Sharps & Flats: Elvis Presley


Douglas Wolk
March 10, 1999 10:43PM (UTC)

On the heels of last year's critically acclaimed Charlie Feathers
retrospective, this is another comprehensive look at a distinctive
mid-'50s "hillbilly cat" who recorded for the Sun label.
Elvis Presley of Memphis, Tenn., has long been a cult favorite among rockabilly fans, and
"Sunrise" lovingly compiles all his known recordings -- a batch of singles he
made for Sun in '54 and '55, a bunch of alternate takes, some distant live
recordings from wobbly, hissy old acetates and a few songs he cut as a present
for his mother before he got a record contract. He actually scored a sizable
country hit with "I Forgot to Remember to Forget," one of only four tracks
with drums here (the rest are feverishly raw, stripped-down
recordings backed only by stand-up bass and a guitar or two), but
subsequently drifted into the nether world of collectors' want lists.
(Presley went on to appear in a handful of B-movies, and was
reportedly still performing as late as the mid-'70s.)

Presley's got a tremendous, commanding voice, bellowing and
yodeling and hiccuping all at once, bearing down on every syllable with the
sureness of unfiltered machismo. The most striking thing about "Sunrise,"
though, is the range of material he tries with almost uniform success --
bluegrass, jump blues, goopy country ballads, the odd show tune, a bit of
ragtime, even LaVern Baker's R&B hit "Tweedly Dee." His repertoire reveals him
as a far more eclectic listener than most of his contemporaries were, and the
sheer force of his intensely stylized vocals bulldozes over genre
distinctions. Even when he's got insubstantial piffle like "I'm Left, You're
Right, She's Gone" to sing, he treats it like a seduction and a call to arms
and a chance to display his plumage, and electric guitarist Scotty
Moore complements Presley's rickety-click strumming with an
invigorated twang. And on the set's best tracks, particularly the howling,
sexy, death-obsessed "Mystery Train," he's got the kind of supernatural
presence of the most mysterious singers on Harry Smith's "Anthology of American Folk Music." Kudos to RCA for digging up this lost gem of a
singer.

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Plácido Domingo, Renée Fleming

Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim


STAR CROSSED LOVERS | LONDON

BY STACEY KORS | As the classical "theme" CD continues to increase in popularity (these days
they run the gamut from "Classical Erotica" to "Classical Princess: Music for
Dress-Up"), some of the world's greatest orchestras have begun to jump on the
bandwagon in their concert programming. Last year, conductor Daniel Barenboim
and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra presented an evening titled "Star Crossed
Lovers," a multimedia event featuring theatrical readings
by British actors Lynn Redgrave and Timothy Dalton and musical numbers
by two of opera's most celebrated singers, Plácido Domingo and Renée
Fleming.

While the concert was recently aired in its entirety on Public Television's
"Great Performances," the newly released CD of the same name was left to the
province of Domingo and Fleming alone.
Despite looking more like father and daughter than lovers, Domingo
and Fleming make quite a convincing and captivating vocal pair. The two offer
a well-rounded program of duets from popular romantic works such as
Bernstein's "West Side Story," Gounod's "Faust," Verdi's "Otello," and Leher's
"The Merry Widow," all of which are superbly sung. Domingo also does a
beautiful job with some Spanish-language love songs by Carlos Gardel and
Federico Moreno Torroba, as well as "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz" from Lehar's "The Land of
Smiles." But Fleming's parallel offerings -- three ballads by Duke Ellington
-- fall dismally short of the mark. (These works, by the way, are "bonus
tracks" on the CD along with the Torroba, and are not related to the theme of
star-crossed love.) The soprano's interpretations of "In a Sentimental Mood,"
"Do Nothin' Till You Hear from Me" and "Prelude to a Kiss" are painfully
overwrought and poorly phrased, lacking all the sensitivity and subtlety that
make Fleming's operatic portrayals so exquisite. This talented singer
should stick to what she does best, and keep the jazz bug at bay.

