Tag Archives: 1990s

[170] Johnny Cash – American Recordings

8 Apr

I think maybe you already have to be a Cash fan to enjoy this album. So it should come as no surprise that I love this 1994 album, and the rest of the American Recordings he produced right up until his death in 2003.

170 cash american

However, I do find it slightly unexpected that it was these stripped down, cowboy-gospel tinged songs that caught the attention of a new generation and made Johnny Cash relevant (yet) again.

This is an album I bought when it first came out, one which I enjoyed, but which never really got into regular rotation in the list of Cash albums I periodically play. Perhaps this is because it is hard to hear the pain in every note here, a pain which grew stronger as the voice grew weaker with each successive American Recording release, peaking / troughing with the magnificently tormented cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” on American IV: The Man Comes Around.

Each track on this first American installment is a perfectly formed, tiny-clean morsel of story song which, despite the pristine nature of the studio work, is somehow leaner even than the raw live recording of At Folsom Prison. I find it sometimes hard to get through the entire thing in one setting, even if the run time is only a beat over 40 minutes.

Perhaps I am once again underestimating how much pain the rest of the music buying population is in at any given moment.

Cash actively seeks out difficult situations here – a crime of passion, a veteran’s sad return to civilian life, and lots of mortality – and the super-minimal orchestration leave nothing for the words to hide behind. Cash is preaching and, though I often dislike preachers, in this case I believe the things his eyes claim to have seen, believe the pain his heart claims to have felt, both of which are clear in the diminished yet still deep-wide voice.

Revisiting songs he first wrote and recorded over thirty years prior, as in “Delia’s Gone”, is fascinating, but it is the new recordings which truly catch the attention.

Returning to the well of Kris Kristofferson – who wrote Cash’s 1970 hit “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” – “Why Me Lord” is a song that makes me profoundly uncomfortable yet which I can’t help but listen to again and again. And songs penned for Cash by Tom Waits and Glenn Danzig (as well as a Leonard Cohen cover) round out the stylistic feel of the album, setting the template for four more records in the series.

This is not the sound or style that I immediately think of when I hear The Man In Black in my head. And this is not an album I am going to queue up on Spotify when introducing him to my 10-year-old daughter. But in moments that call for quiet reflection on mortality, there are worse places I could start, and I can understand why Tom Moon paired this late career recording with the classic era At Folsom Prison as  bookends to exploring the career of the unique Johnny Cash.

Next Time: Dorival Caymmi – Caymmi E Seu Violao

Owned before blogging? Yes (14 of 170 = 8%)
Heard before blogging? Yes (23 of 170 = 14%)
Recommend? Yes (142 of 170 = 84%)

[162] Elliott Carter – Symphonia

20 May

Symphonia is a conversation between the various instruments which is difficult to comprehend but impossible to ignore.

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It is clear that there is an energetic and fascinating debate going on here, which happens to be in a language that the listener does not speak.  This in no way detracts from the enjoyment of the bright and inventive piece.

As that listener I sit back and enjoy the discussion, wondering what the topic might be, grinning as one performer or another scores a telling point.

I find myself in the same mental state that I visit when watching some of my very favorite plays by Harold Pinter or Samuel Beckett.  The call and response, the back and forth has that same wonderful rhythm as well as the absurd yet aesthetically pleasing meaninglessness which somehow sounds important or profound.

All that is missing is Beckett’s philosophizing and Pinter’s vulgarity . . .

[Long pause.]

I am reminded once again at the universal nature of music, especially instrumental music – how it is used to communicate feeling, idea, occasion.  Even when, as here, it is not understood intellectually it can still be felt viscerally, intuitively.

In instrumentation and execution, this Modern Classical piece is at times indistinguishable from experiential Jazz.  For some reason this pleases me greatly.

Next Week:  Martin Carthy with Dave Swarbrick – Byker Hill

Owned before blogging? No.  (12 of 162 = 7%)
Heard before blogging? No.  (21 of 162 = 13%)
Recommend? Yes. (136 of 162 = 84%)

[157] Nati Cano’s Mariachi los Camperos – Viva el Mariachi

15 Apr

This is not New York City Subway Mariachi.

