No, not this. This is just a gentle reminder to be aware
that there might be cameras at your next office party.
OK, not all of what follows is new. You vagrants who have been hanging out here for years will probably recognize this stuff. Or maybe you've forgotten it entirely. Maybe you wanted to forget it entirely. If so, my apologies for dredging up pain from your past.
What I've done, in a misguided effort at providing you with a favor for the holidays, is compile a few reviews that have appeared on this blog during it's amazingly overrated life.
(I realize the apostrophe in "it's" is generally incorrect when referring to an inanimate object, but this blog sure smells as though it were alive at one time.)
Of course, I automatically assumed that whatever opinion I held concerning a book or recording is something you can't live without. That's just the sort of ego-driven bastard I am. And, in order to make this at least a bit more worth your while, each review comes with a suggestion concerning who might enjoy these things among your friends, relatives, lovers, and other assorted riff-raff. That's because I'm so condescending I assumed you wouldn't be able to tell just by the context alone.
And here we go!
For the lover of comic novels...
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
The author, unfortunately, committed suicide after failing to sell this book. Once I read it, I understood why he did so. If I had written this grand work and been unable to sell it, I might have offed myself, too.
After Toole's death, the book was sold, by his mother, to a somewhat small university press. It ended up becoming a bestseller and then won a Pulitzer. Since that time, a couple of Toole's shorter works have been unearthed and published, but that's all there is. No more will be forthcoming because of his death. That's sad stuff.
The book, however, isn't sad at all. It's riotously funny. It is populated with characters and situations that had me laughing aloud, many times over. The main character, Ignatius, at turns amazes, delights, and disgusts. He is one of the great original characters of modern literature - a combination of Falstaff, a degenerate Oliver Hardy, and a volcanic eruption.
(If you're one of those people, like me, who sometimes reads a bit of a book they buy for someone else, don't do it in this instance. Instead, get a copy for yourself when you buy theirs. This is because you'll regret having to give it to someone else before you've finished it, and by the time it arrives it'll be too close to Christmas for you to do so.)
For anyone who lived through the sexual revolution (or wishes they did)...
The Rape of the A*P*E* by Allan Sherman
THIS should be Sherman's Legacy, not "Hello, Muddah...".
While Allan Sherman's musical offerings were witty and fun, this book is one of the most amazing documents ever published. Like most others who have had the pleasure of reading this, I've bought and lost (as loaners) several copies. I found a hardcover in a used bookstore about ten years ago and I will never let it leave my house now. Replacement copies are amazingly expensive and hard to come by.
Sherman takes on the herculean task of recording the rise and fall of morality - specifically, sexual morality - from Adam & Eve up to the then-present day of the 1970's. He does it with panache, humor, and obvious glee at the failure of prudery to win out.
I consider it the funniest book ever written. I don't know if you can find a copy, but, if you do, somebody as perverted as I am will love you forever for gifting them with it.
For folks who like catchy powerful punkish pop rock...
Tuff Darts! ~ Tuff Darts
Great lost punk/pop band.
I saw them at a club in Boston in the 1970's, then bought the album the next day. I expected them to break big, but it never happened. EVERY cut is catchy, with great hooks, swell lead guitar from Jeff Salen, and there is NOTHING not to like here (unless you're concerned about misogyny, but this is rock and roll, so quit thinking so hard.) Buy it for someone and let that person be amazed at how this band slipped through the cracks.
For the classical music lover...
Prokofiev, Symphonies - Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Seiji Ozawa
If Prokofiev had been born in 1956 in Detroit, instead of 1891 in St. Petersburg, Russia, and he had dropped some acid, he would have been the white Jimi Hendrix.
(That's the type of statement nobody can easily dispute. It contains no facts and supposes something that was utterly impossible during the person's actual life. I don't really believe it, but what the hell. I felt like saying something totally ridiculous and that works as well as anything else.)
These recordings contain Prokofiev's seven symphonies and The Lieutenant Kiji Suite.
Prokofiev's Second Symphony is my favorite piece of classical music. It is tremendously forceful, a bit dissonant, and generally beats a couple of recurring themes into the ground - not unlike heavy metal, my first love. You'll rarely find it on any classical aficionado "favorites" list. They'll mention his First Symphony, which is more classically structured, as well as his piano concertos and, of course, Peter And The Wolf. Fine music, all, but I prefer his more experimental stuff.
If someone you know likes Prokofiev, they'll love these discs.
For the progressive rock fan (or yodeling fan, or fan of Dutch musicians)...
Moving Waves and/or Focus 3 - Focus
Vastly underrated progressive rock quartet from Holland. They had a Top 40 hit in the 70's with a quirky instrumental called Hocus Pocus, which contained a whole bunch of yodeling and a couple of searing guitar solos over a hard rock rhythm track. That came from the album Moving Waves. The follow-up to that album was a two-record set named Focus 3.
