Category Archives: Music

The Cinch Review

Leonard Cohen on Being Jewish

Leonard Cohen on Being Jewish

Speaking of unnecessary yet needed things, Leonard Cohen (now an octogenarian) has just released a new album, titled Popular Problems. At a press availability in London (parts of which can be heard on BBC Radio 6), he was asked among other things about religion, and specifically how close he feels to his Jewish roots, and how that might manifest itself in his writing and his music. He answered:

Well, I grew up in a very conservative, observant family, so it’s not something that I ever felt any distance from, so it’s not something I have to publicize or display, but it is essential to my own survival. Those values that my family gave me—Torah values—are the ones that inform my life. So I never strayed very far from those influences.

It might actually surprise many to hear him speak in this way and also so directly on this, although perhaps it is uncommon for him to get asked the question so directly. Continue reading Leonard Cohen on Being Jewish

Frank Sinatra It's Sunday

“It’s Sunday” – Frank Sinatra with Tony Mottola

It's Sunday Frank Sinatra Tony Mottola

The 1980s did not produce many great Sinatra recordings (although by then, after all, he’d already put enough in the can for three or four “normal” great careers). She Shot Me Down (1981) certainly has some marvelous tracks, but L.A. Is My Lady (1984) is a strange disappointment as what turned out to be his last proper studio album; it must have looked good on paper, with Quincy Jones producing and some solid material, but Frank sounds oddly absent throughout and it’s not entirely clear if anyone else truly showed up. (In part at least this may be a mastering problem — but that’s a whole other subject.)

Still, Sinatra was doing some very fine live work during this time. His voice had declined technically as an instrument, but he knew extraordinarily well how to use it, and had the courage on stage to tackle new and interesting arrangements even with those aging pipes. A highlight of his shows in this era would always be a “duet” with the superb guitar player (and his fellow New Jersey native) Tony Mottola, on something like “As Time Goes By” or “Send in the Clowns.” There would actually be three instruments on stage during these interludes: Tony Mottola’s guitar, Sinatra’s voice, and Sinatra’s microphone. Each was played masterfully. Continue reading “It’s Sunday” – Frank Sinatra with Tony Mottola

The Cinch Review

Music, Mali, Melody and Wales

West African Kora and Welsh Harp

I’ve always liked the radio. There’s a visceral affection I have for small transistor radios that transcends any feeling I could ever have for any vulgar television set. I think of all the wonders that can come out of that little box with the grilled speaker—all that I learned about music and about the world while listening to it as a young ‘un; and in the here and now, there is this love I have for radio as a medium where one’s own mind and imagination are still in play, versus that televisual medium where so much (way too much) gets hurled at you in the way of stimulation, like it or not.

And, these days, thanks to the wonder of something much more modern (the internets) you can actually access radio programs from all over the world. Continue reading Music, Mali, Melody and Wales

The Cinch Review

“Forever Young” at the 2014 All Star Game

All Star Game Forever Young Dylan Idina Menzel

At Major League Baseball’s All Star Game on July 15th, 2014, a singer named Idina Menzel sang Bob Dylan’s song “Forever Young,” before also singing the U.S. national anthem (video at bottom). Although some may have thought it was dedicated to the modern New York Yankees’ legend Derek Jeter (who is retiring this year at the age of 40) it was actually performed as a feel-good tribute to teachers.

