Sunday, November 29, 2009

My View for the Next Six Days

Much better than the last time I was in San Diego. The Coronado Bridge in the background, the Marina Yacht Club in the foreground.

Alas, it is a work trip.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra

Mom and Dad treated the entire family to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra show yesterday afternoon at Arco Arena. Even though I'm an unabashed fan of Christmas music (and yes, the annual Musical Advent Calendar will begin in two short days), TSO isn't exactly my cup of tea. But having said that, the show was enjoyable, the production outstanding, and the musicianship impressive.

Most impressive was the devotion of the fans, most of whom were seeing the show for at least their second time.

Dinner afterward at Malabar was outstanding (Dana, you owe me one) - food and service alike.

And so another Thanksgiving has come and gone, and now I sit at the airport, waiting to begin the annual trek to the Annual Conference of the Association I work for. For the next six days, I will call the Marriott Hotel and Marina in San Diego my home. It ain't home, but it sure could be a lot worse!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Just Like Old Times

What better way to celebrate the day before Thanksgiving than a rousing game of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare?

Son #2, Friend of Son #1, and Son #1 (home from college for the holiday).

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

With All The Trimmings

A Thanksgiving tradition...the annual posting of one of my favorite essays, "With All The Trimmings" by Garrison Keillor. It first appeared in TIME Magazine in 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.

You Think It Doesn't Matter?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Top 25 of the 2000s, #12 - "The Wind," Warren Zevon


“Maybe a year before his diagnosis, I watched Warren on the Letterman show and I told Jorge, “You have to get Warren to a doctor right away.” Jorge says, “Why?” I said, “Because he’s very sick. Look at the way he looks.” Jorge says, “I just saw him. He’s fine.” I’m going, “Jorge, I swear to you, please.” – Yvonne Calderon, the wife of Jorge Calderon, who was the most prolific Zevon songwriting collaborator (18 songs) and the producer of “The Wind.”


“I kept saying, “Warren, go to the doctor.” “Twenty years I haven’t gone to the doctor. I don’t need to go to the doctor. It’s stress. It’s anxiety. It’s the workouts. I’ll cut back on the workouts a little bit.” He kept refusing, refusing, refusing. Then he said, “Brigette, I’m afraid if I go to the doctor I’m going to find out something I really don’t want to hear.” – Brigette Barr, Warren Zevon’s manager.


Press release, D.Baron media relations, September 12, 2002. Los Angeles, CA – Celebrated recording artist composer Warren Zevon, one of rock music's wittiest and most original songwriters, has been diagnosed with lung cancer which has advanced to an untreatable stage.


“He called and said, “I know what I want to do. I want to make music until I can’t make it anymore.” He said, “Do you think we can get some money from Danny?” “Absolutely.” I honestly was nervous that I wasn’t going to find the money, but then I thought, well, if I don’t find it at Artemis, I’ll find it somewhere else.” – Brigette Barr


“I never thought he would have the strength or focus to do a whole album, but I was happy to pay for whatever he wanted to do. I knew it was going to be good, and I knew it was going to be the last work. All the way through, I kept being amazed that he was still writing and that he was still doing it. Every time another song would come it was like a miracle.” – Danny Goldberg, Chairman and CEO of Artemis Records, 1999-2003.


“Once he found out he was sick, the level of clarity was something: not only have I never seen anything like it, I’ve never even heard of anything like it. Before that, I don’t know how much was conscious or unconscious or coincidence, but once he got sick, man, he was focused like a laser. “ – Danny Goldberg



“After the first songs were recorded, it got really hard. He never came back to the studio. He got very depressed, started drinking…He had started drinking before that. I didn’t know it. I found out after Letterman, when he came back from doing Letterman. And I told him, “Listen, I heard about this…I don’t blame you…but the only thing I have to tell you is watch it. Drinking on top of the pain medication that you have could be lethal. It would be a shame for something to happen before you can live out your life as long as you can.” He understood that. He said, “Oh, I just had to. I couldn’t do without it.” I said, “I understand, but please. You need to be very careful.” I was the only one around who knew what he got like when he was drunk. I didn’t blame him, but it got pretty bad. Just like the old days.” – Jorge Calderon


