Thursday, 31 May 2012

CD Review: "Locked Down" by Dr. John (Mac Rebennack)

Front cover of Locked Down, the new album
I don’t get it. Don’t the sound engineers listen to the things they’re recording anymore? Or maybe the producers insist that this is actually the sound they want. Why would any musician, or producer, or – especially – engineer, want their record to sound so thin and murky? Why compress all the high-fidelity out of the sound of the music? Maybe they don't listen back to the music in decent sounding speakers? Maybe they only hear the tracks as MP3 files through cheap headphones. [It makes me think of an amusing review that Pete Townshend wrote for Rolling Stone magazine back in the early 70s - a review of The Who's new compilation LP, Meaty Beaty, Big and Bouncy. In an apologia for the poor sound-quality of Shel Talmy's production work, Pete wrote that the singles sounded tinny back then because they were made to be played on tinny-sounding car radios, or tinny-sounding, dinky record players. Very, very few people back then (mid-60s) had high-fidelity sound systems. Are we regressing, then?]

I first noticed this sort of thing back in the mid-eighties, when Richard Thompson began a five-record run of collaborations with producer Mitchell Froom and his engineer Tchad Blake. Their weird notion of how a disc should sound was most evident on Thompson’s Mirror Blue and its follow-up You? Me? Us?. The drumming, for example, sounded like thumping on cardboard boxes. I’m not sure technically what it is exactly that they do – just sounds like they compress and squeeze the frequency response, so that there’s very little low-end and top-end. To me it just sounds flat and muddy.

I mentioned this issue recently in my review of Norah Jones’s new release Little Broken Hearts, produced by Brian Burton (“Danger Mouse”). It featured the same compressed sort of sound. And here we are again, the same phenomenon with Dr. John’s new album, Locked Down. The producer of Locked Down is Dan Auerbach; the engineer is Collin Dupuis. Who is to blame for how bad this sounds? The one … the other … or both? It really is a shame, because this could have been a great album: it’s got a good set of songs, quirky but interesting arrangements, and a committed – often acerbic – point of view. Why does the sound have to be so poor?

Mac Rebennack, aka Dr. John
Musician, songwriter and producer Dan Auerbach formed the rock duo The Black Keys back in 2001. Since then, they have released seven studio albums. When they go on the road to perform live, they have a small group of colleagues to fill out the band. Two of those musicians are on this Dr. John album: keyboard-player Leon Michels (also on woodwinds) and bassist Nick Movshon. The rest of the band accompanying Dr. John (who sticks to keyboards here, although he is an accomplished guitarist, too) are Max Weissenfeldt on drums, Brian Olive on guitar and woodwinds, and Dan Auerbach – who, in addition to his work as producer, is also featrured prominently as lead guitarist. All the songs on Locked Down are credited to the entire band. Listening to it, it seems evident that Dr. John is the lyricist; the music, presumably, was worked out collectively in the studio by the entire group. The McCrary Sisters provide soulful background vocals.

Locked Down is an intriguing mixture: in some ways it evokes the psychedelic swamp sound of Mac Rebennack’s late-60s period, when his stage-act was dominated by his Dr. John, the Night Tripper persona (check out the Night Tripper-styled head-dress on the CD's cover photo). But the riff-laden, swamp groove is delivered in a more modern, detached style. That detached, alienated approach is emphasised – perhaps not consciously – by the four pages of photos in the CD’s booklet. Most of the pictures are long-shots. In the close-ups, the musicians are turned away from the camera’s gaze. The one portrait-shot of Rebennack has the top-half of his face hidden by a floppy cap. Nobody smiling; everyone turned away. The message?

Speaking of the message - the lyrics are hard to hear because of the production’s sound and mixing. You have to read the songs in the booklet to make out what Dr. John is singing. These songs are mostly full of political comment – talking mostly about corruption and the abuse of power. “The world is lost,” he croaks, in his inimitable vocal style, “it’s everybody’s business in the kingdom of izzness.” The overall gloom is lightened somewhat at the end of the CD by a couple of more up-beat selections: a tender song addressed to his children – My Children, My Angels, an affecting ballad with a catchy chorus  – and a hymn-like song in praise of the divine – God’s Sure Good, which also features a catchy refrain from the McCrary Sisters.

My photo of Dr. John at the Festival of Friends in Aug., 2010
Musically, the CD is dominated by R&B-styled riffing – usually featuring Dr. John on keyboards, Auerbach on guitar and Michels and Olive on some very bassy woodwinds. And, despite the fact that Rebennack is an excellent keyboard player, he doesn’t take too many solos (there’s a nice one at the end of Revolution, and another in the middle of Ice Age). There are more prominent solos given to Auerbach on guitar – and he favours either a dirty, blues-rock style, or a distinctive, electronic-sounding tone. For me, the highlights are two songs in the middle of the disc: Ice Age and Getaway, which both feature funky poly-rhythms, doubled-up riffing from guitar and keyboards, and some interesting solo-work.

This is a good album. It’s heartening to see an experienced veteran working in full collaboration with a much younger musician, one who is clearly in-synch with the older master. What they’ve come up with is interesting and enjoyable, but – oh my, how disappointing – it could have been so much better, if they’d made it sound good. To my analogue-trained ears, anyway!

Monday, 28 May 2012

Essay: A Canadian's Death on Everest

Shriya Shah-Klorfine died on Mt. Everest (May 19, 2012)
Four people – I’m not so sure it’s appropriate to call them climbers – died on Mt. Everest this past Saturday, 19 May. One of them was a thirty-three-year old Canadian woman; so the incident has received prominent coverage and comment here in the Canadian media.

