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2007 Gift Guide

Recordings

Holiday ear candy for a variety of tastes

 

Box Sets

Nothing says “Merry Christmas; I spent a buttload on you” like a big fancy CD box set. And nothing says “exhaustive” like a 10-CD David Bowie box that begins its coverage in 1995. The David Bowie Box Set (ISO/Columbia) really has no right to adopt such a matter-of-fact moniker, considering its start point is three decades into the guy’s career, but count your blessings—it could have started at Tin Machine. This exhaustive buttload repackages the hall-of-famer’s last five studio albums—Outside, Earthling, Heathen, ‘hours...’ and Reality—in neat- looking vinyl-replica digipak cases, each with an extra CD of remixes, cover tunes, and alternate takes. While some of the music herein is afflicted by flavor-of-the-month production values (only someone who’s been in a coma for a decade and a half would recognize 1995’s Lost in Space Mix of “Hallo Spaceboy” as anything other than bad house music, and the phrase “Moby Mix” pops up all too often), on the whole this set is a fine examination of Bowie’s continued evolution late in his career.

Future hall-of-famers Radiohead (Do I sound like I’m joking? Check back around 2018) famously self-issued their latest album, In Rainbows, in October in a pay-what-you-will digital format. For those who coughed up the 40-odd British pounds, the discbox version of this excellent album, featuring all sorts of artwork, a vinyl pressing of the album and an extra CD of new music, should be arriving right about . . . now. (You can still order the behemoth at inrain bows.com, by the way.) Meantime, in a clear attempt to cash in on confused surfers, EMI/Parlophone, with whom the band’s contract recently lapsed, is pushing the new Radiohead Box Set. The seven-disc box includes each of the band’s previous six studio albums, as well as their so-so live release I Might Be Wrong. The entire catalog is also available as a 4GB USB stick in the shape of that freaky cartoon bear that adorned all of the band’s marketing in the early ’00s. What’s missing here? A collection of the band’s excellent B-sides, which are worthy of their own box set.

I Wanna Go Backwards (Yep Roc) is a fine look at the initial post-Soft Boys work of Robyn Hitchcock. Three of his solo records—Black Snake Diamond Role, I Often Dream of Trains and Eye—are revisited here, with some remastering to accommodate the records’ varying sound quality; two discs of rarities are added to up the ante. For listeners of psychedelic-tinged folk, Backwards is a picture window to the mind of an artist that The New Yorker calls “an important link in a chain that connects acid casualties like Syd Barrett to modern troubadours like Devendra Banhart.” Bonus: Yep Roc has also issued an eight-disc vinyl version of the set.

This should appeal to about, oh, 200 people: The Fall Box Set 1976-2007 (Castle) is the first retrospective of its kind for the venerable British punk (for lack of a better term) group. Although the set has been tagged as spotty, much like the band’s very career, this five-disc compilation includes an impressive array of singles, unreleased material and album tracks, with the fifth disc chronologically reviewing the group’s live work (including a cover of the New York Dolls’ classic “Jet Boy”). The handsome brick-orange packaging is intended as a companion piece to the 2005 set The Complete Peel Sessions 1978-2004.

Among the various-artists sets hitting the shelves this season: Vee-Jay: The Definitive Collection (Shout! Factory) traces the steps of the pre-Motown soul-R&B label responsible for “Duke of Earl” (Gene Chandler) and the first U.S. Beatles singles (which are, unsurprisingly, not included here). The Brit Box: UK Indie, Shoegaze, and Brit-Pop Gems of the Last Millennium (Rhino) reviews the 120 Minutes era from across the pond, with tracks from a number of definitive British acts (the Smiths, Blur, the Jesus and Mary Chain) and some that will make your musical memory do a full-on spit-take (the Family Cat! Gene! Moose!). And The Heavy Metal Box (Rhino) is a big ol’ horned-hand salute to the origins and genesis of that which we call rawk, from “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” to Sepultura’s “Dead Embryonic Cells.” (The set ends in 1991, because that’s when metal stopped being any good.) The packaging is fashioned after a Marshall amp head, with a turnable volume knob that, you guessed it, goes to 11.