“The first time I was at the studio, they were doing “My Dirty Life and Times.” There’s that line “I’m looking for a woman with low self-esteem,” which he told me Billy Bob Thornton asked could he please sing that line. So, they remixed it specifically for that. I haven’t seen anybody actually write about that line yet, but at some point that’s going to be one of the line’s he’s known for.” – Danny Goldberg


“He called me one night and said, “I was writing poetry and it was really bad and flowery and esoteric, but I wrote this one line, “Disorder in the house.”…I said, “That’s a great line for a rock and roll song.” He said, “See what you can do with it.” – Jorge Calderon


“December 17th of 2002 [drummer Jim] Keltner and I put the track together for “Disorder in the House” and Bruce Springsteen was coming the next day to sing on it. We started putting the track together, and we said to Warren, “You play guitar, too.” But, he was so out of it that his timing was totally bad and we couldn’t get a track. I said, “Listen, why don’t you lay off and let me do this with Keltner.” So, we put the track together, then I said, “Okay, let’s sing it.” You can see him on the VH1 documentary and he’s trying, but he had taken painkillers and he had a flask in his bag that he was drinking from. He was totally unable to do it.” I had to tell him, “There’s no use going on. Bruce can’t sing to this. Come back tomorrow and do it fresh when you first get up. In other words, don’t start drinking. Just come here and do it and then you can do whatever you want.” I said, “Bruce is going to sing on top of you. It has to be good. You can do it. I know you can do it.” He gave me that whole trip about I’m dying and I said, I know, I know, but we’re here – celebrating today. So, if you’re alive, let’s do it.” The next morning…he apologized. “I’m really sorry. You had to take me to the side like in the old days to give the ‘You’ve got to straighten up, you’re too drunk’ rap, Jorge. I wouldn’t want to put you in this position.” I said, “Don’t worry. Let’s just do it right. Bruce is coming.” - Jorge Calderon


“It was a lovely experience for me. I enjoyed being there, and he let me play a lot of lead guitar, which he seemed to get a big kick out of, and so that was fun. We spent a few hours, and I had a feeling I wasn’t going to be seeing him again. We hugged and talked a little bit. At the time, he was concerned with what kind of treatment he was going to get. He was debating…I’m not sure if it was the chemotherapy…but I remember he said, “Gee, it’s a sin not to try to stay alive.” We just hugged and said good-bye. He played me a big piece of the record, and it was quite an afternoon. But, he was different. He was fatigued. You could see that he was fighting and had been worn down. He was struggling to get the record made, but on the other hand, he was very wide open and loving. He was appreciative of where he was standing and what he was doing at that time. It was a memorable afternoon.” - Bruce Springsteen



“When Springsteen played on “Disorder in the House,” which was a cosmic event as far as both Warren and I were concerned, there was something so magical about the energy that he brought. When he came in, I’m all ready for him to be picky about how he wants to record the guitar, the amp, whatever. Then, all he does is turn the amp all the way up. So, after he plays, he kills the amp. The speakers are ripped and torn, and the last sounds he made are those sounds on the album. He calls Warren the next day, and we had been knocked out by it at the time. We listen to it, and it was incredible. I said, “The amp died. It was like Sir Galahad at the moment he finds the Grail. There was nothing left for the amp to do – it had achieved the highest point of amp-dom and went right up to God at that point.” Warren thought that was the greatest thing on earth.” – Noah Snyder, recording engineer/co-producer, “The Wind.”


“Then, suddenly, it was done. He was so happy and so sad, it was an amazing time to be around him. He was mostly enjoying the attention…Ry Cooder was playing on his record. He was like a little kid. Ry had blown him off on all his previous records, and this one was just a spiritual album for everyone.” – Danny Goldberg

The Low Anthem - To Ohio

I'll be writing more about this band soon, but their "Oh My God, Charlie Darwin" is my favorite album of 2009.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

It's Called the Stanford Axe, But It Belongs to Cal

(San Francisco Chronicle photo by Michael Macor)


Beating Stanford as a 7 point underdog at the Farm to take the Cardinal out of the Rose Bowl race?

As the commercials say, priceless.

