22 March 2009
The Fictitious Review #1: Skin Lane by Neil Bartlett
Although set in 1967 London, Skin Lane is not so much a novel about the swingin' sixties as it is a modern gothic thriller. Deceptively told as the story of one Mr F--a 46 year old confronted by his homosexual awakening--this novel is truly a tour de force of minimalism in the service of a vindication of one man's particular obsession with youth and beauty.

At the heart of the novel is the tale of the Beauty & the Beast. The novel is introduced with a flashback to Mr F as a child, who constantly requests his annoyed father to read to him the fairy tale. In his youthful imaginings, Mr F was the beauty in the story--pervertedly awaiting molestation by the beast. But Bartlett is not merely interested in childish perversions of horror. The story takes dark turns, often into surprising corners that thrill and repulse at the same time.

The motif of the beauty and the beast story recurs in surprising places throughout the novel. For one, it has a lot of fur in it. (No, not that kind of fur...) The adult Mr F has worked as a master cutter in a fur factory for , situated in a business district in London devoted to the fur trade called Skin Lane. (No, not that kind of skin trade...) (But one must admit how cleverly Bartlett implants such connotations--it's really just business). Although he has a knack for cutting the hides of dead rodents, Mr F is not so quite like the talented Mr Ripley. Oblivious to his surroundings and socially awkward, Mr F is a painfully shy manchild forgotten by time. And like other rumoured pederasts of ages past, Mr F is tortured from within.

This novel's particular torture comes in the form of Mr F's recurring dream. Lesser reviewers will choose to reveal the contents of the dream. Let's just say that it's another variation on the beauty and the beast story that Bartlett manages to insert into both Mr F's and the reader's imaginations.

While Skin Lane can at times come across as an unsavoury view of an older man who desires younger men, Bartlett's novel doesn't demonise Mr F. By book's end, the line betwen what is beautiful and what is beastly is blurred, revealing the novel's true intention. Mr F could've been anyone. Bartlett's cool prose even suggests at times that Mr F is such an improbable caricature that he shouldn't... couldn't... have existed.

But then there's that creeping sensation that he could've. And that any of us, forgotten by time, could turn into beasts ourselves.

Title: Skin Lane
Author: Neil Bartlett
(Serpent's Tail, 2007)

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20 March 2009
The Girl From Ipanema
A totally adorable Astrud Gilberto looking wide-eyed and singing her signature tune, "The Girl From Ipanema" in this clip.

18 March 2009
Music Snob Journal #4: Ella Fitzgerald - Sings The Cole Porter Songbook
Many before me have lauded and compared the merits of various African American jazz divas from the golden age of 20th century pop music. For me, there are only a few really worth mentioning. And there are no real surprises here... I love Billie Holliday for her mournful voice, Sarah Vaughan for her dramatic approach, Dinah Washington for her sly bluesiness, and Nina Simone for her attitude.

... and then there was Ella Fitzgerald, First Lady of Song, whose ultimate claim to fame was that she had a truly sweet voice.

Each singer has managed to produce definitive readings of pop/jazz standards. Billie Holliday alone has claimed ownership of so many songs. It's impossible to sing her signature tunes like "Good Morning Heartache" or "Strange Fruit" without calling it an homage. Meanwhile Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington each has her own signature tune. Just one listen to Vaughan's version of "Lush Life", "Autumn In New York" and "My Man's Gone Now" and it's impossible to hear those songs any other way. Dinah Washington's "What A Difference A Day Made" and "Mad About The Boy" are classics! Meanwhile, Nina is just Nina... anything she sings -- from "My Baby Just Cares For Me" to "I Shall Be Released" just becomes her.

Ella, on the other hand, had no definitive style per se. She wasn't a dramatically showy vocalist like Sarah Vaughan. And she couldn't turn "Night & Day" into an aching lament like Billie did. Technically, all of them had strengths of their own. Sarah had an amazing range, her low register especially haunting. Billie's voice was limited but she knew how to bring out the heartache in every line with her mastery of phrasing.

