Saturday, December 29, 2007


While there are many popular recording artists both male and female who successfully cross genres, it is those who have mastered the throaty "throb" -- that emotional cry of the heart -- who top the charts. That's not to denigrate their gifts--it is their ability to cut to the emotional core of a song and, with a god-given gift, share that emotional catharsis with us, the ordinary listener (who, chances are, lacks that gift of . . . the throb) that makes them the stars they are. Certainly Barbra Streisand has it. Michael Bolton. Liza Minelli. Luciano Pavrotti. Rufus Wainwright. Celine Dion. (Okay, now I'm starting to cringe. The throb is admirable but when it gets overused, the performer becomes known for excess and thereby undercuts their own effectiveness.)

And then, there's Reba McEntire.

Everything about this lady is honey-colored: her voice, her looks. And this is meant as a compliment. For while there is always that honest "throb" in the voice, along with an amazing sincerity, there is also intelligence, skill and honesty. She's the real deal, and her talents shine both in her native country singing as well as her work on TV, on film, and even Broadway, where she discovered new heights (and depths) in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN then anyone ever suspected, giving a truly remarkable, classic Broadway performance. (Her performance as Nellie Forbush opposite Brian Stokes Mitchell in the concert version of SOUTH PACIFIC for PBS is also worth cherishing.)

All of this is by way of saying that her new album, DUETS, is understandably a hit, not only on the country but the pop charts as well. Reba brings honest soul to the often soap opera-ish material country deals with, such that you understand why it speaks to so many Americans. Divorces, alcoholism, lost loves, miscommunications--all are part and parcel of our lives, but while most country singers dutifully wail them out, Reba really discovers the character underneath and makes them live. And on this collection, each number is worth the time. "Because of You," her duet with Kelly Clarkson, is enormously effective and is receiving the majority of radio air time, but her work with LeAnne Rimes on "When You Love Someone Like That" is equally deserving. An incredible one-act play occurs in "Every Other Weekend," wherein Reba and Kenny Chesney rendezvous regularly at a parking lot to trade off custody of the kids in their divorce settlement, despite the feelings they may still have for each other, now assumed to be lost in the other. (For those like myself who are not natural country fans, this number alone makes me want to learn more about Mr. Chesney.) Justin Timberlake shows his abilities beyond "boy toy" with the lovely song he contributed, "The Only Promise That Remains," proof that a very long, gifted career is ahead. "Everyday People," a collaboration with the venerable Carole King, champions those folks who rise beyond their humble circumstances to do honestly noble deeds that help and enrich the lives of others. Vince Gill and Faith Hill do more than rhyme on this album, and Trisha Yearwood, Rascal Flats, Don Henley and especially Ronnie Dunn contribute mightily. If you're into country, of course you'll love this album, but even those "too good" to be taken in will be swept away by Hurricane Reba. A splendid album to end the year on.

EXCEPT . . .

James Taylor is back with yet another revisit of his classic material in ONE MAN BAND, this time with just an admirable piano accompaniment (by Larry Goldings) and his own fine guitar work. Recorded in concert in Pittsfield, MA (his hometown in the Berkshires), Taylor reveals the methods behind his madness for an accompanying DVD that captures all the joy, silliness and emotion of his live concert performances. You almost want to slap him for laziness, for not bringing new work to the table--and yet the honesty and freshness that he brings to each "classic" makes the new album just as valuable as the original recordings. An hour with James Taylor is just bound to make you feel good.

And finally . . . if you are a latecomer to the gifted Marc Cohn. join the club. Or better yet, JOIN THE PARADE -- a wonderful new album that reflects on New Orleans and Hurrican Katrna, first encounters, old cars and reflections of one's infinite past. Cohn seems like the love child of Randy Newman and Bruce Springstein, if you can imagine(!), yet he also manages more intimacy and awider range of growl and humor. This album made me rapidly turn to discover his initial, self-titled Grammy winner of almost 20 years ago, MARC COHN, on which he introduced the hit, "Walking in Memphis." A listen to either (or both albums) and you'll be wondering where your ears have been hiding for the last two decades!

