Friday, January 24, 2014

It’s Beyoncé’s world, we just live in it

In a way, it doesn't even matter how good an album Beyoncé is, because the execution of its release was so damn brilliant.  I’ve been around for a while, and I can’t remember anything like this happening before.  You’ve got one of the biggest stars in the world, someone familiar even to people who aren’t huge fans of her work, dropping an album on an unsuspecting public on December 20, with no pre-release advertising campaign, and well after most people had already filled up the Christmas stockings of their loved ones (or themselves).  Not to mention, way too late to make the best of year lists at Rolling Stone or Pitchfork.

Oh yeah, and a new, lushly produced video to go along with each song on the album.

I’ve never bought one of her albums before, and in all honesty I’m not sure I’d know one of her older songs if it played on the radio right now.  But I’m not stupid, and I can recognize and appreciate a great performer even if I’m not particularly into their music.  But there was no question about it – just for the sheer audacity of the concept, I was going to get my hands on this one.  Ostensibly I bought it for son #2, but knew that once he ripped it onto his iPod, it was likely to stay in Elk Grove.

So how is it?  Pretty darn good, and certainly a huge improvement over the album that Mr. Carter released earlier this year.  Her voice is so good that at times it threatens to overpower the songs, and on some tracks it suffers from what I’d call “Justin Timberlake syndrome” – meaning, a good song that might have been a great song had it been a couple of minutes shorter.  And while I can appreciate the value of an album that lasts over an hour, you’ll have to argue hard and long to convince me that the best albums aren’t somewhere between 40 and 45 minutes long.

And while this is probably more a function of my age than anything else, I’m not sure how many details about Mr. and Mrs. Carter’s love life I really need (or want) to know.  There’s plenty to enjoy about a song like “Blow,” but I’m not sure I’d want to listen to it in mixed company (having said that, I’d rather listen to this song than watch Kanye’s video for “Bound 2.”).

To these ears, there really isn’t a bad cut on the entire album, but things really pick up at the end, from “XO” on to “Blue” at the end.  It may not be perfect, but given the talent behind it and the genius of its inception, there’s no reason to quibble with anyone who calls “Beyoncé” the album of the year.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Richard Sherman

Because life isn't scheduled around my sports viewing needs, I happened to be in a car driving to the airport during the last two minutes of the NFC Championship game.  So I missed the "interview of infamy" as it was happening, but was able to get caught up fairly quickly when it was obvious from my Twitter feed that something had happened.

What bothers me most about it is that we're now going to have to live and relive the moment for the two weeks leading into the Super Bowl, all the while debating over what it signifies about a) Richard Sherman's character; b) the state of the NFL in 2014; c) the notion of sportsmanship in general; d) the state of race relations in the United States (and the subset of "what does it mean if I root for Peyton Manning and against Richard Sherman"); and e) whatever I'm inadvertently leaving off of this list.

So here are a few random thoughts for the record, while wishing that the game was being played next Sunday instead of on Groundhog Day.  Have at it; judge as you will.

- Bud Grant, the coach of the Minnesota Vikings during the era when they were good at making it to Super Bowls but bad at winning them, once commented to a player after a particularly exuberant touchdown celebration, "try to act like you've been there before."  To this day, it's one of my favorite football quotes.  Today, we live in an era where celebrations take place after virtually every play, regardless of the score and whether the celebrant's team is actually winning the game.  It drives me nuts, and it strikes me as unnecessary.  There's a line, and it may be a fine one, between celebrating and demeaning your opponent, and Sherman crossed it last night.

- In this morning's Monday Morning Quarterback, Sherman has a column that speaks to the issue.  I have a feeling that it will just add more fuel to the fire.  Particularly with these two paragraphs:

"Erin Andrews interviewed me after the game and I yelled what was obvious: If you put a subpar player across from a great one, most of the time you’re going to get one result. As far as Crabtree being a top-20 NFL receiver, you’d have a hard time making that argument to me. There are a lot of receivers playing good ball out there, and Josh Gordon needed 14 games to produce almost double what Crabtree can do in a full season. And Gordon had Brandon Weeden, Brian Hoyer and Jason Campbell playing quarterback."

For all I know, Michael Crabtree is a horrible human being, and perhaps to blame for all of this since he apparently said something to Sherman at an event earlier this year (something that Sherman seems determined not to share).  There's obviously some really bad blood between the two.  I don't like what Sherman wrote here - notwithstanding Jim Harbaugh's comments, Crabtree is no Jerry Rice, but "subpar?"  And let's not forget that he spent most of the season recovering from a severe injury himself.  In any event, I would like to hear Crabtree's point of view about all of this.

