Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Sunday at the Masters

Even though I always enjoy rooting for Bubba Watson, there's no arguing the fact that the final round of The Masters was about as much fun as watching paint dry.

Now, that's a bit of an exaggeration, because it's nearly always fun to watch just to see the glorious holes that make up Augusta National.  Now that the green-jacketed members have relaxed a bit and let us see action on the front nine, we're becoming more familiar with those holes as well - but there's little doubt that if you call yourself a serious golf fan, then you really need to know the back nine as if it were the back of your hand.

Over the years I've had different favorites - 15 and 11, in particular - but now, I'm just about convinced that the 13th hole is the greatest golf hole in the world.  Or at least, the greatest parkland golf hole in the world.  It is the perfect combination of risk and reward for the great player - a hole where the difference between eagle and double bogey is inches.

So watching The Masters is always fun, I admit to that.  But Sunday afternoon held so much promise, when it appeared that we were in for one of those "duels for the ages" that people remember for decades.  But no, it was not to be.  In fact, no single player particularly distinguished themselves on the back nine on Sunday, and the back nine is what distinguishes a run-of-the-mill Masters from a great Masters.

So congratulations, Bubba Watson - perhaps the most unlikely winner of multiple majors since John Daly? (Discuss).  But it wasn't quite the show I was hoping for.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road at 40

Over the years I've come close to buying Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road on CD, but never pulled the trigger until now, with the release of a special 40th anniversary addition.  The new double-CD extravaganza features a remastered version of the original album, a set of songs from the album covered by other artists (produced by Peter Asher), and part of a concert recording from 1973, when Elton was playing a lot of these songs for the first time.

We'll get to the packaging in a moment, but let's start with considering where the album falls in Elton's pantheon.  It came smack dab in the middle of his mid-seventies hot streak, when just about everything Elton touched turned to gold (or platinum).  It was a huge hit.  It featured three hit singles, including the one ("Bennie and the Jets") that got him invited to Soul Train.  It includes what is probably his best known (but certainly not best) song, "Candle in the Wind," in its original incarnation.  But even with all that, what really gives the album its identity are the lesser known, "album" cuts, several of which sound as good (if not better) today than they did back then.  I'm not prepared to say that it's his best album, but along with Honky Chateau (which came before) and Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (which came after), it's certainly a contender for that title.

Back in the day, double albums were treated as an event, even if most of them were made "double" through the addition of material that probably should have stayed in the studio archives (in the CD era, nearly every release is the equivalent of a seventies era double album, which may explain why so many modern releases are candidates for track skipping).  But the material on Yellow Brick Road is consistently strong, and remarkably diverse.  The album begins on an odd note with an 11 minute twofer that begins with "Funeral for a Friend," a five minute dirge that seemed really cool in 1974 but really just obscures the strength of "Love Lies Bleeding," which certainly belongs on the list of least known great Elton John songs.  Also on that list would be "I've Seen That Movie Too" and "The Ballad of Danny Bailey," both of which showcase Elton's piano playing, but in different settings - the former a ballad that Frank Sinatra himself could have covered, and the latter being a melodramatic but effective tale of a Dillinger-era gangster.

In an album full of highlights, the high point just might be the 1-2-3 punch that begins with "All the Girls Love Alice," continues with the raucous rocker "Your Sister Can't Twist (But She Can Rock and Roll)" and concludes with "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting," which is probably the best flat out "classic rock" song that Elton has ever recorded.  But you get the point - this is a really strong album, and while it might not be the best double album ever recorded (Exile on Main Street, London Calling and The River are all stronger, and that's just off the top of my head), but it deserves to be included in any conversation about the great double albums.

My only complaint?  In the packaging, they've deleted the lyrics and accompanying artwork (see picture above) that helped make the original release so compelling.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

LP of the Week - "I Just Can't Stop It," The English Beat

I failed to fully appreciate "I Just Can't Stop It" when it was released in the late spring of 1980.  Then, the song that stuck with me was the band's cover of "Tears of a Clown," which in retrospect was probably little more than a gimmick designed to grab attention and add to radio play/record sales.  Don't get me wrong; it's a great cover version of what I consider to be an iconic song - but it's hardly the best thing on the album.

Along with The Specials, The English Beat (simply "The Beat" in England, but christened "English" in the States because there was another (lesser) active band with that name at that time) was formed during a period of economic uncertainty and social unrest in the U.K., and was often aggressively political in its songs.  At the same time, they were a great dance band, and their songs have held up for more than three decades now.  Drop this album on the marketplace in 2014, and it would sound just as fresh and lively as it did way back in the dark ages.

Where it started to come together for me was when I saw them live, in October 1980 at Zellerbach Hall on the U.C. Berkeley campus.  They were opening for Talking Heads, and even though I've seen a lot of great artists play a lot of great shows since then, that show still ranks in my all-time Top 5.  You had Ranking Roger dancing around the stage, you had Saxa (still alive and presumably kicking at age 84) parked on a folding chair on the side of the stage, blowing his horn; and you had the rest of what was a great band playing like their lives depended on the outcome.  It was great, and I was sold.

