Thursday, October 28, 2010

Sugarland - The Incredible Machine

An interesting question to ask someone who continuously spouts off about not liking country music might be, “Why, then, did you buy the Sugarland album this week?” That is an excellent question that does not have an excellent answer. Basically, I was sitting at my computer Tuesday morning before work looking at what had been newly released that day and didn’t see much that interested me, so I decided that in the absence of any albums I actually wanted to buy I would go country. The fact that I decided to buy something I didn’t particularly want versus buying nothing at all is probably an indication of a shopping disorder, but that is a blog topic for another day.

There is a good lesson in this, however: sometimes when you listen to music you don’t want to listen to, you find out you actually like it. I’m not saying I’ll go to work tomorrow with a plaid shirt and cowboy boots on, but I was surprised that there were a number of tracks on Sugarland’s new album (“The Incredible Machine”) that I really liked.

If you’re not familiar with Sugarland, they are a male/female country duo and should not be confused with Sugar Loaf, where my family skied in Michigan last year, or Candy Land, the popular children’s board game. My observation about Sugarland based on this album is that they are a very positive thinking people. There are no bad relationships or bad days or even bad hair days in Sugarland. Most of the vocals are from the female half of the duo and she must be the most chipper person around. This was somewhat of a refreshing change of pace from some of the music I’ve been listening to lately (I’m talking to you, Mumford & Sons).

Not surprisingly, the songs I tended to like most were the ones where the twang wasn’t over exaggerated and the lyrics weren’t too cutesy (I’m hard to please); there were definitely a few that violated both of those criteria. I really liked the title track (“Incredible Machine”), which I think is about airplanes but am worried that’s too obvious and I’m missing the real meaning, and “Find the Beat Again”, which is such a pick-yourself-up song that you’ll either feel cheered right away or find so annoyingly upbeat that you’ll want to smash your iPod- I am choosing to like it. I also really enjoyed a very quick (90 second) song that is the only one exclusively sung by Mr. Sugarland, here upgraded from his role as only a backup on a few other tracks. The song, “Incredible Machine (Interlude)” is really pretty and I would love to hear more of his voice on other songs. The first single from the album, “Stuck Like Glue”, wasn’t my favorite, but I actually liked it a lot more after I watched the video- sort of a cute twist on a stalker (what’s not to love?).

Sugarland is obviously a country group, but I don’t think they’re so over the top countrified that they can’t cross over to mainstream popularity- I call it Country Lite. If you’re like me and don’t usually fancy yourself a country fan, I still think you will like some of the tracks here. Enjoy!

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Monday, October 25, 2010

Our Latest College Visit

The warning everyone gives new parents is finally coming true in my family: “Before you know it they’ll be heading off to college.” Before that becomes a reality, however, there is the minor matter of figuring out what school my oldest daughter will attend. The process has been far less painful than I anticipated, but that might be partly because my daughter is very independent and has pretty much done all the work herself. She is blessed with having a very accessible and helpful guidance counselor, and at this point I think my daughter just enjoys chatting with the poor woman and hanging out in her office. She has spent so much time with her counselor that the secretary in the guidance center not only knows my daughter’s first and last name but also what class she happens to be missing when she writes her a hall pass back to class. My main involvement in the whole process has been showing up on the designated days for campus visits. Two schools have emerged as frontrunners.

A few weeks ago, my daughter told me she wanted to visit one of the finalists a second time; we initially looked at this particular school over the summer and there weren’t many students there. Without really questioning the logic of driving 3 ½ hours to simply walk around a campus we had already toured, I agreed to the trip. This school is secretly my top pick of the two finalists, but I need to play it cool. My finely tuned parenting instincts have revealed that 17-year olds do not always value the opinions of their parents as much as their parents think they should, so I’m been employing something called reverse psychology. If I push too hard for the school I like, I’ll push her toward the other one. This reverse psychology is a little risky, partly because she’s not a toddler and partly because she’s actually taking psychology in school right now. Not only have we been the recipients of some free (and unsolicited) analysis, but she also seems to have become more adept at identifying such trickery.

Due to my daughter’s schedule, we were pretty much stuck visiting the school on a Sunday. This threw me a little since Sunday is typically my official day to get ready for the following week: I do laundry, plan dinners, head to Jewel, conduct some high level schedule conflict resolution and other equally fun weekend activities. Determined to make this visit happen, however, I did the week’s laundry on Saturday (which created more family confusion than it seemed like it should have) and off we went Sunday morning.

I was excited to drive north on a fall day, anticipating a beautiful drive. I didn’t factor continuous rain into that vision. The deer carcass count reached five before we had even arrived, and the only living wildlife we saw was a flock (???) of wild turkeys along the road. If you don’t know what a wild turkey looks like, I’ll just say that from a distance I thought it was a group of black garbage bags blowing from some sticks. You will definitely not find a rendering of a wild turkey on any of the holiday tableware in the Pottery Barn catalogue because who would want to serve Thanksgiving dinner on plates depicting vultures? However, about 30 minutes before we arrived, the skies cleared, the seas parted and the fall colors were indeed magnificent. My daughter did not appreciate the beauty as she had basically folded herself in half and gone to sleep with her head on a pillow on her lap about halfway through the drive; her ability to fall asleep on command in any awkward position will serve her well in college. It’s almost certainly the result of superior parenting skills!

We had a lovely walk around campus and tried not to dwell on the fact that perhaps we should have come on a weekday when we could meet with someone from the program she’s interested in (a third visit, apparently). The only black mark on the day was the fact that the campus bookstore is not open on Sundays, which threatened to overshadow everything else. We rectified it with a quick online order when we got home, although she still grumbled about not being able to wear her new sweatshirt to school on Monday. Alas…

I once lectured my kids that they were lucky to have a mother who exposed them to good music, to which I was met with some exaggerated eye rolling, so I have since downplayed that particular benefit of their lineage. The drive to visit Sunday’s school got me thinking about what the youngsters are listening to these days. The back page of Rolling Stone has always featured multiple lists, such as top albums, top pop songs, top ten songs from 1982, etc. The number of lists has grown so voluminous that it now takes up two pages in every issue. They always include a list of the top college albums, so in honor of our college visit I took a peek at that list and am sharing it here. I have the Arcade Fire album and have heard of Jenny and Johnny, but that’s about it. I guess the take-away is that college students indeed speak a foreign language. They don’t even listen to our music! Where are Sheryl Crow and Eric Clapton?

Wish me luck- there is no rest for the weary. As soon as we complete this process with my daughter, there is another daughter on her heels and we get to do it all over again. I have to admit, I like the college visits and the one-on-one time. Ask me how much I like my kids going to college in the fall when I’m crying about them leaving the nest and I’ll tell a different tale. My freshman son consoles me by telling me he’s not going college and is going to live at home forever. Isn’t that every parent’s dream? For now, enjoy the music!

1. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
2. Of Montreal – False Priest
3. No Age – Everything in Between
4. The Walkmen – Lisbon
5. The Black Angels – Phosphene Dream
6. Ra Ra Riot – The Orchard
7. Grinderman – Grinderman 2
8. The Thermals – Personal Life
9. Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest
10. Jenny and Johnny – I’m Having Fun Now

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Saturday, October 23, 2010

Kings Of Leon - Radioactive

Prior to purchasing the new Kings of Leon album (“Come Around Sundown”) my exposure to the band was fairly incidental. We heard them in concert a few years ago when they opened for U2, which means we tolerated them while we waited for the band we actually went to see (and at that time no one had heard of Kings of Leon, believe me). I am also fairly skillful at playing their song “Sex On Fire” on Guitar Hero; it’s one of only two songs that I’m reasonably good at. Finally, it was almost impossible not to have heard their huge hit “Use Somebody” from their last album at least 8,000 times about a year ago. I liked it at first, but it started getting old after about the 4,000th time I heard it.

After having several big hits and really becoming widely known from their last album, Kings of Leon was the recipient of some negativity prior to the release of “Come Around Sundown”. One of the band members noted in Rolling Stone that if anyone had to listen to anything as much as the general public had to listen to the songs from their last album they would certainly end up hating it (I’m paraphrasing but not much), so there is some self recognition about the overexposure. The band also got some bad press a few months back when they aborted a concert after playing only three songs. Apparently the rafters of whatever venue they were playing were populated with pigeons relieving themselves on the audience (and band) members, and they were thereafter characterized as divas for bailing on the concert.

