Archive for the ‘comedy’ Category

Musical Parody Gets Into a “Grey” Area: 50 Shades! The Musical Parody

Thursday, February 12th, 2015

Ever since its 2011 printing, E.L. James‘ erotic romance novel 50 Shades of Grey has been an inescapable presence in pop culture. Though as literature – five hundred pages of dominance, submission, bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism stitched together with little character development – James’ “mommy porn” leaves much to be desired, there’s no doubting the novel’s success. A film adaptation hits theaters just in time for Valentine’s Day 2015, and the two followup novels have enjoyed similar success in the marketplace (along with inevitable widespread critical drubbing). An endless stream of tie-in (ouch) marketing has resulted in a variety of adult-oriented products bearing the 50 Shades brand.

Anything that achieves that level of success is a rich target for parody. And where E.L. James’ book is concerned, the most spot-on skewering of 50 Shades the book – and 50 Shades the marketing juggernaut – is the stage show, 50 Shades! The Musical Parody. A team of writers and choreographers with backgrounds in The Second City and Baby Wants Candy comedy troupes devised the musical as equal parts send-up and tribute. “There was a news story about the book every night, it seemed,” says Emily Dorezas, one of the parody musical’s producer/director/writers. “And then once we realized just how dirty it was, we thought that the juxtaposition of making it a musical felt like the right thing to do.”

Many reviewers have pointed out that while author James vividly describes BDSM and other activities, she betrays a paucity of imagination concerning such matters as word choice. There’s even a drinking game in which participants read aloud from 50 Shades of Grey, pausing to knock back a shot every time Christian Grey “cocks his head” or “steeples his fingers.” Dorezas is diplomatic on the book’s literary merits, and chooses her words with care. “It’s…not really plot-driven,” she allows. With that in mind, the parody’s writers devised a plot of their own. “The book club ladies are a kind of framing device,” Dorezas says. “And one of them goes through a change after reading the book. We wanted to show some growth in the characters, because if we were just making sex jokes, that would get old in about five minutes.”

Fans of sex jokes need not fear, however: 50 Shades! The Musical Parody is stuffed with innumerable laugh lines. An offstage announcer welcomes ladies, and then – after a pregnant pause – adds, almost as an afterthought, “…and gentlemen.” “I think we do a good job of getting across that this is a super-dirty show. Nobody ever brings kids,” Dorezas observes. “Now, husbands and boyfriends…that’s a different story. They’ve heard about the book, but sometimes they don’t quite know what it’s about. But a lot of men take the time to contact us after the show. I always quote the guy who wrote, ‘The party hasn’t stopped since we got home. And that was four days ago!’ We hear more from husbands than from wives.”

For those who haven’t read the book but are curious about the parody musical, Dorezas likens its sensibility to the approach South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker employed with their smash stage hit The Book of Mormon. But Dorezas notes that the book upon which that show is based “has been around a long time, and it’s not as silly” as 50 Shades.

Emily Dorezas’ take on E.L. James’ first book differs from the critical consensus in a fascinating, perhaps unexpected, way. James “did self-publish the book,” Dorezas points out. “Sometimes people challenge it from a feminist point of view, because it’s about a woman in a submissive position. But one of the best depictions of feminism I can think of is E.L. James’ approach: ‘Oh, you don’t like it? I don’t care; I’ll publish it myself! I don’t care if you think it’s trash; I believe in it.’ And obviously she’s gotten the last laugh.”

Whether or not James has gotten laughs from this unauthorized parody is unknown. “I know she knows about it, but she hasn’t seen it,” Dorezas says. “But from everything I’ve heard, she has a great sense of humor. I think she’d have a great time at our show.”

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Album Review: Black & Blue – The Laff Records Collection

Thursday, January 15th, 2015

A new 4CD collection of vintage comedy records, Black & Blue: The Laff Records Collection exemplifies the abbreviation NSFW (“Not Safe for Work”). The low-budget stand-up comedy records (usually but not always recorded in front of raucously appreciative audiences) released on the independent Laff Records label in the 1970s were a sensation in African American communities across the USA. But to buy these records, you had to know whom to ask: titles like Eatin’ Ain’t Cheatin’ by Wildman Steve simply couldn’t be put on prominent display in a record store.

The story of Laff Records is a sort of underground, sub- or counter-cultural history. The labels’ so-called “party records” were put together using the smallest of budgets – the cover art is often amateurish, and the recording techniques won’t win any audio awards – but then those measures completely miss the point. These extraordinarily “dirty” records featured the likes of Redd Foxx and Lawanda Page, both giants in the black standup comedy world. The public at large knew Foxx as Fred Sanford on the hit TV sitcom Sanford & Son; they knew Page, too, as Aunt Esther, the uptight sister-in-law of the main character. But TV viewers would be shocked (shocked, I say) to hear Page on record, on her Pipe Layin’ Dan LP. There she runs through routines with titles like “Bustin’ Cherries” and “Douche Powder.” Needless to say, as with most Laff Records titles, Page’s LPs were not for the easily offended.

