Life in a Blender – New CD Review

We Already Have Birds That Sing, the new CD from Life in a Blender, is an album of tunes developed through live performance, and perfected in the recording studio, with the addition of extra guitar parts, refined arrangements for the resident strings, and a hard-hitting horn section of guest artists.

But the blood and guts of each cut on this, their 8th album, is the rock n roll core of drums, bass, and electric guitar propelling the singing that is voiced by the guy next door, with an affable lilt that can change to carnival barker or shrieking banshee on a dime.

Life in a Blender
photo: Quigley Media

Life in a Blender arose in the post-punk art rock scene of the mid-1980s. The current lineup has been together over twenty years, with a loyal fan base that continues to grow, thanks to the inventive thinking man’s rock composed by an ensemble of veteran musicians, and the sneakily adroit lyrics of front man Don Rauf, which are like little short stories, filled with quirky characters defined by the imagery of a specific time and place, yet achieving the cathartic impact of broader human experience.

The album opens with a blast of raucous horns, leading into Tongue Cut Sparrow, a boisterous burlesque number, closely based on the published biography of a young Japanese-American singer who was initially forced to work as an exotic dancer at Forbidden City, a popular men’s club in 1950s San Francisco. Shunned by all her family, except a grandmother, she ultimately finds her voice and career as a chanteuse.

In Shards, a man describes his daily life to an old acquaintance, and exhibits a confident outlook even if things could be better, and then suddenly reveals the private, backyard anguish of loss and lamentation. The juxtaposition of human façade and interiors is a theme Don Rauf has explored on previous records, as with the upbeat transient with the broken heart in the song Professional Mover (from The Heart is a Small Balloon, 2007,) along with the eccentric crank of a neighbor who turns out to be a friendly, regular guy once you get to know him, in Hoot Owl (Homewrecker Spoon, 2011.)

But in Shards, the switch between outward appearance and inner reality is more poignant and more surprising, as the brass-driven funk of the first part underscores the growling declaration that, “I’m looking fine. I bump and grind…,”only to have the music and the singer suddenly stripped to the basic beat, as the violin rises up to play on the heart strings while accompanying the strained confession of regret. It is a classic example of just one life in a blender, found in the canon of this long-lived band of the same name.

A less weighty lament is expressed by a lonely guy out on the town, in Mamanama, a romping, stomping two-step, complete with electric fiddle solo. He searches for companionship and good times across the expanse of Los Angeles, appealing to bar flies and surfers alike, with a chorus of “Can’t you see? I’m good company!”

Life in a Blender photo by David Barry
photo: David Barry

In the song Falmouth, a cheery fella imposes his unquenchable optimism on an emotionally distressed friend going through some unnamed crisis, and not taking no for an answer. A press release reveals information about the character’s specific situation. But Falmouth works so well on its own exactly because of the tight focus details of chicken, flowers, and roller derby, set before the background of ambiguous emotional circumstance. It allows a listener to connect the song’s sentiment with their own life experience, where they or one they care for has made similar efforts to reach someone in a bad place and pull them out.

Often when immersing myself in a new record there is a tune that goes unnoticed, only to put a hook in me later on, so that it becomes a permanent part of the repertoire of fragments sung when cleaning the house or walking down the street. Falmouth is that song on this CD. I think it has something to do with the syncopation in the clean picking pattern from guitarist Al Houghton, in combination with the sporadic vocal harmony lines, and the smart and infectious interludes from the horn section, arranged by bassist Mark Lerner.

Then again, the counterpoint underpinning Good Answer, which Lerner composed for cellist Dave Moody and violinist Rebecca Weiner Tompkins, is just as memorable, and it provides plenty of space for drummer Ken Meyer to fill up with tasty accents. Where that song is a flippant response to the bandwagon catch phrases of American pop culture, Frankenstein Cannot Be Stopped breathes new life into one of the most popular stories of gothic horror. The point of view is that of a member of the cinema audience, who is haunted by the tragic scene where the unintentional monster kills his youngest victim, and so he returns again and again to try to warn her from the dark.

The album closes with Sea in a Sieve, a buoyant appreciation of the joys found in setting sail in a small vessel just for the fun of it. And like the record as a whole, it is a transportive entertainment that is worthwhile and enjoyable, but ends sooner than one might wish, leaving a taste for more.

We Already Have Birds That Sing can be downloaded direct from the band’s website, for the indecently affordable price of $7, or you may order an actual CD for $10, which also includes the digital download.

It is also available on iTunes and other fine music outlets.

And that is one man’s word on…

Life in a Blender’s new album

Life in a Blender

Here is a video of Shards, shot in concert at Joe’s Pub, at the Public Theater in New York City, and features the fledgling horn arrangements. You can see and hear how the song evolved, by comparing it to the video farther down, which was shot at Rockwood Music Hall several months earlier, when Shards was being performed for the very first time.

You will have to get the album to hear the definitive version.

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Life in a Blender

Seamus Heaney Celebration

Last night, at the Cornelia Street Café, there was a reading with music, celebrating the works of the late Seamus Heaney, who died last August, at age 74.

