Friday, November 30, 2007

Home for Christmas

There are some music fans who believe that pop artists have jumped the so-called “shark” if they release one or more of four types of albums: greatest hits, live recordings, covers collections, and holiday records. While this can sometimes be true, I’m willing to cut folks some slack on the matter…especially when it comes to holiday records. There is a burgeoning sub-section of my CD collection that is devoted to holiday records…at least a couple get added every year…and I am unabashed in my fondness for them (and no, there’s no such thing as “too many” versions of “O Holy Night” or “Jingle Bell Rock” :-)

Daryl Hall and John Oates, their hit-making days behind them for the time being, have released albums in all four of the categories mentioned in the previous paragraph. Their holiday offering, Home for Christmas, is a heartfelt, soulful, sparkling gem of the genre that never descends into dullness or treacle.

With a soaring overture leading into a very fine, gently funky version of “The First Noel”, the CD gets off to a grand start indeed.

Some of the songs are the usual suspects… “The Christmas Song” (aka “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”…written by Mel Torme & Robert Wells but totally owned by Nat “King” Cole), “Jingle Bell Rock”, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”, “O Holy Night”…but Hall and Oates bring a vibrancy to the proceedings that makes them all shine once again. Hall’s still potent voice brings a heartfelt and delightful urgency to the tunes and the arrangements are fresh and exceedingly well-played.

Two of the songs are originals: Oates takes the lead vocal on his self-penned “No Child Should Cry on Christmas” (he also does an admirable job on the oft-covered “Christmas Song”) and he acquits himself admirably while Hall delivers a sweet, mid-tempo jewel with the title song which he co-wrote.

The Stax song, “Everyday Should Will Be Like a Holiday”, co-written by the great Booker T. Jones, fits right into Hall’s R&B wheelhouse and he knocks it out of the part. Their version of one of my favorite holiday songs, Robbie Robertson’s lovely “Christmas Must Be Tonight”, is just as fine.

The rollicking, toe-tapping gospel of “Children Go Where I Send Thee” is righteous enough to make even the biggest sinner smile and dance along. And “Mary Had a Baby” makes a smooth, joyful noise of its own.

By the time the closing song, a soul-filled and soaring take on “O Holy Night” , was done I was filled with enough Christmas spirit to bring light to a cold, gray Autumn’s day…can’t ask more than that, can I? :-)

(Below, Hall and Oates performing "Christmas Must Be Tonight" on the Megan Mullally Show.)

Friday, November 23, 2007


I have, through the tender auspices of the good folks at Netflix, made my way through the third (and, alas, final) season of Deadwood. I went through the episodes slowly because I knew that they were the final episodes of this compelling series (HBO in its dubious wisdom decided not to continue the show) and I was loathe to rush through them (though the impulse to do so was always there, of course.)

Deadwood is (was) not for everyone…it is (was) gritty, bawdy, messy, absurd, engaging, and, most all, profane…but I relished all three seasons with all of its compelling drama, serpentine plotting, and wonderfully flawed and complex characters.

The language of the show was poetic and profane…most often both at the same time…and the locale was lived-in, rough hewn, muddy, messy, and ramshackle. I have no idea if any of this was true of Deadwood, South Dakota in the late 1800’s but it has a fierce verisimilitude that I quite readily accepted (even while accepting, however reluctantly, that people probably didn’t speak in the colorful profane poetic way the characters sometime did in the series.)

At the heart of the series was Ian McShane’s wondrous performance of the brutal, acerbic, savvy and, yes, profligately profane Al Swearengen, Deadwood’s manipulative power-broker (as well as a saloon owner and whoremaster). The third season was underscored by the conflict between Swearengen and the even more brutal George Hearst (Gerald McRaney is in very fine form as the complex, driven Hearst) and it is a violent, strategic, uncompromising chess match that is never anything less than wholly, awfully engaging.

There is not much resolved by the time the series ends and we are promised a movie or two to bring to some better resolution the plotlines that would have come together in the planned fourth season…I hope that the promise comes true but even if it doesn’t Deadwood is (was) still well worth the investment of time and (rapt) attention.

