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.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Every movie I saw for the first time in 2014

Either via the old-fashioned way, or on Netflix (which is fast becoming the old-fashioned way).

My most highly recommended films are denoted with (**).  But there's a lot of good ones here. 

Much Ado About Nothing**
The Place Beyond the Pines
Blue Jasmine
Hyde Park on Hudson
The Debt**
The Butler
Don Jon
The Lone Ranger
Wuthering Heights
Ender's Game
Red 2
The Fifth Estate
Half Nelson
Sapphire (1959)
The Sunset Limited
Captain Phillips**
God Grew Tired of Us
Dallas Buyers Club**
Saving Mr. Banks
All is Lost**
The Invisible Woman
12 Years a Slave**
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty**
Fruitvale Station**
Coco Before Chanel
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
The Spectacular Now**
The Monuments Men
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
Tim's Vermeer
August: Osage County
3 Days to Kill
In a World...**
Enough Said**
Kill Your Darlings
Almost Famous
The Company You Keep
Only Lovers Left Alive**
The Lego Movie
Muppets Most Wanted
The Railway Man**
Winter's Tale
The Lunchbox**
Obvious Child**
The Fault In Our Stars
Becoming Jane
The Grand Budapest Hotel **
The Book Thief
Starter for 10**
In a Better World
Two Lovers**
Killing Them Softly
12 Angry Men**
The Trip to Italy**
Olympus Has Fallen
Roman Holiday
Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day
20 Feet from Stardom
Panic Room
The Company Men
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
To the Wonder
Inside Llewyn Davis**
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire**
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Captain America: The Winter Soldier**
Edge of Tomorrow**
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes**
Guardians of the Galaxy**
Under the Skin**
Top 5
The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My Favorite Albums of 2014

And with one exception, they're all pictured at right.

1. "English Oceans," Drive-By Truckers.  DBT fills the role in my living pantheon formerly filled by Warren Zevon.  Everything they release is very good to great, and they're probably never going to hit the mainstream.  But that's OK, although it would be nice if the band didn't have to tour 200 nights a year to make a living.

Of the group's songwriters, Patterson Hood has always been the alpha dog, but "English Oceans" is Mike Cooley's triumph.  Without a doubt, this is the strongest set of songs he's ever penned for a DBT album, and for the first time Cooley has as many songs on an album as Hood (also for the first time, he even sings a Hood-penned tune).  "Shit Shots Count," Primer Coat," "Made Up English Oceans," and "Hearing Jimmy Loud" were all instant classics.

And the Hood songs?  They took a little longer to sink in, but after months of listening it's clear that they're pretty damn good too - with at least one ("Grand Canyon") that will surely end up in his own personal Hall of Fame.

2. "Songs of Innocence," U2.  The only album not pictured above, because as the entire world knows by now, it just ended up on my iPod one day.  Personally I think the controversy over that move was overblown, but after a while to think about it, I can see the point of those who criticized the move.  And what got lost in the shuffle (iPod joke not intended) was that this was the best U2 album in years.  Did they break any new ground?  Probably not.  But they did release the best crafted set of tunes they've come up with in at least 25 years.   That's good enough for me.

3. "Singles," Future Islands.  Like a lot of other people, I was introduced to the band via their amazing performance on Letterman.  And while a lot of this album makes me nostalgic for the 1980s, there's no doubting that Samuel T. Herring and his bandmates know exactly what they're doing.  Fast songs, dance songs, ballads - it all works quite nicely.

4. "Plain Spoken," John Mellencamp.   I wrote about the album here.  Iconic stuff.

5. "Most Messed Up," Old 97s.  See review here, where I called it a "messed up masterpiece."

6. "Tarpaper Sky," Rodney Crowell.  What a songwriter.  Original review here.

7. "The River and the Thread," Rosanne Cash.  When this came out, I thought it might end up at #1, but I was struck by something Robert Christgau said in his review - that the album was lacking in passion.  There's no doubting that this is an excellent album, but I can also see why he said that.  However, at least two major exceptions - "A Feather's Not a Bird," and "When the Master Calls," the great Civil War ballad she wrote with John Leventhal and Rodney Crowell.

8. "High Hopes," Bruce Springsteen.  A lot of good to great tunes here, but after living with it for nearly a year, I can't escape the conclusion that it's less than the sum of its parts.  And I'm sorry, but the Tom Morello contributions detract just as often as they add to the power of the music.

9. "Somewhere Under Wonderland," Counting Crows.  This could continue to move up with time, but the band was clearly energized by their last, covers-only effort.

10. "Platinum," Miranda Lambert.  By the time she is done, she's going to be right up there with some really, really famous country singers.

11. "Voyager," Jenny Lewis.  Pretty darn close to being a perfect pop album.

Subjects for further research: Bryan Ferry's "Avonmore," The New Pornographers' "Brill Bruisers."

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Musical Advent Calendar, Christmas Eve - Darlene Love!

You knew it was going to end with this, right?  Still trying to wrap my head around the fact that we'll never see it again.

"Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)," Darlene Love.

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 23 - Andy Williams

To this day, one of the greatest Christmas albums, and one of the greatest performances of one of the greatest Christmas songs.

"O Holy Night," Andy Williams.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 21 and 22 - Sting and Paul Simon

It seems only appropriate, since the old guys are now a touring staple as a team.

"Getting Ready for Christmas Day," Paul Simon

"Christmas at Sea," Sting

Which almost brings the calendar up to date.

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 19 and 20 - Jimmy Fallon, The Roots, One Direction and Mariah Carey

"Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town," Jimmy Fallon, The Roots and One Direction

"All I Want For Christmas Is You," Jimmy Fallon, The Roots and Mariah Carey

Whether Jimmy Fallon will be able to sustain the good cheer that defines his "Tonight Show" over a period of years remains to be seen, but for now it's a hoot to watch.  And few of his bits define that mood more than his "Musical Numbers on Childhood Instruments" videos.  Here are a couple of classics.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 18 - Montgomery Gentry

With their great cover of Robert Earl Keen's great song, "Merry Christmas from the Family."

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 17 - Elton John!

In honor of Sir Elton John's wedding, we bring you his great Christmas song, "Step into Christmas" - clearly, an homage to Phil Spector's legendary Christmas album.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Musical Advent Calendar, Days 13-16: Christmas Time in the City: "Silver Bells," "Skating"

Remember when you were little and had an advent calendar, and about halfway through the month realized, "Holy Cow!  I forgot about the Advent Calendar!"?

No?  That was just me?  Oh well.

To catch up we're going to have to do a little cheating.

From Saturday through Tuesday of last week, I was in San Francisco for a conference.  It was the first time I've been in the city that close to Christmas, and I've never seen it so crowded - with revelers there for "Santa Con," with protestors, with shoppers.  It made it a little difficult to navigate through the heart of the city near Union Square, but at the same time it was a lot of fun.

As I made my way through the crowds, I couldn't get the first lines of "Silver Bells" out of my head:

City sidewalks, busy sidewalks
Dressed in holiday style
In the air there's a feeling of Christmas

"Silver Bells," Brenda Lee

And then, there were the memory invoking tones of Vince Guaraldi's "Skating":

"Skating," Vince Guaraldi Trio

Friday, December 12, 2014

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 12 - Jack Scott

Without a doubt, one of the greatest rock 'n roll Christmas songs.  First time I heard it was in "Diner," and more than 30 years later, I've never tired of it.

"There's Trouble Brewin'," Jack Scott.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 11 - The Raveonettes

"The Christmas Song."

No, not that "The Christmas Song" - this "The Christmas Song."

Either way, it's awesome.

The Raveonettes.

"The Christmas Song."

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 10 - Marianne Faithfull and The Chieftains

A great song from the great Christmas album by The Chieftains, "The Bells of Dublin."

"I Saw Three Ships," Marianne Faithfull and The Chieftains.