It was a long-standing dream of Mississauga-resident Shriya Shah-Klorfine to conquer Everest. She was born close to the mountain - in Kathmandu, the Nepalese capital. She grew up in Mumbai, India, and emigrated to Canada in 2000. Unfortunately, that dream of hers – not to mention her $65,000 investment in the adventure – pushed her to ignore the advice of experienced Sherpa guides, who advised her to turn back from her summit-attempt, while she still had a chance to get down to safety. She insisted on continuing – reportedly mentioning the money she had spent to get there. She did reach the summit, but died only a hundred metres or so from it, as she collapsed of exhaustion and high-altitude sickness near the beginning of her trek down.

The southern approach to Everest via Nepal

Although Ms. Shah-Klorfine must take the ultimate blame for her unfortunate fate – and I say that with all due respect to her memory, and with commiserations for her family and friends – what happened on Everest last week was a fiasco and a moral disgrace. Four deaths in one day – not because of an avalanche, or a plummet down a deep crevasse, but because of a preventable traffic jam. No controls; no regulations. Free-enterprise adventurism gone terribly wrong.

The whole Mt. Everest scene has morphed away from what used to be the ultimate climbing challenge for highly-experienced mountaineers into the ultimate tourist-destination for those seeking a glamorous and impressive adventure. These days, for $2,000-$5,000 you can sail to the Galapagos Islands; for $10,000-$30,000 you can take a cruise to Antarctica; and for $60,000 you can join an expedition that will guide you all the way to the summit of Everest. No experience required. Ms. Shah-Klorfine was not a climber: she had done no mountaineering; she had no high-altitude experience at all. Her only preparation was fitness conditioning – for about 18 months she ran, or walked, 17 km a day with 20 kg on her back. 

The Hillary Step - the last major obstacle before the summit
This phenomenon of small, private companies guiding tourists willing to pay the high fees has dominated the climbing of Everest for many years. It’s all an economy of scale. These expeditions usually consist of two or three leaders with high-altitude experience, and familiarity with Everest, and a crew of about ten Sherpa guides. The companies finance their expeditions with the $50,000 fee from each individual participating. They are often not too choosy in the candidates they accept. Shah-Klorfine was with the Utmost Adventure Trekking Pvt. Ltd. The last major disaster on this scale goes back to 1996, when 8 people died on the mountain - five of them were with two companies similar to the one Shah-Klorfine went with. The cause of those deaths in '96 was, primarily, bad weather. But too many people going for the summit at the same time was a contributing factor back then, too. This year it was definitely sheer numbers that led to this calamity – there were about 205 “climbers” who attempted to reach the peak on the same day. Why?

The government of Nepal collects a $10,000 fee for every individual license granted for those who want to climb Everest – at 8,848 metres, the highest mountain in the World. This year they sold about 340 permits. But there are no controls on the number of permits sold, or the actual time when the climbs will happen. The permit is good for any time during the short climbing season. It all depends on the weather - and the weather dictates that the annual climbing season in the Himalayas runs from late-March to the end of May – just before the monsoon in June makes climbing impossible. Invariably, by the time all the preparations are made, and the expeditions complete their treks to Everest base camp, and the climbers acclimatise themselves to the high altitude, it is early-to-mid-May before they reach the higher camps and are perched on the upper slopes, waiting for the appropriate weather that will allow them to make their final push for the top.

205 "climbers" attached to a single fixed rope challenge for the summit on May 19, 2012

This year, the weekend of May 19-20 was the first opening of clear weather for the season. Everyone who had been waiting impatiently on the mountain’s upper slopes seized the opportunity. 205 people hooked onto a line of fixed ropes running all the way from Camp 4, on the South Col, to the summit. The only problem was the final significant climbing obstacle – the rather tricky Hillary Step, named after the famed New Zealander, Edmund Hillary, who - along with the Sherpa Tenzing Norgay - was the first climber to get to the top of Mt. Everest, on 29 May, 1953. There was a huge bottleneck at the Step, a 12-metre rock face. Scores and scores of people had to wait up to two hours to get their turn to climb up and over. By the time they got to the summit, and then encountered the same traffic jam on the way down, they had spent almost six hours close to the summit.

Camp 4 sits just below 8,000 metres above sea level. Above that, climbers are into the so-called “Death Zone”. At this height, the air is so thin that they are at a very high risk of altitude sickness. The body starts to deteriorate rapidly. Normally, when numbers are small, climbers leave Camp 4 at dawn and reach the top in about 5-6 hours. They descend to Camp 2 and the more comfortable altitude of 6,500 metres by dusk on the same day. These days, with so many people on the mountain, climbers leave the previous night, arrive at the summit some 12-14 hours later, and often do not get back to Camp 4 until late the following night. People are exposed to the dangers of the Death Zone for two to three times longer than they ought to be.

The Balcony

Ms. Shah-Klorfine’s Sherpa guides knew she was in trouble long before they arrived at the Hillary Step (8,780 metres). She was on The Balcony, a small platform at 8,400 metres, where climbers can take a brief rest and gaze at the impressive Himalayan peaks to the south and east. Her outfitter, Ganesh Thakuri, asked her to turn around. “Please, sister,” he said to her, “don’t push yourself. If you feel weak, please go back. You can come next year. Don’t push yourself, it might kill you.” 

“I really want to go. I really want to reach the top,” she replied. 

Mr. Thakuri reported that he could not persuade Ms. Shah-Klorfine to give up her climb. “She was telling me: ‘I spent a lot of money to come over here. It’s my dream’ ".

With two guides beside her all the way, she got to the summit at about 2:15 p.m. Coming down, however, she succumbed to complete exhaustion. On the way down, as often happens, the weather changed. It was reported that strong winds hit the mountainside and she became disconnected from her oxygen supply. Or, perhaps, she had run out of oxygen bottles because of the long delays caused by the traffic jams. Two Sherpas were with her. It was very slow walking. They tried to support her. And then she couldn’t walk anymore. It was very late. She collapsed.

“Save me,” she pleaded. But it was too late. Those were her last words.

