Sharps & Flats is a daily music review in Salon Magazine

By Alex Pappademas

Published November 18, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Face it -- the girl can sing. Forget about the see-through dress and the line about the bacon-and-eggs smiley face in "You Were Meant For Me." Forget about the poetry book. Please. There's only one reason to listen to Jewel, and it's a good one -- that voice. The way it reaches keening highs and white-girl-gospel lows, pouring out in tender creaks and parenthetical asides. And throughout "Spirit," Jewel's second album, that voice has an unfailing loveliness.

So it's a shame that all she does with it is cop a platitude. "Fat Boy" is a tenderly observed Shawn Colvin moment, "Barcelona" (featuring the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea, apparently a longtime friend, on bass) a very Joni postcard from the edge. And on "Jupiter," Jewel's nonverbal vocals follow the gulping beat of a tabla, and it's as slinky as the breakdown from TLC's "Creep." But Jewel spends most of "Spirit" tripping over her good intentions like an out-of-her-depth middle child, trying to heal the world with Shoebox Greetings. "If I could tell the world just one thing," she almost whispers at the beginning of "Hands," "it would be 'We're all OK.'" Sappy, sure. But the way she sings it, you almost won't mind.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Roberto Alagna, Angela Gheorghiu, Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Claudio Abbado

-->By Stacey Kors | If there were ever a case of life imitating art, it's the love story of husband-and-wife singing sensations Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu. The couple first met in 1992 when cast as the love-struck Rodolfo and Mimi in Covent Garden's production of "La Bohhme." Both young singers were married to others at the time, and at the end of their run went their separate ways. They didn't see each other again until two years later, after the death of Alagna's wife, when they returned to Covent Garden. This time sparks flew, and it wasn't long before their onstage passion blossomed into real-life romance. They were married backstage at the Met in 1996, where, as fate would have it, they were singing "Bohhme." Both upcoming stars in their own right, together this handsome, talented pair swept the public and press off their feet.

"Verdi per due" is Alagna and Gheorghiu's second recording of duets, and proves unequivocally that the art of opera's golden couple is as remarkable as their life. It's hard to imagine a more emotionally expressive, gorgeously sung performance of Verdi's most memorable love duets, especially those from "Otello," "Aida," "Simon Boccanegra" and "I Masnadieri." Alagna and Gheorghiu possess a remarkable chemistry and are incredibly sensitive to each other as artists. Their voices, too, make for a striking combination: Alagna's pure, radiant tenor soars to thrilling effect, and is the perfect complement to Gheorghiu's darkly emotive soprano, which has the kind of veiled, velvety texture that one usually only hears in the mezzo range.

It's a bit premature to predict whether Alagna and Gheorghiu will go down in the opera annals as the next Callas and Di Stefano. For now, suffice it to say that they make breathtakingly beautiful music together.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Vic Chesnutt

By Brian Blanchfield | It's what felled Lou Barlow and Sebadoh, it strikes painfully at Will Oldham and Palace, but it happens most consistently to Vic Chesnutt. It's self-indulgence, and when it comes to love-loss, it means the saps tend to privilege the hit-or-miss surrealism of their private lyrics over the art of the song.

On his new album, "The Salesman and Bernadette," Chesnutt sacrifices the old locked-in-his-mother's-cupboard tortured freakishness to sing about a specific and adult loss of love. The result is 14 tracks of piddling about the house and hotel room, where he's too beset with loneliness to be nihilistic (or fun) anymore.

Punk-inspired, self-deprecatory, difficult folk music can be endearing when all of its elements -- the principled emasculation, the (nonetheless memorable) uncatchiness, the likewise bald literary allusions -- conspire. And "The Salesman and Bernadette" does retain some of the qualities that were so rightly in place on Chesnutt's icy, enchanting 1988 album "Little" -- hit-or-miss surrealism does, after all, get its hits in: "Last night I nearly killed myself chasing rum with rum. There were crows flying all around my head and I sure caught and ate me some" Chesnutt sings on "Square Room."

