Monday, October 31, 2011

Music Review: Various Artists - ZZ Top: A Tribute from Friends

This article was first published at Blogcritics.

Covering another artist's hits can be a tricky business.  If you simply mimic their performance, you invite the wrath of those who have made a fetish of the original, while leaving yourself open to the question of why you bothered in the first place.  Who after all needs a cheap imitation?  If you make the song your own, you will still rile the fetishists, and you may or may not come up with something to compete with the original.  Still if you do come up short, you will at least have failed on your own merits.  The choice seems obvious; the only question is how far from the original should you stray. 

In an interview on the Canadian talk show, Paul Simon was asked about why he chose Aretha Franklin's cover of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" for his new album Songwriter.  His answer was that the singer's soulful rendition was as good as "Artie's." She didn't copy; she created, and she won a Grammy for it.  The greatness of her performance was that she honored the song as a work of art with more than one possible interpretation. 

ZZ Top: A Tribute from Friends is an album filled with the kinds of covers that honor the work of "that little old band from Texas," honor it with performances that may not make you forget the originals, but might have you saying they were as good as Frank's and Billy's and Dusty's.  The "friends" featured on the disc are a mixed bunch of some of the finest on the contemporary scene and represent a wide range of musical genres from as far apart as Wyclef Jean and Jamey Johnson.  And if Jean's "Rough Boy" may be a bit too mannered for some tastes, Johnson does a job on "La Grange" that is eight minutes of rocking power. He takes the song to another level.  It probably didn't hurt that Billy Gibbons is sitting in with guitar and vocals. 

Of the eleven tracks on the album, some stay closer to home, some stray further away, but each and every one sheds some new light on the band's musical genius.  Grace Potter and the Nocturnals deliver a "Tush" with a whole new point of view (talk about sexy).  Filter's "Gimmie All Your Lovin'" is a roaring re-imagination of the classic all their own as is Duff McKagen's Loaded's lowdown "Got Me Under Pressure."  Daughtry handles the combined "Waitin' for the Bus/Jesus Just Left Chicago" with style.  Mick Fleetwood, Steven Tyler, John McVie, and  Jonny Lang, calling themselves The M.O.B., get together to open the album with an all star stab at "Sharp Dressed Man" that has some really nice energy.  Nickelback's "Legs" does full justice to the classic.  Mastodon's "Just Got Paid," Coheed and Cambria's "Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers" and "Cheap Sunglasses" by Wolfmother round out the album.  There isn't a loser in the bunch.

The story  told about the band's reaction to the idea of the album is that when the ZZ Top triumvirate was told that a tribute album was in the works, they asked, "Who are we paying tribute to?"  How's that for modesty? Want more? "Then we found out that a bunch of great artists were paying tribute to us and we were in disbelief.  For the past 40 or so years, all we've done is get out there and crank it and try to have a good time while doing so. . . . Now comes A Tribute From Friends and we're so delighted that our music resonates with these great musicians whom we so admire."

ZZ Top has been cranking it out and having a good time.  The Friends playing their tributes cranked it out and had a good time.  Listen to the CD; you may not crank it out, but you'll have one hell of a good time.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Music Review: Patrizio Buanne - Patrizio

Article first published as Music Review: Patrizio Buanne - Patrizio on Blogcritics.

Uncork a bottle of wine. Turn down the lights. Put Patrizio, the latest album from Italian heartthrob, Patrizio Buanne on your stereo if you still have one, your iPod dock, if not. Sit down next to your lady, and wait for her to melt. Clearly that's what the singer intends, and he's got the goods to make it happen. There are some up tempo numbers on the disc, but romance is what Buanne is all about. It is really what he's always been about. He flirts with his audience, sure he jokes at times, sure he teases at times, but flirting—flirting always. And why not? The man is as sexy as they come and he has the voice that makes women swoon, if women still do that, and turns men green with envy (which indeed they still do).

Although some may be disappointed with this new album because it strays quite a bit from the Italian standards that the singer is probably best known for, it is the singer's attempt to broaden his repertoire. He doesn't neglect his bread and butter entirely. There are some songs with something of an Italian pedigree--"Make Love," "Americano" and "Maybe This Summer"—but they are all sung in English. "Never, Never, Never," a lovely duet with Reneé Olstead, does have a couple of verses sung in his native language, and then there is his cover of the Rosemary Clooney classic "Mambo Italiano" which at least has an Italian title and an Italian reference or two if it doesn't quite deliver the romance of the romance language. He doesn't completely ignore his Italian roots, but he might as well have. So If you're looking for "O Sole Mio" or "Al Di La," you're in the wrong place.

On the other hand, if you're looking some very sexy versions of some standards and a newer song or two sung in the best traditions of the romantic crooner, Patrizio is for you. He does a nice job with Patsy Cline's classic, "Crazy," and Bryan Adams' "Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?" reeks with husky passion. "Fly Me to the Moon" is delivered as a smoldering ballad. Dianne Warren's newly written "Why Did You Have to Be?" is right in the singer's wheelhouse. Buanne says he aimed to present his "passion for interpreting any great song—no matter if Italian, American or new." He wanted, he says, to open himself up artistically. Despite the unhappiness of some fans, this is an album that proves he was right.

It is hard to blame an artist for wanting to stretch, to show what he can do. If this album is any example, Patrizio Buanne can do a lot. Sure he is something special with the music of his country and the way he sings it, but what Patrizio shows is that if he keeps at it, he will be just as special with " any great song—no matter if Italian, American or new."

Thursday, October 27, 2011

DVD Review: The Hour

This article was first published at Blogcritics.

Think 60 Minutes mixed with a touch of Broadcast News in a stylish British spy thriller set against the backdrop of the Suez Canal crisis and the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian Revolution in the 50's and you've got a sense of what you're in for in the six episode BBC production The Hour now available on DVD. It's got spies and secret agents. It's got a bit of sex. It's got a bit of betrayal, and it's got shocks and surprises enough to keep you guessing about what's going to happen next. All in all, it is a thriller in the best British tradition.

In the opening episode, the BBC is starting a new hour long investigative news journal called The Hour. Ambitious young beauty, Bel Rowley (Romola Garai) is chosen to produce the show. Her friend, colleague, and unacknowledged love interest, the earnest idealistic Freddy Lyon ( Ben Whishaw) comes along with her as a reporter although her had hoped for a more significant role. The cynical Hector Manning (Dominic West), less qualified professionally but with a made for TV face signs on as the show's anchor. If this doesn't remind you of Holly Hunter, Albert Brooks and William Hurt, check out Broadcast News again. Manning, although married, is not above making the moves on an attractive woman, and so you've got the perfect set up for a nice little love triangle. Then when a terrified old friend pleads for his help, Lyon becomes involved in soviet espionage, coded messages, traitorous moles and political intrigue, all played out against the production of the new TV show and the budding romantic rivalry.

