Before this Christmas season draws to an official close (there are twelve days of Christmas, y’know), I thought it worth noting one new addition to the already-gargantuan and ever-increasing library of Christmas albums. (I love great Christmas music and am known to listen to it in July.) It is a record titled Baby, It’s Cold Outside by a lady singer named Cerys Matthews, who emanates from the nation of Wales. She is little known west of the Atlantic Ocean, though she’s had quite an interesting and eclectic career, leading a rock/pop band by the name of Catatonia during the nineties, later going to live and work in Nashville for a few years and producing more folky/countrified kind of work, and in more recent times recording and releasing her renditions of traditional Welsh songs (and this album features one titled “Y Darlun”).
Similarly, “Go Tell It On the Mountains”—surely about as hackneyed a folk-hymn as one could name—is performed here as if it was composed yesterday, with a fairly overflowing spirit of gladness and urgency.
With a title like Baby, It’s Cold Outside, one might well assume that this was a swinging Dino kind of Xmas record, but that track is very much the exception, and in more ways than one; in fact, it’s probably best to circle back to it at the end of this little review. In actuality, this is an album of traditional and predominantly religious Christmas carols, performed in a sparse, folk-like context, albeit pretty far from any idea of folk purism. The central success of the album is in enlivening and refreshing these old tunes, like “Good King Wenceslas” and “We Three Kings Of Orient Are,” with live-in-the-studio performances that are just off-center enough to be interesting to the ear (with the odd exotic instrument thrown in), and which at the same time communicate an infectious sense of joy and mystery. Even “Jingle Bells,” which to me is probably the most annoying song to have to hear again and again during the holiday season, is performed winsomely enough here with banjo and sleigh-bells to raise a fresh smile. Similarly, “Go Tell It On the Mountains”—surely about as hackneyed a folk-hymn as one could name—is performed here as if it was composed yesterday, with a fairly overflowing spirit of gladness and urgency. That’s no small thing. Continue reading Cerys Matthews – Baby, It’s Cold Outside (Christmas Classics)→
“Revisionist Art: Thirty Works by Bob Dylan” is on show at New York City’s Gagosian Gallery. It was unveiled last Wednesday and runs, God willing, until January 12th, 2013. I was slightly surprised to hear that Dylan was having another show at the Gagosian. It was little more than a year ago that they hosted his “Asia Series,” which visitors were led to believe had sprung from his time spent traveling in Asia, but turned out to be sourced directly from a bunch of old photographs (taken by other people). I thought at the time that this might be a little embarrassing for the gallery. But, I guess it’s true what they say: There’s no such thing as bad publicity. And, indeed, I think that old adage would make a pretty good subtitle for the current exhibition, a display of thirty re-imagined American magazine covers which is part burlesque show and part horror show, with the lines pretty blurry between the two.
In addition, it is quite comic. At least, the missus and I did our fair share of chuckling as we perused the thirty silkscreen-on-canvas creations. The handful of other visitors who were there at the time seemed considerably more somber and I hope we didn’t spoil their visit with our giggles.
The two images being used to promote the show—”BabyTalk” and “Playboy”—are quite typical of what you’ll see if you visit. Is it high art, or is it just humor somewhere on the level of “MAD” magazine? (That’s one magazine cover which is not featured, by the way.) I would say more the latter than the former, but I have neither the credentials nor the motivation to make a definite determination. One thing did occur to me: Whatever these things look like now, they will be quite a bit more interesting if they are exhibited one or two hundred years from now, as a visual commentary of sorts on America from about 1960 to 2012 by the late, great figure of that time, Bob Dylan. (Though that still doesn’t mean they are necessarily great art.)
And I’m not an art critic. Different people will take different things from looking at these works. (How often does an art critic say something like that?) But some of the things that struck me are as follows.
The photos of the women on these magazine covers run from lascivious to pornographic. Male faces and figures are usually battered and covered in blood. Sex and violence is the basic consumer product being highlighted. The porn-flick and the Colosseum. (Even the hoity-toity “Philosophy Today” features a nude woman, albeit a little more classical-looking.) The text of the various headlines then reads like a hierarchy of consumer interest: vanity, gossip, conflict, and a little something cultural or intellectual tossed in like salt and pepper. The names of politicians, celebrities and the references to events in the news (notably wars) are interchangeable and bear no relation to the dates on the magazine covers, conveying a sense of there being a continuum of all the same kinds of stuff repackaged and resold over and over again. Continue reading “Revisionist Art” by Bob Dylan at the Gagosian Gallery in New York→
It was Kingsley Amis who introduced me properly to gin.