Chesnutt's compositions are more challenging here than on his last album, "About to Choke" (Capitol). There are 15 musicians, including Kurt Wagner and the brassy experimental Nashville outfit Lambchop. Lyrical flashes on songs like "Maiden" and "Scratch, Scratch, Scratch" work because they fit the accompanying instrumentation. Other tracks make one embarrassed that he implicated so many other talented musicians in his solipsistic exercise. Chesnutt plays piano while everyone else sings the lyrics of "Blanket Over the Head," here in its entirety: "We will remain ignorant, incapable of knowing. Insoluble is the problem. Curiosity, sleeping, killed the caterpillar. Curiosity, empty, is a blanket over the head."

Chesnutt has a niche closer to country than rock, and he's often compared to absurdist balladeers Joe Henry and Leonard Cohen. Cohen's famous blue raincoat may someday fit, but Chesnutt must first figure out what material is material to art.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Andras Schiff

By Michael Ullman | For many listeners, the Goldberg Variations were virtually created by Glenn Gould's 1955 recording. Before Gould, the intellectual rigor of this masterwork, with its 30 delightful variations on a charming aria, had of course been recognized; but Gould revealed its unique expressiveness and made it seem, if not contemporary, at least immediately accessible. He also made it impossible for advocates of original instruments to dismiss performances on piano. Gould had his obvious flaws, though, eccentricities of touch and accent that reflected his equally eccentric theories about Bach and music in general.

Andras Schiff plays Bach on piano with much of the expressiveness we heard in Gould, with comparable virtuosity and yet none of the eccentricity. The strengths of this 1982 performance, reissued as part of the Penguin Classics series, are immediately clear. With a warm, nuanced tone, Schiff has a way of bringing out the direction of the lines that sounds completely natural. Like Gould, he enriches his performance by shaping the subsidiary left-hand accompaniment so that it virtually sings. Whereas Gould sometimes punched out these left-hand notes as if he needed to prove that he wasn't playing Chopin, Schiff sounds more relaxed and is often truer to the few directions Bach gives in the manuscript.

The ravishing seventh variation is a Gigue, a dance in 6-8 time. Gould's version is slower than it was meant to be, but it's still magical. Schiff's performance swings charmingly, and is almost as appealing. Schiff has the required dexterity -- he can rip through the faster variations without sacrificing clarity, as we hear in the witty conversations between hands here.

Because of its status as the chosen recording of Penguin Classics editors, the disc includes a remarkably irrelevant essay by author Douglas Coupland, mostly about a visit to a baby crib manufacturer. My only other complaint is that each variation is not separately indexed. (The piece is instead divided up into six groups.) Nonetheless, this is a masterful recording that everyone should hear.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
John Lennon

By Seth Mnookin | Beatlemaniacs should appreciate the newly released four-disc "John Lennon Anthology," comprising B-sides, outtakes and home recordings. Less avid fans will be content with "Wonsaponatime," a one-disc collection of greatest misses. But discerning music lovers -- even those who rightly regard the Beatles as one of the best studio bands in the history of rock -- will pass on the whole tawdry marketing scam and be content with their dog-eared copies of "The White Album."

"Wonsaponatime" has a handful of mildly satisfying cuts, like the biting, acoustic version of "Working Class Hero" and a powerfully yearning "Baby Please Don't Go." But unlike, say, Bob Dylan's "Bootleg Series," Bruce Springsteen's new "Tracks" or the Beatles' own "Anthology" series, there's nothing here that's really essential. Consequently, both the "Lennon Anthology" and "Wonsaponatime" detract from Lennon's rich legacy. Let's face it: Lennon never cut a very imposing figure as a solo artist, and these previously rejected tracks don't pose much of an argument for overturning conventional wisdom. There's far too much of Lennon's naive, wide-eyed optimism ("God Save Oz"), which, when draped over pedestrian 4-4 melodies, can be depressing. Tracks like "Oh My Love" are too treacly, and surely we got enough of Lennon's '50s posturing without having to hear another feel-good version of "Be Bop A Lula."

Everything about "Wonsaponatime" -- from it's childish, Sly Stone-esque title to the 10-second cameo snippets of John and Yoko singing classics such as "As Time Goes By" -- feels almost grotesquely contrived. Which, for my money at least, is not how I want to remember one of the most enigmatic musicians of our time.

Alex Pappademas

MORE FROM Alex Pappademas

Related Topics ------------------------------------------