Thisj Van Leer is the vocalist, keyboardist and flute player. He has a marvelous voice, although he usually uses it only for oddities such as the aforementioned yodeling. Most of Focus' output was instrumental. His flute vibrato was magnificent and he went on to play as a sideman in various jazz ensembles after this group broke up. Jan Akkerman played guitar and other stringed instruments - lute among them - and threw vicious heavy metal guitar licks into baroque-inspired jazz pieces. They were the two members involved in every incarnation of the group. Drummer for both of these sessions was Pierre Van Der Linden. For the Moving Waves recording, the bassist was Cyril Havermans. On Focus 3, it was Bert Ruiter. Both he and Van Der Linden get extended solos on Focus 3, so if you like that sort of thing, then you'll dig that one more. If not...
(Being a bass player, I love extended bass solos. However, some people consider them the musical equivalent of waiting for your number to be called at the registry of motor vehicles. Being a bass player, I hope those people's eyes rot out.)
For the heavy metal fan...
Back In Black - AC/DC
What can I say about AC/DC that hasn't already been said about slamming a baseball bat into your kidneys? Well, let's see.
AC/DC come from Australia. Slamming a baseball bat into your kidneys doesn't.
I suppose that's about it.
Look, either you like AC/DC or you hate them. They're the rock and roll equivalent of The Three Stooges, except there's five of them, and they aren't as funny, but they sell more records. Mostly a guy thing - and a straight white drug-taking guy thing at that. The only band that found more ways to arrange three chords was The Ramones (but The Ramones played their songs at least twice as fast, so it was more of a challenge since they had to fill more space.)
And there you have it, whatever it was. Hard to think of a more popular hard-rock-cum-heavy-metal album with as many Top 40 hits. If you know of a metal fan who doesn't own this yet, wake him up and tell him you got it for him.
For the fan of big bands, great guitar playing, and weird arrangements...
WOLFGANG’S BIG NIGHT OUT
The Brian Setzer Orchestra gives classical music a re-working in various jazzy settings, mostly big band swing. I haven’t removed it from my car’s CD player since I got it.
(That’s because the eject button isn’t working! Ba-Rump-Bump!)
This is a near-perfect CD. The only flaw is that I scraped it with a fork while trying to pry open the packaging, but that’s OK because it's my copy, not the one you'll be giving to someone else.
Really, honestly, truly – the one major flaw on this album concerns some of the endings to the songs. I don’t know whether a conscious effort was made to try to appear not totally serious, or if the arrangement is just incompetent, but four or five of the endings are either unflinchingly corny or just jarringly off-key.
(I know. Believe me, I know. Of all the people who might complain about something being corny or off-key, for me to do so is beyond the pale, and I’m one of the palest folks around. It’s just that while I’m certainly the type who appreciates a quote from the opening riff of Smoke On The Water following some Offenbach, someone else might not be, so I figured I’d warn you.)
Setzer’s guitar playing is magnificent throughout. He easily transitions from straight renditions of the original lines, to purist jazz, to his beloved rockabilly licks, to paeans to such diverse stylists as Django Reinhardt and Terry Kath. It’s a tour-de-force of epic proportion. The rest of the band is hot, but this is Setzer’s showcase. Aside from some clarinet reminiscent of that heard during Goodman’s small combo days, and some stunning drum breaks from Bernie Dresel, there are few other solos from the ensemble. I might have found one or two improvisations by members of the brass section enjoyable, but there aren’t any. Small quibble, really, since Setzer is fairly mesmerizing the whole way through.
The opener is an adaptation of Beethoven’s SYMPHONY #5; I suppose chosen for that spot because it contains the most recognizable opening in classical music. It’s fun, but nowhere near the strongest cut. I’d say that honor might come down to a choice between the hot jazz rendition of FUR ELISE, which contains the aforementioned allusions to Reinhardt and Goodman (as well as Reinhardt’s partner, violinist Stephane Grappelli) or the album-closing GOD REST YE MERRY GENTLEMEN, featuring a Duane Eddy-like reverb in the opening, and an acid-tinged wah-wah workout (Kath) in the close.
Other interesting interpretations abound. THE WILLIAM TELL OVERTURE (otherwise known as the theme from The Lone Ranger, to the uncultured of my generation and older) is given a mid-tempo swing chart that reminds, in spots, of 1950’s-era Dorsey (excluding the electric guitar, of course, which Dorsey abhorred.) Mussorgsky’s IN THE HALL OF THE MOUNTAIN KING features hip lyrics and female backing harmonies. And then there’s Setzer’s frantic workout on FLIGHT OF THE BUMBLEBEE (which includes the female vocal chorus chanting “Faster! Faster!” and then going into mock orgasmic cries.)
Overall, this is just plain fun, and it will delight the person in your life who enjoys both electric guitar and swing music, as well as those classical enthusiasts who don’t mind a mild send-up.
For the boomer...
Another wonderful choice for gift giving is Bill Bryson’s THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE THUNDERBOLT KID.
I’m a huge Bryson fan. He holds a spot in my literary heart similar to that of his spiritual predecessor, Mark Twain. In his body of work to date, he has easily shifted from linguistic archaeologist to travel diarist to writer of memoirs. This offering is from the latter category, with a sprinkling of historian thrown in for good measure.
