Friday, March 30, 2012

"Tales from the Punchbowl"

Its hard for me to isolate a 'favorite' Primus album. The unofficial kings of weird have been at the top of their game for so long that people aren't accustomed to quantifying just how good "weird" is.

There are a couple of Primus' big hits on this album ('Winona's big brown beaver') but its hard to discern any real distinction between a "hit" and everything else they do.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings
"Soul Time!"

Finally! I can write about this album. I've been listening to it on mp3 since it's black Friday release, but since I didn't physically own the album it couldn't participate in my sojourn. But that problem has been rectified!
The vinyl was picked up from my local shop just yesterday afternoon. I proudly put this on the record shelf next to the rest of SJDK's works.

I'm not sure when these songs were originally recorded, but this is officially debuted as their un-released debut, revealing the 'funkier' side of SJDK from when they were the house band and Daptone records.

I love this album.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Zukerman, Barenboim
"Elgar Violin Concerto"

I was just having a conversation yesterday about the merits of Elgar as a composer. If you take away the 'Enigma' variations and 'Pomp & Circumtance' you're left with the cello concerto...and not much else that people actually know.

This concerto is beautiful, but made all the more beautiful by Zukerman's performance.
My opinion of Elgar's music hasn't changed much as a result of this recording.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Presidents of the United States of America

The follow-up to the debut smash, this was released on election day in 1996. How clever.

The music here is the same sort of self-deprecating humorous punk/pop tunes that got them attention in the midst of the Seattle grunge wave.

It didn't yield them any of the monster hits that they had with "Peaches" from their last album, but I think it's just as worthy an effort.

Quincy Jones
"The Dude"

Considering the illustrious and lengthy career that Quincy Jones has enjoyed over the last four decades, I think it's safe to say that Mr. Jones probably enjoyed the zenith of his career during the 80's. Between producing watershed albums for Michael Jackson, he also became known in his own rite as a musician. Musical taste and technology all combined in a perfect storm for Mr. Jones during the 80's. The public taste for the synthesized, sanitized super-produced sound was perfect timing for someone with the sense for arranging and producing that Quincy Jones has.

Juilliard String Quartet
"Bartok - String Qaurtets nos. 3 & 4

I have a recorded cycle of the Bartok quartets on CD also performed by the Juilliard Quartet made probably 20 years later.
Its amazing to think that when this cycle was recorded in the 1960's that some of these quartets were only 30 years old. It would have been interesting to observe audience reactions to Bartok's quartets when they hadn't been as canonized as now.

The middle quartets I think continue to be Bartok's most accessible as they are more rhythmically charged, more steeped in rustic folk music traditions and aren't overly lengthy.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Oscar Peterson & Stephane Grappelli

The first name in jazz violin has got to be Stephane Grappelli.
I knew of his influence from an old co-worker (who thought he was Stephane Grappelli) but it did introduce me to the world of genre-bending artists that were doing amazing things a generation before my contemporary heroes.

People like Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile who seem to traverse musical styles with ease are following in the footsteps of Grappelli, Grisman and Ponty, blurring the lines between classical, jazz, bluegrass and whatever else fell in their cross hairs.
We also owe a debt to Oscar Peterson and his ilk who likewise transcended any boundary in music-making to record and perform with someone like Stephane Grappelli.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Kunzel, Cincinnati Pops Orchestra
"Copland: The Music of America"

This album made quite a splash the year it was released back in 1997. Nominated for all of the big classical music awards, it went on to win many of them. Everything really came together on this record. The performances are top-notch, the music is all crowd-pleasing, even the artwork evokes exactly what everyone wants to see when they think of the idyllic Americana.

I'm doing homework for 'Appalachian Spring' which is why this got pulled out. Not that there's a bad time to pull it out, of course.

Herbie Hancock

In 1975 this was already Herbie Hancock's seventeenth (!) album. Considered to be amongst his funkiest albums, I have to say that's probably why I enjoyed it so much.
From the outset it practically sounds like it should be shelved along with the rest of my funk/soul records, but Mr. Hancock's roots don't hide for long and things rather quickly evolve into a free-form odyssey of jazzy funkiness.

