In the beginning, in the cradle, they were life itself, the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates in a land known as Mesopotamia, now known as Iraq. Charon ferried souls across the River Styx, the border between life and the afterlife. Until the last century as railroads spread across the continent, American settlement, trade, indeed civilization--just like every other from the dawn of time--was defined by its ability to navigate and master its rivers. In an age dominated by gargantuan leaps in man's ability to transport his wares and dreams without regard to terrain, we tend to tuck their vitality, their essential role in creating our world, into the recesses of cultural memory. But their language and mythology still fire our imaginations, serving up primordial metaphors of life and death--but mostly life. Lucky us.
Smetana, Ma Vlast, Raphael Kubelik, Boston Symphony Orchestra (DGG/Galleria). Smetana's monumental tribute to Czech nationalism is best known for the second movement, Vltava or The Moldau, the river which unites the country, eventually flowing into the Elbe. Smetana, of all composers who have tackled "river" themes, captured its archetype, from the Moldau's benign origins in mountain streams, passing through woods and fields, nurturing small villages, and crashing through St. John's Rapids, to its eventual growth into a force of breadth and strength. The Moldau is as close to an onomatopoeic river as one is likely to find in symphonic literature. I've been unable to find JJP's preferred Kubelik version with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra on Supraphon, but this 1971 reading with the BSO is suitably majestic if a bit hurried in places.
Handel, Water Music; Music for the Royal Fireworks, Raphael Kubelik, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (DGG/Galleria). Handel composed the Water Music for Hanoverian King George I of England, to accompany him and his entourage on a trip down the Thames on July 17, 1717. The royal barge was followed by an even bigger one, holding the composer/conductor and an orchestra with over 50 musicians. The journey was so successful that Water Music's various segments have become popular in their own right, notably "Alia Hornpipe." And while it's commonly assumed that once King George arrived at Whitehall, the orchestra launched into the Music for the Royal Fireworks, because the two pieces are mated on an extraordinary number of recordings, the latter was composed in 1749. Even if the music is appropriately solemn, I can't resist chuckling over the notion of a boatload orchestra plying its trade in such a unique setting: it must have been quite a sight! JJP recommends McGegan/Philharmonia Baroque (Harmonia Mundi) and Pinnock/English Concert (DG Archiv). I have a fondness for Kubelik, which is probably why I ended up with this one.
Robert Schumann, Symphony No. 3, "Rhenish"; Symphony No. 4, Christoph von Dohnanyi, The Cleveland Orchestra (London). The Rhenish was Schumann's effervescent reaction to an 1851 trip down the Rhine River from Dusseldorf to Cologne. He and sister Clara reveled in the romantic Rhineland scenery, the magnificent and unfinished gothic cathedral in Cologne, and the idyllic pace of the Rhine--all of which find their way into the symphony. The writing is lyrical, sensual, and robust, and von Dohnanyi coaxes a lavish interpretation out of the Cleveland Orchestra. Bill Parker's Building a Classical Music Library recommends the entire von Dohnanyi/Cleveland Orchestra Schumann cycle (Nos. 1 and 2 are also on London). JJP recommends Sawallisch/Staatskapelle (EMI Studio) or Norrington/LCP (EMI).
Famous Strauss Waltzes, Willi Boskovsky, Johann Strauss Orchestra (EMI). Did you really think I'd let this column get by without Johann Strauss, Jr.'s scrumptious "The Blue Danube"? Although the title of Strauss-fils" best known composition has little to do with the river that bisects Vienna, its tune is, even today, irresistible, likely to set one prancing about the living room as not. This disc is chock full of the same: "Roses of the South," "Vienna Blood," the inimitable "Voices of the Spring," "Artist's Life," "Tales from the Vienna Woods," and the grand "Emperor's Waltz." If you crave this felicitous, lighthearted fare (I do!), then Arthur Fiedler's Boston Pops Orchestra Strauss Family Waltzes (RCA Living Stereo) is enormous fun, with polkas from Josef, Eduard, and Johann, Sr. strewn about the lot. Besides the Boskovsky disc, JJP recommends Reiner/ CSO (BMG/RCA).
