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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 8, 2009

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


Music from Springsteen, Cincotti, Monheit, DiDonato, Florez

Bruce Springsteen has been around for quite a while now -- I remember seeing his Born to Run LP in the record stores when I was a college student, and I became a fan when most Americans did, with Born in the USA.

Later, I rediscovered what I'd been missing in the interim: The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, and the unforgettable The River. Since then, Human Touch and Lucky Town, those simultaneous releases from back in the 1980s, remain -- for me at least -- his best, most consistent albums.

But Springsteen is now an extremely wealthy man, and while he has gone to great lengths to preserve his connection to the working class -- the source of his musical inspiration -- he has lost something else: hunger.

When you've done everything, achieved everything, it's quite possible for creativity to fade. In fact, it's the most common thing to happen as artists age. It doesn't mean you lose your craft -- Agatha Christie could still turn out a good mystery novel right to the end -- but the inner fire can fade, the sense of urgency, the reach for brilliance.

As a songwriter, Springsteen has been among the best. And to his credit, he has tried to reach beyond himself, into perilous, unfamiliar territory, as with the program album The Ghost of Tom Joad. After 9/11, Springsteen was the only songwriter I saw turn out, not emotional gushes, but real songs that could stand alone even without the shadow of the twin towers.

But as I listened to Working on a Dream, his latest album, I was struck over and over by how empty the songs were. They sounded like a man going through the motions.

Take, for instance, his rather silly ballad "Outlaw Pete." When you sing a song about a criminal, you work in the shadow of Billy Joel's "Ballad of Billy the Kid," which is a tough place to be, because that song comes from Joel's first brilliant rush as a songwriter. The comparison is embarrassing to Springsteen.

But it's possible to write a song about a criminal and do a terrific job, with or without Billy Joel's shadow getting in the way. For instance, Peter Cincotti's excellent new album East of Angel Town has a smart, tough, ironic song called "Make It Out Alive." (And almost every other song is full of light and heat.)

Shirley Eikhard's classic Going Home album has "Crazy from the Heat," a song about an outlaw which is smarter and more complex than any of the others.

All these songs are well-performed. But Springsteen is supposed to be the smartest, toughest of these songwriters, and you know what? His song shows him as a fading talent. A guy who remembers what great songs are supposed to sound like, but doesn't know where to find them any more.

Springsteen's title track, sung just a little slower than I think the song deserves, sounds like a tribute to "My Hometown" or "Darlington County" -- to what he used to be.

No, no, it's not a bad album at all. It's merely workmanlike. It feels familiar -- except for his weird country song -- like visiting with an old friend. But when I played songs from his earlier albums, the difference became clear.

The messy brilliance of The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle has been replaced by tidiness, even a little fussiness. Like an old codger who sometimes rearranges the knick-knacks left behind by his late wife, but never puts out anything new.

*

Ever since MusicMatch Jukebox was killed by -- oh, excuse me, purchased by -- Yahoo! and replaced with its own miserable software, access to MusicMatch's excellent database has been cut off. I've been forced, when ripping CDs, to enter all the pertinent information by hand, which takes time and requires me to read lots of tiny, tiny print.

Which means that I often resort to Microsoft's built-in Windows Media software, so that their database can enter the information automatically. It saves a lot of time ... except when it doesn't.

For instance, when I ripped Juan Diego Florez's album (Bel Canto Spectacular), it included in the album name -- and therefore in the filenames -- "[CD/DVD]." Why would they clutter up my directory window with absurdities like that? The title, my friends! That's all you need!

But the real stupidity came with the "artist's name" field in the database. Instead of Juan Diego Florez's name occurring anywhere in the data -- and the point of the album was to introduce this Spanish tenor -- they put the names of the composers in the artist field.

Admittedly, this is partly the result of very bad thinking on the part of the folks who designed the whole MP3 dataset in the first place. In pop music, the general public doesn't care much who the composer is -- it's all about the performer.

But in classical music, you need both sets of information. It matters whether you're getting Kiri te Kanawa's performance of "Un bel di" or "Mio babbino caro" or someone else's; it matters whether Joyce DiDonato or Dawn Upshaw is singing an opera aria.

It also matters whether you're hearing works by Handel, Puccini, Verdi, or Mozart. And you're just as likely to look up a track by the composer as the performer.

The trouble is, there just aren't enough fields. You either have to work the composer's or performer's name into the title, or else into the artist-name field. Awkward, time-consuming.

There would have been room for Florez's name in the title, of course, if they hadn't put in the absolutely vital "[CD/DVD]" information.

