Monday, December 3, 2012

"Tinsel and Lights" by Tracey Thorn - The Complete Package


I literally just banged my head on both sides because I just cannot believe what I am hearing. It is 12:10am and I am up trying to catch up on, well, everything. Email, bills, posting for my website, CDs I’ve purchased weeks ago but haven’t listened to yet. After getting my family holiday card safely ordered via Shutterfly (had to take advantage of that “40% off by Sunday” e-coupon!) I decided to get a jump on making the Holiday Music Mix for the inevitable Christmas gathering at Chez Hutcherson, since there were veiled rumblings about the quality and tenor of my “Thanksgiving Mix” just a mere 11 days ago.  So I clicked on iTunes and realized I hadn’t listened to Tracey Thorn’s (of Everything But The Girl fame) “Tinsel And Lights” yet, even though I made an effort to special order it - both the CD and the vinyl directly from her U.S. label, Merge Records, as she no longer records for a major anymore.

I should note now that there are some singers whose voices just do it for me (Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday, Karen Carpenter, to name a few) - Ms. Thorn is among them and has been ever since I sat in a restaurant on Larchmont Avenue having dinner with friends in the early 90s and heard “Protection” over the restaurant’s sound system. I don’t remember the restaurant’s name or even which friends, but oh, do I remember that song and that voice. Thorn’s ability to evoke simultaneously strength, courage and vulnerability with her voice (and let’s not forget to factor in that gorgeous range and timbre) made me feel like my chest had been cracked open and my heart made to beat outside of it. From that night, I bought as much Everything But The Girl I could find (some singles I found on Napster - this was the 90s, mind you - and spent whole days downloading just one or two rare songs). Although not every track from Thorn and partner Ben Watt was perfect (even though much of their dance music remains sublime to this day - though best known in the U.S. for the “Missing” remix from their “Amplified Heart” CD, the “Temperamental” CD is THE ONE. “Lullaby of Clubland” or “Hatfield 1980”? FORGET IT.), Thorn’s voice always captivated me, bathing me continually in astonishment and awe. “Why is this woman not the most popular singer in the world?” I often wondered. Is it because she’s a Brit and never got enough traction on the U.S. pop charts? But there are/were other Brits who had HUGE pop success stateside in the 80s and 90s, and I find myself buying Japanese imports of Swing Out Sister or Lisa Stansfield CDs to keep up with them… so maybe it’s an age thing? A chick thing?  I don’t know, but I am so glad I stick with singers I love and don’t care where or how I have to find their new music because it’s ALWAYS worth it.
Caution: I Can Sing Your Heart Out

Which brings me back to why I was BANGING MY HEAD ten minutes ago. I was listening to “Tinsel and Lights” and my mind was just exploding. Even though it’s a “holiday” CD, it’s easily one of the best CD’s I’ve heard this year, regardless of genre. I mean, it’s right up there with Fiona Apple’s “The Idler Wheel…” masterpiece. (Yes, MASTERPIECE. Listen to “Hot Knife”, “Valentine,” “Werewolf” and then every other track and tell me I’m wrong. Hash arrests be damned, she backed that beauty up big time in concert, too.) Not only are the original Christmas songs gorgeously written and arranged, they sound traditional yet current at the same time. I’m too hyped up to even find the CD to see who produced it, but if it’s not her or Ben Watt, it’s some other musical genius. The first track, “Joy,” immediately takes you there - it feels cold, snowy, yet warm - like white lights seen through inclement weather. The simple piano and her voice blend so well it sounds like one instrument. The next track, “Hard Candy Christmas,” is equally amazing and already one of my all-time favorite Christmas songs. This tune manages to be delightfully sardonic, sad, hopeful and mischevious all at the same time. “Hard Candy” nails perfectly what it feels like to be single during the holidays - so much so it seemed like I stepped into a time machine because I felt every second of it, even though that’s not my life anymore. That’s how good and special this song is.  My favorite lyric? “Maybe I’ll sleep real late / maybe I’ll lose some weight / maybe I’ll clear my junk / maybe I’ll just get drunk on apple wine / Me? I’ll be just fine…” And it keeps going on like that. Awesome.

