Monday, November 23, 2015

Ryan Adams Deconstructs Taylor Swift

Until Adele stepped up to the plate this week to save the nation's record industry, it had been propped up for the past year - just beyond life support - by the near omnipresent Taylor Swift.  Her record "1989" sold more copies than any other in 2014, and was probably primed to do the same this year until Adele came storming back into our lives.  Sometimes it seemed like every A-list star in the rock and pop made an appearance with Taylor during her tour this year, up to and including Mick Jagger.  That may be a slight overstatement, but all I know for certain is that there was rarely a week when she didn't pop up in Rolling Stone's "Random Notes" section.  Without question, the most successful country crossover star of the decade, if not of all time.

But make no bones about it, "1989" was about as far from being a country album as one could possibly imagine.  It is a pop album plain and simple, not all that far away (save for a handful of questionable tunes) from being one of the pop masterpieces of our time.  And yes, while there is little  doubt some point in the past year that you found yourself growing sick to the stomach of "Bad Blood" (or the endless speculation about what meaningless celebrity interaction led to the song in the first place), but it was one of the most effective earworms of the year - once you heard it, it was going to be there all day long.

So enter Ryan Adams, who I've always had a bit of trouble categorizing.  His Wikipedia page offers little in the way of hints, but does call his former band "alternative country," which I suppose is close enough.  He's been releasing albums, both solo and with his various bands, since the turn of the century, but he's never quite hit the big time (when queried about their knowledge of his work, nearly all of my colleagues responding with some variation of "Bryan Adams?  The guy who sang "Summer of '69?"  Well no, and there's a great story about that, but we don't really have time...).  Almost perfectly fits the bill of what Christgau (who is not a big fan) might call "the semi-popular artist."

So what to make of Ryan Adams deciding to record "1989," song for song, but in...well, Ryan Adams style?   Well, if it weren't for the "Hamilton" soundtrack, I'd say that it's unquestionably the conceptual masterpiece of the year, not to mention something that I've never heard happening before.  Perhaps it has, but I've bought a LOT of records and CDs in my time, and I can't think of a similar instance.

So let's give Adams an A+ for the concept.  How is the execution?

Without question, it works.  And it's unquestionably fun to compare his and Taylor's approaches to the album's monster hits.  Adams turns "Blank Space" into a tender acoustic ballad, he turns "Style" (unfortunately, in my view) into what I'd call a grinding rocker, and "Shake It Off" is (natch) slowed down a bit.  It is on "Bad Blood" where he is most successful, with a version that for me rescues the song from the bombast of the original production and the crushing publicity that surrounded it.

"Bad Blood," Taylor Swift (featuring in this version, Kendrick Lamar)

"Bad Blood," Ryan Adams

It's really on the songs that on Taylor's album sounded like lesser lights where Adams shines the most - I'm thinking in particular of "I Wish You Would," "Wildest Dreams" and "I Know Places" in particular.  The urge to compare with those tunes is not quite so overwhelming, but at the same time they may provide a means by which to better appreciate the originals.

But to these ears, the album's definitive masterpieces are "Out of the Woods" and "All You Had to Do Was Stay."  On both, you can hear the Swift versions at the periphery, but at the same time the arrangements are all Adams.

"Out of the Woods"

Overall, the whole thing is a hoot.  I love the idea, and the execution is strong enough that I've got no problem at all giving it my thumbs up.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

"The Ghost of Tom Joad" Turns Twenty

Bruce Springsteen released "The Ghost of Tom Joad" twenty years ago this week, two days before Thanksgiving and without much in the way of fanfare or marketing.

It's a quiet record, and for the most part gets left out of the discussion when the subject turns to Bruce's greatest work.  Few mention it in the same breath as "Nebraska," its acoustic counterpart in the Springsteen catalog.  But like "Nebraska," "Tom Joad" is an overtly political record, reflective of the time it was released.

In the mid-nineties, Bruce was still living in California, and I've often thought that "California" could have served as an appropriate title for the album.  For many years now California has been the bluest of the nation's blue states, but back in the mid-nineties it wasn't that way.  The state had a Republican governor (Pete Wilson), albeit a relatively moderate one.  And in an election that seems almost incredible today, in November 1994 the Republican party actually captured a majority in the 80-member State Assembly.  This began an assault on affirmative action in the state that would culminate in 1996 with the passage of Proposition 209, which amended the state constitution to prohibit the consideration of race, sex or ethnicity in decisions affecting public employment, public contracting and public education. 

