Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Apocalypse, Not Yet

Sign #1 That The World Has Not Gone 100% Into The Turlet, Yet:

Gabriel is still broadcasting late Sunday night into Monday morning on KDHX 88.1 in St. Louis.

Gabriel likes to say that he plays "the blues and oldies, for you and yours" and the three B's, "boogie, barrelhouse, and the natural blues". He also digs into the "holy blues" - it's not unusual for him to play a Mahalia Jackson record three or four times in a row if it behooves him. But really, he plays anything he feels like playing. One of his recent shows featured Tampa Red, Tammy Wynette, Brenda Lee, Lionel Hampton, and the Bee Gees. I once heard him playing some classic country from a tape he got free at Denny's. You can't find a more old school DJ than Gabriel, or one that's more entertaining. Next time you're up late, in the wee hours of a Monday morning, tune him in.

Bonus Link

For a taste of what Gabriel sounded like about 40 years ago, check out a sample from his two-part 1968 single, "The Buzzard Lope". I'm not really into collecting rare 45s, but I need to get my hands on this one. I've heard the whole thing on the radio, and it is a gem.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

End-Of-Year List #1 - Best Fiction of the Past 15 Years (Read in 2009)

Since I will probably not be reading another book that is eligible for this list before the end of the year (I just started Nabokov's Stories and will probably read another older book after that), I can safely post the first of my Year-End Best Of lists:

Top Five Works of Fiction Published In The Past 15 Years And Read By Me In The Past One Year (2009), Alphabetized By Author's Last Name

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi
- Geoff Dyer (2009)
It was fun watching Dyer read from this recently, but the book was already a sure thing for any Best Of list I put together this year. See my review here.

Ray of the Star - Laird Hunt (2009)
The fact that I haven't seen it on many year-end lists can only mean that the people making those lists have not read it. See my review here.

The Debt to Pleasure - John Lanchester (1996)
Delicious. The narrator's voice alone is a major, memorable achievement. The list was going to be Best Fiction Of The 2000s Read In 2009, but I expanded it so I could include this book. See my not-quite-a-review here.

Home Land - Sam Lipsyte (2004)
Only takes a few pages to realize that Lipsyte is one of the best we've got. Can't wait for his next book, The Ask, due in March.

This is Not a Novel - David Markson (2001)
This book was glued to my hands during every spare moment of a weekend trip I made this fall. An unusual concoction - a stimulating downer - that left me wanting more. Luckily Markson has a few more in this style. I'll probably get to The Last Novel, already on my bookshelf, sometime early in the new year.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Unanswerable Question

Lots of people really hate smooth jazz. But who hates it the most?

- A classic/mainstream/straight-ahead jazz fan or musician, who might hate it the way a particularly devout, hardcore Catholic hates a Lutheran

- A punk or metalhead, who would probably consider it the absolute antithesis of what they're into

- An avant-garde/"out" jazz fan or musician, who might already have a gripe with the word "jazz" and would be especially bugged about their music being considered even a distant cousin to the smooth stuff

Something to think about next time you're in the dentist's chair.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Tweet of the Week

I'm not a Twitter user, and only rarely look at it, but this recent tweet (it hurts me a little to type that word, but I guess it's now the accepted term) from John Hodgman caught my eye. If I was on Twitter, I guess I could just retweet (again, painful) this:

"I hope they accept these Lugers chocolate coins at the Pepto-Bismol-mat."

If you've ever eaten at Brooklyn's Peter Luger, you should be able to sympathize.

Also, the first sentence of this post should give you some idea of why I'm not on Twitter.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Putting '09 To Bed...Not So Fast

This recent post at Do The Math reminded me of my bloggerly duty to produce some year-end lists. I enjoy reading these kinds of lists, and writing them is a good excuse for a pleasant reminiscence of the past year's cultural intake. However, since I've got high expectations for some of the movies and live music (and maybe even books) that I hope to check out in the remaining weeks of the year, my lists will probably be posted after Christmas, or maybe even in early January. Categories I'm working on include:
  • Best Books of the 2000s (That I Read in 2009)
  • Best DVDs I Got From Netflix in 2009
  • Best Live Music Experienced in 2009
Being able to add at least one more entry to each of these in the next few weeks would help make this a December To Remember, in the words of a particularly grating car commercial.

Monday, December 7, 2009

DFW on Split Infinitives and Wedgies

Thanks to Amy McDaniel over at HTMLGiant for linking to this new-to-me David Foster Wallace essay on English usage (originally published in Harper's in 2001 and later collected in Consider the Lobster). It's much more entertaining than I would've thought possible given the subject, even at 37 printed pages (at least on my printer). Wallace being Wallace, almost a third of that length is taken up with end notes, through which he weaves, Pale Fire-like, strands of autobiography. Strange as it sounds, this essay, in large part a review of Bryan A. Garner's Modern American Usage, would be a must-read for any biographer researching Wallace's childhood (in which he apparently received countless wedgies for being an insufferable language nerd, or "SNOOT", his family's self-description of the type) or his experiences as a teacher.

Many of the positions and arguments Wallace describes in re: "the Usage Wars" are reiterated by McDaniel's commenters (here are the related posts, 1, 2 & 3, that began with a Wallace-inspired "Grammar Challenge"). If the comments don't quite prove that DFW is capable of directing blog comment threads from beyond the grave, then they certainly show that he Put His Finger On the Hot-Button Issues (or Had His Finger On The Pulse - just the sort of language Wallace highlights/mocks in the found-language poem/assemblage that begins his essay) in the field of English usage.

When will we see a nice, fat Collected (or Selected) Non-Fiction of David Foster Wallace? I realize that many of the uncollected pieces are available online and the existing collections are still in print, but this is a body of work that deserves the tome treatment.

[DFW-inspired Confession: I spent far more time writing this post than previous ones of roughly equivalent length. The reason for this, the influence of Wallace's essay, is obvious. This note is intended both as a warning of the contagious obsessiveness of Wallace on Usage and as an expression of my fear that the extra time spent has not resulted in a better, more readable post. Not at all.]

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Ray of the Star

I recently finished burning through Laird Hunt's new Ray of the Star. I found that the structure of the book pulled me through at what was, by my standards, a very fast clip. Chapters are short (generally just a few pages), but each one consists of only a single sentence. I didn't attempt any diagramming, but I got the sense that Hunt was "cheating" a little here and there in order to stick to his self-imposed rule (a common strategy seemed to be: when in doubt, insert a comma and keep going). Not that it matters, since the short chapter, long sentence scheme is effective in creating a simultaneously dense and fast-paced story.

Some of the basic elements of Ray of the Star, loneliness and budding romance in an Iberian city (the geography of the city playing a central role) with creeping supernatural elements, bring to mind Jose Saramago (as do the flocks of commas), but Hunt quickly establishes a tone that is clearly his own. For one thing, I don't think Saramago has ever used profanity to the extent Hunt does here (for a variety of effects, from humorous to sinister). There's also a certain whimsy that is a bit jarring at times, but I suppose this contributes to the slight unreality, the alternate universe quality, of Hunt's Barcelona-but-not-quite-Barcelona.

Ray of the Star has a great hook, a story set among the elaborately costumed (and often creepy) "living statues" of Barcelona's Las Ramblas (although the city and boulevard are never referred to by those names, only as "the city" and "the boulevard", another echo of Saramago). A rough idea of the premise was enough to get me to buy the book, having almost-but-not-quite picked up The Exquisite a few times in libraries and bookstores, and I'm glad I did. In addition to producing a stylishly written, entertaining novel, Hunt has also managed, by approaching it from an unexpected angle, to take what feels like a fresh look at the well-worn theme of how people deal with grief and loss . I just wonder what kind of response the book is getting from the living statue community.

