Archive for February, 2007

Theater Review: Sweet Bird of Youth by Tennessee Williams

Monday, February 26th, 2007

There’s no law that says a small space can’t hold a big production, and Terry Schreiber’s revival of Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth thinks big. It has to, to accommodate the play’s large themes, outsize characters, and grand poetic speeches, all vintage Williams.

Drifter Chance Wayne returns to his Southern home town intending to reclaim his one true love, Heavenly Finley, who happens to be the daughter of the corrupt, bigoted local political boss. Chance’s secret weapon is aging actress Alexandra del Lago, who, believing she has blown her last comeback attempt, has “disguised” herself as the “Princess Kosmonopolis” and adopted Chance as caretaker/gigolo. He hopes to use her connections to further his own failed acting career and bring his true love with him. The South’s last stand against federally enforced desegregation is the backdrop. Violence occurs both on and offstage, both physical and psychic.

Get the feeling the story doesn’t end well?

Yes, the play is a tragedy, at least for most of the characters. Though quite funny in places, it moves slowly, like a stately pageant, through three acts and three-plus hours – a rich story with big, exaggerated personalities. Paul Newman and Geraldine Page created the roles of Chance and the Princess in the original 1959 Broadway production, and starred in the 1961 movie. Irene Worth won a Tony in the latter role in a 1975 revival, which also starred Christopher Walken. Schreiber doesn’t have the big names at his disposal that Elia Kazan and Edwin Sherin did, and not surprisingly, this production’s most significant strengths and weaknesses both lie in its casting.

Sweet Bird of Youth 2

The role of the half-crazed Princess is gloriously larger-than-life, and Joanna Bayless, more than up to the challenge, knocks it out of the park. Whether outmaneuvering Chance in a prolonged battle of wills, hyperventilating in what would today be called a severe anxiety attack, or suffering an embarrassing public collapse, she takes complete command of her every scene. Bayless bares the humanity behind the haughtiness, simultaneously embodying proud grande dame and lost, sick soul.

As Chance, Eric Watson Williams seems lost too, but not in a good way. Though he looks the part, he doesn’t come off as the charming, virile scoundrel he’s supposed to be. He seems stiff, sure of his lines but uncertain of his rhythm (and his Southern accent). As a result we find Chance hard to sympathize with – he should be a complex character, a cynical dreamer, but he lacks focus. Only in his almost wordless final scene does he come fully to life. Then we glimpse the depths to which Chance Wayne’s peripatetic life has really taken him.

Sweet Bird of Youth 1

David Donahoe as Boss Finley dominates his scenes as effectively as Bayless does hers. Cocksure, hypocritical, spitting mad, fiercely protective of his daughter’s honor even while using her for political gain, the stalwart separatist seems as real as a lynch-post. Timothy Weinert also does good work as Finley’s fiery son, while Shelley Virginia is the picture of tragedy as the ruined Heavenly. Andrea Jackson makes a swaggering Miss Lucy, and Jack Drucker and Margo Goodman do well with important small roles. Effective lighting and sets, and dreamy, if somewhat repetitive, jazz music add to the drowsy backwater atmosphere established by the calculatedly lazy pace Schreiber sets. Though not the very best of Tennessee Williams, it’s a powerful piece that just needs some more power at its center.

Through March 18 at the T. Schreiber Studio in New York City. Tickets at Theatermania or call (212) 352-3101.

Theater Review: The Girl Detective

Saturday, February 24th, 2007

Reading “The Girl Detective,” a celebrated short story by Nebula and World Fantasy Award winner Kelly Link, one might see potential for either a wonderful or a terrible stage adaptation. Although full of surprising imagery in motion, with fantastic settings, colorful characters, dancing language and dancing people, the story ultimately succeeds because of the author’s narrative voice.

That unique slant or sheen is important in any kind of prose but absolutely essential to a short story. Link’s tale, like the best fairy stories ancient or modern, casts an unbroken word-spell. It’s an experimental, unconventionally plotted story that hangs together on the strength of a narrative voice that says things like this: “Someone else is dreaming about the house they lived in as a child. The girl detective breaks off a bit of their house. It pools in her mouth like honey.” Can that cool style translate to a setting where the narration and dialogue are split among a big cast of actors, and an audience must be engaged?

The answer, happily, is yes. Thanks to crisp direction, winning performances by a talented cast, and above all, brilliant choreography, the Ateh Theater Group’s production, at the beautiful Connelly Theater in Manhattan’s East Village, is a pleasure.

Adhering closely to the text of the story, the show starts off in chilly fashion. In fact, one fears one is in for an evening of stiff, postmodern conceptualizing, as the cast pops in and out delivering lines like they’re hot potatoes. It might have been opening night jitters, or simply the viewer needing to adjust to the disjointed rhythm of a non-traditional narrative – probably a bit of both. Then, a few minutes in, the tap-dancing bank robbers breeze on stage.

Led by Birthday (the buoyant Alexis Grausz, who has the makings of a Broadway star), the dancers set the humorous and playful tone that infuse the rest of the story even in its more somber moments. Show and audience find their rhythm and suddenly warm up. The game is afoot.

