Archive for July, 2007

Go Cyclones!

Tuesday, July 31st, 2007

Had more fun at the Brooklyn Cyclones game the other night than I’ve had at some major league sporting events.

The game itself was just OK. The Cyclones lost to the Vermont Lake Monsters, who dominated them with outstanding pitching. But it was just plain fun to be there. I was there to videorecord Elisa singing the national anthem and “God Bless America.” Here she is getting ready to go out on the field.

Elisa Before Singing the National Anthem at the Cyclones Game

Before the game we waited out a rain delay in the team’s administrative office, where a parade of wacky Brooklyn characters entertained us. Maybe because of the rain, some of the competitors in the knish-eating contest (it was Jewish Heritage Day) didn’t show up, and I was SO tempted to compete. In this picture, the guy in the cream suit was there to sing Hatikvah, the little girl was throwing out one of the many “first” pitches, and the heavyset dude was promoting a Visa card that supports Israel.

Waiting Out the Rain Delay Before the Cyclones Game

In the stands, meanwhile, there’s a great feeling of community. Brooklynites (especially those from the neighborhoods closest to Coney Island) are absolutely elated to have professional baseball in town, even if it’s just a short-season single-A farm team for the Mets.

Sandy Seagull at the Cyclones Game

Everyone’s friendly. People talk to each other. Not like in the major leagues (of any sport), where there’s just so much tension that you’re always worried you’re going to get beaned with a cup of soda, trampled, killed, or worse – insulted.

Book Review: Our Former Lives in Art – Short Stories by Jennifer S. Davis

Tuesday, July 31st, 2007

Jennifer S. Davis’s first collection of short stories won the Iowa Short Fiction Award five years ago. It’s been a wait, but fans of the first book won’t be disappointed with the follow-up.

The stories in Our Former Lives in Art shine floodlights on Southern folks in various walks of life. Davis has the gift of unfolding both a setting and the nature of a character – and sometimes of a couple – in few words, while zeroing in on a turning-point moment in the life of a protagonist.

She’s highly aware of the artifice of her work. In “Rapture,” a no-longer-young housewife “invites women over to talk about books with female characters who do similar things until one day their lives are changed by this or that.” In “Pilgrimage in Georgia,” a famous but blocked writer moves to a small town seeking authenticity, only to find that what appears “real” isn’t necessarily what it seems. Often when I start reading a piece of fiction and encounter characters who are writers, I get turned right off, but that didn’t happen here. A protagonist’s profession or educational level doesn’t matter; in these stories, failure and frustration are equal-opportunity employers. Moments of transcendence, rare though they may be, don’t discriminate either.

Often the turning points that quicken these stories involve trust, or the failure thereof. In “Blue Moon,” a young woman named Eva has such trouble facing her feelings that she’s developed an annoying habit of expressing herself in song lyrics. “‘Henry,’ I’d said as he was packing his things. I gave him my mournful stare – the look he’d loved when we still wanted each other bad enough to lie about who we really were. ‘We can’t go on together with suspicious minds.’” When her best friend Misty finds religion and drifts away, Eva reaches a turning point. Interestingly, we don’t find out whether she decides to give Henry another chance. What matters is that we’ve come to know the character, and we’ve witnessed her important moment.

In “Ava Bean,” a home care worker who has lost custody of her daughter reflects on trust: “Until Lucy, Charlotte didn’t understand anything about how the world works, about how one person can shape the course of another’s life as much by absence as anything else, how a stranger’s trust might be the closest thing to salvation you’re ever offered.” Usually Davis gives her characters just the right amount of that sort of rumination. She shows the important stuff, while telling just enough.

Trust is also the main point of “Lily,” in which a social program pairs up a rebellious and cocky teenage girl with a lonely retired man. When Lily asks Alfred what he did before he got sick, he replies, “I reckon the same that I do now. Sit at home and wish I’d done something different.” Davis sums up Lily’s parents’ relationship in another marvel of concision, one among quite a few in the book: “Both of her parents like barbecues, cold beer, Neil Diamond, and bingo. Some stretch this into a marriage, and they did, and then they didn’t.”

Lily’s progression toward trusting Alfred may come a little faster than one might have realistically expected, but the opening story, “Giving Up the Ghost,” is the only one I found unfulfilling. Its premise feels contrived, and I didn’t buy some of the dialogue.

Except for that near-miss, these stories are right on target. They leave one not only admiring the author’s pinpoint writing style but also feeling that one’s understanding of humanity has deepened a bit.

Syndicated through Blogcritics to the Advance.net network and Boston.com.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – John Phillips, Stratospheerius

Saturday, July 28th, 2007

I’m devoting much of this week’s column to a noteworthy release of 35-year-old material. It’s worth it.

