Thursday, May 22, 2014

Review: Tori Amos, Unrepentant Geraldines

Tori Amos is back with her first pop release since 2009's Abnormally Attracted to Sin.  Since then, she made a seasonal album, Midwinter Graces; the impressive Night of Hunters with reworkings of classical pieces; and wrote the music for the London stage production The Light Princess.

Unrepentant Geraldines draws some of its inspiration from paintings, but otherwise does not strain conceptually, as she has a tendency to do (American Doll Posse, anyone?).  Tori is now 50, and aging is a theme of the album, bluntly faced in "16 Shades of Blue" ("There are those who say / I am now too old to play").  She addresses a long-term romantic relationship in "Wedding Day" and "Wild Way."

Tori's 13-year-old daughter Tash (short for Natashya) first sang on Midwinter Graces, then on Night of Hunters.  Here, they duet on "Promise," in which they offer assurances that they will be there for each other.  It is a touching song, although Tash has now styled her vocals in an R&B-inspired way that can be distracting.

Tori has long drawn inspiration from mythology of all kinds, and the beautiful song "Selkie" references a Scottish myth of a creature that lives as a seal in the sea and a human on land.  Standout "Oysters" showcases equally dexterous piano and vocals.  This goosebumps-inducing song is right up there with the best output of her career.  Tori describes the song as being "about a woman trying to work through a lifetime of memories to find out who she really is."  She sings, "I'm working my way back to me again."

This is a notably stripped-down album, with Tori's keys and vocals at the forefront.  All other instrumentation is generated by her sound engineer husband Mark Hawley.  The album would have benefited from other musicians on the tracks that include more than her vocals and piano.  However, the strength of Tori's musicianship relegates this to more of a minor issue.  Basically, I'm left to marvel at the great songs that she continues to produce.

Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Book to film: Silver Linings Playbook

Both the book and film versions of Silver Linings Playbook are great, but the book is better.  The voice of the male protagonist, Pat, nails a particular kind of poignant humor in the book that the movie, with Pat portrayed by Bradley Cooper, does not fully accomplish.  And to be fair, that may be because the movie is limited to two hours, and Pat cannot get as much of his voice in there as in the book.

Pat is a former high school history teacher who has just been let out of a mental institution and released to the care of his mother.  In the movie, he has been there for several months.  In the book, he believes he's only been on the inside for a few months when in fact he has been there for four years.  He plans on reconciling with his estranged wife, Nikki, and devotes his time to trying to become the man she always wanted.  Meanwhile, he's being pursued by a troubled woman named Tiffany.

The selective liberties that the script takes from the novel are basically fine.  In terms of how I saw the characters in my mind's eye, the movie came up short, but one casting choice that ended up fitting was Jennifer Lawrence.  I didn't have trouble buying her as Tiffany for one minute.  Whether you have read the book or not, you will likely agree that she steals the show.

The Silver Linings Playbook is Matthew Quick's debut novel.  His second book, The Good Luck of Right Now, is also good.  It has significant similarities to its predecessor:  a teetering-on-loserdom male protagonist/narrator who tries to make his way in life in the wake of a life-changing development; both female love interests are very emotionally damaged; and the male protagonist's voice displays the same kind of poignant humor.  Going forward, Quick would be wise to distance himself somewhat from that voice so he does not pigeonhole himself as a writer.  Yet this is my only real criticism of his books, both of which are great reads.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Review: Jim Henson: The Biography, by Brian Jay Jones

If you love the Muppets, as I do, here's a good book for you.  At about 500 pages, this is a thorough biography, but it does not drag; Jim Henson lived a full life in his 53 years.  This book is especially fun to read in tandem with Imagination Illustrated: The Jim Henson Journal.  In addition to combing through archival material, Brian Jay Jones spoke with people close to Henson both personally and professionally.

Born in 1936, Jim Henson grew up in Mississippi through his early teens, and then his family moved to Maryland. He plunged into puppetry at age 18 by answering a television station's job posting. His future collaborator, head writer Jerry Juhl, explains, "Jim wasn't a puppeteer.  He got into puppetry because it was a way of getting into television and film . . . that was really his passion" (109).  As it turned out, of course, he was talented in both the design and performance of puppets.

