Chad Comello

libraries, culture, typewriters

Category: Music (page 1 of 7)

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.

School of Rock

“We’re not goofing off. We’re creating musical fusion.”

The video of a guy drumming to the “Just give up” speech from School of Rock inspired me to rewatch that 2003 Richard Linklater film for the first time in a while.

It’s a meaningful movie for me, coming out when I was in high school and a drummer in a rock band. Our guitarist/singer even had the same Gibson SG guitar that Jack Black’s Dewey uses.

At first, we’re meant to see Dewey as a delusional has-been, if a true believer in rock music’s ability to “change the world.” But in his new role as accidental teacher and musical mentor to a class of talented prep school kids, he finds a positive outlet for his enthusiastic idealism (if under shady circumstances). And his maxims about what rock is really about become sound wisdom for impressionable minds rather than just eye rolling platitudes.

This is evident in the scene where the band comes together to make something new together in Zach’s song. Not only does it capture the excitement of “creating musical fusion” with bandmates, but the smile that emerges on Dewey’s face as he steps back to watch the kids come into their own as musicians is a testament to the joy of creative potential being realized.

There are several laugh-out-loud moments throughout, not even counting the “I have been touched by your kids” scene. You really have to be a Jack Black fan to enjoy most of them, if not the whole movie. But even if you aren’t, I can’t see how he wouldn’t win you over with his relentless, goofy energy and legit talent.

Drumming to Dewey Finn in “School of Rock”

File this under “things I’d never think of but now make perfect sense”: drumming synced to Dewey Finn’s “Just give up” speech in School of Rock.

Incredible. He has a bunch more too, like Willy Wonka and Fawlty Towers.

School of Rock was a formative movie for me. It came out when I was in high school and a drummer in a rock band. I still think of it first when I hear “The Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin. (Thor: Ragnarok second.)

See also: the cast’s 10-year reunion show.

Sgt. Better: ‘Lonely Hearts Club Band’ remastered

By no means am I an audiophile. Play an MP3, ACC, and WAV file of the same song back to back and I most likely couldn’t tell the difference. (Correction: I definitely couldn’t tell the difference, having failed this quiz.)

But when I listened to the newly remastered 50th anniversary edition of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, I could tell the difference.

That’s because this new edition does more than just reformat the original tracks. Since the original album was configured for mono rather than stereo, the mix when played in two speakers or earbuds is often awkwardly lopsided. This new version was remixed from the ground up, using the original master tapes to create a balanced sound that’s optimized for our modern stereo ways.

(Looks like #BetterTheBeatles goes beyond this blog.)

That’s what I read anyway. I wanted to listen for myself to hear just how different the mixes were. After loading up both versions, I eschewed my typical earbuds and opted for my Sennheiser headphones to go back and forth between the old and new cuts. Even my simple ears noticed a huge difference.

Play, for example, the original version of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”. Notice the opening organ only comes through one ear. This is the version we’ve had to live with for 50 years, until now, where the notes in the remix float evenly across the soundscape.

Paul’s melodious bass lines and Ringo’s drumming are the overall winners of this remix. On top of the overall songwriting prowess, those two elements are what make Sgt. Pepper’s such an aurally rich and relistenable experience.

Would that they performed this sonic sorcery on every Beatles album!

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