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Holiday Tunes That Soothe, Provoke and Share a Joke

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There is no strict formula for great holiday music — some is about family bonding and good cheer, and some captures regret and emptiness. Traditionalists and heretics both get a fair hearing this season on an array of new holiday albums. On the off chance you don’t want to hear “All I Want for Christmas Is You” on repeat this month, give one that matches your mood a try.

The fourth holiday collection from the long-running, soft-saunter, soul-pop outfit Chicago never exults in the holiday spirit; rather, it sidles up to it casually, gives it a nod and a nudge. “I’m Your Santa Claus” is a mildly wobbly flirtation, and “What the World Needs Now Is Love” buries its giving-a-talking-to vocals under blunt horn arrangements. It’s all slightly disoriented, a post-nog comedown of soothing bloat. JON CARAMANICA

When certain songs come to mind — “White Christmas,” “Silver Bells” — you probably hear Bing Crosby, even if you don’t think of his name. What you haven’t heard before are these swirling, leafy arrangements, which the London Symphony Orchestra recently recorded and dubbed over the original vocal tracks from 14 Crosby classics. It’s masterfully done, though a bit uncanny when you notice the difference in texture between Crosby’s old vocal stems and the cleanly recorded orchestra. GIOVANNI RUSSONELLO

The vocalist Martina DaSilva and the bassist Dan Chmielinski are two 20-somethings with flexible chops, a gut-level creative connection and an expansive view of the Christmas songbook. Together they cover everything from “Last Christmas” (by Wham!) to “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” while emphasizing the special kind of simpatico that can arise between the bass and vocals when they’re left to keep each other company. RUSSONELLO

Recorded live in 2015 and 2018, these tightfitting, sharply swinging arrangements of holiday fare were all written by the orchestra’s members, with various guests handling vocals. But the undeniable highlight comes on the only non-orchestral track, when Aretha Franklin accompanies herself on “O Tannenbaum,” treating the melody with just the right amount of pomp and filigree, allowing her piano playing to skip ahead and her voice to catch up at its leisure. RUSSONELLO

The blues-loving singer, guitarist and songwriter Keb’ Mo’ places deep-catalog R&B and blues finds — Koko Taylor’s “Merry, Merry Christmas,” the Louis Jordan track (written by Teddy Edwards) “Santa Claus, Santa Claus” — alongside avuncular new collaborations of his own. From string-topped smooth soul (“Moonlight, Mistletoe & You,” joined by Gerald Albright on saxophone) to rootsy moments (the country-blues singer Charley Jordan’s “Santa Claus Blues”), Keb’ Mo’ stays genial and optimistic, insisting on an angst-free holiday. JON PARELES

The ever conscientious Los Lobos chose songs for their (mostly) Spanish-language Christmas album from a holiday repertory stretching across the Americas: Mexico, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Panama and Texas, not to mention José Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad.” The one new Los Lobos song, “Christmas and You,” looks back to reverb-heavy 1950s R&B to “wonder if you really miss me on this Christmas Day.” Relying mostly on acoustic instruments and echoes of Mexican and Caribbean traditions, Los Lobos strum and harmonize their way around the hemisphere, in songs previously recorded by El Gran Combo, Vicente Fernandez, Freddy Fender, Ismael Rivera and others, resurfacing some rarities like “Donde Está Santa Santa Claus?,” which was released by the 12-year-old Augie Rios in 1958. Prior versions of many songs have more bite and eccentricity; for Los Lobos, these are hospitable singalongs in an extended Pan-American family. PARELES

The tone is celebratory as familiar songs enjoy brisk Southern soul revamps on “A Very McCrary Christmas.” The McCrary Sisters, a gospel quartet from Nashville, sing backup for country, gospel and rock musicians alongside their own career, and they pulled in some guests — Alison Krauss, Keb’ Mo’, Steve Crawford, Buddy Miller — for the album. But the sisters themselves seize and hold the spotlight: sharing brassy close harmony, stepping forward for solos, creating old-fashioned a cappella drive in “No Room at the Inn” and revving up churchy climaxes in the tambourine-shaking Beethoven adaptation “Joyful, Joyful” with the invincible singing preacher Shirley Caesar. PARELES

