Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Concert Review: Herb Alpert and Lani Hall at the Dakota

Last night I saw Herb Alpert and his wife Lani Hall at the Dakota jazz club. It was a great show! Lani Hall was one of the singers in Sergio Mendes's Brazil '66 group, and she and Herb have been married for 35 years. They finally did an album together, "Anything Goes," she sings jazz standards and he accompanies her on trumpet. When my Mom and I heard that they were coming to the Dakota, we knew we had to go. My Mom was a big fan of Herb's in the 1960's, and I've really liked his music since I was a teenager. (When I was in high school, I listened to a radio station that played a lot of his songs, so I would be hearing "A Taste of Honey" and "The Lonely Bull" as I got ready for school.)

I was blown away by how good Alpert still sounds on the trumpet. His tone is rich, clear and pure, and his playing is effortless. And he's 74 years old. I've heard that playing the trumpet gets more and more difficult as you get older, but Herb sure made it look easy last night. Lani Hall has a pure voice that is easy to listen to, and her phrasing is outstanding. It was fun to watch the back and forth between them, and to hear Herb respond to her singing on his trumpet. And it was fun to see the obvious affection between them, this is a couple still very much in love after 35 years of marriage! Some of the highlights for me were a beautiful version of Paul McCartney's "Blackbird," Herb's solo take on "Till There Was You," and a lovely medley of Antonio Carlos Jobim songs played as an encore. No, Herb didn't play any of his hits from the Tijuana Brass period, although he did quote from "This Guy's In Love With You," at the end of "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face," and he also offered brief quotes from "Spanish Flea" and "What Now My Love." When he played the little part of "What Now My Love," I got a shiver, he sounds just like he did 40 years ago!

There were also great versions of "Anything Goes," "Let's Face the Music and Dance," "That Old Black Magic," and a re-arranged "Laura." What makes Herb Alpert a great arranger is that he is able to combine disparate elements and make them into a coherent whole. His version of "Till There Was You" featured groovy percussion and finger snapping, which wouldn't seem to fit, but it sounded fantastic. It reminded me of what he did with the Tijuana Brass, combining things together into new ways and creating something new and different that sounds great. Herb and Lani's band was great as well. The band is Bill Cantos on piano, Hussain Jiffry on bass and Michael Shapiro on drums. Jiffry and Shapiro really got to shine last night, handling tricky rhythms all night long with ease.

Alpert's stage presence really surprised me. I had no idea what he would be like, but he told everybody that he wanted a very "informal" show, and then he asked if anyone had any questions. And he was serious! Eventually some people raised their hands and Herb answered their questions with charm and wit. One woman told a story about how in 1968 she was studying to be a nun, but she kept hearing his music being played by other students outside her window. She quit her studies to be a nun and never regretted it! Herb and Lani found that story very hilarious.

I was thinking the other day about what made Herb Alpert such a star in the mid-60's. I think it's just a matter of great music actually becoming popular. Sure, scorn it as mere easy listening music, but take another listen, there's a lot more there. Herb was able to cross the generational divide of the 60's. That struck me when I realized that my Mom, a college student who loved folk music and the Beatles, had lots of his albums, so did my Dad, and so did my Grandma, who turned 50 in 1966, the peak year of Alpert's popularity. His music was really appealing to everyone. (At one point in 1966, Herb had 4 albums in the Top Ten! No one else has ever accomplished this.) I can't listen to his music without smiling, perhaps the highest compliment you can pay music.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Dave Brubeck at the Dakota

I saw 88 year-old Dave Brubeck at the Dakota Jazz Club on Wednesday night, it was an amazing show! Brubeck is still performing at the peak of his powers. I don't know how the guy does it. When he walks out on stage, he looks very much like a frail 88 year-old. But once he starts to play the piano, the years just melt away. He played 2 shows on Tuesday and Wednesday night, I was at the late show on Wednesday. He played for about an hour and ten minutes, and I sure got my money's worth.

Brubeck's group is great, they play so well together, they are a perfect example of the creative interplay that makes jazz so fantastic. Bobby Militello on alto sax and Randy Jones on drums have both played with Brubeck for more than 25 years, and Michael Moore on bass is the new kid, he's only played with Dave since 2000. Each member was given plenty of solo room to show their stuff, and they are all fantastic players.

Dave Brubeck is my favorite jazz musician, and I've been lucky enough to see him in concert 5 times now. I also got to intern for the journalist Hedrick Smith when he made a documentary about Dave. It's called "Rediscovering Dave Brubeck," and it was issued on DVD a few years ago, everyone should check it out. Every time I see Dave in concert, I kind of say to myself, "Okay, this could be the last time you see him, he's getting up there in years and he won't be touring forever." And yet, knock on wood, there's always been one more time. He's an incredible musician, and a great guy. He said at the end of the show, "I hope to be seeing you again very soon." I hope so too.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Ted Kennedy, 1932-2009

I know it's a little late for a tribute to Ted Kennedy, but I've been struggling to figure out what more I could add about him. Well, I'll add a little bit more, but I make no claim that what I have to add is anything brilliant. The Kennedy brothers have long been political heroes to me. Their public service added so much to the life of this country. Say what you will about Joe Kennedy, the father, but he instilled in all the members of his family the need to give something back, to not just make more money. He made the money so his children could do something of worth. And they did.

Ted was not as easy to stereotype as his brothers. There was pragmatic Jack and idealistic Bobby, so where did Ted fit in? He was really a mixture of them. He stayed true to his ideals, and yet was able to work well with those he differed with. Ted seems to have been less remote and easier to know than either of his brothers.

Ted obviously had personal failings, which were well-documented. To understand the man, you have to dig deeper into his biography and see that there was more to Ted than just his mistakes and bad decisions, something Ted-haters will never do. Ted was more than just the catalogue of his failings. That being said, he made grave errors in judgement in dealing with the accident at Chappaquiddick. There are still unanswered questions about that night, and we will probably never know if Ted's version of the story was the truth. I think it's very likely that he was simply incredibly drunk, and maybe his friends told him to sleep it off before summoning help. For whatever reason, his delay in reporting the accident to the police was inexcusable.

Ted Kennedy had patience, something Jack and Bobby both lacked. It's as if Teddy knew from an early age that he would be granted the time that Jack and Bobby did not have. Sometime after Bobby joined Ted in the Senate in 1965, they were listening to an interminable speech and Bobby looked over at Ted and said, "Do we have to sit here and listen to this?" "Yes," Ted replied. Patience served Ted well in the Senate, and he became a great legislator, something that Jack and Bobby could never claim. Ted was more effective in the Senate than they were. Ted lost his best friend, his brother Bobby, in June of 1968, and Bobby's death devastated Ted, just as Jack's death had devastated Bobby. In the dark days of the summer of 1968, Ted seriously considered withdrawing from public life, and who could blame him had he done so? He had every right to step back from public life. But Teddy came back, and kept going to work in the Senate. I think that says a lot about the man, that he was willing to take the chance that staying in public life might endanger his safety.

Ted's personal life finally got happier after his 1992 marriage to Vicki Reggie, and he continued to be the leading liberal voice in the Senate until his death. To learn more about Teddy, two great books I would highly recommend are Adam Clymer's 1999 biography and Burton Hersh's "The Shadow President: Ted Kennedy in Opposition." Hersh's book chronicles Kennedy's Senate career from 1980 until the mid-1990's, and it drives home the fact that Ted was really one of the only people who stood up to Ronald Reagan during the 80's, as Reagan tried to dismantle the federal government. All in all, Ted Kennedy will be remembered not just as the last Kennedy brother, but as one of the most effective Senators in United States history.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Concert Review: Allen Toussaint

Last night I saw Allen Toussaint in concert at the Dakota jazz club in downtown Minneapolis. It was a terrific show. I have to confess, my knowledge of Allen Toussaint's music is not that large, but he's someone that keeps cropping up. In the last couple of years, I've listened to Harry Connick cover "Workin' in a Coalmine," Paul McCartney's "Venus and Mars," The Band's live album "Rock of Ages," and Allen Toussaint's album with Elvis Costello, "The River in Reverse." At some point, I realized how much this guy has done. He wrote "Workin' in a Coalmine," played piano on "Venus and Mars," and did the horn arrangements for "Rock of Ages," among many other accomplishments. (Like writing "Southern Nights," one of my Mom's all-time favorite songs.) So when I heard he was coming to the Dakota I thought, I should check this guy out.

Toussaint played for a hour and a half with his amazing backup band. His guitar player was amazing, as was his tenor saxophonist, "Breeze." Breeze also played a mean clarinet. Toussaint is an amazing piano player, and a great singer as well. To hear him play his own songs was a treat, and he also played some songs from his latest record, "The Bright Mississippi." The band's version of "St. James Infirmary" brought the house down. Toussaint can play in pretty much any style, from ballads to rag-time and stride to rock-like funk. He also slipped in a couple of songs by other people, singing "Mama, You Been On My Mind," by Bob Dylan, and Paul Simon's "American Tune." It was a great show, it really felt like Allen could have stayed and played all night, but unfortunately, he didn't. He was clearly enjoying playing, and it's always fun to see people who look like they love what they are doing. Toussaint was dressed impeccably, as he is in every picture I've ever seen of him, wearing a beige suit with a check pattern, a striped dress shirt with a paisley collar, a green tie, and matching green handkerchief. Snazzy. The Dakota is one of the best places to see musicians, it's small and intimate, and the acoustics are great. Sadly, it was only about half full for the 9:30 show last night. If you ever get the chance to see this living legend in person, go see him, he puts on a terrific show!

