Friday, May 27, 2011

Book Review: Twenty-Five Books That Shaped America

Article first published as Book Review:Twenty-Five Books That Shaped America: How White Whales, Green Lights, and Restless Spirits Forged Our National Identity by Thomas C. Foster on Blogcritics.

You've got to hand it to Thomas C. Foster, he has managed to do something that more than a few of his literary colleagues have found impossible. He has made the critical analysis of literature both interesting and accessible. Twenty- Five Books That Shaped America is a fast paced irreverent look at some of the major landmarks of American literature with an eye to explaining their importance to what has become the idea of America. Each of the twenty-five anointed tomes gets its own short chapter, usually under ten pages; Foster, unlike his verbose brethren, never goes on at length. He understands how quickly literary critique can turn off the popular audience. He makes his points about individual works, places them in the context of the American experience and moves on. Some of what he says is new and radical, some fairly conventional, but predictable or original, whatever he has to say is sure to be said with wit, brio and panache (if indeed these are not just three ways of saying the same thing).

Let's begin with the choosing of the books. Twenty-five is more or less an arbitrary number. Clearly it could just as easily have been 26, 27 or 31. Twenty-five is a small enough number to suggest major significance, and not no large as to suggest that everyone gets a trophy. Moreover, as Foster points out in the introduction, it's easy to include everything, winnowing the field down to the "fit though few" is both a difficult and a worthy task. Next there must be some criteria by which to do the winnowing. Foster explains that he is not trying to elect the twenty-five (at this point let me now replace Foster's twenty-five with the more convenient 25) best American books, the 25 most important American books, not the 25 most influential American books. He is not trying to describe "the" 25 anything. These are not the 25; these are 25. There are, as he points out at the start and again at the end, many others for which excellent cases can be made. These are his 25; readers are free to choose any others they like and make cases for them.

There is no point in complaining that he left out this book or that author. He is clear from the get go. This is his list. If you don't like it, make your own. If Henry James doesn't get a book on it, well at least he gets honorable mention in a final chapter on fifteen also rans. Edgar Alan Poe doesn't even make his way into that. Nothing against them, indeed Foster has nice things to say about Poe in the course of his discussions of other books, even if he is less enthusiastic about James. The point is he has a criterion for his choices, and Poe and James, at least by his lights, great though they may be, do not meet his criterion as well as those who have made the list. Criterion? It's in the title: Twenty-Five Books That Shaped America, shaped in the sense that they are the literary works that created the American image, the American myth. And besides, you can always manage to sneak two or three other writers and books into the discussion of one of the books that did make the list without getting readers too upset.

Okay, so who makes the cut? Ben Franklin gets in with his Autobiography. This despite the fact that as Foster is quick to point out, old Ben is not always as truthful as one might like. James Fenimore Cooper gets in despite what Mark Twain has to say about him and Foster's own critique of his clunky prose and narrative inadequacy. Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter is included even though Foster claims he would have preferred the short stories or even The House of the Seven Gables. Given his assertions in the introduction, this seems like a cop out, but again as he likes to point out it's his ball. If you don't like it, you don't have to play. He includes representatives of nearly all the neglected minorities, women, Afro-Americans, Native Americans and gays. There are a few outliers: Dr, Seuss most notably. Most all the big names are there: Melville and company for sure. Seventeen of the authors are post 19th century which might seem a bit late in the myth making game. Still, it's his ball.

As far as analysis of individual works is concerned, his readings are usually grounded in orthodox academic opinion. Given the irreverence of his writing, one might expect his criticism to be more rebellious; if so, one would be disappointed. His discussion of Huck Finn is fairly typical of what academics have to say. He talks about the problems with the ending; he talks about the narrative voice and the colloquial dialogue. What he says is important, but it's not particularly novel. His chapter on Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God has a lot of plot summary, which, while it may be justified in a work that may well be less well known, doesn't usually make for significant criticism. He is fond of explaining a book's importance by listing the writers it influenced, without Dashiell Hammet, there would have been no Raymond Chandler or Mickey Spillane, without Walt Whitman, no William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, and a list of eight more; without Dr. Seuss (one of his 25 is The Cat in the Hat), no Sesame Street. There is certainly truth here, these kinds of assertions could use a bit more analysis than he bothers with.

But why quibble, this is a book for the general audience. Foster is not writing for scholars: more than likely they don’t want or need a book like this. If it sparks interest and get people rereading Moby Dick or The Grapes of Wrath, even reading Thomas Pyncheon or Saul Bellow for the first time, why find fault.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Graphic Novel Review: The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas

Article first published as Graphic Novel Review: The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, adapted by Bruce Buchanan, illlustrated by Amit Tayal on Blogcritics.

Alexandre Dumas' timeless adventure romance, The Three Musketeers, is now available in a graphic novel adaptation from Campfire Classics. With a text by Bruce Buchanan and illustrations by Amit Tayal, Dumas epic tale of love, treachery and intrigue in the court of Louis XIII is whittled down from more than six hundred pages in some translations to a sixth of that length, a more palatable length for the young adult audience the Campfire series targets. More importantly, the major elements of the story are intact.

Beginning with the young hero, d'Artagnan's arrival in Paris and his accidental contre temps with the eponymous three musketeers which promise him three duels with some of the best swordsmen in France and his eventual acceptance into the musketeers, the story follows him in his quest to save the Queen from the machinations of the villainous Prime Minisiter, Cardinal Richelieu and his lovely accomplice, Milady. It is a story that moves with as fast a pace as any summer blockbuster. It is a tale that has captured youthful imaginations for many years and is sure to continue doing so for many more.

Its characters are larger than life. Athos, Porthos and Aramis are the avatars of the hard living, devil may care swashbucklers that have become the staples of the modern adventure story. Richelieu is as slimey a political schemer as has graced the pages of any current thriller. Milady is the model of evil embodied in beauty. D'Artagnan is the naïf fresh out of the country meeting with the wicked temptations of the larger world, and demonstrating how innocent goodness can overcome all obstacles and get the best of the evil sophisticates.

Unfortunately, Amit Tayal's versions of the characters, unlike other Campfire editions I've seen, are more like Disney caricatures than the grittier norm. D'Artagnan is drawn in the tradition of characters like Pecos Bill and other Disney young innocents, only a bit more on the angular side. There are the big round good guys like Athos and the big round bad guys like the landlord Bonancieux. There are a lot of funny mustaches. The faithful Constance could have been a Disney princess if she had a fancier costume. Milady, of course, but even the evil Richelieu, both have overtones of the evil Disney queens. There are even a couple of cats putting in an appearance in a panel or two that wouldn't find themselves out of place in a Disney cartoon. I don't know that all this is necessarily a bad thing given the target audience, although I do think the grittier illustration might be more appropriate for the content.

A word or two about the content: some parents may find elements of the story unsuitable for young readers. Adultery and infidelity play a large role in the motivation of the action, and although the adaptation minimizes the sexuality of the narrative, it is impossible to eliminate it entirely. Certainly while there is nothing overt in the presentation of the material, and what is there will more than likely go over the head of most youngsters, parents might want to look it over to see if they have any objections.

Like other Campfire editions, The Three Musketeers begins with a short biographical sketch of the author. There is an introductory page with illustrations of all the major characters. An appendix containing miscellaneous information related to the story and its contents closes the book. In this case there is information on things like the historical novel, the historical characters, and the term musketeer. It provides a little fodder for any child whose appetite has been piqued by the story.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Music Review: Stephane Grappelli, Grappelli Plays Kern


Article first published as Music Review: Stephane Grappelli - Stephane Grappelli Plays Jerome Kern on Blogcritics.

When you think of the masters of the jazz trumpet dozens of names pop out, the saxophone and the piano even more, but when you think of the jazz violin, there is one name, maybe two, but one for sure—the legendary French gypsy virtuoso, Stephane Grappelli. Born in 1908 and still alive and kicking until 1997, his name has been synonymous with the jazz violin for nearly all of the past century. And now along comes Just a Memory Record's re-release of his 1987 album Stephane Grappelli with Orchestra Plays Jerome Kern to show why. Even entering his eighties, the man could play. His sound is pure. He can play mellow and he can swing with the best of them. At times the larger orchestra softens the vibe and adds a symphonic sound, but it never gets in the way. Grappelli and his crew of regulars are always front and center.