Something must be done. The government of Nepal should establish some basic regulations about the number of permits available each season. The companies organizing expeditions need to demand rudimentary experience. Some of the “climbers” (inexperienced tourists, really) didn’t even know how to attach crampons to their climbing boots. Some had no experience rappelling, and required Sherpas to help them get down the Hillary Step. They should have at least a few years minimum of serious mountain climbing on rock and ice; they ought to have some experience with high-altitude ascents. And these amateurs need to show some humility and recognise that they are in over their heads. Their hubris, after all, doesn’t only put their own lives at risk – they endanger the safety of other climbers on the slopes. And put the lives of their Sherpa guides in jeopardy. 

Mt. Everest is an awesome challenge - the ultimate thrill for the experienced climber. But it is an unforgiving place. Nobody on the mountain can take anything for granted. Rank-amateurs should not apply.

May Ms. Shriya Shah-Klorfine rest in peace. 


On the topic of climbing Mt. Everest, see also:

Film Review: The Wildest Dream 

[Resources: reports from The Globe & Mail and The Toronto Star}

Thursday, 24 May 2012

How to add Comments to this Blog!

Several people have told me in person, or mentioned on the phone, or in an email, that they have tried to post a comment on this blog but been unsuccessful.

My apologies. I have checked things out in the settings section, and have re-set the blog-site so that anyone can comment. Before it was set so that you had to be registered before being able to post.

But there are a couple of good security protections. To avoid automated spam, potential commentators have to type the words seen printed in very wonky lettering. And I retain moderator's control so that I can pre-screen each comment. Because anyone on the web can now comment, I need to be able to keep off nonsense, irrational thoughts, silly opinions, or anything that is inappropriate or embarrassing to me. Not anything that you would write, anyway - eh?

To comment about a particular post, go down to the bottom of it. On the left side of the first line of text it will read "Posted by Clive Baugh at ..." - giving the time. Then it will say "0 Comments", or "2 Comments". That Comment label is a hot-link; if you click on it you will go to an opened box in the comments area where you can enter a comment by typing a message.

The comment will be posted to the page after being moderated. This might happen almost immediately. It may take a few hours - or a whole day. I should get to it soon.

So, please comment. And thanks for your responses!

Monday, 21 May 2012

CD Review: "Slipstream" by Bonnie Raitt

Front cover of Bonnie Raitt's new album
What a year for music this has been. Another rock veteran puts out a great album. This is Bonnie Raitt’s first release in seven years. It was worth the wait. This is as good as the best stuff Raitt has ever done. And under her full creative control this time.

Bonnie Raitt emerged as a prominent figure in the blues-rock scene in the seventies. She plays a mean slide guitar and is a superb vocalist. But, somehow, she never broke through to the big time in those early days. She recorded a string of seven albums for Warner Brothers in the 70s – almost one a year. They were moderately successful, but no big hit. Nonetheless, she was admired and respected by those who knew her work. 

After being dropped by Warners in the mid-80s, she signed to Capitol Records and did eight albums with them – beginning with a trio of grammy-award winning and chart-topping albums: Nick of Time (’89), Luck of the Draw (’91) and Longing in Their Hearts (’94) . The new album is not only self-produced – it’s also self-released, the debut album for her own label, Redwing Records.   

Bonnie Raitt
This new release is her nineteenth studio album. It's the first for seven years - she took an extended break following the deaths of both parents, her sister and a very close friend. Slipstream is an amalgam of two sets of recording sessions: eight of the tracks feature Raitt’s own road-band and were produced by her at Ocean Way Recording in Hollywood; four of the tracks were recorded and produced by Joe Henry at his own Garfield House studios – selected from ten tracks they recorded together in just three days. The released album is all of a piece – a wonderful set of songs done in a retro, guitar-dominated rock format.

The four tracks produced by Joe Henry include two Bob Dylan covers – “Million Miles” and “Standing In the Doorway”, both originally on his 1997 album Time Out of Mind. Henry uses a band of his own colleagues – featuring Bill Frissell on electric lead guitar. There is some nice interplay between his understated, subtle electric lead style and Raitt’s familiar slide guitar playing. The other Garfield House tracks feature two songs written by Joe Henry: the ballad “You Can’t Fail Me Now” (co-written with Loudon Wainwright) and the piano-accompanied and hymn-like ballad “God Only Knows”, which finishes the album on a contemplative note.

The eight tracks produced by Bonnie Raitt feature her own road-band: Ricky Fataar on drums, James Hutchinson on bass, Mike Finnigan on keyboards, and George Marinelli on electric guitar. It’s Marinelli and Raitt who give her production its guitar-dominant sound: sometimes they take turns with solos; other times they provide good counterpoint to each other – he on electric, she on slide.

The album kicks off with the funky rock piece “Used to Rule the World”, a sardonic look at boomers who seem to have lost track of the times. It’s a great arrangement – three guitar parts and Hammond B3 organ. It sets the scene for what is to follow, and is sure to delight those familiar with the bluesy and R&B groove of Raitt’s guitar-rock.

The retro-feel continues with the second track – a version of Gerry Rafferty’s “Right Down the Line”, the chart-topping single from his hugely-successful 1978 album City to City. Raitt takes the familiar tune and gives it a fresh approach – thanks to an upbeat reggae arrangement.

... gorgeous vocals
Bonnie Raitt has good taste in material. She picks songs from some of her favourite well-known contemporaries, but also favours songs from lesser-known friends and colleagues. On this album she turns to Randall Bramblett, Bonnie Bramlett (from Delaney and Bonnie), Al Anderson, Paul Brady, Joe Henry and Bob Dylan.

But, when all is said and done, it is her exquisite vocals that make Bonnie Raitt’s albums such a delightful listen. She can give her voice a slight edge of raspiness on the up-tempo bluesy pieces. And then does the slow ballads with a gorgeous, velvety smooth tone. Not just the sound of the voice, though – it’s that phrasing of hers, which delivers a lyric with intimate detail and perfect timing.