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Beatles' Break-up

The Beatles at their last photo session together, at John's house, Tittenhurst Park, August 22, 1969.
After reading Mojo magazine's latest issue about the recording of Abbey Road, and Mikal Gilmore's article "Why the Beatles Broke Up," in Rolling Stone, I've been thinking a lot more about the Beatles' break-up. Why exactly did it happen? Who or what was to blame? Business squabbles, Yoko, the group just growing apart, Paul being too bossy, Yoko, what was it? I can't claim to answer that question in one mere blog post, but I'm going to explore some of the issues that drove the band apart.

The roots of the Beatles break-up go back to 1967, and the death of their manager Brian Epstein. After Brian died, there was a leadership void within the band. (Obviously, Brian didn't order them around, but he was still an influence on the band.) Paul McCartney was the Beatle who started leading the group after Brian died, despite John Lennon being the oldest and the perceived leader. Paul was the one who came up with the concept for Sgt. Pepper and the Magical Mystery Tour TV special, which he basically directed. In time, I think that Lennon came to resent McCartney's "takeover" of the band, and he felt that Paul was usurping his own place in the band. The group's 1968 trip to India with the Maharishi was one time when George was able to assert his leadership and get all the others on board with him. But after the White Album, it was back to Paul being the leader, as he had the idea that the group should tour again and play some small club gigs. (This started out as the Get Back sessions, which became the movie and album Let It Be.)

Part of the reason that Paul seems to have gotten his way so much in the last few years of the group's life is that no one else seemed to have any alternatives. It wasn't as though John had a different idea that got shot down by everyone else, it really seems like Paul was the only one who was willing to articulate a vision for the band. Why was that? Were the other members just that apathetic? If John was frustrated by feeling like Paul was always getting his own way, why didn't John suggest some alternatives? For whatever reason, John essentially abdicated his own leadership role in the band, and Paul was willing to take on that role. Why did John back down from leading the band? Was it the burden of his drug addictions, (LSD in 1966-67, heroin in 1968-69) his problems at home-his failing marriage to Cynthia and emerging relationship with Yoko? We'll probably never know for sure.

When the Beatles started recording the White Album, things changed dramatically. These sessions, which lasted from May 30th to October 15th, 1968, were fraught with tension among the band members, and it was during these sessions that Ringo quit the band for two weeks. And not only did the Beatles' arguments reach new heights, they now had a new person attending all of their recording sessions: Yoko Ono, John's new girlfriend. John's decision to have Yoko continually by his side at Abbey Road must have rankled the other three members of the group. And, as far as I can tell, there was little discussion between John and the other three about their new addition. One day Yoko was simply there. By his actions, John was straining his relationship with the rest of the band. But somehow the group finished the White Album, which was released on November 22, 1968.

On January 2, 1969, the Beatles met at Twickenham film studios to start recording Get Back. The plan was to film the group rehearsing new songs in preparation for a live concert. It was Paul's idea, as he thought they should "get back" to their roots by doing concerts in small clubs. Which wasn't a bad idea, and under different circumstances it might have worked. I've always thought that one of the problems with Get Back is that it followed so quickly on the heels of the White Album. Work finished on the White Album in mid-October, and just two and a half months later they were rehearsing and recording their new album! I think the group probably needed a longer break from each other, they probably should have taken six months off! But anyway, the Beatles were back, and Paul was excited, even if no one else was. So, if no one else was as excited as Paul, why did they agree to the project? Again, it simply seems to be that no one offered any alternative ideas. That's always been a paradox of the Beatles' break-up, the story is that Paul was "bossy," but no one else was standing up and offering alternative plans. What was Paul to do?

The Get Back sessions made the White Album sessions look like fun. On January 10th, just a week into the sessions, George Harrison quit the group. George came back, but on the condition that the concert idea be dropped. It's easy to understand why George was pissed off with the group. He was tired of only getting one song per album side, especially since he was writing songs that were just as good as John and Paul's. (On the White Album, George got exactly one song on each side.) George felt marginalized and neglected by both John and Paul. Although much is made of George's resentment of Paul's bossiness, (see the Let It Be clip where George tells Paul, "I'll play whatever it is you want me to play.") Harrison's relationship with John Lennon was also fracturing. According to the Rolling Stone article, on January 10th, the day George quit, "Harrison and Lennon got into a fight that they later had to deny came to blows." Clearly George's relationship with John had seriously deteriorated.

Somehow the band was able to put things aside long enough to play an impromptu concert on the roof of the Apple building on January 30th, their last live performance. The Get Back project was left not-quite finished, and the group kept recording new material throughout the spring. John and Paul recorded "The Ballad of John and Yoko" on their own during one mid-April session. In July they began intensive studio sessions for what was to become their final LP, Abbey Road. George Martin said, "Let It Be was a miserable experience and I never thought that we would get back together again." And somehow they managed to. Paul McCartney said in Mojo, "We'd had bad times, and the relief of just getting back together again and doing what we knew and not asking too many questions was quite a pleasure." No one walked out during the Abbey Road sessions, so they must have been relatively harmonious. Although, at one point, John wanted all of his songs on one side of the album and all of Paul's songs on the other! (Maybe this is why on side one John's songs open and close the side, and Paul's are in the middle, with George and Ringo's separating them.)

But just around the time Abbey Road was released in September, John Lennon dropped a bombshell on his bandmates: he was breaking up the group. Paul and Allen Klein were able to persuade him to not say anything publicly. So why did John say he was leaving? Why was he so fed up with the band? He had the latitude to release his experimental noodlings with Yoko as solo albums, so what more did he want? I don't know the answer to this question, and I'm not sure that John Lennon himself knew the answer. He just knew that he wanted something other than the Beatles. John was a very insecure person, and I think he felt threatened by Paul's continued leadership of the band. But even though John resented this, he didn't seem to be able to tell Paul this, so Paul just went on leading the group, or trying to.

Would the Beatles have been able to survive as a group if they had let members release solo works? Clearly George would have jumped at the chance to record his own album in 1969. But would everyone have just cherry-picked their best songs for their solo records and left the group with their leftovers? Who knows, but it might have placated John and George, at least for a while.

So for the next six months, nothing really happened with the Beatles. All the members concentrated on their solo work. It was only when Paul tried to release his solo album McCartney, and the date interfered with the scheduled release of Let It Be that things came out in public. John and George tried to get Paul to change his release date, to let Let It Be come out first, and they sent Ringo as their emissary to talk to Paul. Ringo went to Paul's house, and McCartney quickly became incensed, and threw Ringo out of his house. Paul drafted a Q&A to be included with advance copies of McCartney, and he made it clear that he had no plans to record with the Beatles in the future. Lennon was pissed off because Paul had preempted him, as it appeared at the time that Paul was leaving the group. Paul later said, "I was the last one to leave!" What would have happened had Paul not "left" the group in April of 1970? Would anyone have said anything? Would they have somehow recorded more music together? That seems pretty unlikely, as it had been 8 months since the last Beatles recording session, and there were no plans for them to record together again. Really, it was a strange and sad end for the group, but there you have it.

There are so many other issues I didn't even get to, like Allen Klein's attempt to manage the Beatles, and McCartney's battle against Klein, John and Paul losing control of their music publishing, the whole Apple business...there just isn't time right now, maybe in a future post.

Friday, August 14, 2009

DVD of the Day: David Bowie VH1 Storytellers

Okay, so there really won't always be a DVD of the Day every single day. But today's DVD is the recently released "David Bowie VH1 Storytellers." The show on the DVD comes from 1999, so don't get too excited, fellow Bowie fans. Why it took 10 years for it to come out, I have no idea. But since it's been nearly 6 long years since Bowie's last studio album, 2003's wonderful "Reality," I will take pretty much any leftover Bowie product! And this show is really great, Bowie has always been one of the most charismatic rock stars, and to watch him work a small venue is awesome. The stories he tells are interesting and funny, and he does many different funny voices as he talks. And he looks terrific, rocking a hooded sweatshirt in that way that only David Bowie can. My theory is that clothes that would look ridiculous on anyone else just look great on David Bowie. I think he made some kind of deal with the fashion gods.

So, how about the music? Well, he starts with a beautiful version of "Life of Mars?" surely one of his greatest songs. Although he leaves out the first verse and starts with the second. Bowie's voice has aged really well, in fact, it may have been the best it's ever been on his last few tours. He can still hit all those high notes on "Mars." Wow! Bowie plays two songs from his then-latest release, "Hours," the singles "Thursday's Child" and "Seven." These were two of the best songs from that album, and they're well-performed here. Bowie throws a curveball into the mix when he performs his very first solo single, from 1965, "Can't Help Thinking About Me." It sounds very much like an early Who song, and this odd choice actually points the way to where Bowie would go next. His next project after "Hours" was the unreleased "Toy" album, which saw Bowie re-recording some of his songs from the 1960's, along with a couple of new pieces written in a similar style. Some of the finished tracks trickled out as B-sides when "Heathen" was released in 2002, but sadly the full album never saw the light of day. "China Girl" gets a nice, moody opening here before Bowie launches into the more familiar arrangement. And the show ends with two fairly obscure songs from the 70's, "Drive-In Saturday" and "Word on a Wing." Lyrically, "Drive-In Saturday" continues the theme of "Life of Mars?" of people escaping from reality through movies. "Saturday" takes place sometime in the future, with the narrator looking back and trying to "get it on like once before/when people stared in Jagger's eyes and scored/like the video films we saw." "Word on a Wing" is from the "Station to Station" album, and it is a cry for help from Bowie's darkest days, as he was in the throes of a crippling cocaine addiction. Despite this, "Station to Station" is one of his best albums. It's a beautiful song, and it's very much like a prayer.