Because of this, they’re a little jumpy about how well this latest album will be received. The band is comprised of three brothers and their cousin. The brothers’ father and all four band members’ grandfather were both named Leon; hence the band’s name. They’re from the south: the brothers are from Tennessee and the cousin from Mississippi, and all four currently reside in Nashville. As a result, some of their songs have a hint of a country twang to them. The sound on some of the songs also walk just this side of whiny, so I think they need to be a little careful about that.

I did enjoy listening to this album. When I started thinking about what I wanted to write, I decided to look at the lyrics for the songs; because of the sometimes twang and the almost whininess, not all of the lyrics are easy to decipher while listening casually. When considering the lyrics, I realized with dismay that I couldn’t necessarily understand what they were getting at in a lot of their songs. What’s up with that, Kings? I don’t like to think that the Kings of Leon are too smart for me as I pride myself on having solidly mediocre intelligence. I concluded that I should just leave the lyrics alone and enjoy the songs.

Many others must agree: this album is actually both #1 and #3 on iTunes right now, once for the extended version (a.k.a. the $14.99 version) and once for the regular version ($10.99). Of course, because I didn’t notice that there were two versions when I downloaded this at 5:30 a.m. last Tuesday morning, I bought the extended version, which has five more tracks than the regular version. I should note, however, that three of those five tracks are related to the same song (remix of the song “Radioactive”, video for that song and video for the making of the video). Therefore, if you don’t like “Radioactive” it’s probably not worth the extra $4.00 for the extended version.

Luckily for me, I do like “Radioactive” and especially like the remix version as it features a gospel choir, also highlighted in the video for the song. The other tracks I liked were “Back Down South”, which has a definite country feel to it (as you might guess from the title), and “Birthday”, which is easy to sing along to. I know “Radioactive” is supposed to be their first radio single, although I’ve only heard it once on the radio so far. If you’re interested in learning more about the band, there is a 14 part interview with them on both their website and YouTube (yes, 14 parts). They’ll be (or or possibly were by the time you read this) on Saturday Night Live on October 23rd, which will be big for them.  Here is the video for "Radioactive"- enjoy!

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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Happy Halloween!

I’ll be upfront about my position on this topic: I am not a huge Halloween person. It is a great relief that my kids are old enough to be in charge of their own costumes. I appreciate the efforts of others and admire the houses decorated with spooky webs and giant spiders, but none adorn my house. We do have a jack-o-lantern on our front porch, but one of my daughters and her friends bought and carved it with absolutely no parental involvement. I put in my time when the kids were younger: I had a couple Halloween parties at our house and planned several class parties for the “holiday”, so maybe I simply used up my energy years back.

Last weekend, I asked in what I thought was a very enthusiastic voice whether any of my kids were interested in putting our Halloween decorations out (which really just consist of a few candles). I might have overdone the enthusiasm because all I got was some confused stares until one finally responded slowly, “Nooo?” as if she was uncertain of her answer because it was a trick question. Suffice it to say the decorations are still not out.

To be fair, this apathy extends to other holidays also, and while I would like to blame it on something genetic, I’ve concluded that the root cause is good old fashioned laziness- it all just seems like too much work. When one of my sisters gave birth to my niece a few days before Halloween almost nine years ago, I remember wondering with sympathy if she would be obligated to have Halloween themed birthday parties forever after.

A couple weeks ago, I was looking online at pictures my cousin had posted of the birthday party for her 3-year old son at which everyone was dressed as superheroes, even the adults (horrified emphasis on this last point). Honestly, I found it stressful just looking at the pictures. Whereas an appropriate response might have been, “Wow, that looks like a lot of fun for the toddler,” mine was more along the lines of, “Thank goodness that party was in Colorado and I didn’t have to come up with a superhero costume.”

It is with this background that you will understand why I was less than thrilled when my other sister suggested that I create a Halloween playlist. I tried to explain that I thought a playlist with only two songs would be fairly boring. I have to say, she got a little defensive about my reaction to the Halloween playlist idea, which surprised me and made me feel a bit guilty that I was so dismissive, especially when she reported regretfully that she is only “allowed” to play Monster Mash on the air (she’s a DJ) once a year, although that seems like plenty to me.

However, my guilt pang prompted me to conduct a tiny bit of research (meaning that I Googled “Halloween songs”), and when I realized that I didn’t have to come up with literal Halloween songs but could focus more on the devil and other themes commonly found in rock and pop music, I warmed up to the idea. I came up with the following songs in my iTunes library that could possibly be interpreted as having a loose association to something vaguely related to Halloween. There you go- me celebrating the “holiday” after all!

• “Devil’s in the Jukebox” – Ray LaMontagne & The Pariah Dogs
• “If You’re Goin’ Through Hell” – Rodney Atkins
• “Spooky” – Joan Osborne
• “Halloween” – Dave Matthews Band
• “See You in My Nightmares” – Kanye West, feat. Lil Wayne
• “Voodoo” – The Neville Brothers
• “Electric Child of Witchcraft Rising” – New Pornographers
• “Candy Everybody Wants” – 10,000 Maniacs
• “The Long Black Veil” – Johnny Cash
• “Psycho Killer” – Talking Heads
• “Lady Dada’s Nightmare” – MGMT

By the way, the picture is courtesy of my more spirited sister, Maggie.  If you enjoy this blog, join me on Facebook.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Mavis Staples: You Are Not Alone

A couple weeks ago when I wrote about spiritually inspired music, one of my sisters pointed out that Mavis Staples had a new album out (“You Are Not Alone”) that was produced by Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. I had read something about that in passing but didn’t make much of it at the time. However, my sister’s email got me thinking and I decided to buy the album as I love both Wilco and R&B. Concurrently (prophetically?), Starbucks had one of those free song cards for one of the songs on the album. Finally, in case I needed a tenth sign that I should be listening to this album, my dad sent a couple of us an email with reference to a short clip in the New Yorker about some “Soul Sisters” he thought we might find historically interesting, noting that it was “very popular music in the olden days”. Little House on the Prairie goes to church? Anyway, I was already doing my research on this album and was thrilled to have another tidbit to add. I was even more thrilled that my dad had referred an article to me that was related to music rather than the financial industry; although it’s my field of work it’s frankly much more boring than music.

If you’re not familiar with Mavis Staples, and I have to admit that I wasn’t all that familiar with her, she was part of a family gospel group called the Staple Singers many, many decades ago. Although her list of accomplishments is long (she’s in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award) and her age is on the older side (71), she has had somewhat of a resurrection in the past decade, even playing at Lollapalooza this past summer.

One of my favorite parts about reviewing albums is not just being exposed to new music that wouldn’t likely be heard on the radio, but also in learning how the albums were inspired. Jeff Tweedy and Mavis Staples are both Chicagoans (Mavis being a lifelong South Sider), and Tweedy heard her perform a couple years ago, having been a fan for quite some time. He approached her about doing an album, and the time was right for her as she was uncertain what direction to take her music.

Tweedy ended up choosing 11 songs from the past, many of which Mavis performed with the Staple Singers and/or were written by her father, and writing two new songs for her. There is also a Creedence Clearwater Revival cover (“Wrote a Song for Everyone”) and one from Randy Newman (“Losing You”). They recorded the songs in Wilco’s studio in Chicago, and in the bio they provided for Amazon, Staples says that she loved going to the studio each day and having the Wilco band members stop by with their babies. I love that image!

The result of it all is that we get her beautiful rich voice combined with some arrangements that are a bit more contemporary. In the New Yorker interview, she expressed how pleased she is that “Mr. Tweedy” (adorable!) has helped her attract some younger listeners. The two of them have been doing the talk show circuit, performing on The Colbert Report and Letterman. She truly has a beautiful voice, although when I sing along I am confident I sound just as good- she’s that talented that she can trick us into believing that about ourselves!

Many of the songs are heavily gospel, but don’t be dissuaded if you’re not really into that- I’m normally not either. There is not a bad song on the album, but the ones I particularly love are the title track (“You Are Not Alone”), which is one of the two songs on the album that Tweedy wrote, “In Christ There is No East or West”, and “Don’t Knock”. That being said, I have found myself singing just about all of the songs to myself at some point this past week. I also had the album on in the kitchen the other night while my 16-year old daughter and I were both cooking, and she didn’t complain. There you go: an album for all ages.

Below is an acoustic version of "We Are Not Alone" performed by Staples and Tweedy.  Enjoy!

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Monday, October 11, 2010

Songs for the Fall Season

10/10/10 was Marathon Sunday in Chicago. I had been anticipating the day with anxiety for more than a month, not because I was running the marathon but because I wasn’t. I ran the marathon in 2009 and the feeling of accomplishment when I finished was intoxicating. To work so hard to achieve something so big was unbelievable. I have told countless people that I could never get as lucky with the weather as I was last year- 30s at the start and 40s at the finish. Although it wasn’t much fun for the spectators (sorry about your frostbite, Dad), it was glorious for the runners.

