New on CD 11/29/02

Friday, November 29, 2002

'The Opera Collection'

When opera lovers hear Richard Wagner and Sir Georg Solti in the same breath, they're likely to think of his 1960s recording of the complete "Ring" cycle, a feat still unparalleled for its thrilling singing, high-voltage orchestral playing and awe-inspiring sound effects.

But the Hungarian-born conductor also recorded the six other major Wagner operas, and now Decca has posthumously reissued them in "The Opera Collection," a boxed set, 22 CDs in all, some of them digitally remastered from the LP release.

It's an impressive collection by one of the major conductors of the second half of the last century. Perhaps no individual performance is definitive -- there's a lot of competition out there -- but this is one case where the whole is surely more than the sum of its parts.

The collection spans a remarkable 35 years of Solti's career, and in the process gives a taste of three different generations of Wagner singers.

"Tristan und Isolde" is the earliest, dating from 1960 and pairing the great soprano Birgit Nilsson in her prime with Austrian tenor Fritz Uhl, an honorable interpreter whose reputation has suffered by comparison with heldentenor Wolfgang Windgassen. (Nilsson and Windgassen were later paired in a live 1966 recording from Bayreuth conducted by Karl Bohm.)

The 1972 "Parsifal" offers a chance to hear the great bass Gottlob Frick, who came out of retirement to sing the role of Gurnemanz. Though you can sometimes hear the wobble in his aging voice, his interpretation is richly steeped in tradition.

Most recent of the lot is "Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg," dating from 1995, with two major stars of today, Ben Heppner and Karita Mattila. It was the only Wagner opera Solti recorded twice, and the more expansive tempos he adopted late in life suit the sunny comedy well.

Among the treasures preserved on these disks are the peerless mezzo Christa Ludwig (as Venus in the 1971 "Tannhaeuser" and Kundry in "Parsifal"); baritone Victor Braun as an exceptionally warm Wolfram in "Tannhaeuser"; bass Martti Talvela as Daland in the 1977 "Der Fliegende Hollaender"; tenor Placido Domingo and soprano Jessye Norman, both in wonderful form in the 1985 "Lohengrin"; and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Amfortas in "Parsifal" (though he's less comfortable as the "Lohengrin" Herald).

A bonus CD includes material from the rehearsals for the "Tristan" recording.

'Bob Dylan Live 1975: The Rolling Thunder Revue'

This two-disc "bootleg" on Bob Dylan's own label, taken from a series of concerts in late 1975, is delightfully all over the map -- full of mid-'70s flavor, but also a genre-hopping, era-blending trip through the master's music.

Simultaneously built up and stripped down, it's the work of a Dylan 10 years into his electric period who has clearly already heard early Bruce Springsteen and even -- horrors -- presages anthem rock at times, in the best kind of way.

"It Ain't Me, Babe," crisp and energetic, has a funk flavor to it. "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" lacks the Vietnam-era plaintiveness of the original; instead, it's dynamic and driving, a road song for an era of interstates, not Highway 61.

The flattest spots on "Bob Dylan Live 1975: The Rolling Thunder Revue" are the acoustics -- not because they're boring but because they sound largely like the originals -- and the too-folky duets with Joan Baez, which throw off the rhythm of the ride. The standouts: "Hurricane," which crackles with energy, and "One More Cup of Coffee," a haunting rendition with a perfect fingernails-on-the-chalkboard fiddle to back it up.

The Dylan of this CD, just after "Blood on the Tracks," is exuberant and in control; the shy boy so many girls wanted to protect has become the maestro. The band follows its master, and the master leads. At one point, someone in the crowd yells for a protest song. But by 1975, itself now so distant, that Bob Dylan was long gone.

'Tim McGraw and the Dancehall Doctors'

Tim McGraw has taken his road band, the seven Dancehall Doctors from his "Set This Circus Down" stage, into the studio. The result is "Tim McGraw and the Dancehall Doctors," a 15-song, 66-minute collection of keepers.

From the opening snare riff of "Comfort Me," solid performances are matched by an equally strong variety of songs with stories to tell -- from back-seat romance and its consequences in the poignant "Red Ragtop" to the wry unentanglements in "That's Why God Made Mexico" and the video-ready emotion of "She's My Kind of Rain."

There's also the Elton John tune "Tiny Dancer," complete with McGraw's falsetto hooks and backed by Kim Carnes. Eagles members Don Henley and Timothy B. Schmit add their trademark sound to "Illegal."

It's clear throughout this album that instead of going into the studio to do a day band's work, McGraw and his collaborators were determined to do their very best.

'Does This Look Infected?'

There's nothing sadder than watching a band with talent turn in a routine, boring album so early in their career.

That's what Sum 41 has done with "Does This Look Infected?" -- an album infected with punk-pop mediocrity when they could have offered more.

Every song sounds the same. And all the songs whine about an unnamed personal frustration without making the listener care.

"The Hell Song" is too preachy, and "My Direction" has lyrics any high-school keg band could have written. You can't take seriously any song that says "perfection is my direction" followed by "it's a new generation of childhood frustration."

Green Day did it first, and better, so there's no need for lesser bands to cover the same territory unless they've got something new to offer. Sum 41 doesn't.

'Emotional'

Brothers K-Ci & Jo-Jo, former members of Jodeci, like to fill their albums with R&B and pop songs. It worked on "Love Always," but there's little crossover appeal on their new CD, "Emotional."

Their vocal styling remains strong, but the music sounds like a rehash of melodies from 1980s soft rock. "Down for Life," "Goodbye" and "How Can I Trust You" lack the catchy soft pop and genuine appeal of their crossover gem, "All My Life."

The results are better on their R&B tunes. Their bluesy, gospel-styled vocals hammer the songs into your soul. "Special" is a jamming, midtempo hand-clapper. "I'm Through With You" is a danceable jam that's full of funk. "So Emotional," with its superb harmony and sweet, yet darkly experimental funk rhythms, is a throwback to the brothers' days with Jodeci.

'Dru World Order'

Dru Hill was one of the hottest male R&B groups around when they took a hiatus four years ago, in part because their spotlight-stealing lead singer, Sisqo, embarked on a solo career.

But now that the "Thong Song" warbler's career has waned, Sisqo, Nokio, Woody and Jazz -- plus new member Scola -- have gotten back together for "Dru World Order." And it's Dru Hill at their best: strong vocals, excellent harmony and deep-soul R&B.

The entire 13-track CD is a pleasure, from the intro, "Love Me-Hate Me," to the danceable "If I Could," a "hip-hop meets R&B" jam. Each member gets to showcase his vocal skills on a verse or two.

Dru Hill retains their gift of singing sometimes freaky, sometimes passionate love songs on this predominantly ballad-based CD.

--From wire reports

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