John Phillips, Jack of Diamonds

“Papa” John Phillips (RIP) was best known for his work with The Mamas and the Papas, but his creativity went well beyond that. Last year, Varese Sarabande re-released Phillip’s only solo album, 1970′s John, the Wolfking of L.A. Now comes the second in their “Papa John Phillips Presents” series.

Jack of Diamonds collects songs he wrote for a second solo LP which never saw the light of day (although the songs “Revolution on Vacation” and “Cup of Tea,” included in different versions here, were released as a single in 1972).

Phillips’s writing and arranging typically combined soulful sophistication with the anything-is-possible musical ethos of the late 1960s and early 1970s. There was always an element of wistful disillusion (and emotional dissolution) in his music, and I’d argue that it’s that sad tinge that made the beautiful choral songs of The Mamas and the Papas into the timeless classics they’ve become. But Phillips’s work outside the confines of the band extended into much more varied musical territory.

“Revolution on Vacation” and “Cup of Tea” lean towards the country-western sound of Wolfking, and the easygoing groove of “Campy California” feels like a lazy sunny day. But “Devil’s on the Loose,” “Mister Blue,” and “Black Broadway” feel much more like the urban soul of the time, with smoky sax, wah-wah guitar, and groovy electric piano. (Heavy hitters like Joe Sample and Van Dyke Parks contributed.) In fact, Phillip’s vocals on the latter two songs betray a heavy Lou Reed influence. The three songs contrast startlingly with what one might expect from the composer of “California Dreamin’” and “Kokomo.” We’re clearly on the gritty streets of New York City. Even “Marooned,” a sad song set on the beach, is subtitled “Double Parked,” while “Chinatown” and “Too Bad” have a jazz-rock flavor that reflects urban cool as well.

There are two versions of “Me and My Uncle,” a song made famous by the Grateful Dead, and – speaking of space – a couple of shimmery tracks inspired by the 1969 moon landing. They’re not brilliant pop like “Space Oddity” or “Rocket Man” but they fit in nicely on the CD, which has been put together very smartly – it’s a good listen straight through. For most of its length one could imagine it had been released in this form back in ’73 to critical acclaim. Even the two songs from the Brewster McCloud soundtrack – the only previously released material on the CD – sound like part of the same continuum. The only songs that really don’t are the two unreleased Mamas and the Papas tracks, recorded for the group’s final album, the one their record company forced them to make after the band had already split up. They sound like sad codas to the career of a great band.

Phillips continued working productively for decades after the triumphs of The Mamas and the Papas and Monterey. His work certainly deserves the attention Varese is giving it in this series. The sound has been restored and mastered just right – crisp but not icy, it could almost be coming off of vinyl.

Listen to unsatisfying 30-second clips here.

Stratospheerius, Headspace

There’s so much going on on this CD that it could merit an “Indie Round-Up” column all on its own. Stratospheerius’s music can’t be pegged to one genre, but neither is it a simple hybrid of a couple of styles. For that reason, it’s exciting stuff.

Jazz fusion, Stingpop, progressive rock, classical strains, and jam-band spaceouts take turns running through the ten songs on this, the band’s fourth album. Leader Joe Deninzon’s devilish violin weaves the compositions together, and he lends his throaty vocals to some of the tunes, layering attractive melodies over odd time signatures and dynamic, unpredictable arrangements. Think of a much more adventurous version of the Dave Matthews Band, add Steely Dan precision and prog-rock inventiveness, and you’ll get an inkling. There’s also a Police influence that would be quite evident even without the revved-up cover of “Driven to Tears.” The crack musicians deserve mention individually: drummer Luciana Padmore, bassist Bob Bowen, and guitarist Mack Price.

These songs really do sidestep genre, yet one foot remains in accessible pop territory. “New Material” opens with a Celtic jam that flames into a lightspeed funk-rocker. The song is a funny take on creative inspiration and writer’s block: “I need a death threat deadline panic attack/I need a big bolt of lightning to strike me in the ass/Where’s my material/I need new material.” “Mental Floss” is an exciting odd-time instrumental jam, while “Gutterpunk Blues” begins with a delicate-punk (a new term I just made up) mandolin solo (Deninzon again) which leads into crashing heavy-metal riffage and then devolves into wild electric guitar and drum soloing. The jazz fusion elements come to the fore in the slower instrumental “Yulia,” while the pumped-up klezmer of “Heavy Shtettle Part II: Heavier Shtettle” closes the CD with a blast of technical prowess and ear-candy fun.

An interesting and spirited journey into outrageous creativity, this CD is highly recommended for anyone with an adventurous ear, including fans of fusion, progressive rock, the Police, the Kronos Quartet’s pop experiments and collaborations, and fiery fiddling. Sample the music at the Stratospheerius website and their Myspace page, and read a good interview with Joe Deninzon.

