Sunday, October 14, 2007

Rennaissance Festival

This weekend I explored the Rennaissance Festival in Kansas City. While I'm somewhat leery of shenanigans that have the potential to include a few too many Monty Python references, I do love the swigging of the ale and the bite of a good turkey leg.

The Rennaissance Festival proved quite cool. I was able to pick up some sweet crafts, such as a rose dipped in wax. They also had beer steins and flasks hand crafted out of various hard woods.

Some of the shows were pretty cool, such as a family of jugglers and a pirate quintet who sang sea shanties you could drink to. Even though I didn't particularly get down with the Mr. Rennaissance male strip show, I can appreciate it as something unique. I still think the red-headed Jesus (who didn't call himself Jesus) should have won. Sir Francis Drake gave out roses at the start, which helped his draw with the crowd.

The thing I noticed most, though, is that Renn Fest workers are the closest we have to a contemporary incarnation of the carnie. They travel the circuit and even those who made their home base in Kansas City with second jobs had plenty of tales of other festivals they'd migrated to from time to time.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

We Can't Work It Out: The Fab War -- Round 6

"She Said, She Said" v. "Penny Lane" v. "Not Guilty" v.
"Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)"

I almost wish the track listing would have worked out so that A-side faced B-side; but I think the winner would be the same -- "Penny Lane" would bulldoze a path through "Strawberry Fields." When I was younger, I adored Lennon's experimentation. Now that I'm older, I still admire it, but it doesn't seem to have enough room in one song to truly breathe. "Penny Lane" is still innovative, but in subtle ways that don't overshadow the melody's own beauty. "Penny Lane" is a perfect pop symphony.

"Not Guilty," a White Album outtake, is a gorgeously prototypical George composition that deserved to be released on the album. Beautiful as it is, however, the tune is too soft-spoken to outshine "She Said, She Said" which hangs on a happy riff that betrayws the lyric's loathing. One of the tracks that made Revolver a blast, "She Said" places John in second this round.

The reprise of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" opens with a barrage of drumming that may stand as Ringo's best recorded work. Sadly underrated, this song deserves to do better than last, and it would in any other competition.

This round:

John - 3
Paul - 4
George - 2
Ringo - 1

Totals thus far:

Paul - 20
John - 18
George - 13
Ringo - 9

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Nellie McKay's Obligatory Villagers

Obligatory Villagers opens with the splendid “Mother of Pearl,” a scathing satire of institutionalized misogyny. The song presents itself as a list of stereotyped feminist views that takes complex issues and makes them sound shallow, much like opponents of feminism often do. In the background, a chorus of men responds to each statement with a blatantly sexist exultation. It ends up working, and quite well. I believe it was Whitman who said that all great poems are lists, and that carries through to song lyrics on this particular track.

At the end of the song Nellie McKay quips “I’m Dennis Kucinich and I approve of this message.” I’m still not sure exactly what Nellie means by this – is she saying that Kucinich is a sexist bastard who believes the sexist ideals the song caricatures, or is she saying that Kucinich would also disapprovingly lampoon such views? – but the song did make me do a little research on Kucinich to find out which it was.

I loved Kucinich going in, and love him more if anything now, though I could see Nellie possibly objecting to his mostly pro-life voting record or possibly to him marrying such a young wife (Kucinich, 60, is married to a gorgeous 29 year old British redhead). At the same time, Nader supported him in 2004, and listening to the track “John-John” from the DualDisc reissue of Get Away From Me, we know that Ralph’s the one Nellie loves.

The point is that when much of the population still doesn’t know who Kucinich is, McKay is able to spur complex, nuanced thought about who he is and what he stands for.

Another standout track, and my favorite on the album, is the Carribean-inflected “Identity Theft.” Though the song perhaps unfairly skewers higher learning (I certainly didn’t learn not to empathize in college), the song does a great job of analyzing a variety of topics. It ends by confusing Christ and Satan, a popular literary device used on Bob Dylan’s “Man of Peace” among other pop tunes.

“Identity Theft” also features some of McKay’s most complex rhyming, the kind which can rival MC Paul Barman. The verbal onslaught of “journo-fascist profiteers, pornotastic pioneers, bonbonbastic puppeteers” will leave your ears reeling. Sure, half the words are freshly coined, but make immediate sense, much like the sin sandwich McKay refers to as a “sinwich” in “Oversure.”

