Saturday, December 31, 2005

British Hits

A few posts ago I mentioned the phenomenon of songs that become big hits in England and never cross the ocean. On the one hand, there should be nothing surprising about this; why shouldn't two countries have different musical cultures? But given the profound mutual influence American and British pop music have had on each other, it is a bit surprising to find out that something that's a big deal over there can remain unknown here. Rather than write a comprehensive post on this topic (something I have neither the knowledge nor energy for) I will make a few passing comments and observations.

1. The Beatles are only the most prominent example of a British band fundamentally reshaping American pop music. But did you know that Beatlemania went on for an entire year in England (and other parts of Europe) before anyone here knew about them? It's true, and in fact scant months before the famous Ed Sullivan performance George Harrison silently (invisibly?) came to the States to visit his sister, who was living in southern Illinois. Apparently he tried to find Beatles records and failed, even though Chicago-based VeeJay records had released a few singles.

2. Indeed, before the Beatles, British pop was not entirely unknown in America. The first British song to be a hit in America was 1962's "Telstar" by the Tornados, written and produced by the idiosyncratically brilliant Joe Meek. The only other Joe Meek production (and possibly composition - there's some dispute) to find success in America was 1964's "Come Right Back" by the Honeycombs. In England, however, he is remembered for producing such hits as "What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For," "Johnny Remember Me," and "Just Like Eddie." If you've heard of these, then you're either a Joe Meek fan or not American.

3. Quick, what was the biggest hit of Paul McCartney's solo career? Why, "Mull of Kintyre," of course. At least in England, where it was so popular that anyone who can remember when it was on the radio is utterly sick of it; it set a record for the best selling album in the United Kingdom that lasted for seven years, yet it is virtually unknown in the States. I had never heard of it until recently, though I never would have believed it if someone told me I'd never heard Paul McCartney's biggest hit.

4. Of course, this works both ways; sometimes some American music stays put and never makes an impact in the UK. Occasionally, British music will only be succesful in the US (and vice-versa, though I can't think of an example offhand). For instance, the Zombies' biggest hit in the US was "Time of the Season," which was never popular in England. This is somewhat ironic, because the album it was on, "Odessey (sic) and Oracle" was only released in the US after much wrangling on the part of Blood, Sweat and Tears keyboardist Al Kooper. If you are at all a fan of mid-to-late-sixties British pop, buy this album - it fully merits its cult status.

So what does all this show? I'm not sure; other than that anyone taking into account the compex interaction of British and American pop would do well to note the relative isolation of the two countries, which in my opinion is what makes this interaction so fruitful. And I'll explain why in a later post. Have a happy new year!

Friday, December 30, 2005

An Album-like Entity

Through months of toil and procrastination I have compiled an hour's worth of original music, which can be burned onto a Compact Disc (A "C.-D." to those in the know). I have also made cover art and a track listing, both of which may be printed on paper. The result, when properly assembled, greatly resembles an album. If you'd like a copy, let me know and I'll send you one.

The album is called "Seventeen Songs for Cory," and if you know me then you probably know why. The artwork was created by the selfsame Cory, and it looks like this:

Snazzy, eh? The music's not half bad either, if you like that sort of thing.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Yiddish in Movies

I rewatched "Blazing Saddles" the other day for the first time in many years, and for the first time since I learned Yiddish. I watched it in part because there is a famous scene with Yiddish in it that I wanted to see. The movie is, of course, a classic, and one of Mel Brooks's best. The Yiddish, on the other hand, ain't so hot. In addition to mixing dialects and switching between formal and informal pronouns, Brooks's character, a Yiddish-speaking Native American, uses the pronoun אים (him) to mean 'them,' and he imports both vowels and adjective endings from German. A bit disappointing, but there you go. What this shows, I think, is how poorly most American-born Jews of Brooks's generation learned Yiddish, and yet how confident they were in their own knowledge. Or perhaps confident isn't the right word, since I think most of these mistakes stem from Brooks's overthinking things. Still, though, he could have checked.

