Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
So why does this particular Christmas album merit inclusion in this lofty company? For one thing, it’s an epic Christmas album, comprised of five EPs worth of material (42 songs in all), both traditional and original. Those familiar with Sufjan Stevens probably know the story of the album, but for those who don’t it’s worth telling again. Beginning in 2001, Stevens made home-recorded discs of holiday songs to hand out as presents to friends and family. The five discs of “Songs for Christmas” represent five years worth of those presents, and serve well to demonstrate his growth as an artist over that period. The early discs are very basic, and at times the instrumentation and vocals are just a bit off (which just adds to their charm). By the last disc, you’re hearing fully realized arrangements, by a very self-assured and confident artist.
What unites the material throughout is the obvious sincerity of Stevens. In that respect, he is not unlike Linus sitting in the pumpkin patch, hoping that his will be deemed the most sincere, and therefore worthy of a visit from the Great Pumpkin. Reportedly a devout Christian, Stevens is equally comfortable with traditional religious holiday fare (“I Saw Three Ships,” “O Holy Night,” “We Three Kings,” “Away in a Manger,” “Joy to the World”) and contemporary, even modern yuletide spins (“Put the Lights on the Tree,” “Come On! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance!,” Hey Guys, It’s Christmas Time!,” and of course, “Jingle Bells”). One of my favorite songs in the set (and one that I’d never heard before) is “The Friendly Beasts,” a traditional carol about the gifts that a donkey, a cow, a sheep, and a dove gave to Jesus at the Nativity. Another is the aforementioned “Hey Guys, It’s Christmas Time!,” which couldn’t be more different – featuring vocals and electric guitar that evoke Yo La Tengo at their best.
It’s obvious that Christmas means a lot to Stevens, and that feeling comes out in the songs. And given the breadth of the approach, there’s something to like for just about anyone who likes this kind of music. In fact, you might be tempted to set your own program, either basing it on the traditional hymns and songs, or his whimsical take on the modern holiday. Both are equally authentic, and equally impressive.
There are times when it seems like every artist and his dog has made a Christmas album. But if you’re going to make a great Christmas album, then you’d better sound like you care, and that you mean it. And on that score, “Songs for Christmas” is the best Christmas album since Harry Connick Jr.’s 1993 classic, “When My Heart Finds Christmas.”
Sunday, September 27, 2009
In one’s lifetime, there are a handful of songs that give you goose bumps upon your first listen. For me, that would be songs like “Every Breath You Take,” “Gimme Shelter,” “The Rising,” “Hurt”…and “New Favorite.” The song is simple. A woman is singing, with the knowledge that her lover has taken someone else, a “new favorite.” The instrumentation is stark – soft drums, Barry Bales’ insistent bass line, the guitars of Dan Tyminski and Ron Block softly strumming a simple chord, and the atmospherics of Jerry Douglas’ Dobro. And one of the most magnificent vocals you’ll ever hear.
This is not the style of singing that you see on “American Idol” and hear from those divas past and present who confuse volume and false emotion with great singing. This is singing so exquisite, so perfectly controlled, that as the song proceeds the tension builds, because you can’t help thinking that at some point, Krauss is going to make a mistake – is going to deviate from the quiet tone that she maintains throughout the entire song. She never does. And hearing the song, you know that the greatest instrument in the band is the voice of Alison Krauss; its existence is almost enough by itself to make one believe there is a God.
But make no bones about it, this is a band, and a great one to boot. And Dan Tyminski’s gruff vocals are the perfect counterpart to Krauss – best known for singing for George Clooney in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” Tyminski has three great vocals on the album – on the traditional “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn” and “Bright Sunny South,” and Bob Lucas’ “Momma Cried.” And there, in a nutshell, you have the formula for a perfect Alison Krauss/Union Station album – exquisite vocals from Krauss (who also does a mean turn on the fiddle), some gruff ones from Tyminski, a song or two from Ron Block, and an instrumental or two led by Jerry Douglas.
“New Favorite” isn’t the only great Krauss vocal on the album; there’s also “Let Me Touch You For Awhile,” the opener, and “Stars,” written by none other than Dan Fogleberg. As she proved on “Think About It,” Krauss is a masterful interpreter of the songs of others. That she can invest the songs of even a fairly lightweight artist like Fogleberg with passion and emotion is a true testament to her talent.
Krauss is probably best known in the pop world for her recent collaboration with Robert Plant, but this was her best work in the decade. Good enough to land at #22.
