Culture & Criticism From the Far Distant Realms
STANDING AT THE EDGE. Casey Stratton. Odyssey. (Commercial release date January 20, 2004). Standing At The Edge marks Casey’s Stratton’s debut on Odyssey, marking the emergence of a major new singer-songwriter. Stratton, who is only 25 years old, plays piano and writes the songs he performs. Many will immediately notice a connection between this work and the young Elton John, but multiple listenings go a step further, proving that this is an artist with personal motivations and a unique vision: “Writing songs is, for me, like keeping a journal – it charts my progress as a human being,’’ Stratton has remarked. “I tend to talk about my life not by age or by years, but by the songs I’ve written. I write very quickly, usually in a day, starting with the melody – the music always comes first. But once I get the basic idea down, I become a professional musician, shaping the melody, building the song, figuring out what the lyric should be.”
What’s most impressive about Standing At The Edge is the diversity of the music and songs — this record isn’t about rewriting the same riff over and again (as many young players get caught up doing), but instead about breaking new ground, inspecting the deep scars of the psyche and then trying to make some sense about what is seen there: “It took me a long time to be comfortable in my own skin when I sang my own songs,” notes Stratton. “When I first started playing them live, my feet would shake on the pedals of the piano. I felt so transparent, like everyone knew what I was thinking and feeling. The courage to take the plunge came from my influences – Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan, Joni Mitchell. I thought, ‘Well, they’re doing it.’ And the more I did it — the more I forced myself to explore my own songs before an audience — the more empowering it became.” Standing At The Edge, produced by Patrick Leonard (Madonna, Elton John) has many rich moments on it — the pieces melodic and driving and piercing, owing as much to Stratton’s classical influences as they do to soft rock. Several cuts standout, but none more so than “Bloom” — a throbbing and deeply haunting song, so sensual in its sadness, unraveling in spools before us like the new shape of a hymn. Ultimately, “Bloom” affirms that Stratton is a writer with a lot to say and his own way of saying it. Based on what I’ve heard here, I think we’re going to be listening to this guy for years to come.
BLOOD ON THE TRACKS. Mary Lee’s Corvette. Bar None Records. All I can say is — “WOW!” This girl’s got some guts. I mean, it takes some real bravado to go into the studio and re-do Bob Dylan’s most autobiographical album (originally released in 1975 on Columbia Records). Remember — this isn’t just any collection of songs; no: this is one of Dylan’s three best records ever.
One run through and it’s clear: in her own special way, Mary Lee Kortes has made this music all her own – the pieces spell binding in texture and truth, softly sensual, guided by the deft ring of the human voice. All of a sudden, echo is rising into vapor, light now receding into damp shadow — and the day is reborn.
Make no mistake, this is the meat of meaningful, magical music, as Kortes takes some of the greatest love poems of the modern era and retools their perspective into the soft shade of a woman’s eyes. Even though the pieces were written by Dylan some 30 years ago, Kortes gives us a different take on their suffering and deep sorrow, losing us in the stark difference of one voice melting into the memory of the next. Suddenly, Dylan’s gravely scowl has given way to the rising silken snow of Kortes’ vocal, charting the changing rhythms of breath, lost in the secrets of cadence, pumping new life into the veins and haunted heart of this masterpiece: “Early one morning/The sun/Was shining/I was laying in bed/Wondering if/She’d changed/At all/And if her hair/Was still red…” (“Tangled Up In Blue”).
This record has the power to knock your socks out of your shoes. After only a few moments, it becomes obvious that Kortes really knows how to sing — her passion and beautiful idealism recreating a classic. In the end, Tracks shows the world that Kortes knows great material and knows exactly how to interpret it.
WHAT’S WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE? Van Morrison. Blue Note Records. Van Morrison’s prowess as a musician is simply legendary . After more than 40 years at the helm, he needs to make no more statements about himself or his career — his place in history is absolutely secure. But then again — Van Morrison hasn’t ever made such statements. And that’s what I’ve always admired about him. For Morrison, it’s about the sweet poetry of mind building into brilliant individuality. In the end, Morrison doesn’t make records for corporations or for his fans: he makes them for himself and to feed his own deep musical vision – and all the rest be damned. In the end, Morrison isn’t about money or rock and roll fame. He’s about speaking to the soul through the holy gift of music (as he so beautifully tells us in “Get On With The Show”).