At the same time, he enrolled at the University of Maryland and studied design.  He met Jane Nebel in a college puppetry class, and recruited her to work with him as a puppeteer for the television station.  They would later marry and have five talented children:  Lisa, Cheryl, Brian, John, and Heather.  Jim and Jane had a hit segment with Sam and Friends, and Jim also produced television commercials. They moved to New York in early 1963, and soon settled in a house in Greenwich, CT.  Jane, though having cofounded her husband's company, did not continue performing.  Jim's recruit Frank Oz "thought he understood why Jane had gotten out of regular performing, for reasons that went beyond motherhood.  'A great puppeteer needs to be aggressive and selfish,' Oz said--qualities, he thought, the artsier Jane lacked" (115).

We learn about Henson's first characters, including which Muppets appeared early on.   Although Kermit was the first of the Muppet characters to be conceived, Rowlf first resonated with audiences as a strong character through his appearances on The Jimmy Dean Show.  Kermit started as a turquoise puppet that wasn't any particular animal.  "'We frogified him,' Jim said later, only slightly lamenting the loss of the abstraction.  'He just slowly became a frog'" (93).  Jim explained about Kermit that he "is the closest one to me.  He's the easiest to talk with.  He's the only one who can't be worked by anybody else, only by me.  See, Kermit is just a piece of cloth with a mouthpiece in it.  The character is literally my hand" (163).

Ernie and Bert were the premier characters Henson came up with for the children's television show Sesame Street in 1969.  Says Frank Oz, who took over Bert, "The design was so simple and pure and wonderful.  You had somebody who is all vertical and somebody who is all horizontal'" (143).  Said Henson of Sesame Street, "Kids love to learn, and the learning should be exciting and fun.  That's what we're out to do" (167).

The Muppet Show, pitched to major networks in the U.S., ultimately was funded by Lew Grade, who approached Henson to produce the program for his ATV Associated Television franchise in the UK.  The show lasted for five seasons consisting of 120 episodes which were first broadcast in Britain between 1976 and 1981.  The show was recorded at ATV's Elstree Studios just north of London.  Henson split his time between the two countries, establishing the Creature Shop in London in addition to his company headquarters in New York City.  Some tension grew between the two locations' employees, who sought Henson's attention and approval.

1979's The Muppet Movie was a hit, and created the demand for future movies starring the Muppets.  Henson was more interested after the first Muppet movie in exploring other creative visions.  His movie projects The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, Jones posits, suffered from sacrificing story for visuals, which were what Henson was really interested in.  Indeed, he said, "I guess I've always been most intrigued by what can be done with the visual image.  I feel that is what is strongest about the work I do " (331-32).

Although The Dark Crystal made a good profit, for Henson "it was about vision and inspiration, and the fact that audiences didn't or couldn't appreciate it hurt him terribly" (348).  He explained that The Dark Crystal "was a huge undertaking--a vision I had, and one which ultimately has helped to carry our art form to a more sophisticated and technically advanced stage.  The most important thing, however, is to love what you're doing and to go after those visions, no matter where they lead" (351).

Labyrinth, however, only grossed $12 million on its $25 million budget.  Said Henson, "I was stunned and dazed for several months trying to figure out what went wrong--where I went wrong" (390).  "Labyrinth was 'absolutely the closest thing to him,' said Jane, the one in which he had invested most of his creative capital--and to have audiences reject it felt to Jim like they were rejecting him personally" (391).  It seems, though, that these two movies have gained greater appreciation from viewers over time.

Henson did not much separate his work life from his personal life.  He said, "I love my work and because I enjoy it, it doesn't really feel like work.  Thus I spend most of my time working" (291).  He found most of his expressiveness through his work as well:  "I live kind of within myself as a person, so my outlet has always been the Muppets; therefore, I tend to do sort of wildly extroverted characters" (163).  His marriage to Jane apparently suffered from a lack of communication on his part.  Their marriage would crumble into a separation, but despite this and the fact that Jim then dated a lot, a bond remained between them.

Sadly, John Henson, Jim's fourth child, died of a heart attack two days ago, on February 14, 2014.  He was 48 years old.  John was also a puppeteer and performed the ogre Sweetums following the death of Richard Hunt in 1991. He served as a shareholder and board member of The Jim Henson Company.  His mother, Jane Henson, died less than a year ago, in April, 2013, of cancer at age 78.