Another superb album, then, from Bonnie Raitt. It’s the complete package: good songs, great vocals, bluesy and funky rock arrangements featuring a two or three-guitar attack. What more could the discriminating fan require? If you know and like her work, rush out buy Bonnie Raitt’s Slipstream. Oh, and turn it up loud.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Book Review: Simon Callow's - "Charles Dickens And the Great Theatre of the World"

Cover of Callow's book about Dickens
There are a lot of books and other projects concerning Charles Dickens being released in 2012 to tie in with the bicentenary of his birth on February 12th, 1812. This one is a book by Simon Callow; it focuses on Dickens as a man of the theatre and, more generally, a public performer - a man happiest when up on the stage mesmerising an audience.

The author, Simon Callow, is an English actor, writer and stage director. I’m familiar with him primarily from three films: he played Mr. Beebe in the Merchant-Ivory film of A Room with a View. He was also did a cameo in Howards End (the Music and Meaning lecturer), another Merchant-Ivory film of an E.M. Forster book. The majority of people, though, would probably know him best from his role as Gareth in Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Callow, as actor, has played the part of Charles Dickens several times: on BBC TV’s An Audience with Charles Dickens (1996); in the film Hans Christian Andersen: My Life as a Fairytale (2003); in two episodes of TV’s Doctor Who (in 2005 and 2011); and in a one-man stage show written by the Dickens biographer Peter Ackroyd, The Mystery of Charles Dickens (2000).

Simon Callow is also an excellent and quite prolific writer. He has written some ten books - including biographies of Oscar Wilde, Charles Laughton and Orson Welles, and several works about the craft of acting. He also writes occasional pieces of journalism on literature, theatre and cultural history for the UK newspapers.

So, having played the great Victorian author, and performed selections of his work on stage – as Dickens did himself at Readings in the latter half of his life – it is no surprise that Simon Callow would eventually write a book about Charles Dickens, focused on his interests in the theatre and in public performance.

Simon Callow portraying Charles Dickens

Callow’s book, Charles Dickens and The Great Theatre of the World, was released about a month ago. It is a very readable and modest account (354 pages) of the life of the great Victorian novelist. Callow focuses primarily on the major biographical incidents – especially in his childhood – that stoked his enormous ambition and prompted the unending need he had of proving himself in front of others. It also documents his life-long interest in attending professional theatre in London and in mounting his own amateur theatrical productions in front of family, friends and invited celebrities of the age. It becomes clear that his novel-writing was fuelled by his interest and knowledge of the stage, and that his focus on creating interesting and unusual characters was the result of his need to dramatise and perform. Throughout his literary career, his weakness in creating coherent plots and tight narrative structures was often offset by his brilliance in creating fascinating characters – some highly sympathetic and some quite repulsive and grotesque.

Callow focuses on Dickens’s early-teenage experience working at the Warren’s Blacking factory in Charing Cross, when his father and family were living in the Marshalsea Debtors Prison. Dickens was deeply humiliated and shaped by this event. He kept the pain hidden – only revealing it in middle-age to his best friend and future-biographer John Forster. It fuelled his need to compete, to act, and to perform. To prove that he was better than he seemed.

The other key formative experience was an unhappy love-affair with Maria Beadnell. He was ardent, romantic and infatuated. She eventually rejected him. He was - that word again - humiliated. He learned to bury the hurt and put up a façade. He began to write and to perform.

In his late-teenage years Dickens’s was a regular – almost daily – attendant of the London theatre. He learned to love the melodrama and the showy style of acting. He often attended theatres in the Strand and Vauxhall, where you could pay a small fee to participate in the performances – a sort of thespian Karaoke, Callow dubs it. He was trying it out and experimenting - considering acting and theatrics a possible avocation.

Not too long after establishing himself as a successful writer, Charles Dickens began a life-long involvement with ‘amateur’ theatricals. He would create an acting-company from family and friends, and work for weeks – sometimes months – preparing a play that would be performed in their own house. It soon became apparent that Dickens didn’t want to just act and perform – he wanted to be the ultimate theatre impresario. He tended to do it all: casting, staging, stage-managing, starring, setting the music, arranging the set, checking the props, directing, producing, and advertising. He drove himself relentlessly. He was a good actor and he loved being on stage. As Callow puts it: “dressing up and disguising himself was as natural to him as breathing.”

Simon Callow
One aspect of Dickens’s theatrical career that Callow is emphatic on is his inability to write anything good for the stage. He was a great novelist, but his plays were flops. They suffered, Callow argues, “from his abject adoration of the theatre of his day, which he dutifully reproduced … you will search the plays in vain for a single Dickensian turn of phrase.” He stuck to melodrama, and relied on coincidence and contrivance to drive the plot, rather than character development.

Almost from the very beginning of Charles Dickens’s success, London theatres began to do bootleg stage versions on his novels. First there was The Perigrinations of Pickwick; then came Moncrieff’s Sam Weller. It was flattering to Dickens to see the spreading success of his work, but then he began to resent the fact that others were making money using his creations, and he was getting nothing in return. This concern for copyright and “intellectual property” continued throughout Dickens’s career. He spoke out forthrightly against American bootlegging of his novels, during his U.S. tour of 1842, and suffered a noticeable backlash from the local newspapers and public opinion. It would still be quite a time before Dickens’s view was generally accepted. Yet he continued to promote “the financial rewards and the status of his fellow professionals.”

One of Charles Dickens’s notable nods to theatre and the theatrical spirit, says Callow, was the long episode in Nicholas Nickleby dealing with the Vincent Crummles acting troupe. He calls it Dickens’s “love letter to the profession”. He makes fun of the motley crew, with stock stereotypes – like the ‘The Infant Phenomenon’, but shows that he likes their camaraderie. He viewed the theatre, and theatre groups, as an entire world, says Callow. “He finds a kindness and warmth and inclusiveness in the theatre that contrasts favourably with almost every other strata of society”.

