Tag Archives: Tim

eCLP for Laughs

Hoopla has nothing to do with the album Knee Deep in the Hoopla by Starship (a.k.a., Jefferson Starship) which contains the song “We Built This City” which I think might be the worst song to emerge out of the 1980s.  No, this hoopla (yes, the company branders always write it without capitalizing) is a newer eCLP library service that is marketed as a provider of movies, TV shows, audiobooks, and music albums.  It indeed has those things.  But you know what I use it for?  Comedy albums.  There are about 250 of them in there to stream or download with classics like Steve Martin and Richard Pryor plus newer sensations like Jim Gaffigan.  TIP: find them in the music category or just search for “comedy.”

Here are some I’ve checked out lately:

wea_824363019666_detail You might know Marc Maron from his WTF podcast/radio show.  For his stand-up comedy, he claims he doesn’t prepare: “In my mind, if I don’t prepare and I pull this off, I’m a !@#$ing genius…and if I don’t pull it off, eh, I didn’t prepare.”  His style is rambling, self-deprecating, and confessional, and I think he indeed does pull it off.

wea_824363010366_detail Pittsburgh’s own Anthony Jeselnik is the opposite of Maron.  He has a measured, deliberate delivery and his comic persona is ridiculously narcissistic.  As for his material, be warned, it is some of the most un-PC, offensive, and if you like that sort of thing, hilarious, comedy out there.

wea_824363011868_detail Also offensive and funny is Amy Schumer (who as it happens, used to date Jeselnik) who smartly takes on and plays with the identity of a promiscuous party girl.

wea_656605023465_detail I knew about Tig Notaro’s candid, stunning album that she made after being diagnosed with cancer, but until hoopla, I hadn’t heard her earlier album, Good One.  She is a master of deadpan delivery.

wea_824363016467_detail Those of you who have seen Demetri Martin on TV might think of him as a prop or a visual comic.  But he fares very well is purely audio form.  Here is a joke of his, for example, “Separate but equal is terrible for education but perfect for eyebrows.”

wea_824363017068_detail While I’m quoting jokes, I have to share the lesser known Kyle Kinane’s absurd description of pho soup: “If you don’t know what pho is, it’s a Vietnamese soup that answers the question: what happens when a former child soldier pours hot rainwater over fish nightmares?”

Get absurd.  Get offended.  Get happy.  Get some comedy albums from hoopla.

— Tim

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Music of the Whiskey Rebellion

Folk, country, and rock music have lots of songs about whiskey.  But unlike other events in U.S. History, there are not a lot of music or films specifically about the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s.  Here is a list to get you started:

  • The public television series The Appalachians contains a segment on the Whiskey Rebellion.  (During the segment, you’ll hear the traditional song “Boozefighters,” performed by Gandydancer and also on the companion CD.  But this song is more likely about Prohibition in the 1920s and not the taxing of whiskey in the 1790s.)
  • The book Two Hundred Years of Pittsburgh-Region Folksongs contains a song “A ‘Canny’ Word to the Democrats o’ the West” (1799) which includes references to the Whiskey Rebellion in heavy Scotch-Irish dialect such as this: “When, ance, about Whiskey, / Ye a’ gat sae crusty, / An’ swore ye’d na pay for a drap.”
  • The same lyricist, David Bruce, also wrote “A New Song for the Jacobins” circa 1798 and also found in Two Hundred Years of Pittsburgh-Region Folksongs.  According to the notes accompanying the song, American Jacobin Clubs were radical agrarians inspired by the French Revolution and “furnished the leadership and organization for the Whiskey Insurrection.”
  • In 1953, Albert F. Beddoe published a song “Copper Kettle (The Pale Moonlight)” which became somewhat well-known amongst 60s folk revivalists.  It contains the lines: “My daddy he made whiskey, and my granddaddy too, / We ain’t paid a whiskey-tax since seventeen-ninety-two.”  Local group NewLanders, who specialize in songs about the region’s history, perform this song on their Where the Allegheny Flows album.
  • Another song called “Copper Kettle” also appears in folk song collections and tells the story of a jailed Patrick McCrory.  It contains the lyrics: “But Patrick paid no taxes / On any stuff he sold, / That’s why he went to prison,  / So the tale is told.”

— Tim


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My Summer of 2012 Music Obsession

Jazz often sounds good on rainy spring evenings.  Sometimes autumn drives in the country are well suited for classic American folk music.  I dig despair-filled metal and noise during the beautifully stark, white, wasteland of winter.  But summertime often finds me listening to more melodic music.  Poppy, yes, but still uptempo, guitar-based, and suitable for turning up the volume in the car (volume within reason, though; call me cranky, but I think cars with blaring and booming stereos are a public nuisance).