While I was apparently in some state of intoxication (running or otherwise), I decided to sign up to run the marathon again in 2010. I was a veteran, so I knew I could do it, but this year I wanted to do it better than I did the first time. Last year the training essentially took over my life; this year, not so much, which may have been part of the problem. Last year I obsessed about my runs; this year I missed one here and there, was a mile or so short of my targets on long runs and wasn’t diligent about my day of cross training each week. When I started to have pain in my left leg that got worse with each run, I rested but panicked about the training I was missing. When I tried to jump back in, the pain would get worse again until I finally saw a doctor. The prescription: rest. That was it for me; I simply could not miss that much training and have a chance of successfully getting back in. While I was disappointed, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t also a little relieved to regain some free time. But I was still dreading Marathon Sunday and the fact that I wouldn’t be participating.

Sunday morning, I woke up at 7 a.m., turned on the t.v. to start watching the coverage, and set up my computer to track my friends and coworkers who were running. No runner was happy about the predicted high temperatures. As the morning wore on and the checkpoint times popped up, I could tell that this would not have been a successful day for me, which brought me a bit of peace.

I think the only people who weren’t celebrating the weather this weekend were probably runners. For everyone else, Chicago experienced the most amazing fall weather. With the colors starting to pop out and the warm weather putting everyone in a good mood, I was inspired to compile some songs about the season.

The most challenging part of this post has not been collecting the songs but getting the darn picture, which I thought would be easy. Sunday afternoon, I walked out into the front yard, assuming I could easily snap a picture of a yellow or red tree, but I wasn’t quite satisfied with my results. I decided to head to the park on my bike and was joined by my 14-year old son. The park also didn’t do it for me, so I suggested a path that I knew would feel like riding through what I hoped would be a colorful tree tunnel. I forgot that 14-year old boys are like little ninjas on their bikes, and they also do not have a fully developed sense of fear, so the “shortcut” we took probably could have ended up getting me arrested for trespassing. A mother should know better than to be led around closed gates to get somewhere- twice. We also roamed the grounds surrounding the nearby convent, which my son refers to as the Nunnery. He is dying to catch a glimpse of a nun and is fascinated by the basketball court and swimming pool- I guess he’s hoping to spot a game of nun pick-up ball or a nun pool party. No such luck, nor with the trees, and he finally ditched me, declaring me “too picky”. I headed for the Prairie Path, snapping a couple more pictures. What did I end up using? The tree in my front yard. Oh well, without running the marathon it was basically my only exercise of the day.

Here is my list of songs for the season, inspired by sun, color, months and the season itself (admittedly, some are a bit of a stretch- there aren't that many songs about fall, turns out). Enjoy!

• “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” – Bruce Springsteen
• “Fall in Boston” – Chris Bentliff
• “Yellow” – Coldplay
• “Autumn Leaves” – Eric Clapton
• “Pale September” – Fiona Apple
• “Colors” – Grace Potter & The Nocturnals
• “Wake Me Up When September Ends” – Green Day
• “Waiting for the Sun” – The Jayhawks
• “Yellow Sun” – Raconteurs
• “In the Sun” – She & Him

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Saturday, October 9, 2010

Mumford and Sons: Sigh No More

A couple months ago, I bought the song “Little Lion Man” by Mumford & Sons. You may have heard it on the radio; it’s a really catchy, quick song that will likely inspire you to get out of your seat and do a little jig, if only you knew how. The lyrics in the refrain feature prominently a certain “F” word commonly used on Jersey Shore, though the radio excludes the whole word (“And it was not your fault but mine, and it was your heart on the line, I really f%*&ed it up this time, didn’t I, my dear?”). Due to the heavy English accent of the band members, the word at issue sounds almost elegant in the unedited version. Anyway, I like the song so much that when I was idly looking through the top albums on iTunes earlier in the week and noticed “Sigh No More” by Mumford & Sons in the top 10, I decided to give it a go.

Wikipedia characterizes Mumford & Sons as a folk band and iTunes classifies their songs as “alternative.” Based solely on “Little Lion Man”, I would call the genre “Lively English Pub”. After listening to the entire album for a few days, however, I am changing that to “Gloomy English Pub.” “Little Lion Man” brings to mind an image of a pub full of happy, drunk, knee slapping Brits getting caught up in the energy of the music. Most of the rest of the songs bring to mind a rainy English day with those same drunk patrons sadly drowning their misery in endless pints of stout. Taken individually, the songs are quirky and some start slowly and pick up the pace midway through, but many are slow and depressing throughout- and that’s before you listen to the lyrics.

This is the debut album from Mumford & Sons, and it was actually released last year. “Little Lion Man” saw a lot of success overseas much earlier than we Americans picked up on it. It was voted the number one song on an Australian music poll in 2009 (by a large margin, supposedly), and they also performed the song on David Letterman earlier this year. A couple songs have been on Grey’s Anatomy, I’m guessing either during death or breakup scenes.

If you do not already have “Little Lion Man” on your iPod, fork over the $0.99 to buy it (really, it’s like a couple sips of a Starbucks latte). I can attest that it is the perfect song to belt out in the car to pick up your mood a little, especially if you bravely use the entire “F” word (Not with the kids in the car, of course. My 14-year old son actually uses the word “bleep” instead, which is almost more annoying than if he actually sang the swear word itself). As for the rest of the album, I’ll take a pass for now and save it for a bad day on my next trip to England.

I've posted this video before, but I'm putting it up again in case you don't know the song.  If you like this blog, join me on Facebook.  Enjoy!

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Definitive Obama Playlist

Last week I noticed a blurb online about an interview that Barack Obama recently did with Rolling Stone magazine. In that article, he apparently discussed his musical preferences. Jackpot- my next blog post was practically going to write itself! All I had to do was wait for my next issue of Rolling Stone to be delivered, which occurred about two days later. After arriving home from work on Thursday, I sifted through the junk mail and there it was in all its glossy glory.


I probably should have heard an alarm bell sounding that the cover of the magazine read “Obama Fights Back” and not “Obama Spends 8 Pages Discussing Music.” To be honest, I didn’t really give much thought to the content of the article at all, assuming it would contain plenty of material for me. Over the weekend, I found a quiet hour to curl up with the article I had been savoring. I skipped over the boring pages leading up to it and quickly noted that it appeared to be a very long article- perfect! Things got off to a rocky start when the opening questions related to Obama’s feelings toward Republicans, followed quickly thereafter with a question about the Tea Party. Matters did not improve when the topic turned to healthcare (yawn). Dejected, I quit reading and started scanning only the questions until I got to one (on the last page of the interview, I might add) about what is on Obama’s iPod. There we go, finally something interesting. The answer: lots of Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder and Rolling Stones. What??? Those artists are fine, and I don’t want to suggest we shouldn’t listen to the music of yesteryear, but I am always concerned when that is all people listen to because it means they’re missing out on all the good new music. Okay, I thought The Obama Playlist was going to present itself to me, but it was looking like I was going to have do some work on it. I’m sure Obama has a couple other things on his mind than keeping his iPod current, and I’m happy to do the heavy lifting. I consider it my gift to our country.

Fortunately, Obama’s aid, Reggie Love, must have concerns similar to mine because he has helped at least bring his boss into this century by putting some music by Jay-Z, Nas and Lil Wayne on Obama’s iPod. At least those artists gave me something to work with, although I really didn’t want to make a playlist of music Reggie Love would like. My goal was to create a playlist that capitalized on the type of music that Obama already knows he likes while bringing him a little more up to date and possibly stretching him a little. I’m quite certain he’ll want to load these gems onto his iPod pronto (or have Reggie do it, more likely).

