Monday, December 31, 2012

Songs of the Year - "Bloody Mary (Nerve Endings)," Silversun Pickups

A mini-epic from Silversun Pickups - another song that sounded great on the radio in 2012.  Good enough that I bought the album, which is also worth your time.

Songs of the Year - "Rocky Ground," Bruce Springsteen

When history renders its verdict, I suspect that "Wrecking Ball" will be regarded as the best album Bruce recorded following his return to the road with the E Street Band in 1999.  It's not exactly as if he is covering new ground, but he is definitely covering it in different ways.  "Rocky Ground" is the song that puts the lie to the tired refrain from Bruce skeptics/haters (there are a lot of them, and they're pretty vicious in their commentary) that everything he does sounds exactly the same.

It's a great song, one of several on "Wrecking Ball."

Songs of the Year - "Love Sick," Mariachi El Bronx

"Chimes of Freedom" was the rare cover tribute that did justice to its honoree and staked out a claim of its own.  That doesn't mean that every song was perfect - Carly Simon's rendering of "Just Like A Woman" is damn near unlistenable, and others were various shades of disappointing and/or embarrassing.  But for the most part, the covers honored their source, while not being reverential. 

This take on "Love Sick" by Marichi El Bronx is a great example of that.  A new twist on Dylan, and one of his bleakest songs.

Songs of the Year - "Split Decision," Bonnie Raitt

"Slipstream" was the best Bonnie Raitt album in quite some time, and this was my favorite song on it.  If this doesn't make you want to jump around a bit or run a little faster, then you may be in a coma.

Songs of the Year - "Better Than The Truth," Patterson Hood

Another great one from Patterson's "Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance," one of the best albums of 2012.  I especially like it for these lines:

"...and he said "I'm only looking for an acceptable level of bullshit I can live with
but something's got to give..."


"...and if I wrote it in a movie it would all end differently 
and be better than the truth
Better than the truth..."

Songs of the Year - "Disappear," Patterson Hood

Patterson Hood, the erstwhile co-leader of what has become in recent years one of my all-time favorite bands - Drive-By Truckers - released an outstanding solo album in September, and not surprisingly it was one of the year's best.  And this is one of the best songs on it - "Disappear."

The Last 2012 Netflix Wrapup

Because we all love lists, don't we?

Top Ten Pre-2012 Movies Seen on Netflix in 2012

1. Margin Call - watched it six times, enjoyed it every time.
2. Traffic
3. Amelie
4. The Limey
5. The Secret Life of Bees
6. Out of Sight
7. Moneyball
8. Hanna
9. Taking Woodstock
10. Tell No One

Also Enjoyed

Bernie, The Adventures of Tintin, London Boulevard, The Girl Who Played With Fire, Bronson, Charade, The Wedding Banquet,  The Women on the Sixth Floor, El Bulli, Eat Drink Man Woman, Tortilla Soup, Blackthorn, Being Elmo, Billy Elliot, War Horse, My Week With Marilyn, J. Edgar, My Life So Far, Water for Elephants, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Mamma Mia, Erin Brockovich, Solaris, Dan in Real Life, Dark City, Burke and Hare, 30 Minutes or Less, The Warriors, Crazy Heart, Mr. Brooks, Sexy Beast, American History X, The Rum Diary, The Informant!, Shine, The Reader, Attack the Block, Fracture, Midnight in Paris, 50/50, The Ides of March, Iris, The Help, Under the Tuscan Sun, Kinsey, A Single Man.


Muriel's Wedding, Anonymous, The Shipping News, The Good German, A Dangerous Method.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Songs of the Year - "45," The Gaslight Anthem

In his liner notes for "Something/Anything," Todd Rundgren wrote of "I Saw the Light," "If there's a single on this album, this is it, so I put it first like at Motown."

You could say the same thing about "45" - it's the perfect song to kick off an album, and if we had Top 40 radio like we did back in the day, it would have been the single.

It's just a great, rocking song.

"Les Miserables"

First things first: I'm not what you would call an aficionado of musical theater or film, and I've never seen a stage production of "Les Miserables" (haven't read the book either, but was generally familiar with the story just based on what I've read and heard over the years).  Going to see the movie, I wasn't quite sure what to expect, and I wasn't even sure that I'd like it that much.  So from the get-go, you should know that these are the observations of a non-expert.

With all that out of the way...

I liked it, quite a bit.  My attention never flagged during the film's nearly three hour running time, and though I wasn't on the edge of my seat like I was during "Django Unchained" or "The Dark Knight Rises" (films of similar length), that's still a good sign.

I thought Hugh Jackman was great as Valjean.  And while I don't disagree with the opinions of many that Russell Crowe can't sing a lick, I give him enormous credit for trying and thought that his approach - just belting it out, as best as he could - lent Javert a sense of believability (and gravitas, a word that has been used a lot with respect to the role, in reviews both pro and con); this viewer, at least, could understand the doggedness of Javert's seemingly illogical pursuit of Valjean, and that in part was due to Crowe's performance.

Now this is the part that will get me in trouble - while I agree that Anne Hathaway was great, I'm not quite sure I understand the intensity of the response to her performance.  You won't hear me complain when she wins the Academy Award in February (which seems a foregone conclusion), but frankly I wish her nomination would be for "The Dark Knight Rises," a performance that everyone seems to have forgotten in light of her Fantine.

Tom Hooper's direction - from what I've read, he's being criticized for all the close-ups, but I can't say that they bothered me much.  The other decision that's getting a lot of ink is the live singing, which is impressive.  No, none of these performers are great singers, in the classical sense.  But having them sing live adds an immediacy to the work that otherwise would have been lost.

Overall, I'd be fine if "Les Miserables" captures the Best Picture Oscar.  It's not my favorite movie of the year, but it's a much greater accomplishment than last year's winner, "The Artist."  Good job, all.