This summer, I have been listening to The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy by Nada Surf over and over and over and over.  It’s somewhat surprising since I didn’t pay much attention to them when they had their big hit “Popular” in the mid-90s.  But in the last ten years, Nada Surf have reinvented themselves into a less ironic, less grungy, more melodic, more earnest and endearing band.  Or maybe it’s just that singer Matthew Caws started singing prettier tunes higher in his vocal range.  Their latest album is a masterpiece of power pop with the right amount of driving songs, catchy melodies and frills like cello, organ, trumpet and xylophone to spice up the guitar rock.  (If you don’t trust my opinion, check out the gushing enthusiasm for Nada Surf by the good folks at Aquarius Records.)

As might be expected from still-inspired musical veterans,  lyrics from many songs address the passing of time:

“elusive energy / hard to hold / I’m looking for it now / and will be when I’m old”

“when I was young / I didn’t know if I was better off / asleep or up / now I’ve grown up / I wonder what was that world / I was dreaming of?”

“sometimes I ask the wrong questions / but I get the right answers / moved to a tear by / a subway breakdancer / it’s never too late for teenage dreams”

“and I cannot believe / the future’s happening to me”

Time has been good to Nada Surf.  I am so pleased when a band can release possibly their best album twenty years into their career.

— Tim

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Irene Dunne: Lovely to Listen to

You might know actress Irene Dunne (1898-1990) from her movies.  I have yet to see any of her dramatic films; her hilarious comedic turn with Cary Grant as a sparring couple in The Awful Truth was my introduction to her.  And she was one of the reasons why I watched the fashion show musical Roberta where she sang her hit “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”  She had a lovely voice which is why I’m so glad that the UK record label Sepia has recently compiled and released a CD of recordings of hers from the 1930s and 40s.  The album, titled Irene Dunne Sings Kern and Other Rarities, mostly features tunes by Jerome Kern (1885-1945) who was most famous as the composer of the musical Show Boat.

Dunne’s voice was certainly a well-honed tool: she attended the Chicago Musical College on a scholarship and auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera in NYC (see Wes D. Gehring’s fawning Irene Dunne: First Lady of Hollywood for more biographical info).  Unfortunately, some folks might describe Dunne’s vocal style as “dated.”  So what?  What’s wrong with a musical style that defines an era?  I think of it as a bridge between the ultra-rounded vowels of classically trained singers and the brassier, wide-mouthed style of later musical theater.  Give it an ear or two and see what you think.  My favorite tune on the disc, “Lovely to Look At” (from Roberta), is proof enough for me that Dunne is also lovely to listen to.

— Tim

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The Big Four: Pennsylvania in Music

A 1926 book called Pennsylvania in Music has a chapter titled “The State’s Contribution to American Music” and in that chapter, there’s a subchapter titled “The Big Four.”

In considering America’s musical history there are four composers who must be accorded preeminent rank — Foster, Nevin, Cadman and Burleigh.  All are Pennsylvanians. … These four come from western Pennsylvania, having been born in Pittsburgh, Vineacre [the Nevin’s estate in Edgeworth], Johnstown and Erie, respectively. (p. 5)

You should already be familiar with Stephen Foster (1826-1864), but if not, we music librarians or the Center for American Music will enthusiastically put his music into your hands and ears.  As for the other 3, they are not as renowned these days so here’s a quick overview:

  • Ethelbert Nevin (1862-1901) — Don’t expect romantic era big works for big orchestras from Nevin.  He specialized in the small-scale and is most known for his solo piano pieces and songs.  From a musical family, Ethelbert’s brother Arthur Nevin (1871-1943) was also well regarded in his day.
  • Charles Wakefield Cadman (1881-1946) — Though he was born in Johnstown, Cadman was active in Pittsburgh as a young man as an accompanist, church organist, and music critic.  He is perhaps most well-known for his use of Native American melodies in his songs and operas.
  • H. [Henry or Harry] T. Burleigh (1866-1949) — as a singer in addition to being a composer, Burleigh was most celebrated for his performances and arrangements of African-American spirituals (and was African-American himself).  He was also a protégé of Dvořák but more about that below.

The context and connections between these composers is more than geographical.  Pennsylvania in Music states that “Foster’s music, for the most part, is of the folk type. Providence decreed, it appears, that a Pennsylvanian should make the transition from folk to art song, for Ethelbert Nevin forms the connecting link.” (p. 5)  When Czech composer Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) visited the U.S. from 1892-1895, he wrote a piece for Harper’s where he encouraged American composers to utilize such things as the melodies of African-Americans or the chants of Native Americans to create a “truly national music.”  Clearly, Cadman and Burleigh carried on in the spirit of what Dvořák suggested.  (So did Arthur Nevin who lived for a time amongst the Blackfoot tribe.)  Finally, Deane L. Root’s essay “The Stephen Foster–Antonín Dvořák Connection” draws a line right through Burleigh.

As you might now be inspired to explore and listen to these “Big Four” American composers, let’s also take more inspiration from Dvořák about all the myriad music of America:

…it matters little whether the inspiration for the coming folk songs of America is derived from the Negro melodies, the songs of the creoles, the red man’s chant, or the plaintive ditties of the homesick German or Norwegian.  Undoubtedly the germs for the best in music lie hidden among all the races that are commingled in this great country.*

— Tim

* Dvořák’s 1895 “Music in America” essay from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine is reprinted in Appendix A of Dvořák in America: 1892-1895.

