Archive for December, 2010

10 “Bests” from 2010

1. Best novel that I missed when it came out: Guus Kuijer’s The Book of Everything (Scholastic, 2006).  Narrated by a nine-year-old, this is an all-ages book about love, faith, and growing up.  It has a sense of humor, too.  I devoted a post to this book earlier in the month.

Dessa, A Badly Broken Code2. Album of the Year: Dessa’s A Badly Broken CodeDessa is a poet who raps and sings.  Consider this excerpt from the chorus to “Children’s Work:” “But some nights I still can’t sleep. / The past rolls back / And I can see us still. / You’ve learned how to hold your own / How to stack your stones / But the history’s thick. / Children aren’t as simple / As we might think.”  And now listen to her perform it:

Children’s Work Dessa

Mesmerizing.  There are also quieter pieces, like “Poor Atlas” or the concluding song “Into the Spin.”  And compelling, moving narratives about relationships, like “Mineshaft II” and “Go Home.”  I had never heard of Dessa before listening to this album (she has one earlier EP), but I’ll definitely keep an eye out for anything else she does.

Suzy Lee, Shadow: cover3. Picture Book of the Year: Suzy Lee’s Shadow.  There were many great picture books this year, but this is one I’d like to see get more attention.  I loved Lee’s debut, Wave (2008), a wordless story of a girl, some gulls, and a wave.  Shadow shows that Lee is here to stay.  You hold the book so that the binding is horizontal, and then lift the pages up.  Above the gutter, a little girl plays in her basement; below it, the shadows convey what she imagines… or do they?  As in Where the Wild Things Are, this beautifully designed book knows that the imagination can have a life of its own.

Thompson, Shapes and Colors4. Best Comic Strip of 2010: Richard Thompson’s Cul de Sac.  To read Cul de Sac is to watch a classic being written. I’m reminded of reading Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes as it was being published. I look forward to each day’s strip, and am impressed by the fact Thompson’s invention never seems to flag.  Even more impressive is that the humor isn’t scattershot like Pearls Before Swine: Stephan Patsis’ strip is funny, but I always get the impression that there’s no gag he wouldn’t try.  There are gags Thompson wouldn’t try.  His humor almost always develops from the characters themselves.  If you’ve not read this strip yet, you can read it on Go Comics, or buy any of the four collections — Shapes and Colors is the latest.

Chris Ware, Acme Novelty Library No. 205. Best Graphic Novel of 2010: Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library No. 20 (Drawn & Quarterly, 2010).  With a modernist’s eye for detail, Ware tells the life story of Jordan Lint, a bully who used to pick on Rusty Brown (featured in Acme Novelty Library Nos. 16 & 17).  The scenes of Jordan’s childhood are worth the price of admission alone: shown from Jordan’s perspective, Ware beaks down the universe into the shapes and objects that a baby sees.  Flattening perspective and labeling each item (tree, car, ant, momma, dad) as if it were a children’s book, one two-page spread shows Jordan witnessing his father hitting his mother.  The layout is bright and beautiful, like a Mondrian painting, but the content is dark — and foreshadows later, troubling developments in Jordan’s personality. Ware’s dense pages that require re-reading, his panels that can be read in more than one sequence, and his extraordinary sensitivity to space, sound, light, time … tend to slip by all but the sharpest students when I teach his work.  But connoisseurs of comics, and my best students, know they’re reading the work of a master.  He’s the James Joyce or Virginia Woolf of the graphic novel.  And Acme Novelty Library No. 20 is one of his best.

6. Best person to follow on Twitter: Steve Martin (SteveMartinToGo).  Wry and consistently funny.  Earlier today (New Year’s Eve), he posted:

4…3…2…1…HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

7. Most interesting person to follow on Facebook: Mark NewgardenMark uses Facebook like others use Twitter — he post links to curiosities, most of them on YouTube.  Recurring subjects include rare animation, and silent films.  I have no idea where he finds all of this stuff.

8. Best Literary Criticism: Robin Bernstein, “Dances with Things: Material Culture and the Performance of Race,” Social Text 101 27.4 (Winter 2009): 67-94. This article is actually from 2009, but I didn’t encounter it until this year.  It’s thoughtful, theoretical, historicized — and all rendered in lucid prose.  To answer the question “how do people dance with things to construct race?” Bernstein brings together photography, toys, children’s literature, cultural history, and — with apparent effortlessness — writes with insight and clarity.  For example, to think about script behavior, Bernstein brings in (a) Frances Hodgson Burnett’s childhood re-enactment of scenes from Uncle Tom’s Cabin and (b) E. W. Kemble’s racist A Coon Alphabet (1898).  She writes:

