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Thursday, 24 March 2011 13:50

My Top 5 Music Books

Someone once said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture.  I understand the sentiment, but respectfully disagree.  When done well, writing on music can both amplify your experience of it, as well as enlighten you as to its particular process.  Here are a few of my favorites: 

33&1/3:  Exile on Main Street, Bill Janovitz

I had to put something from this series on my list:  I had to highlight it to anyone who loves music books but is not yet in the know.  Continuum Publishing periodically releases books on classic albums that are essential reading if you’re a fan of that album.  My only question:  which title makes my list? So many options:  Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions, The Pixies’ Doolittle … in the end, I had to go with the Stones.

For years, I was a Beatles person, but at some point, I heard a quote:  “The Beatles want to hold your hand; The Stones want to burn your town.”  That intrigued me, so I tried to forget the current version of the Stones and dig into the back catalogue.  Once I got to Exile (and it clicked for me, which it didn’t right away), I wanted to know more about it.  There are a few books on this album, considered a seminal, essential rock album – Bill Janovitz manages to explore it in a concise format that you can geek out on as a musician or just a music lover.  Part one is about the creation – the self-imposed exile from England to a humid castle basement in the south of France for weeks of drugged-out nocturnal recording sessions.  Part two goes into song-by-song analysis, exploring context and influences.

Reading Jazz, edited by Robert Gottlieb

As I’m picking a jazz book, you might expect to see Gary Giddins or Ted Gioia here; but if you’re a jazz reader, you’ve heard of them already.  Gottlieb put together an anthology that weighs in at over 1000 pages – there’s a lot here and it’s all good.  Not out of print, but one of the best things about it is that it collects samples from so many books that are.

This anthology is subdivided it into three parts:  Autobiography, Reportage, & Criticism.  To give you an idea of how much is going on here, there are about 40 stories in each part, so do the math.  I’ve had it since it came out in 1999, & I pick it up once in a while – I still haven’t finished it.  Best part? Everyone is in here, musicians you love & ones you’ve never heard of.  Only downside is that it does focus primarily on the early years of this art form.

Plus, there’s an excerpt from my next pick, so you can sample it before picking it up:

Beneath the Underdog, Charles Mingus

Nobody would accuse this book of being ghostwritten – the chaos, fury and sadness that come out on Mingus albums are all evident here.  More concerned with autobiography than musical analysis, Mingus puts himself out there warts and all, with a big helping of braggadocio, and most likely with plenty of exaggeration thrown in.  Though they couldn’t be more different as artists, I suspect there’s probably almost as much about sexual conquest of the female here as there is in Motley Crue’s The Dirt (not that I’ve read it)—although I assume Mingus’ book has a little less misogyny.

Often, the style reminded me of Algren, Kerouac, or Himes – albeit with way more cursing than those guys were allowed to use.  Not your standard, linear musical biography, and not for everyone – but neither was Mingus.

Dino:  Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams, Nick Tosches

This pick differs from my previous ones, because I have no Dean Martin in my musical collection, and don’t need any (Frank & Sammy yes; Dean no).  Musically, I’m not interested, but personally, Martin is arguably the most interesting member of The Rat Pack, which is no small feat—the personalities involved and the quality of the writing make for an essential read, whether you are a fan of the subject’s music or not.

With some Tosches books, you get the distinct impression he’s writing for himself & doesn’t much care if his reader is enjoying himself or not.  He occasionally succumbs to that writer’s mistake that irks me every time:  an author trying to show off how smart they are.  That self-indulgence is present here, but toned down, unlike in say, King of the Jews, which I could not finish.  When he tones it down, he’s on; here, he’s operating at full strength, both in style and knowledge of subject.  A fascinating exploration of a man who is not what he seems – Tosches takes you beneath the surface, and he’s a biographer like no other.

Can't Stop, Won't Stop by Jeff Chang

Chang provides cultural background for the creation of a genre that my parents told me was ‘just a fad,’ and also spins out how hip-hop changed, as well as how it changed music and culture.  A history of a modern movement, from its early challenges to its current, vaulted cultural status.  Can't Stop, Won't Stop is successful as a cultural study, a biographical anthology, and a sociological study that verges on being a scholarly work.

