Natalie Merchant – Leave Your Sleep

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Girls and boys, come out to play,

The moon doth shine as bright as day;

Leave your supper, leave your sleep,

And come with your playfellows into the street

- Mother Goose

So begins the booklet accompanying this 2 CD deluxe set from Natalie Merchant.  The songs within, as she explains at some length, are adapted poems that she shared with her daughter to the age of seven.  All poems, therefore,  are suitable for children, and, as it should, some silliness is included.  Still, most offer a teaching frame of reference between parent and child, including opportunities to discuss the nature of imagination, logic, right and wrong, perspective, aging, cleverness, etc…  It reflects a rather intentional, challenging and Natalie Merchant - Leave Your Sleepenriching approach to raising a child in and of itself.  Maybe someone will interview her about that aspect.

Leave Your Sleep was a major undertaking.  The booklet includes photographs and brief biographies of many of the poets, providing glimpses of the people, their work, or their impact on Merchant.  They give much substance to the reading and hearing of the poems, which were by late 19th or early 20th century poets.  While most poets are likely outside the notice of anyone but literature students, she does include poems by Robert Louis Stevenson and ee cummings.  How often do listen to a CD and feel better read?  And, speaking of literature, the companion booklet itself is remarkable in its design, and it alone should be enough to persuade anyone to avoid the single “Selections from…” disk that is also available.

 

Merchant gained notice in the 1980’s as the lead singer of 10,000 maniacs, which she followed with several well received solo releases.  Though an excellent songwriter herself, this task offered her the opportunity of taking words not meant for music and applying whatever styles she found appropriate for the mood and subject of the poem.  On the face of it, that’s quite an opportunity, and Merchant didn’t limit her options.

The CD sleeve indicated over 100 musicians took part, and, in fact, they’re all listed at the end of the booklet.  Music styles include Appalachian jigs, rock, New Orleans jazz, British folk, Celtic?, orchestral lushness, and whatever else seems to fit.  The only negative is the occasional use of pipes which still irritate 13 years since Titanic over exposed them.  That’s my problem, I know.

Another kudo belongs with keeping with not just the spirit of the poems, but their words.  Merchant rarely edits a word and only occasionally repeats a line for the purpose of a musical need, and it must have been an inordinate challenge to refrain from changing the poems more observably in song.

Only one song, “Griselda,” stands out as an iPod entry, due to an identifiable rock beat and (even) a guitar solo, though personal preferences may introduce others into a shuffle mix (“The Man in the Wilderness” and “The Peppery Man,”).   But, instead of viewing this CD for “pop” value, I’m quite certain that I’ll enjoy Leave Your Sleep most when I’m able to listen to the entirety, likely reading along.

After a seven year absence from the recording world, Merchant aimed high and risked much to deposit a concept album of poetry suitable for children in an intelligent re-creation for a wider audience.  Leave Your Sleep is a triumph all around, and one to be appreciated – when in the mood.  How often I’ll be in that mood remains to be seen, but then, how often do we re-read a favorite book?

Rating: 5 of 5 Stars

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Peter Wolf – Midnight Souvenirs

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This is one of those instances where the CD cover intrigued me.  I was never a big J. Geils Band fan, but “Centerfold” never seeks to, in my daughter’s lingo, make me smile.

My blood runs cold

My memory has just been sold

My angel is the centerfold

I mean, that’s funny!  I haven’t heard anything about Peter Wolf in forever, but I sampled Peter Wolf - Midnight Dreamsa couple tunes online and decided to get the CD.  It’s  fair to say that I have no regrets.

The CD, Midnight Souvenirs, is imprinted with a clock face.  This is fitting, as it sounds like Wolf’s inspirations occur between 10:00 p.m. and 10:00 a.m.  As the title also suggests, the CD is mostly about short term relationships - the attraction, the joining, and the inevitable morning after.  If this sounds like well covered material, there’s nothing “new” about this.  But decades into his career, Wolf is exceedingly good at working his experience into song, often with great humor.

The set begins with “Tragedy,” a great duet with Shelby Lynn about a relationship that outlasts its transgressions.  In “I Don’t Wanna Know,” Wolf finds pleasure in the now of a relationship, content with lies rather than battling the complications of truth.  “Watch Her Move” falls squarely within the J. Geils Band’s lyrical and musical penchant for party songs.  If this were 1981, you would be hearing it on the radio.  It’s got a groove.  (One would never guess Wolf is 64 years old).

