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Review: Rod McKuen, “Listen to the Warm” and “Sold Out at Carnegie Hall”

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Rod McKuen - ListenThe words speak for themselves.  In the 1973 liner notes to Rod McKuen’s album Listen to the Warm as reprinted in full for Real Gone Music’s new reissue, Gerry Robinson matter-of-factly states that “Listen to the Warm is not only the best-selling volume of poetry in current times – other than the Bible, it is the best-selling book in hardcover as well.  It has outsold such titles as The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Gone with the Wind, Jonathan Livingston Seagull and all the modern day novels and reference works, including the Random House Dictionary of the English Language.”

Yet this wasn’t mere hyperbole; since his heyday, McKuen has sold some 65 million books of poetry, reprinted in eleven languages.  His musical career has been nearly as distinguished.  McKuen translated Jacques Brel’s “Le Moribond” into “Seasons in the Sun,” and wrote an entire album for Frank Sinatra.  His songs have also been sung by Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Dusty Springfield, and sampled by Madonna.  He has two Academy Award nominations, a Golden Globe and a Grammy.  Yet despite all this adulation and great popularity, Nora Ephron, in her capacity as a literary critic, once called his poems “for the most part…superficial and platitudinous and frequently silly,” while U.S. Poet Laureate Karl Shapiro (1946 and 1947) commented, “It is irrelevant to speak of McKuen as a poet.”  Was McKuen, still alive and well and writing, an easy target of critics because of his own success and popularity?  You can judge for yourself on two newly-expanded reissues from Real Gone Music of 1967’s Listen to the Warm (RGM-0125) and Sold Out at Carnegie Hall (RGM-0124).

First released in 1967 on RCA Victor and reissued in 1973, Listen to the Warm tied in with McKuen’s best-selling book of the same name and even its groovy cover artwork echoed that of the book.  There’s plenty of warm(th) on this album, which blends traditional songs with poetry.  Everyman poet McKuen’s breathy recitations are set to tasteful arrangements of his own music by Arthur Greenslade (who also conducted). The poems, and lyrics, are impressions and reminiscences of universal themes like love, loss, animals, weather and nature.  They’re frequently gentle, unabashedly sentimental (some might prefer “mawkish” or “maudlin”) and always delivered in McKuen’s hushed, measured and staccato tone.  Think a noir narration, minus the femme fatales and hard-boiled dicks.  New York is very much a character in these pieces, too, with McKuen adopting a calm voice against the bustling backdrop of the big city.  More than simply that, though, Listen to the Warm was a respite from the turmoil enveloping the country during a tumultuous era, and also from the sea change happening in musical styles.

Greenslade, a British musician who also worked with leading lights such as Shirley Bassey and Dusty Springfield, plays a prominent role on the London-recorded album.  He provides a cocktail piano and smoky saxophone to support the spoken-word pieces like “To Share the Summer Sun”  (“Your thighs make over all the scales/And so I hurry home to you, to use your belly as a cape/To cover up the day”) and navigates the shifting moods of the groovy “Midnight Walk.”  Greenslade also brings variety and color to the proper songs.  Despite the limitations of McKuen’s reedy singing voice, he brings emotion that’s matched by Greenslade’s lush charts for songs like the bossa nova-inflected title track (“With love, it’s either famine or a feast/You’ve got to learn to smile at least”), and the pretty “Where Are We Now.”  Strings swell on the dramatic “I Live Alone” (“Still, it’s nice sometimes to open up the heart a little and let some hurt come in…proves you’re still alive”).  Other compositions, like the carnival-esque “Round and Round,” blend both spoken word and song into a satisfying whole.

Glenn Yarbrough and others covered the song “Listen to the Warm,” but the album’s most famous piece just might be the spoken-word “A Cat Named Sloopy.”  It isn’t quite story and isn’t quite pure poetry, but rather a hybrid of both.  Though the more cynical among us will find its charms easy to resist, it’s nonetheless easy to see why the sad tale tapped into the emotions of any pet owner who’s ever lost a loved friend as McKuen sadly recalls of his cat, “perhaps she’s been the only human thing that ever gave back love to me.”  “Sloopy” is quintessential McKuen: intimately, conversationally delivered, tapping into familiar feelings that might have otherwise been left unexpressed.  (A delightful drawing sent to McKuen by Charles Schulz, for whom McKuen wrote his Oscar-nominated score to A Boy Named Charlie Brown, is reprinted in the booklet.  In the drawing, Snoopy quizzically wonders, “’SLOOPY?’”)  One’s mileage might vary on McKuen’s poetry, but the songs have aged beautifully as vintage MOR orchestral-pop nuggets.