The plot, such as it is, has to do with the title character – played with regal innocence by the tall, spectral Kathryn Ekblad – searching for her missing mother while trailed by the nameless narrator (Ben Wood). He’s a combination of stalker ex-boyfriend, wood nymph, and Ariel from The Tempest. The two are only marginally “leads,” though, in a production driven by crisp pacing, divine dancing, and an ensemble of actors (who clearly love working together) making the most of their in-and-out parts. With clever lighting and a few props the stage becomes, alternately, the Girl Detective’s neighborhood, her house, a Chinese restaurant, and the clubby Underworld, which is more Folies Bergère than Hades. But the show-stopper is a scene in which our heroine, who “eats dreams” (instead of food), darts among a mass of many people’s dreams come to life. It’s real theater magic.

What all of it means is open to interpretation, but by sticking closely to the original text the director, Bridgette Dunlap, has preserved the story’s tone. Link’s tale also has many layers, which, for the most part, also survive the transition. Is an explicit telling of the Persephone and Demeter myth – implicit in the original story – necessary? Does it have to be pointed out on stage that in fairy and fantasy tales, child heroes almost always lack at least one parent? Unclear. But in an adult show that also has kid appeal, some amount of explanation may be a plus. Certainly, the wonderful dancing and funny stage business help make the show a pleasure for all ages, in spite of the “mature themes” warning on the poster. This reviewer’s inner child, for one, was as amused as his critical brain was tickled.

Through March 17 at the Connelly Theater in New York. Call 212-352-3101 for tickets or get them online.

Music Review: JJ Grey and Mofro, Country Ghetto

Thursday, February 22nd, 2007

Mofro’s sizzling new CD – their first on Alligator Records – goes deep-fried with a panful of swampy blues and Stax-Volt soul. JJ Grey’s direct, concise songwriting has sharpened, while the band’s incantatory live shows translate better to disc here than on past recordings. The triumphant result strengthens Mofro’s position as the most important rock force to come out of the deep South in a while – maybe since Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

Many bands think they can make magical songs out of repetitive grooves; few can. But Mofro comes out swinging with the midtempo rocker “War.” Muscling through any and all distractions with its borrowed 1960s sounds, it pounds out a twenty-first century message: “There’s a war going on/And the ones about to die are safe at home/There’s a war going on/And the world stops feeling now.” Grey doesn’t have to preach about the destruction of the environment and the degradation of a people’s soul, however much those issues may weigh on him. It’s all there in a plain image and a single insistent riff.

The intensity actually mounts with a shift to a more personal theme in the deliberately paced “Circles.” Pushed along by Grey’s rolling electric piano, the song builds to a chorus that hangs on one desperately tense, off-rhythm, one-note melody: “There’s no way I can change the past or your pain/I don’t want to fight walking in circles.” The bitter narrator of the title track doesn’t want any handouts or “Hollywood words”; “The only voice that speaks for me speaks from this clay.” And the slow-building, persistent guitar and harmonica almost sound like clay.

The delusional, drug-addled figure in “Tragic” (“Are those FBI agents still hiding in his pine trees?”) isn’t so different from the protagonist of “By My Side,” where Grey uses his most powerfully soulful singing to declare humbly, “Now you know just how feeble/and how weak a man can be.” The slow, tribal-sounding “On Palastine” – about rapacious, early twentieth century timber barons – evokes a violent past with place names and earthen imagery, musically akin to Peter Matthiessen’s Florida novels. The mostly instrumental “Footsteps” is like a lost Doors jam with shades of Fleetwood Mac.

The blues-rock caterwaul of “Turpentine” takes you “deep in the piney woods” both in its lyrics and its oppressive rhythm, and then, just when you’re starting to think that Grey and Co. might have milked all they can out of simple grooves, along comes a complete change of pace, a soul ballad about love called “A Woman.” (Grey wrote it for Cassandra Wilson but she didn’t record it.) Then Grey shows off his vocal versatility by channeling Dr. John in “Mississippi” and Sam Cooke in “The Sun Is Shining Down.” The latter, characteristically, sets his most optimistic lyrics to slow, somber music that ramps up into a triumphant gospel chorus. In the epilogic “Goodbye” Grey breaks out a melancholy, distant falsetto for an appropriately musing signoff.

Among the excellent musicians who support Grey’s multi-instrumental talents, drummer George Sluppick deserves special mention for his easy, deep-pocketed beats. But JJ Grey is the man of the hour.

Theater Review: Cycle

Saturday, February 17th, 2007

How distant, really, is “classic” modern theater (Pirandello, Beckett, Stoppard) from Vaudeville? In time, not so much. In theme – maybe not so much either. Isn’t it all basically clowning? Who are Pirandello’s six searching characters, who are Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, if not clowns? Aren’t they all shadows of humans, seeking by means of antic dispositions a way through the wall? Pinocchios all, striving, or at least sighing, to be real people?

