Richard Thompson, 1000 Years Of Popular Music (Cooking Vinyl, 2006)

In 1999, Playboy decided to ask a number of prominent musicians to list their choices for the best songs of the millennium. Richard Thompson decided to have a little fun with the request and took it quite literally, citing pieces from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance and up to the present. Playboy never published his list, but the process of compiling the list inspired Thompson to create a live show in which he'd perform music spanning a thousand years. The show has taken on a few different guises over the past couple of years, and an unofficial version of 1000 Years Of Popular Music has been available at Thompson's website and at his shows for a while, but an official release didn't take place until this summer. This version of 1000 Years Of Popular Music, consisting of two audio CD's and one DVD, was recorded at Bimbo's 365 Club in San Francisco in February 2005. Thompson is joined for this performance by Judith Owen on vocals and keyboards and Deborah Dobkin on percussion and vocals. The show was a deceptively difficult undertaking; the performers had to play songs in a great variety of styles, at least some of which could not have been familiar to them, and often had to modify the original arrangements so that the pieces could be performed by just three people. Still, there are good reasons why Richard Thompson is widely revered in some circles, and he more than adequately pulls this off.

The material from the first half of the concert ranges from the thirteenth century to the early part of the twentieth. "Sumer Is Icumen In," the opening song, is a sprightly early jig sung in the round in Middle English. Its text comes from a manuscript at Reading Abbey. "King Henry" recounts the events leading up to the 1415 Battle of Agincourt, tennis balls and all. Thompson then tries his hand at Italian with the Renaissance song "So Ben Mi Ca Bon Tempo." Coming from the seventeenth century, the folk ballad "Bonnie St. Johnstone" reflects the transition to a style still common in Celtic ballads today. Thompson then backs up a bit, bringing out Owen and Dobkin to sing a capella the Elizabethan madrigal "O Sleep Fond Fancy." The three-part harmonies continue with an excellent rendition of the dark religious ballad "Remember O Thou Man," the highlight of the first disc. After this, the show jumps to the nineteenth century with a version of the American folk ballad "Shenandoah." While Thompson does a nice version of it, I have to say that the version on Merrie Amsterburg's new album Clementine And Other Stories is superior. "Black Leg Miner" is an energetic English folk standard from the same period, reflecting the plight of striking miners -- and the worse plight of those who tried to work through the strike. Thompson then continues with two humorous songs from the turn of the last century. "I Live In Trafalgar Square" is a rousing Music Hall song sung from the perspective of a homeless man who's found the ideal resting spot. "There Is Beauty In The Bellow Of The Blast," from Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado, features a perfect vocal delivery from Owen while Thompson serves as the male foil and ably mimics the scored orchestral arrangement on his acoustic guitar. Disc one closes with "Java Jive," the first in a sequence of American popular standards from the period between the Depression and the aftermath of the Second World War.

The second disc begins with an excellent lead vocal from Owen on Cole Porter's "Night and Day." Thompson then follows with a rousing version of "Orange Coloured Sky," originally popularized by Nat 'King' Cole. After this, he chooses the relatively obscure "Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee" and "A-11" to represent blues and country, respectively. At this point, Thompson brings the show into the rock era. The Kinks' dreamlike "See My Friends" represents the British Invasion, and likely exerted a huge influence on Thompson as a teenager. Next comes the evening's best performance, a stirring rendition of the Australian classic "Friday On My Mind" by The Easybeats. The backing vocals could be a little tighter, but they provide the right amount of manic intensity to back Thompson's rapid-fire singing and picking. The Squeeze song "Tempted" follows in the set. This song has near universal popularity among rock fans old enough to know it, but as Thompson points out in the liner notes, it was a very minor hit when it came out. The concert reaches the year 2000 with what is obviously the wild card of the set, "Oops!... I Did It Again." I'm not sure if Thompson was going for irony with this choice, or commenting on the current state of popular music compared to what's been done in the past. At any rate, it loses its humor value after the first listen, and what's left is a song that, despite Thompson's best efforts to make it presentable (including plucking the melody as a Medieval jig at an interlude near the end), just doesn't belong.

The three encores jump around a bit chronologically, starting with Owen singing the 1950's jazz standard "Cry Me A River." The trio then brings the set all the way up to 2004 with the song "1985" by Bowling For Soup. This song holds its own surprisingly well, although if anybody performs this song a thousand years from now during a tribute to the current millennium, I doubt the audience will get all the references. Thompson closes out the show with an amusing a capella, call-and-response song from the early days of British Music Hall called "Sam Hall."

