Chad Comello

libraries, culture, typewriters

Category: Music (page 1 of 8)

Media of the moment, ctd.

An ongoing series on books, movies, and music I’ve encountered recently.

Truman by David McCullough. I’m not saying some parts aren’t skimmable, but I am saying this 1,000-page book (not including endnotes and index) didn’t feel that long and indeed deserves the Pulitzer Prize for Biography it received. That’s a testament to both McCullough and Truman, a match made in history buff heaven.

The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. When I watched these initially in college, I preferred Part II. This time around I see that the original reigns supreme.

Tag. Goofy fun.

The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King. A good complement to Won’t You Be My Neighbor. Bounces around more than I wish it did. Love that the only TV shows he watched were The Waltons and Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Mister Rogers on CD. Not being a great singer didn’t stop Rogers from writing and performing hundreds of songs on television. Check out Coming and Going, You Are Special, Bedtime, and You’re Growing.

Searching. Cleverly crafted thriller that unfurls exclusively through a computer screen, which means it’ll be dated by this time next year.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Harari. This is a 12-course meal of a book that touches a mind-boggling range of disciplines. It’s almost too much. But I enjoyed the challenge, the feeling of flying through millennia from a bird’s-eye view.

King of Comedy. This might be DeNiro’s best performance.

Ram McCartney

Rob Sheffield’s Dreaming the Beatles (highly recommended) has a great Paul McCartney quote on his own solo work:

I hear some of them and think, blimey, you should finish that one someday, son.

I don’t think that applies to his more recent ones, which I really like: 2005’s Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, 2007’s Memory Almost Full, and 2012’s jazz standards cover album Kisses on the Bottom.

I also like his first two solo records, 1970’s McCartney and 1971’s Ram. But I also think, in the spirit of Better The Beatles and Paul’s own above quote, that they could be improved. Basically by becoming one album.

Here’s what my version of Ram McCartney would look like:

  1. The Lovely Linda
  2. That Would Be Something
  3. Every Night
  4. Junk
  5. Man We Was Lonely
  6. Teddy Boy
  7. Maybe I’m Amazed
  8. Too Many People
  9. Ram On
  10. Dear Boy
  11. Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey
  12. Heart of the Country
  13. Eat at Home

Gone are all the instrumental or noise songs, and the ones that simply annoy me like “Kreen Akrore” and “Monkberry Moon Delight”. The result is a much tighter, cohesive album that shows off McCartney’s renowned talent without the self-indulgent piffle of these early solo works.

You’re welcome.

Music of the moment, ctd

An ongoing series on music I’ve encountered recently.

“Strange American Dream” by Rayland Baxter, Wide Awake
Recently I decided I wanted to find a way to regularly hear new music. If only there were a podcast, I thought, from a renowned media company that featured new music every week. Then I realized that was NPR’s All Songs Considered, a podcast I’ve known about for years but never listened to. The first episode I heard featured this song. I was hooked right away, dove into his back catalog, and then found out he was playing in Chicago exactly when I could make it. It was a great show: he’s like the lovechild of Tom Petty and Steve Miller Band, with a dash of U2.

“Waiting on a Song” by Dan Auerbach, Waiting on a Song
I was on a Black Keys-adjacent kick and realized I hadn’t listened to Auerbach’s solo stuff. I didn’t care for Keep It Hid, but Waiting on a Song is a sparkling mix of pop, rock, and soul.

“To the Great Unknown” by Cloud Cult, The Seeker
A buddy of mine told me about Cloud Cult in the midst of a deep conversation about the mysteries of the universe. Turns out Cloud Cult is a great guide in that journey. I can’t decide if I actually like Minowa’s voice or not, but the combination of stargazing lyrics and indie rock just does something for me.

“The Last Goodbye” by Uncle Earl, Waterloo, Tennessee
Pretty sure I have Abigail Washburn’s Wikipedia page to thank for stumbling upon this band she was in before her solo work. Combining her voice and banjo-fueled folk music can never go wrong.