But there’s an undeniable (dare I say) charm to be found in routines like Jimmy Lynch‘s “Tricky Dick & Pussy,” Dap Sugar Willie‘s “Duck You,” and Mantan Moreland‘s immor(t)al classic, “That Ain’t My Finger.” And while this caucasian writer can merely hazard a guess here, one suspects that there was a certain degree of liberation at work, an I’ll-say-anything-I-want mindset that was, in its own way, empowering to both the comics and their (almost wholly black) listening audience.

To this day, original Laff Records are fairly difficult to come by; seemingly they’ve all been melted in conservative church bonfires, or (more likely) they’re hidden away in the collection of now-aging African Americans (note to self: hit some nearby intown garage sales this coming spring). Ten or so representative titles from the Laff catalog are now collected on this new 4CD set. Robert Townsend‘s brief essay helps modern listeners understand the debt that today’s black comics owe to these underground party records. And a richly detailed booklet provides biographical and contextual information about the performers and their recordings. There’s no Richard Pryor material here (though Laff released several Pryor discs, the man’s relationship with the label was contentious), but the lesser-known names make their raunchy mark nearly as well. With Black & Blue: The Laff Records Collection, Rock Beat Records are once again to be commended for their edgy (if limited-appeal) approach to compilations and reissues.

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Hundred-word Reviews: Deluxe Packages

Friday, March 7th, 2014

Each of these is a multi-disc set collecting archival (and sometimes previously-unreleased) music, but other than that, there’s little to connect these releases in any stylistic fashion: Celtic soul, proto-funk/pop, hard rock, comedy spoken word, and psychedelic post-punk. All have been sitting on my desk awaiting review for far too long. So, here ya go.

Van Morrison – Moondance (Expanded Edition)
Moondance was released in 1970, and several tracks – “Crazy Love,” “Caravan,” “Into the Mystic” and the title track ( a de rigueur dance-band number) – have since assumed “standard” status. And that kind of over-saturation can result in people forgetting just how good the album really was/is (see also: Led Zeppelin’s fourth LP). A new 2CD set appends eleven outtakes – all previously unissued – to the album. The outtakes add to the listener’s understanding of the album as an organic whole, and there’s even a 4CD version (with more unreleased goodies) available as well.

Various – Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound
The Diminutive Purple One didn’t spring forth fully formed; the Minneapolis scene had long been a breeding ground for all kinds of r&b talent. And while most never broke out in any major way (Morris Day being a notable exception), they left behind a cache of music. Those crate-digging folks at Numero Group have unearthed the best of these and compiled them in three formats (2CD w/book, 4CD w/book, MP3). It’s really more of a book with a soundtrack than the reverse; at 144pp, one can delve deeply into the history of African-American modern r&b out of the Twin Cities.

Deep Purple – Now What!? (Gold Edition)
You can be forgiven for initially looking upon this release with skepticism. After all, Deep Purple’s high water mark came in the very early 1970s. Like so many hard rock bands of their ilk, they floundered creatively (and commercially) in the 1980s and beyond, releasing little of note and becoming somewhat faceless. So it’s some great surprise to learn that the group (comprised mostly of prime-era members) has roared back with their best album in decades. Now What!? sounds and feels like the Deep Purple of old, and a bonus disc of live tapes show that it’s not sessioner trickery.

The First Family – 50th Anniversary Edition
The early 1960s was a golden era for the comedy LP; releases from Bob Newhart, Allan Sherman and others enjoyed success in the marketplace. While those vintage LPs make for quite the dated, quaint listen today, they’re fun nonetheless. The First Family capitalized on craze for all things Camelot, when the public couldn’t get enough of the Kennedy clan. A followup album (cut five months later) got much less notice, and when JFK was killed in November of that year, most people quietly shelved the first LP. Both are gathered together with some bonus material for this 2CD anniversary set.

Red Temple Spirits – s/t
This package has an extremely high “boutique” quotient; how else to describe a set that places CDs in what look like embossed, wax-paper sleeves, encased in a gold-toned envelope? This is one set that won’t fit on your CD shelf, nor will it stand alone like some box set. And the music – post-punk from the late 1980s – isn’t the sort of pretty, filigreed stuff you’d expect to get this kind of treatment. It will appeal to fans of Public Image Limited; though RTS was California-based, vocalist William Faircloth added a veddy British vibe to the goth-rock proceedings.