Although "Tom Joad" doesn't specifically address those issues, it's fair to say that the album as a whole is a response to the political atmosphere of the time - songs that depict a land of little opportunity, one rife with enormous gaps between those with and those without.  One standout is "Balboa Park:"

He lay his blanket underneath the freeway
As the evening sky grew dark
Took a sniff of toncho from his coke can
And headed through Balboa Park
Where the men in their Mercedes
Come nightly to employ
In the cool San Diego evening
The services of the border boys

He grew up near the Zona Norte
With the hustlers and smugglers he hung out with
He swallowed their balloons of cocaine
Brought 'em across the Twelfth Street strip
Sleeping in a shelter
If the night got too cold
Runnin' from the migra
Of the border patrol

In the words of Mikal Gilmore,
"It's a record about people who do not abide by life's ruins; it's a collection of dark tales about dark men who are cut off from the purposes of their own hearts and the prospects of their own lives. On this album almost none of the characters get out with both their bodies and spirits intact, and the few who do are usually left with only frightful desolate prayers as their solace."
And yet, there remains hope that in this country, people will find their land of hope and dreams.  In "Across the Border," Bruce closes the almost achingly beautiful song with these lines:

For what are we
Without hope in our hearts
That someday we'll drink from God's blessed waters

And eat the fruit from the vine
I know love and fortune will be mine
Somewhere across the border

For me, what sets "Tom Joad" apart from "Nebraska" is in the power and beauty of its music. These are not tunes that are going to get you tapping your foot or looking for the closest dance floor, but they reward the patient listener with a soundscape that is perfectly appropriate for the tales that are being told.

It's a great album - an album well worth saluting on the occasion of its 20th anniversary.

Saturday, November 14, 2015


First things first - Spectre is a very good James Bond movie, and if it ends up being the last film featuring Daniel Craig as Bond, it's a fine way to go out.

But it's not Skyfall.  And lest there be any confusion, I should say from the outset that not only did I think Skyfall was a great James Bond film - perhaps the best ever - but a great film, period.  When I put together a list of my top ten films of the past decade a year or so ago, Skyfall was on it.  And while Spectre may grow on me upon subsequent viewings, I don't see it making an appearance on any similar upcoming lists.

In tone and structure, Spectre is similar to its immediate predecessor, but even darker - both in content of story and the palette of color used by Director Sam Mendes and Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema.  If anything, the film is too dark, lacking a sequence with the boldness of the images and colors seen in both the Shanghai and Macau sequences of Skyfall.  Even the outdoor, lighter setpieces - the opening sequence in Mexico City and the later scenes in the desert lair of Blofeld - are dominated by beige tones.

Mendes and his scenarists clearly wanted to create works that lent the Bond canon a sense of epic drama.  There are moments of humor in Spectre, mostly thanks to Craig's expressions and the droll nerdness of Ben Whishaw as Q, but for the most part this is deadly serious stuff.  One can debate the wisdom of trying to use this film as a framing device for the three Craig/Bond movies that preceded it - personally, I doubt the plot details of each film transposed with this one would stand up to scrutiny, but I'm willing to suspend my disbelief - but it's evident that Mendes and crew were after bigger game with this one.  Whether they actually hit it or not is in question, and in one sense, the result is that the story being told in Spectre feels unfinished, as if it were the middle movie of a trilogy.

The movie also suffers greatly from the absence of Judi Dench as M.  There's nothing wrong with Ralph Fiennes' performance, but what Dench brought to the role (in the very different sets of Brosnan and Craig Bond films) is very clear now that she's no longer there.  Spectre tries to generate the same kind of M/Bond tension as its predecessors, but the dynamic falls short of what Dench was able to achieve in a series of performances that now feel almost like atonement for five decades of "Bond Girls."

But no James Bond film would be complete without Bond Girls, and Spectre is no exception.  Monica Belluci isn't in the film long enough to make much of an impression, and Naomie Harris' Moneypenny is completely wasted this time around - she basically has nothing to do.  Fortunately, after an hour or so we are treated to the appearance of Lea Seydoux, who can rightly take a spot as one of the greatest Bond Girls ever.  Her Madeline Swann is no wallflower, and no bimbo - she is clearly the equal of James Bond at every turn, and Seydoux and Craig generate quite a bit of chemistry in their scenes together - particularly in one scene on a train, when for a brief moment Seydoux actually brought to mind the luminous Grace Kelly (and there can be no higher praise from me).

A great Bond film also rests on the success of its villains, and unfortunately this is another area where Spectre falls slightly flat.  Dave Bautista proved in Guardians of the Galaxy (not to mention the WWE) that he can bring a sense of humor to an purely action-oriented role, but you'll see nothing like that from him in this one.  It's not his fault; apparently, he was brought on board simply to be a big, strong guy who can kill people with his bare hands and drive a fast car very well (but not well enough to catch James Bond).   And Christoph Waltz, whose Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds was only one of the greatest villains in the history of cinema, falls almost completely flat as the mastermind behind Spectre, and "the architect of all of James Bond's pain."  I wouldn't have thought it was possible, but the character and the performance almost verges on boring.

With all of these complaints, it probably sounds like I hated the movie, but that isn't the case.  As a director, Sam Mendes brings an incredible sense of style to every project he works on, and even though his being tabbed to helm two James Bond films once seemed like a stunt, I now hope he decides to do another.  There are little visual feasts in nearly every segment of the movie (notwithstanding my earlier complaint about lack of color), and even though the story is at times muddled, the narrative never fails to move forward with pace and even panache.

Other good things?  Andrew Scott, who has done so well as Moriarty in the Cumberbatch/Freeman "Sherlock" series, is excellent as the auxiliary villain, and the rapport between M, Tanner and Q as they struggle to keep themselves relevant is never less than entertaining (and at times much more than that).  And, hey - you can say that Daniel Craig wears a suit better than just about any man on the planet, but what he has brought to the role of James Bond has really been equaled only by the originator of the role, the legendary Sean Connery.  And that's fine company to be in.  Whatever it takes to be James Bond, he's definitely got it.