Dickens skills as performer also showed up in his oratorical skills – his ability to deliver ex tempore speeches for the many public occasions he was obliged to attend and participate in. Actually, the speeches were not really ex tempore; they may have been delivered without notes, but, as Dickens explained once to his writer-friend Wilkie Collins, he would prepare these speeches in his head during extended walks in the country. He would establish the various headings for the topics he’d be covering, than arrange them in his mind’s eye on a cart wheel. As he delivered the oration, he could be seen to gesture as though he were checking off each spoke of the wheel as he progressed.

Simon Callow as Charles Dickens
The final phase of Dickens’s life was dominated by his public Readings. He would perform selected scenes from his most popular and best-loved books. Dramatic scenes and scenes of strong pathos. No other great writer had ever done this before. It all began with a few presentations of A Christmas Carol  for charity. Dickens must have noticed how much money came in. He realised speaking tours could be a major new source of income. 

These presentations were not straight reading; Dickens gave dramatic performances. As Callow emphasises, every one of these performances – and he ended up doing hundreds of them – took a significant physical and emotional toll out of him. Callow suggests they accelerated his early death. But these Readings allowed Dickens to connect directly with his audience, his reading public. He loved doing them, and thrived off the adulation he received. They were cathartic for him, and he filled them with both passion and playfulness. The audiences were mesmerised.

As Simon Callow shows in this excellent book, Dickens was more than just a writer; he was also a born performer. He liked to play games. And mimic his friends and teachers. He told stories and jokes in public. Gave long, formal speeches. Acted in his own theatrical productions. And gave impassioned and dramatic presentations of his books in hundreds of public Readings. He was always on a stage – performing, competing, entertaining, and story-telling.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Book Review: Charles Dickens 5 - "The Old Curiosity Shop"

 Dickens drawn by Count D'Orsay in Dec. 1841
The death of Little Nell in Charles Dickens’s fourth novel, The Old Curiosity Shop, is one of English literature’s great cause célèbres. 

Lord Jeffrey, a literary critic and friend of Dickens, was found in tears after reading her death scene. And the Irish political leader Daniel O’Connell threw the book out of a train window declaring, “He should not have killed her.” 

Oscar Wilde’s response? “One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without dissolving into tears … of laughter.” And the poet Algernon Swinburne called Nell “a monster as inhuman as a baby with two heads.”

As the fate of Little Nell hung in the balance in the final few issues of the novel (printed in weekly-parts), American crowds at the harbour-front in New York City were reported to have yelled at the sailors on board of boats coming in from Britain: “Is Little Nell dead?” 

The novel, from the very beginning, has generated an intense and very mixed response. Modern sensibilities seem to agree more often with Oscar Wilde. The book is seen now primarily as a good example of the Victorian penchant for over-the-top sentiment.

The Old Curiosity Shop was Dickens’ fourth novel. It was published in 88 weekly parts in Dickens’s new magazine, Master Humphrey’s Clock. He had conceived of establishing his own weekly periodical whilst in the final stages of writing Nicholas Nickleby. Apparently, the bad experience he’d had editing Bentley’s Miscellany for publisher Richard Bentley did not deter him from giving magazine-editing another try. His concept for the new periodical was a club of characters who would take turns telling stories.

Cover of Master Humphrey's Clock
Master Humphrey’s Clock was published by Chapman & Hall. They agreed not only to pay Dickens a weekly salary for editing it; they also picked up the tab for all of his expenses and shared the profits. The first issue appeared in April, 1840 and cost threepence a week. It was a handsome-looking publication – larger than the usual periodicals of the time, and printed on good quality, creamy-white paper. Each issue consisted of twelve pages of text and two engravings “dropped” strategically into the text, instead of placed at the beginning and end.

Charles Dickens was 28 years old and at the height of his fame. The first issue of the new magazine sold 70,000 copies. But interest soon began to drop. He realized that he needed to write a new novel in order to revive the flagging sales. Serialisation of The Old Curiosity Shop began in the fourth issue. By the end of its run, in November 1841, each instalment of the story was selling about 100,000 copies. Dickens’s usually wrote his novels in monthly instalments; this one was written in weekly parts and the episodes, therefore, are less expansive and the story proceeds at a more sprightly pace.

At the beginning of the novel’s weekly publication, Dickens was only two weeks ahead of the printer – a rather risky situation. But he was used to that sort of pressure. All of his novels were written like that. He seemed to thrive on the pressure of writing to strict deadlines. He wrote 16 pages each week. His routine was to start work at about 8.30 in the morning and work through until about 2.00 in the afternoon. As usual, he began the novel with a general idea of theme and style, but only a vague notion of where he was going. The details of plot and situations came as he went along – often adapting things according to the responses he was getting from friends, family, and the general public.

The framing device Dickens began with in this novel was that of an old man, Master Humphrey, describing the experience of seeing an old man accompanied by a young girl during one of his late-night strolls in the city of London. He stalks them for a while, and begins to imagine their situation. So the book actually begins with a first-person narrator in the first three chapters. But Dickens found the technique difficult, and he soon abandoned it – switching to third-person narrative in Chapter Four.

Nell and her grandfather on the road
Dickens conceived of the character of Little Nell whilst staying with Walter Savage Landor in Bath. Landor was a poet and essayist. The two writers had only recently met, but were already good friends. Dickens would name his second son after Landor. The character of Daniel Quilp in the new novel was also inspired by an incident in Bath – Dickens had seen “a frightful little dwarf named Prior, who let donkeys out on hire” in the city. Prior was known to beat his animals and his wife - in equal measure.

The structure of The Old Curiosity Shop is a blend of alternating sections dealing, on the one hand, with the sentimental story of an innocent, angelic young girl caring for a physically-frail and morally-weak old grandfather, and, on the other, comic and satiric scenes featuring eccentric and, often, low-life characters. And Dickens engages throughout in a lot of moralizing commentary, meant to take the edge off some of the more unsavoury aspects of the story.