Virgil Thomson, The River; The Plow that Broke the Plains, Richard Kapp, Philharmonia Virtuosi (ESS.A.Y). Film scores translate poorly into "listening" music. With few exceptions (Victory at Sea comes to mind), scores without pictures lose their identity and impact. Thomson, also a perceptive and acidic music critic, penned these accompaniments to two Pare Lorentz films commissioned by Roosevelt's Farm Services Administration in 1935 and 1936. The film projects were in part the Roosevelt administration's attempt to care for the arts through the Depression, but Lorentz's efforts were beset by commercial filmmakers, who, resentful of government competition, pressured Roosevelt into discontinuing them. The Plow the Broke the Plains portrayed the Dust Bowl at its nadir. The film was bald propaganda, intending to demonstrate to the public that the Administration was tending to business, working to mitigate the effects of the Depression. Similarly, The River, was a portrait of the Mississippi River, intended to shed a positive light on the Administration's campaign to repair industrial damage and the ripple effects of flooding and soil erosion. Remarkably--and regardless of the political motivation--the score to The River stands up well on its own. Its crisp vignettes, aptly rifled like "Industrial Expansion in the Mississippi Valley" and "Soil Erosion & Floods," resist the tendency to overstate. Similarly, The Plow that Broke the Plains patches snippets of jazz, folk music, and old American songs with some deceptively simple symphonic passages reminiscent of Copland. Kapp's readings are energetic and sympathetic. Parker recommends Marriner/LACO (Angel).
Schubert, Piano Quintet in A Major, "The Trout", Kodaly Quartet, Jeno Jando, piano, Istvan Toth, double bass (Naxos). Of course there is little resemblance between this splendid chamber work and a fish. The fourth movement was fashioned after his own song, "Die Fiorelle" ("The Trout"), and so popular was the quintet that it quickly became a namesake. There are dozens of recordings, the most famous of which is not on disc (Barenboim, DuPre, Perlman, et al.). JJP recommends Schiff/Hagen Quartet (London), Beaux Arts Trio, et al. (Philips Silver), and AAM Chamber Ensemble (L'Oiseau-Lyre). Of recent interest are recordings by Emanuel Ax, Yo-Yo Ma, and Edgar Meyer, et al. (Sony Classical) and Alfred Brendel, et al. (Philips). Brendel's rendering is sublime. The Ax/Ma/ Meyer disc also has Ax and soprano Barbara Bonney performing the actual song, "Die Fiorelle." All in all, Brendel's version is the most impressive, tho' I slightly prefer the Kodalys and friends--their performance is a little more relaxed and a little less like stars being stars.
Bruce Springsteen, The River (Columbia). There will always be arguments about which Springsteen album is quintessential. For some it's the groundbreaking Darkness on the Edge of Town. For others it's the megaplatinum Born in the U.S.A. But nowhere else in his considerable oeuvre did Bruce make as sweeping an artistic statement as on this disc, sealing his birthright along with Dylan as Woody Guthrie's rightful heir. Each character in The River's varied stories springs from the blue-collar heartland--not a place, mind you, but more of a class or a state of mind. Steel workers, unemployed, undereducated teens, street padrones with wheels, abject losers, and their women ... always their women. One is tempted to set aside all the hand-wringing about boys and girls busting up as so much adolescent twaddle, but against the backdrop of an America that held no hope and gave no quarter to the less than privileged (remember, we'd just graduated from Carter to Reagan), Springsteen's anthems to walkin' tough and talkin' jive jarred loose a fundamental truth: for all of the gospel of hard work and just rewards, it took more than a tad of luck to keeping your job, marriage, and life together. And I guess it doesn't matter that Springsteen's evocation of rural, small town America was fading by 1980. He scooped up a generation of pain, loss, and shattered dreams and told the story that no one wanted to hear: Beaver Cleaver didn't live in Darlington County--never did. And he told this story with equal measures of machismo, anger, and poetry. The point was driven home with lethal clarity by Springsteen's best band, the E Street Band of Danny Federici, Gary Tallent, Max Weinberg (who is absolutely unforgiving), Roy Bittan, Clarence Clemons, and Miami Steve van Zandt. This was a man's band that poured Mitch Ryder, Otis Redding, and Phil Spector into an Osterizer and returned a burger, fries, and a chock'lit shake on wheels at the local car hop. George Lucas' American Graffiti was the myth. The River was the myth made word.
