Darwin rocks out!

March 26, 2021 • 1:30 pm

Thanks to the new app Wombo, we can see Darwin rocking out as he might have done had there been this kind of music in the mid-19th century.

First: Chuckie D. sings the James Brown hit, “I feel good.”

Then, feeling his oats, he essays “Tunak Tunak Tun” by Daler Mehndi. Look at the old guy boogie!


Intersectional music made with mathematics and Siri

March 21, 2021 • 1:30 pm

I like this song as it combines several genres: beat-boxing (vocal percussion), rap, and traditional Indian song. You wouldn’t think they’d mesh well, but they do (I particularly like the last singer overlaid on the earlier ones).

Of course I had to try the query to Siri, but when I did, I got a visual rather than an audio answer:

A blind elephant listens to Bach, Chopin, and Schubert

March 12, 2021 • 1:30 pm

Reader John Crisp sent me this video along with the following heartfelt comment (quoted with permission):

Sorry if you have already seen and/or posted this. It made me cry. I’ve been lucky enough to spend some considerable time with elephants, and I’m not sure that a planet without elephants would be worth living on.

I don’t recognize the tunes, but the elephant clearly likes them, swaying with pleasure. What a great privilege to serenade an elephant!

The YouTube notes:

Lam Duan is the name of an old blind elephant, her name means “Tree with Yellow Flowers”. Lam Duan has been blind most of her life. Lamduan lives at Elephants World, Thailand. http://www.elephantsworld.org

A duck song

March 5, 2021 • 2:30 pm

Here’s Garfunkel and Oates (Riki Lindhome and Kate Micucci respectively) singing about gay marriage, using ducks as examples.

As the YouTube notes say:

Riki “Garfunkel” Lindhome and Kate “Oates” Micucci sing a pro-gay marriage song in response to a Pat Robertson quote that legalizing gay marriage would lead to legalizing sex with ducks.

I have to say, though, that they could have done a better job on the duck costumes.

h/t: Ken

“My Back Pages”

February 23, 2021 • 3:00 pm

Until I read a bit about the history of “My Back Pages”, written by Bob Dylan, I hadn’t realized that it was about abandoning one’s youthful ideals. I always paused at the refrain, “Ah, but I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now,” but never listened to the words that closely or read the lyrics. I guess that refrain refers to the faux wisdom of the young and the adoption of the Socratic “I am not sure of anything” stand of the old.

Truth be told, I’m not a gung-ho Dylan fan in the sense of liking more than half of what he’s put out. I like the early Dylan, up to “Nashville Skyline”, and some individual songs since then, but as for the later Dylan, well, meh. (Yes, I know there’s no accounting for taste, and your mileage may vary.)

At any rate, by 1964, when this song was released, Dylan was apparently already disillusioned with the Sixties’ “we’re gonna change the world” mentality. (It took me decades longer.) One sign of that is although Dylan recorded the song in 1964, the first time he performed it in public was in 1988. Since then he’s played it publicly many times, and one of them was this performance at the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert (celebrating three decades since his first album) in 1992.

I found this on YouTube and hadn’t heard it. So when I got into the shower, I took my laptop into the bathroom and blasted this song on high volume. I hadn’t looked at the participants, but when Clapton soloed, bending notes right and left, I thought to myself, “Damn! That’s Eric Clapton.” And then I identified several voices, the easiest being the plaintive whine of Neil Young, and then Young’s guitar solo, too. Dylan’s voice is unmistakable, of course, and if you want to test yourself, close your eyes and guess who’s singing or playing. You may have trouble with Roger McGuinn, but Tom Petty is easier.

This is a splendid live performance, and it’s clear that everyone’s having fun and enjoying jamming with the other greats. One thing’s for sure: regardless of his voice or his playing or his later, unmemorable songs, Dylan was one of the greatest songwriters of our time

“Don’t Worry Baby” by Foxes and Fossils

February 17, 2021 • 2:30 pm

Not many groups can do decent covers of Beach Boys songs: the harmonies are so intricate and familiar that messing with the songs seems like blasphemy. One group who does a terrific job is the cover band Foxes and Fossils, presumably named because it comprises three good looking young women and five old white guys. They don’t do new material, as far as I know, but their versions of old and popular songs are very appealing. This one, covering an old Brian Wilson song, is almost as good as the original.

Their YouTube channel is here; among the songs I’ve most enjoyed are “Mr. Sandman” (sung in pajamas), “Dedicated to the One I Love,” “Angel from Montgomery“, “Let it Be Me,” and, for live versions, “Amie” and “Landslide“, though for the last one nobody will ever come close to Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham (the Dixie Chicks also did a great countrified version).

This group doesn’t seem to make much money, few have heard of them, and the bios imply that the younger members, at least, will be moving on to other lines of work. It’s a pity, as they have a lot of talent. What they need is a good songwriter.

