Even More CDs

Children's (Also for childish adults)

If I have any interest in jazz or classical music, I'd have to attribute it to all the hours I spent watching cartoons. Especially the Warner Brothers stuff. It still amazes me how many times I can hear a piece of classical music and recognize it from some cartoon I saw as a child. At the 4th of July Pops concert this year, the San Francisco Symphony included a piece of experimental jazz from the 30s. It was used by Carl Stalling as the soundtrack for some of the Warner cartoons. So who says this stuff isn't broadening?

Anyone remember Supercar? That was my introduction to Gerry Anderson, a man who based his career on a curious sort of logic: since he couldn't make his marionettes walk convincingly, why not have them stand on moving sidewalks? And how can you get away with something as unusual as a moving sidewalk in the early 1960s? By setting your stories in a science fictional universe. Supercar was swiftly followed by Fireball XL-5 on Saturday mornings and many more sci-fi epics full of (literally) wooden acting. Eventually Anderson tried his hand at using real actors, with results that were frequently even less animated. I found this CD at Harrod's in London. I think it was the same trip that I found my Thunderbirds boxer shorts. Both are long-wearing.

If you haven't seen Animaniacs yet, you have no idea what you're missing. Think of it as Rocky & Bullwinkle for the 90s, only with much better production values. There are the usual movie and literary references, historical references and lots of musical references. Pinky & The Brain doing Where Eagles Dare? Rita & Runt in Les Miserables? The Goodfeathers in Fiddler On The Roof? This is not a kid's show. So what's it doing on at 4 in the afternoon?

You have to admire The Simpsons if only for their chutzpah. (Definition available for the culturally challenged.) After all, who else would make musicals out of A Streetcar Named Desire and Planet Of The Apes or use a Disney-inspired number to show off Mr. Burns's Cruella side? And how can you not love Bart's rejoinder to George Bush's smarmy pandering:

I sometimes think of The Simpsons as what Mad Magazine might have become if it had ever grown up: edgy, rude, often tasteless, but also highly literate and always very, very funny. Bush was wrong: we need The Simpsons at least as much as we need goody-goodies like The Waltons.

Novelties & (Sometimes Intentional) Humor

Why is mixing incompatible styles so funny? (Anyone remember the tape Dr. Demento used to play of the Gilligan's Island lyrics done to the tune of Stairway To Heaven?) These guys play pop songs from the 70s and 80s as if they had come from an earlier time. Check out their version of Like A Virgin in the style of Venus. Or The Living Years done to Leader Of The Pack. Or Money For Nothing done as 16 Tons. And what they do to Memory is no more than Lloyd Webber deserves!

This is what happens when everybody gets the same idea. Louie, Louie may just be the most recorded pop song in history, with each performer putting their own unique twist on the same incomprehensible original. This is a Rhino CD (can't you tell?), with Louie, Louie done as heavy metal, easy listening and marching band. There's even a Handel version by something called The Hallelouie Chorus.

I was walking down a street in Kamakura, Japan when I heard the oddest thing. It was a CD of popular music performed on music boxes. Things like Last Christmas by Wham or Pretty Woman or As Time Goes By or the themes from ET and Lawrence Of Arabia. I thought it was the most novel idea I'd encountered in a while and wondered why no one here had ever done it. Then I bought a couple of these discs. And after listening for a couple of hours I understood. And also understood why the music box isn't part of a concert orchestra: the sound is terrible! Tinny beyond words! I guess the music box is the dancing bear of musical instruments: it isn't how well it performs that's the impressive part; it's that it performs at all!

I'm not a big country music fan. (Hey, I'm a New York kid. We make fun of those kind of people!) So when a friend from Dallas introduced me to Riders In The Sky, I was expecting something unpleasant. But she set me straight: these boys aren't country. This is cowboy music! And fun stuff it is. Their slug-salting ballad is a folk classic. And the one about how cowboys first began to yodel still makes me squirm. Nice to know that people down in Texas have a sense of humor after all.

This is another of those "what were they thinking?" collections: songs by artists who should never have attempted anything near the songs they chose. Hearing Hey Jude sung by Bing Crosby will bring tears to your eyes (and possibly a few other organs). Or Sunshine Of My Life by Jim Nabors. Revolution done as Easy Listening is too funny for words. Suffice it to say that Mel Torme's rendition of Sunshine Superman is the best (as in most musically acceptable) thing on this CD. What were they thinking?

It was on a Virgin Atlantic flight to London that I first encountered Alan Partridge, the obnoxious and Abba-obsessed host of Knowing Me, Knowing You, the worst chat show the world has seen since Chevy Chase left the air. Partridge is actually a remarkably inventive fellow named Steve Coogan, who seems to delight in personifying the sound of fingernails on a blackboard. (Kind of makes you grateful that Mr. Bean doesn't talk.) On another Virgin flight a year later I encounted Tony Ferrino, Portuguese singer, winner of the Eurovision Song Contest (yes, it really does exist!), egotistical jerk, sexist pig and poster child for birth control. Yes, he's another product of Coogan's feeble fertile mind. I shudder to think of who else he has hiding in there.

You really do become your parents, don't you? When I was a child, I dreaded sitting in the car with mom and dad and having to endure a radio tuned to their idea of entertainment, generally some combination of Musak versions of popular songs and the "all news all the time" horror of public radio. Now I too find myself eschewing modern rock for the pleasures of NPR. Not all of it, mind; just carefully selected bits. Like my Saturday morning ritual of tuning in to Tom & Ray and Car Talk, a show I love despite a complete lack of knowledge of or interest in the workings of internal combustion engines. If you haven't discovered Click & Clack yourselves, do so immediately. Who knows how much longer they can con public radio into putting up with them?

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Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California