Vince Gill and Paul Franklin, “Bakersfield” (MCA Nashville). Once upon a time in the bad old days of American musical snobbery, Buck Owens was considered the country music equivalent of bubble gum. And that was inside country music’s intelligentsia. No more.
The world has not only long since learned to reassess Buck Owens about five levels above where he’d been but to reconsider his whole musical environment in Bakersfield which is, without question, one of the least likely musical power centers in all of America. You’re not going to suddenly think of the town as the equivalent of New York, Chicago, L.A., Nashville and Memphis after listening to this. But the disc can’t help but turn you into a Bakersfield friend. Here from Vince Gill and his pedal steel-playing buddy Paul Franklin is a whole disc devoted not only to Buck Owens (“Foolin’ Around,” “Together Again,” “He Doesn’t Deserve You Anymore,” “Nobody’s Fool But Yours”) but that great Bakersfield troublemaker and outlaw country bard Merle Haggard (“The Fightin’ Side of Me,” “Branded Man,” “The Bottle Let Me Down,” “I Can’t Be Myself,” “Holding Things Together”).
Paul Franklin’s pedal steel isn’t exactly going to win a spot in the Randolph family band but if you can handle a whole disc of its liquid whine, he can play the thing. ΩΩΩ (Jeff Simon)
Glen Campbell, “See You There” (Surfdog). Too often when veteran artists revisit career-defining hits late in life it’s more of a marketing move than an artistic exploration. Not in this case. Since revealing two years ago that he’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, the singer-guitarist and former TV show host released his well-received “Ghost on the Canvas” album and went on the road one last time for a farewell tour.
Recently his family revealed that his disease has progressed to the point where he can no longer perform.
These tracks, in which he takes another look at hits such as “Wichita Lineman,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Gentle on My Mind,” were recorded while he was working on the “Ghost” album, and the vocals have been given raw, rootsy musical accompaniment by producers Dave Darling and Dave Kaplan. Knowing what Campbell is going through only heightens the emotional impact of the songs. “It’s knowing I’m not shackled by forgotten words and bonds,” resonates powerfully as he sings that line in John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind.”
And Jimmy Webb’s lyric in “Phoenix” about a departing lover — “She’ll laugh when she reads the part that says I’m leaving” — takes on a whole new meaning. There’s little studio sweetening applied to Campbell’s boy-next-door voice, a smart move that gives his age and condition the honest respect he’s earned in what’s been a difficult but brave fight. ΩΩΩ½ (Randy Lewis, Los Angeles Times)
Steve Arrington and Dam-Funk, “Higher” (Stones Throw). Los Angeles funk producer and songwriter Damon “Dam-Funk” Riddick has become one of R&B’s most idiosyncratic groove delivery systems, a master of unironic synth joy supremely devoted to ’70s and ’80s tones. For “Higher,” the king of the keyboard has teamed with vocalist/percussionist Steve Arrington, whose work with ’70s funk pioneers Slave and as a solo artist inspired some of Dam’s jams. The pair have collaborated in the past, but “Higher” marks their first album-length project.
The record connects fellow travelers on a journey to the center of a sound, one in which fake hand claps bang alongside synthetic bass tones, layers of falsetto wails roll out lines about making dreams come true (“Blow Your Mind”), soaring through space (“Galactic Funtionals”) and freaking out (“I Be Trippin’ ”). Retro? Yes. This stuff sounds straight outta the funk vaults, so your tolerance for “Higher” will depend on whether you think the era that created early Prince, Zapp and the Gap Band is worthy of revisiting.