On the DVD, we also get four bonus performances, although sadly, no more stories from David. There are two more songs from "Hours," the lovely "Survive" and "If I'm Dreaming My Life." (The four songs he performs on the show are definitely the four strongest from "Hours.") There's also a stripped-down version of Tin Machine's "I Can't Read," which offers proof that Tin Machine could create things of beauty. (Also see "Amazing.") And finally, a track from "Low," one of my very favorite Bowie albums, "Always Crashing in the Same Car." It's given a different flavor here, with Bowie's acoustic guitar carrying the song along. It's fantastic.

David Bowie's music has meant a great deal to me over the last 10 years, and he's one of my all-time favorite musicians. The two Bowie shows I've seen in person are two of the best shows I've ever seen, and they will remain forever locked in my memory banks. I really wish that he would record another new album, as his last two, "Heathen" and "Reality" are two of the finest he's ever made. But until that time, I'll have to make do with what's already out there, which is a significant chunk of the greatest rock music ever.

Concert Review: Ramsey Lewis

Last night I saw Ramsey Lewis at Orchestra Hall with my Dad. It was a great show, Ramsey proved that, at age 74, his piano chops are as good as ever. The theme of the evening was "Singin' the Blues," but Lewis didn't play just straight blues. His music has always been filtered through many different influences. Obviously, blues is a huge part of jazz, but Lewis played piano at his church as a teenager, and has always loved classical music as well, so those influences are there to be heard as well. The centerpiece of the evening was a medley of gospel songs that lasted close to half an hour! Lewis's trio was in fine form, with Larry Gray on bass and Leon Joyce, Jr. on drums both getting ample room to solo. Joyce's propulsive drumming really fired the crowd up. Ramsey started off the concert with his version of "Wade in the Water," which was a big hit single for him in 1966. In Lewis's arrangement, it becomes a stomping soul-jazz number, similar to his biggest hit, "The In Crowd." Lewis played several newer pieces that he has written, including a song he wrote for the Joffrey Ballet. These pieces were beautiful and quite lovely, I hope Ramsey keeps writing more originals. His newest album, which is due out in September, features all original compositions, it's called "Songs From the Heart: Ramsey Plays Ramsey."

The crowd at Orchestra Hall was enthusiastic, and very responsive. I've been a fan of Ramsey's music for the last 10 years, and I don't think he's ever played the Twin Cities, so I was pretty excited to see him. His trio recordings from the 50's and 60's are just brilliant, I wish more of them were reissued on CD. And my Dad has been a fan of Ramsey's since the 1960's, when he bought albums like, "Barefoot Sunday Blues," and "Live at the Bohemian Caverns." It was a real treat to see a jazz legend who is still performing at an extremely high level.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Book of the Day: 1776, by David McCullough

Welcome to another new feature I'm starting on this blog: Book of the Day. Okay, so I can't read a book a day, but I will occasionally write some shorter pieces about what I've just finished reading. Today's book is 1776, by David McCullough. As the title no doubt makes clear, this book focuses solely on this defining year of the American Revolution. But McCullough focuses the book even more narrowly than that. Specifically, he follows George Washington and the Continental Army throughout the entire year, as they move from a triumph in Boston to disastrous defeat in New York City, to a final victory at the very end of the year at the battle of Trenton. It's fascinating to read about the challenges Washington faced in such detail. The only thing I don't like about the book is that really no attention is paid to Congress. The writing of the Declaration of Independence is covered in about two pages. So you'll have to go to another book to get more of the story of 1776, which just shows what a momentous year it was.

In reading 1776, one of the things that amazed me was how many times the Continental Army came so close to being utterly destroyed, yet still managed to survive, through Washington's savvy and occasional British ineptness. There are so many times when things could have turned out very differently for the rebels, and one wonders what the fate of this country would have been. 1776 also makes the reader realize how incredibly lucky this country was to have George Washington in charge of the army. Granted, Washington made some huge tactical blunders during the war, which 1776 does not gloss over, but he was ultimately the right man for the job. He was able to inspire his troops at exactly the right time, and he was utterly selfless in his devotion to the revolution. His importance to the founding of this nation really cannot be overstated. For much of his public life, George Washington was America. He was the living, breathing symbol of this country.

As 1776 drew to a close, I found myself thinking, "Okay, at the end everything will be fine." And then I would remember, "Nope, the war goes on for 5 more years!" McCullough is truly a gifted writer, he knows how to tell a story, and he knows how to capture the reader's attention. He relies on a lot of primary sources, which gives the narrative an immediacy, and really paints the picture for the reader. I feel like I know a decent amount about the American Revolution, but I learned many new things by reading about one year in such detail. For anyone who wants to know more about America's struggle for independence, 1776 is a must-read.

Album of the Day: Intermodulation, by Bill Evans and Jim Hall

I'm starting a new feature on this blog, it's called, "Album of the Day." No, I probably won't be updating every single day with a new album, but I want to write some shorter pieces about things I've been listening to recently.

Today's album is "Intermodulation," by Bill Evans and Jim Hall, from 1966. So just who are Bill Evans and Jim Hall, you might ask? Well, Bill Evans is one of the most highly-regarded jazz piano players of the last half-century. (He played on "Kind of Blue." Need I say more?) And Jim Hall is a well-known jazz guitar player, who played with Paul Desmond on several albums in the 1960's, as well as recording numerous titles as a leader. Evans and Hall are the only musicians on the disc, and "Intermodulation" was actually their second collaboration. "Undercurrent," from 1962, was their first, and is a classic album. "Intermodulation" might not be quite in the same league, but it is an enjoyable listen. Evans and Hall's playing styles fit together very well, which is why a piano/guitar duet album actually works. Both had quiet, understated approaches, but both musicians were also incredibly technically gifted.

The songs on "Intermodulation" are mostly laid-back, slow-tempo ballads, which act as showcases for their styles. The only real swingers on the album are the opening song, "I've Got You Under My Skin," and "Jazz Samba." Evans and Hall each contributed one original song, Evans's gorgeous "Turn Out the Stars," and Hall's "All Across the City." If you like "Undercurrent," you should definitely check out "Intermodulation." Also, if you're a fan of either one of these musicians, or if you just like hearing two great musicians who have great chemistry together, take a listen.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

RIP, Gordon Waller of Peter and Gordon, 1945-2009

I was saddened to hear of the death of Gordon Waller, half of the British Invasion duo Peter and Gordon, two weeks ago. Peter and Gordon have been one of my personal favorite British Invasion groups ever since I first heard them when I was about 13 or 14. I don't know exactly why I liked Peter and Gordon so much, but I know their sad songs spoke to me at that age. I still know every note of Rhino's "The Best of Peter & Gordon" CD. And I still enjoy their music. So, in this post, I'll reflect on some of my favorite Peter & Gordon songs. (In the picture above, Peter is on the left, and Gordon is on the right.)

Peter & Gordon started their career in about the luckiest way imaginable. In early 1964, just as Beatlemania was exploding around the planet, Paul McCartney was dating Peter's sister, Jane Asher, and Paul offered Peter & Gordon a song he had written for their first single. The Beatles never recorded it, and I don't remember if it was John or Paul himself who supposedly said it was "Too soft," meaning it wasn't rock and roll enough. But it fit Peter & Gordon's softer style perfectly, and "A World Without Love" was a number one single on both sides of the Atlantic in 1964. In the US, it was the first British Invasion number one by an artist other than the Beatles. Peter & Gordon sang close harmony, ala the Everly Brothers, and their sweet voices still make "A World Without Love" a great record. Peter & Gordon were able to use their connection to Paul for their next two singles, the McCartney-penned "Nobody I Know," and "I Don't Want To See You Again." Both songs were a little too folk and pop for the Beatles' image in 1964. I would love to have heard Paul's demos for these songs! (I'm assuming he would have demoed them for P&G.) "I Don't Want To See You Again" brought about something of a shift in style for P&G, as it was their first single to use strings.

But Peter & Gordon proved that they weren't just relying on Paul McCartney for their success with their next single, the gorgeous "I Go To Pieces," written by Del Shannon. The song starts out with a lovely riff played on 12-string guitar by Gordon. The song tells the tale of a man who goes to pieces every time he sees his ex-girlfriend, "When I see her comin' down the street/I get so shaky and I feel so weak/I tell my eyes look the other way/But they don't seem to hear a word I say/And I go to pieces and I wanna hide/Go to pieces and I almost die/Every time my baby passes by." With its stirring string parts and sad subject matter, the song is slightly reminiscent of Roy Orbison. The song became P&G's second Top Ten hit. Their next hit, a cover of Buddy Holly's "True Love Ways," was the first time that Gordon sang some of the song solo, as his was the better voice for lead vocals. It's still a great version of an under appreciated song, and it was a number two hit in England. (I heard it recently in the grocery store. Really.) The arrangement on "True Love Ways" was quite dramatic, which set the stage for their next hit, a cover of Phil Spector's "To Know You Is To Love You," which P&G did in the full Spector Wall-of-Sound style. It may sound a bit bombastic to our ears now, but at the time it was a pretty funny musical joke. And the style fit Gordon's dramatic voice very well.

