Movie Review: Miss Sharon Jones! (2015) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “M” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “M” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Mad Hot BallroomMan on WireMaradona ’86March of the Penguins, Mathematically AliveMysteries of the Rimet TrophyThe Myth of Garrincha and possibly My Winnipeg.

TitleMiss Sharon Jones!
Release Date: 11 September 2015
Director: Barbara Kopple
Production Company: Cabin Creek Films
Summary/Review:

This is the second straight movie in the A-to-Z project that focuses on a creative person dealing with the effects of cancer on their lives and career.  While Life Itself showed Roger Ebert’s treatment at a rehabilitation center as a frame for the full story of his life, Miss Sharon Jones! focuses entirely on Sharon Jones’ treatment and recovery and her return to recording and performing filmed over the course of 2013-14 with only brief mentions of her earlier life and career.

This film is very intimate showing Jones cutting off her hair in preparation for surgery, the boredom and pain of chemotherapy, and her daily schedule of tv viewing while recovering at a friends’ house.  Jones often seems to be the happiest one around while her friends and colleagues worry about her health and deal with the stress of not knowing if they can commit the band to tour dates.  But sometimes her facade cracks such as the moment when her band suggests canceling their Thanksgiving dinner and Jones loses her cool.

Near the end of the film, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings make their triumphant return to the stage at the Beacon Theater, the camera catching Sharon Jones waiting nervously in the wings before confidently strutting on stage.  The performance isn’t perfect – Jones forgets the lyrics to a song – but the support and love from the band and audience makes it all the more exhilarating.  The movie ends on a happy ending, but it doesn’t last.  Shortly after the film’s premiere, Jones announced that the cancer had returned, and she died in November 2016 at the age of 60.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

First of all, if you don’t know the music of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, this is a wonderful introduction.  More importantly, this is a story of human resilience and joy in life from someone who has encountered more than her fair share of adversity.

This is best summed up in her song “I’m Still Here.”

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Read my Music Discoveries post offering a comprehensive summary of the output of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings up to 2016 as well as my album review of her posthumous final album Soul of a Woman.

Source: I watched this movie on Netflix streaming.

Rating: ***

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Performance Review: Così fan tutte


Così fan tutte performed by the Metropolitan Opera at the Metropolitan Opera House at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, March 24, 2018.

Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Conductor: David Robertson

My mother is a subscriber to the Metropolitan Opera so she treated me to a performance of this Mozart comedy.  This is only the fifth opera I’ve seen in my life (after The Magic Flute, La Boheme, Semele, and Madama Butterfly).  This was also my first visit to the spectacularly modernist Metropolitan Opera House, and now I’ve seen a performance in all three of the main venues of Lincoln Center.

The sparkly chandeliers were a gift from Austria as a thank you for the Marshall Plan.

As for Così fan tutte, well it’s not modern at all.  The title is translated as “all women are like that” and is a misogynist depiction of women as unfaithful.  The performance begins with two sailors Ferrando and Guglielmo, bragging about the faithfulness of their fiancees, the sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi.  Their older, wiser (creepy old dude) friend Don Alfonso makes them a wager that these women cannot remain faithful.  The young men pretend that they are called to war and return in disguise to attempt to seduce the other man’s fiancee, which of course, they do within 24 hours and lose the bet to Don Alfonso.  There’s a lot of ickiness in all of the farce and it’s disappointing that  Dorabella and Fiordiligi have to apologize for their unfaithfulness rather than ditching Ferrando and Guglielmo for their manipulative deception.

The view from our seats in the Tenzing Norgay Circle.

Of course, the singing and the music is lovely.  I particularly like Kelli O’Hara as the feisty maid Despina who helps Don Alfonso in his plot.  And some of the gags are worth a laugh, if only because the Metropolitan Opera is very loose in the translations they display on the subtitle screens (one line about a cowboy from Texas was almost certainly not in the original libretto).  What’s remarkable about this staging is that it is set in a seaside resort modeled after Coney Island in the 1950s which makes for delightful costumes and scenery.  They even have a team of actual sideshow performers (and a live ball python) performing tricks on stage. But the best part was the stagecraft, especially in the second act, when most of the scenes were set on amusement park rides. One aria in particular was set entirely on a floating balloon.

