Darling, down and down I go, round and round I go
In a spin, loving the spin that I’m in
Under that old black magic called love
A few months from this time of writing, Bob Dylan will be performing at a big music event in California, sharing the bill with his contemporaries–and fellow septuagenarians–the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney. No doubt the Stones will be singing “Satisfaction” and “Paint it Black,” and no doubt McCartney will be singing “Yesterday” and “Band on the Run.” And no doubt Bob Dylan will be singing … well, “Autumn Leaves,” “All or Nothing at All,” and “That Old Black Magic.” You have to pause a moment to contemplate how wonderfully absurd and amazing that actually is. In his most recent shows, more than a third of the titles in his set list have been what we might call these “Sinatra” songs, and of the “Bob Dylan” songs in the show most have been from the past decade and a half or so, with only 3 dating back to the 1960s or 70s. And although some concert attendees have been heard griping (and when has that not been true at a Dylan show?), the most notable fact is that he’s actually been getting away with it in quite fine style. Dylan is conspicuously deriving great joy from singing the standards and puts his whole body and spirit into the effort. Singing these gorgeous old tunes (from songwriters he had some significant role in putting out of business) seems undeniably to be making his own heart feel young. Continue reading Bob Dylan – Fallen Angels (and Rising Prayers)→
There’s a communal feeling about most Christmas music. Maybe this is because we generally hear the songs in the company of others, whether it’s as we’re elbowing our way down the aisles of the department store or perhaps singing along with them in church. I think that the most special thing about Frank Sinatra’s A Jolly Christmas (Capitol Records, 1957) may well be how a very particular mood is created, quite different to that of the run-of-the-mill Christmas album. It is not so much a mood of lonesomeness (although Sinatra was well-skilled with evocation in that area) but a more nuanced and less inherently-sad sense of simply being alone at Christmas. Not miserable, and not necessarily overjoyed either, but simply contemplating and appreciating the season apart from the crowds and the relatives.
In the course of his long career Sinatra recorded plenty of Christmas music, from the sides with Axel Stordahl in the 1940s on Columbia (some very lovely stuff) to The Sinatra Family Wish You a Merry Christmas on Reprise in 1968 (predictably kind of cheesy). And these Christmas tracks get repackaged and resold over and over again. However, A Jolly Christmas is, to my mind, quite distinct. In 1957 when he went in to record it (during July in Los Angeles), Sinatra was truly at the peak of his artistic powers. Not only was his vocal ability (both the quality of his voice and his sense of how to use it) the best it had ever been or would ever be, but he was also at a peak of good taste. My theory is that Sinatra always personally had good taste, but later in his career he came to believe that his potential audience did not, and he dumbed things down at times in an effort to woo them. At this time, however, in the mid-1950s, Sinatra had a clear idea of what he wanted to do, musically-speaking, and what he was capable of, and he was able to work with arrangers and musicians of great excellence and taste themselves, and together they were able to put out records of a very high standard that in turn reached an appreciative and welcoming audience. All of these factors would never come together simultaneously again, and this is why Sinatra’s albums for Capitol Records in the 1950s stand as his greatest, and indeed as some of the most perfect examples of refined popular music that exist.
