2013 Records To Die For Page 6



Horacee Arnold: Tales of the Exonerated Flea
Horacee Arnold, drums; Art Webb, flute; Sonny Fortune, saxophone; John Abercrombie, Ralph Towner, guitar; Jan Hammer, keyboards; David Friedman, vibes; Clint Houston, Rick Laird, George Mraz, bass; Dom Um Romao, percussion
Columbia KC 32869 (LP; 2 CD reissues also available). 1974. Horacee Arnold, prod.; Buddy Graham, Frank Laico, Stan Tonkel, engs. AAA. TT: 44:43

I was a jazz-rock fanatic in the 1970s; for me, the genre was the gateway to study other forms of jazz. Today, much of what I listened to then sounds dated and clichéd, with the notable exceptions of the entire Weather Report catalog and this, the second album by composer-drummer Horacee Arnold. Here Arnold layers his angular modal melodies over a bedrock of churning, syncopated, Latin-tinged rhythms. It sounds as fresh today as it did in 1974. Now check out who's in the band.


Mercury Living Presence: The Collector's Edition
Mercury Living Presence/Decca 001653302 (51 CDs). 1951–2009/2012. Wilma Cozart Fine, prod.; Robert Fine, eng. ADD. TT: 57:11:03

Decca has released a boxed set of 51 CDs comprising the "heart" of Mercury Living Presence's orchestral catalog. It includes all of the Mercury recordings made by Antál Dorati, János Starker, Gina Bachauer, Byron Janis, and Henryk Szeryng, as well as an interview with producer Wilma Cozart Fine and a 64-page glossy booklet about the artists and the label's history. The street price is around $100, and as most of the CDs include the material of two original Mercury LPs, that comes to about a buck a record. As I listened through several of these CDs, I noted that the top two octaves had more air and delicacy than the CDs Mercury released in the early 1990s: same Wilma Cozart Fine remastering, different pressing plant (this one is in Germany). So I compared the recording of my favorite Mercury, of Dorati leading the London Symphony in a reading of Stravinsky's The Firebird, to the vinyl, of which I have multiple copies of the original pressing and most of the reissues. I thought my "FR-1" original pressing had slightly more relaxed high frequencies in the highly modulated passages, but that the new CD had much wider dynamic range, and tighter, deeper bass. Overall, I prefer the sound of the new CD. And here comes Fremer with a straitjacket . . .



Adams: Harmonielehre, Short Ride in a Fast Machine
Michael Tilson Thomas, San Francisco Symphony
SFSmedia SFS 0053 (SACD/CD). 2012. Jack Vad, prod. DDD. TT: 47:09

John Adams's spacious symphonic work Harmonielehre was written in the mid-1980s, and was premiered by the SFSO under Edo de Waart in 1985. Short Ride in a Fast Machine was premiered by the SFSO, under Tilson Thomas, the following year. The orchestra seems to own these pieces, and that's all to the good—their commitment and virtuosity make this a triumphant recording. Adams's motoric motifs underlie the drama of Harmonielehre and, of course, drive Fast Machine. I have not been an easy sell for the minimalists, but Tilson Thomas has closed the deal by making both pieces vastly entertaining.

The sound is of the SFSO at home in Davies Auditorium, presented with clarity and impact. Add this to their other American Mavericks releases—of music by Ives-Brant and Copland (SFS 0038), and of Cowell, Harrison, and Varèse (SFS 0056)—and Tilson Thomas/SFSO's series of 20th-century musical monuments is becoming an apt and worthy successor to their magnificent Mahler cycle.


