Sunday, November 30, 2014

LP of the Week - "Katy Lied," Steely Dan (1975)

Every year around Thanksgiving time, I think of this album because of the opening cut, "Black Friday" - a song that predated (by two or three decades) the capitalistic bacchanal that "the day after" has become.  Even with that being the case, there is a lyric that could easily apply to what the day has become in the modern age:

When Black Friday falls you know it's got to be
Don't let it fall on me

I didn't give "Katy Lied" its proper due when the album was released in the spring of 1975, but in my defense, a) it was released on the heels of three consecutive masterpieces; and b) I was only 15 years old.  At the time, I lamented the fact that "Steely Dan" no longer seemed to be a band.  This was the first of their albums that openly listed all of the session contributors, and while over time it would come to be a given that "Steely Dan" really meant "Fagen and Becker," that wasn't the case back then.  Back then, I didn't appreciate all the names appearing in the album's credits- Phil Woods, Michael Omartian, Jeff Porcaro, Hal Blaine, David Paich, Rick Derringer and Larry Carlton among them - but nearly four decades later, it's pretty clear that when it came to session men, Becker and Fagen chose nothing but the best.

It's also fair to say that "Katy Lied" was a transitional album, bridging the gap between the the eras when the band really was a band and the glossy sound that would characterize "Aja" and "Gaucho," the final two albums of the Dan's first incarnation.  But having said that, "Katy Lied" is brilliant in its own right, and includes at least three songs that deserve a place in the "Dan pantheon" - "Doctor Wu," "Chain Lightning," and "Any World (That I'm Welcome To)," as well as several others ("Bad Sneakers," "Rose Darling," "Black Friday" and "Everyone's Gone to the Movies") that are nearly as good.  The only real weak cut on the LP is the last one, "Throw Back the Little Ones," which if nothing else gives a clue to the direction that Becker and Fagen would be heading on their next effort, "The Royal Scam."

Another sign of the direction that Becker and Fagen were heading with Steely Dan is in the rather lengthy description (longer than the musical credits) of how the album was recorded.  In it, there's references to "very expensive German microphones," "master lacquers done on a Neumann VMS 70 computerized lathe," "variable depth helium cooled cutting heads" and "computer logic circuits."  Knowing what we now know about the dynamic duo, this very well could have been an early manifestation of their somewhat odd sense of humor.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

"Interstellar" - Overcoming the Impossible

It may be an odd connection, but after watching Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” I couldn’t get Roger Ebert’s review of “Apollo 13” (for me, a pantheon movie) out of my head (what’s really odd, I suppose, is that I would remember what Roger Ebert wrote about a film released nearly 20 years ago – but that’s me). 

Early in his four-star review, Ebert wrote:

“Like Lindbergh, who crossed the Atlantic in the first plane he could string together that might make it, we went to the moon the moment we could, with the tools that were at hand.”

And he closed with these lines:

“When I was a kid, they used to predict that by the year 2000, you’d be able to go to the moon.  Nobody ever thought to predict that you’d be able to, but nobody would bother.”

Compare what Ebert wrote back then to these lines spoken by Cooper, the former test pilot turned reluctant farmer, in “Interstellar:”

“We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.”

“We've always defined ourselves by the ability to overcome the impossible. And we count these moments. These moments when we dare to aim higher, to break barriers, to reach for the stars, to make the unknown known. We count these moments as our proudest achievements. But we lost all that. Or perhaps we've just forgotten that we are still pioneers. And we've barely begun. And that our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us, because our destiny lies above us.”

Anyone who grew up in the age of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo will appreciate the point that both Ebert and Cooper are making.  The astronauts who flew into space in those programs were larger than life people, accomplishing larger than life things.  For a while, we almost took them for granted.  The greatness of “Apollo 13” was rooted in that it a) showed that for every one of those larger than life characters getting their ass shot up into space, there were 5, 10, probably more back on the ground making it happen; an b) demonstrated, as Jim Lovell put it, that there was nothing easy about going to the moon.  There were reasons that the manned moon program ended, and from a political and policy standpoint, they were no doubt entirely reasonable and defensible. But what Ebert was hinting at in his review of “Apollo 13” was that we lost something when that program ended – we lost the notion that there was always a new frontier that we, as Americans, could and would conquer, for the betterment of mankind.