This Così fan tutte is definitely worth seeing for its adaptation through a carnival lens.

Concert Review: “Weird Al” Yankovic


“Weird Al” Yankovic at the Apollo Theater, March 23, 2018.

Special guest: Emo Phillips

I’ve liked “Weird Al” Yankovic since I was a child.  I’m not perhaps a diehard fan, especially compared with the people I sat next to on Friday night who sang along with every word.  I’ve long appreciated that Weird Al is more than a novelty, but a talented musician, one who can effectively write and perform songs in multiple genres.  I’d also heard that his live shows are terrific so I’d been wanting to attend.  The Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour features shows in intimates settings without props and costumes and focusing on songs Weird Al wrote instead of parodies, so I felt this was the perfect opportunity to appreciate his work as a musician.

It also provided an opportunity to attend a show at the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem.  And of course my first show at the Apollo is for the whitest (and nerdiest) performer ever, which I feel a bit guilty about, but I did appreciate the photos and plaques honoring the legendary jazz, soul, R&B, and funk performers who made the Apollo famous.  The theater is gorgeous in the neo-classical style of early 20th century performance spaces.  I had a great view of the stage from my front row balcony seat, albeit at 6’1″ I felt that the seat and foot space was designed for a significantly shorter person.

“Nature Trail to Hell” was played in blood-red light.

As promised, Weird Al and his four-man band performed Yankovic originals, including many style parodies which are a pastiche of a particular artist’s music.  The highlights for me were “Mr. Popeil,” a tribute to “seen on TV” gadgets in the style of the B-52s, and “You Don’t Love Me Anymore,” a tender ballad about a young man who’s getting hints that his relationship is ending after his partners repeated attempts to kill him.  I was also impressed by the light design that matched the music and the mood – blood red lighting for the slasher film promo “Nature Trail to Hell,” and swirling paisleys for the trippy Doors-inspired “Craigslist.”

The tender ballad “You Don’t Love Me Anymore”

Weird Al concluded the set with a medley of his most well-known song parody lyrics set to the tunes of entirely different songs (for example “Eat It” was sung to the Unplugged version of Eric Clapton’s “Layla”).  It was all very meta but fun.  For an encore, they played a rocking, straightforward cover of Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl.” Al introduced the song by saying that after decades in the music business he’d finally learned how to play guitar, and this would be his live performance debut on guitar (I don’t believe either of those things are true).  The gag was that when it came time for the guitar solo, Al simply strummed a single, unfretted string.  For the finale they played the beloved sing-a-long, “Yoda.”

It was a fun night, and I’d definitely see Weird Al again should I get the chance. I found the setlist from online sources. Note that the “drum solos” were short and deliberately unimpressive.

Setlist:

  1. Dare to Be Stupid (Grateful Dead version)
  2. Close but No Cigar
  3. Generic Blues
  4. Mr. Popeil
  5. Nature Trail to Hell
  6. Craigslist
  7. Dog Eat Dog
  8. My Own Eyes
  9. Your Horoscope for Today
  10. UHF
  11. I Remember Larry
  12. Drum Solo
  13. Jackson Park Express
  14. Young, Dumb & Ugly
  15. You Don’t Love Me Anymore
  16. Bass Solo (theme from “Barney Miller”)
  17. Albuquerque
  18. Drum Solo
  19. Eat It / I Lost on Jeopardy / Amish Paradise / Smells Like Nirvana / White & Nerdy / I Love Rocky Road / Like a Surgeon

Encore:

20. Cinnamon Girl (Neil Young cover) (First time Weird Al played guitar on stage)
21. Yoda

Weird Al’s guitar solo on “Cinnamon Girl.”

See also: Music Discovery: Weird Al

Album Review: I’ll Be Your Girl by The Decemberists


AlbumI’ll Be Your Girl
Artist: The Decemberists
Release Date: March 16, 2018
Favorite Tracks:

  • Once In My Life
  • Severed
  • Everything is Awful

Thoughts:

Of the two albums by bands I really like released this week, I didn’t expect to like The Decemberists more than Yo La Tengo, but I do.  Sometimes a band goes for a new sound, and in this case The Decemberists go for several sounds from 80s synthpop to a Laurel Canyon, but overall there’s a much more electric sizzle compared with the acoustic folk sound of previous albums.  Like any album of 2018, the lyrics have more of a political bent as well.

