The marketing material is a classic "direct marketing" come-on: if you find the right sticker, simply paste it on your return card, and you'll get a "valuable gift" (in this case a pretty cheesy looking clock) absolutely free--plus postage and handling. Of course every package has the right sticker, and by returning the card, you'll receive without even asking another composer's booklet and CD to preview at no obligation for ten days. If you decide to keep it ... well, you know the drill. The frequency of this product is once a month, and the per-unit cost is $16.90 including postage and handling. This little treasure is courtesy of an outfit called IMP (probably no pun intended--www.imp-usa.com), which specializes in this kind of product, everything from "Grandma's Kitchen" to "Easy Home Repair."
Now, in fairness, the CD quality is excellent-even if it's just one movement each from a larger work. The booklet is factually accurate if sketchy and in parts redundant. And if all you really want is a very basic primer to a composer--there are another 11 that I could count, including Tchaikovsky, Gershwin, Beethoven, Mahler, and so on--I suppose there are worse ways to go about it. Some time ago I reviewed the Beethoven and Mozart editions for both Harper Collins's Play by Play series and Simon and Schuster's Compact Companion series. Both were excellent biographies. Both came also with CDs, Play by Play with one equally thoroughly annotated work and Compact Companion with a "greatest hits" collection culled from the Philips Classics catalog. Both failed in the marketplace and are out of print, though several titles of each can be found at amazon.com. These were brave attempts at drumming up a classical audience that ultimately did not find one. It would be interesting to see how long IMP's effort lasts; if they garner enough subscribers to make the series profitable. (Typically, this kind of promotion will have one or two titles ready to go and another half dozen more or less in the works. The decision to go ahead with the series depends on the response to the unsolicited direct mailing. For instance, IMP's web site advertises the "Musical Masterpieces" series, but does not yet have a separate web page to order from. If they don't get enough responses from the direct mailing, you hear nothing, and all IMP has lost is its initial investment. No money has changed hands with consumers.)
I'm generally in favor of anything that promotes the classical repertory, but I'm not a big fan of direct mail solicitations, especially those of the "every month you'll receive" variety. Their success depends more on consumer inertia than product excellence--tho' often the products may indeed be pretty good. But if you really want to know about Mozart's life, you should get a good biography. There are several. I've found the Illustrated Lives of the Great Composers from the Omnibus Press to be excellent and quite detailed biographical introductions. And of course, there are more than a few guides to good recordings, not least of which is JJP's revised and updated "Basic Classical Collection on Compact Disc" which T$S is in the midst of republishing. Of course there's also Bill Parker's The International Guide to Building A Classical Music Library, now in its fourth edition, and The Performance Today Basic Record Library from National Public Radio.
I'm hoping IMP's effort succeeds in opening a few new ears and piquing the interests of the curious so some may go beyond the scanty information, flashy production, and disappointing CD to explore their favorite composer in real depth. Then again, for all its shortcomings, if Mozart Musical Masterpieces succeeds in doing just that, then it will be a genuine success.
Bob Dylan, Modern Times (Columbia)
It's tempting to cite Modern Times as the third of an autumnal trilogy, starting with 1997's Time Out of Mind (reviewed in No. 67) and 2003's "Love and Theft" (No. 89), because they all embrace a plethora of traditional song structures and a gently personal lyricism--as if Dylan's late life oeuvre can be easily compartmentalized. At 65 he continues to confound his apologists and rankle his detractors with adaptations of the Great American Songbook and the seemingly effortless fashion in which he slides from one genre to the next. Modern Times offers blues shuffles ("Thunder on the Mountain," "Someday Baby"), remakes of blues classics ("Rollin' and Tumblin,'" "The Levee's Gonna Break"), soft ballads in the Porter/Carmichael/Arlen mode ("Spirit on the Water," "When the Deal Goes Down," "Blue Horizon," "Workingman's Blues #2"), antique American song ("Nettie Moore"), and singer/ songwriter originals ("Ain't Talkin'"). His approach, an encapsulation of his encyclopedic musical knowledge is summed in "Thunder on the Mountain." "Thunder on the mountain, rollin' like a drum/Gonna sleep over there, that's where the music coming from/I don't need any guide, I already know the way/Remember this, I'm your servant both night and day." (Typically, lyrics--the sine qua non of Dylan's output--are not supplied but can be found at www.bestlyric.com--but have your pop-up blocker fully engaged.) Of course it's not clear whether Dylan's humility is genuine or simply another guise, this time in the all-too-familiar costume of the troubadour/bard. However, if we've learned one thing about him over some 40-odd years, his multiple personas can be donned and discarded at whim.
