Music Review: The Soft Parade (40th Anniversary Mix) by The Doors

The Soft Parade, the fourth of The Doors’ six classic studio albums, is often considered the least successful. However, the newly mixed and mastered 40th anniversary reissue of all six records is an excellent occasion to revisit the experiments that resulted in the band’s uneven but interesting 1969 effort.

The album included pop-oriented arrangements that carried the Doors far from their stripped-down, bluesy roots, with some questionable results. Internal divisions, meanwhile – partly caused by Jim Morrison’s excessive drinking – made the recording process slow and difficult. Nevertheless the album produced a number of classic songs, including “Touch Me,” “Wild Child,” and the nearly ten-minute title suite that had counterculture kids screaming along with Morrison, “You cannot petition the Lord with prayer!!!”

In “Tell All the People” and “Touch Me” the new production makes the individual horn parts burst through the mix with such clarity that the songs become more like sophisticated Chicago (the band) arrangements, or post-swing tunes, and less like the cheesy pop that some critics likened them to when the album came out. Whether you consider this an improvement may depend on what you originally liked or didn’t like about the songs. If the rethinking of those two recordings (by original Doors engineer Bruce Botnick) still doesn’t grab you, you may take comfort in revisiting the much more Doors-like “Shaman’s Blues,” which has always been one of my favorite Doors songs. The new mix keeps the grim intensity while giving a new separation to the underlying keyboard parts.

“Do It” was mostly forgettable then, and it remains so; perhaps significantly, it’s the only song on the album credited to both Morrison and Robbie Krieger. Everything else was written by one or the other. (Prior to this album, the band members were in the habit of giving one another collective songwriting credit.) Though at the time of this recording they weren’t working together quite so smoothly, the singer and the guitarist retained their capacities for inspiration. Morrison’s “Wild Child” and Kreiger’s ballad “Wishful Sinful” ably represent the band’s grungy and romantic sides. (The English horn solo on the latter comes through sweetly sparkling in the new mix.)

“Runnin’ Blue” might be the weirdest song ever recorded by the band, with Kreiger thinly hollering the bluegrass chorus and the horn players going crazy on the jazzy break. With its density and abandon, the song gains a great deal from the new mix. By contrast, no added sound clarity can make the “Soft Parade” suite itself more than an inconsistent mix of simple, catchy musical bits and Morrison’s pretend poetry.

The bonus tracks are worth having, though the liner notes fail to give any background on them. There’s the underrated “Who Scared You;” two versions (in different keys and arrangements) of the chantlike “Whiskey, Mystics and Men,” the second of which I particularly like; the goofy, good-natured, mostly instrumental rhythm-and-blues jam “Push Push” (basically a rewrite of “Twist and Shout”); and a previously unreleased, slightly looser take of “Touch Me,” during the introduction of which the bass and guitar play a slightly different rhythm, for those of you keeping track of such things.

The Doors always had a slightly different rhythm from everyone else. Pretentious, flawed, and dominated by a self-destructive front man, they were and still are one of rock’s most original and influential groups, and The Soft Parade, imperfect as it is, remains an essential disc for Doors fans.

Cross-posted at Blogcritics

Theater Review: North of Providence

It is unusual for a one-act play that runs less than an hour to be given its own production, especially in New York City, where production costs are enormous. Edward Allan Baker’s North of Providence, however, now in a revival by Small Pond Entertainment at Altered Stages, earns its focus. It’s a well directed and powerfully played full evening’s worth of drama in a single act.

Before I discuss why the play is worth seeing, I must mention a few doubts of which I am giving it the benefit. Perhaps because it was the first preview, the cast of two took a while to find the rhythm of their dialogue. The script is weighed down a bit by some awkward explication during its slow-build set-up. The otherwise excellent Chad Meador drifts in and out of a North Providence dialect that he hasn’t mastered anyway (Yvonne Roen has a better time with it).

Meador and Roen, as directed by Glory Sims Bowen, barrel through these distractions to bring Baker’s prickly, tightly wound family drama to life. The plot is basic: struggling, with some success, to make a good life for herself and her family after being dealt a poor hand, Carol returns to her parents’ run-down home to try to convince Bobbie, her only brother in a family of sisters, to come to the hospital where their father is dying.

Chad Meador in North of Providence
Chad Meador in North of Providence

As Carol tries to break through to her brooding, dismissive, and none too articulate sibling, baring her soul in the process, we come to learn what lies behind the anger (and the love) that drives her. Even more dramatically, we, along with Carol, learn the devastating secret that has turned Bobbie into the drunken, possibly suicidal recluse who won’t visit his dying father and thinks nothing of swiping the cash from his sister’s purse.

Along the way we’re treated to a number of sharply dramatic moments, but the very best may be the quietest: the simple admission by the emotionally exhausted Bobbie that, yes, he’s hungry, and there might be some food in the fridge Carol could fix for him. The resulting, rather sad-looking bologna sandwich channels more emotion than one could ever expect from such a humble object. By the end, we’re as chewed up as the sandwich, as torn up as the porn magazines Carol hurls at Bobbie, and as worn out as he is. Catharsis achieved.

The bedraggled one-room set effectively mirrors both the disintegration of the family and Bobbie’s claustrophobic, drink-addled life. A musical soundtrack evokes the mid-1980s setting, but the story could be taking place anywhere, and almost anywhen, in America. Unfortunately New York is the only place you can see this production. But that’s the nature of theater – you, and the actors, have to be there. And your reward for showing up is to feel the floorboards shake, smell the aftershave, and be touched in a way that can never quite happen at the movies.

Through June 3. Tickets at Smarttix or call 212-868-4444.

Cross-posted at Blogcritics.

Music Review: Jonathan Coulton, Live at Union Hall

Much is being made of Jonathan Coulton‘s recent, Internet-fueled popularity, but as several fans pointed out in the comments to his most recent blog post (entitled “How I Did It”), it’s easy to lose sight of the essential fact that Coulton’s music is wonderful. Sure, he’s used the Internet in innovative ways, and sure, he had a measure of good luck in getting the necessary exposure that enabled him to find his audience. But without an unusual gift, none of that would matter.