More on the complete degeneration of modern pop music

February 16, 2021 • 2:15 pm

It’s not enough for modern pop music to be autotuned, brain-dead in lyrics, and necessarily accompanied by flashy videos. No, now it’s got to be full of sex as well, for sex is the best way to attract attention, especially if you’re an attractive woman like Ariana Grande. Every celebrity, it seems, is doffing their clothes, but that will attract attention for only so long.

But Grande’s voice, which is pretty spectacular, apparently isn’t enough to carry this song. Here, in her latest “hit”, “34 + 35“, she has to flaunt her body and, most annoyingly, beg for copulation, oral sex, and other goodies. The autotuning, f-bombs, fancy video (the first one has a bit about its making at the end), and concentration on sexual acts has moved this one all the way to the top of the pop charts. Will this song last? Will it ever be an “oldie”, played on radio stations in 2070? Don’t bet on it! The listeners of this song, the young folks, must subsist on a diet of cotton candy rather than meat.

Some Wikipedia notes:

On October 30, 2020, the song was released by Republic Records as the second single from the album. The song’s title and chorus reference the 69 sex position, while the rest of its lyrics feature several sexual punsdouble entendres, and sex jokes. A remix of the song featuring American rappers Doja Cat and Megan Thee Stallion was released on January 15, 2021. The remix is included on the deluxe edition of Positions which is scheduled for release on February 19, 2021.

“34+35” debuted at number eight on the US Billboard Hot 100, becoming Grande’s 18th top ten single. It later rose to number two following the release of the remix. It also debuted at number five on the Billboard Global 200, becoming Grande’s second top ten single on the chart, before reaching a peak of number two. Additionally, “34+35” peaked within the top ten in Australia, Canada, Guatemala, Ireland, Malaysia, Singapore and the United Kingdom, giving Grande her 19th top ten single in the UK.

Here’s the remix:

Now I have to admit that the videos are well produced, but the idea that this could be a hit makes me feel sorry for today’s kids.  Do they ever encounter music that’s dense enough to make them ponder? 

Below is Billboard’s Top 10 from exactly 50 years ago. And I ain’t gonna lie, there’s a few real clunkers on there, including #1 and #2; and #3 might strike some people as bubblegum country music (I happen to like it). But there are some classics here, too, including My Sweet Lord, Your Song, and If I Were Your Woman. I suppose Grande’s music all falls in the Osmonds/Dawn category: insubstantial fluff that won’t stand the test of time.

Yes, I know I’m being a curmudgeon. And some readers will undoubtedly tell me I’m listening to the wrong groups—that Group X is as good as the Beatles! (Protip: it never is.) But I repeat my claim that rock and pop music are on the downhill slide. This categories of music exists not because it yields popular works of art like “A Day in the Life” or “God Only Knows,” but because the kids need something to listen to to mark the seasons of their young lives.

The Billboard Top 10 from the Hot 100: Week of Feb 13, 1971.

  1. One Bad Apple by the Osmonds
  2. Knock Three Times by Dawn
  3. Rose Garden by Lynn Anderson
  4. I Hear You Knocking by Dave Edmunds
  5. Lonely Days by the Bee Gees
  6. My Sweet Lord/Isn’t It a Pity by George Harrison
  7. Groove Me by King Floyd
  8. Your Song by Elton John
  9. If I Were Your Woman by Gladys Night and the Pips
  10. Mama’s Pearl by the Jackson Five

Now get off my lawn!


February 15, 2021 • 2:00 pm

This song, also known as “Oh Shenandoah”, is perhaps my favorite traditional American folk song. According to Wikipedia, it originated in the early 19th century from “American and Canadian voyageurs or fur traders traveling down the Missouri River in canoes.”

The tune is ineffably beautiful, though the lyrics are ambiguous. In fact, as Wikipedia notes, there are several sets of lyrics, which can be interpreted as meaning anything from a white man about to elope with a Native American woman, the daughter of Shenandoah, to someone who’s heading west but longs to return to the Shenandoah River in Virginia.

I’ll put up three versions, all very different; the lyrics differ as well.

The first is perhaps my favorite, by Van Morrison and the Chieftains. There’s something about the combination of Morrison and the Chieftains singing an American folk song that gives it extra oomph. I always love Morrison’s phrasing. Of course cultural appropriation is going on in all three versions here, but who cares?

Wikipedia adds this: “In a 1930 letter to the UK newspaper The Times, a former sailor who had worked aboard clipper ships that carried wool between Great Britain and Australia in the 1880s said that he believed the song had originated as an African American spiritual which developed into a work song.”  And if anyone can sing it in a spiritual form, it’s the inimitable Paul Robeson.  His voice always makes my epidermis vibrate.

(For maximal vibration, listen to his bass notes on “Deep River“, a spiritual that, in this version, I deeply love. Don’t miss it!) 

I discovered this version yesterday; it’s by someone I didn’t know: Sissel Kyrkjebø, a Norwegian singer. This is the most beautifully voiced version I know; the date says 2001, when Kyrkjebø was 31. Note the tin whistle, as in Morrison’s version; I believe it’s played by the Chieftains’ Paddy Moloney. (She has another version here.)

