Thursday, June 28, 2007

Movie Review: Ratatouille

It occurred to me, waiting in line for a Saturday night preview of Ratatouille, that I might be a little out of place in the theater. I was there a half an hour early carrying a notebook and Don Rickles’ autobiography, my pretzel bites and a big diet Coke. Most importantly, I am a thirty-four year old guy going to see a cartoon by myself. For a minute, I imagined worried mothers clutching their children close like in the pool scene in Little Children.

But then, this is a Pixar film that stars, among others, indie cool comedians Patton Oswalt and Janeane Garofalo. Not only was I not the only thirtysomething sitting alone in the audience, I wasn’t the only thirtysomething sitting in the audience reading a book. There was a smattering of kids but they were outnumbered by the adults by at least two to one. Even better, the father sitting behind me was quizzing his kids. True or false, it’s okay to kick the seat in front of you. False! This was going to be an unusually good movie experience.

Among Pixar’s many talents is, apparently, the ability to tame the downtown movie audience for two hours, adults and kids alike. Ratatouille kept this crowd focused enough that they forgot to talk or be rude (the exception being the adults to my left). Ratatouille is a wonderful story perfectly realized in every detail. Remy the rat is a sort of rodent Don Quixote, pursuing his dream of becoming a chef in Paris after being separated from his family. There he meets Linguine, a down and out kid trying to find a job he can hold down. They meet in a restaurant founded by the now deceased Auguste Gusteau, whose mantra, “anyone can cook,” Remy has adopted for himself.

And there are no self-indulgent technical fireworks – everything serves the story. Shadows are deeper, gravity works perfectly. There are amazing action and chase scenes, but they all further the plot. The Paris skyline is beautifully rendered, in day and nighttime scenes, not to show off, but to provide Remy’s inspiration. There is legitimate physical comedy reminiscent of John Cleese’s best silly walk in the way Remy and Linguine interact in the kitchen. The Pixar team even found a more clever way to solve the problem of the language barrier between humans and animals. And you won’t find a more brilliant (and economical) use of a flashback.

Animated movies tend to be packed with star power in a way that’s distracting to the character development. You want a wacky character, cast Robin Williams and the audience will bring their own ready-made expectations. Ratatouille avoids that brilliantly. Patton Oswalt plays a perfect geeked-out gourmand, and there was no better choice to play venomous food critic Anton Ego than Peter O’Toole. Janeane Garofalo, Brad Garrett, Ian Holm, Brian Dennehy, Will Arnett, and the ubiquitous John Ratzenberger are the core cast, but you won’t find yourself drifting trying to place each voice. Most everyone has some sort of accent that hides their identity a bit, and nothing sounds overacted or out of place.

Without a doubt, all the characters are furry and cuddly and will move a lot of stuffed animals and happy meals. But Pixar goes beyond cute. Cute is easy – you can draw cute on a matchbook. Charming is hard, and that’s what Ratatouille pulls off.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Alastair Moock: On Fortune Street

Alastair Moock has been exploring the roots of American music for the past decade, hosting his Pastures of Plenty shows in Boston and around the country, and turning out album after album of fine songwriting with a healthy respect for tradition. His new album, Fortune Street, is his best to date. He explores the personal histories of Woody Guthrie and John Brown in “Woody’s Lament" and “Cloudsplitter,” respectively. “God Saw Fit to Make Tears” is as beautiful and soulful a ballad as Moock has ever written, and “Yin Yang Blues” is his twisted, conflicted ode to love. Moock is at a new stage in his career – he releases Fortune Street Saturday at Club Passim, his wife, Jane, had twins in December, and he has finally found a home on the CoraZong label.

How much did hosting the Pastures of Plenty series influence your songwriting for the new album?

Hmm. Well, there’s obviously that reference to Pastures in the title track. I was disappointed in the way the touring version of the show ended and that came out in the song. Other than that, the main connection I guess is in my ongoing interest in roots music and tradition – that’s well reflected in both the series and my songwriting.