We have contextualizing information in the history of alphabet books, but we have no corroborating archival evidence — no journal entry, no letter, no photograph or film clip, no eyewitness account — to tell us how living children interacted with Kemble’s book. These disparities do not necessarily mean, however, that we can make more reliable inferences regarding performances involving Burnett’s doll than regarding Kemble’s book. To the contrary, we can make more reliable inferences about the latter, because it is possible that Burnett misremembered, distorted, or flat-out lied in her memoir, but it is not possible that no child ever turned the pages of Kemble’s alphabet book. By reading things’ scripts within historically located traditions of performance, we can make well-supported claims about normative aggregate behavior: in the 1890s, competent performers turned pages of picture books. (76)

I like, here, the inversion of expectations: you think that actually having a reaction (Burnett’s) might be the more reliable gauge of how contemporary children reacted, but Bernstein deftly challenges that assumption.  Her book, Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights is due out from NYU Press in 2011.  You can bet I’ll be buying a copy.

9. Best TV Show: Mad Men.  Confession: I watch very little (in fact, almost no) TV.  I just started watching Mad Men this year (on DVD), and have just finished season 2.  So, I’m unequipped to comment on the latest season.  But what I enjoy about the show is the uneasy juxtaposition of nostalgia for the style of the early 1960s with the lack of nostalgia for the prejudice, sexism, disregard for the environment, etc.  It’s the close proximity of a longing for the look of the time coupled with a distaste for the attendant social mores — that makes the show work.  I also enjoy the fact that it does not editorialize: it simply presents homophobia, sexism, racism, with the knowledge that its viewers will find the behavior repellent.  It helps, of course, that sympathetic characters (Don, Peggy) are more tolerant of difference and more sympathetic to people on the margins of society.  But I find the blunt presentation of ugliness in such a lovingly recreated setting to be very compelling viewing.

Mad Men, Season 2: cast photo on stairs at Sterling Cooper

10. Best App: Angry Birds.  As is true of the above comment, I’m rather unequipped to be claiming what’s “best” here: I don’t spend much time playing games on the iPhone.  Furthermore, I have not played video games of any kind in over 25 years. In fact, this is the only game I play at all. Anyway, Angry Birds has a delightful mix of cuteness and aggression, whimsy and competitiveness.  I also like that it’s not addictive.  It’s enormously fun to play, but then I can put it down for days (weeks!) and do other work.

Angry Birds

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Top 50 of 2010


Top 50 of 2010 (for me)According to iTunes, these are the songs released in 2010 that I played most in 2010.  As such, the list is going to skew slightly towards the beginning of the year (since those songs have been in the playlist for a longer period of time).  The number at the far right is the number of plays the track has received this year.  So… here’s what iTunes tells you about me & my year’s musical obsessions — of tracks released in 2010, at any rate.

1. 911 Delta Spirit      3:16      23

“The folks back east, they say the market’s fine. / I heard that before 1929. / When Black Tuesday comes, it’ll be a hit. / Right out of the air into the pit.”  An uptempo — even danceable — song with a social conscience.

2. Rock Island Arsenal The Light Footwork      4:02      22

I can’t make out all of the lyrics, and frankly have no idea what this song is about.  Its repeated plays in my iTunes may be, in part, a result of my attempts to decipher it.  But I also simply like its sound.

3. Paris Kate Nash      3:03      21

“You’ll never listen to me.  No, you’ll never listen to me.”   Surprised that this is as high as it is in my top 50 most played — “Do-Wah-Doo” is a catchier song from this record.  Apparently, my ear disagrees with the previous sentence.  “Said you’d lend me anything.  I think I’ll have your company.”

4. Need You Tonight Beck’s Record Club      3:41      20

Fantastic live-in-studio recording of the INXS hit.

5. Under Control Good Shoes      2:29      20

Wearing their Gang of Four influence on their sleeves, Good Shoes sing a song of desire.  “To always be hungry and never satisfied.”

6. When I’m Small Phantogram      4:09      20

Like “Rock Island Arsenal” (above), I don’t really understand this song.  I just like the sound of it.

7. Dancing On My Own Robyn      4:51      20

I know exactly why I like this one — something about the combination of catchy, uptempo pop with sad lyrics.  Not that the lyrics are particularly profound.  They aren’t at all.  They’re of the person-I-love-doesn’t-love-me genre.  We’ve heard this type of song before.  Yet, inexplicably, Robyn manages to pull it off.

8. Missing Eliza Doolittle      3:41      19

The sample of the Fleetwoods’ “Come Softly to Me” (1959) is definitely a big part of this song’s appeal.  Without that melodic hook, I’m not sure that I’d have been pulled in.

9. Rodolfo The Record’s      4:16      19

For this song, it’s definitely the hook.  It’s a fantasy of getting “far away from a day job,” but the appeal for me is all about the sound of the song.  And, yes, the Record’s do spell the band name with that gratuitous apostrophe (instead of The Records).  From the album De Fauna et Flora.