Looking at the track listing now, it's amazing how many great songs are on there - songs that you still hear on the radio every now and then, or used in a film - "Mirror in the Bathroom," "Hands Off, She's Mine," "Twist and Crawl," "Click Click," "Ranking Full Stop," "Stand Down Margaret," "Best Friend" - and that's before you even notice that they've also covered "Can't Get Used to Losing You," an old Pomus/Shuman song made famous by Andy Williams, of all people.

It's all great, and all these years it makes one wonder what might have happened before the band split in two (becoming General Public and Fine Young Cannibals) before starting tours (that last to this day) under various incarnations using the word "Beat."  Before dissolving, they made three albums, and they're all great.  Could it have lasted longer?  Alas, it's questions like these that have no answers, but that's part of what makes it so much fun to be a music fan.  And who knows - in an alternate universe somewhere, the band just might be getting ready for its induction into the Hall of Fame.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

LP of the Week - "Dirty Mind," Prince

Prince first hit the airwaves in 1979, with his radio-friendly hit "I Wanna Be Your Lover."  It sounded great then (as it does now), but one could be forgiven at the time for not seeing him as the future Hall of Famer and icon that he would become.

No, the hints toward that status came on the next album, "Dirty Mind."  I don't remember exactly when I bought it (my first Prince LP was "Controversy"), but it was clearly the album that opened the door to the possibility that this kid from Minneapolis just might be an otherworldly amalgamation of Jimi Hendrix, James Brown and Michael Jackson.

And aptly titled, it was.  In his essay that accompanied the results of the 1980 Village Voice Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll, Robert Christgau - who had taken most of the year off, while compiling and editing the first of his Consumer Guide compilations - wrote a little bit about each of the albums finishing in the Top 40.  "Dirty Mind" placed ninth, and Christgau (who had the album 3rd on his list, behind only "London Calling" and Talking Heads' "Remain in Light") wrote this about it:
Prince's Dirty Mind: Although the vocals are love-man falsetto, the metallic textures and simple drum patterns are as much Rolling Stones as Funkadelic. And where the typical love man plays the lead in "He's So Shy," Prince is aggressively, audaciously erotic. I'm talking about your basic f*ckbook fantasies--the kid sleeps with his sister and digs it, sleeps with his girlfriend's boyfriend and doesn't, and stops a wedding by gamahuching the bride on her way to church. I mean, Mick Jagger can just fold up his penis and go home. 
And that pretty much says it all, in addition to demonstrating why Christgau became the Dean of American Rock Critics.  The album is barely thirty minutes long (artists used to do that in the old days, little kiddies, but then you could also find albums for as low as $3.99), but there isn't a wasted moment in those minutes.  It kicks off with the pulsating title track, where Prince takes a simple synthesizer riff and wrings as much sexual tension out of it as he possibly can.  And then he follows that up with "When You Were Mine," which is, oh, only one of the greatest songs he's ever written.  On the second side, surrounding the sexual fantasies (or maybe not, this is Prince after all) of "Head" and "Sister" are the  great party anthems "Uptown" ("Black, white, Puerto Rican, everybody's just a freakin') and "Partyup," which closes out the show on an appropriately upbeat note.

I don't think this is his best album, but it is certainly top tier Prince - strongly setting the stage for the genius that was still to come.

3 Down...What's Next?

This is the view of the State Capitol from the windows of the conference room at my office.  I rarely write about work on this blog, mostly because...well, the writing I do here is intended primarily as an escape from the daily chores that come with work.  I'm a lobbyist for a public education organization and I enjoy what I do, but there are just times when I'd rather spend my hours doing something else.

This was an interesting week, with the revelations regarding a third Democratic State Senator in as many months concerning allegations of corruption.  One learns to expect that sort of thing in public life, but the allegations surrounding State Senator Leland Yee really took things to a new level.  Setting up campaign donors with arms dealers, undercover FBI agents, relationships with folks having unlikely monikers like "Shrimp Boy" - if you saw some of this stuff in a movie, you'd laugh out loud at the absurdity of it all. 

Yesterday the State Senate took action to suspend all three members (the other two being Rod Wright and Ron Calderon), and Senate leader Darrell Steinberg announced that in a week, the entire Senate - members and staff - will be required to go through additional ethics training.  But as he himself admitted in his speech on the Senate floor, there aren't a lot of ethics courses that will discuss such things as accepting campaign donations in exchange for an introduction to an illegal arms dealer.  Some things...well, let's just say that you'd like to be able to assume that your elected leaders take office with a rudimentary understanding of what constitutes right and wrong.

So now we have a situation where 3 of the State Senate's 27 Democrats have gone down with allegations of corruption.  And while I agree with Senator Steinberg that the vast majority of those in the Senate are honorable people, I also wonder at what point an elected body forfeits its right to act as a moral authority as it considers legislation that, in some cases, will have significant impacts on the lives of California citizens.  And while it may very well be true that what has happened is nothing more than an historical anomaly, are there unique conditions in place right now that have led to that?  Could the fact that most of California's legislative districts have been gerrymandered well past the point of competitiveness have anything to do with it?  Does holding a 2/3 "supermajority" create the conditions under which absolute power corrupts absolutely?