Being a study of human nature, I wanted to kick things off with songs that Obama would recognize so he wouldn’t be scared off. Next, I insist that his playlist include something from John Legend & The Roots’ new album, “Wake Up!” since it was inspired by Obama’s 2008 run for president- that’s just good manners. Beyond that, I tried to look for songs that would feel a little like the sounds that are tried and true for Obama. He seems to be in touch with his soulful side, so the playlist is a bit heavy in that area, which suits me fine since I am an aspiring R&B artist myself (modest fantasy). I am particularly hoping he tries Raphael Saadiq since the album “The Way I See It” has songs featuring duets with both Stevie Wonder and Jay-Z (I also think that everyone should have “The Way I See It” on their iPods, incidentally). I threw in a protest song by Bruce Springsteen because I know he and Obama have a mutual love for each other. Jakob Dylan will at least bring Obama to the next generation of Dylans. As you can see, this was quite scientific and I therefore present to you with a high degree of confidence (drumroll) The Obama Playlist:

  • "Made You Look" – Nas
  • "Empire State of Mind" – Jay-Z, feat. Alicia Keys
  • "Nothing But the Whole Wide World" – Jakob Dylan
  • "Work That" – Mary J. Blige
  • "Killing Me Softly With His Song" – Fugees
  • "Air Force Ones" – Nelly
  • "Impossible Germany" – Wilco
  • "Wake Up Everybody" - John Legend & The Roots, feat. Common & Melanie Fiona
  • "Yes I Will" – Michael Franti & Spearhead
  • "Never Give You Up" – Raphael Saadiq, feat. Stevie Wonder and CJ
  • "Save Some Time to Dream" – John Mellencamp
  • "We Shall Overcome" – Bruce Springsteen with The Sessions Band (live in Dublin)

I’ll let you know when I hear back from Obama about which songs were hits and which didn’t quite make the mark. In case he is too busy to happen across this post on his own, I think I’ll also send it to Reggie Love just to be safe.

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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Clapton's New Album: "Clapton"

Eric Clapton and I go way back, at least for me- he was already twenty years into his career when I discovered him. I remember being in a friend’s car back in the mid 80’s and one of her older brothers had left Clapton’s “Slowhand” tape in the cassette player. For some reason I was captivated and immediately purchased my very own “Slowhand” tape, which I proceeded to listen to through the end of high school and into college to the point that I actually wore it out and had to buy another. I can only imagine how pleased my parents must have been that their Catholic high school daughter was obsessed with an album whose biggest hit was the song “Cocaine” (no worries, I just liked the song).

At some point in the late 80’s or early 90’s, Eric and I had a falling out. I think he started to be less concerned with what type of music I wanted to hear from him and focused more on the type of music he wanted to play. I just wasn’t as enamored with his songs anymore, nor was I too happy with his increased attention to The Blues. I like blues to be preceded by “rhythm &”. In the event it’s a stand-alone blues song, I prefer it “lite” with cream and sugar, so I don’t really know it’s the blues. Eric, however, serves the blues black, so to speak, and hardcore. It just wasn’t working out for us anymore, so we parted ways with no hard feelings. However, when I noticed recently that he was putting out a new album, cleverly entitled “Clapton” (his 41st album and a mere 45 years after beginning his musical career), I was happy to give him a try again.

Much to my surprise, I discovered after I bought the album that the songs on it were new for him, but they were not actually new songs at all, and I started to regret that I didn’t go with Lil Wayne this week. The last three albums I have reviewed have all been remakes or covers, and in only one of those three instances did I know that going in. On this album, Clapton pays tribute to the songs he enjoyed listening to as a boy at his grandparents’ house in jolly old Surrey, England. Some background on this is in order.

Clapton’s mother had him when she was just 16 and before you could get a t.v. gig being a Teen Mom. He was therefore raised by his grandparents, believing they were his parents and his mother was his sister (do I hear a Lifetime movie in the works?). Imagine young Eric in his grandparents’/parents’ house listening to their music. Now imagine that his grandparents had absolutely no preference as to what musical genre they listened to and you will have a glimpse of the music on this album. On his website, Eric expresses how excited he is about how this album turned out, but I’m worried that not everyone will share his enthusiasm. My assessment is that the album is having a severe identity crisis, although that also means there might be something for everyone.

There are 15 songs on “Clapton”, including the bonus track on the digital version. Five of those songs can pretty easily be classified as heavy blues, so right off the bat I wasn’t crazy about those: “Travellin’ Alone”, “Judgment Day”, “Can’t Hold Out Much Longer”, “Run Back to Your Side” (only new song) and “I Was Fooled” (bonus track). Who knew the blues were so popular in England in the 50’s?

After that, I had more trouble with the genres. There are a couple that sound sort of “big band”, although I honestly think they sound like circus music and are kind of silly (“My Very Good Friend the Milkman” and “When Somebody Thinks You’re Wonderful”). There are a couple more songs that sound like “swing” music but still have a somewhat contemporary sound to them, and those are okay (“That’s No Way to Get Along” and “Everything Will Be Alright”).

My favorite songs on the album are the ones that I can only describe as “sweet” and have a timeless feel to them- a couple of them I never would have guessed are old if I wasn’t paying close attention to the lyrics, and even then it’s not easy to tell. They remind me of a really simple old fashioned time. The ones I liked best are “River Runs Deep”, “How Deep is the Ocean” and “Autumn Leaves” (not sure why two are about water depth). That leaves a couple songs that I had a hard time putting in any type of bucket. “Rockin’ Chair” is charming but has an “older” feel to it, and “Diamonds From the Rain” is slow and kind of sad.

Normally I wouldn’t talk about each song, but this is such a weird mix that I couldn’t at all generalize. If you are an Eric Clapton fan, just be warned that this isn’t an ordinary album from him. If you like his more bluesy side, you’ll probably like those five songs. If you like his more mainstream songs, you’ll probably like the ones that I think would be most appealing to the “adult contemporary” set, which are the ones I liked.

Phew- I think it would have been easier to write about Lil Wayne after all. Of course, he also has a story to tell since his album is coming out as he’s still incarcerated, but that’s a story for another day.

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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Songs to Inspire

I am taking things in a little different direction for this post, and it’s thanks to my friend Brandon Flowers from The Killers. In my post about Brandon’s new solo album “Flowers” a couple weeks back, I revealed that he is a Mormon (surprise!), albeit the occasional smoking and drinking kind apparently. Nonetheless, he put one “gospel” type song on his new album, and it brought to mind a couple other faith-related songs by otherwise mainstream artists. I went through my iPod and found some songs that pondered God or faith in the lyrics. Mind you, I only came up with a handful of such songs; I think possibly a lot of artists assume that songs dealing with faith won’t be appealing to their listeners. Perhaps Kanye said it best (but then doesn’t he always?) when he said, “If I talk about God then my record won’t get played” in “Jesus Walks”. After listening to these songs collectively for a couple days, I think I have somewhat gleaned what message each was aiming for. I like it when music makes you think, and these songs did. I’ve included the genre for each because there is quite an array.

• “On the Floor” – Brandon Flowers (alternative). Brandon described this song as “gospel”, which gospel singers might take exception to, but it does have the organ music you often associate with that genre. Brandon finds himself “on my knees begging please” and finding himself “waiting to believe.” He’s taking stock of his life and what he’s done; you’ll see that theme in other songs here, as well.

• “Dear God 2.0” – The Roots (hip hop/rap). The lyrics in this song are expressing doubt in God because of the suffering seen all around, ticked off in rap fashion. One thing I like about The Roots in general is that they combine rap with really pretty vocals, and this song is no exception. Sample rap lyrics: “Why is the world ugly if you made it in your image and why is living life such a fight to the finish?” Sample “regular” lyrics: “Dear God, I’m trying hard to reach you…Dear God, I see your face in all I do.” Heavy stuff from The Roots, but the song itself has a cool sound to it.

• “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” – Johnny Cash (country, of course). If you’ve seen one of my favorite movies of all time, “Walk the Line,” you know that Johnny Cash got his start with church hymns. This song has kind of a “chain gang” sound to it and is a little more fire and brimstone than the others. Basically, if you do bad things, God will hold you accountable. Now you know.

• “Dive” – Steven Curtis Chapman (inspirational). This is the only song in the group that is actually of the “spiritual” genre, and I honestly have no idea how it ended up on my iPod. Apparently I have never really listened to the lyrics because I did not realize it had religious undertones. Actually, they’re not undertones- it’s pretty overt: “Sink or swim, I’ve diving in.” Good song with more of a rock/pop sound.

• “Jesus Walks” – Kanye West (hip hop/rap). This song has kind of a “marching” sound to it as the background to Kanye’s rapping about asking God to show him the way because the Devil is trying to “break me down.” He’s nervous that he’s done too many bad things and been away from God too long to talk to him anymore. One could make the argument that Kanye should revisit these lyrics as his tantrums don’t always seem to reflect that he’s following a super spiritual path. Warning: even though this song is heavy on the Jesus talk, there is plenty of decidedly unholy language within.

• “Show Me What I’m Looking For” – Carolina Liar (pop). You’ll recognize this song because it was fairly popular last summer. “Save me, I’m lost. Oh Lord, I’ve been waiting for you.” Wow, I’m starting to feel bad for these artists- they seem to really be struggling.

