Friday, April 25, 2008

She and Him, Volume One

She & Him are actress (and now singer/songwriter) Zooey Deschanel and “indie rock” stalwart M. Ward and their first CD together is an enormously entertaining and engaging collection of delightful pop songs.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of Ms. Dechanel’s movies…something I guess I need to rectify soon via my trusty Netflix account…so I came to this record with no expectations (she sang onscreen in the movie Elf and acquitted herself quite well...see here) She is, it turns out, a very fine songwriter (she wrote 9 of the 13 tracks here by herself and co-wrote another) with a lovely, plaintive, achingly honest and soulful voice The bittersweet country tune, “Change is Hard”, my favorite song on the disc, is ample testament to her ability to bring powerful resonance to the table; the same is true for another pure country song, the gently loping and twanging “Got Me”.

Despite dealing with matters of the heart, the songs here are never cloying. The driving pop-rocker “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?” (features some great harmonies and guitar work) and the equally up-tempo “This is Not a Test” (which would be a huge hit single in a more fair world) are both gently acerbic but life and love affirming at the same time.

The playing is rock solid all the way through with guitars, pianos, drums, and strings providing tuneful, beefy support without overwhelming the singer.

Deschenel’s voice is sometimes layered to good effect on tunes like the 60’s-style girl group romps of “I Was Made for You” and “Sweet Darlin’” (the latter of which sounds like some great lost Brian Wilson tune that She and Him rediscovered and brought to the 21st century), the peppy backing vocals on “Black Hole”, which somehow manages to be wistful and jaunty at the very time, and the soaring vocals that come in on the back end of the wistful opener “Sentimental Heart”.

The covers here include a grand, stripped down version of Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got a Hold on Me” (with a beautiful lead vocal by Deschanel and sweet guitar and harmony vocals by Ward), a lilting take on the Beatles’ “I Should Have Known Better” (featuring the duo trading leads over a tasty tropical beat), and the lovely a cappella harmonies on the traditional “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, which closes the disc on a lovely, low-key note.

Volume One is destined to continue to spend lots and lots of time in my music player and I certainly hope that there will be a Volume Two for She & Him in the future.

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Below is a video of She & Him's version of "You Really Got a Hold on Me" (set to clips from old cartoons for some reason.)

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Danny Federici 1950-2008

Danny Federici, the stalwart keyboard player in Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, died Thursday night of melanoma. He was 58.

Below is a video of the band playing "Blood Brothers" in the studio.

American Idol

I’ve become a less patient, less forgiving TV viewer as I grow older. There are simply too many other ways to entertain oneself to allow yourself to remain loyal to a program which has, for one reason or another, lost or squandered your trust.

This list of currently running shows that I used to like but which I am no longer watching seems to grow longer every month. I have broken ties with these shows and have no desire to reconnect (even when I am told, by critics or whomever, that they’ve gotten better and/or “returned to form”)…however “unfair” it might seem, once you’ve lost me you’ve probably lost me for good.

Lost is one show which has indeed…um…lost me, for example (it got to have too much nonsense, too many pointless new characters, and too many annoying, seemingly purposefully-frustrating teases.) Other former TV viewing flames that I’ve broken up with include Grey’s Anatomy and Desperate Housewives (both got way too silly and way too soapy for me) as well as Survivor and The Amazing Race (both of which suffered from a tired, overly-familiar formulas…once you’ve been to the well a few times there’s really nothing new to discover… and bad casting…which is, of course, the kiss of death for a “reality” show.)

As I slough through the current season I beginning to seriously feel that American Idol is about to join the list.

I used to really enjoy Idol…it was a show where talent was the key (more or less) and where there was a real opportunity to be part of the discovery of a potentially great new talent. As a fan of both pop music and television, it was something of a thrill to watch precociously talented singers…Kelly, Tamyra, Ruben, Clay, Kimberley, Fantasia, Diana, Bo, and Carrie among others…soar and stumble on their way to the finals.

But this season has been so relentlessly un-engaging that I’m not feeling any magic from the show. The judges aren’t even pretending to seriously involved in what’s going on and instead have become chariatures (Randy babbles hipster nonsense, Paula babbles about how wonderful and good looking the contestants are, and Simon sits there waiting to throw out a “witty” zingers.) Ryan Seacrest has allowed himself to be turned into a grinning, insincere sadist gleefully jerking around the contestants in the name of “suspense” and ratings. And the producers’ ideas of keeping things fresh include a barrage of overlong results shows, a soulless new set, and an exceedingly tiresome call-in segment.

And the contestants (see top 8 above, Michael and Kristy have been voted off), though most of them have had moments during the course of the season, are simply not that interesting. They’re all talented…to one degree or another…but none of them is making me long to buy a CD or a concert ticket from them.

And not being engaged in the season, I have no idea who’s going to win…and I don’t really care. David Archuleta was the early favorite but it seems like David Cook is now he one to beat (though, like Chris Daughtry and Elliott Yamin before him, he might be better served by NOT winning rather than having to try sell some producer-endorsed treacle like “This is my Now”.)

Maybe what Idol needs is to take some time off…let absence make the heart grow fonder…but, of course, they’re not going to do that as long as it continues to be a cash cow (which, despite sliding viewership, it still is.)

Or maybe Idol’s time is just done…if not for the public at least for this one impatient and unforgiving one-time fan. As they say here on the interweb, your mileage may vary :-)

Thursday, April 10, 2008

One from the Heart

Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle singing the bluesy "This One's from the Heart" over an evocative clip from Francis Ford Coppola's under-appreciated movie One from the Heart featuring Frederick Forest. I really like the movie and I LOVE the soundtrack.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008


We will take LL Cool J’s advice and not call it a comeback but we will nod in hearty approval as REM turn their amps up to 11 and put out a seriously rocking, seriously entertaining disc. There isn’t much musical subtlety here (if you like your REM more in the vein of the more stately and subdued Automatic for the People than in the vein of the rock fervor of, say, Murmur you might be a bit put off by this CD) but man this sucker packs some serious kick.

The members of the band seem thoroughly engaged, the playing is tight and focused throughout, and Michael Stipe is in fine voice as well. This being REM, the lyrics are sometimes a bit enigmatic but it’s all good.

Accelerate hits the ground running with the biting and bracing 1-2-3 punch of “Living Well is the Best Revenge”, the acerbic “Man-Sized Wreath”, and the bittersweet “Supernatural Superserious” (see below), a trio of beefy rockers featuring dense guitars, throbbing bass, rock steady drums, and potent vocals and harmonies.

After that furious start, the next track, “Hollow Man”, starts out as a gentle piano ballad but the guitars kick in to drive it hard before it returns to a quieter space and returns again to being a driving rocker. Houston”, evoking the spirit of Katrina refugees discovering new possibilities, is a thought-provoking mid-tempo standout while the driving title track, a clarion call to looking forward rather than backward, locks into a solid propulsive groove and doesn’t let go.

“Until the Day is Done” is a gentle, yearning, almost lilting, song that harkens back to Out of Time and Automatic for the People in tone.

The CD concludes with four potent rockers including the vaguely ominous “Mr. Richards”, the rueful but soaring “Sing for the Submarine”, the snarling “Horse to Water”, and the cheeky “I’m Gonna DJ” (the last being a companion piece of sorts to “It’s the End of the World as We Know It”.)

Accelerate is the sound of REM as a balls-to-the walls rock and roll band and hey even if the gentler Automatic is my favorite REM record (and it is), this definitely still works for me.