—John Brodeur

Classical

By far the most significant release of the past year was Glenn Gould: The Original Jacket Collection (Sony Classical), a bargain-priced 80-CD set that collects all of the pianist’s Columbia releases in paper sleeves that reproduce the original LP cover art. The accompanying 250-page booklet is crap, with more (and often embarrassing) cover art in place of liner notes and discographical cross- referencing, but to have so much of Gould’s absolutely unique work in one place (including some fascinating audio interviews) is a treasure. And you can add to it a six-CD set, Glenn Gould: The Young Maverick (CBC), which offers airchecks from 1952-55, none of it in great fidelity, but including incredible live performances of Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations and Berg’s Sonata. And for a sense of Gould the (incredibly strange) man, try Glenn Gould Trilogy: A Life (Sony Classical), a four-hour radio play by Michael Stegemann with many musical illustrations that pays homage to Gould’s own skilled work in radio.

Also in the completist realm is the 17-disc box Jacqueline Du Pré: The Complete EMI Recordings (EMI), featuring all of the cellist’s works for that label. She puts her amazing sound to work on the big concertos—Dvorák, Elgar, Schumann and others—with conductors like Barbirolli, Boult, and, of course, husband Daniel Barenboim, who is also her piano partner in sonatas by Brahms and Beethoven as well as trios (with Pinchas Zukerman) by Beethoven and Ravel.

Checking in, as I like to do each year, with the Mahler department, there’s a big-sounding, rousing, sensitive Mahler: Symphony No. 3 (CSO Resound) with Bernard Haitink conducting the Chicago Symphony (love that brass!). Das Lied von der Erde gets two very different-sounding performances, first on a SACD-enhanced reissue with Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony in a recording that debuted with phase-shift errors, errors discovered (and painstakingly corrected) on this release, Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde (RCA Living Stereo). Great work by contralto Maureen Forrester. The revival of the Dorian Recordings label, now based in Virginia, gives us Mahler/Schoenberg: Das Lied von der Erde the Schoenberg chamber orchestra arrangement, with Kenneth Slowik conducting the Smithsonian Chamber Players.

Chamber music highlights include the return of an old master and the charge of some young turks. Leon Fleischer joined with the Emerson Quartet—all familiar to local Union College Concert Series audiences—in a recording of Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F Minor coupled with his three string quartets on Brahms: Quartets (DG). It’s gorgeous, honey-rich playing. Violinist Renaud Capuçon and cellist Gautier Capuçon join pianist Frank Braley for Schubert: Piano Trios 1 & 2 (Virgin Classics), works that demand the closeness of ensemble this threesome delivers.

Dmitri Kabalevsky’s music can grow tiresomely predictable, but his Preludes, Op. 38 and Preludes, Op. 5, remain quirky and worth rehearing, as the Pavane label recording Kabalevsky: Preludes by pianist Christoph Deluze makes clear. Pianist Fred Hersch is known for his work playing and writing jazz, but an album of some more formal pieces—Concert Music 2001-2006 (Naxos)is a beautiful mix of solo piano and piano trio, with a cello-and-piano version of his best-known work, “Tango Bittersweet.” This is an excellent portrait of talented voice.

In the vocal world, British soprano Kate Royal burst onto the scene at Glyndebourne as a last-minute Magic Flute cover; she’s also on albums by Ian Bostridge and Paul McCartney. Her album of songs by Debussy, Canteloube, Strauss, Stravinsky, Ravel and others, Kate Royal (EMI), brings a freshness to the well-chosen program, with accompaniment by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.

Conductor René Jacobs has been mining the Mozart operas during the past few years, and now presents his most staggering achievement yet: a Don Giovanni (Harmonia Mundi) that’s up there with the best of them, a from-the-ground-up rethinking of the piece that gives us sensible tempos and a keen sense of drama, helped along by singers Johannes Weisser, Lorenzo Regazzo, Alexandrina Pendatchanska, Olga Pasichnyk and others.

