Friday, December 29, 2017

Review of Bess Rogers' "Can't Remember Where"

I posted this just a few minutes ago on the Sputnik Music website:

Review Summary: New York indie singer Bess Rogers packs a lot of punch into this 3-song EP.

Can't Remember Where (2016) is a 3-song EP by New York indie musician Bess Rogers. It's her most recent solo release, although Allie Bess and Hannah Sing, a project created in conjunction with fellow musicians Allie Moss and Hannah Winkler, was released later in that same year.

In spite of its brief length, this is a memorable album. This is due in part to Rogers' voice -- put simply, it's never been lovelier. It's hard for me to believe now, but there was a time I considered her to be just a slightly-above average singer. I think it's because there's nothing flashy about her. She has a straightforward delivery, never relying on the trills and vocal gymnastics that some singers use to draw attention to themselves. But her delivery is never less than pure, and her voice has a smoothness to it that I find more and more appealing every time I listen to her.

The other strength of Can't Remember Where lies in its material. The EP contains two original numbers and a cover, and each one has a kick to it.

The title track, which leads off the album, is a love song that's literally for the ages -- it follows a relationship through various rebirths and gender flips, as the singer repeatedly finds her lover again through repeated lifetimes, always with a gnawing feeling that they've met before, though she can't remember where. The song is nicely supported by gently strummed acoustic guitar, vocal harmonies, and some subtle-but-appealing synth. It immediately goes into competition with the LOURDS song "Always" for the title of "My Favorite Reincarnation Love Song Ever".

Track two, "Day After Day", was written by Rogers in conjunction with her husband Chris Kuffner. This is a slow song that was actually rerecorded for the Allie Bess and Hannah album in a slightly altered form. While each version has its merits, I think I prefer this one. While I miss the gorgeous harmonies with Moss and Winkler on the Allie Bess and Hannah rendition, this one is more fully orchestrated, and for me, a little more satisfying. The song is about a relationship that probably isn't the healthiest -- the singer often finds herself angry at her lover, but he has a way of mesmerizing her into forgetting all of the things he's done to piss her off.

Now normally, I'm all about original music. However, every so often, you come across a cover that makes you hear a song in a whole new way. That's the case here, which is why Rogers' cover of The Gin Blossoms' "Found Out About You" is my favorite track on this EP. This has always been a very strong song, but this new version is devastating. Rogers slows the song down, not to a dirge, but just enough to force you to concentrate on the words. Her version is also instrumentally more sparse than the original, which again forces you to listen to what she's singing. And what she's singing is a tale of hurt, deception and betrayal, in a simple but sincere way, that functions as something of an emotional gut punch. It's one of the more memorable covers I've heard over the last few years.

Rogers and Kuffner celebrated the birth of their first child this past May, and she seems to be taking some time off right now to see the little fellow through his first holiday season. Nevertheless, I'm hoping for some new music from her sometime during 2018. But in the meantime, I'll continue to enjoy this little gem, along with Allie Bess and Hannah Sing and the rest of her previous output.

Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

This will probably be my last review for 2017. But I have a few more reviews of local albums coming up in January, including the new album by The Hank Stone Band and the latest by Neil Cavanagh.

Until then, I wish you all a safe and Happy New Years!

Rich H.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Review of Harry Chapin's "Verities & Balderdash"

I posted this review earlier this afternoon on the Sputnik Music website:

Review Summary: "Something's burning somewhere. Does anybody care?"

Although he's been somewhat forgotten today, folk singer Harry Chapin was important in his day, both as an artist and as a social activist heavily involved in raising money and awareness for world hunger issues. Musically, he was renowned for his storytelling -- his songs depicted memorable characters, some noble, many flawed, but all recognizably human. Verities & Balderdash (1974), his fourth studio album, was arguably his masterpiece.

Chapin entered the public consciousness in 1972 with the hit single "Taxi", which reached #24 on the U.S. Billboard charts. Over the course of the next few years, his fame grew, thanks to a series of minor hit singles and to a huge amount of American FM radio airplay. His first and third albums, Heads & Tails (1972) and Short Stories (1973) were both quite successful (although his second, Sniper and Other Love Songs (1972) was much less popular). However, Verities & Balderdash took Chapin's career to a whole new level, reaching #4 on the Billboard album charts, and eventually going double platinum, propelled in large part by the #1 hit single, "Cats in the Cradle".

"Cats in the Cradle" is elegant in its simplicity. Driven mostly by a quietly picked acoustic guitar, and sung in first person (as many of Chapin's songs are), it follows the relationship between a well-meaning but always-too-busy father and his son, from the cradle almost to the grave. With its nursery-rhyme-like chorus of "The cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon/Little boy blue and the man in the moon" acting as a punctuation mark, we follow the various stages of their lives, from the boy's birth ("But there were trains to catch and bills to pay"), through his toddler years ("He learned to walk while I was away"), to his childhood, where Dad can never quite find the time to even stop for a simple game of catch. By the end of the song, the singer is a lonely old man, and of course, the tables have turned -- now it's his son who can never find the time for him. What makes the song so heartbreaking is that neither the father nor the son seem like bad people. Dad just never slowed down long enough to get his priorities straight, and his son (mistakenly) learned what was most important in life from watching Dad's example.

While this single doubtlessly spurred the sales of the album, it would be a mistake to think that it's all that Verities has to offer. There are nine songs here in all, and each, in its own way, is a major or minor gem. "I Want to Learn a Love Song", which was also released as a single, is sung from the viewpoint of a young guitar teacher who falls in love with the woman whose husband hired him to teach her to play guitar. It's allegedly the story of how Chapin first met his wife Sandy. 

The heart of the album, however, might be "What Made America Famous?", which was released as a promotional single. It's a hokey-but-effective story about disparate peoples coming together. It follows the conflict between the straight-laced inhabitants of a nameless small town and the "hippies", of whom Chapin's protagonist is a member. Both groups go out of their way to antagonize one another, until one night, a fire breaks out in the broken down slum building where the hippies and other outcasts live. Most of the volunteer firemen are in no rush to rescue their tormentors, except for one nameless man, a middle-aged, overweight plumber, who stands up to his friends and takes the truck out to rescue the others. Yes, the song is sentimental and emotionally manipulative. It's also delightfully effective. The plumber's heroism doesn't require massive physical strength or super-hero-like toughness -- just the emotional courage to stand up and do the right thing, even when those around you would have you do otherwise. The track is a monument to the kind of country (and world) that Chapin dreamed of, where people would put aside their differences to help one another. It's a dream that still resonates today.

There are also a pair of songs here that demonstrate Chapin's sense of humor. The first, entitled "30,000 Pounds of Bananas", is the funniest song about a horrendous and deadly automotive wreck you'll ever hear. The second, "Six String Orchestra", gives him the opportunity to poke some fun at his own musical shortcomings: "I'd play at local talent nights/I'd finish, they'd applaud/Some called it muffled laughter/I just figured they were awed."