Theater Review: I’m in Love with Your Wife with Ron Palillo

Monday, July 23rd, 2007

Alex Goldberg’s new farce I’m in Love with Your Wife doesn’t quite know how far over the edge of absurdity it wants to go, but it has a lot of fun sort of not quite going there. An excellent ensemble cast under the direction of Tom Wojtunik happily, and for the most part nimbly, sends up love triangles, modern angst, celebrity worship, psychotherapy, and even life as a struggling actor.

The play is made up of three sections, the first of which is a fast-paced, near-perfect comic gem. Gary, an overworked schlemiel of an insurance adjuster, just wants to get some work done. Persistently interrupting his drab day are his demanding wife (via telephone) and his gabby assistant Bethany, and later his smooth-talking friend Paul and, separately, Paul’s steamroller wife Gail. Both of the latter have disturbing personal news for the hapless Gary. Naturally, zaniness ensues.

Gary is played by craggy beanstalk Ean Sheehy, who clearly relishes the role of straight man and victim of circumstance. His pained reactions as his character’s life spins out of control are hilariously hyper-real, and stop just short of becoming distractingly sad.

The second scene brings Gary to his psychotherapist’s office. Dr. Feldberg is played by Ron Palillo of Welcome Back, Kotter fame, whose famous ditzy nerd persona has matured (if that’s the right word) into a boisterous middle-aged nebbish resembling a less hyperactive, but slightly insane, Woody Allen. Simultaneously a quack and not a quack, Dr. Feldberg thinks Gary’s tales of his absurd life are delusions.

I'm in Love with Your Wife
Ean Sheehy and Ron Palillo in I’m in Love with Your Wife

Gary convinces the therapist to come to a dinner party with Paul and Gail to observe the craziness firsthand. But Dr. Feldberg needs a date so no one will guess he’s Gary’s therapist. Enter Ruth (the delightfully showy Marion Wood), a struggling thespian desperate for an audience. The final scene, naturally, is the dinner party, where Gary’s too-foxy wife exerts her over-the-top magnetism over all concerned. Zaniness ensues.

Monica Yudovich as Bethany shows what a gifted comedian she is, and Shane Jacobsen hams up the role of Paul with infectious energy. Katie Kreisler makes Gail a dynamo of cinematic haughtiness, updated for an age of unrestrained sexuality. Half Ellen DeGeneres and half Mo Gaffney, she’s a towering, rock-solid presence. Of zaniness, of course.

Thanks to tight staging, a confident and generous cast, and a democratic script full of dizzy twists, this quick-witted piece revels in its shallowness, and a good time is had by all (except Gary).

Through August 3 at the Jewel Box Theater in New York City, but don’t wait because there are only a handful of performances left. Part of the Midtown Theater Festival. Tickets at SmartTix or call (212) 868-4444.

An Oak Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Thursday, July 19th, 2007

Amidst the overgrown chaos of my backyard, an oak tree sapling has sprung up. I won’t be here to see it grow to maturity, and its prospects are doubtful anyway considering how little room it has and how close it is to the property line. But for now, I love this little tree.

Oak Tree

It’s certainly got more chance in this world than poor Planty ever did.

Kings County Blues Band

Wednesday, July 18th, 2007

Aviv (see the last post, “Bowery Poetry Club”) and I are two-thirds of the Kings County Blues Band, a new act that’s tearing up rehearsal studios all over Brooklyn. The other third is drummer Jeremy Kaplan. Can Jews play the blues? Oy. Our Manhattan debut is this coming Tuesday, July 24, during the Soul of the Blues Festival at Cornelia St. Cafe. That’s my festival. So, yes, I booked my own band. Life is good. We’ll be playing some originals, and some cool covers by the likes of B. B. King, Freddie King, and Lonnie Mack. Dig it.

Bowery Poetry Club

Wednesday, July 18th, 2007

Played a gig with folk singer Meg Braun the other night, and let me just say, the Bowery Poetry Club rocks. It might be named after poetry, but bands sound great there. It’s nice to find a relatively small club that does it right. What a pleasure.

Here’s Aviv Roth, Meg, and me on the stage. Do I look like Elastic Man, or do I just look like I’m having a good time?

Meg Braun at Bowery Poetry Club

Walking on the Wild Side

Wednesday, July 18th, 2007

When you write about music a lot, as I do, you find yourself wondering about the nature of the stuff. Why do so many people make music? Why does almost everybody love to listen to it? Where in our bodies and minds does it come from?

Because I write songs, I have a partial answer to that last question. One source of music is the natural rhythms of the body. I know that because I often get musical ideas while I’m hiking.

The steady rhythm of hiking – walking, walking, walking, all day long – will induce a familiar song to pop into my head. Pretty quickly I’ll get sick of that song running through my mind, and the best way I know to get rid of it is to force it to change. So I make a couple of modifications to the beat or the melody. At the same time I think of some nonsense words to go with the new music that’s forming in my brain. Voilà – an idea for a potential new song.