Rating: ***1/2

Album Review: All Nerve by The Breeders


AlbumAll Nerve
Artist:The Breeders
Release Date: March 2, 2018
Favorite Tracks:

  • Nervous Mary
  • Spacewoman
  • Dawn: Making an Effort

Thoughts:

The Breeders’ Last Splash is a masterpiece of 1990s rock music.  All Nerve is the first album with the same personnel that made Last Splash, and sounds very much like a follow-up if you ignore the 25 years and 2 albums with different lineups in the interim.  I find the album hit or miss, but The Breeders definitely have an energy and talent on display that show they’re still a vital band, especially compared with the blah Pixies album released a few years back.

Rating: ***

Album Review: There’s a Riot Going On by Yo La Tengo


AlbumThere’s a Riot Going On
Artist: Yo La Tengo
Release Date: March 16, 2018
Favorite Tracks:

  • Shades of Blue
  • Above the Sound
  • Forever

Thoughts:

Even as a diehard Yo La Tengo fan, I felt apprehensive that their new album is named identically to a classic Sly & The Family Stone album.  Having listened to it, I suspect this is the quietest riot ever.  I enjoy Georgia Hubley or Ira Kaplan singing quietly over a guitar or piano track, but previous Yo La Tengo albums always mixed in some rave-ups with the gentler stuff.  This is not a protest album so much as a retreat from the horrors of the present day.  I think this album will grow on me with more listens, but I don’t think it will ever live up to the statement made by its title and the history contained within it.

Rating: ***

Book Reviews: Dig if You Will the Picture by Ben Greenman


AuthorBen Greenman
TitleDig if You Will the Picture
Narrator: Peter Berkrot
Publication Info: Tantor Media, Inc., 2017
Summary/Review:

I received a free advanced reading copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program (although I ended up listening to an audiobook from the library)

Greenman’s book is the story of Prince’s career largely told through Prince’s music with a focus on his role as a cultural icon and sometimes generous/sometimes rocky relationships with other musicians.  Prince’s biography is in there too, but it’s more of the details fall into place around the examination of his music.  Greenman is a devoted fan of Prince so his own experience as a Prince fan emerges several times in the book, but unlike Rob Sheffield who makes the fan’s experience a window into a greater understanding of an artists, Greenman’s personal reflections seem more an intrusion.  Nevertheless, it’s overall a great attempt at understanding the life work of someone as mercurial and hard to define as Prince.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Monthly Mixtape – March 2018


Hot songs spinning in my ears over the past month.

Courtney Barnett – “Nameless, Faceless”

Femi Kuti – “One People One World”

Jorge Elbrecht – “Here Lies (Feat. Tamaryn)”

Orquesta Akokan– “Mambo Rapidito”

Khruangbin – “Maria También”

Hollie Cook – “Stay Alive”

 

Previous Mixtapes:

Album Review: Cocoa Sugar by Young Fathers


Album: Cocoa Sugar
Artist: Young Fathers
Release Date: March 9, 2018
Favorite Tracks:

  • Fee Fi
  • In My View
  • Turn
  • Tremelo
  • Wow
  • Wire

Thoughts:

Critics call the music of the Scottish trio Young Fathers genre-defying, or that Young Fathers are their own genre, and I’ve seen the music of Cocoa Sugar described as art-rap or rap deconstruction.  Whatever you call it, Cocoa Sugar is an excellent collection of dense, lo-fi, rock/rap/electronic folk music.  Take a listen and discover it for yourself.

Rating: ****

Album Review: Dear Annie by Rejjie Snow


Album: Dear Annie
Artist: Rejjie Snow
Release Date: February 16, 2018
Favorite Tracks:

  • Egyptian Luvr
  • Spaceships
  • Mon Amour

Thoughts:

Not so long ago, a rapper from Dublin, Ireland would’ve been a novelty gimmick.  But the worldwide expansion of the hip-hop genre, and growing diversity of Ireland (at least in major cities like Dublin) means that an Irish rapper can stand on its own.  Dear Annie is hip-hop at its most smooth, Snow’s voices over jazzy samples.  At 20 tracks, this album feels bloated to me, but Rejjie Snow’s talent and potential stands out in it’s strongest parts.

