Thursday, October 27, 2005
Hell Demonio – Greatest Hits
Every now and then it’s necessary to do a bit of the old head-banging. In order to do so most effectively, one requires some absolutely incomprehensible thrash metal to stimulate the action. I have to tell you, this is the perfect record for such cranial damage and any other kind of self-abuse one might like to indulge in. Angry meaningless ranting conducted at 60mph is what you get here and no messing. Could be your greatest hits too!
Hollywood Squaretet – Tet Offensive
Gulcher Records GULCH603
OK… this is one for real musos. Hollywood Squaretet is a freejazz trio – probably the best I’ve come across for many a long year. You’ll either love it or hate it. I love it. It’s generally very difficult to accurately describe any type of music other than by comparison – in this case it would be impossible. So here’s the best comparison I can make. ‘It’s Bush Music.’ And if you don’t know what this means, approach your nearest sad loser music freak and borrow Captain Beefheart’s ‘Troutmask Replica’ LP and listen to the sublime ‘Hair Pie Bake1.’ This has to be the model for Hollywood Squaretet’s madness. And they do a fucking good job of emulating the ravings of the sanest man on the planet. Nuff Said.
In Between Dreams
Now you all know my attitude to the singer-songwriter culture – I think it’s largely a shop-front for self-indulgent pretentious pomposity. You’ll also be aware that I dislike the modern high-jacking of the word ‘jazz’ by smooth pianists and acoustic guitarists who don’t stand a hope of success in the rock market and have to resort to airing their wares on middle of the road stations (you know who I mean). I was disgusted for example to hear that Jamie Cullum had given an accolade suggesting he was jazz musician of the year, probably by listeners to the dreadful Jazz FM or possibly the Mercury Awards people, I can’t rightly remember. Whichever – it was a totally undeserved and nonsensical attribution of distinction. Now I have nothing personal against the lad, Jamie – I’ve heard him being interviewed on the radio and found him to be articulate and amusing, but let’s be honest – he’s got one of the worst singing voices ever and his musicianship is thoroughly average. "Where’s this all leading?," I hear you ask. Well – I’m about to pull this all together – nominating My Soundtrack of the Summer and dethroning Jamie in one fell swoop.
I took a week’s family holiday in Spain in July. The teenagers in the group bought a copy of Jack Johnson’s ‘In Between Dreams, CD on the outward journey and played it incessantly throughout the week. The tunes were infectious, the singer-songwriter type lyrics were almost tolerable and much improved by the musical settings which were mainly memorable jazzy grooves. It infected my brain and I grew to love it.
The song ‘Good People’ was released as a single and has been often played on the radio since my return and has always brought moments from the trip back into my mind. It’s a good song from an almost perfect album – only 1 dud track IMHO.
It is thus with great pleasure that I nominate Jack Johnson as the Alternative Jazz Musician of the Year and his brilliant album my official Soundtrack of the Summer of 2005.
See if you agree – go out and beg, steal or borrow a copy of ‘In Between Dreams.’
Tuesday, October 25, 2005
Pellumair – Summer Storm
Pellumair – Summer Storm
You may remember me recently ruminating on the subject of buying unknown records by judging the cover artwork. I omitted to mention the topic of the importance of naming – both artist and album.
When I was sent this record and saw the name of the group, the name of the record and the cover art, my immediate reaction was to reach for a bucket. So it was with somewhat of a handicap that I sat down to review the disc.
I wasn’t helped in this ordeal when I discovered it to be a semi-acoustic album of the singer-songwriter type – perhaps a bit folky – maybe even folksy. But, intrepid to the end I endured to the end of the eleventh and final challenging track. And, d’you know what? It wasn’t half bad really.
I will say it’s not the type of thing I’d personally rush out to buy but the music was pleasant, relaxing – maybe a little dreamy, I’d say. Stronger than wallpaper – one was forced to listen quite often rather than allowed to drift off while the sounds wafted over one’s head. There was plenty of inventive variation in tempo and mood – sometimes a Latin flavour, sometimes quite poppy – to maintain the attention and wonder what was coming next. Now quite downbeat, then a bit whizzy. Here a bit haunting like the music from ‘Twin Peaks’, there more whistful like Simon & Garfunkel, setting off with Cathy to look for America.
