Friday, December 30, 2011

System of a Down "Mezmerize" (CD)

System of a Down's fourth album. This one, produced by Rick Rubin is the beginning of what would become known as the "loud wars." Everything on this record is packed to maximum capacity and layered with screaming.
The good news: the songs are fun, catchy and memorable. Not bad for a metal album.

Sarah Vaughan
"How Long Has This Been Going On?" (Vinyl)

Welcome back from a week at home for Christmas! Trying to pick up the pieces...

We begin with Sarah Vaughan's late "How Long Has This Been Going On?" an almost perfunctory set of jazz standards. There's little here that's new or noteworthy; she was quite old when she recorded this. Much of the magic and charm in her voice is still there, but her pitch center drops numerous times throughout the recording.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Oistrakh & Richter
Violin Sonatas by Brahms & Frank (VInyl)

I'm learning that so much of the playing that I've been taught and admire in my own generation of playing is rooted in the Russian style of Oistrakh and Milstein among others. When hearing the great American violinists of the early 20th century I feel less kinship to their instincts than I do with the Russian greats.

The recording isn't great - it's a live recording from a recital (which is amazing in itself) in 1968, so the recording technology was already quite advanced, but perhaps not having the control over the environment like you would in a recording studio explains most of the stuff I hear.

Either way, it's gorgeous playing from both Mr. Oistrakh and Richter.

Monday, December 19, 2011

"OK Computer" (CD + Vinyl)

It's good to go back and learn from our past every once in a while.
So much as been written about Radiohead's 1997 album "OK Computer" and how it has pointed the direction of so many musical ideas for the next decade. I am in the camp that says you can not underestimate Radiohead's musical influence. Their career has transcended definition, label, sales and logic. Who would believe that a progressive experimental rock band would be able to sell out arena tours in 2011? Still, this is what Radiohead has accomplished.
Many would say the trajectory that Radiohead is on started with 'Computer.' The funny thing is, listening to it now, it sounds primitive and radio-friendly compared to where they're at today. I guess that's the point. I guess that's the game.

Martha Reeves & the Vandellas
"Anthology" (Vinyl)

Containing the Motown hits "Heat Wave" and "Dancing in the Street" this is the perfect way to start a Monday morning. 'nuf said.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

John Williams, London Symphony Orchestra
"Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark Original Soundtrack" (Vinyl)

This wouldn't ordinarily be anything that I troubled to collect, but somehow owning some of Mr. Williams' biggest hits on vinyl was hilarious. Especially when it cost me $1.00

Having played some of this music live in concert I can't say I support any position that claims Mr. Williams as an important voice in American music, but I will say that Mr. Williams has done more than his share to ensure that the symphony continues to play into the 22nd century, if for no other reason than people will always pay to hear "Star Wars" and "Harry Potter" played live.

Henry Mancini & The Philadelphia Orch. Pops
"Debut!" (VInyl)

I'm not sure what this record is a debut for. I think it's a debut recording of the Philadelphia Pops (probably late to the game after Arthur Fiedler's success with the Boston Pops) because the whole second side of this record are Mancini hits including "Strings on Fire!" and "Drummer's Delight."
The whole side one, however, is a different story.
Titled "Beaver Valley - '37" it is an autobiographical account of Mancini's childhood in Pennsylvania. With plenty of solos from the likes of John de Lancie and Norman Carol this record is a fun throw-back to Ormandy-era Philly Orchestra where (hopefully) they were learning not to take things too seriously.

The Gorillaz
"The Gorillaz" (CD)

The debut album from Damon Albarn's "virtual" rock band is also their best. Done.
Although their next album garnered even more attention and attracted the talents of Danger Mouse as producer I still feel that the first album was a more perfect incarnation of the lunacy and spectacle that Albarn was going for. There was radio-friendly fare ("Tomorrow Comes Today") and plunges into the surreal ("Latin Simone" and "M1 A1") that Albarn never really went for since. Which is too bad.

Friday, December 16, 2011

John Denver & the Muppets
"A Christmas Together" (Vinyl)

Released after a 1979 Christmas television special, this vinyl is exactly what you'd think: John Denver singing Christmas classics with...the...Muppets. I wonder if the Muppeteers brought the Muppets with them into the recording studio? I wonder if it's incapacitating to have to do Miss Piggy's voice if Miss Piggy isn't there?

There's nothing overly outrageous or comical about these tunes, just the Muppets singin' Christmas tunes...ta da!

St. Vincent
"Strange Mercy" (Vinyl)

St. Vincent's third LP is just as beautifully weird as her last ones. I can't say that I've had a favorite at all - basically each of her albums to date have just been an exploration, each song taking her in a new tonal direction. Each song has enough grip to it that you don't lose interest but each one also has some new tangent of sound that St. Vincent explores.
The accessibility of recording technology has led to a small explosion of songwriters who are able to create textures that would otherwise never be heard. Perhaps this is the lesson to be learned in the rubble of our post Myspace/Napster/iTunes battle.
Good music never goes anywhere. You just have to learn how to look for it.

