Archive for Reviewing Stand

Or perhaps a young lion

Diversity by Emily BearThe following things you need to know about Diversity by Emily Bear:

  • This is her sixth album, though her first on a major label (Concord Jazz);
  • All thirteen tracks are her own compositions;
  • She turned twelve at the end of August.

While a lot of her YouTubage shows her in front of orchestras, she’s fronting a traditional jazz trio here, with Carlitos del Puerto on bass and Francisco Mela on drums. Zuill Bailey drops in for cello parts on four tracks. And it’s a very traditional sound indeed; you could imagine this fifty years ago on Verve with Creed Taylor at the board. It’s not, however, particularly diverse. Not that I mind; I could listen to this stuff for hours on end. Quincy Jones, Bear’s producer and mentor, has provided a particularly lovely acoustic aesthetic. Oddly, the weakest number here might be “Q,” her tribute to the master, which never really gets off the ground. Favorite track? Perhaps the leadoff, “Northern Lights,” which does an admirable job of setting the stage for what’s to come. And I admit to cracking several smiles at “Salsa Americana,” which opens up wildly like an old Tito Puente record and then suddenly heads downtown.

You can hear all thirteen of these tracks (via Soundcloud) on emilybear.com; I decided I wanted a copy for my shelf, and bought the CD.

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Just a few pony songs

As Twilight Sparkle might say, I wasn’t prepared for this:

Songs of Friendship and MagicHasbro, seeing a need — and perhaps noting the enormous number of mediocre YouTube episode dubs — has put out, at least on iTunes and Google Play, an eleven-track album of arguably the best tunes from the first two years of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. The most obvious omission, I think, is the Cutie Mark Crusaders Song from “The Show Stoppers,” but then it was never intended to be, um, good. Ingram, of course, is the logical person to plug this thing, since he wrote them all, and iTunes lists him as the artist on all tracks. (Which reminds me: whom do we have to proposition to get a collection of William Anderson’s background music?)

The iTunes package ($9.99) contains one of Apple’s Digital Booklets — it’s a PDF, no big deal — with a list of who’s singing what and all the words. (Except for “BBBFF,” which got lost in the shuffle; its page in the Booklet contains the opening of “This Day Aria,” which admittedly is a pretty long song.) If you’ve ever wanted to sing along with Flim and Flam’s ode to the Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000, now’s your chance. (At the time I grabbed this album, Flim and Flam were dead last on the iTunes popularity chart, with “Smile” and “Winter Wrap Up” grabbing all the single buys. I can’t explain it either.)

Of course, I love all this stuff unreservedly, “Love Is In Bloom” most of all.

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Still your best friend

Yours truly, from earlier this month:

I’m not entirely sure what The Last Thing I Ever Expected might be, but there’s at least a reasonable chance that it might be a solo album from a former member of the Shaggs.

Ready! Get! Go!So here’s Dot Wiggin, now somewhere in her sixties, still doing what she did in front of her sisters four and a half decades ago: singing intensely personal, fiercely melodic, idiosyncratic songs that don’t match up to any genre you’ve ever heard of. There is much to learn here, starting with a refutation of this Citation Needed remark in the Shaggs article at Wikipedia:

Reportedly, during the recording sessions the band would occasionally stop playing, claiming one of them had made a mistake and that they needed to start over, leaving the sound engineers to wonder how the girls could tell when a mistake had been made.

Jesse Krakow, who organized the project, produced the recording and wrote the liner notes, is here to tell us otherwise:

I got a package in the mail containing Dot’s handwritten charts to “Your Best Friend”, “My Pal Foot Foot”, “Philosophy Of The World”, and the lyrics to “Banana Bike” and “The Fella With A Happy Heart”. And there they were. The long, non-repeating melody lines, the choppy rhythms, the odd pauses, the unpredictable instrumental breaks, the playful lyrics, the inimitable way that the lyrics, melody, and chords were stapled together. They were all written out. Which was shocking. For all of their supposed ineptitude, The Shaggs (specifically Dot) wrote all their songs down in traditional musical notation. In fact, Dot told us that whenever they performed they always had the sheet music onstage. So to all of those musical experts who love The Shaggs because “they didn’t know what they’re doing”, guess what? They did!

The material here is all Dot with occasional contributions by Krakow, except for “Wiggin Out,” a goofy surf-styled chant assembled by Krakow, and “The End of the World,” which you know from several thousand cover versions already. Apparently it’s Dot’s Favorite Song Ever. There are two tracks bearing the title “Speed Limit,” the first a new Dot song about the Need for Speed, the second (officially titled “Speed Limit 2″) a 1970 song the Shaggs never recorded, turned here into some weird desiccated blues that suggests the need maybe isn’t so important after all. (Dot, we are told, drives very fast.) “Banana Bike,” Dot’s tribute to sister Helen, might be the obvious single here, but the track I keep coming back to is “Eh,” a tribute to diffidence and the avoidance of same, despite its title containing no Canadian content whatsoever.

Why this is on Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles label, I don’t know. I don’t really care. But I thank him for turning it loose onto a world that needs the Shaggs’ philosophy more than ever.

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Post-industrial

Cover of Hesitation Marks by Nine Inch NailsOn the basis of Hesitation Marks, the first Nine Inch Nails album since 2008, I conclude that Trent Reznor has decided melody might actually be slightly more important than noise, a decision possibly based on the prodigious success of his soundtrack work with Atticus Ross. Nothing here actually hurts my ears on the level of, say, the crescendo near the end of “Hurt.” And let’s face it, “Various Methods of Escape” is the definitive NIN song title, in which Reznor sounds just as desiccated as he did around The Downward Spiral, accompanied by this-side-of-glitch backing and some genuinely creepy guitar work by Adrian Belew. “I cannot trust myself / I gotta let go,” indeed.

The track that reminds me most of “classic” NIN, oddly, is “Copy of A,” which spills out of the 50-second opening thrash “The Eater of Dreams” with a pounding Depeche-Mode-at-78-rpm rhythm pattern and a reminder that “Everything I have said has come before.”

The least typical track here has to be “Everything,” for lack of a better description “Pop Industrial.” It’s downright upbeat: “I survived everything,” Reznor sings at the beginning. But the repetitions of “I am home/I am free” and such toward the end seem less and less convincing with every bar, until the whole thing grinds to a halt. Maybe this is Reznor’s attempt to deal with the unfamiliar concept of life not sucking.

And if that isn’t, surely this is: Hesitation Marks came out on Columbia Records. Columbia, fercrissake. This is not exactly like Anthony Bourdain showing up at Arby’s, but it’s close.

(Review copy ordered from NIN.com at the standard price. Different editions may have different cover art.)

