Monday, February 28, 2011

Forgotten Music: February 2011 - The Summary

Thanks to all our regulars. Here's a challenge for March 2011: Invite a friend. Let's work on expanding this little project as 2011 moves forward. Let's start in March.

Bill Crider - Girl Groups (His link isn't working properly)

Jerry House – New Lost City Ramblers

Randy Johnson – The Cult

George Kelley – Bob Marley, Live Forever

Todd Mason – The Weavers: Reunion at Carnegie Hall 1963

Charlie Ricci – The Mix Tape From Hell

Scott D. Parker – Brian Setzer Orchestra – Wolfgang’s Big Night Out

Perplexio – Juggernaut – Hunters and Collectors

Until the last day of March...

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Forgotten Music: February 2011 - Wolfgang's Big Night Out by the Brian Setzer Orchestra

Brian Setzer can travel through time. Want proof? Just look at his resume.

In the early 80s, when synthesizers and flaming pop metal ruled the radio airwaves, Setzer jumped back in time thirty years when he led the Stray Cats in a pseudo rockabilly 50s revival. It lasted for something like two albums and two quite famous and toe-tapping songs: “Stray Cat Strut” and “Rock This Town.” Then, for most folks, the felines on the fence got the boot thrown at them. They fell off. We all dusted our hands and nodded at a job well done.

But ten years later, in the mid-90s, Setzer went back even further in time, this time, sixty years. In a world filled with grunge, Setzer landed in the 30s, arriving just in time for the mini swing revival that crested prior to the millennium. His 17-piece big band helped to lead the movement and, for an alto sax player like me, gave me something really fun to get into. In fact, as the swing craze set the 90s ablaze, many folks had thoughts like this: “Wow. This is some good music.” Uh, yeah. What took y’all so long to realize that? Just look what they did to the Stray Cats hit “Rock This Town.”

Setzer and his band produced four studio albums (the third, The Dirty Boogie, is my favorite) and two Christmas CDs and a few live albums. The first Yule collection, Boogie Woogie Christmas, featured a big band, jazz rendition of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite.” I remember seeing the track listing on the jewel box and thinking “Seriously?” Could a piece of music played in straight time ever come off as a swing number? The short answer: yeah, it can. And it’s really good.

So it was a natural progression for Setzer to travel back further in time and tackle an entire CD’s worth of classically inspired jazz pieces. And Wolfgang’s Big Night Out is the result. And you know what? These classical composers can swing, baby!

The album is basically a greatest hits record of classical songs and themes. “Take the 5th” kicks off the album and the music is only half the fun. All the song titles save one are themselves jazzy, Vegas-lounge inspired riffs off the original pieces. Thus, “Take the 5th” morphs from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. And this piece could have come directly from Benny Goodman’s orchestra circa 1936. The thing about this track and most of the other tracks is Setzer’s guitar sound. It’s straight 50s and early 60s: very little reverb, very little distortion. It’s a clean sound although Setzer is not shy about the whammy bar. Not only do you get 30s and 40s era swing arrangements, you get 50s and 60s guitar sounds to boot.

“One More Night With You” is the only song title that’s not a direct take-off of the original piece. And this is the only vocals that Setzer delivers. The theme is Grieg’s “Hall of the Mountain King” and the music is quite good. The lyrics are all about how Setzer doesn’t need all the bling associated with success if he has the woman of his dreams. The female backup singers channel the Andrew Sisters as they vocally prance their way behind Setzer’s warble.

You know Mozart can swing so the title track (AKA “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”) is pleasant and uneventful. Ditto for “Yes We Can Can” (I don’t have to tell you what that song is from, do I?) and “Sabre Dance,” a song that keeps its title and its intensity.

Setzer is an underrated guitarist. He’s flashy but not as well known as, say, Clapton, Page, or Van Halen. Setzer’s genius is in his picking techniques, put on glorious display in “Honey Man” (“Flight of the Bumblebee”). Yes, it would be much easier to do a Van Halen and play only with his fingers on the fret board and not pick each individual note. Heck, if Setzer did that, the song could have been played much, much faster. Instead, the song blows through your speakers at a rapid clip and Setzer picks every single note. Impressive.