U2, The Joshua Tree (Island). After putting this one upstairs--where the "less listened to" are consigned--I brought it back out after hearing a hearty plateful in a bar one night. The Joshua Tree was the aPotheosis of this band's work, self-consciously anthemic and unrepentant in its ferocity. Dave "The Edge" Evans pared down his fretwork and crafted soaring, blistering cascades of rhythm guitar, the likes of which had not been hard since Townshend, and haven't been heard since. Bono discarded his neo-Christian posturing and sang with soulful conviction. And the songs! Oh, the songs! "Where the Streets Have No Name," "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," "With or Without You," "In God's Country"--all mark a band in full flower, oozing creative nectar. But the hidden gem in this wondrous collection is "One Tree Hill," an elegy of raw emotion, mourning the loss of a friend to the Irish troubles: "I don't believe in painted roses or bleeding hearts/While bullets rape the night of the merciful/I'll see you again when the stars fall from the sky/ And the moon as turned red over One Tree Hill/We run like a river to the sea/Like a river to the sea."
Creedence Clearwater Revival, Green River (Fantasy). In the summer of 1969, revolution was not in the air--the Berkeley campus was redolent of herbs, incense, French coeds, and, well, summertime, and the livin' was easy. I brought Green River, hot on the heels of Bayou Country and hot off the presses, back to my room at the Oxford Hall Co-op and played it loud. My buddy, cartoonist Bill Walker, looked up and deadpanned, "Sounds like Creedence has done it again." The title cut and "Bad Moon Rising" were the hits, and Green River was arguably Creedence's best album; though, frankly, the stylistic differences among it, Bayou Country, and Willie and the Poor Boys are difficult to detect. Compare, for instance, "Tombstone Shadow" and "Penthouse Pauper." With John Fogerty affecting Mississippi delta diphthongs ("choich" and "woik") and torching his own compositions with an unaffected blend of blues, bluegrass, and country guitar, songs like "Tombstone Shadow," "Sinister Purpose," and "The Night Time Is the Right Time" became street favorites as much as "Green River." And for those of us raised in northern California, well, we all dreaded getting stuck in Lodi and couldn't imagine it happening twice. Creedence released three albums in 1969, Bayou Country, Green River, and Willie and the Poor Boys. All were smash hits. Hadn't been done since the Beatles, who released eight stateside albums in 1964-65, and has been done only once since (in 1970 by The Jackson 5 if you count their Christmas album). But like the Beatles' American record company (Capitol), Creedence's (Fantasy) knew a good thing when they had one: each of the albums clocks in at a little more, or less, than 35 minutes. Even within the LP's restricted playing time, Fantasy made three albums out of material for two just like Capitol had milked five British albums and a bunch of singles.
Neil Young, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (Warner Bros.). After stormy partnerships with two pioneering California rock bands, Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Neil Young has endured a quirky, enigmatically brilliant solo career, trading performing personas without warning or apology. After his eponymous debut, Everybody Knows ... swamped the charts with hits like "Cinnamon Girl," "Cowgirl in the Sand," and "Down by the River." "Down by the River" portrayed a murth'rous sort who confessed to offing his beloved creekside. The braying confessional, "... I shot my baby," had barely subsided when Young's guitar launched a furious, machine gun, staccato attack of ... just one note. The effect was as chilling as mesmerizing. No less remarkable was the fact that the song had only two chords, as it quickly became the dorm room anthem of 1969. Bob Stevens and I played it for hours ... every day, until cooler heads and mild threats of violence prevailed. One NPR pundit has opined that "Down by the River" spurred Miles Davis's Bitches Brew sessions, where two chords were the norm, and three were considered folly. Well, maybe. Neil was good, but I don't think Miles paid him that much attention.