Guilty pleasures: Songs I’m ashamed of liking

January 17, 2021 • 3:30 pm

I’m not one of the Cool Kids when it comes to music, as I’m hopelessly mired in the popular songs of my high school, college, and immediate post-college years. The good news, though, is this—and I’ll defend it to the death—those formative years happened to coincide with the best rock/pop music in history. I was lucky, but if you’re older or younger you’re not.

Yet there were some mushy songs during that era: songs that I think are good, but I’m ashamed of liking, for admitting that would bring down opprobrium upon me. It’s the same kind of stink-eye that I get from literature critics and teachers when I say I like Thomas Wolfe, or from hard-rock addicts when I admit that I think Crosby, Stills, and Nash (and Young) are fantastic.

So here I stand, naked in my musical embarrassment, and can do no other. But I’m sure we all have these guilty pleasures, and I hope that readers will confess theirs in the comments. Behold: seven songs that I’m ashamed of liking.

They are all sappy love songs (nothing like “Don’t Fear the Reaper” here, which I like a LOT), and that of course is an admission that I’m a softy. They were all hits, though, so others liked them, too.

This first one, I suspect, is the guilty pleasure of many, perhaps because of its great harmony (especially at the end) and its suggestive lyrics about making the beast with two backs during the daytime. It was recorded in 1975, just at the end of the Era of Good Music.

This was a monster hit in 1965, reaching #1 in the UK and #4 in the U.S. I know there are still Seekers and Judith Durham fans out there. You have to admit she had a powerful voice.

Who remembers Spanky and Our Gang? And yet they were popular for both this song (1967) and another good one, “I’d Like to Get to Know You.”

I like this one so much that it’s on my iPod Nano that I listen to while walking. In fact, it was hearing this song today that made me compile this list during the rest of my walk. It’s by the one-hit wonder band Mercy, was recorded in 1969, and made it to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, right behind “Get Back” by the Beatles.

The Cryan’ Shames: what a dreadful name for a band! But they had a couple of hits, the best being this 1967 song. There’s a slight psychedelic vibrato at 1:40.

This song is on the border between sappy and respectable. It was a 1976 hit (#2 on the Billboard Hot 100) by England Dan and John Ford Coley. It was years before I learned that the lyric I heard as “I’m not talking about Millennium” was really “I’m not talking about moving in.”

And my all-time most-ashamed-of song, but Ceiling Cat help me, I do love it. I’ve always been a secret Barry Manilow fan; he really does write good songs (except for “Copacabana”), plays a mean piano, and has a great voice.

As I recall, he used to back up Bette Midler when she played in the gay bathhouses in New York City. Manilow, of course, is gay, so this song, a hit in 1976,  could be read as expressing either heterosexual or homosexual love. But that’s no matter: I can’t stop listening when it’s on. (I suspect “Mandy” and “Copacabana” are often sung in karaoke clubs.)

There used to be a good live version on YouTube, but I can’t find it.

ADDENDUM: I forgot this gem by Pure Prairie League, again on the border between sappy and respectable. A hit in 1980, it’s the youngest song on the list, but is still forty years old. I also love their song “Amie” (1975), but I believe it’s respectable to like that one.

Your turn: what are your guilty pleasures vis-à-vis music? Fess up!

A lovely and supposedly impossible aria

January 12, 2021 • 2:00 pm

As Lord Randall said, “I’m weary wi’ hunting and fain wald lie down.” In my case, I’m weary of the incessant onslaught of bad news, which is now all over my social media, displacing the kitten photos I need as a palliative. So let’s end the day with a lovely aria from Chinese singer Jane Zhan. As the article in My Modern Met below notes (click on screenshot):

Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element was released more than two decades ago and is still considered one of the most iconic sci-fi films ever made. For fans of the cult film, there’s one scene that’s bound to stick out in your mind—the Diva Dance. Performed by an extravagant alien opera singer called Diva Plavalaguna, the blue-skinned, tentacle-headed character wows an audience with her impressive vocal range and otherworldly dance moves. In homage to the iconic scene, Chinese opera singer Jane Zhang sang her own rendition of the song, complete with a full orchestra.

The original Diva Dance was performed by Albanian opera singer Inva Mula-Tchako. According to movie trivia, the film’s composer Eric Serra designed the futuristic pop-opera to be technically impossible for a human to hit some of the high notes so quickly after another. Therefore, Mula-Tchako had to sing the notes individually so that they could then be arranged digitally. However, this didn’t stop Zhang from taking on the challenge, who hit every note perfectly without the help of any computer editing—mastering the seemingly impossible.


I haven’t seen the film, but here’s Zhang doing her aria in Chengdu, Szechuan. It really is a gorgeous piece of music and an real display of vocal virtuosity. Things get fancy around 3½ minutes in:

and here’s the original from the movie, with Mula-Tchako’s digitally-arranged singing: