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With The Lights Out

DGC] *** 1/2

So here it is, the final word on Nirvana. Though it reeks of Christmas season cash-in, happily, the 3 CD/1 DVD "With the Lights Out" celebrates the gritty, under-produced (pronounced "punk rock") side of the band, and attempts to restore to it a sense of indie-punk/DIY credibility. It succeeds.

There are 68 unreleased tunes compiled here, so don't expect some sort of hits package. The majority of the material was recorded under extremely primitive conditions, and the sound quality is dreadful. The DVD consists of what are essentially home-movies, with the exception of the original Sub Pop video for "In Bloom" and some later live film excerpts. And the songs that were bona-fide crossover hits are represented here by either home-recorded demos, boom box rehearsal recordings, or poorly-recorded concert versions. The whole thing, with the exception of its exquisite graphic presentation, sounds and looks awful.

That's its saving grace, too, because, as Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore makes plain in one of two essays included in the handsome liner notes booklet, Nirvana was always an underground punk band whose love for the Pixies and the Beatles just happened to translate into some of the most friendly punk songs of the era, and thus paved the way for mainstream success. That success was a fluke; it's hard to imagine a band trying less hard to make it big in the corporate rock/MTV world than Nirvana.

The trio's sound was a blend of heavy metal and punk rescued from mundanity by the freshness of Cobain's songwriting, which was never afraid of melody and rarely failed to provide a sizeable hook. Nirvana, then, was an anomaly.

"Lights Out" is a discomforting and disturbing listen, and as such, is a suitable testament to Cobain and Nirvana's legacy. There was always a strong pop element to the band's best work, but if Cobain was at all emblematic of a generation, as so many claimed, then it was his confusion and sense of inner torment that made him so, not the catchiness of his songs.

There's a telling moment during the beer-soaked footage of the nascent Nirvana rehearsing; while friends stand around hoisting bottles of cheap beer, and the other band members get suitably "into it," Cobain is in his own world, his microphone stand placed so that he is singing directly into a wall. Four years later, Nirvana would be the biggest band in the world. But Cobain always seemed to be singing straight into that wall.

-- Jeff Miers


Vaughan Williams

Symphonies 1-9 and Smaller Works

Performed by soloists and London Philharmonic under Bernard Haitink

EMI] ****

It seems to have become standard operating procedure for any visiting conductor determined to become as English musically as possible in a hurry: record the full cycle of Vaughan Williams' 9 Symphonies. If the Ravelian pastoralisms don't quickly enshroud the visitor in a kind of aural Constable landscaping then the modal olk song heartiness may make him an honorary citizen of the "sceptred isle" for the rest of his days.

Meanwhile, anyone keeping serious tally might well offer that Ralph Vaughan Williams' nine symphonies are as great as any large body of symphonies composed in the 20th century. His only competition would be Shostakovich's 15. (Honegger's five are magnificent but too skimpy and, among the busier 20th century symphonists, too uneven by far are Hartmann's eight and Miaskovsky's gloomily prolific 27.)

Bernard Haitink has proven, over the decades, that there's almost no kind of music that he cannot conduct with an astonishingly consistent level of artistry. With long residence, the London Philarmonic has become his orchestra as the Concertgebouw once was and this budget-priced collection of Vaughan Williams' 9 (recorded from 1984-2000) is absolutely superb. Filler for the seven disc set are such great individual RVW pieces as the Thomas Tallis Fantasia, the Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1, The Lark Ascending," "In the Fen Country" and "On Wenlock Edge."

-- Jeff Simon



Special Edition Soundtrack

Walt Disney Records] **** (for the first CD)

All together now: "Take heart, for Mrs. Pankhurst has been clapped in irons again!" As kids, we sang it. Few of us knew what the heck we were singing. The songs of "Mary Poppins" are all terrific. A few even made made it into jazz (think of John Coltrane's take on "Chim Chim Cher-ee").

But it's fun to marvel at how unsuited to children the lyrics are. Lines like "It's 6:01, and the heirs to my dominion/Are scrubbed and tubbed. . . " or "Majestic, self-amortizing canals" or "When dukes and maharajas pass the time of day with me. . . " (I never did make out that line till yesterday, and then I cheated by looking at the liner notes). . . you have to marvel at them. It's all grand, and luminously orchestrated, and in this collection, all scrubbed and tubbed, the soundtrack sounds even better.

Dick van Dyke is a special revelation. He never quite got enough credit as a song and dance man, and as Bert the Cockney chimney sweep, he was sublime. The one disappointment is CD 2. It's supposed to be fascinating, long-lost discussions with author P.L. Travers about the story line -- if you can, as the song goes, stay awake. I couldn't.

--Mary Kunz


Destiny's Child

Destiny Fulfilled

Columbia] * 1/2

You don't have to be that old to remember a time when r&b was not an overly-produced, heavily shellacked form of radio-ready pop music. The best records in the genre, from Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder in the 70s, to Prince and Terence Trent D'arby in the 80s, to newcomers like Ricky Fante, were well-made and heavily-crafted affairs, but they all boasted warmth and an organic, human touch. Lately, records that fall beneath the r&b umbrella sound like computer programs gone wild. They're about as soulful as the plastic discs they're burned onto.

"Destiny Fulfilled," the first effort from nominally-r&b trio Destiny's Child following the runaway solo success of member Beyonce Knowles -- 5 Grammys and her own own line of perfume, for goodness' sake -- is the perfect case in point. It's soul music in name only; for the majority of its 11 tracks, the record flatly fails to make any human connection with the listener. "Fulfilled" is over-produced well past the point of annoyance.

Knowles, Michelle Williams and Kelly Rowland are great singers, though much of the warmth of their singing is lost in this slick environment. Knowles is the strongest vocalist; when it manages to poke its head through the glitz, her voice is warm and sensuous, her phrasing soulful. Many of the tunes -- if you can really call them that, since most are essentially rhythm tracks with the singing providing the only harmonic content -- find the ladies trading verses, and then coming together in sweet harmony for the choruses.

But the lyrics are ludicrous. These are supposed to be liberated, strong women, but several of the songs -- "Cater 2 U" being the most offensive example -- suggest that there is no higher goal for a woman to aspire to than to be a willing sex kitten for her man, as long as he's got the bling and he's adequately equipped. What a drag it is to hear Knowles, Rowland and Williams claim that their existence is fulfilled by making dinner for their men, keeping their figures "right," their "hair fixed," and so forth. Knowles even goes so far as to promise to comb her man's hair, rub his feet and give him a manicure when he gets home from work.

Overblown ballads and thinly-clad dance tracks make up the sum of "Destiny Fulfilled." It all comes off sounding like a commercial for some lifestyle that very few people will ever be able to afford. This is escapism, then, but even as such, it fails to fire on all cylinders.

-- Jeff Miers

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