Monday, December 24, 2007

Embracing my Polish Roots

While at the University of Warwick (after Liverpool) I met some Polish mathematicians who explained to me how I must change my last name to return to the Polish roots. Of course I can't remember exactly what was supposed to happen, but it was something about changing the second "b" and the "h" to unknown letters, and thus it really would translate to "little apple."

During our first night in Berlin, we came upon this shop. Sadly it wasn't open, but perhaps later we can visit Pigasus Polish Art Gallery.
As you might guess it was the pigs that first caught my eyes. Such a pleasant surprise to see so many pigs that are not on a window display of a butcher.

Just in case you forgot... we are in Germany

Our first night in Berlin we spent listening to some wonderful late 80s-early 90s music. We then realized that most of the other people in the bar probably were not born when these songs were first popular. It was almost as awesome as the above portrait.

Christmas in Berlin - Berlin Weihnachtmarkts

We are spending Christmas in the most wonderful German city of Berlin. We arrived on Sunday and then with Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day, not as many places are open, but we are having a wonderful time. We've seen the Berlin Weihnachtsmarkts (similar to those in Köln) and for the first time tried the German marzipan speciality of potatoes (sadly there are no marzipan sausages to go with them).

Sunday, December 16, 2007


I'm a little UK math tour presently. I spent a few days in Liverpool, giving a talk and visiting with mathematicians there. As usual, the only pictures I took were of the city and not the math. I was not up on my Beatles history at all, and it wasn't until I got off the plane and entered the Liverpool John Lennon Airport and saw the murals did I learn of Liverpool's most famous band. During my time in the city there was absolutely no way I could forget it was "Home of the Beatles." Instead of visiting the Beatles Museum in my free time, I checked out the Tate Liverpool, housed in the beautiful new Albert Docks. Liverpool is one of the European Capitals of Culture for 2008, which as far as I can tell, means it gets a bunch of new buildings and cool exhibitions, like the showcase of the finalists for the Turner Prize at the Tate Liverpool. I'm slowly acclimating myself to the British vocabulary and soon may only respond to the name "Love."

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Recently Played: Otis Redding

Not to turn things too morbid here, after that Stockhausen post, but I think it's worth mentioning that yesterday (as in Monday) marked forty years since Otis Redding's premature death. It seems that with every soul legend's death comes some great mystery, but in this case I tend to think - or, maybe, choose to think - that the mystery is mostly hype. At the very least, the circumstances of his death and questions associated with it are, to me, far less interesting than the pop music F.A.Q., What would Otis have recorded after "Dock of the Bay"? A whole lot of "who knows," that. But sticking to what we do know, please enjoy a couple early Otis slices:

Otis Redding - These Arms of Mine (1964)
Otis Redding - Come To Me (1965)

May lightning strike me if I'm mistaken, but I believe "These Arms of Mine" was his first solo track. I couldn't swear that this version, taken from his debut album Pain In My Heart, is the original version but, I dunno, do me a favor and just pretend....

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Weihnachtsmarkt Zwei

As promised, a second installment of Kölner Weihnachtsmarkt - this time the one in Heumarkt. Here we find me in front of some previously mentioned chocolate heart cookies Gruß vom Kölner Weihnachtsmarkt (Greetings from Cologne's Christmas market). This was my first time attending the Heumarkt market (though Chris had visited it last week).

Heumarkt's Weihnachtmarkt has a few specialities, like an ice skating rink and Opa's Kneipe (Oma and Opa are German for Grandma and Grandpa, but it is also what my sisters and I have always called our dad's parents, so I think of them every time we see cards or gifts for Oma and Opa).
Also for sale is chocolate.... including chocolate bottles of kölsch!?!
Similar to the others were the mobs of people (especially since it was Saturday). But we did get to enjoy some delicious Belgian waffles and some warm Glühwein.