A 2006 Glimmerglass Opera success was recorded and, earlier this year, issued: Stephen Hartke’s The Greater Good (Naxos), with Caroline Worra heading a terrific cast in this tuneful but troubling piece, nicely played by the house orchestra under Stewart Robertson’s direction.

We had a local tie-in with Joan Tower’s Made in America (Naxos), an orchestral work that debuted in Glens Falls and was then performed around the country. It spins a fascinating texture out of “America the Beautiful” without slipping into the mawkishness of the original. The accompanying works, “Tambour” and Concerto for Orchestra, complete a fine recording by the Nashville Symphony under Leonard Slatkin.

In other orchestral recordings, pianist Martha Argerich turns in a sprightly reading of Shostakovich/Piano Concerto No. 1 (EMI) on a disc fleshed out with an equally dynamic version of that composer’s Piano Quintet in G Minor, and, as a bonus, the less-often-heard Concertino for Two Pianos. Violinist Nigel Kennedy goes to a way-less-often-heard place with Polish Spirit (EMI), featuring late-romantic concertos by Emil Mlynarski and Mieczyslaw Karlowicz, along with a couple of Chopin nocturnes, accompanied by the Polish Chamber Orchestra.

Is there a more familiar piano concerto than Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue? Jon Nakamatsu turns in a stunning performance that makes you forget the familiarity, on a Harmonia Mundi CD with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra letting us know they’re a top-flight band. Gershwin’s Concerto in F and Cuban Overture complete the disc.

—B.A. Nilsson

Alternative/ Indie

Let’s get this out of the way: Bruce Springsteen’s Magic (Columbia) is, for reals, a very very good album, and your best bet for a catch-all stocking stuffer. No, it’s not “alternative” or “indie,” but it’s the one late-2007 release that I could honestly recommend to everybody. Metroland’s Erik Hage put it nicely in his October column: “Thematically and musically [Magic] yields so much that even the greatest Springsteen detractors or nonlisteners could use this as a starting point.”

And maybe the Boss is more alternative than you think. For starters, he shares the cover of this month’s Spin with Win Butler, front-giant of Canada’s Arcade Fire. And that band’s Neon Bible (Merge) is one of several indie releases this year to owe a clear debt to Springsteen—although it’s probably the only to reference both Springsteen and Joy Division. Yes, I know, you already stole it off OiNK, but if you’re feeling a touch of holiday guilt and looking for redemption, pick up the deluxe-CD or double-LP package.

Having showed us his inner Dylan time and time again, Conor Oberst revealed his inner Bruce on this year’s Bright Eyes release, Cassadaga (Saddle Creek). While certainly too long—the 13 tracks clock in at over an hour—it’s the most consistent Bright Eyes record yet, with Oberst’s elliptical turns of phrase rarely getting the best of him. His development as both a writer and singer has really been something to behold over the years, and this is the first time when the heaps of critical praise he’s amassed seem fully justified. And don’t worry, longtime fans: He still plays the Dylan card here, especially on album highlight “When the Brakeman Turns My Way.”

The biggest little indie film of the year hits DVD shelves this month; naturally it spawned a fine, fine soundtrack. I’ll stand by my assertion that Once (Columbia) is one of the best music films ever made, thanks in no small part to the fine songs and singing of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. Fans of the film and its stars will without a doubt want more, so when you’re gift-wrapping up that DVD or soundtrack CD for your intended recipient, consider including a copy of The Swell Season (Overcoat), the Hansard-Iglová album from which a number of the film’s songs were drawn, or The Cost (Anti), last year’s release from Hansard’s band of 17 years, the Frames.

Speaking of discovery, the soundtrack from the Steve Carell vehicle Dan In Real Life (Virgin/EMI) provided many viewers’ first interaction with genre-hopping Norwegian musician Sondre Lerche, who performs 15 of the soundtrack’s 16 songs. Lerche, only 25, already has four great albums under his belt, including this year’s feral power-pop announcement Phantom Punch (Astralwerks); recorded with his backing band, the Faces Down, Punch is a world apart from its predecessor, 2006’s jazz-pop excursion Duper Sessions (Astralwerks). Lerche’s music is categorized as “pop/indie/jazz” on his MySpace page; he might be the one artist besides Elvis Costello who self-identifies as such without screaming “I sound like Sting!” (Because he doesn’t. Just to be clear.)

