Saturday, November 26, 2005

Sippiana Hericane

Dr. John, a proud New Orleans native, has crafted a lovely, heartfelt tribute to his storm-ravaged city with Sippiana Hericane, a brief but powerful EP.

This disc starts off strongly with a gospel-flavored chant, “Clean Water”.

It then moves to the heart of the record: the four-movement “Wade: Hurricane Suite” (based on the gospel song “Wade in the Water”.) The good Doctor is in fine form on the keys and lets his playing tell the story throughout this suite.

The first movement of the suite, “Storm Warning”, is a soulful strut using the melody from “Wade in the Water” as its main riff. The second movement, the more ominous “Storm Surge”, finds Dr. John’s supple piano playing off some fluid organ lines and drumming. The third movement, “Calm in the Storm”, is a soothing, hopeful ballad that features some of the Doctor’s loveliest playing. The fourth movement, the churning “Aftermath”, features a soulful choir celebrating the battered but unbroken spirit of the Gulf Coast.

Dr. John returns to the vocals (along with the choir from “Aftermath”) with the loping, bittersweet but proudly inspirational blues of “Sweet Home New Orleans”.

A brief reprise of “Clean Water” closes this tasty little benefit disc (all artist and label proceeds from its sale go to organizations working on the recovery and rebuilding of New Orleans including the Salvation Army, the New Orleans Musicians Clinic, and the Jazz Foundation of America.)

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The Amazing Race: Family Edition

The producers of the Amazing Race must have thought that having families (including some with very young children) race would be an interesting twist on the show. They were wrong.

I am an unabashed fan of the Race...teams of Americans running around the world (engendering confused stares and patient bemusement from the natives of the various countries) is often the most interesting and entertaining of "reality" show competitions...but this version (with teams of four family members) has been unwieldy and dull almost from the start.

I tried to hang with it but I find that I don't care who wins...the families I kind of liked have all be eliminated now...and any entertainment value this edition had was totally sucked away by the incessantly-whiny, relentlessly-sanctimonious, and ever-melodramatic Weaver clan (see above) who managed to fritter away any goodwill engendered by the fact that the Dad of the family was killed in some kind of accident on a racetrack (which the producers tastefully exploited by staging not one but two stunts at racetracks) with their oft-referenced, bitchy, snarky, enormously self-aggrandizing version of "Christian" piety.

Hopefully the next Race will be more fun (let's leave the kids home next time, okay?)

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Body Acoustic

When the “unplugged” craze hit some years back it was kind of interesting for a while…a singer stripping down his or her music to the basics…coming at that music from a different angle…could be illuminating and entertaining (Eric Clapton, the Pretenders, and 10,000 Maniacs all made fun “unplugged” discs, for example…so did Tony Bennett, but then he was “unplugged” before it was cool.)

But, of course, anything done to excess will quickly lose the sparkle it had at first (and by the time folks were dragging whole orchestras and legions of background singers into their “unplugged” gigs…yes, I’m looking at you, Mariah Carey…it just got to be a silly marketing thing…and, thankfully, it went away.)

In the past couple of months there’s been a mini-renaissance of unplugged offerings. Alicia Keys’ new disc is actually associated with a special edition of the MTV show that started the craze and Alanis Morrissette re-recorded her breakthrough “Jagged Little Pill” acoustically.

And now Cyndi Lauper takes a graceful tour through her catalogue on this lovely little disc. Stripping down some of her biggest hits and some of her most noteworthy album tracks works for Lauper mostly because she is a better…more nuanced, mature, and engaging…singer than she was when she burst onto the scene (during the video-driven 80’s where attitude and the ability to play a quirky character counted more than just mere musicianship.)

The Body Acoustic kicks nicely off with a sprightly, twangy “Money Changes Everything”. Along the way Lauper manages to find new life in an oft-covered tune like “Time After Time” and she slows “She Bop” to a soft, sensual stroll that replaces the playfulness of the original version with a subtle carnality that works quite nicely.

There are guest-stars…Vivian Green and Ani DiFranco joining Cyndi for a feisty, joyful take on “Sisters of Avalon”, Shaggy adding some nice reggae shadings to “All Through the Night”, Sarah MacLachlan on lilting readings of “Time After Time” and “Water’s Edge”, the Japanese pop duo Puffy AmiYumi adding giddy harmonies to a zydeco-flavored romp on “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”…but the spotlight is firmly on our Ms. Cyndi (as well it should be.)

A couple of new tunes: the inspirational “Above the Clouds”, featuring some lovely guitar work by Jeff Beck, and the gently-passionate love song, “I’ll Be Your River” featuring harmony vocals by Vivian Green.

The Body Acoustic is not any kind of creative breakthrough but it is an entertaining disc and that’s just fine by me.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

The West Wing

Okay, the live debate stunt didn’t really work that well.

It was stiff and stuffy and naïve and even the “spontaneous” bits felt wholly scripted and badly staged (at least that’s the way the west coast edition came off…perhaps the earlier east coast version was more engaging.) It wasn’t exactly what we imagine the Lincoln-Douglas debates to have been (the part where moderator Forrest Sawyer had to shout down the candidates in order to get them to behave was kinda funny) but it would be interesting to see real Presidential candidates facing off like the two fictional ones did here (something that will, of course, NEVER happen in my lifetime…”real” campaigns are even more heavily scripted…and often just as badly staged…as this make-believe one.) It was an interesting effort and I give them credit for taking the flyer on it.

But, all that said, overall the current (and, judging by the ratings since the move to Sunday nights, very likely final) season of The West Wing has thus far proven to be a marked improvement over the first frustrating, unfocused post-Sorkin season (about which more here.)

It’s not back to the heady levels of the Aaron Sorkin seasons (that would be too much to ask at this point) but it is better. That said, it is not really recognizable as the show I fell in love with during the earlier seasons…most of the old regulars have been marginalized (even Martin Sheen’s appearances are few and far between this season, the only actor who has appeared in every episode this season has been the always masterful Jimmy Smits) and the goings-on in the titular environs of the White House are mostly an afterthought taking a backseat to the Presidential campaign between Congressman Matt Santos (Smits) and Senator Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda).

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, I guess…but I miss the wit and whimsy, the drama and the pathos, the engaging interplay between the original cast of characters. If the show really does end this season, then it will still have had a wonderful run…especially for those first few, often thought-provoking, sometimes utterly wonderful, seasons…and that’s cool with me.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

But Can They Sing?, they can't.

With But Can They Sing?, VH1 has come up with another way for C-list celebrities to embarrass themselves on national television: a "singing" competition.

Watching the likes of former heavyweight champ Larry Holmes, former model Kim Alexis, former Power Ranger Michael Copon, Carmine Gotti, and Bai Ling (the young lady pictured above who writhed her way through a version of Madonna's "Like a Virgin" that stayed proudly out of tune from beginning to end...and no, I don't know who she is either) gamely croak, squeak, and otherwise stomp tunelessly through pop songs would be amusing if it weren't so sad. Nobody should need to be on television this badly.

To be fair, Morgan Fairchild was game covering "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" and Joe Pantoliano's Sinatra impression had a certain cheeseball (though often offkey) charm but for the most part it was a cringe-worthy hour (not at all helped by host Ahmed Zappa's smarmy cheerleading.)

Someone made of sterner stuff than I will have to let me know who "wins" because I'm not going to put myself through any more of this painful offering.