Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Post-Christmas/Pre-New Year Musical Round-Up

Everyone is keen to put this year to bed. Let's put out the old and bring in the new. And keep those paddles revved up: this baby just might need 'em.

But before we roll up our sleeves and get to work on rescuing what we can, it's worth remembering some of the best of last year. The five CDs that received the most play in this house were:

#5 - To Survive by Joan As Police Woman (A, e)
#4 - Harps And Angels by Randy Newman (A)
#3 - Vegas by Martyn Joseph (A, e)
#2 - I, Flathead by Ry Cooder (A)

But the number one most played CD in my house was ... (drum-roll, please) ... Mama Mia!

Oy vey -- to think there ever was a time when I was dying for something -- anything -- to usurp Hairspray. *Sigh* Another reason why I can't wait for the new year to begin.

Whenever I was in charge, however, the number one disc in this house was Just Us Kids by James McMurtry (A, e).

Were I to let Google describe McMurtry's appeal, you'd get attributes like, "Caustic observer of Americana", "Lou Reed from Texas", "Leonard Cohen of the South" etc ... but the man has created his own genre. And though he claims to have made peace with being a "beer salesman" his music is deeply affecting stuff. The "caustic" is what the uninitiated tend to hear first (releasing "Cheney's Toy" as the album's first, free single pretty much sealed the deal). But there's also a depth of human yearning that comes from scraping the bottom of the soul, and listening to what the shadows are whispering when you can't get back to sleep. It might not be as finely balanced in its sensibilities as Childish Things was (A, e), but ... it scratched the most difficult-to-reach aural itch for me. So there it is.

Some other pleasant memories:

Favorite Celeb Singer Interview: Esquire UK with Robert Plant Technically, the interview took place over a year ago, the morning after the Zep reunion, but it wasn't published until February. Nor is it available on-line, alas, but NME has some highlights here. Plant basically says he enjoyed the packed-stadium hoo-ha, but not enough to quit touring the smaller venues with Alison Kraus and T Bone Burnett. You da man, Robert!

This was the year I gave it up to Apple. No, I haven't bought a Mac ... yet. But I did buy a new iPod for my wife. And, resorting to my weenie Windows partition, I went through the bother of installing iTunes. Once the platform was up and running I even used it to purchase a few coveted albums, including the aforementioned Harps And Angels. I reached several glum conclusions:

1) iTunes downloads are as good in sound quality as you'll find below DVD-level releases. Mind you, that's not saying much. I bought H&A via iTunes, gave it a listen, and wondered if the file compression hadn't flattened things out just a little. When I was finally able to hear the CD the quality of sound was exactly the same. Lesson learned: CD production has crapped out. Unless the item I'm after is available on dual-disc, I'll opt out of the CD package and go the iTunes route.

2) The iTunes/iPod synchronization is as close to flawless as a computer sync is likely to get. For Linux users like me, this is the equivalent of Bono walking out on stage, today, with the largest white flag you ever saw. I'm basically admitting that, when it comes to music, Open Source Software is still trailing-edge. There are a lot of fine excuses for this ("Apple has all the money!") but the truth is the truth. Apple rewards music lovers; Open Source rewards code freaks ... seven-point-eight out of ten tries (not that that's a bad thing).

If 2009 were to provide any disposable income, might this be in my foreseeable future?

Worth a closer look:

Volume One by She & Him didn't make the list because I didn't start listening to it until this month. It is very, very good and could well be mentioned again this time next year.

The Hold Steady didn't make the list, just because they were edged out by these other acts. But they deserve more than mention; they deserve Robert Wiersema's post on what their music fucking means.

Happy New Year, all.

Haven't We All Lived Here?

Via ALD, life next to a Wendy's. I once lived next to a Burger King. I will not be purchasing their just-released flame-broiled scent for men.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

My Favorite Christmas Disc

The children line up. The lights are shining, the mics are on. Some of these kids have already opened their presents, others will be tearing into the gifts when the show is over. They've all got something scripted to say, but nothing more challenging than, "Happy Birthday, Jesus," or "God bless us everyone!" And still, for some, the pressure of doing this on stage is too much. Tears erupt; a meltdown ensues.