Finally, lest this seem like a boys’ club, I give you former Delgados member Emma Pollock and her excellent Watch the Fireworks (4AD). There’s a little something for everyone here: “Acid Test” is fiery, guitar-driven indie-rock; “Paper and Glue” is a bit of jangle-pop that calls to mind the Pernice Brothers; “Limbs” is a delicate acoustic ballad; “Adrenaline” transfers part of the “Limbs” progression to piano for a Coldplay-in-a-good-way rocker. All of it is bound by Pollock’s sweet, airy voice, not to mention some superb songwriting—her melodies develop like origami, folding in new directions to create new musical shapes before turning into something entirely different than expected. Fireworks is simply a wonderful album.

—John Brodeur

Beyond Genre

The holiday season brings a respite from our village’s lone ice-cream truck and its incessant loop of irritating faux-good-cheer melody that’s too thin to really even be called a song. Happily, I’m not alone in my frustration. While he won’t be stealing into Greenwich to slash the tires of the offending vehicle, Michael Hearst has done something much more magnanimous: He’s created a CD titled Songs for Ice Cream Trucks (Urban Geek). Opening with a piano figure that calls to mind Sly and the Family Stone’s “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” he utilizes glockenspiel, melodica, electronic chord organ, theremin, Casiotone, guitars, bass, drums and judiciously deployed chorus vocals. The 13 tracks clock in at just over a half-hour, and one needn’t be either an ice-cream truck driver or even an ice-cream enthusiast to be lulled into contentment on a par with lying on a hammock on a summer day.

Who Knew Charlie Shoe? (Cuneiform) by Richard Leo Johnson and Gregg Bendian offers a diverse set of pleasures. Johnson is an imaginative acoustic guitarist who delights in applying his inclinations to more than the just the music. Teamed up with percussionist Bendian (who used everything from sheet metal scraps to pans of water), Johnson has created a backstory for Charlie Shoe, whom he even credits as the guitarist on this instrumental set (percussion is credited to one “Junk Fish”). This is not Johnson’s first fictitious alter-ego; his previous album was last year’s The Legend of Vernon McAlister. McAlister’s name had been scratched into the side of the 75-year old steel guitar that Johnson had acquired, prompting him to create a sketchy biography and, most importantly, a set of historically mysterious and timelessly beautiful music. With his latest character as a springboard, Johnson has done so again.

Safe Inside the Day (Drag City) is the third album by Baby Dee, but the first that I’ve encountered. The piano-based songs are idiosyncratic in both construction and execution, but utterly friendly. Though not always sounding so, Baby Dee is a woman. Her register and phrasing obscure gender, though this doesn’t seem to be any sort of purposeful obfuscation, just her artistic inclination. There’s a theatrical quality to her singing, with a basis in character giving heft to the peculiarly alluring lyrics. Like songs from some lost musical, there’s a purposefulness to the entire presentation that bespeaks of a bigger picture than what can be surmised form the duration of one song. Now in her 50s, Baby Dee was born in Cleveland and is a classically trained harpist, and though that instrument is not in evidence here, the complexities of classical construction inform the instrumental underpinnings, allowing her voice to dart about with passionate abandon. Among contemporary acts, this album brings to mind Danny Cohen, though with much deeper resonance, as well as Johnny Dowd, though without his rural scratchiness. Among previous pop-world rule-breakers, there are shades of Tiny Tim, minus his nostalgic repertoire.

Black Mirror: Reflections in Global Musics (1918-1955) (Dust-to-Digital) offers two dozen recordings from the first half of the 20th century. All were transferred from rare 78s, most never having appeared on CD before. The varied music reflects the ongoing search by compiler Ian Nagoski (who owns a record store in Baltimore) to be moved by recorded performances from around the globe. Eschewing geographic organization, he makes musical connections unique to the particulars of his collection. Consequently, a Buddhist prayer sung unaccompanied by a Laotian man is followed by a 10-year-old Swedish boy playing the zither and singing a song composed by a socialist poet from Finland. These juxtapositions are testament to the thoughtfulness and keen ears of Nagoski.