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The music on show here has more in common with great sweeping Opera than the high energy (and high volume) cheese regularly inflicted on locals and tourists alike.  While the close, multi-part harmonies and accordion accompaniment are still present, the sound is so much richer and fuller here.  It has weight and nuance.

It is instructional as well as pleasing to hear a genuinely quality example of a genre I so easily and regularly write off as shallow.  There is emotion and technique on display – it sounds like I should be watching a heavily costumed cast performing on a proscenium stage as I listen – and if I am not following a linear storyline, well, I always did enjoy non-traditional theater . . .

It’s strange.  The instrumentation and even overall feel of this recording is comparable in many ways to recent dud, the Flamenco sounds of Cameron, but where not even the sound of fingers flying on the guitar strings could capture my attention or affection, this Mexican variation is utterly captivating.

Maybe it’s the addition of the horns?

It’s a little bit Jazz in its freewheeling joy.  A little bit Classical in its concrete structure.  A little bit the aforementioned Opera, with Latin flourishes and outsize character.

And it is all pure entertainment.

Next Week:  Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band – Trout Mask Replica

Owned before blogging? No.  (12 of 157 = 8%)
Heard before blogging? No.  (21 of 157 = 13%)
Recommend? Yes. (131 of 157 = 83%)

[154] Uri Caine – Urlicht/Primal Light

25 Mar

Klezmer or Classical?  Jazz or German?  Secular, Religious, or just a hot mess?  This is one of the most wide-ranging, eclectic, schizophrenic albums I have ever heard, and I think I like it.

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It’s all over the place, with sections of Free Jazz chaos prompting people to ask me to turn it off, and others of haunting vocal chants which inspire people to ask me to turn it up, followed by  hectic accordions and showbiz piano sections keeping me and everyone else who hears it on their toes.

Somehow it is all tied together – presumably by the guiding mind behind each changed (at times tortured) composition, Gustav Mahler.  I’ll never know for sure, though, as don’t think I would recognize “a piece of Mahler’s” outside of this decidedly non-traditional setting.

The big brassy horns are reminiscent of so much of the Jazz – both experimental and traditional – I’ve been enjoying over the last 3 years.  The piano and drum solos are a pleasant and unexpected diversion.  But is the shift of gears into whirling Klezmer and later the familiar strains of Cantors praying – at times accompanied by crazy syncopated rhythms – which ensures my attention is constantly returning to this vast and varied soundscape.

I’m curious to hear the original, untainted Mahler pieces.  But not interested enough to actually, you you, seek it out and listen to it.  It appears to be the mystery as much as anything that I am drawn to.

Yes, there are moments where it sounds like the 14 piece band happened to be tuning up while the mic was live.  No, there really isn’t a cohesive sound on display.  But I don’t care.

I kind of love it.

Next Week:  Camaron De La Isla – Le Leyenda Del Tiempo

Owned before blogging? No.  (12 of 154 = 8%)
Heard before blogging? No.  (21 of 154 = 14%)
Recommend? Yes. (129 of 154 = 84%)

[140] Jeff Buckley – Grace

10 Dec

When a cover of a song as good as Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” does not sound at all out of place on an album otherwise comprised of originals, the result is going to be special.

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The mid-to-late ’90s was a very strange time for me, musically.

I simply wasn’t actively listening to new music anywhere near the mainstream, instead only discovering new stuff in small clubs played by bands who no one but me (and just maybe the performers themselves) still remember.  Newly returned to New York City, I was working in a comic store where I either listened to my own eclectic cassettes or Classic Rock radio.  I was shooting pool in East Village bars where the jukeboxes played familiar and comforting CDs.  I was only at home long enough to catch up on sleep and write papers for my Master’s classes, playing old mix tapes or watching B5 and Sports Night reruns.

For these reason I did not encounter Grace, although it would not have been at all out of place.

If I was still a part of any scene that listened to new music back then, Jeff Buckley would have been someone I listened to.  He hits all of the accents I tend to love in my Rock – polished soundscapes, ranging vocals, power and precision in equal measure.

So it is a shame that I feel like I have missed the boat here.

Buckley just doesn’t appeal to me today the way he would have done to my 20-something psyche.  This is not to say that I do not enjoy what I hear, that I am not glad to finally have the excuse to explore out this one-and-sadly-done album.