At last night’s jam-packed concert at Union Hall in Brooklyn, Coulton demonstrated performing chops to match his songwriting talent. Strong vocals and nifty guitar work acted merely in the service of the rooted connection he made to the audience with his songs. It’s that connection which can elevate a concert to the realm of the transcendently entertaining. Alone with an acoustic guitar, Coulton embodied the primeval bond between entertainer and audience. That’s not a niche – that’s basic entertainment. It doesn’t matter if every last one of his fans discovered him on the Internet – they’re coming to see him live. Plus ça change…

“I Crush Everything,” a slightly surreal song about a lonely giant squid, exemplified the imagination that makes Coulton special. He can create a truly touching and beautiful song from the point of view of a creature that is alien and nearly mythic to us. “I lie below, you float above/In the pretty white ships that I’ve been dreaming of/And I’d like to swim beside you/Getting dizzy in your wake…” The chorus brilliantly (musically and lyrically) evokes the incompleteness of the sensitive squid’s life.

“I’m Your Moon” is another song about fundamental human feelings expressed through things that don’t have them – in this case Pluto and its moon, Charon. In the universe of music, it’s just a short step from a metaphor about birds and bees to a love song sung by one celestial body to another. In taking that step Coulton adds his imaginative spin to age-old topics, while remaining comfortably accessible to music lovers.

As one fan noted in a blog comment, “You come for the funny, you stay for the music.” The song “The Future Soon” is certainly of the funny, as are many of Coulton’s most popular tunes, but unlike a typical novelty song, it’s sad and deep as well as humorous. We can’t help but sympathize with the geeky teenager dreaming of “perfecting my warrior robot race”: “Cause it’s gonna be the future soon/And I won’t always be this way/When the things that make me weak and strange get engineered away.”

Something similar, of course, is what gives his biggest hit, “Code Monkey,” its force – humor and silliness in the service of real feeling. Or is it the other way around? It doesn’t really matter. While there were plenty of code monkeys in the audience last night, they aren’t much different from the rest of the world now. In fact, we’re all geeks now, tied to our silicon, hip to the digits. Jonathan Coulton is a creature of us. Niche indeed.

Cross-posted at Blogcritics.

Book Review: The Grand Illusion: Love, Lies, and My Life with Styx by Chuck Panozzo with Michele Skettino

I first liked Styx because the girl I liked liked Styx. Then I liked Styx because, well, I just liked them. Their shiny brand of rock may have been tailor-made for teenage girls, but its romanticism and drama also appealed to a certain type of geeky adolescent boy. I saw them in 1979 at Nassau Coliseum, with the Good Rats (Long Island’s best-ever band that didn’t quite make it) opening. It was a memorable concert. My friend threw a lit sparkler and got thrown out before the show even started. The rest of us stayed. What good friends we were.

The Good Rats banged on their garbage cans. Then Styx brought their colorful corporate rock show to the stage. When Tommy Shaw shouted “Get Up” we might have felt a little stupid, but we all got up. And “Come Sail Away” was as awesome in concert as it was on the record. Which I owned. And had listened to many many times.

Behind the band’s three frontmen, brothers Chuck and John Panozzo churned away on the bass and drums respectively. One didn’t pay too much attention to these darker, unflashy members of the band. Chuck addresses this: “I always had a dark, brooding look… In some ways, I used my physical appearance as a deflector. I played it.” Your reviewer wasn’t a bass player yet, so didn’t appreciate Chuck Panozzo’s importance. I suppose I did know the band’s story enough to know that the Panozzo brothers and Dennis DeYoung had formed it as young teenagers. But one forgets the details of fandom even though one remembers the songs.

Chuck Panozzo’s new autobiography tells the story of the band and the even more interesting story of how a closeted gay musician dealt with the “manly” world of rock, the AIDS epidemic, and his own demons.

Talk about high notes and low notes. Panozzo had co-founded one of rock’s most successful bands, and by his own account, after four successive triple-platinum albums and years of lucrative touring, he didn’t ever have to work again. On the personal side, there were co-dependency issues with his mother as well as his alcoholic fraternal twin brother John, the band’s volatile drummer, who Panozzo says would today probably have been diagnosed with an attention deficit disorder or learning disability. But how many of us are lucky enough to have no family drama in our lives? From outward appearances, fate had smiled on our hero.

Thing was, Chuck was gay, and he feared, with some justification, that coming out of the closet would endanger his career, his band, and his family relationships – his whole existence. So he stayed closeted and miserable. For decades.

Oh, and by the way, during the days before AIDS awareness, Chuck contracted HIV, and he later developed full-blown AIDS. Also his beloved, troubled brother lost his battle with the bottle and died. His mother passed away while Chuck was at his sickest. And his best friend died of AIDS. And, oh yeah – prostate cancer! Now do you want to trade places with Chuck Panozzo, the big rock star?

Remarkably, Panozzo has lived – and thrived – to tell the tale. He still has medical complications, but his AIDS drug treatment – which he started late in the game, largely because of his own denial – has worked. His HIV levels are undetectable. He’s in a lasting, loving relationship after decades of utter inability to establish one, for reasons the book makes clear. And he is finding fulfillment by using his celebrity to influence the lives of young people confused about their sexual identities. “If I can make one person question why he’s hiding his authentic self,” he writes in the Introduction, “…and give him courage to make a change, then I’ve succeeded.”

Like sports, rock is a pretty macho field. Even now, many gay musicians remain closeted for the sake of their careers. During Styx’s heyday in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it seemed inconceivable for a member of such a popular group, with its throngs of young female fans, to be openly gay. Hence, although Panozzo is pretty tough on himself, only a hard-hearted reader could blame him for lacking the courage to come out. On the contrary, one closes the book feeling considerable admiration for Panozzo for having come through such adversity with a positive outlook and a much-improved life.