So, grudgingly, I have to admit that despite all my prejudices and objections this is a rather splendid album and should bring the group into the popular consciousness – if only they’d change their dreadful name!
Laura Veirs - Galaxies
Single taken from the Album ‘Year of Meteors’
‘The Singles Club’ is a new-ish venture from Nonesuch. Just when we thought the single was on its last legs – sales near zero, charts cheapened by sponsorship, and only really reflecting the tastes of teenyboppers or people not affluent enough to buy albums, they come out with the idea of starting selling them. Weird, eh? But maybe not so weird after all. The label is noted for high quality acts of all sorts including contemporary classical composers and jazzers as well as some of the more classy acts from the popular music field. Steve Reich and Philip Glass – 2 of my all time heroes both issue stuff on this label for instance. These artists are often not fully exposed to popular view on daytime radio.
I suppose the idea is to give people an idea what certain artists sound like whereas they’d otherwise never know. It’s a good idea but to make it work they need to explore how they can put the product into the public eye. Perhaps selling their singles at a discounted price would be one way to do it – after all we often see singles priced at 3 or 4 quid and say, ‘No thanks – they’re selling albums in the supermarket for £7 or £8." No - singles need to be about £1 maximum to revive the flagging market. Perhaps Nonesuch should set the ball rolling and start a trend. Let’s all write and tell ‘em!
Anyway (climbing down from soapbox), this record is a good one.- Laura has a haunting but lilting voice which grooves along, the backing is high quality sleazy jazz-rock and the remix featuring rapper Kotos the Rock Thrower [would you believe!] takes it into a quite different dimension. Such inventiveness needs to be rewarded with success. I hope it gets some airplay and people either buy it or go and seek out the album as I will be doing very soon now.
Wednesday, October 12, 2005
Sunday, October 09, 2005
Genesis Suite (1945) – A Musical Collaboration
Naxos American Classics 8.559442Various Narrators, Ernst Sheffer Choir, Chorusmaster Sigurd Brauns, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester, cond. Gerard Schwarz
Coming from the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music, this Post-War composition by 7 different composers, such as Schoenberg, Milhaud and Stravinsky, each contributing 1 movement, depicts episodes from the earliest Biblical stories including The Garden, The Flood, the Tower of Babel and Cain & Abel narrated by famous actors. Previously only available on a privately issued set of 78 records, the work was performed just once before a fire destroyed a large proportion of the score. A recent discovery of the original manuscripts has allowed a reconstruction of the missing music and led to this first generally available disc, making this effectively a world premier recording.The music is rather good actually, being a brilliant mix of The Pastoral and Second Viennese School Modernism, tinged with that rather strange concoction of what that so many classical composers of the era thought Jazz was about. But it's the narration that calls the project into question for me. I admit that there’s not an awful lot one can do about the text when directly quoting the Old Testament, but the presentation is very much that of the Era – patronising New England voices imparting The Truth in the style of a 1950s Disney TV nature documentary. I’m sorry to say that this makes the whole thing seem rather ridiculous and dated in the worst possible way. I suppose a one-word description of this side of the production would be ‘Worthy’. I’d be interested to hear whether an American listener experiences the same difficulty with the style. I find it excruciating in the extreme! Which is the greatest shame as the music could stand alone and might even rank as a modern masterpiece.