So - at the end of the day probably not a classic, but still worth your time and money.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Notes on an epic sports night

As I've written before, October is the best month of the year for avid sports fans.  You've got the heart of the college football season, you've got the NFL moving into "mid-season form" (as the saying goes), you've got the MLB playoffs followed by the World Series, and you've got a whole bunch of other fun stuff.

But it's rare that the stars align the way they did last night - a night that TV remotes were invented for.  At one point, all of the following events were being televised, which in and of itself would have been a fun night.  If one or two of them had been dramatic, that would have been really cool.  As fate would have it, all of them were dramatic, and a couple of them went well beyond that. 

- U.S.-Mexico soccer: I'm a casual soccer fan, knowing just enough about the sport to be dangerous.  But I understand spectacle when I see it, and last night's game in front of more than 90,000 delirious fans (about 3/4 of whom appeared to be solidly behind Mexico) at the most iconic sports stadium in the country (the world?) created an atmosphere that went well beyond what you normally see, at least in this country.  Frankly, I'm not even sure I completely understand what was at stake last night, although I know that we never like to lose to Mexico, particularly on home soil.  All you had to do was watch the players and the fans to know what was really at stake, and the game delivered on all fronts.  I'm not sure I've ever seen three goals scored in extra time, and although we came out on the short end of a 3-2 game, it was sure fun to watch.

- L.A. Dodgers, leg breakers: Before Dodgers fans jump all over me, let me just say this - whether Chase Utley's play was legal, within the rules, indicative of an era when men were men, or just a sign that the Dodgers realize that they've got to do something to overcome the fact that Clayton Kershaw is the Bizarro World Bumgarner - is irrelevant.  In the big scheme of things, MLB will realize that its assets are the players, and that they can't allow their players to be injured in such fashion.  So next year, that play will be outlawed, just as old style home plate collisions were outlawed after Buster Posey's career was almost ended after one.  And for the short term, it sure does create an interesting series, what with the Dodgers heading into enemy territory and all.

- Cal-Utah.  Cal appears to be making good progress under Sonny Dykes, but a win last night would have been a major step.  Alas, it was not to be, as Jared Goff picked the wrong night to throw 5 interceptions and throw a major wrench into his chances for the Heisman Trophy.  But Utah does appear to be one of the best teams in the nation, and the fact that we were in it right down to the last minute is reason to be hopeful for the remainder of the season.  And who knows, maybe this is the year we start beating Stanford again.

- Miami-Florida State.  Over the years, I've generally had little or no use for either of these teams, so it usually comes down to rooting for the one that I hate the least.  Right now, that's Miami, but only because they're not as good.

- TCU-Kansas State.  Bill Snyder really is a wizard.  74 years old, still coaching his heart out, in the stadium named for him and his family.  They couldn't quite pull it off last night, but you rarely see a game that Kansas State doesn't have a chance to win.  And that's not because blue chip recruits are dying for the opportunity to spend four years in Manhattan, Kansas.  It's all about Snyder.

- The President's Cup.  It will never achieve the status of the Ryder Cup, but it has carved out a bit of a niche for itself, and it's always fun watching the best players in the world square off in a match play format with something at stake.  We always seem to win this Cup, and maybe one of these days those victories will spill over to the next year so we can recapture the other one.

By the time it was all over, it was time for Saturday Night Live.  And Amy Schumer was pretty damn good.

Monday, September 21, 2015

"Great Female Records," Part I - Kacey Musgraves

"Trust me, I play great female records and we've got some right now; they're just not the lettuce in our salad.  The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that.  The tomatoes of our salad are the females."  

- Country music consultant Keith Hill

There's still almost four months left in the year, so there's always a chance that before the end of 2015, someone in the music industry will say something more idiotic than the quote that appears above.  But I wouldn't bet on it.

The crazy thing is that, unless my ears are betraying me, this is a great time for women country music singers.  Just in the past year, there have been excellent albums from Miranda Lambert, Angaleena Presley, and Sunny Sweeney - and I'm sure that's barely scratching the surface.  But this summer, we've seen two albums that deserve to be blockbusters, from two artists who deserve to be superstars.

Kacey Musgraves is probably the better known of the two, and she seems to have taken up the mantle of her fellow women artists to attack those, like Keith Hill, who want everyone in the country music world to fit into little demographic boxes.  "Pageant Material" is her second album, and there is plenty of humor to be found on it, particularly on cuts like "Biscuits" ("Mind your biscuits/and life will be gravy") and "Family is Family" ("They might smoke like chimneys/But give you their kidneys").  Meanwhile, on tracks like "Somebody to Love" and "Die Fun" there is the hint of something bigger and more profound - an artist observing life around her, and having something to say about what she sees.

