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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 11, 2007

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


O.J., Jones, McPhee, Grammies

At Earth Fare, in their refrigerated juices section, which keeps moving as they remodel, look for the juices from Bolthouse Farms. Their Valencia orange juice is, quite simply, the most delicious commercial orange juice you're going to find in Greensboro.

I'm used to bemoaning the sad state of orange juice here in the east, mostly because I grew upon California oranges, which tend to be better in every way than Florida oranges. Every time I go to LA, I luxuriate in the fresh-squeeze o.j. served in every good restaurant.

Then I come home, where all the juice comes from Florida. It's nothing against the state -- it's simply that different trees thrive in these radically different states. California is mostly dry; Florida is hopelessly moist. The same breed of orange tree is not going to be able to thrive equally well in both places. And the trees that thrive in Florida produce oranges that simply don't taste as good as the nectar that comes from the fruit of California trees.

Then I tried Bolthouse Farms Valencia orange juice and it was as if I had just been served a glass of fresh-squeezed juice at one of the best restaurants in L.A.

Since then I've tried many of their other juices, and they're all very good. They're also fresh -- which is why they have to be refrigerated, and why you want to buy the one with the latest possible expiration date, because there is a slight but perceptible fall-off in the taste when they linger too long in the fridge (or in the store).

*

"Crooners," as a term for a kind of pop singer, had three different meanings over the years. At first it meant singers like Rudy Vallee, who, in the years before microphones, would sing to crowds through megaphones. The only way they could be heard and understood was to sing a high, pure tone -- "warbling" is how we might describe it now. (The female equivalent is that piercing, rapid-vibrato sound of the voice of Snow White in the Disney film.)

The microphone made it possible for more-manly bass voices to emerge (and, among women, altos), giving us the new meaning of crooner: Bing Crosby when he was singing ballads. It was a gentle, gliding, almost insidious sound, rich and rumbling.

By the time the fifties rolled around, though, "crooners" had taken this quality to extremes. Where Bing Crosby also knew how to swing -- there's a reason he and Louis Armstrong were good friends and supported each other's careers -- we had popular male singers whose "swing" had become so light it could now be called no more than a bounce.

I'm speaking of Dean Martin, who always sounded slightly drunk, even when he wasn't. And there was Vic Damone, who sang the theme songs to so many films that it felt to me as though he must live in every movie theater we went to, as the staff singer.

Right at the end of the era, we got Andy Williams, who, on his weekly television show, introduced us to the Osmonds, which led directly to Donny & Marie, which marked the last time teenagers were allowed to be officially innocent and cute (now TV only shows teenagers as insatiable lustbunnies, as on The O.C.).

It was Perry Como, though, who took crooning to such an extreme that, in ballad mode, his singing not only put you to sleep, it sounded like he was asleep. One of SCTV's best sketches was a fake TV ad in which Eugene Levy, as Perry Como, was performing all his greatest hits while lying down, just dozing off.

Of course, his biggest hit ("Catch a Falling Star") was only half asleep -- it was Como in bouncy mode, which is where swing went just before it died.

Born in 1912, Perry Como passed away in 2001 (with all the tasteless but unavoidable jokes: "How could they tell?") but there are fans who still remember him with affection. (If you're one of them, check out http://www.perrycomo.net.)

So ... now that he's gone, where can we turn for music that you can listen to over and over again without ever once having to pay attention to anything that's being said in the songs, because they slide through your mind as if someone set them down on warm butter?

The answer is: Norah Jones!

Like Perry Como, Jones is absolutely sincere -- she has oft been quoted as saying that her style consists of the kind of song she likes to sing, the way she likes to sing it. But I have listened to her new album, Not Too Late, three times now, and I honestly cannot tell you what any of the songs is about. I try to listen, but even with headphones on and my eyes closed, my mind wanders away from the music so quickly that nothing registers at all.

This is not a bad thing. You can use her cds as white-noise generators in place of ocean waves or summer rains, helping you get to sleep at night. Or you can play her songs as background at parties, because they will never, never distract from conversation; nobody will ever hold up a hand and say, "Shh! Wait! I want to listen to this one!"

