Music Monthly: September 2004
Music from September 2004
Ms Amos is an inventive musician, but who knew she was an innovator in the world of marketing. Tales of a Librarian is not the straightforward best-of compilation it seems, as the tracks on it have been ‘remixed and reconditioned’. Then again, this is not your typical remix album, either. To me, at least, ‘remix’ suggests either another six minutes of piano noodling shoehorned into each track, or replacement of the original rhythm section with drum’n’bass. What we have here is more in the line of a sprucing-up of 16 previously-released songs, together with four new pieces (Angels, Snow Cherries from France, Mary, and Sweet Dreams).
Fans of Tori will know all the old stuff – Crucify, Cornflake Girl, God, Me and a Gun etc – and may be bemused by the retouching done to their favorites. The changes are not disconcerting, but take the form of a scrub and some shifts in instrumental and vocal emphasis. If you’re a background kind of listener, you might not hear any difference. It seems these renditions got the finishing touches that never quite made it onto the originals.
The four new songs are very much in the Tori Amos style – you know and like it or it you don’t. With the exception of Angels they’re not as strong as the better known songs – Sweet Dreams is a conventional melody given the quirky Amos treatment, Snow Cherries sounds like something they play over movie credits, and Mary has a crusty folk-rock vibe. For completists and die-hard fans, this compilation is the inevitable must-have, but it also makes a fine introduction to her work for the uninitiated. Audiophiles might want it just for the superior sonic qualities, but if you’ve got her albums already, and they’re not the beating heart of your collection, you’ll live without this. Brent Burmester
Hype can do one of two things. Either people buy into in and go along for the ride or they rebel against it. I’m sure Jamie Cullum, the object of more recent hype than anybody short of Norah Jones, has met plenty of folks from both sides of that fence. Pushed forward as the new “next big thing in jazz” by over eager spin doctors possibly hasn’t helped his cause as for all intents and purposes he’s not a straight jazz performer.
On an album containing three self-penned tracks, two new songs written by his brother, and covers from sources as diverse as Radiohead, Jimi Hendrix and Cole Porter, he presents a good mixture of jazz and pop. For me the best tracks on the album are two excellent covers that have nothing to do with jazz – Jeff Buckley’s Lover, You Should’ve Come Over and Radiohead’s High And Dry. As for the Jazz, well he gives it a good go. Working over a few high profile favourites with fairly straight versions of What A Difference A Day Made and Blame It On My Youth a very unusual (odd!) treatment of I Could Have Danced All Night and a punchy take on I Get A Kick Out Of You.
On a thread about this album on the AudioEnz forums he’s been called average, a wannabe, a clone of a clone (referring to Harry Connick Jr), a jazzy pop idol type performer and there’s even an onerous comparison to another crooner/pop singer of years gone by, Frank Sinatra. One person actually manages to combine it all with the phrase “pseudo jazz wannabe crooner”. These comments give a strong indication that Jamie Cullum is not everybody’s cup of tea however he plays a good piano, has an okay voice and as a first album I’ve heard an awful lot worse.
As for me, I think it’s a good if not great album that shows a young performer that has potential when he really finds his own voice. Pop might ultimately suit him better as evidenced by the two covers I mentioned earlier but hey, good luck to him. My advice is to forget the hype, give it a listen and see what you think. You might even like it, millions of others have. Craig Fenemor
If you can find nothing redeeming in a song called 250 Flat Firemen, referring to the untimely fate of rescue workers in the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, then Brown Sabbathis not for you. Actually, there isn’t much good about that particular track on Deja Voodoo’s debut alum, except perhaps for its lunatic audacity. If you can’t quite place the name, Deja Voodoo rose to fame earlier this year on the back of their pub anthem, Beers. Fans of the godawful yet strangely compelling ‘Back of the Y’ TV series from a couple of years ago will remember Deja Voodoo as the resident band, whose primary function was bludgeoning the show’s host with their guitars.