In early 1966, P&G sang another Paul McCartney song, "Woman." (No relation to John Lennon's gorgeous 1980 solo hit, of course.) But Paul wanted to see if a song he wrote could be a hit without his name attached to it, so "Woman" was published under the pseudonym "Bernard Webb." "Woman" became a hit, and of course, it was eventually revealed that Paul wrote the song. Lyrically, it deals with a guy trying to get his girl back. Musically, it starts with a catchy string opening, and Gordon singing solo. I think it's a very catchy song, and again, I would love to hear Paul sing it. The song structure is a bit odd, as towards the end of the song, we get a section that isn't repeated anywhere else in the song, where P&G sing a sort-of round, with Peter starting his phrase on the last note of the phrase that Gordon is finishing. (It starts with "I've got plenty of time.") Then their voices come together on the words "do it" in the line, "I still think we can do it/And you know how much I love you." It's a great song, although apparently Paul sang a bit of it during the "Get Back" sessions and said something about how he didn't like the arrangement. (Maybe too many strings?) Peter & Gordon's inclinations towards middle-of-the-road pop and bombastic arrangements were starting to make themselves more known on album tracks and singles like, "There's No Living Without Your Loving." (Which was also sung by Gene Pitney, to give you some idea of what it sounds like.) "TNLWYL" is a decent enough record, and it made it to number 50, but it sounds like it's from 1962 rather than 1966, it wasn't contemporary.

Peter and Gordon would return to the Top Ten in 1966, courtesy of the goofy, but fun, novelty number "Lady Godiva." I don't think I've ever heard this song on oldies stations, oddly enough. It's silly, but enjoyable, and Gordon reigns in his theatrical vocal tendencies. The song tells the updated tale of Lady Godiva, who gets seduced by a Hollywood producer and goes off to make soft-core movies. Really! But more goofy "English" songs were to follow for P&G. These songs, and Herman's Hermits' "I'm Henry the 8th, I Am" are kind of like the opposite of Ray Davies's "English" songs being written at the same time. Whereas Ray's songs were painting a satirical portrait of contemporary England, these songs were selling back quaint olde "Englishness" to the Americans. And people bought it. "Knight in Rusty Armour" was the follow-up to "Lady Godiva." It went to number 15 in early 1967. P&G's harmonies were still fantastic, but the lyrics are rather cheesy. After the knight wins his fair maiden, he can't get out of his armor, "And I can't guess/How they still got married and had twins/They came in tins." But that was poetry compared to P&G's last Top Forty hit, "Sunday For Tea." I'm still convinced that this is the song Spinal Tap is parodying with "Cups and Cakes." "Sunday for Tea" is quaintly British, of course. "Sunday for tea/I'll see you Sunday for tea/And though it's not far away/Each hour's a day to me." Okay, not too bad so far. And then it falls apart. "Lettuce and ham/Or maybe crumpets and jam/Oh, baby it'll be fun/Havin' a Sunday tea." It gets sillier, "And as you pass the sugar bowl to me/I'll see at last your heart and soul will be with me." I just hope that P&G had fun recording it! And even though I mock "Sunday for Tea," I know every word and I still enjoy hearing it. That's one of the great things about Peter & Gordon, they gave every song their all.

Peter & Gordon broke up in 1968, after 10 Top Forty US hits in four years. And even though their final hits are rather silly, they were still capable of making great records during that time. Their version of Phil Ochs's "The Flower Lady" is beautiful and haunting. It's always been one of my favorite P&G songs. And Peter & Gordon wrote some good songs, even if none of them were hits. Songs like "Morning's Calling," "Don't Pity Me," "Hurtin' is Lovin,'" "I Feel Like Going Out," and "You've Had Better Times" showed that they had real talent as songwriters. "You've Had Better Times," from 1968, is worth mentioning, as it sounds a lot like something Alan Price would have cut around that time. Which means that it's a great, bluesy song!

After their break-up, despite his talent, Gordon Waller did not go on to pop stardom. Peter Asher quit singing and turned to producing. While he was head of A&R at Apple Records, he discovered a young singer-songwriter named James Taylor, and became his manager and producer. Peter and Gordon may not have changed the world with their music, but they surely added some beauty to the world. Thanks for all those great songs.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Concert Review: Chris Isaak

Since the last time I wrote I've been really sick, so I sadly missed seeing Elvis Costello on July 4th. (Because nothing says July 4th like quirky British singer/songwriters, right??) But, I was well enough to attend the Chris Isaak concert on July 11th. It was fantastic! Chris really puts on a great show, his band is fantastic, and he has enough charisma and charm to make anyone like him. I had heard that Chris is really good in concert, but that didn't quite prepare me for how good he would be. He really puts all he has into performing. It's one thing to listen to his records and hear how amazing his voice is, but it's another to see him live in front of you, hitting all those notes perfectly. Wow!

Isaak's primary influences are Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison, and Isaak has inherited their gifts. He has Elvis's charisma and showmanship, (and good looks) and he has Orbison's otherworldly voice and songwriting ability. He does a thrilling version of "Only the Lonely" that is a beautiful tribute to Roy.

After about 3 songs, Isaak had the band play "Return to Me," and said he was going to walk into the crowd. I figured he would walk out a few rows and return to the stage. Wrong. He walked through the whole audience, even coming up to see those of us in the cheap seats! After that, he had the whole audience on his side.

All in all, it was a great show, Chris sang some of my favorite songs of his, and it was just so much fun to see a performer who clearly loves performing. At the end of the show, Chris said, after introducing the band, "I'm Chris Isaak, and you just made my day." And you just made mine, Chris.

Here's what he played, in not-quite-perfect order:

American Boy
Mr. Lonely Man
Let Me Down Easy
Somebody's Crying
Return To Me/Love Me Tender
Speak of the Devil
Wicked Game
Beautiful Homes
I Want You To Want Me
Don't Make Me Dream About You-re-arranged as a gospel harmony song
Can't Do a Thing (To Stop Me)
I'll Go Crazy
Only the Lonely
Take My Heart
Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing
We Let Her Down
You Don't Cry Like I Do
Summer Holiday
Best I Ever Had
We Lost Our Way
San Francisco Days
Blue Hotel
Big Wide Wonderful World
Western Stars

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

4 Plays in One Week!

As you might be able to guess from the title, I have just seen four plays in one week! It's been a busy week, but I love the theater, so I'm happy to get caught up a little bit. Here are some thoughts on all four shows:

"A Chorus Line," Orpheum Theater-Despite billboards telling me otherwise, "A Chorus Line" is NOT the "Best Musical. Ever." In fact, I wouldn't even put it in my top five or ten. It's decent, but honestly, it's really dated, and all the characters are really pretty shallow sketches. The songs are good but not great, although "One" was stuck in my head for hours afterwards! Argh! The singing and dancing were both really good, though. The only other time I saw "A Chorus Line" was on a choir trip when I was in 7th grade, and wow, it was shocking then! She just said "tits" on stage!!! Can they do that??? In 2009, it's definitely lost any power to shock or surprise, but it's difficult for anything to have the same impact nearly 35 years later. Rating: 3 stars out of 5.

"Singin' in the Rain," Ordway Center for the Performing Arts-A stage version of the classic film. Amazing! This might actually be the best musical ever, despite the fact that the songs used in the film were just old ones that they threw together. (With some new songs.) Seeing the movie in Rice Park in downtown St. Paul a couple of weeks ago definitely whet my appetite for this show! The movie was one of my favorites as a little kid, and I hadn't seen it in a long time. It's just so euphoric and giddy and fun! Of course, it's impossible to find anyone to top Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor, but Michael Gruber and Tony Vierling did a fine job. I had a blast seeing one of my all-time favorite movies live on stage! Rating: 5 stars out of 5.

"Caroline, or Change," Guthrie Theater-Part of the Guthrie's all Tony Kushner Spring and Summer, this Tony-winning musical features a tour de force performance from Greta Oglesby in the title role. Caroline is an African-American maid in Louisiana in 1963, and the play deals with her relationship with the Jewish family for whom she works. The whole production was so well done, my only quibble is with a piece of history. Part of the action of the play takes place on November 22, 1963, the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. In the play, the characters don't hear about the assassination until the evening. That would not have happened, as Kennedy was pronounced dead at 1PM. And since Caroline listens to the radio all day long, she would have been hearing news bulletins all afternoon. Likewise, grade-schooler Noah Gellman would have most likely been sent home for the day around lunchtime, instead of hearing the news late at night. I know I'm picking on this point a bit, but as a history buff, it was a glaring error. But other than that, it was a really great show. And one of my favorite actors, Bradley Greenwald, got to show off his clarinet-miming chops as Noah's father. (Bradley has a fantastic voice, but he didn't get to use it a lot in this show.) Oh, and I saw Tony Kushner in the Guthrie gift shop before the play! I probably wouldn't have recognized him except for the fact that I had just seen his picture about 5 times on my way from the rush line to the gift shop. Rating: 5 stars out of 5.

"Shipwrecked! An Entertainment-The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told By Himself)" Jungle Theater-I just saw this last night, and it was a terrific show! It tells the story of Louis de Rougemont, who thrilled Victorian England with his tales of being shipwrecked and spending 30 years living amongst Aborigines off the coast of Australia. But was de Rougemont telling the truth? I won't spoil it for you, sometimes we need a little imagination. The play is by Donald Margulies, who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Michael Booth gives a great performance as de Rougemont. He reminded me a little of Peter O'Toole, in his ability to keep you hanging on every word, whether it's true or not. The supporting performances surround Booth with a daffy lunacy, as 3 actors play all the remaining parts. Stephen Cartmell stole the show as Bruno the dog, de Rougemont's faithful companion. It's an incredibly funny performance. Cartmell also reduced me to giddy laughter as a wombat expert, and I think I might find just the word "wombat" funny for the next week or two. "Shipwrecked!" is a fantastic show about the power of stories. Rating: 5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

What I've Been Listening To

Okay, so it's been a really long time since I've posted anything. It seems like May just flew away from me. And now June is half over! I was thinking about posting tonight anyway, but then when I read Uncle E's shout out for this blog, I realized I need to post something! I've been listening to a whole bunch of stuff lately, but I haven't listened to any one thing enough to write something semi-intelligent about it. So, what have I been listening to, you might ask? Well, a ridiculous amount of Chris Isaak and Elvis Costello, as they are the next concerts I'm going to see. Chris Isaak is at Mystic Lake Casino, which is actually a pretty decent place to see a concert, I've seen Tony Bennett there twice. I missed Chris last summer when he was at the Minnesota Zoo, so I'm very happy that I'll catch him this summer. And Elvis is headlining at the Taste of Minnesota. Which is odd, because this year it's all washed-up metal bands. And Elvis. Taste of Minnesota, which happens over July 4th, is kind of like a crappy dry-run for the State Fair, which takes place in late August. It's also odd that Elvis is at Taste of Minnesota, because he still actually has a career, as opposed to most of the bands that play there.

