Posts Tagged ‘songwriting’

A Colbert Christmas: What Would Santa Think?

December 21, 2008

stephencolbertI watched Stephen Colbert’s A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All last night, and today, every time I think about the show, it still makes me laugh. From start to finish, the show had an inspired lunacy that managed to mock Christmas specials without mocking the holiday itself. And oh, my, is it funny. At one point, I was so helpless with laughter that my spouse asked me if I needed a Heimlich maneuver.

‘Cuz here’s the thing. The show is filled with song, with lyrics to all written by David Javerbaum. And the songs skewer virtually every genre out there. There’s a patriotic country Christmas song, “Have I Got a Present for You,” sung by Toby Keith:

Christmas is as American as apple pie
It’s a late December version of the Fourth of July
And they may go by a different name
But Uncle Sam and Santa Claus are one and the same

Then, Willie Nelson, dressed as a wise man (!), sings a song that is so pretty that, until you hear the chorus, you would swear belongs in the canon of classic Christmas songs. But then you hear the words and you know that it must never be so (except in NORML households):

And like the child born in this manger
This herb is mild yet it is strong
And it brings peace to friend and stranger
Good will to men lies in this bong

There is also a lovely duet between Colbert and Jon Stewart, “Can I Interest You in Hannukah?” But my absolute favorite, the one that prompted the Heimlich offer, is the sexy ode “Nutmeg,” sung by John Legend. Probably not one to sing in front of the wee children:

Girl, I’m going to rock you like a cradle
You lick the nutmeg off my ladle
It’s pure, it’s refined
And it’s ready to grind

Nuttiness this good does not come around often. If you missed this Comedy Central special, don’t be sad. It will show again on Christmas day.

I will never drink eggnog again with the innocence I once did.


All I Want for Christmas: Nifty Gift Ideas 2008

December 11, 2008

elkaAll I want for Christmas is world peace, an end to homelessness, some cute ankle boots that will fit over my high instep, and a really good 2009 television season.

But if you’re not shopping for me, and you need some tried-and-true gifts for people who know the power of words, I can help you out. Even better: most of these gifts fall in the $25 and under range. Disclaimer: I carry no affiliation with any shopping powerhouse like Amazon or Target or anyone, so I’m not going to include links to these places. You will have to do a little of that work yourself. Sorry.


The Likeness by Tana French: For mystery lovers, this is the jackpot. This is the book that makes you call in sick to work so you can read more of it. Cassie Maddox, a former undercover cop, gets thrown into the investigation of a woman’s death – a woman who bears the name of her old undercover identity and who could be her own twin. French is an outrageously good writer, and I could not find a false step in the intricate plotting of this novel.

State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America, edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey: This book is for the armchair traveler with a taste for fabulous writing. The editors assigned writers of reputation with varied styles, such as Ann Patchett, Tony Bourdain, and Sarah Vowell to contribute essays on every state in the union. The result is a smorgasbord of delicious writing that gives a real sense to the place (not all of it complimentary, incidentally). I’m only a third through my copy; it must be read in small doses, like eating flourless chocolate cake. Are you hungry yet?

Run, by Ann Patchett: In a season that revolved around politics, this quiet novel managed to combine politics, family, and race in an enormously moving and engaging way. It may not be as showy as Patchett’s Bel Canto, but it may be her best work yet.


For the discerning couch potato in your life, you can’t go wrong with these picks:

Mad Men, Season One: Time travel back to the early 60s when advertising was king, and people smoked and patted women on the behind and never had a second thought about it.  It’s a mad trip, almost Shakespearean in its psychology, with Don Draper as its tortured Hamlet. Great writing with an obsession with detail makes this a must-see.

State of Play: This BBC miniseries aired in 2003, but the DVD was just released in 2008, so technically, it counts. And a darn fine thing, too, since this was great drama. The series follows journalists of The Herald as they try to uncover the story behind the death of a young political researcher who may have been involved with a high profile Labour MP. The plot crackles, and the acting by terrific performers like James McAvoy, Bill Nighy, John Simm, and Kelly Macdonald, makes this a drama that doesn’t leave your consciousness easily.

The Wire, The Complete Fifth Season: Since no one apparently watched this other than me and about 10 other people (yes, still bitter about that), what better way to catch up on the best series in the history of television – SERIOUSLY – than by picking up this DVD. Season Four was probably its best, but its fifth and last season still packs a powerful punch. Actually, DVD may be the ideal way to watch this series and really appreciate its attention to story and detail.


Finally, a few picks for the music lover:

Break Up the Concrete, The Pretenders: This CD is filled with songs you would swear that Chrissie Hynde wrote and recorded years ago, they have such a timeless classic feel. Add a driving beat and it’s a keeper.