The interesting thing about this to Dylan fans might be the evidence that “Forever Young” is one of those Bob Dylan songs that has insinuated itself into the national (and global?) consciousness to the extent that it can be referenced on such an occasion. Perhaps then it is one of those Dylan songs that will outlive even the memory of his name. That might seem an odd thought, but we don’t mind odd thinking around here. Let’s just assume for the sake of argument that the world is still around five hundred years from now. How many songwriters can you name from five hundred years ago or more? I don’t know too many, aside from King David, but there’s no question that there are countless folk songs still persisting from five hundred years ago and more, in one form or another. We ascribe them to that great composer, “traditional,” aka “trad.” I don’t know if future memories will be more accurate, or if coming catastrophes will wipe out all the millions of terabytes of data we currently have at our fingertips and people will be no better than ourselves at remembering and honoring the past. But if the name and personality of this guy Bob Dylan is forgotten, which of his songs might still persist and be sung in some incarnation? It is, I think, a distinguishing characteristic of Dylan’s that he might actually have a few that do persist in this way, as opposed to the vast majority of his contemporaries in the pop and rock idioms. Continue reading “Forever Young” at the 2014 All Star Game

The Cinch Review

“Autumn Light” – Ron Sexsmith with Don Black

Autumn Light Ron Sexsmith

I’m sure that if you are a music lover then you’ve had the experience of being suddenly struck by a song you’d heard before but had not been especially moved by until then. Music being what it is, and our brains being what they are, it just works out that way sometimes. The song might have just passed over or through you until it happened to find its moment: a moment when the right nerve of yours was exposed to be touched by it.

My own nerves are pretty well exposed these days whenever I’m on an airplane, which I have been several times lately. It’s nothing to most people, as I well know—they are blessedly able to casually leaf through the in-flight magazine or watch some meatball movie on the screen as if they’re sitting safely at home—but for me the emotions are already rising to the surface as the plane starts taxiing, and I’m praying and trying (vainly) to get my spirit right with the Man Upstairs. And at the cruising altitude of 35,000 feet or whatever insane number it is, my emotions continue to be sharpened by the knowledge that I am constantly a second or two away from a helpless and traumatic death if anything goes wrong with the plane. My only flights nowadays being trans-Atlantic ones to visit family, this is a long time to spend reconciling oneself with such finalities. Continue reading “Autumn Light” – Ron Sexsmith with Don Black

The Cinch Review

Neil Young’s Pono is Launched, and Fidelity in Digital Music Gets Debated

Pono Player Neil Young Digital MusicChampioned and promoted by Neil Young, Pono is here (at least for those willing to cough up the dough on the Kickstarter campaign).

Content for the PonoPlayer will be sold by the PonoMusic online store. The CEO of PonoMusic, John Hamm, promises “studio master-quality digital music … the way the artist recorded it.” Fundamentally, this means it will be capable of playing audio in the lossless FLAC format at 192 kHz and 24 bits, versus the 44.1 khz and 16 bit audio of CDs, and versus the MP3 and other compressed digital formats which strip data from those CD quality recordings to make the files more quickly downloadable and portable. However, the Pono player will still play those lower-resolution formats as well. Continue reading Neil Young’s Pono is Launched, and Fidelity in Digital Music Gets Debated

The Cinch Review

A Merry Little Christmas with Hugh Martin and Mark Steyn

Hugh Martin Mark Steyn Christmas

I’m cognizant that it could be considered a little odd to pen an appreciation of an appreciation, but here I do so anyway (just in case, I suppose, someone might appreciate it).

The multifaceted writer Mark Steyn recently reposted on his website an audio tribute he made to the late songwriter Hugh Martin (who died in 2011). Martin is the composer of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” surely one of the most poignant popular songs of Christmas. That was written for the 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis, starring Judy Garland, and for which Martin also wrote “The Boy Next Door” and “The Trolley Song.” Continue reading A Merry Little Christmas with Hugh Martin and Mark Steyn

The Cinch Review

Morrissey’s Seminal Influence

Morrissey Autobiography InfluenceThere’s nothing quite like the pleasure of a great EUREKA! moment, and yours truly experienced it today while reading a review of the new autobiography from Morrissey, the achingly-literate British pop-singer and songwriter and former front-man of the Smiths.

