Previous month:
December 2007
Next month:
February 2008

A Miscellany's Good as a Mile

In Her Majesty's Royal Mail:
The new James Bond postage stamps -- that's right, James Bond postage stamps, issued on January 8 to coincide with the centennary of Ian Fleming's birth -- show the evolution of Bondian cover art as "[a] dumbed- down, sexed-up nose-dive from intriguing subtlety to crass commercialism." 

[via The Elegant Variation]


Romance 'neath the Autumn Stars:
Speaking of The Elegant Variation, earlier this week TEV proprietor and generally serious literary person Mark Sarvas -- to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for introducing me, by his obsessive online proselytizing, to the novels of John Banville, before the manifold excellences of which my powers of description cower for shame of their insufficiency -- revealed the buried childhood secret that he is a recovered Trekkie.  In the course of his confession, Mark recreates an exchange between his younger self and William Shatner during Shatner's long-ago university lecture tour:

SHATNER:  Well, is there anything at all you want to ask me?

ME: (thinking; only one shot here with the Captain.  Then it strikes):  Of all the women you ever kissed on Star Trek, which one did you like the best?

(The room, as you can imagine, erupts.  Thumbs up from my friends in the cheap seats.)

SHATNER:  (after it dies down; a slight leer)  I liked them all, Mark.  I liked them all.

Compare and contrast this exchange on similar subject matter from this morning's Los Angeles Times (60 Seconds With . . . William Shatner):


It was so much fun I got a divorce . . . My body is ruined as a result.

Do not underestimate his recuperative powers.  William Shatner, after all ... is a shaman:

Usage Note: Although William Shatner portrayed Captain James T. Kirk and later, in the role of T.J. Hooker, played opposite Heather Locklear, he is not to be confused with the also-famous Wee Kirk o' the Heather.


á LA cart-ography
Which map of greater Los Angeles do you prefer: Raymond Chandler's or Tom Petty's?


For the "Now" Voyager

  • Are you infected with the desire to circle the globe without further warming it? 
  • Have you been bitten by the Environmentally Sound Travel bug
    [e. cotourismi]? 
  • Do you desire to see the sea without seeing the CO2, too? 

Then consider booking passage on an Alternative Energy Cruise utilizing the amazing Glatfelder Atmospheric Convection Propulsion Engine.


Listening Listfully 2007

Having done it for 2006, and it now being nearly two weeks in to 2008, it must be time for me to post a list of my favorite popular musical recordings of 2007.  That is what weblogs are for, is it not? 

Your results may vary, and heaven knows only a few of the following have found a place on more prominent "best of the year" lists, but these are the collections that I have most enjoyed listening to this past year, and that I expect will continue in my ears for years to come.  (That 2006 list has held up very well, in my opinion.)  In most cases, I have accompanied my comments with authorized MP3 exemplars of the music in question.  In the continuation of this post -- the Listful Appendix -- I have compiled supplemental links to relevant videos and live Daytrotter sessions.

Listening Listfully -- foolish favorites of 2007

1. Doveman -- With my left hand I raise the dead....

Not appearing on any other year-end list that has caught my eye, this is the easy choice for my personal favorite new music of 2007.  Clocking in at nearly 75 minutes and interleaving songs (with words for titles) and instrumental interludes (titled with strings of punctuation marks), With my left hand... absorbs and appropriates a century or more of introspective and crafty musical influences: echoes of everything from Satie and Debussy to high Minimalism (Harold Budd, Terry Riley, Steve Reich) to Aaron Copland via Randy Newman to anonymous late night Brill Building troubadors reaching for a flask of comfort.  And yet, Doveman sounds only like itself.  Himself.  Whatever. 

The Doveman name in this case encompasses the core of Thomas Bartlett on piano and vocals and Sam Amidon on banjo and such, with Peter Ecklund on muted nocturnal cornet, and other assorted collaborators, and the end of all their exploration is a music of moody and extraordinary beauty.  Meditative, gorgeous, riveting -- really not, I think, to be missed.