What draws you to the more historical profiles, like "Woody’s Lament" and "Cloudsplitter?"

I guess I look back because I’m searching for perspective. Both of those songs are largely about contemporary issues – I just take the long way around to the point. But it’s also an aesthetic choice. I love reading historical non-fiction and I’m starting to really enjoy writing about it too. It’s partly a form of escape, I suppose.

How did you and [producer/guitarist David Goodrich] Goody collaborate in the studio?

We talked a lot about the arrangements before we went in so we knew what we were shooting for. But you don’t really know what’s going to work ‘til you get there, so you try things. Goody and I are both pretty strong-willed when it comes to the creative stuff, but we communicate well. He’s an amazing musician and I was a big fan of his previous production work, so I had a lot of faith in his instincts.

How did you pull this specific group of musicians together (Michael Dinallo, Kris Delmhorst, Goody)?

Goody was in Groovasaurus with Mike Piehl and Lou Ulrich and they’re still his go to rhythm section, so he pulled them in. I’ve played a lot with Mike Dinallo and knew I wanted him on certain songs, especially God Saw Fit and Delia – he’d come up with great parts on those when we played them live, and Mike’s just a unique player. Sean Staples and Kris were natural choices – they’re two of the best studio musicians in Boston, and they’re good friends.

How did you come to sing to the CoraZong label?

I got my last album (Let it Go) out to a lot of folks in Europe. It got some nice attention on the Euro Americana charts and someone sent a copy to CoraZong (it may have been me – I can’t remember). One day I got a call from the head of the label. We talked and eventually signed a contract. They re-released the Let it Go in Europe and the US and now they’re doing this one. They’ve been great.

Do you think you’ll ever get away from that singer/songwriter approach, with your voice and an acoustic guitar at the center of your sound?

Well, Let it Go got further away than any other one – it was pretty rocky and electric. But I know who I am. My strength is writing songs and singing them. If anything, I think I may be headed toward an even more stripped-down next album. The longer I do this, the more I want to lose the decorations.

How important is humor in your music? It seems you always make a point to include one tune that’s explicitly humorous.

It just seems to come out in my writing. I try to write about all sorts of things, and some things are funny. I also like playing with language, which often leads to humor. But I don’t consciously try to write humorously. In general, I’m not a big fan of “funny” songwriting.

Does being a parent change your songwriting and your career goals?

I don’t know – I haven’t written any songs since we had the twins! Yeah, it changes everything. Just being an expectant parent changed my songwriting. You can hear all the references to parenthood on this album. As for career goals, I’m just trying to take things one day at a time. The reception to this record has been good so far. I’d like to continue to develop touring opportunities, especially in Europe where it’s actually an affordable pursuit. But my main goal at this point is to just keep making music. As long as I can make records and get them out there for people to hear, I’ll be content enough.

Would you consider yourself a folk purist? Do you enjoy music outside of the folk and blues traditions that influenced you most?

Like, I think, most people who spend a lot of time around music, I listen to a pretty wide range of stuff. I listen to a lot of jazz and hip hop. I love old soul (as I think came across on this record), old country, bluegrass, a lot of African and Caribbean music, some harder rock (I love Jane’s Addiction). And I actually listen to a lot of stand-up comedy and spoken word stuff in the car. There are only a handful of comedians who I really like but I listen to them over and over again. I’m fascinated by the precision of their language and the rawness of their craft. Talk about performing solo – those guys don’t even have a guitar to hide behind.

If you’re reading this around noon on Thursday, June 28, tune in and hear Alastair on WUMB 91.9 or go to

Alastair Moock Fortune Street CD release party, June 30, 8 pm, Club Passim, 47 Palmer Street, Cambridge, 617-492-7679.