It occurred to me that maybe, at least in humans, music actually springs from the rhythms of walking. If we didn’t walk, maybe we wouldn’t have music at all (or maybe we’d have just the non-rhythmic kinds – Arvo Pärt, Ornette Coleman, ambient music). There’d be no baroque dances, classical music, gypsy music, bebop, rock and roll, or techno. (One theory of the origin of the term “rock and roll” suggests that it came from the hammer songs of track workers, who had to rock and roll their railroad spikes to set them for the hammer.)

Rhythmic bodily functions like breathing and heartbeat might have contributed to inspiring the invention of music too. My point is that that all animals move – that’s pretty much the definition of animal, in fact. We walk on the ground, or climb through trees, or propel our bodies through the medium of air or water. Pretty much every animal makes motile progress by means of some repetitive rhythmic action (walk, swim, fly, slither). And if we humans were inspired by our own motion to develop music – if music has its genesis in such a basic function, one that we share with even the simplest, one-celled animals – it shouldn’t be much of a stretch to interpret the songs of birds or whales as having the same origin, and being the same thing, as human music.

Many animals, of course, use “tone language” to communicate. Temple Grandin, in her extraordinary book Animals in Translation, argues that these musical sounds are music, just like human music, and suggests that music is, or can be, a language.

Dr. Grandin is known for her innovations in the field of animal welfare. She uses her perspective as an autistic person to “see in pictures,” as she believes animals do, which makes her able to see things from the animals’ point of view in a way that a person with a normal, verbal-centric brain can’t. In the book, she draws on her experience with animals and her knowledge of scientific research in the field to make many intriguing points about how animals (and humans) think. With respect to music, she writes,

Researchers also agree that animal song is highly complex, which makes it a good candidate for being a true animal language… To give just one example, it’s likely that birds invented the sonata. A sonata begins with an opening theme, then changes that theme over the body of the piece, and finally ends with a repetition of the opening theme. Ordinary song sparrows compose and sing sonatas.

Grandin even suggests that humans “probably learned music from animals, most likely from birds.” To support this idea she notes that most primates don’t sing songs. As noted above, I believe it’s at least as likely that we came up with music – or at least its rhythmic elements – on our own, inspired by the rhythms we make with our bodies in the physical world (walking, walking, walking). But Grandin’s important point here is the suggestion that some animals use music as a true language, and hence our music too has at least the potential to be one as well. “It’s possible that music, or something like it, once was the human language, and maybe it still is the language of birds and animals.” She cites a recent study showing that Broca’s area of the brain, which is the part that understands spoken language, also understands music.

It’s no accident that we use the two terms to describe each other, in phrases like “music is the universal language.” I wonder what Grandin would say to the philosopher and musicologist T. W. Adorno, who admitted many similarities between language and music but pointed out that unlike in language, a message conveyed by music “cannot be detached from the music. Music creates no semiotic system.” I wonder if Adorno was right, or if, not being an autistic animal welfare scientist, he wore some of the same mental blinkers as the rest of us normals.

Theater Review: Richard III

Tuesday, July 17th, 2007

In their current production of Richard III, Shakespeare’s most over-the-top masterpiece, the Nicu’s Spoon company takes the adventurous step of casting a disabled actor in the title role. Henry Holden drags and clanks about the stage using crutches and an artificial leg, diminutive (though not hunchbacked), leather-faced, red-eyed, suitably monstrous but painfully human. Director Heidi Lauren Duke doesn’t need to take liberties with the text to show how Richard’s evil nature could have come from a lifetime of being shunned for his deformity. And she and Holden make good use of the crutches, the leg, and the actor’s entire frame as in-your-face props.

As a Shakespearean actor, Mr. Holden has limitations. He can’t (or chooses not to) reconcile his angular New York accent with the rhythms of the text. This becomes a bigger issue in conjunction with the production’s other innovation: Holden speaks Richard’s lines only when alone on stage. In dialogue, another actor, standing in the corner with a lamp and a book, reads Richard’s parts while Holden mimes.

On the strength of his voicings, Andrew Hutcheson, who does the line readings, seems a fine actor, and I would really like to see him in a full-fledged classical theater role. But the contrast between Holden’s New York speech patterns and Hutcheson’s beautiful enunciation of “standard American” Shakespeare-speak is distracting.

Also, because Hutcheson is so good, the eye is too often drawn to him when it should be focussed on the physical Richard on the stage – but that Richard is mum. The idea is to make Richard’s two-faced nature explicit. But in a small box theater, where the audience is practically in the midst of the action, the conceit stumbles. It might work better in a larger theater with a proscenium stage.