This collection of eleven Kern classics begins with what at first seems like a straight forward interpretation of "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," but it quickly morphs into a samba rhythm with some interesting vocal chanting from guitarist Marc Fossett. This transition from simple symphonic lines to the samba rhythms also characterizes the arrangement of "A Fine Romance." "I Won't Dance" features some dynamic interplay between Grappelli and guitarists Fossett and Martin Taylor. "The Way You Look Tonight" explores the upbeat possibilities of Kern's ballad. "Yesterdays" and "All the Things You Are," on the other hand, get something of the sweet "gypsy make your violin cry" treatment, but there are few that can manage that crying and avoid sentimentality; Grappelli is one of the few who can do it. "Long Ago and Far Away" not only has some eloquent violin moments, it also has Grappelli playing a few bars on the piano. These are just a few examples of the creative new ways Grappelli and orchestrators Jorge Calandrelli, Laurie Holloway, and Daniel Frieberg look at these standards from the Kern songbook.

Three songs from Showboat highlight the album. "Why Do I Love You" begins and ends with some isolated Grappelli pizzicato plucking and some swinging sounds between. "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" gets an intense dramatic treatment that emphasizes the torchy narrative, but still managing to avoid the schmaltz. "Ol' Man River" begins as a pathos filled duet between the violin and the orchestra that moves almost angrily up tempo. Grappelli's playing honors the difference between honest emotion and manipulative sentimentality.

Album producer Etorre Stratta also leads the orchestra. Fossett and Taylor are joined in the rhythm section by drummers Alf Bigden and Graham Ward and bassist Jack Sewing.

Listening to this album, it is almost as though Jerome Kern had written these songs with someone like Stephan Grappelli in mind. Though I have read that Kern objected to the jazzed up versions of his music, it is hard to believe that he could have had any real objections to what Grappelli and his collaborators have done here. Great artists have long influenced other great artists. This is an album that does Kern's music the honor of using it as a base on which to build something new and exciting. Jazz, at its best, doesn't replace, it adds to. Grappelli's Kern is jazz at its best.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Music Review: To Broadway With Love

Article first published as Music Review: New York World's Fair Cast - To Broadway With Love on Blogcritics.

The original cast album of To Broadway With Love, the Great White Way's contribution to the 1964 World's Fair, is being re-released for digital download this month in the Masterworks Broadway series. Conceived and directed by Morton Da Costa, the show is a review of the history of the musical theatre over most of the past century highlighting songs from a variety of shows from as far back as the minstrels and the Ziegfeld Follies up to mid century blockbusters like South Pacific and Carousel. Original material for the production was the work of composer Jerry Bock and lyricist and Sheldon Harnick, soon to be best known for the score to Fiddler on the Roof. The show played at The Music Hall in the Texas Pavilion.

Program notes indicate that there were two alternating casts used for the show and while one cast recorded this album, the other was performing on stage. While the cast is made up of the typical troop of talented singers and dancers, none of the names stand out from the crowd. There were no budding Patti LuPones or Bernadette Peters on stage. Rod Perry, Don Liberto, Millie Slavin: talent yes, big name stars, no.

As far as the music goes, it runs the gamut from the nostalgic to the obscure, from the famous show stopper to newly written ephemera. Classic moments have the company doing "Another Op'nin', Another Show" from Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate and Irving Berlin's "There's No Business Like Show Business" from Annie Get Your Gun. Millie Slavin does a great job with "Speak Low" from One Touch of Venus by Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash and George M. Cohan's "Over There," and she can even make old chestnuts like "Rose of Washington Square" sound good. Bob Carroll and Guy Rotondo have fun camping up Bock and Harnick's "Beautiful Lady." Less successful is Don Liberto's "Yankee Doodle Boy" from Cohan's Little Johnny Jones, perhaps because he has to compete with memories of Jimmy Cagney. The problem is that songs like this and "Mary's a Grand Old Name" and "Buckle Down Winsocki" may have been nostalgic back in the sixties, in 2011 there are very few of us left who know what to be nostalgic about.

Some of the newer material written for the show is problematical as well. "Remember Radio" is filled with allusions--Lum and Abner, Duffy's Tavern--that will more than likely be meaningless to anyone under seventy. There is even one to Amos and Andy which could never fly today. There is also a long medley projecting ideas for possible new shows which misses the mark with things like "Popsicles in Paris" and "Mata Hari." The To Broadway With Love ensemble numbers which open and close the show work much better, but even they can't stand up to the likes of Berlin and Porter.

In general this is the kind of musical pastiche that seems to have been put together to keep the tourists happy for an hour or so while they rest their weary feet from a day's trek through the grounds of the Fair. It combines parts nostalgia, a lot of patriotism and just a touch or two of camp. It's a pleasant professional piece, but it surely doesn't have the magic today it may have had back in the sixties, if it even had it then.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Book Review: Oblivion, David Foster Wallace

This article was first published at The Compulsive Reader.

Let me begin by saying that readers of David Foster Wallace’s short fiction, the short fiction collected in his volume entitled “Oblivion,” stories numbering eight precisely, who (the readers) come to his work for the first time would do well to prepare themselves for that author’s (Foster Wallace’s) stylistic mannerisms, that some less tolerant of such authorial idiosyncracy, might well call stylistic excess and others less generous even, stylistic flaws: his penchant almost a fetish for, not to suggest anything sexual, digressions as his characters, ten year old daydreamers or thirty something advertising executives, to name but two, freely free [Wallace also being fond of word repetition (that that or is is for example) (and parentheses and brackets as well for that matter)] associate, as though in a session with some putative therapist,analyist annalist, or even, to stretch a point, some father confessor, their way through their stories; his almost complete, although certainly not completely complete, as characters do in fact speak to one another in at least two of the eight stories, rejection of dialogue, so that often page of unindented prose follows page of unindented prose, long paragraphs another element of the author’s bravura style, to say nothing of his fondness for long–the longer the better-sentences.

Wallace is a virtuoso of the long sentence.

Reading him reminded me of my first acquaintance with the Victorian poet, Algernon Charles Swinburne (“Faustina,” “The Hymn to Proserpina,”). You would begin reading a sentence in one of his poems and by the time you got to the verb, you had forgotten the subject and had to go back an re-read the sentence or push on hoping that things would clear up eventually: a phenomenon often repeated in reading these shot stories.

Indeed Wallace’s mannerisms put me in mind of other literary precursors. His digressions, while never quite as extensive, these after all are short stories, echo Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. His free associating monologues bring to mind the streams of consciousness of the like of Stephen Dedalaus in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. His long paragraphs and intensive analysis of the subtleties of character behavior suggest nothing so much as later Henry James, The Ambassadors, for example.

Not bad company, to say the least, but all, it should be pointed out (I must stop mimicking Mr. Wallace) not exactly the most facile of reads. They, like David Foster Wallace and the blind epicist (really I will stop) of Paradise Lost, write for the “fit though few.”

One more generalization about overall style: Wallace also likes to play games with narrative voice. He creates characters to tell his stories, but it is not always easy to pin this characters down. For example “Mister Squishy,” the first story in the book seems to be coming from the point of view of a focus group facilitator named Schmidt, but at times we get information from members of the group and people outside the group as well. The ten year old daydreamer of “The Soul is Not a Smithy” is at times sitting in a school civics class imagining a comic strip story in the panes of a window and at times the grown man talking about the boy imagining the comic strip–something like those Russian nesting dolls. Narrative point of view in these stories is fluid and changeable, something to be manipulated for the effect of the story.

As to the stories themselves, they are densely layered with subtle detail that
very often camouflages the real point. It is almost as if the characters cannot really deal with the truth of their lives head on, must come at by way of a wide circle of hints and suggestions. The narrator in “The Soul is Not a Smithy” is ostensibly telling the story of how his childhood daydreaming in class left him oblivious to a truly frightening experience, the mental breakdown of a substitute civics teacher during a lesson on the Constitution. He is so caught up in his daydream that he does not realize what is happening until the rest of his classmates panic and run out of the room.