Which bonus tracks will you find on Listen to the Warm?  Hit the jump!  Plus: a full rundown of the deluxe Sold Out at Carnegie Hall! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

March 4, 2013 at 10:23

Posted in Reissues, Reviews, Rod McKuen

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Release Round-Up: Week of February 26

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Cat MotherFanny, Fanny / Freddie King, The Complete King Federal Singles (2-CD Set) / Rod McKuen, Sold Out at Carnegie Hall (2-CD Deluxe Edition) / Rod McKuen, Listen to the Warm (Deluxe Edition) / Cat Mother and the All Night Newsboys, The Street Giveth…and the Street Taketh Away / The Hello People, Fusion / The Grateful Dead, Dick’s Picks 25 – May 10, 1978 New Haven, CT / May 11, 1978 Springfield, MA (4-CD Set) (Real Gone Music)

Much to enjoy from Real Gone today: four discs of live Dead, deluxe editions from beloved songwriter/poet Rod McKuen, Freddie King’s A’s and B’s for King and Federal and Cat Mother and The All Night Newsboys’ The Street Giveth…, produced by Jimi Hendrix.

All That Jazz 2CDBreathe, All That Jazz: Deluxe Edition (Cherry Pop)

The underrated, dreamy debut album that spawned some major international hits in “Hands to Heaven” and “How Can I Fall” is expanded by Cherry Pop as a two-disc set with many B-sides and remixes. Check back later this week for a special interview with Vinny Vero, the veteran compilation producer/remixer who produced this reissue! (Amazon U.K. / Amazon U.S.)

Kirsty DeluxeKirsty MacColl, A New England: The Very Best of Kirsty MacColl (Salvo)

A brand-new Kirsty MacColl compilation (Amazon U.K. / Amazon U.S.), featuring many of her non-LP singles. An Amazon U.K. edition features exclusive art cards and a DVD of music videos along with the standard package.

Mann Weil AceVarious Artists, Born to Be Together: The Songs of Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil (Ace)

From Ace comes a nice tribute to one of the best songwriting duos of the century. Features hits like “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” “On Broadway” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.” (Amazon U.K.Amazon U.S.)

Chita Rivera Two-FerChita Rivera, Chita! / And Now I Sing! (Stage Door)

However you can try to explain why the living stage legend’s two ’60s solo LPs are only now coming out on CD as a two-for-one package, they’re here for your enjoyment! (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)

Real Gone Announces Hendrix-Produced LP from Cat Mother, Plus Grateful Dead, Rod McKuen, The Hello People, Freddie King, More

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Cat MotherFrom a lost classic produced by Jimi Hendrix to Grateful Dead playing Warren Zevon, Real Gone Music’s February release slate has a little bit of soul, rock, pop, blues and even poetry!  The label founded by Gordon Anderson and Gabby Castellana has an impressive line-up of titles due on February 26, including the first-ever standalone CD reissue of the Richard Perry-produced Reprise debut of Fanny (the first all-female rock group signed to a major label), a definitive 2-CD singles collection from blues great Freddie King, two expanded albums from poet and musician Rod McKuen, and the Jimi Hendrix-helmed LP from Cat Mother and the All Night Newsboys.  (They don’t make band names like that anymore, do they?)  And that’s not all.  There’s more from Grateful Dead and The Hello People!

Plus: eagle-eyed readers might have noticed that Real Gone’s two promised collections of Patty Duke’s four United Artists albums have disappeared from the January 29 release calendar.  These two releases have been rescheduled for February 26.

Hit the jump for the press release for Real Gone’s February schedule, plus pre-order links to all titles! Read the rest of this entry »