Monday, June 25, 2007

OC-Ed -- Resistance

I picture John Lennon singing “All You Need is Love.” He’s the late sixties long-haired Lennon from the “Bed-In” days, except he’s older with grey streaks. He’s sitting on a cloth stool with a beat-up Martin acoustic guitar on the subway. His portable speaker is tinny, making him sound like a bee buzzing around the crowd.

No one is paying attention. The sixties never happened, there’s nothing special about another musician in the subway playing acoustic guitar and singing to no one. They’re all over, moving scenery. When he sings “love, love, love,” he sounds bitter and desperate, his eyes focused on some invisible point ahead.

“There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done,” he sings, his cheek twitching.

“There’s nothing you can sing that can’t be sung.”

The subway screeches to a stop and riders push their way onto the train. The doors close.

“There’s nothing you can do that you can’t learn how to be you in time.”

The train rumbles to a start.

“It’s easy!” Lennon screams as the train leaves the platform.

“All you need is love,” he shouts. His voice is cracking, but his strength won’t fade. “All you need is love.”

A new crowd gathers with their backs to the singer, reading the billboards or holding casual conversations.

“All you need is love, love. Love is all you need.”

He closes his eyes, raging through the coda at the top of his voice.

Love is all you need.

The announcer calls the next station.

Love is all you need.

A train comes from the other direction and the riders bunch together, anticipating where the doors will end up.

Love is al you need.

There is no voice to harmonize, to sing, “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah.”

Love is all you need.

There is no orchestra soaring and swirling behind him.

Love is all you need.

Lennon breaks his A string and thrashes on oblivious.

Love is all you need.

Love is all you need.

The song ends suddenly. Lennon takes a deep breath and looks around. None of the people around him were there when he started, or at least he doesn’t recognize anyone. No one claps. No one turns around.

Lennon pulls a new string from his case and quickly winds it into tune, and then rakes up the strings to make sure each pitch is in place. He clears his throat and leans forward into the microphone, again finding his focus off in the distance, and begins again.

“Love, love, love…”

Friday, June 22, 2007

The Trucks: Covering Ground

The Trucks cover a lot of ground, emotionally and stylistically, on their eponymous debut. They can be profane singing and ode to, well, equipment in “Diddle-Bot” or beautifully bittersweet, listening to the voice of a boyfriend on an answering machine in “Messages.” The can be creepy and cool, as in “Zombie” (no, it’s not the irritating Cranberries tune) or absurdly hilarious as in “Man Voice.” Though they describe their sound as “two 1987 Casios in a lover's quarrel,” they have punk energy and ethics. The come to Great Scott in Boston tonight, and I was able to catch up with Lindy Marie McIntyre (drums, percussion, and keys) and Marissa Naselle Moore (vocals, xylophone, sound effects) by e-mail to talk a bit about the band and the music.

How did the band come together?

Marissa: We were all living in Bellingham and had known each other for about a year. We got together one day to hang out and ended up at the park across the street from my apartment with a guitar and a rainbow colored xylophone I'd just bought for $2 at the thrift shop. Our friend Lizz joined and helped really get things started. we made up some songs and played a few shows. After about a year we grabbed Lindy, our bad ass drummer. She was in one of my favorite local bands, Everybody's Debbie. They're like our big sisters, and let us borrow her, then let us keep her.

What's Bellingham music scene like?

Marissa: Generous and supportive, for the most part. Garage rock, metal, blue grass, electro pop, a lot of people are in two or three different bands with vastly different styles. Everyone is friends. It's a smallish city so everybody knows what's happening, and the excitement just kind of circulates. There is a lot of good music coming out of there, and a lot of good audience too. There's a determined all-ages advocacy, and the venues treat the musicians well.

Lindy: It was going really strong for a long time and these amazing bands were coming out of Bellingham. Bands I will never get sick of until the day I die. There were some legendary shows at the 3B Tavern when it was open and since it shut down the town hasn't been the same for me. I moved away to Olympia late last summer and I haven't really kept up on it too much since.