The DVD contains the same songs as the CD's do, along with a couple of interview snippets and Thompson's introductions to each song. The dialogue brings out Thompson's thought process as he developed the show and also shows his humorous side to a degree that only occasionally gets seen in his own music. The performance was as much fun to watch as it was to listen to, although as a guitar player I wouldn't have minded a few looks at Thompson's technique up close. Judith Owen also uses a whole litany of odd hand gestures while singing, which was amusing at times but could also be a bit of a distraction.

1000 Years of Popular Music
contains many good songs, performed solidly by one of music's venerable elder statesman and an able supporting cast. Fans of Richard Thompson will certainly like this, and anybody curious for a musical history lesson will find much to like about it as well.

Overall Grade: A-

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The Sentinel

If you're looking for action and suspense, then The Sentinel is sure to deliver. It features Michael Douglas, Keifer Sutherland and Eva Longoria.

The Sentinel focuses on the Presidential detail of the somewhat mysterious Secret Service. The plot is based on one of the agents being a mole, and the efforts to identify him while maintaning the security of our President. While this is all fictitious, with the ultra low profile of the Secret Service, this, and more could go on without us even knowing it anyway.

Even though the plot is fictional (thankfully!), considerable effort was put into the accuracy of the Secret Service's operations. Several recently retired agents consulted as technical advisors for the film. They even had the actors on the firing range so the shootouts would be more realistic (Longoria is quite accurate with a pistol reportedly).

The Sentinel is well paced, and quite believable. We get a glimpse into the operations of our most elite civilian agency. It is a must see for action and suspense movie fans. Also, don't miss the two featurettes on the Secret Service on the DVD.

Overall Grade: A

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A Look At Pandora

I wanted to share a real cool "Web 2.0" twist on internet radio that I've been playing with. It's called Pandora, and it's a great way of discovering new music, at a price that can't be beat. It's kind of like a focused streaming radio experience; while you're there don't forget to check out the wealth of well written information on each artist and album.


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Warsaw Village Band, Uprooting (Jaro, 2004)

The Warsaw Village Band burst onto the world music scene when their album People's Spring was released internationally in early 2004. This young Polish group set out to combine a deep respect for the fiddle traditions of their homeland with a punk rock ethos, and produced some of the most militantly aggressive folk music ever recorded. Even the disc couldn't match the ferocity of their live performances, though. The young Polish community in New York City embraced the Warsaw Village Band quickly, and the local shows I've seen them at featured large numbers of manic fans screaming as loudly for them as they would for any rock band. People's Spring was already several years old by the time it was released in America, and a new album Uprooting very quickly followed it into the international section in American music stores in late 2004.

In between Uprooting and People's Spring, original members Maja Kleszcz (cello, vocals), Sylwia Swaitkowska (violin, traditional Polish fiddle, vocals), Wojtek Krzak (fiddle), Piotr Glinski (baraban drum), and Maciej Szajjowski (percussion) were joined by Magdalena Sobczak (dulcimer, vocals). One of the few relative weaknesses of People's Spring was the lack of originality in the vocal arrangements; the women always sang together and in unison. For Uprooting the band gave the vocals a much stronger emphasis. While roughly half the tracks on People's Spring were instrumentals, only "Polka From Sieradz Region" on the new album features no vocals. In addition, the three women do quite a bit of nice harmonizing, and Kleszcz and Sobczak also turn in some fine lead vocal performances.

The album opens with the first of four quick snippets of field recordings from the elder generation of Polish folk performers. The band members are very quick to acknowledge their sources and mentors, and dedicate the album to two of them. In addition to the changes in the vocals, the band take their instrumental sound in some very interesting directions this time around. The rhythm of the work song "Matthew" is described as being "Mazovia calypso." "Grey Horse," another traditional song from Mazovia, is given an unmistakably bluesy feel, further boosted by some sexy lead vocals from Kleszcz. "When Johnny Went To Fight In The War," the disc's only original composition (written by Krzak), mixes in jazz and hip hop. The pizzicato fiddling that provides the background for the closing sound "Fishie" could have as easily been inspired by the song "Reptile" by the Australian rock band The Church as by anything traditional. Two songs, "Woman In Hell" and "Let's Play, Musicians," employ the services of the Lipsk Women's Choir, augmenting the band's own vocals with the strength of numbers. Sometimes the experimentation gets the band into trouble, though. The opening song "In The Forest" is held back by an intrusive and uninspired used of sampling and electronic sound effects. The band thankfully avoids the gadgetry for most of the rest of the disc, allowing their singing and phenomenal playing to speak for themselves.