The album is rounded out by another trio of character studies and a love song. "Shooting Star" is the strange tale of a charismatic crazy man and the woman whose love grounds him, while "Vacancy" tells the story of a clerk who lives vicariously through the couples who stop at his motel. "Halfway to Heaven" finds its nameless middle-aged protagonist feeling cheated by the changing societal values around him, as he prepares to embark on an extramarital affair with his secretary. Finally, "She Sings Songs Without Words" has Chapin extolling the many mystical virtues of the woman he's in love with: "She knows more of love than the poets can say/And her eyes offer something that won't go away".

Harry Chapin died tragically in 1981, ironically (considering the story in "30,000 Pounds of Bananas") in a car wreck of his own. He was only 38 years old. Many of his singer/songwriter contemporaries from the 1970s are now considered respected elder statesmen, and are still making music today. As sad as it is that he was taken so young, he at least left behind him an impressive body of work. If you find yourself interested in exploring this rich legacy, Verities & Balderdash is as good a place as any to start.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Oliver! (Warning! Plot Spoilers Contained Within!)

At my daughter's request, she and I saw a production of Oliver! last night at the Smithtown Performing Arts Center. I was a little surprised she was interested in seeing it -- as I've mentioned in the past, she usually leans towards the happy shows, and while this one has an upbeat enough ending, I remember the film kind of traumatizing me as a kid. I think it was that whole Bill Sykes bashing Nancy Sykes' head in thing. Seriously, what is wrong with people! It was supposed to be a family film, I guess because the main character is a little kid. But they make Nancy a really likable character -- she's one of the ones who tries to protect  Oliver. Then they not only show you her husband slapping the crap out of her, but later, they actually have him kill her. Then the cops blow old Bill Sykes away, so that's supposed to make everything all right. Damned film gave me nightmares.

And I'm not the only one. My Dad was a fan of the film, and my sister tells me she has memories of walking with him down Astoria Boulevard in the snow, as he sang "Girl For Sale," with verses such as, "Who will buy this little tyke? I'll even throw in a mini-bike." Is it any wonder we all need therapy?

But my daughter wanted to see it. I think it's a whole British thing. One of the jokes in my family revolves around the idea that as best we can tell, her whole birth family is of British lineage, and she has very British tastes -- she loves Monty Python and Doctor Who, and she prefers her soda warm. Because my own heritage is Irish, I always accuse her of oppressing my people. And she usually answers something like, "We told you not to wear skirts! But did you listen?" I try to explain the many virtues of the kilt, but the child just doesn't get it.

Now, I'm kind of glad in the way that Smithtown PAC chose to do Oliver! Because at this time of the year, most of the local theaters try to show something that's "family" entertainment, and it makes for a lot of the same old thing. I opened up the theater page of Good Times last night, and three of the listings in a row are for Annie. And as shows about poor orphans who wind up adopted by rich guys go, I prefer Oliver!

Anyway, Oliver! I'd say this production has its good points and bad points. One of the things I was wondering about going in was how they would handle the issue of the lead. Let's face it, it's not always that easy to find child actors who can consistently pull off a lead roll like this one. It's one of the reasons I think that not too many community theaters have jumped on doing Matilda. They do Annie often enough, but then again it's not all that unusual to find talented 16-year-olds in the part of Annie. So I was curious to see if they'd go with an age-appropriate Oliver. (And when the show started a few minutes late, my daughter and I might have made a few jokes about the idea that the rest of the cast was backstage, busily trying to sober up a 20-something "Oliver" enough to start the show, while he clutched desperately at his whiskey bottle, begging, "Please sir! I want some more!"

But actually, the actor playing Oliver was a totally age-appropriate young man named Austin Levine, and he just came off of the National Tour of Sound of Music. He did a pretty good job in the role, but some of his songs were better than others. For example, he did a mostly spot-on performance of "Who Will Buy?", but had some trouble with the higher parts of the range in "Where Is Love?"

Of the other main actors, I especially liked Jess Ader as Nancy. She had a good mix of toughness and vulnerability, and she really nailed her big number, "As Long As He Needs Me". She was pretty damned strong on "I'd Do Anything" and "Oom-Pah-Pah" as well. I really wish Bill Sykes hadn't bashed her skull in (although at least this took place off stage, thus making the violence arguably less upsetting than the violence in this theater company's production of Man of La Mancha a few months back). 

Nick Masson's Fagin was charismatic and funny, although he kept doing this breathy thing with his voice that drove me crazy. (And whose idea was it give him make-up like a raccoon, with two black circles around his eyes? I don't get what was up with that.) Sandro Scegna, who played Pedro in that last production of Man of La Mancha, was appropriately glowering as the brutish Bill Sykes.

The fairly large ensemble cast was pretty solid. There were a lot of young actors and actresses among the workhouse boys, pickpockets and Londoners, and they gave spirited performances. And two actors' whose performances I particularly enjoyed were Chazmond Peacock (in about five different roles, including those of Mr. Sowerberry the undertaker and Dr. Grimwig) and Taylor Duff as Nancy's friend (or sister) Bet (and as a London flower girl as well). Peacock sings well and shows some strong comedic talent, and Duff has a lovely pure, high voice.

The play itself feels a little dated in some ways (although to its credit, it never treats its domestic violence undertones in any way lightly), and at times the story feels a little rushed. But it also has some real treats, chief among them an abundance of good songs. Besides some of the ones I already mentioned, other famous numbers include "Food, Glorious Food", "Consider Yourself", "You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two", and Fagin's big number, "Reviewing the Situation".

For this version, Oliver! was nicely directed by Jordan Hue, and the larger musical numbers were pretty well choreographed by Jessica Gill. (Everyone sort of danced like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins -- "Come on Matie, step in time!" -- but I guess that in a musical set in Victorian London, they really have to).

In any event, my daughter enjoyed the production, and that was mainly the audience that I cared about. The show is running through January 21, with weekday matinee performances the whole week between Christmas and New Year's. Now if only I can convince her to go back to see Mamma Mia! in March. Kids!

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Review of Cara Dillon's "Upon a Winter's Night"

I posted this review earlier this morning on the Sputnik Music website. To those who regularly read my reviews on this blog, a quick note -- I usually post these on Sputnik first, then edit them, copy them and re-post them here. Unfortunately, Sputnik has developed (another) weird quirk, which is that over the last month or do, question marks get translated on the site as double quote marks. Until tonight, I've been forgetting to fix them when I post the reviews here. So if you've been wondering about weird double quotation marks at the end of sentences that are obviously intended to be questions, sorry about that. Luckily for our friend Sia, I remembered to fix it here.

Review Summary: This is a lovely and simple album of Christmas carols with a Celtic feel, highlighted by Cara Dillon's exquisite voice.

Christmas albums get released for a variety of reasons. Of those released over the last few years, many, doubtlessly, were produced simply to make money. Others seem to come from different places. The new Gwen Stefani album, which I reviewed a week or so ago, feels like it was put out as a celebration of Stefani's relationship with country singer Blake Shelton. The new Sia album seems to have been a challenge in craftsmanship -- Sia has made her reputation as a songwriter, and this LP seems like it was made in large part as a test of her skills as a songsmith - could she create an entire album of memorable original holiday music? (The answer is, probably not.) As for the new Cheap Trick Christmas LP, I have no idea -- I just haven't had the courage to check that one out.