On the other hand, last night I watched "Dirty Dancing" for the very first time (my wife's idea). Not a great movie, but it has some great music, including Solomon Burke's majestic and forgotten "Cry To Me." Imagine my surprise, though, when a bit of incidental dialogue was in Yiddish, and perfect Yiddish at that. In this scene Tito Suarez, a bandleader (played by tap-dancing legend Honi Coles), says to the owner of a Catskills resort:

"?װאָס הערט זיך מיט דיר, מיסטער קעלערמאַן"
(How's it going, Mr. Kellerman?), to which the aforementioned Mr. Kellerman replies,
".פֿרעג נישט"
(Don't ask.)

So what I want to know is why the Blazing Saddles scene, with four mistakes in three lines, is so well known, while this scene is, as far as I can tell from Google searches, entirely unknown. I have a couple of guesses. One is that "Blazing Saddles" is a much-loved movie, whereas I think most people, myself among them, feel embarassed about watching "Dirty Dancing." Another reason is that Brooks draws a good deal of attention to the Yiddish in "Blazing Saddles," whereas you could almost miss it in "Dirty Dancing." A less obvious explanation, though, but a fairly cogent one, is that in the thirteen years between the respective productions of these movies the percentage of movie-goers who understood Yiddish dropped significantly.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Contest #33

"I told you to poke holes in the suitcase"

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Frisian and English

I've always liked knowing that English has a sister language, Frisian. It's still spoken, mostly in the Netherlands, but also in Northern Germany and Southwestern Denmark. There are features that mark both it and English off from all other West Germanic languages (that is, from Dutch, High and Low German, and Yiddish), forming an "Anglo-Frisian" subgroup. Anyways, insomnia drove me to try to find Frisian radio online, and I was ultimately successful. I listened for a while, and I must admit that I wouldn't have been able to tell it from Dutch or some form of Plattdeutsch. What did strike me, though was the quality of the "r" sounds. Before vowels they were just a lingual trill, but after them they were alveolar approximants. Isn't that amazing? That is, they were the same as English "r" sounds. I do not know if this means both languages preserve this odd (and rare) sound from their common ancestor, or if Frisian somehow picked it up from English. In fact, I think this fact is barely known - I had a hard time finding it mentioned at all, and I found nothing that described it having different pre- and postvocalic qualities.

On another note, while listening to Frisian radio I heard a cool song called "Yesterday Man" by a certain Chris Andrews. Turns out it was a big hit in England and Europe in 1965, but was unknown here. In fact, there is a surprising number of such songs, many of which are quite good. I'll write more about this later.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Caption Contest #32

"He said that he needed a second job, because work as the Easter Bunny was pretty much seasonal."

Bill Ricchini and the Muses

Right now I am very excited about a local singer/songwriter named Bill Ricchini. He writes beautiful songs and performs them simply and honestly. Find out for yourself, before he gets more famouser and you can say you new about him way back when. But I come not just to praise Bill Ricchini, but to criticize him. Or rather, to discuss something that's been in the back of my mind ever since I started writing songs. Which is a long time.

Reviews of Ricchini's music, in typical review fashion, seek to describe him via comparison. Some say he rips off Elliott Smith. I say that though there is clearly influence there, what accounts for the similarity more is that both draw from the same influences: baroque/chamber pop, Brian Wilson, and 1965-1966 Beatles. (Later on I intend to write about the periodization of the Beatles, but not now.) And it is this latter influence I want to discuss. The best song on his new album (which is saying something - they're all pretty good) is "Eugene Hill," which you can hear, along with others, on his myspace space. Several critics have pointed out that there is a similarity between this song and the Beatles' "And I Love Her," though they have trouble articulating this similarity: In an absolutely glowing review Arie Musil writes, "The entire chord progression is that of 'And I Love Her.'" This isn't exactly true, or rather, it isn't even close to being true, but there is truth lurking behind this statement. What is in fact going on is that the melody of the verses is reminiscent of the bridge of "And I Love Her" - that is, the part that goes "A love like ours/ Will never die/ As long as I have you near me." This is particularly true at the end of the phrase, where the last four notes are identical, as is the supporting progression (vi - iii - ii - V). But this is not theft, so what is it?