The aforementioned songs have their moments, and would make for a pretty good album on their own. For all the experimentation, though, Uprooting peaks where the Warsaw Village Band follows the same basic formula that made People's Spring a strong album and makes their live shows so exciting. When the driving percussive interplay meets Kleszcz's deep, scraping power chords on cello, with the two fiddlers hammering out melody and counter-melody and the dulcimer providing just the right amount of ambience, the very earth moves with them. On this album, "The Owl" and "I Slayed The Rye" showcase the Warsaw Village Band at their relentless, uncompromising best, and are required listening for anybody who wants to hear the state of the art in folk fiddle music.

Just like its predecessor, Uprooting shows the Warsaw Village Band to be full of creative ideas, remaining rooted in the traditions of their native Poland but always looking forward for ways to take their music to the next level. The music has several tantalizing moments of brilliance that left me begging for more. I wouldn't necessarily call Uprooting and People's Spring classic or landmark albums in the genre-defining sense, but the Warsaw Village Band gives every indication of being capable of creating such a record. Stay tuned.

Overall grade: A-

Reprinted with permission from The Green Man Review
Copyright 2006 The Green Man Review

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Just My Luck

Just My Luck is a superficial look at the role of luck in one's life. Lindsay Lohan plays Ashley, the young woman with all the luck. She has a great job, always gets a taxis, and always wins those scratch off lotto cards. Her counterpart, played by Chris Pine, is the prototypical born loser. He unclogs toilets at a bowling alley for a living, and trips with an amazing frequency. This sets up the stereotypical lucky and unlucky characters who have as much depth as a tidal pool- at low tide.

After the stereotypical chance meeting, at a masquerade ball, and a chance kiss, he inadvertantly takes her luck. Her perfect, lucky life quickly turns into rock bottom quite overnight. And all of a sudden, Pine's career takes off, and he is more successful than he could dream of. As if you couldn't guess, now she needs to find him to get her luck back by kissing him.

Just My Luck feels more suited to a younger teenage crowd than to any broader age appeal. There are a few laughs along the way, but I could often see the next plot twist from a mile away. It's a formula film from start to finish, and don't expect anything more.

Overall Grade: C+

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Take the Lead

There have been plenty of movies made about the determined coach or teacher who pushes the disadvantaged kids to become more than anyone thought possible- including themselves. I usually enjoy this genre of cinema, with such notables as Lean On Me, and more recently Glory Road. However, these films are often centered around a sport, like football or basketball. When I heard that Take the Lead was based on ballroom dancing I was more than a little intrigued, and wasn't quite sure what to expect.

About the last thing that I associate with inner city New York City schools is ballroom dancing. After all, the waltz and rumba don't exactly mesh with gang culture in most folks minds. However, that is one of the points of the film, and the basis of the work of one persistent man who could see beyond the obvious perceptions and misperceptions.

Take the Lead showcases the efforts of Pierre Dulane, aptly played by Antonio Banderas. He is a dance instructor with his own studio. After witnessing destruction on the streets of NY, he decides to do something about it. The principal of the high school, overwhelmed with the ridiculously low standard test scores, and the violent deaths of some of her pupils, has no idea what to do with Dulane's enthusiasm and abilities. She assigns him to the basement detention of "the rejects" which consists of the most difficult and unruly of the student body. The intent was to scare him off, but needless to say, it doesn't quite go off that way.

Pierre Dulane is quite an enigma to his students. His manners are from a bygone era. His accent, speech and mannerisms are completely foreign to them. His ballroom dancing, on one level, is about the most useless thing to teach these students. Yet he connects with his students in a profound way. Through his dance instruction he tries to instill such basic values of respect, dignity, and leading & following. This all culminates with a city wide dance competition.

The soundtrack is also unique for the film. By combining American standard dance classics (like those of Gershwin) with a modern hip hop dance beat, we get kind of an "urban remix" version with a unique sound. Make sure your DVD player outputs to speakers with enough bass to fully enjoy it. These songs, while unique to listen to, also reinforce the cultural clash and interchange that is evolving throughout the film.

I really enjoyed Take the Lead and wholeheartedly suggest you check it out. If this whole affair seems too implausible, just realize that it is all based on a true story.

Overall Grade: A

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Eight Below

Eight Below is the story of an Antarctic adventure team, and the fate of their dogsled team that is forced to endure the harshest winter on the planet, hands down. On one level, it could be argued that this is nothing more than another Disney animal movie- kind of a Benji meets the penguins. However, I found Eight Below to be far more than that.

The film is a kind of updated Jack London tale. There definitely are the themes of of man versus nature, and the bond we form with our animals. We can also liken this to the ancient Myth of Sisyphus- complete persistence even in the face of quite overwhelming odds (both on the part of the dogs, and their master).

