Well, it’s finally done. The new CD from Whisperado, I’m Not the Road, is here, and we’re celebrating Friday March 9 with a big show at Parkside Lounge. I hope to see everyone there.
Meanwhile, visit whisperado.com and check out the video for “Teenage Popstar Girl” directed by Daniel Azarian, starring Mary O’Rourke, Tara Langella, and of course, Whisperado.
Here’s a photo, taken by cinematographer Milton Kam, of Whisperado at our video shoot the other day. The upcoming video, for “Teenage Popstar Girl,” is being directed by Dan Azarian. From left: Jeff Lampert (pedal steel), Jon Sobel (bass), David Mills (drums), Patrick Nielsen Hayden (guitar)
Nineteen-inch snowfalls can’t stop the theater. I’ve seen some good shows recently—check out my reviews (and my other articles) on Blogcritics.
Snow can’t put a halt to the Park Odyssey, either, though winter does slow things down a bit. Check out the latest in my ongoing project to visit and blog about every New York City park.
And Whisperado’s still working on that long-promised first full-length album. A couple of gigs coming up.
I hope you haven’t forgotten about Whisperado! We’re still here, with a new web page (basic but functional) and two gigs coming up, one in Manhattan (to celebrate my birthday!) and one in Brooklyn. Check out the new page and come to the shows! We’ll see you there.
Flipron, With Breath Bated & Eyelids Unblinking: A Flipron Sampler
Flipron makes its US debut this fall with a brief tour and a 12-track sampler disc that backs up the hype that this is very likely the UK’s most inventive band. Sharp-witted, antic, and addled, their songs are more than pop curiosities; psychedelic but always under control, they show offbeat classic rock influences (circa Kinks and Bowie) mixed up with bleary folk balladry and elements from smaller islands as well, from Hawaii to Coney.
But all that is in the service of the songs and the band’s eccentric and intruiging sensibility. As vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Jesse Budd sings in the macabre-sweet “The Flatpack Bride of Possibilities,” “Each bone connected, each organ plugged in reveals another unexpected joy.” The compilation is full of unexpected pleasures, including the infectious “Gravity Calling” from their 2008 album of that name, the slinky “Big Baboon,” the arch “Mess It Up,” and the brand new single “The Coolest Names in Showbiz,” an unusually (for this band) straightforward gloss on fame: “You’re just doing what comes easily to you / Why bother? / The coolest names in showbiz love you / Why bother?”
Bother with Flipron. Anyone with a taste for new, original, boundary-stretching pop that’s just plain fun is unlikely to be disappointed.
John Lee Hooker Jr., Live in Istanbul Turkey
John Lee Hooker Jr.’s polished, contemporary blues is a far cry from the rough, elemental sounds of his legendary father. But in his own right, he’s a forceful presence, a skilled songwriter, and an honorable ambassador for the blues. He takes up that last role delightedly on his new live disc, recorded before an appreciative audience in Turkey. Like most of the tracks (except a couple of John Lee Hooker Senior covers), “Suspicion,” the BB King-style blues power ballad that opens the disc, is an effective original. The sounds range from Chicago blues-rock to soul to boogie-woogie to funk, with some clever arrangements like the tight, funny “One Eye Opened.” The songs cover topics from love (“You Make My Life Brand New”) to politics (“People Want a Change”).
When Hooker Jr. replays the standard bluesy complaints of the hard-up, he gives them a modern twist, with current idioms (“They Hatin’ on Me”) and cultural touchpoints, singing of Tiger Woods, recessions, and Ponzi schemes that promise “very large returns…but check out your bank account, because you’ve been burned.” He might not have the vocal heft or gravitas of some blues singers, but he knows how to put his entertaining story-songs across, and his band is top-notch.
Also included is an excellent, noirish animated video of one of the band’s best songs, “Extramarital Affair,” which recounts a true story of life on the road.
Whole Sky Monitor, Twisted Little Piggies
“The revolution was in your head,” shout these angry Leeds boys on this, their second disc. (The title of the album alone should give you a clue to the prevailing attitude.) “Never forget how stupid you are,” they plead. Primarily purveyors of highly focused noise, Whole Sky Monitor are not afraid to show a little soft white underbelly in the Beatle-esque “La Mouche,” but my favorite tracks are the short-and-sour numbers like the muscular “Freak Show” with its 7/4 time choruses, the chunky “My Regeneration” (get it?) and the punk-tempo “Abusive,” which clocks in at less than two minutes and suggests early Foo Fighters. I also like the dissonant jam in the uncharacteristically long “White Skin Suit.” Without much in the way of melodic hooks, these songs depend on a twin-guitar attack, rhythmic assertiveness, creeping dissonance, and pinpoint execution. All of which are here plentifully.
Originally published as “Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Flipron, John Lee Hooker Jr., Whole Sky Monitor” on Blogcritics.
Treasa Levasseur, Low Fidelity
Every so often—and not so often, really—a really special recording comes across my desk. Treasa Levasseur’s second disc has been out in her native Canada for a couple of years but is just now about to get a US release, and if we didn’t know we needed a true soul music revival, now we do. Low Fidelity is an excellent combination of smooth, soulful grooves, bluesy riffage, and ballsy singing and attitude, all melded together with pointed and (above all) fun songwriting.
