Friday, February 29, 2008

Gymnastics at Madison Square Garden

My latest Huffington Post previews the March 1 Tyson American Cup Gymnastics event at Madison Square Garden. I spent the day there watching practice and interviewing the athletes. Hey, someone's got to do it. And here is my post on the results.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Weekend Wrapup: The National, Cheez Doodles, the Beatles, Stew and a Transvestite Comic

My head is still spinning from all the stuff I did this weekend. Thanks to press invites and the such, I did it all for the grand total of $49. Who says New York is expensive?

The National at BAM *** -- I wish I liked them more, but there's no denying this NYC band can build up a head of steam musically. I find them more interesting melodically than lyrically and the lead singer unfortunately reminds me of the guy from Crash Test Dummies. The crowd loved it when he shredded his voice on some ecstatic riff. Intelligent and fun, if not overwhelming. $16 ticket. (I was in the front row of the THIRD level. Never been that high before at BAM but for a rock show it really didn't matter.)

The Strawberry New Play Festival ** 1/2 -- Six one act plays, including one by Jack Slattery, the 16 year old son of friends I met via Yankee Stadium. "Cold April" by Jack's teacher actually won Best Play. Though I found it a bit noble, Erica Lauren as Mosi was solid. "Rodwart's World" was a so-so work about a therapist and her interfering, middle-aged son Rodwart. "An Acute Triangle" was an uninspired tale of two brothers desired by a female vampire who can't choose between them enlivened somewhat by the lead actors. "Marked" was an ambitious, challenging piece about an elderly woman refusing to take her meds who is paranoid and the son trying to help her. Unfortunately, the lead female repeatedly stumbled over her lines, making it impossible to get lost in the story. "What Cheer, Iowa" was my favorite of the fest, a rambunctious comedy about people trapped in a waiting room hoping their cars will pass inspection. The only flaw was a secondary character wildly overacted, for which I blame the director who otherwise did a fine job keeping it moving. "Can Cheese Doodles Do You Harm?" was -- I'm delighted to say -- a close second in my favorite of the plays. (It should be Cheez Doodles, by the way, Jack.) A fun broad comedy about a super fat girl trying to fit into new clothes for the prom but accidentally popping off buttons that killed or wounded passers-by, unlike most of the other plays it actually wanted to entertain and had a game cast making the most of it. I especially liked the surreal touch of the Boy Scout putting a fish into the punch bowl -- now that was a trippy non sequiteur. Lots of fun. I would have felt obliged to vote for it anyway, of course. But I could happily make it one of my two best play votes (you had to vote for two) with a clean conscience. Free tickets.

Mom, How Did You Meet The Beatles? ** 1/2 -- Truly one of the most banal titles for a nice little play by Adrienne Kennedy about how she came up with the idea of turning John Lennon's "In His Own Write" into a play and ended up in London during the Swinging Sixties hobnobbing with Larry Olivier and the rest. A modest, simple show with basically one actress on stage telling her anecdote with the off-screen voice of her son prompting her with questions. Brenda Pressley (who I've admired since ...And The World Goes Round, my first NY show and recently in Seven Guitars) held the stage wonderfully. The story is slight but they might have cut out a few "I'll never forget"'s and added a little more sense of drama. Though the son has just a few lines, they're actually a little interfering and annoying. His voice really isn't that necessary. There is a little drama with Kennedy getting pushed aside from the project. (I was very relieved that John Lennon was clearly not involved in that, I must say.) Without overwhelming the show, it might have been more pointed. However, for a fan of the Beatles like myself, a glimpse of them at the height of their powers was great fun and Kennedy is generous of spirit. And for $13 it was just right.

Eddie Izzard *** -- a peerless stand-up comic, Izzard is working on a new show. The run is sold out but I just showed up and bought a standing room ticket for $20 and had a grand time. I joked before that he would spend half the show muttering "transition, transition, transition" and indeed Izzard did spend quite a bit of time saying, "Where was I? and What was I talking about? and making it seem quite charming. Whenever he did I muttered to my friend "Transition, transition, transition." That led me to think of doing a stand-up act even more pared down than Stephen Wright's one-liners. I'll just do a show of transitions and people will fill in the leaps of logic themselves and giggle over how they connect them. "Mothers...breasts...Mt. Everest...Dalia Lama...prescription drugs...Mothers." Izzard focused quite a bit on the Bible (as always) and he doesn't seem to hold truck with the whole "literal" thing. Also joked about how Latin made it impossible for people to hold angry conversations because everything took so long to say, Noah and the Ark (Try it, he says. It won't work.) and other erudite topics or rather standard topics dealt with eruditely. Doesn't reinvent the wheel but should easily be shaped into a solid show.

Passing Strange ** 1/2 -- A Broadway musical by Stew about "passing," first a young black man trying to "pass" for black at his church when he's an artistic loner alongside the gay choir director who befriends him and gives him pot and then as a black man in Berlin trying to "pass" for ghetto black so he can be seen as authentic by his fellow artists. I really enjoyed the cast and the energy of the show. After the first act, which goes from our hero's childhood to Amsterdam, I was really hopeful. Nice spare set with a bold lighting backdrop, a rock band member in tiny sunken pits at four sides of the stage, virtually no other sets, just a winning cast. The it just repeated itself with the fish out of water story of Amsterdam repeated in Berlin and our hero's mom wishing he would come home but not telling him what we suspect (that she's desperately ill). The two women he falls for are ultimately interchangeable so it means nothing when he rejects them and moves on. Even his mom hasn't made much of an impression so when she dies we're not terribly moved either. Feels like a first draft that could get more specific and become a solid work, but unfortunately it's already on Broadway, so this is the end of its development. Intelligent to a fault, with a rather abstract final moment that doesn't satisfy. Also, Stew is an engaging presence on stage but he could have had a more driving purpose. Instead of keeping the show honest, he more often opened the door to humor that undercut the big scenes. A send-up of European art films is funny (and better than most skits on SNL) but really serves no purpose. Fun, smart and really a terrific cast. But can't quite recommend.