Considering the couple of other Hancock albums I've relieved myself of because of their decidedly "sythesized" nature I don't suppose it should be a surprise to anyone that I'm electing to hang onto this older, funkier selection.

Duke Ellington, Count Basie
"The Count Meets the Duke: First Time!"

This Columbia six-eye vinyl was first released in 1961. The previous owner of this particular record had the decency to ensure his record was never misplaced by putting a mailing label right on the record. Genius.

I'm not sure whether it was the idea of Mr. Basie & Mr. Ellington to record with each other, or if it was the marketing genius of some honcho at Columbia; either way, we should be glad the project was finished. These are the sort of conversations that will be had forever: "what if so-and-so recorded with such-and-such? That would be epic, dude."

This encounter is surprisingly laid-back. It's actually surprising and refreshing to hear how both the Count and the Duke spend more time batting rhythmic accompaniment back and forth than trading solos.
The backing orchestras are really the stars and listening to them trade between solos and accompaniment is fun. The contrast is made all the easier because Count Basie's orchestra is in your left year; Duke Ellington's in the right.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion

Released in 1998, this is the Blues Explosion's sixth studio album. It was produced with (among others) Steve Albini.

I think its safe to say that it is a travesty that I know so little of the Blues Explosion. This record is a noisy collection of blues, rock, funk and punk combined in a way that I've never heard replicated any other time.

I should learn more of them. This album is weird, but good.

Festival Strings Lucerne
"Bach - Brandenburg Concertos nos. 1, 4 & 6"

Recorded between 1959 - 1960, these are astonishingly beautiful recordings made on period instruments.

Consider this homework for music to be performed next season...

Monday, March 19, 2012

Brendan Benson
"The Alternative to Love"

Mr. Benson's third solo album was also his last before teaming up with long-time friend Jack White to record the Raconteur's debut album.

I think it's safe to say that this was his most successful solo album also. Between championing by the White Stripes, use in an iPod commercial and a couple of television appearances, this was about as much exposure as Brendan could manage before being lifted up to fame and fortune by Jack White.

Sadly, the intelligence and craftiness exhibited by Mr. Benson in his solo music doesn't translate real well to the harder-edged rock persona that Mr. White exudes.
This is why its nice to revisit his earlier music and enjoy the breezy smartness Brendan Benson fills each of his tunes with.

"Hail to the Thief"

Released in 2003, I regard "Thief" to be of the same ilk as 2011's "King of Limbs." The music is unmistakably Radiohead, but it lacks the clarity of focus and purpose as the seminal "Kid A/Amnesiac" or "In Rainbows" which represent very contrasting but distinct identities of the band.

This is among my least favorite Radiohead albums. There aren't really distinct reasons, but after 8+ years of listening I still have the same confusion and disinterest to many of the concepts on this album than their other albums.

It's worthwhile, just like nearly everything this band does, but it's further down my list of "must-own."

Rose, Ormandy
"Dvorak - Cello Concerto, Tchaikovsky - Rococo Var."

Leonard Rose's influence on modern cello playing is nearly incalculable. Both as a performer and teacher, he has far-reaching effect on today's cello playing.

This recording of (in my opinion) the greatest cello concerto ever written is a treatise both on the piece and on cello technique.

The record I have is either shockingly dirty or has been listened to so much that the grooves are worn down.

The Bad Plus

A state-wide bus journey is a great time to burn through several mp3 albums. True to the rules, however, I own all of the "CD" albums that I've posted here today.

This is a 2004 release from the Minneapolis-based jazz/rock/fusion trio the Bad Plus.

I discovered them on a televised portion of the Rochester Jazz Festival when they were joined by Wendy Williams for their spectacular cover of "Comfortably Numb."
Their language spoke to me instantly.

