musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Unlikely Tribute to Nada Surf

The advent of the tribute album — that is, a bunch of contemporary musicians performing new versions of classic songs by a legendary band or singer — is hardly a new trend in the music industry. Actually, with the increase in downloading and streaming in recent years, you don’t see that many tribute albums released any longer. From the record company’s perspective, I guess it’s no longer a marketable idea.

Thus, seeing the recent release of Standing at the Gates: The Songs of Nada Surf’s Let Go was an unexpected but joyous one. Not only is Nada Surf a relatively obscure band, but to pick a single album by them was a daring but brilliant idea. Except for Aimee Mann and Ed Harcourt, chances are you have never heard anything by most of the other artists on here, but rest assured they all do these songs proud; this a thoroughly wonderful album. Then again, the original Let Go was packed with solid songs, so to hear the great new versions of those songs is not so far-fetched a proposition.

I’m almost reluctant to choose highlights from this album, seeing as how I love every track, but special mention has to go to the opening track, Manchester Orchestra’s version of “Blizzard of ‘77”, The Texas Gentlemen’s take on “Inside of Love”, Rogue Wave doing a faithful cover of “Blonde on Blonde”, The Long Winter tearing it up on “Hi-Speed Soul,” an equally torrid version of “The Way You Wear Your Head” by Charly Bliss”, and Aimee Mann’s tender take on “Paper Boats”. But my favorite track on this album is the instrumental version of “Neither Heaven Nor Space” by William Tyler. Imagine the guitar sound of Chris Isaak morphing into something magically atmospheric like what Vini Reilly could do with the Durutti Column and you have an idea of how special this sounds. I’m transported every time.

 

Another incentive to buy this album (and I would urge all music lovers to support the artists and BUY as much music from musicians and retail stores as you can) is that proceeds from the sales of this album go to the ACLU and the Pablove Foundation, a very worthy non-profit organization that helps children that are suffering from cancer.

And while I’m at it, I can’t neglect mentioning Nada Surf’s own tribute album, the batch of cool covers that constituted their wonderful If I Had a Hi-Fi album from 2010. For this album they choose songs by the likes of the Dwight Twilley Band, Arthur Russell, Kate Bush, the Go-Betweens, Depeche Mode, the Moody Blues, and a handful of more obscure artists. The result, as expected, was sheer musical bliss. If you haven’t heard anything by Nada Surf before, get this one, or any of their other studio albums. They are all worthwhile listens.

http://www.nadasurf.com/standing-at-the-gates-the-songs-of-nada-surfs-let-go/

 

Death of a Burmese Monk

Late last month I was saddened to hear about the death of U Kuthala Nanda, a monk at the Tat Ein monastery in Myanmar’s Shan State, on the outskirts of Nyaung Shwe. He was only 40 years old. I have visited the monastery dozens of times in the past decade and I considered U Kuthala Nanda a good friend.

I first met U Kuthala Nanda when he was an adult novice monk, having only recently entered the monkhood in his thirties after living his entire life in Nyaung Shwe. He was also the brother of my longtime friend Ma Pu Su, who runs the Bamboo Delight Cooking Class in Nyaung Shwe.

U Kuthala Nanda, or Aung Nanda as he was known before becoming a monk, had his share of difficult times, particularly in his late teens and twenties, when he was more inclined to live a wild life and seek solace from alcohol. But he eventually turned his life around and became a well-respected monk, what they call an U-Zin, at the monastery. I know that he devoted himself to teaching and taking care of the dozens of young notice monks who stay at the monastery, and I’m sure they are devasted by his passing.

Aung Thaung, one of the novice monks who spent the past several years with U Kuthala Nanda at the monastery, called me about two months ago to tell me that U Kuthala Nanda needed more money for his cancer treatment. From talking with Ma Pu Sue, I had known that U Kuthala Nanda was ill, but didn’t realize that the situation had become so dire. “I like to help people” young Aung Thaung told me after I had thanked him for letting me know the status of U Kuthala Nanda’s treatment. But despite the efforts of all of us, nothing could stop the ravage of the disease. I want to repeat the old refrain  that life is unfair, but the Buddhists also tell us the “life is suffering” so I’m confident that U Kuthala Nanda passed away knowing he did what he could during his brief time on this planet, and he left behind many, many young men who have benefited from his experiences and counsel. He will be missed.

