Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Highwomen: Setting a Crowded Table

We are the highwomen, we sing stories still untold
We carry the sons you can only hold
We are the daughters of the silent generations
You sent our hearts to die alone in foreign nations
It may return to us as tiny drops of rain
But we will still remain

The Highwomen are one of the year's best music stories.  From left to right on the album cover, the group is comprised of Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Natalie Hemby and Amanda Shires.  If not exactly household words, all four have been very successful artists in their own right - Hemby primarily as a songwriter, the other three as singers and songwriters.  Carlile, Shires and Morris have all recorded excellent albums in the past year.  But over time, this album may come to be viewed as their legacy.

I want a house with a crowded table
And a place by the fire for everyone
Let us take on the world while we're young and able
And bring us back together when the day is done

It's not news that the country radio establishment has been shutting out the best women artists for a long time.  You could call "The Highwomen" a concept album in response to that unfortunate situation, but it's less a direct response than an alternative.  As Shires put it recently in an interview, the four came together with the desire to be inclusive.  When you listen to songs like "Crowded Table" (lyrics above) and "Redesigning Women," that theme is readily apparent.  Again proving the point, guests like Sheryl Crow and Yola show up on a couple of the album's tracks, and the video for "Redesigning Women" (see below) features a number of their fellow artists, including Tanya Tucker and Wynonna Judd.

But as strong as the concept is, having a strong concept wouldn't mean anything unless it was accompanied by a strong set of songs.  On that score, the album is a complete success.  Each artist brings their own style to the table, but the best songs are those that meld their strengths, and even more importantly, their voices.  In addition to the songs above, highlights include "Highwomen," which revisits (with his blessing)  the Jimmy Webb tune that provided The Highwaymen (Cash, Nelson, Jennings and Kristofferson) with their moniker; "Old Soul," which just might be the best song that Maren Morris has recorded to date; and "Wheels of Laredo," the album closer.  But every song is good, and there's plenty of humor (much of it self-deprecating) to go around.

Without a doubt, one of the notable albums of the year.

Thursday, October 03, 2019


Deep down, my guess is that the effort to save Sports Illustrated is doomed to fail.  On the one hand, it's not that difficult to understand - the magazine has been a shadow of its former self for a while now, which has been the case for many formerly great weekly periodicals.  It's now a biweekly publication, and the days are long past when the stories have the same kind of immediacy they did back in the pre-Internet era. 

But on the other hand, the thinking that goes into this kind of decision on the part of TheMaven makes no sense to me.  My son has now worked for two companies in the past year that were acquired by a larger company, with the only apparent purpose seeming to be to run the business into the ground and then sell the spare parts for profit.  Someone must be making a lot of money from these types of business strategies, but there doesn't seem to be much point to the exercise, aside from that.

If we are near the end of Sports Illustrated, that is something worth mourning.  For more than 60 years, the magazine was a source of incredible writing, and incredible photography.  There are a dozen or so boxes sitting out in my garage, and inside of them are old copies of Sports Illustrated, going all the way back to 1969.  Sports Illustrated has been an important part - a formative part - of my life.  Its legacy will live on through the former writers who go on to work in other venues, but even if that happens (and it has already happened in some instances), it just won't be the same.

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

Farewell, Bruce Bochy

Confession time - when Bruce Bochy was manager of the San Diego Padres, I couldn't stand the man.  My ire was directed more at the narrative that was constructed around him at the time.  He was a "genius!" And when you watched a baseball game during that era - and in this instance, I'm thinking more of the national telecasts than the local broadcasts with Kruk & Kuip, or Jon Miller - you could not go more than an inning or two without some commentary about whatever managerial move Bochy was making, and how that particular move manifested some type of rare genius.

It was annoying, and it got bad enough that when the Padres faced the best Yankees team in decades during the 1998 World Series, I actually rooted for the Yankees - which went against every fiber of my sports fan being, which has always been attracted to the underdog, unless one of the combatants is my team (or a team that I can't stand).  And when a managerial blunder (defined by Bill James as an out of the ordinary move that doesn't work) cost the Padres a game...well, let's just say I didn't feel too bad about it.

So when the Giants announced in October 2006 that they were bringing Bochy on board to succeed Felipe Alou, you didn't see me jumping for joy.  And after two seasons of more than 90 losses, it seemed just a matter of time before the Giants would be looking for Bochy's successor.  But things turned in a positive direction the following year, thanks in large part to the skinny kid in the above photo, a pitcher who looked like his arm might fall off every time he took the mound.  He's not going to make the Hall of Fame, but for a 3-4 year period, he was as good a pitcher as anyone has ever seen.  There's a bobblehead of him in my office, and he's holding his two Cy Young Awards.  Not too shabby.

