Friday, September 30, 2011

Music Review: Foreigner-Feels Like the First Time

Article first published as Music Review: Foreigner - Feels Like the First Time on Blogcritics.

For classic rock fans the new three disc set from Foreigner may be something of a mixed blessing. What you get, with an exception or two, is multiple versions of the band's greatest hits. One disc, Acoustique: The Classics Unplugged, has the latest manifestation of the band running through a stripped down acoustic version of their songbook. The second, Juke Box Heroes is a set of "brand new digital recordings" of the band's greatest hits. Live in Chicago is a DVD filmed in March of 2011 with some bonus features like some backstage footage, interviews with the band and video of two of the band's acoustic performances. Taken altogether, the set gives you an awful lot of Foreigner, perhaps more than any but the band's most fanatic followers might want. Others might prefer just a little bit more variety in the repertoire. Great as many of these songs are, do we really need three versions of "Feels Like the First Time" and "Cold as Ice?" After all, out of three hours of music, more or less, there are only two new songs and one cover of another artist.

Although founding member of the band Mick Jones has said he's surprised that it has taken this long for the band to do some acoustic recording, it may take even more time for listeners to get used to it. The idea of a band reworking its material is not new. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Certainly part of the appeal of classic rockers doing their hits is nostalgia, and reworking the material while it may have other rewards doesn't push that button. There is something about listening to songs like "Jukebox Hero" and "Double Vision" unplugged that seems just a bit off. Even ballads like "Waiting for a Girl Like You" don't immediately seem to have the same kind of energy of the originals. Interestingly the band in the DVD interviews clearly recognizes the emotional appeal the music has for their audience. Perhaps then it should come as no surprise that the immediate reaction to the reworked songs might be disappointment. In fact the least disappointing track was the cover of the Elvis Presley bonus track, "That's All Right."

The newly recorded material on the second disc and the performances on the DVD are another story. While there may be some who would prefer remastered versions of the originals, the band in its latest incarnation is no second rate copy. Besides Jones on guitar and keys, Jeff Pilson plays bass, Tom Gimbel, guitars and reeds, Michael Bluestein, keyboards and Mark Schulman, drums. Former lead singer, Lou Gramm might well object to the branding, but over the years life goes on and bands change. Foreigner as now constituted is playing as well as it ever did. Kelly Hansen, Gramm's replacement, has the vocal chops to do full justice to the music. Moreover he is a charismatic performer who knows how to take the stage and work the audience. When they plug in, Foreigner can still rock with the best of them. "I Want to Know What Love Is," Urgent," "Head Games:" these are the songs you remember, the way you remember them.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Comedy Review: Patton Oswalt, Finest Hour

Article first published as Comedy Review: Patton Oswalt - Finest Hour on Blog critics.

If you were to look at Patton Oswalt's August interview with the A.V. Club you might get the idea that success and family have mellowed him a bit. If you listen to Finest Hour, his latest album from Comedy Central, you'll find you were wrong. Mellowed, no doubt, is a relative judgment—but there is no sense of the word, where it would be applicable to Oswalt's standup routine, not unless you would consider allowing that the Bible was a really great read especially if you were into torture porn a mellowing. And who knows, perhaps he has, at least by his lights. In the interview, he says, ". . . my feelings on religion are starting to morph. I'm still very much an atheist, except that I don't necessarily see religion as a bad thing." If this is mellowing, Oswalt himself recognizes it may not evident to all audiences. "So, that's a weird thing that I'm struggling with that seems to be offending both atheists and people that are religious."

The one group he won’t be offending is the Oswalt fans. They know what to expect—more than likely they would be offended if they didn’t get it. No need to worry, Finest Hour delivers patent Patton. Whether he is riffing on Jesus' super powers or gays as portrayed in romantic comedies, he happily hammers away at pretentious platitudes. Clearly much of this will not go down well with believers; one man's platitudes are another's cherished creed. Believers be warned, offense is likely.

Not everything in the set is controversial. There is a funny piece on weight loss groups and William S. Burroughs and another about an engorged Axel Rose. He makes fun of himself when he has a little problem with the word, brewery. He talks about parenting, about the span museum, about sweat pants and hygiene, but most of the best material is either controversial or raunchy. There is his politically loaded analysis of arguments good and bad against gay marriage, which gets him going on the authority of the Bible. His bit about strippers and comics is a winner, and his description of interrupting two crackheads in a somewhat indelicate act while walking his dog in New York which ends the show is hilarious.

The set, which was recorded at the Moore Theatre in Seattle, Washington in May of 2011, has been featured as an hour special on Showtime and is scheduled to be shown on Comedy Central next year. According to Oswalt's website the album contains about ten minutes of material that isn't included on the TV show. If it's "The Horror of New York City" track, it is probably the best part of an extremely fine album. If the audience in Seattle felt Oswalt had mellowed, if it was offended by the show, you couldn't tell by their reaction.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Music Review: Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band-Live Bullet

Article first published as Music Review: Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band - Live Bullet [Remastered] on Blogcritics.

Often considered the album that finally got Bob Seger and his band a long overdue national acclaim beyond Detroit and the state of Michigan, Live Bullet has been released in a re-mastered version by Capitol as the sixty six year old singer and the Silver Bullet Band embark on the second leg of their current North American tour. Originally recorded in Detroit's Cobo Hall in September of 1975, and released the next year, the band rocked out on a mix of original Seger written songs some of which were to become rock classics and covers of icons like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley fed by the electric energy of an enthusiastic audience. What they ended up with was a multi-platinum album that together with the '76 studio album Night Moves made Seger and the Silver Bullet Band a household name.