Apparently, in an aside while writing about his pop-cultural likes and dislikes during his teenage years in the 1960s, Morrissey refers to the television show “Lost in Space,” and specifically to the wonderfully-dastardly character Dr. Zachary Smith. Watching Dr. Smith’s interplay with Major West and Commander Robinson seemingly led him to the following conclusion: “Effeminate men are very witty, whereas macho men are duller than death.” Continue reading Morrissey’s Seminal Influence

The Cinch Review

New Video for “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan

New video for Like a Rolling Stone Bob DylanWhat’s this about? A “new video” for Bob Dylan’s 1965 masterpiece “Like a Rolling Stone” is to debut on tomorrow (Tuesday, 11/19/13). The Associated Press reports:

The video will allow viewers to switch between 16 different story lines that mimic television channels. The actors and hosts on each of these channels lip-sync the lyrics to the song and viewers can move from one to another during the song seamlessly. There is a Dylan channel as well that features vintage footage.

It is part of the promotion for the new Complete Album Collection Volume 1. Continue reading New Video for “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan

The Cinch Review

Lou Reed 1942 – 2013

Lou Reed, R.I.P.It was something of a shock seeing the announcement today of Lou Reed’s death. Although chronologically he was 71 years-old, and although it was known he’d been having health problems, Lou Reed seemed more ageless than most. It’s hard to recall when he might have been young. He was just … Lou Reed. Never overexposed, but popping up from the periphery with reassuring regularity.

Despite his orneriness and his sometimes arrogant persona, and despite his tendency (at least in my opinion) towards self-indulgence in his work, there was something very likeable about Lou. He didn’t just have a unique singing voice; he was a unique voice. Although his music was intensely simple, he was one of the few true stylists of the whole rock & roll circus of the last fifty years, a seminal influence to countless other performers and one who never lost his creative spark. Continue reading Lou Reed 1942 – 2013

The Cinch Review

I Love to Tell the Story

I Love to Tell the Story

The lyric to “I Love to Tell the Story,” a much beloved hymn, was derived from a poem written by an Englishwoman named Arabella Katherine Hankey in 1866, when she was convalescing from an illness at the age of 32. The full poem has 100 verses, and is divided into two parts, “The Story Wanted” and “The Story Told.” In the first part someone “weak and weary” is pleading to hear the “old, old story” of Jesus. In the second part, another voice tells the story, beginning with the fall of Adam and Eve and then jumping quickly to Bethlehem. Both parts inspired hymns; the first inspired “Tell Me the Old, Old Story,” with a tune by Willam Howard Doane. Both are beautiful and have been popular for around 150 years now, but I suspect the second one, “I Love to Tell the Story,” with a tune by William G. Fischer, is somewhat better known and loved at this stage. Instead of a tone of pleading, it offers one of uplift (which we all can do with) and the soft and subtly mournful melody is a counterpoint which ensures that the song evades any hint of smugness.

Tennessee Ernie Ford recorded both songs, and so currently affords an easy side-by-side comparison via YouTube at these links: “Tell Me the Old, Old Story” and “I Love to Tell the Story.” Continue reading I Love to Tell the Story

The Cinch Review

Paul Simon & Mark Steyn (and “Born at the Right Time”)

Paul Simon with Mark Steyn

Recently contributed by someone to YouTube is a one-hour TV interview with Paul Simon, conducted by Mark Steyn in the 1980s (embedded below). [UPDATE: The video has since been deleted from YouTube. An audio recording of the show can be found at Mark Steyn’s website: Part One and Part Two.] Some of us who are fans of Mark Steyn’s sharp-witted topical commentary are amused by the references he occasionally makes to his apparently glamorous former life as a globe-trotting hob-knobber with musical luminati. “As Paul Simon once said to me,” he’ll insert as an aside in some piece on how utterly depraved and beyond-hope the Western world has become; on other occasions it might be: “as I once said to Frank Sinatra …”

Well, there’s now at least video evidence of his proximity to Paul Simon at one particular time, and an extended time at that, talking to him at his home on Long Island and driving around Queens with him visiting Simon’s childhood haunts. And there is Steyn, the same hairy bearded guy with a very-hard-to-place accent who we know very well, except at this point he is still in possession of (quite a bit of) baby fat, so he somewhat resembles a hirsute cherub. The decline of Western civilization has clearly caused him to lose weight, and I guess that must be one of the silver linings of that particular cloud.

But you don’t see very much of Mark Steyn, because the show is actually focused on Paul Simon, who, judging by the conversation, had most recently released the Graceland album. Although about twenty-five years have passed since this interview, it is a superbly intimate portrait of Simon the artist. Steyn knows music and the art of song in particular, and he is a perceptive and sensitive interviewer. I especially appreciate the time spent on songs from the Hearts & Bones album as I harbor a special love for that record and believe that “Rene And Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War” likely still stands as Simon’s most perfect song and recording. And I say that as a serious fan who believes that every Paul Simon album (post-Simon & Garfunkel) contains multiple doozies. Continue reading Paul Simon & Mark Steyn (and “Born at the Right Time”)

The Cinch Review

Twelve Gates to the City

Twelve Gates to the City

“Twelve Gates to the City” is a classic gospel number by the Reverend Gary Davis which Bob Dylan recently sang (in Toronto on July 15th, with guest musicians Jeff Tweedy of Wilco and and Jim James of My Morning Jacket). On YouTube you might just find someone’s amateur recording of that performance, and no doubt a version or two from the inestimable Rev. Davis himself (also purchasable here). But, in advance of a brief reflection of my own on the song, here’s a different version, a live one from the very charming singer Eilen Jewell and her band.

(Their recording of that is available with other great gospel numbers on an album titled The Sacred Shakers,a side project of Eilen Jewell and various musical compatriots.)

The song “Twelve Gates to the City” was inspired by chapter 21 of the Book of Revelation, where John’s vision of the New Jerusalem is described.

It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed—on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates.

The walls of the city are said to be made of jasper, and the city itself is described as “pure gold, like clear glass.” As it happens, Bob Dylan once wrote a song of his own presumably inspired by the same passage of scripture, titled “City of Gold” (never officially released by him, but recorded by the Dixie Hummingbirds and featured on the soundtrack album for Dylan’s blockbuster movie, Masked & Anonymous).

Now, the length and width of the New Jerusalem are each specified in Revelation as being “12,000 stadia,” a measurement which in modern terms is equal to 1380 miles. That’s a heckuva big city. In fact, when you think about it, that is a city big enough for billions of people to live in. Naturally, the population density would be affected by zoning regulations, building codes and the like; on these matters, however, John the Revelator is unforthcoming. Continue reading Twelve Gates to the City

Calon Lan song

Calon Lân / A Pure Heart

Calon Lan

Still pursuing a recent obsession with Welsh music, this American-of-Irish-extraction thought he would reflect a little on the beautiful song “Calon Lân” (generally translated to English as “A Pure Heart”). It’s a song that seems to be deeply embedded in the Welsh culture, to such an extent that you could easily believe it were a much older song than it is. It was first published in 1899, which isn’t yesterday, but is certainly modern times, only fifteen years before WWI.

The lyric was written by the Welsh poet Daniel James, also known by his Welsh poetic nickname, “Gwyrosydd.” It’s reported that he wrote the words as a prayer and then later asked the Welsh tunesmith John Hughes (known also for the great melody “Cwm Rhondda”) to put it to music, which he did, promptly creating a hymn of some sublime beauty and power. Its first appearance was in a Sunday School periodical, and it became widely beloved during what is known as “The Welsh Revival” of 1904-1905, a revival of Christianity which is credited with spurring similar awakenings far beyond the borders of Wales.

The song is also one of a number of great Welsh melodies which can be heard in the classic film, “How Green Was My Valley,” directed by John Ford, from 1941.

It’s the kind of a song where I think most anyone listening to it would find it affecting even with absolutely no idea of what the words mean. I can say at least that it certainly had me reaching for a hankie the first time I heard it, though I had no tangible notion of what it was about. Somehow just the sound of the singing of those syllables and that tune left no doubt that it represented something very profound. It seemed unlikely that it was a song about, say, scrambled eggs. It came across as a statement from deep within the human soul, full of emotion; it was clearly an extraordinarily deep declaration or plea.

Quite a lot of people heard “Calon Lân” for the first time in this way when it was performed on the TV show “Britain’s Got Talent” in 2012, by a choir of young Welsh lads known as “Only Boys Aloud.” It was one of those obviously choreographed but still likeable moments when people are unexpectedly wowed. The video is embedded via YouTube below (and then below that some more scribbling from me about the song). Continue reading Calon Lân / A Pure Heart

The Cinch Review

Steyn Does ABBA; Agnetha Tries a Comeback

Steyn does Abba and Agnetha tries comeback

Mark Steyn’s paean to Swedish supergroup Abba, and their great song “Waterloo,” is his typically hilarious combination of global politics, knowing-puns and kitschy references, and shouldn’t be missed. It is also in its way a sincere appreciation of the real talent they possessed. As he points out, “[F]rom the rubble of their marriages, they produced the aching harmonies of ‘One Of Us,’ as near as pop gets to the cry of pure pain. Underneath those sequinned leotards, Benny and Björn are two of the best pop writers of the last four decades.” Indeed.

Watch out for the special effects in the video embedded below; they are far more advanced than anything you see on TV these days, and might leave you in a state of mental disarray.

I must point out that Mark Steyn errs somewhat, however, in his characterization of what the beautiful blonde former singer of Abba is up to these days: “Agnetha,” says Steyn, “is riddled with insecurity and now lives as a recluse on a remote Swedish island riddled with in-house security.” I don’t know what her living situation is like, but recluses don’t do interviews and release new records, and Agnetha has done both recently. Below via YouTube is an interview she did last week for the BBC with none other than Welsh-wonder Cerys Matthews, which affords an entertaining glance back over her career.

I’m not persuaded that the new material she’s singing is even a patch on those old Benny/Björn songs, but then really, these days, what is?


Frank Sinatra PS I Love You

“P.S. I Love You” – Frank Sinatra

P.S. I Love You Frank Sinatra

We do not here discuss the Beatles song, “P.S I Love You” (composed by Lennon/McCartney, more McCartney), fine though it is. Fifteen years ago today, Frank Sinatra died, and it’s his version of the song “P.S. I Love You,” composed by Gordon Jenkins and Johnny Mercer, that is on my mind. It is to be found on his album Close To You (and that’s not the Burt Bacharach song, although Frank did ultimately record that tune in leaner times).

This “P.S. I Love You” was written in 1934, but it was in 1956 that Sinatra recorded it, on one of his most unusual and most superb albums. Sinatra worked on this album with a string quartet—Felix Slatkin’s Hollywood String Quartet—augmented here and there by a fifth instrumentalist. The resulting record is intimacy incarnate. Every note of every track declares that the effort is a labor of love. And indeed it wasn’t a big commercial success and remains relatively obscure.

“P.S. I Love You” is perfectly representative of the mood of wistfulness, sensitivity and yearning that Sinatra, arranger Nelson Riddle and the string quartet were apparently aiming for, and which they achieved in spades. Continue reading “P.S. I Love You” – Frank Sinatra

The Cinch Review

“The Next Day” – David Bowie Video Controversy

David Bowie video The Next Day
The video for David Bowie’s new single, “The Next Day,” has aroused considerable controversy due to its portrayal of Roman Catholic clergy-folk in a rather negative light, associating them with decadence, perversion, meanness, and sundry ills. The video also features some degree of “explicitness,” and climaxes (if you will) with one of the featured young ladies spewing great quantities of blood from holes in the palms of her hands. Bowie himself performs in the video dressed in robes that some say are intended to evoke a Jesus-Christ-like figure; I can’t say I disagree with that assessment. The video features actor Gary Oldman playing a priest and was directed by Floria Sigismondi. YouTube briefly pulled it due to the “explicitness,” but it’s been restored and can be viewed at this link.