Brown Sabbath, a beer-themed ‘concept album’, is not to be taken too seriously on any level – Deja Voodoo are following snugly in the tracks of Spinal Tap and Bad News. Like their parodic predecessors there’s a more brain behind the bollocks than would appear, and the music is accomplished enough to sustain the general silliness. The final track on the album, More Beersis really not bad from a purely musical standpoint, as is Beers itself. Also worth repeat play are We Are Deja Voodoo, Your Boyfriend Sucks and One Horse Town, but while the rest of the album is good for a grin, it might not hold your attention for very long. For me, this is worth having as proof that raucous stupidity and a general lack of regard for personal safety will make you famous if you stick with it. Brent Burmester
Welcome to Steve Dobrogosz month here at AudioEnz. If you look down further in this months reviews you’ll see Steve’s solo album Ebony Moon is also featured as well as Feathers, another piano/vocal duo. Why so many? Well although you may be able to get the duo albums elsewhere if you look very hard, the only place that I can find to buy all three of these is from Steve himself in Sweden. I figure if you’re going to pay the bank a fee for getting money over there you may as well split the cost between three albums rather than one.
Fairytales has become something of a cult item in Europe with references to it all over the web and one listen will show you why. Radka’s light, jazzy, bluesy voice oozes heart and soul and coupled with Steve’s sensitive piano accompaniment it never fails to draw me into the songs. It helps that the album starts with a devastatingly good version of Jimmy Webb’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, as after that you’re left begging for more. (Trust me, the album delivers plenty more.)
Whilst not truly a jazz album, it’s also not really a pop album, rather it treads a middle ground bringing in elements of many different styles. Yes there’s a jazz standard in My Funny Valentine (stunning version), but Elton John’s Come Down In Time is also there, along with Dave Frishberg’s Long Daddy Green and then to cap it off there’s some originals as well. Simply put this is an album where the music comes first and genre is a secondary consideration. One of the joys of Fairytales is that on each listen you’ll hear something that you missed the last time – a subtle interplay, an accented note – it just keeps on rewarding you further with each playing.
Perhaps part of the cult appeal of this album is that it was to be the last recording made by Radka Toneff. Unfortunately shortly after this album was recorded she died, just as her star was starting to rise. However Fairytales wouldn’t have lasting appeal if the ten songs that make it up didn’t have substance and a life of their own. The simplicity of voice and piano working as one bring out subtleties and nuances from some new and some familiar songs. Simply put, this is a gem of an album. Craig Fenemor
Steve Dobrogosz: Ebony Moon
Sand Castle Music
Only available direct from www.algonet.se/~dobro/
Last year I raved over the Tord Gustavsen Trio’s Changing Places. Well standing shoulder to shoulder with that is Ebony Moon.
This solo piano album contains some of the most intimate, personal recordings I’ve ever heard. The passion and love Steve brings to the piano while playing the nineteen original songs is almost overwhelming. Just as with Changing Places a lot of the beauty here is in the decay of notes and spaces between them. Although some of the tracks have a lovely gentle swing to them the quiet, introspective pieces are what sing to me strongest.
Steve shortchanges his talents by considering himself more a composer than a performer. Yes his compositions are very good with sublime melodies but it’s his ability to transmit the feeling via the keyboard which elevates these songs to the highest level. Checking out his recordings and compositions you’ll note that Steve is involved in jazz, pop, and classical. When I asked him how he splits his time between the different genres he said how it’s all just one thing to him. He went on to say, “People say they hear jazz in my classical, classical in my pop etc, which I often don’t hear myself because I write what sounds right to me and maybe have absorbed too many styles to know the difference anymore.”
The first time I played Ebony Moon I was utterly transfixed. Feeling like I was eavesdropping at times, the emotional power, individual style, and sheer timeless beauty of the melodies held me enraptured. (This effect is repeated as often as I play the disc.) The impact of Your Silent Eyes followed by Little Lamb had tears in my eyes. I can’t really pin Ebony Moon down to a genre and perhaps it’s more accurate to think of it as simply a Steve Dobrogosz album. As he says above, there are elements of jazz, classical and even a small amount of pop, but mainly there’s a lot of heart and soul. Another plus is that Steve’s playing sounds like Steve Dobrogosz rather than anybody else.
All in all this is holding the high ground for my purchase of the year so far. If you like heartfelt, contemplative, simply beautiful music you’ll love this one. I know I do. Craig Fenemor
Moon River, Almost Blue, The Look Of Love, Both Sides Now – there’s an indication of the gutsy song choices that go to make up Feathers. With a songlist like that (and some very good originals) it would be easy for the album to implode under the weight of the many previous versions by some very famous names. But no, instead it soars with freshness and difference.
Jeanette Lindstrom has a rich and warm voice that combines amazingly well with Steve’s subtlety powerful piano playing. (On the strength of the two duo albums reviewed this month I’d rate Dobrogosz as possibly the most sensitive accompanist I’ve yet heard.) Between them Lindstrom and Dobrogosz strip each song back to its basics and let the words and music speak for themselves. There’s an honesty to these performances, a respect for the songs that really works for me.