On the other hand, what really seems to be bothering the older version of the narrator telling of this experience is the stultifying life his father led and which still haunts him in nightmarish dreams. Dreaming in one form or another becomes a major motif in the story, both as a form of escape and a means for creation.

“Good Old Neon” describes a “Richard Cory” kind of man who seems happy and well adjusted, but who feels that he is a fraud. He analyzes everything he does with the intensity of a J. Alfred Prufrock and he concludes that everything he does is to make the right impression on others, rather than a true expression of his own desires. But in the end it seems that the story may not really be about “Goods Old Neon” at all. Another character appears from nowhere, a character called David Wallace, who may or may not be identified with the author depending on your own critical persuasion, and explains his own jealousies about Old Neon whom he had known in high school.

“Oblivion” a story about a husband who is obsessed with what he believes are his wife’s hallucinations that he is snoring when he is positive that he has not even been asleep is underneath the story of a love that is drying up with age.

Wallace’s fiction forces the reader to look beneath the surface. His characters, like most human beings find it difficult to communicate directly. More often than not what they are really concerned with must be parsed out through indirection, as though they are avoiding issues that are too painful to confront head on.

Of all the stories in the book–all impressive in their virtuosity–the one that impressed most was the last, “The Suffering Channel.” On one level it is a comic piece about a popular magazine’s attempts to deal with a story about a man who in the process of defecating produces turd sculptures. One of their writers has come across this excremental artist in the mid west and wants editorial approval for an article. His pitch travels up the editorial ladder by way of bright young female interns aggressively in pursuit of glamorous careers. They dress in the latest fashions, eat at the “right” restaurants, come to work in cross trainers and work out at lunch. They see themselves as the potential movers and shakers of the publishing industry; they have everything to look forward to. It is July of 2001. They are working on the issue of their magazine that will come out on September 10. Their offices are in the World Trade Center.

It takes some work to read David Foster Wallace. It is worth it.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Music Review:The Merry Widow, 1964 Lincoln Center Cast Recording


Article first published as Music Review: The Merry Widow, 1964 Lincoln Center Cast Recording on Blogcritics.

If Franz Lehar's 1905 operetta The Merry Widow seemed dated and old fashioned to critics when it was revived as the second offering of the new Music Theatre of the Lincoln Center in 1964 under the guidance of Richard Rogers, today, listening to the newly released cast recording of that Lincoln Center production from Masterworks Broadway, nostalgic even classic seem more appropriate descriptions. Lehar's music is rich in color with melodies that echo fondly still a century later. It is music that has stood the test of time. In the hands of the right musicians it remains vibrant and enchanting, and the Lincoln Center cast headed by Metropolitan Opera star, Patrice Munsel captures its bubbling spirit with joyful brio.

As Munsel sings, not only is her voice a powerful instrument, but you can imagine the twinkle in her eye. She play Sonia, Hanna is some translations, a Marsovian widow with a fortune in mortgaged property and jewels who, for her country's sake, needs to keep her fortune in the country by marrying a Marsovian prince. At the Marsovian embassy in France, character actor Mischa Auer playing the Marsonvian ambassador makes a bumbling attempt to arrange a marriage for her. Prince Danilo, played by baritone Bob Wright, a Broadway veteran, son of the Marsovian king is an obvious choice, but he is jealous of the many other suitors pursuing the rich widow. Sonia, on the other hand, has problems with his flirtations with French show girls. There is as you would expect the traditional happy ending with love conquering all. This is a frothy piece, and both Wright and Munsel excel with the material.

The most famous pieces from the show are the glorious Merry Widow waltz, "I Love You So" and the haunting "Vilia" which opens the second act. But the rest of the score if not quite as well known is a happy excursion into turn of the century Viennese romance. Munsel and Wright have a tuneful duet in "Riding on a Carousel," and "Maxim's" is a catchy romp for Wright as "Girls at Maxim's" is for Munsel. "Women" is a dynamic ensemble piece featuring Auer, Sig Arno and others. Frank Poretta and Joan Weldon have some nice moments in "Romance" and "A Respectable Wife." Poretta's tenor soars with power and passion. This is a cast that understands what operetta is all about and knows how to perform it. They have the light touch the form demands.

In many respects it is the waltz with its sweeping dramatic rhythms that defines the Viennese operetta and Lehar is as much a master of the form as any of the Strausses. There is a pomp and pageantry associated with the dance—one thinks of Die Fledermaus, for example—that is the essence of operetta. At its best it is light and airy like champagne. It is not to be taken too seriously. This recording conducted by the Tony-winning maestro and operetta specialist, Franz Allers captures that playful spirit.

Masterworks Broadway will be making the recording available digitally and as a disc-on-demand along with a number of other original cast albums. These include lesser known shows like Mr. President and The Happiest Girl in the World. Previous releases include The Chocolate Soldier reviewed at http://blogcritics.org/music/article/music-review-the-chocolate-soldier-studio/.



Thursday, May 19, 2011

Book Review:Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua

Article first published as Book Review: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua on Blogcritics.

Whether you agree with Amy Chua's controversial ideas about parenting as outlined in her best selling apologia, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, two things seem incontrovertible. Either because of or in spite of those ideas, she and her husband managed to raise two exceptional children: number one. Number two: she has written one fascinating account of growing up Chua. Certainly there will be those who are unable to get beyond the image of the tiger mother and her methods. There will be those who object to the stereotyping of Oriental and Western parents. There will be those that feel compelled to defend play dates, sleepovers and school dramas, and they may well have some points to make. Still when all the points have been made, all the objections noted, readers will be left with perhaps the most stimulating book on the subject of child rearing since Dr. Spock.

The tiger mother, as embodied in Chua based on her understanding of Chinese parenting, demands superlatives and nothing less from her children. She assumes they are capable of excellence in all things, and it is her duty to make sure that excellence is realized. They must devote themselves to their studies and engage only in other activities approved by the parents. Whatever they do, they must be the best and the only way to be best is to work hard. First in everything is the expectation; anything less is unacceptable. To accept less than the best is demeaning to the child. In school, A-'s are poor grades, B's, I assume are failures. In other activities, the child must work to be the finest and the parent must provide whatever is necessary to make that happen. As far as Chua is concerned, the pudding proves she is right. One only has to look at all the Orientals in top ten universities and Ivy League schools, the dominating performance of Orientals in math and science, the proliferation of Oriental virtuosos in music. Parents who push their children are only doing what they should. Parents who expect the best and refuse to settle for anything less get the best.

As it turns out her own two girls, despite what a tiger mother might consider at least one failure, are themselves a testament to the success of her theories as one could want. They are academically successful. They are industrious and articulate. They are talented and willing to work hard to develop their talents. And if in the case of one of her daughters there is a rebelliousness that eventually asserts itself, well by some standards that is probably more a sign of success than blind obedience. After all, the author herself, raised by her own tiger mother, admits to her own eventual assertion of her own independence. To raise a child confident enough in her own judgment to defy authority if need be is not necessarily a failure. Lulu, her younger daughter, is miserably unhappy about being forced into the kind of fanatical practice of the violin her mother demands despite her talent on the instrument. Eventually, the tiger mother is forced to concede defeat and allow the child to go her own way. In doing so, she discovers that while the violin may have lost a potential prodigy, the lessons of hard work and perseverance have not gone unlearned.

Chua's picture of herself is not always flattering. She is both demanding and stubborn. Many of the incidents she describes might well cross the line into child abuse for some of the more squeamish readers, but that would seem to be pushing it. Some of her behavior seems mean spirited, but since she is reporting it about herself, it is clear it was always well intentioned. She is obviously a loving mother and this is a loving family. She wants what is best for her children, and she believes that she is the best judge of what is best. If her ideas have caused controversy among some, there is at least one important voice in her defense. Sophia, her oldest daughter, ends an article in the New York Post last January by thanking her "Tiger Mom" for having taught her the value of striving to do your best. "If I died tomorrow," she says. "I would die feeling I've lived my whole life at 110 percent."