 

There were many great vocalists to come along during the 1960s and 1970s when I was growing up. I was a middle-class white kid but I always felt a special affinity for the black singers of that period, great soulful male voices such as Otis Redding, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin of the Temptations (not to mention their solo stuff), Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Aaron Neville, Barry White, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Bobby Womack, Lou Rawls, and yes even the young Michael Jackson. I could venture further into deep soul territory and mention guys like Major Lance, Walter Jackson, General Johnson of the Chairman of the Board, George Jackson, James Carr, Sam Dees, Joe Simon, Syl Johnson, Lenny Williams from Tower of Power, Donny Hathaway, and Otis Clay. No doubt I’m leaving off many other deserving male soul singers from those years, but you get the idea: there were truly a bunch of great voices that emerged from those magical decades. And I barely touched on the many classic male vocal groups from that era such as the Spinners, O’Jays, Dramatics, Stylistics, and so many more. I’ll say it again; what a great era for music.

I recently read an online list of the “Greatest Singers” of that period and one noticeable omission was the late Teddy Pendergrass. What a great, great voice! Strong and passionate, full of fire and soul, and also capable of singing sweet love songs. Versatile and memorable. Teddy first gained fame as the lead singer of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, the Philadelphia International vocal group that were one of the more successful of the Gamble & Huff production projects of the 1970s. Songs such as “The Love I Lost”, “Bad Luck”, “Don’t Leave Me This Way”, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”, and “Wake Up Everybody” were stone soul classics that still sound vibrant today.

But after that string of big hits Teddy bolted from the comfort of the Blue Notes and went solo, releasing his self-titled debut album, Teddy Pendergrass, in 1977. That album, and 1978’s Life is a Song Worth Singing were full of more great songs, but they didn’t enjoy the same crossover pop success that he had enjoyed with Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. Nevertheless, Teddy continued his solo career, always charting high and racking up hits on the R&B charts, even if major Top 40 success proved elusive.

And then came the tragic accident. In early 1982, while driving home late one night in Philadelphia, Teddy lost control of his car, hitting a guard rail and two trees. He was trapped inside the car for nearly an hour. He suffered spinal cord injuries in the crash and was paralyzed from the waist down. That could have signaled the end of his singing career, but Teddy persevered, undergoing physical therapy (although he would never walk again), signing to a new label, and releasing several more studio albums in the late 1980s and into the 1990s. Sadly, he died of respiratory failure at the still young age of 59 in 2010.

When I was in Kuala Lumpur last month, I picked up a very good collection of his music, titled The Real … Teddy Pendergrass, a 3-CD set (issued by Sony Music) that includes material from his time with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes plus wonderful tracks from his early solo albums for Philadelphia International. But that’s only one of many fine collections that feature his music. Any of them are worth owning if you are a fan of soul or R&B music. Soul deep indeed!

And I have a personal Teddy Pendergrass story to add, although I never met the great singer. I was working at a record store in Orlando, Florida back in the late 1970s and his third solo album, simply called Teddy, had been released. The record company sent us a life-sized cardboard standup display of Teddy to promote the album (note: this was indeed a vinyl record, well before the advent of CDs, downloads, and streaming). The manager of my shop at that time was a young black guy named Jimmy (a really cool guy who turned me onto some great music) who bore a very slight resemblance to Teddy. Well, Jimmy did something to piss off the owner and was fired one day. The owner, a grumpy old character named Nate, called me up the next morning and asked me to meet him at the shop so he could give me a set of keys. Upon arrival we walked up to the shop and Nate peered into the dark interior. “Jimmy! What the hell are you doing in there?  Open up!” Well, it wasn’t Jimmy inside the shop; it was that darned Teddy Pendergrass cardboard stand-up. I refrained from laughing right then and there, but that story became a classic among us record store workers for many years afterwards!