Still - All We Need Is Love
There’s really no doubt in my mind that The Beatles were instrumental in laying out the direction that pop/rock music was to take in the decades following the 1960s, and that their imaginative adoption of fashion and patronage of other art-forms set irreversible trends in those areas too. Their convenient arrival at the very time the world was beginning to move forward again after the stagnation and austerity that followed World War Two greatly contributed to wider social changes in the rise of Youth Culture, the growth of Mass Media, and the demise of the former Class Structures. Notably for those around at the time old-fashioned traditions of deference were killed stone dead. The breadth of their influence is absolutely unparalleled in history and I’m sure it will be a long, long time before such a phenomenon occurs again. They wrote an unequalled number of memorable tunes for themselves and other artists and the vast majority of these have stood up to the passage of time admirably. I can appreciate that The Beatles were not everyone’s favourite group, but I think if anyone truly denies their pivotal historical position among artists above all-comers including Elvis, they are simply either kidding themselves or need their head examined. Perhaps only world politicians and statesmen such as Hitler, Mao Zedong, Stalin, Churchill and Kennedy will have had greater or equal influence in the modern world.It is a truism that as a group, The Beatles was a Gestalt phenomenon. What they achieved together vastly outweighs their accomplishments as individuals. The only person to come near being as important alone was John Lennon with his ‘Working Class Hero’ and ‘Imagine’ albums, but I believe that his star had begun to wane well before his famous Long Lost Weekend. It was his murder that revived his fortune and reputation rather than any truly great quality in his work in latter days.Paul McCartney has had his moments what with ‘Band on the Run,’ ‘Mull of Kintyre’ and perhaps ‘The Frog Song’ [only joking!]. But Paul’s function has really been to become what he always was – Mum’s Favourite and a bit of an older statesman on the world pop stage. His recent work has been distinctly second division stuff and the whole ‘McCartney-Lennon’ thing has been a turn-off for former admirers if not a downright embarrassment.George Harrison was an easily recognisable guitarist of some note and the early solo accomplishment of ‘All Things Must Pass’ was great, his contribution to international relations & world arts advancement made through The Concert for Bangla Desh were exemplary, and his support of the British Film Industry is truly admirable. But analysis of his song-writing skills call into question any notion that he was in any way the equal of John & Paul – his lyrics are often trite and usually very repetitive – the great songs are few and far between. The Unravelling Wilberries, Jeff Lynn’s super group (pooperscoop?) of dying and decrepit has-beens , were a sorry postscript to his (and others’) former glory and numerous comebacks never really lifted of the ground. He will be remembered as the quieter, more diffident Beatle, who was into spirituality, and the sad ending to his life – injury and illness – will just make his image more poignant in retrospect.Ringo Starr was the fun character in the group – seemingly the happy-go-lucky clown – who would have been of little importance if the other three hadn’t been as good as they were. Many drummers claim that Ringo was their great influence, but frankly this is quite hard to give too much credence to. He’s done some nice stuff as a solo musician and actor , but one has to ask whether any of that would have held any significance without The Beatles – it certainly would not have happened and one wonders if Pete Best had remained the drummer of the group, whether history would have been much different.It’s forty years since The Beatles really began to show what they were really made of, and were slightly more than just another fly-by-night upstart pop phenomenon. The film ‘Help,’ ‘Ticket to Ride’ and ‘Beatles for Sale’ all appeared in 1965, proving that their true talents were only just beginning to show. We all probably think they had low points and failures – the ‘Get Back’/Spector/Klein debacle, Apple Corps, and so on. For me, their poorest showing was with the ‘Rubber Soul’ album (complete with dreadful cover artwork) which I still think to be their nadir – I know others disagree. ‘Revolver’ was arguably their greatest single contribution, but my high spot has to be ‘Hey Jude.’ But whatever our own personal favourites and otherwise, it is, I think, important to acknowledge the tremendous contribution these four guys [and people around them – George Martin, Derek Taylor, Brian Epstein etc] have made to the world as we know it today. I’m sure many of us wouldn’t be where we are, doing what we are doing now, had it not been for Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts’ Club Band.