Update/Bonus Link:

Just found this: Hunt discussing Saramago's The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis as one of five books that influenced Ray of the Star. I haven't read the other four, which is probably why I latched onto Saramago as a point of reference for Ray.

I've recommended Saramago's novel before, but I'll do it again here. Year of the Death is pretty slow-paced, especially as compared to Ray of the Star, but it's a book that truly earns that overused adjective, "haunting".

Iran Facebook/Twitter Intimidation

This seems to me like a major story. As of now, only the Wall Street Journal seems to have it among the big news outlets, but hopefully we'll learn more as others pick it up.

The idea that a Facebook post or Tweet can have serious, real-world implications is at least dimly understood by most people, but the idea that these acts could, under extraordinary circumstances, involve real courage and physical risk is a little harder to wrap the mind around. As Sister Rosetta said, there are strange things happening every day...

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Autocrat of the Breakfast Table

According to George J. Nicholls' 1917 book Bacon and Hams, the pig, not Oliver Wendell Holmes, is the true "autocrat of the breakfast table". That's just one of the pieces of information I picked up from this amazing Cooking Issues post. Among the not-to-be-missed gems:
  • A Flash reproduction of a color fold-out pig anatomical chart
  • A 19th century portrait of a man dressed as a side of bacon at a London costume ball
  • A PDF presentation on American country hams
  • Some rather horrifying photos of the Chicago hog butchering industry in the era of The Jungle (not that today's meat factories are any less horrifying in their own way)
The Cooking Issues folks are certainly not squeamish. Other recent posts include the finer points of duck pressing and how to prepare tuna spinal jelly.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Moving Midway

The documentary Moving Midway went completely under my radar when it came out in 2008, but I caught up with it on DVD over the long holiday weekend. This anything-but-simple story about moving a North Carolina plantation house is about as good a portrait of the contemporary South as I can imagine. Full of unexpected twists, ironies, and racial tensions, it's also just the sort of thing that Hollywood would royally butcher.

Hollywood's long and curious love affair with the South, and particularly its portrayals of antebellum plantation life, is a preoccupation of filmmaker Godfrey Cheshire, a New York-based critic and cousin to the owner of Midway Plantation. Whether it's the romantic fantasy of Gone With The Wind, the Southern Gothic terror of Deliverance, or the outright racist revisionism of Birth of a Nation, Hollywood has had difficulty telling Southern stories without distorting the picture, either patronizing or demonizing its subjects. Moving Midway, probably because it was made by a Southerner who had the added advantage of being related to most of his subjects, is refreshingly free of caricature (that's not to say that there aren't some molasses-thick accents and charmingly eccentric behavior on display), stereotyping, or exploitation. The film portrays a series of very distinct individuals rather than a collection of "types" or a strange, massed "other", and is therefore capable of surprising us with the way people speak, behave and interact.

The discovery of a whole line of descendants of the family's slaves and their subsequent participation in the film and the events surrounding the house relocation provide Moving Midway with some of its best moments and a compelling second storyline to add to the titular drama. The interactions between the descendants of slaves and the descendants of their masters is, as you would expect, fascinating to watch and somewhat fraught with tension. Southern cordiality reigns, but there's clearly a lot going on beneath the surface on both sides as a result of the history involved.

Dr. Robert Hinton, an NYU professor, North Carolina native, and the first of the slave descendants to become involved in the film (eventually supervising all the historical research), plays a key role, giving voice to the mixed emotions stirred up by the contemplation of the house and its history and expressing concerns that might otherwise be left to simmer unspoken. In one memorable moment in the film (at a Civil War reenactment, no less), Hinton has the perfect rejoinder when he hears the old saw about the War being more about "states rights" than slavery: "States rights to do what?"

Besides issues of race and the Southern legacy of slavery, Moving Midway illustrates some very fundamental questions about land, property, and history. What meaning does a historic house have without the land it sits on, especially a plantation house? When a new strip mall or housing development is named after the previous occupants of the land it sits on, is this a fitting honor or a cruel and tasteless, if unintentional, insult? (The film shows one housing development that was presumably named after the 18th-century slave patriarch of Midway Plantation, Mingo.) Almost all of the broader questions raised by the film are related to the central, specific question at its heart. Namely, is the decision to move Midway right or wrong? Cheshire shows us various points of view on this question, as well as the Fitzcarraldo-like feat that is the actual move, but wisely leaves us free to come to our own conclusions.

If you rent Moving Midway, don't overlook the additional interview segments included as bonus features. The segment with Algia Mae Hinton, the Piedmont blues singer and banjo player who is featured on the soundtrack, performing for the camera while sitting (though definitely not sitting still) in her comfy chair in sweat pants and socks, is several minutes of pure joy.

Monday, November 23, 2009


[Warning: this post contains Unnecessary Capitalization.]

After seeing The Fantastic Mr. Fox, in which Wes Anderson applies his by now overly familiar bag of tricks and tics to an animated Roald Dahl adaptation and succeeds beyond all expectation, I naturally got to Looking Back and Taking Stock of the filmmaker's Career So Far. This is what I came up with:

Anderson has made three more or less completely successful films out of six, Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and Mr. Fox. The other three each contain some great things, but none of them quite Achieve Unity. Look back at the filmographies of some of the Great Directors, and I think you'll agree that .500 is a solid average*.

*Of course, you might also point out that many of the Great Directors of the past were cranking out movies at a much faster clip, making the occasional Indifferent Effort inevitable. To which I might rejoin that the faster pace of movie making in the Golden Age of Hollywood prevented directors from overthinking, thus helping to produce the scores of relaxed, effortless-seeming masterpieces we treasure today. In the end, though, Wes Anderson would have been as out of place working in the Studio System as Howard Hawks^ would be in today's Hollywood.

^Hawks might not be the best choice as an example here. Although he could be considered Anderson's opposite in some ways, Hawks was famously independent of the studio system and took on projects at his own pace. Still, take a look at the periods 1938-1941 and 1944-1949 in Hawks' filmography to get a sense of the tremendous streaks of creative productivity of which he was capable.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Roundup of Things Seen/Heard/Eaten Lately

Saw the Paul Motian Octet + 1 at the Village Vanguard. 2 bass + 2 guitar + 2 sax + viola + piano + drums = "Octet + 1" Though I thought the ensemble became a bit unwieldy and sagged a little under its own weight in a couple of places, this was another rewarding set of music from the relentless, 78-year old creative force of nature that is Paul Motian. If nothing else, the assemblage on stage was a remarkable sight. Motian's fruitful years with Keith Jarrett, what might be considered the second (or even third?) major phase of his career, were already behind him before some of the musicians in the Octet + 1 were born.

Many of Motian's defining characteristics were in evidence with this group: his affinity with pianists and electric guitarists (almost all his best work has been with one or both of these instruments), his deep feel for standards, the mystery and beauty of his own compositions, and most of all, the vitality and freshness of his drumming. A few songs into the set, the thought came very clearly into my head, "Damn, he's playing great!"


Finally saw the underground/cult classic video "Heavy Metal Parking Lot". The original movie itself is only about 16 minutes long, but the filmmakers have made good use of the remaining space on the DVD, loading it up with sequels (including the almost-as-good "Neil Diamond Parking Lot", related documentaries, etc, etc.

One that I found strangely compelling was a feature on a collector and record store owner with a basement literally full of Judas Priest memorabilia. For several minutes, the filmmakers just keep rolling as he slowly flips through a stack of records, essentially narrating a critical history of Priest's entire discography. What could have been a throwaway bonus feature turned out to be one of the best portraits of the obsessive rock'n'roll collector type I've ever seen.

Also recommended along similar lines is Banks Tarver's "Beautiful Plastic", a short that's available as a bonus feature on the DVD of Tarver's Guided By Voices doc Watch Me Jumpstart. It's eight minutes of Robert Pollard going through boxes of old lyrics and collage materials from his basement. There's almost as much insight about Pollard's personality and creativity to be found packed into this short as there is the full-length movie (I don't mean that as a knock on Jumpstart - it's fantastic and essential if you're a GBV fan).