My admiration doesn’t extend to his writing style, however, and I guess on this count one has to point a finger at co-writer Michele Skettino. Panozzo may have come up with the lyrical hook to the Styx hit “Show Me the Way,” but he’s not a writer and doesn’t claim to be. Yet, for a book that’s had the benefit of a professional co-writer and (presumably) copy editing, it has far too many errors and misprints. When I see a celebrity autobiography with a co-writer credited by name, I expect a competent text, and I have to say that in a literary sense, Ms. Skettino and the publisher’s editorial staff seem to have let our hero down.

Nevertheless I found the book hard to put down, especially during its first half as Panozzo relates how music came into his life, how Styx formed, and how hard they worked before (and during) their years of success. “It is not an understatement,” he writes of his teen years, “to say that music was changing my life. Once I started to play an instrument, suddenly I felt that I had something of value to contribute. Guitar was my thing. Now, in my own head, I was someone beyond the little, fag queer on the playground.” That will resonate with anyone who has discovered his “thing,” a specific talent or drive that gives his life meaning and makes him feel worthy to exist.

Panozzo’s detour to a seminary, which he says “essentially… turned out to be a boarding school for incorrigible young men,” gives his discussion of Catholicism credibility. “I think part of the problem with the issue of gays and the Catholic Church is that gay priests within the church refuse to speak out. It is not uncommon to see a priest in a gay bar. Of course, they wear street clothes and don’t publicize what they do for a living…” And of course, “Our environment and Catholic upbringing did a very good job at repressing our sexuality – gay or straight.”

Writing of the band’s days as a Chicago-area favorite in the early 1960s, he explains that “The more popular we became, the more I began to wonder what would happen if anyone found out that I was gay. Would that be the end of it? This made me even more reluctant to begin exploring my sexuality. Playing in the hottest band around was a sort of redemption from the barbs and abuse that had haunted me in the early part of my school life. I wasn’t going to mess around with that.”

The author’s wry humor peeks through his rather plodding prose. “A huge bear of a man in leather pants and a cop hat can be a bit intimidating to a newbie,” he says of a visit to a gay bar, “[b]ut as I worked my way into the crowd and began to hear snippets of conversations, I realized, ‘These guys are talking about recipes!'” Amusingly, our rock star hero was able to hang out anonymously in the gay community because “not one gay man I knew cared much about rock ‘n’ roll.” It was the disco era, after all. I suppose there were probably very few gay people in the audience at Nassau Coliseum that day in 1979 when I saw Styx.

You can detect the sparkle in Panozzo’s eye even in the misfortune-ridden second half of the book: “Of course, no one can solve an alcoholic’s problems except the alcoholic himself, but I could kill myself trying.” Fortunately he didn’t. His narrative is interesting, and the added psychological complication of a hidden sexual orientation makes it more than just a rock bio.

The band that started as a schoolboy accordion trio playing Cole Porter and Frank Sinatra hits grew into one of rock’s biggest and most original acts. Through infighting, personnel changes, and breakups, Styx persevered in one form or another and has even had something of a renaissance in the new century, though without Dennis DeYoung, who was responsible for many of the band’s biggest hits.

Speaking of DeYoung, honest creative differences weren’t the only things that stood in the way of a harmonious band history. A bit passive-aggressively, Panozzo gets in his digs at the theatrical front man. But the book isn’t primarily a tell-all. It recounts a life in music that will interest Styx fans as well as the gay community. Its main message can probably be summed up in this admission: “I did a disservice to myself and to the people who loved me by underestimating their compassion… That is one of the main reasons that I was motivated to write this book – to help others as others have helped me.” Visit Panozzo’s website for more about the bassist, his music, and his causes.

Cross-posted at Blogcritics.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Women and Children First

Various Artists, Women of the World Acoustic

This is one of those CDs that works equally well whether you listen to it closely or play it merely as feel-good background music. Each listener will no doubt find some of the international voices captured here more captivating than others, but every track is pleasing. The Greek singer Anastasia Mousatsou’s cool, distant tone doesn’t thrill me the way Sandrine Kiberlain’s sexy voice does, for example. On the other hand, although I tend to prefer strong or more mature-sounding voices, I’ve always loved Emiliana Torrini’s cellophane-feathery singing, and the folky track she offers here, “Sunnyroad,” doesn’t disappoint.

Though the artists hail from lands as different as Cameroon, the Czech Republic, Iceland and Chile, the CD has a remarkable consistency of energy and tone. This could be interpreted in a negative way, as a result of Western instrumentation finding its way into ethnic musics of all stripes. But while the differences among these tracks may not bang you over the head, each artist has a uniquely valuable creative voice that you can appreciate by listening with a little care.

The extensive liner notes to the nicely packaged CD provide background on each singer and song. The catchy “Bida Marianu” by Lura, who hails from Lisbon’s Cape Verdean community, is one of my favorites. The Colombian singer Marta Gómez’s heartbreakingly simple “Paula Ausente” (“Absent Paula”), with its silvery, pan-Latino feel, tugs at the heart. Another top track is the subtle, insistently rhythmic “Sekna,” by the Algerian singer Mona. Its lyrics sum up the compilation: “In my life there are too many stories/One thousand and one stories/They make me laugh, cry/They make me sad or happy/But they are all part of me/And they are all in my heart.”

At least, that’s what the translation says. Other than Torrini’s track, only one song here, the beautiful and aptly themed closer “One Voice” by the Canadian group The Wailin’ Jennys, is in English. And that’s just fine, because this CD is written in the world’s language.

Hear clips here. A portion of the proceeds go to the Global Fund for Women, which supports women’s and girls’ human rights internationally.

Asylum Street Spankers, Mommy Says No!

Indie Round-Up doesn’t often cover children’s music, as we have our hands full with the gazillions of CDs supposedly made for adults. When it’s one of our favorite bands, however, we’re delighted to make an exception. The Asylum Street Spankers have always made music steeped in humor, both clever and goofy, so it seems a natural thing for them to have produced a kids’ album.

