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Staff Picks Category: Music

Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter by Alyn Shipton []

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John Lennon once stated “Nilsson’s my favorite group.”

Harry Nilsson, the tenor with the golden, three and a half octave  vocal range/the brilliant songwriter/the ultimate interpreter of songs/the boozer/the raconteur/the sometimes screenwriter, lived the most of his 52 years. His life was a colorful one that began with much sadness. Despite his setbacks and despair, Nilsson managed to keep his spirits high and he chose the path of adventure. He sang the theme song to Midnight Cowboy, released a brilliant run of albums from 1966-1980 (with music ranging from ballads to Beatlesy pop to country send-ups to wild rockers to standards from the Great American Songbook to Calypso to rude comedy numbers), conceived the animated children’s classic The Point!, collected a couple Grammy’s, raised hell with Ringo Starr and other music royalty, started a film production company and eventually settled as a family man.

Using a myriad of resources, interviews and quotes from Nilsson’s unfinished autobiography, Alyn Shipton writes a loving biography without sensationalizing the life of this sensational artist.

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How Music Works by David Byrne []

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“I think I managed to give a sense that the world of music is wider than my personal experience, but my experience figures in here too”, David Byrne writes about his recent book How Music Works, and this statement gives you a very good idea of what you will find in this very enjoyable book. How Music Works explores the world of music through the experience of one musician’s experiences and wide ranging thoughts. As a result, it is neither a comprehensive book on the nature of music nor a complete biography of its author, though it combines elements of both. Byrne explores the history of music and musical thought, the influence of technology and economics on music, the role of music in society, and the future of the music industry. Along the way we learn much of Byrne’s career, his own approach to music, art, and performance in general.

Byrne is an excellent writer, and a man with wide ranging and interesting ideas. Reading How Music Works is a pleasure, and left me with an increased urge not only to explore more of his music and to read more of his writing (Forbes Library also owns his Bicylce Diaries), but most of all, to make more music of my own. It is, above all, David Byrne’s unending enthusiasm for everyday creativity and for the participation of everyday people in the world of music that will make the greatest impression on you. A great book which will be enjoyed by music lovers of all types.

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Dr. John Teaches New Orleans Piano []

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I didn’t learn to play New Orleans style piano watching this DVD. You might, if you are already a competent pianist, or simply more patient than I am, but this is a rewarding movie whether you intend to become rock and roll pianist or not. Dr. John is an amazing musician; when he plays it looks easy, but just try following along at the piano!

Dr. John looks relaxed (though often worried, as if something else is on his mind). At times he hardly seems to move—but the piano keys move, quickly, and in syncopation, and the music is wonderful. He plays Frankie and Johnnie, C. C. Rider, Blueberry Hill, and others, playing each in some flavor of the New Orleans Rock and Roll, Fats Domino inspired, playing for which he is known. We are given an overhead view of the piano keyboard, as well as a more conventional angle from the side, which lets you really appreciate the fluidity with which the Doctor plays, and is invaluable if you want to try playing his licks yourself. He breaks many of the tunes down, playing the left hand or right hand parts separately, slowing down the tempo, or demonstrating alternative turn around and improvisations. He discusses what riffs are easiest when accompanying your own voice, and briefly describes the interaction between the pianist and the other members of the band.

I really enjoyed this DVD. In fact, I think I’ll probably revisit it in a few months—after I’ve practiced the piano a bit more!

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George Harrison: Living In The Material World by Olivia Harrison []

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The gorgeous and painstakingly assembled Living in the Material World book is a companion to the Martin Scorsese documentary of the same name.  It’s a thoughtful collection photographs and essays with the subject being the late George Harrison.

Not only do we have large color and black and white photographs of George from childhood up until his last years, the book features the musician’s handwritten letters and lyrics, personal photographs and collected ephemera.  His career as a musician, childhood, family life, friendships and spiritual life are recollected.  Scorsese, Paul Theroux, Eric Clapton and Dhani Harrison are among the many contributors.  Living in the Material World works both as a engrossing read and/or a picture flipper.

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Rags & tangos by Ernesto Nazareth, James Scott, Joseph F. Lamb performed by Joshua Rifkin, piano []

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Put this in the CD player, close your eyes (assuming you’re not driving) and be transported to turn-of-the-20th-century piano heaven. Ernesto Nazareth is the greatest composer you’ve never heard of. His music is descended from Brazilian choro, Frédéric Chopin, and the soul of dance hall piano. In between the Nazareth “tangos” –which aren’t really tangos in any conventional sense– are works by my two favorite ragtime composers: James Scott, the bridge from Joplin to jazz, and Joseph Lamb, who can make the romantic tradition sound like striptease music and fill your heart with nostalgia for places and times that never were. One listen is worth ten thousand words.

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Wild Flag by Wild Flag []

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Dear Reader,
I would never lie to you.  And when I say to you that I like to rock, I hope you understand that what I am saying is an absolute truth.  Wild Flag’s self-titled debut album is what rock n’ roll ought to be: loud, fast, played live and without a lot of fuss.  This supergroup features ex-members of Sleater-Kinney, The Minders and Helium.  What stands out most to me musically is Carrie Brownstein’s (of Portlandia fame) blistering riffs, the spirited drums fills of Janet Weiss and the harmony sound the four vocalists create.  The stellar musicianship of this bassless, garage rock quartet often propels these excellent songs into uncharted territory.
Just a couple examples for you… The lead off track “Romance” has some reverbed out surf overtones and a chorus that can’t help getting stuck in your head.  On “Glass Tambourine”, the group certainly draws from the Nuggets archives, but then moves into a spaced out heavy jam that the late Jimi Hendrix would certainly appreciate.
I love this album and that’s a fact!
Sincerely,
-JSM
P.S. Please enjoy this music video directed by Tom Scharpling.