Went to Geoff Dyer's reading at the Central Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. He read from his most recent book, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, which I've written about here, and from two older books which have recently been reissued, Out of Sheer Rage and But Beautiful. He also read an unpublished piece, a strange, funny tribute to John Berger which took the form of a deliberately stilted, cliched essay on Jackson Pollock. Dyer is almost shockingly tall and thin in person, and has the type of English manner that many Americans find irresistible, a major component of which is an effortless wit of the dry and self-mocking variety. In his readings and answers to audience questions, Dyer showed his wide range of interests: art, photography, travel, jazz, D.H. Lawrence. The readings drew a lot of laughter from the audience, and were mostly genuinely funny, with the notable exception of the moody, impressionistic pieces from But Beautiful, his book on jazz.

A semi-dramatic moment occurred during the Q&A when a young woman from Varanasi, who was sitting in the front row with her mother, asked if he had gone to the city with the intention to write about it or if the idea had come about later. Dyer indicated that he dreaded being confronted at readings by people that might be in a position to harshly judge the accuracy of the portrayals in his books (he mentioned jazz musicians, having confessed to some inaccuracies in But Beautiful), and he seemed quite relieved when the woman from Varanasi seemed to agree with him about the impossibility of "misrepresenting" a place as complex as her home city (if it's impossible to misrepresent a place, is it also then impossible to truly, accurately represent it?).


Tried the new burger at fancy hot dog joint Bark in Brooklyn a couple of times. Very good small burger, with the variety of pickled things and the "special sauce" working perfectly with the meat and bun. I only wish it was possible to get it a bit rarer - the default is medium/medium-well whereas I'd prefer medium/medium-rare. Black Iron in the East Village, where I've also eaten a few times lately, will cook their (also fairly thin) burgers to order, but your results may vary depending on who's on the griddle. Bark is more consistent, but when Black Iron is on their game I'd give their burger a slight edge.


Sorry to have missed:

Ethan Iverson/Tootie Heath/Ben Street at Smalls. Smalls is the place to see a piano trio, as I found out when I saw Fred Hersch there. Apparently Iverson/Heath/Street are playing again this winter at Iridium with Lee Konitz and Mark Turner, so hopefully I can catch that. (Very Cool Thing: Smalls is streaming the sets on their website, so I can feel a little less bad about missing out in person.)

The Eccentric Soul Revue (feat. the highly underrated Syl Johnson). I imagine Johnson's career and reputation was held back a bit by his being in Al Green's shadow when they were both on Hi Records. He may have adhered too closely to the (obviously commercially viable) Al mode on some of his singles, but the fact that he was so convincing in this style (which may have really been the Hi style more than the Al Green style), coming within a hair's breadth of the master himself, is a testament to his enormous talent.

Big Star at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple. Waited too long on this one, and it sold out. Review here in the Voice (including a typically, unnecessarily nasty comments section).

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Underrated, Underappreciated (#4 in a Series) - Pick-A-Bar

What is the most underrated candy bar? I've got it down to two contenders:

Zero, the cult classic, white fudge coated, freezable bar with Midwestern roots and some of the best-looking packaging in all candydom.

Take 5, the salt-sweet exploiting newcomer with the jazzy name.

Is Zero just getting by on its striking looks while the more homely, generic Take 5 scores with its skillfully balanced flavors and textures? Can the Take 5 be as ubiquitous as it now seems to be and still be underrated?

Clearly, more thought and research is required before I can come to a decision. Please comment if you have an opinion on this critical issue.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Workin' Over the American Songbook...With A Louisville Slugger

I think this is more shocking than the Dylan Christmas album (and probably not as good). Make sure to scroll down. The Amazon Customer Review Creative Writing Squad has already gotten busy on this one.

(via the Village Voice - following the link to the Deadspin-commissioned remix is recommended)

Friday, November 13, 2009

Droppin' (Gymnemic) Acid

The mad food scientists at the French Culinary Institute went on a freaky trip with Gurmar the Sugar Destroyer.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Poor Ian, Poor Elliott

Reduced to frosting.

Alasdair MacLean at Joe's Pub - 10/29/09

I'd assumed from the billing that this would be a solo gig, but MacLean was backed for most of his set by members of the Ladybug Transistor. They drifted on and off stage, but the full compliment was MacLean on Rickenbacker (6-string) plus trumpet, cello, and piano. The accompaniment was perfectly understated, creating an atmosphere but leaving the focus almost entirely on MacLean's guitar and voice. The set consisted mostly of the oldest and newest Clientele material, with several songs from Suburban Light (and related early EPs and singles) and Bonfires on the Heath.

I've written about the Clientele before and have seen them several times now, but I still have the capacity to be surprised at the music's effect on me. I didn't realize I was looking for this music until I discovered it, but once I did its existence seemed somehow inevitable (this must be a common feeling among Clientele fans). Alasdair MacLean's songs often contain images and create moods that seem so familiar and universal that it's hard to believe that no one else has exploited them, or at least not in the same way or with the same precision. Alongside lyrical commonplaces (autumn, a dreary weekend afternoon, rain), MacLean frequently places images drawn from his own handcrafted line of English, haunted-tree psychedelia. The blend of these strands, in varying proportions, along with the band's flexible but always recognizable sound, is what makes up the Clientele world, a parallel, only slightly offset reality where it's always raining in the London suburbs.

"Saturday", requested incessantly until MacLean finally played it (and also a highlight of the Clientele's previous NYC appearance), is remarkable in its complete and detailed evocation of a very particular mood, which it produces through an impossible-to-quantify combination of deceptively simple, common elements (does a lyric have to risk triteness in order to be really moving?). The feeling I get when these elements magically/alchemically react in a piece of music is what I'm chasing when I flip through used record bins or search online for new bands. It's a relatively rare thing, but the alchemy was happening at this show, with both new and old songs.


I only had time to listen to the new Bonfires On The Heath once before the show, but have since given it a few more listens. I'm not ready to say exactly how it stacks up against previous Clientele albums, some of which are easily among my favorite music of the last ten years, but I'm at least certain that it belongs on the same shelf. Neither a "back-to-basics" album (which I suppose would mean a return to the crude-but-effective recording techniques of the early singles) nor a move in a new direction (as the previous two were, if only modestly), Bonfires might be a good model for a mid-level band making a record in the midst of a recession and a slow-motion music industry meltdown. Made with an actual producer in an actual studio, it seems like the band (augmented only slightly with extra players) went in prepared and banged out a set of songs efficiently and without any undue fuss or frills. The result is a great sounding, cohesive record that makes the most of the band's strengths and relies on subtle touches rather than surprising, grand gestures.

Mel Draisey's Hammond organ does what a Hammond does so well if used with restraint, adds a warm retro/nostalgic feeling that oozes into the gaps left by the other instruments. At certain moments I was even vaguely reminded of Rick Wright. James Hornsey's bass might never have sounded better than it does on Bonfires. Hornsey is indie rock's most tasteful and underrated bassist (those two things are probably not unrelated). Americans may have to wait a while to hear the new songs performed by these players, though. In typical self-deprecating style, MacLean pointed out that the Clientele would be touring America in support of the new album about four months after its release here.


While the majority of the Joe's Pub crowd (packed into the small, multilevel space, all in close proximity to the stage) was enthusiastically respectful, bordering on worshipful, I was sitting next to a group of English ladies who decided about halfway through the set to have a loud, long conversation (lasting through at least 3 or 4 songs, on topics such as the amenities at their hotel, which tourist sites they were going to visit the next day, and what club they were going to after the show) that only abated when my concertgoing companion asked them (more politely than I would've been capable of) to keep it down.

