Monday, July 31, 2006

CD Preview: Madeleine Peyroux - Half the Perfect World (Rounder)

Madeleine Peyroux will release her third album, Half the Perfect World on September 12th in the U.S. and on November 6th in the U.K. The production here by Larry Klein is masterful, Klein has been knockin' em dead with regularity recently with similarly superb production on albums by Joni Mitchell, Julia Fordham, Bird York, and soundtracks such as Crash (2005) and Duets (2000), as well as Madeleine's last album, Careless Love (2004).

Half the Perfect World features four new originals, three written by Peyroux, Klein, and Jesse Harris, and one song penned by Peyroux, Klein, and Walter Becker of Steely Dan. The other eight tracks are well chosen covers by the likes of Johnny Mercer, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, and Serge Gainsbourg, among others. The core band from Careless Love is back including Dean Parks on guitar, David Piltch on bass and Jay Bellerose on drums. Keyboard duties are ably handled by Sam Yahel and Larry Goldings. Each track sounds like Klein has given it the perfect arrangement.

The modern jazzy sound (like Steely Dan almost) on the opening track "I'm All Right" provides a very tasty counterpoint to Madeleine's distinctively retro sounding voice. "Summer Wind" is a great classic song that sounds just right in this interpretation. Sam Yahel's Hammond organ combines with Larry Goldings' celeste on Leonard Cohen's "Blue Alert" to achieve the sort of sound that Julia Fordham dubbed "groove-ilicious" on Concrete Love (2002). "Everybody's Talkin'" is a nice update on the Harry Nilsson hit.

On Joni Mitchell's "River" Madeleine sings with guest vocalist k.d. lang who also covered Mitchell and Leonard Cohen on her last record, Hymns of the 49th Parallel (2004). "A Little Bit" and "California Rain" have more of that Larry Klein "groove-ilicious" sound. "Once in a While" and "La Javanaise" both feature a string quartet arrangement, with the latter offering some great sounding vocals in French. "The Heart of Saturday Night" will delight Tom Waits fans who treasure these cover versions.

Gary Foster's guest appearance on alto sax totally defines the mood on the title track, which is the second of two Leonard Cohen tunes on this record. Charlie Chaplin's "Smile" has been done so much and sounds so familiar that to cover it now seems almost cliched, but Madeleine pulls off a fresh and enjoyable interpretation that totally sounds like she means it. Half the Perfect World is a fine piece of work that should rightfully expand upon the success that Madeleine achieved on her first two releases. On first listen this sounds like her best album yet.

Here's the track list:
1. I'm All Right (Becker/Klein/Peyroux)
2. The Summer Wind (Mercer/Mayer/Bradtke)
3. Blue Alert (Cohen/Thomas)
4. Everybody's Talking (Neil)
5. River with k.d. lang (Mitchell)
6. A Little Bit (Harris/Klein/Peyroux)
7. Once In A While (Harris/Klein/Peyroux)
8. (Looking For) The Heart Of Saturday Night (Waits)
9. Half The Perfect World (Cohen/Thomas)
10. La Javanaise (Gainsbourg)
11. California Rain (Harris/Klein/Peyroux)
12. Smile (Chaplin/Turner/Parsons)

Remember to click on each photo to enlarge.
All Madeleine Peyroux photos by Marina Chavez, courtesy Rounder Records © 2006.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Wawa in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, 7/30/06

Although Wawa stores have yet to hit New York City, today's New York Times Magazine includes the following article. Those who live in Wawa's mid-Atlantic coverage area already know.

Convenience Cult?

Published: July 30, 2006

The I Love Wawa group on has more than 5,000 members, making it the largest of several Wawa-related groups on the online-community site. Over on, there’s a group called We Love Wawa, with about 950 members. This would be pretty ho-hum if Wawa were an indie band or video game. Instead, it’s a chain of convenience stores, with 550 locations in five states on the East Coast. Many of the postings to these groups involve praise for Wawa’s house-brand goods — coffee, hoagies, etc. But the most intriguing factor in Wawa loyalty may be something else: the service.

