Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Presley, Lennon and...Rockwell?

Sunday was a day for reconsidering. With Mom in town for Thanksgiving, we decided to head into DC for brunch and to visit the National Portrait Gallery, which is hosting two good shows. The one that we thought Mom would enjoy was a retrospective of Norman Rockwell works, both sketches and finished oil paintings, all from the collections of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.

I went in thinking I would have to stifle my annoyance so as not to spoil Mom's fun. Rockwell, after all, is known for those highly sentimental Saturday Evening Post covers and cutesy-wootsy kids in oversized uniforms, dripping with nostalgia for an era of innocence and honor that didn't actually exist. 

And while there was a hint of that stale air and musty sentiment in the room, I must admit that the guy's technique was stunning. The care that went into his composition was painstaking and his mastery of oils is remarkable. Even more surprising to me, after Grad Girl came home from a previous visit with talk of his implied sexism ("all the women are dumb blondes or frumpy housewives"), I found Rockwell's women to be on equal footing with the men - sometimes dippy but often strong. All told, a revelation.

And now, at risk of pissing off the classicists out there, I'll admit to never being a huge Elvis fan, either. I like some of the songs, but I never got the idol worship.  Trouble is, I was too young to see Elvis in his youthful glory and a little bit of Fat Elvis goes a long way. (BTW, check out the reading matter in the picture above - an Archie comic book!)

That impression, too, was brought up short by the exhibition of photographs taken by Alfred Wertheimer when he tagged along with Elvis at his prime on a trip to NYC, before the big hits, before the mania, before the adulation. 

First off, I'll admit, the guy sure was pretty. I'm not a pompadour and curled lip lovin' kinda girl, but there's no denying Elvis was a looker. And these photos caught him in such unconscious poses as this, sharing some of his new music with a former girlfriend...

 I liked this shot (below) for showing Presley taking a break from his fan mail. We can all relate to not wanting to do our homework, right?

 In this shot, Elvis is on the train ride home to Memphis, listening to the songs he recorded in New York...
 Now, zoom in and check out his little toy-like record player. Remember the world without iPods!?
 Of course, showing you these little pics here is no substitute for seeing the show yourself if you're in the DC area. The prints are big and beautiful and the text plaques give you much more background, albeit often with that hagiography that drives me mad. (from the introduction: "When Elvis Presley walked on stage in 1956, time stopped and the world exploded. The earth shook on its axis, and the beat of everyday life was jolted. In an instant, mainstream America's culture of complacency was shattered.")

Much more interesting to me are the little stories like the one told for the set of shots above. On the ride home to Memphis, Elvis requested that the train let him off at the suburban stop that was walking distance from his home. He saved an hour by not going into Memphis and having to cab ride back out to Audubon Avenue. And here the text made sense: "It would be among the last uncomplicated stops on Elvis' journey to stardom."

"Elvis at 21" runs at the Portrait Gallery here in DC until January 23, 2011 and then will tour, at these locations.

And finally, to John Lennon. Anyone who knows my atheist husband knows that Lennon is closest we've got to a god around this house. And so, we sat down to watch the American Masters production of "LennonNYC" on our local PBS station Monday night with a warning to my mom that this was like going to church - reverence, please.

Perhaps her mind was changed in a manner akin to my reconsideration of Rockwell. The show was extremely enlightening as to the reasons for John & Yoko's deportation fight and a somewhat frightening/reassuring reminder of how America has weathered great civil unrest in the past. The studio clips were fascinating, the interviews actually contained new Lennon/Beatles' insights and there was little revisionist redemption (hey, Yoko *is* much cooler than many of us gave her credit for at the time).

Most of all, for someone like myself, who loves the Beatles, but didn't share Husband's life-changing response to them (again, I was just shy of the curve; I had the Monkees), it was a great reminder of why Lennon holds such a special place in his heart. He and I often argue about whether being a great artist excuses a person from striving to also be a good human being. (He has it can; I say it shouldn't.) John Lennon made mistakes and could be a difficult guy, but he wasn't an arrogant prick. And when he sometimes did something arrogant or pricky, he seemed to regret, learn from it and try to do better. And he was one hell of an artist. So, I highly recommend "LennonNYC" as well.

And hey, everybody - Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

When in doubt, crank up some Christmas

So, for reasons that we won’t go into here (diddly interpersonal family stuff), I got thrown off course today and needed to feel productive while also doing something to cheer myself up. Voila! Time to work on the 2010 edition of “Cool Yule,” the annual holiday mix CD that I’ve created every year for the past 20 or so years (and yes, it was initially distributed on cassette). While I try to hold back on getting wildly Christmasy before Thanksgiving, attention must be paid early to the “Cool Yule” imperative if I am to get songs selected and sequenced, discs duplicated and in the mail in time for my audience to enjoy it.

The "Cool Yule" collection is, if I may say so myself. quite a popular annual event with those Close Personal Friends who get it each year, so become a follower, send me an email and maybe you, too, will get a puffy envelope full of holiday tunes in the next few weeks.

