Sunday, August 02, 2015

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

The tale of the tape:

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 23, 2015

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

In the "he coulda been a contender" department:

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 28, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Triple Crown!

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Spring Music Sampler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 18, 2015

Game of Thrones - starkly crossing the line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 10, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Farewell, David Letterman.  And thank you.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Kendrick Lamar, Part I

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

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

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

- Robert Christgau, review of To Pimp a Butterfly

You bought it?


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

- Text exchange with Son #2, April 30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 "How Much a Dollar Cost":

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Leonard Nimoy (1931-2015)

The life of Leonard Nimoy strikes me as the very epitome of a life well lived.  Over the course of an acting career that spanned decades, he was blessed with the role of a lifetime, one that he appeared to struggle with at first but came to embrace over time.  Based on the accolades accorded him upon his recent passing, he was a consummate professional, dedicated to his craft but also respectful of others, easy to work with, and generally a delight of a person.  He used his fame to do good work, whether in the field of acting, directing, photography or to work for the causes he cared about deeply.

And about that role of a lifetime - without question, one of the greatest characters of my lifetime, right up there with James Bond, Indiana Jones, Tony Soprano, Mary Richards, and perhaps a handful of others in terms of popularity and importance in popular culture.  Mr. Spock isn't just a character; he is an icon.  For an entire generation, the words "live long and prosper" will always have a special meaning, more than likely one that began in childhood.

I didn't get to see a lot of Star Trek during its original run, because it was on after my bedtime, but it didn't take long for the program to show up in syndication during the afternoon, when it became a staple of my and my brothers' daily routine.  There was a time when I could recite the titles of every episode in order, and we liked the bad (most of the third season) as well as the good (nearly the entire first season, much of the second).

I had the pleasure of hearing Mr. Nimoy speak in person in 1976, when he was promoting his book of poetry,  "I Am Not Spock."  Of course, all I (and the other 16 year old kids there with me) really wanted to hear was stories about Star Trek, and he did tell one or two.  And then, near the end of his presentation, a loud an unexpected sound came from the ceiling of the auditorium that caught us all by surprise.  He paused for a moment, looked up and said "I'll be right there, Captain," which of course brought the house down.  Years later he would publish a memoir, and it would be called "I Am Spock."  Of course, that was not all he did (during the interim, he directed "Three Men and a Baby," a huge box office hit), but he knew that it was for his role as Spock that he would always be best known.  And that was OK.

And clearly, he had a wonderful sense of humor, as well as an ability to laugh at himself, as evidenced in this terrific advertisement he filmed a couple of years ago with Zachary Quinto, the young actor to whom he became a mentor - and who assumed the mantle of Mr. Spock in the new series of films.

He lived long and prospered.  May he now rest in peace.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Sleater-Kinney: Rock 'n Roll #likeagirl

Sleater-Kinney's legendary status in the world of rock 'n roll was secure well before the release of "No Cities to Love," the band's new album, and their first following a hiatus that lasted almost a decade.  But "legendary status" doesn't always translate into popularity.  I read somewhere recently that the total sales of their first seven albums barely exceeded half the amount for which platinum records are rewarded, and I'd hazard a guess that most random people on the street - even those who would call themselves music fans - wouldn't be able to tell you a thing about the band or its music.

Notwithstanding their relative obscurity (the manifestation of what Robert Christgau once called "semi-popular music"), it really isn't much of a stretch to argue that Sleater-Kinney is one of the greatest bands in the history of rock music.  At the same time, it's not that difficult to understand why they've never achieved the mainstream success that they now seem poised to make a run at - as melodic as many (most?) of their songs are, they're as loud and hard as hard rock gets - theirs is not music to play in the background while you're trying to do something relaxing.  It demands your attention, and once it has it, it's not going to let go of you any time soon.  And then there's the matter of the fact that the band is comprised of three women, which makes me wonder how many metal heads would even bother to give it a listen.  Never mind that Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker do things with their guitars that are hard to fathom, and that Janet Weiss' drumming frequently threatens to make Charlie Watts and John Bonham sound like wimps - you know, they're girls. good is the new album?

About 1997's "Dig Me Out," which to these ears is the band's best album (#30 on my all-time list), Robert Christgau wrote, "one reason you know they're young is that they obviously believe they can rock and roll at this pitch forever."  "No Cities to Love" is the album which proves that they just might be able to do just that. Clocking in at an economical 33 minutes ("Rocket to Russia," anyone?), the album doesn't sound like a "comeback record" -  it sounds like the next natural progression in the band's evolution - as if it were recorded back in 2006, and kept in the vaults until now to unleash on an unsuspecting public.  There are no slow songs, and right now I'd argue that at least six of the album's ten songs are classics - "Price Tag," "Surface Envy," "A New Wave," "No Anthems," "Bury Our Friends" and "Fade."  A very positive sign is that I keep changing my mind about which ones I like best, which usually means that a record will have staying power.  Right now it's clearly the album to beat for the #1 spot in 2015, and it wouldn't shock me at all to see it remain at the top at year's end.

Does this mean that Sleater-Kinney is about to become a household word?  I'm not sure I would go that far, but there's little doubt in my mind that it will easily become the band's best seller.  Carrie Brownstein is now reasonably famous for her role as the co-star and co-auteur of "Portlandia," so there's one potential group of new fans.  And the late night guys clearly love them; they've already done turns on Letterman, Conan, and Seth Meyers.  But whatever success they achieve, it's well-earned and long overdue.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Epic Losses II: Legion of Gloom

This morning's Seattle Times website.
Well, I'm not sure if the adage quite applies, but no doubt you've all heard the saying "live by the sword, die by the sword."  Just two weeks after winning the NFC Championship in the most improbable fashion, a game that certainly qualified as an "epic loss" for the Green Bay Packers, the Seahawks appeared poised to deliver a second consecutive epic loss blow to the New England Patriots when, inexplicably, they turned the sword on themselves, leaving their fans with the rest of their lives to ponder the call that will live in infamy, at least in the Pacific Northwest.

It was as shocking a denouement as could have been imagined - the Patriots taking the lead on a clutch drive led by Tom Brady, and then allowing the Seahawks to move down the field as if they had forgotten the point of the defense was to tackle.  And then, what nearly became the most incredible play in Super Bowl history, a catch by Jermaine Kearse that made what David Tyree did to the Patriots look like child's play.

And then, after a bruising run by Marshawn Lynch (hold that thought), came "the call" - a slant pass, intercepted just inside the goal line.  Game over.

The great baseball writer Bill James once defined "managerial blunder" as an unorthodox move that does not work.  Certainly, a slant pass on the 1-yard line when you have the toughest running back in football in your backfield qualifies as "unorthodox."  And while kudos go to Pete Carroll for being a stand-up guy and taking the heat for the call, there's really no explaining it.  It was a bad call.

And so my sympathies go out to the fans of the Seattle Seahawks - welcome to the "Epic Loss Club."

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Super Bowl Prediction

I would have made a different prediction after the Conference Championship games two weeks ago, but after two weeks of suffering through the most desultory Super Bowl build-up in history thanks to "Deflategate," I can't imagine that the Patriots will be able to overcome the distraction from the ridiculous "scandal."

How's that for an analytical basis for a prediction?

I'm no fan of the Seahawks, and frankly I just hope it's a good game (unlike last year).  In the end I think the Seahawks will be energized by their miraculous escape against Green Bay, and I think the Patriots will have lost their edge after two solid weeks of dealing with stories and jokes about properly inflated balls.

Therefore...drum roll please...

Seattle 34, New England 24.

Cleaning House - Movies of 2014 (in the theater)

Last, but not least, the documentation of 2014 ends with the list of movies seen at the theater.
  • Top Five (12/29/14)
  • The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (12/27/14)
  • Foxcatcher (12/21/14)
  • Birdman (12/20/14)
  • Interstellar (11/10/14)
  • Guardians of the Galaxy (8/31/14)
  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (7/14/14)
  • Edge of Tomorrow (6/15/14)
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier (6/14/14)
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past (5/26/14)
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel (3/30/14)
  • The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2/17/14)
  • Her (1/20/14)
  • The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1/12/14)
  • Inside Llewyn Davis (1/3/14)

Cleaning House - Books of 2014

A paltry list, for certain - but I did a lot of re-reading in 2014, and didn't include those books.  I'm bound and determined to do better in 2015, but it's off to a slow start with James Ellroy's mammoth "Perfidia." 
  • To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
  • All You Need Is Kill, by Hiroshi Sakurazaka
  • Mr. Mercedes, by Stephen King
  • Missing You, by Harlan Coben
  • Last Night in Twisted River, by John Irving
  • Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
  • The Gods of Guilt, by Michael Connelly