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Standing tall-ish

I admit up front that seeing My Little Pony: Equestria Girls was not a priority with me: I didn’t make the trek to Stillwater, the only place in the state where it actually played theatrically, and while I’d pre-ordered the DVD, which arrived last Tuesday, I didn’t watch it until the following Sunday. (Let it be said that this dawdling tactic is not at all unprecedented.) And besides, the basic premise and I did not get along: if I wanted to watch a cartoon about teenage girls, I’d go hunt up reruns of Daria or something.

That said, I must admit, the deponification of ponies went far better than I’d anticipated. I could argue that all these girls — and all but a couple of the boys — looked like they weren’t getting much for lunch, a cafeteria scene to the contrary notwithstanding, and besides, I’ve already seen Mean Girls; but for the most part, the story holds up, the characterizations make sense, and the songs, in MLP:FiM fashion, are ridiculously catchy, even the one I’d vowed to hate. (That would be, um, this one.) My inner 9-year-old girl pronounced herself pleased, though I was put off by a Bonus Item on the DVD in which some Hasbro suit in an Original Penguin shirt declared that they could just as easily do, say, My Little Flounder.

Ultimately, I have to say what I said on Twitter when I’d finished watching it:

It’s like coming home and finding someone painted the house: it looks wonderful, but it’s not something I wanted done.

Season Four, with actual ponies, starts in November. This will have to do for now.

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Third time’s the charm, and then some

Volume 3 by She & HimThe fourth album by She & Him is called Volume 3, a title which perhaps is curious for its use of the digit instead of spelling out the number as they did in two previous albums, not including the obligatory Christmas album, which I bought but did not review, inasmuch as it didn’t really fit into whatever grand scheme Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward were planning, except of course for (what else could it be?) World Domination.

Based on the evidence of Volume 3, I’m ready to hand over the premises. The eleven ZD originals here show serious growth in her songwriting chops, plus a certain amount of unexpected faithfulness to one of my own guiding principles: love is composed of the magical and the mundane, not necessarily in equal quantities. As an object lesson, see track eight, “Together,” arguably ZD’s drippiest bit of romantic tomfoolery since the tearful “Sentimental Heart” on Volume One, which somehow remains grounded: she (mostly) keeps the quaver out of her voice, and not even the shimmering strings that come in during the instrumental break (nice touch, Mister Ward, sir) can drag it over to the weepy end of the scale.

As always, S&H have selected some unexpected covers: Blondie’s “Sunday Girl,” a track from Parallel Lines which was never released Stateside as a single; “Baby,” the B-side of Ellie Greenwich’s demo-turned-single “You Don’t Know”; and the early-Fifties torch song “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me,” mostly remembered today as a mid-Sixties soul single by Mel Carter. Deschanel’s reading of “Hold Me” is heavy on the torch.

And as always, Ward’s production is simultaneously impeccable and unobtrusive, and his instrumental work is always appropriate. (He also sings a bit, mostly on “Baby.”) Nicely, he cuts off the strings-and-choir reprise of “I Could Have Been Your Girl” at the close, right before you begin to wonder why it’s there in the first place.

I admit to speculating a bit as to whether any of these songs were intended to recall ZD’s recent split from Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard. Maybe a little: “I’m stronger than the picture that you took before you left” (from “Turn to White”) sounds ever so slightly accusative. But that’s about it: if there’s sadness here, and there is, it’s a generic, and possibly more universal, sadness. And that, too, is a component of love, though determining whether it’s part of the magic or part of the mundane is way above my pay grade.

(Previously discussed: Volume One; Volume Two. Reviewed from my own purchased copy.)

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Downtown once more

The introduction to last fall’s “Pet Project”:

It occurs to me that I ought to do something for Petula Clark, who turns 80 (!) next month. Despite being ten years older than everybody else in the British Invasion, she sold a whole lot of records here in the States, starting with “Downtown” in 1964, though she’d been recording for at least a decade before that. So between now and the 15th of November, I’ll be tossing in the occasional Petula classic for your dancing and dining pleasure.

Cover art for Lost In You by Petula ClarkAnd now Petula has done something for us: a new album! Lost In You, due out in Britain on the 25th of this month, is the first I’ve heard from her since she turned up on the Saw Doctors’ 2011 remake of “Downtown.” The first track, “Cut Copy Me,” has already been announced as a single: heavily synthed and Auto-Tuned, it comes off, to me anyway, as something less than wonderful, although the Guardian says that “Lana Del Rey would no doubt trade her David Lynch box set to have written [it].” In fact, since it’s the leadoff track, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the whole thing is a feeble whimper augmented by electronic fudge factors.

Until you get to the second track, the title song, and you realize that the game plan was to pay obeisance to the marketing department early on and get it out of the way. From this point on, it’s the sound of a woman who has been there, done that, and isn’t jaded about any of it. The covers of “Imagine” and “Love Me Tender” are okay, maybe a little better than that, but the real revelation is her reinvention of “Crazy.” Yes, the Gnarls Barkley tune. And if Petula’s singing isn’t quite as all-over-the-staff as Cee Lo Green’s, it’s every bit as soulful.

Inevitably, there is a version of “Downtown,” but it’s a radical revision: instead of bouncy 4/4, it’s a languid, dreamy waltz. On its own terms, it’s nearly as startling as Lesley Gore’s 2005 reworking of “You Don’t Own Me” into a torch song.

We won’t be getting this album Stateside until April, but assuming you can’t wait and you don’t want to deal with Amazon.co.uk, you can have the entire album streamed in your general direction, courtesy of the Guardian music blog. I’ve already turned in my preorder for the CD.

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You better shop around

Motown #1'sAmazon’s MP3 store was giving this package of ostensible Motown #1 hits away for next to nothing, and while there wasn’t anything here I actually needed, I figured I had to download it to see what’s in it. And I can recommend it to those who don’t already have these tracks stuffed into their music players — but not to anyone else, really.

Everything here is in stereo, which is nice; however, nothing has been remixed, which means you get the same old worn-to-a-frazzle masters that Motown has been slapping haphazardly onto CDs for a generation, complete with weird ideas of separation, audible tape slap, and in the case of “Heat Wave,” a peculiar edit that differs substantially from the 45 you remember: an extended instrumental break and an early fade (right on top of “Don’t pass up this chance / This time it’s true romance”). The Sixties material, I think, should have been presented in mono. The Seventies stuff, starting around “What’s Going On,” is decidedly better but no revelation. And the last actual #1 here is “I’ll Make Love to You” by Boyz II Men, from 1994; the gratuitous addition of a 2004 Michael McDonald cover of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” which never made the Billboard Hot 100, remains a mystery to me, unless Berry Gordy was wanting to throw a few extra cents to Valerie Simpson and the late Nickolas Ashford. And the Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell version of “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” credited in the tags only to Gaye, is a better tribute to Nick and Val anyway.

