Staff Picks: Music
Public Media Network, the local cable access channel, airs some very fine programs. Among my favorites are those excellent travel videos by Chuck Bentley and Donna Kaminski. I could watch those for hours. In fact, I have done just that. It was while viewing the ones on the British Isles several years ago that I became interested in modern Celtic music, particularly that of the Irish singer Enya. KPL has many of her CDs, including her 2008 release And Winter Came. Ten of the 12 tracks were unfamiliar to me, but I did know the Advent hymn 'O Come, O Come, Emmanuel' and the Christmas carol 'Silent Night.' Both of these receive contemplative and thoughtful renditions. This has become one of my favorite holiday albums. The word beautiful does not do justice to it. This is a lovely, meditative, clear-voiced, atmospheric, lyrical offering!
"And winter came... [sound recording]"
I am a grown man in his thirties with no children and I can unabashedly say that my most anticipated pop culture event of 2011 is the forthcoming movie The Muppets. Both my wife and I were raised watching The Muppet Show, which aired from 1976 to 1981, and we developed a deep appreciation for creator Jim Henson’s sense of humor, which managed to cater to both children and adults while remaining cheekily subversive. Other Muppets projects like Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, Muppet Babies, The Dark Crystaland Labyrinth were all enduring, but between the original TV show and the first three feature films (The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caperand The Muppets Take Manhattan), our hearts belonged to Kermit and the gang.
But after the shocking death of Henson in 1990, quality control of the Muppet brand went downhill. Suddenly, the Muppets were being plugging into existing stories like A Christmas Carol, Treasure Islandand The Wizard of Oz. These puppet-infused literary adaptations lacked true imagination and creativity—two things the Muppets themselves had long represented. Ownership of the Muppets changed hands a few times. During these dark days, it was most certainly not easy being green.
And then, sometime at the end of the 00s, a potential (and unlikely) savior emerged for the Muppets: a comic actor known for his goofy charm and often crude sense of humor named Jason Segel. The How I Met Your Motherstar had just come off the success of the film Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Wanting to capitalize on his cachet, Hollywood suits approached him and asked what he wanted to do for his next project. And of all things, he said he wanted to make a Muppet movie. Turns out, Segel, too, grew up watching the variety show and missed the days when Kermit and Co. had been relevant and irreverent. Disney, who had purchased the brand, was more than happy to oblige. That film, loaded with guest stars and smart humor, opens November 23rd and will hopefully re-launch Henson’s greatest creations back into the pop culture zeitgeist. I, for one, will be there opening day.
In the meantime, however, Disney has taken a step towards promoting the film by gathering together a group of alternative artists and producing Muppets: The Green Album. This collection puts a modern spin on some of the Muppets most beloved songs. Weezer and Paramore’s Hayley Williams perform “The Rainbow Connection,” alt-rock group The Fray pulls off the catchy “Mahna Mahna,” and My Morning Jacket covers “Our World.” Other artists featured are Andrew Bird (“Bein’ Green”), Matt Nathanson (“I Hope that Something Better Comes Along”) and The Airborne Toxic Event (“Wishing Song”). But the albums best songs belong to Alkaline Trio’s fast-paced road song “Movin’ Right Along,” Sondre Lerche’s groovy “Mr. Bassman” and the ever-inventive OK Go’s cover of the “Muppet Show theme song.” (Check out their video below.)
Green is great for nostalgic fans as well as being a fantastic introduction for a new generation of Muppet enthusiasts. I can only hope that Segel has succeeded in making the Fuzzy Ones witty and inventive again. Even though I still have over a month of anticipation before the movie comes out, this album is helping to get me through the wait.
Muppets: The Green Album
It's not uncommon to feel a nostalgia for music of another time and place that may cast today's sounds in a less favorable light, even if the evidence doesn't justify the position. However, fans of '60's pop radio can point to any of the following 45s from the summer of 1966 - listed in no particuar order - to make a very strong case for the excellence of that era:
The Beatles: “Paperback Writer” – before the late-summer stateside furor caused by John Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” interview remarks, the Fab Four ruled US airwaves with this dose of proto-psychedelia, cut during the sessions for their landmark Revolver LP. Dig the “Frere Jacques” backing harmonies in the third and fourth verses.
The Rolling Stones: “Paint It, Black” – moving further away from their R’n’B roots with this brooding Middle Eastern-flavored recording from their Aftermath sessions, the Stones released the first rock single to feature the sitar. Keith Richards remains non-plussed by the US record company’s random insertion of the comma in the song’s title.
The Supremes: “You Can’t Hurry Love” – Motown’s biggest act charted their 7th number one smash (after a couple of singles that “only” made the top 10) with this infectious Holland-Dozier-Holland production that, for many, defines the Sound of Young America today. Despite the lyrics’ recommendation for patience, the song’s insistent rhythms (laid down by the legendary Funk Brothers) guarantee body movements by anyone within earshot.
The Lovin’ Spoonful: “Summer in the City” – it’s hard to detect the Greenwich Village quartet’s jug band roots on this driving ode to urban summertime heat, the misery it causes in the minor-key verses countered by the fun it promises in the major-key choruses. This is the first rock single to feature a jackhammer.