The concert included a quintet of live versions of songs from his 1975 album Beautiful Losers. There was the popular title song as well as a high powered rollicking "Katmandu" and a dramatic driving "Travelin' Man," two of which were destined for greatest hits compilations, and the other should have been. Also from that album there are the lesser known "Jody Girl" and a cover of Tina Turner's "Nutbush City Limits." From his Back in '72 album, the set includes another Seger standard, the classic "band on the road" song, "Turn the Page" and a funky version of Van Morrison's "I've Been Working." From '72's Smokin' O.P.'s, the band expands Chuck Berry's "Let it Rock" into an audience pleasing eight minute plus medley which closes the concert with an explosive climax. They also play a Bo Diddley medley and Seger's own "Heavy Music" from that album. The Bo Diddley-Chuck Berry vibe is up front in Seger's "Get Out of Denver" from his Seven album, and there's also a subdued bluesy change of pace in "U. M. C.". Then there's "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" from Seger's first album.

Added as a bonus track to this new CD is a live version of "I Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody's Home" which had been recorded at the Pontiac Silver Dome in 1976. It is a down and dirty blues that has been recorded by the likes of soul singer Ann Peebles and mellow voiced blues man Albert King, but seems tailored for the grittier voiced Seger and deserves more attention. It is a nice addition to what is already a nicely varied set list.

Not all live concerts deliver the goods for a successful record. Sometimes the band is busy trying to promote unfamiliar new material that disappoints the audience. Sometimes they seem to be phoning it in. Sometimes they seem to be playing for themselves and the audience be damned. But when the band is on its game, when the audience is tuned in, when the music is memorable—when all these planets are aligned, there is magic. Live Bullet was magic when it first came out; Live Bullet is magic today.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Book Review: A Man of Parts, by David Lodge

Article first published as Book Review: A Man of Parts by David Lodge on Blogcritics.

Born in 1866, deceased, 1946, prolific British author, H. G. Wells' life spanned a period of radical social and cultural change in England and the world in general, and few lives were more in tune with those changes both publically and privately than Wells. He was able to achieve intellectual and political influence in spite of his lower class beginnings. He was a popularizer and disseminator of scientific knowledge. He was a socialist and pacifist. He wrote popular and serious fiction, journalism and criticism, history and political tracts. He supported women's rights. And with all of his intellectual pursuits, he still had time to pursue a sybaritic sexual private life with the gusto of a randy satyr. A firm believer and practitioner of free love and open marriage, the story of his life is the story of his hopping from one bed to another during and between hours set aside for writing, thinking and conversation. His is a life made for a novel.

David Lodge, not quite as prolific as Wells, but prolific enough in his own right, knows a good subject when he sees one. His new novel, A Man of Parts, is his attempt to capitalize on that good subject. It is a fictional representation of the life of Wells, and since Lodge is a literary scholar of some note, it is based on a good deal of solid research. And that may be a problem for many readers. This is a novel that reads like a biography. The author protests right at the beginning that he has taken the novelist's license to invent in things like character's thoughts and feelings and that he has even taken the liberty of portraying events that should have happened. This may be true, but most of what has been invented is presented exactly as it would have been in an academic biography. The voice of the writer is the voice of a scholar. His methods are the methods of a researcher: the book is filled with quotations (undocumented it's true, but documentable). There are few conversations. There are few dramatized scenes. Little is shown, much told.

Perhaps realizing this, Lodge creates a self questioning internal voice which appears at times in the course of the novel to question Wells—something like what one of the great Victorians called "the dialogue of the mind with itself." It is a probing voice that challenges Wells' interpretations of events and relationships, a voice that questions his motivations and explanations. It is a way to add some dramatic tension to the narrative, and is an effective way to remind the reader that this is fiction not fact.

Still the book contains a lot of material that could pass for, if not fact, at least for non-fiction. There is a good deal of explanation and critical interpretation of Well's ideas as expressed in his work, not only the famous pieces, but from almost everything he wrote. Moreover there is also a good bit of criticism of the work of many of the other literary figures that pass through the book's pages: Henry James, Arnold Bennett, George Bernard Shaw, Rebecca West, as well as a number of lesser lights. This shouldn't be unexpected, literature was one of the central elements of Wells' life and he was surrounded by literary lions, and Lodge, after all, is a literary critic of some note. But it is not the average novel reader that will be enthralled with a discussion of Well's criticism of Fabianism in "The Misery of Boots."

On the other hand what may well be of greater interest to that average reader of novels could be the other central element of Well's life, the man's sexual adventures. As prolific as he was a writer, he was equally prolific in the bedroom—his various studies, hideaway cottages, hotel rooms, and even al fresco—if the gossip is to be believed. Suffice it to say, the women in his life were legion. There were long term relationships; there were one night stands. There were young infatuated virgins; there were celebrity seekers. There is enough of the titillating in this man's life for an epic to compete with Frank Harris, but this book isn't it. It's not that the lovers aren't there; they are. It's not that we don't follow them into bed, we do. It is simply that the descriptions of sex and the discussions of sexuality are G-rated. In this age of rampant pornography, A Man of Parts contains some of the least sexual descriptions of sex one could imagine. Whether that's a good thing or not, I leave to the individual reader's moral convictions; I am only interested in pointing it out.