Modern Times, like its two predecessors, is focused on love and aging. "Spirit on the Water" is a series of quatrains (a very long series of quatrains clocking in at 7:40) trying to convince an old love to take him back. "When the Deal Goes Down" meditates on life's sunset, reflecting on the sensation of Living As Bob Dylan with his unique view of places, people, and events. Perhaps most telling is: "I laugh and I cry and I'm haunted by/Things I never meant nor wished to say ..." Dylan's own commentary on the aging phenomenon is perhaps best summed up in "Beyond the Horizon": "Beyond the horizon, behind the sun/ At the end of the rainbow life has only begun ... My wretched heart is pounding/I felt an angel's kiss/My memories are drowning/In mortal bliss ... Beyond the horizon, at the end of the game/Every step that you take, I'm walking the same ..."
I have one complaint that rises above a quibble. The album notes clearly state "All Songs Written by Bob Dylan". While I understand that Dylan's written new lyrics to each Muddy Waters's "Rollin' and Tumblin'" and Kansas City Joe McCoy's "When the Levee Breaks," the melodies are instantly recognizable as two time-honored blues classics. Well, folks, li'l Bobby Zimmerman twarn't even borned when Kansas City Joe and Memphis Minnie first recorded "When the Levee Breaks" in 1929. This is the same sin that tarnished early Led Zepplin releases, where the reshaped songs, particularly Howlin' Wolf's "Killin' Floor" and "When the Levee Breaks" were credited to Bonham, Page, Jones, and Plant. Would it have been too much for Dylan to at least acknowledge that he'd covered the masters? It's not like he doesn't have enough money. The song "Nettie Moore," for which Dylan's retained one line of the chorus, like "Corrine, Corrina" and "Stagger Lee", originated in the 19th century, has resisted attribution, and is in the public domain.
Finally, there has been considerable debate over Dylan's lifting lines from the poetry of Henry Timrod (1828-67), the "Poet Laureate of the Confederacy." Lifting phrases from other songs or works of literature for allusive effect, is an accepted literary and songwriting practice. Dylan's choice to quote a nowadays obscure, forgotten, and sentimental Southern poet indicates the breadth of his internalization of American art. If little else, Dylan puts Southern Confederate culture on an even plane with the traditional, mostly Northern literature of the same era. It further cements Dylan's legacy as the cultural laureate of his generation, certainly reasserting the role of the troubadour/bard and blurring the lines between popular song and the written word. (It is also interesting that "Modern Times" is an anagram of "Menes," the founder of ancient Memphis, whose modern American counterpart was the confluence of blues, gospel and hillbilly music--seminal rock'n'roll--and "Timrod." Then again neither do I believe that Paul is dead ...) In the end Modern Times is a landmark, a classic work of American song in all of its forms, wrought by a master whose work may well someday be regarded equally with Gershwin and Auden, and who is the answer to the persistent query, "What is to be done with aging rockers?"
Rosanne Cash, Black Cadillac (Capitol)
If ever there was a life that deserved a measure of redemption, it's Rosanne Cash's. Born into the maelstrom of her father's ascendancy amidst the rhinestone limelight of country and pop stardom and raised out of his shadow, she later joined his touring show, graduating from laundress to lead singer, owing as much to her talent as her connections with the boss. For all that she can rightfully call her own, especially the incendiary viscera of her songwriting, even the string of No. 1 hits, she was always Johnny Cash's daughter. It's the genes, right?
Cash's art has carefully picked her way around the edges of her upbringing. She chronicled her failing marriage to Rodney Crowell on Interiors and sifted through its detritus on Wheels. Only on 2003's Rules of Travel (reviewed in No. 98) and her poignant duet with her father, "September When It Comes," did she begin to acknowledge that there was a more distant past whose personal disposition was unresolved. Black Cadillac and its opening lines "It was a black Cadillac/That drove you away ...", a reflection on Cash's burial cortege as well as his leaving her childhood life, reaches into the deepest recesses of Cash's interiors and frankly examines the emotional journey of her life with her different families, that with her mother and siblings and that with the occasional childhood visitor and later constant companion, her father the star. If that weren't enough, in the middle of writing and recording Black Cadillac, Cash's mother, Johnny's first wife, Vivian Liberto Distin, died on Roseanne's 50th birthday.
Black Cadillac touches places ("House on the Lake," "Burn Down This Town") and events ("I Was Watching You," "The Good Intent") in an effort to come to terms with the enormity of multiple losses, the public grieving, outpourings of anger and love in equal measure. For all the dark clouds, rainy metaphors, and psychic mayhem that prolonged mourning occasions ("The sun is on the cemetery/ Leaves are on the stones/There never was a place on earth/That felt so much like home"--"God Is in the Roses"), Cash finds solace in being alive, among the living, even if her landscape is forever changed. And it is in that altered state that Cash consciously sheds a vaporized past ("Except for the body and smoke/ There's nothing here I want to own"--"Like A Wave"; "I could watch the world in smoke/There's nothing for me here"--"The Good Intent") and accepts her new life's order. Indeed she is now the matriarch of Clan Cash, once a birthright and now a legacy: "My taxi is waiting outside/The show will begin right on time." Dedicated to John Cash, June Carter Cash, and Vivian Liberto Distin, Black Cadillac is more than just chronicle of a gifted songwriter marking the passing of her family and a generation. It is a treasure of elegiac poetry that vaults Cash into the ranks of master songwriters like Mary Chapin Carpenter and Sam Phillips. It is an experience you should not miss.