Technically, Ella was pitch and note perfect. Almost annoyingly so. She didn't take as much liberty with the melody as some of her peers. (Except in concert, that is! Her vocal scats on her live recordings are nothing short of amazing!). What Ella possessed over the others was honey... she had golden warm rays of honey in her voice. The morning sun, flowers in the garden, birds chirping in the air, pastel polka dots that sprout in every footstep on the beat. When Ella sang, everything just feels good, things fall into place, the songs breathe as they should, and you can sing along because it's so easy to sing along to Ella. You don't just call something like that talent... it's a gift!

As a singer myself, it's sometimes hard to find that balance of technique and individuality. Everyone has a differently textured voice. Limitations can often be defining qualities. Michael Stipe of REM has a gritty nasal tone... if you can call it tone. Stipe'll never be what some would call a "classic" singer in the style of Tony Bennett or even Bruce Springsteen. But he has a style of his own. Which is I think harder to achieve because it's going against what the mainstream music audience prefers. I take my hat off to any musician who can survive in the industry for more than five years.

During the height of Ella's popularity from the 40s to the 60s, she was mainstream. She was popular among black and white audiences in America, Europe and Japan even though she was not classically pretty or glamorous. But she had a great singing voice that matured into a well-rounded interpreter of pop/jazz standards. I've been listening to her Gershwin songbook and it's simply amazing. Crisp. And the words are perfectly enunciated... not like the floridly flowery melismas of most of today's popular vocalists. She was like a black Julie Andrews. Ha ha ha...

Anyway... put your hands together for one of Ella's best recordings!

*

Ella Fitzgerald - Sings The Cole Porter Songbook (Verve, 1956)

Disc: 1
1. All Through the Night
2. Anything Goes
3. Miss Otis Regrets
4. Too Darn Hot
5. In the Still of the Night
6. I Get a Kick Out of You
7. Do I Love You?
8. I'm Always True To You In My Fashion
9. Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)
10. Just One of Those Things
11. Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye
12. All of You
13. Begin the Beguine
14. Get Out of Town
15. I Am in Love
16. From This Moment On

Disc: 2
1. I Love Paris
2. You Do Something to Me
3. Ridin' High
4. Easy to Love
5. It's All Right with Me
6. Why Can't You Behave?
7. What Is This Thing Called Love?
8. You're the Top
9. Love for Sale
10. It's De-Lovely
11. Night and Day
12. Ace in the Hole
13. So in Love
14. I've Got You Under My Skin
15. I Concentrate on You
16. Don't Fence Me In
17. You're the Top [Alternative][#][*]
18. I Concentrate on You [Alternate Take][#][*]
19. Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love) [Alternate Take][#][*]

(This is the tracklisting for the 1997 reissue.)

How can anyone beat this album? I love Billie's "Lady In Satin" and though the two are not really comparable, Ella kicks ass.

Lots have been written about Ella and her recordings for Verve, the jazz label founded by Norman Granz. While she was a great vocalist, most of Ella's early recordings before she joined Verve tended to lack artistic focus. Granz's great contribution to Ella's career was most definitely getting her to record a series of songbook albums featuring some of America's best songwriting talents. Ella's songbook series featured Duke Ellington, the Gershwins, Rodgers & Hart, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, and Johnny Mercer.

And the first of the eight songbooks she eventually recorded was the Cole Porter songbook.

Granted, she didn't record all of his songs. That would've been crazy. But the tracklisting is incredible. And the whole thing was recorded in just a few days, while Ella was in the middle of a nationwide tour. Unbelievable. Because she just sounds amazing, so technically precise and such blithe readings of Porter's witty lyrics.

Lots of people prefer the Gershwins. I know why. Ira Gershwin was an earnest lyricist. And they framed his brother George's genius musicality without really ever getting in the way. Songs like "The Man I Love" or "Our Love Is Here To Stay" or "Nice Work If You Can Get It" are pretty typical of the Gershwin fare--they're easy to listen to, easy to just sink into, and you can put them on anytime and not really worry what it is you're listening to cause it's just... what it is. It's fluff. But it's good fluff!

