Archive for October, 2007

Magenta is the Color of My True Love’s Hair

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

The spookiest thing about Halloween in this part of Manhattan isn’t the parade, which you can’t even see for the crowds, but the crowds lined up to see the parade before it starts. Spooky. Quiet. Weird. Dusk; people lined up behind barricades along the Avenue; horns honking as traffic starts to jam up – but nothing actually happening. A strange hush muffles even the honking and the murmuring.

Later on things are just amusing. Here’s a Harlequin and his Skeleton Dad enjoying a Big Salty.

Harlequin and Dad with Pretzel

Here’s Dad’s dog, with a matching Skeleton costume.

dog_skeleton_closeup

Meanwhile over on Fifth Ave., Prince Elvis Travolta struck a pose.

Elvis?

Then I came home and we watched The Others. Now that’s Halloween-scary.

The Further Parking Adventures of a Neophyte Manhattanite

Tuesday, October 30th, 2007

When I was little, Fortunately was one of my favorite books. Tonight’s parking adventure put me in mind of it.

Unfortunately, I had to give up my nice, nearby parking spot today to take my car in for its annual safety inspection, which, as a practicing procrastinator, I had put off till the end of the month.

Fortunately, after I picked up the car and got home, I saw plenty of parking spaces.

Unfortunately, tomorrow is Halloween, and some of the spots were illegal Wednesday. Something to do with the Greenwich Village Halloween parade, I expect. I wouldn’t know. Halloween is a night I stay home, sitting in the dark, quiet as a mouse’s ghost.

noparking_nypd_closeup

Fortunately, further away from Sixth Avenue the Halloween preparation madness let up and there were some parking spaces.

Unfortunately, the reason there were spaces was that Thursday parking was verboten because of a Law and Order shoot.

noparking_lawandorder

Fortunately, this Thursday is something called “All Saints Day,” which must be something like Veterans’ Day but for saints, but which, for my purposes, means alternate side parking regulations will be suspended, which means that if I can find another Friday-OK spot, it’ll be Thursday-OK too, which means I won’t have to move the car again all week.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a spot on the proper side because of Law and Order (see Unfortunately above).

Fortunately, Law and Order only needs two streets, not the entire neighborhood. I found a Thursday-OK spot a few blocks further away than usual.

Unfortunately, all of this made me miss the wine tasting at Union Square Wines.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up

Monday, October 29th, 2007

From a Beatles tribute by a venerable classic rock band, to a DIY New York City crooner, to a singular bluegrass-jazz fusion project from up Colorado way, there's probably something for nearly everybody in this week's round-up. Read, click, and enjoy!

Pete Wernick & Flexigrass, What The

This appropriately titled CD comes as a nice surprise to the unprepared listener. A truly unique fusion of bluegrass and old-time jazz, it's a showcase for banjo picker extraordinaire Pete Wernick, vibraphonist Greg Harris, and clarinetist Bill Pontarelli. They're supported on a well-chosen set of standards and originals by an able rhythm section, with Joan Wernick adding uninflected but curiously charming vocals.

The head picker in charge wails on his instrumental composition "Traveling Home," then steps aside for tasteful solos by Harris and Pontarelli. A celestial vibes introduction leads into a fun version of the old fiddle tune "Blackberry Blossom." A few other highlights: the fast-steppin' "Leavin' Town" (written by Pete Wernick), the softly insistent "Snowbird," and, on a mellower tip, "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams."

Forgive the obscure reference, but in spirit this reminded me of Pierre Gossez's alloy of Bach and jazz. And genre-mixing aside, the CD is suffused with such good feeling that it's hard to imagine it failing to cheer you up when you're blue.

Firefall Acoustic, Colorado to Liverpool: A Tribute to the Beatles

The veteran band Firefall's acoustic Beatles covers are reverential, but distinctive enough to provide an original and happy listening experience. The duo of Steven Weinmeister and Firefall founding member Jock Bartley have chosen a varied set of Beatles songs that thrive under their stripped-down but polished, 70s-soul acoustic sound.

It has to be said, of course: songs like "Within You Without You," "Girl," "Norwegian Wood," "Here Comes the Sun," "Eleanor Rigby," "Come Together," and "I'll Be Back" have long since proven their timeless brilliance, and you'd have to work pretty hard to screw them up. Early Beatles, late Beatles, Lennon & McCartney or Harrison, it doesn't matter, these consummate musicians do right by 'em.

Telling on Trixie, Telling on Trixie

A solid combination of crunchy rock, power pop, and organ-fed soul, Telling on Trixie's debut album comes out roaring with "Halfway Back to Sane" and "Dumb Boy." The two songs powerfully describe the two sides of the heartache coin. Derek Nicoletto's vocal flair puts one in mind of soulful rock singers like David Bowie and Chris Robinson. He sings with heart and soul and you can still understand all the words. (Coincidentally or not, the long electric guitar notes in the ballad "Orion's Light" and other places resembles Robert Fripp's feedbacking guitar on Bowie's "Heroes.")

On the last two thirds of the album the songwriting starts to get a bit pedestrian. The snaky groove of "Devil's Best Friend" and the plaintively dark acoustic ballad "Your Silence" are something of a return to form. So, while this isn't a great album through and through, the band's best work is excellent and it's no surprise these New York indie rockers are getting themselves some TV licensing spots and prestigious gigs. Check them out at their website or Myspace page.