It has to be said that much of the story dealing with Little Nell and the grandfather becomes tedious in its repetitious description of Nell’s struggles to care for the old man. And the eventual demise of this little angel is telegraphed to the reader over and over. In several scenes, for example, she is meditating about life and death in the cemetery of a country church. Much of the criticism of the sentimentality in this novel has been focused primarily on the infamous death-scene. But, as some critics have pointed out, Dickens actually handles the scene with much restraint. The death is not described directly - much to the surprise of many only familiar with its notoriety – an account is given of it after the fact not by the narrator, but by one of the novel’s characters. Regardless, the book is still cited as a major example of its author’s maudlin sentimentality, his obsession with death, and his manipulation of the readers' feelings.

Dick Swiveller and "the Marchioness"
And it’s true that over-the-top sentiment involving Nell can be found throughout the book. But there is also a lot of genuine feeling and compassion found in the situations of other characters in the book. Dickens often is most successful in touching a nerve in his readers when he is not consciously trying. A good example here is the relationship between Dick Swiveller and “the Marchioness”. Swiveller enters the story first as a rather minor stock character – a ne’er-do-well clerk looking for the main chance. But in his compassion for the much-abused servant in the Brass household – whom he comes to dub “the Marchioness” – he morphs into an admirable fellow. 

As is often the case with Dickens’s novels, the central characters here are not the real interest and moral-centre of the book. They are engaged in a series of adventures, often given allegorical overtones. It’s the motley collection of supporting characters who imbue the novel with interest and energy: Mrs. Jarley, the benevolent and earthy proprietor of a waxworks exhibition; Miss Monflathers, the cruel headmistress of a girls’ school; Codlin and Trotters, the squabbling entrepeneurs running a Punch-and-Judy show; and, of course, the grotesque and depraved money-lender Daniel Quilp.

The fate of Daniel Quilp
The contrast between the sweet innocence of Nell and the malevolent cruelty of Quilp presents the classic antitheses found in Charles Dickens’s view of existence: good and evil; angel and devil; female and male; masochist and sadist; asexual and lascivious. The sadistic delight which Quilp revels in, and the physical deformity he exhibits often repel and embarrass the modern reader. But this tactic of giving his most morally-twisted characters a corresponding physical deformity emerged clearly in his previous book. He takes it even further here, and Quilp is, perhaps, his most grotesque and repulsive creation.

Other strategies that had become familiar to Dickens’s readers recur here: Nell and her grandfather’s picaresque on-the-road adventures reminds us of the constant travels of The Pickwick Papers and the early experiences of Nicholas Nickleby with the Crummles’ acting troupe; the life-changing benevolence of the Maylie family in Oliver Twist and the Cheeryble brothers in Nicholas Nickleby recurs here in the Garland clan’s care for Nell’s friend Kit; and the element of mystery in the parentage of Oliver and Smike in two previous books occurs here in the background provided for Nell’s family – Dickens is unable to name the character chapter after chapter, instead he calls him the Single Gentleman. It’s awkward and formulaic.

The Old Curiosity Shop, then, despite a fair amount of tedium in the sections dealing with Nell’s and grandfather’s flight from the clutches of Daniel Quilp, and despite some occasional tear-jerking moments, is still an entertaining and diverting read. It’s full of the usual comic characters and satiric scenes of low-life in the city of London. When he’s not trying so hard to manipulate the emotions of his readers, Dickens writes with vigour and passion and creates scenes with intense atmosphere and presence. Problems of plot-coherence and narrative structure remain, but, with Dickens, it's the immersion into his created world, teeming with character and comic exuberance, that carries the reader forward. Not one of his best - but still worth a read!

[2012 is the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens. Lots of special events and activities are planned in England this year. Back in 2009, my good friend Tony Grant (in Wimbledon, UK) and I did a pilgrimage to three key Charles Dickens destinations - his birthplace in Portsmouth (the house is a Museum), the house he lived at on Doughty Street in London (now the chief Dickens' museum), and the town he lived in as a child on the north-coast of Kent (Rochester). 

These visits inspired me to begin reading through all Dickens's novels. By last summer I had done six, but stalled in the middle of Dombey and Son. I thought what I could do to mark this special year of Charles Dickens was to start again, read through all 14 of his novels inside the year, and blog about them. I'll give it a try, anyway! So this is the fifth of a series.]

Next: Barnaby Rudge

[Resources used: "Introduction" to The Old Curiosity Shop by Peter Washington (1995); Dickens by Peter Ackroyd (1990); "Portraits of Charles Dickens (1812-1870)", an excellent web-page collection of Dickens pictures.  Dickens Portraits ]

Friday, 4 May 2012

CD Review: "Little Broken Hearts" by Norah Jones

Cover of the new album (parody of a Russ Meyer poster for "Mudhoney")
Little Broken Hearts is Norah Jones’s fifth studio album. I picked it up a week ago – in its special-edition version (with three bonus tracks) – a few days before the official release date of the regular CD on May 1, 2012. 

This is a classic break-up album – twelve songs focused on the emotional fall-out from the collapse of her relationship with a “fiction-writing boyfriend”.

It’s also a break-out album – Jones pulls free of her status as a cool, jazz-inflected classicist to work with indie-styled musician-producer Brian Burton, aka ‘Danger Mouse’, and gives her fans something completely different. 

Norah Jones first worked with Brian Burton back in 2009. He’s known for his work with the band Gnarls Barkley - as both musician and producer - and has worked as a producer with many other acts, including The Black Keys, Gorillaz, and Beck. He and Jones spent five days in June 2009 jamming in his Los Angles studio – but they were not fully satisfied with the results. Last year, Jones collaborated with Burton on his album Rome - a tribute to Italian film music. They got together again later in the summer and worked up enough material for the new album. 

