A YEAR IN MUSIC: ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK / BERLINER PHILARMONIKER / RAFAEL KUBELIK – Symphony No 9 "Aus Der Neuen Welt” (“From The New World”) (1974)

A YEAR IN MUSIC: 1974
Review by: Jaime Vargas Sánchez

1974 is “supposed” to be a low year in music according to the Rolling Stone Established School of Thought, but there are dozens of albums that are personal favorites of mine (War Child, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Red, It’s Too Late To Stop Now, Rejuvenation, Eduardo Bort, Señora Azul, It’s Only Rock’n’Roll…). But the most important album for me would be Rafael Kubelik’s recording of Dvorak’s Symphony nº 9, since this was the first symphonic recording I enjoyed all the way through when I was 12 years old or so. (Although I’m more familiar with Ferenc Fricsay’s recording, also in Deutsche Grammophon).

The first movement is has two main themes, the epic horns theme and the slow, American folk influenced lyrical theme, and both had a long lasting influence in the scores of classic Hollywood (and beyond – there’s a strange oboe passage that always reminds me of “Revolution 9”), and the intermediate melody that connects both is no slouch either. Nice find of Dvorak to base the development on the second theme but making it sound as epic as the first.

The second movement is probably the best known, the one based in a spiritual melody, which is one of the heights of 19th century melodicism, but I’m also very fond of the opening, those majestic crescendo chords that again sound like coming from an epic movie (I think this guy and Holst were the most pilfered by Hollywood). There’s another melody that after being introduced is developed in a marching, processional arrangement that is one of my favourite moments from the work.

The scherzo is very good; Dvorak said part of the inspiration came from Amerindian and folk songs but I also see a strong influence from the scherzo of Beethoven’s Ninth (but being that this is Dvorak’s Ninth it might be deliberate).Finally the last movement is to me the most disjointed (although its main melody is the first I knew from this work, since Miguel Ríos adapted it into a song way back in the 70s) but ends climaxing suitably in a brass pandemonium.

To sum up, one of the cornerstones of the symphonic repertoire and deservedly so. Like with Tchaikovsky, the melodic invention surpasses the structural craft, but the melodies are catchy and unforgettable.
Advertisements

Roland and Nina’s DECADES IN MUSIC: 1978 – TODD RUNDGREN – Hermit of Mink Hollow

Review by Roland Bruynesteyn
Album assigned by Nina A

Todd Rundgren has played garage rock in Nazz, Beatley pop music solo (Something/Anything? being a prime example) and proggy fusion (not unlike Mahavishnu Orchestra) in Utopia, and he produced everybody from Meatloaf to Patty Smith.
And I have a theory. With a few exceptions, songs by Todd Rundgren mostly have the same effect on me. I think that if the composition was a little better (more polished, more conventional) and his singing perhaps a little more distinctive, he would have had far greater commercial success.
At the same time, the actual arranging, playing and production is superb. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why Todd is very popular as an outside producer, but did not make it that big with his own music. Some of his solo albums or songs (such as Onomatopoeia on this album) actually suggest they’re meant to be a showcase for his producer skills, rather than being an artist in his own right. That’s my theory, and I stick with it.
However, this album contains a few of the exceptions, most notably Can We Still Be Friends, which is not just perfectly produced, it’s one of the better pop songs of the 70’s. On the whole I would consider this (power) pop, with energetic rockers and ballads that would fit Billy Joel very well and a few slightly more symphonic sounding tracks that move rather too close to Boston or Foreigner territory.
But how could anyone not like Lucky Guy, with ‘bagpipe guitar solo’? Or All the Children Sing, with its joyous refrain (very much resembling Songs of Praise by Roy Wood on Boulders)? Or the silly sound effects in Onomatopoeia? (eat that, mr Roger Waters!). Hurting for you, that might have been a major R’n’B hit if sung by Al Green? Check it out, I’d say…

Roland and Nina’s DECADES IN MUSIC: 1977 – RANDY NEWMAN – Little Criminals

Review by Roland Bruynesteyn
Album assigned by Nina A

Randy Newman shares some characteristics with the typical West Coast singer songwriters of the 70’s, apart from the fact that he sings and writes his own songs: slick production, hiring the same session musicians and covering a wide range of topics in his songs. Also, like good singer songwriting stuff, it can be appreciated in two ways: as simple not offensive background music, while you’re reading a book and while listening with concentration to the lyrics. But he goes way further.
First, his voice is somewhat of an acquired taste, and not in the ‘easy listening’ James Taylor/Jackson Browne category. Second, many of his songs have an old timey feel, and sound as if they could have been sung in a musical (and Randy moved on, later in his career, towards writing many very successful film scores). Furthermore, his advanced arranging skills reward repeated listening; there is a lot happening. Take the strings for instance: with artists like the Eagles strings generally embellish the sound, making it sound fuller and more complete, taking it beyond country rock. Fine. But in Randy’s music, the strings do not have a supporting role, they strongly add to the dynamics and often play counter melodies, making the sum of the parts bigger.
Third, whereas your typical singer songwriter tackled topics close to his or her personal life, Randy is less introspective and covers many different topics, ranging from vertically challenged people to Germany in the 1930’s. He shows himself to be a great observer, not unlike Bob Dylan and he has meaningful things to say. A little less poetic than Dylan perhaps, and (quite) a bit more sardonic: in this respect he resembles Donald Fagen and Walter Becker of Steely Dan.
You basically cannot go wrong with Randy Newman in the 70’s and Little Criminals is a great example of the man’s talent as the thinking man’s (as apart from the only feeling man’s) singer songwriter!

