2008 Records To Die For Page 3

PARKS AND RECREATION: What Was She Doing On the Shore That Night?
Hush HUSH059 2006 (CD). Michael Johnson, prod.; Adam Selzer, eng. DDD? TT: 33:14

Classically trained Portlander Michael Johnson is best—if barely—known for making records as Reclinerland, a project that included members of the Decemberists and Norfolk & Western on 2003's The Ideal Home Music Library, ostensibly an unearthed trove of Tin Pan Alley compositions. His more recent project is (post)modern all the way—well-observed and keenly orchestrated indie bombast bubblegum that's far too unabashed and swinging to be arch. "The Perfect Love" turns the words semicolon and parentheses into an exquisite lyric (the song is a faux-disco celebration of IM-ing), while "Break Into Song" joins "Do You Believe in Magic" in the pop annals of self-reflexive, self-affirming sing-alongs. Call him the rich man's Stephen Merritt.

THE TRIFFIDS: Born Sandy Devotional
Domino DNO103 (CD). 1986/2006. Gil Norton, prod.; Nick Mainsbridge., eng. AAD? TT: 42:32

"She said, 'What's the matter now, loverboy / has the cat run off with your tongue?," swoons David McComb on "The Seabirds," a string-sweetened, steel-ached elegy. "Are you drinking to get maudlin / or are you drinking to get numb?" It's still a tough question to answer thinking of the Triffids frontman, who died in February 1999 at the age of 37. This Australian "city & western" sextet shared a strong sense of romantic majesty with their better-known peers the Go-Betweens, as well as the same dark literary sensibility (or at least the same fondness for Leonard Cohen) as Nick Cave. The band's acknowledged masterpiece, Born Sandy Devotional, includes one epic on the order of "Cortez the Killer" ("Lonely Stretch"), one song that improves on the Moe Tucker album-ending blueprint ("Tender Is the Night"), and, above all, "Wide Open Road," which embodies both the forlorn lonely sound of heartbreak and the joyous solitary sound of Oz itself, from dirt to sea to sky. (XXIV-2)


CARLA BLEY: The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu
Carla Bley, piano; Andy Sheppard, soprano & tenor saxophones; Paolo Fresu, trumpet, flugelhorn; Steve Swallow, bass; Billy Drummond, drums
WATT 34 (CD). 2007. Carla Bley, Steve Swallow, prods.; Gérard de Haro, Nicolas Baillard, engs. DDD. TT: 55:53

My own hard, fast rule about "Records To Die For" resembles those of the Baseball Hall of Fame: After a record is released, there must be a five-year waiting period. To hell with it. Carla Bley is our greatest living active jazz composer. Her band, with its brilliant individual voices, functions as a single, constantly evolving organism. The addition of Paolo Fresu is bold and inspired—his passionate Italian romanticism newly illuminates Bley's austere, ambiguous musical contexts. There is a piece for Christopher Reeve, "Death of Superman," that is so stark and pure in its poignance it will just mess you up.

Lars Danielsson, acoustic bass, cello, piano, guitar, samples, arr.; David Liebman, soprano saxophone; Nils Petter Molvaer, trumpet; Carsten Dahl, piano; Tobias Sjögren, guitar; Jon Christensen, drums, percussion; Xavier Desandre-Navarre, percussion; Anders Kjellberg, cymbals; Jan Bang, samples; Cëcilie Norby, vocals; DR Danish Radio Concert Orchestra, Frans Rasmussen, conductor
ACT 9800-2 (multichannel SACD/CD). 2004. Lars Danielsson, prod., eng.; Jan Erik Kongshaug, Peter Juul Kristensen, Lars Nilsson, Jonas Sandwall, Suzanne Desandre-Navarre, engs. DDD? TT: 64:18

One of the great things about "Records To Die For" is that the lunatics run the asylum. Writers are unsupervised, free to vent their most quixotic, peculiar obsessions. When I tell my editors I want to review records by unknown Swedish bass players recorded by six engineers in 5.1-channel SACD on obscure German labels, they roll their eyes. (I communicate with my editors by e-mail and phone, but I feel them rolling their eyes.) Libera Me is both rarefied musical discourse and ear candy of the highest order. Lars Danielsson's bass is a dark light of lyricism infiltrating deep, mysterious clouds of sound that seamlessly wrap all around the listener. I'm not crazy.