And on "Good Ol' Boys Club," we have as close to a country music "Radio, Radio" as we're ever going to hear.  It may not have been her intent, but it's very easy to hear the song as Musgraves' direct response to Keith Hill:

Favors for friends will get you in and get you far
Shouldn't be about who it is you know
But about how good you are
Don't wanna be a part of the good ol' boys club
Cigars and handshakes, appreciate you but no thanks
Another gear in a big machine don't sound like fun to me
Don't wanna be a part of the good ol' boys club
The album closes on a very high note, with the terrific weeper "Fine" followed by"Are You Sure," a magnificent duet with Willie Nelson.  And don't worry if you don't see the song listed on the album sleeve - for whatever reason, it's a "hidden track."  Overall, there's no question that "Pageant Material" is an outstanding album.  Having said that, I can't help but feel that Musgraves still has a masterpiece inside of her. 
Coming soon - Part Two, Ashley Monroe.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Classic Vinyl Showdown - "Armed Forces" vs. "Squeezing Out Sparks"

The tale of the tape:

In one corner, Graham Parker and the Rumour's "Squeezing Out Sparks," the 1979 Pazz & Jop champion.  In the other, Elvis Costello and the Attractions' "Armed Forces," the follow up to Elvis' 1978 P&J champ "This Year's Model," which finished 5th in the '79 poll.  Christgau awarded the former album with a rare A+ (downgraded to A when he published his guide to 70s albums), saying "guitar, drums, vocals, lyrics, and hooks (and more hooks) mesh into ten songs so compelling that you're grateful to the relative lightweights for giving you a chance to relax."  The Dean gave Elvis an A-Minus, calling the new album "a good record, to be sure, but not a great one."

Let's start with Costello.  The key to appreciating "Armed Forces" is actively avoiding comparisons with its predecessor, which to these ears remains one of the greatest albums in the history of rock.  "This Year's Model" was the apex of Elvis' "angry young man" phase, and the music on it crackled with an intensity that few albums have matched, before or since.  On the follow-up, Elvis is just as angry, but the musical approach is less direct - less a full frontal assault than a late-night raid, sneaking behind enemy lines under the cloak of darkness.  Songs like "Oliver's Army" and "Green Shirt" sound on first listen like a retreat, but they are anything but.  This is the sound of Elvis and the band discovering how far they can stretch, and if the results may at times sound a little fussy ("Senior Service" and "Busy Bodies"), a close listen to the lyrics is all the reminder one needs that Elvis is after bigger game than on the previous record.  And the album's closer, the immortal "What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding," brings everything into focus as the band turns the Nick Lowe song into one that is entirely theirs and makes it very clear exactly what is at stake.  Of course, Elvis would almost throw it all away a few months after the album's release, with his infamous racist, drunken tirade in response to a bar argument with members of the Delaney and Bonnie band.  The incident seems mostly forgotten today, but its impact on Costello's work at the time was significant.

Meanwhile, Parker's album is fueled by the very rage and venom that was the engine for "This Year's Model."  For most of the record, the Rumour's play as if their lives depended on the outcome, wringing the most out of every tune and verse.  The first three songs set the tone - "Discovering Japan," "Local Girls" and "Nobody Hurts You" (harder than yourself) - set a pace that would fit right in on the most rocking of Stones albums.  The second side isn't as strong, but on the album's closer "Don't Get Excited," Parker and the Rumour come full circle right back to the power and intensity of the beginning.  It's a great enough song that it almost makes you forget the album's worst song, "Waiting For the UFO's," which came right before it.

So which album is better?  It's a really tough call, but at the final bell I have to award Elvis the split decision, for his album's overall consistency.  But they're both solid A's in my book.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Classic Vinyl: "Field Day," Marshall Crenshaw (1983)

In the "he coulda been a contender" department:

I'm not really sure why Marshall Crenshaw didn't become a star.  He had the chops, he had the looks, and to these ears he certainly had the sound.  Maybe it was just a matter of his being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  In the early 1980s, there wasn't a lot of room on the airwaves for his style of straightforward, slightly pop-oriented rock.  There were no synthesizers, and he certainly wasn't a punk.  You could dance to his music, but the dancing would have been closer to 1950s sock hop than to anything remotely resembling what young people were doing out on the dance floor in 1983 or 1984.

"Field Day," released in 1983, was clearly his best album, and severely underrated at #29 in that year's Pazz & Jop poll.  Most of the criticism at the time centered on Steve Lillywhite's production, and that criticism was not unfounded.  Lillywhite's techniques and sound (heavy on drums, slightly tinny) worked perfectly for such bands as U2, Big Country, XTC and the Psychedelic Furs, but it was a horrible match for Crenshaw's American-oriented sound.  It was as if Quentin Tarantino was tabbed to direct a rom-com.  Just a weird combination.

But even with the muddy production, the songs were outstanding; even unbelievable.  In a perfect world, the album's opener - "Whenever You're On My Mind" - would have been a #1 hit, and it wasn't even the best thing on the album.  On "Our Town," Crenshaw showed that with the right kind of development, he might have been able to explore themes that wouldn't have been out of place on a Bruce Springsteen album; on "Monday Morning Rock," he demonstrated that he could be a balls-out rock 'n roller with a sense of humor; on "What Time is It?," he showed that he could handle 1950s updated for the modern era just fine.