And get on he does! What’s best about This Picture is its vastness — with these 11 originals, Morrison covers the four corners of his songbook, touching on all his signature styles. Veteran vans will smother the dulcet tones of “Blue Moon” and two-step to its sensual rhythms; however, there’s so much more here. Absolutely great Blues licks (odes to the spirits of John Lee Hooker, as well as Terry & McGhee). And wonderful interplay between instruments– sweet and graceful saxophone lines interwoven with guitar and drums create the ultimate jazz/blues/rock fusion.
This Picture marks Morrison at his most varied and profound — voice into the beaded shape of a knife cuts skin from bone and leaves the heart exposed, rising above these hollow walls of mist. Taste the anthem “Little Village,” sinking far into the misty mouths of the music (“There’s only/Two kinds/Of truth baby/Let’s get it/Straight from/The start/It’s what/You believe/And what/You hear/From your heart.” As the sax fills the borders and bellies of the room, rising and throbbing beyond human breath, we suddenly understand just what Morrison means.
ROMANCE OF THE VIOLIN. Joshua Bell. Sony Classical. The most remarkable thing about Joshua Bell’s playing is the layered textures he creates with his violin: More then a mere instrumentalist, Bell is able to conjure the body of distinct and separate voices with each note that resonates from his instrument. At once, the listener is thrust into the dark and cavernous confines of the concert hall, lost in the tapestry of the music as it bends and soars across the room.
Romance of The Violin, Bell’s new record, is a true showcase of the Grammy-winning musician’s immense talent – a definitive statement telling the world that this man exists on a plane all his own. The arrangements for the album were done by Craig Leon, who is noted in classical circles for his work with Luciano Pavarotti. For this record, Leon built an actual “setting” for each of the songs — it’s almost as if he has constructed an individual stage on which each of the pieces is meant to play, thus allowing Bell’s violin to create and then recreate the song as it progresses from beginning to end. And the results, they’re truly stunning. Listen to the tones and echoes that Bell is able to sift from the tips of his fingers on Puccini’s “O Mio Babbino Caro” or Dvorak’s “Songs My Mother Taught Me”: the sweet and mystical cadence of the music built on invisible threads of melody, the notes sweeping and galloping, pausing now mid-air to breathe. Listen: these are the perfect and clear strands of music through which we draw infinite breath.
On Romance, Bell is playing a magical instrument — his “Gibson ex Huberman” was created by Antonius Stradivarius in 1713. This violin was actually stolen from Carnegie Hall in the 1930s, only to resurface again in the 1980s after the thief made a deathbed confession about his crime. Soon after, Bell purchased it before it could be sold to a collector.
As I write these lines, “The Girl With The Flaxen Hair” is playing again: this record the pure and timeless by-product of the hands and sweat and inspired vision of Stradivarius: a man who must have dreamt the ghosts of this music some 300 years ago as he worked solitary in thought to create Joshua Bell’s cherished violin.
CALEDONIA. Shana Morrison. Monster Music. Shana Morrison might be the great Van Morrison’s daughter, but her work as a musician has displayed a wonderful blend of range and individuality as she carves her own path in this up-and-down business. Caledonia was her first solo record, and it demonstrates her stunning voice — bluesy and dark, so triumphant and spiritual – this echo walking a tight-rope down the edge of a razor. Even though some of the songs feel “unfinished” on this record, it doesn’t alter the end result: Morrison’s music is driven by the vocals, and the rough edge of the production actually gives her sound room to soar.
As a young singer, Shana Morrison has already mastered many styles, and Caledonia lets us see her music begin to fully take its shape. “House of Mirrors” and the poignant cover of Van’s classic “Sweet Thing” are proof positive that she’s not some copy-cat act riding her famous father’s coat-tails, but instead, a serious artist dedicated to her own sweet vision. Also checkout her 2002 release 7 Wishes on Vanguard Records.