The set slows to an acoustic tone and the voice of a wizened bachelor with “There’s Still Time,” an interesting change of pace following the previous song.  But despite his leanings towards hormonal thinking, this song and others reflect an adult assessment.  “Lying Low” follows with almost a JJ Cale sound, a rather low but mature look forward.  “The Green Fields of Summer” is a beautifully arranged duet, this time with Neko Case, who seems to be showing up everywhere in guest spots.  

That’s a more-than-solid six songs in a row.  Things falter a bit afterwards.  “Thick as Thieves” is a good song, but it’s a misfit in this lineup, sounding like a favored left over that was inserted just to have it heard.  “Always Asking For You” is similarly a good song, but another style changeup (country this time) begins to ask a lot of the listener, especially when the previous songs were a solidly splendid mix of R&B, soul and blues.  Similarly, “Everything I Do (Gonna Be Funky)” misfires, and the largely spoken word (but clever) “Overnight Lows” is enjoyable, but becomes tiresome on repeated listenings. The final three songs close strong, though, the last of which includes a winning duet with Merle Haggard, and who knew he was still around?

Overall, this is a very well produced and warm sounding CD.  For someone who hasn’t kept up with Wolf, I found it to be very well written and very enjoyable.  Does this mean I find his songs meaningful in some way?  No.  But, his fascination with women or resulting trials are still a kick.  It’s worth a listen, or 20.

Recommended Songs: “Tragedy,” “Watch Her Move,” “Lying Low”

Rating:   4 of 5 Stars

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Long Live Rock & Roll

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Iron Man 2

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Robert Downey continues in a role for which he was perfectly cast, a selfish and narcissistic superhero who, while striving towards the virtuous, is nevertheless at peace with his shortcomings.  Just as the first Iron Man movie provided the vehicle for Downey’s personal redemptive return into stardom, Iron Man 2 offers Mickey Rourke the opportunity to continue Iron Man 2 - Robert Downeyhis comeback as well, in the form of an antagonist named Whiplash. 

Comic books have never really been only about the battles between good and evil, but about the life struggles of the person behind the mask.  The “creation story” for any superhero is the natural launching point for the first movie about any superhero.  If it’s done well, a sequel is all but guaranteed.  Still, some fail terribly from the get go (Daredevil, Catwoman, Elektra).

After that, it becomes more challenging to sustain interest in the hero, both to accommodate a dedicated fan base as well as to entertain those unfamiliar with the character.  Superman and Batman (until his re-launch as The Dark Knight) generally failed at sequels, focusing ion the creation of the villain, leaning towards the most comedic elements, and forgetting the star of the show.

The Spiderman series, however, provided a cast of better sketched characters to supplement the inevitable fight scenes, which, in a biased opinion, resulted from the soap opera approach that Marvel Comics takes to their stories rather than DC Comics’ straight laced and lackluster surrounding casts. 

Iron Man was a great movie through 90% of its length based on its humor, back story, Downey’s performance and special effects.  It breathed life into an also-ran Marvel character that suddenly became more interesting on screen than on paper.  Then, as many plots go, the story unraveled in order to meet its climatic expectations of a battle scene that couldn’t, and didn’t, end soon enough.  I guess it’s not a Hollywood “grand finale” if the last battle doesn’t last at least five minutes.

Iron Man 2 is more balanced.  It doesn’t reach the heights that the original did in the back story, but it delivers far better with its villain and concluding battle.  Mickey Rourke, an actor for whom I never particularly cared, is almost unrecognizable as Whiplash, which is a good thing.  His character is certainly evil, but he’s never given free reign to overplay his character and is, in fact, largely muted through the use of foreign dialogue or lack of script.  Contemptuous looks are enough for a bad guy, I suppose, especially one that can slice through cars.  

Iron Man 2 - Mickey Rourke

Interestingly, where Downey succeeds at being a playboy/genius, the arch nemesis here is actually Justin Hammer, a competing military arms supplier/”genius” who hires Whiplash to undo Stark.  Sam Rockwell’s character is paper-thin and cartoonish, in the worst sense of the word, both in script and portrayal.  It would have been a better movie without him, as the few chuckles that resulted from his incompetence aren’t worth the pain of watching a character with no believability.

