Records 2 Live 4 2023 Page 2

John Atkinson


Brahms: Piano Concerto No.1; Four Ballades & Piano Concerto No.2; Handel Variations
Royal Northern Sinfonia. Lars Vogt, piano, cond.
Ondine ODE 1330-2 & ODE 1346-2 (CDs; 24/48 FLAC, Qobuz). 2019 & 2020. Jochen Hubmacher, Reijo Kiilunen, Susann El Kassar, exec. prod.; Julian Schwenkner, Richard Halling (Concerto Nos.1 & 2), eng., Michael Morawietz (Ballades, Handel Variations), eng.

I first encountered German pianist Lars Vogt in the complete set of Brahms piano trios with violinist Christian Tetzlaff and cellist Tanja Tetzlaff (Ondine ODE 1271-2D), which I nominated as one of my 2017 Records to Die For. I subsequently fell in love with Vogt's and Christian Tetzlaff's performance of the Brahms violin sonatas (Ondine ODE1284-2), so I was devastated to learn of the pianist's death on September 5, 2022, from cancer. He was only 51. My first 2023 R2D4 choice is therefore Vogt's monumental performances of the two Brahms Piano Concertos with the UK's Royal Northern Sinfonia, which have been in heavy rotation the past two years. Not only was Vogt the soloist, he also conducted the orchestra from the piano, which allowed him to impart his own vision of the works in a rhapsodic interpretation—he even disregards the composer's own tempo markings at times. The result is new life breathed into these often-recorded masterworks.

The sound of the piano is clean and clear, with excellent low-frequency weight, though its presentation in the second concerto is a little larger than life compared with the orchestral image.


10cc: Sheet Music
UK Records UKAL 1007 (UK LP, 1974; 16/44.1 FLAC, Tidal). Lol Creme, Kevin Godley, Graham Gouldman, Eric Stewart, prod., Eric Stewart, eng.

I was familiar with bass player Graham Gouldman—he wrote the hits "For Your Love" for The Yardbirds and "Bus Stop" for The Hollies—and with guitarist Eric Stewart, who was a member of 1960s pop group Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders. But British band 10cc, based in Manchester, was new to me when I bought their Sheet Music LP. Released in 1974, this great-sounding album was an explosion of creativity, which was perhaps to be expected given that, along with Gouldman and Stewart, 10cc's other members, Lol Creme and Kevin Godley, were also multi-instrumentalists, composers, and producers. People are probably most familiar with the album's hit singles, "The Wall Street Shuffle" and "Silly Love." The track that has stayed in my mind all these years is "The Old Wild Men," a plaintive paean honoring aging musicians. A half-century ago, I was playing bass guitar on sessions at Abbey Road and Sawmills studios as well as touring and playing radio and TV dates with rock bands. My last live gig was in 2015, and although I never regretted abandoning my fulltime music career to become a hi-fi writer and magazine editor, deep inside I am still one of the "old men of rock and roll [who] came bearing music," in the words of the song's second verse (footnote 2).

Jim Austin


The Buzzcocks: A Different Kind of Tension
I.R.S. SP009 (LP). 1979. Martin Rushent, prod., eng.; Martin Hannett, prod.

Jon Iverson beat me to this one by a full 20 years, listing it as an R2D4 in 2003. That's okay; people can use a reminder of how good this record is. Besides, he recommended the CD; I listen to an original LP, which makes me special.

With the perspective of a guy who, at 58, is no longer a young punk—not that I was ever one to stick safety pins through my cheeks—I acknowledge that this music can seem overly cerebral; "I Believe" features this repeated lyric: There Is. No. Love. In. This. World. A-ny-moooore!; then, in that same song, Everything is / And that is why it is/Will be the line. Lyrically, it shares more with Nick Cave than, say, Fear (Beef! Beef! Beef! / Beef baloney!) or the Sex Pistols. Yet, in contrast to bands with similar pretentions (New Wave band The Fixx comes to mind), the Buzzcocks pull it off, with a properly nihilistic view and a sound to match.

I love every song on this record, but my favorite bit is in "Mad Mad Judy": She wanted something she / Never got but don't know what it is? / Well does she; does she know? Then, after some indistinct (but decipherable) muttering, I've got all the answers!

