Friday, January 05, 2007

Music Review: Nellie McKay - Pretty Little Head

    There's a lotta things that I'm proud of in this world
    I got a pinch of Shirley Chisholm and a sprinkle of 'That Girl.'

    (“Mama & Me,” Pretty Little Head)
For sheer out-of-the gate gamut running, Get Away From Me, Nellie McKay’s dazzling and dizzying 2004 debut, displayed kaleidoscopic jazz-flavored pop smarts and well-wielded wit and wordplay embracing everything from cabaret, torch, biting hip-hop, and Doris Day-style dewy-eyed songcraft with a pinch of swing and a sprinkle of insincerity.

About all that didn’t get a try-out was yodeling, but McKay makes up for that oversight on her otherwise more uniform and long-delayed Pretty Little Head, which she ended up producing herself after a protracted dispute over direction and CD length led to Columbia letting her go. Releasing Pretty Little Head on her own Hungry Mouse label, a headstrong McKay showcases over two CDs 23 songs that, notwithstanding some diminishing returns, still put across an array of the expected eccentricities, self-effacing and acerbic quirks and vulnerabilities, and cause-related commentary.

But this time around, McKay, putting the first album’s precociousness behind her (when she was 19, or 21, depending on which conflicting facts you have at hand), has toned down the frenetic pace and constant pretty-little-head worry to an extent. Despite occasions in which someone is “coursing through my veins / Pulsing every pound / Panic on parade” (“I Am Nothing”), McKay realizes that she’s “supposed to have a laugh / And have a lot to say.” There's no cause for alarm, and after all, she sings languidly, “You’ve got a long and lazy river to your soul” (“Long and Lazy River”).

That may not be true for everyone, as the long and lazy river becomes at times a shallow tributary in which you’ll run aground. In the scathing “There You Are In Me,” McKay berates the “Selfish, stupid, so self-serious”:
    Every single thing will only bring another sad solution
    Every single hurt will only curse another substitution
    Everyone you meet secures a wretched seat within your memory
    Wipe their filthy feet upon the yearning of your soul
    There you are in me...

The activist spirit within McKay escapes the trappings of sloganeering heavy-handedness, whether or not you agree with her stances, by being conveyed in oblique language and subtle gradations. Satiric jabs and gentle sarcasm marks the salute to gay marriage in “Cupcake,” while the acidic incisiveness in “The Big One” addresses commercialism and tenant’s rights with the help of some traces of hip-hop vocalizing.

In addition, the gorgeously rendered “Gladd” honors peace activist Gladd Patterson, but “Columbia Is Bleeding,” about allegations of animal cruelty at Columbia University, is more barbed, the most caustic song on Pretty. Allusions to those who “Generalize, proselytize, verbs were spillin’ out their sides,” and deadpanned pretexts that “They're just animals / Make good edibles,” put across the message with mordant humor that is as pointed and consequential.

Overall, however, Pretty Little Head, which gets assistance on a couple tracks from k.d lang and Cyndi Lauper, is not as consequential, consistent or as risk-taking as the brash and bolder Get Away From Me. There are some undernourished songs, lyrically and musically, and at the other extreme the voiceover excess on "Mama & Me" should've been excised.

McKay’s production on Pretty, though promising, doesn't always sit pretty and is a bit gawky at times, though she did have a hard act to follow: Geoff Emerick, who worked with the Beatles, produced and engineered Get Away, an album I can listen to straight through and still be bedazzled by - song after song.

That doesn‘t seem to be the case with the slightly disappointing Pretty Little Head, and I’m beginning to see Columbia’s point of view that it should’ve been more cohesively pared down to 16 songs on one CD.

Then again, let me give that yodeling song another listen…

Vinyl Tap: Best Reissues of 2006

Pick your format. Remastered, Enhanced, Extended, Limited, Legacy, Deluxe, Dual Disc, Box Set, Special, Live, Essential, Best of, Anthologies, Greatest Hits, Retrospectives.

There's even "Sordid Sentinels."

I hope they're Assorted and Sundry Sordid Sentinels - somehow that would seem to make my list of 2006's best-revisited recordings something complete, and alliterative, to boot. Whatever the case, and whether in compilation or repackaged compact disc-incarnation, squeezed of all traces of once-ubiquitous vinyl, this special year-end edition of Vinyl Tap has by necessity RPM'd for present purposes into The Polycarbonate Plastic Tap Top 10:

1. The Pretenders [Original Recording Remastered]

Yes, they‘re the great Pretenders. “I was feeling kind of ethereal ’cause I’m precious…” Chrissie Hynde may have tongue in cheek and in check, but you don’t know the half of it. She declares on this 1980 release that “I Love Pretending,” but there’s not a lot of reading between the lines needed on one of the most absorbing and vigorous debut albums from anyone at any time, lyrically and musically. From the pointed “anger and lust my senses running amok” to the poignancy of seeking forgiveness from a child who doesn’t understand as “You’ve turned your head / You’ve dropped my hand,” Hynde runs an emotional gamut on the self-titled album’s widely-varying touchstones.

2. Al Green - The Belle Album

When Elvis Costello was once asked if he had ever had a religious experience, he responded, "No, but I have heard Al Green." Whether Costello was referring to Green’s early R&B hits or his later gospel-oriented songs, or both, the transitional Belle from 1977 could be a contender for either view. Coming along at a time of Green’s personal problems and religious re-conversion, this 1977 album bridges the gap from the sinewy sublimity of the soulful Willie Mitchell-produced recordings to albums more in line with his emerging role as an ordained pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle. As it turned out, the tracks on Belle comprise the best of both musical worlds.

3. Matthew Sweet - Girlfriend [Original Recording Remastered][Special Edition]

Love lost and love lumbering and lurching toward new possibilities makes for a bittersweet emotion that finds musical expression in the inherent tensions of Sweet’s most fully-realized album, a crisp and commanding poptopian masterwork. Irresistible harmony-bedecked vocal melodiousness lands fab foursquare in a Big Star-light, star bright soundscape, set off against the assertive bite and crunch of the front-and-center guitars of Richard Lloyd and the late Robert Quine.

4. The Byrds - There Is A Season [Box Set]

So you want to be a rock 'n' roll star? “Then listen now to what I say / Just get an electric guitar / Then take some time and learn how to play…” They make it seem so easy. Chances are, however, you can’t do it half as well as one of the most preeminent American Bands, the Byrds, musically or harmonically, in whatever of their incarnations. This 99-song box set chronologically sequences the history of the Byrds from their folk-rock flights to their influential countrified landing, and whether you’re hearing an old favorite that really never grows old, or a new-spin of an outtake or oddity, a Byrds’ LP or CD never seems too out of season for another turn, turn, turn.

5. Lucinda Williams - Car Wheels on a Gravel Road [Original Recording Remastered]

    Broken down shacks engine parts
    Could tell a lie but my heart would know
    Listen to the dogs barkin’ in the yard
    Car wheels on a gravel road...

As alternately sensuous and venomous as it is ever-vivid and evocative, the conscientious Williams’ remastered dual-disk deluxe edition of her masterfully crafted 1998 release, itself a laborious consequence of a revolving door series of producers, cities, and studios, almost seems like too much of a good thing, as if she’s out-perfected perfection - and in grand and glorious fashion.

6. Fats Waller - If You Got to Ask, You Ain't Got It! [Box Set] [Original Recording Remastered]

And if, after three discs and 66 songs of instrumental swing and striding and sly vocals, you still got to ask, you never will get it.

7. The dB's - Like This

The heart-surging “Love Is For Lovers” and the brooding “Lonely Is (As Lonely Does)” highlight a 1984 power-pop confection, Southern-style.

8. John Lee Hooker - Hooker [Box Set]

A comprehensive, career-spanning four-disc box set. For breadth and depth, things don’t get bluesier than this.

9. Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys - Legends Of Country Music [Box Set] [Original Recording Remastered]

With dance-floor style Western swing and its embrace of blues, jazz, country, and pop standards, this four-disc anthology shows why Wills distanced himself from the limitations of the “hillbilly” label.

10. Spoon - Telephono & Soft Effects [Enhanced]

Long lost Pixie-lated punk-pop from ‘96 and ‘97, jagged and jarring yet accessible and melodic.


Honorable Mentions:

Bangles - We Are The '80s

Beach Boys - Pet Sounds 40th Anniversary CD+DVD [ENHANCED] [LIMITED EDITION]

Captain Beefheart - Doc At The Radar Station [Original Recording Remastered]

The Cure - Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me [Original Recording Remastered]

Los Lobos - Wolf Tracks: the Best of Los Lobos

Roy Orbison - The Essential Roy Orbison [Original Recording Remastered]

Pavement - Wowee Zowee: Sordid Sentinels Edition

The Replacements - Don't You Know Who I Think I Was?: The Best of the Replacements

Sebadoh III

T Bone Burnett - Twenty Twenty: The Essential T Bone Burnett

That's Entertainment [BOX SET] [SOUNDTRACK]

The Early Word: New Books for the Week of January 1, 2007

With most of the bookstore shelf-stuffing timed for the seasonal shopping crowd that has pretty much come and gone by now, January is usually slim pickin’s for new releases, the first week even more so. But for those bound and determined to exchange those bound, indeterminately-given gifts, there are a few notable titles available this week that may fit the bill, especially for fiction.

Fiction:

The Cat Who Had 60 Whiskers by Lilian Jackson Braun

Cats may have nine lives, but you may be forgiven if you think they have more, and more whiskers still, as Braun’s 29th entry of her popular The Cat Who… mystery series chronicles a returning James Qwilleran and his novelistic felines, Koko and Yum Yum.

The Hunters: A Presidential Agent Novel by W.E.B Griffin

The Hunters marks the author’s third installment in his timely series. International intrigue abounds as U.N. oil-for-food bureaucrats and armed, black-clad "Ninjas" figure. So go figure.

The Sweet Potato Queens' First Big-Ass Novel: Stuff We Didn't Actually Do, But Could Have, and May Yet by Jill Conner Browne

Promises some big-ass chick-lit empowerment and ribaldry of the page-turner variety.

When Darkness Falls by James Grippando

A tense hostage crisis in Miami drives the action in Grippando's sixth thriller to feature criminal defense lawyer Jack Swyteck. This one centers on hostages, hush money, and the ever-present Miami vice.