TV on the Radio
"Dear Science" (CD)

TV on the Radio's third album is probably my least favorite, but nonetheless beautiful and inventive, as all of TVOTR albums are.
I can't be too specific as to why this is my least favorite album because I don't really know. They're all beautiful and interesting and complex. This one just seems to have less of the spark of insanity to it that made me love 'Cookie Mountain' and without the hooks in 'Nine Types'

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Danny Kaye, Louis Armstrong
"The Five Pennies" Original Sountrack (LP)

This sounds exactly like it should - a lush hollywood string/big band soundtrack to a primetime Danny Kaye film.
A semi-biographical movie about bandleader Red Nichols, Kaye plays the cornet-playing namesake.

I couldn't find the exact image online - the vinyl copy I have is a stereo pressing on the Dot label.

Budapest Quartet
Beethoven String Quartets opp. 18, 59, 95, etc. (CD)

It's very revealing to listen to these old quartet recordings in comparing them in where string chamber music is at today. I would argue that the Budapest Quartet was one of the first world-famous string quartets of the modern era, certainly in part because they existed at the dawn of modern recording techniques. From their loins sprang the Juilliard Quartet, the Guarneri and from there it's been a short genealogy to our present day.

These CDs are of the Budapest's 1940's mono recordings which in itself is very interesting to hear.
Playing styles have changed in subsequent generations, but these guys set the benchmark for ensemble and cohesion.

"Fiction" (CD)

It's amazing how quickly something can sound "dated." I've had this record in my collection since it was new (1999-ish?) and it has made journeys from MN to OH to DC to SD. That's a lot of miles for a CD that I've probably listened to only a dozen times or so.

I think I'm closer to figuring this album out: Dan Mukala, the founder/band leader was a composition major in college. I think this helps to point out the origin of such an eclectic collection of styles. Borrowing cues from another 90's Christian music star, Carman, Dan Mukala tries to dip his toes in many different genres. His downfall occurs when he thinks he's equally capable of all of these styles. His vocal style resembles a lot of the surfer ska-minded west coast singing and the musical production is constantly shifting underneath his feet.
The songwriting is always quirky and off-the-wall, but not really enough for it to feel more than flavor-of-the-year.

Herbie Hancock
"Monster" (Vinyl)

This album, early in Hancock's career - oh wait, never mind. Released in 1980, this was already Hancock's 29th album. Busy boy.
Hancock, ever the one-man synthesizer of musical currents, releases an album that's kinda disco kinda funk kinda jazz...

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Buddy Holly & the Crickets
"20 Greatest Hits" (Vinyl)

A compilation album released in 1978 on vinyl is a pretty fool-proof collection of reasons why Buddy Holly was important to Rock n' Roll. Some of these are smash hits that we all know ("That'll Be the Day", "Peggy Sue") and some have slipped from public knowledge in recent decades. That doesn't make the songs any less alive and full of vitality.

P.S. The fact that this was once rowdy rock n' roll should serve as a lesson to anyone who's troubled by what "those kids" are listening to today. Mtv 'Unplugged' has more raucous tunes than Buddy Holly ever did.

The King's Singers
"Flanders & Swann and Noel Coward" (Vinyl)

This isn't one of the Singers' forays into medieval song or renaissance madrigal. Rather, what we have is an homage to the comedic songwriting duo of Flanders and Swann and to the tunes of Noel Coward. Each song is pretty hilarious and its even more remarkable that the Singers' ability to articulate and annunciate means that every word is heard in striking clarity.
The Singers' good humor is evident in this album as is their trademark sense of ensemble and tone.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

"The Printz"

One of the noisiest groups I've heard, this set of songs are actually two individually-released EP's that the Beez decided to release as their first full-length album.
Everything sounds like it was recorded via bootleg technology in a truckstop bathroom, but that doesn't stop it from being some pretty head-banging rockin' stuff.

They've since released a second album which I've not heard, but I hope they've lost none of their rowdy charm since this album came out.

Monday, December 12, 2011

It's been a loong weekend.

The Bad Plus
"Never Stop"

Minneapolis jazz fusion trio the Bad Plus release their first all-original album in their tenth year. Since it was their unconventional covers that made them famous (Nirvana's "Lithium", Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb") it may seem bold to do an album of only original work.
Thankfully it all holds together pretty well and there are only a couple of lull moments in the album.

