Sam Phillips “The Turning” (DCC Compact Classics) ****
Back in 1987, when singer/songwriter Sam Phillips was known in contemporary Christian circles as Leslie Phillips, she released a quiet gem of an album that never gained the attention it deserved beyond her then-small audience. “The Turning,” Phillips’ last overtly religious title before switching to pop, transcended the genre. Its meditations on the trials of faith and relationships were brutally honest, and its themes exuded a crystalline purity and striving intensity that separated Phillips from every other waif doing the confessional singer-songwriter thing.
Long out of print, “The Turning” has finally been reissued on CD. The artist is identified as Sam, not Leslie, and the cover art has been changed. But the music, thankfully, sounds remarkably fresh.
Animated by soaring, effortless melodies, these compositions can be appreciated as blueprints for Phillips’ later pop works, but they’re hardly rough drafts. Rather, they prove Phillips was an important pop voice even before she started singing what she considered pop songs.
- Tom Moon
Modest Mouse “The Lonesome Crowded West” (Up) ***
Pacific Northwest trio Modest Mouse’s third full-length album traffics in jagged, Pixies-style guitarpop hooks and takes an expansive musical approach that tosses jazz- and country-flavored ingredients into the mix.
The band’s funny, impassioned intelligence distinguishes Mouse from the indie-rock pack. Character studies like “Cowboy Dan” and introspective songs such as “Heart Cooks Brain” (“My brain’s the burger/And my heart’s the coal”) work up to a convincingly desperate rage without succumbing to selfindulgence.
- Dan DeLuca
Andras Schiff, piano, with the Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Bernard Haitink Beethoven: “The Piano Concertos; Sonata in F minor (Op. 57) Appassionata” (Teldec 13159-2) ****
Matching the gifts of two enlightened interpreters means, in this case, performances of deep humanity and musical probity.
Andras Schiff has moved through periods of involvement with music of Mozart, Schubert, Bartok and Schumann, but purposely saved Beethoven for life after 40. His performances sound freshly imagined, offering the kind of discovery that frees the music’s glints of humor, opens the harmonic floor plan to come clear and supplies a context with which to hear the music in terms of its sources and its results.
In the first two of the five piano concertos, classicism and beginning romanticism mix. Schiff has a sound and technique to clarify both styles, just as he finds a broader, larger sound for the later, fully romantic pieces. He captures the caprice and wit in the cadenzas in the early concertos, and in the later works, he finds beauty, nobility as well as some lighter moments.
The playing is always lucid and finely balanced with the instruments. Bernard Haitink bends the orchestra around phrases with Schiff’s ease and naturalness. When Schiff ends the cadenza in “Concerto No. 1,” its quick, almost flip final note draws an equal musical grin from the orchestra.
The “Appassionata Sonata” dates from the same period as the concertos, and Schiff makes that point in his performance. This is early romanticism, full of passions but not Lisztian passions, and Schiff holds some control in reserve to preserve the music’s clarity and structure.
These outstanding performances set a standard against which other recordings will be compared.
- Daniel Webster
Jamie Hartford “What About Yes” (Paladin) ***
Over the last year, singer-guitarist Jamie Hartford and his band have built a strong buzz with their live shows on Nashville’s hip Lower Broadway. Think of J.J. Cale after a few jolts of caffeine, or a leaner, meaner version of the Tractors, and you get an idea of what they lay down on this debut disc: Cool-rocking grooves pungently laced with boogie, blues and country.
Lyrically, the songs are as down-to-earth as the music. And at his best, as on the witty title track, the tender ballad “Good Things Happen,” and the biting “Cold and Hungry,” Hartford, the son of famed folkie John Hartford, combines the simplicity, color and emotional directness of the best country and blues writing.
- Nick Cristiano
The Blasters “American Music” (HighTone) ***-1/2
Forget roots rock. The Blasters were one of the best bands of any style to emerge in the early ‘80s, though they never achieved the success they deserved. This is a reissue of their ultra-rare first album, with six extra tracks as a bonus.
The Blasters got even better, but all the elements of their greatness are evident on this low-budget affair. They display a firm grasp of rockabilly, blues and R&B;, and they play it all with lethal, punkish energy. Phil Alvin sings in a distinctive, piercing tenor, while brother Dave contributes brilliantly concise songs that often sound like instant classics, especially the rallying-cry title track and “Marie Marie,” which became group staples.