Katy Perry, “Prism” (Capitol). Katy Perry’s music is analogous to a summer blockbuster film, one whose liberal use of computer-generated imagery makes it clear that the movie in question was never conceived of as anything other than a summer blockbuster. Perry’s music reeks of focus groups, record company boardrooms, teams of experts concocting the perfect plan to ensure financial success. Somewhere in the midst of this well-financed orgy of worn-out pop tropes sits Perry, attempting to craft something like an artistic personality, asking us to take her arena-sized platitudes as somehow emblematic of the universal cry of everywoman. That’s a tall order, and one that demands a serious suspension of disbelief from the listener. Apparently, this is not a problem for too many mainstream pop fans, though – Perry’s last album coughed up five (count ’em) No. 1 singles, and “Prism” has already burped up another one, in the form of first single “Roar.” For this slice of euphoric, insanely catchy computer pop, Perry leans on some seriously cringe-worthy imagery – “I’ve got the eye of the tiger/the fighter, dancing through the fire/Cause I am a champion, and you’re gonna hear me roar,” she sings, mixing metaphors like nobody’s business – in order to tell a tale of self-empowerment. Immediately, with “Prism’s” opening track, we are asked to accept Perry’s pandering to lowest-common-denominator sentiments as an act of artistic bravery. (Seriously, at this point, the whole “self empowerment” thing has become such a world-weary pop cliché as to be all but stripped of anything resembling meaning. The skeptical view would suggest that, when the artist in question can’t come up with anything truly worth saying, they simply fall back on the “I’ve been wronged, but I will not lie down and die” mantra. Criticizing this as what it is (lazy pandering) is risky, because it is so often taken as criticizing a strong woman. Well, so be it. Bad writing is bad writing, be it male or female in origin. And turning these sentiments into clichés does a disservice to anyone who does endure tragedy, loss and struggle and manages to break through to the other side.)
It really doesn’t get much better elsewhere, at least from the standpoint of song lyrics. Perry seems to have two modes as a scribbler – “Forget it all and let’s party,” or “You did me wrong and made me suffer, but I’m so awesome that I can’t be defeated.” Subtlety, nuance and examination of the gray areas – these are not in her wheelhouse.
Happily, for fans of disposable pop music, “Prism” is packed to the brim with anthemic stuff, pieces of fluff that push your buttons shamelessly, inevitably arrive at a massive “hands in the air!” chorus, and demand repeated listens at high volumes. It’s musical fast food, and like all fast food, as soon as you’ve swallowed it, you want more. (Or you want to throw up. Depends on the person, I suppose.) “Prism” certainly is the most interesting Perry album to date. It’s well-paced, at least eight of its 13 songs (there are more on the deluxe edition) sound like potential No. 1 singles, and even though she deals out lyrical clichés in a manner that would make even Jon Bon Jovi blush, Perry still manages to come across as a likable person. Mission accomplished? It would appear so. ∆∆½ (Jeff Miers)
The Complete Chick Webb and Ella Fitzgerald Decca Sessions (1934-1941). (Mosaic 8-discs by mail only from Mosaic Records, 425 Fairfield Ave., Suite 421, Stamford, Conn. 06902 or from www.mosaicrecords.com). Here is John McDonough of Down Beat and NPR on the historical singularity of the newest exemplary set of golden archive jazz discs from the incomparable Mosaic Records: “If your plan here had been to collect only the complete instrumental work of the Chick Webb orchestra on Decca, it would have been a sweet but slim project indeed – barely a single CD, in fact. Of the 129 commercial sides and alternates he recorded between September 1934 and his death in June 1939, only 23 were instrumental. Never in jazz history did a major swing band ever come to be so dominated by a single singer.” And that’s because those records were the recording birth of one of the handful of greatest singers jazz will ever have – Ella Fitzgerald. There is no question that the greatest Ella occupies about a decade and a half of recording – from, say, 1952 to 1967, years when her work schedule was merciless and some of the greatest jazz vocal recordings in the music’s history were made by her. But you understand her history better when you hear this music, from the period in 1935 when she came into the Webb band which soon, says McDonough, “became hostage to her swelling stardom,” a stardom that, blessedly, could ignore visual appearance and give her love simply by sound alone through the radio. And that’s what happened. By 20, she was the leading singer in the country, even though it took critic George Simon and musician Benny Carter to get the word out among the jazz people who counted. But none of it would have happened if Chick Webb hadn’t discovered her and protected and nurtured her. All of her important early recording history is here – as auspicious an opening act in jazz singing as there is, accompanied by a great jazz band that should have recorded more on its own before its leaders demise. And, as always, perfectly presented by Mosaic. ∆∆∆∆ (Jeff Simon)