When the Bears fell behind 14-0 in the first quarter, it looked like Cal was in for a long, long night. But once they let Toby Gerhart get that 61-yard run out of his system early, they mostly held him in check for the rest of the evening. That seems like a strange thing to say about a running back who scored four touchdowns, but trust me - it could have been a lot worse.

Cal dominated the second quarter and easily could have led 21-14 at halftime, but I felt pretty good about them narrowing the gap to 14-10. The third quarter is when they really asserted themselves, marching up and down the field and allowing Stanford very little - and it sure didn't look like that was the same offense that rang up 50 on Oregon and USC.

The fourth quarter was the kind of Big Game craziness that we haven't seen in a while, and have rarely seen at Stanford (for some reason, most of the classic games have taken place in Berkeley). On the last drive it looked as if Stanford would pull it out, but fortunately for the Bears, quarterback Andrew Card picked exactly the right time to begin looking like the redshirt freshman that he is. Interception, game over, 34-28 win, and all of a sudden Cal moves ahead of "the hottest team in the country" in the Pac-10 standings.

It was a great game; it was a great Big Game; and just maybe it taught Jim Harbaugh a thing or two about karma. And now it looks like we'll have a great Big Game rivalry for a while yet, since the Cardinal's loss probably takes Harbaugh out of the running for a "higher profile" job.

But back to the most important point - Cal beat Stanford, for the 7th time in 8 seasons.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Top 25 Bonus - Tops of the Pops, Boys Edition

“Extreme Ways,” Moby. Moby is not likely to ever make another album as great as “Play,” but his releases over the past decade were remarkably diverse and consistently good. This song may be better known as “Bourne’s Theme.”

“Lose Yourself,” Eminem. Every now and then, I think that this might just be the most exciting piece of music released in the past 10 years.

“Hey Ya,” Outkast. And then at other times, I think that this might just be the most exciting piece of music released in the past 10 years.

Don't Look Now...

...but the most exciting pitcher of our time is a guy who looks like he's 16 years old, and is currently facing a misdemeanor charge for marijuana possession.

This doesn't bother me...I just thought it was worth mentioning.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Top 25 Bonus: Tops of the Pops, Girls Edition

Some honorable mentions to keep the momentum going. Stay tuned...#12 is on the way.

“Since U Been Gone,” Kelly Clarkson. Never bought the album, but always loved the song. Still the best single to come out of "American Idol."

“White Flag,” Dido. From the excellent "Life for Rent," which struck me almost like an easy listening version of Joy Division - and I really mean that as a compliment.

“Hands Clean,” Alanis Morissette. From "Under Rug Swept." I first heard this song on Letterman; I had fallen asleep on the couch, and awoke to Alanis and the band playing the hell out of it. I was shocked at the time; I'm still surprised today to hear her pull this one off as effectively as she did.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


I'm a firm believer in the adage that you learn more about an announcing team during a bad game than you do from their work on a good one (actually, I'm not even sure that's an adage - maybe I just made it up). As good as Al Michaels and John Madden were for good games, they were pretty bad on the bad ones. Before you knew it, the conversation would turn to whatever celebrity's path John's Maddencruiser had crossed that week, or the turducken, or one of Al's occasional forays into the political world.

So I'm prepared to say that last night's game - which was a real stinker, a terrible game - was the best job I've seen this year from the current MNF crew. Gruden and Jaworski never gave up on the analysis, and it was as if they were offended by what they were seeing on the field - genuinely angry, for instance, that Brady Quinn kept making the same mistake over and over again. And while there is still way too much yelling, at least I'm hopeful that the team can continue to improve and become one of the better ones on the tube - especially now that we know Gruden plans to take at least three years off from coaching. I'd almost pick them ahead of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms right now, based on their blah performance Sunday morning covering a game that was actually exciting - somehow managing to suck the life right out of it.

There was also a nice production moment last night, when they showed a picture of ex-Browns star Leroy Kelly drawn by a young Jon Gruden, who apparently was a passionate Browns fan as a kid. Nice moment.