Cole Porter on the other hand was more playful. Never in a Porter song will you find a straight sentiment. There's a sinister layer that coats his songs... that is, if you're not taken aback by how funny it actually is. Porter's lyrics are black comedy for the bourgeois. His songs mock pretentious society while simultaneously and obviously reveling in it. I 'd like to think that Porter had a wicked sense of humour in his songs due to the "rumoured fact" that he was "homosexual". Although he married, he was alleged to have had affairs with men throughout his life. In addition to having musical talent, he was also rich by inheritance and marriage and enjoyed an intercontinental lifestyle. He died under rather tragic circumstances, however. After a horse-riding accident which crushed one of his feet, Porter suffered many bouts of depression, which lasted until his death in 1964. You can read more about Porter on Wikipedia...

Anyway, to cut a long story short, Porter was a funny guy. And his funny songs found a playful and precise interpreter in Ella. The combination shouldn' have worked. For one, Ella and Cole lived on completely different planets. Porter's life was lavish and glamorous, especially during his popular years on Broadway. Ella was a jazz workaholic, touring here, recording there... she was also a shy and private person. She married twice (and a rumoured third) to men of dubious character, and was conscious about her weight, didn't have much of a fashion sense... poor girl didn't really have much of a clue. (Tsk... of course she had.)

But what she had was... that honeyed voice. Just listen to her tackle "Too Darn Hot" and "Just One Of Those Things" and "Begin The Beguine"... Porter songs have deceptively simple melodies. They're not easy to sing. Mostly because it's so easy to oversing them and go straight for the jugular. But that kind of approach kills Porter's wit. Porter's songs are much more revealing if they're sung with a certain sly attitude. What's important in a Porter song is the punchline... everything builds up to that climax of bittersweet pleasure... all the mystery is lost if it's attacked.

That's not to say that Ella was all too reverent. Ella was jazz. She knew how to swing it. And though her Gershwin and Ellington songbooks displayed a more knowing approach, to hear Porter songs moved this way and that by Ella's sense of time and phrasing is just magic.

The arrangements are none too bad either. Although there's a sense that she might have covered too much ground with not really enough firepower (compare this to the more ambitious arrangements on the Gershwin songbook), Ella's performances and the choice of songs manage to pull the album together.

It's hard to pick a favourite from this set. I love "You're The Top". Mostly because of the lyrics, with rhymes galore, and a veritable list of everything that's whoopeedoo.

"At words poetic, I'm so pathetic
That I always have found it best,
Instead of getting 'em off my chest,
To let 'em rest unexpressed,
I hate parading my serenading
As I'll probably miss a bar,
But if this ditty is not so pretty
At least it'll tell you
How great you are.

You're the top!
You're the Coliseum.
You're the top!
You're the Louvre Museum.
You're a melody from a symphony by Strauss
You're a Bendel bonnet,
A Shakespeare's sonnet,
You're Mickey Mouse.
You're the Nile,
You're the Tower of Pisa,
You're the smile on the Mona Lisa
I'm a worthless check, a total wreck, a flop,
But if, baby, I'm the bottom you're the top!

Your words poetic are not pathetic.
On the other hand, babe, you shine,
And I can feel after every line
A thrill divine
Down my spine.
Now gifted humans like Vincent Youmans
Might think that your song is bad,
But I got a notion
I'll second the motion
And this is what I'm going to add;

You're the top!
You're Mahatma Gandhi.
You're the top!
You're Napoleon Brandy.
You're the purple light
Of a summer night in Spain,
You're the National Gallery
You're Garbo's salary,
You're cellophane.
You're sublime,
You're turkey dinner,
You're the time, the time of a Derby winner
I'm a toy balloon that’s fated soon to pop
But if, baby, I'm the bottom,
You're the top!

You're the top!
You're an arrow collar
You're the top!
You're a Coolidge dollar,
You're the nimble tread
Of the feet of Fred Astaire,
You're an O'Neill drama,

You're Whistler's mama!

You're camembert.

You're a rose,
You're Inferno's Dante,

You're the nose
On the great Durante.
I'm just in a way,
As the French would say, "de trop".
But if, baby, I'm the bottom,
You're the top!

You're the top!
You're a dance in Bali.
You're the top!
You're a hot tamale.
You're an angel, you,
Simply too, too, too diveen,
You're a Boticcelli,
You're Keats,
You're Shelly!

You're Ovaltine!
You're a boom,
You're the dam at Boulder,
You're the moon,
Over Mae West's shoulder,
I'm the nominee of the G.O.P. Or GOP!
But if, baby, I'm the bottom,
You're the top!