And therefore and henceforth, with a reheated Starbucks holiday latte at my side (it’s “BOGO” between 2 and 5 pm through the weekend, so I doubled up), I’ve been checking out some of the new zip files that have come in over recent weeks with Christmas music (not much Hanukkah action yet) in ‘em and have started making a bigass playlist from which to pick this year’s top 20+ selections.
One of the tracks that might make the cut, and which I can share as a free download, is this version of “Santa Baby” by the Puppini Sisters. 
 Whoa. Just checked my emails and discovered that I received my first publicist note about this album on August 31st! And even then, it was second after an even earlier announcement of the Indigo Girls’ first holiday album. So much for me jumping the gun!

At any rate, I needed a little Christmas and I got it. I feel better already. Hope you do, too.  

Thursday, November 11, 2010

An Attempt to Kickstart Back Into Blog Action

“Special thanks to all my friends and family without whom I would have been snooker loopy by now.”
Kathryn Williams, in liner notes for “Dog Leap Stairs,” 1999.

Those are words I can relate to and as good a way as any, I would say, to dive back into the ongoing bit of snooker loopydom that I call the O/CD Tally. The last time I bothered to add to the count of new albums - physical or digital - coming into the Close Personal Friend music library was March (!?) of this year, and the batch of used CDs I purchased then brought my calculated (not actual) tally to 61. Add in the 5 albums I mentioned in the (now abandoned) effort to move the Tally to another section of the blog (it’s up top, a page called “Hey, What Happened to the O/CD Tally?” that’s not gonna work for me) and we’re at 66. That doesn’t begin to tell the tale of all the music that’s come my way - and gone away.

I’ve started lists repeatedly throughout the year to keep the tally tallying, but my sad mantra in that effort appears to be “often begun, never done.” Well, I’m trying to kick start my way back into regular blogging. One way to clear the decks and text is to pull up one of those lists and Post It the *&^% Up Already...

Here’s from a document I call TITTS (the unfortunate anagram for “Taking It to The Stores”), a list of albums that were acquired but then “recycled” back to the CD trade-in store for the various reasons you’ll see here.

Sometimes I get perfectly good CDs, full of great music, that I nonetheless trade away. Case in point:
1. DIRE STRAITS - Making Movies (Warner Bros.)
I interviewed Mark Knopfler in the studio when he and the band were working on this and heard one track (“Romeo and Juliet,” I believe) while they were mixing. Knopfler was so gracious, especially when my tape recorded malfunctioned and we had to redo most of the conversation, that I developed a bit of a crush on him. (Not so producer Jimmy Iovine, who was kind of a dick about the whole thing.) Anyway, I love the music on this album but, after getting a CD copy to replace my vinyl version, through the Swaptree site, I realized I didn’t need the physical disc. After putting the songs on my “Enchilada” hard drive, I am sending this one back into the marketplace.

I’m also getting a little fussy about CD packaging, If there’s nothing special about the case, I might as well digitize the sounds and save space, as I did with these:
2. LUKA BLOOM - Dreams in America (BigSky Records)
3. BOB SCHNEIDER - Lovely Creatures (Kirtland)
4. JODY PORTER - Close to the Sun (EngineRoom Recordings)
Porter’s in one of my favorites bands, Fountains of Wayne, but he’s not one of the songwriting team that give the band its bite. His solo album, as to be expected, has the power pop snap of FoW, but not quite the same lyric heights.
5. JUSTIN CURRIE - The Great War (Rykodisc)
The main man behind the once glorious Del Amitri released another solo album earlier this year with a dark and somewhat cranky sound.
6. FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS - Original Television Soundtrack, Vol. 2 (Arrival/Scion Music Group)
A nice collection of tracks like “Percussion Gun” (one of last year’s greatest tracks, a  song from one of my favorite (new to me) bands, the Avett Brothers, and other miscellaneous people I like - John Doe, AM, Sufjan Stevens.
7. 90210 - Various Artists (CBS Records)
Here’s where the packaging makes the difference. I ripped all the songs into iTunes for future exploration and there’s a bunch I’m sure I’ll want to keep --  but the artwork - silly little photos from a TV series I never intend to watch - isn’t worth the paper and plastic casing it came in.
8. The DANCE PARTY - Touch (Hell Ya! Records)
There’s catchy disco/pop happening here but the cover is so skanky, with grab-ass shots of various types - girls touching themselves, hands down pants, lacy pantied butts and more - I just want to get rid of the thing before my kids see it - and they’re not even impressionable children anymore! The band no doubt think they’re being cute and coy and clever, but it’s cheap and classless and will bother me even as I bop my head to the sounds. Promo FAIL.
9. EILEN JEWELL - Presents Butcher Holler: A Tribute to Loretta Lynn (Signature Sounds) A few years ago, I hosted a casual BBQ for Eilen (rhymes with “feelin’”) Jewell and her band when they were playing a gig at the upstate NY lake resort town where my mom has a summer home. She’s a sweetheart and a fine performer, just so you know.
10. MARK CHESTNUT - Outlaw (Saguaro)
Another covers album, this one of classic country tunes, produced by the esteemed Pete Anderson. I’ll grab a few tracks, but country’s generally not my bag.

