Sunday, August 14, 2016

Olympic Golf

On the face of it, there may not be a sport less suited to "the Olympic ideal" than golf.  But that ideal - the "purity" of amateur athletes competing against each other in a non-political world that only exists in some parallel universe - is long gone, so there was reason enough to suspend one's disbelief and see how things turned out.

Let's start with the bad news - some of the world's very best players decided not to participate, including major champions Jordan Speith, Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy.  Not a great start.  A couple of other things hard to overcome: the fact that you can turn on a 4-round golf tournament featuring the world's best players just about every weekend, and the fact that the great tournaments - the Majors, and the handful of other famous tournaments - are played on great golf courses with tradition.  Hard to do when you've adopted the same format, and are playing on a brand new golf course that no one has ever seen (even with notable course architect Gil Hanse having built the course).

But you know what?  Things turned out OK.  The gold and silver went to Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson, both major champions that can easily lay a claim to being one of the best players in the world.  And the bronze was awarded to Matt Kuchar, a great player who is also one of the most popular players on the PGA tour.

What turned the pendulum towards the "aye" side of whether golf should continue to be an Olympic sport was the decorum of the medalists - clearly, they wanted to be there, and the looks on their faces as they examined their medals was something special.  I can't help but think that the famous players who decided to stay home, for whatever reason - might be wistfully wondering what might have been.

10th Blogiversary

Ten years ago today, I started this here blog called "Stuff Running 'Round My Head."  It wasn't called that at first.  At first it was "Apropos of Nothing," which I think I still like better - but there were too many other blogs with the same name.

- 3225 posts
- 159,768 page views
- Most popular post: "Fast Dance Songs for Your Wedding," posted July 21, 2008, with 6,929 page views

I've written about sports, music, TV, music, politics, and a lot of stuff that just popped into my head at some given moment.

I used to post a lot more often than I do now, but the posts today are better than they used to be - or so I like to think.

Will I still be doing it 10 years from now?  I hope so.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

"Hotel California," Eagles (1976)

I remember exactly what I was doing the night I bought Hotel California.  It was in December 1976, probably about a week after the album was released.  I’d gotten my driver’s license on the day before Thanksgiving, and if memory serves, that December night was one of the first times I’d driven the family car (1972 Chevrolet Kingswood Estate Station Wagon – a classic!) by myself.  My eventual destination was a meeting at the McDonald’s where I worked, a monthly meeting where the crew was invited to come in and air grievances (on a confidential basis) with the store manager – a meeting with the unlikely name of “crew rap.”  But on the way, I couldn’t resist a trip to Tower Records, where I picked up the album.  I can remember one of my crewmates, seeing the Tower Records bag, asking me what I’d bought, and being less than impressed when I showed her – or at least that was my impression.

Things like this are impossible to predict, but in retrospect it was probably inevitable that Hotel California would be a blockbuster.  Thanks to their Greatest Hits album, the Eagles had been riding high on the charts for well over a year, and given how long the new album was taking to record, one couldn’t help but think that they were determined to erase the perception that they were a singles band.  A great singles band, mind you, but a singles band nonetheless.  Guitarist Bernie Leadon was gone, and Joe Walsh was now an Eagle –I clearly remember most of my friends wondering how that was going to work.  But with the potential of a triple-electric guitar attack on the songs where Frey was playing the instrument, the stage was certainly set for a new kind of Eagles.

“…We knew we were heading down a long and twisted corridor and just stayed with it.  Songs from the dark side – the Eagles take a look at the seamy underbelly of L.A. – the flip side of fame and failure, love and money.” – Glenn Frey

Frey is spot on about the darkness; it certainly isn’t a fun album.  There are times when I respect Hotel California a lot more than I actively enjoy it, and there are also times when I wonder if what the Eagles were really doing on the record was celebrating the darkness and the decadence that ultimately brought them down – wallowing in it, even.  As a humanistic commentary of the times, this verse from “Life in the Fast Lane”…

They knew all the right people, they took all the right pills
They threw outrageous parties, they paid heavenly bills
There were lines on the mirror, lines on her face
She pretended not to notice, she was caught up in the race

…certainly doesn’t hold a candle to Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty,” released about a year later:

Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels
I don’t know how to tell you all just how crazy this life feels
Look around for the friends that I used to turn to, to pull me through
Looking into their eyes I see them running too

