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“Sue Me” (from “Guys And Dolls”) – Amazon Advent Calendar Day 15

Album Art

Sue Me

Nathan Lane and Faith Prince

Guys And Dolls (New Broadway Cast Recording)

Genre: Soundtrack

Damn. This is the third Monday in a row that I’ve chosen a show tune as an Advent Calendar selection. We all have a little bit of OCD in us and something now compels me to simply designate Monday as permanent Show Tune Day.

Hey, no problem: I have dozens of favorites. But how will this affect my quarterly P&L? Does my usual Monday traffic respond to content of that type? Can I compensate for any dips in the metrics with some more finely-targeted SEO?

I really don’t know. I barely can explain what any of those terms mean. But writing a paragraph like that makes me feel like kind of a big shot and there’s every chance that paragraphs like that one will elevate me to the sort of speaking gigs where rich people hope to get even richer. The buffets at those kinds of conferences tend to be exceptionally good; in addition to my speaking fee, $5 for a box of store-brand Ziploc baggies can parlay itself into saving three weeks’ worth of grocery budget.

This track is from the early-Nineties revival of the classic. It’s also known as the show that made Nathan Lane, Peter Gallagher, and Faith Prince into stars who could get paid far, far more money for working way, way less hard. It’d definitely be one of my Desert Island Discs. Here they are, performing this number on TV:

It kind of breaks my heart a little. It’s such a damned shame that these legendary productions dry up and blow away after the original cast moves on and the show closes. You can buy “Riding The Bus With My Sister” on DVD. You can see “Family Guy” every hour of the day or night on multiple cable channels. It’s cheap, low-grade horsemeat but it’s on film and it’s on video, so it’s going to be preserved somewhere.

Live theater? It was made to be seen live. From both a creative and a legal point of view. I made this lament to one of the many people in this world who are smarter than I am and they explained that it’s not as simple as plonking a few cameras on tripods in the theater and hitting the “Record” button on them before the curtain goes up. Everyone on the stage, everyone in the orchestra, and everybody behind the scenes has a financial stake and the negotiations between all of the respective trades to make a video production happen generally aren’t thought to be worth the trouble. It’d be easier to move a suspension bridge a bit to the left.

So: if you want to see that episode of “Two And A Half Men” where one and a half of the men have a farting contest inside a closed car and the one man loses when he craps his pants, you’re in luck because it’s in a boxed set. If you want to see the 1992 revival of “Guys And Dolls,” well, that’s just insane.

I’m picking this specific song chiefly because I heard something absolutely wonderful about it last week, during a “Fresh Air” podcast in which Michael Feinstein talked about the career of Frank Loesser…the show’s composer. I already knew that Sam Levene, the show’s first Nathan Detroit, was hired for his skills as a character actor. He was an awful singer. What I didn’t know, and what was absolutely stupidly obvious when Feinstein mentioned it, was that Loesser baked a melodic support system into his one big song.

Not only are all of his notes in the same octave…but the melody “walks” him up to the right note. If Levene had to simply sing “Sue Me…” he’d have been completely off-key. “Hire-A-Law-Yer-And…” lets him dialing it up closer and closer to the “real” lyric.

Isn’t it neat? This kind of machinery was lurking inside this song all the time, unnoticed by me.

Stage music is full of tricks like that. Like Loesser, Mozart had to write music for “The Magic Flute” that would help a very weak Papageno get through his big aria. The orchestra plays his entire melody before he has to sing it…and it ends on the note that he has to start on. It’s a built-in cheat sheet!

Mozart’s first Queen Of The Night, on the other hand, was his sister-in-law and a renowned soprano. Listen and you’ll notice that she gets no help whatsoever from the orchestra. If anything, the orchestra has to keep up with her. Meanwhile, the composer is throwing everything at her he can to make sure that she dies a deathly death of dying.

Listen to “Sue Me” (From “Guys And Dolls”) on the Amazon MP3 Store.

When you click that link, any purchases you make during that Amazon session will result in my receiving a small kickback in the form of Amazon Gift Credits. I shall use them to buy silly, but manifestly wonderful, things.

“I’ll Be Home For Christmas” by Kristin Chenoweth (Amazon Advent Calendar day 13)

Album Art

I’ll Be Home For Christmas

Kristin Chenoweth

A Lovely Way To Spend Christmas

Genre: Miscellaneous

This is probably the perfect time to slot in a song like this. It’s a modern recording of a Christmas classic, sung so very sweetly. Yes, it’s Kristin Chenoweth. Even when she’s singing an angry tune about throwing out a wretch of a boyfriend and vowing to never allow his presence to darken her thoughts ever again…it’s Sweetly Angry. As the boyfriend, you’d feel like it’s best to just pick up all of your clothes and books and CDs off of the front lawn, get them into the trunk of the car, retreat to Panera for a few hours and then circle back and try to fix the situation.