James Vidos, Bed, Bar & Beyond

For a slice of low-key, jumpy urban angst, James Vidos is your man. The first two songs, "One I Wanted" and "Draw Me a Picnic," are the best; in "Let's Promenade," Weill-like oompah verses alternate with soft, flowery choruses, with Vidos's airy, languid baritone nicely drawing out the vivid, vaguely apocalyptic imagery. Think Nick Cave.

The tunesmithing doesn't always measure up to the meticulously developed atmosphere. As a whole, the material would benefit from stronger vocals too. But for stumbling through the streets of the Lower East Side in the wee hours of a rainy night, this will be a fine accompaniment.

Hear song samples here

Suzy Callahan, Freedom Party for Insects

Feeling extremely white, and slightly weird? Open up your heart to Suzy Callahan's happy melodies and up-front, pretty voice, which mask an ever so slightly twisted sensibility. From the title track: "I watch you but who's watching me? / Not the beetle or the bee / They're all going to the freedom party without me." You never find out what the freedom party is, or represents – you just have to draw your own conclusions.

Callahan sings plainly of simple emotions but has intriguing ways of framing them. The narrator of "Southern Belle" changes from a strong, modern woman into a weak-willed, helpless female when she encounters an attractive "wild man." It's a story that any number of women might tell, but Callahan's image of the strong woman isn't defiant, triumphant, or entirely satisfied. Rather, "I was down in a trench for days / Air nor light could penetrate / Digging alone, bone on bone… Thinking of home, but not my own."

She's drawn comparisons to Neko Case and Lucinda Williams but in some of her drama I was even reminded of Katell Keineg – e.g. in the chorus of "We Had a History" – or Liz Phair in the disturbingly baby-like simplicity of "I Smile".

Hear extended clips here.

Sacha Sacket, Lovers & Leaders

Sasha Sacket fortifies his earnest, adult alternative music with bursts of power-pop energy and dense electronic orchestration. The rich buttery sound is appropriate since most of the songs on his new CD are avowedly about love, and it has the distinct flavor of a concept album. So, although the songs work individually, the CD is best experienced as a whole, which is saying a lot, because many of the songs are quite strong in and of themselves, despite a tendency toward scattershot lyrics.

The success of this music is not about the sense of the songs, so much as the feeling stirred up by Sacket's keening vocals, which suggest Thom Yorke, and his haunting melodies and piano-heavy arrangements, which sometimes resemble Sarah McLachlan, or Neil Finn's most contemplative solo work.

Listen at the artist's website.

It Always Rains in Connecticut

Friday, October 19th, 2007

No, not really. It just always seems to rain when I’m driving to a gig in Connecticut. Supposed to rain tonight, naturally.

But my adorable Honda Fit will surely be up to the job. It has proven to be an awesome city car, fitting into parking spaces most mortals can’t attempt, but still with plenty of room in the back for mortal dross.

Honda Fit

Last night’s Whisperado gig at The Underscore went pretty well. The booker tries to put compatible bands together but it rarely works out – not his fault, there are just too many bands and too much flakiness in the world. So we had a fun time watching Dead Eyes of Fall who went on after us. Talk about hair – these guys really went to rock star school. They’ve got a smokin’ double-pedal drummer and shredding lead guitarist too. I wore earplugs.

And remember, Whisperado loves you all.

Music Review: Various Artists, Song of America

Tuesday, October 16th, 2007

‘Tis the season for sprawling three-disc surveys of American music. Hot on the heels of Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs 1913-1938 comes my copy of Janet Reno’s Song of America. The former Attorney General, with her nephew-in-law, Nashville pro Ed Pettersen, and two other co-producers, has put together a 50-track survey of American history in song as interpreted by an assortment of talented artists of various levels of renown.

Disc 1 (1492-1860) has the largest amount of inspiring stuff. Three a capella numbers – “Lakota Dream Song” sung by Earl Bullhead, the Blind Boys of Alabama’s gorgeously harmonized slave-era spiritual “Let Us Break Bread Together,” and the the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ steely version of “Go Down Moses” – are soul-stirring, and John Wesley Harding’s harshly off-kilter brass band arrangement of “God Save the King” vividly evokes the war pains of revolutionary times. But more often, modern stylistic choices undercut the songs’ power. Often these choices reflect the 20th century fashion for confession in art, where smallness, quirkiness, and meekness are the rule. Elizabeth Foster sings a haunting arrangement of “Young Ladies In Town” (or “Address to the Ladies”) in a chillingly beautiful, quavery voice, but she swallows so many of the lyrics that the meaning is lost. (Some of them can be found here.) A vivid splash of history, the song was a pre-Revolutionary call for women to wear only homespun clothing and not British imports.

Malcolm Holcombe lends gravitas (and gravel) to “The Old Woman Taught Wisdom,” a plea for reconciliation between Britain and the Colonies, while Harper Simon, who sounds like a more psychedelic version of his father Paul, was an inspired choice to arrange and sing “Yankee Doodle.” But producer Ed Pettersen’s soporific take on “The Liberty Song,” Steven Kowalczyk-Santoro’s goopy “Hail Columbia,” and Beth Nielsen Chapman’s languid, affectless version of “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” are more typical of the collection’s overall low energy. (“Jefferson and Liberty” is done as a lively bluegrass tune by The Wilders – but what’s the point without the words?) Backed by The Mavericks, Thad Cockrell sings the usually march-like “Dixie’s Land” as a slow swell, but in that case, the re-imagining of a traditional song works.

