Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 23, 2007
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Election New Year, Good New CDs
Christmas is over, as you read this -- but I'm writing it the week before. I have
no idea yet what Santa brought, but I can bet on a few things.
I'll bet, for instance, that Santa was much more generous with the children of
rich parents than with the children of poor ones.
And yet, unfair as this might seem, I'll bet that the poor kids had at least as
much fun, on average, as the rich ones -- and maybe more. Partly because the
poor kids are much more likely to have had a neighborhood full of other kids to
play with and hang out with.
On the other hand the more well-to-do kids are more likely to have both their
father and mother still living in the same house with them, and that makes a
big difference, too.
So maybe, on average, everybody pretty much had as good a Christmas as
anybody else. Some better, some worse. The statistics can tell us some things,
but happiness isn't measurable. It comes to people one at a time, and to
I'll bet, though, that the quality of everyone's Christmas depended far more on
the quality of their family life and the personalities of the people they live with
than the amount of money spent on gifts for them.
Kids with kindly parents had merrier Christmases than those who were
tiptoeing around hoping not to get anybody mad.
So now we're heading to another New Year. This should be a glorious
celebration, because some wonderful things happened in 2007. Our President
found the commander, and the strategy, that are leading us to victory in the
So the lives that were invested in fighting this war on foreign shores instead of
at home were not wasted -- they will bring the return that was promised. It
doesn't bring any of the lost ones back, but it makes their sacrifice meaningful.
Our economy is robust and, while it is never under anyone's control, it seems
to be doing well, with blips -- in other words, business as usual.
And yet ... somehow, as we head into the New Year, many Americans will
actually be frustrated that we're doing well in the war -- they may even be
trying to deny it and convince people that we're still losing.
Others will be claiming -- falsely -- that our soldiers have caused unending
disaster in the countries we liberated from vicious dictatorships.
Many are trying to convince us that financially we're all in desperate shape,
and all that prosperity is illusory, or the wrong kind, or going to the wrong
Why such a disparity between reality and the image commonly presented on
our national media?
Why, because it's an election year with a Republican incumbent, of course!
When there's a Democratic incumbent, then of course everything is rosy and
no stories are bad. All actions were brilliant accomplishments; all inaction was
wise rather than indolent or cowardly. Everything spins to the plus side.
But in years when a Republican is in control of the White House, you'd think
an asteroid had struck America, the stories are so dire. All that head-shaking
and tongue-clucking. So worried, these commentators. Things look so downand dark. We need a change.
Don't be deceived. We've had eight years with a president of extraordinary
courage and moral strength and, yes, wisdom. Bad at selling himself to the
people, but then, he had to contend with the continuous hostility of the press,
so it's not as if we could ever get to know him without them filtering everything.
Our business is not to vote on President Bush this year. Our business is to
look at the candidates and decide which person has the wisdom to deal with
problems as yet unforeseen, and the strength of will to stand firm after
decisions are made.
We need to determine which candidates are honorable and say what they mean
and mean what they say; which candidates know how to make a promise and
keep it, no matter what.
I remember back in 1992, as I looked at Bill Clinton, saying to anyone who
would listen: If he can't keep his promises to his wife, why should we believe
any of the promises he makes to us? And, sure enough, he was in office about
twenty minutes before he was breaking promises to almost everyone.
(The only exception was his stand in favor of limitless abortion -- which is what
won him the silence of the so-called Women's Movement when he was
committing perjury to conceal his exploitation of powerless women.)
His life already revealed his moral character, and we got the president we paid
In an election year, we can't possibly guess what future the president will be
presiding over. But we can decide what kind of person will lead us through
that future, and what moral principles will guide him.
Will it be the person who obviously took bribes but simply denies it?
The person who used public money to conceal an adulterous relationship?
The person who uses religious bigotry as a tool to bring down a frontrunner,
even as he claims to stand for constitutional values?
The person who claims to champion the poor, but treats ordinary people with
disdain when he happens to run into them?
The person who kind of wants to be president but doesn't want to do any of the
work required to actually get the office?
I remember commentators nodding wisely and saying that the "character issue"
doesn't really matter. I shook my head in despair. If a candidate's character is
bad, if they can't be trusted, what does it matter what he or she might promise
Look at their life, at their past, at what they actually do. That's how you find
out the kind of person you're going to have in charge.
Of course, that isn't how we got George W. Bush. We got him because he was
the most electable Republican in a year when Republicans were desperate to
get rid of Bill Clinton. We didn't know at the time how dishonest and stupid Al
Gore was -- that was revealed later, in his attempt to steal the election and his
fraudulent exploitation of the global warming scare.
But enough people in the right states were fed up with a cynical, unprincipled
presidency to vote for the other guy, whoever he was. And we ended up with a
decent man in the office -- and a patient one, who has put up with an
unprecedented level of slander and misrepresentation while governing us very
There was an old saying once: "God protects fools, drunks, and the United
Sometimes I think that having George W. Bush as President was God's last
gesture of protection.
If we're so stupid we can't recognize a good man when we're led by one, if we
can't take responsibility for our own defense and the defense of helpless people
in other lands, if we can't recognize when we're truly blessed and keep trying to
make changes that can only make our situation worse -- well, maybe it's time
for God to say, in effect, "OK, kids. You think you know how to do it better. Go
ahead. Have it your way."
