Monday, August 31, 2009

American Classic/Lost Highway

I wonder if Willie Nelson knows how many records he’s had released under his name over the years. Whatever the number it’s been increased by 2 in the past couple of weeks.

On American Classic, Willie dips back into the “great American songbook” one more time for a tasteful (sometimes a bit too tasteful and subdued) stroll through a dozen classic tunes. Nelson is a consummate pro and so his readings are in the pocket (his voice is not quite as supple as it used to be…but hell, whose is?...and Willie doesn't always sound fully engaged) but the tracks (produced by another consummate pro, Tommy LiPuma with a crack band of jazz players including the legendary Crusader Joe Sample on piano) don’t soar much (a contrast to the playful, engaging vibe of Two Men with the Blues, Willie’s collaboration with Wynton Marsalis last year.)

All that said, there is some fine stuff here: “The Nearness of You” and “I Miss You So” both have a fetching fragility that is lovely, “On the Street Where You Live” is sprightly, and “Always on my Mind” is revisited to fine effect.

Willie comes to life during the two duets…”If I Had You” with Diana Krall and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Norah Jones…and though it doesn’t have the spark it might have reached for, American Classic is still a good addition to his other collections of classic songs.

Lost Highway is a compilation of 17 tracks (including 3 previously unreleased tracks and 1 song that had only been available on iTunes) recorded for the label of the same name (to keep that theme going, one of the songs, a cool duet with Ray Price, is also called “Lost Highway”.)

There are a lot of collaborations among the songs here, including the rollicking “Beer for my Horses” with Toby Keith, the classic country heartbreak of “I’m Still Not Over You” with Ray Price, and the tender “Overtime” with Lucinda Williams.

Willie goes into his own history with live versions of “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain” (a duet with Shania Twain) and “Crazy” (with the husband and wife team of Elvis Costello and Diana Krall.)

Two tunes from the underrated The Great Divide…the playful “Maria (Shut Up and Kiss Me)” with Rob Thomas and the Grammy-winning “Mendocino County Line” with Lee Ann Womack…are actually given a better showcase here than on the original album which buried the vocals too far in the mix.

Willie has some good solo showcases too: a fine, fine reading of “You Don’t Know Me”, plaintively heartfelt readings of “Back to Earth” and the previously unreleased “Both Sides of Goodbye’, the cheeky “Superman” (another previously unreleased track), a credible take on Jimmy Cliff’s reggae classic “The Harder They Come”, and the cool western swing of “Bubbles in my Beer”.

The collection concludes with two songs seemingly inspired by the movie Brokeback Mountain: the politically incorrect (and vaguely homophobic) “Cowboys are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other” (which had been released only a download before this) and the profane (and decidedly homophobic) “Ain’t Goin’ Down on Brokeback Mountain” (which, even presuming that it was meant to be tongue in cheek, probably should have stayed “unreleased”.)

The last two tracks notwithstanding Lost Highway is a fine enough “best of” collection

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Who - Baba O'Riley

Today would have been Keith Moon's (1946-1978) 63rd birthday. This is a great live clip from the Who to celebrate the day.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Project Runway

The Runway is back! And it’s about time.

Following an extended legal wrangle between the show’s former network (Bravo) and its new network (Lifetime), the frothy, fabulous, and strangely compelling fashion catfight…um, I mean, competition…that is Project Runway is back. Accept no lame substitutes (yes, The Fashion Show, we’re looking at your sorry self…)

As I have mentioned before in this space I couldn’t give two flying figs about “high fashion” (my wardrobe consists of several pairs of jeans, a lot of t-shirts, hiking books and sneakers and a tie shoved somewhere in the corner of my closet…well there’s a bit more than that…but not much :-) but I love Project Runway just the same.

I love the egomaniacal designers…vainglorious home economics geeks who’ve decided that they’re too cool and far too talented for any room…and the deliciously supercilious judges (Michael Kors and Nina Garcia I mean...I pay little attention to whatever celebrity hump they stick in the fourth chair.)

And, of course, I love the Teutonic goddess that his host/judge/executive producer Heidi Klum (delivering the “you’re out!” kiss-offs with all of her cool blond, baby-making glory in full effect.)