Perhaps the most unexpected arrangement is the modifying of Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” into “For Lisa,” a gypsy jazz piece that would have made Django Reinhardt proud. In the only song that doesn’t feature the entire band, Setzer and a few mates (violin, bass, drums, clarinet, and Setzer himself on acoustic guitar) present a soft, acoustic piece that evokes Parisian cafes at the turn of the century. Setzer’s albums are usually loud and bombastic. This little piece just floats along, making you smile and wanting some coffee.

To say that there are some missteps puts a damper on the tracks themselves. None of the songs are bad; some just work better than others. “Swingin’ Willie” (“William Tell Overture”) is a decent enough track but the swing seems a tad forced. The same is true for “Some River in Europe” (“Blue Danube”), a song that stays hews close to its classical inspiration, rarely veering into swing territory.

Wolfgang’s Big Night Out showcases one true blender song on an album full of them. By blender, I’m talking about when you put a bunch of different influences into a blender and turn it on. “1812 Overdrive” does that a bit at the beginning of the song as the Latin-tinged drums and percussion give you that Louis Prima, jump blues vibe. But the shining star of blender songs has got to be “Take a Break Guys” (“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”). If you count jazz and classical as the two base motifs, then you have to include Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing” (tom-tom drums), surf guitar (at the beginning), an introduction that could have come from a James Bond film, and, then, the coup de grace: Jimi Hendrix. During the phenomenal guitar solo, the rhythm shifts to straight rock time and Setzer begins to shred, a la mid-70s rock gods like Terry Kath (Chicago) and Joe Perry (Aerosmith). The horns come back in for the second half of the solo but then Setzer breaks out the wah-wah pedal and does his best Hendrix impersonation (think "All Along the Watchtower" among others). From there on out, he keeps the wah-wah going but funkifies it, just like you’d hear in an early 70s Isaac Hayes tune. As much fun as the other eleven tracks are, this is the track to take home and share.

A recommendation: I first heard this CD while driving in my car. As such, I couldn’t just pick up the CD case and look at the title of the song whilst driving at sixty-miles-per-hour. So, the fun thing was to try and determine, as quickly as possible, which classical piece was Setzer’s inspiration. Some are easy: Beethoven’s 5th and "Take the 5th" both start out with the same four notes. Some are much more fun. If you’ve already bought this CD, try this: put away the track listing, set your CD player to random, and just revel in the fun. You’ll be tapping your toe in no time.

And speaking of time, I wonder where Setzer time travels next? Gregorian chants as jazz songs? In Setzer’s capable hands, anything is possible.

Forgotten Music: February 2011

Welcome to the February 2011 edition of the Forgotten Music Project. As always, if I missed someone (or if someone joins in for the first time), I'll add you to the summary.


Bill Crider
Eric (Iren)
Jerry House
Randy Johnson
George Kelley
Evan Lewis
Todd Mason
Charlie Ricci
Paul D. Brazill

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Book Review Club: Skating Around the Law by Joelle Charbonneau

(This is the February 2011 Edition of Barrie Summy's Book Review Club. For the complete list of today's reviewers, click the icon at the end of this post.)

Have you ever had a situation where you weren’t looking for something, and yet you stumble over it and discover something brand new? A song on the radio catches your fancy and you seek out the artist and buy the CD. The trailer of a movie of a type you don’t normally watch finds you in the seats on opening day. Well, that happened to me with Skating Around the Law, the debut novel by Joelle Charbonneau.

Let’s go ahead and get the disclaimer out of the way: Joelle and I are among the group of eight writers who blog under the Do Some Damage banner. I met her when she had a signing at Houston’s Murder by the Book last October. I bought her book and read it. As a reader, I don’t normally choose the lighter, fun, effervescent type books. When it comes to written mystery fiction, I trend towards hard-boiled, gritty material. Not so with television, where “Castle,” “CSI: Miami,” and whatever’s on Masterpiece Mystery rule the day. Having said all of this, I intended to read Joelle’s book, like it enough to compliment her, and then think nothing more of it.

Skating Around the Law did nothing less than shake the foundations of my reading life. Suddenly, it was as if an entire section of the bookstore was opened to me, the section I so assiduously avoided. While the book doesn’t precisely fit within the strict definition of the cozy, it is a close relative. Thus, this book is the first of that type of book. And it won’t be the last.

The novel features Rebecca Robbins, a young professional in Chicago who returns to her small hometown with one goal in mind: sell the roller rink her deceased mother bequeathed to her and get back to the Windy City. There’s only one thing that’s bringing down the value of the rink: the dead body in the bathroom. When the police don’t really seem that interested in solving the death of Mack the handyman, Rebecca takes matters into her own hands. With a colorful cast of characters and the able assistance of her randy grandfather, Rebecca starts to poke her nose where most of the town thinks it doesn’t belong.