And then I watched the Academy Awards. I'm exhausted just writing about it. And all for $49.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Oscar Feedback

Brother Andy of the IRAs had this to say:

Why was it that most of the key actresses this year felt that the ultimate coif was to band their hair in a pony tail--all that was missing was a scrunchie--as if they were headed to the laundromat?

Jessica Alba deserves an Oscar for reading all the technical nominations and winners clearly, gracefully, and with the right inflections. She is a model of enunciation and served all of the nominees well in her duty. Forest Whitaker was not far behind; his presentment intro to the best actress nominations was flattering without being cloying. He also pronounced Marion Cotillard correctly.

Tilda Swinton?? Ruby or Saoirse were robbed. (I never did get Cate's raves for I'm Not There. Get me lit up and I can do a better Dylan . . .) Isn't Swinton fascinating to look at though? She looks like a perfect pre-op tranny. No makeup needed . . .

Marion Cotillard was good, but, let's face it, any year in which Julie Christie is nominated is a done deal as far as I'm concerned. She was luminous in Away from Her.

I found the acceptance speech by the director of The Counterfeiters to be appropriate and appropriately short.

Jack Nicholson has become an overexposed ass. His shades are stupid.

Regis Philbin is a sensory offense and should be banned from the Oscar 'red carpet' segment. He screams at everybody like Barton MacLane in an old Warner Brothers actioner, will never be intentionally funny, and finally looks as ridiculous as Joan Rivers.

Jon Stewart is tedious. (All things considered, is that a compliment?)

Bill Conti's music has an unintentionally sedating effect. (That is not a compliment.) It's especially tiresome when it soundtracks all these verities pontificated about seeking emotional truth in film art.

Somebody should blowtorch the person who wrote that wholly ignorant description of Murnau's Sunrise for the cinematography awards intro.

And finally, the song nominees were, as expecfed, awful--rarely are they more than good. (The bronze standard, which is now all we can hope for, is found in Marvin Hamlisch, Dolly Parton, or Randy Newman. It's downright perverse when something like 'It's a Hard Life Out There for a Pimp" is even shortlisted much less honored.)
In fact, it's during these stultifying musical bits that I've broken away from my fellow party guests to use my host's laptop and write these comments . . .

P.S. Clumsy Stewart cut out the song winner's acceptance speech. When she finally came onstage after his apology, she gave one of the best speeches on behalf of independent musicians (really, all free-lancers) ever.

P.P.S. Best line of the night: Producer for best picture to his partner: "Without you, honey, this would just be hardware."

Enjoy the after-parties everyone, and see you at the IRAs. (THOSE are the honors that REALLY count!!)

Andy

Brother Mark responds:

Andy, I have to semi-gently tug your ears on one point -- Jon Stewart wasn't the one who cut the Irish woman songwriter off from getting to make her acceptance speech -- blame that one on either Bill Conti, down in the orchestra pit, or whoever it is that put the order to cut someone off with music onto his prompter. Stewart was apparently the perfect gentleman to bring her back on stage after the commercial break so that she could give her lovely acceptance speech after all.

Personally, I was happy to see someone from such a fringe-background as Tilda Swinton get the recognition. Better to look like a pre-op tranny than a plastic post-op tranny (a la Scarlet Johansson). (And, yes, one of my late best friends was a tranny, so I can get touchy on this subject.)

Something really refreshing this year: not one acceptance speech thanking Jesus or God. Thank God!

Mark

Michael says: As for myself, I blame the producers -- not Jon Stewart -- for cutting off the acceptance speech of the co-writer of the Best Song "Falling Slowly" from Once. UNlike the other song nominees, it's a gorgeous, appropriate tune for the movie. And even worse than cutting her off was the direction during their number. At the emotional climax of the song, the camera panned away from the performers and peaked down into the pit so we could look at the orchestra and then just as the music swelled to a finale we got a close-p of Bill Conti and then looked out into the audiece -- during the finale of a musical number! Only after moments of applause did we finally cut back to the duo. Totally obnoxious.

Overall an incredibly dull ceremony, even by Oscar standards, with endless idiotic montages of seemingly every winner in every category. Surely the low point was the 3 to 5 minute ode to Price Waterhouse explaining how people get to see movies for free and then vote on their favorites. Mind-numbingly dull.

Jon Stewart had a very good opening monologue and then was inoffensive or bad. Constantly telling us we had just seen a special moment did in fact ruin any special moments there might have been. And how non-plussed the Coens looked.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

My Oscar Ballot

Here are my picks for what will win:

Best Picture: No Country For Old Men -- YES
Best Director: Joel and Ethan Coen -- YES
Best Actor: Daniel Day Lewis -- YES
Best Actress: Julie Christie -- NO (Marion Cotillard)
Best Supporting Actor: Javier Bardem -- YES
Best Supporting Actress: Ruby Dee -- NO (Tilda Swinton)
Best Original Screenplay: Juno -- YES
Best Adapted Screenplay: No Country For Old Men -- YES
Best Cinematograpy: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly -- NO (There Will Be Blood)
Best Art Direction: Atonement -- NO (Sweeney Todd)
Best Costumes: Elizabeth: the Golden Age -- YES
Best Score: Atonement -- YES
Best Animated Film: Ratatouille -- YES
Best Documentary: No End In Sight -- NO (Taxi To The Dark Side)
Best Documentary Short: Sari's Mother -- NO (Freeheld)
Best Editing: The Bourne Ultimatum -- YES
Best Foreign Language Film: The Counterfeiters -- YES
Best Makeup: La Vie En Rose -- YES
Best Song: "Falling Slowly" from Once -- YES
Best Animated Short: I Met The Walrus -- NO (Peter and the Wolf)
Best Live Action Short: The Mozart of Pickpockets -- YES
Best Sound Editing: The Bourne Ultimatum -- YES
Best Sound Mixing: The Bourne Ultimatum -- YES
Best Visual Effects: Transformers -- NO (The Golden Compass)

I scored a measley 16 out of 24

A Man Called Kotto, A Festival For Kids, Books For Giants, a Writer Called Kidd and Blu-Ray DVDs

Here are my latest articles: a profile of actor Yaphet Kotto, who was the first black Bond villain, a look at the NY International Children's Film Festival, a look at the reading habits of one of the members of They Might Be Giants; a review of graphic artist Chip Kidd's second novel and my Huffington Post discussion of the Blu-Ray DVD format triumphing over HD-DVD and whether you should take the plunge.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Great Depression

"...[an economic] disaster whose causes could all too easily be found in an economic system unfettered by controls, riddled with excess, and often dominated by corporate monsters with no more finely tuned a sense of social responsibility than a bag of rocks."