And then the following year, a World Series Championship that seemed as if it would never come - at least not during my lifetime.  That was the year of torture, as the Giants found new ways to make things more dramatic than they needed to be.  Throughout it all, Bochy was the rock around which everyone would gather.  It was a glorious time.  And when it happened again in 2012 - the "never say die" year - and 2014, the year we were probably the 7th or 8th best team in baseball, we were well into territory that would have seemed corny even for a Hollywood movie.

The last few seasons haven't been that great, but so what?  How many baseball fans can say that they got to see their team bring home the trophy three times in five years?  And no matter important one believes a manager to be to a team's success, you can't argue with what Bruce Bochy has been able to accomplish.  You could call it luck, I suppose - but the way that he squeezed the best out of his players, including many that people had given up on, you have to give him credit.  He was able to do what few before him were able to do.  And he didn't need to be a genius - he just needed to be Bruce Bochy.

At the end of the day, Bochy's bust will be in Cooperstown, and that honor will be well deserved.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Apropos of Nothing: The Reboot

When this blog began a little over 13 years ago, it was called "Apropos of Nothing."  Within a month of opening up shop, I realized there was another blog with that name, so it became "Stuff Running 'Round My Head," after the Bruce Springsteen song of that name ("I got stuff running 'round my head/That I just can't live down").  Truth be told, I was afraid that having a blog name that someone else was already using might drive down traffic to my own site.  I'm not sure how many people I expected to read my stuff, but it became pretty clear, fairly quickly, that it was not going to be a huge number and that I was not going to be plucked from the relative obscurity of working for (at the time) a statewide education association.  At this point I know longer care about either of those things.

In the early years, I was a posting fool.  There were pieces about music, movies, sports, politics (which died down over time, particularly when I went back into the lobbying business), and any other thing that inspired, perplexed, or annoyed me.  Over the years, the number of posts dropped precipitously, to the point where they've almost become non-existent.  Most of my quick thoughts can now be found on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.  That seems to be the case for a lot of other folks, since the number of blogs I read on a regular basis has dwindled down to a handful.  Through pieces I've written, I've made connections with some really cool and talented people, and that's always been the point, right?

Nearly all of my writing these days is related to my work.  But my guess is that most people aren't that interested in the bang-up job I did on letters to Governor Newsom requesting a signature on AB 48 or a veto of AB 218 and SB 328.  Or on the amazing issue-oriented memorandums I prepare on a regular basis.  Now, you may not be interested in what shows up here, either - but this is going to be an outlet for my own sanity, if nothing else.  It's a self-commitment to take a break every now and then and write about something, as noted above, that moves me in one particular direction or another.

Having done so too many times, I'm leery of over-committing, but let's just say that there absolutely will be at least one new piece posted here each week.  Tomorrow, look for the first one.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

One of These Days, I'll Learn: Billie Eilish

When she first hit the airwaves, I was mystified - I just didn't get it.  And then she was everywhere, including the cover of Rolling Stone.

That's OK, I thought - hell, at 59 years old, old enough to be her grandfather; this music wasn't meant for me.  You can't like everything, right?

And then this, from last night's season premiere of Saturday Night Live.  I was pretty tired and struggling to stay awake, but made it through the entire show.  It's fair to say this (and her other performance) is the only thing that stuck in my memory.   This is the kind of song that has a direct line into my psyche.  It's difficult to explain why; it's a much about the sound as it is what the singer is singing about.  But now it's probably just a matter of time before I pick up the entire album.