How does the songwriting come together? Is their a specific split as to who writes music and who writes words?

Lindy: I definitely stay away from writing lyrics. The band would probably die laughing at how horrible my songwriting is. I am the drummer so I just play the beat I feel when somebody brings a new song to the group. Sometimes I'll mess around on the keys and that's how our song “3 a.m.” developed into what it is. The other girls write the lyrics, it's pretty much split up between the three of them I think.

Marissa: We show up with scraps of ideas, and combine and elaborate on them as a group. A lot of times we're already thinking along the same lines. We got together to write last weekend, and I had just made a comic of an old lady in bed that said "I can still fuck shit up" ... "when I can get up." And Faith got all excited because she had sent Kristin an e-mail that said, let's make a song about fucking shit up. It evolved to "We're gonna fuck shit up, as soon as we can get it up." We stomp and sing in opera voice, like Vikings, and Kristin's tooth is missing, me and Lindy got the mallets. It's booming and rad.

There are a lot of different moods and styles. Does any one person in the band tend toward a specific type of song? Does each person bring a distinct group of influences?

Lindy: We each contribute something different to the band for sure. I think Faith likes to bring darker stuff into it. I am closer to her in that way. We both really like The Cure and as a side note, wear black all the time. Where as Kristin and Marissa like more electro type stuff and wear crazy colorful things that don't match. I don't know why I had to throw in the thing about the clothes, but it's true. I think there is a connection there. We all just fit so well together that I don't even think we know we are playing out these different influences. Somehow it works.

Marissa: Yeah, we all come from different musical tastes. On tour, whoever's driving gets to choose the music, and sometimes the rest of us have to put earplugs in. Or hide certain CDs ‘til we get back. but we all love the Cure, and Zorbatron, and Snuggle, and Of Montreal, and Queens of the Stone Age and Bjork. Faith and Lindy are more hard core. They're always talking about these underground punk and metal bands that would probably kick me and Kristin's asses. Kristin likes dance beats and folk music. I like music boxes, and Johnny Cash, and weird stuff that sounds like you don't know how to play your instrument.

A lot of your sound seems influenced also by music that was underground and exciting in the late 80s – everything from Kate Bush to the Dead Milkmen. Was that a particularly fertile period for you?

Marissa: Kristin was already making music by then, and lindy and faith were probably already bad-ass. I was just doing the walking like an Egyptian dance at slumber parties on a sugar high. I'm a late bloomer, but have developed a belated appreciation for bands of the era.

Lindy: I think that is when I became fertile but not necessarily with music. I had some bad taste in music man. I wasn't one of those lucky ones that had an older brother with good taste in punk or metal. I had to go find that on my own and it took a long time for me. I think I have always had a little Butt Rocker in me though. I used to head bang so hard in 6th grade that I couldn't turn my head for days.

Are you influenced by film? Some of the tunes, "Zombie" most obviously, have that wonderful squirmy, claustrophobic tension of 80s horror movies.

Marissa: It's probably impossible to not be. But yeah, "Zombie" always reminds me of the creepy strobie rave scene where you know something's gonna happen. I remember seeing that one movie where the slug things would wiggle into your ears and then you were a zombie. And of course "Thriller." That song was written about my first night in Seattle.

Lindy: I don't think film has ever really influenced the band. I know Kristin rented a Ballet video from the library once and randomly discovered it matched up with our music. I have seen it with my own eyes and I couldn't believe what a perfect fit it was. "Zombie" is about a real life experience at a bar in Seattle. Zombies took over this bar and Marissa killed them all.

Do people have a problem with the song "Man Voice?" I was told a lot of people don't like that one, I find it hilarious. The man voice sounds like Beauregard, the janitor from the Muppets.

Lindy: Not that I know of. Maybe they don't like it cause it's too amazing. I think Maris does it perfectly. That low voice coming out of such a beautiful lady.... I'm glad you can see the humor in it.

