Monday, August 27, 2012

Comedy CD Review: Jim Gaffigan - Mr. Universe

This article was first published at Blogcritics

August 28th marks Comedy Central's scheduled CD release of comic Jim Gaffigan's standup special Mr. Universe recorded in a live performance at the Warner Theatre in Washington.  The comedian had previously made the special available as a DRM-free download back in April for five dollars, one dollar of which was to be donated to the Bob Woodruff Foundation which aids wounded servicemen and their families. 

The 75 minute set is vintage Gaffigan—precisely honed observational comedy delivered with spot on timing.  Gaffigan finds his humor in highlighting the absurdities of daily living.  He talks about kids and Disney vacations, the multiplication of athletic shoes for any possible occasion and then some, and the creepiness of hotel pools.  He talks about body building and the love of McDonalds French fries.  He mentions the dangers of indulging in Indian food.  He never has to stray all that far from the beaten path to find something funny. 

He speaks to us all. There are those comedians who seem to dwell in the obtuse. Cult figures, they talk to an audience of insiders. This is not Gaffigan. If you've eaten at Subway or bought one of Domino's concoctions, he'll have you laughing out loud.  And if not, you'll just have to agree with one of those little self-deprecating critical asides he habitually tosses into his act over the course of the evening.  "Can you believe it? A diarrhea joke."  Diarrhea and a closing riff on ExtenZe, by the way, are just about the closest he comes to working with anything offensive, and in this day and age you'd have to be living on some other planet to find that offensive. 

Mr. Universe is the comic's fourth album for Comedy Central. His first three--Doing My Time, Beyond the Pale and King Baby--have combined to sell over 500,000 copies. His TV appearances include shows like Flight of the Conchords, Bored to Death, Conan and The Late Show with David Letterman.

Comedy Central has been releasing a stellar collection of stand up albums from some pretty funny comics in recent months: Reggie Watts, Doug Benson, John Mulaney, Hannibal Buress.  Jim Gaffigan's latest is an impressive addition to the catalogue.  Check out a sample and see for yourself.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Book Review: Paul Auster, Winter Journal

This article was first published at Blogcritics

In Winter Journal novelist Paul Auster, at age 65, turns to the memoir to chronicle what he calls his "phenomenology of breathing."  He takes the reader on a trip through a maze of scattered moments of his life, the people, places and events that played some part in turning him into the man he has become now that he has reached the winter of his content.  They are not ordered chronologically indeed their arrangement may well seem at times haphazard.  Some are treated at length, some merely mentioned, but taken together they create a complex mosaic of a complex man. 

In a sense, the book is Auster's attempt to come to terms with the body/spirit dichotomy that haunts so much of literature and becomes even more evident as one ages and physical decay inevitably sets in.  Over and over again he focuses on the fragility of the body and its demeaning functions from childhood to old age almost as if to prove to himself that old or young mankind is universally subject to betrayal by the body.  He is not all that much different in his 60s from when he was five and couldn't keep control of his bladder.  So we get stories of how his cheek was torn apart while horsing around in a mall, and how he nearly gets his whole family killed in a car accident.  We hear about how he gets crabs from an old girl friend, and how a swallowed fish bone lands him in a French hospital.  Death is just around the corner for all human animals; in that sense age is irrelevant.

In essence a man needs to be reminded that he is little more than a link ahead on that great chain of being. He tells a story about a woman introduced to James Joyce who asks to shake the hand that wrote Ulysses.  Joyce extends his hand and says the hand has done many other things.  Auster then goes on to list some of the myriad things the hand may well have done, everything from masturbating to wiping one's backside and visiting all sorts of bodily orifices, one's own as well as those of others.  What better anecdote to illustrate the duality at the heart of the human condition: the hand that writes sublime literature is the hand that picks the nose.  Winter Journal is Auster's attempt to come to terms with that duality.

