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  Listen Up! 10/31/03 Listen Up!

Friday, Oct. 31

Joan Baez, “Dark Chords on a Big Guitar,” Koch Records. I admit, I haven’t thought about listening to a Joan Baez record in twenty years or more, but here she is covering Greg Brown, Steve Earle, Gillian Welch, Joe Henry, and others. I had to at least see what’s going on. It took me a couple minutes to get past the shock of her new lower register – Baez used to sing everything in as high a key as a guitar would allow. Once I got past that, I realized the arrangements of these songs are brilliant, all clipped guitar bits, open space, wide bursts of acoustic bass, steady, controlled drums, and Baez’s vocals front and center. She’s singing with a looser feel than she used to, allowing the rhythms to breathe, allowing the words to flow. That’s probably the big connection between all the diverse writers on this record – I didn’t mention Ryan Adams, who I normally don’t like, or Caitlin Cary, who I don’t really know except she used to be in Whiskeytown with Adams, but they’ve actually contributed two of my very favorite tracks here. The words are combined with the melodies and the rhythms in a very modern way, built on traditions but not held back by them. I’ll tell you this. I can’t think of any other artist working 43 years after her debut album who has made what strikes me as the best record of her career.

R.E.M., “The Best of R.E.M. In Time 1988-2003,” Warner Brothers Records. I’m aware that CDs have improved in quality. I’m aware that anything I own that hasn’t been remastered in the last few years is just an upgrade waiting to happen. Now, I find that even if the original CD was recorded in the last ten years, you can improve it with a fresh remastering job. You won’t believe the vibrancy of these R.E.M. cuts from albums like “Automatic For the People” or “Monster,” records which seemed to sound pretty damn good in the first place. This is a really well-programmed selection of hits and should-have-beens from R.E.M., put together in such a way that you barely notice they haven’t done anything you’ve cared about since 1995. I would definitely play this collection over any of the actual original albums.

--Steve Pick


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