And a very nice one it is. That is not only our opinion; we subjected the CD to the precocious judgment of H-Bomb, who just turned seven, with positive results. The album has the Spankers’ usual combination of thematic silliness, musical integrity, and rainbow-colored energy. As always, the band is centered on acoustic instrumentation. (It’s famous for performing without any kind of electronics – no amps, no microphones, no nothin’.)

Here, instead of songs about silly adult matters like sex, drugs, and drinking, the Spankers sing of silly child matters like boogers, monsters, and superheroes. What could be better?

This reviewer, though no expert in the field, thinks it’s safe to say that good children’s music doesn’t “sing down” to kids, and this CD meets that requirement. The Spankers recognize that kids are just as smart as us grown-ups – they just know less about certain things, have some different concerns, and boast better senses of humor.

Christina Marrs the musical saw player, Sick on violin and guitar, Wammo, and the rest of the Spankers translate their old-timey country and blues almost effortlessly to the kids’ genre. (Those names – Wammo, Sick, and so on – weren’t made up for the occasion.) Songs like “You Only Love Me For My Lunchbox, “Don’t Turn Out the Light,” and “Training Wheel Rag” deal with superficiality, envy, fear, inferiority – troubles that plague humans of all ages. The inclusion of Nirvana’s “Sliver” and Harry Nilsson’s “Think About Your Troubles” is a nice touch that further shows the band’s respect for kids’ appreciative ears. But with all that, the pervading mood is one of good times and humor.

If you have kids in your house, or kids to buy gifts for, or kids stomping around in the apartment upstairs, definitely consider picking this CD up for them. You can hear samples (and buy the disc) at the Asylum Street Spankers website or at CD Baby.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – James, Jacobsen, Pagan, Cook, Scotty Don’t

Darrin James, Thrones of Gold

Darrin James distills hard-edged soul and craggy Americana into a redolent tincture that I’ve come to think of as New York City Melting Pot. His gravelly voice and confident, grungy guitar work lend themselves equally well to rock and blues (“Trivial”), old-timey piano-driven numbers (“Had Enough of Me”) and blue-eyed soul (“Hate That Word,” “Duct Tape”). There’s the obligatory, grim, Nick Cave-like folk ballad (“Herie”), but this one has a tumbling beat that takes it into original waters. Mandolin and ukulele feed the gentler folkiness of “Dusty Road,” while haunting organ and thudding upright bass give other songs the slightly eerie, organic quality that Americana producers strive for.

James produced the CD himself, with expert support from a set of fine musicians. It’s well-crafted all the way through. The only misstep is “Faith on the Run,” which would be an excellent song but for an uncomfortable resemblance to Tom Petty’s “Last Dance with Mary Jane.”

Its literate lyrics and subject matter are a big part of why Thrones of Gold stands as one of the best indie productions of the year so far. “Long lost, slightly sauced/And swingin’ from a vine/She was a dose of imperfection/Left me danglin’, out of time/I sold my disposition for a nickel and a dime/But now she’s had enough of me.” “Lucky Man,” on the other hand, expresses the eternal strangeness of the situation of the more successful male: “I’m a Lucky man/I know who I am/Never done the best that I can/So I’m Lucky that I got you.”

Politics and worldliness run through a number of songs. The subject of “Herie” “fought in the war for Iran/He had a dream of freer land/His family was murdered/In front of his eyes/But I’ve never seen him cry.” Meanwhile, you can almost picture the narrator of the title track sitting in a weirdly angular apartment deep in Brooklyn, watching war news on TV, wringing his hands, and dreaming:

I’m goin’ somewhere I’ve never been
My life here is at an end
I’ll be an honest man with a calloused hand
Goin’ where people don’t work so hard
No one’s gonna show me no business card
I’m outta here.

Available, with extended clips, at CD Baby.

Karen Jacobsen, Kissing Someone Else

Karen Jacobsen, an Australian singer-songwriter-pianist now based in (yawn) New York (everyone seems to come here sooner or later), has an excellent melodic sense, and her clear, unaffected voice actually deserves the often-overused term “angelic.” Her lyrics range from sinewy (“If I am so amazing why is everything so crazy?”) to overly cliched (“my life is a tomb of endless broken dreams”), but her innocent-sounding delivery and skill at choral arranging make the sentiment go down easier, and the strong melodies solidify the whole CD. Hooky pop-rockers like “So Fast”, “Afterthought,” and the title track, as well as ballads like “The River of My Life” and quirky, heavily arranged pieces like “Merry Go Round” all display these talents.

The key difference between Jacobsen and most pop singers is that she makes virtually no effort to sound sexy. This works in Christian rock, but what about in mainstream pop music? I guess we’ll find out. The real question is whether the twenty-first century wants its own Petula Clark. I don’t see why not. But then, do I look like a century? Don’t listen to me, listen to Karen Jacobsen. Hear songs and samples at her website and at CD Baby.

Chase Pagan, Oh, Musica!

Chase Pagan makes driving piano-powered rock, but it would be wrong to pigeonhole him with the likes of Keane, for his musical vision is considerably more original than any rock the major labels are putting out. Reaching for comparisons, one might say that if Radiohead, Kurt Weill, and The Mars Volta got together and made a CD of carnival music, you’d have Chase Pagan.

He doesn’t so much sing as wail and keen, gasping for breath, drifting up and down his tenor and falsetto range like Jeff Buckley with a pin stuck in him, supporting his heavy piano parts with grouchy guitars and punk-inpired bass and drums. “Push My Buttons,” a titanic groan of avant-garde pain, is the centerpiece of the CD. The songs draw on elements of arty grunge (“Time to Myself”), folk (“Paperboat”), twisted country (“Sailors March”), children’s music (“Spanish Tongue”), other styles, and things not known as they assault the ear like rusty bolts from the blue.

