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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 13, 2008

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Music and Thin Cakes

American Idol did it again. Michael Johns deserved to be in the final three. Instead, he was dropped. Why? I can only imagine that it was complacency on the part of his voters, who assumed he was a shoo-in and only voted for him a couple of times.

The judges may not have loved his version of Aerosmith's "Dream On," but I thought it was terrific. Far, far better than Carly Smithson or David Cook last week. But when those two do badly, there are apparently voters who are energized to vote even more fervently (and therefore frequently; the phone lines can't actually transmit fervency) for them so they'll remain on the show.

Thus, by doing really well, Michael Johns ended up getting booted. Bummer!

Did you know that David Cook released a single album in 2006? You can download it or order it from Amazon. It's not a bad album, though the actual songs are weaker than anything he's done on Idol. His singing on the album is strong; his accompaniment is noisy.

Let's face it: Cook is a better singer than he is musician. There's nothing wrong with that! And his singing has definitely improved, both in technique and in song interpretation. The show has been good for him.

But I bet the other contestants are wishing they had a CD out there making money for them during the run of the show. In fact, that may be why they started releasing studio recordings of the songs from the show -- so that the other contestants can make a buck while the show is giving them maximum publicity.

*

Meanwhile, on Dancing with the Stars, they got it right when they booted the annoying, Frankenstein-like Adam Carolla.

However, I think it's really not in the spirit of the show to have a former professional skater as a contestant. Too much of the posing, the smoothness, the upper-body movement is identical between ballroom and figure skating for us not to regard Kristi Yamaguchi as a ringer.

I think the judges sense this, which is why they're embarrassed to keep scoring Yamaguchi far higher than anybody else. But they were wrong last week to give Jason Taylor two 10s and a 9, just so somebody would be closer to Yamaguchi's score. There is no way that he deserved it.

Bumping one contestant's number much higher than he deserves is not going to make up for the mistake of bringing Yamaguchi into the contest in the first place. The real show, for me anyway, is about who comes in second.

*

At Fresh Market I picked up a couple of packages of Suzie's brand Thin Cakes. The two flavors I tried were "puffed multigrain" and "puffed rice."

Most rice cakes are thick and crumbly. I like them well enough, but when I found thin corn and multigrain cakes I left the rice cakes behind.

Thinness makes a difference! You can bite the cake more easily without rice bits spraying all over. The flavor and texture are better.

My only complaint about Suzie's Thin Cakes is the packaging. Since the cakes are rectangular and the plastic wrapping is very snug, you either have to break the cake to get it out or you have to tear the plastic down the side so you can't reseal it.

And it's made of a kind of plastic that tears by itself so easily that the packaging will probably not be airtight no matter how carefully you remove the cakes.

I ended up removing all the cakes from the packaging and putting them in a Ziploc bag.

But the cakes -- which have virtually no calories -- are worth the trouble of repackaging them. (And if you don't live near a store that carries them, you can order them online from Amazon.com. Just search for Suzie's Thin Cakes.)

*

Barnes & Noble doesn't carry music CDs the way Borders does. But, unfortunately for me, Borders is twenty minutes away across town, and I can get to B&N in six or seven minutes. Also, B&N is close to movie theaters and restaurants often I go to. In other words, I simply get there more often.

Even though B&N lacks a huge CD selection, they do have a rack of CDs and movies right at the head of the line for the cash registers. And I have zero sales resistance if the cover looks at all promising.

It's clear that these CDs are selected with my demographic in mind -- baby boomers. No rap, but lots of jazz, show tunes, soundtracks, middle-of-the-road pop and country, light classical: Michael Buble and Andreas Bocelli, Dolly Parton and Judy Collins.

So I'm going to review a set of CDs picked up (as near as I can remember) from that rack in Barnes & Noble over the past few months.

Matt Dusk is a singer I'd never heard before, but his album Back in Town is a terrific example of swing in the Bing and Blue Eyes tradition. Dusk has a slight nasality, but not enough to annoy me, and unlike Buble and Sinatra himself, Dusk has the low notes that give him strength all through his range. Good arrangements. I listen to him now in my regular rotation of vocalists.

David Burnham is in the same category, leaning perhaps more toward straight showtunes rather than swing; but where Dusk is a strong baritone, Burnham has a light, lovely tenor voice that soars through the high notes as if they weren't even hard. Check out his self-titled debut CD -- especially his "Moon River," which is, quite simply, the best version of that song that I have ever heard.