But there’s no questioning that the album is a musical triumph, particularly the songs with Don Henley singing lead.  By Hotel California he had clearly usurped the late Glenn Frey as the band’s strongest artistic force, and the qualitative difference in their work is never clearer than when listening to the album’s first two cuts – the title cut, which justifiably holds a place in the pantheon of classic Seventies songs, and “New Kid in Town,” a pleasant Frey ditty that never threatens to be anything more than that.  Also on Side One are the aforementioned “Life in the Fast Lane,” which if nothing else sounds really good when turned up loud in the car, and “Wasted Time,” a great song (and vocal from Henley), even if Frey’s description of it (in the liner notes for The Very Best of Eagles) as a “Philly-soul torch song…something like Thom Bell” are somewhat inexplicable.  The strongest songs on Side Two – “Victim of Love” and “The Last Resort” – are also Henley’s, although the contributions from Joe Walsh (“Pretty Maids All in a Row”) and Randy Meisner (“Try and Love Again”) aren’t bad (even if they feel somewhat out of place).

Given the quality of the album and the massive commercial success it enjoyed, it may seem strange that Hotel California didn’t even make a dent in the Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll.  Strange, that is, until you take into consideration that the Eagles were arrogant assholes (which they generally admitted as they grew older) who delighted in making fun of rock critics and rock criticism, and disparaging the type of music (Punk, New Wave) that was especially attractive to the critics of that time.  At one point, they even got into a ridiculous feud with Rolling Stone Magazine, which was “resolved” in a softball game in the Spring of 1978 (a game won easily by the Eagles’ team).  Thus, it seems likely that the band’s poor critical standing was at least in part due to the heap of scorn the band had dumped for years on the critical establishment.  Be that as it may, there’s no doubt that there are few albums in history that tell the story of their times as well as Hotel California does.  If you want to know what 1977 felt like, just listen to Hotel California.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Cars (1978)

My introduction to The Cars came during a late Summer concert in August 1978, when they were the opening act on a concert bill that also included Thin Lizzy, Journey, and the Marshall Tucker Band (wrap your head around that combination for a moment).  It’s a safe bet that no one was there that day to see The Cars (and I admit, I was there to see Journey), so it wasn’t as if you could hear much of what they were singing and playing.  But I liked the few snippets that did slip through the aural haze, and put their debut album on my mental list of records to buy.

1978 may have been the height of what came to be called “New Wave,” but The Cars is a difficult record to classify.  I wouldn’t argue too strongly with the New Wave moniker, but there’s also an art-rock element (the band’s producer, Roy Thomas Baker, also manned the boards for Queen, among others) and it’s not much of a stretch just to call them a fairly straightforward rock band.  The tag line they used in the advertising for their debut, “Top down music for a hard top world,” fits as well as anything else you could come up with.

With the benefit of almost three decades to give it some thought, I’m not entirely sure that their debut record is The Cars’ best (one could also make an argument for “Heartbeat City,” and although I’m in the minority I was always a big fan of “Panorama”), but there’s little doubt that Side 1 of the debut is the strongest side they ever produced.  “Good Times Roll” gets things off to a strong start, but is quickly eclipsed by the twin masterpieces, “My Best Friend’s Girl” and “Just What I Needed.”  After a glimpse of just how odd the band could sound with “I’m in Touch With Your World,” the side closes out with one of their fastest songs, “Don’t Cha Stop.”

It’s on Side Two that the band explores their arty side a bit more, particularly on the album’s closers, “Moving in Stereo” and “All Mixed Up.”  But even then, there’s much more of a propulsive beat than you would normally hear from what might normally be classified as an art-band.

It’s also worth noting that Ric Ocasek, the main auteur behind the group, may have been the least likely looking rock star of that (or any) era – although that didn’t stop him from landing Paulina Porizkova).  But the band also had its teen heartthrob, in the form of the late Benjamin Orr.  The two traded lead vocals, and even today it’s difficult (at least for me) to tell the two apart.

Christgau: B+.  “Ric Ocasek writes catchy, hardheaded-to-coldhearted songs eased by wryly rhapsodic touches, the playing is tight and tough, and it all sounds wonderful on the radio.  But though on a cut-by-cut basis Roy Thomas Baker’s production adds as much as it distracts, here’s hoping the records get rawer.  That accentuated detachment may feel like a Roxy Music move in the first flush of studio infatuation, but schlock it up a little and this band really turn into an American Queen.”

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Better late than never: ranking the Oscar films

With last weekend’s viewing of “The Revenant,” I’m completely caught up (at long last) with last year’s Oscar nominees for Best Picture.  This is the post where I (perhaps foolishly) rank the films, but at the outset I have to say that I really did like all of them – as different as they were.