But the best moment of the night, and the best line I've heard in a football game all season, was when Gruden, obviously still feeling the sting from the Browns leaving Cleveland for Baltimore, made the comment, with some passion behind it, "You could never have the Baltimore Ravens play a throwback uniform game, because if they did, they'd be the Cleveland Browns."

Good one, Jon.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Top 25 Honorable Mention: "Hard Candy," Counting Crows

Counting Crows were not what you'd call prolific during this decade. They released just two albums: "Hard Candy," which was their best since the amazing debut, and last year's "Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings," which had its moments but overall was a disappointment.

But the highlights of "Hard Candy" were as good as anything the band has ever recorded, including the title song, which they perform in this clip.

And as many fans already know, Adam Duritz went to Cal, which is always a bonus during Big Game week. He's a huge Cal athletics booster, and on occasion has even worked as a sideline reporter during football games. You can bet your bottom dollar that he won't be wearing any red this week.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Friday, November 13, 2009

Top 25 Albums of the 2000s, #13 - "Fleet Foxes"

The trend of eponymously titled albums continues with "Fleet Foxes," the band's magnificent debut album, released just a little over a year ago.

Last November 3, I wrote about the album in a post I called "How Fleet Foxes Saved Me From the Presidential Campaign." It was a rant against the banality of the then-ongoing presidential campaign, and the morass into which the public discourse over that campaign had sunk (a morass that we will probably revisit next week, when Sarah Palin's book is released). But within the ranting, I also made some reasonably intelligent (or so I think) comments about the album:

"...more than any other single piece of music I’ve listened to in the past month, Fleet Foxes has provided an avenue for escape from the insanity of this campaign. Based in Seattle, the band is probably about to hit it big, because if Rolling Stone writes a feature on you, that usually means something. The band describes its music as “baroque harmonic pop jams,” and that description is as apt as anything that I could come up with. From the first strains of “Sun It Rises,” which sound like something straight out of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, to the end of “Oliver James,” the album is a perfectly realized piece of music, from a band that sounds as if it has been recording for twenty years, rather than just the few that it has been together.In the Rolling Stone article, band leader Robin Pecknold makes reference to The Beach Boys and Pet Sounds, and you can hear some of that influence on Fleet Foxes, particularly in the harmonies and the falsetto singing. On some songs, particularly “White Winter Hymnal” and “He Doesn’t Know Why,” the only way to do the vocals justice is to call them breathtakingly beautiful.

Interestingly, although the band is American, the record makes me think of some British artists of long (and even longer) ago: Aztec Camera, Big Country, and even Nick Drake.The musicianship is also extraordinary, although it may be too laid back for some – think of a tight as a drum Grateful Dead, and you get the idea. There is nary a note out of place, and that might be off-putting for some. But when you’re looking to escape a poisonous atmosphere like the one surrounding the presidential campaign, I can’t think of a better alternative. The middle section of the album – “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” through “He Doesn’t Know Why” – is probably its strongest, though right now my favorite song would have to be “Blue Ridge Mountains.”

The line I'd point to is "perfectly realized piece of music," and it's a claim that I'd stick with today. "Fleet Foxes" has that rare ability to transport the listener to another world - one where the stress and the little difficulties of everyday life just melt away. There isn't a weak song on the album, and one can only hope that the band didn't use up all the good ones on the debut. But even if that proves to be true, there will always be "Fleet Foxes" - my pick for the #13 album of the decade.

Quote of the Day

"Nothing can replace the aesthetic heft of an LP, or the sensual comfort of analog grooves being so charged by the physical friction of a diamond stylus."

- Thurston Moore, Sonic Youth

Thursday, November 12, 2009

25 Years Ago Today...

...Madonna's album "Like A Virgin" was released.

Top 25 Honorable Mention: U2's "All That You Can't Leave Behind"

When I first started thinking about this list, I would have all but guaranteed that U2’s “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” would be somewhere on it. But after repeated listens, it dawned on me that this is really not a great album, but rather a very good one that has three magnificent songs – all among the band’s very best – on it: “Beautiful Day,” “Elevation,” and “When I Look at the World.” The rest isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, but nor is it good enough – especially in comparison to those three – to be considered anything but high quality filler.

But – certainly good enough to merit an Honorable Mention.

