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Mick Hutson/Redferns/Getty Images

Mick Hutson/Redferns/Getty Images


Affirmative reminders

Three members of the iconic band Yes release new albums

Lest young readers misunderstand, the term “progressive rock” does not refer to music made in support of Antifa or Black Lives Matter.

Rather, it refers to a style that mashes up psychedelia, Western classical, and jazz, often with a dash (and sometimes dollops) of “mystical” pseudo-poetry where proper lyrics should be. It ruled the late-night FM-radio roost throughout the ’70s. New bands tend its pulse even now.  

The original generation, however, isn’t ready to pass the baton.

Consider, for example, 1000 Hands: Chapter One (Blue Élan), Love Is (BMG), and The Red Planet (R&D Multimedia), the latest albums by Jon Anderson, Steve Howe, and Rick Wakeman respectively. And although they’re solo efforts, they’re solo efforts by three-fifths of the classic lineup of one of prog rock’s most iconic groups, Yes. And whether juxtaposed or shuffled together, Yes is what they sound like.

There’s Jon Anderson’s airy and instantly identifiable alto-tenor voice, which on the evidence of 1000 Hands must have been kept in a time capsule. True, Anderson began work on the album circa 1990, so some of the vocals might sound youthful because, relatively speaking, they are. A few songs, however, are of recent vintage, meaning that Anderson’s singing on those must be recent too. And, frankly, however many eras the vocals represent, you can’t tell one from another. Not a bad trick for a singer who’ll turn 76 in October.

Almost as crucial to the Yes sound is Steve Howe’s guitar virtuosity, the many facets of which are on full display throughout Love Is. Electric but never heavy, acoustic but never precious, Howe chisels riffs and melodies from the cliffs of rock, folk, and pop (he was a member of Asia after all) atop the brisk beats of his son and drummer Dylan. And on the idyllic instrumental “Pause for Thought,” there’s just enough synthesizer to put one in mind of …

… Rick Wakeman. Wakeman’s masterly—and masterful—way with various electronic keyboards (Korg, Roland, Hammond, Mellotron, and Minimoog according to his new album’s credits) elevated Yes’ music into the cosmos back in the day, and he makes them sound every bit as extraterrestrial on The Red Planet, riding prog-heaven chord changes and the martial rhythms of a three-man backing band called the English Rock Ensemble.

Anderson’s 1000 Hands, meanwhile, is called 1000 Hands because it features the contributions of over 20 mostly famous musicians and the Orlando Symphony Orchestra. A “thousand hands” is an exaggeration, obviously, but it accounts for the textures, which bear aloft the most consistently buoyant melodies of Anderson’s career.

And while at 73 Howe sings only passably, he and his bassist Jon Davison harmonize well enough to make one wonder whether Crosby, Stills & Nash might be willing to have a go at covering a Love Is noninstrumental or two.

The Red Planet comes on red vinyl.

Yesterdays was the title of an early Yes compilation. Think of the latest from Anderson, Howe, and Wakeman as ­Yesterdays Once More.

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Chris Larson Studio

Chris Larson Studio


Wise Blood as opera

An enjoyable “immersive exhibition” of Flannery O’Connor’s novel

The great Catholic short-story writer and novelist Flannery O’Connor is in the news again—and for the same reason that it seems she’s ever in the news anymore: racism.

O’Connor was no racist. But you’d never know if your only information source were The New Yorker, which recently published an essay by Paul Elie bearing the question-begging title “How Racist Was Flannery O’Connor?” Feel free to skip to Jessica Hooten Wilson’s rebuttal in First Things and Justin Lee’s at Arc Digital for succinct explanations of why Elie’s thesis leaks like a sieve. 

Then, thus reassured of the purity of O’Connor’s intentions, log on to your favorite digital-music web store and grab the new original-cast recording of Wise Blood (New Focus), a one-hour-and-19-minute “immersive opera exhibition” by the composer Anthony Gatto and the artist Chris Larson based on O’Connor’s 1952 novel of the same name. (The opera is called an “immersive exhibition,” incidentally, because it’s staged so that the action surrounds the audience; a full-length video of a 2015 performance is available on YouTube.)

Wise Blood the novel follows the efforts of the disillusioned World War II veteran Hazel Motes to free himself of every last vestige of his intense, fundamentalist-Christian upbringing, convinced as he is that the gospel is nothing but a hoax meant to bamboozle the ignorant. Reality, however, in the form of a series of bizarre antagonists, keeps breaking in, and eventually Motes fails at his task while paradoxically (and reluctantly) attaining something of inestimably greater worth.