Jim Henson had an interest in spirituality and possessed faith in goodness and all things being interconnected.  He embraced optimism as a guiding principle in his life.  "Simply, Jim Henson's greatest legacy will always be Jim himself:  the way he was, and the way he encouraged and inspired others to be--the simple grace and soft-spoken dignity he brought to the world . . . as well as his faith in a greater good that he believed he and his fellow inhabitants of the globe were capable of" (487).

I like that the book's blurb about the author includes:  "His favorite Muppet is Rowlf (thanks for asking)."  Mine is Janice.  Which Muppet is your favorite?

Janice

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Review: Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir, by Linda Ronstadt

Linda Ronstadt, a 2014 inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, tells the story of her life in music in Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir.  Blessed with a powerful and distinctive singing voice, she was the first woman to have four platinum albums in a row.  I remember as a child sifting through my parents' record collection and one I especially liked was Ronstadt's 1977 album Simple Dreams.

She grew up in the Arizona desert, on a ranch outside Tucson, of mixed Anglo-Mexican heritage.  She was raised alongside three siblings and her father owned a hardware store.   She remembers a home life filled with music.  At age eighteen, she moved to Los Angeles to enter its music scene.

She worked on finding the people and the songs that would propel her forward in accordance with her creative vision.  She got her start with the folk-rock band the Stone Poneys and then began a solo career.  She wanted to be a country-rock artist, and not have to choose between the two genres, despite skepticism from label heads.  Later, she went on to explore the Great American Songbook and traditional Mexican folk songs.  "The Mexican shows were my favorites of my entire career," she says.  "After the surreal experience of being caught in the body-snatching machinery of the American celebrity juggernaut, I felt I was able to reclaim an essential part of who I was:  a girl from the Sonoran Desert" (179).

"People ask me why my career consisted of such rampant eclecticism, and why I didn't simply stick to one type of music," she says.  "The answer is that when I admire something tremendously, it is difficult not to try to emulate it.  Some of the attempts were successful, others not.  The only rule I imposed on myself, consciously or unconsciously, was to not try singing something that I hadn't heard in the family living room before the age of ten.  If I hadn't heard it by then, I couldn't attempt it with even a shred of authenticity" (200).

One of the best things about the book is reading about all of Ronstadt's collaborations, from onetime-backing band the Eagles to Neil Young to Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris to Aaron Neville.  "There is no right way to record. It is a matter of personal style," she says.  "When I recorded on Graceland with Paul Simon in the mid-1980s, he built his records a few tracks at a time, layering sound like the seventeenth-century Dutch painter Vermeer layered paint.  Neil [Young]'s work is more like a pen and ink drawing.  They are both masters" (101).  Of Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, she notes:  "We weren't trying to exploit the fact that we were three established names.  We wanted to do it because at our deepest level of instinct, we suspected musical kinship" (107).  She goes on to say that when she listens to her own recordings she nitpicks "because I will hear something I think I should have done better, but the sound that the three of us made together seemed altogether different from our individual sounds and could be listened to with a rare sense of objectivity" (108).

Despite being immersed in the drug-laden California music scene of the '70s, Ronstadt remained more about the music than many of her peers.  Allergic to alcohol, she did experiment with drugs, but emerged relatively unscathed.  As with the rest of her personal life, this topic is little touched on in the memoir.  She does say, though, "Cocaine sent me straight to the doctor with a bloody nose, which required cauterization.  While I was there, my doctor cheerfully explained to me that cocaine causes the cilia in the ear canal to lie down, and many never get up again.  This can cause permanent hearing loss.  As I recognized that my ears were an important item in my musical toolbox, it was the end of my interest in cocaine" (103).

She never married, and adopted two children who are now in their early 20's.  Ronstadt retired from performing in 2009.  Today, she is unable to sing due to Parkinson's disease.  In an interview with the New York Times, she says, "I have no choice.  If there was something I could work on, I'd work on it till I could get it back.  If there was a drug I could take to get it back, I would take the drug.  I'd take napalm.  But I'm never going to sing again."

Her two children "play instruments, have a lively and active interest in music, and use it to process their feelings in a private setting.  This is the fundamental value of music, and I feel sorry for a culture that depends too much on delegating its musical expression to professionals.  It is fine to have heroes, but we should do our own singing first, even if it is never heard beyond the shower curtain" (199).  In a TV snippet that I saw, she says she is a big proponent of joining a choir.  I love how she expresses the importance of embracing making music oneself and that it may seem like it's on a small scale but that it's really not.