Monday, November 19, 2007

High Steppin'

The Pimps of Joytime do make a joyful noise on this very fine, very funky CD. The Pimps cook up a heady musical gumbo that throws choice influences like Prince and Curtis Mayfield, the Neville Brothers and the Meters, Sly and the Family Stone and the Red Hot Chili Peppers and War and then they spice it up even more with potent dollops of Afro-Caribbean pop, hip hop, and punchy rock & roll. The result is almost too soulful, too funky, and too delightfully engaging for words….but only “almost” :-)

The Pimps hit the ground running with the jamming, mostly instrumental, title track and then they slide smoothly into the percolating love jam “My Gold” (featuring falsetto vocals that would do Curtis proud and some fine guitar work.)

The band keeps it in a solid groove from the mid-tempo strut of “She-Do” to the solid funk shuffle of “Long Ride” to the old school funk of “Workin’ All the Time” (featuring some great vocals, keyboards, and horns) to the extended jam “Street Sound” (with chanted vocals that remind me of War back in their prime and some nimble guitar and bass playing)…and they keep the musicianship up at that superlative, utterly infectious level throughout the entirety of the disc.

The yearning ballad “Be Good” slows down the tempo to nice effect and then the Latin-flavored “Bonita” kicks things back into sweet danceable groove.

The Pimps are tight and in the pocket all the way…on the haunting “San Francisco Bound” and the joyful reggae of “Tea Time” and the raucous, gospel tinged, guitar and organ driven finish to “Hey Mr. J” and onto to “H2O”, the funkiest eco-friendly song you’re likely to hear :-)

By the closing uplift of the hopeful “We Shall Find a Way” (buoyed by some great guitar and organ work and featuring a grand harmonica solo), I was completely hooked. The Pimps of Joytime are the real deal and High Steppin’ is a real fine…funky, soulful, rockin’, jammin’, enormously entertaining…CD. ‘Nuff said. :-)

Below is a video of the Pimps of Joytime jamming live.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Project Runway

As I’ve probably said before, I really don’t care about so-called high fashion (and I have a closet full of jeans, t-shirts, caps, sneakers, and well-worn boots to prove it) but, that said, I love Project Runway :-) And after a year’s absence…a year during which Bravo tried to clone Runway with wan pretenders like Shear Genius and Top Design…it’s back!

Mrs. Seal is back in all of her Teutonic fabulousness, judges Nina Garcia and Michael Kors are back with their supercilious snarkiness, and, best of all, the ever-unflappable, ever-dapper Tim Gunn is back as the mentor to this year’s crop of designers.

The designers this year all seem to be more experienced as a group than previous groups of contestants…many of them have already put out collections and/or have their clothes worn by celebrities…and that seems to me to bode to a more competitive…and cutthroat…competition. Cool.

The show hit the ground running this year…eschewing showing the preliminary judging in favor of just introducing the finalists and throwing them into the business of creating fashion right away. Most of the designers rose to the challenge of designing and creating an outfit that represented their fashion outlook, a few didn’t, and, as Heidi Klum says on every show, one was “out”.

Too early to say who is going to breakout either as the one to beat or the one the other designers want to beat up (first round winner Rami said that he had set the bar for the competition and I can’t disagree with him…and young Christian, with his pretentiously asymmetrical hairdo, affects being full of his own greatness but he seems too non-threatening to really pull it off) but the gloves usually don’t come off during the first week of the show.

Here’s looking forward to a scintillating season of Project Runway. Make it work, people, make it work.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Harvest Moon

Neil Young with backing vocals by Emmylou Harris and his wife Pegi Young.

Happy 62nd Birthday, Neil Young :-)

Many happy...and rockin'...returns of the day!

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

In Rainbows

The methods by which we obtain music are…and have for a long time been…changing (something the major labels and the large record store chains have been loathe to acknowledge or quick to adjust to.) As CD sales continue to plummet and record stores (one of the great joys of my younger days) continue to disappear…as sites for legally downloading music multiply (iTunes is the undisputed leader, of course, but Amazon. com recently joined in the fray, and there are many other outlets…my personal favorite is eMusic, a site that specializes in “indie” labels) music fans have a multitude of ways to get their musical fixes.

Artists too are redefining the ways they get their music out to the public. Prince caused a stir earlier this year by giving away copies of Planet Earth with a British newspaper and Madonna recently jumped ship from a major label for a multi-tiered, multi-million dollar deal with a concert promoter.