I would like to say that it was at some soirée hosted by that famous (late) English author, but no; it was instead in a collection of his writings on alcohol-related topics, titled Everyday Drinking, released in 2008, with an introduction by another well-known (and late) English drinker, Christopher Hitchens.
I say that Amis introduced me properly to gin because my first (most improper) introduction was of a character I’ve found to be all too common among my peers. As a young lad, I was in some social situation or other where the only available alcohol was gin. I drank it, mixed perhaps with tonic (or maybe with some kind of lemonade—I can’t remember), and found it went down easily and promoted cheerfulness on my part and that of my acquaintances. A little being good, it seemed a cinch that a lot would be better, and indeed it was. Until, that is, the morning, when I awoke with a kind and degree of hangover that I’ve never experienced before or since. Without ticking down through the more well-known symptoms, my overwhelming feeling was that I had drunk several pints of window cleaning solution (the blue kind, with ammonia, not the eco-friendly type you see around these days). The taste in my mouth, which would not leave, was such that I believe I could have licked clean all the windows of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and still had potency remaining.
I swore never to touch the stuff again, and kept to that faithfully for decades, during the course of which I’ve drunk almost everything else, but gravitated mainly towards spirits, especially the Irish and Scotch varieties.
I read the Kingsley Amis collection on drinking for enjoyment and general edification, the book containing some opinions I shared and some I didn’t, some information that was interesting and some of little relevance, but all written with the Amis verve. It was his reflections on gin, however, that surprised me most, and, you might even say, turned my life around (though the final destination remains unclear). In my circles, I’d never heard someone attest to actually liking the taste of gin, on its own. This however is what Amis stated, indicating that his favored way of imbibing the old spirit (invented in Holland but adopted most enthusiastically by the British) was merely by adding a little water, and savoring the taste of the juniper berry and other assorted infused botanicals. This was fascinating to me, and presented the challenge of confronting that old demon from my past head-on, without any buffer such as tonic or even vermouth. As one gets older, one realizes that acquired tastes are, after all, the ones truly worth acquiring, and I thought I would give this one a try. Amis had fairly catholic tastes in gin—speaking well of the readily available and reasonably-priced Gordon’s—but seemed to have some difficulty identifying water of sufficient quality so as not to ruin his drinks. This didn’t surprise me so much, considering his context of time and place in England. However, I live in New York City, where we are blessed to have the best water in the world running for free through our very faucets. (Fresh out of the faucet it can be uneven, but if you let the tap run a little while, then fill up a bottle and put it in the fridge overnight, in the morning you will have a liquid so wonderful and clear and refreshing as to make the product of those Polish springs seem by comparison something more akin to milk of magnesia).
Cutting to the chase, I found myself in agreement with Amis. Gin could indeed be a wonderful drink in and of itself, with delicate and undulating subtleties of flavor and aroma. What’s more, due to its relative purity as compared to whiskies, it is actually far less prone towards giving one that terrible hangover. It is in the mixing of gin with tonic and other beverages that the mischief is wrought (though naturally excessive consumption is inherently bad and be sure to consult your doctor before adopting any new diet or fitness regimen mentioned in these pages).
Discovering a way of appreciating this heretofore-shunned spirit opened up a new world. There are lots of gins, at just about every price-point. I quickly found that I preferred what I perceived to be the ginnier gins; that is, those still most loyal to the distinctive flavor of the juniper, as opposed to those that lean far towards very citrusy and orangey flavors and seem instead to be gins for people who don’t like gin. That includes some quite expensive and fashionable brands.
This piece, however, is in the end intended as a review of just one: Fleischmann’s gin. Amis certainly didn’t deal with it in his book, as it is not even an English gin. It was, in fact, the first American gin to be distilled, beginning in 1870. And much of its marketing and claim-to-fame during the hey-day of cocktails, sixty years ago and more, seems to have been that as an American gin it was well-suited to gin cocktails which originated in America, notably the martini and Tom Collins. The ads proclaimed it as being more mixable.
