2011 Records To Die For Page 5


BARBER: Violin Concerto
HANSON: Symphony 2, "Romantic"

Elmar Oliveira, violin; Leonard Slatkin, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
EMI CDC 7 47850 2 (CD). 1987. Marc Aubort, Joanna Nickrenz, prods.; Elite Recordings, engs. DDD. TT: 54:48

Hanson's "Romantic" symphony was commissioned for the Boston Symphony's 50th anniversary, in 1930. It achieved widespread popularity for a time, but then its fortunes waned, perhaps because its "modernity" began to sound dated, or because its openhearted accessibility worked against it. Perhaps, too, the fact that the producers of the film Alien used (reportedly without permission) an excerpt as closing-credits music might have made orchestral repertoire committees avoid programming the symphony. Which is a shame, as it is a lovely work in the Sibelius mold. The St. Louis Symphony's top-tier execution and silky-smooth sound should not be missed. The real attraction here, however, is violinist Elmar Oliveira's noble, passionate, classically proportioned performance of the Barber concerto, which easily withstands comparison to any other. This disc is out of print, but both performances are available in budget reissues, coupled with different works. (X-4)

Astor Piazzolla, bandoneón; Fernando Suarez Paz, violin; Horacio Malvicino, guitar; Pablo Ziegler, piano; Hector Console, bass
Messidor 15970 (CD). 1987. Götz A. Wörner, prod.; Gregor Hornacek, eng. DDD. TT: 46:59

The bandoneón, a member of the concertina family, was developed in Germany for the chordal accompaniment of hymn singing, and as a solo instrument presents several difficulties: the left and right buttonboards are different, and each button plays one note on the push and another on the pull. Astor Piazzolla (1921–1992) used the bandoneón to drag the tango—sometimes kicking and screaming—into the 20th century. He was uniquely suited to the task, having studied composition under fellow Argentinean Alberto Ginastera, as well as with Nadia Boulanger, in Paris. This exceptional live recording, made in Vienna by Austrian Broadcasting, documents Piazzolla and his second quintet at the height of their powers. The title track is a master class in improvisation, while the encore, "Tangata," crackles with electricity. Now out of print, and used copies don't go for peanuts—but they're very much worth it. (There's a studio album with the same title on the Personality label, but this live recording is the one you want.)


Preservation PRE030 (CD). 2010. Sophie Hutchings, prod.; Tony Dupe, Tim Whitten, prods., engs.; Roger Seibel, eng. ADD? TT: 43:44

With this enchanting debut, young Australian composer Sophie Hutchings offers a collection of exquisite piano pieces that soothe as much as they stir. "Seventeen," named for the age at which Hutchings composed the piece, is 11 minutes of sweetness and stress. It opens as delicately as a dream, with sparse notes played softly, almost cautiously, until, somewhere around the four-minute mark, Hutchings begins to weave florid rings around herself and instrument and listener, building, through repetition and volume and speed, a sort of delirious tension that's almost too much to bear. When it ends with a gentle, steady run up the keys, we are spent. And beg for more.

WYATT/ATZMON/STEPHEN: For the Ghosts Within
Domino DNO271 (LP). 2010. Gilad Atzmon, prod.; Robert Wyatt, Jamie Johnson, engs. ADD? TT: 56:13

From the very start, as it shudders and quakes with the sort of alarming string arrangement you might hear in the soundtrack to an old black-and-white romance, For the Ghosts Within announces itself as a heavy, bittersweet treat. This unapologetically melodramatic stuff is syrupy with Ros Stephen's soaring string arrangements, Gilad Atzmon's honeyed clarinet and alto sax, and Robert Wyatt's strange, ethereal voice, all quivering and aching like fall's golden leaves on thin tree branches. Listen, for instance, as Wyatt's voice rises with the violins and clarinet, holding on to his words ("you were there . . . for me . . . in the air . . .") as if they were the tail ends of dreams, until he no longer can and lets them fall ("long before the day that I was born"), as if each syllable were a step back down to earth. It's crazy. You can't help but smile even as the tears trickle down your trembling cheeks. XXXIV-3)


Nonesuch 24055 (CD). 2010. Laurie Anderson, prod., eng.; Lou Reed, Roma Baran, prods.; Pat Dillett, Mario McNulty, Marc Urselli, engs. DDD. TT: 66:22

It's said that one waits half an hour for a London omnibus, whereupon three come along at once. After I'd scanned the new-release lists fruitlessly for months, new CDs by three of my favorite artists appeared simultaneously. I didn't even reach the end of the Chemical Brothers' newie; I spun Arcade Fire's Suburbs a couple of times before acknowledging yet again that this fine band, much like the Grateful Dead in its pomp, is much better in concert than on record.

Then I played Laurie Anderson's Homeland. Then I played it again. And again. Several weeks later, it has rarely left my CD player. I even found time to watch the accompanying explanatory DVD (itself worth the package price), and given Homeland's outstanding sound quality, was surprised to discover that Pro Tools was used extensively to stitch together fragments of live recordings with others created in the studio. The resulting collage works exceptionally well: very recognizably Laurie Anderson and, in my view, her masterwork. Homeland's music and lyrics are often startlingly original: "The reason I really love the stars is that we cannot hunt them." This is unusually intelligent music.