Honourable Mentions:

Please Kill Me:  An Oral History of Punk, by Legs McNeil

Not unlike Chang’s work, an oral history, told by the people who made it.  Commonly referred to as the essential history of punk rock’s early years.

Get in the Van, Henry Rollins.

I was into Black Flag as a kid, but not in a big way (I seem to appreciate them more now as an old man, somehow), but this is a great look into not just Black Flag as a band, but the American hardcore movement, as well as a study of a group of musicians out there hustling and doing it for themselves.  Sadly, I believe this is out of print at this time; so keep your eyes open for it.

Published in Non-Fiction
Monday, 21 February 2011 21:08

Grammy Night

On Sunday nights, I’m normally in bed by 9:00!

I decided to stay up late and watch the 53rd Grammy Awards, including 2 hours of the pre-show red carpet parading.  I’m unsure about the point of this exercise, but I’d prefer 2 hours of post-show reveling.  11 awards were handed out over the course of almost 3 and a half hours.  There were a few highlights over the course of the night, but for the most part, the show just coasted along, with a few spurts of surprise.

Arcade Fire provided the biggest stunner, taking home Best Album for The Suburbs following a retina-burning blitz through “Month of May.”

What was appearing to be a Lady Antebellum steam-roller came to an abrupt halt thanks to the Montreal troupe.  Within a few days, the Net flared up with a public divided, many of whom were in the dark with regards these indie Canadians. 

Personally, I think the better album won. Obviously this is not a popularity contest. Case in point: the night’s other shocker.

Esperanza Spalding was greeted with a chorus of “who?” when the nominees were announced, unleashing the fury of “Beliebers” scorned. Born in Portland, Oregon in 1984, Spalding is a jazz bassist and garnered this recognition for her third album, Chamber Music Society.  I was shocked with the win, but she was classy, as is Chamber Music Society.

For the most part, the performances were nothing to get all revved up about.  The highlight for me came early with the B.O.B., Bruno Mars, and Janelle Monae.  Monae exploded with energy for “Cold War,” even doing some crowd-surfing. 

Mumford & Sons and the Avett Brothers with Bob Dylan was another highlight. 

I found Lady Gaga’s performance very anti-climatic. The incubation in the egg resulted in a surprisingly low-key performance for “Born This Way,” a song demanding something over the top. Is “Born This Way” a rip-off of “Express Yourself”?

While I’m not regretting the time spent watching this year’s Grammy Awards, I’m also not happy I stayed up way past my bedtime.  Much like every year, I feel nourished, not necessarily satisfied.  But can we really expect much more from awards shows?

Published in Music
Tuesday, 08 February 2011 21:00

Dance In The Dark

Well, at least her fashion ideas haven’t caught on!  

Can you imagine the masses sporting beefy minis or even a nice pork evening gown?  I can’t for many reasons, but one thing I am certain of is Lady Gaga’s ability over the last couple of years to get her fashion sense in the minds/mouths/blogs of everyone.  Love her or hate her, the woman has been very successful selling records and becoming the centre of pop culture.

Fashion and music have always co-existed, but over the course of the last 30 years, the two have increasingly become intertwined.  Pop stars/musicians have lent their music or image to sponsor designers or have even gone on to start their own fashion lines.  Both Beyonce and Gwen Stefani have done this, using their music to advertise their respective lines.  

Lady Gaga recently premiered a track off of her forthcoming album at the launch of designer Thierry Mugler’s Fall/Winter menswear line.  In terms of the sheer volume of press generated by her outfits, nobody since Madonna has come close to the reactions that have greeted the various Gaga outfits.

Lady Gaga is a curious enigma.  She provokes reactions from me I can only describe as conflicting. On one hand I’m taken aback at how massive she became with her first few singles, which in my opinion are generic dance songs.  On the other hand, when she gets it right, she nails it!  “Bad Romance” is an awesome example of this, as is the should-have-been-released-as-a-single “Dance In The Dark”.  

Sometimes I find her overly manufactured and all this “outrageousness” just some sort of forced eccentricity.  However, she is one of the few real “rock stars” out there provoking reactions.  This is a good thing.  She also writes her songs and can play an instrument – a solo piano version of “Poker Face” from The Remix impressed me greatly.

