Sweet Relief II -- Gravity of the Situation: Songs of Vic Chesnutt
The second of what is sure to be a series, this star-studded, politically correct benefit/tribute album showcases the music of Athens-based songwriter Vic Chesnutt. Using a wheelchair as a result of a car accident, Chesnutt is a legend around Athens, worshiped by virtually the entire community, most notably the boys in R.E.M.
Sweet Relief II gives a good indication why. Chesnutt's songs are simply told stories, rich in melody and nuance. Hard to screw up, in other words. His own performance style, appropriately, straddles country and folk.
The thirteen artists here attempt more ornate covers of his compositions, with decidedly mixed results. No doubt the finest cut is turned in by Live, whose intense rendition of "Supernatural" recalls Pearl Jam's reworking of Victoria William's "Crazy Mary" for Sweet Relief I. The song begins with a soft guitar strum and singer Ed Kowalczyk's gentle croon, before building to an all-out jam. Guitars clang and buzz, Kowalczyk wails, and drums bang out like artillery rounds.
R.E.M. offers a yeoman's effort on the wonderfully droll "Sponge." Peter Buck -- a guitarist not known for power solos -- manages to wring some genuine menace out of his fret board, while Michael Stipe's brooding contralto proclaims "the world is a sponge," to a slinky backbeat. Smashing Pumpkins and Red Red Meat team up for an intriguing turn on "Sad Peter Pan." A kabuki whistle and a wash of strings give way to roaring guitars, while shimmering strokes of a high hat make time for Billy Corgan's spaced-out tenor.
Less successful is Sparklehorse's annoying interpretation of "West of Rome," which is marred by a ridiculous experimental intro that features what sounds like the whining of an electric drill. Soul Asylum's bombastic version of "When I Ran Off and Left Her" manages to bleed the song of its chief asset -- understatement.
This, actually, is true of most of the more elaborate arrangements, which lean too heavy on steel pedal and jacked-up rhythm to capture the subtlety of Chesnutt's yarns. That may be just as well. An album including Madonna (who provides ho-hum harmony for brother-in-law Joe Henry) and Hootie & the Blowfish (who help Nanci Griffith mangle the title track) is obviously not built for low-key appeal.
The blissful exception to this rule is Mary Margaret O'Hara's brave take on "Florida." It's just the singer warbling Chesnutt's hilarious lyrics, a bit of bass guitar, and the occasional saw at a violin. The song manages to capture the essence of Chesnutt, an artist, in the end, whose quirky charms may be fun to elaborate but are nearly impossible to imitate.
-- Steven Almond
(Touch and Go)
Following up their brilliant self-titled album from last year had to be a daunting task for Australia's Dirty Three, considering the structural limits of a guitar-drum-violin trio. Expand on that album? Forget it. Dirty Three was about as expansive as punk-based music has ever gotten, with three-way tension that built into towering melody, then exploded. What was left?
Well, a couple things, it turns out. On Horse Stories's opening cut -- "1000 Miles" -- Warren Ellis has his violin in mourning, letting it sag and moan until you feel like you're listening to the weirdest honky-tonk weeper ever recorded. On "Sue's Last Ride," Ellis starts in on a riff midsong, then widens it until it's tearing everything apart in a squawking frenzy. On the third song, "Hope," Ellis turns the bow over and inserts a few lilting moments into the squall.
But that's about it. Nothing else here is particularly new or exciting. Other than "Horse," where Ellis restrains himself and Mick Turner lays out a hypnotic guitar figure, the band doesn't create the same tension they did last time out. The slow ones ("Red," "I Knew It Would Come to This") never build to anything, and the fast one never combusts into the old snarling caterwaul. And that's disappointing because, despite the limits of their configuration, these guys have enough ideas to keep making interesting music for as long as they choose. At their best they use these limits to great advantage, conjuring a suffocating tension inside a primal, stripped-down sound. But that's all they have this time -- a sound.
-- Stephen Tignor
I Lived to Tell It All
Borrowing its title from Jones's recent autobiography, this is supposed to be the uncompromising honky-tonk album the great man has been holding back. While the feeling and the instrument are intact, the material on I Lived to Tell It All is steeped in cliche. All the broken marriages and barroom evenings you could wish for are present, tied for the most part to verbal hooks so numbingly mindless it's a surprise the master doesn't break up in chortles midway through 'em. I mean, "With hundred-proof memories, you don't think and drive"? Ack.
"Honky Tonk Song" makes a joke out of the old story about Jones driving his riding mower to the liquor store after wife Tammy Wynette hid his car keys. "Billy B. Bad" is a weak slap at Nineties' hillbilly video-chic. Worse are the pathetic backing tracks on several cuts. The countrypolitan keyboards and strings on "It Ain't Gonna Worry My Mind" are more sugary than anything Billy Sherrill ever ladled on a Jones track. This is hardly a total washout, given the strength of numbers like "Back Down to Hung Up on You" and "The Lone Ranger," but those in search of Jones's greatness won't get a full dose here.
-- Rickey Wright
(ECM New Series)
Estonian-born composer Arvo Part rocketed to international prominence in 1984 with the release of the album Tabula Rasa. Note-surfeited listeners were ready for what is now called "spiritual minimalism," or, as the composer describes it, the elimination of everything extraneous from music. What remains is what Part calls the "tintinnabuli" style (derived from the Latin word for bells), in which simple melodic structures are moved around and combined like modular furniture. Spirituality also remains an integral component of Part's work, a trait that led to some of his work being banned by Soviet commissars in the Sixties.
This release contains the first recordings of three new or newly revised works. The longest, "Litany," was commissioned and first performed by the Oregon Bach Festival in 1994. Written for four male soloists and a small choir and orchestra, this work assigns one of 24 prayers, written by the Greek prelate St. John Chrysostom in the year 398, to an hour of the day. ("Oh Lord, shelter me from certain men, from demons and passions, and from any other unbecoming thing," which sounds like the work of Anne Sexton, must have been intended for 2:00 a.m.) Like the rising of the moon and then the sun, Part twice powerfully raises the music from supplication to affirmation.
The other two works are nonvocal. "Psalom"is small, simple, and devotional in nature, and "Trisagon" ("Dedicated to the parish of the Prophet Elias in Ilomantsi on the occasion of its 500th anniversary") takes in first small, then bigger breaths of Eastern Orthodox-inspired faith.
The excellent performances are by Estonian and Lithuanian groups, and the only fault with ECM New Series's presentation is the characteristic omission from the booklet of any information about these unfamiliar works. Part's music, however, largely speaks for itself, and no more loudly than when at its most quiet.
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-- Raymond Tuttle
Run Rhythm Run
It's amazing that, more than thirty years after the ganja-tossed salad days of Jamaican ska and rock steady, wondrous and wonderful obscurities are still being turned up in tape vaults and collector's corners. Witness the eighteen breathtaking instrumental gems assembled on Run Rhythm Run, all culled from the stacks and stacks of unissued sides recorded in the Sixties by reggae pioneer Duke Reid. These atmospheric marvels -- cut with Reid's stellar stable of musicians, including Sugar Belly, King Cannon, and Tommy McCook's Supersonics -- chart the all-encompassing musical scope of vintage island bop. From prepsychedelic fuzz-guitar romps to the aptly named "Psychedelic Reggae," from the slinky Southern soul groove on "Work Your Soul" to the from-the-cosmos ambiance of "Bang Belly," Run Rhythm Run makes you wonder how such brilliant sides could languish in the dark for so long. And as the last cut ("Moody") shimmies to a close, you'll also wonder just what else is lingering in Reid's vault.
-- John Floyd