Perhaps the most charming subplot of the novel is that involving local veterinarian Lionel Franklin. That would be the the six-foot tall, ruggedly handsome Dr. Franklin, the very man who also happens to own Elwood the camel. Playful tête-à-têtes are alway good and Charbonneau gives Rebecca and Lionel plenty of time for spars, longing looks, and come-backs. To be honest, the romantic in me wanted a tad bit more, something she assures me is in the next book of the series.

Charbonneau’s prose is sharp, pointed, and quick. The heroine’s first person narration is natural sounding, full of observations with which any modern woman (or man) will be able to identify. I found myself chuckling aloud at certain passages that charmed me, even reading a few aloud to my wife. One of my favorites is this one: “I blinked as Lionel set me back down on my own two feet. What happened? Did I have eclair breath?” The grandfather, Pop, is hilarious, dating just about every single senior citizen in town. The structure of the mystery should satisfy even the most ardent of readers, and even I didn’t see the culprit until the very end.

One of the things that makes a book or television series work is the answer to a simple question: would you, the reader, want to return to the setting and the characters. For me, it is an unqualified and resounding yes. I have not had this much fun reading a book in a long time.

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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

One Hundred and Fifty Years Ago Today...

Around 11:00 am, one hundred and fifty years ago today, the Texas Secession Convention voted 166 to 8 to leave the Union and join the Confederacy.

That’s a long time ago, all but ancient history to modern Americans, especially since we know how it all turned out. Let me ask you, however, if you can remember the election of 2010? Can you? It’s only been thirteen weeks since the GOP took control of the House of Representatives, causing many pundits to consider Obama’s days of importance numbered. And, yet, in this baker’s dozen of weeks, the tides have turned, haven’t they? Obama and the GOP reached some compromises, the tragic shootings in Tuscon have shocked us all, and now events in Africa have us riveted to our TV screens. My, how things have changed.

I bring up these events not for any modern political reason but to give you a sense of the passage of time since the election of 2010 and today, the anniversary of Texas claiming its sixth flag. Things can change on a dime here in the 21st Century. Not so much in the Nineteenth. By 1 February 1861, six states--all in the deep South--had left the Union (or entered a state of rebellion if you lived in Chicago). The secession crisis of 1860 had become the crisis of 1861, the southern states falling like dominoes. For all Americans in 1861, there seemed only one, inevitable result: war.

I’m not sure how my state is going to celebrate the vote today. It was, after all, just a vote. Union sympathizer Governor Sam Houston did all in his power to slow the proceedings or get the Texas Legislature to declare the secession convention illegal. The Legislature allowing the convention to use the House chambers to meet.

Houston did manage, however, to get the convention to put the question of secession to a public vote. The people of Texas responded on 23 February: 46,129 to 14,697. With renewed vigor, the convention reassembled and we finally got an event. Here is a passage from my Master’s Thesis on the Fourteenth Texas Infantry of the Civil War.

“The Texas secession convention required that all state officials swear allegiance to the Confederacy. Convinced that his beloved state was taking the wrong course of action, the governor remained holed up in his office on the day Texas state officials were to take the oath to the new government. Three times the cry carried through the halls of the state building in Austin for Governor Sam Houston to come to the podium and take the pledge, and three times the cry met with silence. Declaring the office vacant, the victorious convention member called for Houston’s successor. Never one to let an opportunity pass, the tall bearded lieutenant governor eagerly stepped forward and proclaimed his loyalty to the infant Confederate republic. Edward Clark of Marshall was now the eighth governor of Texas.”

Edward Clark would only serve for eight months. After his defeat in November, he left Austin to form the 14th Texas Infantry. But that is another post.

Time feels funny when it’s deep in the past. In these next fours years, however, we will get to experience the Civil War in real time, as the sesquicentennial anniversaries of all the major events and battles are celebrated. In doing so, we will have to remember where we were when we heard the results of the 2010 Election, our touchstone to the Election of 1860. April 9, 2014, may seem like a long way away, but, at least we know that date is coming. Try to imagine yourself a Texan on 1 February 1861, knowing the worst is coming, but knowing not when it will end. Or what it will cost. Kind of like the folks in Egypt now...