“Steamboat Whistle Blues” by John Hartford, Aereo-Plain
Without realizing it, the first Hartford song I heard was Sara Watkins’ cover of “Long Hot Summer Days” almost a decade ago. It took until recently to look into his stuff, and the banjo-heavy “newgrass” of Aereo-Plain emerged as the favorite. It has several straight-up weird songs, but this one ain’t one of them:

Hamilton and what makes a healthy republic

My wife’s surprise typewritten handiwork. I’m a lucky guy.

The Show

Ready for a hot take? Hamilton: An American Musical was really good.

I assumed I wouldn’t see it for years, as tickets are prohibitively expensive in Chicago. But it was a surprise anniversary gift from my wife (musical theater tickets are the traditional Year 3 gift, right?) along with a special ticket she made to stand in for the digital ones. Best of wives, best of women!

It was a funny thing to finally see before my eyes what for years had only streamed through my ears. Since the cast recording basically is the whole show, I knew the plot and what to expect from song to song. But I also knew the staging would add a whole new layer to the story the music itself tells so well. It definitely did.

Several songs were even better on stage. “It’s Quiet Uptown”, which I usually skip over on the album, was devastating in its simplicity. And “The Reynolds Pamphlet” made kinetic use of the double-turntable floor, the pamphlet props, and the whole cast and chorus.

Special shout-out to Jamila Sabares-Klemm, who played Eliza with stunning range and vocal power, and Colby Lewis, who played LaFayette and Jefferson with a delightful flair.

The Book

After seeing the show I checked out Hamilton: The Revolution from the library. It’s essentially book-length liner notes accompanied by essays about the cast and creation of the show. The highlights of the book are the lyrical annotations by Lin-Manuel Miranda. He clearly delights in paying homage to the artists and works he quotes in the show, and adds great insight to his creative process. (“Farmer Refuted” is a short but brilliant burst of layered lyrical ingenuity.)

He also calls attention to certain lines that deserve a deeper reading. I know it’s easy for me to lose the meaning of words I’ve listened to a lot unless I really try to think about them. That was the case for the excerpt from Washington’s actual Farewell Address, featured in “One Last Time”:

I anticipate with pleasing expectation that retreat in which I promise myself to realize, without alloy, the sweet enjoyment of partaking, in the midst of my fellow-citizens, the benign influence of good laws under a free government, the ever-favorite object of my heart, and the happy reward, as I trust, of our mutual cares, labors, and dangers.

The benign influence of good laws under a free government are, I realize now, an excellent triad of ideals that characterize a healthy republic.

An unhealthy one, conversely, would be an oppressive government that institutes bad laws with malignant influence on its citizens. What exactly constitutes oppression and bad laws and malignant politics is a debate as old as America itself, as Hamilton so brilliantly shows. Particularly in Act II with “The Room Where It Happens” and “Cabinet Battle #1” and “The Election of 1800”.

Ron Chernow rightly calls the show “American history for grownups” because it doesn’t sanitize the people in it, nor their methods for achieving their political goals. I’m so glad I got to see it, and recommend it if you ever have the chance to see it somewhere near you.

I’m with “Stupid With Love”

I have listened to the Original Broadway Cast Recording of the Mean Girls musical (on Hoopla—free with your library card) and have determined, without having seen the show, that the best song is “Stupid With Love.”

Steve Miller Band and “chocolate cake” rock

This is a great profile of Steve Miller of the Steve Miller Band, written by musician Max Marshall, whom Miller befriended as a middle schooler and has mentored ever since. In one part Marshall describes the enduring appeal of Miller’s music:

To a lot of Steve Miller Band fans, the seventies hits are like “chocolate cake.” They’re warm and pleasurable comfort food, reminiscent of a Summer of ’76 picnic. They’re rock without the chaos, the blues without the pain, an America with the freedom of an endless road trip.