Irish folksinger Cara Dillon is a different kind of artist. She's virtually unknown in the U.S. outside of the Irish American community, and even in her native UK and Ireland (she's from County Londonderry in Northern Ireland), her success has been moderate -- she's made it as high on the charts as #6 in the UK for her 2014 album A Thousand Hearts, while in Ireland, her 2003 album Sweet Liberty was her biggest seller, reaching an unassuming #34. To the extent that she is known, it's mostly for traditional Celtic folk music, and for one other thing as well -- the sheer beauty of her voice. And as an artist of more humble accomplishments than pop stars such as Stefani and Sia, it makes sense that her Christmas album, Upon a Winter's Night (2016) was created from more modest motivations. In this case, the LP feels like a simple celebration of Christmas and family. It was forged in its entirety in collaboration with her husband, Sam Lakeman; one of her children, 10-year-old Noah, has a partial writing credit on the title track; and there's even a gorgeous a capella version of "Oh Holy Night" sung in harmony with her sister, folk singer Mary Dillon. 

This is a very quiet album, and in many ways a simple one. There are eleven tracks -- eight are arrangements of traditional carols and three are new originals. Highlights include her reworked version of "The Holly and the Ivy" (which, like many old carols, has more than one version -- this one features the traditional lyrics sung to a different tune, then shifts to the more familiar version for its brief instrumental outro); a slow and pretty version of "The Wexford Carol"; a traditional carol I'd never heard before, sung entirely in Gaelic, called "Rug Muire Mac Do Dhia"; and a straightforward version of "Oh Come, Oh Come, Emanuel" for just piano and voice.

Of the three originals, "Upon a Winter's Night" is an upbeat and joyful number driven largely by the Irish fiddle; "Standing By My Christmas Tree" is a love song with a vaguely country feel to it; and "Mother Mary", which ends the LP, is a soft (if somewhat repetitive) lullaby sung from the perspective of Mary singing to the infant Jesus. There's also a bouncy instrumental called "The Huntsman", which is highlighted by a call and response between the piano, the accordion, and sometimes the fiddle.

Upon a Winter's Night isn't flashy at all. It's a straightforward collection of Christmas-themed songs that seem to come straight from the heart of the Dillon family. It will appeal to fans of artists such as Loreena McKennitt, Cherish the Ladies and even Celtic Woman. If you need a break from flashing lights, jam-packed shopping malls and crass commercialization, you might find some respite here.

Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Monday, December 18, 2017

Review of Jethro Tull's "The Jethro Tull Christmas Album"

I posted this one earlier today on the Sputnik Music website:

Review Summary: Jethro Tull is the one seventies rock band who can credibly pull off a Christmas album.

There aren't too many of the so-called "classic" rock bands from the seventies that could pull off a Christmas album. Picture, if you will, A Led Zeppelin Christmas, or Rush Sings "Santa Baby". Horrifying, right" Even the bands from that era who've successfully managed to create a Christmas song with some lasting power, like The Kinks ("Father Christmas") or Emerson, Lake & Palmer ("I Believe in Father Christmas") would probably be hard pressed to manage an entire album of holiday music. For Jethro Tull, however, it's something of a natural. For one thing, they had already recorded at least three Christmas-themed songs over the years prior to this LP: "Christmas Song", a single that was eventually released on 1972's Living in the Past; "Jack Frost and the Hooded Crow", a song that was recorded earlier and released for the 1988 boxed set 20 Years of Jethro Tull; and "Another Christmas Song", from the 1989 Rock Island album. Then there was that whole Elizabethan/rustic music period that Tull went through in the late seventies with their Songs From the Wood and Heavy Horses albums, where the overall sound feels appropriate for Christmas even when the lyrics have nothing to do with it. All told, you'd have to say that if any of the major rock bands from years of old was going to put off a respectable Christmas album, Jethro Tull would be your best candidate.

So how'd they do? Not bad, actually. Not bad at all. The Jethro Tull Christmas Album was released (to little fanfare) in 2003. The band at the time consisted of Tull mastermind Ian Anderson (flute, vocals, acoustic guitar, and an assortment of other instruments); Martin Lancelot Barre (I just love that his middle name is "Lancelot") (electric and acoustic guitars); Andrew Giddings (keyboards, accordion and keyboard bass); Jonathan Noyce (bass guitar); and Doane Perry (drums and percussion). It was the last official Jethro Tull studio album prior to this year's lamentable The String Quartets LP. It weighs in at an impressive 16 tracks long (so you can pop it on your listening device of choice and proceed to wrap a sizable number of holiday presents before it ends), including at least six or so that have never been recorded before (sorry for being so imprecise here, but over the years, Anderson has tended to throw snippets of songs like "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" into the middle of various live tracks, and I'm just not patient enough to go back and dig all of them up just to give you a solid number here).

Anyway, it's actually a really good album, but it's geared toward a very specialized audience. What do I mean by that? Well, for starters, you have to already be the type of person who is predisposed to like Christmas music. I know that there are a lot of you out there, and you're into your metal, or your jazz, or your experimental electronica. And every year, December rolls around, and the music you're surrounded by almost everywhere you go just makes you want to shoot yourself. Or at best, it just goes right through you without you even noticing, like when you call your doctor's office and they play that tinny stuff while you're stuck on hold. Yeah, you know who you are. This album isn't for you. Even if you're a Jethro Tull fan, and you like them for their Aqualung and Thick As a Brickperiod, but then they just got ridiculous, and you completely tuned them out until maybe Crest of a Knave, this one won't be for you either. But if you at least have a tolerance for holiday music, and Tull's Elizabethan period was one of your favorites, then congratulations, Bucko! You're the target audience!

So what have you got here? Well, there are new recordings of each of the three Tull Christmas songs I mentioned earlier. There are also re-recordings of a couple of songs that aren't specifically holiday- themed, but sound like they belong, including "Weathercock" from Heavy Horses, "Fire at Midnight" and "Ring Out Solstice Bells" (all right, maybe that last one is sort of a Christmas song) from Songs From the Wood, and "Bouree", which goes all the way back to the Stand Up (1969) album. Then there are instrumental versions of various holiday classics, including "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen", "Holly Herald" (a medley that includes "The Holly and the Ivy" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing"), "Greensleeved" (a jazzy version of "Greensleeves"), and "We Five Kings" (a jazzy version of "We Three Kings"). There are also a couple of other appropriate-sounding instrumentals, including "Pavane", by the 20th-century French composer Gabriel Faure, and "A Winter Snowscape", an original penned by Barre.

Finally, as a special Christmas bonus, there are three brand new songs, complete with vocals and lyrics, written by Anderson. The best of these is "Last Man at the Party", a fast-paced, flute-driven number filled with Anderson's wry humor as he describes the alcohol-saturated holiday celebrations of various characters such as Sister Bridget, Cousin Jimmy (or maybe it's Possum Jimmy) and Stinky Joe ("From down the street/He fell right over/His own three feet"). Then there's "First Snow on Brookyn", a quiet and slightly sad number sung from the perspective of a very human guardian angel. Finally, "Birthday Card at Christmas" is a pleasant but forgettable little ditty that runs through a brief catalog of typical Yuletide imagery.