• “One of Us” – Joan Osboarne (folk-rock). You might also remember this song. Joan ponders what God looks like and what she (or we) might say if we happened to be sitting next to him on the bus, and most interestingly, what you might ask him if you were allowed just one question. I don’t think he was disguised as the man next to me on my train ride home while I’ve been writing this; there was an unpleasant odor and I actually tried to be inspired to not think bad thoughts about him since I was writing about tolerance and goodness (I was not very successful). Special shout-out to my very favorite song from Joan Osboarne, “Cathedrals”- beautiful.

• “Heaven Help Us All” – Ray Charles and Gladys Knight (blues). Now this sounds like a gospel song. Gladys can belt it out like nobody’s business! Basically, Heaven help everyone, good and bad. I think Ray and Gladys have a full choir supporting them in this song and you may be tempted to don a robe and put your hands skyward.

• “Dear Lord” – Joseph Arthur (rock). This song has a bit of a twang to it. This is an honest song in which the singer believes when he needed God, He wasn’t there for him. Since he lost faith, he’s now looking for Him and is remorseful for not keeping his faith. It’s hard not to have felt this way at some point.

I think there are quite a few country songs that have religious messages, but my collection of songs is pretty light on country. I found it interesting to listen to the lyrics of these songs by artists who do not usually sing about such topics. A bit much en masse for a simple walk to the train? Perhaps, but my brain isn’t really doing much else at such times anyway, so it was a nice diversion.

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Saturday, September 25, 2010

John Legend & The Roots: Wake Up!

I have to say that the new album by John Legend and the Roots, “Wake Up!” took me in a different direction than I was expecting, and in part I have Oprah to thank for it. Back up: if John Legend had put out a new album on which he was singing nursery rhymes, I would still be reviewing it today. I absolutely love him and was thrilled that we were able to catch him at Ravinia last summer. Without knowing anything about this album, I was a bit curious as to why he teamed up with The Roots; I like them but am not a diehard fan. What luck that the online version of the album comes with a 25 minute interview. Research done!

John Legend was pretty involved in the Obama campaign. During the summer of 2008 as the excitement about potential change captivated our country, he approached The Roots about making an album that captured that hopeful feeling of change. What they settled on was covering some of the music from the sixties and seventies that were of the “social activist” genre (if there is such a genre) that had kind of the funky sound that suited them. They chose songs that may be recognizable to people who remember the music from those time periods first-hand, but none of the songs were familiar to me. I do not believe they were coming through my beloved transistor radio on WLS AM89 back then. The songs have a great sound to them and a lot of the issues they sing about are unfortunately still quite relevant today, such as healthcare and race. If you don’t know anything about The Roots, they’re considered hip-hop/rap. I’m not sure “funky” is John Legend’s most natural sound; some of the songs seem like he’s kind of forcing the funk, but his voice with The Roots is a nice mix, and they kept the music pretty “pure” without crazy synthesizers or special effects. My favorites on this album are the title track (“Wake Up”), which is a really pretty song with Common (rapper) and someone named Melanie Fiona, who is from a group I’ve never heard of, and “Hard Times”. Sit tight, I’m getting to the Oprah connection.

There is one exception to the cover songs on this album. The song “Shine” was written for the upcoming movie called “Waiting For ‘Superman’”, which I obviously assumed was some sort of superhero movie I would never see. I did love the song, however, particularly the version (there are two) that is actually for the movie because it is just John and the piano- so pretty. The other version sounds more radio-ready, but still a great song. The lyrics follow the theme of the rest of the album in believing in our young people (“let ‘em shine”). When I was talking to my sister the other night, she mentioned that John Legend had been on Oprah earlier in the week, which was exciting, to talk about educational reform, which was very disappointing. Nonetheless, I watched the episode since my oldest daughter is devoted to Oprah and has a season pass on the DVR for her show. It was then that I learned that “Waiting for ‘Superman’” is actually a documentary about the state of our country’s education system, and the clips I saw were quite compelling. I have therefore changed my tune, so to speak, and do plan to see the movie. It’s due to be released in Chicago sometime in October and is directed by Davis Guggenheim, who also directed “An Inconvenient Truth.” There, I’m stepping off my soapbox, which I never intended to be on when I started listening to this album a few days ago.

To recap, this isn’t your typical John Legend album, but if you like the R&B vibe and if you happened to have been a social activist in the sixties and seventies, you will like this album. To try: “Hard Times”, “Wake Up Everybody”, and “Shine” (either version). Enjoy the groovy video for "Wake Up Everybody" below.

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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Sound of Starbucks

It is with some embarrassment that I can admit to being an expert on pretty much all aspects of Starbucks. Not only do I start each day with my Grand Skinny Cinnamon Dolce Latte (diva!), but I often supplement that with a piece of coffee cake, and lately I’ve been picking up lunch there at the same time. How exciting that I can sustain myself with food almost exclusively from Starbucks. I also have not one but two Christmas ornaments of little Starbucks cups- they’re adorable! Good behavior in church is rewarded with a stop by Starbucks for a donut (when do the kids outgrow the need for bribery and/or rewards for good behavior in church, by the way? I have three kids in high school!). Failure to make the cut for any sort of tryout is immediate grounds for a Frappuccino; same with new braces. What’s not to love, except possibly the prices? It is truly a store for every occasion! Never mind that it might be eclipsing McDonalds as the cause of obesity.

The two Starbucks that I frequent could not be more different from each other. The one closest to my house is large with comfortable, oversized chairs, ample tables, and a full selection of shopping opportunities from mugs to candy to actual cappuccino makers. There is outdoor seating and on any given morning, particularly on the weekends, there is a good crowd that appears ready to spend the entire day camped out there (which you could do because of the nice restroom and, as I mentioned, an array of food). Most of those people also come with their dogs, who also seems to know each other, and cute, sporty dog water bowls. It’s suburban Starbucks at its finest. Contrast that to my downtown work Starbucks. Not only is there no outdoor seating, but there is also no room for any indoor seating or merchandise for sale. Often, unfortunately, there is also not enough space for the line of patrons, which often extends out the door in the morning- unpleasant during the winter.

There is a marked difference in the workers at both locations, as well. Suburban Starbucks has a gentle, polite staff who never fails to ask me if I need any ground coffee for my coffeemaker at home, despite the fact that they know I drink latte. Also, why would I want to make coffee at home when I can spend almost $5 for a cup at their store? Those workers are so professional they may have received their college degrees in barista-ing. They listen carefully to my drink order, repeat it clearly for the person calmly making all the drinks and then that person repeats the order back to ensure complete accuracy. The workers at my downtown Starbucks? Country Mouse and City Mouse looks like clones compared to the workers at home vs. work Starbucks. They call me “Honey” and “Girlfriend” downtown. They do not care about my coffee situation at home. They know my order before I place it and my drink is often ready by the time I’ve paid.

What is the biggest reason I love my downtown Starbucks? The music, of course. Last Saturday, I was in suburban Starbucks with my youngest daughter and I commented to her with horror that there was no music playing whatsoever. Mind you, there was a pleasant hum of book groups chatting, families sharing hot chocolate and high schoolers studying…but no music? Not only is downtown Starbucks borderline claustrophobic, but it is also LOUD. The music is blaring and the gals are belting out the words to whatever is playing. Lately I’ve noticed that they’ve been playing the latest Sheryl Crow album- and here I thought that album was mostly good for a nap on the porch (no disrespect as I love naps on the porch). Seriously, it is almost impossible for your mood not to be bumped up a notch or two just from getting your coffee. They don’t take themselves seriously and they are enjoying and sharing good music. What better way to start your day?

I always pick up those little free music cards when they have a new one out. Again, they are displayed with great punctuality at home; when they get around to putting them out downtown they tend to be cards I picked up a month earlier in the ‘burbs. As a tribute to Starbucks and its music, here are some of the recent songs from those cards that I am most partial to. It plays right into one of my career goals of quitting my job in middle management and becoming the person who hopefully gets paid a lot of money to choose what music is displayed at the Starbucks counters and what songs to put on those little cards. Wish me luck!

