Music Review

Plethora of Plectrum Pleasures

Gary Lucas & Gods and Monsters: The Ordeal of Civility (Knitting Factory)

You know that Visa ad sporting the slogan "One card. A wealth of possibilities"? Gary Lucas is "One guitarist. A wealth of possibilities." This time out, the man who's played with Leonard Bernstein and Captain Beefheart, who's played music ranging from old-time Chinese pop songs to gutbucket blues to Wagner to brooding silent film soundtrack, and who co-wrote two of Jeff Buckley's best-known songs, convenes his eclectic rock band Gods and Monsters for a wide-ranging yet thoroughly cohering album that bounces from weird swamp boogie to acoustic blues to jazzy stomps to English folk, mostly tied together by Lucas's slippery, stinging slide guitar.

My Life an Album a Year: Classical

Here's the last of my retrospective articles inspired by my 50th birthday. It was the hardest one to write, because it involved the toughest choices in the music I love most. This is nothing like my Top 111 Composers list, where I'm relatively objective and tried to cover a representative sampling of major works; here I'm totally subjective. These are favorite recordings, and/or milestones in my listening life. So there are two sets of Chopin’s Nocturnes, and no Beethoven symphonies, and no Mozart at all. Don’t read anything into that. Going year by year, that's just how it worked out. Sviatoslav Richter is my favorite pianist, but he's not here (though if I'd been born earlier, his Prague-recorded "Appassionata" Sonata or his 1960 Carnegie Hall concert would've been included). 

The Sounds of Silence

Silent Music: Jenny Lin Plays Mompou (Steinway & Sons)

This is Mompou’s complete Música Callada plus the very compatible bonus track of “Secreto” from Impresiones intimas. Federico Mompou (1893-1987) was a Spanish composer (half French, half Catalan) who spent many years living in Paris and was part of the same scene as Poulenc, Milhaud, and others between the World Wars. He was basically a miniaturist Impressionist whose main concern was with piano sonority, with influences of Chopin, Satie, Scriabin, and some contemporaries filtered through Mompou’s highly distinctive personal style, the fully mature epitome of which is Música Callada.

My Life An Album A Year: Rock/Pop/Soul/etc.

As I wrote when I did this for jazz, my 50th birthday on March 29 put me in a retrospective mood. But rather than make lists of favorite albums that would cluster around my formative years (lots of '70s and '80s stuff), I decided to go a year at a time for a more nuanced and less obvious set of albums. Of course, I wasn't listening to any music at first, and not to albums until 1969, but we all discover some music not when it comes out, but years later when we explore territory new to us, and this list reflects that. Starting in the '80s, though, most of my choices do match my listening at that time.

My Life An Album A Year: Jazz

My 50th birthday is today, March 29, which has me feeling retrospective. I could just make lists of favorite albums, but that would mostly cluster around my formative years (lots of '70s and '80s stuff). Going a year at a time produced a more nuanced and less obvious set of albums. I’ll be doing lists for classical and rock/pop as well. Thanks for indulging me, it’s the best birthday present.

1961 - Bill Evans: Sunday at the Village Vanguard (Riverside)

Of course, in 1961 I wasn't actually listening to this album. In fact, it took me a long time to get into Bill Evans outside of his work with Miles Davis. My adverse reaction came from all his bad piano-lounge imitators biasing me against his style. Eventually I got past that and then all the poetic intensity of his playing made sense to me.

PJ Harvey's Disturbing Achievement

PJ Harvey: Let England Shake (Vagrant/Island)

Like Miles Davis, Neil Young, and David Bowie, PJ Harvey (the band and the person) often changes styles from one album to the next. Last time out, on 2007's White Chalk, came her most drastic move, abandoning the guitar in favor of piano. Though it was an interesting and artistically successful move, I doubt I'm alone in feeling relief that she’s switched back to guitar. But that doesn't mean that her new record sounds like her previous work.

In A Place Between Dreams and Waking

Soviet League: Soviet League (Angel Oven Records)

As is all too often the case, the worst and most contrived music of a year is incessantly played and pushed through the airwaves like some audio-ejected turd while far more worthy efforts have to patiently build a following through downloads, burned albums, and word of mouth before being recognized. One such secret tour de force of 2010 is the self-titled debut of Soviet League.

The Best Classical Composers List: Finale with Coda

This week I wrap up my response to Anthony Tommasini’s silly ten best composers list in The New York Times. I’m aware that on an absolute level my list is just as silly; it's not definitive (no list could be), undoubtedly omits worthy composers, etc. I write a mere paragraph when every composer here should have (and often has had) a whole book devoted to him/her. I console myself with the thought that at least my less obvious list serves a purpose by perhaps leading readers to investigate composers they haven’t gotten to yet, and by recommending recordings.

The Best Classical Composers List: This One Goes to 111

There was a furor in the classical music community over The New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini’s recent list of the ten greatest classical composers. The author himself characterized the project as "absurd." It's not that his choices were outrageous, though of course there were plenty of commentators chiming in that some of their favorites had been left off. It's that ten is an absurdly small number. One doesn’t really learn anything from such a list, and as has already been suggested, some people might get the erroneous impression that in the whole long history of classical music, there haven't been all that many great composers.

Well, I love making lists, and I'm as opinionated as the next guy, so I couldn't resist replying. But not on his terms! What's the point in repeating an absurd exercise? The first thing that was obvious was that the list would be better if it were longer, since one of the best things about lists is how they can stimulate awareness of more than "the usual suspects." Tommasini's list is, I suppose, fine as a starting point for neophytes, but it's more useful, and more fun, to explore some roads less traveled.