Speaking of tag curiosities, five of these tracks are listed with genre R&B, the rest with Pop. Then again, with prices like this — I paid less than $2 — you have to figure that Motown didn’t go out of its way to spend any money on the presentation.

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The voice of experience

Cover art for Cedar + Gold by Tristan PrettymanMy introduction to Tristan Prettyman was the wonderful 2008 single “Madly,” which tucked a near-Alanis-level diatribe into bouncy California pop with actual power chords on the piano, fercrissake. In the wake of the moderate-to-marginal success of that tune and the Hello…x album whence it came, she got engaged to, then was disengaged from, Jason Mraz; had a dollop of polyps scythed off her vocal cords; and wondered if maybe she was in the wrong damn business altogether. (She did, after all, start off as a model, and she does have the looks.)

I am here to tell you that her career choice was indeed wise: Cedar + Gold, released yesterday, is a stunner. The single, “My Oh My,” is the closest thing to an earworm on the premises, but what’s going to bring you back for more is raw, naked emotion: just the title of “I Was Gonna Marry You” gives away the game. “Glass Jar” points the finger: “You gave up on us / You got the whole world watching and everyone’s attention / You turned your head and you never even mentioned us.” And lest you become gloomy, there’s something called “The Rebound,” a hilarious account of a pickup at Trader Joe’s. (“I lost my number / Can I have yours?”) Taylor Swift wishes she wrote songs this strong.

(Reviewed from the iTunes version, which includes one bonus track.)

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Aural timelessness

The composer/musician known as BT has been, if not on my radar, not far below it: Trini, a few years back, showed me “Somnambulist” and his remix of the Doors’ “Break On Through,” and Glenn Reynolds, I seem to remember, was happy to recommend the early (mid-Nineties) single “The Moment of Truth,” back when the label still read “Brian Transeau.” I later hunted down his “The Rose of Jericho” single, but hadn’t yet found a compelling reason to grab a whole album’s worth.

Then last night, Octavia of Operation VR, a band I’ve mentioned here once or twice, sent this into the tweetstream: “Tonight, I am clearing my head from some stress with ‪#ThisBinaryUniverse‬ by @BT as well as his two new albums.”

If The Stars Are Eternal Then So Are You And I by BTI allowed that I’d somewhat lost track of BT, and she filled me in on his later releases. Mostly because of its title, I betook myself to iTunes and picked up If The Stars Are Eternal So Are You And I. (I am, in case you hadn’t noticed, a sucker for that kind of outer-space — or, for that matter, that kind of romantic — metaphor.) It is wholly unlike old-school BT. That little stutter edit he invented is in evidence here and there, but If The Stars… is slightly tilted toward the ambient edge of electronica; BT’s Web site describes it as “a post study to BT’s critically acclaimed 2006 IDM/Classical masterpiece This Binary Universe,” which of course goes onto the want list. (IDM, for the unlettered, yours truly included, apparently means “Intelligent Dance Music.”) There are seven tracks, though they flow into one another so well that separating them seems like an exercise in brutality. Best example: “Hikari,” synth yielding to guitar and piano, followed by “Our Dark Garden,” a simple guitar figure underlying a river of glistening, undulating sounds and, starting about halfway through, a repeated vocal figure. It all slowly fades away, and then drops you into “The Gathering Darkness,” which takes its sweet time getting to danceability. It’s so lovely you won’t care.

Incidentally, another BT album was released more or less simultaneously with this one: Morceau Subrosa (“Undercover Piece”?), which is one long track running 46 minutes or so. If it’s anything like this, it’s a must. Then again, if it’s nothing like this, and apparently it’s not, it’s probably still a must.

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Meanwhile on the A-list

Tanni Haas, Ph.D., author of Making It in the Political Blogosphere: The World’s Top Political Bloggers Share the Secrets to Success (Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 2011), was kind enough to send a review copy this way, and I admit that it took me a while to get around to it, on the basis that if I wanted to know what bloggers think, I could presumably read blogs. Then again, as Dr. Haas points out in the Introduction:

Studies have found that political blog readers consider such blogs more trustworthy sources of information than they do any other mainstream news media, including online and offline newspapers, television, and radio. Political blogs are considered more trustworthy because they provide access to a broader spectrum of issues than is available in the mainstream news media; cover those issues in greater depth, with more independence and points of view; and present them in a manner that’s more understandable and relevant to readers.

And this reflects my own experience: I buy the local newspaper because it’s, well, local, but for national coverage, I’ll hit several blogs and monitor my tweetstream.

“Several,” of course, is not by any means a lot. Dr. Haas says there are 1.3 million blogs classifiable as “political.” (I don’t consider this a political blog: maybe 10 to 15 percent of the posts here have some sort of political orientation.) In the book, twenty name-brand political bloggers are interviewed — six or seven pages each — and now and then there’s something that looks suspiciously like wisdom. For instance, Haas quotes Thomas Lifson of The American Thinker:

Many people write material in order to demonstrate how much they know, or to put forth a point of view they feel strongly about. But they sometimes forget who the reader is, and what the reader needs to know… So the one piece of advice I’d give people is to look at their material through the eyes of the reader who doesn’t know you, who doesn’t care who you are, and who needs to be given a reason to read the next sentence of your posting and continue all the way through.

I am reasonably certain that no one will accuse me of trying to show off how much I know.

The principles of Making It in the Political Blogosphere can occasionally be extended to blogs on other topics; the “tribalism” of poliblogging referred to by Kevin Drum, for instance, likely exists in every other subject with more than a handful of bloggers. I’m thinking, therefore, that the book may also be of interest to people who can’t stand the thought of writing about politics, and there are, I suspect, many more of them.

(Here’s the obligatory Amazon link. The book can be had in trade paperback for $15 or Kindle-ized for $9.99. Being as how I’m in a generous mood, I’ll send a PDF to the first five people who ask nicely.)

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Aorta play this on the radio

Songs from the Heart by Dr SmithAbout a week ago, I posted something on a message board to the effect that I had more or less adjusted myself to buying music via download, at least for acts with a national or worldwide following — but for local bands, I’d try to find a CD if possible.

About a week before that, at the suggestion of one of the Gazette scribes, I gave a listen to “The Time Is Right” by Dr. Smith. It was somehow light yet sludgy, and it ground on for nearly eight minutes. Halfway through, I resolved to find more of this, and shortly thereafter I wound up on the band’s Facebook page, which pointed me to a download location. They also were offering “Physical CDs,” which I found amusing, with the notation “when manufactured,” so evidently I got one from the first batch. (As further evidence of same, Gracenote had nothing on it, so I typed in all that stuff myself. You can thank me later.) Besides, there’s no way I was going to pass up an album whose first track is called “Zombie Bitches Kicking People’s Ass.”