In the glass, both straight and with a little water, my first impression of Fleischmann’s (which I have not had reason to revise since) was that it possessed about the same flavor balance as Gordon’s (surely about as uncontroversial and plain an English-type-gin as you can find) but was distinctly milder and smoother. That might be a pro or con for some. Sipped in a glass with a splash of cold water and/or a nice clean ice-cube, it’s quite easy to forget you’re drinking much of anything at all. However, since it is 80 proof you will eventually realize it (although it should be noted that it and a number of other currently-80-proof-gins were once sold at 90 proof and more, so they are not precisely the same spirits they were decades ago). Another perspective would be that its mild flavor demands that you savor it all the more carefully. Continue reading Fleischmann’s Gin (and Some General Notes on Gin)→
I like to tell myself that I make my computers earn their purchase price, and then some. My chief working computer for nearly the past six years has been a Dell Vostro laptop. When I bought it (if I’m not mistaken) George W. Bush was in the White House and Dennis Hastert was still Speaker of the House. (“You don’t say, Grandpa! And the wolves in Wales?”) I never upgraded the operating system from XP or even boosted the 1 GB RAM with which it came. The machine served me very well, frankly. Any significant problems I had while using it were always software-based. Until, that is, the most recent problem, when it abruptly shut off while I was doing nothing in particular. It just went “pfft,” like an old TV set being turned off. It wouldn’t go back on, then, but it did some hours later, as if nothing had happened. Still, I had to believe that the old boy was telling me to prepare for the day when he just wouldn’t be able to spin that hard disk anymore. It was clearly time.
I’ve used Dell personal computers for a long, long time, and similarly have never had a major complaint about the hardware. That’s why I’ve kept using them. If it works, why mess around? (You might call it the essence of the conservative ethos.) However, times and circumstances change no matter how you might try to keep them static. Money being an issue, it seemed like a wise juncture at which to see if more could be had at my preferred-price-point from a different manufacturer.
I eventually concluded that this was indeed the case. Looking at the lowest priced 15.6″ laptops, Acer seemed to be offering the most bang for the buck, and getting (generally) favorable reviews while doing it. I could get a 2.13 GHz (Pentium) machine with 4 GB of RAM from Acer for significantly less than a machine with those same properties would cost from Dell. So, in the end, that is what I did. Continue reading Acer Aspire Laptop Computer→
Hank Williams’ voice is a unique and a gigantic one in American culture, which means that it is also one familiar to those who listen to popular music all across the world. Hank Williams is recognizable singing, say, “I Saw The Light,” or “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” even by people who couldn’t remotely be described as fans, in the same way as Bing Crosby is instantly recognizable singing “White Christmas,” or John Wayne is instantly recognizable in a cowboy hat saying, “The hell I won’t!” Hank Williams is just there as a reference point like the pyramids of Egypt or the Grand Canyon.
In speaking of Hank Williams’ voice, however, I very much mean it both in the sense of the instantly-recognizable product of his vocal cords and in the sense of what that voice has to say: how Hank Williams in singing a song describes the world, captures an emotion, issues a plea.
Although he died at the age of 29, Hank Williams is a patriarch of country music (if it’s legal to use the term patriarch anymore) but he is also much more than that: he is both patriarch and patron saint to songwriters everywhere, and to discerning aficionados of the art of song across all genres. No one lays it out there quite like Hank Williams did over and over again in his short songwriting career, with such a devastating combination of depth, honesty and economy. Even his more light and humorous songs are models of how to write a tune that’s instantly accessible, unpretentious and utterly timeless. Continue reading (Review) The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams→
Tony Bennett isn’t very well known for whispering. He’s a big singer—not in the sense that he over sings, but he certainly is known for the power to belt it out above muscular backing bands, and through his career he’s done plenty of that, and to good effect. And even in the plethora of latter day albums he made with the Ralph Sharon Trio, there’s a sense of grandeur to the backing that belies the actual simplicity of piano, bass and drums, and Tony often sings on those albums as if in front of a big orchestra. And that’s something in itself. But for true flat-out intimacy, there’s nothing he’s ever done that exceeds the Rodgers and Hart Songbook.