This album is no slouch, and in fact may be one of my favorites. They cover tunes by ABBA, the Pixies and Black Sabbath on this record, and their version of "Iron Man" has become one of their most-requested tunes when playing live.

Rubinstein, Szeryng
"Brahms - Violin Sonatas"

This CD was released as part of a compendium of Rubinstein's output only a few years ago. This (for the record) is volume 41.
That number alone should indicate the prodigious output of one of the 20th century's most famous pianists.

I don't really need any other recording of the Brahms violin sonatas. I have many others, but this is my favorite. I love Henryk Szeryng's tone, musicianship, etc. so much so that his recording of Brahms' first violin sonata in G inspired me to learn it for the viola. Perhaps at the end of my life I'll have done it as much justice as Rubinstein and Szeryng give it.

Jukebox the Ghost
"Jukebox the Ghost"

This debut EP is as brief as it is enjoyable. Just about the time I start to feel the flavor of Jukebox the five songs are already over.
Even more bizarre is how the EP I own is a pre-debut release. You can no longer get this EP. All of the tunes on this record have been absorbed into JtG's formal debut LP, "Let Live & Let Ghosts."
I'm holding onto a piece of musical memorabilia.

The music on the EP shows tremendous promise. The DC-based band has since released two additional albums. I need to put their output on my "need to listen" list.

Harry Belafonte
"An Evening with Belafonte"

Another entry into the catalog of classic vocal recording, this is an RCA disc in beautiful shape and demonstrates just how thoughtfully and carefully the studios crafted their music once upon a time.

This is a collection of standards/favorites, which is funny, because Belafonte is known today mostly for his central/Latin American-flavored music. In 1957, however, people just wanted to hear him sing 'Hava Nageela' and 'Danny Boy'

Thus far my favorite is the simple 'Merci Bon Dieu' which features a simple guitar accompaniment and nothing else.
The orchestra, ever tinged by the exotic, is a subtle boost.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Cleveland Quartet
"Beethoven - Op. 59 nos. 2 & 3"

We just listened to a Cleveland recording, (Schubert's "Death & the Maiden") but like many enduring quartets, there are a couple of major personnel changes on this recording that impact the quartet's identity in really profound ways.
James Dunham plays viola on this record (Martha Katz played on the Schubert) but even more noticeable is the departure of Don Weilerstein and the arrival of the Bill Pruecil.
I spent my college years watching Mr . Pruecil lead the Cleveland Orchestra as their concertmaster, so I'm biased. Perhaps.
The recording process was so different when the Pruecil-Cleveland Quartet was made than when the Weilerstein-Cleveland Quartet made its cycle.
Both times, however, the Quartet exhibits such world-class playing and sensitivity to each other you could not fairly regard one above the other. I have my favorites, but they're for purely sentimental reasons.

The follow up to Beck's chart-smasher "Odelay" certainly caught people by surprise.
It's 1998 release found a public ready for Odelay pt. deux, but instead they got a Beck that was pulling another layer back on the onion, prepared to show people that there was a lot more to Beck Hansen than just sampled alt-rock.
This is a good thing, although I can't say it's my favorite Beck album.
About halfway through the final track there's a hidden track which is like the Beck-of-old, full of squealing guitars and noisy bits. Its like a reminder to his audience that Beck knows what he does best. Please allow him the foray into genre-bending work because his next album would be his best yet.

Bjork's fourth album, released in 1997, is by far my favorite output from the Icelandic princess.
A lot has been written about the personal tumult that was occurring in Bjork's life during the making of this album, so I don't need to mention that here. It should suffice to say that the music Bjork creates on this album is fierce, angry and unapologetic. At times it would seem the music is blistering off the tape it was recorded on.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Shumsky, Balsam
"Mozart: Violin Sonatas"

The name Oscar Shumsky doesn't raise quite as many ears the way Oistrakh or Heifetz does now, but in his day he was regarded by the best to be among the best.
An active performer and teacher, it is an oversight of history that his name isn't mentioned alongside the greatest of the 20th century.