Its ten tracks, almost all originals, draw on many of soul’s flavors: Aretha-style ballads (“Rest of the Ride”), piano-heavy Motown (the title track), Philly soul (“Talk to Me Babe”), Buddy Guy-style minor-key blues (“Good Ones Never Share”), gospel (“Amen”), even a bit of Sade-type gentle jazzy funk (“Truth Will Set You Free”). My favorite might be the New Orleans-y “Big Fat Mouth,” but there’s no weak link on the album. And while the above description might suggest a dilettantish collection of distinct styles, that’s not at all what this is. Levasseur’s powerful but crafty sensibility as a singer and songwriter shines steadily throughout this solid through-and-through album.
The Problems, Powder Blue Bone
Urban folk-rock meets rootsy Americana on The Problems’ fine new disc, with Frank Caiafa’s gravelly grey baritone vocals floating over beds of steady drums (courtesy of the excellent Barbara Corless), plinking banjo, guitars, and sundries. A variety of feels, including driving rock (“Damage Done”), are tied together by an the overall easygoing attitude established by Caiafa’s laid-back singing, even on more energetic tracks like “The Other One” and “Together.” The latter songs feel a bit like Steve Earle in one of his happy moods, or maybe John Prine on speed. And then there’s the uncharacteristically dramatic, Dire Straits-like “Walk Under Ladders.” On some songs you have to lean in if you want to make out the lyrics, but that’s quite all right—the mixture of grit and sweetness is what sets The Problems apart.
Lisa Brigantino, Wonder Wheel
Lisa Brigantino is what you’d call a complete musician—a superb multi-instrumentalist, singer-songwriter, and not least, rocker. Listen to the pounding guitars and odd time signatures of “Go and Find It” and you won’t be at all surprised to learn that she used to be part of the all-female tribute band Lez Zeppelin, but she can rock out with just voice and acoustic guitar too, as in “Used To Be a House,” the most intense track on her new disc. “Aqualung”-like, it paints an affecting picture of homelessness.
The Dixie Chicks meet Simon and Garfunkel in the angelic harmonies of “Sarah,” while “A Little Sympathy” recalls melodic 1970′s pop-rock. Key word: “melodic.” Brigantino brings to her songwriting that real sense of melody that so many putative writers lack, whether it’s on a softie, like the folksy “Those Days” and the lovely “Light of Your Face,” or in more out-there fare like “I Gotta Find Me Somethin’,” where Dixieland meets the Andrews Sisters. The second half of the disc has one or two too many confessional ballads for my taste, but I think that’s just because the rockers make me want a couple more rockers.
Originally published as “Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Levasseur, The Problems, Lisa Brigantino” at Blogcritics.
Karling, Bound for Nowhere
Karling Abbeygate picks up where she left off, but this time with all original songs. Her new set of 14 pseudo-old-time country numbers are by turns Patsy Cline-style traditional (the excellent “What Another Lovely Day” and “Can’t You See I’ve Fallen”), rockabilly (“Dig Baby Dig!”), loopy “Crazy Mable” (sic), and even touched by disparate styles like Dixieland and carnivalia.
Working with two different studio bands, one with traditional country-western instrumentation and the other featuring Micah Hulscher’s aggressive organ playing, Karling covers a variety of bases with a single steady, one-of-a-kind stride, even if that stride may at times seem to have issued from the Ministry of Silly Walks. Her unusual vocal delivery sometimes feels more Asian than plantation, a kind of kewpie-doll belt that serves some songs better than others but is certainly fearless.
Other highlights include the torchy, tinkling ballad “The Valley,” the bouncy “Right Side,” and the sad and peculiar “Take This Take This.” And some songs, like “Back in My Baby’s Arms,” really sound like they could have been written in the 1920s.
Trevor Alguire, Now Before Us
The Canadian country singer-songwriter is back with a strong follow-up to his fine Thirty Year Run. Many of these songs are very traditional-sounding, but Alguire uses country’s typical sounds and song structures forthrightly, without pretense or self-consciousness, and the songs roll easily into your brain on the magic carpet of his honeyed baritone. “Are You Ready” evokes the cycle of life and announces we’re deep in the roots of where all words and music come from: “Are you ready…for your life to come full circle/And never be the same again?”
There are just enough surprises—like the time change in “Back Roads,” the warm bluegrass two-beat of “Pen a Man Down”, and the hollow Neil Young rawness of the spacious “Ditch by the Road”—to make the almost too-nice arrangements of the most traditional country-western songs welcome. In “Weeping Willow” he shows he can rock; Steve Marriner brightens up the already energetic “Hands Full of Flowers” with his barrelhouse piano tinklings; and a pretty duet with Kelly Prescott closes the proceedings. Not every song is thoroughly memorable, but Now Before Us is a great-sounding all-around good show.
John McVey, Unpredictable
The best of John McVey’s soulful pop suggests the spirit of Joe Cocker and Marc Broussard. Gentle ballads and midtempo country-rockers give way now and then to an acoustic softie like the title track and a bit of gentle Sting-like funk as in “The Con Man’s Easy Chair.” There’s nothing much unpredictable about the easygoing, accessible tracks that make up Unpredictable—with the exception of some unexpectedly literate lyrics.
McVey’s creativity does seem to peter out on the second half of the disc. The a capella closer, “Lay Your Burden Down,” aspires to break out of predictability, but his lead vocals here give way to an occasional tendency to get too careful and lose spirit. Overall, though, all you’ll need are a modest tolerance for the sentimental and a willingness to shed your ironic shell in order to enjoy the best of this spacious, well-crafted music.