A Jethro Tull Christmas isn't by any means the album the band will be remembered for. It is, however, a cordial enough little collection filled with holiday and near-holiday tunes that is bound to enhance the Christmas season for a certain type of Tull fan. Being such a fan myself, I can honestly say it makes my Decembers just a little brighter every year. If albums like Songs From the Wood and Heavy Horses are an essential part of your music collection, you just might feel the same.

Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Review of Gwen Stefani's "You Make It Feel Like Christmas"

I posted this one a few days ago on the Sputnik website. I thought I posted it here, but apparently not so much. So here it is:

Review Summary: This is a solid enough album of Christmas music, and the title track will probably continue getting airplay over at least the next few holiday seasons.

As Gwen Stefani continues to develop her solo career outside of No Doubt, it makes sense she'd record a Christmas album. Nevertheless, certain things about You Make It Feel Like Christmas are surprising. For one, while exactly half of its twelve songs are covers of traditional Christmas classics, the other half are new original numbers. For another, stylistically, it's got something of a split personality -- some the arrangements and song choices are decidedly in the realm of jazz pop, which isn't exactly a shocker. What I wouldn't have predicted, though, is how much influence her current beau Blake Shelton had on this album. Stefani is still a pop rock singer, but most of the original tracks here are decidedly country-flavored, especially the title track (which she and Shelton sing together). And what's really funny is that although she and Shelton have only been together for about a year and a half, if you listen carefully, you'll hear that on some of the numbers, Stefani is singing with a slight twang. Now that's love!

Overall, this is a decent Christmas album, although I don't think it's one for the ages. The title track is definitely the strongest -- it's upbeat and fun, and Stefani and Shelton sound like they're genuinely enjoying themselves. I think this one will have a shelf life, and that you'll continue to hear it during the holiday season for at least the next few years. "Christmas Eve", another one of the originals, is also pretty good.

As for the covers, Stefani is at her best on tracks with jazzy arrangements, like her version of "Jingle Bells", and on some of the songs where she's allowed to be a little playful and flirtatious, like "Santa Baby" and George Michael's "Last Christmas". Other tracks, such as "Let It Snow" and "White Christmas", are pretty forgettable.

I'm not sorry to have this in my Christmas music collection. I've always liked Stefani, and I respect that she took a chance and filled half of the album with originals. I don't think it's an album I'll necessarily be pulling out every December, but it won't go to the bottom of my pile either. As for the title track, I'll definitely include it in some Christmas playlists. It won't replace No Doubt's cover of The Vandals' "Oi to the World" as my favorite Gwen Stefani Christmas song, though.

Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Mannheim Steamroller

For anyone who isn't familiar with them, Mannheim Steamroller is perhaps America's premier band for Christmas music. It wasn't always that way.

In the beginning, "Mannheim Steamroller" was simply a pseudonym for Chip Davis, a composer from Hamler, Ohio, who was interested in fusing popular and classical music. Davis founded his own record label in the mid-1970s, and released a series of albums in what would come to be known as the New Age genre, beginning with Fresh Aire in 1975. He had some modest success, and gradually added other musicians to the project. He released a series of niche albums over the next several years. Then in 1984, Mannheim Steamroller released an album under the simple title of Christmas, and it all went kablooey! The album ultimately went 6x Platinum, as did its follow-up, A Fresh Aire Christmas in 1988. Over the years, Mannheim Steamroller ultimately released eight albums in their Fresh Aire series, seven of which went Gold. Not bad. But they also released about twenty-five Christmas albums, eight of which have gone at least Platinum. So you can see where Mr. Davis gets the money for his Christmas presents every year, and why Mannheim Steamroller is predominantly known as a Christmas band.

The band has been doing Christmas tours for 33 years now, and this year was the third time they were invited to play in Washington, D.C. at the lighting ceremony for the National Christmas Tree at the White House. Although actually I should say "bands", because much like The Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Davis has two different versions of Mannheim Steamroller out on the road for Christmas tours this year, and he himself is conducting a third company in Orlando, Florida throughout this holiday season, as they play their version of "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas".

When Denise and I first got together and pooled our music collection, it happened that those first two Mannheim Steamroller Christmas CDs were in both of our collections. (I'm not going to say that overlap in musical tastes is an absolute necessity to any relationship, but it definitely helps). And roughly ten years ago, a few years before our children entered our lives, we spent a glorious weekend in Connecticut seeing Duran Duran and Mannheim Steamroller live at The Mohegan Sun. So now that the kids are older, and we have a little more freedom to get away for a night here and there, we decided to shoot over to Atlantic City for a night and catch Mannheim Steamroller once again at Harrah's.

We braved what our friend Sean Crusher accurately referred to as "The quarter-inch blizzard of 2017" to drive to Atantic City on Saturday morning. Then we grabbed a bite to eat, caught a nap at our hotel, and shot over to Harrah's.

Now I have a few choice words about the venue. The Concert Venue there is a nice enough room that holds 1,200 people, and this show was sold out. It's a typical casino concert venue -- comfortable chairs, and decent acoustics. But it has some drawbacks, and unfortunately, one of them in particular significantly interfered with out enjoyment of the show.

For one thing, in this age of extra security, especially considering the horrible Las Vegas shooting incident of last October, casinos are being extra mindful about security, and I applaud this. Like many concert venues these days, before you enter the venue, you  have to stand in line and get wanded by security workers. Unfortunately, this venue must have been designed before all of these protocols were put into place, because once you're in the arena, if you want to use the restrooms or avail yourself of refreshments such as Harrah's delicious $8 bottles of water, you have to get back in line and get wanded all over again to get back to your seats. Now that's kind of insane, especially for a concert with an older crowd like this -- we geezers aren't exactly noted for our strong bladders. This was a comparatively minor complaint, though.

The bigger problem was our seats. We were sitting in the upstairs part of the arena, in the right-most of three sections. Unfortunately, although our tickets said nothing about being obstructed vision seats, there are two huge, curved speakers that hang down over the stage on both the right and left sides.

Now seeing Mannheim Steamroller is a little bit like seeing a pops orchestra or a classical music show -- this version of the band had what looked to be a 7-piece supporting orchestra seated stage right, with the six musicians who actually constitute Mannheim Steamroller scattered over the rest of the stage. They don't jump around like a rock band -- this is a class act! So we could see most of the musicians OK. But in order to make up for the staid visual picture presented by the band, the show is complimented by a series of interesting lighting effects, a smoke machine, and a large video screen at the back of the stage which shows videos throughout the night that go along with the respective songs the band is playing. The video screen is an important part of the show.

But from where we were seated (and it had to be the same for the people on the other side of the venue), that big curved speaker blocked pretty much our entire view of the screen. So, for example, when the band opened up with "Escape from the Atmosphere," a number from an album of space exploration music called The Music of the Spheres, there was a rocket taking off from and re-entering the atmosphere that looked like it was probably pretty cool. Unfortunately, all we could see of it were the fumes from the rocket's tail.

