Book Review: The Anniversary Present by Larry Thomas


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Fiji

Author: Larry Thomas
TitleThe Anniversary Present
Publication Info: Suva, Fiji: Pacific Writing Forum, [2002]
Summary/Review:
I read one play in this collection by the contemporary Fijian dramatist Larry Thomas (of whom it is difficult to find much information online).  The story is about an older married couple, the wife proud of the new set of furniture she’s received from her irascible husband.  Other characters include their adult daughter and ne’er-do-well son-in-law, an estranged son, and a nosy neighborhood.  The story feels very familiar, and I couldn’t help imagining the story playing out on the set of All in the Family.  Nevertheless, it is a Fijian story where the characters speak in the creole of the more disadvantaged members of the society and the conflicts among Fijians and Indians underlie the story.  I feel that without more background information I am missing out on a lot of the greater meaning of the drama, but still found it an interesting read.

Rating: ***

Book Review: I Think of You by Ahdaf Soueif


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Egypt.

Author: Ahdaf Soueif
TitleI Think of You 
Publication Info: New York : Anchor Books/Random House, 2007
Summary/Review:

This collection of short stories, some of which are connected around the same characters, tells stories of women coming of age in Cairo, London, and New York between the 1960s to 1980s.  As an expatriate tale it’s important to realize that these are the stories of a more privileged class than a representative Egyptian work.  Nevertheless, Soueif’s protagonists deal with struggles including discrimination, failed marriages, and miscarriage.  Souief’s writing style is spare and these feel more like vignettes  than stories.  Her lyrical approach seems to be trying to capture emotions more than stories, but doesn’t go far enough to make a connection with the reader.

Rating: **1/2

Upcoming Protests and Rallies in Boston Area


Here’s a list of gatherings in the Boston area where you can make your voice heard on a variety of issues at risk in our current political environment. Please share the list and attend as many events as you can.

Saturday, January 14th:

Sunday, January 15th:

Monday, January 16th:

Thursday, January 19th

Friday, January 20th

Saturday, January 21st

If you know of any events not listed, let me know and I will update.

Also call or write your members of Congress and Massachusetts state government on the issues that matter to you.

The “We’re His Problem Now” Calling Sheet provides tips, scripts, contact information, and calls to action.

2016 Year in Review: Memorable Events


I started a tradition back in 1996 of making a list of the most memorable events of the year.  My definition of memorable can include both the positive and the negative, but generally it’s the good things that make the list.  That first list in 1996 had exactly twenty items, so I’ve made the list a top twenty every year since.

Here is my 21st annual list.

Feb 9 – Shrove Tuesday – I helped cook pancakes and lots of bacon (quite the achievement for a vegetarian) and then listened to the confession of some very funny sins

Feb 22 – Harris Hill Ski Jump Competition

All Year – Activism to support public education in Boston and Massachusetts including protesting the State of the City address, a Walk-in and Rally for Boston Public Schools, the BPS Student Walkout, and the successful effort to defeat the ballot initiative to allow unlimited charter school expansion.

March – My mother moves to the Bronx, meaning that we get to see my mother more often and visit New York frequently.  In fact, I made 7 trips to New York City this year and spent a total of 3 weeks visiting!  Highlights include multiple visits to the Bronx Zoo, the Harlem Meer in Central Park, the Hall of Fame for Great Americans,  the Empire State Building, a Circle Line Cruise, the Thanksgiving Day Parade, and the Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden.

April 16-18 – Patriots Day Weekend in Boston

April – participating in the A to Z Challenge

April to June – my son’s baseball season. It was a close-knit team and I got to help out keeping score.  The highlight was when the team rallied to score 18 runs in the last inning when they were down by 14 (they lost the game anyway, but they were so proud)

June 19 – The Bikes Not Bombs Bike-A-Thon

July 2 – riding the Codzilla on Boston Harbor and then watching hip hop dancers and fireworks at Christopher Columbus Park

August 6 – Susan’s Birthday at McCoy Stadium

Aug 17 – Taking a sunset cruise on the MBTA ferry with my son while my wife and daughter were on a pirate ship

Sep 12 – My daughter starts kindergarten at our local public school, meaning that both kids are finally at the same school, with the same schedule, and same drop-off & pick-up!