Originally published as “Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Karling, Alguire, McVey” on Blogcritics.
Putumayo steps away from its customary flow of regional and stylistic compilations to give us a tribute to the music of one man, the great reggae progenitor Bob Marley. A number of the twelve tracks were recorded specifically for this disc. But it opens strongly with something that already existed: Three Plus's convincing "Jahwaiian" fusion version of "Is This Love." And it remains in Hawaii for singer Robi Kahakalau's cool, smooth take on the seldom heard "Do It Twice."
The California band Rebelution delivers "Natural Mystic" with an authentic beat and evocative echoey sounds but uninspired vocals. And thin-voiced French-Canadian singer Caracol disappoints on "Could You Be Loved"—maybe it's a style I just don't get, but she sounds to me like a half-baked Nelly Furtado. More surprisingly, Céu too comes off strangely listless in "Concrete Jungle."
Things pick up with Rocky Dawuni's West African/island fusion sounds, and even more so when Freshlyground bangs out their bright, driving version of the anthem "Africa Unite," really making the song their own. And ultimately, the disc turns out to be a pretty good demonstration of how different styles can be bent and blended to adapt Marley's hypnotic, singable, danceable songs, which are so closely identified with his own voice and sensibility. Northern Lights applies a dense American folk feel to "Waiting in Vain," Julie Crochetière's languid, sexy "Mellow Mood" has a vaguely European flair, and Funkadesi's tricky rhythms and Indian/island stew form a unique style, though it didn't totally grab me here.
The CD closes with two solid tracks. "No Woman No Cry," from the collective called Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars, gets to the heart of Marley's "we're all one" message. Playing for Change is a truly international collective that unites stars like Keb' Mo' with street musicians from all over the world. Their "One Love" makes for a beautiful good-night, a "We Are the World" without the showboating and hype. Good feelings all around. That's the spirit of this uneven but overall quite worthwhile disc.
Originally published as “Music Review: Putumayo Presents Tribute to a Reggae Legend” on Blogcritics.
When Neil Young and Crazy Horse played at Jones Beach some years ago on the Horde Tour — it appears to have been 1997, as I am reminded by one of the countless concert posters reproduced in this new book — the "Dreamin' Man" was more of a "Complainin' Man." And what was he complaining about? Us. We, the audience, weren't appreciating the music enough, or so Neil thought.
I was having a fine time at what seemed to me a great concert. I'd never seen this god of rock live before and boy was I impressed. But what did I know?
Daniel Durchhortz and Gary Graff open their new illustrated history, Neil Young: Long May You Run, with a similar anecdote from 1983. Young was expected to play a second set with the Shocking Pinks, the rockabilly group he'd recently put together. Instead he played two acoustic numbers and called it a night, later explaining to his father, "That crowd didn't deserve the Shocking Pinks!"
A betrayal of the performer-audience contract? Conventionally speaking, yes — the artist is supposed to give his all for the crowd, do the best he can, that's what he's paid for. But Neil Young has never been a conventional artist, as the authors concisely document in their new book. "Neil Young does not explain," they write. "He simply does."
As a biography, the book is brief and breezy (yet occasionally repetitive). It gives an outline of the life (so far) of Neil Young, rocker, with glimpses of Neil Young, family man and human being. It's written well, and well-organized — chronologically, but with sidebars on particular topics, including interesting stuff like the history of CSNY and the making of "Ohio," and less fascinating material like Young's female collaborators and his relationahip with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Sprinkled throughout are quotes from a pantheon of famous rockers, most of whom aren't very articulate about why Neil was important to them — but then, what makes Neil Young a crucial and unique figure is something that goes a bit deeper than words. One thing the book does stress is his unwillingness to compromise or to repeat himself, traits which really do make him unique.
Of course, no book can convey the sounds that made Neil Young the icon he remains today. But this one does an excellent job of documenting his career visually, and it will probably be an essential buy for any Neil Young completist. It will also make a nice addition to the bookshelf or coffee table of anyone who appreciates the great innovators of rock and roll.
In terms of what the book bills itself as — "The Illustrated History" — it delivers, housing a treasure trove of color photos and reproductions of posters, LP and single covers (including many international rarities), even tickets and backstage passes. In the back it offers an extensive discography, a filmography, and information about Young's most important sidemen.
Best for browsing through and absorbing its plethora of images, it's also readable. Hard to ask for much more in this kind of book.
Originally published as “Book Review: Neil Young: Long May You Run by Daniel Durchhortz and Gary Graff” on Blogcritics.
The string quintet version of the chamber group behind The Dido Project made its Brooklyn debut last night with a flourish. Bassist Louis Levitt worried aloud whether the group was "cool enough" to play Brooklyn, but these young boundary-challenging musicians' lack of hipster attitude is as refreshing as their playing is acute.
With technique that approached impeccable, the five members of Sybarite5 showed off their love and mastery of a variety of 20th century music (and beyond), from Barber and Piazzolla to Led Zeppelin and Radiohead. The best moments, though, came in the new works crafted specifically for this type of group. Jazzy percussiveness met minimalism in Piotr Szewczyk's "The Rebel" to start things off; then the evening really took off with a piece written for the ensemble, "Black Bend" by Dan Visconti. It started modernistically, showing off violinist Sarah Whitney's ability to draw emotion out of squeaks and clawing sounds, then morphed into a blues shuffle underlying coruscating near-chaos punctuated with dabs of humor. This was one of a number of passages during the concert in which the quintet pulled from its strings the coming-from-everywhere sound of a larger group.