I’m still trying to find some sort of shorthand to explain Dr. Smith. The current formula seems to be Toadies minus “rural”: they’re capable of being just as creepy, but you don’t sense banjos playing in the background. At least three tracks from Songs from the Heart (a title I really should swipe sometime) have been YouTubed, if you’re curious. And is this band named for the jerkface stowaway in Lost in Space? Silly me, I didn’t ask.

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Beyond the stacks

Under normal circumstances, you couldn’t pay me to read a contemporary vampire novel. (Well, you could, I suppose: write for rates.) I’m not quite certain how I stumbled across Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches (New York: Viking, 2011); maybe it called to me from across the room.

Diana Bishop would know the feeling. While doing research on the ancient art of alchemy in the Bodleian Library, one of the manuscripts she requests seems to be trying to get her attention. Being a witch, and the last of a long line of witches at that, she recognized that there had been an enchantment attached to the document; being very much uncomfortable with being a witch in the first place, she returned it to the stacks after a cursory examination, and tried to forget about it. She had no idea that Oxford fellow Matthew Clairmont, a geneticist, also had an interest in the manuscript, although she did immediately read him as a vampire.

From this point, you can predict exactly one plot complication: the romance between Diana and Matthew. (O Twilight, where is thy sting?) In terms of being totally star-crossed, these lovers are right up there with those Veronese teenagers of old. (Vampires and witches are mortal enemies, after all, and they don’t get along that well with daemons either.) What makes Discovery work for me is the fact that with both of them trying to figure out the secrets of that old manuscript, there’s an enormous amount of historical background. (Dr Harkness, as it happens, is professor of history at USC, and knows this stuff cold.) There are a few exasperating moments, of course, mostly having to do with Clairmont’s utter gorgeousness: as is de rigueur in contemporary vampire tales, he’s a walking, talking Rolls-Royce Phantom, because it would never, ever do for our heroine to fall for some workaday Vlad the Impala. But this is forgivable: even the minor characters are carefully sketched out, and if some loose ends aren’t quite tied up at the end, well, there are two more novels to follow.

The author, sensing film potential here, is polling readers for possible leads. (For what it’s worth, I voted for Claire Danes and Alexander Skarsgård. Make of that what you will.) Would I see a film of A Discovery of Witches? Almost certainly, though I shudder when I contemplate what would have to be left out to make it fit into 130 minutes or so. Meanwhile, I’m keeping an eye out for Shadow of Night, the second volume, which is due next year.

(Before you ask: I borrowed the review copy from the library last weekend. I’ll buy my own soon enough.)

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Is this her moment?

Already eight digits’ worth of YouTube views on this, the new Rebecca Black single:

Points for catchiness, of course, and I find her sheer exuberance charming. And bonus props to whoever thought it was a good idea to borrow the synth splash from the Pet Shop Boys’ cover of “Always On My Mind.” But a few things seem off. The chorus is as insanely repetitive as you’d hope, but the verses seem awkwardly constructed: I get the impression that they wrote this to match her perceived range, and then discovered that they were off by a third. And the verse about “haters” is just superfluous: if you’re going to demonstrate your superiority to such, the only effective techniques are either (1) to ignore them altogether or (2) to go full Cee Lo Green on them. (If you saw this latter phrase at The Atlantic, well, that was me.)

In short, while I think it’s a worthy effort — and I’ve already anted up my buck-twenty-nine (!) at iTunes — I don’t think this is quite the vehicle to take her to two-hit wonder status. “Friday,” for all its Hyphenated-American cheese, was damned near iconic; “My Moment” is merely pretty.

Addendum: Rebekah Brooks’ version of “Friday”:

(Seen at Adfreak. Hat tip: Nancy Friedman.)

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Assignment: out there

We open with a paragraph that’s actually about halfway through:

«In any bar, in fact in any civilized establishment, in this volume of the void,» the barkeep said, punctuating the phrase with the thunk of another pitcher on the polished wood, «a being may call out the word “beer” in the Trade language, accompanied by the appropriate number of digits or other appendages, and depend upon being served appropriately. How is it that your people cannot achieve this minimal accomplishment?»

Passages like this are the strength of Ric Locke’s Temporary Duty, an ebook that seems to start out wanting to be a rollicking space opera, but won’t settle for the cardboard characters that usually inhabit that genre. Life among the lower ranks, as those of us who served terrestrial duty can tell you, may indeed put you at the mercy of forces you cannot control, but it doesn’t make you the sort of disposable individual that, for instance, Star Trek condemned to brief existence inside red shirts.

However, it’s not all thrills either:

The waves made wave sounds, the beach smelled like a beach, and the sun shone. If it hadn’t been for the red and yellow trees along the backshore they could have been somewhere around Mayport. “God damn space,” Todd complained. “Oughta be bug-eyed monsters ‘n all
that.”

You want B.E.M.s, though, you’re going to have to look elsewhere. What Locke has put together here is a detailed look at how several different species approach the task of getting along, whether those in command want to or not. And then over the P.A.: “Make ready for unfriendly visitors.” Turns out, “cooperate or die” makes a pretty good incentive. And the scariest creature of them all, who shows up near the very end — never mind, I won’t spoil it for you, but trust me: scary.

And you know, a rollicking space opera is nothing to sneer at, even especially if you’re not quite sure exactly when it began to rollick. There’s really no obvious opening for a sequel, but I have to hope Locke returns to this universe once more.

(Amazon link to Kindle version. Reviewed from PDF copy.)

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Songs without words (the follow-up)

A few weeks ago, I mentioned an upcoming three-CD set, to contain every single instrumental track that made the Billboard charts in 1960. That set has now crossed my threshold, and here’s what you need to know.

Complete Pop Instrumental Hits of the Sixties 1960Said Billboard charts contained 100 songs, plus a handful “bubbling under”; more than a dozen of these 81 recordings never made it out of the 90s, and one of them — “Beachcomber,” a jazzy little piano tune (with strings attached) by Bobby Darin — peaked at #100. It is therefore reasonable to assume that you haven’t heard all of these. I hadn’t. I did, however, notice that two tracks are switched on the first disc: “Summer Set” (Monty Kelly) and “Chattanooga Choo Choo” (Ernie Fields). Then again, surely you’d recognize that Choo Choo. (Gracenote, feeding Winamp the titles, has it correct.)

Your next question, perhaps, is “Do I know any of these?” Well, yes. The Ventures’ first hit, a version of Johnny Smith’s “Walk — Don’t Run” that made #2, is here, as is Floyd Cramer’s “Last Date” (also #2), and the biggest record of the year, Percy Faith’s take on Max Steiner’s theme from A Summer Place, which sat at Number One for nine whole weeks. Some lower charters have had great influence, most notably Duane Eddy’s version of Henry Mancini’s theme for Peter Gunn, which you’ll instantly recall long before the third measure.

