocals; Tyley Ross, AnnMarie Milazzo, vocals; Pauline Kim, solo violin; Ben Butler, guitars; Richard Hammond, electric & acoustic bass; Nir Z, drums, percussion; Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra
Decca B000518102 (CD). 2005. Neil Dorfsman, prod., eng. DDD. TT: 58:53

The East Village Opera Company features rock arrangements of such well-known arias as "Un Bel Di," "La Donna e Mobile," and "Nessun Dorma." Sounds like a candidate for the most embarrassing crossover recording of the year, right? Not so! The recording is not only a lot of fun, but may just give you a greater appreciation of rock and opera. Arranger and keyboardist Peter Kiesewalter is a highly talented musician who has the skill and the sensitivity to do justice to both genres, and he gets great playing from the entire group. With backgrounds in musical theater and rock, AnnMarie Milazzo and cofounder Tyley Ross have powerful, wide-ranging voices, and they pull out all the vocal and emotional stops when the occasion calls for it, rising to great peaks of passion and drama. Opera purists may object to the idea of "Au Fond du Temple Saint," written for tenor and baritone, being sung by a tenor and a mezzo, but only a certified curmudgeon could object to what Ross and Milazzo do with it here. Produced by Grammy-winner Neil Dorfsman, the recording sounds fresh and dynamic.

MARY POPPINS: Original London Cast
Original music & lyrics by Richard M. Sherman & Robert B. Sherman; new songs, additional music & lyrics by George Stiles & Anthony Drewe
Nick Davies, conductor
Walt Disney DIS613917 (CD). 2005. David Caddick, prod.; David Hunt, eng. DDD. TT: 72:07

Lovers of musical theater, rejoice! Mary Poppins is set to open on Broadway in fall 2006. If this Original London Cast recording is anything to go by, it should be a runaway hit, and an exception to the rule that stage versions of movie musicals are invariably inferior to the films they're based on. But then, this is no ordinary stage adaptation: there's a complete rethinking of the approach, making it closer to the books by P.L. Travers, without the excessively saccharine quality that characterized the 1964 Disney film. The score combines the best songs from the movie (discarding the silly ones like "I Love to Laugh" and "Sister Suffragettes") with new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. The new songs are tuneful, have clever lyrics, and blend seamlessly with the originals (which in turn have been reworked, with some new intro and bridge sections added to great effect). Laura Michelle Kelly makes an appealing Mary Poppins, making you almost forget Julie Andrews, and it's good to have a Bert who has an authentic Cockney accent rather than Dick Van Dyke's sort-of-Cockney in the movie. The CD's sound is a bit on the bright side, but it captures the excitement of a real theatrical performance.


JOHN HARTFORD: The Speed of the Old Long Bow
Rounder CD 0438 (CD). 1997. Bob Carlin, prod.; Wes Lachot, Mark Howard, engs. ADD? TT: 58:23

One of John Hartford's last albums was this 1997 project, crafted as a tribute to Ed Haley (1883–1951), the archetypal rural American fiddler, whose music greatly influenced Hartford. This collection of 15 old-time fiddle tunes from Haley's repertoire is as far from the slick sound of contemporary bluegrass as you're likely to get on a modern recording: The playing, like the engineering, is immediate, spontaneous, a bit rough, and unimpeachably honest. Hartford also embellishes the tunes by singing snippets of his own lyrics—sometimes, evidently, made up on the spot—and while that put me off at first listen, it's grown on me since. The album is by turns funny, festive, and a little bit scary, but it's consistently heartfelt. Hartford died four years after these sessions, almost to the day, and The Speed of the Old Long Bow stands alongside Aereo-Plain as his best work.

