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Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

keithBeatles or Stones? Yes! This fall, about 50 years after the founding of the two bands, we’re seeing a new crop of books about their early years, including Tune In, the first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s planned mega-biography of the Beatles, and Beatles vs. Stones, a historian’s look at the public images of the two groups. But I doubt that any book published this year will have the impact, or the sales, of Keith Richards’s autobiography, which came out in 2010.

Life has to be one of the best books ever about the cultural and political explosion that happened in the mid 1960s—witnessed from the epicenter by a kid who just wanted to play blues guitar and ended up a pop superstar in the Rolling Stones. The book is raw and rude. Keith disses a lot of well known people, and reveals without apology the depths of his bad behavior: the groupies and girlfriend-swapping, the endless hard drugs and booze, the arrests and trials, the wild parties and trashed hotel rooms.

“Some of my most outrageous nights I can only believe actually happened because of corroborating evidence…  The ultimate party, if it’s any good, you can’t remember it.”

Fortunately, Keith is just as revealing about his music, documenting how he created his epic guitar riffs, and almost effortlessly wrote hit song after hit song with Mick Jagger. He has collaborated with everyone who is anyone in music, and tells good stories about his encounters with Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, George Jones, Tom Waits, and many others.

If possible, don’t read Life in print; listen to the audiobook version instead. Its offbeat, somewhat laid-back production is oddly suited to the story and to Keith’s distinctive style. There are three narrators, each taking a turn at reading in the voice of Keith : Johnny Depp (a close friend and admirer of Richards), the Irish rocker Joe Hurley, and Keith himself.  This is disorienting for the listener, since the narration switches without warning from Depp, reading quite neutrally in his American accent, to Hurley, who does an over-the-top interpretation of Keith: slurring words, chuckling, and mumbling in a South London accent. At first I was put off by Hurley’s reading, but it grew on me and eventually I settled in to enjoy it. Keith narrates the final section of the book, covering his recent years, which are comparatively uneventful—oh, except for the time he fell out of a tree in Fiji and suffered a life-threatening brain injury.

Some parts are better than others, but the book, like a good album, opens with its strongest number. Superbly narrated by Depp, this is the story of the 1975 arrest of Keith, fellow band member Ronnie Wood, and two friends while driving a Chevrolet Impala packed with illegal drugs and weapons through Fordyce, Arkansas. This legendary culture clash between rural southern law enforcement types and long-haired British rockers can be read as hilarious farce, complete with a drunken judge and a victory parade for the bailed-out musicians. But there’s a dark heart to the story, a reminder that this was the Vietnam Era, the always-present backdrop of songs like “Street Fighting Man” and “Gimme Shelter.”

What a drag it is getting old… For years now, the Stones have endured writings in the press making fun of their withered appearance and calling on them to retire, for decency’s sake. So far, neither the band nor their fans are ready to pack it in. In the summer of 2013, the Stones rocked out in electrifying sets in Hyde Park and at the Glastonbury Festival before screaming crowds spanning three generations. You know what they say, baby: listen to your elders.

Check the WRL catalog for the audiobook version of Life

Check for the print version

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This is my favorite exercise video, not only for its glorious setting and background music, but because I can actually do each exercise, all the way through from beginning to end, without wasting precious time or feeling hopelessly out of shape. I feel great afterwards, especially if starting my day.  Now, that does not mean it lacks challenge for intermediate yogis, or that it’s appropriate for a beginning Yoga student. In fact, this program is best utilized by those who’ve received sound one-on-one or group instruction on the basic movements of Yoga. You want to make sure that you’re using proper form and posture, so as to prevent back injury or pulled tendons, etc…, and have received sound feedback and correction from a wise instructor. The most important thing I’ve learned about Yoga is never to feel you must compete with others, simply to improve yourself gradually at your own pace. There are always modifications and props to help you manage more difficult poses until your body gains the flexibility it needs to stretch as well as those featured in videos like this most awesome one.

Ali Macgraw and her gorgeous model yogis perform the workout designed and led by Erich Schiffman with his soothing voice against the breathtaking backdrop of the brilliant White Sands of New Mexico. The musical accompaniment, with original score by Lucia Hwong and tracks performed by the hypnotic band “Dead can Dance,” rich with exotic vocals and enchanting drumbeats, is so incredibly relaxing that I can not only use this routine to awaken and energize me early in the morning but alternatively find it to be a calming antidote for winding down at the close of a stressful day. I have found that the meditative aspects of practicing Yoga are essential to my enjoyment of it and make it more beneficial to my entire being, beyond the physical. Even though the year of this DVD’s release may seem dated, the music, cinematography, even the yoga attire and overall production still seem very cool.

Check the WRL catalog for Ali Macgraw: Yoga mind & body.

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blackstallionThe Black Stallion is one of my all-time favorite films, and it stuns me to encounter individuals who have never heard of it, which sometimes happens when I suggest it to families looking for movies that will entertain viewers of all ages.  It often shows up on lists of great movies and also on lists of films containing minimal dialogue. The film is based upon Walter Farley’s children’s novel of the same name.

