News and Notes
The Hottest New Group in Jazz
Taking its title from the first of the three Columbia albums it compiles (the others being L,H&R Sing Ellington and High Flying with the Ike Isaacs Trio), this double CD set documents one of the hottest vocal groups of any genre, ever. Combining vocalese (the art of putting lyrics to previously improvised instrumental solos), scat, and more traditional jazz and R&B singing, Dave Lambert, Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross made music that is inventive, sophisticated, humorous, and swinging. "Twisted," "Cottontail," and "Farmer's Market" are just a few of the many gems included here.
The Constant Gardener
John le Carré's eighteenth novel opens with the shocking murder of Tessa Quayle, the alluring, unconventional young wife of career diplomat and dedicated gardener Justin Quayle, who is old enough to be her father. Tessa's body is discovered in remote northern Kenya, where she had been traveling with an African doctor and fellow activist, far from the post-colonial comforts of British Nairobi. Completely transformed by the loss, Justin undertakes an urgent, impassioned search for the truth about his wife's death, her life, and her work, which she had hidden from him. This quest uncovers grand-scale political corruption, pharmaceutical foul-play, greed, and immorality, and ends in an intimate, inevitable encounter with evil.
Gold Diggers of 1933
The plot (directed by Mervyn LeRoy) involves a group of showgirls struggling to make a living during the depression, a society kid trying to conceal his songwriting career from his family, and a hilarious case of mistaken identity. But nobody really watches a Busby Berkeley musical for the plot --it's the eyepopping dance numbers! And Gold Diggers delivers with neon violins, silver-dollar-clad showgirls, and Ginger Rogers singing "We're in the Money" in pig Latin. Now that's entertainment.
The Romance of American Communism
A smart, passionate study of the turbulent role of the Communist Party USA by a literary critic and essayist who grew up in the thick of it. Gornick recounts the relief and solace found in this brand of politics and, after the release of the 1956 Kruschev Report, the unfathomable heartbreak. Through the testimonies of CP members and personal experience, she examines a political party and philosophy demonized by historians, politicians, and the Soviets-- yet still beloved by former members. This is, ultimately, a story of American activism: of Depression-era socialism, New York City liberals, and California farmworkers; of the thrill of organization, and the loneliness of another Saturday night peddling the Daily Worker door to door.
In setting the poetry of Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology to music, Richard Buckner has created a work of stark beauty, as personal and intimate as if he had written the words himself. The album flows continuously (one track, thirty-four minutes), sometimes trickling delicately on the strings of acoustic guitar and cello, sometimes roiling with waves of organ and electric guitar. But it is Buckner's voice that brings these tales to life --whispering and wailing of passion and sorrow-- from beyond the graves that lie on The Hill.
British House of Commons
Wednesdays, Sundays, & Mondays
If it only featured topics a bit sexier than financing for the Millennium Dome, or the state of the Euro, C-SPAN's coverage of "Question Time" could easily be in the same league as the Jerry Springer Show. With the sarcastic insults hurled by the various guests, the hooting and hollering from the gallery, and the host trying to keep --at least the appearance of-- order, it's perfect fodder for a sensational talk show. It's ironic that in America, birthplace of trashy daytime TV, the uncommonly dull congressional broadcasts are overshadowed by the truly entertaining British House of Commons.
If you are reading this on the monitor of your office computer, chances are you are within view of an irritating "corporate motivational poster" (to increase the insult, they are usually FRAMED to impress their importance on you). A company called Despair, Inc. has created posters (and other products) that condescend to the pessimistic, cynical office peon you really are. (Tip of the hat to co-worker "Stephanie" for sending me the link on company time.)
"Bullshit! You're a white suburban punk. Just like me."
Repo Man entered the pop-culture consciousness as a defining artifact of the Reagan '80s: a punk anthem showcasing societal alienation in America. The bastard child of Dr. Strangelove and Easy Rider, this apocalyptic treat revolves around the disaffected Otto (perhaps Emilio Estevez' finest performance), who joins a team of repo men tracking down a Chevy Malibu with mysteriously glowing cargo in its trunk. With rapier dialog, surprisingly beautiful cinematography, and a perfect-pitch soundtrack, Repo Man rewards repeated viewing.
"The more you drive, the less intelligent you are."
Drums and Wires
XTC's third album was a turning point. Changing personnel (keyboardist Barry Andrews out, guitarist Dave Gregory in) and a new producer (Steve Lillywhite) provided the band with a more muscular sound. But what really made the difference on Drums and Wires was the rapidly developing songwriting skills of Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding. Quirky, jagged, insanely catchy gems like "Helicopter" and "Making Plans for Nigel" upped the ante considerably and set the stage for even greater things to come.
The Night Listener
Armistead Maupin is a dreamy middle-aged queer from the Carolinas, and a mesmerizing storyteller. His characters never fail to seduce me --quirky, picturesque, happily-ever-after versions of men and women I have known and loved over a couple of decades in the San Francisco Bay Area. An unabashed roman � clef, The Night Listener explores the heartbroken borderland where art, imagination, pain, and ego are all in a tangle. It is a poignant tale about family and friendship, identity and abuse, endings and transformations.
Manu Chao blends pop and folk music from Latin America, Africa, Europe, and the Caribbean into a rich travelogue of rhythm, politics, and found sound. Just as he did in his former band (Mano Negra), Chao sings here in Spanish, French, and English. Whereas Mano Negra's musical and cultural diversity couldn't conceal the roaring beat of its punk heart, the acoustic-based Clandestino is a more restrained affair. It is, however, no less engaging.