Thursday, December 28, 2006

2006: The "Singles"

I loved 45’s when I was a kid. If you’re of a certain age, you remember 45’s…singles…seven inches, two songs, warm and inviting sound. There aren’t really singles anymore…just tracks off CDs…but back in my day (he said sounding as ancient as he sometimes feels) 45’s were wondrous things. I had (and have) eclectic tastes in music and 45’s let me sample the breadth of those tastes better than a single LP could (albums too often only had a few good songs thrown in with a lot of disappointing filler…yes, I’m looking at you, Motown…you too, Elvis.)

Great singles became the soundtrack of our lives…they were the insanely catchy pop songs that you knew all the words to, that you turned up loud whenever they came on the radio. There are, of course, tracks (and “CD-singles”) that serve that same function these days but it’s not quite the same as 45’s (I used to love the colorful labels, the familiar soft crackle and hiss of the needle on the vinyl before the music started, and discovering interesting songs on the “b” side.)

That said, there are, of course, still pop songs that are insanely catchy…that you turn up loud whenever they come on the radio…that you sometimes can’t avoid even when you might want to...

The “singles” that got into my head this year included:

Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy”
(Absolutely unavoidable and undeniably engaging, this was arguably the theme song of the summer of ’06.)

Corinne Bailey Rae’s “Put Your Records On”
(An infectious slice of summertime pop…it’s hard not sing along to when it’s playing.)

Katie Melua’s “Nine Million Bicycles”
(A lilting, compelling mid-tempo ballad that effortlessly soothes and engages the listener.)

U2 & Green Day’s “The Saints are Coming”
(A delightfully energetic rocker in either its studio or live [recorded at the re-opening of the Super Dome in
New Orleans] versions.)

“SexyBack” Justin Timberlake
(JT brought sexy back…whatta guy! this throbbing, bawdy dance track.)

Monday, December 25, 2006

James Brown

James Brown
May 3, 1933 - December 25, 2006

James Brown was, by most accounts, no saint…he was a prickly, vain soul, a stern taskmaster, a difficult person to be married to, and someone who ran afoul of the law more than a few times…but, all that said, he was an innovator, a teacher, a tireless entertainer willing to give it all to his awed, wholly appreciative audience.

He was indeed the Hardest Working Man in Show Business…the undeniable Godfather of Soul…and when the lights came up and his crack band slipped into a tight groove and the man in the cape and the pompadour strode gracefully onto the stage you knew what time it was…it was Star Time.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Merry Christmas to You

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,
Jack Frost nipping at your nose
Yuletide carols being sung by a choir,
and folks dressed up like Eskimos

Everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe
help to make the season bright
Tiny tots with their eyes all aglow
will find it hard to sleep tonight

They know that Santa's on his way,
He's loaded lots of toys and goodies on his sleigh
And every mother's child is gonna spy
to see if reindeer really know how to fly

And so I'm offering this simple phrase,
to kids from one to ninety-two
Although it's been said,
many times, many ways:
"Merry Christmas to you."

- Mel Torme and Bob Wells -


There are folks out there who think that American Idol celebrates and perpetuates the worst aspects of modern pop music. And while some of the music that has come from former winners and contestants hasn’t done much to disprove that notion, it’s unfair to dismiss AI altogether (even if the judges…especially Simon Cowell…seem more concerned with commerce rather than art when it comes to music-making.)

Not that Idol would allow itself to be dismissed...not with this year’s chartbusting success of Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood (as well as the credible sales racked up by Chris Daughtry, Taylor Hicks, Clay Aiken, and Kellie Pickler) and the much-lauded performance of Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls. It is, for better or worse, a star-making juggernaut.

Third-season winner Fantasia’s first CD wasn’t perfect but it was promising enough to make me really anticipate her follow-up (Kelly Clarkson’s first disc had the same promise and she stepped up and offered up a real winner on his sophomore effort.)

Fantasia’s eponymous second CD kicks off with an infectious banger, “Hood Boy”, featuring a rap by Big Boi…built over a sample of The Supremes’ “The Happening”, it hits the ground running and never stops.

Fantasia is feeling more than a bit frisky (check out the cheeky “Baby Makin’ Hips”)…most of these songs are about making out and hooking up unabashedly…and she is in grand voice throughout.

There are, as is par for the course these days, an array of producers working here but, despite that, the record manages to sound coherent because Fantasia’s soulful, self-assured voice is always in control.

Missy Elliott co-wrote and produced three cuts: the throbbing “I’m Not That Type” (which would fit comfortably on one of Elliott’s own albums), the defiant old school kiss-off “Two Week Notice”, and the inspirational closer “Bump What Ya Friends Say”. Babyface produces (and plays all the instruments) on the self-affirming ballad “I Feel Beautiful”.

(One curmudgeonly aside…”When I See U”, “I Nominate U”, “Only One U”, “Surround U”…look I don’t care what Prince said, the letter “U” and the word “You” are NOT interchangeable homonyms.)

Fantasia is not perfect (“I Nominate U” is awkward and a bit silly) but it is mighty fine and it reaffirms that Ms. Barrino is a pop artist who is true to herself and we’re all the richer for that.

Chris Daughtry also followed his muse as best as he could when he was on American Idol (in the spirit of full disclosure, I have to admit that I was pulling for him to win…but it’s probably better that he didn’t) and his debut CD, Daughtry (the name of his band, who don’t perform on this CD despite the fact that they are on the back cover), follows continues that path.

Daughtry wrote or co-wrote most of the songs on this disc and they are, true to the way he presented himself on the show, melodic rock and roll (most going from a gruff whisper to a soulful scream.) There is a definite Nickelback vibe here but Daughtry’s earnest vocals still carry the day (he could probably dial it down a bit more often but that’s a minor quibble.)

The musicians on the disc are solid (Slash steps in to play lead guitar on the snarling “What I Want”) and the production (by Howard Benson, who has worked with P.O.D., Motorhead, Less Than Jake, the All-American Rejects, and others.)