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Tim Hagans

ANIMATION/IMAGINATION | BLUE NOTE

BY EZRA GALE | Attempts at fusing electronic beats and production with live jazz
instrumentation have so far come up mostly empty. By giving us
atmospheric horn noodling over techno beats, they've inadvertently advanced
the notion that jazz and electronica just don't mix well. But trumpeter Tim
Hagans' new Blue Note release, "Animation/Imagination," does just the
opposite. His fusion of jazz concepts, rhythms and instruments with electronic
elements (in this case, drum 'n' bass programming courtesy of Matthew Backer,
DJ Kingsize and DJ Smash) is so seamless and intuitive that it shows us
how linked these genres really are.

It's evident right off the bat: The opening "The Original Drum and
Bass," a short and swinging hard-bop workout with Hagans riffing off
acoustic bassist Ira Coleman and drummer Billy Kilson, morphs right into the
title cut, where furious programmed beats mesh perfectly with trumpet, guitar
and live drums. From then on it's a wild, mixed ride -- some tracks have
Hagans and others (mostly guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and producer-soprano
saxophonist Bob Belden) blowing over preprogrammed rhythm tracks, some
incorporate live bass and drums over the programming for a thrilling effect,
but all the way through the inspiration is boundless -- it's like watching
someone make fresh tracks on newly fallen snow.

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Which isn't to say it hasn't been done before: Though a step for
Hagans, whose previous albums have all been solid but mainly standard jazz
outings, "Animation/Imagination" is indebted to the 1970s electric work of
Miles Davis. The Miles connection isn't accidental: Belden is actively
involved in reissuing Davis' albums of that period for Columbia, and Hagans
himself is candid about his reverence for electric Miles in the liner notes.
It would be easy, in fact, to say that "Animation" is just '70s Miles with
updated beats and technology (of course, most drum 'n' bass records out there
could be tagged that way too). But that misses the point. Hagans is poking
around in new territory while he keeps one foot firmly planted in the ground
Miles staked out 20 years ago.

It will be a shame, though, if "Animation/Imagination" gets lost in
the negative-crossover land that kept Davis' '70s albums out of print for 20
years (too electrified for jazz-heads, too improvisational and
organic for rock-heads), because this is wonderfully creative music
that begs to be heard. So if Hagans gets rejected by the straight-ahead jazz
crowd that has embraced him so far (a risk), hopefully some drum 'n' bass DJ
somewhere will spin this and discover how far-reaching "Animation
Improvisation" really is.


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-->Sleater-Kinney Live

GREAT AMERICAN MUSIC HALL, SAN FRANCISCO | MARCH 3, 1999

BY JEFF STARK | There she was, Sleater-Kinney's Corin Tucker, planted at the mike all
icy cool, belting out songs with fever and passion. She was onstage at San
Francisco's gilded Great American Music Hall, almost through "Words and Guitar." At the end of the second verse, her eyes half-shut and
looking no farther than the mike stand, Tucker somehow spotted something
hurtling toward her. She seemed to fold into herself for a quick second. The
thing, a big purple something or other, grazed the top of her head and landed
between her and her guitar amp. Concentration temporarily crushed, she lost
the end of the verse. Carrie Brownstein, still riffing away on her black
Rickenbacher guitar, threw her an "Are you OK?" glance. Without missing a
beat, Janet Weiss peeped over her cymbals to see if everything was all right.
Tucker composed herself and finished the song, the last of the trio's main
set.

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As Sleater-Kinney returned for the first encore a few minutes later, a girl
in the audience shouted for the trio to examine the big purple thing lumped on
the stage. "It's a piñata!" she shouted.

"Is there candy?" asked Tucker.

"Is there chocolate?" asked Brownstein.

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"Yes!" the girl shouted again.