So in preparation for seeing Chris Isaak, I went back and re-listened to all of his albums again. I was struck by how consistently great he is. Really, every album of his is pretty good, although my favorites are "Baja Sessions," "Speak of the Devil," and "Always Got Tonight." (His new CD, "Mr. Lucky," is also really good.) Isaak has a beautiful, haunting voice, and he's a great songwriter. He's like Elvis, if Elvis could have written a song. (Okay, so Elvis did write one song. It's called "You'll Be Gone." Really!) Isaak's album "Forever Blue" is a brilliant, heartbreaking look at a relationship gone wrong.

And I have been listening to a bewildering array of Elvis Costello albums:

Imperial Bedroom (2-Disc Rhino edition)
The River in Reverse (with Allen Toussaint)
This Year's Model (2-Disc Hip-O edition from 2008)
My Flame Burns Blue
Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane
and I've listened to the first half of Spike

So, yeah, a bit eclectic! I like all of these albums so far, but I don't know that I have a lot to say about them yet. Suffice it to say, Costello's versatility just blows me away. It's difficult to believe that the same guy put out all these different albums. I really like the songs on "Imperial Bedroom," what a brilliant, dark album. "Beyond Belief" is simply staggering, how do you write something like that? "This Year's Model" is all full of piss and vinegar, an angry young man railing at the world around him. "The River in Reverse" is a beautiful album, and it shows that Elvis still has some piss and vinegar left in him. Collaborating with Allen Toussaint was a smart move. And so was collaborating with the Metropole Orkest on "My Flame Burns Blue," on which Elvis re-arranges a bunch of his old songs for a jazz orchestra. Sounds weird, I know, but Elvis pulls it off. Oddly enough, this is Elvis's only official live album! "North" is a subdued song cycle about the end of one relationship and the beginning of another. It's a very restrained album, but well-written. And Elvis's latest CD, "Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane," what to make of it? It's a bit of a patchwork quilt of an album, with some old songs like "Complicated Shadows," last heard on 1996's "All This Useless Beauty," songs from Costello's unfinished "Secret Songs" commission, and some new stuff thrown in. It's all given a bluegrass/Americana makeover, and again, like everything else I've mentioned, it works for some reason. I can't really say why it works, but I like it.

And, a note about Elvis, last week "Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane" entered the Billboard 200 at number 13, which is Elvis's highest placing since...wait for it..."Get Happy!!" peaked at number 11 in 1980! Isn't that crazy?

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Quick Takes

Okay, since I haven't written many in-depth posts for a while, here's a brief sampling of things I've seen/listened to, and found interesting:

"Bonnie and Clyde" (1967)-Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway bring 60's style and anti-establishment feeling to the 1930's Depression-era criminals Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. What makes "Bonnie and Clyde" successful isn't how faithful it is to the period, but how it brings a touch of the present to the past, and it makes the story feel contemporary. Of course, that "contemporary" feeling is now 40-plus years old, but it still feels fresh, it's a beautifully photographed film, and it looks fantastic in Blu-Ray. (Warren and Faye look fantastic in Blu-Ray, too.) Clyde is a B.S. artist, and Beatty knows exactly how to play him. Clyde is able to make anyone believe anything he says, a trait that he seems to share with the man portraying him. (I had to smirk at the irony of ladies' man Beatty playing the impotent Clyde, though. Hearing Beatty protest to Dunaway, "I ain't much of a lover boy!" is pretty funny.) Casting the unknown Dunaway as Bonnie was a gamble that paid off. Beatty first envisioned his ex-girlfriend Natalie Wood as Bonnie, but she turned him down. It worked to have a fresh face as Bonnie, someone who didn't have a star image. Dunaway was also very different looking, with her high cheekbones and angular face. She wore the period clothes very well, and she also brought a sensuality to the role, check out the scene at the beginning where she and Clyde drink Cokes and she strokes Clyde's pistol. (There may be some symbolism going on there.) "Bonnie and Clyde" also introduced more realistic violence to the movies, even though it looks pretty tame today. (Except for the final scene, which still retains its power.)

"Glengarry Glen Ross" (1992)-What a cast! There's Al Pacino's great, smarmy performance as Ricky Roma, Jack Lemmon's hapless Shelley "The Machine" Levene, Ed Harris's angry, bitter, profane Dave Moss, plus Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey, Jonathan Pryce, and of course, Alec Baldwin. ("Coffee's for closers only!") This is a collection of great performances by truly gifted actors at the height of their powers. Jack Lemmon in particular is brilliant, as he gets to show a huge range of emotion. If you like great actors saying "fuck" a lot, this one's for you. There's something great about hearing Jack Lemmon drop the f-bomb.

"Elmer Gantry" (1960)-Sinclair Lewis's novel satirizing evangelism was considered too shocking for Hollywood to film for more than 30 years. It's a good thing they waited, because otherwise someone other than Burt Lancaster might have played Elmer Gantry, and that would have been unthinkable. Lancaster brought every talent he had to the role, and it's a bravura performance. (The only thing Lancaster doesn't get to highlight is his acrobatic skills.) It's one of the most extroverted performances on film. Lancaster won the Oscar for his work, and rightly so. The lovely and underrated Jean Simmons is outstanding as Sister Sharon Falconer, as is Shirley Jones as Lulu Bains, the woman Gantry has ruined. Dean Jagger and Arthur Kennedy are also superb in supporting roles.

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, "Raising Sand," (2007)-Terrific album combining two unlikely talents. There aren't that many real duets on this record, but the songs all fuse together to create a mood that is low-key and soulful. The songs are gorgeous, and seem very thoughtfully chosen. I know I'm a little late to the party here, but go pick this one up.

The Beatles, White Album Demos, (1968)-Okay, so this isn't in stores, but I'm sure you can find it somewhere. It's amazing to hear John, Paul, and George demo songs for the White Album. Without a time machine, this is as close as you can get to hearing how these songs must have sounded when the Beatles wrote them in India. (And proof that they were soaking up some of Donovan's acoustic, finger-picking guitar style, as he claims in his autobiography.)

Robyn Hitchcock, "Ole Tarantula," (2006)-I've been listening to this CD a lot lately, and I have forgotten how great it is. "Underground Sun" is one of the most gorgeous songs Robyn has ever written. All 10 songs are great, some of my other favorites are the title tune, ("I feel like a three-legged chinchilla, standing on a table so wide") and "(A Man's Gotta Know His Limitations) Briggs." "Museum of Sex" has one of my new favorite lines ever: "Music is the antidote to the world of pain and sorrow."

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Hero of the Day: Arlen Specter

I'm so happy that Arlen Specter is leaving the Republican party and becoming a Democrat! Now we just need Norm Coleman to drop his stupid appeal and admit that he lost to Al Franken, and the Democrats will have 60 seats in the Senate, and we can make this country awesome again! And what does it say about the GOP that they can't tolerate Arlen Specter? I mean, it's not like he's flamingly liberal or anything. That GOP tent is just getting smaller and smaller all the time. But that's fine with me. If they want to have a party of no one but Sarah Palin, more power to them.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

I Met Robyn Hitchcock!

Robyn Hitchcock performed on Sunday night at the Varsity Theater, and I was there to see the show. It was the first time I've seen Robyn in concert, and it was great! The Varsity is a really small theater, so I was probably about 20 or 30 feet away from the stage. Robyn was performing with the Venus 3, Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey, and Bill Rieflin. It was a really rocking show! It seemed like Robyn played a lot of the lead guitar work, I knew he was an amazing acoustic guitar player, but I was impressed by his electric work too. Robyn played for 2 hours, and he said they threw in some extra songs because this was the last night of the tour. He told some stories about Kate Winslet's mouth, Earl the Penguin, who lives on a neon green traffic cone, and the Foshay Tower. (The Foshay Tower was at one point the tallest building west of the Mississippi, it's an iconic Minneapolis landmark, still standing.) At the end of the show Robyn said, "Peter and I have carved miniature replicas of the Foshay Tower out of soap, we'll be autographing them at the merch table afterwards." Well, there were no Foshay Towers made out of soap, but there were little green traffic cones drawn on by Robyn for sale.

When Robyn first came out he looked a little sluggish, but I overheard him say afterwards that he had just eaten a big dinner and was really full of food, so it took him about 10 songs to get into the show! He opened with a solo acoustic cover of Bob Dylan's "She Belongs to Me," an homage to the Dinkytown area in which the Varsity is located, and where Dylan hung out when he attended the University of Minnesota. (The 4th Street in "Positively 4th Street" could be the one in Dinkytown, so some people say.) After he played it he said, "That song was by Bob Dylan, the rest of the songs are by Robyn Hitchcock." I cheered. Then the band came out and Robyn switched to his blue electric guitar for a beautiful version of "I Often Dream of Trains." Next came "What You Is," the opening track from "Goodnight Oslo," and that's when the rocking began.