Daughtry is not perfect but it is engaging and it’s promising enough to really make me look forward to its follow-up.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Dig That Crazy Christmas

Brian Setzer loves the swing music…that was evident even when he was a Stray Cat…and apparently he loves the Christmas music, too. Dig That Crazy Christmas (which came out last year) is the Brian Setzer Orchestra’s second yuletide CD and it is, to coin a phrase, a gas!

This record jumps and jives and just pulsates with energy, life, and the most fun-filled aspects of the Christmas season.

From the percolating title tune to the frenetic “Hey Santa”…from the gently swinging version of “Angels We Have Heard on High” (featuring a guitar riff that sounds like it was lifted from Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue”) to the grand instrumental take on “My Favorite Things” (featuring some very tasty fretwork by Mr. Setzer)…from snappy big band workouts like “Getting’ in the Mood (for Christmas)” (a rewrite of Glenn Miller’s immortal “In the Mood”) and “Cool Yule” (which Bette Midler features on her 2006 Christmas disc of the same name)…the spirit of the season is joyfully embraced from the beginning to the end.

Even though their version of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” isn’t a gloss on Aimee Mann’s playful take on her holiday CD, it’s a great deal of fun just the same…the same holds true for “’Zat You Santa Claus” (hard to top Louis Armstrong on this one, of course.)

Dig That Crazy Christmas is a fun holiday party record…and what could be cooler than that during a stressful holiday season?

* * * * *
More Christmas celebratin' is goin' on here:
Christmas Annex

And here:
Bread and Roses

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Christmas Music

The Christmas tree is up in the corner of the front room and Christmas gifts are patiently waiting to be festooned in bright paper and shiny bows. Two new Christmas tales are written and waiting to be inserted into this year’s Christmas cards (which themselves are waiting to be handed over to the tender mercies of the US Postal Service.) Despite my advancing age, I retain an undeniable fondness for the season of lights and magic (mindful of the gaudy veneer of commercialism that has become part and parcel of the holidays I still choose to see the season as being touched by wonder and, yes, magic.)

And, of course, there is music. I take unabashed delight in the music of the season. There are some for whom hearing the umpteenth version of “The Christmas Song” or “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” by a pop star is akin to fingernails slowly scraping across a blackboard…but, while acknowledging that there is a fair measure of crappy holiday music, I remain a true fan usually adding 2 or 3 holiday CDs to my collection most years.

Last year, I highlighted some of my favorites (see here) and this year I add a few of my newer favorites (well, one’s not so new but it could be the best Christmas album ever…)

In the spirit of full disclosure, I must say that my favorite Christmas CD is probably Someday at Christmas, a 22-song compilation I burned a couple of years ago and gave out with that year’s Christmas cards to selected friends and family. Kicking off with Patti Austin’s soulful version of “Christmas Time is Here” and ending with a lovely “Auld Lang Syne” by James Taylor, it features Springsteen, John and Yoko, Macy Gray, Lena Horne, The Supremes, Donny Hathaway, Barenaked Ladies, Laura Nyro, and the Jackson 5 (on the title cut) among others. I played it yesterday and it still sounds grand (however immodest that might sound :-) from beginning to end.

This year offers up some new delights including and especially the immortal soundtrack from A Charlie Brown Christmas (arguably the best animated Christmas special ever) by Vince Guaraldi wonderfully re-mastered (it sounds amazing) and bolstered with a handful of alternative takes (all quite lovely.) This sublime music has been the soundtrack of the season for yours truly (and many others of my generation and those that followed) and it’s never sounded better.

Aimee Mann’s One More Drifter in the Snow is a warm, appealing versions of holiday chestnuts (“The Christmas Song”, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”) along with a couple of new songs (the bittersweet “Christmastime” written by Mann’s husband Michael Penn and the wistful “Calling on Mary” co-written by Mann herself) and a delightfully playful “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” with Grant Lee Phillips ably taking the narrator role made famous by Boris Karloff on the original version from How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Sufjan Stevens (who apparently has as much unreleased music in his archives as Tupac did) has a holiday offering, Songs for Christmas, that is chockfull of goodness: 42 charming, witty, reverent songs spread out over 5 CDs (one each for the 5 years in which the songs were recorded: 2001, 2002, 2003, 2005, and 2006), stories, an animated music video, a quirky, charming comic strip, photos, essays. It’s a groovy collection.

Eventually every pop star who no longer reach the upper levels of the charts will offer up a Christmas collection (even nice Jewish boys like Neil Diamond have made Xmas discs) so it’s not surprising that the Divine Miss M has finally broke out with Cool Yule. While I would have preferred fewer ballads drenched with swelling, syrupy strings (that said, the Christmas version of “From a Distance” is very cool) and more sassy fun (thank goodness for the delightfully jaunty “Mele Kalikimaka”, the charming duet with Johnny Mathis on “Winter Wonderland/Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!”, the snappy version of “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm”, and the swinging title song), Bette’s collection finds her in grand voice and it’s a fine addition to the burgeoning pantheon of pop Christmas CDs.

* * * * *
Some Christmas stories by your host
can be found here: Christmas Annex
and here: Bread and Roses

Tuesday, November 28, 2006


Am I a big fan of the Beatles? You betcha! Am I a fan of so-called “mash-ups”? Not so much. Those two things together let me to believe that I might not like Love…Beatle classics re-worked, remixed, and re-imagined by producer George Martin (arguably the best candidate for the title of the “fifth Beatle”) and his son Giles Martin for the Vegas Cirque de Soleil Beatles show of the same name…but I was wrong.

Once the gorgeous a cappella vocals (aided and abetted with the singing birds from “Across the Universe”) of “Because” led into snippets of “A Hard’s Day Night” and “The End” just before the always-rocking “Get Back”, I knew that this disc…which took over two years to complete…was indeed a labor of love and not the abomination that it could have become in lesser hands.

The sound on this disc is utterly glorious (“Revolution” and “Back in the USSR”, for example, both explode out of the speakers with fierce fire and bite.) The only new music here comes from strings (beautifully arranged but a tad ovewhelming) added to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”…everything else is taken from the original recordings (which George Martin, as the original producer, knew quite intimately, of course.)