The answer lies in the fact that there are two kinds of songwriters: those who work out their songs note by note, and those who 'just hear it.' Neither technique is better or worse than the other, and the results are often indistinguishable. Paul Simon, for instance, is in the former camp, but his music flows organically, so who could tell? I am in the latter group, as is, I think, Bill Ricchini. The disadvantage of this technique is that sometimes in the course of the songwriting process a melody seems to flow so effortlessly that you feel like you are hearing the voices of the Muses themselves, when what you are in fact hearing is part of a song you already know. I have experienced this countless times. When I catch myself I try to alter it so that it is no longer recognizable. I'm sure other people do this too. What has undoubtedly happened here is that a chunk of a Beatles song buried itself in Ricchini's subconscious mind and squirmed out while he was writing "Eugene Hill." It's a shame he didn't catch it before he recorded it, because it's an amazing song, but it unfortunately leaves him open to charges of unoriginality. [Addendum: the melody of his song "Close the Door" is strikingly similar to the Shirelles' "Soldier Boy," although it uses it in a very different way. It's a beautiful song as well.]

Elsewhere I have written about music whose strength is its originality, but the simple fact is that not all great music is original. Or so I tell myself. But when I hear Bill Ricchini's beautiful, unoriginal music, I almost believe it.

Damn muses.

You can hear and download a lot of Bill Ricchini's music from his website, from myspace, and from If you like it, buy the album.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Northern Cities

A few weeks back the New Yorker had a Talk of the Town piece about the publication of dialectologist William Labov's new Atlas of North American English. There are some muddled bits in the article that I attribute to the writer, who, after all, should be given some leeway when presenting a fairly technical matter in a light forum. One particular section did catch my eye, however:
These days, Labov found, the most extreme dialect change in the country is taking place in the Chicago area. “The ‘eah’ sound, which you hear in ‘happened’—heahppened—is a young, very invasive sound that is rapidly changing a number of other sounds around it,” he said. This so-called “Northern Cities Shift” is spreading toward St. Louis along I-55, transforming the Inland North dialect.
I happen to be from one of the places mentioned, and I in fact do have this feature in my speech. I'm not entirely pleased about it; I prize linguistic diversity and regional distinctiveness, just not in myself. In any case, though, this change is not taking place in the Chicago area - it has already taken place there. If you call my parents' answering machine (no, I'm not going to give the number) you'll hear my father say "We ceahn't come to the phone." My gut feeling is that this change has already taken place throughout the Great Lakes region. But Labov is nevertheless right - this is the most extreme linguistic development in American English nowadays, and also the most important, because it is spreading out from the Northern Cities to the entire country, causing me to misidintify people as Midwesterners with alarming frequency. I attended a lecture recently (okay, it was about beer) and spent the entire time trying to identify whether the speaker was from Chicago proper or the suburbs. He was from New York. Then the other night a friend (from Northern Illinois, with even more extreme vowels than me) introduced me to a friend of hers, who sounded just like my cousins. So of course I said something revealing that I had assumed she was from Northern Illinois too (I believe it was something like, "So I assume you're from Northern Illinois too"). Nope. Arizona.

What is my point? I'm not sure. Maybe that I shouldn't feel bad about talking funny, and the next time somebody makes fun of the way I say "that," I should point out that their grandchildren will sound like me. Maybe I'll put a Churchillian twist on it: "I may talk funny, but you look funny, and your grandchildren will look funny and talk funny." Yeah. That's way less antisocial than saying "isogloss."

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Cartoon Caption Contest #30

Here's my caption:

"The good news is your kneecaps are fine. The bad news is your payment is overdue."

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

My New Old Hero

... who is, of course, Billy Preston. Who's Billy Preston?

