Hole-y Cow

singin-in-the-rain-diWay back when, when actors were still called entertainers, Hollywood stars were multi-talented individuals who sang, danced, and acted well – your Shirley Temples, Judy Garlands, Gene Kellys, and so many more. Studios knew they could not only rake in money off the films, but a Christmas album was a sure winner, and possibly even a touring performance.

Today, most actors are carefully pigeon-holed into one role, and there are very few “entertainers” who can successfully cross bridges in the industry. Some actors are talented musicians – Hugh Laurie plays a mean jazz piano, and Charo – yes, Charo the cuchi cuchi girl – was, at least at one point, one of the top three flamenco guitarists in the world. You have to see it to believe it:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XmNPXqG6ovg.  Some comedians are excellent dramatists – Robin Williams for one.  But some agents push actors with no talent into music, with embarrassing results. Ever listen to Clint Eastwood sing? Or William Shatner? Save yourself, and don’t Google Hulk Hogan singing.

But every now and then you hit the jackpot, and Kiefer Sutherland is one of them. Yes, That Kiefer Sutherland, whether killing as a vampire or saving people in under 24 hours, the Kiefer Sutherland whose father runs Pan Em and praises orange juice, second-generation Hollywood. The man can Sing.

Sutherland’s debut album is called Down in a Hole, and although it’s labeled country (and the steel guitars on a few tracks clinch it), the album is the closest thing I’ve heard in ages that resembles good old-fashioned rock and roll, the kind you can’t find on the kiefer-sutherlandradio anymore. Do NOT disregard the album because you don’t like country – it is well worth a listen. Sutherland has a rough and ready voice, Joe Cocker after four packs of unfiltered Camels – no polished music-school certificates here.

My favorite, I think, is “Going Home,” which has that glorious old rock feel. “Shirley Jean” is a tear-jerker, but almost more folk than country, not out of place in a Pete Seeger repertoire. “Not Enough Whiskey” isn’t my favorite, but it has a sweet rolling beat that just won’t let go. “I’ll Do Anything” is probably the most “country” song, steel strings twanging and pearl snaps shining. “All She Wrote” sounds like it was a track that didn’t make the final cut of a Sons of Anarchy album – you can almost hear the leather creaking.

Not too many singers/bands are successful at crossing the country/ rock line – The Eagles are probably the best example, maybe the Allman Brothers, with some singers – Dolly Parton (9 to 5), Kenny Rogers (The Gambler), Glen Campbell (Southern Nights, Rhinestone Cowboy), and Shania 4873bwTwain kicking occasional songs onto both country and pop charts at once. Kiefer Sutherland is another to watch – and the fact he has a severe hearing loss makes it all the more amazing. This is his debut album, and I cannot wait for the next one.

Dum-Diddly-DUMB

220px-TiK_ToK_-_Kesha_(official_single_cover)I came across an article from May of 2015 (there are many on the subject) that mourned the dumbing down of American music based on the reading grade-level of the lyrics. The average ability one needs to read modern lyrics is a whopping  second grade reading level. Hip hop scored worst, with short little repetitive words that needed only a first-grader’s ability to read. Country music was the Big Brain, with a reading level of third grade and a few months. I found that a bit shocking.

You can find one of those informative studies here http://seatsmart.com/blog/lyric-intelligence/
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There are many criticisms of such a study. One is that they only covered music in the last ten years. Was music really all that smarter 20, 30, 50 years ago? Another is that repetition dumbs down the word level:

(Ke$ha, TiK ToK, Billboard #1 January 2010) (NUMBER 1 SONG IN AMERICA)
I’m talkin’ bout – everybody getting crunk, crunk
Boys tryna touch my junk, junk
Gonna smack him if he getting too drunk, drunk
Now, now – we goin’ ’til they kick us out, out
Or the police shut us down, down
Police shut us down, down
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I’m not sure it’s the repetition that’s dumbing that down.
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The other major complaint is how reading scores are measured: most have a mathematical formula that juggles word length, sentence length, or syllable length, and messes them around until an average is found. This is not always accurate, especially with poetry or lyrics, which may have 100 words before coming to the actual end of a sentence.