The Poets of Rhythm
"Practice What You Preach"

It is very hard to determine the exact point of origin for this album. Everything from the production, recording, artwork and packaging all look like a re-release of something that was released in 1973, but in fact this ablum was released on Dap-tone in 2006.
It is very funky, very fun. And they're German. I think.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Vince Guaraldi Trio
"Charlie Brown's Holiday Hits"

Probably catapulted by the success of the soundtrack to the Peanuts' Christmas classic the geniuses behind 'Linus & Lucy' decided it would be a capital idea to assemble the memorable tracks from all of the Peanuts' holiday specials onto one album.

What we end up with is a thoroughly enjoyable, thoroughly playful and thoroughly good jazz album. The ensemble is at their swingin' best and you may even be able to associate some of the numbers with childhood memories. I don't remember much of the Peanuts specials aside from the Christmas special and a Halloween episode involving the Great Pumpkin and an accident with a bed sheet and a pair of scissors...

Elgar: Enigma Variations, Serenade for Strings
Handley, London Philharmonic

Elgar's most-respected orchestral work, (let's just leave Pomp & Circumstance outside where it belongs) the Enigma Variations, has been successfully tricking generations of musicians into trying to figure out what the joke is.
Trick or not, this is a beautiful piece of music.
This recording is a little odd. The recording itself feels swallowed, as though the microphones were obscured behind a curtain while the orchestra played. I don't know if it's my pressing of the record, but I'm used to hearing more care and clarity put into a classical recording. I'm not sure what happened this time...

Thursday, December 08, 2011

The Mars Volta
"Frances the Mute"

I had a conversation a couple weeks ago about At the Drive-In, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala's previous incarnation before The Mars Volta was formed. This reminded me that I needed to dig out the few Volta albums I have and give them a listen again.

This was the first Volta I'd ever heard. I was at a summer festival and they played the music video for "L'via L'viaquez" which sent my head whirling. I just didn't know anybody was making noise like that and getting attention for it.
Now granted, if you're standing near the hi-fi it's very easy to skip over the minutes upon minutes of noise that Rodriguez-Lopez installed in his project, but every song on here is different, hard-hitting and creative. Within two days I'd bought the record and was really able to digest Omar's guitar style which consists of endless parade of pyrotechnic force without any thought for going back for survivors.

To change it up, I listened to this today on my Tivoli Audio hi-fi which kept me company while I cleaned the kitchen. It's listening experience is very different than on my normal McIntosh/B&W set-up. Much of the middle ground is lost, which is too bad with this record, because that's where Omar's guitar lives. This isn't a criticism of the Tivoli - one can only expect a two-inch driver to do so much. It's a delightful bit of engineering and a swan song for Henry Kloss.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

The Ting Tings
"We Started Nothing"

The debut from British underground pop-hipsters had one big hit for the band: "Shut up and let me go" which may turn out to be the one-hit wonder kiss of death.
Truthfully, this album's full of catchy, noisy, punk-pop that doesn't quite sound like anything else you've heard.
Perhaps not quite dense enough to remain in my collection forever, I initially bought this because I was surprised at the whole album's content outside of their hit song.

Amadeus Quartet
Smetana and Dvorak "American" String Quartets

Every violist becomes aware of these two quartets. Both open with notable viola solos. One of which (the Dvorak) you are allowed to attempt a little earlier in life than the other. The Smetana can appear on audition excerpt lists when a committee mistakenly thinks that the opening volley is the same as playing actual chamber music and not just a glorified orchestral solo.

The performances here are beautiful if not notably different from today's quartet practices. As with everything in our post-editing age, so much value has come to be placed on clarity and precision that young up-and-coming quartets are accomplishing technical feats before not considered possible. But with this comes a loss of chutzpah, where attempts at more musical, expressive playing are neglected in effort to play that articulation perfectly together.
In music-speak, you can't call one wrong; it's just a contrast between a recording made 40 years ago and today.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Just a quick departure...

Music Review:
The Goat Rodeo Sessions
Ma, Meyer, Thile, Duncan

The latest addition to the bouquet of genre-bending projects from the minds of Meyer, Ma et al. is one of the most interesting in quite a while.

'The Appalachian Waltz' project, released in 1996, saw a new group of fans come to the small corner of music-making that can only be described as eclectic. Influences from classical, jazz, bluegrass, rock, celtic and improvisation all meet in a very stylish mash-up.
We have largely to thank Mr. Ma for his endless pursuit for all things Music. His involvement brought Edgar Meyer and Mark O'Connor to a new level of musical celebrity and helped increase the influence both of these equally talented artists had.
For me, this is where I discovered Edgar Meyer. It is a musical debt I cannot repay.
In the last fifteen years there have been copious subsequent projects pulling in a wide range of musical collaborators including Joshua Bell, Bela Fleck, Chris Thile, and saw the formation of another genre-proof ensemble: Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble.