This is Why I'm Hot

We've tried to describe the hair and clothes of the young and not so young men here. A busy Schildergasse provided some opportunity to inconspicuously take some pics, however they still don't quite show it all. Yes, we see the awesomely styled hair, the writing and embroidery work on the rear. But what you really can't make out in the second photo, is that this gentleman's jeans were made to look like they were sagging, ie the real waist-band was on his waist, and another one was sewn a few centimeters down. That and the fact that his skin had a fantastic orange hue from many trips to the solarium. Hot!

Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007)

Köln's own Karlheinz Stockhausen, I just learned, has passed away. Stockhausen was born just outside of Köln, he studied at the Universität zu Köln (like Kelly), and he created and in 1956 debuted one of the most famous pieces of early electronic music here in Köln, which you can enjoy below.

Karlheinz Stockhausen - Gesang Der Jünglinge (1955)

Interestingly, Stockhausen's death fell on the same day of the year as Mozart's - which I know only because my German teacher, Herr Kunert, burned a candle in class Wednesday in Mozart's honor. I've discussed Stockhausen with him once before, and let's just say I'd bet against next year's candle being shared with he of the Helikopter Streichquartet.

Thursday, December 6, 2007


Christmas season is in full swing here in Köln. The main attraction being the Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas Market). There are at least five large markets in the city for us to visit (above is the Weihnachtsmarkt on the Dom), as well as one that we've been to in Bonn. Quite a different shopping experience than shall we say Pacific Place. For one, there is no chance of hearing yet another rendition of Santa Baby.
For over a week we could see construction workers assembling the booths (each looking like a little cabin). Now they are filled with vendors selling everything from cute handmade ornaments to gigantic chocolate heart cookies with frosting messages like "ich liebe dich" (which girls wear proudly around their necks like they would carry a gigantic stuffed animal prize that their boyfriend won for them playing some funny game..... sad to say Chris has yet to give one to me). The above picture is what I'm talking about (just don't look too close because you will see that it is from a Weihnachtsmarkt in a different city and that in fact it was a picture I found doing a google image search).

One might wonder how you can spend hours outdoors visiting these booths. Well, Germans have an answer for that - Glühwein. Each market has multiple places where you can buy the special mulled wine, and because it is Germany, you pay a hefty deposit for the mug, but then you can take it with you as you shop. The mugs too are quite cute, and so far the mug is really the only difference I can tell between different stands offerings. Don't worry, there is still also the kölsch option (which we've even seen in seasonal glasses).
I had been waiting to post this until I got some better shots of the hubub (especially at night), but in classic Kelly form, when I tried to do this, the red "low battery" light on my camera finally decided to change to "no battery" and hence no documentation could be made. Stay tuned though.....

Monday, November 26, 2007

Thanksgiving in Köln

Here's a surprise - Germans don't celebrate Thanksgiving, hence no four day weekend to sit in our pajamas and watch Season 4 of The Wire (as we did last year). Instead I went to Bonn to give a talk at the Max Planck Institute of Mathematics. There are many different Max Planck Institutes around Germany for different subjects. The math one in Bonn is housed in a beautiful building in the middle of the historic center. The Institute employs a few permanent mathematicians and has many visitors come for extended stays. In addition they also have workshops throughout the year. I had attended a few talks there this summer and had seen the one infamous guest already. This man attends most of the talks at the institute and has some knowledge of mathematics (self taught perhaps?). Anyway, he reads the abstracts to all the talks and then spends some time reading up on each subject so that he is familiar enough with the vocabulary to pose a question or make a comment. Unfortunately, his questions don't really make sense. Quite a character indeed. After a nice lunch and time discussing some of my other recent work with people there, I headed back to Köln. The trip home lasted a little bit longer than the 25 minutes it took me to get there, but that was just because I spent an hour in H&M, leaving with a new dress. Quite a different shopping experience than Black Friday in the states. No turkey for us that evening, but some delicious fish (though sadly no leftovers). Hope everyone had a wonderful day!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Recently Played: Burial

As you all probably know, Chris is the one that discovers the new music. I simply rely on his judgement and load my computer with his advice, especially when it comes to "work music" which roughly means about anything that doesn't annoy or distract me in a good or bad way. In the last two days I have listened to nothing but Burial, mostly the new album Untrue. Unlike Chris, I don't really have much to say other than it is hot, hot, hot! And fortunately there isn't much to say about the artist, since his or her identity is a mystery. So with that, enjoy!
Burial - Archangel (2007)