Elsewhere she rhymes what sounds to me like “I’m looking for some culture; all I’m finding is Ray Bolger.” The official lyrics claim the line is a “sense of closure,” though I think culture sounds betters. Ray Bolger is awesome, so I feel that the line is a reference to his greatest role, that of the scarecrow in Wizard of Oz. Bolger sings that he wishes he had a brain, and it is exactly that sense of brainlessness which makes the contemporary scene seem so void of culture. Of course, the scarecrow wanted a brain, which can’t be said for everyone coming out now.

Another standout track is the protest anthem “Testify.” The sound encourages citizens to fearlessly speak their minds even in the face of even the fiercest opposition. In the shouted chorus McKay sings that the “clouds are comin’ closer,” but it sounds like she says the cops are coming closer, invoking the image of protesters being tear-gassed and arrested.

The song also features the line “the peace they were plannin’ died in San Francisco.” If peace is truly dead, the way to fight back is not to sit idly by, but to testify against that which ails.

The album closer, “Zombie,” is a fiftie’s novelty style send up of how the South politically inculcates the citizenry with conservative values. The South is inferred through phrases like “bayou bump, but is unmistakable is phrases like “way down South” and “the Mason-Dixie line.” The song argues that the neo-cons have made voters into a group of zombies, unable to think or act independently of what they have been spoon-fed.

Not all of the album is so confident and sure, however. I appreciate the obscurity of "Oversure"'s reference to Maxine Schreck; however, I question its utility. Maxine Schreck is a female vampire in Jesus Christ: Vampire Hunter. She is herself named for Maximillian Schreck, who played the title role in Nosferatu. I appreciate the idea behind Jesus Christ: Vampire Hunter, but it fails in comparison to similar fare like Ultrachrist! If Nellie is going to start referencing obscure b-films, she could pick betters ones to relate to. (Granted, the names in Ultrachrist! - Richard Nixon, Mary Magdalene (as a lesbian!) - are all names used in tons of other things beyond Ultrachrist!)

"Galleon" seems Jim Steinmanesque, in everything from the overpoweringly wicked guitar that comes in from 0:13 until 0:15 and then sadly disappears to the mixed gender duetting on Broadway-stylized balladry that's not really intended for Broadway at all. I like the song a lot in some ways, but in others it seems overdone, and while I love "Total Eclipse of the Heart" and am okay with "Paradise By the Dashboard Light," I expect more out of Nellie.

"Livin" is the album's lowpoint. The song is merely a twenty-three second fart joke. When I heard it I was reminded of Paul Barman's "Burpin' and Fartin'." Both songs attempt to intellectualize farts, or something like that, but that doesn't make the joke any newer or any funnier. The only good thing about the track is that McKay keeps the joke so short I don't have time to skip it.

Still, overall Obligatory Villagers is indicative of the brilliance I have come to expect from Nellie. If you haven’t heard it, make sure you do.

Monday, October 8, 2007

We Can't Work It Out: The Fab War -- Round 5

Time for Harrison to start really pulling it out. “Savoy Truffle” rocks. It opens with that wicked organ hook, lays over the most kick-ass horn charts this side of a James Brown record and features some wicked guitar soloing too. Not to mention that, but the song is about chocolates of all things; there can be no pretension with chocolate. Hands down, this is one of my favorite Beatles songs and one of their most underrated.

“Wait” is another favorite. The rhythm guitar is impeccable and the whole thing hangs on excellent chord changes. The percussion is also driving, probably due more to Ringo’s maraca-shaking than anything else, but it really moves this ditty along.

“Got To Get You Into My Life” is an excellent track and is really killer from start to finish. Unfortunately, I think the horns are more inventive on “Savoy Truffle,” which really seems a diamond in the rough while “Got To Get You Into My Life,” though great, always seems a little too much like what you expect it to be like. It’s poppy, well-crafted, sing-alongable, and fun, but it rarely ever surprises. Also, the tension it builds leading up to the chorus is like a powder-keg just waiting to be punctured by a Keith-Moonesque drum fill that we never get. C’mon, Paul. Give Ringo a chance.

“With A Little Help From My Friends” did its best work in the hands of Joe Cocker as the theme song to The Wonder Years. It did its worst work as a Peter Frampton cover on the soundtrack to the ill-fated Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band film of the late 1970s. Ringo does a good job of singing the song, but it doesn’t really take much. I think I can sing it, and that’s saying something.

This round:

John - 3
Paul - 2
George - 4
Ringo - 1

Totals thus far:

John – 15
Paul – 16
George – 11
Ringo – 8

Sunday, October 7, 2007


Oztoberfest came to Wamego, KS this weekend. The festival featured the return of two of the original munchkins. This is a major decline from last year when a whopping seven munchkins showed up for the event, but it was still a lot of fun.