1. A session pianist for the Beatles (Get Back, Let It Be, A Bunch of Stuff on the White Album)
2. The creator of dazzling keyboard-driven instrumentals (Space Race, Outta Space)
3. The writer and performer of some of the most interesting 70s soul songs (Nothing From Nothing, Will It Go Round in Circles)
4. A damn fine songwriter (You Are So Beautiful)
5. Many other things

In this blog entry I will address each of these themes, followed by a general discussion of what makes Billy Preston so cool. Finally, I will demonstrate that Billy Preston is awesome, and has always been my hero, even though I didn't know it.

1. As an electric piano nerd, I have a special place in my heart for Billy Preston - his playing on the Beatles' album Let It Be (1970) constitutes the earliest recording of a Fender Rhodes, the most famous electric piano. In this respect Preston plays a similar role to one that one of my other heroes, Ray Charles, plays for the Wurlitzer electric piano - "What'd I Say" (1959) being the song that popularized Wurlitzers, and electric pianos in general.

2. The two instrumental songs mentioned above are great, though dated. I'm not sure if this adds to or distracts from their overall quality. Whatever. "Space Race" in particular has a beautiful melody. And "Outta Space" exploits everyone's favorite trick of running a Clavinet through a wah-wah pedal. Did I mention I was an electric piano nerd?

3. "Nothing from Nothing" was on a few commercials several years back. I'd never heard it before then, and was struck by its simple elegance. Though firmly a creature of its time and place, it transcends 70s soul with gentle musical wit.

4. His most famous song is undoubtedly "You Are So Beautiful," but hardly anyone (including myself scant months ago) knows he wrote it. He also recorded it, and his recording is at once more restrained and more soulful than Joe Cocker's famous version - if there were a musical equivalent of "chewing the scenery" it would apply perfectly to the Joe Cocker recording. Incidentally there have always been rumors that Dennis Wilson, the Beach Boys' drummer, co-wrote this song. This is part of the posthumous apotheosis and hagiography surrounding Dennis Wilson ("he was the only Beach Boy who could surf," etc.), which makes me skeptical. Unless Preston himself were to confirm it, I would take it with a medium-sized grain of salt.

So this adds up to quite a career, albeit a quiet one. One consistent quality of his music is a seeming effortlessness that I find in a lot (but not all) of the music I like. Sometimes when I hear a great song for the first time I feel either like I've known it for my whole life, or that it sounds inevitable - of course that song goes like that; how could it not? My only qualm is that if a songwriter achieves this sort of grace, the result might seem unoriginal or boring, and might even escape attention. But I feel Billy Preston's music avoids this pitfall.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

My 15 Minutes

I am an excellent time-waster (anyone who writes - or reads - yes, that means you - a blog must be). One of my time-wasting strategies has been to enter the New Yorker's weekly cartoon caption contest. To my utter shock, I am a finalist in this week's contest. Here it is:

"Well, it's not my fault booty revenues are down this quarter."

The brain is excellent at seeing the downside of something good. Here's what my brain came up with:

1. It's not the best one, and perhaps not even one I'd want the world to see with my name attached. That word 'booty' is problematic, after all. Furthermore:

2. I've really enjoyed submitting these, and I feel it would be silly to continue doing so now that one has made it into the magazine. Thus I've decided that instead of submitting them, I'll just post my caption ideas right here. That's right, folks, for the price of an internet connection you can see the intermittent contributions of an actual published cartoon caption writer.

Through next Sunday (11/27/05) you can even vote for my caption - or against it. [Update: too late now.] That first caption is pretty damn funny too, after all. If it wins I won't feel too bad. [It didn't. Neither did mine. The one that did was the one that everyone I know thought was the least funny. Do I feel bad? No - hoi polloi may not have chosen me, but the editors of the New Yorker did. Which, incidentally, is cooler.]

[Another update: Bob Mankoff wrote the following letter. To whom, I don't know. Frankly, I'm a bit suspicious as to its provenance, as I snagged it from cyberspace. But since it seems to be Mankoff discussing my very caption inter alia, I thought I would post it for posterity. Post-erity.]