Non-Fiction:

The Proper Care and Feeding of Marriage by Laura Schlessinger

For those whose New Year's resolutions included subjecting yourself to browbeating sanctimony…

BOOK REVIEW: Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra

“Do you like detective movies?” The main character in the audacious and sprawling Sacred Games asks another. “Only Hollywood movies. Our Indian ones are so badly made,” comes the answer. “But sometimes the Indian ones get things right also.”

That goes for novels as well. While there may be no hurrays for Bollywood forthcoming in Vikram Chandra’s newest work of masterfully crafted fiction, and though it may resemble, on the surface and in sense, an outsourced American-style police procedural, there is much more going on. The multi-layered strata of characters and details are only hinted at in the first drop-in-the-bucket chapters of this gritty and grounded epic, reminiscent of voluminous and character-rich nineteenth-century serial literature as much as modern day hardboiled crime capers.

Still, this tale of modern-day gumshoes and gurus is, in some regards, a departure for Chandra from the magical realism of his heralded 1995 debut, Red Earth and Pouring Rain. The A Thousand and One Nights-style storytelling -- 1997’s Love and Longing in Bombay collection of interconnected stories is framed by its own Scheherezade -- is pervaded with an impressionistic fusion of Indian myth, Hindu gods, fantasy and the workaday world. But Chandra has cast off any phantasmagoric flights of fancy in Sacred Games, retaining the nuanced intricacies, wide-ranging plotlines and high-definition characters in a cohesive and down-to-earth realization of Sacred Games’ kaleidoscopic and episodic style and structure.

In the book’s intertwining accounts of a seemingly jaded Sikh police inspector and a notorious Hindu gangster, it’s an all-encompassing realization, too, with ambiguities and events centering on a multitude of sins and incidents from cat-and-mouse games to a potentially catastrophic cloak-and-dagger gambit with no clean breaks or exit strategies. After all, as one Intelligence officer says on his deathbed, "The game lasts, the game is eternal, the game cannot be stopped, the game gives birth to itself."

The central game, the core storyline of Sacred Games, is set in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) and unfolds with our introduction to detective Sartaj Singh, alternately cynical and romantic, past forty, divorced and world-weary. Moreover, because “Justice had sometimes to be manipulated into being properly blind,” he is resigned but still ambivalent to the system of institutionalized bribery and police brutality.

With such pragmatism -- or rationalization -- in tow, Sartaj gets an anonymous tip that leads to the hide-out of the notorious underworld gangster Ganesh Gaitonde, a Hindu Bhai who "dallied with bejeweled starlets, bankrolled politicians" and whose "daily skim from Bombay's various criminal dhandas was said to be greater than annual corporate incomes."

In a rather bizarre scene, Sartaj confronts Gaitonde as the mob boss sits inside an odd shell-like bunker, presumably impenetrable - that is until Sartaj, tired of chewing the philosophic fat and the back-and-forth taunting, calls for a huge bulldozer that doesn’t have a lot of problem gaining access. Gaitonde barely has time to commit suicide, after also killing a mysterious woman who was also, unknowingly to Sartaj, inside the bunker.

The mystery of the woman's identity has possible links to and sets in motion a long and at times meandering series of events with twists and turns that have their own twists and turns, and that ebb and flow along with disparate and sometimes relevant subplots. Meanwhile, Sartaj also juggles more mundane but personally profitable domestic disputes, blackmail, thievery, and other lesser crimes and misdemeanors.

But the actions of Gaitonde, detailed in interposed chapters, can’t remain too long on the back-burner - and the retelling of his power-grabbing ambitions and more benign and humanizing endeavors does more than fill in the narrative gaps. Gaitonde's rise within organized crime -- his arms dealing, infiltration of Bollywood and relationship with a movie star, his confrontations with his Muslim rival and associaton with a crafty guru bent on an apocalyptic calling -- all serve a larger purpose.

In addition to his bunker-mate’s feasible connection to “rabid extremists promising annihilation,” such undertakings also leave a trail that points to Gaitonde’s knowing, or unwitting, involvement with terrorist activity and big-scale bombing plans.

As Sartaj is pulled further into Indian Intelligence investigations of a portending disaster “that didn‘t announce itself and act in predictable ways,” so is the reader. Not only to the sequence of events and low-boil suspense -- Sacred Games is too expansive to be an all-nighter page-turning potboiler -- but also to the emotional and psychological toll taken on Sartaj as life, love, and career increasingly converge with a dead don’s plans that too slowly emerge at a rate outpaced by the race-against-time dread and apprehension.

“In this Gaitonde affair,” Chandra writes, “there would be no justice, no redemption. There was only a hope for some partial explanation of what had happened, and this creeping fear. Sartaj was afraid now, he truly was.”

And really, the attempts at solution and accounts of free-floating trepidation barely scratches the surface of a full-bodied and multifaceted story. With 900-pages (in need of some discerning editing), Sacred Games is a story with a lot of breathing room for the capaciousness of well-considered and deliberated delineations and subtleties, replete with uncertainty and doubt, happenstance and hope. Such breadth and depth allows Chandra to link the novel to a wide array of societal issues and philosophic observations, including the inextricable relationships to caste and religion, poverty, and the entrenched criminal element.

It’s also a true-to-life complexity reflecting, as Chandra declares in an interview, the author’s emphasis on “the grey areas between ‘good’ and ‘bad’” and his interest in “the incidentals, in the texture and mood that is revealed when somebody is narrating his or her own life as they see it. Often the lies they tell us are as revealing as the truths they are willing to reveal to you.”

In regards to characterization, Chandra also perceives the intriguing and often paradoxical Sartaj Singh, the detective who first made an appearance in one of Love and Longing’s stories, in such an extensively dimensional fashion, as a vehicle for further exploration and insight. “He’s cynical and reflective and yet hopeful,” the author says, “And a policeman is an interesting protagonist; he allows you to move across a culture sideways and vertically.”

Such novelistic latitude and attention to detail is not only employed to flesh out the warts-and-all characterization of Sartaj and the not-all-warts depiction of Gaitonde. While the conscientious care Chandra takes in Sacred Games may be business as usual in the aim to explicate the complexities of the main characters -- the poignancy of the once-dashing Sartaj’s regrets and sense of lost opportunities is effectively conveyed -- it is more unusual for that same craftsmanship to be applied to the many secondary characters. Going beyond any shorthand stereotyping or safe-target caricatures, Chandra presents, for example, an ultimately sympathetic portrayal of an affluent, pampered wife cheating on her husband. And the outward animosity displayed toward Sartaj by the son of his slain partner is unflinching, Sartaj's rumination unsparing.

Not that Chandra -- with the resonance and elegance and, at times, economy of his writing -- needs to belabor or expend too many words to put across the full vulnerability and humanity of his characters, and the challenges of the lives they lead. At one point, Sartaj thinks about “how uncanny an animal this life was, that you had to seize it and let go of it at the same time, that you had to enjoy it but also plan, live every minute and die every moment.”

Actions may speak louder from time to time, but Chandra’s words cut to the heart of many matters as they, too, “get things right.”

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Vinyl Tap: Mott The Hoople - Brain Capers

I get a new turntable and dust off some old records. Vinyl Tap #32:

Bowie!? We don’t need no stinkin’ Bowie!

It’s an affirmation of sorts that -- with such classics as Mott and The Hoople -- was certainly evident in the post-All The Young Dudes era of Mott the Hoople’s career after the invaluable David Bowie-orchestrated commercial resuscitation got them back on the radio and record store radar.

But in 1971, a year before Dudes, the group realized the zenith of their early period with the rough-edged and raucous Brain Capers. With no trace of sonic flat-lining anywhere amid the jolting spittle and spirit, the wailing snarl of Ian Hunter’s vocals contends with -- and tries not to get drowned out by -- the front-and-center instrumentation comprised in a big boost of energized Blonde on Blonde-style organ and Mick Ralphs’ propulsive and bristling guitar.

As the madcap chaos and ferociousness of the lead-off “Death May Be Your Santa Claus” promises, if not threatens, the resultant nothing-to-lose push-and-shove sounds like each Mott-top was “Really mad at this outrage” as they advance an unsettling and all-embracing outlook “From the good to the bad to the ugly change.” And it's not a question of if - but when: after all, “How long, how long ‘fore you realize that all’s strange?”

Not that life has to be without healing and solace, as Mott The Hoople takes a detour with seemingly surprising covers of Dion’s “Your Own Backyard” and the Youngbloods’ “Darkness, Darkness,” with the plea to “Fill the emptiness of right now.”

Which Hunter & Company themselves proceed to do -- and then some -- when they get especially back on track with a couple of Full Motty, and foreshadowing, tracks. The nine-minute keyboard-driven “The Journey” prefigures, structurally and thematically, such anthemic grand statements as “Ballad of Mott The Hoople (26th March 1972, Zürich),” and “Ships,” from Hunter’s stellar solo work from 1979, You're Never Alone With a Schizophrenic.

On a more celebratory note, the manic and swaggering “Sweet Angeline” recalls Mott’s “All The Way From Memphis” as much as it does Dylan. But lyrically, it's capable of belying such joyousness; when Hunter entreats, "Oh rescue me or bury me, for I care not what you do / There is just one thing that I want to say, am I really you?" - it evokes one of Hunter’s most poignant songs (also from Mott), the gorgeous and melancholic “I Wish I Was Your Mother.”

Much more ominously, the penultimate “The Moon Upstairs,” suggesting Chuck Berry as channeled by Deep Purple, relates some unhinged episodes of insanity when “I hated them and they hated me and I hated everything," so “they let my body go / But they locked away my brain”:

    And my head is down and I’m called a clown by comedians that grace
    The living stage of every page of worthless meaningless space
    But I swear to you before we're though you’re gonna feel our every blow
    We ain’t bleeding you were feeding you but you’re too fucking slow

    And to those of you who always laugh
    Let this be your epitaph.

But let the two-minute toss-off that closes the album, “Wheel of the Quivering Meat Conception,” be Brain Caper’s epitaph as it succinctly, if in slapdash fashion, sums up the preceding listening experience, whether expressly or in sense:
    This has been
    The Mott the Hoople
    Light Orchestra, who’ve been
    Playing some goodies
    And some newies
    And some oldies
    And some filthies
    And some weirdies
    And some queries
    Just for you…

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Vinyl Tap: Paul and Linda McCartney - Ram

I get a new turntable and dust off some old records. Vinyl Tap #31:

The wondrous new Beatles-inspired and inspirited Love album, by virtue of George Martin’s production, escapes most charges of a "Hooked-on-the-Beatles-Classics" medley misstep (although I think “While My Orchestra Gently Weeps” would lend itself better to, oh say, a guitar!). The mash-ups and snippets intermingled with some of the Beatles best, both early and late era, for the most part work to great effect. I can see the resourcefully imaginative Martin relishing the idea of this project, perhaps having, in addition to the doubtless serendipitous impulses that cropped up, some of those resultant musical concurrences in mind for years.

