The most enjoyable side of my involvement with SoundStage! is the community of readers and writers. And the best part of that is sharing the joy of music. The reason I mention that is that John Upton is the person responsible for bringing Trailer Park, a new album by Beth Orton to my attention. While the title may make you think of Southern Culture on the Skids, a local favorite, the album is a cunning mix of folk and British trip-hop. On the folk side, Orton writes about the basic pleasures and (primarily) pains of life and love. Simple and affecting, her songs are more tone poems than full blown stories, but with a voice that is as direct and engaging as her lyrics the sum is greater than the parts. Her principal instrument is the acoustic guitar, which she plays with the same lack of affection with which she sings. As for the trip-hop side, having recorded with the Chemical Brothers and William Orbit (who co-wrote the opening track with Orton), the trip-hop flavor is legitimate and not merely a device meant to attract attention. Orton combines the two musical genres in a way that favors the folk, while making the trip-hop accessible. For example, instead of driving "Touch Me With Your Love" with harmonium effects, an acoustic double-bass provides the song with it's beat while the harmonium takes a strong secondary role. In fact, acoustic instruments are used throughout the album to provide the pulse of the songs. Cello, viola, piano and mandolin all figure prominently on the album and are placed well up in the mix. The trip-hop effects serve to flesh out the songs rather than acting as their base. Sonically, the balance between folk and ambient create an album that is clean, dynamic, and interesting. For those that are looking to gently dip a toe in the Electronica waters, or those who love folk, especially with a little spice to hold your attention, this album is highly recommended. It easily rates a B+.
k.d. lang - Drag
Looking on the advance release list last summer I fell for the implicit gag in k.d. langs newest album title, Drag. While I expect a complete lack of nuance from Ellen and prime time TV, I was surprised by langs lack of subtlety. So it was with relief that I heard that the album is actually a set of covers wherein each cut is about or mentions cigarettes. From the opening track, "Dont Smoke In Bed," its obvious that this is vintage lang. The lush strings and warm setting show that, in spite of Craig Streets production involvement, this is Ingenue redux rather than the sparse settings of Cassandra Wilsons Blue Light Till Dawn. Still, Streets production is clean and warm, allowing small instruments room to intrigue (listen closely to "The Joker"), the orchestration to fill, guitar loops sooth and k.d.s voice to enthrall. For an example of how marvelous an instrument her voice is listen closely to the way she caresses the aforementioned "The Joker." Soft, breathy and still so powerful, she takes an upbeat braggart tune and slows it down while simultaneously turning up the heat till the tune commands that you find someone and, gently, "shake their tree".
Her version of the David Wilcox tune, "My Old Addiction" is the centerpiece of the album. With empathy and tenderness she draws you into the attraction of drug addiction. As a metaphor for fatal love, drugs and cigarettes have been overused, but the wistfulness of the Wilcox tune coupled with the beauty of langs voice refresh the image. "Haint It Funny?", by Jane Siberry gets a marvelous turn, as does the old Hollies tune, "The Air That I Breathe.. The only obvious misstep on the album is the "Theme from The Valley Of The Dolls," which lacks either the whimsy or underlying depth to stand with the rest of the tunes on the album. With that exception, if you enjoyed Ingenue, the more subtle but of a piece flavor of Drag will grab you as well. As for the sound quality, Streets influence pays big dividends. Langs voice is intimate, warm and reference quality. The album gets a B/B+ for the music and a solid B+ for sound quality.
Dale Sumner - State of the Union
Every once in a while the music gods smile brightly upon me and from above deliver something truly worth raving about. Thus begins my story of that one cool September day when I came home to find a plain manila envelope in my mail box. Nothing spectacular about that, but, read on...
Opening the envelope revealed a disc entitled State of the Union by an artist previously unknown to me, Dale Sumner. Like the cliche kid in a candy store I can't resist a new disc for very long, so within minutes it was taking its first spin. I can usually tell from the first few bars of a disc if it is going to strike a harmonious chord with my tastes and to be quite honest, I was rapt within the first fifteen seconds.
Since that fateful September day I have listened to State of the Union countless times, enjoying each subsequent listen more than the previous. My difficulty now is, how to adequately encapsulate the sound, mood, style and writing of Mr. Sumner in just a few short paragraphs. Words can never adequately describe the complexity of even the simplest music, so how do I begin to describe such intelligent, carefully thought out, interestingly arranged music? Well, I suppose it is my job, so here goes...
One of Dale's obvious fortes are his lyrics. He eloquently provides the listener with a social commentary, presenting issues in a manner which challenges us to ponder some of the inequities that permeate the globe. His vocal style varies from slightly strained to legato smooth suitably conforming to the mood of each tune.
As good as his lyrics are, the music is equally as intelligent and strong. His style could be labelled contemporary rock, and is somewhat reminiscent of Tom Cochrane's early work with Red Rider. Yet, unlike the latter, I sense that a considerable amount of time and energy went into arranging the tunes so as ensure the complete and undivided attention of the listener's ear. There is very little in the way of formula on this disc. Each song is arranged in decidedly its own fashion, the vocal and instrument mixes are far from static, a multitude of guitar styles are exploited splendidly and complimentary instruments such as the mandolin add an additional touch of class.
Without being too overzealous in my enthusiastic support, I can say with sincerity that this is the best new artist I have heard in this genre in years. I encourage you check out Dale's website (www.concepts.nb.ca/dcsumner.htm) for some interesting background information on individual racks.
In a world where many top selling artists often put more effort and thought into their hairstyles then their songwriting, it is comforting to know that their are people like Dale Sumner who's main focus remains unquestionably where it should be... on the music.
