Recordings

Thomas Ades
Life Story
(EMI Classics)

Ever wonder who the next big thing will be in the shrinking world of classical music?

Didn't think so.
But there's an encouraging noise goosing the genre's increasing irrelevance. It's the sound that comes from the fingers of Thomas Ades, a 26-year-old British composer who pens and performs his piano-dominated pieces in refreshingly personal tones. Ades is being heralded as the real deal across the pond, and his debut CD, Life Story, hints of hope amid the hype.

The CD starts with "Catch, Op. 4," which the precocious Ades wrote when he was 21. The chamber piece begins with a shrill violin sawing out whistles, with a busy, devious piano, clarinet and cello following behind on long-striding tiptoes. There's lots of hide-and-seek interplay between the instruments, along with occasional patches of pastoral moods that never last too long, inevitably giving way to playful solo bursts.

The fun stuff comes to a quick stop on the next piece, "Darkness Visible," written a year later when Ades apparently turned more pensive. It's a quiet piano piece attended by quick repetitions of shimmering fingerplay (that's tremolando for you piano-class dropouts), the more anxious notes so subtle they're almost an afterthought in the background. The melody is distant and beautiful, but cautious, too, sometimes overly so, as if it could disappear into itself at any moment.

The mood lightens back up a bit for "Under Hamelin Hill, Op. 6," also written in 1992. The piece, based on the story of the Pied Piper, is a collection of glancing notes made extra ephemeral by Ades' technique of putting tape across most of the piano keys. The instrument alteration allows the higher notes to ring out above the blunted lower tones, making for a slightly more accessible reminder of John Cage's celebrated "prepared" piano works of the 1940s.

Ades goes on to offer a musical take on T.S. Eliot's "Landscape" poems, highlighted by soprano Valdine Anderson's wildly divergent whoops and swoops that culminate in her frantic, Olivier Messiaen-ic birdsong singing of "Oh quick quick quick, hear the song-sparrow." It really is good stuff.

Not so good is the title cut, which closes the CD with soprano Mary Carewe offering jazzy inflections that are answered by Ades' busy piano. The results sound like a slightly befuddled Billie Holiday stepping through a 12-toned beatnik composition in some forgotten Greenwich Village coffee house. It's not entirely convincing, but, like the rest of the disc, it moves with the kind of confidence many classical composers approach much later in life and, in some cases, only after they've become the beleaguered Dead White Males that haunt classical's attempts to keep up with the times.

--Ted Simons

Brave Combo
Group Dance Epidemic
(Rounder Records)

What Pavement said about Smashing Pumpkins was mean but true: Too much popular music is bereft of purpose. Most recordings are neither enjoyable enough to qualify as real entertainment, nor enlightening enough to be particularly good art. So when Brave Combo advertises its music as "Fun and Functional" on the cover of its new album, Group Dance Epidemic, it's wise to take note.

Group Dance Epidemic is Brave Combo's response to the dual plagues afflicting organized dance these days: On one side, there are the undisciplined gyrations and moshing of youth dance, and on the other, the remedial stepping of the Electric Slide and Macarena. Brave Combo is out to remind us how fun formal dance steps can be when they're named things like "The Hokey Pokey," "Hand Jive" and, of course, "The Hustle." To help us relearn the moves, Group Dance Epidemic's CD booklet includes photos and instructions for each dance, in place of the lyrics (who listens to words when they're dancing, anyway?).

Of course, this is Brave Combo--Denton, Texas' best, and only, New Wave polka/world-music sextet. This is a group that recorded "Stairway to Heaven" as a swing tune, "Hava Nagila" as a twist and "Satisfaction" as a cha-cha. It's not surprising, then, that Brave Combo's take on popular group dance would be dizzyingly dynamic and eclectic.

In the group's capable hands, "The Hokey Pokey" gets both a rock (with Led Zep drums and twang guitar) and cowbell-funk go-go reading; the Jeopardy! theme becomes a schottische; and "The Hustle" interweaves bits of "Walk on the Wild Side." Two-left-footers of the world, unite.

--Roni Sarig

Charlie Chesterman
Dynamite Music Machine
(Slow River Records)

As leader of the raucous but sadly unheralded Boston band Scruffy the Cat, Charlie Chesterman was insurgent country when insurgent country wasn't cool. Rooted in a mid-'80s Beantown scene defined by the icy pop of 'Til Tuesday, Scruffy was the endearing mutt that you bring home out of sympathy and end up loving. It could make a banjo sound like a real rock 'n' roll instrument, and, conversely, could make roaring guitars meet the twangy demands of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire." It could even appropriate Bo Diddley's trademark beat and use it to sell the odd plight of an obsessive voyeur, in "Shadow Boy."

On his own, Chesterman remains the unabashed traditionalist. He's not astonishingly clever or quirky, he just remembers that rock 'n' roll used to be fun, and knows how to translate his love for the music to tape. Exuberant yet relaxed, he comes off like a humbler NRBQ, or Keith Richards without the nicotine tonsils. Perhaps the best proof of his seamless command is that his covers of rock standards like "I'm Ready" or "Tallahassee Lassie" sound indistinguishable from wild originals like "Goodbye to You" or the harmonica-laced romp "Wants to Be Bob Dylan Singing Electric Guitar Blooze."

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