He's still out there, but obviously never quite hit the big time.  Which is too bad.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Classic Vinyl: "Imperial Bedroom," Elvis Costello (1982)

When this was released in 1982, I thought it was the most disappointing of his 6 albums (not counting the mostly failed country experiment from the previous year).  Naturally, it went on to win the Pazz & Jop Poll, over such notables as Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska," Prince's "1999," Richard and Linda Thompson's "Shoot Out the Lights" and Roxy Music's "Avalon."

After more than three decades,  I can hear a lot in the album that escaped me back then.  If the entire album maintained the drive and focus of the first side, I might even argue that it deserved to be a contender for the best album of 1982.  But it doesn't; on Side 2 Elvis gets a little fussy, although several of the songs point to the direction he was clearly heading - more Cole Porter than angry young punk.

It's hard to escape the conclusion that it was overrated at the time, but it's still a very good album and songs like "Beyond Belief," "The Long Honeymoon" and "Shabby Doll" would fit in just fine on a career-spanning anthology.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

6 Months, 5 Albums - the best of 2015 (so far)

We're six months into the year, and I can already see that it's going to be really hard to come up with a year-end Top 10.  I'm comfortable with designating these five as my favorites at the halfway point, but it's entirely possible that one could drop out of the Top 10 entirely by the end of December.  That's not a commentary on these records, but a statement about the overall strength of the year.

So in alphabetical order, let's take a peek:

Alabama Shakes - Sound & Color.  In rock music, the best surprises are the unexpected ones - things like Bob Dylan coming up with "Time Out of Mind" after two decades in the wilderness, and Neil Young releasing "Freedom" after a series of desultory albums in the 1980s.  I'm not sure "Sound & Color" quite falls into that category, but it is a pleasant surprise nonetheless - at least for me.  I was not a huge fan of "Boys & Girls, the debut album, even though like just about everyone else on the planet I thought "Hold On" was an instant classic single.  I wasn't even sure I would buy the new album, until a co-worker insisted that I give it a listen and burned a copy for me.  Well, after just two listens I knew I liked it enough to pick up my own copy, and after two months of continuous listens I remain somewhere between surprised and astonished at the record's depth and diversity.

The best thing about it is that much of the record is downright weird - I don't know how else to describe such songs as "Future People," "The Greatest," or even the long blues jam "Gemini."  They barely even sound like each other, which in some instances could be a drawback but here just adds to the power of the album.  Brittany Howard is a vocal chameleon, and unlike the debut it never sounds like she's just trying too hard.  The stretch on the album from "Future People" through "Shoegaze," 5 tracks later - is going to be hard to top this year.

Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly.  I wrote about "How Much a Dollar Cost" here, but right now the track that keeps going through my mind is "King Kunta."  This is not an album for the faint of heart (or for anyone who has difficulty with harsh language), but it's pretty clearly the best rap album since Kanye's "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy."

James McMurtry - Complicated Game.  Son of Pulitzer Prize winning Larry, McMurtry has a wonderful way with words, and the album is hard to classify - is it Country?  Folk?  Something in between or something completely different?  Lots of great songs, but the one that has stuck with the most is "Cutter:"

I cut myself sharp and deep
It's the only thing that let's me sleep
Takes the pain from off my face
and puts it in one tiny space

Where I can keep it down out of sight
Way off to the side
It won't come at me on a cold dark night
The red ridges I can't hide
They're on the outside

Sleater-Kinney - No Cities to Love.  The only thing I would add to what I wrote here is how much "Fade," the album's final track, sounds like something that Roxy Music would have recorded circa 1973-4.  Spooky.

Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell.  Heartbreakingly beautiful and haunting.  Still trying to wrap my mind around it.

So there you have it.  There are plenty of honorable mentions and subjects for further research over in that list on the right, but for now I'm comfortable with these five being at the top of it.  Here's hoping that the second half of the year brings as many delights as the first.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Triple Crown!

And here is where begin to catch up on a bunch of things that would have been more interesting if I'd written about them as they were happening...

Watching American Pharoah win the Belmont to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978 was a real "sports bucket list" item for me.  Even though there were three Crown winners in the 1970s, the decade when I rarely missed any of the races, I'd never managed to see the Belmont live in a Triple Crown winning year.  When Secretariat won in '73, I was on a beach in Ensenada, Baja California, on a YMCA caravan.  In '77 when Seattle Slew turned the trick, I was working at McDonalds. And the following year when Affirmed prevailed in the last of three stirring battles with Alydar, I was on my high school graduation trip in Hawaii, and for some reason we thought they were going to show the race on tape delay.  They weren't.

I saw enough of the Belmont failures in the intervening years to think that maybe I was the jinx, and through (briefly) about not even watching this time.  So it was a pleasant surprise to actually see this great horse finally do what so many before him had failed to do.  And I don't throw around "great" loosely; Pharoah's time in the Belmont was one of the best ever.  Not in Secretariat's league, of course, but there was a reason on that sunny day in June 1973 that Chic Anderson said "He is moving like a tremendous machine!"

It's doubtful that Pharoah's win means that we're on our way back to another golden age of thoroughbred racing, but it was a nice throwback nonetheless.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Spring Music Sampler

Three or four times a year, I make compilation CDs for my friends and colleagues, covering either the latest releases or in the case of the annual Christmas CD, the latest in obscure holiday tunes.  After a couple of weeks of playing around with the songs and the song order (always a critical component of every mix tape), I'm pleased to unveil this year's Spring Collection.