Marah’s rough-and-ready “John Brown’s Body” is a welcome blast of energy to start Disc 2, which covers 1861-1945. Jake Shimabukuro wails the “Stars and Stripes Forever” on his ukelele. The Black Crowes and their father Stan (billed as the Folk Family Robinson) deliver an honest and moving reading of Woody Guthrie’s “Reuben James,” one of the great topical songs of the 20th century. Old Crow Medicine Show, my favorite of the new crop of Americana bands, does a nice job with Woody Guthrie’s plangent lyric about illegal migrant workers, “Deportee (Plain Wreck at Los Gatos).” And Janis Ian sings the grim “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye” – perhaps the saddest song ever written in the English language, at least prior to the oeuvre of Harry Chapin – a capella and with all due reverence. The song benefits from the quiet treatment. So does “Over There,” chirped with effective hollowness by – speaking of the Chapin family – Jen Chapin, over Stephan Crump’s mournful sawing on the bass. Instead of a rousing call to arms the song becomes a thoughtful consideration of the business of war.

The early Jazz Age is represented by Andy Bey’s smooth, moody version of “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” and a jaunty “Rosie the Riveter” from Suzy Bogguss, who isn’t a jazz singer but does a decent job. Classical soprano Karen Parks contributes a lovely, art-song version of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and Danielson‘s “Happy Days Are Here Again” is refreshingly nutty. But for every well-done or interesting track, there’s a colorless, tepid one. These sleepy versions of what have always been significant, meaningful songs are disappointing.

Disc 3, 1946-present, is also a frustrating mix of the fresh and the tired. It’s great to have Elizabeth Cook and The Grascals’ new recording of the Louvin Brothers’ “Great Atomic Power,” and having Devendra Banhart take a crack at the 1960s condemnation of suburbia, “Little Boxes,” was an inspired idea. But the recasts of very familiar rock-era songs like “The Times They Are A Changin’,” “What’s Going On,” I Am Woman,” and “Say It Loud, I’m Black And I’m Proud” don’t add anything much, though they’re mostly nice enough. Kim Richey having a calmly joyous time with the 60s anthem “Get Together” is something of an exception, and the Ben Taylor Band’s sleepy take on Neil Young’s great protest song “Ohio” is curiously affecting. Bettye LaVette comes off well, taking Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia” to soulful heights the Boss’s own inexplicably Oscar-winning version didn’t even approach.

But Scott Kempner, Martha Wainwright, Gary Heffern, The Wrights, Matthew Ryan, even John Mellencamp, seem just plain sleepy. Maybe the songs are still too iconic, or too current, for newer artists to want to update them in any interesting way. Pettersen and co. should take a listen to Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s “Blowin’ In The Wind” (on the live Weld album) to hear an example of how a classic can be rebuilt with enough originality and power to draw even deeper waters from an already deep well. In any case, the result here is a set that seems too much like a dry history lesson, rather than the exciting rainbow of historically meaningful songs it could have been.

Education is actually one of the main purposes of the compilation, and Discs 1 and 2, at least, will be good teaching tools. But less postmodern, shoegazing gloom and more rock and roll spirit would have given the whole collection more color, both as a musical tapestry and as a way of interesting kids in American history from the standpoint of those who struggled and still struggle. And speaking of struggles: Native American and African American songs and interests are pretty well represented, but the lack of any Hispanic material is a serious omission.

Serious…that’s the right word. Too much of these tracks just feel too darned hands-off and serious.

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

Theater Review (NYC): Love of a Pig by Leslie Caveny

Sunday, October 14th, 2007

Leslie Caveny’s experience writing for television is evident in her sparkling new comedy, Love of a Pig. Like a well-written sitcom episode, it boasts fast pacing, short, sharp exchanges, minimal time between laughs, and one dramatic decrescendo into touching quietude. What makes it special is that it extends the best features of scripted TV comedy over an hour-plus of live action, without losing focus or shine.

Also like a sitcom plot, the play is built upon a hackneyed premise. The aptly, drably named Jenny Brown (Dana Brooke), a twenty-something violin grad student, can’t get a date. There’s nothing wrong with her appearance or personality; rather, she’s locked in a cycle of low self-esteem and high self-consciousness that makes her an Invisible Girl when it comes to attracting Joe (Steven Strobel), a brooding, self-absorbed bassist, while blinding her to signals from a guy who does find her appealing.

Pretty common stuff. But Caveny, director D. H. Johnson, and the sprightly, almost scarily talented cast spin it into a perfect piece of salty-sweet fun.

The play is simultaneously an ensemble piece and a star turn for Dana Brooke, whose tour de force of a performance is a controlled explosion of emotional movements and colors. The other seven actors play a variety of roles, some more or less realistic, some clownish and even puppetlike – from barfly to mailman to fellow students to door (yes, door). David Nelson is delightfully squirmy as the bitter, over-sensitive music instructor, and Jenny Greer is hilarious as our heroine’s lightheaded teenage sister, but there are no weak links in the cast or the production as a whole.

Credit must go to the director for keeping the proceedings so peppery and brisk. Yet despite all the vigorous action, cute business, and a facile ending, there’s enough substance that you feel you’ve been in the company of real people with realistic problems, behaving just as kindly and cluelessly as your own friends and acquaintances.

Except these folks are funnier. Much, much funnier.

Wednesdays through Sundays through Oct. 28 at the 45th Street Theatre. Tickets online or call (212) 868-4444.

