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Holiday Gift Guide: Music Through the Cracks

by David Greenberger on December 12, 2013


Another year, another slew of music that may have failed to find its sympathetic listener. Such is the fractured state of the musical marketplace as well as the sidelining of recorded music as a foreground experience. Well, the beauty of recordings is that it’s not too late, and now here’s three that may be right for someone  you know, or maybe treat yourself.

First up is one that truly came out without my even knowing it—sure, I was probably sent an e-mail about it, but I get so many and who reads them anyway? Trios (ECM) is collectively billed to the three participants: Carla Bley, Andy Sheppard, and Steve Swallow, but it is Bley pictured on the cover and the set is devoted exclusively to five of her compositions. It’s particularly wonderful to hear the undeniable strength and character in her writing on these re-visitings, among them mysteriously robust “Vashkar” and the beautiful “The Girl Who Cried Champagne.” While she always composed on the piano, Bley tended to play organ in her ensembles, often bringing in other pianists. For the past couple decades she has focused on the piano as a performer and her improvisations are intrinsically related to her writing, with a mixture of mathematics, humor and pathos. The trio’s long working relationship makes this set a gently stunning hour.

Turn Me Loose (Tompkins Square) is subtitled Outsiders of “Old Time” Music. It’s apt that quotations marks were placed around those two words, because this compilation of fourteen rare 78s calls into question the limiting forces of labels. In fact, a statement on the cover addresses that mission directly, calling this collection “Commercial recordings of Anglo-European-American vernacular music that challenge the stereotypes.” Listening to these warmly restored recordings—most of them 80 and 90 years old—the performances are so confidently vivid that the notion of “old time” flies right out the window. These largely forgotten musicians spring to life in your living room. Guitars, banjos, fiddles, piano, lots of singing, and a saw: Hello, Lemuel Turner! Greetings, Alphus McFayden! And you can’t help but be delighted that the duo named Mustard & Gravy are on board, too.

Leave it Van Dyke Parks to title his first new studio album in 18 years with a pun of his 1968 debut: Songs Cycled (Bella Union). Originally released as a series of singles during the previous two years, it’s a rich mixture that moves gentlemanly between new songs, a couple older numbers here re-worked, and “Sassafrass,” a composition by Billy Edd Wheeler that Parks refers to as “outlaw chamber music.” Several songs (“Black Gold,” Money is King,” “Wall Street”) take on current inequities and nefarious dealings with his mixture of poetics and fearless swordsmanship. The lavish booklet is filled with artworks done (at no charge) for each song by an astounding array of visual artists, among them Ed Ruscha, Klaus Voorman, and Art Spiegelman. Having given this release the title he has, Parks may be slyly bookending his own career, as he has expressed the idea that this may well be his last album, due to “financial and physical challenges.” Small of stature, Van Dyke Parks is a humble giant walking among us.