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On the Shelf: The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr

If you’ve heard, among other songs, “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys, “Incense” by Erykah Badu, or “Please Go Home” by The Rolling Stones, you’ve heard a theremin, the instrument pioneered by the Russian physicist Lev Sergeyevich Termen, known as Léon Theremin in the west. It’s an instrument that makes it seem as if one is playing music out of thin air: a box with two antennas, you move your hands through the electromagnetic fields and sound emerges. Done well, it is entirely captivating and pioneered electronic music in the early twentieth century. Done poorly… Well, you can imagine.

Drawing inspiration from Clara Rockmore, the woman dubbed the greatest thereminist of all time, and the film Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, Tracy Farr presents Dame Lena Gaunt—rocker, junkie, octogenarian—who becomes the somewhat reluctant subject of a fictional documentary film. Mo Patterson, the filmmaker, approaches Gaunt following a performance at a Perth music festival.

Of documentary making Patterson tells Gaunt, “Someone once said that a documentary is in between inventing and capturing reality. I want our documentary, this project, to sort of acknowledge both things, both invention and reality.” The same can be said for Farr’s novel. Structured as a series of interviews either captured on film or through chats with Patterson taking notes, some of the most painful revelations of Gaunt’s life are told only in a manuscript narrative Gaunt has composed and typed herself and left for the filmmaker’s discovery. We learn of Gaunt’s childhood spent away from her family, her love with the modern artist Beatrix Carmichael, the birth and eventual tragic loss of her daughter, and the way in which finding musical fame affected her singular life.

Through the detail of Gaunt’s well-lived, fearlessly loved life and art, I find the greatest strength of Farr’s novel: forgetting entirely that Dame Lena herself is fictional. The skill in creating a protagonist so thoroughly believable makes The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt an incredibly pleasurable, satisfying read.

The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, first published by Freemantle Press, is available now in the UK, reprinted by Aardvark Bureau. The US edition, also published by Aardvark Bureau, hits shelves early May 2016.

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On the Shelf: Nelly Dean by Alison Case

Of the many things for which Downton Abbey is perhaps catalyst is our frenzied interest and excitement over lives lived below stairs, and how they affect the drama of many a stately home. Recent contemporary novels have hopped on those coattails, opening the airing cupboard on some of classic literature’s stately homes: Jo Baker, on Austen’s Pride & Prejudice in Longbourn; Jane Stubbs, with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre in Thornfield Hall.

Alison Case takes up the story of Emily Brontë’s much-maligned Nelly Dean in her eponymous epistolary novel that gives us another view into the world of Wuthering Heights. In Case’s book, Nelly promises to tell, “a homespun grey yarn woven in among the bright-dyed and glossy dark threads of the Earnshaws and Lintons,” and she doesn’t disappoint. We learn that Nelly arrived at Wuthering Heights after her father became abusive: she was sent first as companion to the Earnshaw children and then became servant when Heathcliff arrives. If Wuthering Heights was scandalous in its day for its stark depiction of mental and physical brutality, Nelly Dean shows us how equally cruel we can be to people we love via secrets and lies.

What may surprise modern readers is how much the novel engages in discussions on breastfeeding, or wet nursing. It’s hardly ahistorical—Victorians were obsessed with bodies, circulation, and commodities, among other things—and likely will delight modern readers interested in recent sociopolitical discussions and feminist discourse. Case, herself a noted Victorian scholar and professor of English at Williams College, does very well to highlight Victorian anxieties surrounding the female body, embodied and disembodied motherhood, and domestic economies in ways that will appeal to modern readers.

Nelly Dean is best enjoyed if you’re an informed reader. I’m not saying you need to become an amateur Victorianist, but I do think you’re best served having refreshed yourself with a reading of Wuthering Heights prior to beginning. While Nelly unburdens herself of quite a lot, she expects you, as you the reader are her Mr. Lockwood, to know the original plot. Fans of the superior Brontë sister, by which I mean Emily (sorry, Charlotte enthusiasts), will delight over a new look into Wuthering Heights.

Nelly Dean is available in the UK, New Zealand, and Australia now, published by The Borough Press. In the US, readers can look forward to its publication in early February 2016 by Pegasus Books.

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Stream Ellie Goulding's Unstaged Performance

American Express presents its UNSTAGED concert series featuring recording artist Ellie Goulding and directed by Scarlett Johansson. The event takes place November 11 at the Hammerstein Ballroom at 8pm ET.
For fans not in attendance, American Express offers the opportunity to watch the performance via a live stream, and a 24 hour rebroadcast via the following link:

The trailer is available now at featuring exclusive footage of Ellie reflecting on her childhood, doubts and journey as an artist.

On November 11, at 8pm ET, stream Ellie's performance live via the link above, or via the AMEX Unstaged app

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Idina Menzel's Worldwide Tour Stops In Philadelphia

July 16, 2015

Hours before gates to Philadelphia's Mann Center opened to the public, Idina Menzel was running through the grass surrounding the stage with her son. A happy, carefree Menzel displayed an impressive knowledge of dinosaurs much to her son's delight.