Oct 10 – A visit to Old Sturbridge Village

May to October – another great Boston By Foot season, leading 31 walking tours.  The highlight was a tour to two women from Toronto who told me that their first stop in Boston was the Warren Anatomical Museum

Oct 29 – A Halloween Prowl at Moose Hill Sanctuary

Oct 30 – got to have fun on four separate visits to amusement parks, including one day at Rye Playland, and three times to Canobie Lake Park.  The last time was during Screeemfest when I took my son and two of his besties to celebrate his birthday.  We had to run from monsters, but the boys also went on the Corkscrew for the first (second, third, and fourth) times.

Nov 1 – chaperone for a 3rd grade trip to Plimoth Plantation with three great kids who asked lots of interesting questions

Nov 8 – the election, memorable if not for good reasons, although I prefer to remember when progressive ideals got widespread support and exposure during the Bernie Sanders campaign, which also gives me some hope for the future

Nov 24 – Thanksgiving Day Parade

Previously:

2016 Year In Review: Favorite Books


Here’s my annual list of my ten favorite books read in the year.  As always, this is merely the best books I read this year and not necessarily books published in 2016.  For previous years see 201520142013201220112010200920082007 and 2006. You may also want to check out My Favorite Books of All Time or see Every Book I’ve Ever Read cataloged in Library Thing.

In alphabetical order:

 

And, here is every book I read this year with rankings.  (A) is for audiobook.

The books are rated on a scale from 1 to 5 stars with links to summary reviews.

Here’s a thumbnail of what the ratings mean:

  • 5 stars – all-time classic (I’m very stingy with these)
  • 4 stars – a particularly interesting, well-written, or important book
  • 3 stars – a good book from start to finish
  • 2 stars – not a good book on the whole but has some good parts
  • 1 star or less – basically a bad book with no redeeming values

 

January

February

March

April

May

June

July

August

September

October

November

December

2016 Year in Review: Favorite Songs


Once again, it’s time to look back on the music of 2016 with my favorite songs of the year.

I’ve featured many of this songs in my Song of the Week posts this year.  If you see a link from a song title it will take you back to the Song of the Week post for that song, or other time I wrote about that band.

For previous year-end lists of previous years check out my lists for 2015,  201420132012,  2011,  2010  and  2009.

In alphabetical order, here are my ten favorite songs of the year:

Atomic Number” by case/lang/veirs

Brother, What Happened” by Muddy Magnolias

Big Bad Good” by My Bubba

“Freedom” by Beyoncé

“Mighty (feat. JFTH)” by Caravan Palace

“Quiet” by Erik Blood

To Have You Back” by Tourist

Wave of History” by Downtown Boys

Your Best American Girl” by Mitski

You Want it Darker” by Leonard Cohen

 

And here are five honorable mentions:

Augustine” by Blood Orange

Frankie Sinatra” by The Avalanches

Stranger Things” by Kyle Dixon, Michael Stein

“This Girl” by Kungs vs. Cookin’ on 3 Burners

Yeah, I’m Okay With My Shit Life” by Bethlehem Steel

What were your favorite songs of 2016?

 

2016 Year in Review: Favorite Albums


This is my second attempt at making an Albums of the Year least after my first try in 2014.  There aren’t any real surprises here as most of these albums are appearing on every other list, so I will have to seek out younger and more experimental musicians.  Nevertheless, here are my thoughts on five great albums from 2016.

Listed alphabetically by title, with links to my original reviews where possible.

David Bowie, Blackstar

Bowie’s final album, released days before his death, shows that he was an experimenter to the very last, incorporating jazz and electronic songs into richly textured songs about mortality.

Beyoncé, Lemonade

Confession: I never listened to anything by Beyoncé before this year.  But this album blew me away with it’s mix of genres and the blend of personal travails with the political aspirations of black women.  It seems appropriate that it comes 25 years after Nirvana’s Nevermind and The Beatle’s Revolver because each album created a new sound for its generation.

A Tribe Called Red, We Are the Halluci Nation

As the Water Protectors made their stand  against DAPL this year, it is appropriate that the Ottawa-based DJs of A Tribe Called Red released their most angry, political album yet.

The Avalanches, Wild Flowers

It wasn’t worth waiting 16 years, but it’s still a wild mix of sounds that feels like a back alley journey through American music.

Leonard Cohen, You Want it Darker

Another farewell album recorded by an artist in his dying days that shows that the power of creativity can persist into old age.

For an entirely different list of albums I’ve never heard before (but really want to now), check out this list on the Speed of Things by my friend Erik.

What are your favorite albums of the year?