In other ways the production makes very good use of the space. Victoria Roxo’s set design and Steven Wolf’s lighting adeptly turn the floor from throne room into Tower prison into battlefield. There’s very little stage furniture – just a small archway and a couple of things to sit on. One of the latter, in synchronicity with the new Transformers movie, changes splendidly from a chair into a stepladder. Their stolid woodenness, along with Richard’s crutches and leg, emphasize the pure physicality of the action, which heightens the sense of immediacy in the production’s best scenes, many of which occur in the latter half of the play: Richard’s crowning; his eerie dream sequence; the powerfully and silently played later murders; and the battle scene and Richard’s final comeuppance.

For these and other crucial moments, Sarah Gromko provides an eclectic and effective palette of music, from Renaissance dances to ambient synthesized sounds to punk rock and death metal. This is not one of those modern-dress Shakespeares where people are trying too hard to modernize. Harsh rock music, piercings, leather pants and so forth reflect and enhance the mood of this grim, bloody story.

Richard III

The bard gets mixed results from this cast. Amber Allison is powerfully touching as Lady Anne. Simultaneously solid and reedy, she does well in a range of smaller roles too, although her femininity makes her portrayal of the murderer Tyrell a little hard to believe. (It’s difficult to entirely avoid that kind of problem when putting on a play like this with a small cast.) Meanwhile, movie producers who’d like, but can’t afford, Orlando Bloom might want to take a look at the talented Jason Loughlin, who brings gravity and luminous magnetism to the roles of Clarence and Richmond.

But Wynne Anders, as the spectral and half-mad Queen Margaret (dressed up here like Mimi on The Drew Carey Show), chews her lines to the point of lockjaw, playing Margaret as so continuously thick with anger that Shakespeare’s language gets mired in the venom like bugs in amber. There’s over-the-top, and then there’s fallen off the cliff. And in the important role of Queen Elizabeth, Rebecca Challis pours out her lines so fast they are often incomprehensible. One really wishes she’d slow down just a little, because she’s obviously very talented. Elizabeth is the emotional center of the play, and Challis is brilliantly emotional.

Finally, Jim Williams is a curious case. As Buckingham, Richard’s co-conspirator, he’s lightweight and uninteresting. As King Edward he’s spectacular. Verily, the head spins.

There’s a good deal to like about the production, especially in the second half when tension mounts and the pace quickens. Duke, along with the imaginative fight choreographer S. Barton-Farcas and the intent, muscular, and highly mobile cast, convincingly evoke an England darkened by Margaret’s curses. One’s heart is wrung by the passions of Ann and Elizabeth and the dying King Edward, and one can almost hear the armies massed along the coast. And, as the producers intended, we come to know a Richard whose disability has engulfed and twisted his character. If only one could focus more surely on the man himself, crutching across the stage.

Through July 29 at the Spoon Theater, NYC. Tickets online or call 212-352-3103.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Mahoney, Lez Zeppelin, Speechless, NYEP

Monday, July 16th, 2007

Tim Mahoney, Stay/Leave

Tim Mahoney seems totally comfortable with his talent, not needing to break molds or reinvent things. His new CD has a couple too many songs, but a whole bunch of it is sparkling, radio-friendly pop-rock.

Hmm, “radio-friendly” – does anyone discover new music on the radio anymore? I don’t think so. What, then, is the fate of sunny pop music, even finely crafted sunny pop music like this? Maybe I’m jaded from living on the East Coast. Maybe in some places people still do get their music from mainstream radio. I might be just an out-of-touch windbag. Probably am.

Anyway, because he is an indie, Tim Mahoney mostly gets left out of the bleeding stump of the commercial radio scene (though a couple of stations have spun a track or two). And without that, how do “hit-worthy” songs become hits? It’s a tough one, kids. Is it just me, or are there fewer hit songs these days, even as we have more and more music to choose from?

Nonetheless, jaded readers, there are still places you can hear about good stuff, such as the new, ear-tickling, wiry but honeyed pop rooted in McCartney and Squeeze, that Tim Mahoney serves up. And one of those places is here at the Indie Round-Up. And here it is, so go listen. Mahoney’s home website is a slow loader, so check him out at
his Myspace page. You probably won’t be sorry, and if you are, well, how much did you pay to read this review? Give me a break.

Lez Zeppelin, Lez Zeppelin

Lez Zeppelin is just what you’d think: an all-female Led Zeppelin cover band. As gimmicks go, it’s not a bad one. Known for an energetic live show, the band has now put out its first CD, produced by legendary engineer and frequent Zep helmsman Eddie Kramer. The disc has six Zeppelin classics, plus two original instrumentals that evoke the Zeppelin style, one a riff-rocker, the other an acoustic trip featuring bassist Lisa Brigantino on mandolin.