Marissa: Thanks! For a long time, the man voice was my one true talent. It got me into the band, then I quickly learned a few other tricks to keep my place. I'm glad you like it. It's a true story.

Does anyone in the band actually play a Casio?

Lindy: We have two. They're shitty and we love them.

Marissa: Me and Kristin both do. They are beat up and duct taped back together. The power jack's broken so we use a lot of batteries.

How do you make such a raw, human sound with electronic instruments? Do you use vintage electronic instruments? It seems that we've come so far with instrument technology that a keyboard from 1989 is almost an acoustic guitar.

Marissa: Um, we don't do anything special. We just got lucky.

Lindy: You make it sound so fancy. I guess they are vintage but I don't know that it was ever intentional. We were and still are poor ladies that wanted to do play some music and then, poof! It became what it is. The raw sound comes naturally with crappy gear. I don't mind. I'd like it louder but it is just dirty enough sounding for me.

Who was Lizz Whitmore, the person you dedicated the album to in the liner notes?

Marissa: Lizz Whitmore was an outstanding person and a good friend. She was a astonishingly talented dancer and performer. She was also lead singer of Bellingham band Ash and the Widow-makers. She played drums with us when we first started playing together, and really upped the ante of our performances with her energy, vast costume collection, and vibrant creative spirit. She died in 2004 of cancer. It happened so fast and was a big shock to everyone, but she has continued to be an inspiration to everyone who knew her. Kristin has a couple solo songs written specifically about her. You should try to hear them they are beautiful. Thanks for asking!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Review: Rickles' Book: A Memoir

Rickles’ Book: A Memoir
Don Rickles with David Ritz
Simon & Schuster
Hardcover, $24

Don Rickles looked old for his age when he started making inroads as a comedian in the mid-fifties. He was already balding in his early thirties, when Frank Sinatra nicknamed him “Bullethead,” with a warm, round face and an avuncular presence despite his reputation as the king of insult comics. That’s how he’s been seen ever since, frozen in time in his tux, holding a mic and throwing jabs at everyone in sight even as comedy and club scene changed around him.

That’s the face on the cover of Rickles’ Book, Rickles’ recently released autobiography. You can almost hear him laughing, calling someone a hockey puck. But there’s another Rickles, and he’s the reason why the Rickles we all know works.

Some expected Rickles’ Book to be a rehash of his act, a set list of broadsides and barbs. But any comic who has ever met Rickles tells the story of a kind, generous professional who goes out of his way to give the best advice he can to comedians on their way up. And that’s because Rickles had plenty of help on his way up.

Rickles’ Book is a memoir in bite-sized stories, two- and three-page chapters about family members, club owners, famous entertainers, and other random people that helped shape Rickles’ career. They are vignettes you could imagine traded between old school entertainers in an empty nightclub, hours after the last drunk has crawled home.

Rickles seems grateful for every story and every person, even the “blind driver” who once fell asleep on the job, allowing a horse-drawn wagon to carry him and another actor off of a movie set and out into traffic. For the sitcoms that didn’t work (“C.P.O. Sharkey,” anyone?) and the Ed Sullivan appearance that tanked when Sullivan tried, unsuccessfully, to mimic Rickles’ style.

If you’re looking for dirt or gossip, you won’t find it here, unless you’re unaware that Frank Sinatra had a temper or that Asta, the dog from the TV show “The Thin Man,” was a biter. In Rickles’ world, everyone has good intentions, everything is played for laughs, and no pain is lasting. Even when his father dies suddenly of a heart attack, literally dropping in the street, it’s not long before Rickles is consoled by his mother:

“Life goes on,” my mother said to me. “You’ll get through this, sonny boy. I’ll be with you every step of the way.”
And imagine, I was the one worrying about mom.