Book Review: Net, Blogs and Rock ‘n’ Roll by David Jennings

Thursday, October 11th, 2007

Aside from his terrible title pun, the psychologist and media consultant David Jennings is a very smart man, and his book Net, Blogs and Rock ‘n’ Roll should prove valuable to anyone interested in how people are discovering, and will discover, new music and other media as the digital age progresses. There’s a lot of talk these days about celestial jukeboxes, long tails, folksonomies, the tearable web, “some rights reserved,” and other modern concepts in arts, marketing, and commerce, but Jennings has pulled them neatly into a sensible, readable package dense with ideas and reflecting a very positive outlook.

The internet has enabled us to easily find virtually anything we want. Hence we have, as Jennings says, “what fans used to dream of… Our problem now is scarcity of attention.” The book details what entrepreneurs and thinkers are starting to do, and might yet do, to try to capture and focus the attention of consumers and fans of music, movies, videos, etc., and the new ways in which those fans, through technology and community, are “foraging” for their media sustenance.

I deliberately used both terms, “consumers” and “fans,” because as Jennings makes clear through the use of a pyramid concept that will probably look familiar to marketing managers, there are four types of music listeners: Savants, Enthusiasts, Casuals, and Indifferents. People in these different groups discover new music in various ways. “While Savants [people for whom music is an essential part of their identity, and who often play a creative or leadership role among fans] and Enthusiasts may choose their friends based on what music they like, Casual listeners are more likely to choose their music based on what their friends like.”

The pyramid can also be expressed (top down) as Originators, Synthesizers, and Lurkers. But either way, “communities do not require majority participation in order to be successful and to generate content and relationships that their members find valuable,” and a “cycle of influence” among these groups “can significantly affect the word-of-mouth reputation of a book, film, piece of music, or game.”

Jennings explains the difficulties and the potential for “gatekeepers” who try to generate meaningful popularity “charts” in a context where means and opportunities for distribution and consumption are very inconstant. He also talks about the changing roles of intermediaries like reviewers (in the age of blogs), editors (Last.fm doesn’t have them; the All Media Guides do), and human and automated “DJs.” Regarding the last, Jennings makes the important point, in a chapter called “Cracking the Code of Content,” that “The power to program becomes more important as the range of material available to us on demand keeps on growing.” We use music in a variety of ways – active listening is only one of them – and we have an expanding number of technologies and techniques we can employ to discover music and program personal playlists.

Networking and blogs, he says, “provide the means to reconnect fans and audiences who are rarely listening to or watching the same thing at the same time now that so much is available. The new breed of smart intermediaries will look for ways” to give us the sense of shared experience that the hegemony of Big Media has fostered, and to “enrich…those experiences by adding contextual information and opportunities to communicate or contribute.”

The key strength of this book is Jennings’s strong background in sociology, psychology, and marketing, combined with his understanding of the latest technologies in use, and in development, for the dissemination of media. He creates a neat synthesis of the intersection of human nature and technological trends. It might be too neat, in fact. The “rock ‘n’ roll” part of his title triumvirate refers to human creative energy: personal expression, anti-authoritarianism, sexuality, and the “do-it-yourself ethos” now being expressed in blogs and wikis. But another part of what one might call the “rock ‘n’ roll” spirit is a tendency towards chaos and destruction.

Jennings more than ably presents a wide-angle perspective on technology and media discovery. He acknowledges technological hurdles yet to be overcome, the need to police social networks, and the vulnerability of discovery and recommendation engines to being gamed by the unscrupulous or antisocial. But his analysis mostly ignores political matters like net neutrality, privacy concerns, and censorship, any of which could stomp on the beautiful, networked world of sharing like Godzilla on Bambi. Perhaps that’s a subject for a different book. But it hung over me like a small dark cloud throughout my reading of this one, despite its sunny disposition and smiling forecast for the future of media and popular culture.

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

The Trouble with New York

Wednesday, October 10th, 2007

Here’s the trouble, see. Last night I’m getting ready to submit a review of Tompkins Square Records‘ new compilation of old murder ballads and disaster songs. I’m emailing with the record label guy about it and he tells me they’re having a CD release party later that night at Cake Shop and do I want to come? If I lived in Lansing, MI or Natural Bridge, VA this sort of thing wouldn’t happen. I’d post my review and then sit at home by the fire reading a book or something, probably petting a cat and listening to the crickets out my window or the distant crack of the polar ice melting into the ocean.

But because I live in New York everything seems to be happening right here and it’s so hard not to go out. Can’t miss anything! Maybe there’ll be well-connected people to network with! Maybe something awesome will happen! Maybe I’ll meet a celebrity! Or get a free drink! Gotta go! Gotta run downtown!

It’s even worse now that I’ve moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan. In spite of the great Brooklyn cultural renaissance of the past decade, Manhattan still has a greater concentration of stuff to do – if only because of sheer geography.

Greg Jamie

So I go down to Cake Shop and I meet the head of the label and the producers and I hear and meet some fantastic musicians. Singer and banjo picker Hank Sapoznik, who co-produced the album, got a pick-up group together, including the wonderful fiddler Michelle Yu of The Moonshiners, to play a set of jumpin’ old-timey music. Following them, Greg Jamie of O Death came on to perform some of the numbers from the album. Chris King, the other producer, had seemed disappointed when I told him the songs on the compilation hadn’t “disturbed” me, but Jamie’s band was certainly one of the oddest and most disturbing groups I’ve seen. So there you go, Chris – I was disturbed in the end, after all. By live music. Which is as it should be. Of course, James Blunt disturbs me too. But that’s different. That’s not in a good way.

