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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

L.A. Museums Honor "Masters of American Comics" -- From the Archives

(note -- am posting this now because Zap Comix is now coming out as a $500 hardcover boxed set -- Nov., 2014)

Byline: Steven Rosen Correspondent 
Los Angeles Daily News, 2005

For a museum exhibition that's a guaranteed crowd-pleaser - who doesn't like ``Peanuts'' or ``Popeye'' or Mad magazine? - ``Masters of American Comics'' is surprisingly controversial. 

Not among the public, which is flocking to two art museums - Westwood's Hammer and downtown's Museum of Contemporary Art on Grand Avenue - to take it all in. (The show runs through March 12.) And not among critics, who are praising it. 

Oddly enough, the conflict is between the two independent curators and comics scholars who organized it. They are Brian Walker, a newspaper cartoonist (``Beetle Bailey'') and co-founder of New York's Museum of Comic & Cartoon Art, and John Carlin, co-founder of media-development company Funny Garbage. 

At the Hammer, the show features drawings, page proofs and cartoons from eight artists whose work established the golden age of newspaper comics - daily and Sunday funnies and action-adventure stories by Winsor McCay (``Little Nemo in Slumberland''), Lyonel Feininger (``Wee Willie Winkie's World''), George Herriman (``Krazy Kat''), E.C. Segar (``Popeye''), Frank King (``Gasoline Alley''), Chester Gould (``Dick Tracy''), Milton Caniff (``Terry and the Pirates,'' ``Steve Canyon'') and Charles M. Schulz (``Peanuts''). 

At MOCA, the focus shifts to the darker side - first the tough postwar comic books and then the adult-oriented (and sometimes highly sexual) work of the late 1960s underground-comics graphic artists and their successors. The seven featured here are adult-oriented newspaper cartoonist Will Eisner (``The Spirit''), Jack Kirby (``Fantastic Four,'' ``X-Men''), Harvey Kurtzman (Mad magazine, ``Little Annie Fanny''), R. Crumb (``Mr. Natural,'' ``Fritz the Cat''), Art Spiegelman (the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel ``Maus''), Gary Panter (``Jimbo'') and postmodern conceptualist Chris Ware (``Jimmy Corrigan - the Smartest Kid on Earth''). 

In general, Walker disagrees with the intellectual thrust of the show - that the artistic energy and creativity in comic art deserted mainstream American newspapers for countercultural alternatives in the late 1960s. So, too, did the cultural impact of comics. That overlooks the storytelling and societal impact of newer strips like Garry Trudeau's ``Doonesbury,'' Walker said. Or the impact of a strip that has crossed over from the counterculture to daily newspapers, like Bill Griffith's ``Zippy,'' or of something new like Patrick McDonnell's ``Mutts.'' 

(Walker got involved in this show's curating process after Carlin had decided on the overall theme and approach - mini-retrospectives on significant comics artists rather than a broader overview.) 

``Part of the story I feel John and Art (Spiegelman, the graphic artist who advised on the show's content as well as being in it) are trying to tell is that, in some way, innovation shifted into comic books and then eventually into independent comics,'' Walker said in a phone interview. ``Whenever you try to tell a story, you generalize. It's like if someone were to say hip-hop has replaced r&b, it's not really true. There are still r&b singers today, and there are guitar bands going on simultaneously. 

``I think there was a weighted importance (in the show) put upon formal innovation - artists who experiment with the format of the comics,'' Walker said. ``But as for myself, not just as a historian of comics but also as a cartoonist, I think content is also very important. Story lines.'' 

During a separate interview from his New York office, Carlin emphasized the rationale behind his approach. ``This show is about the aesthetics of comics in the context of a museum art-historical point of view,'' he said. ``I don't think anybody who has published in a newspaper since the 1960s has made a tremendous technical or formal innovation that has expanded or changed the language of the medium. That was the criterion I used to select those artists. 

``This isn't a knock on Trudeau,'' he continued. ``It's just like with jazz. I love to listen to Wynton Marsalis, but he hasn't yet innovated in the way of Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Ellington or Armstrong. They are masters. He would be a spectacular practitioner, like a Garry Trudeau in my mind. 

``This is where my background and Brian's arrive at different results,'' Carlin said. ``I don't see this exhibition as being about the history of comics. I see it as being about 15 artists who chose to use the medium to express themselves and say something about our society. There are a lot of great cartoonists not in the show. There are icons people will miss - 'Spider-Man,' 'Superman,' 'Batman.' '' 

Indeed, the technical innovation on display at the two museums is amazing. And yet, nevertheless, this is a show one reads as much as gazes at. 

Early on, newspapers gave full-color pages - even sections that wrapped around the actual news - to blockbuster strips in the early decades of the 20th century. They made comics as big a deal as the new ``King Kong'' movie is today. (Or, for that matter, as the original one was in 1933.) 

Cartoonists responded as if rules were only for breaking, playing with space and perspective, realism and surrealism, as deftly as Salvador Dali did in the world of fine art. The phantasmagoric, groundbreaking work by McCay from the 1900s and 1910s set the standard, quickly followed by Feininger (also a painter) transforming whole pages into 3D-like landscapes for his ``Kin-der-Kids'' and ``Wee Willie Winkie.'' 