Songs of the Year - "Narrow Way" and "Tempest," Bob Dylan

It would appear that there isn't a single decent video for either one of these songs, so I guess you'll just have to take my word for it.  Dylan's "Tempest" was one of the most talked-about and written-about albums of the year, and after living with it for a few months, I'm confident in saying that it was also one of the best albums of the year.

Together, these two songs clock in at almost 22 minutes (7:28 for "Narrow Way," and almost 15 for "Tempest"), but they're such strong songs that even with those lengths, when they end you're left wanting more.  The former song is a fast one, and the band locks into a groove at the beginning and then pushes it as far as they can, never coming up for breath until the end.  Dylan's voice is coarse and raspy - he sounds almost like Howlin' Wolf on much of the record - and he delivers lines like these:

Ever since the British burned the White House down
There's a bleeding wound in the heart of town
I saw you drinking from an empty cup
I saw you buried and I saw you dug up
It's a long road, it's a long and narrow way
If I can't work up to you, you'll surely have to work down to me someday

The latter song tells the story of the Titanic, and it never flags once - on each listen, you find yourself listening for, and finding, more and new details.  The music is beautiful, and Dylan's voice comes as close to "pretty" (which admittedly isn't very close) as it can these days.

Great songs, both.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Songs of the Year - "Gallows Pole," Neil Young & Crazy Horse

Just the existence of an album by Neil Young & Crazy Horse in 2012 would have been reason for celebration, but this year we were lucky enough to be graced with two - "Americana," a somewhat oddball collection of old songs fitting into the theme of "American music," and "Psychedelic Pill," a somewhat oddball collection of songs ranging from three minutes long to 27 minutes long (with two others clocking in near the 20-minute mark).

I haven't quite gotten my arms around the latter album, but the former was a lot of fun.  This song, "Gallows Pole," is the one that had the heaviest rotation on my iPod this year.  And it has the distinction of being the oldest song on the list - dating back to Leadbelly's first recorded version in 1939.

Songs of the Year - "Hypocritical Kiss," Jack White

I thought Jack White's "Blunderbuss" was one of the best albums of the year because of its modesty.  Even on his best work with the White Stripes, there was always an element of "look at me! I'm a major guitar player!" involved.  Not so on "Blunderbuss," where White let the songs speak for themselves, and didn't feel the need to show off his chops every 2 minutes.

"Hypocritical Kiss," Jack White.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Django Rising

When you leave the theater after watching a Quentin Tarantino movie, you feel exhilarated, you feel exhausted, and you begin thinking about the "moments" that every Tarantino film seems to have.  Moments like the opening scene in "Inglorious Basterds," and the basement tavern scene from the same movie.  The first "Kill Bill" movie?  Comprised almost entirely of such moments.  I could go on, but you get the point.

"Django Unchained" has moments like that - the dinner scene at "Candie-land" comes to mind - but more than other Tarantino films, "Django" tells a story, one with a beginning, middle and end.  The story is right there at the top of the poster to the left - "life, liberty and the pursuit of vengeance."  Jamie Foxx plays Django, a slave who is liberated by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a dentist turned bounty hunter who initially takes on Django because he needs him to identify his next targets, but then quickly realizes that Django has a talent for bounty hunting.  The good doctor makes Django an offer he can't refuse - work with him through the cold winter, and in the spring, they'll seek Django's wife, and liberate her.

Eventually, the two end up at the plantation of one Calvin Candie, certainly one of the most evil, least likable characters ever committed to film.  With this role, Leonardo DiCaprio erases the last vestiges of his  "Titanic" legacy - essentially, the character represents everything that was evil and abhorrent about slavery, and DiCaprio pulls it off with aplomb.  Spike Lee is already on record that he won't see the movie because he believes it to be disrespectful of his ancestors.  I don't really feel qualified to comment on that, except to say that it strikes me as a bit strange to reach that conclusion without having seen the work in question.  There's certainly nothing about the movie that tries to portray slavery as anything but abhorrent, despicable and inhuman.  If anything, Tarantino takes it a notch too far, with as much extreme violence as I've ever seen in one of his movies.  Yes, there is probably less blood in "Django" than in the "88 keys" scene in "Kill Bill," but the violence in this movie feels real, whereas in the earlier film it felt like you were reading a comic book.

As he seems to be in everything that he's in, Christoph Waltz is amazing, and Jamie Foxx is very strong in the title role.  I've read criticism that he plays it too understated, but it seems obvious that he's doing his own take on "the man with no name" made famous by Clint Eastwood, and when you consider the role in those terms, it makes perfect sense.  There's also room in the movie for a veritable Who's Who of veteran character actors, including Walton Goggins, Don Johnson, Bruce Dern, and many others.

It's too early to tell whether "Django" resides at the top of the Tarantino pantheon, but there certainly isn't a dull moment in it.

Songs of the Year - "Helena Beat," Foster the People

And completing the "radio trilogy," we have Foster the People with "Helena Beat."  I can't quite figure out the weird, "Mad Max"-like video, but I still think the song is great.

Songs of the Year - "I Don't Care," Icona Pop

This is the kind of silly, loud and bordering on stupid pop song that I love.  Remember, you're talking to the guy who, in the middle of all those classic vinyl albums by old white guys now in the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame, has four albums by Bananarama.

So just think of this as Bananarama for the 21st Century - "I Don't Care," Icona Pop.

Songs of the Year - "Carry On," Fun

Today, I'm going to focus on the songs that grabbed me on the radio.

Up until this year, I wasn't much of a radio listener, but when the tape player in my 1997 Honda Accord (220,000 miles and still going strong, thank you very much) gave up the ghost, I didn't have much choice.  So my listening time is devoted to an oldies station that broadcasts traffic reports every 15 minutes (kicking off the morning commute), and a station without DJs that does a pretty good job of approximating what constitutes today's version of a Top 40 - with some oldies thrown in for good measure, and a nice dollop of listener feedback.