-- Not a reference to today but a passage from "The Hungry Years: A Narrative History of the Great Depression In America" by T.H. Watkins (1999)

Jason Page Radio Debut

Our own Jason Page begins his new drive time show on ESPN Radio Monday at 3 p.m. You can listen to it online here.

Boldly Going Where No One Has Gone Before

My latest NY Daily News articles cover actor Anton Yelchin (the new Chekhov in Star Trek), a review of the new Charles Baxter novel, an interview about the murky and dangerous world of people who climb Mt. Everest, and two silly online fillers about high school con artists and Jack Black.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

American Idol chatter Tues and Wed.

My latest Huffington Post -- Idol in Hollywood. And here is my Wednesday Huffington Post about the final 24. What? No Josiah? The producers must be pissed. That's okay -- he'll get his own reality show on MTV in about a week.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Psychedelic Era Returns

My latest NY Daily News feature covers three bands that drawn on psychedlia: The Black Hollies, Black Mountain and Super Furry Animals. Enjoy.

Best CDs of 2007

A best CDs of the year list in February? Why not? (Calendars are so 20th century.) My end of the year is always hectic. Freelance journalists are deluged with work around the holidays because staffers want to spend time with their families. Add in time with my own family and friends, a deluge of movies (my best movies of 2007 list is here) and suddenly that pile of CDs gets shoved aside until January.

So the Grammy Awards serve as my own personal deadline for compiling a list of the Best CDs of the year. You'll find a list, followed by commentary describing the artists and what I love about their albums. Record stores may be closing left and right but anyone who says there's no excitement in music just isn't listening. Soul, pop, rock, jazz, Broadway, Americana, rap, world music, country, film scores -- there's a lot to love. Enjoy!

NOTE: For the vast majority of these acts, if you want to hear what they sound like Google their name and "MySpace" and you'll get a link to their MySpace page where typically three or four songs from their current album will be available for play.

THE BEST CDS OF 2007

1. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings - 100 Days 100 Nights (classic soul)/ Various Artists - The Great Debaters Soundtrack (juke joint music)
2. Patty Griffin - Children Running Through (career-capping Americana)
3. Radiohead - In Rainbows (the world-conquering pop they were born to make)
4. Tinariwen - Aman Iman: Water Is Life (desert rock)
5. Robert Plant and Alison Krauss - Raising Sand (adult pop)
6. The White Stripes - Icky Thump (bluesy, stomping rock n roll)
7. Terence Blanchard - A Tale of God's Will (a requiem for Katrina) (melancholic jazz / Jonny Greenwood - There Will Be Blood (spooky, spine-tingling score)
8. Steve Earle - Washington Square Serenade / Suzanne Vega - Beauty & Crimes (country and folk pop triumphs both, but don't call it a comeback)
9. Jamie T - Panic Prevention / Livesavas - Gutterfly (Brit rap; Seventies funk fantasia)
10. Amy Winehouse - Back To Black (bruised retro soul)


11. Arcade Fire - Neon Bible (art rock a la Talking Heads)
12. Andy Bey - Ain't Necessarily So (searching jazz vocals)
13. Fountains of Wayne - Traffic and Weather (pure pop) / Ron Sexsmith - Time Being (purer pop)
14. Tabu Ley Rochereau - The Voice Of Lightness (floating, Al Green-like world music)
15. The Feeling - Twelve Stops and Home (Seventies AM radio) / The Fratellis - Costello Music (raucous rock)
16. Teddy Thompson - Upfront & Down Low (dignified country classics) / Richard Thompson - Sweet Warrior (sterling rock) / Linda Thompson - Versatile Heart (delicate folk pop)
17. Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni ba - Segu Blue (irresistible world music for people mourning Ali Farka)
18. Herbie Hancock - River: The Joni Letters (Mitchell done proud via jazz))
19. Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Ray Price - Last Of The Breed (country summit) / Levon Helm - Dirt Farmer (Lazarus-like revival) / Porter Wagoner - Wagonmaster (classy send-off)
20. Arctic Monkeys - Favourite Worst Nightmare (jagged Brit pop) - Kaiser Chiefs - Yours Truly, Angry Mob (spiky but smooth Brit pop)


21. Various Artists - The Roots Of Chica - Psychedelic Cumbias From Peru (garage rock via South America)
22. Common - Finding Forever (rap for adults)
23. Stephen Fretwell - Man On The Roof (unheralded UK folk-pop)
24. Betty LaVette - The Scene Of The Crime (steeped in wisdom soul) / Mary Weiss - Dangerous Game (old school pop, happily)
25. Josh Ritter - The Historical Conquests Of Josh Ritter (literate folk pop with a smile)
26. Andy Palacio & The Garifuna Collective - Watina / Puerto Plata - Mujer de Cabaret (both beautiful, vanishing traditions)
27. The Hives - The Black and White Album (confident, swaggering rock)
28. David Bromberg - Try Me One More Time / John Hammond - Push Comes To Shove (grizzled old white man blues) / Watermelon Slim & The Workers - The Wheel Man (the blues, you fool)
29. Robert Wyatt - Comicopera (eccentric pop-jazz thingamajig)
30. The Real Tuesday Weld - The London Book Of The Dead (sneakily ambitious retro pop)