Rating: **1/2

Album Review: Clean by Soccer Mommy


AlbumClean
Artist: Soccer Mommy
Release Date:  March 2, 2018
Favorite Tracks:

  • Your Dog
  • Last Girl

Thoughts:

Next to the album title Clean in my music streaming service is the letter “E” for explicit, the first sign that this album is not Clean at all.  The next thing that is not as it seems is that Soccer Mommy is the stage name of 20 year old singer/songwriter Sophie Allison, who almost certainly does not have children of soccer playing age.  Her music is largely introspective pop, a  gentle voice accompanied by guitar.  The lyrics are thoughtful and mature, but the music doesn’t do much for me as it sounds like something I’ve heard a thousand times before.

Rating: **1/2

Album Review: What a Time to Be Alive by Superchunk


AlbumWhat a Time to Be Alive
Artist: Superchunk
Release Date: 2018 February 16
Favorite Tracks:

  • “What a Time to Be Alive”
  • “Reagan Youth”
  • “Break the Glass”

Thoughts:

Superchunk is a band I’ve been aware of since the 1990s, but never got around to listening to them.  When I heard positive reviews of their new album full of protest music, I decided I should check it out.  The sound is clearly very 90s, jangly indie-pop, which is good if you like that style and are feeling nostalgic, not so much if you like hearing musical styles grow and evolve.  The album is short, the band is tight and the lyrics are pointed, making it both breezy and angry.  Superchunk is at it’s best on a track like “Reagan Youth,” both a tribute to the 80s punk band and a recognition of what’s become of the youth who grew up under Reagan. Maybe not the great protest album of our time, but definitely worth a listen.

Rating: ***

Monthly Mixtape – February 2018


I haven’t posted any Songs of the Week this year, and I’ve decided to retire SOTW and instead make a monthly post of new songs I like.  Hence the term “Monthly Mixtape.”

The title song off of Courtney Marie Andrews upcoming album is “May Your Kindness Remain”

 

The James Hunter Six provides Daptone soul in “I Got Eyes”

Australian electronica artists Jono Ma and Dreems collaborate on “Can’t Stop my Dreaming (Of You)”

Parliament returns with their first track in decades “I’m Gon Make U Sick O’Me (feat. Scarface)” and it’s funky in a 21st century way.

As always, let me know what you like, what you don’t like, and what other songs I should be listening to.

Album Review: Little Dark Age by MGMT


Album: Little Dark Age
ArtistMGMT
Release Date: 2018 February 9
Favorite Tracks:

  • Little Dark Age
  • Me and Michael
  • One Thing Left to Try

Thoughts:

Little Dark Age sounds like it was recorded in 1985 and has been sitting in a vault all these years to finally be released.  You could find it on the shelf somewhere between Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark and the Pet Shop Boys, and even the lyrics of songs like “She Works Out Too Much” sound like commentary on the 80s aerobic craze. The songs on this album are hit or miss, and it’s never going to live up to Oracular Spectacular, but it’s a fun pop confection.

Rating: ***

Album Review: Marble Skies by Django Django


AlbumMarble Skies
ArtistDjango Django
Release Date: 26 January 2018
Favorite Tracks:

  • Marble Skies
  • Tic Tac Toe
  • Beam Me Up
  • In Your Beat

Thoughts:

England’s Django Django is reminiscent of late 60s pop and 80s New Wave synthpop and sometimes both at the same time. No matter what particular influence they’re working on they do a solid job interpreting it.  The enjoyable eclecticism makes it sound like a career-spanning compilation album, but remains surprisingly coherent musical journey.

Rating: ***1/2

Album Review: The Thread That Keeps Us by Calexico


Album: The Thread That Keeps Us 
Artist: Calexico
Release Date: 2018 January 26
Favorite Tracks: “Under the Wheels,” “Flores Y Tamales,” “Eyes Wide Awake,” and “Shortboard”
Thoughts:

Calexico is a band that’s been active for more than two decades, although I was not familiar with their work until I heard “Under the Wheels” and decided to check out the rest of the album.  As the name implies, this Arizona-based indie rock band takes inspiration from the borderlands between Mexico and the southwestern United States. Those aren’t their only influences though, as listening to this album I heard music similar to John Lennon’s solo work, the 1980s oeuvre of bands like U2 and Midnight Oil, and even surf rock.  The feel of the music is cinematic, painting pictures of the desert landscape and the people who inhabit.  Lyrically, the songs are topically relevant – perhaps gaining significance from our national political disorder – as border politics and wildfires color the stories of everyday people.