In Cycle, Rose Courtney’s new, antic play with music, six dislocated vaudevillians need a muse so they can continue to exist. It’s not clear how they choose (or conjure) her, but the exquisitely named Charlotte Shrubsole (played just as exquisitely by the playwright) has one frantic day to find the Secret of Success while bicycling through New York City. Scampering in and out of Charlotte’s adventures, constantly thinking on their feet, the desperate vaudevillians take on various roles: voice coach, talent agent, audition buddy, blind date – trying to shepherd her towards Success, whatever that is. Less fixed characters than representative spirits loaded with character, the six attempt to keep Charlotte’s eyes on the prize without exposing her to their separate world, which would be crossing a kind of fourth wall.


Cycle
Rose Courtney and Michael Leydon Campbell in Cycle.
Photo credit: Martine Malle

The script is so picture-perfect and brightly executed, the music (by veteran accompanist and music director Rachel Kaufman) so seamlessly integrated, you don’t even notice the play as a work of craft. The story’s vagueness presents a small problem. But fortunately, in addition to limpid writing and joyous music, the production abounds in manic energy, precision staging (by director Craig Carlisle and choreographer Laura Sheehy), and on-stage talent.

Michael Leydon Campbell and J.T. Arbogast attack their array of parts with outsize glee, while Krista Braun wears commanding haughtiness like a young Glenn Close. Sarah Hund charms as violin-playing Fran and goes bigger-than-life as Charlotte’s mother. Eric Zuckerman, as the troupe’s Doubting Thomas, does nicely with relatively thankless roles, and the adorable Halley Zien manages with very few words to steal a few very funny scenes. The cast is as adept with quotations from Shakespeare, Chekhov, and medieval morality plays as they are with physical humor and the playwright’s comic banter.

Centering the action, Ms. Courtney spices up her ingenue’s wide-eyed intensity with a tiny dash of Sex and the City knowingness – just enough to make the character come alive without breaking the absurdist integrity of what is really a piece of meta-theater. It doesn’t matter that the show is, on a literal level, one big actors’ in-joke. In a culture where entertainers are both royalty and psychic balm, actors’ in-jokes are everyone’s jokes, just as Shakespeare’s poetry and Chekhov’s prose are everyone’s music.

Through March 3 at the Cherry Lane Theater in New York City. Call (212) 279-4200 or order tickets at TicketCentral.com

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Charlie Louvin, The Soul of John Black, Ted Russell Kamp

Thursday, February 15th, 2007

This week’s round-up includes a couple of CDs that are notable enough to deserve their own articles. First we go way back with country music legend Charlie Louvin. Then we look to the future of the blues with The Soul of John Black. Finally we return to the present state of country music with the multi-talented journeyman musician Ted Russell Kamp. Time travel is our middle name here at the Indie Round-Up!

Charlie Louvin, Charlie Louvin

You can teach new tricks to some old dogs. Johnny Cash and Rod Stewart revitalized their careers by going in unexpected musical directions. Country Music Hall of Famer Charlie Louvin ain’t one of those guys. Louvin, all 79 years old of him, has a new CD out that should please both longtime fans and younger ones, but that’s because of his weathered, fragile, but still expressive voice, and these great old songs. This music goes back to the fifties and sixties, long enough ago that it surpasses nostalgia and becomes educational and – for younger folks, anyway – something like new again. A Louvin Brothers tribute album won two Grammy awards in 2004.

For this project Louvin and producer Mark Nevers re-recorded some tracks from the singer’s early days as half of the Louvin Brothers, like “The Christian Life,” along with some other country chestnuts like “Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea.” Louvin sings the latter – a song Cash also recorded late in life – exquisitely, with harmonies from Bright Eyes’s Alex McManus. In fact every song but one has a guest artist or two, making this yet another “duets” album, but that’s appropriate considering how well known the Louvin Brothers were for their close, gospel-derived harmonies. The simple, traditional arrangements make the CD seem organic, not contrived (as long as we agree not to talk about the silly feedback sounds on “Great Atomic Power.”)

Charlie Louvin

Not all the pairings work equally well. Contributions from Will Oldham and Paul Burch make for sweet listening, but Louvin’s soft, deep, grainy voice makes Tift Merritt and Clem Snide’s Eef Barzalay sound like lightweights, and George Jones sounds weak on “Must You Throw Dirt In My Face.” Dianne Berry contributes angelic harmony vocals, Marty Stuart’s light touch on the mandolin is a joy, and Elvis Costello, who has evidently signed a contract with the Muses guaranteeing him an appearance on every duet or tribute album ever made hereinafter and throughout the Universe, has a surprisingly touching turn on “When I Stop Dreaming.”

Charlie Louvin live

The only new song is a tribute to Louvin’s brother Ira, who died in a car accident in 1965. It’s good to know that Charlie can still summon the magic in the studio even with his weakened voice. On stage, he’s very frail these days, but commands it nonetheless like the old pro he is. You can catch this true living legend on tour this Spring.