The Musical Heritage Society, who produced this box set of all of Mozart's violin sonatas, typically had the aesthetics of today's Naxos label in how they packaged their music. This belied many of the performances captured in their catalog.
Thankfully this set comes in a leather-esque box with gold embossing that makes this an attractive set of records to have on your shelf.


The second best-selling album of all time in the US (behind Guns'n'Roses' "Appetite for Destruction") is Boston's 1976 debut album.

The band centered around guitarist, singer, producer and songwriter Tom Scholz. This makes a lot of sense once you hear the album. There's a tight, concise concept behind the album. The sound is a unique blend of heavy rock, arena glitz and radio-friendly pop that would be hard to pull off if there were multiple strong influences behind the band's sound.

This band must be lumped together with bands like Kansas and Journey, part of a mega-selling arena rock era that has given us some of the best karaoke songs known to man. Some of the bands aged better than others, but their appeal is timeless.

The Cleveland Quartet
"Schubert: Death and the Maiden"

Such a (in)famous quartet should make any string quartet wary about making an attempt at recording it. It's no small matter to infer that your recorded interpretation of such an important work in the literature for string quartet will stand muster against the greatest quartets of the ages.

Thankfully, the Cleveland Quartet WAS one of the great quartets of the ages. I was reminded of this while listening to the record.
There have been so many examples of exceptional modern American string quartets (and that continues to this day) but there was something about the entrainment and commitment to an idea with this ensemble that stands out any time I hear one of their recordings.

Gold & Fizdale
"Stravinsky: Music for two pianos & four hands"

I don't have much to say about this recording. It's probably worth the novelty of possessing such a recording, but I don't know if I'll ever hear this music performed live.

The Meters
"Fire on the Bayou"

The Meters' sixth album, released in 1975, was recorded in New Orleans.
It has a fairly free-form sense to it, with the band establishing funky afro grooves and the vocals vamping on top of it.

It doesn't have quite the hard edge to it as my personally-favored 'Cabbage Alley' but the band is obviously fully-grown by this point.

The band is fronted by Art Neville, part of the infamous Neville Bros. family. Explains a lot, I suppose.

Perlman, Ashkenazy
"Prokofiev - the violin sonatas"

This really made my afternoon a lot of fun. Putting this record on and going about my business was a unexpected delight.
Prokofiev's chamber music isn't programmed excessively, and perhaps that's a lesson from the wise, but as of yet I don't understand it.

Having just learned and actively performing Prokofiev's second string quartet I can say that I have yet to tire of the composition. The violin sonatas on this recording strike me as being cut of the same cloth. Simultaneously challenging while being playful and engaging.

Of course the performance here is world-class. The lesson I learned is to perhaps learn and be more familiar with Prokofiev's output.

Joseph & Lillian Fuchs
"Mozart: Sinfonia Concertante"

The first chapter in my research for upcoming performances. A beautiful gold label Decca recording of Joseph & Lillian Fuchs performing Mozart's masterful Sinfonia Concertante.

It's going to be a project of listening to many different recordings and finding the subtle differences between one performance and the next. The Fuchs are mostly straight-forward but display a prowess and comfort in playing with each other in small moments; at a turn in the cadenza, during a shared phrase...

The recording itself is a benchmark for acoustic classical recording. I'm becoming a disciple of the Decca tradition.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Glenn Gould
"Beethoven - Sonatas nos. 12 & 13"

Another artist that falls into the category of "died too early" is Glenn Gould, and it has helped his legend in a way nothing else could.

But before all of that, back in 1983, he released this album featuring two of Beethoven's middle piano sonatas.
I'm not real familiar with anything but the greatest-hits of Beethoven's piano sonatas, but I should learn more. In the same way Beethoven used his string quartets as a laboratory for techniques he later employed in his symphonies, it makes sense that the piano (the instrument that he himself played) would be the arena in which Beethoven was able to explore most thoroughly.

The joke is always made about being able to hear Glenn Gould talking while he performed. I'm familiar with his recordings of Bach's 'Goldberg Variations' which I chuckled at, but he talks a lot during this recording.

