Staff Picks: Music
I just love the sedate, retro vibe of the soundtrack to the oddball film Beginners; the Mike Mills directed roman a clef about his relationship with his widowed father. Old blues and jazz from the 1920’s (Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith, Hoagy Carmichael, and Josephine Baker) are prominently featured as well as a French horn driven suite by J.S. Bach. Interfiled between the throwback gems are several touching, original scores by Dave Palmer and Roger Niell. The back and forth tone of the film, from light hearted to melancholic, are sensibly reflected in this quirky collection. Oh, and by the way, check out the movie. It appears on our Best of 2011 list.
Beginners [sound recording] : the original motion picture soundtrack
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
One of the overlooked treasures in our music collection is our movie and television soundtracks. We have an excellent collection that represents some of the legendary composers (Philip Glass, John Barry, John Williams, Itzhak Perlman, Quincey Jones, Thomas Newman, Ennio Morricone) from the past, those who have been working for some time and the inventive scores being produced from contemporary musicians that straddle both the world of film scoring and their own personal works (Jonny Greenwood, Jon Brion, Danny Elfman, Yann Tiersen, Randy Newman). Here are some of my favorite albums from the collection.
Good Bye Lenin by Yann Tiersen
Midnight Cowboy by John Barry
Schindler’s List by Itzhak Perlman and John Williams
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind by Jon Brion
The Hours by Philip Glass
Out of Africa by John Barry
Twin Peaks by Angelo Badalamenti
Good bye lenin
One can only imagine the number of people who’ll be reliving their first dance as bride and groom, or remembering a special prom night, as they listen to Bryan Adams perform some of his best-known ballads during a special acoustic performance tonight at the State Theater.
Though the Canadian singer-songwriter’s initial leather-jacketed rocker image was well suited for stadium anthems such as “Cuts Like a Knife” and “Run to You”, the popularity of his breakthough hit “Straight from the Heart” was a sign that music fans would treasure his ballads most of all. No one anywhere near a radio in 1991 (or at many a wedding reception in the years since) could escape hearing his biggest hit, the Grammy-winning “(Everything I Do) I Do it for You” (written for the film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), in heavy rotation. While his musical repertoire encompasses much more than slow-dance classics (1983’s power-poppy “This Time” is a guilty pleasure of mine), it’s his love songs that ensure his musical legacy will endure.
Speaking of legacies – Adams’ reputation as a world-class photographer is growing, and his philanthropic work through his Bryan Adams Foundation has helped millions in the international community. Heard in light of this philanthropy, the meanings of his love songs move from the personal to the universal – so tonight, joining a live audience to hear, and maybe sing along with, those classic ballads, should make for a special moment to join with others that Adams’ music has already scored for so many.
The Best of Me
It’s been half a century since a plane carrying musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J. P. Richardson (aka “the Big Bopper”), and pilot Roger Peterson crashed in an Iowa cornfield, killing all aboard the flight. February 3, 1959, has become known as “the day the music died”, due in no small part to Don McLean’s 1971 hit “American Pie”, which lamented rock history’s strange twists and turns in the wake of those rock pioneers’ deaths.
The music never really died, though. While many of rock’s originators fell off the charts in the years immediately following that fateful flight, they never fell out of favor with fans who kept the spirit of the original rock'n'roll sound alive. Many of those fans began their own bands, most notably the leading lights of the British Invasion, who acknowledged their idols’ influence (and in the case of the Rolling Stones’ cover of Holly’s “Not Fade Away”, had a hit) and infused rock ‘n’ roll with a new vitality. Film bios of Holly and Valens turned up decades after their passing, and were huge box office sensations. Holly was among the very first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Today’s youngest rock fans might have more to learn about these rock pioneers than those of us who grew up with them on our radios and in our record collections, but their impact on today’s rock – no matter how different it looks and sounds from the original source - can’t be denied. In fact, Buddy Holly showed up on the Juno soundtrack not so long ago, and he sounded right at home alongside Kimya Dawson and Belle and Sebastian. Living proof... the music survives.
The Buddy Holly Story
In 1961 - the year President Obama was born - Etta James scored a huge crossover hit with “At Last”, a ballad that had been written in the 1940’s for the film Orchestra Wives, and had been covered by numerous crooners before “Peaches” made her version the definitive reading.
James’ hit version was recorded for Chess, the legendary record label headquartered in the city in which Barack Obama would later begin his political career. The Chess story was dramatized (and fictionalized) for the 2008 film Cadillac Records. In one scene, Etta James - played by Beyoncé Knowles - wows the Chess staff with her rendition of the song that would send her star soaring.
During Obama's first inaugural ball, Beyoncé encored her spot-on cover of this romantic classic as our new president and First Lady Michelle danced in celebration. It didn't matter that the musical moment was taking place in Washington, D.C. - it was Chicago casting its spell over all those taking part in the moment.
Not surprisingly, in the time I've worked at the library, I've become a much more regular library patron than I used to be, particularly for print materials. Only recently however, have I begun to take more frequent advantage of KPL's growing music collection. My own taste in music has always been somewhat electic and I love being able to check out a CD by an artist I haven't heard before to decide if it's something I would be interested in purchasing. I've also enjoyed reading on this blog about what my colleagues are listening to and I look forward to checking out some of their recommendations. In fact, I was happy to see that one or two of my own favorites have already been the subject of previous posts on this blog. Right now, my own playlist includes: The Weepies, Shelby Lynne, Fall Out Boy, Darius Rucker, Alison Krauss, Fleet Foxes, Jason Mraz, Neil Diamond (it's a blast from my past listening to him again!), Regina Spektor, and an occasional Broadway soundtrack.
Another good way to learn about new music is by subscribing to NPR's Song of the Day.
Say I Am You
My first encounter with the American composer Philip Glass was several years ago and honestly, one of shock and awe. Clearly, at the time, I wasn’t ready for his brand of repetitive music structures strung together with an odd assortment of instrumentation and vocal textures. Now several years later, Glass’ eerily minimalist symphonies, hauntingly beautiful film scores (The Hours, Kundun, Fog of War), Eastern inflected rhythms, and evocative ensemble compositions have become some of my favorite classical tracks to listen to.
John Adams is another wonderful composer whose work I’ve recently embraced. His music is often thrown under the heading “minimalism” along with Glass and notable avant-garde musicians Stephen Reich and Terry Reily. Adams’ music, like Glass’ work, tends to generate its melodic color from alterations or subtle tweaking of a foundational harmony. Both deeply expressive and at times jarringly dark, Adams' music has been both widely honored and praised for its humanist themes and boundary-expanding nature.
The Dharma at Big Sur