Wednesday, January 24, 2024

The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte - An Exploration of Choice and Consequence

Part One: The Message

In 2023 the band Sparks, aka the brothers Ron and Russell Mael, released The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte, their 26th album. The album can be enjoyed for its well-crafted, highly entertaining, music - 14 songs, not a clunker in the bunch. However, I think there’s more at work here: the Mael brothers, after more than 50 years in the business, are imparting some important wisdom about the adventure and journey that is life, based on their unique career and experience in the music business. And they’re doing it the way they know best - through their music.

One could reasonably look at Sparks’ idiosyncratic career as the result of a series of choices, some no doubt harder than others, that the brothers have made over these many years. And that is, I believe the underlying theme of the album: Latte is a meditation on the nature of choice…and the consequences that therefore result.  They are sharing what they’ve learned, looking at the question of choice from many perspectives, including:

  • Making a choice - whether discussing their career directly, or commenting on the consequences of individual or societal choice more generally;

  • The reluctance to make a choice - and the consequences that can lead to; 

  • The inability to make a choice, on both a personal and societal level; and finally,

  • The absence of choice, sometimes at a personal level, sometimes more broadly.

Sunday, August 13, 2023

Sparks: The Debut Album!

 We were trying to play within the rules of what constitutes pop music, and also seeing what happens when you find those rules too confusing.” - Ron Mael, on Sparks debut album.

I wrote a piece about Kimono My House, the third album by the band Sparks, the other day. People seemed to like it, and I felt encouraged to write about more Sparks albums, to look at the albums from my current perspective (we'll generously call it "non-youthful"), delve into why the albums are still special to me, and to celebrate Sparks’ enduring music. And I started thinking about their very first, self-entitled album - a truly special piece of work with Todd Rundgren producing, to boot. 

The Original Halfnelson Cover

The album was originally released in 1971 as Halfnelson. It tanked, but was re-released as Sparks a year later. It tanked again, but for the song Wonder Girl incongruously hitting number one in Mobile, Alabama. Fortunately, the band had the support of Bearsville Records president Albert Grossman, who authorized a follow-on,1973’s A Woofer In Tweeter’s Clothing. 

It was after these albums that Ron and Russell Mael, the brothers at the heart of the band, moved to the U.K. to seek their fortune. In 1974 they released both Kimono My House and Propaganda, and suddenly they were household names in the United Kingdom.

The Rebranded Debut

Over time, "Sparks" became a catch-all moniker for Ron and Russell’s music and vision. When making the first two records though, Sparks was a five piece band trying to make a name for itself. In addition to Ron and Russell, the other musicians - Harley Feinstein on drums, and the brothers Earle and Jim Mankey on guitar and bass, respectively - contributed to the song writing and were integral to the band’s sound, reflecting a somewhat warped perspective of the world but played out in a traditional rock band context. Russell has called this the only incarnation of Sparks that was “truly democratic.”

Monday, July 31, 2023

Revisiting Kimono My House! (Spoiler: It's Still Great)

It’s been a while since I wrote anything on this blog. 2016 to be exact. Where does the time go? 

But for whatever reason, I decided to take pen to paper - or at least fingertips to keyboard - to write a bit about an album released almost 50 years ago; that I’ve heard dozens, if not hundreds, of times; which I’ve held in high esteem since I first heard it; and which led me on a journey that I’m still walking today. 

The album is Kimono My House, the breakthrough album from Sparks that was first released - get ready for it - in May of 1974. It’s a meaningful album to me - the first I purchased (or technically, that was purchased for me by my brother - thank you Sam!), right after seeing them perform some of the songs on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. So it means a lot to me. 

I listened to it on a bustling morning commute a few days ago but there were many distractions. I can look at Kimono and kind of just absorb it from a quick glance. I know what’s on it. I know it’s great. But I felt it deserved a proper, attentive listen. So that's what I did. 

Sparks are brothers Ron and Russell Mael. Ron plays keyboards; writes the lyrics; and arranges the songs. Russell sings; he is a force of nature, singing stronger and better than ever.  Over 50 years in, they are currently enjoying worldwide popularity and recognition that successful bands usually experience much earlier in their careers. Kimono was the first time they attained international attention, and I wanted to give it a listen with almost 50 years having passed since its release. The album is older now; I am too. 

Monday, December 19, 2016

Gemma Ray!

The captivating British performer Gemma Ray recently played some dates in the United States, and my wife and I had the great pleasure of attending a performance here in the Washington, DC area. She’s released over a half dozen records, brings a powerful sound and presentation to both her records and her live show, and makes music that’s unique and totally her own. Her songs are carefully constructed and arranged, while also very moving and soulful. Her guitar accentuates the passion of her vocals, yet it never overwhelms her powerful singing. Often borrowing from the torch singers of the past, her music has been described as “noir” like; to me, it’s a David Lynch soundtrack waiting to happen.

I spoke with Gemma about her music and her excellent new release, The Exodus Suite, and I also had a conversation with her long-time collaborator, Andy Zammit, about how he approaches his drums and keyboards to support Gemma Ray’s music. Gemma's website is worth checking out, as is her Facebook page; I also recommend a second website that is very informative and worth checking out.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The One and Only Barrence Whitfield!

"I just want people to walk away knowing that they’ve seen a great show, and they know that Barrence Whitfield is still with them."