According to the organizers, Oztoberfest was packed on Saturday, but things were pretty calm on Sunday morning (makes sense in small town Kansas, being so churchy and all). I was able to chat with Karl Slovak, one of the sleepy-head munchkins who also worked with Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Duranty and Laurel and Hardy in his post-Oz phase. Slovak signed my dvd and I was able to purchase a DVD featuring four silent Oz films made by franchise creator Frank L. Baum between 1914 and 1925.

The other item I'd hoped to pick up at Ozfest was a copy of the Pennyroyal Press 1986 edition of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz featuring woodcut prints by Barry Moser. Moser's prints, the focus of a critical article I penned while a graduate student, reimagine Kansas as a depression era-wasteland and Oz as a wicked place ruled by the Reagan administration. The book moves from its populist roots to become a scathing commentary on Reaganomics due to the new illustrations.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

We Can't Work It Out: The Fab War -- Round 4

"While My Guitar Gently Weeps" v. "In My Life" v. "Here, There & Everywhere" v. "Yellow Submarine"

I have always loved the crazy-sounding drunk guy who echoes Ringo near the end of "Yellow Submarine," ending his contribution with that particularly soused laugh that comes after the word submarine. Unfortunately, against the heavyweight occupations of the competition, that shall bit of sheer job can't hope to compete, and the whimsical song wasn't even a Ringo composition to begin with and he doesn't seem to add much to it. It's his song, but then again, it isn't.

"Here, There & Everywhere" is utterly shimmering. Its prodigal gorgeousity places it among my favorite Paul McCartney songs and among my favorite love songs ever. It is so hard to write a good love song. This one indulges in cliche more so than some other good examples, but it mixes the cliches up just enough to make them sound at least semi-fresh. Still, even a great love song is not as interesting as a more realistic song, one that is less unconditional.

So the two main contenders in this round are "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and "In My Life." "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" features Eric Clapton's best work and one of Harrison's prototypical introspective lyrics. "In My Life," contrarily, sounds like a Hallmark card. The sentiment is overbearing, but at the same time it feels honest and, coming from the contrite Lennon, its hard it could be anything but. That and it features a wicked harpsichord solo.

Totals thus far:

John - 12
Paul - 14
George - 7
Ringo - 7

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Banned Book Week

Once a year, the American Library Association celebrates freedom of the press by supporting the reading of the most widely banned and challenged books in the United States. Banned book week runs from September 29 through October 5 this year. I'm doing my part this year by starting my banned reading list with Nancy Garden's Annie On My Mind, The Girl On the Milk Carton, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, and Judy Blume's Tiger Eyes.

We Can't Work It Out: The Fab War -- Round 3

"I Want To Tell You" v. "Nowhere Man" v. "Eleanor Rigby" v. "What Goes On"

Things haven't been looking too good for George Harrison lately, even though I do consider him my favorite Beatle pre-competition. I still have faith in him though; he's a dark horse, the kind that will charge from behind. He's not ready to do it here, though. "I Want To Tell You" is a great song, but the competition is heady. John and Paul wrote excellent songs this round and both "What Goes On" and "Nowhere Man" feature better lead guitar playing.

"Eleanor Rigby" doesn't have guitar playing, but its so expertly put together that it is hard to imagine George wouldn't have played better on it under Paul's arrangement. "Yesterday" is usually lauded as par excellence, and I've often seen it cited as the first mix of pop and chamber music. Both claims are less than true. "Eleanor Rigby" is a thousand times more poignant, mysterious and beautiful than "Yesterday;" it is the true achievement. (In terms of being first, Buddy Holly used strings for his recording of the eerily transcendent, and perhaps superior to both Beatles songs, "True Love Ways.") What is with those crazy lyrics like "keeping her face in a jar by the door"? Who is that for? Decidedly, however, these lyrical peculiarities only deepen the listener's curiosity.

"Nowhere Man" features a great band performance and introspective lyric. It is one of the finest songs ever, dealing with the turmoil of one man's desire to shut himself off from the world. This song was a major move forward for Lennon and remains a standout track. While, "Nowhere Man" recreates one man's alienation, however, "Eleanor Rigby" is able to create a whole community's alienation.

Ringo's first composer credit, co-credited in this case with Lennon/McCartney, is a driving pop tune that nearly foreshadows "Don't Pass Me By." "What Goes On" features great playing by all four Beatles and a really upbeat tempo and melody that underscore the lyric, a Beatled-up (or Beatled-down, depending on how you want to look at it) version of one of Bob Dylan's famous put-down songs. Not the greatest piece of work ever, but an overlooked gem that Ringo should get more credit for.

Scores thus far:

John - 8
Paul - 12
George - 4
Ringo - 6