Britain’s Sonic Arts Network (www.sonicartsnetwork.org) has released its latest installment of book and CD. This 10th volume, titled Periférico: Sounds From Beyond the Bubble, again uses a guest curator, this time the Angolan composer Victor Gama. The 15 tracks were created by artists from Lebanon, Iran, Colombia, Egypt, Palestine, Angola, Brazil, Cuba, Peru and Ukraine. Far from being a compilation of so-called “world music,” these pieces tend to explore the sonic traditions and contemporary possibilities found in their cultures. The accompanying booklet further examines the themes in the audio tracks, as well as presenting visual works by Lebanese artist and musician Mazen Kerbaj. This ongoing series, while requiring listeners to bring something of their own intellect to the table, invites and rewards at every turn.

—David Greenberger

Folk, Blues, Bluegrass, and Celtic Music

You’re tired of scouring the malls and surfing the Web looking for gift ideas for a folk, blues, bluegrass, or Celtic-music fan, aren’t you? Somehow I just knew, so let me ease your holiday quest with some CD suggestions for these genres.

One of this year’s more unlikely folk collaborations is the new release from Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant and 20-time Grammy winning bluegrass fiddler and singer Alison Krauss, Raising Sand (Rounder). Both artists had to stretch their skills to pull off this project—Plant had never sung harmony and had to soften up his vocals considerably, while Krauss was new to blues singing. The result—13 tracks of country, folk, blues, gospel, and R&B material by Tom Waits, Townes Van Zandt, the Everly Brothers, Sam Phillips, and Mel Tillis—made critics’ 2007 hot lists. Among the contributing artists on this T-Bone Burnett produced gem are guitarists Marc Ribot and Norman Blake, and multi-instrumentalist Mike Seeger, among others.

Back in the early 1920s, the first blues records featured female singers accompanied by Dixieland bands. Veteran folkie Maria Muldaur, who got started singing in Greenwich Village folk coffeehouses in the early 1960s and went on to record with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, has completed a trio of tribute albums to blues singers from the 1920s through 1940s with Naughty, Bawdy, and Blues (Stoney Plain). Backed by James Dapogny’s Chicago Jazz Band, an authentic New Orleans-sounding outfit, this latest disc focuses on 1920s singers. Muldaur delivers luscious renditions of songs from Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Alberta Hunter, Sippy Wallace, Ethel Waters and Victoria Spivey. Bonnie Raitt guests on one track also.

By the 1950s, the newly electrified blues had taken up residence in Chicago. For fans of South Side-style blues, there is a new Muddy Waters CD, Breakin’ It Up, Breakin’ It Down (Legacy). This was compiled from a series of late-1970s live shows with James Cotton and Johnny Winter, who produced a series of albums for Muddy shortly after Waters left Chess, his longtime label, in 1976. Also playing on these 11 blues standards are pianist Pinetop Perkins, drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, guitarist Bob Margolin, and bassist Charles Calmese. Winter is in exceptionally good form here, so his fans, as well as Muddy’s, will want this one.

For aficionados of bluegrass and old-time string-band music, the all-female quartet Uncle Earl have a release that will fill a holiday stocking nicely. Waterloo, Tennessee (Rounder) was chosen for the title of this 16-track offering after one of the band members thought she saw a roadside sign for the town while they were traveling through the Volunteer State. The place was probably Waterloo Falls, but no matter—what they got right is the plain singing and fancy picking and that have won them national acclaim. For this record, banjoist Abigail Washburn, mandolinist-bassist-guitarist KC Groves, fiddler Ranya Gellert, and guitarist-fiddler Kristen Andreassen went to British producer John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin fame, a move that paid off with a 4 1/2-star Amazon.com customer rating. Waterloo encompasses fiddle tunes, songs ranging from the slow and mournful to the fast and lighthearted, and even a shape-note hymn that evokes early American church music.