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Music Review: They Might Be Giants-Join Us


Article first published as Music Review: They Might Be Giants - Join Us (Four Advance Tracks) on Blogcritics.

Giants? They may be, but if the four advance tracks from their new album, Join Us currently available from iTunes are any indication—giants? They sure as hell are. While the complete album is scheduled for release later this summer, this first taste is well calculated to whet the appetite of all those fans of the band who have been waiting patiently for a return to the quirky joy of the "Birdhouse in Your Soul" and "Particle Man" era after the Giants' recent forays into children's music and family programming (not that there's anything wrong with that, in the words of some other pop heroes). Here are four songs that capture the free spirited absurdist world critique that colored the band's journey from cult status to tops on the alternative charts.

You've got the clever esoteric lyrics which cry out for explication. Where else are you going to get a refrain that uses a kind of enamel work as a simile, Quonset hutting used as a gerund? You've got the infectious syncopating rhythms. You've got their characteristic harmonies and instrumental gamesmanship. You've got the joyful echoes of musical styles long gone. This is deceptively simple music that can bite. Everything that makes They Might Be Giants unique is on display.

"Can't Keep Johnny Down" is as catchy a melodic pop romp as you're likely to hear this summer. In an interview with Spinner, John Flansburgh says it’s a song about defiance, "a very nice bittersweet concoction of a very bitchy lyric with an incredibly sunny arrangement." Cloissone" is a Salvatore Dali painting in music with the kind of lyrics that play with your head. "Never Knew Love" is a sweet ballad with a driving beat, although the title suggests at least some ambiguity. Flansburgh says the full title should be "Never Knew Love Like This Before," which would certainly get rid of the ambiguity. "Old Pine Box," a song with something of a folk quality, he says is a song about burnout. The whole interview which includes Flansburgh's explanation for why the band decided to produce an adult album at this time, is available at the Spinner website.

Monday, May 16, 2011

DVD Review: Genius of Britain: The Scientists Who Changed the World


Article first published as DVD Review: Genius of Britain: The Scientists Who Changed the World on Blogcritics.

While there will certainly be those who object to a survey of scientists "who changed the world" that limited its scope to only those citizens of one country as nothing short of self aggrandizing parochial nationalism, Genius of Britain, the five part series produced for British television's Channel 4 makes one very good case for it. Britain clearly has produced its share of innovative scientific minds, maybe more than its share. Besides, any history of science intended for the popular audience must limit its scope in some way, and focusing on the contributions of one country, so long as that country's contributions are significant, makes as much sense as any other. It is not as though the series is claiming any sort of special greatness for their home grown scientists; it does acknowledge the work of others. What it does claim is that perhaps the contributions of the Brits haven't gotten quite the attention they deserve, and here is a historical survey that redresses the problem.

The current DVD release features the five episodes of the series on two discs including biographies of the various scientific talking heads presenting the material, a time line of British scientific accomplishments and an article on the lesser known Rosalind Franklin. A third DVD with the two episodes of Stephen Hawking and The Theory of Everything which was seen on the Science Channel as Master of the Universe completes the set. It also includes a nine page viewer's guide which adds a good bit of material not covered in the episodes. Taken altogether the set provides a comprehensive overview of the subject with plenty of information entertainingly enough presented to keep the attention of even the most moderately scientifically literate viewer.

Genius of Britain is organized by centuries and focused on individual scientists and their contribution. Episode 1,"The First Five," for example looks at the 17th century through what they call five "polymaths," men with wide ranging interests in a variety of areas: Christopher Wren, certainly most famous as an architect, Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle, Edmund Halley, and, of course, Isaac Newton. Each individual is discussed by a presenter who specializes in the scientist's specific area of expertise. They include some biographical information and then go on to explain the importance of the scientist's contributions in layman's terms. The second episode moves into the 18th century and so on. The 20th century is split into two episodes, the first looks at the first half, and the second concentrates on the scientist's efforts during the World Wars.

Among the many scientists discussed in the series are some of the most controversial like Charles Darwin, some of the lesser known like James Clark Maxwell, theoreticians like Hawking, and practical innovators like Isambard Brunel. Whenever possible they are sure to include any significant elements of human interest like controversies about the suicide of Alan Turing or the effect of Alfred Russell Wallace's independently developed ideas on natural selection and the origin of species had on Darwin. Unlike many talking heads, the presenters—including David Attenborough, James Dyson and Kathy Sykes--are lively and dynamic; they are animated and their enthusiasm for their subject is obvious.

The Stephen Hawking DVD which attempts to explain Hawking's search for a theory of everything is quite a bit more complex than the material from the other series. Valiant attempts are made to explain things like black holes and string theory, but I must admit, that they soared over the head of this viewer. More often than not I found myself more concerned with the mechanics of the man's life than his ideas. Watching young scientists fill chalk boards with equations that have absolutely no meaning for one, can certainly take one down a peg. Still, there is something to be gained in getting a handle on your own lacunae. It's time to get a hold of a copy of A Brief History of Time and see what I have been missing.

Indeed, this may be the best thing about the series in general. It is a testament to both man's curiosity and man's willingness to keep plugging away until that curiosity is satisfied. It is the kind of documentary that may well create an itch to investigate further even amongst the scientifically challenged. Genius of Britain is an impressive documentary well worth the time of anyone interested in learning something about some of the greatest scientific contributions, not only of the British, but of mankind, as well.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Book Review:The Fourth Hand, by John Irving

This article was first published at The Compulsive Reader some years ago.

Reviews of John Irving's The Fourth Hand have been neither excessively enthusiastic, nor particularly hostile. Reviewers seem to feel that reading this book is like déjà vu all over again. The details may be different, but in essence Irving is once again doing the kind of thing he has done before, and though he does it well, perhaps it would be a good idea to expand horizons. Now while there is some truth to this, it is also true that once an artist finds his voice, his world, his corner of the universe, there is some virtue in continuing to explore it. The problem with the novel is less with universe Irving chooses to explore, than it is with the conclusion that exploration leads to.

What is best about The Fourth Hand is that it once again delivers what reader's of Irving's previous nine novels have come to expect from this chronicler of weird and the grotesque. Irving has never been one to concern himself with "normal" people in normal situations preferring instead sexually modified football players, dwarfish instruments of God and philandering writers of children's books. Middle aged women have affairs with sixteen year olds. Accidental castrations punish illicit sexual acts. Women are constantly looking to males as nothing more than breeding studs. What his work may lack in conventional realism it makes up for in imagination. While some might argue that Irving's appeal is the appeal of the side show freak, Irving would disagree.

As his hero, Patrick Wallingford, a reporter for a sensationalistic all news TV network, the hero of The Fourth Hand discovers after his left hand has been bitten off by a lion: "He'd once been a faintly mocking commentator on the kind of calamity that had befallen him; he'd heretofore behaved as if there was less sympathy for the bizarre death, the bizarre loss, the bizarre grief, simply because they were bizarre. He knew now that the bizarre was commonplace, hence not bizarre at all. It was all death, all loss all grief - no matter how stupid." For Irving the grotesque is the norm, and when he is at his best, he manages to convince us that he's right.

We are willing to suspend disbelief and run along with a compulsively thin marathoning hand doctor as he plays dog turd lacrosse. We are willing to accept a married woman who, unable to conceive, convinces her husband to donate his hand for a transplant in the hopes that the recipient will prove more fertile. We are willing to buy into a whole supporting cast of oddities: a doorman named Vlad or Vlade or Lewis who insists that Patrick is the right fielder for the New York Yankees, an aging feminist grandmother that jumps into Patrick's bed, a lovable gum chewing make up girl who leaves phone numbers for her family to reach her during a night of passion, not to mention the dog named Medea.

It is this ability to portray the normality of the weird that is the hallmark of Irving's work. His novels transport the reader to an alien world where people's behavior is somewhat askew, yet when all is said and done their fears and desires are not much different from our own. Irving's characters may go about getting what they want in strange ways, but what they want is the same thing we all want.

But in this case that virtue may well be the source of the novel's less than stellar reception. Because in The Fourth hand, what the characters want, what they look to as the solution to the quirks and tics of their existences, what the world needs now is. . . .you guessed it. It is too easy to confuse the normal and the trite.

