Three Youtube videos

I may start posting substantive things again in the near future. On the other hand, I may not. For now, here are my three favorite YouTube videos from 2020 so far:

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain featuring Laura Currie, The Lovecats

The Phoenix Chamber Choir, For the Longest Time

Thereminist Gregoire Blanc, pianist Émilie Couturier, and cellist Paul Colomb perform Saint-Saens’ “Aquarium


Miscellaneous Christmas Gleanings

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain routinely gives little gifts to their fans at Christmastime in the form of particularly generous postings on their (already very generous) website; this year they’ve posted a series of videos under the title “Christmas Playalong.”  Here’s one of them:

Also, our old friend Al Wood has posted his usual excellent Christmas things at Ukulele Hunt, including the Christmas UkeToob.

I remember Mystery Science Theatre 3000 fondly, or perhaps I should say I am of the age of people who remember that show fondly. I didn’t have a TV when it was on. Anyway, I don’t think I’d ever heard this one before.

Here‘s a holiday favorite:

And a great classic from the 1980s:

Thanks to theologian Alastair Roberts, I found a new favorite Christmas song just this morning, as I said on Twitter:

This has been making the rounds today:

Psychologist James Thompson engages in one of the most venerable of all Anglican religious traditions, publicly declaring that Anglicanism is doomed and wondering whether it deserves to die. I can’t explain why we do that, I can only say that it’s our way.

Jacobin magazine has a brief summary of how the Christian Left in the USA tends to think of Christmas, which picks up where James Brown left off a few decades ago:

I allowed myself a little scholarly musing on Twitter this morning, in response to a remark by Tom Holland:

As to who should do what with which holiday at this many-festivalled time of the year, here‘s a view from Mya Gosling:

Asked on tumblr whether it’s okay for Gentiles to celebrate Hanukkah, Scott Alexander writes:

To stick with stuff on tumblr for a minute, here’s a cartoon in which Gahan Wilson expresses irritation that various holidays, including Christmas and Halloween, run together in the USA:

This is kind of neat:

The Comics Curmudgeon has taken a vacation over the holiday, and it looks like Rebecca Watson is missing him as much as I am:

Ross Pearsall has put together a nice concept cover for a Christmas comic book that ought to exist:


So, Merry Christmas, everybody.   And:


The New York Times review of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain’s performance last night at Carnegie Hall.

Brush with greatness

The sound you hear is my jaw hitting the floor.  I’ve been the one monitoring our gmail account (losthunderlads at gmail dot com) lately.  So today I opened it and saw two messages from George Hinchliffe.  As in the co-founder of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.  He made some kind remarks about this blog.

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain rereleases two early albums

The re-released

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain will soon be making its entire back catalog available for purchase in the form of mp3 downloads; despite this, they have reissued two of their early albums as CDs, Pluck (1997) and Hearts of Oak (1989.)  A copy of each came to our house came a couple of weeks ago.  Mrs Acilius and I have been listening to them more or less continuously ever since.   

Hearts of Oak features eleven originals and four covers. Pluck features twelve covers and four originals.  Two cuts from Hearts of Oak (“The World’s Number One Scat Singer” and “Western Lands”)  and seven from Pluck (“Try Hard,” “Sugar Plum Fairy,” “Completely Broken Hearted,” “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate,” “Devil’s Galop,” “In a Monastery Garden,” and “I Think You’re Neat”) were among the eighteen tracks on the 2006 compilation album Top Notch.  The band no longer offers Top Notch for sale on their website.  I don’t know whether this means that they plan to make all of the tracks on it available in their original contexts by rereleasing 1994’s  A Fistful of Ukuleles  and 2000’s Anarchy in the Ukulele as CDs, or if those numbers will only be on the market as mp3s.  I hope for the former; not only are the individual tracks worth having, but they flow into each other to make terrific sets.   