The Soul of John Black, The Good Girl Blues

The new CD by The Soul of John Black – the band project of John A. Bigham (Fishbone, Miles Davis, Nikka Costa) – opens with a spectacularly strong statement. “The Hole,” a field-holler-inspired postmodern wail of blues anguish, tells the oldest story ever told:

I went down in the hole to see what I could see
When I got down in the hole, wasn’t nobody but me

Shades of Townes Van Zandt’s song of the same name – but only shades. Lyrically there isn’t much more than the two lines quoted above to the nearly six-minute song, and it doesn’t need any more. A elemental expression of the human condition, “The Hole” speaks of the urge to explore, the need for escape, and man’s essential loneliness. I had to listen to the song three times before I could leave it and go on to the rest of the CD.

The creamy, slow “Moon Blues” follows, and then the darkly erotic “I Got Work”:

I got some work I got to do
And it starts right here with loving you
Anyway you want me, anyway you need
I’m gon’ put in some work, girl, and bring you to your knees

Yes, among other virtues, this CD is nice and dirty. But there’s a good deal more to it than that. Imagine if Lenny Kravitz fully outgrew his fixation with adolescent rockstar posing and listened to nothing but Bob Dylan and Johnnie Taylor for a year – maybe he’d come out with something like this music. (Maybe Lenny has – who knows? I can’t say I’ve been following his career lately.)

“Good Girl” finds J.B. running trance-influenced beats under Chicago-style blues-rock, all swollen with thunderous soul harmonies. The more directly trance-y “Fire Blues” is a good showcase for the buttery Al Green tones in Bigham’s vocals. Neither song has much structure. They’re like the insistent crashing of waves as the tide comes in. “Moanin’,” which is just that – wordless vocalizing, with acoustic guitar accompaniment – makes a very good entr’acte between the five songs that go before it and the five after. (There’s an added short version of “The Hole” at the very end, for radio play I assume.)

The low-cut instrumental “Slipin’ and Slidin’” (sic) smartly mixes acoustic guitar noodling, trance beats and feedback-y effects. “Swamp Thing” has elements of R&B and a suggestion of rap but sounds most of all like an acoustic interpretation of early ZZ Top. “Swamp thing, try to put your thing on me – Not this time.”

The gentle, folksy drug-overdose tale “One Hit” echoes and updates Brewer & Shipley’s classic “One Toke Over The Line” musically and thematically, while “Feelin’s” dresses up Sly Stone funk in a coat of swampy soul, with irresistible results. Finally, “Deez Blues” gives the obligatory nod to Robert Johnson. “Oh Mr. Blues won’t you leave me alone, oh get out of my home.”

Don’t take the assortment of historical references and comparisons above to mean that The Soul of John Black is just a pastiche of styles. Obvious influences and uneven songwriting don’t take away from the force of originality that Bigham is massing here. It’s blues for a new generation, crafted by a mature spirit who is adept at acoustic, electric, and slide guitars as well as soulful singing.

The CD puts Bigham and his crew at the forefront of a small but (one can hope) potent movement that’s bringing blues up to date without sacrificing authenticity. To put it more positively, he’s working towards a truly new sound, solidifying the fragile resonance between today’s machine-tooled talent and the flesh-and-bones musical traditions of the past. Heady stuff, highly recommended.

Available with extended clips at CD Baby.

Ted Russell Kamp, Divisadero

All that time on the road with Shooter Jennings must have given multi-instrumentalist Ted Russell Kamp some mixed feelings about the life of a touring musician. His new CD contains a lot of lyrics about traveling, rootlessness, and the attendant sadness. But the standout track is the opener, a clever, perfectly catchy country-roots song about lost love called “Swinging Doors.”

“The Last Time I Let You Down” is a fine country power ballad, the kind of song someone like Faith Hill might have a big hit with. “So tonight I’ll be drivin’/'Cause I’m past the cryin’/It’s the last time that I’ll let you down.” “Maria” is a pretty love song, while the waltz-ballads “Music Is My Mistress” and “Looking for Someone” draw on the heartache that made Hank Williams so powerful: “A life lived alone, it ain’t no life at all/Like a broken-down van or an unfinished song.”

Kamp’s nasal, weatherbeaten voice isn’t the strongest in the world, but like Steve Earle (and Waylon Jennings, for that matter), he knows how to bring the pathos without getting cloying. Not all the songs are as good as “Swinging Door” or “The Last Time I Let You Down,” but a variety of styles keeps things moving. “Another One Night Stand” and “Better Before You Were Big Time” dip into New Orleans funk (Kamp even plays the brass parts), while “Can’t Go Back” does, in fact, go back – to 1970s soft rock, a la Atlanta Rhythm Section.

Kamp seems to be a modest virtuoso at just about every instrument that uses strings, keys, or air. Shooter Jennings and Jessi Colter make guest appearances, and a number of sidemen contribute, but this strong collection is essentially a one-man show, and in spite of maybe one or two too many songs about being a musician on the road, it’s a fun, well-played trip through the picturesque back roads of American country.

Available with extended clips at CD Baby.

Rock’s Greatest Bass Riffs

Monday, February 12th, 2007

It’s time to give the bass its due.

