Archive for Review
Ruth Buzzi’s Review is Making the Rounds
Originally posted on Amazon.com, Ruth Buzzi’s beautifully personal review of Dear Austin – A Letter To My Son has been picked up by the widely read, and highly respected literary blog, The New Book Review.
Ruth’s review includes a recounting of her own departure from home at the age of seventeen, with her father putting her on a flight to Los Angeles to attend The Pasadena Playhouse for the Performing Arts. She credits her father’s faith in her judgment, as well as her own drive and high goals, for her subsequent success in her chosen profession.
Read her entire review, and post your own comment, at The New Book Review.
After my annual physical, a little over a year ago, I was told that I needed to lose some weight and lower my blood glucose level. I was informed that I had slightly elevated blood sugar and my doctor warned that, if I ignored it and it continued to rise, it could grow up to become diabetes. My doctor’s a real buzzkill.
My two best friends on this planet are diabetic. They both have to inject insulin daily to keep their blood glucose levels in check. They seem to manage pretty well, but it’s a dominant factor in their lives. They have to think about it almost all the time. And I have apparently come very close to joining them. My first thought was, “Well, maybe this is not so bad. We could cut down our costs by sharing syringes.” Then one of them pointed out that, if I wasn’t one already, that idea alone would make me a moron. So, I dropped it.
I came home, got online, and started searching for the diet that would allow me to lose thirty pounds and lower my blood sugar without interfering with my penchant for eating Butterfingers and washing them down with Beck’s. Alas, I didn’t find it. My considerable and careful (seriously) research did however yield a diet plan that seemed to fit most of my requirements (sans the Butterfinger/beer snacks).
So, I zoomed off to Amazon.com and ordered The South Beach Diet: Super Charged by Arthur Agatston, M.D. This was, apparently, a new and improved version of the already famous South Beach Diet, with extra added super powers. While I was there, I also ordered The South Beach Diet Quick and Easy Cookbook by the same aforementioned doctor. The South Beach Diet promises to “show you how you can burn more calories and fat in less time, as you lose your cravings for sugary and starchy carbs, lower your blood sugar and cholesterol levels, and improve your overall health.” Just the ticket. How hard could this be?
My books arrived a few days later, and I began flipping through them. The recipes looked good, and there seemed to be very little that you had to give up entirely, and even those for only a couple of weeks. I read a little bit each day, but it began to look like this was actually going to require some action on my part. I hadn’t counted on that. Both books lay on my living room coffee table for several months. After all, I was going to do this, but I had to wait for the right time to start. Then, mysteriously, they got moved to a drawer, still in the living room, but out of sight. And then, inevitably, out of mind.
Before you could blink, another year had rolled by, and I found myself sitting naked on the butcher paper covered table in my doctor’s office, explaining why my blood glucose level was almost the same as the year before. Just as a side note, I find it difficult to explain anything convincingly when I’m naked. Goes back to high school, but that’s a story for another post. On the upside, I had lost ten pounds over the previous year, and he offered lukewarm commendation for that.
I slunk back home, rummaged through the credenza drawers, and resurrected my South Beach Diet library. It was time to get serious. Really. Luckily, this diet does allow you to eat most of the things you like, with some variations in preparation. For instance, steak is fine. Chicken-fried steak with country gravy, not so much. Anyway, because of this, my wife was happy to join me on the new regimen. She had no weight to lose, and as far as we know her blood sugar is fine. She was going for the “improved overall health.” Plus, I knew it wouldn’t last if we were preparing two different menus for every meal.
Before I discuss results, I should point out that this routine has been the easiest to follow and stick with that I’ve ever seen. You’re encouraged to eat three meals a day plus at least two snacks in between. The goal is to never let yourself become very hungry. It concentrates on high-fiber, nutrient-rich carbohydrates (from vegetables, fruits, and whole grains), good unsaturated fats, lean sources of protein, and low-fat dairy. And I promise that I have yet to feel deprived.
Beef, pork, fish, chicken, cheese, fruits and vegetables, whole-grain breads, cereals and pastas, nuts, peanut butter, wine, light beer, and even desserts. It’s all here. It’s all okay. Like I said earlier, the things that you’re required to give up entirely are only disallowed for the first two weeks. After that, you start to add these things back into your meals. The premise is, that by this time you have lost any cravings for the “bad” things in your diet, and can now enjoy them as part of a balanced nutritional plan. There is even guidance for dining in restaurants. It’s really not that hard.