The children don't know it yet, but their performance anxieties are only the tip of the iceberg. Someday, God willing, they will be adults hosting, or joining in, larger Christmas gatherings. And a performance of subtler nuance will be expected of them.

So my favorite Christmas disc is Up For It by the Keith Jarrett Trio (A). It's not their best recording, but in one aspect it is possibly their most remarkable performance. A soul-crushing year, an oppressive environment. Nobody wants to take to the stage.

But they do go on. It takes a few minutes for everyone to find the groove, but they do. They find the groove, they dig it, they shine.

I daresay this is the way it is for many of us on Christmas day. So much performance, in the silent hope that at some point, perhaps for only a minute or two, the mask will become the face. And when it does, it is good.

Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Donald Fagen on Jean Shepherd

My generation knows Jean Shepherd as the source material and chortling narrator for A Christmas Story (wp). But Donald Fagen remembers "Shep" as a distinctively subversive personality:

"From Bert the Turtle's exhortations to 'duck and cover' in the face of an atomic blast to the endless parade of new products hawked on the tube by Madison Avenue, Americans were feeding themselves a line of hooey that was no less absurd than the most hard-core Maoist brainwash. 'Relax, life is good,' we were told. 'Your government and Walt Disney have got the future well in hand.' To skeptical Mad magazine-reading little stinkers like myself, it was this mendacity on the part of adults that was the most sinister enemy of all. Because Shep made it clear he was just as dazed, enraged, and amused as you were, that he noticed what you noticed, he established himself as one of a handful of adults you could trust."

If that seems a little rich, don't just read the piece: hit the sound-files too. Fagen brushes away a little of the "protective coloration" and reveals some of the man's discomfiting depth of character, here.

She & Him, Volume One / Los Campesinos! We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed

The '01 Echo has become our dust-around-town-and-get-things-done vehicle. It's also where I listen with the greatest intent to my music. The car came with a factory-installed CD player, which, in this era of sound files and satellite radio, is the technological equivalent of the 8-Track Cassette Deck. When I've finished my monthly downloads at eMusic I see which "albums" fit together on a single CD, then burn it and give it a spin as I scoot about on errands.

This practice has made for some strange musical bedfellows, but few pairings have been as jarring to my expectations as this month's: She & Him, Volume One (e) and We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed by Los Campesinos! (e) The latter are keeping alive (*cough*) the sex-death obsession that fueled British dance-music in the 80s (the jaunty fatalism that runs through 24 Hour Party People(A)). These Cardiff kids inject a lot of snap into their gloom, and I find it all a welcome reprieve from the aurally-enforced cheer of the season.

Hot on their heels is Volume One by She & Him, Paste's choice for album of the year. Full disclosure: I was determined to dislike this album. The deliberate understatement of the duet's name and album (starring Zooey Deschanel as the torch singer!!) along with the cutesy poses for the camera signaled something altogether a little too fey for my tastes. And 2008, I thought, signaled a year when fey was a quality we had in overabundance. I figured I'd give it a quick spin, then dismiss it and the rest of this dismal year with a shrug.

It can't be done. For all the posing, the actual product is delivered with charming sincerity. Deschanel fluidly shifts from sha-da-da R&B to Loretta Lynn twang, and wallows about in Ward's lush retro-production with a delightful ease. I'm not yet sure if I can claim Volume One as my all-time favorite album of the year, but it's certainly made my top-five. Added bonus: it appeals to the women in my household, too.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Darkest Night Of The Year by Over The Rhine

As with so many aspects of life, women have an edge over men when it comes to appreciating Christmas. Men can look into the pinched-dough features of a newborn child and be moved by the thought of God as Newborn Babe. Fathers appreciate this. But mothers get it.*

So it is no surprise that women performers produce some of the most moving Christmas music. My daughters really like Carolyn Arends' Christmas CD (A); my wife is partial to Emmylou Harris'(A). There is much I enjoy in both discs, but nothing moves me quite like The Darkest Night Of The Year by Over The Rhine.