Lez Zeppelin

The band consists of Brigantino, drummer Helen Destroy, guitarist Steph Paynes, and singer Sarah McLellan. McLellan’s got that Ann Wilson-style high belt that a female singer who wants to channel Robert Plant needs, and the band crunches out the hard rock riffage with the best of them. No one can say they don’t know, technically, how to play “Communication Breakdown” and “Rock N’ Roll.”

There is, however, a sterile quality to the recording. The parts are all there, but the drums sound hollow, the guitars too shiny and perfectly balanced. I’m no audio engineer, but I can recognize when a studio recording just sounds, somehow, “cold.” So the CD works better as an advertisement to go see the band than as a self-contained listen.

The tracks that succeed best, sound-wise, are “Winter Sun,” an original, and the long songs “Kashmir” and “Since I’ve Been Loving You.” Perhaps because they allow for more open space, these tracks seem to have encouraged the women of Lez Zeppelin to put more meat on the bones of the music, with McLellan even grafting a little Janis Joplin into her Plant.

Listen at their Myspace page.

Speechless, Time Out of Mind

Speechless makes a moderately complex form of prog-rock that combines a cinematic outlook with a fusion-influenced feel, though heavy, distorted guitars make some notable appearances. Imagine Jethro Tull’s instrumental interludes expanded into full-length mini-suites and performed by Emerson Lake and Palmer plus Steve Howe on guitar, and you might get tracks like “Stella” and “The Big Majestic.” Quieter stuff like “Thank You” suggests Vangelis moonlighting in a smooth-jazz band, with even a hint of Billy Cobham atmospherics, while the triumphal, nearly nine-minute “Vader’s Boogie” closes the CD with a satisfyingly crunchy evocation of Star Wars villainy crossed with classical-influenced scale motifs that made me immediately think of Tull’s Thick as a Brick album. Brain-massaging and accessible, Time Out of Mind is a 50-minute wash of musical good feeling. Who needs a singer?

Listen to some full tracks at their Myspace page; hear extended clips and buy the CD at CD Baby.

New York Electric Piano, Blues in Full Moon

Another set of instrumental yumminess comes out of famous busybody Aaron Comess‘s studio in the Catskills. The Spin Doctors drummer backs up Fender Rhodes whiz Pat Daugherty in this funky, volcanic, supremely interactive jazz trio.

The third member is the excellent bassist Tim Givens, who, as noted on the band’s website, is also the maintenance man for Daugherty’s Rhodes – a highly valuable skill. And because the Fender Rhodes, like the Hammond B-3 organ, is also a monster to cart around, you hear it far less than its unique and versatile musicality deserves. This CD is a good argument for more Rhodes in the world.

Funkiness and thoughtfulness both inform Daugherty’s gentlemanly compositions. The band plays the songs as one, yet the musicians’ personalities – especially Comess’s – remain distinct through the tight opens and closes and the airy but controlled jams. Very nice stuff for those very groovy moods. (You have those very groovy moods sometimes, don’t you?)

Here’s a sample from NYEP’s new disc. Their Myspace page also has some tracks from their earlier releases.

Morning in Manhattan

Tuesday, July 10th, 2007

Things aren’t looking too good for Mayor Bloomberg’s plan for traffic congestion pricing in New York City. Modeled after the successful London version, it would charge drivers a fee to enter Manhattan below 86th St. during business hours, but Albany politics (and even some legitimate concerns, like the fact the some subway lines are already at capacity) are holding up legislative approval. If the plan isn’t passed by Monday, the city will forfeit hundreds of millions of federal dollars for the project.

My problem isn’t driving into Manhattan, it’s the mere fact of having a car here. Soon to be a resident of this fantastical island, I’m in training for my new status as one of the only 20% of Manhattan residents to own a car. And one thing I definitely have to adjust to is the alternate-side parking culture.

Alternate Side Parking sign

It’s morning in Manhattan on a humid, scorching day. Back in my part of Brooklyn, you can double-park your car during street-cleaning hours and leave it unattended for the length of the no-parking period. If the period is 11-2, it doesn’t matter if the sweeper comes by at 11:05, you can stay double-parked until 2 (though if you’re still there at 2:03 you’re likely to get a ticket). To be polite, you can put a sign in your windshield with your address so if someone you’ve blocked needs to get out he can fetch you from your house. But that hardly ever happens. We plan for the hours we’re going to be parked in.

Here in Manhattan things are different. Here, we sit in our cars. Doesn’t matter how hot the day. I think it’s because street parking is even scarcer and you need to grab a spot the instant you possibly can. So at 8:30 AM I hobble out to my car (I’m nursing a sprained ankle, you see), double-park along with everyone else, and settle down, along with everyone else, to wait. I’ve got public radio to listen to and a book to read. Being a typical New Yorker, I try to do both at once, while simultaneously keeping an eye out for any relevant street action. Right away, at 8:35, the traffic cop comes by and gives tickets to a Dodge Durango and a motorcycle that haven’t been moved. We stay in our double-parked vehicles and watch as he moves up the street and out of sight.