31. Joan Armatrading - Into The Blues (do call it a comeback)
32. The Magic Numbers - Those The Brokes (disappointing but good) / Darren Hayes - This Delicate Thing We've Made (good but disappointing)
33. Bruce Springsteen with the Sessions Band - Live In Dublin (party in the barn music)
34. Nicole Atkins - Neptune City (brooding, Orbison-like pop)
35. Sergio & Odair Assad - Jardim Abandonado (telepathic classical guitar)
36. Raul Malo - After Hours (countrypolitan with velvet vocals)
37. Various Artists - Company Original Broadway Cast (2007) (Sondheim, passionately)
38. Kelly Willis - Translated From Love (country, smartly)
39. Panda Bear - Person Pitch (Brian Wilson on LSD, if that's not redundant)
40. Over The Rhine - Snow Angels (Christmas rock for NPR listeners)


41. Jens Lekman - Night Falls Over Kortedala (Magentic Fields via Sweden)
42. Ian Hunter - Shrunken Heads (cock rock)
43. Beirut - The Flying Cup Club
44. Juanes - La Vida (fist-shaking rock)
45. The Holmes Brothers - State of Grace (master class in the blues)
46. Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova - The Swell Season (you know, those great songs from the movie Once)
47. Ryan Adams and the Cardinals - Follow The Lights (Americana, again)
48. John Corigliano - Music For String Quartet (American classical)
49. Dee Dee Bridgewater - Red Earth: A Malian Journey (jazz meets Mali)/ Abbey Lincoln - Abbey Sings Abbey (astringent jazz)
50. The Donnas - Bitchin' (dumb, fun as hell Eighties rock)


FAVORITE SINGLES OF 2007

1. Feist / "1234"
2. Rihanna / "Umbrella"
3. Mika / "Grace Kelly"
4. Norah Jones / "Thinking About You"
5. John Mellencamp / "Our Country"
6. They Might Be Giants / "The Mesopotamians"
7. White Rabbits / "The Plot"
8. Bjork / "Declare Independence
9. John Fogerty / "I Can't Take It No More"
10. The Pipettes/ "Your Kisses Are Wasted On Me"

FAVORITE REISSUES

1. Bob Dylan - The Other Side Of The Mirror: Live At The Newport Folk Festival 1963-1965 (revelatory documentary film)
2. Prefab Sprout - Steve McQueen (Steely Dan-like pop stripped down beautifully)
3. Culture - Two Sevens Clash 30th Anniversary Edition (anthemic reggae)
4. Emmylou Harris - Songbird (the queen of Americana)
5. Joy Division - album reissues
6. Various Artists -- City Of Dreams: A Collection Of New Orleans Music (a joyous dive into the vaults of Rounder)
7. Van Morrison - The Best Of Van Morrison Volume 3 (if you pick and choose carefully, his last decade sounds damn good)
8. Jennifer Warnes - Famous Blue Raincoat (a perfect intro to Leonard Cohen)
9. The Traveling Wilburys - The Traveling Wilburys Collection (shambling, genial but some undeniable singles)
10. Pink Floyd - The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn / Moby Grape - Listen My Friends: The Best Of Moby Grape (awesome psychedelia)


