Posts Tagged ‘music’

Best of 2008! The Readers Weigh In

January 2, 2009

ribbonWell, the quantity of responses was a little disappointing, I admit. BUT the quality of the responses was anything but.  Each response I got for the “Best of” categories listed warranted either an immediate “Oh, yeah” or an “Ooh, I have to check that out” from me. So kudos to the respondents who were nice enough to participate.

And now, the list:

Best Fiction:

Bestseller by Keith Latch: A horror novel in e-book form, this was an area of unplumbed depths for me. Thanks for eBookguru for the recommendation.

The A Song of Ice and Fire series, by George R.R. Martin: This recommendation for this epic fantasy series also comes from eBookguru.

Best Non-Fiction:

Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin: Although technically published in 2006, reader Jill read it in 2008 and loved it. I also read it in 2008 and was utterly blown away by the story, uncomplicatedly told, of Greg Mortenson’s journey from mountain climber to advocate for promoting girls’ education and literacy through his Central Asia Institute organization.

Best Music:

Everything That Happens Will Happen Today – David Byrne and Brian Eno. Reader Pam sums it up when she calls it “some yummy, brainy, infectious popaliciousness!”

Best Movies:

WALL-E (story by Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter, screenplay by Andrew Stanton and Jim Reardon): eBookguru thought this was one of the best films of 2008, and I have to agree. How does a film with so few words qualify as great writing? From the story, which transcended time and genre to transport kids and grown-ups alike.

Rachel Getting Married (screenplay by Jenny Lumet): Reader Jill voted for this film as one of the year’s best, because “I loved the characters who play against type.”

Now, for all you readers who perhaps partook of a little too much eggnog or were busy having family time, and didn’t get the chance to put your two cents worth in, I will still accept your recommendations! It is never too late (unless of course you’re writing about something from 2009, in which case it will have to wait).

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WordHappy Reader “Best of 2008” List: Thinking Caps On

December 24, 2008

j0396070Now, you know and I know that these next few days are going to be a haze of wrapping paper and too much food. And no matter what holiday you celebrate, the fact remains that almost everything will be closed – and if you’re getting hammered with snow like much of the country – you don’t want to go out anyway.

So reflect – ponder, if you will – on your top-of-the-line choices for the best of 2008. What movies did you see that knocked your socks off? What music did you listen to and actually notice the words? What books did you read that made you stay up way past your bedtime? These are the things I want to hear about.

I will be taking your choices in the areas of:

  • Fiction
  • Nonfiction
  • Television
  • Movies
  • Music
  • Other

The “Other” category is for anything else that gave you goosebumps that somehow isn’t included in the above. Please post a comment with your recommendations below. I’d love it if you’d forward this post to your friends as well, so we can get even more participation.

I’ll take comments up until December 31st. Then I’ll compile a list of everyone’s choices and make it the first WordHappy post of 2009!

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, and  Best wishes to you all!

Flying High for Flight of the Conchords

December 4, 2008

fotcI just saw a commercial last night for the upcoming season of HBO‘s Flight of the Conchords, and I was filled with a glee that has been, sadly, almost entirely absent this television season. This show is a big part of why I still have an HBO subscription, truth be told. It’s that good.

Flight of the Conchords follows New Zealand’s (self-billed) 4th most popular digi-folk parody duo Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie as they try to find success in New York City. Aided by their manager and New Zealand cultural attache Murray (Rhys Darby), adviser Dave (Arj Barker), and single obsessed fan Mel (Kristen Schaal), they achieve what New Zealanders might consider success (one of the running gags of the series addresses the lowered expectations of Kiwis).

I’d first heard Flight of the Conchords on the radio, where I had to pull over while driving because I was laughing so hard at their song “Business Time,” which deals with the nuances of the scheduled Wednesday night intimacies:

Conditions are perfect for making love.
You turn to me and say something sexy like, “I might go to bed. I’ve got work in
the morning.”
I know what you’re trying to say, baby.
You’re trying to say “Aww, yeah. It’s business time.”