The super of the apartment building at #200 is painstakingly hosing down his sidewalk, slightly cooling this stretch of street. A woman comes out of the building with a little dog. A man passes by with two larger dogs. The dogs yip and bark aggressively while their respective owners avoid eye contact.

The sun rises higher, and the shade from the tree beside me creeps forward. The sunshine is already hitting the exterior of my car and will soon slither into my window, so I pull up a bit. There’s still room for a car between me and the next vehicle, and presently an SUV muscles up and parallel parks into it. That’s something you don’t see in the suburbs: parallel double-parking. But the guy’s not here to score a spot on the block. After a short absence he returns to his car lugging two full water-cooler jugs. They look blue and refreshing, but as he hoists them into the back of his vehicle my sprained ankle aches in sympathy. He pulls out and drives off towards Eighth Avenue.

Just after 9 the street sweeper comes by, hissing loudly. As soon as it passes, we fire up our engines and move back into legitimate parking spaces, but we continue waiting in our cars. Even after the sweeper has passed you can still get a ticket for parking on the street-sweeping side during the forbidden hours.

A stiff-haired man in an undershirt and work pants comes out of #200, goes over to the motorcycle, ignores the ticket, moves the bike casually to the opposite side of the street, then goes back inside. Ah, for the life of a rich New York City ne’er-do-well. A lady with a basset hound and a shopping bag full of clean, white towels comes out of #200, but this dog isn’t out for a walk. He’s headed for the bright-orange minivan labeled “Pet Chauffeur” that’s just pulled up across the street. Ah, for the life of a rich New York City hound.

The minutes creep by. These are surely the hour-and-a-halfs that try men’s souls. It’s getting hotter and hotter. 9:20. 9:30. 9:40. I get some good reading done. At 9:50 a restless flutter runs down the block. Arms appear and withdraw. Drivers get out, get back in. Windows close and open and close again. 9:52. Someone gets out of his car, looks up the block, slowly fishes out his keys and locks the doors. 9:55. We’ve all put on our Clubs and gotten out of our cars. We look up the block. There’s a police car on the far corner, across Seventh Avenue, but it’s busy with something not traffic-related. With several looks back to make sure there’s no last-minute ticketing to fear, I hobble off towards the office. I’ll only be five minutes late to work. Until next time, fellow car owners. Until next time.

Music Review: Kim Richey, Chinese Boxes

Tuesday, July 10th, 2007

Kim Richey‘s new CD Chinese Boxes straddles the edges of pop. Songs like “Jack and Jill” and the title track almost feel like they came out of the 1970s, with jaunty Bacharach-like beats and happy frills from triangles and trumpets. But the songs on Chinese Boxes are also almost painfully concise. They’re pretty and sweet and emotional but do it all with the economy of a straight-set victory. The waltz ballad “Drift” shines with a gorgeous little melody you can’t blink out of your head when it’s over, which is almost too soon. It’s one of those tunes that sound like they’ve existed since the dawn of humanity.

“The Absence of Your Company” and “Turn Me” nod towards country music, but only in the way Rosanne Cash’s recent work does, which is mostly by fulfilling the old saw that country is music for grownups. Though Richey is known for writing songs for country artists, this CD suggests neither Nashville nor any other place in particular. It’s not that Richey synthesizes different styles into one of her own. It’s that her music is just about as style-free as pop can be. Emotional purity in both songwriting and singing is what makes Chinese Boxes such a superb album.

The chorus of “Turn Me” has a melody that resembles one by Tori Amos, but the red-headed faerie would never write lyrics like “Words don’t matter, you only need to understand/I’m not going anywhere without you.” Richey’s songs are simply about human relationships. Her artistry is in distilling thoughts and feelings and conflicts that in real life are endlessly confounding, into precisely and beautifully wrapped packages of words and music. No fancy bows and ribbons are needed.

“I Will Follow” has a youthful bounce, as if the girl within the woman were coming up for air. “One step forward, two steps back/So funny I forgot to laugh/Lead me down the garden path/And I will follow.” Then the melancholy “Something to Say” shakes you gently with “When I get my head around/What it is that keeps me down/Wouldn’t that be something?” It’s a small, gleaming catharsis, made the more wrenching by ending on an unresolved chord.

Chinese Boxes is going right up on the same shelf of honor in my collection as Rosanne Cash’s Black Cadillac. And with the rocker “Not a Love Like This” we’re back in Cash territory. Richey’s velvety voice here reaches its peak of intensity as the milk chocolate turns into a fancy bar of 70% cocoa. Following that hard-driving climax, Richey gives us “Another Day,” which joins a soulful verse with a Celtic-flavored chorus melody. It works like a lucky charm. And the album closes with the gently shuffling ballad “Pretty Picture,” another dose of satisfying, cathartic sadness.