This most recent project brings back the powerful duo of Meyer and Ma and adds the efforts of Chris Thile whom Edgar released an album in 2008 (the very articulately titled "Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile") of Nickel Creek/Punch Brothers fame.
They also add Stuart Duncan on fiddle. Mr. Duncan is one of the most sought-after session fiddlers who has a discography longer than most could consider (and I would consider this the most important addition to the troupe of MeyerMa etc.)

The result of all of this hay-making is a very thoughtful, touching collection of songs that reaches a lot further than some of the projects these musicians have released lately.
They are both accessible and yet poignant and full of richness. Each song uses a different approach to color, texture and character and each has the ability to grab the ear. Perhaps this is thanks to Thile's ear for songwriting, perhaps it is to Ma's unparalleled musicianship, perhaps it is to Meyer's groundbreaking concepts of style, but whatever it is, this is a not-to-be-missed moment of SUM>PARTS.

Lou Rawls
"Merry Christmas Ho! Ho! Ho!"

In getting into the appropriate mood for the season I pulled one of my more interesting Christmas records off the shelf.

Every arrangement of the Christmas classics on this album is drenched in 70's soul, funk drums and horn section. Awesome.

I get the feeling that this album may have been pushed out really quickly. At points Rawls makes errors that aren't bothered to correct. It's funny, because in today's auto-tune society it doesn't really matter what the singer does. In analog days these 'errors' are preserved forever.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Beethoven: the Five Piano Concertos
Serkin, Ozawa, BSO

This cycle was recorded in the early 80's in Boston, which is quite late in Serkin's lengthy and illustrious career considering he also recorded individual piano concertos with the likes of Ormandy, Bernstein and Mehta.

The Telarc recording is beautiful, capturing the performances with an honest purity.

My favorite part of this recording is the last page of the liner notes where there's a very detailed list of all of the recording equipment used. The list includes (but not limited to) B&K Model 4004S, Schoeps Colettes, ADS Model 1530, 1290 CS2000, etc...
been a busy weekend, but I managed to squeeze a few in:

"King of Limbs"
(Vinyl + CD)

Radiohead has become the benchmark for progressive art rock. So much of their output extends beyond the label of 'rock' or 'alternative.' It's easier to say that Radiohead has been making some of the last decade's most interesting and creative music. Period.

'Limbs' isn't quite the stretch of imagination that we have seen on many of their other albums. It doesn't revolutionize the way 'OK' or even 'Kid A' did, nor does it represent a left-turn ala 'Rainbows'. It's more of an exploration of territory that has become very familiar for Radiohead. While the album isn't bad, its a stretch to consider it their best/most important work.

"Plastic Beach"

I love what the Gorillaz represent. I love the idea of a virtual reality rock band that exists only in the mind of Damon Albarn.
I've loved seeing all of the art work and writings made about this fictitious band. I love their live performances. But mostly, I love their music.
Sadly, the Gorillaz are on track to be a band that each with each subsequent album become only echoes of their earlier releases.
I first became familiar with 'Demon Days' but then I heard their debut and realized it to be superior to the more commercial 'Days.'
Plastic Beach is another step down the musical ladder with the songs becoming even more confused and wandering. It pains me to see this happening, but even cartoon heroes must fall.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Fischer-Dieskau, Furtwangler, Kempe, Barenboim
"Kindertotenlieder" "Ruckerlieder" "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" etc.

I've always loved Dieskau's voice. He was one of the singers that made listening to art song bearable. He even make the "Erlkonig" exciting.

This CD is (I'm pretty sure) a compilation of Mahler songsets that Dieskau had recorded over the course of his career and all assembled conveniently on this one EMI release.

Now the trick is trying to figure out if this stuff sounds familiar because I've played it before, or because Mahler stole his own material so extensively that it all starts to blur together...

Frank Sinatra
"She Shot Me Down"

Recorded in 1981, this was intended to be an album that harkened back to the Capitol years for Frank Sinatra with a selection of tear-jerkers that was probably intended to be reminiscent of 'Only for the Lonely'

The arrangements are beautiful, the song selection is great, including a cover of his daughter's cover of "Bang Bang (She Shot Me Down,)" but you can't help but feel the age creeping into Frank's voice. There's a weariness that you just don't hear in his earlier records.
This isn't probably a recording except for the most avid Sinatra fans.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Elton John

Recorded in 1974, this is Elton John's 8th studio album release.
Every recording artist that has enjoyed a long career undoubtedly suffers from the stuff we all know, and the stuff we don't. (Which is different than the stuff we wish we'd forget.)
While 'Caribou' isn't chock full of a lot of Elton's blockbuster tunes, it comes out of an era of his output that "sounds" very Elton and I think captures a time when Elton was at the height of his touring power. The result is a very comfortable sounding recording complete with over-sized pink sun glasses.