First, three albums that all grew out of the same core of
influences in the Los Angeles urban folk music scene.
Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind
This album was the last gasp of the overwrought ‘80s, and the
best pop album of that decade. After all the folk, country,
rock, jazz and standards classics, and Spanish songs, she pulled
out this towering collection of songs, including two duets with
Aaron Neville. One of the most amazing cuts, however, is
“California Coast,” in which Brian Wilson sings six-part backup
harmony. “Desperado,” (not on this album) by Eagles Henley and
Frey, is still Ronstadt’s signature song.
Back in the early years of the LA urban folk scene, the Eagles
were Linda Ronstadt’s backup band. While
went on to apply her magnificent instrument to everything from
jazz to opera, the Eagles refined their West Coast Cowboy sound,
became far better songwriters, and added rocker Joe Walsh
to the band. They dominated the charts with “Hotel California,”
“New Kid in Town,” and “Life in the Fast Lane.” The production
values are incredibly high for an album recorded in the
mid-1970s, when record companies were not exactly covering
themselves with glory in their support of artists.
Late for the Sky
single most amazing thing about Jackson Browne’s singing on
“Late for the Sky” is the way he eliminated vibrato from his
voice, singing in a spare, uncompromising style that strips away
any art, artifice,
or pretense. You have no choice but to focus on the lyrics. And
what lyrics! “Fountain of Sorrow” has all those playful plays on
words, but the song cuts to the heart of the matter like few
others. “Before the Deluge” could be the theme song of any
environmental group today. It’s like Dylan without the cryptic
allegory. But the best song on the album is “For a Dancer,” a
song about his wife, who killed herself. Heartrending, naked,
Browne, of course, is
the author of one of the Eagles’ biggest hits, “Take it Easy,”
and also penned several of Ronstadt’s hits. One of the very few
missteps in Ronstadt’s recording career was the recording of
“For a Dancer” that she and Emmylou Harris did on “Western
Wall”—chirpy and cheerful, it absolutely misses the point of the
song. And it’s not like they didn’t know what it was about when
Browne wrote it; they knew him then.
I first heard the pieces that
comprise “Glassworks” at the New York City Ballet, the music to
“Glass Pieces,” choreographed by Jerome Robbins. Against a spare
grid pattern at the back of the stage, the dancers
moved like ancient
Egyptians on a frieze. The steps were as hypnotic as the music.
I went out and bought the album the next day. The torrent of
notes! The throbbing synthesizer! The mad woodwinds! And the
snake charmer’s soprano sax above it all. An astounding piece of
music. But someday I’ll have to ask myself why I seem to get so
much from a bunch of arpeggiated chord changes.
albums were the reason I bought my very first CD player—and they
were my very first CDs. Remastered from the originals, they’re
far better than the LPs that I’d lost to an old lover somewhere
along the way. Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern,
Irving Berlin, they’re all here. Ella’s voice is perfect, Ella’s
pitch is perfect, Ella’s arrangements (thanks to Nelson Riddle)
are perfect. Sometimes, however, the wit of the songs is lost in
the perfection of the delivery. She could sometimes stand to
loosen up and have more fun with the lyrics. But it’s still the
definitive collection of songs by these composers. Only
Sinatra’s recordings could be compared in the same breath, but
he’s as casual with a note as she is laser-sharp, and sometimes
he comes across as too worldly and bored.
Wild for You
Fast-forward 20 years, and
a child of the ‘70s grows up, becomes a sophisticated jazz
chanteuse, then turns her quirky, intimate voice with that
little catch in it to the ‘70s songs of Carole King, James
Taylor, Carly Simon, Cat Stevens, and Joni Mitchell, among
others. With tasteful drum, bass, piano (some with her fingers
on the keys), and guitar framing them, the lyrics are what
matter here. Not every cut is a home run, but you can hear
something new in each of them, as well as the something old that
made me love these songs the first time around. Diana Krall is
the reigning goddess of jazz vocals, and everybody’s still
talking about Nora Jones, but Karrin Allyson is a treat for the
if you get into her, there’s plenty more to check out, including
some sweet art songs like “Robert Frost” on the “Collage” album.
Did I mention how much I love the little catch in her voice?
While we’re talking jazz,
one of the most tasteful guitarists around is Russell Malone.
has a big, round, warm, sweet tone and doesn’t try to dazzle you
with his chops, but they’re there when he needs them. He works
closely with a tight little group, and doesn’t hog the
limelight. But he’s never more listenable or expressive than
when he’s playing solo. His version of “You’ve Got a Friend” is
so intimate and familiar that you’d swear you were hearing the
lyrics, not just the melody, delivered with half-mournful jazz
chord voicings. One of his signature songs in live performances
is the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun,” and everyone who has
listened to the Carpenters’ layered vocals and strings and felt
like they were drowning in maple syrup should hear this. You
suddenly discover that there’s a real song under all that icing.
This is the first time Malone has committed it to disc.
Unclassifiable. Cake (John
McCrea) is rock the way Joni Mitchell is folk. He writes lyrics
from some strange place between his heart and his head, speaks
truths, and wraps them in whatever sounds are necessary to bring
them to full flower. You’ll hear rock, alt rock, country,
jazz, salsa, and who knows what else in the accompaniments, and
the lyrics go from pretense-busting, laugh-out-loud (“Opera
Singer” and “Comfort Eagle”) to head-scratchingly opaque (“Long
Line of Cars” and “Meanwhile Rick James”).
But each song is like a
little short story, a précis that gives you insight into the
subject. “Short Skirt, Long Jacket” nails the bright, aggressive
young woman who reinvents herself as she matures, while
“Symphony in C” lampoons, of all things, an 18th-century
Austrian nobleman. “Shadow Stabbing” describes a novelist, shut
away in his room, writing about a world that he never
experiences directly. But maybe it’s about something else. You
decide. And let me know if you figure out what “Meanwhile Rick
James” is about.
Michael Tilson Thomas/George Gershwin
Rhapsody in Blue
there are lots of great renditions of “Rhapsody in Blue,”
especially Leonard Bernstein’s, with the New York Philharmonic.
But this one has George Gershwin playing piano. OK, he’s been
dead a long time, and it’s really a piano roll, but it was a
special kind of player piano that captured expression as well as
any digital piano does today—maybe better, because it was analog
and infinitely variable. In order to make this recording they
had to completely restore one of those pianos and make it
operable after 50 years or so of disuse. Then Tilson Thomas had
to immerse himself in Gershwin’s cadences so he could direct the
orchestra accordingly. The definitive “Rhapsody.”
They sound like the greatest
bar/frat party band you ever heard (that honor actually belongs
to Blotto), but
Boston was really Tom Scholz and an associate or two in the
studio, layering on the guitar riffs that defined the
mid-1970s. “More than a Feeling” is the megahit from this album,
but every track is an invitation to play air guitar. Listen to
the crunch of the rhythm guitar—how you can define every chord,
even through the distortion. The lead guitar wails and soars,
but never descends into bathos. The lyrics are nothing special,
but that’s OK—this is music for rolling down the windows and
singing along. Scholz’s voice is just the right pitch of
testosterone-fueled tenor—urgent, but not out of control.
It’s all been said before.
Nocturnes of John Field
John Field (composer), performed by John O’Connor
John Field invented the
nocturne. Considering when he wrote them, they sound shockingly
modern, far more expressive than other music of his period.
Chopin was heavily influenced by Field, which will be obvious at
could do more, but I think I’ll leave off here.