To put it in context, A Jolly Christmas was bookended by A Swingin’ Affair! (a sterling Nelson Riddle set) and Come Fly With Me (a masterpiece with Billy May). And released in exactly the same month (September of 1957) was Where Are You?, one of Sinatra’s great sets of lovelorn ballads, this one arranged by Gordon Jenkins, who likewise is the arranger for A Jolly Christmas. Jenkins had his strengths and weaknesses as an arranger, but there’s no doubting that his particular style is crucial in making A Jolly Christmas the unique kind of Christmas record that it is. Continue reading A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra→
Frank Sinatra passed away on May 14th, 1998. I recall thinking at the time that with Sinatra gone, all bets were off—anything might now happen in this sad old world. (And I think the record would show that my fears in that respect have been proved entirely correct.) Continue reading Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours→
When some Scotsmen, already distillers of Scotch, decided in 1999 to begin distilling a gin, they had the good sense not to name it something like MacAlastair’s or MacFarlane’s. I think this counts as a case of mind over matter: no matter what the gin tasted like, with a name that evoked Scotland and Scotch whisky, it would simply not taste right. Instead they christened it Hendrick’s, a name seemingly well chosen for its lack of a very obvious national character. It sounds like a name from the British Isles, to be sure, but from where within them, precisely? It stands fairly solidly on its own, a fate that the distillers may well wish for their gin. Continue reading Hendrick’s Gin→
Hullabaloo is the eighth full-length solo album from Cerys Matthews, and the second to be devoted largely to traditional Welsh songs. It is in fact very much a sister album to 2010’s TIR, which was packaged similarly with sepia-colored photos from days gone by, with the songs’ lyrics lovingly laid out in Welsh and English along with notes on their background. In a certain sense Hullabaloo is a mirror-image of her first Welsh-traditional collection. While TIR included some lighter numbers it was anchored by such great, stirring ballads as “Myfanwy” and “Calon Lan;” whereas while Hullabaloo has some poignant ballads it is defined more by its uptempo and danceable tunes and arrangements. And while TIR was built upon voice and guitar, Hullabaloo flaunts a great ensemble of pipes, all manner of stringed instruments, esoteric percussion and whatever might be called for at the given moment.
Cerys Matthews excels at inspiriting and refreshing old tunes, and she also excels at finding and lifting up the common thread that runs through the really great songs from a variety of musical traditions. It’s very difficult (actually impossible) to define that thread in mere words, but one shot at it is to suggest that it is one entwined with insight into that which is fundamentally human and quite often that which is sacred; and, when it inhabits a melody and a lyric, it makes for a song that can stick around for centuries. Continue reading Cerys Matthews – Hullabaloo→
I’ve always had a big soft spot for Elton John. As a kid, I was a real fan, and this was quite a while after his 1970s heyday, during a time when it was highly unfashionable to be an Elton John fan; so I endured much abuse over it, but that only made me dig in my heels all the more. And I will still make a case in hostile company for Elton John when he is doing what he does best. The question is, what does he do best?
The producer of this new album, The Diving Board, is the estimable T-Bone Burnett, and he characterizes it as being “an album of music by a master at the peak of his artistic powers.” (It would naturally be highly dismaying if the album’s producer said it was merely mediocre.) For T-Bone, it’s all inspired by the shows in America that Elton did in 1970, which broke him into the big time: just piano, bass and drums, and some incendiary performing. (Well represented on the album 11/17/70.) This album is based around the same basic trio, although there are occasionally some other colors added such as horns and backing vocals.
It’s my own conviction that Elton is at his best when he succeeds in channeling some kind of deep American rootsy-ness, letting it burst forth through his highly-English soul in his piano-playing and singing, and creating something rather unique, inspirational, charming and joyous. It might be a gospel kind of feeling, it might be R&B, it might be country and western, and Elton might be hamming it up to a ludicrous level, but when all the cylinders are firing and the song itself is good enough, Elton can really hit a height. He can get somewhere. A few examples I’ll just pick without regard to whether they are “greatest hits” or not, from the approximately 25,000 songs he’s recorded: “Honky Cat,” “Where’s the Shoorah?,” “I Don’t Care,” and “My Father’s Gun.” In addition to these kinds of tracks where Elton really “gets the feeling” (as Van Morrison might put it) there are also those occasional standout lush ballads that you just can’t not like (e.g. “Your Song“) and his super-catchy if quite inane masterworks (e.g. “Island Girl” or “Crocodile Rock“). He’s done so much stuff. But the space in between the things he does really well leaves a lot of room for things that don’t ultimately go anywhere (even if they go to the top of the charts). These are records that cannot escape being merely maudlin, or cloying, or bland. Continue reading Elton John – The Diving Board→
I guess that there are at least three obvious reasons why jazz musicians have always gravitated towards playing standards (at least as a part of their repertoire). By standards, I’m referring to the classics by the great composers of popular song of the first half of the twentieth century: the Gershwins, Porter, Arlen, Kern, Rodgers (with both Hart and Hammerstein), et al. For one, the songs are melodically appealing and harmonically interesting, and so make good subject matter for a musician and provide good jumping-off points for his or her own improvisations. A second reason—I would suggest—is that the songs are lyrically strong. Even when there is no singing (or perhaps especially when there is no singing) it is advantageous for the music to have an emotional and poetic anchor in words that may be unheard but are known to the players and likely to the listeners as well. And the third reason is familiarity itself: if your audience knows the songs, then they will more readily accept your performance and more easily perceive what you are adding to the music. Likewise, your fellow musicians know the songs, and the ways in which your rendition varies from those that have come before will define your uniqueness as a player.