The vocals and backing tracks are sometimes chopped up and put back together in intriguing, entertaining ways (the rhythm track of “Drive My Car”, for example, becomes the seamless foundation for a rocking medley featuring that song along with “The Word” and “What You’re Doing”…while “Sun King” is run backwards for the oddly compelling “Gnik Nus”.)

The medley of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy”), and “Helter Skelter” is dense and psychedelic while the guitar from “Blackbird” flows sweetly into and through “Yesterday”.

Not everything works. There’s a hodge-podge of snippets in “Strawberry Fields Forever” (including the trumpet from “Penny Lane”) and it is, admittedly, a bit of a misfire. Sometimes I got the feeling that some of the tracks would make more sense if I had seen the Vegas show (this is basically a soundtrack album after all) but those feeling were fleeting (probably because the music is so familiar and cherished already.)

Some purists are already crying “heresy!” (some of the comments about this disc on Amazon, for example, are downright vitriolic and totally unforgiving) and that’s their right, of course, but I think it’s a bit of an overreaction. Love is an interesting, and often successful, experiment…it doesn’t supplant or blaspheme the original classics (which are still out there to be enjoyed in all of their undeniable original glory)…it’s just a bit of heartfelt fun that is at once wonderfully familiar and, at the same time, a fine new experience with the Fab Four.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The All-Time 100

Time Magazine has thrown out the discussion gauntlet with their All-Time (hah! I get it!) 100. The 100 is their list of the “greatest and most influential records ever”. There is, of course, no way that any pop music fan will look at their choices and not feel that classic albums have been left off the list (and, at the same time, also feel that unworthy picks made the cut.)

The list runs from the 50’s to the 00’s. The 1970’s were, going by this list anyway, the most influential period as 29 of the 100 records where released during that decade. There are 4 from the 50’s, 22 from the 60’s, 18 from the 80’s, 18 from the 90’s, and 9 from 2000-2005 (no 2006 releases made the final cut.)

The list is skewed by the inclusion of boxed sets and greatest hits collections (including the monumental Phil Spector box set Back to Mono 1958-1969, Bob Marley & the Wailers’ Legend, and Chuck Berry’s The Great Twenty-Eight.) 4 of the 9 choices from the 2000’s fall into one of those categories (and those albums…Elvis: 30 #1 Hits, Sam Cooke’s Portrait of a Legend 1951-1964, Muddy Waters’ The Anthology 1947-1972, and The Essential Hank Williams Collection: Turn Back the Years…all showcase music that is decades old.)

The Beatles are, not surprisingly I suppose, most heavily represented on the list with 5 albums (Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, “The White Album”, and Abbey Road.) John Lennon is the only Beatle to place a solo album on the list (Plastic Ono Band…no love for Paul’s Band on the Run or George’s All Things Must Pass….)

Others with multiple entries include: Frank Sinatra (In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning, Songs for Swingin’ Lovers), James Brown (Live at the Apollo, the Star Time box set), Miles Davis (Kind of Blue, Bitches’ Brew), Bob Dylan (Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, Time Out of Mind…but not Blood on the Tracks!?), Aretha Franklin (I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, Lady Soul), Van Morrison (Astral Weeks, Moondance), the Rolling Stones (Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street), David Bowie (Hunky Dory, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust), Stevie Wonder (Talking Book, Songs in the Key of Life), Paul Simon (Bridge Over Troubled Water with Art Garfunkel and Graceland), Prince (Purple Rain, Sign o’ the Times), U2 (The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby), REM (Document, Out of Time), Elvis Presley (Sunrise, 30 #1 Hits...both of which were released a couple of decades after he died), and Radiohead (OK Computer, Kid A).

A lot of the other “usual suspects” are rounded up for the list: The Velvet Underground and Nico, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Joni Mitchell’s Blue, The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, The Clash’s London Calling,

Led Zeppelin IV, Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Nirvana’s Nevermind, etc.

Hip Hop is well represented…Public Enemy, Eric B. & Rakim, the Beastie Boys, Dr. Dre, Eminem, Run-DMC, NWA, OutKast (though with Stankonia rather than Speakerboxxx/The Love Below), A Tribe Called Quest, the Notorious B.I.G., Kanye West)…as is rock…Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Black Sabbath, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, Patti Smith, AC/DC, Metallica, Pavement, PJ Harvey, Hole.

There are nods to country (Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Garth Brooks), jazz (John Coltrane's wondrous A Love Supreme), and the blues (Robert Johnson).

This wouldn’t be my list (though I do own a fairly large percentage of Time’s choices)…nor yours I expect…but it is an interesting conversation starter. The entire list, broken down by decades, is here.

Thursday, November 09, 2006


“Everything happens for a reason in season 3”, eh? Okey-doke.

Personally I’m not seeing it yet…the “plot” is murky and seemingly aimless (the optimist in me wants to believe that the writers and producers really do have an overall plan that they’re working towards…the cynic in me believes that they do not and they are, despite any protestations to the contrary, just making this stuff up as they go along)…and I’m getting bored waiting.

As the “fall finale” rolled out on November 8, I realized that nothing was going to be resolved soon (Lost doesn’t answer nearly as many questions as it continues to manufacture) and that I’m starting to not care one way or the other.

When we left off last season, Locke, Eko, and Desmond were caught in the implosion of the hatch (Charlie had gotten out before everything went to hell) while Michael (who had already murdered two of his fellow castaways) had lured Jack, Kate, Sawyer, and Hurley in the hands of the “Others” (seemingly led by “Ben”, a prisoner who had been tortured by Sayid and who was freed by Michael) in exchange for freedom from the island for himself and his son Walt. Michael and Walt sailed off into the sunset while Hurley was sent back to tell the rest of the gang to stay away. (We won’t bother with the guys in the polar monitoring station or the woman…Desmond’s paramour…who showed up at the end of the last episode of last season since they make no return appearances in the fall episodes.)