Ellen Taaffe Zwilich – Violin Concerto, Rituals
Ellen Taaffe Zwilich – Violin Concerto, Rituals
Naxos American Classics 8.559268Pamela Frank, Violin; Nexus, IRIS Chamber Orchestra, Saarbrucken Radio Orchestra; Michael Stern
I don’t generally pick which CDs to review by first reading the sleeve notes. Thank Goodness. Otherwise I should have thrown this album straight in the bin! I have to say that the programme notes written by George Sturm from Music Associates of America are utterly incomprehensible to this listener and I daresay would be to most others. They’re full of pretentious claptrap such as ‘Remembrances alludes to traditions of memorialising’ and ‘My goal was an existential kind of authenticity: searching… for universal ideals .. true to both myself and the performers while acknowledging the traditional uses of the instruments.’ These are mainly the words of the composer and one can see why she specialises in music rather than writing – she’s clearly better at it. But I’m afraid the rest of the text is not much more user friendly.So I have to say the presentation does little to encourage the casual listener/buyer to explore the music further. Which is a great shame because it turns out to be rather good. Again, despite the notes, which assert that Zwilich has an easily recognisable American sound, I have to say the ‘Concerto for Violin & Orchestra (1988)’ was not immediately recognisable as coming from any American tradition I can identify – Sousa, Copeland, Ives, Glass, Adams – it’s far more European mid-20th Century sounding to my ear. Nevertheless it is well put together, well played and makes for interesting listening if you are a fan of the concerto or the era I mention. Perhaps ‘Rituals for Five Percussionists & Orchestra (2002)’ is more identifiably American in style having some of the impressionistic jazzy urban bustle indicative of a Gershwin or Bernstein piece, but again the same European tradition is constantly evident. The first movement ‘with its dramatic introduction evokes a mystery to be unfolded. The combination of percussion and horns is particularly intriguing. We are then led on into ‘Ambulation’ which is one of those jerky trips through a colourful excitement filled landscape which are to me more typically American in style than anything that’s gone before. ‘Remembrances’ with nairy a hint of ‘memorialising’ in my view is darker, more sinister, perhaps rather Eastern [or even Japanese] in provenance, although riding in tandem with some more post-war Teutonic Gloom. The concluding movement ‘Contests’ is rather more upbeat and jollier, evoking as it does frantic activity and enjoyment. So even though I was totally unable to take on board the composers descriptions of her music, I did find it relatively simple to interpret on my own terms. Whether this be a good or bad thing, I can’t say but have to admit the music was really quite captivating despite the package designer’s best attempts to stop me listening to it!
Tracy Chapman – Where You Live
Tracy Chapman – Where You Live
By now, you probably be familiar with my attitude to singer/songwriters and acoustic guitars. So, it was with more than a little trepidation that I approached reviewing this album. Add to this the fact that I cannot read, let alone hear, the name Tracy Chapman without conjuring up a picture of the benign countenance and gruff whisper of Bob Harris. I don’t know why, but it’s guaranteed to put me off!Therefore, when the first couple of tracks of this album turned out to be fairly ordinary S-S/A-G material, I was ready to give it a good going over. My mood was not abated on hearing Track 3, ‘3,000 Miles,’ which is repetitive to the point of torture. The next couple of songs were no improvement either, I’m afraid, although Track 5, ‘Don’t Dwell,’ had a certain lilting melancholy which did begin to catch my attention. The next number, ‘America’ started off a bit like Neil Young’s ‘Heart of Gold’ – always a bit dubious and disappointing to my mind – I think it suggests understatement but there’s really nothing there to be said. This was the same. And so it went on until…. Track 9 entitled ‘Before Easter’ hauled its arse into earshot and the album suddenly came alive. Strangely, this too suffers from a degree of understatement but there’s a suggestion there that it’s got hidden depths to be fathomed – and this is attractive to little old me. The CD then returned to its previous unremarkable and unremitting meandering gentleness, but somehow felt somewhat more interesting. I suspect that, had the playing order had been changed so that Track 9 had come first or second, I would have heard it with a completely different ear. I’ve tried this but it didn’t work out for me – maybe because I’d been through the former process – but it does show that one song and where it appears on an album can do a lot to alter how it is perceived and, maybe, accepted, or not.So, although my general attitude to the genre remains unchanged, my opinion of this CD has been elevated from a thoroughly average collection of sludgy dirges to a moderately interesting album to be played in the background at a dinner party. I guess that’s OK.If, like Whispering Bob, you’re a fan of Tracy Chapman, I should think it’s right up your street!