But Rickles doesn’t come across as a Pollyanna. If you want dirt, there are plenty of places to find it. But Rickles has no reason to speak poorly of anyone or question the way things have unfolded for him. He writes from the perspective of a man who got everything he ever wanted. In fact, he says so in the last chapter:

Beautiful life.
Beautiful wife.
Beautiful children, Mindy and Larry.
Beautiful grandchildren, Ethan and Harrison, and son-in-law, Ed.
Beautiful career.
What more can a man ask for?

In a very real sense, Rickles the insult comic wouldn’t work if the man behind the curtain held any hint of genuine malice toward anyone. In today’s desensitized environment, Rickles might seem quaint to some. But onstage, he has let loose with attacks that would still cause trouble in a modern club. He got personal with untouchable celebrities, he picked on people in the audience who could easily snap him in half, and, most significantly, he never backed down from a racial slur. Somehow, people didn’t take it personally.

The only explanation is that Rickles’ audiences knew they were being slammed by a master, and that they knew, without seeing anything that resembled a true picture of the man in his comedy, that this man with the balding pate and dancing eyes could never in a million years mean what he said about them onstage.

If you want the Rickles you know, pick up a CD reissue of “Hello, Dummy!” or “Don Rickles Speaks.” But chances are, you’ll recognize the one from Rickles’ Book as well.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Billy Connolly Live at the Loeb

The humorous story may be spun out to great length, and may wander around as much as it please, and arrive nowhere in particular; but the comic and witty stories must be brief and end with a point. The humorous story bubbles gently along, the others burst. – “How to Tell a Story,” Mark Twain.

By Twain’s standards, Billy Connolly is not a comic. His Wednesday night show at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge was a wandering affair, arriving nowhere in particular, and ended with a simple, “That’s all, thank you,” after two and a half hours of laughter and pauses that made the laughter all that much powerful. Read your Twain – pauses are important.

Connolly was adrift from the start. Taking the stage in black pants, vest, and t-shirt with tails set against his cloud of white hair, it almost seemed his head was floating onstage by itself. He tried to remember the last time he played Boston, and was at a loss for a date. He doesn’t remember dates, saying, “I hate people who can. A long time ago covers it for me.” Then came the brief stories of his days as a folk musician, playing clubs he hated for people who hated him – a fond memory.

Back to the present, he added, almost incidentally, “I had my heart set on coming to Harvard.” In the break that followed, a couple of people “awed.” Then came a great burst of laughter and a pantomime of a Pinocchio nose growing.

Although Connolly often returned to the theme of his own aging – the backdrop behind him read “Too Young to Die Old” – trying to find a thread through the show that followed would be like trying to return a punt through the Boston Marathon. Icebergs that look like Jesus, prostate exams, anecdotes about friends, film festivals, haunted house shows, the priesthood – all were teed up and sometimes left standing as Connolly found another opening and ran for it.

At one point early in the show, Connolly stopped himself after a riff on sleep apnea. “Why did I tell you this?” he said. He explained his compulsion as an idea sitting in his head, sometimes not even a funny idea, but one that holds him hostage. “I’ll explode if I don’t tell you.”

And that’s the gist of Connolly’s style. It’s not as if he’s creating all of his material as you watch – he brings his entire life’s experience to the stage, from birth to what happened that day. Some of the stories have their stable rhythms and benchmarks and have been told a thousand times, like his show-closing half hour story about having been vomited on by three separate women in his lifetime, and some really are coming out of his mouth for the first time. It’s Chaos Theory, each story a rolling drop of water that changes his trajectory with each movement.

Some of the stories were personal, a blisteringly funny bit about an irritating friend’s girlfriend who, while trying to find a parking spot in a crowded lot, tried to get him to pray to the “parking angel.” His reply, “Arrange these words into a popular phrase: yourself fuck go.”