Though the segue-heavy Love may conjure up for some Martin’s studio wizardry on Sgt. Pepper or the sweeping clearinghouse second side of Abbey Road, I can’t help but also make kaleidoscopic comparisons, though of a lesser sonic sheen, with Paul McCartney’s second solo album, Ram. The 1971 release is ear candy all the way, sometimes silly love songs for certain as McCartney enjoys the rewards of a happy family life on that Scottish sheep farm deep in the “Heart of the Country” (“Want a horse, I want a sheep / I wanna get me a good night's sleep” -- and with a bouncy confection like this, who would begrudge him that one-time contentment?).

But even though there are no profound lyrical statements being made on Ram, the sheer fun emanating from the grooves is infectious, whether it be found in the tuneful two-minute snippets (“Ram On,” “Dear Boy”) that wouldn’t have been out of place on the ramshackle first solo LP, or discovered amid the mini-suite pop gems such as the hit "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey.” The more full-bodied and produced rockers, furthermore -- such as “Smile Away” and “Monkberry Moon Delight” -- finds McCartney giving his myriad vocal intonations a helter-skelter work-out.

It is Ram’s exhilarating first and last songs -- “Too Many People” and “Back Seat of my Car” -- that bookend this classy and classic album and most imbue it with the many-moods and extra textures that pre-figure the accessible experimentalism of Love. “People” alternates a punchy pop-rock attack, guitar’s a-blazing, with a wistfully eerie rumination as the lyrics parallel the musical dynamics with a thematic shift from modern-day exasperation to one of romanticism and resignation:

    Too many people preaching practices,
    Don't let 'em tell you what you wanna be.
    Too many people holding back,
    This is crazy, and baby, it's not like me.

    That was your last mistake,
    I find my love awake and waiting to be.
    Now what can be done for you?
    She's waiting for me…


The “She‘s Leaving Home"-style morality tale of “Back Seat” skimps on lyrical substance, but more than makes up for that lack with a more wide-ranging musical adventurousness that wraps up its moments of poignancy in a build-up of orchestral grandeur. Still, it doesn’t lapse into the sappy excess that McCartney fell into down the road with such songs as “My Love” - just as Ram overall retains the kind of singular vision and Beatles-esque inventiveness that later abates from time to time when McCartney tries on some ill-fitting trends such as disco and takes a departure or two in reggae and synth-heavy new wave.

McCartney’s trademark and seemingly effortless pop-rock majesty, as exhibited in abundance on Ram, is his saving grace, however - even in the nooks and crannies of his songs’ hooks and canny resonance and warmth. Show me someone who decries, say, “Silly Love Songs,” and I’ll show you someone who most likely turns up the volume full blast when the song comes on the radio - if only to hear that amazing and melodic bass line.

And "what's wrong with that, I'd like to know?" Smile away, indeed.

The Early Word: New Art and Photography Books (in Song)

    Got to hurry on back to my hotel room,
    Where I've got me a date with Botticelli's niece.
    She promised that she'd be right there with me
    When I paint my masterpiece.

My writing about some of the more notable and quirky art and photography books out there this holiday season will never be misconstrued as a masterpiece, but Bob Dylan’s music-meld of art and commerce wherein he’s “Sailin' 'round the world in a dirty gondola / Oh, to be back in the land of Coca-Cola!” got me to thinking of appropriate songs for some of the books I stumbled upon. Well, that, and plus the fact that I had the headphones on and a whole lot of CDs and LPs within inspiration’s reach.

Monkey Portraits by Jill Greenberg, Paul Weitz

Feeling a bit anthropomorphic lately? You would’ve thought Chuck Berry said it all:

    Blond haired, good lookin' - tryin' to get me hooked.
    Want me to marry - settle down - get a home - write a book!
    Too much monkey business. Too much monkey business.
    Too much monkey business for me to be involved in!

But with 76 emotion-ranging photos, Jill Greenberg displays some surprising images of monkeys and apes, many of whom have appeared on film or in television shows. Maybe she found them more disciplined than the Hollywood celebrities she used to photograph for major publications.

My Secret: A PostSecret Book by Frank Warren

As the Beatles once implored:

    Listen,
    Do you want to know a secret?
    Do you promise not to tell, whoa oh, oh.

    Closer,
    Let me whisper in your ear…

Or just mail them to Warren for this follow-up to the bestseller, PostSecret, his 2005 exercise in community art in which strangers mailed him anonymous postcards with their innermost secrets. This time around Warren has personally selected never-before-seen anonymous postcards created by teens and college students from across America with such hilarious and off-the-wall messages as:

  • "My friends think I was homeschooled. I spent high school in juvi."
  • "I am avoiding you because you are socially below me."
  • "I know the truth to the lie my parents tell... "

A Photographer's Life: 1990-2005 by Annie Leibovitz

The Kinks once sang:

    People take pictures of the Summer,
    Just in case someone thought they had missed it,
    Just to proved that it really existed.
    People take pictures of each other,
    And the moment to last them for ever,
    Of the time when they mattered to someone
    .

Many photographers have taken pictures of the celebrities and scenes documented by Leibowitz in her career with Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, and Vogue. With shots of such famed figures as Johnny Cash, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Keith Richards, Michael Jordan, Joan Didion, R2-D2, Patti Smith, Nelson Mandela, Jack Nicholson, William Burroughs, and George W. Bush; and scenes from the siege of Sarajevo in the early '90s, and distinctive landscapes and ad campaigns -- many collected in this volume -- Leibowitz brings her own style to “the moment to last… forever.”

The Private Lives of the Impressionists by Sue Roe

Ray Davies also sang as an “Art Lover”:

    Pretty little legs, I want to draw them,
    Like a Degas ballerina.
    Pure white skin, like porcelain,
    She’s a work of art and I should know
    I’m an art lover.

Manet, Pissarro, Degas, Monet, Renoir, Cezanne, Sisley, Morisot, and Cassatt. Private Lives constitutes a rich illustration of these revolutionary artists known for their atmospheric landscapes and candid depictions of everyday life - paintings as much valued now as they were disdained then. For a full portrait, Roe provides more biographical breadth and depth than you get in most art books.


Charles Addams: A Cartoonist's Life by Linda H. Davis

Sure he’s “Mysterious and spooky, all together ooky” - he was, after all, fascinated by "the aberrations of life." But is he “Neat. Sweet. Petite?” Find out as we “ get a witch's shawl on / A broomstick you can crawl on" to pay a call on the darkly-humored New Yorker cartoonist in this scintillating biography which includes previously unpublished artwork, photographs, and personal drawings.


Shelter Dogs by Traer Scott

Tom Waits sings of their canine cousins:

    Inside a broken clock
    Splashing the wine
    With all the Rain Dogs
    Taxi, we'd rather walk.
    Huddle a doorway with the Rain Dogs
    For I am a Rain Dog, too.
In photographer Traer Scott’s empathic and poignant portraits of fifty beautiful shelter dogs -- some of whom eventually found good homes, others not so lucky -- Scott raises awareness of animal rescue causes, and especially the need for more adoptive homes for abandoned dogs.


Other intriguing finds:

Postcards from Mars: The First Photographer on the Red Planet by Jim Bell

The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker

Theories of Everything: Selected, Collected, and Health-Inspected Cartoons, 1978-2006 by Roz Chast

The Architecture of Happiness by Alain De Botton

An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, and True Stories by Ivan Brunetti (Editor)

Life: The Platinum Anniversary Collection: 70 Years of Extraordinary Photography

Presidential Doodles: Two Centuries of Scribbles, Scratches, Squiggles & Scrawls from the Oval Office by Cabinet Magazine, David Greenberg

Ocean by Robert Dinwiddie, Louise Thomas, Fabien Cousteau (Foreword)

Deadwood: Stories of the Black Hills by David Milch

The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles by Martin Gayford

Robert Polidori: After the Flood by Robert Polidori, Jeff L. Rosenheim (Introduction)

Lincoln's Assassins: Their Trial and Execution by James L. Swanson, Daniel Weinberg

Shoes: A History From Sandals to Sneakers by Giorgio Riello (Editor), Peter McNeil (Editor)

Museum of the Missing: A History of Art Theft by Simon Houpt, Julian Radcliffe (Foreword)

Born to Run: The Unseen Photos by Bruce Springsteen, Daniel Wolff (Introduction), Eric Meola (Photographer)

The Radio City Rockettes: A Dance Through Time by James Porto

The Anime Encyclopedia, Revised & Expanded Edition: A Guide to Japanese Animation Since 1917 by Jonathan Clements, Helen McCarthy

Factory Records: The Complete Graphic Album by Matthew Robertson

Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art since Pollock (A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts) by Kirk Varnedoe, Earl A. Powell III (Foreword), Adam Gopnik (Preface)

BOOK REVIEW: With Amusement For All - A History Of Popular Culture Since 1830 by LeRoy Ashby

It’s Dumbo, on the home front, and to the rescue…

The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and Germany’s declaration of war a few days later may have understandably knocked the endearing elephant star, Walt Disney’s newest cartoon creation, off the front cover of Time magazine, but that wouldn’t last long. As detailed in the voluminous critical compendium of all things Pop Cultural, With Amusement for All: A History Of American Culture Since 1830, Americans, as focused as they were on the unfolding events of World War II, ultimately didn’t make a insurmountable distinction between entertainment and reality.

And neither did Time, who sensed a collective clamoring not for all-out escapism as much as for enlistment of all forces in times of trouble. And so the weekly featured in their December 29 issue a well-received article on the enormous-eared cartoon character, gauging the underdog-turned-hero star of Dumbo -- in an aptly recognizable and paralleled plight against injustice and attack -- as “the most appealing new character of this year of war.” Indeed, “Among all the grim and forbidding images of A.D. 1941,” Time speculated, “Dumbo’s “guileless, homeless face is the face of the true man of good will.”

As author LeRoy Ashby notes in this pertinent chapter on “Building a Wartime Consensus in the 1940s and 1950s,” the entertainment industry bolstered throughout World War II and into the Cold War a “victory mystique” that provided temporary respite in a bleak world, and “profoundly influenced Americans’ perceptions of themselves and their country.”