In the new season, Jack, Kate, and Sawyer were prisoners of the Others (Jack apparently in an underwater facility, Kate and Sawyer in cages that apparently used to hold the polar bears that had been sighted on the island) while the rest of the gang (none of whom seemed to care enough about the weird lights and noises to go check out the hatch…even Charlie who KNOWS something bad happened there) chilled on the beach. Locke, Eko, and Desmond ended up in the jungle despite the fact that the hatch imploded (Desmond lost his clothes, Eko got taken by the bears, and Locke almost got bonked on the head by Eko’s prayer stick which must have been hovering in the air for a long time…I’m sure there’s a good reason they were thrown out of the IMPLODING hatch rather being crushed but, of course, we are not privy to that information as yet) Locke and Charlie rescue Eko from the bears’ den while Hurley crosses paths with Desmond.

Sayid, Sun, and Jin sailed around the island looking for the missing folks (while en route they saw a giant statue that also went unmentioned in the new season) eventually coming into conflict with the Others (who wanted their boat) with Sun shooting and killing one of the Other women. Last we saw, the Others had taken the boat leaving Jin and Sun bobbing in the ocean. Sayid shows up back in camp in time to join Locke’s expedition to find Eko (who left the camp after seeing a vision of his dead brother)…no sign of Jin or Sun (and, as is par for the course with this show, no explanation from Sayid about their whereabouts.)

Ben has a life-threatening tumor he needs Jack to operate on…Sawyer and Kate finally become romantically involved…Eko has a final confrontation with the smoke thing…yet another mysterious guy (excuse me while I yawn…), this one with a sporty eye patch, is seen on one of the monitors in the monitoring station under the place where the plane crashed…Locke has rediscovered his faith and his resolve…Desmond seems to have some kind of precognitive abilities…the Others are building something (Sawyer and Kate are conscripted to work on the mysterious project)…there’s a second island…character flashbacks continue to abound…Jack’s holding Ben hostage on the operating table until they release Kate…Sawyer’s about to be executed in retaliation for the woman Sun killed…yadda…yadda…yadda…

It’s all supposed to mean something but increasingly it seems like a lot of smoke and mirrors signifying nothing (if the show is just supposed to be a somewhat spooky soap opera that just goes on and on then they should just say so and stop pretending that there’s really an over-arching story being told.) Lost is due to return in February (after the 13-week run of the déjà vu thriller Daybreak starring Taye Diggs) for 16 more new episodes to finish the season (but probably not answer as many questions as it poses along the way.)

Some of the characters are interesting…though the high body count among some of the potentially interesting regulars (Boone, Shannon, Ana Lucia, Libby, Eko) and the long stretches of invisibility among others (where in the heck were Rose and Bernard this season?) makes it hard to stay engaged with them.

For some reason, I still want to like Lost more than I do these days…and I hope that when it comes back on February 7, 2007 it does so with a vengeance and a purpose. I hope so…but I’m not gonna hold my breath on it.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Happy Feet: Music from the Motion Picture

Happy Feet is another animated movie about delightful animals having charming adventures (we’ve had a few of those this year, haven’t we?…2006 must going for the record) that I will not be seeing until it hits DVD (nothing against animated movies about delightful animals having charming adventures…I’m just not willing to pony up 9-10 bucks for the experience.) This one seems to be about singing/dancing penguins (see? I told you…delightful…charming…it’s all there.)

This soundtrack is, like so many others, a compilation of pop songs that may or may not fit together without the context of the movie. On the CD, they don’t flow all that seamlessly but, that said, the individual tracks are a lot of fun.

The disc opens with some dialogue from the film which flows directly into the beat of a fun, inspirational, snappy new pop song, “The Song of the Heart”, by Prince. The song features a smooth beat, tasty horns, and sweet female background vocals (and a vocal break by, I can only assume, one of the animated penguins from the movie.) It’s a charmer all the way around.

17-year-old Gia Farrell makes her recording debut with the spunky “Hit Me Up” (which is featured in the commercials for the movie.)

The rest of the new recordings here are covers. Pink takes a funky stroll with “Tell Me Something Good”, a Stevie Wonder song originally recorded by Chaka Khan and Rufus. Another Stevie Wonder song, “I Wish”, is given the full-on gospel treatment by Fantasia, Patti LaBelle, Yolanda Adams, and a gospel choir (the choir could have pushed a bit further down in the mix for my tastes but the ladies cut loose and the thing still works anyway.)

Some of the actors lending their voices to the movie take turns at the mike with varying degrees of success. Brittany Murphy is more than up to the task of covering Queen’s gospel-flavored classic “Somebody to Love” (she’s no Freddie Mercury on the tune but she has a strong, soulful voice) and later she has fun with “Boogie Wonderland” (originally recorded by Earth, Wind, and Fire with The Emotions.) Robin Williams cheerfully mugs his way through Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” (sung in Spanish.)

Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, on the other hand, get a bit lost in a strange mash-up of Prince’s “Kiss” and Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel” (they sound okay together but the arrangement and vocals, despite a promising beginning by a breathy Kidman on “Kiss”, end up seeming more suited to a Broadway show than in the same company with the sprightly pop tunes that dominated this CD.)

Another strange mash-up, Jason Mraz covering Steve Miller’s “The Joker” mixed together with Chrissie Hynde’s take on Bread’s “Everything I Own” (???), actually works against all odds. It’s a loping, fun pop song.

(Again, I’m presuming these mash-ups will make more sense when seen in the context of the film.)

The disc also features the Beach Boys’ chestnut “Do it Again” and the Brand New Heavies’ propulsive “Jump n’ Move”.

K.D. Lang closes the disc (well, before an instrumental piece from the soundtrack) with a version of the Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers/The End”, which is pretty enough (of course…it’s K.D. Lang) but kind of a somber way of ending the record (like the Kidman/Jackman offering, it seems a poor fit with the rest of the performances here…but, yet again, I’m presuming it makes more sense in the context of the movie.)