I had to find this out for myself. After all, we survived songs like “Doo Wah Diddy” and “Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb.” I took a variety of older songs and plugged them through https://readability-score.com/, which uses fivChild in school distracted_0e different reading assessment tools to come to an average score. The Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease was developed by the Navy, so that technical manuals wouldn’t get too difficult to understand. A score of 90 or better is good for a 6th-grade student, 60 or higher is good for high school students, and 30 or less is best left to college students (i.e., higher score is easier to read). Because the formula isn’t perfect it is possible, on the grade-level equivalent, to score well above a “grade” (as in, grade level 62).  That’s the number of years of schooling you may need to understand it. Ideally, if it’s for the average Joe or Jane on the street, you want a grade level of 8.  Don’t take it literally; just understand that the higher above 8 you go, the more complex it is to read.

Here was what I found when I ran nine popular songs through the analyzer:

Francis Scott Key, The Star Spangled Banner (1814) Everyone knows this one! Reading Ease: 87.6 (grade 7 or so). Average reading level – grade 7.3
Woody Guthrie, This Land is Your Land (1940) Come on! Okey folky here. Woody Guthrie was by far not an educated man. Reading ease: 33.8 (that’s in the college range). Average grade level: 37  (Blame no punctuation.)
Elvis Presley, Jailhouse Rock (1957) We’re talking Elvis. Hound dogs. Blue suede shoes. Reading ease: 77. 2 (high school). Average reading level: Grade 6.2
Frank Sinatra, A Very Good Year (1961) Thoughtful, but not Shakespeare, right? Average grade level: 11.6
The Supremes, Baby Love (1964)  Oooh, Baby Love, the reading ease is 54, with a grade level of 14, which, again, is almost guaranteed to be a result of no punctuation.
Bob Dylan, The Hurricane (1975) Ok, folk music by nature is going to score higher, because it tells a whole story. I only did the first four stanzas. Reading ease? 16.3. Grade level? 24.7  Big long sentences with grammar!
Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody (1975) Let’s face it. Scaramouche isn’t in a Ginn Reader, or even a Lippincott or Scott Foresman. Reading ease? 43. Grade level: 16.3. That’s a senior in college.  Thunderbolt and lightning.
The Police, De Do Do Do (1980) (Talk about repetition!) reading ease: 63. Grade level: 47.
REM, Drive (1992) Reading ease: 101.9 (that’s grade 5ish). Average reading level: 2.2  Ah! So music DID die off at the end of the 80’s!

knobAnd just for kicks (because it came up on my iTunes): Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Substitutiary Locomotion (1971) (remember, this is a Disney kid’s movie): Reading Ease: 4.1 (that’s PhD level), and a grade level of 18.  A catchy kid’s tune.

#What it means:
Okay, even I was surprised. I expected lyrics to have come down, but I didn’t realize it was by that much. Don’t bother with “scores,” just read the lyrics. I did The Police as a joke, because that much repetition was certain to skew things down, but no: the rest of the lyrics have words like jamming transmissions, not baby words. I thought for sure Woody Guthrie would prove a point, but his lyrics, too, are full of long words and long sentences and imagery. Elvis? Really? Spider Murphy played the tenor saxophone,  Little Joe was blowin’ on the slide trombone. It’s not junk, junk. The Hurricane I knew would score high – it’s about as close to an entire novel as you can sing without going back into Child Ballads.
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While the measuring tool isn’t precise – measuring sentence length in a lyric that doesn’t use punctuation gives false positives as to complexity – the word lengths counter some of it (we know it obviously does not take a PhD to understand Police lyrics). All in all, I have to agree: many modern music lyrics are about as intelligent as dirty dishwater, and the content is worthless. All you need to succeed is some gibberish, a loud driving beat, a fast groove of the hips, and a really good publicity team to get you air time. The music industry is about money; artists are about the art and the message. Hence we’re here  discussing Sinatra and Elvis and Queen, who haven’t been around in decades, and no one remembers who had the number one hit four years ago.

May Music

More than sixty new CD albums have been added to CPL’s music collection in the last month alone! Here’s a few highlights of things you shouldn’t overlook:

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81Xe6zj4unL._SX425_If you didn’t get your fill on the first two volumes of Songs of Anarchy, the fabulous soundtrack to the TV series Sons of Anarchy, volumes Three and Four are here, and are they ever beautiful! Do not miss Maggie Siff’s heartbreakingly gorgeous a capella rendition of “Lullaby for a Soldier,” or if you’re in a more upbeat mood, “Love is My Religion.” “Dock of the Bay” is a rendition worthy of Otis Redding himself. On Four, be dazzled by an off-beat and wild version of “Bohemian Rhapsody” that will stick in your head. “Aquarius” is catchy, and Katey Sagal’s updated “Greensleeves” remains touching. While the albums are utterly delightful71G6L0Sox0L._SX425_ on their own, each covering a wide variety of musical styles (Joshua James’s “Crash This Train” is sublime), at times it is gut-wrenching to hear them, if you know the context from the show in which each song is played. I cannot recommend the four albums enough.