At the end of the day, this is not a book for every reader. There are many who will be fascinated by the life of Wells and Lodge's literate portrayal of him and his contemporaries. He is dealing with sensational material, but he eschews sensationalism. He is more interested in ideas and psychology than he is exciting the reader. Lodge writes with wit and insight. If you're looking for adult ideas written in stylish prose, this is a book you want to read. If you're looking for something more sensual, you may want to look elsewhere.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Music Review: Boardwalk Empire Volume 1: Music From the HBO Original Series

Article first published as Music Review:Boardwalk Empire Volume 1: Music From the HBO Original Series-Various Artists on Blogcritics.

If nostalgia is defined as a sentimental emotional attachment to your own past, nostalgia doesn't really describe the effect that the newly released album, Boardwalk Empire Volume 1: Music From the HBO Original Series has on this listener. This is music from the prohibition era, the roaring twenties, the jazz age. Old as I am, that's just a little bit before my time. Not that I am unfamiliar with some of music—much of it was still around when I was a child; not that I am unfamiliar with the people who made it famous—many of them were still around. Still, it was not the music of my youth, and it is surely not the music of the youth of most probably 99.9 % of today's audience. If this music is going to appeal to a 21st century audience, it's not going to do it because of nostalgia; if it's going to appeal to a modern listener, it's going to have to do so because it's great music.

While there is no question that the music is more than perfect in the context of the series; it is, after all, the music that defined the age. It goes with the bootleg gin, the speak easies and the gangsters in the popular imagination much like hip hop and grunge will go with Google and smart phones in future generations' image of our own era. Still, music that works with a series, may not work all that well when it stands alone.

That said, this is music that works. The sixteen songs on Volume 1 don't sound like antiques. With perhaps an exception or two the music is developed with a modern sensibility. For the most part singers don't attempt to mimic the vocals of the stars of the era. The one exception as far as I can tell is Stephen DeRossa who does a pretty fair imitation of bug eyed song and dance man, Eddy Cantor. Kathy Brier, who plays the red hot momma, Sophie Tucker, sounds an awful lot better than Tucker ever sounded. Her powerful performance on the classic "Some of These Days" accompanied by Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks transforms what could have just another old chestnut into a living musical experience. Her versions of Irving Berlin's "After You Get What You Want (You Don't Want It)" and the lesser known "Don't Put a Tax on the Beautiful Girls" add their own lively twists as well. She is what Sophie Tucker might have been if she were singing today.

Other singers are less interested in channeling some twenties counterpart. Loudon Wainwright III's mellow vocal on the traditional Irish folk ballad, "Carrickfergus" wouldn't be out of place on a contemporary folk album. Catherine Russell belts out a "Crazy Blues" with traditional style, while the arrangement on Nellie McKay's "Wild Romantic Blues" uses syncopation almost ironically, an irony she captures in her vocal. Leon Redbone, in a radio flavored voice complete with a bar or two of whistling, delivers an understated "Sheik of Araby." Martha Wainwright adds a playful subtlety to the lyric of "All By Myself." Probably the most ballyhooed song on the album is Regina Spektor's "My Man," a song made famous first by Fanny Brice, and then by Barbara Streisand playing Fanny Price. Spektor's take on the song is perhaps the most contemporary of all in its conception, but what they have all managed to do is re-energize the material for the modern audience. And that is no mean accomplishment.

Much of the credit has to go to the show's musical supervisor Randall Poster, who creator/producer Terence Winter credits with bringing Dixieland bandleader Giordano on board. Besides providing the accompaniment for most of these singers, Giordano and his band contribute some absolutely brilliant instrumental tracks. They take a virtually unknown piece like "Livery Stable Blues" and turn it into a neighing classic. More famous songs like "Margie" and "Darktown Strutters Ball" get complete makeovers; both are absolute gems. He and the Nighthawks even manage to transform themselves into a dance band for "Japanese Sandman," the Paul Whitman Orchestra hit.

In an on-line interview, Giordano explains what the show's creators were after: "When they first came to me with this project, they said, 'You're in this band in Atlantic City. You play dance music, but you're hearing about this new jazz music.' It really was new then. . . . "We want you to cover some of this music with your energy. . . ." No question, they got what they wanted. More important, this is Volume 1, let's hope that Volume 2 is in the works, and that it's just as good.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Music Review: James Taylor-Sweet Baby James

Article first published as Music Review: James Taylor - Sweet Baby James [Audio Fidelity 24K+ Gold] on Blogcritics.

For those of us whose vinyl copies of James Taylor's triple platinum 1970 album Sweet Baby James have been worn out with use, Audio Fidelity has released a limited numbered edition of the masterpiece in their 24K+ Gold Compact Disc Series which uses a unique process to create the kind of warm sound many feel has been lost on today's standard disc. As they describe the process, they use the original mixes to create what they consider the best versions of each song to produce a disc with a 24 karat defect free gold surface. It is a disc with the kind of excellent sound in general that will thrill both Taylor aficionados and audiophiles as well. Of course there are likely to be those that never even open the shrink wrap on this deluxe edition in its see through packaging in the hopes that albums in pristine condition will command a good price on some future collectibles market. After all, the discs are numbered.