The Happy Feet soundtrack will indeed make you want to get up and dance…and there’s nothing wrong with that in my book.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Duets: An American Classic

When he recorded his two discs of duets, Frank Sinatra literally phoned his performances in and didn’t share the studio with the artists who were featured on the songs (hey, he was the Chairman of the Board and he could do that if he wanted to.) For his Duets album (a celebration of his 80th birthday), Tony Bennett insisted on sharing the studio with those who were coming to celebrate his music and the respect and playful camaraderie is apparent throughout the resulting disc.

The songs are from the breadth of Bennett’s amazing career with backing by Bennett’s quartet and (on some cuts) a tasteful big band. Bennett is in fine voice (it’s not as supple as it once was but it is still a wonder to hear) and his duet partners slip into the saloon singer vibe without sacrificing their own unique voices. (Well most of them do anyway, Barbra Streisand and Celine Dion…on “Smile” and “If I Ruled the World”…both had a hard time damping down their diva-like flourishes.)

The Dixie Chicks are fun and loose on the opening “Lullaby of Broadway”, Stevie Wonder adds a nice harmonica solo along with his soulful vocals on “For Once in my Life”, Bono is wonderful on “I Wanna Be Around”, and Juanes is a fine match on a bi-lingual version of “The Shadow of Your Smile”.

Big names step up to share the mike with the old pro and do him and themselves proud: James Taylor (a sprightly “Put on a Happy Face”), Michael Buble (“Just in Time”), John Legend (a swinging “Sing You, Sinners”), Elton John (a marvelously loose and affectionate “Rags to Riches”), Paul McCartney (a bit mannered but still heartfelt “The Very Thought of You”), Elvis Costello (“Are We Havin’ Any Fun”), Sting (“The Boulevard of Broken Dreams”), and Tim McGraw (“Cold, Cold Heart”).

Especially noteworthy are songs done with Diana Krall (a frisky take on “The Best is Yet to Come”) and one of his favorite duet partners, K.D. Lang (a lovely “Because of You”.)

Tony takes a grand solo vocal (accompanied only by piano) on his legendary signature tune, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” before closing out the disc with a lovely and appropriate “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?”, a duet with George Michael (who reminds us that, beneath the tabloid punch line he’s allowed himself to become, here is still an evocative singer.)

Duets: An American Classic is a fine tribute to (and showcase for) one of the best singers of our time…and a gift for fans of classic and classy vocalists everywhere.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

A Random Pop Culture List

In their new book, authors Allan Lazar, Dan Karlan, and Jeremy Salter have ranked The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived, a listing of fictional characters they think have had the greatest impact on our lives here in the real world.

Their Top 10 includes:

1) The Marlboro Man (see above)
2) Big Brother

3) King Arthur

4) Santa Claus

5) Hamlet
6) Dr. Frankenstein's Monster
7) Siegfried
8) Sherlock Holmes
9) Romeo & Juliet
10) Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde

Among the other influential fictional characters on the list are: Jim Crow (#13), Don Quixote (#17), Rosie the Riveter (#28), Archie Bunker (#32), Prometheus (#46), Captain Kirk & Mister Spock (#50), Uncle Sam (#61), Superman (#64), King Kong (#74), Madame Butterfly (#89), Betty Boop (#96), and Paul Bunyan (#101).

I probably would have had Santa at the top of my list...and neither Charlie Brown nor Snoopy make the list at all (what's up with that???)

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Chuck Berry

Happy 80th Birthday to one of the undisputed kings of Rock & Roll!

I'm gonna write a little letter,
gonna mail it to my local DJ.
It's a rockin' rhythm record
I want my jockey to play.
Roll Over Beethoven, I gotta hear it again today.

You know, my temperature's risin'
and the jukebox blows a fuse.
My heart's beatin' rhythm
and my soul keeps on singin' the blues.
Roll Over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news.

I got the rockin' pneumonia,
I need a shot of rhythm and blues.
I think I'm rollin' arthiritis
sittin' down by the rhythm review.
Roll Over Beethoven rockin' in two by two.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Half the Perfect World/Blue Alert

Once you get past the Billie Holiday thing you’ll be fine. Madeleine Peyroux’s voice sounds…in timbre and delivery…a lot like Lady Day’s. It is not, I think, an affectation…it is, rather, just the way her sweet, husky, beguiling voice sounds and I’m more than cool with that.

As always her choice of material is eclectic and excellent and the arrangements she couches the songs in are soothing, rapturous, and mighty fine. Here she takes Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” (a hit for Harry Nilsson) on a slow, loping stroll and she sails through a languid version of Johnny Mercer’s “The Summer Wind” with an aplomb that would have brought an appreciative nod from Frank Sinatra.

Joni Mitchell’s “River” is given shimmering new life in a lovely duet with K.D. Lang (featuring some amazing piano work by Sam Yahel) and the collection also includes fine versions of Tom Waits’ “The Heart of Saturday Night” and Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile”.

The original songs, all co-written by Peyroux, more than hold their own with the covers…especially the impish “I’m All Right” (co-written with producer Larry Klein and Steely Dan’s Walter Becker), the delicate and wistful “Once in a While”, and the percolating “A Little Bit”.

Two of the songs on this collection…the lilting, melancholy title track and the softly soulful “Blue Alert”…were written by Leonard Cohen and Anjani Thomas for an album released earlier in the year (see below). Half the Perfect World is a lovely, jazzy, utterly engaging CD.

Anjani’s Blue Alert is a luminous collaboration with master songwriter Leonard Cohen (who produced the record.) Anjani was given access to some unfinished Cohen poems, journals, and lyrics and she completed them with the consent and aid of the master (Anjani, a singer-songwriter in her own right, has recorded and toured with Cohen…her ethereal and moving vocals were featured on his classic “Hallelujah”.)

You can’t help but hear Cohen’s distinctive voice in the phrasing and the moody poetic imagery of these songs but Anjani’s rich, buttery, soulfully torchy vocals still manage to take the forefront with grace and muted (but still powerful) passion. Where Peyroux is supported by a talented ensemble on her record, most of the tracks on Anjani’s disc are supported mostly by her own evocative piano (with a hint of baritone sax here and a bit of clarinet, steel guitar, and drums there and some delicately layered vocals here and there.)