“Beautiful Day”


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

My Favorite Album Title of All Time

"The Difference Between Me and You Is That I'm Not on Fire," mclusky

Top 25 of the 2000s, #14 - "Liz Phair"

Upon its release in 2003, “Liz Phair” was widely reviled by a vast majority of critics. And the critics didn’t stop with attacking the album – they attacked Phair herself, essentially accusing her of betrayal – betrayal of her artistic integrity, betrayal of her fans, betrayal of her debut album, “Exile in Guyville.” Some examples:

“In recent interviews, Phair has been upfront about her hopes of mainstream success, and claims full awareness that Liz Phair is likely to alienate many of her original fans. What she doesn't seem to realize is that a collection of utterly generic rocked-out pop songs isn't likely to win her many new ones. It's sad that an artist as groundbreaking as Phair would be reduced to cheap publicity stunts and hyper-commercialized teen-pop. But then, this is "the album she has always wanted to make"-- one in which all of her quirks and limitations are absorbed into well-tested clich├ęs, and ultimately, one that may as well not even exist.”

- Matt LeMay, Pitchfork

“Now fast forward ahead ten years. Liz Phair now has a mere four albums under her belt, and today, this once-adored darling of indie rock is a mere shadow of her former self. She's left Chicago, gotten divorced, moved to Los Angeles, has taken singing lessons, and has employed some high-priced teen pop producers to help her sell albums. The resulting album, Liz Phair, is a highly overproduced, shallow, soulless, confused, pop-by-numbers disaster that betrays everything the woman stood for a decade ago, and most heinously, betrays all her original fans. In contrast to her of her infamous, audacious "flashing" cover photo for Exile in Guyvile, Phair's new album cover has her sitting, legs spread-eagled, a guitar placed suggestively between her legs, her hair stylishly tousled, looking like a cheesy Maxim photo shoot. It's an album by a woman who has completely lost touch with what made her music so great in the past; Ms. Phair has never been one to shy away from speaking her mind, and her new record is nothing more than a hearty "fuck you" to everyone who bought her first two albums, as she tries to become the next Avril Lavigne. Only, she fails at that, too, in spectacular fashion.”

- Adrien Begrand, PopMatters

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the first paragraphs of both reviews make reference to the indie success that Phair enjoyed with her debut album. That’s what really matters to both critics, and that’s why what they wrote about “Liz Phair” strikes me as so dishonest. In their own minds, they have defined what Phair was, what she stood for, and though they would probably deny it, the kind of music that she should have kept right on making. Confronted with something different (and my God, she used Avril Lavigne’s producers! Heresy!), they don’t know what to do, because ultimately the success of such a record would negate everything that they stand for.

And what’s really bullshit is the way that the latter review blasts Phair for her “stylishly tousled hair” and a “cheesy Maxim photo shoot,” when I’d be willing to be that half of the little indie punks fantasized for years about them being the ones having fun with “the blowjob queen.” The way this album was treated has always pissed me off, and it still does.

If “Liz Phair” was a crappy record, that would be one thing. But it isn’t – it’s a great record, and it can stand right alongside “Guyville” as her best work. If Phair did anything wrong, it was to stupidly say that the record would alienate her original fan base. That was like adding gasoline to the fire, and if she probably should have just stuck with something like “well, I hope they like it, but if they don’t, cool.”


“Red Light Fever”

“Rock Me”

The other song I want to mention is "Little Digger," which Phair wrote about her young son's first encounter with her new boyfriend. How anyone in their right mind could call such a song a "betrayal" of anything is beyond me.

Believe it or not, I’m really not the only person in the world who thinks this. None other than Robert Christgau loved the album (the only major critic I’ve ever been able to find who did):

“Scandalized? How dumb. I can't explain the technical stuff, but I'd describe the Matrix's sound with Lavigne as "generalized." No matter who produced what (which since I did get all five right must mean something), that's how “Liz Phair” comes across--keybs everywhere, voice big and in tune. Only with Phair, this generalization--while definitely ambitious, tsk tsk--is also an act of love (toward Christina fans and such) and a reaffirmation of the sexual appetites she's indulged since she was exiled in Guyville, a sobriquet she devised to insult the indie world oh so long ago. Five years later, she put in quality time as a matron-artiste; now, single again at 36, she further insults the indie world by successfully fusing the personal and the universal, challenging lowest-common-denominator values even as it fellates them. You want her to express herself? She just did.”