It's a well known fact that the Clientele have received more respect in America than in their home country, but it was strange to see the "prophet in his home town" dynamic being played out in a New York City audience, with people actually traveling from England and buying tickets in order to ignore the music. I have no doubt that Americans remain the world leaders in talking loudly at quiet shows, as evidenced by more than one Clientele show I've been to, but it's good to see our trans-Atlantic friends making a good effort to keep up. Well played, loud mouth English ladies. For one night, you schooled us on our home court.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Two I'd Slept On

The Great Pretender - Lester Bowie

I don't remember ever laughing out loud listening to a jazz album before (and certainly not an ECM album), but I'm pretty sure I did on my first listen to The Great Pretender. This has been on my "to buy" list for a while, and I finally picked it up cheap at the WFMU Record Fair. Though he clearly had some sort of spiritual/temperamental affinity with Louis Armstrong, Bowie approached music from an angle that was a bit askew from everyone else, even from the rest of the boldly experimental AACM/BAG community he was such a central part of. His choice of material and his slyly ambiguous attitude toward it make him very difficult to neatly summarize or compartmentalize. When listening to him, his musical choices can somehow seem perverse and absolutely right at the same time. And when he's got you looking for a curve ball (or a knuckle ball or an Eephus pitch), he fools you by throwing one right down the middle.

The title track is a tour de force, justly one of Bowie's best known recordings, as it seems to contain so much of his musical spirit in one place (even featuring his wife, the r'n'b great Fontella Bass, on backing vocals). The mighty Hamiet Bluiett is here for just this one track, and the pianist Donald Smith does particularly fine work, helping lead the way through all the jumps, twists and turns of the almost 17 minute de(con)struction of the Platters' classic platter. Funny, pretty, ugly, scary - it's all those things. Bowie the mad scientist taking us on a tour of his laboratory, or Bowie as Willy Wonka inviting us along for a boat ride - you know things are gonna get weird, but a good kind of weird.

Although it's tempting to view everything after "The Great Pretender" as bonus tracks, the album is strong all the way through, wildly varied, but with no dips in quality. "Oh, How The Ghost Sings" gets into spooky feedback/echo/reverb territory, strangely reminding me of Spoon's "The Ghost of You Lingers". "It's Howdy Doody Time" would be an appropriate theme song for a version of the show where Howdy gets demented and invites Chucky to co-host. Or a version where Howdy is voiced by Paul Reubens. "Rios Negroes" is a relatively straightforward Latin groove number that nonetheless doesn't seem out of place on this album, a grab bag so unpredictable you'd be a little afraid to stick your hand in it.

Olé Coltrane - John Coltrane

I recently picked this one up at the library, and it's almost high enough praise to say that it lives up to the promise of its lineup: Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Freddie Hubbard, McCoy Tyner, Reggie Workman, Art Davis (it's a two bass lineup - wait for the part when they both start bowing!), and Elvin Jones. Like The Great Pretender, this is a case where the lead, title track is clearly the main event, the raison d'etre for the album. And here, too, it's a long excursion that fully justifies its length.

As is so often the case, McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones are standouts, propelling the tune ever forward while creating a sense of urgency and excitement that makes 18 minutes feel like 5. All the "guests" make worthwhile contributions, but "Olé" still sounds like classic Coltrane quartet material, which is a very good thing. Dolphy, Hubbard and Davis augment this classic sound, given a Spanish (Moorish?) tinge on "Olé", but don't essentially transform it. This is still the Coltrane Show.

The blues and ballads that make up the rest of the album are excellent, but seem like they belong to the period that Coltrane was leaving behind rather than the future that the title track points the way to. It's this clearly audible sense of straddling two eras that gives Olé its reputation as a "transitional" album. Still, I'd place this among Coltrane's best, a thoroughly enjoyable listen start to finish.

Bonus Links

A "Listening Party" entry on "The Great Pretender" from the increasingly excellent A Blog Supreme

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Paying A Debt To The Masters - Two Great Live Covers

David Rawlings Machine (incl. Gillian Welch, Jon Brion, Benmont Tench, Sebastian Steinberg) - Queen Jane Approximately (Live at Largo, LA)

From a David Rawlings Machine live performance that I downloaded recently, this is certainly the best cover I've ever heard of the Dylan classic, and (dare I say) may even rival the original. If that sounds blasphemous, I should admit that QJA is my least favorite song on Highway 61 Revisited. Of course, that album has no bad songs, or anything remotely close, but I've just always found "Queen Jane" a bit repetitive. It drags in a way that "Desolation Row", at twice the length, never does (thanks in large part to Charlie McCoy's acoustic guitar).

Rawlings and company (who probably wouldn't agree with my assessment) address this problem, such as it is, very simply and effectively, with superb instrumental performances. The acoustic guitars propel the song forward, and Benmont Tench's piano (from what I've been able to determine, it's Tench on piano and not Jon Brion, who was apparently on guitar) provides ultra-tasty accents throughout. The combo of acoustic guitar and piano is a great, underexploited sound, and the way the band rides the instrumental groove they've built up toward the end of the song reminds me of some of Ronnie Lane's songs with the Faces, with their instrumental outros giving Ian McLagan a chance to shine.

On record, David Rawlings has always lived in (or been) the shadow of his partner Gillian Welch. His harmonies are so exceptionally tight and close that he seems to disappear into her voice at the same time as he's hugely enhancing the effect of it. Live, though, his acoustic guitar playing tends to steal the show. No one plays quite like he does, a bluegrass flatpicking virtuoso's dexterity with an expressive, emotional depth and directness that, at its best, seems to be on loan from Neil Young. The Machine has a record coming out soon - pretty safe bet that it'll be a winner.

The Bottle Rockets - Lookout Joe (Live at the Mercury Lounge, NYC)

As I may have mentioned before, The Bottle Rockets are the greatest interpreters of Neil Young's music out there today. The only officially released evidence of this is on their sole live album (a new live DVD is in the works), in the form of savage versions of "Hey Hey My My" and "Cortez the Killer", but anyone who has followed them over the years (or done some YouTube searching) has probably heard a wide variety of other Neil material, from "Walk On" to "Down By The River". The David Rawlings show I discuss above contains good versions of "Field of Opportunity" and "Cortez", and I've heard Welch and Rawlings absolutely nail "Albequerque", a slow, minor-key song perfectly suited to their style, but no one can touch the Bottle Rockets when it comes to getting across the raw gut punch of Neil's best electric music.

Lately they've honed "Lookout Joe" (from Tonight's The Night, and referenced in the BRox deep cut "Dohack Joe") into one of the most sure-fire, fearsome weapons in their arsenal. As the seemingly unplanned final encore at the band's recent Mercury Lounge show, it brought an excellent night of rock'n'roll to a satisfying conclusion. They totally inhabited the song's peculiar groove and achieved ragged glory on the bridge's "craaaazy clowwwwwn" peak. Like I said, untouchable.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Welcome To The Upper East Side

I love this.

Abe, Whig In The City*

I took in the new Lincoln and New York show at the New York Historical Society recently. The show strikes a pretty good balance between the type of (theoretically) kid-friendly, interactive, multimedia exhibits that have become standard history and science museum fare in recent years - touch screens allowing you to create your own 1860's era political cartoon, a sound and light room meant to recreate the chaos of the Draft Riots, a shooting gallery-style lineup of Copperheads with sound tubes allowing you to listen to their anti-Lincoln grumblings - and the more traditional artifact-based approach to presenting history. For me, the slickest, most graphic-rich touch screen imaginable could never be as meaningful as being inches away from the inkwell that Lincoln used to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, but different strokes...

