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Various Artists – Largo (1998)
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Before telling you how much I love this album, and how I’ve hung onto it since stumbling across it in a used bin in the spring of ‘98, I will tell you what it is:

1. A full-length tribute to Antonin Dvorak’s From the New World.
2. Mostly written by Eric Bazilian and Rob Hyman, also known as the creative engine that drives the Hooters.
3. Featuring special guests including Cyndi Lauper and Joan Osborne.

So now that I’ve gotten that out of the way — and you’re probably thinking this is something you’d never want to hear — let’s talk about why Largo is better than it has any right to be. Let’s talk, first, about Dvorak. For the sake of making things easy for me, I’ll assume you know nothing at all about nineteenth-century classical composers, and begin by telling you that Dvorak was one. Specifically, he was a Czech nineteenth-century classical composer, which makes him seem like a bit of an odd choice for a ’90s pop tribute, but appearances can be deceiving.

They’re deceiving, in this case, because Dvorak took a trip to America in 1892, and fell in love. His focus as a composer had always been on folk music, and he was very excited by what he heard here; so excited, in fact, that From the New World was written less than a year after his arrival. After its premiere, he stated:

I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the negro melodies. This must be the real foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States.

And here’s where you can probably see the connection from Dvorak to modern pop — to the whole of American music, actually. New World is a piece as quintessentially American as anything by Gershwin, Berlin, Foster, or Springsteen; what makes it really great, in my opinion, is how neatly it musically encapsulates the experiences of immigrants and former slaves. It isn’t a symphony you may have heard before — or even heard of — but it’s part of our bedrock.

Bazilian and Hyman went about paying tribute to New World in the best possible way, at least in terms of communicating its essence to a modern audience: They made a recording that — if you didn’t know a thing about Dvorak or why this album was made — holds up on its own as an all-star AAA record. In addition to Lauper and Osborne, some of the featured performers include Taj Mahal, Willie Nile, Levon Helm, and Garth Hudson. The references to Dvorak (or classical music in general) are extremely implicit; though several of Dvorak’s pieces serve as interludes, they’re transformed so completely that even a seasoned symphony-goer could be forgiven for failing to recognize them. To give just one example, the album’s opener, “Chieftains Largo,” consists of Dvorak given the Irish folk treatment courtesy of…well, The Chieftains.

In all honesty, the pop stuff is a little uneven; some of it is a little weak. But when it’s good, it’s very good. If the references to Dvorak’s music are implicit, then the spirit and message of that music is completely explicit. These songs lovingly evoke the American experience, from the Underground Railroad anthem “Freedom Ride” (download) (featuring a transcendent Taj Mahal) to the spiritual “Gimme A Stone” (download) (featuring typically outstanding vocals from Levon Helm).

For me, though, Largo‘s high point comes courtesy of David Forman, a one-album wonder from the ’70s who I’d never even heard of before (though he maintains a website and continues to perform and record). His solo turn, “Largo’s Dream” (download), is a thing of beauty, drawing on black American history from the slave ships to Mighty Joe Young to Marvin Gaye, all above a gorgeous, floating piano melody. I think I’ve heard it thousands of times and will hear it thousands more, and it’ll probably never stop giving me goosebumps:

I’m sleeping at the moment
I’m dreaming and you’re in it
Running down the Little Big Horn
In your platform shoes
And the harder you’ll be running
Then the slower you’ll be going
Are you trying to get to me now
Like I’m trying to get to you?

Aw, it’s great. I love it. Download it and tell me what you think. And buy a copy for yourself.

ADDED SUPER-SPECIAL BONUS: Our own Will Harris recently had the chance to ask Rob Hyman about Largo, and their Q&A follows below:

How did the project come about?

Quite simply, I was sitting in my home music room one day with Rick Chertoff, a close friend, former band-mate (drummer) and producer of the Hooters albums on Columbia. I was trying to identify a melody which turned out to be the Largo theme from Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” and, later, the basis for the vocal song, “Going Home.” Rick knew it, and then, coincidentally and amazingly, we found a vinyl LP version of the symphony in my record collection, conducted by Leonard Bernstein. The liner notes for the album simply explained how Antonin Dvorak, a classic European composer, had come to America in the late 1890s, looking for the “classical” American music, but like Bono, didn’t find what he was looking for. Instead, he discovered that our music was truly a melting pot of Native American chants, Celtic and other immigrant folk tunes, and slave songs which lead to the blues and jazz we know today. The New World Symphony was based on many of these melodies. And a light bulb went off for us. We also were big fans of all these musical styles, and with the Largo theme as our foundation, we started to write a cycle of songs based on the American musical roots as we’ve come to know them. Lots of research pushed us on our way, and then the idea of guest musicians came to us as a method of developing the concept through different points of view. It was quite an inspiring, though very mystical, musical experiment.

Was it as much of a labor of love as it appears to be on the surface?

“Labor of Love” perfectly describes the writing and recording process. As we wrote the pieces, we started to assemble our wish list of guest vocalists and players, some of whom we’ve had the pleasure to work with, and everyone was on board and just as excited to participate as we were.

Do you have any particular favorite tracks?

It’s really hard to pick a favorite track – we really felt good about them all! – and equally memorable were the recording sessions, all thrilling. Many road trips followed, and that became part of the experience as well. We drove down to Nashville, through the Blue Ridge Mountains, to record the Chieftains at Ocean Way Studios, for their version of “Largo” which opens the album, and then they also contributed their Celtic sound to “An Uncommon Love.” Another highlight was going up to Woodstock to work with our idols Levon Helm (great vocals on “Gimme A Stone”) and mad keyboard genius Garth Hudson (“Garth Largo”.) We had an amazing session with Cyndi Lauper in NYC at Electric Ladyland for “White Man’s Melody” (a favorite lyric for me.) I also love Taj Mahal’s raw and rocking energy on “Freedom Ride” and David Forman’s emotional vocal on “Largo’s Dream.” Every song truly had a story, and we really felt charged each step of the way. One thing instantly led to another….and another. It’s so great when that happens! (Eric and I have had many similar moments writing and recording with the Hooters.)

It’s quite a heavy concept, but do you personally think it succeeded as a whole?

Well, in some ways, as a “concept” piece, it will be hard to top. But the concept itself is somewhat difficult to explain and I suppose, either you get the music or you don’t. Unfortunately, it was a hard sell for the label (Mercury) and though we did a few special live performances, on David Letterman and the Bottom Line in NYC, it was not easy to market or tour. But the songs live on, and lately we have been seriously pursuing a theatrical version that would make the story and musical characters come to life. Time will tell…but it certainly was a most fulfilling project for all involved.