So on behalf of all of the people seated in the upper left and upper right sections for this show, I'd to say a big, collective, Christmasy, "Bite Us, Harrah's!". (Not to the employees, though. By and large, the ushers, etc. were very nice).

Anyway, the show itself was excellent. We saw what they referred to as the Red Tour Cast (you could tell, because the women were wearing beautiful red gowns), as opposed to the Green Tour Cast, which was playing somewhere in Denver on the same night. The actual band consisted of Becky Kia Mills (the conductor and violinist), and Ron Cooley (the guitarist, bass player) at the front of the stage, with John Blasucci (piano, synthesizer), Bobby Kunkle (harpsicord, synthesizer), Roxanne Layton (percussion, recorder), and Logan Penington (drums) scattered behind them. Now Cooley reminded me a little of Joel Godard, that strange little man who used to be on the  Late Night With Conan O'Brien show (or at least his facial expressions did), and he and Mills played off of one another and flirted shamelessly throughout the night. (Disclaimer: that's mostly my fevered mind's interpretation of what was going on between them. What is it about me and Atlantic City? The last show I saw there, I had Katrina of Katrina and the Waves and Paul Young engaging in torrid lovemaking during the English Beat's set.)

There were two acts, predominantly made up of Christmas music, although there were a few sprinklings from the Fresh Aire and other other non-Christmas albums sprinkled in. Much of Mannheim Steamroller's music is Renaissance-flavored, although some is brassy and in-your-face. They played most of their best-loved arrangements, including their versions of "Deck the Halls", "Joy to the World", "O Holy Night" and "The Carol of the Bells". They also did their version of "Greensleeves", the only non-instrumental song of the night, which was impressively sung by the video version of Davis's 14-year-old daughter Elyse. When Denise first looked at the program, she was disappointed that the one classic that wasn't listed for performance was "Silent Night", a song for which I'd have to say that Mannheim Steamroller does the definitive version. It's a slightly sad, delicate arrangement, that evokes the image of lightly falling snow. Happily, though, although it didn't say so on the program, the band played that as its encore, and it was beautiful.

So in spite of the obstructed vision seats and the quarter-inch-of-snow blizzard, the show was worthwhile. (And Harrah's almost redeemed themselves a little after the show with their Monty Python and the Holy Grail Killer Bunny slot machines, and their delicious 24-hour desert cafe). So Merry Christmas, Mannheim Steamroller, and Merry Christmas Chip Davis. And thanks for all of the great Christmas music.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Review of Yes's "Topographic Drama - Live Across America"

I posted this review earlier today on the Sputnik Music website:

Review Summary: This live album showcases some Yes material that hasn't always gotten the attention it deserves.

This is a double-length live album recorded from last year's tour by the current Yes lineup that includes Jon Davison on vocals, Steve Howe on guitar, Billy Sherwood on bass, Geoff Downes on keyboards and Alan White on drums (with Jay Schellen substituting for White on some tracks when White was laid up due to back surgery). The tour was focused on performances of Yes's 1980 Drama album, plus two sides of their 1973 double LP Tales From Topographic Oceans, "The Revealing Science of God" and "Ritual". The album also features performances of "Leaves of Green", an excerpt from one of the other pieces from Topographic Oceans, "The Ancient", plus live versions of other Yes classics such as "And You and I", "Heart of the Sunrise", Roundabout" and "Starship Trooper". Long-time Yes collaborator Roger Dean contributed the artwork throughout.

Although I know that many people consider this lineup to be little more than a Yes tribute band, this is actually a really satisfying album. Clocking in at a little over two-and-a-quarter hours, it has its ups and downs, but most of it is really solid. The band does a particularly good job on the Drama part of the album. Davison's voice is a good fit for the material there, and Downes, who was the keyboardist on the original Drama LP, is at his strongest here. It's great to hear the band focus on numbers such as "Machine Messiah", "Into the Lens", "Tempus Fugit" and "Run Through the Light", and hearing a live performance of a song snippet such as "White Car" is a rare treat.

The performance of the Topographic Oceans material is a little more problematic. Full disclosure here -- I'm not a big fan of the original album. Parts of it are exquisite, but other parts are very dense, and it's always been one of my least favorite Yes albums. I think that Davison holds his own reasonably well on the live version of this material, but as much as I like Geoff Downes as a pop keyboardist, he's not Rick Wakeman (or even Patrick Moraz or Igor Khoroshev, for that matter), and while Sherwood is a competent bass player, his bass doesn't punch through the sound the way the late, great Chris Squire's did. Consequently, while "Revealing Science" and "Ritual" both have their moments, there were also times during each number where I felt my attention start to drift.

One good thing does come from the absence of Wakeman and Squire on the album, though - it's a tour de force for Yes master guitarist Steve Howe. Throughout the performance, the band seems to back off to give Howe room to shine, and he takes full advantage of the opportunity. I don't remember another album where his guitar playing is so often pushed to the forefront, and it definitely makes the album more enjoyable.

Topographic Drama - Live Across America makes me sorry I didn't catch the band live on this tour, and at the same time makes me feel a little like I was there, which is about all you could ask from a live album. I won't claim it's the best live LP that Yes has ever released -- if you're new to the band, you're probably better off starting with 1973's Yessongs or 1980's Yesshows. However, it's certainly a worthy addition to any Yes fan's collection. 

Yes as a band has been in existence for nearly 50 years now, and has featured a variety of different rosters during that span. Topographic Drama - Live Across America is an impressive showcase for their most recent lineup, and does a good job of spotlighting some material from their back catalog that hasn't always gotten the attention it deserves. More importantly, it's simply a good listen.

Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Friday, December 8, 2017

My Ten Favorite Operas

I published my Ten Favorite Musicals list yesterday, so just for the hell of it, I'm going to post my Ten Favorite Operas today.

While my favorite kind of music is rock in its various manifestations, I also like Broadway style musicals, opera and classical music. I only became an opera fan when I was well into my 30s, largely because of the language thing (I suck at learning foreign languages). But with the coming of sub-titles, I took the plunge, and I've been an opera fan ever since.

Unfortunately, there's not a whole lot of opera on Long Island, and the older I get, the less often I feel like going into the city. I used to like to go to City Opera a lot, before it lost its permanent home in Lincoln Center. But these days, as much as I love the Met, I rarely see live opera anymore.

Anyway, I'm definitely no expert, but I know what I like. So here are my ten favorite operas:

1. La Boheme - Puccini. Puccini is definitely my favorite opera composer. The music is beautiful for this one, and the story very sad -- they're so young, but so poor. For you show kids, this is the original version of Rent.

2. La Traviata - Verdi. Verdi would be my second favorite composer. The story here is in many ways similar to La Boheme -- they're young. They fall in love. She dies of consumption. Sorry for the spoilers.

3. Tales of Hoffman - Offenbach. When I was in my 20s, they used to show a version of this starring Placido Domingo every New Year's Eve on PBS. I wasn't ready for opera in general at that time, but the fantastic elements of this one appealed to me. Favorite line (translated into English): "Let's drink, and sleep in the gutter!" It fit in with my philosophy of life back then.