I got to meet Robyn after the show at the merch table, he was really nice, as you would expect, he signed people's shirts, posed for pictures, etc. I told him thanks for playing "Beautiful Queen," which is one of my all-time favorite songs of his, he said, "Glad you enjoyed it." I got to shake his hand and tell him I think he's one of the greatest songwriters, he kind of laughed and said, "Well, I'm certainly one of the oldest!" So, yeah, I said what I wanted to say, and I hopefully didn't sound like a moron. It's tough to talk to someone whose music means a lot to you, what do you say? Like if I ever met David Bowie, or Paul McCartney, how could I possibly tell them all that their music has meant to me over the years? I couldn't, all you can hope for is not sounding like a doofus. I'd love to interview Robyn for hours, he's so smart and quick-witted.

Here's what Robyn played, I'm sure I'm missing a couple of songs, and the order isn't perfect:

She Belongs to Me-Dylan cover, solo acoustic
I Often Dream of Trains
What You Is
Brenda's Iron Sledge
N.Y. Doll
Saturday Groovers
Madonna of the Wasps
Hurry for the Sky
I'm Falling-all 3 of the above were written for the as-yet-unmade movie "The Fifth Beatle," about Brian Epstein
Up to Our Nex-with a snatch of Bowie's Young Americans thrown in!
Beautiful Queen-a simply gorgeous version of this gorgeous song!
The Authority Box
I'm Hot For You-? solo acoustic encore
The Insect
Goodnight Oslo

All in all, an amazing show! Thanks Robyn, come back again soon!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Jesus of Cool Sale

Okay, I know I talk about Yep Roc Records a lot. But I have to give them a shout out because they are having an Easter Jesus of Cool Nick Lowe Sale! How fitting! Speaking as an agnostic, I rather enjoy the cheeky humor of it all. So right now you can get Jesus of Cool, The Convincer, and At My Age for $9.99 each. They're all more than worth it, so anyone who reads this blog who doesn't own all 3 CD's needs to get themselves over to Yep Roc and check out Nick! I wonder if Yep Roc would be willing to hire me as an official Nick Lowe/Robyn Hitchcock historian/archivist?

Nick Lowe in Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair somehow tore themselves away from their usual subject matter of Princess Diana, the Kennedys, and Marilyn Monroe long enough to interview Nick Lowe. I don't know if this article is actually in the magazine or not, I read it online, but it's quite good. (Despite the writer's rather insulting question, "Did you always look the age you are now?") There's also an interesting anecdote about Huey Lewis at the end.

Here's the link:

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Hitchcock's "To Catch a Thief"

I just watched Alfred Hitchcock's 1955 film "To Catch a Thief," starring the incomparably gorgeous combination of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. It's one of Hitch's slighter efforts, but enjoyable all the same. The third star of the film is the scenery around Monaco and the South of France, where the movie was filmed. The film tells the tale of John Robie, a former jewel thief who finds that someone is imitating his robberies, in the hopes that the police will blame Robie for the robberies. Robie is determined to prove his innocence, but he has significant obstacles in his path. Through his friend Hughson, who works for an insurance company, Robie is able to obtain a list of who owns the most valuable jewels in the area. Robie's idea is to pinpoint when the copycat thief will strike again, and then Robie will be able to catch them in the act. Which is where Grace Kelly, playing Frances Stevens, comes in. (Finally! It takes half an hour before she gets significant screen time.) Kelly is on vacation with her mother, who owns lots of expensive jewelry. Kelly's mother is played by Jessie Royce Landis, who, ironically, went on to play Cary Grant's mother in "North By Northwest," even though she was only 10 years older than Grant!

Robie pretends to be a vacationing American (!) and wins the trust of Kelly and Landis. (Cary Grant as an American? With that accent?) There is an instant attraction between Kelly's character and Robie, and she pursues him despite the fact that she thinks he might be the jewel thief. And fireworks ensue, literally. The dialogue between Grant and Kelly is spiced with double-entendres that must have seemed quite racy in 1955, and gave the censors headaches. One of the most famous scenes in "To Catch a Thief" takes place in Kelly's hotel room, as she and Grant observe a fireworks display out of the window. It's a gorgeous scene, dimly lit, with Grant looking dapper in his tuxedo standing in half-light at the window, and Kelly, looking gorgeous in a white chiffon gown, imploring Grant to touch her necklace. It's pretty sexy stuff.

In a way, "To Catch a Thief" is kind of a dry-run for "North By Northwest." Cary Grant is at his most dapper and unflappable in both films, they both feature Hitchcock's trademark "mistaken identity" premise, Grant is involved in perilous car chases on cliffs in both films, and in both films he is pursued by gorgeous blondes who are anything but coy. (Compare the initial scenes with Grace Kelly in TCAT to those with Eva Marie Saint in NBN.) "To Catch a Thief" is not a masterpiece in the way that "Vertigo" or "North By Northwest" are, but it's still a highly enjoyable film, made more so by the charisma of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Music, Please, it's Nick Lowe's 60th Birthday!

Today is Nick Lowe's 60th birthday. I've been listening to "Quiet, Please: The New Best of Nick Lowe" the last few days, and Nick's songs have been playing on an endless loop in my head. (Which is not a bad thing, mind you.) The more I listen to Nick, the more I like him. What "Quiet Please" really shows is that he has been writing brilliant songs throughout his entire career. I'm amazed at the consistency of his writing, even though the songs sound very different from each other. From the snarky early brilliance of "What's So Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding?" "Heart of the City," "Marie Provost," "Cruel To Be Kind," to mature, starkly powerful songs like "The Beast In Me," "What's Shakin' on the Hill," "Soulful Wind," "Indian Queens," and "People Change," Lowe's music has changed over the years, but the quality has not. (A note: "What's so Funny" was meant to be snarky when Nick first wrote it in 1974, but that's not the way he sings it now, as it obviously has more meaning for him as he's grown older.) Lowe's recent songs amaze me because of how tersely perfect they are. Take the beginning of "People Change," for example. "Storybook love, made for one another, now she treats you just like a brother." Boom, 14 words and we already have a whole story right here! The chorus is direct and to the point, "People change, that's the long and short of it, prepare yourself for it, or get bit, people change." Perfect, and very true. In Lowe's songs now, everything seems honed down to it's perfect essence, everything superfluous has been thrown away. I think it's difficult to write songs this way, although Nick sure makes it look easy.

"Quiet Please" includes only songs that Nick wrote, which is fine with me, because I think he's extremely underrated, and he's an absolutely amazing songwriter. By focusing only on original songs, it puts the spotlight firmly on Nick's ability to craft beautiful, memorable pop songs, and it shows that he's in a class of his own.

Nick, if you're reading this somewhere, (I doubt you are, but you never know) thanks so much for all the great music you've made over the years, and here's to many more songs to come! Discovering your music has been a great joy for me these last two years, thank you!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Liberace and Elvis: The Triumph of Kitsch

After my recent trip to Las Vegas, and a stop at the Liberace Museum, I started to ponder the odd similarities between "Mr. Showmanship" and "The King of Rock and Roll." Maybe it was the hot Vegas sun beating down on my forehead, maybe it was the glare from all the rhinestones, but it seemed to click in my head, Elvis and Liberace, two pillars of 20th-century kitsch, more alike than you might think at first glance.

When I say that Elvis was like Liberace, I'm thinking more of 70's Elvis, in Vegas, with the ostentatious outfits. But there were some similarities in their public personas dating back to the 1950's. Liberace became a star in the early 1950's in large part due to his TV show, which featured his colorful wardrobe, (this was before he was all about the rhinestones, and this was also a time when it was a big deal that Liberace wore a white tuxedo for a performance!) his brother George, and his mother, who was in the audience for almost every show. Liberace was a very shrewd performer, and he had discovered that he could win over audiences with his personality as much as his brilliant piano playing. He was able to take what might have been a shortcoming, his very swishy manner, and turn it into a huge asset. Considering how homophobic 1950's America was, this was no small victory for a gay man. This was, after all, a time when gays could be fired by the US State Department for being a "security risk." (Okay, so Liberace never publicly admitted he was gay, in fact, he even denied it under oath, but I'm pretty sure he was.) In this way, Liberace was actually quite subversive for the time. He was pointedly different, at a time when conformity was what people strove for. But what Liberace did was to temper this subversiveness with more "normal" behavior, like his emphasis on his family, brother George and his mother. And Liberace's personality was so sunny and warm that viewers couldn't help but be charmed by him. He was humble, gracious, and polite, and in this way showed that he was not a threat to the status quo, despite his differences.

Elvis Presley burst onto the national spotlight in 1956, and he seemed quite different and threatening to many people. Like Liberace, he was able to use television to greatly further his career and expand his appeal. And also like Liberace, Elvis was able to use TV to show people that he was not actually threatening, and that he was also humble, gracious, and polite. Eventually, as people began to know more about Elvis's personality, he seemed less threatening, despite his obvious differences. (Like Liberace, Elvis was also totally devoted to his mother. Some people conjecture that Elvis never really got over the death of his mother in 1958.) By entering the Army in 1958, and serving his 2 years like any other normal guy, Elvis again showed his essentially conservative, non-threatening persona.

There aren't many similarities between Liberace and Elvis in the 1960's. Liberace went through a brief period where he tried to tone down his costumes and his flamboyance, but the public wasn't interested. They wanted him to be his glittery self, and so he went back to the rhinestones, and his costumes started to get more outrageous. Elvis spent most of the 1960's proving that not only was he not threatening to the youth of America anymore, he was also in danger of becoming terminally boring. He shuffled his way through some incredibly crappy movies, didn't give any concerts, and recorded some really great songs that got buried on the second side of his soundtrack albums. (His gorgeous cover of Bob Dylan's "Tomorrow Is a Long Time" could be found on Side Two of the "Spinout" soundtrack. Really.) Amazingly, Elvis was able to reclaim his career and prove that he might still actually be a little dangerous in his 1968 TV special, "Elvis." (Now referred to as the "Comeback Special.") The following year he returned to live performing in Las Vegas. And that's when the similarities begin again.