Whishaw, with his slight almost undernourished physique, is a most unlikely hero for the typical thriller, but as a journalist with a passion for his craft and its importance in a democracy he is entirely convincing. Garai as a woman trying to make her way in a man's world is appropriately feisty even if it is hard to see how she can succumb so easily to West's seductions. Clearly he is a charmer, but one would think someone in her position would be more hardened to that sort of thing. West, no doubt best known for his performance in The Wire, is at his best as a self centered ladies man. They are joined by an excellent supporting cast of low key British character actors. Anton Lesser turns in an effective job as the network's head for the newly developing show. Juliet Stevenson is intense as a stoically bereaved mother, and Tim Pigott-Smith is subdued as her guilt ridden husband. Julian Rhind-Tutt is appropriately slimy as the government's liaison with the media. Anna Chancellor is right at home as a hard-nosed foreign correspondent.

Set back in the 50's, The Hour will, of course, invite comparison with Mad Men and this season's Mad Men wannabees. And, indeed, there is plenty of cigarette smoking. Like Mad Men, The Hour is very good at holding the mirror up to the period. The From the typically amateurish set for the new show to the small screen TV's scattered through clubs, offices and homes, from the flowing dresses, the hair styles and the bright toned makeup, the show creates a sense of time reminiscent of the films of the period. Moreover the newsreels and the references to the events of the day all over the world—the Eisenhower election in the U.S., Israel's invasion of Egypt, Anthony Eden's government—give the show as convincing a historical reality almost as if were made at the time.

Included on the two disc DVD set are two extra features: a behind the scenes look at the production and a making of special.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Music Review: Paul Simon - Songwriter

This article was first published at Blogcritics

In celebration of Paul Simon's 70th birthday on October 13, Sony/Legacy is releasing Songwriter, a two disc set of 32 songs spanning the composer's fabled career from the sixties to the present. The songs on the album were chosen by Simon himself, and although they include a number of his most famous pieces, this is not a greatest hits collection. Tom Moon, in the liner notes, contends that the album "features commercial landmarks alongside ambitious and often criminally under-appreciated compositions." Now this may be something of an overstatement, but it does, as Moon goes on to explain, allow Simon the opportunity to highlight some of his lesser known songs, songs that are sometimes "overlooked." Whether this will make up for the omission of a ton of fan favorites is problematical.

Disc one, which contains most of the 'hits' that Simon decided to include begins with "The Sound of Silence" from a live 2011 performance where Simon plays some interesting harmonic games with the melody. It is a clear indication that this is not going to be a simple recycling of material. There is of course no Garfunkel and that is unfortunate. This is followed by "The Boxer" from the live concert in Central Park and Aretha Franklin's soulful cover of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," the only cover on the album. Other classics included in the collection are "Mother and Child Reunion," "American Tune," "Kodachrome," and "Still Crazy After All These Years." The first disc ends with three songs from Simon's African collaboration "Graceland," "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes," and "The Boy in the Bubble." I would, myself, have put in a word for "The Myth of Fingerprints," but I suppose a third and fourth disc would have been necessary for all the songs I would have put in a word for.

The second disc begins with four songs from The Rhythm of the Saints highlighted by the much praised "Spirit Voices" with its Portuguese interpolation by Milton Nascimento. There are a couple of songs from Simon's ill-fated Broadway venture, The Capeman. If the music represented here, the dramatic "Born in Puerto Rico" and the doo wop throwback, "Quality," is any indication, one has to wonder why the show didn't do better. The album ends with selections from his 2011 release So Beautiful or So What including the title song. If the music on this disc is not as well known, it is nonetheless indicative of the composer's range and the continued variety of his interests.

Tom Moon's liner notes provide a lucid critical evaluation of Simon's work. He talks about the composer's lyric brilliance, emphasizing his sense of humor. He stresses the composer's eclectic musical passions. "Simon's songbook," he suggests, "can be appreciated as the journey of restless songwriter searching for new ways to communicate, driven toward new musical settings for his ideas." Simon has never been one to keep repeating his successes. No doubt he could have kept turning out the kind of music that made the duet's name a household word back in the sixties, but that is not the way of the true artist. The true artist is always looking to exceed his grasp.

Paul Simon is the true artist. Songwriter, with its classic songs and its new works that may yet become classic, is simply one more demonstration of that fact. Certainly there will be those that object to this or that inclusion at the expense of this or that omission, but the more one listens to the newer pieces, the more familiar they become, the more likely those objections will disappear.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

DVD Review: The Last Happy Day

This article was first published at Blogcritics

In an interview with Otherzine experimental film maker, Lynne Sachs talks about realizing "that there was a pattern emerging in my work, a rhythm between films that were open to changes brought by the times and films that followed a very clearly defined vision or concept. " Later in the interview she relates what she is trying to do in her films to the avant garde poet, Gertrude Stein's desire to "create provocative ruptures between the sign and the signifier, between the way we are taught to speak (to communicate) and the way we ultimately choose to express ourselves (art)." Sachs says that her aim is to do the same kind of thing with images and sounds, and one way to do this is to get rid of the traditional chronological narrative and instead tell a personal story through patterned imagery.

What she comes up with is illustrated in her recently released DVD of her 2009 documentary essay, The Last Happy Day, which also includes four of her shorter films as well. The Last Happy Day aims to create a portrait of her distant cousin, Alexander (Sandor) Lenard, a Hungarian doctor who had kept his Jewish identity hidden from his family when he married. With the threat from the Nazis growing, he fled to safety in Rome, helped rescue other refugees and eventually began working for the US Army's reconstructing bones of dead American soldiers. Later, fearing a WW III in Europe, he moved to the Brazilian countryside. It was there that he turned out his Latin translation of Winnie the Pooh, a somewhat strange undertaking, but one that was to garner him something more than his five minutes of fame.

Sachs' documentary rejects the normal grammar of the genre. The Last Happy Day uses some historical war footage, sometimes straight, sometimes in negative, sometimes superimposed over other images. There are no expert talking heads. There are two family members who speak, Lenhart's son and his second wife, but their commentary is limited, and the wife an elderly woman points out that what she says may well be untrue. Memory, she adds, often betrays us. She can't always tell truth from fantasy. Instead most of the information comes from Lenhart's letters read as voiceovers. There are shots of contemporary children playacting the Pooh stories, and one of them does some of the background narration as well. All this has the effect of downplaying the narrative and foregrounding the visual imagery.

But for real commitment to visual imagery, two of the shorter films eliminate narrative continuity altogether, substituting a completely visual syntax instead. A Georgic for a Forgotten Planet is a visual homage to Virgil's poem using settings from New York City, juxtaposing images of typical city life with less typical flowers and gardens. One comes away from the film with telling images embedded in the imagination. The enigmatically titled Sound of a Shadow, a collaboration with her husband, takes a similar look at Japan, creating what Sachs calls a "visual haiku." The visual image is the language of both films. It is a language both highly personal and open ended. It is language that can be fraught with meaning for some, meaningless for others.