In a better world, magical songs like the enchanting "Thanks for the Dance" would be in regular rotation on the radio...but it's not a better world (and more's the pity for that.)

Of the two songs shared by both discs: Anjani’s sweetly-earnest version of “Half the Perfect World” gets a slight edge over Peyroux’s version while Madeleine’s rhythmic “Blue Alert” get the slight edge on Anjani’s…but it’s all apples and oranges…you’re in wonderful musical company either way with either version...and, for that matter, with either of these lovely collections.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Ugly Betty

Ugly Betty (Thursdays at 8 PM on ABC) is a lovely little show. The charming America Ferrera’s Betty Suarez is smart, earnest, driven, forgiving, insecure, strong, vulnerable, and utterly engaging…and she is not, except by the shallow, myopic standards of the fashion industry she’s working in (and the equally myopic standards of the television world in which she exists), “ugly” at all (the gaudy grill of her braces…and her questionable fashion sense…notwithstanding J ).

Betty, an energetic and sunny girl from Queens, is willingly thrown into the shallow pool of haughty, self-absorbed fashionistas working at a high fashion magazine when the owner of the magazine forces his philandering son Daniel, the new editor, to take her as his assistant (Daniel has a habit of indulging trysts with his assistants…Dad figured he would keep his hands off the “unattractive” Betty.) Daniel is, at first, horrified to have Betty sitting outside his office representing him but he is quickly coming to realize that her wits and her bright personality are valuable assets (she has saved him from his own ineptitude more than once already.)

Ugly Betty is a lighthearted show and a lot of the characters are drawn in broad (almost cartoonish) strokes (Vanessa Williams, for example, seems to be channeling Cruella DeVil in her portrayal of the magazine’s creative director and alpha diva/bitch, Wilhelmina, who is fuming at having been passed over for the editor-in-chief job, and she’s deliciously over-the-top as she does do) but it is a note that, for the most part, works here. We know that, in the end, Betty’s innate goodness and intelligence will win out over the small, mean-spirited people looking down on her but it’s still almost impossible not to root for her…not to feel sad with her when she’s down…and not to smile and be warmed by her guileless, effortless humanity.

I’ve never seen Yo Soy Betty La Fea, the wildly-popular Columbian telenovela that is this show’s source material, but, judging by this delightful little show, I can see why the original would be so appealing and successful. I hope that Ugly Betty reaches towards those same heights here because it…along with Heroes…is one of the brightest and most entertaining new offerings of the 2006-07 network television season. (The most current episode is available for viewing online at the link in the first sentence above.)

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Still the Same...Great Rock Classics of Our Time

Let me start by saying that there’s nothing particularly egregious here…Still the Same: Great Rock Classics of Our Time is pleasant enough and goodness knows it’s all certainly more than familiar (I know I was singing along the first time I heard the CD)…but, that said, it’s all rather predictable and more than a little bland.

(We shall skip past the notion that the term “rock classic” is broad enough to include treacle such as Bread’s “Everything I Own” or John Waite’s “Missing You” without further comment.)

Stewart sounds more comfortable covering these rock era songs than he did croaking his way through the “Great American Songbook” on his last four discs but, that said, he really doesn’t bring anything new to the songs. If you’re going to cover songs as familiar as Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love”, The Eagles’ “Best of my Love”, or Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain”, you should strive to bring something new to the table or don’t bother doing them at all (the originals, of course, being readily available to be enjoyed.)

Stewart has been an able interpreter of songs written by others, of course…Tom Waits’ “Downtown Train”, Morrison’s “Have I Told You Lately”, Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready”, etc….and he could bring out unique nuances in his versions. Be here he just sings them in karaoke versions that are so much like (or, worse, so inferior to) the originals that they become instantly pointless to anyone other than a truly diehard Rod Stewart fan.

To be fair, Stewart’s take on Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” is rather poignant and there’s some emotional weight to his cover of “Love Hurts” but for the most part the record just sort of comes and goes without making much of an impression (other than, perhaps, to remind us of how amazing “I’ll Stand by You” sounds when sung by Chrissie Hynde or what a grand a pop song “Day After Day” is when done by Badfinger.)

Still the Same indeed.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Givin' it Up

The veteran “smooth jazz” masters join forces on this entertaining little disc (which features some help from some of their friends along the way.) Jarreau is in fine voice throughout and Benson’s nimble, tasteful guitar provides a tuneful foundation for every cut.

Givin' it Up opens with Jarreau adding lyrics to a jaunty version of Benson’s “Breezin’” and Benson returning the favor with a tasty mostly instrumental version (“mostly instrumental” because Jarreau adds some restrained but effective vocalese to the proceedings on this cut) of Jarreau’s hit “Mornin’”.

The duo stretches out with vocal versions of a couple of tunes taken from the Miles Davis songbook: “Tutu” featuring some sweet fretwork by Benson, some fairly nimble scatting by Jarreau, and some lovely piano by Herbie Hancock and “Four”, which adds Benson’s vocals to the mix to fine effect.

Benson steps up to the mike for a nice duet with the always-amazing Jill Scott on Billie Holiday’s immortal “God Bless the Child” and then he joins Jarreau with harmony vocals on a soulful version of the Seals & Crofts chestnut “Summer Breeze”. The two trade leads on the funky strut of “Givin’ it Up for Love” and an effective cover of Daryl Hall’s “Every Time You Go Away” (which was a hit in the 80’s for Paul Young.) Benson takes the solo vocal on the sweet love song “All I Am”.

A mostly instrumental take (Jarreau chants/sings the chorus) of John Legend’s “Ordinary People” is soothing and fine and will probably spend a lot of time in the rotation of your friendly neighborhood “smooth jazz” station.

“Let it Rain”, a slow burning new tune co-written by Jarreau, features Chris Botti adding some very nice trumpet fills and accents and Jarreau sharing the mike with the great Patti Austin. “Don’t Start No Stuff” locks into a funky, propulsive groove…kept moving by Benson’s soulful guitar work and Jarreau’s infectious vocalizing…and doesn’t let go.