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DVD Review: Happening ’68 Vols. 1-3 (Part Two)

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

Continued from Part One

The aforementioned Aretha Franklin segment is of particular interest, as it shows the off-the-cuff nature of the program. As Lindsay is discussing the soul singer’s career with guest Jackie DeShannon, they note that Aretha was “on Columbia” (also Paul Revere and the Raiders‘ label) for five years, but “didn’t go anywhere.” The clear implication is that Columbia didn’t serve Franklin’s career well. An entire episode (aired March 15, 1969) is devoted to Wilson Pickett, who – unlike most musical guests – appears with his entire band. Pickett tears things up – even though he’s miming like everyone else (though some reports suggest the performance was live; you decide) — and gives a fun if brief interview.

A charming regular feature on Happening was the garage band contest. Local groups from around the country would mime to some or other cover version, and celebrity judges would pick the best. The list of prizes will boggle the minds of modern audiences (a Pontiac Firebird?! $2500 in Vox musical equipment?!) but the truly amazing part of all this is the tunes covered. One might hear a vocal version of Cannonball Adderley‘s 1966 hit “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” Spirit‘s “Got a Line on You,” a cover of Johnnie Taylor‘s “Who’s Makin’ Love,” and other left-field-for-daytime-TV tunes. Often the judges’ decisions are suspect, but it’s a hoot seeing these often pimply teenagers make their bids for the big time (grand prize included a “recording contract” with either ABC or A&M, but history does not record any great success visited upon whichever band won on Happening).

By 1968 an industry veteran, Mark Lindsay seems quite comfortable and natural in front of the camera. Lindsay comes off pretty well throughout, ad-libbing his way through brief, light interview segments with such stars of the days as Ross Martin (who surprises everyone by telling Lindsay that his show Wild Wild West is simultaneously “in great shape” and cancelled), Jay North (former Dennis the Menace, then star of the TV show Maya, with co-star – and Raider — Keith Allison), James Doohan (Star Trek‘s “Scotty”), Mission: Impossible‘s Greg Morris, and many others.

A “Happening News” segment featuring Teen magazine editor Sue Cameron offers up Hollywood gossip and so forth, presumably priming the teen audience for the adult versions to come in subsequent era in the form of Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood and similar shows.

Paul Revere plays the irreverent fool throughout, mugging and offering up endearing slapstick. He often calls Lindsay “Bobo” (huh?) and “my pony-tailed nitwit” and engages in endless in-jokery. Happening seemingly went to production with the barest of scripts, instead preferring to riff on the undeniable chemistry between Revere, Lindsay and their guests.

A nice bonus on many of these episodes is the inclusion of the original commercials. These show – should there remain any doubt – that the program was aimed squarely at teenage girls. But some of the ABC-TV commercials promoting other programs such as The Mod Squad (“Cops: one black, one white, one blonde”) and The FBI are a time-capsule scream.

These DVDs are highly recommended, but be warned that since these transfers are sourced from various private collector caches, the video quality varies episode to episode. These are pretty rare; when I discussed Happening with Lindsay, he admitted that he had only a couple of the episodes in his own collection. (I dubbed copies of some that I had, including a few poorer-quality transfers not found here.) Until DCP sees fit to release legitimate archival copies (assuming they even exist), these DVDs from [redacted] are your only option.

UPDATE: I am told that it’s no longer available.

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DVD Review: Happening ’68 Vols. 1-3 (Part One)

Monday, February 17th, 2014

Though it’s often forgotten today, in the mid 1960s, Paul Revere and the Raiders were just about the most prominent rock’n'roll band in popular culture. Sure, The Beatles had their records all over the charts, and had films like A Hard Day’s Night and Help! And yes, The Monkees had their own weekly television show. But Pacific Northwest-relocated-to-L.A. legends Paul Revere and the Raiders got more screen exposure than The Beatles and The Monkees put together, thanks to their TV show Where the Action Is, televised Every. Single. Weekday. Just after school, Monday through Friday on ABC-TV, the Raiders served as the “house band” for this Dick Clark production. Featuring mimed performances from all manner of musical guests, plus goofy, vaudeville-styled skits, the show was a fixture of teenage viewers’ TV diet.

The show ran its course after a few seasons, but thanks to Raiders manager Roger Hart‘s idea about a vehicle for lead singer Mark Lindsay and bandleader Paul Revereone that, as he put it, took a look at what was happening on the pop scene – the duo scored their own variety show. A pair of shows, actually: Happening ’68 (shortened to Happening for its 1969 following season) was broadcast weekly, and a summer show called It’s Happening was televised daily throughout the summer of 1968.