This, at least, is the contention of Neeli Bendapudi, an Ohio State University marketing professor who studied the chain as part of her continuing research on the impact of service quality on brands. Part of her goal, she says, was to avoid obviously service-oriented businesses like fancy hotels and department stores and to look at a sector that’s “really nonglamorous.” Convenience stores, where employee turnover is high and transactions are about as basic as it gets, seemed like the perfect setting for indifferent service. Yet in interviews with regular Wawa customers, Bendapudi found that employee friendliness was a recurring theme. And in an article for The Harvard Business Review, she and her husband, Venkat Bendapudi (who teaches management at Ohio State), argued that this was not a fluke: Wawa makes a concerted effort to “provide outstanding customer-employee interactions” by way of careful hiring and training practices.

The company’s C.E.O., Howard Stoeckel, says that while convenience stores seem like places for no-frills, almost-anonymous consumption, Wawa focuses on the repeat-customer side of the business, or, as he puts it, the “habit-forming” side. Store managers are expected to make each Wawa “part of the community” and impress regulars who will come in five times a week or more. Allison Fahmie, for instance, is a regular at a Wawa in Toms River, N.J., where many employees know her on sight; she’s the founder of that Myspace group. A co-founder of the LiveJournal group, Matt Breslin of Pitman, N.J., points out a thread on the site that involved people “claiming” their Wawas — declaring loyalty to the specific location that they patronize most frequently. In focus groups, Stoeckel says, repeat customers bring up the employees and say things like “Your people like each other, they have fun and work as a team, and when we come in to the store we feel part of that.” In an incident the company loves to mention, one couple even had their wedding at the Wawa where they met.

Wawa wages are comparable to those of other convenience stores, and it’s not as if the chain is hiring hotshot executives from G.E. to be clerks. It simply does a better job than most companies, the Bendapudis say, of “investing in” the people it hires, training them at its Wawa Corporate University and even reimbursing employees for college courses. This keeps turnover lower, they argue, and attracts hundreds of applications for every job opening.

What’s intriguing about a brand built partly on its service reputation is that the hottest consumer trend in America right now is arguably dissatisfaction with service. Recent service-rage incidents documented with video and audio recordings posted on personal blogs have ended up on network television news shows. Technology makes it easier for one ticked-off consumer to make an enormous fuss, but Bendapudi says she believes that service really is getting worse. Many jobs that involve dealing with the public are thankless, dead-end gigs. The less attractive such jobs are, the more service suffers. “It’s easy to have irate customers these days,” she says.

Even Stoeckel concedes that with 16,000 employees, Wawa’s interactions with customers are not all happy ones. But, he says, most Wawa regulars tend to see these as aberrations, not as the final indignity that deserves an online tirade. Bendapudi argues that if a convenience store can pull this off, plenty of companies would benefit from investing in service rather than in ever-bigger marketing campaigns. If fewer disgruntled employees leads to more satisfied customers, “we’ll all be happier people,” she says. And what advertising campaign has ever done that?

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Karla Bonoff - Haddon Lake Park, 7/12/06

Karla Bonoff made a somewhat rare local appearance tonight at the Norcross-McLaughlin Memorial Dell at Haddon Lake Park in Haddon Heights, NJ. Although it was a typical Philadelphia summer night (hot and muggy), a good sized crowd turned out to hear Karla perform with her long time producer and bassist Kenny Edwards, with accompaniment by Nina Gerber on electric lead guitar.

Even though Karla had difficulty getting the proper monitor mix for virtually the entire show, the audience had no such problem as this amphitheater had maybe the best sound and lighting you might hope to find at such a venue in a park. With easy parking, great music, friendly artists, and no rain, it was a totally enjoyable experience.

Kenny Edwards opened the show with a solo set, having finally released his own album in 2002 after nearly forty years working as a sideman and producer. His solo material was excellent, with a singing voice that somewhat resembles James Taylor. He performed most of his songs on acoustic guitar, picking up a ukelele for his last tune.