Hearts of Oak is structured as an overture and two movements.  The overture is “Chord Trick,” an abridgement of Henry Purcell’s 1695 Funeral March for Queen Mary arranged for electric ukulele; the result sounds vaguely like 80s Progressive Metal.  The set is 21 years old; while several other cuts are recognizably artifacts of the period, this opening number is the only one that has aged badly.  The flat electronic sound captures none of the urgency that builds so insistently through the original.  An attempt to render the Funeral March for Queen Mary in the style of Queensryche may be  typical of the UOGB’s eclecticism, but this performance is by far the weakest on the disc.  

The next seven tracks represent what I call the set’s first movement, a series of vocals in various genres.  “Just a Game” is as much part of 1989 as is “Chord Trick,” but evokes the bubblegum pop of the period far more successfully than “Chord Trick” evokes the metal.  “Whatever It Takes” led Mrs Acilius to exclaim that Kitty Lux has the perfect voice for hillbilly music; as the missus is a card-carrying hillbilly herself, this was high praise.  Indeed, Kitty Lux is the undoubted star of the band in these two albums.  I can’t help but think it’s a bit of a shame that she’s taken a lower profile in recent years.  On “There Was a Man,” Kitty sings about a man who needed shoes and was so excited when she gave him hers that he wore them out dancing for joy.  When I first heard this folk-inspired number my main response was to wonder what it might have sounded like if it had been written in Spanish.  It’s grown on me with subsequent listenings, but it’s not for those with a low tolerance for the twee. 

The liner notes quote the Guardian hailing the fifth track, “Anything is Beautiful Which…,” as the moment when the ukulele “at last found its avant-garde.”  The reviewer probably said that because of the lyrics, which consist of Kitty’s electronically distorted voice making little references to various nineteenth-century theories of aesthetics.  If you aren’t up on these theories, don’t worry- the words are no more distracting than the nonsense lyrics of most pop songs, and the rhythm is powerful enough to get me, the missus, and both of our dogs up and dancing every time we play the disc.  If you are up on aesthetic theory, the song is actually pretty funny, but you’ll have to take my word for that.  Even funnier are the lyrics to “The World’s Number One Scat Singer,” which is George’s one turn as vocalist on this album.  The song, which  would appear on Top Notch as “The World’s Greatest Scat Singer,” actually does include some first-rate scatting, as well as lines that can get a laugh from any audience.  “Easter Sunday,” a cover of Bertolt Brecht and Hanns Eisler’s “Ostersonntag 1935,” is dark and dissonant, as one would expect from a Brecht/ Eisler lied.  Though it is an arrangement of a song that was already 54 years old by the time the disc was first released, it is much closer to being avant-garde than is “Anything is Beautiful Which…”  The speaker’s anxiety about an upcoming “Holocaust/ that will destroy this island, and these people,/ and the continent of Europe” calls for a great deal of dissonance, and the players execute the song brilliantly.  That fearful song is the perfect lead-in for the title track.  “Hearts of Oak” is short and arresting, a simple chord progression backing lyrics that express complex ideas about human connectedness.  Following “Easter Sunday,” a song with lines like “Isolation and communion are written in hearts of oak” prompts deep thoughts about what it means to live a peaceful life as a human being among human beings.     

With that, we move on to the third movement, seven instrumental tracks.  To keep the pairing of “Easter Sunday” and “Hearts of Oak” from taking the listener too deep into intellectualism to enjoy the music, this starts with a sort of Texas two-step number, “Western Lands.”   I don’t actually know the Texas two-step, but Mrs Acilius and I have devised a little dance for this one where I do a quasi-foxtrot and she dances with her shoulders while seated.  “Nevada” is a quiet, steady number that might have sounded somber immediately after “Easter Sunday” and “Hearts of Oak”; with “Western Lands” lightening the mood in between, it’s no more downbeat than is a spaghetti western.  The pace slows down even more for an arrangement of Rentaro Taki’s koto classic “The Moon over the Ruined Castle.”  I used to live next to a professional koto player; she had a low tolerance for the ukulele.  This performance is impressive enough that I might be tempted to play it for her, if she and I were still in contact.  If anything could raise her opinion of the ukulele, this would be it.