Although there are a lot of short journal entries describing specific moments, there are some more extended entries. Perhaps the most intense is his description of his mother's death and its aftermath.  In some sense its emotional impact and its effect on him explains his need to deal with aging and imminent death.  There is also a lengthy section describing the plot of the movie D. O. A., a film about what is essentially a walking dead man, which may well serve  as a metaphor for the human condition.  The longest section is what amounts to annotated list of all the permanent homes—apartments and houses—that he has lived in over the years (20 by his count).  It is only one of a number of lists that appear sporadically through the book: the places he has visited, the foods he ate as a child, not to mention the things one does with one's hands. 

The journal form gives the appearance of something merely thrown together, but I suspect this is far from the truth.  This "phenomenology of breathing" is also "a catalogue of sensory data." Its connections are sensual rather than logical.  "Writing," he says near the very end of the book, "begins in the body, it is the music of the body." It is interesting that the one aspect of his life least often talked about in the book is his writing. Driving snow and biting wind are as important in their own way as his novels and poetry. The maid's room without a bathroom in Paris overlooking the Louvre is as formative, if not more so, as the year in graduate school at Columbia.  If a man is the sum of his experience, all that experience is significant. 

There have been times when I have complained about the vanity of authors of all stripes with the temerity to think that their navel gazing is worth a reader's precious time.  It is one thing for a biographer to decide that a subject's life is worthy of public attention; it is quite another for the subject himself to make that decision.  On the other hand, there is certainly something to be said for a book that tries to make an honest assessment of one's own life, "to examine what it has felt like to live inside" your body.  This is especially true if the life we are talking about is the life of a sensitive, articulate human being who recognizes not only his own unique individuality, but the fact that his experience is the experience of us all.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Music Review: Etta James - Etta James: Live at Montreux 1975 - 1993

This article was first published at Blogcritics

One of the most honored singers of her generation, Etta James, who died in January of this year, was a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame and the Grammy Hall of Fame. She had won six Grammys and 17 Blues Music Award. Rolling Stone magazine has ranked her 22 on its list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time and 62 on the list of 100 Greatest Artist.  And if you want to know why, all you have to do is listen to Etta James: Live at Montreux 1975 – 1993, the new CD release from Eagle Rock Entertainment.  A voice soulful and gritty, Etta James was a woman born to sing the blues.

The album's 11 tracks are previously unavailable live performances from four of the singer's many appearances over her 18 year association with the festival. Some singers need to be heard in the studio, not Etta James. This is a woman who knows how to take the stage and work the audience.  Just listen to the 1975 performance of her classic "W.O.M.A.N." She'll have you shaking your booty with the best of them. She is enjoying the hell out of herself; the audience is enjoying the hell out of themselves, and the CD gives you a taste of just what it was like, so you can enjoy the hell out of yourself, as well. 

The album begins with six tunes from 1993 including James favorites "I Just Wanna Make Love to You," "I'd Rather Go Blind," and "Come to Mama." "Beware" gives the singer an opportunity to show her sense of humor. "A Lover is Forever" is a soulful ballad sung with solo guitar accompaniment.  It shows off the singer's emotional intensity, the kind of intensity that infused the song most often associated with her, with all due respect to Beyonce, "At Last." This signature song turns up as the first tune in a medley from a 1977 appearance, and while some of us might have preferred a more extended version, what she gives us is a powerful taste.  The medley follows with "Trust in Me" and ends with a fabulous take on "A Sunday Kind of Love." It is James at her best. "Respect Yourself" and "Dust My Broom" are two more highlights from the 1975 concert and the album ends with "Sugar on the Floor" from 1989.

Etta James: Live at Montreux  1975 - 1993 is an album every blues lover will savor, and for James fans who want more, Eagle Rock is releasing an extended version of her Montreux performances on DVD and Blu-Ray at the end of August. Besides the tracks on the CD, the video includes "Funky Good Time," "Take It to the Limit," 'Come to Mama," "Hard to Handle," "Why I Sing the Blues," and "Hold On, I'm Coming" among others.