Category Archives: music

Talking “Life on Mars” (the song) on the National Air and Space Museum’s Instagram Feed

It’s been an uncharacteristically un-prolific several months for me—I’ve been busy recuperating from / dealing with complications of knee surgery while trying not to contract COVID-19 during any of my frequent in-person visits to various medical facilities. But I did get asked by my friends at the National Air and Space Museum to talk for a few minutes about departed legend David Bowie’s association with Mars on the Museum’s Instagram feed on Friday, part of an evening of Mars-themed programming they’d assembled in anticipation of the Mars 2020 rover launch—now set for sometime between July 30 and August 15. The launch has been delayed a few times, but it’s certainly going to happen before Tenet is released in theaters.

Anyway, you can watch the video here if so inclined.

Yulemixed Messages: And now, Side B of my 2019 yulemix, still entitled “Let’s Talk About Christmas!”

Comprising fifty (50) more minutes of buoyant-if-occasionally-baffling yuletunes to obfuscate and illuminate your holiday season. It’s all so fresh, and I have so many other deadlines that’ve languished unmet while I’ve been making this, that I can’t think of one doggone thing to say about it. Just press Play.

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Yulemixed Messages: Announcing Side A of my 2019 yulemix, Let’s Talk About Christmas!

It’s quarter ‘til eight p.m. Eastern on Thanksgiving Day, so let’s talk turkey: The first side of the fourteenth mighty installment in my indefatigable Yuletunes Eclectic & Inexplicable series is now available to provide a seasonal, tuneful, treacle-free, and generally baffling soundtrack to your Record Store Day cratedigging and any attendant treetrimming and/or halldecking. I believe this is the earliest in the season I’ve ever dropped one of these, and I expect you, the listener, to give your own merrymaking operations a commensurate boost.

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Act Naturally: Western Stars, reviewed.

The Boss in Western Stars, filmed back when he was still a vital young man of sixty-nine.

From the Dept. of Straight Talk for My Heroes: Western Stars, the new motion picture from 1st-timer auteur Bruce Springsteen, is only the 4th or 5th most exciting filmed record of The Boss in performance, & it doesn’t really work as an essay film, either.

My NPR review is here.

The Boss-tic Gospels: Blinded by the Light, reviewed.

Viveik Kalra plays a fictionalized version of journalist Sarfraz Manzoor’s adolescent self.

My abiding love and respect for the work of Bruce Springsteen is a matter of public record and of a couple dozen records. But I must report to you that Bend It Like Beckham director Gurinder Chadha’s new movie Blinded by the Light, about how The Boss inspired Pakistani-British journalist Sarfraz Manzoor to pursue his dream of becoming a writer despite the poverty and racism that surrounded him in Margaret Thatcher’s England, is the jazz-handsy Springsteen jukebox musical that Springsteen on Broadway was supposed to protect us from. It boasts some wonderful performances, though, as well as a previously unreleased Springsteen song that at one point was going to appear on the soundtrack of… Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Huh.

Anyway, my NPR review of Blinded by the Light is here.

The Great Work Concludes: Side D of Blue Wave Christmas Hath Dropped

Here’s a rainy New Year’s Eve bonus for you, merrymakers: Side D of Blue Wave Christmas, the yule-mitzvah edition of my longstanding Yuletunes Eclectic & Inexplicable series, has arrived, marking the conclusion of the most ambitious mixtape I’ve yet made. It’s long on merriment, long on obscurity, and long on length. That’s why I had to serve it to you incrementally. With this vestigal-tail chapter, some of the familiar voices from prior iterations have returned after mostly keeping mum so far this year. There are by my reckoning at least seven days of Christmas remaining, so I’ll leave you to it. You can find all four sides on this page. I wish for all of us a better 2019.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: Christmas Songs, Our Favorites and The, Watchacallit. Best.

I’d say it was the Pop Culture Happy Hour episode for which I’ve been training my entire life, except we just did the Die Hard episode. Anyway, I was glad to be part of the elite panel of holiday song-pickers summoned to the National Public Radio today to argue which Christmas song is the Muhammad Ali Greatest of All Time yulejam, and which one is our individual favorite at this particular moment. The stakes in the latter instance are lower, but that only complicates the emotional work of choosing, because the shackles of convention are all the way off!

It says something about the company I was in—PCHH regular Stephen Thompson, plus two very smart NPR Music staffers, Lyndsey McKenna and Marissa Lorusso—that my selections were somehow the most uptempo of the lot. (They’re all lovely people, whose affection for mopey holiday songs is one I very much share. Click on “Musics of Christmas,” above, for years and years of evidence.)