Also available via Doveman - With My Left Hand I Raise the Dead

2. The National -- Boxer

In contrast to Doveman, The National is all over the year-end lists -- and with good reason.  If John Cheever and Don DeLillo formed a band . . . and Doveman's Thomas Bartlett sat in on piano . . . it would probably sound like this.  "Underlying everything, I'm a professional/In my beloved white shirt."  Earnest, edgy, ecstatic music for grownups, and for those still wrestling with being or becoming grownups.  It's good to be a grownup.

Also available via The National - Boxer

3. John Doe -- A Year in the Wilderness

Post-X, John Doe has retained the fire of his punk years while continuing to improve his already strong skills as a songwriter and singer, working in a country-leaning vein as he maps the often-troubled heart of California and the west.  While he can be unapologetically bleak ("The Meanest Man in the World," "Unforgiven"), he can be unapologetically optimistic as well ("Darling Underdog").  He is at his best somewhere in between, in the land of troubled but potentially salvageable relationships as in "The Golden State."  Writing on eMusic, Karen Schoemer beamed: "If Bob Dylan or Neil Young made an album this good, it would win a Grammy."  Very little overstatement there.

Also available via John Doe - A Year In the Wilderness

4. Richard Swift -- Dressed Up for the Letdown   

Glorious bittersweet perfectly off-kilter pop, echoing a century of songcraft with particular debts owed to the music hall and Tin Pan Alley schools beloved of Harry Nilsson and Alan Price.  I grow more fond of this collection every time I hear it.  By turns swooning and cynical, hopeless and vital.  Mr. Daytrotter, Sean Moeller, writes with justifiable enthusiasm: "May the blessed Santa Claus give Richard Swift the power and dexterity he needs to get back to work on what likely will be another masterpiece."

Also available via Richard Swift - Dressed Up for the Letdown

The_flying_club_cup All_things_real
5. Beirut -- The Flying Club Cup

Zach Condon collects field recordings of alternative universes.  In this case, he sends dispatches back from a Monet-bespangled France of the turn of the last century, all its wars behind it and none ahead: France as the land of the Hundred Years' Peace.  It's all Sundays in the parc avec Georges, ma cherie, from here on in; luxe, calme et volupté till les vaches come home.

Also available via Beirut - The Flying Club Cup

6. The Broken West -- I Can't Go On, I'll Go On

I can't say as I am able to account for the Samuel Beckett reference in the album title, because the meaninglessness of life is not a particularly prominent theme here.  The Broken West was formerly known as The Brokedown, and under that name I enthused in their general direction back in the summer of '05 when they were still unsigned.   That condition was corrected by the good folks at Merge, and in the spring of '07 they released this very satisfying debut.  Perfect driving with the top down music, and easily the least melancholy collection on this list.

Also available via The Broken West - I Can't Go On, I'll Go On

7. Steve Adey -- All Things Real

Speaking of melancholy: If Eeyore was a singer-songwriter . . . .  No no, that's not fair.  Steve Adey sounds extraordinarily gloomy, but the glint at the kindling of hope is not too hard to find in this collection.   Last July, I praised his elegy for Jeff Buckley, "Mississippi."  It and the other originals on All Things Real are well worth the listening, but the high points may actually be a pair of covers: a version of Will Oldham's "I See a Darkness" that can stand honorably beside Johnny Cash's rendition and, above all, a remarkable take on "Shelter From the Storm," slowed down to the pace of a slow hymn, running twice as long as Dylan's original, looking each verse straight in the eye, and accompanied by a piano part right out of "Let It Be."  Gloomy, yes, but compellingly so.

Also available via Steve Adey - All Things Real
Also for consideration: the single "Burning Fields," which includes an interestingly sped-up cover version of Radiohead's "Everything in Its Right Place":  Steve Adey - Burning Fields / Everything In Its Right Place - Single.

8. Yeasayer -- All Hour Cymbals

A splendid flash back to the good bits of the dread Progressive Rock: complicated pan-global cross-rhythms, chanting, children's choruses, and the spirit of Terrapin Station period Grateful Dead.  Always threatening to run off the rails into empty-headed hippy-dom, but never quite doing it.  To paraphrase Phil Collins' Genesis, the album is "alive at both ends, but a little dead in the middle," but those two ends are well worth a visit.