Ben Folds
"Rockin' the Suburbs"

Now more than a decade old, this remains Ben Folds' best-selling, most popular work to date.
I completely understand why. The songs are simultaneously instantly memorable, poignant and catchy while being intelligent and (obviously) enduring enough to be here ten years later.

If Sublime was the soundtrack to my friends' high school days Ben Folds was the soundtrack to our undergraduate times in Cutter House. Songs like the title track, Annie Waits, the Luckiest could be heard pumping out of dorm rooms ad nauseam.

Still, the music endures. The construction is so simple it seems as though Mr. Folds was bursting at the seams to get these songs recorded.

I don't know where I was when this album came out. I wasn't listening to it then. But I'm listening to it now.

Stevie Ray Vaughan
"Blues at Sunrise"

Released a decade after his death in 1990, this is an album of unreleased blues tracks, seeping from the hands of SRV the way only he could do it.

His sound was so unique, it makes his guitar unmistakeable from everything that came before or after.

I maintain the best thing a celebrity can do for their career is die, and I think often times SRV is elevated to a level as much because of his untimely demise as his music.

I think I've reached a point where I can say I'm just not the biggest fan of SRV. This music is all very cool, to be sure, but I just don't think it's really my cup of tea. May the ghost of SRV not haunt me now...

Romero, St. Martin-in-the-Fields
"Boccherini - Guitar Quintets nos. 3 & 9"

Guitarists owe a debt of gratitude to Boccherini. Before the Spaniards got a hold of the guitar, there wasn't a whole lot being written for the instrument.
Boccherini's quintets (for string quartet + guitar) are one of the most enduring canons of work for the classical guitar in a chamber music setting. I've played a couple of them over the years. They're easy for most of the string players except both the guitarist and the cellist. Boccherini was a virtuoso cellist himself, so he usually found an opportunity to put the cello in a momentary spotlight.

The musicians on this recording are excellent. I feel the guitar is recorded wonderfully, but the string quartet feels a bit muted and/or distant.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

REO Speedwagon
"You Can Tune a Piano, but You Can't Tuna Fish"

The seventh album from REO Speedwagon, released in 1978. One of their biggest-selling albums to date, certified double platinum.

I would say this is the fountainhead for the glitzy hair metal that was coming in the 80's from the likes of Guns n' Roses, Poison, etc. The production is getting very glossy, overdubbed and (in my opinion) they're choosing style over substance.

The Dave Brubeck Quartet
"Jazz Impressions of New York"

Beginning with the theme song to Mr. Broadway, this is a classic Brubeck lineup album with tunes ranging from "Autumn in Washington Square," "Spring in Central Park" and "Broadway Romance."

Perhaps its not ground-breaking in the way this quartet's "Take Five" was, but it's a tight group of musicians doing what they did best at the height of their power.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Stern, Rampal, Rostropovich
"Haydn: London Trios nos. 1-4"

This looks (from the outset) like a project that sold a lot of recordings for CBS Masterworks. Combining the reputation of three of the 20th century's most popular performers on one recording certainly couldn't be a bad thing...
That being said, perhaps Isaac, Mstislav and Jean-Pierre loved reading together all the time. Perhaps this is old news.

The recording is beautiful, and it's great to hear these performers in a more intimate environment rather than screaming away in front of an orchestra.

Isaac Stern isn't one of my favorite violinists, but he seems to relax here and share the joy of music-making with his compatriots.

Charlie Byrd
"The Great Byrd"

The Brazilian/gypsy jazz guitarist at work on an album that was released in 1969. Its a collection of popular tunes (from Simon & Garfunkel to the Beatles) done in Byrd's samba-style, full of flourish and the flavor of Rio.

It's interesting hearing some of these artists who rode trends of international music (Xavier Cugat, Antonio Carlos Jobim) into the mainstream of American listening during the 50's and 60's.