Friday, July 19, 2019

The Albums of 2018 - For Posterity

  • She Remembers Everything - Rosanne Cash
  • Interstate Gospel - Pistol Annies
  • Live From The Ryman - Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
  • The Eclipse Sessions - John Hiatt
  • Bottle It In - Kurt Vile
  • Look Now - Elvis Costello & The Imposters
  • 13 Rivers - Richard Thompson
  • Desperate Man - Eric Church
  • Out of the Blues - Boz Scaggs
  • In the Blue Light - Paul Simon
  • Egypt Station - Paul McCartney
  • Everything is Love - The Carters
  • Shooter - Shooter Jennings
  • To the Sunset - Amanda Shires
  • Plays Well With Others - Lera Lynn
  • Nearer My God - Foxing
  • God's Favorite Customer - Father John Misty
  • Kids See Ghosts - Kanye West & Kid Cudi
  • Daytona - Pusha T
  • Ye - Kanye West
  • Isolation - Kali Uchis
  • May Your Kindness Remain - Courtney Marie Andrews
  • Bad Witch - Nine Inch Nails
  • Things Change - American Aquarium
  • Years - Sarah Shook & The Disarmers
  • Tell Me How You Really Feel - Courtney Barnett
  • Things Have Changed - Bettye Lavette
  • Clean - Soccer Mommy
  • Dirty Computer - Janelle Monae
  • Free Yourself Up - Lake Street Dive
  • Good Thing - Leon Bridges
  • Girl Going Nowhere - Ashley McBryde
  • Golden Hour - Kacey Musgraves
  • Restoration - Various Artists
  • Sparrow - Ashley Monroe
  • There's a Riot Going On - Yo La Tengo
  • Boarding House Reach - Jack White
  • By the Way, I Forgive You - Brandi Carlile
  • All American Made - Margo Price

Monday, April 15, 2019

Your 2019 Masters Champion

There was a time when I wrote so many posts about Tiger Woods that he had his own "tag."  You can find it on the sidebar, and if you click it you'll see that it's been a little more than 9 years since the last post.  It might as well be a lifetime.

Around the time of this blog's debut, Tiger was on one of those streaks when it seemed as if he would never lose again.  It was late summer, 2006.  He had just won four consecutive tournaments, including the Open at Hoylake and the PGA Championship at Medinah.  Any debate over his passing Jack Nicklaus as the golfer with the most major championships was centered on when, not if, that would happen.  Literally anything seemed possible.  Little did we know, the clock was ticking and his time at the top was almost up.

He won the PGA again in 2007, and at the U.S. Open in June 2008 he turned in one of the most amazing performances in the history of the sport.  Armed with a decade of hindsight, it seems obvious that he should have sat that one out.  Watching at the time, we could see the pain he was in, as he hobbled up and down the fairways of Torrey Pines and did the sorts of things that he always had done - make impossible shots look easy, and make the easy shots better and more often than anyone else.  It was a great triumph.  At my office on the day of his 18-hole playoff with Rocco Mediate, several of us spent the afternoon running back and forth down the hall, towards the one office that had a television.  That day, one of our group speculated that Tiger would end up with 22 majors before his career was over.  Again, little did we know.

Much of what transpired after that triumph was ugly, or sad, or a combination of the two.  It wasn't the first time in the history of sports that we discovered a chasm between an athlete's public persona and their personal lives, but it was certainly one of the most painful.  After Tiger returned to golf, every now and then we'd see flashes of the old brilliance.  For a time, he continued to win tournaments.  He contended in an handful of majors, but never came close to capturing #15.  People stopped talking about his chances to pass Nicklaus, and many people shut down the debate in their own minds about which all-time great was better.  And Tiger's body continued to deteriorate, to the point where he reportedly told friends and fellow golfers that he wondered if he'd ever play again.

Following spinal fusion surgery, he mounted another comeback.  And this time, he began to play well enough that one began to wonder: just how far might he come back?  When he won the Tour Championship last September, it was a wonderful moment.  It would have been enough - he had proven that once again, he could triumph over the best golfers in the world, in an atmosphere that was close to what he'd confront in a major tournament. 

Heading into this year's major season, I really thought he had a chance to win one.  I didn't think it would be at Augusta.  More likely Pebble Beach at the U.S. Open, or even more likely at Bethpage Black, which will be hosting the PGA Championship next month.  He's won majors at both venues, and it just seemed to be asking too much to think that he could triumph at Augusta and don the green jacket for the fifth time.  There's a lot of really great players right now, and unlike the days when Tiger began his era of dominance, nearly all of them are as physically fit as he was in his prime.

It was a busy week at work, so I didn't get to see much more than a few highlights of the first two rounds.  But what I saw, and what my friends and fellow golf fans were telling me, was that from tee to green, he was dominant - clearly better than the field.  His kryptonite seemed to be putts in the 6-12 foot range, and if he could start dropping some of those, who knew what might be possible. 

