Saturday, October 14, 2017

Concert Review: Paul Weller at the Pantages Theatre

Paul Weller

Last night Paul Weller played at the Pantages Theatre in Minneapolis. Weller is one of my favorite musicians, and I’ve seen him live once before, at the Varsity Theater in 2014. (I reviewed that show here.) Weller put on an excellent show last night, working with a crack band, led by longtime Weller sideman Steve Cradock, who traded lead guitar duties with Weller all night long. 

Weller played several songs from his latest album, A Kind Revolution, which came out in May of 2017. He played the catchy “Woo Se Mama,” which he played keyboards on, the Bowie-esque tune “Nova,” the yearning ballad “The Cranes Are Back,” and the moody “Hopper,” a song about the painted Edward Hopper. 

Although Weller only played one song from his years with The Jam, the excellent “Start!” he did play a few songs from his Style Council days, “My Ever Changing Moods,” “Shout to the Top” and “Have You Ever Had it Blue.” All of these songs had the crowd on their feet, rocking and rolling. If Paul Weller wanted to, he could easily have played all songs from The Jam and Style Council years, mixed in a couple of more recent songs, and people would have been thrilled. But Weller’s never been one to take the easy road. Ever since he broke up The Jam at the height of their popularity in late 1982, Weller has charted his own musical course. It hasn’t always been an easy journey, but Weller has made many superb solo albums and created a formidable discography, full of fascinating music.

Weller also played some of his more recent solo songs. I especially enjoyed “From the Floorboards Up,” a charging rocker from his great 2005 solo album As Is Now, and the jazzy “Above the Clouds,” from his 1992 self-titled solo debut. “Above the Clouds” is a great song, and it also has something of a special place in my life, as it’s the default song that my phone plays in the car when it can’t remember what I was last listening to.

The first encore of the evening was a set of acoustic songs, including some brand-new songs like “Gravity.” We’ll have to see if that appears on Weller’s next album. The second encore was more rock and roll, including the great song “Peacock Suit.” 

Opening for Weller was the English folk singer-songwriter Lucy Rose, who played a nice half hour set. Overall, it was a superb evening of music with Paul Weller, one of the great rock singers and songwriters of the last forty years.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Album Review: Frank Sinatra, Songs for Young Lovers and Swing Easy! (1954)

Songs for Young Lovers, 1954. Begins the trend of Frank wearing a hat and smoking on his album covers.

Swing Easy! 1954.
It’s Frank Sinatra’s Capitol recordings that most people think of when they imagine Sinatra. Albums like In the Wee Small Hours, Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!, Come Fly with Me, Come Dance with Me! and others cemented Sinatra’s reputation as a peerless interpreter of songs. Charles L. Granata wrote in his superb book Sessions with Sinatra: Frank Sinatra and the Art of Recording, “Virtually every song the singer recorded at Capitol is a model of perfection.” (p.91) I’m inclined to agree with Granata’s judgement. 

Frank Sinatra is one of the few popular musicians whose greatest fame came between roughly the ages of 40 to 50. Most people would say he did his best work during that decade, from 1955 to 1965. I can’t think of many other pop musicians one could say that about. Certainly there are artists who do great work between the ages of 40 or 50, but there are few whose work during that decade defines them as much as Sinatra’s does. 

In my review of Sinatra’s last Capitol album, 1962’s Point of No Return, I mentioned that the very first recordings Sinatra made for Capitol were arranged by Axel Stordahl, who had arranged almost all of Sinatra’s recordings for the Columbia label, from 1943-1952. Stordahl’s strength was arranging ballads, and since the great majority of the songs that Sinatra recorded for Columbia were ballads, the partnership worked out very well. As Sinatra’s Capitol years began, he was still loyal to Stordahl, and insisted that his first Capitol recordings should be arranged by him. Fortuitously, Capitol executive Alan Livingston got Sinatra to agree that if the records weren’t hits, he would try recording with Nelson Riddle. In April of 1953, Sinatra recorded “Lean Baby” and “I’m Walking Behind You,” his first songs for Capitol, arranged by Stordahl. (Heinie Beau actually arranged “Lean Baby,” in the style of Billy May.) At the end of April, Sinatra recorded with Nelson Riddle for the first time. The very first song they recorded together was “I’ve Got the World on a String,” which has become an iconic Sinatra performance. 