After those two slow pieces, the pace picks up again with “Formica Top,”  a Memphis Soul number that would have made Booker T and the MGs proud.  Then comes an equally fast-paced novelty tune, “Minimal Rag.”  “Minimal Rag” is the one Mrs Acilius wants me to learn.  “Karaoke Corral” is another Western-swing themed fast dance. 

The set closes with “The Con Man’s Chord Trick,” an arrangement for acoustic ukulele of the same Purcell march which had started it off in so unsatisfactory a fashion.  This acoustic version is far superior to the electronic one.  The repetitions that had been so tedious on the electric uke give this version an irresistible driving force.  If only it had been chosen as track one and the electronic version had been cut, the album would have been in a different league.   

Unlike Hearts of Oak,  Pluck shows the UOGB in their now familiar form.  Several members of the band take turns on lead vocals, most of the tracks are covers, and comedy is never far away.  The band redid a couple of numbers in later performances.  The version of “Life on Mars” here features Jonty Bankes giving a far less assured vocal performance than he would turn in when he sang the same song at the Barbican in 2005, even though the later performance also included several more voices making a melange of other, similar tunes.  Here, Jonty’s only competition is George chiming in with the occasional line from “My Way.”  That Barbican set also included Will Grove-White clowning through “Hot Tamales,” which he sings on this disc in a relatively straight version.  The version here is more danceable, and I’m glad to have both. 

The Wild West influence that is so much in evidence on Hearts of Oak peeks out a bit on Pluck, notably in the theme from “The Magnificent Seven.”  Slowed down from the original version and played with reggae-like holes in the rhythm, this number will remind most listeners of the UOGB’s version of the theme from “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” (also part of the 2005 Barbican set.)  That’s a shame; while the later piece is a much more impressive feat of musicianship, this one is also fun, and an interesting comment on the original. 

Anyone who laughed at Tom Lehrer’s “Masochism Tango” will howl through “Can I Break Your Heart?”  Not only they; Mrs Acilius, for example, doesn’t seem to care for Tom Lehrer or that song, but she sings along and laughs when “Can I Break Your Heart?” comes on the CD player. 

Amid all the jokiness, there are some serious songs.  The lyrics to “Try Hard,” with its criminally-inclined narrator, may read like a joke, but the song as they play it turns out to have a touch of pathos; George and Kitty’s “Completely Broken Hearted” is quite affecting; and George’s rendition of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” makes me want to jump up and cheer every time I hear it.  

The best introduction to the band is a live show, or failing that, a video.  So, if you are going to start buying their stuff, I would recommend starting with the videos they’ve released so far, one showing the 2005 Barbican show and the other showing last year’s performance at the BBC Proms.  Once you have those, I would recommend Hearts of Oak.   Pluck is a treat for confirmed fans, but I suspect most others would rather just download the mp3s of a few selected tracks.

Someone is impersonating our favorite band

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain informed their mailing list today that “another organisation, claiming to have been playing in the UK and Europe since 1998, and to being “the cult sensation from London” is being promoted in Germany and Austria.”  This other group uses the name “United Kingdom Ukulele Orchestra,” is led by someone named Peter Moss, publicizes itself with quotes from nonexistent newspapers, uses photos of the actual UOGB in its promotions, and has taken money from people who thought they were buying tickets to UOGB shows.  Caveat emptor, as the Latin teacher in me says.