But when, after ripping a CD, you can't find an album by putting the singer's name into the search field, there's something seriously wrong with Microsoft's Windows Media database.

Is this a really big, important annoyance? Of course not. And yet ... think how many other albums have been incompetently listed in their database? Think of how much time clowns like me have to waste in editing the album information in order to make it all neat and orderly? I think Microsoft owes me at least a dollar fifty for the time I wasted.

But since they would already owe me about $8,000 for the time that I or an employee wasted on trying to get Windows to run competently, I suppose the buck-and-a-half is just a drop in the bucket.

*

Speaking of Juan Diego Florez, I must say that while he has a very powerful voice, I don't hear anything in his singing that says he brings any special understanding or insight to the songs he sings. Technically masterful performances, but ... cold.

Maybe one of the reasons people are so excited about Florez is that, for an opera singer, he's extraordinarily good-looking. Playing a hero on the opera stage, he doesn't have to wear 4X sized costumes, and that's a good thing when you want a show to be believable, as even opera sometimes aspires to do.

For me, the jury is still out on Joyce DiDonato's Furore album. Her voice is powerful, but since the album consists of arias from operas by Handel, and Handel's work is from early in the history of opera, when technical virtuosity was still a higher goal than emotional power, I can't really tell whether she would sing with greater fire if she were performing more passionate music.

I enjoyed this album enough to want to hear her doing something from the Romantic period. I'll see what I can find.

Meanwhile, though, she has the same thing going for her that Florez does -- she's very good-looking, and not just "for an opera singer." Or at least she photographs well for album covers. So when you picture a blond bombshell coming on stage and singing with the power and expertise we hear on Furore, you have to imagine the opera audience weeping with relief.

The best new album I heard this week, however, comes from the world of jazz vocals. In a world that contains such varied voices as Tierney Sutton, Diana Krall, the late Eva Cassidy, Shirley Eikhard, Stacey Kent, and (stretching a point) Norah Jones, I find that Jane Monheit delivers the most consistently pleasing performances of the great standards.

It's simply a joy to put on any album of hers, and her new The Lovers, the Dreamers, and Me is no exception -- even though I cordially dislike "The Rainbow Connection," from which the album title is taken, perhaps because I always hear it in the voice of Kermit the Frog, no matter who is singing it.

When you hear Monheit sing "Something Cool" or "I Do It for Your Love," it's not that she blows you away with her inventiveness (though she is inventive). What makes me happy is how absolutely right her performance is. She sounds conversational, real, almost lazy sometimes; yet every note is perfectly chosen, dead on pitch (whatever pitch she wants), and with delicacy of inflection.

Even her breaths are part of the song.

If you don't know Monheit's work, do yourself a favor. In a musical era when the pop singers seem either to be in the overwrought, overdecorated American Idol mode or barely-tonal leftovers from the Alternative movement, it's a breath of fresh air to hear songs sung with beauty and richness and meaning, all at the same time.

*

Speaking of reading tiny type on CDs, it was that problem that caused me to get bifocals in the first place, about ten years ago.

Now I'm back in trouble again -- the type is just too small, especially the copyright date (which is how, with my fading memory, I get a clue about whether I already own an album; if it isn't brand new, and it's by an artist I collect, I certainly have it).

So I've started carrying with me a little keychain magnifying glass from the Levenger catalog.

It's absolutely great -- especially since it comes with its own built-in LED light. This is essential, since holding the magnifying glass over the CD case can cast a shadow.

The light is the problem, though. It has a big plastic button that you have to hold down, and that's fine. The problem is that on the other side, where the light actually pokes out from the case, if you push on the light itself, it goes on and stays on.

Think about it. You're supposed to put it on the keychain, which you then put in either purse or pocket -- where it's going to jostle against the keys that share the chain with it.

And when they bump against the light on the magnifying glass, it turns on and stays on in your pocket or purse.

So after carrying the magnifying glass for a mere two weeks, and using it only twice, the battery has run out -- because it was used to illuminate the inside of my pocket for hours on end.

Bad, bad design. They needed a switch that had to be turned on deliberately, not one that could be jostled on. Especially because jostling it a second time didn't turn it off -- it had to be deliberately turned off by depressing the big rubbery button on the other side.

It's just another of those "what were they thinking" situations. Isn't there anybody in these companies who is paid to ask, "How will the consumer actually use this product?"

I guess that's my job.

I still carry the magnifying glass, though, even without the light. For now. Because I just tried to read the copyright date on Springsteen's album -- printed in red on a very dark background, and in what has to be two-point type -- and failed, because of the magnifying glass's own shadow.

Too many failures like that, and it won't be worth carrying the glass around with me.


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