THE BEST CDS OF 2007 - THE EXTENDED LIST

1. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings - 100 Days 100 Nights (classic soul)/ Various Artists - The Great Debaters Soundtrack (juke joint music) - Sharon Jones is the beginning and the end, an old school singer who sounds like she came straight from the Stax studios through a time tunnel and into the present. I've struggled all year to define the difference between "retro" music that just sort of apes the past and the real deal. But you can't define it. You just feel it. Jones and the Dap-Kings have been steeped in classic soul for years and this album is their greatest achievement yet. Fanatics will love the little touches, like the way the songs sometimes fade out quickly just like the old pop singles where a tune would simply run out of space on the 45 and they'd have to dial down the sound abruptly at the end. But this isn't just for hardcore collectors. It's great, great stuff, with one pounding, unforgettable, heart-pumping song after another. Think Aretha. Think Otis Redding. Think Brooklyn's Sharon Jones. She's all over the soundtrack to the Denzel Washington feel-good drama The Great Debaters. The movie was too soft-focus for my taste but credit Washington for great taste in music. This is like a night at a juke joint...if the juke joint happened to be jammed full of some of the best talent around. Jones (who has a cameo in the movie) sings everything from gospel to blues, with Alvin Youngblood Hart the prime mover and shaker, whether dueting with Jones or backed by the Carolina Chocolate Drops string band. Anyone adventurous enough to own the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack should run right out and pick this up. Now. And Saturday night, put on 100 Days 100 Nights and The Great Debaters back to back and you've got yourself a party.
2. Patty Griffin - Children Running Through (career-capping Americana) - For much of the year, until Jones slipped past her, I was convinced this would be the album of the year. Like John Hiatt's classic Bring The Family, this is the crowning achievement in a durable career. I've always admired Griffin, her albums were fine, people regularly covered her songs...but it never quite all came together for her. Till now. From the funky, syncopated "Stay On The Ride" to the story song of "Trapeze" and the rafters-raising "Heavenly Days," this is a talented artist delivering just the right songs with just the right musicians at just the right moment. Pure magic a la Hiatt or Bonnie Raitt's Nick Of Time.
3. Radiohead - In Rainbows (the world-conquering pop they were born to make) - Now was that so hard, Mr. Yorke? People can talk all they want about Kid A and Amnesiac and Hail To The Thief. The truth is that Radiohead delivered genius with The Bends and OK Computer and then ran screaming from the massive sales and acclaim. Now, finally, they've embraced again their apparently effortless ability to deliver brilliant, thought-provoking songs with melodies that stride continents with ease. Great stuff.
4. Tinariwen - Aman Iman: Water Is Life (desert rock) - Don't ask me why or how, but I suddenly realized that half the world music I'd been obsessed with this year came from Mali. Tinariwen is a desert collective, a despised minority scrabbling out an existence. And out in the middle of nowhere, Tinariwen plug in and deliver rock -- and rock that builds on their folk traditions with the swagger of the Rolling Stones.
5. Robert Plant and Alison Krauss - Raising Sand (adult pop) - Strange bedfellows, to say the least. But what a heart-stopping paring with Plant's stadium-ready vocals pared down and Krauss's delicate yearning given a swift kick in the pants, all in service of gems like "Please Read The Letter" and "Let Your Loss Be Your Lesson." Perhaps the unlikeliest triumph yet by producer T Bone Burnett. Perfect for mum and dad.
6. The White Stripes - Icky Thump (bluesy, stomping rock n roll) - I can't quite figure out how people turn on to some of their albums and turn off others. The White Stripes strike me as ferociously committed to exploring anything and everything. Who can't love the yelp of "Little Cream Soda," the catchiness of "You Don't Know What Love Is" or the roar of "Icky Thump?" I keep waiting for them to take a wrong step. They haven't. And the louder you play it the better it sounds, which is always a good sign.
7. Terence Blanchard - A Tale of God's Will (a requiem for Katrina) (melancholic jazz / Jonny Greenwood - There Will Be Blood (spooky, spine-tingling score) - Two instrumental compositions that haunt me. Blanchard based his new album in part on the score he delivered for Spike Lee's documentary about Katrina. But this album - which also includes pieces by his bandmembers - is a rich and moving work in its own right, sad, mournful, defiant, angry and somehow hopeful. I don't get inspired so much as spooked by the terrific tunes Radiohead's Greenwood used so marvelously in the Daniel Day-Lewis film There Will Be Blood. Unshakeable.
8. Steve Earle - Washington Square Serenade / Suzanne Vega - Beauty & Crimes (country and folk pop triumphs both, but don't call it a comeback) - What a year for Steve Earle. He filmed his final scenes for the HBO drama The Wire (easily one of the best shows of all time), recorded the theme song for it and delivered his strongest album in years. If you enjoyed Earle in the past but haven't paid attention in a while, climb back on board. The same goes for Suzanne Vega, who offers a tribute to New York City in the best possible style: by writing sharp, unsentimental, intelligent pop that digs deep.
9. Jamie T - Panic Prevention / Livesavas - Gutterfly (Brit rap; Seventies funk fantasia) - For a few years now, I've been arguing that the best rap is coming out of the UK, thanks to The Streets, Dizzee Rascal and the like. Jamie T continues the tradition with the droll wit that comes so easily to the Brits and an offbeat soundscape that is his secret weapon. Then along comes Lifesavas to prove America hasn't completely floundered yet when it comes to rap. They've produced the soundtrack to an imaginary Seventies blaxploitation flick and yes, flutes, funky bass and groovy dialogue are all on tap. Sensational and everything Jay-Z's album wanted to be but wasn't.
10. Amy Winehouse - Back To Black (bruised retro soul) - Sharon Jones pops up again. Not vocally, but via her band the Dap-Kings, would pumped tremendous life into much of this album, including the unstoppable single "Rehab." Winehouse is the real deal, but it never hurts to have the right backing band.


11. Arcade Fire - Neon Bible (art rock a la Talking Heads) - They have a gift for creating tension, the feeling that SOMETHING momentous is about to happen. Rousing stuff.
12. Andy Bey - Ain't Necessarily So (searching jazz vocals) - Who knows why this live album recorded a decade ago has stayed on the shelf? Bey had just come back into the limelight with a hit album and this set shows him suffused with the joy of doing what he loves and knowing that after a long dry spell that people were listening. He doesn't have the molasses pacing of Shirley Horn but they both know how to dig deep.
13. Fountains of Wayne - Traffic and Weather (pure pop) / Ron Sexsmith - Time Being (purer pop) -- Who knows why certain acts fall in and out of favor. For a brief moment, FoW was the toast of the town. Nothing changed but the spotlight moved on. It will probably find them again when their work on the Broadway-bound musical Cry-Baby is heard. But don't wait. Traffic and Weather proves they've been creating pure pop all along. Ron Sexsmith is so dependably catchy and literate that magazines have run out of things to say. Here's another Sexsmith album that will make pop lovers swoon but fail to conquer the charts? Hardly words to begin a cover story. But what a talent. Paul McCartney has an heir, indeed.
14. Tabu Ley Rochereau - The Voice Of Lightness (floating, Al Green-like world music) - "The Voice of Lightness?" Hmm, catchy nickname. Then you play the first track of this two disc compilation by the Congo legend and suddenly you're floating up to the sky the way you did the first time you heard Al Green. Addictive pop.
15. The Feeling - Twelve Stops and Home (Seventies AM radio) / The Fratellis - Costello Music (raucous rock) - Listen to The Feeling and you'll get a big, goofy grin on your face. Like Midlake, they traffic in a Seventies rock radio vibe with brilliant tunes like "Sewn" and "I Want You Now" that will have you checking the liner notes of this UK band. Is this a greatest hits compilation? Or just an album that could be? It doesn't hurt that the lead singer toys with saying he's bisexual just like Bowie. Ah, the Brits. Their compatriots the Fratellis make a big noise with infectious rock that is like Elvis (Costello) in a particularly upbeat mood.
16. Teddy Thompson - Upfront & Down Low (dignified country classics) / Richard Thompson - Sweet Warrior (sterling rock) / Linda Thompson - Versatile Heart (delicate folk pop) - The Thompson clan does itself proud. Teddy does a covers album of country classics and digging into sneering numbers like "You Finally Said Something Good (When You Said Goodbye)" seemed to release the inner swagger in the reserved Thompson's lovely voice. It'll be fascinating to see how making it affects his next solo album. Pop Richard - world's greatest guitarist, thank you very much - delivers yet another impeccable solo album, his best since Mock Tudor. It seemed to be merely good, but suddenly in the second half one corker after another was released and you just shake your head with pleasure. Mum Linda threatened her triumphant comeback album Fashionably Late might be her last. Bollocks. This isn't quite as exceptional, but it's always a joy to her her sing.
17. Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni ba - Segu Blue (irresistible world music for people mourning Ali Farka) - More music from Mali, with Kouyate apparently the first person to center an album around the stringed instrument the Ngoni, hence the album's pairing. It's like saying "Eric Clapton & Stratocaster.") This isn't some National Geographic special, however. You'll be on your feet and swaying in minutes.
18. Herbie Hancock - River: The Joni Letters (Mitchell done proud via jazz) - Hancock says this album was the first time he ever really focused on the lyrics of the songs he was performing. (Mainly because he was working with singers. Dude, that's the ONLY way to record meaningful covers of standards, even if no one is saying the words. Well, he learned his lesson just in time as this all-star album does right by Joni Mitchell, one of the jazziest of pop's poets. Tina Turner is a revelation on "Edith and the Kingpin" (I didn't know she had it in her) but I can't help treasuring Leonard Cohen's spoken word finale, "The Jungle Line." If that doesn't grab you, nothing will.
19. Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Ray Price - Last Of The Breed (country summit) / Levon Helm - Dirt Farmer (Lazarus-like revival) / Porter Wagoner - Wagonmaster (classy send-off) - When pop and rock stars get together, it's often such a "big moment" freighted with import that little of value comes out of it. But country and folk and jazz do these summit meetings with ease. Is it because of their traditions of front porch and late night jam sessions? I don't know. But Willie and Merle and Ray got together and sang a few tunes and somebody knew what was happening was pretty great because they kept the tapes rolling and filled up two CDs. Levon Helm's comeback after years of fighting illness and being reduced to a ragged whisper is truly heartwarming. But heartwarming doesn't make for a good album, just a good story. Singing well makes for a good album and that's what he does. Any volume sacrificed is made up for by sharper insight. And I haven't thought about Wagoner much since Dolly Parton went solo. But Marty Stuart gave him a great final bow with this elegant, fitting album that wasn't meant as a tribute or valedictory and is all the more satisfying because of it.
20. Arctic Monkeys - Favourite Worst Nightmare (jagged Brit pop) - Kaiser Chiefs - Yours Truly, Angry Mob (spiky but smooth Brit pop) - These two UK bands are invariably paired in my mind, the way Oasis and Blur were, though there's no rivalry to speak of. But their debuts came out at the same time and I gave round one to the Kaiser Chiefs. Round two goes to Arctic Monkeys but it remains a close call. The Monkeys craft better albums but the Chiefs are gonna have one amazing greatest hits CD, thanks to singles like "Ruby" and "The Angry Mob."


