Friday, April 29, 2016

Paul Draper's New Single: "Feeling My Heart Run Slow"

I've professed my love of the late, great band Mansun. They've been split up since 2003, but their music is some of my favorite ever made and it's soundtracked my life over the last sixteen years since I first became a fan. Since their break-up, I and countless other fans have been wondering when Paul Draper, their lead singer, songwriter, and rhythm guitarist would release some solo music. While Paul has remained busy as a producer and collaborator, we all really wanted some new music from this supremely talented man. A track was teased during the first ever Mansun Convention in 2014, and since then Paul has posted numerous videos and clips on his Facebook page showing the making of his first solo album. Finally, this past week, the first song was released in advance of the EP that will precede the album. Titled "Feeling My Heart Run Slow," this is the finished version of the track that was premiered at the Mansun convention and what a great song it is! I cannot explain how great it was to for me to hear Paul's voice again singing a new song that has all the hallmarks of his great songwriting. It was at the same time comforting and spine-tingling. As with most of his Mansun stuff, it has a soaring chorus and enough interesting stuff going on musically to keep you engaged after countless listens.

I hope you like this song as much as I do, and for me this bodes VERY well for Paul's forthcoming album...I can't wait! Have a listen or five and let me know what you think.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Complicated Game: Inside the Songs of XTC

In 1998, a book by longtime XTC fan and friend Neville Farmer called Song Stories was released and quickly became one of my favorite books. A song-by-song look at the entire XTC catalog, as well as a band history, all told with the band's input, I'd probably read it a half dozen times since I bought it in '98 and when I wrote my review, I was very complimentary in my assessment. However, an interesting thing happened when I tweeted out a link to my review...Andy Partridge himself replied to it! In his response, he complimented me on the review but said: "Don't like the writing. Feel we missed a good opportunity, Farmer too sarky (sarcastic) we thought. Never saw a penny." Around this same time, I had caught wind of a forthcoming new book that Andy alone was involved in along the same lines of a song-by-song analysis. I would've wanted to read it anyway, but given Andy's opinion of Song Stories, my curiosity was piqued even more. That book, Complicated Game: Inside the Songs of XTC, came out a few weeks ago and is the subject of this review.

***special thanks to Tom at Jawbone Press for sending me a copy of the book to review!***

Author Todd Bernhardt is an XTC fan and writer for Modern Drummer who, over the course of several years, interviewed Andy about each song he wrote during of XTC's career, the results of which were published on the superb Chalkhills XTC fansite. Todd and Andy went through each and every XTC song Andy wrote, nearly one hundred of them. Thirty of these were chosen for Complicated Game, which Bernhardt fleshed out and updated with additional interviews with Andy. Starting with one of the band's earliest singles, "This is Pop," and working its way chronologically through to their final album, Wasp Star, each song gets its own chapter and is set up as a dialogue between the author and Andy, with Bernhardt's questions and prodding being answered by Andy with his trademark wit and humor. Drawing upon his memory as well as his extensive songwriting notebooks dating back to the very beginning of XTC's career, Andy offers his insights into the songs, ranging from what inspired him to write them to the sounds and techniques used in the studio to record them.

One of the things that's always made Andy Partridge such a great interview subject is how funny he is, as well as his extensive knowledge of rock history and all of its minutiae (his knowledge of such small and obscure details is even deeper than mine, which I find very impressive!). Beyond describing why he wrote the songs, Andy discusses how he stumbled upon many of the chord patterns and riffs; this could range from him detailing the chord sequence to telling Bernhardt which song he was playing on guitar (i.e. "Summertime Blues" in one example) when he stumbled upon the idea for something new. He explains his thought process as he worked on the songs, and even better, discusses a lot of the technical aspects of how they were then subsequently recorded and produced in the studio for the albums. Throughout the course of these discussions, Andy goes off on many tangents, some related and some wildly unrelated, but always very entertaining, enlightening, and uniquely Partridge. For the most part, Bernhardt does a good job of directing the discussion back to the song at hand although in a few cases, they both seem to get off piste and too wrapped up in their side discussion that it can get a bit distracting. The book ends with a chapter of Andy discussing his approach to songwriting, which as a songwriter myself, I found incredibly informative and illuminating. I always like to learn from those who have mastered a craft and Andy was deep and profound while still being relatable and easy to understand. A fine way to end the book, I thought.