There are some things you won’t get to see in New York, of course. Foamhenge, for example. So it’s important to get out of town once in a while.

Music Review: Various Artists, People Take Warning!: Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs 1913-1938

Wednesday, October 10th, 2007

From the wreck of the Titanic through the Great Depression, American folk musicians regularly communicated stories of disasters and murders through song, often adding religious morals. New technologies, especially in transportation, had created a whole new category of disasters that singers and pickers could recount. They still retold the old stories, but they also wrote new, topical songs using old musical forms (and sometimes famous old melodies). Tompkins Square‘s new three-disc collection of these American murder ballads and disaster songs is an extensive, though by no means exhaustive, sampling of what Tom Waits calls in the liner notes the “oral tabloids of the day.”

Disc 1, “Man V Machine,” includes many songs about railroad disasters, from famous stories like the Old 97 and Casey Jones to obscurities like Ernest Stoneman’s tale of a fellow named Talmadge Osborne who died trying to get on a moving freighter, and Alfred Reed’s “Fate of Chris Lively and Wife,” whose wagon got hit by a train. There are auto, airship, and airplane crashes, and a weird reworking of the John Henry legend called “Bill Wilson” by the Birmingham Jug Band. The Titanic is well represented, most curiously in a recording of a traditional Hebrew prayer recorded in 1913 by Cantor Joseph Rosenblatt, and a stream-of-consciousness spoken word ramble by Frank Hutchison written fifteen years after the great ship went down.

Disc 2, “Man V Nature,” deals with “natural” events like fires, floods, drought, pestilence, and disease. (Times haven’t changed all that much since Old Testament days, have they?) The great Mississippi flood of 1927 weighs heavily in this group; rock fans will recognize the basis for Led Zeppelin’s classic “When the Levee Breaks,” recorded here in 1929 by Kansas Joe and the great guitarist Memphis Minnie. But there was a great variety of disasters to sing about. Charlie Patton’s compelling first recording, “Boll Weevil Blues,” is here, contrasting interestingly with Fiddlin’ John Carson’s take on the same subject. Charlotte and Bob Miller’s rendition of “Ohio Prison Fire,” written just three days after the dreadful 1930 blaze that killed more than 300 prisoners, includes an extended spoken dialogue between a grieving mother and the warden, while Blind Alfred Reed’s “Explosion in the Fairmount Mine” uses an unusual minor chord to dramatize a child’s premonition of that 1907 disaster.

The styles range from early country music to rural proto-blues to some more indefinable, eccentric sounds, but the majority of the troubadors are white singers from the rural south. As the liner notes explain, black artists were generally classified as “blues” even if they were doing music that resembled that of their white counterparts, so that relatively few ballads and disaster songs were released for the black audience – ironic considering the magnified hardships faced by rural black folks in those days. (But note the significant exceptions, like Son House, Furry Lewis, the aforementioned Charlie Patton, and singers in the early gospel “sanctified” tradition.)

The songs on Disc 3, “Man V Man (And Woman, Too),” recount violent deaths at the hands of cops, angry lovers, crazed fathers, outlaws, lynch mobs, and the State. Most were real events of the 19th and early 20th centuries, but the stories are exactly like those of today. Plus ça change is the clearest message these musical tales send to us in the 21st.

The handsome packaging and liner notes include background on the songs, the recordings, and the artists, many period photos, and selections from the lyrics. Famous disasters and familiar characters like Tom Dooley, Stack O’Lee, Bruno Hauptmann, Casey Jones, and even Pretty Polly mingle with obscure local tales and the nameless (but, through these songs, not forgotten) dead of disasters past. The music isn’t consistently great, and some of it is readily available elsewhere, but it’s all interesting; taken together, it’s a fascinating treasure trove of doom, and an enjoyable lesson in how American history played an intimate part in defining the popular music of the period – music that gave birth to the forms and songs we listen to today.

Theater Review (NYC): I Used to Write on Walls by Bekah Brunstetter

Monday, October 8th, 2007

The prolific Bekah Brunstetter has written another fine play, and this time I can say that without any caveats. I Used to Write on Walls is funny, deep, innovative, and affecting on several levels. Brunstetter’s central skill of creating painfully real female characters is truly put to the test in this play, where there are seven of them and no ensemble scenes. She not only meets but surpasses her own test.

A lonely, fat policewoman, a suicidally insecure makeup artist, and a beautiful spoken-word performer all fall for a California surfer dude (Jeff Berg) who’s in New York City on a “rad, rad philosophical journey” to right humanity’s wrongs. Immature, untrustworthy, and stupid, the ridiculous Trevor is plainly nobody’s Mr. Right. Yet with an easy charm, good looks, and a few sweet words, he divests the women of their judgment as easily as he gets them out of their clothes.

Even Georgia (Levita Shaurice), the sharp, self-aware poet, can’t help wanting more from Trevor than he is obviously prepared to give. So maybe it’s not such a surprise that the overweight, 34-year-old Diane (Maggie Hamilton, with exquisite comic timing) falls for his sweet-talk. Or that self-hating Joanne (Darcie Champagne), whose debilitating anxiety visibly quivers just under her bubbly surface, clings, literally for dear life, to his childish optimism.

