Sharps & Flats

Sharps & Flats is a daily music review in Salon Magazine

Published September 30, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

While opera stars like Dawn Upshaw and Thomas Hampson have done much to revive interest in the American song, it is nonetheless rare to find American singers making albums of American opera arias. And who's to blame them? After all, most people would be hard-pressed to come up with enough repertory for an entire CD. But there are, in fact, some noteworthy set pieces out there just waiting to be heard; and who better to give voice to this long-neglected American music than soprano Renie Fleming, who has performed in the world premieres of American operas such as John Corigliano's "The Ghosts of Versailles," Conrad Susa's "Dangerous Liaisons" and, just a couple of weeks ago at the San Francisco Opera, Andri Previn's "A Streetcar Named Desire."

"I Want Magic!" is a superbly sung collection of highly lyrical arias from mostly forgotten American works, including Bernard Herrmann's "Wuthering Heights," Douglas Moore's "The Ballad of Baby Doe," Gian Carlo Menotti's "The Medium," Samuel Barber's "Vanessa" and Carlisle Floyd's "Susannah," which Fleming will introduce at the Metropolitan Opera this spring. It also features, as its title track, the world-premiere recording of "I Want Magic!" -- Blanche Dubois' haunting aria from "Streetcar." If there's one disappointment on this CD, it's Fleming's rendition of "Glitter and Be Gay" from Leonard Bernstein's comic operetta "Candide." Though meant to be sung in an exaggerated manner, it is done so here to the point of embarrassment. But it seems a minor mistake in the context of this otherwise exquisite offering.

In "Streetcar," Blanche tells her suitor Mitch that "magic's what I try to give people." With one spectacular recording of arias after another, Fleming succeeds in doing just that.

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Robbie Fulks

-->BY MARK ATHITAKIS | "Fuck This Town," Robbie Fulks sang about Nashville on last year's "South Mouth," and he meant it. Here's a songwriter and guitarist who, across two brilliant indie records, finally tapped into all the fear and dread and tragic ironies that mark the greatest country music, with a voice that matches flattop-era George Jones, and Music City wouldn't give him the time of day. But like Bob Wills said, time changes everything: Not only was "Let's Kill Saturday Night" recorded in Nashville for a major label, but Fulks got genuine country heroes helping out, with Lucinda Williams adding backup vocals for the bitter ballad "Pretty Little Poison" and NRBQ's Al Anderson assisting on the honky-tonk "You Shouldn't Have."

The irony here is that Fulks is now using his Tennessee meal ticket to focus more on country rock than straight country, using his harsh, booming voice to grand effect on "Little King," "She Must Think I Like Poetry" and the magnificent title track, which meshes themes of love, joy and desperation in a perfect package; Alan Jackson's going to beat down the doors to anesthetize it, just you wait. Fulks is at his best, though, when he sings quietly, and of desperation alone. "God Isn't Real" renders an ocean of loss and fear, and "Night Accident" is the ultimate country-song tragedy: Lying on a railroad track is a car that flipped off a highway, filled with a dead driver and a trapped passenger who gets to tell the rest of the story. And while you can guess how the story ends if you've ever heard a country song, Fulks' voice does what only great country songs do: It keeps you wishing that things would turn out for the better, but in the absence of hope, it keeps you listening.

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Jerry Seinfeld

BY DOUGLAS WOLK | Comedy records have it tough. They have to be funny, but they can't stop there. To work as records, they have to get funnier with multiple hearings. Otherwise, you might as well be listening to a book-on-tape: What's the point of playing it twice? That's probably why very few of the best comedy records are straight-up transcriptions of stand-up routines -- and the few that are, like the ones from Richard Pryor to Steve Martin to Emo Phillips, are gems more because of their timing than because of their content.