There was still in 1960 a tendency for cover versions to appear almost simultaneously with originals, so there are, for instance, two versions of “Smokie Part II” (Bill Black’s original, Bill Doggett’s remake — “Part I” never charted), two versions of “La Montana” (which, with English lyrics, became “If She Should Come to You”), and three versions of “Midnight Lace,” the theme from a Doris Day film. (None of the “Lace” versions made it past #84, even Ray Conniff’s, which spilled into a Part 2 on the B-side; interestingly, they sound nothing alike except for that melody line.)

As it turns out, seventy-one instrumentals charted in 1960, so to fill out that third disc, there are ten bonus tracks: late-1959 items, or things which might have too many words to be considered instrumentals — for instance, Al Brown’s “The Madison,” a song about a dance which requires the steps to be called off in sequence. Then again, Ray Bryant’s “Madison Time” is here, and it’s not banished to the back of disc three either.

The sound, breathed upon by the wizards of Eric Records, is generally quite good: most of these tracks are very clean, and none of them sound particularly overcleaned.

I suspect this set will appeal mostly to completists, which explains why I have it in its first month of release. The compilers plan a volume for each decade of the 1960s: next year’s 1961 set, which might fit on two discs — I’m counting 52 tracks that would qualify — should have nifty stuff like “Wonderland by Night,” “Calcutta” and “Apache” (Jørgen Ingmann’s imported-from-Denmark take, not the Shadows’ rowdier English version). About this time next year I expect to be reporting on it.

(Complete track list.)

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Bar sinister

According to legend, some Microsoft employees who’d reached the point when their stock options could be exercised supposedly wore a button reading “FYIFV,” the last three letters meaning “I’m Fully Vested.”

Brian J. Noggle’s John Donnelly’s Gold (Brookline, MO: Jeracor Group, 2011) is the story of four employees at a St. Louis Internet startup who were unceremoniously squeezed out of the company before they’d reached that presumably-happy status, and who were sufficiently irritated by this action to vow revenge upon the newly-arrived Chief Executive Officer.

Fortunately, John Donnelly had an ego bigger than his CEO salary: he’d gone so far as to buy a bar of gold bullion and train a webcam on it 24/7, the better to illustrate the corporate website. Which suggested a plan of action to this quartet of ex-employees: as a substitute for the vast sums they felt they were due, they would swipe the gold bar right out from under John Donnelly’s nose. There was, of course, one minor detail: tech types generally don’t have a lot of experience with breaking and entering, except to the extent that it involves passwords and databases. Still, this is a realm where you learn by doing, and so they developed a plan.

This really should not have worked as a novel: technical descriptions tend toward the mundane, and most of the techies I know are decidedly short on drama. What makes this worth your time is Noggle’s attention to detail: J. Random Noob will appreciate the extra exposition, and your local expert will nod, “Yeah, that’s exactly the way I’d do that. If I were going to do that, which of course I’m not.” There might be a hair too much geographical exposition — by the time you’re finished you should be able to hire on as a cab driver in St. Louis County — but no matter about that. The plot is more than sufficiently twisty; I’m pleased to report that I did not even come close to predicting the way it ended. And if the dialogue meanders a bit, hey, that’s the way these people talk. I’ve heard them, and so have you.

This isn’t quite, say, the Elmore Leonard version of WarGames. It is, however, an entertaining mosaic of gigabytes and grifters, and you should read it. Unless, of course, you’re John Donnelly.

(Review copy purchased from publisher.)

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Worthy recluse

The trailer explains it all, which of course means it doesn’t explain a thing:

“Jandek” is his name, except that it’s not technically his name. Corwood Industries is indeed his record label, we think. At the time Jandek on Corwood was released, Corwood had put out 32 albums; there are now more than sixty, including several recent live sets. If it makes no sense to you that a man who assiduously avoided the limelight for decades would suddenly go on stage — it probably made no sense to anyone who participated in the documentary, which was filmed before any such appearances — well, some enigmas are designed to be endless. Reviewer Jason Ankeny quipped about that first live show: “Satan donned his winter coat.”

Finding a genre for Jandek is finding the grandmother of a stray cat: you may have seen that fur before, but you shouldn’t assume too much from it. “You may not get all the answers you want,” said the representative from Corwood. “It’s better that way.” So I’ve never been sure if the man and his ragged-yet-wispy voice and his unorthodox guitar tunings and his melancholy-to-suicidal lyrics are windows into a tortured soul, or they’re something he puts on like an expensive pair of cuff links. I am sure, however, that he wants it that way, just as he wanted that first album (Ready for the House, 1978) to bear the curious catalog number 0739 — hey, at least it’s not a frigging Universal Product Code — and just as he wanted to appear as open to the public as possible without giving away any secrets. That latter quality, in fact, reminds me of me.

The documentary Jandek on Corwood never shows Jandek at all, although it’s clearly his voice in that 1985 telephone interview with writer John Trubee. (Previous John Trubee reference here.) He didn’t at all sound like a guy who would say “I passed by the building that you live in / And I wanted to die.” On the other hand, I am considered downright upbeat for a person who once planned to cut his own brake lines. So I make no assumptions except the obvious one: few of us lead lives entirely free of demons, wherever their origin. Most of the time I shy away from this level of scary intensity, feeling I have enough problems already. But even the most frightening landscape has its compelling aspects — if it didn’t, you wouldn’t pay enough attention to be frightened, right? — and there are times when I’m willing to pass by the building that Jandek lives in, wherever the hell, or wherever in hell, that is.

(Disclosure: Review copy purchased at retail.)

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Available light

On top of Goldmine’s Market Watch for 4/11 was this item, described by the seller thusly:

This is supposedly the U.K.’s rarest album. They performed at a few local gigs, and as their playing got tighter, decided to go into SIS Studios, Northampton, with engineer Alan Bowley, to record an album. The six tracks, written and arranged by the band were recorded over a weekend in 1972 and consist of melodic progressive rock laced with bits of fuzzy guitar riffs. Only a handful of copies were pressed.

Dark Round the EdgesGiven the startling sale price of $10,607.52, about three times the price of the nearest Beatles item that month, I had to track this down. Turns out, I’d snagged an abridged version (about ten seconds clipped from each track) from Usenet several years ago. The band was called Dark, and the album was Round the Edges. Metal Music Archives, which deems it proto-metal, reports:

Agreement to the exact number of original copies is non-existent. According to one source, the number is certified to be 40.

This would put Dark somewhere in between the Shaggs, for whom a thousand copies of Philosophy of the World were pressed, 900 of which subsequently disappeared, and Susan Christie, whose Paint a Lady was apparently issued in a quantity of five. If these acts can be reissued, so can Dark, and indeed they were, albeit in still-slender numbers.