None of these programs has ever gotten official/sanctioned release on any format; though a stunning-quality copy of the Where the Action Is pilot circulates among collectors, and scattered episodes of WTAI, Happening ’68/Happening and It’s Happening have been preserved in varying quality by fans, Dick Clark Productions has never seen fit to preserve – much less release – these exemplars of 60s mainstream pop culture. As Mark Lindsay told me in a 2010 interview, apparently Clark viewed WTAI in particular as a “red-headed stepchild” and had no interest in it once the show ended its run.

But thanks to those previously-mentioned collectors – and one specific intrepid collector – twelve episodes of Happening ’68/Happening are available on (unauthorized) DVD. Those twelve episodes – spread across three discs – build on the format of Where the Action Is, but put Revere and Lindsay out front as hosts.

The earlier episodes lean more on the duo kitsching around onstage in front of a studio audience; modern-day viewers will likely find those awful-pun-filled bits either charming or dreadful (or somewhere in between). There’s an innocent charm about them, which is not exactly the quality one might expect from pop culture product of 1968. (This was aimed at kids, however.) And the Raiders (with a band name shortened to nudge their hip-quotient back up) only occasionally appeared, miming to their latest single. And in general, said Raiders – especially short-timer bassist Charlie Coe – seemed to pretty well phone it in, barely making an effort at the choreography that had long been a group trademark.

Still, even semi-live-action clips of the Raiders performing “Let Me,” “Cinderella Sunshine” and other late-period singles is always a treat. And in one episode (originally aired May 25, 1968) the band tackles “Free,” a non-single, deep album cut from the band’s Something’s Happening LP. In that same episode – featuring the inimitable Lee Hazlewood doing his “Rainbow Woman” – the Raiders turn in a Spanish-language version of “Mo’reen.” To date, that track hasn’t surfaced on any of the Paul Revere and the Raiders CD reissues.

Other episodes – in mostly good quality black-and-white – feature an assortment of musical guests, ranging from Etta James, Aretha Franklin (on tape), Peter Lawford(!) doing a cheesy MOR tune, and more pop/rock acts that would appeal to most viewers. That last category includes Tommy Roe, The Grass Roots, The Cowsills, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart (in a youth voting-themed episode) and any others of note. The Friends of Distinction make their national television debut performing “Grazing in the Grass,” and a Peter Tork-less Monkees trio guests, taking part in an interview segment with Revere and Lindsay that ranks as the most revealing and intimate part of the entire series.

Available HERE. Aha…I am told that it’s no longer available.

The review is continued here…

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‘Tis the Season…

Friday, November 29th, 2013

Okay, not everyone likes Christmas. Some are turned off by the commercial character of a day that is supposedly to commemorate the central figure of Christianity (a child who – most Biblical scholars agree – was born in the spring, by the way). Others dislike it for the music.

I don’t subscribe to either of those viewpoints: I like Christmas. A lot. It’s not my favorite holiday; that would be Halloween (for the costumes) or Thanksgiving (for the fellowship and food). But I do enjoy the secular focus upon taking time to share gifts with loved ones. Most years, I even set up that most pagan of Christmas symbols, my fiber-optic lit artificial Christmas tree, festooned with construction paper-and macaroni ornaments my now-adult kids made when they were tots.

And I like the music. Yes, really. I know that certain songs are overplayed, and people get sick of them by the Sunday after Thanksgiving (if not sooner). And I am no fan of Band Aid‘s “Do they Know it’s Christmas” nor Wham‘s treacly “Last Christmas.” And though I am a lifelong Paul McCartney acolyte, I too think “Wonderful Christmastime” is a stinker.

My favorites, though, include Roy Wood‘s perennial UK favorite, “I Wish it Could Be Christmas Everyday,” John and Yoko‘s “Happy Xmas (War is Over),” and the still officially unreleased full version of The Beatles‘ (admittedly repetitive) “Christmas Time is Here Again.” And there’s a special place in my heart for the instrumental genius of Dave Amels (Reigning Sound) and The SmithereensDennis Diken (and friends) as found on Husky Team‘s delightful Christmas in Memphis. Find that one if you possibly can; it’s a gem, and fun in any season).

I mention all this not to fill space but to give you the context for the point of view I bring to the capsule reviews of this baker’s half-dozen of holiday season offerings. In short, I enjoy Christmas music as a style enough to appreciate the fine examples of it. But that doesn’t mean that I’ll still be playing any of it come Boxing Day; at that point it all (with the exception of Husky Team) goes back on the shelf until next year. But in the meantime…

David Ian – Vintage Christmas Wonderland
If you like your holiday music in a classic vibe – think Frank Sinatra, Julie London and Mel Torme rather than Mitch Miller – then you’ll find plenty to like on this five-song EP. Ian on subtle, jazzy piano is joined by an upright bassist and drummer (mostly on brushes) for this low-key affair that also features tasteful string work and (on three cuts) an assortment of smooth male and female vocalists. Ian goes for a Vince Guaraldi vibe (also see below) on an instrumental reading of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” in this all-standards offering. Brief but fun.