On the other hand, those who stow it away will be missing a fine listening experience. The album, honored as the 103rd on the Rolling Stone list of the "500 Greatest Albums of All Time," shows Taylor at his emotional best. Not only is it filled with songs that were to put the mellow singer on the charts, they were written with an honest personal intensity that went beyond mere artifice. "Fire and Rain," the album's break out single, is a clear illustration. In interviews Taylor has said that the song is about his experiences in mental institutions dealing with depression. While his statements about the causes of that depression differ, it is impossible to escape the essential emotional truthfulness of the song.

Add to this a song list that includes "Steamroller," "Lo and Behold," "Blossom," "Country Road" and "Oh Susannah" and you've got an album that deserves everyone of its many accolades. And that doesn't even include my own personal favorite, the brilliant faux folk lullaby that serves as the album's title. It is a song that describes as well as any the essence of Taylor's music: a "song which is soft but it's clear/As if maybe someone could hear." Maybe if it helps you to sleep you can believe it. It is the music of maybe, the music of uncertainty. While it is marked with that sweet melancholy that marks so much of the singer's work, "Sweet Baby James" is one of those songs that echoes in your ear and never grows old.

But in the end, Taylor doesn't need me to say nice things about this album; it has had more than enough praise piled on it as it goes into its fifth decade. It is a welcome addition to the Audio Fidelity gold catalogue, where by the way it joins with new releases of his albums One Man Dog and Walking Man as well as Carly Simon's No Secrets.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Music Review: Carmel Mikol-Creature

Article first published as Music Review: Carmel Mikol - Creature on Blogcritics.

Carmel Mikol is a singer/songwriter with the heart of a poet. She looks at world through metaphor. As she says in a recent blog post from a stop over on her current tour in support of her fine new album Creature, she walks out looking for words. "Sometimes they fall from the eaves of old buildings and I just have to make sure I'm there to catch them." Spend even a cursory half hour listening to the songs on Creature and you'll see quickly enough she was there to catch them when she wrote those songs. Spend a little more time listening and you'll see that as one of the greatest of the poets advised another she has managed to "load every rift of" her "subject with ore."

It is no wonder that her song "Twenty Something Girl," was the winner of the 2011 Grand Prize in the folk category of the John Lennon Songwriting Contest. The song is a modern take on the old fashioned folk protest song that Lennon himself would have been happy to have written himself. It describes a world where "corruption hides behind a steeple," where the "weather's changing without season," where "nationalized dreams" are "a corporate scheme." "This earth," she sings at the very beginning of the song, "is just a bloody floor/soaked and stained in metaphor/built on the bones of patriotic lore." This is a song in the best traditions of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and early Bob Dylan.

But if the eight tracks on the album show anything about Mikol's art it is its variety. This is not a disc filled with protest songs. She can write a dark story ballad like "Lion or Lamb" and an intensely personal lyric like "I Miss the Moon." She can take a cynical look at human motivations in "Made" and echo an almost traditional country plaint about a love affair in which "loving you is the hardest thing I do" in "Somewhere Else." "Creature," the album's title track is a rejection of the typical moral and social restrictions too often placed on human desires. It is a fairly explicit dismissal of patience and "virtuous pain." "In My Bones," a live version of a song from her first album, is as tuneful a plea for a lover to help make it through the night, while "Leaver" is her upbeat version of "love 'em and leave 'em."

All this emphasis on lyrics and content isn't meant to take anything away from Mikol as a composer and singer. She is equally at home with a country flavored tune as she is with rocking folk. Intimate personal emotion, public protest—she can sell them both. She has the kind of vocal clarity that focuses on the melody and gets the most out of the lyric.

Joining Mikol on the CD are David Bradshaw on the six and twelve string guitars, mandolin, banjo and backing vocal; Bobby McIsaac on electric guitars and backing vocal; Jeff Barrett on bass, and Matthew Piper on drums. Mikol plays acoustic guitar and piano.

Creature is being released with a companion book of the song writer's stories, poems and lyrics. Although I have only seen a sample of the book, what I have seen offers an effective insight into many of the themes on the album. Much of it talks about her American father and his relation to the hippie scene in the sixties, before leaving the States for Canada after the violence at the '68 Democratic convention in Chicago. Titled Creature of Habit the book seems to be a tribute to the singer's father perhaps something of a poet himself and his significance in her life. "I wear my father's flannel shirts sometimes," she says at one point. Given her penchant for metaphor it is very hard not to read this symbolically.

Like her well received debut album In My Bones, Creature is the work of an up and coming singer/songwriter who can turn songs that will get you thinking while it keeps you humming. Carmel Mikol is an artist who may be a "twenty something girl," but she is a twenty something girl with something important to say. If she keeps writing songs like those on this album, a lot of people are going to be listening.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Concert Review:They Might Be Giants at the Byham Theater, Pittsburgh, PA, 9/14/11

Article first published as Concert Review:They Might Be Giants at the Byham Theater, Pittsburgh, PA, 9/14/11 on Blogcritics.

They Might Be Giants brought their unique brand of goofy smarts to the Byham Theater in Pittsburgh as the fifth stop in their cross country tour in support of their newly released album, Join Us and they tore the place up. Unlike some alternative rockers, this is a band who knows how to work an audience. You come for a good time, and the Giants make sure you have one. You've got a light show. You've got sock puppets. You've got Flansburgh and company handing out decals to fans. But most important you've got the beguiling mind bending music that has defined the band for lo these 30 years, and you've got it played with joy and flair.

