“Primus & the Chocolate Factory With the Fungi Ensemble” (ATO)
Completely unsurprisingly, Primus mastermind and bassist supreme Les Claypool has been obsessed with Roald Dahl’s novel (and the 1971 film starring Gene Wilder) “Charlie & the Chocolate Factory” for the better part of his life. The creepy, implicitly sinister, snarky, and rife-with-social-commentary nature of both the novel and the film is analogous to the sound Primus has been crafting for more than 25 years, so it’s entirely appropriate that Primus has now not so much interpreted the original “Chocolate Factory” soundtrack as it has radically restructured the songs and forced them to bend to the collective Primus will. With Claypool and guitarist Larry Lalonde reunited with original drummer Tim Alexander for the first time since 1995’s “Tales from the Punchbowl,” and aided and abetted by the Fungi Ensemble (percussionist Mike Dillon and cellist Sam Bass), there was no way the album was going to miss, sonically speaking.
This is pure Primus, funky as hell, eminently strange, and just as eager to frighten as they are to tickle. So “Candy Man” keeps its original lyrics, but is so dark in arrangement and delivery as to suggest that Claypool’s Candy Man is more drug dealer than chocolatier. “Cheer Up Charlie” is a Tom Waits-like march with a junkyard pulse; “Golden Ticket” is delivered in the voice of a drunken bum in a deserted alleyway, and played with the twisted conviction of early Mothers of Invention; “I Want It Now” is less about food-based hedonism than it is – implicitly, again – an indictment of narcissism and greed in general. Primus has managed to both pay tribute to the original “Charlie” music and story line, and to make Wonka-ville its own personal playground. Brilliant. 4 stars (Jeff Miers)
"Ride Out” (Capitol)
He may struggle to hit the high notes in concert these days, but as his 17th release, “Ride Out” proves, Bob Seger still knows how to blend rock ‘n’ soul with bluesy folk and cook it all over high heat in the recording studio. Smartly under-produced and presented as no-frills Detroit muscle and heartland rock, “Ride Out” finds Seger sticking his mitts into a grab bag of prime songs penned by others, and balancing these covers with several punchy, if far from groundbreaking, tunes of his own. It works, principally due to the fact that Seger picked some killer jams to interpret, starting with album-opener “Detroit Made,” a song John Hiatt could’ve written with Seger in mind, and including tight and straight-to-the-point takes on Wilco’s “California Stars” and Steve Earle’s “The Devil’s Right Hand,” with Seger increasing the creepiness factor over and above Earle’s original.
Seger’s own title tune is a Motown-inflected bit of classic rock, and his climate change protest tune “It’s Your World” is surprisingly convincing, and will probably make fellow Detroit rocker Ted Nugent sick to his stomach. (Point, Seger!) There’s nothing here that will change the mind of anyone who is sick to death of hearing Seger’s music played hourly on classic rock radio formats, but “Ride Out” is full of the sturdy, meat-and-potatoes fare that made Seger such a massive success in the first place. (Seger plays First Niagara Center on Dec. 17.) 3 stars (Jeff Miers)
Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble
“The Complete Epic Recordings Collection" (Legacy/Epic 12 discs)
One of the year’s greatest box sets, by far. The definitive collection of the greatest rock/blues guitarist there ever was or likely ever will be with the perfectly simpatico groups he called Double Trouble. This is the first time this has been attempted and it’s exhaustive and not in the slightest bit exhausting despite its epic size.
See, for instance, two new discs of “archive” material and the first release ever of “A Legend in the Making: Live at El Mocambo.” It is, to be sure, no coincidence that Vaughan’s candidacy for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is in the offing right now. From the first time anyone ever heard one tune by Stevie Ray Vaughan, it was obvious that some hall of fame somewhere – maybe several – would induct him. He is, among countless other distinctions, probably the only guitarist whose version of Jimi Hendrix tunes is as distinctive and idiosyncratic as Jimi’s own. Though it’s his guitar playing that has made him legendary, his singing, I think, is a massive part of his effect on people. He’s a great Texas bluesman, to be sure, but somehow, in his voice, you can hear equal quantities of soul and nasal sarcasm – a rare sound.