This is but one of many similar poetry readings organized by veteran New York actor Paul Hecht, which at times feature original music by Ellen Mandel, former composer in residence at the Jean Cocteau Rep during its glory years.

Among the most important poets of the twentieth century, Seamus Heaney was a professor at Harvard and Oxford, simultaneously, and included among his ample accomplishments is the most compelling modern translation of Beowulf, published in 2001 after decades of work. Yet, Heaney’s own poetry ignores the grandeur of epic saga in favor of the intimacy observed among everyday lives, conjured in a voice that recognizes the irony found in how the smallest moments prove to be the most transformative.

Many of the poems are set among the peat bogs and turf lodge farms of his childhood in 1940s Northern Ireland, while some relive the bomb-strewn Troubles of the 1970s. But like other great Irish writers, the poetry reaches beyond the expression of what it is to be Irish, to reveal universal facets about what it means to be human. And like his predecessors, Yates, Shaw, and Beckett, Heaney’s efforts were awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1995.

Paul Hecht reading Seamus Heaney Cornelia St. Cafe

Paul Hecht reading Seamus Heaney
(photos: L. Flanagan)

Living Language

Which poems and excerpts to include from such a career, in a scant 90 minutes, was no easy feat. But Hecht provided a judicious balance between the weighty and the whimsical, and he and his fellow readers, Elizabeth Mackay and Kim Sykes, made their interpretations seem effortless with ease, so that their own enjoyment of the language proved infectious. The timbre of the women’s voices added highlights and brightness to the evening, set off by the sonorous shadows in the voice of Hecht, rich with resonance, and wide and deep in range, with just enough gravel to mark the boundaries.

The proceedings opened and closed with passages from Heaney’s Nobel acceptance speech, filled with its own poetic imagery. But none quite so distilled and served up like the actual poems read aloud. These included Casualty with its wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time death suffered by the pub crawler who was “…blown to bits/Out drinking in a curfew/Others obeyed…”

And the awkward romance of Twice Shy.

Our Juvenilia
Had taught us both to wait,
Not to publish feeling
And regret it all too late –
Mushroom loves already
Had puffed and burst in hate.

There was The Skunk, a lighthearted piece from the poet’s brief period at Cal Berkley, and Death of a Naturalist, which tells of a young boy’s interest in nature being cut short when he finds out his beloved tadpoles grow up to be “gross-bellied frogs … Some sat poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.”

A whole section was dedicated to the Glanmore Sonnets, written after moving back to the country in the 1980s, this time south of Dublin, where

We have our burnished bay tree at the gate,
Classical, hung with the reek of silage
From the next farm, tart-leafed as inwit

Eleanor Taylor sings Seamus Heany w Ellen MandelAnd on four occasions a poem would be read by Hecht, Mackay, or Sykes, and then it would be sung beautifully by soprano Eleanor Taylor, accompanied on the piano by Ellen Mandel, who has made her own art form of setting great poems to music.

In fact, Mandel and a collection of singers will be performing her compositions this coming Saturday, May 17, at The Wild Project, 195 East 3rd St., to signify the release of her latest CD, There Was a World, featuring the words of Seamus Heaney, William Shakespeare, E.E. Cummings, and others.

Last night, one of the Heaney poems set to music was When All the Others Were Away at Mass. Written upon the death the poet’s mother, it is specific and deeply personal, while also universal in its scope.

When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.

So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives–
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

 

Upcoming readings in this series at the Cornelia Street Café include:

Bloomsday – Monday June 16 – James Joyce w/ Paul Hecht and others

Monday August 18 – Annual Ogden Nash Bash – w/ Paul Hecht and featuring Ellen Mandel

Monday September 29th – TS Elliot

 

Early American Guitars: the Instruments of C.F. Martin – Metropolitan Museum of Art

Early American Guitars: The Instruments of C. F. Martin ivory fingerboard Metropolitan Museum of Art

An after-hours reception was held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last night, where an invited group of some 60 guests were treated to a private viewing of the exhibit Early American Guitars: the Instruments of C.F. Martin, which opened to the public earlier that day.

The exhibit is located in the museum’s André Mertens Galleries for Musical Instruments, Gallery 684, now through December 7, 2014.

Trained in the Vienna style of guitar making championed by Johann Stauffer, Christian Frederick Martin emigrated from Saxony to New York City in 1833, where he set up business on Hudson Street, near the present location of the Holland Tunnel. By the 1840s he had moved to Nazareth, Pennsylvania, where his great-great-great-grandson, C.F. Martin IV currently serves as C.E.O. of the family business, one of the oldest in the USA. In time, C.F. Sr. experimented his way to inventing a guitar design that was uniquely American, and which evolved directly into almost every flattop steel-string acoustic guitar seen today.

Historic Display

This exhibition features the largest collection of Martin’s work ever put on public display, culled from private collections and Martin Guitar’s own museum, to augment instruments already at the Met. While Martins made before the Civil War are extremely rare, present are some of the most visually exquisite examples, many with ornate inlay and decoration, as well as the most historically significant, including the earliest known guitar to feature the X-brace pattern supporting the soundboard, ubiquitous among modern guitars, and the earliest guitar yet discovered that bears Martin’s signature. Also included in the exhibit of thirty-five instruments are some made by other lesser known luthiers from America, as well as Austro-German and Spanish guitars with designs that influenced Martin’s earlier development.