So, how have I done so far? Not bad. In the first week, I lost eight pounds. Over the next two weeks, I lost an additional eight pounds and my blood glucose level is down by six points. And I began reintroducing “forbidden” foods back into my diet after the first two weeks. Phase One, the first two weeks, is aimed at breaking your cravings. I am officially into Phase Two of the diet now, and will be until I reach my desired weight. I intend to lose another ten pounds. In Phase Three, there are essentially no restrictions on what you can eat, but you’re expected to have come to a truce with food by that time, and have reached a new understanding of quality and quantity. Your new eating habits are presumed to be second nature by then.
I have to say that I’m sincerely impressed with this approach. I’m never hungry. I feel better. And I’m beginning to look better, since the weight I’ve lost seems to be coming off my belly. You know, where I was storing the Butterfingers and Becks. As with most diets, the weight lost in the first week or two is largely water, so it’s important to stay well-hydrated and keep your electrolytes in balance. Take full advantage of the snacking aspect of the plan. It’s important not to let yourself become famished. And if you have underlying medical conditions, always ask your doctor if this kind of plan is right for you.
If you decide to give it a try, I wish you good luck. I will post updates here to let you know if I run into any serious drawbacks, and to let you know how I’m progressing on the weight and blood sugar fronts. Here’s to your health.
Update: January 31, 2010
I know I promised, in the article above, to keep you posted on my progress with the South Beach approach to health and weight loss, but I decided to wait until after my next visit to the doctor, so that I would have some concrete and verified numbers to report. I figured that would be better than a week-to-week “here’s how much weight I’ve lost” kind of post.
Well, I just got those numbers a few days ago; new lab results and a visit to my killjoy of a doctor. I have to say that he was much more pleasant this time, since my results surprised even him.
First, since I began to change my eating lifestyle in October, I’ve lost 25 pounds. Now, that’s not a record-shattering number by any stretch, but since my goal from the outset was to lose 30 pounds in total, it means I’m almost there. I’m down from a peak, about 16 months ago, of 241 pounds to a svelte 205. I lost ten of that before starting on the South Beach program.
Secondly, and probably more important than the weight loss, is the decline in my blood glucose levels. High blood sugar was the real impetus for my starting this whole experiment in the first place. In October, the number was 112. That number is still “normal” but it’s at the high end of the normal range. Enough so that my doctor was concerned about a “pre-diabetic” condition. I’m happy to report that my blood glucose reading earlier this week was a surprisingly low 88. I’m told that anything under 100 is good. You know, unless it’s 16 or something like that. Then, you pass out and lapse into a coma. But, 88 is very good.
An unanticipated, at least by me, side effect of all of this is that my overall cholesterol level has dropped by about 40 points to a healthy 155. And my LDL level (the BAAAAD cholesterol) is 103. My doctor informs me that 100 is the perfect LDL level. My blood pressure is 110 over 70, but it’s always been in that area, so that’s not new.
I feel better and, if I do say so myself, I look better. I rarely have that uncomfortable stuffed feeling no matter how much I eat, and during the course of this entire four months, I have never felt deprived of food. It’s actually kind of amazing, but true. And, I have started to wear some of my abandoned clothing. Things that had either become uncomfortable, or that made me look like I was shoplifting a watermelon.
I should also point out that, at the very beginning, I made the decision that the “diet” would not effect what I had to eat during Thanksgiving and Christmas. On those occasions, I ate pretty much as I always have, in terms of what I ate. I probably ate less, however, just because it didn’t take as much to make me feel full.
I had pumpkin pie and apple pie, ice cream, whipped cream, and eggnog, as well as cornbread stuffing all the usual Thanksgiving and Christmas fare. But, in each case, I indulged myself for only one day and then went back to my new routine.
My wife weighed herself on the day after Thanksgiving and was depressed to see that she had gained two pounds. I waited for a week after Thanksgiving to weigh myself, and had lost two pounds since the previous weight check. The lesson here – you wouldn’t weigh yourself with a tray of food in your hands, so why do it with the same food in your stomach? Weigh yourself when you will be encouraged, not discouraged. And don’t weigh yourself too often. Try to go two, or three, or even four weeks between weight checks. You will almost never be disappointed.
And a last side note; I sent a copy of the South Beach book to a family member who is overweight and diabetic. He was having some difficulty taking off the weight and bringing down his blood glucose levels. After less than one month on the South Beach program, he has lost 20 pounds and reports that his blood sugar level has “plummeted.” I’m sure he meant that in a healthy way.
