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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 15, 2004

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


k.d. lang, Sock Olympics, Sheet Music, Swimwear, Sequence Dice

Country singer k.d. lang has long since broken down the confining walls of genre. Her country cds are still as brilliant as ever -- I never tire of listening to her warm, relaxed, sultry voice.

With her new album, though, she is definitely outside the boundaries of country, and it's one of her best albums.

Hymns of the 49th Parallel is, as the name would suggest, an album of songs by Canadian songwriters. That means the songwriters are amazingly varied -- but all excellent.

When Lang sings Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush" and "Helpless," they do make you think of the original version -- but these slowed-down, dreamy versions are a marvelous new interpretation. Likewise, when she visits the Joni Mitchell songbook and sings "A Case of You" and "Jericho," she brings something new to songs that were already great.

What makes this album especially bold is that these singer-songwriters have powerful, distinctive styles. Joni Mitchell's songs are very hard to sing without simply imitating Mitchell's rendition, because her interpretation was so powerful and unforgettable. Neil Young's songs are a bit more translatable, in part because his own whining voice is not quite so rapturously right for the songs he writes.

It's no surprise that Leonard Cohen's entries on this album ("Hallelujah," "Bird on a Wire") work well -- Cohen is best known as a writer of songs for other people. Bruce Cockburn's "One Day I Walk" is illuminated here, and Jane Siberry, whose low-key delivery often understates the power of her own music, is shown at her songwriting best, with "The Valley" and "Love Is Everything." (Though my favorite Siberry song remains "Everything Reminds Me of My Dog.")

Why is k.d. lang so brilliant, when she never does the full-out from-the-belt style that works so well for most of the great country singers?

I think it's the fact that she is always singing the words -- she finds a way to mean the songs, not just vocalize them. She sings from the heart, yet with an intimacy that makes it so you wish you were in the same room with her -- not a concert hall, a living room, listening to a friend break your heart with her music.

*

My wife and I, along with our ten-year-old, had an exercise program this summer -- almost every day we took a good long walk together, usually about three miles.

Most often, we walked to Harris-Teeter, where they'd get a bottle of water each, and I'd buy the Naked brand mango drink. Then, as we walked home, I'd fill the plastic grocery bag with litter we found along the way. And the ten-year-old, who couldn't actually drink the whole bottle of water, would get much of the leftover water poured over her head. Outdoor air conditioning.

We had a great time, we all got in better shape, and we talked about everything under the sun.

There was only one fly in the ointment -- my wife discovered that the socks she was wearing just weren't up to the job. She ended up with blisters.

It was time to find better socks.

Thus began the Sock Olympics. We went to Belk, Lady Foot Locker, and Omega Sports and bought every kind of sock that looked promising. (We don't go to The Athlete's Foot for anything, because of the way they treated our handicapped son when we took him there a few years ago.)

We did have a few minimum requirements -- for instance, they had to be almost all cotton and have no polyester at all. That sharply limited the possibilities -- we ended up with seven different kinds of socks to try.

We have a winner, folks. It's the Lady Foot Locker cushioned low socks, style #50250-1. My wife preferred the ones with a little bit of ribbing right at the ankle -- they stayed up better and didn't creep down under the heel.

What makes them great, says my wife, is that the cushioning comes from the bottom of the foot and goes right up the back of the heel. No blisters!

But I wasn't surprised by the outcome. I've been buying Foot Locker brand socks for years. The simple low athletic sock, the one that comes in big packages of many pairs, is better than any of the name-brand socks I tried, including Nike. And Foot Locker doesn't stick their logo on the socks, forcing you to be a jogging billboard.

*

Once upon a time, the big money in songwriting came from sheet music sales.

In those days, everybody with an ounce of talent learned to play piano, because the main entertainment at a lot of parties was to stand around the piano and sing the latest popular songs together.

Needless to say, the guy or girl at the piano got a lot of attention.

Those days are over -- radio put an end to it.

Still, there were enough pianists and singers when I was a kid that there were lots of stores with sheet music. Plus, the guitar had replaced the piano as the be-the-center-of-the-party instrument, and sheet music now came with the guitar chord names and, often, the fingering diagrams.