What the HBO show managed miraculously to do was to take that same sense of low-key absurdity and translate it into a half-hour comedy. Since the show isn’t overpopulated with characters, it can exploit them by letting them play out silly situations extremely seriously, so that the dialogue sounds as if it could come out in one of their songs:

Murray: Be careful with it. Don’t stand next to any big magnets.
Jemaine: Why would I stand next to a big magnet?
Murray: I don’t know what you do in your personal life.

See what I mean? Brilliant.

The new season of Flight of the Conchords starts January 18, 2009 on HBO. If the second season is even half as good as the first season, it’ll be the best show on television.

Guilty Pleasure: Sugarland’s Love on the Inside

September 21, 2008

I have a dirty little secret. I am deeply, deeply in like with a country music album. See, here’s where I alienate any country music fans, for why should I be defensive about this, as well as lose street cred with non-country music listeners who can’t deal with the twang. But let me shoot myself in the foot a little more and see if I can’t convert a few to my way of thinking.

I first read about Sugarland in a profile written by Whitney Pastorek from that magazine chock-full of potential bad influences, Entertainment Weekly. Now, my normal musical taste runs toward folk-rock, 80’s pop (sorry – formative school years – can’t help it), singer-songwriters, and alt-country bluegrass (which is so obscure that it’s totally hip). The last country artist I bought was Mary Chapin Carpenter (who, frankly, never sounded all that country in the first place and really fell into my singer-songwriter category). But this EW article made Sugarland sound as if they’d had some of the same musical influences I’d had, so I had to check them out. And was promptly blown away.

Sugarland is currently led by two musicians – Jennifer Nettles, who sounds like Reba McIntyre on steroids, and Kristian Bush, formerly of the folk rock band Billy Pilgrim. They have an insane amount of energy that practically bursts out of the stereo. But what has kept me coming back to the songs again and again is their lyrics. There’s the rapid fire rant of “It Happens,” (written by Nettles, Bush, and Bobby Pinson) sung without taking a deep breath:

Now it’s poor me, why me, oh me, boring
The same old worn out, blah, blah story
There’s no good explanation for it at all

There are the haunting, poetic images framed in the questions of “Love” (written by Nettles, Bush, and Tim Owens):

Is it the one you call home
Is it the Holy Land
Is it standing right here holding your hand
Is it just like the movies
Is it rice and white lace
Is it the feeling I get when I wake to your face

And there’s the hilarious insanity of a tribute to “Steve Earle”(written by Nettles and Bush):

Steve Earle, Steve Earle, please write a song for me
I promise I won’t take a dime when it comes my time to leave
The others wanted your whole heart
But I just want your sleeve
Steve Earle, Steve Earle, please write a song for me.

If you haven’t taken a listen to them yet, go try it now. I’ll keep your secret.

Tops for Pops: Best Father’s Day Movie, Book, and Song

June 14, 2008

Field of DreamsFather’s Day snuck up on me this year like a cat in the dark. My cards got off late, the children did not draw a “too cute to live” picture in time, gifts only just got ordered. I do hope this is not proof that Father’s Day is the second-class citizen to Mother’s Day, as I’ve heard bandied about in some quarters. I would rather point to its date falling in the same week that school lets out as a possible defense for additional scatter-brained-ness.

Thus, as penance for my Father’s Day shortcomings, let me offer some bodaciously good Father’s Day offerings in multiple media.

My pick for all-time best movie for Father’s Day, guaran-darn-teed to make men of all ages and macho levels reach surreptitiously for the tissues, is Field of Dreams. Frankly, the Kevin Costner/Sports/Western movie genres (note: no Waterworld or Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) could make up a Father’s Day movie bonanza all on their own. But Field of Dreams, based on the book by W.P. Kinsella and adapted for the screen by Phil Alden Robinson (who was nominated for a screenwriting Oscar for his efforts, by the way), is one of the very best. It involves baseball, the grown-up tensions between being “responsible” and following a dream, and the bond between fathers and sons. The final scene, where Ray (Costner) has realized the player John is his dad, and that he is about to walk away, is perfect in its simplicity:

John: Well, good night, Ray.
Ray: Good night, John.
[They shake hands and John begins to walk away.]
Ray: Hey. . . Dad?
[John turns.]
Ray [choked up]: You wanna have a catch?
John: I’d like that.