You may not know this, but your intrepid reviewer is also a bass player, and he’s tired of reading about the greatest guitar riffs of all time. With very few exceptions, rock just wouldn’t be possible without the electric bass. So let’s investigate some of the greatest bass parts of all time. These are lines, or riffs, that made a hit a hit, or that inspired thousands of kids to pick up the instrument, or both.

Here, in chronological order, are my picks for the greatest rock bass riffs of all time.

The Animals, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” (1965)

Bass doesn’t get more fundamental, and fundamentally important, than this. The bass line pretty much defines the song, and the song (along with the band’s famous version of “House of the Rising Sun”) pretty much sums up The Animals. And the Animals pretty much sum up the British Invasion, which in turn inspired the expansion and longevity of rock music worldwide. See where I’m going here? It’s all about the bass.

Cream “Sunshine of Your Love” (1967)

Sure, Clapton doubles this famous part on guitar when he’s not soloing, but really, who needs ‘im? This is Jack Bruce all the way. I was too young to ever see Cream, but when I eventually did see Bruce play live – with Ringo’s All-Stars – I realized that I’d copped more bass tricks from him than anyone else. And speaking of Ringo…

The Beatles, “Come Together” (1969)

Paul McCartney, the father of melodic rock bass playing. ‘Nuff said. Except I’ll note that this song received the 1969 Grammy for best-engineered recording. George Martin and the band were inspired to studio greatness by Paul’s bass part. Obviously.

Jethro Tull/J. S. Bach, “Bourée” (1969)

“Lead bass” came into its own with Tull’s arrangement of this well-known Bach tune. Of all the jazzy “walking” bass lines that have been put in the service of a classical piece played by a blues-based rock band that would go on to win a heavy metal Grammy, this was the finest. And the chordal solo near the end blew my mind when I first heard it.

Sugarloaf, “Green-Eyed Lady” (1970)

Sugarloaf got a couple of other songs on the charts, but only this psychedelic gem had real staying power. Why? The kick-ass bass part, of course. It’s so much fun to play that bass players often kick into it during jam sessions. And thus is the greatness that is this bass line passed down from generation to generation of unsung four-string heroes.

Lou Reed, “Walk on the Wild Side” (1971)

Bass chords: drug-fueled New York City multitasking at its best.

Bob Marley, “Stir It Up” (1972)

The quintessential reggae bass line, this one turned a simple, happy three-chord pop tune into an anthem for the ages that went way beyond the specificities of its national character.

Pink Floyd, “Money” (1973)

Psychedelic bass heaven, in 7/4 time.

Barney Miller theme (1975)

The opening bars of this jazzy number (written by Jack Elliott, who also composed the bass-heavy theme for Night Court) inspired many a fledgling bottom feeder. Thanks to the bass, this TV theme song was hip in an era when TV theme songs usually weren’t.

Fleetwood Mac, “The Chain” (1977)

Sure, classic disco music had a lot of excellent, prominent bass playing, but it wasn’t till decades later that we could look back and admit that disco – the real stuff, played by actual musicians – was pretty damn good. No, for kids growing up in the late seventies it was this haunting anthem that made the bass a full citizen of the musical universe. The exposed bass line at the end, with the drums and electric guitar creeping in over it, symbolized as well as anything the rumbling angst that seemed to define this band’s very existence.

Elvis Costello, “Pump It Up” (1978)

This one did exactly that for many bass players, proving that you could drive a great pop song with a fast, original and extremely active bass line that no one had ever heard before.

The Police, “Walking On the Moon” (1979)

Sure, the song is only pseudo-reggae, but the bass line helped make it an instant classic. All hail the Stingster!

Pete Townshend, “Gonna Get Ya” (1980)

To most bass players who admire him, John Entwhistle is more of a god than an actual influence – and that’s a good thing. It also partly explains why there are no Who songs on this list. (Entwhistle’s famous fills on “My Generation” are a solo, not a riff.) But Pete Townshend makes his mark anyway with the bass-driven jam at the center of this 1980 classic of over-the-top, theatrical, non-syncopated rock, inconceivable without the bass line.

Interregnum: The 1980s. Musically, I missed most of the 80s. In college, in the first half of the decade, my friends and I weren’t listening to the radio, and in any case, Journey, Van Halen and the like didn’t float my boat. Then, in the late 80s, I was too busy learning to play the bass – or something. I really don’t remember. If there are important rock bass parts from the 80s, feel free to fill me in in the comments section below. Just don’t call me late for dinner.

Green Day, “Longview” (1994)

This one inspired a new generation of bass players, and it’s a helluva lot of fun to play even if you can’t quite get Mike Dirnt’s sharp, clangy sound.

Beck, “Devil’s Haircut” (1996)

The fuzzed-out guitar insists on playing along, but the unforgettable four-note bass line is what makes this song a hit. Four strings. Four notes. Kozmic, man. OK, it’s Beck – probably used a synth bass. It’s still cool.

White Stripes, “Seven Nation Army” (2003)

Goofy and raucous, this song had the first unforgettable rock bass line of the twenty-first century – from a band without a bass player. (One other major rock band didn’t have a bass player: the Doors. But that was because Ray Manzarek played organ, including the bass line. Jazz organ trios don’t have bass players either, for the same reason.) Local H was another two-person band that managed without a bottom-ender, but the White Stripes are the only one that became huge. And this bass line is the reason they’re not a flash in the pan.