Trevor may be a two- and three-timing Lothario, and worse, but Berg invests the difficult role with a raw, scabrous humanity. His stereotypical faux-clever pronouncements and absurd insensitivity make us laugh as easily as he makes the women melt. When Joanne confesses, “I was gonna kill myself, right before we met,” his fascinated response is, “Really? How?”

But when he meets his match, in the person of the overripe, nutty, and possibly dangerous Mona (Ellen David), the blubbering little boy within is revealed. On stage a great deal of the time, Berg makes Trevor an entertaining and, against all odds, very human villain. The real enemy, Brunstetter is telling us, is the pressure women put on themselves to be and look perfect, and the too-often impossible dream of matching what you want with what you have.

Yet the playwright doesn’t heavy-handedly blame “society” or “male-dominated culture” for her women’s plight. Each in her own way, the women reveal their weaknesses; they are fully realized people at the mercy of a complexity of forces, some programmed right into their own natures.

Rachel Dorfman and Mary Round are very good in mother roles, and Chelsey Shannon persuades as eleven-year-old Anna, who represents, in a magical-realist sort of way, how women – at least in Brunstetter’s convincing vision – start out life: on one level, pure and innocent, but already bearing the ova of corrupton and disappointment. From Anna’s mother’s heartbreakingly funny toss-off line – “Don’t look directly at me, it burns” – through Diane’s sad and hilarious voicemail confession, the Fellini-esque tableau at the end of Act I, Trevor’s breakdown, and Georgia’s genuinely poetic, Chorus-like coda, I Used to Write on Walls is the work of a playwright coming into full mastery.

Thursdays through Saturdays through Oct. 27 at the Gene Frankel Theatre Underground, 24 Bond St. between Lafayette and Bowery, NYC. Tickets online or call 212-868-4444. Mature language and themes.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Too Much Music

Friday, October 5th, 2007

Big pile o’ CDs. Can’t see over it. Good part: nobody can tell I’m here. Anyway this week a bunch of quickie reviews. Using sentence fragments. Dive in!

The Milwaukees, American Anthems Vol. 1

Solid, well-written new Jersey rock with a late 70s/early 80s sensibility and a vocalist, Dylan St. Clark, whose upper register sounds like Huey Lewis. Hard-rocking guitar licks and sprawl. Rocker tunes characterized by a certain melodic monotony, St. Clark using only one mode: shout-it-out passion at the top of his lungs. Fortunately also a variety of gentler songs where he shows range, plus “Save Me.” Suspect these guys are very good live. Hear extended clips here.

Diego Sandrin, A Fine Day Between Addictions

Italian, but sung in English, European pop-dramatic flair and gentle glam crossed with shy form of American alt-rock baritone ice. First song didn’t grab me – seemingly gratuitious profanity, for one thing. Plainspoken, mostly uninflected, vaguely yearning singing seemed too unemotional. All made sense later in the context of the whole CD’s disillusioned focus: “All I can be is this hole that you see / And I’m over your pitiful wall…” sings Sandrin in “My American Friend,” “…your god must be a banker, an accountant, / A brand on your shoes / I’m strung out again / It’s this godawful wind / I wrote ‘motherfucker’ on your wall / And I can’t wait till you cast me out.”

Zinger choruses rubbed in moody, mod grit. Quietly bracing, especially to listen in the morning, like a splash of bay rum on the hot old face. Song titles like “From Music to Nothing,” “Lest I Find Some Dissonance,” and “Pigeons” sum it up. Italian yet somehow New York. Nick Drake fans will probably like too. Listen and buy.

David Pavia, Songs for Soft Machines

Raw crunchy album rock inspired by psychedelia and Stones, classic Strat sound. Voice a high keen like a subset of Jimmy Page’s, sometimes early Mellencamp, or a Black Crowes or ZZ Top howl: can get a bit tedious, but powerful in best rockers like “Here We Go Again,” “Love Is All Over Me,” “Come To Life.” Not so much in some of ballads. But still like them.

Unexpectedly soulful but grokkable lyrics. A very assured debut; a keeper. Listen and buy.

Beth Hirsch, Wholehearted

Soothing jazzy pop. Is much soothing jazzy pop in world. Here more.

Much keyboard. Also some well played guitar work and well planned strings. Also a touch of folk-rock sheen in the writing and eerie throbbing ecto-electronica.

Bored me in the late afternoon. Listened again next morning, found it quite… soothing. Voice like velour. Chord changes like a lava lamp.

A subtle record. A mood record, a time of day record. Be soothed.

Built By Snow, Noise

Not a subtle record.

Gotta be honest with you – I popped this in only because of the cool cover design. Seven-song EP inside not too bad either. Emotional-mechanical. Stuffy-nosed singer sounds like Ric Ocasek (but sometimes overdoes I-don’t-care’-how-yucky-I-sound attitude).

Analog synths!

First two songs are best, “Sleeping Machines” also good. “Juliana” an effective punky ballad. Still – synth-rock style calls for raising of overall songwriting level. Can these guys do it?

Hear. Buy.

Jarez, To the Top

Innocuous smooth jazz and funk-lite from an accomplished saxman. Title track cops the horn hook from the Stones’s “Bitch.”

Jarez toured with his cousin, the rapper Coolio, so he knows some stuff, I guess. But his smooth jazz is worlds better than his ashen r&b.

Sample and buy.