I’m getting verklempt just typing it.

My second Father’s Day pick showcases the paragon of all good dads, Atticus Finch, in Harper Lee‘s To Kill a Mockingbird. While the movie is one of the best adaptations of a novel that I can think of, and while I can’t read the book without picturing Gregory Peck in those glasses as Atticus, I still contend that if you haven’t ever read the book, you should; and if you have read it, then you should re-read it, for the simple beauty of Lee’s prose. How perfect a character description is it to paint the pint-sized Dill as “a pocket Merlin, whose head teemed with eccentric plans, strange longings, and quaint fancies.” Now, I can see as how Atticus might be an intimidating choice for a dad, because he’s so darn perfect. But most fathers I know have the same depth of love for their children that Lee’s writing depicts Atticus having for his children, so I would say he’s less of a role model than a tribute to fatherhood at its best.

Finally, for a song that is a gorgeous tribute to a father, take a listen to Ricky Skaggs‘ song, “My Father’s Son“, taken off his CD of the same name (1991). Skaggs has been playing bluegrass for more than 36 years, both as a singer and mandolin player, and his songwriting skills are prodigious. In “My Father’s Son,” Skaggs writes in the chorus:

Well a rich man writes the book of laws
a poor man must defend
But the highest laws are written on the
hearts of honest men
When that cup is passed to me to do what
must be done
Or a chunk of coal just carve these words
I was just my father’s son

So happy Father’s Day, guys! Enjoy the day, and know that you’re second to none.

Music for Mamas: Great Songs for Mother’s Day

May 10, 2008

Mother and ChildIn the last Mother’s Day post before the big day (which probably for most moms, is still pretty much the same as any other day, and is just fine), I thought I would list a couple songs that pay tribute to moms everywhere. Once again, I blanked after I came up with a couple songs. I could cheat and start looking at country music lyrics, where mamas everywhere are revered. But since I don’t listen to much country music, it didn’t seem right.

The two songs that I remember, though, are terrific songs for celebrating mothers. Without further ado, here they are:

“Loves Me Like A Rock,” music and lyrics by Paul Simon (from the There Goes Rhymin’ Simon album, although Alison Kraus and the Cox Family do a great cover of it on their I Know Who Holds Tomorrow album) – Besides its lazy swinging beat, what I love about this song how it talks about the mother’s constancy of love through the years. From the little boy to the man to the president, his mama loves him like a rock. Not a clod of dirt that’ll disperse with the rain, mind you, a ROCK:

When I was grown to be a man (grown to be a man)
And the devil would call my name (grown to be a man)
I’d say now who do, Who do you think youre fooling? (grown to be a man)
I’m a consummated man (grown to be a man)
I can snatch a little purity
My mama loves me, she loves me
She get down on her knees and hug me
Like she loves me like a rock
She rocks me like the rock of ages
And loves me

“Good Mother”, music and lyrics by Jann Arden (from her Living Under June album; you can hear the song on her MySpace page) – Jann Arden is one of those criminally underrecognized pop/folk rock singer-songwriters of the Patty Griffin genre. In “Good Mother,” she writes about all the sneaking minutiae that can undermine your spirit – unless of course, you’ve had a mother who taught you to be yourself:

I’ve got money in my pockets,
I like the color of my hair.
I’ve got a friend who loves me,
Got a house, I’ve got a car.
I’ve got a good mother,
and her voice is what keeps me here.

Feet on ground,
Heart in hand,
Facing forward,
Be yourself.

So for all the moms out there, especially including my own, whom I feel is the very best mom of all, happy Mother’s Day.