And there you have it – my non-definitive, incomplete, subjective, but staggeringly brilliant list of great bass parts. Think about how empty and meaningless your favorite music would be without the bass. And never forget the immortal words of Spinal Tap:

Big bottom
Big bottom
Talk about bum cakes
My girl’s got ‘em

See? You gotta have that bottom end.

Want to comment on this article? Go over to Blogcritics, where the discussion has already begun…

Music Review: A Date With John Waters

Friday, February 9th, 2007

Ah, Valentine’s Day. Day of kitsch, day of sentimentality, day of trash. It may be named after two saints, but nowadays it’s a Hallmark “holiday” – an excuse to sell cards, candy and flowers to ardent (or guilt-ridden) lovers, a time for the lonely to feel even worse.

Valentine’s Day is even more important for schoolchildren, as an early lesson in status-seeking, social humiliation, and bitter disappointment. Other holidays seem trivial in comparison: Easter, which teaches children the essential skill of painting eggs; Hanukkah, when Jewish kids learn to lie to their Christian friends about getting “eight presents;” Labor Day, a mysterious Monday off work with distant origins shrouded in myth.

Mostly, though, Valentine’s Day is big business, and specifically the big business of bad taste. For every lady coming home to a nice bunch of roses, ten others are getting garish heart-shaped boxes of awful “chocolate.” For every couple having a romantic dinner at a nice restaurant with white tablecloths, ten others are buying each other cheap, stuffed animals plastered with purple and pink mylar. So who better to spend the day with than the King of Kitsch, the Champion of Trash, the Baron of Bad Taste himself – John Waters?

OK, maybe we can’t actually personally hang with the man. But the new CD A Date With John Waters could be the next best thing. The legendary indie filmmaker (and unlikely Broadway mogul) has compiled a set of favorite love songs, cock-eyed Waters style. It all makes a nutty kind of sense. The CD starts with the vaguely threatening teen-infidelity tale “Tonight You Belong To Me” by Patience and Prudence. It also covers sexually ambiguous (and not-so-ambiguous) territory with Josie Cotton’s timeless novelty tune “Johnny Are You Queer?” and Elton Motello’s delightfully dirty punk-rock classic “Jet Boy Jet Girl” with its unforgettable line, “I’m gonna make you be a girl.”

Clarence “Frogman” Henry’s “Ain’t Got No Home” is, according to Waters, “the first tri-sexual song ever recorded,” and he may be right. Demonstrating that music was kinky before the Fabulous Fifties, Mildred Bailey’s “I’d Love to Take Orders From You” swings like there’ll never be another war: “I know that rules were made for fools, that’s one thing I have learned/But I’m goin’ in for discipline wherever you’re concerned.”

Tina Turner’s early tour-de-force of anger and jealousy “All I Can Do Is Cry” illuminates the dark side of weddings. Two of Waters’s wacky repertory actors, Mink Stole and the late Edith Massey, contribute delightfully nutty takes on, respectively, a song called “Sometimes I Wish I Had a Gun” and the oldie “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” Syrupy selections from the likes of Dean Martin and Ray Charles are less surprising but still fit the theme, while John Prine and Iris Dement betray the sentiment underlying the shock and trash: “There won’t be nothin’ but big ol’ hearts dancin’ in our eyes,” they sing in the simultaneously kinky and corny “In Spite of Ourselves.”

Really now – who could possibly want to die for art with all this great music to listen to, and auteurs (and characters) like John Waters to give it extra context? (He personally delivers the liner notes in a video.)

Good fun.

Blogcritic Bill Sherman has also posted a review of the CD, and Gothamist has a good interview with Waters about it.

Cross-posted at Blogcritics

Book Review: Words That Work by Dr. Frank Luntz

Wednesday, February 7th, 2007

“The words of this book,” writes the Republican strategist Frank Luntz, “represent the language of America, not the language of a single political party, philosophy, or product.” Despite what one might expect from the originator of loaded terms like “death tax,” most of his book lives up to that promise of evenhandedness.

Luntz has made a career of spinning political and corporate messages. In focus groups and dial sessions he painstakingly tests words, phrases, speeches and speakers to find the precise language that is most appealing to voters or consumers. The political side of his practice has been mostly for Republican clients, but in this book he tries to keep politically neutral; where his own opinions come through, they’re usually labeled as such. On the whole he sticks to his subject: how using well-chosen words and phrases can strongly influence listeners.

Throughout the book Luntz repeats the mantra, “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.” That could be parsed in some disturbing ways, but Luntz seems to mean simply, “It’s not what you say, it’s precisely how you say it.” There’s certainly nothing ground-breaking about that idea. The practice of rhetoric – persuasive language – goes back at least as far as the ancient Greeks. But, on the evidence of this book, people remain as susceptible as ever to having their views and reactions shaped by the way ideas are phrased. It’s good to be reminded of language’s power, and it’s especially useful to read how marketers are using it on us right now.