But the Hammer portion of the show ends with ``Peanuts,'' which is very different from everything else at Hammer. Started in 1950, it - like its characters - hasn't aged a bit. Schulz's clean, uncluttered drawing style and droll, philosophical humor seems as much a part of midcentury modernism as Julius Shulman's architectural photographs. 

The second half of the exhibit explodes when it gets to Crumb's artwork. Sexually graphic and twistedly expressionistic, with an attitude about the American society of the time that was bitterly satirical, it marked a break. It was controversial at the time and still is potentially offensive - closer to Lenny Bruce than to Schulz or even Kurtzman. 

``That would never have been published in a newspaper,'' Carlin said of Crumb's early work in underground comics. ``There was this distribution system, basically head shops and alternative music stores, that sprung up. The first comic I bought was (Crumb's) 'Zap' in the early '70s - part of the same impulse that led to buying my first Velvet Underground album. It was a cultural thing: 'Oh, there's an alternative culture, isn't that interesting?' '' 

From Crumb, the show moves on to artists who now assumed comics were art but also strove to make it accepted as literature. Some of the work here, especially the original drawings for Spiegelman's ``Maus'' and ``In the Shadow of No Towers,'' have the impact of manuscripts of famous novels. Which they are. And his black-on-black New Yorker cover of the vanished World Trade Center, done for the Sept. 24, 2001, issue, has the impact of Picasso's ``Guernica.'' 

``To a lot of people, comics already are art,'' Carlin said. ``Having these museum shows just plants the flag. It's the official notification of something that has already occurred. It's important socially to have these markers. If somebody wanted to teach a course on comics, there's now a textbook.'' 


Where: Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood; Museum of Contemporary Art at Grand Avenue (MOCA), 250 S. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles. 

When: Through March 12 at both locations. 

Tickets and information: Hammer: Hours are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays; closed Mondays. Admission is $8 for adults; free on Thursdays. Call (310) 443-7000 or visit 

MOCA: Hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday and Friday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday; closed Tuesday and Wednesday. Admission is $8 for adults; free 5 to 8 p.m. Thursdays. Call (213) 626-6222 or visit 

What else: Visitors buying a ticket at one museum get $2 off admission to the other for the course of the show. 

(photo is of Robert Crumb from 2010)

Monday, November 10, 2014

Tom Wesselmann: Retrospective of the Pop Artist Opens at Cincinnati Art Museum

Larger Than Life

Tom Wesselmann’s Pop art gets its chance to astound

ac_stilllife60-wesselmann-700x615Wesselmann’s “Still Life No. 60” was reproduced as an ArtWorks mural at Eighth and Main streets downtown. - Photo: Jeffrey Sturges
As the long-awaited Beyond Pop Art: A Tom Wesselmann Retrospective prepares to open Friday at Cincinnati Art Museum, there is much to discuss about this native son’s controversial career as one of the original Pop artists.
But the first thing to say is, “Wow!” That was my response upon seeing what may be the show’s signature work, “Still Life No. 60,” from 1973.

I already knew this work was big — almost 30 feet long and 10 feet high — and somewhat epic in its painted depiction of objects likely to be found on a woman’s bedside table (lipstick, sunglasses, matches, nail polish, a ring and more). It’s been reproduced as one of ArtWorks’ Cincinnati Masters murals; it’s downtown at Eighth and Main streets and will be dedicated Wednesday.

But the original isn’t just the monumental painting I was expecting — although Wesselmann considered it a painting. It is a sculptural installation, an intricate set design. It’s a veritable landscape of these giganticized and spectacularized colorful objects.  

The work is a “shaped canvas” in six sections, five of them freestanding. It’s a tour-de-force visit to the land of everyday consumer objects — the great obsession of Pop artists. Wesselmann had earlier worked with smaller shaped canvases, but nothing like this. 

“If it can be one shaped canvas, why can’t there be many shaped canvases [in a work]?” asks Jeffrey Sturges, the Wesselmann Estate representative supervising the installation of this exhibit. “So this is a whole still-life arrangement. This is the largest thing he ever did.” 

Sturges also relates it to Wesselmann’s earlier work adding collaged elements to his paintings. “Instead of it being pieces of paper, here you have these shaped canvases layered in space,” he says. “It’s a painting in many parts.”

Beyond Pop Art has so far traveled to Montreal and Richmond, Va., where it was organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts with the estate’s assistance, then Denver and now here, where the Cincinnati Art Museum has organized it. It contains about 75 objects total, from major works like “Still Life No.
60” to sketches and correspondence. This is the most important painting show the museum has had in years, for its scope and its artist’s reputation, as well as for the way the artist fought to stretch the definition of painting. (The exhibit will be up through Jan. 18, 2015.)

Wesselmann made a big impact when he first showed his Great American Nude paintings/collages at New York’s Tanager Gallery in 1961. He was the first of the Pop artists to have a solo show, and collectors and critics instantly recognized he was doing something new and important. These were paintings, yes, but the actual nudes were closer to jazzy, colorfully decorative drawings (often erotic ones) than fully fleshed-out, realistically depicted women. 