In 1973, Bennett saw trumpeter Ruby Braff and guitarist George Barnes leading a quartet in New York, with Wayne Wright on another guitar and John Giuffrida on bass. He sat in with them live, it went well, and one thing led to another. They went into the studio and over the course of a few days recorded twenty songs by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Continue reading Tony Bennett Sings the Rodgers and Hart Songbook→
Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart. (Psalms 51:6)
I remember when I first heard Ron Sexsmith; not in a JFK-getting-shot sense, but generally that it was in the first half of the 1990s and the song was Secret Heart. It seemed like a good song, and the singer of it seemed likely to be a solid sort. Some people were saying that he was “the new Bob Dylan.” Well, just like all the other new Bob Dylans, he was nothing of the kind and that manner of talk didn’t help him; he was, instead, the current Ron Sexsmith. And that wasn’t such a bad thing at all. Sexsmith is a (Canadian) songwriter with a gift for an instantly seductive pop/folk/rock melody, a facile way with a lyrical narrative and the ability to produce really charming and sometimes deeply poignant turns-of-phrase. Better yet, he can combine all those elements into a whole that seems utterly unforced. (That seamless combination may be the toughest trick for would-be pop songwriters — not to mention some practicing ones.) He’s essentially a confessional-type songwriter, but one who generally avoids tripping into the excessively lugubrious or precious. Continue reading Ron Sexsmith: Long Player Late Bloomer→
Former mayor of New York City Ed Koch must have been feelin’ pretty groovy when the 59th St. Bridge was renamed in honor of Hizzoner. Koch is a big, likeable personality and a quintessential New Yorker without any doubt. Yet, it’s a little bit funny, this renaming of a bridge for him. Were the Koch years (1977 – 1989) such great ones for the city of New York, honestly? There were 2,246 murders in New York City in 1989 – the final year of Koch’s third and final term as mayor. By comparison, in 2009, there were 778 (the source I’m referencing doesn’t have figures for 2010 yet). Crime isn’t everything, but in New York City, it’s a helluva lot. The insecurity that rising crime gave to the city, from the mid-1960s on, fostered a sense of decay and futility, which fed itself and led to more crime. It ate at the city economically and spiritually; how could it not? It wasn’t all Koch’s fault, by any means, but he had three terms to make a dent in it. He didn’t. The annual murder rate remained well over 2,000 during the term of Koch’s successor, David Dinkins, but then started dropping dramatically under Rudolph Giuliani and his revamped policing strategies, beginning in 1994. Continue reading Lou Reed – New York→
It’s 1956, and you’re Bing Crosby. (Would I lie to you? And isn’t life better this way?) You’ve been a recording artist for more than twenty-five years. You are one of the originators of popular singing in the age of the microphone and the gramophone record. In your day, you defined hip, and the name Der Bingle struck terror into squares everywhere. But it’s not quite your day anymore. Sinatra is wowing the world (in the third stage of his career, no less) with his lush and/or swinging long-playing concept records, arranged by brash young geniuses like Nelson Riddle and Billy May. Ella Fitzgerald just recorded her first songbook album (Cole Porter) with the barely pubescent arranger Buddy Bregman. It’s doing well. You are given the chance to do an album with Buddy Bregman yourself, on the Verve label. What do you say? Continue reading Bing (Crosby) Sings Whilst Bregman Swings→
I haven’t finished reading the book, so this is not a proper review, as such. But, based on leafing through this 815 page tome, and having now begun reading it properly from the beginning, it’s safe to say a few things about it right off the bat. It is a monumental work, quite unlike your average book from a political figure, memoir or otherwise.
I expect it will be characterized in the near term by critics based largely on political bias: Rumsfeld’s many enemies, both on the left and right, will give it short shrift. His friends — a subset of the political right in America — will laud it. Continue reading Rumsfeld Rules: Known and Unknown→
I like James Ellroy. My favorite book of his — and I think his greatest — is American Tabloid,which is a take like no other on American history from 1958 to the end of 1963. Unlike the JFK conspiracy tracts and movies which beg you to accept their veracity but can’t escape their basis in puerile phantasm, American Tabloid — while not pretending to be anything other than complete fiction — can leave a reader wondering how in hell it could not be the truth. It’s so real, so perfect, so true to human nature. It is dirtier than any conspiracy theory, and messier and far more believable than any politicized take could be. As a literary achievement, it’s hard to argue that it is not Ellroy’s finest hour; all the darkness, madness and obsession is kept just enough in rein with a narrative that burns high-octane all the way yet somehow keeps driving within the lines of a crazy whiplash highway.