Saturday, September 26, 2009
But funny things can happen in a college football season. After Oregon lost to Boise State in its opener and lost its best offensive player to suspension, they were pretty much written off by the whole country. Now, all of a sudden they're back in the thick of things, and USC has to go up there this year.
But damn, I really thought this was the year that Cal would take that next step to national prominence. Apparently not.
The mass of teen humanity at last night's game between the Pleasant Grove Eagles and the Laguna Creek Cardinals, won handily by PG 48-7. At any given moment, I estimate that about 25% of the student body is actually watching the game.
The football atmosphere in Elk Grove has completely shifted in the last 4 years. Elk Grove High, a long-time Sacramento area power, may now only be the sixth-best team in the Elk Grove area. But one of the only blemishes on Pleasant Grove's season last year was a non-league loss to Elk Grove, in a game that even Elk Grove fans seemed to agree was marred by some incredibly bad officiating that was remarkably one-sided against PGHS.
If that weren't enough reason to get the Eagles fired up for next week's game, a group of the Thundering Herd student body spent the entire playoff season (which their team didn't make) attending Pleasant Grove's games, and rooting against them. Such behavior must go avenged. It's evident after three weeks that Elk Grove won't be visiting the post-season this year, so I'm hoping that the Eagles run up 60 against them next week. Sure, it's a rivalry game, but I'm hopeful.
Friday, September 25, 2009
They might be a little hard to make out in this photo, but those white specks in the center are a flock of pelicans, enjoying the sun on one of the least natural looking bodies of water I've seen. In an industrial park, West Sacramento, CA.
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Bruce makes the cover of AARP Magazine! I'm sure this has been a source of much amusement with the band.
The article inside is short but very good, having been written by Ariel Swartley, whose work appeared in Rolling Stone and Village Voice way back in my yoot.
And of course, you can't say anything bad about one of the critics immortalized in Stranded, the classic rock tome edited by Greil Marcus in 1979.
“Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart”
“I want to go tonight/I want to find out what I got”
“I’m a cool rockin’ daddy in the USA”
“Tramps like us/baby we were Born to Run”
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
- Speaking of positively gleeful, it is always fun to watch the Cowboys lose their home opener, but seeing the look on Jerry's face when the Giants spoiled the debut of his new funhouse was particularly pleasing. I admit it, Jerry Jones is a likable guy, but a football genius he is not. This Cowboys team appears to have the foundation of a champion, but it will never get there until Jones realizes what the rest of the world has already concluded - a team coached by Wade Phillips will never win a championship.
- If Gruden does go back to coaching next year, the MNF crew should take a look at Brian Billick. He handled the color commentary for the 49ers game on Sunday, and was outstanding, including deadly accurate predictions on playcalls throughout the game.
- Brett Favre and Mark Sanchez are indeed the toasts of their town right now, but let's check back in December and see how things stand.
- In two weeks, the Patriots have done very little to make the country think that they are Super Bowl contenders. It's nice to see Belichick actually have a reason for that sour look on his face, for a change.
Monday, September 21, 2009
Even I've begun to think, once again, that "this could be the year" - a hope that has been dashed every year since 2004 when the Bears have fallen to one team or another that they probably had no business losing to. But at the risk of jinxing them, this team does feel a bit different. The Minnesota game was far from perfect - Cal should have put them away in the third quarter, but in past years they might have lost that game, and last year they definitely would have lost that game. But against a decent team with a fired-up crowd celebrating a new football stadium, they hung in there and prevailed, taking control in the 4th quarter for a 14-point victory. I'm still not sure why Jahvid Best disappeared from the game plan for large stretches of the second half, but if it was all part of a grand scheme by Jeff Tedford to give Kevin Riley a baptism of fire, then I guess it worked.
All of my speculation is academic, because within two weeks we'll know exactly where the Cal season is heading. Beat Oregon and USC, and there could be legitimate talk of a BCS championship bid. Lose one, they've got a shot at the Rose Bowl. Lose them both, and we're probably looking at another 8-4 or 7-5 season. Now don't get me wrong - after nearly two decades of futility, an 8-4 or 7-5 season is nothing to sneeze at, especially if it includes a win over Stanford. But for this team, it would be a great disappointment.