Melissa Giges, Far Beyond the Pacific

Warm, sensitive, jazzy chamber pop with pleasing harmonic motion.
“Surrender” has Bacharach flavor while “Stand By” evokes more jazzy Tori Amos. I dig “Find Some Time” and “Who Will I Be” and the lush ballad “Lay My Head Down” and others.

Good variety of feels and energy levels, but the hooks don’t match the sweet arrangements. Still, above average for the style. If only there weren’t so much of the style around…

Hear and buy at her website.

All done. See you next week, when we return with our regularly scheduled program of complete sentences.

Theater Review (NYC): The Lady Swims Today, with Robert Funaro of The Sopranos

Thursday, October 4th, 2007

H. G. Brown’s new heist tale centers on Eddie Hajazi, a charmer with a cruel streak who needs a crew to help him pull off a big maritime heist. Played with sleazy suavity by Robert Funaro (known to many as Eugene Pontecorvo on The Sopranos), Eddie artfully appeals to the needs and the dreams of three local men. Mal (Robert Sheridan) is a former contraband runner gone straight, now trying to make a settled life for himself and his new wife, Bev (Vivienne Leheny), as a modest innkeeper. George (Gordon Silva) tends bar at Mal’s place, and Harley (Jack Rodgerson) is a piano-playing dockworker down on his luck. Three women complicate the scheme: the hardworking, morally centered Bev; Harley’s girl Alice (Kelli K. Barnett), an oversexed stripper with a heart of gold; and most of all, Bev’s friend Joyce (Kate Udall), a sultry newspaper writer.

Even these colorful characters are almost upstaged, early on, by Joseph Spirito’s spectacular set. Though Mal and Bev are slowly renovating the inn, the barroom where the action takes place is a character of its own. The stained wood sings with color and history, while the wall decor and the jukebox (stocked only with oldies) define a worn and comfortable sailors’ haven. Luckily, Brown’s snappy dialogue and director Stephen Sunderlin’s brisk staging keep us focused on the action.

Act I’s character introductions and set-up scenes boast a sprightly, slightly elevated dialogue that’s reminiscent of Lanford Wilson’s (think Hot L Baltimore), but delivered by the cast in a way that sometimes crosses the line from animated into hammy. It feels to me as if director and cast are a bit hamstrung (no pun intended) by an inconsistency of tone. The script is part gangsters-and-molls (think Key Largo) and part late 20th century TV comedy-drama. One wishes it would go all the way in one direction or the other. This flaw prevents the play rising above clever entertainment to become higher art.

Joyce, the writer, is the epitome of this conflict. Though Udall fleshes her out with a rich and funny performance, she’s an anachronism in a story that’s meant to take place in 1984. Some of her speeches feel like a nostalgic 1940s High Hollywood take on journalistic intrepidity. On the other hand, Udall and Barnett play out their scenes of drunken female bonding with vigorous humor, and both their characters attain a level of depth that’s a credit to their performances, the playwright’s skill with characterization, and the director’s vision.

I also found Eddie’s roguish appeal to the women difficult to credit. As played by Funari, his charm is so patently artificial that one would expect even a hard case like Alice to see right through it. The philosophical Mal and even the bitter Harley have no trouble discerning Eddie’s rascality, only casting their lot with him out of acknowledged greedy or desperate motivations. And Bev, the moral center of the play, wants no part of his scheming.

The show is quite entertaining despite those flaws. Its length and pacing are exactly right, and it has some wrenching moments – especially in the women’s scenes – where the raw underside of humanity is exposed to the wind and the sea spray that you can almost feel through the windows of the weathered barroom of the Carney Hook Marina Motel.

Through Oct. 21 at the Tada! Theater, 15 W. 28 St., NYC. Tickets online or call 212-352-3101 or 866-811-4111 (toll free).

Concert Review: Mofro and Assembly of Dust at the Highline Ballroom

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2007

Mofro, one of the best American bands of the new century, has grown a bit in size, adding a three-man horn section, and (probably of necessity) gotten a bit more polished since I saw them last summer. The need to direct more musicians makes lead singer/guitarist/keyboardist JJ Grey less like a shaman and more like a gospel/soul bandleader. If anything, though, his onstage self-confidence – to use a technical term, his mojo – has strengthened.

Drummer George Sluppick, functioning as second-line band leader, has added some sting to his beat while retaining the heavy foot. Absurdly nonchalant guitarist Daryl Hance and casually funky organ/keyboard-bassist Adam Scone round out the core of the band. Mofro, especially with the horns, is a loud band. But the near-perfect acoustics of the new Highline Ballroom (in the Meatpacking District, upstairs from Western Beef) made everything clear as a bell. Every word of the lyrics could be heard and understood; every wrinkly, scratchy note from Grey's Wurlitzer came through clearly.

Highlights of the set included "Tragic," "By My Side," "Circles," and "Country Ghetto," all from the new CD, as was the slow, gospel-influenced encore, "The Sun is Shining Down." "Six Ways from Sunday" (from Lochloosa) turned into an extended jam, and "Florida" (from Blackwater) got the crowd into a frenzy which continued through a mopping-up (nameless?) jam that closed the official set.

Inspiring, as usual.

Assembly of Dust (see my CD review in this column) is the exact opposite sort of band. Where Grey directs his group from a position of charisma and total dominance, AOD's Reid Genauer leads by getting out of the way. Not blessed with an especially soulful voice or a magnetic onstage personality, Genauer has the gift of generating small sparks that his band can blow into roaring fires.