Saint-Saëns: élan: Ballet Music from Operas
Excerpts from Ascanio, Les Barbares, Etienne Marcel, Henry VIII
Guillaume Tourniaire, Orchestra Victoria
Melba MR 301130 (SACD/CD). 2011. Maria Vandamme, Phil Rowlands, prods.; Richard Girvan, Alex Stinson, engs. DDD. TT: 73:04

Where has this music been all my life? Along with symphonies, it was ballet music that made me a music lover and audiophile—I was particularly seduced by the sparkle, color, and drama of dance scores by Delibes and Tchaikovsky. I knew Saint-Saëns from his symphonies, concertos, and Danse macabre, but his operas, aside from Samson et Dalila and its Bacchanale, eluded me—how could I know of such delicacies as these delightful and piquantly orchestral dances? The two short but charming excerpts from Henry VIII aside, these are all premiere recordings of excerpts from now-obscure operas, so it will all be as new to you as it was to me.

Tourniaire and the Orchestra Victoria turn in stylish and inflected performances, and Melba, a label with long experience in multichannel SACD, deliver it all on a big soundstage with great depth and an amiable tonal balance. This one belongs on your shelf next to that pristine pressing of Richard Bonynge's recording of Minkus-Lanchberry's La Bayadère (Decca).



James Luther Dickinson and North Mississippi Allstars: I'm Just Dead I'm Not Gone
Merless/Memphis International 228 (CD, download). David Less, prod.; Kevin Houston, eng., mix; Brad Blackwood, mastering. ADD? TT: 42:44

Listening to I'm Just Dead I'm Not Gone, I'm reminded of the studio work Johnny Cash did with Rick Rubin near the end of his life. Dickinson's fiery baritone is evocative, his ear for material finely tuned, and the production skills impeccable on this tour of arcane music of the 20th century: Sleepy John Estes's "Ax Sweet Mama," Mack Rice's "Money Talks," Buffy St. Marie's harrowing "Codine," J.B. Lenoir's "Down in Mississippi," Bob Frank's "Red Neck, Blue Collar," and many more. Chris Chew and Cody Dickinson are rhythmically in lock-step, and Luther Dickinson does the rest. (XXXV-10)


Tom Russell: Blood and Candle Smoke
Proper PRPCD 049 (CD). 2009. Tom Russell, Jeff Palo, Barry Walsh, prods.; Craig Schumacher, prod., mix. AAD? TT: 60:38

Mighty rivers. Exotic locales. Expatriates. Criminal acts. Mad love and jealousy. Tom Russell's stories—of Apache teens on a dangerous joyride, the 1811 earthquake that made the Mississippi run backward, the death of a mining community to black-lung disease, a hookup in San Crist¢bal with Hank Williams and Nina Simone, a criminologist doubling as a folksinger in Nigeria, 1960s survivors caught somewhere east of Woodstock and west of Vietnam—resonate with historical characters, life and death, and the spirit of a twisted, confused America, and have never been more evocative over the course of an entire album than here.



Kathleen Ferrier: Centenary Edition: The Complete Decca Recordings
Music of Bach, Brahms, Britten, Chausson, Ferguson, Gluck, Handel, Mahler, Parry, Purcell, Rubbra, Schubert, Schumann, Stanford, Vaughan Williams, Wolf, Wordsworth, others
Kathleen Ferrier, contralto; various conductors & pianists, including Barbirolli, Boult, Britten, Klemperer, Krauss, Newmark, Sargent, Spurr, Stiedry, Van Beinum, Walter
Decca 478 3589 DC14 (14 mono CDs, 1 DVD). 2012. Philip Siney, remastering, assisted by Finesplice, Ian Watson, Jenni Whiteside. ADD. TT: 14:40:35

In the lineage of great contraltos and mezzo-sopranos, British contralto Kathleen Ferrier (1912–1953) stands out for recordings best described as "spiritual," "hallowed," and "holy." Ferrier quickly became a favorite of Bruno Walter, who used her to spearhead the mid-century Mahler revival; and of Benjamin Britten, who composed The Rape of Lucretia for her pitiable tones. Her ability to tap into universal reservoirs of pain and longing, and to speak from her heart to ours with a voice of unforgettable beauty and emotional resonance, remain unrivaled 60 years after her death. Often intentionally recorded up close, to bring out every luscious element of her warm voice, the tracks on this expertly remastered set comprise all of her Decca recordings, including Mahler's unforgettable Das Lied von der Erde.