John Fahey – Christmas Soli
What little I knew about Fahey suggested that his music would be a stiff affair. And maybe a bit pretentious: “Soli?” In my neighborhood we call ‘em solos. But this set – compiled from among the readings of public-domain Christmas songs found on four Fahey albums – is filled with heartfelt yet precise fingerstyle acoustic guitar work. A couple of the songs are not strictly solo pieces (er, soli) as they feature guitarist Terry Robb alongside Fahey. But for those who enjoy this style of music, this is a fine collection of traditional holiday songs within a folk instrumental idiom.

Various – Mad Men Christmas
Conceptually, this one’s a bit of a head-scratcher. The album’s subtitle – “Music From and Inspired By the Hit TV Series on AMC” (emphasis mine) – gives the compilers some breathing room, insofar as a a few of the twelve tracks are contemporary tunes. Those are by the likes of Jessica Paré (the totally-not about-the-holidays instrumental “Zou Bisou Bisou,” which sounds more like Pizzicato Five than anything else) and Nellie McKay‘s more thematically relevant “Christmas Waltz.” But ringers from Tony Bennett and Rosemary Clooney go some distance toward conjuring that pre-Beatles 60s vibe. Available exclusively at Target.

Vince Guaraldi – A Charlie Brown Christmas
In 2012, Concord re-re-released this album with unreleased tracks; this favorite contains the jazz songs that people who don’t like jazz, like. Disliking this will earn you the title “Scrooge,” as it’s delightful and – at least for members of a certain generation – evocative of pleasant childhood memories gathered ’round the TV set. The Library of Congress calls it a “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important” sound recording. Now in 2013, Concord has yet again reissued this set, this time making the digipak into a clever die-cut piece than can be manipulated into the three-dimensional shape of Snoopy’s doghouse.

Ernie Kovacs – Presents a Percy Dovetonsils Chrithmath
Televisionary Ernie Kovacs created a simpering character called Percy Dovetonsils, unknowingly presaging the public personae of Charles Nelson Reilly and Paul Lynde by more than a decade (though Kovacs’ character was more erudite and subtle). This limited-edition 10″ vinyl picture disc is a swell companion to the pink vinyl album from 2012. True, the humor is dated, but get past that and this is a hoot. One track from the …thpeaks album plus five unreleased poetry vignettes from the Kovacs Unlimited TV show make up this set. The jokes run right through the printed track lithting and liner noteth. Thilly.

Various – Psych-Out Christmas
Where Cleopatra Records are concerned, Santa’s gift sack is best described as a grab bag. How else to characterize this mishmash of covers and new material from the past and present? Hot modern psych band Elephant Stone are on hand with a dodgy cover of The Beatles‘ “Christmas Time is Here Again.” The Fuzztones rewrite “Farmer John” as “Santa Claus.” Iggy Pop ruins “White Christmas.” Other current acts turn in psych-inflected readings of holiday classics, but what, pray tell, does The Zombies classic “Time of the Season” have to do with this season? Perhaps Sons of Hippies know. Still, fun.

Special mention:
The Waitresses –
Just Desserts: The Complete Waitresses
Not a Christmas album at all, this new 2CD collection from Omnivore Recordings does include the group’s “Christmas Wrapping,” originally from their 1982 EP I Could Rule the World If I Could Only Get the Parts. Patty Donahue‘s sing-song delivery was and remains an acquired taste (one to which I have found myself largely immune) but the arty arrangements are outstanding, in a distaff Roxy Music sort of way. Art rock and white-boy reggae are filtered through a new wave sensibility. And “Christmas Wrapping” injects the holiday season with a much-needed bit of levity and irreverence, 80s style.

Happy Holidays. And there ain’t no “war on Christmas,” despite what the FOX propagandists might have their mindless followers believe.

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Album Review: 50 Shades! The Musical: Original Cast Recording

Friday, October 18th, 2013

I’ve recounted the story before of how I came to actually enjoy a musical. To recap quickly, I love rock music; show tunes, not so much. And having read the first 30-40 pages of 50 Shades of Grey, I found it to be the most amateurishly written piece of junk I’d ever read (and I was an editor of a music mag with college students on staff, so trust me). But when 50 Shades! The Musical came around, I had to go see it, as the subject was simply ripe for parody.