Listen to the soundtrack in the last two seconds

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been trying to find a video of this that was viewable in the states, only to discover that a link to this one was posted on UOGBFans all along.  I suppose that’s what I get for looking everywhere but the obvious place:  

Prom Night: The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain Live at the Royal Albert Hall

On Tuesday, 18 August 2009, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain was a headline act at the BBC Proms, an annual festival more formally known as the Henry Wood Promenade.  The BBC Proms goes on for about ten weeks and includes dozens of concerts in London’s Royal Albert Hall, as well as chamber music performances in nearby Cadogan Hall and a variety of lectures, films, and other fringe events devoted to music.  The UOGB’s performance at this year’s Proms was a big hit; here’s a high-resolution picture of the audience (beware, it can hypnotize you; I just spent three solid minutes trying to follow people’s lines of sight and figure out who was looking at whom,) and an article from The New York Times (the NYT piece is the same one I linked to in my review of the UOGB’s album Live in London #2, if it looks familiar to you that may be why.)  

A DVD of the performance went to press on the 3rd of this month, and today a copy of that DVD arrived at the Acilius household. 

The UOGB has already released audio tracks of ten of the fifteen songs from this set.  Performances of “Anarchy in the UK,” “Life on Mars,” “Teenage Dirtbag,” “Pinball Wizard,” “The Dambusters March,” “Melange,” and “Wuthering Heights” can be found on Live in London #1; “Silver Machine” and “Thunderball” are on Live in London #2; “Psycho Killer” is on Precious Little.  Two songs, “Anarchy in the UK” and “Life on Mars,” are already available on their previous DVD, Anarchy in the Ukulele.  The five numbers that are new to disc are “Puffin’ Billy,” “The Ride of the Valkyries,” “Danse Macabre,” a fragment of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony “arranged for 1008 ukuleles”; and “Jerusalem.”  Of those five, “Puffin’ Billy” is chiefly a setup for “Anarchy in the UK,” and “The Ride of the Valkyries,” while an astounding example of musicianship, turns out to be an extended intro for “Silver Machine.”  Is it really worth  paying £15.00 plus postage for so much old rope? 

I say yes, emphatically yes.  The disc records not only fifteen fine performances, but an extraordinary moment in the history of the ukulele.  The most anticipated number was the Beethoven fragment, the UOGB leading 1000 audience members in the “Ode to Joy.”  The camera pans through the audience, showing hundreds of ecstatic faces.  A DVD extra shows the rehearsal the UOGB did with the uke-bearing members of the audience beforehand.  The “Ode to Joy” is of course a setting of a poem about universal brotherhood; it’s a bit breath-taking to know that and see such a large and diverse crowd join in playing the piece.  It’s almost a shame that UOGB does such a good job with the “Ode to Joy”; I wish it could become part of their regular repertoire, but where will they find 1000 sidemen to accompany every performance? 

Emotions clearly ran high in the hall throughout the concert.  Towards the beginning, Dave Suich recalls his last visit to the Royal Albert Hall, when he paid five shillings to sit in the gallery and listen to Black Sabbath.  Peering up, apparently at the spot those five shillings had bought him, he seems amazed to be on stage.  When Hester introduces “Teenage Dirtbag,” she makes a joke that it’s a poignant song for her because she’d expected to be alone on Prom Night; as she mentions the 6000 people in the hall and tens of thousands more listening on BBC 3, she loses her comic timing and seems to choke up.  High definition usually isn’t a friend to anyone over 30; Hester is an exception.  She doesn’t look a tenth of her true age, and the flicker of emotion on her face in that moment is worth a great deal.  When I talked about Hester’s “Teenage Dirtbag” in my review of Live in London #1,  I summarized it as a “ballad of adolescent lesbian angst”; it’s sobering to see how many visitors still come to this site having googled “hester goodman lesbian.”  At the risk of drawing more of that traffic, I’ll say that the human race would be the poorer if some among us did not go through adolescent lesbian angst.  I’d go so far as to label adolescent sexual angst in all its forms as an indispensable part of the human experience.  Hester has produced a powerful testament to that form of adolescent angst, and my hat’s off to her for it.  Not only mine; Mrs Acilius turned to me as we were watching “Teenage Dirtbag” and said the song filled her with pride every time she hears Hester sing it. 