By Some Miracle (Philip Selway)
Better Days (Eddie Vedder)
Loving You is Easy (Sarah McLachlan)
Southern Pacifica (Josh Ritter)
Little Fire (Patty Griffin, feat. Emmylou Harris)
Everybody’s Hurting (Jakob Dylan)
The High Road (Broken Bells)
Modern Man (The Watson Twins)
Everybody Needs Love (Findlay Brown)
Mystery Zone (Spoon)

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Sunday, September 19, 2010

Brandon Flowers - Crossfire

Your first question, as mine was, might be “Who is Brandon Flowers?” The answer is that he is the lead singer for The Killers, most famously known for Mr. Brightside and probably most embarrassingly for the lyrics “are we human or are we dancers” (cringe). Since I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve gotten into the bad habit of thinking I need to listen to something new every week. There wasn’t much that intrigued me this week, so I took a chance on Brandon and his new album, Flamingo, and was pleasantly surprised.

I was curious as to why Brandon decided to do a solo album, assuming he figured he didn’t need his fellow Killers anymore. What I read, however, is that he actually wanted to make this another Killers album, while his three band mates were ready for a rest, so solo he went. He maintains that this album doesn’t sound like The Killers, but I always think that unless you’re a diehard fan (and I would consider myself more of a casual fan) you’re not really going to notice the difference if the lead singer is the same and the sound isn’t TOO different from the original band. Brandon is kind of an interesting guy. He grew up around Las Vegas and is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon), a bit unusual for a rocker, especially one in a band called The Killers. He’s a little glitzy, although perhaps with his Vegas roots it can’t be helped. He’s also married with two kids and another on the way. Almost a normal guy!

I think this album has a lot of diversity, and after listening to it a couple times through I was singing along (to myself only, of course) and the lyrics stuck with me even when I wasn’t listening. It opens with a song about “Fabulous Las Vegas,” which is sure to be used in the city’s next marketing campaign. There are several songs about love lost, a song that Brandon describes as “Gospel”, and a bonus track that sounds country to me, including the sad ending. There is also a great duet with someone named Jenny Lewis, someone from a band I’m not familiar with.

I read a few reviews of the album that were pretty critical of Brandon’s solo effort, including the fact that he doesn’t come close to reaching the height of one of his main idols, Bruce Springsteen. I think those critics are snobs, or maybe my standards aren’t that high. I liked this album and most of the songs on it. Tracks to try: Hard Enough (Jenny Lewis duet) and Crossfire (getting radio play).  Watch the video for Crossfire, featuring Charlize Theron, below.

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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Cross Country Classics

I will preach to anyone who will listen about how great the girls’ cross country program at my kids’ school is, and I like to think I’ve influenced a couple people to have their daughters join the program, as well. My older daughters are in their junior and senior year, and the program has had a huge impact on their high school experience. Ironically, this is the third year for my junior and only the second year for my senior. Prior to my junior daughter’s freshman year, I enrolled her in the summer running program through the high school, which is generally the precursor to the actual cross country program. She struggled that summer, not really enjoying much of it; friends who had daughters already in the program encouraged me to tell her to hang in there. Thank goodness she did; I can honestly say it has transformed her high school experience. Last summer, my then junior-to-be (now a senior) got in on the action, so now for better or worse (depending on the day), they are both in the program- I say better.

A neighbor told me recently that she required each of her four children, all of whom have gone on to play on college sports teams and/or state championship high school sports teams, to run cross country in middle school so that they understood the definition of “hard work.” She’s not kidding. The middle school program gave us a taste of what being on the cross country team involved, but high school took it to a whole new level. Those girls work hard. If they’re not going to Blackwell Forest Preserve to run up and down the hills, they’re doing weight training, long runs, speed work or other equally unappealing sounding activities. And yet, I can honestly say I have never heard either of my daughters complain about going to practice, maybe because they’re amongst their friends, or they see their hard work pay off at their meets. When I trained for the marathon last summer, people used to comment about how that must have been inspirational to my daughters. The truth is actually the opposite.

I have to say that the girls know how to make running or being part of a team or whatever they do FUN! They do secret spirit gifts before each meet, writing letters and getting small gifts for a teammate, keeping their identity secret. They have a campout before their first meet, complete with costumes and a scavenger hunt. They host pasta dinners before some of the meets. They design t-shirts for the summer running program and the regular season. The wondrous thing about it all is that they do it themselves! After years of leading Brownie troops and school activities, I was startled to realize that they no longer needed their mommies to help them. The activity that really stands out for me is their annual “Bagel Run”. Two years ago, when my now junior (then freshman) did the Bagel Run, I remember driving her a great distance west to a remote spot on the Prairie Path early one Saturday morning. I can’t remember her distance, but there were three such groups (this year at distances of 7 miles, 8 ½ and 9 ½ miles), all of which ran toward Wheaton on the Prairie Path, concluding with their cheering parents greeting them at the finish. I remember feeling strangely emotional as the girls finished, many having just completed the longest runs of their lives. After everyone finished, they all celebrated with a big breakfast at a nearby teammate’s house. On that Saturday morning, the Prairie Path was crowded with our girls, as well as marathon training groups and people just out for a run on a Saturday morning. The thing that struck me is that pretty much anyone who isn’t physically disabled can get out there and run- it’s just that some people do it and some don’t. These girls finished those distances as a result of hard work. It literally inspired me to start running, ultimately signing up for the marathon last year.

One of the many traditions the girls’ cross country team has is that each year the juniors make a playlist, burned onto a cd and distributed to each girl on the team. Being girls and naturally inclined toward craftiness, the cds are also decorated and bedazzled. Some of the songs are related to running while others are more generally inspirational or just fun. I love getting my hands on the cd because it’s fun to hear what they’ve chosen during a given year. Last year’s cd is especially close to my heart as the songs immediately put me on the lakefront doing my mid-week runs after work as part of my marathon training. I decided to take the best of the last three years’ cds and share them because I think it’s yet another GREAT tradition that the team keeps alive from year to year. As testament to the strength of the program, I was amused and touched to see many parents of last year’s seniors at our first invitational this year, even though their own daughters are now off at college. It’s hard to let go!

Without crying on my laptop and making a scene on the train, I’ll get to the business of my favorite songs from the last couple years. If there is a duplicate here and there from a previous list, the original inspiration was from these cds. Best of luck to anyone who is motivated and inspired to get out there and run!

• Animal (Neon Trees)
• Ants Marching (Dave Matthews Band)
• Dynamite (Taio Cruz)
• Go The Distance (Roger Bart/Disney)
• Magic (B.o.B.)
• Not Afraid (Eminem)
• One Tribe (Black Eyed Peas)
• I Run For Life (Melissa Etheridge)
• Heart of a Champion (Nelly)
• I Run to You (Lady Antebellum)
• Don’t Stop the Beat (Junior Senior)
• Jai Ho! (A.R. Rahman & the Pussycat Dolls)
• Beautiful Day (U2)
• All These Things That I’ve Done (The Killers)
• Superstar (Lupe Fiasco)
• Mama Mia (ABBA)
• Lose Yourself (Eminem)
• I Gotta Feeling (Black Eyed Peas)

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Sunday, September 12, 2010

My VMA Predictions

Well, it’s that time of year that everyone has been waiting for: not the Oscars or the Emmys, it’s the MTV Video Music Awards! It’s a bit surprising that MTV continues to host this ceremony since to my knowledge they have not aired an actual video in at least a decade. I’m pretty sure the schedule is full up with Teen Mom, Cribs, Teen Cribs, etc. Back in the old days when I was a kid, we used to watch music videos on t.v.- crazy! Looking back, it’s somewhat surprising that my family actually had cable and that my mom allowed us to watch videos. Maybe she was more progressive than she seemed at the time. Anyway, I was pleased to be able to sit at my computer and watch each of the nominated videos online (what an exciting Saturday night it has been!).

I am quite certain that most of the MTV artists who are making videos do not have the suburban music mom demographic in mind during their video planning sessions, and I have not publicized the fact that I am evaluating the 2010 nominees to the many teens who live in my house as I am sure they would be mortified because I am so old and should be doing more “mom” type activities, like gardening or walking the dogs. I justify the fact that I am weighing in on the videos by noting that the VMA host this year is Chelsea Handler, who is just a few years younger than me (okay, 7 years, but that’s not much). Also, Madonna kissed Britney Spears on the VMAs when she was the exact same age I am now, so it turns out I could be doing something much more mortifying than just watching the videos and quietly writing about which ones I like best.