So, that’s my update. I don’t have any negative things to say about the South Beach program. It’s a couple of books. No fees. No special meals to purchase. No meetings. And no bizarre or exotic foods to eat. There are support websites, official and unofficial, where recipes and advice are available, but whether or not you use them is up to you. I took a look around on the web, but the program book and the cookbook proved to be all that was necessary for me. For you? Maybe not.
If I’ve left questions unanswered, feel free to drop me a note and I’ll tell you what I know and what I think. I will close by saying that, if you’ve had a hard time staying with a weight loss program, or if your issue is also blood sugar, I encourage you to give the South Beach book a try. It’s a small investment – or even free if you visit a library. The payback just might be a healthier and better life for you. Good luck.
The South Beach Diet: Super Charged is well laid out and easy to understand. You don’t have to guess whether something is okay or not. There are specific lists of foods for you to “enjoy” and to “avoid” for each phase of the diet, as well as lists of foods to reintroduce into the next phase. There are sample menus for you to follow if you wish, there are recipes and shopping lists, and thousands of resources online that offer even more ideas for new dishes and menus.
The South Beach Diet Quick and Easy Cookbook offers 200 additional recipes, that can be prepared in thirty minutes or less, for breakfast, soups and snacks, salads, fish and shellfish, poultry, beef, pork, and lamb, vegetarian entrees, side dishes, and desserts. Each recipe includes prep time, cooking time, and a complete breakdown of calories, fat, protein, carbohydrate, fiber, and sodium per serving.
The South Beach Diet: Dining Guide is a roadmap to dining out. It gives advice on what the best bets are in most restaurants. You can reference by type of cuisine, by restaurant name, by city, or by “chain.” Hundreds of restaurants across the country are listed, including Chili’s, Macaroni Grill, Cheesecake Factory, Cracker Barrel, Lone Star Steakhouse, Luby’s Cafeteria, and even McDonald’s, KFC, and Jack in the Box. You can look up Mexican, Chinese, Indian, Italian and dozens of other cuisines. It’s a great tool to have when dining out, particularly early on in the program.
Okay, stop me if you’ve heard this one. A broken down, burned out, booze-pickled, emotionally incapacitated country music legend swerves across the Southwestern U.S. in a prehistoric GMC Suburban (I think) playing one-night-stands in gloomy bars and bowling alleys, while steering his life directly for a cliff, where he is apparently content to fly off the precipice fully aflame and end it in a pathetic, almost unnoticed, explosion.
Jeff Bridges is Bad Blake, the aforementioned country music legend. Blake has clearly enjoyed better times but has stopped writing songs, taken refuge in the bottle, and trolls the substrata of the entertainment world living on memories of hits past. Meanwhile, a younger protégé, Tommy Sweet played by Colin Farrell, has hit the big time on the strength of Blake’s songwriting talents. Blake seems bitter.
The inevitable romantic interest for Blake is Jean Craddock, played persuasively by Maggie Gyllenhaal, as a Santa Fe reporter sent to interview Blake before a local performance. She’s the mother of a four-year-old son, with emotional baggage of her own, but she’s drawn to Blake despite their age difference and the fact that, during most of the film, he looks as if he smells like a ripe wheel of cheese on a warm day. Still, against her better judgment, they become involved. And, heartened by the only emotional connection he’s felt in some time, Blake seeks redemption in, and for, Jean.
If this sounds like a song you’ve heard, or a film you’ve seen before, you’re right. You have. But you haven’t seen it done this well since Tender Mercies in 1983, which won Robert DuVall a Best Actor Oscar for his turn as the drunken, washed up country singer. Maybe not coincidentally, DuVall is an executive producer and supporting actor in Crazy Heart. This is territory fraught with potential cliché, and they didn’t manage to avoid them all, but they did skip the big one, and first time writer-director Scott Cooper does an able job of steering clear of the ones that could have made this just an adequate film. The screenplay was adapted from the novel by Thomas Cobb.
What makes this film a must see, however, is the performance by Jeff Bridges. It may be the best of his career, even though he’s been Oscar-nominated four times before. The minor surprise here is that both Bridges and Farrell are good enough singers to be convincing in their roles. Not a great singer, Bridges nonetheless has a smoke and whiskey cracked, but resonant, voice that at times reminded me of Kris Kristofferson. Except that Bridges carries a tune a little better than Kris.