4. Turandot - Puccini. Used to be very underrated, until Pavarotti popularized the aria "Nessun Dorma". Gorgeous from beginning to end.

5. Aida - Verdi. Another tragic love story, done in grand spectacle. For you show kids, this what Elton John and Tim Rice based their musical on. An Egyptian story, and the Met version used to actually bring elephants on stage.

6. Eugene Onegin - Tchaikovsky. Sort of the Russian version of La Boheme and La Traviata, except the lovers live at the end, but they're apart and both miserable. Oh, and he kills his best friend in a duel. Like so many of the best operas, it's a real chucklefest.

7. Rigoletto - Verdi. The tale of a mean-spirited hunchback jester, his beautiful and innocent daughter, and a haughty, womanizing prince. Hilarity ensues. Not.

8. Carmen - Bizet. You might not think you're familiar with this opera, but I guarantee if you see it, you'll be like, "Oh, I know that one. Hey, I know that one, too!"

9. Don Giovanni - Mozart. An immoral womanizer, three young women, and a statue bent on revenge. Bring them all together, and hilarity ensues. (Actually, it does at times, though not so much at the end).

10. La Fanciulla del West - Puccini. An operatic western. Italian guys just love American cowboys. And why not?

Honorable Mention: Boris Godunov - Mussorgsky; Doctor Atomic - Adams; The Voyage - Glass; Romeo et Juliet - Gounod; Madama Butterfly - Puccini.

As for Wagner, I respect him, but I've never been able to love him. I need arias to keep me interested, and Wagner doesn't do arias. I'll keep working on him, though.

So that's my list.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

My Ten Favorite Musicals

I've been writing about (and seeing) quite  few musicals this year, and contrasting my taste with that of my daughter (who loves musicals with happy endings, would kill to see Hamilton, and for most of this year, has been deeply enamored of Heathers, I music I'm familiar with only through having seen the non-musical version that was its source material). So I figured that as we start to wind down 2017, and I have to finish up my Best of 2017 lists, this is as good a time as any to list my favorite ten musicals of all time. I'll also have a word about the upcoming seasons at some of Long Island's local playhouses.

Without further ado:

1. Man of La Mancha -- As I mentioned when I reviewed a recent production of this at the Smithtown PAC, this has been a favorite of mine since high school. I actually first became familiar with the film starring Peter O'Toole, Sophia Loren and James Coco, which I know disappointed many people. But I loved, and still love, it. There's something about the philosophy of "The Impossible Dream" that jives with my view of life -- you're probably going to lose in the end, but its OK, "If only you follow The Quest".

2. 1776 -- I'm a huge buff of American history, particularly the Revolutionary War period. These men were geniuses, and they created something very special in founding this country. I find Adams to be a thoroughly sympathetic protagonist, and I love the music. I watch this almost every 4th of July (which usually sends my wife and children scurrying for cover).

3. The Phantom of the Opera -- I make no bones about it, I love Andrew Lloyd Webber, and this is definitely my favorite of his. There's a reason why it holds the record for longest-running Broadway musical. And this one gives me a chance to combine my love of horror films with my love of musicals.

4. Threepenny Opera -- I first discovered this one when I got involved with a production at a local community center when I was a teenager. I later had the opportunity to see the famed Raul Julia version at The Circle in the Square in Lincoln Center. This one is pretty much the opposite of Man of La Mancha -- it's cynical where Man of La Mancha is idealistic -- and it appeals to the darker side of my psyche.

5. Les Miserables -- Yeah, it's kind of corny, and kind of melodramatic. But it's also stirring and filled with beautiful music, and I find that it's the kind of show that makes you want to leave the theater and be a better person. That counts for something, at least to me.

6. Evita -- Here's Webber, back again. I have various versions of the cast album, including Broadway, London, the original concept album, and the film soundtrack. And while I'm not generally a huge fan of her, I definitely like Madonna's take on the character best. She plays Eva with sincerity, not with cynicism.

7. Wicked -- This is the only one on the list that I've seen on Broadway twice -- first with my wife, and years later, with my daughter. It's yet another show about an outcast character who is more than she seems. Stephen Schwartz is my second-favorite composer for musical theater, and this is his masterpiece.

8. Sweeney Todd -- Far and away my favorite Sondheim show. This is another one that appeals to my darker side, and plays well to the horror fan in me.

9. Guys and Dolls -- I've always liked films and shows based on Damon Runyon stories (Pocketful of Miracles has always been one of my favorite holiday films, and one of my favorite episodes from the original Star Trek series was "A Piece of the Action", wherein the crew of the Enterprise encounters a society that based their whole social system on a book of Runyon stories. Spock: "Why would anyone want to put a bag on my captain?").

10. Jesus Christ Superstar -- This last one was a tough call between this and several other honorable mentions. I saw this on Broadway, and I've seen the film and several other staged versions, and I don't think any one of them rises to the level of excellence of that original concept album. (Although it comes a lot closer than the various versions of Tommy that came after the original Who album). In the end, it wins on the strength of the music, even if the ending has always been a dud.

Honorable Mentions: Chess, Pippin, Godspell, The Book of Mormon. (And if I was discussing film musicals, I'd have to include South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.)

Now that I've given you a little bit of an idea of favorites, I'll just talk a little about the upcoming seasons of some of the local Long Island playhouses.

The Gateway in Bellport -- I got a flyer listing the shows under consideration for the 2018 summer season. Unfortunately, my wife tossed it last night before I had the chance to write this. I don't remember them all, but suffice it to say that the only one that interested me was a Gateway production of Les Miserables. And maybe Caberet. I vaguely remember that Fiddler on the Roof, Chicago and Movin' Out were some of the other possibles.

The CM Performing Arts Section in Oakdale -- If the spirit moves me, I might go see Aida, which is the last show of the current season (after Beauty and the Beast)It's always been one of my favorite operas, but I haven't heard great word of mouth about the Broadway musical version. As for their upcoming season, nothing thrills me, although my daughter has expressed possible interest in Cry-Baby: The Musical. The other shows (Ragtime, On the Town and Bullets Over Broadway), do nothing for me.

Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts in Smithtown - My daughter wants to see Oliver (Go figure! Although it does have a happy ending, just not for Nancy), which is running now until January 21. I might go see Mama Mia!, which is running in late March through late April, although I suspect I'd have to drug my wife and/or my daughter to drag them to that one. The rest of the shows (Shakespeare in Love, Dream Girls, A Chorus Line and Fun Home) don't interest me.

The Cultural Arts Playhouse in Syosset doesn't usually give much info beyond the current shown, which is Shrek The Musical (which is definitely not my style). I do see that after Romeo and Juliet (which I presume is the original non-musical Shakespeare version), they're staging Jesus Christ Superstar (which runs from early-March through late April) (that's a maybe) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which runs from mid-May through early June) (Didn't even know this existed as a stage show -- another maybe?).