And therein lies the rub, indeed the rub for much of such experimental work in art. There are those audiences that will have no truck with Gertrude Stein's "ruptures." They want things to maintain their meaning. These are audiences that will have trouble with some of Sachs' work as well. For them a random collection of images will simply be a random collection of images, and nothing else.

That's the nice thing about The Last Happy Day, while it makes its points with arresting images, it gives the viewer a narrative hook to help navigate through them. Everything in the film from the Bach score, to the horror of collecting human bones, to the beauty of the Brazilian countryside, everything is there in support of a personal vision. Nothing seems random.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Music Review: Eddie Daniels and Roger Kellaway - Live at the Library of Congress

You might be forgiven for thinking that an evening featuring a clarinet and piano duo in a jazz recital might have a limited appeal. It is after all an instrumental combination you're not apt to come across very often. Indeed the clarinet itself has lost something of its cachet since the heydays of Benny Goodman, Woody Herman and Artie Shaw. Well, if you had been thinking that way about clarinetist Eddie Daniels and pianist Roger Kellaway's February 25th concert recital at the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress, you would have been wrong—wrong in a big way.
Daniels and Kellaway are two musicians who deserve to be much better known than they are, and the CD release of that February concert by IPO Recordings could do much to remedy that. This is not their first collaboration, they worked together on the critically acclaimed 2009 album, A Duet of One, an album Bilboard lauded as "a wondrous duet date featuring extraordinary musicians taking chances and thankfully succeeding on all levels." Live at the Library of Congress makes it clear that that previous album was no fluke. Two fine albums should mean something. These are albums where the dialogue between the clarinet and the piano is at times playful and quirky, at times lyrically mellow, at times technically brilliant, and always musically inventive. These men are virtuosos with their instruments and they know how to work together.
This was an exciting concert and it makes for an exciting album. The set list, nine pieces in all, is a mix of original compositions three by Kellaway, one by Daniels and works by a variety of other composers from Thelonius Monk to Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. They begin with an eight and a half minute romp through the Gershwin's "Strike up the Band," treating the familiar tune with a variety of inventive rhythms. They end with a Kellaway piece, "50 State Rambler," which alternates familiar sounding lines with edgy modernism. In between, there's an unlikely funky exploration of "America the Beautiful" and a lyrically expressive version of "Somewhere" from Westside Story. Kellaway's pieces show a similar kind of variety. There's the simple lyricism of "A Place That You Want to Call Home" and the dynamic energy of his "Capriccio Twilight." Monk's "Rhythm-a-ning" with a clarinet quotation or two makes for a moment of wit and some of the accompanying grunts might remind you of Lionel Hampton. "Etude of a Woman," Daniels' tune, is combined with Sondheim's "Pretty Woman." It has a haunting melody that seems strangely familiar.
The World Clarinet Alliance called the event a "landmark concert." In a Jazz CD Review of A Duet of One, Tony Augarde says: "Daniels and Kellaway fit together like hand-in-glove." Perhaps that is one way of making sense out of the album's cryptic paradoxical title, and if it was true then, it was equally true in February. The concert at the Library of Congress is nothing short of an eye opening revelation. You can take a clarinet and a piano, put them on a stage alone together and make wonderful music, you can that is if you've got Eddie Daniels playing that clarinet and Roger Kellaway playing that piano.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Music Review: Barefoot Truth - Carry Us On

Article first published as Music Review: Barefoot Truth - Carry Us On on Blogcritics.

If like me, Carry Us On, their latest release, is your introduction to Barefoot Truth, you are in for one hell of a ride. At times quietly contemplative, at times filled with passion, at times alternating between the two, this is some emotionally powerful music. Barefoot Truth, a Connecticut product, melds roots music with rock, adds a bit of jazz and funk, some blues and even something pretty close to rap in a recipe for some fine listening. It is no wonder they have blossomed brightly with some eight million plays on Pandora as their publicity proclaims. In a USA Today interview the band's guitarist, Jay Driscoll said: "Pandora has created an avenue for us in music. All of a sudden people we had never met before were buying our music online and asking us to play in their cities." If that success results in an album like Carry Us On, it couldn't have come too soon.

Music and lyrics of the 12 tracks on the album are the work of a variety of combinations of members of the band, although the one name that comes up most often, even in a case or two as sole creator, is drummer and vocalist Will Evans. Driscoll is featured on the Weissenborn slide guitar as well as electric and acoustic. Andy Wrba plays upright and electric bass and some electric guitar. John Waynelovich (Wayno) is on piano and organ, and Garrett Duffy plays harmonica. Both join in with vocals. Some of the tracks add in horns or violin and cello.

A quick check on YouTube shows that at least some of these songs have been around for awhile. There is for example a duo guitar version of the album's opener, "Roll if You Fall." You can compare it with the official slickly produced video for its latest manifestation on Carry Us On on the band's website. It is a song that speaks for itself. I don't know that it needs the glossy production, but I don't know that it hurts. On the other hand the rawer live performance of "Drink to You" from a 2009 Bates College gig doesn't have quite the polished drama of the studio production on the album which builds to a climax that is little short of an anthem.

This is a band that is at home with a variety of styles. Whether it's the funky "Reelin,'" the jazzy "Hesitation," or the reggae "Eagle Front," they deliver the goods. Whether they play stripped down, low key roots with a catchy melody like "Rope" or add a little dramatic passion augmented with some strings like "Changes in the Weather," they rock. "Reach" is a beautiful simple melody with a beautifully earnest lyric. "Misled" begins with a little bit of scat and swings with a message about the courage to go on in spite of growing old and feeling "the weight on his shoulders." "The Ocean" rocks with a vision of a paradise on the beach and ends with a harmonica solo that at its very end suggests an ironic message. "Solitude" has a rough bluesy vibe. Variety is the key.

I read somewhere that Barefoot Truth is the best band you never heard of or something to that effect. I have to say whoever it was said it, was right.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Book Review: The Instructions, by Adam Levin

Article first published as Book Review: The Instructions by Adam Levin on Blogcritics.

I guess the first thing to be considered, for many perhaps the only thing to be considered with regard to Adam Levin's massive novel The Instructions is length. Although not quite matching James Joyce who needed 760 odd pages to chronicle the events of one day in Dublin, since his 1,000 plus tome covers four days in Chicago and environs, Levin has produced one hell of a long book. Of course you could argue that since Joyce deals with two characters, not counting Molly, and Levin deals with only one, it is necessary to divide the pages in Ulysses by two and those of The Instructions by four in order to get a more accurate comparison. Then of course why not count Molly? In which case, the numbers are closer. Then again it may well be necessary, for accuracy's sake, to think about words on the page. After all Ulysses in the Modern Library edition hasn't quite the page size of the Canongate edition of The Instructions. It doesn't come close in bulk either: simply holding Levin's book to turn the pages is something of a chore. Suffice it to say this is one long book.