Roland and Nina’s DECADES IN MUSIC: 1976 – SHTURCITE – Shtourtsite ’76

Review by Roland Bruynesteyn
Album assigned by Nina A

Well, this is one group I never heard of. The music has a late 60’s vibe with Latin American touches, reminiscent of Tropicalia artists such as Os mutantes. Not so much in the rhythm department but the variation in instruments, the melodies and the voices (quite often some people singing together) combine to give it a strong hippy feel.
Often there is a strong bass line anchoring the song, leading to comparisons with songs of the era (the end of the first song sounds a bit like In-a-gadda-da-vida for example). Generally it’s less heavy of course and it resembles groups like Marmalade or the Association in scope. Given that it dates from 1976, it’s all highly derivative of course, but hey, what’s wrong with following great examples?
Day Mi Malko Nejhnost (Give me a little tenderness) was the hit single, or so claims Wikipedia, but it’s not the best song of the album. A song like Obich, while still having that hippy vibe (because of the harmony singing gets some Santana-like touches. Not so much in the guitar department but rather in a nice organ solo. And we have some cowbell, ladies and gentlemen!
Some songs sound a bit more modern, because they employ some (silly) synthesizer noises that were not available in 1969. And in A utre they try to out-Emerson Keith, and they should not have done that. But take Dalechen zaliv: it’s not original, it’s not essential (and the piano is rather primitive), but don’t you feel happy when you hear the melody? Don’t you feel like smiling if that little violin ‘solo’ is played? And that little guitar line after the next verse?
And what about Mojat sin? If sung by Paul McCartney and Wings, it would not be out of place on, say, London Town. Really a nice song. Same goes for Djavolski sezon, another song that has this relaxed vibe, that you can so easily imagine yourself listening to on a boat in a bay near some Caribbean island, with a cocktail in your hand.
Did I lower my standards, because I’m happily surprised? I don’t think so. This is no desert island disc, but I think it belongs in a comprehensive collection. I would like to get an official release on CD someday. It’s that good, and simply great fun!

 

Roland and Nina’s DECADES IN MUSIC: 1975 – SPLIT ENZ – Mental Notes

Review by Roland Bruynesteyn
Album assigned by Nina A

This is the debut album by the band Split Enz (New Zealand spelling of Split Ends, nz, you get it). A quick run through the songs:
Walking Down a Road – Nice opener, quirky singing, nice keyboard runs at the end.
Under the Wheel – Almost a suite of songs, with lots of proggy pretentiousness thrown in. Speeded up gimmicky voices date it somewhat. The symphonic ambition works for me, however.
Amy (Darling) – This song reminds me of Cockney Rebel, fronting the Small faces, playing a 10CC song. It sounds very early 70’s English with some vaudevillian touches, and that’s a compliment. This is some good stuff!
So Long For Now – This sounds a little bit like Sparks meeting up with 10CC. A fun song, no pretence, but well performed. The backing vocals occasionally sound like Supertramp.
Stranger Than Fiction –  A very synthy opening, something that could have appeared on LldoB by Genesis. You expect Peter Gabriel to start singing any time. When the singing starts it remains firmly in Genesis/Supertramp territory (children singing in the background make you think of School off Crime of the century). The singer is no Peter Gabriel however. Distinctive, yes, attractive, less so.
Time For a Change –  The piano ballad. Yup.
Maybe – Quirky, partly because it’s mostly two voices singing at the same time. They should have given this to Elton John. He could have made this into one of his big hits of the mid-seventies, by also streamlining it a little.
Titus – A little banjo-like intro suggests a children’s’ song. When the voice starts he’s working on his Roger Chapman vibrato. The rest of the band or the producer should have told him not to do that. Apart from that, this song feels somehow unfinished or throwaway.
Spellbound – Overproduced intro (backwards cymbal, acoustic guitar, acoustic piano, weird synthesizer noises) and then some solid ‘bass and drums’ (in the traditional sense of the word) enter, to build up the tension. Singers’ style annoys a little here as well, but this song is actually very nice. The instrumental parts sound a little like Dark Side of the Moon sometimes (Breathe/Time), although the urgent, panicky singing ruins the contemplative atmosphere.
Mental Notes –  40 seconds that didn’t fit anywhere else, and they’re hardly needed here.
Verdict: This is a resonating great album! Very eclectic music and very different from the new wavey Talking Heads-light I was expecting. I STRONGLY recommend this album if you love the 70’s.