Along with fellow Californian Buck Owens, country icon Merle Haggard forged the Bakersfield sound, a return to the pedal steel and fiddle-led instrumentation that dominated country music in the late 1940s and early 1950s, augmented by the Fender Telecaster. This year, though, Hag decided to do his first-ever bluegrass album, The Bluegrass Sessions (McCoury). With a crack band led by mandolinist-guitarist Marty Stuart sitting in a circle with Merle, the group recorded a 12-cut live CD that features tunes by Jimmy Rogers and the Delmore Brothers, as well as some remakes of Hag’s hits, and four new originals. Even though the album lacks some of the flashy picking you’d expect in a bluegrass disc, Haggard’s insightful songwriting (only Hank Williams Sr. is ranked above him as a lyricist here) is why this one is worth it.

Kevin Burke is a master of the Sligo style of Irish fiddling, and has played with the Celtic supergroups the Bothy Band and Patrick Street. His new effort, Across the Black River (Loftus) is an exuberant outing with guitarist-composer Cal Scott, containing 10 tracks of pure fiddling bliss. Burke and Scott serve up a well-chosen and-arranged batch of both traditional and freshly minted reels and jigs, as well as a Bill Monroe tune and a lament by Scottish accordionist Phil Cunningham for his late brother, fiddler Johnny Cunningham. Burke and Scott have an obviously swell time playing together, which adds immensely to the record’s appeal. Sidemen include accordionist Johnny B. Connolly, Michael McGoldrick on flute, and bassist Phil Baker.

—Glenn Weiser

Christmas Music

If you only buy one holiday CD this year, think about buying Flame’s Holiday Classics (Whitelake Music & Post). The 11-piece band have built a following because (1) they’re inspirational (the members have varying developmental disabilities) and (2) they can play. Lead singer Michelle King is better than 99 percent of the lead singers in 99 percent of local bands 100 percent of the time. And the album has all the songs you know and love. For info, visit flametheband.com.

Scottish lass KT Tunstall has slipped Have Yourself a Very KT Christmas (EMI/NBC), a six-song EP, into stores in time for stocking stuffin’. The song selection is unimpeachable. Best are the plaintive rocking of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and the English music-hall take on Bing Crosby’s Hawaiian Christmas ditty, “Mele Kalikimaka.” If the arrangements of the Pretenders’ “2000 Miles” and the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” hew too closely to the originals, Tunstall’s rough-hewn crooning does not disappoint—though when Ed Harcourt, her duet partner on “Fairytale,” sings about “the rare old mountain dew,” he seems to be longing for that last can of soda in the fridge.

At the top of this season’s reissue list is Christmas Wish: Deluxe Edition (Clang!) by NRBQ. The original Rounder EP has been augmented with assorted live tracks and such, resulting in something seriously goofy—as you would expect. The tracks were recorded over a 30-year period, but the mood and sound coheres because, well, NRBQ are all about timelessness.

If you saw the Vince Vaughn vehicle Fred Claus—which, judging by the box office numbers, few of y’all did—then you might have noticed, in between yuks, that the seasonal music was pretty good. Which means that Fred Claus: Music From the Motion Picture Soundtrack (Warner Bros.) is excellent. Eight decades of holiday cheer are liberated from the vaults, allowing one to enjoy the varied likes of Doris Day, the Jackson 5, Russ Morgan, the Ronettes, Elvis Presley and the Waitresses. And, surprisingly, by the time Sinead O’Connor’s lovely but doleful take on “Silent Night” is over, one is delighted to hear Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians.

Ohio-based Christian rockers Relient K have delivered a thoroughly pleasant power-pop album of standards; if they play more of the religious-themed faves than usual on Let It Snow Baby . . . Let It Reindeer (Capitol), it’s not just to be expected, it’s a relief. I like “Angels We Have Heard on High.”

If none of these tickle your fancy, Bing Crosby’s White Christmas (formerly Merry Christmas) has been continuously in print since the late 1940s.

—Shawn Stone

sstone@metroland.net

 

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