Linda Ronstadt's book is refreshing in that it is just as it purports to be:  A Musical Memoir.  Readers who expect any dishing on her love life (such as her relationship with former CA governor Jerry Brown) will be disappointed.  As her upbringing and family informed her musical life, we do get to learn some about those aspects of her life, which helps us get to know her.  We emerge with a clearer sense of who Linda Ronstadt is:  a strong woman who just wanted to make a career out of her great love: singing.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Review: Johnathan Rice, Good Graces + Concert at Mercury Lounge + Meeting Conor Oberst

Good Graces is Johnathan Rice's first solo album since 2007's Further North.  In between, he collaborated with longtime girlfriend Jenny Lewis as Jenny and Johnny for the 2010 album I'm Having Fun Now (my quick review of that album is here).  Good Graces is a lot more reminiscent of that album than of Johnathan's other two solo albums:  it has that sun drenched California sound, and Jenny Lewis sings harmony on most of the tracks.  He also employs Z Berg and the Watson Twins; in an interview with Earbuddy, he says, "I'm addicted to singing with beautiful women, and I have no desire to get help."  The album has nine tracks and clocks in at about thirty minutes.  "I love short songs and short records," he notes.

Good Graces is also a departure from Johnathan's previous solo work in that many of the lyrics have to do with being in love.  In fact, the first two songs, "Acapulco Gold" and "My Heart Belongs to You" are love songs.  In an interview with LA Music Blog, Johnathan says, "'My Heart Belongs to You,' for me, is a milestone in my songwriting because of the honesty in it.  There are no barbs in it or trap doors you can fall down into.  It's a very honest love song, which didn't come naturally to me."

The title track brings Jenny to the fore more than elsewhere on the album; that is, it feels more like a duet on the chorus rather than simply backing vocals.  "I'm forgiven! I'm forgiven!  And it feels so good!" they sing on a song about reconciling.  And then he adds:  "I might do wrong just to feel it again."

This is definitely a likeable album.  "Lou Rider," for example, is a catchy song; Johnathan says that it "has that title because the vocal is kinda Lou Reed and the groove is kinda Low Rider."  Still, I have a few issues with the album.  If you prefer your albums on the longer side (like I do) you will find it lacking in that regard.  Secondly, it seems like it's in between a Johnathan Rice album and a Jenny and Johnny album, as Jenny's vocals are nearly always present.  Then there's the fact that it's heavy on the loved-up lyrics--I would have liked a bit more variety.

I had not seen a solo show from Johnathan before.  I had seen him as part of Jenny Lewis's band during her Acid Tongue tour and then again during their tour as Jenny and Johnny (both times in New Haven, CT).  This time I headed to NYC's Mercury Lounge to catch him in concert  (plugged set) this past Monday.  He did a lot of new songs, of course, along with three apiece from I'm Having Fun Now and  Further North.  He didn't do any songs from his debut album Trouble is Real.  He opened the set with "Good Graces."

I figured certain songs would be off limits since they had vocals from Jenny Lewis that would be missed if they weren't included.  However, Johnathan didn't shy away from such songs and Jenny's vocals were often piped in--which underscored how much of a presence she was on the album and made it seem like she ought to be there in the flesh.  The backing track was an appropriate volume, though--not very loud.  Johnathan's vocals and musicianship are just as good live as they are recorded.

And for something cool and unexpected:  I met Conor Oberst!  I knew he and Johnathan Rice and members of his touring band were tight, but Conor happened to be in the crowd for this show.  Mercury Lounge has a capacity of 250 (fewer than that were in attendance), and I recognized him right away.  The small, low-key space made it seem like not a big deal to talk to him briefly.  I mostly just wanted to convey how much I liked his music.  I asked if he was working on a solo album and he said yes and I think he said something about putting it out at the end of the year.

In my short interaction with him, I appreciated how present he seemed.  His striking light-brown eyes had a calm and expressive look and he listened thoughtfully while I spoke.  To close the brief conversation, I said, "Keep doing what you're doing, love the music," and he replied, "Thanks darling."