TROUBLE NO MORE. John Mellencamp. Columbia Records. This marks the 21st record of Mellencamp’s career, and is one of the singer-songwriter’s best efforts to date. The record’s origins of inspiration lie in Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams and Leadbelly, as Mellencamp departs from his straight ahead rock and roll style and immerses himself in the blues, paying homage to the songs that are responsible for his evolution as an artist: “You think you know about the history of music, of folk and blues,” Mellencamp said about the album, “but it was so much more than I had expected; it goes much deeper than you can imagine.”
Even though this record is one of Mellencamp’s most understated and fully realized, it has still garnered the wrath of many critics, mainly because of the inclusion of the song “To Washington” — a ballad written in 1902 and made popular by Charlie Poole and The North Carolina Ramblers (adaptations were later released by the Carter Family and Woody Guthrie). Some interpret this piece as “anti-war,” and Mellencamp has been criticized and unduly labeled as “un-American” since he chose to release this cover during the United States’ recent war with Iraq. However, “To Washington” (along with “Diamond Joe” and Memphis Minnie’s “Joliet Bound”) is a true stand-out cut, demonstrating Mellencamp’s wide range as a vocalist. Aside from the singing and the power of the lyrics, Trouble features some fine playing, including note-worthy performances by Mike Wanchic on guitar and Dane Clark on drums.
Ignore the critics and the fool-hearty jingoism over-taking our media and buy this record. From the first echoes of the first cut, “Trouble No More” tells the story of American music through some of the finest folk-blues pieces of the last 100 years. This one’s a must for any serious fan.
HOROWITZ LIVE AND UNEDITED (The Historic 1965 Carnegie Hall Return Concert) and SET IN THE HANDS OF THE MASTER.
Vladimir Horowitz. Sony Classical. October 1, 2003 marks the 100th anniversary of Vladimir Horowitz’s birthday, and Sony Classical has just released these two collections which should cause music lovers around the world to celebrate in his memory. Horowitz has gone down in history as the most innovative and enduring of all 20th century pianists, and with the help of these records, we hear just why. Set In, a 3 disk collection produced by Grammy award winner Thomas Frost, perfectly demonstrates the wide range of Horowitz’s playing: this record presents a melding of the pianist’s hard-honed Russian roots with the soft romanticism of his muse as he works his way through classic interpretations of works by Beethoven, Chopin, Clementi, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Scarlatti, Schumann and Scriabin (the recordings themselves were made over a 27 year span, beginning in 1962).
Horowitz, a 25 time Grammy- winner who died in 1989, was known across the globe as a masterful pianist whose blood poured across the keys as he played. Horowitz’s was a music that came from within — from a silent and invisible pool that paid homage to a angels and pursued the infinity of the lord. His music was a magic potion of melody and unnamed sources of imagination, and it commanded the loyalty of his audience who fought to drown in this holy storm of love in these beautiful electric thimbles of inspiration. Although Horowitz is known as a “classical” pianist, his works are timeless, and the deep lines of his influence is heard in many a modern player, including Doors’ pianist Ray Manzarek, Bruce Hornsby, and the Heartbreaker’s Benmont Tench. Once you hear the first notes of Set In, these connections become obvious.
Live and Unedited, on the other hand, is quite a different kind of record. It’s an as is and unedited memorialization of Horowitz’s 1965 performance at Carnegie Hall. Live and Unedited is a historic recording in itself — for it puts back all the mistakes and missed notes that had been erased from the original release of this concert: “Horowitz often told me that his live performances, although never note-perfect, represented the pure spontaneity of his art more faithfully than his recordings ever did,” said Peter Gelb, the President of Sony Classical who managed Horowitz’s career in the 1980s. “And yet, apparently in this case, he couldn’t resist the idea of putting out anything less than a note-perfect recording, even though substantial doctoring was required. We are therefore pleased to offer Horowitz fans the true performance for the [very] first time.”
What’s so spectacular about this record is that the beauty and mastery of Horowitz’s playing comes shining through the rough edges so clearly: it’s as if we’re being given the rare chance to climb in his skin and share in the moment of creation — no over-dubbing, no sound engineer magic, no high-tech computer tricks. This is the moment of the musician on his stage bleeding out in the open without the benefit of shadows to seclude him. This is the pure moment of creation randomly captured on tape. Live and Unedited is akin to the way Kerouac allowed the spontaneous mind to take over his poems and novels and stories. Passionate. Honest. Soul deep. River deep. Beyond eyes superseding consciousness. Anyone who listens to this album goes back to Carnegie with Horowitz in 1965, bearing witness to the perfect birth of song. Best cuts include Chopin’ “Mazurka” in C-Sharp Minor, and Schumann “Träumerei” (No. 7) from Kinderszenen.