44 years later, I still get goosebumps. Nihilism doesn't get much more enlivening.


John Prine: Tree of Forgiveness
Oh Boy Records OBR-046 (LP). 2018. Matt Ross-Spang, eng.; Dave Cobb, prod.

This is not John Prine's best album. What it is, is his last album, and it plays like a lifetime retrospective, with an obvious fatalism offset by Prine's usual edgy wit. Even the cover is intriguing: a gatefold with a brilliant, very human portrait on the front and another inside superimposed on an image of tree rings. Opposite the interior portrait are photographs with intriguing juxtapositions: Prine playing guitar next to an overexposed foil fake Christmas tree; dipping a chess piece (the queen) into a glass of whiskey; a handful of pocket change in front of a shiny Cadillac. The lyrics have their own juxtapositions (jokes about statue penises in a song called "Lonesome Friends of Science"?). Mainly though, the album is full of presumably autobiographical scenes from a life richly lived. For pure, unpretentious feeling, I'll take the simple "I Have Met My Love Today" over any country anthem I've heard in the last 20 years.

Though it can be fatalistic ("When you're dead, you're a dead peckerhead," it concludes), for me it plays mainly as a commitment to faith and values so many of us share. In "When I Get to Heaven," Prine tells us just what he plans to do on that occasion—which, he seems to have accepted, will happen soon. First, he'll take off his watch (because "what are you gonna do with time after you've bought the farm?"). Then he'll go find his mom and dad and his good-ole brother Doug, then he'll give his aunts a hug. (Just try listening without tearing up.) He's gonna have a cocktail (vodka and ginger ale), smoke a nine-mile cigarette, and kiss that pretty girl on the tilt-a-whirl. Sign me up.

Robert Baird


Mavis Staples, Levon Helm: Carry Me Home
Anti 87859 1 (LP). 2022. Larry Campbell, prod.; Justin Guip, Brendan McDonough, engs.

Among the rarest of musical flowers—a drummer with a fine lead-singer voice—Levon Helm, who once backed Bob Dylan along with his talented cohorts in The Band, rallied from a late-'90s bout with cancer to resume playing in the Midnight Rambles, held in his barn in Woodstock, New York. The shows were built around guests, and this appearance by another American musical treasure, Mavis Staples, is a keeper. Wisely tilted toward Staples's strengths, the setlist has gospel ("Farther Along"), blues ("Trouble in My Mind"), protest ("This Is My Country"), and even a Band hit ("The Weight"). As live sets go, this one has a natural presence, wide dynamic range, and a beautiful balance between vocals, the 17-piece band, and the enthusiastic audience.


Dr. John: Things Happen That Way
Rounder Records 1166101699 (LP). 2022. Malcolm John Rebennack Jr., Shane Theriot, Lukas Nelson, prods.; Misha Kachkachishvili, Jack Miele, engs.

Mac Rebennack, aka Dr. John, was a New Orleans original. Equally skillful as a guitarist and a pianist, Mac could also write memorable songs and produce solid records by others. In the '70s, he infused his love of Crescent City voodoo lore into a saleable musical personality known as The Night Tripper. Given the many miles and travails of his long career, it's fitting that on his final studio recording, Mac would fashion a sinner's requiem of sorts out of "Gimme That Old Time Religion" in a duet with Willie Nelson, another venerable American music legend. Nelson's "Funny How Times Slips Away" is the opener. A mix focused on Mac's voice and the production smarts of Shane Theriot make this a swan song for the ages.

Rogier van Bakel


Me'shell NdegéOcello: Peace Beyond Passion
Maverick 9-46033-2 (CD). 1996. David Gamson, prod.; Rail Jon Rogut, David Gamson, Charles Nasser, Mike Krowiak, engs.

NdegéOcello's most tortured album is suffused with earnestness and a yearning for clarity and peace. Her songs tackle poverty, domestic abuse, racism, and the tension between her religious convictions and her bisexual attractions. It's heavy stuff, but heavier still are the unbelievable beats. An electric bass player—in both senses of the word—NdegéOcello is the equal of luminaries like Victor Wooten and Marcus Miller, except she doesn't rub listeners' noses in her virtuosity. Everything she does is in the service of the groove. Peace Beyond Passion is an R'n'B and funk record, and yet, to quote David Byrne, "this ain't no party"; it's a dark confessional and a bitter search for tranquility. It is rooted in a personal low, but rose to an early career high.