Cleaning House - Albums of 2014

Well, there went January, so I suppose that now is as good a time as any to do a little house cleaning.  So for posterity, we commit to the blogosphere the Albums of 2014.
  • Sucker - Charli XCX
  • Avonmore - Bryan Ferry
  • Ride Out - Bob Seger
  • Standing in the Breach - Jackson Browne
  • Plain Spoken - John Mellencamp
  • Songs of Innocence - U2
  • lullaby and...The Ceaseless Roar - Robert Plant
  • Somewhere Under Wonderland - Counting Crows
  • Brill Bruisers - The New Pornographers
  • Get Hurt - The Gaslight Anthem
  • Tarpaper Sky - Rodney Crowell
  • The Voyager - Jenny Lewis
  • Hypnotic Eye - Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
  • Acoustic Classics - Richard Thompson
  • Most Messed Up - Old 97's
  • A Letter Home - Neil Young
  • Lazaretto - Jack White
  • Platinum - Miranda Lambert
  • Turn Blue - The Black Keys
  • Ghost Stories - Coldplay
  • Bad Self Portraits - Lake Street Dive
  • Girl - Pharrell Williams
  • Supernova - Ray Lamontagne
  • Snapshot - The Strypes
  • Lights Out - Ingrid Michaelson
  • "Singles" - Future Islands
  • Memphis - Boz Scaggs
  • English Oceans - Drive-By Truckers
  • Morning Phase - Beck
  • The Outsiders - Eric Church
  • And I'll Scratch Yours - Peter Gabriel and various artists
  • The River and the Thread - Rosanne Cash
  • High Hopes - Bruce Springsteen
  • Matangi - M.I.A.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Epic Losses

When you're a sports fan(atic), you know that over the course of your life you're going to see your favorite teams/favorite athletes lose more often than they win.  Even if your favorite team is the New York Yankees, and your favorite athlete is Tiger Woods.  Inevitably and inexorably the losses pile up, making it necessary over time to develop defensive mechanisms - "it's only a game," "we'll get 'em next time," "tomorrow is another day."  For most losses, that works.

And then there are what I call the epic losses.  Those are different.

An epic loss haunts you.  During the course of a normal day, when nothing is occupying your time or your attention, you begin to think about it, how things might have gone differently...if plays had gone differently.  If the Giants could have gotten ONE MORE OUT in the seventh inning.  If the Kings had gotten the rebound.  If Phil Mickelson had left the driver in the bag.  If Roger Craig hadn't fumbled.  If an epic loss is bad enough, you will wake up in the middle of the night, and the first thought that jumps into your head will be the game.  You might see visions of Robert Horry striking a dagger (in the form of a basketball) straight into your heart, and every time the dagger finds its mark.

No doubt about it, yesterday's Green Bay defeat at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks was an epic loss.  And it doesn't matter that Green Bay is one of the storied franchises in all of sports, with a rich championship tradition.  Even with that rich history of success, there's no doubt in my mind that there were hundreds, if not thousands, of Packers fans for whom sleep came slowly last night.  They played the game over in their minds.  Why didn't we go for it on 4th and Goal?  How could we have fallen for that fake field goal?  Why didn't that guy who intercepted Russell Wilson's pass with barely five minutes left in the game keep on running?  What the hell was Mike McCarthy thinking with those play calls?  And why did Brandon Bostick even try to catch the onside kick when he was in there to block?  And how, after looking like Ryan Lindley for nearly the entire game, did Russell Wilson suddenly morph into the next coming of Joe Montana?

That was an epic loss, no doubt.  Here's a few of them that haunted me:

- The "Immaculate Reception" game, Raiders lose to Pittsburgh on the last play of the game, just one of the most famous plays in NFL history.

- On the same day, for crying out loud (12/23/72), the 49ers lose to Dallas 30-28, after having led 28-16 at the two-minute warning.  That takes some doing.

- Game 6, 2002 World Series.  More I cannot and will not say.

- 1990 NFC Championship Game.  49ers lose to the New York Giants 15-13 after Roger Craig fumbles on what would have been a game-closing drive.

- 1983 NFC Championship Game.  People forget this game (see above picture), but this one really hurt.  The 49ers were down to the Washington Redskins (in D.C.) 21-0 heading into the fourth quarter, when suddenly Montana got hot, and before you knew it, the game was tied at 21.  You could hear a pin drop at RFK, and there was no way we were going to lose that game.  Until, that is, we suffered three consecutive questionable pass interference calls, enough to put Mark Moseley in range for the winning FG.  Thank you again, Raiders, for kicking the Redskins' ass in the Super Bowl two weeks later.

And of course, Game 4 of the 2002 NBA Western Conference Finals, which was really the NBA Finals that year.  There's a reason Sports Illustrated chose that series as the best playoff series of the entire decade.  Game 7 was decided in overtime, and it was only the third (or fourth) best game of the series.  In fact, you could make an argument that the series closed with four consecutive epic losses.  Unfortunately, the Kings were on the losing end of three of them.  And nothing was ever the same in Sacramento.

So I wish I had some calming and hopeful words today for fans of the Green Bay Packers.  But I don't.  Sorry, but this one is going to hurt for a long, long time.

That is the nature of epic losses.