Winter is Coming

The last few days here in Köln have been a little chilly. The winter coats, scarves and hats have become an everyday outfit. Chris claims to have seen some snow falling from the sky, though my only experience with it so far has been at the university, where some snowboarding club brought in a pile of snow for a demonstration of their skills and it has yet to fully melt. Two conclusions can be drawn from this: 1) it is cold here, 2) German universities, like American universities, have some crazy events going on at them, though at least at German universities, the funny events are accompanied with a stand selling kölsch and sausage as "snow treats." However, the snowboarding exhibition was accompanied by Green Day music from 1994, which caused a very unpleasant afternoon having When I Come Around stuck in my head. (Don't worry, no link to that song here.... though if I was clever enough to record myself singing it, that might be worthy of a link.) It looks though like it might start to get a little warmer here in the next few days. Thus I'll have to wait for another chance to freeze my ipod (something I did last winter in Seattle accidentally, when I learned that taking an ipod on a run in December can be detrimental to the ipod, and if that happens I probably should not have been out running anyways, but I digress).

Like in the US you know winter is coming by the number of Christmas goods in the stores. We've seen a plethora of advent calendars and decorations in the grocery stores, and the Weihnachtmarkts (Christmas Markets) start in the next few weeks. We've put up some wintery decorations (an early Christmas gift from my parents), though I'm sure I'll convince myself that they can stay up year round. Below is the art project I conducted on our wall. It was a "Kelly only" project, which meant that there was very little measuring and absolutely no levels involved, and I think it came out just grand.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Recently Played: The Icemen – My Girl (She's a Fox)

The above pic's been popping up all over town this week, and I thought maybe somebody'd get a kick out of it. It's not a complete non sequitur - all will come full-circle soon enough, kein angst.

This week the credits roll on something like a 70-day-long, high intensity internet hunt. Though it strolled past as casually as a flash animation mortgage refinance advert, I didn't fail to notice that an mp3 of The Icemen's “My Girl (She's a Fox)” had made a very rare appearance within easy capture range. Recorded in 1966, its good solid soul but, much like the writings of David Foster Wallace, generally discussed for its footnotes.

(1) Guitar contributed by Jimi Hendrix.
(2) Catchy hook straight stolen by Amy Winehouse for her 2007 “He Can Only Hold Her.”
(3) Catchy hook, seemingly by coincidence, also stolen by John Legend for his 2007 “Slow Dance.”

It was the second item that particularly excited me. I confess to something of a full-blown addiction to Winehouse's Back to Black. They tried to make me go to rehab, but... aw, skip it. Back in June I was stunned to discover how much her “Rehab” borrowed from Aretha Franklin, and this here be another example of her comfort with brazen soul citation. Oh and also I'm apparently the last person on Earth to notice that the tune of her single “Tears Dry On Their Own” is effectively a minor rework of Marvin Gaye's “Ain't No Mountain High Enough.” But I digress....

Though “My Girl (She's a Fox)” stands up steadily without the support of its music trivia tripod, let's not go calling this an enduring lyrical masterpiece or anything. We're not talking Solomon Burke here, but a treasure all the same. Submitted for your evaluation:

The Icemen – My Girl (She's a Fox) (1966)

Nice, no? But what's that going on at the end there? In the final 30 seconds we get, “She's a fox now (My baby)/ My baby, she's a stone fox/ My baby, she's a stone fox...” I hafta dig the use of the not-at-all-dated term “stone fox,” and I have a sneaking suspicion that Aaron will appreciate too. But brace yourselves, because then we hear, “My baby (Yeah), she's a fizzox now.”

