Frank Vignola & Vinny Raniolo: "Melody Magic"

February 2013

Melody MagicThe Melody's the Thing in This Hot Club Collection

Azica AJD-72248
Format: CD

Musical Performance
***1/2

Sound Quality
****

Overall Enjoyment
****

I am generally opposed to juicing up classical music. Back in the late days of disco, there was a series of recordings called Hooked on Classics that took themes from classical compositions and set them to a drum machine with a disco beat. Though I was amazed at just how many different melodies could be set this way, I was appalled that anyone might really record these efforts. To top things off, a local movie theater (which I attended at least once a week) latched on to the first LP in the series to play between movie showings. Needless to say, I started being a little late to shows, and at the film's end I moved myself to the back door so that at the instant the last credit was shown I could flee before being aurally assaulted.

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Laila Salins: "Elevator into the Sky"

February 2013

Elevator Into the SkyA Poetic Excursion into Insanity

Alectrona Records
Format: CD

Musical Performance
****1/2

Sound Quality
****

Overall Enjoyment
****

Anne Sexton (1928-1974) was the United States' most famous confessional poet, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1967. She had severe mental illness for most of her short life (which she ended by suicide), and she wrote of her suicidal tendencies, her battle against depression, and her efforts to come to grips with God. Her verses are so full of rich and vibrant impressions that it is no wonder to find that Elevator into the Sky is not the first time her poetry has been set to music.

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Tim Mahoney Band: "Shine Through"

January 2013

Shine ThroughAmiable Music from Minnesota

Self released
Format: CD

Musical Performance
****

Sound Quality
****

Overall Enjoyment
****

This CD came to me in such plain guise that I assumed it was a first effort from some teen or college guy trying to get a foot in the door. The jacket is single-fold cardboard and lists just tracks, band members, and recording studio, along with a brief note of gratitude: "Thank you to all the fans and family and friends that keep me inspired to keep singing. I'll keep singing." Heartfelt, just as the album turned out to be.

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The Summarily Dismissed: "To Each!"

January 2013

To Each!Brassy Swagger from a Sophisticated New Band

Laureniac Song
Format: CD

Musical Performance
****1/2

Sound Quality
****

Overall Enjoyment
****

Ari Shagal has made my January zing, brushing away gray skies, chilly winds, and pitifully short days with her bold, brash, electrifying album, To Each! Shagal channels Laura Nyro, Donald Fagen, jazz in general, Broadway, and a lot more, and she proves to be a triple-threat performer, singer, and composer/arranger.

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Will Scruggs Jazz Fellowship: "Song of Simeon: A Christmas Journey"

December 2012

Song of SimeonOne of the Best Jazz Holiday Albums Ever

Self released
Format: CD

Musical Performance
****1/2

Sound Quality
***1/2

Overall Enjoyment
****

Jazz albums of holiday music are usually an improvised mishmash of secular tunes, with one or two religious ones thrown in. Song of Simeon is something entirely different -- a cohesive album that tells the story of Christ's birth using familiar carols and songs while giving them new jazz rags to wear.

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Dallas Wind Symphony; Jerry Junkin, Conductor: "Horns for the Holidays"

December 2012

Horns for the HolidaysReference Recordings Makes a Holiday CD for Audiophiles

Reference Recordings RR-126
Format: HDCD

Musical Performance
****

Sound Quality
****1/2

Overall Enjoyment
****

During the month of December, just about every high-school band in the land will play a holiday concert. Many college organizations will follow suit. But recordings of seasonal music by concert bands and wind ensembles are extremely rare. For the life of me, I can't even think of one off the top of my head.