I normally don’t watch videos because they have the potential to kind of change my impression of the songs. Sometimes they are so wacky that they make me not even like the corresponding songs, or I just picture the videos when I hear the songs. Nonetheless, the VMAs are upon us and as they are at least loosely related to music I thought it would be irresponsible for me not to provide you with some thoughts. I am only evaluating four categories because honestly it ends up being the same 15 or so videos nominated for everything, so the whole thing gets redundant. Here we go:

Video of the Year:

Bad Romance (Lady Gaga) – I wouldn’t say this video has a heavy plot to it, but it’s always entertaining to see the many costumes that Gaga pulls out of her closet. You just can’t find those dresses at Ann Taylor.
Telephone (Lady Gaga, feat. Beyoncé) – This video is kind of like a little mini movie, almost 9 minutes long. The premise is Lady Gaga in prison, and while I have never been in prison, I think they may have taken some creative license with this one. Anyway, once released, her friend Beyoncé picks her up and the two of them end up doing kind of a large-scale Thelma and Louise deal. Although I thought this video was pretty weird, I think it will win because it is quite creative.
Not Afraid (Eminem) – Not a ton of action in this video. Eminem stands on top of a building and ponders his fears as he proclaims that he is…not afraid. I still like the message in this song, but I didn’t find the video very memorable.
Airplanes (B.o.B. feat. Hayley Williams) – This video was cute enough, but I’m surprised that it was thought to be good enough to be nominated for video of the year.
Kings and Queens (30 Seconds to Mars) – This was the only song of the ones nominated in this category that I didn’t know beforehand, and it ended up being my favorite video. I’m not exactly sure how it relates to the song, but the video is a bunch of people riding their bikes around a city at night, which doesn’t sound very exciting, but it had a nice feel to it.
Dog Days Are Over (Florence + the Machine) – It turns out Florence is about one notch less crazy looking than Lady Gaga, but I didn’t think her video had much about it that was overly interesting and (this part is important) she’s not Lady Gaga.

Overall, my favorite was Kings and Queens, but I think Telephone will win.

Best Collaboration:

Video Phone (Beyoncé feat. Lady Gaga) – I know it’s confusing that both Beyoncé and Lady Gaga recorded songs about phones and guest starred each other in those songs- and videos. This one isn’t nearly as interesting as Telephone, in my opinion.
Telephone (Lady Gaga feat. Beyoncé) – see previous section
Airplanes (B.o.B. feat. Hayley Williams) – ditto
My First Kiss (3OH!3 feat. Ke$ha) – I think this song is fun and the video is pretty fun, too. Basically it’s a bunch of random people kissing and 3OH!3 singing. I don’t think we’d be looking for much more from a video for this song.
Empire State of Mind (Jay-Z and Alicia Keys) – This was my favorite video of the ones in this category. I love the song, and the video is pretty true to what the song is about: lots of pictures being flashed of New York. Of course, as with anything that has a Jay-Z association, there is also plenty of Jay-Z being flashed around, including him apparently trying to make us believe he still hangs out in the crummy ‘hood he grew up in when we all know that he is really a record exec in a glass office and has what I’m sure is a very nice house with Beyoncé. I’m getting sidetracked; I did like the song and am probably just bitter that we don’t have a song and video nominated that makes Chicago look so cool.

I’m picking Empire State of Mind for this category.

Best Female Video:

Bad Romance (Lady Gaga)
Video Phone (Beyoncé feat. Lady Gaga)
Fifteen (Taylor Swift) – I didn’t want to have to bring this up, but remember how last year Kanye West threw his tantrum onstage when Taylor Swift was trying to accept her award? I don’t think we have to worry about that this year and not just because Kanye is all peace and love for the past year since that incident (supposedly). This video isn’t good enough to win.
Tik Tok (Ke$ha) – Our girl Ke$ha doesn’t really pretend to be anything more than a fun party girl, and this video keeps that image alive nicely.
California Gurls (Katy Perry feat. Snoop Dogg) – Even though I have heard this song a minimum of 2,000 times this summer, I have never seen the video. I guess it would have been too boring to just have the expected beach scenes or convertibles. Therefore, this video is like a weird, demented Candy Land scene with Katy Perry and Snoop Dogg in it. Too weird for me.

I would vote for Tik Tok in this category.

Best Male Video:

Not Afraid (Eminem)
OMG (Usher feat. Will.I.Am) – Kind of a boring video, in my opinion.
Airplanes (B.o.B. feat. Hayley Williams) – Seriously, I might have to watch this video again because I must have missed why it was good enough to keep getting nominated. It was fine but not great.
Find Your Love (Drake) – At first I thought this video might be going in the direction of a sweet summer romance, but I had a hard time maintaining that impression with the drugs, violence and cheating mixed in. Not really a “mom” video.
In My Head (Jason Derulo) – No joke, this video takes place in the parking lot of a convenient store where Jason tries to get a girl to leave with him. At the end, we find out that it was actually all in his head (get it?) when the girl really comes out of the store. As a side note, it drives me crazy when artists announce their names in their songs, basically clobbering us with their branding. We know you’re Jason Derulo!

I guess I’ll go with Eminem’s Not Afraid for this category.

Let’s be honest, no one really cares who wins these awards, first of all. Also, Lady Gaga will probably win everything anyway. She might even figure out how to win Best Male Video, knowing her. Hopefully Chelsea Handler will keep things lively. Enjoy, and if you have time maybe check out a few of these online before the show!

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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Marc Cohn: Listening Booth: 1970

In 1970, I was just a tot, but Marc Cohn was old enough to realize how much he loved and appreciated good music; he was 10 or 11 years old at the time and it was the year he decided that he wanted to be a musician. It’s also the year the Beatles broke up, it was a new decade, and some truly iconic albums were released (Bridge Over Troubled Water, Sweet Baby James and Moondance, to name a few). Now, 40 years later, Marc has chosen 13 songs to cover from that pivotal year on his new album, Listening Booth: 1970. Cool concept! You will find covers of songs by Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Van Morrison, Bread, Cat Stevens and more on this album. This project was not for the faint of heart!

Recording covers can be a tricky business. If the artist doesn’t change the song much from the original, then really what’s the point of redoing it? On the other hand, when someone takes a song that was popular and successful initially and changes it up too much, it might not be very well received. Hmm, what to do? How to make an old song with a new twist? I see the contestants on American Idol struggle with this all the time, and they usually settle for something in the middle. Marc Cohn, however, took things to the extreme; these songs do NOT sound like the originals. I was curious to learn how he chose the songs he used on this album, and he said he basically had two criteria when sorting through songs from 1970: the song actually had to lend itself to being changed up a bit, and it couldn’t have been covered by any other artist very recently to ensure that each song really was a fresh take on the original.

Now, the important question is whether I liked this album. My answer would be: mostly. There were some songs he chose that I didn’t necessarily love in the first place and Marc’s versions didn’t really do anything for me. There were others, however, that really surprised me for almost the same reason; I didn’t love them the first time but was surprised by them in their new versions. Two examples would be Maybe I’m Amazed (Paul McCartney) and Look At Me (John Lennon)- I’m not a huge Beatles fan, but I these two songs were really beautiful (I know, strike me dead that I don’t love the Beatles). My other fave was Make It With You (Bread); Marc teamed up with India.Arie for that one. I love Bread, India.Arie and Marc Cohn, so this song worked out very nicely for me.

Overall, I love this concept and the fact that Marc made these songs “his”, as Paula would counsel the youngsters on AI (past tense). If you’re old enough to remember the songs from when they were first popular, you might enjoy hearing a new version. If you’re not old enough to remember them, I think you’ll like them because they’re good, solid songs sung by a talented artist. Finally, a couple fun facts about Marc Cohn: he is married to ABC news correspondent Elizabeth Vargas, to whom he was introduced by Andre Agassi at the US Open, and five years ago he was shot in Denver during an attempted carjacking (okay, that second one wasn’t necessarily a “fun” fact, although he wasn’t seriously hurt).

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Sunday, September 5, 2010

Walking Playlist

As you may know, I have written several pieces featuring running playlists, and I often reference running when talking about music in general. This has largely been because I am signed up for the 2010 Chicago Marathon and used music to help me along during my training. Well, I’m sorry to report that rather than training I will now be attending physical therapy to resolve a running injury that has sidelined me for the past several weeks. Although I’m obviously disappointed, I’m trying to also look at the positives. For instance, I won’t have to plan my weekends around my long runs, and when I get home from work I can enjoy a drink on our screened-in porch rather than quickly changing into my running clothes. Still, it’s kind of a bummer. I would probably be much more disappointed had I not completed the marathon last year. Perhaps I should just be satisfied with that accomplishment and not punish my body further.