Scarlett Johansson appears as an intriguing addition to Stark Industries before she is revealed as a member of SHIELD, for the purpose of setting up additional stories to the movie franchise.  Imminently watchable, her action scene remains a bit forced, particularly in that her stunts are treated stylistically differentIron Man 2 - Scarlett Johansen  from the remainder of the movie.  Obviously, celebrity power has its benefits, and no doubt she’ll shine more later.

From a plot perspective, there’s no big deal to be found here.  There is some imagery of a “one world order” through the success of Iron Man as a war deterrent as well as the philanthropic desires for creating a better world by Stark’s father.  But, that may have over-reached and fallen flat.  So, the plot is kept fairly simple, concentrating on the characters and allowing the actors to flesh them out.    Playing it safe works well enough when gold has already been struck.

Overall, there’s far less “Wow” factor to this sequel as it’s all been seen before.  Still, it holds together despite its excesses or lapses in judgment, and it’s a very enjoyable movie.  Downey is quite the entertainer, and the special effects are eye candy.

Rating: 3 of 5 Stars

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A View to a Kill

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So, I’m comfortably reclining in seat 18A on my plane trip back from…  Well, wait a minute.  I’m not actually reclining, because if I did, the gentleman with long legs behind me would be certain to get fractured knees.  So, no.  I’m sitting rather upright.  I’m just polite that way.

I’m not particularly comfortable either.  Airplane seats, in coach anyway, don’t quite compare with the hospitality afforded by my leather recliner in my den.  They’re built to be minimally adequate for the purpose at  hand, packing as many people as possible into the cabin while minimizing the weight.  “Packed like sardines” is an overused term, but the phrase might be appropriate here for hypothetical premium sardines, which would be individually wrapped and arranged in a plain tin.  

So, then, I’m sitting rather stiffly in an upright position in seat 18A on my plane trip back from…  Well, I’m actually leaning to the left slightly, enjoying the benefit of my exclusive rights to the armrest by the window.  However, there remains the other armrest, a politer DMZ than between North and South Korea, but still coveted ground. 

First, it’s not that the dude beside me is so large that his girth precludes me from using the armrest.  .  However, that said, his left arm is braced against his side, his forearm hovering just inches above the armrest.  Formidable, he is.  If could possible tunnel under him and seize the territory, but that would necessarily include that awkward moment of “We’re touching” which would result in both of us moving our arms away, then reclaiming position, then... there would the political fallout of “I’m sorry” and “No, you go ahead” and blah, blah, blah.  Hence, “my” right armrest is effectively relegated a “no man’s zone,” fearing some mutual nuclear destruction.

Which leaves me wondering two things:

1) This guy next to me...  And forgive me for noticing things, but that’s what I’m trained to do.  Unshaven, wrinkled shirt, dirty hands, fingernails caked with dirt,  grease (paint? charcoal?) smudged blue jeans, hole-y sneakers… all enveloped in an odor of “yesterday.”  Yeah, his nuclear option is more powerful than mine, but aside from that, he’s reading a New Yorker magazine and wears a few thousand bucks of Omega on his wrist.  What’s the story here?

2) Airplane windows.  I’d really like a airplane windowwide-screen, plasma high definition experience as I look out the window, without having to pilot the aircraft.  Or a hang glider.  Or a parachute.    What’s up with the diminutive acrylic portals that are spaced conveniently as often as not?

The first, I’ll never know.  But the second is workable.  Back in my school days, such a formidable intellectual inquiry might have taken unfathomable time in a public library to research.  Today, however, the answer is only a few clicks away thanks to the Grand Enabler, Google.  Really, isn’t technology amazing?

Well, fear not!  I’ll share the answer.  A contributing factor to size, and particularly the spacing, of aircraft windows is the weakening of the hull.  If you were to have a window that cut through several vertical support struts, then repeat this around the hull, it’s reasonable to assume that a design akin to swiss cheese would not provide a desirable factor of safety. 

Also, one source mentioned the need to run cables, hoses and wires through the walls vertically, and (very pleasing) wide windows might not allow room for both the bones and the circulatory system of the plane.  I mean, we do want lights, an air nozzle, and a stewardess call button, don’t we?  Oh, and a lit reminder to keep our seatbelts fastened and not to smoke.  Those are important as well. 