They were beautiful, but so too were his paintings’ images of objects collaged from billboard advertising and magazines. And as he soon began creating his Still Life series, actual objects sometimes began to appear, too, in his paintings. A favorite in this show is bound to be the large, four-panel “Still Life No. 35” from 1963, with a collaged six-pack of Royal Crown Cola, open loaf of bread, Pan American Airline plane and Parisian cityscape. 

“He saw no difference in him using a Coke bottle or a Brillo Pad image in a painting than Picasso would have thought of using bottle of wine in his,” Sturges says. “This was his life, his everyday.”

He had a busy career and regular shows right up until he died in 2004, restlessly but resolutely shifting in subject matter and mediums, including painting on cut-out aluminum and an exploration of pure abstraction. But his reputation — his fame in the greater culture — did not hold up the way, say, those of Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein or Cincinnati native Jim Dine have. 

While alive, he had no major U.S. museum retrospective (although there was one in Europe and Japan). With the rise of feminism in the 1970s, his Nudes work was criticized for objectifying women. So this show is out to reestablish his reputation among art devotees and introduce him to those who may not know the name.

“What I see as a strength of his work, the inventiveness and the constant changing, can be a detriment in terms of being famous,” Sturges says. “Not everybody wants to follow along the whole way.” 

The criticism of sexism confused Wesselmann when it arose in the 1970s, Sturges says. “He gets criticized for no eyes and no nose [on some of his Great American Nudes], but his explanation is those details take away from the picture he’s making,” he says. “Matisse has a whole series of faceless nudes that he’s done. This is Tom’s presentation in the 1960s. If you look back at his work [during] the 1970s, maybe you’re not so happy about that.”
Jessica Flores, the art museum’s former contemporary art associate curator, thought about this topic when the Wesselmann show was being planned. “The common knee-jerk reaction is that Wesselmann’s depictions of women are sexist, which is a terribly uninteresting statement,” she says via email. “Far more exciting would be a discussion of his use of art genres to comment on gender, or what his ‘sexist’ images say about masculinity for his generation.”

Wesselmann was born in Cincinnati in 1931, and transferred to University of Cincinnati from Hiram College to study psychology, but was interrupted by the military draft in 1952. He became interested in cartooning while in the army and, after returning to UC and graduating in 1954, entered the Art Academy of Cincinnati. Using the GI Bill, he enrolled at Manhattan’s Cooper Union in 1956 and became exposed to the world of Contemporary fine art. 

Abstract Expressionists like Willem de Kooning and Robert Motherwell were a key influence, but not in the expected way. “In the beginning when Tom is going to make work and thinking about things he loves, he thinks of de Kooning,” Sturges says. “His work is big, so he’ll work small. It’s abstract so he’ll work figurative. It’s messy, so he’s going to work neat. He’s trying to define himself by negating what he loves.”

He was trying — and succeeding — to be a Great American Original of his time.
 © From Cincinnati CityBeat, 10-29-14