Dear Captioneer,

Thanks for all your submissions (over 200,000 to date). That's right, thanks for all of them. Even the ones that are, shall we say, terrible—oops, I meant not quite right for us. Making humor is, by its nature, an uneven enterprise, even for folks who do it for a living. Often, in looking over the contests, you'll find that someone who had a very good entry in one contest submits another that completely falls flat. To be funny demands a certain kind of courage: the courage to be silly, look stupid, and, many times, not even get the payoff of a laugh. If we ever do a book about the caption contest, I think a good title might be Captions Courageous.

At Caption Contest Headquarters at The New Yorker, we receive, along with thousands of submissions every week for the contest itself (average: 7,000), many e-mails and phone calls wanting to know more about the contest. Many of these fall into the category of "Why didn't I win?" Well, what can we say, but that with 7,000 entries a week—well you do the math. Actually we have no idea what the math is or how to do it, but you get the idea.

And, even if you have a good caption, it's going to end up competing with others of a similar vein. The fact is that while there are thousands of entries for each contest, there are not thousands of different comic ideas. For example, in contest #27 over 95% of the captions could be grouped in the following categories, here shown with a few representative examples.

"We have to find a better way to record our meetings."
"Your idea is stupid!" "Your idea is stupid!"

"I thought we could use the additional feedback!"
"Even yes-men need yes-men."
"All right, let's just say we agree to agree!"

Parrots as clothes or objects
"Well, at least we didn't all wear the same tie."
"Shut up, Bob, everyone knows your parrot's a clip-on."
"I put my parrot on the same way as everybody else, Bill. One talon at a time."

"Nothing we say leaves this room."
"Well I guess that's the last time I'll ever confide in a parrot."
"Can you keep a secret?"

"The parrot's okay, but if you ask me it's a peg leg that really says you've arrived."
"This is nice but I really prefer hands-on piracy."
"Well, it's not my fault booty revenues are down this quarter."

"Every meeting it's the same—'Motion carries—more crackers!'"
"We've got to get past this issue of who wants a cracker."
"Cracker for your thoughts?"

From these we ended up picking the three finalists:
"We have to find a better way to record our meetings."
"Shut up, Bob, everyone knows your parrot's a clip-on."
"Well, it's not my fault booty revenues are down this quarter."

Each one represents a different angle on how to resolve the incongruity of the image in a satisfactorily funny way. Which one turns out to be most satisfactory and funny is a matter of taste, not truth. So enjoy the contests and the results, but don't take them too seriously or at least not so much that you have to call us about it.

Bob Mankoff
Cartoon Editor, The New Yorker

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Best of Both Worlds

I bought two CDs - Regina Spektor's Soviet Kitsch and Antony and the Johnsons' I am a bird now. Both are wonderful, and both are wonderful for the same reason, though they are quite distinct. The reason? Both manage to create strange, idiosyncratic music that is nevertheless immediately appealing. Antony Hegarty combines his pseudo-operatic voice with lyrics exploring gender ambiguity, and wraps it up in a soulful Stax-Volt style. Regina Spektor is harder to describe; her songs are elegantly structured, rendered with a sort of minimalist panache.

So how do these two musicians combine radical originality with equally radical likeability? If I had the answer I'd be out making my own radical, likeable music instead of my bland, pleasant music. I think, though, that it lies in both musicians use of direct, well-crafted yet simple melodies and in their considerable vocal power. Thus their own strange aesthetic visions are rendered in a palatable - no, delicious - form. I suspect, too, that both reached this level of achievement through hard work; Antony Hegarty is only just now finding a mass audience at the age of 37, after well over a decade of honing his craft in New York's underground cabarets. Spektor, though younger, has obviously gone through a process of honing her craft; her early work consists largely of Billie Holiday imitations, which, though pretty, are nowhere near as interesting or as enjoyable as her most recent album.