When Swedish saxophonist Joakim Milder decided to record a whole album of songs by Paddy McAloon (Quoted Out Of Context – Milder PS), I guess he decided that two out of three wasn’t so bad. That is, McAloon (leader of erstwhile British band Prefab Sprout) writes songs that meet the criteria of being melodically inventive and lyrically strong, but I don’t think anyone could claim that they are well-known enough to constitute a common currency amongst jazz musicians. And in any case, Milder and his musical cohorts avoid the few obvious hits from the McAloon ouevre (e.g. “When Love Breaks Down,” “Cars and Girls,” and “King of Rock & Roll”).
The very broad and distinctly tasteful look at McAloon’s body of work that is offered by the tracklist is one of the things about the album that I liked instantly, including as it does songs like “Andromeda Heights,” “God Watch Over You,” and “I Trawl the Megahertz.” And on listening, it is simply a delight for a fan of McAloon’s songwriting to hear his material being performed with the kind of intelligence, maturity and depth of feeling that Joakim Milder and his colleagues bring to this record.
An example is better than any number of characterizations, and an ideal one is probably the version of “Nightingales.” The version by Milder and company can be heard below embedded via SoundCloud. (For comparison, the original Prefab Sprout version is no doubt easily found on YouTube, and one might even find a rare solo piano rendition by the songwriter).
The song “Nightingales” possesses a melody both gorgeous and perpetually teasing to the ear. By itself it would announce that McAloon is a rare talent. Lyrically, it is also teasing: a rhetorical, one-sided conversation about nothing less than the meaning of existence. Questions are softly posed, inadequate answers are brushed off, and a conclusion is offered that is all but proven by the existence of the song itself, in a kind of circular philosophical gambit.
Milder, with his saxophone, joins in the conversation, and adds to it. He contributes no histrionics, and does not stretch anything beyond its breaking point, but nevertheless imparts his own particular urgencies and poignancies. And the sound of the entire ensemble is a true joy of sensitivity and focus.
I could go down the list, and there would be similar observations to make about each and every track. It is that good an album. McAloon has had a fair number of cover versions recorded of his songs, but not to my mind (or my knowledge) by anyone with the kind of musical chops needed to lift the material out of a very contemporary pop context and into the more timeless zone which I think it is, at its best, worthy of occupying. That it would be a jazz instrumentalist who would do this is surprising, but surprises like this are very welcome.
The album has been out for a while, and I’ve long had it on my mind to write something about it, but the timing now is perversely apt, because a long-awaited brand new album by Paddy McAloon is being released shortly. It’s under the moniker of “Prefab Sprout,” but McAloon (who some years ago developed ear trouble that prevents him from easily working with a band) provides all of the instrumentation. It’s titled Crimson/Red, and previews suggest it is (perhaps surprisingly) a very bright, energetic collection of pop songs.
I’ll be happy indeed if it has just one or two tunes as good as the great “Doo Wop in Harlem.” A live version from McAloon and Prefab is discoverable on YouTube. The lovely rendition by Joakim Milder and company is embedded below.
1. Couldn’t Bear To Be Special
2. Doo Wop In Harlem
3. Anne Marie
4. I Trawl The Megahertz
7. God Watch Over You
8. Andromeda Heights
9. Jesse James Symphony & Bolero
10. Pearly Gates
I burst out laughing yesterday. I was listening to “Wigwam,” the version of the song on the new release from Bob Dylan, Another Self Portrait: The Bootleg Series Vol. 10, without the overdubs from the original Self Portrait album in 1970. Heard this way, it is a very unassuming performance: voice, guitar, piano: a pleasant, contemplative melody. I think that it is, in its way, a joke, however, because, while there are no lyrics, Dylan sings “la da da da” type stuff throughout. Put that together with what he said (in 1984) about the original 1970 release of Self Portrait, and how he wanted to alienate the people who were looking to him for big statements and answers:
I wish these people would just forget about me. I wanna do something they can’t possibly like, they can’t relate to. They’ll see it, and they’ll listen, and they’ll say, ‘Well, let’s get on to the next person. He ain’t sayin’ it no more. He ain’t given’ us what we want,’ you know? They’ll go on to somebody else.