1. Whatever Happened, Brian Wilson.  This one I owe to Larry Aydlette, who advised in a Facebook post to ignore the reviews and pick up what is in fact a very good album.  For me, the best songs are the ones where Brian sings with Al Jardine - and if this song doesn't remind you of classic Beach Boys, then nothing will.

2. Believe (Nobody Knows), My Morning Jacket.  I've only had this album for a week and am still absorbing it, but I knew as soon as I heard the lead track that it was going to find a place on the sampler.  Maybe I'm crazy, but this track sounds like it was influenced a bit by Vampire Weekend.

3. Chateau Lobby #4 (In C For Two Virgins), Father John Misty.  "I want to take you in the kitchen/Lift up the wedding dress someone was probably murdered in."  Hey, I think I know what he might be singing about here!  Father Misty is a member of Fleet Foxes, and this outing is similar but feels a little more ornate in approach.  Still absorbing this album as well, but it's clearly a winner.

4. You Got to Me, James McMurtry.  Bought this one on the strength of the Christgau review, and man is it a good one.  I was tempted to put "Cutter" on the sampler, but this one just felt more representative of the album as a whole.

5. Second Guessing, Sunny Sweeney.  Another "courtesy of Christgau" find, and another reason for my sons to make fun of me for buying so much country music in the last couple of years.

6. Most in the Summertime, Rhett Miller with Black Prairie.  Miller is on quite a roll - last year's Old 97's album "Most Messed Up" was outstanding, and even though this "solo" effort is a little less hard-edged, it's another great outing.

7. Hell to Pay, Boz Scaggs with Bonnie Raitt.  Mr. Scaggs is enjoying quite a renaissance as he approaches the autumn of his life.  Like his last LP "Memphis," the new one was recorded over the course of just a few days with Ray Parker, Jr. (Remember Raydio?  Remember "Ghostbusters?"), Willie Weeks and Steve Jordan.  The worst you can say about it is that it's a little formulaic, but in the end who cares?  It sounds damn good.

8. Gimme All Your Love, Alabama Shakes.  I wasn't a huge fan of the first Alabama Shakes album - aside from the instant classic "Hold On," it sounded like the band was trying just a little too hard.  But no sophomore slump on "Sound and Color" - it's an album of great depth and diverse approaches, and it's clearly one of the best of the year.

9. Back to the Future (Part I), D'Angelo and the Vanguard.  Greil Marcus called it the follow up to Sly and the Family Stone's "There's a Riot Goin' On," and that feels about right.

10. How Much a Dollar Cost, Kendrick Lamar.  I wrote about this song at length here.

11. Hey Darling, Sleater-Kinney.  I wrote about the new album here.  All of a sudden, they're almost famous!  And deservedly so.

12. An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York), Courtney Barnett.  Yet another one I picked up after a recommendation by Christgau.  Not quite as hard-edged as Sleater-Kinney, but she sounds like she'll be around for a while.

13.  Eyes to the Wind, The War on Drugs.  This band is a bit of an enigma - sometimes it reminds me of Springsteen, sometimes it sounds like Dire Straits, every now and then it makes me think of Bruce Hornsby.  It all sounds great, even if a few of the songs might benefit from some judicious trimming.

14. The Promise, Sturgill Simpson.  Now if this song doesn't make you think of Waylon Jennings, you're probably not listening close enough.

15. Dry County Blues, Angaleena Presley.  As is Miranda Lambert, Presley is 1/3 of the Pistol Annies, and even though she hasn't reached the level of fame that her bandmate has, there's no reason why she can't get there.   This is just as good as Lambert's "Platinum."

16. The Eye, Brandi Carlile.  Carlile is all over the place on this album, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.  She can sound like a folkie, she can sound country, but she also has a bit of a rocker in her.  This is her in the first mode.

17. Where Are You?, Bob Dylan. You have to give Dylan a lot of credit for what he has done on "Shadows in the Night."  It's not every artist that can take on a legend, and live to tell the tale. Dylan clearly is not Sinatra, but it is fair to say that he gives each of these songs a respectful and at times, even inspiring workout. "Where Are You" was the first Frank Sinatra album I bought, and it is the best of his "dark night of the soul" albums recorded with the great producer, Gordon Jenkins.  There are four tunes from that album on "Shadows, and this one is the best.  Unfortunately, there's no video of the song, at least not that I could find.

18. Blue Bucket of Gold, Sufjan Stevens.  Sufjan Stevens "Carrie and Lowell" is a remarkable album.  At turns gorgeous and heartbreaking, Stevens creates a sound that demands the listener's closest attention, and it is almost a disservice to simply excerpt one song.  This is the last song on the album, and one of the best.  I'll probably write more about this one down the line, and it could very well end up as my top album of 2015.  But there's a long way to go...