There’s quite a bit of dense, interesting chamber rock coming out these days. I think it’s the result of an information overload. Rock has gone through so many movements and iterations that new artists with unusual talent are forced first to drown in an excess of input, then to flee to the upper atmosphere with no skin on. With this CD Chase Pagan leaps to the forefront of this movement, chasing the shards of his own heretical rainbow.

You can download the accompanying EP, which contains some of the same tracks as the full-length CD, for free at his website, or hear some full tracks at his Myspace page. The EP also contains a cover of “Play the Game” by Queen, clearly another of Pagan’s inspirations.

Eli Cook, Miss Blues’es Child

Eli Cook is a twenty-year-old blues guitar wizard with genuine soul. His first acoustic recording consists of old and new songs played in raw, live-sounding arrangements with little more than Cook’s acoustic guitar and voice, plus banjo accompaniment by the stalwart Patrick McCrowell. Cook’s playing is a joy, and his original songs fit smoothly with his thoughtful covers of Robert Johnson, Son House, traditional songs and the like. Highlights include “Terraplane Blues,” “Goin’ Down South” (also recorded recently by one of my favorite new roots bands, Hillstomp), and the original title track.

Cook’s raucous take on “Fixin’ To Die” shows his mastery of incessant, scratchy electricity. By contrast, the satisfying, seven-minute-long “Trick Bag,” an original, demonstrates his sensitivity to the importance of empty space, something young performers don’t usually develop so early in their careers.

Cook sings with the mix of grimness and sensitivity that the material demands, but tries too hard to sound like an older man, putting too much force into his baritone. It makes him sound a little like one of the Eddie Vedder imitators who crawled onto the music scene in the 1990s. It doesn’t detract from the louder songs like “Fixin’ To Die,” but drags down the trance and country blues numbers.

Still, though he would be more convincing if he relaxed his voice some, Cook’s fine guitar work and top-notch material make this CD a very worthwhile listen. Eli Cook is a talent to reckon with.

Hear extended samples at CD Baby.

Scotty Don’t, Scotty Don’t

This twenty-minute EP rips through a quick survey of pop styles. “Back Porch” has a 1970s classic rock jam vibe. “When I Say” starts as a not very original reggae jam a la Bob Marley’s “Is This Love,” but then bursts into a punked-up ska-rock section that somehow makes perfect sense. “…Different Kind” suggests James Gang grooviness, and “Punk Rock Lullaby” is exactly that. “Everything’s Alright” goes back to the loose 70s flavor of the opening track, and the EP ends with a spacey-cool, acoustic miniature about being busted for smoking dope.

The trio is the original project of Badfish, a bizarrely successful Sublime tribute band. Given that genesis, it’s not surprising that their strong points include high quality songwriting, tight vocal harmonies, and a light touch. I don’t know to what extent the harmonies can be reproduced at a live show. But the band’s combination of bubbly enthusiasm and sneaky craft make their new project eminently worth checking out.

Hear several tracks at Scotty Don’t’s Myspace page.

Book Review: Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock ‘n’ Roll by Rick Coleman

When Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005, much was made of the fact that the worst-hit neighborhoods were those inhabited mostly by poor blacks. But as the news unfolded, a specific question bounced through the country concerning one particularly rich and famous resident of the Lower Ninth Ward: “Where’s Fats?”

To be sure, not everyone knew Fats Domino was still alive in 2005. The 77-year-old musician had made relatively few appearances in recent decades, especially outside New Orleans. His numerous hits seemed to belong to a distant era. Though his seminal importance to rock and other forms of popular music had made him one of the original inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and despite having dominated the charts for a chunk of the last century, Antoine “Fats” Domino seemed to have been, if not forgotten, relegated to the sidelines of music history.

Katrina briefly shone the national spotlight on Domino as nothing had since President Bill Clinton awarded him the National Medal of the Arts in 1998. But Rick Coleman’s biography of the star, Blue Monday (now out in trade paperback), should play a more permanent role in preserving Domino’s legacy than any award or honor (or national disaster). It’s a fairly well written, densely researched account of the long and colorful life of one of popular music’s most influential and original talents.

In his Prologue, Coleman makes this very cogent point:

Historians…love to romanticize the stark noncommercial purity of downtrodden delta bluesmen in a commendable attempt at black cultural appreciation that nonetheless seems to rationalize the ghettoizing of many of rock ‘n’ roll’s more direct black fathers and mothers – the creators of rhythm & blues – into a historical no-man’s land. Thus, there has been vast documentation of the blues, but so little research on rhythm & blues that even major figures have disappeared into shadow. It is not a good sign of the preservation of African American heritage when by far the most popular r&b artists of the 1940s and the 1950s, Louis Jordan and Fats Domino, are today little known to most people.

The book makes a major contribution towards redressing that injustice.

Race is a huge part of the story. From the relative cultural comfort of the 21st century it’s easy to remark on how music has helped “bring us together.” We forget how recently the Civil Rights movement spawned violence in many parts of the country, and we may not be aware of how much racial prejudice music and musicians suffered during Fats Domino’s heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, and even into the 1970s.

Domino’s band often couldn’t get lodgings in the cities where they played. “They could buy gas at service stations but couldn’t use the restrooms.” Once audiences had started to mix, nervous promoters canceled concerts. Penetrating the pop (as opposed to the r&b) charts, even after it became possible for black artists, remained very difficult for many years. Though his music was relatively unprovocative (as compared with Little Richard’s, for example), riots attended a number of Domino’s concerts as white and black youths tried to dance together in the same halls.

“In stark contrast to his later image,” Coleman writes, “adults once…considered Domino a public menace…Domino’s shows were ground zero for racial integration.” Almost half the crowd was white at Alan Freed’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Jubilee Ball” in New York City in January 1955. The lineup, including Domino, was all black, and indeed, Coleman reports that “over a year after Elvis Presley’s ascendance, the three major rock ‘n’ roll package tours were eighty percent black with all black headliners.”