The singer and actress Lea Michele’s debut holiday album holds few surprises but plenty of piano, strings and jazzy horn blasts. She reunites with her “Spring Awakening” co-star Jonathan Groff on an “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” dotted with quavering slide guitar, and harmonizes with her “Glee” colleague Darren Criss on a restrained “White Christmas,” packed with close harmonies. An original written with the “Glee” musician Adam Anders called “Christmas in New York” name checks Rockettes, Macy’s and Central Park and ends on — what else — a theatrical high note. GANZ

That signature Ne-Yo unctuousness — not altogether unpleasant, it should be said — is in full effect on his rendition of “The Christmas Song,” the best chestnut on his debut holiday collection. (It’s less compelling on the carols with a social mission, “I Want to Come Home for Christmas” and “Someday at Christmas.”) Of the originals, the most revealing are “Just Ain’t Christmas,” an astral dance song about a Christmas Eve breakup, and “Talk About It,” a trap-soul thumper that runs down the little tensions that animate most holiday get-togethers, including when mom tells the kids, “Don’t be giving no fat white dude credit” for what she left under the tree. CARAMANICA

Booze, misbehaving family members, trailer-park hospitality and more booze fill Tara Thompson’s wry seasonal country songs: nine new ones (written by the Nashville singer and collaborators) plus “Blue Christmas.” Her band plays old-school honky-tonk country — with a swerve toward Little Feat for “Christmas in the Big House” — as Thompson greets the annual chaos with eye-rolling exasperation and an underlying fondness. PARELES

The indie rock band Yo La Tengo’s holiday tradition — a run of Hanukkah shows in New York — helped inspire this collection produced by Randall Poster. Jack Black opens chanting “Oh Hanukkah” a cappella, and Haim covers Leonard Cohen’s “If It Be Your Will” with a gentle reverence, but the album’s real coup is a series of quirky originals: Adam Green’s “Dreidels of Fire” wonders “how the heck” do you explain the miracle of the holiday; the Flaming Lips’ “Sing It Now, Sing It Somehow” is very much a Flaming Lips song; and Alex Frankel of Holy Ghost retells the story of “Hanukkah in ’96” over a gentle synth-pop throb. GANZ

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The Jonas Brothers Get Drunk and Write X-Rated Song in New Video

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If you’ve ever dreamed of day-drinking with the Jonas Brothers, keep dreaming.

Maybe one day you’ll be just as lucky as Seth Meyers, his brother, Josh MeyersJack McBrayer and probably some of their close friends and family. While the brothers’ close friends and family were not present, the aforementioned men, Seth, Josh and Jack, were.

Together, the group of elites indulged in a strange mix of alcohols and chasers, including, but not limited to Nick Jonas‘ tequila Villa One—it must be mentioned this video from Late Night With Seth Meyers was not #sponsored, but there is many a mention of the liquor’s slogan, which is: “Life as it should be”. Do with that what you will. 

To start the video, the men all but chugged a mason glass of beer. Then, they suckled on a literal baby bottle full of Kahlua, Hi-C juice and rosé, all done in honor of the babies of the families. For the middle siblings they didn’t exactly explain the cocktail mix, because in Seth’s words: “it doesn’t matter if we screw them up, we got two more.”

For one of the drinking game portions of the video, Seth tested the Jonas’ knowledge of famous brothers. Surprisingly, the musicians remember who the Wright and Menendez brothers are, but their knowledge of the Marx brothers is pretty murky.

As the video progresses, the group of celebs become increasing inebriated, as one does when they’ve been heavily drinking. Jack McBrayer seems particularly affected, as he can only come up with the title “Hair” for a game about hair. 