Also available via  Yeasayer

9. Samamidon -- But This Chicken Proved Falsehearted

If Doveman is Thomas Bartlett with Sam Amidon, Samamidon is Sam Amidon with Thomas Bartlett.  Consisting largely of skeletal rendering of traditional folk songs, with a smattering of originals and a deeply skeehawed version of Tear for Fears' "Head Over Heels," Chicken is music for the broad flat windy prairies of the soul.

Also available via  Samamidon - But This Chicken Proved Falsehearted

10. Elvis Perkins -- Ash Wednesday  [special mention]

A special case because Ash Wednesday featured as the strong Number 2 choice on my 2006 list.  It returns here because the album actually received its official release in February 2007.  I am happy to stand by my assessment from last February.  I can only excuse the omission of this collection from other year-end lists by assuming that it came out too long ago to be remembered, which is a feeble excuse at best. 

Under his band-based moniker of Elvis Perkins in Dearland, Mr. Perkins recently released a jaunty, Carnivale-styled performance of his "All the Night Without Love," which is available more or less exclusively via  Elvis Perkins In Dearland - All the Night Without Love (Dearland Session) - Single - All the Night Without Love (Dearland Session) *

[* Psssst!  In a handy bit of synchronicity, I find that KCRW posted the new version of "All the Night . . ." via it's Top Tune podcast just yesterday.  So much for exclusivity, eh?]

11. Minus the Bear -- Planet of Ice

More old school Proginess, this time drawing on the discipline and precision side of King Crimson and Yes, but without the Stonehenge-y mysticism that mars much of that period.  Ghosts are alluded to, but only to assure us they don't exist.  It is not a strike against Planet of Ice that the vocals would be right at home on an Alan Parsons Project album.  Someone has compared this to Steely Dan as well, and that is not a bad thing either.  Cool, in every sense.

Also available via  Minus the Bear - Planet of Ice

12. Bryan Ferry -- Dylanesque

Bryan Ferry has been covering Bob Dylan since the first track of his first solo album, his seering version of "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall."  This is not so much a really good album of Dylan covers as it is a really strong Bryan Ferry album on which all the songs happen to be Dylan songs.  Ferry's version of "Gates of Eden" is worth the visit in itself, and his rendition of "To Make You Feel My Love" is the only one I've heard that makes entirely credible a song that is, for Dylan, rather a bit of hackwork.

Also available via  Bryan Ferry - Dylanesque

13. Michael Bach -- Over and Over EP

Not really an album at all, and available only as an entirely free download directly from the artist, via the Wild Geese collective.  From northern Sweden (Malmö, I believe)*, Michael Bach records spare, melancholy songs all on his own in Stockholm, and puts them up for all who care to listen.  A little sunnier than Ingmar Bergman, but only slightly.  Equally lovely though, like white plaster walls on a very bright but very cold day in winter.

[*I have been corrected on this point in a very kind email from the artist, thanking me for my mention of him here.]

14. Michael Brook -- BellCurve

BellCurve encompasses the component parts of Brook's already quite-good 2006 album RockPaperScissors as remixed and reimagined by producer John Hood.  The vistas get slightly grander, the gestures get slightly broader, the vocal parts mostly disappear -- including, regrettably, the excerpt from Richard Burton's reading of Under Milkwood that was featured in the original version of "DarkerRoom" -- and the end result is an immersive tone poem for guitars, percussion and electronics.

Also available via  Michael Brook - Bellcurve

15.  Ken Layne & the Corvids' Transcontinental would have had a place somewhere in the middle of this list, but for the fact that it doesn't officially exist.  Pity.

The Listful Appendix of videos and live recordings follows along below.


Continue reading "Listening Listfully 2007" »

"Though far in time and faith, I share his tears"

Vikram Seth burst on the scene in 1986 with his novel in verse, The Golden Gate.  For his tale of life, love, death and renewal among the yuppies, Seth adopted Pushkin's Eugene Onegin stanza (as Englished in the delicious Charles Johnston translation).  While the specifics of its story are very much of its time, the themes of The Golden Gate hold up well, and the technical facility and bubbling wit with which Seth constructed his long poem remain a thorough pleasure two decades later.

