Sunday, May 24, 2015

Spring Music Sampler

Three or four times a year, I make compilation CDs for my friends and colleagues, covering either the latest releases or in the case of the annual Christmas CD, the latest in obscure holiday tunes.  After a couple of weeks of playing around with the songs and the song order (always a critical component of every mix tape), I'm pleased to unveil this year's Spring Collection.

1. Whatever Happened, Brian Wilson.  This one I owe to Larry Aydlette, who advised in a Facebook post to ignore the reviews and pick up what is in fact a very good album.  For me, the best songs are the ones where Brian sings with Al Jardine - and if this song doesn't remind you of classic Beach Boys, then nothing will.

2. Believe (Nobody Knows), My Morning Jacket.  I've only had this album for a week and am still absorbing it, but I knew as soon as I heard the lead track that it was going to find a place on the sampler.  Maybe I'm crazy, but this track sounds like it was influenced a bit by Vampire Weekend.

3. Chateau Lobby #4 (In C For Two Virgins), Father John Misty.  "I want to take you in the kitchen/Lift up the wedding dress someone was probably murdered in."  Hey, I think I know what he might be singing about here!  Father Misty is a member of Fleet Foxes, and this outing is similar but feels a little more ornate in approach.  Still absorbing this album as well, but it's clearly a winner.

4. You Got to Me, James McMurtry.  Bought this one on the strength of the Christgau review, and man is it a good one.  I was tempted to put "Cutter" on the sampler, but this one just felt more representative of the album as a whole.

5. Second Guessing, Sunny Sweeney.  Another "courtesy of Christgau" find, and another reason for my sons to make fun of me for buying so much country music in the last couple of years.

6. Most in the Summertime, Rhett Miller with Black Prairie.  Miller is on quite a roll - last year's Old 97's album "Most Messed Up" was outstanding, and even though this "solo" effort is a little less hard-edged, it's another great outing.

7. Hell to Pay, Boz Scaggs with Bonnie Raitt.  Mr. Scaggs is enjoying quite a renaissance as he approaches the autumn of his life.  Like his last LP "Memphis," the new one was recorded over the course of just a few days with Ray Parker, Jr. (Remember Raydio?  Remember "Ghostbusters?"), Willie Weeks and Steve Jordan.  The worst you can say about it is that it's a little formulaic, but in the end who cares?  It sounds damn good.

8. Gimme All Your Love, Alabama Shakes.  I wasn't a huge fan of the first Alabama Shakes album - aside from the instant classic "Hold On," it sounded like the band was trying just a little too hard.  But no sophomore slump on "Sound and Color" - it's an album of great depth and diverse approaches, and it's clearly one of the best of the year.

9. Back to the Future (Part I), D'Angelo and the Vanguard.  Greil Marcus called it the follow up to Sly and the Family Stone's "There's a Riot Goin' On," and that feels about right.

10. How Much a Dollar Cost, Kendrick Lamar.  I wrote about this song at length here.

11. Hey Darling, Sleater-Kinney.  I wrote about the new album here.  All of a sudden, they're almost famous!  And deservedly so.

12. An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York), Courtney Barnett.  Yet another one I picked up after a recommendation by Christgau.  Not quite as hard-edged as Sleater-Kinney, but she sounds like she'll be around for a while.

13.  Eyes to the Wind, The War on Drugs.  This band is a bit of an enigma - sometimes it reminds me of Springsteen, sometimes it sounds like Dire Straits, every now and then it makes me think of Bruce Hornsby.  It all sounds great, even if a few of the songs might benefit from some judicious trimming.

14. The Promise, Sturgill Simpson.  Now if this song doesn't make you think of Waylon Jennings, you're probably not listening close enough.

15. Dry County Blues, Angaleena Presley.  As is Miranda Lambert, Presley is 1/3 of the Pistol Annies, and even though she hasn't reached the level of fame that her bandmate has, there's no reason why she can't get there.   This is just as good as Lambert's "Platinum."

