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Reviews by - George Bennett

Aimee, man!, a great band, and a couple of Christmas discs that never fail to work for us at this time of year get the quick once-over in this edition of 'Thru The Crax'...We would like to thank our readers for choosing to spend their valuable time with us throughout the year, in both reading and commenting on our news and reviews.  We'll see you back here again after Christmas, and, no matter what you may choose to celebrate, we wish you happiness (and an SACD and/or DVD-A player and lots of discs!).  Many thanks, and now...read on...

Aimee Mann -- Live at St Ann's Warehouse CD and DVD (Red Records)

In which the incomparable Aimee Mann strums and sings her way, along with her grand band, thru many fan favorites.  Mann has been a favorite of mine since her 1980's days as lead-singer/songwriter for 'Til Tuesday (of "Voices Carry" fame).  (Each 'Til Tuesday album is a classic, and if you only know the hit single, check out the four separate discs - really great, way under-appreciated stuff!)  Back to our story:  Mann dissolved the band and released her highly acclaimed solo debut, 'Whatever', in 1993.  From then on, despite major label problems enough to sink any artist, Mann has released  excellent albums, close-up studies of relationships in all their glory and hopelessness.  She finally formed her own label, Superego, in 2002, after her first truly successful disc, the soundtrack to the wonderful film 'Magnolia' (2000), and its hit "Save Me", finally brought the attention she so richly deserved. Since then, 'Bachelor No. 2' (2000) and 'Lost in Space' (2002) have carried on the tradition.  
Incomparable, we say?  Yep.  In that there is no one else who quite sounds like her, or looks like her...or who has her sad-sack way with a tune.  Her eye for the details and intricacies of love-life's paradoxes and pain is nonpareil (as is her ear for a subtle hook).  Throw in a DVD containing excellent, rich and colorful 5.1audio/video of the concert on the CD (a few songs more, and a few different), and we give you well over two hours of superbly recorded musical super-enjoyment, enough to fill any stocking...and a GREAT way to discover a great artist - Aimee Mann, man!  Way good!  -- CD: DVD:

Blue Rodeo -- Greatest Hits, Volume 1   (Rounder)

Here we have one of the greatest alt-country/pop-rock bands that few in the States have ever heard of.  Canada's best loved, best kept secret for too many years has finally released a greatest hits disc, and on a label that is distributed in the U.S. (the musician friendly Rounder Records.  Thanks, folks!).  Now, it's a mighty hard thing to release a single disc of Blue Rodeo's greatest hits, for three reasons.  One, these were only hits in Canada (and some other parts of the world); two, these aren't all "hits", as it were, some are great album tracks (and one is an absolutely god-awful rendition, on disc for the first time, of the Bee Gee's great "To Love Somebody"), thus, 'Best of Vol. 1' would be a more accurate title; and three, if you're gonna release the best of Blue Rodeo, one disc is certainly not gonna be enough room to contain them all (thus, we suppose, the 'Vol. 1' designation.  This seems to be a rather ill-considered move, though, as listeners who are not that impressed with some of the songs chosen for 'Vol. 1' [over many others this writer considers much better] are not likely to purchase a 'Vol. 2 or 'Vol. 3', thus cutting off a possible love-fest for Blue Rodeo in the States at the knees, so to speak.)
Some of the truly great offerings here include the Jim McGuinn sounding "Til I Am Myself Again", the majestic "Lost Together", the loping "5 Days in May", the folky-yet-anthemic "Hasn't Hit Me Yet", the sublime "Bad Timing" (one of my favorite songs of all-time, by anyone...guaranteed goosebumps) and the daringly perfect "Dark Angel" (a long, winding, sorta psychedelic hybrid featuring the piano and ghostly backing-vocals of one Sarah McLachlan).  Lead singers/songwriters Greg Keelor and Jim Cuddy have that unique ability, usually reserved for siblings, to blend voices superbly - some of the prettiest harmonizing ever put on disc.  Their lyrics are everyman accessible, about the road and love and loss and friends and pickin' and grinnin'...wonderful stuff (although some tracks could certainly be bettered by other Blue Rodeo catalog offerings).  If they don't shoot themselves in the foot one too many times, Blue Rodeo might still get the recognition they so well deserve in the good ol' U.S.of A..  Give it a try.  Mostly, it's heaven.


Mannheim Steamroller -- Christmas (American Gramaphone)

The first of Chip Davis's Mannheim Steamroller's Christmas discs, and, far-and-away, still their best.  Released in 1984, years before just about everybody and his brother had heard of the product-grinding muti-million dollar machine that the MannSteam franchise would become, 'Christmas' has a warmth, a glow, an over-all shiny, close, wonderful, happy feeling that is smile-inducing, comforting and timeless.  The combination of synthesizers with strings and woodwinds and drums, and all sorts of medieval instrumentation is a perfectly pleasing, flowing, gliding amalgam of holiday cheer that just down-right gives you the (dare I?) warm-fuzzies (well, it does!).
"Deck the Halls" starts the disc with a perfect blend of old and new.  It sounds as though it should have always been played this way.  Rousing!  "We Three Kings" is a baroque, Jethro Tull-like offering with a beautiful string resolve.  The disc also contains lesser known period pieces, such as the beautiful 17th Century French "Bring a Torch" and the 16th Century English "Coventry Carol".  "Good King Winceslas" kicks in with the synths and drums and period acoustic instruments again, and the disc sails on through some 36 minutes of Christmas soundtrack perfection.  I've loved this one for years!  It'll put you in the Christmas mood, alright.  Highly recommended! --

Carpenters -- Christmas Portrait (A&M Records)

Another great Christmas disc from years gone by that always gets many a turn in the player 'round here at this time of year.  From 1978 and 1984 comes this single disc collection stuffed with well-known Christmas favorites, done in that Carpenters' way with Karen's enchantingly beautiful voice.  70 minutes of sheer perfection!  Richard Carpenter's arrangements are Brian Wilson-like in genius and harmony - small quartet, orchestral or big-band.  "Overture" is an amalgam of short snippets of "Happy Holiday", "The First Noel". "March of The Toys", and other popular and not-so-well-known beauties.  "An Old-Fashioned Christmas" is more lush than The Beach Boys-like chorale perfection.  (Did Richard Carpenter ever get enough credit for his part in the Carpenter's wonderful arrangements of everything they did?)  
"Christmas Waltz" introduces the unmistakable beauty that is Karen Carpenter's ice-melting voice...right into "Sleigh Ride".  Jaunty and marvelous!  "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" will bring a tear to the eye, knowing Karen's plight...Mel Torme's "Christmas Song" gets the Carpenter's treatment, simply exquisite.  My God, that girl could sing...the beauty just spins on and on, carrying you away on old dreams and new.  Other standouts include "Merry Christmas Darling", especially poignant in this time of separation for so many...too many, as is "Home For the Holidays" and the especially touching "I'll Be Home For Christmas", again, considering Karen's demise and, well, all the rest.  One last touch...has there EVER been a more beautiful song than "Ave Maria" ?  Karen's light vibrato and honey clarity raise it to its rightful place of stature in the canon of heavenly songs brought to earth.  This set gets my highest recommendation.  Merry Christmas! and to all, a goodnight... --

Check out some "new" music, folks.  Stuff you never heard of before.  Almost any album by any artist mentioned in this edition of Thru The Crax is sure to please.  Note the recommendations and begin with those.  Life's too short to miss this stuff!!

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