 

 

 

 

The Christmas Revels: An Acadian-Cajun Celebration of the Winter Solstice


 

It’s not Christmas until I’ve partaken of the Christmas Revels which I enjoyed at a Monday matinée with my family at Sanders Theater.  This is the 15th Christmas Revels production I’ve seen including one in Washington in 1995 and the rest in Cambridge from 2001-2006 and 2009 to present.  This years celebration of Acadian/Cajun music, culture, and history is among the best.  As an added bonus, the fire alarm went off near the end of intermission and we got to see everyone evacuate and the Cambridge Fire Department arrive.  My son hadn’t finished his hot chocolate so he was happy for the extended intermission.

Most Revels productions tell a story, but this one has a strong narrative of the French settlers of Acadie in Canada who make the land arable, how they become stuck in the middle of the wars between the French and British, and their exile and resettlement in Louisiana. Such a heavy history does not always fit into the joyousness of Revels, and the scenes of their villages being burned and the Acadians forced to pack up and leave are giving appropriate gravitas. It’s such a Revels tradition to have the “villagers” on stage smiling and warmly interacting, that when during a mournful song the entire cast looks absently into space with somber looks on their faces it is a powerful moment.

But lest you think it’s all sad, there was plenty of joyous celebration.  Here are some of my favorite moments:

  • the large tree on the set, central to the themes of rootedness in the story, but also used to project images relevant to the performance
  • the Revels also have unbelievably talented children in lead roles, and 12-year-old Lola May Williamson may be the best yet.  I even saw her take the time to lift the spirits of a younger child who couldn’t help yawning during the performance.
  • “Le Depart Du Canada (The Leaving of Canada)” feature the long march of villagers leaving Acadia, diagonally across the stage.  I’m pretty sure the cast circled around at least twice to make the line appear even longer.
  • “La Valse Cadienne de Noël” or the Cajun Christmas waltz
  • the part where we threw plush chickens around the audience
  • The Mummer’s Play featuring David Coffin as a caustic alligator
  • It would seem that the character of the doctor in a Cajun mummer’s play would be obvious, but I was totally taken by surprise by the appearance of “Dr. John” (played by Steve Barkhimer) and perhaps the greatest tonal shift in Revels history as he launched into a performance of “Right Place, Wrong Time” followed by the Dixie Cups singing “Iko Iko”
  • The all-women sword dance

The run of the 2016 Revels has ended but you can get yourself the album Valse de Noël and even audition for the 2017 Revels!

Related posts:

Movie Review: Sing (2016)


Title: Sing
Release Date: 21 December 2016
Director:  Christophe Lourdelet, Garth Jennings
Summary/Review:

Zootopia used a city of anthropomorphic animals as the setting for a socially-conscious police procedural, and Sing does essentially the same thing for the musical comedy, albeit not as sophisticated. Koala Buster Moon is a show biz impresario who decides to save his decaying theater by staging a talent competition.  Cue audition scenes followed by rehearsals with quirky core group of ambitious talent: a soulful gorilla who does not want to be part of his father’s bank-robbing gang, a punk rock porcupine more talented than her self-centered boyfriend, an overworked mother of 25 piglets looking for a chance to express herself, an exuberant, Teutonic pig in sparkly dance leotards, and a shy, teenage elephant with a strong voice.

The movie is full of gags and generally funny enough to entertain both children and adults.  But it also contains some serious undertones and cynicism about show business that seems a bit heavy, especially a terrifying scene in which the theater is destroyed.  The movie has it’s flaws, among them a soundtrack that switches frenetically among popular songs (the licensing bill must’ve been huge) and is a bit a bloated at nearly two hours in length.  But it’s better than the sum of it’s parts with some joyous musical performances, especially in the final performance at the end of the film.
Rating: ***

Book Reviews: Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan


Around the World for a Good Book Selection for Indonesia

Author: Eka Kurniawan
TitleBeauty is a Wound 
Translator: Annie Tucker
Publication Info: New York : New Directions, 2015.
Summary/Review:

This contemporary Indonesian novel depicts the history of the nation from World War II to the 1990s through a fictional port city as it goes through Japanese occupation, revolution against Dutch colonialism, Communist uprisings, massacres, and civil war.  While it’s a well-written and engaging novel, it’s hard to keep reading through the depictions of rape, torture, and cruelty. Balancing these grim realities is a magical realism element which includes ghosts, curses, and reincarnation.