A riff about the ghost of a headless dog that lives in his estate in Scotland sent him off on a tangent about ghost hunting shows – “Four years that’s been on. How many ghosts? None!” Quick stories are punctuation, a brief detour about driving by the Queen’s estate and seeing a “bouncy castle” for a kids’ party in the shadow of a real castle. And serious moments are pauses, the all important pauses.

Two and a half hours later, Connolly has wandered everywhere, arrived nowhere in particular, with an audience in tow having barely noticed the passing of the time. Twain would have approved.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Roger Hoover: Restless Music

Originally intended for publication: early 2006. As of the summer of 2007, Hoover is working on the follow-up to Jukebox Manifesto with Ryan Foltz again at the helm. Freddy Hill has parted amicably with Hoover, taking the name "Whiskeyhounds" with him. Drummer Dave McKean, keyboard player Justin Gorski, and bass player Adam Simms are working with Hoover on the new one.

You could say Roger Hoover is the restless type. At the end of 2005, Hoover and his band, the Whiskeyhounds, had recorded Jukebox Manifesto, a polished, eclectic album that ran the gamut from banjo-picking Americana to blues-inflected roots rock. It was a worthy follow-up to the band’s sophomore album, Panic Blues, a tasty album full of CCR flavored tunes that went mostly unnoticed outside of Hoover’s native Cleveland.

By the time Hoover met ex-Dropkick Murphys mandolin player and soundman Ryan Foltz, a childhood friend of Whiskeyhounds drummer Dave McKean, he was already bored with the as-yet unreleased album. To Hoover’s ear, it didn’t capture the way it felt when the band played the songs live. When keyboardist Justin Gorski joined the band, Hoover thought it was the perfect opportunity to junk the first album, though it was mixed and ready to go, and start over again.

“I decided to do it again because I thought the arrangements could have been different and Ryan got on board,” says Hoover. “I have to revisit these songs all the time. One of the things lyrically I wanted to do with this album a long time ago was leave lots of open spaces between in words so I can kind of morph it into what I’m feeling any given time and relate to it from any different perspective. So they never get old for me.”

Foltz, who left the Murphys and Boston for his native Cleveland four years ago, came aboard as producer and the band rerecorded the entire album. Most of the work was done in four days in a giant living room, with a few finishing touches added over the next couple of weeks. Foltz was actually a fan of the first version of the album, but thought they could do better.

“It was good, but it sounded like the other two records they’d already made,” he says. “I’d seen them live a whole bunch of times and it really didn’t capture their thing. They really are a really cool, very breathing entity onstage. They really have a lot of fire, and it wasn’t coming across in the recording.”

The new sessions were recorded in a vacant house a friend of Hoover’s gave the band permission to record in. Considering the first two albums were recorded in the same studios with the same producer, Hoover welcomed the chance to get into a new space and work with someone who would push him in a different direction. “The space we had to record that album in lent itself really well to the feeling of the songs,” he says. “And I think the tone, just from the space we were in, gives the album a much better personality.”

Foltz also welcomed the change of pace. “I like getting out of my studio and getting out of a comfortable situation and making something happen out of a different set of circumstances,” says Foltz. “It’s good for everybody. It makes everybody look at it different and work differently.”

The Jukebox Manifesto Hoover finally released trades polish for intimacy and coherency. Hoover’s voice is raw and powerful, and shines on every track, from the opening blues rave-up “Inside His Devil Grin” to the gentle us-against-the-world closing ballad “Inamorato.” But the Whiskeyhounds finally gel as their own unit. McKean stomps through the Waitsian “Gewgaw Girl” and pounds lays low for the acoustic shuffle of “Roger Hoover’s Dream.” Freddy Hill bounces back and fort between electric and acoustic lead, and lends a beautiful lap steel to the coda of “Inamorato.” Bass player Chris Yohn can anchor every stylistic change, and Gorski’s shimmering B3 organ steps out of the background on “Stone on the Ground” to give the tune a “Positively Fourth Street” feel. The lone holdovers from the original sessions, “Anna Lee” and “Roadside CafĂ©,” are raw acoustic ballads, just Hoover’s voice and guitar.