When the final round began early on Sunday, a lot earlier than normal due to the threat of heavy weather later in the day, I was as nervous as I'd ever been watching a golf tournament.  And as it began to play out on the back nine, it seemed almost like a miracle.  Tiger wasn't quite as dominant as Nicklaus' 30 on the back nine in 1986, but at the same time it felt similar, as the drama and pressure of the moment began to claim one major champion after another - Molinari and Koepka at 12, and then Molinari again at 15 - while Tiger himself did everything he needed to do.

And most notably, while playing smart golf - conservative when the occasion demanded, not trying to take more than the golf course was prepared to give him.  And when he flirted with a hole-in-one on 16, and then made the birdie, it was just a matter of time.  He was going to be the 2019 Masters Champion.  And when it happened, it was glorious moment.  And not just because of the accomplishment, but because of the way he reacted to it.  We've never seen Tiger that happy following a victory, with the possible exception of his first Masters championship more than two decades ago.  Then, he embraced his father.  Now, he embraced his son, then his daughter, and then his mother.  The smile did not go away.  And he seemed to realize just how lucky a man he is. 

Back in his days of dominance, he attacked the game of golf as if it were his enemy.  There were few things in sports as unpleasant as watching Tiger Woods on a day when his game was off.  I hope I'm not wrong about this, but I don't think we'll be seeing that Tiger Woods again.  He's got nothing left to prove at this point.  During the weekend, someone - it may have been Jim Nantz - noted Tiger had said, "I don't need to win any more majors.  But I want to."  With this one under his belt, it's only natural that we begin to speculate about more - after all, he's already won majors at both Bethpage and Pebble - but everything that comes after this is just icing on the cake.  This was the big one.  This was the weekend where he made his case for being the greatest golfer of all time.  And it was a pretty damn good case.

Tiger Woods.  Your 2019 Masters Champion.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Songs of 2018, 8th Runner Up: Pusha T

It takes about 45 seconds to hit high gear, but once the hook kicks in, you can't let it go.  Probably the best song to come out of the various Kanye-produced projects that were released last Summer.

"If You Know, You Know," Pusha T.

Monday, January 07, 2019

Songs of 2018, 9th Runner Up

After his second album, which was almost certainly too much of a not-always-good thing, I'd begun to grow tired of Father John Misty.  But he won me back with "God's Favorite Customer," his 2018 album that was shorter, funnier, and better than the album which preceded it.

"Mr. Tillman" first caught my ear with the line about Jason Isbell, and overall the best way to describe it is as a classic Father John Misty song.  Make what you will of the video, but one can't accuse him of not having a sense of humor.

Saturday, January 05, 2019

Albums of 2018, Honorable Mention: "Produced by Dave Cobb"

"Number one is the voice.  That's what people respond to the most, the singer is everything."

- Dave Cobb

Dave Cobb is a busy man.  If you look at his recording credits, it's common to see his name credited on as many as six albums per year, whether as producer, recorder, mixer, or instrumentalist (or some combination of the above).  For artists associated with Nashville, he's become close to omnipresent, working with Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Jamey Johnson, Chris Stapleton, Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, and even the Oak Ridge Boys, among others.

2018 was no different.  There were other albums in addition to those pictured above, but for the purposes of my "Best of 2018" series, I'll focus on these four.  And while they share a link to common styles of music, the production approach on each is geared toward the singer's voice.

On "By the Way, I Forgive You," Brandi Carlile's  singing sounds as if her voice might break at any given moment, almost as if she's manipulating an internal tremolo lever.  The instrumentation never gets in the way, and of course it helps that this may be the best collective group of songs that Carlile has ever written for an album.  The album's peak is achieved early on, with the magnificent opener "Every Time I Hear That Song" - one of the year's best songs.  That none of the succeeding songs quite match up is just a testament to the greatness of the opener; "The Mother," "Fulton County Jane Doe," "The Joke," and "Party of One" all come close.  Side note: on this one, Cobb co-produced with his friend and colleague Shooter Jennings.

Speaking of Shooter Jennings, let's move over to "Shooter," which takes a fairly straightforward approach to Jennings' not-quite-but-close-to gravelly voice.  Jennings can sound soulful, he can handle ballads with aplomb, and he can come across as a whiskey-fueled rocker when the occasion demands.  The album's highlight is the lovely "Rhinestone Eyes," as good a love song as was released in 2018, but don't discount "Bound Ta Git Down," a perfect companion piece to Skynyrd's "I Know a Little," "Shades & Hues," or "I'm Wild & My Woman is Crazy."