The show is arranged in a logical, chronological fashion, from Lincoln's visit to New York to deliver the Cooper Union speech that helped make him a serious contender for the Presidential nomination to the laying in state of his body at City Hall after the assassination. The portion dealing with the Cooper Union trip contains some fascinating displays, including a section on his visit to Matthew Brady's studio and a large map detailing Lincoln's movements in Manhattan and Brooklyn (where he attended Henry Ward Beecher's Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights, the initial source of Lincoln's speaking invitation). The map was of particular interest to me, as I fall squarely in the overlap zone of the "maps+Lincoln" Venn diagram.

The complexities of Lincoln's actions during the Civil War are well represented in the show, with a focus on how his policies were received in the deeply divided, sometimes violent atmosphere of wartime New York. Few of Lincoln's wartime acts were as complex, in execution or implication, as the Emancipation Proclamation. Alternately seen as a divinely inspired writ of liberation and as a coldly strategic military document, the Proclamation was neither entirely one nor the other, and can't be fully understood or placed in context without taking into account the 13th Amendment that followed and the fact that Lincoln actively pushed for its passage and ratification. The exhibit covers all of this, but someone moving quickly through the exhibit might miss the Amendment, seemingly doomed to live forever in the shadow of the Proclamation.

Although Lincoln's assassination is one of the most well known facts about him, after spending a lot of time in the exhibit pouring over the details of his wartime struggles, his death still managed to carry a measure of shock and horror - "how could the story end like that?" The final wall with excerpts from Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" is a fitting conclusion, an American elegy suitable in stature to the life it commemorates. In fact, I can think of only one other artistic response to Lincoln that succeeds on the level of Whitman, landscape architect Jens Jensen's Lincoln Memorial Garden in Springfield, Illinois. Whitman's elegy is full of landscape and plant imagery; Jensen's garden takes a poetic, symbolic and associative approach to commemorating Lincoln. Both are alive in ways that a more literally representational stone or bronze monument can never be.

The Lincoln show is a lot to take in, but the one-room John Brown exhibit upstairs makes for a nice aperitif or digestif (chronologically, I suppose it makes more sense to see it first). Brown was also commemorated by a great American writer, that other Civil War poet, Herman Melville.

*Lincoln left the Whigs for the recently formed Republican Party in 1856, making the title of this post historically inaccurate insofar as his 1860 visit to New York is concerned.

Bonus Links

The best thing I've read on Lincoln by one of his contemporaries: Frederick Douglass' oration at the dedication of the Freedmen's Monument in 1876. How could a speech containing these lines also be perhaps the greatest, most apt tribute Lincoln ever received?:

"He was preeminently the white man's President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country."

Read it and find out.

Friday, October 23, 2009

On Vampire Weekend's "Horchata"

I enjoyed VW's debut album, and the one live show I saw at Corlears Hook Park. I even enjoyed following, at least for a while, the now familiar, internet-fueled hype-backlash cycle that played out from the time that their pre-album online singles first appeared. I was interested at the time to see where people came down on them. Though the strength of reactions varied (is a "meh" of indifference really much better than outright hatred?), it seemed that everyone had an opinion (and the opinions just keep coming).

Whether it was deliberate or not (and the uncertainty about this is one of the compelling things about the band for me), VW's "preppy" Upper West Side signifiers, both in their lyrics and their look, certainly succeeded in pushing a lot of buttons. As for the music, I loved that they were drawing on the bright, bouncing sounds of soukous guitar, even (or especially) if it was filtered through Paul Simon. The Paul Simon-VW connection has been overemphasized (as has its overemphasis), but I do think that Graceland (perhaps because it was such a widely popular album) and Rhythm of the Saints (perhaps because it gets lost in the shadow of its predecessor) are underappreciated and under-influential. I'm sure there's something I've forgotten about or am just ignorant of, but Paul Kotheimer's (criminally, practically unknown) "Bicycle" is just about the only obviously Graceland-influenced track that comes to mind outside of VW. (I also think that some of Simon's lyrics on those two albums belong among the greatest achievements in pop songwriting, but that's another story.)

All of which brings me to the recently released (as a free MP3) "Horchata". Reports seem to indicate that the forthcoming album is perhaps a bit more eclectic than the first, but basically similar in spirit. I hope, then, that "Horchata" is more an aberration than an indicator of what we can expect from Contra. With this single, it sounds like they've removed the most appealing elements of their sound - Ezra Koenig's guitar, Chris Tomson's indie/faux/cod-ethnic drumming, a certain youthful (coltish?) energy - while retaining their most questionable - gimmicky overreliance on exotic-sounding words, busy string arrangements that don't quite fit the songs.

The relatively minimal synth-and-marimba-dominated backing track focuses attention on the vocals for much of the song, but there's not a strong enough melody or lyric to carry the weight. With a different arrangement, either incorporating guitar and drums or, if a new direction was the idea, a more thorough exploitation of electronic sounds and rhythms (which, to be fair, could have gone horribly wrong), the song might've been a modest success. As it is, "Horchata" seems like a modest experiment that came out a bit flat.

[Update: I realize now, after coming back to finish up this piece, that I've had the damn song stuck in my head for much of the week. Does that mean I was wrong about it not having a strong melody?]

[Update #2- 10/27/09: It's still growing on me. I've found that listening it to it louder helps. I still like VW a lot better with guitar, though, and I'm still not crazy about the lyrics - "pincher crabs that pinch at your sandals"?]

Bonus Link

Quite possibly the most level-headed and intelligent piece yet written about this much-written-about band.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Leitch At The Movies

Ex-Black Table, ex-Deadspin, now New York Magazine scribe Will Leitch occasionally posts movie reviews on his blog. Even in his casual, spare-time way, he's a better, more perceptive film critic than the vast majority of the full-time professionals currently writing for major publications (unfortunately, that pool is shrinking rapidly). Try comparing his most recent batch of reviews with those for the same movies in your publication of choice* and see if you agree (and don't miss the priceless Soderbergh anecdote). His recent, perhaps overgenerous, Tarantino apology, which helped me overcome my reluctance to see Inglourious Basterds**, is also well worth a look.

As I'm fond of telling people when his name comes up, I've been reading Leitch since about 1993 or 4. We attended the same school, and I consumed lots of his sports reporting and movie reviews in the (surprisingly professional - you actually had to pay a subscription) daily college newspaper. Although he was clearly passionate about sports, I always assumed that he'd end up as a film critic, following in the footsteps of the man he often cited as his inspiration, Roger Ebert***. Given the current state of that profession, he was probably right to take a different path, at least financially, but I can't help thinking that the little world of people who read and write about movies would be better off if Will Leitch's voice had a more prominent place in it.

*I really need to see A Serious Man, if for no other reason than to see how it can inspire such night-and-day different takes as Leitch's - he thinks it may be their best work - and Ella Taylor's frontal assault on the Coens in the Village Voice, in which she comes very close to accusing them and the film of contributing to anti-Semitism.

**I was glad I changed my mind. Though I thought QT made some questionable calls along the way, Basterds managed to justify, and seem quite a bit shorter than, it's 152-minute running time, no mean feat.

***I want to take this opportunity to mention that Ebert, probably because he became so TV famous, is generally, and shamefully, underrated as a critic. I'm sure a lot of intelligent people who think of him as some kind of middlebrow joke would reconsider if they read some of his writing (good examples of which are accumulating rapidly on his very active blog).

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Thatsa Nice Lookin' Sandwich (#2 in a Series)

The Trinidad "double": man, thatsa nice lookin' sandwich, and one that I was previously unfamiliar with. I really need to try one. Also, I really need to eat lunch. Getting mighty hungry...

Monday, October 19, 2009

In A Pig's Eye

I'm far from a vegetarian, priding myself on the list of odd bits and parts I've eaten over the years (brain taco, ear taco, tongue sandwich, pig "snoots", etc). Still, in looking through this slideshow of the recent NYC feast put together by London's marrow-popularizing Fergus Henderson, I couldn't help thinking that things had gone a bit too far, that some line had been crossed, some unspoken rule violated.