(To digress for a moment: if the kind of Talmudic analysis merely hinted at in this opening paragraph is not your cup of tea, if you think of it as nit picking, you probably aren't going to care much for The Instructions. A good many of the 1,000 plus pages are taken up with precisely this kind of analysis of what characters say, what they write, what they do. Hardly anything—whether a wink, a nod, or a casual remark—goes unanalyzed. End of digression.)

Length doesn't particularly bother me. When I finish one book, I start another. It really makes no difference how long a book is. Still, if you are going to spend the time on a book of this length, might you not be better off with War and Peace or Don Quixote? Back many years ago, a professor of mine once suggested a standard by which to test a work of literature. Ask yourself, he said, does the value you get from it justify the work you have to put into it. He wasn't necessarily talking about length only, he was talking about all the effort necessary to read a work and understand it. While this is a fine standard to measure a work's value, it is necessary to read the book and do all the work before making your judgment. If that judgment is that it wasn't worth the effort, you've in effect wasted all that time that might have been put to better use. On the other hand, as a critic, if I have done all that work and discovered that it was worth the effort for me, how can I know that all readers will end up with similar results?

(Digression: Talmudic analysis seems to be catchy.)

Now that you know that this is a long book and that length isn't necessarily a drawback as far as I am concerned, let me tell you a little bit about what is a book, for better or worse, like few others you may have come across. The Instructions is the story a charismatic 10 year old Talmudic scholar, Gurion Maccabee, who has managed to get himself expelled from a number of Jewish schools for fighting and encouraging others to engage in violence. Moreover, he suspects he may be the messiah and through his magnetic personality, his brilliant reasoning, and his physical abilities he has been able to get others to believe in him as well. As the novel begins, he has been placed in a special program for students with behavioral disorders in a public junior high school. The other students in the program are all older than him, but here too he manages to become their leader in a fight against what they feel are the unfair regulations imposed on them by unreasonable authorities.

This struggle becomes entwined with the need for Jews to defend themselves from anti-Semitism and fight for righteousness. Gurion distinguishes between Jews and Israelites. Jews are those who accept their situation, and either through fear or complacency, refuse to fight for righteousness. Israelites are those who commit to the struggle. Indeed, it seems that you don't even have to be Jewish to be an Israelite. The novel goes on to describe the "Gurionic War," the revolution of the Israelites against the perversions of justice, perhaps fulfilling the prophecy, "and a little child shall lead them."

The novel itself is presented as scripture in the voice of the ten year old Gurion, and herein lies a problem. Rarely, if ever, does he sound like a ten year old. Whether he is speaking to a teacher or one of his fellow students, he always speaks with a maturity beyond his years even if his ideas aren't always as mature as his voice. The book even calls this to the reader's attention by including a faux letter from Philip Roth, one of Gurion's favorite writers, saying that he doesn't care for what he thinks is the elder Gurion putting his ideas in the mouth of the young boy. The trouble is the faux Roth is wrong. This is indeed the boy speaking, and the reader needs to accept his wisdom beyond his years. In a sense, it is this incongruency that underlies what some have seen as the comic element of the novel.

In the end there is much that is entertaining in this novel and there is much that is annoying. There are laugh out loud moments, clever word play, and brain teasing logical labyrinths. Then there are the times when enough is enough, when another page and a half analysis of the meaning of a touch on the arm or a ten page justification of the failure of one friend to help another is simply redundant. There will be those who find the entertaining parts worth putting up with the rest, but I suspect they will be a limited group of readers with a specialized tastes. Think of all those readers who never managed to finish Infinite Jest.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

TV Review: Independent Lens - Donor Unknown

Article first published as TV Review: Independent Lens Presents Donor Unknown on Blogcritics.

More than likely the first thing that will occur to many viewers of Donor Unknown, the documentary scheduled to premiere October 20th on the PBS series Independent Lens, will be last year's Oscar nominated comic drama, The Kids Are All Right. The Hollywood film is in many respects a spiced up fictionalization of some of the very issues raised in the documentary. Children of sperm donors eager to know something about their paternity manage to discover the donor's identity and arrange to meet him with interesting results. Certainly the film embroiders upon the basic theme moving into other issues as well, nonetheless the basic theme of sperm donors and their relation to the children they father is central to both.

Donor Unknown follows the 20 year old JoEllen Marsh the daughter of a lesbian couple from Erie, Pennsylvania as she learns about her 'father,' sperm donor 150, from the profile he submitted when he began donating sperm at a sperm bank in California and then discovers an organization, the Donor Sibling Registry, that helps children of donors locate half-siblings from the same donor. Soon when she discovers a half sister, their story hits the front page of the New York Times and a gaggle of other half siblings enter the scene. Donor 150, it seems was, something of a stud in the world of sperm donation—although it may well be that he is the norm. Records it seems are not very carefully kept.

Coincidently 150 who is living the life of a Beach Bum in Venice, California happens upon a copy of the Times front page in a coffee shop. He, it turns out, is something of a Bohemian. He lives in a broken down RV with four dogs and a pigeon, animals he treats like his children. Indeed, he calls them his family. He talks a lot about spirituality, and he is a believer in some very strange conspiracy theories. He seems a pleasant enough person as he is shown in the documentary, but not necessarily someone you would want as part of your life if you were planning to live more or less conventionally. After some thought, he decides to contact the Donor Sibling Registry and make himself available to the children. Some take the opportunity, some don't. The meeting between JoEllen, who chooses to take the opportunity and her 'father' as well as some of the other children makes for some touching TV.

Perhaps most interesting are some of the moral questions raised by the film. Some of these will be available for discussion on the Independent Lens website for the show. What are the implications of reproductive services sold for profit? The sperm bank shown in the film for all its seeming professionalism seems just a mite sleazy with its "wink wink" masturbatoriums" larded with a range of audio­-visual stimulants. Should sperm donors remain anonymous? What rights do the children of donors have? What, if any, are the obligations of the donor to the children? As far as secrecy is concerned, what are the obligations of the sperm bank to the donor, to the children? As Wendy Kramer, Executive Director of the Donor Sibling Registry, and the mother of a child fathered by a sperm donor, says in the film "secrecy implies shame." Clearly these are questions that have no easy answers.

Directed by Jerry Rothwell,Donor Unknown is a sensitive exploration of some growing social issues as they plays out for one young woman as she searches for her ancestry and her family. When the director of the California sperm bank glibly announces that his organization has probably been responsible for at least 60,000 births since its inception and in ten years it will probably be responsible for 60,000 more, the size and importance of the issues are clear. While Rothwell's film doesn't provide answers, it does highlight the issues, and this it does very effectively.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The 99:Beginnings - Islamic Superheroes

Article first published as The 99: Beginnings - Islamic Superheroes on Technorati.