Listening to the tracks from the CD reissue, it’s easy to hear some early metallic elements, though basically Dark seems to be splitting the difference between Circus Maximus, a Bob Bruno/Jerry Jeff Walker joint that specialized in long, noodling tunes like the FM hit “Wind,” and Blue Cheer, which hit in ’68 with a thunderous (and fuzzy) cover of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues.” Of course, the ten-grand price tag is due to the album’s rarity more than its musical merit; but that musical merit is not at all inconsiderable. Most of the individual tracks have been YouTubed by now, should your curiosity overwhelm you.

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Somewhere out there

Call it Lyndon, or call it Linden, but it’s still a pit:

It was the fourth habitable world found (at least by the NATO powers), the closest to Earth, the only planet “taken” by NATO during the Far Edge War and the third settled by USSF colonists. The climate’s pretty good, the local land life not especially varied or aggressive toward humans; “terraforming” has been no big deal, about like settling Ohio. Or more like Texas, minus the border issues: some challenges but the settlers rose to meet them. And had kids. A lot of kids. And indulged in various flavors of civic involvement most majorly.

Which was a bit of exposition from Roberta X’s I Work On A Starship, an actual dead-tree copy of which is on the way to my mailbox even as we speak. I’d downloaded an ebook version, which was less than $2, but I wanted something permanent for the library.

Maybe I’ll schlep it to the Hidden Frontier some year and get her to sign it.

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Synths and sensibility

Imaginary Friends supposedly is a “serious” album by comparison with Freezepop’s previous work, by which is meant, I guess, that there are no songs with titles like “Duct Tape My Heart.” Still, I am not inclined to underestimate a band with songs in the Guitar Hero series that don’t actually have any guitars in them.

Imaginary Friends by FreezepopAnd despite the marked absence of terminally goofy stuff, I still find plenty to smile about while listening to the twelve tracks of Imaginary Friends. Liz Enthusiasm still can turn a phrase — I admit to giggling a bit during “Magnetic” when she says “You’re my polar opposite” — and she’s long since caught on to the idea that the disembodied robotic voice one tends to expect in synthpop needn’t be either disembodied or robotic; she’s allowing herself to sound less like a string of bits and more like a geek girl with real geek-girl thoughts. (Harmony vocals by new arrival Christmas Disco-Marie Sagan help, but you can hear this even when Sagan is offmike or mixed down.) At no point do things sound arch or artificially ironic.

The songs themselves are as tuneful, as catchy, as ever. I suppose one could point to the “limitations” of the synthpop genre, but struggling against limitations is at the heart of anything artistic, and the band, reconfiguring after the loss of founding member the Duke of Pannekoeken, has pushed itself a notch or two beyond its own little niche. Of course, just about everything is powered by synthesizers of one sort or another these days, though you’re not supposed to notice that. Freezepop, in embracing the synth at its most blatantly artificial, somehow seems to humanize it. (Think Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow: it became a lot more plausible once you caught on to the fact that all the sets were computer-generated.)

Still, I have to believe that not everyone is going to like Imaginary Friends. It helps if you survived the 1980s, and if you played around with the 8-bit noises that defined the first half of that decade. I, of course, maintain a rather large footprint in both camps; after spinning the CD a couple of times — I’d snagged the downloads last week — I actually entertained the idea of tracking down a used Yamaha QY70, a device Freezepop has since outgrown, for myself.

(Reviewed from purchased copies.)

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Or I could just click on Like

The Social Network CDThe Null Corporation is Trent Reznor’s not-really-a-label label, and its most recent release was the soundtrack (by Reznor and Atticus Ross) to David Fincher’s film The Social Network. It was available in several formats, including a freebie five-track sampler and a complete $5 download package; I went up one step to the actual physical CD ($8 plus shipping), which was released last week and which arrived Thursday afternoon. I’d already heard it, of course; NullCorp threw in a 460-MB download, which included all 19 tracks, in MP3 and in Apple Lossless.

After a second hearing — the first one left me more or less speechless, or at least typeless — I think I’ve gotten a handle on it. If you’re a Reznor fan, much of it will sound familiar; a couple of these tracks (“A Familiar Taste” and “Magnetic”) were expansions of tracks on Reznor’s earlier Ghosts I-IV set, also featuring Ross. It’s generally closer to dark ambient than to industrial, with the notable exceptions of a recasting of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” which builds to a satisfyingly-crunchified crescendo, and the opener, “Hand Covers Bruise,” which ranks as arguably the creepiest Track One since Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks soundtrack. “Hand Covers Bruise,” in fact, is a definitive NIN-style title, as is “The Gentle Hum of Anxiety.” I haven’t decided whether I like this better than Ghosts or not, and I haven’t figured out exactly how to distinguish between Ross’ contributions and Reznor’s, but maybe that doesn’t matter.

Which leaves one question: What does it say about Facebook when a film about its creation is scored by the likes of Trent Reznor?

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A sip of the new wine

For this one, I blame Brian Ibbott.

The genial host of the Coverville podcast almost always finds at least one track each episode that causes massive secretion in my WTF gland. In #692, it was “Billie Holiday” by Warpaint, which opens with a simple guitar tune and, of all things, the spelling out of the title. Dismissable, perhaps; the Bay City Rollers did the same shtick one Saturday.

But it wasn’t like that at all. A little more orchestration, really lovely three-part harmonies, and about two minutes in, the words seemed awfully familiar. I backed up the track, started again, and yep: Smokey Robinson, via Mary Wells. Clearly the most idiosyncratic take on “My Guy” since Sister Act. Since iTunes was already up and running, I dialed over to the store and found the six tracks of their Exquisite Corpse EP.

“Billie Holiday,” of course, had had a spike in sales, but I figured $5.94 wouldn’t break me, so I bought the entire shebang, and then basically sat there amazed for half an hour: Exquisite Corpse didn’t sound like anything else I’d ever heard. The band’s MySpace page describes them as “Psychedelic / Ghettotech / Melodramatic Popular Song,” and that will have to do for now. By no stretch of the imagination can this be considered background music: the band weaves fascinating sonic textures from deceptively-simple instrumental threads, and the sort of wretched excess that normally draws in the critics is blessedly absent. I’m not even going to pretend I understand all the words: even the stuff I already knew by heart seems inchoate, ethereal and vaguely threatening. While watching the video for “Elephants” it hit me: these are the anti-Mediæval Bæbes, however many centuries in the opposite direction, somehow projected into our own time for reasons unknown. If “beautiful” and “scary” seem to you to be part of the same continuum, you probably heard about this record before I did.

(Reviewed from purchased AAC files.)

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Tigers by the tale

For me, it began with “Society’s Child”:

Come to my door, baby
Face is clean and shining, black as night
My mama went to answer
You know that you looked so fine
Now I could understand the tears and the shame
She called you “Boy” instead of your name
When she wouldn’t let you inside
When she turned and said
“But honey, he’s not our kind”

Of course, to me, this was still kinda theoretical, since at 13 I wasn’t actually dating anyone of any color, and I seldom saw any black girls anyway, South Carolina having thus far failed to expel that stubborn old bird Jim Crow.