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B-Boys & B-Sides: Presenting (the first quarter of) my Lucky 13th Yulemix, Blue Wave Christmas

Have mercy! This is just getting ridiculous now. For the lucky thirteenth iteration of my Yuletunes Eclectic and Inexplicable series, I thought that instead of releasing it in two indefensibly long parts, as had been my habit since I stopped burning and printing physical CDs of this thing—a nice bauble to thrust into some unsuspecting person’s hand, but expensive—I thought I would do a sort of podcast limited series of four episodes, released weekly, counting down to the Feast of Christmas. Because four is more than two—one hundred percent more, from a numerical perspective. And I believe in always giving one hundred percent, Christmaswise. 

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Dad Rock of Ages: Twilight of the Gods, reviewed in The Washington Post

rolling-stones-bild-04-2009-CMS-SourceMy first Washington Post byline in two years in a review of Steven Hyden’s new book Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock. I had it with me on my own journey to the end of classic rock, when I caught an Amtrak up to New York two months ago to see Springsteen on Broadway. (I wrote up my impressions for Slate.) Strangely enough, my prior Post item was a review of Hyden’s previous book, Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me. That book was good. This one is better. Maybe your mom would enjoy receiving a copy on Sunday. I don’t know. I don’t know your mom.

It Might Get Quiet: On the revealing silence of Springsteen on Broadway.

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I’ve got a piece on Slate today arguing that the element that makes Springsteen on Broadway—which I saw on February 28, the night after I saw Hello, Dolly!—worth the difficulty and expense of getting tickets is quiet. You can read that here, and it is my fond hope that you shall.

And in the spirit of Bruce Springsteen having written more worthy songs for Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River and Born in the U.S.A. than he could possibly use at the time, but contrary to the spirit of him waiting 15-30 years before releasing all those unused songs, which I as a diehard am legally required to claim were better than the ones he put on the albums which by the way is true in many cases… here’s a deleted scene from that piece, wherein I expand upon my 20-show record as a Bruce Springsteen fan:

As someone whose Bruce fandom had bloomed improbably in the mid-90s, when—an Academy Award for Best Original Song notwithstanding—his stock was as low as it’s been in my lifetime, I’d never imagined I would have so many chances to see him. But he called the E Street Band back together in 1999 and kept them together, even once its founding members started dying. (Organist Danny Federici succumbed to cancer in 2008; saxophonist Clarence “Big Man” Clemons died from complications following a stroke in 2011. Both men had been in Springsteen’s band since 1972. )
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Yule Complete Me: Presenting (the second half of) My 12th Annual Christmas Mixtape, Noel Means Noel

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As usual, there were some painful cuts right at the end. I just had to get “Mistress for Christmas” on, even though I used it in (I think) 2011, to honor Malcolm Young of AC/DC. And “Every Day Is Christmas (When I’m Lovin’ You),” even though I used it in 2012, to honor Charles Bradley. That unconscionable folk song about a ski instructor whose notion of consent is such that you hope he perished in an avalanche, but not before being forced to eat his own arm while waiting in vain to be rescued, will just have to wait until the lucky 13th installment. I thought it important to keep each side to no more than, well, an hour.
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Yulemixed Messages: Presenting (the first half of) My 12th Annual Christmas Mixtape, Noel Means Noel

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I started making these goofy holiday-themed mixtapes in 2006, inspired by the yule-mixologist Andy Cirzan‘s annual appearances on the great WBEZ radio show and podcast Sound Opinions. I was honored to interview Andy for a Washington Post piece about my mixtape several years later, and to appear with him on a Minnesota Public Radio segment that I’m glad to tell you did not involve Garrison Keillor in any way.

So I’ve been collecting and compiling weird old Christmas-themed recordings for a long time now, but I didn’t buy a turntable until the latter part of 2016. I’d refused to even entertain the possibility of joining the vinyl resurgence, because I knew my discipline would crumble and I’d feel compelled to drain my banking account re-buying dozens of my favorite albums in the most expensive, space-consuming, fragile, and heavy music-distribution format ever conceived, with the possible exception of the wax cylinder. Which is exactly what happened. I have four working turntables in my apartment at this moment. Four. If I had any reasonable estimate of how many LPs there are, I would be too embarrassed to share that number with you.
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Rock Island Party Line: Roots, Radicals, and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World by Billy Bragg

Lonnie Donegan collectionFor the Dallas Morning News, I reviewed folk singer Billy Bragg’s new history of skiffle, a largely forgotten British musical form that linked blues and “trad jazz” with rock and roll in the mid-to-late 1950s. Enjoy.

Quindar Love

IMG_4995For my day job at Air & Space / Smithsonian, I wrote about Quindar, an electronic music duo comprised of art historian James Merle Thomas and Wilco multinstrumentalist Mikael Jorgensen. In their multimedia live performances and on their debut album Hip Mobility, the pair finds inspiration in the ephemera of the pre-Shuttle space program.