Steely Dan

The studio-only band released some of the smoothest, polished sounding rock/jazz albums from the late 70's.

This is my favorite album because of "Peg." Content matter aside, the arrangements and production are sumptuous and make this one of my favorite albums to use when showing off the hi-fi.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Thom Yorke
"The Eraser"

If one ever had to ask the question "What would music sound like if Radiohead broke up?" this is the answer.

Thom Yorke's solo project is too similar to his day job to be regarded as much more than another Radiohead album. However, with the notable absense of Mr. Greenwood and Mr. Selway the songs on Eraser border on monotonous in color and structure and lack the human touch that has always been the genius stroke in Radiohead's output. No matter how weird the band got there was always Phil Selway's drums to keep the tune upright and the instrumentals prevented any song from becoming too mechanically sterile.

This is a noteworthy album, but it will be a reminder to all that the sum is sometimes greater than its parts.

The Kronos Quartet

Celebrating the music of Mexican composers, this 2002 album from the Kronos Quartet is as colorful and bold as the album artwork.
The opening track is engineered to sound like a beat-up PA system; mostly annoying with just enough charm to keep you from plugging your ears.

The musical origins range from classical to modern, but there's something distinctive and unifying about the music on this record. It could not be confused with music from any other place.

"Learning to Breathe"

This is the last of what I consider Switchfoot's early career. They released three albums produced by Charlie Peacock (Legend of Chin, A New Way to be Human) and then made a rather successful crossover to the mainstream. While more people know the name Switchfoot now, I consider their first three albums to be their best.

Bands like dc Talk and Audio Adrenaline set a high bar for Christian rock in the 90's demonstrating that Christians didn't have to follow the current of musical tastes and forfeit listening to something good.
Switchfoot never reached that popularity among Christian audiences, but in retrospect I think Jon Foreman is one of the best song writers to come out of Christian circles. It is said that all of his songs are written in 20 minutes or less. I believe it; on these early albums songs float by on ocean breezes of pop/rock sensitivity. There's just enough substance to feel your tummy but not enough for you to lose interest.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Catching up from a few days' travel...

Perlman, Harrell, Ashkenazy
"Archduke Piano Trio" (Vinyl)

Diana Ross
"Diana" (Vinyl)

A Tribe Called Quest
"Low End Theory" (CD)

The Pixies
"Surfer Rosa"

The Punch Brothers
"Antifogmatic" (CD)

Ray LaMontagne
"The Gossip in the Grain" (CD)

Monday, March 05, 2012

Borodin String Quartet
"Tchaikovsky: String Quartet no. 3 & Souvenir de Florence"

The Borodin Quartet has released Souvenir no less than 5 times on different labels. I know that at least three of these recordings are separate. They also recorded the Tchaikovsky Quartets at least three times.

This is curious, until you consider that this quartet seems uninterested in recording any music that isn't Russian. How much does that leave you with once you've recorded Shostakovich, Borodin and...well, Tchaikovsky.

"The Visitors"

In honor of the concert I will play this weekend paying tribute to the music of ABBA, I pulled the one ABBA record I have off the shelf. I have always thought there to be a marked difference between ABBA and their contemporaries, but more on that in a moment...

This record marks a couple of important musical technological milestones. It was one of the first albums to recorded and mixed in an all-digital environment. It was also the very first album to have its release on CD (as well as Vinyl and cassette.) The year was 1982.

This was ABBA's last album, and its a departure from the disco pop that the group had become famous for, but truthfully I rather like it. There's a basic level of intelligence that ABBA possessed in constructing and writing their music that made it less insipid than many of their counterparts during the 1970's.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

"Highway to Hell"

The sixth album from AC/DC, released in 1979. Was Bon Scott's last with the band before his untimely death.

AC/DC has a special place in my understanding of pop music. For forty years this Aussie band has been making the same record over and over again without reservation or apology.
That's pretty much awesome.

Once Mr. Scott met his demise I'm less interested in their output; for my money Brian Johnson is a pale reflection of the lead man he was intended to replace.