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Speak Softly and Carry a Guitar: The Bitch Magnet Reissues

The 1970s and 80s were full of loud rock and metal bands with larger-than-life personalities.  Or to put it more bluntly, let’s say image-conscious bands full of egomaniacs, on stage with oversize drum sets, walls of amplifiers, and elaborate light and stage shows.  There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that.  I love Van Halen, for instance.

But what was special about the band Bitch Magnet in the mid-to-late-80s is that they could totally rock loudly with bombast and complexity but had really unassuming personalities as people and musicians.  They met at Oberlin College.  The two front men, guitarist Jon Fine and bassist Sooyoung Park, were both bespectacled nerds in casual clothes.  The band name was surely ironic.  Sooyoung’s vocals were more spoken than sung.  But over the stunningly great drumming of Orestes Morfin was a wonderful wash of guitar volume.

Fine wrote last year in an article for The Atlantic about his rock-induced hearing loss and stated:

Extreme volume is nerd-macho. I couldn’t bench-press 250 pounds—actually, I couldn’t bench-press half of 250 pounds—but my band was much louder than yours.

I implore you to not follow in Fine’s footsteps and to please wear earplugs.  But I recommend his music.

Amongst indie rock fans, Bitch Magnet and Slint also were known for having some songs using the soft-loud formula: usually very restrained verses with almost mumbled or whispered vocals and then choruses where the guitarist hits the distortion pedal and everything gets really loud.  Of course, soon after, this formula was turned into one of the most successful songs of all time by Nirvana with “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

Bands in Pittsburgh’s 90s indie rock scene such as Hurl and Don Caballero were clearly influenced by Bitch Magnet.  In fact, Don Caballero and Battles guitarist Ian Williams is quoted on the back cover of last year’s reissue of all three Bitch Magnet albums.  The reissues are long overdue and contain extras: unreleased songs, old photos, flyers, etc.  But perhaps the best part about a comprehensive reissue is that you can experience a band freshly out of context and in reverse chronological order.  I’d advise starting with Ben Hur, the majestic final album and working backwards through Umber before listening to the inchoate Star Booty.  Enjoy!

— Tim


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The Fabulous Fashion of the Movie Roberta

In Gunn’s Golden Rules, Tim Gunn lists what he thinks are “The Five Best Movies About Fashion.”  Though I disagree with Gunn (and many others) that Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow-up is engaging, I was pleased that Gunn and I share enthusiasm for The September Issue (2009).  Anyway, Gunn’s list got me thinking about other movies that are either about fashion or at least prominently feature fashion.  Of course, every movie involves clothing and costuming characters, but some films seem almost an excuse to show off some designer’s work.

A perfect example of a movie partly made just to flaunt fashion is the 1935 musical Roberta starring Irene Dunne, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Randolph Scott.  Scott’s character comes to Paris and inherits a fancy clothing boutique which means, of course, that not only will Dunne and Rogers be splendidly outfitted but that the plot will have to include a fashion show.  And what a show it is!  Costume designer Bernard Newman was brought to RKO Pictures upon the recommendation of Dunne and designed the large number of gowns for the movie.  The studio claimed he had spent $250,000 on the costumes and as David Chierichetti writes in Hollywood Costume Design, “Whatever they cost, the fashions were stupendous.”  (Also see W. Robert LaVine’s In a Glamorous Fashion: The Fabulous Years of Hollywood Costume Design for more on Newman and Roberta.)

Here’s what Ginger Rogers had to say about Roberta in her memoir:

With handsome clothes by my favorite designer, Bernard Newman, and beautiful songs to dance to, I had the time of my life playing this role. (p. 135)

Bernard Newman’s clothes in Roberta for me and for Irene Dunne were exceptionally clever and handsome.  The gold lamé dress I wore for the “I Won’t Dance” number was a dress I had bought while in New York as part of my trousseau.  That was the first time I ever wore a personal dress in a motion picture, and it was probably because Bernard Newman had designed it.  For the “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” number [sung by Dunne], he created a long black satin dress, with a wonderful piece of faux jewelry on the chest.  Men always commented on that gown; indeed, I never met a man who didn’t like that dress. (pp. 135-136)

In the same chapter about his own favorite films and books, Gunn justifiably gripes about students who claim to lack inspiration and exclaims: “Look around you!  Look out the window.  Go for a walk.  Go to a movie.  Go to a museum.  Go see a show.  Read a book.  Go to the library…” (p.75-76)  And he advises, “Any genre, any film, any book can be the jumping-off point for amazing creative work.” (p. 84) 

Roberta and the costumes of Bernard Newman should surely be an inspiration for any artist and a thrill for any movie viewer.  If he hasn’t seen it already, I hope Tim Gunn watches it too.

— Tim


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