Thursday, April 26, 2012

Top 50 Albums, #30 - "Dig Me Out," Sleater-Kinney

A long time ago - I first remember seeing it in his 1970s music overview in the Village Voice Pazz 'n Jop Poll, way back in 1979 - Robert Christgau wrote about the concept of "semi-popular" music.  As with many Christgau long-form pieces, the writing was dense so the meaning was a bit difficult to ascertain.  What I always took from it, my own interpretation if you will, was that "semi-popular music" was the kind of music that would be the most popular music of the day, if the rock music audience had continued to grow, along with some of the best artists, beyond the constraints of what is generally known today as "classic rock."  Put another way, the music that was the best and the most popular music of the 1960s and early 1970s.

I've always thought that Sleater-Kinney was the perfect example of "semi-popular music."  If there was any justice in the world, SK would have been the biggest band in the world.  Over a period of ten years, the band - Guitarists and singers Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, and drummer Janet Weiss - released seven albums, and if Wikipedia is to be believed, none of them made it higher than #80 on the Billboard Hot 100.  I don't what that translates into in terms of record sales, but it's clear that we're not talking multi-platinum here.  Interestingly, one of the band members is actually on the verge of becoming semi-famous herself today - Carrie Brownstein, because of her co-starring role on the truly odd and sometimes very funny television show "Portlandia."

"Dig Me Out" was the band's best album - an album that grabs you by the throat on first listen, and just never lets go after that.  It contains 13 songs in 37 minutes, which means that we're in Ramones and Beatles territory in terms of brevity.  In a way, one could argue that "Dig Me Out" melds perfectly the pop sensibility of 1965-era Beatles with the punk (and pop) intensity of The Ramones.  But the music is even tougher than that - two guitars and drums, no bass, with guitar lines and vocals so intense they raise your pulse every time.  It's an almost unique blend of hard rock and pop that I don't think the band quite matched again in the course of its too short life, although they came close enough with each album that it was always worth listening.

There is not a single weak song on "Dig Me Out" - it is one of those rare albums that is a killer from the beginning to the end.  If forced to choose my favorites, I guess I would say the title track, "Turn It On," "Words and Guitar," Buy Her Candy," and the amazing closer, "Jenny."  But if you ask me tomorrow, I might come up with a whole new set.

Amazing stuff.  If anything, I've underrated it.  But there is some pretty amazing stuff yet to come.

Dig Me Out - Sleater-Kinney (1997)  Produced by John Goodmanson

Dig Me Out/One More Hour/Turn It On/The Drama You've Been Craving/Heart Factory/Words and Guitar/It's Enough/Little Babies/Not What You Want/Buy Her Candy/Things You Say/Dance Song '97/Jenny

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

"Midnight in Paris"

Watching “Midnight in Paris” made me realize how long it’s been since I’ve seen a Woody Allen movie.  But it shocked even me to see that it’s been 17 years – “Mighty Aphrodite” was the last Allen flick I saw.  That’s to my own discredit, I’m sure.  Especially when you consider that I saw (or at least am pretty sure that I saw) every Allen release between “Annie Hall” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors,”during the 12-year period that most Allen fans would call his golden era.

With no intent to damn “Midnight in Paris” with faint praise, I would say that it does not quite match the brilliance of what I’d identify as Allen’s masterworks – “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan,” “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors.”  But that’s an impossible standard to match, and as it is, “Midnight in Paris” fits very nicely in the “wonderfully entertaining and engaging” category, along with movies like “Manhattan Murder Mystery,” “Radio Days,” “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Broadway Danny Rose,” even “Zelig.”  Which is to say, it is better than about 95% of the films that get released.

And now that I’ve figured out where the film resides in the Allen pantheon, let’s talk about it a bit.  First of all, I have to say that I went on record many years ago as stating that someday, Owen Wilson was going to win an Academy Award.  This is the film that makes me believe that it might be possible.  As Gil the screenwriter, Wilson is like Allen in his younger days, but more charming and less…well, “Woody Allen-ish.”  He is in Paris with his wife-to-be (played by Rachel McAdams) and her parents, and it is evident from the very first scenes that this is not a match made in heaven.  In fact, it’s hard to imagine how they ended up together in the first place, they have so little in common.  Gil is a romantic, and he longs for the romantic Paris days of yore, when literary giants like Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Stein made Paris their home.