21. Various Artists - The Roots Of Chica - Psychedelic Cumbias From Peru (garage rock via South America) - utterly "inauthentic" psychedelic rock and roll from Peru that will rock your house. Crank it up.
22. Common - Finding Forever (rap for adults) - a lone voice of sanity in the boring world of American rap. Solid and smart, with the added bonus of that addictive theme song for the animated show The Boondocks as the closer.
23. Stephen Fretwell - Man On The Roof (unheralded UK folk-pop) - I kept seeing this album advertised in the UK press, with some laudatory reviews and intriguing song titles. But that was it. I didn't see any interviews and it never got released here. Finally I broke down and bought a $28 import (gulp). What a treasure. His earlier guy-and-a-guitar approach had been fleshed out beautifully, putting meat on the bones of his observant, engaging songs. The real deal.
24. Betty LaVette - The Scene Of The Crime (steeped in wisdom soul) / Mary Weiss - Dangerous Game (old school pop, happily) LaVette came back for good with I've Got My Own Hell To Raise, a great album covering female songwriters. Now she's delivered her own response record, this one covering all male songwriters. 120 proof but goes down smooth. Mary Weiss is a girl group survivor of the Shangri-Las who said, what the heck, let's do an album and proved she could still raise some hell, herself.
25. Josh Ritter - The Historical Conquests Of Josh Ritter (literate folk pop with a smile) -- I've liked his albums for a while but it was seeing Ritter in concert where he just seemed so darn happy to be performing that made me a serious fan. Another very good album that sinks in slowly and then stays there.
26. Andy Palacio & The Garifuna Collective - Watina / Puerto Plata - Mujer de Cabaret (both beautiful, vanishing traditions) -- Finally, some world music now from Mali. Palacio is a pop star in the Caribbean but was persuaded to record an album capturing the elegiac music of the Garifuna peoples, a group reduced to mere hundreds of thousands with their language and culture slipping away. Elegant, stirring stuff. Plata proves the musical style of son doesn't belong solely to the Cubans He's from the Dominican Republic and after decades where repressive regimes kept his music hidden, the 83 year old makes his recording debut. It's a very basic live recording, but Plata's exuberant swing wins you over easily.
27. The Hives - The Black and White Album (confident, swaggering rock) - They came crashing in with a group of other rock bands. But the Hives have gone to the woodshed, studied hard and really delivered with this boisterous, infectious work.
28. David Bromberg - Try Me One More Time / John Hammond - Push Comes To Shove (grizzled old white man blues) / Watermelon Slim & The Workers - The Wheel Man (the blues, you fool) - Lots of blues, here. Bromberg is heard on his first album in 17 years. Like so many bluesman, the years only make them better. Hammond doesn't miss a beat and makes it seem easy. But it's Oklahoma native Watermelon Slim that had me rolling in the aisles and not thinking about the blues but just feeling it.
29. Robert Wyatt - Comicopera (eccentric pop-jazz thingamajig) - Is there anyone in the US to compare to Wyatt? Not really. He's not Captain Beefheart, really, who always seemed to have stayed out in the sun a tad too long. His music is more from the head than the gut, but often breathtakingly beautiful, filled with jazzy chords and meandering melodies that slowly coalesce around a perfect if opaque lyric. Here Wyatt is more accessible than usual, making this a great entry point for newcomers who are feeling adventurous. No signposts here, but you might bump into Brian Eno and Van Dyke Parks.
30. The Real Tuesday Weld - The London Book Of The Dead (sneakily ambitious retro pop) - This UK band might have been much higher on my list if I hadn't discovered them at the last minute. If you know the lovably retro music of Richard Swift, think of this as his UK pal. They don't really have much in common, other than a love for vintage music and contemporary lyrics that intrigue. If Pink Floyd slipped into the Fifties to rcord a concept album, it might sound like this.