“Interstellar” taps into that notion by imagining a world that is now in peril, one that has essentially given up those ambitious dreams while struggling just to put food on the table for its citizens.  And the world that we see in “Interstellar” is strictly seen from the American point of view, with vistas straight out of what most would comfortably call “middle America.”  That world is threatened by dust clouds that are filmed by Nolan and Hoyte Van Hoytema, his cinematographer, in a way that immediately invokes the horrifying images of Dust Bowl American from early in the 20th Century.

Cooper is stranded in that world (a world where children are taught that the Apollo missions were a lie), caring for his son and daughter, living with them and his father-in-law in a home that, when the dust storm hits, you almost imagine will be lifted off the ground in the same manner that we saw in “The Wizard of Oz.”  But even though he has made the best of his life as a farmer, we see early on that his remains thrilled by the notions of science, space travel and technology.  An early scene where he, Tom and Murphy chase an unmanned, long forgotten drone through the cornfields in their truck is thrilling, and sets the tone for a man and daughter who continue to want more out of life than the hand that the world has dealt them.

It’s tricky to write about the movie in great detail without spoiling some of its most wonderful developments.  Suffice to say that it turns out that NASA is still around, and that for years they have been working on a secret program to find a new home for those on Earth, in another galaxy.  A mysterious wormhole near Saturn is involved, which has conveniently appeared for reasons unknown.  And thus begins the great adventure of the film, as Cooper and his fellow astronauts head through the wormhole into a galaxy where they are forced to deal with realities of science such as time and relativity.

In embarking on the journey, Cooper must make the choice to leave his children at home.  And while he tells them upon departing that, given the vagaries of time and space, he may arrive back home to find all of them approximately the same age, it is crystal clear that he always intends to go home.  Like the character of Cobb in Nolan’s “Inception,” what Cooper wants to do more than anything else is get home to be with his children.  Which makes the moment when Cooper realizes, due to a foul-up on one of the planets the crew visits in order to test for livable conditions, that his kids have aged 23 years in the span of just seven minutes (from his point of view), all the more affecting.  Matthew McConaughey plays the moment in spectacular fashion, which comes as no surprise given the roll that he’s been on for the past three years.

There are many more surprises in store, including the appearance of an unbilled cast member that had me saying “Oh my God” under my breath, and like “Inception” the way back home is fraught with peril and what amounts to a labyrinth maze that I’m still not sure I entirely understand.  But like “Inception,” I suspect that “Interstellar” is a film that will become clearer – and more powerful – upon multiple viewings.

McConaughey is joined in the cast by Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Nolan-regular Michael Caine, Wes Bentley, John Lithgow, Casey Affleck, David Gyasi and Bill Irwin, among others.  There is no weak link, but special kudos are due to the young actors who play Cooper’s children as young children: Timothee Chalamet as Tom, and especially Mackenzie Foy as Murphy.

The relationship between Cooper and Murphy is the movie’s heart and soul, and that (plus the relationship’s inextricable link with the overall theme of exploration and wonder) is never made clearer than in this early exchange:

Murphy: Dad, why did you and mom name me after something that’s bad?

Cooper: Well, we didn’t.

Murphy: Murphy’s law?

Cooper: Murphy’s law doesn’t mean that something bad will happen.  It means that whatever can happen, will happen.

You could probably say the same thing about a Christopher Nolan film.  And “Interstellar” is a great one.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

No Country for Old Men? The Visions of Jackson Browne, John Mellencamp and Bob Seger

In his review of Bruce Springsteen's The River, 34 years ago this fall, critic Paul Nelson asked the question, "Bruce Springsteen isn't an old man yet. Isn't it odd that he's trying so hard to adopt the visions of one?"

[Footnote: Nelson loved Springsteen, and gave the album a very good review, but you have to remember that those were the days when Rolling Stone record reviews frequently had the temerity to question even the works of the Gods.]