16. The Eye, Brandi Carlile.  Carlile is all over the place on this album, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.  She can sound like a folkie, she can sound country, but she also has a bit of a rocker in her.  This is her in the first mode.

17. Where Are You?, Bob Dylan. You have to give Dylan a lot of credit for what he has done on "Shadows in the Night."  It's not every artist that can take on a legend, and live to tell the tale. Dylan clearly is not Sinatra, but it is fair to say that he gives each of these songs a respectful and at times, even inspiring workout. "Where Are You" was the first Frank Sinatra album I bought, and it is the best of his "dark night of the soul" albums recorded with the great producer, Gordon Jenkins.  There are four tunes from that album on "Shadows, and this one is the best.  Unfortunately, there's no video of the song, at least not that I could find.

18. Blue Bucket of Gold, Sufjan Stevens.  Sufjan Stevens "Carrie and Lowell" is a remarkable album.  At turns gorgeous and heartbreaking, Stevens creates a sound that demands the listener's closest attention, and it is almost a disservice to simply excerpt one song.  This is the last song on the album, and one of the best.  I'll probably write more about this one down the line, and it could very well end up as my top album of 2015.  But there's a long way to go...

And there you have it.  I really tried hard to find a place for Madonna's "Ghosttown," but decided to go with some lesser known tunes.  But in her honor, we'll close with that tune as a bonus track.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Game of Thrones - starkly crossing the line

[Spoilers] When you watch "Game of Thrones," you know that you're in for your fair share of violence.  In the first season, there was the beheading of Eddard Stark, who at that point was as close to someone you could call a "hero" as anyone in the narrative.  In the third season, there was the infamous Red Wedding, and even though I didn't see that episode live, I can still remember the outcry on Twitter about its horror.  Also in the third season, there was the unceasing torture of Theon Greyjoy by Ramsay Bolton.  And last year, you had Oberyn Martell having  his head crushed after a moment of arrogance and hubris in a duel to the death with the Mountain.

And that's really just the tip of the iceberg.  Bottom line, this is not a story for the faint of heart.  There are times when humanity is lacking on a large scale, and it is a fair statement that the treatment of the women in the story - both those integral to that story, and at the periphery of it - have fared particularly poorly.  There are exceptions - Daenerys Targaryen may someday come to be regarded as one of the great heroines in literature - but for the most part, the women of "Game of Thrones" tend to be of the scheming type, or the type that matters only for what they can offer in terms of bodily pleasures.

One of the highlights of what to date had been an outstanding and exhilarating fifth season had been the story arcs involving two of the women who had suffered some of the greatest indignities throughout the series - Sansa and Arya Stark, parentless after the violent deaths of their parents and separated in what one hoped would become a test of their mettle that would result in the redemption and triumph of their family, and establish each of them as future leaders worthy of respect.

I have to admit that I still don't quite understand what is going on with Arya and where her story is headed, but what I saw last night was her being abused in a way that amounted to a flogging. I'm willing to suspend disbelief and accept that this is all going to result in her becoming a better and stronger person, but all that has been on display so far has been punishment and what looks a lot like debasement.

But that was nothing, compared to the fate of Sansa.  Newly wed to the execrable, detestable and quite possibly insane Ramsay, we were forced to endure a scene where Ramsay in all likelihood raped her on her wedding night (there seems to be some debate about that on social media, but it's hard to argue otherwise), and for good measure forced Theon/Reek to watch the entire episode as punishment for...well, whatever.

It's hard to describe how disturbing the scene was.  Watching it, I could feel my eyes filling with tears at the horror of it all.  For a show as violent as "Game of Thrones" has been, this was crossing a line.   This was not necessary, particularly now that I know that this is one storyline where the show has chosen to deviate from that to be found in the books.  Making it worse was the fact that, just a few minutes before, was a scene where Sansa was at her strongest - confronting a former parmour of Ramsay's as she was being bathed, demonstrating that she was a young woman without fear and prepared to take on what would no doubt amount to the challenge of her life.