8. Bridge of Spies.  Hey, someone had to come in last place, right?  And as I alluded to above, an 8th place showing in this group isn’t that bad.  As one might expect from a film directed by Steven Spielberg, there is impeccable craftsmanship on display, and the true-life story is intriguing and suspenseful (not to mention educational).  The film does an outstanding job of creating the atmosphere of late 1950s/early 1960s Berlin, and as the character around which the story revolves, Mark Rylance is outstanding – he clearly deserved his Oscar.

7. The Martian.  When I think of “popcorn movie,” The Martian is what comes to mind.  Yes, it was dumb that it was nominated in the Comedy category at the Golden Globes, but didn’t everybody already think that the Golden Globes were dumb? (although to be fair, the film did have its fair share of amusing moments).  Nearly every part of this adventure story works well – the scenes on Mars as Matt Damon figures things out (and in some cases makes them up as he goes along); the scenes at NASA; the scenes at JPL.  If there was a weak link, it was the scenes on the spacecraft that ultimately rescues Damon, but even those had their moments – especially when the crew first finds out that he’s still alive.

6. Spotlight.  I don’t begrudge it its Oscar win at all.  Saw it for the second time over the weekend, and it holds up well.  And it does a great job of showing the critical role that investigatory journalism can play in modern society, when it is done well.  The ensemble is spot on, and a great example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

5. Mad Max: Fury Road.  It’s still a bit of a miracle to me that a Mad Max movie was nominated for Best Picture.  I’m not sure it’s better than 1982’s “The Road Warrior,” but so what?  Tom Hardy is great in the title role, but he plays second fiddle to the amazing Charlize Theron, who one could argue is the real hero of the movie.  And yes, the stunts are amazing – and real.

4. The Revenant.  I had heard so much about this movie – heard the bear jokes, read the stories debating whether DiCaprio’s demonstration of endurance actually represented great acting, etc. – that I really wasn’t sure what I would think upon actually watching it.  But now that I’ve finally seen it, I wish I hadn’t waited so long and really wish that I’d made the trek to the theater to see it on the big screen.  The Revenant is a visual masterpiece, plain and simple.  And yes, the story is brutal and somewhat simplistic, but it fits very well into the tradition of great Westerns.  It is most definitely not going to be for everyone, but it worked just fine for me.

3. Brooklyn.  Many of the reviews that I read called Brooklyn “old-fashioned,” but if that’s the case, you can sign me up for as much old-fashioned as you can deliver.  The story is simple, but the emotional power is undeniable.  Saorise Ronan is wonderful is Eilis, but there really isn’t a weak link in the entire cast (with special kudos to Emory Cohen and the seemingly omnipresent Domnhall Gleason).  And it’s hard to imagine the bravery that it took for those who came to America in those years, even when there was little to keep them bound at home.  What makes Eilis’ story particularly poignant is that she clearly loves her homes on both sides of the ocean, and loves her family.  Her decision at the end is not one without consequences, and it takes a toll on her even as we celebrate her making what we believe to be the right choice.

2. Room.  Calling Room a powerful movie doesn’t begin to do it justice.  “Searing” is probably a better word to describe it, or “harrowing” even though that’s about ten times too obvious.  The poster for the movie features the line “Love knows no boundaries,” which sounds sappy but also is a reasonable description of the relationship between Joy “Ma” Newsome (Brie Larson, who won the Oscar and is a good bet to win more) and her 5-year old son Jack.  The circumstances of their existence are stark: Joy was kidnapped when she was 17, and has been imprisoned for 7 years in a small backyard shed that would barely be enough space for a pet dog.  Her kidnapper (“Old Nick”) has raped her on a regular basis since her abduction, resulting in the birth of Jack, who based on Joy’s careful nurturing believes that only what is in “Room” is real.  As Jack turns 5 his curiosity grows, and eventually Joy decides (after Old Nick informs her that he’s lost his job and is running out of money) that it’s time to take a chance at escape.  The attempt is successful, but that’s not where the challenges end.  And with regard to the story, I’ll just stop there.  Room is a great film.  In addition to Larson I have to mention the young Jacob Tremblay, who pulls off one of the best and most realistic performances by a child that I’ve ever seen in a movie – right up there with Mary Badham in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”  Also, Joan Allen is wonderful as always as the grandmother, and William H. Macy is very effective in a brief appearance as Joy’s father – a man who has been damaged by what happened to his daughter, perhaps beyond the point of repair.