Despite those two factors, the main reason for the small window size is cabin pressurization.  There’s little oxygen in the air at high altitudes (above 10,000 ft), so by pressurizing the aircraft cabin, the outside air is made dense enough that we get enough oxygen into the space to breathe normally.  Otherwise, we’d all be breathing through something like those unsightly yellow breathing apparatus that are demonstrated for emergency procedure throughout the flight. 

The engineering obstacle, as documented by some earlier designs of higher altitude aircraft, is that the outward pressure on the hull (and, therefore, each window) is significant (8 psi or more).  If not designed properly, the glass would indeed burst, and then bad things happen.  Or, if placed too closely together, the thinner and therefore weaker sections of steel, rivets, Bondo, and best wishes that make up the air frame between the windows would give way, leading to the same bad ending.

In other words, no wide-screen viewing is likely for the foreseeable future.  A footnote: square windows were, by trial and likely rather unfortunate errors, gradually reduced to the rounded corners we now have as they were more likely to begin cracking in the corners.

Following related comments varying from technical questions for windows on particular models of aircraft to radiation exposures to conspiracy theories of hiding alien fleets in low orbit from passengers’ views, a favored subject is whether or not our bodies (notably, 55% to 60% water for adults) could be sucked out of a broken window at high altitude.  There is overwhelming support from the forum lurkers (which surely makes it fact) that a suddenly depressurized airplane is much like popping a balloon, only with all the pressure being ported through that single broken window adjacent to, say, seat 18A.

And it’s this kind of thinking that should persuade me to crack the knees of whoever is behind me, insert the ear-buds, put my iPod on “shuffle,” and close my eyes until I reach my fated destination.

Mythbusters, please illuminate us.

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James McMurtry – Live @ The Five Spot

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Last I saw James McMurtry, I really wasn’t familiar with his songs, but nevertheless I really enjoyed his show.  Great lyrics and great guitar will do that. It wasn’t too hard to persuade some friends (and their spouses) to see him in Atlanta.

This show would be McMurtry’s second night at The Five Spot, a small bar in Atlanta’s Little Five Points, just a couple buildings away from Variety Playhouse, my favorite concert venue.  It is said that McMurtry prefers playing in small bars, which I hope is the case because he’s deserving of a much larger crowd – such as Variety Playhouse would accommodate.

Still, it was in Little Five Points, Atlanta’s most famous intersection for alt-everything.  And, it included an opportunity to return to The Vortex, which with or without the influence of Magic Hat #9 or Laughing Skull beers, makes a very fine hamburger.  Pictured is their Tazmanian Devil, which is a 1/2 pound burger coated with a pepperberry rub and topped with pepperjack cheese and pineapple salsa. 

The Vortex - Tazmanian Devil

The Vortex is a simply a great pre-concert venue.  Their walls are decorated with ample conversation starters.  Or, finishers… it depends upon who you’re with.

We arrived at the Five Spot about a half hour before show time.  It’s rather inconspicuous, with a side entrance.

As it turns out, we could have eaten there, as tables are provided within the venue along the outer walls.  That said, I don’t think anyone had any regrets about The Vortex.  It has a full bar, a raised stage, and paintings that reflect the local constituency for sale on the walls

The tables were about full by the time we got there, and the handful of people who were left standing stayed at the bar during the opening set from Jonny Burke.  He’s apparently touring with McMurtry, and… he’s just okay.  He played some different songs since I saw him in September, but his enthusiasm doesn’t cover up for his repetition of chords and average voice. I had hoped that he would have expanded his range, but that was not to be.  I mean, he’s touring with James McMurtry.  Isn’t he learning something?

Jonny Burke

And it’s not like he was needed.   As soon as Burke left the stage, the crowd moved forward.  Even before McMurtry’s set began, it was apparent that the one or two ceiling fans were not going to come anywhere close to cooling the space.  I don’t think anyone left having positive thoughts about the venue.  Aside from the lack of A/C, there is very little frontage space across the stage, which leaves the majority trying to look over others’ heads. There’s better venues, even small ones, around town.

That said, McMurtry showed no indication through the evening of being bothered by the heat.  Even though he has several songs that are worthy of airplay, it’s unlikely to ever hear them on stations who limit themselves to classic rock or American Idol lip-synchers.  So while McMurtry didn’t launch into his “hits,” he included basically all of his more popular songs, including “Red Dress,” “Just Us Kids,” “For All I Know,” “No More Buffalo,” “Out Here in the Middle,” “Levelland” and others.  The highlight for me was “Choctaw Bingo” which combines a narrative full of attitude with cutting guitar work.  He closed with “Too Long in the Wasteland,” which, while good, has sounded better on his live recordings.  McMurtry returned for the encore on solo acoustic, playing “Lights of Cheyenne.”