BEAT AVENUE. Eric Andersen. Appleseed Records. Eric Andersen was part of the emergence of the “singer-songwriter” in the 1960s and, along with Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, John Stewart and Ramblin Jack Elliot, Andersen’s work has not only withstood the test of time but has grown more alluring.
Andersen’s music –like that of the aforementioned writers– is deeply poetic, rooted in folk, blues and mid-sixties rock and roll. With Beat Avenue, Andersen presents his strongest record in years, expanding on the themes he first began chronicling over 40 years ago. Beat features an all-star band, including Eric Bazilian on guitar, Shawn Pelton on drums and Garth Hudson (formerly of The Band) on sax, accordion and keyboards. Beat is rich with many wonderful songs (especially the searching “Song For You and Me” which comes on like a storm, its sorrow born in the hollow ache of changing love). Also notable are “Rains Are Gonna Come,” “Salt On Your Skin” and “Under The Shadows” (as each of these 14 pieces build into each other like the separate scenes of a movie, building and growing, until we have drawn a full picture of this song-poet on his journey through our times).
Still, the best cut on the record remains the title track — a 26 minute epic that recounts the events of November 22, 1963: the day President John Kennedy was gunned down. Andersen, only 20 years old at the time, was holed up in Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s house in San Francisco, socializing with Allen Ginsberg , Michael McClure and David Meltzer following a Ginsberg reading earlier that evening. “Beat Avenue,” which took Andersen 15 years to write, is a testament to how deeply Kennedy’s death affected a generation: In the hollow orange flicker of a bullet hope dissolved into despair and the path of a nation was permanently changed. And “Beat Avenue” captures it all — holding the listener spellbound for nearly half an hour as we go back in time to re-examine ourselves and the state of our own lives.
Eric Andersen is a magnificent songwriter whose work defies all labels and categories. Moreover, Beat Avenue shows that Andersen is a survivor: a man who has withstood the impact of social and artistic change and emerged even more inspired. In the end, this record should serve as a model for all other singer-songwriters trying to “break in.”
REALITY. David Bowie. Iso Records/Columbia. David Bowie’s new album Reality is a hard edged rock and roll record deeply influenced by the terrorist attacks on New York City in 2001. Bowie, who lives in New York, has used those events to bring a modern-day relevancy to this music — the beat tinged with rage, the vocals biting and toothy, lingering at the edges of the mind like a half read dream. Reality, produced by Bowie and Tony Visconti, is a record that reminds us that Ziggy is still a vital and vibrant artist delivering a message with his music. The refreshing thing aboutReality is that Bowie is moving forward as a player — instead of resting on his legendary reputation, he continues to push the limits of the boundaries, investigating the state of America and his place here. Much like Springsteen’s balls-blasting The Rising, which looked at 9-11 from each unpleasant angle, Bowie has given us a record that forces each of us to look back at those assaults and re-evaluate how they changed us and the course of our country. In the end,Reality is about examining how the subtleties of life inhabit the shadows before they suddenly pounce on us – unannounced and all-consuming. This is an important record with wonderful and inspired musicianship (especially Mike Garson’s keyboarding). Standouts include “Never Get Old” and “Try Some, Buy Some” (a cover of a George Harrison piece).
MASKED AND ANONYMOUS. BOB DYLAN AND VARIOUS ARTISTS. Soundtrack. Columbia Records. The album features 14 songs by various artists, including 4 pieces sung by Dylan himself. It’s difficult to single out the gems (since every track has merit) but the reworked versions of “Down In The Flood” and “Cold Irons Bound” will catch the attention of many a listener as the starkness of Dylan’s voice buries us in the bittersweet blues of memories gone by. Dylan’s version of “Diamond Joe” is also a high-point, immersing us in the musician’s folk-roots, the gentle hiss of voice and guitar lost in the echoes of God at the last hour, the singer himself lost in the poignant eyes of Woody Guthrie now ambling over the hills, falling into the softness of the Texas-gray sunset.