Lady Gaga has released a new single titled “Applause,” the first song to be heard from her forthcoming album Artpop. (Video at bottom.) Frankly, to these ears, it is three minutes and thirty-three seconds of brain-battering bombast. Not long ago, I wrote about the recent Miley Cyrus hit (“We Can’t Stop”) and—although both the song and the video have fairly obvious objectionable elements—it was possible to appreciate some qualities of the tune purely as a pop-record that were well-executed and attractive to the ear. It’s understandable why it would be a hit. Unfortunately this is not so for Lady Gaga’s “Applause,” although it is getting plenty of attention and views on YouTube and is likely to be a very big hit in the coming weeks. Purely from the point of view of sound, however, it seems like something she might have cooked up in her bedroom with an electronic keyboard in about twenty minutes. Of-course, people can dance to it in the clubs, and that might be all the success that really matters to her and her business colleagues, but as a lasting and worthy piece of pop-music it falls rather short; actually, it doesn’t even arrive.
Lyrically the song disappears into an abyss of self-regard. Gaga is aware that she’s been criticized for being highly unoriginal, and in “Applause” she seems to be basically calling out to her fans to defy her detractors:
I stand here waiting for you to bang the gong to crash the critic saying
Is it right or is it wrong?
If only Fame had an IV
Baby could I bare being away from you
I found the vein, put it in here
I live for the Applause, Applause, Applause …
This may all be very meaningful for Lady Gaga, but it’s a slight stretch to imagine listeners relating to it and singing along, or even remembering it a few months from now. Continue reading Lady Gaga – “Applause”→
It’s time to pause for an appreciation of what I’ve heard described as “the song of the summer.” That would be “We Can’t Stop,” by Miley Cyrus.Cyrus is twenty years-old, the former star of the Disney Channel’s Hannah Montana, a show that continues in reruns and is most popular with pre-teenage girls. Miley Cyrus has been maturing at a rapid rate since leaving that show, if maturing is to be characterized as becoming more provocatively and publicly sexual with each passing month. (For former Disney child stars, at least, that seems to be what passes for maturing.) This new record, then, “We Can’t Stop,” along with its accompanying video (embedded at bottom), establishes a new apex of maturity for Miley. The video features Cyrus and a bevy of youthful friends alternately boogieing and lounging in various states of undress in what seems like an extremely plush house that they have to themselves. Some are portrayed as sprawled either in states of exhausted unconsciousness or death. The lyric features a variety of declarations like the following:
It’s our party we can do what we want to
It’s our house we can love who we want to
It’s our song we can sing if we want to
It’s my mouth I can say what I want to
And we can’t stop
And we won’t stop
We run things
Things don’t run we
We don’t take nothing from nobody
I don’t think you have to dig too deep or enlist a professor of poetry to get at the theme of the song, which is something like this: “Life is a party. We’ll do whatever we want, however we want, with whoever we want. No one can stop us. We can’t even stop ourselves. And screw you if you don’t like it.”
[PLEASE SEE CRUCIAL ADDENDUM TO THIS REVIEW AT BOTTOM]
If vous are like moi, you certainly don’t associate France with whisky (or even with whiskey). Cognac and brandies, to be sure, but not the kind of whiskies one might order on the rocks or mix with soda and guzzle while gobbling peanuts or potato chips. So very un-French. Indeed, the one time that yours truly visited France, I tried ordering some favored spirits on the rocks, and was disappointed; the portions were skimpy, the glasses were inappropriate, the ice was bad, and the drink just plain didn’t feel right while sitting on a sidewalk in Paris. I soon realized that one should not try to drink like an American while in France. Instead, drink like the French do: alternate red wine with cappucinos, act blasé, and take August off.
