Thursday, June 30, 2005

A Serious Way of Wondering

I heard about this fascinating little book from an interview on NPR and, though I am not a churchgoer, the idea of it intrigued me enough to obtain a copy. Of course, then it languished on my ever burgeoning pile of books to be read until I finally plucked it out last week and read it through.

Reynolds Price, a devout Christian (though not a regular churchgoer either), presents his take on the ethics of Jesus in relations to some modern social issues (abortion, homosexuality, etc.) extrapolating from the Gospels and other books of the Bible that deal directly with the words and deeds of Jesus...kind of a philosophical examination of the popular "What Would Jesus Do?" a way that is reverent (Price is, as I said, a believer), challenging, and thought-provoking.

Agree or disagree with his thoughts and conclusions...and regardless of whether or not one is a devout Christian...this well-written essay will make one stop and think (and anything that does that is aces in my book.)

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Greatest American Top 10

The people...or at least the people who cared enough about this popularity poll to call, text message, or log onto AOL's voting site...have spoken and these are the people chosen to be on their list of the top 10 all-time "Greatest Americans" (as presented on tonight's Discovery Channel special, which I watched out of idle curiosity having skipped all but the very first hour of this mini-series):

1 ) Ronald Reagan
2 ) Abraham Lincoln
3 ) Martin Luther King, Jr.
4 ) George Washington
5 ) Benjamin Franklin
6 ) George W. Bush
7 ) Bill Clinton
8 ) Elvis Presley
9 ) Oprah Winfrey
10)Franklin Roosevelt

It's an...eclectic...list of personalities to be sure. It doesn't really bother's not serious enough to get worked up about...but I think that their use of the word "greatest" was purposefully loaded. With about of a third of the overall top 100 list filled with athletes and celebrities (including Michael Jackson, Brett Favre, Tom Cruise, Michael Jordan, Madonna, and "Dr. Phil") it probably would have been more accurate to call this whimsical little enterprise "Most Popular Americans" (popularity and greatness do not necessarily go hand in hand.)

(In case you're interested, the rest of the top 25 were (in order): Billy Graham, Thomas Jefferson, Walt Disney, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, John F. Kennedy, Bob Hope, Bill Gates, Eleanor Roosevelt, Lance Armstrong, Muhammad Ali, Rosa Parks, The Wright Brothers (who are counted together as 1 "Greatest American"), Henry Ford, and Neil Armstrong.)

Friday, June 24, 2005

Dreaming Wide Awake

Lizz Wright is a sweet and soulful marvel. Her solo debut, Salt, was tasty as all get out and this new disc is even more delightful.

Wright's honey-smooth, rich, delicately-husky alto is an amazing instrument which she utilizes to fine, fine effect. There are no wasted pointless false passions anywhere in this lovely song cycle. The music, anchored by soft guitars, is equally tasteful and without pretension; it never tries to draw attention away from the caressing majesty of Wright's voice.

Wright fits in that expansive wonderland between pop and jazz that is also inhabited by the likes of Cassandra Wilson, Norah Jones, Diana Krall, and Billy Miles making timeless music that both expands and defies boundaries in the same instant.

The songs here range from beautiful (mostly) midtempo tunes written or co-written by Wright (the wistful title song and the passionate "Hit the Ground" being highlights) to a handful of fascinating covers (including Neil Young's "Old Man", the old Jesse Colin Young brotherhood plea "Get Together", and a sublimely subdued version of "I'm Confessin'", a song Van Morrison takes in another, equally vital, direction on his new record.)

Soothing as a summer breeze on a soft blue day, Dreaming Wide Awake is destined to linger in my CD player for a long time.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Magic Time

…you can call it nostalgia, I don’t mind
standing on that windswept hillside
listenin’ to the church bells chime
listen to the church bells chime
in that magic time…

Being a longtime fan of the man, I can say with genuine affection that Van Morrison is something of a crank; a curmudgeon who suffers fools not at all and who thinks his music tells you all that you need to know about him. And, of course, he’s right.

Van may be prickly but he’s paid his dues and his public persona can be whatever he decides he wants it to be. Because in the end…and most importantly…he already shares with us more than we, as music fans, could ever possibly repay: the songs, the music, and, the voice; the soulful, passionate, compassionate, wondrously grand voice that both retains youthful power and adds burnished nuance with age. I’m cool with that.

Magic Time touches on most of Morrison’s favorite latter day touchstones: the majesty of the blues, love (the beautiful “Celtic New Year”, the rocking “Evening Train”), odes to self-reliance and solitude (the earnest “Keep Mediocrity at Bay”, the wistful “Gypsy in my Soul”, the delightfully tongue-in-cheek “Just Like Greta”, the title song’s enchanting “stop and smell the roses” plea), and acerbic jibes against the invasiveness of fame (the world-weary “The Lion This Time”, the rueful “They Sold Me Out”.)