Record Reviews - October 2005
Naxos 8.557641Royal Scottish National Orchestra, David Lloyd-Jones
Although Bliss considered Melee Fantasque to be his first attempt at a ballet score. It seems more like a tone poem to me. It is dedicated to the memory of Claude Lovat Fraser, artist and theatre designer with whom Bliss had collaborated on productions of Shakespeare and it is intended to convey the movement in some of Lovat Fraser’s colourful paintings. The music is recognisably in the English pastoral tradition of the early twentieth century and very interestingly arranged too.Checkmate, a ballet in One Scene with a Prologue is far more rambling and possibly does not fare so well as a piece of stand alone music in the same way as Mellee Fantasque. One can imagine it working well as a stage production – the sounds are very beautiful and flow well but for me the work does not excite the ears to any great degree.
Hush Collector – Flowby
Candy Cone CONE003CD
A magnificently moody EP from yet another band sporting a wonderfully plaintiff female lead voice. The four songs field a varied faire of fascinating heartaches and mental pains. The general feel of the record is downbeat and understated – just the thing for the garret lifestyle of modern art-school youth. The band supports well throughout but it has to be said it doesn’t really show its true potential until the third track ‘It don’t matter’ when a sudden burst of enthusiasm points the way to a slightly heavier sound I’d like to hear them explore in depth as they move forward. I really hope they make a go of it and they won’t be quite so hushed in the future.
Rogers & Hammerstein - Carousel (1945), Allegro (1947) Original Broadway Casts
Naxos Musicals 8.120780
As forerunners of their later great works ‘South Pacific’ & ‘Oklahoma’ which I consider to be the benchmarks for all musicals to aspire to, Carousel puts Rogers and Hammerstein pretty well on the way to those dizzy heights. It always helps when the overture is a great tune in its own right and the ‘Carousel Walltz’ is just that. Unlike the later Blockbuster Hit Shows, not every song is a classic but with such numbers as ‘If I Loved You,’ ‘June is Bustin’ Out All Over,’ ‘When the Children are Asleep’ and ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ there’s a good percentage of bulls-eyes here. My only criticism is that in 1945 the singing style had not yet adopted the free and easy presentation that became commonplace in the next few years. So voices sound a bit forced in places, which is apt to grate – this is more noticeable with the leading singers, who seem to worry about correct diction, rather than the chorus, which is more relaxed. But, despite this, the high quality songs make Carousel a worthwhile addition to one’s collection of music from the shows.Sadly Allegro has not stood the test of time quite so well. The songs are generally much weaker and thus, probably deservedly, long forgotten. The only one I previously knew was ‘The Gentleman is a Dope’ – and this only slightly. So only half a hit here as far as I’m concerned, but still worth owning as Naxos value outweighs the downside when compared with the other sources of the better songs.
Sibelius – Song of the Earth BIS BIS-CD-1365Helena Juntunen (soprano), Juha Hostikka (baritone), Dominante Choir, Lahti Symphony Orchestra, cond. Osmo Vanska
This album consists of several assorted choral works by Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) set against the rich soaring orchestral landscape one usually associates with the composer. The texts are taken from Finnish and Swedish tradition and historical events. The stirring choruses are almost operatic in places and draw vivid pictures of struggles that one can only accurately imagine if one knows either the folklore or the language. But the gist of these struggles is pretty clear in any language – it’s epic! Never having heard any of these works before I cannot judge how they compare to other recordings of the same. I suspect they would score very highly. The sound is clear and crisp, the voices are strident and passionate, the orchestration is dramatic and well-balanced. In fact I should say this record paints an excellent & accurate picture of the Nationalist fervour which was rife in Scandinavia in particular and across Europe in the late-nineteenth/early twentieth century and reflected by composers of so many nations throughout this turbulent period.