If a Mofro set feels rooted in the 60s, AOD recalls the 70s, referencing the Allman Brothers, Boz Scaggs, Steely Dan, and Bakersfield country. Lead guitarist Adam Terrell looks like a college professor but blazes during his long, astoundingly fluid solos, which owe much more to Duane Allman than to Jerry Garcia. Keyboardist and co-writer Nate Wilson plays with easy flair, while bassist John Leccese and drummer Andy Herrick lock in as well as any rhythm section I've heard.

The first few songs seemed small and overly controlled. Genauer's wispy presence requires you to "lean in" to get what the band is doing. But after a few songs things started to deepen, the excellence of the band became apparent, the dynamics kicked in, and much jamming ensued. More than I could take, actually; I missed the end of the set because of the problem with Highline Ballroom and similar venues: they're standing-room-only rooms, with just a few tables on the sides. There's a reason I'm not a butler. Three and a half hours is as much as I can take standing on my feet.

Still I came away with much appreciation of Assembly of Dust, and another memorable experience of JJ Grey and Mofro.

Theater Review (NYC): Such Good Friends at the New York Musical Theatre Festival

Monday, October 1st, 2007

Broadway stars Liz Larsen (Hairspray, Most Happy Fella) and Brad Oscar (The Producers) lead a deep and snappy ensemble in Noel Katz's new musical about the cast and crew of a 1950s TV variety show. Shades of The Dick Van Dyke Show, of course; but the center of gravity here is not the writer, but the star, Dottie Francis (Larsen), who mugs and chirps and pratfalls and Streisands through a bravura performance as a professional "funny girl" whose career, along with those of her long-running crew, is threatened by the pressure to name names at the McCarthy hearings.

The first act zips along on the glamour and good times of live television's golden age. Dottie, her director Gabe (Oscar), head writer Danny (a sad-eyed Jeff Talbott), and choreographer Donald (the swift-footed Dirk Lumbard) whip up skits and bits like they were cream pies. The team's peppery wit and talent, carried along on Katz's nimble lyrics and sweetly smart period music, engender what seems an endless font of joy for both creators and audience.

The only thorn in their side is the presence of the show's corporate sponsor – or, more precisely, a corporate nephew, Kenneth, played by Joshua James Campbell, who invests the part with a touching combination of goofiness and soul. But he's fallen for the ingenue Virginia Pepper (the delightful Shannon O'Bryan), so the team conspires to send the pair off to the Catskills on a fake scouting mission. That's the occasion for "Mountain Air," one of the many funny, brief, gusty, pointed musical numbers that push the story along through Act I.

Marc Bruni's staging flows brilliantly. At a couple of the scene transitions you almost catch your breath in appreciation, as if at an unexpected rhyme. Wendy Seyb's choreography takes advantage of the cast's energy and skill, and Larsen is just brilliant at "bad" dancing.

Act I ends with the clever "Court Jester," a song-and-dance number in which the team disguises a send-up of the McCarthy hearings as a manic tale from a mythical kingdom (Shades, here, of the Murder of Gonzaga in Hamlet. But there have been plays within plays – and shows about showbiz – for centuries. No reason to stop now).

The story, and with it the energy, peter out in Act II after the principals appear before McCarthy's committee. One successfully plays dumb; another names names; a third refuses to do so and hence can no longer work on the show. Without her essential team – the "good friends" of the title – Dottie can only soldier on miserably.

The plot gets wavy. An old performing partner of Dottie's (Lynne Wintersteller), trying to break into the new medium of TV, has, it turns out, appeared before the committee too – but was it her testimony, or the Jester sketch, that led to the subpoenaing of our heroes and heroine? I couldn't tell. More important, some of the story elements so winningly threaded through the first act just fray. While both Dottie and Danny are meted out some sort of moral fate, Oscar's Borscht Belt character – so jovially played and cannily developed – doesn't get one. The damned if you do, damned if you don't aspect of the McCarthy blacklists is explored a bit in Danny's denouement, but our emotional investment in Gabe gets no payoff, and we need that for symmetry and satisfaction.

We've also come to care about Kenneth and Virginia and their budding love story, but it's summarily dispensed with. Meanwhile the moral/political side of the story, earlier handled with a deft balance of reality and send-up in numbers like "You're a Red" and the court jester sequence, becomes heavy-handed in a number called "Some Kind of Hero," which lands with a thud as Katz's sense of balance deserts him along with his lyrical gifts.

Finally, the show ends indecisively. It feels like it needs either a big bittersweet finale, or some sort of shocking downer, but it gets neither, sullenly and suddenly closing up shop with a pout.

Such Good Friends as it stands is about three-fifths of a wonderful, old-style musical. Act I alone is worth the price of admission, and so is Larsen's performance. The whole cast is picture perfect (though Talbott's singing voice could use some technological boosting when it's paired with Oscar's stronger one). The music capably evokes the style and sensibility of the old standards of the period, and the simple and effective scene design comfortably houses the action, including Seyb's witty choreography. The sharp and sometimes brilliant dialogue, especially during the team's writing sessions, is still echoing in my ears.

One hopes the producers get the opportunity to punch up Act II and turn this into the smash it could be.

You can hear a few musical selections here.

Through Oct. 6 at the Julia Miles Theatre, 424 W. 55 St., NYC. Tickets (just $20) online at the New York Musical Theatre Festival website or call 212-352-3101.