Is Henderson trying to confront diners with the harsh reality of their carnivorousness by putting them literally face-to-face with the animal they're consuming? Certainly, the meal (or at least the slideshow) seems to have been impeccably sequenced, building from some relatively innocuous salad courses up to the full-on horror of a tongue and an eyeball being plucked from a pig's skull and eaten. When I got to the lamb's neck about halfway through the slideshow, I knew things were getting weird.

If the practice of eating meat ever dies out, I wonder if our descendants will look back at "FergusStock" with the same horror with which we now view certain practices of the Romans*.

*I was thinking here of vomitoriums, but have since learned that they did not actually exist, at least in the sense of venues for deliberate vomiting. The role of vomiting in upper class Roman dining practice still seems to be in dispute, however.


Another day, another food blog post involving eyeballs, actually a pretty fascinating step-by-step demonstration of how to cut up a (supposedly sustainable) bluefin tuna. Among the
handy tips:

"Cut around the eyeball and gouge it out with your hand."

"Rip out the eye. The eyes can be eaten raw or wrapped in foil and cooked."

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Speak Lowe Or Forever Hold Your Peace

Based on this report from one of Nick Lowe's two recent NYC shows, it seems that concertgoers at City Winery are working hard to confirm the worst fears a music fan such as myself might have about attending a show at an "urban winery" (not that I have anything against wine or urbanity per se):

Folks were way too sedate. When a few of us enthusiasts dared to sing along on the chorus of “Cruel to Be Kind,” horrified shushes came our way.

Maybe these were just hardcore Lowephiles, or maybe the singing was horribly loud and out-of-tune, but I thought singing along was a culturally accepted ritual, a well-established part of the rock'n'roll tradition. Even though it might sometimes be annoying in practice, it should be taken as a sign of enthusiasm, of engagement with the music, and thus something to be encouraged, or at least tolerated. It's not like trying to loudly scat along with a piano player at the Village Vanguard, although the occasional vocalization of approval from the crowd at a jazz show is a pretty welcome thing, too, as far as I'm concerned.

Unfortunately, I missed him this time around, but just for fun, here's a hastily assembled, not-in-any-particular-order Top Ten of my favorite Nick Lowe tracks:

"What's Shakin' On the Hill"
From 1989, slightly predating and providing a template for his latter day, easygoing crooner phase, it might also be the best song he's ever done in that mode. Comparable to Elvis Costello's "Poisoned Rose" in the spare, elegant perfection department. A whole post about it here (with video links).

"All Men Are Liars"
Well-crafted, catchy pop tunes that are also funny are not as common as you might think. This one gets the hook-to-yuk ratio just about right and gets off a quality cheap shot at Rick Astley a good decade and a half before the RickRoll phenomenon.

"So It Goes"
Nick's immortal early single, from the heady days when pub rock was giving way to punk.

"Marie Provost"
I've said it before, I'll say it again: best "forgotten silent movie actress eaten by her own dog" song EVER. Nick even misspelled her name (on purpose? to avoid some kind of lawsuit?).

Borderline bubblegum from the Rockpile era later remade by Nick with some dub/reggae touches. I like both versions.

"When I Write The Book"
I actually think I love this song mostly for the acoustic guitar sound, one of the best I've ever heard, on the Rockpile version.

"(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding"
What more can be said about this one.

"Queen of Sheba"
Kind of a minor, modest Nick number, but then again, much of his career has been based on taking small, sometimes silly ideas and cutting and polishing them into little, sparkling gems.

"(For Every Woman Who Ever Made a Fool of a Man There's A Woman Who Made A) Man of a Fool"
Once you've come up with that title, there's not much more you have to do, or so Nick's deceptively casual songwriting might lead you to believe. Outside the realm of country, Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello are probably the greatest ever practitioners of "come up with a clever title and fill in the blanks" songwriting (as well as its oft-maligned sister discipline, pun-based songwriting).

"Love Like a Glove"
Sex similes are a long and proud songwriting tradition, but this is a particularly fine example, composed by Nick's then-wife Carlene Carter. I wonder if the Bottle Rockets' "Love Like a Truck" was a nod to Carlene and this song.

Bonus Links

another review of one of the City Winery gigs

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Bob Yourself A Merry Dylan Christmas

So, I listened to the song that Dylan is streaming from his new Christmas album, the polka-ish "Must Be Santa". Neither a Christmas rarity nor a familiar favorite, Dylan takes the tune at a manic tempo, aided by some shouted/sung band vocals (I'm presuming it's the band and not backup singers) and a tasty Flaco Jimenez-style accordion (it might even be Flaco himself). If forced to sum it up in the most facile way possible by simply comparing it to other bands, I would say that the formula is The Pogues+Brave Combo+Texas Tornadoes.

After hearing this one track, I think I can safely say that the album won't be a trainwreck. Probably a person's appreciation of it will be largely determined by how much he or she enjoys A) Christmas music and B) Bob Dylan's last few albums. If you're into both, order now. As they say, it's for a good cause.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

3 From Monk at 92

A few notes on the "Monk at 92" piano mini-marathon at the Winter Garden last Friday night:

The majority of the "mini-marathon" (it was slated to run about four hours) was devoted to solo piano performances. As I've noted before, the quality of live sound in the vast, open, almost cathedral-like Winter Garden tends to suffer from the inherent limitations of the space. It clearly wasn't designed as a concert hall, at least acoustically. The limitations become more obvious and problematic the more instruments are involved, and particularly when drums are in the mix, but for solo piano it's not bad.

I'm focusing on the sound of the room because what struck me most about the performances I saw, even more than the variety of approaches performers took to Monk's music, was how radically different the same piano in the same space can sound when played by different musicians. The format of one solo pianist after another provided a perfect opportunity to witness this phenomenon, recently alluded to in Ethan Iverson's interview with Keith Jarrett.

Junior Mance (born, like Monk, on October 10th) played with a clear, sharp attack, each note ringing out distinctly, his touch perfectly suiting his approach to Monk's music, the bluesiest of any of the pianists I saw at the Winter Garden. Monk, of course, composed many blues, and the blues feeling is present in all his work, whether a given tune has a blues structure or not. It was this very central blues aspect of Monk that Mance was exploring on Friday night.

After Mance, Kenny Barron's sound at first seemed indistinct, almost muddy by contrast. As he went on, his sound somehow gained in clarity as his playing increased in complexity, building excitement and leaving no doubt that this was a master, able to translate Monk's language into his own terms with total authority. All the while, his touch remained wholly distinct from Mance's, to the point that it was hard to believe they'd been playing the same instrument.

Geri Allen's sound was immersive, full of overtones, with ideas like sparks floating and mingling in the air. Allen solidly established her Monk credentials twenty years ago, when she appeared on Paul Motian's Monk In Motian, an album that belongs on any list of the great Monk tributes, right up there with Steve Lacy's Reflections. Her playing on Friday was a clear testament to the continued ability of Monk's music to inspire high-level improvisation.

Though I saw some other performances and was sorry to have missed others, these three performing back-to-back-to-back was an undeniable highlight of the event, a small but concentrated cross section of jazz piano as it's being performed today. I'm pretty sure I spotted bassist William Parker checking out the music [update: turns out Parker performed as part of the marathon-closing Zim Ngqawana Quartet], and I'm going to look around to see if any other bloggers or critics have posted reviews. I haven't seen anything so far, but I'll post links when I do.

Bonus Links

A preview with comments about Monk from several of the participants

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Sister Ray Test

If you're interested at all in Lester Bangs, I highly recommend checking out The Hound's remembrance of him here. Besides being a fascinating first-hand account of the legendary rock writer, it also gives you a sense of the street level, day-to-day reality of the late-'70s NYC downtown scene, the days when a weekend at CBGB could feature a Ramones/Cramps double bill one night and Alex Chilton/Lester Bangs the next.