X: Wild Gift
Slash Records R2 74371 (CD). 1981. Ray Manzarek, prod.; Clay Rose, eng.

Until I heard this album, I associated punk rock with nihilism. Wallowing in abnegation and disgust certainly had its moments—I confess to a lingering weakness for the early Sex Pistols—but it's an attitude with, well, no future. By contrast, X, the L.A. punk band fronted by singer/bassist John Doe and vocalist Exene Cervenka, was passionate about life even when it sucked. Wild Gift is a bohemian chronicle of urban poverty and living on the edge, a theme that's juxtaposed here with an almost un-punkish sweetness. Doe and Cervenka have recently tied the knot, and neither was averse to mining the still-happy marriage for musical nuggets. Steeped in guitarist Billy Zoom's glorious rockabilly riffs, the album stands as a reminder of two things: that punk is hardly synonymous with poor musicianship (see also the Clash, Bad Religion) and that X was, for a few years at least, one of the rockingest bands in the world.

Larry Birnbaum


Moby Grape: Moby Grape
Columbia CS-9498 (LP). 1967. David Rubinson, prod., eng.

You can hardly blame Columbia Records for hyping this San Francisco quintet's eponymous debut recording, arguably the greatest rock album of the psychedelic era. The anticommercial reaction to the overpromotion, however, nearly derailed the band's success. Fusing country rock with power pop, the set features three grippingly interactive guitars, gorgeous four-part vocal harmonies, and irresistibly catchy compositions by all five members. Every track is a knockout, but the real highlight has got to be "Omaha." The frantic energy in this song more than compensates for its oddly uneven mix and cryptic lyrics, which here, as elsewhere on the album, hint at the drug-fueled mental aberrations that would ultimately be the band's undoing.


Betty Carter: Inside Betty Carter
Betty Carter, vocals; Harold Mabern, piano; Bob Cranshaw, bass; Roy McCurdy, drums.
United Artists UAS-5639 (LP). 1964/1972. Alan Douglas, prod.; Bill Schwartau, eng.

The jazziest of jazz singers, Carter makes others sound square by comparison. In this superb 1964 session, she dramatizes Broadway and Hollywood material, bending and stretching the notes like an expressive, cool saxophonist, making every number her own. She converts the familiar "My Favorite Things" from waltz to common time, speeding it up to racetrack tempo, and turns the obscure "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most" into an impassioned tour de force. Also included is the first recording of Carter's own shimmering bossa nova "Open the Door," the album's only original composition which became her signature song.

Phil Brett


Stiff Little Fingers: Inflammable Material
Parlophone 0190295448271 (LP). 1979. Geoff Travis, Mayo Thompson, prods.; Mike Kemp, eng.

Inflammable Material was possibly the last classic punk album: fast, angry, and relevant. And what was relevant to Belfast band Stiff Little Fingers was "the Troubles," an innocuous-sounding term that might refer to some squabble over a hedge, but in fact euphemizes a brutal war, a war they grew up in. These are songs of adolescent boredom and alienation—with bombs and paratroopers. When Jake Burns sings of a mother seeing her son shot in the street, in Bob Marley's "Johnny Was," he's singing of real life. But it's not all tragedy in this album; there's humor too ("Barbed Wire Love"—doowop with booby traps!). The singles "Alternative Ulster" and "Suspect Device" are as explosive as Semtex but are also incredibly catchy. The times have changed, but the power of music hasn't.


Sons Of Kemet: Black To The Future
Impulse Records 00602435621661 (LP). 2021. Shabaka Hutchings, Dilip Harris, prods.; Guy Davie, master.

Understandably, Brit jazz gets overshadowed by its American progenitor. That's a shame because it means that some truly great music gets missed. This is Sons of Kemet's fourth album, and it is a cracker. Full of energy and passion, it is music that demands that you listen, think, and maybe even dance. Saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings is at the center of it all, directing the cross pollination with reggae, calypso, African beat, and grime, but keeping it jazz. Never mind that it's one of the most exciting jazz albums I've heard in recent years—it's one of the most exciting albums I've heard, period.