I don't know the answers to these questions.  But I think they should be openly discussed, in an environment where those raising them can do so without fear of reprisal.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

LP of the Week - "Country Life," Roxy Music

And so begins another series, this time focusing on an album that I own only on vinyl, in the long-playing 33 RPM format.

We start with "Country Life," helpfully billed on the lyric sheet as "the fourth Roxy Music album."  It was recorded during the summer of 1974, released later that year, and I bought it in early 1977, my junior year of high school.  It placed seventh in the 1975 Pazz & Jop Critics Poll, ahead of Roxy's next album, "Siren," which placed 13th (the winner that year was "The Basement Tapes," followed by "Horses" and "Born to Run").

The first thing you'll notice (assuming you're familiar with seventies Roxy, which is probably not an assumption I should make) is that the version I own has the censored cover, without the hot female models, one of whom was topless (but covering her breasts).  Just Google "Country Life cover" if you want to see the original European version.

This was the second Roxy album I bought, after "Siren," and at the time I thought it was a steep drop in quality.  It still surprises me that it finished ahead of that album in Pazz & Jop, but listening to it again after all these years, they're a lot closer than my 17-year old head could get its ears around.  What wasn't clear at the time but seems pretty obvious today was the sense of humor with which Bryan Ferry approached the album.  Who else would have the nerve to begin an album side with a song that includes lyrics that are translated into German, and then close it out with a song called "Prairie Rose" that begins with the lines:

Texas, That's where I 
It seems to me

Texas, Lonesome Star
Shine on
The big country

Texas, With open skies
And you
For company

Texas, Oh prairie rose
How happy
I should be

Let's just say that I'm having a little trouble buying Bryan Ferry as a Texan. 

It's also a nervous album - Ferry won't let the listener get comfortable; the pace and rhythm of the songs jump all over the place.  The album begins with its longest song ("The Thrill of It All"), which anyone else would probably have saved for the end.  But it's on "Country Life" that the band really meshed into what I would call its classic sound - Brian Eno was now long gone, and the core of Ferry as auteur and on vocals, Phil Manzanera on guitar, Andy Mackay on saxophone, and Paul Thompson on drums demonstrate that they are a great band, and not just Ferry's sidemen (that era would come later).

For some reason, this album freaked me out a bit when I was 17.  Now, it just sounds like Roxy Music demonstrating some of the things that they did best, while in their prime.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Idol Thoughts - Harry Connick Jr.

It's not likely that I'll ever return to weekly viewing of American Idol, but with this year's judging crew, you can at least say the show is watchable again.  None of this year's contestants do much for me, but if nothing else the show is worth watching for Harry Connick's approach to judging.  It's not that Keith Urban and Jennifer Lopez are horrible (although Lopez clearly does everything she can to avoid saying anything negative), but Connick really takes the show to a new level.  He's honest, he provides good and constructive advice (even when he thinks a performance leaves a lot to be desired) and he takes the job seriously.  Just watch the judges when the camera pans to them during a performance - Lopez more often than not will be trying to dance to the song, Urban will have a bemused look on his face, but Connick will clearly be listening, furrowed brow and all, and doing his best to take in every nuance (or lack thereof) of the performance.

And that's appropriate, because setting aside the fact that the show is created for our entertainment, it is also serious business.  Winning American Idol no longer guarantees stardom for a singer (if it ever really did), but it certainly opens up a lot of doors that otherwise would have remained closed.  It certainly increases the potential for stardom, and it's clear that Connick sees his role as one that brings with it a level of responsibility that only Simon Cowell understood in the past. 

So kudos to Harry Connick, Jr., whose participation more than makes up for the fact that, for some reason known only to Fox, Randy Jackson still has a role on the show.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The World According to Rust Cohle and Marty Hart

We became subscribers of HBO for the first time in December, when Comcast offered us a complimentary six-month subscription to make up for some deficiencies in customer service that illustrated just how easy it can be to fix a cable problem when you’re lucky enough to get the right person on the phone.  Of course, the flip side of that is that when you’re not lucky enough to find that person, you can go weeks or even months with an easy-to-solve problem that remains unresolved.

None of which has anything to do with “True Detective,” except to say that our timing was damn good because without that, we would have missed the show that probably grabbed the zeitgeist more than any other since “The Sopranos.”  Most people loved it, a small minority couldn’t stand it, but damn near everyone seemed to be talking about it.  You can put me solidly in the former category – I’ve watched every episode at least twice, and watched the last two episodes three times (so far).  Right now, I’m comfortable saying that it impressed me more than any other filmed narrative, either on TV or the big screen, since (at least) “The Social Network.”

This is probably where I should throw in the obligatory spoiler alert, because it’s really difficult to talk about the show without giving at least some important parts away.  And I’m going to take a “random notes” approach, because the show just seems to lend itself to that kind of analysis.

• A recurring theme throughout the show was the unreliability of its narrators, and what impressed me most about this aspect of it was that writer Nic Pizzolato stayed with that approach right through the end.  The most obvious example occurred in Episode 5, when Pizzolato and director Cary Joji Fukunaga juxtaposed what actually happened at DeWall Ledoux’s remote hideaway with the starkly different story that Rust Cohle and Marty Hart were telling Detectives Papania and Gilbough about it.  The commitment to that mode of storytelling was emphasized in the following episode, when Maggie Hart proved to be prone to the same type of misdirection during her interview with the two.  But for me, the most effective and powerful, not to mention moving, example of the tactic came in Episode 7, when the stories that Cohle and Hart told each other about their lives upon their reunion just accentuated how pathetic and sad each had become.