Saturday, September 19, 2009
What it isn't is groundbreaking. And sometimes, it's not even that funny. Nothing I saw in the shows (or parts of shows) that I saw in its first week was as funny as the show's trailer (the one with Jay and Fred Armisen) which appeared in theaters this summer. The usual bits are funny - headlines, stupid 911 calls, stuff like that - but it's hardly great television. For what it's worth I didn't think the Kanye West interview was scripted, but it was incredibly awkward. The interview with Michael Moore just solidified my opinion that Moore is a really talented idiot, and while Halle Berry's outfit was worth the price of admission, that interview also felt awkward, for no apparent reason. The "10 at 10" - where Jay asks 10 questions of someone who is being filmed at a remote location - was terrible, especially the one with Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz.
The musical guests have been good, and the highlight of the first week was Eric Clapton's guitar solo while playing with Bruce Hornsby. It's nice when Eric reminds us why he's in the Hall of Fame.
I like Jay, didn't much care for his Tonight Show, and will watch this when nothing else is on. But overall, I wish they'd rolled the dice with some more dramas, in the hope that they'd come up with something like ER or Homicide.
OK, I admit it. For a three or four-year period in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I watched "Guiding Light" damn near every day. This is a clip from those "golden years," featuring my all-time favorite GL character, Roger Thorpe (as played by the late Michael Zaslow). For me, this clip and the character of Thorpe epitomizes what is so great about soap operas. For the entire time I watched GL, Thorpe was evil incarnate. Among other transgressions, he raped his own wife, beating her senseless in the process. He was beaten up by the Bauer brothers, shot by Holly, and as you can see here, dropped hundreds of feet into a vast jungle chasm.
Of course, he survived. A few months after this clip took place, he was back, his face heavily bandaged.
But that's not the best part. Even later on, Thorpe would become a good guy, one of the heroes of the series! And that's why I liked soap operas.
Zaslow actually became pretty famous later on, when he contracted ALS and was unceremoniously dumped from his role on GL. He went over to "One Life to Live," where he appeared until his death in 1998.
But the end of Guiding Light really is the end of an era. Farewell!
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Monday, September 14, 2009
There were a handful of songs that defined my first year of college: Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime," X's "Los Angeles," The English Beat's "Twist and Shout," Pretenders' "Precious," Bruce Springsteen's "The River..."
And this one - "People Who Died," by Jim Carroll.
And now Jim Carroll has died, of a heart attack at age 60. He was never a huge star, but people will be listening to this song for as long as they listen to music.
Saturday, September 12, 2009
Friday, September 11, 2009
So with a tip of the hat to A List of Things Thrown Five Minutes Ago, I'm going to share the words of Jon Stewart, on his first day back to work after the tragedy:
They said to get back to work. There were no jobs available for a man in the fetal position under his desk crying, which I would have gladly taken. So I came back here.
Tonight’s show is obviously not a regular show. We looked through the vaults, we found some clips that we thought might make you smile, which is really what’s necessary, I think, right about now. A lot of folks have asked me, "What are you going to do when you get back? What are you going to say?" I mean, what a terrible thing to have to do. I don’t see it as a burden at all. I see it as a privilege. I see it as a privilege and everyone here does see it that way. The show in general, we feel like is a privilege. Just even the idea that we can sit in the back of the country and make wisecracks, which is really what we do. We sit in the back and we throw spitballs, but never forgetting the fact that is a luxury in this country that allows us to do that. This is a country that allows for open satire, and I know that sounds basic and it sounds as though it goes without saying - but that’s really what this whole situation is about. It’s the difference between closed and open. It’s the difference between free and burden and we don’t take that for granted here by any stretch of the imagination and our show has changed. I don’t doubt that. What it’s become, I don’t know. "Subliminable" is not a punch line anymore. One day it will become that again, and Lord willing, it will become that again because that means we have ridden out the storm.
But the main reason that I wanted to speak tonight is not to tell you what the show is going to be. Not to tell you about all the incredibly brave people that are here in New York and in Washington and around the country. But we’ve had an enduring pain here - an endurable pain. I wanted to tell you why I grieve, but why I don’t despair…I’m sorry. Luckily we can edit this. One of my first memories is of Martin Luther King being shot. I was five and if you wonder if this feeling will pass…When I was five, he was shot. Here’s what I remember about it. I was in a school in Trenton. They shut the lights off and we got to sit under our desks and we thought that was really cool and they gave us cottage cheese, which was a cold lunch because there was rioting, but we didn’t know that. We just thought that “My God. We get to sit under our desks and eat cottage cheese.” That’s what I remember about it. That was a tremendous test of this country’s fabric and this country’s had many tests before that and after that.