Thomas Osborne's "Furioso: Vendetta for String Quintet" had a very different feel but a similar aliveness. Frantic, syncopated sixteenth-note stretches and chromatic frenzies were relieved by brief lyrical passages. A miasma of dissonant tone clusters slowed to a contemplative hum; then the piece built back up to a reprise of the opening gallop before lapsing back for an unexpectedly somber ending. Really good stuff.
As for the familiar pieces: Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" become one of the 20th century's greatest hits for good reason—its dark, wrenching beauty—but by the same token it tends to be overplayed. Sybarite5 made a good case for its continued inclusion in the concert repertoire, turning off the microphones and playing a rich, thoughtful rendition built around cellist Laura Metcalf's sensitive, melodic touch. Continuing to survey the last century's greatest hits from various genres, they ventured a dense, energetic and finally delightful arrangement of Dave Brubeck's equally overplayed "Blue Rondo a la Turk," and a multi-layered version of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven."
The harmonically complex, suite-like "Stairway" lends itself well to the "classical" treatment, but not all rock is equal. Zeppelin's riff-based "Heartbreaker" seemed gimmicky by contrast, despite Whitney's vivacious reproduction of Jimmy Page's famous out-of-time solo.
The group has also devoted a good deal of energy to its Radiohead project. Last night they played three selections by the experimental rockers, arranged smartly by Paul Sanho Kim. Some of this music, though, is too repetitious and self-consciously cerebral to really succeed at this level; dependent as they are on atmosphere, Radiohead's songs are difficult to make effective out of context. "Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box" was fun, though, with the musicians evoking the rhythms of the original through tapping on strings with spoons and other unorthodox techniques.
Sami Merdinian, the group's other violinist, hails from Argentina, and appropriately enough he led them in two crowd-pleasing Ástor Piazzolla tangos, one slow and one sprightly. Both swung heartily and showcased the ensemble's rich tones and impressively synchronized playing.
If you're looking for a worthy successor to the Kronos Quartet as a small string ensemble pushing the envelope of concert music, count this exciting gang of five as one excellent candidate.
Originally published as “Sybarite5 at Galapagos Art Space, Brooklyn NY” on Blogcritics.
Anaïs Mitchell, Hadestown: A Folk Opera
There's a good measure of well-made, melodic creep-folk on this concept album, and the alternately sprightly and moody production by Todd Sickafoose shows it to advantage. But the concept is stretched too thin; there's not enough here to justify the production's length of nearly an hour (at least not on disc; it's based on a live show which no doubt benefitted from visuals).
With the sturdy help of guests like Ani DiFranco, Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, and the fiesty Ben Knox Miller of The Low Anthem (along with the painfully tired-sounding Greg Brown, who is less effective), Mitchell winds her way through a retelling of the Orpheus myth, and the album is worth getting hold of for its best numbers, which are very good indeed, like "Wedding Song," "Way Down Hadestown," the irresistible "When the Chips Are Down," and the intense "Why We Build the Wall," in which Brown's weathered voice is nicely balanced by glowing group response vocals.
Kate Tucker, White Horses
Kate Tucker's airy vocals drift on warm beds of arpeggiated guitars and gently throbbing organ, all with plenty of reverb. With a touch of the prettified honesty of Sara McLachlan, a measure of the insistent glitter of Blondie, a tiny touch of twang, and a backbone of plainspoken, often drony mid-tempo songs, this is a nice disc for a hazy summer evening. There's nothing original here, but it has what's more important: a soulful sincerity that melds just right with its pensive sound.
Mark Bates, Down the Narrow
Call it Americana for lack of a better word; what Mark Bates makes is slow-rolling, emotional, but light-footed roots music a la The Band. The spare, tight arrangements keep the focus where it belongs: on Bates' gripping songs, from the easy piano-pop of "Clean Through" and the jaunty Dixieland shuffle of "Death Sucks" to the ghostly sigh of "Go On" and the weary cover of Townes Van Zandt's "Flyin' Shoes."
The keening minor-key wail of "Forbidden Love" contrasts with the funny blues of "Daisy": "We got a son, his name is Neville / He's got red hair, looks like the Devil / He's rotten to the core, how can you blame him / His mother's a whore." (Trust me, it's funny, not bitter.) The intense "Forbidden Love" and the aching "A Drunkard's Holiday" are two more highlights.
The humorous situations of some of the songs, like "Daisy," perk up the slow overall pace. I highly recommend this disc for those who appreciate good songs and don't need to be hit over the head with loud hammers and frantic tempos.
Butch Walker & the Black Widows, I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart
Hearing a few tracks off this disc is what got me to go to Butch Walker's recent show at Webster Hall. (Well, to be honest, so did his straight-up, excellent cover of Taylor Swift's "You Belong With Me," which is not included, but which you can hear here.) Now, listening the whole disc, I am not disappointed. Walker has assimilated just about every kind of rock, pop, and roots music into his repertoire of original, accessible, perfectly constructed tunes. The album is a joyous celebration of music—the craft of making it, and the somatic, emotional, and cultural connections that come of doing it really well.