Rating: ***

Album Review: Ruins by First Aid Kit


AlbumRuins
ArtistFirst Aid Kit
Release Date: 19 January 2018
Favorite Tracks:

  • Rebel Heart
  • Ruins

ThoughtsRuins is the latest release from the Swedish folk rock duo of sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg.  I’m inextricably drawn to close, female harmonies and lush instrumentation in all cases, and this is no exception.  All the same, I think that First Aid Kit can create music with more bite, and there’s something missing here.  Thus it’s good album, worth a listen, but not as great as it could be.
Rating: **1/2

Book Reviews: On Bowie by Rob Sheffield


Author: Rob Sheffield
TitleOn Bowie
Narrator: Tristan Morris
Publication Info: New York, NY : Dey Street Books, [2016]

Previously Read By The Same Author:

Summary/Review:

The thing I like about Rob Sheffield’s music writing is that he eschews the distanced approach of music critics, and while he’s writing as a fan, he’s not writing a hagiography of his musical heroes.  Instead, Sheffield writes about how fans engage with music and the artists that create it.  This is particularly significant in Bowie’s case as Bowie himself was a fan who never hid his influences, collaborated with many of his favorite musicians, offered support to young up and coming artists, and even on his final album took some inspiration from the much younger artist Kendrick Lamar.  Bowie also engaged directly with his fans, treating them as special people, and encouraging their creativity.  The funny thing is that Sheffield presents Bowie fans as the outcasts of society whereas I came to Bowie later in my life because when I was young I never felt cool enough to listen to Bowie.  Regardless of how you come to Bowie, this is a great book with stories of his life and how he created his music.

Favorite Passages:

“Nobody enjoyed laughing at his humiliations more than he did.”

“That’s one of the things David Bowie came to show us — we go to music to hear ourselves change.”

Rating: ***1/2

 

Album Review: i can feel you creep into my private life by tUnE-YaRdS


Album: i can feel you creep into my private life
ArtisttUnE-YaRdS
Release Date: 2018 January 19
Favorite Tracks:

  • ABC 123
  • Colonizer
  • Home

Thoughts:

tUnE-YaRdS, once Merrill Garbus’ musical project is now officially a duo including bassist and co-songwriter Nate Brenner.  Like earlier recordings, i can feel you creep into my private life is heavy on samples, loops, and beats with even more emphasis a club dance music sound. Always a political group, tUnE-YaRdS sees the personal is political as the lyrics examine racism, white privilege, and cultural appropriation (apropos to white people who use African, Latin, and Native American rhythms in their music).  The message can be heavy handed at time and fails to truly transcend the way the music does.

Rating: ***1/2

Album Review: I Like Fun by They Might Be Giants


AlbumI Like Fun
ArtistThey Might Be Giants
Release Date: 19 January 2018
Favorite Tracks:

  • I Left My Body
  • By the Time You Get This
  • Push Back the Hands
  • The Greatest
  • Last Wave

Thoughts:

I wouldn’t be fair to say that They Might Be Giants peaked early, but it’s hard not to judge any new TMBG album without comparing it to their early work.  TMBG were one of the first “alternative” bands to gain widespread appeal and yet while they sounded nothing like mainstream music of the late 1980s, they also sound nothing like the other alternative bands.  All of this is a long way of saying that TMBG have dropped another solid album although nothing they do will ever seem so transformative as Lincoln and Flood when they were first released.

True to form, I Like Fun contains cheerful ditties with humorous lyrics that reflect on darker topics ranging from individual mortality to murder to the extinction of the human race. “They call me “the greatest”/’Cause I’m not very good/and they’re being sarcastic,” begins “The Greatest” with a gut punch.  “Last Wave” closes the album with the cheerful chorus “We die alone we die afraid/We live in terror we’re naked and alone.”

There are experiments in music styles and instrumentation, and several tracks have a crunchy guitar that makes it more straight-out rock music than typical TMBG.  But overall it sticks to the well-defined TMBG template the band has crafted over 30  years of doing their own damn thing and doing it well.

Rating: ***1/2

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