Today marks the longest night of the year. As another Mary points out, this is not the time of year a person naturally feels like singing the Magnificat. That Christendom finally superimposed this particularly Christian moment over this particular time of year makes for "holy days" that are rife with ironies -- so much so that the ironies threaten to overwhelm even the deepest, most revered metaphors of hope, humility and love.

Returning to the Magnificat, it is for me one of the most beautiful passages of scripture. But I have to admit, it takes some effort for me to let it past the Adult Reader Filter that screams, "AFTER THE FACT! AFTER THE FACT!!" The larger "fact" remains: these words embody not just a primal hope, but the desperation it tries to resist.

I think that's the quality I find in this particular performance by Over The Rhine. Despite the cover's depiction of an angel deafening a human, this is an album with varying shades of quiet disquiet. Especially in Karin Bergquist's vocals there is a sense that true hope resists and speaks obliquely to the desperation that bears down on it. It has to, otherwise it is not hope at all, but something shallow and disposable.

Not this. This is music to accompany the listener through the longest -- and darkest -- night of the year.

Links: The Darkest Night Of The Year (A, e). Over The Rhine (h).

*Post-script: I can't write this without including the old Jewish joke: How do we know Jesus was Jewish? He lived with his parents until he was 30; he thought his mother was a virgin; she thought her son was God.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

As If We Needed Proof...

Nick Hornby is hipper than I am. *sigh* I really don't "get" Vampire Weekend.

Christmas In The Lounge

I'm not sure when or where I developed an appetite for this ... stuff. I was probably at too impressionable an age the day my father rediscovered his old Spike Jones 45s, and spun them for me on my little record player.

Although, it's more likely my appetites were stirred the day I purchased Television's Greatest Hits: 65 TV Themes From The 50s And 60s! I took great pleasure in peppering my mixed tapes with obscure (to me) themes like "I Married Joan" or "The Late Show." More than that, I actually had the capacity to play this double album from beginning to end and listen to it without interruption. In the 70s our prairie town received exactly three channels, including the required-by-law French broadcast. Of the 65 themes on offer I'd probably seen 20 of the shows represented, tops. As I listened I mused over the possible content, and wondered how much more thrilling the average US suburban childhood had been in contrast to my own.

When, in my 20s, I finally saw a sampling of what I'd missed, I realized that for most of these projects the best thing about them was the music. Just contrasting the thrilling 40-second score of "Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea" with the too-awful-to-be-camp visual product is an invitation to tepid disappointment. So the music stays -- I still throw it into the mix, whenever I'm burning compilations.

Similarly, lounge music -- specifically Christmas Lounge Music. I didn't grow up with the stuff, and my life is arguably the richer for it. In fact, I can't accurately recall any Christmas music being played on the family hi-fi, except for a traditional rendering of "Go Tell It On The Mountain," which I loved. Christmas music was what we learned and did in church, at Sunday School. Even in our public school the curriculum required that every "Frosty The Snowman" be counter-balanced with "It Came Upon A Midnight Clear." This seemed right to me at the time -- still does, really. But once I finally reached the age where a martini became an appealing indulgence, I indulged in the music, as well.

To those who assert that Christmas Carols seductively re-generate a bizarre religious fantasy, I say that Christmas Lounge Music generates an equally bizarre counter-fantasy. By turns hyper-cheery, smarmy and woozily-relaxed (Jackie Gleason's Orchestra in particular) or generating an erotic charge that seems just a tad forced, the listener gradually gets the impression that when Mom and Dad throw a Christmas cocktail party, they're likely to get a little too friendly with the neighbors, and a little too surly with each other the morning after.

What's that you say? "That's no fantasy"? Oh. I'm so sorry!

Regardless, I keep this stuff in rotation with the religious material because Christmas isn't an either/or proposition for me: it's an "all of the above" deal.

Links: Ultra-Lounge Christmas Cocktails (A), ULCC2 (A), Merry Christmas From The Space-Age Bachelor Pad by Esquivel! and Television's Greatest Hits are out of print and unavailable, alas.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Bruce Cockburn Christmas

"I included this song because I guess I was in a festive mood. If you're not, well ... piss off."

