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Oh, the Places We’ll Go

Noel Coward
At Las Vegas; In New York
(DRG Records)

Cover art alone attests to the journey taken by Noel Coward’s recordings At Las Vegas and In New York, originally issued in the mid-1950s as two LPs. The first cover featured a suave, teacup-wielding Coward on the Las Vegas desert; the second, created in the wake of the other’s success, relocates that image to Manhattan. Columbia later issued the two as a gatefold set, with an older Coward pictured at his Jamaica home; the first CD issue improbably pictured the ’30s-era Coward.

The already-truncated program was further shortened for a single CD. DRG now has issued the program on two CDs, both brief, with the original covers—and for the first time we’re able to hear the Las Vegas program as it was originally performed. Turns out the intro was faked, and some of the songs were cut on the original. DRG sent its engineers to the original tapes, and they’ve included all available material. Also, you’re finally hearing the whole thing in as decent sound as was possible to achieve.

As a studio recording, the In New York set was as good as you’d get in the mid-’50s, although it’s characteristically Columbia high-end harsh. The muddier Vegas recording requires a few moments of ear adjustment. But what a treat to again hear Coward present the cream of his repertory with accompaniment far hipper than his old British recordings ever sported. A young Peter Matz was responsible, and the result, a half-century later, still doesn’t sound dated.

Yes, this is the same Noel Coward who wrote the plays Private Lives and Blithe Spirit, among many others, a man steeped in the world of operetta—a world he re-created in the words and music he wrote for original shows like Conversation Piece and Bitter Sweet. But his songwriting also took acerbic turns. “What’s Going to Happen to the Tots?” asks a song on the New York album, addressing the craze for eternal youth: “Rock-a-bye, rock-a-bye, rock-a-bye my darlings/Mother requires a few more shots/Does it amuse the tiny mites/To see their parents high as kites?/What’s, what’s, what’s going to happen to the tots?”

“I Like America” appropriately opens In New York (“I’ve roamed the Spanish Main/Eaten sugar cane/But I never tasted cellophane/’Till I struck the U.S.A.”), and it includes a good balance between patter songs and ballads, as well as a medley of vintage Coward favorites.

The Las Vegas set is similarly chosen, with Coward at his most blistering as he navigates the prestissimo challenge of “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” and a complete version of “Nina.” And it turns out that the version of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It,” which Coward wittily reworded, has had a McCarthy-era elision for all these years. It’s now intact, and all the more enjoyable for it.

—B.A. Nilsson

Tord Gustavsen Trio
Changing Places
(ECM)

Pianist Tord Gustavsen was born in Oslo, Norway, in 1970, the same year that ECM made its first Norwegian recordings. After working in a variety of settings, from duos and small combos to accompanying silent films, Changing Places is Gustavsen’s first release as a leader. In a way, Gustavsen is a quintessential ECM artist, drawing from jazz, classical and folk to create small vignettes that are emotionally evocative in their unfolding beauty.

Gustavsen, drummer Jarle Vespestad and bassist Harald Johnsen are adept at sharing the music’s slow propulsion in such a way that they end up moving and sounding like one instrument. Gustavsen’s writing is full of wistful character. He builds powerfully resilient melodies with grace and brevity. This music seems to step out of both genre and time. While presented as a jazz trio, it lives in a world of dreamlike landscapes and remembered thoughts. With the label’s customary pristine production, even lightly struck cymbals resonate with incredible presence.

—David Greenberger

Sananda Maitreya
Terence Trent D’Arby’s Wildcard! [The Jokers’ Edition]
(Compendia Music Group)

Eight years after the spotty TTD’s Vibrator, Maitreya/D’Arby’s last album on domestic Columbia, sank without a trace, Terence Trent D’Arby is back, in full bloom. His 19-track Wildcard! is, like his other albums, too long, pretentious, ambitious and largely engaging. At least a half-dozen cuts stand out, like the sultry single “Designated Fool,” the sexy “Suga Free,” the exuberant “Shalom,” and “Sayin’ About You.” The link between Stevie Wonder and Prince, the extravagantly talented D’Arby, who metamorphosed into Maitreya much as Prince became the Artist (and, later, the Symbol), is a true soul singer. His voice is velvet and sandpaper, and his phrasing evokes everyone from Earth Wind and Fire’s Philip Bailey to his root influence, Sam Cooke. The lyrics span the grit of “The Inner Scream,” the bathos and metaphorical stew of “Shalom” (“the well of loneliness is wet with tears” isn’t exactly tight) and the goopy romanticism of “Goodbye Diane.” Still, the album sounds good, and its prolixity is as much gift as drawback. Like Prince, D’Arby is a control freak who’s hard to control; that, along with a long contractual dispute with Columbia, might explain his long absence from the scene. Wildcard! could have been edited better. Nevertheless, it proves that Hardline auteur D’Arby, who was one of the best singers of the ’80s along with British blue-eyed soulmen Paul Young and George Michael, has gotten his groove back.

—Carlo Wolff

Townes Van Zandt
In the Beginning
(TVZ/Compadre)

Steve Earle once declared, “Townes Van Zandt is the greatest songwriter on Earth, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say so.” The generally outrageous and loud nature of many of Earle’s assertions aside, my New Balance sneakers would be on that table next to him (if I had those kinds of balls, which I do not, or if anyone cared what I thought, which they do not). The weight of Dylan’s legend and the brilliance of some of his output has been strong succor for those long, frustrating periods of mediocrity when the collective culture carried him on its back. By contrast, the less prolific Van Zandt never achieved mainstream success, save Merle Haggard’s and Willie Nelson’s “Pancho and Lefty,” and he met his end in the ’90s after years of alcohol abuse. (Local songwriter/music critic Michael Eck wrote a particularly moving postscript in No Depression #8 in 1997, wherein he also vied for a spot on that coffee table.)

That having been said, this collection, a set of early demos from 1966, is not for the newcomer but for people already enthralled with Van Zandt’s legend. And that having been said, it’s remarkably strong for a collection of this nature. Van Zandt’s bruised tones and knee-trembling way with a sentiment are already in place, particularly on the more stripped-down acoustic tracks. Elsewhere, it’s exciting—if somewhat weird—to hear him employing chest-thumping blues lessons he learned from Lightin’ Hopkins and Bo Diddley. On the psych-blues-rocker “Black Widow Blues,” he directly channels Diddley: “I’ve got a black widow spider for a Mama, Lord/I got a diamondback rattler for a Pa.” But “Big Country Blues” finds Van Zandt channeling those lessons into his own voice; suddenly, Diddley’s “I walked 47 miles of barbed wire/Used a cobra snake for a neck tie” becomes “I been up from Mississippi to the Manitoba line/I been downstream to the Gulf of Mexico”—and now it’s no longer braggadocio but the heavy heart of a restless existence. And nobody, not even Dylan, speaks to that like Townes Van Zandt.

—Erik Hage


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