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2004-12-03: Must Have CDs

Australian Financial Review
by Shane Nichols

For a memorable summer, create your own soundtrack from our pick of the great recordings of the year. Shane Nichols selects the best.

Elvis Presley, Elvis '68 Comeback Special DVD (Sony/BMG) The 1968 TV special was called simply Elvis, but posterity knows it as the comeback show. It caught Presley at a defining moment, resurrecting his career with an authoritative demonstration of supernatural talent and charisma. The seven hours of this triple DVD set include the special as it went to air (minus ads), plus the two "leather suit sit-down shows" (with original band) and the two "leather suit stand-up shows" (performed solo). It repeatedly shows the star reaching for excellence, for the killer groove that infused his early work. It's thrilling, exciting, probably Elvis's finest hour he's imperial but generous, funny, beautiful and musically hungry.

Todd Rundgren, Liars (Sanctuary/Shock)

The former rock wunderkind, now in his mid-50s, reasserts his outsider genius with this stunning return to form, delivering biting social criticism (hence the title) in a suite of contemporary and retro music styles which in themselves are commentaries. His voice, one of the best in rock, is in amazing fettle, and his studio-savant production powers mass layer upon layer of instruments and ethereal vocals in a vivid and swoonsome display of pop prowess.

Genevieve Maynard, Enter (Wow/MGM)

A big dose of local rock talent meets studio savvy in a CD that rocks, has sumptuous grooves, smart lyrics and a pleasing mixture of hungriness and polish. This is the second solo album from Maynard, who is also a regular in Stella 11, and it shows in her confident songwriting and singing, with subtle changes of sonic palette.

Rokia Traore, Bowmboi (Tama/MRA)

Malian singer Traore respects her ethnic roots and yet is completely contemporary. The unifier is the lilt of multi-tracked voices and stringed instruments. Her voice is soulful in a way that transcends culture and place, but her music speaks of her homeland. It's soothing without being vacuous; you could get lost in its mystery, the silken ease of its melodies and its lulling accompaniment.

Stefon Harris and Blackout, Evolution (Blue Note)

A young turk with a grand vision and vocation, American jazz vibraphone prodigy Stefon Harris is maturing at a rate that begs comparison with the best of the tradition to which he consciously subscribes. A constant in his writing is its other-worldly grace and beauty. It's late-night music, the nocturnes of the mind where the imagination roams. Harris's music is a soundtrack and a trigger for that wandering. Sophisticated as tomorrow, Harris appears in this list for the second year in a row.

Tomas Stanko Quartet, Suspended Night (ECM)

A lineage that includes the free jazz of Ornette Coleman, the lyricism of Miles Davis circa Kind of Blue and the quiet pain of Chet Baker's playing may help explain the astounding recent discovery and elevation of this Polish trumpeter he's now in his 60s to the jazz forefront. His music is entirely about feeling and freedom, and unquestionably from the dark side of existence. His young band swings, but Stanko's mission is simplicity and his message is filtered pain.

Charles Caldwell, Remember Me (Fat Possum/Shock)

Fat Possum's artists are the last of a breed, electric country blues artists who most of the time were not even professional musicians but esteemed local players who are now dying off at an alarming rate. Like Charles Caldwell, who died last year at the age of 60. He was the first black man in Yalobusha county, Mississippi, to own a Cadillac, but at all his gigs he was paid in drinks, and he worked his whole life in a factory. He died last year of pancreatic cancer just as Fat Possum wound up the recording sessions for this, his debut album. He was a tall, powerful man and it's reflected in his lithe electric country blues, with its strong hint of John Lee Hooker. These are the same primal riffs that powered the blues explosion of young British rockers back in the 1960s.

Tinariwen, Amassakoul (Triban Union/Shock)

Amassakoul's rebel poetry and music springs from the struggle of the nomadic Touareg people against the central government of Mali during the 1990s. Crunchy, crisp, clean and sensual playing by the guitarslingers in this wonderful troupe who literally swapped guns for guitars when the fighting stopped restores notions of how rock can sound. And while their compositions burn with coded meaning and poetry deriving from their ancestry as the Blue Men of the desert and a long history of oppression in modern times, the music is distinctly rock, masterful, inspired, different and as authentic as it is possible to imagine. This is where the blues came from.

Mozart, Le Nozze di Figaro (Harmonia Mundi)

This is a stunning new recording that puts the sense of danger back into one of Mozart's greatest operas. Directed with real revolutionary fervour by Rene Jacobs and rendered with panache by Concerto Koln using period instruments, the production assembles a beautifully balanced cast with a tremendously vivid central performance by Lorenzo Regazzo as Figaro.

Beethoven, Piano Concertos Nos 2 and 3 (DG)

Argentine-born pianist Martha Argerich gives us her first recording of the Third Concerto a superbly dramatic performance with lively accompaniment by the fine Mahler Chamber Orchestra under one of Argerich's oldest musical friends, Claudio Abbado. And the Second Concerto is pretty special, too.

John Adams, A Short Ride in a Fast Machine, The Wound-Dresser, Berceuse lgiaque, Shaker Loops (Naxos)

A perfect one-stop introduction to the music of one of those rare composers who is admired by the critics and worshipped by the public. Conductor Marin Alsop brings her customary flair and commitment to these rhythmic and often exciting works. The Wound-Dresser is a powerful setting of a Walt Whitman poem that has real resonance in the age of Aids and A Short Ride is a vivid evocation of the thrills of moving very fast. A bargain.

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