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Discs

>Rock

Phish

New Year's Eve 1995: Live At Madison Square Garden

[Rhino]

Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)

New Year's Eve bacchanals were Phish's foodstuff, and no year-ending/beginning gig is more renowned amongst Phish-heads than this Madison Square Garden show. Culminating a year in which the band -- Trey Anastasio, Mike Gordon, Jon Fishman and Page McConnell -- logged countless road miles and made giant strides as an eight-handed improvisational ensemble, this "Garden" set captures Phish on the cusp of a new synthesis. The quartet's members would go on to become far better songwriters and more astute album-makers, but for many -- and with good reason -- this 1995 snapshot freezes Phish at a particularly potent moment. Many Phish fans believe the band is best live, that the records are less of an event than the concerts -- an opinion similar to the one expressed by many Grateful Dead fans.

Clocking in at more than three hours, with 27 songs spread across three discs, "Garden" is stunning and can be seen as an encapsulation of what Phish did best -- jam, yes, but also jubilantly blend an incredibly diverse array of idioms into a wholly unique sound, incorporating oddball humor, individual virtuosity and collective, telepathic interplay.

A number of tunes from the Who's "Quadrophenia" are in evidence here; the band had performed the album in its entirety the previous Halloween. Surprisingly astute covers of Collective Soul's "Shine" and the Edgar Winter Group's "Frankenstein" make this show unique. But it's the crazy Phish-centric stuff that sticks to the ribs most readily, particularly a stunning show-opening "Punch You in the Eye," a midpoint "Runaway Jim" and the second set's apex, "You Enjoy Myself."

A certain segment of the massive Phish audience appears indelibly embittered by the band's decision to call it quits, and particularly with Anastasio's insistence on pursuing a solo career full time. I'm not one of those folks; I find Anastasio's solo work brave and compelling. But maybe this memento from what is, for these old-school Phish loyalists, a time that shouldn't have passed, will be a salve to the wound.

-- Jeff Miers

***

>Soundtracks

John Williams

Memoirs of a Geisha

With cello soloist Yo-Yo Ma and violin soloist Itzhak Perlman

[Sony Classical]

Review: 3 stars

***

Alexandre Desplat

Syriana

[RCA Red Seal]

Review: 2 stars

The only possible point to the low-string drones and drum caravans of Alexandre Desplat's music for "Syriana" outside of a movie theater is to give your living room the ambience of a sandy desert, just waiting to be overrun by soldiers, terrorists and the despoliating cockroaches of international Big Oil.

Desplat's music, otherwise, has no earthly use, really. It was meant as sonic background and enhancement to the complex and ominous goings on in Stephen Gaghan's much-praised movie. In that respect, it's like the steering wheel of a car: It has only one use in the world. It is, in any other context, out of place.

Not so John Williams' sumptuous and eminently listenable music for "Memoirs of a Geisha." When your soundtrack features the glorious and sumptuous sonorities of Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman, you can convince people that your music is far more melodically interesting than it really is. Nor does the haunting authenticity of the shakuhachi flute playing lessen the impact. Despite being little more than emotional decoration for the movie, this is Hollywood musical exoticism with some honor. If only the movie had been up to the standard of the music.

-- Jeff Simon

***

>Classical

Bach

Complete Lute Suites

Performed by guitarist Sharon Isbin

[Virgin Classics]

Review: 3 1/2 stars

Here is a disc of the sort of musical collaboration across the generations that you seldom find anywhere else but in the world of classical music. In 1989, the beautiful and then-emergent guitarist Sharon Isbin made these guitar versions of Bach's lute suites using the editions of the great septuagenarian pianist, harpsichordist and Bach scholar Rosalyn Tureck (who went so far in return as to blurb her protege's disc).

The results were marvelous performances of transcriptions of the Bach lute suites that, while distinctly lesser works in the vast Bach canon, are among the greatest works essayed by guitarists. Isbin's early career reading of these works, then, definitely qualifies for "classic" performance status.

-- Jeff Simon

***

>Hip-hop

Various Artists

Ludacris Presents Disturbing Tha Peace

[Island/Def Jam]

Review: 2 stars

Don't be misled by the title; this is not a new Ludacris album, but rather, the second installment from the collective Disturbing Tha Peace, following 2002's rather flaccid "Golden Grain."

Ludacris appears here, of course, and his "dirty South" stylings inform the body of the record -- some of which is dead-on and strong as all get-out, and some of which is a mixture of tame and misdirected.

The record starts out at its peak, with Ludacris and Field Mob having a field day with a sample of Jamie Foxx doing Ray Charles doing "Georgia on My Mind." This has it all: swampy Southern hip-hop beats; Ludacris' slippery rhymes and irreverent humor; and smart use of the Foxx/Charles sample -- meaning the lift has been worked into the groove impeccably.

The rest of the record is spotty. Norfclk -- that's no typo -- seems lost in the fairly stock rap arena-anthem "Put Ya Hands Up," a cliche piece that goes nowhere fast, then stays there for several minutes. "Gettin' Some," a vehicle for Shawnna, is a potty-mouth sleaze-fest, but it flows nicely, recalling the proper groove manipulations of the album's first track.

Throughout, the Field Mob material is the strongest, and whenever Ludacris appears, the excitement level doubles immediately.

An improvement on the first DTP release, but still, a bit convoluted. This stuff sounds great played loud, though. Maybe that's enough for Ludacris lovers.

-- Jeff Miers

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