That’s exactly right. Though I was born long after the Steve Miller Band and his contemporaries were popular, growing up with 94.9 WOLX in Madison helped introduce me to all the good stuff long before I even knew which bands wrote which songs.

More recently I’ve started compiling a list of the songs that—at least for me—fit into that “chocolate cake” vein. Ranging from pop to rock to country, their strong hooks and smooth rhythms are perfect for long summer days and windows-down road trips. (My wife, to my shame, is not a fan, so I usually have to save it for solo driving.)

For a long time I couldn’t figure out a good name for this subgenre, but chocolate cake rock works for me. Suggestions for further additions welcome:

“Take the Money and Run” – Steve Miller Band
“Danny’s Song” – Loggins & Messina
“Dance With Me” – Orleans
“Running On Empty” – Jackson Browne
“Ramblin Man” – Allman Brothers
“Rich Girl” – Hall & Oates
“Come and Get Your Love” – Redbone
“The Weight” – The Band
“Amie” – Pure Prairie League
“Reelin’ in the Years” – Steely Dan
“Lake Shore Drive” – Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah
“I Just Want to Celebrate” – Rare Earth
“Brandy” – Looking Glass
“Time in a Bottle” – Jim Croce

Songs over notes: in praise of The Okee Dokee Brothers

Had the pleasure of seeing The Okee Dokee Brothers in concert at Lincoln Hall. My little niece is a superfan of the folk duo, which is how I got turned onto them. And since they are a kid-centric act, I got to experience the glories of an 11 a.m. concert start time. I’d go to so many more concerts if they happened in the morning.

Though my exposure to children’s music is limited, none of what I have heard is as broadly appealing as The Okee Dokee Brothers. It’s just straight-up good roots, bluegrass, and folk music. Can You Canoe?, Saddle Up, and Through the Woods are all excellent albums for all ages. (They said their next album, out in October, will be all about winter—as if I needed another reason to love them!)

They also solved a problem I’d stumbled into ever since picking up the banjo and exploring bluegrass music. It’s going to sound like a backhanded compliment but I promise it’s just a plain compliment: the Okee Dokee Brothers don’t seem focused on being impressive.

They very well could be savants on the guitar and banjo, but unlike some artists they don’t waste time trying to prove how amazing instrumentalists they are through a fusillade of notes. A round of applause for those virtuosos—but I’m much more interested in being taken on a good musical storytelling journey.

The Okee Dokee Brothers demonstrated this (inadvertently) during their show, playfully hyping up their soloing abilities only to reveal some fairly pedestrian two-bar or one-note licks. Meanwhile, songs like “Through the Woods” and “Hillbilly Willy” and “Walking With Spring”, seemingly straightforward folk songs “for kids”, boast strong narrative arcs, clever lyrics, and beautiful musical craftsmanship. And all without punching listeners in the ear with a barrage of frailin’ and fingerpickin’.

In other words: Songs over notes. I know what you can do with all those notes, but what about what you can do with only some of them?

Music we leave behind

There are two works of art I associate with an ex. One is the music of Mayer Hawthorne, specifically A Strange Arrangement, which had come out a few months before our brief relationship and was a primary jam for me that winter. The other is the Disney animated film The Princess and the Frog, which we saw together in the theater on one of our few dates.

I love both dearly. Hawthorne sounds like Motown reanimated (in a white dude no less). And The Princess and the Frog was a beautiful return to classic Disney form, with a jazzy Randy Newman soundtrack to boot.

But I had to stop listening to Mayer Hawthorne. For some unknown reason, I’ve been able to Eternal Sunshine the unwanted associations from the Princess and the Frog soundtrack and have enjoyed it for years.

Not so for Hawthorne. Despite trying mightily to enjoy A Strange Arrangement and his follow-up How Do You Do on their own terms, the associations that stuck to them overpowered any enjoyment they provided, so I had to say goodbye.