(But if you drove past and saw a smoking slab in the driveway that used to be your Playstation 3, you’d probably conclude that it’d be best to keep on driving and try again later, maybe after catching a movie.)

Why is this weekend the exact right time to put this song into the lineup? Oh, I can give you three reasons. I can also slightly draw this introduction out, to make absolutely certain that the album artwork doesn’t interfere with the formatting of the list.

Okay, we should now be clear to proceed:

  1. It’s the first weekend after the Thanksgiving holiday, and many of us are probably spending some of this time tending to holiday advance-prep. I myself put a half-gallon of apple cider in the fridge the other day, anticipating that this would be the big weekend that I set up my Bachelor Tree.
  2. Not only is “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” a timeless Christmas classic, but it’s also a timely reminder to book your reservations early if you’re traveling over the holidays.
  3. It’s still three weeks before Christmas, and we haven’t yet begun that slow transition from Grinch Personality Mode to Cindy Lou Who Personality Mode.

…Which means that I can cave in to my three-sizes-too-small sentiments and complain about these bastards at the record companies who know damned well that there’s only one good song on the CD, and cynically refuse to sell it to you online unless you buy the whole album.

I speak not of this track, of course (which you can purchase all by itself). I speak of Chenoweth’s fantastic rendition of “O Holy Night.” It’s the gold wedding ring that got dropped into the dark, rank grease trap known as “Deck The Halls (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack).”

Yes, of course it was a terrible movie. What a question!

It stars Danny DeVito and Matthew Broderick. And if this were the 80’s, that’d be terrific news. As-is, it’s not a warning per se but suffice to say that we will study the trailer carefully before making a buying decision.

And oh, dear…there it is: the scene in which “Dad” is inside, or clinging on top of, an improbable and out-of-control vehicle or contraption, screaming and flying through the air.

Another example:

Another:

It’s such a common sign of an actor’s desperate need to begin Act Three of his career that I wonder if it doesn’t amount to a “suicide by cop” sort of tactic on the part of the actor or his agent. That is, he doesn’t have the courage to pull the trigger and end all pretensions of still being able to carry an entire movie by himself, so he has critics, audiences, and executives do it for him. Mark my words: ten years from now, there’ll be a movie trailer in which Johnny Depp will be seen riding an out-of-control rocket-propelled snowmobile over a snowbank and straight into a septic truck as his adorable kids look on.

(Honestly, it’s the best thing. The actor takes a few years off and then, free from the pressure to keep earning those A-list paychecks, he can begin his highly successful Act Three. He’ll re-emerge, usually as a producer of some well-regarded TV shows and as a strong supporting actor in independent dramas.)

Sorry…let’s get back to this song. The “Deck The Halls” soundtrack CD consists of 13 holiday songs. Eight of them are forgettable. Four of the rest are nice, but they’re so familiar that if you want to hear them you hardly need to actually spend any money. You pretty much just need to stand near a speaker placed in any public spot where more than nine people are likely to gather.

And then there’s Track 9: Kristin Chenoweth’s rendition of “O Holy Night.” It’s one of the loveliest versions I’ve ever heard. I’d buy it in a heartbeat. Ah: but it can only be purchased as part of the complete album.

Friends, there have been times when I’ve gone into a transaction knowing full well that I was being rooked. That this was a badger game. That this company or individual’s entire business plan was based on the concept that they could indeed push around people like me — humble, hardworking men and women, who work the land with their bare hands and are responsible for putting the food on America’s tables — get away with it.

Once, I ran out of gas on the highway, called AAA (if you’re a member, they’ll send a truck out free of charge), and then when the truck operator told me he didn’t have any change on him, I pretended to believe him…and that I was delighted to tip him $15 for the $5 worth of gas he’d just put in my car.

Once, I bought an unlocked phone which, no matter how hard I tried, couldn’t connect to AT&T’s digital network. After lots of runaround with Customer Service, and ultimately speaking to an engineer who’d been working there so long that he had been there through two different corporate takeovers and renamings, I learned that the solution was simply to swap my original 16K SIM card for a new 64K one. When I got back in touch with Customer Service and they told me that they couldn’t give me a new SIM without putting me on a one-year contract, I was angry, and I told them that I might switch to another carrier over this, but ultimately I agreed to the new contract.

(OK, yes, it helped that I already knew that AT&T was almost definitely going to become the exclusive carrier of Apple’s upcoming and unnamed new iPod Phone.)

But — my comrades — I cannot bring myself to allow the record industry to make me pay ten dollars for a song that should only cost $1.29, maximum.

The line has been drawn…HERE.

Listen to “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” on the Amazon MP3 Store.

As usual, my Amazon Associates ID is embedded in that link. Anything you buy during that shopping session will result in a small kickback to me in the form of Amazon gift credits…which I will then spend on foolish and wonderful things.

