Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

girlThroughout their 30-year history, the band Sonic Youth won critical acclaim for their distinctive dissonant, guitar-driven sound. Led by the husband and wife team of Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore, the band enjoyed commercial success in the early ‘90s with the release of Goo (1990), featuring the single “Kool Thing,” and as a headlining act with the 1995 Lollapalooza festival.

Sonic Youth continued to release records and tour until the announcement in 2011 that Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore were divorcing after 27 years of marriage. Fans were shocked. How could a marriage and musical partnership that seemed solid dissolve so suddenly and publicly? Kim Gordon offers thoughtful, well-balanced insight into her career and personal life in her candid memoir, Girl in a Band.

Gordon opens with Sonic Youth’s final concert at the SWU Music and Arts Festival in Itu, São Paulo, Brazil. A month prior to the show, Sonic Youth’s record label issues a press release announcing Gordon and Moore’s divorce. While the band members try to remain professional as they complete their South American tour, the tension is evident. Gordon observes that for a couple and a band who embraced artistic and musical experimentation while maintaining a stable family unit, the end was “another cliché of middle-aged relationship failure—a male midlife crisis, another woman, a double life.”

Gordon’s path to musical success was a bit unconventional. The daughter of a sociology and education professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and a homemaker, she grew up interested in visual arts, eventually attending York University in Toronto, Canada and the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. She had one sibling, an older brother named Keller. Of all the relationships Gordon discusses in her memoir, her relationship with Keller is the most complex. Growing up, Gordon adored her brother, despite his constant teasing, which occasionally turned cruel. After a troubled adolescence, Gordon and her parents learned that Keller suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. According to Gordon, Keller and his mental illness “shaped who I was, and who I turned out to be.”

Gordon moved to New York in 1980, intending to become part of a thriving art scene that included Cindy Sherman and Jean-Michel Basquiat. I’m more familiar with Kim Gordon’s music than her art, and I especially enjoyed reading her recollections of the New York art world in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

Gordon was asked to write an article about music, and she chose to focus on the onstage interactions between men. Her article was well-received and inspired her to start making music herself. After meeting Thurston Moore, they formed a band that eventually became Sonic Youth. Their early years were a bit of a struggle as they balanced day jobs with the process of recording, touring, and developing an audience. From the beginning, Sonic Youth had a distinctive musical and artistic aesthetic that carried over into fashion in 1993 when Gordon co-founded the clothing line X-Girl with Daisy Cafritz.

Rather than delve into the minutiae of every Sonic Youth song or album, Gordon focuses her discussion of Sonic Youth’s music on songs and albums that are especially meaningful to her. Along the way, she includes fascinating stories and anecdotes about the musicians she toured or worked with, including Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain.

Told in short, fast-paced chapters, Girl in a Band is an engaging memoir and an entertaining account of an influential period in American alternative music.

Check the WRL catalog for Girl in a Band.


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Christmas at Downton AbbeyAt Williamsburg Regional Library we face a problem common to many public libraries; seasonal items are, well, seasonal. The hold lists for the most popular Christmas DVDs, CDs and books gather steam in late November and peak just before Christmas, so many people find they are finally getting their Christmas items in January or later. For me this was a happy circumstance. Christmas is over, but our wintry weather isn’t, so I have been enjoying Downton Abbey’s magnificent music CD well into March.

This two-disc set has almost fifty tracks performed by a variety of artists, including famous singers like Kiri Te Kanawa and the Choir of the Kings College Cambridge. They showcase a variety styles but there are no rock versions; all the music is traditional. With my astounding musical knowledge I would describe them as “tinkly.” The tracks range from single voices (O Holy Night) to joyful and uplifting choir numbers (Joy to the World, The Lord is Come) to somber organ music (God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen) to instrumental (Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy).

Even if you don’t have a voice like Kiri Te Kanawa (I’m guilty!) these are wonderful songs for singing along. Some beloved Christmas carols have been sung for hundreds of years and are the Christmas songs of millions of childhoods.  I may not be able to hold a tune but I know all the words to Good King Wenceslas, and I feel better for belting them out on my commute. I have to admit that I have gotten some funny looks at traffic lights but I know confining my sing-alongs to my car is better for everyone’s health and safety. I suspect if I sang along at work I might find myself out the window despite (or because of) any winter storm warnings

I recommend this CD for all year long (coming from the southern hemisphere, I’ve always been a bit seasonally confused when it comes to Christmas). You don’t have to be a Downton Abbey fan to need and enjoy comforting, inspiring music that will get you out there exercising your lungs!

Check the WRL catalog for Christmas at Downton Abbey.

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orfeoWhat does it take for a musical composition to become “classical music”? Some pieces now in the canon caused riots and inspired revolutions when first performed. It seems, though, that when composers set out to declare revolution, they didn’t really connect with audiences. That’s the situation Peter Els found himself in as a young man.