Currently we are in the eye of the Gaga-hysteria storm.  The Fame’s best days are behind and right around the corner is her sophomore effort, Born This Way, currently scheduled to be released May 24.  Unless she delivers something completely unlistenable, I expect radio and clubs to be blasting Born This Way tracks over the course of 2011 and possibly 2012, if The Fame is any indication.   I did spend almost three hours listening to her today encompassing both discs of The Fame Monster, and The Remix.  I’m still split down the middle on her, but I’ll wait in mild anticipation to see what new tricks she has in store for us when Born This Way is released.  The final wave for The Fame Monster will be the Grammy Awards, where she is vying for 6 trophies.  She has set the memorable outfit bar very high for herself, so one can only assume that she won't be pulling any punches when she premiers “Born This Way” during the Grammys telecast February 13.

Published in Music
Monday, 31 January 2011 15:56

Top 10 of 2010

It took some time to digest the festive feasts closing out 2010, but it took me longer to digest the many musical delicacies released over the last twelve months.  While I didn't get to hear everything released last year, I enjoyed a lot of 2010's albums and could have easily presented you with a Top 50 list.  I have managed to narrow it down to the following 10;

1.  Big Boi – Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty (DefJam/Universal)
While everyone fawns over Kanye West, somehow this funky platter managed to go largely un-noticed, which is a shame because this was the most fun and bounce that hip hop had all year.  The lesser-known half of Outkast makes a compelling argument to become the more popular half.



2.. Robyn  - Body Talk (Konichiwa/Universal)

How Sweden's Robyn failed to conquer North American airwaves is baffling to me.  This electro pop princess released three EPs over the course of the year and Body Talk is the summation of the three.  This is guaranteed to get the most jaded hips shaking or at least their owners’ toes tapping.  And "Dancing On My Own" is one of the singles of the year.

3.. Hot Chip - One Life Stand (DFA/EMI)
This dance-rock troupe from London, England have evolved nicely from the awkward art-pop of their first album to One Life Stand, their fourth and most consistently catchy effort yet.  The distinct Hot Chip quirk remains, but is subdued in this dance floor shaker.

4. Janelle Monae - The ArchAndroid (Bad Boy/Warner)
Based out of New York, Monae takes elements of rock, soul, electro and funk, and brings them along on this trip to Metropolis.  Monae appears to hail from outer space with this highly imaginative and ambitious platter, which gets more enjoyable with each listen.



5. Sleigh Bells – Treats (Mom + Pop)
It was hard not to notice the debut of New York duo Sleigh Bells with this bombastic slap of distorted rock that has an almost-industrial beat to it.  Buried under the distortion is unmistakably pop.  Treats doesn't creep into one's consciousness—it kicks your ears down and grabs you by the throat, demanding your attention.

6. Steve Mason - Boys Outside (Double Six/Outside)
The frontman for the now defunct Beta Band teamed up with pop producer Richard X to release his first solo album. Boys Outside's surprisingly straight forward guitar pop is almost hypnotic, with Mason's vocals completing the mesmeric charm.

7. The Roots - How I Got Over (DefJam/Universal)
Those afraid or dismissive of hip hop would do themselves no harm by giving The Roots a try, especially their latest, How I Got Over.  Consistently releasing solid albums since the mid 90s, hip hop's best live band have lost none of their bite, and this could be their most accessible and fun effort to date.

8.  Scissor Sisters - Night Work (Polydor/Universal)
Night Work seemed to arrive from nowhere and without fanfare. Unfortunately, it seemed to disappear just as quickly, which is a shame, as this is their most delicious offering to date.  From the title track's ode to taking a day of work's frustrations out on the dance floor, Night Work can be quite flirty, almost sleazy, but from start to finish, it is a blast.

9.  Neil Young - Le Noise (Reprise/Warner)
Don't let the title scare you off.  This is not a squealing blast of axe-shredding from Neil and his Crazy Horse cohorts. Le Noise is produced by Daniel Lanois, who creates a haunting atmosphere to accompany Neil's fraught songs.  With the right headphones, Le Noise is like a live private audience with Neil and a couple of his guitars.



10.  Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings - I Learned The Hard Way (Daptone)
For their fourth album, Sharon Jones and her Dap Kings offer up another disc of classic soul tunes.  You wouldn't be alone to think of this as a reissue from 60s era Stax Records.  They are at their best on stage, but this should add to an already impressive canon of heartfelt, yet funky soul.