So pity poor Jerry Seinfeld, who goes into his first album unarmed with most of what made "Seinfeld" great, specifically its cast of perfectly synched actors and their knack for interacting with their environment. Seinfeld's stand-up routine is a neurotic, barely modulated rush -- warmed-over Borscht Belt at best, amusing cousin at a party at worst. It can be funny in the moment, but it doesn't reward especially close attention. His forte is the keen little observation about something quotidian or trivial; the genius of his show was to put those observations into all the characters' mouths, but presented as a one-man monologue, they're nothing that every other comedian on the stand-up circuit hasn't already worked to death (track titles on "I'm Telling You" include "Air Travel," "Late TV," "Doctors" -- essentially, the comedy equivalents of "Louie Louie").

Seinfeld is more verbally dexterous than a lot of his mike-and-spotlight brethren, and the variations on old chestnuts come out smoothly (in his spiel about how men and women will never understand each other, etc.: "Women have two types of orgasms -- the actual ones, and the ones that they make up on their own. And I can give you the male point of view on this, which is: We're fine with it"). Still, he never quite manages to come up with a turn of phrase that's worth remembering, or a way of delivering it that ranks with the stand-up greats.

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Joni Mitchell
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BY BILL HAYES | "I'm a runaway from the record biz," Joni Mitchell sings in the title track from "Taming the Tiger," the 20th release in her 30-year career, "from the hoods in the hood and the whiny white kids." But for the moment Mitchell has returned, and she has rarely sounded better or more passionate. On the first half of the disk, the 54-year-old artist is in a feisty mood: Recounting an argument with an industry "suit," "Lead Balloon" kicks off with Mitchell crying, "Kiss my ass!" and throwing her drink at him. "Must be the Irish blood," she adds, unapologetic. The emotions shift with "The Crazy Cries of Love." A sly, playful tune about the noise-making of love-making, it captures her voice at its most sensuous. "Stay In Touch" is a delicate bid for contact -- presumably, to the daughter with whom she's been reunited -- both tentative and hopeful. In "Face Lift," unexpected humor lightens the story of a tense encounter with her mother. And "My Best to You" is Mitchell's touching rendition of an old Sons of the Pioneers tune -- a deeply felt, sentimental farewell.

"Taming the Tiger" ends on a bittersweet note, with an instrumental version of the title song. Plucking her idiosyncratically tuned guitar, she strips the song to its bones, with anger, joy, sorrow and wit. Mitchell, who has long considered herself a jazz vocalist (even before her 1979 album "Mingus"), here effortlessly proves herself a seasoned one. "Taming the Tiger's" suite of songs is among the loveliest she has ever recorded.

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Soul Coughing
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BY EMILY ZUZIK | It's hard to believe that while working as a doorman for New York City's Knitting Factory, Soul Coughing front man M. Doughty had all but given up on musical stardom. Five years, one "Super Bon Bon" and hundreds of shows later, the band is one of the best in the industry. And "El Oso," its third release, primes it for the international recognition it deserves.

With the return of Tchad Blake, who produced the group's 1994 debut, "Ruby Vroom," "El Oso" is Soul Coughing's most accomplished album to date. The band continues to blend multiple musical genre in tracks ranging from the dark "Maybe I'll Come Down" to the driving beats of "Monster Man" to the radio-friendly single "Circles." Fans may miss the quirky pace of albums past, but the newest multi-tiered compositions go beyond previous efforts.

Musically, "El Oso" takes the traditional deep, low-end bass, snappy drums and wild sampling from "Vroom" and 1996's "Irresistible Bliss" and adds a new element of U.K. jungle beats. Drum 'n' bass sounds pop up throughout the album courtesy of maestro Optical, who co-produced "Blame" and "The Incumbent." Doughty pushes each track with an amazing range of rhythmic, almost mantralike, lyrics. Combined with his powerful, moody melodies, stream-of-consciousness lines like "Pensacola's" "waves in which you drown me shouting" take Soul Coughing's songwriting from mere modern rock storytelling to exciting sound composition.

By Stacey Kors

Stacey Kors is a freelance classical music writer in San Francisco.

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