Last but not least, the siblings and Jack McBrayer split up to write a song in five minutes time. For the most part, Josh, Seth and Jack’s song isn’t that bad, but it doesn’t compare to the Jonas Brothers’ song about having sex in a certain numerical position. It’s something that needs to be heard, but if you’re in a pinch for time all you need to know is it goes something like, “Let me lick your toes/I want to blow your nose.”

To hear it for yourself, check out the video above!

(E! and NBC are both members of the NBCUniversal family.)



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Review: Shrinking Lives at a Big Box Store in ‘Paris’

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Christmas in Paris is a cheerless occasion. Or at least that’s how the Yuletide season is experienced by those working at a big box store in the mid-1990s in the Vermont town of Paris, which gives Eboni Booth’s coolly observant new play its title.

True, the employees of Berry’s (which is likely to have you thinking of discount retailers with Mart in their names) may wear festive sweatshirts with their regulation lanyards and uniforms. And canned carols are piped, relentlessly, throughout the store.

But this aural wallpaper only underscores the bleakness of the lives unraveling in the staff rooms and loading docks of the non-unionized Berry’s, where a typical salary is $5 an hour. In the world of “Paris,” which opened on Tuesday at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Stage 2, there’s no expectation of comfort and joy.

Like Samuel D. Hunter’s “Greater Clements,” which recently ended its run at Lincoln Center, “Paris” is a solid addition to the expanding genre of sociologically detailed working-class American dramas. Booth, a playwriting fellow at the Juilliard School who is best known in New York as an actress in adventurous plays (“Dance Nation,” “Fulfillment Center”), shares with Hunter a rigorous economic fatalism.

But while “Greater Clements” deploys the grinding gears of melodrama to wear down its doomed characters, “Paris” takes an almost flatline approach to the unhappy existences it portrays. Yes, these people explode in fits of temper on a regular basis; they taunt and insult and scrap with one another; and at least one of them is involved in dangerously illegal activities.

Yet suspense rarely makes an appearance in this realistically acted, astutely written play, which is directed with a very even hand by Knud Adams. An ever-corrosive anxiety — the kind that comes from never knowing if this week’s paycheck will cover this week’s living expenses — is in the oxygen of Berry’s. And it leaves those working in its airless confines (evoked mercilessly by David Zinn’s gloomy set) in a state of depleted resignation.

This includes the store’s newest staff member, Emmie. As embodied by the appealing newcomer Jules Latimer, in a bravely affectless performance, Emmie (birth name: Emaani) has the self-effacing mien of someone who aspires to invisibility. As it turns out, this is a not a state she has to work hard to achieve.

Emmie is black. And though she has lived most of her life in Paris, a small and insular town, and also works at a popular local bar (called Blonde Jovi), none of her fellow employees can remember having seen her before.

Racism is seldom openly acknowledged in “Paris”; it is instead a stealthy, insistent part of its general climate. Gar (Eddie K. Robinson), the store manager who hires Emmie in the play’s first scene, is also black. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s her ally.

He treats everyone badly, especially when he’s in a bad mood. And as a boss, he has a secret weapon he holds over his employees. He knows how much — and why — they need their jobs. “You want to quit?” he typically says to one of them with the confidence of a fully briefed henchman. “No, you can’t quit. You have your grandmother to think about.”

There is little rousing esprit de corps among Emmie’s fellow workers, though they can usually be relied upon to inventively cover up one another’s mistakes. Logan (Christopher Dylan White) performs — pathetically, one presumes — in a local rap group. Wendy (a spot on Ann McDonough), a former nurse and a not-so-secret on-site drinker, is married to Dev (James Murtaugh), who fruitlessly peddles the gospel of success books.

The most outspoken of the lot is the misanthropic Maxine (Danielle Skraastad), who lives with her four children in a motel room behind the local Costco and snarls at pretty much everyone. Wendy winningly offers an explanation for such behavior: “Her children are very bad people.”

Lines like that — simple yet startling — come along with welcome frequency in “Paris.” Yet while the play holds the attention, it seldom clutches it.

Ultimately, the wage slaves of Berry’s register as the sums of their financial problems, fitted out with eccentricities that might show up in anecdotes of someone who had worked there for a summer. It is part of Booth’s point, I think, that when money is as elusive as it is for these people, character is indeed primarily defined by privation.

Only Emmie — who has spent an aborted year in college and is working to earn money to return — would seem to have any chance of escaping this flattening destiny. Her status as a newcomer and an outsider makes her an effective, and increasingly dispirited, proxy for the audience’s initiation into the Berry’s universe.

She has also reached a nadir in her own life when she starts work there. Her mother has recently died, and her face is badly bruised — her mouth intermittently bleeds without warning — from a recent, drunken fall. Berry’s seems like the next and natural circle of hell for her to enter.

In the show’s most unsettling scene, Emmie encounters a visitor to the store named Carlisle, who’s looking for her boss, and a whole other, deeper vista of darkness opens up behind him. Played with creepy, compelling understatement by Bruce McKenzie, Carlisle — a soft-spoken man who runs his own mysterious and illicit business — might have been teleported from a David Lynch movie.

“You want to be my little elf?” he asks Emmie, proffering an unspecified alternative form of employment. He later adds, “Your people are good workers.” He asks her to open her injured mouth, so he can inspect it.

The cold wind of primal evil has entered the room. And for just a moment, a low-pay, tenuous job at Berry’s seems, in contrast, like a pretty good way to make a living.

Paris

Tickets Through Feb. 16 at Atlantic Stage 2, Manhattan; 866-811-4111, atlantictheater.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.

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Review: In ‘A Soldier’s Play,’ an Endless War Against Black Men

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Grier is unable to achieve that grandeur here. Though he appeared in smaller roles in the original production and in the movie, and clearly understands the character, he is naturally too likable — or his years in sketch comedy have made him seem so — to convey a threat that is larger than Waters himself.

You get a sense of that threat more vividly from the men in his command, who have no way to defend themselves against the machinations of a maniac. As punishment for a minor offense, Waters strips one of them, Wilkie, of the stripes it took him 10 years to earn. Another, Peterson, gets badly beaten in an unfair fight that Waters provokes. A third, Memphis, is framed by Waters (in a separate incident) for a murder everyone knows he didn’t commit.

The three actors who play these men — Billy Eugene Jones, Nnamdi Asomugha and J. Alphonse Nicholson — are excellent, but the production doesn’t capitalize on their performances to build the show into a riveting ride. Transitions between scenes are especially awkward on Derek McLane’s abstract barracks set and are sometimes further saddled with florid dance elements it might have been better to have a choreographer stage. (None is credited.) The deployment of music, mostly traditional songs and blues, is likewise erratic.

But if the power of “A Soldier’s Play” is sometimes attenuated, it is at other times enhanced. Leon draws smart connections between Fuller’s portrait of black men trapped in a system with no viable choices and the prison-industrial context of our time. When Wilkie suggests to Davenport that Waters’s assailants were probably not Klansmen because his uniform was not defiled — “They usually take the stripes and stuff off, before they lynch us” — it now comes across as a double-barreled insight, both a clue in the case and a tiny poem of fatalistic despair.

Fuller could not have been thinking, in 1981, of the daily roll-call of dead black youth that horrifies us today, or the estimated one in three black American men likely to be incarcerated during their lifetimes. But he definitely had the fate of his race in mind. Though Davenport (it’s no spoiler to say) eventually gets his man, wrapping the investigation up neatly and gaining the respect of at least one white officer (Jerry O’Connell) in the process, he also delivers, in a single tossed-off line — a line cut from the movie — Fuller’s frightful kicker.

Here, Leon could not be clearer, and as Nipsey Hussle’s “Perfect Timing” brings us into the present, that abstract barracks begins to look a lot like a jail, or a morgue.

A Soldier’s Play

Tickets Through March 15 at American Airlines Theater, Manhattan; 212-719-1300, roundabouttheatre.org. Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes.

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