The Wailin' Jennys, Firecracker (Red House)
The departure of one founding member of an incidental trio might have mattered. After all the Jennys were as much an accident as anything. Once that alchemical magic was disrupted, well, who could blame them for folding up their tent and moving on? But the adoption of alto Annabelle Chvostek for Cara Luft hasn't caused so much as a ripple in their sound or, given the success of their sophomore effort, Firecracker, their chemistry. Indeed, Chvostek, Ruth Moody, and Nicky Mehta pick up where 2004's astonishing debut, 40 Days (reviewed in No. 109), left off: pristine three-part harmonies, ingenious acoustic arrangements, and another display of deft, nuanced songwriting.
Chvostek distinguishes herself from the outset with "The Devil's Paintbrush Road" and the telling, bittersweet lyric "I'm not the cheating kind/It snuck up from behind/Kicked in the door to someday/I can't get her off my mind ... Single I was born/Single I will die/I'll marry myself to the whole wide world/ and never make her cry". Moody follows with a soulful spiritual that could have been spun on the porch of an Appalachian shanty, "When I hear that trumpet sound/I will lay my burdens down/I will lay them deep into the gound/Then I'll know that I am glory bound." Mehta's "Starlight" evokes the lethal loneliness of the vast, frozen Manitoban plains: "I have toured this endless starlight ... I have shattered under midnight ... There are no vultures in this clearing/Except the ones who brought me here/And I'll no longer feed them/Take me home ..."
As with 40 Days, Firecracker crackles with homespun vitality; bluegrass staples guitar, banjo, mandolin, and fiddle are subtly underpinned with bass and drums. Like Equation's Hazy Days or Hem's Rabbit Songs (both reviewed in No. 109), it is neither pop nor country, but a new acoustic melange that takes New Grass another step. In a sense The Wailin' Jennys are what The Dixie Chicks could be (hey, I never said the Chicks couldn't sing), shorn of pretense and imbued with an eloquent authenticity that graces Firecracker from start to finish. Add an all-star Canadian band and the agile David Travers-Smith at the controls, and you have one of the best discs of this or any year.
The Ditty Bops, Moon Over the Freeway (Warner Bros.)
One is tempted to pigeon-hole The Ditty Bops into a cute, if slightly retro, bucket what with their staged live act and their vaudevillian variety musicale-"Aren't those two young ladies something, and isn't it nice that once a decade or so some young people remember what good music really is?"--in your best Grandmother Frobisher voice. Well, yes, they are all that, but if they were merely rechanneling Hoagy Charmichael or George M. Cohan, I suppose that brand of criticism could be justified. What Amanda Barrett and Abby DeWald have achieved with their second release, Moon Over the Freeway, is a pleasant expansion of their musical horizons. Oh, the pseudo-novelty sensibility abounds and the instrumental vocabulary is beyond eclectic, but while Moon Over the Freeway freely cadges from Bob Wills ("Waking Up in the City"), Les Paul ("Moon Over the Freeway"), and klezmer dance bands ("Get up 'N' Go"), Mitchell Froom's largely acoustic arrangements and The Ditty Bops' band (Greg Rutledge, keys; Ian Walker, bass; John Lambdin, violin, lap steel, guitar; and Pete Thomas, percussion) take equal credit for the record's bouncy, old timey ambience. A gentle number like "Growing Upside Down" and an energetic remake of the Everlys' "Bye Bye Love" attest to The Ditty Bops musical as well as their vocal range. The comparisons to Dan Hicks's band, especially Marianne Price's and Naomi Ruth Eisenberg's vocals, from whom The Ditty Bops seem to have learned a great deal, and The Roches are still apt, perhaps even more evident than on their eponymous debut (reviewed in No. 109). Like other bands whose pith is drawn from bygone eras, say, Pink Martini or Asleep at the Wheel, The Ditty Bops, unless they get serious, stop having fun, and make A Record of Meaning and Substance, will remain an utterly delightful side show, a pair of pixies whose role in life might be gleefully pricking balloons ("Your Head's Too Big") as much as playing with them.