The 99, Teshkeel Comics's effort to create a Muslim superhero comic book series modeled on those long a staple of western pop culture, is the brainchild of Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa, a Kuwaiti psychologist and business man educated in the west. His story—the development of the idea and his efforts to make that idea a reality, his successes and his setbacks—is the subject of the documentary Wham! Bam! Islam! to be aired on the season opener of PBS's Independent Lens, Thursday, Oct. 13th at 10 o'clock.

Al-Mutawa's idea was to create a comic that would present the positive values of Islam. The members of The 99 were each to represent one of the 99 attributes of Allah. Each attribute would endow the hero or heroine with a super power, which they would use to fight against evil. The 99: Beginnings is a special issue devoted to the introduction of all the 99's members and the group's back story.

The heroes come from countries all over the world and they range in age from sub-teens through to the early 20's. Some examples: Jabbar the Powerful, whose power is supernatural strength, is 19 and grew up in Saudi Arabia. Wakila the Guardian, whose power is the ability to turn discrimination back on the offender, is a ten year old girl from Bhutan. Darr the Afflictor is a 22 year old from the U.S.A. who is in a wheel chair as a result of an accident his family had with a drunk driver. His power is the ability of inflict or absorb pain. Most of the issue is spent on these introductions. It shows them dealing with the initial recognition that they have an unusual power. It really doesn't show them in action in a full blown narrative.

What there is in the way of story comes from the group's leader, Dr. Ramzi Razem. He describes his own early fascination with the Noor stones which are the sources of the powers. As a young boy, he was taken on a trip to Andalusia where he heard stories of the Caliphate of Cordoba and Seville's great centers of learning and culture, especially the Husn Al-Ma'rifa, the fortress of knowledge where the stones became part of its golden dome. The explanation of how the stones got their powers and how they came to the fortress, its eventual destruction and the stones' dispersal over the world is intertwined with the introductions of the various heroes. It is this legendary tale that is by far the most interesting and exciting part of the issue.

The comic itself is drawn much in the style of the western models. This is intentional. The Independent Lens documentary introduces some of the Marvel Comics veterans that Al-Mutawa hired to being his vision to fruition. Visually there is little to distinguish The 99 from Superman and his ilk. It is in the positive representation of Islamic values through this team of engaging, young multi-cultural heroes that the series aims to distinguish itself.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Music Review: Leni Stern - Sabani

Article first published as Music Review: Leni Stern - Sabani on Blogcritics.

To get a good idea of the feeling you get from Leni Stern's latest foray into the realm of world music, Sabani take a look at what she has to say in her note to her song "Papillon," a song that has nothing to do with either Steve McQueen or escaping from Devil's Island. She writes about a friend whose very sick wife had told him that if there were such a thing as reincarnation, she would like to come back as a butterfly (papillon of course means butterfly). Stern recounts how she met the friend in New York restaurant to see how he was holding up, and when they left, she "collided" with a few butterflies that then began flying about her friend. "It happens a lot," he assures her. An uncanny occurrence, to say the least yet this is an apt illustration of the other worldly quality that haunts much of the music on Sabani. Both music and lyrics have a quality that borders on the mystical.

Foregoing the larger ensembles of her earlier fusions of jazz and world music like her last, Sa Belle Belle Ba, the eight songs on Sabani, which means three, are all put in the hands of a trio. The performances are tight and lean, stripped down to raw essentials. Joining Stern, who plays the electric and acoustic guitar, the n'goni (a small African lute), the tiple (a small guitar) and does vocals, are Haruna Samake on camela n'goni and karignan (a ridged metal coil rubbed with a metal rod) and Mamadou Kone aka "Prince" who plays calabash, talking drum and shakers. Stern says they have played so often together that it comes "effortlessly." "I don't know why I waited so long to record like this." Together they manage an almost unique sound that eerily coats the familiar with the alien, just as her songs often coat the familiar English with foreign hooks and phrases.

Of the eight songs two—"The Cat Stole the Moon" and "An Saba"—are instrumentals. The first refers to a Mali children's version of Trick or Treat; the second means the three of us. The album opens with a broken hearted lament, "Still Bleeding." "The memories that still are haunting me, are tearing me apart." "Sorcerer" describes the magical world of the forest open to those who can talk to the spirits, someone who can throw stones for her to read her future, so she can see. One remembers the story Stern told about the sorcerer in connection with her last album. "Like a Thief," inspired by the gypsy stories of her childhood, works on a series of similes: love is like a "thief in the night," like fog that rises from the fields," "like an undertow that grabs you." It is a mystical force fraught with danger. "I Was Born" describes a hunger and a restlessness that no amount of possessions can satisfy. Born to a "universe of elegance," you need someone to set you free. "Djanfa, the last song on the album, features Malien singer Zoumana Tareta. The title she tells us means betrayed.

All the songs on the album were written by Stern alone or in collaboration with the other members of the trio. They have the kind of poetic lyrics that demand to be listened to with some attention. That's one of the best things about this low key trio ensemble you can actually understand the words. It would be a real shame if you couldn't.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Book Review: Music on Film: A Hard Day's Night, by Ray Morton

Article first published as Book Review: A Hard Day's Night: Music on Film Series by Ray Morton on Blogcritics.

Limelight's Music on Film series attempts to pack most everything an interested reader would like to know about a single film associated with music into a convenient pocket sized book. The little books are not aimed at scholars. They do include bibliographical information, but they do not document sources either in the text or in end notes. They are equally interested in the celebrity gossip and the facts about the production. This is a series by and large meant for the general audience.

Joining his earlier study of Amadeus is author Ray Morton's look at the 1964 Beatles classic A Hard Day's Night. Essentially, the book's main point seems to be that director Richard Lester and the Beatles managed to produce a masterpiece despite low expectations from the studio and the business people who greenlighted the project. United Artists decided to back a film with the band on the theory that they could profit from a cast album even thought they though the band wasn't successful enough to make the actual film profitable. They engaged Lester as director and Walter Shenson to produce with the understanding that they come up with a film that was cheap and quick. They wanted to make sure it came to theaters before the band's novelty flamed out.

What screen writer Alun Owen, Lester, and the team he and Shenson came up with was an innovative film that in many ways changed the whole concept of the rock music movie model forever and had a lasting effect on the way those films are still done today. The fact that the Beatles were now going to make their American splash with their appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show more than likely would have made whatever they came up with a success; that they came up with a work of genius was gravy.

Morton talks about the band's beginnings and the early personnel changes. He deals with the early successes and then he gets to the actual film. There is a chapter about the initial idea for a movie and its implementation. He explains how the idea of a fictionalized documentary based on the Beatles' actual claustrophobic life escaping from the teenage mobs that haunted their every move came about. He describes the creative team and how they came on board. He talks about the music, how it was chosen and how it was used in the film. Then he gives a blow by blow analysis of the nearly two months of shooting, some insight into the post production, and a short discussion of its critical reception.