Idina Menzel took the stage at 8:20pm, and delivered a powerful performance, lasting nearly two hours. Six year olds dressed in Princess Elsa costumes sat alongside 65 year olds discussing Menzel's most recent Broadway stint in If/Then. Most striking, the number of tweens. The most coveted demographic were sprinkled throughout the audience, mesmerized.

Kicking off the night with "Defying Gravity," Menzel moved effortlessly with audience members hanging on every note from Ethel Merman covers, to Radiohead's "Creep." "Sometimes, you have days you just don't feel like singing Let it Go," Menzel explained before launching into a stirring rendition of "Creep." She did, of course, include "Letting Go" at the end of the evening, and threw in a few Red Hot Chili Peppers' lines "Give it away now," while twirling as the audience sang the chorus from "Let it Go."

The vocal powerhouse delivered high notes and warmth. Menzel frequently pulled out her right ear monitor to hear her audience. "Why are you so late?" Menzel questioned four people entering the second row, three songs in. She continued, "I am a neurotic Jew, so I saw the empty seats, I wonder is it me, are they coming...wait, I'll recap!" and she did, complete with running back up stairs from which she descended to start the night.

Menzel's connection with her adoring fans was on display throughout the evening, as she ran through the audience for her signature fan duets during "Take Me or Leave Me" from Rent. She seemed relaxed, while walking through the crowd, once muttering, "Shit! It came off," referring to losing her shoe, as she continued barefoot through the venue. While there were no restrictions on taking a photo, nor video with a cell phone, Menzel's audience sat transfixed, a testament to Menzel's ability to enchant.

Tony nods and multiple solo tours later, Menzel showcased her vocal prowess. Her voice on songs from Rent, some twenty years ago, stronger than ever. Her appreciation for her audience genuine. Broadway royalty? Pop with power? While critics search for such terms to describe her voice, her presence, it's pure Idina Menzel. If you have the chance to catch one concert this Summer, Idina Menzel is a must.

Tour dates found on the web:

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VIDEO PREMIERE + 7 More Badass Covers of Ode to Billie Joe, Presented on the Third of June

Tara Murtha

This video premiered today, on this third of June. Disclosure: Jim Boggia, Allison Polans, Sarah Larsen and Phil D’Agostino are some of my favorite people. They also happened to be some of the most talented musicians around. Boggia is well-known for his brilliant Beatles-y pop, Polans for her powerhouse, soulful vocals, Sarah Larsen as master of all stringed things, and Phil D’Agostinois a brilliant bassist and producer who you may remember was also the bandleader on the epic Bobbie Gentry tribute—a performance of the entire record—we staged a few months back. (You should listen to the WXPN recording here).

Nancy Wilson kills it. KILLS IT. Fancy Miss Nancy recorded “Ode” for her 1968 album Welcome to My Love. Entirely suitable for playing at top volume while slinking about and booty-grooving alone in your apartment, perhaps while smoking some wacko tobacco. Nasty, yet smooth. Smooth, yet nasty. 

Lou Donaldson laid this epic jazz cover down in 1967 on Mr. Shing-a-ling. If you recognize the drum beat, that’s because it’s one of the most sampled beats in hip-hop, pulsing beneath “Jesus Walks” by Kanye West, “Clap Your Hands” by A Tribe Called Quest and hundreds of other songs. The classic beat surfaced most recently in “L$D” by A$AP Rocky. It’s like the word “atavistic.” Once you hear it, it’s suddenly everywhere.

Byrdwatchers know that in the mid-1960s, Clarence White, Gene Parsons, Gib Guilbeau and Wayne Moore were briefly in a rock-country quartet called Nashville West, named after the California club where they served as the house band. The one-off album, featuring this twangy cover of “Ode to Billie Joe,” was basically a live set recorded by Parsons, the Wikipedia tells me, for personal use. Oh well.

Who is this lovely creature owning, and I mean OWNING,“Ode to Billie Joe” while Ray Charles shouts jibber-jabberinto the spaces between? I must know. On the quest, I dove into the cesspool that is YouTube comments and came up with Clydie King, one of the Raeletts. Anyone out there know? My kingdom for a Ray Charles “Ode to Billie Joe” duet confirmation.

Oh, Tammy. Her voice mysteriously makes me cry instantaneously, like walking in the room the moment a stranger I know nothing about wins an Olympic sport I never watch, or when I have PMS and concentrate on how much I love my cats, Linda and Greg, and think about how every single thing we love will die. Tammy knew this. Tammy felt this.

Joe Tex editorializes the shit out of this song, and that’s just fine. He recorded this for the informatively named album Soul Country in 1968, the year you were drummed right out of the business if you didn’t formally submit an interpretation of “Ode to Billie Joe” into the universe’s jukebox.

I miss this Sinead. Fearless, strutting through the world fresh out of fucks to give. Make like Kris Kristofferson and lean in toward Sinead, whisper in her ear, tell her not to let the bastards get her down, and mean it.
Did I miss your favorite? Let me know @taramurtha.
Also! Tune in today, the third of June in the year 2015, to WXPN at 6pm EST to hear the musicians featured in the first video talk “Ode to Billie Joe” on Copy That, the radio show hosted by Dan Reed.
You can listen live here.
If you really want to celebrate the Third of June in style, check out my book about the album for the 33 1/3 series, featuring a foreword by Jill Sobule.

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