Of course the set featured a good selection of songs from the new album, but they also made sure to include what seemed like every classic TMBG song any diehard fan could have wanted. They opened with their revisionist take on "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," "The Guitar." Scattered through the rest of the show were "Particle Man," "The Mesopotamians," "New York City," and "Birdhouse in Your Soul" among others. A show stopping acoustic guitar solo by Dan Miller led into their rollicking update of that 1920's novelty hit "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)." Earlier in the show there was an equally mind blowing drum solo—a shorter version of the kind of drum solo you used to get when the drummer took off and the rest of the band left the stage—by Marty Beller. Along with Danny Weinkauf on bass, multi-talented Linnell and the frenetic Flansburgh, this is a band that can rock when it wants to and then throw in a little avant garde dissonance as a change of pace. Playful doesn't begin to describe them.

Of the eighteen songs on the new album they made sure to play the two that had been promoted with videos. The "Spoiler Alert" video which featured singing hands was done here with the cutesy sock puppet avatars flashed on a screen from just off stage seasoned with a bit of comic patter. "Can't Keep Johnny Down," the first video from the album was the final song before the band came back for the obligatory encores. Other tunes from Join Us included "Judy is Your Viet Nam," the cryptic "Cloissoné," and the crowd pleasing "Celebration." What the band gave us was a nice, audience friendly blend of the new with the tried and true, a formula that a lot of other bands would do well to follow.

The John's stage personas remind me a little of the comic magicians Penn and Teller. Linnell, although he does manage to speak, indeed more and more as the show progresses seems calm and distant, almost casually disinterested at times. Flansburgh jumps around the stage, flashes upstage and down, and does most of the talking. Even when Linnell throws in a comment, more often than not it seems like an off-hand remark. If this were a comedy team, Flansburgh would be the comic, Linnell the straight man. However you describe it, their interaction is clearly one of the charms of the show.

While the Byham has never been one of my favorite venues, it is a long narrow theater that costs those in the back rows a great deal of intimacy, neither the band nor the audience seemed to be bothered by it. Still as Linnell reflected back on the days of the Electric Banana, somehow that, despite its grunginess, feels more like the right king of venue for the Giants.

Opening for the band and for most of the shows on the tour is singer/songwriter Jonathan Coulton. No stranger to Pittsburgh he had been profiled in the Pittsburgh City Paper prior to a January gig at the Rex Theatre. His new album, Artificial Heart, was produced by Flansburgh, and listening to his music, it is easy to see why he would be attractive to the Giants. Unconventional doesn't begin to describe his songs. His set included "Nemeses" and the title song from the new album. Together Coulton and the Giants put on one great night of music.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Music Review:Chris Connor: Chris Connor Sings Gentle Bossa Nova ova

Back in the fifties when jazz vocalist Chris Connor was at her peak, it always seemed that like most of the other female singers of the period, she took a back seat to Ella Fitzgerald. It was as though there was Ella, and there was everyone else. Now while there is no question Ella Fitzgerald was a remarkable talent who deserved every accolade she received, Connor and others deserve some time out from under her shadow. This is not to say that the singer had no recognition in her day. Her records were best sellers and her appearances in legendary jazz clubs like Birdland and the Village Vanguard were sell outs. And although she made her share of TV appearances, she never quite achieved the mass appeal of Fitzgerald.

Perhaps that's why in 1965, after leaving her long term relationship with Atlantic Records, she would join with producer Kenny Greengrass and arrangers Pat Williams and later Don Sebesky to turn out a couple of albums with a pop flare much more likely to have an appeal to a larger audience. Unfortunately, if that were the intention, like many of the best laid plans, it didn’t quite pan out as hoped: for whatever reason the records never went very far. And that is doubly a shame, because they show the singer at her accessible best. Luckily of us the first of these, Chris Connor Sings Gentle Bossa Nova, is soon to be re-released by Just A Memory Records. Old timers will have the luxury of revisiting one of the great voices of their youth; youngsters will have the joy of discovery.

Connor's smooth styling and crystalline tone were made for the mellow dance rhythms of the bossa nova, the jazzy Brazilian import which was sweeping the country with the Stan Getz '64 recording of "The Girl From Ipanema" with the Astrud Gilberto vocal. Not only did the Latin transplant have pop cache, saxophone master Getz gave it jazz credibility as well. As repertoire for Connor it was a no brainer. Nearly all of the songs they chose for the album had been popular hits. There was a nice variety and Williams' arrangements swing. It should have been a smash, and even a cursory listen to the album today has to make you wonder why it wasn't.
The album opens with the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night" and follows with the Petula Clark hit, "Downtown." There are tunes from Hollywood: "Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte" from the Bette Davis, Olivia de Haviland horror flick and a really fine version of "The Shadow of Your Smile" from The Sandpiper. "Baby the Rain Must Fall," also from a film, is something of a disappointment with its chirpy arrangement, especially for anyone who remembers the drama of Glen Yarborough's recording. There are some show tunes including what for my money is the highlight of the album a smoky version of the classic "Feeling Good" that is as good as any you are likely to hear. Her sultry version of "A Taste of Honey," trumpeter Herb Alpert's instrumental hit, is another winner.