In this regard, it is much too simplistic to assert the purely diversionary aspect of popular culture, and Ashby doesn’t acquiesce to the easy temptation to provide a mere trivial pursuit and or produce a piling-on of hit-and-run factoids as he chronicles -- with analysis that couches his topics in incisive sociological and historical terms -- the advancement of such fixations and affairs as radio, comic books, movies, music, and sports.

You’ll find elsewhere in this engrossing and ambitious 600-plus page book (with copious notes and bibliography), the oft-mentioned fact that movie-going during the Great Depression increased - period, end of story. But it wasn’t so much that poor folk found a fantasyland refuge in watching carefree cosmopolitan dandies like Fred Astaire trip the light luxurious in top hat ‘n’ tails, or in a Busby Berkeley extravaganza-for-the-sake-of extravagance -- though there is that escapist aspect. Ashby digs deeper in mining other explantions - the economic factors at play, say, that led to real life gangsterism and crime movies which “tapped into a growing vein of public anger and disillusionment.” Or the moral climate among the public and producers that led to sensationalism in the “sin-ema,“ before the censorship clamp-down constituted in the Production Code and the Hays office.

Similarly and more recently, in the chapter “Popular Culture and 1960s Ferment,” Ashby’s systematic exploration of the Beatles’ overwhelming popularity goes beyond the standard right-time right-place reasoning which posits that, in coming along in the wake of President Kennedy’s assassination and national mourning, the group struck a much-needed chord. True, the author agrees, “Timing was important in the Beatles’ explosive impact in the United States,” but in addition to the bracing music and refreshing personalities that complemented such welcome optimism and energy, the fab foursome's emergence also coincided, we are reminded, with the post-war baby boomers coming of age in the mid- ’60s.

Moreover, Beatles manager Brian Epstein was certainly instrumental, carefully orchestrating the Beatles arrival in America with various promotional pushes that had gotten “the American media to turn the Beatles’ U.S. arrival into a major event.” Great first impression, and the rest is history - and not just pop cultural, considering the Beatles as an ongoing galvanizing catalyst for many social, political and artistic changes.

But these seemingly disparate forces are inextricably linked. As Ashy contends, pop culture cannot be considered strictly and discretely in isolation from these other considerations. The celebrity of the Beatles, for example, may have started out with a considerably commercial side to it, but that is what, in part, defines pop culture. “What separates it,” Ashby notes, “from noncommercial neighborhood and family games, for instance, is that its creators and/or disseminators seek to profit from it; they are in the business of merchandising entertainment.”

This has been the case in the United States at least since the mid-19th century when the 1830s saw the burgeoning of blackface minstrel acts and the rise of P.T. Barnum’s circus. But popular culture has been and continues to be malleable and resilient as such impulses as new technologies, economic and political conditions, changing values and demographics alters the business and its products.

This impetus transforms the enterprise in unpredictable ways, too, as popular culture both reflects and shapes the larger
society, as Ashy points out:

    It can refract as well as mirror, breaking the larger society into a wide range of images and meanings. It can follow well-worn paths and set new directions. American entertainment has never comprised a neatly homogenized set of diversions. Instead, it is full of contradictions and speaks in many voices, some louder and more influential than others. Its messages can be liberating and confining, reassuring and unsettling.

For a good taste of this complex subject’s multifarious nature and potentially visceral impact, you need go no further than the pop culture fever dream that is With Amusement’s index, consisting of 35 pages of wide-ranging subjects from Hank Aaron to Adolph Zukor. It's all here -- sports, movies, music, television, comics, pulp fiction -- and everything in between, subjectively favorable or not.

Ashby, with With Amusement For All, has written an invaluable interpretive history and comprehensive reference tool, good for methodical types to immerse themselves in page by page, cover to cover - or for the more restless to flip through or plunge in purposefully or randomly. Either way, you’re going to get an education and some history, and a lot of opinion and perspective.

Liner Notables #9: Dave Alvin - West of the West

Not an old album this time. I dragged myself kicking and screaming into the CD age for a spell to share some new-fangled liner notes from a favorite recent release. Liner Notable #9:

“While California doesn’t quite have the deep indigenous folk music traditions of Mississippi, Texas, or Georgia, it does boast a rich history of jazz, blues, R&B, country, surf, and early rock and roll. California has also produced more than its share of damned good songwriters.”

Paying tribute and playing interpretive craftsman to the hilt, California native Dave Alvin’s West of the West is a beautifully realized collection of songs -- with liner notes more than up to a systematic task -- from California-born or raised artists who’ve "at least had their first kiss or broken heart here.” But Alvin brings an American roots element to many of the songs, not only bringing in an amalgam of that “rich history,” but altering some songs beyond recognition; I didn’t quite recognize Jackson Browne’s “Redneck Friend” until about halfway through the bluesy revision.

Which kind of tells you that this year's West of the West, with its infusion of blues, folk, R&B and country, is not your quintessential coastal car-cruise music, SoCal style. No, this has more of an inland intrigue, perfect musical accompaniment for driving through the Central Valley or along the Eastern Sierras to Bishop and beyond. Yes, Brian Wilson’s “Surfer Girl” is represented here -- in an exquisite gospel-tinged cover -- but so are songs by John Stewart (San Diego), Tom Waits (Pomona), Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo and Louis Perez (Los Angeles), and the Bay Area’s Robert Hunter and John Fogerty, among others not so expressly linked to an overarching fun-in-the-sun Golden State sensation. And how about Bakersfield's Merle Haggard and under-the-radar Fresno folkie Jim Ringer? Reason enough to pop in West in the CD player as you're driving through the farm communities and oil towns of Highway 99.

With such an array of talent and artistry, Alvin admits to an initial difficulty in “Considering who to choose for the CD, from the famous and obscure deserving songwriters.” As a prime example of modern-day liner note writing, wherein the artist -- not the promo copywriter -- is free to introduce and expand upon how they decided what they decided, West's commentary alludes to Alvin's painstaking and fascinating methodology to such free-rein musical madness, while at the same time touching upon his vast knowledge of musical Californiana and arcana.

The choice of "California Bloodlines," the first song on West, was no-brainer, though: "One afternoon in 1969, my mother and I were eating lunch at the kitchen table and watching a local L.A. daytime talk show on our black and white TV,” Alvin begins. “The host introduced a young singer/songwriter named John Stewart…” Alvin, in his "infinite 13-year old wisdom," fakes indifference to the Monkees' Stewart-penned “Daydream Believer,” but he really takes notice in a couple other songs:

    But then he did 'July, you're a Woman' and he sang the line, 'I have not been known as the Saint of San Joaquin.' My mother smiled and said, 'He's singing about where I'm from, the San Joaquin Valley. Then I paid closer attention. The TV host asked Stewart questions about songwriting, his time in The Kingston Trio and about growing up in California. I don't remember his answers but when he sang 'California Bloodlines' at the end of the show, I do remember my mother telling me, 'That's what you have, just like him, you've got California bloodlines.' Maybe that was when the idea for this CD first entered my mind."


Most of the other selections were filtered from a lifetime of diverse musical saturation and the encyclopedic knowledge garnered throughout his career with the roots and rockabilly-centered Blasters, a brief stint with punk upstarts X and Alvin's solo work. Indeed, the writers he’d been drawn to have “helped me define myself as a songwriter and as a Californian. I first heard their songs on jukeboxes and Top 40 AM Radio when I was a kid and on folk and underground radio as a teenager while others I heard sung live in smoky bars as an adult.”

The net result for the recording of West is compilation of songs by writers "shaped by California’s mix of cultures, beliefs, and attitudes, as well as by the oaks and redwoods, the cities and farmlands, the highways and barrooms, the ocean, mountains and deserts and the eternal hopes and disappointments of growing up in a mythical promised land.”

But it doesn’t stop there. One of the benefits of modern-day liner notes is that, in an effort to fully communicate from the heart as well as with cold hard facts, they so often come in the form of personal ruminations from the artist. Alvin writes with passion and inspiration about the road taken to get him to the recording of West of the West, but he also acknowledges the evolved and ever-developing nature of society and, by extension, music.

“The landscape,” Alvin notes, “that shaped these songwriters have vanished or changed drastically.” But whatever the outcome in forms or genres, he is optimistic about the range of possibilities that stem from such variegated potential:

    Right now, whether on a guitar or with a computer, on a cattle ranch near Alturus or in a garage in Orange County, in a shack in the Mendocino woods or a one room Hollywood apartment, or sitting somewhere at a kitchen table, somebody is writing the next generation of songs with California bloodlines.
And so that "California heartbeat in my soul" John Steward wrote about keeps beating on...

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Early Word: New Non-Fiction Books (an O.J.-Free Zone)

How many shopping days 'til Christmas? Don't know. You do the math. All I'm here for is to feature, in this installment of The Early Word, some non-fiction titles for your perusal and amusement.

BIOGRAPHY

Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination by Neal Gabler. Gabler takes full advantage as the first writer to have gained access to Disney’s archives to write with great biographical breadth and depth. From Disney’s bleak upbringing to the development of a rich imagination that led to unimaginable success in film, television, theme parks, music, book publishing, and merchandising, this richly detailed 880-page tome has it all. Including some of the names originally considered for the dwarfs in Snow White: Deafy, Dirty, Awful, Blabby, Burpy, Gabby, Puffy, Stuffy, Nifty, Tubby, Biggo Ego, Flabby, Jaunty, Baldy, Lazy, Dizzy, Cranky, and Chesty.

Andrew Carnegie by David Nasaw. Forget Disney. Do I even have to tell you how richly detailed this book is?

Things I Didn't Know: A Memoir by Robert Hughes, esteemed art critic, biographer, historian, polemicist, television commentator, and now memoirist.

Mandela: The Authorized Portrait. A sumptuously illustrated and comprehensive tribute to the South African statesman’s life and work.

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir by Bill Bryson. A memoir and follow-up to the humorist’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.

Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell
by Karen DeYoung. Soldier, and especially in this comprehensive look, much more.

HISTORY

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson. The subtitle clues you in, but even knowing that this book is The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic - and How it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World, doesn’t do it justice. The author of Everything You Know Is Wrong has provided not only a compelling step-by-step historical account of the worst cholera outbreak in 19th-century London, he traces the pathways to solutions that revolutionized the way we think about disease, cities, and science. Ultimately, the work of foresighted health pioneers who mapped out the disease's spread resulted in efficient public waste disposal systems, and disease control measures that saved millions worldwide.