10.  I Want the World to Stop Belle & Sebastian      4:32      18

Channeling the Cure’s “Love Song” (listen to that bass line!), Belle & Sebastian ask for the morning, and the understanding.  Another song that I can’t fully decipher.

11.  It’s OK Cee Lo Green      3:46      18

You know Cee Lo Green’s The Lady Killer because of the hit single (the clean version of which is “Forget You”), but the whole album is fantastic.  One of my favorite records of the year, hands down.

12.  Satisfied      Cee Lo Green      3:27      18

Another from The Lady Killer.  I’m not going to include more than one track by any given artist, so you’ll have to seek this song yourself.  (Support independent record stores and just buy the CD.  Trust me.  You won’t regret it.)

13.  Dutch Dessa      3:20      18

Dessa’s A Badly Broken Code is my nomination for album of the year.  I’ll say more about this in tomorrow’s post, but for now I’ll say: solid hooks both musically and lyrically.  She is a poet.

14.  The Bullpen      Dessa      2:36      18

Also from A Badly Broken Code.  Go.  Now.  Buy the album.

15.  Heart of Steel Galactic feat. Irma Thomas      3:28      18

From ya-ka-may.  Soulful New Orleans vibe, Irma Thomas’ smokin’ vocals, and… wow.

16.  Paris (Ooh La La) Grace Potter & the Nocturnals      3:15      18

“If I was a blade, I’d shave you smooth.”  Strangely, the second song on this list with “Paris” in the title.  Ooh La La, indeed.

17.  Heaven’s on Fire The Radio Dept.      3:33      18

Beginning with a spoken-word suggestion that we “destroy the bogus capitalist process that is destroying youth culture,” the song then moves to its actual subject: desire.  “One look at you, and Heaven’s on fire.”

18.  Where I’m Going Cut Copy      3:36      17

Cut Copy channel T. Rex… or possibly Goldfrapp.

19.  Children’s Work      Dessa      3:12      17

More from A Badly Broken Code.  This is the first Dessa song that I heard, and it’s the song that got me hooked.  Since I’m not posting more than one song by any given artist, you’ll have to seek this yourself.

20.  I Am Trying to Break Your Heart JC Brooks & The Uptown Sound      3:39      17

Wow!  I like this even better than Wilco’s original version.

21.  You’re the Kind of Trouble The Holmes Brothers      3:46      16

“I’ve heard the rumors.  I hope they’re true. / You’re the kind of trouble that I could get in to.” Classic R&B with a bluesy vibe.

22.  When You Walk in the Room Fyfe Dangerfield      3:28      16

A very happy song.  On his solo record, Fyfe Dangergield (lead singer and songwriter for Guillemots) is in love.

23.  Cut Loose The High Decibels      2:26      16

Old school hip-hop.  Reminds me of RUN-DMC.

24.  Our Generation (The Hope of the World) John Legend & The Roots feat. CL Smooth      3:16      16

“It’s all left up to us to change this present situation. / Take a lesson from our elders.  Don’t make the same mistake. / Let’s fill the world with love, get rid of all the hate.”  Amen to that.

25.  Hey Hey Hey Michael Franti & Spearhead      3:47      16

I think Michael Franti has been listening to U2.  Certainly, on the anthemic refrain, his guitarist sounds a lot like the Edge.

26.  If You Can’t Sleep She & Him      2:49      16

A cappella, multi-tracked Zooey Deschanel.  Beautiful.  You could sleep to this, but you’ll stay awake because you won’t want to miss a note.

27.  Dream About the Future The Apples In Stereo      4:16      15

Robert Schneider continues to channel Jeff Lynne.  Still, there’s always room for a catchy E.L.O.-seque tune.

28.  Stuck Caro Emerald      4:33      15

Retro-swing from her debut, Scenes from the Cutting Room Floor (released last year in Europe, and this year in the US — but only via iTunes).  Big in her native Holland, but no one’s heard of her in the U.S.

29.  It’s a good Thing (Radio Edit) CHOO CHOO      3:02      15

“It’s a good thing I don’t remember what went wrong.”  An apparently optimistic song that’s actually rather dark.

30.  Call Me The Pipettes      2:50      15

Featuring none of the original members, the Pipettes return!  Are they still the same pre-fab pop group that they were?  Should we care?  The new record isn’t as consistent as the debut, but there are a few strong songs — such as this one.

31.  Albatross Sambassadeur      3:52      15

“I leave it just to be to what it is, just a memory.  It seems to be.”  The lyrics can be a bit ESL, but a lovely, melancholy, orchestral pop sound.

32.  Holiday Vampire Weekend      2:18      15

From the band’s sophomore effort, Contra.