Friday, November 7, 2014

Finding Humor -- and a Future -- in Retro Culture

Finding Humor in Retro Culture

BY STEVEN ROSEN · NOVEMBER 5TH, 2014 · THE BIG PICTURE Cincinnati Citybeat 11-5-14
ac_charlesphoenix-700x615Retro pop culture humorist Charles Phoenix - Photo: Dayton Art Institute 
The recent growth in popularity of all things Mid-Century Modern — from flowing, stone-and-glass showcase homes like Eero Saarinen’s Miller House in Columbus, Ind., to the “Googie”-style neon-bedecked coffee shops and drive-ins of the 1950s — has been good for pop culture humorist Charles Phoenix.
As Mid-Century Modern becomes desired, preserved and collected, many cities — Cincinnati included — have started Modernism tradeshows where period design objects are sold and advice is given on home restorations.
But those shows and related events need a little entertainment, too. And they often turn to Phoenix, a Southern California native and Los Angeles resident who has developed quite a career as a “retro daddy” humorist/archivist for all things Americana. Especially all things Mid-Century Modern.
He has never been to Cincinnati (though he wants to visit), but he is appearing Thursday night at the Dayton Art Institute with his Big Retro Slide Show, a “roast and toast” of found and sourced American kitsch Kodachrome photo slides. (Tickets are available for $30 and $26 for seniors at
Speaking by phone, Phoenix says this rise in interest in Modernism reflects a cultural shift as the generation of adults that prospered and started families in the 1950s is moving on. They wanted to show their wealth by constantly embracing newness — new subdivisions, new homes, new cars, new appliances. 
To them, once something was even 10 years old, it had no value. It was passé, disposable, forgotten. Now, in a more preservation-oriented time, Mid-Century Modern is old enough to be historic.
“The people who were taught to hate something because it was 10 years old or even five years old are not around anymore,” Phoenix says.
“It’s a whole new group of people now who are appreciating this stuff that has survived. They didn’t know we were once programmed to hate that stuff, like that Modernist building that’s out of style now because it was ‘so 10 years ago’.”
And this has been great for him because he has always loved “retro” stuff — not just Mid-Century buildings but also classic food brands, 1950s cars, Polynesian-style tiki culture, old burger stands … you name it. And he now has a sizeable audience that shares his love and gets his jokes.
“My style guide is what I was raised in,” Phoenix says. “I’m a child of Southern California, of Disneyland. My dad had a used car lot when I was a child. I started from that springboard and then looking around. When I was a teenager, I discovered vintage clothes and thrift stores. From there, I started looking at architecture and unique stuff. When I started looking around, a lot of things happened to be Mid-Century stuff. But that’s not just my world. I’m about all kinds of classic and kitschy American life and style.”
Phoenix’s career as a “retro humorist” really started in 1992, when he found a box of slides titled, “A Trip Across the United States 1957.” It was someone’s discarded souvenirs of a family vacation. In 1998, he held his first public slide-show event. As each slide is presented, he comments on its small details — the clothing, the hairstyles, the furniture and decorations, the food choices, the awkward poses, the relationship between family members — that cumulatively evoke how life was lived in the recent past. His is an exercise in how to “read” a photograph. 
“By the middle of 1999, I was charging for my slide shows and within a couple of years that was my sole job,” he says. “Before that, I had started my professional life as a fashion designer in my 20s in the 1980s, and during my 30s in the 1990s I bought and sold classic cars.”
As interest in “found footage” has increased, Phoenix no longer can count on finding vintage slide collections at flea markets and home sales. His shows today mix old slides with new photos he takes (digitally) of retro objects and places he sees during his travels. 
One example — which may or may not be in the Dayton slide show — would be 79-year-old K’s Hamburger Shop in Troy, Ohio, which he discovered on a Dayton visit two years ago. He figures he’ll go through more than 150 images in his Dayton presentation.
“I don’t consider myself a historian but an entertainer; Americana is my shtick,” Phoenix says. “It’s my curatorial take on this stuff that we’re selling, rather than the stuff itself. I’m just trying to educate people with humor to open their eyes and see that we live in a wonderland and there’s interesting stuff everywhere.”

For more information, visit

Thursday, November 6, 2014

(With the renovated Woodward Theater in Over-the-Rhine getting ready to open, here's a tribute to the person who did the most to show residents about the building's potential. As part of filming "Eight Men Out" in Cincinnati in 1987, John Sayles gave the building -- which hadn't been a theater in decades -- a marquee and some other period detail. SR)

movie mania
Cincinnati stars in notable films
By Steven Rosen
Denver Post

Jan. 12, 2001 - London, Paris, New York, Cincinnati - the great cities of the movies. All right, maybe that's an exaggeration. There haven't been that many good Parisian movies lately. But there's no doubt about Cincinnati, Ohio.

Some of the most harrowing scenes in the new "Traffic" feature Michael Douglas' search for his drug-addicted daughter amid the mean streets and even meaner low-rent hotels of the city's downtown and 19th century Over-theRhine district. These were set and filmed in Cincinnati. (Cincinnati Country Day School, the exclusive private school mentioned in the film, is demanding its name be deleted from "Traffic.'')

In fact, quite a few notable movies have either been partially set or filmed in Cincinnati - or both, often because of the appeal of its old buildings and physical beauty. Here are five examples:
- "Annie Get Your Gun," 1950: Annie Oakley emerges out of them thar rural regions of Ohio to challenge superstarmarksman Frank Butler to a sharp-shooting match when Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show hits Cincinnati.

- "Home Bodies," 1974: One of the darkest of the black comedies of the early 1970s, this concerns a group of elderly residents who decide to fight eviction from their apartment building by killing those who would move them. Filmed in Cincinnati.

- "Eight Men Out," 1988: John Sayles' drama about the discredited Chicago "Black" Sox baseball team was the first to discover Cincinnati's picturesque, historic Over-the-Rhine district, where much of it was filmed. The area has 120 square blocks of three- and four-story walkups constructed in the 1800s. Sayles later filmed "City of Hope" in Cincinnati.

- "Rain Man," 1988: Barry Levinson's Oscar-winning film begins with Tom Cruise "rescuing" his older, autistic brother (Dustin Hoffman) from a Cincinnati institution and taking him on a road trip. The film not only prominently features the city, but identifies it in its story line.

- "Beloved," 1998: In this adaptation of Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning melancholy ghost story, Oprah Winfrey plays a Kentucky slave who has escaped to Cincinnati and tries to get settled when her slave-owner arrives to reclaim her and her children. Jonathan Demme directs. 