I’m always listening to music. I need it as much as the air that I breathe and the water that I drink. It’s my life. At work, at home, and even when I travel I always have some tunes playing. I’m an album sort of guy, so I prefer listening to entire CDs or albums all the way through. Here are the musical friends that kept me company during my recent trip to Kuala Lumpur:

Steely Dan – Countdown To Ecstasy

Another from a very long line of Becker and Fagen masterpieces in the 1970s. Pick any song off this album. They are all gems! Pure songwriting genius, not to mention masterful musicians.

 

Maceo and All the King’s Men – Doing Their Own Thing

This, of course, is James Brown sidekick Maceo Parker blowing his horn and having a blast with a different bunch of musicians, Funky as expected, but also flourishes of jazz and some sweet soul. A real treat.

 

Gene Clark – Two Sides to Every Story

The ex-Byrds member released MANY fine solo albums during his short but brilliant career, and this relatively unsung effort from 1977 is among his very finest. Let the power of these songs move your soul.

 

Various Artists – Quiet About It: A Tribute to Jesse Winchester

Yet another singer-songwriter who should have been MUCH better known, Jesse Winchester mostly plied his craft from the 1970s through the early 2000s (after a Vietnam War-era hiatus in Canada), releasing several fine albums, the songs from which were covered by many other artists over the years. This “tribute” album, compiled when he was very ill, features a stellar cast of musicians including James Taylor, Rosanne Cash, Jimmy Buffett, Allen Toussaint, Lyle Lovett, Lucinda Williams, Elvis Costello, Vince Gill, and more. Great songs and great performances.

 

Puss N Boots – No Fools, No Fun

This is Nora Jones, shedding her jazzy ways, joining two other talented female musicians and rocking away full throttle, with some lovely pop and folk garnishes. Covers of songs by the Band, Wilco, Neil Young, and more cool tunes, combined with fine originals written by band member Catherine Popper. What a pleasant surprise!

 

Bruce Hornsby – Here Comes the Noisemakers

This 2-CD set comprises performances from tours between 1998 and 2000. If you thought Hornsby was some sort of one-hit wonder (“The Way It Is”) think again; this set showcased his piano chops, songwriting skills, deft cover choices, and a crack band. Musical brilliance.

 

Various Artists – Largo

A very unlikely combination of artists makes for a thoroughly wonderful album, sort of “tribute” to composer Antonin Dvorak without the bombastic classical bits. Start off with the blues legend Taj Mahal, add Levon Helm from the Band, Cyndi Lauper, Joan Osborne (who sings the stunning “”An Uncommon Love”), rock vet Willie Nile, members of the Irish legends the Chieftains, some guys from 80s hitmakers The Hooters, and a dash of  Carole King. Simply an outstanding album that defies categorization. I wish more people had heard this album.

 

David Crosby – Sky Trails

Another ex-Byrds member, and more famously a founder of Crosby, Still & Nash, has been a real roll with a string of very strong solo albums this decade. On this one it sounds like he’s been listening to Joni Mitchell and Steely Day. And that’s a good thing!

 

Pink Floyd – Animals

What more can you say? Another rock classic from the 1970s. Pigs on the Wing!

 

Phoebe Snow – Phoebe Snow

One of those old chestnuts that still sounds great after all these years. Her debut album from 1974 had the hit “Poetry Man” but also plenty of other cool songs with a pop, jazz and soul flavor.

 

Bennett Wilson Poole – Bennett Wilson Poole

I hesitate to call this is a super-group, mainly because you’ve probably never heard of the other bands these guys are from but rest assured this is a wonderful lineup of very gifted singers and musicians. It features Danny Wilson from Danny and the Champions of the World (who have recorded a number of fine albums), Tony Poole from Starry Eyed and Laughing, as well as Robin Bennett who has played with Saint Etienne and the Dreaming Spires. The result is sheer pop brilliance with a laid back ‘70s vibe. A review in Mojo Magazine raved that their music “is rooted in late-60s country psyche, their heart in the LA canyons, and their talent somewhere in Americana nirvana.” And yet they hail from the UK. You can hear the influence of bands like the Byrds and CSN. Addictive stuff!

