subway sounds

The sounds of urban folk rock filtering up from the subway.

cover of The Subway RecordingsWhen I first heard some clips of Susan Cagle’s new CD, I knew immediately that I liked it and also that it was going to be a challenge to describe why I like it. Is it the premise (recording an album in an NYC subway station)? Is it the arrangement (female vocals with a full band)? Is it the genre (pop/rock)? Most likely, it’s a combination of all of those things and then some.

The Subway Recordings was released on Tuesday, and I have had my review copy for about a month. Even in all that time, I have not been able get beyond how much I connect with the music to write about it. I hoped to have something done early this week, but as you can see, it didn’t happen.

Susan Cagle grew up in a family of musicians, but it was not until she moved to New York that she started performing on her own. Then 9/11 happened. Afterwards, she decided to play in the subways for anyone who would listen. This was where producer Jay Levine discovered her, and where they decided to record her Lefthook/Columbia Records debut.

The first six tracks were recorded live at Times Square Station during rush hour and the last four tracks came from late at night in Grand Central Station. The sound of these recordings truly captures the feel of a live performance in an echoing train station. Underneath the music is a constant buzz of people and trains that becomes noticeable only in the quieter parts.

The recording kicks off with crowd pleaser “Shakespeare.” The song’s chorus comes from the questions that Cagle likes to ask of new acquaintances: “Do you like Shakespeare? Jeff Buckley? Watching movies on Sunday?” The hooky lead guitar and driving bass move the song forward with the sense of anticipation and excitement that fit the lyrics. The rest of the band is made up of two of Cagle’s brothers and a sister, and it’s their contributions that flesh out the songs and provide an extra bit of oomph that takes them out of the singer/songwriter box.

My favorite track off of the CD is “Manhattan Cowboy.” It has a hypnotic lead electric guitar hook that mimics the vocals on the chorus. It’s followed by my second favorite song, the melancholic yet satisfying “Happiness Is Overrated.” It’s what a little more mature Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated” would sound like. The award for the most clever lyrical turn on the album has to go to “Transitional”:

I thought that we were much more than we are
‘Cause you told me that we were meant to be
I thought that you loved me unconditional
But I guess that you and I were just transitional

“Stay” is one of the first songs Cagle wrote after moving to New York, and it’s both manifesto and love song to the city. It’s also a message of hope in troubled times that speaks to anyone anywhere:

Feels like living in the city is getting harder every day
People keep on getting in your way
Seems like everybody’s talking about the mess that we have made
And everybody wants to get away
But I think I’ll stay around a little while
See if I can turn some tears into a smile
When the whole world falls apart in your hand
You gotta have a little faith
So I think I’ll stay

Tour plans for the summer have not yet been announced, so in the mean time have a gander at this video about the recording of the album that includes some live performance clips: Windows Media (high) | Windows Media (low) | Real Media | Quicktime

Also, you can listen to a stream of the full album over at susancagle.com. But do so at your own risk and be prepared to fork over some $$ for the hard copy. Trust me. It’s that good.

a few things

On Sunday, I tried out Skype for the first time. I had installed it on my laptop and gotten a headset and microphone earlier in the week because I had a phone interview with Susan Werner scheduled on Saturday. I thought I could use Skype and record the conversation to my laptop. Instead, I ended up using a speaker phone and recording the conversation to minidisc. So, it wasn’t until Sunday that I decided to give it a go and call my parents via Skype’s free domestic calls special (until the end of the year). Impressive. The sound quality was better than what I usually get on my cheap cell phone.

The interview with Susan Werner was awesome and a lot of fun. My week has been a bit much, but I hope to have the transcript transcribed and edited for public consumption by Saturday. It will be posted here as well as on Blogcritics.org. If you haven’t downloaded Susan’s alternative national anthem (“My Strange Nation”) yet, do it now.

Also on Sunday, I decided I’d better finally watch the two Netflix DVDs I’ve had for nearly two months. That was when I discovered I had misplaced them. After a frantic ten minute search of the house, I gave up and instead watched some stuff I’d downloaded a while ago. I let it simmer until last night, when in a flash of insight after some more searching I remembered one more place I might have stashed them, and there they were. However, by that point it was nearing midnight and I decided that Battlestar Galactica and Crash can wait for the weekend. Particularly since I’ll have Monday off, too!

sudoku is fun!

Mental challenges for people on the go.

cover of Sudoku Puzzles To GoThe greatest advantage Sudoku Puzzles To Go has over similar game books is that it is spiral bound. Nothing about a puzzle book irritates me more than a tight paper binding, particularly if it is so cheap that the paper is warped when you try to open it flat. (*cough*Scholastic*cough*) Barbara Schulak has self-published this spiral bound gem via Lulu.com, where she has a new Sudoku puzzle book that is a bit more challenging.

I have been hearing a buzz about Sudoku for the past year, which immediately made me resistant to its allure. The descriptions I heard and the strange looking grids printed in newspapers made it seem much more confusing and complicated than it is. In fact, given my undergraduate degree in mathematics and general love of solving number puzzles, I should have been immediately drawn to Sudoku. Instead, it took one little (conveniently spiral bound) Sudoku puzzle book to attract my attention long enough to learn the rules and start playing. I’m hooked.

Sudoku Puzzles To Go is a perfect introduction for the confused like myself. Schulak introduces the book with a clear and concise explanation of the rules of Sudoku. The book is laid out so that very easy 9×9 grids come first, with increasing difficulty as one works one’s way towards the end. The last ten puzzles are 16×16 grids, which leads in nicely to Schulack’s latest Lulu publication, 16 x 16 Sudoku Puzzles To Go. The book includes solutions to all of the puzzles, which comes in handy when one is stuck.

With 250 grids, Sudoku Puzzles To Go makes a great travel companion on long flights, cross-country road trips, or your daily public transportation commute to work. Solving Sudoku puzzles while driving, biking, or walking is not recommended.

house concert, of sorts

The Kennedy Center has a streaming video recording of Wishing Chair‘s performance from last week. Almost a full hour of bliss.

boppin’ ditties

A fun blend of swing, ragtime, folk, and just about any other acoustic style you can think of.

cover of Moon Over the FreewayI struggled with finding a descriptive box to fit The Ditty Bops into, but every time I thought I had them pegged down, the next track would shift the whole album in a completely different direction. Moon Over the Freeway is the sophomore release from the duo. It maintains their signature blend of swing, ragtime, folk, and just about any other acoustic style you can think of. Their press release describes the album as, “Calamity Jane, Betty Boop, and Jessica Rabbit laughing in their rag top convertible as they drive through the mysterious streets of San Berdoo.” I would say that is fairly accurate.

The Ditty BopsRegardless of the song content, I can’t help but be happy and bouncy while listening to the Ditty Bops. Heck, even the name of the band makes me happy and bouncy. This is definitely another one of those scaring the cats by dancing wildly around the living room type of albums. It’s particularly helpful to know any Western swing steps or old-time boot-scooting moves, but since I don’t, I made up some of my own. My physical therapist says that in a few months I will be back on the dance floor. (Just kidding about the physical therapist bit.)

The title track is a traveling song, as one might expect. I particularly enjoy the use of a snare to give it a steam train feel. “Your Head’s Too Big” and “Angel With an Attitude” are tied for my favorite songs off of Moon Over the Freeway for their lyrical content in combination with the musical arrangements. “Your Head’s Too Big” is a carnival romp that characterizes an egotistical individual using both real and figurative depictions. I cannot help but smile an evil grin after the line, “your head’s so big and tall how is it that your thoughts are so small?” In a way, “Angel With an Attitude” is a song from Big Head’s perspective.

I’ve got a chip on my shoulder and a halo on my head
I’m an angel with an attitude and my favorite color is red
I’ve got God on my side
Who’s that? I don’t know
But I’ll practice my religion while I’m stepping on your toes

The Ditty Bops are approaching promotion of their new album through an unusual method. They are cycling across the country to encourage Americans to forgo their cars and bicycle whenever possible. The nature of the tour is such that they have only a few confirmed dates so far, but you can keep tabs on them through their website as well as the ubiquitous MySpace page. Given what I’ve heard on Moon Over the Freeway, I look forward to seeing a live show when they pedal on up to the Pacific Northwest.

digg it

I digg Unshelved.

Today’s Unshelved has Merv plotting to get on the front page of Digg by drawing a cartoon about Digg. It hasn’t gotten to the front page yet, but as of writing this entry, it has been dugg 17 times. C’mon. Digg it. You know you want to.

Having been a member of a cabal that was banned from Digg for promoting quality (and relevant) stories on Digg, this cartoon ads another level of teh funny for me.

#13

Wow. It’s been well over a month since I last read a book. I am so far behind on this fifty book challenge!

I knew I needed to read something the other evening, so I selected something relatively short and entertaining. Crisis on Centaurus by Brad Ferguson fit the bill. It’s a Star Trek novel set in the original series. I found the 1960s/1980s perspective on computers to be quite amusing. The Enterprise computer has experienced a malfunction that causes problems all over the ship. Before they are able to go to a starbase for repairs, they are sent to Centaurus to aid in the recovery from a huge matter/anti-matter explosion that wiped out the capital city and killed thousands of people. The tension builds steadily throughout the story, but the resolution is abrupt and unsatisfying. It seemed to me that the author had a much fuller story that got cut down in the editorial process. Too bad, because he had some interesting subtext with some of the minor characters like Chekov and Sulu.