Still, longtime fans should brace themselves: Masked is a much different record than Dylan’s soundtrack for Sam Peckinpah’s 1973 classic Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid. On this record Dylan is telling his own story through the timeless mirror of his music and songs. The pieces that Dylan and his producers have selected for this project are noteworthy because they personally present the music he uses to define himself (“Senor, can you tell me/Where we’re heading/Lincoln County Road/Or Armageddon?/This place don’t make sense to me/No more”). This interpretation of “Senor” by the late Jerry Garcia (a member of Dylan’s inner circle) is a defining moment: The singer swiftly on the move through the wilderness looks for some shelter among the burning ruins of the world, hunting and searching, riding deeper into the hollow fangs of darkness. I presume that Dylan perceives himself on this level — how else do we explain his “Never Ending Tour?” How else do we explain his need to be on the road almost non-stop for eighteen years?
Masked is a major record and we will look back on it as a vital component to the Dylan catalog (an entity unto itself and completely separate from the film): In the end, Dylan is his music and the secret moving pictures it creates. His voice is the camera and the perfect lensless electric eye through which we peer, staring down heaven through the flickering half-melted candles of the stars. Listen: The echoes hum and tremble down the long lines of Bob Weir’s guitar, gently swirling into the melody of “It’s all Over Now Baby Blue.” The man is his music. Masked and anonymous. His image the holiness of the invisible. Masked and anonymous. As graceful and timeless as the wind itself.
SUMMER. Summer. Odyssey. Borrowing her name from the season –“Summer”– this classically trained soprano is likely the brightest star rising over the second half of 2003. With a voice that imbeds itself into the memory like the edge of a knife, Summer has come out blazing with her Odyssey debut that features 12 songs (note the wonderful keyboarding by Richard Cottle, who’s played with Mick Jagger and Vanessa-Mae among others, and the sensitive and unobtrusive production work of Nick Patrick).
“Summer” is quite a rich record, giving us everything from Vivaldi to Sting — and with striking results: Even though many of these pieces are covers, the singer manages to make them hers, wrapping herself around the echo of each piece, inviting it deep into her flesh. More than being technically on, Summer sings with spirit, compelling the sleepy to sit up in their chairs. At once, feet begin to tap and hips quiver until numb. Suddenly, we are lost in her voice, lost in the empty perfection of the music as it ebbs and flows and rises: “I wanted to do something different,” Summer says reflecting on her record: “Seeking[ing] out pieces from around the world and blend[ing] them into a new mix.”
Summer. The name is about the season. And the music is about passion — everything from a sensual rendition of Sting’s “Fragile” to an eerie and enchanting “Nella Fantasia,” which is based on Ennio Morricone’s beautiful score for “The Mission.” However, the high-point remains Stanley Myers “Cavatina,” from the film the “Deer Hunter.” As the simple lyric comes into full bloom, Summer’s haunting vocal takes us back to Cimino’s 1978 epic, bringing us back into De Niro’s presence: A woman sits alone and remembers the lover with whom she’s lost touch. And as the memory takes hold of her heart, I watch the ghost she cannot see: the haunted deer hunter moving through the dark timber, running swiftly into those smoke poisons of war, running and slipping, trying to escape the demons that end as the shape of his own reflection in the mirror.
Summer comes to us a unique voice, most edgy and piercing, yet still so soft and comforting: like a driving rain across the thirsty desert sands at dawn.