Image result for barrence whitfield sparksI had the great pleasure of chatting with Barrence Whitfield, the lead singer of the legendary Boston-based band Barrence Whitfield and the Savages. I first saw Barrence and his band perform in the early 1980s and took many folks to his shows – I loved turning people on to this unique, highly talented performer. Savages shows are full throttle from beginning to end, a unique blend of classic hard-driving R&B with a rocking garage band ethos, with a bit of James Brown and Little Richard thrown into the mix as well. Barrence, who has been described as "the last great soul shouter," never fails to give everything he’s got, every performance. By the end of the show performer and audience alike are equally exhausted and fully charged up at the same time. There was nothing like a Barrence Whitfield show and from the clips I’ve seen, little has changed. We talked about his career and his fantastic new album – and we talked quite extensively about a band we both love: Sparks! Turns out he’s a huge fan. Our conversation about Sparks is captured the second half of this interview.

The website for Barrence Whitfield and the Savages is worth checking out, as is their Facebook page. And I hope you enjoy my interview with this remarkable entertainer!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

A Special Interview: Craig Leon, Producer of the Ramones' Classic First Album!

Image result for craig leonIn 1976, the iconic punk band The Ramones recorded their first album in under two weeks and on a budget of $6400.00 dollars. Released in April of that year, the album boldly introduced the Ramones to the world, and is now recognized widely as one of the most important pop music albums ever recorded. The album was seminal in launching punk music in the United States and the U.K., and sounds as fresh and innovative today as it did 40 years ago.

In honor of its 40th anniversary, Warner Brothers/Rhino has released a commemorative set that celebrates this ground-breaking album. The set includes three CDs packed with rarities and outtakes, two live performances, and both a remastered stereo and never before released mono version of the album. A vinyl version of the mono mix is also included, and extensive liner notes, an essay on the band, and rare photos round out the package. It’s a great way to learn all about this seminal band and its four founding members, all of whom took on the last name Ramone to symbolize their unity of sound and purpose: Jeffrey Hyman, known as Joey (vocals); John Cummings, or Johnny (guitar), Doug Colvin, or Dee Dee (bass); and Tommy Erdelyi, or Tommy (drums).

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Pittsburgh's Iconic Rocker..Joe Grushecky!

I spoke with Joe Grushecky about his extensive career making music with his band, the Iron City Houserockers; on his own, through an extensive and impressive catalog of solo recordings; and with luminaries such as Bruce Springsteen and many others. Joe is not unlike his music: straightforward, socially conscious, and with great empathy for those facing hard times. In Joe’s case, he also works outside of music to make a difference – he works with special needs children and as you’d expect, doesn’t back down from taking on the hardest cases.

 After over 40 years making music, Joe is still going strong -sometimes on his own, and sometimes fronting Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers. He has a new solo album ready to drop, a live Houserockers album on the way, and numerous other projects on the horizon. The Houserockers continuously tour - make sure you check them out. And make sure you check out Joe’s website to learn more about his iconic career – and to gain easy access to Joe’s great music.

Friday, December 11, 2015

A Conversation With Michael Kronenberg!

Michael Kronenberg Interview, December 2015

Michael Kronenberg
So how cool is this? I had the opportunity to speak with the esteemed graphic designer Michael Kronenberg a couple weeks ago. Michael is the real deal. He is a graphic designer for the Film Noir Foundation, which for Michael is the job of a lifetime. He also works extensively with Marvel Comics as well as many other corporate entities. He is a high-demand kind of guy and I am grateful that Michael found a few minutes to talk. But…that’s not all! Given Michael’s love of film noir and boxing. I threw out the idea of creating two top ten lists – of noir movie posters (the art used to promote these movies was amazing), and of his favorite boxing movies. He kindly complied and not only picked out all the photos and art for the interview, but also helped me design the piece. You gotta admit – that’s pretty cool. So…enjoy this very special interview with Michael Kronenberg!

Saturday, November 7, 2015

It's Noirvember - Here's 10 Favorite Films Noirs!

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The Film Noir Foundation has dubbed this month “Noirvember,” so I thought I’d share with you a few films noirs that are personal favorites. These are films that move me in some way or another. This isn’t a “top ten” or “best of” list; there are many great films noirs, including some classics such as Double Indemnity or The Maltese Falcon, that are not here. These are just a few I really like personally, and which you might want to check out.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sparks Drummer Project (8): Christi Haydon-Wilson!

Image result for christi haydon wilson1994's Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins was Sparks' first record in 6 years, and anticipation was high. The album was innovative, musically challenging but accessible, and altogether compelling, and a major hit in Germany and throughout Europe. Over time, it became THE album that grew on me most as time passed. Christi Haydon-Wilson played percussion with Sparks to support the album.

Christi was kind enough to talk about how she became a member of Sparks, and what Ron and Russell were up to in the years preceding the release of Gratuitous Sax, including the development of a film based on a Japanese anime comic book, Mai The Psychic Girl. Christi was the voice of Mai. We also talked about Cindy, the webseries Christi is co-producing with Larry Wilson, of Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and Adams Family fame. The website for Cindy is here and there's also a facebook page. Christi plays the fairy godmother "with issues," and is co-producing the series. And it's not too late to help the webseries air - there's a Kickstarter campaign in its last few days if you're considering a contribution. I am sure that even small amounts are very appreciated.

I am grateful to Christi for spending time talking with me and I hope you enjoy the interview.