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Jacqui Sutton: "Notes from the Frontier: A Musical Journey"

November 2012

Jacqui SuttonLet Me Introduce You to Frontier Jazz

Toy Blue Typewriter TBTP002
Format: CD

Musical Performance
****1/2

Sound Quality
****

Overall Enjoyment
****

The beginning of Jacqui Sutton's second album starts with disjointed cello chords as other instruments join in with jagged attacks. What is this, the beginning of some newly discovered work by Béla Bartók? Then Jacqui's voice, rich as honey and smooth as silk, enters with the familiar tones of "Summertime," and suddenly we're in Gershwinland, even though the dissonant staccato notes persist underneath the familiar tune.

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Barluath: "Source"

October 2012

Barluath: "Source"An Auspicious Debut Album from Scotland

Nimbus Alliance NI6206
Format: CD

Musical Performance
****

Sound Quality
****

Overall Enjoyment
****

Barluath is a Scottish folk band composed largely of students from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, located in Glasgow. Through an arrangement with Nimbus Records, the Conservatoire has been releasing recordings of its virtuoso wind ensemble and compositions by some of its student composers. This is the Conservatoire's first disc of a pop nature, and it's a total success.

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Letizia Gambi: "Introducing Letizia Gambi"

September 2012

Letizia GambiNeapolitan Songstress in a Strong Debut Album

Jando Music 2012
Format: CD

Musical Performance
****

Sound Quality
****1/2

Overall Enjoyment
****

Arriving with a heavy-hitting roster of class-A musicians as backup, Introducing Letizia Gambi has hit US shelves with almost no fanfare. And that's a shame, because you shouldn't miss hearing this auspicious debut. Letizia Gambi is a young Italian singer who was born Neapolitan but grew up partly in northern Italy. Her style is rooted in Neapolitan music, but she's eclectic, making musical excursions into jazz, pop, Björk, even Prince. She studied musical theater in England and has sung in West Side Story, and she earned a master's degree at Milan's International Jazz Academy.

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Fiona Apple: "The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do"

June 2012

The Idler Wheel . . .Fiona's Back and Discordant As Ever

Clean Slate/Epic 197863
Format: CD

Musical Performance
****1/2

Sound Quality
****

Overall Enjoyment
****

Fiona Apple's long-awaited fourth album is many things, but conventional isn't one of them. A thoroughly original work, The Idler Wheel . . . is unfiltered and raw in all the right ways. From start to finish, Apple unabashedly unleashes herself on listeners with a characteristic frankness, reflecting heavily on past romances and her deep-seated insecurities. It would have been easy for such subject matter to be rendered in a trite, angst-ridden manner, but Apple's tenuously rich falsetto allows the music to take on a multifaceted feel, with "Left Alone" teetering between moments of confidence, frustration, mania, and resignation.

The quality of the performance would be for naught if the production's craftsmanship weren't equally accomplished. Instrumental accompaniment is usually sparse, letting Apple's vocals remain the focus of the listener's attention, and the fleeting moments of harmony and lack of consistent musical meter only further this aim. There's no sense that Pro Tools has over-processed the proceedings with too many digital filters, as the entire soundstage is often utilized to great effect, with easily discernible instrument character and spacing.

More an evolution than a departure from her past releases, this outing offers nuances and maturity that warrant several passes. It's unlikely that a single song off of The Idler Wheel . . . will become a hit single, but taken in aggregate, the collection is worthy of serious consideration.

The CD by itself comes in off-white, heavy-stock paper packaging that seems more vintage than brand new. The liner notes are rich with Apple's hand-written lyrics and stylized illustrations. While I partook in the CD alone, there are two other, more expansive releases of The Idler Wheel . . . The first is a 180gm LP that also comes with an MP3 version, and the second is a CD/DVD box set that includes a fold-out album poster and a DVD featuring footage of five live performances from the 2012 SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas.

Be sure to listen to: While many of the tracks are noteworthy, the propulsive quality of "Hot Knife" (track 10) makes it a rhythmic, toe-tapping good time. Its fun, playful tone is something of a reprieve from the rest of the album's more melancholic feeling, and a fittingly more upbeat conclusion to what is arguably Apple's best album yet.

. . . Hans Wetzel
hansw@soundstagenetwork.com