All in all, Chris Connor Sings Gentle Bossa Nova was an album that deserved a better fate. Lori Muscarelle, Connor's manager and partner, describes their disappointment that the beautiful piece of work Connor and Williams had produced "just got buried somewhere." This re-release should give it a real shot at resurrection.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Music Review: Sharon Isbin and Friends-Guitar Passions

Article first published as Music Review: Sharon Isbin and Friends - Guitar Passions on Blogcritics

Equally at home whether she's playing "The House of the Rising Sun" as part of the "Joan Baez Suite" or the Vivaldi Concerto in D major, celebrated classical guitar virtuoso Sharon Isbin has never limited herself to any one particular repertoire, and that's a lucky thing for music lovers of all tastes. Her eclecticism has produced an awful lot of spectacular music that might never otherwise have seen the light of day, and her latest effort, Guitar Passions in which she joins with some of her guitar playing buddies in a kind of homage to the instrument, is just one more joyful expression of the woman's enviable range. It is a recording, she explains in the liner notes, in which "I pay tribute to my guitar heroes, artists that I admire from the classical, rock and jazz worlds. . . . It is our shared passion for the guitar and for musical discovery that brings us together."

Joining her on various tracks in this tribute to the guitar are Stanley Jordan, Steve Morse, Romero Lubambo, Nancy Wilson, Steve Vai, Rosa Passos, Guadencio Thiago de Mello and Paul Winter. Sometimes in collaboration, sometimes on her own, Isbin offers twelve tracks inspired by South American and Spanish roots, seven of which are premieres. All in all it is a collection of a dozen pieces, each one a gem.

That said, if one has to pick out favorites, the world premiere of Laurindo Almeida's arrangement of the absolutely transcendent Adagio from what is probably the greatest piece for the classical guitar, certainly the best known, Joaquín Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez played by Isbin, Lubambo and Morse stands out. It is a fusion of classical, jazz and a pinch of rock that is indeed a tribute to the great composer. Isbin's acclaimed lyricism is on display in the Wilson sisters "Dreamboat Annie" with a vocal by Nancy, the two pieces from "La Catedral, and in Jorge Cardoso's soulful guitar setting of "Alphonsina y el Mar." Andrés Segovia's transcription of Isaac Albéniz's "Asturias" with its flamenco flavors gives her an opportunity to showcase the dynamic power of her playing.

She and Jordan join in a premiere of a two part guitar setting of "Sonidos de aquel dia" a solo guitar piece by Quique Sinesi, an Argentinian composer. De Mello's jaunty uptempo "O Presidente has a folk quality which she says "evokes the colorful sounds of the rain forest." She is joined on the track by Paul Winter on soprano sax and de Mello's organic percussion. Organic percussion refers to instruments de Mello has fashioned out of materials found in the jungle and is also featured on "Carinhoso." Singer/ guitarist Rosa Passos who does the vocal also wrote the guitar accompaniment. The guitar solos which open and close the song were arranged by Carlos Barbosa-Lima. Steve Vai improvises on Paraguayan composer Augustin Barrios Mangoré's "Allegro" and Romero Lubambo collaborate on adapting and performing Barbosa-Lima's arrangement of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Chovendo na Roseira."

Guitar Passions is an album filled with the work of some of the finest composers and arrangers for the instrument. Sharon Isbin and her friends not only play with skill, they imbue that work with passion and excitement. This is an album that won’t grow old.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Music Review: Jimi Hendrix-Hendrix in the West

Article first published as Music Review: Jimi Hendrix - Hendrix in the West on Blogcritics.

In addition to the September 13th release of the four CD deluxe box set of Jimi Hendrix Experience: Winterland, Experience Hendrix LLC and Legacy Recordings will also be releasing Hendrix in the West Expanded. Unavailable in the States since 1974, the album originally issued by Polydor and Reprise in 1972 was a posthumous collection of live performances at the Royal Albert Hall (February 24, 1969), the San Diego Sports Arena (May 24, 1969), Berkeley Community Theate (May 30, 1970) and the Isle of Wight Festival (August 30, 1970). The expanded album will also be available as a double 12 inch vinyl set.

Although it has been announced that the album will contain "five additional previously unavailable performances" only three songs have actually been added to the album's original eight tracks. Two of those original eight, "Little Wing" and "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)," seem to have been replaced by performances recorded from other shows. While this may turn off the purist, less particular Hendrix fans will no doubt welcome the opportunity to get their hands on a classic album that offers some of the guitarist's most celebrated work. As publicity for the album indicates critic Robert Christgau has called the performances of "Johnny B. Goode" and "Red House," the latter with some caveat about "a lazy unaccompanied passage," definitive. Unfortunately, he also called the '72 album's replaced version of "Little Wing" definitive as well, and didn't much care for the inclusion of "The Queen" and "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," both of which amount to little more than an "it's great to be here in the British Isles" shout out to the local concert audience.

On the other hand the additional material on the CD is a plus. There is a 10 minute jam on "Spanish Castle Magic" that includes a lengthy drum solo and then morphs into "The Sunshine of Your Love" for a few bars near the end. The cover of Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" is characteristically original, and "Fire" offers some nice guitar percussion interaction. The longer version of "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" is both powerful and dynamic. All in all then, it is really hard to complain about the changes: the '72 album was a classic; its 2011 reincarnation, excuse my heresy, may well be even better.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Book Review: All Our Worldly Goods

Article first published as Book Review: All Our Worldly Goods by Irene Nemirovsky on Blogcritics.