In a DVD extra showing the players getting ready, Kitty Lux confides to the camera that singing “Jerusalem” as a solo in the Royal Albert Hall is “a dream come true.”  Introducing it on stage, she confesses that she isn’t sure she has the “temerity” to do it.  She wasn’t feigning the nerves; she stumbles over the lines at one point, and at the end Richie and Will touch her shoulders to reassure her.  With so much strong feeling, it’s only right that by the end of the evening hundreds in the audience are waving their ukuleles above their heads in time with the music.

I don’t want to give the impression that it’s all about weeping the tears of inspiration.  “Puffin’ Billy,” a tune used as the theme song for a number of radio and TV programs for small children, leads into an especially hilarious rendition of “Anarchy in the UK.”  “Ride of the Valkyries” and “Silver Machine” are a humorous pairing, and would get laughs even if Dave hadn’t made a comment comparing the “European” Wagner piece with the “British” rock tune.  Peter plays it cool singing “Thunderball,” letting the words get the laughs.  The moment in “Pinball Wizard” when the other seven shout at George to “Shu-duppa-yo-face!” is hilarious as audio, even funnier with video. 

I first heard Saint-Saens’ “Danse Macabre” in school when I was a little boy.  The recording our music teacher played for us featured pizzicato very prominently.  I asked him what instrument that was; he said the violin, plucked rather than bowed.  I wanted to sign up for violin lessons on the spot.  What I really wanted, I now realize, was a ukulele.  The UOGB’s version of the piece lets ukuleles sound like themselves, rather than trying to use violins to substitute for them.  While George introduces the piece by warning us that the ukukele doesn’t have enough sustain to play the “Danse Macabre” quite the way Saint-Saens wrote it, the version they play is thoroughly excellent.  Not least in its ability to get the listener up and dancing. 

Most of the performances are the same musically as the versions on their albums, but the video adds a great deal nonetheless.  For example, listening to “Psycho Killer” on Precious Little, you hear a rousing song and suspect that it’s supposed to be funny somehow.  Seeing Will play the role of a seriously disturbed person as he sings about being a “psycho killer,” you laugh at the absurdity of the song, even while you want to dance.  

The obvious place to end the set was with the “Ode to Joy,” but since most of the audience had just attended a rehearsal of that one, it wouldn’t have been much of a climax.  The regular program ends rousingly enough with the “Dambusters March”; the first encore, “Melange,” would also have been a suitable conclusion, amazing the audience as it does with the UOGB’s ability to keep a common thread while each member of the band is alternating between 3 or 4 songs, most of which are solos.  The second encore, “Wuthering Heights,” gives the audience the satisfaction of shouting “Heathcliffe!” en masse, but otherwise seems to be an odd choice to wind the concert up.  Still, it’s very strong overall, and I recommend it highly.

New UOGB Video

The DVD of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain’s triumphant performance at August’s BBC Proms is available for preorder at their site.  They’ll start shipping the discs on 3 December.  They’ve posted this audience-member video to entice you:

We’ve placed our order, of course.  Look for a review in this space, likely sometime after Christmas.

Some Projects by Hester Goodman

Hester Goodman as Mary Poppins

Hester Goodman as Mary Poppins

Last month, Hester Goodman of The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain posted videoclips on her YouTube channel promoting a couple of non-ukulele based projects she has worked on in the last few years.  Here’s one for “The Film Noir Show“; here’s one for “The Mary Poppins Experience.”   Each project mixes cabaret with elements of street theater, including guerrilla communication‘s refusal to notify the audience that what it is witnessing is a performance.  Notice the parts of “The Mary Poppins Experience,” about 2:09 and 2:55 into the video, where she’s on the steps of Saint Paul’s Cathedral and the crowd is looking around uneasily, as if they hope a police officer will come soon.  “The Mary Poppins Experience” is extremely funny; “The Film Noir Show” may be as well, though it’s harder to judge by the video promotion.  It certainly is striking, at any rate.