By the 1970's, Liberace was now wearing tons of sequins, rhinestones, rings, everything sparkly that you could think of. Every new costume and stage entrance had to top the last one in fabulousness. He started being driven onto the stage in a Rolls-Royce! He started performing in bejeweled shorts. And Elvis was right there with him. In 1969, Elvis had been wearing tasteful jumpsuits on stage with very little accessories. But as the 70's crept on, the jumpsuits got a little more jeweled, and then a lot more jeweled, until he was seriously rivaling Liberace. That's been a mystery to me, why did Elvis suddenly turn into Liberace in about 1971? I don't get it. Elvis started entering his concerts to the sounds of "Also Sprach Zarathustra," by Richard Strauss. Where his style of singing before had been nuanced and often understated, now it became bombastic and overly emotional. (Just compare the 1956 version of "Love Me Tender" to how he sang it in the 1970's.) In fact, Elvis and Liberace's performing styles became very similar during this time. Both were highly emotional, sentimental, schmaltzy, florid, and over the top. The difference is that Liberace had always been this way, but it was only in the 1970's that Elvis's style changed. (They really should have recorded an album together in the 70's.)

Both Liberace and Elvis had amazingly ornate homes, furnished in the most garish way imaginable. Their plush lifestyles became a part of their public personas. How did they get away with such conspicuous consumption? By asserting their humble origins. As Liberace said, "Don't be misled by this flamboyant exterior. Underneath I remain the same simple boy from Milwaukee." And Elvis probably would have said the same thing, substituting Memphis for Milwaukee. Whether or not this was true of both men is not the point, the point is that people seemed to believe it. A difference between the two men is that while Elvis shut himself away behind the gates of Graceland, Liberace opened up his home for tours! (He had to stop doing this because his neighbors complained about all the traffic!)

As the 70's wore on, Elvis sadly became addicted to numerous prescription drugs, his weight ballooned, and his performances severely suffered. He had become a parody of himself. Elvis had become the Liberace of rock and roll. And I don't mean that as a compliment. The tragedy is that while Liberace knew he was creating an image, a persona for the audience, a caricature, if you will, Elvis never seemed to know how low he had sunk. In some of his last performances, Elvis, the man who had changed rock forever, was reduced to reading the lyrics to "My Way" from a sheet of paper. It was a sad decline for a man who had so much talent.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Best Oscars Ever?

Okay, I know the Oscars were a week ago, but the Oscars show was so great! I think Hugh Jackman should host every year! It was nice to have someone who isn't a comedian host. The presenters did a good job, especially Tina Fey and Steve Martin. (Seeing Tina Fey look so gorgeous in her dress just increased my crush on her...) And I liked how the awards were given a storyline, that was smart. I liked having all the nominees sitting close to the stage, that way you couldn't tell who was going to lose because they were sitting in the middle of an row halfway back. My only gripe was...where the hell was Patrick McGoohan during the Dead People Montage??? He died the same day as Ricardo Montalban, who was in the montage, so I know it wasn't too late to add Patrick to the montage. So why wasn't he there? Yeah, he was more known for TV than movies, but the same can be said of Ricardo. And this isn't the first snub of McGoohan, either. Entertainment Weekly failed to mention his passing as well. What gives??? Well, my blog mentioned Patrick McGoohan's passing, so I'm giving myself a pat on the back for that. It's disappointing to see someone as important as McGoohan overlooked by the Oscars and a really great, intelligent magazine. He deserved better treatment.

Revolutionary Road

I just saw "Revolutionary Road" on Friday night at the Riverview Theater. (Awesome old discount movie theater in Minneapolis.) It was just heartbreakingly beautiful. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet are both outstanding in it. Leo really got screwed by not getting nominated for an Oscar for his role. Of course, Kate should have been nominated too, but the Oscar rules are such that you can only be nominated once in any category. Michael Shannon, nominated for Supporting Actor, is good, but his part is just so showy. Shannon thankfully doesn't overplay it, but it puzzles me that the Academy could nominate him and overlook Leo.

"Revolutionary Road" follows Frank and April Wheeler as they try to rescue their marriage from the morass it's in at the beginning of the movie. We see a brief scene of their courtship, and then we are thrown into an intense argument they have following April's acting at the community theater. It's obvious that Frank and April know which buttons to push with each other. The following Monday, Frank turns 30 and seduces one of the secretaries at his office. (Leo still looks too young to be turning 30, even though he's 34.) The secretary isn't prettier than April, or more flirtatious, or anything, she's just there. As he leaves her apartment, Frank says, "Listen: you were swell. Take care, now." Ouch! When he gets home, Frank finds that April has baked a birthday cake for him, and their two children serenade him with "Happy Birthday." Frank feels like a heel, as he should, and after dinner April suggests to him that they move to Paris so Frank can "find himself." They start planning the move. Inevitably, complications occur. And I'll leave the plot summary there. Oh, one more thing, this movie shows why you should NEVER let someone else drive your spouse home! I've read enough John Updike and John Cheever short stories to know that nothing good will come of it.

Anyway, go see "Revolutionary Road," revel in the beautiful period detail, and the gorgeous shots of DiCaprio standing in Grand Central Station surrounded by men dressed exactly alike, and then go read the novel by Richard Yates. (I haven't read the book yet, it's next on my list.)

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Samuel Beckett's "Endgame"

I just saw Ten Thousand Things Theater Company's production of Samuel Beckett's "Endgame" tonight, and it was amazing! Ten Thousand Things is a small Twin Cities theater group that puts on plays and performs them for audiences that don't get much exposure to theater. They tour each show to men's prisons, women's prisons, shelters for battered women, low-cost senior housing centers, and they get a terrific reaction from their audiences. These people are all very moved by this exposure to art. Ten Thousand Things also performs their shows for paying audiences, which is when I get to see them. Now, you might not think that Beckett would go down quite so well with a prison audience, but his plays probably make more sense to people in prison, because they're all about mindless routines to fill the endless hours of a day. I read "Endgame" in college, and although it's not my favorite play ever, it's stuck with me over the years, just because it's so vivid. Actually seeing it performed made it click on a whole new level for me.

"Endgame" is set in some post-apocalyptic time when everything is running down, as entropy has caught up with us at last. The characters are Hamm, who cannot walk, Clov, who cannot sit down, and Hamm's parents, Nagg and Nell, who live in garbage cans. Hamm and Clov are engaged in a daily battle of wits as Hamm, who is also blind, asks repeatedly if it is time for his pain pill, and Clov patiently keeps telling him no. Hamm and Clov, as so many Beckett characters do, are acting out rituals that keep continuing on, day after day, until the inevitable end. Hamm and Clov's rituals may seem silly and stupid and pointless to us, but I think the point that Beckett is making is that all of us have our rituals, and they may seem silly and stupid and pointless to someone else, but to us they may be quite important. By exaggerating the repetition of these rituals, Beckett makes them seem odd to the audience, but if you think about it, they might not seem so odd after all.

Hamm is aptly named, as he is something of a ham, a performer, filling up his hours with meaningless, repetitious stories. Hamm's very first line in the play is, "Me to play." There is something in Beckett's repetition that makes you aware of performance in everyday life. The stories that we have told so many times, certain pet phrases that we repeat, we are in a sense, putting on a show when we present ourselves to other people, we are actors in our own lives.

Ten Thousand Things is able to get fantastic actors for their plays, and "Endgame" is no exception. Barbra Berlovitz doesn't have a lot to do as Nell, but she's still fantastic. (I've seen Barbra in many, many plays over the years, and she's always riveting.) Steve Hendrickson gets to do a little more as Nagg, he tells a very funny story that Nagg has told many, many times before. When he gets to the end of the story, Nagg says, "That's the worst I've ever told it." Christiana Clark brings Clov's weary physicality to the forefront, and she shows us that even though Clov threatens to leave Hamm, and Hamm often tells Clov to go, these two characters need each other, for some reason. Terry Bellamy gives a bravura performance as Hamm, savoring every single word and command that issues from this broken-down man.

There is an emotion in seeing "Endgame" that I never got from simply reading it. It's difficult to explain, I can't tell you why I was moved by the play, but I was. It could just be the simple human need to connect, and since the world of "Endgame" seems like a vast, empty void, even having someone to tell you it's not time for your pain pill can constitute a meaningful relationship.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Bruce Springsteen, "Hungry Heart"

In honor of the holiday recently past, (Valentine's Day, not Presidents' Day) I thought I should write about a song about love that's been stuck in my head for the last few days. It's Bruce Springsteen's song "Hungry Heart," which was his first Top Ten single, from his 1980 double-album "The River."

It's easy to hear why this was Bruce's first big hit single, it has a very catchy tune, and much fewer words than his early songs! It also has a very simple, hooky chorus. The song starts with a brief drum fill from Max Weinberg, then moves straight into the main melody, played by the piano. Clarence Clemons's saxophone honks away, and the song has a 50's-60's feel to it. Bruce shouts "Yeah!" and then starts singing. But the relentlessly upbeat music is fitted to uneasy lyrics, "Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, jack/I went out for a ride and I never went back." Okay, so in the first two lines of the song we've established that the narrator has a wife and kids, and one day he simply up and leaves them. What reason does the narrator give for his actions? "Like a river that don't know where it's flowin'/ I took a wrong turn and I just kept goin'." Well, that's a suitable justification, right? No, not really. Notice how Bruce works in the image of a river, which is also the central image in the song "The River." By comparing his actions to those of a river, the narrator is essentially saying that he has no control over his actions, that nature is shaping his actions, the same way that nature shapes the river. Which brings up an interesting question, are people meant to be faithful and monogamous? I won't go into all that here, but suffice it to say, there are all kinds of answers to this question.