It also never hurts that the scenery is beautiful, and appears quite realistic. I also enjoyed the ice breaker, and the souped up Italian snow transport.

Even if you're not a sucker for a "man's best friend" film, Eight Below is well worth checking out.

Overall Grade: A

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An International Flair To Our Recent Traffic

Lest you thought that only our friends were reading this, I promise you I don't know anyone in most of these countries! Gidday to all and welcome!
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While I'm always up for a thriller that deals with insider trading, black ops and the oil industry, I was rather disappointed with Syriana. There are way too many characters to the point that I couldn't keep them all straight. Add to the mix multiple subplots that slowly intertwine, but are often confusing, and move at a turtle's pace (no, make that a slug's pace...). It was intellectually insulting that the Middle Eastern action took place in some generic, nameless Persian Gulf nation. Come on, at least tell us where we really are! The final nail in the coffin is that half the film is in Arabic or Farsi with subtitles. Not even the acting abilities of George Clooney, or Matt Damon can save this dud of a film. Syriana missed the mark by a mile in my estimation.

Overall Grade: C-

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Hunter Killer

This week's novel is Hunter Killer, by Patrick Robinson. It is the most recent in his series of modern submarine novels.

By now, Robinson's fans realize that the novels follow a certain formula. It starts with evil terrorists inflicting some damage with a submarine. It ends with the US making things right with our submarines. Along the way, the fictitious Admiral Morgan cuts through the red tape, politics, and every other shred of BS to get the job done despite a wuss for a President, and an ineffective administration. Oh, and lest we forget, the Navy's SEALS get to blow something up.

Quite frankly, Hunter Killer sticks to the formula; the underlying plot was engaging though. France helps to stage a coup inside of Saudi Arabia so they can get an exclusive deal on rebuilding the country, and distributing the Saudi oil. Along the way, General Ravi Rashood, the fictitious military chief of Hamas plays an active role. He has been a recurring character in the last few novels and is a well developed terrorist villain. This all takes place in 2010 so as to not offend the French too much (although I wouldn't put something like this beyond them...).

The prose is well written, with rich descriptions of the scene and time. Other than the date, Robinson's vision of 2010 is pretty much identical to today; this could have been developed a little further. At least he used the newest Virginia class submarine which replaced the overpriced Sea Wolf subs.

Fans that want to read an undersea battle will be disappointed to a small extent. On the other hand, Hunter Killer is a solid political and military thriller.

Overall Grade: B+

Also by Patrick Robinson:
Scimitar SL-2
The Shark Mutiny

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Fashion House

The new My Nine network has aspirations of taking over prime time with something a little different. I suppose it can be likened to a soap opera, although it only runs for 13 weeks, and then gets replaced by another show. The plan is for five new shows on weekdays, followed by a Saturday review episode for those that may have missed an episode during the week, so don't worry about filling up Tivo.

I decided to check out Fashion House at 9 PM for the debut episode. In summary, don't waste your time. Featuring a cast of has-been's (where has Bo Derek been?) and obscure no-names, it is the story of a fashion mogul, and the struggles of staying at the top of this uber competitive industry. In my mind, it's a toss up between which is worse: the unbelievably bad acting, or the oh so contrived plot. I've seen more believable acting in a high school drama production, and any episode of The Simpsons has a deeper plot.

Another low point is the canned background music. Rather than going for a more subtle sound, it is at the same volume as the dialogue so it serves to distract more than support. In addition, on more than one occasion, the music is overblown for the emotion. While the scene was a little tense, according to the music, it was like the end of the world was coming. Seriously, and no exagerration.

In my mind, he best part of this prime time soap opera formula is that in 13 weeks, we get a different show. Let's hope the next one is better because Fashion House is a dud.

Overall Grade: D-

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Sinner by Joan Jett

You can always count on Joan Jett to rock hard. Turning 40 didn't slow her down, as her latest album Sinner features Joan blasting the electric guitar and shouting out what she loves and what she hates.

Joan Jett toys with the idea of her bisexuality, with songs like "A.C.D.C" and a great cover of the Replacements' "Androgynous." The love songs here are gender neutral, and she gladly sings "And I don't care if everybody knows." Beyond this possible message, Joan infuses all her songs with energy and enthusiasm.

This isn't to say that Sinner is flawless. Joan Jett's power chords are fun, but they're also very familiar to any of her fans. The opening track "Riddles" not only attacks George W. Bush and his administration with less subtlety than a sledgehammer, but then underscores this by playing audio snippets from GWB and Donald Rumsfeld. And it's odd that Joan Jett took two songs from her previous album ("Fetish" and "Baby Blue") to include, unchanged, on this one.