John W Engeman Theater, Northport -- Currently showing Annie, which I have no interest in. But they're showing Once from mid-January through early March, and this is a "highly probable" - I've always wanted to see this show. This theater is a little pricey, though -- folks must be living high on the hog in Northport! Yee-haw! (They also have upcoming: In the Heights, which is a good show, but I saw it not that long ago, and Singin' in the Rain, which I have no interest in).

The Bay Way Arts Center in East Islip -- Currently featuring Annie (no), followed by My Fair Lady (maybe), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (probably not), Forbidden Broadway's Greatest Hits (no), The Wedding Singer (no) and Cabaret (probably not).

The Broadhollow Theater at Elmont -- It's the same theater company as The Bay Way, and features most of the same shows a month later, so if I'm going to see them, I'm going to see them at Bay Way.

The Tilles Center and Staller Center both also feature occasional musicals by traveling companies. Theater Three in Port Jefferson is a popular local theater, but rarely features musicals.

I'm going to close here, because I've got a cat (Noodles) trying to climb on my laptop while I'm typing. This concludes the musical theater portion of our program, at least until I take my daughter to see Oliver.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Beauty and the Beast

Last Friday night, I led an expedition to see the new production of Beauty and the Beast at the Noel S. Ruiz Theatre in the CM Performing Arts Center in Oakdale. (By "led", I mean I paid for the tickets, so they let me come too).  It was Denise and I, my daughter and her boyfriend, and my niece (the little showkid).

Now, this is another one of those shows I wouldn't have chosen myself. For one thing, it's a Disney show, and I pretty much consider Disney to be The Evil Empire. (Hence my love for the obscure classic "Working for the Mouse" by my old friends from the band This Island Earth.) My childhood was tortured by Disney, who thought a great "family film" consisted of inventing a cute character, getting you to love them, then torturing them for an hour and forty-five minutes before throwing them a happy ending in the last quarter hour. Stephen King once commented that he thought the old Disney films were much more horrific and terrifying than anything he's ever written, and I tend to agree with him.

But as I've pointed out before, my daughter has different taste in musicals than I do. This child (young woman, now, really), who loves the goriest, most grisly horror films imaginable (and who once made fun of a date who got a little queasy during a bloody cannibal film she dragged him too), the girl who loves to joke (I hope?) about selling orphan meat on the black market, has a secret. And that secret is she's a total sucker for a happy ending. So when I told her that The CM playhouse was doing a production of Beauty and the Beast, she immediately asked me to get tickets.

Now Denise and I were just at CM a few weeks back, where we saw a pretty entertaining production of Jekyll and Hyde: The Musical, so I was pretty confident that they'd do a decent job with the show.
And I figured I'd better get tickets early, as I suspected this would be a pretty popular production, especially considering the popularity of the recent Emma Watson film. As it turned out, I was right. We still wound up towards the back of the theater (although we were at least in the middle section this time), and with the exception some of the VIP tables in the back, the show looked to be a sellout.

The bottom line: As I hoped, they did a really good job with this one. Even an old Disney skeptic like myself found the play really enjoyable. I'll get my few meager criticisms out of the way first, but all in all, they're pretty minimal. They are:
1. There were still a few minor sound problems, but nowhere near as many as during Jekyll and Hyde. All of the actors could be heard throughout the night, both when they were speaking and when they were singing. The only problem in this area is that some of the mics cut in and out occasionally, especially during the hectic fight scene at the end. It might have helped that I deliberately got tickets on the right side of the center this time -- it could be that the left side is more problematic acoustically. Or maybe they just worked out some of the issues. In any event, the mic situation didn't really detract from the enjoyment of the show;
2. During the climax, the staging is such that you really don't get the feel for the power of The Beast. Gaston kind of kicks the crap out of him for most of their brief fight, which was a little upsetting. And,
3. It kind of looked like Maurice, and later Belle and The Beast, were being attacked in the forest by feral bunnies instead of wolves. But this was sort of funny, and it actually added a little to the entertainment of the show.

Now I'll talk about what I liked, and it pretty much comes down to everything else. The cast is universally strong. Katie Ferretti, who did a nice job as Emma in Jekyll and Hyde, really nails it here as Belle. She walks the line perfectly between being borderline harsh when she's dealing with Gaston, and later with The Beast while he's still being ... well, beastly ... and being a strong and likable heroine who is easy to root for throughout. Her voice is consistently lovely, and she does everything she needs to do to carry the show as its main character. David DiMarzo as The Beast starts the evening as kind of a one-note character, but that's largely a function of the script. As the night goes on, however, you begin to see the real person inside of the animal, and in the end, he comes off as hugely sympathetic. As for Corey Martin, he is note-perfect as the boorish bully Gaston. He's quite funny, and does a fine job, along with the ensemble cast, of carrying off one of the show's best numbers, "Gaston". (I still think that his trio of female admirers should be called The Gastonettes, instead of simply "Silly Girls", though).

No disrespect to any of the other cast members, who again were all quite good, but I particularly enjoyed Emily Nadler as Mrs. Potts. She gave the character a benign and reassuring presence, and did an excellent job of singing the play's fine title song, "Beauty and Beast". And I'd be remiss if I didn't also give some special love to Steven Cottonaro as Lumiere, who was a clear favorite in my little party -- my wife, daughter and niece all singled him out for special praise.

I also want to say that for a little local theater, this production did a great job with some of the larger ensemble numbers, especially "Be Our Guest". The scene changes during the song were impressive, and all of the various dancing cups and other enchanted objects did a fantastic job.

All in all, this presentation really won me over, and everyone else in my little party enjoyed it as well. The production is running through December 23, and as you'd probably expect, it's definitely a show for the whole family. I'm not sure how many tickets are left, but I'll bet you can find some. I'd recommend it highly as holiday-friendly entertainment. The website for the theater is

Review of Celtic Woman's "The Best of Christmas"

I posted this review on the Sputnik Music website last night.

Review Summary: Finnish death metal band Celtic Woman tear it up on this new holiday album!

OK, I'm totally lying. Celtic Woman is neither Finnish nor a death metal band. In fact, they're an all-female Irish music ensemble, consisting of 3-4 singers and an Irish fiddler, backed by an orchestra, a choir, and a small collection of supporting musicians, created largely by David Downes, a former musical director of the show Riverdance. They specialize in mellow arrangements of mostly non-original material, and operate somewhere in the pop/classical/Irish-and-Scottish-ethnic music range. They're more popular in the U.S. than in their native Ireland, largely due to the backing of public broadcasting television stations throughout the country. In addition to their Irish pop LPs, they've also put out a series of albums of Christmas and holiday music. The Best of Christmas is a compilation album that draws from several of these.

While Celtic Woman has had a number of different lineups over the years, The Best of Christmas pulls its tracks from three of these: The original lineup, which featured singers Chloe Agnoe, Orla Fallon, Lisa Kelly and Maev Ni Mhaolchatha as well as fiddler Maireed Nesbitt; A 2012 lineup consisting of Agnew, Mhaolchatha and Nesbitt, plus vocalist Lisa Lambe; and the current group, which includes singers Susan McFadden, Maired Carlin, Eabha McMahon and new fiddler Tara McNeill. The LP consists mostly of holiday classics, with one exception, which I'll get to in a moment.