For once, Hoover has an album he’s not already sick of by the release date. “I’ve had these songs a solid year and been playing them out and morphing them,” he says. “And they’re every bit as interesting as they were the first time I met them.”

Listen to some tracks from from Jukebox Manifesto.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Chris Coxen baffles the Last Comic Standing crew

Chris Coxen knew going into the Last Comic Standing, season five auditions he had no chance of making the show. It’s not that he lacks the talent to make the cut, but Coxen is a character comic – think Borat or Andy Kaufmann. So even though he had been invited to audition, he was pretty sure when he showed up to the New York auditions at the Gotham Comedy Club in March dressed as Danny Morsel, a mustached “combat dancer” who wears a ventriloquist dummy around his neck he calls “the War Doll,” the Last Comic judges wouldn’t know what to make of him.

In fact, the other comics at Gotham weren’t sure what he was supposed to be. “I was walking around with my wig and my moustache and the war doll, just walking around watching the faces of the other comics,” says Coxen. “That right there was entertainment enough.”

Coxen gave the judges, Alonzo Bodden, Kathleen Madigan, and ANT, the full Morsel treatment, dancing wildly to his boom box accompaniment. “The volume comes up and I stand up and I just start becoming completely unhinged onstage, moving around, throwing punches, and doing ridiculous dance moves and just screaming and going nuts,” he says.

His performance was met with a mix of confusion and amusement, and Madigan flashed a sign that said “no.” Coxen was not deterred. “I said, ‘The sign says “on,” does that mean I’m on the show?’” he says. “And she says, ‘No! It says no!’ She spins it around and it says ‘no’ on the other side, so I go, ‘It still says “on,” so I’m on the show! The War Doll and I will be back tonight, is that right?’”

Coxen has been told by representatives of the show that he’ll be on one of the first few shows, most probably tonight’s two-hour season premiere, but he doesn’t know how he’ll be portrayed. The goofball reel has become a staple of reality television, making stars out of the untalented (we’re looking at you, William Hung). “If they maintain the essence of what happened that day, it’ll be funny for everybody, you know?” he says. “If they do that, I don’t mind being lumped in, because the character speaks for itself. I was true to the character.”

Whatever makes it to air, Coxen isn’t expecting too much from it. “Realistically, a good laugh for myself and everyone that knows me,” he says. “And [for] every other comic, I think, there will be some very understated victory. Just because for all the comics, it’s a very bittersweet show. All the comics hate it, but at the same time, they would love to have the exposure of getting on there.”

For some context about Morsel and Coxen’s other characters, see his Web site,

Last Comic Standing, two-hour season premiere Wednesday, June 13, NBC, 9pm.

See today's Boston Globe for more about Last Comic Standing.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

What the hell is an optimistic curmudgeon?

I'm an optimistic curmudgeon. It's how I've always described myself. The thinking goes something like this -- Things suck now, but they'll get better. Even if things get better by half every day, they'll never be perfect. So you keep looking for something else to solve to get as close as possible. The thought of perfection destroys itself -- once you think you've reached the pinnacle, you're done, you stop moving.

To that end, this site will feature humor and news, things that I can't find a place for in my capacity as a full-time freelance writer. For Wednesday, I'll be posting a piece about Boston comic Chris Coxen mucking up the works at the Last Comic Standing auditions in New York. Also on tap, a never published piece about a fantastic rock and roll singer/songwriter out of Cleveland by the name of Roger Hoover, and an extended draft of a story I wrote for Paste Magazine a couple of years back about editing books as my first job out of college.

I'm at sixteen cells now, and still splitting, so (almost) any feedback would be appreciated as this thing grows.

"It's the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong." -- Valentine, from Tom Stoppard's Arcadia