“Theme from ‘Shaun the Sheep'” – Amazon Advent Calendar Day 12

Album Art

Theme from Shaun the Sheep: Life’s a Treat

TV Sounds Unlimited

A Decade of TV Hits: 2000-2009

Genre: Soundtrack

God bless the Netflix Watch Instantly service. God bless the Roku box. God damn the Netflix Watch Instantly service. God damn the Roku box.

(In no particular order.)

Here I am, in my office. Which is also my home, which means it’s a petri dish for distractions, resting inside an incubator of lost productivity. With multiple computers, a bed, a sofa, a fridge, and every book and movie I own all within a short radius of my Swivel Chair of Journalistic Might, it was a miracle that I ever got anything done even before that particular service and that specific device entered the mix.

Now, Netflix is willing and able to send me just about any movie or TV show I want, mere seconds after it occurs to me that I’d like to see it. And the Roku is ready and waiting to pipe it directly onto the big HDTV in front of the soft, cozy couch. What can I say. Something’s gotta give, dear editors, and I’m sorry to say that it’s the work that I agreed to give you today.

Case in point: my fairly recent discovery of “Shaun the Sheep.” Those of you with exquisite taste will recognize the name. Shaun is the lamb that Wallace and Gromit rescued from their carelessly-efficient automated shearing and knitting machine in 1995’s Oscar-winning animated short, “A Close Shave.” The guys manage to pull him out of there in the nick of time, but not before multiple nicks of skin: the machine shaved him all the way down to the sheepskin.

“We’ll call you ‘Shaun’,” pronounces Wallace.

The first time I saw “A Close Shave,” it was in a theater with a full audience. It was the kind of joke that passes under the radar at first, but which results in a burst of laughter 1.8 seconds later.

(Think about it a sec. You’ll get it.)

Who knows how I learned that Aardman had spun Shaun off into his own series of TV shorts for the BBC? But I soon went from watching the teaser clips on the official website to finding the (inevitable) full-episode bootlegs that have been posted here and there…

(I’m embedding this one only because I’m so awesomely totally completely sure that it’s so completely and totally awesomely a 100% legal post, as far as I know.)

(And if I’m mistaken about that, which I’m not, I can only apologize for the behavior of Becca, my office assistant, who found this video and assured me it was legal and who will be sacked for having made such a terrible, terrible mistake. So if it’s actually illegal, go ahead and tell me about that right away, because she will be fired and she will lose her health coverage despite the fact that her kid was finally scheduled to get his ear reattached next week. I want you to promise me that none of that will stop you from telling me about it if this video violates an Aardman copyright.)

…and from there, I discovered that Netflix has 13 episodes of “Shaun the Sheep” available for instant viewing.

So.

That’s where the rest of my day went.

How have Aardman toons remained so consistently funny? I cringed a little when I first heard about the spinoff. Surely they were pushing their luck. Part of what makes “Wallace and Gromit” wonderful is the fact that we get these epic little movies only once every few years. Was there really Franchise Potential in this bit character?

Oh, boy…yes. Shaun’s farm is a well-planned-out ecosystem for situational comedy. The writers’ first Brilliant Stroke was to play by the same rules that apply to W&G’s world. Shaun and the other animals on the farm are animals. The sheep have sheep roles to play; the pigs play pigs; Bitzer the sheepdog is a dog. They don’t talk and they don’t walk around in human clothes.

(Except for that time when the sheep and Bitzer figured out that they could probably get a huge takeout order from the local pizza place if they could throw together a somewhat convincing Human costume and then present themselves at the counter for the pickup. Hilarity most assuredly ensued.)

I marvel at the craftsmanship of the both the animation and the writing. I wonder just how intricately this show’s world was mapped out beforehand. Or did it all evolve organically as the team worked out story ideas? Shaun’s farm is a rich field for storytelling and as near as I can make out, that’s because of its various factions’ multiple zones of conflict and opportunities for collaboration:

  • The Farmer wants the whole farm to run smoothly and efficiently, while still having enough free time to enjoy his simple hobbies and pleasures. Toward that end, he delegates to Bitzer most of the responsibilities of keeping the flock together and out of trouble. He represents the Dire Consequences that will result if things go badly.
  • Bitzer is responsible for keeping the Farmer happy…or at least, making sure that any messes are addressed before they come to the Farmer’s attention. So he’s often in conflict with the sheep.
  • Shaun is the strongest thinker of all of the sheep. He’s not necessarily their leader, but his obvious skills at abstract thought and his ability to link actions to consequences mean that he’s usually the first of the sheep to sense an opportunity and how to take advantage of it. He’s also the first to see a disaster coming and work out how to avert it. In the first kind of situation, he’s at odds with Bitzer. In the second, he’s at odds with the rest of the flock.
  • The Sheep act as a unit, mostly, and are usually oblivious to anything but their immediate situation.
  • The Pigs are simple, classical agents of Chaos, placed there by mischievous gods to make sure that any smoothly-oiled machine or carefully-considered plan goes haywire. Though they respect and fear the authority of the Farmer, via his assigned deputy, Bitzer.