But that question leads us nicely into the chorus, "Everybody's got a hungry heart/everybody's got a hungry heart/lay down your money and you play your part/everybody's got a hungry heart." The narrator is saying, obviously, that everyone has a "hungry heart," meaning that everyone needs affection and attention, no matter where it comes from. And that everyone is hungry, or greedy, for love and affection. Everybody always wants more than what they currently have. It doesn't matter that the narrator is married and has children, he is still susceptible to the charms of the opposite sex. He still wants something more. I'm not entirely sure what the "lay down your money and you play your part" line means, it could be a reference to prostitution, or it could simply be referring to the different gender roles we play, that men usually pay for things.

The first verse also references Springsteen's recurring motif of travel, of escape, of getting away from things, usually by car. Like Rabbit Angstrom in John Updike's novel "Rabbit, Run," Bruce's narrator simply kept driving away from his wife and kids. He is, like Rabbit, running away from responsibility. In the second verse, we discover what he finds once he stops running. "I met her in a Kingstown bar/We fell in love I knew it had to end." Okay, so he meets a woman in a bar, but what does he know "had to end"? His marriage, or this illicit relationship? I'm going with the marriage, based on the next two lines. "We took what we had and we ripped it apart/Now here I am down in Kingstown again." So the narrator and his mistress ripped apart their current relationships to be together. (Is she married too?) And now the narrator is back in Kingstown again, to see his mistress. Because, well, both the narrator and his mistress have hungry hearts.

At the very end of the second chorus, Bruce lifts his voice up on the last syllables of "hungry" and the song changes key upwards. Danny Federici gets a tasty little organ solo that leads us into the final verse. "Everybody needs a place to rest/Everybody wants to have a home." Which is true, but the narrator had a home and a place to rest, and he threw it all away. This sounds like more self-justification to me. "Don't make no difference what nobody says/Ain't nobody like to be alone." Okay, so once we get past the numerous grammatical errors in these two lines, the narrator seems to be justifying his actions by saying that people naturally seek companionship. But again, the narrator had companionship in his marriage, and left it. Perhaps the narrator would say that even though he was married, he was still really alone, because it was an unfulfilling relationship. The song then closes with another repetition of the chorus, and Bruce gets in some scatting on the fade out.

"Hungry Heart" is a great example of Springsteen matching an upbeat, catchy melody to lyrics that present something more than just a poppy, upbeat message of "Everything's okay." (Think of "Born in the USA.") "Hungry Heart" asks some tough questions about love and relationships: when are we happy, when are we satisfied, and what happens when we should be satisfied, by society's standards of relationships, but really aren't satisfied. What happens when someone tries to break out of those relationships? What's the emotional fall out from the decision to "just keep goin'"? Do we always want what we can't have? Does everyone really have a "Hungry Heart" that is always searching for something "better," something new and fresh, no matter what the cost is to others? That's kind of a depressing way to look at relationships. But these questions are all worth pondering.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

CD's I Bought This Weekend

Well, the Electric Fetus, the best record store in the Twin Cities, had their annual Valentine's Day sale last weekend. I picked up a few things, so I thought I might as well make the list a blog post. I got almost everything used, so I saved quite a bit of money.

Bruce Springsteen, "Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ" Since I have the original vinyl, but lack a record player, I thought I should get the CD and actually listen to this music. I just finished listening to "The Essential Bruce Springsteen" and I'm more impressed with the Boss than I was at first. I'm also just impressed by the physical energy he brings to performing. His Super Bowl halftime show was amazing!

Elvis Costello, "Brutal Youth" I found the Rhino 2-disc re-issue used for $8.99, so I bought it. I really like "All This Useless Beauty," from around the same time period, so I figured I'd give this one a shot. It also came highly recommended from EC expert Holly, so that nudged me towards the purchase.

Billy Joel, "Storm Front" Okay, so Billy Joel isn't very "hip." But, I've been listening to "The Essential Billy Joel," and I've forgotten how much I like his songs. He's really a great pop songwriter. And my Dad had "Storm Front" on cassette, so I have fond memories of listening to it in the car. And I'm an American history nerd, so 8-year-old me loved "We Didn't Start the Fire." And it was only $2.99.

James Taylor, "Gorilla" Okay, so James Taylor isn't very "hip" either. But he's a damn fine singer/songwriter. He's one of those artists where every album is pretty similar to every other album, but they're all pretty good. I love the song "Mexico," from this album, so I'm interested to hear the rest of the album.

James Taylor, "October Road," Yes, another JT CD. This one is really good, and even though it came out in 2002, it's his most recent album of new songs he's written. The first time I got interested in James Taylor was around 2002 when he was profiled on "60 Minutes." I knew nothing about his background, so I was surprised to learn he had battled depression and drug abuse. It gave me a lot more respect for him. I was like, "Oh, you suffered for your art."

James Taylor, "New Moon Shine," And one more from Sweet Baby James. It was only $3.99, and this CD is out of print, so I snatched it up.

Robyn Hitchcock, "Queen Elvis" This was the highlight of my shopping trip! One of the only Robyn CD's I don't have, because it's out of print! I was very excited to find this used for $6.99. It even has a promotional sticker on it, bewilderingly calling Robyn, "#1 Post-Modern artist." What exactly does that mean? Whatever it means, I'm sure that Robyn lives up to it.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Best Music I Discovered in 2008

Okay, so this post may be a little late, considering 2009 is nearly a month and a half old. But I wanted to chronicle some of the great music I discovered in 2008. But, since I didn't buy many new releases in 2008, I decided to change courses and write about the best music I discovered in 2008, regardless of when it was recorded.

Freddie Hubbard, "Red Clay"

Okay, this was a re-discovering. I've had this CD for many years, but I hadn't listened to it in a long time when I pulled it out again last summer. It's a great, adventurous jazz album from 1970. Freddie Hubbard was one of jazz's great trumpeters, and here he worked with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Joe Henderson to create a masterpiece. (He also worked with Lenny White, who played drums, but I've never heard of him before. Sorry Lenny.) Sadly, Freddie died in December, 2008. I'm glad I re-discovered his music before he passed away. (Freddie and I share a birthday, April 7th.)

Chris Isaak, "Speak of the Devil"

Why didn't I get into Chris Isaak in the late 90's, when I was going through my Elvis/Roy Orbison phase? I have no idea, but I've finally jumped on the bandwagon. Isaak has a gorgeous, haunting voice, and he emulates the sound of the 50's and 60's without seeming stuck in a timewarp. From the slow sultriness of "Flying" to the all-out rock of "Like the Way She Moves," Isaak is at his best on these songs, which show him to be a great songwriter as well as a great singer.

Robyn Hitchcock, "Moss Elixir"

This is the album that really made me a fan of Robyn's music. I don't know exactly when things clicked for me, but suddenly, listening to this album, I seemed to "get" Robyn. "Beautiful Queen" and "De Chirico Street" are two of my favorites off of this album.

Queen, "The Platinum Collection"

After years and years of forgetting that I liked Queen, and after hearing so many people sing their songs on "American Idol," I realized I needed to have some Queen in my collection. So I bought "The Platinum Collection," a 3-disc set covering their whole career. It was money well spent. It was amazing to hear all the different sounds of Queen, from "Killer Queen" to "Bohemian Rhapsody" to "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" to "The Show Must Go On." What a brilliant group. And Freddie Mercury had one of the greatest voices in rock.

Nick Lowe, "Jesus of Cool"

It was great to actually hear all of Nick's first solo album, along with lots of B-sides and extras thrown in. Nick is a genius, and extremely underrated.

Mick Ronson, "Only After Dark"

This 2-CD set collects Mick Ronson's solo albums "Slaughter on 10th Avenue" and "Play, Don't Worry." Ronson was the lead guitarist for David Bowie from 1970-73, and he played a vital role in creating four masterpieces, Bowie's albums "Hunky Dory," "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars," "Aladdin Sane," and Lou Reed's "Transformer." (That's Mick playing piano and arranging on "Perfect Day.") A sorely underrated talent, Ronson didn't blow his own horn very much, and was apparently quite content in the sideman role. Which is too bad, because he had enough talent and charisma to be a frontman. (Just watch the "Ziggy Stardust" movie for ample proof of both.) As a die-hard David Bowie fan, I don't know why I waited so long to buy Mick's solo records, but they were worth waiting for. Mick sounds uncannily like Bowie on his version of "Love Me Tender." Mick gets to show off his guitar skills on the instrumental track "Slaughter on 10th Avenue," which was written by Richard Rodgers, or Rodgers and Hart and Rodgers and Hammerstein fame. I think that David Bowie's music lost something when he parted ways with Mick Ronson at the end of 1973. Which isn't to say that Bowie's music went downhill, but he lost a terrifically talented musical partner. (The arrangement on "Life on Mars" and the solo on "Moonage Daydream" are perhaps Mick's finest moments with Bowie.) And I don't really know how Ronson would have fit into, say, "Young Americans," but I would have loved to hear it anyway. Like many other talents, Mick Ronson died much too young, of liver cancer in 1993 at just 46. Fortunately, he and Bowie reconciled shortly before his death, and he played guitar on some tracks on Bowie's 1993 album "Black Tie, White Noise."