Peter Gammons, Never Slow Down, Never Grow Old (Rounder)
Okay, Peter Gammons is a sportswriter and ESPN talking head. Like most guys outside the business, he's got no business cutting a CD, right? Uh, well, er ... wrong. This delightful surprise is a benefit for Boston Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein's family's charity, Foundation To Be Named Later. Gammons assembled a crack R&B band, called in a bunch of chits with bona fide stars (Juliana Hatfield, Paul Barrere, George Thorogood, Kay Hanley), and enlisted help from a number of players from a certain baseball team. The result is twelve cuts of pure rock'n'roll fun with Chuck Berry's "Carol" and "Promised Land," Warren Zevon's "Model Citizen," Buddy Holly's "Love's Made A Fool of You," The Clash's "Death Or Glory," and more. Gammons's voice is another surprise, a stylistic collision among Randy Newman, Joe Cocker, and Ray Charles with range and depth. There are more than a few bands who are or should be looking for a lead singer who might want to give him a ring.
As I write this, Gammons is still recovering from a brain aneurysm, having made only one public appearance, appropriately enough at a Red Sox game, since being stricken. As a lifelong baseball fanatic, I've held Gammons's work in the highest regard. His writing for Sports Illustrated was one of my early models, and his cogent, measured commentary on ESPN's "Baseball Tonight" has ever been the stuff that stopped all argument. And that's saying something when you consider all the endless gabbing on that show. Never Slow Down, Never Grow Old isn't high art. It isn't even great R&B. But it's very, very good, and the cause is just.
Abbreviations. A Richard Feder of Ft. Lee, N.J. wrote and asked that I more fully explain what the rating "stars" mean. We aim to please.
(none) A flushing sound
* A useful alternative to watching paint dry ... or not
** The only clean outfit in your closet is a polyester leisure suit
*** The O's sweep a weekend series with the Yanks
**** A '65 Mustang on the King Canyon Highway near Fresno going about 110
***** Hosanna, Hey Sanna, Sanna, Sanna, Ho!
Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Blood (Anti) ***
There's an awful lot of star power around The New Pornographer's vocalist: Calexico's Joey Burns and Jon Convertino, Garth Hudson, Kelly Hogan, Paul Rigby, and others. Regardless, Case's vocals--aided with a tad too much reverb- shimmer brightly, almost overpowering her densely oblique lyrics. Noteworthy are "Star Witness" and "Hold On, Hold On," but there's nary a clunker in the bunch.
KT Tunstall, Eye to the Telescope (Virgin/ Relentless) ****
With the Virgin hype machine in overdrive, one is tempted to suggest the album's title be Eye to the Charts. Nonetheless, Tunstall, joining k.d. lang and K.T. Oslin as singers who hate their names, is the real deal. Eye to the Telescope, leading with "Other Side of the World," "Another Place to Fall," and the exquisite "Suddenly I See," is impressive, especially considering she sings 90% of the words and plays about 80% of the notes. Check it out.
Guster, Ganging Up On the Sun (Reprise) **** Like Gomez's How We Operate (last ish), Guster's Ganging Up on the Sun is a statement recording. While their last, Keep It Together (reviewed in No. 100), was a sunny collection of jangly pop anthems, Ganging Up on the Sun, expands their sonic palette, mostly by adding keyboardist Joe Pisapia to the lineup, and focuses each song as a unique enterprise, especially the haunting "Lightning Rod", infectious "Satellite," and soaring "Dear Valentine." This is what Coldplay could sound like if they had balls.
Tom Petty, Highway Companion (American) *** This is supposed to be a road record, one you pop in the flivver's CD player as you indulge in the great American pastime: drivin'. But after a kick start with "Saving Grace" and guitarist Mike Campbell's razor sharp boogie, the pace slows and slows and slows. Highway Companion's allure is in its lyricism-rarely of late has Petty conjured images that reflect in all directions, from his subject to himself. But even with Wilbury Jeff Lynne back at the board and Campbell populating the bridges with impeccable fills, the feeling is melancholy, blue--not at all what you want for a road trip. Maybe Petty's feeling old; maybe he should give fellow Wilbury Bob Dylan a call. Or that other guy, Gammons. They seem to be getting along.
Amadou and Miriam, Dimanche a Bamako (Nonesuch) ***
Amadou Bagayoko and Miriam Doumbia are a blind couple, who have been leading artists in their native Mali for many years. For Dimanche a Bamako ("Sunday in Bamako") they enlisted Latin alt-world maven Manu Chao to arrange and produce, effecting their most accessible, tho' decidedly least Malian, work to date. Highlights are "Fast Food in Bamako" and "Beaux Dimanches." Yep, it's all in French. Good luck.
R.I.P. Syd Barrett, Arthur Lee, Bruce Gary, Bruno Kirby, Bob Thaves, Glenn Ford, Steve Irwin, Bob Mathias. Email: KJEast@cox.net. Did I tell you that Reader's Digest is considering encapsulating some of the Abbreviations reviews?
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|Title Annotation:||Sound recordings|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2007|
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