Let’s look at one amazing example of the qualities these two artists bring to the album – Both Sides Now. I’ve never liked this song. Combine the sense that it’s weighed down by its own importance with the almost dynamicless way Joni and guitar presented it on Clouds and you’ve got a recipe for boredom, which makes this version all the more surprising.
After a simply beautiful intro Steve essentially sits out the first couple of verses, adding only a note or two here and there. This allows Jeanette to draw you into the song solely by the emotive power of her voice and little things like the regretful pause after the line “So many things I could have done”, which tease out depth beyond all the other covers I’ve heard. Then the piano comes in, quietly at first but then building the song powerfully, accenting the melody which has a strength I hadn’t really picked up on until hearing this version. Finally in the last verse Jeanette essentially takes it back again. Songs performed to this level are what keep me excited about music.
The pace is generally on the slow side but each song holds interest through the variations that Steve brings and the simple beauty of Jeanettes voice. If I had to choose between the two duo albums I’m reviewing this month I’d pick Fairytales but Feathers isn’t far behind. Add to all it’s other positive attributes the wonderful recording quality and it’s an album that I can see being played many times in years to come. I think that’s recommendation enough, don’t you? Craig Fenemor
In the pop/rock world, ‘passionate’ is a seldom-used adjective, but it can always be applied to the works of Polly Jean Harvey. This album is replete with captivating strong songs full of feeling, whether that be love, disappointment, or anger (or all three at once). I rate Harvey as one of the most lyrically interesting female artists in the business these days, but what makes this album shine is the way the guitar-centred music complements the dark poetry of each song. Always somehow carrying that P J Harvyness of previous albums, Uh Huh Hermanages to feel contemporary without resorting to the sound-processing effect of the month. In fact the soundscape is quite sparse – not in the sense of too few musicians, but rather in the lack of any superfluous noise.
If you’re not au fait with Ms Harvey, this is alt-rock with a blues sensibility accompanied by a great set of lungs installed in an ever-so-slightly odd little woman. It’s not evident from her singing, but PJ is actually English – not Texan. I was vaguely disappointed by her last offering, the Mercury Prize-winning Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, for while true to her experiences of life in New York, it seemed out of step with the line of progression she was taking since 1995’s To Bring You My Love. Uh Huh Her is more the album I was waiting to hear from her, and I suspect her stalwart fans will rate this one of her best efforts to date.Brent Burmester
There are so many young, female, attractive singers around at the moment. They sing enthusiastically of the pains of young love. They try to be original and find something new to say. In this crowded market, where does Toby fit?
Let’s start with the voice. She can’t help being American, but I do wonder if that hard nasal twang is doing her justice? Norah Jones and Diana Krall have shown us how to be articulate and easy on the ear, while still being expressive. Like our own Brooke Fraser, she can hold her own against the busy musical background that the big companies insist on surrounding new artists with. Toby writes her own material and Everyday is a good sample with lines like: ‘Everyday is a struggle between what I wanna say and what I keep to myself and the words that leave my lips… All that remains is me and who I am at the end of the day.’ If you can relate to these sentiments then buy the album.
Personally I just feel my age. This is a good album if you turn it down and turn up the bass as it has a good solid backing. Then you don’t focus too much on the words. Well Toby, I am sorry that you gave up your day job, as I think that with a bit more time you could develop into a capable singer/song writer. Watch this space. John Groom
Disclosure of (dis)interest: What I’d heard of country music over the years – the Nashville hat acts such as Garth Brooks and pop performers like Kenny Rogers – didn’t inspire me to explore this genre much. Only after I’d encountered genuine talent by way of Townes Van Zandt, Joe Ely and Butch Hancock did I listen closer. Even then, Loretta Lynn remained just a name – unheard and undiscovered.
Enter Van Lear Rose, recorded in her 70th year, which has been getting a lot of press because of its production by Jack White of Detroit’s hugely successful garage-rockers The White Stripes. The Stripes had dedicated their third album, White Blood Cells, to her and included a cover of Loretta’s Rated X on their Hotel Yorba single. She says that having Jack on board would neither make nor break her and it would probably be a lot of fun. It’s much more than that: it’s being heralded as the best she’s ever done.
Not everything Jack White turns his production skills to is gold, by the way. Try playing all of Whirlwind Heat’s Do Rabbits Wonder? in one sitting.
