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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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