With Nina Gerber's superb electric lead guitar work combining with Edwards' guitar and bass and with Karla playing both guitar and piano, the live performances of everything matched or exceeded the familiar recorded versions. Gerber has a twenty year career as a session musician, starting with Kate Wolf who inspired her to become a professional musician; her session credits include Nanci Griffith, Greg Brown, Lucy Kaplansky, Jerry Jeff Walker, John Gorka, Cheryl Wheeler, Terry Garthwaite, Tom Paxton, and many others. Her guitar leads were exquisite, making great songs sound even better.

Although Karla's first group Bryndle (with Edwards, Wendy Waldman and Andrew Gold) never got off the ground in its first incarnation in the late sixties, Edwards and Gold went on to form the Stone Poneys, Linda Ronstadt's backing band and in the process brought Karla's songwriting to Ronstadt's attention. It was Ronstadt's inclusion of three Bonoff compositions on Hasten Down the Wind (1976) that really brought Karla to national attention and led to a three album career on Columbia records. With all of the members having achieved notoriety in their own right, Bryndle has reformed twice and recorded new albums in 1995 and again in 2002.

Karla's songwriting pace may be slow, on her website bio she describes writing about four songs per year, but what she lacks in quantity she surely makes up in quality with a collection of likely the best written songs ever in the pop/rock/singer-songwriter field. Her music has a magical sense of melody that combines with a lyrical directness that gets right to the heart of whatever she chooses to sing about. There are very few other songwriters who work at this level.

While Karla may look a little older now than she did on her Columbia albums, her voice hasn't changed a bit, and her vocals truly sound as great now as they ever did, if not more so. "How Long" started with set nicely, followed by "Home" which featured a nice uke solo by Edwards. I won't mention every song that had a great Gerber electric lead, because they mostly all did. Karla introduced "Trouble Again" explaining that it was about "a bunch of jerks."

"Like a Compass" came from the latest Bryndle CD, House of Silence, followed by "Isn't it Always Love" and "New World", the title track from her fourth and most recent solo album (1988), arguably the best of her four excellent solo works. After "Rose in the Garden", she introed "Please Be the One" with an amusing story about having lip-synched the song on the Solid Gold TV program and on Merv Griffin's old TV talk show. "Night Full of Rain" was another song from the latest Bryndle effort.

"I Can't Hold On" sounded great, another classic Bonoff tune (they all are really). "All My Life" sounded great in Karla's voice, the Grammy-winning hit version was sung by Linda Ronstadt and Aaron Neville (1989). She then did "Goodbye My Friend" and closed the set with a version of "Someone to Lay Down Beside Me" that never sounded better. The standing ovation from the crowd brought her back for an encore that consisted of "The Water is Wide", an old folk song that she does a particularly nice interpretation of, then she ended the night with "Tell Me Why", another great tune from New World. As Edwards did after his opening set, Karla stayed to sign CDs and album covers, and to speak with any of the audience that wished to do so. I was glad for the opportunity not only to thank her for continuing to perform her great songs, but also to mention that no one does her songs better than she does. Remember to click on each photo to enlarge. All photos © W.Kates, 2006.

All My Life - The Best of Karla Bonoff (1999)

Karla Bonoff (1977)

Restless Nights (1979)

Wild Heart of the Young (1982)

New World (1988)

Kenny Edwards (2002)

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Arif Mardin (1932-2006)

Arif Mardin, one of the all-time great record producers died on June 25th at age 74. In conjunction with the two founders of Atlantic Records (Ahmet Ertegun & Jerry Wexler), Mardin's extraordinary talent as a producer not only aided the success of the label, but his steady hand helped create a large catalogue of music that we've known and loved over the last forty years. Many excellent articles have been written on Mardin, a good reference point would be the Wikipedia biography, but the following appreciation was written by Alan Gorrie of the Average White Band and posted as a "White Paper" (one of his continuing series of diary style essays) on the AWB website:

DATE: June 17, 2006
FROM: Alan
SUBJECT: Farewell Arif

We sadly say goodbye to Arif Mardin who passed away on Sunday. It would be fair to say that none of what we have today could have happened without him. Like so many of his protégées, almost all of whom became his musical family, he gave us the knowledge and the poise which turned our raw talents into something magical, and set us on the road to explorations and achievements we might only have dreamed of.We all remained close to Arif and his family – he and Latife were like an aunt & uncle to us - and their children, Nazan, Joe and Julie have grown up to be our friends. I can only imagine their sense of loss, and our hearts are with them in the void that he has left.