Lincoln's Assassins: Their Trial and Execution by James L. Swanson and Daniel Weinberg. Praised as the definitive illustrated history of Abraham Lincoln's assassination, this unique work contains over 300 documents, portraits, memorabilia and arcana.

The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism by Paul Kengor. Here’s the rest of him. Especially in the 40th President’s role as a Cold War victor.

Dangerous Nation by Robert Kagan. Far from any notion of the United States as an historically isolationist power, the Washington Post columnist and bestselling author (Of Paradise and Power) argues that a policy of aggressive expansion was always the aim and has been inextricably linked with liberal democracy.

OTHER NON-FICTION TITLES

On Truth by Harry G. Frankfurt. In an extended essay, the author of On Bullshit offers a sequel. "A society,” Frankfurt says, “that is recklessly and persistently remiss in [supporting and encouraging truth] is bound to decline." No bullshit.

Home: The Blueprints of Our Lives by John Edwards. Apparently the former senator had some time on his hands, so he compiled this coffee-table book about home and its comforts. Hey, ex-Prez Jimmy Carter knows something about building homes! But, for what it's worth, he decided instead to put in his two cents with Palestine Peace Not Apartheid.

Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century by Alex Steffen. Apparently there’s hope for the planet, according to this feel-good resource. But don’t wait until the last minute of Christmas Eve - there’s lots of assembly required, and probably some missing parts.

Next up in The Early Word - New Books of Note: Gift Books, perhaps. Haven't thought that far ahead.

Vinyl Tap: Sam Phillips - The Indescribable Wow; Cruel Inventions; Martinis and Bikinis

I get a new turntable and dust off some old records. Vinyl Tap #30:

No, not the Sun Records one. But the Sam Phillips we’re talking about is outwardly sunny on her 1988 record, The Indescribable Wow. This unabashed pop masterwork, Phillips’ first secular release after a time as a Christian rock artist under the name Leslie Phillips, does indeed wow 'em musically with ‘60s girl-group and folk-rock appeal merged with ear-candy melodies and harmonies.

Lyrically, incisively-expressed poignancy and self-doubt, usually centering on love gone wrong or relationships gone on too long, emerges amid the smart popcraft. “When faith went blind she found the truth/but lost her nerve,” Phillips declares in “She Can’t Tell Time.” And whatever abstract philosophic corner she paints herself into, Phillips walks on eggshells with more delicate fragility each time she makes her way back to a human touch, to that irrational pull to the “The Flame” with which she bobs -- “Why do I dance so close to you?” -- and weaves: “When fires rise the shadows fall/Over the edges where we crawl…”
Indeed, Phillips doesn’t merely want to fall in love with the idea of love, or just "be in love with love" (“I Don’t Want to Fall In Love”), but she does realize the real thing is a shaky proposition, and if attained, prone to a delusion or two poking through the threadbare grandeur.

    Trying to hold on to the earthHolding on for what it's worth.
    I've got a long black CadillacMarble hot tub in the backChampagne waterfallSolid gold question mark twenty feet tall.

In marked and darker contrast, Cruel Inventions' striking but often disturbing imagery comprises no proportionate twenty-foot-tall answers. Though also, like Wow, produced by Phillips' husband T-Bone Burnett (and aided here and there by such luminaries as Elvis Costello and Van Dyke Parks), this 1991 release not only offers less salvation and solace throughout its sonic gravitas, instrumental sparseness, and Phillips’ de-Laupered lower and sultry vocal register, it kicks up the vulnerability and trepidation a few notches, sweeping up some psychological and societal ills along with the interpersonal ones.
Even the moody infectiousness that wouldn’t be out of place on Wow bites back. The hooky-as-hell title song talks of dying dreams and bleak prospects in “a world of elevators with music like magazines" where the beat generation all departed on the morning train and "left me at the station/Breathing dust from hopeless rain." In the hypnotic and otherwise lovely “Standing Still,” the dance floor becomes a place for “thinking I‘m standing still” and where “I want them to think I’m dead.” And the humor and wordplay in “Now I Can’t Find The Door” -- recalling a Chrissie Hynde-like bittersweet where's-my-sandy-beach timbre -- becomes free-floating apprehension with the recollection that “Love is what I leave for.”
These are not the same tuneful Phillips ditties you hear now and then as incidental music throughout The Gilmore Girls. Furthermore, the cryptically elliptic noir of “black Niagara of control spilling down to culture mock” extends throughout Inventions even to some shadowy high-contrast cinematic sleeve photos (Phillips’ Garbo-mannered femme-fatalistic looks even landed her a Die Hard role).

Inventions' thematic irrationality, imbalance, emotional paralysis, and cosmic discombobulating in “tripping over gravity” abound in a hopeless state: the sweetness and light of the title song is belied by the exercise in futility that we can “Un-invent the wheel of endless greed.” Moreover, in the propulsive “Raised on Promises,” there’s little refuge to be had in retreats “to the furnace for shade to the dust for a drink / Logic’s mad and shame doesn’t care what you think… It’s only a phantom that you fathom.”
In the gorgeously eerie “Private Storm,” the mercurial artist warns that whatever plot of land you stake out is little more than shifting sand and dirt, sure to disturb whatever metaphoric mental breadcrumbs are painstakingly left behind:

    No warning the ground pulls out from underneath We tiptoe through air until we see the blood on their teeth.
    Time doesn’t heal, the scars turn into woundsAs we walk lightly silent screams in the storm.

A reassuring new dawn and an anticipatory glimmer does emerge, however, in the last lines of Inventions' last song, “Where the Colors Don’t Go,” in which Phillips ultimately discloses “I want your eyes to color my world/And see your endless longing.” Buoyed by Van Dyke Parks' orchestral arrangement, the forthright punch-up and fade-out suggests “Penny Lane” and foreshadows the Beatle-sonic nip-and-tuck of Phillips’ next album, Martinis and Bikinis.
A splendid time seems to be guaranteed for all: “Come and join the dream that never ends,“ the 1994 album cordially invites; “God will grant us all our wishes/Martinis and Bikinis for our friends.” On top of the Fab Four flourishes, the shaken-up and stirring Martinis also comes with a distinctive dose of solo Lennon thrown in for good measures, some song structure, intonation, and upfront blisters-on-me-fingers guitar. And though it doesn’t come to a full boil, a simmering, seething primal-reverb cover of “Gimme Some Truth” is as effectively pointed as the original.

T-Bone Burnett again produces, as Van Dyke Parks gets a little more work here with aural auras of George Martin’s knob-twirling wizardry groove-by-groove with chunky-style White Album wallops. Though this is truly an overarching Phillips effort, especially in lyrical content and melodic surety, the musical nuances and intimations may evoke what a true songwriting collaboration might have sounded like from Lennon, McCartney and Harrison together. Or give you ideas of what, say, “She’s A Woman” might have sounded like if written for Revolver.
“I got myself so tightly wound I couldn’t breathe/I could feel the fire burning underneath,” Phillips avers in “Signposts,” and you might think she is referring to a little too much self-absorption in The Indescribable Wow and the edgy restlessness in Cruel Inventions. Inspired by the realization that “I need love, not some sentimental prison/I need God, not the political church” (the lilting Harrison-tinged “I Need Love”), and by such ruminations as “The Same Rain” falling on “the holy man…the liar’s hand…and me,” Phillips comprises Martinis as indeed a logical extension of wanting and needing to give in to that rudderless wanderlust, that inclination to get outside yourself and explore other psychological and philosophic worlds, other societal and environmental perspectives. As she says in "Signposts," "I wanted to get lost and love the questions there/Beauty and the truth I could breathe like air/Then I finally found the signposts in a strange land.”
From the signposts for personal accusations -- “You try to tell the world how it should spin/But you live in terror with the hollow men” (“Baby I Can’t Please You”) -- to the portentous “Black Sky’s” indictment of “diggers, drillers, and sellers” stealing away the future, Martinis' all-embracing concerns may not constitute all the right approaches, but it does mark a self-assurance and confidence in Phillips that was lacking one or two albums previous. Consider the assertions made in the exquisite McCartney-esque “Strawberry Road”:

    The strawberry roadWhere the dream fadesIs down between our longing and desire,The strawberry roadWhere our hearts break into love.
    You censor longing and organize beauty Because you’re afraid You want it more than oxygen or light.
    You can’t get there with your morals Or without loveLie down with meThe rules aren’t always right.

The singer who was once too busy trying to hold on to the earth and who stated “Love is what I leave for” is starting down that road “Where our hearts break into love.” Now that's an indescribable wow. Martinis and Bikinis all around!

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Early Word: Calendars - Far Side is Back! Stitch 'n' Bitch, Retro Lemony, Ying-Yang, Miro Miro, Bice Bice Bo Bice, Speed! Lust! Madness! Hey Lady!

This installment of The Early Bird - New Books of Notes becomes New Calendars of Consideration as we catch up with the 2007 items that will let you know when you've been where you've been and will need to be. But be advised: the most popular of these sell out before Christmas. You can be sure that the revived-for-now Far Side calendar will be sold out long before then. And if you hurry, you still may be able to get, in a most, most unfortunate event, a two-year-old Lemony Snicket calendar.

In any case, here's some wall calendars, page-a-day desk calendars, engagement books, and diaries that caught my eye:

Art and Photography

Salvador Dali Engagement Calendar. Because you can’t always rely on the persistence of your memory.

Edward Hopper Diary. Dear Diary: Gosh, forget that darned old malt shop - I met the most interesting people down at the diner tonight!!

Retro Modern Wall Calendar. Ah, Ye Olde Retro Calendar is not just horse and buggy thinking anymore. Oh, wait - it’s the 1960s we’re talking about, not the 1860s…

Monet Wall Calendar. Monet. It’s what you want.

French Impressionism Wall Calendar. I know this one French impressionist who does an impeccable Jerry Lewis.

Miro Wall Calendar. Miro, Miro on the wall, who's surrealist one of all?

Metropolitan Opera Wall Calendar. Kill the wabbit! And no, it does not contain a centerfold of the Fat Lady.

Celebrities and Icons

Beatles Wall Calendar. That should be ‘nuff said.

But I know, I know - this is yet another Beatles calendar. And I realize this is totally subjective, but nobody needs yet another calendar of Elvis Presley or Madonna (one of whom died on my birthday, the other sharing my birthday -- I’ll leave you to sort out who is who). Speaking of repeats: I don’t Love Lucy, and even more so, Coldplay leaves me cold, but you should know there are still tried-and-true calendars out there, and upstarts untried and trying to be true.