Paul McCartney (who happened to be recording in the next studio when Benson and Jarreau were working on this disc)…in very fine R&B voice…brings the collection to a joyfully ragged, gospel-tinged conclusion by taking the lead on an energetic version of Sam Cooke’s “Bring it on Home to Me”.

Very nice indeed.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass

With a title like I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass (reportedly a paraphrase of something overheard from an NBA player during a game) you’re almost obligated to come up with a…well…kick-ass disc to justify the boast. Yo La Tengo (its name taken from an anecdotal incident during a baseball game) did just that by reaching into its bag of musical tricks and pulling out an eclectic , thoroughly engaging and entertaining, 15-track gem of a record.

This collection is bracketed with two long tracks (neither of which overstays its welcome): the opening “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind” (clocking in at nearly 11 minutes) is a glorious, churning, feedback-drenched, Psychedelic rocker that relentlessly draws the listener into the groove (the vocals are buried in the thick mix); and the closing “The Story of Yo La Tango” (coming in at just under 12 minutes), a slow-building tour de force that features layered guitars building to a majestic crescendo and brings the disc to a powerful conclusion.

In-between those two tracks, the band follows its collective muse wherever it takes them. From insanely catchy pop songs (the sprightly, witty “Beanbag Chair”, the gently propulsive “The Race is On Again”, with its sweet guitars supporting the lovely, intertwining male and female vocals, the punky “I Should Have Known Better”, the dreamy “The Weakest Part”) to reflective piano-accented ballads (the heartbreakingly poignant “I Feel Like Going Home”, the bittersweet “Sometimes I Don’t Get You”, and the wistful “Song for Mahila”) to horn-driven soul shuffles (the sparkling “Mr. Tough” which features cool falsetto vocals that wouldn’t be out of place on a Prince record.)

From multi-layered mini-epics (the stately “Black Flowers”, in which Kaplan’s plaintive vocals are cushioned by sweet harmonies, delicate horns, and soaring strings and the brooding yet delicate, nearly 9-minute instrumental “Daphnia”) to flat out rock and roll (the garage band stomp of “Watch Out for Me, Ronnie”, the sonic assault of “The Room Got Heavy”, which sounds to me like a wondrous mash-up of the Byrds and Santana with a healthy dose of Iron Butterfly thrown in for good measure, and the Beatle-esque shimmer of “Point and Shoot”.)

This is, quite simply, a wondrous pop record (one hour and seventeen minutes well spent indeed.)

Tuesday, September 19, 2006


Hiro Nakamura is a drone in a faceless Japanese company but he aspires to more than just a face in a homogenous crowd. Hiro is a pop culture geek (his breathless exclamations are peppered with references to Star Trek and the X-Men…though my personal geek has to point out that his reference to X-Men #143 is incorrect…Hiro references the character Kitty Pryde from that issue but he misinterprets her powers in the process…but I guess that’s neither here nor there to non-geeks) who wants to be a super-hero and he believes that he does indeed have superhuman powers. And, indeed, he does.

Hiro is one of the titular heroes of this intriguing new series. As is the vogue for network dramas these days, Heroes is a serial with, as a matter of course, plotlines twisting and turning within in the context of a larger picture that we’re not privy to as yet (though reports have it that a super-powered serial killer is going to be the adversary in the first season.) A seemingly unconnected group of people are discovering they have super-powers (teleportation, flight, invulnerability, etc.) without knowing how or why.

The one person who seems to know why…an Indian scientist…is killed by a conspiracy of some sort (what serialized thriller would be complete without a shadowy conspiracy?) and his research is taken up by his son, Mohinder, who finds himself on the run from the same conspiracy and taking a job as a New York cabbie while he does so.

The threads of some of the characters’ individual plotlines are already being drawn together. Mohinder, for example, is spooked by a creepy conspiracy guy who turns out to be the stepfather of Claire, a Texas teenager who has discovered that injuries to her body head themselves miraculously.

Peter, an easygoing nurse who believes he can fly (and the brother of Nathan, an ambitious candidate for Congress who dismisses his brother’s fanciful beliefs), has a crush on Simone, the daughter of one of his terminal patients, who in turn is the girlfriend of Isaac, a tortured artist and drug addict who appears to have the power to see the future (a power channeled through his paintings.) Isaac, in a drug-addled stupor, hints that there is some tragedy that the would-be heroes must stop. (Peter also crosses paths with Mohinder when he takes a ride in his taxi.)

Niki, a stripper on the run from the mob with her son (who himself seems to be extraordinarily intelligent), sees visions of a doppelganger in mirrors and other reflective surfaces…a doppelganger who, apparently, can manifest violently (as evidenced by the killing of two mob goons who tracked Niki down.)

(The pilot episode does not introduce us to Matt, a Los Angeles policeman who thinks that he can hear other people’s thoughts, or to D.L., an inmate who can apparently pass through solid walls…which, my inner geek coming out again, is Kitty Pryde’s power.)

It’s an intriguing start...Heroes (Monday nights on NBC with Friday repeats on the SciFi Channel) may indeed turn out to be worth the season-long investment serialized stories require providing it has the staying power of some serials (Lost, 24, Prison Break) and not the frustrating ratings weakness of others (Surface, Threshold, etc., etc.)

Friday, September 08, 2006

American Idol Autumn

It’s the fall of the American Idols…or something like that. American Idol will return to the airwaves come January but between now and then no fewer than 7 veteran contestants from the show will release new CDs (and that doesn’t even count season 3 “diva” Jennifer Hudson’s contributions to the soundtrack of Dreamgirls which will, I presume, include her singing the show-stopping “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going”.)

Clay Aiken (and his unfortunate new haircut) leads the pact this month with A Thousand Different Ways (which will feature 4 new songs and 10 covers of love songs from the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s including Celine Dion’s “Because You Loved Me”, Mr. Mister’s “Broken Wing”, Elton John’s “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word”, and Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is”, the last reportedly a duet with Rock Star: INXS contestant Suzie McNeil.)

