CD REVIEWS; Star ratings: HHHHH a classic; HHHH well worth your money; HHH give it a listen; HH only ardent fans need bother; H forget it.
ECHO AND THE BUNNYMEN What Are You Going To Do With Your Life (London): The comeback having stalled with last year's ill-advised World Cup single, the real surprise of this album lies not just in the content but that it appeared at all, the band's bass player having jumped ship early on in the sessions. Although the mood is, not surprisingly, downbeat there's a bruised majesty about tracks like Rust which in its title subliminally suggests Neil Young comparisons which are actually not that misplaced. The low-key, acoustics and strings approach certainly suits them, and actually results in some of the band's most likeable music. Fun Lovin' Criminals turn up on two tracks Get In The Car and When It All Blows Over but, rather than inject some goodtime vibes into proceedings, their classy brass arrangements, which wouldn't have been out of a place on a Burt Bacharach or Scott Walker album, are perfectly in keeping with the down at heel mood of the set. HHHH
JOI One and One Is One (Real World): No, this isn't the long overdue Medicine Head tribute album but the debut recording from Bengali brothers Farook and Haroon Shamsher. Although they're by no means the first to blend eastern and western dance forms, they're certainly one of the most energetic in the field, even if their repetitive rhythmic patterns are rather more suited to the dancefloor than the living room hi-fi system.
There's certainly little of the harmonic or textural variety associated with fellow travellers Loop Guru, Transglobal Underground or Talvin Singh and they've clearly yet to transfer the buzz generated by their live performances on to disc. HHH
VAN DYKE PARKS Song Cycle/Discover America/The Clang Of the Yankee Reaper (Ryko): Perhaps best known for an album that has never had an official release - Van Dyke wrote the words for Brian Wilson's legendary Smile - it's no real surprise that the three solo albums getting a reissue are a distinctly mixed bag. Discover America (HH) reflects his love for the calypso music of Trinidad and Tobago and while possessing a certain old world charm its undoubted novelty soon palls.
There are calypso elements on The Clang Of The Yankee Reaper but these are more successfully integrated into an album that explores the development of American popular song.
Most successful of the three is Song Cycle HHHH, Parks' first solo album which draws on country, Broadway musicals, musique concrete, Brill Building pop and rock in a colourful melange that still defies categorisation.
Only now can we appreciate just how far ahead of its time Song Cycle was - record executives, on hearing Song Cycle for the first time, apparently thought they'd signed the Elephant Man. But with its free association lyrics and vivid arrangements what a worthy companion piece to Smile it would have made.
FOLK CD OF THE WEEK
ANNE BRIGGS A Collection (Topic): Anne Briggs is something of a lost legend in folk music. An important influence on a whole generation of artists (Bert Jansch and June Tabor were but two people who fell under her spell) she almost single-handedly breathed new life into a tradition that was dying a slow death brought on by finger-in-the-ear political correctness.
Not that Briggs, who, true to her legend now lives on a remote Scottish island, had any time for the new rock 'n' roll. She dismissed the folk-rock experiments of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span as just so much window dressing and listening to this complete collection of her Topic recordings between 1963-71, you begin to understand what she means.
In her hands, for the most part singing unaccompanied, the timeless beauty of songs like She Moved Through The Fair and Gathering Rushes In The Month of May emerges into full bloom.
Even on the later work, when she employed guitar and bazouki, it's the voice that dominates, wrenching every last ounce of meaning out of the material. Led Zeppelin fans may recognise Black Water Side, which in Jimmy Page's hands would evolve into Blackmountain Side, an indication of just how Briggs' work has seeped unnoticed into British rock music, unnoticed but at last, thanks to this wonderful album, not unacknowledged. HHHHH
CLASSICAL CD OF THE WEEK
RACHMANINOV Piano Concerti 1 & 4, Paganini Rhapsody (Naxos 8.110602) This fascinating release in Naxos' ultra-budget Historical Series brings works for piano and orchestra from opposite ends of Rachmaninov's career, the composer himself as soloist. Though state-of-the-art processes have cleaned up and restored much of the original sound of these recordings set down between 1939 and 1941, a certain amount of surface noise remains. The ear soon adjusts to this, however, and to the somewhat boxy, end-of-the-room ambience.
For these are sweeping, irresistible performances, Rachmaninov imparting a fine sense of line and direction in his accounts of the First and Fourth Piano Concerti and the gripping Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. There is such a strong sense of classical restraint to his playing that one wonders how he came to sanction the Hollywood-style swooping from the strings of the classy Philadelphia Orchestra under estimable conductors Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy - but on reflection one realises how complementary are the two approaches.
The First Concerto breathes many influences on the youthful Rachmaninov - Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Chopin and Liszt - and the Fourth, autobiographical and valedictory, here receives a deeply atmospheric account, with moments of profound darkness. I will return to this important release often. HHHHH
ALFRED CORTOT Great Pianists of the Century (Philips 456 751-2) Diametrically opposed to the patrician Rachmaninov was the pianism of the volatile Alfred Cortot, splashing about with more wrong notes than Rachmaninov ever had hot dinners, but perennially persuasive and darting with insights.
On this mid-price double-CD of outstanding value (over two hours of music) are preserved performances recorded during the 1920s and 30s of several of the composers closest to the Swiss-born Parisian: Chopin (both sets of Etudes), Liszt, Ravel and Schumann (an absolutely unforgettable Etudes Symphoniques where Cortot brings himself back from the brink of losing the plot, plus Carnaval and Kreisleriana). Indispensable, with piano sound captured with wonderful immediacy - buy! HHHHH
JAZZ CD OF THE WEEK
JOHN MCLAUGHLIN. ETC Remember Shakti (Verve): Of course we remember Shakti, guitarist McLaughlin's acoustic jazz/Indian band which followed on from the electric Indo-fusion of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. The electric band still sounds to me locked in that 1970s fusion mix of bombast and hysteria, but Shakti was a gentler, more complex vehicle, though still capable of great intensity and excitement.
On this double live album, culled from 1997 concerts in Oldham, London, Southampton and our own Symphony Hall, McLaughlin on electric guitar, with percussionists Zakir Hussain (tabla) and TH Vinayakram (ghatam) from the original Shakti, are joined by Hariprasad Chaurasia on the bansuri (a bamboo flute).
The flute in place of the original violin of L Shankar makes gives this band a warmer sound, and the pieces meander effortlessly for as long as an hour in the case of Mukti. McLauglin opens The Wish with a grand display of his astounding guitar technique, but it is when the percussionists quietly join him that it really becomes spine-tingling stuff. This is group empathy on an almost telepathic level. A second McLaughlin composition Lotus Feel, features a breathtakingly beautiful melody on the flute played by Chaurasia with exquisite subtlety.
Music-making of the highest level, irrespective of style, and just as accessible to rock or classical lovers as the jazz fans. Truly genre-jumping. Superbly recorded too. HHHHH
PAUL BLEY, GARY PEACOCK & PAUL MOTION Not Two, Not One (ECM): The reunion of a trio which set the tone for the ECM label back in 1970. As difficult to classify as Shakti, but not quite so easy to listen to. Bley is the tricky one, his compositions tending towards knotty abstraction. He often plays low down on the piano and ruminates with lots of spaces and pauses. Motion is a very musical drummer, but can also skitter away in a free spirit if necessary, while bass-player Peacock tends to blur the lines between the far out and the familiar in a more appealing way. More masters at work, but it's fairly cerebral for the most part. HHH