After the tremendously successful publication of Irene Némirovsky's posthumously discovered Suite Française, and despite charges of self-hating anti-Semitism in her portrait of the money grubbing business man in Daniel Golder, there has been a renewed interest in getting more of her work out in this country. In 2007 Fire in the Blood, which she was working on when she died in Auschwitz became available, and in 2010 a collection of her stories, Dimanche and Other Stories was published. And now comes another of her novels, All Our Worldly Goods, published in France in 1947, five years after her death and for the first time in this country.

The novel is a shorter version of one of those multi-generational multi-volume family sagas that were a staple of European fiction through the first half of the 20th century. Némirovsky manages to pack as much melodramatic action into her 250 odd pages as some authors got into their three volumes. There are young lovers agreeing to marry against the wishes of their parents, a broken engagement and a vindictive heiress, an attempted suicide, an autocratic patriarch, and all of this is set around two of the cataclysmic events of the era, World War I and World War II.

The essence of the book is the examination of bourgeois values in a changing society and under the duress modern warfare. It begins with a kind of sepia view of the old values with two families on a beach watching fireworks and a day later the two warring matriarchs riding out to swim in a horse drawn bath cabin. It is a world where parents tell their children what to do and the children do what they're told. It is a world where convention rules and everyone understands their place and what is expected of them, but it is a world on the verge of change. Young people have minds of their own. They don't feel the same kinds of obligation to family, to business, to the social status quo, and their rebelliousness is only increased by the horrendous conflicts reordering their world. It is not as though Némirovsky entirely rejects old world values, in the end there remain those like the responsibility the upper classes feel to set an example for those beneath them and the duty to one's family and country.

In what is a kind of foreshadowing of the epic civilian refugee's retreat from the advancing German army's invasion of Paris during the second World War in Suite Français, Némirovsky has two refugee marches to deal with, although neither with quite the same panoramic overview. Here the author's interest is much more focused on the central characters and their struggles. There are those who no matter what the catastrophe are concerned only with their worldly goods and there are those who rise above those concerns. There are those who can watch the world around them erupting and still dwell on their petty jealousies and there are those who can put the past behind them. There are those who give in to adversity and those who have the spirit to keep fighting. As one of the characters observes, people draw strength from misfortune, the greater the misfortune, the greater the strength.

Némirovsky is a compelling story teller. She rarely gets bogged down in irrelevancies. She has no problem jumping ahead a year or two to move her story apace. The important thing is to avoid burying the significant moments in a mass of trivia, and she manages this with consummate skill. She is adept at analyzing the emotional states of her characters caught in moments of personal crisis even when their world is falling apart around them. All Our Worldly Goods is as richly textured and layered with meaning as many a much longer work.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Comedy Review: Doug Benson, Potty Mouth

Article first published as Comedy Review: Doug Benson, Potty Mouth on Blogcritics.

The latest CD from comic Doug Benson, Potty Mouth, features almost an hour of his standup routine, and comes with a bonus DVD of what his publicity describes as his cult TV favorite The Benson Interruption. Recorded live on the 20th of April--4/20 being a number less significant in numerology than it is in the cannabis culture—it is not surprising that pot is at the heart of his comedy. After all this is the man responsible for the film Super High Me. This is the man that co-created and performed in The Marijuana-Logues. Besides, isn't the CD called Potty Mouth?

The set itself has the comedian talking about Morgan Spurlock's films and pot, words you aren't allowed to say on television and pot, CNN and pot, tweeting and pot, other assorted mind altering substances and pot—and of course pot and pot. Thus I am led to believe that the audience Benson intends speaking to is pretty much interested in one central subject; peripheral topics may intrude (interrupt), but there is a theme and that theme is front and center. I am not saying the man isn't funny. There are certainly laughs in the set. But there are a hell of a lot more laughs if you are tuned into cannabis, than if you're not. If you're looking for drug free comedy, you more than likely want to look elsewhere. If pot humor is your thing, you're in the right place.

The bonus DVD contains six episodes of Benson's 2010 Comedy Central show, The Benson Interruption. Each show features three comedians doing material from their standup act while Benson sits stage right in a wing chair and interrupts them with what are presumably comic ad libs. When the premise works the results can be hilarious, unfortunately it doesn't always work. Instead of spontaneniety , the interruptions often feel forced. At times Benson chooses to interrupt in the middle of something really interesting. The guest comic is on a roll, and Benson kills the moment. Moreover some of the 'spontaneous' interruptions seem either to have come from his standup act or been judged so funny, they became part of it, whichever came first. Still there are some good laughs. Some of the better chemistry occurs with T.J. Miller, Paul Scheer, and Brian Posehn, but even with them there are weaker moments.