31. Joan Armatrading - Into The Blues (do call it a comeback) -- Why didn't more people talk about this? Just a great, rousing set of tunes from the too long gone Armatrading.
32. The Magic Numbers - Those The Brokes (disappointing but good) / Darren Hayes - This Delicate Thing We've Made (good but disappointing) -- Lov the Magic Numbers but I got spoiled by seeing them in concert. Now I know how absolutely brilliant they can be and this album (almost as good as their debut) falls short. Darren Hayes of Savage Garden delivers a wildly ambitious, autobiographical double CD. It's frustrating how hard it is for indie artists to get on the radio. Hayes should be an automatic add for adult contemporary stations. Sure, the album could be stronger as a single CD but the problem here isn't the length. It's the emphasis on the dance floor. Hayes is much, much stronger on pure pop. If radio wakes up, a handful of tunes - especially "Words" and "Casey" will be massive, massive hits.
33. Bruce Springsteen with the Sessions Band - Live In Dublin (party in the barn music) - Yep, Bruce delivered a classic album this year, but it wasn't Magic. I thought that album had a terrific batch of songs (his strongest since Tunnel Of Love) but I just don't like how producer Brendan O'Brien records Bruce's vocals. They sound smoothed out and bland to me; no personality. Live, his songs were much better than the album version and "Girls in Their Summer Clothes" and "Radio Nowhere" will be on set lists for years to come. But for a great album, I prefer this live recording of his excellent band performing the tunes from The Seeger Sessions. Unbeatable fun.
34. Nicole Atkins - Neptune City (brooding, Orbison-like pop) - A very promising debut with touches of Roy Orbison, Phil Spector, Chris Isaak and the like. "The Way It Is" is classic and "Brooklyn's On Fire!" is a gas live. I expect her to get better and better.
35. Sergio & Odair Assad - Jardim Abandonado (telepathic classical guitar) - two classical guitarists who are so in tune with each other that tunes from Jobim to Debussy to the showstopper - Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" - float by effortlessly. Someone could treat this as aural wallpaper to leave on in the background during afternoon tea. Don't. Pay attention.
36. Raul Malo - After Hours (countrypolitan with velvet vocals) - The marvelous voice behind once and future country greats the Mavericks, Malo slides into some classic country tunes, sans the quirkiness that enlivened his band's similarly themed album Music For All Occasions.
37. Stephen Sondheim -- Company: Original Broadway Cast (2007) (Sondheim, passionately) - My favorite new musical of the year was an Off Off Broadway gem called Yank! about two soldiers falling in love during World War II. I'm greedily listening to a demo recording of the music and looking forward to a future production Off Broadway or elsewhere with a full cast. As for revivals, the best was Company. On stage the stunt of having cast members play all the instruments worked beautifully. On the cast album, you're left with impassioned performances, led by Raul Esparza's career-defining Bobby.
38. Kelly Willis - Translated From Love (country, smartly) - Sure she got a little lost. But she never lost her voice. And when Willis was ready to bear down and had just the right pushy sort of producer in Chuck Prophet (who kept her out of her comfort zone), the result was perhaps her best album yet. If you've been a fan, come back. If you haven't, you should be.
39. Panda Bear - Person Pitch (Brian Wilson on LSD, if that's not redundant)--Trippy, hippy, Beach Boys-like music from a member of Animal Collective.
40. Over The Rhine - Snow Angels (Christmas rock for NPR listeners) - Their new CD didn't floor me. But this second holiday CD from the indie stalwarts blew me away - lots of great originals make this a keeper for someone who has literally hundreds of Christmas CDs and can be very picky. "North Pole Man" alone is destined for lots of mixtapes in the future.


41. Jens Lekman - Night Falls Over Kortedala (Magnetic Fields via Sweden) - That dreamy lost boy look of Lekman on the cover of his new CD is perfect. He swoons over pop melodies, pours out literate, clever lyrics by the yard and wraps it up in beautiful, larky arrangements that include lots and lots of strings and choirs and clever little touches. "And I Remember Every Kiss." "Friday Night At The Drive-In Bingo." "If I Could Cry (it would feel like this)." If you're smiling already, this is for you.
42. Ian Hunter - Shrunken Heads (cock rock) - Like an idiot, I never realized Mott The Hoople was more than a one hit wonder thanks to David Bowie's "All The Young Dudes." Some great reissues soon turned my head around and now a new solo CD from head Mott Ian Hunter proves he's still the cock of the walk.
43. Beirut - The Flying Cup Club - This kid's debut CD sounded like gypsy music from Eastern Europe. His second CD sounds like it was recorded in a French cabaret. Infact, Zach Condon is from New Mexico. I have no idea what's going on here, but I'm still listening.
44. Juanes - La Vida (fist-shaking rock) - a Colombian superstar, Juanes is clearly politically committed and that passion pours out of these Spanish-language rockers. Getting better and better.
45. The Holmes Brothers - State of Grace (master class in the blues) - Everything from Lyle Lovett to Elvis Costello, delivered with grace and verce.
46. Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova - The Swell Season (you know, those great songs from the movie Once) - Like many people, I caught up with this solo work by Frames lead singer Hansard via the movie Once. I bought this before the soundtrack came out so this is what I listened to. A tad too stately for me at times, but the numbers from the movie are just remarkable.
47. Ryan Adams and the Cardinals - Follow The Lights (Americana, again) -- Hey, if Ryan Adams knew when it was going to work and when it wasn't, he'd probably be even happier than you or mere. After a few years of just pouring out music wily-nily, he settled down a bit. Unfortunately, Easy Tiger wasn't quite in focus yet. But this EP is. I don't know why, but it is. Back for good, I hope.
48. John Corigliano - Music For String Quartet (American classical) - A shameful lack of classical music this year. But at least I stayed on top of some contemporary composers, including Corigliano, who is featured in this album which includes a string quartet, two shorter works and - generously - shares the bill with a string quartet by by the handsome young composer Jefferson Friedman who has studied with Corigliano and others and who has already been commissioned for numerous pieces including a chamber opera and two orchestral works. One to watch.
49. Dee Dee Bridgewater - Red Earth: A Malian Journey (jazz meets Mali)/ Abbey Lincoln - Abbey Sings Abbey (astringent jazz) - One more trip to Mali, this time with Bridgewater, who felt such an identity with the music of that region (along with physical similarities) between her and people she met, that she became convinced her roots were there. The result is a bold album that mixes jazz with Malian music performed by some of the country's brightest lights, including Bassekou Kouyate. Inspiring. And Lincoln has always offered up at least one or two originals on her albums. Here she digs deep and plumbs her own catalog, taking another sharp-eyed look at gems like her timeless standard "Throw It Away."
50. The Donnas - Bitchin' (dumb, fun as hell Eighties rock) - We started with fun (Sharon Jones) so let's end there. The Donnas dive into Eighties stadium rock (right down to packaging that emphasizes tight, tight pants and super-cool logos) and the results are roof-blasting fun like "Don't' Wait Up For Me," "Love You Till It Hurts," and "Girl Talk." Like the Go-Gos on steroids or Def Leppard with a lot more cleavage. Totally hot.