How one survived and one didn’t is a mystery. Scarcity isn’t the issue; it’s not like Disney soundtracks and soul music are hard to find. Maybe it’s because Hawthorne’s music is specifically about love and relationships, and that was harder to separate from reality than music sung by animated frogs.

Perhaps I’ll come back to Hawthorne and the patina of the past will have faded. In the meantime, I guess I just wasn’t willing to give up “When We’re Human”:

Music of the Moment – International Women’s Day edition

An ongoing series on music I’ve encountered recently.

Today, in honor of International Women’s Day, here’s an all-female list of music I’ve been really enjoying:

“Ain’t That Fine” by I’m With Her, See You Around
The soulful powers of Aoife O’Donovan, Sara Watkins, and Sarah Jarosz combined have become I’m With Her (which I’ve learned pre-dated Hillary’s presidential campaign). Saw them live at Thalia Hall last week. Some bands sound better on the album, but not these women: you can’t fully appreciate their tight, soulful harmonies and virtuosic finger-pickin’ unless you’re up close. I hope this is the first of many albums from them.

“O Gracious Light” by Sandra McCracken, Songs from the Valley
With this blog’s top album of 2015, Sandra’s back this year with more goodness.

“It’s A Shame” by First Aid Kit, Ruins
Saw them live with my future wife back in 2012 when The Lion’s Roar came out. “Emmylou” is a special song in our relationship. They’ve been making equally great pop tunes ever since.

“The Eye” by Brandi Carlile, The Firewatcher’s Daughter
This was one of those albums where when I discovered it a couple months ago, I was mad I hadn’t discovered it sooner so it could have been in my life longer.

“Want You Back” by HAIM, Something to Tell You
Huge fan of their first album, and this one is more of the same, in a good way. So danceable, if I were a dancer.

“Sometimes” by Abigail Washburn, Song of the Traveling Daughter
As an aspiring banjoist, she and Bela Fleck are in my personal pantheon. I missed the chance to see them together in concert recently and I’m really regretting it. I’m hoping/assuming she’ll stay awesome and return to my town soon.

“To Know Him Is To Love Him” by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt & Emmylou Harris, Trio
Seeing I’m With Her reminded me of this classic women’s trio, which is more classically country. There’s just something about strong female harmonies.

Media of the Moment

An ongoing series on books, movies & more I’ve encountered recently:

Nurtured By Love by Shinichi Suzuki. Great little book on how to cultivate talent, specifically in children and music but also for anyone in anything.

On Trails: An Exploration by Robert Moor. Enjoyed the adventure of this winding, informative book on the nature of trails of all kinds. Like an erudite sequel to A Walk in the Woods.

The Million Dollar Duck. A documentary that follows 6 artists who enter their drawings into the apparently popular and lucrative annual Federal Duck Stamp design contest. Surprisingly dramatic.

Persepolis. Loved this graphic novel’s high-contrast black and white illustration style. Perfect mix of a girl’s light and funny memoir with the high drama of the Iranian revolution.

Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond. It’s fun to watch Jim Carrey go full Method for Man on the Moon now, from a distance, but it looked like a nightmare for everyone else at the time. The Truman Show remains Carrey’s apex.

High Society. Great sick-day movie: Grace Kelly (in her final role) with a lot to do, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra quippin’ and singin’ around a mansion, plus a superfluous but lovely Louis Armstrong performance, in a funny and charming Philadelphia Story/Casablanca rehash that gives everyone a chance to shine. Hard to believe Kelly was only 26 when she retired from acting.

Phantom Thread. I realized pretty quickly this was a dark comedy, which helped me enjoy it in the moment. But not as much as everyone else seems to enjoy it. Pretty sure I was the only one laughing in my screening.

Ingrid Goes West. Taylor’s beefcake, possibly sociopathic bro holding valuable information hostage is the perfect metaphor for Silicon Valley right now, as is this movie overall.

Moonstruck. Can confirm that the conventional wisdom about this movie—”Nicholas Cage and Cher together in a rom-dramedy that strangely works well”—is correct.

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