Originally published as “Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Mitchell, Tucker, Bates, Walker” on Blogcritics.
Excuse me, but…Sarah Jane Everman? Not Kristin Chenoweth? That's right, the understudy was filling in for the star at the performance I saw. Chenoweth didn't receive the greatest reviews for this production, and now, having seen the show, I can understand why: the role of Fran Kubelik simply isn't the kind of dazzling one that best plays to her "LOOK-AT-ME!!!" strengths. But this thoroughly enjoyable revival doesn't need her.
The sweet-voiced and comically gifted Everman filled in quite ably. But really the show belongs to its main character, Chuck, played with elastic vivacity by the brilliant Sean Hayes, who though best known for TV's Will and Grace turns out to have boundless stage energy and a very nice singing voice to boot. And a big chunk of the second act is blown up to bursting by the hilarious Katie Finneran as Marge MacDougall, the inebriated sexpot Chuck meets in a bar after things have really spiraled down for him.
With Burt Bacharach's spirited, lightly eccentric music, lyrics by Hal David, and Neil Simon's smart book, the show is based on the 1960 film The Apartment. Chuck, a hapless but vaguely ambitious accountant, climbs the corporate ladder by allowing the married, middle-aged executives at his company to use his bachelor pad for illicit trysts. He's good-hearted but severely flawed, which is what gives the show much of its bite. The production manages to be both supremely cynical and humorously high-stepping, with a happy ending that only slightly relieves the story's sour attitude towards love and especially marriage.
The show was first staged over 40 years ago, and director-choreographer Rob Ashford has left many anachronisms intact: "Good thing I have 'hospitalization,'" says Chuck's neighbor, the old GP Dr. Dreyfuss (played with easy charm by veteran Dick Latessa). But it resonates almost as much with the recent, dystopian Adding Machine as with the Go-Go Era's glittery sheen. Without any great depth of emotion, the story mostly keeps us at arm's length, but the production compensates with witty dialogue, engaging music, fabulous choreography, and magnificent production values. I haven't seen such impressive moving sets since my last visit to the Metropolitan Opera: a huge, Christmas-decorated spiral staircase appears seemingly out of nowhere; a fully stocked bar, an elevator, Chuck's cozy apartment, various offices, all rotate smoothly in and out. Hayes' funny business with a piece of too-modern-for-its-own-good furniture and the opening number's office-chair dance extravaganza are just a couple of the show's physical highlights.
Because the part of Fran is relatively small, a couple of numbers were added for the revival to give Chenoweth more spotlight time, including the Bacharach-David hit "I Say a Little Prayer." Though sweetly staged, it feels shoehorned in. "A House is Not a Home" works better, reflecting the psychic homelessness that afflicts both Chuck and Fran. (Fans of TV's Glee heard Chenoweth dueting the song with Matthew Morrison a couple of weeks ago.)
But what you'll probably exit singing is "I'll Never Fall in Love Again," which was part of the original score. Prior to seeing the show I could have easily done without ever hearing that song again, it was so overplayed during my childhood. But it's a fitting, tuneful sum-up of this big, rather acidic show. With or without Kristin Chenoweth, Promises, Promises at the Broadway Theatre is a winner.
Originally published as “Theater Review (NYC): Promises, Promises with Sean Hayes and Sarah Jane Everman” on Blogcritics.
Part 1 and Part 2 of my series “Two Weeks in Greece” about our recent trip are available for your reading pleasure over at Blogcritics, along with a review of a Butch Walker concert (and I don’t go to too many rock concerts any more, so get it while it’s hot).
The Stoa of Attalos at the Ancient Agora, Athens. Photo by me.
David Olney's been knocking around since the '70s; the difference is that now there's a comfortable label to apply to his alternately scrappy and lyrical sound. "Americana" was invented for this kind of stuff. His wizened baritone can rock ("Train Wreck") and soothe ("Red Tail Hawk"): "Where my legs go/I will follow/Where the wind blows/I don't care/As long as I know/That you love me/Wherever I go/You'll be there." Simple tiles like this build colorful mosaics of hard-earned knowledge transformed into art that's solemn, celebratory, and sometime playful too, as in the '50s-rock-style "Little Sparrow," about—unexpectedly—Edith Piaf.
Olney sounds tired in some of the songs, his voice pulling away; one wonders if it's done on purpose to draw the listener in. The laid-back sound certainly pays off in "I've Got a Lot On My Mind," where a besotted "lazy so-and-so" explodes into an exuberant scat—all he can produce in light of the "beauty and the power and the danger" of his inamorata.
By contrast, in the gently rolling "Mister Vermeer," contemplating an image of "Girl with a Pearl Earring" inspires the singer to verbalize: "I could rule the world/If that look were meant for me." He talks the verses, Townes Van Zandt-style, as if no melody could match the beauty of the painted image, as perhaps none can. Together with the sweetest song about an armed train robbery that's probably ever been conceived, "Covington Girl," it forms the warm nucleus of this 13-song disc.
Highlights of the second half include the bluesy grumble "Way Down Deep," with its braying horns and melodic echo of the Beatles' "Helter Skelter"; Olney's droopy, roughened take on the Flamingos' undying "I Only Have Eyes for You"; and the homey, comely love song that closes the CD. But pretty much every track here has its charms. Olney and his main co-writer, John Hadley, have felt-tipped a subtle new entry into the Great American/Americana Songbook.