Look, I’m going somewhere with this. Actually, it’s possible that I should be going to a whiteboard, to diagram all of this out. It’s equally possible that I shouldn’t think so hard about the dynamics between the characters.

What I’m getting at is that I love how the writers have set up a closed, dynamic system in which the roles are never completely fixed. In one story, it’s Shaun and the flock teaming up to put one past Bitzer. In another, it’s Shaun and Bitzer teaming up to prevent the flock from running so far amok that a problem gets completely out of hand and their collective home is placed in jeopardy. Sometimes — as with the pursuit of takeout pizza — Shaun, the flock, and Bitzer are all working together towards a shared goal: get pizza for everybody, without the Farmer finding out about it.

There’s a lesson here for anybody interested in telling a good story. Separating your cast into “good guys” and “bad guys” is an amateur approach. Your real goal is to see them as individuals with distinct goals. In any group, there are going to be those whose goals support each other and those who are going to be in conflict. The story flows from there.

(reads that back)

Damn, I would have made a terrific associate professor. That sounds like sharp, shrewd analysis of a literary construct, while explaining nothing and failing to enhance the reader’s enjoyment of the subject the least tiniest bit. This paper would definitely gotten published and I’d be one step closer to a state of professorial bliss known as “tenure,” a Latin word that roughly translates to “Everybody below my pay grade can just kiss my ***.”

Suffice to say: It’s a funny cartoon. It has animals in it and they do lots of funny stuff. You ought to watch it.

It also has a fab theme song. On top of its melodic strengths and overall catchiness the singer has a recognizable accent that I can cartoonishly emulate, and escalate, in the privacy and solitude of my office. It’s not The Proclaimers singing “500 Miles,” but it’ll do.

Yeah, maybe I shouldn’t be blaming Netflix and Roku. It would appear that I can distract myself from legitimate, prosperous work using as little as one chopstick and a twist-tie from a loaf of bread. I’m like the MacGyver of productivity demolition. I suppose that’s something.

Listen to the Theme From Shaun The Sheep (“Life’s A Treat”) on Amazon MP3.

After spending about a thousand words complaining about how good I am at surrounding myself with distractions, I suppose I shouldn’t encourage you to provide me with more of them. Nonetheless, the above link is tagged with my Amazon Associates code, and that after you click it everything you buy on Amazon will result in my getting a small kickback from every purchase (in the form of Amazon gift credits). Which I’ll spend on more Bright, Shiny Objects.

Well, you’ll know what to do.

(Hey, if I made a fortune with these credits, it’s not inconceivable that I’d use them to buy three electric scooters and a good camcorder. I could destroy one of them in a “Will It Blend?” sort of thing, total the second one trying to replicate a stunt I saw on a “Jackass” marathon on MTV2, post the two videos to YouTube, and still have a third one left to zip around town on. Not that this should influence your decision-making in any way, of course.)

“Big Mess” by Devo (Amazon Advent Calendar day 11)

Album Art

Big Mess

Devo

Greatest Hits

Genre: Rock

Kids, there was a true Golden Age twenty or thirty years ago when your biggest commercial asset as a musician was to be the sort of person who, in high school, spent a lot of time yelling “Hey! Quit it! This isn’t funny, guys!!!” at burly upperclassmen, to little or no effect. It was a era when your big stars were your Ric Ocaseks, your David Byrnes, your Thomas Dolbys, and your L. Ron Costellos.

Was there a time before or since when Devo could have hit it so big? Their flashy act was tailor-made for MTV, but I have to remind myself that the band formed during the Nixon administration. It’s tough enough just to imagine what they must have sounded like in 1973, when electronic instruments consisted of just the Theremin, and pocket calculators with poorly-grounded cathode displays.

A proper Devo song will follow the basic blueprint demonstrated by “Big Mess.” It’s tricky to explain the signature style of a band using just words. I suppose the best way for me to describe it is to say “If you can’t imagine a music video for this song in which someone’s running in place in front of a bluescreen, it isn’t really a Devo song.”

The fine men and women of Hulu have endeavored to preserve the 1980’s Devo Experience, in the form of their guest spot on the 80’s superhit teen sitcom “Square Pegs.” I know you’re sick to death of seeing the nonstop reruns of this show in syndication…but give it a look anyway:

As with all TV sitcoms that are set in a high school, the middle-aged men and women of the network at that time perfectly replicated what teenage culture was like. The Mayor of Television would have put his foot down if they hadn’t done a careful job of it.

The clip reminds me of how different schools are today. “Big Mess” was one of my favorite songs back in school. I try to imagine what would happen if a teacher or principal today were walking through the halls and overheard a student humming these lyrics:

I’m a man with a mission
A boy with a gun
I’ve got a picture in my pocket of the lucky one
Who doesn’t know
I’m a big mess
I mean a really big mess

…Yeah, that kid would probably get to see his family and daylight again in about forty years.