Which is to say, “Higher” as an album is decent enough, but it’s hardly essential. ∆∆½(Randall Roberts, Los Angeles Times)
Schumann, “Liederkreis” and other songs performed by Thomas E. Bauer, baritone; Uta Hielscher, piano (Naxos), “Songs of Schumann and Wolf” performed by Anne Schwanewilms, soprano, Manuel Lange, piano (Capriccio). The songs of Robert Schumann are a window to his troubled soul. They are heart-melting – romantic and, at the next turn, unsettling and lonely. The opening song “Liederkreis” says it all – though love and a happy marriage inspired Schumann to write the cycle, the first song is at the same time both beautiful and unbearably desolate. Presenting the songs with all their loveliness and conflicts can be challenging to performers. Two singers, on two new discs, take on “Liederkreis,” and they handle the challenges differently.
Naxos takes its Lieder mission very seriously and Thomas E. Bauer takes a wonderful approach. He has a hearty baritone voice, but he is not heavy-handed. He sounds free and outdoorsy, good not only in the mercurial “Liederkreis” but is good for the folky “Der Knabe mit dem Wunderhorn.” I think he could have made more of the high point of the spooky “Die Lorelei” - “Don’t ever come back to these woods!” But everyone chooses his own approach. Bauer is intuitive and entertaining. After “Liederkreis” you get to hear lesser-known gems such as the long, dramatic “Die Lowenbraut.” There are six transparent songs that evoke medieval Germany, including the enchanting “Standchen” (Serenade). I always wonder why this isn’t sung more. Texts and translations are available on the Naxos website.
Schwanewilms has a wonderful voice, and she’s great at the lyrical songs, like the famous “Mondnacht,” where all you have to do is soar. In her take on “Die Lorelei,” the scary line falls totally flat. If that line does not give the audience a fright you are doing something wrong, and I wonder if she is a prisoner of her voice, so protective of its beauty that she is afraid to take chances.
Her straightforward and lovely style is better for the more withdrawn songs of Hugo Wolf, here represented by eight of the exquisite “Morike Lieder.” Her diction and timing are of the utmost delicacy and she is not afraid of silence. Capriccio is a more high-rent label than Naxos, and the texts and translations are included. ∆∆∆½ for Bauer, ∆∆∆ for Schwanewilms (Mary Kunz Goldman)
Timo Andres, “Home Stretch” performed by pianist Timo Andres and the Metropolis Ensemble conducted by Andrew Cyr (Nonesuch). “Anti-virtuoso” composer-pianist Timo Andres is one of the forward thinkers currently making Brooklyn a hive of avant music-making in America.
“Home Stretch,” written for his friend pianist David Kaplan, has three accelerating sections in tribute to Kaplan’s pleasure in “fast cars” and, says the composer, ends with “a sturm-und-drang cadenza that riles itself up into a perpetual-motion race to the finish.” His “Paraphrase on Themes by Brian Eno” introduces the electronic prodigy to a 19th century classical orchestra. His “recomposition” of Mozart’s “Coronation” Concerto no. 26 in D, he says, approaches “the piece not from a scholarly or editorial perspective but more as a sprawling playground for pianistic invention and virtuosity, taking cues from the composer-pianist tradition Mozart helped to crystallize.”
Some hear comedy in it. Almost everyone hears giddy waywardness. Very enjoyable all the way through. ΩΩΩ½ (J.S.)
Lester Young, Boston 1950 (Uptown). These are radio airchecks made by a very good Lester Young band in 1950 from live broadcasts May to June 1950 in Boston’s Hi-Hat club. Trumpet player Jesse Drakes never set the world on fire – and doesn’t here – but being able to hear the great Young recorded live with pianists Kenny Drew and Horace Silver, both in fine shape, and drummer Connie Kay making antic pre-MJQ bebop noise is a huge pleasure. There’s great playing by Young all through this disc on all manner of ’40s and ’50s favorites – “Slow Boat to China” and “Jeepers Creepers.” It’s an extra added pleasure, on two of its tracks, when a young Silver takes over from Drew and plays the blues.
This is a rough recording, to put it mildly, with several fragments on it. But it’s from a time when Young was still playing very well indeed and influencing saxophonists right and left. ∆∆∆½ (J.S.)