If you like Joan Jett's sound, or you're looking for some simple, strong rock, go with Joan Jett's Sinner.

Overall Grade: B+


The Champagne, To Golden Gardens (The Champagne, 2005)

The Champagne came to my attention because I know the brother of singer/keyboardist Brian Sullivan from nerdnyc.com. This trio from Long Island was formed out of the remains of a group that played locally for years without making it. They have adopted an indifferent (at least on the surface) attitude towards their own chances of success, and are basically doing what they want to for the hell of it. In particular, Sullivan, drummer Gabe Kreiser, and bassist/guitarist Peter Mowdy have embraced old-school progressive rock -- "prog is the new punk," as they say on stage -- with a touch of 80's new wave and some modern stylings thrown in for good measure.

Their debut CD To Golden Gardens contains fifty-five minutes of music, alternating between songs and instrumentals. One of my pet peeves when listening to an album, though, is when it runs well over forty or forty-five minutes but only has twenty or so minutes of quality. Unfortunately this is the case here. A couple of the tracks sound like goofing off for the sake of goofing off, and adversely affect the presentability of the album. This is exasperating, because some of The Champagne's material really does have promise. The upbeat songs "Mazatlán" and "For The Kids" are both listenable and danceable enough to get on underground radio. The Champagne also demonstrates a proficiency with long instrumentals, even pulling off a ten-minute track with "The Twentieth Century," which builds up nicely to a killer climax featuring guest guitarist Michael Cosgrove.

Still, listening to To Golden Gardens was ultimately a frustrating experience. The band has half of a solid album in place, but the other half of this disc is at best aimless, to the point of getting in the way of the more inspired material. Less would have definitely been more here.

Overall grade: C+

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Television Reviews

As we move into the Fall 2006 television season, expect our very opinionated reviews of some new TV shows. I've created a page to link to all of them. It will either be to the right in FireFox, or at the bottom in Internet Explorer (I have no idea where it ends up in Safari or other browsers...). Enjoy!

More TV Reviews.
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The Man

Samuel Jackson stars in the "cop comedy," The Man. His partner has been killed in a weapons heist, and his mission is to get the guns back. Assisting him is the most unlikely hero since Walter Mitty. A dental supply nerd gets mixed up in this, and becomes the key to cracking this case. A vintage early eighties Caddy has a supporting actor role. The Man ends up being a series of cop banter scenes, loosely glued together with a little plot. If you're looking for totally mindless entertainment, it might fit the bill; anything else and keep on moving elsewhere.

Overall Grade: B-

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Rumor Has It

Rumor Has It is the star studded sequel to The Graduate. Jennifer Aniston plays the granddaughter of Mrs. Robinson, played by Shirley McLane. Aniston has never quite fit in with the rest of her family from her hair color, to her attitudes and emotions. Her sister's wedding, and her recent engagement send her into a premature midlife crisis. This leads her to find "the graduate," played by Kevin Costner (through an extended cameo by Cathy Bates) in search of some needed answers to her origin.

Rumor Has It is kind of a nonsequential sequel, and gets confusing at times. It runs the gamut of emotion from zany to serious, with plenty in between. What makes it work is the top rate cast of actors and actresses. Unfortunately, Paul Simon didn't do the soundtrack on this one.

Overall Grade: B

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Something New

Something New straddles the line between a romantic comedy, and something more serious while exploring the challenges of interracial relationships. We have a thirty something accountant climbing the corporate ladder in search of the coveted partnership. Sanaa Lathman is the daughter of a neurosurgeon, and her siblings are similarly well educated and high achieving. There's one thing missing from her life: a boyfriend.

After a failed blind date, she hires a landscape architect to redesign her backyard. She doesn't see him at first as a potential suitor, but his persistence pays off. There is still one issue though: her well to do family is hardly accepting of him.

I enjoyed this film because the theme of interracial relationships has not been done so many times before that there's nothing new. Also, Something New successfully straddles the line between a romantic comedy, and a more serious drama.

Overall Grade: B+

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Vanished is a new show from Fox. It is an attempt to combine equal parts of the action and insider conspiracy of "24" and "Prison Break," the high tech of "CSI," and the secrets of The DaVinci Code. I only caught the second episode, and it was rather confusing at several points, although that may not be a fair assessment without the benefit of viewing the pilot episode. The plot line thus far focuses on the disappearance of a senator's wife. It's all a little shrouded in mystery as to who did it and why. I will say that it did intrigue me enough to record it as the pilot and second episode are being rebroadcast this Friday evening.

Preliminary Grade: B

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