• Not sure what I can say about the performances of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson that hasn’t been said elsewhere.  Suffice to say, they have set an impossible standard for future seasons to match.  In “True Detective,” we are a long way from past efforts like “Failure to Launch” and “Cheers.”

• Cary Joji Fukunaga also deserves the superlatives being thrown his way.  Every shot over the entire 8-plus hours of the show had a purpose, and in many instances the visuals were even more powerful than the story being told at that particular moment.  The sequence near the end of the final episode – when Fukunaga begins at the hospital and slowly takes the viewer on a tour back through the sites of the horrors that confronted the detectives, ending at the giant tree where Dora Kelly Lange was found 17 years ago – was my favorite of the entire series.  A close second was the now-famous 6 minute long tracking shot from Episode 4, with Cohle finding his way out of the outlaw compound with his life and prisoner intact, which no doubt will become a staple of film school courses for decades to come.

• As for the final episode, I loved every minute of it.  It didn’t bother me that the final scenes when Cohle and Hart confronted the monster who had plagued them for so long moved back into a more traditional mode of story-telling, because a) they were executed so well (literally, I was on the edge of my seat for the entire sequence) and b) I would have been disappointed if Pizzolato had taken things in a “Twin Peaks-like” direction.  And the touch of having Errol slip into a James Mason accent after watching a snippet of “North by Northwest” was the kind of brilliant touch that makes one wish that they’d thought of that themselves.

And frankly, I’m happy that we were left with a happy ending.  There were several other spots in the last episode where the story could have ended that would have made just as much sense, but I’m not sure they would have imparted as much meaning.  If the point of the entire enterprise was to show both Cohle and Hart as changed men, I’m not sure how else the show could have ended.  So there are no complaints from me on that score.

The anthology format is filled with so much potential that I can’t wait to see what Pizzolato comes up with next.  And I can imagine that other talented writers and filmmakers are already thinking about what they’d be able to do with that kind of support and talent.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Keep on Truckin'

Browsing through the Metacritic reviews of English Oceans, the new album by the Drive-By Truckers, it becomes quickly apparent that nearly everyone likes these guys, and wants them to succeed.  You read phrases like "typically strong," "they’ve never made a bad or even a mediocre album in their two decades," and "it’d be a real surprise if they ever put out a bad batch of songs."  Appropriately, most of the reviews start from the assumption that DBT is a great band, one that deserves to be included in any conversation, debate or argument about the best American bands of the rock era.  And even though I came to the Truckers really late (not until 2010, and thank you again JDG), I fully endorse that notion.

So when a new album comes out, the first thing that goes through my mind is "well, I hope this isn't the first bad one."  Once that initial anxiety is past, the question becomes where to place the new LP into the band's entire body of work.  It's still too early to answer that question definitively, but it's probably safe to say that this isn't the band's best album - because as good as it is, it's going to be really tough for them to match Decoration Day and Brighter than Creation's Dark, both of which benefited from the work of a third songwriter (Jason Isbell on the former, Shonna Tucker on the latter) who was contributing first-rate songs to those penned by Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley.

Having dispensed with that, I'm quite comfortable saying that English Oceans is an excellent album.  I'm comfortable saying that it may be their most consistent album since Decoration Day.  And I'm absolutely thrilled to say that the new album represents an absolute triumph for Mike Cooley, who - notwithstanding his many great contributions to the band over the years - has more often than not played second fiddle to Patterson Hood, if only because Hood is a much more prolific writer.  There's no doubting that Hood remains the band's auteur - the one most responsible for what DBT is all about, their approach to songwriting and their world view.  But over time, it's likely that English Oceans will come to be known as "the Cooley album" - he wrote 6 of the song's 13 songs, and in what I believe may be a first, sings one of Hood's.

And make no bones about it - this is clearly the strongest set of songs from start to finish that Cooley has ever contributed to a DBT album.  There are two classic rockers that I can't wait to hear played live (they'll be in Sacramento on April 25, and I'll be there) - "Shit Shots Count," and "Hearing Jimmy Loud"; there are songs with a lyrical depth that Cooley has rarely approached in the past ("Made Up English Oceans" and Primer Coat"), and there's the boozy, bluesy "Natural Light, " which wouldn't have sounded out of place on the setlists of Johnny Cash or even Elvis Presley.

In interviews, it's readily obvious that Hood is delighted with what his longtime partner has come up with, and it's not as if he's come up with a bunch of losers himself.  The standouts are "The Part of Him," which could be about any number of politicians from the past or present ("His integrity was phoning in, totally Nixonian") and "Grand Canyon," which even with Cooley's triumphs is probably the best song on the entire album - a sprawling epic that demonstrates how easily the band is able to transcend its "alternative country/southern rock roots" (thank you, Wikipedia).

Two decades in.  Jason Isbell is gone, Shonna Tucker and John Neff are gone.  Drummer extraordinaire Brad Morgan and keyboardist/third guitarist Jay Gonzalez are still around.  But it's never been clearer than on English Oceans that Drive-By Truckers belong to Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley.  Here's hoping that they have another decade or two in them.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

February Flix

Nothing we saw in February came even close to the quality of "True Detective," but that's a pretty high standard.

Ender's Game.  Interesting and meaningful science fiction, even if it was fairly easy to figure out where it was headed.  The story might have benefited from an anthology format, where characters could have been given more depth and the themes of the story explored more deeply.  And yes, there certainly is a stark difference between the movie's message and the crackpot nature of its author.

Wuthering Heights.  Bleak. 

Austenland.  Keri Russell is really good in a story that's not much more than a trifle.

The Lone Ranger.  It had many detractors and a handful of staunch defenders (Matt Zoller Seitz most prominent among them), but for me fell somewhere in the middle.  I enjoyed it, but don't really care if I ever see it again, and I'm not sure why it had to be so long.  But I said the same things about the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean movies, so I'm not sure why those were wildly successful and this one was a failure of Heaven's Gate proportions. 

Don Jon.  Surprisingly deep for what was billed, more or less, as a romantic comedy.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt keeps expanding his range, and Scarlett Johansson deserves credit for playing what turns out to be such an unsympathetic character by film's end.  Which isn't to say that the Gordon-Levitt character doesn't have problems, but hey - how about a little empathy?

Lee Daniels' The Butler.  See here.

The Company Men.  Solid, if not spectacular tale of a privileged white man who finds out what life can be like for the unemployed.  You can always count on John Wells to deliver something that delivers along these lines, and you certainly can't quibble with the cast.  Kevin Costner is especially good in a role that demonstrates that he can do as much with a character role as he could as a leading man.

The Debt.  Remake of an Israeli film that depicts three Mossad agents placed in East Berlin in the mid-1960s to extract a Nazi war criminal, and the aftermath of their mission years later.  The parts of the film set in the past (Jessica Chastain, Martin Csokas and Sam Worthington are especially good) get an A+, but the portions set in the present day (even with stalwarts Helen Mirren, Ciaran Hinds and Tom Wilkinson) don't quite match that standard.  A very good, taut thriller that just missed being a classic.


Sunday, March 02, 2014

Gone Girl: Couple of the Year

"I liked the idea of marriage told as a he-said, she-said story, and told by two narrators who were perhaps not to be trusted."  - Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl

"You two are the most f*cked-up people I have ever met, and I specialize in f*cked-up people."
- Tanner Bolt, attorney for Nick Dunne (characters in the novel)

 Perhaps not to be trusted?  Yes, that's putting it mildly.  There's not a lot you can say about "Gone Girl" without spoiling some of its most indelible moments for the reader, but suffice to say this chronicle of a marriage is one that will leave even the most normal couples giving a little extra thought to their spouse's comments and habits.  Gosh,  I wonder what she meant by that...

This part, at least, has been well published - the novel begins on the day of Amy and Nick Dunne's fifth anniversary, when Amy disappears without a trace.  From that point on, the novel alternates between a present-day narrative of how Nick handles the situation (poorly), and excerpts from Amy's diary - beginning with their courtship and right up to the point where we now find ourselves.

Halfway through, "Gone Girl" takes a sharp turn, and from that point on we find ourselves in the midst of a game of cat and mouse, except you're never quite sure who is the cat and who is the mouse.  And that's when you find yourself needing to read just one more chapter - because holy f*ck, I really can't believe this is happening.

The book is currently being made into a film directed by David Fincher, for release this fall.  Ben Affleck is portraying Nick, and he's the perfect choice - he should be perfectly believable as a narcissistic, somewhat callow husband (and I really mean that as a compliment).  Rosamund Pike is portraying Amy, and this is one of those roles that fall into the "opportunity of a lifetime" category.  If Pike can pull this off, then she's an almost certain lock for an Oscar nomination.  If she can't, she probably spends the rest of her career as a second or third wheel.  I hope she can pull it off, because this could make for some pretty spectacular cinema.

You should definitely read this book.  You may not "enjoy" it, but it really is worth all the ink it's gotten.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

San Diego Shuffle

Traveling for work is always difficult, but especially so when it’s an “in and out” day trip – up at 4 a.m. for the trek to the airport, and home well after dark.  Add in some truly miserable weather (and yes, I know we need the rain desperately, but that doesn’t make it any easier to drive in) and the world’s worst airport terminal (congratulations, San Diego International!) made even worse by the flight delays caused by the weather, and you’ve got yourself quite a day.

But it’s situations like this that the iPod was made for, and on a trip like this I usually just start the “all songs shuffle” and see what comes up.  Sometimes, the little machine comes up with segues that I might never have thought of myself.  Other times, you just want to say “enough already; I’m not really in the mood for that artist today.”  But whatever comes up, it’s always interesting.

As for the specifications, we’re talking about a 32 gig iPod touch, almost fully loaded with 4,575 songs.  And I can’t go any further without crediting the inspiration for what I hope will end up being a series of posts (it’s a great writing exercise) – the great Sheila O’Malley, aka the world’s best blogger, who frequently weighs in with her own shuffleposts.

Without further ado…

Lord, How a Rose E’er Blooming, Sheldon Mirowitz.  I own a lot of Christmas music, and when I start a shuffle, I’m always making little bets with myself how long it will take for a Christmas song to come up.  I think this is the first time we’ve started with one.  This is from a collection of Christmas songs by artists on Narada Records – I don’t usually go in for New Age music, but the Narada artists are a perfect fit.  And this collection (Vol. 2) is the best.

Crescendo in Blue, Duke Ellington.  The studio version, which is great but can’t quite match the famous live version that was recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival in the late fifties and features a Paul Gonsalves saxophone solo that is one of the great moments in the history of jazz.

Auwe, Ray Kane.  One of the songs on the great soundtrack album from “The Descendants,” one of my favorite movies in recent years.  There’s no question that the music – sometimes melancholy, sometimes haunting, but always beautiful – helps make the movie what it is.

Born to Be Wild, Steppenwolf.  You might have heard this one.  Worth blowing out an eardrum or two.

Out in the Street, Bruce Springsteen.  From “The River,” which will always hold a special place in my heart because it was released just before I saw him live for the first time.

Aja, Steely Dan.  I don’t understand why so many people seem to consider Steely Dan a “guilty pleasure.”  They’re a great band, period – even after they ceased to be a real band.  The Hall of Fame spot was richly deserved, even if their campaign to get in was probably intended as a joke.

Lift Me Up, Moby.  From “Hotel,” which isn’t bad but is far from being his best work.

Blame it On Cain, Elvis Costello.  From the debut album, which never fails to transport me back to my senior year of high school, fall 1977.  One of the all-time classic debuts.

Mohammed’s Radio, Warren Zevon.  The live version from “Stand in the Fire,” recorded at the Roxy in L.A.  It’s one of his best songs, and this may be the definitive version.  Amusing references to the Ayatollah and Governor Jerry Brown, during his first incarnation as the state’s Governor.

Adam Raised a Cain, Bruce Springsteen. You can pick out better Springsteen songs, but I’m not sure you can pick any that are more intense than this one.

In the Ghetto, Elvis Presley.  Written by Mac Davis, I’m pretty sure this was the first Elvis song I ever heard.  You could argue that it’s corny, but to do so would ignore the power of the song and performace.

Man in Black, Johnny Cash.  OK, we’re on a roll now.  Shame on me for taking so long to really dive into the Cash catalog, but when I did, I went all in.

Surrender, Cheap Trick.  Just one of the classic singles of all time.  That’s all.

On Main Street, Los Lobos.  Just another band from East L.A. my ass.  Just one of the great American rock bands of all time, that’s more like it.

Love Won’t Let Me Wait, Major Harris.  You really can’t beat seventies soul.

I Got the Blues, Rolling Stones.  Uh, yeah right.  But once you set aside the chutzpah, you can enjoy what really is a pretty darn good song.  From “Sticky Fingers.”

Pretty Girl from San Diego, The Avett Brothers.  Appropriate, since I was heading to San Diego.  From their “pretty girl” series, and this may be the best one.

Pearl Necklace, ZZ Top.  I admit it, I hated ZZ Top when I first heard “LaGrange” in 1974.  Not sure what I was thinking.  And yes, I know what “pearl necklace” means, thank you.

Me and Your Cigarettes, Miranda Lambert.  I really think she should be more popular than she is.  From “Revolution,” my favorite album of hers.

Carl Perkins’ Cadillac, Drive-By Truckers.  Talk about late on the bandwagon…I never listened to one of their albums until 2010, and now I own 8 or 9 of them.  DBT could be America’s great unsung band.  This song by Mike Cooley takes us back to the time of Carl, Elvis and “Mr. Phillips.”  Great one.

Heartbreaker, Led Zeppelin.  I’ve always admired Zeppelin more than actively enjoyed them, but when the mood strikes, there are few bands that are more satisfying.

One Way Trigger, The Strokes.  From their most recent album, which I liked better than most people.  But it’s hard to argue that they fulfilled the promise of their classic debut album.

I Know What You Want For Christmas, Kay Martin and Her Body Guards.  One of the silliest Christmas songs ever recorded – you’re supposed to think she’s singing about something really dirty, until the surprise ending which I won’t give away.  But it makes me laugh.

The Ballad of Love and Hate, The Avett Brothers.  OK, I love the Avetts, but this is a pretty horrible song.  The lyrics read like a failed 8th grade poetry assignment, and the music ain’t that hot either.

Take Me With You When You Go, Jack White.  From “Blunderbuss,” his excellent solo LP a couple of years back.  I liked it because he didn’t try to make it sound like White Stripes II.

The Book I Read, Talking Heads.  A live version, recorded during the same tour that I saw them perform, 1980-81.  This was when they began the “amazing expanding band” concept, which they would perfect a few years later (and documented in “Stop Making Sense,” which every human should own).

Middle Cyclone, Neko Case.  I need to spend more time listening to Neko Case.  Her songs need time to sink in, and I’m pretty sure they’re worth the effort.

Badlands, Bruce Springsteen.  Iconic.  Don’t know what else to say.

Blues, You’re a Buzzkill, Pistol Annies.  Country supergroup trio.  Christgau called them the “country Ramones” or something like that.  Fun stuff.