If I have any gripes with the book, they're fairly minor although still a bit nagging. First and foremost, as a massive XTC fan, is that I just want more songs to be discussed! Andy is so interesting and enjoyable to listen to that I would have gladly hread about an additional thirty songs had they been included in the book...sure, it would've made the book even longer than its already hefty 400 pages, but what's wrong with that? On a more serious note, though, the cherry-picking of which thirty songs were discussed in the book baffled me a little bit. While I'm sure any fan could nitpick why certain favorite songs of theirs weren't included, some rather big and important XTC songs weren't included in the book while some more obscure, rare, and honestly weaker ones were. Also, because the author did conduct interviews with Andy for every song, it's a bit strange to hear some of their discussions allude to information in a way in which it would make perfect sense to the two of them, who know what they talked about elsewhere, but not for the reader. Along these same lines, Andy is a bit repetitive in some chapters, saying exactly the same thing about matters pertaining to multiple songs (i.e. if they're from the same album or general time period). Certainly not his fault, but perhaps a bit of editing would have tightened this up. Finally, there were quite a lot of typos and syntax errors that appeared to be more the fault of an editor than the writer himself...nothing too glaring although definitely noticeable. Ditto for some factual errors in a few of the footnotes. 

Keeping Andy's opinion from his tweet to me in mind, I really enjoyed this book. However, I don't think it outright replaces or obsoletes Song Stories. I think that, for a true biography of XTC and a look at their overall song catalogue, Song Stories is still the go-to resource despite its shortcomings. Complicated Game is a fantastic companion piece, though, which allows Andy to go into greater detail about many of the songs discussed in the prior book and I think that any XTC fan needs to have both books in their library.


Tuesday, April 19, 2016

CONCERT PREVIEW: Paul McCartney at Hersheypark Stadium, Hershey, PA July 19, 2016

Well, here's something I never thought would happen since my family moved a couple of years ago! One thing I was disappointed in when we left New England and came to central Pennsylvania was the fact that we went from having a world-class city an hour away to being sort of in the middle of nowhere. This was especially true when it came to my beloved live music...let's face it, just about everybody, no matter how big or small, plays in Boston. But who the heck comes to central PA?

We live about five minutes away from Hersheypark and have seasons passes. It's a lot of fun and a great place to take our kids; because we're so close, it's easy to take them for a few hours every couple of days throughout the summer. The park also has two major concert venues, the Hersheypark Stadium and the Giant Center arena, where major acts regularly come play. However, in the two years we've been here, they've been mostly country or pop artists, none of whom I've personally been interested in, although my wife has seen a few shows by some of her favorite acts here. I've actually gone back to Boston to see shows I wanted to see in the past two years! 

That all changed two weeks ago, though, when Paul McCartney was announcing his forthcoming summer dates for his One on One Tour. When I saw that he was announcing a new concert each day, I thought to myself "wouldn't it be great if he played here? Fat chance of that ever happening, though!" Later that evening, my wife asked me if I'd seen Hersheypark's Facebook post from earlier in the day. When I said that I hadn't, she showed me and I just about fainted: it was a picture of a Hofner bass guitar propped up on the Hersheypark carousel with the caption "One on One." So Paul was going to be actually playing here? I couldn't believe it, especially as I'd literally had that off the cuff thought about it earlier that day! Fast forward to yesterday morning, and utilizing one of the perks of having been in his fanclub for the last several years, I was able to score two floor seats for the concert via the fanclub presale. It'll be my second time seeing Paul (my first was three years ago in Boston) and my wife's first. I'm really excited to be able to share this with her because she's a huge Beatles fan like me and I just know she'll love the whole experience. Being able to spend that time together with her and listening to music we both love dearly will be one of the highlights of my life.

The neighborhood where my house is sits up on a hill above Hershey a little bit and I often tell people that I can see Hersheypark from the end of my driveway (which is true). Now, I'm going to be able to see Paul McCartney in a place I can see from my house. It still seems a bit surreal but damn, will it be fun!

Thursday, April 14, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin

Janis Joplin was the first and biggest solo female rock star, bursting onto the scene in the mid-to-late 1960s with her fiery and soulful vocals, her colorful and outrageous clothes, and her devil-may-care attitude. However, her death from a heroin overdose in late 1970, only weeks after the death of Jimi Hendrix, relegated her to more of a cautionary tale as a charter member of rock and roll's 27 Club. This is a shame because Janis Joplin was a truly talented singer and beyond that, an important feminist icon who helped pave the way for women to break into the boys club that was rock and roll. In Scars of Sweet Paradise, author Alice Echols, who spent over five years extensively interviewing those closest to Janis and researching Janis' life, paints a portrait of a talented yet disturbed woman who more than anything craved attention and affirmation but never seemed to find it. Additionally, Echols places the story of Janis' life and career within the greater context of 1950s and 1960s America such that the book serves a dual purpose as an excellent history of the 60s counterculture and rock music scene. While this book isn't a salacious tell-all, the author doesn't shy away from detailing some of the more sordid aspects of Joplin's life, but she keeps the focus on Janis the person and not her various sexual and pharmaceutical escapades.

