A One-Woman Tour de Force (9/18/98)
Natalie Merchant, Ophelia (Elektra 1998) - Back with her second solo album is Natalie Merchant, the long-time lead singer for 10,000 Maniacs. The follow-up to 1995's Tigerlily, the new album reflects a broad range of emotions in a breathtaking display of maturity.
Since the breakout album, In My Tribe (1988), Natalie has been a favorite on the college/alternative circuit. Her intelligent and insightful songs include the classic, "What's the Matter Here" (an explosive track about child abuse). With the new album, Merchant extends herself in a series of vignettes exploring the possibilities of life.
Says Merchant, "I wanted to approach the recording of Ophelia as a series of workshops. Rather than using a band and rehearsing it, I hand-picked musicians for specific songs and invited them into the studio."
The band is built around a rhythm section of drummer Peter Yanowitz and veteran bass player Graham Maby (who also played with Joe Jackson). Merchant adds a host of guest players, including vocal duets with N'Dea Davenport (formerly of the Brand New Heavies) and Tibetan devotional singer Yunchen Llamo, guitar work by Lokua Kanza (a superstar in his native Zaire), and soulful trumpet from rising jazz talent Chris Botti.
But the star of the show is Merchant, who brings a cast of characters to this "concept album." Explains Natalie, "There were such rich possibilities both dramatic and comic in a one-woman performance of a cast that included a suffragette, a silent film goddess, a mafia courtesan, and a female human cannonball." Those characters are present throughout, from the tenderness of the opening track ("Ophelia") to the wrenching "Break Your Heart" and the life-affirming, "Kind & Generous" (the current radio single).
Ophelia ranks as one of the best recordings of the year, a glorious display of coherency and thoughtfulness. Let Natalie Merchant speak to you.
Various Artists, Ultimate Broadway (Arista 1998) - For this double-disk, 40-track collection, executive producer Clive Davis has assembled original cast recordings from 50 years of American musicals. If you've forgotten how good American stage music can be, pick up a copy of Ultimate Broadway.
The set opens with 1943's "Oklahoma" (too operatic for my taste). Among the standouts are "Getting to Know You" from The King and I (the 1951 musical with Yul Brynner), Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison performing "I Could Have Danced All Night" from My Fair Lady (1956), and Robert Preston's energetic version of "76 Trombones," from The Music Man (1957).
Also included are cast recordings from Hello, Dolly!, Camelot, and Hair. The collection tracks right down to the present, with songs from Evita (first staged in 1979), Les Miserables (1987), and Rent (1994).
I prefer the tracks on the first disk, covering the period from 1943 to 1964. In particular, I enjoyed "Maria" and "Tonight," both featuring the original cast from West Side Story (1957). While the movie adaptation later swept the Academy Awards, the original cast lent a beautiful aura to these recordings.
If you've forgotten the strength of American musicals, try Ultimate Broadway.
Don Edwards, My Hero, Gene Autry: A Tribute (Shanachie 1998) - For Gene Autry's 90th birthday, Don Edwards assembled a crackerjack country swing band to pay tribute to his hero. The resulting live recording is a pleasure.
Recorded on September 28, 1997 before an appreciative audience at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles, the album includes such well-known tracks as "South of the Border" and "That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine" (Autry's first big hit).
Edwards (rhythm guitar and lead vocals) is joined by Peter Rowan on mandolin and harmony vocals, Tom Morrell on slide guitar and dobro, Rich O'Brien on lead guitars, Dave Alexander on trumpet, Bob Boatright on fiddle, and Mark Abbott on acoustic bass and harmony vocals.
If nothing else, My Hero, Gene Autry shows the huge shift in popular music in the last 60 years: there's no "county music" on this album, which features Autry's cowboy songs and authentic western swing.
Highlights include "It's My Lazy Day" (penned by Smiley Burnette) and "Mexicali Rose." Edwards tends toward a lugubrious delivery on the slower songs, but has a deft touch on the up-tempo numbers, backed by the swell swing band he organized. My favorite track is Autry's signature, "Back in the Saddle Again" which bookends the set.
For a serving from an original stylist, try My Hero, Gene Autry.
Brian May, Another World (Hollywood Records 1998) - Returning with his second solo album is Queen founding member, Brian May. Now age 52, May still has the skills that made such songs as "Keep Yourself Alive" and "We Will Rock You" chart-topping tracks.
May's first solo album was 1991's Back to The Light. Brian's steady hand is present throughout Another World, as he provides the primary vocals, guitars, bass, keyboards and programming. Brian also recruited the recently-deceased Cozy Powell on drums, Neil Murray on bass, Spike Edney on keyboards, and Jamie Moses on guitar. Tour plans have been put on hold, due to the death of drummer Powell.
An old studio hand, May shows his chops on such tracks as "Why Don't We Try Again," "All The Way From Memphis," and "The Gov'nor" (with special guest Jeff Beck on guitar).
Queen may be gone, but Another World shows that its legacy lives on. Old fans and new will enjoy this slice from Brian May.
- Randy Krbechek © 1998
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