You Go, Girl! The Songs and the Inspirations

April 12, 2008

Strumming guitarI don’t know what it is, but after months of silence, I’m craving music — all my old favorite songs. Maybe it’s the weather with its tease of sunshine and heat. Maybe it’s seeing people walk around dressed in jeans and t-shirts instead of disappearing under the Michelin Man folds of a down parka. But there is music bubbling up inside of me, so if I don’t give it an outlet of singing along to songs that I love, I will be like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, bursting into song and spinning around with no provocation.

This month, I read articles in two separate magazines that made me think I must not be the only one feeling this way. First, the April issue of Vanity Fair published an excerpt from Sheila Weller‘s new book Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon – and the Journey of a Generation (Atria Books, 2008). Then I read More magazine’s May issue, which carries an article about four women who’ve served as inspiration for some of the most iconic songs of the last 40 years. Between the two articles, I’m singing some great songs.

Weller’s excerpt of Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and Carole King is fascinating reading; I’ll certainly be putting the book on reserve at the library to read the whole account. It’s the story of a different time and place for women singer-songwriters, when perhaps it was easier to be heard, particularly by the community of upcoming singer-songwriters. But from the article, it also seems like each of these women succeeded as much by the romantic entanglements and/or musical alliances she formed as by her sheer talent. Joni Mitchell was connected with members of the Blues Project, Leonard Cohen, and David Crosby; Carly Simon dated Cat Stevens and Kris Kristofferson before falling in love with her future husband James Taylor. Even Carole King, who seems the most rooted of the three during those times, co-wrote some of her seminal songs with her first husband, Gerry Goffin. It’s hard to imagine how these women, if placed in a time machine and transported to the future, would fare if trying to make it today. American Idol material, they’re not. I think the singer-songwriter who embodies their spirit most today is Seattle’s own Brandi Carlile.

The More article, “I Was the Girl in the Song,” was written by Peter Knobler and profiles Diane Lozito, the inspiration for Bruce Springsteen‘s “Rosalita”; Rikki Ducornet, who inspired Steely Dan‘s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”; Sharona Alperin, the muse for the Knack‘s “My Sharona”; and Judy Collins, who inspired Crosby Stills and Nash‘s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” Hearing about the chance meetings between these women and the men who wrote the songs lends a powerful voice to how brief a moment needs to be for inspiration to spark.

Neither of these articles are up on the magazines’ websites yet, and may never be. Go look for them at your newsstand, or find Weller’s book, which was just released last week. Certainly, I’ve got my play list for the next several months.

What are the songs you’re listening to this spring?

An Interview with Justin Roberts: Way Out Wonderful

April 7, 2008

Justin Roberts in ConcertWhat’s a music lover to do when tickets for live shows of your favorite artists start at $25 a seat (and that’s for the cheap ones)? I’ll tell you what you do. You start listening to kids’ music. I’m serious. Some of the best music out there these days is found in the children’s section at the local Borders. This is stuff that crosses all musical genres and has some of the cleverest lyrics around. Now, it helps if you have your own short people to listen with you, but it is not a prerequisite.

One of the very best of the genre-bending kids’ music artists out there is Justin Roberts. Sounding a little like James Taylor and looking like John Denver’s younger brother — a kid once described him as “He’s so cute, I peed my pants” — Roberts is the real deal, a talented songwriter and musician who’s able to connect with his songs to kids and their parents. Who else would think to include a line in a song called “Meltdown,” “I’ll stop the world and meltdown with you.”

