The Poem of Ecstasy, Piano Concerto and Prometheus
Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Pierre Boulez with pianist Anatol Ugorski
Deutsche Grammaphon] ****
The moment in the 1970s when composer, acoustician, theoretician and all-around musical grenade thrower Pierre Boulez fully transformed himself into conductor Pierre Boulez has to be accounted one of the more fortuitous moments of the last musical century. He has always been an amazing conductor but he has embarked, of late, on some recordings of late-Romantic masterworks with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra that are milestones of classical recording. His recent pairing of Richard Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra" and Gustav Mahler's "Totenfier" is magnificent, but his all-Scriabin disc of late last year is among the great performances of late Romanticism anywhere. Specifically, his performance of "Le Poeme De L'Extase" is an atom-smasher, as powerful and detailed an orchestral performance of the great chromatic masterpiece as its messianic composer could have imagined. It's no accident, I don't think, that Scriabin -- the most visionary of late 19th-century composers -- suddenly bloomed through the millennium as few other composers did. (A lesser performance of "Le Poeme De L'Extase" by the Russian National Orchestra under Mikhail Pletnev also came out recently on a disc pairing with Scriabin's "Le Divin Poeme.".) His music is ideal for the turn of any century. The rest of the monumental Boulez/Scriabin disc is music for piano and orchestra -- marvelous music by any lights but without the thrilling impact of Boulez' reading of "Le Poeme De L'Extase." At such moments, you understand some very basic things about what recorded classical music is for.
-- Jeff Simon
John Davis Plays Blind Tom
Newport Records] ***
This is the first recording of music by Tom Wiggins, a Georgia slave born blind in 1849. He had such fantastic musical facility that he could play difficult classical pieces, verbatim, on a single hearing, and often played them with his back to the keyboard as a stunt. Exploited as a sideshow freak with bizarre stage behavior, Blind Tom is said to have earned more than $100,000 per year, almost all of which went to his owners. Davis' excellent performances on this recording reveal that Blind Tom's original music is filled with imagination, and provide much evidence of the colossal facility Tom must have had as a performer. The music incorporates techniques that anticipate Cowell and Cage, with an overriding ambience that may remind you of Gottschalk and Joplin. Amazing music, and the liner notes are a priceless history lesson.
-- Herman Trotter
Girl, Interrupted: Original Soundtrack
Wilco's new song, the bleak "How to Fight Loneliness," is the big draw here, kicking off a roll call of greats and near greats of the '60s with a tender but sinister commentary. But more than just being a strong selling point -- it may be a dour one from Jeff Tweedy and friends, but it's also one of their best -- it sets the tone for the whole.
Except for the Chambers Brothers' exuberant "Time Has Come Today" (thankfully not the long version, so its brief, clangorous bits make sense here), the sullen atmosphere is never broken.
The oldies sound just marvelous in this context, breezing from Them's take on "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" to The Band's "The Weight" to Jefferson Airplane's darkly fitting "Comin' Back to Me." And most noteworthy is the Mamas and the Papas' "Got a Feelin'," a gorgeously ethereal piece of four-part harmonizing with a bitterly sorrowful conclusion that has gone too long ignored.
In fact, this is one of those collections that the new best soundtrack category at the Grammy Awards was designed for. Though it's largely crafted out of previously released material, it achieves its own emotional arc, building from Wilco's world weariness to the indestructible escapism of Petula Clark's "Downtown." Add to it Mychael Danna's equally evocative score (a worthwhile bonus) and you've got a great one in a genre that rarely produces great ones anymore.
-- Ben Wener, Orange County Register
The Mighty King of Love
Phil Lee is a roadhouse rocker and hellion of honky-tonk, following in the tradition of Joe Ely, Jimmy Lafave and, to a lesser extent, Tav Falco and Tom Petty. At the tender age of age 49, and armed with a resume of musical dabblings, crossroads gigs and a career as big-rig driver, this native North Carolinian has cut his first disc, "The Mighty King of Love. Where's he been all these years?
Check out Lee's life itinerary in 13 finely crafted, cookin' songs as served up by the artist and his band, the Sly Dogs. For instance, "Blueprint for Disaster: "Lonnie was a wizard on the country bill/Dottie was a hot dog chef down at Big Jim's Grill/Lonnie was a rock 'n' roll scream/Dottie was honky-tonk dream/that's a bad combination/it's a blueprint for disaster.
Or the title cut, "The Mighty King of Love: "You called me the king of love/don't I wish I were/I wouldn't even call myself a gifted amateur/I am the king of nothing/I'm mostly skin and bone/and of all the broken hearts I broke/I mostly broke my own.
Lee's label, Shanachie, was wise enough to let Lee and Co. call the shots. These nuggets of rockin' wisdom are straight from the bar, as if you're seated next to the Miller sign, sweaty hand clutching a warm beer glass, empty empty shot glass nearby. The disc features hard-driving guitar by Keith Taylor and Lee's Dylanesque harmonica on the title cut.
Every song is a revelation. But it would be a sin not to mention a little polka-Cajun inflection called "Les Debris, Ils Sont Blancs (she's my trashy little one): ". . . You'll find no Jean Paul Sartre on her shelf/she can hardly write her name/she's slightly plump and kind of lame/but with her I can be my sorry self.
This is life 'tween the trailer court and truck terminal. Lee is the real stuff. Wonder how many other Phil Lees are out there?
-- Randy Rodda
Country Willie -- His Own Songs
Buddha records has unearthed some career milestones of country deity Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson.
In Nelson's case, the year is 1965 and he has already penned several songs that spun gold for the likes of Ray Price, Patsy Cline and Faron Young. But as a recording artist Nelson is an unknown.
On "Country Willie -- His Own Songs," recorded originally for RCA, Nelson appears on the cover with bib overalls and close-cropped hair. The album, alas, was not gold and it would be almost a decade until his stock soared.
Why this vinyl never tickled many platters is a mystery. (Could be Willie's crooning fell shy of Nashville's obligatory twang of the era.) But what Nelson did with trusted guitar, youthful voice and affinity for his own work was magic. "One Day At a Time has never sounded better and "Hello Walls is at its claustrophobic best. "Country Willie . . . offers 12 solid songs, no flab.
In Parton's case, the year was 1978, Porter Wagoner days long behind her, and the star is headed toward still loftier magnitudes, awash in the jet trail of such pop-leaning benchmarks as "Jolene and "Here You Come Again." "Heartbreaker" added more loft to the ascendancy, with "I Really Got the Feeling and "Baby I'm Burnin, fixtures on radio play lists.
Parton's effort continued to fuel the debate: Is it country or is it pop? Ironically, because these songs were heavily flavored with all that synthesized groove gravy of the disco-funk '70s, Parton's big-seller sounds more dated than Nelson's austere recording of 13 years previous. Both discs are a kick to discover or revisit.
-- Randy Rodda
The latest release by 12-string guitarist Damien Simon is another graceful, often enchanting, collection of classically influenced instrumentals. The all-string arrangement creates the seductive charm befitting a night suite. Simon wrote and arranged the 11 songs with an unselfish view, utilizing the violins, cello and bass to potential instead of focusing solely on his own performance. Strings swirl around his guitar in "Sraid Patrick"; streaks of languid violin softly pierce the "Color Green;" and a violin hauntingly soars above Simon's soft pickings in the eloquent "Longlife." Simon's own performance is quietly commanding with an artistic beauty. Working with Simon were violinists Richard Kay and Robert Prokes, cellist Nancy Anderson and bassist Paul Bresciani.
-- Toni Ruberto