Soundtrack - Seven
Years in Tibet
This soundtrack is unmistakably a John Williams score, bearing his distinctive signature from start to finish. I seem to hear a little of Star Wars in everything he does. Yet there is a sense of majesty and sweeping drama here that I dont find from most motion picture soundtracks, including other Williams works. The name Yo Yo Ma should be familiar to even the most capricious classical music enthusiast. Here his exceptional cello work, while being put to traditional use, is also utilized in some unorthodox and highly refreshing manners. True to the genre of soundtracks, most of the cuts are permeated with thinly disguised re-workings of the recurring theme phrase. Confluent with the more likely material, however, are some outstanding works.
Opening with traditional western instruments, cut two, "Young Dalai Lama and Ceremonial Chant," gently evolves into the sounds of the instruments of Tibet. The traditional bells (the dilbu), the twin skinned drums hung on frames like gongs (the rna), the giant conch sea-shells used as horns (known as dun) and the hollow semi-spherical cymbals (called rollmos) are all combined with the chanting of the Gyuto Monks. This track practically transports us to that distant, mystical land to a time long past. The chanting is mesmerizing and the voices are recreated deeply and widely through the soundstage.
Cut four, "Peters Rescue," is a large, swelling piece full of suspense and absolutely cavernous bass. It lends to the vitality of the work overall and is intensely powerful.
Cuts five, "Harrers Journey," and six, "The Invasion," are alive and vibrant. In "Harrers Journey," a solo horn emanates from the rear of the stage and its call decays through the venue majestically. Sounds from the strings linger deliciously, outlining and defining the halls space and ambiance. Throughout "The Invasion," the emphasis is on the hall and its reverberant effect with the mid-bass and mid-range instruments. The sense of the space on these cuts is enormous.
"Refections," cut seven, opens with light musing cello work leading into the darker underpinnings of the stringed voices. There is an uplifting phrase from the horns yielding to more musing from a solo harp. These fade into the more traditional character and phrasings of the music of Tibet, done with the western instruments, followed by more musing from the wood-winds. A piano accompanied by strings closes the piece. What a beautiful, buoyant, evocative composition!
Yo Yo Ma uses his cello in an unorthodox manner in cut eight, "Premonitions." This warm bodied stringed instrument is pressed to emulate the sound and tension of the Tibetan ritual long horns (usually 9 to 12 feet long, made of copper bound with silver) with tremendous effect here.
Overall, I find the disc is just a bit distant sounding. The orchestral cymbals seem to have been slighted in the recording process, with poorly defined attack and muffled decay in the larger compositions. Yet there is such a tremendous sense of space on this recording that it bears your attention. I found the best sounds from massed strings, the piano and the hall to be delivered with the absolute polarity switch on my DAC set to the 180 degree position.
Although the back cover boasts, "For this recording 24-bit technology was used to maximize sound quality," no other mention of the technique and/or its implementation is made. Though we are left to provide our own conclusions in this respect, the sonic result is very satisfying (say, an eight to eight and one half out of ten). Seven Years In Tibet provides an inviting experience to the far eastern musical influence performed with traditional western instruments. Tastefully done and thoroughly enjoyable, this disc has a calming and soothing effect. I was refreshingly surprised at how taken I was by both its sound and emotion. I think you will be too!
Billie Holiday - Songs For
My friends all know there's a secret part in my soul for Billie. Taking that part of me aside to review this wasn't easy. All my original recordings sound good, yet the highs are rolled off and the bass is kinda flubby. Classic Record's new reissue used the best original source tapes they could find and then mastered it to 20 bit digital (then to 16 bit for the glass master of course). This CD is now among my faves for digital play when it's time to relax and take a Holiday. With classics songs like "Day In, Day Out" and "Stars Fell on Alabama" the music seems to be just what the doctor ordered! Speaking of "Stars Fell On Alabama," it grooves in its mellow jazz way and you can really hear into the recording. The sound of the instruments have been given newfound clarity, though some of the air seems a bit unrealistic sounding. There still remained the subtleties I highly prize, though we might be getting into the age-old debate of accuracy (CD) vs. euphoria (original vinyl). Maybe my ears have grown to accustom to the more euphoric sounding original vinyl version? Listing to the first track, "Day In, Day Out", there are more natural dynamics and you still get all that Billie charm we all love so much. If you really love Billie Holiday and are only CD bound, this may be a recording not to be missed! Some may dispute this newer version over the ever so warm and cuddly original vinyl, though my car can't play vinyl... yet.
...Steve R. Rochlin
Greg Brown - slant 6 mind
Saw Greg Brown months ago in concert. My Swedish gal said we must see him so off we went. Not being familiar with an artist never stopped me from going to a concert. So he comes out on the stage wearing jeans, a casual shirt, a hat, and dark sunglasses (and this was an indoor concert at night!). For the next hour plus played some of the funkiest blues/folks with humor i've heard in a long time. His really deep voice carries the wit and wisdom which is as sharp as those Ginsu knives that dice, slice and make thousands of Julian fries. Who is this guy Julian and why does he get fries named after him? Anyway, the concert was so good we immediately bought a CD. Red House Records has released a new CD this month by him titled slant 6 mind and the music is wildly witty and backbone bluesy which is so tasty it'll put soul in yo' roll and sun in yo' bun. It's that up to date blues with a good dose comical reality. The first song, "Whatever It Was" really shows off this dudes wild wit. the lyrics go:
"An electric head & feet of
His voice and guitar licks were really yummy. It's the kind of stuff that gains a following in the really happenin' music scene of life. Some of the tunes are slow and mellow whereas others can bite cha like a rabid dog. And once Greg Brown's killer tunes bites ya, you'll then be that rabid dog. Yeah, i'll dog it all night and then scratch scratch at your door. Might not be 'audiophile', but the recording is good and eye's likes it!!! More likes these a-please.
...Steve R. Rochlin