I will, however, broach the subject of American Idol contestant and now calendar boy Bo Bice only because I can’t think of him without thinking of the old Shirley Ellis hit, "The Name Game": "Bice, Bice, Bo Bice / Banana fanna fo fice / Me my mo mice / Bo Bice…" (Forgive me if this is a well-worn gag - I never really watch AI beyond the early stages of the tuneless clueless.)

Children

Yin Yang Cat 2007 Wall Calendar. With Japanese-inspired art and hints of Manga and Anime, this calendar promises to pass along such qualities as love, appreciation, patience, determination, and faith.

Which you may need if you attempt to purchase, for the less discriminating child, say, Lemony Snicket's 2005 -- yes, 2005 -- Calendar of Unfortunate Events: Thirteen Alarming Months! (A Series of Unfortunate Events) currently being featured by Amazon.

I don't really know what's going on here, but I thought the idea of offering a two-year outdated calendar pertaining to Unfortunate Events was an apropos joke -- a very funny one to my barely grown-up mind -- but come on Amazon! Our children are the future (so I've heard again and again and again), and even hinting of putting them two years behind themselves, so to speak, seems most alarming and unfortunate, indeed. And they probably haven't learned what caveat emptor means, yet.

Dogs (As a member of the He-Man Cat-Haters Club, I won’t be featuring anything but Canine Calendars.)

Bad Dog Wall Calendar. If they’ve been really bad, this is also great for rolling up and chasing.

For the Love of Golden Retrievers Deluxe Wall Calendar. I’m not sure what makes it so “Deluxe” -- maybe because it started in April 2006, much longer than most 15- or 16-month Calendars. You might want to ask your Golden Retriever -- they’re pretty smart about these things, or you could at least send him or her out to retrieve the information.

William Wegman Puppies Wall Calendar. "Mom, this calendar followed me home - can I keep it?" Okay, lame joke. But are you going to tell me you can resist this calendar? These are puppies, puppies! What kind of monster are you?

Humor

The Far Side Gallery 2007 Off The Wall Page-a-Day Calendar. Our long national nightmare is over. The Far Side Calendar, after a five-year absence, is back. Sort of. An "encore edition" of Gary Larson’s best seller has been released, featuring the same cartoons as The Far Side Gallery 2001 Off-The-Wall Calendar, which collected the most popular comic panels in the strips memorable run. Still, whether new to you or familiar, this is hands-down the only humor calendar you will need for 2007 -- no Far Side wannabe calendar or comic strip has even come close since Larson retired over a decade ago.

Furthermore -- and in keeping with Larson’s wildlife concerns -- all of his royalties from the sale of this 2007 calendar will go directly to fund Conservation International (CI), a nonprofit organization that works to protect critical habitats worldwide.

Which reminds me, just to digress a bit, I’ll never forget the time I went to see an exhibit of Larson’s cartoon art at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum in the late ‘80s (Far Side has always been popular with natural scientists). As the many patrons of the comic strip arts snaked through from framed enlargements to framed enlargements, I of course had never heard such hearty laugh-out-loud responses from museum-goers. Not a shhh! or stuffy moment to be had.

Sports

NASCAR Facts - Box Calendar. Speed! Lust! Madness! A Hot Lap in your lap! Or better yet, on your desk.

And for the golfer, Lost Balls Wall Calendar: Great Holes, Tough Shots, and Bad Lies.
No Speed! No Lust! No Madness!

Other mentionables

Monster Movies Wall Calendar. It’s Alive! With lively posters of everything from Dracula to Dr. Jekyll, King Kong to Mothra to Village of the Damned.

Lonely Planet Diary/Day Planner. Lonely, eh? Well, at least you're still a planet. Do you want to end up like Pluto? There's no calendar for Pluto!

Dogs Playing Poker Wall Calendar.
Alas, not in velvet. But consider the Psychedelic Posters Wall Calendar. You’ll not only convince yourself it's velvet, if you stare at it long enough you'll see dogs playing poker, too.

Antique Maps Diary. For your antique husband who refuses to ask for directions. Glove compartment-sized to go with the maps he can’t make sense of though he pretends he does.

Stitch 'N Bitch Page-A-Day Calendar: The Knitter's Calendar. Includes a “yarn of the week” and “knit wit” that’ll keep you in stitches. And for the tragically industrious, patterns and new techniques.

Speaking of industriousness, the next Early Word will be out next week. What it will cover, I don't yet know. I said I was industrious, not organized.

Vinyl Tap: The Dukes Of Stratosphere - 25 O'Clock

I get a new turntable and dust off some old records. Vinyl Tap #29:

Tune in, turn on, drop dead; the road to hippie hell is paved with good vibrations. Brown acid and brain damage combine with blissed-out bacchanalian love-ins and cosmic consciousness teeters into full-totter bad karma and choking-on-your-own-vomit bummerdom. Before you know whether it's tomorrow or just the end of time, the Woodstock nation's freak flag is at half-mast and you've helter-skeltered into your own private LSD-is-groovy-kill-the-pigs Altamont.

But with the EP 25 O’Clock -- somewhat anachronistically and curiously released April 1, 1985 -- the sonic ecstasy of the Dukes of Stratosphere ensure that freak-out pop and flower power never flounders. These trippy avatars of the hip ‘n’ happening ever-high did more than mine pure nuggets of British psychedelia -- they mixed in delectable pop reverb and resonance for an aural amalgam evoking everything from the Beatles to Pink Floyd, Barretted and Barrett-less.

The title song even stoops for a salute of psych-out sorts by merging into its Floydian soundscape an American "artyfact" invocation from the Electric Prunes’ “I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night),” setting the latter’s lament that “Comes the dawn / Then you were gone…” against the Dukes' temporally anticipatory hope that “The ticking seconds hear them call / My spell of hours will make you fall.”

While the lyrical and musical shapes of happenings in “My Love Explodes” conjures up the over-under Yardbirds in a sideways-down Antonioni movie, “What In The World” is even more waywardly adventurous. For a for full-on mid-sixties sensibility, the Dukes here add an unmistakable Ray Davies-tinged vocal inflection while also recalling Revolver-era Beatles -- think the “Tomorrow Never Knows” shriek-fest loopiness backwardly and barely masking a melodiously propulsive McCartney-style bass pattern in your ears and, it seems, in your eyes.

"Cannabis in tea / What in the world, acid is free,” indeed.

Speaking of the Kinks, “Your Gold Dress” is really “something else” in going back and forth between its influences instead of fusing them for a seemingly effortless blend. Just when you think you’re in for fuzz-toned eastern mysticism-enwrapped days of future droned, promising “a thousand melting Dali guitars… dripping slowly down,” up pops a poppy harpsichord-backed Kinks-size assurance in a pocket-symphonic surety of “Vibrations coming my way / When you’re floating on by.”

The Lennon-esque last song, “The Mole From The Ministry,” is the total trip in your mind and back in time, Sgt. Pepper- and Magical Mystery-style. This becomes clearer as things get fuzzier with the double-meaning wordplay, the Strawberry Fields-insinuations and druggy references to day-in-the-life “Holes appearing on the lawn,” and Lucy-in-the-allusions of walking flowers and a garden that “starts to rearrange / From perfect lawn to mountain range.”

Beyond the lyrical bent, the “Mole’s” overall musical and sonically psychedelic cast is enhanced by the ending, replete with "Walrus"-ian incantation -- a smokes-pot smokes-pot certainty set in a hear-the-colors see-the-sounds psychical framework.

Otherwise, in this song and a few others, there’s a more modern power-pop quality that creeps in from time to time that I can’t quite pin down except to say I sometimes hear and see the colors and sounds of something else, someone else...

Friday, November 24, 2006

Liner Notables #8: The Rutles

Why, it seems like only yesterday [cue harp and wavy, out-of-focus visuals] when you could pore over an album's liner notes and not have to squint to garner an embarrassment of riches and a treasure trove of tidbits...

The Clash once sang “Phony Rutle-mania has bitten the dust!” Or something to that effect.

Not so. The only band that doesn't matter may have started out wanting to hold our hands (“yeah yeah!”) and declaring themselves more omniscient and omnipresent than God (thereby giving themselves the power to hold each and every hand in the world at the same time).

But in short order the Prefab Four wrote really important stuff while on acid that no one understood -- unless you played it backwards or happened to be Bob Dylan -- things such as “Bible-Punching heavyweight / Evangelistic boxing Kangaroo / Orang u tang and anaconda / Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse / Even Pluto, too (yeah yeah!).”

And it seems like only yesterday we plopped down in front of the TV for the Ed Sullivan Show to watch that creepy mouse puppet and that plate-spinner guy. Oh yeah... and to see the Rutles perform and get acquainted with them early on in their career. We got to know the cute one, the quiet one, the funny one, and the “sorry girls - he’s homosexual” one.

As the The Rutles' liner notes and interviews look into the glass onion, the commentary in this, um, anthology from 1978 brings back that magic, starting with the group's beginnings at 43 Egg Lane, Liverpool, where Ron Nasty and Dirk McQuickly first bumped into each other: “Ron invited Dirk to help him stand up. Dirk, merely an amateur drinker, agreed and on that spot a legend was created - a legend that will last a lunchtime.” Soon enough they found Stig O’ Hara, “a guitarist of no fixed hairstyle,” but it took a while to discover drummer Barry Wom hiding in their van.

The Silver Rutles, as they were called at the time, learned more musical ropes in Germany, “far from home, and far from talented.” It was also here that they picked up a fifth member, Leppo ("Sorry girls, he's dead"). As the chronicle notes: “For five hungry working class lads there are worse places than prison, and the Rat Keller in Hamburg is one.” But it was here where Dirk, Nasty, Stig, and Barry sharpened up their act and got some silly haircuts that got them booted out of the Reeperbahn and sent back to England.

An interview with Mick Jagger serves to pick up the story from there as the Rolling Stones’ front man notes the first-meeting anxieties:

    Mick: …They were very nice and complimentary, but that was the first time we’d met them. They’d heard about us you know 'cos for a while we were the South’s answer to the Rutles.”

    Question: Were you billed as that?

    Mick: We were billed as that, yes. When we got up to Birmingham it’d say “London’s answer to the Rutles.”

Of course, the Rutles eventually made their way to the United States after finally getting good directions out of Greenland. An interview with Paul Simon gives an American perspective, including his impression of the watershed Sgt. Rutter album:

    Paul: Well of course the main thing that comes to mind with the Sgt. Rutter album is getting stoned and listening to it with earphones, particularly the chord that lasted forever and the backward tapes.