Many obviously came because they enjoy McMurtry’s songs, but ultimately very few were able to see the nimble finger work that he displays on every song.    Watching him play makes it seem like everyone should be able to play guitar, and do it well.  When Madison Avenue tries to sell “new and improved,” a good rule of thumb is that a new guitar means nothing, but a well worn guitar has proven its worth… in the right hands.

Another observation is that many musicians tend to sing above the crowd.  They close their eyes or stare just above the crowd, focused on doing their thing.  Seeing McMurtry up close is somewhat unsettling, as his eyes workIMG_2055 across the audience, person by person, his eyes lingering on each fan.  And, based on his idle chat between songs, it’s obvious he’s paying attention.

After the concert was over, my thoughts turned again to how unfortunate it was that such a great artist played before a crowd of 150 or less, even as appreciative as they were.   He’s deserving of much more, but like so many artists, his fan base is spread largely by word of mouth.  One of my friends was thinking similarly, when he said, “I don’t know that you could ever see as talented artist for 20 bucks.”  Indeed.

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Drive By Truckers – The Big To-Do

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Another year – another DBT release.  And, fortunately, it’s an improvement over their last couple CD’s.  DBT continues in The Big To-Do largely with lyrics related Drive By Truckers - The Big To-Doto those who struggle with life, love, and loss. 

The set begins with “Daddy Learned to Fly.”  This title is, in itself, an awkward chorus for a song, but Patterson Hood is experienced at forcing a chorus to a song’s detriment.  The song is uptempo, and it’s only after a careful listening or a read of the lyrics that you realize that the title refers to Daddy’s journey to heaven that’s being discussed.  Their’s an honest child-like view of loss in the lyrics, which read very well.  And if the music attempts to mirror that childish wonder about the great beyond, it doesn’t work well.

“The Fourth Night of my Drinking” is Hood’s lyrical wheelhouse, a very good song about too much booze.  Listen carefully, youngsters.  “Birthday Boy,” by Mike Cooley, is a good song, pointed and amusing.  It’s a shame his voice doesn’t stand more forward in the mix, though.  

“Drag the Lake Charlie” returns to Hood’s penchant for odd choruses, but this one happens to be married to an odd song altogether and, strangely, works.  This is followed by “The Wig He Made Her Wear,” the best song included here.  Telling the story of a preacher who had unseemly desires for his wife, the song is well written, and the music is a welcome departure from the typical DBT sound.  Artistic growth, perhaps?  It’s nice to hear them branch out a little bit.

Shonna Tucker, the bassist, contributes two songs, “You Got Another” and “(It’s Gonna Be) I Told Ya So.”  These are at least as good as her contributions on their last disc, and both are lyrically a decent fit for DBT’s overall tone.  Hood and Cooley are not great singers, but it remains a small charity to listen to Tucker. In a way, she brings an honesty to the set in the worldview of the little guy (or gal, in this case) catching a break. It helps that her songs here are pretty good. 

“This F***ing Job” (edited) is standard Hood observation of being fed up with any or a particular part of life.  It’s well written, but the chorus, both lyrically and musically, betray what sounds like radio airplay aspirations.  

Cooley’s country rave-up “Get Downtown” is another “shake your head and laugh” effort; the man is a demon with words. 

Kim said Jimmy you better get yourself off of that raggedy couch

I’m too pretty to work and I’m tired of you uglying up my house

Jimmy said baby the guys at the top are doing bad as the guys on the street

Kim said the guys at the top ain’t about to be paying alimony to me

Afterwards, the remainder of the songs are just okay, though Cooley’s “Eyes Like Glue” is a nice acoustic boost at the end.

On the one hand, it’s great that DBT has a prodigious output, but it might help if they took a little longer between releases to refine their songs or wait for better ones.  Overall, this is a solid CD and has some good moments, but it’s not a Big To-Do.  They write 1-3 memorable songs per release, but they continue to follow a lesser constellation after their three great CD’s, Southern Rock Opera, Decoration Day, and The Dirty South.

Recommended Songs: “The Wig He Made Her Wear” and “The Fourth Night of My Drinking”

Rating: 3 of 5 Stars

 

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