And they nailed it. The evening spent at the Bijou Theatre in Knoxville TN was a side-splitting way to spend a few hours. Laughs aplenty; the writers crafted a show with just the right tone: making fun of the book, but acknowledging its place – however tenuous – in popular culture. The sold-out audience couldn’t stop laughing.

And therein lay a small problem. The lyrics of the songs were filled to the brim with jokes and double entendres. So clever were these sung parts that the audience often found ourselves in a laugh uproar that prevented us from hearing what came next. By the end of the show, yes, we had laughed and laughed, but we had missed half of the material.

Seeing the show again wasn’t a practical option; the players quickly moved on to other cities. So when I discovered that 50 Shades! The Musical: Original Cast Recording would be released, I was keen to give it a spin.

It delivered more than I could have ever hoped. Just as I suspected, quite a lot of great material was drowned out by our peals of laughter.. But now with this twelve-track disc, audiences can catch what they missed. Definitely not safe for work, this album presents all of the musical numbers from the stage production. But one needn’t have seen the show (nor read the book, thank goodness) to enjoy it. All one needs is a good sound system, and a filthy (or at least open) mind.

I’ve decided that writing songs for a musical is a tricky business: there seems to be a definite stylistic format that must be followed. Unlike rock’n'roll, the vocal lines must be way out front, and the singers must enunciate clearly (no Bob Dylan-style vocalists need apply, thank you). And the song’s dynamics must be shoehorned into that style, too. The five-person team who wrote the songs clearly knows what they’re doing. On tunes like the soaring ballad “”There’s a Hole Inside of Me,” the female “Anastasia” lead (Amber Petty) delivers the ridiculous lyrics in a faux-sincere manner that strikes just the right tone. She emotes the lyrics that play with the listeners’ preconceptions. For example, when she sings, “How I’ve been waiting here on the block / I’ve had so much time to just take stock / He’ll have the key to open up my lock / And show me his huge throbbing…” Well, you can guess what comes next. Right? Wrong: it’s “confidence.” Elsewhere rhyming couplets include moister/oyster and other pearls.

“Could This Be the One” is a duet between Petty and improbable male lead Chris Grace. It moves the story (such as it is) along in hilarious fashion, and features one of the soundtrack’s few instrumental interludes. The tango-flavored “Mi Amor” makes less sense if one doesn’t know the story, but Nick Semar‘s fake-Latino accent is not to be missed, and once again the lyrics are a scream.

The entire ensemble is on hand for “Follow Him.” Not a Godspell number, it nonetheless has a gospel-ish flavor in arrangement (if decidedly not in lyrical subject matter). Grace’s spotlight number, “I Don’t Make Love” is at once the best and (for some of tender sensibilities) most delightfully offensive number on the soundtrack. The song sports an ersatz funky vibe, kind of a Below Average White Band feel, but that approach is clearly intentional.

“Red Room” is a melodramatic number that moves through several different musical styles; on one hand it’s the most traditionally “musical theatre” number, but lyrics about hot wax, bondage and “titty twisting” make it, well, a little outside. But funny; very, very funny. When the chorus double-times the litany of devices and practices, it’s just plain nutty.

“Any Other Couple” is another duet, one in which the two leads insist that they’re mundane and normal. Don’t believe it. As Grace sings, “We’re just like any other couple / Like anyone you’ve ever met / We get take-out at McDonald’s / And go home in my private jet.”

The title track is a showcase for the ladies’ reading club, as is the opener “Open Your Book.” The tune pokes fun at the demographic who actually read EL James‘ dreadful softcore softcover. The whole gang joins in for the obligatory big number and big finish, “How Much Can I Take” and a reprise of “There’s a Hole Inside of Me.”

Even if musical comedy isn’t your thing, check out 50 Shades! The Musical: Original Cast Recording. Or give it to someone you love. It’s a better, classier gift than feather handcuffs.

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His Phone Calls Suck. But You Will Laugh.

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

And now for something completely different. If you’ll forgive this sort of inside-baseball indulgence, I’d like to share some spit-take-inducing mirth with you.

You might not have given much thought that such a thing exists, but in the music business there’s a job title known as “music publicist.” This person – sometimes in the employ of a record label, but more often contracted by a label, management or artist for the duration of a project – bears the responsibility of getting the word out about (for example) an artist’s latest album. He or she creates a press kit, promotes that kit to a mailing list of publications and freelancers, follows up with them, makes advance copies of the music available, and facilitates interviews and show passes.

It’s a lot of work, and although some publicists make a great living at it, most do it primarily for the love of music and the people who make it. In that way they’re similar to the musicians themselves as well as the writers who cover ‘em. In fact, there’s a tremendous amount of overlap: many publicists are musicians themselves, and even more are (former) music journalists.