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Year 2014 in Tribute Albums, Part One

By Steven Rosen
(From Huffington Post, 10-23-14; adapted from 10-20-14)
One thing certain about 2014 -- and any year, for that matter: it brings with it new tribute and covers albums, as sure as the changing seasons. So with this year already more than half finished, it's time to look at some of the more notable to date. Let's start out with a surprise...
Other than his appearance playing fiddle in a Geico commercial a few years back, you're probably hard-pressed to know what Charlie Daniels has been up to these past 30 years or so. To the extent you've thought about him at all, you've probably assumed he's playing "The South's Gonna Do It" ad nauseam at biker rallies.
So here's the revelation. The Charlie Daniels Band's "Off the Grid: Doin' It Dylan" shows that Daniels is a great Dylan interpreter. More, this is exactly the kind of strong, rockin', country-swing sound - with emphatic vocals that kick, bite and snarl with defiance -- that Dylan himself has sought since he snapped out of his mid-life crisis and retooled his approach to making music in the early 1990s. And Daniels might just be better at it than Dylan!
The singer-violinist-guitarist goes way back with Dylan -- he was a session bassist on Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait and New Morning.
Daniels is an expressively rough-voiced and forceful country singer of the kind that would seem to have disappeared with Johnny Paycheck. He also has a touch of Wolfman Jack gravitas. He's soulful and fierce -- no sentimentality -- and fully engaged. He doesn't drawl like "Like a Rolling Stone"-era Dylan.
But he can hold on to a syllable and shake it with meaning. And he sings with great clarity even while snarling.
He also has a fiery band that melds hard-edged country, bluegrass, and acoustic-oriented roots music in a way that younger Nashville punk acts like Jason & the Scorchers (who once covered "Absolutely Sweet Marie") should envy. Country fiddle, played no-holds-barred like this, is as powerful as electric guitar.
Besides Daniels, there are Shannon Wickline on piano, Casey Wood on harmonium, Bruce Brown and Chris Wormer on all sorts of mostly acoustic stringed instruments (Brown also plays harmonica), Charlie Hayward on bass and Pat McDonald on percussion (including tambourine).
But the key here is that Daniels understands the songs he has selected and makes astute choices (although "The Mighty Quinn" isn't up to the competition).
Daniels makes "Country Pie" -- which on Nashville Skyline seemed awfully trivial -- a spry, jaunty celebration of country music. And he sings "Just Like a Woman" and especially "I Shall Be Released" with sensitivity. But he's at his best hurling, with world's-about-to-end urgency, those amazingly memorable couplets on "Gotta Serve Somebody," "Times They Are a Changin'" (which sounds fit and apt with fiddle) and especially "Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall."
On the latter, after Brown's foreboding harmonica intro, he instills the chilling lyric with the ominous anger that builds with witness-bearing authority. When his band members join in on high harmonies on "hard rain," you look outside your window to see if the storm has started. And you realize how much this song - and Dylan -- means to Daniels.
(The Charlie Daniels Band; Off the Grid: Doin' It Dylan'; Blue Hat Records;; 4 out of 5 stars.)
The tight focus and sense of purpose Daniels brings to Dylan are missing in Bob Dylan In the 80s: Volume One, which comes from Dave Matthews' ATO Records. The novelist Jonathan Lethem wrote the liner notes, which make an eloquent case that Dylan's material in his least-regarded decade is far better than he's given credit for.
Fair point, but it's tough to put all his 1980s work into one box -- his gospel period (which actually started in 1979 with Slow Train Coming) is far different from his return to more accessible (for him) material with 1983's Infidels. And after that, he seemed split between ambitious records (Empire Burlesque, Oh Mercy) and scattershot product.
In retrospect, some of his very best 1980s compositions were left off the albums they were intended for and only emerged later -- "Blind Willie McTell" and "Someone's Got a Hold of My Heart" from Infidels; "Series of Dreams" and "Dignity" from Oh Mercy. So it's a decade in which Dylan stayed busy but seemed confused.
And this project, too, seems confused. The 17-cut Volume One presumes a Volume Two is coming, but why not just do one record that covers 17 of his real high points from the 1980s? This has "Wiggle Wiggle," for instance, a fun tune but hardly Item One in any case for establishing the greatness of Dylan in the 1980s. And there are only two songs from Infidels -- a truly overlooked and underrated record.
The selection of mostly younger artists seems almost random -- and many lack, to put it politely, a distinctive approach. It also has covers that are inferior to already existing ones available elsewhere.
For instance, "Series of Dreams" is one of Dylan's most intense songs -- simultaneously searing and chilling in its outside-looking-in exploration of the subconscious, Both his version, on which producer Daniel Lanois channels his own subconscious with a repeating "Then He Kissed Me" motif, and an existing cover by the British band Gallon Drunk are powerful. This album features a flat version by an unimpressive musical act named Yellowbird that has unexciting production and a diffident vocal.
Similarly, "Dark Eyes" from Dawn Landes and Bonnie "Prince" Billy (Will Oldham) is meant to be a duet, but it sounds like someone had to poke Oldham with a stick to get him to barely sing along. Glen Hansard, who too often skirts being grating with his "soulful" vocals, mostly stays in check on "Pressing On" but he can't approach John Doe's cover on the I'm Not There soundtrack. The light, airy version of "Death Is Not the End" by Carl Broemel is insubstantial when compared to Nick Cave's previous take on the song.