Beginning with her birth in Port Arthur, Texas, Echols describes how Janis, the eldest child of Seth and Dorothy Joplin, never fit in, either within her family or her town. Dorothy was emotionally cold and domineering while her father was loving but distant as he could barely stand his wife. Janis felt further marginalized by her younger siblings, especially sister Laura, who to Dorothy was perfect in all of the ways that Janis wasn't. Bullied and teased at school for her looks, personality, and the fact that she marched to the beat of her own drummer in a town and era where that was looked down upon, Janis didn't so much grow up in Port Arthur as much as she endured it. However, she was incredibly smart, a talented artist, and a music lover who would sneak over the state line into Louisiana in order to hang out in predominantly black bars and clubs to drink and listen to her beloved blues, folk, and soul music. After high school, she was in and out of colleges as she bounced between Austin and San Francisco before finally joining Big Brother and the Holding Company in the summer of 1966. From here the band built up a steady fanbase and reputation before their big breakthrough at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967. Janis was suddenly a star although the increased media attention on her wild persona and her raw, unique singing voice began to crowd out the rest of the band and relegate them to mere backing musicians. While she did her best to resist going on a star trip, having a number one album and the relentless drumbeat from fans and her manager Albert Grossman to dump the band and go solo led her to leave Big Brother in December 1968.  She struck out with a radically new band growing out of her desire to have a more soulful, dynamic sound. The new group included horns and keyboards, but the sudden change in sound and style alienated fans and critics and the lukewarm reception afforded her first solo album didn't help. A well-received performance at Woodstock, while not as incendiary as the one from Monterey, kept her popularity high but by the end of the year she broke up the band and struck out with her final line-up in 1970. More popular, this band (the Full Tilt Boogie Band) would back Janis for her final tours and her last album, Pearl, before her sudden death in October 1970.

While Echols does a masterful job chronicling Janis' career, the real strength of the book is in how she dives into Janis' underlying unhappiness, insecurities, and the personality issues she never worked through during her short life. On one hand Janis reveled in being the hard-drinking, drugged-out, loud-talking, foul-mouthed, insatiably bisexual hippie chick the world made famous. On the other hand, she was always depressed by her perpetual lack of a stable long-term relationship, and on many occasions longed to find a good man, get married, have kids, and settle down...what she called her "white picket fence" fantasy. She also never got over the bullying and outsider status she carried with her from Port Arthur and could never really appreciate or enjoy the spoils of her fame and fortune because she suffered from what we would now call "imposter syndrome." Echols manages to set all of this against the backdrop of the rapidly changing American culture of the 1960s and shows that while Janis was well outside the mainstream with her public persona and music (while she still yearned to ultimately conform and live by it), it wasn't until after her death that her true impact as one of the early feminist rock icons was understood. This was especially true since during her life the supposedly enlightened 60s counterculture was still rampantly sexist and at times quite misogynistic. By placing Janis in her proper context and also spending a considerable amount of time at the end of the book deconstructing and assessing the 1960s, as well as the contrasting ways in which Janis was viewed immediately after her death versus how she's viewed today, Echols not only gives the reader a fuller understanding of those times, but of who and why Janis Joplin was the way she was.

Scars of Sweet Paradise is an eminently readable and enjoyable book, informative and quite thought provoking in many places. It's richly detailed and clearly well researched (as evidenced by the extensive notes section at the end) yet it never feels overly scholarly or detached. Echols maintains her distance as an objective writer while still letting her admiration for Janis and her music come through. While the book could have focused perhaps a little bit more on the music, what discussion was there was enough and overall, this is one of the best music biographies I've ever read. When writing about someone as transcendent as Janis, and especially someone who died so young, the danger is always that the focus will be on the flame out instead of the art, but this is absolutely not the case with Scars of Sweet Paradise. If you're a fan of the 1960s and/or Janis Joplin, you need to read this book.