But this is the one that bugs me:
I threw a choking sign at 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Why? Because he decided he was going to try the guy he was avoiding all game, because, I don’t know, he’s probably not paying attention for the game-winning play. C’mon, you’re better than that.

I don't know, it just feels like this one is way over the top. Someone can tell me whether they think this comparison is apt or not, but imagine LeBron James saying something like that about Tim Duncan last June when Duncan missed an easy shot that might have won the NBA title for the Spurs - a shot he'd probably made 99 times out of 100 during his career.  "I threw a choking sign at Tim Duncan.  Why?  Because he got a little too cute and missed a shot that no professional should ever miss, because, I don't know, he's probably not paying attention for the game-winning play.  C'mon, you're better than that."

Kaepernick, needless to say, has far to go to achieve the stature of a Tim Duncan.  But I'm not sure he deserves a comment like that.  He didn't come through when the game was on the line.  But whether you think what Sherman said was an honest appraisal or not, do we really want our best athletes to be rendering judgment in public the way that Sherman did? 

I've read nearly everything Richard Sherman has written this year for MMQB, I'm familiar with his story, and admire his efforts for charity and support for the community.  I think he's a good guy.  Further, I think sideline interviews are among the biggest wastes of time in the history of sports, and have made fun of them on this site on numerous occasions. And finally, this is far from the most serious issue facing the NFL today - there's the question of that $765 million settlement that a judge has just questioned because it may not cover all those who have suffered harm from brain injuries, and the question of whether it is really possible for human beings to be the size of NFL players (and recover from injuries in miraculous timelines) without a steady diet of performance-enhancing drugs?

But it is what it is; this is the issue that will be in front of us for the next two weeks.  And even though I think he's a good guy, I don't think Sherman should get a pass for last night.  A dick move is a dick move, and he was being a dick.  At the very least, it should make next year's games between Seattle and San Francisco really interesting.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Older You Get, The More It Means

"The older you get, the more it means."

Bruce Springsteen said those words last summer in Kilkenny, Ireland, wrapping up one leg of what is fast turning into his version of Dylan's "never ending tour."  He was talking about singing and performing, but he could easily have been talking about his fans.  Even at this late date, with Bruce's spot in the rock pantheon secure, there's a little thrill with the release of each new album, not to mention a little anxiety.  After all these years, will this finally be the lousy album?  Will this be the one where you think to yourself, "man, he should have left that one in the studio?"  Right now he's immersed in what is probably the most prolific phase of his recording career, on a fairly set schedule of one new album every two years.  He wouldn't be the first great artist to release a piece of crap; it happens.

I'm happy to say that "High Hopes" is not that album.  I tend to overrate Springsteen albums upon their release, but this one is really a pleasant surprise.  I'll admit to having been a little worried upon reading that the album would be comprised of unreleased songs, cover versions, and re-recordings of a couple of songs in the Springsteen pantheon.  Spanning two producers, even (Brendan O'Brien and Ron Aniello), and two producers whose earlier Springsteen recordings sounded markedly different.

O ye of little faith.

I'll wait a while before assigning this classic status, but there's little doubt that it's a damn good album.  It flows together well, and it certainly sounds radio-friendly, although in this day and age I'm not sure it makes a lot of sense to say something like that.  The cover versions ("High Hopes," "Just Like Fire Would," "Dream Baby Dream") sound like Bruce could have written them, and they fit in just fine.  Their importance to the album can't be underestimated; it can't be a coincidence that Bruce bookends the album with the first and third songs on the list.

The garage rock of "Frankie Fell in Love" would have fit in just fine on side two of "The River," and its lightness and brevity help balance some of the album's deeper new songs like "Down in the Hole" (from "The Rising" era, with the lines "The sun upon your shoulder/Empty city skyline/The day rips apart/A dark and bloody arrow pierced my heart") and "The Wall," a song (based on an idea from Joe Grushecky) about visiting the Vietnam Memorial and remembering an old friend.

Songs as powerful as "American Skin (41 Shots)" and "The Ghost of Tom Joad" could easily have overwhelmed the album with their power, but they don't feel out of place.  The recording of the former pays tribute to the magnificent live version, while sounding fresh and modern.  The latter is a Tom Morello-driven powerhouse that gives this great song the recording it deserves.  I'm a bigger fan of "The Ghost of Tom Joad" album than most, but there's little doubt that this is the version that I'll turn to first from now on.  The things that Morello can do with his guitar are beyond my comprehension, and his vocal is a nice counterpart to Bruce's - emphasizing the bleak landscape of the song.