The book centers on Dewi Ayu, the beautiful and pragmatic prostitute, and her daughters.  Three of her daughters, beautiful like their mother, end up married to local military commander, a mob boss, and a communist revolutionary.  The last daughter, named Beauty, is cursed by her mother to be ugly to protect her from the suffering of her other daughters.  And yet, all of these women, and their children, and the numerous other townspeople introduced in various tangential stories suffer and keep on suffering.  It’s almost too much to bear.
Favorite Passages:

“What does it feel like to be dead?” asked Kyai Jahro. “Actually, it’s pretty fun. That’s the main reason why, out of everyone who dies, not one person chooses to come back to life again.” “But you came back to life,” said the kyai. “I came back just so I could tell you that.”
“Have you become a communist?” asked his mother, almost in despair. “Only a communist would be so gloomy.” “I’m in love,” said Kliwon to his mother. “That’s even worse!” She sat next to Kliwon and stroked his hair that was curly and growing long. “Well, go play your guitar under her bedroom window like you always do.”

Recommended booksThe House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Silver Stallion by Jung-Hyo Ahn
Rating: ***

Book Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead


Author: Colson Whitehead
TitleThe Underground Railroad
Narrator: Bahni Turpin
Publication Info:  New York : Random House Audio, [2016]
Read by the Same AuthorApex Hides the Hurt
Summary/Review:

This novel is fiction, but it peels back the wounds of slavery in the United States.  In this universe, the Underground Railroad is a literal train carrying escaped trains north to a tenuous freedom.  Cora escapes the cruelty of life on a Georgia plantation to the railroad making several stops along the way.  South Carolina appears to be a haven where African Americans live in a company town, but as Cora ends up working as a living exhibit in an anthropology museum, she learns that the whole town is a front for eugenics experiments.  North Carolina is a place where slavery is ended by attempting genocide, and Cora has to hide in a sympathetic white man’s attic where she witnesses the regular pageants accompanying the lynching of blacks and white helpers. A slave catcher brings Cora to a wild west version of Tennessee, and she escapes again to a community of freed blacks in Indiana.  Even here she can’t find any peace.

The magical and mythical elements frame a novel that contains the full brutality of slavery and racism in the United States.  It’s a brilliant construct that brings home the reality of America’s grim secrets.

Recommended booksIncidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Beloved by Toni Morrison, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Rating: ****

Book Review: George by Alex Gino


Author: Alex Gino
TitleGeorge
Narrator: Jamie Clayton
Publication Info: Scholastic Audio (2015)
Summary/Review:

This novel tells the story of George, a fourth-grader coming to terms with identifying as a girl when presenting as a boy.  It’s set against a class performance of Charlotte’s Web in which George desperately  wants to portray Charlotte.  There are a lot of stock characters in the novel, including the school bully, and the former friend who now hangs with the bully. And there’s a temporary falling out between George and her best friend Kelly, as much over Kelly getting cast in the staring role as George outing herself as transgender.  But the novel shows even how people with good intentions can hurt – from George’s mother who doesn’t want George to put herself at risk of discrimination, to George’s older brother who was more ready to accept a gay sibling, and George’s teacher who hides behind the idea of fairly parceling out roles in the play to boys and girls.  At the end of the novel, George and Kelly get to enjoy a perfect day out with George presenting as a girl for the first time, which is a delightful outcome for the fictional character, and one I hope real life transgender children get to enjoy.

 
Favorite Passages:

“My point is, it takes a special person to cry over a book. It shows compassion as well as imagination…Don’t ever lose that.”

“The play will begin at six sharp. Parents and family, I hope you’ll stay for the PTA meeting that will follow.” A few parents coughed in response. George knew that coughing was the adult equivalent of groaning.”

Recommended booksEvery Day by David Levithan, Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell,  and Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White
Rating: ****

Albums of the Month: December 2016


A gaggle of albums to finish off 2016.

Artists:  Car Seat Headrest
Album: Teens of Denial
Release Date: 2016 May 20
Favorite Tracks: “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales,” “1937 State Park,” and “Connect the Dots (The Saga of Frank Sinatra)”
Thoughts:  This one is from earlier in the year but I decided I’d give it a spin after hearing Bob Boilen of All Songs Considered declare it one of the best albums of all time.  It’s your typical punk/grunge/powerpop blend with tonal and stylistic changes within the track.  Reminiscent of bands like Pixies, Pavement, Beck, and Franz Ferdinand (and perhaps because I just spent a week listening to The Replacements I’m hearing their influence too).  Not bad, but also kind of generic.
Rating: **1/2