And one night, Gil gets his wish – after getting lost trying to find his way back to his hotel, he plops himself down on a set of steps, and before long is picked up by a mysterious automobile that transports him to the world of his dreams – a world where he mingles with the aforementioned legends, along with others like Picasso, Cole Porter, Salvador Dali, Luis Bunuel and others.  This world is vastly entertaining, both for Gil and for the viewer of the film.  The performances of the actors portraying Scott and Zelda, Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates!) and especially Hemingway are all spot on (and hilarious), as is Allen’s dialogue for them.  And as the somewhat mysterious Adriana, Marion Cotillard is exquisite, as she seems to be in every role that she plays.  It’s no wonder that Gil is transfixed by her.

To learn the lessons of the movie, you need to watch it yourself; more I will not give away here.  Suffice to say, the lessons are surprisingly thoughtful and meaningful.  And who knows – someday, this may wind its way up the Allen pantheon ladder.  For now consider it an excellent Woody Allen film, which means that you should see it.

Monday, April 23, 2012

"A Single Man"

We saw “A Single Man” a few months ago, but I forgot to write about it until now.  There are two things about the film that are memorable – one that is very positive, the other not so much.

The very positive thing is Colin Firth’s performance.  It’s as impressive, if not more so, than his Oscar-winning performance in The King’s Speech.  As far as characters go, George Falconer – an expatriate Brit teaching college-level English in Los Angeles –  is about as far away from King George VI as one can possibly imagine.  A gay man in the early 1960s, George lives his life in a repressed state, even more so since the death of his longtime partner in an automobile accident.  As the movie begins, it soon becomes apparent that George intends the day that the film depicts to be the last of his life.  Literally, he cannot take the pain anymore.  But over the course of the day that unfolds, his encounters with others – friends, students and hangers-on – lead him in some interesting directions.

The not-so-good thing is the approach the film takes at the direction of Tom Ford.  Ford is a fashion designer by trade, and with his use of color (or lack thereof) and composition, he directs the film as if it were a model strolling down the runway in Milan, Paris, or New York City.  It’s flash, and it’s memorable.  But is it all necessary?  It’s almost as if Ford did not trust his material or his actors to bring a fully-realized story to the screen – and what one ends up with is the directorial equivalent of Jon Lovitz’ Master Thespian, screaming out (instead of “acting!) “Directing! Directing!”

Even with those shortcomings, “A Single Man” is worth seeing for Firth’s performance and how Falconer interacts with the other characters in the film – particularly Julianne Moore in a wild performance as a very crazed friend.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

One More Record Store

I don't know how I missed this one, since it's been the premier record store in downtown Sacramento for nearly 30 years now - The Beat, located at the corner of J & 17th Streets.

Speaking from experience, I know that you can kill off an entire lunch hour just browsing their stacks, both new and used CDs and vinyl.  And I always manage to find something that I didn't know existed before - something that looks cool for the cover alone.

My most memorable experience here was probably hearing Johnny Cash's version of "Hurt" for the first time.  I stood right in front of one of the huge speakers placed at strategic points around the store, with shivers going up and down my spine.

The store is celebrating its 30th anniversary in a couple of weeks.  Here's hoping that it lasts for 30 more years.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Happy Record Store Day!

In honor of record store day, I'm going to try and recite from memory every record store that I've frequented in the course of my 52 years.  And remember, we're talking about a guy who owns about 1500 CDs and 1500 vinyl LPs.

- Tower Records, Watt Avenue, Sacramento.  This was the first record store I ever set foot in.  The one on Watt Avenue was very cool, because it had a neon sign that can best be described as a pulsating record.  In the same strip mall (although I don't think they called them that, back then) was a Tower Books, with its own pulsating book.  At one end of the mall was Country Club Lanes (still there), and at the other was a very cool restaurant (to a six-year old) called Sam's Hof Brau.  It's still there, under a different name.  When I was a kid, I would order a root beer in a big frosty mug that would have ice on the bottom.

I clearly remember accompanying my dad on visits to this store, where he would buy records by folks like Bobby Goldsboro, Dionne Warwick and Trini Lopez.  Later on, when I was in my 20s and working as a waiter at a restaurant not far away, I spent a lot of time in the store, sometimes just to admire the new stacks of records that you had to wind your way through just to get to the record racks.

The other cool thing about the Watt Avenue store is that they had a glass-enclosed area for the classical music section.

- Record Factory, Greenback Lane.  A chain that disappeared long ago, but for a long time, the closest record store to our house.  I remember my dad driving me over to buy albums like Elton John's "Captain Fantastic," "Fleetwood Mac," and "Katy Lied" by Steely Dan.

- Tower Records, Sunrise Avenue.  If memory serves, this one opened up in 1978.  It started in a fairly nondescript shopping center, and among  the albums I remember buying there were "Darkness on the Edge of Town," Next Year's Model," and "London Calling."  In the early 80s it moved down the street a bit into its own building (which I believe it shared with a Tower Books), and that was where I bought my first CDs  - one of which was "Born in the U.S.A."

- Recycled Records, Auburn Blvd.  The first used record store I ever frequented, and where I bought my first Bruce Springsteen album - "Born to Run," in 1976.

- Tower Records, Broadway.  Another very cool Tower store, that was the closest record store to the first apartment my wife and I lived in after we got married.

- Tower Records, Berkeley.  One of my hangouts during my years at Cal.  But not my favorite.

- Rasputin Records, Berkeley.  This was the cool record store in Berkeley.  This is where I bought favorites like Roxy Music's "Avalon" and "The Blasters."

Nowadays, I do almost all my shopping at Dimple Records, either at the Elk Grove or Broadway site.  They're definitely a throwback to the good old days, and I hope they last.  I'm sure I've left a few off the list above, but at the same time I'm pretty sure I hit all the key landmarks.

Go buy a record today.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Levon Helm R.I.P.

I guess it’s just one of those weeks. Levon Helm was one of the great American drummers, as well as one of the great vocalists of his era. I know that Robbie Robertson wrote most of The Band’s songs, but no one will ever be able to convince me that Levon Helm wasn’t the band’s true voice.

To quote Dave Marsh:

When the Band speaks best, most clearly, it almost always uses Levon Helm's voice. In "The Weight," Rick Danko sings just one verse and Levon takes that away from him with a yowled "Yeah!" that's among the three or four greatest interjections in the history of rock (a.k.a the history of musical interjection). It is Helm's voice, dripping with southern-bred bitterness, that makes "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" genuinely tragic. It could be argued that in Helm, [Robbie] Robertson found his perfect vehicle. But maybe it was Helm who found in the more glib and articulate Robertson a marvelous mouthpiece. Who whispered the secrets of the American Dream in Robertson's young ear as he drifted through the Ozark wilderness? Who pointed him toward that wilderness in the first place? 

Levon Helm. R.I.P.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Dick Clark R.I.P.

If you don’t have a good Dick Clark memory, then you missed out on one of the great American institutions. No, he wasn’t groundbreaking like Alan Freed, or mysterious and borderline crazy like Wolfman Jack, or charismatic like Don Cornelius. If those three were the crazy flavors of the day, then Dick Clark was the vanilla. But whether you thought he was square, or the establishment, or perhaps even a government spy, the fact of the matter is that for more than three decades, he served up a weekly dish of rock, pop and soul music – some forgettable, but much of hall of fame quality – that was almost like a living time capsule in its ability to capture the zeitgeist. Consider just these few examples:

- Clark interviewing John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1969

- Clark interviewing Van Morrison in 1967

- Clark interviewing Stevie Wonder in 1969

- Go Gos performing in 1982, proving that Belinda Carlisle may be the worst lip-syncer of all time

But most of all, “American Bandstand” was a bunch of kids dancing, to the hits of the day:

And throughout it all, Dick Clark was there, treating the kids without condescension, and treating the artists with the utmost respect, whether they were titans or bands/singers that you were not likely to see again. And whether it was an act or genuine hardly mattered – Dick Clark made it seem genuine (for what it’s worth, I think it was), and was so good at it that watching became a habit.

