Recordings

-- Jeff Stark

Alison Krauss & Union Station
So Long So Wrong
(Rounder)

Fiddler and vocalist Alison Krauss' extracurricular passions include such oddly matched activities as producing the prim, delightful gospel act the Cox Family and headbanging on roller skates to the strains of florid '70s rock music. Much is made of her appreciation of blending in with her backup band, Union Station, and this is reflected in her unassuming, almost perfunctory stage persona.

Much is also made of AK&US's fine instinct when it comes to placing decorative motifs and textures, allowing them to cover just about any species of song outside the perimeters of the bluegrass compound whilst remaining wholly themselves. With this latest album, they have widened their focus to welcome newer material, with a hazy washing of tones, and breezy, slight background voices. While not exactly one of those Daniel Lanoisian electrical ferment affairs -- the rustling of centuries can still be heard in this acoustic pastoralism -- you can spot the occasional modern glint of something plugged in.

Lovers of tradition will be reassured every time the relentless churning of Ron Block's sagely picked banjo looms to the fore. But beware the pre-emptive poke in the eye that comes from AK&US's madcap version of "Little Liza Jane," an instrumental all lit up by red-eyed Hot Club fiddling. Anyone thinking they can't do the old stuff anymore had better shut up.

Krauss' voice sounds more heavenly than ever, with that slo-mo hummingbird wings vibrato and what writer Tony Scherman identified as a "pouting" quality. Her singing now has a coquettish nobility, both in diction and timbre, at times sounding like a (very, very young) Marianne Faithfull. She has a gift for grasping the essence of something and taking it elsewhere. Evidently this technique worked for her during the Def Leppard listening binge she went through while making this collection. She told USA Today how that band's layering techniques inspired the AK&US entity to multitrack those traditionally solitary instruments -- quite startling in a genre where one player equals one piece of sound. You might hear it in the entry points in the choral phrasing, or the wonky swerves of a fiddle familiar with essence de mid-'80s axe wank. All this is distilled in much the same way expert perfumers reduce the repulsive gland secretions of small mammals. Thankfully, we would never know.

-- Cath Carroll

Jean Michel Jarre
Oxygene 7-13
(Epic)

The various radar blips, canned swooshes, and warm Velveeta beats found in the work of Jean Michel Jarre were never quite my idea of good, or even bad, music per se. They were more like cues from some lost new-wave space opera, replete with mylar bodysuits, wraparound shades, and David Bowie. But seeing as how these assorted noises appeal to certain folk (my older brother among them) who are also given to awkward adult pastimes (cyberpunk, D&D, Renaissance Pleasure Faire, Trek conventions, making a killing in the field of computer programming and electronics), I thought I'd give Jarre's latest collection of Gallic android strains, Oxygene 7-13, a close listen -- just to figure out the allure. The dorks are, after all, the new nouveau riche -- not as ruthless, bellicose, and interesting as the old railroad barons or Texas oilmen, perhaps, but just as tacky, and, in their way, taste-makers and market-drivers. And the press releases that now extol Jarre as "the godfather of electronica" (suppress that gag reflex) indicate hope on the part of Epic Records that there's room for the old French synthesizer-izer on the anti-grav bandwagon.

Jarre released his first Oxygene album in 1977. I wasn't aware that this was some sort of landmark, but the press materials assure me that it was. True, anyone who's heard the mellifluvia of Keith Emerson, Evangelos "Vangelis" Papathanassiou, Kitaro, and the like has heard people clearly influenced by Jarre. But anyone who's listened to older, more formless, and far more experimental works like that of Edgard Varese, John Cage, and the Barrons knows that electronic sounds got a lot further "out there" before Jarre was even a grown-up than they have since. (And yes, that includes electronica.) None of which detracts, really, from Jarre's work, or shines a black light on his intentions. He is, after all, the son of prolific soundtrack composer Maurice Jarre (who's scored everything from Doctor Zhivago to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) and probably has nothing but sincere motives. But his material is simply not that interesting when compared to that of his predecessors. While not abject, Oxygene 7-13 (and the whole Jarre catalog) is certainly not potent. Its tracks, named in numeric sequence from "Oxygene 7" through "Oxygene 13," offer narrowly variated dynamics, simple melodies, and reams and reams of sound effects. You can al-most see how fans might translate the sounds with their heated imaginations (Sssshhhwwooooow! That was an asteroid zooming by! Peeeeeeeyow! That's the nose cone of our warp sled jittering on re-entry! Ffffffbap! That's the Venusian chimichanga I had for lunch!). Whether or not through-composed or intended to stand on its own, Jarre's work only sounds like accompaniment. No wonder a lot of science-fiction fans seem to like it -- Jarre's sort of pop art, like sci-fi, seems to be about the communication of awe. Not awe itself, but the tell of it -- the impression of awe happening elsewhere, to someone else. And without a cheesy movie to go along with it and keep it complementary, Oxygene 7-13 leaves me wanting awe of my own.

-- Michael Batty

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