You're the top!
You're a Waldorf salad.
You're the top!
You're a Berlin ballad.
You're the boats that glide
On the sleepy Zuider Zee,
You're an old Dutch master,

You're Lady Astor,
You're broccoli!
You're romance,
You're the steppes of Russia,
You're the pants, on a Roxy usher,
I'm a broken doll, a fol-de-rol, a blop,

But if, baby, I'm the bottom,
You're the top!"


I (don't) think that's the full set of lyrics for "You're The Top". Ella only sings half of this version. It's a bit of a throwaway song especially compared to other Porter tunes like "Love For Sale" or "I've Got You Under My Skin" etc... but I do love this tune.

Here's a sweet clip of Nat King Cole and Ella duetting on "You're The Top". From 1957 (the year Malaya was born). They sang completely different lyrics!

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13 March 2009
The Pleasure of Off Days
This week I took three days off work. And I've spent it all at home. Yesterday I did almost nothing. I stayed all day at home, eating and eating, ha ha ha...

I also tried to learn "A Felicidade" the bossa nova song by Tom Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes. It's in Portuguese. I read the translation once online and the lyrics are quite beautiful. Telling of how happiness and sadness are intertwined. You can't have one without the other. Like Carnival, which it references. It's also the context in which the song first appeared, on the soundtrack of "Orfeu Negro" the classic samba musical set during Mardi Gras in Rio with two characters based on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. I discovered it's not so easy to sing bossa nova a capella.

Today, I rearranged my room somewhat... was trying to figure how to make more space in my room. I tried moving the table and wardrobe around but no use... there's no really any better arrangement for the furniture than what I already have. So I decided to move all the books out of the room. And throw away half my clothes.

God... how did I manage to accumulate so much crap?

I also went food shopping. Got me some nice bread and stuff to make sandwiches. Also yoghurt! I really have nothing to do... and avoiding everyone... so enjoying it...

Tommorrow I'll finish with the rest of the cleaning. Drop off and pick up laundry. And more eating!

*

BTW... the chapbook is finished. I dropped off a few copies at Rice Cooker. It's called "The Loneliest Profession In The World" and RM5 each.
11 March 2009
Melancholy by Edvard Munch
Melancholy by Edvard Munch

I look out to sea and it's mud. Every single sound I hear is mud. In every face I look all I see is mud. The sky is virulent with mud. The streets are sickening with mud. Everyone and everything have sold themselves to mud.

Oh! These morose yawnings! They come in waves! Wave after wave! And they eddy and they pool! Into an endless funeral procession of waves and waves and waves and waves and waves and waves and waves and waves and waves
of mud! Oh!

It stinks. And it's cold. And it's so tiring to stay afloat.

So tiring.


Everything is mud.



I detest this mud. Oh!



I detest this mud.

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02 March 2009
JK + Sherry Double Bill @ No Black Tie on 9 March
JK + Shery Double Bill
No Black Tie
Monday 9 March, 8.30pm
Admission Free

*

One of my favourite local singer songwriters, Sherry aka Shahridir, will be performing in a double bill with me on Monday 9 March at No Black Tie, one of my favourite venues in town. The gig came about thanks to an invitation from NBT owner Evelyn Hii, who organises the series of Acoustic Monday performances at the venue.

It's really an honour to be playing alongside Sherry. The guy is an awesome musician and really humble and nice to boot. But then most of the singer songwriters I know are really awesome people... maybe I should be a bitch just to shake things up... you know, maybe pick a fight with Mei Chern. LOL...

For my set on 9 March, I'll be playing two 35-minute sets. And so will Sherry (who will be accompanied by Nizam that amazing percussionist, playing the cajon -- that box-looking thingamajig!). I'll be playing a selection of originals, including new songs I've been writing for the second album. I'll also throw in a few covers... I'm thinking of playing "On The Street Where You Live" from My Fair Lady and "Being Alive" from Company. Maybe I'll do "Tainted Love" again with Sherry... and maybe, just maybe... Leonard Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat."

The best thing about the whole gig is that it's absolutely FREE! No cover charge at all!

So please come if you can... I'll be giving out free kisses all night to whoever's feeling a bit on the downlow.

:-)

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