The Beach Boys: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” – the third single from the Hawthorne, CA quintet’s timeless Pet Sounds LP had such a great flipside – “God Only Knows” – that both sides made the top 40 charts. In the UK, the single sides were flipped, gaining even greater chart success.
Dusty Springfield: “Goin’ Back” – Dusty’s soulful reading of this wistful Goffin-King composition was an international smash everywhere but in the US, where, for whatever reason, Springfield’s record company declined to release the song (which eventually became a minor hit in a version by the Byrds released the following year). The yearning nostalgia of the song’s lyrics is in sharp contrast to the youthfulness of the song’s performer and composers.
Bob Dylan: “I Want You” - the third of four singles from Dylan’s epochal Blonde on Blonde double-LP charted just weeks before the artist’s extended disappearance from the public arena after a mysterious motorcycle accident. The remarkably simple chorus lyrics are quite atypical of the increasingly complex wordsmithing Dylan fans came to expect, but that seems to be the point (driven home by the singer’s repeated, excited pleas of the title) of what’s essentially a simple love (or, more accurately, lust) song.
The Troggs: “Wild Thing” – one of the most covered (to this day) hits of the ‘60’s was a make-it-or-break-it follow-up to a failed debut single by the UK act almost named the Grotty Troggs. Though the track and its performers have a reputation for being “primitive”, few cover bands could pull off the ocarina solo featured in the song’s instrumental break.
The Velvelettes: “These Things Will Keep Me Loving You” – the final ‘60’s 45 release from Kalamazoo’s very own stars of Motown, this modest R’n’B hit – loaded with classic Hitsville touches, from a finger-snappin’ intro to catchy vocal harmonies in support of an arresting lead - should have found wider airplay, but with so much competition on the airwaves in the summer of ’66, it’s no wonder that it became a buried treasure waiting for discovery, along with so many other worthy single sides from this period, by music lovers today… and forever.
I've discovered some of my favorite music and artists from watching television. When songs play in the background or at the start or end of a show, I often search for the lyrics online to find the name of the song and the performing artist. This has served me well. House and Fringe (as well as various commercials) have provided insight to artists and performers such as Massive Attack, Damien Rice, Editors, Langhorne Slim, and Ryan Adams.
When watching a recent episode of NCIS, Cote de Pablo's character, Ziva David, was singing Temptation--a Tom Waits creation. So, in true form, I went online to search for it to see where I could find a version of her singing it (beautiful rendition!). And, that is when I found that NCIS has two soundtracks available. I was able to easily check these two CDs out through our MeL interlibrary loan system.
While I recognized artists such as Jakob Dylan, Otis Redding, Bob Dylan, Keaton Simmons, Sheryl Crow and Norah Jones, I was able to add artists such as Oasis, Blue October, and Sharon Little to my list of new folks to investigate.
NCIS: The Official TV Soundtrack
If you lived in Kalamazoo during the 1970s and listened to WIDR (WMU campus radio) you undoubtedly heard a lot of Gil Scott-Heron – like others I’m sure, that was my first exposure to this highly influential musician and poet. Scott-Heron is often described as “the godfather of rap” for his sharply pointed spoken word infused jazz and soul. In his 1970 single “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” his deep soulful voice—accompanied only by a steady drum beat—brought life the hot-button issue of racial inequality; not as a radical street preacher but as an articulate street-smart professor (he held a master’s degree in creative writing). His words were riveting and immediate. “The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox in four parts without commercial interruptions. The revolution will not give you sex appeal. The revolution will not make you look five pounds thinner, because the revolution will not be televised, Brother.”
He collaborated with many of the jazz heavyweights of his time – Brian Jackson, Ron Carter, Hubert Laws to name a few and his influence is acknowledged by a generation of artists, from Kanye West and Public Enemy to Eminem. His work touched on a variety of social and political issues, including addiction (“The Bottle” - 1974), slavery (“Rivers of My Fathers” - 1973) and racial oppression (“Johannesburg” - 1976). In 1979, he joined other high profile artists in Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE) and contributed “We Almost Lost Detroit,” a poignant reminder of a close-by nuclear near-disaster in 1972.
In 2010, Scott-Heron released his fifteenth studio album, I’m New Here, to great critical acclaim. A track called “Where Did The Night Go” is highlighted here. Gil Scott-Heron passed away last Friday in New York after a brief illness. He was 62.
As a collector and (ahem) connoisseur of “underground” Bob Dylan recordings since the 1970s, I was of course thrilled with the official (and thankfully ongoing) release of The Bootleg Series. Now nine volumes and counting, these releases represent the hidden side of Dylan’s work – especially during the early years. Akin to browsing through an artist’s sketchbook, these recordings give us a fresh glimpse at Dylan’s writing and recording process and a chance to hear otherwise lost performances.
As an addendum to this historic series, Columbia has just released the stand-alone version of Bob Dylan In Concert - Brandeis University 1963, a previously unreleased and seemingly un-bootlegged early live set.