And there you have it.  I really tried hard to find a place for Madonna's "Ghosttown," but decided to go with some lesser known tunes.  But in her honor, we'll close with that tune as a bonus track.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Game of Thrones - starkly crossing the line

[Spoilers] When you watch "Game of Thrones," you know that you're in for your fair share of violence.  In the first season, there was the beheading of Eddard Stark, who at that point was as close to someone you could call a "hero" as anyone in the narrative.  In the third season, there was the infamous Red Wedding, and even though I didn't see that episode live, I can still remember the outcry on Twitter about its horror.  Also in the third season, there was the unceasing torture of Theon Greyjoy by Ramsay Bolton.  And last year, you had Oberyn Martell having  his head crushed after a moment of arrogance and hubris in a duel to the death with the Mountain.

And that's really just the tip of the iceberg.  Bottom line, this is not a story for the faint of heart.  There are times when humanity is lacking on a large scale, and it is a fair statement that the treatment of the women in the story - both those integral to that story, and at the periphery of it - have fared particularly poorly.  There are exceptions - Daenerys Targaryen may someday come to be regarded as one of the great heroines in literature - but for the most part, the women of "Game of Thrones" tend to be of the scheming type, or the type that matters only for what they can offer in terms of bodily pleasures.

One of the highlights of what to date had been an outstanding and exhilarating fifth season had been the story arcs involving two of the women who had suffered some of the greatest indignities throughout the series - Sansa and Arya Stark, parentless after the violent deaths of their parents and separated in what one hoped would become a test of their mettle that would result in the redemption and triumph of their family, and establish each of them as future leaders worthy of respect.

I have to admit that I still don't quite understand what is going on with Arya and where her story is headed, but what I saw last night was her being abused in a way that amounted to a flogging. I'm willing to suspend disbelief and accept that this is all going to result in her becoming a better and stronger person, but all that has been on display so far has been punishment and what looks a lot like debasement.

But that was nothing, compared to the fate of Sansa.  Newly wed to the execrable, detestable and quite possibly insane Ramsay, we were forced to endure a scene where Ramsay in all likelihood raped her on her wedding night (there seems to be some debate about that on social media, but it's hard to argue otherwise), and for good measure forced Theon/Reek to watch the entire episode as punishment for...well, whatever.

It's hard to describe how disturbing the scene was.  Watching it, I could feel my eyes filling with tears at the horror of it all.  For a show as violent as "Game of Thrones" has been, this was crossing a line.   This was not necessary, particularly now that I know that this is one storyline where the show has chosen to deviate from that to be found in the books.  Making it worse was the fact that, just a few minutes before, was a scene where Sansa was at her strongest - confronting a former parmour of Ramsay's as she was being bathed, demonstrating that she was a young woman without fear and prepared to take on what would no doubt amount to the challenge of her life.

And that's not even the worst of how this scene was handled.  To quote television critic Libby Hill:

"However, what really makes the wedding night rape of Sansa Stark notable is the fact that as brutal and honestly unnecessary as the moment is, the show doesn't even have the courtesy of letting Sansa's emotions about the event serve as the center of the moment.  Instead, it's Theon's face we see crumple and weep as he's forced to bear witness when Ramsay has his way with his new wife.  It's fine that Theon is upset.  I'm upset at being forced to watch that scene, too.  But I'm mostly upset because the show seems to have very little interest in how Sansa might be feeling about he nightmarish way her wedding night proceeded."

Sunday night was the final episode of "Mad Men," so understandably much of the "Twitterverse" was devoted to commenting on that.  But shortly after that episode ended, folks started to talk about...almost as if it were a rumor...something particularly horrible that had happened on "Game of Thrones."  Salon television critic Sonia Saraiya made a comment alluding to it, to which I responded "It was the single most disturbing scene of the entire series."

And I believe that today.  Because I'm not one for boycotts, I will keep watching - because I do honestly think the show is one of the greatest of our time.  But what happened last night is a serious misstep that cannot be excused.  And what makes it so sad is the fact that this really has been a wonderful season.  One that has used violence in a meaningful way to move the narrative forward, particularly in the suffering that Jon Snow and Daenerys endured when each felt the need in their positions of leadership to conduct executions.  One that also has featured wonderful visual moments, such as when Jorah and Tyrion sailed through the ruins of a lost civilization and looked upward in wonder at a dragon flying lazily through the sky.

But what happened last night was violence against women for no good reason.  It was a shame.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

They're Not Booing, They're Saying "DAAAAVE"

With a little over a week and 8 more shows to go,  I guess it's finally time to come to grips with the fact that we're about to see the last of David Letterman, at least on a nightly, big stage scale.

People have been writing for a long time that Dave is just a shadow of his former self, and that he no longer really cares about putting on a high quality show night after night.  What people have forgotten is that there were more than a few critics who started writing things like that about Johnny Carson sometime around 1980, and he still had over a decade left.  Those critics are mostly forgotten, and Carson's historic legacy lives on.  And such will, I suspect, be the case with David Letterman.

This isn't an argument that Letterman's show has been as good in recent years as it was when he first came to CBS in 1993, or in the halcyon days of his insanity on NBC in the mid-1980s.  There are nights when it doesn't seem as if Dave is having a whole lot of fun, but overall the show remains strong and its biggest problem is that it's being compared to nearly three decades of classic moments.  No one can win under that scenario - not Tom Hanks, not Bruce Springsteen, not even Bob Dylan.