 

Poco – Head Over Heels

This influential country-rock group put out a lot of fine albums over the years. Even after losing one of their original members they carried and on and recorded this wonderful album in 1975. Chock full of one great song after another. It’s my favorite Poco album of all time.

 

Jackie Leven – Elegy for Johnny Cash

Ah, the voice of an angel! The ex-Doll By Doll singer put out a ton of fine solo albums over the past 20 years and never got the proper acclaim he deserved. This was another keeper, full of intelligent, soulful pleasantl subtle rock tunes. Hey, even Ian Rankin was a big fan!

 

Tasmin Archer – Great Expectations

One of the great unheralded voices from the 1990s. Great soulful pop songs propelled by that powerful voice. Should have been a monster hit.

 

Various Artists – Me, Myself & Irene (music from the motion picture)

Take a silly Jim Carrey movie but pump up the volume with some ultra-cool music — mostly covers of classic Steely Dan songs — and you end up with one winner of a soundtrack. The covers of Steely Dan songs by the likes of Wilco, Ivy, Ben Folds Five, and the Brian Setzer Orchestra are nothing less than joyous, plus original material by Pete Yorn, Hootie  the Blowfish, and even the Foo Fighters are also top notch.

 

Bo Deans – Joe Dirt Car

A very energetic and fun double live album by one of the more underrated “alternative” bands from the late 1980s and early 1990s. Listen to the audience feedback and it’s obvious that their fans adored them.

 

Lyle Lovett – Step Inside This House

This 2-CD set is Lovett’s tribute to the songs from other great Texas singer-songwriters of the past 40 years He covers songs by familiar names such as Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, and Michael Martin Murphey, plus more obscure guys like Steve Fromholz, Willis Allen Ramsey, and Robert Earl Keen. Lovely, lovely stuff.

 

Blue Rodeo – The Things We Left Behind

Yet another double album, this one by the veteran but underrated Canadian band. They do “Americana” in the vein of the Jayhawks; catchy songs with stirring harmonies. Always a good thing.

 

Deacon Blue – Ooh Las Vegas

Once again, a 2-CD set, this one comprised of covers, B-sides, soundtrack songs, and other rarities that the excellent Scottish band recorded during the 1980s and 1990s. If you liked Raintown or any of their other fine albums, don’t miss this goldmine of rare tunes too. Soulful pop and songs that stick in your head.

 

Josh Rouse – Under Cold Blue Stars

Maybe not his very best album (I still have a soft spot for Dressed Up Like Nebraska) but still a very solid and enjoyable set of songs. Rouse is one of the better but lesser known American singer-songwriters to appear in the past 20 years and you can’t go wrong with any of early albums including this fine set of pop majesty from 2002.

 

The Future of Thailand

An article in the Bangkok Post this week caught my eye. Titled “Chuan says schools must focus on ethics” the article highlighted a speech that Chuan Leekpai, a former prime minister of Thailand, gave at the 53rd anniversary celebration of the National Institute of Development in Bangkok last week.

During the 24 years that I’ve lived in Thailand, Chuan Leekpai has always been my favorite Thai prime minister. Of course, considering the inept and creepy cast of characters that have also held that position over the years, the competition is not exactly a close one. Chuan is an intelligent and articulate speaker, a savvy and skillful politician, and dare I say an honest and ethical one too; which is a rare thing in politics nowadays. One only has to observe that embarrassing antics of the rude and bombastic buffoon who currently acts as president of the United States to appreciate intelligent leaders like Chuan Leekpai.

 

Anyway, to get back to the speech he gave last week, Chuan, who is now the government’s House Speaker, suggested that Thai students should be taught more about ethics and morality in school, saying that this would help to lessen future conflict and problems in the county.  Some people, Chuan said, “do not make good moral judgments when faced with scenarios which require honesty, courage and self-discipline. If individuals uphold good moral values, they will be aware of the consequences of their actions and refrain from indulging in such acts. We need people who are good academically to develop the country, but we also need good people who cherish high standards of morality and will not compromise on corruption.”

 

Well said, Khun Chuan! If any of the younger generation actually pay attention and heed his words, maybe the future of this country won’t be so bleak after all.