Elisabeth Schumann: Silver Thread of Song
Songs and arias by Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, R. Strauss, Wolf, others
Elisabeth Schumann, soprano; various pianists, conductors
EMI Classics ICON 9 18480 2 (6 mono CDs). 2011. Tony Locantro, compilation prod. ADD. TT: 7:26:59

Revered for her Mozart and Schubert and adored by Richard Strauss, who toured the US accompanying her and begged her (unsuccessfully) to sing the title role of Salome, lyric soprano Elisabeth Schumann (1888–1952) possessed, at the top of her range, a virtually indescribable sweetness that glowed like golden light. She used her idiosyncratic voice as one would a violin, caressing phrases, altering vibrato, and plumbing words and sounds for the heart beneath them. Schumann's joy, charm, unpretentious honesty, brilliant insight, and seemingly spontaneous expression remain unequaled. This bargain set may lack lyrics and translations, but it compensates with a host of priceless tracks never before available on CD.



Yellowbirds: The Color
The Royal Potato Family RPF 1102 (LP/CD). 2011. Sam Cohen, prod.; Travis Harrison, eng. ADA/ADD. TT: 31:46

Cutting his teeth in Apollo Sunshine, a critically acclaimed indie band based in Boston, Sam Cohen, the brain behind Yellowbirds, stepped into the spotlight for The Color, an album of bewitchingly catchy and sublime melodies that transcend time, sounding mightily contemporary while harking back to the lushness of great bands from the Beatles to Crowded House. Cohen writes tight, irresistible melodies that get more delicious with each listen. The lovely opening, "The Rest of My Life," sounds like a distant cousin of something from Surf's Up, and the title track reminded a smitten friend of the young Leonard Cohen. Many of the basic sessions for The Color were recorded in just two days and several tracks were done entirely at home, adding to the back-porch feel of these songs, which are simultaneously intimate and cinematic. To say that The Color, barely half an hour long, is my favorite album of the past two years would be an understatement.


Young@Heart Chorus: Now
youngatheartchorus.com, UPC 700261364421 (CD). 2012. Ken Maiuri, Bob Cilman, prods.; Mark Alan Miller, Jeff Lipton, engs. DDD. TT: 51:26

Late last year, the Young@Heart Chorus played three concerts at the stately Academy of Music theater in their hometown of Northampton, Massachusetts. To put it mildly, this aggregation of nearly 30 singers—all 73 years old or older, many well into their 80s—and their much-younger band left me feeling more up and, yes, happy than any concert in recent memory. Not necessarily journeyman performers by trade, the Y@H singers are full of life and enthusiasm at a time when many of their friends, if they're fortunate enough, are passing their days in rocking chairs.

On Now, which includes full-bodied studio versions of many of the songs from those live performances, singer Helen Boston sings "I'm an old woman," the line that begins "Angel from Montgomery," and turns it into a goose-bump moment that songwriter John Prine could never have fully anticipated. The obscure Tom Waits gem "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" gets a complete facelift from singer Gordon Tripp and the Chorus's slightly ironic but hardly gloomy reading. The selection of material is stellar and oh so smart, including songs by Mose Allison, Peter Wolf, Nick Lowe, Neil Young, David Byrne, and Arcade Fire (!). Sung by Y@H, these wonderful songs are reinvented, sometimes bittersweetly, sometimes downright jubilantly—and in each case, new life is breathed into them. Y@H have toured the world, made an acclaimed full-length movie, and have had the Rhino imprint grace Mostly Live (2008). Now may be unusual and an acquired taste, but at its heart it's musically miraculous.