Luckily, Steve, Onnie and myself had the great fortune to be able to contribute to his last recording session just a week ago in New York, and the album he was finishing will be safe in the hands of his son, producer Joe Mardin, to lovingly add the finishing brush strokes to his life’s work – a luminary career which helped launch and establish everything from The Young Rascals in the late 60s, to Norah Jones in this new Century, and with accolades, triumphs and associations along the way which include Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathaway, Roberta Flack, Bette Midler, Chaka Khan, Bee Gees and ourselves to name but a smattering of those he has gifted with his inimitable touch.

Unfortunately we won’t see his like again; his manifesto was always that of the artist and his priority was devoting himself to showing each of us the right voices and grace notes to add to the expression of our ideas - and turn them into records that would not only stand the tests of time, fashion and changing cultures, but would become icons for generations of music lovers. His opinion was still currency and his word was bond. He never wavered in his belief that music, while the queen of our souls, was still an unfinished & imperfect lover and that there was much yet to be discovered, molded and experimented with. We will try to carry that torch on as our legacy from a consummate master, a beautiful soul, and a great friend to us all.

We love you, Arif. Thank you and farewell.


Sunday, July 09, 2006

Now We Are Two

Two years ago this month, I started this review site just to see what all the fuss was about with blogging. Now having just finished the complete alphabetical index of every article going back to day one, the only thing more staggering than the amount of material already posted is the backlog I've still got of articles that desperately need to be written, concert photos and movie reviews that need to be posted, new CDs that need to be covered and so forth. And the only thing that often seems to be missing from the equation is the time to do it. But, I'll keep at it, and maybe in another year or two I'll get caught up (or at least make a dent).

What with the internet, MySpace in particular, WXPN, WFUV, KCRW, BBC, satellite radio, and all the venues from Philadelphia to New York and everywhere in between, the opportunities to hear new music have never been more available and more varied and the independent music scene has never been more vital. Thanks for reading, and as always your comments are welcomed and encouraged. Cheers!

Saturday, July 01, 2006

At the Half - 2006

Charlie Ricci, who writes the Bloggerhythms review site, originated the mid-year reality check several years ago, so in keeping with that tradition I offer my top five albums of 2006, at the half.

1. Lelia Broussard - Lil-Yah (

Decidedly Ready for Prime Time: A disc that still sounds great even after massive repetition, Lil-Yah is easily the best thing I've heard this year and it would take something really huge to knock this out of the top spot between now and year's end. As I write this, the record is being reconfigured for national release and while the changes might make it better, it's hard to imagine tinkering with perfection, and the original self-released version (still available at her website, but not for long) is just that. Read my complete review.

2. KT Tunstall - Eye to the Telescope (Virgin)

Scotland's Best New Export: Selling one million copies of her debut album in Britain in 2005 was no small feat for KT Tunstall but it was the happenstance cancellation of another artist from the BBC television program Later with Jools Holland that gave KT a last minute shot to sing "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree" which started the ball rolling that turned into a juggernaut by year's end. Last fall her story as told in The Scotsman was reproduced here as a result of her second position booking with Texas at Edinburgh's Hogmanay New Year's Eve festival in her native Scotland. Eye to the Telescope was finally released in the states in early 2006 to good notices and a warm embrace from radio stations like WXPN. History would seem to be repeating as "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree" gave a boost to sales in the U.S. after it was sung by Kat McPhee on American Idol. "Black Horse" is a great song to be sure, but the rest of Eye to the Telescope is even better, especially "Under the Weather", "Other Side of the World", and "Another Place to Fall". KT is great live too.