Brownstein picked up the lumpy, oversized purple piñata -- which was
shaped like a big guitar with a floppy neck -- and broke it open. Silver
Hershey's Kisses spilled onto the floor. Brownstein gathered a handful and
threw them into the crowd. Of course Sleater-Kinney had been tossing out candy
all night, mostly pieces of "The Hot Rock" like "Get Up," with its whoosh of new love,
the intertwined guitars of "Burn, Don't Freeze" and the riveting morality
myth "The End of You." The crowd, a sold-out 600-person throng of bouncing
teenagers and craning hipsters, was happy to gobble it up, along with morsels
of the first three S-K records.

On all four of their full-length records, Sleater-Kinney are charged. Live,
they're explosive. At the Great American Wednesday night, Tucker wailed
vibrato, Brownstein shouted. The glances darted back and forth, the two
finished each other's guitar licks. Tucker was cool, all eyebrows and big
breaths. Brownstein was ecstatic, hopping around the stage, jerking her guitar
up on the downstroke, windmilling just because it was fun. Weiss, pounding and
shuffling and crashing, braided them together.

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There's something about the way the three women from Olympia, Wash.,
create a sort of musical rapture so tight, so intense, that anything out of
place glares; something in the way that each member of the band watches the
other; something about how Sleater-Kinney matters enough that a girl in the
audience would smuggle into a rock show a purple guitar piñata full of
Hershey's Kisses.

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XTC

APPLE VENUS | TVT RECORDS

BY SETH MNOOKIN | There are moments on XTC's new "Apple Venus, Volume 1" --Andy Partridge's
soaring invocations on the album opener, "River of Orchids,'' or the staccato
rumblings and overflowing, pitch-perfect pop sensibility of "Easter Theatre,"
say -- when it is hard to believe that this is a band that has not released
any new material in seven years, a band whose best-known work occurred more
than a decade ago, a band that has been around for 25 (twenty-five!) years and
has not performed live since its lead singer had a nervous breakdown in the
early 1980s.

Hard to believe, because XTC sound, as always, so amazingly vibrant, so
timeless (in a kind of après-Beatles, neo-garde, postmodern kind of way), so
unlike a band that has been more and less (usually more) dormant since Guns
n' Roses were the coolest new kids on the block.

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Musically, "Apple Venus" builds on and departs from previous XTC efforts: XTC's signature meticulous, dense arrangements,
celestial harmonies and deliciously spun lyrics all get prominent play. The
band leans more heavily on layered, baroque orchestration than it has in
the past, with string quartets and carefully choreographed horn parts bobbing
and weaving throughout the album. Indeed, the harsh angularity of previous XTC
efforts is considerably tempered, replaced by a lush sophistication. The
albums best tracks swell with a rising intensity accompanied by Partridge's
inimitable, driving nasal twang. "Apple Venus" also features several jaunty
acoustic numbers, exemplified by Partridge's schoolboy-sweet "I'd Like That"
or Colin Moulding's "When I'm 64"-ish "Fruit Nut."

Perhaps the biggest evolution is lyrical: On "Apple Venus," Partridge
isn't singing about the drugged-out glories of LSD, but about the trials and
tribulations of what has been a difficult decade. On "Your Dictionary," a
disarming acoustic number, Partridge, who has been busy with a divorce and a
host of health problems, drawls "F-U-C-K ... is that how you spell friend in
your dictionary?" Not that all the songs are pissed-off: The album's last
track, the almost maddeningly sweet "The Last Balloon," is both a measured
celebration of childhood and pained warning to children. "Climb aboard, you
menfolk," Partridge sings, buoyed by ethereal trumpet lines, "leave all that to
your former lives."

"Apple Venus," which promises to have a companion soon, is a logical next
step for a band that has never done well with logical next
steps. It's not likely to pick up many new converts for the band -- XTC has
always been too idiosyncratic for widespread appeal -- but should sate the
fanatics who have been pining for some new material since
the Bush administration.


Douglas Wolk

Douglas Wolk is the author of the books "Reading Comics" and "James Brown's Live at the Apollo," and has contributed to a variety of periodicals, including The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, and The Believer.

MORE FROM Douglas Wolk

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