2008 Records To Die For Page 9

DION: The Road I'm On: A Retrospective
Columbia/Legacy C2K 64889 (2 CDs). 1960s/1997. Robert Mersey, Tom Wilson, Scott Kempner, orig. prods.; Al Quaglieri, compilation prod.; Vic Anesini, mix. AAD. TT: 102:25

This is a two-CD distillation of Dion DiMucci's 1960s stint with Columbia Records, a period in which the early rock'n'roll superstar's career was largely sidelined by the tides of musical fashion, as well as the effects of his longstanding heroin addiction. The 35 tracks include a few token early-'60s hits and a pair of worthy if incongruous tracks from the '90s. But the real attraction is a wealth of material from the mid- to late '60s, much of it previously unreleased, that documents the artist's adoption of a personalized, deeply felt brand of bluesy folk-rock. The material encompasses Dion's own evocative compositions, covers of songs by Bob Dylan, Chuck Berry, Willie Dixon, Tom Paxton, and Woody Guthrie, and classic blues numbers, all sung with the same conviction and fluidity that made Dion America's greatest white soul singer.

THE GANTS: Road Runner! The Best of the Gants
Sundazed SC 11078 (CD). 1965–67/2000. Hurshel Wiginton, Dallas Smith, orig. prods.; Mike Stax, compilation prod.; Bob Irwin, mix, remastering. AAD. TT: 49:33

Greenwood, Mississippi's answer to the Fab Four, the Gants were the rare 1960s garage band to graduate to major-label status, cutting three LPs for Liberty Records between 1965 and 1967. Although they never scored a national hit, the quartet's distinctive sound and memorable songwriting set them apart from their garage-band contemporaries. Leader Sid Herring's compositions (eg, the Beatles-esque "My Baby Don't Care" and the out-there rocker "Smoke Rings") were inventive and heartfelt, and he sang them with grit and tenderness. Their covers were invariably interesting and often great; eg, a wah-wah–laced version of Johnny Burnette's "Little Boy Sad" and a raucous reading of Bo Diddley's "Roadrunner." Fittingly for a band that hailed from the cradle of the blues, the Gants played their modified Merseybeat with a raw rhythmic sensibility that added depth to their pop tunes. The haunting orchestral pop of Road Runner!'s closing track, "Greener Days," suggests the direction the band might have taken had it not split up soon after.


ELLY AMELING: The Artistry of Elly Ameling
Opera, oratorio, lieder by J.S. Bach, Brahms, Debussy, Ellington, Gershwin, Fauré, Hahn, Handel, Haydn, Kern, Porter, Satie, Schubert, Schumann, Vivaldi, Wolf, others
Elly Ameling, soprano; various pianists, ensembles, conductors, orchestras
Philips 473 451-2 (5 CDs). 1964–84/2003. Various prods., engs. ADD/DDD. TT: 395:55

I first learned of Dutch soprano Elly Ameling's foray into art song while browsing Tower Records in West Hollywood in the late 1960s. After overhearing one man tell another that her new Schubert LP was to die for, this youthful vocal queen grabbed a copy. Soon I was transported by Ameling's extraordinary radiance. At the time of her unanimous win at the 1956 's-Hertogenbosch International Vocalists' Competition, few sensed that Ameling would mature into one of her era's most brilliant and unmannered interpreters of art song. These five CDs, mostly recorded in her prime, offer priceless performances of some of the most beautiful vocal music ever written.

KATHLEEN FERRIER: Kathleen Ferrier Edition
Opera, oratorio, lieder by J.S. Bach, Brahms, Britten, Chausson, Gluck, Handel, Mahler, Mendelssohn, Pergolesi, Schubert, Schumann, others; folk songs
Kathleen Ferrier, contralto; various pianists, conductors, orchestras
Decca 475 6060 (10 CDs). 1946–53/1992. Various prods., engs. ADD. TT: 622:34

After snaring first prize at a regional singing competition she entered on a dare, it was not many years before contralto Kathleen Ferrier had been championed by the likes of John Barbirolli, Adrian Boult, and Malcolm Sargent. Soon Benjamin Britten and Lennox Berkeley had composed music for her, and Bruno Walter had found his ideal Mahler interpreter. Ferrier's voice had uncommon depth and color that made her singing, like that of Janet Baker and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, indescribably holy. Ferrier was only 41 when she succumbed to metastasized breast cancer, but her artistry remains unsurpassed for its poise, spiritual reverence, and gravitas. Decca's smaller two-CD set, Kathleen Ferrier: A Tribute, features 24-bit/96kHz remasterings of her core repertoire.