Fast forward to this fall, and the release of new albums by three artists who are old men - Jackson Browne, John Mellencamp, and Bob Seger.  They're 66, 63 and 69 years old respectively, and you can say what you want about 60 being the new 40, but I'm not buying it.  These guys are grizzled veterans, even if Browne sometimes looks as if he might have an aging portrait of himself hiding up in the attic somewhere.  They're all members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  They all enjoyed, at one point in their careers, the trappings of superstardom - platinum albums, the cover of Rolling Stone, the works.  And now, all three are closer to the ends of their careers than they are to the beginning.

Based on these new works, they are all acutely interested in their respective visions, wanting to make statements about the world we live in.  This shouldn't come as much of a surprise, as all three have addressed the world around them throughout their careers.  Of the three, Browne is probably linked most closely to the political world, but even at the height of his popularity Mellencamp wrote songs like "Rain on the Scarecrow," and heck - Seger released a song protesting the Vietnam War, "2 + 2 =?," before anyone had even heard of Jackson Browne or John Mellencamp (not to mention "Feel Like a Number" a decade later).  So let's stipulate that their bonafides are well established when it comes to this sort of thing.

Let's start with Jackson Browne.  In the October 23 issue of RS, there's a piece written by Browne with David Fricke, "My Life in 15 Songs," which contains a vital clue as to how he approaches politics in his songs.  It's when he's talking about "For America," about which he says the following:

"The reason "For America" was so explicit is I had done "Lawyers in Love," and nobody got it.  It was sarcastic, and people didn't find their way into the humor.  This time I was determined not to be misunderstood.  I needed to be clear about it - "I was made for America."  Even people whose judgments I admire were like, "Maybe you can change that."  I think it worried a lot of my audience."

It's commendable that Browne is that open about his approach, because his change of approach in his writing was a pivotal point in his career.  Unfortunately, while I admire his consistency and his steadfastness in pursuit of a cause, his art has suffered for it.  When I listen to "Standing in the Breach," there's no doubt in my mind that the political songs are the weakest songs on the album, some to the point of being almost unlistenable.  Consider these lyrics:

It's so hard keeping track of what's gone wrong
The covenant unravels, and the news just rolls along
I could feel my memory letting go some two or three disasters ago
It's hard to say which did more ill
Citizens United or the Gulf oil spill

"The Long Way Around"

The Romans, the Spanish, the British, the Dutch
American exceptionalism - so out of touch
Successions of empire repeating its course
Extracting the wealth and ruling by force
On and on through time

"If I Could Be Anywhere"

Which side?
The corporations attacking
The natural world - drilling and fracking
All done with the backing of the craven and corrupt
Or the ones who fight
For the Earth with all their might
And in the name of all that's right
Confront and disrupt

"Which Side?"

Rock on!

The problem I see with lyrics like these - aside from the fact that I just don't think anything is quite as black and white as Jackson apparently sees it - is that they're not any better than the drivel that we're subjected to on a nightly basis on the cable news networks.  It's a lecture, plain and simple, it's shrill, and then Browne goes and ups the ante by essentially saying that we're either with him or against him - there's no middle ground.

Even that could be forgiven if there was a hint of humor in the songs, or an anger in the music to complement the anger inherent in the lyrics.  Unfortunately, the songs are just not that interesting, and they come close to pulling the album down with them, like an anchor.  And frankly, I don't think they do the causes about which Browne cares about so deeply any good.  In the end, he just comes across as a guy who approaches life without ever having asked himself the question, "did it ever occur to you that you might be wrong?"

The good news is that there are several really strong songs on the album, which overall make it his best in quite some time.  There's the doo-wop pastiche "Yeah Yeah," which suffers only from being about two minutes too long, there's "Leaving Winslow," which demonstrates that on occasion, Browne can address political concerns with humor (not to mention fun and interesting music), there's "You Know the Night," for which Jackson and Rob Wasserman have written some great music to accompany some lost lyrics from Woody Guthrie, there's "Here," which proves again that one area where Browne can always be trusted is with matters of the heart, and in fairness there's even the title track, which does address the worldly concerns he cares about without coming across as overly pedantic.

On "Ride Out," his first album in I have no idea how long, Bob Seger also falls into the trap of literalism on his most overtly political song, but for the most part comes out unscathed.  Frankly, it is just great to hear his voice again, and to know that there's still some fire in his belly (which looks to be a little more substantial than his halcyon days of the late 70s, I have to say).  So while you may roll your eyes a bit when the first song comes on and you hear that Bob is once again extolling the virtues of Detroit-made cars ("Detroit Made"), you can't help but smile to yourself because the damn song sounds so good.  And to be fair, John Hiatt wrote it, so at least you can't accuse Seger of going to the same well too often.