Radiohead, the amazing, creatively restless and adventurous British band, has upped the ante by offering their new record, the gorgeous and beguiling In Rainbows, as a download on their website where the listener can choose how much (if anything) they want to pay for it. Fans can decide to pay nothing (according to one report more than half of them are opting to do just that) for the record and they can still download the ten tracks that make up In Rainbows (a standard CD will be issued next year and there is also a pricey box set consisting of the CD, two vinyl LPs, a 2nd CD with bonus tracks and digital photos, lyric booklets and other artwork that will begin shipping in December.)

The audacious marketing experiment aside, In Rainbows is a remarkable rock and roll record (and for the record, I paid $10 for it…$1 a track…and it was money well spent.) From the funky “15 Step” to the all-out rocker “Bodysnatchers”…from the lush, shimmering “Nude” to the soaring, electronic washes of “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi”…to the love songs, grandly ruminative (“All I Need”) and gently flowing (“Faust Arp”)…from the pulsating, rock solid “Reckoner” (hear below) to soothing, mid-tempo groove (accented by haunting electronic accents) of “House of Cards”…from the throbbing rock and roll of “Jigsaw Falling into Place” to somber and almost ethereal (save for the commanding drumbeat) closer “Videotape”…the tracks are uniformly intriguing, involving, and compelling. It is, quite simply, a wonderful album.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Hoax

I haven’t been moved to go to the movie theater much this year and even my Netflix queue has been quiet for a while but as the year winds to a close I’m endeavoring to get caught up on some movies that I’ve missed this year. Case in point: Lasse Hallstrom’s interesting character piece, The Hoax, which came out to generally good reviews earlier this year.

The movie chronicles the audacious 1970s hoax perpetrated by Clifford Irving involving a supposed autobiography of the famously reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. Irving scammed more than a million dollars from McGraw-Hill and Life Magazine and was well on his way to getting away with it before Hughes surfaced (in a news conference held via speakerphone) to scuttle his play.

The Hoax, with a screenplay based on Irving’s own book about the whole affair, juxtaposes the unfolding of Irving’s elaborate…and frankly bold…scheme against the events of the times (the Vietnam War and the protests against same, the Nixon Administration, etc.) to intriguing effect. It also strongly suggests that Irving’s plot was allowed to go forth due to a double dealing conspiracy between Hughes and his people and Nixon and his people.

I don’t know about that last bit but I do know that at the heart of this movie…which itself is briskly paced, engaging, and witty…is a bravura performance by Richard Gere that captures the charm, the intelligence, the deviousness, the callousness, and, eventually, the paranoid fantasies of Irving. Gere is amazing and so is Alfred Molina, playing Dick Suskind, Irving’s conflicted partner in crime; they play off each other with such fierce chemistry that they make the movie soar.

The rest of the cast…including Marcia Gay Harden, Stanley Tucci, and Hope Davis…are fine enough in underwritten supporting roles.

Clifford Irving is a charming rogue (something testified to by venerated CBS newsman Mike Wallace in one of the DVD’s bonus features) and this movie, however true it is itself (it’s based on Irving’s book so it’s skewed towards romanticizing his actions to some extent), has a real charm of its own.

Friday, November 02, 2007

I'm Not There

Bob Dylan is such a distinctive singer and songwriter that it can be problematical trying to cover his songs. Of course, this doesn’t stop people from trying (the songs are too magnetic and powerful for that)…I must have at least a dozen CDs of Dylan covers (with Dylan songs sprinkled liberally amongst many, many other discs) in my personal collection. More than perhaps with any other singer-songwriter, those attempting to cover Dylan need to dig in and find their own way of coming at the songs or else they probably shouldn’t bother.

This collection…the soundtrack to Todd Haynes’ upcoming movie where 5 different actors (including Cate Blanchett) play Dylan…is a slightly mixed bag but there are more than enough highlights to make it a very worthwhile listening experience. The set gets off to a worrisome start with the epic “All Along the Watchtower”…the music (by the Million Dollar Bashers, a group that backs several performers over the course of the 2-disc set) is biting and fierce but Eddie Vedder’s vocal is strangely distant, as if he was afraid to really try to connect to the words. But then things pick up with Sonic Youth’s muscular take on the title track and then My Morning Jacket's Jim James (backed by Calexico, who also back up several artists on the set) takes a fine turn on “Goin’ to Acapulco”. The great Richie Havens inhabits “Tombstone Blues” with vigor.