Amanda Shires has an extraordinary voice, one that seemingly was created to provide perfect harmony vocals.  But the voice is so light, that on her previous album "My Piece of Land," it sometimes seemed to get lost in the songs, as if it were a leaf blowing away in the wind.  On "To the Sunset," Cobb has constructed a musical approach - almost hard pop-like on some songs - that allows Shires' voice to drive the songs, which is something I wouldn't have thought possible before now.  And the songs are uniformly strong, with "Swimmer," "Leave it Alone," and "Break Out the Champagne" standing out.

I'm not sure how to describe Ashley Monroe's voice except to say that it's a classic country voice - more powerful than Shires' or Carlile's, but also capable of achieving vulnerability in the upper register.  On "Sparrow," Cobb's demonstrates his versatility by working with Monroe to construct a sound that is nothing like what you hear on the other three albums.  Driven by strings, bass and organ on some songs as much as guitar or drums, it sounds a bit like a fusion of countrypolitan with some of the sounds you might have heard on a Jerry Wexler or Willie Mitchell produced record in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  The approach works particularly well on the title track, "Hard on a Heart," "Wild Love," and "This Heaven," but there really isn't a weak cut on the record.

Dave Cobb is at the point of his career where he can work as much or as little as he wants.  No doubt, there will be an album or two released in 2019 that ends up on next year's list of the year's best.  Because the best artists clearly want to work with him.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Albums of 2018, Honorable Mention: The Old White Guys

In his 1980 Pazz & Jop essay, Robert Christgau quoted a critic by the name of Jay Mitchell, who described Side Two of Stevie Wonder's "Hotter than July" as "The perfect example of an artist doing his job and doing it well; with fun and grace at that."  That comment has stuck with me over the years, and has grown increasingly appropriate, as so many of our bedrock artists have continued to record and tour well into their advanced ages.

Elvis Costello (now 64 years of age), Paul Simon (77), Richard Thompson (69) and John Hiatt (66) were all recording in 1980 (Costello even placed an album in the P&J Top 40 that year, with "Get Happy" finishing at 7th), and they all released albums in 2018.  It would be foolish to claim that any of their new records - Costello's "Look Now," recorded with The Imposters, Simon's "Into the Blue Light," Thompson's "13 Rivers," and Hiatt's "The Eclipse Sessions" - was as good as the best album from each artist.

But so what?  The fact that all are still sharing their work with the world is a blessing.  And make no bones about it, all of these albums are very good.  Costello comes as close to achieving a synthesis of his early "angry young man" approach and the panache of Burt Bacharach as he ever has.  Paul Simon has surely earned the right to revisit some old songs that he didn't feel he quite nailed on the first go around, and the results are consistently engaging.  Richard Thompson appears to have been energized by his series of "acoustic classic" albums, and John Hiatt...and this will sound goofy...just sounds comfortable in his own skin.

These four artists have all created works that stand with the best of our time.  Celebrate them and their work while you still can.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Albums of 2018, Honorable Mention: Christmas Albums

The only person I know who owns more Christmas albums than I do is my brother.  It's about all I listen to between Thanksgiving and Christmas - the compilations I've made over the years, the old classics (Roches, Andy Williams, Phil Spector, Harry Connick Jr.'s first holiday record, a handful of others), and whatever new gems find their way into existence.  Holiday albums must still be moneymakers, because there's always a new crop that blooms, usually just before Halloween.  

With all the various media outlets at one's disposal in this day and age, it's pretty easy to get a sense of whether a holiday album is worth buying (or perhaps even just one or two tracks, after separating the wheat from the chaff), which is important if you're only going to be listening for a month every year.

Without question, this year was one of the best for new (and almost entirely original) Christmas albums.  Only four would fit into the picture, but there were five that are good enough to be tabbed as an Honorable Mention for 2018.

* Socks, JD McPherson.  10 original tunes, and they're all winners.  The title tune is about every little kid's least favorite Christmas gift, but along the way McPherson demonstrates, in about as fun a manner imaginable, how much he loves the holiday season.  These are tunes you can dance to, should you so desire.  Highlights: "Hey, Skinny Santa!," "All the Gifts I Need," "Claus vs. Claus," "Every Single Christmas."

* Hey! Merry Christmas!, The Mavericks.  Their own website describes their sound as "beyond category," incorporating "Roy Orbison-style balladry, Tex-Mex and Rockabilly."  That'll do, and on their holiday effort, one couldn't be faulted for thinking that they're listening to a great but long lost record from the early to mid-1960s.  Except for "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," all originals, and also with a healthy dose of fun.  Highlights: "Santa Wants to Take You For a Ride," which is quite possibly the nastiest holiday song since Elvis scorched the chimney with "Santa Claus is Back in Town," the title track, and "One More Christmas."