Of the ten songs on the album (I bought the bonus version that has three additional tracks, but I'm never sure whether to consider those songs a part of the album, and in this case I'm not going to), four are covers, and this is something for which Seger should probably be commended - why push it too hard if you just can't come up with an album full of winners anymore?  And they're all strong choices - Steve Earle's "The Devil's Right Hand," which is given a treatment that would feel right at home on Springsteen's "The River;" "Adam and Eve" by Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson, which allows Bob to get his country on; and "California Stars," the Tweedy/Bennett Woody Guthrie song from the great Wilco/Billy Bragg album "Mermaid Avenue."

But many of Bob's tunes are strong as well.  "Hey Gypsy" sounds at first like a young dude strutting song that he might have written forty years ago, until you get to the line about him getting "kinda nervous 'cause the music's too loud" and realize that there's a fair dose of self-deprecation in the mix.  There are some songs near the end of the album ("All of the Roads," "You Take Me In" and "Gates of Eden") that definitely sound like a man who his ready to sum up his career and his life, and while they may strike fans of his hardest-edged work as feeling a little bloated, it's hard to deny their emotional impact.

The two overtly political songs are a mixed bag.  Bob strikes out on "It's Your World," which demonstrates that he cares deeply about what is happening to the environment but not in a particularly interesting way, and "Ride Out," which strikes me as being the best song on the album.  It's not quite "Feel Like a Number" ("Damn it, I'm a man!"), but it's close enough.

Of the three albums, the one with the strongest (and purest) musical and lyrical vision is John Mellencamp's "Plain Spoken."  What Mellencamp is achieving in the late stages of his career is really quite remarkable.  It's almost as if he knows that, because of his ridiculous early "Johnny Cougar" days, he's doomed to go to his grave underrated.  But he's determined to do something about it, and amazingly enough this album coupled with 2010's "No Better Than This" may just be the strongest one-two punch of his entire career (and that's leaving out his collaborative effort with Stephen King, "Ghostland Brothers of Darkland County," for which he wrote several terrific songs).

A hint of the themes explored on the album can be derived simply by looking at the song's titles, which include "Troubled Man," "Sometimes There's God," "Tears in Vain," "Freedom of Speech" and "Lawless Times."  On this record, Mellencamp is most definitely adopting the vision of an old man.  It hasn't been an easy life - as intimated in the title of the song, if "sometimes there's God," sometimes there's not:

Sometimes there's God and sometimes there's just not
A little redemption would help us a lot
Sometimes there's God in the palm of your hand
Somedays hard times will cover your land

On "Plain Spoken," Mellencamp essentially is telling the same story as Jackson Browne, but he's going about it in an entirely different way.  He's telling the stories of the lives of people who have been impacted by the things that Browne sings about in the songs that are quoted above, and then allows the listener to reach their own conclusions.  And if he's done his job, it shouldn't be that difficult.  And when he does go the literal route, on the album's closer "Lawless Times," he accompanies what could otherwise be construed as strident lyrics with a musical accompaniment that demonstrates he's not taking himself too seriously, even when talking about such important matters.

On the album's two best songs - "The Isolation of Mister" and "Blue Charlotte" - Mellencamp achieves a beauty in both the stories being told and the music that leaves one almost breathless.  These are not happy stories - the former song is about a man who realizes (too late) that what he thought was a life of freedom was in fact a cage, and the latter is about a man (perhaps the same man?) who pays a visit to Charlotte, in the days before her death:

And if you pass tonight in your sleep
You will still have me to weep
I'm all that remains here
Blue Charlotte

Yellow letters from your youth
All of them seeking truth 
The poems written from me to you
Blue Charlotte

Behind those words is some of Mellencamp's best singing, and a mournful violin that sounds like nothing less than the knife to cut the pain out of the protagonist's heart that Bruce Springsteen sang about in "The Promised Land."

In the end, let us praise these famous men, and be thankful for what they have brought to us.