33.  Everybody Wants to Rule the World Clare & The Reasons      3:56      14

Cover of the Tears for Fears song.  With violins and cello.  Very nice.

34.  The Difference Between Us The Dead Weather      3:37      14

“One day, I’m happy and healthy.  Next, I ain’t doing so well.”  The latest from Jack White & co.

35.  Mineshaft II      Dessa      3:41      14

More from A Badly Broken Code.  I’m telling you: definitely check it out.

36.  Pumped Up Kicks Foster The People      4:13      14

My, this is a catchy tune.  Who is this band?  I know nothing about them.

37.  The Diamond Church Street Choir The Gaslight Anthem      3:12      14

Channeling Bruce Springsteen, c. 1975.

38.  Carpenter’s Wonderwall Go Home Productions [Oasis vs. Carpenters]      3:06      14

The Gallagher Brothers meet the Carpenter Siblings.

39.  Girls FM Happy Birthday      3:00      14

Another song with an appealing sound.  I can’t say I’ve paid much attention to its lyrics.

40.  How Did All These People Get In My Room? I Blame Coco      3:10      14

Yes, this is the band of Eliot Sumner, a.k.a. Sting’s daughter.

41.  Heart to Tell The Love Language      2:27      14

“Some fools rush in.  Some fools just wait.”

42.  I Was Made for Dreaming ‘Bout You MadMixMustang [Kiss vs. Beyonce]      4:17      14

Whoa.  Bringing in Beyonce beats, MadMixMustang creates the long-lost Kiss dance hit.

43.  Record Collection Mark Ronson & The Business Intl      3:50      14

The title track from the producer behind Amy Winehouse’s big hit record of a few years ago.

44.  Bang Bang Bang      Mark Ronson feat. MNDR & Q-Tip      3:51      14

Another track from Mark Ronson’s Record Collection.  And, as noted earlier, I’m only posting one track per artist.

45.  A Bite Out Of My Bed The New Pornographers      3:13      14

From the indie supergroup’s Together.

46.  Garden Grow Our Broken Garden      4:14      14

Dark, self-destructive, catchy.

47.  The Shining Path (Alan Wilkis Remix) RJD2      3:38      14

“They will see the albatross that lives in your shadow”?  This is the second song on this list that references an albatross.  What the –?

48.  Heard It On The Radio The Bird And The Bee      3:03      13

The sole original song on Interpreting The Masters Volume 1: A Tribute To Daryl Hall and John Oates, which is a very enjoyable album of Hall & Oates covers.  Really.

49.  Candy in the Kitchen Blair      3:08      13

A mix of nostalgia and uptempo, wistful and danceable.  That balance between opposing emotions seems to be a theme.

50.  Dr Wanna Do      Caro Emerald      3:02      13

Another track from Scenes from the Cutting Room Floor.

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Crockett Johnson’s gonzo Bosco ad, c. 1960

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Crockett Johnson worked with Lou Bunin on some television advertisements.  But he had a hard time taking Madison Avenue seriously, as indicated by his parody of an ad for Bosco chocolate syrup (below).  Though it’s undated, Johnson (known to his friends as “Dave” ) seems to have sent it to Bunin in about 1960.

Crockett Johnson's parodic ad for Bosco, c. 1960

This photocopy came into my possession courtesy of the generous Amy Bunin Kaiman (Lou’s daughter), one of many people without whom The Purple Crayon and A Hole Is to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (forthcoming from UP Mississippi, 2012) would not be possible.  For more Letters of Note — such as this 1970 letter from William Steig — you might check out the blog by that name.

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Merry Christmas from Mr. O’Malley

As noted last month, a color Sunday Barnaby ran from 1946 to 1948 — apt, because the original Barnaby strip that helped Crockett Johnson sell the comic to PM was also a Sunday strip.  Courtesy of the generous Colin Myers, here’s a Christmas Barnaby from 63 years ago — December 21, 1947.

Barnaby, 21 December 1947

(Don’t forget: clicking on the image will provide you with a larger version.)

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Cat on the Street, Grinch on the Air

Quick post from Amtrak heading north.  On the way back from the Diane Rehm Show (now archived on website), I passed the person at right, who was selling copies of Street Sense and who kindly granted me this photograph.  I always enjoy spotting signs of Seuss in the world.  And, here, I suspect that Seuss would approve of this donning of the red-and-white-stripped of his famous Cat.  Although I’m not an expert on the organization, Street Sense wants to fight homelessness — and is thus the kind of progressive cause that Ted Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) would be likely to support.  It also struck me as appropriate to go from talking about Seuss on the air, to seeing this “cat” on the street.  An apt confluence.