And that's not even the worst of how this scene was handled.  To quote television critic Libby Hill:

"However, what really makes the wedding night rape of Sansa Stark notable is the fact that as brutal and honestly unnecessary as the moment is, the show doesn't even have the courtesy of letting Sansa's emotions about the event serve as the center of the moment.  Instead, it's Theon's face we see crumple and weep as he's forced to bear witness when Ramsay has his way with his new wife.  It's fine that Theon is upset.  I'm upset at being forced to watch that scene, too.  But I'm mostly upset because the show seems to have very little interest in how Sansa might be feeling about he nightmarish way her wedding night proceeded."

Sunday night was the final episode of "Mad Men," so understandably much of the "Twitterverse" was devoted to commenting on that.  But shortly after that episode ended, folks started to talk about...almost as if it were a rumor...something particularly horrible that had happened on "Game of Thrones."  Salon television critic Sonia Saraiya made a comment alluding to it, to which I responded "It was the single most disturbing scene of the entire series."

And I believe that today.  Because I'm not one for boycotts, I will keep watching - because I do honestly think the show is one of the greatest of our time.  But what happened last night is a serious misstep that cannot be excused.  And what makes it so sad is the fact that this really has been a wonderful season.  One that has used violence in a meaningful way to move the narrative forward, particularly in the suffering that Jon Snow and Daenerys endured when each felt the need in their positions of leadership to conduct executions.  One that also has featured wonderful visual moments, such as when Jorah and Tyrion sailed through the ruins of a lost civilization and looked upward in wonder at a dragon flying lazily through the sky.

But what happened last night was violence against women for no good reason.  It was a shame.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

They're Not Booing, They're Saying "DAAAAVE"

With a little over a week and 8 more shows to go,  I guess it's finally time to come to grips with the fact that we're about to see the last of David Letterman, at least on a nightly, big stage scale.

People have been writing for a long time that Dave is just a shadow of his former self, and that he no longer really cares about putting on a high quality show night after night.  What people have forgotten is that there were more than a few critics who started writing things like that about Johnny Carson sometime around 1980, and he still had over a decade left.  Those critics are mostly forgotten, and Carson's historic legacy lives on.  And such will, I suspect, be the case with David Letterman.

This isn't an argument that Letterman's show has been as good in recent years as it was when he first came to CBS in 1993, or in the halcyon days of his insanity on NBC in the mid-1980s.  There are nights when it doesn't seem as if Dave is having a whole lot of fun, but overall the show remains strong and its biggest problem is that it's being compared to nearly three decades of classic moments.  No one can win under that scenario - not Tom Hanks, not Bruce Springsteen, not even Bob Dylan.

David Letterman's place in TV history is secure - he's going to be remembered as the second greatest late night host of all time, because no one is ever going to dislodge Johnny Carson from the pinnacle.  He's probably never make that claim himself, but it's true.  Were there times when I wish he had tried something a little different, tried to stretch himself with different types of guests and interviews, much in the same way that Johnny did back when his show was 90 minutes long?  Sure.  But those are minor quibbles - and heck, I also wish that Bruce Springsteen had left four songs off of "The Rising."

I stuck Warren Zevon in the corner of this picture because my all-time favorite Letterman moment was back in 2002, the night that he dedicated his entire program to a celebration of Zevon's music and life.  Zevon was always one of Letterman's favorite musical artists, and YouTube is rife with great clips of Zevon appearances.  On this particular night in the fall of 2002, Zevon knew that he was dying, and he would in fact die 10 months after the show aired.  But it was not a maudlin night; it was a night to enjoy Warren's macabre sense of humor and listen to him sing some of his best songs.  It was also a night that proved that David Letterman was more than just the guy who made funny videos and the auteur of such bits as "Stupid Pet Tricks" and "Stupid Human Tricks."

I remember the first time I saw Letterman guest host the Tonight Show, sometime in early 1979.  Not even knowing who he was, I told my mom that this guy was going to be a big star.  And this time, I was right.