Fifteen years ago, the CBC hosted a Bruce Cockburn concert. It was broadcast a week before Christmas, and he'd just released his Christmas CD. Sentiments like the above were expressed with his usual rueful grin, and pleasurably received in kind. Colin Linden backed him up, and offered his own seasonal song, which gave some insight into how a Jewish kid (or one in particular) views the whole Santa Claus scene. Near the end, Hugh Marsh delivered a devastating rendition of "Amazing Grace" on his electric violin.

"Over the years as people have asked me to play this song, I've variously replied with, 'I'd rather not' to 'I hate that fucking song.'"

And so it went: 50 tidy minutes of Cockburn's salty reverence. What I really desire is a proper recording of that concert. Unfortunately The Corp ain't offering it, and neither is True North. So I settle for this album, year after year.

If you, like me, would be happy just listening to Bruce play the nose-harp, then this collection contains nothing but pleasure. If, on the other hand, Bruce is a taste you've had difficulty acquiring, this is unlikely to make the difference one way or the other. He only works with material that interests him, so we get a grab-bag of cultural miscellany: an old Spanish carol, the expected Huron carol, and some call-and-response melodies from South Carolina. The CD is worth purchasing for Cockburn's commentary on each selection (e.g., "If there were a contest for the title of spookiest Christmas carol, this ought to win hands down"), but if the curious were to opt for some download selections I would recommend "Early On One Christmas Morn" "I Saw Three Ships" "Iesus Ahatonnia" and "Mary Had A Baby".

That should hold you until the concert, by some miracle, is once again made available to the public.

*The song referred to here is "Wondering Where The Lions Are." And he sang it like he meant it.

Quantum Of Solace

On the ride home from Quantum Of Solace I found myself measuring it against You Only Live Twice. As scripted by Roald Dahl — a cranky fabulist who took on every writing project as if it were a personal dare — the fifth of the Connery Bonds pulled in every single trope from the now established series and inflated it to comic proportions. The gadgets were gadgetier, the girls were cheerier and Connery was puffier and amused. He had every right to be: he was box office gold, living the high life of the 60s and sauntering through a movie in which the villain's lair had a retractable lake and a monorail whose only stop en route to escape was a hidden self-destruct button.

From Russia With Love may have established James Bond as a movie franchise, but You Only Live Twice became the standard for it. When Dahl's absurdities were puffed up beyond what the cartoon could bear, we got Moonraker and Live And Let Die. Just the right amount of gas, and we got Octopussy and For Your Eyes Only. Too little, and we got Timothy Dalton.

Thus James Bond became the movie equivalent of Kraft Dinner — garnish it with a little too much of this or that, cook it a little too long, and it was a mess; follow the instructions on the box and it was surprisingly comforting fare. Lost, of course, was any sense of the lethal menace that Bond had in From Russia With Love. But was that really so desirable in an age that brought us Dirty Harry, then Rambo?

Since then, paranoid revenge fantasies have lost their traction with movie audiences. The best of the bunch, the Bourne films, make efficient use of The All-Controlling Establishment as enemy. But this is an ideological holdover from the 70s that seems almost charming as we begin to get some measure of just how dismally the Bush-Cheney republic failed to secure even its own self-interest. Now that we have met the enemy and confirmed that, yes, he is us, the necessity of cooking up some cinematic Other on which to safely vent our frustrations and rage is obvious. Enter “Quantum,” the SPECTRE for the new millennium — Quantum Of Solace, indeed.

It's old news that Daniel Craig and his teamsters didn't just get in touch with Bond's lethal menace, they pumped it up with steroids, and the current movie brings the roid-rage to a high boil, as it should. But what is more remarkable about Quantum Of Solace is how cannily the franchise picks up on Dahl's instincts, and trumps them. Clearly the creative team sat down and listed off everything it liked about the “old Bond” then committed itself to bringing that to the screen and making it work — really work — for today's audience.

Car chase with Aston Martin? Check. State-of-the-art technology? Check. Teeth-rattling fight scenes that leave Bond bloodied but unbowed? Insufferable villain with a cruel streak? Gee-whiz Ken Adams' sets that erupt in pyrotechnic splendor? Check, check, check. Alright then: how about the queasy erotic thrill of a nude corpse covered in gold paint? Take a gander at the babe covered in crude.

