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Heart Songs

[whitespace] Tony Bennett
Annie Leibovitz

Solid gold: Tony Bennett gets royal treatment on new ultradisc reissue.

Trio of country, rap, and lounge classics

Chris Wall
Tainted Angel
Cold Spring Records

IT'S ONLY FEBRUARY, but Chris Wall's Tainted Angel is already making a strong pitch for country album of the year. Austin-based Wall may not be a mainstream radio star, but he is no stranger to masterpieces. After scoring a major songwriting hit with the uncharacteristically whimsical "Trashy Women" (as recorded by Confederate Railroad), he used his royalties to establish Cold Spring Records and recorded 1994's Cowboy Nation, an astonishingly creative tapestry of hardcore honky-tonk. Now, after a four-year studio hiatus, Wall returns with an entirely different, but similarly potent, collection. Gone is the polished production of Cowboy Nation, replaced with a stripped-down sound that is perfectly calibrated to the album's collective mood. But one thing remains unchanged: Wall's subliminal intellectualism. No, we're not talking the sort of self-conscious smarts brokered by tea-drinking folksters, but rather a sort of easygoing highway literacy that deciphers truth in whiskey shots and broken hearts. For instance, the fiddle-saturated "Big Blue Teardrops" is a gorgeously crafted swing number that explores the lighter side of regret, while Wall's hardboiled baritone roams the atmospheric parallels between taverns and churches on "God's Own Jukebox." And "Dylan Montana's Last Ride" is simply one of the most moving country tunes ever recorded. Pack this album on your next road trip: wherever you're headed, it'll get you there faster.
Chris Weir

As Bobby Digital
Gee Street

MASTER P and Puff Daddy have been reigning over hip-hop's recent chart successes, but a more iconoclastic and influential wellspring has been the Wu-Tang Clan. From their two classic group efforts (1993's Enter the Wu-Tang and 1997's Wu-Tang Forever) to consistently strong solo works by rappers like Raekwon and Method Man, the group has set the high standard for MC skills and has shaken hip-hop with a dry, haunting minimalism. The sonic mastermind behind Wu-Tang Productions is the group member known as the RZA, and he's finally released his own solo work after producing an endless stream of Wu-Tang spinoffs. Packaging himself as a high-tech blaxploitation hero on As Bobby Digital, the RZA finds more dramatic humor but less desperate focus than usual. Not a great rapper himself, he rallies fine guest support from around the Wu-Tang camp, and though he uses other producers, the sound is all his--eerie loops of stark piano riffs, rough vocal tracks, sparse beats, and the displacement of even sparser samples. Behind his comic-book Bobby Digital character, the RZA has a disc that's compellingly uneasy--the sounds that lurch and the songs that fade abruptly make it clear that this ain't no disco.
Karl Byrn

Tony Bennett with Count Basie & His Orchestra
In Person!
Sony/Mobile Fidelity

FORGET ALL THOSE shabby-chopped, pink martini-swilling swing posers. Before he became an unlikely unplugged MTV icon, America's quintessential lounge singer teamed up with the Kansas City swing king at Latin Casino in Philadelphia for a classic 1958 dinner-club set. On a newly released reissue, Sebastopol-based audiophile company Mobile Fidelity gives this dynamic live concert recording the 24-kt-gold ultradisc treatment. And once the annoying crowd noises die down, you're left with a sonically superior chronicle of Bennett, with his captivating bel canto, at his peak. Bennett's belting vocal on "Without a Song," from the musical Great Day!, will blow you away. But his haunting reading of the Ellington chestnut "Solitude" is the icing on the cake. And you can bet he silences the noisy drunks at the front tables. Ah, Tony!
Greg Cahill

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From the February 18-24, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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