I learned quite a bit from seeing Hamlet, by French composer Ambroise Thomas.
The Met hadn't staged this opera for 113 years. Critics in the English-speaking world apparently hadn't been able to deal with the fact that it wasn't Shakespeare's play. With less death, a drinking song, and originally a "happy ending"—and a revised one that feels like Romeo and Juliet superimposed onto Hamlet—it certainly isn't.
What it is: a fine example of 19th century Parisian grand opera, with much beautiful music. In scene after scene, lovely lyrical arabesques lead into macabre and dramatic passages, all here brightly rendered by the impeccable Met orchestra under the swiftly paced direction of Louis Langrée. The Hamlet story, much of the essence of which is retained, turns out to be excellent material for this sort of music, which while it may not be absolutely the most divine opera music ever written, has many virtues that are showcased extremely well in this production.
The slinky clarinet (or what I thought was a clarinet) solo accompanying the first part of the "Murder of Gonzago" scene, which sounded remarkably like a saxophone, turned out to be—a saxophone! Apparently Thomas felt the newly invented instrument was perfect for the leering pantomime with which Hamlet endeavors to catch the conscience of the king. The play-within-a-play scene was the climax of the production—funny and spectacular.
Simon Keenlyside, in the title role, lived up to his hype. The charismatic British baritone slips into Hamlet like he's played the role all his life. Slumping, drinking, raging, he positively seethes with the moral paralysis at the center of the story, his voice fluting between passion and control. In the Hamlet-Gertrude scene he addresses his mother repeatedly, bitingly, as "Madame," then softly and sadly as "ma mère"—just one example of the way Thomas's music effectively conveys the characters' psychology; and with a singer whose acting skills match the high standards of his singing, the creators' skills are effectively highlighted—both Thomas's music and the affecting libretto, by Michel Carré and Jules Barbier, who were also responsible for the books of much better known operas like Gounod's Faust and Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann.
However, Marlis Petersen as Ophélie nearly stole the show, first in her early love scene with Hamlet and especially in her long, showstopping solo mad scene, which is so over-the-top I started to laugh even while appreciating her liquid tone and wonderful passagework. I'd heard about her last-minute casting, replacing the ill Natalie Dessay with only three days to prepare, but you'd never guess Ms. Petersen hadn't been on tour with the show all along (it originated in Switzerland, at the Grand Théâtre de Gèneve). She was absolutely delightful.
The intense Jennifer Larmore's grave, dark tones suited the role of Gertrude well, and tenor Toby Spence did a nice job as Laërte. In fact the entire cast was strong, right down to the gravediggers.
Hamlet runs for two more performances, April 5 and April 9, at the Metropolitan Opera.
Photo of Marlis Petersen by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.
My sojourn in Boston has given me, not for the first time, the opportunity to see a show that was well-received in a major New York production that I missed. So, while I can't compare Speakeasy's production of Adding Machine: A Musical to the multi-award-winning New York version, I can say that it's a demanding, rewarding, complex, beautiful piece of work. It's graced with a marvelous cast and a rich depth of talent, from the musicians and costumes to the lighting and sound and everything in between.
Basing their work on Elmer Rice's Expressionist play from 1923, creators Joshua Schmidt and Jason Loewith have accomplished a number of things with Adding Machine: A Musical. One is solving the puzzle of how to put numbers into song with style. Schmidt, a skilled sound designer as well as a composer, sets the tone with the prologue and its precision timing. The cast hammers through a day in the life of a retailer's accounting department circa 1923 with robotic determination but all-too-human frustration.
"In numbers," goes the message, "the mystery of life can be revealed." Full of difficult intervals and polyrhythms, the music crescendos to a nightmarish peak; then, suddenly, all the noise drops away and the focus comes down to two people, a bean-counter and sagging Everyman named Zero (Brendan McNab), and his assistant, the comely but slightly blowsy Daisy.
And then Mr. Zero comes home, where he silently endures the chatter and criticism of his frustrated wife, whose plaint, "I want to go downtown," epitomizes her clotted dissatisfaction with her constricted middle-class life. Amelia Broome delivers the intricately metered quasi-operatic number in spectacular fashion. This is difficult music but she, along with the rest of the cast, makes it look easy throughout. Away from the wife, Zero is relieved: "I dream in figures/They don't ask questions of me." It doesn't hurt that Schmidt and Loewith have crafted Rice's original words into melodies and meters that seem to pulse and rise and fall with the rhythm of thought, even when those thoughts are about the comfort of numbers.
The music doesn't always follow the rhythms of natural speech, however, and that too is fitting. In an Expressionist piece, traditional plot and naturalistic dialogue are often sacrificed so that the characters may express their psychologies more directly, closer to the heart, if less "realistically." And the psychologies of these people are frightfully disturbed. Everything about the production mirrors the psychosocial difficulties of the times, so much like ours, in which "profit is the ultimate goal." New ways of thinking and measuring were replacing the old – symbolized by the adding machine of the title, which, as it happens, is putting Mr. Zero out of a job.
I looked back into history and was surprised to realize that Rice's original play predates both Fritz Lang's classic Expressionist film Metropolis and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, not to mention Sartre's No Exit. Unlike some machine age classics, The Adding Machine has humor, preserved here in a number of scenes, easing the grimness of the tale. But like them, it's no walk in the park. In fact there's not a touch of green anywhere (and no sign of the existence of any children). From the ghastly red and white stripes of the cold opening to the featureless white of the afterlife, nothing has warmth and true meaning, except numbers, which can't love you back. Only in Daisy's blooming name – Daisy Dorothea Devore, in full – is there any promise of life.