Seminole Bingo, Warren Zevon.  I think this is one of the songs he wrote with Carl Hiassen.  It would make a great movie.

Sleeps With Angels, Neil Young & Crazy Horse.  Difficult song from a difficult (but great) album.

The Tracks of My Tears, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles.  Just one of the greatest songs ever written and recorded.

aTENTion, M.I.A.  It’s looking like she will never match “Kala,” but the new one is pretty good.

Splendid Isolation, Warren Zevon.  I’m not sure anyone else could have written this song.

There Ain’t No Sweet Man That’s Worth the Salt of My Tears, Diana Krall.  One of the great song titles of all time – from the excellent album she made with T-Bone Burnett.

Hapuna Sunset, Charles Michael Brotman.  Another “Descendants” track.

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings, Barenaked Ladies with Sarah MacLachlan.  One of the better pop Christmas albums of recent years, and proof that you can have a little fun with traditional Christmas tunes without sounding disrespectful.

In the City, Eagles.  This isn’t really an Eagles song; Joe Walsh recorded it solo before the band did.  But hey, gotta give Joe something to do in concert, right?  It’s a good song, it just doesn’t sound much like an Eagles song.

Be My Girl – Sally, The Police.  Certainly the silliest song they ever recorded, and not really funny enough to justify its existence.

Walk on By, Dionne Warwick.  Another all-time classic.  Ladies and gentlemen, Bacharach and David!

That Train Don’t Stop Here, Los Lobos.  From “Kiko,” their masterpiece.

O Holy Night, The Chieftains with Rickie Lee Jones.  Another great Christmas album, with some incredible and intriguing pairings (this being one of them).

Take It Easy, Eagles.  Now this sounds like an Eagles song.

Big Tall Man, Liz Phair.  I don’t know what Liz Phair did to cause such a backlash…I guess her first album was just too good.  This is from “whitechocolatespaceegg,” which is a great album that never really got its due.

So…how was your Friday?

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Rosanne Cash's Southern Journey

Regular readers of this blog (all 8 of you) should know that Rosanne Cash, along with a handful of others, is someone I consider a "pantheon artist."  While I wouldn't make the claim that her musical accomplishments match those of her legendary father, we've reached the point of her career where such a suggestion can't be dismissed out of hand.

Cash has been making albums now for 35 years, and during that span of time she's released at least three albums that I would consider classics: King's Record Shop (1987), Interiors (1990) and Black Cadillac (2006).  "Classic" is probably an insufficient term; one can easily make an argument for each of those records being a masterpiece.  She's released several others that are "merely great," and on top of all that she recorded one of the singular singles of my lifetime, "Seven Year Ache" - a song that sounds as fresh and vital on hearing it for the 1000th time as it did on the first.

It's been more than a month now since the release of The River & The Thread, and the reason I haven't written about it until now is that I really wanted to give some thought to where it falls within her catalog.  There was no question, upon first listen, that this was a great album.  But just how great?  I've fallen prey in the past - particularly with artists that I am inclined to love - of initially overrating an album, and so I wanted to give this one some time to sink in.

After a month of regular listening, I'm prepared to say that The River & The Thread is the fourth classic album of Rosanne Cash's career, and her second (at least) masterpiece.  Yes, it is that good.  Thematically and musically unified, featuring some of her best lyrics, and what is almost certainly the best production work that John Leventhal has ever done.

Let's start with the production.  I've criticized Leventhal in the past for being a little too fussy with his production, for adding one too many instruments to the mix when perhaps one fewer was more in order.  Looking back, I think I was spoiled by the approach that Rodney Crowell took with Rosanne earlier in her career.  Back in the 1980s, she was about breaking barriers - you could call her a country artist with credibility, but Crowell's hard-edged production (with its big drum sound) demonstrated that she could sing just about anything with authority, up to and including raving John Hiatt rockers like "Pink Bedroom."  In contrast, I felt like Leventhal's production on solid efforts like The Wheel and Rules of Travel sometimes got in the way of the songs, resulting in a mix that - while still strong, don't get me wrong - was less than the sum of its parts.

The turning point was Black Cadillac, which divided the production duties in half, with Bill Bottrell handling the odd-numbered tracks, and Leventhal the even.  Bottrell took Cash back closer to a straightforward rock approach (even though the songs were mostly quiet and soft in tone), and Leventhal had no choice but to really follow suit, to avoid an end result that sounded like two different artists (the bane of so many multi-producer efforts).   The approach on River & Thread is spare and direct, even though on several songs Leventhal can be heard playing several different instruments.  None of these songs are outright rockers (and if I have a minor quibble, that would be it), but the approach is definitely "rockist."

And the songs - well, there is just no questioning that this may be the strongest and most consistent set of songs that Cash has ever recorded for an album.  As I've mentioned before, the music always hits me before the lyrics, but it is worth taking the time to listen carefully to these songs, and to read Cash's commentary on each of them in the liner notes.  These are stories she is trying to tell here, and to fully understand and appreciate them takes time.  From the absorption of history through following a meandering river, to the whole concept of "you have to love the thread" ("A Feather's Not A Bird") from the family histories ("The Sunken Lands," "Etta's Tune") to the deep, rich and sometimes tragic history of the South ("Money Road," "50,000 Watts," "The Long Way Home"), this is an album that knows exactly what it wants to accomplish, and it comes through every time.

