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CD Reviews: Review of Tape Recorder (Collected Works) by Yazbek
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Click here to buy yourself a copy from Amazon.com Yazbek: Tape Recorder (Collected Works) (What Are Records 2005)

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David Yazbek first turned the heads of discerning pop fans in the mid ‘90s, when his name was linked with XTC frontman Andy Partridge, but a quick scan of his accomplishments prior to his solo recording career offers the surprising revelation that he was also an Emmy-award winning writer for “Late Night with David Letterman.” Beyond his solo work, he’s also composed the scores for two critically acclaimed Broadway musicals – The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels – as well as having worked with Tito Puente, They Might Be Giants, Ruben Blades, and the Crash Test Dummies. (Now that’s diversity.) He’s also responsible for inflicting upon the world the so-catchy-it’s-dangerous theme song for the award-winning PBS show, “Where in the World Is Carmen San Diego?”

Despite these accomplishments, Yazbek still manages to fly under the radar when it comes to his solo work...and I’m talking waaaaaaay under the radar. Case and point: I’ve been a fan of his first two albums and have stayed on the lookout for new material by the guy...and, yet, I was utterly unaware of the existence of a third album – released way back in 2001, no less – until examining the liner notes of Yazbek’s first career summary, the just-released Tape Recorder (Collected Works), on his longtime label, What Are Records.

It only takes the first song on the collection, “Strange Warm Day” (taken from that aforementioned third album, titled Damascus), for the listener to realize that the pairing of Yazbek and Partridge is a natural. The similarity between their voices is instantly noticeable. Partridge is thanked by Yazbek in the liner notes, describing him as “my friend of the last 16 years, who has served as an inspiration as well as an occasional coconspirator and ongoing correspondent.” Partridge’s only confirmed contributions on Tape Recorder, however, are to the closing track, “Mississippi Honeymoon,” to which he added guitar, backing vocals, and percussion. (The individual credits for each song aren’t listed in the liner notes.) Still, if you were to think he’s on “Surface Tension” (he isn’t), you’d be forgiven; it’s two minutes worth of the best XTC song never actually written by the band.

Imagine a combination of Partridge, Jon Brion, and Donald Fagen, with the occasional bit of Rufus Wainwright (Yazbek does write show tunes, you know), and you’re starting to get the idea of what you have on your hands with Tape Recorder. The pure pop bounce of “Monkey In The Middle” will have you toes tapping out of control, “Cowgirls Go to Santo Domingo” sounds intentionally reminiscent of “South of the Border (Down Mexico Way),” and “Schmuck in a Vacuum” manages to be quirky fun without reaching the point of inaccessibility. The only inclusion from Yazbek’s Broadway forays is a newly re-recorded version – now with steel guitar! - of “Breeze off the River,” from The Full Monty, its lyrics describing a father still trying to come to grips with parental responsibilities.

And I never feel like somebody
Somebody calls a father
And I can’t explain
But when I look at you, kid
It’s like a mirror
It spins my head
It wakes me
Like the breeze off the river
Every time I see your face
And it’s strange but familiar
Like a map of a better place

What’s ultimately most disappointing about this anthology of Yazbek’s work is that it doesn’t fill out the entire disc; even with exclusion of his Broadway work, his three studio albums for W.A.R. provide ample material. In particular, it seems like a missed opportunity that “Welcome to My World,” the lead track from Yazbek’s debut album (and a vocal collaboration with Rockapella founder Sean Altman), wasn’t used to introduce listeners to Tape Recorder. A less surprising exclusion, though one that still would’ve been pleasant to find here, is “You Are Here,” an Andy Partridge composition that, to date, has only appeared on Yazbek’s second album, Tock.

If David Yazbek maintains his success on the Great White Way, it’s anyone’s guess when we’ll see another proper studio album from him. Until then, however, Tape Recorder fills a void - albeit not as completely as it might have – and will very likely serve to steer people toward picking up the three discs from which this compilation’s contents are derived. 

~Will Harris 


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