There was magic when Sinatra recorded with Riddle. Sinatra’s voice was slightly lower than it had been in the 1940’s, and Riddle’s up-tempo arrangements showed that he was ready to swing. Riddle’s arrangements highlighted Sinatra’s voice perfectly. 

However, Riddle was not the arranger for Sinatra’s first Capitol LP, Songs for Young Lovers. Thanks to Sinatra scholar Will Friedwald, we now know that George Siravo was the arranger. No one was actually credited with the arrangements on the original album, but since the front of the album read “Accompanied by Nelson Riddle,” everyone assumed that the arrangements were Riddle’s work. Siravo had arranged for Sinatra before-he was responsible for Sinatra’s most swinging sides that he cut for Columbia-these songs were released on the album Sing and Dance with Frank Sinatra in 1950. (The album was re-titled Swing and Dance with Frank Sinatra when it was released on CD.) 

Recorded over two days on November 5th and 6th 1953, Songs for Young Lovers included songs that were part of Sinatra’s live act. The decision was made that Sinatra’s Capitol albums and singles would largely be separate affairs. This choice meant that rather than just collect a hodge-podge of singles for an album, Sinatra was free to think about creating a mood and choose a unified set of songs to sustain that mood. This would lead directly to Sinatra’s classic concept albums like In the Wee Small Hours, and Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! Songs for Young Lovers was originally released as a 10-inch LP, meaning that it only held about twenty minutes of music. With the introduction of the 12-inch LP, Sinatra could create longer concept albums.

The songs on Songs for Young Lovers are:

“My Funny Valentine”-The beautiful Rodgers and Hart song is given an exquisite reading by Frank. The arrangement briefly turns into a waltz for a few measures. This song captures the intimacy of Sinatra’s voice very well.

“The Girl Next Door”-from Meet Me in St. Louis, where it was originally sung as “The Boy Next Door” by Judy Garland. Sinatra perfectly expresses the romantic yearning of the lyric, as he longs for the girl he hasn’t met, “though I live at 5135 Kensington Avenue and she lives at 5133.” I’ve always loved that lyric, not many songs can seamlessly work in a street address. 

“A Foggy Day”-A Gershwin song that is one of my favorite Sinatra tunes. Listen for the way he sings “shining” five times in a row-a sign of Frank trusting his rhythmic instincts more and more.

“Like Someone in Love”-This is the one Nelson Riddle arrangement on the album. It’s a lovely ballad, and Frank makes his vocal sound dreamy and abstracted, as though he really is “bumping into things.”

“I Get a Kick Out of You”-From the pen of Cole Porter comes one of Sinatra’s classic performances. The arrangement is a superb jazzy affair, with the guitar playing a prominent part. This version includes the original lyrics: “Some they may go for cocaine/I’m sure that if I took even one sniff/It would bore me terrifically too.” In later live performances and recordings by Sinatra, this verse was often changed to “Some like the perfume from Spain/I’m sure that if I took even one sniff/It would bore me terrifically too,” or to “Some like the bop-type refrain/I’m sure that if I heard even one riff/It would bore me terrifically too.” I love the way Frank hangs on to the f in “terrifically.” One of my favorite Sinatra songs. When I was a teenager listening to KLBB radio in the mid to late 1990’s, they would never play this version of the song-I assumed because of the cocaine lyric.

“Little Girl Blue”-Honestly, this is my least favorite song on the album. It’s Rodgers and Hart, so that speaks well for its pedigree. I just don’t care for the lyrics that much-I’m especially perplexed by the line “Sit there and count your fingers.” I’ve never heard that expression before. 

“They Can’t Take That Away from Me”-A fun and jazzy reading of the Gershwin classic. Listen for Frank mimicking the saxophone after he sings “The way you hold your knife.” 