Visually mesmerizing, it’s also a great title for those learning the English language. The opening segment of the film is perfectly scored to music, especially a scene where the music is timed with the patient attempts of the boy to encourage “the Black” to join him in the sea so that he can finally ascend the horse’s great height to sit on his back and ride him. The reflections of light in the tropical waters, the endless sky, contrasted with the horse’s intense darkness and the pale yet sun-freckled flesh of the lonely shipwrecked boy are unforgettable. I admit, however, that at home with my DVD it is often during this scene that I find myself drifting off to sleep due to the relaxing atmospheric quality of the cinematography. It is for this reason that I always pop in The Black Stallion if I’m having trouble settling down for a good night’s sleep. It may work wonders for your rambunctious young ones when they’re in need of being calmed.

Check the WRL catalog for The Black Stallion DVD.

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Les Miserables

Les MiserablesI’m in the final week of rehearsals to play a dream part: Thenardier, the innkeeper and thief who, with his wife, serves as both villain and comic relief in the musical Les Misérables. It’s a show that I’ve always loved and I’m excited to be part of bringing it to audiences at Peninsula Community Theatre in Hilton Village, Newport News. Great performers are cast in iconic roles like the bread-thief-turned-guardian-angel Jean Valjean, the letter-of-the-law Inspector Javert, the tragic young mother Fantine, and the young love triangle of Marius, Cosette, and Eponine. I thought I’d use this post to review some of the versions available from WRL.

I’m not going to address Victor Hugo’s original novel. Good but long, many find that they can’t work up the impetus to finish 1,400 pages of a story they may have already encountered in several forms. If that’s your cup of tea, by all means read it, but I’m going to tighten my focus.

I also won’t spend much time on the non-musical films based on the story over the years. Fredric March squared off against Charles Laughton as Valjean and Javert in a great 1935 film. Michael Rennie and Robert Newton are less remembered by film fans, but their 1952 offering is not bad. The French tackled the story themselves in 1958. The library also carries successful versions with Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush from 1998 and John Malkovich and Gerard Depardieu’s 2000 television miniseries.

To me however, Les Mis is made something more by the anthemic music of Claude-Michel Schönberg. It’s a moving marriage of bombastic, heart-stirring music with a tale that’s every bit as over the top. Here’s where we might have to agree to disagree: to me the 2013 film fails to take advantage of this music. Director Tom Hopper goes for intimate stagings and actors with smaller voices, where the songs are meant to stir audiences in big houses, to be sung to all creation, to stand your hair on end with power, not to be sung in a tight close-up on the anguished features of an emoting actor. Although I know many loved the film, it didn’t work for me. If you don’t believe me, compare the film’s soundtrack to any of the versions below.

I’m all about the musical as presented on stage, and there are many fine recordings and concert films available for others like me. The original British production was iconic, the first in English, with Colm Wilkinson as Valjean, Michael Ball as Marius, and Patti LuPone as Fantine, but the orchestrations for the music hadn’t quite found their ultimate form. There are some synthesizers where other versions use orchestral instruments. When this CD wore out recently, I replaced it with something different.

The first Broadway cast recording is one of my favorites. Wilkinson is still in place as Valjean, but Terence Mann is a powerful foil in the role of Javert. The orchestrations are stronger, making this a grade-A recording.

Most recordings of Les Mis sacrifice material to fit the show on two discs, but for the full experience, including the best symphonic recordings of the music and an all-star cast including Gary Morris as Valjean, Philip Quast as Javert, Barry James as Thenardier, and Michael Ball back as Marius you have to get 1999’s complete symphonic recording. Many versions have great singing, but this is the one if you want to hear the orchestra in detail.

Of course the full Les Mis experience includes visuals, and for those, you have options beyond the recent film. Two anniversary concerts deserve attention, with fine performances in concert stagings. The 10th anniversary concert filled the Royal Albert Hall with a dream cast: Wilkinson, Ball, and Quast, plus Alun Armstrong as Thenardier, Ruthie Henshall as Fantine, Judy Kuhn and Lea Salonga as Cosette and Eponine, and Virginia’s own Michael Maguire as Enroljas.

It didn’t seem possible, but the 2011 25th anniversary concert, staged at the huge new O2 arena in London, is even bigger than the 10th anniversary. It introduced the world to Alfie Boe as Valjean, and featured musical theater mainstays like Norm Lewis as Javert, Lea Salonga, this time as Fantine, and Ramin Karimloo as Enroljas. The Thenardiers are hilarious and larger than life. Samantha Barks, who gave one of the best performances in the film as Eponine, shows she has chops enough for the stage too. The only misstep is teen heartthrob Nick Jonas as Marius, whose voice is a bit overmatched by the surrounding cast.  At the end, dozens of performers who have appeared in Les Mis productions join the fun, including five Valjeans.

So start exploring, and get ready for the 2014 revival on Broadway. With a little listening and watching, you too can join the ranks of those who love being “misérables.”

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Next to NormalHow often do you encounter a musical that makes good reading too? With music by Tom Kitt, and lyrics and book by Brian Yorkey, Next to Normal won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2010. This isn’t typical musical fare with comedy, romance, a few big production numbers, and a happy ending. Next to Normal has most of those but also large doses of family dysfunction and tragedy. The comedy is dark, the romance is somewhat tortured, and the happy ending comes in a minor key: there’s hope, but no guarantee.