CROSSING THE STONE. Catrin Finch. Odyssey. At 23, Finch has distinguished herself as one of the finest classical harpists in the world. Born in Wales, her music is rich with the poetic melodies of Dylan Thomas and William Blake — deep and soulful, meant to leave the listener contemplating the world and their place in it. Like child prodigy and sitar virtuoso Anoushka Shankar, Finch is building her own roads and forging ahead into unknown territory. Her performance of Claude Debussy’s “Clair De Lune” is absolutely brilliant….HAVANA. John Stewart. Appleseed.Stewart’s been writing songs about the odd faces of America for the last 45 years, and “Havana” continues his journey. “Cowboy in The Distance” takes up the road where “California Bloodlines” left off, Stewart riding down the hidden alley-ways of these states, guitar in hand, recording the faces that pass him in the early night. The voice reminds us of Johnny Cash. The inspiration is pure Woody Guthrie. “Havana” is a wonderful collection spanning the full spectrum of Stewart’s styles, from Kingston Trio folk tunes to Lindsey Buckingham-inspired guitar licks. Old fans will love it, while new listeners will absorb some of the history of pop music since the late 1950s…. THE OTHER SIDE OF TIME. Mary Fahl. Sony Classical. “The Other Side of Time” is a brilliantly conceived album of broad proportions. The music here is varied – with soulful folk-tinged numbers and Celtic-flavored ballads set against a straight ahead Rock and Roll beat. And through it all, Mary Fahl’s voice shines as bright as rain water on the windows at dawn. Stand out tracks include the Gospel-flavored “Redemption,” the softly poetic “Dream of You,” and the mesmerizing “Ben Aindi Habib,” which is based on erotic poetry written by Moorish women in the 11th and 12th centuries. However, the true centerpiece of the record is the wonderful “Paolo.” This love song, driven by Scott Healy’s sweet piano line — mixing the intensity of the late Richard Manual’s style with the subtleties of Carol King’s playing — tells a story of deep loss: the narrator having embarked on a secret journey, exploring the insides of her wounds, remembering this face in the distant past, drowning in the shadows of what once was. Fahl, along with Summer and Sarah Brightman, are the singers to watch in the next few years; together they share the “next Norah Jones” title….Noted: OUR LADY PEACE LIVE (Columbia): Recorded in Canada earlier this year, the record features fine versions of “Are You Sad” and “All For You….” TRUE LOVE WAITS. CHRISTOPHER O’RILEY PLAYS RADIOHEAD. Odyssey. Very interesting collection has classical pianist O’Riley performing his favorite Radiohead cuts. “Airbag” and “Bulletproof ” show this unlikely marriage at its finest hour….THE OLIVER MTUKUDZI COLLECTION (The Tuku Years). Oliver Mtukudzi. Putumayo World Music. This compilation of Mtukudzi favorites is meant to bring happiness and joy to the listener now immersed in the music of Zimbabwe. Mtukudzi is a highly respected artist in Africa who brings with him a presence not unlike the late Bob Marley. “Tuku” features him at his best: blending the irresistible rhythms of dance with socially relevant lyrics.
END OF TIME. Tony Burrell. Divine Mountain Music. Guitarist Tony Burrell has been playing music for nearly four decades. And during that time, he’s become a premiere player — this quintessential “session man” whose work brims with a delicate precision: “All of creation is vibration,” says Burrell. ” Sound is vibration [and] I play with tonal qualities that reach everyone’s heart.”
End of Time, a five song sampler recently released by Burrell, shines a big light on this vision, revealing one of the best kept musical secrets in all of California. More than anything, Burrell’s work demonstrates great range, his playing this crisp fusion of Coltrane-inspired jazz and straight ahead rock and roll. When I initially played Burrell’s sampler I heard the sweet mix of the late Michael Bloomfield’s style merging into the acidic rhythms of former Door’s guitarist Robby Krieger – an evolving sound caught half way between the old time wail of the blues and down and dirty grunge rock. “Late For Work” is the standout on the CD — a piece perfectly suited for the dance floor or as background for a motion picture. This sampler only makes us more eager for a full-length record.
NYPD BLUE. DVD. Seasons 1 & 2. Fox Home Entertainment. Excepting The Sopranos, NYPD Blue is the best thing on television today. These DVDs capture the complete first and second seasons, as we re-immerse ourselves in the initial story lines that helped to build the series into the Emmy-winning machine it is has become. Pound for pound, Blue is simply the best network drama to emerge since Bochco’s other tour-de-force, Hill Street Blues (As “cop” dramas go, Blue ranks on par with Gunsmoke: Andy Sipowicz this updated version of quintessential American lawman Matt Dillon, while New York City provides the perfect example of what the roaring old West has morphed into). If you’re only going to own a few DVDs, and if you enjoy gritty urban dramas, then these are the disks for you: The writing, direction and ensemble acting remain unparalleled.