So what works? It's nice to hear Craig Finn's mournfully recitative, grainy voice on "Sweetheart Like You" (but Dylan's own gritty, funky version is better). Elvis Perkins' "Congratulations" gives the song a contemporary edge without losing the poignancy, and Lucius strips the schlocky production of Dylan's original "When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky" from Empire Burlesque. And there are some others that are all right.
Still, one leaves this album wondering what the point of it was.
(Bob Dylan in the 80s: Volume One; ATO Records;; 2 out of 5 stars.)
From Another World: A Tribute to Bob Dylan is a great idea and a pretty good album for about 30 minutes or so, until repetition sets in. Unfortunately, it lasts slightly more than an hour. Producer Alain Weber, a native of France who has been artistic director of Morocco's Fes Festival of World Sacred Music, sought to have traditional artists from around the world interpret Dylan songs (usually in their native languages or as instrumentals.)
It gets off to an alluring start with Eliades Ochoa, the Cuban guitarist and singer, doing a slightly flamenco-styled version of "All Along the Watchtower." It's compelling, but you also notice something that will become a problem as the album goes on - at times, a song's relationship to its source material seems tentative, especially given the language barrier.
How well the pairings work seems to depend on whether the choice of the artist makes some logical sense for the material. Thus, the version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" by Purna Das Baul & Bapi Das Baul, Indian religious men, work as both a Dylan cover and as a type of world music that could be called "Dylanesque" in its exploration of the mystical. The album's liner notes make it unclear who is playing the single-string ektara (Purna Das Paul is singing), but it's evocative.
On the other hand, the relevance of having Egypt's Musicians of the Nile doing "Tangled Up in Blue" -- with now-deceased Yussef Bakash singing and Mohammed Murad's fiddle -- is far less clear. Same with India's Divana Ensemble on "Jokerman."
There are some instrumentals that work as novelties, such as the Burmese Orchestra Saing Waing's "I Want You" and the Macedonian Kocani Orkestar's brass-band journey through "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35." And sometimes the beauty of a voice, like Lhamo Dukpa of Bhutan on "With God on Our Side," transcends a "relevancy" problem. But overall, the album would be better if it was shorter. Also, assuming the title comes from the lyrics of "Series of Dreams," why wasn't that covered?
(From Another World: A Tribute to Bob Dylan; Buda Musique; 3 out of 5 stars)
Turning from Dylan to other singer-songwriters who so far this year have merited tributes, it's mostly men-- including determinedly modernist rocker Peter Gabriel. He's so serious about making his songs be intellectual in their lyrical purpose and sophisticatedly contemporary and international their arrangements that one forgets he does occasionally like to have fun with a tune like "Big Time" or "Sledgehammer."
One also tends to forget just how sumptuously memorable his melodies can be when he's focused. True, he doesn't do much to remind people of that - since his commercial heyday in the 1980s he's become slow to release new pop or rock material.
And I'll Scratch Yours is the second part of a project that began in 2010 when, on Scratch My Back, he covered favorite songs by such artists as Lou Reed, Talking Heads, Radiohead, Bon Iver and Arcade Fire. This writer found it dolorously solemn.
But now he's gotten most of the artists, Boomers and comparative newcomers, that he covered -- save Radiohead, David Bowie and Neil Young - to interpret his solo songs. This was the intention of the project from the beginning and a few of this record's selections date to 2010, although this disc came out early this year. Released on his own label, it is credited as being a Gabriel album.
There's one stone masterpiece of revisionism. Lou Reed treats "Solsbury Hill" as droning, feedback-drenched industrial music with bang-on-a-can percussion and additional guitar from Mike Rathke. Yet it isn't monotonous. His singing is impassioned, emotional even, in its dry, slow craggy way as he draws out key syllables like mid-1960s Dylan in his search for meaning. As he hits on "My heart was going boom boom boom" and "I've come to take you home," it's as if he's found a personal release. He seems happy; he knows something we don't.
On "Mercy Street," Elbow lead singer Guy Garvey has a voice very similar to Gabriel's in the way he lets a soothing sadness envelop a ballad like rolling fog. Joseph Arthur takes the percussive thwack out of "Shock the Monkey" and makes it a very effective, contemplative, airy, dirge-like tone poem.
Randy Newman's "Big Time" is hilariously droll, especially when he proudly croons "My ass gets bigger," and it's nice to hear Paul Simon sing quietly to folk-like acoustic guitar (augmented by a subtle string arrangement) on "Biko." It's also nice to hear Simon sing a song whose lyrics are direct and to the point.
Some of the others are less successful -- Arcade Fire's "Games Without Frontiers" is inert and Stephin Merritt's "Not One of Us" is too rigidly rhythmic and on the chorus his voice is altered to the point of sounding robotic. But overall, this is a quite nicely realized project.
(And I'll Scratch Yours; Real World Records; 3½ out of 5 stars)
Pre-rock blues/folk "elder" Big Bill Broonzy is a hallowed figure yet not all that familiar a one. But brothers Dave and Phil Alvin seem to be changing that. Their tour in support of Common Ground: The Songs of Big Bill Broonzy has been garnering the best reviews either has gotten in his long career. That's not only because it's the first album they've recorded together since they were both in the Blasters, but also because this project is a labor of love.