Coleman’s greatest contribution with this book – even more than his documenting of Domino’s life – may be his detailed recounting of the nationally touring shows that featured Fats and other stars before and during the Civil Rights movement. “Before children were integrated in schools,” he writes, “the music integrated their souls.” Scholars and the public can learn much from the story of how music has helped unite a fractious society.

Rhythm & blues sowed the seeds of integration even in virulently racist areas. There was a curious turnabout, as whites now felt the bondage of both the ropes that [literally] segregated them away from the dance floor and their own repressive moral dictums, as they enviously watched the blacks dance.

“The most important thing about my music is the beat,” declares Domino, and Coleman has much to say about the abstract quality of European classical music vs. the physicality of the Africa-derived music that blacks had danced to for centuries and that flowered spectacularly in New Orleans in the 20th century. (New Orleans even got its nickname, the Big Easy, from musicians who knew it as a place where they could find work easily.)

“Emphatic rhythms, which were unheard on pop radio in the early 1950s, hijacked the hit parade within a year after Domino unleashed the monolithic ‘Ain’t That a Shame’ in 1955,” Coleman says, more or less accurately. I think he gives short shrift to the beat-heavy, big-band swing music of the 1940s, a trimmed-down version of which is quite evident in early R&B. But the fact that I feel justified in making such a criticism indicates how deeply Coleman delves into musicology in a book that is ostensibly a biography. The subtitle, Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock ‘N’ Roll, could have just as accurately (if less poetically) been The Life, Work and Times of Fats Domino.

The Italian-American engineer and studio owner Cosimo Matassa recorded rock ‘n’ roll’s first anthem, Roy Brown’s Good Rockin’ Tonight, in New Orleans in 1947. Two years later Domino recorded “The Fat Man” – a tamed reworking of “The Junker’s Blues,” a song about a dope fiend – at Matassa’s studio, and it became the first of his 35 Top 40 hits. Matassa also recorded Ray Charles, Dr. John, Little Richard, and many other important artists, and Coleman correctly shines a light on the engineer’s critical contributions, as well as those of Domino’s songwriting partner, arranger, and bandleader, Dave Bartholomew, and Lew Chudd, the record entrepreneur whose Imperial Records brought Fats’s music (and Ricky Nelson’s, interestingly) to the masses. He also gives the important radio DJs and concert promoters of the time their due, but Domino, Bartholomew, and Chudd form his story’s most essential triumvirate, and Fats himself comes through clearly as a brilliant entertainer, a musical innovator, and a shy, flawed, but in many ways admirable human being.

Coleman is good at describing to the non-musician what makes music do what it does. Maybe that’s because Fats was good at it too. “‘I used to play most all of my piano,’ says Domino. ‘That’s how I got that rock ‘n’ roll. Everybody used to use the 4/4 beat. Then we did that one-two-three – that added to the rhythm. The first song I recorded in 1949; that had the backbeat.” Coleman also repeatedly references Domino’s piano triplets, which have been ubiquitous in pop ballads ever since. And he backs up his claims for Domino’s influence by calling on a veritable cavalcade of stars. Paul McCartney took time off from recording Sgt. Pepper to attend a rare Domino concert in England. Elvis Presley made a point of calling Domino the real king of rock ‘n’ roll. Leonard Cohen says Fats’s version of “Blueberry Hill” is his “all-time favorite song.” Art Neville: “Fats could burn a piano, and Fats had a vocal sound that everybody loved. I ate, drank and slept Fats Domino.” Bob Marley: “My earliest influence in music comes from Fats Domino time.” And on and on. Point made.

As if to counterweigh the arc of Domino’s hugely successful career as a musician (and indirectly as an anti-apartheid campaigner), Coleman is also forced to write of the many members of Domino’s retinues and bands who died of drug overdoses or met other sad and premature ends. Death after death confronts the reader, who eventually learns that as a group, black musicians who tried to take their music to the masses during the age of segregation paid a far steeper price than exclusion from restrooms or pop charts.

In spite of his repeated personal losses, Fats Domino forged on. How he reacted to these events, we must infer from third-person reporting. The book doesn’t get deep into its subject’s psyche. The author had access to Domino and many of the important figures in his life, but the star remained (and remains) a very private person. It will be up to future biographers to determine, if they can, whether Domino simply isn’t much of a soul-searcher, or is just intensely private. Coleman describes Domino’s flaws (philandering, gambling, excessive drinking) but doesn’t give us much sense of the star’s own perspective on them. One gets the feeling that despite Coleman’s access, he wasn’t able to crack the shell.

Given that limitation, he’s still given us a crackling good story. Fats Domino’s influence should never again be obscured or downplayed. Equally important, his “big beat diplomacy” helped set the races on a path towards peace that continues to this day. As Coleman so aptly puts it, “America, which in prior centuries had figurately cannibalized Africa, was now suddenly shocked to discover it was what it ate.”

Theater Review: An Octopus Love Story

Jane (Kelli Holsopple) is so insecure she leaves the lights on when she goes out “so everything’s how I remember it when I get back.” Desperate for assurance, she leads on a smitten male co-worker (Eric Kuehnemann) even though she has a live-in lover, the arrogant Tosh (Jenny Greer). Tosh is so controlling she won’t even let Jane indulge her taste for guilty pleasure movies and comfort food. (“She caught me once, on a Cactus Flower and Tater Tot night.”) Lacking confidence, Jane puts up with the emotional abuse.

Meanwhile, Danny (Josh Tyson), a sweet-natured, gauntly handsome waiter, has far too little ambition to satisfy his old friend Alex (Michael Cyril Creighton), who also happens to be Tosh’s partner at a public relations firm. Danny toys with the idea of graduate school, without a clear idea of what he might want to study. But the two PR pros have cooked up a novel plan for the shiftless Jane and Danny, who have never met: have them get married while publicly avowing their homosexuality, thereby calling attention to the absurdity of laws that grant two opposite-sex strangers the benefits of marriage while denying the same benefits to a loving, committed same-sex couple.