On May 10, 1963 – 48 years ago today – Bob Dylan performed at the Brandeis First Annual Folk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts, just two weeks before the release of his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. A seven inch reel-to-reel tape recording of Dylan’s performance that day sat tucked away on a shelf in Rolling Stone magazine co-founder Ralph J. Gleason’s home for more than four decades.
Recently discovered, these recordings represent a glimpse of how Dylan sounded while he was still touring the small clubs and coffee houses on the brink of fame. Michael Gray, author of The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, calls this “the last live performance we have of Bob Dylan before he becomes a star... way back when Kennedy was President and the Beatles hadn’t yet reached America.”
So how does it sound? In a word… amazing. Bob… his guitar… his harmonica… and seven audible slices of 1963. The version of “Masters of War” is alone worth the effort.
Bob Dylan in Concert
It’s amazing how some artists are able to reveal their true selves on stage, while others simply go through the motions.
Back about 1978 or so, Phoebe Snow performed at WMU’s East Ballroom (today’s Bernhard Center) in what appeared to be another case of a big time star giving an obligatory concert in a smallish market. She was singing, but that was about it. It was clear that she just wasn’t feeling it.
Phoebe’s career was still riding high at that point... she had a HUGE hit with Poetry Man in 1974 and a cover story in Rolling Stone magazine a year later. I assumed that she could probably care less about Kalamazoo… get in, get through it, and get back to the real world on the East Coast.
After plodding through a couple of songs, Phoebe stopped and apologized to the audience for her lack of enthusiasm. It seems her best friend was in the hospital back East at that very moment having a baby. Phoebe admitted that her body was on stage in Kalamazoo but her mind was clearly with her friend far away. Well, at least she was being honest. The show continued.
During the middle of the very next song, a stage hand came out and whispered something in her ear. Phoebe stopped the song immediately and jumped and screamed, “It’s a girl!”
With that, the veil was lifted and a very different Ms. Snow took the stage. Expressive, exuberant, entertaining; the mundane became magnificent! I had yet to see (and have seldom since seen) a performer so genuinely reveal her true “self” to an audience.
I will always remember that show… and appreciate how Phoebe allowed a small audience in Kalamazoo to be part of a very special moment in her life. And that, I guess, created a very special moment in ours.
Phoebe Snow passed away Tuesday in Edison, New Jersey, due to complications caused by a brain hemorrhage she suffered a year ago. She was 60.
I cannot get the first track of Adele’s new album 21 out of my head. “Rolling in the Deep” is soulful and catchy, and one of those songs you want to sing along to while driving in the car. Adele is a British singer, who at age 22 has already made huge waves in the pop charts—it’s no wonder, her voice is amazing. The album as a whole is a little uneven; it starts out strong but loses energy in the middle due to a few slow, uninspired ballads right in a row. The end of the album picks up a bit with a unique take on the Cure’s “Lovesong.” All in all, it’s definitely worth a listen.
Swedish songsmith Jens Lekman writes with an oddball flare yet pens some of contemporary music’s most bubbly and accessible songs. Lekman’s English delivery springs from a rich baritone that echoes the work of Stephin Merritt and Jonathan Richman, both of whom, Lekman borrows from liberally when constructing his use of deadpan phrasing and droll tales about life’s follies and love’s pitfalls. The songs draw their influence from a wide range of sources including early 70’s soul, strings-laden baroque pop, and Mexican folk music while tossing in the occasional sample. His 2007 release Night Falls Over Kortedala is truly an internationally inspired work fused together in such a way as to be seamlessly perfect. Fans of Magnetic Fields, Belle and Sebastian, 70’s Motown and The Modern Lovers will enjoy Lekman’s sunny gems.
Night Falls Over Kortedala
Kalamazoo’s local music scene these days is diverse and richly vibrant. One look at the Gazette’s Ticket supplement and you’ll find everything from talented local amateurs to nationally known superstars performing in dozens of different venues across the area, even Kalamazoo Public Library!
But has Kalamazoo always had this kind of passion for music? You might be surprised!
If you’re like me, you wonder what popular entertainment sounded like in Kalamazoo a century or even a century-and-a-half ago. What instruments were being played? What music was being played? Who was playing it, and where?
Admittedly, there isn’t a CD called “Early Kalamazoo Music” (yet!), but All About Kalamazoo History, KPL’s aptly titled collection of Local History essays, has a wealth of information on that very topic. Check the newly created Music category, and you’ll find articles about everything from Kalamazoo’s very first band (formed in 1837 shortly after Kalamazoo—then Bronson Village—was established) right through the Ragtime Era at the end of the nineteenth century and into the Jazz Age of the early 1920s. There’s information about Kalamazoo’s leading music organizations, the early dance bands, the musical leaders, and some of the local performers who “made it big.” Learn about the early efforts to establish the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, and discover the various local businesses that grew up around the music industry. There’s even an article about “That Gal from Kalamazoo.”
So dig in, you’ll never know what you might find.
Kalamazoo Ragtime Music