Came another year and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and another year and the very quiet desegregation of Charleston’s Catholic schools. And suddenly things weren’t quite as theoretical anymore.

Tale of the TigersCut to the early 1990s, the setting of Juliette Akinyi Ochieng’s first novel, Tale of the Tigers (Carmel Coast Publishing, 2010). The dreaded word “miscegenation” seems to have fallen into deserved desuetude, but dating remains anything but post-racial. Nor did all the darts come from the other side:

Felice couldn’t count the times she had been called black and ugly as a child. Nor could she count the times that, as a young woman, she had been told that she was pretty, to be so dark.

This sort of thing didn’t concern Kevin, but then, he was a football star, and people were loath to mess with him — except, of course, for the little matter that he was a white kid, and some people had a problem with the very idea of Kevin and Felice as a couple.

It’s a simple tale being told here, but the complexities of race, how we deal with it and how we fail to deal with it, make what could have been a cut-and-dried polemic into an engrossing story, and Ochieng manages a tricky balancing act: she calls out racist behavior, calls it what it is, without feeling compelled to demonize those who behave that way. When attitudes give way to action — well, that comes later in the story.

People who never once in their lives looked longingly at someone of another color may claim not to understand this book. But here’s the catch: human relationships are often fraught with peril, and you can substitute a lot of words for “color” — “religion,” “social caste,” “educational level” — without affecting the truth of the matter. And that’s the strength of Tale of the Tigers: it never takes its eye off the truth.

(Review copy purchased by me directly from the author. A slightly-different version of this review appeared on Amazon.com.)

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Second verse, similar to the first

“It takes,” I said, “a certain amount of cheek to designate something which may or may not have a follow-up ‘Volume One’.”

Volume TwoPossession of cheek is herewith duly acknowledged. She & Him — “She” being alt-actress Zooey Deschanel, while studio wizard M. Ward is “Him” — have returned two years later with Volume Two, and it’s just as irresistible as its predecessor.

Part of the charm, I think, is the fact that Zooey’s voice doesn’t seem to go with her appearance: she looks like she’d be competing with the likes of Kate Bush for sheer top-of-the-staff wispiness, but she’s actually a warm, slightly throaty alto with old-fashioned countrypolitan overtones. She doesn’t venture too far out of her comfort zone, but then she writes most of this stuff, so she doesn’t have to. And Ward has apparently committed to memory every record made in the last fifty years, and can sound like any or all of them on short notice.

Volume Two, like Volume One before it, manages to keep its undeniable sweetness from becoming cloying. And the covers are more astutely chosen: NRBQ’s “Ridin’ in My Car,” staged as a vocal duet with girl-group overtones, and “Gonna Get Along Without You Now,” best-known as a 1956 single by the utterly-virginal Patience and Prudence, which Zooey conveys with — there’s no other way to describe it — wistful dismissal. The Deschanel originals are all over the map, but they’re all aimed directly at your heart. (“Don’t Look Back,” which opens with the line “Orpheus melted the heart of Persephone,” gives away the game.) Best of the lot: the a cappella lullaby “If You Can’t Sleep,” and the majorly-poppy “In the Sun.”

Do I have to wait until 2012 for Volume Three?

(Reviewed from purchased download.)

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A subset of body language

Cover of D. E. Boone's Legs TalkD. E. Boone’s Legs Talk: a modern girl’s dating tale (Jamaica, New York: Global Force Media, 2008) is one of those books you probably figured I’d buy just to look at the pictures, but there’s a lot more going on here than a bunch of arty B&W leg shots with captions: as advertised, it’s a story of a relationship that founders, and if you’ve ever had any reason to utter a sentence that begins with “You only wanted me for my…” you’ll appreciate the story line.

From the Times-Ledger in the author’s home borough of Queens:

Author and Queens native David Eugene Boone was inspired by female noir characters and Hitchcock movies when he created his long-limbed, monochromatic protagonist.

“I noticed that women’s legs were used to communicate something,” he said, “especially when they were walking away.”

Legs Talk is Boone’s first book; I have to wonder what he’s going to do for a follow-up.

(Review copy purchased at retail.)

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Laughing matters

In his classic Up the Organization, Robert Townsend asked: “If you’re not in business for profit or fun, what the hell are you doing there?”

The only problem with this premise is the implication that “profit” and “fun” are mutually exclusive. Not so, say Adrian Gostick and Scott Christopher in The Levity Effect: Why It Pays to Lighten Up (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2008), which argues that employees will bust their butts if occasionally they’re busting a gut.

Seriously. (So to speak.) There are even numbers to support this premise:

On Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For,” produced by the Great Place to Work® Institute, employees in companies that are denoted as “great” responded overwhelmingly — an average of 81 percent — that they are working in a “fun” environment. That’s a compelling statistic: Employees at the best companies are also having the best time.

They’re also making the most money for their stockholders: for the period 1998-2006, for example, those “100 Best” outperformed the S&P 500 by 78 percent.

In addition to case histories at companies big and small, The Levity Effect lists “142 Ways To Have Fun At Work.” If you tried all of them, I suspect you’d never get any work done at all, but what if you tried none of them? You’d have a pretty dour bunch of folks and a burgeoning employee-retention problem. From the chapter “Overcoming Objections to Levity,” the response to “We don’t have time for fun around here”:

By now, it should be obvious that you don’t have time to not have fun. If you want to have a productive, creative, and engaging work experience, you must find the time to cut loose a little. It’s that simple. If you don’t, you’ll end up burning your people out; you won’t get their best work, and you’ll lose them to competitors.

The Levity Effect is not a call for corporate slapstick, though an occasional pratfall is always worth a chuckle or two. But if you’re the perennial brow-knitter who always finds the cloud in front of the silver lining, it’s way past time you lightened up.

There is, of course, a Web site.

(Review copy furnished by author’s representative.)

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Beyond transactions

In the absence of a better explanation at the time, I found myself drawn to transactional analysis, as popularized by Eric Berne’s 1964 book Games People Play. Dr Berne argued that just about every personal interaction could be boiled down to simple patterns based on which ego states are involved: Child, Parent, or Adult.

This model, says Mark Goulston in Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone (New York: AMACOM, 2010), is obsolete and counterproductive:

Transactional communications don’t create traction in a relationship because they’re impersonal and shallow. These exchanges won’t necessarily drive people away … but they won’t draw people closer either. Like [an] ATM transaction, they’re rarely life-changing events, and they’re “all about you” instead of “all about the other person or company.”

And traction, says Dr Goulston, is imperative:

To understand this, picture yourself driving up a steep hill. Your tires slip and slide and can’t grab hold. But downshift, and you get control. It’s like pulling the road to meet you.