Instead, I just have a different relationship to music today.  I don’t pore over liner notes memorizing lyrics anymore – who has time?  I don’t dance around night clubs the way I once did – much as I’d still love to go dancing, I find I’d rather be with my girls at home, playing a boardgame with one of the 1,000 recordings playing over Sonos.

I understand the hype that Buckley generated, even before his early demise.  I appreciate the craft on display, the obvious talent, the sense of history and gravity with which every song is performed.

So I feel an appropriate melancholy that I did not connect with this when it might really have affected me.

Grace is never going to be a favorite album, but it will certainly be one that I revisit, one that enters my rotation of the new discoveries which I find I want to hear again.

Next week: Lord Buckley – His Royal Hipness

Owned before blogging? No.  (12 of 140 = 9%)
Heard before blogging? No.  (20 of 140 = 14%)
Recommend? Yes. (116 of 140 = 83%)

[139] Anton Bruckner – Symphony No 7 in E Major

4 Dec

After a slow and steady build, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s recording of Anton Bruckner’s most famous work reveals a bright and uplifting composition – nuanced, layered and wonderful.

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I instantly enjoy this sound, this leisurely exploration of a melody like a sunrise.  The quality of the production and performance gives the intimacy of a concert hall through the precise wonder of hi-tech speakers or headphones.

The tempo is consistent and comforting throughout, allowing the listener to fall through the musical page and picture the personal imagery so strongly suggested by these sweeping strokes of sound.  Everything here is vibrant and lively, crisp and precise without ever losing all the joy and spontaneity you could ever wish for in a symphony.

It breathes.

Moon describes some of what is heard here as “ominous”, but the word I prefer (also used by Moon) is “thoughtful.”

Brucker allows the music and musicians the time and space to build and grow and explore, never hurrying, never stalling.  It is quite a feat, and worthy of your listening time.

Next Week:  Jeff Buckley – Grace

Owned before blogging? No.  (12 of 139 = 9%)
Heard before blogging? No.  (20 of 139 = 14%)
Recommend? Yes. (115 of 139 = 83%)

[123] Johannes Brahms – Sonatas for Cello & Piano, Opp. 38, 99, 108

14 Aug

This may have been exactly what I needed right now.

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In the midst of a hectic and at times overwhelming summer, these contemplative and compassionate tones are literally music to my ears.  Both piano and cello are beautiful in tone and melody, interacting playfully and mournfully – sometimes simultaneously.

For Classical pieces, they sound decidedly modern, the interplay seeming almost Jazz-like.

All here is grace and fluidity which clearly must be a good thing.  It is never obvious who has the lead – the two instruments, the two instrumentalists share the stage equally and effortlessly, revealing a give and take that evokes a powerful sense of balance and harmony.

And the melody!  Each tune tells a story, expressive and enveloping, with enough depth to withstand endless exploration and examination.  I may still be faking it when it comes to the Classics, but I certainly do know what I like when I hear it.

If you believe that you don’t like Classical music, if you have no idea where to start, you could do far worse than taking a listen to these accessible and hugely enjoyable tunes performed with a warmth and comfort which, to my mind, make them essential.

Next Week: Johannes Brahms – The Four Symphonies

Owned before blogging? No. (11 of 123 = 9%)
Heard before blogging? No. (19 of 123 = 15%)
Recommend? Yes. (102 of 123 = 83%)

[120] Boukman Eksperyans – Kalfou Danjere

24 Jul

Long ago, watching Fame on TV (whether the movie or the series I no longer remember), one of the characters said a line which has stuck with me ever since.  “Timing is everything.”

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Of course plenty of others have used the line before and since, but as if to prove the point, this particular delivery is the one that has stayed with me for decades.

Which brings us to Boukman Eksperyans.

I’m not quite sure what I would make of these light and airy, percussion driven melodies in the depth of a Winter morning, on a crisp Fall evening, or a wet Spring night.  But here and now, on a warm July afternoon, with a slight breeze and just enough humidity to let you know this could only be Summer, the rhythms and harmonies are perfect.