“Violets for Your Furs”-A highlight of the album. Frank’s vocal is sexy and intimate, especially when he sings “And it was spring for a while, remember?” It’s as though he’s whispering in your ear. You can also hear Sinatra’s precise diction, as he sings “vi-o-lets,” with each syllable crystal clear. 

Songs for Young Lovers was released in January, 1954. It peaked at number 3 on the charts.The follow up to Songs for Young Lovers was Swing Easy!, with arrangements by Nelson Riddle. The eight songs were recorded on April 7th and 19th 1954. Swing Easy! was released in August, 1954 and also peaked at number 3. 

The tracks on Swing Easy! are:

“Just One of Those Things”-Another Cole Porter classic. Sinatra once said that he thought this was the saddest song ever. For a man who made a career out of singing what he called “saloon songs,” that seems surprising. I’ve wondered if he was thinking about his relationship with Ava Gardner when he said that, as their tempestuous time together certainly fits the song’s subject matter. Riddle’s arrangement fits Frank perfectly. Once again, you can hear Frank stretch an f on “fabulous flights.” And then there’s the wonderful moment when, singing the song the second time through, he goes for broke and sings “So goodbye goodbye bye bye goodbye baby and amen” instead of just “So goodbye, dear, and amen.” And he makes it work so well.

“I’m Gonna Sit Right Down (And Write Myself a Letter)”-This song has been recorded by many people, with Fats Waller’s version being the most well-known. Riddle’s arrangement features the vibraphone, and you can hear Sinatra’s total ease with up-tempo songs.

“Sunday”-Kind of an odd song, about a guy who is only happy when he’s going out with his girlfriend on Sundays. Why don’t they go out on Friday or Saturday? One of the lyrics is: “Friday makes me feel just like I’m gonna die.” Not a sentiment that’s often heard in popular music.

“Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams (And Dream Your Troubles Away)”-Frank sounds quite ebullient on this tune. I’m a big fan of the version that Dean Martin recorded for his 1958 album Sleep Warm-which Sinatra conducted the orchestra on. 

“Taking a Chance on Love”-Frank sounds even looser on this standard. As he sings “Mmmm, I’m in the groove again,” you could think he’s talking about his career rather than romance. Listen for: another elongated f, the second time he sings “Brother rabbit of course you’d better kiss that foot goodbye.” 

“Jeepers Creepers”-Sinatra makes the most of this silly tune, and Riddle gives it a gassy arrangement, with nice trumpet and trombone solos. 

“Get Happy”-The most swinging cut on the album, taken at a very brisk clip. Although it’s from 1930, the song will forever be identified with Judy Garland, who sang it in the 1950 movie Summer Stock. The instrumental break is great, but much too short. 

“All of Me”-Sinatra had previous recorded this song at Columbia, but now he invests it with a swinging swagger that is a new addition to his sound. 

Songs for Young Lovers and Swing Easy! are now combined on one CD, and while Sinatra and Riddle would climb to greater artistic heights on their next records together, these two albums remain an excellent example of Sinatra’s Capitol era sound.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Book Review: A Short Autobiography, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edited by James L.W. West III (2011)

Cover of A Short Autobiography, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, taken across the street from a restaurant named after him in Saint Paul, Minnesota. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)

F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1896-1940.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s non-fiction writings are not as famous as his novels and short stories, but they contain some superb pieces that shed light on the life of this fascinating author. One reason that might explain why Fitzgerald’s non-fiction writings are less well-known is that they have been scattered all over the place. It would be wonderful to have one volume that collected all of his major non-fiction pieces in one place. 

A Short Autobiography, edited by Fitzgerald scholar James L.W. West III, was issued in 2011 with the aim of collecting Fitzgerald’s non-fiction works that reveal more of his personal life. Unfortunately, A Short Autobiography doesn’t include any of the “Crack-Up” essays, but it does have many other excellent pieces.