But these familiar themes are no less engaging since the disc finds Van in fine, feisty voice backed by an ace band that knows how to swing, how to soothe, how to work contours of the music as each song needs (Morrison contributes wailing harmonica and subtle guitar playing to several cuts as well as some lovely alto sax work on the opening “Stranded”.)

Morrison bolsters his originals with a handful of fascinating covers. He and the band inhabit the swinging spirit of “This Love of Mine” (co-written by Frank Sinatra) and he gives his blues heart a solid workout with “I’m Confessin’” (first made famous by Louis Armstrong.) Perhaps most poignant is “Lonely and Blue”, a cheeky (but not irreverent) rewrite of Fats Waller’s plaintive “Black and Blue”.

It’s a lovely record…yeah, ”magic time” indeed.

“Magic Time”
words and music by Van Morrison
©2005 Exile Publishing, Ltd./Universal Music Publishing, Ltd.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Batman Begins

Batman Begins is, as its title so straightforwardly promises, a beginning. But my goodness, what a grand beginning it is! Christopher Nolan's film is stylish and atmospheric and intense...showing us young Bruce Wayne's childhood ended so abruptly by fear and by devastating tragedy to his journey to find a way to reimagine himself for a life of vengeance and justice to his first steps (and missteps) as Batman with well thought out detail and nuance. By the end of the movie, the status quo is set and a rather blatant foreshadowing of the villain for the next film is revealed.

Christian Bale is the first screen Batman who is able to fully inhabit both sides of Batman's persona (both Val Kilmer and George Clooney found Bruce Wayne's character in their own ways but didn't quite fully come to grips with Batman; Michael Keaton nailed Batman but played Wayne as a kind of bumbling dolt...kind of the way Christopher Reeve played Clark Kent in the Superman movies.)

The rest of the cast...Liam Neeson, Michael Caine (as the gently-acerbic butler, Alfred), Morgan Freeman, Katie Holmes, Gary Oldman (as Sgt..."someday I'll be Commissioner"...Gordon), Cillian Murphy (as the truly creepy Dr. Jonathan Crane) top-notch and each takes a plot-serving turn in the spotlight without detracting from the main players: Bale's Batman and the shadowy expanse of Gotham City (not as gothic as in Tim Burton's version but still daunting, foreboding, and a wonder to behold.)

I make no bones about being a fanboy when it comes to these things...but that enthusiasm isn't always well-met (*cough* Daredevil *cough*) when it comes to comic book heroes making the leap onto the big screen. Batman Begins joins the pantheon of cool comic book movies...along with Superman I & II, Spider-Man, Tim Burton's Batman, and X2...that appeals to both the fickle adult and the wide-eyed child co-existing in my cynical optimist's heart :-)

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Dancing with the Stars

Yet another "reality" show imported from overseas and reincarnated as an American show (and something of a hit as well with more-than-respectable summertime ratings.)

The premise is simple enough...take some lower-rung celebrities (in this case, actor John O'Hurley [above with Charlotte Jorgensen], model Rachel Hunter, actress Kelly Monaco, former New Kid on the Block Joey McIntyre, former heavyweight champ Evander Holyfield [below with Edyta Sliwinska], and former Bachelorette Trista Sutter), pair them with professional dancers and then give them a week to learn a ballroom dance with the votes of a panel of judges and the viewers eliminating one couple a week.

It's (mildly) interesting when all is said and done. The celebrities seem to throw themselves into the proceedings earnestly (Holyfield...bless his heart...was study in intense concentration when he was dancing...but earnestness didn't translate into lightstepping in his case) and I give them props for that (the judges, on the other hand, seem to take things more seriously than necessary savaging non-dancers who've had a week to learn a completely new routine as if they should be seasoned professional hoofers.)

I'm not going to miss Dancing with the Stars when it's gone but, that said, it's a harmless way to kill an hour on Wednesday nights in the meantime.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Rock Swings

Paul Anka singing swing versions of songs by the likes of Nirvana, Bon Jovi, Soundgarden, Oasis, and REM? I was so ready to rip on this when I heard about it. But then I cued it up on Real Rhapsody and started to listen and...who'da'thunk it?...I couldn't. Damn, if it doesn't work.

The old pro didn't goof on the songs (as I imagined he might) but he treated them with respect and the new swing charts are tastefully arranged and played. It might not be everybody's cup of tea but, for my part, it's fun, entertaining, and even illuminating (as an old school pop singer, Anka takes special care of the lyrics of a song.)