Which leaves our champion…drum roll, please…

1. The Big Short.  One of my favorite movies of the past decade – one that I’ve already watched more than a dozen times, to the point where it’s become a joke with my family – is “Margin Call,” which condenses the story of the 2008 economic meltdown into one night at a major investment firm.  Written by, and the first film directed by J.C. Chandor, Margin Call features an A-list cast that includes Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Simon Baker, Stanley Tucci and Demi Moore.  Each successive scene ratchets up the tension, and by the end you’re wrung out even if you don’t entirely understand all of the financial aspects of what you’ve just seen.

The Big Short is the perfect companion piece to Margin Call, as it takes an entirely different approach to essentially telling the same story.  At the director’s helm is Adam McKay, veteran of Will Ferrell comedies like the two Anchorman movies, Talladega Nights, and Step Brothers.  It’s probably not the first name that would come to mind when thinking about the best fit for this kind of material, but even though on paper the combination might not make sense, on the screen it works perfectly.  The humor that McKay brings to the proceedings serves to deepen the dramatic impact of the serious moments, and frankly some of what happened during that period was so f*cking stupid that the most effective thing that an artist can do is just make fun of it.  And what may be the funniest scenes of the movie – those moments when the film steps back from the narrative and allows people like Margot Robbie (in a bubble bath, no less), Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez to explain various complicated financial concepts – really do make it easier to understand what is going on the rest of the time.

There isn’t a weak link in the cast, though after a second viewing I continue to be surprised that Christian Bale nabbed the only Oscar nomination – I would have gone with either Steve Carell or Ryan Gosling, who both brought a greater depth to their characters (although with Gosling’s character, “depth” may not be the best word, as he’s clearly as much a sleazebag as the worst of the financial gurus who got people into this mess in the first place).  The supporting cast (including a bearded and almost unrecognizable Brad Pitt) is pitch perfect, and there really isn’t anything bad that I can think of to say about the film.

And there you have it.

Monday, May 30, 2016

"The Blasters" (1981)

If you sit down and think about the albums that came out in 1981, "The Blasters" is probably not going to be one that comes immediately to mind.  The record sounded out of place back then - solid, basic rock 'n roll, two guitars, bass, piano, drums - but it probably would have sounded out of place in any era, except maybe 1957-58.  But on the other hand, you could argue that Blasters music is timeless music, because there will always be a place for great rock 'n roll, no matter what the trends of the day might say.

They shared (at least at first) a label with X, another band from Los Angeles.  The fact that those two bands could even be considered part of the same broad genre of music is a testament as to why rock is such a glorious medium - a big tent where, at least in theory, everyone can find a home.

If there was any justice in the world, The Blasters would have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a long time ago, but since we know there isn't we're left to wonder at the miracle of a band that produced in little more than three years a body of work - this album, "Non-Fiction," and "Hard Line" - that can stand proudly with the best of that decade.  And they're still out there, playing shows and making a go of it.  They're in it because for them, it's a way of life.

There are five great cover songs on the album, but as good as they are (and "I Love You So," "I'm Shakin'," and "Stop the Clock" are all amazing) they can't stand a candle to the Dave Alvin originals. When you listen to songs like "Border Radio," "American Music," "This is It," and especially "No Other Girl," what immediately becomes evident is that Alvin is a great songwriter - as tight and concise as these songs are, they tell stories.  Just consider this snippet from "No Other Girl," which I'd argue is their masterpiece:

Waitin' in and all night cafe
Drunk half out of my mind
Down to my last cigarette
Tryin' to kill some time

I don't know why I do it
Spend a day at another girl's place
She knew that when I open the door
She could see by the look on my face

Waitin' for me, she's waitin' for me
No other girl could take it
Another girl'd just give in
Another girl'd throw me out on the street
No other girl would take me back again

But the lyrics are only part of the story.  You need to listen closely to the interplay between Dave and Phil Alvin's guitars, the way the bass and drums propel it all (with some particularly well-timed cymbal crashes), the sheer perfection of the boogie-woogie piano, and the terrific vocal from Phil Alvin - that too tells the story of The Blasters.

There were some pretty great records released in 1981, including one in particular from their Slash label-mate - but there's little doubt that "The Blasters" was one of the best.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

"Candy Apple Grey," Husker Du (1986)

Around the time that Prince was rewriting the history of rock 'n roll in Minneapolis, there was another band from that town doing everything they could to become, at the very least, a footnote.

Husker Du is probably one of the best examples of what Robert Christgau called "semi-popular music." Whether you called them post-punk, alternative, hardcore or something else, they were never going to top the charts - their music was just too loud and too rough, for lack of a better term.

"Candy Apple Grey" was their best selling album, their major label debut, and the highest it got on the charts was #140. All you really have to do to figure out why that was the case is to listen to the album's first song, "Crystal." It's a sonic explosion with what sounds like a wall of guitars, and then Bob Mould starts singing, and he sounds a bit like Joy Division's Ian Curtis after gargling with broken glass. You weren't going to find anybody humming this one.

If the album had been comprised entirely of Mould songs, it might have been too much to take, given his intensity level. Drummer Grant Hart's songs, while equally loud and (for the most part) unhappy, are more melodic and strike a balance that makes the record, at least to these ears, their best.

One thing's for sure - it definitely sounds great turned up real loud on a rainy day.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

"Purple Rain," Prince and the Revolution (1984)

The greatness of "Purple Rain" was evident upon the very first listen.  Prince had made some excellent albums before its release in 1984; "Dirty Mind," "Controversy" and "1999" were all landmarks in their own right.  But nothing (well, maybe "Little Red Corvette") could prepare you for what you heard on "Purple Rain."

It's a little thing, and it comes on what few people (if any) would claim is the best song on the album, but there's a moment on "Take Me With U," the second song on Side One, which stuck with me the first time I heard it and still resonates today.  Towards the end of the song, Prince tells the object of his affection (presumably, Apollonia), "You're sheer perfection," and in the background you hear a softly spoken "thank you."  I'm not sure why that one moment has stuck with me for 32 years, but it was right then and there that I knew that the record which was playing was a masterpiece.

And make no bones about it - this isn't just a great record.  This is one of the greatest records in the history of Rock 'n Roll, Pop, Soul, R&B, any moniker you want to give it.  I was almost afraid to write about "Purple Rain," because something this great is almost intimidating.  When art as glorious as "Purple Rain" enters the world, it's difficult to even wrap your head around it - the history of rock 'n roll is filled with miraculous moments, but when one album is comprised of one miracle after another, it's a bit scary.  And you can only shake your head in wonder.

Prince would make great albums again, and continue to be one of the most vital artists of his generation.  But as great as he and his work was, he never produced a work that was better than "Purple Rain."  And that's OK, because a record as great as "Purple Rain" deserves to have its place on the mountaintop.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

"3121," Prince (2006)

Near the end of “The Big Chill,” Jeff Goldblum is sitting and talking with Glenn Close and accurately observing something along the lines of, “I’m feeling vibrations…and I’m pretty sure there is sex going on in this house right now.”  That’s sort of how I feel when I listen to “3121” – there is definitely something going on in Prince’s house on this album, and it’s not likely something that you’re going to see showing up on basic cable.

Frankly, it’s easy to make that leap even before perusing the lyric sheet that is provided with the album.  This music is nasty – and above all else, “3121” demonstrates the remarkable proficiency of Prince as a producer and arranger.  The bass and drums are turned up real loud, and there’s just something about the overall sound that distinguishes the album from just about every other Prince album I’ve heard.  I’m not even sure I can put it into words – “swamp music” comes to mind because of its near-underwater quality, but it also sounds a bit like a 21st century version of the great sound developed by Willie Mitchell for Al Green and other artists like Ann Peebles.

Also a credit to the production is the fact that it’s almost impossible to distinguish the “all instruments performed by Prince” songs from those which feature guest players.  In the past, some of his DIY records have come across sounding a bit thin, but that is definitely not the case on “3121.”  Listening without having the credits right in front of you, I’d defy any listener to tell which songs among the title track, “Lolita,” “Black Sweat,” and “Get on the Boat” are “band enhanced,” and which ones are all Prince by himself.

Also worth noting is the design of the lyrics sheets, which contain photos of a house (mansion, really) that if it isn’t Prince’s house, certainly should be.  And last but not certainly not least, a shout out to Maceo Parker, the great saxophone player who over the course of his life (73 now and still going strong) has played with James Brown, Parliament/Funkadelic, Bootsy Collins, George Clinton, Bryan Ferry, and many others.  When Prince cries out, “Play it, Maceo!” during the bridge of “Get on the Boat,” you feel like you’re part of rock & soul history itself.

This, folks, is a good one.  A very good one.

Christgau: A-. It could be argued that music this masterful waives all claim to the sound of surprise – until you pay attention.  Sure “Love” and “Satisfied” and “Fury” constitute a standard sequence, keyb funk to torch r&b to u-got-the-rock – but only by genius standards.  Sure he overdubs all the time, but he risks letting the Other play bass and drums on the over-under-sideways-down title tune – and then immediately prefabs the cockeyed “Lolita” by himself.  The dubiosities he induces NPG fans to collect prove only that geniuses know who their friends are.  I’m back to suspecting that, at 47, the Abstemious One can keep laying top-shelf stuff on the public for as long as he’s in the mood.  Even if he gets on your nerves, treat him nice.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

"Emancipation," Prince (1996)

I’m sure that I’m not alone in this, but nearly all the music I’ve listened to (or even wanted to listen to) since the news of his death last Thursday is music by Prince.  The soundtrack for cleaning house on Saturday was comprised of the vinyl editions of “Controversy,” “1999” and “Purple Rain.”  And playing non-stop in my car this week (for once, a reason to savor the morning and evening commute) has been “Emancipation,” the gargantuan 3-disc, 36 song set that Prince released in late 1996 to celebrate his departure from Warner Bros. Records.

It may not have been clear to me at the time, but “Emancipation” is a remarkable achievement.  Not once over the course of the album is there is a bad song, and I’m not sure I can think of another artist who could pull that off with anything close to the level of consistency that one finds on this record.  And better yet, the album is a collection of nearly everything that Prince does well.  So you’ve got your raunchy/steamy songs, you’ve got your homages to 1960s/70s soul, you’ve got some outstanding cover versions, and you’ve got the typically amazing instrumental performances that are always a highlight, even on Prince’s “lesser” work.

Unlike Christgau, whose full review appears below, I don’t think the covers are the best thing on the album, although his version of Joan Osborne’s “One of Us” is amazing, as well as totally unexpected.  For me, the highlights are “Slave,” which may be the most minimalist song on the album – not much more than Prince and a driving beat accompanied by some nifty synthesizer work – and “White Mansion,” which stood out for me then and continues to do so nearly 20 years later.  It’s hard to pick a favorite disc, but I guess I’d lean towards #3 – but maybe that’s only because it’s the freshest one in my mind.

My memory isn’t what it used to be, but I don’t recall “Emancipation” setting the world on fire when it was released in 1996.  Maybe part of the reason is the sheer volume of the material – good as they are, 36 songs are still a lot to make your way through, and it requires more commitment than one might normally devote to a single album.  But one thing is for certain – anyone making that effort won’t be disappointed, and is bound to find a few gems that they’ve never heard or fully appreciated before.

Christgau: A-.  Writing the book for the young turks of a reborn, historically hop R&B – three discs and hours of liberation, hubris, divine superfluity, and proof that he can come all night even if by six in the morning it takes too long and he never actually gets hard.  Yet although there’s not a bad track in the 36, I bet he himself would have trouble remembering them all, and hear nothing that tops the Delfonics and Stylistics covers, which latter wasn’t the debut single for nothing and flopped anyway.  Great grooves abound, however.  As does great singing.  Harmonies too.  Did I mention that the horns are surprisingly cool?  And hey, the little guy has a sense of humor.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

"Controversy," Prince (1981)

"If anybody asks you, you belong to Prince."

"Controversy" was the first Prince album that I obsessed over...or I should say, "we" obsessed over, because on the second floor of Cheney Hall at UC Berkeley in the winter and spring of 1982, it probably got played more than any other album (the other contenders I can think of are Roxy Music's "Avalon," Psychedelic Furs' "Talk Talk Talk," David Lindley's "El Rayo X," and the debut album from Tom Tom Club).  There was one memorable evening when a couple of Cal football players partied with us in my neighbor's room, and someone asked "what should we listen to?" and I blurted out, "Controversy!," for which I was later chastised ("...dude, don't you think that was a little too obvious?"). Whatever...it may have been too obvious, but it was still the obvious choice.

About the album, Stephen Holden wrote in Rolling Stone, "Prince's first three records were so erotically self-absorbed that they suggested the reveries of a licentious young libertine.  On Controversy, that libertine proclaims unfettered sexuality as the fundamental condition of a new, more loving society than the bellicose, overtechnologized America of Ronald Reagan."  Well, OK.  At the time I think we were more into the sound, although it was admittedly difficult not to notice the lyrics on the title track ("...People call me rude, I wish we were all nude/I wish there was no black and white, I wish there were no rules...) and songs like "Ronnie Talk to Russia" and "Annie Christian," two of the most overtly political statements he ever made.

And then of course, there was the usual dose of sexuality, both in the song with that title and on "Do Me, Baby," "Private Joy" and "Jack U Off."  And as an added bonus, there was the poster of the almost nude Prince in the shower, which we threatened for months to lacquer onto the door of one of our unsuspecting dorm mates but never quite mustered up the courage or reached the level of inebriation required to carry out that feat.

What we didn't know in 1982 was that Prince was on the cusp of a level of greatness that few artists have ever achieved.  What we did know was that "Controversy" was a damn good album.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Prince

In 1995, Prince released an album called "The Gold Experience." More than a decade removed from "Purple Rain," the album didn't get a lot of airplay; I'd be willing to bet that most of his legion of fans never even heard it.

And it's a masterpiece.

I don't know how many more musical deaths we're going to be confronted with this year, but this is the one that hits hardest of all.  And when I finally had a chance to sit down tonight and listen to some of his music, the first song I wanted to hear was "P Control," the "Gold Experience" opener.  To this day, it's one of the most outrageous songs that he's ever recorded; in comparison, Kanye West's "Golddigger" sounds like something The Archies might have recorded.
I don't want to say a lot about the song because it would be really cool if lending it a sense of mystery would lead some folks who've never heard it to seek it out, but suffice to say it's of a sexual theme (shocking, I know) and it's accompanied by a beat that even Christgau thought slammed "harder than any hip hop I've heard in years."

And that's the thing about Prince.  A couple of decades after the work for which he'll be most remembered by the general public, he was still producing great music.  And a lot of it - for crying out loud, "Emancipation" in the late 1990s had 36 songs on it, and there really wasn't a clinker in the entire bunch.  That's sure a lot more than The Clash could say about "Sandinista," and that thing won the Pazz & Jop Critics poll, for crying out loud.

Like some of his fellow musical geniuses, Prince never felt the need to provide the public with everything that it wanted, and so there would be times when a stone-cold masterpiece ("Purple Rain") might be followed by an album that was pretty lousy ("Around the World in a Day") followed by an album of maddening inconsistency ("Parade"), capped off by another stone-cold masterpiece ("Sign O' the Times").  And his approach to social media, particularly his obsession with keeping his music off of YouTube, was hard to describe as anything other than self-defeating.  And I suppose that one could argue that in his latter years, he got a little self-indulgent.

But in the end, SO WHAT? We forgive artists like Bob Dylan and Neil Young for the dozens of lousy albums that they've made in the course of their careers, and we don't seem to care that the last meaningful music the Rolling Stones made was more than 30 years ago.  And hell, the only reason The Beatles never made a lousy album was that they quit while they were ahead.  But trust me, it was coming.

Prince was one of the great ones.  And by great ones, I mean great like The Beatles, great like Ray Charles, great like the Stones at their best, great like Michael Jackson at his best, great like Jimi Hendrix, great like Bob Dylan, great like The Clash and Bruce Springsteen.  And yes, great like Elvis.  Really, really great.  It doesn't matter whether there was work left in him that could match the best of his work that came before.  The point is, there was more Prince music to be heard, and it would have been worth the effort to seek it out and listen.

R.I.P.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

"Painting of a Panic Attack," Frightened Rabbit (2016)

When I was lucky enough to be invited by Jack Gallagher a couple of years ago to appear on his 5 Songs podcast, I tried to articulate my philosophy of music with the comment, "the best song ever written is still out there somewhere; I just haven't found it yet."

About a month ago, the band Frightened Rabbit appeared on Colbert, singing a song called "Get Out." I was transfixed, and I knew that as soon as the album was released, I'd be picking it up on strength of that song alone.

Got the album yesterday, and have not wanted to stop listening yet. And while I know my tendency is to get a little too excited upon first listens, right now I won't hesitate to call "Painting of a Panic Attack" an absolute masterpiece. For those who are unfamiliar with the band, think The National - in fact, this record sounds as if it's a companion to that band's last album, "Trouble Will Find Me" (one of the best albums of the decade, so far).

There's no lyric sheet, but the song titles alone tell you the story - "Death Dream," "I Wish I Was Sober," "An Otherwise Disappointing Life," "Blood Under the Bridge," "Die Like a Rich Boy" - this is not a particularly happy album. But then again, what pulled me in from first listen is the music - beautiful and moving, it's the first record in a while to remind me that sometimes, a piece of music really can change the course of a day, of a mood.

And if I hadn't managed to stay awake that night they were on Colbert, they'd be out there but I still wouldn't know who they are. I'm glad I found them, and now it's time to start searching for the next great band, the next great song.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

"It's Only Rock'n Roll," The Rolling Stones (1974)

You're probably going to have trouble finding someone who thinks that "It's Only Rock'n Roll" is the best Stones album, or even among the Stones' best five (ten?) albums, but it was the first Rolling Stones record I fell in love with, way back in the days when Mick Taylor was still in the band and "the other Mick" was still the first name that one thought of when considering the Stones.

And you know what? It's a pretty damn good album. Except for "Fingerprint File," which I never got then and am still not sure I completely understand today, this is strong, consistent work that shows the band doing its best to stretch the very idea of what the Stones were meant to sound like, and mostly succeeding.

The most powerful tracks are not those that one would consider your standard Stones-style rockers, but rather "Time Waits for No One," the closer on Side One, and "Luxury," the opener on Side Two. Jon Landau described Jagger's singing on the former as "a controlled desperation that borders on acceptance but never quite becomes resignation...given the rock star's inherent fear of aging, the song becomes an affirmation of Jagger's willingness to keep on trying in the face of inevitable doom." About the latter, Greil Marcus wrote, "it comes on as if the Stones are trying to cash in on reggae—the pose—but by the time it’s halfway done what it really sounds like is a reggae band playing like Stones. The chords that seemed copped in the first minute are magical by the third—there isn’t a group in the world that can play like this."

Indeed, there isn't. I won't quibble with those who find it hard to take them seriously today, but it would be silly to pretend that they aren't one of the best and most important rock acts of all time.

Christgau: B. "This is measurably stronger than Goats Head Soup, and I hear enough new hooks and arresting bass runs and audacious jokes to stretch over three ordinary albums--or do I mean two? I also hear lazy rhymes and a song about dancing with Father Time and two sides that begin at a peak and wind down from there and an LP title that means more than it intends--or do I mean less?"

Saturday, March 26, 2016

"Heart Like a Wheel," Linda Ronstadt (1974)

One of my Christmas presents in 1974 was an AM/FM clock radio, on which I began my slow transition from listening almost exclusively to AM radio over to the more adventurous climes (at least in those days) of FM.  I wasn't quite ready for the "free-form" format of KZAP, which went deep into album cuts (in many cases, of artists that I'd never heard of), but embraced "K-108 FM" which wasn't quite as adventurous but did introduce me to such classics as Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks."  

Even though it was Christmas vacation, just for the heck of it I set the alarm on Christmas night, and the song that woke me up the next morning was Linda Ronstadt's "You're No Good" - one of the best singles of its time, and the song that really turned Ronstadt from a popular cult artist into a massive superstar.

I'm not sure that Ronstadt really gets her due today, but I think part of the reason for that was her turn towards Sinatra-style ballads in the early 1980s.  While very popular, her versions of such classics as "What's New" paled in comparison to the originals - her wonderful voice was as beautiful as ever, but she brought little in the way of emotions to her interpretations.

"Heart Like a Wheel," on the other hand, is a great album; one that demonstrated Ronstadt's ability as an interpreter of other people's songs as well as anything she ever recorded.  I actually prefer her version of the title track to the original by the McGarrigle sisters, and on the record she proves that she's up to covering both Hank Williams ("I Can't Help It If I'm Still in Love With You") and Lowell George ("Willin').  She even breathes life into an old Paul Anka song, for cryin' out loud.

Christgau: A-.  "For the first time, everybody's sexpot shows confidence in her own intelligence. As a result, she relates to these songs instead of just singing them. It's even possible to imagine her as a lady trucker going down on Dallas Alice--and to fault her for ignoring the metaphorical excesses of Anna McGarrigle's title lyric just so she can wrap her lungs around that sweet, decorous melody."

Monday, March 14, 2016

"Yesterday and Today," The Beatles (1966)

27:33.  That's how long the album is.

Story #1:  This was another birthday present; what I really liked at the time was "Hey Jude," but at the time I think my parents thought the song was a little too "hard rock."  

At the time, I had no idea that this was basically an album made up of leftovers from the U.K. versions of the Beatles albums (in this case, Help!, Rubber Soul, Revolver, plus the Day Tripper single).  It all sounded great to me.

Story #2: When I was in the 4th grade, I was part of a group that was allowed to help out in the Kindergarten class.  One day, we were playing 45 records with them on a very lo-fidelity record player, with headphones on - and the record we played was "I Saw Her Standing There," because we loved the scream in the middle of the song.  And then one of the teachers heard us, and that was pretty much the end of that.

Story #3: At the time, our family record player was a Magnavox, really more a piece of furniture than anything else.  And there was only one speaker, so when you had an album like this one that was "stereo enhanced," there were some things that you never heard - like Ringo's vocal on "What Goes On?"  I could never figure out what was up with that.

At the end of the day, this wasn't really an album at all - just an attempt (probably successful) by Capitol Records to rake in a little more cash from Beatlemania.

On the other hand, it was (and is) a great album.  Call it a mix-tape of the Sixties.