So okay, I’m two songs in and I’m grooving. Thinking I’ll find a way to include both on my mix for the fam, separate them with some Tony Bennett and Donny Hathaway, etc. but definitely get both of them in there. Only problem is, the CD just keeps GETTING BETTER. I could go on about every song, her vocals, the beauty, purity and warmth of approach, but it’s only getting later and the kids have school tomorrow, so I’ll just hit on my absolute favorites. “Maybe This Christmas” - country-style feel, mid-tempo - lyrics about reconnecting with loved ones - a stunner. And then there’s her cover of my all-time favorite popular Christmas song, “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” (as opposed to my all-time favorite traditional one, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”). Anyway, up until 40 minutes ago, my favorite version of "Have Yourself" was by Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders. Tracey Thorn took it to the place Chrissie took it to (aching, melancholy, saturnine-yet-sanguine), paused for a second, dusted off her Jet Pack and then ROCKETED into the stratosphere with the song. And again, this is with a very simple-yet-creative arrangement of piano and strings that lets her subtle, plaintive, evocative vocals hang the shining star upon the highest bow. When she goes into the second verse, her emotional commitment to the lyrics and meaning of the song even cause her to choke up and drop a word.  Wisely, she uses this take and CRICK CRACK there goes my heart out of my chest again. And if you know the history of this song, you know the original lyrics are “Through the years, we will all be together/ if the fates allow / until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” instead of the “less depressing” “Hang a shining star upon the highest bow” version that has supplanted the original in most remakes. Well, Thorn honors the song by singing the lyrics both ways, wisely placing the original ones last for maximum impact. I could keep going on about her version of this song, but I suppose I should move it along if I don’t want to go into a drop sleep behind the wheel of the mini-van tomorrow.

So, briefly - the other two pieces of EXCELLENCE on this incredibly cohesive, well-planned and sequenced CD of holiday music: Thorn’s immaculate, inventive cover of Joni Mitchell’s “River.” Joni Mitchell, another of my favorite musicians, (I mean, who can write a song like Joni?) KILLS “River” and kind of can’t be paralleled (even though Corinne Bailey Rae’s 2007 cover with Herbie Hancock is definitely on the right side of sublime) so what Thorn does is sing the whole thing backed by, like, French Horns. JUST French horns! And it’s GORGEOUS and it WORKS and it makes it its own thing totally. (*NOTE: I just looked at the liner notes to confirm what I thought I heard and actually, there’s tubas, cornets and trombones mixed in, too - but it is just brass she sings with. Which takes some BRASS.)

The last song I’ll palaver about - though penultimate track “Taking Down The Tree” featuring Green Gartside is the biznass, too - is my other favorite new classic, “Sister Winter.” Written by Sufjan Stevens, I’m not sure if it’s new for this CD or a cover, but regardless, it’s responsible for the HEAD BANGING I mentioned at the beginning of whatever you want to call this piece of writing is. There’s a lot more production on this track than most - very current-sounding, in the Goyte family of sonic experimentation, but so seamlessly employed on this Christmas song, I almost couldn’t take it. But I’m so glad I did. And if my family rags on me for having every other song on this year’s Xmas Mix be from “Tinsel And Lights,” I’ll happily take the shots, because I'll know I’m the one giving them the ultimate gift by sharing Ms. Thorn’s incomparable one.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Pass The Plate Of "Happiness" Around: A Quick Review of "The Happiness Project"

The Happiness ProjectThe Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What's not to like about an upbeat, well-written and thoughtful book about the esoteric and practical ways one can make themselves more happy in their everyday life?  Not much is my answer.  Gretchen Rubin proves to be a wonderful guide through her year-long search for ways to be happier, without uprooting her whole life for some magical, spiritual quest to some faraway land, as she is married with two young kids.  "The Happiness Project" is chock-full of great tips, anecdotes, quotes, research and experiments gone right and wrong that ultimately lead to Rubin feeling and believing her life was improved by taking on the quotidian task of finding big and little ways to increase joy.  I only take one star off because about half-way through the book, unfortunately, one of Rubin's happiness resolutions ("start a blog") results in her sharing pages upon pages of replies she got from followers of her blog.  I hope Rubin sees it as a compliment that I wanted more of her words and less from her blog legion.  Other than that bit of tiresomeness, I enjoyed this book thoroughly, found myself immediately applying some of the easier happiness tips to my life ("sing in the morning," "smile," "cut people slack") and felt better for it.  A fast, accessible (and also exceedingly literate) read, and I do recommend it highly.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Try A Little Tenderness: Why I Had To Listen To Otis Redding Right After Reading "Lady Chatterley's Lover"