Footnote 2: Old men of rock and roll/Came bearing music/Where are they now?/They are over the hill and far away/But they're still gonna play guitars/On dead strings, and old drums/They'll play and play to pass the time/The old wild men.

ChrisS's picture

Say no more.

Jazzlistener's picture

Star Wars fan, my vote would have been for R2D2 - Records to Dance To. :)

cognoscente's picture

Crossover by Dua Saleh *

Greenzone 108 by Greentea Peng *

Forbidden Feelingz by Nia Archives *

Air by Sault *

A Light For Attraction Attention by The Smile *

Push the Sky Away by Nick Cave & Bad Seeds ***

The Specials by The Specials **

Shiva Feshareki: Turning World by Shiva Feshareki *

Itemporal by Sarah Davachi/Ariel Kalma ***

Bloom by Areni Agbabian ***

Combination of recent releases (*), rediscoveries (**) and delayed discoveries (***)

Lars Bo's picture

Thanks, Kalman - the Matangi Outcast recordings are really something.

Another recommendation of the Ukrainian Silvestrov: His "Silent Songs" w. Yakovenko/Scheps, on ECM (cd only). It must have been less than a spotless reel-to-reel used in 1986 in Moscow, but humanity and emotions are grippingly authentic.

volvic's picture

Kudos to Ms. Johnson for mentioning the extraordinary Pérotin recording from the Hilliard Ensemble. It is a mesmerizing performance that doesn't’ get the due or mention it deserves. Well done!!!

Some great recommendations from others here as well, question! Do I need another Beethoven series and a period performance of Mahler’s 4th?

Kal Rubinson's picture

Some great recommendations from others here as well, question! Do I need another Beethoven series.....

I own multiple sets of the Beethoven symphonies as well as many individual symphonies but I nominated the Savall Beethoven set (Syms 1-6) because I believe you do.

Poor Audiophile's picture

for me!

volvic's picture

Will let my fingers do the clicking and add it to the pile.

Kal Rubinson's picture

Considering the cost and despite my enthusiasm, I still recommend that you sample it on-line before making such an investment.

volvic's picture

I always do, but everyone is quite enthusiastic about these recordings, so just might take the plunge. Then again, everyone was enthusiastic over Hogwood's Beethoven cycle which doesn't really work after the 4th, but this could be different. The problem for me these days is lack of space in the ever shrinking Manhattan apartment.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

That's what I began to do after two Gramophone reviewers chose Savall's Beethoven 6-9 as their favorite recording of the year.

Kal Rubinson's picture

I was disappointed with the 6-9 as a set.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Hi Kal,

I haven't had time to listen to more than a few bits. Far more on my plate than anyone of normal appetite should dare attempt to consume in one sitting. It's on the list... the very long list. Until then, I greatly appreciate learning your opinion.


volvic's picture

Will start with the 6-9 set.

Kal Rubinson's picture

FWIW, 1-5 were recorded as the culmination of a deep immersion (described in the booklet) into the scores and the context in 2019, prior to the Pandemic. It was released in 2020. The 6-9 set was recorded in 2020 during the Pandemic which deeply intruded itself into the process and delayed its release until 2022. It is no wonder that the results are not as good as the earlier ones made in better times and without Pandemic constraints.

You can have my 6-9 set if you want it. It's good, such as it is, but not outstanding and not an urgent recommendation. My R2L4 recommendation was for only the 1-5 set.

volvic's picture

Just read about the recording timeline this morning and the obstacles the pandemic threw at the whole recording process. A shame. I will listen to it but not keep it; I will purchase my copy if I like it. Thanks for offering.

volvic's picture

Hello JVS, Happy New Year! I don't stream, for many reasons, so that option is out for me.

Kal Rubinson's picture

Hmmmm. Manhattan apartment, eh? Mebbe just borrow mine to decide. ;-)

volvic's picture

Many thanks for offering; too kind. I suspect we're not that far from each other; I'm in the UES. I will take the plunge and purchase. Just listened to his 9th, a live performance and was deeply impressed. I will be purchasing. Will revert when I listen to them.

Kal Rubinson's picture

ok's picture doesn't mean that much to us grownups anymore.

Kal Rubinson's picture

Then, why are you here?

ok's picture

it still means a lot :)

Kal Rubinson's picture

Hmm. OK.