Twelve-year-old Phil turned on his (slightly) younger brother to Broonzy in the 1960s, and it's been a lasting bond since then, whatever other musical differences have arisen. So it was a natural subject for them to turn to, after Phil survived a near-fatal illness, when making a record.
The songs chosen brim with blues wisdom -- "Stuff They Call Money," "Truckin' Little Woman," "Key to the Highway" and more. Phil's voice, so influenced by jump-blues singers, still has that soaring, jet-propelled cri de coeur quality and his articulation is clear like oratory. And Dave, who let his guitar do his talking in the Blasters, has developed a gruff, deep and dusty baritone that's right for the older, pre-World War II acoustic blues songs of Broonzy (who recorded well into the 1950s and did some electric-blues recordings). At times, as on "Key to the Highway," he sounds like Johnny Cash.
The men sing together and separately on the twelve songs -- sometimes in unison, sometimes trading lines or verses. Dave plays acoustic and National steel guitar and also some stinging, slashing, rigorously driving electric. Phil plays acoustic guitar and confident harmonica. They also have support on piano, bass and drums -- really, this is a controlled but lively group album and songs like "Tomorrow" really rock.
As well as they get along here, and as satisfying as the results are, it's hard to believe they won't be doing more full albums together. If that's so, Common Ground will not just serve as a tribute to the deserving Broonzy, but also to the wisdom of these two brothers reuniting on record for a full project.
(Common Ground -Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy; Yep Roc Records; 4½ out of 5 stars.)
Jackson Browne's lyrics -- at least for the songs he wrote and recorded in the 1970s -- are going to remain eternally interesting for his unusual style. Take a line like this from "Running on Empty":
"I look around for the friends I used to turn to to pull me through/Looking into their eyes I see them running too."
It seems so mundane, clumsy even, in its wordiness. And yet its central point is so striking, so unforgettable, so -- well -- generational in its ability to capture the fears and longing of an audience growing up with him.
He's been his best interpreter -- although Penny Nichols did a fine job on 2012's Colors of the Sun -- but it's always worth hearing someone else's version of one of his songs. There's always the chance they'll find new meaning, since his best songs seem to have so much of it to spare.
But there are some caveats. In the 1980s, he withdrew from the introspective, metaphoric lyrics and hypnotically meandering melodies that were his hallmark. Instead, after one Springsteenish bombastic-rock hit ("Boulevard") and one slyly sexy one ("Somebody's Baby"), he turned lyrically obtuse ("Lawyers in Love") and then prosaically political.
It took him well into the 1990s to regain his focus -- 2008's Time the Conqueror has songs that stand with his 1970s peak, like "Live Nude Café." But by that time he had lost a lot of his audience. People whose lives once depended on his songs couldn't name a new one if their life depended on it.
My preference would be that the two-disc Looking Into You: A Tribute to Jackson Browne only feature Browne songs of the last 35 years or so -- we don't really need another version of "These Days" (as here provided by Don Henley with Blind Pilot). This does have some recent ones, like Griffin House's seductively rocking and sincere version of "Barricades of Heaven" and Bonnie Raitt's boring pop-reggae version (with corny toasting by David Lindley) of "Everywhere I Go."
But the majority of the material is from Browne's 1970s output. It's hard not to return to such a productive, seductive well. Jimmy LaFave, who came to renown with his Dylan interpretations and who is a co-producer of this album along with a co-owner of the label releasing it, lets "For Everyman" build majestically, ending with a fiddle-and-string flourish that turns it into a country-rock "Fanfare for the Common Man."
LaFave and co-producer/label owner Kelcy Warren were able to get some top veterans for this project -- Lyle Lovett (two songs, including "Rosie"), Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa ("Linda Paloma"), JD Souther ("Opening Farewell"), and more. All the above are good.
Especially unusual is Lucinda Williams' uneasy, slightly anguished probing of "The Pretender," as if she is forcing the song's poetry to break free of Browne's original recording (and pacing) and reveal itself anew to her. It might make you squirm with its deconstruction until you realize the daringness of her risk-taking. And voila, it works. But not so Indigo Girls' "Fountain of Sorrow," which is anything but closer to fine.
Several members of younger generations influenced by Browne get their chance, too, with his classic songs. Some do well (Sean and Sara Watkins on "Your Bright Baby Blues"), Bob Schneider on a spookily quiet and sad "Running on Empty"). Some are just average (Ben Harper's "Jamaica Say You Will").
Browne did write some pretty good up-tempo songs in the 1970s, and several are covered here - "Doctor My Eyes" by Paul Thorn and "Rock Me On the Water" by Keb' Mo.' Curiously, both of these fall flat. It may be because they don't hold up as well as his more serene material; it may be because Thorn tries too hard and Keb' Mo's voice is less distinctive than his guitar work. (It would have been a kick if someone, maybe Jerry Lee Lewis, had covered "Redneck Friend.")
It's doubtful this project could have attracted the performers it did without Browne's approval, so the selection probably means he believes these songs are his legacy. In that regard, for the most part, he has chosen wisely.