The best praise I can give this book, I suppose, is that I laughed out loud again and again. I used to do that fairly often when I was a teen and discovering some folks worthy of guffaws, i.e., S. J. Perelman or Allan Sherman or Twain, but Bryson is one of the few to do it to me in these latter years. And I’m not talking just a choked and short exclamation of "Ha!" I’m telling you that I had actual tears running down my face from laughing. It’s that good.
This is the book that MY WIFE has, in her loving over-estimation of my skills, been trying to get me to write for the past four or five years. It is about growing up as a boomer, with all of the ridiculous-yet-endearing trappings of what was probably the last great innocent epoch of American childhood. Now she’ll have to get on my back to write something else entirely since there is no way in hell I could come within ten miles of doing as good a job of it as Bryson has done. I wouldn't subject myself to the ridicule and scorn that would inevitably result from an attempt to match this book.
Seriously – there will never be a better book written concerning growing up in the 50’s and 60’s. It is absolutely pitch perfect. If you know someone between the ages of 45 and 65, buy that person this book. Or buy it for yourself, if you qualify. I’d stake my life on the fact that you won’t be disappointed. I’ll commit suicide if any of you don’t have enough sense of humor to enjoy it.
(OK, I know damn well that there are plenty of people without enough sense of humor to enjoy this book, but none of them would have toughed out my writing to get this far, so I’m in no danger of having to fulfill that promise.)
So, buy these things for someone you love. If you don't love anyone, buy them for yourself. However, you won't enjoy them, because if you don't love anyone, you're the type who won't enjoy them, so there.
Let’s see. What’s a good closer? How about something for anyone who loved Fred Rogers?
Mister Rogers Swings!
That’s the name of a CD by Holly Yarbrough, and it’s also the truth. Yarbrough has taken sixteen songs from the Fred Rogers songbook and done them proud. And they all swing.
Now, "swing" is a term that needs definition in this case, since the word sometimes carries a connotation of up-tempo rhythms and blaring horn charts. You won’t find much of that here. But, swing it does. It’s a very gentle sort of swing, and, like Fred Rogers himself, non-threatening and full of love. This CD won’t make you hop off the couch and start jitterbugging, but it will definitely make you want to hug someone special to you. That can be fun, too.
The session opens, as seems obligatory in any reading of Rogers’ work, with a version of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? In a similar nod to conformity, it closes with It’s Such A Good Feeling. I don't really have a problem with that. It's comfortable, and they’re both swell tunes wherever they might have shown up. In between, we get material that will be familiar to long-time viewers of Fred’s show, many done up in a cool lounge vibe. Over top of the solidly mellow bass and drums, there are healthy doses of bright and to-the-point jazz guitar soloing, extremely tasty piano work, occasional loosening of the horn section’s leash (to especially good effect on You’ve Got To Do It, which features Roy Agee, George Tidwell, and the late Boots Randolph, trading short solos on trombone, trumpet, and saxophone, respectively), a few country-tinged pieces dominated by cello and fiddle, and - most inviting - Yarbrough’s wonderful vocals.
Yarbrough has a truly great set of pipes, and she uses them well. Her singing is smooth and melodic throughout. She sometimes doesn’t take a chance I would have preferred – there was one spot in Many Ways To Say I Love You where I thought for sure she’d go for the higher note, instead settling for the mid-range – but it's a matter of my taste, not her ability, and there’s really very little to quibble about in her choices. Throughout the CD, you ride along on the light golden honey of her singing, nary a bump in the road anywhere, and it’s an enjoyable journey.
One of my all-time favorite Fred Rogers compositions is the love song, When The Day Turns Into Night, and I’m happy to report it’s included here and done exceedingly well. The lyric is simple, yet as achingly beautiful as anything written by more-well-known purveyors of melancholy than Rogers – if the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Fred is puppets, this one may surprise you – and Yarbrough invests the words with just the right amount of tension, neither going over the top or leaving them bereft of the necessary emotion.
My favorite cut is probably Everybody’s Fancy, which opens with a bit of light scatting before the main lyric (I would assume the least favorite of Fred’s writings among some of those in the GLBT community, since Fred asserts that "boys are boys from the beginning, girls are girls right from the start", although the overall message about everybody’s body being just swell certainly must resonate.) The mid section features a very direct Lori Mechem piano solo.
And then, there's I Like To Be Told. Originally written to address the insecurity felt by children when parents go off on a trip or otherwise leave them temporarily alone, it is here delivered as a bluesy torch song, and one can't help hearing a subtle S&M component. It works.
I could continue with a detailed description of every selection, but I think I’d be doing you a disservice if I did so. You’ll be more delighted if you buy the CD (or download the songs) and discover the good bits for yourself. This is a collection of Fred Rogers’ songs that will, if you listen to it in the company of a significant other, likely make your evening all warm and tingly.
Mister Rogers Swings, indeed. Who knew?
Hear some samples at Holly Yarbrough's My Space page.
Buy it at Amazon.
Finally, it should always be remembered that fruitcake is considered the ultimate gift by some. And that obviates the need for any more jokes, so I'm outta here.
Soon, with more better stuff.