So even as we are living in a wonderful time, prosperous and victorious, I face
this New Year with foreboding, because I'm not sure the American majority
wants to be free and strong and decent anymore, not at a national level or a
The people who revel in weakness, dependence, and indecency are so
numerous now, and feel so justified in their appalling, self-destructive beliefs
and behavior, that I wonder how much longer this will be a nation that's worth
We're a nation founded, not on ethnicity, but on ideals. When we reach a point
when most of us no longer believe in those ideals, then what are we standing
on? Why do we exist as a people? Should we exist, when our existence, as a
nation, has no more meaning than that of countries born of chance rather than
That's the kind of thing I think about when New Year's comes around. Just be
glad you're not spending New Year's Eve at my house. It's so gloomy, with me
brooding around the house about the fall of empires and the decay of
Let me end the year with reviews of some music that I've been listening to for
the past while.
Jane Monheit's new album, Surrender, is a gorgeous thing. Her voice has a
dreamy quality to it, and on this album she has reached the pinnacle, doing
the things she does best.
Several Brazilian songs -- including a perfect rendition of "So Many Stars,"
arranged by and sung with Sergio Mendes -- mark her as someone who
understands that jazz was transformed in Brazil into a new music with far
more life in it than the American Be-Bop dead end.
When she and Ivan Lins sing "Rio de Maio" ("River of May," perhaps an answer
to "Waters of March"), not only is her Portuguese accent nearly perfect, her
musical nuances are exquisite. Her choices never seem analyzed, and yet they
are endlessly surprising and endlessly right.
The best track on this album is, of all things, "Moon River." Nothing against
Andy Williams, but this song has never been so beautiful before. Monheit's
vocalizations never feel like showing off; instead, it's as if we're overhearing
someone's meditations. Or perhaps the feelings of her heart.
If you've never listened to Monheit, give her a try. This is music for people who
actually remember what a melody is, and what a voice is supposed to do with
The next album I've fallen in love with is called Love Songs of the 70s. This
was the last decade when pop music actually had songs (now real songs linger
mostly in jazz and country). But the singer drew together an astonishingly
eclectic range of songs -- and nailed them all.
How about Gilbert O'Sullivan's weird and whiny "Alone Again (Naturally)" --
would you believe it can be a soulful introspection with a rather sweet melody?
Then David Gates's "If," matching him high note for high note, and yet making
the song sound more mature; with this singer, it isn't just a series of romantic
conceits, it's more like a set of serious promises.
"You Are So Beautiful," with all the passion of Joe Cocker, but without the
torture. "Mandy," as sweetly as Manilow did it, but not overproduced, so now
you realize it really is a song full of regret for a love lost.
"When I Need You," "Laughter in the Rain," along with soul songs like "Will It
Go Round in Circles" and "Let's Stay Together." The singer is never imitating
the original performers -- every song is made his own -- and yet he is still true
to the kind of song it's supposed to be.
The result is that we hear a voice of extraordinary range and power, and a
singer with a perfect sensitivity to the meaning of the words, so he's never
showing off, he's simply placing exactly the right emotion into musical form.
In short, this is a great album that proves that those were good songs and not
just popular records.
And the singer is ...
Osmond left "cuteness" far behind him. This is a man's voice; this is the heart
of someone who knows something about what life means, and so he can take a
song inside him and bring it out again as something new.
Even the wretched excess of Dan Hill's "Sometimes When We Touch," sung by
a mature singer with some real understanding, becomes music instead of
I think Osmond's time on Broadway was more pivotal in his singing career
than anyone really understood. He's still a pop singer, but I'm hearing
Broadway vocal techniques in his voice.
His ability to absolutely control his range -- he flows into and out of falsetto
with almost no missteps, and he can pop that belting voice with amazing power
-- is something that is almost unknown in pop music.
But his native talent is still there: His pitch is dead on all the time. In an era
when many pop singers seem not to know what pitch is, making it gratingly
painful to listen to them sing at a melody like a toddler trying to spear a grape
with a fork, it's a relief to listen to a singer who has absolute mastery over his
voice and the music he's singing.
Forget the child; forget the cute teenager. Donny Osmond is a man. A man
who may well be the best pop singer we have right now.
Taylor Swift's self-titled debut album looked appallingly overdone, from the
cover: A holographic 3D picture that looked like somebody's misguided pre-wedding picture.
What a delightful surprise, then, to find that Swift is actually a powerful
country singer who knows how to nail a song to the wall like a manifesto.
"Should've Said No" is brilliantly performed. I had to look to see who wrote this
great song, because I wondered how this newcomer was able to get her hands
on an anthem that any of the big stars would have faunched over.
Guess what? She wrote it herself.
She wrote or co-wrote every song on the album.
No surprise that her album has gone platinum. She's the real thing. She's
going to be an important country and pop singer for a long time to come, and
she doesn't depend on other people to bring her the songs that will make her
Isn't it nice when somebody who's being hyped to death is actually worth it?
Nobody's hyping Shannon Brown -- not with the treatment Taylor Swift is
getting, anyway -- but she's also a new country singer to be reckoned with.
She co-wrote most of her songs, and most of them are by or with John Rich
and Vicky McGehee.
The combination is a strong one -- every song on her debut album is excellent.
But the best is, not by mere coincidence, the title track: "Corn Fed." By the
end of the song I felt as if I'd grown up in Iowa instead of the suburbs in the
bay area of California.
And, finally: I'm a fan of Alison Krauss, but not of Robert Plant, so I had
trepidation in approaching their first collaborative album, Raising Sand.
My fears were needless. Together, their very different musics become
something new and really quite fine. I hope this isn't the last album they do