Another issue with Fitzgerald’s non-fiction is that some of the pieces are hard to categorize. Is “An Author’s Mother” fiction or non-fiction? It’s been published in collections of Fitzgerald’s fiction, but it also appears in A Short Autobiography. There’s obviously some fiction in it, as the name of the author in the piece is not F. Scott Fitzgerald, and unlike the author in the piece, Fitzgerald didn’t have a brother. However, the piece does seem to be a pretty accurate portrait of Fitzgerald’s mother, Mollie McQuillan Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was constantly borrowing from his own life to inform his fiction, and the line between the two is often blurred. 

In the very first line of the first piece in A Short Autobiography, “Who’s Who-and Why,” from 1920, Fitzgerald writes: “The history of my life is the history of the struggle between an overwhelming urge to write and a combination of circumstances bent on keeping me from it.” (p.1) Little did he know how true this would be throughout the rest of his short life. There were always parties, and alcohol, and many other distractions for Scott that would keep him from his work. However, that being said, he was still very prolific despite all the distractions, turning out roughly 180 short stories, four completed novels and one unfinished novel in his forty-four years. 

In “Princeton,” an affectionate look at the university Fitzgerald attended, (and didn’t graduate from) he mentions that 5% of his class at Princeton were killed in World War I. That’s a staggering fact that makes clear what a large impact the war had on Fitzgerald’s generation. 

One of the pieces that showcases Fitzgerald’s sense of humor is “Salesmanship in the Champs-Elysees,” which is written in the voice of a French car salesman. For me, one of the highlights of A Short Autobiography was hearing Fitzgerald’s authorial voice in a more personal way.

In “One Hundred False Starts,” an essay from 1933 in which Fitzgerald detailed the many ideas for stories he had that never panned out, he wrote: “There is the question of dog stories. I like dogs and would like to write at least one dog story in the style of Mr. Terhune.” (p.126) Two years later, Fitzgerald finally did write his dog story, “Shaggy’s Morning,” an odd account of a day in the life of a dog, written from the dog’s perspective. It was an interesting experiment, although perhaps not entirely successful. “Shaggy’s Morning” is one of the few Fitzgerald stories to be published during his lifetime that has never been collected in a book. 

In “Author’s House,” another essay written for Esquire in 1936, Fitzgerald wrote: “A writer’s temperament is continually making him do things he can never repair.” (p.139) This was certainly true in Fitzgerald’s case, as he wore out his welcome with friends again and again through his drunken behavior. 

One of the most beautiful pieces in the book is “The Death of My Father,” which Fitzgerald wrote after his father’s passing in 1931. He never finished it, and it was first published in 1951 in The Princeton University Literary Chronicle. It’s a short piece, only three pages long, but it paints a vivid picture of Scott’s relationship with his father Edward. In it, Fitzgerald wrote: “I loved my fatheralways deep in my subconscious I have referred judgements back to him, to what he would have thought or done. He loved meand felt a deep responsibility for meI was born several months after the sudden death of my two elder sisters and he felt what the effect of this would be on my mother, that he would be my only moral guide. He became that to the best of his ability. He came from tired old stock with very little left of vitality and mental energy but he managed to raise a little for me.” (p.118) 

This passage was repeated almost word for word in Tender is the Night, when Dick Diver learns of his father’s death: “Dick loved his fatheragain and again he referred judgements to what his father would probably have thought or done. Dick was born several months after the death of two young sisters and his father, guessing what would be the effect on Dick’s mother, had saved him from a spoiling by becoming his moral guide. He was of tired stock yet he raised himself to that effort.” (Tender is the Night, p.203) 

A Short Autobiography reveals parts of Fitzgerald that we don’t often get to see in his fiction. For this reason, it’s an essential read for fans of Fitzgerald’s writing.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Book Review: The Cruise of the Rolling Junk, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Originally published 1924, Hesperus Press edition 2011)

The rather boring book cover of The Cruise of the Rolling Junk, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Originally published in 1924, this edition published in 2011. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald in their Marmon, otherwise known as "the Rolling Junk," or "the Expenso."
Going on a cross-country road trip in 1920 would have been a rather harrowing proposition. Cars were unreliable, roads were often unpaved, and travel at night was not very safe. Nevertheless, despite these obstacles, in July of 1920 F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald struck out on a road trip from their home in Connecticut to Zelda’s parents’ house in Alabama. Ostensibly the reason for the trip was so Zelda could taste peaches and biscuits again. Thus began an eight day journey, complete with flat tires, and encounter with a bandit on the road, and an ending borrowed straight from O. Henry. 