(Looking Into You: A Tribute to Jackson Browne; Music Road Records; 3 stars out of five.)
Even though the late Harry Nilsson developed a predilection for raw shouting, and some say ruined his voice screaming on "Many Rivers to Cross" for 1974's Pussy Cats album, which he recorded with drinking buddy John Lennon and wackily has covers of both "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and Johnny Thunder's (not Johnny Thunders') 1963 dance hit "Loop De Loop," he was best as a winsome, shy singer who seemed almost embarrassed to be writing about personal loneliness, sadness and insecurities while L.A. compatriots were writing about getting high, making love and enjoying the sunshine. He must have really been shy about it, too - he didn't tour.
Even as his albums grew more extroverted and full of jokes and odd covers, he was capable as a writer of something shocking in its courageous confessional intimacy. Pussy Cats has maybe his best song, "Don't Forget Me," where he pleads, "When we're older/And full of cancer/It doesn't matter now/Come on, get happy."
So he's not an easy candidate for a tribute -- there's such a dichotomy to his work. For the Love of Harry, which came out in1995 soon after his death, had an A-list of contributors (Randy Newman, Ringo Starr, Jimmy Webb, Aimee Mann, Brian Wilson) yet it struggled to be interesting over two discs.
This Is the Town: A Tribute to Nilsson Volume 1 must have struggled just to round up 20 contributors, much less A-listers, and some do little to prompt interest in either Nilsson or themselves. Listening to the off-key warbling of raga-rock band Church of Betty's lead singer (who I assume is Chris Rael) at the end of "Without You" (which Badfinger's Pete Ham and Tom Evans, rather than Nilsson, wrote) is no treat.
Similarly, part of the charm of Nilsson's true rockers was that this was the same guy who wrote delicate tunes like "Without Her," "Me and My Arrow" or "1941." When Low Cut Connie does "Jump Into the Fire," there's no surprise -- it sounds the way it should. On the other hand, Dawn Landes takes another one of Nilsson's more rollicking tunes, "You're Breaking My Heart," and gives it a calming, almost-samba-like rhythm with an ever-so-slightly jazzy piano. Nilsson probably never imagined anyone could say "fuck you" as sweetly as Landes.
This Is the Town has its fair share of other successes, like Jenny O's "1941." And Mamie Minch, playing just the dobro and singing with an unusually deep resonance that makes it hard to guess her gender by just hearing her, does an interesting version of "Don't Forget Me."
But its major problem is a common one for tribute albums -- artists who aren't particularly special (Yellowbirds, The Wiyos, Johnny Society) do nothing-particularly-special versions of relatively obscure songs ("Rainmaker," Nobody Cares About the Railroad Anymore," "Mr. Richland's Favorite Song" (that last one sneaks in a snatch of "One.") So it's hard to care when listening to them.
(This Is the Town: A Tribute to Nilsson Volume 1; The Royal Potato Family;; 2½ stars out of five.)
Joseph Arthur's voice is naturally mournful -- it's low and grainy, slow getting out words as if contemplating every one, and full of a slightly-choked-backed regret and a pining for something better. He's maybe not the natural choice to cover Lou Reed -- who could be so taunting and dispassionate -- but he is a natural choice to be paying respects to someone who has departed.
And Reed's death last year did move him to pay those respects, first in a eulogy written for American Songwriter and then on the low-key tribute album Lou, which he produced and mixed as well as sang all the parts and played all the primarily acoustic instruments.
Almost all the songs are perfectly chosen, especially two from Reed's tough-mindedly truthful Magic and Loss album (the title song and "Sword of Damocles"), which uncomfortably and uncompromisingly stares at death and disease with unsentimental poetry. Funny how when Reed confronted the treatment for cancer in this song, his audience turned away. Yet when he just as unflinchingly (and majestically) described the need for heroin, he created a song every bit as much a 1960s-rock classic as "Good Vibrations" or "All You Need Is Love." Cancer vs. heroin?
Anyway, Arthur also does "Heroin," proving that piano and acoustic guitar can drive the "rushing on my run" of a fix as well as John Cale's electric viola did.
Arthur also revives "Wild Child" from Reed's first solo album, a "New York characters" precursor to "Walk on the Wild Side" full of sharp, smart observations about early 1970s street life. Arthur opens with a stripped-down, hushed "Wild Side," with piano the predominant instrument, that's downright tender.
Of the 12 songs, only "NYC Man" comes off wanting -- melodically, it's a little too much of a calculated pop concession from Reed, and it doesn't work well with Arthur's intimate approach.
But Arthur makes lots of good artistic decisions otherwise. He double-tracks his voice on "Satellite of Love" and doesn't alter the tempo, as Reed did, on the "I've been told/That you've been bold" bridge. On "Dirty Blvd.," which uses piano for its rhythmic momentum, he layers his voice just on the chorus, giving it extra emphasis.
And his hushed, confessional whispering of "I want to play football for the coach" on the closing "Coney Island Baby" establishes the groundwork, the memory play, to allow him to reach for gorgeously frail high notes on the dreamy "glory of love" part. He captures the honesty and affirmation, and ultimately the transcendence, in this difficult but beatific song that is one of Reed's best. It's now also one of Arthur's best - as is this true, loving tribute album.
(Joseph Arthur, Lou; Vanguard Records. 4 and ½ stars out of 5)
This first appeared at on 10-20-14. Part 2 is coming soon.

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