"Carry On" by Fun is one of the songs that never failed to grab me, and one which almost always resulted in my reaching for the knob to turn up the volume.  Not to mention, it's a great song to hear after a long, tiring day at work.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Songs of the Year - "A Little Mixed Up," Diana Krall

With a little help from T-Bone Burnett (and no doubt, an assist from hubby Elvis C.), Diana Krall pushed herself out of her comfort zone this year, with the always entertaining and fun "Glad Rag Doll."  

This was my favorite song from the album, and on this live performance, she and her band take it to a whole new level.  Well worth 7 minutes of your time.

"A Little Mixed Up," Diana Krall.

Songs of the Year - "Poison and Wine," The Civil Wars

Enigmatic, hypnotic, simply beautiful. 

The Civil Wars, "Poison & Wine."  Without a doubt, one of the best songs of 2012.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"

If ever there was a movie that was virtually critic-proof, it is "The Hobbit." 

But maybe that's not quite true - when a film is made from a property as beloved as "The Hobbit," a filmmaker is, in some ways, just asking for trouble.  And when that filmmaker is Peter Jackson, the man responsible for one of the grand achievements in the annals of recent cinema, an achievement based on a different beloved property by the same author, that's what you call doubling down on the risk.  And when that filmmaker decides that he's going to turn the new work into a trilogy, roughly eight hours of film for a book that's roughly two hundred pages long, that's called going all in.

From an artistic standpoint, I think Jackson's decision to make a trilogy was a strategic error - compared to "Lord of the Rings," "The Hobbit is a relatively light work, one that lacks the grand and epic scale of the three books that would follow.  Even accounting for the "backstory material" contained in the appendices of LOTR, it was hard to imagine how the new work wouldn't feel bloated and overwrought.

Overall, I'm of two minds about the whole enterprise - In turning a 200-page novel into three movies, I think Jackson is on a massive ego trip that's much more about "Jackson" than it is about "Tolkien."  On the other hand, I enjoyed the movie a great detail, and it never flagged at any point during the entirety of its nearly three-hour running time.  At this point in his career, there's no question that Peter Jackson knows how to make an epic movie featuring characters written by J.R.R. Tolkien - and he does that here, getting the story off to a rollicking start.  But it's also true that for all the spectacle, the most arresting 20 minutes of the film is a scene that is very quiet, as Bilbo and Gollum play their little game of riddles.

In the end I don't see this trilogy being as artistically successful, or as celebrated, as its predecessor.  But Jackson still has two chances to prove me wrong.

Songs of the Year - "Hold On," Alabama Shakes

As with 2010 and 2011, the last few days of the year will be dedicated mostly to an recap of my favorite songs of the year.

"Hold On" by Alabama Shakes was omnipresent on the radio in 2012; it seemed to be playing every time I was in the car.  And while I was a bigger fan of this song than I was of the entire "Boys and Girls" album, there's no doubt that "Hold On" is one of those rare songs that can withstand heavy rotation, and like a snowball rolling down a steep hill, just grow in stature with repeated listens.  Rolling Stone tabbed it as the #1 song of the year, and I suspect it will end up high in the upcoming Pazz & Jop poll.

"Hold On," Alabama Shakes.

Monday, December 24, 2012

"Silver Linings Playbook"

First things first - even though her career is quite young, I have complete confidence in saying that Jennifer Lawrence is going to be one of the great film stars of our lifetime.  As good as everyone else is in "Silver Linings Playbook" - and they're all very good, from Bradley Cooper to Robert DeNiro to Chris Tucker and everyone else - it is Lawrence's charisma and chops that raise the movie to a level that it might not otherwise have found.  She's that good, and I can understand why director David O. Russell had no qualms about casting a 22-year old in a part that, in the book, was closer to the 40-year range.

The trailers and advertisements do their best to portray this as a romantic comedy, and I suppose it is - but that pigeon-hole hardly does it justice.  The movie has its funny parts, and its romantic parts, but they come well earned - for the most part, "Silver Linings Playbook" skirts along the edges of "Ordinary People" territory, with its realistic and respectful treatment of characters who are far from perfect and in some cases wear their flaws like a badge of honor.

A few words about Bradley Cooper, who to date has established himself as someone who can credibly pull off light-hearted comedy and action fare, movies like "The Hangover" and "Limitless."  Well, this is a role that requires some serious chops - Cooper is one of the movie's two focal points, and is in almost every scene - and he pulls if off with aplomb, achieving what one critic has called "Category 4 Clooney."  This role should open up all kinds of opportunities for him.

And of course, a few words about Robert DeNiro, who does nothing less than remind everyone that yes, he is one of the great actors of his generation.  He's great in the role as a flawed, quirky and somewhat over-protective father, and is funny to boot.  If he spends the rest of his career in roles like this, he may end up as beloved as he is respected.

The movie does have an ending somewhat reminiscent of "Rocky," but as noted earlier, it earns the sentiment that it displays in two wonderful scenes, one with Cooper and DeNiro and the other the climactic scene with Cooper and Lawrence - the scene where they finally figure out what each other is about.

Very, very strong work - and nicely done.

Ghost to the Post

Since I wrote yesterday about the worst moment in Raiders history, it seems only fair to say a few words about one of their greatest moments - the famous "Ghost to the Post" game, played 35 years ago today.

I was a senior in high school when the game was played, and that year Christmas Eve fell on a Saturday.  That day, I worked my usual 7 a.m. - 3 p.m. Saturday shift at McDonalds, but it was a "dress up day" - meaning that we were allowed to wear "regular" clothes to work in, instead of the white McD's shirt and tie that at the time were required every other day.  It being Christmas Eve, everyone was in a relaxed and anticipatory mood, including our store manager, who on most occasions was a notorious stickler for the rules.

But on this Christmas Eve day, she took pity on us - she knew that both I and my fellow grillman (Craig, my best friend then and now) were big football fans, so she let us turn the game up real loud on the downstairs radio, so that we could pop over the to the top of the stairs to check on the score every few minutes or so.

