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Dwight Yoakam

Dwight Sings Buck

[New West]

Review: 4 stars (Out of 4)

In the late '50s, the country music coming out of Nashville had become increasingly saccharine, a melodramatic and often rootless blend of corn-pone strings and schmaltzy, Vegas-like production. Buck Owens had other ideas. By blending a raw, sturdy attack of rock-flavored guitars with authentic country vocal arrangements, Owens slapped Nashville in the kisser, and simultaneously launched what came to be known as the Bakersfield sound: soulful country music with killer electric-guitar playing, courtesy of Owens' legendary right-hand man, Don Rich.

It's fitting that Dwight Yoakam is paying tribute to Owens' influence, and celebrating their deep friendship, at a time when Nashville is up to its old nonsense with a vengeance. There couldn't be a more apt tribute to Owens than "Dwight Sings Buck," an album that arrives like a rigid hand signal extended modern country's way. Buck would love that. Yoakam is the man for the job, clearly, as his entire career has been a celebration of the Bakersfield sound, and of the subtle-yet-indelible differences between what passes for country today and what artists such as Owens, Gram Parsons and Merle Haggard were attempting.

Throughout "Dwight Sings Buck," Yoakam's voice is a gorgeous, emotive, tear-in-your-beer tenor, and he uses it to full effect, whether reworking "Close Up the Honky Tonks" as a more studied dose of heartbreak, or suggesting what it might've sounded like had jazz singer/trumpeter Chet Baker made country music, with the heart-rending "Only You (Can Break My Heart)." Yoakam has done here what only the finest tribute albums can do: He has celebrated the rich legacy of an artist and brought it firmly into the present tense. This is the country music album of the year, no doubt.

-- Jeff Miers



Virgil Thomson

"The Plow That Broke the Plains" and "The River"

Post-Classical Ensemble conducted by Angel Gil-Orodonez


Review: 4 stars

Here, like manna from heaven, is a perfect illustration of the irreplaceability in our world of the disc as cultural object. No download will ever come close to the experience of listening to the budget-priced world premiere recordings of the music and reading the accompanying notes. Nor, frankly, do I think it preferable to hear the music in its original setting as film music, as Naxos has previously offered on DVD (any more, at this stage, than it is better to hear Prokofiev's "Alexander Nevsky" as music for Sergei Eisenstein's film).

This is some of the most influential symphonic music ever composed in America. In 1936 and 1937, Pare Lorentz made two classic documentary films to, in effect, sell the programs of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, as part of the era's very definition of liberalism itself. He then got 40-year-old composer Thomson to write the music for them. (He first hired Thomson for "The Plow That Broke the Plains" when Thomson asked him how much he could pay him, admitting, "I can't take from any man more than he's got.") Aaron Copland himself had admitted they are models of the use of Americana in symphonic music. Copland's first great music after hearing these scores -- his masterpiece "Billy the Kid" -- reveals how massive was Thomson's influence. And Copland's influence, in turn, has been decisive for the past 70 years (you can STILL hear it in American symphonic and film music).

Here, for the first time on record or disc, are brilliant performances of the complete scores of this determining music. And that makes this low-priced disc something of a major event. The performing group is Washington, D.C.'s edgy and exceptional Post-Classical Ensemble (Joseph Horowitz, one of the smartest historians and critics extant of American music is its artistic director and the disc's annotator). The performances aren't coldly flawless and pristine, but they are so clear, so athletic and so well-recorded that they seem, themselves, models of how to play this music.

And what is this music? A phenomenally witty and tender and wistful and riotous farrago of themes from the American musical unconscious -- Reveille, "There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight," "Go Tell Aunt Rhody," "Oh! Susannah," "The Mademoiselle from Armentiere (Inky, Dinky Parlez-Vous)" etc. And all of them are mixed with Thomson's own melodic and masterly settings. This is American symphonic modernism at its folksiest and most appealing. Nor, by the way, does it become stale on repeated hearings.

It's so complete, in fact, that it even includes passages not heard in Lorentz's original films.

Horowitz's notes to the disc are close to exemplary (even better on Naxos' DVD). The only thing missing is a list of all the musical sources blended into the ingenious musical phantasmagoria.

This is a great recording moment.

-- Jeff Simon



Coheed & Cambria

No World for Tomorrow


Review: 3 1/2 stars

Coheed & Cambria stuck out like an infected digit during last summer's Vans Warped Tour, where the band played amid a slam-fest of (mostly) cookie-cutter "screamo," punk and hardcore groups. Surprisingly, the fans -- most of them young -- flocked the front of the stage during Coheed's set and were visibly appreciative of the group's incredibly ambitious updating of progressive rock tropes and math-metal stylings. Like Tool -- the previous decade's boldest purveyors of forward-looking heavy rock music -- Coheed & Cambria has been given a pass. The same elements that cause a generation of listeners to scoff at their parents' prog-rock are openly embraced in this wonderfully freakish ensemble's work. That's nothing but a good thing.

"No World for Tomorrow" is the fourth and final installment in a broad narrative arc commenced with the band's debut effort. Call it apocalyptic science-fiction if you must, or pretentious self-indulgence, if such things scare you. Truth is, one needn't even delve into the narrative threads to get an immense charge form this complex assembly of thick, meaty guitar riffs, harmony-heavy choruses and "great gig in the sky" histrionics. No matter how you approach it, it works, because the hooks -- as unusual as they are in today's musical climate -- never miss. Complex music, of course, is not always better than simple music. Often, the opposite can be the case. But Coheed & Cambria is such a welcome addition to the contemporary rock landscape. Bursting with passion, bristling with ideas, and in possession of the talent necessary to translate both, the group leaves the majority of its peers in the dust.

-- J.M.

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