I urge you all to link immediately to Justin Roberts’ website and watch his YouTube video and listen to some of his songs (and obviously, then go buy them; he has a new CD, Pop Fly, being released in about a week). Among my particular favorites are “Just a Minute” from his Meltdown CD:

Sometimes I think about my baby brother
When he was just a minute old and he was so small
And my grandma, you know,
she is more than just a minute
She is many, many, many, many minutes
And we’re all just minutes
But then I kiss my mama on the cheek
And I feel like I’m more than just a minute
For that minute I’m more than just a minute

And “Willy Was a Whale,” from his Yellow Bus CD, an anthem for all those kids who can’t say their R’s:

Willy was a whale and he walked on the water
And he tried to be wough and he twied to be tough
But Willy wasn’t really wough, he wasn’t wough at all
He was a willy white whale and he walked on the water, oh yeah

Now, because I have connections that amaze even myself (and because I brazenly accosted the poor man after a concert), Justin Roberts has consented to be my latest victim/participant for a WordHappy interview:

WordHappy: Since this is a blog that celebrates all kinds of great writing, let’s begin there. Whose writing (books, songs, tv, movies, you name it) gives you goose pimples and makes your toes curl up, it’s that good?

Justin Roberts: Just some random selections off the top of my head –

Books: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry – The Little Prince; Jean Toomer – Cane

Songs: Mountain Goats – Idylls of the Kings; Freedy Johnston – Perfect World; Sufjan Stevens – Casimir Pulaski Day; Joni Mitchell – Case of You

TV: Arrested Development; 30 Rock; Flight of the Conchords

Movies: Juno; The Lives of Others; Le Samourai

WH: Tell us about your songwriting process. Do you have a large focus group of children you work with? Or do you have a large memory bank of childhood incidents and traumas that you draw from?

JR: I definitely don’t have a focus group of kids and I’m always a little worried that the songs won’t reach my audience. Both my wife Chris and my producer Liam Davis are usually the first to hear the new songs as they are being developed. It’s always helpful to have people that I trust hear the songs. Many of the memories come from my childhood but they also come from ideas that friends or fans share about their childhood. That being said, writing songs is sort of a grueling process for me. I’m strangely happy when I’ve finished all the songs for a CD. Beginning from nothing is always a soul searching process that is not altogether comfortable. I think a lot of that songwriting anxiety, properly diverted, sometimes makes for a funny song. Pop Fly is probably a good example of that describing the worries of a failed little leaguer.

WH: You started out as a musician and leader of the indie-rock band Pimentos for Gus, which is an outstanding name, by the way. What kind of differences have you noticed writing songs geared toward adults versus more kid-themed songs? (Notice I did not call them songs geared toward kids, because I know MANY adults who are hooked on these songs as well.)

JR: I feel a lot of freedom writing songs for families. I can add silly grown-up references, make a completely mindless punk rock song about day camp, or write a melancholy ballad and they all sort of fit into the genre. It’s very liberating writing for families and getting feedback about the songs from 6 year-olds and 86 year olds.

WH: As a songwriter, are you a music first/lyrics second kind of guy or vice-versa? Or do they come simultaneously? And while I’m talking about your lyrics, HOW did you come up with the sheer brilliance of “Willy, the fact is/You’re a whale, not a cactus/?” That’s like finding a rhyme for “orange.” I smile every time I hear that line.

JR: I write the lyrics with the melody always. I never write the words first. Many of my songs begin as some kind of stream of consciousness singing which is later constructed and re-edited sometimes tediously by me. Willy was a whale is a good example of the stream of consciousness writing. I was trying to procrastinate from studying sanskrit in graduate school and I started writing a really silly alliteration song for no apparent reason. I think I just stumbled across that line you mentioned as I was singing.

WH: When you’re in writing mode, what or who inspires you? Is it other music, or literature, or just watching kids?

JR: I think I’m very inspired by the music that I listen to as an adult; whether it’s Elvis Costello or Loudon Wainwright or the Replacements or the Ramones or something else. Many of those songs have just seeped into my blood. As a kid I was really moved by Shel Silverstein and the poetry writing we did in school. I think that experience playing with words has really stuck with me.

WH: What is the “funnest” thing about performing for kids and their families?

JR: It sounds like a cliché but it never gets old watching families dancing and singing together at the concerts. We always feel like we have the best seat in the house because we get to watch the devoted dancers in the front rocking out and the mom are dad mouthing the words farther back in the audience. There’s always a lot of great things happening between kids and parents too that makes me almost break into laughter while we are performing.

