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Jeff Beresford-Howe

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The Hours (soundtrack)

Philip Glass, composer, Michael Riesman and the Lyric Quartet

I haven't seen The Hours, and I'm not planning on doing so anytime soon. I expect to be slapped around intellectually by Hollywood movies, but I won't stand for being held down by a big, fat, freakishly temperamental thug and whacked upside the head with a two-by-four. Nicole Kidman playing Virginia Woolf? Why not Jim Carrey playing Einstein, or Marky Mark as an astronaut?

Not only that, but the usual pleasures of gazing at Kidman for two hours are wiped out by the fact that it's an ensemble movie and she's wearing a ridiculous prosthetic nose.

I was also leery because The Hours is scored by Philip Glass. The minimalist auteur is profoundly masculine, not like John Wayne, but in a depressed, joyless Scandinavian kind of way. He's a very odd choice for what is essentially a women's movie.

Then I got a call the other day from a woman I know. Her voice was soft and slow and you could hear her smile in it. "She's blushing," I thought, and I was right. She'd been spending time gazing out her bedroom window into the woods, touching herself over and over again while she listened to Glass's soundtrack for The Hours.

"You would really like it," she said. Then she giggled. So I went out and bought it and there's no doubt that my friend, who's a musician herself, got to the heart and soul of Glass's piece.

It is a magnificent piece of music, sensual in a way that is definitive. It's steady as she goes, as most of Glass is. (And, in fact, it's not a huge departure; when Glass drops in bits and pieces of a couple of earlier works in this soundtrack, such as Glassworks, they're certainly not out of place.)

But Glass also allows the music to pulse. While there are fourteen separate pieces, almost an hour of music, the whole thing plays like a series of variations on a groove which is soft and exquisitely gentle, yet firm. There's nothing that's wildly exuberant anywhere on this soundtrack, but there are occasional, almost "found" crescendos -- "Escape!" has one of the best -- and always a sense of variation without dropping the beat or purpose. In the last, title track, Glass finally allows the most profound crescendo of the whole piece to build, then lets it fall away with a gorgeous set of descending figures on piano, then strings. It's a great moment.

A big part of the credit for that and the rest of the album has to go to pianist Michael Riesman, who plays here with the also wonderful Lyric Quartet. Riesman stays within the structure Glass lays out for him -- nothing over the top or histrionic, certainly -- but manages to convey a gorgeous sense of tenderness and exploration. The Quartet (five musicians are credited: Rolf Wilson and Edmund Coxon on violin, Nicholas Barr, viola, David Daniels, cello, Chris Laurence, double bass) follow Riesman with superb empathy. Strings in Glass's compositions always have to find a way to balance Glass's distance with the inherent desire to play with warmth, and these guys do it perfectly.

Wait for Me

Susan Tedeschi

The poor woman's Bonnie Raitt, complete with her own stray Grammy, Susan Tedeschi has found a place in the jam band scene and is even a quasi member of The Dead.

This is true despite the fact that she's about as jammy as Tony Bennett. She's a blues girl, with occasional detours into R&B. She's committed to the blues without sacrificing modernity or her own perspective. It's quite a coup.

She stays true to her musical path on her new album, but this is a different kind of blues. With a marriage to guitarist nonpareil Derek Trucks -- who is all over Wait for Me -- and a new baby, Tedeschi is singing the happy woman blues:

When I wake up in the garden
Peaceful slumber wakes my eyes
The sun and moon are always present
There are no more crying people around

Love fills all up inside me
Filling my heart with wishful dreams
No more sorrow fills my canvas
Along this lonely sea

-- "In the Garden," Tedeschi/Shannon

In the fashion of such things, she does manage a couple of relationship-gone-bad tunes on Wait for Me, but even in those, she's basically saying, Hey, we can work this shit out. The one exception is a dead-on cover of Dylan's "Don't Think Twice It's Alright" and even that has a gorgeous, late night arrangement which emphasizes the wistfulness of the tune. It's hers now if she wants it.

Mostly what we have here is a lot of songs about feeling very good about who and where she is. It's an amazing thing to hear from someone who's not selling something. It would make the whole album worth it even if Trucks didn't have a lot of gorgeous playing on it, or her band wasn't so good, or Tedeschi didn't nail every single vocal, including on the semi-hit "Alone," and even if Chuck Berry keyboardist Johnnie Johnson didn't add rollicking piano to "I Fell In Love" and even if Jason Crosby didn't rip on B-3 on "Don't Think Twice" and even if Tedeschi didn't break your heart on the verse, "...Parting is such sweet sorrow/Knowing that you may not be back tomorrow/Oh, but if you ever change your mind/Oh darling, call me, call me any time".

And finally, let's not forget the sex. It'd be worth it even if she didn't make you desperately wish you could be the person she's talking about when she sings, "Later on he kissed me/And took me by the hand/He whispered in my ear and I could barely stand".

Mambo Sinuendo
Ry Cooder and Manuel Galban

Okay, events have forcefully intervened to make some other implications of the stolen 2000 election come to the fore, but if you're a music fan, one you've noticed for sure is that the Bush Administration, grateful to South Florida Cuban crypto-fascists, has restored strict embargo rules against Cuba. This has cut off the flow of music from Ry Cooder and his Buena Vista Social Club confreres.

It turns out, though, that there is one last outing, for the time being, at least. The Clinton Administration slipped a one-year embargo exemption for Cooder in among all those last-minute pardons -- remember them? -- and the result is a new album with Cooder and Cuban guitarist Manuel Galban.

Galban is less traditional than previous Cuban Cooder collaborators, and the result is an album that hews to traditional Cuban song structures but sounds like it was recorded by an American rock band with ungodly talent. Cooder and Galban swap solos, interlocking and otherwise, pick on electric and slide guitars, and play with a very tight band that includes a great Cuban bassist, Orlando "Cachaito" Lopez, session drumming legend Jim Keltner, Cooder's percussionist son Joachim, a phalanx of Cuban percussionists, the occasional female vocalist or two, and even -- you're going to think I'm making this up -- Herb Alpert on the title track. Cooder himself also drops in on electric piano once.

Every single track is gorgeously recorded -- no mean feat in Cuba -- and sounds like the band is exactly where it needs to be. The album may disappoint you slightly if you're looking for something utterly roots-oriented, but as music that's alive and in the moment, this is the best album I've heard in the last six months.

©2003 by Jeff Beresford-Howe

Jeff Beresford-Howe is a writer living in Oakland. Read more of his work in the Slow Trains essays archive.

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