At the end of each set, Benson and the featured comic engage in a "tweet off," tweets it seems are an essential element in the Benson arsenal. Each reads a tweet or two from what is supposed to be their Twitter feed in a kind of comic one upsmanship duel. Like the show itself the tweets are uneven. You can get a really witty remark; you can get something that falls flat. Benson has an HIV tweet that is quite effective, and I am not going to spoil the joke for those of you who haven't seen it. There is also some nice give and take with Tiq Notaro who reads her texts because she doesn't tweet.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the DVD is all the interruptions of the interruptions for the commercials. I understand that this is a TV show and they had to cut away for the advertisers, but the constant breaks are truly annoying. Annoying as well is the necessity to open every show with an explanation of the premise. If you are seeing it once a week, you probably don't mind the repetition, but if you're watching a DVD, it gets old very fast. Benson does try to handle the problem by using a different comic bit in the explanation each time, but it is still annoying.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Music Review: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Winterland

Long time fans of the Jimi Hendrix Experience have a real gift coming in a couple of weeks.  On September 13 Experience Hendrix LLC and Legacy Recordings is releasing a four disc box set of  live performances recorded from six shows, two each night, at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom on October 10, 11 and 12, 1968.  The concerts, also available in a Vinyl Audiophile LP Deluxe Box Set and a single Highlights CD, were in celebration of the two year anniversary of the Experience.  The set features live versions of previously unreleased classics as well as a backstage interview with the guitarist recorded at the Boston Garden some weeks after the Winterland concerts. It will also include a 36 page booklet with an essay by Rolling Stone's David Fricke and previously unreleased photos.  All told it adds up to a Hendrix cornucopia bound to light up the eyes of all Jimi aficionados.

Not only are there opportunities to compare things like the 15 minute "Tax Free" jam on the  CD of the October 10th concert with the ten minute version on the October 11th CD, but you've also got three versions of "Lover Man," "Red House," "Hey Joe" and "Foxey Lady," a couple of takes on some others like the Hendrix "Star Spangled Banner," and no fewer than four performances of his signature "Purple Haze." The biggest problem is trying to decide which ones you like best.  There are a couple of stellar interpretations of Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," one of which has already been released as a single, to say nothing of  appealing performances of songs like "Are You Experienced," "Manic Depression," "Spanish Castle Magic" and "Little Wing." Then you've got Hendrix putting his own spin on "Killing Floor" and "Sunshine of Your Love."  There are literally hours of old memories rekindled and new ones in the making. 

These Winterland concerts long thought to include some of the guitarist's finest playing don't disappoint.  Although Hendrix mentions technical problems a couple of times and apologizes for them, they are hardly intrusive, indeed hardly noticeable.  He plays with passion, power and wit, and the Experience jams with the best of them.  Everything that made the band and Hendrix himself a dynamic voice of the generation is there on that stage, and it is there in spades.  Luckily for us, it's there on these discs as well.

Not to be left out of the party, Board of Supervisors of the City and County of San Francisco, as reported on Hollywood Today, has issued a proclamation designating September 13th, the date of the set's release as "Jimi Hendrix Winterland Day," in recognition of the role played by Hendrix and the band in the cultural history of the city.  No doubt that while there may be other significant artists equally associated with the famed Summer of Love, there is none with a more iconic role.  Indeed Hendrix and his music are not only a part of the cultural history of a city, they are a part of the cultural history of the nation.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Movie Review: I Saw the Devil

I Saw the Devil, the Korean revenge flick filled with sex and violence, has met with a remarkably mixed reputation. There are those who dismiss it as vulgar torture porn and those that see it as another example of the rising stock of Korean cinema. At least one critic calls it "a masterpiece of its genre" and another has listed as the best movie he'd seen so far this year. While the one thing most everyone seems to agree on is the film's shocking violence, the disagreement is really over whether it is violence for violence's sake or violence in the service of a larger point. Is it simply director Ji-woon Kim indulging the audience's blood lust, or is there a message about the effects of violence on those who use it regardless of the reasons.

The film begins when a maniacal serial killer played with eerie realism by Min-sik Choi finds a young woman stranded in her car on a snow covered road, breaks into her car and viciously attacks her. The woman, it turns out, is the fiancé of some sort of James Bond like agent ( Byung-hui Lee), who quickly goes about avenging her death. He, however, is not satisfied with simply putting the killer in prison or even killing him. He wants to make sure he suffers, and so he begins an elaborate cat and mouse game, in which he catches the killer, tortures him a bit and then lets him go, only to catch him again and go through the same process. Unfortunately, as he plays his little vengeance game a lot of innocent people are terrorized, hurt and even killed because he puts the killer back out on the street instead of letting the law deal with him. His final act of revenge it turns out is more or less a variation of the killer's own vengeful acts. In the end, one has to ask if his thirst for revenge and his use of violence hasn't turned the ostensible hero into something just as evil as the killer himself. Just who exactly is the devil in the title?

But even admitting that the film might have a moral purpose, it is still fair to ask if it goes about achieving that purpose with any artistic integrity or does it simply tack on a moral to justify its prurient violence. The answer might lie in the inability of some critics to take the film's violence at face value because of the general lack of realism in the script. The 'hero' pursues the killer without any real evidence that he's guilty. Indeed, he attacks two other suspects before he lights on the real killer. In fact there is very little time spent on actual investigation. A know sadistic serial killer has managed to get himself a job driving a school bus. The police involved in the case are almost as inept as the Keystone Kops as illustrated in the scene in which they discover the first victim's head. The discovery of the evidence against the real killer is so contrived as to be almost absurd. This is not a who done it, and it is not meant to be.

The violence, while matching at times, the kind of slasher brutality you get in the Saw movies or The Last House on the Left, seems at times as artificially stylized as the violence in that classic study of the effects of violent behavior, Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. While it may be designed artificially, it is filmed fairly realistically, and it is this duality that makes it difficult to determine the film's aesthetic intent. Kubrick is clearly saying something about the nature of violence. Saw and its offspring are clearly interested in seeing just how far they can go in catering to the sadists and masochists among us. Ji-woon Kim's I Saw the Devil doesn't quite seem to know what it wants to do.