Anka's seasoned croon is well matched with ballads like REM's "Everybody Hurts", Eric Clapton's "Tears in Heaven", Lionel Richie's "Hello", and Spandau Ballet's "True", of course, but the revelation is how well rockers like Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit", Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun", and Van Halen's "Jump" adapt to the sweetly swinging arrangements and Anka's nuanced vocals.

Wow. What a delightful surprise.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Hit Me Baby One More Time

Okay let me start by being completely honest here: as much as I really liked "Tennessee", "Only the Lonely", and "My Sharona" when they hit the charts (and later classic rock radio), I really hadn't been spending a lot of time wondering what Arrested Development, The Motels, or The Knack were doing these days.

And I certainly didn't give much thought to the whereabouts of Loverboy, Tiffany, A Flock of Seagulls, Haddaway, or Vanilla Ice either.

But that said, this NBC show...recycling 80's and 90's pop stars (and/or one-hit wonders) into pop nostalgia (and possible comeback "kids") for the 21st curiously appealing and actually pretty entertaining (the smarmy host...whose name escapes me here...and unfortunate series name notwithstanding.)

The perfomers perform their greatest hit during the first half of the show and then cover a recent hit by other performers in the second half; the studio audience then decides who wins the prize of a $20,000 donation to their favorite charity. With CSI in reruns, it's a fun way to kill an hour on Thursday nights.

And with Sophie B. Hawkins and Cameo scheduled to perform next week, I'll certainly be watching. Word up! :-)

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Power of Soul: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix

Over the years, two of the fastest growing sub-sections of my ever-burgeoning CD collection are pop Christmas albums and tribute discs. I am unabashed in my appreciation of both of these “genres” in all of their often ragged glory.

When it comes to tribute albums they are almost always a mixed bag filled with too many slavish, pale imitations of the original tunes. But sometimes a bit of magic happens and a tribute becomes just that. That is, tribute to (instead of a pointless copy of) the original artist’s work with an inspired and (hopefully) pleasing twist (my feeling about any cover is that if you’re not going to try to bring something new to the table why bother doing it all?)

Jimi Hendrix has been the subject of a fair number of tribute albums…in fact this disc is, in a roundabout way, a sequel to 1993’s sometimes-interesting Stone Free: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix (the Hendrix family used the proceeds from that disc to establish a scholarship fund…this disc, compiled under the auspices of the family, will benefit the same fund.)

Hendrix was, of course, a spectacularly unique artist and so finding new colors in his songs will prove difficult. Musiq’s tepid cover of “Are You Experienced?” which opens this collection (following a brief shout out from Henrix’s dad Al) didn’t bode well for the rest of the disc.

But things pick up after that…and, this being a Hendrix tribute, they do so when the guitars soar and shine.

Santana’s version of “Spanish Castle Magic” is hampered by Corey Glover’s mannered vocals but still manages to soar thanks to Carlos Santana’s shimmering fretwork. Prince (aided and abetted by bassist Larry Graham) slips comfortably into blues shoes with “Purple House” (“Red House” renamed for no good reason that I can tell) while guitarist John McLaughlin brings a sweet intensity to Sting’s cover of “The Wind Cries Mary”.

Earth, Wind & Fire are in surprisingly strong form with a funky “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”. A choral version of “Castles Made of Sand” by Sounds of Blackness is an interesting, if not completely successful, experiment. Bootsy Collins with George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars are surprisingly tame on the title tune as is Eric Clapton on “Burning of the Midnight Lamp” (Clapton’s fiery version of Stone Free’s title track was one of the highlights of that disc.)

Chaka Khan and Kid Rock’s guitarist Kenny Olson bring a soulful intensity to their take on “Little Wing” while Robert Randolph’s stellar slide guitar enlivens an otherwise unremarkable “Purple Haze” (which the Cure covered to more interesting effect on Stone Free.)

There’s some nimble playing on Eric Gales’ “May This Be Love” that almost, but not quite, overcomes his pedestrian vocals. Cee-Lo takes a game stab at “Foxey Lady” but it’s too much of a copy of the original to be really interesting.

Power of Soul saves two of its best shots for last: the late great John Lee Hooker preaching the blues with his version of “Red House” and the late great Stevie Ray Vaughan (with Double Trouble) blazing soulfully through a previously unreleased live 12-minute instrumental “Little Wing/Third Stone from the Sun” medley (recorded for the fabled “King Biscuit Flower Hour” back in 1983.)

Will Hendrix purists like this “tribute”? Probably not (maybe I’m wrong, not being one myself I’m not completely sure.) But I think it’s a truly heartfelt tribute collection just the same and worthy of some attention for that.

Hendrix’s versions of most of these tunes can be found on the 2-disc Voodoo Child: The Jimi Hendrix Collection that came out back in ’01. It's a fine introduction to his amazing work.