Bridges turned 60 a couple of weeks ago, and looks pretty good. Bad Blake is 57 in Crazy Heart, and looks an unhealthy 77. Bridges is completely convincing as Bad Blake, a man on his last leg, soaked through with alcohol, and beaten down by his own hand. But he can still croak out a poignant lyric in a quiet moment and make you believe it. And his rowdy, drunken stage performances are just as well done, and comically sad.
The songs, by Stephen Bruton and T-Bone Burnett, sound like genuine country hits that you’d swear you’ve heard on a jukebox somewhere at some time. Stephen Bruton, who was a close friend and collaborator of Kristofferson’s for years, died in May 2009 of cancer, just as the film was completing production. The film is dedicated to his memory.
Robert DuVall takes on a small role as Houston bar owner, and Blake’s best friend, Wayne. DuVall is always quirky and fun to watch, even in a secondary role. My old friend Beth Grant makes a brief appearance here as well, as a one-night-stand for Blake just before he meets Jean Craddock. She is always memorable in whatever role she takes on, and this one is no different. She commands your attention whenever she’s in the frame, and is always willing to offer herself up for a comic moment. And you will laugh.
This film came very close to not being released at all. Its distributor, Paramount Vantage, folded its tent before the film was completed and her parent company, Paramount Pictures, had no interest in the film. But neither did they want to give it up to another distributor. It seemed destined for direct-to-dvd release. Some skillful negotiations by Scott Cooper’s agent finally worked out a deal for Fox Searchlight to handle distribution. And we’re all lucky for it.
It will be just fine on DVD when it gets there, but this film deserves its time on the big screen. It’s good enough, and it’s important enough, and these performances are powerful enough to be seen in a real theater. That’s where good films belong.
I am almost at a loss for words to describe the film Precious, except in one and two word gasps. It is the most disturbing and emotional film experience I’ve had in recent memory. But it is, ultimately, inspiring as well. Not in a feel-good Rocky kind of way, but in a more sober, realistic, and humbling way. One that makes you glad to know that there are people who can overcome obstacles that you don’t think you could even survive.
Precious is set in 1980s Harlem, and looks at a few months in the lives of a very dysfunctional family. The screenplay, by Geoffrey Fletcher, was based on the novel, PUSH, by Sapphire. It is unnerving, and gut-wrenching, and appalling, and humorous, and sad, and uplifting. Precious gets in your face in the first five minutes, and will not get out of it for the next 100. It will grab you by the hair and drag you to places you do not want to be, and it will not let you shut your eyes. It will pause briefly, from time to time, to let you exhale and laugh, and then it will grab your hair and be off again.
Directed by Lee Daniels, Precious stars Mo’Nique, Paula Patton, Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz, Sherri Shepherd, and Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe. You will be hearing some of these names a lot when “awards season” rolls around, and Mo’Nique is almost certain to win Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, if not the little gold statues themselves. She is a powerhouse of an actress, and this film should make her well-known, at the very least.
The rest of the cast is also outstanding, particularly newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, who plays the title role of Clareece Precious Jones, an overweight, undereducated 16-year-old who is physically and mentally abused by her mother. Almost unrecognizable is Mariah Carey in her role as the social worker who reaches out to Precious. Both of these actresses should also find themselves the focus of much attention at awards time.
If you think you’ll skip it, because Precious sounds like a typical teen-in-trouble made for television movie, or because it sounds too bleak for your entertainment tastes, you should seriously reconsider. This film is what movie theaters are meant for. It’s not one to watch at home on DVD. You need to see it in a place that affords quiet, and darkness, and a couple of moments to gather yourself while the end titles roll. It is a film you will think about, and perhaps talk about, for days or weeks after you see it. It is unrelenting. But it is, at the same time, oddly encouraging, and compassionate, and funny.
Except for some occasionally distracting camera work, I have no complaints about Precious. It’s an outstanding effort by all concerned. You shouldn’t wait until all the awards buzz starts to find a theater where it’s playing. It’s not your typical holiday fare, but it will make you thankful for a lot of things in your life you may not have thought about. Precious is rated R for all kinds of good reasons.
Barbara Bush and I are hardly kindred souls, but when it comes to the movie Precious, we share the same opinion. You should see it! Read her take on the film in this week’s Newsweek magazine.
Competition BBQ Secrets: A Review
I may have mentioned, once or twice on this blog, that I’m from Texas. At the time I was growing up, and it probably hasn’t changed much, there were a handful of things that the male of the species was just expected to do if he was gonna be a Texan. He learned to hunt and fish. He didn’t cry, no matter how much it hurt. He played football, no matter how much it hurt. And, eventually, he was expected to become a master of the barbeque. It was even more manly if you could barbeque something you shot and dressed yourself. You know, like venison, or wild boar, or a neighbor’s cow that you accidentally took down while cleaning your rifle.
Well, I did a little fishing as a kid, but I really didn’t enjoy it much. Of course, at the time, I wasn’t allowed to drink beer. I might feel differently about it now. I cried at the drop of a hat, no matter how little it hurt. And my dad wasn’t a hunter, so we had no guns in the house. Consequently, I was never taught the manly art of stalking God’s majestic, antlered creatures in a quest to bag my own fresh meat. I’m not real sure I could have done it anyway. Did you see Bambi? Speaking of crying.
And when it came to football, except for a humiliating freshman year as a B-team bench warmer, I wasn’t really an athlete either. Wow. I’m starting to sound kind of pathetic, even to me. But, that left me with only one masculine, red-blooded, outdoorsy activity to salvage my manhood. Barbeque. If I couldn’t do that, it would mean joining a convent and becoming Sister Davida Michelle.
In our backyard we had a 55 gallon oil drum, cut in half longways, and hinged at one edge. Inside it was a steel “grill” that weighed about 120 pounds and had once been a piece of portable aircraft runway. This was a rugged, macho piece of cooking equipment. If I could drive this baby, I knew I would be okay. And over the course of many summers, my dad taught me to grill and barbeque in institutional quantities. We could fit enough half-fryers on that thing to feed forty or fifty people, and frequently did. I eventually got good enough that you could tell a piece of my grilled chicken from a piece of the charcoal beneath it. It was a proud day.
Over the years I’ve taken a fair amount of pride in my skills at the grill and the smoker, and I’ve even created a sauce or two that most people seem to like a lot. One was so good that my sister stole it, renamed it, and pretended that it was hers. But, I digress. The point is, I thought I was pretty good. No. I thought I was very good. Out of curiosity, I’ve purchased a few books on grilling and barbeque, and I’ve been given a few as gifts. I didn’t learn much from any of them, and I certainly wasn’t shopping for another one when I stumbled onto Competition BBQ Secrets by Bill Anderson.
Now this is not a new book. It’s been around for at least three years. The problem is, as fast as I’ve been trying to thumb through the entire internet, I think they may be adding pages faster than I can read them. But, I eventually got to Bill Anderson’s page, and I was intrigued enough by his pitch that I bought something I didn’t think I needed. A freakin’ barbeque book! And, I was wrong. I did need it.
This is the first book I’ve tried that actually made a big difference in what I ended up putting on the table. My ribs have always been good. Now, they’re great. They stay juicy. They’re fall-off-the-bone tender. And the dry rub recipe I used from this book knocked my socks off.
This book was written by the leader of the Chatham Artillery BBQ Team in Savannah, Georgia, and they have a trailer full of trophies to show for their efforts as competitive barbeque masters. Now I have no interest in competing, but the knowledge I’ve gained from this book so far has made a huge difference in the food that comes off my grill and smoker.
It’s only 73 pages, but it is packed with dozens of recipes for rubs and sauces, marinades and brines. It has chapters on cookers, wood choices for smoking, techniques and recipes for ribs, chicken, brisket, turkey, pork butts, etc. It walks you through how to choose the best cuts, how to prepare them, and how to cook them to perfection, including everything you need to know about time, temperature, and fire management. And it’s all illustrated with excellent color photos of each process and each dish. It finishes up with a couple of chapters on competition, in case you’re interested in joining the Pork Butt Circuit.
Being an instant gratification kind of a guy, I opted for the downloadable pdf, but the book is available in a paperback edition as well. Both carry the same $29.95 price tag, and are well worth the cost for what it will add to your skills and knowledge of the art of barbeque. I thought I was pretty good. These guys showed me I could be much better.
Competition BBQ Secrets is available only online and you can use your credit card or PayPal account.
My first recollection of Barbra Streisand is the 1964 release of the Columbia LP, People. That was her fifth album. Her first, the original cast recording of I Can Get It For You Wholesale, was released in 1962. She has been a recording artist for forty-seven years, a performer for fifty, a star for almost all of it, and her voice still has a stunning capacity to move your emotions to wherever she cares to take them.
Streisand’s newest release, Love Is The Answer, is a collection of, you guessed it, love songs. After forty-seven years she’s still recording for Columbia, which is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Sony Corporation, but they’re still smart enough to know that you hold onto franchise artists like Streisand no matter how long they take between new releases, because it’s almost always worth the wait. This album is no exception.