Given the bizarre relationship between the characters such a patently formulaic insight may seem at best a disappointment, at worst a cop out. Even if true, it smacks too much of popular music. You can hear John and Paul, George and Ringo humming in the background. We've heard it too many times before. Even the ending-- "Outside their warm hotel, the cold wind was a harbinger of the coming winter, but they heard only their own harsh breathing. Like other lovers, they were oblivious to the swirling wind, which blew on and on in the wild, uncaring Wisconsin night." seems familiar. Compare it with Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach":

Ah, love let us be true To one another! For the world, which seems To lie before us like a land of dreams, So various, so beautiful, so new, Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain. . . .


Now while the relationship pictured at the end of Irving's novel is literally not without its element of grotesquerie, there is still the feeling that we've heard it before.

There is some attempt at satire in the book. The Fourth Hand pokes fun at "all news, all day television" and its lack of interest in anything but the disaster du jour. It slaps out at medical ethicists and transplant politics. It even points a finger at the American passion for football, face painting and cheeseheads. But in the end these things seem tacked on and are not really central to the novel. The book is not social satire.

In the end despite its flaws, perhaps even because of them, the book reads like an express. It is hard to put it down. In truth, if you like John Irving's work, you'll like this book. If you haven't liked John Irving's work, The Fourth Hand won't covert you. If you';ve never read John Irving, start with Garp.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Music Review: Aaron Comess-Beautiful Mistake


Article first published as Music Review: Aaron Comess - Beautiful Mistake on Blogcritics.

In an interview with Modern Drummer in support of their 2005 album, Nice Talking to Me, Spin Doctor founding member, Aaron Comess describing his different personalities as a drummer says: "I’ve always felt like your first thing as a drummer is to serve the music, whatever the style or song or group of people you’re playing with. You really have to adapt. Unfortunately there are a lot of musicians who just show up and say, 'This is the way I am, this is what I do, and you better adapt to me.' I think the best music happens when everybody is listening to each other and making the proper adjustments to make the whole group sound good. That’s what music is all about."

An eclectic sessions performer, his diverse discography includes albums with Marc Cohn, Joan Osborne, Rachel Yamagata, James Maddock and New York Electric Piano among many others. While he acknowledges that he might be best known for his work with the Spin Doctors that is really only one side of his musical personality. He is more than comfortable with everything from rock to jazz. Beautiful Mistake, a new instrumental album, following the 2006 Catskill Cry, to be released in June is testimony to just a few of the drummer's many sides. The album's fourteen songs, all written by Comess, build multiple variations on a basic rock foundation. There is low down blues in "Bubble Blues." There is an almost Middle Eastern vibe in parts of the title song, "Beautiful Mistake." There are Latin rhythms in "Past, Present and Future." There are experimental riffs in "Limbo." This may be instrumental rock at its base, but if it is, it clearly demonstrates the creative variety skilled musicians can build on that base.

"I try to make music that speaks like a song even without words," Comess says, "where the melody plays like a voice, but with plenty of room for improvisation." Listen to the lush melodic lines in "Kumpelicious" and "Morning Beach" or the quirky "Catskills Last Waltz" and the darker version in "Dirt" (on which Comess also plays guitar) and you can hear what he's talking about. Melody dominates in much the way a vocal would, but the guitar is always given the opportunity to stretch that melody's nuances. Rhythmic changes in songs like "Unleash the Beast" which moves towards a cacophonous climax reminiscent of Ravel's "Bolero" add an exciting level of complexity to the music which contrast vividly with the album's softer moments. Whether it’s the funky "High Five" or the sweetly melodic "I Love You," Comess writes songs that linger in your ear long after the iPod is turned off.

Joining Comess is Teddy Kumpel on guitar and "things with strings" according to the album jacket. Richard Hammond plays bass. Besides the compelling percussion that distinguishes the album, Comess also plays guitar, not only on "Dirt," but also on "Limbo" and "High Five." Tracks from Beautiful Mistake can be sampled Comess' website: http://www.aaroncomess.com/index.htm.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Motherf**ker With the Hat:Some Thoughts on Play Titles


Article first published as From the Green Room: A Play by Any Other Name on Blogcritics.

Leave it to Chris Rock to make his Broadway debut in a play more controversial for its title than for its content. I would imagine that The Motherf**ker With the Hat may well mark the first time that particular epithet has graced the marquee of any Broadway theatre, or any other theatre marquee for that matter. Motherf**ker would seem to be a term of art unlikely to attract the audience in search of The Lion King and Wicked. Off Broadway, maybe; Off, Off Broadway, perhaps even more likely, but "the Great White Way?" What could they have been thinking?

There is of course shock value. There are those who will put down their $131.50 (which according to Variety is the top ticket) simply for the title and the cocktail party conversation it could provide. It is a title you could dine out on. It reminds me of an earlier example of the same kind of thing. Back in 1996 the British playwright, Mark Ravenhill wrote one of those gritty sex and drugs dramas the British were fond of at the time called Shopping and F**cking. It was a play that met with mixed reviews when it opened in London, but as it happened, it was then taken on tour.

One of the stops that summer was at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a festival that I happened to be attending. Now the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is the kind of extravaganza that runs theatrical performances of all kinds from early in the morning to late in the evenings in any nook or cranny where you can fit a stage and a dozen or so chairs. The program of festival events was as thick as a small town phone book. While the town was filled with theatre goers—the Edinburgh Festival was going on at the same time, as was the Royal Tattoo and a number of other events as well—many of the Fringe events had limited audiences. There was so much going on it was difficult to attract an audience. Difficult, that is, unless your name was Shopping and F**king.

No less sensation hungry than any of the other theatre mavens I managed to score a couple of tickets for one of the performances. At Edinburgh theatres are booked all day long. When one show ends, the audience clears out and the next audience, often for a different show, already lined up and waiting marches in. The line for the Ravenhill play, which was using one of the larger theatres, stretched two and three wide around the block. It was by far the largest audience for any of the shows I saw that summer. I don't know that the play was either particularly interesting or well done. Its subject matter was somewhat controversial, but not more so than any of the others in the genre. Had it been called "Shopping and Sex," I somehow doubt it would have been doing as well. Indeed, after the title, the show itself seemed kind of tame. From the reviews of The Motherf**ker With the Hat, while it would seem to be a much more exciting theatrical experience, it would seem that it too is not quite as wild as its title would indicate.

Later when I returned to the States, I decided that despite Shopping and F**king's mediocre dramatic impact, it was the kind of play I wanted to have in my library. Living in Western Pennsylvania, I didn't have any local access to a book store devoted to the theatre. Of course the best source for books on things theatrical then and probably still now was The Drama Book Shop in Manhattan. So I called to see if they had a copy. A young lady answered the phone.

"Do you have a copy of Shopping and--. . . .

"Don't say it," she said.

It turns out that whatever Motherf**ker With a Hat needed it wasn't notoriety. Tony nominations are out and the play is nominated in just about every category for which it was eligible: Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play, Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play, Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, Best Direction of a Play, and of course Best Play, to name only some. Imagine some presenter on the 65th annual Tony Awards Show on CBS announcing the winner for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, Bobby Cannavale for Motherf--.

"Don't say it."



Saturday, May 7, 2011

Book Review: The Diviners, by Rick Moody

This article was first published at The Compulsive Reader.

In an interview on National Public Radio, Rick Moody describes the structure of his latest novel, "The Diviners," as modeled on that of serial television with perhaps a touch of the eighteenth century British novelist, Laurence Sterne. From serial television he seems to have taken the idea of following multiple characters, whose own stories are directly or indirectly connected to one or more major plot lines. From Sterne he has taken the passion for the digression which often emphasizes the meandering branch over the narrative stream from which it wanders.

What he has produced in "The Diviners" is a loosely structured panoramic vision of the beginning of the American twenty first century told from the points of view of a large and varied cast of characters. Some speak once and are never heard from again. Some appear once, speak their piece and then step back onto the canvas to emerge again sporadically in the narrative of others. A few, those more central to the major plot lines, speak several times and pop up on a fairly regular basis when others narrate. It is a cast of, if not thousands, enough so that at times it is not always easy for the reader to keep track of them all.