Yet, it turns out that French whiskies do exist, and, like so many things both good and bad these days, they appear to be multiplying uncontrollably.
Let’s try to get a handle on at least one, recently encountered, which goes by the name of “Bastille.” The large “1789” on the bottle does not refer to the origins of the whiskey, which are considerably more recent, but instead to an event known as the French Revolution. (I suppose they don’t mind if a few impulse-buyers are fooled.)
It is described as a “hand-crafted whisky,” distilled from wheat and barley, and utilizing water “naturally filtered for centuries through Grande Champagne limestone.” It is a blended whisky. It is aged in wood casks, “including the most luxurious French Limousin oak.”
Cutting to the chaseContinue reading Bastille 1789 (a French Whisky)→
The other day we did a review of the SanDisk Sansa Clip MP3 player, which seemed a solid choice for the frugal consumer. A necessary accessory is clearly a pair of headphones or ear-buds or such. So here’s a brief look at one option, namely the Koss PortaPro headphones. They are listed at $50 but at the time of writing sell for $39.99 on Amazon.
They’ve been around a long time and seem to be quite popular. Their advocates maintain that the Koss PortaPros are a nice, affordable and portable alternative to high-end headphones. They are said to have a frequency response of 15 to 25,000 Hz. If that means a lot to you, so be it. I’m not going to belabor the technical issues. Is the sound significantly better than the $10 earphones I was using before, which I picked up somewhere I can’t remember? I cannot really assert that it is, to me. In my experience one tends to hear things pretty darned clearly through headphones or earphones that are working properly, just so long as there is not excessive ambient or background noise. (The Koss PortaPro headphones are not the noise-cancelling variety.) The chief difference I’ve found with the Koss PortaPros is instead in the area of comfort. They are well designed in this regard. I have a very large head (as you might well imagine) but these expand to fit comfortably and easily. A key comfort feature is the small cushion on each side which rests above the ears, thus reducing the pressure of the cushioned ear plates. The ear plates also pivot. So, after putting them on and adjusting them for comfort, they are very unlikely to annoy you at all, as opposed to those ear-bud things which can chafe after a short while. The metal band which goes over your head might be noticeable or might catch your hair when you’re removing it, but I suppose that’s a trade-off for portability. Continue reading Koss PortaPro Headphones→
I’m not a heavy user of portable music players. I like to listen to music the old-fashioned way: at home, in front of the speakers of my stereo system, not only hearing the music but feeling its vibrations through the floor and the air. Short of hearing it live, this seems like the most natural way of listening to music. However, when traveling or when out and about for long periods, it is certainly nice to be able to bring along some music to make the time go more pleasantly. Until recently, this occasional need was satisfied by an old Creative Zen V Plus 2GB MP3 player. It accompanied my wife and me on various trips for years, but lately has been erratically refusing to play when called upon to do so. It was time to send it to the farm where they keep the old carriage horses and those turkeys spared by presidents through the ages.
My criteria for a replacement MP3 player were simple: it needed to be low-cost and reliable. I’m not an Apple aficionado, and an iPod would be a case of extreme over-buying for my needs. I wanted something under $50. The “SanDisk Sansa Clip+” player which I settled upon is listed at $49.99 but can currently be found on Amazonfor $34.95, and perhaps even less elsewhere.
The model I purchased has a 4GB capacity. It surprised me that this was only twice as much capacity as the old Creative Zen, considering how such things have changed in the computing world, but when I received it and saw that it was also less than half the size of that old player, this made more sense. It is 2 inches long and 1 1/4 inches wide, and about as small as such a player could be and still have a readable screen and manageable controls. Anyhow, 4GB is plenty for my own purposes. For those who care to do so, SanDisk microSD or microSDHC cards can be utilized to expand the capacity by many gigabytes. It is also designed to accept a “slotRadio” card, the nature of which interests me not a bit. Continue reading SanDisk Sansa Clip MP3 Player (4GB)→
At the age of 72, most pure pop vocalists (if they’re still able to sing) are playing it safe, rehashing their tried and true work, or recording duets with friendly young stars to lift their visibility. Spirit in the Room,the new album from Tom Jones on Rounder Records in the U.S., is, however, nothing like that.