Fizzox” ?!? Is this 1966? or 1996? I'm prepared to acknowledge that I may have misheard this word, and that I've let my imagination run away with me. But if I'm not? Could it be that we have yet another footnote to add here? Could this prefigure Snoop Dogg's most cuddly verbal trademark? I mean, I knew he didn't invent it, but in my wildest dreams I'd never have imagined it went all the way back to 60s pseudo-Stax soul or, for that matter, Jimi Hendrix's pre-fame career. Fascinating.

And just for good measure, here are those aforementioned Winehouse and Legend tracks:

Amy Winehouse - He Can Only Hold Her (2007)
John Legend – Slow Dance (2007)

Thursday, November 8, 2007


I've been in the Bavarian town of Bayreuth for the past few days, visiting the university here. The university is relatively new, founded and built in 1975, and unlike the University of Köln, it has a self-contained campus, much like American universities. I don't have pictures of my main reason for the visit and the most exciting part (for me), giving a talk Wednesday morning and spending the day discussing some of my research with people there. No major breakthroughs, but confirmation that what I'm working on is a hard problem (which I guess is better than easy). I suppose I could have taken pictures of beautiful german blackboards - the norm here is to have double boards, so that you can slide the front board up, hence keeping all that you have written visible, and thus doubling your board space. These exist in some classrooms (mostly large lecture halls) in the US, but here they are in every seminar room. And the german boards stay much cleaner, since instead of using a standard chalk eraser, they use a wet sponge and a squeegie, genius!

I arrived late Tuesday afternoon and saw the main market in the evening. I stumbled upon a cute restaurant that evening for a nice, but lonely, dinner by myself. I must have had good taste, since that was the same restaurant we went to Wednesday evening. Later I learned that this restaurant is in the building of the Altes Rathaus (old City hall), so a popular destination for tourists and locals.

Thursday I had a chance to see a little more of the town, made famous by Richard Wagner. In fact, the Wagner Festival each summer is really the only time the city sees any tourists, where there is a ten year waiting list to get tickets.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Entertaining Guests

It's been a while since we've posted anything.... sorry about that... but we've been busy entertaining. My parents came last week to visit, as our first guest couple. Chris was the most wonderful host, and started by picking them up at the airport on his last day off of class. While I finished up a school week, Chris showed them around the university.

We spent the weekend wondering around the city, tasting kölsch and other fine food (though not so much German), and making some delicious dinners.
By Monday morning, my parents were ready to see some more of Germany (and let us attempt to get back to our daily routine) so they headed south to the Mosel River to visit Trier. They returned Wednesday night, and I was able to take off Thursday to show them some more of our favorite spots, including the Nippes Market. We stumbled upon a fantastic coffee shop/roasterie (anyone who knows my family won't be surprised by this). There was some absolutely wonderful coffee, and before long we noticed that every old woman who walked by the shop stopped for a moment and stared. Turns our that the shop, Kaffeebaum (literally coffee tree), was just a few weeks old, and the coffee roaster in the middle of the store made everyone who passed by take a second glance. Chris met up with us later that afternoon for lunch at the University Mensa, a definite site to see. We then enjoyed some fine art at the Wallraf-Rachartz-Museum.

Saturday we rented a car and first stop was Ikea. Fortunately we had better luck finding it this time than last time Chris and I searched. We got some wonderful early Christmas presents, including some great decorations for the winter season. Having a car made it easy to show them our old Marienburg place and the neighborhood of mansions there. Then it was back to Kaffebaum (Chris had yet to visit there and try the coffee). Being a Saturday it was quite bustling, but we did manage to meet and talk with everyone that was connected to the shop. We bought some veggies for a fish stew at the closing market and headed to Edka, a large grocery store by our place. Normally we don't have a car, so had never experienced the parking garage. It was your typical underground garage, with an elevator up to the store. Imagine our surprise when we all got stuck in the elevator with another couple. Eventually we got back to the garage and walked into the store. I believe this was a first for all of us, and luckily it didn't last too long.