Of course he throws in any interesting little tidbit about the shooting that he can dig up. For example, a 13-year old Phil Collins turns up as an extra in the movies concert scene. The noise was so loud that a recent filling in the tooth of a cinematographer throbbed so violently that the tooth suffered nerve damage and had to be pulled. Paul had a scene in which he popped in on an actress rehearsing which was eventually cut from the film in part at least because his acting was too stiff. For the most part the boys were at their best when they were being themselves. They had winning personalities which came across on the screen.

Morton explains Lester's feelings about each of the four. Paul was trying too hard to be a "good" actor. Ringo was the most natural. John, he felt, had the most electrifying personality, and George was "the most accurate performer." In general their TV experience must have helped in making them comfortable in front of the camera, and though their inexperience necessitated some accommodations, their natural effervescence made up for any technical problems. In the end Richard Lester and the Beatles were able to create a film that was so good it transformed its genre and Ray Morton was able to create a nice little book to explain how they did it.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

DVD Review: Art of the Western World

Article first published as DVD Review: Art of the Western World on Blogcritics.

If you're looking for a general introduction to the history of art in western civilization you can't do much better than Art of the Western World, a nine part documentary which appeared on PBS in 1989 and is now available on a three DVD set from Athena. Narrated by historian Michael Wood the series moves from the Greeks and Romans through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance right up to modern times with stops at every significant period in between. It looks at architecture, sculpture, painting and even some of the more modern forms like collages and installations. The whole set runs for 513 minutes, but even at that length, it covers a field so vast that it would be hard to do more than provide an overview, a kind of guide for further study. Still, in an accompanying bonus booklet, producer Perry Miller Adato insists that it is more than a simple introduction. With all the scholarly expertise gathered for each episode, he is confident that "it can supply students who already know the subject with new insights."

He may well be right. Recognizing the impossibility of showing the viewer everything of importance in any given period, the filmmakers have chosen to spend their time focusing on several representative examples in greater detail. They pay some attention to other pieces to give some idea of the breadth of period, but their focus is on specific works and their place in the culture of the period. For example, in the episode on the classical ideal in Greece they feature the Parthenon, for the Gothic period, the cathedral at Chartres, the early Renaissance, Donatello's statue of David. Later episodes take intensive looks at David's "Death of Marat, "Seurat's Pointillist masterpiece, "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," and Picasso's revolutionary Cubist innovation, "Les demoiselles d'avignon." Concentrating their efforts in this way allows them the kind of close analysis that often yields "new insights." One may not always agree with their choices, but none seems completely egregious.

Rather than cluttering up the screen with talking heads, they generally find one or two experts on any given episode —professors, curators, art historians—to explain the significance of what we are being shown. For the most part their choices are excellent, not only do they know their stuff, but their explanations are usually lucid and their presentations are quite animated. This is not to say that some of their commentary is not open to question, what discussion of art is not subject to opinion. Watching Robin Middleton from Columbia University romping around Syon House is nothing if not entertaining. Listening to Griselda Pollock's Feminist critique of 19th century French female nudes is illuminating. Italian art historian Germano Celant's assertion that post-modern art demands faith from its audience in the same way that religion does, if a work is in a museum you have to have faith that it belongs there, is nothing if not controversial. Wood, himself, is an engaging host who projects his own sense of the import of his subject.

The central thesis of the series demonstrates the relationship between a work of art and the social values of the culture in which it is produced. In monarchial societies portraits of rulers show them on rearing horses controlling them with one hand it emphasize their power. Formal gardens surrounding neo-classical buildings in the age of reason point to the culture's passion for order in the universe. Genre painting develops from a desire to mythologize the ordinary. Pop art emerges as a critique of consumerism. Certainly some of the specifics are open to objection, but the general notion that a work of art is some in some central way a product of the environment in which it is created is undeniable.

Since the series is over twenty years old, there are occasional problems with the picture quality, but these are few and far between and there are some spectacular shots of works of art that more than make up for them. They linger over paintings, panning slowly to catch as much detail as possible. They circle free standing statues to illustrate their every curve and angle. They roam through and around the great architectural monuments of the world. They use the camera to document the environment surrounding the work. Often they show something of the settings and scenery that provided the artist's inspiration. If the color might have been better in a shot or two, it is never so bad for so long that it becomes anything more than a minor annoyance.

As PBS documentaries go, Art of the Western World is one of the best. It manages to paint a cogent picture of an extremely large subject without oversimplifying it and talking down to the audience. Moreover it allows viewers a taste of the variety of art that may well have them hungering for more, no mean accomplishment.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Music Review: The Decemberists - Long Live the King

Article first published as Music Review: The Decemberists - Long Live the King on Blogcritics.

Indie folk rockers, The Decemberists are slated to release a six track EP, Long Live the King on November 1st. The album is made up of a selection of outtakes from the band's hugely successful The King is Dead. It is a collection of songs which echo the random selection of material that some critics noted in that album which moved the band away from a concept album like the 2009 The Hazards of Love. Moreover like The King is Dead, the new release is a country folk rock blend that shows off the band at its accessible best. There may be a lyric or two that Decemberist critics might find too cutely literary, but if they are they are never intrusive. And though, for my money, there is nothing on the new disc with the power of a song like "Down By the Water," there are those that come darn close.

The EP begins with a darkly dramatic post Civil War story ballad of death and vengeance, "E. Watson." It is a spare arrangement perfectly suited to the both the material and Collin Meloy's vocal performance. Backup vocals are by Laura Veirs and Annalisa Tornfelt. "Burying Davy," another stark dirge adds an almost cacophonous dissonance that complements the emotional disturbance of the lyric. "I4U & U4Me," a home demo, is an up tempo riff for two screw ups who were made for each other. I guess a phrase like "sticky wicket" is the kind of thing that bothers those that object to the band, while fans more than likely find it ironic. It is after all only one phrase. "Foregone" has a tuneful old fashioned quality that feels like it's been around forever. It has a melody that really seems familiar, like a song you should know. "Row Jimmy" is a twangy Grateful Dead cover. "Sonnet" is a lilting enchantment that ends with a chorus of braying horns that contrasts ironically with the verse.

All in all, it says a lot about a band, if it has outtakes as good as these and if it happens to have any others lying around, I have no doubt fans will be happy to get them. The six tracks on this EP can only make their mouths water for more.

Luckily for them, whether the band has more or not, The Decemberists will be appearing for the second time on PBS's Austin City Limits on October 22nd. The published set list doesn't include any songs from the new EP, but it does feature music from The King is Dead as well as guest artists Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. Also available from NPR's Live Concert series is the band's set from the 2011 Newport Folk Festival and a short Tiny Desk Concert from June. Both of which can be downloaded as podcasts.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

DVD Review: Dracula: The Vampire and The Voivode

With the popularity of all things vampire in recent years, it should come as no surprise that the icon of all vampires, Dracula, would be once more resurrected to garner his share of the attention. Dracula: The Vampire and the Voivode, a documentary produced in association with the Transylvanian Society of Dracula, is just the latest to jump on the vampire bandwagon. The film is not concerned with modern manifestations of the genre like True Blood and Twilight. What it is concerned with is the Bram Stoker, his 1897 novel, its relation to Transylvania and to a 15th century Wallachian prince sometimes held up as Stoker's model for the undead Count. Essentially the documentary aims to separate the facts about the vampire, Count Dracula and the Voivode(Prince), Vlad the Impaler from the fictions.

Using the typical talking heads—everything from scholars to tour guides—the film visits sites from the author's life, places actually mentioned in the novel and places that may have been the actual sources for scenes in places that Stoker had never seen. It is well known that Stoker had never been to what he called Transylvania, what we call Romania. His descriptions of the countryside at the beginning and end of his novel came right out of travel books he may have been reading and his vivid imagination. There is, as the documentary makes clear, no castle near the Borgo Pass. There is in fact no Castle Dracula. The Castle Bran now often touted as the original of the Count's ruined edifice has nothing to with either Stoker or even Vlad. As some scholars suggest it is more likely that Stoker based his description of Castles he was familiar with in Ireland and Scotland.

Whitby, on the other hand, the seacoast town in England where the ship carrying the Dracula coffins comes aground, was in fact the place where Stoker wrote a good deal of the novel. Its landmarks—the harbor, the 199 church steps and the graveyard at St. Mary's Church—are places the novelist would have actually known. The same is true for most of the British settings. Perhaps the most interesting thing about these settings, both those that he knew and those that he didn't, is the local attempt to capitalize on the association with Dracula. Whether it's the walking tour of Dracula sites in Whitby or the erection of a faux Castle Dracula in Romania, if you can see your way to making a buck, fact or fiction, it doesn't make a lot of difference.

In some sense the same is true for the association of the fictional Dracula with the historical Vlad. In Search of Dracula, the pop scholarly study from the seventies by Raymond McNally and Radu Florescu, sought to set up the vicious Romanian price as the prototype of the Stoker's vampire Count. They point out that his father was known as Dracul (devil or dragon). The addition of the 'a' to the end of the name was indicative of the diminutive. Vlad would have been known as Dracula, little devil or son of the devil. While all this may be conceded, and it also may be conceded that Vlad was a cruel and inhuman tyrant, there is absolutely no evidence, either in McNally and Florescu's book or anywhere else for that matter, that Vlad had anything at all to do with vampirism—not in fact and not in fiction. This is a point that the documentary makes repeatedly as its central thesis. Stoker may or may not have gotten the name Dracula from references he read, but if he did that seems to be all he got.

There is some attention to Dracula in the cinema. There are shots of Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee. There is some classic footage from Nosferatu. There is some attention to Stoker's precursors in fiction: Polidori's The Vampyre, the penny dreadful Varney the Vampire, and Sheridan Lefanu's Carmilla. But the documentary is less concerned with the history of the literary genre and its modern cinematic adaptations than it is with Stoker and the myths surrounding his novel. There is a great deal more time spent on the life of the author than there is on these other vampire stories.

Dracula: The Vampire and The Voivode presents a fund of interesting information, but nothing that seems particularly new. Fans of vampire lore and the horror genre in general will have come across most of what this film talks about already. They may not know the details of Stoker's life—his inability to walk as a child, his years as a civil servant in Ireland, his career as a theatrical manager in London, but then they may not care all that much. On the other hand, if they do this documentary has all they could want to know and more, not to mention some nice shots of Irish and Romanian scenery.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

TV Review: Independent Lens - Wham! Bam! Islam!

Article first published as TV Review: Independent Lens - Wham! Bam! Islam! on Blogcritics.

PBS's award winning Independent Lens series opens its tenth season on October 13th at 10PM with Wham! Bam! Islam!, a documentary about a Kuwaiti psychologist and entrepreneur educated at the Columbia Business School who beieved he had a way to help reinforce positive traditional Islamic values in youngsters around the world. What Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa had in mind was a Western style superhero comic book in which a team of superheroes, gathered together from all over the world, each exemplifying one of the 99 attributes of Allah, would join in a struggle against the forces of evil. His aims were both practical and idealistic. The 99, the title he gave his comic, he hoped would create a successful financial venture while providing positive role models for Muslim youth.

The film, directed by Emmy Nominated documentarian Issac Solataroff, follows Al-Mutawa as he pitches his idea and raises seven million dollars from investors around the world to start up his company. He attracts a creative team that includes a number of ex-Marvel comic veterans to complement the local Muslim staff. They are especially careful to make certain that nothing in the content of the comic violates any of the tenets of Islam; this in the light of some of the violent reaction of Muslims across the world after the publication of offensive cartoons in the Danish press. Al-Mutawa acknowledges that while he too found the cartoons offensive, he nonetheless believed in freedom of speech. Still he understood that even unintentional offensive material in his comic would defeat both his purposes.

Careful consideration had to be given to the costumes of the superheroes. The tight spandex, standard uniform for their Western brothers and sisters, wouldn't do for the Muslim sensibility. They had to consider whether the women would wear burkhas or veils. They had to be very careful about how they dealt with the application of the divine attributes to human characters. They had to think about the representation of Holy places. While some might consider this censorship, it is clear that this kind of self censorship is no different from what goes on in the West, even with its freedom of the press. Both financially and idealistically, it would have made little sense to antagonize the very audience you were trying to impress.

In a world where tensions between Muslims and the West seem to dominate the headlines daily, Wham! Bam! Islam! is the kind of film that just might help to create the kind of atmosphere that would encourage greater understanding between the different cultures. Not only does it illustrate how Western popular cultural tropes might not be all that alien to other cultures, but it also demonstrates that central values—tolerance, compassion, understanding—are common to all true believers in all religions. As one of the Bahraini investors in the company's recapitalization points out, it is hard to beat an investment that will bring in a profit and do some social good at the same time.

The story of The 99's initial successes, near catastrophes and eventual rebirth makes for fascinating viewing. Reactions from the comic's readers vary from eager children thrilled with the characters to college students debating the comic's orthodoxy, from the Saudis' unwillingness to license the book for the kingdom to a break dancer's rant about stultifying traditions. Through it all the dominating figure is the man with a vision, a man unwilling to give up on his goal even when things seem to be falling apart around him. Naif Al-Mutawa may not be a superhero, but as far as this documentary goes, he is hero enough.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Comedy Review: Lewis Black, The Prophet

Article first published as Comedy Review: Lewis Black - The Prophet on Blogcritics.