Brian Burton - aka Danger Mouse - and Norah Jones

All the songs on Little Broken Hearts are credited to Norah Jones and Brian Burton – Jones doing all the lyrics, I presume, and some of the music, and Burton taking a major share in the writing of the music. They obviously collaborated on the music – Jones plays piano, organ, Rhodes, Wurlitzer, acoustic and electric guitar and bass. But the arrangements and production are clearly dominated by Brian Burton. In fact, this is a real producer’s album – if it was a film project, Burton would be called an auteur. This quirky individualistic approach makes it an interesting album, with distinctly positive and negative sides.

From the very first listen, I didn’t like the sound of this production – it’s heavily compressed and lacks both the high and low-end of music with a full frequency-response. To me, it sounds muddy. The drums are neutered, with no oomph. Jones’s vocals, too, are heavily treated: equalized so as to restrict them to the mid-range and given lots of reverb. And they’re often set back in the mix. He eliminates the sultry, intimate texture that is the familiar sound of her vocals. It’s a legitimate thing to do, of course, but it does tend to make her sound cold and detached, when hot and angry seems more appropriate with these particular lyrics.

The music Burton creates here is primarily a synth-based groove. The drums are minimalistic – noticeable for setting out interesting patterns, rather than being the dominant element in the rhythm. Several tracks feature an upbeat, pop approach – “Say Goodbye” has a nifty synthesizer riff, “Happy Pills” sounds perky, despite the downer lyrics, and “Out on the Road” chugs along, with overdubbed vocals in the choruses. Not everything works here - some of the songs are rather non-descript, and the album drags a bit in the middle.

Jones covers all the emotional range one might expect in a collection of songs focused on romantic heartbreak: pain, disbelief, acceptance, anger and hate. But the emotions tied up in the lyrics are not always evident because of the production. So, what often sounds cool and detached is actually seething underneath with resentment. In “She’s 22”, Jones sings: “Are you happy? … does she make you happy? … I’d like to see you happy.” But not really. And she sounds so very sad. On “Happy Pills” she wants to escape the whole quagmire of her feelings: “Please, just let me go now … I’m trying to make it so I never see your face again”. But it’s on the penultimate track, “Miriam”, that all of the hurt really hits home. The quiet, brooding vocal seems measured at first. “I’m not the jealous kind,” she sings, but the words are ominous: “Oh, Miriam, that’s such a pretty name, and I’ll keep saying it until you die.” A brilliant track, this one.

With Little Broken Hearts, Norah Jones has served notice that she’s not willing to stay stuck with the tried and true. And that’s as it should be. Known in the early days as a piano-playing chanteuse firmly in the jazz-combo scene, she’s playing a lot more guitar now, and looking for new ways to create and present her music. It’s a refreshing change of tack for her, and while I’m not crazy about the production style, the album is interesting, and it’s going to expand considerably the audience listening to her work.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Book Review: Charles Dickens 4 - "Nicholas Nickleby"

A woodcut engraving of Dickens in 1838 
Charles Dickens still had about a dozen monthly instalments left to write of Oliver Twist when he began work on Nicholas Nickleby in February, 1838. He was twenty-five years old and riding the crest of a wave. This new book - his fourth - would be his third novel. It proved to be hugely successful and confirmed his status as the most popular novelist of his generation. The first issue of his Pickwick Papers, published two years previously, had consisted of just 400 copies. Nicholas Nickleby sold almost 50,000 copies on the very first day of its publication (April 1st., 1838).

Dickens had signed a contract with his publisher, Chapman & Hall, to write the new novel back in November, 1837 – so it took him several months to decide on a subject, a theme and a style for the new work. His general idea was to combine the best elements of Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, but also to add something new. He wanted some of the humour and picaresque adventure found in Pickwick Papers; but he also intended to provide more of the hard-hitting social satire he’d used in Oliver Twist. His vision extended even further than that - he planned to focus these disparate elements around a plotline that would become essentially his first romance. The novel would tell the story of young Nicholas Nickleby, an aspiring young gentleman, much like himself, struggling against the vicissitudes of the world.

Cover wrapper for the new novel
Like most of his novels, Nicholas Nickleby was written in 20 monthly instalments. Each issue consisted of 32 pages of text and two illustrations done by Hablot Browne (“Phiz”). They cost one shilling. The first issue was published in March 1838; the final instalment (a double-issue priced at two shillings) came out in September, 1839. So, like the ten-month period in 1837, when Dickens was writing both an instalment of Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist each month, from April 1838 to April 1839 Dickens was writing Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby simultaneously. He seemed to thrive on the pressure of meeting constant deadlines.

The initial idea that fired up Dickens’s imagination was to write a polemical satire - in fictional form - of the so-called “Yorkshire schools”. Following the success of Oliver Twist in bringing the issue of child abuse in parish workhouses to the general public’s attention, Dickens decided to court public opinion again – this time in regard to certain disreputable boarding schools in Yorkshire which were used as dumping grounds for illegitimate and unwanted children. Really, these schools were little more than juvenile prisons. The children were abandoned to horrible situations – suffering near-starvation diets and deplorable health conditions. Dickens had heard and read about these establishments in his childhood and they had been in the news again recently. He decided to investigate. He took his illustrator, Hablot Browne, up North with him and visited the Bowes Academy in Greta Bridge – near Barnard Castle in West Yorkshire. The place was run by a certain William Shaw. His apparent cruelty became the model for the vicious and dishonest Wackford Squeers – the entrepreneurial headmaster of the fictional Dotheboys Hall. Dickens succeeded in his plan; thanks to the lurid description of Dotheboys Hall in his new book, the twenty-or-so Yorkshire boarding schools were gone within a generation, victims of an outraged public.