There’s one component of the music publicist’s job that’s not often remarked upon, and that’s the role of gatekeeper. All manner of opportunists, rank amateurs and just-plain-clowns are constantly lining up for free show passes, free CDs, free access to the artists, free whatever anything and everything. And the chutzpah with which they request (and often, believe it or not, demand) these things is shocking. It’s the publicist’s often unpleasant responsibility to keep these characters at bay. Sometimes they’re harmless/clueless, sometimes not.

But, in the right light, said chutzpah is also funny. Very funny. So funny, in fact, that collecting a bunch of the exchanges (via text, email, telephone, etc.) between them and publicists might make a great blog.

And guess what: such a blog exists. More remarkable is that all of the exchanges on that blog are transcripts of the experiences of one man. One person. That person is Rey Roldan, president of Another Reybee Production, Inc., a NYC-based PR firm that represents A-list artists (as well as a number of up-and-coming ones, and some hey-we’re-back ones you’d be delighted to know about). He was involved in the early success of Britney Spears, and to his credit, he’s unashamed of this fact.

In my own role as a music journalist, I am in communication with perhaps a half dozen or more music publicists every work day, and while the overwhelming majority of them are supremely professional and a delight to work with, Rey rises above even that standard. A consummate professional. But he’s also possessed of a wicked sense of humor. Here’s an example from his Tumblr blog, My Phone Calls Suck (it should go without saying that Rey redacts identifying information from the transcripts he publishes:

[via email]

FAN: I am looking at whether or not to get a VIP badge for the [FESTIVAL] this year and just wanted to see if one of the ‘perks’ or opportunities is to actually meet members of the cast of the [FILM] itself? There isn’t very many details yet on the website but I see that the early bird date is approaching so just making sure before I make my purchase.

ME: Hi there. Unfortunately, purchasing a VIP badge doesn’t insure meeting the cast of [FILM]. Sorry.

F: Ok, listen. I’m a huge Harry Potter fan and I need to meet [ACTORS]. How do I do that?

M: Stalk?

Here’s another gem:

EDITOR: Subject line: urgent press inquiry [BAND]

Dear Rey,

I am the editor in chief of [MAGAZINE], a weekly online arts and culture magazine. Would [BAND] be available for an interview hosted by [MAGAZINE] in August, September or October? It can be on a day of his preference (we just need to know the date and specific time), as long as it is in the evening hours EST. The whole band can participate.

ME: Hi there. The band won’t be touring till this fall so I won’t know what their schedule is till closer to the kickoff. By the way, what’s the “urgency”?

E: Thanks for your swift reply. That’s fine. Whenever you find out. Thanks.

M: Dear [EDITOR]. No problem, but again, what is the “urgency”?

E: Oh there was none. I needed to get your attention since publicists tend to ignore me.

M: This is just the beginning of our relationship and already you’re starting with lies? How am I going to believe you when you tell me you’re going to be working late at the office? Or that this girl “Clarice” is just a coworker? Or that the lipstick stain on your lapel must’ve come from the drycleaners? No wonder I have trust issues!

E: Hi there, Rey. Was that email meant for me?

Though you’d be forgiven for thinking, “this guy is just a really good comedy writer; clearly he’s making this stuff up,” he’s not. These are real. People are really this bizarre, random and blissfully un-self-aware. But whether they meant to or not (and clearly they didn’t) they have justified their existence on some level: via Rey Roldan, for you amusement. It’s comedy gold.  Go have a look.

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Hundred Word Reviews: Vinyl Roundup for May 2013

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013

Here’s another installment in my occasional series of capsule reviews; this time ’round I’m focusing on vinyl releases. My self-imposed limit for this particular exercise is 100 words on each album.

Hoff EnsembleQuiet Winter Night
It’s subtitled “An acoustic jazz project,” so don’t look for any Fender Rhodes or vibraphone. In fact, to my ears, it’s a bit of a stretch to classify this twelve-song LP jazz. Adult pop is more like it; with gentle textures that would please listeners who enjoyed the quieter moments on Sting‘s Ten Summoner’s Tales, it’s a low key, classy outing. Flawlessly recorded in a church in Norway, the six-piece ensemble (guitar, piano, percussion, upright bass, trumpet, fiddle and, um, “nyckelharpa”) is fronted by an assortment of six solo vocalists (mostly females) on most of the lovely tunes.