Lady Chatterley's LoverLady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm kind of mixed up about what I want to say about this novel, which is a good thing.  Of course it's best-known for being a scandalous, banned novel for its sex scenes, and I suppose for 1928, this was rather racy.  I read the modern restored version and by today's standards, some scenes and language are graphic, but not pornographic or even titillating, just sensual, and respectfully so. (And even quaintly goofy - Lady Chatterley's private parts are oft described as her "mound of Venus.")  Lawrence actually believes sex and sexual desire aren't purulent or shameful, but the highest expression of life and living.  He also is decidedly disgusted by technology (in 1928, coal mines, deforestation, the Industrial Revolution and its ramifications were his chief complaints) and people who chase money, status, success and celebrity.  In that way, the novel is both classic and contemporary.  Though there are parts of the book that can be repetitive - not with the love plot, but with Lawrence expounding his philosophies via the characters' thoughts or his descriptions of his characters - his way with words and phrases make the journey through it all worth it.  And once the love affair commences, it's all extremely engaging and absorbing, because you can't help but root for this impossible love affair to become possible - for real life to bloom and for the rest of the man-made madness and societal restrictions to fall away in the face of true tenderness between men and women (hence, the Otis Redding reference in the title).  And it's romantic because it's not sentimental - this book is hard and the characters are very aware of the realities they face and the sacrifices they'll have to make to even start to make a go of it.  The machine of civilization will go on but humanity will survive it if there is love.  Even though there are some racist bits in there that do date it (I could put these down to the characters instead of the author but I'm sure that would be charity on my part) I highly recommend it - because they don't mar the core thoughts and ideas expressed here.  All in all, good stuff.

View all my reviews

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Lite Pop: Reviewing "Teen Classic" "Forever..."

ForeverForever by Judy Blume
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Even though I read and enjoyed many of Judy Blume's other books when I was a kid, I never read "Forever," so I thought I'd check it out and fill in that hole (no pun intended, but you see how I left it there anyway).  I'm glad I didn't read it as a teenager because I'd hate to think that I would have been influenced by it. I'd always heard what a mature book it was and how it was all about a girl's first time and was so explicit.  Okay, some of the sex descriptions are specific, but I wouldn't call them graphic or even titillating.  The girl and boy in question are so gosh gee that there is a lack of realism permeating on every page that portends to have some.  There is no plot to speak of, and all of the supporting characters are types - meant to have depth (the suicidal boy, the stroke victim grandpa, the know-it-all best friend, the gifted younger sister, etc.) - but don't.  When the lead girl takes a self-motivated trip to Planned Parenthood, the author's PSA is glaring.  I see on IMDB there was a TV movie made of it in 1978, and I suppose for that time, the subject matter itself was controversy enough to warrant adaptation.  But it's not a timeless story, and even as a story of its time, it suffers from banality on most accounts. I suppose it deserves some snaps for even tackling the subject at a time when a lot of youth fiction, especially by popular authors didn't... thus two stars instead of one.  Oh, and it was also upgraded by me for one memorable exchange between the main character Katherine and a random uncle at her high-school graduation that showed real depth and promise:

The uncle picked something out of his teeth, examined it, then flicked it off his finger. "So tell me," he said. "What do you want to do with your life?"
"Do?" I repeated.
"Yes... you've thought about it, haven't you?"
"I want to be happy," I told him.  "And make other people happy too."
"Very nice... but not enough."
"That's all I know right now." I turned and walked away from him.

If only the whole book had been as wry and observant as that!  But alas, it wasn't.  So I've got to find something better to hand my daughter when the time comes - I've just got to.

View all my reviews