Wise Blood the opera transforms O’Connor’s story into a fever dream, blending subtly tormented music as performed by a brass-heavy orchestra and a smaller woodwinds-heavy ensemble with vocal performances that require as much in the way of effective spoken-line delivery (i.e., acting) as they do in the way of singing. It’s as if the principal performers (each of whom is magnificent) only burst into song when the passions warring within their blinkered souls become too much for mere speech.

Other characteristics of the work make it especially timely given the latest attempts to banish O’Connor into outer darkness. One is Gatto’s excising of the “N-word” from his libretto (it’s spoken or thought over a dozen times by the characters in O’Connor’s novel). Another is his casting of the African Americans Martin Bakari and Brian Major as Hazel Motes and the charlatan preacher Asa Hawks respectively. Whatever their flaws, race-based bigotry is evidently not among them.

Admittedly, such revisionism puts a crimp in the characters’ hubris and therefore makes Motes in particular a shade more likable than O’Connor intended him to be. But it also nudges him toward an Everyman status that places him and the story beyond the reach of the cancel-O’Connor mob.

Forty-one years ago, the director John Huston oversaw a painstakingly literal cinematic adaptation of Wise Blood, one that, despite strong performances from Brad Dourif and Harry Dean Stanton, came off flat. Gatto’s Wise Blood is the aesthetic antithesis of Huston’s in every way that matters.

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Too good to overlook

Noteworthy new or recent releases

Heart’s Ease by Shirley Collins: Buoyed by the warm reception greeting her 2016 comeback, Lodestar, this British folk heroine returns with a dozen more explorations of the traditional and the neo-traditional songbooks. The perpetually haunting effect results in part from the backward-time-travel instrumentation (acoustic guitars, hurdy-­gurdies, fiddles, harmoniums), in part from the emotionally rich subject matter (tragedies and comedies associated with seafaring, romance, and domesticity), in part from the presence of “What Wondrous Love Is This,” and in part from Collins’ voice, which along with the rest of her turned 85 in July and which she metaphorically assesses in couplet: “The feet that were nimble tread carefully now / As gentle a measure as age do allow.”

The Delta Sweete (Deluxe Edition) by Bobbie Gentry: This reissue’s timing—two years past its subject’s 50th anniversary—suggests that were it not for the love shown The Delta Sweete last year by Mercury Rev (see “Encore”), Capitol’s deluxe-edition overseers might have overlooked it altogether. Still, they’ve done the job right, leading with a new stereo remastering that makes the ambitiously diverse sonic details easier than ever to appreciate. So why, in retrospect, did it bomb? Because it was a folk-country-gospel-blues concept album with whiffs of Percy Faith, Dusty Springfield, and Simon & Garfunkel in the age of Tommy? Because only “Okolona River Bottom Band” sounded anything like the “Ode to Billie Joe” follow-up that everyone was expecting? Whatever the reasons, they no longer apply.

I’ve Got You Covered by Wendy Moten: Moten has a wonderful voice. Warm, full, and alert to nuance, it’s arguably the best on the pop-country-R&B spectrum yet to get its rightful due. Enter Vince Gill, who besides producing this project has also had the good sense to employ Moten as a member of his touring band for the last four years, during which time they’ve road-tested Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe,” Linda Ronstadt’s “Faithless Love,” Jeannie Seely’s “Don’t Touch Me,” and Ernest Tubb’s “Driving Nails in My Coffin,” all of which appear herein. As for the other five, Moten has said that Gill “surprised” her with them on the day of recording to keep her sounding “spontaneous and fresh.” The strategy worked.

Nashville Tears: The Songs of Hugh Prestwood by Rumer: Except maybe in Nashville, into whose Songwriters’ Hall of Fame he was inducted 14 years ago, Hugh Prestwood is not a household name. But if this album gets the attention it deserves, the situation could change. His country-folk, country-pop, and country-country inclinations give Rumer something new against which to test her velvet alto, resulting in one quiet revelation after another. One example: Both “Hard Times for Lovers” (a minor hit for Judy Collins in the Me Decade) and “Ghost in This House” (a major hit for Shenandoah in whatever the ’90s were) cast divorce in a negative light. But they’ve never reinforced each other by appearing in the same place until now.

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