And though “Bandstand” was his crowning achievement, one cannot forget his enormously successful stint as a game-show host (on “$25,000 Pyramid, still my all-time favorite game show), or as the host of “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve,” on which he continued to make an appearance long after the physical and mental strength to do so had left his body. But that too was a testament to his professionalism. And Dick Clark was the consummate professional.


Monday, April 16, 2012

Counting Crows...are back?

I used some birthday money to buy a whole passel of new albums over the weekend, and was pleasantly surprised to see that Counting Crows - who surely have advanced to the "old warhorse" stage by this point - have released a new album. The old Crows (so to speak) haven't exactly been prolific over their 20-year career, but they've managed to make a small dent in the wall of rock history, even if the biggest blow (by far) was struck with their monumental debut album.

I got a little nervous when I started reading the liner notes and realized that this was a covers album, but it's not your regular, run-of-mill covers album - not by any stretch of the imagination. The only song on the album that approached hit status is "Amie," the great Pure Prairie League song from the 1970s. The rest is a mix of old classics by folks like Fairport Convention (the very awesome "Meet on the Ledge"), Gram Parsons ("Return of the Grievous Angel") and the Ronnies Lane and Wood (the delightful "Ooh La La," which will surely be recognized by some folks), and newer (and even more obscure) stuff by bands like The Romany Rye, Dawes, and Tender Mercies.

The album is an eclectic mix, but it always sounds like Counting Crows, and they always keep it sounding new and fresh. At some point, I might even be tempted to call it their best album since that monumental debut I mentioned a little earlier.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Room With a View

The view from my hotel room in San Diego, where I'm at this week for the annual conference of the Association that I work for. This was taken this afternoon, and what you see here is outfield practice.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Top 50 Albums, #31 - "Kiko," Los Lobos

Just another band from East L.A., my ass.

Los Lobos has been playing together now for more than 30 years, and the end isn't even close to being in sight. At one time, they were close to being "the next big thing," but the great thing about this band is that they're going to do what they want and maintain their musical integrity, regardless of whether it hurts their record sales. So if that means you get a couple of songs sung in Spanish, or perhaps an instrumental or two thrown in, well, that's what you're going to get.

For me, "Kiko" is the best representation of the band's musical depth and strength. One moment, you're listening to flat out rock and roll. The next, you might hear a beautiful Mexican ballad. And then, before you know it, you hear a song where the music brings Duke Ellington to mind. The album was the beginning of a somewhat experimental era for the band, where they teamed with producers Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake on a sound that was fuller, more robust than anything they'd done in the past. They were stretching themselves during this time to a degree that was almost unheard of, and they rode that wave for several years before a retrenchment into what could be called "their old sound."

I own more than a dozen albums by this great band, and this is the best one. Very deserving of its spot here, among the greats.

Kiko (1992) Produced by Mitchell Froom and Los Lobos, Recorded by Tchad Blake

Dream in Blue/Wake Up Dolores/Angels With Dirty Faces/That Train Don't Stop Here/Kiko and the Lavender Moon/Saint Behind the Glass/Reva's House/When the Circus Comes/Arizona Skies/Short Side of Nothing/Two Janes/Wicked Rain/Whiskey Trail/Just A Man/Peace/Rio De Tanampa


We can all get annoyed with the cloying music, the levels of pretension, the "tradition unlike any other" nonsense. Yet, year in and year out, there is just no doubt that the Masters is the greatest of the major championships, and one of the great events in all of sport.

A few years back the changes they made to Augusta National threatened to turn the tournament into a Spring U.S. Open (don't get me wrong - I love the U.S. Open, but it has its own identity, one that is much different than that of the Masters), but apparently the stodgy old men in the green jackets remembered that what makes the Masters the Masters is the risk-reward nature of the most famous holes - meaning those on the back nine. If you don't have golfers going for the green in two and putting for eagles on the 13th and 15th holes; well, then you don't have the Masters.