How, exactly, could anybody tell when one song ended and the next began?

OK, I admit it, I'm exaggerating. A little. Her voice is quirky and her style just a little offbeat -- it soon becomes annoying enough that you couldn't really use it to get you to sleep. I know that, like Perry Como, she has millions of fans who can hardly wait to buy her new albums.

But when I compare her to real singers, singing real pop songs -- Jane Monheit, Shirley Eikhard, Tierney Sutton, Eva Cassidy, Diana Krall -- there is nothing Jones does that these others can't do, and about ten thousand things they can do that Jones seems incapable of thinking of.

Still, I find Norah Jones's albums infinitely more interesting than the sad little album that Katharine McPhee just put out.

McPhee was such a promising singer on American Idol. She grew into the kind of singing she's best at -- pop songs of the Johnny Mercer, Cole Porter, George & Ira, and Rodgers & Hart ilk -- and managed to turn many a dull song into something surprisingly sweet and rich.

So how in the world did she become the bubble-gum diva of her first album, which has been given the ridiculously false name Katharine McPhee. This album has nothing to do with the Katharine McPhee we saw and loved on Idol.

This is like those miserable Streisand albums from the disco era, when she teamed up with the Bee Gees and other Gibbs to produce songs that sounded just like everybody else, only worse, because she still had that voice, and it was physically painful to hear it being abused by singing those empty lyrics on top of the same rhythm tracks everybody else was using back then.

Remember that Idol was invented by record promoters, who still think of this show as a way of selling records. They're just as happy with a William Hung album as with the real singers they've promoted. So they don't listen to these singers thinking, What is this kid's voice best at? What kind of music will she be able to sing forever, so she can have a career that lasts and lasts?

No, they think, "What can we have her sing that will make the most money right now?"

That's why Fantasia, with that magnificent voice, debuted after Idol with a hip-hop album on which every "song" could have been "sung" by any of a thousand hip-hop wannabes.

And that's why you won't actually hear Katharine McPhee on this album. Well, I suppose that technically you will, but she'll sound just like every other overdecorated voice singing empty, dull songs that exist only so that thirteen-year-old girls will buy records.

This album erases itself from your memory as you listen. The songs can hardly be discerned from each other. If you heard this on the radio, you wouldn't be sure (for a while, at least) whether you were hearing an ad or a song.

What a sad, sad waste. McPhee can sing songs. You know, with words that are smart or moving even if you aren't singing them. Songs with actual tunes that linger in your mind. Songs that become the markers of the stage in your life when you heard them.

Instead, she's singing nothing at all. She's just vocalizing. Tuning up. Doing exercises. And because it will sell millions, the executives who did this to her will think they were "right." And if McPhee were the kind of disposable singer that is most common in the music business -- here today, gone tomorrow -- that would be fine. Give her an album, let her dazzle us for a moment, a flash in the pan, and then look for the next singer you can promote, suck money out of, and then drop.

At the end of the disco catastrophe, Streisand did her Broadway Album and became a great singer again. But Streisand had two decades of brilliant songs behind her. McPhee doesn't. This is her only album. So by the time she gets control of her own career, it may well be over. What a shame.

What a waste.

Kellie Pickler's album was terrific because the promoters don't know from country music, so she could actually do good stuff.

Taylor Hicks's album was very good because the promoters have no idea what he is, so they let him do his thing and then closed their eyes and crossed their fingers and invoked whatever gods they believe in (i.e., Mammon and Bacchus).

The only Idol graduates who are killed by the promoters are the ones they think they understand -- the ones who can be made to fit into a pre-existing niche, who can be made to sound just like everybody else.

The music industry is just like the film industry and the book industry -- nobody knows anything about what will sell tomorrow. So they only way they can give themselves the illusion of being in control of their own business is by "encouraging" (i.e., "forcing") artists to imitate whatever was financially successful last year.