Morello appears on 7 of the album's 12 tunes, and his signature sound definitely gives the E Street band a dimension that it hasn't had before, even with the great Nils Lofgren.  You're never going to mistake Morello for another guitarist, but he doesn't sound out of place.  It's almost scary to think about what the band might sound like if he, Stevie Van Zandt, Lofgren and Bruce all play together during the upcoming tours, but if you're moving closer to advanced decrepitude like me, you'll want to have your earplugs handy.

And then there's "Dream Baby Dream."  In Bruce's version, it's a very simple song, but it is a wonderful coda to the album.  It's a beautiful song, and you can almost imagine Bruce singing it in a small saloon somewhere, eyes fixed on his baby out in the audience.  I'm not sure why I find it so moving, but I can certainly imagine it closing a few shows this year.

Discussions about where this fits into the Springsteen pantheon can wait.  For now, there's little doubt that come year's end, "High Hopes" will be among the year's best albums.  And that's good enough.

Come on, we gotta keep the light burning.


Well, so much for the New Year's resolution to write more and read more.  Let's just say the first two weeks of "Work 2014" were a little busy.

You'll just have to take my word for it that last week, I would have gone 3 for 4.  The only game I missed was Denver-San Diego; I really thought the Chargers would pull that one out.

So here goes nothing:

Patriots 28, Broncos 24.  I'm not going to root for this outcome, but I've just got this feeling.  It's unfortunate that this game is going to be a referendum on Peyton Manning's career, but if the Broncos lose, that pretty much settles the "Brady vs. Manning" debate over which one is the greatest quarterback of his generation.

49ers 20, Seahawks 17.  I admit that this is little more than wishful thinking - I really have no idea who will win this game.  The 49ers are playing better right now, but overcoming that historic home field advantage will be tough.  If they don't get out of the blocks with a lead, it's probably all over.

We shall see.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Wild Card Weekend

I didn't have my act together in time to get my predictions posted, but I would have gone 3/4, missing only the Saints-Eagles game.  However, in the spirit of full disclosure I had no idea we'd see what happened in Indy, even though I'd pegged them as a 31-24 winner.  The Chargers have got a vibe going right now, and until the Bengals prove they can win a playoff game, I'm going to keep picking them to lose.

As for the 49ers, this stretch of last-second triumphs, now three and running, is taking years off my life.  I thought it would be a little easier in Green Bay, but should have known it was a mistake to underestimate Aaron Rodgers.  And that Eddie Lacy?  He can run a little.

I've got a pretty good idea who I'm going with in next week's games, but I'll wait a couple of days to post my picks, just to see if I change my mind.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Albums of 2013

An excellent year, as noted below.
  • Silver and Gold - Sufjan Stevens
  • Beyonce
  • Quality Street - Nick Lowe
  • Shangri La - Jake Bugg
  • Echoes of the Outlaw Roadshow - Counting Crows
  • Reflektor - Arcade Fire
  • Lightning Bolt - Pearl Jam
  • Magpie and the Dandelion - The Avett Brothers
  • Days Are Gone - Haim
  • Mechanical Bull - Kings of Leon
  • The Diving Board - Elton John
  • The Last Ship - Sting
  • Wise Up Ghost and Other Songs - Elvis Costello/The Roots
  • The Electric Lady - Janelle Monae
  • Hesitation Marks - Nine Inch Nails
  • Another Self Portrait - Bob Dylan
  • Invisible Empire/Crescent Moon - KT Tunstall
  • The Civil Wars - The Civil Wars
  • Southeastern - Jason Isbell
  • Yeezus - Kanye West
  • Ghost Brothers of Darkland County - Mellencamp, Burnett and King
  • Random Access Memories - Daft Punk
  • Wrote a Song For Everyone - John Fogerty
  • Trouble Will Find Me - The National
  • Annie Up - Pistol Annies
  • Monomania - Deerhunter
  • Modern Vampires of the City - Vampire Weekend
  • Same Trailer, Different Park - Kacey Musgraves
  • Bankrupt! - Phoenix
  • American Kid - Patty Griffin
  • Stories Don't End - Dawes
  • Jake Bugg - Jake Bugg
  • Old Yellow Moon - Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell
  • The Jazz Age - The Bryan Ferry Orchestra
  • Comedown Machine - The Strokes
  • Sound City - Real to Reel - Dave Grohl and Friends
  • Fade - Yo La Tengo
  • Nuggets - Various Artists
  • Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables - Todd Snider
  • Three Chords Good - Graham Parker and the Rumour
  • 19 - Adele
  • Girl On Fire - Alicia Keys