Listen to “Big Mess” on the Amazon MP3 Store.

This link is embedded with my Amazon Associates code. If you click it, any purchases you make during that Amazon session will send into motion a complex chain of events that will ultimately result in my getting some Amazon gift credits, which I shall use to purchase glorious and foolish things.

“Everything Put Together Falls Apart” by Paul Simon – Amazon Advent Calendar Day 10

Album Art

Everything Put Together Falls Apart

Paul Simon

Paul Simon

Genre: Pop

Behold: Paul Simon’s anthem to entropy.

Though he just as easily could have been writing about my ongoing relationship with the technology in my home and office. My own little monologue piece on this topic goes along the lines of

“Oh, for God’s sake. Seriously? You know, this morning, when I was in bed reading comic strips and gossip sites, you know, just messing around, you were working perfectly. Perfectly. But now, you seem to sense that I’m in my office and it’s actually important that you help me to reach this goal and complete this task before a specific deadline. Because you’ve chosen now, of all times, to convert yourself from a sleek and powerful analytical engine to a single-function generator of Spinning Beachballs.

“Which is not to say that the beachball you’re showing me isn’t lovely.. Such bright, cheery colors! Look how it spins, spins, spins. And spins. Spinspinspinspin. Why, I could stare at that all afternoon. Oh, right: that’s precisely what I’ve been doing. Instead of working and getting things done, you see.

“I think I understand what you’re up to, here. You’re two years old and you know that I’m probably thinking about replacing you in a year or so. You figure that if you can prevent me from getting any of my work done, I’ll lose all of my writing gigs and then I won’t be able to even afford a new MacBook.

“Is that it? I’m exactly right, aren’t I?”

Paul Simon happens to be a singer/songwriter. So his own reaction to the same sort of mental state goes like this:

Everything put together
Sooner or later falls apart
There’s nothing to it, nothing to it
You can cry
You can lie
For all the good it’ll do you

It’s a far more listenable, I must admit. Though hold off on your final judgment until my composer gets back with a few sketches of the melody. I really think “You Choose NOW To Lose Contact With Your Nameservers?” could be the “My Way” of our modern generation.

“Everything Put Together Falls Apart” is a fascinating tune. I’ve heard it a hundred times…

No, wait: this is the Digital Age. I shouldn’t sleepwalk through this and slug in a piece of tired old hyperbole, when I can tab over to iTunes, call up the Get Info box on this track, and get you an exact figure.

Hmm. OK, apparently, I’ve heard it twelve times.

Well, no matter. Even if I had played it a hundred times I still don’t think I’d understand the song’s structure. If it ever shows up on Rock Band — they’d have to issue it a special Folk/Pop waiver, I realize — you could only play it on “expert” level because the melody keeps getting distracted by shiny objects in the distance and wandering away. If your marching band can play and and march to this song, then yours is a very, very good band indeed and I wish to encourage your hard work with the purchase of waxy fundraising candy.

And I do like the sentiment the song expresses (after we set aside the “Dude, taking uppers and downers to get through the day will have long-ranging consequences of both a medical and a legal nature” part). Entropy always wins. Things will fall apart. You can take that to mean “…so what’s the point?” but I see it as a reminder of why it’s so important to keep building.

It’s easy…so long as your damned MacBook feels like it wants to actually function today.

(Yes, my workday began about an hour late this morning. Things were so slow that I needed to close every document, window and app and restart.)

Listen to “Everything Put Together Falls Apart” on the Amazon MP3 Store.

Yes indeed: that link is embedded with my Amazon Associated code. If you click it, everything you buy during that session will result in a small kickback for me in the form of Amazon gift credits. I swear on my love of God and Country that I’ll spend those credits wisely. Which is to say: on foolish things.

Or maybe I’ll use them to buy a new MacBook.

(Aside to readers: probably not. But I’m writing this on Lilith 9, my current MacBook. I think it’s a good motivator to remind your staff from time to time that nobody’s irreplaceable.)

“G-Spot Tornado” by Frank Zappa (perf. by Ensemble Ambrosius) – Amazon Advent Calendar Day 9

Album Art

G-Spot Tornado (arr. E. Lievonen)

Ensemble Ambrosius

Zappa Album (The)

Genre: Classical

This track proves two things.

First, that Frank Zappa was manifestly a composer. He was destined to spend his life hunched over a clavichord, a quill in his hand, sheets of foolscap under his quill pen, and a bottle of claret within reach. The fact that Zappa was born a couple of centuries too late to be a contemporary of Mozart didn’t deter him in the least. He was a man of drive and determination: he simply made do with the meager tools that were at his disposal in the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s.