I really could go on about more, but I'd like to hear what tickled your ears in 2010!

Published in Music
Friday, 14 January 2011 21:17

My Quest to Get Fit with the Pussycat Dolls

Some things you should know about me: I hate working out.  The last place you will ever find me after a long day at work is the gym.  I’m not exactly a couch potato, but come winter, I’m more likely to spend my evenings watching TV or at the movies instead of joining in the New Years’ resolution crowd at the local gym.   As an incentive to get into better shape or perhaps out of sheer boredom, I decided to give The Pussycat Dolls Workout DVD a try.

Choreographer Robin Antin, creator of The Pussycat Dolls burlesque troupe and the pop girl group, leads this 58-minute dance-based workout featuring some of the burlesque troupe and someone from reality TV show group Girlicious. Nicole from Pussycat Dolls joins in for a brief moment.  I’m not a fan of the Pussycat Dolls’ music, but I am a fan of their abs.  Dressed in track pants and a t-shirt, I’m ready to begin.  As soon as I hit play, I realize I am horribly over-dressed for this workout as the scantily clad ladies in hot pants prance about before me…if you have children, this is a workout DVD best used when youngsters aren’t around.

The workout begins at a fast pace through warm-up.  And it is a warm-up.  Antin goes through the motions quickly with little explanation of exactly what you are doing or how you are expected to do it.  If you have two left feet this is not the workout for you—even with 15 years of dance training under my belt, it took me a while to catch on, and I am still not quite sure if I can really tell the difference between “pop it” and “drop it.”

The dance moves are fast and furious as Antin counts out the beats and encourages participants at home to keep up to the muzak version of Pussycat Dolls hits.  And it’s definitely a workout—with the quick pace and number of moves that have you bending and stretching, it is easy to work up a sweat.  And as Antin herself points out, the repetation and bending involved with repeating the dance steps over and over again is where the core of your workout comes from.  Essentially, you do end up learning a Pussycat Dolls dance, albeit one that last about 30 seconds.  This dance routine is repeated multiple times to the song “Don’t Cha” followed by an even sexier dance workout to “Buttons,” which sees the girls on the DVD dressed in leather and mesh outfits and sky-high heels.

In between the two workouts is a “learn to burlesque” workout.  Antin instructs you to grab your feather boa or a men’s tie (“whatever makes you feel sexy”) for this routine.  Having neither at my disposal, I grabbed the next best thing: the belt to a fluffy purple bathrobe.  While not exactly as classy as the hot pink feather boas the ladies on TV have, my bathrobe belt does the trick, as I imagine a resistance band or winter scarf would also suffice.  This part of the workout DVD is where my workout starts to breakdown as I just can’t seem to get my hips to move in the direction I need them to.  Or maybe my track pants and bathrobe belt are throwing me off.

On the whole, the DVD workout was fun—I laughed at myself and at the women on screen, I worked up a sweat, and my muscles were feeling a little sore the next day.  Is this a serious fat-burning workout where you can expect to see results after 30 days?  Probably not, unless you can figure out how to “pop it.” Is it less scary than having fitness guru Jillian Michaels yell at you on The Biggest Loser? Yes. The Pussycat Dolls workout DVD is a great way to get up off the couch or interject some fun into your fitness routine and possibly pick up a few dance steps.  Look for me on the dance floor when the DJ plays “Don’t Cha.”

Published in Movies
Friday, 17 December 2010 16:15

Golden Globe Nominations Announced!

I’m not a huge sports fan- I take in my fair share of baseball games, and like all good Canadians I like hockey.  But the one event that gets me excited like no other is the Academy Awards.  The Oscars are like my Superbowl and the two month build up to them is like my playoffs.  In mid-December the critics picks start rolling in for the best the year in film had to offered.  While the various major film critics awards like the Los Angeles Film Critics, Toronto Film Critics, or New York Film Critics Awards get the ball rolling, it is the Golden Globe nomination announcements that really kick awards season into high gear.  And I love it all- the competition, cheering on my favourite nominees, the fashion, and those awkward camera moments…you know, like when they cut from Nicole Kidman to Tom Cruise.  And the 68th Golden Globes awards will be no exception.