Most people upshift when they want to get through to other people. They persuade. They encourage. They argue. They push. And in the process, they create resistance. When you use the techniques I offer, you’ll do exactly the opposite — you’ll listen, ask, mirror, and reflect back to people what you’ve heard. When you do, they will feel seen, understood, and felt — and that unexpected downshift will draw them to you.

This comparison makes more sense than you’d think, at least to me: I spend much of my time in overdrive, which means I’ve upshifted as far as my transmission will let me, trying to get the maximum speed out of minimum crankshaft rotation. In a very real sense, I don’t have time for those other people, and some of them visibly resent it.

I can see some serious value in this book, especially in our contemporary “Gotcha” culture. (Berne touched on this briefly, with a game he called “NIGYSOB” — “Now I’ve Got You, You Son Of a Bitch” — but I suspect he never anticipated how it would become the dominant form of politics forty-five years down the road.) Getting through to people seems more difficult than ever: we’ve heard it all before, or so we think. Flowery oratory won’t do the job, either; it takes some serious one-on-one interaction. I can’t yet vouch for Dr Goulston’s instructions, having only just finished the book, but he’s made reasonable explanations for all of them, and allowed for the possibility that some of them might not work every single time. (Not everyone will be as reasonable as you or I would be.) At no point, however, does he leave you stranded. If you get along fine with everyone all the time, you probably don’t need Just Listen. For the rest of us, I think it’s worth a look. (If you’d like a sampling of Dr Goulston’s philosophy, visit his Usable Insights blog.)

Disclosure: From review copy in ebook format. Publication is scheduled for September; Amazon.com is offering pre-order at one-third off.

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Celluloid Soonerland

Larry Van Meter spots an anomaly in a Forties Western:

Unable to find a seat on the train, she is rescued by Jim Gardner, who owns the luxury car at the back of the train. Jim as it turns out is one of the new Oklahoma millionaires, having struck it rich in the oil fields of Sapulpa. He’s also a cad, clear to everyone except this “New Woman.” Gardner takes a shine to Catherine, gives her the nickname “Kitten,” and invites her to get off the train with him in Sapulpa. Now, maybe [director] Albert Rogell wasn’t paying attention during this scene, or maybe he had forgotten his Oklahoma geography, but the train from Cleveland to Kansas City doesn’t stop in Sapulpa. But maybe this is Oklahoma’s fate in the American cinema, an indeterminate place somewhere on the American map.

Which explains, sort of, the premise of Sooner Cinema: Oklahoma Goes to the Movies (Oklahoma City: Forty-Sixth Star Press, 2009), edited by Van Meter, which collects nineteen essays on the image of the Sooner State as portrayed in American film, from the days of silents to the present, with stops at Cimarron, The Grapes of Wrath and The Outsiders, just to name a few.

Telling a tale set in “an indeterminate place” has its advantages: you can make it up as you go along, as Albert Rogell did in 1943 while shooting In Old Oklahoma, which he actually shot in even-older Utah, and nobody will raise a fuss: for the 297 million Americans who don’t live here, Oklahoma could be as remote as Timbuktu. They know we belong to the land, and the land we belong to is, well, kinda bland, when it isn’t openly hostile.

Sooner Cinema acknowledges this phenomenon without taking umbrage. Filmmakers tell stories, and sometimes those stories drown out considerations of place: those snowcapped mountains just outside McAlester in True Grit don’t resemble anything you or I have ever seen just outside McAlester. But True Grit‘s story wasn’t about Oklahoma so much as it was about the No Man’s Land it was once thought to be in the territorial days — and ultimately, it was about John Wayne, a man bigger than any No Man’s Land ever was. In this context, getting the facts straight about Oklahoma is a secondary, maybe tertiary, consideration. In fact, Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory, a biography of Woody Guthrie, somehow manages not to mention Oklahoma at all.

Then again, being associated with a vague sort of mythology may work to Oklahoma’s advantage. Van Meter notes in his introduction:

[I]s there any Wyoming film that doesn’t show the Grand Tetons? or a Colorado film that doesn’t incorporate the Rockies? or a Hawaii film that doesn’t show a surfer? Oklahoma films aren’t compelled to show the state’s X to prove its Oklahoma-ness.

If you live here, and if you ever expect to have to explain to someone from New Jersey or New Brunswick or New Delhi what it’s like to live in Oklahoma, Sooner Cinema will make your task that much easier: you’ll know the difference between celluloid and reality, and you’ll be able to tell when that difference actually matters. And if this task somehow doesn’t fall to you, you’ll still have the pleasure of discovering some cinematic wonders set practically in your own back yard. If this be mythology, make the most of it.

(Review copy furnished by the publishers.)

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Return of the Purple One

Last month I promised you some commentary on that Prince 3-CD set, and it’s about time I got around to it.

Lotusflow3r, for some reason, is distributed in the States by Target stores. (Both Prince and Target have roots in Minneapolis, but surely that can’t be the motivation.) The first disc, Elixer, is given over to the vocal stylings of Bria 6 Valente, presumably Prince’s bid for airplay on your local smooth-jazz station; Valente is okay in a budget-Basia sort of way, and everything is eminently listenable, but nothing really soars. Still, you can do worse for background music, and even if you haven’t, your dentist probably has.

The second disc is Lotusflow3r itself, which reintroduces Prince as guitar hero, a role he hasn’t really embraced since, well, Purple Rain. And while it’s good to have him wailing on the axe, the backgrounds seem designed more to stay out of the way than to enhance the experience. Still, the curious fusion of “Crimson and Clover” with “Wild Thing” works, and if things seem a bit less frantic than they could be, the Dylanesque “Colonized Mind,” halfway through the disc, is somehow reassuring: it fits nicely alongside quieter Hendrixiana like “Castles Made of Sand,” which is not at all a bad neighborhood to be in.

MPLSound goes back even further: the intricate synth-funk Prince perfected around the days of Dirty Mind and Controversy. I’m not entirely convinced that we need to party like it’s 1979, but viewed strictly as a revival of the classic Minneapolis sound, it does the job. And the sort-of-anthemic “No More Candy 4 U,” the closer, hints that okay, here’s your stylistic throwback, now go buy one of the newer albums already. If you’re spiteful, which I’m not, you’ll hunt around for The Black Album.

Summary: It’s three CDs, two hours. Like most such sets, it could have been edited down to half the length and one-third the plastic. Still, it’s Prince: if he’s not being excessive, he’s got no reason to live. This is the man who, after all, changed his name to an unpronounceable glyph after leading off the album of the same, um, name with a track called “My Name Is Prince.” The courage of one’s contradictions? This is what you get from The Artist Formerly Known As The Artist Formerly Known As Prince. You get used to it.

(Prompted by La Shawn Barber.)

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