Moody draws his characters from a broad spectrum of contemporary American society, each in some way representative, each in some way unique and individual. There is the Italian mother who wants to see her only daughter married and who hides bottles of a malt beverage in her bathroom. There is the Sikh car service driver with an autistic son, a degree in European fiction and a passion for western television. There is the liberal Massachusetts clergyman who adopts Afro-American children, falls asleep during television shows and drunkenly lusts after the sixteen year old daughter of one of his parishioners. There is the Chinese art curator who sees the world dimly through the veil of a head injury, the rebellious middle class teenager who hooks up with a group of terrorist ‘wannabees,’ the middle age accountant who turns embezzler to help her new found boy friend out of his own financial difficulties–and these are just a few of the many voices in Moody’s chorus.

Although usually in the third person, each speaks in a voice distinctly his own. The Sikh: "They eat the snack called french fries. His son has an abiding need to put french fries into the mouths of everyone present. Even some strangers are willing to have these french fries put into their mouths." The Italian mother: "She will need someone from the neighborhood to keep an eye on her parking space. She has no car, but still. People are moving in, young people, they don’t even know." The Chinese art curator: "Everyone seems very happy to see her in the wheelchair. She is the sort of person whom people are very happy to see out in the hall. People actually stare at her, which reminds her that she should know what she looks like."

Voices blend with one another to sing Moody’s chorale–a richly comic, satiric commentary on this American life. Set mostly in New York City in the days just after the contested presidential election of 2000, the main plot centers on an independent film company, Means of Production, and its attempt to get into mainstream television by pitching an non-existent mini-series script about water diviners. This is complimented by a secondary plot about a bipolar bike messenger accused of assault. But often as in "Tristram Shandy," the most famous novel by Laurence Sterne, the plot is almost secondary to the odd bits and pieces that grow out of it and wind their way around it. While Moody never strays quite as far from his story as Sterne does from his, it is nonetheless clear that plot is not the major focus of this novel.

Rather it is the arid desert of Western culture as it moves like the light moving westward and threatening to engulf all that it meets until it comes back upon itself that is the real concern of the novel. "The Diviners" is supposedly a series about finding water, water to assuage the thirst of mankind throughout the ages, from the Huns to Las Vegas. Thirst is a metaphor for the spiritual emptiness that is endemic to this cultural desert in which we now live. Television, the entertainment industry, is simply the most strident example of that spiritual vacuity: mindless action movies aimed at teenage boys, glitzy quiz shows to watch during dinner, unreal reality shows where back biting strangers scheme to vote each other off some tropical less than paradise.

This kind of aesthetically barren entertainment is a kind of overwhelming force in the world that Moody describes, but even in popular art the germ of something more meaningful may be found. In a bravura passage late in the novel, he describes in detail the Thanksgiving episode of what is the most popular dramatic series on TV–"The Werewolves of Fairfield County." It is a story that combines alienation from the larger society with a sense of unity within a smaller unit. That the alienated are werewolves and that the smaller unit is the pack is indicative of the nature of its social commentary. Nonetheless, what the newly sprouted werewolf must learn is that though he is separated from what is the ‘normal’ society, he will always be able to rely on the other members of the pack. Significantly almost every character in the novel seems to be tuned into the program, and their reactions are interspersed through the narrative account. It is as though the whole country is tuned in. There is a message and there is, it seems, an audience for that message.

If the entertainment industry with its vertical corporate structure and its anorexic teenage divas strung out on drugs, its pandering producers and its ambitious assistants waiting breathlessly for that one false step is the central object of Moody’s satire and comedy, it is not the only one. All areas of modern civilization or lack thereof are fair game for his wit. Randall Tork is "the greatest writer in wine history," famous for the column in which he compares 1997 California chardonnays to an actress: "These wines are flabby in the way the cellulite bulges from the too-tight pouches of her nulliparous behind. . . ." Eduardo Alcott is a faux revolutionary who seems obsessed with the "ancient surgery of trepanation" as a cure for migraines as well as a source of more general feelings of well being. The fragment of skull to be removed, he opines, can be made into an amulet. Arnie Lovitz is a middle aged accountant who sets up fictitious corporations on Caribbean islands, islands that sometimes don’t even exist. There are the New York detectives who follow their suspects into trendy restaurants so they can order fancy lunches, support groups for food addiction, sexual liaisons masquerading as yoga lessons, rehab hospitals that have trouble keeping track of patients, botox parties and romance novelists who don’t bother to write their own books. There is even a fifty dollar guided tour to the desert scene of an alien abduction.

Moody is an equal opportunity satirist. He moves up and down the social ladder. He pokes fun at a variety of races, sexual orientations and political affiliations. Sometimes his mood is gentle as with a senior citizen messenger who likes to talk baseball with his deliveries; sometimes his touch is more biting as with the philandering action movie star who doesn’t mind a little pain with his sex. He can be laugh out loud funny as he writes about his overweight heroines wild binge through each and every one of the island of Manhattan’s Krispy Kreme franchises. He can be subtle and understated as he hints at some hidden desires of a nameless supreme court justice and a special friend he hasn’t seen for years.

At times he indulges in virtuoso cadenzas on a variety of themes. The book begins with a lengthy rhapsody on the westward movement of light. There is a long passage in which Ranjeet, the Sikh driver discourses on the significance of the picture as an aesthetic force and its application to motion pictures an television to conclude that the avatar of American story telling art is "Roots:" ". . .all American stories aspire to this condition, which is the condition of the saga. All stories aspire in this direction, and all corporations aspire toward the sale and reproduction of this saga. Nothing could be more American than this, and nothing could be more international than what is American, nothing could be more human; there are no nationalities, there are only ethnicities and corporations, there is only the military and its collateral damage, and the land of profitability and cowboys and slave trading." There are the almost rapturous riffs on the Krispy Kreme doughnut: "The great spiritual benefit of the Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut is the sensation of nothingness. The satori that is Krispy Kreme is the obliteration of self, the silencing of the voices that are attached to the oppressions of life."

Throughout he weaves pop culture references with academic allusions–Regis Philbin and Michel Foucault, "Nightmare on Elm Street" and semiotics, non-euclidean geometry and Bob Dylan. He skewers the nonsense that fills the lives of many people, those who fancy themselves intellectuals and those who have no such illusions about themselves. There are those who produce the products of Western culture. There are those who consume those products. There are those who analyze and critique those products. But when you come right down to it, whether you produce or consume, whether you attack, explain or extol, there is really no escape from its spiritual emptiness.

"The Diviners" is a funny book. You can’t help laughing at its humor, still, underneath that laughter–as with all great humor–there is something much more serious. It is a book that takes a hard look at us and the world we live in, the things we like and those we want no part of. It is a book that suggests that a civilization that privileges a pastry that gives the "sensation of nothingness" is in danger of achieving that same nothingness, itself.

Friday, May 6, 2011

DVD Review: In Search of Beethoven and In Search of Mozart: Special Collector's Edition

Those of you who have been looking for Mozart and Beethoven lo these many years are not alone, film director Phil Grabsky has been searching for them as well and the results, his two documentaries--In Search of Mozart and In Search of Beethoven are now available in a three DVD special collector's edition. Filmed, written and directed by Grabsky, they feature narration by Juliet Stevenson, a variety of talking heads and most importantly some brilliant performances by some of the world's finest musicians. The glory of Mozart and Beethoven is the music. Grabsky's films honor the music.

It is true that the music is represented by excerpts, and there are certainly those who would prefer longer excerpts, those that would prefer complete works. No doubt, more music wouldn't hurt. I can't imagine anyone buying this set complaining there was too much of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto or Beethoven's "Emperor." Still as Grabsky points out in an interview included as an extra, they had hours and hours of film. A choice had to be made between longer extracts from fewer works or a more comprehensive selection from the composer's canon. He chose the latter. These composers were nothing if not prolific, and it really would not be possible to present a reasonable selection of the wide range of their work if extended passages were used. As it is, the films start with their earliest compositions and move chronologically through the music sampling the lesser works as well as the masterpieces. Viewers can at least get a taste, and if anything particularly appeals to them there are always recordings available. Indeed, if the films get people interested enough to buy a CD or download a sonata clearly it has done at least one of its jobs.