3. James Hunter - People Gonna Talk (Go/Rounder)

Back to the Fifties, Circa 2006: Volumes could be written about the business story of a couple from the states who were introduced to James Hunter and upon learning that he had not been snapped up by a major label, formed Go Records and financed the recording sessions that allowed James Hunter to make the record that he had always wanted to make. The quality of the result is abundantly evident on this great CD. Hunter sings with a voice that sounds uncannily like Sam Cooke on some songs, James Brown on others. Considering his triple threat talents as a singer, songwriter and guitarist, the categorization of Hunter as a Cooke sound-alike drastically sells him short. His band's instrumentation with two saxes, guitar, bass and drums gives this music a unique quality of sounding both new and old at the same time. Hunter's sound suggests a hot British dancehall from the fifties but the songwriting and production on the record is totally state of the current day art. As good as the record is, it's even better played live; Hunter's an exceptional guitarist and a natural showman who connects easily with the audience.

4. David Gilmour - On an Island (Sony)

You May Never Want to Leave this Island: David Gilmour's guitar is such a delight for the ears that this being his first solo record in eighteen years seems almost a tease. Virtually nowhere outside of Gilmour and Pink Floyd records can you hear such intense guitar work used in the service of music so lush, melodic and mellow that it is virtual balm for the modern psyche. The scarcity of solo work might be forgiven later this year when a planned DVD of his recent Albert Hall concert is released. With backing vocals by Crosy & Nash, the title track is a great calling card for the album but it's just one of many great tracks. With very few missteps and lots of superb guitar work, On an Island is the work of a master at the top of his form.

5. Zero 7 - The Garden (Atlantic)

Sia Sings, 'Nuff Said: Already taking some backlash for not totally sounding like their previous releases, Zero 7 have reshuffled the vocalist deck, taken a few new musical directions, and have come up with an eminently listenable record. While it may be different in certain respects, it is easily as good as their last album, When It Falls (2004). Vocalists Tina Dico, Sophie Barker, and Mozez may be absent this time around but Sia is totally holding down the female side of the vocal duties, her songs would make this record worth buying all by themselves. Jose Gonzalez takes the mike on four tunes, and even Henry Binn, half of the core duo that comprises Zero 7 handles some vocals on In the Garden. Some say that this one leans a little more toward pop than chill, but it sounds great no matter what you call it and is a worthy successor to the albums that have come before.

More Great 2006 Releases:
Jackie Allen - Tangled (Blue Note)
The Animators - How We Fight (Angelhouse)
Hiram Bullock - Too Funky 2 Ignore (Import)
Cardigans - Super Extra Gravity (Universal)
Rosanne Cash - Black Cadillac (Capitol)
The Corrs - Home (Rhino/WEA)
Jamie Cullum - Catching Tales (Verve/Forecast)
Euphoria - Precious Time (Zoe)
The Grabs - Sex, Fashion & Money (The Grabs Records)
Kristin Hoffman - Real (iTunes)
Richard Julian - Slow New York (Manhattan)
The Little Willies - The Little Willies (Milking Bull)
John Mayer Trio - Try! (Aware/Columbia)
Van Morrison - Pay the Devil (Lost Highway)
Beth Orton - Comfort of Strangers (Astralwerks)
Chris Rea - Blue Guitars Box Set (Ear Books, Import)
Sara Tavares - Balancê (Times Square)
Texas - Red Book (Mercury, Import)
Derek Trucks Band - Songlines (Columbia)
Victoria Vox - Victoria Vox and Her Jumping Flea (Obus)
Bird York - Wicked Little High (Blissed Out/Narada)

Promising New Releases (Brand New at the Half):
Brian Auger's Oblivion Express - Looking in the Eye of the World (Ghosttown)
Dixie Chicks - Taking the Long Way (Open Wide/Columbia)
Gnarls Barkley - St. Elsewhere (Downtown)
Keane - Under the Iron Sea (Interscope)
Mark Knopfler & Emmylou Harris - All the Roadrunning (Warners/Nonesuch)
Corinne Bailey Rae - Corinne Bailey Rae (Capitol)
Livingston Taylor - There You Are Again (Coconut Bay)