Damian Fanelli, managing editor of Guitar World magazine, writes with typical overheat in the notes to this tremendous 12-disc box, about his first experience of Stevie Ray live: “Sometimes he furiously bent two strings at once like Albert King on steroids, holding a bend until just the right moment, then letting it go.…Other times he ‘pushed’ out his notes in relentless, lightning-fast bursts that made guitarists in the audience wonder what the hell they’d been doing with their lives.” A great deal of this is Stevie Ray captured in live performance and it’s enough to cause overheat for any listener, but especially guitarists. Though he had reputedly come clean before the plane crash the killed him, it may also be true that tragic early death became a friend to his exploded posthumous reputation. We only have seven years of Stevie Ray on disc – a terrifically copious 12-discs worth here – and he was in his sulfurous prime from first to last. As his hyperbolic admirer Fanelli puts it, with slight understandable overstatement “Listen as he blows the doors off every song, every time.” 4 stars (Jeff Simon)
The Turtle Island String Quartet
“Confetti Man” (Azica)
Violinist David Balakrishnan, typically, calls his 17-minute composition that gives this disc its title “an integration of jazz, classical, bluegrass and Indian music” whose first of two movements “sets up with a rock and roll flourish.” Other tunes on the disc are by Wayne Shorter (“Infant Eyes”), Bob Mintzer of Yellowjackets (“Windspan”), Johnny Carisi (his much-recorded cool jazz anthem “Israel”), Bud Powell (“Bouncin’ With Bud”), Paquito D’Rivera (“La Jocotea” –”Little Turtle” – written especially for the quartet) and, why not, Burt Bacharach and the Turtle’s cellist (the virtuoso solo piece “Pattern Language Julie-O Concert Etude No.1”).
The two most successful jazz/classical string quartets have always been the Turtle Islanders and the Kronos String Quartet. While the Kronos became, perhaps, the most successful international music patrons of any sort in classical music, the Turtle Islanders have been both more modest and less accomplished but still full, every time out, of hugely attractive ways to combine jazz and countless other musics with the sound of a classical string quartet. 3 stars (Jeff Simon)
Janacek, Orchestral Works Vol. 1: Sinfonietta, Capriccio and “The Cunning Little Vixen Suite” performed by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Edward Gardner (Chandos); Glagliotic Mass Sept. 1927 version and “The Eternal Gospel” performed by soloists and the Prague Symphony and Prague Philharmonic Choir conducted by Tomas Netopil (Supraphon).
Many are the great works of the utterly inimitable Czech genius Leos Janacek (1854-1928) but the greatest, by far, are his Sinfonietta and his Glagiolitic Mass. Because of the immense brass section required which compound already fiendish difficulties, the Sinfonietta is a work that is essayed far more seldom than it should be. It is one of the greatest masterworks, by far, of 20th century music. Janacek’s Glagiolitic Mass is similarly, unique and immensely powerful in its emotional gigantism. So great is the Janacek Sinfonietta that, frankly, any performance of it at all is superb.
But it’s the Glagliotic Mass conductor Netopil who says, blessedly, “with every opportunity I’m trying to get at the original ‘disheveled’ sometimes even prickly Janacek and remove the layers that decades of ‘interpretive tradition’ have imposed on his work. I don’t see any reason to water down and refine his musical language which is why I feel so close to Sir Charles Mackerras’ approach.” His performace of the Mass is properly huge and disheveled and wild. Much less familiar under Netopil is “The Eternal Gospel” for soloists, mixed choir and orchestra of 1914 which Netopil describes as “Janacek’s musical form of spiritual contemplation.” If only Supraphon’s engineering were up to the Prague musicians’ performance, it would be one of the great Janacek discs.
Unfortunately, Gardner’s version of the incredible Sinfonietta (originally called a “Military Sinfonietta” because of its massed brass) suffers a bit from exactly the kind of refinement that Netopil successfully eschewed. It’s a great piece of music even in a cage, though. Far more welcome was Gardner’s way with the “Cunning Little Vixen” Suite and Capriccio for Piano Left Hand (with pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet), winds and brass. 3 stars for the Orchestral Music Vol. 1 and 3.5 stars for the Glagiolitic Mass and other works. (Jeff Simon)