Bonus Link

I may have linked to this before, but if so I intend to keep linking to it every time I think of it. In fact, a blog that did nothing but post a link to Lester Bangs' piece on Astral Weeks every day would be a noble and worthy undertaking.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

On The Dukes Of Stratosphear

In which XTC adopted a goofy nom de psychedelique and unexpectedly parlayed it into some of the best music of their career. Embracing parody, pastiche, homage, and simply brilliant song- and studio craft, Partridge (aka Sir John Johns), Moulding (aka The Red Curtain), and company (can't forget Lord Cornelius Plum and E.I.E.I. Owen) achieved something that most fans of '60s rock have found themselves wishing for at one time or another, the Technicolor sounds of the psychedelic era with less embarrassing lyrics.

The Dukes took quite a different approach to this problem from many neo-psych bands, though. Instead of excising the whimsical/mystical/trippy-dippy content from the lyrics, they highlighted these aspects by parodying them. I get the impression that the freedom to write silly lyrics was somehow liberating to the whole songwriting process, opening up possibilities or suggesting ideas that might've been edited out of an XTC song at the composition stage.

The range of styles covered within the framework of the concept and the group's mastery of each of them is hugely impressive. The overall variety and the level of sonic (sorry, psonic) detail in each track makes this a case where the familiar claim that an album "rewards repeated listening" is absolutely true. [Note: The version of this music I've been listening to is the Chips From The Chocolate Fireball compilation, which includes both the 25 O'Clock EP and the Psonic Psunspot LP on a single CD, so I'm not making any distinctions here between the two original releases.]

Some highlights, in the order they come to mind:

"Brainiac's Daughter" is the kind of bouncy pop that I find irresistible, even when it lacks the smartness on display here.

"Pale and Precious" has to be one of the closest approaches to the post-Pet Sounds Beach Boys sound ever achieved, easily laying waste to anything in the High Llamas catalog while managing to simultaneously exist as parody, straight imitation, and a great song on its own terms.

"25 O'Clock" is sublimely ridiculous, with a Floydian sound effect intro (although I half expect to hear Cheap Trick's "Clock Strikes Ten" come in after the chimes) and a chorus evoking the 13th Floor Elevators (or any number of other organ-wielding, Nuggets-era garage-psych acts).

"Bike Ride to the Moon" evokes Pink Floyd again, but it's pure Barrett-era, as the title would suggest.

"What in the World..." smashes together the concept of worst-song-ever contender "In the Year 2525" with the young-fogeyism/nostalgia that Ray Davies and Paul McCartney occasionally indulged in, producing lines such as "2034, Women fight the wars / Men are too bored, they're scrubbing floors / Men are too bored" and "Do you remember when this life was in perspective / and the grownups were respected?"

"Little Lighthouse" is an absolute pop gem with an immediately striking melody and vocal arrangement, leaning more toward mid-period XTC than '60s pastiche but still fitting in nicely with the other material.

XTC's influence on They Might Be Giants, never a secret, is especially apparent while listening to the Dukes material. I would guess that this music, with its marriage of silliness and impeccable craft, was particularly important to the two Johns. The timing would also support this, with the two Dukes releases preceding the first two TMBG full-lengths by about a year in each case. Though no one would classify TMBG as '60s revivalists, the humor, fun, and oddball pop precision of the Dukes is alive in their best work.

[Update: It helps to do your homework. I just discovered that TMBG covered "25 O'Clock" on an XTC tribute album. Check out the other artists on the tribute. It's a real mid-'90s time capsule, including some candidates for the "Q. Where Are They Now? A. I Don't Care But I Hope They Stay There" file.]

Bonus Links

Zager & Evans' far less successful follow-up to 2525, "Mr. Turnkey", sung from the perspective of a convicted rapist who kills himself by nailing his wrist to the wall of his jail cell.

I couldn't find a good link for "The Candy Machine", Z&E's twisted contribution to the late-'60s candy-psych trend, but it's worth tracking down if you can find it. "1910 Cotton Candy Castle" it ain't.

Thanks for the Customer Reviews section for this Z&E twofer for alerting me to these golden nuggets of '60s pop.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

An Observation on The Beatles, In The Style of David Markson

Blogger given pause by the recollection that The Beatles, at a time when they were the most popular musical act in the world, actually wanted to use this photo as the cover of their latest American album. An album that contained the song "Yesterday".


Thursday, October 1, 2009

Recent Reading - The Debt to Pleasure

I only recently discovered this 2007 piece from New York Magazine which asked critics and writers to name a favorite underrated book from the previous ten years. I dumped several of them into my Amazon Wish List and found that, as might be expected of recent-but-not-too-recent books that fall into the "underrated" category, many of them could be had for not much more than the cost of shipping.

I finished John Lanchester's The Debt to Pleasure a few days ago ($0.01 + shipping for a "like new" hard cover copy) and was glad to concur with Ron Rosenbaum's endorsement in the NYMag piece:

"Pure wicked literary pleasure. Well received when published, but not nearly as well read as deserved. Ghostly progenitor: Nabokov’s Pale Fire."

While Pale Fire is certainly an apt reference point, there are echoes in the novel of lots of other writers and works, whether intentional on Lanchester's part or not. So many, in fact, that instead of writing a review, I'm going to try to convey a sense of what the book is like by listing all the possible models, influences, and related works that I could think of.

Although it might be appropriate to the subject matter, presenting this list in the form of a "recipe for The Debt to Pleasure" would have been taking my already shaky premise deep into the realm of the contrived. So, the list:

Pale Fire (hidden plot peeking out through the holes in the unreliable narrator's elaborately constructed facade)
The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (investigating the life of a dead, more successful brother)
Despair (another delusional, unreliable narrator up to no good)
The Physiology of Taste (wide-ranging, philosophical musings on gastronomy - with recipes!)
The "Ripliad" (refined expat living well in France and occasionally doing very bad things)
On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts (the title says it all)
The Rape of Lucrece (referenced toward the end; coveting thy neighbor's wife)
Peter Mayle's Provence books (British expat in Provence)
John Wilmot's "The Imperfect Enjoyment" (check out line 24)

I feel like I'm missing something, maybe something on art theory or the art world, but I hope this list might at least prove intriguing enough to get you to read the book.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Resurrectionists

In an admittedly brief search, I haven't been able to find much information (almost none, actually) about The Resurrectionists, a shadowy poetry/art/provocation collective that I discovered via a post on Luc Sante's blog. Their main gig seems to have been cutting up works up fiction to produce poems, often with the intent of mocking the original author by selecting particularly ridiculous lines from the source work.

The example posted by Sante is apparently atypical in that it seems somewhat respectful of the source material (an Ellery Queen novel), but reading it and the list of authors the group managed to piss off (including Ayn Rand and Michael Crichton) has made me eager to read more. Unfortunately, searching for "resurrectionists" turns up lots of results about grave robbing with a few bands thrown in. I'll have to dig deeper. Maybe there are still a few mysteries whose solutions lie beyond the internet.

But please, if you know of any good sources of info on this group or, especially, any collection of their works, please post it in the comments section or send me a message.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

9 Points on Ornette Coleman at JALC

I wanted to get my thoughts down on Saturday night's Jazz at Lincoln Center concert while they were still semi-fresh. I might go back later and edit, add some text links, and maybe link to some other reviews. But for now, here are some from-the-top-of-my-head observations:

1. Ornette's groups have always had their own sound. Wherever he's been at in his career, the groups he's put together have been very distinct from their contemporaries. Which is to say that I think the current group (Ornette, Denardo, Tony Falanga, and Al MacDowell) makes a sound that no one else is making. It has some of the hyperactive rhythmic feeling of the Prime Time era, but almost seems to do more with less. While Ornette always sounds like Ornette, the current quartet as a whole has a tremendous range of sounds and moods at its disposal.