There is nothing particularly innovative in the presentation of material. Both follow the lives and careers of the composers chronologically, although each uses one of the very last works to begin. They review what is known about the men's childhood, concentrating on their reputations as prodigies, emphasizing their activities as performers as well as composers. They talk about their struggles to earn a living, their personal life and their professional success. Those whose knowledge of them is limited to Amadeus and Immortal Beloved will find a good deal of the mythology surrounding the composers debunked. If I remember correctly, Salieri isn't even mentioned in In Search of Mozart and Beethoven's beloved turns out to be only one of many mortal beloveds over the years.

Analysis and appreciation of the music is provided by musicians, musicologists and critics. Some of it is technical, as for example when piano virtuoso Emmanuel Ax explains the difficulty of playing a passage in one of the sonatas with one hand as called for in Beethoven's fingering notations. Some of it is impressionistic, as when a variety of conductors describe the revolutionary impact of Beethoven's third symphony. In general there is nothing so technical as to lose the novice, and nothing so simplistic as to bore the more knowledgeable. More often than not it is truly illuminating to hear what people like Roger Norrington, Renee Fleming and Ronald Brautigam have to say.

Visuals for the biographical portions concentrate on paintings, close ups of building exteriors and interiors, and even some natural landscape shots. The Mozart film includes a lot of film of modern cities with streets clogged with autos and all the other accoutrements of modern life. This can be disconcerting at times. The Beethoven film avoids this kind of thing altogether. There is also a good deal of filmed performance. Close up shots of pianist's fingers hurtling over the keys can be fascinating. Portions of scenes from operas like Fidelio and The Magic Flute add variety. The footage of the Orchestra of the 18th Century's performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is spectacular. The entrance of the basso from the back of the orchestra and chorus at the start of the choral passage in the last movement is a dramatic coup de theatre.

Each film includes an interview with the director and a trailer. In Search of Mozart runs 128 minutes, the Beethoven 139. Subtitles in German, Italian and French are available. The extras for In Search of Beethoven are on a separate disc, and include performances of complete movements from half a dozen pieces, including a performance of the "Pathetque" sonata, deleted scenes and a trip to the editing room.

These are two excellent films. They are both informative and entertaining. There is gossip that will titillate the tyro—Mozart's scatological correspondence, Beethoven's hygiene. There are moments in performance that will bring a smile—Ronald Brautigaum's struggles with one of the early Beethoven pieces. There are moments that will bring a lump to your throat—the Vienna Symphony's performance of the Missa Solemnis, the scenes from Fidelio. This is a set that will be a welcome addition to the collection of any music lover.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Music Review: P. J. Pacifico-Outlet

Article first published as Music Review: P. J. Pacifico - Outlet on Blogcritics.

When singer-song writer P. J. Pacifico is at his best there is a heartfelt honesty to his music. You can hear it in his voice; you can hear it in his lyrics. There is a palatable flow of emotions that seem at once spontaneous and completely sincere. And of the ten songs, nine written by the singer, on his latest album, Outlet, there are plenty of examples of Pacifico at his best.

There is a natural conversational quality to his lyrics that reminds me of nothing so much as the aesthetic reaction against artificiality in poetry that marked the Romantic poetry of the 19th century and became a hallmark of modern verse. The "common language of the common man," verse that spoke the way people really spoke was emblematic of the sincerity of the poet. Pacifico's lyrics, written we are told after the engagement and eventual marriage to his long time girlfriend, sing with the same kind of sincerity. "As Soon as I Can," for example, a song which he describes as a thank you to his wife for her complete support for his career, is an unsentimental look at the artist's need for freedom. It is a simple description of his feelings as he leaves her to go on tour and sees her face saying one thing, her voice another. Emotion is wrapped in natural conversation. Contrast this with the lyric gymnastics of "Waiting" which he describes as a fictional song about "falling for your best friend." Here he seems more interested in coming up with ingenious rhymes than he is with honest expression.

Still it is honesty of emotion that dominates that dominates the album. "Lakeshore Drive," "Heads Up," "Targets" and "Fold Up Your Heart," all have that natural quality which belies artifice: art without artificiality. It is art at its best that keeps the artifice hidden; not an easy thing to do. It is the artist who can make you forget all the work that went into creating what you are hearing that is the true artist. Pacifico makes it seem easy.

"New Song" is a playful illustration of what seems like this spontaneous composition. It is a self-referential meta-song, a song about itself. Pacifico says it reminds him of Blues Travelers "Hook," which it surely does. It is as though the song is writing itself as he sings. The words he sings are the only words he knows. They are his just because he says so. He's not sure how long it will last, but he will sing it to the end. Again, there seems to be no artifice to what is clearly very artful. All I can do is try to finish the thing, he says, about a song which has clearly been finished, as he gives the finger to the establishment.

"Ships in the Night," the one song on the album not written by Pacifico, is by Jonathan and Ken Stuart. Its sound is much more country than anything else on the album. Pacifico's songs have a softer pop rock vibe. "Home With Me," the story of ten years of his relation with his wife before their marriage, is much more the characteristic sound of the songs on Outlet. It is a sound you are likely to hear a lot more of in the future.

Videos of Pacifico covering songs like Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic" and the Beatles "Something" as well as several other songs are available on his website: http://www.pjpacifico.com/videos.htm. There is also a short promotional video for the new album at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FJ4gILLD7aI, which will give you a sampling of some of the new material.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Book Review: My Reading Life, by Pat Conroy

Article first published as Book Review: My Reading Life by Pat Conroy on Blogcritics.

For a writer who has a reputation for writing lengthy blockbusters, a reputation he not only admits is accurate, but one he takes pride in, Pat Conroy's little collection of essays on his love of books and the people who influenced and fostered that love, My Reading Life, is something of a departure. This is not a voluminous tome, but it is a serious reflection on how a lonely young boy with little opportunity to make friends because his military family was constantly moving from base to base, a boy tormented by an abusive father, was able to find both an escape and a calling in books. It is a story about how that love of books can become a lifelong obsession.

While he does spend time talking about the books and writing that captured his imagination both as a boy and later as an adult, it is the portraits of the people, the book lovers and odd characters that he met along the way that make for the most interesting reading. Sure he found a copy of Les Miserables in the high school library to occupy his lonely lunch hours, but it is Miss Hunter, the Beaufort high librarian who doesn't cotton to students reading in her library and likes a little Jack Daniels for her nagging head cold, who is the memorable part of his essay. It is Mr. Norris, the English teacher who takes an interest in the bookish boy and teaches him lessons about life and literature and introduces him to the work of Thomas Wolfe, who serves as the model of the kind of humane character that a life devoted to literature can foster. It is Cliff Graubart, the New York transplant owner of an Atlanta bookstore, Norman Berg, the book rep who refused to tolerate fools, Jonathan Carroll, a little known American novelist who is careful to watch an elderly woman walk a tortoise every evening: these and a variety of others are the characters that fill the book with life.

This is not to say that there is no discussion of books. There is, but it is usually more in the nature of appreciation than it is critical analysis. There is an essay on Tolstoy which focuses on War and Peace. A book he points to as perhaps the greatest of all novels. There is a love letter to Thomas Wolfe whose passion for language despite his acknowledged flaws and excesses is probably the central influence on Conroy's own work. James Dickey's poetry is always on his desk even now and Deliverance is a masterpiece that got him out canoeing down the Chattooga. These are writers who are treated in individual essays, but the book is filled with references to others—Henry James and Henry Adams, Dickens and Neruda, Gibbon and Hemingway, and these are just a few.

Probably, it is his mother who was the biggest influence on his reading. It was her passion for books that he emulated earliest. Books, for her, served as a substitute for the education she missed in her life. Oddly, the book he talks about as his first legacy from her is Margaret Mitchell's popular historical classic, Gone with the Wind, a book, more than likely because of its sentimental associations, he seems to rate a good deal higher than most. "Gone with the Wind has outlived a legion of critics and will bury another whole set of them after this century closes." He is a southerner, after all.