    Question: Did it affect your work at all?

    Paul: No.
Later in the interview, Simon, asserting that “it’s probably easier to place them sociologically as a phenomenon than to judge them at this point musically as to where they’ll stand," expands on the overall historical significance of the Rutles:
    Paul: People say who’ll be the next Rutles you know. I think it will be something else you know, some other entirely new transformation.

    Question: Did the Rutles influence you at all?

    Paul: No.

As an added extra, The Rutles LP comes with a booklet of further commentary and photos. And who knows? Maybe that superfluous glut of minutiae will get its own Liner Notables feature.

Then again, might be more trouble than it’s worth. Oh hey, look - lunchtime's over.

Book Review: Golem Song by Marc Estrin

“…One Saturday night, when he was a differently-abled teenager, Oedipus and his buddies were tooling around in the limo, and they decided to take in an oracle. So up to Delphi and guess what?”

You can most assuredly guess that you will never hear a more hilarious account of Oedipus Rex than you will encounter in Marc Estrin’s trenchantly voltaic third novel, Golem Song. But it may also be the most disconcerting, too, as the main character — with unthinking Freudian relish in the embellishment — tells the story to his mother. On Mother’s Day. With a Snoopy card.

But Alan Krieger is not your standard-issue 35-year old emergency-room nurse with a brilliant, non-stop mind and mighty mouth. For one thing, he still lives with oedipal ma in a sixth-floor New York apartment that, “floor-to-ceilinged” with scholarly tomes, ominously reminds him — and us — of the Texas Book Depository. Often endearing but just as often infuriating, tossing off bonmots and potshots cavalierly quickly, Alan is more than one of those people you either love or hate effortlessly and uncritically. Once more, with intensity: You love to hate him or hate to love him; friends and family seem to enjoy pursuing that extra effort it takes to submit to the voodoo-that-you-do, or to push in more pins.

But with Estrin’s character-driven comic touch, you will come for the foibles but stay for the foils in this 1999-set novel. Alan’s self-sabotaging and manic antics may undermine him but it is the hell of other people — adherents and adversaries alike — that helps define him, especially and increasingly in the degree with which they accede to his strong stance on Jewish theology and its legacy.

“I’m sick to death of Jewish patheticness,” he rails. “Exemplary victims, weak, passive, cowardly, timid and downtrodden, limp Jewish rags soaked in repulsive silent suffering…” It’s a mindset Alan uses in his lifelong standoff with his pacifist brother over the issue of Israel, and an outlook that buttresses his stance against converts to Judaism he encounters, including a black acquaintance: “What, you haven’t suffered enough?”

Despite Alan’s neurotic edges and perceived extremism, though, he's affable with his ER co-workers of the rank and file stripe, and patient to a point with the patients. He fancies he has the pick of two girlfriends, one an out-of-his-league psychiatrist and the other of the levelheaded soulmate variety, understanding and comforting. Though she may have her limits, too.

Further complications testing Alan's people-person skills crop up during a night when a senseless city-wide gang war turns the ER into a “stitch-em-up factory,” and a garrulous Farrakhan-inflamed Anti-Semite GOMER (“Get Out of My Emergency Room” regular) pokes and prods Alan to the point where contention is construed as racism - but only on Alan's part. Ultimately and however arguably justified, Alan’s better judgments and attempts at poetic but un-PC justice — the denigration of affirmative action in confrontaion with his African-American supervisor doesn‘t help — leads to the loss of his job.

A latent fanaticism fanned also signals the advent of a new and unstable phase, tinged with tension and dark humor, that comes as Alan deludes himself into believing he’s been “chosen” to deliver America from Anti-Semitism. Indeed, as one character says, he’s become enslaved “to your own rhetoric, to the flight of your ideas.”

If Alan has become a Frankenstein of sorts, it’s all the more a Faustian connection rooted in the folktale of the Golem, the animated being of clay that defended the Jews in 16th Century Prague. It’s a theme that pops-up repeatedly in Estrin’s ever-arresting novel; Alan remembers reading as a child about this “cross between the Jolly Green Giant and the Pillsbury Doughboy.” His mother used to call him a golem, too (perhaps just a twisted term of oedipal endearment, though).

But now, as Alan prepares for a retaliatory plan of cultural attack, it is more befitting to remember that in Hebrew, the word golem equates to “shapeless matter.” “Something,” Alan is told, “that has potential but is not yet formed, not yet there.”

Nothing ratchets up the riveting anticipation and the anything-can-happen possibilities more than putting them under the command — or utter lack of control — of a man who is himself still an unfinished works-in-progress.

Liner Notables #7: Chuck Berry - The Great Twenty-Eight

Why, it seems like only yesterday [cue harp and wavy, out-of-focus visuals] when you could pore over an album's liner notes and not have to squint to garner an embarrassment of riches and a treasure trove of tidbits...

“Dance! says Chuck Berry, reel and rock, around and around! ‘Move on up and try for further.’ This rock ‘n’ roll that’s blowing fuses around the world would set Beethoven spinning in his grave and ‘deliver us from the days of old.’”

The duck walk may not be quite as smooth these days, but having just celebrated his 80th birthday, Chuck Berry is still a smooth “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man.”

Chess Record’s The Great Twenty-Eight double-album from 1982 is not only a fantastic best-of collection in quantity and quality of tracks, it also matches that excellence in its liner notes. Straightforwardly no-nonsense yet poetically celebratory -- reflecting Berry's songs' musical accessibility in rhythm and rhyme-scheme -- the insightful commentary fulfills the commemorative need for a matter-of-fact overview combined with an expressive tribute befitting rock ‘n’ roll royalty.

The all-embracing yet cohesive notes by Michael Lydon start out simply enough: “Charles Edward Anderson Berry grew up a bright kid in black St. Louis, Missouri.” Lydon then briefly sketches out Berry’s influences in Louis Jordan and Nat “King” Cole, and his introduction by an impressed Muddy Waters to Leonard Chess. Hearing a dub of “Maybellene,” Chess signs up Berry for his label and guides him to the themes of “the big beat, cars, and young love.”

Lydon, as much as anyone can convey a sonic sensation, deftly encapsulates the appeal and the immediacy of a Chuck Berry song:

    Ah, the triumph of Chuck’s Ford catching Maybellene at the top of the hill! The poor coup de ville left behind like a ton of lead! The fast lane tempo, the clanging chorded guitar with its howling break, the wild piano, slamming drums and bass -- ‘the highway sound’ -- urged on the listener a mood flamboyantly dramatic, rebellious, and free.

Onstage, Berry was a bit rebellious and free himself, as Lydon describes this charismatic marvel - good looks, duck walk and all. And though Berry "had no kick against modern jazz," he quickly proved to be a prolific songwriter and record maker of catchy and clever rock 'n' roll gems, able to capture the “teen feel” again and again in such smashes as “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Carol,” “Memphis,” “Back in the USA”…

Putting Berry in historical perspective, up there with Elvis Presley and above Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, Lydon concisely explains what Berry did with the subject matter -- youthful turbulence and yearning -- shared with these other artists:
    No one touched on these feelings with more humor and empathy than Chuck Berry. Wallets filled with pictures, waiting for that three o’ clock bell to ring, hamburgers on the snack shop grill, joy riding with your buddies, and parking by the river with those girls ‘too cute to be a minute over seventeen’ - Chuck got it all.


No wonder he went on to influence the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, the Who, the Kinks, T. Rex and “every group of kids who’ve gotten together in somebody’s basement to bang out rock ‘n’ roll.” After all, Lydon continues, Berry’s “been the outside voice that’s awakened the inner voice of all these hopeful young artists and given them that indispensable ‘you can do it’ shove.”

In addition, there’s a timelessness to that sense of awakening and discovery as Lydon stirringly affirms, “These are twenty-eight great records, as crisp and tangy as the day Chuck laid them down.

"It still amazes me how good they make me feel… Rock on, Chuck Berry!”

And Hail! Hail! Happy Birthday!



The Early Word: New And Upcoming Children's Books, Plus One $150 Doorstop

In last week's Early Word I squeezed in a mention of the just-released finale from Lemony Snicket, A Series of Unfortunate Events - Book 13: The End, noting that the publisher would like us to know, and I quote, ahem: “The end of THE END is the best place to begin THE END, because if you read THE END from the beginning of the beginning of THE END to the end of the end of THE END, you will arrive at the end of the end of your rope.”

In that spirit, and because this is the start of a selected compilation of Children’s Books being released for this holiday season, we will begin the beginning Children’s Christmas selections with the titles that have already been released so that we may end THAT END and start anew.

Quickly, though -- we have a long ways to go before we come to the beginning, so let’s catch-up with some titles already on the bookstore shelves: Artemis Fowl, teenage criminal mastermind, figures, it figures, in The Lost Colony (Artemis Fowl, Book 5) by Eoin Colfer. Mommy? is by Maurice Sendak - shouldn’t that be enough? Peter Pan In Scarlet, by Geraldine McCaughrean is the first-ever authorized sequel to J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan -- shouldn’t that be more than enough?

Is There Really a Human Race? asks Jamie Lee Curtis. I guess all those years in Hollywood can keep you a little too much out of touch. Gloria Estefan gets into the act -- the magic act -- with Noelle's Treasure Tale: A New Magically Mysterious Adventure. And to the manners born is Whoopi Goldberg with Whoopi's Big Book of Manners, while Joy Behar has a different view of things in Sheetzucacapoopoo: My Kind of Dog.

Did you somehow miss International Talk Like A Pirate Day a few weeks ago? Then Pat Croce’s Pirate Soul: A Swashbuckling Voyage Through the Golden Age of Pirates! might just be up your gangplank; brush up on your buccaneer skills with one of the world's foremost pirate-artifact collectors and authorities - Arrrrhh! In more otherworldly escapist fare, Jack and Annie are off on another Merlin Mission in Mary Pope Osborne's Blizzard of the Blue Moon (A Stepping Stone Book).

The following title alone should be enough to grab ya, but if not, I'll need to tell you that Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich by Adam Rex, contains illustrated poems describing the lives of well-known monsters, including -- one hopes -- hair care secrets from the Bride of Frankenstein.

YA YA YA! For the Young Adult crowd, Wintersmith is the bewitching third entry in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld story. More bothersome is the "Gossip Girl" world portrayed in Would I Lie to You? by Cecily von Ziegesar, while there’s no escaping the bewildering social whirl of college in Glass Houses: The Morganville Vampires, Book I (The Morganville Vampires) by Rachel Caine.