I don’t travel much anymore. Really, I’ve pretty much lost the urge for adventure and seeing famous sights. And when I do travel somewhere, domestically or overseas, my goal is simply to relax.

Thus, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia has become one of my very favorite cities to visit. It’s only a 2-hour flight from my home in Bangkok to get there, and upon arrival the customs and visa process is refreshingly easy and efficient. Going from the airport into the heart of KL is also painless thanks of the handy KLIA train link. Once again, fast and efficient.

When I’m in KL I pretty much stick to the same routine: eating and shopping. The culinary treats could be local Malaysian dishes or excellent Indian, Burmese or Vietnamese food. Fancy a good steak? There is The Ship or the venerable Coliseum. Plenty of sumptuous choices for any appetite.

As for the shopping I only have two targets: books and CDs. Since the demise of the Rock Corner chain last year the best place to find new CDs is the Victoria Music outlet in the Amcorp Mall in Petaling Jaya. For secondhand CDs, Amcorp Mall is also the best hunting grounds. There is a great little shop on the basement level of the mall, and on weekends there are several dealers who ply their trade at the mall’s indoor flea market. More on those goodies in a later post.

For books, the weekend flea market at Amcorp Mall also has a decent assortment of dealers, but the best buys are actually new books at one of the BookXcess branches. I think they now have 6 branches in the greater KL area, but I  usually peruse the shelves at the large outlet in the Amcorp Mall and I’m also fond of the newer location at Fahrenheit in Bukit Bintang. At BookXcess they sell “remainders” at dirt cheap prices and the selection is very good. If you want newer new books, you can try the huge Kinokuniya branch in KLCC.

Getting around Kuala Lumpur and suburbs such as Petaling Jaya is also a breeze thanks to the various electric train links, subway and monorail, all conveniently accessed by a single ticket. I wish Bangkok would get it together and offer their multiple train links on a similar single ticket. Sigh. Maybe in my lifetime it will happen.

I also love just walking around KL and admiring the modern architecture and the mosques and temples, plus bursts of colorful graffiti and crumbling older buildings, most of which I think may not be around much longer. The last few years has seen a construction boom all around KL. I almost feel dizzy looking around at the sea of construction cranes and building skeletons reaching towards the skies. What’s fueling all this construction I wonder?

I’ve also grown to like the people in KL. They are not as overtly “smiley” as the locals in Thailand or Myanmar, but I find them to be very honest and helpful. It’s an interesting mix of cultures, nationalities, and religions. Sure, you can’t ignore the predominant Muslim influence in the country, but there is also a strong Hindu and Buddhist presence too. Take the native Malays, Indians, those with Chinese heritage, and immigrants from Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and other Asian countries, and you have a diverse and dynamic cultural mix. Not to mention lots of great restaurants. I’m already looking forward to my next visit!

 

I had casually noticed books by Fredrik Backman in my bookshop many times over the past year or two, but had never thought to actually take the time to read one until recently. I’ve now read two of his novels — A Man Call Ove and Britt-Marie Was Here — and now I’m hooked. So much so, that I just bought two more books and have another two on my “to buy” list. I think he’s that good.

No doubt the high-brow literary pundits will scoff at the appeal of Backman’s feel-good novels but for readers like me — and apparently his fans now number in the millions around the world — these books are simply magical.

 

So, what’s the appeal? “Magical” is an overused adjective, but it really does succinctly sum up the power of these novels. Take an unlikely elderly protagonist, surround him or her with an equally unlikely cast of misfits, and the results are both comical and compelling.

It would take an arsenal of adjectives to properly describe Backman’s style, but the books are alternately funny and sad, delightful and thought-provoking, profoundly deep and easy to read. Basically, they are inspirational and life-affirming stories, the sort of book that will make you think differently about other people, not to mention yourself. I alternated between laughter and tears while reading the first two books, not ashamed to admit that I had to wipe my eyes many times after profusely shedding tears.

 

This is not my typical literary diet of crime fiction or travel tales, but something far more moving and soul-searching. And at this point in my life I need that. I’m ready for the next one.

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