LOWELL GEORGE: Thanks I'll Eat It Here
Warner Bros. 3194-2 (CD). 1979/1993. Lowell George, prod.; George Massenberg, Donn Landee, Ray Thompson, engs. AAD. TT: 33:47

A short but utterly delightful epitaph to a great rock'n'roller, who sadly died soon after this recording was completed in 1979. The band George had founded, Little Feat, was breaking up, because George wanted to keep on rocking while the other members were moving toward jazz, but this one and only solo outing finds him in a reflective, laid-back mood. With a huge roster of helpers that includes many of the great and the good of the West Coast music scene, and an eclectic mixture of songs, half of them by other writers, Thanks I'll Eat It Here is a powerful reminder that George sang as well as he wrote. I just hope the current CD transfer sounds as good as my vinyl original.


Water/Runt WATER242 (CD). 2010. Sandy Pearlman, prod.; Paul Mandl, Ken Huntcovsky, Eric Van Soest, engs. AAD. TT: 77:21

For this celebrated Amerindie outfit's sophomore release, the bloom was more than just off the rose; some critics had squirted weed poison at the whole damn bush, decrying the '84 LP as a big-budget, glossily produced—courtesy Blue Öyster Cult majordomo Sandy Pearlman—sellout compared to 1982's The Days of Wine and Roses. Time, though, and a stunningly remastered 2010 reissue that includes as a bonus a smoking live FM broadcast, also from 1984, has vindicated the maligned Medicine Show. All the elements that made yours truly a devotee back in the day are recast in vivid sonic terms, from the reverb-rich ambiance and arena-worthy Big Guitars to songwriter Steve Wynn's noirish lyric character studies and a subversive punk vibe that hints at how the underground would go aboveground a few years later.

Reprise 517-462 (4 CDs). 2009. Tom Petty, Mike Campbell, prods.; Ryan Ulyate, prod., eng. AAD? TT: 4:48:09

It may be a stretch to call a box containing five CDs, two DVDs, a Blu-ray disc, and a mini-LP a "record," but for a diehard Petty fan it's definitely "to die for." Having seen the Heartbreakers roughly once every five years since the early 1980s, and knowing that concerts are where this band and their songs really achieve lift-off, I reckon this deluxe edition (it comes in multiple configurations, including this 4-CD edition), spanning 1978–2007, is as pure a distillation of Petty & Co. as they come. Lost nuggets and choice covers rub elbows with stone classics, all mixed with such extreme empathy as to conjure the aural illusion of a continuous, 62-song, five-hour show. And that's just the CDs . . .


AREA: Caution Radiation Area
Demetrio Stratos, vocals, organ, clavicembalo, steel drums, percussion; Patrizio Fariselli, electric piano, piano, clarinet, synthesizer; Ares Tavolazzi, bass, trombone; Giampaolo Tofani, guitar, synthesizer, flute; Giulio Capiozzo, drums, percussion
Cramps CRSCP 5102 (Italian LP). 1974. Area, prods.; Piero Bravin, Ambrogio Ferrario, engs. AAA. TT: 32:29

Although I was a big fan of 1970s jazz-rock fusion, most of the stuff I listened to then sounds clichéd today. Not so Area, an Italian "International Popular Group." This, their second, was the best of the six albums they released in the '70s before the death of their founder and lead singer, Demetrio Stratos. Here are Area's usual frenetic improvisations, angular melodies, and odd time signatures. But you'll also find a tremendous use of space and dynamic swells, an enticing blend of acoustic and electronic instruments, and unusual textures from primitive synthesizers. Best of all is Stratos' dramatic vocalization of his political lyrics, in an operatic tenor that recalls, to me, a blend of Sergio Franchi and Greg Lake.

CRUMB: Music for a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos III)
Gilbert Kalish, James Freeman, pianos; Raymond Des Roches, Richard Fitz, percussion
Nonesuch H-71311 (LP). 1975. Teresa Stearne, prod.; Marc Aubort, Joanna Nickrenz, engs. AAA. TT: 40:19

The five-movement Music for a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos III), for two amplified pianos (not for distortion, according to Crumb, but to give a piano the dynamic range of a full orchestra) and two percussionists, features all of the trademarks of Crumb's best chamber works: space and ambience, shocking transients, unusual textures, and infectious melodic earworms. In addition to traditional percussion (marimbas, gongs, bass drums), Des Roches and Fitz run the full gamut of the percussion instruments Crumb favored (bowed cymbals, the jawbone of an ass). Although every one of the recordings Teresa Sterne produced for Nonesuch in the 1970s features chillingly spectacular sound (I own them all), this one has the widest dynamic range. If I could convince someone like Analogue Productions' Chad Kassem to reissue this on virgin vinyl, I'd place an order in a heartbeat for several dozen copies. (Also available, paired with Crumb's Ancient Voices of Children, on CD: Nonesuch 79149.)