Sunday we were up early (with daylight savings time it wasn't so hard) and headed to the Netherlands. Our destination was a fantastic national park that my parents had ridden their bikes through on their first cycle tour of the Netherlands. The large park is furnished with white bikes that anyone can borrow, so we grabbed some bikes and rode to the middle of the park to the Kröller-Müller Museum, a collection of mostly Van Goghs belonging to one of his great patrons. The art was fantastic and the setting beautiful. Though because of the cold weather, we didn't get a chance to explore the surrounding sculpture garden. Much to everyones dismay, we never really got lost on this trip and did find some good Belgian beer to have with lunch.Monday they headed back, via Amsterdam. It was sad to see them leave. We celebrated many a holiday in one short week. Who will be next to visit?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Last Day Of Class

My first German class has come to an end. By the last day we were already down, if memory serves, five students. Those of us who remained in town celebrated the end with a brunch, each of us bringing a food popular in our hometown. Yeah, the Americans kinda get the short end of the stick on the international food show-and-tell, but I think I repped for Seattle admirably by whipping up a mean tofu scramble.
Since we're still little more than tourists here in Germany, we all had cameras, and took lots of pictures. So you'll hafta suffer through a few more.
Here's the brunch spread. You can more or less see, from left to right, Roman, Hugo, Bruno, Max, Julian, LaTanya, and Juan. Hugo thought we were having another staring contest. We weren't, but he lost anyway.
Me and Ula. Dig the red-eye I've got goin' there. I told you, you just can't suppress my evil. Ula, however, carefully veils her diabolical tendencies. When there are no cameras around, she pulls on kittens' tails.
Hugo, Myself, Machiko, and Bruno (clockwise from left). All four of us were wearing Fortuna Düsseldorf logos on our t-shirts, but I Photoshop'd them out.
Me with Herr Kunert (our teacher) and Miteong. Miteong had just arrived, and is noticing (on my plate) that someone brought kimchee. Kelly snapped this rare photo on the sly, Miteong normally hiding from cameras.
Julian and LaTanya discussing the ingredients of his Brazillian specialty, the name of which I can't recall. The secret ingredient of all international food: pork.

The second course in the series starts up after a one-week break. Many of us (including myself) will return for that. Herr Kunert will teach this one also. But not all of us could stay in Köln, money and visas not growing on trees here. Rached and Lamine won't be in the next course, but will still be in town. Almost two weeks ago, liebe Claudia returned to Venezuela. And I've since had to say goodbye to Roman, Max, and Machiko too. :(

The Beardage Is Over


Really weird. I woke up one morning and it was gone. Before:
Ladies, don't fret. I can always grow another...

Recently Played: Cat Power, Hank Williams, George Jackson

Dude, I'm old. I've developed a dull indifference to new indie rock. Reading Pitchfork these days, I sometimes feel like I'm watching the WB. To paraphrase the wise Chinese monk, like a man with no arms, I can't hang. Band of Horses? Meh. Animal Collective? Sloppy music for an audience that couldn't make it through a Charalambides album. Jens Lekman? Frankly, I've never even heard the guy. Beirut? I'm dubious. But another covers album from Cat Power? I'm all up on the internets scouring for leaked tracks. I guess when it comes to new verse-chorus-verse guitar music, I'm not all that far from the Starbucks demographic. (Though not, I protest, so close as my brother Aaron is.)

Yes, January promises a new Cat Power LP, and I'm excited for it. Feels like college all over again. The new album will feature Chan Marshall (she whose work is sold under the “Cat Power” moniker) almost exclusively performing other people's music. The last time she did this, on The Covers Record, she made what I tend to think is her best work to date. That one was a very stark affair, but on the new one Chan Marshall will be backed by a rather meaty band. I do warn that the proposed art for this new album is thoroughly odious. Rest assured that I'll be plugging something more like the above pic into my iTunes cover art field.

Ah, but what songs will she be performing on the album? Well, the album title is Jukebox, and indeed, the tracklist reads like $3 worth of jukebox plays from a dive tavern of our collective American imagination or, when we're especially lucky, an uneventful Thursday night.