* Love the Holidays, Old 97's.  Rhett Miller's band has been around forever; sometimes their albums are merely good, and sometimes they're incredible.  The best think about "Love the Holidays" is that if you didn't listen that closely to the lyrics, you'd think you were listening to a "normal" Old 97's album.  And I mean that as a compliment.  Highlights: the title track, "Gotta Love Being a Kid," which sounds a bit like a Christmas song filtered through an early Clash album, "Christmas is Coming," "Snow Angels."  If you want to hear the band's take on some traditional carols, be sure to buy the deluxe edition.

* Ingrid Michaelson's Songs of the Season.  Michaelson tried her hand at holiday tunes last year with an EP; that effort was clearly successful enough for her to take a dive into the deep end of the holiday pool.  This sounds more like a traditional pop star Christmas album than any of the others on the list; it includes old chestnuts like "White Christmas," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," and "I'll Be Home for Christmas," but in versions that add to the canon, rather than simply repeating it.  There are a handful of originals, but the highlight may be her (slow) take on Mariah Carey's monster Christmas song, joined by Leslie Odom Jr.

Not pictured above but equally deserving of the honor is Rodney Crowell's "Christmas Everywhere," which I've seen described as an "anti-Christmas album," which I think was the author's way of noting that some of these songs are about as sad as you'll ever hear on a holiday album.  The clear highlight, and one that definitely falls into that category, is "Christmas in New York," which my friends can definitely look forward to hearing on next year's compilation.

All in all, a jolly time.  Thank you to all of the above artists for brightening the holiday season with these outstanding efforts.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Albums of 2018, Honorable Mention: Kacey Musgraves

My feelings about this album are mixed.  On the one hand, I'm very happy for Musgraves' success, and happy that she is breaking through the male-dominated wall of country music radio that has continued to feature inferior male artists and bands over female artists like Musgraves, Ashley Monroe, Miranda Lambert, Angaleena Presley, Ashley McBryde, Courtney Marie Smith, Amanda Shires, and others (and for the record, I do not include Eric Church, Chris Stapleton or Sturgill Simpson on that list of male artists).  I'm happy that she has done so well in the year-end polls at NPR and Pitchfork.  If there is a Pazz and Jop poll this year (and I don't know that there will be, considering that the Village Voice is no more) "Golden Hour" will no doubt finish very high.  And that's all great.

On the other hand, I'm not hearing a lot of what others are hearing on this album.  I thought that "Same Trailer, Different Park" was a terrific debut, and that "Pageant Material," although suffering slightly from sophomore slump syndrome, was a very solid follow-up.  I was really looking forward to what album #3 might bring.  Musgraves is carving out a path that is mixed equally with roots music and countrypolitan glamour - and from a financial standpoint, that strategy appears to be paying off in spades.  More power to her, and there's no doubting that on songs like "Oh What a World" and the magnificent "Slow Burn" the formula is completely successful.  But too often, to these ears the songs sound like pop pablum - not horrible, but also not justifying the kudos that have followed.

If every song on "Golden Hour" was as good as the two mentioned above, it would be a contender for my Album of the Year.  As it is, it's still worth an honorable mention.

Saturday, July 07, 2018

Bruce Springsteen: Live at the Roxy, 1978

I'm not sure it makes sense to call it the "Holy Grail" because you could find recorded versions of the show if you knew where to look, but an official release of Bruce's legendary (and here, that's just fact, not hyperbole) show at the Roxy certainly qualifies as major news for anyone who even remotely considers themselves a fan of Bruce.

The show is famous for a few reasons, aside from the fact that it deserves to be on the basis of quality alone.  In his Rolling Stone chronicle of Bruce's 1978 tour, Dave Marsh wrote about the show extensively, and one thing that has stuck with me through the years is when he mentions that Jackson Browne, Glenn Frey and Irving Azoff were all present at the beginning of the show, with Frey and Azoff leaving after a handful of songs and Browne closing out the night dancing on the top of the table at which he was sitting.

A year later, Greil Marcus wrote about the show for his New West column (congratulations if you remember that late, lamented periodical).  Marcus was not present, but got his hands on a decently recorded bootleg of the show (I had one as well, but I'm not sure I'd call it a decent recording) and called it "one of the most vivid pieces of sound in the recorded history of live rock 'n roll.  There's nothing you can't hear; even when the band goes after its harshest, most brutal rave-ups, every note stands out."