Seth has since been better known as a prose novelist, particularly for his also-a-good-doorstop Indian epic, A Suitable Boy.  He has remained a poet, however, and in 2003 he purchased the former home of the seventeenth-century metaphysical poet George Herbert (1593-1633) outside Salisbury.

Vikram Seth writes of his predecessor and his home:

Herbert came from an aristocratic Welsh family; he was Public Orator at Cambridge and had a promising career as a diplomat or courtier ahead of him.  Instead, he chose to be a parish priest.  The humble parish of Bemerton near Salisbury was offered to him by Charles I 'if it be worth his acceptance'.  He found the house in a ramshackle condition, and when, in 1630, he became rector, repaired and expanded it at his own expense.  It was to be his only parish; he died of consumption three years later at the age of thirty-nine.  He wrote a few lines “To My Successor”, which are carved in stone in the north wall of the rectory:

If thou chance for to find
A new house to thy mind
And built without thy cost
Be good to the poor
As God gives thee store
And then my labour’s not lost.

The relationship between poets centuries apart proved fruitful, and today the Times Literary Supplement has published Seth's "Three poems inspired by George Herbert."

There is no substitute for the real thing, but Seth's homage to Herbert embarrasses neither poet.  Grace and loveliness abound. 

If such things matter to you -- and you know they should -- click through and read immediately.


UPDATE [011008]: I had no doubt that Mike Snider would appreciate these poems, so I passed along the link.  He, in turn, used Seth's poems as an excuse to praise the TLS for giving his due and perhaps a dollop more to Philip Larkin.   Larkin, I confess, is somewhere deep in my internalized list of writers on whom I have never sufficiently focused concerted attention.  That is a long list, you can be sure, there being no end to the making of books and all that.  Will this reminder move Larkin forward a bit in the queue?  One never knows.  I need to turn my attention again to George Herbert first, I think.

Across/Down Traffic

Dana Barrett:  You know, you don't act like a scientist . . .
Dr. Peter Venkman
:    Well, they're usually pretty stiff --
Dana Barrett:    . . .  more like a game show host.

Ghostbusters (1984) [Sigourney Weaver & Bill Murray]

Friends, are you looking for an alternative to television coverage of the Iowa Caucuses?  Do you enjoy game shows more than you enjoy gladiator movies?  Better yet, do you have a streak of misplaced curiosity about The Man Behind This Blog?

If you answered "yes" to these questions, and if you live in an appropriate television market, it's time to set the TIVO because tomorrow, January 3, 2008, a substantial portion of the country will have the opportunity to watch -- or to avoid watching, or to avoid even the knowledge that they could be watching -- as I appear as a contestant on Merv Griffin’s Crosswords.


As we were reminded when he passed away in 2007, Merv Griffin's contributions to popular culture included the creation of two of the most successful game shows ever: Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!  Crosswords was his final television venture, and one of his last acts was to syndicate the program in to all of the largest broadcast markets for this season.  My youngest sister applied to the show -- being in the performing arts, she does what she can to supplement her income -- and passed the information along to me.  For a lark, I gave it a whirl as well and the results will go out into the ether tomorrow.

Whether "my" episode will actually be viewable tomorrow depends on where you are.  In markets in which the program airs twice daily, the episode should run as the second of the day.  In markets in which the program airs only once, this episode will not run until -- what could be more appropriate? -- April 1.  In the 2-show-per-day markets, the episode will also rerun on April 1.  Got that?  You can check your local times and stations here.

I am not at liberty to disclose how it all ends, but I will reveal this much: at one point I demonstrate a valuable advocacy skill by spelling with the Utmost Persuasiveness and Conviction a word that was not only not a correct answer, it was not even an actual English word.  But there is a colorable argument that it should be.


Photo: Ty Treadway hosting Merv Griffin's Crosswords; © 2007 Crosswords, Inc.