David Letterman's place in TV history is secure - he's going to be remembered as the second greatest late night host of all time, because no one is ever going to dislodge Johnny Carson from the pinnacle.  He's probably never make that claim himself, but it's true.  Were there times when I wish he had tried something a little different, tried to stretch himself with different types of guests and interviews, much in the same way that Johnny did back when his show was 90 minutes long?  Sure.  But those are minor quibbles - and heck, I also wish that Bruce Springsteen had left four songs off of "The Rising."

I stuck Warren Zevon in the corner of this picture because my all-time favorite Letterman moment was back in 2002, the night that he dedicated his entire program to a celebration of Zevon's music and life.  Zevon was always one of Letterman's favorite musical artists, and YouTube is rife with great clips of Zevon appearances.  On this particular night in the fall of 2002, Zevon knew that he was dying, and he would in fact die 10 months after the show aired.  But it was not a maudlin night; it was a night to enjoy Warren's macabre sense of humor and listen to him sing some of his best songs.  It was also a night that proved that David Letterman was more than just the guy who made funny videos and the auteur of such bits as "Stupid Pet Tricks" and "Stupid Human Tricks."

I remember the first time I saw Letterman guest host the Tonight Show, sometime in early 1979.  Not even knowing who he was, I told my mom that this guy was going to be a big star.  And this time, I was right.

Farewell, David Letterman.  And thank you.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Kendrick Lamar, Part I

"To me, the album is perfect for right now.  If the world was happy, we'd give you a happy album.  But right now, we are not happy."

- Mark "Sounwave" Spears, producer, To Pimp a Butterfly

"What I admire most and enjoy most about this album is that it addresses African-Americans straight up and leaves the rest of the hip-hop audience to listen in if it wants. It’s a strong, brave, effective bid to reinstate hip-hop as black America’s CNN — more as op-ed than front page, but in the Age of Twitter that’s the hole that needs filling."

- Robert Christgau, review of To Pimp a Butterfly

You bought it?


I was going to give you notes and stuff to prepare your elder white self.

- Text exchange with Son #2, April 30

Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly is an epic work of such depth and complexity that in this piece I'm going to tackle only one song on an album that is 78 minutes in length.

Being a 55-year old "elder white self," it's safe to say that I'm not the target audience for this album.  Also, I've never been a "lyrics first" guy, and in rap, well...lyrics are sort of the point.  When I listen to an album like this it takes me a while to absorb the songs, although on one like "The Blacker the Berry," it's not all that difficult to get the point.

Understandably, it's that song that has drawn the most attention, but today I want to focus on "How Much a Dollar Cost," which I've had on continuous loop in my head for the past four days.  Even before I was entirely certain of what Lamar was saying in the song, the music drew me in.  Finding words to do it justice are difficult.  "Ominous" comes to mind, but also "stately," "compelling" and ultimately "thrilling."  Hearing it for the first time (during my commute into work, and I immediately proceeded to listen to it four consecutive times), I felt the thrill that comes with hearing a song you suspect on first listen will become an enduring classic.  That doesn't happen too often, and when it does it's with a song like "Gimmie Shelter," "Every Breath You Take" or "Rolling in the Deep."  That's the kind of power the song held, which was only strengthened when I - with the help of - began to hear and understand what the song was all about.

The song begins with the narrator, who has just "parked his luxury car," encountering a homeless man on the streets of South Africa, who asks him for ten rand (roughly, $1).  The assumption in the first verse is that the dollar will go towards crack:

Contributin' money for his pipe, I couldn't see it
He said, "My son, temptation is one thing that I've defeated
Listen to me I want a single bill from you 
Nothin' less, nothin' more"
I told him I ain't havin' it and closed my door
Tell me how much a dollar cost

In the second verse, the man won't stand down, and the narrator feels a growing sense of frustration:

I never understood someone beggin' for goods
Askin' for handouts, takin' it if they could
And this particular person just had it down pat
Starin' at me for the longest until he finally asked
Have you ever opened up Exodus 14?
A humble man is all that we ever need
Tell me how much a dollar cost

Near the end of the first two verses, you begin to hear a voice, almost hiding in the background, with what can almost describe as a plaintive moan.  On my first few listens I didn't even notice it, but once I did I couldn't get it out of my head - haunting may be the best way to describe it.

In the final verse, the narrator questions himself but then increases the intensity of his attacks on the man, until the dramatic and unexpected climax:

The jig is up, I seen you from a mile away losin' focus
And I'm insensitive, and I lack empathy
He looked at me and said "Your potential is bittersweet"
I looked at him and said "Every nickel is mines to keep"
He looked at me and said, "Know the truth, it'll set you free
You're lookin' at the Messiah, the son of Jehovah, the higher power
The choir that spoke the word, the Holy Spirit
The nerve of Nazareth, and I'll tell you how much a dollar cost
The price of having a spot in Heaven, embrace your loss, I am God"

And at this moment, Kendrick hands the song to Ronald Isley, who sings a beautiful plea for forgiveness that ends with these words:

Shades of grey will never change if I condone
Turn this page, help me change, so right my wrongs

Powerful doesn't do the song justice, and this is just one of many great (if complex, and sometimes hard to hear) moments on the record. No doubt, To Pimp a Butterfly is an album of great depth, one that both speaks to the times and reacts to them.

 "How Much a Dollar Cost":