There's certainly nothing cutting edge here. This is an album for people who love time-honored Christmas songs that showcase beautiful female vocals with a slight Celtic flair. There are twenty tracks here in all, and most are the kind of songs you'd expect -- "Joy to the World", "Oh Come All Ye Faithful", "I'll Be Home for Christmas", etc. The only two unexpected numbers present are "Once in Royal David's City" by the modern lineup, and Chloe Agnew's ethereal version of "Walking in the Air" from the 1982 animated film The Snowman, culled from the first Celtic Woman (2005) album. 

Other than these two less familiar tracks, the other highlights here include the original lineup's renditions of "Oh Holy Night" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas", Orla Fallon's stark version of "Away in a Manger", and the 2016 version of "Silent Night" (drawn from last year's Voices of Angels LP). The album ends with a gentle and wistful version of "Auld Lang Syne" as sung by Lisa Lambe.

This is probably not going to be a popular album with many of the regular Sputnik Music website users. It's about as far from metal (and other popular Sputnik genres) as you can get. But if you're something of a traditionalist, and you're looking for a non-obtrusive Christmas album focused on exquisite female vocals to get you through your holiday season, this will more than do the trick.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Saturday, November 18, 2017

He-Bird, She-Bird, and some quick thoughts on LI Americana

Finally got to catch my friends He-Bird, She-Bird live last night at the Bellport Library. I reviewed their CD on this blog a few months ago, and I was supposed to catch them live at the Bellport Bandshell one night near the end of the summer. Unfortunately, on that night, it rained buckets, and I stupidly didn't notice that they had an alternate indoor site listed for the concert in case of bad weather. So on that night, the show went on, but I didn't.

Anyway, last night, I finally caught up with them, and it was a pretty triumphant show. The normally 3-piece He-Bird, She-Bird played as a 6-piece band last night, which included Bill Ayasse from the mighty Long Island prog rock band Frogg Cafe sitting in on mandolin (and occasionally on violin).

Earlier in the evening, the library had hosted a community dinner. And while I passed on the food and went straight for the music, there were still some tasty aromas and the sound of people happily munching going on as the show began.

The band showcased their excellent 3-part vocal harmonies throughout the night, on a bill that included some country, bluegrass, folk, Americana, and even a touch of Gospel music. The band played a variety of covers, including their version of Dylan's "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" and a slow, waltz-like version of the old classic, "You Are  My Sunshine". However, most of the program was concentrated on He-Bird, She-Bird originals, including numbers from their eponymous debut album such as "Once I Called You Mine," "Don't Tempt Me" and "Little Muse O'Mine", plus some newer and as-yet-unrecorded material.

It would be fair to say that a good time was had by all.

I have to say that I've found 2017 to be a good year for music, and for local music, in general. And for whatever reason, it's been a particularly strong year on Long Island for new albums in that folk/Americana/country range. In addition to the He-Bird, She-Bird album, there have been strong entries from Pete Mancini, the lead singer/songwriter of Butchers Blind (Foothill Freeway) and The Nancy Atlas Project (Cut and Run) on the country/Americana front, and a strong folk offering from The Hank Stone Band (Painting Tomorrow's Sky Blue). And a number of former Long Islanders have mined the same territories with new 2017 albums, including The Kenn Morr Band (Along the Way), Dave Isaacs and his new band, Renfree Isaacs (Renfree Isaacs), and former Mother Freedom front woman Leslie Mendelson (Love and Murder). I'm going to put this in list form at the bottom of the column today, in case anyone wants to copy it for easy holiday shopping.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

He-Bird, She-Bird - He-Bird, She-Bird
Pete Mancini - Foothill Freeway
The Nancy Atlas Project - Cut and Run
The Hank Stone Band - Painting Tomorrow's Sky Blue
The Kenn Morr Band - Along the Way
Renfree Isaacs - Renfree Isaacs (Digital only)
Leslie Mendelson - Love and Murder

Friday, November 17, 2017

Review of Best Ex's "Ice Cream Antisocial"

I dropped this review onto the Sputnik Music website just a few minutes ago. Kudos to another strong (formerly) Long Island band.

Review Summary: The band formerly known as Candy Hearts drops a new EP filled with some fine, fine ditz-rock.

I've always liked these guys. It's hard to say exactly why. I think it's because there's something both genuine and kind of charming about them.

Best Ex is the band formerly known as Candy Hearts. They haven't changed their personnel, or even their style (with the possible exception that they're maybe a little more "pop" and a little less "punk" than they used to be). And they still play their Candy Hearts material when they're on tour. So why the name change? According to lead singer Mariel Loveland, "The truth is, I just don't identify with being called 'Candy Hearts' anymore." She goes on to explain that she feels like she's coming from a completely different place than she was when she first created the band. OK.

Anyway, Ice Cream Antisocial is their first EP of new music since the name change, and it pretty much picks up where Candy Hearts left off. There are six songs here, mostly mining the same territory that the band has always mined -- catchy songs about dysfunctional relationships, songs that are happy on the outside but sad on the inside, all sung from the persona of the likable but kind of zany and irresponsible girl next door. Yourdictionarycom defines "ditz" as being "Slang for a person considered flighty, eccentric, silly, etc." I like to think of this genre of music as "ditz-rock".

Loveland is another one of those vocalists you either like or you don't. Her voice isn't as strident as, say, Looming's Jessica Knight. But it's untrained, and almost (but not quite) a little flat. She describes it herself as being "high" and "small", which is one of the reasons for moving away from the "Candy Hearts" name -- she's a woman now, albeit one with a teen girl's voice, as she's looking to be perceived as such. Personally, I've always liked her voice -- it's the voice of a real person, not an image. And while she might not be writing songs about the grave issues of the day, when I listen to her, I never have any doubt that she's projecting her actual self and singing about the things that are important in her life.

"Girlfriend", the first track on the EP, is also the most fetching. It's got a hook of sharp stainless steel, as the song's protagonist extols a male friend in whom she has more than a platonic interest, "Kiss me like you don't want it to end/'Cause I don't really care about your girlfriend". This is a song written from the opposite perspective of Hayley William's "Misery Business", as this one gives voice to the would-be femme fatale, who pleads, "Baby I'm bad news/But I am good for you." 

"Lonely Life" features a happy tune that somewhat belies the song's sad, confessional lyrics, wherein Loveland admits "My cat is my best friend", and laments, "Oh, it's a lonely life/We're just doing the best we can". It's another one of those songs that makes it clear you're listening to a real human being here, with all of the flaws and imperfections implied therein.

I don't know if changing the band name of an already nationally-known band was a great business decision, but I hope it works out for these guys. I'm wishing that this EP is just the first of many successful Best Ex projects to come. They've never put out an album I haven't enjoyed, and Ice Cream Antisocial is no exception. On the chorus of the song "Someday", Loveland declares, "Someday we're gonna get it.../Someday we're gonna get it right". I'd argue that they already have.

Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars