Thursday, December 31, 2009

Top 25 Albums of the 2000s, #3 - "American IV: The Man Comes Around," Johnny Cash

" if that old softy Rick Rubin gently advised his fast-failing charge that if there was ever a song he wanted to sing he'd better not put it off till next time, 'cause there probably wasn't gonna be one." - Robert Christgau

You put the album on, and it doesn't take long to figure out what's on Johnny's mind:

There's a man going around taking names/And he decides who to free and who to blame/Everybody won't be treated all the same/There will be a golden ladder reaching down/When the man comes around - The Man Comes Around

"American IV" is an album steeped in death. It is an album that tells the story of a man who is ready to take the measure of his life. And even though there has been a posthumous release, there seems little doubt that Johnny knew that this would be the last album to be released in his lifetime. A collection of new Cash tunes ("The Man Comes Around"), old Cash originals ("Give My Love to Rose"), traditional songs ("Danny Boy," "Streets of Laredo"), and brilliantly chosen and sequenced covers ("Hurt," "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," "I Hung My Head," "In My Life," others), the album is a meditation on death, and is perhaps the greatest contemplation of death any artist has ever created.

In my book, Rick Rubin deserves a special spot in the rock and roll pantheon (and the country pantheon as well!) for what he achieved with Johnny Cash in the last decade of Johnny's life. All great artists should be so lucky. Rubin is at his best on "American IV" - his technique of emphasizing simple piano chords at key moments of a song has never been used to better effect, particularly on the harrowing "Hurt" - which ceased to be a Nine Inch Nails song the moment that Johnny sang it. I remember the first time I heard it, shopping at a downtown record store - and when it came on, I froze in my tracks, and felt the goosebumps all over my body. Hundreds of listens later, that still happens. Just amazing.

So thank you, Rick Rubin. And thank you, Johnny Cash.

Get six jolly cowboys to carry my coffin/Six dance-hall maidens to bear up my pall/Throw bunches of roses all over my coffin/Roses to deaden the clods as they fall - Streets of Laredo

Favorite Albums of 2009

I should start off by saying that I probably bought fewer albums in 2009 than I have in any year since 1977. And if it wasn't for a certain friend (she knows who she is), I might not have had a favorite album this year. But, here goes:

1. "Oh My God Charlie Darwin," The Low Anthem. I guess I would call this my "Fleet Foxes" of 2009. Beautiful, haunting songs, and then all of a sudden they decide to channel Bob Dylan and Tom Waits. Great stuff.

2. "I and Love and You," The Avett Brothers. Country alt-pop from a couple of guys who have been around for a while, but I'd never heard of. Produced by Rick Rubin, the songs are direct, catchy, and in several instances, thought-provoking. We'll be seeing them in April, when they visit Sacramento.

3. "Wait for Me," Moby. He's done a lot of good stuff since the epochal "Play," but this was the first album since then that made me think that someday, he might match it. "Study War" is as good a song as he's ever recorded.

4. "Cuz I Sed So," New York Dolls. A New York Dolls album produced by Todd Rundgren? The last time that happened, I was 14 years old and still listening to AM radio. I don't know what's gotten into David Johansen - maybe all those years as Buster Poindexter really did re-energize his creative batteries.

5. "The List," Rosanne Cash. "The List," of course, referring to the list of 100 essential songs that her father wrote for her when she joined him on tour back in the 1970s. I'd love to hear more, and I'd love to hear her work with another producer (John Leventhal's work still comes across as too soft to me), but this is just more proof that she's among the best of her generation.

6. "Together Through Life," Bob Dylan. After three consecutive masterpieces, Dylan delivers a solid, very good but not great album. And that's OK - after all, there was a time when a very good album would have been hailed as the next coming.

7. "Working on a Dream," Bruce Springsteen. He never really embraced this on tour, which I think confirms everyone's suspicion (except Rolling Stone, of course, which said that it was his best album since "Born to Run") that is was a throwaway. But think of it as his "Yesterday and Today," and you can enjoy it on its own terms - a fun album, recorded on tour, by an artist who at this point in his life deserves to do whatever he damn well pleases. Docked a notch for "Surprise, Surprise," the worst song he's ever put on an album.

8. "Electric Dirt," Levon Helm. Yeah, there's a lot of old white guys on this list. I should probably do something about that in 2010. But this was really good - way better than anything Robbie Robertson has put out since The Last Waltz.

9. "For Emma, Forever Ago," Bon Iver. Yeah, I know this came out in 2008, but it took me that long to finally "get it." I still think it was a bit overrated, but I've come to enjoy and appreciate it a lot.

10. "Secret, Profane and Sugarcane," Elvis Costello. When he made a country album in 1981, he was laughed out of the building. Now, he's got the chops to pull it off.

The jury's still out on Pearl Jam's "Backspacer" and Neil Young's "Fork in the Road," but they both contain songs that I've actively enjoyed.

And that's all she wrote, folks! In terms of my Top 25 of the Decade, the only ones on this list that could have cracked it were #1, 2, and 3.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Top 25 Albums of the 2000s, #4 - "Magic," Bruce Springsteen

What I wrote when the album was released:

With a few exceptions, the sole focus of the media and the blogosphere has been on the album’s politics, which is disappointing to me because the politics should not have come as a surprise, and to focus on the lyrics alone ignores what I see as one of the album’s greatest triumphs – Bruce’s success (and much of that success should probably be credited to producer Brendan O’Brien) in creating a sound that is instantly familiar to anyone who has ever listened to Springsteen, but at the same time sounds different than anything he’s recorded before. The River didn’t sound like Darkness on the Edge of Town which didn’t sound like Born to Run, but that was more than 25 years ago. That Springsteen is able to pull that off at a time when he is approaching 60 is reason to rejoice.

Musically, this is Springsteen’s strongest album since Tunnel of Love, twenty years ago. It’s also his hardest rocking – we haven’t heard Springsteen songs with the frontal guitar assault of “Radio Nowhere,” “Gypsy Biker,” and “Last to Die” since the days of “Roulette.” But whether it’s that approach, or something like “Girls in Their Summer Clothes,” which sounds like it could have been recorded by the Righteous Brothers in 1965, or songs in the classic Springsteen mold like “Livin’ in the Future,” “I’ll Work For Your Love,” and “Long Walk Home” - from a musical standpoint, there simply isn’t a weak song on the album.

As for the politics: in his 60 Minutes interview last weekend, Springsteen made the following comment, one which provides the key to unlocking the theme of the album.“I would say that what I do is try to chart the distance between American ideals and American reality. That’s how my music is laid out. It’s like we’ve reached a point where it seems we’re so intent on protecting ourselves that we’re willing to destroy the best parts of ourselves to do so.”

The songs that most clearly define this theme – the distance between American ideals and American reality – are “Radio Nowhere,” “Your Own Worst Enemy,” “Gypsy Biker,” “Magic,” “Last to Die,” “Long Walk Home,” and “Devil’s Arcade.” Anyone looking to paint Springsteen as “anti-American” will be disappointed to find that there’s nothing simple here – these are complex songs, obviously the work of a thoughtful, mature person – one who clearly loves the country in which he lives, but just wishes it were better. One can debate whether Bruce’s vision of the country is na├»ve, or even entirely correct – very little is black and white in this day and age. And based on other comments Springsteen has made in interviews and during concerts, you can certainly accuse him of being anti-Bush – a distinction that hardly makes him unique in this day and age. But one thing you simply cannot accuse him of, without making yourself look extremely foolish, is being anti-American.

There are three of those songs that I’d single out as instant classics – songs that, right here and now, I’d be willing to say will stand in the Springsteen pantheon alongside such classics as “Born to Run,” “Badlands,” “The Promised Land,” and “Born in the U.S.A.”: “Radio Nowhere,” “Gypsy Biker,” and “Long Walk Home.”

More than any other song on the album, “Radio Nowhere” proves that Springsteen can create music in 2007 that sounds as vital as the music he recorded in 1975. You can take the song as a spirited blast against the current state of corporate radio (I was spinnin’ round a dead dial/Just another lost number in a file/Dancin’ down a dark hole/Just searchin’ for a world with some soul), or interpret the “radio” as a metaphor for the current black hole of American political discourse (Is there anybody alive out there?) – the song works equally well in either interpretation, which adds to its strength.

Ultimately, where Magic fits into the Springsteen pantheon is a question best left to history; the kind of thing that is sure to spark friendly arguments over beers for years to come. At this moment, I feel comfortable saying that it’s his strongest album since 1984's Born in the U.S.A. I hope, 23 years from now, that I’ll be able to say Magic defined an era as well as that earlier album did. You never know about these things, but I’ve got a good feeling about it.

Further comments, two years later:

- To the list of classics, I'd add two: "Girls in Their Summer Clothes," the best pure pop song he's ever recorded, and "Devil's Arcade," which I didn't fully appreciate until later.

- Ironically, for the "Magic" tour Bruce chose to make "Living in the Future" the song during which he made his strongest political statements. That's a shame, because the song is fairly weak compared to those surrounding it. The concert comments also came across as somewhat heavy-handed (and in Sacramento, were met with quite a few boos), proving that when it comes to politics, Bruce is a better writer than orator.

- I don't know if albums define eras any more, but I am comfortable with my assessment that "Magic" was Bruce's best album since "Born in the U.S.A."

Favorite Movies of 2009

1. Inglorious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino). When I first saw it, I wasn't sure if the whole movie added up to the sum of its parts. On a second viewing, I was convinced. Someday, it may even replace "Pulp Fiction" as my favorite Tarantino flick. As many others have said, Christoph Waltz is just amazing as Hans Landa, and the opening sequence where Landa interviews a simple French farmer is one of Tarantino's greatest accomplishments. The moment when Landa drops the pretense and through just a change of expression reveals all of the evil beneath is breathtaking. And then there's the underground tavern scene - I could watch that one all night, and never get tired of it. And let's give Brad Pitt his due - he's pretty damned good.

2. Moon (Duncan Jones). The directorial debut of Duncan Jones, until now best known as the son of David Bowie. A quiet, mesmerizing film that demonstrates you can still do science fiction on film without a lot of space battles and explosions. For a long time I've waited for a breakthrough performance by Sam Rockwell. I'm not sure if enough people saw this to make this the one, but I hope so.

3. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow). An amazing achievement, simply for proving that it is possible to make a film about the war in Iraq that is apolitical. Almost unbearably suspenseful, with a terrific leading performance by Jeremy Renner. Great cameos by Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes.

4. Star Trek (J.J. Abrams). I wouldn't have thought it was possible, but Abrams indeed pulled off the neat trick of reinventing the "Trek" universe so that anything can happen now, and it will be OK.

5. District 9 (Neill Blommkamp). Particularly the first half, when it sticks to the "faux documentary" approach. Sharlto Copley is strikingly good as the lead.

6. Public Enemies (Michael Mann). Johnny Depp was great, but my favorite performance in the movie was Stephen Lang's.

7. The Men Who Stare at Goats (Grant Heslov). Perhaps not as good as it could have been, but there's no arguing that Clooney, Bridges and McGregor were great in it.

8. Watchmen (Zack Snyder). Only Jackie Earle Haley really matches the intensity of his character (and the casting of Ozymandias nearly ruined it for me), but I'll stick with what I said right after I saw it - this was probably the best Watchmen movie that could have been made.

I haven't seen any of the holiday releases, so we'll save a couple of spots for them.

Great and good movies I saw for the first time in 2009:

"Ratatouille" - Brad Bird is a genius. I never dreamed that this would be so good - nearly as good as "The Incredibles."

"Zodiac" - Like I said when I saw it: if you were 9 years old and living in Northern California in 1969, believe me, you knew all about the Zodiac killer. And this brought it all back.

"No Country for Old Men" - Javier Bardem deserved all the kudos, but I thought Josh Brolin was just as good.

"There Will Be Blood" - Even though there was a bit of "master thespian" in Daniel Day-Lewis' performance, that didn't make it any less compelling. And until the last 30 minutes, the film-making was as good as it gets. But I didn't like Paul Dano one bit.

"American Gangster" - A nice companion piece to "Prince of the City." Again, a nice supporting turn from Josh Brolin.

"The Wrestler" - OK, I've made up my mind: Rourke was better than Penn. And I'm sorry, but Bruce Springsteen got robbed by the Academy.

"Milk" - Penn was good, but there's a part of me that thinks James Franco and Josh Brolin (again!) were even better.

"The Queen" - Helen Mirren was great, and James Cromwell was almost as good.

"Frost/Nixon" - For Frank Langella. But as a Watergate obsessive, I was disappointed by the false drama in the way Ron Howard ended the movie. Trust me, what Nixon revealed in that interview really wasn't that big a deal.

"Mrs. Brown" - Judi Dench was great, and Billy Connolly was even better.

"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" - WOW. Just saw this a couple of nights ago, and am still thinking about it. Will probably replace "The Truman Show" as my favorite Jim Carrey movie.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Top 25 Albums of the 2000s, #5 - "Modern Times," Bob Dylan

Speaking of Bob Dylan...

I'm not sure what to say about "Modern Times" except to say that it represents a master at the height of his powers, clearly having a ball, demonstrating that when it comes to rock 'n roll, age really has very little to do with success.

And since Dylan is probably as well known for his way with words as he is for his musicianship, I'll give the man his due with some nuggets that pop out at you, just as you're marveling at the band or how Dylan's voice is driving the music.

Feel like my soul is beginning to expand
Look into my heart and you will sort of understand
You brought me here, now you're trying to run me away
The writing's on the wall, come read it, come see what it say

- Thunder on the Mountain

My cruel weapons have been put on the shelf
Come sit down on my knee
You are dearer to me than myself
As you yourself can see
I'm listenin' to the steel rails hum
Got both eyes tight shut
Just sitting here trying to keep the hunger from
Creeping it's way into my gut

- Workingman's Blues #2

The suffering is unending
Every nook and cranny has it's tears
I'm not playing, I'm not pretending
I'm not nursing any superfluous fears

Ain't talkin', just walkin'
Walkin' ever since the other night
Heart burnin', still yearnin'
Walkin' ‘til I'm clean out of sight

- Ain't Talkin'

Monday, December 28, 2009

Urban Meyer's Indecision

First of all, let me get my bias out of the way - I've never liked Florida football. In fact, I root against them with a passion that I reserve for few teams.

But as much as Florida football, Urban Meyer, and Tim Tebow have aggravated me in recent years, I found much to admire in Meyer's announcement on Saturday that he was resigning as the Gators' head coach (as a result of health concerns). Finally, here was a man who seemed to have his priorities in order, a man who recognized that his health and his family really were more important than a never-ending quest for the next national championship.

That's why Meyer's Sunday turnaround was so baffling. Maybe I'm wrong, but I can't see any way to interpet his actions of Sunday that doesn't tarnish his reputation and his integrity. Apparently, his "second family" (the Florida players and coaches) is more important than his real family, not to mention that heart beating with so much stress inside of his body.

Viewed less harshly, Meyer's actions on Sunday betray a man suffering through a crisis that will define his life, one way or another. I can't imagine that this is over, because regardless of whether I like him or not, he is a man of integrity. The "solution" he's reached is really no solution at all, and is probably one that hurts, rather than helps, the things that he holds dear to his life - his family, the school, his coaches, and his team.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Top 25 Albums of the 2000s, #6 - "Life'll Kill Ya," Warren Zevon

"He was so proud of that album. He told me, 'One day you and I are going to be up there getting an award, weeping too hard to be able to speak.'"

- Jorge Calderon

To say it now probably seems sentimental, but there's no doubt that in the years immediately preceding his death, Warren Zevon enjoyed an artistic renaissance the likes of which hasn't been seen this side of Bob Dylan. The album that began that renaissance, the greatest album of his long, but too short, career, was "Life'll Kill Ya."

It's the most best and most consistent album of his career, one that positively cracks with wit, humor, and a wry touch of sadness. After hundreds of listens, the album's first song, "I Was In The House (When The House Burned Down)" stands as one of the very best he ever wrote. The ones that follow, including "Porcelain Monkey," "Don't Let Us Get Sick," and the immortal "My Shit's Fucked Up," aren't far behind.


Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas!

And as always, the Musical Advent Calendar concludes with the great Darlene Love, singing the great “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).”

Merry Christmas everyone!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Top 25 Albums of the 2000s, #7 - "Black Cadillac," Rosanne Cash

Rosanne Cash’s “Black Cadillac” hit me with a force like few albums before. Even today, more than three years later, it strikes me as a miracle.

Rosanne has always been one of my favorite artists, even before the days when “Seven Year Ache” put her on the map. Back in the days when I was “too cool” to listen to country music and therefore listen much to her father, there was something about her which grabbed me.

“Black Cadillac” is her best album, and reaches a level of artistry that surprised even this long-time listener. But it should have come as no surprise – she has always been a great artist, and I should have expected that the album on which she paid tribute to the three people who meant as much to her as any in her life – her father John, her mother Vivian, and her stepmother June – would have been a spectacular success.

The songs speak for themselves.

“Black Cadillac”

“Radio Operator” and “I Was Watching You”

“Burn Down This Town”

“God Is In The Roses”

“Like A Wave”

The Crystals Get Into The Holiday Spirit

More Phil Spector, courtesy of The Crystals.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Top 25 Albums of the 2000s, #8 - "The Rising," Bruce Springsteen

It was early on a Sunday morning in September 1999, and I remember being annoyed that my friend Tim was calling so early. But I'm glad he did, because he was calling to drag me out of bed to go stand in line with him at the nearest BASS Outlet to buy tickets for the upcoming Springsteen concert - his first tour with the E Street Band since we'd seen him together in May 1988 - in Oakland.

Those days are a thing of the past, and now the drill is to stand at the ready by your computer, limber up your fingers, and hope that you are among the first to successfully navigate through Ticketmaster. Back then it was a more social affair - we managed to arrive in time to be somewhere around 25th in line, and were both confident of securing good tickets.The talk that morning was about the excitement of the first tour in over a decade, but also a lot of speculation about whether a new album with the E Street Band was on the way. The rumors of a new song called "Land of Hope and Dreams" had made their way across the Atlantic, where Bruce had played the first leg of what would become known as the Reunion Tour.

What everyone wondered is whether a new album was on the way - or would it be a "greatest hits" type of tour, augmented by the songs released the previous year on "Tracks?"There would be no new album during that tour, although "Land of Hope and Dreams" would close every show of it, and prove to be one of the greatest songs Springsteen had written. And in the tour's second year, several new songs started to make their way into the show, including the spectacular "American Skin (41 Shots)," the song about Amadou Diallo which proved that Bruce remained at the ready to take on the weighty issues of the day. But still, no new album.

We may never know what Bruce was planning, but in retrospect it is obvious that those plans were changed by 9/11. As Dave Marsh wrote in "Bruce Springsteen on Tour":

In September 2001, just after two airplanes crashed into New York's World Trade Center buildings and killed three thousand people, many of them from central New Jersey, Bruce Springsteen pulled out of a parking lot at the beach in Sea Bright, near his home. A man driving by rolled down his window and shouted to him: "We need you - now!"

And so "The Rising," released almost a year later, would become Bruce's 9/11 album. And a great album it is. The only reason it's this low is that Bruce made the mistake of providing us with too much music. If shortened by three songs - and for me, those songs would be "Let's Be Friends (Skin to Skin)," "Worlds Away," and "Waitin' on a Sunny Day" (and yes, I know it's become a staple of Bruce's shows ever since, but I've never understood why) - "The Rising" would probably have been #1 on this list. Because aside from those songs, the album is perfection - the anthemic title cut, the tragic drama of "Into the Fire," the utter sadness of "Empty Sky" and "You're Missing," and the life-affirming "Mary's Place."

But #8 is nothing to sneeze at.

Top 25 Albums of the 2000s: The Sprint to the Finish!

Okay, so here's the deal - I've been stuck trying to write something intelligent for #8 for over a week now, and the mental acuity just isn't there. So what I'm going to do is post one per day, leading up to #1, but don't expect much in the way of witty or insightful commentary. If it happens, it will be strictly by accident.

So fasten your seatbelts...we're about to enter the homestretch.

Frosty the Snowman!

You know we're getting close to Christmas when the old Phil Spector classics start coming out. First up, Ronnie Spector!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Must Be Santa - Part II

Hard to watch this one without smiling!

Yet Another Holiday Bonus

"Must Be Santa," a track off the new Dylan Christmas album. Unless I'm mistaken, that's Los Lobos' David Hidalgo on the accordion.

"There Will Be Blood"

Ah – so that’s why they called it “There Will Be Blood.”

“There Will Be Blood” has its flaws, but there’s no doubt that it’s an example of great film-making. From the silent beginning (the first 20 minutes of the film is without dialogue, and was probably my favorite section of the film) to the shocking climax, there’s never a dull moment, and never a moment when the viewer is less than completely engaged and absorbed.

Daniel Day-Lewis is amazing as Daniel Plainview, though in developing his approach to the character I have to wonder if he studied John Huston’s performance in “Chinatown.” Listen to Huston’s voice in this scene with Jack Nicholson:

And then, listen to Day-Lewis as Plainview in the film’s trailer:

Sound familiar?

The film’s most visible flaw is the performance of Paul Dano as Eli Sunday, the charismatic and conniving preacher who becomes Plainview’s antagonist. Simply put, I don’t think Dano had the chops to play this role, and never for a moment did I think that he was a physical or mental force who could handle Day-Lewis in the ways that he did. It’s not a terrible performance - just not one that was up to the task.

“There Will Be Blood” may leave a lot of people with a bad taste in their mouth (seeing as how it launches an enthusiastic attack against both capitalism and religion), but it is definitely a film that should be seen.

Another Homemade Gem

I like these homemade versions.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

'Tis the Season to Take a Swipe at United

Having had my own unpleasant experience with United Airlines this year, I really enjoyed this.

Ring Those Christmas Bells! RIGHT NOW!

This one never fails to crack me up. It’s unbelievably corny, but if you just let it wash over you, it transcends the corniness.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The 2009 Christmas Mix

Every year, I make my friends and colleagues at work a holiday music sampler. Here is this year's mix:

I. There’s a Party Goin’ On

The temperatures outside may be dropping, but the mercury inside is rising faster than you can say “what happened to all the spiked egg nog?”. That’s right, the joint is jumping, and the music matches the mood. We’ve got hip, we’ve got blues, we’ve got jazz, we’ve got something that sounds like “Peter Gunn meets The Nutcracker,” and we’ve got some classic pop from years past.

“Nite Before A Hip Christmas,” Frank Evans & Santa’s Helpers
“Christmas Spirit,” Julia Lee
“Please Come Home for Christmas,” Charles Brown
“Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town,” Dave Brubeck Quartet
“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” Bela Fleck & The Flecktones
“Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” Hal Mooney
“It’s Christmas,” Marvin & Johnny
“This Christmas,” Donny Hathaway

II. Grab Your Partner and Get Out on the Floor

We’re now heading down to the southern part of the country, and at this here Christmas party, you just might hear someone makin’ fun of those city slickers having fun in their high-rise Manhattan apartments. Santa Claus? Well, he ain’t the only one wearing a funny hat and boots at this one.

“Holly Jolly Christmas,” Old 97s
“Papa Noel,” Brenda Lee
“Merry Texas Christmas, You All,” Asleep at the Wheel
“Santa Can’t Stay,” Dwight Yoakam
“Santa Bring My Baby Back to Me,” Elvis

III. Tasty Waves and Cool Presents

You know, they also celebrate Christmas in places where you’re just as likely to find a gnarly wave as you are a snowman with carrot nose and top hat. In those places, this just might be what they’re listening to.

“Sleigh Ride,” The Ventures
“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” Los Straitjackets
“Champagne of Christmas,” Fleshtones

IV. Sometimes Happy, Sometimes Melancholy

We’ve got a little of both in this section.

“Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” Death Cab for Cutie
“Christmas is Coming Soon,” Blitzen Trapper
“That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!,” Sufjan Stevens
“Christmas in Paradise,” Mary Gauthier
“It’s A Big Country,” Davitt Sigerson

V. Back to the Party…

“Merry Christmas Baby,” Ike and Tina Turner
“It’s Christmas (A Time for Giving),” Screamin’ Jay Hawkins

Quick Netflix Hits

I’ve been remiss in commenting on our recent Netflix viewings. To catch up, here are some random, “lightning round” thoughts on each film:

American Gangster. This is an excellent companion piece to Sidney Lumet’s “Prince of the City,” which was also set in New York City in the early 1970s and depicted the police corruption of that time. Not surprisingly given its title, this one adds the bad guys’ point of view, although after a while it’s difficult to tell some of the good guys from the bad guys. In the acting battle between Oscar winners, I give the nod to Denzel Washington over Russell Crowe, but only because he has the more interesting part. Flamboyant gangster vs. earnest, dedicated policeman? Not much of a decision to make there. Knowing that Crowe’s character defended and became friends with Washington’s later on, it would have been interesting if the film had explored in greater detail the things that the two had in common – even if that might have taken dramatic license with how real life panned out. Also, more kudos to Josh Brolin, who plays perfectly the role of one of the corrupt cops.

Mrs. Brown. A well-acted, engaging depiction of the friendship between Queen Victoria (Judi Dench, great as always) and Scottish highlander John Brown (brilliantly played by Billy Connolly). It’s always amusing to watch the dichotomy between stuffy British royalty and their commoner counterparts, and this one is no exception. Brown manages to get the Queen out of her shell of mourning, and then sees his influence grow to a point that probably surprises even him. Needless to say, the “stuffy Brit” types have a problem with this, and go out of their way to make his life difficult. Being the somewhat simple, roguish man that he is, he doesn’t exactly make life easy for himself.

Shakespeare in Love. We saw this when it first came out, and it remains now what it was then: very well-made, well-acted, somewhat light entertainment, but succeeding in what it set out to accomplish. Academy Award winner? I’m not sure it was that good.

The Queen. OK, so Judi Dench now has a rival for best actress to portray a Queen of England. Helen Mirren is awesome, and James Cromwell is almost as good as the very stuffy Prince Philip. I thought Michael Sheen playing Tony Blair in this was a lot better than he was playing David Frost in “Frost/Nixon,” and the rest of the cast is first-rate. The film feels more like an extended episode of “Masterpiece Theater” than it does a feature film, but that doesn’t lessen its quality.

Next up: “There Will Be Blood”

More Muppets Holiday Mania

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Top 25 of the 2000s, #9 - "Love and Theft," Bob Dylan

I was afraid to buy this album.

Dylan’s previous release, “Time Out of Mind,” was his best album in almost 25 years. It was one of the great albums of his career, and when you make a statement like that about an artist like Bob Dylan, essentially what you’re saying is that it was one of the great albums in rock history. And so it was - I would be hard pressed to name another album released between 1990 and today that matches its greatness. It’s that good.

Critical to the story (and it’s one I’ve told before, so bear with me) is the fact that very little of the original work Dylan released between 1975 and 1997 could lay claim to the greatness that had become to be synonymous with the name Dylan. Yes, there were good albums. Yes, there were great songs. Yes, I own many of those albums, and still listen to many of them today. But great? Sorry, but no.

When word came out in 2001 that Dylan would soon release a follow-up to “Time Out of Mind,” I began to get nervous. What if the prior album was an aberration? What if Dylan had really gone out in a burst of artistic glory, with nothing left to follow it up with? Did I really want to know?

“Love and Theft” was released on September 11, 2001, which gave me just one more reason to avoid it. But after the initial shock of that day had begun to lessen a bit, the reviews began to pop up – and if one were to believe them, it was clear that Dylan hadn’t slipped, that this particular “new Dylan” – only the 100th or so incarnation of his long and storied career – was around to stay. Obviously, I eventually got around to buying, and listening to, the album. And it quickly became apparent that I really had nothing to worry about – Dylan truly was back.

The breadth and depth of “Love and Theft” is astonishing. It is the work of a master at the height of his powers, an artist comfortable in every idiom that you’re willing to throw at him – rock, pop, blues, country, and everything in between. There are at least six all-time Dylan classics on the record: “Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee,” “Mississippi,” “Summer Days,” “Lonesome Day Blues,” “High Water (for Charley Patton), and “Cry a While.” The others? Well, they’re not far behind.

In the end, it was a great Bob Dylan album – good enough to be tabbed #9 of the decade.

Bing Sings "White Christmas"

Does it get any more Christmasy than that?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Top 25 Albums of the 2000s, #10 - "Neon Bible," Arcade Fire

Arcade Fire’s “Neon Bible” announces its greatness in the first few moments of “Black Mirror,” the album’s first song, and it never lets up until the final, spine-tingling chords of “My Body Is A Cage,” 10 songs later.

Led by the husband & wife team of Win Butler and Regine Chassagne, the band takes the kitchen sink approach to many of its songs, including instruments that you wouldn’t normally associate with an “indie band” – violin and viola, cello, French horn, accordion, hurdy gurdy, and mandolin, among others. The richness and diversity of the musicianship lends the songs an epic scale, even on the slower tempo tunes. And on a song like “No Cars Go” where the tempo is fast and all the stops are pulled out, there is an almost cinematic scope to the music – it’s almost as if the band is going to leap right out of the speakers, because the stereo system simply can’t contain the music.

“Neon Bible” is incredibly diverse in its musical approach – “Black Mirror” sounds nothing like “Keep the Car Running,” which sounds nothing like “Neon Bible,” which sounds nothing like “Intervention,” which sounds nothing like “No Cars Go,” and so on…but whatever the approach, it all works. And while Butler may technically not be a great singer, his vocals lend the proceedings an urgency that is crucial to the success of the songs.

“Black Mirror”

“Keep the Car Running”

“Neon Bible”


“No Cars Go”

“My Body Is A Cage”

That last moment of “My Body Is A Cage” really says it all – without doubt, one of the great musical moments of the decade.

Special Holiday Bonus

I'd say this speaks for itself.

"Run Run Rudolph"

I couldn't find a good live version of Chuck Berry doing this song, but this is a great performance by Brian Setzer and his band.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Just One King

Nothing says “Christmas” quite like Elvis, right? Here, he takes aim at his two bonafide yuletide classics, “Santa Claus is Back in Town” and “Blue Christmas.” I just wish he’d remembered the words to the former song, because it is a great one.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

"12 Days of Christmas"

Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, whose 2008 Christmas album was one of the best in recent years.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Top 25 Albums of the 2000s, #11 - "Challengers," New Pornographers

So…just who are The New Pornographers?

The Wikipedia page for the band refers to them as an “indie rock supergroup,” which strikes me as a contradiction in terms. I think in this case all it really means is that every member of the band is also a member of another band. And I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve never heard of any of the other bands. The most well-known band member is almost certainly vocalist Neko Case, who herself is hardly a household word. The mastermind behind the group is A.C. Newman, who is also hardly a household word, at least in the U.S. Most of the band members are from Canada, and in all honesty that just about exhausts my knowledge of the group.

So…how did I discover this band?

Every now and then, I’ll try out something that looks interesting on one of the listening stations at my local record store. They tend to put the hot new releases on the stations, which is usually a surefire guarantee that I’ll have never heard of the band. But with a name like “The New Pornographers?” I mean really – you just have to hear what that band sounds like. So I did (and this was “Twin Cinema,” the release prior to “Challengers”), and I liked what I heard. So buying the follow-up was a natural, and not surprisingly I liked it as well. Well enough to rank it as my 7th favorite album of 2007.

So…what happened between then and now to lift this record from being my 7th favorite of 2007 to my 11th favorite of the entire decade?

As it happens, I am one of the few people left on the planet who has a cassette deck (and it’s a really nice one), enjoys making mix tapes, and drives a car without a CD player. Right now, there are tapes in my car that are almost 30 years old, and I still enjoy listening to them. In recent years, after I got a 5-disc CD changer for Christmas one year, I started making tapes by throwing random CDs on the player, hitting “shuffle,” and letting the results speak for themselves. Around the time “Challengers” came out, I did the mix-tape trick with it and two other albums, “Dylanesque” by Bryan Ferry and “Traffic and Weather” by Fountains of Wayne. I played that tape a lot then, and I still play it a lot now. And with each listen, the songs from those albums began to worm their way into my brain. But especially so with “Challengers” – as I came to really know songs like “My Rights Versus Yours,” “Challengers,” Myriad Harbour,” and “Unguided,” I came to appreciate them more and more, and with each listen, the album grew in my estimation.

So…what do they sound like?

Back when I first reviewed it, I expressed difficulty in classifying the sound of the band, and to this day I’d be hard pressed to do so. Not quite power pop, not quite art rock…perhaps a bit of both. But whatever it is, I like it. But don’t take my word for it; decide for yourself:

“My Rights Versus Yours,” live on Letterman


“Myriad Harbour”


Add it all up, and you get #11. Which can mean only one thing – the Top Ten is yet to come!

"Merry Christmas Baby"

Brother Ray...the work.

Not Exactly A White Christmas, But We'll Take It

Ice on the fountain in our front yard. It's almost 9 am, and the temp is still below freezing.

Normal for many areas, but not Elk Grove, California!

Monday, December 07, 2009

"Please Come Home For Christmas"

You can't have a musical advent calendar without at least one performance by Harry Connick, Jr.

Sunday, December 06, 2009


One of the benefits of being so busy the past 10 days (with Thanksgiving, and then my Association’s Annual Conference) is that I’ve had little time to think about the Tiger Woods saga, or even follow it that much. But now that Maureen Dowd has seen fit to comment, I see no choice but to add my two cents worth.

Before I do that, let me get my bias out of the way. Put simply, it enrages me that one of the major newspapers in the history of this country has seen fit to hire Maureen Dowd as a columnist. My disdain for her work is so strong that, even when I agree with the position she is arguing, I find myself embarrassed to be in agreement with her – her thinking is that vacuous and shallow. She’s too clever and cute by half, and what passes for wit in her work would have fit well into the gossip column that we used to concoct in my junior high school newspaper.

But comment on Tiger Woods she has, and with predictable results. Let’s start with this nugget:

After the baseball steroid scandal and the disappointing news that Tiger’s a cheetah, as the New York Post headline put it, it’s time to accept that athletes are not role models. They’re just models — for everything from sports drinks to running shoes to razor blades to credit cards to peanut butter to Buicks to Wheaties.

Wow…athletes are not role models? What a novel concept. What original thinking. But in the end, what arrogance. It’s painfully evident in this passage that Maureen Dowd really knows nothing about sports. Which, according to the rules of the day, is perfectly OK. Imagine if someone who knew nothing about international politics was to write columns about the war in Afghanistan. Or imagine if someone who knew nothing about domestic politics were to write columns about the performance of the President. That would be mocked; that would be derided. But when someone who knows nothing about sports presumes to write about the most prominent athlete of our time, well – that seems to be no problem.

Anyone who has been a serious student of sports (and yes, I modestly appoint myself to that status) has known for years, if not decades, that athletes are not role models – at least not in the parts of their lives that have nothing to do with their athletic accomplishments. That’s not to say that there haven’t been athletes who reach that status – of those playing right now, Drew Brees and Derek Jeter (among others) appear to lead lives that are admirable from all standpoints. Having said that, to this day, it amuses me that people are so offended when athletes fail to achieve the high standards that normal, regular people fail to reach on so many occasions.

But let’s talk about Tiger. Let’s stipulate that he’s been an idiot, that he’s been a jerk – just like so many men before him have been. To me, the story of his adultery and how it will impact his marriage isn’t really that interesting. Let’s be real – when Tiger met Elin, she was a model turned au pair for one of Tiger's fellow professional golfers. Call me insensitive and cynical, but there’s nothing in the mix of professional athlete and au pair that would lead me to believe that this would be one of the inspiring relationships of our time. Which isn’t to say that it couldn’t have been, and isn’t to excuse him of his “transgressions.”

As a fan of “the athletic drama of human competition,” as Jim McKay used to say, the more interesting question to me is how all of this is going to effect the trajectory of Tiger’s career, and his public image. Frankly, I doubt it will have much long-term effect on either, and in the unusual way that sports often work, could end up making him more popular.

I say that because, for all of his success, at the moment of his public disgrace Tiger was not a beloved figure in the sporting world. Yes, he was widely respected, if not held in awe – after all, he is the greatest golfer the world has ever seen, and being the best in the world at anything is worthy of respect. But as I’ve commented on a number of occasions (just link to the Tiger Woods posts on this here blog), Tiger has never been a “sportsman” in the Sports Illustrated sense of the word, despite the fact that SI has named him Sportsman of the Year twice –something that has never happened for any other athlete. But just like the rest of us, SI was blinded by Tiger’s magnificence on the course, and failed to consider much beyond that.

After the 2007 Masters, I wrote this:

“And one thing is for certain - Tiger's play was as joyless an exercise as I've ever seen, in any professional sport. Frankly, it was excruciating to watch - he was clearly pissed off nearly the entire time, and should probably give that some thought once he cools down a bit.”

And that, in a nutshell, is Tiger Woods. As previously noted, he is the greatest golfer of our time and one of the great athletes of our time – but that does not make him a perfect person. He has always approached golf and life as if it were a business; something to succeed at, something to strive for perfection at. Fans love him when he does well, because when that happens, there is nothing more stirring. What he’s never learned is how he should act when he fails – and to this point, when that happens he has generally acted like an asshole. And right now, when he is living through one of the epic public failures of our time, he’s struggling with how to turn that around. Right now, I’m not sure how it will turn out.

But if the subject is hand is how history will treat him, I’m not entirely sure all of this will matter. Because the public loves nothing more than a story of redemption, a story of a flawed man (or woman) who overcomes their shortcomings to achieve even greater heights. And that kind of story works especially well in the sporting world – just look at last week’s media coverage of LaGarrette Blount if you have any doubt about that.

So we shall see. The one thing I am certain of is that Tiger Woods will be remembered long after Maureen Dowd has been forgotten. And for me, that is how it should be.

"Christmas At Sea"

An original tune (at ;least I think it's original) from Sting's new seasonal album.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

White Christmas Makes Me Blue

As we all know, not everyone is happy at Christmastime...and that list apparently includes Randy Travis.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

A Different Kind of White Christmas

And now, as they say, for something completely different, courtesy of The Flaming Lips.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Louisiana Christmas Day

Aaron Neville keeps the holiday joint a-jumpin', with his rendition of "Louisiana Christmas Day."

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Let It Snow!

The 3rd annual Musical Advent Calendar kicks off with a classic from Rosemary Clooney.

It won't be snowing where I am this week, but the rest of you can still hope!