FAVORITE SINGLES OF 2007

1. Feist / "1234" - Inescapable, happily so. (But not written by Feist and her album sadly never held my attention.)
2. Rihanna / "Umbrella" - Inescapable, sometimes unhappily so.
3. Mika / "Grace Kelly" - Delirious pop; what the radio was made for.
4. Norah Jones / "Thinking About You" - Melody is not her strong suit, which makes this pop gem stand out all the more on her new album. Maybe if her voice weren't so bewitching she'd spend more time on creating hooks.
5. John Mellencamp / "Our Country" - an almost embarrassingly blunt album lyrically, but it came into focus here.
6. They Might Be Giants / "The Mesopotamians" - their goofiest and catchiest song since "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" and that's saying something. Snatch up their terrific new album for kids Here Come The 1, 2, 3's. It's a gem. Rent a kid if you don't have one and enjoy.
7. White Rabbits / "The Plot" - A solid debut, especially if this brilliantly structured song is a sign of things to come.
8. Bjork / "Declare Independence" - Bonkers, of course, which we want from Bjork. Her new album sort of plods along and suddenly she's squealing out, "Start your own currency! / Make your own stamp!" and I think, Bjork! How are you!
9. John Fogerty / "I Can't Take It No More" - He's still got that voice and, bless him, he's still pissed about that "Fortunate Son."
10. The Pipettes/ "Your Kisses Are Wasted On Me" - would be Spice Girls trio with Spector-like singles that pummel you into submission.

Whew! Are you still here? Tell me about some of your favorites.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

American Idol chatter

My latest Huffington Post covers Idol in Atlanta. Yes, it was Super Tuesday and I watched Idol. And I watched it again on Wednesday when the big surprise was Simon not supporting some very talented kids. Next week: Hollywood.

The Books, Movies, Theater, Concerts, Etc. I've Seen In 2008

Here's the latest update on what I've seen and done.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Still More On "The Assassination of Jesse James...."

My latest Huffington Post post covers this week's DVDs, including my favorite film of the year, The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. Enjoy!

Monday, February 04, 2008

7 Fingers and Broken Hearts

My latest features for the NY Daily News: a story on the new 7 Fingers circus production "Traces" -- featuring five lithe young performers based in Montreal -- and a truncated review of the compilation "Things I've Learned From People Who've Dumped Me."

Happy Days w They Might be Giants

An odd but enjoyable double bill on Saturday. First, Fiona Shaw in Beckett's "Happy Days" at BAM. This was the penultimate performance and very satisfying. Shaw -- who I don't think I've ever seen live, was marvelous. I've never read the play or seen it in performance. So I don't know about earlier dismissals of Winnie as a silly housewife, nor of this production's leanings toward comedy. All I know is what I saw was remarkable. Shaw is trapped up to her waist in the ground amidst a blasted, post-aocalyptic landscape. She has her black bag in arm's length, along with an umbrella and natters on about this and that while Willy (her husband?) mutters nearby. The first act is about an hour and I think Beckett gives us that just so he can take us to the shorter, sharper second act where Winnie is now trapped up to her neck. Bleak, funny and as much about any marriage, any life as the rather odd existence poor Winnie finds herself in. Deeply amusing and enthralling, Shaw looked absolutely knackered during the curtain call and even gave a small bow to the miserable hole she's trapped in, her main partner in the show. Memorable to say the least and I pity the people who weren't in the first few rows like us.

The I went to get mail, almost forgetting I had tickets to They Might Be Giants at the Beacon. They'd sold out for the first time so after 25 years this was a very celebratory show. The two Johns covered many of the biggest hits of their career, with a crackerjack band that made them sound even better, along with a healthy dose of their fine new album The Else and two songs from their kid CDs (which is the music of theirs I know the best). A geeky, happy crowd, with an inordinate amount of couples who kept holding hands, kissing, etc. Seriously, I thought I was at a Luther Vandross or Anita Baker show -- there were a LOT of demonstrative couples for TMBG, unless they're a heretofore unknown aphrodisiac. The sort of performance that turns a casual fan like myself into a much bigger fan. I felt like I got to be there for one of their most special nights. My friend said on the subway people burst into the chorus of "Birdhouse of Your Soul." I saw some fans on the street even blocks away but didn't think to try and engage them in a sing-along.