Those days, too, have passed. Sheet music is hard to find. Moore Music in Greensboro does a heroic job of trying to keep an excellent selection -- especially of choir and instrumental sheet music, but also of popular songs. They'll also order any book you want, and we have often availed ourselves of their service.

As a supplement, though -- or to deal with sheet music emergencies (yes, there are such things) -- take a look at Music Notes online: www.musicnotes.com. This site allows you to pay for and download a copy of an astonishingly wide selection of sheet music. It will print out easily -- including a notation that this copy was authorized for you (and you alone).

Does this website replace the music store?

No more than Amazon.com replaces bookstores. The website is at its best when you already know what you want and need it quickly; the music store will always be better when you don't know what you want, and are browsing to see what's available.

*

For years now, women's swimsuits have been designed so they look good only on toy women -- you know, the ones that have been shaped by plastic surgeons and anorexia until any resemblance to real flesh-and-blood women is entirely coincidental.

And if you've had a couple of kids and your body got used to carrying a few extra pounds and stretch marks, you were out of luck. Your swimsuit designer was Omar the Tentmaker or the Man from Glad.

Well, here's some excellent news: Shore-fit Sunwear -- Women's Swimwear Boutique. If you're in the Outer Banks, it's on the main highway north of Kill Devil Hills. But you can easily shop online at www.OBXsunwear.com.

They have plus-sizes, maternity suits, mastectomy suits, and "missy bra-sized swimwear," whatever that means. The styles look great, the workmanship is terrific.

This store has a mission -- to help all women feel comfortable at the beach and the pool, without visiting the plastic surgeon or throwing up after every meal.

*

Sequence Dice may look, from the packaging, like Yahtzee, but it's far more complicated and nowhere near as dependent on chance.

Yes, you roll dice -- but for each roll you lay down a marker on a small (6x6) gameboard, trying to get five markers in a row. There are four squares on the board for each number you might, roll, except 11 (which is "wild") and 10 (which allows you to remove almost any marker belonging to an opponent).

As with backgammon, the balance between strategy and chance is almost perfect. In our house, a ten-year-old played it with adults with equal success. And we played it over and over again, as you can with great games.

If you enjoy the Mad-Libs series of pencil games, you probably won't be disappointed with the card game of the same name. Your hand contains ten cards, which are divided among nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. The goal is similar to that of gin: To assemble sentences in your hand until your entire hand can be laid down at once.

Of course, we have to use a special definition of the word "sentence" that includes no aspect of making sense! Except, of course, that each sentence must be grammatically sensible.

In fact, that's one of the best things about Mad-Libs, both books and games: You can't play them without having some idea of the parts of speech and what they do in an English-language sentence. So, silly as the game can be, it does have an educational function.

Just remember that sentences include imperatives and intransitives -- not every verb needs an object, and some don't even need a subject to make sense.

*

Sometimes I think that all Janet Evanovich aspires to in her Stephanie Plum mysteries is to have readers close the book and say, "What a hoot!"

How else to explain the long-since tedious family members, each of them one-joke caricatures only one step up from the inhabitants of Maggody in Joan Hess's aren't-country-folks-funny series?

And yet, behind the superficial humor, I think Evanovich's purposes are serious. Because the character of Stephanie Plum herself is presented whole and real, torn with indecision about her own life and the men she loves.

The premise of the series is that Plum is a bounty hunter, not by any wish of hers but because it's the only job she was able to get that allowed her to live an independent life.

In the newest book, Ten Big Ones, Plum manages to get herself on a gangland hit list, with an assassin after her who likes to entertain himself with his victims before they die. The menace in this book is powerful and fairly plausible, making up for Plum's overdone family.

But I have to recommend reading this one in print. The audio is once again read by Lorelei King, who does a marvelous job with all the characters except Stephanie Plum herself, whom she reads in a stilted, overly sweet, and definitely non-New Jersey telephone-receptionist voice that continues to be irritating through the entire book. Better to read it yourself and let Evanovich's prose evoke what Plum should really sound like.


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