This time out, Streisand collaborated with another of my favorite artists, jazz pianist and singer Diana Krall, who not only played piano on five of the thirteen tracks, but also served as co-producer for this project with Tony Li Puma. Diana recruited her extremely talented backup trio, bass player John Clayton, guitarist Anthony Wilson, and drummer Jeff Hamilton, to serve as the foundation for these sessions. When Ms Krall was not at the piano, that post was ably filled by Tamir Hendelman or Alan Broadbent. Once the tracks were recorded to everyone’s satisfaction with the quartet, legendary arranger Johnny Mandel applied the finishing touches with a deft and delicate arrangement for string orchestra.
The songs are mostly familiar standards from the likes of Jerome Kern, Michel Legrand, Marilyn and Alan Bergman, Jule Styne and others. The backing quartet artfully stays out of Streisand’s way while providing a beautiful canvas for her to work on. Diana Krall’s piano solos are delicate and generous, seeking only to complement, not to distract. And the orchestral arrangements by Johnny Mandel wrap the whole package in a soft, airy gauziness, that is intimate and never smarmy or overdone.
The result is Streisand’s best effort in years, possibly my favorite since 1974’s The Way We Were. At 67, Streisand’s voice doesn’t quite have the angelic purity it did 25 years ago, but it has been augmented by a maturity of understanding, and a feeling that she knows from whence she sings; that these are not just lyrics, but first-hand emotions that have been captured on tape.
These recordings were obviously put together by people who know, and love, what they’re doing. It comes through on every note of every track. This is the perfect CD to put on when you have some time alone, maybe on a cool rainy day, to sit back with a glass of wine or a cup of coffee or a bottle of scotch, and relax. And listen to the warm.
ADDITIONAL NOTE: Since writing this review, I have learned that there is also a two-disc Deluxe Edition of this CD. The second disc is comprised of 12 of the 13 tracks with only the quartet backing Streisand’s vocals, before the orchestra was added to the mix. The 13th track was already piano only accompaniment. I haven’t heard the deluxe version, but since I tend to prefer jazz quartet accompaniment over orchestra, I intend to get it soon. I’ll post an addendum to this review after I’ve had a chance to listen to the quartet version.
I was right. I do like the second CD in the Deluxe Edition better than the first. But that doesn’t surprise me. Because these sessions were initially recorded with the quartet (piano, bass, drums, and guitar) and the orchestra was added after the fact, there is absolutely no difference in the performances. Disc One has an orchestra, Disc Two does not. The vocals and the instrumental quartet are the same.
So it’s entirely a matter of taste. If, like me, you prefer trio and quartet jazz, you will appreciate the second disc more. If you like orchestral backgrounds, you’ll prefer the second disc. But there is absolutely no reason to buy the Deluxe Edition if you prefer the orchestra. You can buy the standard version for five or six bucks less, and have exactly what you want.
I have excerpted Bob Gendron’s excellent and thorough review of the upcoming EMI/Capitol reissue of the Beatles catalogue from his column at TONEAudio. His article has me very excited to hear all of this old and familiar material again through the ears of 21st century mastering technology. The remastering engineers at Apple Records have not added anything to the mix, nor taken anything away. They have allowed us, for the very first time, to hear what has always been there but has been inaccessible with previous mastering and playback technologies. If you’re a Beatles fan, then September 9, 2009 is a day to look forward to.
Stereo and mono box sets
EMI/Capitol , CD
Please Please Me: The Beatles Remasters
TONEAudio Exclusive by: Bob Gendron
The cost of owning a good-sounding Beatles record just got significantly cheaper. Arriving 22 years after the band’s catalog was originally issued on compact disc, Capitol’s long-awaited remasters of the Fab Four’s 12 studio albums, Magical Mystery Tour, and the Past Masters collections—as well as the label’s limited-edition Beatles in Mono box set, comprising 10 studio records in their original mono mixes plus the Past Masters set—sound, as a whole, uniformly fantastic. It’s clear that the team of engineers responsible for the four-year project ensured that the world’s most important and famous pop catalog finally received the care it’s always deserved no matter what mix is heard. While hardcore fans will want both the mono and stereo editions, the general populace is almost guaranteed to be content with the widely available stereo versions. Not that everyone will be happy. All accomplishments aside, it’s a foregone conclusion that no matter what the results indicate, certain parties will complain, criticize, and nitpick. Those curmudgeonly detractors and obsessive freaks are better off waiting for the second coming of Christ; rumor is that the payoff will be a lot better.