You tell ‘em, Robert.

Top 25 Honorable Mention: Beck

I feel really bad about leaving Beck off out of the Top 25. He released five albums over the course of the decade, and they’re all of “Honorable Mention” quality. The two best are “Sea Change” and “Guero,” and in honor of those (both of which came close to cracking the list), here are my two favorite songs from each:

“Lost Cause”

“Lonesome Tears”

“Que Onda Guero”

“Farewell Ride”

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Season 25

My dad and I attended our first Sacramento Kings game of the season tonight - the 25th season for the Kings, and our 25th season as part of a season ticket group.

This means that I've now been going to Sacramento Kings games for almost half of my life, which makes me feel just a bit old.

We've been through thick, thin and thinner with the Kings, and with a 4-4 record so far this season it looks (we hope) like they might be heading in the right direction. Hope springs eternal.

Because of their recent drought, our season ticket group was able to upgrade its seats this year without paying more for the tickets. This photo shows our view, which is pretty darn good. Now if they can only develop a team to match the view, we'll be in pretty good shape.

Giving Thanks Where They Are Due

I want to thank the kind folks at largehearted boy for linking to my Top 25 of the Decade list.

For new readers landing here from that link, welcome! Hope you enjoy your stay.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Top 25 of the 2000s, #15 - The Baseball Project, "Volume One: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails"

Since this album just came out last year, I'm going to reprint my original review, and then add some comments at the end. Here goes:

When I was growing up, the All-Star Game was a really big deal to me. I would root fervently for the National League, and back in those days, the National League always won.

One of the most exciting All-Star Games was in 1970, at the late, unlamented Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati. The American League led the entire game, until a furious rally tied it in the bottom of the ninth. The game remained at 4-4 until the bottom of the twelfth, when Pete Rose bowled over Ray Fosse to score the winning run, in one of the most famous (and most replayed) All-Star Game plays of all time. At the time, Fosse was an up-and-coming star, and Rose was on his way to becoming a legend (in ways good and bad), in the first year of the Big Red Machine. Fosse was injured on the play – seriously enough for him to writhe in agony on the ground around home plate for several minutes. He went on to have a solid career, but never approached the potential that many felt he had before that fateful play.

The first song on Vol 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails, the new album by The Baseball Project, is “Past Time.” It begins as follows:

When Campy Campaneris played all nine positions in a game.
When Pete Rose demolished Ray Fosse he was never the same.
31 wins and an album on Capitol for Denny McClain.
So long ago, so long, Pastime, are you past your prime?

When listeners hear those words, their reaction is most likely to fall into one of two categories: “Wow, these guys really know their baseball,” or “Huh?” But even if your reaction is the latter, you might want to give Vol. 1 a shot. Because sometimes, the best music comes from where you least expect it. If someone had told me six months ago that my favorite album of the year would be an album consisting entirely of songs about baseball and baseball players, I probably would have laughed, or sneered and said “yeah, right.”

The brainchild of Dream Syndicate founder Steve Wynn and longtime R.E.M. sideman Scott McCaughey (joined by drummer Linda Pitmon and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck on various stringed instruments), Vol. 1 is an amazing piece of work, one which captures both the grand history and landscapes of baseball, while providing insight into some of the game’s most popular and/or colorful figures, among them Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Big Ed Delahanty, Fernando Valenzuela, Curt Flood, Jackie Robinson, Harvey Haddix, Black Jack McDowell, Satchel Paige, and Mark McGwire. Those players ran the gamut of personalities and played in vastly different eras, but all had great stories behind them - from the legendary “12-inning perfect game that wasn’t” by Haddix, to the trials and tribulations of Ted Williams, supplanted only by Barry Bonds as the game’s least-loved superstar.