When I ran the marathon last year, I ran for a charity, as many runners do. I’m a little embarrassed to say that this was done partly because when I decided to run the marathon all of the regular spots were sold out (five months in advance!) and the only spots left were through charities, so my motives weren’t completely altruistic. I chose PAWS, a humane society, as my charity and raised almost $1,300 for the cause, which felt great. Running through a charity also motivated me to stick with the training because so many people had donated in my name. We have two “used” dogs, as I like to say, one more gently used than the other. We got our Lab when he was about 18 months old from a family who couldn’t keep him anymore. We got our Great Dane mix when she was 10 months old through a rescue organization and I’m sorry to say that even in those first 10 months a lot of damage was done- she was a mess when we got her, both medically and behaviorally. We’ve made a lot of progress with her, but she has a chronic lung condition that will ultimately probably cut her life short and precludes us from walking her. Luckily for us, she’s mostly a couch potato (except when people come to the door- it’s a perpetual state of training).

Unfortunately for the Lab (Dunkin), his sister’s lung condition has resulted in us being lazy about walking either dog, even though Dunkin is seemingly going to live forever and exhibits no health problems whatsoever except for an overabundance of energy. Upon realizing that my running career is at least temporarily suspended, I decided that this could be a good thing for Dunkin. I also realized this morning that in dog years, Dunkin and I are actually the same age and we could both probably stand to lose a couple pounds. Since I don’t want to be the crazy lady talking to her dog in the park, I decided to make a really great walking playlist amuse me on our outings.

At times when I’m walking to or from the train downtown, a song will come on my iPod that will be exactly in sync with my walking, and those are exactly the kinds of songs I was looking for with this playlist. I want you to know that I have road tested these songs and they will keep your feet moving and your mood elevated. If there’s a song you haven’t heard before, test it on iTunes and try it out. Use your brisk walk as an opportunity to experiment with new music- I wouldn’t steer you wrong, so choose all or a few and take your fat Lab out for a walk!

Song No. 6 – Ane Brun and Ron Sexsmith
American Boy – Estelle, feat. Kanye West
Wind it Up – Gwen Stafani
Suicide Blonde – INXS
Don’t Stop the Beat – Junior Senior
Set Me Free (Rosa Lee) – Los Lobos
Yes I Will – Michael Franti & Spearhead
Grace Kelly – Mika
Crash Years – The New Pornographers
Love and Memories – O.A.R.
Fine Line – Paul McCartney
Heavy Things – Phish
I Hate This Part – Pussycat Dolls
Dancing On My Own – Robyn
Send Me on My Way – Rusted Root
Everyday People – Sly & The Family Stone
Mystery Zone – Spoon
And She Was – Talking Heads
Walkin’ on the Moon – The-Dream & Kanye West
Seven Nation Army – The White Stripes

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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs: God Willin' & The Creek Don't Rise

I think most people are familiar with Ray LaMontagne’s most popular song to date, Trouble. I have even seen it performed by contestants on American Idol, which gives you an idea of its widespread popularity but isn’t necessarily representative of Ray’s usual audience. I was a little surprised to see his newest album, God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise, at the top of the iTunes chart last week, only because I didn’t think he would attract so much interest so quickly after its release. I also wondered who these Pariah Dogs are who are paired up with him on the album since he’s formerly been a solo artist. Their name doesn’t sound too friendly- why not Ray LaMontagne and the Sociable Kittens? It turns out the Pariah Dogs are simply a group of musicians who Ray assembled to record this album, so I don’t know if they’re here to stay or not. Out of curiosity, I did a Google search on “What is a pariah dog?” and found out from Wikipedia that they are feral dogs, often found in India, usually yellow with pointed ears. Very helpfully, the description was accompanied by a photo of a pariah dog, which looked suspiciously similar to your garden variety yellow lab, one of whom resides in my house. Hmmm…

Normally I would not be inclined to recommend a rather bluesy, somewhat melancholy album, but Ray is so emotional that you will find yourself moved by many of the songs. My two favorites are probably the saddest ones on the album, which wouldn’t usually be songs I’d be attracted to. You can probably guess what the subject matter is in Are We Really Through and This Love is Over. I am sure I read years ago around the time of the release of one of Ray’s previous albums that he was going through a divorce at the time or immediately afterwards. If that was the case, he should probably think about finding a support group if these songs are any indication of how he’s doing now. If you are going through a breakup and feel like you haven’t cried quite enough, you might want to listen to one of these songs. Even so, I think they are both beautiful songs, partly because of the feeling he puts into them.

Aside from the sad songs I mentioned, I also liked Beg, Steal or Borrow, which talks about whether a “young man” will follow the same small town pattern put in place by his father or whether he’ll break free and make a mark of his own. All of the songs on the album have interesting, thoughtful lyrics. Although the overall sound of Ray LaMontagne is never necessarily going to be perky and upbeat, this album doesn’t have a “downer” feel to it; it’s more contemplative, and many of the songs pick up the twangy, folk sound that I think he’s known for. There is something about the music on this album that is comforting and reminiscent of music my parents used to listen to in the Seventies, possibly that folk sound coming through. Supposedly Ray was inspired to start singing after listening to a Steven Stills album.

Although Ray grew up on the west coast, he lives in Maine and looks like a quintessential mountain man. He apparently doesn’t like making videos because he doesn’t consider himself attractive enough for that, but would he really have much street cred as a folk singer if he looked like Zac Efron? This is a nice album- you won’t have to work hard to appreciate it, but I predict it will suck you in emotionally, which I believe is Ray LaMontagne’s gift.

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Saturday, August 28, 2010

Songs for the DMV

Last Saturday morning, at approximately 7:58 a.m., I arrived at the Department of Motor Vehicles for the 8:00 opening. I say that everyone, rich or poor, must visit the DMV and I find it to be a fascinating people watching experience. On this particular morning, I thought about calling TLC and having them dispatch a camera crew from What Not to Wear to the facility ASAP, for instance. Most people dread their visits to the DMV, and it’s not even clever but more cliché to joke about how grumpy the workers there are. There is some evidence of the general unhappiness of the patrons at the facility: one sign warns not to use abusive language toward the employees, and don’t even thinking about bribing a worker. Also, you can leave your debit card at home and dig out your dusty checkbook instead. I particularly enjoy the situations where the security guard must intervene when someone becomes belligerent because they have not brought the proper paperwork, which is a trick in itself.

Nonetheless, there I was on Saturday morning and to my surprise and delight, I had a short and enjoyable experience. For instance, none of the workers I encountered made me feel badly that my license had actually expired five months earlier, as pointed out to me by a bank teller recently when she demanded identification for me to withdraw $20 from my daughter’s account. Never mind that I was depositing $80 cash into a different child’s account and could have just stolen that from my son if I’d wanted. My second pleasant experience occurred at the window where you have to update any personal information. I very bravely informed her that my weight might be just a bit higher than it was last time, but to my surprise she shaved a couple pounds off the number I gave her, closer to what she probably guessed is my goal weight. She also studied my hair and changed the color from boring brown to auburn- much better! Finally, the camera lady took three pictures of me before settling on one she was happy with. The first she declared looked too much like a mug shot, which didn’t bother me but seemed to bother her. In the second picture I apparently I have my eyes closed. By the time we got to the third photo, her coworker had joined the effort and they actually had me laughing. I think my real picture would most accurately be something in between a mug shot and laughing, but I admired the work she put into the whole thing.

You might notice the next time you’re at the DMV that while most of the adults look very unhappy, there is another group who is extremely excited to be there, and they are all 16 years old. Since we have a number of teenagers in our house right now, there are ample opportunities to visit the DMV as each child requires a minimum of two visits, one to get a permit and the other to get the actual license. Two visits is the best case scenario; if you forget any paperwork or the teenager does not pass either the written test or the road test, the experience must be repeated at a later time. Being the supportive mother that I am, I made it very clear to my children that they were expected to pass the written test on the first try, and I tried to position them as best I could for a positive outcome to the road test. So far, so good: two kids have their license in only four total visits. Let’s hope for the best with the other two; we’ll likely be headed back for child #3’s permit in early 2011.

While I was waiting for my number to be called last Saturday, I saw numerous youngsters anxiously leaving to take their road test, all on this particular morning returning happily, though I imagine that could be a tearful return in other instances. I started to think about how nice it might be to have encouraging music playing, not only to pump up the kids for their road tests but also just to make things more pleasant for the rest of us. Here are my suggestions- there’s something for everyone!

Shut Up and Drive – Rihanna

Roll on Down the Highway – Bachman-Turner Overdrive

Road to Nowhere – Talking Heads

Drive Slow – Kanye West, feat. Paul West & GLC

Car Wash – Rose Royce

Thunder Road – Bruce Springsteen

Long Road Home – Sheryl Crow

Drive In Drive Out – Dave Matthews Band

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