Early American Guitars: the Instruments of C.F. Martin Metropolitan Museum of Art receptionIn addition to select museum supporters, in attendance was Kerry Keane of Christie’s, guitarists Woody Mann and Craig Thatcher, veteran dealers in Martins and other guitars such as Stan Jay of Mandolin Brothers, Steve Uhrick of Musurgia, Fred Oster of Vintage Instruments, Buzzy Levine of Lark St. Music, Jim Bollman of the Music Emporium, and Matt Umanov of Umanov Guitars, along with luthiers Rudy Pensa, Steven Kovacik, and David LaPlante. It was LaPlante whose detective work recognized and established the likely influence upon Martin by builders of the Cadiz style of Spanish guitars, which evolved parallel to the Viennese style. His findings make up a key chapter in the new book that has come out in conjunction with the exhibit.

Published by Hal Leonard Books, Inventing the American Guitar: The Pre-Civil War Innovations of C.F. Martin and His Contemporaries is comprised of beautiful photography, and essays by several experts in nineteenth-century musical instruments. It also features a concise and most excellent forward by the Met’s own Jayson Kerr Dobney, Associate Curator in the Department of Musical Instruments. Peter Szego, the mastermind behind the book, was also present for the viewing and reception. An in-depth review of the book is slated for later this month at onemanz.com.

Mystery Solved

During a chat with Chris Martin, he revealed to me that he had spent much of his life wondering how and why his illustrious ancestor made the leap from the Stauffer-style parlor guitars to his own unique design that gave rise to modern American guitars. It was only when the book project and exhibit came together that it became clear it was actually a three-point process. He began with Viennese guitars, started making Spanish guitars to appeal to a broader range of customers, and ultimately combined them with his innovative bracing patterns to arrive at the design that would instigate the evolution toward today’s steel-string guitars.

“Now I understand why he used a fake Spanish foot!” Chris said, after thinking about the implications. “You know, he would put a Spanish foot inside the guitar, even though he was using a dovetail neck joint. So he would put in a fake one that didn’t do anything. I guess because people who liked Spanish guitars probably wanted to see that feature.”

 Woody Mann, Matt Umanov, Early American Guitars: The Instruments of C. F. Martin

Woody Mann and Matt Umanov

 Martin Guitar executives Metropolitan Museum of Art Early American Guitars: The Instruments of C. F. Martin

Martin Executives with
C.F. Martin IV and Peter Szego
(center two figures)

 Craig Thatcher, Nyke van Wyk, Early American Guitars: The Instruments of C. F. Martin

Nyke van Wyk and
Craig Thatcher

 Music with Mustard Seed and Cornichons

Martins of that era sported gut strings and were played by concert artists and discerning amateurs to perform classical music. Today, steel-string Martins are the premier choice of acoustic guitars for players of bluegrass, country, folk, and rock n roll. Modern Martins are represented in the exhibit by the 1939 000-42 that Eric Clapton used in his trendsetting performance on MTV-Unplugged, on loan from the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame. Another seen last night was found in the hands of Craig Thatcher, who performed on an Eric Clapton signature model, while the guests enjoyed the latter part of the evening conversing over a lavish offering of crudité, smoked salmon and local farm cheeses.

Additional Events

There will be a series of concerts in conjunction with the exhibit by recording artists like Rosanne Cash, and Laurence Juber, as well as free live performances in the museum’s Charles Engelhard Court throughout the year. In addition, at least two educational programs are currently scheduled: How Did They Do That?; Early American Guitars will take place on March 8 and 9; and a Sunday at the Met presentation is set for March 16.

Acknowledgement

A very special thank you to Dick Boak, Head of Artist Relations at C.F. Martin & Co., for the invitation, and everything else he has ever done since the day he was caught taking scrap wood out of a Martin dumpster and given a job at the factory.

For more information on Early American Guitars: the Instruments of C.F. Martin go to:

http://www.metmuseum.org/

Photo Gallery from exhibit, for those who cannot make it to NYC to see it

Early American Guitars: the Instruments of C.F. Martin Metrpolitcan Museum of Art door

Related Reading:

Impressionists, Fashion and Modernity at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – a review

Martin Authentic Series – detailed reviews of exacting replicas of vintage pre-war Martins

Timeless Greenpoint

Greenpoint Photos

A Good Friday in Greenpoint, Brooklyn

From the spring of 1984 to the summer of 1985, I lived on Monitor Street in Greenpoint, the northern-most section of Brooklyn, along the East River.

I happened to travel there to acquire a piece of audio recording equipment, on Good Friday, March 29. I only now had time to get the photos off of my camera.

I found the insular Polish neighborhood much as I remembered, and even found an abandoned luncheonette, soapy windows revealing twentieth-century prices and a bit of a time capsule inside.

Greenpoint Brooklyn

You can see full size photos here.