Talking Heads, More Songs About Buildings and Food (Sire). More Songs About Buildings and Food, the Heads' second album, subjected audiences to its compelling polyrhythms, David Byrne's hiccuping gyrations, and punk's tightest rhythm section, drummer Chris Franz and bassist/wife Tina Weymouth. The Heads were not your typical CBGB band: they embraced melody and structure as positive elements. More Songs ... exploded with post-punk gems like "The Good Thing," "Stay Hungry," and "Artists Only," while funking out on "Found a Job" and their second radio hit, Mabon Hodges and Al Green's "Take Me to the River." "River" was a watershed recording for the Heads. Franz and Weymouth vaulted to the top of modern rock rhythm sections with Franz's relentless backbeat and Weymouth's driving bass line. Jerry Harrison also came into his own, commanding the song's lead guitar and organ. The Heads emerged as a band--not just Byrne's fellow travelers. Andrew Strong delivers an astonishing rendition of "Take Me to the River" on The Commitments soundtrack (MCA). For a killer version of "Artists Only," get The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads, a set of live performances from 1977-81. I have yet to find it on CD. The LP is Sire 2SR 3590.
Bobby Darin, The Bobby Darin Story (Atco). Groomed and enjoying initial success as a '50s teen idol, Darin inhabited a twilight between musical worlds. Independent bands had yet to establish their stranglehold on rock, and holdover big bands charted the Top 40 with regularity. Percy Faith ("Theme from a Summer Place"), Lawrence Welk ("Yellow Bird"), and Billy Rose ("The Stripper") all enjoyed the kind of chart success usually reserved for the likes of Presley, Nelson, and Avalon. Darin quickly broke from the ranks of teen worship and crafted songs for big band accompaniment. After the seminal "Splish Splash" and "Queen of the Hop," Darin dared to challenge the greatest of the big band singers in his prime, Frank Sinatra, with lush arrangements of "Dream Lover," "Beyond the Sea," and the classic "Mack the Knife." This disc, a compilation of his singles through 1961, highlights his big band bent, culminating in Hoagy Carmichael's "Up a Lazy River." While Sy Zetner's orchestral version achieved greater chart success, Darin's version summons all the vocal stunts that a singer of his genre could muster. He whispers, growls, stutters his phrasing, breaks with the orchestra--in short, hurling down a gauntlet, a vocal tour de force. Darin died at age 35--far too young to have successfully challenged Sinatra's ascendancy, but the evidence on this disc suggests that maybe had he lived ...
Paul Robeson, Songs of Free Men (Sony Classical). Although best remembered for his plaintive "Ol' Man River" from Oscar Hammerstein II's and Jerome Kern's "Showboat," Robeson was a performer of consummate dignity and purpose. Songs of Free Men was issued in 1942 as the Wehrmacht stormed across Europe. His intent was to reinforce the spirit of thousands of conquered Dutch, Belgian, and French compatriots and to subtly underscore the plight of American blacks, who were virtually imprisoned by Jim Crow laws and cultural passivity. The opening songs find Robeson accompanied only by pianist Lawrence Brown, his longtime collaborator, as he gently propels spirituals, such as Mendelssohn's "The Lord God of Abraham," "The Purest Kind of Joy," and Engel's "Chassidic Chant." Backed by Emanuel Balaban and the Columbia Concert Orchestra, Robeson breaks loose with empathetic readings of "Ol' Man River," "Wagon Wheels," and "It Ain't Necessarily So" among many. Songs of Free Men is Robeson in his prime. His baritone is imposing and immediate. And the transfer to CD from what must have been fairly musty masters is magnificent, even if the bandwidth limitations thin the orchestra considerably. You feel as if Robeson is with you--high praise indeed for recordings nearly 60 years old.
Enya, Watermark (Geffen). The "Louie, Louie" chord sequence, I-IV-V-IV, is a classic, embracing everything from basic 12-bar blues to "Magical Mystery Tour" to Enya's "Orinoco Flow." Indeed, it was the magic of that chord sequence, pounded out by a phalanx of plucked harps, that sold this unlikely Celtic new-age artist to the buying public. I'll admit that the first time I heard the entire disc, I was so disappointed that it was unloaded post haste. Then Dave, my ever-attentive brother-in-law, sent it down for Christmas, its receipt coinciding with my daughter's first six months on the planet. And I found that Enya, more than anyone, helped lull a petite, colicky bundle to sleep. I even grew to like it. Then I discovered that the bridge to "Orinoco Flow" had bass notes only very special gear could capture. Now I'm hooked.