And even though we didn't watch a single minute of it, the details of the game are still etched in my memory - the back-and-forth (Raiders just scored!  No wait, Colts have taken the lead!) - including the famous Ken Stabler to Dave Casper bomb (the "Ghost to the Post play) that set up Oakland for a tying field goal in the waning moments of the game, which the Raiders would then win in overtime.

In Shelby Strother's "NFL Top 40," a 1998 book detailing what were considered at the time to be the league's 40 greatest games, Dave Casper describes the game with a great quote:

"I didn't like the game very much at all.  When it goes back and forth like that, it's not a case of having fun.  It's pressure and anxiety and fear you're going to lose.  Playing checkers with your daughter is fun.  Not this.  This was the hardest football game I ever played."

And Raymond Chester, the great tight end for the Colts, was interviewed two hours after the game, still too tired to change out of his uniform:

"The game was exhausting, both mentally and physically.  But we are not ashamed.  We lost.  We played hard.  And tomorrow's still Christmas, no matter what."

Oakland Raiders 37, Baltimore Colts 31 - December 24, 1977.

Day 24 - "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," Darlene Love

All traditions must eventually come to an end, I suppose, but hopefully this one endures for as long as possible - Darlene Love, making her annual appearance on the final Letterman show before Christmas, singing her (and Phil Spector's) magnificent Christmas song, "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).  This was last year's version.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Day 23 - "What Child Is This," Alison Krauss

I think I could listen to Alison Krauss sing Christmas songs all day.  Come to think of it, I could listen to her sing anything all day.

The Immaculate Reception, 40 years later

In 1972, I was 12 years old and was one of those kids who was a fan of both the 49ers and the Raiders.  The Raiders made things easy for me by deserting Oakland in 1981, and even though they would return 14 years later, it was never the same.  But back in those days, if I had to choose one team, it would probably have been the Raiders.

I remember exactly where I was when this play happened - I was in the back of our Kingswood Estate station wagon, listening to Bill King call the game on radio, with the family on our way to an early Christmas celebration in Woodland.  And yes, I cried when it happened.  By the time we got there I had recovered, and was numb enough that the 49ers' blowing a 12 point lead against the hated Dallas Cowboys to lose 30-28 barely fazed me at all.

What strikes me watching this video today, as it was shown on live TV, is how fast everything happened.  All these years, we've seen this play in nothing but slow motion, so to see it as it occurred is almost a blur.

Still unbelievable, all these years later.

Day 22 - Frank and Bing, or Bing and Frank (if you prefer)

On Christmas Eve, legends prefer to keep their own company. 

Day 21 - Nat King Cole, "The Christmas Song"

About as definitive as one can get.

Day 20 - "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," Diana Krall

When you get right down to it, this is one of the more depressing Christmas songs ever written.  But it's also an endearing classic, and in this performance Diana Krall sings it like it deserves to be sung.

Day 19 - A Christmas Concert, The Polyphonic Spree

Because Christmas is supposed to be fun, right?  One of NPR's Tiny Desk Concerts, this time a special Christmas edition from The Polyphonic Spree.

Day 18 - "Christmastime is Here," Dominicans' Instrumental Causality

A bit of a different twist on an endearing classic.

Day 17 - "Silent Night," Sixpence None the Richer with Jars of Clay

One of the best modern versions of a very old, decidedly non-modern classic.

"Silent Night," Sixpence None the Richer, with an assist from Jars of Clay.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Day 16 - "Christmas All Over Again," Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers

I'm so far behind now that I may not catch up, but I'll keep on trying.

"A Very Special Christmas" - at least the very first edition - was a timeless classic, and is still fun to listen to today.

This song wasn't on Vol. 1, but it was good enough to kick off Vol. 2 - "Christmas All Over Again," from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Day 15 - "Skating," Vince Guaraldi Trio

And since we're still playing catch up, we might as well make this a "two-fer Tuesday" with the original version.

"Skating," The Vince Guaraldi Trio.

Day 14 - "Skating," George Winston

This one isn't a Christmas song per se, but it has become one through its association with "A Charlie Brown Christmas."  Written and originally performed by the great Vince Guaraldi, this version is by George Winston.

"Skating," George Winston.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Day 13 - "Blue Christmas," Elvis

Elvis' 1968 comeback special is widely and accurately considered to be one of the landmark moments in rock history.  Although it should be noted that a growing number of people, including Dave Marsh and Sheila O'Malley, have argued that it wasn't a comeback at all - that Elvis in fact was pretty damn great even during those years (generally, the era known as the "movie years") that others have disaparaged.

But one thing I think we can all agree on is that the segment of the show when Elvis sat down with his buddies and a guitar, and then proceeded to crank out some of the most memorable music heard in the last 50 years, is simply without precedent or peer in the annals of rock history.  This was history being made before our very eyes - this was Elvis demonstrating to the world that yes, since his earlier peak there had been the Beatles, and the Stones, and Dylan, etc...but that it would not be wise to forget about Elvis.  Because there were things that Elvis could do that no one could do then, or now.

So within that context, enjoy the King, with one of his two greatest Christmas songs - "Blue Christmas."

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Day 12 - "Silent Night," The New York Children's Chorus

Sometimes, the simplest tributes are the best.

I'm sure I'm far from the only person who has spent the better part of the last two days trying to think of just about anything but the horrible, senseless tragedy in Connecticut.  We've gone through similar tragic events in the past.  But this one is different.  This one strikes at the very heart of what we are as a society and a people.

I'm not going to say anything about what should happen now, because I don't want to further crowd the Internet with more thoughts, no matter how well intentioned they may be.  Anyone with a Facebook page or a Twitter feed has been fed a steady diet of certainty in the past 48  hours.  But there aren't any easy answers for a tragedy of this scale, or easy solutions.

And as difficult as it may be, life does go on.  There are beautiful moments that happen nearly every day.  I'm one of the lucky ones; my two sons are both home from college for the holidays, and even if we're not doing something together, I'm just happy to know they are here.

So kudos to SNL for a perfect cold open on a night when we all needed a little distraction.