On the whole, I would say Spektor's music is more varied and interesting than Antony's, but perhaps less consistent; Antony's is simpler and catchier, but less original in terms of songcraft, and is ever so slightly monotonous. Ironically, I couldn't find his album at Kim's because it was filed under "Experimental," whereas Spektor is being marketed towards a more mainstream audience. Both, however, have been featured on NPR; I was thrilled to hear Antony tell Elizabeth Blair that his grandmother wishes his music were happier - my own grandmother said the same thing about my songs. So I guess me and him have that in common.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Wizard of [ɑz]

I caught the tail end of the "Wizard of Oz" the other night, and was struck, naturally, by the way the actors talked. Isn't that the point of the movie? Among four main characters there are three distinct styles of pronunciation - all of them rather stagey, but interesting nevertheless. Dorothy, I think, is meant to sound fairly generic. Unlike the other Kansas characters she has no Midlands twang, though her speech is rhotic to the point of exaggeration, that is, she doesn't drop "r"s after vowels. In fact she is the only main character who is rhotic - the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman have what strikes me as an old-fashioned kind of formal American English which affects a pseudo-British "r" dropping, though both actors are from derhoticizing Boston, which could explain it. Bert Lahr, the actor who played the Cowardly Lion, is from New York, and his character, fittingly, has an exaggerated New York accent. Indeed, it seems possible that the Cowardly Lion's lines were written to be delivered in such an accent; why else would his aria, as it were, feature so prominently the word nerve - "noive," and others that rhyme with it. The Cowardly Lion also has a grammatical feature that crops up twice that absolutely floored me - Seeing the witch he says, "Who's her? Who's her?" Then later, seeing the Winkies, he says "Who's them? Who's them?" I've never heard anything like this, but I wonder if it used to be a feature of New York English, and maybe other vernaculars as well. Case is tricky in English; like any speaker of real English I use oblique pronouns in situations where high school English teachers say you shouldn't, but not in this case.

Friday, November 11, 2005

The Coolest Blog Ever Blug

In case you ever wondered what the best blog on the internet is, it is the following:
טאגבוך פון חיים טוביאס. It is in Yiddish, so I will translate a few entries, for the small minority of people who can't read Yiddish:


is very pretty with its various shapes and colors


It is cheap, easy, doesn't make you fat, and is satisfying and tasty

Toilet Paper

It is soft and cheap; I can clean myself properly with it and not bleed

The blogger in question is clearly a Hasidic Jew. Some have wondered if his simplicity is naive or deliberate; I lean towards the latter - though I think his childlike wonder is genuine, I think his strange poetic evocations of it reflect a high degree of sophistication, though quite possibly a homemade sophistication. While other Hasidic bloggers have tended towards dazzling displays of wit and knowledge, Chaim takes the opposite route, with charming and intriguing results.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Positive Anymore - What The Heck Does That Mean?

Well, I'll tell you. Have you ever heard someone say something like, "I just take the stairs anymore," or "Anymore you've gotta be careful going out at night"?

Chances are, you're thinking one of two things:

1) Of course - why are you even asking?
2) Of course not - why would anyone talk like that, and what's wrong with them?

The grammatical construction that provokes these two opposing responses is called "positive anymore," because in standard English you can only use 'anymore' in negative constructions. Okay, it's a little more complicated than that, but I don't want to get too technical. Isn't it strange, though, that to some people these sentences seem perfectly normal whereas to others they seem to barely even be English? But that's just the beginning. I think that the groups of people who insist that Positive Anymore is nonsense aren't necessarily the ones who don't use it. This constructions flies under many people's proverbial radar. I have a story that highlights this: I was talking with three people from Denver, when one of them said something like "I really like radicchio anymore." Being a weirdo, I was compelled to point this out. Her landsleit were shocked that anyone would say something like that, but they were even more shocked that they had understood it without evening noticing. Strange, no? Stranger still is that this key feature of dialect can't be neatly summed up by geography - everyone was from Denver.

It's things like that that keep me going: details that show that beneath the calm surface of everyday life are eddies of surprise and wonder. That's what I hope this blog will be about. At least in theory. In practice it will be an outlet for my thoughts about language and music, my two main interests.

Read on and share your thoughts.

Sunday, May 01, 2005