I’m fumbling for a way to explain the statement “Clearly, he was a composer.” Well, duh: Zappa squeezed all of those tunes out of his head and into a form that could be filed with the Copyright Office. But somehow, you don’t think of (say) the person who wrote “I’m Too Sexy (For This Song)” as a Composer. You think of him as a “Songwriter.” Maybe as “That weird bald valet guy who wouldn’t stop talking about this hit song he says he wrote twenty years ago, and who almost made me miss my plane.”

Zappa? Oh, absolutely. He was laying down a blueprint for a musical work that was designed to be played live by a great many different groups for centuries to come. This music has layers, it has textures; it’s in no way tethered to the times in which it was created. It was originally composed and performed on a Synclavier and (if Wikipedia is to be believed…for Heaven’s sake, why shouldn’t it?) Zappa pretty much assumed that it was so complex that it could never be performed live, by actual humans.

Hah! Well, here’s a semi-famous orchestral interpretation of “G-Spot Tornado,” conducted by The Man himself. The choreography is by Human Steps.

In fact, the composition is so ambitious that the Amazon MP3 Store lists three different orchestral and baroque arrangements. There’s even a whole band that named itself after this song…with something like two dozen tracks available for download.

Which brings us to Point Two: withholding your catalogue from digital download stores almost never works out well for the Artist’s legacy. The Amazon MP3 Store and iTunes can sell you these weird renditions of “G-Spot Tornado,” but they can’t sell you the Zappa’s original recording, or any other track from 1986’s “Jazz From Hell.”

If you want the Zappa version, you’ll have to buy the CD from Amazon or wherever. But that’s certainly not how people discover new music these days, is it? We come across these things in blog posts and in YouTube videos. We get the itch, we spend 99 cents (or, ugh. $1.29) and we hear the full track. After one or more trips to the download well, maybe we’ll buy the whole CD.

But ordering the disc sight-unseen? And then having it…couriered over? How disgustingly analog! And even if you’re OK with waiting a couple of days to get it, should you gamble $13 on the basis of a single track that you might not even like?

Answer: yes. “Jazz From Hell” is an awesome album. But that’s not the point. The point is that we’re being forced to buy our Zappa via the same mechanism we used way back in the (goddamn) Nineties, when “Full House” was still on the air and they let Pauly Shore make movies. Let’s not go back to those dark and wicked days.

If much of the Zappa catalogue isn’t available on iTunes or Amazon, then that’s obviously the result of a deliberate choice and not a clerical error. It’s also a damned shame. Every time I hear of a high-profile artist whose work is unavailable for (legal) download, I respect that artist’s choice but I wonder if they aren’t overlooking the simple need to keep their music alive for future generations.

I mean, The Beatles could afford to take that risk. There was never any real chance of The Beatles’ “Revolver” ever being forgotten. But nearly twenty years after Zappa’s death, one of the most exciting composers of the late Twentieth century is in danger of becoming just a familiar name, instead of living on as an exciting list of familiar tunes.

Oh, wait…it’s even worse: it’s entirely possible that the very last Zappa tune to fade from memory will be his greatest popular hit. I still cringe whenever I hear a late, great actor listed as “Raul (‘Street Fighter’) Julia.” What a terrible shame it would be for our cultural consciousness if one day Frank Zappa was remembered mostly for “Valley Girl.”

And why? Only because there wasn’t enough of Zappa’s work to go around. With every year, the lesson becomes more clear: if you keep your music out of the iTunes Store or Amazon MP3, it can only mean that keeping these tracks alive is something less than your #1 priority.

Listen to G-Spot Tornado (arr. E. Lievonen) on the Amazon MP3 Store.

As always, all Amazon music links are embedded with my Amazon Associates code. If you click it, any Amazon purchases you make during that session will result in a small kickback to me in the form of Amazon gift credits…which I shall spend foolishly and lavishly on things I’ll enjoy.

“Coming Home” by John Legend (Amazon Advent Calendar day 7)

Album Art

Coming Home

John Legend

Once Again

Genre: R&B/Soul

This is a masterful song. No other observation or rumination should go ahead of that statement. It stopped me dead when I heard Legend perform it on TV, and then after I bought it (immediately following the show) I kept tapping a button in iTunes to hear it again.

Legend’s singing and production on this song remind me of one of Aesop’s fables. The wind and the sun are arguing about which one is stronger. Actually, the wind is doing most of the arguing. He sees a man walking along a road below and demonstrates his power by lashing down at him with full force, trying to blow his cloak off of his back. He doubles and redoubles his force, which only makes the man hold his cloak around himself even more tightly.

The wind is spent. The Sun makes his point by simply radiating. The traveler walks a few hundred yards, and releases his grip on the cloak. A few hundred more, and he undoes the clasps. And soon, he’s taken it off entirely and slung it over his shoulder.