Dolly Parton is getting old. Watching her on American Idol made me a little sad, because her voice is going. So I think of her new album, titled, with delightful irony, Backwoods Barbie, as something of a farewell. I hope Parton keeps on writing songs till they put her in a box, but this is probably the last album of hers I'll buy. Unless, somehow, she manages to make the transition to limited-range songs the way Rosemary Clooney did.

This album, though, is worth the price. Her style is still her own, and a pleasure to hear; above all, though, as a songwriter she's the real thing, whether she's being wistful, mean, funny, or earnest.

Melissa Errico is a fantastic find, with her album Blue Like That. Definitely not old, and packaged in a way that reminds me of a young Melissa Manchester, she sings songs I've never heard but makes me feel as if I've grown up hearing her voice, and these songs, in my head. The first track, "I Still Love You," gives us a soprano who can lightly fly to the top of her range and make it sweet all the way up.

Compare this to the often overwrought singing that prevails on American Idol and it can make you glad that some singers know how to be vocally small as well as big. Two of the best songs on the album were written by Errico's brother, and the other two new songs were written especially for her voice. These songwriters are not crazy to write for her voice. She delivers.

Rhonda Vincent's Good Thing Going is a throwback to old-time country -- lots of twangin' and sawin'. Her voice is a little grating sometimes, but only in the way that a good country singer is supposed to be. With lyrics simple and direct and clear, she brings life and energy to every song, and you never feel like she's showing off. She has something to say and doesn't overdecorate the melody. If you don't love this kind of country music, stay away -- but if, like me, you do, then Vincent is a gem.

Victoria Clark must be her singing teacher's pride and joy. Unfortunately, her Broadwayish album Fifteen Seconds of Grace gives us a singer whose tone is so beautifully produced that I feel like I'm at the recital of a talented college senior.

No, that's not fair -- it's not as bad as listening to Kiri te Kanawa or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing Broadway. But she definitely moves in that direction. Just a note now and then without vibrato would be nice. And yet she does understand the songs she's singing, and I bet there are listeners who'll enjoy her songs more than I do.

On her album of songs by other people, Mockingbird, singer/songwriter Allison Moorer shows us such a lush voice that she wraps us up and carries us away. Her downtempo covers of "Ring of Fire" and "Both Sides Now" dare to find new meaning in two ancient and well-loved songs. She brings a gorgeous bluesy feel to everything. If Rhonda Vincent reminds us where country was, Moorer shows us where it's going -- which is to say, anywhere Moorer feels like taking it.

Judy Collins is another aging singer; unlike Dolly Parton, the plastic surgery has gone so far that she looks frightening. She actually chose the picture for the cover of her new album, Democracy? Ah well -- vanity usually turns self-destructive in the end, and it's her voice, not her face, that makes the album.

The concept is to bring together Collins's performances of songs by Leonard Cohen -- classics like "Suzanne" and "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye." Most of the songs here are the original recordings from the 60s and 70s, so if you already have all her albums, you have these exact performances!

There are a few new recordings, though: "Democracy," a good old-fashioned protest song, "A Thousand Kisses Deep," "Night Comes On." Perhaps because Collins has always had a thin, piping voice, these new recordings show an artist whose voice, if not her face, is as good as ever.

Paul Potts won last year's Britain's Got Talent -- I pointed out his performances on YouTube several months ago. His story was a sweet one -- a funny-looking mobile phone salesman who dreamed of being an opera singer and, when he finally got his chance, blew everyone away because he was actually good.

Well, now he has his first album, One Chance, and it's pretty good. He has power, he has sincerity, he has range.

What he doesn't have is anything approaching polish. The album is well produced, so that the flaws in his voice are generally concealed. But he occasionally oversings his voice, and sometimes his vibrato is not controlled as it should be. Nor does he pronounce foreign languages particularly well. Yet all these statements are true of Andrea Bocelli, as well. You don't have to be technically perfect to give pleasure with your singing.

Herbie Hancock's River: The Joni Letters has a wonderful concept -- an album of jazz interpretations of the songs of Joni Mitchell. Unfortunately, most of the tracks are so be-bopped that you can barely detect any Mitchell. To me, unlistenable; to jazz aficionados, undoubtedly wonderful. Though why anyone bothers putting the names of actual songs on tracks like these I don't understand.

*

To whom it may concern: My new story collection, Keeper of Dreams, is now available in bookstores and online. It contains all my short fiction published since my first collection, Maps in a Mirror.


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