Missing is John Barry's swoon-inducing orchestral score — I've never been a fan of Jack White, and would have had trouble stifling my gag-impulse were it not for the distractingly fab graphics. And while some people can't stand the jarring cut-and-paste cinematography that kicks in every time there is an action scene, I had to wonder if the scenes would work at all if the camera was ever allowed to linger. The audience knows exactly how it's all being done — what they require is sufficient distraction from their knowledge, and the new hyper-vérité kinda gets the job done.

The villain is a creep I wanted to see torn limb from limb, and I found deeply appealing the movie's notion that there is a super-secret den of thieves and extortionists taking full advantage of the venal impulses of this beleaguered planet's every nation state. And, wonder of wonders, this marked the very first time that a typically effortless Bond seduction was actually believable.

The film's final success lies in Craig's uncluttered embodiment of Bond. His face has an agelessness that is anything but youthful, while his body moves with a lithe and surprisingly understated athleticism. At one point he hops over a balustrade and strides along a six-inch ledge as if it were the hallway he just abandoned. It's as bold a physical statement as any of the preceding fight scenes: getting away from his pursuers is really just this easy.

I loved it. A 40-year-old franchise has me wondering anew just how it can possibly top itself. Whodathunkit? James Bond really is back.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Christmas Tuneage: Verve Remixed Christmas

DarkoV, the Delawarean DJ, begins his list of The 12 Discs Of Christmas here. Some of the usual suspects are mentioned. Personally, I think there's no better way to soothe my inner Scrooge than by calming me down with Vince Guaraldi, and following that up with a cool shot of happy via Charles Brown. Given how they both have prominent places on DarkoV's list, the ones I've yet to spin look very promising indeed.

Unlike my encyclopedic friend, I couldn't list 12 Christmas discs without including a little padding -- and, frankly, padding is the last thing any of us needs this holiday. But over the next 12-ish days I'll opine on a particular Christmas aural offering. I might as well start with the most current, and the most disposable: Verve Remixed Christmas (A).

So long as the listener's expectations are properly braced, "disposable" is a laudable quality. Neither sensational nor galling, this collection of tweaked treasures from the Verve back-catalog offers its services as pleasant aural wallpaper for large social gatherings. The Orb's jigging of Louis Armstrong's "What A Wonderful World" remains the most interesting track: Satchmo's voice receives a light layer of static, giving his delivery a distant, spectral quality. This can evoke longing and dismay in equal measure, particularly when an industrial beat marches purposefully over the orchestration. There is an adventurousness that The Orb bring to the kitchen that I much prefer over, say, the schmaltz-drenched ladling that lang & Bennett served up in aught-one.

Otherwise, the collection remains inoffensive, if unremarkable filler. It can be inexpensively downloaded at iTunes, which is the way to go with this collection. You don't need the disc cluttering up your CD shelf, and given the compression of Verve's soundfiles I very much doubt there is any difference between what you get online and what you get on the disc. Besides, there is nothing on this disc likely to become a classic of the ages. That is not at all a bad thing, particularly during a Christmas which will require us all to be as "in the moment" as we can.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Revolutionary Road: A Reputation Redacted

When I heard the news that Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road (A) was finally being fast-tracked into production, I ... well, what did I do? I snickered cynically ("Hardly a book begging for movie treatment, really"), I silently appreciated director Sam Mendes' gutsiness, while I audibly disdained his original attempt at this self-same material; then when he enlisted his wife, I conceded I would probably queue up to see the movie in theatres because I'll happily watch Kate Winslett in anything, even if it co-stars Leonardo DiCaprio. And, finally, I checked my face in the mirror, to try on a, "Let's give this a try," look that I hoped would impress my wife with its manly "let's remain open to all the options" demeanor.

As for the book, am I the only guy who thought it was ... funny (resorting to blurbage: "savagely funny")? Poor April Wheeler comes to a grotty end, but Frank is a truly comic figure who, as James Wood points out, gets exactly what he wants by book's end, and isn't fettered with the self-awareness to acknowledge this as a tragedy. Why, Frank Wheeler is as comic a hero as you're likely to find on this side of Beckett -- or Road Runner, actually. Now if you'll excuse me, it's time I put books down and took the trash to the curb.