Artists: Muddy Magnolias
Album: Broken People
Release Date: 2016 October 14
Favorite Tracks: “Brother, What Happened?,” “Shine On!,” “Devil’s Teeth,” and “Train”
Thoughts: This Nashville-based duo sings songs of love lost and love desired, tragedy and hope in a blend of blues, country, and soul.  Both Jessy Wilson and Kallie North can belt it out with their own searing vocals.  This album is a balm for our troubled times.
Rating: ***


Artists: Margo Price
Album: Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
Release Date: 2016 March 26
Favorite Tracks: “Hands of Time,” “Four Years of Chances,” and “Hurtin’ (On the Bottle)”
Thoughts: Speaking of Nashville, I don’t listen much to country, but when I do I prefer the twangy honky-tonk of the 1960s and 1970s to the more polished pop country of recent decades.  Margo Price channels Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, and other country superstars of the era.  Her voice is terrific and whether she’s singing about a man who done her wrong or the story of how her parents lost everything, you know she’s taking no prisoners.  My favorite Margo Price song, “All American Made,” is not on this album but you can watch her perform it in this Tiny Desk Concert.
Rating: ***1/2


Artist:  Moby and The Void Pacific Choir
Album: These Systems Are Failing
Release Date: 2016 October 14
Favorite Tracks: “Hey! Hey!” and “A Simple Love”
Thoughts: This album features Moby the hardcore punk funneled through Moby the producer and DJ.    It’s a set of 9 songs of angry chants set over drum beats targeting Moby’s political and personal opponents.  It’s fun for a listen or two but it does feel empty and repetitive.
Rating: **


Artist:  The Rolling Stones
Album: Blue & Lonesome
Release Date: 2 December 2016
Favorite Tracks: They’re all pretty good.
Thoughts: The Rolling Stones released their first album in over a decade and it’s a collection entirely of covers of the Chicago Blues classics that inspired them to start a band over 50 years ago.  The positives: the rhythm section is tight, Richards’ guitar wails, and Jagger’s harmonica and vocals are the top of their game.  There’s no doubt that they’re having a good time making great music.  The negatives: the recordings of the original artists performing these songs are out there and they’re just as good or better.  And this album is not going to be remembered as part of the Stone’s legacy.  So this album is a transient joy but perhaps it can also be a gateway to discovering the Chicago Blues greats and the Stones’ originals.
Rating: ***1/2


Artist:  Childish Gambino
Album: “Awaken, My Love”
Release Date: 2 December 2016
Favorite Tracks: “Have Some Love,” “Zombies,” and “Redbone”
Thoughts: Donald Glover’s latest album is a sonic trip back to the 1970s reinterpreting the musical sounds of PFunk, Prince, Earth, Wind & Fire and others.  It’s a strong album, but much like Blue & Lonesome, I wonder what we get from listening to this over the original music.
Rating: ***

Music Discoveries: The Replacements


The Replacements are a band I started listening to in high school in the 1980s (highly apropos) coming off a time when I’d spent a couple of years listening almost exclusively to Classic Rock. The Replacements were a special band for me because not only was I listening to something current but the cool alternative kids weren’t listening to The Replacements either. Until I got to college where everyone knew The Replacements. And then the band broke up.

Anyhow, I’ve been reading the biography of the band, Trouble Boys by Bob Mehr (review forthcoming), and while I had four of the band’s last five albums, I wasn’t familiar with their early stuff.  I figured this was a good opportunity to do a Music Discovery.  So crack open a beer, crank up my best of The Replacements playlist on Tidal, and read on.
Album: Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash
Release Date: 25 August 1981
Favorite Tracks: “Careless,” “I Bought a Headache,” “Don’t Ask Why,” and “I’m in Trouble”
Thoughts: This raw debut captures the energy of early 80s punk rock, with The Replacements already showing some of their pop sensibility.  18 songs seems like overkill for a band just starting out, but really there are no stinkers here.
Rating: ****


Album: Stink
Release Date: 24 June 1982
Favorite Tracks: “Kids Don’t Follow” and “Stuck in the Middle”
Thoughts: This EP or mini-LP (or really “Kids Don’t Follow” with 7 B-sides) is straight-up hardcore punk.  With tracks named “Fuck School,”  “White and Lazy,”  “Dope Smokin’ Moron,” and “God Damn Job,” it seems that The Replacements are a stereotype of white teen boys rebelling against suburban, middle class values.  But The Replacements are in on the joke, so that makes it work.  And songs like “Go” presage the musical and lyrical complexity of future works.
Rating: **1/2