The 2010 crop of nominees in both TV and film were announced bright and early Tuesday morning.

Check out the Community post to see the list of nominees in film and TV.

The Golden Globes generally act as an indicator of what films you can expect to see nominated for Academy Awards, though the Golden Globes are much broader in terms of categories as they split Drama and Musicals & Comedies into two separate awards fields.  A few of my favourite movies of the year are listed in there: Black Swan, The King’s Speech, 127 Hours, The Kids Are All Right, Rabbit Hole, Inception, Tangled, and Easy A.

As for the TV side of things, just take a look at the intense race for Best Actor–Drama: Steve Buscemi, Bryan Cranston, Jon Hamm, Michael C. Hall, and Hugh Laurie.  It’s really hard to pick a favourite or a front runner out of that list!  The mini-series and made for TV movies are top notch this year with Temple Grandin, The Pacific and Pillars of the Earth all receiving nominations.  And one of my favourites is also nominated for Best Supporting Actor in a Musical or Comedy—Chris Colfer for his role as Kurt on Glee.

And how about the music—did you tap your feet to the songs of Burlesque or sing along to Tangled?  I know I did.

Catching up on these great TV shows and films are what makes award season fun, especially since there’s a lot available now or coming soon to DVD.  I suddenly have some must-see films to check out, and finally have to catch up on season 4 of Mad Men! I am looking forward to seeing The Town and Despicable Me, both which were released on DVD this week. After looking over the list of nominees, I am a little sad that what is perhaps my favourite movie of the year, The Ghost Writer, isn’t represented.  Do you think anyone got “snubbed?”  Are your favourites nominated?

Be sure to check out the awards ceremony live on TV on Sunday, January 16th!

Published in Movies
Tuesday, 30 November 2010 21:47

Christmas with Mariah

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!  What better way to ring in the holiday season with Mariah Carey’s brand new Christmas CD, Merry Christmas II You

The CD has garnered some great reviews, including a 4- out of 5-star album review from Entertainment Weekly.  Mariah’s song, “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is a perennial Christmas favourite, and it’s here on her new CD, updated in an “Extra Festive” version that will have you singing along as you deck the halls.  

 

In honour of Merry Christmas II You, we’re giving away one amazing Mariah Carey music prize pack.  You can enter for your chance to win the extra festive, Mariah Carey Merry Christmas II You Uber Box Set!  This awesome collector’s box set makes the perfect gift for the music lover in your life, and includes a Mariah scrapbook, holiday butterfly ornament, gift tags, and the Merry Christmas II You CD, all in a beautiful holiday gift box.

 

Follow @chaptersindigo on Twitter and look out for the “Re-tweet to Win” phrase with the contest hashtag #MariahIIYou, beginning at noon on Wednesday, December 1st.*

If you’re like me, December 1st means it’s time to start all that holiday baking.  This year, I’ll be singing along to Merry Christmas II You and trying out Mariah’s very own Holiday Cookie recipe:

Mariah Carey's 'Merry Christmas II You' Cookies
Serves 4 dozen

Ingredients:
1 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon of lemon zest
1 tablespoon milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt

Directions:
Cream butter, gradually add sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Beat in egg, milk, vanilla and lemon zest. Combine flour, baking powder and salt. Gradually add to creamed mixture. Chill for easy handling. Roll out dough to 1/8" thickness on a lightly floured surface. Cut dough into festive holiday shapes with floured cookie cutters. Bake on a cookie sheet in a preheated 350-degree (Fahrenheit) oven for 10 minutes, or until lightly browned. Remove to wire racks to cool. Decorate with icing and green and red sprinkles.

Place cookies on a plate beside the Christmas tree with a tall glass of milk for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve!

Check out Mariah’s video for the catchy Christmas hit, “Oh Santa”:



*Want a chance to win the Mariah Carey Merry Christmas II You Uber Box Set? We're giving away 1 prize pack in a random draw on Twitter beginning at noon (EST) December 1, 2010 through noon (EST) December 2, 2010.  Follow @ChaptersIndigo on Twitter and stay tuned for details for your chance to win this awesome prize pack.  See the rules and regulations for contest details & eligibility.

Published in Music
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