Yesterday, Phil Mickelson turned in one of those "back nines for the ages" that people like Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus are famous for. So he finds himself one stroke behind, and a heavy favorite over the man he trails, Peter Hanson. But you never know about the Masters - if you'd asked me this time yesterday who I'd pick to win, I would have said Rory McIlroy or Sergio Garcia. But those two ended yesterday a combined 8-over par, and for them it is once again, "wait until next year." So the obvious choice today is to go with Phil, and that's what I'll do.

A couple of quick hits:

- Tiger Woods needs to get his act together, and quickly. And I'm not talking about his game; I'm talking about the way he conducts himself on the golf course. The time is long past for fans (like myself) to excuse Tiger's asinine behavior. Just ask yourself - can you imagine Palmer, Player, Nicklaus, or Watson kicking a club on the golf course? Of course not. Whether he realizes it or not, Tiger is endangering his legacy. It's time for him to get it together.

- The Masters iPad App? Pure awesomeness. Watching bonus coverage in HD of Amen Corner and the 15th and 16th holes? Amazing. Kudos to anyone and everyone involved in that little project.

For Those of You Who Celebrate It,

Happy Easter!

Thursday, April 05, 2012

7-Song Perfect Playlist for "the Day"

There hasn’t been a lot of posting here lately, for a number of reasons including sickness, being busy at work, and sometimes being just plain tired.

But today we have a special 7-Song Perfect Playlist – seven great songs that were #1 on my birthday, in various years. And you probably don’t have to be a genius to figure out why I’m posting it today.

1961 – “Blue Moon,” The Marcels

1964 – “Can’t Buy Me Love,” The Beatles

1968 – “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” Otis Redding

1971 – “Just My Imagination,” The Temptations

1978 – “Night Fever,” The Bee Gees

1983 – “Billie Jean,” Michael Jackson

And, 2009 – “Poker Face,” Lady Gaga

Precious few great (or even good songs for long stretches at a time, but I suppose you could do worse than these seven.

Sunday, April 01, 2012


Well worth seeking out on Netflix Streaming, "Blackthorn" is a modest film that poses the question, "what might have happened if Butch Cassidy had survived the Bolivian shootout that allegedly took the lives of Butch and his erstwhile partner in crime, The Sundance Kid?"

The story picks up twenty years after the shootout. Butch, who now goes by the name of Blackthorn, has led a quiet, almost sedentary life in the Bolivian jungle, raising horses and mostly keeping to himself. Upon hearing about the death of Etta James, Butch decides to head back home to meet the young man borne by Etta, who is either his or Sundance's son (Blackthorn signs his letters to him as "Uncle Butch," but you're never quite sure if he really believes this). So he heads to the bank, pulls out all of his money, and prepares for the long journey home.

And then he crosses the path of what appears to be a somewhat hapless Spanish bandit, and before you know it, he is without money, without a horse, and being followed by a bloodthirsty posse who would like nothing more than to dispense some frontier justice. Sound familiar?

Sam Shepard is very good as Blackthorn/Butch, as are the actors who play Butch and Sundance in a series of flashbacks that provide the movie with much of its emotional heft. Stephen Rea is also quite good as a disgraced former Pinkerton detective who paid for his failure to bring Butch and Sundance in years before with the loss of his job and his dignity.

For anyone who enjoyed the classic original, this will be time well spent.


And with this final bow from the company, we wrapped up what is either our 24th or 25th year as season ticket holders for the Sacramento Ballet.

They always close their regular season with "Modern Masters," a show devoted to (in the words of the dancers themselves, in a Q and A following the performance) works that are more physical, which some might read as "more fun" than the classic repertory. The final dance of the season fit that bill perfectly - "Fluctuating Hemlines," which over the years has become a crowd favorite and is one of the few pieces that the company performs accompanied by live music (in this case, all percussion).

Last night's show was held at the 850-seat theater (Stage 1) at Folsom Lake College, and provided an intimacy that is hard to achieve in the somewhat more cavernous Community Center Theater. It's too bad that Sacramento doesn't have a like venue downtown that could serve as the dancers' home.