KATE ROYAL: Kate Royal
Music by Canteloube, Debussy, Delibes, Granados, Ravel, Rodrigo, R. Strauss, Stravinsky; folk songs
Kate Royal, soprano; Edward Gardner, Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields
EMI Classics 9463 94419 2 (CD). 2007. John Fraser, prod.; Arne Akselberg, eng.; Simon Kiln, ed. DDD. TT: 65:14

The UK's Kate Royal—slim, elegant, and under 30—is blessed with an extremely beautiful, womanly lyric soprano that conveys an aura of unpretentious aristocracy. Not since Arleen Augér's Love Songs recital have I encountered modern singing infused with such sincerity and wisdom. Performing three favorites from Canteloube's irresistible Songs of the Auvergne, Royal delivers a "Baãläro" to rival the best, and the most heart-stopping "La delaãssádo" (The Forsaken Girl) I can recall. No one at RMAF 2007 could resist her gorgeous rendition of the folk song "The Sprig of Thyme," and nothing short of the apocalypse will prevent me from attending Royal's debut recital in Berkeley in April.


Capitol CDP 7 93559 2 (CD). 1991. Mitchell Froom, Neil Finn, prods.; Tchad Blake, Max Garcia, eng. ADD. TT: 48:13

These New Zealanders have made a stack of tasty albums over the years, but never has the band resonated as soundly as on this, their third. Frontman Neil Finn cowrote a batch of the songs, including "Four Seasons in One Day" and "It's Only Natural," with brother and sometime-bandmate Tim, and what lush, dare I say, Beatles-esque songs they are. Drop-dead-gorgeous layered harmonies abound. Even at their most poppy, the lyrics are pointed (in "Chocolate Cake," they invoke Andrew Lloyd Webber, Liberace, and Americans' insatiable appetites), and the boys never compromise their meticulous songcraft. And please don't hold it against them that Jimmy Buffett chose one of Woodface's gems, "Weather With You," as the title song of his chart-topping 2006 CD.

THE KINKS: Muswell Hillbillies
Konk/Velvel 63467-79719-2 (CD). 1971/1998. Raymond Douglas Davies, prod.; Mike Bobak, eng.; Richard Edwards, eng. (bonus tracks). AAD? TT: 51:45

Somewhere in the early 1970s, when even their hit "Lola" couldn't curry them popular favor for long, Ray Davies and company dropped one of their most charming, witty LPs ever. Thirty-six years later, the sentiments of such songs as "20th Century Man"—in which the singer bemoans the "aggravation" and "insanity" of modern times—ring loud and clear. But musically, Davies is no Luddite. A keen observer of the world around him, he longs for less excessive times, and when, in "Complicated Life," he sings "You gotta slow down your life or you're gonna be dead," the sentiment is timeless. And the boozy delivery of "Alcohol" makes me smile every time, despite the seriousness of the message that too much work will drive you to drink. Speaking of drinking, the bouncy "Have a Cuppa Tea," about his beloved grandma, still pokes a bit of fun at this timeworn British custom and winds up with the punchline, "For Christ's sake, have a cuppa tea." Real people are all over Muswell Hillbillies, and they're as real and relevant today as when Davies introduced them to us, back when a guy named Nixon inhabited the White House.


DR. JOHN: Babylon
WOV 270 (CD). 1968/2002. Mac Rebennack, Harold Batiste, prods.; Soulful Pete, eng. AAD? TT: 38:01

Dr. John's apparently sudden post-Katrina radicalization has taken some people by surprise, but not those fans familiar with his second album, Babylon. The title track, with its apocalyptic description of a world gone off the rails, fit the zeitgeist of late-1960s rock, but Mac wasn't just flipping the bird at "The Patriotic Flag Waver," he was describing life in a psychedelic hell epitomized by the title track and "Twilight Zone." Nor did Mac find any solace in the Woodstock generation, as he skewered acid-rock guitar on "Lonesome Guitar Strangler," even as he used it to showcase his own string-bending prowess. Through it all, the otherworldly arrangements have a strange beauty, as on the eerie ballad "Glowin'."

Rounder 3010 (CD). 1976/1992. John Nagy, prod., eng.; Tom Foley, asst. eng. AAD? TT: 40:07

Devendra Banhart and Cat Power have recently made folksinger Michael Hurley a household name, but anyone who's heard his 1975 collaboration with Peter Stampfel and the Holy Modal Rounders and Jeffrey Fredericks and the Clamtones knows that Hurley is one of the greatest songwriters of any era. "Sweet Lucy," Hurley's surreal invocation of the erotic and destructive power of Bacchus, and the communal-meal blues of "Slurf Song," present him at his proto-Americana best, while Fredericks conjures his own take on alternate reality with "What Made My Hamburger Disappear?" Stampfel's combination of speed-freak blues and old-timey back-porch mountain music is showcased on the hilarious "Midnight in Paris," with its insane banjo frailing, and one of the best songs his longtime writing partner, Antonia, ever wrote: "Griselda."