The radio show itself was fun.  My fellow guests, the Rev. Derrick Harkins and Maria Salvadore, were super, and of course Diane Rehm did a wonderful job.  I particularly enjoyed being in studio.  Since Kansas is not exactly a hub of public radio programs, I do most of my interviews long distance — either in a studio in Kansas, or over the phone.  That works a-OK, but the visual cues of the studio experience are even better.  One does not have to listen for the music to know to wrap up a comment quickly; simply look at Diane making the “wrap it up” hand gesture, and you know.  Likewise, it was easier for the guests (and for Diane) to sense who wished to speak next.

And, the more you talk about something, the more you learn — one reason why I enjoy the interchange of class discussion.  For instance, Rev. Harkins made a good point about the openness of Seuss’s message — it’s very inclusive.  The idea that the Grinch learns that “Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more” doesn’t tell you what it means, exactly, but does (as Maria Salvadore pointed out) strip away all of the “stuff.”  That’s what the Grinch doesn’t like — all the things.  When that’s pared away, he’s able to understand, to have his epiphany.  And what is that epiphany?  I’d say that it’s about community: he joins the circle of Whos, and carves the roast beast himself.  He comes in from exile, & finds a place to belong.  It is, as Charles Cohen points out in his 50th anniversary edition of How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, an echo of the “Prayer for a Child” poem he published in December of 1955 in Collier’s.  There, in an uncharacteristically religious poem, Seuss writes “Please tell all men / That Peace is Good. That’s all / That need be understood. / In every world / In Your great sky. / (We understand. / Both you and I.)”

The Grinch finds peace in the community of Whos — a message that resonates with The Sneetches (in which groups who discriminated against one another cease doing so), and Horton Hears a Who! (in which we learn that a person’s a person).  So… on that note of brotherhood (and sisterhood), I’ll conclude.

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You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch

GrinchWith lyrics by Dr. Seuss (1904-1991) and music by Albert Hague (1920-2001), “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” has become a holiday classic.  Given that it celebrates a misanthrope, it is admittedly an unusual holiday tune.  Yes, the Grinch does reform by the end of the story, but this song focuses on his nastiness, offering no hint of the transformation to come.  Perhaps the song is so beloved because it celebrates emotions not usually sung about over the holidays: meanness, grouchiness, anger.  People certainly experience such feelings during this time of year, but most holiday tunes don’t celebrate them.  Seuss — who based the character of the Grinch on himself — gives voice to the darker side of Christmastime.  And Hague’s music captures the slipperiness of that “nasty, wasty skunk,” sliding a full octave on each verse’s final iteration of the word “Grinch.”

After Seuss sent Albert Hague his lyric for the song, the composer set it to music, and then invited Seuss over to hear the results.  Sitting at the piano, Hague played it for Seuss: “You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch!  You really are a heel.  You’re as cuddly as a cactus.  You’re as charming as an eel.  Mr. Grinnnnch!  You’re a bad banana with a greasy black peel.” According to Hague, Seuss said, “anyone who can slide an octave on the word ‘Grinch’ gets the job.”

Here are 15 versions of the song, starting with Thurl Ravenscroft’s original.

Commercial announcement: I’m posting this, in part, to call attention to the Diane Rehm Show of Wednesday, December 22nd, 11 am EST.  I’ll be a guest, and the focus of the entire hour will be How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

1. You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch Thurl Ravenscroft (1966)            3:01

Excising Boris Karloff’s narration and placing the verses in a different order, this is almost the song as heard on the 1966 TV special, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! — co-written by Seuss and Chuck Jones, and based on Seuss’s 1957 book of the same name.  There appear to have been two versions recorded: one that appears in the TV special, and one that omits the narration and places the verses in this order.  This is the latter version, brought to you here from A Classic Cartoon Christmas! Many people don’t know that Thurl Ravenscroft is the singing voice of the Grinch — only Karloff is listed in the program’s credits.  Best-known for this song and for being the voice of Tony the Tiger, Ravenscroft also sang back-up on records by Elvis Presley, Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore, and Rosemary Clooney.  You’ll also hear Ravenscroft’s voice on many Dinsey records and in Disney’s theme parks.  Brian E. Jacobs’ excellent All Things Thurl will tell you everything you need to know.

2. You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch Mojo Nixon (1992)            2:35

Slightly off-key, and off-kilter.  The man behind “Elvis Is Everywhere” recorded this for his Horny Holidays! (1992).

3. You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch Gary Hoey (1998)            3:07

Rockin’ the Grinch, heavy-metal style.  From Hoey’s Ho! Ho! Hoey II (1998).

4. You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch Swingerhead (1999)            2:18

From one of my all-time favorite holiday records, Swingerhead’s A Swingerhead Christmas.  This was out of print for a time, but it’s now available from CD Baby.