If I were writing about a sitcom, the next sentence would naturally be: “Hilarity ensues.” But playwright Delaney Britt Brewer has serious things to say here, though they’re not the ones you might expect. Speckled with funny moments and clever dialogue, the play is fundamentally about how unexpected, and how unstorybooklike, love can be. With its topical plot, flawed and fully realized characters, and direction as smooth and transparent as glass, it is both timely and universal.

Unafraid of controversy, Brewer digs into the complexities of emotions and gay identity. As Jane and Danny develop mutual affection, Alex – whose own feelings for Danny may be deeper than he has let on – lashes out at his friend for betraying the cause. But how much is love responsible for the plan’s backfiring, and how much is it Alex and Tosh’s just desserts for manipulating their friends for a “higher” cause? Danny finds the guts to defend himself: “Don’t try to stop it because it doesn’t fit your image. That would be the ultimate malevolence.”

Tosh, too, may have had a hidden motive for the arrangement, besides the political protest. Touting her Ivy League and Mensa credentials while committing malapropisms (“I’m glad you two have endeavored such a close friendship”), she proves in the end – as Danny tells a heartbroken Jane – “pathetic,” if entertainingly so from our standpoint.

An Octopus Love Story
(L-R): Kelli Holsopple & Jenny Greer. Photo by Mike Klar.

The central image that gives the play its name is emblematic of Brewer’s ability to merge higher concepts with slightly elevated but believable dialogue. Jane tells Danny that, like the animal of the title, “I climbed out of the tank…to be with you,” knowing it wasn’t an environment she could live in. “If I could find another octopus in the tank…I would choose that over you.” The flowering of Jane’s courage, and to a lesser extent Danny’s, forms the backbone of the story, and Holsopple’s bravura performance locks it all together, with more than able counterbalance from Tyson and excellent performances from Creighton and Greer, both of whom make the most of their scenes.

The supporting cast also includes Krista Sutton as Jane’s stepmother, a former beauty queen who reveals an unexpected richness of character while representing the essential goodness of the human heart, and Andrew Dawson as a creepy fundamentalist bigot who is nonetheless – like the play – disturbingly smart and human.

An Octopus Love Story is presented by Kids With Guns and runs through May 20 at the Center Stage Theater in New York City. Tickets at Smarttix or call 212-868-4444.

Book Review: Avoid a Migraine, Stop a Migraine

This monograph approaches the relief and prevention of migraines both specifically and holistically. The author brings together numerous relief techniques of her own experience (one of which she herself discovered) and a sizable chunk of current thinking, sometimes rather edgy thinking, in the field of holistic and preventative health. Avoid a Migraine, Stop a Migraine can be useful for migraine sufferers but also as a starting point for a wider personal investigation into health and wellbeing.

Author Sandra Spewock Feder begins with a caveat: “This book does not in any way give medical or any other kind of advice. At the request of fellow migraine sufferers, I am sharing my own observations and experiences. Before you do anything and if you have any questions, consult your health care provider.” One might wonder where the line is between suggestions and advice, of course. Writers know, even if they can’t admit, that their caveats are going to be regularly ignored; people – especially suffering people – are going to try suggested techniques without consulting a doctor first.

Then again, there are also doctors who succumb to the lure of a quick buck, endorsing products of unproven and questionable value. We see these charlatans on TV all the time. One feels more comfortable with an honest approach like that of Feder, who simply presents her findings based on personal experience and research, reporting on what has worked for her and what she believes caused the efficacy.

Feder gives a lively description of migraines, those headaches from hell: “Three days of pain, and another day or two recovering from being wiped out…It was like trying to stay afloat when something was relentlessly pushing me under. Each time I would give up and let the pain close over me.” But the key, the topic sentence, is this: “Migraine is a symptom. Pain comes for a reason.”

Before laying out her relief techniques, Feder presents several sections on the conditions that can lead to migraine (and pain in general) and what causes those conditions. Excitotoxins, for example, are ingredients in food that lead to an excess of certain neurotransmitters, notably glutamate. Everyone knows about MSG – monosodium glutamate – but I didn’t know (for example) that the textured vegetable protein I like to use as a substitute for ground beef in chili and other dishes contains free glutamate that could be causing havoc in my brain. (I am a migraine sufferer, although mine, thankfully, do not last as long as those Feder describes.)

Feder has some tips about what to look for in lists of ingredients on packaged food. For example, what are “spices”? Why don’t they just say what the spices are? Red flag. She also explains what nutrients can counteract the effects of excitotoxins and what foods are good sources of those nutrients. She stresses eating raw foods and drinking plenty of water, and explains the importance of maintaining a proper pH balance in the body, a difficult task given the typical, acid-forming American diet.

Feder ends by describing 25 relief techniques, some old (put ice on it), some new (specially formulated supplements), some novel (use conductive tape to bridge a break in the flow of chi). Detailed material on the related subjects of sinus health and skin detoxification is also included. For an experienced migraine sufferer, this short book will likely be a useful supplement to the research he or she has already done on this terrible, much studied, but not fully understood problem. For someone just beginning to deal with migraines, the book, combined with basic Internet research and a visit to a doctor, will be a good starting point.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Barnes & Barnes, Wild Man Fischer, And Some “Normal” Music

Collector’ Choice Music Reissues: Barnes & Barnes’ Voohaba and Wild Man Fischer’s Nothing Scary

Rejoice, aficianados of outsider music. Prick up your pointed little ears, Dr. Demento fans. Collectors’ Choice Music has reissued three classics of weirdness: Barnes & Barnes’s first album, Voobaha (with gushers of bonus tracks), and Wild Man Fischer’s Pronounced Normal and Nothing Scary which were produced – cajoled into existence, one might say – by the aforementioned duo.

Larry “Wild Man” Fischer is a bipolar paranoid schizophrenic with a disturbingly entertaining take on the world, and songwriting talent to go with it. Frank Zappa recorded him in the late 60s (Fischer references Zappa in a couple of his Nothing Scary monologues) but he was too unstable to have a consistent career even as a wacky weird guy.