For the majority of listeners, however, any temptation to spend hundreds of dollars on rare vinyl pressings should erode as they become acclimated to what often resembles hearing familiar records for the very first time. Such are the near-miraculous improvements in the key areas of information retrieval, hidden details, palpable physicality, expanded midrange, transient presence, and frequency response. As expected, the mono and stereo editions have their share of positives and negatives. Yet the benefits of the mono mixes reign supreme through Revolver, no surprise given that original producer George Martin intended for the Beatles’ records to be enjoyed in mono. With Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the tide begins to turn, yet efforts like The Beatles (a.k.a. The White Album) remain toss-ups for myriad reasons.
Read Bob Gendron’s review, in it’s entirety, at TONEAudio
Since the original post, I have had the opportunity to listen to the mono box set, as well as most of the stereo remasters. In my opinion, up through “Rubber Soul” everything, almost without exception, sounds better in mono. The Capitol stereo releases were never actually stereo anyway. All vocals were on one channel and the music on the other, because they were recorded on two-track equipment, and intended to be mixed only for mono by EMI in England.
George Martin, who signed The Beatles to Polydor Records (an EMI label), and produced all their recordings, recorded for what he called “high impact mono.” By keeping the vocals and instruments on separate tracks, he felt this gave him maximum control over how “out front” the vocals were in relationship to the music. EMI, at the time, reserved stereo recording for classical music only, but Capitol was at the beginning of their “Full Dimensional Stereo” period, and would not issue any new release without both a mono and a stereo version. So, we got what we got. The resulting stereo versions, released only in America, were anything but “full dimensional.”
Later, as The Beatles began recording on four-track equipment, they were still recording for mono, but the attempts at stereo mixes got a little better. So beginning with “Revolver” I recommend having both the mono and stereo versions. You can then pick which songs really sound better, and choose that one for your iTunes library. This will take you a little time, but is worth the trouble, I think.
The mono box set does not include the “Yellow Submarine” “Abbey Road” or “Let It Be” CDs as they were originally recorded for stereo. “Yellow Submarine” is not worth buying separately, in my opinion, as there are no really good songs on it, and the title song also appears on the “Revolver” CD.
So, the mono set ends with “The White Album” and “Mono Masters” (a two-disc album which was originally released as “Past Masters”). You may recall that “Past Masters” was a collection of all the songs that were released only as “singles” in Great Britain, and were not included on any album there. You may want to pick this one up in stereo as well, though most of the songs on it sound better in mono. Interestingly, the mono discs of “Help” and “Rubber Soul” also include the 1965 stereo mix on the same disc, so this makes comparison very easy.
One last caveat - Some people just don’t like the sound of mono. It’s dated, and old-fashioned sounding, but the first half of The Beatles catalogue sounds much better in mono. You’ll still get the new dynamic range of the remasters. Every instrument really pops out, as well as each vocal within each harmony. It truly is amazing how much better these new discs sound than the 1987 releases, which are the masters we’ve been listening to since they were first released to CD. And you’ll probably realize how bad the fake stereo you grew up with really sounded. If not, the stereo box set is also available, and includes all of the albums.
If you’re a Beatles fan, and you still listen to them regularly, you’ll find it well worth the cost of updating your library with these newly mastered recordings. If you haven’t listened in a while, and are just curious, start with “Abbey Road.” You will be surprised by what you hear, and may find The Beatles sprinkled into your playlists all over again.
Stereo and mono box sets
EMI/Capitol , CD
I’d never heard of Rob Ickes until hearing a snippet of Road Song on radio a few days ago. (Yes, some people still listen to radio.) Ickes is the long time dobro player for Blue Highway, a contemporary bluegrass group who’s work had also escaped my attention before now. Road Song is Ickes’ fifth solo release on the ResoRevolution label and is strikingly unconventional, at least as far as I’m concerned.
When you think of instruments that might accompany a jazz piano, your mind doesn’t necessarily jump straight to the dobro. But that is Road Song in a nutshell; jazz for dobro and piano. In truth, Michael Alvey’s piano is the accompaniment here. While it is an almost equal collaboration, the dobro is the focus of this album. The only other addition to the mix is the voice of another artist I’d not heard of until now, RobinElla, who sings on three of the ten tunes included here. Her roots are also in country and bluegrass, but she brings a subtle Billie Hollidaylike touch to the ballads on this release. The other seven tunes are strictly dobro and piano, and they work beautifully together.