2. One of the best things about seeing live music (especially live music that features improvisation) is watching the interplay between musicians. This group is especially rewarding in this respect. Sometimes the basses locked into a groove with Denardo doing his own thing on drums. Sometimes all three seemed to be moving in the same direction with Ornette floating on top, around, and under. Sometimes each bassist was responding individually to Ornette, playing off what he was doing from moment to moment. Sometimes Falanga bowed a repeated pattern while MacDowell and Ornette went back and forth. Sometimes Falanga took the melody while Ornette improvised. Et cetera.

3. A big part of the group's versatility is ability of each bassist to sound like at least two different bassists. MacDowell can make his electric bass sound and function almost like an electric guitar, playing high note lines and picking out chords. Falanga's arco (bowed) playing is a key component. When he pulls out the bow, the whole tone color of the music shifts dramatically.

4. One of the highlights for me was the second tune, Sleep Talk(ing?), one of my favorites from the Ornette catalog, done quite slowly on Saturday night, with Falanga's bowed bass and Ornette's alto complementing each other beautifully. MacDowell was in guitar mode, and Denardo brought in a rock-ish beat toward the end that seemed incongrous at first but somehow worked to bring the tune to climax and conclusion.

5. Whether it was the live sound mix, a musical choice, or a slight weakening in the master's powers, Ornette horn was at times the quietest component of the group's sound, nearly getting lost at certain points before returning powerfully to the fore.

6. My initially Ornette-skeptical concertgoing companion briefly fell asleep and had a dream that consisted mostly of vivid colors (synesthesia?).

7. Jazz at Lincoln Center's Rose Theater, with its arrangement of seemingly free floating boxes and futuristic lighting scheme, looks like the meeting place of a particularly important committee of the Imperial Senate from Star Wars. I overheard some similar observations about the space. Good place to see a concert, though, I must say. Even my "cheap seats" in the balcony felt pretty close to the stage.

8. If I recall correctly, Ornette only picked up the violin once, during the first tune. The trumpet made a few more appearances, all of them brief and similar sounding.

9. This being my first time seeing Ornette, I don't know if he always spends so much time soaking in applause. The whole bowing/waving/leaving the stage/coming back out ritual was strangely extended but also kind of charming. The crowd's appreciation was real, and we did get two encores, so I'm not complaining.

Bonus Links

Nate Chinen's NYT review

Lament for a Straight Line's take

(Note: you will notice that these reviews are far superior to mine. If you're interested in knowing what went down on Saturday night, you should read them.)

Update: the versatile Fred Kaplan weighs in over at Stereophile and has a plausible theory relating to my point #5

Friday, September 25, 2009

Quote of the Day - Mystery vs. Pie

"It was always nuts for Tom Sawyer — a mystery was. If you'd lay out a mystery and a pie before me and him, you wouldn't have to say take your choice; it was a thing that would regulate itself. Because in my nature I have always run to pie, while in his nature he has always run to mystery. People are made different. And it is the best way."

- Huck Finn in Tom Sawyer, Detective by Mark Twain

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Ain't That America...

Is this a case where the phrase "Only in America" might be truly applicable?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Selected Ballads Is On Vacation

I'll be back next week.

Until then, may I humbly suggest a meditative exercise?

It's very simple.

Just follow this link, stare at the picture of Miles Davis, and quietly contemplate your life.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Dream Journal #4 - Another Celebrity Dream Cameo

Had a dream that I was sliding on ice through a very cold Winnipeg. I slid from outside right into a big fancy shopping mall-type place with slick polished floors, so I was able to just keep sliding. Then I went up some stairs and met Ringo Starr working in a small machine shop. He'd apparently given up the celebrity life to become a blue-collar Canadian working man.

That was before I'd seen the trailer for the new Guy Maddin short film, Night Mayor of Winnipeg, but it wouldn't have been my first Maddin-influenced dream. Actually, this dream was almost disappointingly easy to deconstruct. I'd say the formula was something like this: all the recent talk of Beatles reissues + a mention of Lake Winnipeg in Nabokov's Bend Sinister (which I was reading right before bed) + a cool breeze coming in the window.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Back To The Top Of The Slide

Pitchfork's coverage of the new Beatles reissues (including reviews of each album) is well worth reading. Of course, it's completely irrelevant what rating the 'Fork gives these albums on their infamous 10.0 scale (spoiler alert: there are several 10.0s), but it's still a pleasure for me to read substantial new takes on this material by some good writers.

Writing something new about something so familiar is a very different challenge than reviewing a new release, and doing so about the Beatles makes this series of review/essays into a kind of proving ground for music writers. Of those called upon to put their critical weaponry to the test, I'd say Tom Ewing (on the Beatles' early albums) and Douglas Wolk (on Past Masters) come out looking the best. Mark Richardson's overview of the reissues, including a visual WAV file comparison (!!!) of the original CDs to the new reissues, is pretty impressive too.

Reading through all this stuff reminds me of two things:

1. That I'm among the freaks who really enjoy reading music criticism.

2. How deeply embedded and powerful the Beatles' music remains for me. Just the mention of certain aspects of certain songs can trigger a pretty strong emotional reaction, which surprised me a little but shouldn't have.

Eric Revis w/ Jason Moran, Ken Vandermark & Nasheet Waits - 8/28/09

The first set of their two-night stand at Jazz Gallery was apparently the first time this lineup had played together. I wished I'd made it back for the last set on the second night to see what had developed, because the set I saw was full of fire and creative energy. Many possibilities were explored, and many more were only suggested. If they wanted to, this group could probably have a fruitful run as a recording unit. I could see them putting together a discography that might someday merit comparisons with that other powerhouse reeds-piano-bass-drums quartet, the Keith Jarrett "American Quartet". With their own projects to attend to, though, it's just as likely that this was a one-off.

I'd seen Revis at the Jazz Gallery before with a totally different lineup - Orrin Evans, Stacy Dillard, Rudy Royston, and John Ellis. That was a strong set, but this was something more. Revis was the leader, but he stands out in any group he's in (I've only seen him as a sideman with Russell Gunn and in footage of Branford Marsalis). His intensely focused, physical approach to the bass, punctuated with vocalizations, was the same as when I'd seen him before (if anything, he was even more intense this time), but he also deployed a few other tricks I hadn't seen from him, including playing with two bows simultaneously and plinking out a head above the bridge.

Vandermark is a name I'd seen a lot, but I'd never heard him. He's quite a presence, physically (flat-topped, blowing hard, switching between bass clarinet and tenor while sweating through his shirt) and sonically (loud, aggressive, can squeal/scream/honk/overblow with the best but can certainly get with other modes, too). At times during the set, I enjoyed trying to isolate longtime bandmates Moran and Waits and watch and listen to how they were playing as a sub-unit within the group. As much as I enjoy Moran in solo or trio settings (including his recent trio stand at the Village Vanguard), there's something about the way he fits his sound into groups with reeds that I especially like. His album with Sam Rivers, Black Stars, is probably my favorite Moran release, and the trio of Paul Motian, Chris Potter and Moran that I saw was superb.

The set started off with a pretty aggressive, "out" tune that left me worrying a bit about the people seated in the front row directly in front of the fire breathing Vandermark. Many different directions were explored from here, but the first tune sort of cleansed the palette and let the audience know that they should strap in and keep their arms inside the car at all times. The group may have been finding their footing with one another, but they channeled this process into highly rewarding improvisation. There was a real sense that the direction each tune took was only one of many, very different ways it could've gone. Nothing felt predetermined or pat, which I guess is what group improvisation is supposed to be about. I hope this isn't the last we hear from this group, because I know there's an audience out there for them.

(Update: Found this interesting post suggesting that the set following the one I saw was superior. I think the "finding their footing" quality of the group interaction that the poster perceived as "shaky" was one of the things I liked about the first set, but I could easily imagine that things would've only improved in the second set. Wish I'd seen it.)