However, in the early 1980s, Barnes & Barnes (Robert Haimer and Lost In Space’s Bill Mumy), of “Fish Heads” and “Boogie Woogie Amputee” fame, took on the challenge of tracking Fischer down, recording more of his vocals, and putting musical tracks to them.

Some of Fischer’s output in the new sessions came in the form of shouts and monologues, but many were real songs. Fully conceived pieces like “All I Think About Is You,” “The Rain Song,” “Outside the Hospital” and “Love Love Love In Everything You Do” show a serious, original and actually quite mainstream songwriting ability. Snippets like “Ping Pong Ball Head,” “One of a Kind Mind,” and “Bad Leg” do the same on a smaller scale. That distinguishes Fischer from certain other, nowadays better-known outsider artists like Wesley Willis. It’s no wonder Zappa took an interest in Fischer.

Unlike with most “sane” songwriters, Fischer’s raw thoughts too are fascinating, which is no doubt why Haimer and Mumy captured the selections here that are not, strictly speaking, musical. Fischer’s take on the music business is especially wry, bursting out in various monologues and harangues.

And a truly terrible business it is. I don’t think Haimer and Mumy really sought to “make it big” in the music biz, though they put out quite a few albums both on Rhino (Fischer’s label too) and elsewhere, some of which deviated from their successful novelty formula. I suspect if they had tried too hard to go mainstream they might have spoiled the senses of humor that made them stars of the Dr. Demento show.

I can almost guarantee that you’ve heard “Fish Heads” even if you’ve never listened to Dr. Demento or heard of Barnes & Barnes. You might even have seen the video. If not, do it now, then come back.

Are you back? Great. Now all that’s left to say is that this reissue of Voobaha with its many bonus tracks is a treasure trove of twisted humor. Horror fans will dig “Cemetery Girls” with its samples from “It’s a Good Life,” the classic, terrifying Twilight Zone episode in which six-year-old Mumy turned cornfields into places of terror for a whole generation. “Party in My Pants,” “Three Drunk Newts,” “Sewey Hole” – they’re all here. Yup. All here. For you. To listen. To. Go ahead. Eat them up. Yum.

Scott Blasey, Travelin’ On

Now onto some regular stuff. The new solo CD by Scott Blasey, lead singer of The Clarks, has a warm, intimate sound that’s folksier than the band’s but boasts the same smooth, sturdy, heartland-pop songwriting that’s characteristic of the Clarks’ strong catalog.

Blasey gives his soulful side a good workout with “Sweet Mystery,” “Little Sofia,” and a version of the Sam Cooke classic “Bring It On Home To Me.” (The latter, interestingly, is less convincing than Blasey’s own soul ballads.) The catch in Blasey’s voice – the soul – has always been an important part of the Clarks’ appeal, and it extends to his solo work.

“Time To Go” is a powerful pop anthem. “See You Around” and “Church of the Open Highway” feature airy harmonies that give a hint of psychedelic pop. On the latter, guitarist Chris Holt, who elsewhere on the album contributes George Harrison-like guitar solos, references Patty Loveless’s 1991 hit “Hurt Me Bad (In a Real Good Way”), pointing up the country elements in Blasey’s heartland sensibility. Bubblegum pop (“Be Your Man”) and original folk songs (“Baby, You’re My Saving Grace” and the title track) also form part of the landscape.

The CD is treat from a savvy and talented veteran. There’s a free download of the nice piano mix of “Time To Go,” and a video of “San Antonio,” at Blasey’s website.

Mary Karlzen, Yours To Keep

Like the Clarks, Mary Karlzen is a major label veteran who is now/again happily independent. But her new CD disappoints. Much of it has an uptempo Americana feel, tastefully executed by a studio band that includes bassist Garry Tallent of the E Street Band and Wilco’s Ken Coomer on drums. Unfortunately, blandness dominates. Karlzen’s voice doesn’t have enough oomph to carry the rockers, which mostly sound generic anyway. The snappy “Find Yourself” rises above the sameness, a little, and “Stupid or Something” is strong and catchy. The two covers – Paul Westerberg’s “Skyway” and a duet with Matthew Ryan on Tom Waits’s “Heart of Saturday Night – are nice.

Two videos, including one for “Stupid or Something,” can be seen here.

Ben Godwin, Skin and Bone

Speaking of Tom Waits, there’s a little of him in Ben Godwin, a Londoner transplanted to New York. With a gritty voice that’s half Joe Cocker and half Ian Anderson, Godwin belts out a set of theatrical, jazz-inflected tunes inspired by New York City life. By turns soulful (“Constantly Reminded”), Bacharachian (“Paper Thin Walls”), gentle (“Castaway”) and Brelian (“Outsize Shoes”), Godwin’s songs are as old-fashioned as the intelligibility of the lyrics he pipes out with his thick baritone. “Poverty’s a crime in the poorhouse / And the punishment is life / The lucky ones work in the slaughterhouse / And the rest go under the knife,” he bellows in the title track, where you should also listen for Julie LaMendola’s eerie saw-playing.

“We’ll sweat our hearts out / Fill a rich man’s cup in the New World City / We’ll break our backs building monuments to the sky / Catch our fingers in the teeth of the machinery,” he cries like Bertholdt Brecht and Kurt Weill in “New World City,” but we’ll also “make a new religion out of rusted cars / Our televisions, and our hollow stars.” “So very precious,” cries the Everyman of Godwin’s tales, “but we’re only worth a song in the New World City.” But the value of a song, as Godwin certainly knows, is boundless.

Echoing Jacques Brel’s “The Bulls,” “New World City” ends with a litany of places, cities all over the world where people struggle. But unlike the Brel song, which leaves us with its grim battlefield images, Godwin’s “La la la” chorus returns for a final affirmation of life amidst the dirt and grime.

This music is serious, fun, and definitely different. You can hear extended samples at CD Baby.