The reason I don’t despair is because this attack happened. It’s not a dream. But the aftermath of it, the recovery is a dream realized. And that is Martin Luther King's dream. Whatever barriers we've put up are gone even if it's momentary. We're judging people by not the color of their skin but the content of their character. You know, all this talk about "These guys are criminal masterminds. They’ve gotten together and their extraordinary guile…and their wit and their skill." It's a lie. Any fool can blow something up. Any fool can destroy. But to see these guys, these firefighters, these policemen and people from all over the country, literally, with buckets rebuilding. That's extraordinary. That's why we've already won. It's light. It's democracy. We've already won. They can't shut that down. They live in chaos and chaos… it can't sustain itself. It never could. It's too easy and it's too unsatisfying.
The view from my apartment was the World Trade Center and now it's gone. They attacked it. This symbol of American ingenuity and strength and labor and imagination and commerce and it is gone. But you know what the view is now? The Statue of Liberty. The view from the south of Manhattan is now the Statue of Liberty. You can't beat that.
So we're going to take a break and I'm going to stop slobbering on myself and on the desk. We’re going to get back to this. It's gonna be fun and funny and it's going to be the same as it was and I thank you. We'll be right back.
Any fool can blow something up. Any fool can destroy.
Jerry Jones loves his toys, and there's no doubting that the screen is a modern technological marvel. But what interests me about the entire enterprise is the fact that people who go to the games in this stadium are now just as likely to watch the action on the screen as they are on the field below them. Essentially, they're paying a ton of money to watch the game in the world's biggest sports bar.
I'm not certain that's how it's supposed to work.
Wednesday, September 09, 2009
Tuesday, September 08, 2009
The experts say that the first CD versions were crap, which leaves me in a quandary - do they sound bad enough for me to go out and buy replacements? Frankly, I doubt it. I'm not sure how much better they can sound, and in any event I'd rather spend the money on new material. But on the other hand, there is no questioning the fact that the version of "I Am the Walrus" which appeared on Love a couple of years ago (as remastered by George Martin and his son) had an aural vibrancy that far surpassed that of the original recording.
What I probably will buy is Abbey Road, which I still own only on vinyl, and The Beatles (aka the White Album), which I own only on a battered cassette tape that I made in 1981 from a friend's copy. Needless to say, we're not talking high fidelity there.
And someday, perhaps the rest, if that lottery ticket ever hits.
Monday, September 07, 2009
Sunday, September 06, 2009
As a cause, it is worthy and Lewis is to be lauded for the years - half a century now - that he's put into raising money for "his kids."
As entertainment, it's always fascinated me. The years have gone by, but Jerry hasn't really changed much. When you watch the show - and yes, I watched the first half-hour or so tonight - you get the feeling that Jerry is stuck in a time warp, thinking that the same old shtick that worked so many years ago is still A-OK for the 21st century. Within the first 15 minutes alone, there was a joke that skirted the bounds of propriety, and then a bevy of blond beauties for Jerry - who turns 84 next March - to ogle. All, of course, with the kids sitting there front and center, all poised for their turn to make Jerry's eyes glisten with tears.
But while there may be something vaguely horrifying about the whole enterprise (again, speaking only from an entertainment standpoint), there's also something that draws me in, year after year, to catch a glimpse of what's going on. I can't really explain it; after all, it's not as if I think that Tony Orlando is the epitome of American musicianship.
But hey - give the man his due, and all I can hope for this year is that at some point he'll pay tribute to his loyal sidekick, Ed McMahon.
And over the course of the evening, I'll post some clips from past years. A lot of history here, without question. To get things started off, Joan Crawford in 1968:
The first hint to what Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis is all about comes in the first track, “Silver Lining.” On first listen, it sounds like any other sappy pop song that you might hear on your average adult-contemporary radio station. I wasn’t that impressed, and for a while, I would listen to a bit of it, and then fast forward to the second song (one the album’s best), “Close Call.” But there was something about the opener that kept drawing me back, little snippets of the lyrics that – as I was running and listening on my MP3 player – made me wonder if this song was really like what I thought it sounded like. So I checked out the lyrics, and this is what I found:
And the grass it was a ticking
and the sun was on the rise
I never felt so wicked
as when I willed our love to die
and I was your silver lining as the story goes
I was your silver lining but now I’m gold
hooray hooray I’m your silver lining
hooray hooray but now I’m gold
hooray hooray I’m your silver lining
hooray hooray but now I’m gold
Aha…a breakup song, and a pretty damn joyous one at that, disguised as a love song.