Lewis Black's The Prophet, released this week by Comedy Central, certainly has some funny material—unfortunately it would have been a hell of a lot funnier twenty years ago when it was recorded. What you have here is comedy as history. The album was recorded late in 1990 as the irate comic toured the country delivering his patented political tirade on the current state of the union, current in 1990.
I have nothing against Black's politics. Indeed, I find myself agreeing with almost everything he has to say. The problem is that he is saying it about Dan Quayle. He is saying it about George Bush. He is saying it about Ronald Reagan. And agree with his or not, it's old news. Political comedy loses something as it recedes into the past. Jokes about the Exxon Valdez disaster make more sense when everyone knows what the Exxon Valdez disaster was. I suspect that that might not always be the case with all of Black's current audience, and even those who do know are more likely to be more interested in the BP oil spill. Political humor needs to be current; I can't imagine anyone showing reruns of The Daily Show in 2030.

There are other things on the album. There is a rant about excessive Christmas celebration. There is some equal opportunity mockery of bar mitzvahs and Jewish food choices. There's a short bit about banning smoking. It's good stuff, but it doesn't make up for the dated political material.

Black is a funny man. His comedy albums have won a number of awards. There were Grammys for Stark Raving Black and The Carnegie Hall Performance. Who knows? Twenty years ago The Prophet might well have won a Grammy of its own.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Music Review: Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band-Nine Tonight

Article first published as Music Review: Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band-Nine Tonight on Blogcritics.

Those of us who can't get enough of that old time rock and roll, the kind of music that soothes the soul and gets you reminiscing about days of old are in for a treat. No one plays that old time rock better than Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band and no one has ever played it any better than they did on the 1981 album Nine Tonight which feature live recordings taken from concerts in Detroit's Cobo Hall in June of 1980 and Boston Garden in October. And now in tandem with the release of a remastered edition of Seger's other signature live album, Live Bullet and his continuing North American tour, Capital Records is releasing a remastered Nine Tonight as well. Between the two albums you can get yourself some electric performances of the best of Seger's music, and the best of Seger is just about as good as you can get.

Whether they are rocking out on classic pieces like "Old Time Rock and Roll" and "Let it Rock" or one of Seger's own tunes—soon to be classic in its own right—like "Her Strut" or "The Fire Down Below," this is a band that knows what rock and roll has been and they know how to take that tradition and build on it. They play up tempo with a joy and abandon that echoes through the audience like a tidal wave. The ballads will have you arms up and swaying to your iPod. Even the darker songs are played with a throbbing passion that can hardly be contained. Just listen to the sax highlights (it may not be the Big Man, but the aptly stage named Alto Reed will do in a pinch) and the guitar solos on "Mainstreet," as dramatic a plaint as you'll find on some of the best of the best of Springsteen.

These are songs that have become so much a part of the rock heritage that all you need to do is hear the opening chords and you're already singing along. There's the guitar passage that opens "Night Moves," the piano that begins "Against the Wind" and "We've Got Tonight." Really, you could almost list every one of the seventeen songs on the album, there doesn't seem to be one that doesn't belong in the rock pantheon. An album that includes all of the above plus "Hollywood Nights," Rock and Roll Never Forgets," "Feel Like a Number," and "Fire Lake" might just as well be called "Seger's Greatest Hits Live." Even a song like "Betty Lou's Getting Out Tonight" which may not have the reputation of some of these others is a frantic romp that has the band rocking with abandon. It is no wonder that this is a multi-platinum album; the wonder would be if it weren't.

There has been some complaint from Seger perfectionists who argued that the original CD's edited version of "Let It Rock" should have been replaced with the unedited track that was used on the original vinyl album, as long as you were remastering you might as well do it right. Although somewhat mollified by the addition of a bonus track—a live version of "Brave Strangers" from one of the Cobo Hall concerts—their preference would have been for the unedited "Let it Rock." You can see for yourself, the full ten minute plus version from the vinyl is available on YouTube. My own feeling is if the edited version is the price you have to pay for the new album, it's well worth it. This is the kind of album that makes you wish that you didn't know now what you didn't know then.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Music Review: Anastasia Barzee-The Dimming of the Day

Article first published as Music Review: Anastasia Barzee-The Dimming of the Day on Blogcritics.

The Dimming of the Day, the debut album of actress/singer Anastasia Barzee reminds me of nothing so much as John Keats' "Ode on Melancholy." Keats, a poet who believes that all emotions should be experienced as strongly as possible, explains that melancholy should be savored. Don't try to drown it with clichés. Don't try to make yourself feel better. When sadness comes as it always does revel in it. It is only the person who has experienced the depths of true melancholy, who has a palate fine enough to burst "joy's grape." And where is the truest melancholy to be found? It is to be found in the transience of beauty, in the transience of love.

Speaking about her album Barzee explains that she has a "real connection to songs that have moved me—made me think about loss, regret, abandonment, and ultimately finding joy." These are songs that "tell the story of what love really is—with all its pain and promise." They are songs that speak to the intensity of melancholy and the depth of joy that must inevitably come. It is almost as if the singer were channeling the poet.

The songs she has chosen range from Broadway to pop, from contemporary folk to jazz and country, thirteen songs from an eclectic mix of contemporary song writers: Richard Thompson, Jimmy Webb, Kate Bush, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Paul Simon just to name a few. Her interpretations are emotionally charged; she is after all an actress of note. She knows how to use the kind of subtext that creates dramatic sincerity without going over the top. She is a singer in control of her instrument and she demonstrates that control on each and every song.

Of course there are those songs that stand out. Her duet with Brian D'arcy James, with whom she co-starred in White Christmas, on the album's title song, Richard Thompson's "The Dimming of the Day," echoes with some very nice country harmonies. Their voices have a harmonic blend that even Linda and Richard might envy. She captures a nice country vibe in Randy Newman's "Feels Like Home" and adds a powerful performance of Jimmy Webb's "All I Know."

Her swinging jazzy take on April Smith's "Terrible Things" with a sparkling trumpet solo work by Greg Gisbert is one of the few upbeat tunes on the disc, and it showcases another side of the singer. "Summer Me, Winter Me" has a soft Latin beat and features some fine solo saxophone from Steve Wilson. She does her own version of a sultry cabaret singer with the jazz standard "Don't Go to Strangers," again with some nice saxophone backing. James Shelton's "Lilac Wine" gives Barzee a chance to play with a bit of tipsy sexuality that clearly shows her ability to create a character. All you have to do is compare this voice with the voice that sings the album's opening song, Kate Bush's "The Man With the Child in His Eyes," and you can see how adept Barzee is at singing in "so many voices not her own."

Keats is right, paradoxical as it seems, joy and melancholy are indelibly entwined. There is no doubt a great pleasure and joy in listening to a talented artist pouring her heart out in song. Anastasia Barzee is just such a talented artist.