Additionally, there is a good deal of discussion of his own writing. He talks about his father's reaction to the way he is portrayed in The Great Santini. He describes the way the portrait of Eugene Gant's father in Look Homeward, Angel enabled him to deal with his own demons. He discusses the failures of his early attempts at poetry and the short story, and he does have quite a story to tell of his one early poem he wrote while at The Citadel that was a success.

This may be a little book, but it is not an empty book. Readers who care about books will find in Conroy a kindred spirit. They may well find an honest voice that speaks their own feelings with a style and grace they can only wish they had themselves.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

DVD Review: Upstairs Downstairs

Article first published as DVD Review: Upstairs Downstairs (2011) on Blogcritics.

The critically acclaimed sequel to the much beloved BBC series, Upstairs Downstairs, which ran in three parts on PBS is now available on DVD in a two disc set including an exclusive DVD feature: "Upstairs Downstairs-Behind Closed Doors." Set in 1936, a year which saw three kings on the British throne, the series introduces a new family, the Hollands, to 165 Eaton Place. Rose Buck played by Jean Marsh one of the originators of the show, the only holdover from the original Downstairs staff, is working as an employment agent and she is hired to help the Hollands hire a new staff of servants. The first episode introduces all the new characters and begins to delineate the tensions and themes that are going to occupy the drama.

A good deal of attention is devoted to the historical context of the period. Lord Holland is a diplomat returning to an England in some turmoil after a tour of foreign duty. The king is dying and his successor is involved in an affair with a notorious woman. The economy is still in bad shape from the depression, and Fascist sympathizers are making headway with the people. German diplomats are looking for support among the upper classes. Series writer, Heidi Thomas seems to place a much greater emphasis on the historical background than I remember in the original series. There is, for example, an actual recreation of the Cable St. riots when the Fascist leader, Sir Oswald Mosley tried to take his Black Shirts on a march through London. There is a sub-plot concerning a Jewish refugee who becomes a maid in the second episode. Wallace Simpson and Joachim von Ribbentrop both make appearances in the series. Upstairs and downstairs characters become involved with the Fascists. Indications of the social changes in Britain are also emphasized in an abortive romance between Lady Agnes's sister and the chauffer.

The "Behind the Scenes" feature explains the care that was taken in creating a historically accurate mise en scene. It is not only the costumes where Keeley Hawes who plays Lady Agnes explains that she was even wearing period underwear, but everything about the setting as well. The pantry was stocked with actual spices and preserves. The servant's hall was given all the appropriate accoutrements. Food cooked and served at dinner parties was thoroughly researched before it was prepared for the set. The house itself had the effect of physically informing the performances according to Adrian Scarborough who plays Pritchard, the butler. One can't help stiffening one's back and raising one's nose, he says. Indeed, in many respects the house becomes a featured character itself, beginning as what they call a "ghost house" shrouded in drop cloths and cob webs only to reemerge in magnificent splendor.

Performances are spot on. Eileen Atkins, the other of the series originators, is a commanding elder used to taking charge and not about to take a back seat to her daughter-in-law. Keeley Hawes is effectively torn between her inexperience and her desire to assert herself, while Ed Stoppard has his diplomatic skills tested as he maneuvers between the two. Claire Foy plays the rebellious Lady Persie with the passionate self righteousness of youth.

The downstairs cast is equally fine. Anne Reid as Mrs. Thackeray, the cook, is not quite the martinet in the kitchen, but still quite jealous of her position. Her joyousness at having her photo taken by the famed photographer, Cecil Beaton is classic. If at first Adrian Scarborough's Pritchard doesn't seem to have the same authority that Mr. Hudson had in the original, by the time he gets to the third episode there is no question of his stature. Harry Spargo is the chauffer who can't quite bring himself to break away from the traditional social values when all is said and done. Art Malik plays Lady Maud's private secretary and adds an exotic note to the cast. The young maid is played with youthful exuberance by Ellie Kendrick, and together with Nico Mirallegro as a youthful footman in training, they make a fetching pair. Of course, it is Jean Marsh, her face lined with her years as an actress mirroring her years in service to the Bellamys that hold everything together. It is only fitting that the series end with her gazing out from the window of her beloved home.

Upstairs Downstairs from the seventies has become a classic. The 2011 version has much to live up to; it would be very easy to disappoint. But series lovers can rest easy, the sequel does the series proud. We can only hope that there will be more to come.

Monday, May 2, 2011

DVD Review: Dylan Revealed

Article first published as DVD Review: Dylan Revealed on Blogcritics.

The most disappointing thing about Joel Gilbert's documentary Dylan Revealed now available on DVD in time for Dylan's 70th birthday is that in all of its 110 minutes there isn't even one sample of the man singing, let alone a complete song. There is plenty of concert footage, but it is always film accompanied by talking head voiceover rather than the music. When there is music, it seems from the credits to be the music of a tribute band.

While a documentary about a musician that fails to include the man's music may not make a lot of sense, what the film does have is a lot of film from the singer's long career that it claims has never been seen before. Unfortunately the quality of much of this film is not always up to par. More often than not, it is taken from home movies shot by amateurs. For example there is film of Dylan on his 1966 Electric World Tour which was taken by drummer Mickey Jones who does the bulk of the narration about this period of Dylan's career. In the first half of the concerts Dylan would do an acoustic set, and Jones would go out and film from the audience. He'd get one of the roadies to film the second half when he was on stage. This is supplemented by film of Dylan and his entourage as they travel from country to country. Some of it is interesting, but after awhile it's like watching your brother-in-law's vacation movies. I mean "Bob Dylan visits Elsinore" and D. A. Pennebaker in and out of his top hat leave something to be desired.

The film is less a biography than it is a look at various more or less significant moments in the singer's career, although by no means all significant moments. It begins in 1962 with his Columbia recording contract, the dismal sales of his early recordings, and the problems this caused for legendary producer John Hammond. It jumps ahead to the Dylan goes electric period, and essentially makes the point that those who think he was selling out for the money are wrong. In fact, the poor reception his electric sets got from audiences cost him fans and money. Mickey Jones describes the cat calls and booing that greeted the electric portion of the concerts, a description that has been echoed recently by Robbie Robertson as he makes the talk show rounds in support of his new album.

Other aspects of Dylan's career that get major attention are his Rolling Thunder Revue Tour, his support of Reuben 'Hurricane' Carter, his born again period and his return to his Jewish heritage. And although the documentary's title seems to indicate that there are revelations in store for the viewer, I don't know that there is a whole lot that is new here. Clearly Dylan's preaching from the stage after his Christian conversion rubbed many concert goers the wrong way. As critic, Joe Selvin, points out, his audiences expected something quite different from him. If this conversion didn't last very long, those people who discuss it seem to feel it was an honest commitment. His return to Judaism may well have been honest as well, but the footage of his appearance on a Chabad telethon is downright embarrassing.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this film is the insight into the way Dylan worked with the other musicians he played with. Violinist Scarlet Rivera talks about the freedom Dylan gave her to develop her own ideas. Bassist Rob Stoner talks about the disorganization of recording sessions. Drummer Winston Watson describes his sink or swim audition for Dylan's band. In general, the picture of Dylan that emerges from their accounts is of an artist who seems more concerned with spontaneity and creative surprise than he is with rigid control.

Dylan Revealed is a very conventional documentary about a very unconventional artist. It does call attention to what might be considered the many faces of Bob Dylan, but certainly not as creatively as Todd Hayne's I'm Not There. It does tell you something about Dylan in the sixties, for example his 'supposed' motorcycle accident, but not in the detail that you get from David Hajdu's Positively 4th Street. It does talk about his electric apostasy, but it really gives little insight into what if anything he was trying to accomplish. Unfortunately the DVD doesn't include any extra material. A director's commentary on the making of the film would be welcome. It would be nice to know why there is no film with the man actually singing. It would be nice to know why little is said about the singer's early relations with Joan Baez. It would be nice to know why Mickey Jones is the only member of The Band interviewed for the film. In the end what Dylan Revealed reveals is that there is still much about Mr. Dylan that needs revealing.