Peter Els is the main character in Richard Powers’ Orfeo, and our tour guide through the worlds of orchestral music and biological terrorism. Seventy years old when the novel begins, his career as a composer over, his only creative outlet lies in the brave new world of manipulating bacteria for his own enlightenment. It’s just too bad that his equipment triggers a full-out alarm at Homeland Security, which reacts in a heavy-handed fashion. With little warning, few resources, and the weight of public opinion quickly turned against him, Peter flees.

On his journey, he recites an apologia of his extinguished career. Els grew up in a time of musical turmoil, where old-fashioned notions of rhythm and structure (“beauty” is the reviled term) were thrown out in favor of dissonance and audience involvement. He had two compatriots in his personal revolution – Richard Bonner, a manic director and producer brimming with wild ideas; and Maddy, a singer who agrees to try one of his experimental pieces and ends up marrying him.

But low-paying jobs that enable his creative flow, and his devoted fatherhood to their child are not enough for Maddy, and they divorce. Peter goes into a hermitic existence, which he breaks only when Richard blasts back into his life with an earthshaking commission. After an extended and agonizing creative process, the piece debuts to rave reviews; however, Peter sees an unfortunate parallel to current events, refuses to give permission for future performances and breaks all ties with Richard. Alone, he takes a position as an adjunct professor in a middling music program where he nonetheless affects his students and brings out their best.

Els admires many of his contemporaries, among them Harry Partsch and John Cage. But he also shows us the ambitions and results of composers ranging back to Mozart, and the future of sounds created by popular musicians who adapted them from the revolutionaries of the late 20th century. Like Mr. Holland, he  teaches by understanding where we are and leading us to a new level.

Still, he’s on the run, and his efforts to recapture and even make amends for his past are fraught with danger. His genetic engineering interest sparks a national debate, driven by hysteria and the need for a villain by the national media but Peter Els has his own voice and uses it to maximum effect to counter the fear that has been created in his name.

Powers’ back-and-forth structure allows him to develop Peter Els against a background of familiar but vague current events, as if his art shelters him from the real world until that art crumbles. He isn’t always a sympathetic man, but freely admits his shortcomings. By the time we reach the unclear conclusion, his story doesn’t need an ending. It’s his life, and the music, that stand on their own.

I don’t know if Richard Powers knew about these guys when he started working on Orfeo; if not, it’s an ideal case of life imitating art. Ironic, since all Peter Els wanted to do was have his art imitate life.

Check the WRL catalog for Orfeo

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gameA wealthy investment banker receives an unusual birthday gift in David Fincher’s 1997 thriller The Game.

Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) enjoys a prosperous career as a banker with all the trappings of success; however, he has few personal connections and is estranged from his former wife Elizabeth and younger brother Conrad (Sean Penn). On Nicholas’ 48th birthday, Conrad pays him a surprise visit and gives him a voucher from a company called Consumer Recreation Services (CRS). If Nicholas redeems this voucher, he will receive a virtual reality game custom designed for him. Conrad refuses to describe the game in detail, but insists that it is a life-changing experience.

Intrigued, Nicholas visits CRS and meets with a man named Jim Feingold (James Rebhorn). Like Conrad, he offers few specifics about the game, telling Nicholas that it’s like an “experiential Book-of the-Month club.” Nicholas decides to fill out a lengthy application for the game as well as undergo a series of physical and psychological examinations. Shortly after applying for the game, he receives a message from CRS informing him that his application was rejected.  However, this message actually turns out to be the first move in Nicholas’ game.

Nicholas continues to go about his daily business, but soon cracks start appearing in his orderly world that may or may not be a part of this game. These range from the mildly annoying and inconsequential – a leaking pen and a locked briefcase – to the bizarre – a trashed hotel room filled with photos that appear to show Nicholas in compromising positions.

Along the way, Nicholas discovers clues to the game, and one of these clues leads him to a waitress named Christine (Deborah Kara Unger), who may be an innocent victim of the game or one of its key figures. As Nicholas continues to play the game, the stakes get higher, and soon the game threatens his career, finances, and life.

The Game is a fascinating portrait of a man whose carefully constructed life is completely upended by forces beyond his control. Nicholas is being manipulated, but by whom and for what purpose? Is the game a harmless, if occasionally inconvenient, diversion, or a sinister plot to gain control over his life and his fortune? Nicholas’ attempts to find answers to these questions lead him down the rabbit hole to a surreal nightmare that tests his patience and sanity.

I especially enjoyed the performances in the film. Michael Douglas is perfect as the successful but distant Nicholas, and Deborah Kara Unger brings an intriguing icy reserve as the mysterious Christine. Director David Fincher keeps the pacing sharp and focused, gradually ratcheting up the tension as the game becomes more intense and dangerous.

A complex thriller filled with unpredictable plot twists and moments of dark humor, The Game is a good choice for anyone looking for a surreal thriller this Halloween.

Check the WRL catalog for The Game

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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 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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