Rattlin’ Bones, Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson: Australian Kasey Chambers has been one of the most distinctive voices to emerge on the folk scene in many years. This latest CD, collaborated on with her husband Shane Nicholson, is an addicting listen.

Happy Holidays, everyone!

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.

The Best Medicine: Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog

August 24, 2008

Since, y’know, I’m always right on the pulse of this whole Internet thingy, I actually DID hear about Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog, an Internet-only musical film, before the film went live, as it were. After all, it’s a creation of Joss Whedon, genius behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. Of course, the date the first episode was released, I had something going on – don’t even remember what – and (shamed head-hanging here), I missed it.

I was prepared to take my lumps and wait for the eventual DVD release, since I don’t have a video iPod, when like angels singing from heaven, a friend told me I could watch the three episodes (or one 42-minute video) on for FREE! I gotta say, this project made me happier than anything I’ve seen in a long time. The film is written by Joss Whedon and his brothers Zack and Jed Whedon, and Maurissa Tancharoen, and features the same kind of quirky, enhanced-everyday speak that the residents of Buffy’s Sunnydale spoke so well.

This time, the protagonist is Dr. Horrible (Neil Patrick Harris), who, true to the title, blogs about his trials and tribulations and breaks into song every once in a while. But while he is an evil genius, he has dreams just like the rest of us: to have his application accepted by the Evil League of Evil, and to work up the courage to talk to the girl of his dreams, Penny (Felicia Day). If only his nemesis – because there must always be a nemesis – Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion) wouldn’t keep interfering.

Did I mention the dialogue? It’s a hoot (and the songwriting is top-notch as well):

Dr. Horrible: A lot of guys ignore the laugh, and that’s about standards. I mean, if you’re gonna get into the Evil League of Evil, you have to have a memorable laugh. What, do you think Bad Horse didn’t work on his whinny? His terrible death-whinny?


Captain Hammer: Stand back everyone, nothing here to see. Just imminent danger and in the middle of it me. Yes, Captain Hammer’s here, hair blowing in the breeze. The day needs my saving expertise. Man’s got to do what a man’s got to do. Seems destiny ends with me saving you. The only doom that’s looming is in loving me to death. I’ll give you a second to catch your breath.

Great writing, great acting, great songs. This one’s just what the doctor ordered.

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.

Interview Update: Justin Roberts Hits the Big Leagues

May 18, 2008

Justin Roberts Pop FlyJust a quick note for the Justin Roberts fans in the crowd: He was the subject of a story for the Major League Baseball website,! Written by Doug Miller, the article profiles Roberts and the origins of the title song off his new CD, Pop Fly. While this is justifiably cool for Justin Roberts, I feel compelled to remind you all, we got the scoop before MLB did. Heh heh heh.

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.

Jumpin’ On the Bandwagon: Loving the Mom Song

May 8, 2008

As the second part of my Mother’s Day bonanza of posts, I recall getting forwarded the link to the following video by comedienne Anita Renfroe. Called “The Mom Song,” and sung to the William Tell Overture, it’s fairly likely that you may be among the seven million people who’ve seen it on YouTube. Just in case you haven’t, however, or even if you have but need a refresher of what you’ll likely say as a mom or hear from a mom in the next 24 hours, enjoy the following clip:

Once: Brilliance on the Small Scale

April 30, 2008

Once posterEvery once in a while, a movie haunts you to the extent that you find yourself thinking about it long after the credits have rolled and the DVD has been returned to Blockbuster. For me, that movie was Once, which I saw a couple of weeks ago and haven’t gotten out of my head since.

Why does this movie stay with me so? A large part of its staying power is its music. For those who either haven’t seen the movie or didn’t watch the Academy Awards this year, Once is about two musicians in Dublin who spur each other to stretch their talents over a single week. Its stars are Glen Hansard of The Frames and Marketa Irglova, two musicians who now tour together as The Swell Season. The music is unapologetically romantic and gorgeous, and all the songs in the movie were composed by Hansard and Irglova or Hansard alone. Like the movie itself, the lyrics paint a kind of tone poem, create a delicate mood, such as these from the Oscar winning song “Falling Slowly”:

I don’t know you
But I want you
All the more for that
Words fall through me
And always fool me
And I can’t react
And games that never amount
To more than they’re meant
Will play themselves out

But as fabulous as the music is – and the music comprises more than half the film, mind you – Once‘s story, written by its director John Carney, is stunning in its simplicity. If you expect some big and horrific conflict to interrupt these characters’ lives, think again. No death, no violence, no sex. The only conflict is the very mild tension coming from the characters’ own heads and their unrequited attraction. It’s the visual movie equivalent of a tone poem, and it’s exquisite in its detail and lack of gimmickry.

If you haven’t seen the movie yet, go rent it right away. You’ll thank me.

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?