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Yulemix 2016, The Christmas Hack, has already breached your unsecured server. Submit and make merry.

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Good news! I’ve overcome my profound Electoral Affective Disorder to assemble yet another mood-elevating, hall-decking, merry-making Christmas mixtape. This one—my eleventh, for all you completists—kicks off with Charley Pride, one of only three African-American artists in history to be inducted into the Grand Ole Opry, and it only gets funkier and more festive from there. Continue reading

Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me, reviewed for Washington Post Book World

Favorite Band

I’ve admired music critic Steven Hyden’s writing in Grantland since I first took notice of it a couple of years ago, so I was grateful for the opportunity to review his new book, Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me: What Pop Music Rivalries Reveal About the Meaning of Life, for the Washington Post. If you’d like to read an excerpt from one of my favorite chapters, about the mid-80s clash of egos between Michael Jackson and PrinceSlate ran a piece of that chapter the day that Prince died.

I haven’t written about Prince (save for a few hundred Tweets) because I’ve been busy and I’ve found the prospect of it too overwhelming. His sudden death hit me much harder than Bowie’s did. I’m not sure why. I had enormous admiration for both of them, but I listen to Prince a lot more.

George Jones Talks About His Greatest Lines

My review of Rich Kienzle’s new biography The Grand Tour: The Life and Music of George Jones, is in Sunday’s Washington Post. There’s probably some other stuff in there that would be good to read, too, I bet.

Here’s a paragraph I had to cut for space.

Amid his dutiful, carefully sourced recounting of booze-lubricated recording sessions and singles, Kienzle highlights some amusingly unexpected sides of Jones, like when he told his ex-wife Tammy Wynette in a 1980 interview in Country Music (a magazine Kienzle contributed to for 24 of its 31 years) that if he had to find a second career he would enjoy being an interior decorator. He might fare better than he did as the proprietor of three outdoor country music parks, which he opened at three different points in his life and quickly abandoned. He was also wanton enough with his brand to lend it to random products: George Jones Country Sausage and, also, troublingly, George Jones Country Gold Dog Food and Cat Food. Kienzle notes that a TV spot for the latter was called “George Jones Talks About His Greatest Lines.” If a TV commercial has to have a title, that’s either an unfortunate one or a brilliant one for a pitch from a man whose life and career were so damaged by an eight-year dalliance with cocaine.

I wouldn’t ordinarily be so flip discussing something as serious as an addiction problem, but that ad beggars belief.

Hark! The Christmas Force Awakens Is Now Fully Armed and Operational

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Side B of my 2015 yulemix, The Christmas Force Awakens — Yuletunes Eclectice & Inexplicable Perfect X: Final Sequence, is posted. (Both sides are posted together on this page.)

There are always a couple of outtakes, but this one had more than a few. Cutting the mashup of The Pretenders’ “2000 Miles” and Chrissie Hynde’s controversial October 2015 Morning Edition interview about her new memoir was a hard call, but the right one. Cutting the mashup of John Williams “Imperial Death March” from The Empire Strikes Back and “The Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy” from The Nutcracker was probably insane; we’ll never see this level of Star Wars fever again in my lifetime. The others may surface if I can summon the resolve to do this for an eleventh time.

May your days be shiny and chrome, and may the Christmas Force be with you. Merry Christmas.

Hark! The Christmas Force Awakens is now streamable for your hall-decking merriment.

2015-booklet-outsideHark! The tenth installment in my indefatigable Christmas mixtape series, entitled The Force Awakens — Yuletunes Eclectic & Inexplicable Perfect X: Final Sequence, is upon us. Side A is, anyway. Side B shall appear like the clanky ghost of Jacob Marley upon Ebeneezer Scrooge’s doorstep in one week’s time.

In the unlucky event your computer or personal electronic device is not equipped with a tape deck, you can stream Side A below. May your days be shiny and chrome, and may the Christmas Force be with you. Continue reading

Pop Culture Happy Hour No. 264: The Martian and How-To Stories

Matt Damon portrays an astronaut who faces seemingly insurmountable odds as he tries to find a way to subsist on a hostile planet.

…wherein I join PCHH host Linda Holmes and regular panelists Stephen Thompson and Glen Weldon to talk about where the beloved hit movie fits into director Ridley Scott’s oeuvre and its fidelity to Andy Weir’s novel.

I suggested How-To Stories as a companion topic, since The Martian — in both its incarnations, albeit moreso in prose than onscreen — goes into unusual detail about the stuff its stranded-astronaut hero Mark Watney must do to survive on a planet that (so far we know) does not sustain life. We all struggled to come up with suitable examples of favorite stories in this genre, and to thread the needle between a How-To and a Procedural. I could’ve talked about several different Michael Mann films, but particularly Thief, Manhunter, Heat, or even The Insider. As is often the case, I didn’t think of that until later. Continue reading