Farewell, David Letterman.  And thank you.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Kendrick Lamar, Part I

"To me, the album is perfect for right now.  If the world was happy, we'd give you a happy album.  But right now, we are not happy."

- Mark "Sounwave" Spears, producer, To Pimp a Butterfly

"What I admire most and enjoy most about this album is that it addresses African-Americans straight up and leaves the rest of the hip-hop audience to listen in if it wants. It’s a strong, brave, effective bid to reinstate hip-hop as black America’s CNN — more as op-ed than front page, but in the Age of Twitter that’s the hole that needs filling."

- Robert Christgau, review of To Pimp a Butterfly

You bought it?


I was going to give you notes and stuff to prepare your elder white self.

- Text exchange with Son #2, April 30

Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly is an epic work of such depth and complexity that in this piece I'm going to tackle only one song on an album that is 78 minutes in length.

Being a 55-year old "elder white self," it's safe to say that I'm not the target audience for this album.  Also, I've never been a "lyrics first" guy, and in rap, well...lyrics are sort of the point.  When I listen to an album like this it takes me a while to absorb the songs, although on one like "The Blacker the Berry," it's not all that difficult to get the point.

Understandably, it's that song that has drawn the most attention, but today I want to focus on "How Much a Dollar Cost," which I've had on continuous loop in my head for the past four days.  Even before I was entirely certain of what Lamar was saying in the song, the music drew me in.  Finding words to do it justice are difficult.  "Ominous" comes to mind, but also "stately," "compelling" and ultimately "thrilling."  Hearing it for the first time (during my commute into work, and I immediately proceeded to listen to it four consecutive times), I felt the thrill that comes with hearing a song you suspect on first listen will become an enduring classic.  That doesn't happen too often, and when it does it's with a song like "Gimmie Shelter," "Every Breath You Take" or "Rolling in the Deep."  That's the kind of power the song held, which was only strengthened when I - with the help of - began to hear and understand what the song was all about.

The song begins with the narrator, who has just "parked his luxury car," encountering a homeless man on the streets of South Africa, who asks him for ten rand (roughly, $1).  The assumption in the first verse is that the dollar will go towards crack:

Contributin' money for his pipe, I couldn't see it
He said, "My son, temptation is one thing that I've defeated
Listen to me I want a single bill from you 
Nothin' less, nothin' more"
I told him I ain't havin' it and closed my door
Tell me how much a dollar cost

In the second verse, the man won't stand down, and the narrator feels a growing sense of frustration:

I never understood someone beggin' for goods
Askin' for handouts, takin' it if they could
And this particular person just had it down pat
Starin' at me for the longest until he finally asked
Have you ever opened up Exodus 14?
A humble man is all that we ever need
Tell me how much a dollar cost

Near the end of the first two verses, you begin to hear a voice, almost hiding in the background, with what can almost describe as a plaintive moan.  On my first few listens I didn't even notice it, but once I did I couldn't get it out of my head - haunting may be the best way to describe it.

In the final verse, the narrator questions himself but then increases the intensity of his attacks on the man, until the dramatic and unexpected climax:

The jig is up, I seen you from a mile away losin' focus
And I'm insensitive, and I lack empathy
He looked at me and said "Your potential is bittersweet"
I looked at him and said "Every nickel is mines to keep"
He looked at me and said, "Know the truth, it'll set you free
You're lookin' at the Messiah, the son of Jehovah, the higher power
The choir that spoke the word, the Holy Spirit
The nerve of Nazareth, and I'll tell you how much a dollar cost
The price of having a spot in Heaven, embrace your loss, I am God"

And at this moment, Kendrick hands the song to Ronald Isley, who sings a beautiful plea for forgiveness that ends with these words:

Shades of grey will never change if I condone
Turn this page, help me change, so right my wrongs

Powerful doesn't do the song justice, and this is just one of many great (if complex, and sometimes hard to hear) moments on the record. No doubt, To Pimp a Butterfly is an album of great depth, one that both speaks to the times and reacts to them.

 "How Much a Dollar Cost":