JT Habersaat & the Altercation Punk Comedy TourHostile Corporate Takeover
Comedy albums are an odd duck; no matter how great they might be, they rarely hold up to (nor warrant) repeated listening. That said, this collection – featuring stand up routines from five different performers – is entertaining. Some of the material borders on the offensive/misogynist, but this is small-club stand-up we’re talking about, not Las Vegas or the Catskills. Oddly, the best bits aren’t especially roaringly funny; instead, Mike Wiede‘s two-part “Bruce Story” is warm and real, and does elicit some genuine chuckles. The other four featured artists are best described as hit-or-miss, but definitely still worth hearing.

Marshall CrenshawStranger and Stranger (10” EP)
Maybe not forever, but for the time being Marshall Crenshaw’s approach to new music is via three-song EPs rather than full albums. The upside of this for artist and listener is immediacy: shorter time between releases. I discussed the project recently with Crenshaw in an interview, one of several I’ve done. Here, the man’s reliable sense of melody and arrangement serves him well on the breezy title tune (with great Crenshaw guitar solo) that finds him atypically singing in his upper register. A lovely, straight Bacharach/David cover (“Close to You”) and reinvented solo “Maryanne” round out this must-have platter.

R. Stevie Moore – “I Missed July” b/w “Trade My Heart for Your Parts” (7” single)
Moore has no peer in music; that doesn’t mean that you’ll enjoy him, as he always charts his own idiosyncratic path. He can be irresistibly tuneful on a par with the greatest names, or weird enough to frighten Residents fans. Asked to provide two songs for a single release on the indie label Sweaters & Pearls, he selected one from 1978 and another from 1994 for this red vinyl. The a-side shows his cracked approach to pop; it’s a sort of jangly, lo-fi Beatles-by-way-of-Todd-Rundgren, yet it sounds like no one but RSM. The flip is Jimmy Buffett meets XTC. Brilliant.

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Preview: 50 Shades! The Musical

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013

Not long ago, a female friend – friend, I say – and I got into a conversation about the runaway bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James. Being a guy, I had only heard a little bit about the book; I knew it was very popular among a demographic one might describe as “bored housewives” (do those exist?) but the few women I knew who had read it described it as a poorly written book; one friend told me she put it down fifty pages in because it was so weak.

But my friend and I were a bit intrigued; after all, it has sold a gazillion copies – somebody’s reading it – and spawned a couple sequels. I hear there’s a movie in the planning stages, too. At some point during our discussion, she suggested that it might be amusing to read it aloud. So the next time we got together, we spent an evening with me cooking dinner, and her sitting at the bar – cocktail in one hand, trashy novel in the other — reading the book to me.

It was an hysterical experience. We were both laughing so hard; she attempted to voice the characters: the innocent first-person narrator nymphet and the intimidating, head-cocking, long-fingered titular character. My friend could barely contain her laughter; I didn’t even try. We both howled as this trainwreck of a book unfolded. About a half hour in, we both lost count of the number of times the hacktackular “author” described Grey’s long fingers, or noted that he (ahem) cocked his head.

All I could think – between peals of uncontrollable laughter – was, “Who reads this shit?” It’s perhaps best described as “a book for people who don’t read books.” I think I lost more brain cells having Fifty Shades read to me than I did my entire junior year in college.

The narrating character Ana is clearly meant to be portrayed – at least initially – as a naïf; but if E.L. James’ wring style is any indication, she’s none too experienced – in writing, I mean – either. Fifty Shades of Grey may be the most horribly written piece of junk I’ve ever had the occasion to read. It’s laughably bad, and James seems never to have been within a hundred yards of a thesaurus.

Now, there’s bad-bad, and there’s good-bad. Fifty Shades is good-bad, the literary equivalent of Ed Wood‘s classic Plan 9 From Outer Space, quite possibly the worst film ever committed to celluloid. (And a must-see.)

So – some weeks after our little book-reading – it was with great amusement that I discovered that a production company was mounting a stage parody of the book. Not just any parody, mind you: it’s a musical! From the press kit for 50 Shades! The Musical comes this grin-inducing teaser:

When you finished reading 50 Shades of Grey, did you think, “What that book needed was more singing?” So did we! Based on the greatest novel of all time, 50 Shades! tells the story of Christian Grey and Ana, chockfull of wrestling singlets, handcuffs, and helicopters with silly names. Come see a hilarious show full of BDSM (Best Damn Songs and Music)! If we’re as good at writing musicals as E.L. James is at writing novels, then everyone is in for a truly memorable night!

I wasted little time in contacting the show’s publicists, and I am pleased almost beyond description to tell you that I will be headed to Knoxville TN this Saturday to see the show (with my reading partner, of course). The show will be at Knoxville’s historic Bijou, with a matinee at 6pm and a late show at 9pm. Tickets are available here. Look for my review soon on these pages.

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