Album: Hootenanny
Release Date: 29  April 1983
Favorite Tracks: “Color Me Impressed” and “Within Your Reach”
Thoughts: I want to say that this is the album where The Replacements found there sound as they moved away from hard punk to something that sounded more like a clearly identifiable Replacements sound, particularly on “Color Me Impressed.”  But then again, this album has a little bit of everything – rockabilly, blues rock, and folk particularly – while the drum loop on “Within Your Reach” gives it a contemporary New Wave sound and “Mr. Whirly” is a Beatles’ parody.  For an album with a throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach, it is surprisingly cohesive.
Rating: ***1/2


Album: Let It Be
Release Date: 2 October 1984
Favorite Tracks: “I Will Dare,” “Favorite Thing,” “Androgynous,” “Unsatisfied,” “Gary’s Got a Boner,” and “Answering Machine”
Thoughts: Finally up to an album I remember from my youth rather than hearing for the first time.  And is this not the perfect encapsulation of disaffected youth in the 1980s, from the pain and angst to the puerile humor?  It’s hard to come at an album that’s received such accolades from a fresh perspective, other than to say it deserves all of them.
Rating: *****


Album: Tim
Release Date: October 1985
Favorite Tracks: “Kiss Me on the Bus,” “Bastards of Young,” and “Here Comes  a Regular”
Thoughts: This is another album I didn’t have when younger, although several of the tracks were familiar.  There’s definitely a shift in tone on this album as Westerberg’s singer/songwriter talents and pop sensibilities continue to develop, leading to more down-tempo songs and a mix of rockabilly and folk rock instead of the harder punk of previous albums.  It’s a good album but it’s still a big step down from Let It Be. This is also the last album for founding member and guitarist Bob Stinson who either had artistic differences with Westerberg, want to stick to only playing rockers, or was fired by the rest of the band because his substance abuse made him too unreliable for even The Replacements (probably aspects of both are true).
Rating: ***


Album: Pleased to Meet Me
Release Date: 1985 June 17
Favorite Tracks: “Alex Chilton,” “I Don’t Know,” and “Can’t Hardly Wait”
Thoughts: The band’s only album as a trio is also their major label debut and continues to show Westerberg’s skill as a crafter of pop/rock tunes, in some case even bringing in horn and string arrangements.  Despite the departure of Bob Stinson, this album seems to have a harder edge than Tim.  This album could’ve been an indication of how The Replacements could’ve matched their earlier punk ethic with a more accessible sound, but with the power of hindsight, we know it’s The Replacements’ last great album.
Rating: ***1/2


Album: Don’t Tell a Soul
Release Date: 7 February 1989
Favorite Tracks: “I’ll Be You”
Thoughts: This was the first Replacements’ album I ever listened to, so it breaks my heart to admit that it doesn’t hold up as well as the rest of their work.  The production values are very high, but the band’s anarchic brilliance is lost in the process.  It’s clear that they were trying to distill The Replacements through the prism of the recent indie rock success of REM’s Document (which is probably why I liked it at the time) but erased The Replacements in the process.  “I’ll Be You” is still a brilliant song though.
Rating: **


Album: All Shook Down
Release Date: 25 September 1990
Favorite Tracks: “Sadly Beautiful” and “When It Began”
Thoughts: This album started as a Westerberg solo project and even though the record label insisted it be a Replacements’ recording, the rest of the band merely appears among many session musicians and guest artists.  Despite that, it is a brighter and more listenable album than it’s predecessor.  It’s a long way in less than a decade from Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash to be at a point where the majority of this album is acoustic, singer/songwriter pieces and the highlight is a track with a cello solo (“Sadly Beautiful”)
Rating: **1/2

While working on this post I found this interesting article by Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! listing her favorite songs by the Replacements.

Movie Review: Moana (2016)


Title: Moana
Release Date: 23 November 2016
Director: Ron Clements and John Musker
Summary/Review:

The latest Disney offering is a delightful combination of Polynesian folklore with gorgeous visuals and musical numbers.  Moana, the heir to a line of chieftains of her island, must save her people from blight and disaster by seeking the demigod Maui and have him return the heart he stole from the goddess Te Fiti.  The movie has a lot of great humor and tells a story of friendship and finding confidence within oneself, with support from those who love you.  And since representation matters, it is great to have a story with a girl protagonist, who is not a princess (even if she has a dress and an animal sidekick) and does not have a romantic subplot, be the hero of the story.  Highlights of the movie are the dumb but heroic chicken Heihei, Maui’s tattoo with a conscience, Moana’s eccentric Gramma Tala, and a musical number by the crab Tamatoa that is an homage to David Bowie but also clearly the work of Lin-Manuel Miranda.  I loved it, but opinions vary.  My five-year-old thought it was scary at parts.  My nine-year-old thought it was okay.
Rating: ****