Some background: Loretta Webb was born in 1935 in Butch Holler, a tiny, dirt-poor community in east Kentucky. She married Oliver Lynn at the age of thirteen, had her first child within a year and by the time she was eighteen, had had three more children and little formal education. But Oliver – or “Mooney”, so nicknamed because of his penchant for moonshine whiskey – believed implicitly in her potential. Her first single was released in 1960 and her debut album was entirely self-composed, as is Van Lear Rose, only her second to achieve this. Her father toiled in the nearby Van Lear coal mine and her mother’s name was Rose, which explains the title of this disc and that of the 1980 biographical movie starring Oscar-winner Sissy Spacek and Levon Helm.
The title track and Portland Oregon describe her youth and marriage with the latter’s soft-landing reminding me of something off U2’s The Joshua Tree. Trouble On The Line covers the inevitable communication breakdowns between her and Mooney during their more than 50 years of wedlock. As fine as these are, the peaks come in the second half: God Makes No Mistakes (“why is my child blind/why is that old drunk still livin’ when a daddy like mine is dyin’/there’s no reason for what He does/God makes no mistakes…”) which segues into the compelling Women’s Prison at the conclusion of which Jack White whispers Amazing Grace. Impressive, both of them. The closing Story Of My Life is just that: her varied and sometimes misunderstood career summed up in under three minutes.
But what’s High On A Mountain Top doing in this stellar company? Perhaps Jack didn’t have the heart to tell Loretta what he thought of it. Small matter: one dud out of thirteen is an enviable strike rate.
Rick Rubin resurrected Johnny Cash’s career on the four American Recordings albums. Jack White has done the same for Loretta Lynn with this stunner: he was arranger and producer and brings exactly the right guitar colourings to the party – a slinky slide motif or a blistering 16-bar finale. Louisiana sessioneer Dirk Powell is also here on bass, fiddle and banjo.
Van Lear Rose is, alongside Tinariwen’s intricate and exciting Malian masterpiece Amassakoul, the best thing I’ve heard all year. Don’t miss it just because it’s “country”. Fred Muller
If, like me, you came to know Sam Philips from her Virgin releases including Cruel Inventionsand Martinis and Bikinis that were like a Tom Waits/Elvis Costello collaboration in overblown arrangements, the sparseness of this (second) Nonesuch album will come as a surprise. Produced by her husband T Bone Burnett, A Boot and a Shoe contains almost entrée level bites of what would have previously been over-the-top mains. While it is an approach that takes a few listens to come to terms with, the acidity and at times brutality of the lyrics provides a haunting and captivating listen.
Beginning with an immediate impact on a bleak How To Quit, I was surprised to see only two musicians credited for this track. Be warned however; don’t set the volume too loud. The scarcity of the Sam Phillips’ song-writing and arrangement choice continues throughout the CD, with a moody All Night, a beautifully recorded I Dreamed I Stopped Dreaming until the CD’s highlight, Reflecting Light. Here the mood is relieved with the often-present string quartet given a lush arrangement that fills the song out both harmonically and in length. A memorable track.
The overall mood returns, lyrically haunting, stark arrangements including a very clever setting with Phillips on vocals/guitar and (unusually) two drummers on I Wanted To Be Alone.Short paragraphs, or even just sentences, no frills or padding, just concise message telling that grows in stature with each listen. Allan McFarlane
Be warned Wilco fans; be very, very wary. If you thought the first Nonesuch album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was a temporary departure from the glorious alt-country sound world that Wilco helped create then A Ghost is Born largely falls off the planet. Maybe they are trying to “find themselves” or the change in line up has left them bereft of genuine inspiration but this release, though eagerly anticipated, is an almost total flop.
The initial simplicity of the first track At Least That’s What You Said soon gives way to a self indulgent guitar break that even after repeated listening just left more dazed and confused. Hints of the old Wilco do appear in Hell Is Chrome and there is the odd moment of slight interest until we get to Handshake Drugs. Not having any to hand I found the excessive unresolved guitar solo as irritating as it is boring. A directionless nothingness that reminded me of the Neil Young indulgences of some years ago that are as equally forgettable.
Yes this release is beautifully packaged, though the large booklet is large mainly due to the selected point-size rather than offering any much needed insights. Yes the ‘enhanced CD’ does give you access to streamed Wilco live video, but tread carefully, there are few old Wilco fans that will respond to this latest (possibly hurriedly contractual?) release. Allan McFarlane