01) Theme From 'New York, New York' (popularized by Frank Sinatra/Liza Minnelli)
02) Metal Heart (Cat Power, a highlight of her 1998 Moon Pix album)
03) Ramblin' (Wo)man (Hank Williams)
04) Song To Bobby (a new Cat Power original)
05) Aretha, Sing One For Me (originally sung by George Jackson)
06) Lost Someone (the best James Brown song of all time)
07) I Believe In You (Bob Dylan)
08) Fortunate Son (Creedence Clearwater Revival)
09) Silver Stallion (Lee Clayton)
10) Dark End of the Street (originally sung by James Carr)
11) Don't Explain (Billie Holiday)
12) Woman Left Lonely (popularized by Janis Joplin)

In spite of the smell of $4 pitchers of Coors it may evoke, it's a mouth-watering set. Although one can't help but note the absence of “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.”

I envision a mournful, weary take on the indignant and entitled “Fortunate Son,” and I'm betting it'll be a show-stopper. But man, what is her “Lost Someone” gonna sound like? Now, one of these tracks I've already heard Chan tackle. For an early glimpse at how the new album might come off, compare Chan Marshall's solo version of “Ramblin' Man," performed on-air for KCRW last year, with Hank Williams' original.

Cat Power – Ramblin' Woman (KCRW Session, 2006)
Hank Williams – Ramblin' Man (1953)

You can get more of that radio session at eMusic and, if for no other reason than her gorgeous Otis Redding cover, I recommend you do.

Doubtless, a quick Google search would show this to be only the 125th blog posting those two mp3s. Ah, well. Such is life in Cent. 21. Probably you'll be able to find this song without much trouble too.

George Jackson – Aretha, Sing One For Me (1972)

Written by J. Harris and Eugene William and recorded for Hi Records, this song is new to me, and it's wonderful. (Already I'm enjoying the dividends of the new Cat Power record!) I feel I've said this before, but fans of the Wu-Tang will recognize it immediately. This time, the song figures heavily in Ghostface Killah's “Child's Play.” I'd post his song here, but it'd scandalize even our most liberal readers. So you'll just have to take me at my word when I tell you it's a five-star classic that draws exclusively from familiar hip-hop tropes, but seemed at the time, and in fact still seems, like an exciting, unexplored direction for rap music. Anyway, back to George Jackson.... Gorgeous keyboards, some weird strings that appear in the kind of super-clipped snatches that we'd later find peppered over so much 90s hip-hop. The title's “Aretha” refers of course to Aretha Franklin, whose music our post-breakup protagonist hopes will change his love's mind, “Make her sorry/ We are apart.” Not satisfied with mere name-checking, Jackson hazards blatant citation – again, the kind of thing hip-hop would later rely on – breaking at one point into a little sample of her knee-weakening “I Can't See Myself Leaving You” (about which, as chance would have it, I've already blogged). This is one of my favorite new finds.

Friday, October 12, 2007

documenta XII: Lu Hao

I really hate it when I can't read up on cool things I run into. Essentially this is because I'm never totally comfortable forming opinions until I've digested a few expert critiques first. It's something I'm working on. Lu Hao's drawings for documenta XII are a perfect example. I totally love these. But I dunno that I feel all that comfortable going out on a limb talking about what's so great about them. I guess I just immediately took a shine to them. Full disclosure: I'm a pushover for unpeopled urban landscape. Shoot a roll of film in an empty hallway, and I'll love you forever. Draw a comic book about sleepy brick buildings and I'll go weak in the knees. So, yeah, these were right up my alley. And not for nothing either, I mean, these ink drawings are straight-up gorgeous, no? Architectural and detailed, they remind me of commercial “urban concept” drawings - the kind of thing reprinted in newspapers with proposals for new baseball stadiums, shopping malls or, well, 9/11 memorials.

Without deviating from this, there are also prominent touches of antiquity – like these stylized trees that, even while they fit the commercial-use slickness, recall something like Utagawa Hiroshige's prints (yes, I do know that Hiroshige was Japanese, not Chinese).