In fact, listening to this music strongly reminds me of the first collaboration between French jazz pianist Claude Bolling and classical flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal, who’s album Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano Trio broke new musical ground in 1976 and stayed on the top of the charts for two years. While Road Song is not quite that profound, it is still a fresh and innovative treatment of a handful of jazz classics, and even an old Hank Williams song, You Win Again, which includes RobinElla’s vocal. The dobro, in place of guitar, on Wes Montgomery’s classic West Coast Blues, is a little disorienting at first but quickly feels right, and swings just as hard. The same goes for Duke Ellington’s Take The A Train. Rob Ickes clearly knows what he’s doing, no matter the genre.
I happen to be an avid jazz fan, but you don’t have to be to love this music. Something about the unusual juxtaposition of dobro and jazz piano takes it to a place that even non-fans will appreciate. While this is still jazz, to be sure, it’s crossover potential is ripe and it should have broad appeal outside the genre. This album is available as a CD or a download on Amazon, although the CD for this title has a 1 to 3 week shipping window. Do yourself a favor and sample a few tracks online. You’ll probably decide that it’s something you need in your library.
A new site is getting a lot of national attention for a new twist on a vintage theme; be kind to the planet. In the interest of full disclosure, the co-owner of Plum Journals (or co-plum, as she likes to call herself) is an old personal friend of mine, but that’s not why I’ve decided to give her site a plug. Besides, she hardly needs my help. I just happen to think it’s something visitors to this site might like to know about. I’ve also added it to my list of sites that I consider to be among the best, most interesting, and in this case, most eco-friendly uses of the web. I’ve put a link to Plum Journals under “Some of the Best Stuff” in the panel to the right.
So, what is a Plum Journal? In a sentence, it provides an easy and attractive way to keep a journal, or diary if you prefer, right on the desktop of your computer. No paper (unless you choose to print it out) or pen required. Now, the truth is, you can keep a journal in the word processor of your choice. Why should you spend nine bucks to keep it in a Plum Journal?
Well, one look at the time and talent that went into the designs at Plum Journals will answer that question. They are beautiful. It’s the difference between writing in a college ruled spiral notebook and writing on fine linen stationery. There’s something tranquil about it. You don’t get the tactile pleasure that comes with fine stationery, but you don’t get that with Microsoft Word either.
Okay, another disclosure here; I don’t keep a journal. I’d like to. I’ve tried to. But I don’t have the discipline to keep an active journal. And an entry every three or four months falls more into the category of random note taking than journaling. But, if you keep a journal or a diary, or think you’d like to, and you’d love a beautiful and convenient way to do it, this could be for you. And depending on when you decide to give it a try, their free trial offer may still be going on. If not, what the hell, it’s only $8.95 if you pay full freight. Skip a double mocha latte one day. You’ll be a better person for it.
According to PlumJournals.com you can keep your Plum Journal on your computer desktop, or on a USB flash drive, making it completely portable from one computer to another. They are platform independant, which means you can use them on a Mac or a PC, and once downloaded, you don’t need internet access to use them.
They are a gorgeous, paperless, and “green” alternative to traditional paper journals and diaries. On your desktop, they have the same look and feel of a real book. The pages even turn! So if you love your planet, and you love to journal, give my friend, Karen, a visit at http://plumjournals.com/.
I just finished reading the book Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell. I don’t pretend to be an astute interpreter of social comment or literary works, but I found this book fascinating. What apparently started as an investigation of the super-successful, in search of clues we might all use to improve our chances in life, became a revealing study of human socio-economic hierarchies, family and social histories, and just plain dumb luck.
Even if you don’t completely buy into Gladwell’s theories, his anecdotal evidence is intriguing and entertaining on many levels. He plots the success of several well-known people; Bill Gates, The Beatles, and others, and concludes that pure chance had as much to do with their mega-success as their natural talents, and their willingness to work very hard. By the way, he does not dismiss the talent and work ethic as major reasons for success, he just points out the several and incredible strokes of luck that contributed heavily to these people’s rise to the top. In the process, he concludes that these same factors influence how well your second-grader may, or may not, succeed in school.
Much more complete, and overwhelmingly positive, reviews are available on Amazon, but there are a handful of negative opinions as well. It’s a relatively short book, about 300 pages, and for my part, I think it’s well worth the read. At the very least, it should contribute to a spirited dialogue about how we view and measure success, especially in our young.