Music From Another Dimension
2 stars (out of 4)
It has been 11 years since Aerosmith released an album of new material. During that time, maintaining faith in the band has been a challenge. Steven Tyler seemed to be flitting back and forth in terms of his commitment to the group; the singer became addicted to painkillers, disappeared for a while, and showed up as a judge on "American Idol." Guitarist Joe Perry came to Buffalo during this period, and I spent an afternoon with him, while he cranked some new solo material on a digital boombox, and waxed somewhere between baffled and heartbroken over the state of the band he clearly loved. The state of Aerosmith was not a healthy one.
So when the news filtered through that Tyler, Perry, Brad Whitford, Tom Hamilton and Joey Kramer had patched up their differences, committed to some touring, and were working in the studio again, it seemed that hell had at least partially frozen over. That the group was working with the legendary Jack Douglas who had produced its finest albums, among them the timeless "Toys In the Attic" and "Rocks" collections the fan of pre-"cheesy power ballad" Aerosmith began to feel a glimmer of hope.
The result of that pairing is "Music From Another Dimension," equal parts a return to form and a wasted opportunity. Simple and smart editing from the 15 songs collected here down to a much more manageable and largely ballad-free 10 might have made "Music" a great record. As it is, we have a strong, mostly heavy and rather adventurous core of Douglas-produced, band-written tunes that boast at least some of the grit, grime and grace of classic Aerosmith, with a bunch of lame outside writer collaborations, a Diane Warren-penned ballad, and the overtly glossy production of Marti Frederiksen superimposed atop it.
The album starts with real promise, as the Beatle-esque harmonies (with Julian Lennon joining Tyler) and surly strut of "Love XXX" recall previous Aerosmith gems like "Major Barbara" and "Uncle Salty." The Perry-penned "Oh Yeah" burns along with the intensity of "Draw the Line's" "Bright Light Fright." "Beautiful," the first Frederiksen co-write, redeems itself with interesting vocal harmony layering, and bassist Hamilton's "Tell Me" is strong, despite clichι-ridden lyrics.
But soon, the whole thing goes belly-up with "What Could Have Been Love," another Frederiksen co-write, and the sort of unforgivable arena-ballad dreck that made loving Aerosmith an embarrassing character flaw in the 1980s and '90s.
"Street Jesus" and "Lover Alot" boast some of the lovely raunch of "Rats in the Cellar," but then we are burdened with the truly rancid "Can't Stop Lovin' You," which features an inexplicable duet between Tyler and Carrie Underwood.
Warren's "We All Fall Down," a pair of so-so Perry vocals in the form of "Freedom Fighter" and "Something," and a co-write with pop-metal man-for-hire Desmond Child fail to redeem the album. What you're left with is a schizophrenic collection that hedges its bets, balancing every sleazy classic Aerosmith characteristic against the overproduced pabulum that the group tended to produce during its "comeback" period of the late 1980s and '90s.
Man. What happened? Who got to these guys and convinced them to ruin what could have been a good thing? Who knows. We can say for sure, though, that anyone waiting for Aerosmith to make the one more brilliant album the band surely has left in the tank, will still be waiting. This ain't it.
American Mavericks: Music of Cowell, Harrison and Varese
Performed by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
All in all, the all-too-short regime of Michael Tilson Thomas as conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra may have been the finest combination of bold repertoire and arresting traditional performance in the BPO's history.
Even those of us who believe that though would have to admit that Thomas' longtime tenure with the San Francisco Symphony is, for a combination of reasons, the ideal for him in America more so, in its way, than either conducting the New York or Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestras would be.
Here, on one extraordinary disc, is an example of why San Francisco is the professional ideal for the conductor brilliant performances of composers that have preoccupied Thomas for more than 40 years presented by his orchestra with adventure and pride not routinely duplicated anywhere else.
Thomas' affection for "American Mavericks" goes all the way back to his tenure with the Boston Symphony and may have reached its crowning moment with his two-record performance of the Complete Music of Carl Ruggles with the BPO (made available on CD last year).
Here are four of the thornier pieces from the Great American Maverick tradition. Both Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison were astonishingly prolific and composers, in their lifetimes, of some of the most likable, even irresistible music of the 20th century. (In Harrison's case, he conducted some of it in Buffalo, when one of Thomas' Los Angeles mentors, the great critic Peter Yates, was head of the music department of Buffalo State College.)
This, on the other hand, is not an attempt by Thomas to make easy friendships for listeners with Cowell and Harrison. This is dissonant, proto-experimental early work by both in Cowell's case his ecstatic Ivesian 1930 "Syncrony" originally written for Martha Graham (who never completed the choreography) and piano concerto from the same year, with the composer's immensely influential tone clusters (which is, in fact, the name of its middle movement). The estimable Jeremy Denk is the pianist. Harrison's Concerto for Organ and Percussion Orchestra is a notably odd but typically Harrisonian combinatory solution to the problem of what to do with separate commissions for a new piece for organ and for a new piece for percussion orchestra of the sort that launched Harrison's earliest renown. The result is both fascinating and uniquely bristly.
The towering masterwork here is the 1927 version of Edgar Varese's "Ameriques," which calls for a gigantic orchestra (125 players) and gives us noble masses of sound devoted to the very experimental idea of America (i.e. exploration of freedom and the outermost frontiers.) It is wild, craggy, abstract music, more so even than that of Varese's difficult friend Carl Ruggles (whose spiritual kinship with the paintings of Clyfford Still can't help but be apparent to lifelong patrons of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery). Thomas is so determined to make logical sense of "Ameriques" that he almost misses the wild danger in it so prominent in the version conducted on disc by Pierre Boulez, which remains supreme.
A great disc of 20th century American music at its most bracingly individual.
The New Mastersounds
On the Faultline
[One Note records]
It's hard to believe that the New Mastersounds aren't from New Orleans. This four-piece plays funk with absolute mastery, a maturity belying relatively tender years, and a strut and swagger that would do the Funky Meters proud. And yet, the band hails from England, and only made it to the Crescent City after it had been a fully functioning unit for several years.
Guitarist Eddie Roberts, keyboardist Joe Tatton, drummer Simon Allen and bassist Pete Shand own the funk, as "On the Faultline," the band's eighth album since forming in the late '90s, makes more than plain.
Aspects of the Blue Note organ trio's of Jack McDuff and Jimmy Smith abound here, but NMS brings funk squarely into the present with its frantic tempos, ebullient interplay and crisp grooves. The band makes its modus operandi more than apparent during "Welcome to Nola," a killer groove with a spoken-word tribute to the birthplace of America's music slapped atop it. Elements of hip-hop meet and commingle during "Summercamp," while opener "You Mess Up" simply soars on a smoking, reverb-drenched Roberts guitar motif.
There is an all-pervading joyousness at the heart of the seriously funky NMS sound. Watch out it's catchy. J.M.