Sunday, December 16, 2007


Wouldn't it be lovely if these festive holidays when you're supposed to celebrate with family and friends didn't happen to be the exact same time of the year as bad weather, bad road conditions, and nasty colds and flus? Having been in irreparably behind, it is no surprise that I just now can sit down to this column!

The Writers Guild strike continues on--let's face it, a lot of innocent people (not necessarily writers or producers, mind you!) are suffering because of this protracted squabble. The writers are fairly well paid. The producers are nervous about any precedents they set, since negotiations with the actors and the directors are also just around the bend. But if there's money to be made, then ALL should share in the pie (and God knows in show business, at that level, there's plenty to go around). The irony is that make-up artists, set painters, crafts services folks--folks who live paycheck to paycheck in service to these folks--these are the one's who are suffering--and they won't get a piece of the pie, even when everyone is busy congratulating each other for outfoxing their opponents.

And of course, a promising TV season has been drying up and withering on the vine. Who knows when a favorite show is on, whether or not its a new episode, when it will return . . . oi! If TV is intended as an escape, it hadn't fail in its mission just now--especially as Internet and other home media have threatened its very success rate. And fewer folks are going OUT for a movie than ever, even as the prices steadily rise. So the writers and the producers are definitely risking the patience of the American public, who can be fickle when their devotion is abused.

Okay, so what's still giving me entertainment these days (when not busy at work or on future artistic endeavors)?

PUSHING DAISIES, Wednesdays, 8 pm, ABC - Visual appeal is always nice. Creative casting is invigorating. This show has both, and its gifted ensemble just gets more interesting by the episode. (The stunningly beautiful Anna Friel and the equally gorgeous Lee Pace just picked up Golden Globe nominations for their leadership--and its rare for a new show to win nominations before the first season is even up!) But Bryan Fuller, the creator of this innovative comedy/fantasy continues to find new twists in this fairy tale of pie-maker with the gift of life-and-death in his little finger. Just when you think you know where they're going or whether they're taking a shortcut, they come up with something unexpected. You get the feeling that they've decided to welcome the challenge of coming up with new variations on their "deadly" central conceit, doing so with brio! As wonderful as Friel and Pace are, this is an ensemble of scene-stealers--Chi McBride has never been better, and Kristin Chenoweth is a goddess. And then, when you think it can't get any better, Ellen Greene and Swoosie Kurtz waltz in to pull out the ground from under you! The murder mysteries are getting increasingly witty and humorous, with spectacular guest shots from the likes of Barbara Barrie, Christopher Sieber and Grant Shaud. But audiences have already fallen in love with Raul Esparza's travelling homeopathic salesman and eagerly await his return, and anyone who's wondered about the future of Paul Reubens have had their doubts erased by his mesmeric turns as Oscar, a scent-obsessive living in the sewers who is onto the secrets of the pie-man. I really look forward to my Wednesday night fix! (For those who've missed it, go to, where you can sample full episodes online!)

CHUCK, Mondays at 8pm, NBC--Another show that operates from a high concept (which means it could fall flat as a souffle once the inspiration is gone), CHUCK trusts the charm of its characters (and its delightful cast) to keep audiences tuning in. And they're right--we don't watch for real spy thrills but for the excitement that happens on a daily basis in the electronics outlook where Chuck and his buddies work! (I'm not kidding! The Nerd Herd is hilarious and disarming.) Zachary Levi is charming--and like Jack Benny, smart enough to know when to play straight man to the bunch of loonies surrounding him. It's a great strategy, which makes the viewer readily return its attention to the beleaguered young man in danger due to the computer information implanted in his brain. Yvonne Strahovski and Adam Baldwin are the most interested government agents to come along in a generation, and Joshua Gomez makes the annoying sidekick role a surprising treat. Until MEDIUM returns, CHUCK is the jewel in NBC's crown this season.

Next time: end-of-the-year musical treats!