The story begins on a note of normalcy: a husband, wife and their teen son and daughter are busily preparing for another day of work and school. But the upbeat music comes to a crashing halt as the mother’s preparation of sandwiches takes a turn that shows she has mental health issues. I won’t give away the plot twists, but viewers or readers will also soon discover that everything is not as it seems in the family, that a tragedy haunts their past and present.Next to Normal staging

The story progresses to reveal a series of inconclusive therapy sessions and drug treatments, a strained marriage, and a daughter whose history of feeling unloved contaminates her potential relationship. It’s rough stuff, but Yorkey’s clever treatment also provides a share of bittersweet laughs along the way. Kitt’s score of rock numbers and ballads provides energy, humor, and a fast pace that keeps the story moving and vital even at its darkest moments. The finish is certainly not the typical happy ending, but it’s hopeful and honest.

By all means catch Next to Normal if it is produced somewhere near you. But if not, stop in at the library and grab the libretto or the CD of the Broadway production, featuring an amazing performance by Alice Ripley as the mother. You’ll be able to picture the story easily as you take in this moving and potent drama with subject matter that is relevant to so many modern lives. If you or your family have struggled with even minor mental health challenges or the difficulties of finding the right prescription or treatment for those problems, you need to experience Next to Normal, where the underlying message is that families who face challenges are in many ways the most normal of all.

Check the availability of the Next to Normal libretto in the WRL catalog

Or get the audio CD of the Broadway production

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BBCClosing this week’s reviews is a musical selection written by Mandy.

In her review of the Civil Wars’ CD Barton Hollow, Charlotte discussed her susceptibility to earworms—“those catchy snatches of melody that get stuck in your head for hours on end, sometimes for days.” Last fall, I encountered an earworm in the song Lights Out, Words Gone,” the second single off of A Different Kind of Fix, the third album from British quartet Bombay Bicycle Club. I stumbled upon the song while driving home from work one night and instantly loved it, but, much to my chagrin, the announcer never gave the name of the song or the artist. This song, with its lovely, haunting intro and gently brooding lyrics, was stuck in my head for weeks until I was able to identify the group and check out the album.

Since the release of their debut album in 2009, Bombay Bicycle Club have received numerous accolades in England, including Best New Band at the 2010 New Musical Express Awards, and their second album Flaws was nominated for the Ivor Novello Award for Best Album. In addition, the group performed during the 2012 Olympics closing ceremony concert in Hyde Park.

I discovered Bombay Bicycle Club through “Lights Out, Words Gone,” and was happy to find that the rest of A Different Kind of Fix lived up to the promise of that single. It’s a tightly-focused collection of guitar-driven rock that’s quite catchy and very accessible. Along with “Lights Out, Words Gone,” standout tracks include “Your Eyes,” “Bad Timing,” and the irresistibly jaunty “Shuffle.”

Fans of alternative rock groups such as Phoenix and Two Door Cinema Club who are looking for something new might want to check out Bombay Bicycle Club’s A Different Kind of Fix.

Check the WRL catalog for A Different Kind of Fix

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Just KidsPatti Smith is the proto-punk goddess whose music is fierce, but hardly every listener’s cup of tea. Robert Mapplethorpe was a photographer whose most famous works were pictures of nude men, often depicted in sexually explicit poses and masochistic acts. I like some edgy things, but neither of these artists really do much for me, and a more conservative person might run the other way. I’m not even a huge fan of their scene, where style and innovation seem to matter more than substance, but I’ve always been curious about those magical moments in history where a group of creative people find each other and use the energy of their meeting to create something new.

Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, captures just such a time perfectly. Smith came to New  York in 1967 after giving up a baby to adoption upstate. She was young and looking for a fresh start. One of the first people she met was Robert Mapplethorpe, a minor acquaintance who became her fast friend after saving her from a bad date. The two moved in together and tried to make a go of a relationship, even though it soon became apparent that Mapplethorpe was obviously homosexual. Patti somewhat naively believed that their love would overcome Robert’s sexual preference, and so began several years of ups and downs. Robert could be incredibly supportive of Patti and her art, but substance abuse and a need for fame could make him neglectful at other times.

The background here is fascinating, as Smith and Mapplethorpe rub elbows with the artists and scenesters of the Chelsea Hotel, Andy Warhol’s Factory, and the pioneering music venue CBGB’s. The story follows the early rise of both friends, then jumps forward a decade and ends poignantly with Robert’s death from AIDS in 1989.

Smith writes with real heart. The prose gets a bit florid at times, but that’s easy to forgive, as is her sometimes naive view of Mapplethorpe, as the author so clearly feels all of the emotions behind her story honestly. This especially shines through on the audiobook. Smith is a clumsy reader, a bit monotone and with funny pronunciations for some words (“drawlings” instead of “drawings”), but she’s so absolutely free of pretense that I found the awkwardness charming and authentic, not off-putting.

Check the WRL catalog for Just Kids

Or try it on audiobook on CD

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It’s “Lost in the Stacks” week, and Bud is back with another post:

“Poppa, have you got any idea how a man took to jazz in the early days? Do you know how he spent years watching the droopy chicks in cathouses, listening to his cellmates moaning low behind the bars, digging the riffs the wheels were knocking out when he rode the rods – and then all of a sudden picked up a horn and began to tell the whole story in music? I’m going to explain that.”Really the Blues

So says Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow in the opening chapter of his strange but fascinating autobiography,  Really the Blues. Mezzrow, a white Jewish kid, was born in 1899. A wild child from the beginning, he landed in reform school at the age of 15 where he discovered and became completely enamored of black culture in general and New Orleans jazz in particular. He learned how to play the clarinet and immersed himself in the jazz world of the 1920s, a world that, for him, revolved around three big Ms – musicians, mobsters and marijuana. As the story unfolds we learn a lot about all three.

Really the Blues will appeal to music lovers because Mezzrow knew just about every famous jazz artist of the period. He jammed with Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Bessie Smith, Joe Oliver, Baby Dodds, Gene Krupa and many others. His unadulterated portraits of these talented people and their colorful milieu are fascinating.

The Mob also played a prominent role in Mezz’s life. He worked in some of Al Capone’s road houses, was turned onto opium by a member of Detroit’s vicious Purple Gang, and had Dutch Schulz try to muscle in on his marijuana distribution business.

And, yes, there is marijuana, lots of, as it was referred to in the ‘20s, muta, tea, reefer or muggles (the word pre-dates Harry Potter). In fact, Mezzrow was such a heavy user (a viper) and dealer that in his circle of acquaintances it became known by another slang term–the mezz–and was referenced as such in the song, “If You’re a Viper” by Stuff Smith. The book contains gritty descriptions of the joys and subsequent lows of drug addiction. His four-year stint as an opium addict is particularly grim.

The stories are great, whether or not they’re all true is questionable, but what makes this book distinctive is the style in which it’s written.  As you can tell by the paragraph quoted above, the prose tends to flow like musical cadences and is rife with jazzy slang. This can make for disconcerting reading at first but it soon seems natural and appropriate to the author and what he’s describing.  If you have difficulty with the slang, the back pages contain a helpful glossary.

This is not a book for everyone. It’s a strange, often lurid tale, told in a distinctly unusual manner by an arch iconoclast. If you’re looking for something warm and fuzzy this ain’t it.  But if you have an interest in the history of music or the Chicago underworld or are just in the mood for something really unusual then give Really the Blues a try.  It’s a book you won’t forget.

Check the WRL catalog for Really the Blues

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I first watched this film not long after its release in 2007 and I come back to it time and again. Like many people my age, I was only familiar with a couple of Édith Piaf’s songs prior to watching La Vie En Rose.  But I was immediately fascinated by this portrayal of the famous French singer, whose voice was often described as the “soul of Paris.”

We first see Édith as a young child on the streets of Paris and then as a frail invalid nearing the end of her life in 1963.  La Vie En Rose is told in a non-linear format and follows two general timelines.  The first follows Édith as she grows up and attains great international fame as a singer, and in the second we see her attempt to recover from two bad car accidents, which left her with an addiction to painkillers, in order to perform one last time.

Abandoned by her mother and father as a very young child, Édith is left to grow up in her grandmother’s brothel and is cared for tenderly by one of the prostitutes, Titine.  But a few years later, her father, a contortionist in a traveling circus, returns to claim her and forces her to join his itinerant lifestyle.  We then meet her again, a few years later, living on the streets of Paris with her friend, Simone, singing for her supper. It is while singing on a street corner that she comes to the attention of Louis Laplée, a cabaret owner.  From this point, the movie charts Édith’s rise to fame under his patronage through the time she spent in New York and California, until her premature death at the age of 47 in the French Riviera.

Piaf’s life had its fair share of trials and triumphs, just as you would expect in any musical biopic, but it is Marion Cotillard’s performance that is the real revelation here.  Marion Cotillard gives the performance of a lifetime as the La Môme Piaf and in fact she won a Best Actress Oscar for the role (the first time an Oscar has been given for a French-language role). But by no means is the character of Édith always sympathetic–her fame and sycophantic hangers-on turn her into something of a monster, spoiled and prone to tantrums.  But at the end, it is the gift of her voice that triumphs.

And what would a film about Edith Piaf be without the music?  It features a long list of classics including “La Vie En Rose” and, of course, her swan song “Non, je ne regrette rien.”  La Vie En Rose is a marvelous film about the remarkable life of one of the twentieth-century’s greatest stars and I highly recommend it.

Check the WRL catalog for La Vie En Rose

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Today’s post is written by Mandy from Circulation Services.

Recently, I’ve been feeling rather nostalgic for music from the ‘90s, no doubt influenced by the number of ‘90s-era singers and bands who are either reuniting or releasing new material.  Earlier this year, The Cranberries released Roses, their first album in 11 years, and this month Garbage will release Not Your Kind of People.  Luscious Jackson reunited last year, and Fiona Apple will release a new album next month.  Come to think of it, No Doubt is scheduled to release an album this year, too.  For my contribution to BFGB this week, I thought it was only fitting to write about a lesser-known band from the ‘90s, The Sundays, and their 1990 debut Reading, Writing and Arithmetic.

From 1990 to 1997, the English band The Sundays released three albums to modest success in the United States and abroad.  The band is often associated with a style of music known as shoegazing, and their sound carries many of the hallmarks of the style: layered vocals against a backdrop of guitars.  The term “shoegazing” comes from the performance style of many of the acts associated with the style; during live performances, the musicians would stand still as if they were looking at their shoes.  Other notable shoegazing bands include Lush and Ride.

Reading, Writing and Arithmetic opens with “Skin & Bones,” a nice introduction to guitarist David Gavurin’s low key style and Harriet Wheeler’s lovely, almost fragile-sounding, vocals.  The next two songs are only singles released from the album, “Here’s Where the Story Ends” and “Can’t Be Sure.”  In “Here’s Where the Story Ends,” Harriet Wheeler looks back on a failed relationship, and sings:

 “It’s that little souvenir of a terrible year

which makes my eyes feel sore,

Oh I never should have said the books that you read

were all I loved you for.”

The remaining tracks continue on in the same stylistic vein, particularly my two favorite songs, “You’re Not the Only One I Know” and “Joy.”  At 10 songs and 40 minutes, Reading, Writing and Arithmetic is light and airy and perfect for spring.  The Sundays quietly faded from public view following the release of their 1997 album “Static & Silence” (which, incidentally, was their highest charting U.S. release), but fans of early ’90s alternative music might enjoy The Sundays, especially their debut.

Check the WRL catalog for Reading, Writing and Arithmetic

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Ain’t going back to Barton Hollow
Devil gonna follow me e’er I go
Won’t do me no good washing in the river
Can’t no preacher man save my soul

I have an unfortunate susceptibility to earworms—those catchy snatches of melody that get stuck in your head for hours on end, sometimes for days. The lines above have been in my head for at least 48 hours now, the latest in a succession of songs from Barton Hollow that have infiltrated my subconscious brain. I’m writing this post in the hopes that by spreading the word about The Civil Wars, I can get them out of my head, and into yours. A musical exorcism, if you will. You’re welcome.

The Civil Wars are a duo: California girl Joy Williams and Alabama native John Paul White. They’re musical partners, not husband and wife, but you might guess otherwise from their close harmonies. They sing together like a long-married couple on the dance floor, melody and harmony swinging each other around with ease. I “discovered” this album a few days before it won a Grammy for Best Folk Album of 2012, so you don’t have to take my word for it!

“C’est La Mort” was the first melody that took root, a lullaby-like tune so sweet and perfect that I was sure I was remembering it, not hearing it for the first time. This one and “Birds of a Feather” are beautiful sweet-sinister love songs, for those moth-to-a-flame relationships, caught between love and destruction. “My Father’s Father” is your train song — gotta have a train song on a country album! — and the harmonies capture perfectly that sound of a far-off lonesome whistle in the middle of the night. The title song, “Barton Hollow” is a great one for wailing along with in the car:

Did that full moon force my hand?
Or that unmarked hundred grand?

“Forget Me Not” is another of those tunes that sounds as though it must have already existed, with a harmony that takes you straight back to Phil and Don Everly’s “Let It Be Me.” Confidential to my (hypothetical) future bridesmaids: you can sing this one at my (hypothetical) future wedding.

Check it out if you enjoy Nickel Creek or the more countrified, traditional songs of the Decemberists. You can download a free live album at their web site.

Check the WRL catalog for Barton Hollow.

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I would like to make you all love Stephen Sondheim as much as I do.

I admit bias. I’m working on my third Sondheim role in three years since returning to the stage. He wrote half the shows I’ve done, and I rarely pass on a production of one of his works. I’ve done Company, Merrily We Roll Along, and now Follies, and Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, Assassins, Sunday in the Park with George, Road Show, and Into the Woods are all high on my bucket list of shows I’d love to try. Even people who aren’t theater fans recognize iconic shows like West Side Story and Gypsy, for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics.

But musical theater isn’t everyone’s thing, and even for fans, Sondheim takes work to enjoy: the books for his shows are often dark or satirical without the pat happy endings that many associate with the genre. While his music and lyrics are catchy, he also loves dissonance and uses big words liberally. Performing his music can be a love/hate proposition: Sondheim tests your ear, memory, breathing apparatus, and the muscles of your tongue and jaw to the maximum degree. Performers are warned off auditioning with Sondheim for other shows because the music is notoriously difficult to play, with tricky accompaniments and frequent changes in key and time signature.

Still, it’s hard to find a musical theater afficianado (at least one under 50) who wouldn’t put Sondheim atop the canon. His shows are revived more often than any contemporary and his songs frequently cobbled into new revues. Why?

There’s depth in his work that rewards years of listening, that leaves one finding new pleasures in even the smallest songs, appreciating another level of wordplay in a line that one has heard again and again. His rhymes are perfect and more often than not surprising. Lyrics are stuffed with internal rhymes, clever puns, and interesting ideas, but if one can stay in tempo, they come gracefully off the tongue, always well-matched (or cleverly undermined) by the underlying tune. And Sondheim’s subject matter is much more diverse than the variations on boy-meets-girl that dominate most of the genre.

Which brings me to Sondheim’s lyric collection Finishing the Hat, which collects lyrics from the first half of his career (everything I say here applies equally well to Look I Made a Hat, the second volume which covers work from 1981 to date). These two books are many things: a sort of memoir, a history of modern musical theater, a treatise on the art of songwriting, and a delightful collection of poetry all wrapped up in one package.

This is dense reading that contains not only all the lyrics (including those for numbers that were cut), but his honest opinion about his successes and failures, facsimiles of early drafts of his work, behind-the-scenes production pictures, and perhaps most interesting of all, his notes on each show and his thoughts about other composers and lyricists (those who have died; he assiduously avoids the subject of his living contemporaries).

Unless you’re a huge fan, don’t read this treasure chest from cover to cover. Read the introduction and the lead-in notes to each show, but after that, sample. Just as many re-read Shakespeare before attending a play, you might preview the lyrics of a Sondheim show to help you catch more nuances during the actual performance. Browse through favorite shows or numbers, preferably as you listen to a cast album or watch the film of a production that you checked out on the same library visit. Enjoy the pictures, and watch for sidebars, where Sondheim often has very pointed things to say.

Check the WRL catalog for Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes

Or try Look I Made a Hat: Collected Lyrics (1981-2011)

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“Would you be my boyfriend for five minutes?”

Nick isn’t cool—he’s neurotic, drives a Yugo, and is pining for his ex-girlfriend, the shallow, man-eating Tris. He leaves long, rambling messages on her cell phone and spends hours making mix CD after mix CD (like “Road to Closure, Vol. 12”), which she throws into the trash, providing music-lover Norah the chance to retrieve them. Norah isn’t cool either—she always plays by the rules and seems to spend most of her time looking after her unreliable friend, Caroline. But a chance encounter and a surprising proposition at a New York City club lead Nick and Norah on an unforgettable journey through the city’s indie music scene. A quest to find their favorite band’s secret show turns into a night they’ll never forget.

But their nocturnal adventures are interrupted by their search for Norah’s party-hard best friend, Caroline (played by the hilarious Ari Graynor). Nick and his band-mates try to help Norah find Caroline before they miss the show, but Nick’s cluelessness very nearly destroys his chance with our “hetero heroine.” However, in a moment of clarity (to the tune of Hot Chocolate’s “You Sexy Thing”), he recognizes his mistake. But is it too late to repair the damage he’s done?

As much as it tells the story of the immediate attraction and growing affection between the leads, the film is also a love song to New York City, as it follows Nick and Norah all over the city that never sleeps from dusk ‘til dawn.

The film stars Michael Cera as the bumbling, awkward Nick and Kat Dennings (currently onscreen in the sitcom Two Broke Girls) as the self-deprecating Norah. This movie is better than your average teen hipster comedy, in part due to the skills of Kat Dennings and Michael Cera, as well as the genuine affection the movie demonstrates for indie music. The lead characters’ mutual passion for music serves as a means of communication and the focal point for their growing attraction. Their attempts at conversation are hilariously awkward and clumsy, so their similar taste in music plays a vital role in their budding romance and attempts to articulate their feelings.

Kat Dennings’ portrayal of Norah’s insecurity is endearing and there are scene-stealing turns by Nick’s ex, the perpetually drunk Caroline, and Nick’s well-meaning, but inept, band-mates. The film is quirky and charming, fueled by a vibrant, contemporary soundtrack and smart, funny dialogue.

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist is based on the young adult novel by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. WRL also has a copy of the soundtrack, which is well worth listening to for its assorted mix of indie darlings, including Army Navy, Band of Horses, and Vampire Weekend.

Check the WRL catalog for Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.

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Well, who would have thought it? The Blink boys are all grown up.  “Neighborhoods” is the first album from the SoCal pop/punk trio in eight years and marks a significant shift from their previous albums.  Blink-182 originally grew out of the San Diego punk scene and made their name by taking the edge off punk and making it accessible for the middle of the road.  But “Neighborhoods” is considerably darker than their previous offerings and has something of a pensive quality (not a word I ever thought I would use to describe Blink-182).  The band has clearly evolved and the guys have matured lyrically.  You can still hear the classic, catchy “blink” riffs on many of the songs, but the band has created a new, more adult sound.

The opening track, “Ghost on the Dance Floor” is a poignant song about the death of a friend and sets the tone for the rest of the album:

I saw your ghost tonight
The moment felt so real
If your eyes stay right on mine
My wounds would start to heal…”

“Up All Night” is the first single from the album and I have to admit, it took a while for me to fully appreciate it.  This is not your typical radio-friendly Blink-182 tune, but it is a song that rewards repeated listening.  “After Midnight” is a brooding, almost nostalgic song.  It seems as if the band members are longing for the time in their youth when they could “stagger home after midnight/Sleep arm-in-arm in the stairwell” and “fall apart on the weekend.”  There is a darkness in this song with lines like:

I kind of like the little rush you get
When you’re standing close to death…”

“Snake Charmer” was initially titled “Genesis,” (a nod to the references in the song to Adam and Eve) and is an angry, menacing track about the frustrations of relationships.

That’s how it was to all begin
‘Cause good girls they like to sin
Way back at the starting line
When Eve was on Adam’s mind…”

Another personal favorite is “Wishing Well” – a track full of vivid imagery, with a deceptively bouncy melody and a very catchy chorus.

“Neighborhoods” is certainly the bleakest album Blink has ever produced, and many of the lyrics were obviously influenced by serious events in the band members’ lives during the last decade (drummer Travis Barker nearly died in a 2008 plane crash), but I find the music much more intriguing as a result.  Inevitably, there will be many criticisms from ardent Blink fans about this shift to a more mature style, but the band’s signature sound (characterized by double-time tempos and angsty guitar riffs) is still very much intact.  It has just been enriched by greater lyrical introspection and musical sophistication (such as the pianos on “Kaleidoscope” and the violins on “Ghost on the Dancefloor”).

As a warning, there are some explicit lyrics on this album, and it may not be suitable for children under eighteen.

Check the WRL catalog for Neighborhoods

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This is a review about an album by The Black Keys. The name of this album is Brothers.

Without a doubt 2010 was something of a banner year for The Black Keys — a blues-rock duo comprised of singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney.  They won four Grammy Awards (including “Best Alternative Album”), Spin magazine named The Black Keys their “Artist of the Year,” and they spent the year touring the world, opening for Kings of Leon and headlining at concerts like Bonnaroo and Coachella.  All of this buzz was triggered largely by the May release of their sixth album, Brothers, which Rolling Stone named their second favorite album of 2010.