A couple of months back, I wrote at some length about the recording which is the opening tune on this album, namely Tom Jones’ rendition of “Tower of Song,” written by Leonard Cohen. I found it quite moving, brilliant and defining. I still do, and listening to the album which accompanies it does not disappoint. I think that any day would be a nice day to hear an album like this one.
There’s a certain kind of courage involved for a vocalist in tackling new material—material which has hardly been touched by other vocalists—and it’s on display here, albeit that the casual listener might not necessarily pick up on it. Since Dylan and the Beatles, the notion of “authenticity” has been very weighty in the sphere of popular music, and it’s inherently challenging for a singer to take on a song that has already been sung by those that have composed it. Tom Jones here, in collaboration with his producer Ethan Johns, shows no fear, but sings songs that have been recorded both very recently and quite brilliantly by the respective composers. That he pulls it off in each case without sounding ridiculous is no small achievement. And he generally does much better than that. Continue reading Tom Jones: Spirit in the Room→
The Old Bushmills Distillery in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, describes itself as the oldest licensed distillery in the world, and no one seems able to mount a serious challenge to that assertion. The license to distill in that spot was granted by King James I in 1608.
As with my previous considerations of Jameson and Tullamore Dew, this review is only concerned with the plain, common man’s variety of Bushmills Irish Whiskey; i.e. the Bushmills Original blend, sometimes known as Bushmills White Label or just White Bush (there being another popular but pricier blend by the same distiller called “Black Bush”). And as with Jameson and Tullamore Dew, Bushmills is a triple-distilled blended whiskey, and that’s enough on the technical end.
Speaking of Bushmills cannot but be a little personal for me. I was relatively young when I decided (or realized) that I was not cut out for drinking beer. One is always fine, but any more than that is just too much liquid. I find it wearying to consume. So, I looked to the spirit world for guidance. To order a mixed drink all the time seemed like it might be a bit fey, not to mention the link to monster hangovers. Being of Irish stock, I made a try of drinking Jameson, but as my review would’ve hinted, it did not ultimately please. I think I went straight from there to Scotches. I tried single-malts occasionally, but my standard go-to in a bar became the blended J & B. It was unostentatious, and quite sturdy enough for my youthful palate, although a little problematic to order in a loud bar since it was sometimes misheard as “Jim Beam,” which I found wasn’t my cup of tea at all. Continue reading Bushmills Irish Whiskey→
Jameson Irish Whiskey is easily the best-selling Irish whiskey in the world. It has long been a fixture as such; if a bar stocks only one Irish whiskey, it is almost certainly going to be Jameson. I’m not the sufficient historian to know how and why this came to be so. But it likely has something to do with the fact that Jameson was one of the few survivors of the destruction of a once-thriving international market for Irish whiskey, caused by a trade war with Britain and worsened by the era of prohibition in the United States, both events occurring early in the twentieth century. In addition, being a whiskey manufactured in the Republic of Ireland, Jameson has arguably generated loyalty from many Irish expatriates and their descendants, as opposed, say, to the “Protestant” Bushmills Irish Whiskey from Co. Antrim.
Whatever the reasons for Jameson coming to connote “Irish whiskey” in much of the world, I do think that Jameson’s dominance explains why Irish whiskey has had such a low status for so long. (This has been changing in recent years with a proliferation of good quality new and resurrected brands.) Jameson—and here I am speaking of the plain, ordinary type and not the single-malt and aged varietals—is simply not a good whiskey.
Before I get more specific about my dislike of it, however, I’d like to indulge in a brief reminiscence that perhaps shows how even bad liquor finds its appropriate place.