Books of 2013

This is pretty pathetic; hence my New Year's Resolution to read more.  In fairness, I reread several books I didn't include on the list, and right before year's end finished Kate Atkinson's "Started Early, Took My Dog."
  • The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, by Stieg Larsson
  • Six Years, by Harlan Coben
  • Suspect, by Robert Crais
  • The Black Box, by Michael Connelly
  • The Book of Basketball, by Bill Simmons
  • Live by Night, by Dennis Lehane

Movies of 2013

Memorializing, since I'm about to retire the 2013 sidebars.
  • The Wolf of Wall Street (12/30/13)
  • American Hustle (12/26/13)
  • The Hobbit - The Desolation of Smaug (12/21/13)
  • Thor - The Dark World (11/8/13)
  • Gravity (10/21/13)
  • The World's End (8/23/13)
  • Elysium (8/22/13)
  • The Wolverine (7/29/13)
  • The To Do List (7/28/13)
  • The Way, Way Back (7/22/13)
  • Only God Forgives (7/20/13)
  • Pacific Rim (7/19/13)
  • World War Z (7/6/13)
  • This Is the End (6/29/13)
  • Man of Steel (6/16/13)
  • Star Trek Into Darkness (5/27/13)
  • The Hangover, Part 3 (5/24/13)
  • Iron Man 3 (5/19/13)
  • Life of Pi (2/15/13)
  • Zero Dark Thirty (1/13/13)
  • Lincoln (1/2/13)
Of course, this doesn't include the dozens of movies we watched on Netflix.  In a separate post, I'll list the best of those.

Bowled Over

After years of general disappointment, frustration and controversy, it seems strangely appropriate that the BCS go out in spectacular fashion.  Underdogs prevailed in all four games (Rose, Sugar, Fiesta, Orange), with two massive upsets (Oklahoma over Auburn in the Sugar, UCF over Baylor in the Fiesta) thrown in for good measure.  And most importantly, all four games were entertaining, putting the entire spectrum of college styles on display.

The Rose Bowl was great (even though I was hoping for a Stanford win), but for me the clear winner among the big four was the Sugar - watching Oklahoma take it to Alabama was about as good as it gets, and it was especially fun to see Jalen Saunders have such a great game.  Saunders is from Elk Grove, and in age is between my two kids, so I was fortunate to see him play for three years at Pleasant Grove High School, even filling in at quarterback one season when the starter went down.  He's not big, but I'm hoping he can find a home in the pros.

Adding to the fun of this year's big games (and yes, I know there's one big game left) is the speculation over how the College Football Playoff will impact the game next Fall.  The committee tasked with selecting the four participants is probably more nervous about that job today than it was a week ago, because if this past week has proven anything, it's that there isn't a lot to distinguish the #5 team from the #12 team in the nation.  If anything, expanding to four teams will just add to the controversy.  It should be fun, and that's even before the Playoff seeks to reinvent New Year's Eve in December 2015.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

The Songs That Defined 2013


Damn near close to omnipresent by the end of the year, after being used for commercials, movie trailers ("Wolf of Wall Street") and as the background music for, oh, about a million sports clips.  If the entire album had been this brilliant, it might have been my #1.


A groove and a sound that Elvis has been working towards for a very, very long time.


What else could it be? 

Rose Bowl

A couple of quick thoughts:

- We definitely saw Stanford's weakness exposed yesterday - the total lack of an intermediate passing game.  Either that, or Stanford's coaching staff is unable to make the appropriate adjustments when playing a team that matches up with them perfectly, strength vs. strength.  There aren't a lot of ways to explain the Cardinal's play calling in the second half, unless they just don't have that option to go to.  And if they did, that was some horrible play calling.

- For anyone who thinks a four-team playoff is going to resolve controversy over crowning a champion, ask yourself two questions:

1. Can Michigan State play with any team in the country right now?  Obviously, yes.

2. Would Michigan State have been one of the four teams in a playoff, had the new system begun this year?  Perhaps.  Perhaps not.   Either way, there would have been a lot of screaming.