Oscar thoughts first:
I was saddened by the number of comments I received regarding the winners for Best Actor and Best Actress. I talked to a number of people who honestly believe that Denzel Washington and Halle Berry won simply because of their skin color. I guess if they hadn’t won, it would have been racism, but since they did, it’s tokenism. Never mind the fact that both turned in fantastic performances in their respective films. Washington, who should have four Oscars by now anyway, elevated a sharply written genre flick into a tour de force, and Berry was breathtaking, giving one of the year’s best turns in a role that required this former model to be physically and emotionally haggard throughout. And that’s what it ought to be about – rewarding the best actor and the best actress of the year. Nothing else. (Not even equally deserving nominee Russell Crowe’s temper tantrums, which undoubtedly played a part in his loss.)
In her acceptance speech, Berry made mention of a door having been opened. I think she’s partially right. That door will only be fully opened (and hopefully closed behind us) when we don’t even notice an actor’s (or a musician’s, or a novelist’s, or a person’s) skin color and just talk about the performance. It shouldn’t have taken 74 years just to get halfway there.
End of rant.
As usual, Oscar neglected, snubbed and otherwise ignored the best films of the year in favor of safe (if admittedly well-made) fare like A Beautiful Mind. The Academy got a bit closer this year, though, nominating my two favorite films of 2001 (Moulin Rouge and Memento) for multiple awards. Memento won nothing, and Moulin got a couple of the smaller awards, but still, baby steps in the right direction. And what a bizarre thrill to see California-phobic Woody Allen make his first Oscar appearance, to a standing ovation. He’s the perfect example of my earlier point about rewarding the artist for the art and none of the other distractions.
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Last week’s column on the Alarm 2000 box set was posted on www.thealarm.com a few days after it was posted here, and I got a ton of e-mails from Alarm fans from across the globe. My sincere thanks to everyone who wrote me, and to Jules from the Mike Peters Organization for posting the review. Made my whole week…
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When I wrote this column for Face Magazine, I got free music all the time. Virtually every day, I’d leave the office with two or three CDs, some I had heard of and many I hadn’t. The catch at Face was that if you took a disc, you were then obligated to review it, good or bad. While I always felt bad for trashing a CD I’d received for free, my own sense of journalistic integrity wouldn’t allow me to do anything else if the disc warranted such a review. Still, at Face I could hide behind both my editor and the fact that nearly a dozen other writers were doing the same thing.
So it was with great trepidation that I opened the package containing guitarist Peter Calo’s three discs, which he sent to me in hopes of scoring a review. Calo is the first musician to request such a thing from me since I started the online version of Tuesday Morning. One way or another, I knew I’d have to review these albums, since he’d gone to so much trouble to send them to me. I decided, hard as it would be to do, that I would be completely honest with Peter, no matter what I thought. If he couldn’t take it, well, fuck him.
I steeled myself and pressed play on Calo’s 1995 debut, Cape Ann. Within two tracks, I was basically in love. The album is a completely instrumental acoustic guitar excursion, of the type that Harvey Reid does so well. Calo’s pedigree (he’s played with Carly Simon for years, and has also worked with James Taylor, Hall & Oates, Linda Eder, Jimmy Webb and a host of others, not to mention appearing on Joe Pesci’s musical experiment, Vincent LaGuardia Gambini SIngs Just for You) didn’t quite prepare me for how well this guy can play a six-string. Cape Ann evokes seaside images and woodsy landscapes in turn, and from first note to last, the album is a pleasant and terrific listen. When he brings in Bob Patton on soprano sax on “Pashka,” the results are sublime.
Okay, so he can play guitar, but I noticed with growing dread that his second album, 1998’s Wired to the Moon, contained a full complement of lyrics. Vocals often trip up even the best guitarists, and I worried that Wired would be the point where I’d have to start trashing the poor guy.
Silly me. If anything, Wired is a better album than Cape Ann, largely due to Calo’s confident and tuneful voice. In contrast to his debut, which jumps styles in a finger-straining web of acoustics, Wired to the Moon is a streamlined folk-pop album that cements Calo as a better-than-average songwriter while maintaining that “Jeez, he can really play that thing” feeling the debut evoked. The songs on Wired will appeal to both musicians, who will marvel at Calo’s precise guitar work, and plain old music fans, who will end up singing along with his sweet tunes. The closing track especially, “Don’t Know If It’s Love,” epitomizes what’s cool about this album, with its simple lyrics and strummed acoustic backing. It’s musically superb without getting head-scratchingly complex, and perfectly pop without getting boring. Basically, it’s all good.
Ah, but I was sure Calo would lose me with his third effort, the recently released Cowboy Song. It’s subtitled Contemporary Arrangements of Songs From the American West, and it doubles as a history lesson in 19th century ridin’ and ropin’ music. He does “Home On the Range,” “The Yellow Rose of Texas” and “The Old Chisolm Trail,” for crying out loud. There’s no way, I thought, that I would enjoy this album.
But Calo surprised me for a third time: Cowboy Song is pretty terrific. It’s largely instrumental, and his arrangements are, as the title suggests, contemporary, yet respectful and oddly timeless. He performs “Red River Valley” with a string trio, for example, and he plays the sad, simple melody on acoustic guitar with reverence and grace. “The Old Chisolm Trail” rides on a modern backbeat with judicious slides on his resonator guitar, and he even sells the yodeled chorus. (“Come-a-ti-yi-yip-ee-yip-ee-yea.” Really.) In his hands, it sounds like a blues-rock lament.
Another highlight is, of course, Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” played without a trace of twang. In fact, the twang factor is kept at a perfect balance throughout Cowboy Song, which manages the neat trick of updating songs revered by Americana historians in such a way that the rest of the population and the history buffs can enjoy them for the same reasons. Calo brings many styles, including blues and gospel (especially on a sweet “Home On the Range”), to bear on these old chestnuts, and like the enduring songs they are, they rise to the challenge well.
So that’s three for three. Last month I had never heard of Peter Calo, and this month I confess that I’ve become a bit of a fan. With three albums in three distinctly different styles, all very well made, Calo has gotten me interested in what he does next. What more could you ask from any musician?
You can buy all three of Calo’s albums at his website, www.petercalo.com.
Next week, who the hell knows?
See you in line Tuesday morning.