I've been to ten Springsteen shows, but my first wasn't until the 1980 tour behind the release of "The River," after he had graduated from the small clubs and venues to playing almost entirely in basketball/hockey arenas.  Four years after that, he'd make the full-flown leap into baseball and football stadiums.  I saw him at each, and loved every show, but there's no doubting that the sound you can achieve in a smaller venue is superior to what you can do in, for example, the cavernous Oakland/Alameda County Coliseum (or whatever they call it today).

When you listen to the Roxy show, you can't be faulted for thinking that you are listening to rock history.  I've played the bootleg off and on for nearly 40 years, but there's no questioning that the sound quality on this release is far superior to what I shelled out $25 for back in the late seventies (and believe me, $25 was a lot of money back then for a vinyl record).  For example, I'd never heard that show's version of "Point Blank," the same version he would play at Winterland in December of that year - not quite finished, not quite the version that you hear on "The River."  But still amazing, nonetheless.

But the highlight, then and now, is the titanic version - played only a couple of times since the 1978 tour - of "Prove It All Night."  I'm going by memory here so this may not be a direct quote, but Dave Marsh in describing it wrote something along the lines of, "When you hear this version of the song, you might question whether it is a hit single, but there's no questioning that it's a great song."  I'd go even further than that, and say that the 1978 version of "Prove It All Night" - and don't get me wrong, there have been other great versions of that song - is probably the single best live song he ever performed.

One final note - a friend and colleague of mine was actually at this show, which is pretty cool.  For me, that is.  Very cool for him.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Revisiting the Top Ten Albums of 2007

The Winner, and New Champion
Not long ago, I was looking for something in the blog archives and stumbled across this post, about my Top Ten albums of 2007.  To save you the time of taking a look, this was the list:

1. Magic, Bruce Springsteen
2. Neon Bible, Arcade Fire
3. Kala, M.I.A.
4. Under the Blacklight, Rilo Kiley
5. Raising Sand, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss
6. Revival, John Fogerty
7. Challengers, The New Pornographers
8. Children Running Through, Patty Griffin and West, Lucinda Williams (tie)
10. Dylanesque, Bryan Ferry

Perusing the list, three things immediately came to mind:

* I really over-rated Magic.

* I really under-rated Challengers (an album that took a while to sink in for me, but which I've grown to love).

* There were at least a couple of albums that weren't even part of my collection in 2007 that I suspected would break into this list, and an album from an artist you've probably heard of that has really grown on me over the years.

Wanting to be fair (as if that really matters at this juncture), I took the time to give each album at least another listen, and am now prepared to offer this revised list of the Top Ten Albums of 2007.

1. Neon Bible, Arcade Fire.  It's really not a stretch to say that this is a perfect album.  There was a time when it seemed like that would be true of all their albums, but alas that time is now past.  But there isn't a single misstep on this one.

2. Kala, M.I.A.  When this came out, I wrote, "The best part of it is that it just sounds exciting - music that you want to tell someone about..."  Nothing has changed on that score, and if anything the record feels deeper and more effective now than it did a decade ago.

3. Challengers, The New Pornographers.  Back in 2007, the car I was driving didn't even have a CD player, so I made a mixtape consisting of songs from this, songs from Bryan Ferry's Dylanesque, and songs from Fountains of Wayne's "Traffic and Weather."  That tape got a LOT of play, and over time the songs really began to sank in.  After a while, it became pretty clear that this was a great album.

4. Under the Blacklight, Rilo Kiley.  This holds up, although I know that there are few people who think this is their best album.

5. Magic, Bruce Springsteen.  It's not as if it is a bad album.  But like nearly everything Bruce has released since getting the E Street Band back together, it's inconsistent.  I was never a huge fan of the title track, and ten years in I find "Livin' in the Future" actively annoying.  A handful of other songs are just meh, but the core of the album can stand proudly with anything he's recorded.  For me, that core consists of "Radio Nowhere," "Gypsy Biker," "Last to Die," "Long Walk Home" and "Devil's Arcade."  Those I always expected with age with grace, but I never would have dreamt that over time, I'd come to believe that the album's one indisputably classic song was "Girls in Their Summer Clothes."