The piece of writing that emerged out of this trip was a long article titled “The Cruise of the Rolling Junk.” Fitzgerald wrote it in 1922, but wasn’t able to find a publisher for it until 1924, when it appeared in Motoring magazine. It’s not Fitzgerald’s best piece of writing, but it’s interesting to read a non-fiction piece of his where the main characters are him and Zelda. 

The Cruise of the Rolling Junk was issued as a book in 2011 by Hesperus Press, a British publisher. It features an excellent foreword by Paul Theroux, acclaimed novelist and travel writer. It also features an introduction by Julian Evans that is good, but simply too long, as Evans quotes from many of the best parts of the piece. It’s perhaps a bit much to have The Cruise of the Rolling Junk as a standalone book, as the piece itself is only about 60 pages long. However, it has never been included in any other collection of Fitzgerald’s non-fiction, so it’s good that it’s finally available. 

The “rolling junk” that Scott and Zelda were driving was a Marmon, a very luxurious automobile brand, referred to throughout the text by Fitzgerald as an “Expenso.” This is just one example of Fitzgerald’s humor, which comes across quite strongly in “Rolling Junk” and other pieces of his non-fiction. Fitzgerald smartly casts himself as someone who is befuddled by anything mechanical, which was probably very close to the truth, and a lot of his humor is self-deprecating. 

There are, of course, some beautiful passages sprinkled throughout “The Cruise of the Rolling Junk.” This was one of my favorite sentences: “South we wentover little rivers and long gray bridges to placid Havre de Grace, a proud old lady with folded hands who whispered in faded dignity that she had once been under consideration for capital of the nation.” (p.43) 

On the following page there’s this gorgeous passage: “We rested only five minutesthere was sunshine all around us nowwe must make haste to go on, go down, into the warmth, into the dusky mellow softness, into the green heart of the South to the Alabama town where Zelda was born.” (p.44) 

Unfortunately, “Rolling Junk” shows off Fitzgerald’s casual racism at its worst. In most of his writing, African Americans just don’t exist, or are merely servants with a line or two here or there. In “Rolling Junk” he writes of entering a store in Virginia: “But this I knowthat the room was simply jammed with negroes and that the moral and physical aura which they cast off was to me oppressive and obscene.” (p.59-60) It doesn’t seem like such a sentence could have come from the pen of the same author who would cleverly satirize Tom Buchanan’s racism in The Great Gatsby just two years after writing “Rolling Junk.” 

Fitzgerald seems pretty out of touch with the racism of the South throughout “Rolling Junk.” Fitzgerald’s father was from Maryland, a border state that retained slavery while remaining in the Union during the Civil War. Fitzgerald’s father told him stories of troops marching through towns, and romantic stories of Southern spies. Scott absorbed the romanticism of the Southern “lost cause” without fully acknowledging that the “lost cause” was really about slavery. 

Fitzgerald must have kept this lovely sentence in his files: “After noon the humidity became oppressive sultriness, and the scattered curlicues of clouds began to solve a great jigsaw puzzle in the sky.” (p.62) He later used a very similar phrase in the short story “I’d Die for You (The Legend of Lake Lure)” written in 1935-36 and used as the title story for 2017’s collection of Fitzgerald short stories. That sentence reads: “She sat with Delannux on the side of a beached raft while the sunset broke into pink picture puzzle pieces that solved themselves in the dark west.” (I’d Die for You and Other Lost Stories, p.93) 

“The Cruise of the Rolling Junk” is an interesting piece of work for fans of Scott and Zelda, but it’s best taken with a large grain of salt, as I doubt everything that Fitzgerald wrote down actually happened. But no matter, it’s still a nice piece of writing from F. Scott Fitzgerald.