"Silent Night," The New York Children's Chorus.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Day 11 - "Jingle Bells," Fayetteville Ska Alliance

Something new and different today - well, not quite new, given that the song is "Jingle Bells," but methinks you've never heard a version quite like this one.

The Fayetteville Ska Alliance, with their rendition of "Jingle Bells."

Back Home

You probably recognize this building.

So now I'm ridiculously behind on the Musical Advent Calendar, but here's my excuse - I was part of a coalition trip back to Washington, D.C. to meet with members and staff of Congress to discuss the impacts of the "Fiscal Cliff" on schools in California.

Passing Lake Tahoe, heading east.

Under the Capitol Rotunda.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Day 10 - "Sleigh Ride," Los Straitjackets


Christmas music + surf music = lots and lots of fun.

I used this one on my annual Christmas compilation a few years ago, and it has yet to wear out its welcome.

"Sleigh Ride," Los Straitjackets.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Day 9 - "O Little Town of Bethlehem," Emmylou Harris with the McGarrigle Sisters

"Sepulchral" is not a word you often see used to describe songs/singing, but I think it fits here.  There have been times in the later stages of her career that Emmylou Harris' tendency to breathe, rather than sing her songs, has been annoying, but it works here.

"O Little Town of Bethlehem," Emmylou Harris with the McGarrigle Sisters.

Day 8 - "The 12 Days of Christmas," John Denver and the Muppets

You've got to have a really hard heart if you don't like this.  I wasn't the world's biggest John Denver fan, but the man did write a handful of great songs during his career, and his Christmas album with The Muppets is still one of the family's all-time favorites.

This clip is from their 1979 special together - John Denver and The Muppets, "The Twelve Days of Christmas."

Friday, December 07, 2012

Day 7 - "O Holy Night," Andy Williams

I suspect that I've used this one in the Advent Calendar before, but you can't have Christmas without at least one song from the late Andy Williams.  And this is a great one, one of the best versions of "O Holy Night" that I own.  And I've got a lot of them.

Andy Williams, "O Holy Night."

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Day 6 - "Christmas Morning," Loudon Wainwright III

Loudon Wainwright III may be the single greatest cult musical artist of the modern era.  For more than four decades now, he's been out there, always at the periphery of what would be considered by most fans the mainstream.  The song he is probably best known for, "Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road," was a novelty hit and is not at all representative of his work. 

He's led a very interesting life - he's been married to a McGarrigle and a Roche, he's got offspring who have probably eclipsed him in terms of fame, and he has never shied away from using his music to chronicle the times of his life - the good ones, the bad ones, and his personal quirks and foibles.

"Christmas Morning" is exactly what I thought a Christmas song by Loudon Wainwright III would sound like.  You may love it, you may hate it - I happen to think it's great.

"Christmas Morning," Loudon Wainwright III.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Day 5 - "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," Dave Brubeck

I usually try to post live performances duiring the annual event, but today's choice was obvious - a tribute to Dave Brubeck, the jazz giant who passed away today at the age of 91.

"Santa Claus is Coming to Town," Dave Brubeck Quartet.


Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Day 4 - "Merry Christmas Baby," Ray Charles

Well, as long as we're talking about the greatest musical geniuses that America has produced, we must include Ray Charles, the genius himself, turning in a typically brilliant performance on one of the all-time great Christmas songs.

Ray Charles is one of those artists who just made it look easy - which usually means that it was anything but.

"Merry Christmas Baby," Ray Charles.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Day 3 - Silent Night, Johnny Cash & Family

In addition to being one of the great musical geniuses that America has had to offer, Johnny Cash was a deeply religious man, and when he talks about his spiritual side there's never any doubt that he is completely sincere and serious.

Here he is joined by the Cash daughters on "Silent Night," including an amusing look from Rosanne who appears to be wishing she was just about anywhere at that moment except singing "Silent Night" with her family.

Sportsman of the Year

I'm really annoyed with myself, because I had reached the conclusion late last week that LeBron James was the only real choice for Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year.  It would have made me look a lot smarter, therefore, had I posted this on Saturday or Sunday, but I was under the mistaken impression that the announcement wasn't going to be made until Wednesday.  Oh, well.

What James accomplished this year was truly extraordinary - with his team facing elimination and a raucous Boston crowd in Game 6 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals, he lifted his game to a level that quite possibly has never been seen before - not even from the likes of Michael Jordan.  And while Jordan remains the King for the time being, James has plenty of time to build the championship resume that could dethrone Jordan for the title of "best player of my lifetime." 

As if that accomplishment wasn't enough, James also played a clear leadership role on the U.S. Olympic men's basketball team, taking the role that Kobe Bryant played in 2008.  When it comes to basketball, U.S. and gold don't automatically go hand in hand anymore, and even with the overall excellence of this year's team, it might have been a different story without James' efforts.

None of this is going to make me root for the Miami Heat, and none of it erases the bad memory of James' departure from Cleveland - not so much that he did it, but the way that he did it.  But even James' public image has undergone a transformation, thanks in part to a brilliant Samsung Galaxy/AT&T ad campaign that creates an image of James as a pretty regular guy - and pretty cool one, to boot.

All of which is to say, you won't hear any complaints from me about this choice.  It is an award that is richly deserved.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Day 2 - The Christmas Cannonball

I'm a sucker for these videos that show an old record playing on an old record player.  On this one, by the Kenny Roberts Chorale, the music begins at about the :50 mark.

I'm more familiar with Hank Snow's version of "The Christmas Cannonball," but this one is also good.

"The Christmas Cannonball," Kenny Roberts Chorale.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Day 1 - Christmas Time Is Here


Let's get the 2012 edition started with an out of the ordinary performance of Vince Guaraldi's Christmas classic, "Christmas Time is Here."  Because when you get right down to it, every harp performance is out of the ordinary, isn't it?

The melding of Guaraldi with Charlie Brown is a famous story that doesn't need to be retold here, except to say that both were immeasurably enhanced by the partnership.

Monday, November 26, 2012

"The Way"

The story of "The Way" is simple - Martin Sheen plays a well-to-do doctor (ophthalmologist) who, while on the golf course one day, receives a call from overseas that his nearly estranged son (played by his real son, Emilio Estevez) has died, while attempting to make the pilgrimage on the El camino del Santiago - The Way of St. James.  When he travels to France to retrieve the remains, he decides - somewhat on a whim, so it would seem - to have the remains cremated, and to make the pilgrimage himself, spreading his son's ashes along the way.  And along the way, he meets a number of interesting characters, three who join him - a fat and sometimes jolly Dutchman, a Canadian woman who is wound so tight that you expect her to implode at any moment, and a talkative Irish writer who...well, can't stop talking.  Naturally, they all have their stories, and their reasons for making the trek.

While directed by Estevez, the movie clearly belongs to Sheen.  You could argue that he's simply channeling Josiah Bartlet, but there's little doubt in my mind that the movie's emotional impact - and there are quite a few moments that grab you and tighten the throat - is due solely to his presence as an actor, and his ability to raise even the most potentially trite moments to something that is emotional, affecting, and entirely believable.  Even at those moments when you're saying to yourself that what you're seeing on the screen is too good to be true, that moments like that don't happen in real life, Sheen is there to bring things back to Earth.

It's not a great film, but it's certainly an earnest one, and well worth watching.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Notre Dame Wakes Up the Echoes

Most of my sports fan friends seem to firmly be in the "hate Notre Dame" camp, but I'm among those who believe that the sport of college football - and any sport, for that matter - is enriched when teams like Notre Dame are great.  Notre Dame and (in all likelihood) Alabama in the National Championship game?  Who could possibly have a problem with that?

Right now it's fashionable to say that Notre Dame doesn't deserve to be in the championship game.  While it's true that they won ugly a lot of the time, it's hard to argue with 12-0.  And it's not like they had the softest schedule in the world - six bowl eligible teams (would be seven, had Miami not self-imposed a bowl ban), and two of the country's best teams - Stanford and Oklahoma. 

I see no reason why the Irish can't beat either Alabama or Georgia in the title game.  It reminds me of the 1973 season, when the Irish had a similar team go up against a heavily-favored Alabama squad in the Sugar Bowl.  That one ended up 24-23 in favor of Notre Dame, and we may be looking at a similar score in January.

Saturday, November 24, 2012


In "Persepolis," Marjane Satrapi tells the story, in graphic novel form, of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution.  A clever, funny and headstrong young girl, Satrapi was wise beyond her years, but still struggled to grasp changes that perhaps only a young child could see were beyond logic and reason. 

The obvious comparison, both in form and content, is "Maus," Art Spiegelman's account of how his parents endured and ultimately survived the Holocaust.  Like Spiegelman, Satrapi was blessed with loving and supportive parents, with the common sense to understand that the change occurring in their country was turning into something even more horrible and oppressive than what preceded it.  There are some scenes in "Persepolis" that are so close to things that occurred in "Maus" that it's almost scary - and it's a tribute to Satrapi that she is able to present the story in a way that makes you understand, if not endorse, what the country was turning into.

The version I found in a used book store is just the first part of the story - "The Story of a Childhood" is the subtitle - and I look forward to reading the second part, "The Return."  Overall, highly recommended.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Top 50 Albums of All Time, #27 - "Late for the Sky"

Stephen Holden's review of "Late for the Sky," RS October 1974
For a very long time, I would have chosen "Running on Empty" as my favorite Jackson Browne album.  It's still a great album, and because of the concept - songs recorded live in concert, mixed with songs recorded on the tour bus, in a hotel room, and elsewhere - it still has a spontaneity that has sometimes been missing, even from his best work.

But over time, I've come to believe that "Late for the Sky" represents Jackson Browne at his very best - the most perfect combination of the personal and political that he's managed to date, and probably the best that he will ever come up with.

In his review of the album for Rolling Stone, Stephen Holden wrote that the overriding theme of the album was "the exploration of romantic possibility in the shadow of apocalypse," going on to say that "no contemporary male singer/songwriter has dealt so honestly with the vulnerability of romantic idealism and the pain of adjustment from youthful narcissism to adult survival as Browne has in this album." I wonder what Browne might say about that latter comment, given that he was only 26 at the time the album was released - a man certainly with a lot of maturing yet to do.  And let's face it - Browne's strength has always been his romantic idealism, even as he was writing songs like "Running on Empty," "Lives in the Balance," and "Looking East."

Musically, the album bridges the gap between singer/songwriter and all-out rocker, which I suspect Browne has always wanted to be (unlike many of his L.A. contemporaries, Browne dearly loves and respects the music of Bruce Springsteen, and even invited Bruce to handle his induction speech to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame).  David Lindley, with whom Browne has enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship, is absolutely brilliant on electric guitar and fiddle, Jai Winding contributes beautiful organ and piano lines, and Doug Haywood on bass and Larry Zack on drums make a potent if understated rhythm section.  The music Browne contributes is hauntingly beautiful - I don't know how many hundreds of times I've listened to "Late for the Sky" and "Fountain of Sorrow," and they almost never fail to raise goosebumps on my arms.

Jackson Browne isn't everyone's cup of tea, and there are people who seem to delight in making fun of him.  In my mind, he is - without question - one of the most important American musical artists of the past 50 years.  And "Late for the Sky" is his greatest, most cohesive album.

Late for the Sky (1974)
Produced by Jackson Browne and Al Schmitt

Late for the Sky/Fountain of Sorrow/Farther On/The Late Show/The Road and the Sky/For a Dancer/Walking Slow/Before the Deluge

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving!

Just a few reasons to be thankful this year:

- My wife.
- My sons.
- Our cats (well, most of the time).
- the San Francisco Giants.
- Bill Simmons.
- Joe Posnanski.
- the CSBA expatriates.
- my old friends at CSBA.
- my new friends at CASBO and the Capitol.
- Bruce Springsteen.
- Bob Dylan.
- Neil Young.
- Quentin Tarantino.
- Christopher Nolan.
- David Fincher.
- Disney hiring Lawrence Kasdan to write the next "Star Wars" movie.

Have a wonderful day, everyone! 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Giving Thanks for Tom Joad

I always pull "The Ghost of Tom Joad" out around this time of year, since it was released just before Thanksgiving in 1995.  It's one of my favorite albums by Bruce, and even though I know this is a decidedly minority opinion, I enjoy it more than "Nebraska," its closest kin in the Springsteen canon.  It's almost as bleak as the earlier album, but more tuneful.  But the music is subtle, and sneaks up on you - you have to give it time to sink in.

Bruce was living in my home state at the time, and I almost wish that he'd called the album "California" - because several of its songs are rooted in things that were happening here at the time.  It seems hard to believe now, but in 1995 you could have called California a red state and not be laughed out of the room.  The Republican wave that swept the country in 1994 had crested in California, leading to what had seemed unthinkable just a year before - the GOP captured the State Assembly, and it was only because Willie Brown was a lot smarter than his counterparts that the Dems were able to hold onto the house - he turned one GOP member, resulting in a 40-40 deadlock that gave new meaning to the term "political gridlock."

For some reason, Governor Pete Wilson - a decent enough man, and seemingly on the moderate side - somehow interpreted this as a mandate to run for President, and a mandate to base his campaign on on effort to dehumanize and expel "illegal immigrants" from the state.  It was a mean-spirited, out of character move, and it came as no big surprise that it crashed and burned in no short order.  And, proving the law of political unintended consequences, it pushed the state's burgeoning Latino population straight into the arms of the Democratic party, where it has remained ever since.

This, plus the severe economic downturn of the moment (not just in California, but in Texas and all over the country), served as the context for "Tom Joad," and songs like "The Ghost of Tom Joad," "Highway 29," "Sinaloa Cowboys," "The Line," "Balboa Park," "The New Timer," and most of all "Across the Border," with these heart-rending and beautiful lines:

Tonight we'll sing the songs
I'll dream of you my corazon
And tomorrow my heart will be strong

And may the saints' blessing and grace
Carry me safely into your arms
There across the border

For what are we
Without hope in our hearts
That someday we'll drink from God's blessed waters

And eat the fruit from the vine
I know love and fortune will be mine
Somewhere across the border

"The Ghost of Tom Joad" - always a reason to be thankful.

With All The Trimmings

An annual tradition - my posting of this wonderful Garrison Keillor essay on Thanksgiving.  It originally appeared in TIME Magazine in November 1995.

With All The Trimmings by Garrison Keillor

It is a wicked world in which the power of any individual to cause suffering is so great and the power to do good is so slight; but here we are, the week of our beloved national feast, our annual homecoming, and signs of loving Providence are everywhere around us.

I am thankful to be alive. In Minnesota the lakes are freezing over in late November, and some men who envision a leadership role for themselves take their snowmobiles out onto the thin ice and fall through and drown in the cold water--their last thought in this life: "Boy, was this dumb or what?"--and so far I have not been one of them. Caution was bred into me: I never played with guns or made a hobby of pharmaceuticals or flung myself off a cliff while clinging to a kite. I read books instead. I read books in which men hearken to wild imperatives, and that is enough for me.

I am thankful for living in a place where winter gets good and cold and you need to build a fire in a stove and wrap a blanket around you. Cold draws people closer together. Crime drops. Acts of kindness proliferate between strangers. I have been in Los Angeles on a balmy day in January and seen the glum faces of people poking at their salads in outdoor restaurants, brooding over their unproduced screenplays. People in Minnesota are much cheerier, lurching across the ice, leaning into the wind as sheets of snow swirl up in their faces. Because they feel needed and because cold weather takes the place of personal guilt. Maybe you haven't been the shining star you should have been, but now is not the time to worry about it.

I am thankful for E-mail, which allows us to keep in touch with our children, and for the ubiquity of fresh coffee, the persistence of good newspapers, the bravery of artists, the small talk of sales clerks, the general competence and good humor I encounter every day. None of us is self-sufficient, despite what some politicians claim. Every good thing, every morsel of food comes directly from God, who expects us to pay attention and be joyful, a large task for people from the Midwest, where our idea of a compliment is, "It could have been worse."

I am thankful, of course, for Thanksgiving, a joyful and simple day that never suffered commercial exploitation and so is the same day as when I was a boy and we played touch football on the frozen turf and came to the table sweaty and in high spirits and kept our eyes open for flying food. My sister had good moves; you'd look away for an instant, and she'd flip her knife and park a pat of butter on your forehead. Nobody throws food at our table now, but in the giddiness of the festive moment, I have held a spoonful of cranberry for a moment and measured the distance to Uncle Earl, his gleaming head, like El Capitan, bent over the plate.

As I grew up, Thanksgiving evolved perfectly. It used to be that men had the hard work, which is to sit in the living room and make conversation about gas mileage and lower back pain, and women got the good job, which is cooking. Women owned the franchise, and men milled around the trough mooing, and if any man dared enter the kitchen, he was watched closely lest he touch something and damage it permanently.

But I bided my time, and the aunts who ran the show grew old, and young, liberated lady relatives came along who were proud of their inability to cook, and one year I revolted and took over the kitchen--and now I am It. The Big Turkey. Mr. Masher. The Pie Man. Except for gravy and pie crust, which take patience and practice, Thanksgiving dinner is as easy to make as it is to eat. You're a right-handed batter in a park that's 150 feet down the left-field line—it doesn't take a genius to poke it out.

Years of selective breeding have produced turkeys that are nothing but cooking pouches with legs. You rub the bird's inside with lemon, stuff it with bread dressing seasoned with sage and tarragon and jazzed up withchunks of sausage and nuts and wild rice, shove it in a hot oven; meanwhile, you whomp up yams and spuds and bake your pies.

The dirty little secret of the dinner is melted animal fats: in all the recipes, somewhere it says, "Melt a quarter-pound of butter." Think of the fancy dishes you slaved over that became disasters, big dishes that were lost in the late innings. Here's roast turkey, which tastes great, and all you do is baste. You melt butter, you nip at the wine, and when the turkey is done, you seat everyone, carve the bird, sing the doxology and pass the food.

The candles are lit in the winter dusk, and we look at one another, the old faces and some new ones, and silently toast the Good Life, which is here before us. Enjoy the animal fats and to hell with apologies. No need to defend our opinions or pretend to be young and brilliant. We still have our faculties, and the food still tastes good to us.

Walt Whitman said, "I find letters from God dropped in the street, and every one is signed by God's name." Thanksgiving is one of those signed letters. Anyone can open it and see what it says.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

In Praise of Jeff Tedford

The end was inevitable after what happened on Saturday, but it is sad nonetheless.  I think I'm old enough to qualify now as an "Old Blue," but unlike most of them - I'm thinking in particular of the ones who rain down boos on the field, and leave games early in the third quarter - you won't hear me do anything but praise the tenure of Jeff Tedford.

No, we never made it to the Rose Bowl, and no, we never advanced quite as far as Stanford has in the past couple of years.  But there's no question that Tedford was one of, if not the best, football coaches that Cal has ever had.  And for anyone who remembers the dark, dark days of the Joe Kapp, Keith Gilbertson and Tom Holmoe eras, even a season hovering around .500 was a blessing.  And let's not forget these tidbits, courtesy of the official press statement:

- Under Tedford, Cal compiled an 82-57 from 2002-11.

- Under Tedford, Cal advanced to bowl games eight times (would have been nine, but the team was on probation and ineligible for a bowl in Tedford's first year).

- Tedford won more games than any previous Cal coach, and also owns school records for most bowl wins (5), most games coached (139) and most conference victories (50).

- And perhaps most importantly, Tedford is tied with Pappy Waldorf  for most Big Game wins (7).  Including, I might add, five in a row for the first time in the rivalry's history.

Because this is Cal, the press release makes a big deal about the fact that the team's academic results have fallen in recent years.  So we are treated with this quote from Sandy Barbour:

"Cal football is integral to our department and our university, and its influence can be felt well beyond the walls of Memorial Stadium.  The program clearly serves as an important part of the connective tissue that binds our community together, and it is imperative that Cal football be recognized as a leader in competitive success, academic achievement and community engagement."

Please.  Does anyone really think we'd be reading this announcement if the Bears had gone 10-2 this year?  A more honest statement might have said something along the lines of "we just forked over a small fortune in private bonds to finance the renovation of our stadium, and in order to keep the payments going we need those Old Blues in the stands funneling money to the Alumni Association and elsewhere."

Thank you, Jeff Tedford, for some fun and exciting years at Cal.  May you find success elsewhere.

The Sky's the Limit

I've enjoyed reading the many James Bond retrospectives that have appeared concurrently with the release of "Skyfall," Daniel Craig's third outing as Bond.  What's fun is the diversity of opinion - people largely agree on what constitute the great Bond films, but after that it's a real crapshoot.  For example, I've seen "Quantum of Solace" as high as #11, as well as all the way down at the bottom.  Likewise, everyone seems to agree that "The Spy Who Loved Me" was Roger Moore's best Bond, but after that they're all over the map.  The Connerys tend to be in the upper tier, the Daltons in the bottom third, and the Lazenby - well, that one seems to be a love it or hate it proposition. 
I don't consider myself qualified to come up with a ranking of the entire catalogue, but I can say that I've enjoyed every Bond movie I've ever seen - even "Quantum of Solace."  I grew up with the Roger Moore Bonds, and the first one I saw in a theater (a drive-in, no less) was "Live and Let Die" - which, by the way, still has what I consider the most over-the top (and unintentionally amusing) death scene in any movie.  I also enjoyed the Pierce Brosnan Bonds a great deal, and think he's been underrated as an actor - personally, I believe he could have pulled off the "dark Bond" that Daniel Craig has perfected over the past 7 years.

Having said all of that, there is little question that "Skyfall" is one of the very best Bonds - and may even one day be considered the very best.  As others have written, it is a throwback to the past, with an antagonist (a terrific Javier Bardem, teetering on the brink of hamminess but never quite crossing over) less concerned with conquering the world than seeking revenge for more personal concerns.  James Bond is not a comedian in this movie, nor is he a superman - he's actually pretty screwed up, and if you watch and listen closely you can pick up some hints why.  That doesn't mean the movie isn't without humor, but it's certainly no laugh-fest on the level of something like "Moonraker."  In a way, "Skyfall" is almost like a reboot and an homage in one - although the entire enterprise is deadly serious, one can't help but crack a smile as each nod to the past occurs.

My very favorite moment in the movie, and I won't give it away although it's easy enough to find if you Google the title of the film, is the meaning of "Skyfall."  In the past, "Skyfall" would have been some complicated plot of world domination, most likely led by a Mr. Evil-type character with a big ring on his finger and a persian cat sitting on his lap.  Not this time, and when the reveal happens, it is a true moment of inspiration - the kind that leaves you sitting there thinking, "damn it, I wish I had thought of that - and why didn't I?"

So kudos all around.  I haven't always been a fan of Sam Mendes' films, but he does a terrific job here, injecting a sense of relevance into the Bond franchise that hasn't always been there in the past.  Judi Dench is amazing as always, and this is without question her best and most affecting portrayal of "M."  Ralph Fiennes is his predictably good self, and even I was smart enough to figure out where that particular plot point was heading.  And the reinvention of "Q" is a master-stroke: respectful to the past, but also a complete renovation of the character to fit today's times and technology.  Even the "Bond Girls" are strong - and seem like real people, as opposed to caricatures.  And hey, Adele's song is pretty great too.

In the end, there really isn't much not to like.  And at the end of the day, I don't really care where "Skyfall" ends up in the Bond canon - all I know is that it's one of the best films of 2012.