Wednesday, January 30, 2013

One-hit wonder

The Fifth Estate is pretty much the definition of a one-hit wonder band. They had exactly one song make the Billboard pop chart, "Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead," which just missed making the top 10, and, as British music critics say, they never troubled the charts again. But, as with most such bands, there is more to their story than that one hit. As someone who delights in finding obscure 60s pop gems, I bought the recent 2-disc release "The Fifth Estate: Anthology Volume 1: The Witch is Dead." I would recommend this to other fans of oldies mainstream pop, though giving over 2 whole discs with the promise of at least one more in the works does seem excessive.

The five Connecticut musicians got their start in 1963 as The Decadents, then changed their name to The D-Men and eventually released a handful of singles that got some spotty airplay but never hit the national charts. By 1966 they were called The Fifth Estate, and according to the album's liner notes, they recorded "Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead" because they took a bet that no one could make a hit out of any song from The Wizard of Oz. One member who was studying Renaissance music and who had just built a harpsichord interpolated a section of music in the middle by 17th century composer Michael Praetorius, and it's that move that, in that brief era of "baroque pop" ("A Whiter Shade of Pale," "Walk Away Renee," "Eleanor Rigby") probably made the song a hit. Their record company wanted lightning to strike twice and pushed them to do another baroque version of an old song, "Heigh Ho" from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but it didn't hit the charts and the band folded soon after, though the surviving members have just released a new album.

If you're hoping to hear more songs like "The Witch is Dead," this album will disappoint you. But if you like the sound of Beatlesque garage-band pop, this has much to offer. One reason why the band didn't hit it big may have been because they never settled into one groove. Many of the songs have a mid-60s Beatles sound, especially "Don't You Know" and "Love is All a Game," but some sound more like the Monkees or Paul Revere & the Raiders ("Heartache Heartbreak," "Morning Morning"). There are half-hearted attempts at blues ("Strange Blues") and a rewrite--at least lyrically--of Petula Clark's "Downtown" called "It's Waiting There for You."

Later songs have some slightly more sophisticated arrangements ("Someday Maybe, Someday Soon," "Night on Fire"). They even make a stab at a humor/retro sound (think "Winchester Cathedral" or Tiny Tim) with "No. 1 Hippie on the Village Scene" and "Lost Generation." Almost everything on disc 1 is worth listening to, and most of the songs I've named above are ones I'll be pleased to add to my iPod playlists.

But the set has its problems. Disc 2 consists of demos and live recordings of mostly poor quality. There are a couple of interesting songs but I can't imagine ever listening to the second disc again. The liner notes are good but there is no list of songs with information (date of recording, album name, etc.) as most archival CD sets contain, only a numbered list of song titles--and on disc 2, the order of cuts is listed inaccurately. Overall, a worthy purchase for 60s pop fans, but I doubt I'll keep an eye peeled for volume 2.

Friday, January 11, 2013

A Dickens Christmas mystery; or, my problem with e-books

First, the book: The Christmas Carol Murders by Christopher Lord. It's Christmastime in quaint Dickens Junction, Oregon, where all the stores and businesses have names out of Dickens novels (yes, there's an inn called Bleak House), and just at the peak of tourist season, representatives from something called Marley Enterprises arrive, looking to buy up all the town square properties and set up an Ayn Rand wonderland—Rand's philosophy of selfishness being the opposite of Dickens' message of charity—and soon someone starts killing people in rather spectacular ways. Simon Alastair, who owns a bookstore called Pip's Pages and has been the driving force behind the town's reputation as a haven for lovers of Dickens, starts investigating at the same time as he tries to stop the locals from selling to Marley. He also gets in a little flirtation with a hunky reporter named Zach who is town to write an article on the Junction.

This is a first novel and as such, shows promise. Simon is a good central character and the ingredients for a nice "cozy" mystery series are in place: small town, colorful characters, amateur sleuth. But I had a hard time keeping track of the characters because most of them don't come to life, or aren't differentiated enough from each other. Unlike some online reviewers, I had no problem with the gay content—Simon is "out" and not presented as a stereotype (though his buddy George gets saddled with the requisite campy personality), and though he and Zach do pair up during the novel, there are no sex scenes at all, straight or gay. But the murders are surprisingly gory and graphic. In a Silence of the Lambs-type thriller, these would fit right in, but here they break the delicate cozy atmosphere. In addition, I suspect the author didn't play fair with those who try hard to follow the clues and figure out whodunit before the end. I'm not typically one of those readers, but the solution seemed to come out of nowhere. Still, I might give a second Dickens Junction novel a shot.

Next, my e-book problem: I read the e-book version of this novel, and I admit that may have prejudiced my opinions. I find that e-book reading feels more ephemeral than print book reading. I like the heft of a book. I like looking at and feeling the texture of the cover. I like knowing exactly how far I have to go. I like flipping back through the book when I pick it back up after a night away, or a week away, or longer. I like writing little notes in the margins or underlining things. I like having a stack of books on my nightstand—OK, to be honest, I like having stacks of books around my bed, and bookshelves filled to overflowing. My partner likes the search and notes function on the Kindle, but when I'm flipping back, I'm not usually looking for a certain name or term, but just to refresh my memory. I don't mean to be seen as agitating against e-books, but I have done enough e-reading now to realize that it just won't take the place of the print book experience for me. I do like the fact that I can get older public domain titles easier and cheaper on my Kindle (Fu Manchu books by Sax Rohmer for a dollar a piece!), and I will certainly take my Kindle along when I travel, which isn't that often, but for now, I remain an old-fashioned book boy (or, just an old curmudgeon, I guess).

So I suspect that, had I read The Christmas Carol Murders in print, I might have had a different reaction. I read an e-book of The Age of Miracles last year and liked it quite a bit, but still was left with that nebulous feeling that I hadn't gotten the full reading experience out if it. This doesn't seem to be as important with non-fiction e-books, but I generally read non-fiction in a completely different mode, with less concern for narrative flow, atmosphere, and following a plot. I'm tempted to check out a copy of Lord's book from the library and read it again, to see if it alters my opinion. (I probably won't but stay tuned in case.)