Giles Martin’s subtle production makes the CD sound good at various volumes. But if you put it on loud, and you’re in a receptive mood, its 32 minutes are almost too much to take. As Richey sings, “On the the tip of your tongue are all the words you never say/Don’t let another day go by.” Grab this.

Soul of the Blues, July 6 2007

Saturday, July 7th, 2007

Oli Rockberger, who will be headlining the opening night of the 2007 Soul of the Blues Festival (curated by yours truly) later this month, played a fine solo set in Brooklyn at Biscuit BBQ last night on the club’s good old Knabe grand piano. Although it’s not the world’s greatest piano, I personally could sit and play it all day, because it’s the kind of piano I grew up with. I always assume piano makes like Knabe must all have gone out of business decades ago. But the Knabe brand, which started in 1837, is still made, though now it’s a part of Samick Musical Instruments, Ltd.

Trivia: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s concert on a Knabe piano officially opened Carnegie Hall.

Oli was followed by a smashing set from Boston’s Sam Hooper and his trio. Sam dazzled with his guitar, and his band (bassist Jordan Scanella and drummer Aine Fujioka) locked in and filled the tiny room with a monster sound. At times it almost felt like Jimi Hendrix was in the room, but Sam mixes rock with blues and soul and funk and pop, and does equal justice to them all.

Sam Hooper

You can hear some of Sam Hooper’s tracks at his website or his Myspace page.

Book Review: Saudi Match Point by Paul Ulrich

Saturday, July 7th, 2007

Saudi Match Point bears the hallmarks of a promising writer of thrillers and those of a novice novelist, in roughly equal measure. Drawing on years of experience overseas as a consultant, technician, foreign-aid worker and (self-admitted) government bureaucrat, author Paul Ulrich economically and effectively conveys the heady atmosphere and multicultural boiling pot of Saudi Arabia. He creates colorful characters whom the reader comes to care about, most especially a sheltered young woman whose plight, in a family that adheres to ultra-strict Wahabbi Muslim teachings, is heartbreaking. And he convincingly mixes real geopolitics into fictional situations.

Less convincing sometimes is the naïveté of some of the characters. Ahmad, a telecommunications worker whose beautiful sister becomes Nick’s love interest, decrypts a diplomatic email and wonders, “Was the U.S. government telling its citizens and the world one thing yet secretly pursuing a different agenda?” But the central character is the deliciously named Nick Hansen, a young China expert with the U.S. State Department, assigned to Saudi Arabia to gauge China’s attitudes towards American activities in the Saudi oil industry. That might not sound fascinating, but as a story engine Ulrich makes it work.

Saudi Arabia Map

Nick isn’t very interesting, and the author seems to realize this, for he devotes the greater part of the narrative to the assortment of internationals who surround him – notably a globe-trotting ladies’ man from New Zealand, an intriguing Chinese agent, and two Saudi families, one relatively Westernized, the other highly traditional. Ulrich evokes the cruel repression of women in Wahhabi society and conveys the uneasy coexistence of Western interests and Islamist culture. Some plot elements – the conspiracy Nick stumbles upon, the gung-ho action ending – can seem a little unrealistic. But then, we wouldn’t want to be like Ahmad. In the geopolitics of oil, it seems almost anyone is capable of almost anything.

Ulrich’s promise as a suspense-thriller writer shows mainly in his authoritative sense of place and solid feel for character. The writing style needs smoothing, the plot relies too heavily on coincidence, and the prologue isn’t adequately explained at the end (unless I missed something). But I enjoyed the book, and I got a picture of how things are in an “exotic” foreign land. Not too shabby, especially for a first-time novelist tackling a very demanding genre.

Ah, the Wide Open Spaces… of the Weston Playhouse

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2007

Dateline: Weston VT. The first thing you notice about the Weston Playhouse, after the lovely building and waterside setting, is the legroom in the theater. This, if nothing else, tells you that you are far from the dark warrens and wailing sirens of New York City and its performance spaces.

The 200-seat theater is full and pleasantly buzzing for Sunday night’s performance of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged). The audience of regular folks, young kids, centenarians, summer-home people, and possibly even some true locals, comes ready to laugh. And if the play is really funny, which this one certainly is, you can laugh yourself right out of your seats and onto the floor in front of you. There’s that much room.

Weston Playhouse

The excellent cast of three included Sam Lloyd, Jr., nephew of the famous movie actor Christopher Lloyd. I’m told the casts of these shows are always this good. They sell darned good ginger cookies at intermission, too. (Not the cast.) I recommend catching a show at the Weston Playhouse if you’re traveling in New England.