Saturday, April 9, 2016

It Really *IS* All Greek to Me

I recently saw the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 with my wife and, as with the first movie, found it utterly charming, funny, and 100% relatable. I think I've mentioned it before on here, but if not then let me do so now. I'm a third generation Greek-American, and I say that in the sense that I am an American of Greek descent; I have always disliked identity politics and believe that while we're all from somewhere and should all be proud of our heritages, first and foremost we're Americans (obviously this is only applicable to those of us who live in the USA. For my non-American readers, I trust you get what I mean). I've been able to see so much of my own life and family in these two movies. The first film came out in 2002, about five months before my wife and I got married, and the timing was almost too perfect. For anyone who hasn't seen the movie, in a nutshell, it's about a Greek-American woman who falls in love with and gets engaged to a non-Greek man. To her family, who is always nosing into her business, this is unacceptable until they get to know him and until he passes several "tests" in order to be accepted into the family. Besides finding it funny because I could relate to so much since I'm from a similar type of family, my wife and I could really relate to it because it was almost our exact situation, only in reverse: I was the one with the loud, boisterous, everyone-in-your-business Greek family while my wife came from a much smaller, quieter, WASP (for lack of better term) family. What made it even funnier timing besides the movie coming out a few months before our wedding is that when my wife's extended family was flying over from California, it was the movie they saw on their flight! So I always tell my friends when they ask me if I've seen the movie "yes, it's basically my life and not only that, I had a big fat Greek wedding."

Moving beyond the film, though, it has been interesting and challenging (mostly in a good way) growing up in a family and environment similar to what is depicted in those two films. I'm sure it's similar in a lot of ways to people growing up in any family here that has its roots somewhere else: Greek, Italian, Irish, Japanese, Korean, Cuban, Brazilian, Indian, Portuguese, and families from anywhere else who originally emigrated to America can probably relate to a lot of the same things. Speaking from personal experience (and with a family that's not quite as big as the one portrayed in the movies), it can be a struggle to stay connected to everyone and have them all know everything going on in your life while still trying to maintain some semblance of your own identity. My wife is now a veteran at all of this, but when we were first dating and then engaged, it was more than a bit of an eyeopener for her. There's an old saying: "telegram, telephone, tell a Greek," and it's so true...if someone on one side of my family knows something, I end up hearing it from someone on the other side shortly afterward. It can be hard to keep anything private, whether it's a health issue, thinking about buying a new car or house, or an upcoming trip somewhere. We take great pride in our heritage and do all that we can to keep many of the traditions alive. Even though we're all fully assimilated and unquestionably American (and have been for a few generations), we still go to church regularly, speak the language (although this will die out with my own kids), cook traditional Greek dishes, and carry on as many of the traditions as we can.

Most of my relatives in Greece have passed away or are getting very old as they are mainly from the generations of my grandparents, all of whom were first generation Americans (except for one of my grandfathers who came directly from Greece). The relatives I do have over there are uncles, aunts, and cousins who I've only met once or twice. Except for my grandfather mentioned above, all of my relatives from Greece who settled in America that I knew directly have all passed away, so unlike me, my children have never experienced family members from the old country (many of whom only spoke Greek). Both sides of my family came to settle on the New Hampshire seacoast where there is a large Greek community (mainly from the same village in Greece) so growing up, we all knew each other. While I moved away from home a couple of years ago for my current job and have lost (and really miss) the connection I had with the community, it's still definitely a part of me and always will be. So many of my friends have told me over the years that they're envious of how strong and central my heritage is to my family since their families came to this country so long ago that they don't have anything like it.  Every time I feel like being in a Greek family can get to be a bit of a challenge (and I mean that in the nicest way, I really do), I remind myself of that fact and realize how thankful I am for my family, during good times and bad.

Monday, April 4, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography

Billy Joel is one of the most successful songwriters and musicians of the last forty years, having sold millions of albums and charted a staggering thirty-three Top 40 hits. Even though he retired from writing and recording albums after 1993's River of Dreams, he continues to sell out concerts around the world and has a huge and devoted fanbase (including yours truly, who will finally be seeing him live this summer). However, for an artist who so often wears his emotions on his sleeve and writes lyrics opening himself up, he's been perpetually misinterpreted and misunderstood over his long career. He's a polarizing musician in the sense that those who love him do so wholeheartedly while his detractors despise him with a passion. Much of the dislike is fueled by the aforementioned misinterpretation, as well as his numerous public setbacks. With that in mind, in 2011 Billy decided to work with author Fred Schruers on an autobiography, but upon nearing completion he decided to return the publisher's advance and kill the project. However, Schruers decided to use all of the extensive research and interviews he compiled to write a definitive biography of Billy, the resulting book being the subject of this review.