The Black Keys have admittedly been around for a while, but it wasn’t until the release of this album that they started to get some significant airtime.  The Keys play a version of electric Mississippi blues fused with psychedelic sixties rock, but with a pop twist.  On this album, they have shifted away from more basement blues-rock into spookier, swampier territory, although they haven’t lost their do-it-yourself sound.  With little more than Auerbach’s guitar and Carney’s drums they manage to paint a picture of sweaty honky tonks, the stifling, oppressive heat of southern summers, and steamy bayous.  In truth, their music would not be out of place on an episode of True Blood and the song “She’s Long Gone” was used to promote the second season of Swamp People on the History Channel.

The album opens with the slow, sultry groove of “Everlasting Light.”  Auerbach sings in falsetto, and although it is a simple song in melodic and lyrical terms, it is remarkably powerful, as the persistent, pulsing rhythm mirrors the lyrics:

A train going away from pain
Love is the coal
That makes this train roll…”

When you hear “Tighten Up” – the first single from the album – you could be forgiven for thinking the lead singer is a reincarnation of a blues legend from the sixties, instead of a small, bearded white guy from Akron, Ohio, so intense and soulful is his voice.  The second single – “Howlin’ For You” – is a raw, raucous track that opens with a beat ripped straight from Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Pt. 2.”  Auerbach really manages to makes his electric guitar sing on “Next Girl” – a funky, smoldering song about regretting past relationships:

My next girl
Will be nothing like my ex girl
I made mistakes back then
I’ll never do it again…”

The track “Unknown Brother” calls to mind the Hollies’ 1969 hit “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” and the guys channel sixties soul on the Jerry Butler cover “Never Gonna Give You Up.”  The Keys mark the halfway point on the album with the instrumental piece “Black Mud” – a song inhabited by quivering guitars and wailing organs, which reminds me strongly of The Animals.

Brothers is a dirty, earthy album.  The driving power of the music feels like a gathering thunderstorm, creating a sound that is full of atmosphere and menace.  The Black Keys will appeal to any fans of the White Stripes, the Raconteurs, and old blues legends.  In fact, the Black Keys are a band you may find yourself playing the sound-alike game with, but despite the many and varied influences you’ll spot, they have a very distinctive sound, as each track shakes with swampy fury and raw blues power.

Check the WRL catalog for Brothers.

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Mandy Malone from Circulation Services provides this review:

The year is 1982. The members of the British heavy metal band Spinal Tap–Nigel Tufnel, David St. Hubbins and Derek Smalls–have reunited and recorded a comeback album titled ‘Smell the Glove’. Marty DiBergi, a television commercial director and longtime Spinal Tap fan, is on hand to film the events surrounding the album’s release and accompanying tour for the documentary, or ‘rockumentary’ as DiBergi calls it, This is Spinal Tap.

At this point in my review, I should issue a message of caution: music fans who have never heard of Spinal Tap shouldn’t rush out and scour the WRL catalog for the album. It doesn’t exist. Originally released in 1984, This is Spinal Tap is in reality a brilliant and hilarious parody of the heavy metal genre starring Christopher Guest as Nigel Tufnel, Michael McKean as David St. Hubbins and Harry Shearer as Derek Smalls. Marty DiBergi is played by Rob Reiner, who also directed the film.

In true documentary style, DiBergi follows Spinal Tap from England to America as he offers a no-holds-barred look at the history of the band and their promotional work for the new album. In candid interviews, the band members discuss Tufnel and St. Hubbins’ childhood friendship, early incarnations of the band called the Originals and the Thamesmen, and the untimely deaths of all their drummers. Along the way, Spinal Tap’s comeback is met with several potential setbacks: their record company hates the album’s cover art; at one venue, the band members get lost backstage; and a Stonehenge-themed performance goes awry when the key prop fails to measure up to expectations. Throughout the film, the band’s indefatigable optimism remains intact, even when it looks like the comeback is in danger of falling apart.

This is Spinal Tap does a great job of spoofing the pretensions and excesses of the heavy metal genre without being mean-spirited. Much of the credit for this goes to the stars of the film. They are also responsible for developing the concept of the film and writing the screenplay, and I think they created a group of memorable, well-developed characters. The members of Spinal Tap are so likable and sincere, if a little misguided at times, that you can’t help but root for them to succeed in their quixotic quest to reclaim their former glory.

In the years since the release of This is Spinal Tap, Christopher Guest has gone on to write and direct several other successful documentary-style parodies including Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show and A Mighty Wind.

Check the WRL catalog for This is Spinal Tap

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What do you get if you mix Bruce Springsteen, the Replacements, a little Tom Petty, Billy Joel, Bob Seger, a splash of Motown and a dash of the Clash?  How about The Gaslight Anthem – a New Jersey punk band with a fervent love for classic rock and soul icons, but with a sound uniquely their own. Although The Gaslight Anthem is signed to the punk label SideOneDummy, the band’s sound is only kind of punk. In truth, they are more like a souped up version of early Springsteen.

The ’59 Sound and American Slang are the group’s second and third albums and frankly, when trying to decide which album to review, I couldn’t pick a favorite. Whilst the band’s soulful punk sound can be heard in both albums, each one is very different. The ’59 Sound has echoes of Motown, owes more to old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll, and doesn’t stint on the nostalgia – reflected in titles like “Miles Davis & the Cool,” “Old White Lincoln,” and “High Lonesome.” On the other hand, American Slang is a more contemporary album, with a little more edge, and features more well-defined choruses. Listening to both albums allows you to clearly see the band’s evolution as they go from strength to strength.