Worst Christmas Single Ever

An amusing list of loathed Christmas Singles. But I'm not sure how a self-professed curmudgeon missed the greatest offender of them all: Wonderful Christmas Time by Paul McCartney.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The Worst Form Of Government

In a curious twist of kismet, the Canadian parliament now appears to be modeling its behavior on that of the Israeli parliament. If Alberta and Quebec threaten to secede we may yet wind up with an environment that is as physically charged.

"What an unpalatable choice now beckons Canadians: a government led by a Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, whose approach has disappointed so many; or a government led by Stéphane Dion, the Liberal Leader Canadians resoundingly rejected six weeks ago."

Amen to that, Jeffrey Simpson. When the nation's economic statement was being read last Thursday, I was listening in utter astonishment as the finance minister proposed the nation cut its way through the rising economic tsunami. Don't misunderstand me: I'm contrary enough to admire anyone who swims against the teams of money-minders from every single industrialized nation on this planet. I just want to hear an articulate defense of this particular strategy -- especially when said strategy is delivered with a heavy back-handed slap against the majority of seat-holders in our collective parliament. If the report hadn't been such a gem of hubristic folly, I would have hailed Harper's brand of realpolitik.

Ugh. We live in times that are too interesting by half.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Another "Best of 2008" List

Boing-Boing lists their favorite books. The title that caught me off guard was Magic & Showmanship by Henning Nelms. The Boing-Boing summary: "Classic book about conjuring has many lessons for writers."

I had to read that twice before the penny dropped: "Of course!" BB, A

Best Video Game, Redux

Another impediment to my enjoying Fallout 3 is the family console. We don't Xbox 360 here: we Wii.

This limits my gaming experience, but in a good way: we get fewer first-person-shooters, and more get-up-and-move games. In the latter category is No More Heroes(MC) -- Paste's #5 pick, succinctly and artfully summed up as "the first game in history to satisfy the video-store junkie and the video-game burnout in equal measure." Hey, that's me!

It is fabulously silly, gouts-of-bloody fun -- which means I have to play it when the kids are asleep. Also, the swordplay requires some physical dexterity and a sharp memory for the appropriate combination moves. In other words, this is not a game for the pleasantly beer-buzzed. A clear head and primed muscles are a definite asset -- yet another recommendation for the game.

No More Heroes isn't my favorite Wii game -- that title still belongs to Super Mario Galaxy (MC). But it certainly rates as this year's gaming highlight. Bonus: after a year of poor sales it can be had quite cheaply.

Conversation Fodder: Best Video Game of 2008?

I have no doubt that, had I world enough and time, 20 straight hours ensconced in the family Sumo before our gargantuan flat-screen Hi-Def Behemoth playing Fallout 3 (h) -- Paste magazine's video game of the year -- would be just the thing. My daughters could take turns refreshing my mug of rooibos tea, while my wife would happily serve up ramen noodles every four hours. I suppose some sort of industrial absorbency diaper would be in order, as well as an occupational therapist for massage purposes: don't want to lose circulation to any extremities that aren't enlisted for button-mashing.

Unfortunately my trust in Paste's video game judges was irreparably damaged when they piled on the fudge and gave The Simpsons game a positive review. Some people might say I'm being too hard on a game that was merely mediocre, but I'd argue otherwise. The Lego games are mediocre; they're also pleasant diversions. The Simpsons is bafflingly unimaginative and no fun whatsoever -- pretty much in line with 95% of the games out there.

It sounds like the engineers of Fallout 3 worked hard to weave in as many textured surprises as possible. I'm sure if I gave it a chance I'd enjoy it. But (and I'm willing to receive correction on this) it also sounds like it's a run-n-shoot game. Thirty years of run-n-shoot, and we're willing to call this "a towering achievement"?

Please: a little less hyperbole and a little more critical sand. The industry might not comp you with as many $80 games, but I'd be tempted to resubscribe. And who would dare put a dollar value on that?