A glaring example of Luntz’s failure to remain entirely neutral is the persistent use of the word “Democrat” as an adjective, as in “Democrat Party.” This is well understood to be charged and partisan language (otherwise known as fightin’ words) and in this context, where a minimum of scholarly tone ought to be observed, Luntz should – and surely does – know better. He also refers matter-of-factly to his 2005 New American Lexicon as having been written in the service of a “pro-business, pro-freedom” agenda, failing to acknowledge the loaded nature of both of those terms and especially the second. The idea that all Americans agree on what best serves “freedom” is patently silly.

Despite such lapses, Luntz presents much valuable insight and useful advice for his intended audience of policymakers, business leaders, and those who advise or aspire to be either one, regardless of political leanings. (But read on for a way the book can also benefit the average citizen-reader). As in much popular nonfiction, the book is big on enumerated lists: “Ten Rules of Effective Language,” “Myths and Realities about Language and People,” “priorities, principles and preferences that matter to all [Americans],” and the like. Some items seem fairly obvious, like advice to use short words and sentences, or the notion that Americans aren’t big readers. But Luntz convincingly makes the case for including them by providing interesting examples of people shooting themselves in the foot by not recognizing them – e.g. pre-Inconvenient Truth Al Gore talking over the heads of the public – and related observations, like the way older viewers at TV studio tapings watch the actual performance, while their younger compatriots watch through the television monitors. Luntz has certainly amassed a wealth of information in his years of studying the American public.

Some of the conclusions he draws from his research are less obvious and more interesting. The denizens of “exurbia” have acquired great political importance. American consumers don’t respond well to patriotic messages. (And I thought that was just here in the city-state of New York.) Perhaps most interesting, “the vast majority of Americans don’t vote based on particular issues at all.” Sure, we have a vague sense that a politician’s personality and character matter, but probably only the most cynical of us will be unsurprised at, for example, the large degree to which success in a national election depends upon a candidate’s optimistic outlook.

Some view Luntz’s product as callous and cynical manipulation – “spinning lies into truth,” as Daily Kos has put it. Others may take him at face value when he writes that his “language eschews overt partisanship and aims to find common ground.” But either way, the process of developing “words that work” is fascinating, as described by the author in a brief chapter about how focus groups and dial sessions work. (As one who has lived in both Boston and New York I was particularly interested to read that “New York City sessions are notable for their uncontrollable chaos and the frequent use of profanity. New Yorkers like nothing and hate everything,” whereas “trying to get people from New England to say anything beyond a simple yes or no is virtually impossible.”)

Enhancing its implicit claim of accurately assessing what we might call the “sense of the American people” is the book’s extreme currency – it’s aware of the recent Democratic takeover of Congress, for example. Its chapter on “Old Words, New Meaning” notes that since a culture’s use of language is always changing, a language pollster’s work is never done, a point borne out by the fact that Luntz’s discussion of the term “bipartisan” has missed out on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent coining of the term “post-partisanship.” Given a few more weeks before publication, I expect Luntz would have been all over that – approvingly.

Maybe because of being so up-to-date, the book suffers from two flaws suggesting a rush to print. First, it is repetitious, making some of the same points and using the same examples – in the same words – in different chapters. Second, it suffers from far too many misprints and grammatical errors for a book about language. In the early going, these have the effect of blunting the message.

Now for that added benefit. Most of us aren’t policymakers or business leaders, but plain citizens. As voters and consumers we are the intended targets of the “words that work” which marketers like Dr. Luntz use. To put it cynically, we are the “manipulatees.” And with this book Luntz has exposed the magician’s secrets. Read it and you’ll be better able to pick out the marketing-speak all around you, and observe – and quite likely mitigate – its effects on your own mind. And really, it’s everywhere. Seeing the Jackson Hewitt tax preparation chain’s slogan, “Hassle Free Service,” I would never have picked out “hassle-free” as a carefully selected phrase. But lo and behold, here’s “hassle-free” coming in at number two on Luntz’s list of “Twenty-one Words and Phrases for the Twenty-first Century.” According to the book, Americans prefer a product that’s “hassle-free” by a whopping 62 to 38 percent over one that’s “less expensive.” Facts like that abound in this uneven but valuable and fascinating book.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up for Feb. 1 2007 – Kirchen, Jantz, Halter

Thursday, February 1st, 2007

A friend who regularly reads this column remarked on how rarely I publish negative reviews. It’s true, I tend to feature stuff I like, and that’s because I do this for the love of music (and writing). It’s a source of satisfaction to me to be able to give some exposure to good new indie releases that can use all the help they can get spreading the word.

No one’s paying me to write about any specific releases. I request only releases that look like they’ll be up my alley, or at least interesting. And when it comes to unsolicited stuff, I focus on what I consider to be the best of the pile. I have boxes full of CDs that didn’t inspire or interest me enough to write about.

When I do publish a negative review it’s usually because a recording interested me in some way even though I didn’t like it. Sometimes I’m using it as an excuse to rant about my more general opinions and prejudices. Other times I’m mad at a CD that disappointed me and I want to yell at it in public.