Atlantic SD 8304 (LP/CD). 1972/1991. Guy Stevens, prod.; Andy Johns, eng. AAA/AAD. TT: 38:31

Mott the Hoople was formed in 1969 when singer Ian Hunter was dropped like a firecracker into an otherwise undistinguished band called Silence. Notwithstanding the prescient sopor-stomp of their first two albums, and despite a third that was so lame they almost didn't get to make another, 1972's Brain Capers is where Hunter's Dylanesque shouting began to work with rather than against the thick, raucous guitar, roller-coaster organ, and thundering bass and drums of the core group. Highlights include Mott's future concert staple "Sweet Angeline" and a version of Dion's "Your Own Back Yard" that teeters edgily between tribute and parody. The record sounds wonderful, too, thanks to the late Guy Stevens—who apparently named the band after a cheap paperback he'd found while a guest of Her Majesty in the English penitentiary system. A perfect record: Throw away your Guns N' Roses albums and buy this instead.


CINDY BULLENS: Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth
Artemis 1012 (CD). 1999. Cindy Bullens, Rodney Crowell, Tony Berg, J. Steven Soles, prods.; Bill McDermott, David Thoener, Glenn Spinner, John Paterno, Larry Hirsch, engs.; Casey McMackin, Brian Lee, asst. engs. AAD. TT: 50:37

Never mind the records I would die for. In a sense, someone did die for this record. In 1996, singer-songwriter Cindy Bullens lost her daughter, Jessie, to Hodgkin's disease. To get through her grief, Bullens found herself writing a song about her daughter's death and her own attempt to deal with it. Then she wrote another and another, and eventually there was an album's worth. Plenty of art has been created in the face of tragedy, but Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth escapes the typical pitfalls of self-pity and mawkishness. It's raw, visceral, and profound, nearly as cathartic for the listener as it must have been for Bullens herself.

Columbia C2K 46764 (2 CDs). 1974/1991. Carlos Santana, Richard Kermode, Michael Shrieve, Doug Rauch, Tom Coster, Armando Peraza, Jose "Chepito" Areas, prods.; Tomoo Suzuki, eng.; Sound Creator Inc., asst. eng. AAD. TT: 118:51

Those with long memories will recall that Carlos Santana didn't always have to recruit flavor-of-the-moment vocalists to sing on his records so he could draw a crowd. His early work was masterful, spiritual, and largely instrumental. For years, Lotus, originally a three-LP set recorded live in Japan, was available only as a pricey import (or on the cassettes of fans who taped it, as I did, from "featured midnight album" broadcasts by their local rock stations). For me, Lotus is a reminder of what we've lost in this Internet age in which everything is available all the time but nothing means quite as much: something that seemed exotic for its rarity as much as for its music.


SOUNDGARDEN: Superunknown
A&M 3154 0198-2 (CD). 1994. Michael Beinhorn, Soundgarden, prods.; Jason Corsaro, eng. DDD. TT: 70:12

Those who missed (or eschewed) the Seattle Sound the first time around shall be forgiven following a committed listening to this album, which, unfortunately, still cries out to be remastered. Though Soundgarden is considered, along with Nirvana and Pearl Jam, as one of the grunge triumvirate, Superunknown transcends the genre through its terrible power, epic sweep, and killer riffs as it draws on rock, metal, blues, Indian ragas, and the kitchen sink. Frontman Chris Cornell imbues these songs of loss, rich in tonal and rhythmic complexity, with a simple dignity, soaring to heights of triumph—even from the depths of despondency.

VIVALDI: The Four Seasons
Enrico Onofri, violin; Giovanni Antonini, Il Giardino Armonico
Teldec 4509 97671-2 (CD). 1994. Wolfgang Mohr, prod.; Lucienne Rosset, eng. DDD. TT: 60:46

Vivaldi's The Four Seasons may be the biggest warhorse of them all, but this is the only recording of it you'll ever need. Il Giardino Armonico serves up period instruments comme il faut: gritty and raw. Summer scorches as never before, the basso continuo is cranked to hip-hop levels, and blazing tempos are enjoyably perilous throughout. Violin soloist Enrico Onofri attacks with gusto, and I daresay all the musicians are excited and having fun. Baroque purists will likely take issue, but one should generally take issue with them. Two additional concertos, RV 454 and 332, make for a crystalline bonus.