It all comes together in "When the Master Calls the Roll," a collaboration between Cash, her  husband Leventhal, and her former husband Crowell.  It is a magnificent, heartbreaking song, written and sung in the style of a Civil War ballad.  It tells the story of William and Mary Ann, who from the first chords of the song we know are in love, but also that their love is doomed - that their time together will not survive the carnage of the battlefield.  It's also beautiful and, more importantly, timeless - one can picture the song being sung shortly after the war's end, by a young (or old) Bob Dylan, or by someone who has yet to be be born.  The story is strong enough to cross generations.

About that song, Rosanne writes in the liner notes that "the fact that John, Rodney and I wrote this together is tremendous gift."  One could say the same thing about the entirety of The River & The Thread - it is a tremendous gift, and even though we are only two months in to 2014, it is clearly the album to beat for Album of the Year.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Speed of lightning, roar of thunder...

If you've watched any of the Olympics (or any other recent sporting event, for that matter), then you've probably seen the Reebok commercial that I've embedded below.  The first time I saw (more accurately, heard) it, it immediately grabbed my attention, because I knew I'd heard that song somewhere.

Along with the Adam West "Batman," "Underdog" was probably my favorite TV show when I was in the 6-8 range.  Voiced by Wally Cox, Underdog would battle the forces of evil each week, usually saving his friend, Sweet Polly Purebread, in the process.  They really don't make 'em like that anymore.  And they certainly don't write theme songs like that anymore.

The Reebok commercial:

And the opening of Underdog:

Now...good luck getting the song out of your head for the rest of the day.

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Wells Report

Not the Valentine's Day gift the NFL was expecting, I'm sure.

The stark, even somewhat benign title - REPORT TO THE NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE CONCERNING ISSUES OF WORKPLACE CONDUCT AT THE MIAMI DOLPHINS - gives no indication of the report's contents.  But it's probably fair to say that most objective people - whether they are a sports fan or not - will be appalled and disgusted by what they are reading no later than by Page 9, which details the text messages sent to Jonathan Martin by his teammates Richie Incognito, John Jerry and Mike Pouncey.

There will be a powerful counter-attack, which in fact has already started on Twitter.  Some will say, as in a Tweet directed this morning at Peter King, that this will contribute to the "pussification" of America.  In all likelihood, the type of person who would write something like that is the type of person who would spit on an injured player as they were being taken off the field.  As far as I'm concerned, their arguments are easily discounted.  Even in a sport that sometimes seems inhuman, there is room for humanity.  And there is a big difference between what might be called good natured trash talking between friends and teammates, and the abuse that was heaped on Jonathan Martin.

While I've yet to read every word of the report, what I have read (a substantial portion) seems eminently fair and reasonable.  It goes so far as to state that things might have ended differently for all involved, had Martin reported the abuse earlier:

“At the same time, we strongly believe that if Martin had reported the harassment to a coach or front office executive (or even his agent), the team may have been able to address his issues before it was too late. There is no question that the better course of action would have been for Martin to report the abuse. We also agree with the view, expressed by many of Martin’s teammates, that it would have been preferable for Martin’s grievances to be handled inside the Dolphins organization rather than played out in the national news media.”

But one need go only as far as the Executive Summary to get to the heart of the matter:

"In short, the treatment of Martin and others in the Miami Dolphins organization at times was offensive and unacceptable in any environment, including the world professional football players inhabit. A young football player who has the skills to play at the highest level, and who also happens to be quiet and reserved, should have the opportunity to pursue a career in the NFL without being subjected to harassment from his teammates."

And for those who might question Martin's "manhood," the report states:

"Further, Martin's vulnerabilities do not excuse the harassment that was directed at him. That the same taunts might have bounced off a different person is beside the point. Bullies often pick vulnerable victims, but this makes their conduct more, not less, objectionable."

And in one of the most important passages of the Executive Summary, the report acknowledges that context is important:

"We also understand that context matters.  We accept that the communications of young, brash, highly competitive football players often are vulgar and aggressive, and that these players never expected their private communications with each other to be made public.  We did not approach this assignment expecting to discover behavior that society might anticipate in, say, an accounting firm or a law office.  For better or worse, profanity is an accepted fact of life in competitive sports, and professional athletes commonly indulge in conduct inappropriate in other social settings.  We also recognize that good-spirited goading often contributes to team bonding.

"But limits should exist.  Even viewed in context, some of the behavior and language discussed in this Report is inappropriate by any reasonable measure of conduct becoming of a professional athlete - and, based on what he reported, certainly was offensive to Martin."

As much as anyone else, I want the NFL to continue its unprecedented run of success.  I want to be watching football until my dying days, and the thing is, I think most of the young players get what is happening here.  Just like the players at the University of Missouri got that all that really mattered in the case of Michael Sam was whether the guy could play football.  Whether the NFL brass - the league office, the owners, the personnel men (many of whom seem to be stuck in a bygone era that has long past) - get it...well, we'll just have to wait and see.