Monday, February 01, 2016

Bill Frisell - When You Wish Upon a Star (Sony Masterworks, 2016)

Guitarist Bill Frisell has made several albums in the past that have examined different parts of the American experience from the Old West to country music, the blues and beyond. On this album he examines classic film and television music with mixed results in the company of longtime associates Petra Haden on vocals, Eyvind Kang on viola, Thomas Morgan on bass and Rudy Royston on drums and percussion. The music is played immaculately and that is not part of the problem, it’s just that the arrangements on some of the songs lead a bit to be desired. There is a yearning to the instrumental two-part “To Kill a Mockingbird” which fits well with the story it echoes, but following that with the James Bond theme “You Only Live Twice” is a bit of a shock. The pace is slow and languid, and Haden’s vocals drift over the music before rising to a crescendo, and then dropping out into a dreamy section for the band.  This is Haden’s best performance as she is allowed to really breathe dynamics into the music and have the band follow and support her. The theme from “Psycho” is split into two short parts as well and it is one of the highlights of the album, with complex viola, excellent drumming and wordless vocals combining for a sense of unease and dread, before turning on a dime into a haunted aftermath. The theme from “Bonanza” is right up Frisell’s alley and he makes the most of it playing a twangy guitar lead with the rest of the band following him for a short and sweet performance that could have gone on much longer. “As a Judgment” has a great ominous opening, with shrieks of viola and jabs of guitar and drums. There is a dark feeling of danger in the sweeping grandeur of the performance, which lies in stark contrast to the poppier moments. Another winner is “Farewell to Cheyenne” with a clear western feel, loping along on horseback, as Haden sings wordlessly la-la-la and there is a light and jaunty feel to the performance, with Frisell taking an old time understated country and western solo. “Tales From the Dark Side” is from an animated special that Frisell worked on before and is really feels like the dark side as he really leads the band thorough a terrifying and truly awake section of the album. Although these are really nice moments, I must say that I can’t get behind the versions of “Moon River” and “When You Wish Upon A Star.” The schmaltz level is just off of the charts and while it doesn’t completely ruin my enjoyment of the album is does lend the album a duality between the easy listening music and the more challenging fare. Frisell’s music is very frustrating for me because I feel that it has become lighter and less substantial, although I remain a fan. He’s the only musician to win album of the year twice from me for Silent Comedy (2013) and The Intercontinentals (2003) so I’ll continue to wade through the dross in hope for another gem. When You Wish Upon a Star -

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