And most of all, I love the dapper and (mostly) unflappable Tim Gunn, both nurturing and no-nonsense in his role as the mentor and cheerleader to the contestants.

It’s too early to tell who’s going to break out among the designers (at this point everyone comes with their “hey, look at me!” agendas) but it seems this season’s cast has the potential to be interesting both as clothes designers and as reality show characters.

Runway is now paired with a companion show, Models of the Runway, which goes behind the scenes with the models and also features an extended sequence where the designers choose the model they want to work with that week. It has a certain gossipy charm of its own and it adds to the overall Runway experience.

The Runway is back! And ain’t it grand? :-)

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Ferris Bueller's Day Off

The day started off gray…outside (the clouds would not give way to the hazy sunshine until late morning) and in (I was feeling out of sorts for no reason I could put my finger on from the moment I woke up)…and it seemed like that was going to be the way the day would unfold (sunshine or no sunshine.)

I had chores and other work aplenty but I couldn’t shake my ennui. I needed the help of somebody who didn’t know that kind of lethargy…someone so supremely and so delightfully self-confident that it was incredibly improbable that he would ever have a gray day.

And I found him. His name? Bueller. Ferris Bueller.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a product of the eighties…just check out the padded shoulders, Ferris’ massive, 5” floppy disc driven computer…but it is, at the same time, wonderfully timeless in its audaciously positive vibe.

And it’s charming and funny as all get out.

Matthew Broderick’s engaging performance as the impish Ferris is still a wonder of delicious comic timing combined with the wit and wisdom of the late John Hughes’ words and direction.

It’s a totally preposterous tale and that’s the unbridled joy of it…as we watch Ferris hoodwink his clueless parents, enrage his jealous sister, give his neurotic best friend the best day of his life, pledge his love for his bemused but patient and adoring girlfriend, and almost effortlessly thwart the hapless Mr. Rooney’s efforts to bust him, we happily go for the ride (nothing Ferris does is out of malice…he’s a free spirit enjoying life on his own terms and he wants his friends…and all of us…to enjoy life with him.)

A lot of movies from the eighties have not and will not stand the test of time (Flashdance looks pretty silly now, for example…though truth to be told I thought it looked pretty silly when it first came out so that might not be a fair example…) but Ferris Bueller’s Day Off continues to delight…and to bring grumpy old bears out of their funks…all these years later. Made me smile anyway :-)

Saturday, August 15, 2009


40 years ago the fabled Woodstock Music and Art Fair began in Bethel, New York (I wanted to go but being 13...and living on the other the time I missed it :-)

Here's Joni Mitchell singing "Woodstock", her tribute to the festival.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Rhythms del Mundo: Classics

Classics is a benefit collection put together by Artists Project Earth (APE), a group dedicated to furthering awareness about climate change. The album itself features 19 (mostly) classic rock & pop tunes performed by Rhythms del Mundo (a talented assemblage of Cuban musicians…RDM is kind of a continuation of the Buena Vista Social Club) along with an international cast of well-known pop stars (some playing live with RDM others sampled with the original music stripped off and replaced with new backing tracks.)

The vibe is beguiling…tropical Latin rhythms and beats bringing entertaining new feel to the familiar songs…though it sometimes works against the grittiness inherent in some of the tunes.

The lead-off track, for example, is a breezy version of “Hotel California” featuring the Killers that is infectiously danceable (hard to resist those tasty drums and horns) despite the dark cynicism of the Eagles’ lyrics (Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” featuring The Editors also works despite its loping, foot tapping groove working almost at cross purposes with Reed’s ironic lyrics.)

On the other hand, Sam Cooke’s more fanciful “Cupid”…with vocals by Amy Winehouse…slips into smooth groove with no such dissonance as does the version of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” featuring the Kaiser Chiefs and the sunny version of “Under the Boardwalk” featuring the Rolling Stones.