Book Review: The Celery Stalks at Midnight by James Howe


Author: James Howe
TitleThe Celery Stalks at Midnight
Narrator: Victor Garber
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2004
Summary/Review:
A more direct sequel to the first novel as Bunnicula escapes from the house leaving a trail of dead, blanched vegetables in his wake.  Chester’s suspicions are again aroused and he draws in Harold and the new dimwitted puppy Howie into his investigation, leading to mayhem.  It’s very silly and funny.
Rating: ***

Book Review: Howliday Inn by James Howe


Author: James Howe
Title Howliday Inn
Narrator: Victor Garber
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2004
Summary/Review: To build on my belief that this series should be called “The Harold and Chester Mysteries,” Bunnicula doesn’t even appear in this story.  Instead, the Monroe’s go on vacation and Harold and Chester are sent to a kennel called Chateau Bow-Bow.  There, Chester immediately begins to share his suspicions of the other dogs and cats and their human caretakers.  It turns out that there is something suspicious going on even if Chester’s earliest assumptions were way off base, but it does lead up to a wonderful Holmes and Watson moment for Chester and Harold.  Another fun book with a bit of mystery.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Bunnicula: A Rabbit-Tale of Mystery by Deborah and James Howe


Author: Deborah and James Howe
TitleBunnicula: A Rabbit-Tale of Mystery
Narrator: Victor Garber
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2004
Summary/Review:
My family enjoyed listening to this book on a long Thanksgiving road trip.  The premise of this series is that the Monroe family discovers and adopts a young rabbit with fangs who apparently can escape his cage and drain the vegetables in the kitchen of their juice and color.  But in all honesty, Bunnicula is a minor character in his eponymous book and this series could be called “The Harold and Chester Mysteries.”  Harold is the good-natured family dog who narrates the book and Chester is the egoistic and conspiracy-minded cat who stirs the pot with his suspicions of Bunniculas’ vampiric powers.  All in all, it’s a funny and entertaining family tale.
Recommended booksBeezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary, Stuart Little by E. B. White, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg
Rating: ***

Music Discoveries: Stevie Wonder, 1970-1982


When I was a kid, on an occasion when my mother took me shopping at Bradlee’s, I wandered into the electronics department and heard a stereo system blasting “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder. A young, slender African American man (I remember thinking he resembled Raj from “What’s Happening”) was dancing in front of the stereo, clapping his hands and shouting out “yeah” at intervals. And really what greater testament to the music of Stevie Wonder than to say it is the type of music that will make you dance, clap, and shout in Bradlee’s.

For this Music Discovery, I did not listen to every recording Stevie Wonder ever made, but focused on a dozen years or so during which he had his greatest artistic output and critical success. To warm up for this, I first listened to Wonder’s hit songs from the 1960s.

1 Fingertips Pts. 1 & 2
2 Hey Harmonica Man
3 Uptight (Everything’s Alright)
4 A Place In The Sun
5 I Was Made To Love Her
6 I’m Wondering
7 Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day
8 Alfie
9 For Once In My Life
10 I Don’t Know Why
11 Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday
12 My Cherie Amour

Of these songs, “Fingertips” never fails to wow me with its combination of raw talent and exuberance in performance. “My Cherie Amour” is kind of cheezy ballad but its always been a sentimental favorite of mine.

And now on to the 1970s.

AlbumSigned, Sealed & Delivered
Release Date: August 1970
Favorite Tracks: “Signed, Sealed & Delivered,” “Heaven Help Us All”,  & “Never Had a Dream Come True”
Thoughts: 20-year-old Stevie Wonder is beginning to make his own artistic choices and statements musically and lyrically while still in the standard Motown mold.  A consistent album with “Heaven Help Us All” offering gospel styles and socially conscious lyrics as the stand out track.
Rating: ***


