(As published in the Times of Acadiana unless otherwise noted…)
Bryan Ferry: Dylanesque (Virgin)--Um, like, why? Other than to tap those who’ll buy anything with Dylan’s name on it before their generation dies out altogether, I mean? Ferry does none of these oft-covered Dylan songs badly; he also does none of them with even a smidgen of the imagination he once brought to John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy,” Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane,” or Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” Meanwhile, Ferry’s “All I Really Wanna Do” cops the Byrds’ arrangement whole, the sole post-1974 copyright (“Make You Feel My Love”) has already been recorded by over twenty other performers, and “Baby Let Me Follow You Down” is no more a Dylan song just because Dylan recorded it than “All Along the Watchtower” is a Jimi Hendrix. Rating: Two-and-a-half negatively fourth streets out of five.
Fever Tree: Fever Tree/Another Time, Another Place (Collector’s Choice)--The first two late-’60s albums by an all-but-forgotten jazz-tinged prog-rock combo that actually sounds as if it was having fun assembling these Marshall McLuhan-esque pastiches (Bach here, Ravel there, “Eleanor Rigby” and “Norwegian Wood” creeping into the “Day Tripper/We Can Work It Out” medley).
The Four Seasons: Folk-Nanny/Born to Wander (Collector’s Choice)—One reason that the Four Seasons’ catalogue hasn’t aged as well as the Beach Boys’ is that Brian Wilson was a tortured dreamer intent on outdoing the Beatles whereas Franki Valli was merely a talented singer intent on scoring hits. In other words, if some forty-plus-year-old Beach Boys music still sounds ahead of its time, none of the Four Seasons’ does. It’s still worth investigating, though, because the output of talented singers intent on scoring hits usually is, and because, at their harmonizing best, the Four Seasons deserve comparisons with the Beach Boys, who were only the greatest American harmony group of the twentieth century. One reason to start with this twofer among the several that Collector’s Choice is currently releasing is that none of these two-dozen songs were big hits, thereby avoiding the over-familiarity problem. Another is that the Four Seasons weren’t bad at the folk songs sprinkled generously throughout. The best reason: Born to Wander contains their (original) “Silence Is Golden,” the most luminous song they ever recorded. Rating: Four Jersey boys out of five.
Aretha Franklin: Jewels in the Crown … All-Star Duets with Queen (Arista)--The problem with this compilation isn’t the inevitable (and abrupt) stylistic shifts. The problem is that Franklin is called the “Queen of Soul” for the obvious reason that she’s the greatest female soul singer of all time. Thus she lowers herself and shows up her partners simultaneously by sharing the spotlight. With partners as talented and-or iconic as Frank Sinatra, Elton John, Keith Richards, and Whitney Houston (and George Michael and Mariah Carey and Mary J. Blige and Luther Vandross), she can’t exactly be accused of slumming, but, with the exception of Eurythmics’ “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” and the Michael McDonald-enhanced “Ever Changing Times,” these songs, many of which were deserving hits on one chart or another, would’ve sounded just as good if not better had Franklin gone them alone. I mean, as well as Bonnie Raitt sings verse two of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and as admirably as Gloria Estefan stays in the background, their very presence makes it hard to remember that the song was once the definitive intimacy plea. Rating: Three royalty statements out of five.
Robbie Fulks: Revenge! (Yep Roc)--The Loudon Wainwright III of ornery honky-tonk strikes again, this time with a double, mostly live album a-bristle with the humor (“I Like Being Left Alone”) and unexpected turns of tenderness (“You Don’t Mean It”) that a Wainwright comparison implies. Where Fulks goes Wainwright one better (or at least weirder) is his serious cover of Cher’s “Believe” (well, sort of serious--he does affect a vocoder imitation in the verses). At eighty-four total minutes, the set could’ve been slimmed to one disc (the particularly jokey first track, which is funny at first and then less so upon subsequent listens, would be the place to start trimming), but its list price is a considerate $15.99, half the songs are previously unreleased, Fulks classics are scattered throughout, and it contains the following patter: “So many times you get a live record--it’s a [expletive deleted] rip-off is what it is, you know? They do all these old songs, and the recording’s not as good, and you’ve got all these people going ‘Whoo!’ over it, like you people are doing.” Rating: Three-and-a-half sitting ovations out of five.
Garbage: Absolute Garbage (Almo Sounds/Geffen)--On the big stage opening for Smashing Pumpkins way back when, Garbage came off like just another noisy riff machine. Emerging through speakers or headphones after a decade’s worth of public indifference, however, Butch Vig’s sonic detail and Shirley Manson’s trash appeal sound surprisingly fresh--and more like Blondie gussied (and dumbed) down for the grunge-Goth set than they ever did at the time. Rating: Three-and-a-half not-that-stupid grrrls out of five.
Marvin Gaye: In Our Lifetime? Expanded Love Man Edition (Hip-O Select)--The spirit is willing (“Praise”), but the flesh is weak (“Funk Me”), sometimes simultaneously (“Love Party”) on this thematically ambitious 1981 spacey, post-disco soul trip, now expanded to two somewhat mutually reinforcing, somewhat redundant discs. Rating: Three-and-a-half Laios Complexes out of five.
Glenn Gould: Bach: 1955 Goldberg Variations, Zenph Re-Performance (Sony Classical)--The occasion: the twenty-fifth anniversary of Glenn Gould’s death. The gimmick: Gould’s landmark debut 1955 recording as “re-performed” by a piano equipped to respond to a meticulously computer-encoded reading of Gould’s original performance. Other than the obvious fact that this artifact eliminates Gould’s trademark humming and the creaking of his famous chair, it’s not only identical to the original recording but also metaphysically suggestive: Zenph unveiled this re-performance by inviting an audience of Gould’s friends to witness an “invisible Gould” play last September on what would have been his seventy-fourtyh birthday. In short, the wizards at Zenph have made it possible for dead pianists to live again, and there’s talk of adapting the technology for other instruments. Should anyone but technologically obsessive musical perfectionists care? Yes (for obvious reasons) and no: There’s something to be said for “moving on” and “letting go,” not to mention for recoiling from the technology’s inevitably being abused to resurrect the likes of Elton John and Jerry Lee Lewis. And, frankly, Gould without the humming and the creaking isn’t full Gould (“fool’s Gould” maybe). As a technologically obsessive musical perfectionist himself, however (and as his tuner was consulted in preparing the Zenph Yamaha), Gould would’ve loved it. Rating: Four-and-a-half Bach’s tops out of five.