Little Richard: Here's Little Richard
Concord 7233840 (CD). 1957/2006. Art Rupe, Kevin Howlett, prods.; Cosimo Matassa, eng. AAD? TT: 44:46

Rock'n'roll was invented in New Orleans, and this is one of the records that proves it. No marquee performer in the first wave of rock'n'roll stars was more exciting than Richard Penniman. But he was a bust until Specialty Records boss Art Rupe decided to cut him in New Orleans with the Earl Palmer/Lee Allen/Red Tyler gang, at Cosimo Matassa's J&M studio. Even that wasn't working until Richard took a break and hit the Dew Drop Inn, where he played his wild sex romp "Tutti Frutti! Good Booty!" just for kicks. This became the tune that launched Richard's career, and this set shows how, in his best work, the formula was copied over and over.


The Who: A Quick One
MCA 11267 (CD). 1966/1995. Kit Lambert, prod. AAD? TT: 56:32

The discrepancy between the different versions of the Who's second album, released in the UK as A Quick One and in the US as Happy Jack after that song became a Top 40 hit, was resolved in this reissue, which includes all the songs from both albums (plus extras), and shows all facets of the band: the balance of savage twang and ethereal beauty in Pete Townshend's songwriting for the "mini-opera" "A Quick One While He's Away"; the macabre wit of John Entwistle's "Boris the Spider" and "Whiskey Man"; Keith Moon's surf-music obsession reflected in covers of "Barbara Ann" and "Bucket T"; and the extraordinary vocal harmonies created by the combination of lead singer Roger Daltrey's tenor with Townshend's soprano and Entwistle's baritone.

dalethorn's picture

When I first saw this post I had a thought - what if I weren't familiar with Stereophile and just found this on the Web by chance? It's like finding money and not having to pay taxes on it, or finding love and not having to stay home at night.

Edit: Ordered the Saint-Saens. Now who would have dreamed in 1959 that someone would be ordering this to rip to WAV/FLAC tracks to play on a USB DAC in 2013?

volvic's picture

Kudos to Fred Mills for chosing Grime's Visions album as one of his 2013's records to die for.  A fantastic album and group.  


Not Scroggins's picture

I love the idea of posting your favorite albums and musicians. It's a great way to find music I wouldn't have seen or heard any other way. 

If you were to post links to the albums being presented that would be an amazing help for us. Instead, copy and pasting and then trying to find the artist on a site that can then be played on my mobile device is tedious and deters me from wanting to continue. 

I read your articles online and in print. When I have free time when I'm away from home I love to glance at your site and see what's new. Please help us expand our musical understanding and knowledge!

Ariel Bitran's picture

hi not,

thanks for your suggestion.

a link to which source would be helpful for you?



or were you thinking something totally different?


dalethorn's picture

Saint-Saens with Munch/Boston Symphony arrived today - an RCA Victor "Living Stereo" CD. Recorded in 1959, it was apparently one of the first true stereo recordings to enjoy widespread distribution on Long Playing (LP) records. There's a detailed description of the planning process for this recording in the liner notes, and given what we know about stereo recording today, it's an informative and entertaining read. The digital restoration was apparently done circa 1993, which I presume would allow the newer and better analog-to-digital converters to be used for the final master.

I use headphones only, but I imagine from what I've heard in four playings today, this would sound really great on a high end loudspeaker system. I started with the ATH ESW11 and thought the stereo image wasn't good, at least at the beginning. Switched to the new Soundmagic HP200 and it didn't get any better, and the sound was strident in places. Then for the third try, Earpods with Dirac music player. Heavenly - real depth - it sounded like I was there. Lastly a spin with the Sennheiser IE800 - better yet.

I wouldn't necessarily recommend this recording on most mid-fi gear, since I think the sound (massed violins especially) can get a little hard or steely in places. It might play better on a valve/tube amplifier, but even on low-budget solid state gear the Dirac/Earpods and IE800 make it sound real. Highly recommended.