The heart and soul of the band is, without a doubt, the lead singer and guitarist Brian Fallon. His raw, soulful voice resonates against the band’s dynamic force.  True, he is not the most technically perfect singer you’ve ever heard, but there is a passion, an authenticity in his raspy voice. You can hear every dive bar he’s ever sung in, every heartbreak, every morning after the night before. His voice is perfect in its imperfections.

By far and away the greatest influence on the Gaslight Anthem is the Boss – you can hear it in the stories of working-class joes, the big beer-soaked choruses and furious guitar. Lead singer Brian Fallon grew up a mere four blocks from E Street and his unrefined sound and heartbreaking earnestness recall the Boss’ glory days of, well, “Glory Days” and “Born to Run.”

The Gaslight Anthem have written some superb, sweeping working-class anthems that would make Bruce proud – most notably the haunting, gut-wrenching “We Did It When We Were Young,” which is the final song on American Slang. It starts softly but builds to a rousing, anthemic climax that leaves you almost breathless. But the band has a special talent for more intimate acoustic pieces like “Here’s Lookin’ At You, Kid” – a song that could reasonably be described as a 21st-century version of Frank Sinatra’s classic “It Was A Very Good Year,” as Brian Fallon recalls the various women he has loved throughout his life.

The band gave The ’59 Sound a scratchy record sound, as they sing of diners, cowboy boots, Elvis, and “hitching rides with strangers.” The opening track, “Great Expectations,” is a fast-paced song where the cynical, world-weary lyrics are counterbalanced perfectly by the melody and Fallon’s fierce, defiant vocals (“Everybody leaves, so why wouldn’t you?”). The album closes with “The Backseat” – a rousing anthem that has always been their traditional set closer.

Everything that was great about The ’59 Sound is present on American Slang, but the sound is even bigger and more epic. There are noticeable improvements in the production and the musical arrangements, which have greater depth and texture.

This album is a more grown-up offering. The songs “Bring It On,” “Stay Lucky,” and “Boxer” are about being true to yourself and standing your ground. They rail against the definition of self by others, and Fallon’s vocals are astonishingly powerful.

If you enjoy these albums, make sure you don’t miss their first album (Sink or Swim) and the too-short EP Senor and the Queen, which features the song “Blue Jeans and White T-Shirts” – a stirring song that seems to sum up everything the Gaslight Anthem is about:

“We like our choruses sung together
We like our arms in our brothers’ arms
And we sing with our heroes thirty-three rounds per minute
We’re never going home until the sun says we’re finished
And I’ll love you forever if I ever love at all
Wild hearts, blue jeans and white T-shirts…”

Check the WRL catalog for The ’59 Sound.
Check the WRL catalog for American Slang.

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The Flight of the Conchords proudly announce themselves as “New Zealand’s 4th most popular guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo.” They are quirky, offbeat, more than a little strange, and very talented. The Conchords – otherwise known as Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie – are a comedy duo from New Zealand and played fictionalized versions of themselves in their hugely successful HBO series. All of the songs on their first full-length album are taken from the first season. On the TV show, the Conchords are, well, less than talented – except in their own imaginations. Whenever they are able to land themselves a gig, the best they can do is limp their way through the feeble “Who Likes to Rock the Party?” But in their own minds, they’re musical superstars – dangerous rappers, irresistible ladykillers, and folk heroes.

The tracks cover a huge range from rap to glam rock to soul to French pop. “Inner City Pressure” mimics the Pet Shop Boys and is an obvious parody of “West End Girls.” This witty, clever track is followed by the laugh-out-loud funny “Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymenoceros (feat. Rhymenoceros and the Hiphopopotamus).” The lyrics are absolutely ridiculous and hilariously lame:

“Other rappers diss me
Say my rhymes are sissy
Because I rap about reality
Like me and my grandma drinking a cup of tea
Ain’t no party like my nana’s tea party
Hey! Ho!”

“Think About It” satirizes cheesy human rights songs from the 1970s by artists like Marvin Gaye, and “Mutha’uckas” makes fun of overly-censored rap music. Musically, you could be forgiven for thinking that “Robots” had been written in the 80s. This sci-fi song takes place in “the distant future – the year 2000,” after the robotic uprising of the mid-90s, when robots killed all the humans and took over the world. (I know, I know, but just trust me and listen to it. I dare you not to laugh.)

Jemaine sings the lead on the track, “Business Time,” a particularly successful parody of Barry White. Jemaine’s voice is deep enough that he can pay homage to Barry White’s mumbling-bedroom-talk-style on the one hand, while poking fun on the other. But hands down the best song on the album, in my opinion, is the penultimate track, “Bowie.” Brett and Jemaine are pitch-perfect in their imitation of the legend. Several Bowie songs get the Conchord treatment on this track, including “Space Oddity” and “Let’s Dance.”

Admittedly, some favorites from the TV show are missing from the album, most notably “Who Wants to Rock the Party?” and the Lord of the Rings sequence “Frodo, Don’t Wear the Ring.” (They’re from New Zealand – there was no way they were going to pass that one up.) But all humor aside, this is a really good, solid album. Comedy albums rarely stand up to repeated listening, but Flight of the Conchords is the exception that proves the rule.

Check the WRL catalog for Flight of the Conchords.

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