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If you’re into something completely different, give Grammy Award winner Tom Paxton’s new album Redemption Road a try. Paxton is old-style folk; not quite country, not quite bluegrass, not quite modern, but it is music indexthe entire family can enjoy without having to worry about language or content. He is Raffi, for grown-ups, and if you can’t imagine that, then check out his song “Skeeters’ll Gitcha.” Like a true folk singer, his songs are observations about humanity and the absurdities of modern culture. “If the Poor Don’t Matter” is a haunting tune in the best tradition of folk music. “If the poor don’t matter, then neither do I.” If you like calm, soothing music that’s worth singing to without being overpowered by loud orchestration, if you like music that feels as if you’re sitting around a campfire and the guitar is playing just for you, you’ll enjoy this album.

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A third album you don’t want to overlook is Rhiannon Giddens first solo foray, Tomorrow is My Turn.index You last heard Giddens as the lead singer for the Carolina Chocolate Drops, where she wowed listeners with her pure tones and perfect pitch. Here she takes center stage in what isn’t so much an album as a resumé. Each song is different, from folk to blues to country to more popular beats such as Dolly Parton’s “Don’t Let it Trouble Your Mind,” and the easy-listening vibes of “Tomorrow is My Turn.” It’s not an album to blow you away, but a solid repertoire that says “Here’s what I can do, come see where I go.” If you like female vocalists who never fail to hit their mark, you will love her. My only wish is that she’d pick a direction: I think she’d be a fantastic blues singer with her throaty, clear style, and I would love to hear an entire album of her belting out some of the traditional songs, or even some Broadway tunes. She’s a delight on the ear.

Songs of Anarchy, Volume 1 and 2

Jacket.aspxRarely do I leave a CD in my player for more than a month straight. It’s been two months now, and aside for taking two weeks off at the holidays, it’s still in there, and I listen to it every day. Songs of Anarchy is the soundtrack to the FX television show Sons of Anarchy.
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You do not need to be a devotee or even know of the television show to adore the soundtrack to the series. Sons of Anarchy is an ultra-violent soap opera following a fictional biker gang in California. You know the characters are despicable, but they are written so well and to such depth that you cannot help but feel sympathy for them – while you call them names for being that stubborn. All that violence is offset by a soundtrack that is both entertaining and breathtakingly poignant. There is no set tone – the albums contain a mix of popular, rock, country, folk, alternative – whatever fits the moment. Many of these are covers of old greats by the series’ incredible house band, The Forest Rangers – a driving version of Gimmee Shelter (in which you can understand the lyrics), an achingly beautiful instrumental version of Fortunate Son, a gorgeous tweaking of House of the Rising Son with lyrics to fit the show. It was the deep blues rhythms of John the Revelator that first caught my attention watching the series (who else works an entire song into a drama series every week, like a prize in a Cracker Jack box?), and it made purchasing the album inevitable. The song wouldn’t leave my head, and I needed to hear it again.
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Katey Sagal, lead actress in the show as Gemma Teller, is also a singer in her own right with albums to her name. Her version of Leonard Cohen’s Bird on a Wire puts the original to shame, and Strange Fruit will give you the shivers.
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Volume 2 of Songs of Anarchy is a must if you listen to the first. There is just too much good vol 2.aspxmusic. Coal War, the season opener to year four, is a foot stomping ballad that crosses the line between country and pop much the way The Eagles did. The Lost Boy is a tragic ballad on its own, but if you know the series, it is played out in its entirety as one of the lead characters makes his sacrifice for his best friend, and it will bring you to tears. No Milk Today was originally a fluffy pop piece done by Herman’s Hermit’s in 1966; slowed down, it takes on a haunting new meaning when you consider it accompanies the kidnapping of a nine-month-old baby by the IRA.
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Kurt Sutter, the creator/producer/writer of the show (he also stars in it as Otto, and he’s married to Katey Sagal), wanted music to be an integral part of the show, setting tones, carrying themes, underscoring the action. What he managed is beyond brilliance, touching the stories and the viewers/listeners alike and playing with their emotions. Because of the varied styles of music, you might not like every track on the albums (the version of Slip Kid is too metal for me), but these albums are certain to please almost everyone.

 

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