What may be most amazing about the album is the way each song gets into the heads of these latter-day heroes, and paints a picture that feels real, and altogether realistic. For example, you can easily imagine Curt Flood (in “Gratitude (for Curt Flood)”) saying something like this:

Now everyone’s walking like they’re rolling in dough.
Throwing all their money around just for show.
Acting like everything is coming to them and knowing that more is just around the bend.
But I’m the one who paved the way and laid my body in the road so you can walk on it today.
I stood right up when they tried to put me down.
You’re so high up, you forget to look down!

You call that gratitude?

Or, Jackie Robinson saying something along these lines (from “Jackie’s Lament”):

If I ever get the chance I’ll let them know just how I feel.
I’d like to speak my mind but that just wasn’t in the deal.
It’s never being easy being first to walk down any road.
I’d trade the glory just to crawl out from this heavy load.
You should hear the things they say behind my back and when I turn the other cheek, they only sharpen their attack.

Which is really just a different way of saying, as Bill James did in the Historical Baseball Abstract:

“…Because so much attention was focused on Robinson, his skills may have been driven more deeply into the public’s mind than the quiet skills of a Red Schoendienst, a Nellie Fox. That is fair, too, for with that attention came a kind of pressure that perhaps no other major league player has had to contend with. Jackie Robinson consumed that pressure and was nourished by it."

Not every song on the album carries the sadness of those two; there is also much humor to be found on Vol. 1 - not to mention a good (but healthy) dollop of nostalgia. But the album’s best songs – those above, plus “Broken Man” (about Mark McGwire), “Long Before My Time” (Sandy Koufax), “Sometimes I Dream of Willie Mays,” “Fernando,” “The Closer” – all just contain a bit of melancholy - recognizing that in this sport, failure and doubt are on the field at all times, right beside fame and glory.

The music is also great – if you didn’t know that “Fernando” and “The Yankee Flipper,” for instance, were about baseball, you could appreciate them just for the depth of the music. Truth be told, there isn’t a bad song on the album.

New thoughts:

In a subsequent post, I gave myself a hard time for failing to mention "Ted F*cking Williams," without question the funniest song on the album. Anyone who's ever read "Ball Four" knows the story of how Ted Williams used to psyche himself up during batting practice - "I'm Ted F*cking Williams, and I'm the greatest f*cking hitter in baseball!"

In the past few months I've had this in heavy rotation on my MP3 player, and I've never gotten tired of a single song. But the one that's grown the most for me is "Harvey Haddix," which tells the story of the pitcher who probably pitched the greatest game in the history of baseball, but has very little to show for it today.

I won't deny it - one's enjoyment of this album will be increased by a significant amount if they are a baseball fan. Notwithstanding that, it is a great album - #15 of the decade, in fact.

Bruce and "The River"

Last night at Madison Square Garden, Bruce Springsteen did something he’s never done before, and is unlikely to ever do again – he played “The River” in its entirety, in sequence.

As this year’s tour has neared an end, Bruce and the band have taken to playing entire albums in sequence, within the scope of an entire concert. This was something they first tried in May 2008, when at a fundraising show they played both “Born to Run” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town” from start to finish. But until this past weekend, only three albums had gotten the full in-sequence treatment: the two aforementioned works, and “Born in the U.S.A.”

But Bruce obviously wanted to do something special for the Garden party, and this past weekend added two more albums to the mix: “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle” on Saturday night, and “The River” on Sunday night. And while the first show would have been fun, I would have given just about anything to be at last night’s show.

Even though I know “The River” isn’t Bruce’s best album – I still get annoyed every time I hear “Hungry Heart” in concert – it may be the one with the most personal meaning for me. It was the album that came out just a couple of weeks before I saw my first Springsteen concert, the concert where I heard him sing 17 out of the 20 songs on the record (and yes, in those days they really were records). It was my first quarter at Cal, and everything about that first quarter was burned into my memory – the experience of being away from home for the first time, what it was like to be in “real” college classes, the camaraderie in the dorms, my first (and worst) failure in a real college mid-term –it’s all up there somewhere – if not like it was just yesterday, like it was a lot more recent than nearly 30 years ago.

All I can say is that I hope they filmed this show.