The "internal economy" of Dotheboys Hall: brimstone and treacle served by Mrs. Squeers

A new element in Dickens’s technique in this new book was to create characters with physical deformities – used to embody their moral depravity and then exaggerated for comic effect. These characterizations often tend towards the grotesque, but Dickens is not essentially providing realistic portraits; the characters’ deformities are worn much like a mask – they represent an attitude, or a state of mind. The one-eyed Wackford Squeers, for example, is blind to his own wickedness. His obnoxious son is obese – and busy tormenting the half-starved waifs in his father’s “school”. But it’s not just the evil characters that are physically deformed – some of the good ones are too: Smike, the pathetic youth who has been oppressed by Squeers for many years in Dotheboys Hall, is lame and half-witted. Newman Noggs, Ralph Nickleby’s servant/assistant, is a bundle of deformities. The physical weaknesses here serve as a sharp contrast to their inner benevolence – emphasizing the cruelty they have suffered. 

Nicholas Nickleby is an uneasy blend of satire, picaresque comedy, romance and melodrama. As such, Dickens continues to exploit techniques and situations that had proved successful in his previous books. And the public seemed to love these epic stories in which Dickens mixes genres and alternates styles. After the early polemic against the Yorkshire schools, Dickens puts Nicholas on the road to Portsmouth, where he encounters a travelling acting-troupe under the jovial leadership of Vincent Crummles. This long episode, in which the young Nickleby takes on the role of playwright and leading-actor [Dickens had toyed with the idea of the theatre as a vocation], is a comic interlude in a story that is primarily a romantic melodrama. The romance involves Nicholas’s struggle to vindicate his self-image as a young gentleman in search of love, career prospects, and a fortune. He works to save his “princess” (the lovely Madeline Bray) from a forced marriage to a despicable old money-lender. Nicholas also struggles against the wicked machinations of his main antagonist - his depraved uncle, Ralph Nickleby. His uncle works throughout the novel to thwart his nephew's plans and to ruin the lives of his widowed sister-in-law and her two children, Nicholas and Kate.  

Fanny Squeers tries to interest Nicholas
It’s the character of Ralph Nickleby that keeps the book alive, because mid-way through the book, Nicholas comes under the paternal care of the unbelievably benevolent Cheeryble brothers, who run a successful business in the city of London and shower love and largesse on whomever catches their fancy. There is no more financial struggle for Nicholas and, like Oliver Twist before it (where Oliver lands safe, mid-novel, in the bosom of the Maylie family), the plot falters and the book goes soft. In another similarity with the previous book - which stretched out a convoluted plot-line to explain the mystery of Oliver’s parentage - this novel also creates a mystery about the secret parentage of Smike, and the people who abandoned the child to the cruel care of the Squeers family.

In a melodrama there is scant little character development - things happen, coincidences occur. And the author gets busy announcing what has happened, telling us what the characters think and feel, and moving his heroes and villains through each plot-point, and on to the inevitable conclusion, with young couples pairing up and ensconcing themselves safely in their comfy homes at the happy conclusion.

What saves Nicholas Nickleby from being mere melodrama - as usual with Dickens - are some interesting and delightful characters. There is the foppish Mr. Mantalini, who is forever disappointing his practical and business-minded wife and blustering his way along with a stream of vapid endearments and alibis. There is the put-upon man-servant Newman Noggs, who seems weak and pathetic, but always turns up at key moments to save the day and thwart his evil employer. There is the vile Sir Mulberry Hawk, who engages in a long campaign of attempting to seduce Nicholas’s sister Kate - assisted by their uncle Ralph. And there is Ralph, himself – a relentlessly malevolent figure devoted to the pursuit of money and the exploitation of everyone within his sphere of influence. In some ways, the driving ambition of this character reveals unwittingly, perhaps, the inner disposition of his author – who wants us to identify him with the ardent and sensitive young Nicholas struggling to make his way in a corrupt world. But there is a lot of the relentless ambition and need for financial security in Ralph Nickleby’s character to be found in the secret world of Dickens’s troubled heart.

And, then, there is Mrs. Nickleby, Nicholas’s and Kate’s mother. She is a feckless woman and, at every key moment, comes to the wrong conclusion and makes a poor judgment about people. It is thought that there is a lot of Elizabeth Dickens, Charles Dickens’ mother, in this portrait of Mrs. Nickleby. She annoys us with her lack of insight and her gullibility at the hands of scoundrels. And she is forever rambling on about some memory from the past – and gets lost in a strange and tortuous string of associations, in which she always forgets what she is supposed to be remembering. But some of these long, rambling speeches of hers are droll and diverting – early examples, really, of stream-of-consciousness-thinking put into monologue form. 

In its day Nicholas Nickleby was immensely popular and consolidated Dickens’s hold on the public’s imagination and heart. If the book strikes us today as rather unshapely and overly-melodramatic, it still manages to compel us with its vigorous description, grotesque and comic characters, funny set-pieces, and drawn-out story-lines. And despite the transparencies seen in some of his techniques and stylistic flourishes, Dickens still draws you in, and leads you on, with the sheer exuberance of his imaginative power. But what is it that stays with you, once the book is back on the shelf? For me, it's those early chapters set in the Yorkshire school at Dotheboys Hall: Nicholas thrashing Wackford Squeers with his own cane and taking poor Smike to safety. He might veer too often towards pathos and sentiment, but Dickens truly knew how to touch the human heart and stir his readers’ sense of compassion.

Nicholas thrashes Squeers with his own school cane

[2012 is the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens. Lots of special events and activities are planned in England this year. Back in 2009, my good friend Tony Grant (in Wimbledon, UK) and I did a pilgrimage to three key Charles Dickens destinations - his birthplace in Portsmouth (the house is a Museum), the house he lived at on Doughty Street in London (now the chief Dickens' museum), and the town he lived in as a child on the north-coast of Kent (Rochester). 

These visits inspired me to begin reading through all Dickens's novels. By last summer I had done six, but stalled in the middle of Dombey and Son. I thought what I could do to mark this special year of Charles Dickens was to start again, read through all 14 of his novels inside the year, and blog about them. I'll give it a try, anyway! So this is the fourth of a series.]

Next: The Old Curiosity Shop

[Resources used: "Introduction" to Nicholas Nickleby by John Carey (1993); Dickens by Peter Ackroyd (1990) ]