Those who traveled back and forth between Ireland and the U.S.A. in past years and decades would undoubtedly remember a strange feature of the trip: the forced stop at Shannon Airport. That is, if you had booked a flight from the U.S.A. to Dublin (the capital city on Ireland’s east coast) you would fly across the Atlantic for six and half hours or so, and then, with your destination about fifteen minutes away, the aircraft would descend and land on Ireland’s west coast, at Shannon, a place that seemed more of a glorified airfield than a true, busy international airport. Passengers would be required to leave the plane, for perhaps an hour and a half or so, and then would have to get back on so the plane could take off again for one of the shortest jaunts a jumbo jet would ever make, over what seemed just a few fields and rivers to Dublin city. Although Shannon was at one time a standard refueling stop, nobody was fooled as to why this stopover was maintained as a compulsory one for modern transatlantic airliners; its purpose was only to provide work to the employees of that airport, and to get the travelers to open their wallets in various ways. Indeed, duty free shopping originated at Shannon Airport. And that is not the only thing that Shannon Airport gave to the world. Continue reading Jameson Irish Whiskey→
St. Patrick’s Day is days away, and what better way could there be of celebrating the conversion of the Gaels to Christianity than to meditate upon some Irish whiskies. Indeed, were it not for Irish Catholic angst (speaking from some experience) the whiskey industry might never have flourished in that country at all.
The very word whiskey (or whisky) in English is derived from the Gaelic term for the same substance, namely uisce beatha (pronounced ishka bah-ha), which is translated literally as “water of life.” Drop a mouse in a bowl of whiskey and you’ll see how long it lives; nevertheless, even poison has its place in God’s creation, as Proverbs 31:6-7 tells us:
Give strong drink to the one who is perishing,
and wine to those in bitter distress;
let them drink and forget their poverty
and remember their misery no more.
Indeed. It is not for yours truly to review any top-shelf whiskies; I am just not a top-shelf kind of guy, as my friends would readily attest. Instead I plan on looking at three of the old mainstays: Jameson, Bushmills and Tullamore Dew—the plain versions, not the new-fangled single malt variations and such.
I will begin with the latter of the three. Tullamore Dew is a blended Irish whiskey. It shares the most common characteristic of Irish whiskies, namely that it is triple distilled. (Rumors that St. Patrick used the process of triple distillation to explain the Holy Trinity seem unfounded, however.) And as opposed to most Scotch whiskies, peat is generally not featured in the Irish malting process, resulting in a smoother-rather-than-smoky finish. (I will not go further into all of the more tendentious distinctions between various types of whiskey.)
Tullamore Dew is certainly nothing if not smooth. It is so smooth that it is best appreciated neat, or with the merest splash of water, or poured fairly generously over a single ice-cube. You will hear it described by educated tasters as medium-to-full bodied, light-straw in color, featuring notes of wood and honeysuckle, with a long finish. I’d endorse all of these descriptions, emphasizing again that it needs to sipped nearly or entirely straight in order to bring its personality to the fore. Continue reading Tullamore Dew Irish Whiskey→
What is it about a great Ron Sexsmith song that can be so very pleasing and satisfying, right on the first hearing? I was trying to work that out while listening to one after another on his latest album, Forever Endeavor. For me at least I think it’s something like this: One has heard in one’s lifetime a whole lot of songs, by artists one likes a little or a lot, and there are so many instances where a song begins with promise but instead of fulfilling that promise it gets stuck, or reaches for a height it cannot attain. Sexsmith at his best can turn out a tune that is just so right, musically and lyrically, and seems to arrive and unfold effortlessly. He writes with an innate knowledge of so much of what’s come before him, and blends musical and lyrical references without strain.
Take just one song on this record. We’ve all heard of “Lonely Avenue,” but Ron Sexsmith gives us “If Only Avenue,” with a perfectly wistful and irresistible melody.
With the luxury of hindsight
The past becomes so clear
As I look out on the twilight
My days have become years
It’s strange, as people we’re prone to dwell
On things that we can’t undo
And we’re liable to wander down
If Only Avenue
Cue the wonderfully languid riff that anchors the tune, and basically there’s nothing you can say about this short, unpretentious pop song other than that it is flawless, and could easily be taken for a standard written forty years ago. As on a number of other tracks, producer Mitchell Froom has added string arrangements that are understated and apropos. The whole thing is just a sheer pleasure. Continue reading Ron Sexsmith: Forever Endeavor→
A couple of chapters into Too Many Cooks by Rex Stout, a woman named Dina Laszio, the wife of famed chef Phillip Laszio, comes to Nero Wolfe to say that she is afraid someone is trying to poison her husband. She knows Wolfe doesn’t owe her anything and probably doesn’t hold her in high regard, but in seeking his help she says, “I count on your sense of justice … your humanity … .”