Roland and Nina’s DECADES IN MUSIC: 1974 – BIJELO DUGME – Kad bi’ bio bijelo dugme

Review by: Roland Bruynesteyn
Album assigned by: Nina A

 

This is a group from Sarajewo, at the time Yugoslavia, at the moment Bosnia and Herzegovina. The cover has later been used by Ween for Chocolate and Cheese, although the music is totally different. The title of the album includes the name of the group and apparently means something like “Like the white button”, which is indeed featured on the cover. So much for the irrelevant background info, on to the music.
The intro features birds, a One of these days-type bass line and a nice sounding organ that has a very prominent role. I may be an arrogant western capitalist, and I may underestimate the international contacts Yugoslavia had at the time (mainly due to tourism and international sports events, I gather), but the music sounds totally up to date and international, for the time. As stated everywhere, including in the few English comments on the youtube page, it’s heavily influenced by, or quite similar to Deep Purple or Led Zeppelin, but wait, there is more! I also detect a slight glam rock influence, it’s less dark and the singer has found his own voice.
They only start singing around the 9th minute. After 10 minutes a new song starts and this is more a slow blues, generically so, featuring more guitar and less organ. The singer sings his lungs out and does a good job. Somehow it sounds a little tongue in cheek (like Blue Öyster Cult of that time), but then I do not understand anything of the lyrics so this is highly speculative. I like it though.
Close to the 17 minute mark a new song starts (Ne spavaj mala moja muzika dok svira says Soundhound on my phone), which is a joyful cover of a traditional (Chuck Berry?) song I don’t remember right now. They do it justice.
19 minutes in, a new song. Up tempo, and the organ is joining in. This is the most glammy track so far but it also has some proggy touches. Well, almost, as it’s quite short.
23 minutes in, new song. A bit more folky and Mediterranean. We have definitely left Deep Purple territory here. In fact, here the voice gets somewhat theatrical. It could be about a girl called Selma, for all I know, and I think the affair did not end well. This is one of those tracks that you‘ll never buy an album for, but which is nice to have as a guilty pleasure. Imagine being 16 in 1974 and dancing with your girlfriend or boyfriend at a party. Very important and meaningful at that age…
29 minutes in, new song, a harmonica! This song again has this propulsing rhythm that really pushes the song forward. Solo guitar here is nothing special, and somewhat low in the mix (as if they know it), but the folky a cappella section still gives it something special. Not a good song to end the album with however.
Verdict: Not as eastern European as I would think (no gypsy influence, or Greek or Turkish or Russian or anything). It doesn’t surpass anything made elsewhere at the time (by ‘elsewhere’, this simpleton basically means America and Europe), but there is nothing to be ashamed about either. The album is quite varied, played energetically and with gusto, a pleasant surprise!

JOANNA NEWSOM – The Milk-Eyed Mender (2004)

Review by: Roland Bruynesteyn
Album assigned by: Viudas Tormo

This music at first sounds like a mix between nu-folk by Bonnie Prince Billy and ECM chamber pop. Joanna is a classically trained harpist and it shows in the unconventional choices she makes. She also plays the piano, but on the whole this sounds a little less technically advanced.

Although the instrumentation and the melodies are rather sparse (and very light on percussion), the album is all over the place stylistically, so the album is more varied than you would think. But she’s also a singer, and there I have a problem. She sounds like Kate Bush (high almost soprano voice) mixed with Joni Mitchell (jazzy attitude, somewhat snarling delivery) both channeling their inner child. Or think Ricky Lee Jones on hydrogen. While I generally admire goofiness if coupled with obvious talent, this CD can only be enjoyed in small quantities at a time by me.

Most are in singer songwriter mode, but a nice song like This side of the blue I could easily imagine being sung as a ballad by Jon Anderson. Three little babies is very painful to the ears and had me laughing at the fact that it’s actually been released. In a gospel setting it would be great for Aretha, in the actual folk setting it would fit Fairport Convention, in a country setting Johnny Cash could make it sound great, but this version is horrendous.

All songs would improve immensely, to the point that the cd can actually be enjoyed, if they had been sung by a more natural, professional and pleasant voice like Norah Jones or Carly Simon. Of course, this would be less original, more middle of the road, and it could even show some other inadequacies in the music that now are drowned in the effect the voice has on the listener, but for me Joanna’s voice on this album (I have another album by her, Have one on me, where it seemed less prominent) seriously hurts its entertainment value.
Sometimes having an original voice is not just ‘not enough’, it’s too much. Being talented and daring must count for something however, so I would urge you to listen for yourself if perhaps YOU can overcome MY problems with this release…