6. Planet Earth, Prince.  When Prince died, I went back and listened to a lot of his stuff, but focusing mostly on the albums released in the years after he was the biggest thing in the world.  How I missed just how strong this record is, is beyond me.  It's not "Purple Rain" or "Sign O' the Times," but it's a really, really solid album.

7. Graduation, Kanye West.  Make fun of me if you will, but in 2007 I'd never listened to Kanye West.  This is not his strongest album, but it's certainly good enough to crack the Top Ten.

8. Raising Sand, Alison Krauss & Robert Plant.  Down a couple of notches, but still sounds great.  If there were just a couple of more fast ones, it might have stayed where it was.

9. Emotionalism, The Avett Brothers.  Like Kanye West, the Avett Brothers were an unknown to me in 2007.  They'd release their best album a couple of years after this, but this one is still very good and includes at least three classics (including the immortal "Shame").

10. Traffic and Weather, Fountains of Wayne.  An expert "hard-pop" band, and this one has hooks galore.

Out of the Top Ten:

Revival, John Fogerty - A good, but not great album.  Still worth a listen.

Dylanesque, Bryan Ferry - Ferry has always had a bit of an obsession with Dylan, and when this is good, it is really good.  But some of the tracks are just a little too lightweight.

Children Running Through, Patty Griffin - Still very good.

West, Lucinda Williams.  I'm honestly not sure what I heard in this one.  She's still one of the most frustrating artists of my time.  But we'll always have "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road."

Monday, February 26, 2018

"Helplessly Hoping" - Annihilation

In one of "Annihilation's" early scenes, Natalie Portman is painting the bedroom where she and her husband Kane slept.  It's been established that he has been missing for a year, and that her character - Lena, a Johns Hopkins biologist and Army veteran - remains in his absence a shell of her former self.  On the soundtrack, Crosby, Stills and Nash's "Helplessly Hoping" plays, a song that perfectly sets the tone that director Alex Garland seeks to establish in the early portions of his film.  It's one of the best uses of music in a film in recent memory.

Lena turns around and, miraculously,  Kane (Oscar Isaac) stands there, but it quickly becomes apparent that something is amiss.  He begins to shudder, and while en route to the hospital the ambulance transporting him and Lena is overtaken by a military force.  Lena is sedated, and when she awakens she finds herself in a mysterious compound, with her husband in a coma and suffering from organ failure.  She is questioned by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist.  She learns that the compound has been established just on the outside of a phenomenon that has come to be known as the "Shimmer."  In an earlier scene, we saw a meteor strike a lighthouse; the Shimmer has grown from that.  Only one person has returned from previous expeditions into the Shimmer - Lena's husband Kane.  No one knows exactly what is happening inside the Shimmer; they only know that it is expanding.  They suspect this is not a good thing.

Lena meets three women at the compound - a physicist (Josie), a paramedic (Anya), and a geologist (Cass). She learns that they, along with Dr. Ventress, are to be the next expedition into the Shimmer.  Lena joins them, and together the five women venture into the unknown.  What they find is that within the Shimmer, no life is the same as it was before.  Plant life is different, animal life is different (some animals are benevolent and even beautiful, others are vicious and life threatening), and there is life that doesn't look like anything that anyone has seen before. 

Within a short period of time, the women realize that they are changing as well. In one sense, the trek through the Shimmer is a journey into the heart of darkness.  In another sense, it is a journey of discovery.  Not all of the discoveries are pleasant, and some are quite horrible.  Left open to interpretation are some pretty fundamental questions that linger with the viewer after the end of the movie:

* Have these five women somehow been "chosen" for the journey?

* We learn through the story that each of them is damaged in some way - does that impact their fate within the Shimmer?

* What exactly is the ultimate fate of Lena and Kane?  Are the life forms that we see at movie's end actually Lena and Kane?

* Is the film as a whole a commentary on disease?  On what humans are doing to the planet we live on?  On what humans do to themselves in their most self-destructive moments?

The great thing about great science fiction is that the stories can be read as an open book, by which I mean that they're like those old assignments when the teacher would read a story and then you were tasked with writing (or talking about) the ending that you thought made the most sense.  "Annihilation" is clearly not for everyone, and at some points (especially the part that takes place within the lighthouse) I'm not sure I ever understood everything that was going on.

Kudos to director Alex Garland for his steady and confident hand, kudos to producer Scott Rudin for supporting his director and insisting that Paramount release the movie as Garland had intended it to be seen, and kudos to the five actresses who give the story its heart and soul: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Tuva Novotny.