Season 2 winner Ruben Studdard offers up The Return in October, the follow-up to his disappointing debut Soulful and the gospel disc I Need An Angel. Also in October, season 5’s blonde country sweetheart (who was either incredibly crafty or incredibly ditzy depending on who you asked) Carrie Pickler will try to follow in season 4 winner Carrie Underwood’s multi-platinum-selling footsteps.

In November, season 5 winner, Taylor Hicks is supposed to step up to the plate (his CD doesn’t have a title yet…I guess calling it Soul Patrol would be way too obvious, right? Man, I certainly hope not…cause that bit never got old on the show, did it?…) along with discs from the ubiquitous runner-up Katherine McPhee and rock guy Chris Daughtry (who may be working on a song with…Rob Thomas?, okay, that’ll probably be cool…)

And also in November, season 3 winner Fantasia promises a fun disc that will be accessible to pop audiences on her follow-up to her fine R&B-flavored debut Free Yourself.

(Season 1 winner Kelly Clarkson is waiting until early ’07 to put out her next disc.)

That should be enough AI goodness to keep the fanbase satiated until Simon, Paula, Randy, and Ryan take their places in their hearts...and TV screens...again in January, shouldn't it? We shall presume so.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Star Trek

Call it Star Trek: The Special Edition. Beginning the weekend of September 16, Paramount will be rolling out refurbished editions of the original Star Trek series in syndication (more than 200 stations are signed up as of this writing.) The episodes will be digitally upgraded with new special effects and matte paintings. The plan is to upgrade all of the episodes…though, apparently, they won’t be shown in original broadcast order.

According to a press release, the changes include:

Space ship exteriors -- The space ship Enterprise, as well as other Starships, will be replaced with state of the art CGI-created ships. The new computer-generated Enterprise is based on the exact measurements of the original model, which now rests in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Show opening -- The Enterprise and planets seen in the main title sequence will be redone, giving them depth and dimension for the first time.

Galaxy shots -- All the graphics of the galaxy, so frequently seen through the window on the Enterprise's bridge, will be redone.

Exteriors -- The battle scenes, planets and ships from other cultures (notably the Romulan Bird of Prey and Klingon Battle Cruisers) will be updated.

Background scenes -- Some of the iconic, yet flat, matte paintings used as backdrops for the strange, new worlds explored by the Enterprise crew will get a CGI face-lift, adding atmosphere and lighting.

Even our Earth will be given a makeover in the couple of episodes when the Enterprise returns to Sector 001 as we have images of our planet from outer space that they didn’t have when the show was produced in the mid-1960s. And phaser blasts will be given more “oomph!” as well.

I’m sure some purists will cry foul (as some Star Wars fans did when George Lucas performed similar alterations on the original trilogy of that movie series) but, as someone who was an avid fan of the original series when the show was first being broadcasts, I’m cool with the changes. Hopefully the alien worlds will look really alien and not...oh let’s say…like the backlot of a movie studio in Southern California.

Now if only they could something about some of the dialogue :-)

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Overnight Sensational

Sam Moore is an honest-to-Aretha soul survivor. As half of Sam & Dave…along with the late Dave Prater…Moore created some of the most indelible R&B records of the Sixties…including “When Something is Wrong with my Baby”, “Hold On, I’m Comin’”, and the immortal “Soul Man”.

Moore has been a revered soul man making appearances on record every now and again...perhaps most notably his fine duet on “Rainy Night in Georgia” with the late, great Conway Twitty on the under-appreciated 1994 soul/country crossover collection Rhythm, County, and Blues.

Overnight Sensational is not a solo album…it is, instead, a Genius Loves Company- style series of collaborations between Moore and some of his many friends and admirers. Producer Randy Jackson (yeah, the “hipster” dork from American Idol) frames the vocalists in a sturdy, but not oppressive, musical foundation that keeps them right up front where they belong.

Wynonna Judd is in fine soulful fettle…a great match for Moore…on the opening track, Ann Peebles’ oft-covered “I Can’t Stand the Rain” (with Billy Preston on keyboards and Bekka Bramlett & BeBe Winans on backing vocals) while Bruce Springsteen channels his inner gospel man on the boisterous “Better to Have and Not Need”.

Moore and Fantasia rescue “Blame it on the Rain” from its ignominy of being a Milli Vanilli hit with an infusion of solid soul. Jon Bon Jovi joins Moore for a credible cover of the old Bobby Womack hit “Lookin’ for a Love”.

Moore and Steve Winwood sound utterly grand together on the propulsive “Ain’t No Love” (featuring some nice keyboard work by Winwood) while Sting steps up to the plate to join Moore on “None of Us Are Free” (which also features Sheila E. on percussion.)

Moore takes the lead on a heartfelt cover of Twitty’s “It’s Only Make Believe” with some wonderful background vocals by the unlikely combination of Vince Gill and Mariah Carey.

“Don’t Play That Song”, a hit for the immortal Aretha, is revived to wonderful, soulful effect in a jumpin’ duet between Moore and Bekka Bramlett.

Perhaps the most surprising song on the disc is a funky cover of Tony Toni Tone’s “If I Had No Loot” featuring vocals by Nikka Costa and Van Hunt along with some tasty guitar work by ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons.

Moore and Travis Tritt make a fine pair on soul-infused cover of “Riding Thumb”, an obscure Seals & Crofts ode to hitchhiking. Robert Randolph ups the energetic ante with some grand pedal steel guitar work. Bad Company’s Paul Rodgers joins in on a soaring gospel-infused take on Garth Brook’s brotherhood anthem “We Shall Be Free”.

The final cut on the album is a heartfelt version of the late Billy Preston’s “You Are So Beautiful” (made famous by Joe Cocker’s version) featuring Preston (whom Moore describes as his best friend) on vocals, Eric Clapton with a sweetly mournful guitar solo, Robert Randolph on steel guitar, and Italian R&B star Zucchero on background vocals. It’s a lovely tribute and sweet coda to the collection.

Moore is in fine voice throughout and seems to be having a great deal of fun (as do his collaborators.) Overnight Sensational is a fine, fun album.