Stephen Malkmus (backed the Million Dollar Bashers) threatens to get close to getting caught up in doing a parody of Dylan’s idiosyncratic phrasing on “Ballad of a Thin Man” but in the end he manages to avoid that trap for the most part. He also covers “Can’t Leave Her Behind” in a clipped, singsong way that is plaintive enough to suffice. Malkmus also sings “Maggie’s Farm” but his wan vocals are not up to the level of the killer rock-steady backing that the Million Dollar Bashers give him.

The amazing Cat Power kills on a throbbing, horn-driven romp through “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” while John Doe is equally impressive on the soulful gospel of “Pressing On” (Doe later also sings “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” with soulful conviction) and Yo La Tengo offers up a delicate, lilting version of “Fourth Time Around” (they kick it up into higher gear later on a rollicking version of “I Wanna Be Your Lover”.)

Calexico appears several times: backing up Iron & Wine on an atmospheric version of “Dark Eyes”, offering up sweet Latin flavored support (including some sublime horn and string work) to Roger McGuinn’s lovely “One More Cup of Coffee”, providing supple support to Willie Nelson’s potent cover of “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)” (which features a powerful Spanish verse sung by Salvador Duran), and effectively underscoring Charlotte Gainsbourg’s ethereal, whispery reading of “Just Like a Woman”.

The Million Dollar Bashers (featuring Tom Verlaine on guitars, John Medeski on keyboards, Wilco's Nels Cline on guitar, and Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley on drums) also a couple of other appearances: providing stellar support on Karen O’s feisty cover of “Highway 61 Revisited” and presenting an appropriately dense and spooky version of “Cold Irons Bound (with Verlaine on vocals).

Mason Jennings’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” (accompanied only by his acoustic guitar) is well-intentioned but it lacks bite and therefore comes off a pale imitation of the brutally acerbic original (he fares a little bit better later on “The Times They Are A-Changin’”.) Los Lobos’ gently-driving take on “Billy 1”, on the other hand, is a full-bodied gem. Jeff Tweedy, accompanied by drums, bass, and fiddle, takes on Dylan’s phrasing to good effect on “Simple Twist of Fate” while Mark Lanegan is deliciously foreboding on the ominous “Man in the Long Black Coat”.

Mira Billotte is a wonder of vocal economy on her quietly shimmering “As I Went Out One Morning” and Sufjan Stevens turns Dylan’s gospel dirge “Ring Them Bells” into an almost baroque fantasia (complete with a soaring horn section) that works wondrously when you imagine that it shouldn’t at all. Jack Jackson is his soothingly laconic self on “Mama, You’ve Been on my Mind/A Fraction of Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie” which features some of the best acoustic guitar playing on the CD.

Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova (of the Swell Season) play a fine acoustic (guitar, harmonica, banjo, bass) version of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” while The Hold Steady rock out on a potent take of “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott offers up a ragged but heartfelt “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”. The Black Keys rock a thick, bluesy “Wicked Messenger” while Marcus Carl Franklin (the youngest of the actors playing Dylan in the film) is surprisingly assured on “When the Ship Comes In” and Antony and the Johnsons are subdued (to haunting effect) on “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”.

Dylan and The Band tie up the CD with “I’m Not There”, recorded during the fabled Basement Tapes sessions.

Dylan afficianad0s may argue the merits of these covers but there is, as I said before, much to be enjoyed on this soundtrack.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

The Top-Earning Dead Celebrities

You gotta love it. There are dead people who still raking in more money in a year than most of us will earn in our entire lifetimes. Such is life :-) Forbes Magazine came out with their annual list of the Top-Earning Dead Celebrities.

At the top of this year’s list…which also includes two Beatles and the Godfather of Soul… is Elvis Presley. 30 years after his death, Elvis earned a cool $49 million (which must make Lisa Marie, his sole heir, very happy.)

John Lennon came in second with earnings of $44 million, followed by Charles M. Schulz ($35 million), George Harrison ($22 million), Albert Einstein ($18 million), Andy Warhol ($15 million), Theodor (Dr. Seuss) Geisel ($13 million), Tupac Shakur ($9 million), Marilyn Monroe ($7 million), Steve McQueen ($6 million), James Brown ($5 million), Bob Marley ($4 million) and James Dean ($3.5 million).