This new book is a memoir, with the pointed subtitle: “My Pursuit of Women.” The “Hilliker” of the curse named in the main title is Jean Hilliker, which is the maiden name of Ellroy’s mother. She was murdered in 1958, when James Ellroy was ten years old. Months previously Continue reading The Hilliker Curse, by James Ellroy→
It’s said to be the final song that Johnny Cash composed, titled “I Corinthians 15:55,” and the refrain goes like this:
Oh death, where is thy sting?
Oh grave, where is thy victory?
Oh life, you are a shining path
And hope springs eternal just over the rise
When I see my Redeemer beckoning me
The first two lines are the ones cited in the title, from St. Paul, but Paul in his turn was quoting Hosea 13:14 in that particular passage. As goes Scripture, so goes country music: The great lines are reused forever. Cash would have known well that he was invoking both the Old and New Testaments there, and the resonance of a promise that doesn’t fade.
This song is the fourth track and the heart of the new, posthumously-released Johnny Cash album, American VI: Ain’t No Grave. (It is the sixth in Cash’s “American Recordings” series, produced by Rick Rubin, the first of which was released in 1994.) By itself, “I Corinthians 15:55” must make most listeners grateful for the Continue reading Johnny Cash: Ain’t No Grave→
Together Through Life, the album just released by Bob Dylan, has entered both the U.S. and U.K. charts at the number one position, and is at or near the top of the charts in numerous other countries across the world. Dylan appears to be doing something very right, in commercial terms, at the ripe old age of 68, but I question whether even he has any firm idea of what that might be. One thing for which he doesn’t get much credit, but which I think has paid off for him in the end, is his consistency. The curious thing is that his kind of consistency has often been portrayed instead as a mysterious and chameleon-like series of transformations, perhaps largely because of a failure by commentators to grasp the nature of the steadiness at the core of his work. Average listeners may well appreciate it better than the storied rock critics who have filled shelves with books on his songs and his various phases and incarnations.
I think that his consistency extends to his tastefulness (in musical terms), his instinct for spontaneous and dynamic creativity in the studio, and his particular way of looking at the world in his songs. Although all of these qualities are apparent on the new album, it is the latter one that is perhaps the easiest to contemplate in print. Continue reading Together Through Life – Bob Dylan→
I purchased the RCA RP5435 AM/FM Clock Radio with an extra-large 1.4-inch display yesterday. And yes, I did it because (without my glasses on) I am virtually blind, at least when it comes to objects at a distance. I did not buy this clock radio for the various sexy selling points described on the box, such as the automatic time-set (which just means it’s preset at the factory, by the way), or the audio input for an mp3 player (I like waking up to the news headlines; I guess getting angry and disgusted helps me get out of bed), or the “programmable snooze & sleep” (I can’t imagine a single circumstance where I’d want to use that). I bought it because I wanted a clock radio with big numbers that I could easily see when I wake up in the middle of the night.
The thing is, if you wake up in the middle of the night and have to really strain your eyes or move some distance to read the clock (let alone put your glasses on), then it’s that much less likely you’re going to get back to sleep with any ease. Yet, the one thing I most want to know when I stir at night is: “What time is it? How many more hours do I have left to sleep?” I’m certain that I am far from alone in this. It’s such a heavenly pleasure to discover that you still have most of the night ahead, especially if you feel that you’ve already been sleeping a long time. It is of-course highly demoralizing to discover that only about an hour remains, especially if you feel totally wrecked. But these things must be faced, and the desire to face them is evidence of the deep and unalterable human yearning for truth. Continue reading The RCA RP5435 AM/FM Clock Radio: A Timeless Tale→
A few years ago, at the age of eighty, Samuel Menashe became the first recipient of the “Neglected Masters Award” from The Poetry Foundation.
And a master he is, without much doubt. I suppose that almost any worthy contemporary poet might qualify to be described as “neglected,” at least relatively speaking. After all, in these modern times when our entertainment comes buzzing down wires at the speed of light directly into our veins and our neurons, even to slow down sufficiently to pick up and read a book of poetry is to flirt with a possibly fatal whiplash injury.