The Band (Columbia). "When I get off of this mountain/You know where I'm gonna go/Straight down the Mississippi River/To the gulf of Mexico ..." In everyone's life there's the one love left aside or behind. Oh, the reasons are inevitably garbled--sometimes there's enough lack of balance to make us move on, and sometimes we know that for all of here and now, there's just no future. And once in a while they remain in the background, resurrected when times are tough or just when you can get away for a night without getting caught: "... but you know deep down I'm kinda tempted to go and see my Bessie again." It took a bunch of Canadians and one Arkansas traveler to lay down this epic portrayal of Americana and the Ozarks as "Portal to the South." Its meanings are so varied and profound, from "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" to "King Harvest" that it has become an American standard, and perhaps The Band's finest hour. Like the best of Faulkner, Welty, or Walker Percy, each song evokes a judicious slice of Southern arcana, from the loopy optimism of "Across the Great Divide" to the Spanish moss draped over the coda to "The Unfaithful Servant." Then there's "Up on Cripple Creek" with Garth Hudson's wah-wah organ Jew's harp and a grizzled hillbilly's whimsical dalliance.
Flotsam and Jetsam: Great singles.
Joe Cocker, Mad Dogs and Englishmen (A&M). His version of "Cry Me a River" is a killer. His best albums, however, are With a Little Help from My Friends and Joe Cocker! backed by the Grease Band, Chris Stainton, Henry McCullough, and Alan Spenner. Check out Cocker!'s "Hitchcock Railway."
Pat Boone, "Moody River." I know ... Pat Boone. Ick. Still, it's a great single whose "... muddy waters took my baby's life."
Andy Williams, "Moon River." The quintessential version. Any guy out there not in love with Audrey Hepburn?
Richard Barone, "River to River." We covered this one a while ago (Issue 68). It's still worth getting the album, Primal Dream.
Fats Domino, "Goin' to the River." They say, Antoine, he got Miss'ippi silt in his bones. T'ain't like ordinary men. No, sir.
Ike and Tina Turner, "River Deep, Mountain High." Be careful when looking for this one. The Ike and Tina Turner catalog was horribly mismanaged, and several live versions, not the Phil Spector-produced studio version, can be obtained. One miss that I bought is Absolutely the Best, which has a live version of the song. However, there are a number of sizzling original cuts such as "Nutbush City Limits," "Fool in Love," and "Proud Mary" that remind you just how good the Ike and Tina Turner review was. Ike may go down in history as the guy who smacked Tina around, but he's still one R&B badass, and this disc is ample evidence. The only way I know to guarantee getting the original version is Spector's Back to Mono, an obscenely-priced box set. Essential, yes, but not very $ensible. The Four Tops and The Supremes collaborated on an interesting version found on The Four Tops: Anthology (Motown).
The List: New and (maybe) noteworthy.
Alanis Morisette, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie (Maverick/Reprise). She's got 'tude; she can write ... but can she sing?
John Mellencamp (Columbia). Yeah, I know what I said about Mr. Happy Go Lucky. Forget it. This one's the real magilla.
Bruce Hornsby, Spirit Trail (RCA). Hornsby has yet to return to the pop palisades of The Way It Is and Scenes from the Southside, but it's not clear that he wants or needs to. This collection is as mature as anything he's done ... even with his Dangerfield-double uncle mugging on the cover.
Belle & Sebastian. The Boy with the Arab Strap (Matador/Jeepster). The melodies are deceptively simple and poppish. The lyrics, however, evoke a dangerous and difficult world, perceptively drawn.
R.E.M., Up (Warner Bros.). Their first without retired drummer Bill Berry, it is decidedly slow-paced and way better than the last one.
Sheryl Crow, The Globe Sessions (A&M). As appealing as these songs are on first listen, I don't find myself going back to them like I did Tuesday Night Music Club, but more so than her eponymous last.
Rolling Stones, No Security (Virgin). Some 30-plus years ago, Jagger said loudly, "I can't imagine myself 50 years old, on stage, singing `Satisfaction'." Okay, they don't do "Satisfaction." They do do "The Last Time," "Corinna," "Waiting on a Friend," and others similarly ancient.
Eels, Electro-Shock Blues (DreamWorks). And the pendulum swings ... more like E this time, and less like a band. -- KE