Rilo Kiley is a band, but there’s no question that Jenny Lewis is the star. A former child actress with a fondness for micro-mini skirts, Lewis is one of the most interesting female stars of the decade, right up there with PJ Harvey and Liz Phair. And as with Harvey and Phair, sex plays an important role in many of Lewis’s songs. By Robert Christgau’s count, no less than five of the songs on Under the Blacklight are about sex, and not necessarily the safe variety. As Lewis sings in “Close Call:”
Funny thing about money for sex
You might get rich
But you die by it
It’s gonna be a close call
In “The Moneymaker” there’s little doubt what the protagonist of the song is doing to make money, and in “15” you meet the girl who is “down for anything,” wondering whether she’s going to grow up to be the moneymaker having the close calls.
Notwithstanding the subject matter, one of it feels cheap – the music is hard-edged, and if the desire hits you, you can even dance to it. And the one sing that Lewis doesn’t sing, “Dreamworld,” is a Fleetwood Mac homage so sharp that it sounds like it came straight off of Fleetwood Mac or Rumours.
Add it all up, and you have the #23 album of the decade.
Saturday, September 05, 2009
Friday, September 04, 2009
"...Gone from last year's 10-win squad are four starters from the [offensive] line..."
With an offense as intricate as the one which is run by Oregon, it's astonishing that anyone could think that an entirely new offensive line could be plugged in without there being some slippage. Of course, I don't think anyone could imagine an entire half of three-and-outs.
And then of course, because the game was so bad (and it's not as if Boise State played great football) I turned away early, and missed the scene that will be shown on SportsCenter for the rest of eternity: LeGarrette Blount cold-cocking Byron Hout after Hout heckled him as the players were making their way off the field. The video is linked here, in a column by John Conzano in this morning's Oregonian.
Up until last night, the Ducks had been touted as the one team that might challenge USC's supremacy in the Pac-10. They did literally nothing last night to demonstrate that they deserved that estimation, and right now - with Blount's future in doubt (it's hard to imagine he'll be back before a month) - it's easy to imagine that they will struggle simply to make the post-season.
All of a sudden, I don't feel so bad about the Bears having to visit Eugene in a few weeks.
UPDATE: Blount has been suspended for the entire season, including any potential bowl game. I was thinking this morning that I would have suspended him for six games, but I can't argue with the decision.
Now let's see what Boise State does. Coach Petersen indicated that he was not inclined to suspend Hout, which I think would be a terrible decision. I'd say that two weeks would be in order.
UPDATE II: According to AP reports, Hout will not be suspended. Terrible decision.
Thursday, September 03, 2009
Chris Evert never grunt/moaned when she played tennis.
Martina Navratilova never grunt/moaned when she played tennis.
Evonne Goolagong never grunt/moaned when she played tennis.
Margaret Court never grunt/moaned when she played tennis.
So why, dear God, why, do modern women tennis players feel the need to grunt/moan with every shot?
According to Wikipedia, this thing started with Jimmy Connors, but I gotta tell ya - I watched a ton of Jimmy Connors matches, and I sure don't remember him grunt/moaning the way that you hear it today.
And I don't mean to pick on the women, but facts are facts - most of them seem to do it, while very few (actually I can't think of one off the top of my head) men do it.
But just to be fair, man, woman, or child - STOP IT, ALREADY!
Wednesday, September 02, 2009
A couple of nights ago, Andre Agassi joined them in the booth for about an hour, after having been honored earlier in the evening for being an athlete who has given back to the community. Looking terrific in a sharp-looking suit, Andre was also great, projecting the aura of a man who is completely and entirely at peace with himself. I respect Agassi a great deal for being one of the few athletes who within the course of their careers has completely changed their public image. At one point, Agassi was no better than Terrell Owens, and was well on his way to leaving a legacy as someone who squandered more talent than anyone else playing tennis in the last 25 years. By the time he retired, there was no one who worked harder - no one who fought like he did for every single point. While he remained supremely confident, he gained a maturity that had seemed impossible just a few short years before.
There's nothing he can do about it now, but I'm sure every now and then he kicks himself for essentially farting away 4-5 years, during what should have been in his prime. What ended up being 8 Grand Slam wins very well could have been in the Federer/Sampras range: 14-15.