5. You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch Rockapella (2000)            3:14

Like Ben Folds, I’m also not a fan of too much beat-boxing in a cappella.  A little percussion goes a long way.  So, if I’d prefer more subtle “drums” here, Rockapella do rock the Grinch a cappella.  And the lead vocalist really hits those bass notes.  From the group’s Rockapella Christmas.

6. You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch Asylum Street Spankers (2001)            3:11

Oscillating between country, jazz, bluegrass, and I-don’t-know-what, the Asylum Street Spankers deliver a genre-bending cover of the song.  From A Christmas Spanking (2001).

7. You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch Slaid Cleaves (2001)            3:44

The accordion makes me want to call this the “New Orleans” version of the song, but I’m not sure if that’s strictly accurate… since he grew up in Maine and lives in Texas.  The “Americana” version, perhaps? From Cleaves’ EP Holiday Sampler (2001).

8. You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch Pete Nelson (2002)            3:47

The downbeat cover.  If many versions embrace the Grinch’s anger, Nelson‘s recording finds the melancholy behind the green grouch’s mood. Purists will note that I called the Grinch “green”: true, he’s white in Seuss’s original book, but he’s green in the TV special that introduced this song. If you’d like an entire mix of more somber holiday music, you might enjoy my Blue Christmas mix, posted a week or so back.

9. You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch The Gypsy Hombres (2002)            3:39

Ever wondered what Django Reinhardt’s recording of the song would sound like?  Look no further.  From the Gyspy HombresDjango Bells.

10. You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch Brian Setzer (2005)            2:38

On Dig That Crazy Christmas, Brian Setzer’s rockabilly-inflected big band puts its spin on the Grinch.

11. You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch Aimee Mann (2006)            3:27

When I first heard this, I thought: Aimee Mann?  Really? I’m admirer of her work, but never expected her to cover this song.  This version interpolates some of the narration from the TV special — that’s Grant Lee Phillips contributing the male vocal.

12. You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch Straight No Chaser (2009)            2:54

More a cappella, but with more subtle use of the beatbox than Rockapella.  Indeed, Straight No Chaser‘s arrangement is more intricate, more complex, but without making the sound too busy.  A nice balance here.  From Christmas Cheers.

13. You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch Glee Cast featuring k.d. lang (2010)            3:18

From this season’s special Glee episode, and featuring the vocals of k.d. lang!  Closely modeled on the cover by Aimee Mann, this includes some narration — male vocalist here is Matthew Morrison.

14. Grinch Introduction / The Grinch / “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” Take 6 (2010)            4:16

I love Take 6, and I expect the comic business would be fun live.  Upon repeated listenings, I find myself wishing there were a version without the ad-libbing.  The arrangement is great, but the humor … wears thin.

15. You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch The Raleigh Ringers (2010)            3:37

If you need further evidence of the song’s classic status, look no further than this version… performed on handbells.  From the Raleigh RingersA Wintry Mix.

16. Whoville (Won’t Get Yuled Again) mojochronic (2008)            1:03

As a bonus track, here’s a mash-up of the Grinch and the Who — punning, of course, on the name of the people who live in Whoville.

So, fahoo fores and dahoo dores!  (To say nothing of fahoo ramus and dahoo damus.)  Welcome Christmas!

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“It’s only a step from Genius to Insanity”

Dr. Seuss, illustration of "Rare Craneo-Bulgis" from Are You a Genius? (1933)This post is for my fellow intellectual laborers — be you academics, teachers, authors, artists, carpenters, curators, architects, doctors, plumbers, web designers, or… well, any job that requires you to use your noggin’.  If you think about it (and people reading this blog probably do think about it), intellectual labor covers many jobs — you don’t have to be a member of the “rare Craneo-Bulgis species” (see Dr. Seuss‘s illustration at right).  I’m dedicating it to you because, though unacknowledged, such labor continues over the holidays.  Speaking from my narrow field (English professorland), everyone I know will be finding time to work when we’re officially “off.”

Non-academics may wonder: Why does work continue over the holidays?  Well, for us, this is a time when we’re not teaching and thus a time when we can focus on all the other parts of our job: preparing for next semester; researching, writing, revising our manuscripts; reading other people’s manuscripts for journals or university presses; writing letters of recommendation; perhaps interviewing job candidates or (if a job candidate) being interviewed at MLA; and so on.

Dr. Seuss, cover illustration for Are You a Genius? (1933)This isn’t a complaint: professordom (dom?) is an interesting place to work.  That’s the reason most of us got into the field.  We like reading, thinking, learning, and sharing what we learn.  And I don’t want to lament the scarcity of vacations, even though I think most of us would be happier and healthier if we did have more leisure.  What I would like to do, in tribute to intellectual labor, is offer a couple of puzzles from Robert A. Streeter and Robert G. Hoehn’s Are You a Genius? (Second Series, 1933), because doing so provides an excuse to share some rarely-seen illustrations by Dr. Seuss.

The authors’ introduction begins by advising readers on how to score the tests:

Introduction to Robert A. Streeter and Robert G. Hoehn's Are You a Genius? (1933)

Here, as promised, are a couple of brain-teasers from the book, followed by Seuss’s illustration for each.

1. A laborer can dig a hole 8 ft. square and 8 ft. deep in 8 days.  How long will it take him to dig a hole 4 ft. square and 4 ft. deep?

Dr. Seuss, illustration of laborer from Are You a Genius? (1933)

2. The first syllable of a foreign country is suggested by a word meaning “a low haunt”; the second, by a word meaning “a target.”  What is the name of the country?

Dr. Seuss, illustration of man looking at target, from Are You a Genius? (1933)

In a day or so, I’ll post answers in the comments section.  And, as the book’s authors advise, “It’s only a step from Genius to Insanity.”  A small step, I’d wager….

More Seuss in tomorrow’s post — specifically, the Grinch!

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My Book About Me

These days, I don’t talk much about my first book.  I wrote it when I was 7 years old, in collaboration with Dr. Seuss and Roy McKie.  As you can see, I improved upon their artwork with the aid of stickers from the United Fruit Company (of whose bananas I was then an avid consumer) and the Kellogg Corporation (whose Raisin Bran I ate for breakfast).

My Book About Me by Dr. Seuss, Roy McKie, and Philip Nel, age 7.

As you will soon discover from the interior pages, the handwriting on the latter sticker is not my own (it is my mother’s).  The inflatable bunny and the safari suit (my parents are South Africans) dates the photograph to my sixth Easter.  At the book’s end, I claim to have finished the book on my seventh birthday.

Here, McKie, Seuss, and I take a look at my culinary preferences:

from My Book About Me, by Dr. Seuss, Roy McKie, and one 7-year-old Philip Nel

For those unable to decipher my distinctive crayonmanship, favorite foods then included: hamburgers, candy, fruit salad, swiss cheese, and that rare variety of pickle spelled without the “k.”  I could not stand olives.  This latter claim still holds true, although my favorites have altered.  I’m now more partial to pickles with a “k,” and have grown more discerning in my candy consumption: today, I would replace “candy” with “dark chocolate.”  I still eat swiss cheese, and plenty of fruit, and, though I enjoy a good hamburger, I would no longer rank it at the top of my list.

Interestingly, my choice of profession proved to be a remarkably accurate predictor of my current employment:

page from My Book About Me, by Roy McKie, Dr. Seuss, and a 7-year-old wunderkind known as Philip Nel

After all, the job of English Professor combines the fame of the paleontologist with the modesty of the television star.  In crossing out “TV star” and writing in “paleontologist,” I was not replacing one with the other, but rather suggesting a hybrid that is the job I now hold.  Yes, I was a prescient lad.

Though many books of this vintage (McKie and Seuss’s portions of this book were written in 1969) have been updated, I’m interested to report that this has not been.  Current editions do not replace “Airplane Stewardess” with “Flight Attendant”; nor do they subtract the now rare job of “Milkman” and replace it with, say, “Computer Programmer.”  The list of professions remains exactly as it was 41 years ago.

Finally, a sample of my developing storytelling skills, rendered in letters of varying height and legibility:

from My Book About Me, by Dr. Seuss, Roy McKie, and young storyteller Philip Nel, age 7

Indicative of the paleontology lobby’s influence on my 7-year-old imagination, the story stars a dinosaur.  For those struggling to decode my strikingly original penmanship, here is a transcription:

The Dinosaur

The Dinosaur was walking in the woods one day.  And then he saw a hunter!  And the hunters [sic] gun was ponted [sic] right at him!  And the dinosaur was! frightened.  But…………… then he walked up to the hunter and was very very very brave.  So [he] picked the hunter up by the pants and dropped him.

The end.

With the unique spellings and unusual grammar characteristic of a gifted author, the story swiftly introduces the rising action in the second sentence.  After prolonging the suspense via its deft use of ellipses, the tale concludes with a clever narrative twist that lets readers know they’re reading the work of a master storyteller.  The Dinosaur dispatches the hunter through the rarely used picking-up-by-the-pants-and-dropping technique.  Gasping in delight at this surprising but satisfying conclusion, we salute this 7-year-old wunderkind, who, fortunately, did not grow up to be a writer of fiction.

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The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T: Soundtrack Extravaganza

5,000 Fingers of Dr. T: FSM 3-CD soundtrack (cover)Film Score Monthly’s newly released 3-CD original motion picture soundtrack to The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953) is a must for fans of Dr. Seuss, composer Frederick Hollander, or the film itself.  The rest of you might want to see the cult classic before purchasing.  And, for the record, if you’ve any interest in Seuss, it’s worth checking out his sole live-action feature film.

What’s it about? you ask.  It’s an anti-fascist musical about a piano prison camp run by the megalomaniacal Dr. Terwilliker (Hans Conried), and about Bart Collins (Tommy Rettig) who seeks to expose his crazy scheme and free Mrs. Collins (Mary Healy) from Dr. T’s hypnotic grip.  Bart also tries to enlist August Zabladowski (Peter Lind Hayes) to help him in his efforts.  Here’s the trailer.

In the beautifully assembled (and lavishly illustrated) accompanying booklet to this CD set, Alan Lareau — who is writing a biography of Hollander — not only provides the fullest account of Hollander’s life you’re likely to find, but also offers all kinds of interesting information about the film.  For instance, producer Stanley Kramer saw the film as a vehicle for Danny Kaye (as Terwilliker) and Bing Crosby (as Zabladowski). I can easily imagine the film with those actors.  While Conried gives a great performance, Hayes is very much b-movie material — would that Crosby had been available to make the film.  I was also unaware that Tony Bennett had recorded “Because We’re Kids” for his album The Playground (1998), or that Jerry Lewis used the song on his Muscular Dystrophy telethon.

This new 3-disc soundtrack gives you — for the first time — the complete (surviving) soundtrack as Hollander and Seuss conceived it, including material that never made it into the film, alternate takes from the film, composer piano sketches, rehearsal tracks, and of course the final songs from the film itself.  So, yes, it’s for the Seuss (or Hollander) completist.  That said, several of the unreleased songs are quite interesting in and of themselves.  In this one, Peter Lind Hayes expresses his — and Seuss’s — skepticism towards money.

Money, as performed by Peter Lind Hayes

Unlike Cherry Red Records’ single-disc release of a few years ago, these are better quality audio — not pristine by modern standards, but the best possible versions all culled from archival recordings.

Oh, having just re-watched How the Grinch Stole Christmas! earlier this evening, I have to add: if you think the Grinch is a campy fella, well, he’s got nothing on Dr. Terwilliker.  Take a gander at the “Dressing Song,” below.

So, if you’re interested in a kitschy, campy Seuss musical, check out The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (it’s available on DVD). Then, pick up FSM’s edition of the soundtrack.  They’ve limited its release to 3,000 copies — so, you might want to act sooner rather than later.

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The Record

Schoonmaker, ed., The RecordThe Record: Contemporary ART and VINYL, edited by Trevor Schoonmaker (Duke University Press, 2010), is both beautifully produced and delightful to read.  Meditate on the photographs of phonograph-inspired art, or on the dozen or so brief essays, which are — to a person — all interesting.  No kidding.  I often just skip around in a book like this.  But I read The Record cover to cover.

There’s a lot to learn.  As is true of many amateur music collectors, I’ve amassed a fair bit of music trivia (which, in my more optimistic moments, I like to call “music knowledge”), but I didn’t know that Robert Rauschenberg created the original, limited-release cover of Talking Heads’ commercial breakthrough Speaking in Tongues (1983).  Yes, accompanying Jennifer Kabat’s essay (aptly titled “New Feeling,” because that’s what it’s about), there’s a photo of the original 12-inch vinyl LP, in its transparent plastic case with colored foils.  Josh Kun’s contribution begins with Thomas Edison sending Mexican president Porfiro Díaz an Edison phonograph in 1889, leading to an investigation of the “record as a medium of transnational communication” (97) — something which the Mexican Secretary of the Government made official when, in the 1970s, it ordered “that all Mexican LPS be labeled with the slogan El disco es cultura (The Record is Culture)” (98).  Charles McGovern writes of record stores as communities in which “people crossed social lines […] at least for brief moments,” an experience which is vanishing as record stores close (72).

Laurie Anderson, "Viophonograph" (1977)

And there’s the art, such as Laurie Anderson’s “Viophonograph” (1977, shown above), which combines record and violin.  Or Dario Robleto’s “Sometimes Billie Is All That Holds Me Together” (1998-99) which features buttons made from melted-down Billie Holiday records.  And there’s Mingering Mike’s purely fictive album covers (1969-77).  And, of course, the Jeroen Diepenmaat piece reproduced on the book’s cover.

An inch-and-a-half shy of being the height and width of a record, this square coffee-table book is a pleasure to spend time with.  Recommended for audiophiles, lovers of contemporary art, and anyone who likes thinking about music.  If you happen to be near Duke University in the next couple of months, check out the exhibit which the book chronicles.  It’s at the Nasher Museum of Art through February 6th, 2011.  And, if you can’t make it there, the exhibit’s website offers much to explore.

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