Then when a real original comes along and changes everything, they'll force the next generation to imitate that. They've never caught on to the fact that they are always, always, always behind the curve. And the guys who do American Idol, while they put on a great reality show, don't actually know anything about what an original voice and style are.

If American Idol had been running in the mid-1950s, Elvis Presley would never have made it through the auditions. He was a geek who wore strange clothes with no sense of style (until the styles changed to fit him!) and sang like a weird combination of Bing Crosby and Fats Domino.

Carole King would have been rejected. Joni Mitchell? It is to laugh.

And if by some chance a great singer/songwriter like Mitchell or King had made it through and won, her first album would have been, like McPhee's, some kind of bubblegum pop that showed off her voice but meant nothing and sounded just like everybody else.

But ... I'm not saying you shouldn't buy McPhee's album. After all, there are millions of people who love to listen and dance to empty songs, as long as the rhythm track is good. There are even people who will be able to tell these songs apart. They just happen to be really young, without any perspective about what music can be, when somebody cares about it.

*

When you go to Great Harvest Bread Company, you're probably buying bread. But in the Greensboro store, at least, they also sell a few extras, and the last time I went there I picked up a couple of their tiny jars of Honeyville Cinnamon Whipped Wildflower Honey.

It is, quite simply, the most delicious whipped honey that I've ever had. Who knew that honey needed just a hint of cinnamon to become perfect?

*

I'm not a Grammies kind of guy. The kind of music that I love doesn't win the awards anymore. (The last time I thought the Grammies were right on was the year they backed up the truck and dumped all the awards into Stevie Wonder's limo. Which was before the teenagers who drive the music industry today were born.)

But because I'm the father of a twelve-year-old, I sat down and watched a part of the Grammies last Sunday and, to my surprise, enjoyed myself. Justin Timberlake happened to be singing, and I was happy to see that he was actually quite a talented singer -- and that he played the piano. He felt like a musician, not a package.

And my daughter and I were both delighted when he held up a tiny camera and sang straight into it. She was delighted because it was like he was singing all-so-earnestly straight at her, and because it was so wonderfully high tech. I was delighted because, of course, having the lens that close distorted his face, making his generously-sized nose even larger, to the point of looking like a clown.

He had to know that it would have that effect, because if he did that without rehearsal and looking at the tape, he'd have to be an idiot. So he knew his face would be made ridiculous by the lens -- and he went ahead and did it. That made it fun -- a device that was at once pretentious and humbling. It was a terrific performance.

Of course, the song itself was absolutely forgettable. Unless you've listened to it seventy times, at which point any song is memorable because it has imprinted so many neural pathways that you can't escape from it even if you try.

But what were the headlines after the Grammies? The lead always seemed to be that the Dixie Chicks had "defied" their critics and won three big awards.

Here's a clue, folks. Getting three Grammies didn't show anybody anything. The people who hated the Dixie Chicks' anti-Bush and anti-American statements at the onset of the war don't vote for Grammy Awards. The Grammies are awarded by the music industry, which is thick with the kind of empty-headed kneejerk groupthink that the Dixie Chicks got their "ideas" from.

The Dixie Chicks' inflammatory, offensive statements were the music biz talking to itself -- the reason they said what they did was because everybody they knew that they thought was smart and cool was saying the same things. You don't think they actually did research and arrived at their "ideas" from any kind of evidence and rational thought, do you?

So in giving awards to the Dixie Chicks -- for their weakest album, I might add -- the music business was merely congratulating itself for being smarter than those yokels who actually buy country music.

What really happened is that the Dixie Chicks crossed over. Not to the Dark Side (well, sort of), but to the pop-rock side. To many, perhaps most, in the country music community, they continue to represent something ugly -- people who are more loyal to the elitists than to the common people. People who have lost the common touch and think they're smarter than anybody else.

That's what they got their awards for -- it was self-congratulation for the music industry.

It was the opposite of a triumph -- it was a retreat from the community that discovered and nurtured them in the first place. A retreat, but with banners and bugles.


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