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The Glasgow School by Orange Juice []

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File this one under “neglected”.

Due to odd sizes of items, value, age, et cetera, we sometimes have material here at Forbes that lacks a certain “browseability” or just isn’t given an ideal sight line.  The Glasgow School certainly falls somewher under this category.  This cd, filed with our boxed sets because of its book bound style case, may be a little off the radar for our casual music browser.

Orange Juice, fronted by Edwyn Collins, was a group that successfully meshed clever, highly literary lyrics with danceable musical accompaniment.  The songs on The Glasgow School collects the band’s first singles and outtakes.  These sessions sound more rough around the edges than the slicker produced records that followed.  Collins’ romantic, baritone voice handles the majority of the lead singing with James Kirk interjecting some gems here and there (Kirk would leave OJ after the release of the classic full length debut You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever).

Here we have inspired music from Scotland at the start of the 80’s representing the lighter side of the post-punk era.  Lyrically, they match wits with the best.  Collins laments in Blue Boy “Oh curse and bless him with the gabardine which surrounds him/See him writhe at the sight of your eyes which repel him”.  Their lasting influence is easily heard throughout the catalogs of the Smiths, Belle & Sebastian, Franz Ferdinand and hopefully, if people can find Orange Juice, many more musicians to come.

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The Mighty Uke []

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Given the scores of people who have borrowed ukuleles from this library, it was time for me to watch a documentary on the uke. According to filmmakers Tony Coleman and Margaret Meagher, the humble ukulele (which means “jumping flea” in Hawaiian) is at the crest of a worldwide resurgence in popularity. Why? Well, it’s accessible, it’s cheap, it sounds pretty good right from the start, you can adapt a huge variety of music to it, and it’s small and easy to carry around. Who would have guessed, as our 1920s-era ukulele method books languished on the shelves since the last uke fad died out, that in the 21st century there would be ukulele clubs in every major city? Or that a virtuosic ukulele player (is ukulelista word?) would be hitting the pop charts?
This is a delightful movie about people having fun making music for themselves and with their friends. The archival footage of musicians and hula dancers alone is worth the price of admission (which is free, but who’s counting?). The joy is catching and you may next find yourself borrowing Jim Beloff’s books or a Jake Shimabukuro CD, or looking up the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain on youtube.

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Any Day Now: David Bowie by Kevin Cann []

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Any Day Now covers Bowie’s early life and the beginning phases of his exceptional musical career. This painstakingly assembled biography/chronology lists studio session dates and concert appearances, presents press clippings and handwritten letters and also provides a complete discography for the said period in time. Most impressive is the multitude of incredible photographs of the adventurous singer; each page is filled with striking images, large and small. It’s an interesting read and account of the rapidly progressing artist in both appearance and musical style.

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Spooked by Robyn Hitchcock []

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In 2004, Robyn Hitchcock recorded one of his finest albums with folkster heroes Gilllian Welch and David Rawlings. The trio set up shop in Nashville, TN and created this very sparse and absorbing recording. The album is filled with rich textured harmonies, picking acoustic guitars and a refreshing amount of open space. Though mostly an acoustic record, the album also features spots of electric piano, minimal drums, electric sitar for psychedelic touches and Eastern flavor and a couple electric bass guest spots by NRBQ man Joey Spampinato.

On the dobro led “We’re Gonna Live in the Trees”, Hitchcock’s famed clever lyrics bounce the literary reference of Virginia Woolf had a troubled mind, it was never at ease with the song’s title/refrain. He also shows a softer side with the slow and outer-spacey “English Girl”. Her skin was clear and her mum wore pearls/I fell in love with an English girl/ She asked me for an almond whirl/ I was obliged to the English girl.
Robyn Hitchcock is one of the few recording artists whose catalog has remained consistently inspired throughout a lengthy career. Spooked, in particular, stands out from his recent output due to the stunning contributions from Welch and Rawlings.

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Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby []

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No one writes about the extremes of being a fan like Nick Hornby. Juliet, Naked tells the story of Tucker Crow, an obscure American rock musician who hasn’t been heard from in 20 years, his obsessive English fan, Duncan, who maintains a “Crowology” website and Annie, Duncan’s girlfriend, who has gone along for the ride. All of their worlds are turned around when a long-lost demo of Tucker’s original hit is released and Annie posts some opinions of her own.
The audiobook version is especially enjoyable, with Bill Irwin and Jennifer Wiltsie reading alternating chapters, with music by Ben Miles.

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Hippies by Harlem []

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I have a friend who lives in Austin, TX who is constantly making me jealous. She likes to mention, with a trace of blasé, that she’s just seen some amazing rock, soul, blues, country or hip-hop artist perform just down the street from her house. Earlier this year, she recommended the Austin group Harlem (she had seen them perform live down the street!) and after listening to some songs online, I was hooked. I ordered the lp right away and suggested ordering a copy for Forbes.
Harlem plays straight, unabashed garage rock without any pretension whatsoever. Catchy melodies and the spirit of rock n’ roll dominate their debut full-length recording. I’ve deduced that this ramshackle trio loves the following: reverb, switching instruments, collaborating on songs and getting down.
Living in the Valley, we may not have the luxury to walk to Harlem’s next show, but we can certainly enjoy this recording from our living room.

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