I also totally love that these are presented on a set of ten long silk scrolls - another antique affectation, and kind of a gimmicky one. But well-executed gimmicks are what good conceptual art is all about, if you ask me, and Lu Hao's gimmick is very well-executed indeed. The scroll format is a perfect fit for capturing complete blocks of Beijing. Doing it one better, Lu Hao arranged the scrolls in pairs, with walkways running between, so that the viewer can “stroll down the block,” looking to the right and left to see Hao's artist renderings of Chang'an Street.

These scenes were all captured in 2005 and 2006, documenting a moment in Beijing's ramp-up to hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics, a huge overhaul of urban landscape and even local customs in an effort to put the city's best foot forward in a globally televised mega-spectacle. These pictures catch the city's transition in process. Some buildings are shown under construction. Others have probably since been demolished. In a few cases, the stark difference of adjacent structures is quite striking.

Lu Hao's a new name to me, but it seems that a good deal of his past work has involved Chinese monuments. Well, the streets of China are more or less going to serve as tributes to both Chinese tradition and Chinese modernization next year, so really this documenta piece is also about monuments.

Because the scrolls were preserved behind shiny glass, I couldn't get any decent photos. Thankfully, more skillful photographers than I have posted all the above shots on Flickr.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Recently Played: Betty Harris – Nearer To You (Plus Two Essential Additions To Your Wucography)

When I left Seattle, I vowed to dial back my ravenous music consumption. Not that I was listening to too much bad music (zip it, Aaron!), just that there's only so much time in a day, and I was spreading my iPod a little too thin to properly appreciate a great record when I found one. So now here I am in Köln, and still I'm taking in music faster than the Titanic took on water. Mind you, I'm not buying CDs, but I am making very good use of my eMusic subscription, and buying more than the occasional song from iTunes, Beatport, etc. Anyway, before I get too far off-topic,what I'm getting at is that, in the hunt for new music, I find it all too easy to overlook gems already in my collection.

A recent, very long-winded example: Well more than a year ago I fell hard for Betty Harris's rendition of Solomon Burke's “Cry To Me,” which I'm not ashamed to say I discovered on a Time-Life CD. That song I hope to discuss more in a later post, but for now suffice it to say that it compelled me to track down a compilation of her finer 1960s recordings. Though the sound quality left plenty to be desired, Lost Soul Queen had plenty of very good songs. But, tut mir leid, nothing that compared to “Cry To Me.”

So anyway, I'm listening to Christina Aguilera's last album and there's this track “Understand” that opens with a gloriously disarming soul sample, with the kind of dusty, melancholy hook you'd expect to hear backing the Wu-Tang Clan. Immediately, I must have the song from which this plodding but emphatic “I... May do things... You don't understand” plaint is drawn. It's a couple days before I get the chance to connect to the internet and Google up the song title and performer. But I guess I've already kind of undermined the suspense, haven't I? The song is “Nearer To You,” by none other than Betty Harris. It's the fourth track on the collection I already had. (It's also on the Soul Perfection Plus set, which I'm inclined to think is the better disc, though perhaps a little tougher to find.)

Betty Harris – Nearer To You (1967)

Produced and written by New Orleans' Allen Toussaint for Sansu Records, it's no wonder I'm head-over-heels. Toussaint's the dude who helmed some of the best songs Irma Thomas ever sung. His piano playing from this period is nice and bluesy, but perfectly understated. And of course, Harris' voice is just plain raw and, much like ODB, that tends to be how I like it. No mystery how Aguilera's producer settled on the song's sweet spot - it practically grabs you by the collar and shakes you.

According to my iTunes stats, I'd already listened to the song a number of times, but somehow it failed to make a lasting impression on me. Strange now that I can't stop wanting to hear it. Do I have Xtina to thank? Or do I just need to slow down and more carefully listen to the music I already have?

And hey, since I mentioned the Wu, here are a couple of terrific Stax Records cuts that should ring some serious bells for any fan of Enter the 36 Chambers.

Wendy Rene – After the Laughter (Comes Tears) (1964)
The Charmels – As Long As I've Got You (1967)

If these three songs don't keep you warm on a lonely autumn night, I worry nothing ever will.

More Information on Betty Harris