What can one say? Aside from that which seems so obvious; i.e., that this is exceedingly boring territory. Attacking Roman Catholic clergy for sexual sins and hypocrisy is hardly groundbreaking stuff in 2013. Is David Bowie feeling so oppressed that he just had to make this kind of statement? The Roman Catholic Church, and Christianity generally, is waning to such a degree in Bowie’s native Europe that this seems an egregious case of kicking someone when they’re down. However, I think that one will notice, when observing mobs, that kicking someone when they’re down is a kind of primal urge that many people feel helpless to resist. Continue reading “The Next Day” – David Bowie Video Controversy

George Jones

George Jones, Now Resting in Peace

George Jones, Rest in Peace
George Jones is reported to have died, at the age of 81, after being hospitalized in Nashville with a high fever and irregular blood pressure.

He had a life that was full—at times far too full, which makes it such a blessing that he lasted this long—yet there’s something unusually sad about the news of his loss for me today, and I’m sure for countless others. We’re commonly told of how so many people are irreplaceable, and no doubt everyone is irreplaceable, but George Jones must then count as being exceptionally irreplaceable. I wasn’t much of a fan of his as a young lad, but grew to deeply love his music in recent years. His ability to wring so many spoonfuls of nuance out of the singing of a single syllable … the peerless way in which he expressed vulnerability, pain, and hopeless love. And, then, the way at other times he could be a supreme hoot. Continue reading George Jones, Now Resting in Peace

The Cinch Review

The King of Love My Shepherd Is

Psalm 23 - The King of Love My Shepherd IsToday was what is known as “Good Shepherd Sunday” in many Christian churches, the appointed psalm being Psalm 23, and the gospel from John, chapter 10. And the second reading one may have heard, from Revelation, chapter 7, has this:

For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

It’s natural to focus on the promise of every tear being wiped away, which is that which we all long for, but the image of the Lamb being the shepherd is such a beautiful and mysterious and imponderable thing, and all the more worth pondering for that. Continue reading The King of Love My Shepherd Is

The Cinch Review

Gwahoddiad – I Hear Thy Welcome Voice – Arglwydd Dyma Fi

Gwahoddiad - I Hear Thy Welcome Voice - Arglwydd Dyma Fi

Today is Good Friday—at least for those observing the liturgical calendar followed by most Christians in the western hemisphere. It is a Christian holy day, but not a U.S. federal holiday, nor a New York State holiday, and yet, curiously, Wall Street—the New York Stock Exchange—is closed today. It’s been closed on Good Friday as a rule since its inception. Hard-nosed capitalists or no, it seems that no one has had the gumption to break that particular precedent. Well, deference to much of anything being in such short supply, I think one can only applaud it when one sees it.

My purpose today, however, is just to reflect a little on a song. I think it might be described as a Good Friday kind of song, and it’s a song I’ve grown to love, although a few months ago I had not even heard of it.

Accounts tell us that in 1872, an American Methodist minister named Lewis Hartsough wrote the lyric and the tune, during the course of a revival meeting in Iowa. The song become known by its first line: “I hear thy welcome voice.”

Yet, I’ve never heard the song sung in English, and I would guess not all that many people have.

The song was noticed not long after its first publishing by a Welsh Methodist minister named John Roberts (also known by his poetic name of Ieuan Gwyllt). He translated the song into Welsh, and I guess you could say that from there it went viral. (This being the age before antibiotics, perhaps back then they would’ve said that it went bacterial.) It quickly became a deeply beloved hymn of the Welsh, such that many presume that it has been Welsh all along. Continue reading Gwahoddiad – I Hear Thy Welcome Voice – Arglwydd Dyma Fi