But a name isn't enough; brazen violence is the only way Zero can escape his soul-numbing predicament. Two of the other main characters also use extreme measures to break free, including Shrdlu (the intense and golden-voiced John Bambery), a passionate young man Zero meets in prison. A suffocating piety was Shrdlu's own pre-prison prison, and he has thought long and hard about right and wrong, but nothing gets decided here.
On trial for his own crime, Zero cries out in stark melody, "I'm like anyone else/What would you do?" There's no adequate answer, and he gets none. Yet when confronted with something that looks like salvation, and even love, he's overcome by disgust and rejects the existential "freedom" on offer and its embodiment in love in the person of Daisy (the wonderful Liz Hayes, who, incidentally, does a fabulous working-class Barbra Streisand).
In 1984, Orwell's lovers Winston and Julia are doomed by the police state; but Rice's Zero and Daisy get clobbered by Zero's own misguided conscience. In a way it's even more sad. Frustration seems to await no matter what, and in the powerful climactic scene, a lurid assembly line of souls offers, again, no way out.
Somehow, through the magic of theater, this bleak and barren story becomes an astonishingly refreshing and rewarding experience. Beautifully acted and sung, and sensitively directed by Paul Melone, with music brilliantly performed by a band of three led by pianist Steven Bergman, it's a triumph. Don't miss it. It runs through April 10 at the Boston Center for the Arts. Visit the Speakeasy Stage website for tickets, or call the box office at 617-933-8600.
Photos by Mark L. Saperstein.
Fight the Quiet, Let Me In
Having joined the iPod generation, I often lose track of bands' promotional materials, not to mention their physical CDs with those informative inserts (assuming I had them in the first place). There's something to be said for having no preconceived notions, though. As I write this, I know nothing about how Fight the Quiet see themselves. Certainly, slick pop-rock describes them fairly. But did they intend an homage to 1970's arena rock?
If so, they've succeeded, and very well, thanks first to catchy songs and second to high, clear lead vocals (imagine Dennis DeYoung with a slight scratchy edge). The first song on this six-track EP, the title track, actually sounds like it could be one of the better efforts of one of those dinosaur bands. The contemplative "Won't Let Go" has a more modern edge, with shimmery verses alternating with power-chord choruses and wedged around a bridge highlighted by a deliberately retro synth.
"Sway" inches towards a moderate punk beat, with a straight-ahead structure and melody that wouldn't have been out of place in the age of T. Rex, though the icy-dirty guitar attack would have, as would the nod to Aerosmith in the bridge and coda. Overall the tracks have a fresh, youthful appeal, whatever decade(s) they take their inspiration from. Solid songwriting is still Number One in this business, and these guys have it. Making a memorable hook out of the tired (though still resonant) phrase "Here's looking at you," as they do in the closing track, is no mean trick.
John Milstead, Sides of the Soul
Here's a well-produced album with solid (if sometimes a little overly derivative) musical ideas, excellent vocals, and one main flaw: weak lyrics. Song after song starts promisingly only to fade under the weight of words that don't flow, and tend to drag down the melodies with them. A couple of songs break out, notably "Your Crime" (the "hardest" track on this ballad-heavy disc) and the decidedly hooky "Got This Love Thing." There and in numerous other tracks one can hear a strong thread of Marc Broussard-like soul. Milstead is capable of jazzy phrasing, like Van Morrison with clearer diction, and owns a strong high tenor that soars into Michael Bolton territory when he wants it to; listening to him sing is an unadulterated pleasure. The ballad "Easy Goodbye," for example, goes down easy for that reason. Raising the level of his material a notch could lift Milstead into pretty exalted territory.
Mark Tolstrup & Dale Haskell, Street Corner Holler
These two bluesmen make an excellent pairing, like a smooth but hearty wine with a comfort-food dinner. Drummer Haskell's country-rock vocals complement Tolstrup's more laid-back country-blues style; together they've produced an album of mostly basic but satisfyingly varied blues, their electric songs and acoustic numbers equally rough and fundamental. The haunting rendition of Skip James's "Hard Time Killin' Floor" is a highlight. Others are Tolstrup's simple folk ballad "City in the Rain," and Haskell's "Death Don't Disappoint Me" which brings to mind the lyrical songs of Beaucoup Blue. In both originals and covers (including an effective and surprising "It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry") Tolstrup and Haskell strike an effective balance between their own expressive creativity and reverence for what made the blues the powerful medium it is, still. Wailing backing vocals from the fabulous Mother Judge are the icing on the cake.
Music Review: Jason & the Scorchers – Halcyon TimesJason & the Scorchers don't have to look back; they've been the genuine article since the early 1980's, and have the Americana Music Association's Lifetime Achievement Award to prove it. Opening with a half-crazed two-step about a "moonshine guy in a six-pack world," their new disc – their first of new material since 1996, hard to believe as that may be – barrels through the glorious clichés of country-rock like they weren't clichés at all.