WH: In concert, do children fling their Underroos at you, ala Tom Jones? (Hopefully, no one is throwing diapers.)

JR: I can’t say that that happens, thankfully. They do however, tell me that “Song X” is their favorite song and that always moves me. Kids can’t help but be entirely honest; whether they are jumping up to start a dance or walking away because they are bored. So, when you get a compliment, you know that it’s pure.

Justin Roberts, thank you for this amazing interview. Readers, check him out. He’s way out wonderful.

Next to the Last Romantic: Josh Ritter

March 25, 2008

Josh Ritter Historical ConquestsWell over a year ago, I was reading my Entertainment Weekly Holiday issue, lamenting all the offerings I hadn’t gotten to see or hear or read. When I got to Stephen King’s column on the best music of 2006, I noted that he had laid his good fairy wand yet again on some relatively obscure artist named Josh Ritter, and thought, “Cool. I’ll have to check him out.” And promptly forgot.

Recently, only fourteen months later, I picked up two of his CDs: The Animal Years and his latest, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter. Uncle Stevie was right. The boy can sing, and boy, can he write a song.

From “A Girl in the War,” off of The Animal Years:

Paul said to Peter you got to rock yourself a little harder
Pretend the dove from above is a dragon and your feet are on fire
But I got a girl in the war
Paul the only thing I know to do
Is turn up the music and pray that she makes it through

And from his newest album, “Next to the Last Great Romantic”:

He’s stolen hearts like they’re horses
And horses when hearts can’t be found
He keeps riding from one horse to one horse to one horse towns (It gets him down)

What I like about Ritter’s lyrics is that they capture a mood so precisely, while at the same time twisting familiar images into something fresh and new. By combining the cliches of stealing hearts and stealing horses, he turns those old sawhorses into an evocative image of a wearying Casanova. And it doesn’t hurt that he sounds like a combination of Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan (when he actually sings).

What are your favorite Josh Ritter songs?

Golden Heart: Great Love Songs Part III

February 14, 2008

Golden HeartHappy Valentine’s Day, everyone! I’ve saved a couple of the best love songs for last, songs that are so good that even if you are currently unattached or unlucky in love, you might not even mind that these are love songs.

The first song comes courtesy of a wild, twelve-piece band from Portland, Oregon: Pink Martini. These guys and gals play a bubbly, big-band style of music as if they’re a little tipsy on sarsaparilla. You can find their lead vocalist, China Forbes, singing in English, French, Italian, Croatian, and Japanese. Obviously an overachiever. But, oh, the songs. Today’s pick comes from their fabulously titled second album, Hang On, Little Tomato (2004). It’s a little ditty set to a cha-cha rhythm (feel free to correct me – I guessed because I could insert the “cha-cha-cha” between the lines) called “Let’s Never Stop Falling in Love”(lyrics and music by China Forbes and Thomas L. Lauderdale):

When you are near, everything’s clear
Earth is a beautiful heaven
Always I hope that we shine like a star
And be forever floating above
I know a falling star can’t fall forever
But let’s never stop falling in love

Doesn’t that just hit the sweet spot?

My second pick for today does double-duty as a ballad and a love song: “Golden Heart” from Mark Knopfler‘s album of the same title (1996). Let me set the scene for you. A gentle Knopfleresque guitar thread wafts from the speakers for close to a minute. And just when you begin to think that maybe you’re listening to an instrumental, he quietly begins to sing of a stranger spied in a store, wearing a golden heart amulet:

Then we swirled around each other
and the thread was spun
To some arcadian band
I would stop it
from swinging like a pendulum
Just to hold time in my hand

Nothing in the world prepared me for,
your heart, your heart
Nothing in the world that I love more
your heart, your heart
Your golden heart

So if you’re needing a last minute Valentine’s gift, just play your intended one of these unabashedly romantic songs. They’re better than roses. But not chocolate.