Wolfe’s brusque reply is: “Weak supports, madam.” He continues by offering this typically jaundiced aphorism: “Few of us have enough wisdom for justice, or enough leisure for humanity.”
Indeed, one of the gifts which Rex Stout imparted to his creation, Nero Wolfe, was the gift for aphorism. And the one delivered there is in its way a wonderful summary of how he looks at things. He is a great detective, but he doesn’t see his role as setting the world right or solving everyone’s problems. He has a pronounced sense of his own flaws and of those things which make him ill-suited to the society of others, but he is not out to fix himself either. Rather, he endeavors to accommodate his kind of misanthropy by arranging his life in such a particular way that he deals with others only on his own terms and timing. He uses his skill as a detective to make a lot of money, and, occasionally, for pursuing an end when his own sense of self-respect is offended. He does the job, but he doesn’t credit even himself with “enough wisdom for justice,” which is a much purer concept, and certainly he does not consider that he has “enough leisure for humanity.”
Rex Stout’s series of Nero Wolfe books are so deeply beloved, I think, not because of brain-teasing mysteries—though the crime and mystery are the pegs which hold the rest—but rather the pleasure of being immersed in Nero Wolfe’s beautifully constructed household and routine, and enjoying the interplay and competition between him and his assistant Archie Goodwin—the narrator—as well as the extended family of regulars, including Fritz the chef, Cramer the police inspector, and so on. Every day proceeds with its glorious routine of a superb breakfast, a trip to the plant rooms, a ride down the elevator to the office to read the mail and possibly conduct business, an invariably wonderful lunch, another trip to the plant rooms, another interval in the office for business, an always-remarkable dinner, and then one final possibility for interviewing suspects/witnesses/clients in the office before bed. Wolfe never leaves his house for business (at least that is his rule), and rarely for pleasure, as he has arranged all of his pleasures so close at hand: his food, his orchids, his books and his beer. Continue reading Too Many Cooks (a Nero Wolfe novel) by Rex Stout→
It’s just possible that I have recently stumbled upon the explanation for the age-old mystery of “spontaneous combustion.” That’s the alleged phenomenon whereby a living thing—including most notably a human being—suddenly bursts into flames for no apparent reason. I was in bed, and our small dog was lying near the bottom of the bed, atop the bedspread, as is her wont. Her precise position was less than ideal in relation to my feet and she needed to be shifted a little bit. I have become adept at sliding her over a few inches without unduly disturbing her; or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that she has become adept at ignoring the fact that she is being slid over, thus allowing me to do it. It was completely dark in the room. I placed my hands on either side of her curled up body and gently began shifting her over. It was then that I noticed distinct if small flashes of light emanating from her body. It took me a few moments to take in what I was witnessing and to arrive at a conclusion as to what was taking place. I realized that these flashes of light could only be sparks, caused by static electricity. The heat had been on steadily in our apartment for some weeks, and I had already noticed that everything seemed pretty dried out. I’d gotten some static electric shocks myself, and the dry air was affecting my nasal passages and such. Still, this was another level of seriousness, surely; that is, the possibility that my dog might burst into flames upon my bed.
I’d avoided this much-talked-about joint British ITV/American PBS Masterpiece Theatre television series until last night, when special circumstances conspired to compel me to view it (i.e. my better half wanted to watch it). I fully understood that the show was basically a soap opera for people who are too good to watch soap operas. And there’s nothing wrong with that, per se.
Last night’s episode (Season 3, Episode 2) had multiple plot-lines promising turbulent events. A young woman was due to marry an older man with a disability, to the disapproval of some. A middle-aged servant woman in the Downton Abbey edifice was awaiting test results that might confirm that she had cancer. Meanwhile, there was much angst circulating roundabout due to the fact that money was running out to keep the gigantic household running, and the family might soon have to move from their palatial Downton Abbey structure (which appears to have about 500 bedrooms) to another site that was merely a huge mansion (containing probably only about 50 bedrooms). This would also require laying off some of the army of household servants. Continue reading Downton Abbey→