Backed by a crack new rhythm section, founding Scorchers Jason Ringenberg and Warner E. Hodges pile layer upon layer of American dreams and nightmares. The wonderful "Beat on the Mountain" speaks of striking miners: "I beat on the mountain/but the mountain don't say a thing." "Mona Lee" hollers like an army of Chuck Berrys, and the band's sense of humor shines in "Fear Not Gear Rot" with its exaggerated freight-train twang and playful lyrics. "Mother of Greed" tangily evokes the immigrant experience and its resonance in later generations.
A spirit of fun and celebration runs through the record despite the presence of such serious themes, even in the epic "Land of the Free" with its portentous beat and clanging guitars and Vietnam War tale. Propped up by killer guitar licks, it's a mini-symphony of rock and roll goodness.
The atmospheric "Twang Town Blues" evokes busted dreams and Music City viciousness, while "Days of Wine and Roses" feels a little like countrified Springsteen meets the Byrds, with a steely midtempo beat and hard-pulled guitar strings. In the hard-driving southern rock number "Better Than This" a superb hook tops off a ropy chromatic guitar riff; if it had come out in the late 1970's the song would be a classic rock hit today. "It gets good but it don't get better than this." So true.
Dan Baird provides guest vocals on the stripped-down country number "When Did It Get So Easy (To Lie to Me)." Hard to say just how or when it got that way – where the magic comes from, that is – but Jason & the Scorchers make everything sound easy on this scorcher of a disc, even making a good go of youthfully snotty country-punk in the final track.
Here's a video of the band performing "Mona Lee" live.
Music Review: Boston Early Music Festival Concert—”The Golden Age of the Viola da Gamba and the Lute”Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010
The Boston Early Music Festival has been bringing distinguished performers of early music to Boston audiences for two decades. It also presents Baroque operas, exhibitions, and a well-regarded concert series at the Morgan Library in New York.
A highlight of BEMF's 20th anniversary season was Friday night's concert at the First Church in Cambridge, Congregational, by viola da gamba player Vittorio Ghielmi and lutenist Luca Pianca. The duo have played together for over ten years, and their familiarity with each other and their repertoire makes their playing together quite special; each is a masterful musician on his own, but together they seem to breathe as one organism.
It was a formal event, compared to many of the more freewheeling early music concerts I see in New York, more like a classical chamber music recital than a foot-stomping affair—this despite the relative youth of the audience. (In New York my wife and I, in our forties, are often just about the youngest people there; not so in Cambridge.) Nevertheless Mssrs. Ghielmi and Pianca played with a youthful, if somewhat restrained, brio.
Titled "The Golden Age of the Viola da Gamba and the Lute," the concert traced in more or less chronological order some of the best of the repertoire for these two instruments together and separately, a repertoire which went further into the 18th century than I knew. It opened with probably the most familiar selections, a set of "picture" pieces by French composer Marin Marais. Many people were introduced to this composer and his uncannily beautiful gamba music when Gérard Depardieu played Marais in the 1991 film Tous Les Matins Du Monde (All the Mornings of the World) with its extremely popular soundtrack. Mr. Ghielmi's fancy fretwork on the viol during "La Saillie du Caffeé" ("The Issue of the Coffee") impressed, as did the duo's sensitive, limpid rendering of the famous "Rêveuse" (dreamer); in their take, the spaces meant as much as the notes.
Mr. Pianca then played a set of three very old pieces by Jacques Gallot, opening with "The Comet." He introduced this imagistic chaconne by demonstrating how the composer depicts the fuzzy tail of the comet, then its bright fiery head, by means of an initial dissonant chord, with modern-sounding intervals, moving in increments towards a simple major triad. The set closed with a lovely, dense little "Gigue."
The chronology resumed with four duo pieces by Antoine Forqueray, representing "Le Diable" in opposition to Marais's "L'Ange." In the head-spinning "La Girouette" ("The Wind Vane") Mr. Ghielmi's left hand darted about the fretboard like a spider; in "Le Carillon du Passy" ("The Bells of Passy") ringing bass notes from the viol helped evoke the bells.
The second half of the concert opened with "Partita for Lute" by Silvius Leopold Weiss, an exact contemporary of J. S. Bach whom the latter is said to have admired; it was easy to see why, though one might wonder how closely Mr. Pianca's conversational expressiveness resembled 18th century performance style. The emotional precision of this music, conveyed here to maximum advantage by the celestial tones of Mr. Pianca's lute work, indeed suggests some of the genius of Bach. The somber "Sarabanda" made a beautiful focal point.
Mr. Ghielmi's turn consisted of two manuscript pieces for solo gamba by Carl Friedrich Abel. These had a highly improvisational quality, and Mr. Ghielmi took the rhythms so loosely, especially in the Adagio, as to make time signature seem almost irrelevant; at the center of that piece, harmony too seemed unneeded, as a long swelling single note swayed into a dissonant flatted-second "chord" in a long moment of hushed emotion.
Finally, a Sonata by Andreas Lidl had an early classical flavor, with straightforward themes and development, cantabile and Haydn-like (Lidl was at the Esterházy court with Haydn prior to settling in London). The age of the gamba and the lute was coming to a close, but it overlapped with the early classical age. Exactly what do we mean by "early music?" Pre-Mozart and Haydn? Does this work by Lidl count even though it's in a classical "sonata" form, simply because it's written for "old-fashioned" instruments? Probably not. What defines "early" rock and roll, one might just as well ask—is it the use of the acoustic bass? The short haircuts? Such definitions must be to some degree arbitrary, as this accomplished duo demonstrated in this fine program.