Also – and particularly when it comes to real do-it-yourself indies – my philosophy is to give weight to the positive aspects of a recording even when there are significant negatives. I feel justified in doing this since readers can generously sample virtually all releases online before they lay out any cash. Who buys music without sampling it first these days anyway, regardless of whether they’ve read a review?

And now for some music.

Bill Kirchen, Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods

The guitarist Bill Kirchen, the “King of Dieselbilly,” first made his name with Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen back in the late 60s and early 70s, and has since played with everyone from Gene Vincent to Ralph Stanley to Elvis Costello to Emmylou Harris. He is both a musicians’ musician and an accomplished, warm-hearted singer and songwriter.

Mr. Kirchen’s new CD stops at just about every station the Telecaster master has visited in his career – from Texas swing (“One More Day”) to Motown (“Soul Cruisin’”), from desert blues (“Rocks Into Sand”) and good old rock and roll (“Working Man”) to gritty rockabilly (“Heart of Gold,” the masterful “Get a Little Goner”). The title track – a churning ode to the Tele, “born at the junction of form and function” – is the only hint of the self-referentiality that sometimes swamps recordings by journeyman musicians more known for their skills than their personalities. This CD covers a lot of musical ground but is showoffy in only the humblest possible way. Kirchen’s easygoing, woody hum of a voice unites all the tracks, while his guitar playing is best appreciated over multiple listens, since the songs roll so smoothly from your speakers that you tend not to notice how they are made – which is, after all, the prime sign of good music.

This CD is a strong reminder of what makes – and who made – American music great. As Kirchen sings in the self-penned “One More Day:”

I’m gonna live it up like there’s no tomorrow
Crank up the love and turn down the sorrow
Get my ducks in a row for one more day
I’m gonna lay my head on the railroad track
When the whistle blows, I’m snatchin’ it back
I’ll be needing it for one more day.

Among the tracks that Kirchen didn’t write, highlights include his groovy take on “Devil with the Blue Dress On” and his old-fashioned country arrangment of Blackie Farrell’s “Skid Row On My Mind.” But Kirchen’s own, philosophical “Rocks into Sand” is my favorite track on the CD. “Before fish ever walked on land/Time was turning rocks into sand…Sand that sifts through the hands of man…All I’ll take is what I brought/And I may not get what I sought…That’s up to the shifting sands after all.” Check out this CD before all your own sand falls through your fingers. You won’t be sorry.

Michael Jantz, Snapshots of the Universe

Michael Jantz’s folk-rock songs boast some McCartney-esque melodies and changes (“You,” “Better Than You”), along with a light, soaring sound that’s sometimes reminiscent of Jeff Buckley, especially in the slow-moving “Turn on the Radio” and the sweetly simple melody of “Always On Time.” Adding stylistic variety to this, Jantz’s second release, is a folksy, blue-eyed-blues strain, like that of a John Sebastian or Randy Newman, evident in “Sierra” and “Mama’s Comin’ Home.” Jantz’s clear but distinctive tenor voice – buttressed by a creamy falsetto – is a strong point. Another is a knack for precise hooklets, like the wordless chorus of “Love is But an Ocean” and the slithery Robert Plant echo in the chorus of “You.”

The CD sags a bit in the middle under the weight of some less inspiring material, and Jantz’s lyrics range from appealingly minimalist (“Like breathing/I believe in you”) to inexplicable (“Until the mountains resolve to stand their ground/And the children they’ll just eat anything”). But this is the sort of pop music in which lyrics are secondary anyway – with the possible exception of the ska-influenced political song “Livin’ On Sunshine.” Overall, this CD is highly enjoyable, with plenty of good songwriting and a distinctive enough sound to be a little different. Recommended.

Available with extended clips at CD Baby.

Ernie Halter, Congress Hotel

Ernie Halter is part of the recent movement of singers – think Norah Jones, Amos Lee, John Mayer, Kevin So, Alicia Keys, and the granddaddy of the style, Keb’ Mo’ – who try, with differing approaches (and levels of success), to mix singer-songwriter intimacy with soul-music intensity. Unfortunately in Halter’s case the result of the recipe is a pretty bland stew. One problem is that he has the stuffed-up vocal delivery of a punk singer. Elvis Costello gets away with singing soulful ballads and sophisticated, jazzy pop with that kind of voice, so there’s nothing wrong with it in principle. But Halter’s limited instrument just sounds thin in this setting.

Second, most of the songs seem generic, as if written by committee. The best of the “up” tunes is the opener, “One You Need,” and even this chunky, otherwise satisfying New Orleans-style soul bopper suffers from colorless singing. “Better” (a cover) is another decent, energetic number. The lovely ballad “Lisa,” based on Beethoven’s “Für Elise,” is a keeper, and Halter’s muted style works well in the sweet “Love in L.A.” But they’re specks of pepper in a generally bland gumbo. All the horns and Hammonds in Memphis won’t draw you in if the songwriting is merely competent and the vocals don’t rock with the ages.