Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)
The Goo Goo Dolls and Ani DiFranco are the names that immediately come to mind when one is posed the question, "What's the biggest thing to come out of the Buffalo music scene in recent years?" But in a few significant ways, moe. has made the most headway in the broader music world. It's rare for critical praise to be heaped upon an act that also commands a large and loyal following, but moe. has managed to have its cake and eat it, too, almost from the moment of its humble Buffalo beginnings, back in 1991. "The Conch," out this week, is moe.'s 13th album in 15 years, and it follows two of the group's finest records, "Dither" (2001) and "Wormwood" (2003). It manages to top both efforts in ambition and execution.
A favorite at the massive annual Bonnaroo Music and Art Festival, and by this point, a veteran of tours with the Dead, the Allman Brothers Band, Robert Plant and the Strange Sensation and the Who, moe. is quite close to the head of the contemporary jam-band class. With Phish gone south, and new artists such as Umphrey's McGee and Tea Leaf Green generating further interest in the genre, moe. is sitting pretty. "The Conch" could easily be a record that treads water, pleasing the fan base and giving the band some new material to play on the road, where jam bands spend most of their time and make most of their money. Happily, it's so much more than that. Like Phish's "Farmhouse," "The Conch" is a watershed album for moe., one that represents the perfect marriage of the group's ambitious improvisational bent and increasingly strong songwriting.
The record kicks off with bassist/vocalist Rob Derhak's "Blue Jeans Pizza," a surprisingly soulful, R&B-infused bit of jazz-funk that suggests Steely Dan covering a Frank Zappa tune. Guitarist Chuck Garvey drops fat, melodic lines between the verses, and the rhythm section of Derhak, drummer Vinnie Amico and percussionist Jim Loughlin lay an infectious, mildly Latin groove beneath the whole affair. Guitarist/vocalist Al Schnier's elegant, psychedelic ballad "Lost Along the Way" follows, and again, the easy-going sophistication of the musical interplay underpins a memorable melody. Schnier delivers another killer in the form of "Tailspin," a full-on rocker with visceral soloing from both Schnier and Garvey, and a structure that suggests familiarity with -- I kid you not -- early Blue Oyster Cult tunes such as "Tyranny & Mutation" and "The Red & the Black." When samples of speeches by President Bush arrive in the tune's gorgeous bridge, the effect is jam-band surrealism.
There are plenty of playful moments scattered throughout "The Conch," which is the very definition of sprawling, clocking in at 75 mind-stretching minutes. But there's maturity, too, and ample evidence of serious musicianship. It seems moe. has delivered its masterpiece.
The group is scheduled to play Feb. 7 in the Town Ballroom, 681 Main St.
-- Jeff Miers
Plays Chopin: The Verbier Festival Recital
[RCA Red Seal]
Review: 4 stars
God love Evgeny Kissin -- he just gets better and better. After a glittering career that began at a tender age, he still plays the piano as if he gets a kick out of it. And there's also humility in his performances -- he defers to the music, resisting an overt desire to own it, to put his own stamp on it. (It's telling how the liner notes are all about Chopin; there's not one word about Kissin.)
Kissin's technique is glorious, as evidenced particularly in the twinkling F sharp Impromptu, Op. 36. But he's actually pretty conservative, with classical sensibilities. He takes the G flat Impromptu, Op. 51, at a relatively slow tempo, lingering on the lovely phrases. Even the Fantaisie-Impromptu, Op. 66, is rather introspective, melting your heart rather than sweeping you off your feet.
Kissin shows a brooding Russian tendency to explore the music's dark corners, particular in the Polonaises (Op. 26, Nos. 1 and 2, Op. 40 No. 2 and Op. 53 in A flat). This live recording is just under an hour long. But there's a world of emotion packed into it.
-- Mary Kunz Goldman
Symphony No. 2 and Shorter Works
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Paavo Jarvi
Review: 3 1/2 stars
No composer of modern times has inspired an audience's Big Tune Swoon the way Sergei Rachmaninoff has. Every new generation experiences it in its own way. And yet, such is the nature of modern and post-modern aesthetics that self-respecting conductors and performers tend to regard all of that -- as Rachmaninoff himself reputedly did -- with some bemusement, distance and even distaste, as if such a purely spinal response were hopelessly vulgar and to be downplayed if at all possible. (It is, by the way, undoubtedly no accident that Rachmaninoff was even more of a depressive than Tchaikovsky.)
Not Jarvi and the Cincinnati Orchestra. They wallow in the melodic bath of the adagio in Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony the way you might have expected when one of the great podium showmen (Arturo Toscanini, Leopold Stokowski) was in charge. It's a curiosity that half a century ago, the Rachmaninoff piano concertos were commonplace but are now almost scarce for brief periods while works like the Vespers, the second symphony, "The Isle of the Dead," and Symphonic Dances are now considered far more honorable ways to relish the composer's obvious Jukebox/iPod appeal (of the concertos, it's the technically daunting third that appeals to pianists' machismo and machisma).
This is Rachmaninoff Without Shame here, well-played and ready for any swoon that might come along.
-- Jeff Simon
The Apples in Stereo
New Magnetic Wonder
Review: 3 stars
Led by Elephant 6 collective co-founder Robert Schneider and his hyper-vibrant imagination, the Apples in Stereo elevate indie rock to symphonic heights on "New Magnetic Wonder," an entropy-defying collection of lush orchestral-pop pieces, sunny '60s vocal harmonies and plenty of tangential flights into delightful obscurity.
The Elephant 6 collective gave birth to the Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel, as well as Schneider's Apples, the group that turned out to be the last one standing. All three groups helped define mid-'90s indie rock. The Apples' early work was as low-fi as low-fi gets, and "New Magnetic Wonder" retains a bit of that "basement genius" ethic. But Schneider, happily, doesn't let any notions of indie-rock "cred" bind him here, letting his inner Electric Light Orchestra out to frolic with the imp of Brian Wilson that clearly lives in his breast. The result is a delightful abstract painting elegantly marrying strict form and random gestures of enthusiastic inspiration.
There's part-hearty '70s rock ("Can You Feel It?," which sounds like particularly super Supergrass), pure ELO goofiness (between-song anomaly "Joanie"), Beach Boys euphoria married to Todd Rundgren-esque irreverence ("Play Tough," "Energy") and Schneider's attempts to create a new musical scale beyond the 12-tone (the reoccurring hallucinations that are "Non-Pythagorean Compositions 1 & 3").
What a technicolor treat the whole thing ends up being, kind of like dropping "Pet Sounds," Badfinger's "No Dice," ELO's "Time" and Rundgren's "A Wizard, A True Star" into a centrifuge, extracting the reduced matter, and laying it all to tape.
The group is scheduled to play Feb. 11 in the Buffalo Icon, 391 Ellicott St.