AlbumWhere I’m Coming From
Release Date: April 1971
Favorite Tracks:”Do Yourself A Favor,” “If You Really Love Me,”  & “I Wanna Talk To You”
Thoughts: Wonder’s first fully-independent recording is compared to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On due to the focus on war and social issues but I’m also hearing similarities in musical experimentation to what Funkadelic was doing in the same period.  “Do Yourself A Favor” and “If You Really Love Me” are the standout tracks with “I Wanna Talk To You” and entertainingly weird dialogue between Wonder and a racist white person (also voiced by Wonder).  There’s a lot of inconsistency over the course of the album with ballads getting the “soft rock” treatment, and the finale “Sunshine in Their Eyes” gets an A-for-effort for experimentation but comes out sounding a bit of a mess.
Rating: ***


AlbumMusic of My Mind
Release Date: March 1972
Favorite Tracks: “Love Having You Around,” “Happier than the Morning Sun,” and “Keep On Running”
Thoughts: Alternately funky and silky-smooth soulful, the first of the classic period albums displays Wonder’s versatile vocal abilities and experiments with keyboards.  For such a  notable album I was surprised that I wasn’t familiar with any of these tracks but there’s a remarkable consistency through the album.
Rating: ***1/2


AlbumTalking Book
Release Date:  October 1972
Favorite Tracks: “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” “Superstition,” “Big Brother,” and “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)”
Thoughts: This album has a timeless quality, it sounds like it could’ve been released this year.  It must’ve been revelatory when people first heard it in 1972.  Wonder experiments with numerous keyboards, synthesizers, and drums, continuing as a one-man band on many tracks, but also has numerous guest artists including Jim Gilstrap, Lani Groves, David Sandborn, Deniece Williams, Ray Parker, Jr., and Jeff Beck.  Also, “Superstition” is one of the all-time great songs.  It never fails to amaze me.
Rating: ****


AlbumInnervisions
Release Date: August 1973
Favorite Tracks: “Living for the City,” “Higher Ground,” and “He’s Misstra Know-It-All”
Thoughts: Overall a more jazzy disc with some funk overtones.  Not at as consistent as previous albums with some valleys and peaks, but when the peaks are “Living for the City” and “Higher Ground” they are some mighty fine peaks!  Also, “He’s Misstra Know-It-All” is all too relevant for our times.
Rating: ***1/2


AlbumFulfillingness’ First Finale
Release Date:  July 1974
Favorite Tracks:  “Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away,” “Boogie On Reggae Woman,”  “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” and “They Won’t Go When I Go”
Thoughts: A somber and less-optimistic album, both musically and lyrically, compared with its predecessors.  A strong gospel influence runs through the album alongside funk, soul, and jazz improvisation.
Rating: ****

 

AlbumSongs in the Key of Life
Release Date:  September 1976
Favorite Tracks: “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” “Sir Duke,” “I Wish” and “Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call)”
Thoughts: A sprawling album of 21 tracks, many of them over 5 minutes long, that originally was released as a two LPs with a bonus  EP.  It’s reminiscent of the Beatles’ “white album” both in the exploration of musical styles and the thought that maybe this could be trimmed down to a solid single album, but which tracks would you cut?  Nevermind, splendor in the surplus of sound.
Rating: ***1/2


AlbumHotter than July
Release Date: September 1980
Favorite Tracks: “I Ain’t Gonna Stand for it” and “Master Blaster (Jammin’)”
Thoughts:  After averaging more than 1 studio album per year from 1962 to 1976, Stevie Wonder took a long break after Songs in the Key of Life (itself a double album).  He recorded a soundtrack Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through “The Secret Life of Plants” in 1979, and finally returned to a traditional studio album with this recording in 1980.  He shows of his musical versatility with the contemporary country sound of “I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It” and the reggae homage to Bob Marley of “Master Blaster (Jammin’).”  All in all, a solid album with a mix of funk, disco, and jazz-inspired improvisation.
Rating: ***

To finish things up, I listened to  the compilation album Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium I, which includes 16 of the great songs from the 1970s and four new tracks:    “Front Line”, “Ribbon in the Sky”, “That Girl”, and “Do I Do.” Of these “Front Line” is a great funk number telling a still relevant story about a man sent to war, disabled, and returns to the poverty and desperation of his family and neighborhood.  The middle two songs are forgetable ballads, but I do remember “Do I Do” getting a ton of airplay as a kid, albeit lacking the Dizzy Gillespie trumpet solo, and Stevie Wonder’s rap that turns into scatting on the fadeout.  They must’ve played a radio edit, which is a shame.

If you wish to enjoy all the favorite tracks cited above, I’ve put them together in a Tidal playlist. You can’t go to Bradlee’s anymore, but wherever you are you can crank up the music, dance, clap, and shout “yeah!”