Some tracks really click: Jack Johnson’s mellow (well, duh! :-) take on John Lennon’s “Imagine” is a subdued little gem…the Zutons’ lively recreation of “Runaway” works despite its vocal similarity to Del Shannon’s original…K.T. Tunstall does a nice job with “Because the Night” as does Fall Out Boy taking a confident swing at Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”…Shanade’s version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” doesn’t have the dark urgency of Nirvana’s original but it succeeds by finding a more plaintive groove to inhabit…and the Kooks take on a relatively obscure Elton John song, “Are You Ready for Love”, and turn into a tropical flavored charmer.

Other tracks try gamely but slide a bit shy of the mark: the version of “Under Pressure”, featuring Keane, is so soothing that it leaches out all of edginess of the original (though, that said, the trumpet solo on the outro is pretty sweet)…Cat Power’s languid vocals on the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” are ill-matched with RDM’s pulsating rhythms…there is a disconnect between RDM’s sunny rhythms and the somber lyrics in One Republic’s version “For What it’s Worth”

The Spanish version of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, featuring Augusto Enriquez, is very cool as is the rocking bilingual take on Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” featuring Aquila Rose and Dana Valdes. Eros Ramazotti’s version of Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” (here called “Mi Cherie Amour”) is smooth and sweet.

RDM’s instrumental version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” with thick guitar lines intertwining playfully with the horns is grand as is the stirring version of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”…featuring the wondrous classical guitar playing of Rodrigo y Gabriela…that closes out the disc.

All in all, Rhythms del Mundo’s Classics is a delight full of great playing and beguiling fun.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Les Paul (June 1915-August 2009)

Les Paul...guitarist extraordinaire, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, pioneer in the development of the solid body electric guitar and multitrack recording...died today at the age of 94.

Here he plays "Birth of the Blues" with Chet Atkins.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Robert Downey, Jr. - Smile

Robert Downey, Jr. with an interesting...and cool...take on Charlie Chaplin's classic song "Smile" (from the soundtrack of Chaplin.)

Friday, August 07, 2009

Girls Like Us

Sheila Weller’s Girls Like Us is a breezy, heartfelt, sprawling (if sometimes disjointed) examination of the times when singer-songwriters held sway over the airwaves. The focus is on three specific enormously talented women: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon.

The book winds from the fifties to the near past but the focus is on the seventies…a time when sensitive singer-songwriters were in vogue…when sex and drugs mingled effortlessly with rock and roll…when passion was intense and somewhat fleeting…and everybody loved James Taylor (despite the fact…or maybe, the book sometimes implies, because of the fact… that he was a junkie in addition to being an incredibly talented singer-songwriter.)

Weller, clearly an unabashed fan of the three ladies (Mitchell especially), writes this gossipy book with a sometimes breathless style and the narrative occasionally makes such abrupt shifts that you find yourself looking to see if you somehow skipped a page or two (at one point, for example, Mitchell is “in love” with David Crosby and then a page later she is “in love” with Graham Nash.)

She also suffers from a fan’s myopic “her early work was the best” syndrome…as much as she lionizes the nakedly confessional artistry of Joni Mitchell’s earlier albums, for example, she is mostly dismissive of Mitchell’s output after 1975’s Hejira (when Mitchell followed her muse wherever it took her with forays into jazz and other sounds.)

The book explores the musical significance of the women…especially during their commercial and critical heydays during the 70’s (the later days, especially after their commercial peaks, are given short shrift)…but it spends at least as much time exploring the…oh let’s say colorful…love lives of the ladies (Weller gets to name drop like crazy…Kris Kristofferson, David Crosby, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Graham Nash, Leonard Cohen, Mick Jagger, and, of course, James Taylor being among the notable names who spent intense emotional time with one or more of the featured women…and she does so with gusto.)

Carly Simon is the only one of the three who was interviewed by the author (Mitchell refused not wanting to be lumped in with two other artists and King agreed at first but then thought better of it and asked her friends not to cooperate) so the narrative is informed by interviews with others (ex-husbands, ex-lovers, family members, childhood friends, adulthood friends, fellow musicians, etc.) as well as quotes from previously published articles and books.

For all of its flaws, Girls Like Us (subtitled “Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon – and the Journey of a Generation”) is an entertaining page-turner (even at 500+ pages) and it makes for good summer reading.

* * * * *

MKW Writing Stuff (including three pieces inspired by reading this book):

Bread and Roses