This is less high octane that the good Juju of King Sunny Ade, but no less pure Summer music, at home hanging in the air over a barbeque in the sun.  It is a much more modern sound, featuring plenty of history and tradition, but also fully embracing modern production techniques and influences.

So it is jarring to discover that these beautiful songs are in fact barely-veiled protest songs about corruption and lies.

Rarely has revolution sounded so sweet.

Next Week: David Bowie – The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars

Owned before blogging? No. (10 of 120 = 8%)
Heard before blogging? No. (18 of 120 = 15%)
Recommend? Yes. (99 of 120 = 83%)

[113] Bonnie “Prince” Billy – I See A Darkness

5 Jun

Unexpectedly sweet and haunting, I See A Darkness is a small quiet gem hidden in the weeds and wreckage of the late 90s music scene – cool, calm, contemplative.

AKA Will Oldham

AKA Will Oldham

Everything about this should turn me off – the artist recording under multiple names, the ugly and offputting album cover, even the era it comes from.  I had very definite opinions on the music of this era, had pinned my flag quite vocally and visibly to the glam scene that was all but eradicated by the rise of grunge and later of whiny, 20-something singer-songwriters.

While I See A Darkness clearly falls into this second category, it somehow catches me just right.  Almost against my will the gentle melodies soothe some of the bitterness I am still carrying almost two decades later, and the healing – perhaps – can begin.

There are hints of REM in the harmonies, an authentic Folk twang in the vocals, even an early Counting Crows whine at the top of Oldham’s vocal range, but despite the apparently explicit influences the result is something clean and new.

Each time the album ends, the silence lingers longer than expected, and when I suddenly realize I have been without music for a time, my instict again and again is to press play once more on this strange but alluring set.

There is a comfort here, made bizzare by the subject matter of songs with titles like “Another Day Full Of Dread”, “Death To Everyone”, “Today I Was An Evil One” and the relentlessly catchy title track.

I See A Darkness is never going to get me singing along, let alone dancing around a room, but it has a place in my collection.  It deserves the opportunity to join yours.

Next Week:  Boogie Down Productions – By All Means Necessary

Owned before blogging? No. (10 of 113 = 9%)
Heard before blogging? No. (17 of 113 = 15%)
Recommend? Yes. (93 of 113 = 82%)

[110] Bloque – Bloque

15 May

I am ready to recommend this recording halfway through the first mesmerizing track.

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Starting slowly with a trance-like club intro, gradually the cymbals and guitar begin some psychedelic noodling before the snare drums kick in and the guitar lays down a concrete groove.  We’re on our way, and I’m already fully on board.

But immediately all is not straightforward.  The time signature has a slight hitch, forcing the rhythm into strange shapes, keeping the whole thing driving forward with far more urgency than the otherwise moderate tempo might suggest.

By this time keyboards and vocals have been added to the mix and, simply put, it’s a party.

Throughout this first song – “Undecimo Poder” – and indeed throughout the entire album, heavily distorted guitar fills and solos peek through the veneer of . . . whatever it is that happens to be going on at the time.  The styles being jumbled together here are so varied, so wandering and interesting, but it is this 90s guitar rock aesthetic that ties the package into a coherent whole.

Sometimes it is party rock in the vein of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, sometimes introspective mood pieces a la Pink Floyd, and all interspersed with occasional mad Frank Zappa-esque flourishes.  Bloque is certainly never boring.  The band plays with rhythm and emotion in tightly performed and highly polished musical soundscapes, each song wandering far beyond the scope of a typical rock single without ever threatening to outstay its welcome.

There are moments that bring to mind The Doors, others that reflect a Beatles influence – in fact every few minutes offers up another peek at what the players listened to as kids – but the consistent guitar sound as well as the deliberate emphasis on creating intricate rhythms ensure that Bloque has a recognizable style all their own.

This would have fit right in with the bulk of what I was listening to when it was released in 1998, owing as it does so much to the best Rock from the preceding decades.

Do I even need to say it at this point?

I love this, and would never have encountered it if not for finding Tom Moon’s book in a charity book fair.

Next Week: Fiddler On The Roof – Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick

Owned before blogging? No. (10 of 110 = 9%)
Heard before blogging? No. (16 of 110 = 15%)
Recommend? Yes. (91 of 110 = 83%)

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