Various Artists, Shuffle Concerts, (SHUFFLEconcert.com). The electronic Shuffle feature, which allows you to scramble your playlist, shows the world’s changing relationship with music. The word “tunes,” as in iTunes, says it all, that so much of what people listen to now, what they think of as music, is so lightweight and disposable that it doesn’t matter when you listen to it, or where, or how, or in what order. I regret the Shuffle feature when I see it applied to music I love. It reinforces my fear that a lot of us are losing our ability to concentrate, to focus, to give great art the attention it deserves. On this disc, a bunch of musicians – they don’t seem to have a group name – have banded together to play, in different configurations, 16 short requests. You can play them as is, or hit Shuffle and see what happens. It’s a mad scramble. There’s a beautiful “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” from Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” and the Allegretto from Brahms’ Sonata No. 2 for violin and piano. “Why Don’t You Do Right?” “Desafinado,” and “When You’re Good To Mama” crooned by singer Ariadne Greif, who is sort of annoyingly and predictably sultry. There is a wistful Romance by Robert Schumann and short pieces by Tchaikovsky and Telemann and Ravel. The charming cafe composer Paul Schoenfield contributes a Samba. The group, often performing in twos and threes, gives lovely performances. I just think it wastes music by not taking care to put it in the right context. The Albright-Knox Art Gallery, when it imports some new installation, takes tremendous care to display it just right, giving it the prescribed acres of space, investing in just the right frames if frames are required, finding the right lighting. Music needs the same care. It’s nice if this album leads listeners to discover music they didn’t know they like, but in this casual framework, I’m not sure they will be able to hear it. ∆∆½ (Mary Kunz Goldman)
Zsolt Bognar, Franz & Franz (Con Brio Recordings). Franz & Franz are Franz Schubert and Franz Liszt, who ovrelapped when Liszt arranged a bundle of Schubert songs. I have always found the Liszt/Schubert arrangements fascinating listening. It is as if two eras run together, Schubert’s sorrowing, smoldering melodies and Liszt’s expansive romanticism. Schubert’s Three Impromptus, D. 946, are pieces of great depth and unfathomable sorrow. Bognar, 34, seems to have deep feelings for the music and shows tremendous sensitivity to it. His silences are considered and his dynamics subtly graded, important in music like this, where little things matter so much. The Liszt transcriptions are so artfully colored that I was wishing there were more of them. They culminate in the delightful “Hark, hark, the Lark,” once one of Schubert’s most popular songs, now not very often heard. Liszt’s “Dante” Sonata shows Bognar detecting the depth in the music that not every pianist notices. Though this extremely promising pianist has a foreign name, he is from Champaign, Ill. I like how he plays – and thinks. This is a small beef, but I wish he did not feel compelled to name not only his teachers but his teachers’ teachers – a grand total of nine pedagogues. Man, by the time Schubert was your age he was dead. Stand on your own two feet. ΩΩΩ½ (M.K.G.)
Bloch, Janacek and Shostakovich, Sonatas for Violin and Piano performed by violinist Midori and pianist Ozgur Aydin (Onyx), Hindemith, Violin Concerto, Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by C.M. Von Weber and Concert Music for Strings and Brass performed by Midori and the NDR Symphony Orchestra conducted by Christoph Eschenbach (Ondine). In a world full of beautiful young violinists busily engaged in recording the warhorses of the violin repertoire, Midori – who preceded them chronologically and knows some of the marketing and reputation placement they’re going through – is now engaged in exceptional performances of 20th century music, much of which is no one’s idea of the way violin virtuosi should be featured for maximum exposure. The Hindemith Violin concerto, for instance, on an all-Hindemith disc recorded in Europe and conducted by Christoph Eschenbach, is very much against the grain of current sentiment, which has been steadily drifting away from Hindemith in the past 50 years, ever since Glenn Gould tried so valiantly to make his case for him. Her performance of it is worthy and the whole disc is a valuable all-Hindemith disc in a most unlikely era (it begins with the current favorite Hindemith work, the Weber Symphonic Metamorphosis, which seems to have supplanted for 21st century ears, the “Mathis Der Maler” Symphony and “Noblissima Visione.”) Even better is Midori’s performance of violin/piano sonatas by 20th century masters Ernest Bloch, Leos Janacek and Dmitri Shostakovich. If her tone is a bit thin for the declamations of Bloch’s Violin/Piano Sonata no. 2 “Poeme Mystique,” her playing of it is absolutely as superb as her espousal of the work in the first place. ∆∆∆ for Hindemith, ∆∆∆½ for the Bloch/Janacek/Shostakovich sonatas. (J.S.)