That was then and this is now: We're caught up with what's in the stores, and can take up where we left off with upcoming up ‘n’ comers for up-and-coming Young Adults. And what better way to start than with Terrier, the first installment in the Tortall trilogy, the latest Tamora Pierce nether worldly series -- it has that new carcass smell! -- introducing law-enforcer Beka Cooper, whose knack for communicating with the dead tips her off to the vast underworld conspiracy. But this time it’s personal! (due Oct. 24.)

Come to think of it, the following mystery wrapped in an enigmatic appellation o’ verbosity looks like just the job for Tamora... No, it’s not the matter-of-factually sassy Reckless (The It Girl, No. 3) by Cecily von Ziegesar (Nov. 1). I’m talking about The Mislaid Magician Or Ten Years After: Being the Private Correspondence Between Two Prominent Families Regarding A Scandal Touching The Highest Levels Of Government And The Security Of The Realm. It’s by Patricia C. Wrede. ‘Nuff said? 'Nuff intended (Nov. 1).

Of course, any hero or heroine is going to need a dependable reference for those dastardly situations with which a villain or two may ensnare, those dastards! DK Publishing’s The Marvel Encyclopedia, containing more than a thousand of Marvel Comic’s characters and their superhero characteristics, is a marvel of a resource tool (Oct 16).

Or, if geography gets ya not knowing if your coming or going, get your bearings with Our 50 States: A Family Adventure Across America by Lynne Cheney. Maybe she'll pinpoint some of our nation’s great undisclosed locations (Oct. 24). Or, at the very least it will help one little girl find her way in Eloise in Hollywood, by Kay Thompson, Hilary Knight, J. David Stem, and David N. Weiss. Which two of those authors do you suppose refused to ask for directions to Tinseltown in the writing of this book? (Oct. 24.)

Kid-tested, mother-approved: Fans of Jan Karon’s bestselling Mitford Years series might find their pre-schoolers delighted with Violet Comes To Stay. In this tale inspired by Karon’s character Cynthia Coppersmith, Father Tim’s wife, writer Cynthia Cecka fashions a story about a wayward white kitten who finds hospitality and comfort in a bookstore. Well, who doesn't? (Oct. 19).

Everybody talks about the Weather Fairies, but no one does anything about them! Here’s your chance to pick up an ideal stocking-stuffer with Evie The Mist Fairy (Weather Fairies), by Daisy Meadows (Nov. 1). At the other end of the size spectrum is a fascinating book about a fascinating subject -- neither of which can be considered ideal stocking-stuffers -- Elephant by Steve Bloom. A title simply put, but after 12 years in the making, this is a book with a tightly-packed trunk full of details about our pachydermic pals, in words and often surprising photographs (Dec.1).

Compared to such ginormous jumbos, you'd think the care and feeding of your sprites would come a little easier, especially after reading, um, Care and Feeding of Sprites (Spiderwick Chronicles) by Holly Black (Nov. 1). Perhaps you can placate them with Mouse Cookies & More: A Treasury, by Laura Numeroff (Oct. 24.) A Box Full of Lilly by 2005 Caldecott Medal Kevin Henkes might also make a nice gift, of the inedible kind, that is (Oct. 17).

So would Madonna’s The English Roses, Too Good To Be True. Or should you spring for that $150 Collector’s Edition Box Set of Madonna’s The English Roses/The English Roses: Too Good to Be True? (November-ish.) Talk amongst yourselves while I list some of the more notable and strictly Christmassy Christmas books:

Bah! Humbug? by Lorna Balian (Oct. 28)
Christmas Pop-up by Robert Clarke Sabuda (now available)
Christmas Toy Factory by Geronimo Stilton (now available)
Mary Engelbreit's A Merry Little Christmas: Celebrate from A to Z by Mary Engelbreit (now available)
Miracle on 49th Street by Mike Lupica (Oct. 24)
Pablo's Christmas by Hugo C. Martin (Oct 28)
Snowmen Pop-Up Book by Caralyn Buehner (Oct. 19)
This Is The Stable by Cynthia Cotten (Oct. 31)

This is the end, of both the end and beginning. For now.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Book Review: The Black Dahlia Files - The Mob, The Mogul, And The Murder That Transfixed Los Angeles by Donald H. Wolfe

Amazingly enough, The Black Dahlia Files’ subtitle -- The Mob, the Mogul, And The Murder That Transfixed Los Angeles -- doesn’t quite say it all. The alliteration and the intimation are there, but the breadth and depth of the book's implications are barely alluded to in an unsolved 60-year old case that took in many elements and considered varied personalities from Bugsy to Bumstead -- Mob boss Bugsy Siegel to the Blondie movies’ Dagwood, Arthur Lake, that is.

In retracing that transfixing story behind the murder of the would-be starlet Elizabeth Short -- the subject of a recent Brian De Palma screen treatment of a James Ellroy novel -- Donald H. Wolfe delved into recently unearthed case files that had been buried in the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office since the black-haired beauty's bisected body was found January 15, 1947 in a vacant lot. Or, to be more precise, found in a symbolically ritualistic manner in what may have been more than just a randomly selected dumping ground.

This is just one of a multitude of findings, one layer of an intricately interlocking set of circumstances discovered as the investigative Wolfe draws on personal knowledge and delves into those “catacombs of money, power, and influence.” The outcome constitutes an ultimately convincing and level-headed account, and casts a substantial net, from the coast to coast travels of "The Black Dahlia" and, within Southern California, her wanderings from Santa Barbara to San Diego.

What helps make Wolfe escape conspiratorial crackpot charges, and what makes Files so credibly convincing, is that he uses some of Southern California’s usual suspects in mid-20th century sleaze and open secrets -- the corrupt police department on the take, organized crime, movie industry sordidness, and a sensationalistic press that will look the other way when it serves them to -- as springboards for substantiations of collusion and cover-up.

If you didn’t before know the extent of the inextricable and historic links between crooked L.A. cops at all levels and the Syndicate, and how the newspapers and film studios fit into this deceitful web, Wolfe presents a seamless case. Moreover, the author shows how all these forces kicked into cooperative overdrive when Short, her Tinseltown dreams turned into a nightmarish call-girl existence, finds herself pregnant by the most powerful man in the city, the Los Angeles Times’ publisher Norman Chandler.

As a man who can control the editorial and news slant of his leading newspaper, who influences which shady politician is elected mayor or which minion police commissioner, and who determines the course of contending mob wars and violence, Chandler wields overwhelming command over the fate of the city - a domination that can’t be jeopardized by a scandal that could trigger outcry from competing newspapers and opposition from an unaware public.

In providing explanations of why LAPD officials were actually railroading innocent “suspects” and how the newspapers purposely published misleading stories, Wolfe names names -- including that of the murderer -- and details the particulars of the murder itself. Taking his incisive analysis beyond the speculative realm, the author uses and cites a barrage of documented proof -- and many of these archival photographs, investigative reports and news clippings make it into the body of the book or are included in the abundant appendixes.

While the demoralizing "fact that the Black Dahlia case had been handled by the enforcers of the city’s vice-ridden underworld was a confidential manner hidden from the public for more than fifty years,” it is nonetheless a relief that there were a few heroes and principled institutions. Wolfe makes sure these honest detectives, journalists and newspapers are duly acknowledged, even if they faced demotion or retaliation at the time.

In addition to Wolfe’s expressive page-turner style that successfully conveys Short's ever-edgy sense of terror and desperation, this kind of attention to detail is another indication of Wolfe’s comprehensiveness and conscientiousness as a writer, marking a cohesive and riveting read and assuring The Black Dahlia Files its likely status as the most definitive book on the subject to date.

Vinyl Tap: Vanilla Fudge

I get a new turntable and dust off some old records. Vinyl Tap #28: 

The few seconds of technical gibberish at the start of Vanilla Fudge ends with a promise: “Ultra-Sonic Operating Level - Set Pleasance Control.”

In “All You Need Is Pretension” ‘67 that could mean just about anything. With Vanilla Fudge it mostly meant slowed-down psychedelic-sludge cover songs sustained at times beyond endurance and identification. The group first got notice and radio airplay with their 7:20 minute version of the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hanging On,” and with their self-titled debut album they also take a similar diversionary tack with the Beatles, Curtis Mayfield, Sonny and Cher, and the Zombies.

Sandwiched in between tracks of ham-fisted and heavy-icious style -- if not necessarily substance -- are Fudge’s original cacophonic-calliope of confections, “Illusions Of My Childhood,” that total slightly over a dispensable minute of out-dated freak-out filler.

The Beatles songs that open and close Vanilla Fudge, “Ticket To Ride” and “Eleanor Rigby” respectively, comprise a different and contrasting kind of filler that won‘t make you forget the Carpenters or Ray Charles - let alone the fab four themselves. Except for the brown-acidic and bloodcurdling flying-monkey screams at the end, "Ticket" sounds not unlike the Rascals on lithium (or as you might imagine that would sound). This relatively straightforward approach is refreshingly put to better blue-eyed soulful use on the Impressions’ “People Get Ready” and the Jackie Ross/Evie Sand hit “Take Me For A Little While.”

The stoned-out eight-minute “Eleanor Rigby,” on the other hand, is too fragmented and disjointed to be effective, especially when it verges in earnest on William “Golden Throats” Shatner-style histrionics and melodrama, such as in the highly-wrought and sibilantly whispered aside, “No… one… wasss… savedddd…”

Maybe it is “nothing to get hung about” -- as Fudge sneak in a little “Strawberry Fields” snippet -- but the same kind of fussy elaboration mars Sonny Bono’s “Bang Bang” just as the In-A-Gadda-Da-Hammond-heavy noodling of “She’s Not There” takes all the fun out of a great pop tune.

Even so, “You Keep Me Hanging On” still sounds pretty tantalizing all these years later - but in a little-goes-a-long-way manner. Though the group began to merge some original material into their hit-and-miss work, there seemed little need to belabor the long-drawn-out covers-conceit over the course of a few more albums.

Vanilla Fudge can, however, be cited as a precursor to heavy metal and they went on to other career highlights, including touring with Jimi Hendrix and also headlining with an early-on Led Zeppelin as their opening act. A couple members also formed a short-lived power trio with Jeff Beck -- Beck, Bogert, and Appice -- in the early '70s. 

But Vanilla Fudge's time-lag miasma of sonic molasses just keeps me hanging on and on a little too much.