LAURIE ANDERSON: Life on a String
Nonesuch 79539-2 (CD). 2001. Laurie Anderson, Hal Willner, prods.; Martin Brumbach et al, engs.; Robert C. Ludwig, mastering. DDD. TT: 44:12

Saying that Life on a String is one of Laurie Anderson's most accessible works is kind of like saying that three of your car's four tires hold air—it's true, but not particularly relevant. As much literature as music, the album is full of stories and images that are sometimes perfectly in sync, and at others are challenging and strangely at odds with each other, inviting—no, forcing—the listener to assemble the pieces in his or her own way. The music is beautiful and haunting, and the production and sound serve it well. (XXIX-2)

Analogue Productions APP CCR7 (8 LPs, 45rpm). 1967–71/2004. Saul Zaentz, John Fogerty, Creedence, orig. prods.; Chad Kassem, reissue prod.; Kevin Gray, Steve Hoffman, remastering. AAA. TT: 101:31

This set of eight 45rpm LPs might be the most luxurious item I own, but it's a slice of nirvana. There's a disc of excerpts from each of the seven original CCR albums, and a bonus disc of alternate mixes. The sound is unbelievable, and the quality and packaging are just as wonderful. CCR's music and sound may be the definitive soundtrack for the late 1960s and early '70s, but just as aptly describe the American experience of today. Whether describing "the voice of rage and ruin" or hanging out "Down on the Corner," these songs are perfect.


Music by Bolcom, Satie, Schoenberg
Measha Brüggergosman, soprano; William Bolcom, piano; BBC Symphony Orchestra, David Robertson
Deutsche Grammophon 4776589 (CD). 2007. Sid McLaughlan, prod.; Neil Pemberton, Rainer Maillard, engs. DDD. TT: 60:22

With a striking stage presence and a voice of great natural beauty allied to a keen musical intelligence, the young Canadian soprano Measha Brüggergosman seems on the verge of joining the world of superstar divas. Her upcoming appearances include concerts at Carnegie Hall, the Barbican Centre, and the Concertgebouw, and she has been signed to an exclusive recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon. The repertoire on Surprise, her debut recording on this label (she made two earlier discs for CBC Records), consists of classical cabaret songs by Bolcom, Satie, and Schoenberg. Whatever the song, Measha (as she's known to her fans) has the ability to make it sound as if it's her song, not just something she's learned to sing. The Bolcom songs are a bit too angular for my taste, but I can't fault the singing. My favorites are the romantic songs by Satie—on "Je te veux," music, words, and singer come together gloriously. If you're like me, as soon as you've heard it you'll want to play it again.

THE DROWSY CHAPERONE: Original Broadway Cast
Music & Lyrics by Lisa Lambert & Greg Morrison
Phil Reno, conductor
Ghostlight 7915584411-2 (CD). 2006. Joel Moss, prod., eng.; Kurt Deutsch, prod. DDD. TT: 53:19

The concept is clever: a musical-theater fan—identified as "Man in Chair"—plays for us the cast album of his favorite 1930s musical, the fictitious The Drowsy Chaperone. As he does, the show comes to life on stage. The result—the real The Drowsy Chaperone—won five Tony Awards in 2006, including for its book and score. The show is delightful—and, at the end, surprisingly touching—and makes for a nearly complete experience on record. Man in Chair provides a suitably droll introduction for each number, in the process undercutting any possible criticism: "This one has a beautiful tune, but try to ignore the lyrics; they're not the best." Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison's unfailingly tuneful score resembles, more than anything else, one of Jerome Kern's Princess Theater musicals, such as Very Good Eddie, and it's performed with total commitment by a top-notch cast led by Bob Martin, co-author of the book, as Man in Chair. The sound is like one of those beloved Columbia cast albums of the 1960s: just right for this material.