***special thanks to Ellen at Three Rivers Press for sending me a copy of the book to review!*** 

Schruers begins Joel's story with the history of how his family came to America during the run-up to WWII. On his father's side, Billy's family were wealthy and successful Jewish industrialists in Germany who had their business and wealth confiscated by the Nazis and who barely escaped Europe with their lives, coming to America via Cuba when Billy's father Howard was a teenager. Settling in New York City, the family eventually rebuilt their lives and settled into their new country although Howard was always moody and restless, never caring for his new home. On his mother's side, Billy's grandparents were Jews from England who came to the USA around the same time as his father's family. Billy's parents met and got married and a short time later, in 1949, he was born. The family was further augmented when Billy's cousin Judy was adopted as his sister, although Howard's dark moods eventually manifested in him abandoning his family and moving to Austria when Billy was eight years old. Billy's childhood was turbulent as his mother struggled to support them and they were stigmatized as the only poor family in their relatively affluent suburban town on Long Island. However, besides boxing lessons, the one thing his mother made sure to pay for were his piano lessons. Following in the footsteps of his father, who was an accomplished concert pianist, Billy soon developed his virtuoso piano skills as he was bitten by the rock and roll bug in the late 1950s. The real revelation came when he was fifteen and saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show in early 1964. From there on he swore the only thing he wanted to do with his life was be a musician. After playing in a succession of local rock bands, some of which even recorded a couple of albums, Billy found himself poor and depressed by 1970. The situation wasn't helped by a love triangle between him, his best friend, and his best friend's wife that resulted in two failed suicide attempts. Eventually the wife, Elizabeth, divorced her husband and embarked upon a relationship with Billy. It was then that Billy decided to be a songwriter and to record his songs so he could market them to other artists. However, the recordings caught the ear of Artie Ripp who promptly signed Billy to a contract and funded the recording of his first album, Cold Spring Harbor, which turned into a disaster when it was mastered too fast. After forcing his way out of the contract by laying low and playing anonymously in Los Angeles piano bars under an assumed name (which gave him the inspiration to write his first hit song, "Piano Man"), Billy found himself signed to Columbia Records as he embarked upon a wildly successful career starting with the release of Piano Man in 1973 and culminating with River of Dreams in 1993. Along the way there would be many trials and tribulations, many highs countering the lows, all of which are discussed in detail by the author and Billy during their conversations.

One of the strengths of Billy's music is that he's always been very open about his feelings and what he's trying to convey, and that also comes across when he speaks about the various stages of his life and career throughout the book. He's never been afraid to push back against his critics and he spends a good part of the book discussing the inspiration behind many of his songs. A lot of them have been misinterpreted as being "smug," "arrogant," and "misogynistic" (among other labels) and Schruers allows Billy the time to explain why he wrote them and what he was really trying to convey with his lyrics (and reading them on the pages, it's hard to see how the critics could have gotten it so spectacularly wrong unless they didn't want to get it right). He also spends a great deal of time opening up about being a hopeless romantic with a somewhat fatalistic/pessimistic view on love, and he doesn't shy away from discussing his three failed marriages and the numerous relationships in between. Luckily, there's a lot of input from his two most recent ex-wives, Christie Brinkley and Katie Lee, which shed light on their relationships with him and give a deeper view into who Billy is when he's at home away from the stage. He's also quite frank about his struggles with alcoholism and his sobriety. The best parts of the book are when he dissects his own songs and talks about his's clear that even fifty years into his career, Billy Joel is a musician through and through and still enjoys what he does even though he stopped writing, recording, and releasing new popular music over two decades ago. Where the book does tend to drag a bit is when it continues his story after the final album in 1993. While the discussion of all of the various legal hassles he had after being swindled by his former brother-in-law/manager and his lawyer is interesting and a testament to Billy's (over)trusting nature (he got swindled out of a LOT of his money), the various tales of his battles with Elton John during their joint tours and his ailments got to be a little repetitive after a while. These are minor nits I'm picking, but perhaps if the author had condensed them down a little bit more, then this final section of the book would have flowed a bit better. Otherwise, it was a pleasure to read and it's clear that Schruers is first and foremost a fan as it readily comes across throughout the book.

In salvaging the book he was ghosting for Billy, Fred Schruers managed to truly write the definitive biography of one of the great American songwriters and musicians of the twentieth century. Joel has always considered himself more of an Everyman than a rock star and he comes across as genuinely humble and grounded, almost to a fault, across the entire story of his life. He's almost too forgiving and trusting or certain people who have taken advantage of him and even though he still struggles with blue moods, he seems to finally be in a good place in his life. He must be doing something right if he's still selling out concerts and attracting new generations of fans in 2016 and in this book, Fred Schruers gives us an idea of just why this is. Worth it just for the setting-the-record-straight discussions about his songs, yet with so much more to offer, Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography is a book any fan of the Piano Man needs to read.

MY RATING: 8.5/10