Good Graces rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars

Johnathan Rice at Mercury Lounge, NYC, 9-23-13

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Gabrielle Bernstein has a lot of cool things to say

Gabrielle Bernstein is an author, life coach, and motivational speaker.  Perhaps you've heard of her as she's been featured by various media outlets from Oprah to the Wall Street Journal.  Her books are:  Add More ~ing to Your Life, Spirit Junkie, and May Cause Miracles.  She is a proponent and teacher of A Course in Miracles, a self-study metaphysical guide with universal spiritual themes which is published by the Foundation for Inner Peace.

I had seen reference to her book Spirit Junkie on a website I like, Tiny Buddha, and also came across it at work at the library when I pulled it for an interlibrary loan request.  So later on, I decided to check it out myself.  I loved it; it contains so many insights.  I think it is the best of her books.  A large part of what makes the book ring true is what Bernstein shares about her own struggle and growth:  she's lived it.

When she speaks of ~ing, she means an inner guide.  "Each of us has disconnected in some way from our relationship to love within," she says.  "And each of us has the power to reignite that connection"  (May Cause Miracles).  A big proponent of prayer and meditation, she includes specific meditations in her books.

The following two points particularly resonated with me.  "My first correspondence with my ~ing unconsciously came through in my journal . . . Feel free to ask your ~ing for help through your writing.  Trust me, you're being heard." (Spirit Junkie).  And from May Cause Miracles:  "Welcome all subtle shifts."

"The Course positions relationships as one of the most significant opportunities for us to learn and grow.  Through another person we can come to know ourselves," she says in Spirit Junkie.  Yet she cautions, "When we perceive that someone is more special than others, we're thinking with separation.  We've forgotten that we are all one, and we've hooked back into the ego's thought system of better-than and worse-than."

In Add More ~ing to Your Life, she talks about manifesting and says,  "When your desires are backed with loving intentions of the greater good, you will feel the presence of an inner knowledge that you're on the right track and everything is lined up."

I recommend Gabrielle Bernstein's books to those who are interested in spirituality or who are looking for their purpose, improvement, or fulfillment.  I look forward to more books from her in the future.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Review: Sara Bareilles, The Blessed Unrest

Sara Bareilles' new album, The Blessed Unrest, is influenced by her move from Los Angeles to New York.  She says that New York had always felt too overwhelming to her but that it now seems like an environment that she needed after all.  The idea of challenging oneself is probably the most important theme of the album.

The first track and single "Brave" is very poppy.  I wish Sara would do fewer poppy songs because she's a talented songwriter with great vocal facility and where she really shines has been with her ballads.  I am not suggesting that she should only do ballads, but for her more upbeat songs I wish she would get away from that kind of predictable, poppy sound.

"Hercules" is one of the best tracks--if not the best, and has piano chords reminiscent of those in Tori Amos' "Take to the Sky."  The theme of the song is about summoning extra strength.  Sara sings, "I'm on the hunt for who I've not yet become/But I'd settle for a little equilibrium."  I totally know what she means in terms of  earnestly pursuing your more evolved self but that in the meantime, why do you feel unsure and off balance?  She sings, "I have sent for a warrior/From on my knees, make me a Hercules/I was meant to be a warrior please/Make me a Hercules."  The theme of this song ties in nicely with that of "Brave."  "Hercules" hits the mark both sonically and lyrically.

"Manhattan" is a quiet ballad, piano and some horns.  Sara sings, "You can have Manhattan" and "Hang on to the reverie/Could you do that for me?/'Cause I'm just too sad to."  She realizes the good times spent there as a couple but can't quite bear to own them herself.  "1000 Times" is like "Hold My Heart" Part Two, a ballad with a plodding drumbeat and other instrumentation in addition to the piano:  since that was my favorite song off Sara's 2010 LP Kaleidoscope Heart, I promptly sent "1000 Times" into heavy replay.  "Satellite Call" bears some similarity to those songs but has more interesting things going on, particularly with her vocals.  The experimentation of this song is more what I think she should do than with "Eden" or "Cassiopeia," which I don't dislike but which both miss the mark a little bit.

Theme-wise, in addition to that of making courageous strides in life, there is one straight up love song, "I Choose You," and a few of the songs are about breakups or problems in romantic relationships (as were multiple songs on Kaleidoscope Heart).  Sara mostly plays to her strengths and this is a satisfying album.

Rating:  4 out of 5 stars