Speaking of not my bag, here’s the rap cast-offs:
11. VADO - Slime Flu (Entertainment One)
Here’s a guy dropping the n-word and “bitches” and all the rest and I feel bad for the publicist listed on the press release ‘cause I remember how she used to work indie rock bands with genuine enthusiasm and now has to promote this (self-dubbed) slime.
12. DWELE - W.ants W.orld W.omen (E1 Music/RTMG)
I thought maybe I’d give this one a listen since the cover showed a guy busting stereotypes in a tryptic view, including one dapper suit shot. Then I opened it up and saw a photo of him lounging in bed with two women and a video camera. And I said, nah.
13. FAT JOE - The Darkside, Vol. 1 (E1 Music)
This one’s got a track called “Money Over Bitches.” Next!
14. SLUM VILLAGE - Villa Manifesto (E1 Music/Ne’astra)
15. 8 BALL & MJG - Ten Toes Down (Push/E1 Music)
16. DEVIN the DUDE - Suite #420 (E1 Music)
Hey, I’m a middle-aged white woman who loves in the suburbs. I can’t pretend it’s talking to me!

Stuff I’m Just Not Gonna Listen to Again:
17. JOHN JORGENSON and ORCHESTRA NASHVILLE - Istiqbal Gathering (J2 Records)
Two tracks feature the Turtle Island Quartet, whom I have liked on other recordings, but this is just too MOR for me.
18. STICK MEN - Soup (self-released?)
Tony Levin was in King Crimson, so I won’t argue his pedigree or chops. I just don’t like this ersatz jazz noodling thing.
“How We Love” is a good song for my funeral mix (yeah, I’ve started a list of songs I want played at my funeral. You mean you haven’t?) Other than that, as much as I feel bad for her going through some bad health issues, her backstory doesn’t endear this very sentimental material to me.
20. GRANT DERMODY - Lay Down my Burden (self-released)
I’m not much for hard-core folk, either.
21. THUNDER BUFFALO - S/T (Sarathan/Fontana)
Slow, loud sludge. Probably fine for people who like that kind of thing.
22. KELLER WILLIAMS - Thief (SCI Fidelity)
After an explanation of how the money will be shared with the songwriters, thereby not making him the titular villain, Williams warns that it would be a “DOUBLE hit to your karma” if you “achieve this record for free, or simply burn it for a friend.” Not leaving well enough alone, he includes a boxed “KARMA WARNING” that threatens, “If you thief this record in any way, your body will be used as a butt plug for an elephant” and goes on to explain it in more detail including the website where there’s a Art Crumb style illustration of same. TMI, Keller and the attitude is enough to make me feel better about passing the CD off to my retail contact. That, and the unattractive mug shot-style photos, and music that’s more novelty than novel. Less bluegrass than hackey-sack doodling on covers like “Rehab,” “Se and Candy” and “Teen Angst.”
23. HOPE SANDOVAL & The WARM INVENTIONS - Through the Devil Softly (Nettwerk)
I kinda liked Sandoval’s other band,, Mazzy Star (again, in short bursts) but a whole album of this melancholic, drowsy music makes me...melancholic and drowsy.
24. The LOST FINGERS - Lost in the 80s (Tandem)
This band plays classic, and not-so, pop potboilers in the style of Le Jazz Hot. It’s a better-than-average gimmick which makes for fun in a track here and there, but a whole album of such novelty numbers wears thin quickly. I wonder if the band also get tired of using its considerable skills performing what is essentially the same trick over and over.
25. THRICE - Beggars (Vagrant)
I can sense that this band has grand ambition, and may well be able to bring it to fruition, but it’s a more aggressive style than I care for.
26. FALLING STILL - May All Magic Guide and Change You (Peace, Man)
27. MIDLAKE - The Courage of Others (Bella Union)
Great press for this, but I find it a little bland.
28. TRANSIENT SONGS - Cave Syndrome (Indian Casino)
One of those albums I would like better if I didn’t speak English. There’s a laid-back psychedelia to the music, like Pink Floyd or Flaming Lips, but the lyrics are pretty lame.
29. HOT CLUB of COWTOWN - Wishful Thinking (Proper)
I saw this band perform a few years back at the Barns of Wolf Trap, after writing them up for the Post, and I had a fine time, especially watching the older audience members who knew how to dance genuine two-step to the country swing. This album, however, didn’t have any spark.

Sometimes, I’m just dumping garbage, pure and simple:
30. 20 BEST ROCKIN’ 60’S - VARIOUS ARTISTS (Madacy Entertainment)
I hate when this happens. I buy a CD of oldies and, as I’m listening, I’m thinking, “did it really go like that?” Then I check the fine print: “New stereo recordings by the original artists.” Bah! I’m sorry if people like Tommy Roe, Lou Christie, Gary Lewis and “Paul Revere” got ripped off in their original deals, but that’s really no excuse for ripping off the fans years later. Into the reject pile!

And so, we have a new
O/CD Year to Date Tally: 96