John Legend’s performance here is all about radiance, not force. It’s simple and unadorned and maybe because of that, you open yourself up to it. It’s a very moving piece about a soldier worrying about his family back home and hoping that he lives to return to them. Failing that, he hopes that they’ll carry on without him. It brings the stakes of war home to you in a way that no hammy flag-waving eagle-soaring power-anthem, nor any smug and heavy-handed hippie ballad, ever could.

I’m sure that it resonates personally with just about everybody. “Coming Home” is an intensely personal meme. A sufficiently advanced and exotic method of observing and mapping brain activity would rely on this phrase as a trigger. “Think of coming home,” the technician tells the subject. The scanner can ride that thought through the entire operating system.

I’m thinking of that concept a lot at the moment. Thanksgiving, I’ve come to understand, serves as a clear map to a defining issue for you and your stage in life. If you’re traveling somewhere for Thanksgiving, is “home” the place you’re traveling to at the start of the four-day weekend, or is it the place where you land at the very end of it?

Turn that thought over in your head. When was the year when you felt like you were leaving your home and traveling to your folks’ house? Even if you were staying put, there were many years when you described it as “I’m not going home for Thanksgiving this year.”

I suppose everyone would define this differently. You kind of automatically make the switch when you get married. Even if there are a few fuzzy years after you start co-habitating, it almost certainly happens by the time you have kids.

It’s fuzzier still when you’re single. I tend to define “home” as that place where I have access to (in alphabetical order, to show no favoritism) my family, my friends and my Mac. Which actually means that if I have the third thing, I’m practically 80% there.

Every year of my life (at least since 1989, when I got my first Mac) I’ve spent Thanksgiving with one of the first two groups. This year, I spent it with the third. I didn’t discourage Thanksgiving invitations, nor did I fish for them. For reasons that would be dull to discuss, I felt like this would be a good year to spend the holiday alone in thought. By Wednesday morning, my options still seemed to be open, so I committed…by purchasing a quarter-turkey and the other required elements of a Thanksgiving dinner.

I did receive a couple of invitations late in the game, but I politely declined them. I made a pie Wednesday night at 2 AM. While it baked, I snuck outside with my SLR on a tripod to take photos of an absolutely brilliantly-clear starry sky. I got to bed very late, but I woke up early enough to watch the parade. I started on the bread dough. I watched a movie during the first rise. After I got the bread started on its second rise, I went for a long drive. When I got back, I prepped the turkey and got it in the oven. Kipped on the sofa for another movie on Netflix. Started shuttling pans of rolls through the toaster oven and got started on the beans.

Everything came out great. I spent the rest of the night reading a new book, and iChatting with friends to compare notes on their own Thanksgivings. At 1 AM, I had a turkey and cranberry sauce sandwich, on homemade bread. This, I’m sure you realize, is the whole reason why I bothered to cook a full, proper Thanksgiving dinner instead of just making a pot of pasta.

I wouldn’t say that it was the very best Thanksgiving I’ve ever had. But it was up there in the top five, and the reason is pretty simple: I was Home. I can’t say that I stopped at any point to explicitly enumerate all of my many blessings in life. I didn’t really need to. They were all around me.

Today’s another one of those Worst Travel Days Of The Year. Or so the many press releases in my Inbox tell me. Whether you’re spending Sunday leaving home or returning to it…safe travels to you.

Coming Home

“Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” (Frank Sinatra & Cyndi Lauper) – Amazon Advent Calendar day 6

Album Art

Santa Claus Is Coming to Town

Cyndi Lauper & Frank Sinatra

A Very Special Christmas, Vol. 2

Genre: Holiday

It’s certainly appropriate to have some actual Holiday Music in the mix this weekend. 90% of you are spending part of this time either shopping for gifts, or decorating the house, or writing out cards. Or perhaps you’re preparing a blistering post for your Facebook page about how incredibly childish it is to believe that a magical bearded man whom nobody ever sees is covering the entire world giving people the things that they ask for.

(A warning to everyone in that last group: we could see the “But I’m not talking about Santa Claus: I’m talking about…GOD!!!” payoff coming. Keep at it; the whole point of a first draft is to get you to that second draft.)

The first half of the holiday season is usually more bouncy and upbeat than the second half. This is the ho-ho-ho giddyup-jingle-horse section of the proceedings. The music should be big, and cheery, and so jolly that you can even see the humor in a set of novelty Christmas underpants with some naughty wordplay silkscreened across the front.

Yes: this is when Frank Sinatra and a 24-piece orchestra get up off the bench and put on their helmets.

To my way of thinking, there are only two ways to hear “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”: either it’s performed by a cafegymatoriam stage full of middle-schoolers, or it’s sung by Frank Sinatra. I imagine a musical version of “Chopped.” Your basket only contains one ingredient: this harmless and bland holiday tune. You have thirty minutes to turn it into something exciting and time starts…now!

Some singers serve this bowl of oatmeal as-is. Here you have your Pat Boones, your Andy Williamses, and others who were once on TV every year with a top-rated Christmas special but who are now on the Hallmark Channel four times an hour trying to scam senior citizens into taking out reverse-mortgages on their homes. Others, like Springsteen, lose their confidence and dump in malt vinegar and habanero peppers to spice it up. It’s an interesting recording, but you can no longer taste the original ingredient…so does that even count?

Sinatra wins this contest easily. Practically everything you need to know about Sinatra’s mastery is in this track. How did he manage to make “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” actually swing?

(With a lit cigarette in one hand and a tumbler of scotch in the other, I imagine.)

I prefer the “Very Special Christmas” version to the original. It’s tough to improve a Sinatra track but yup, Cyndi Lauper one of those people who can pull that off. Year after year, she validates the faith that I placed in this spunky, colorful pop artist back when I was in high school. Hit singles fade from consciousness and cultural phenomenons come and go. Only talent endures. This is why, two decades after their first hits, Madonna is opening a new chain of fitness centers and Cyndi Lauper is still recording remarkable performances.

And good gravy, she can actually keep up with Sinatra.

Frank’s career ground down to a somewhat undignified end, like a magnificent 1952 Cadillac that kept rolling long after it was only being held together by duct tape and primer. His final recordings were duets with a sometimes highly-improbable range of performers who looked and sounded as though they’d won some sort of radio contest instead of earning their way into the studio. Not the case with Lauper.

I had long assumed that this track had been recorded like all of Sintra’s late-career duets: Sinatra’s singing partner steps into a booth in a mall somewhere, deposits eight quarters into the slot, selects an available track that Frank pre-recorded months ago, presses a green button, and does his or her best.

Now, though, I suspect that the producers used vintage master tapes. Compared to his other 1990’s recordings, Sinatra is much more “present” here. And he’s in much stronger voice.

Also: oh, for God’s sake…if Sinatra were an active participant in this track, would he have agreed to second billing behind some broad with orange hair?

Listen to “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” on the Amazon MP3 Store.

This link is tagged with my Amazon Associates ID. Everything you buy during that Amazon session will result in a small kickback in the form of Amazon gift credits. I solemnly vow to blow those credits on fun things.

Andy Ihnatko’s Musical Amazon Advent Calendar: Preamble

Last year’s iTunes Advent Calendar was enough fun that I’m doing it again in 2008.

The concept remains the same: I’m going to blog one song a day from today through Christmas, building up to my favorite Christmas song of all time. Not all of these tracks will be holiday-related. Actually, almost none of them. These are just Cool Songs That I Find Eminently Recommendable.

But there’s one obvious change this year: it’s the Amazon Advent Calendar. You’re free to sample or buy these tracks wherever you want, but all of my links will point to the Amazon MP3 Store.

Why? Simple: because since December of 2007, the Amazon MP3 Store has become a serious challenger to the iTunes Store, and I’ve obtained an Amazon Associates account.

I get a kickback from every track purchased through my links a good feeling from steering people to Amazon MP3. I certainly don’t think Apple’s on the wrong side of the war against digital rights management. I simply believe that I’m better than everybody else and if I want something offa Amazon, I shouldn’t have to pay for it Apple is restricted by the deals they had to strike with the music industry in order to launch the world’s first viable digital music store. Amazon was able to open their store as a 100% DRM-free, high-bitrate marketplace from day one, by entering the market after the aforementioned Industry realized that they’d created an uncontrollable monster.

The benefit for me you is obvious: I will be using these kickbacks to buy cool stuff that I wouldn’t otherwise buy for myself, seeing as I’m a freelance journalist in a collapsing print market and shouldn’t spend my money on fivolities because these tracks are all completely unlocked, you’ll have no problems moving themĀ  between your iPod, iPhone, Blackberry, Chumby, or the novelty USB Christmas ornament you bought last year which is meant to play “Here Comes Santa Claus” when Rudolph’s nose is pressed, but which now can instead be used to Rickroll all of your relatives.

You really won’t notice any difference between adding tracks to your iTunes library via Amazon MP3 versus the iTunes Store apart from the vague nagging worry that maybe you’re somehow being exploited by a journalist whom you kind of trust. The first time you make a purchase, you’ll be invited to download a Windows or Mac helper app that will invisibly manage downloads of tracks and albums and make sure that they automagically appear in your music library.

If you don’t want the app, you can download the MP3s directly and take care of business without knucking under to The Man, and his evil hidden agenda of giving you free software that makes your life easier.

Boy, I hope I make enough from this to get a free Blu-Ray player. And some boss movies. Plus, there’s the higher bitrate. So it’s really a better deal for you guys. Or a Playstation 3…then I’ll have a Blu-Ray player and a game console!

No need to thank me. I’m always thinking about you, the readers. I couldn’t be more grateful to you for reading my little musings, and I cherish this covenant of trust that we’ve built between us over the almost 15 years that this blog has been in operation.

That ought to hold the goddamn bastards. This scam had BETTER work.