As the tour winds down, a lot of people are beginning to get the feeling that this just might be the last time for the E Street Band, at least as we’ve all known it for so long. And yeah, I know they’ve been saying stuff like that about the Stones for almost as long as the E Street Band has been together, but the simple fact of the matter is that none of them are getting any younger, and Clarence in particular is probably not up to many (if any) more tours like the one that is about to wrap up.

So if these are the last shows, at least in the current incarnation of the band, they’re certainly going out in style. Below, reproduced verbatim, are the notes from last night’s show on the Backstreets setlist page.

November 8 / Madison Square Garden / New York, NY

Notes: Context has always been important to Bruce Springsteen's music, and he reinforced that notion with a galvanizing performance of The River in its entirety for the first time on Sunday night at Madison Square Garden. In a precise, exhilarating, and high-energy show, Springsteen faithfully reproduced all 20 of its songs. Most have appeared in shows on various tours since the album's 1980 release, and usually to great effect. But hearing the songs in their original order left many in the building gasping in astonishment.

Springsteen introduced the 20-song cycle as a "gateway to my future writing," singling out "Stolen Car" and the title track as seed work for Tunnel of Love and Nebraska, respectively. He also mentioned the album was "made during a recession," an obvious connection to the hard times of the present. Then he lit it up, and as he made his way from "The Ties That Bind" to "Wreck on the Highway," Springsteen positively radiated with passion and energy.

On the rockers, Bruce got physical: that was evident by the last verse of "Jackson Cage," where he sang with the force and conviction of a young artist trying to win over an audience with a new song. That investment extended to the fun rockers, too: "Crush on You" and "I'm a Rocker" weren't simply dusted off for the night. Rather, they were full-tilt, all-in exhibits A and B of what attracts fans to rock 'n' roll in the first instance, and to Bruce Springsteen's music in particular. Simply put, Bruce couldn't have put any more of himself into those two songs if he had tried. He prowled, vamped, sang, and played guitar as if his very life depended on it. Call it Springsteen uncorked, vintage 1980.

But there's another side to the music from this album, and there Springsteen made an equally resonant connection. "I Wanna Marry You" stood out, as did Bruce, singing at the front of the stage, maracas in hand to keep time. His voice sounded sweet and soulful, his delivery balanced in sentiment and sincerity, and he ended it by taking Patti Scialfa for a slow dance. "Fade Away" was equally resplendent, but this time Bruce ended on his knees as the song faded away. "Drive All Night" was perhaps the evening's emotional high-water mark: the band found one groove after another, and Bruce asked Clarence Clemons for a second sax solo to put a stamp on the crescendo. Steve Van Zandt had a great night too. He was all over the guitar for "Crush on You" and "Cadillac Ranch," and his background vocals — as integral to the album as his role as its co-producer — sounded exactly as they should have: right behind Bruce's voice in the mix. That made for an especially strong version of "The Price You Pay" in only its second appearance since 1981. Props, too, to Charles Giordano for his stately organ playing on this song.

At the outset, Springsteen said that the album would be played like this just once because "it's too long to do it again." Clocking in just shy of two hours, The River felt like a show in and of itself. Afterward, he wasn't ready to end the set, and appeared unknowing of how to end the set. So he departed markedly from his handwritten list of songs, adding a thunderous "Atlantic City," and a romping “Seven Nights to Rock.” In the encore, he treated the audience to a work-up of and then a fine, off-the-cuff "Sweet Soul Music." Another treat appeared as Bruce led the band through "Can't Help Falling in Love." Throughout, he appeared to be a bottomless well of energy. At the end he escorted his vocalists to the platform at the back of the pit to conclude "Higher and Higher."

On this night, where the past met the present, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band lifted the veil, lifted themselves, their music and their audience. Bruce may be wise to let this performance stand alone, because it's one that even he probably can't replicate.- (Jonathan Pont reporting)

Setlist: Wrecking Ball (with Curt Ramm)/The Ties That Bind/Sherry Darling/Jackson Cage/Two Hearts/Independence Day/Hungry Heart/Out in the Street/Crush on You/You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)/I Wanna Marry You/The River/Point Blank/Cadillac Ranch/I'm a Rocker (with Curt Ramm)/Fade Away/Stolen Car/Ramrod/The Price You Pay/Drive All Night/Wreck on the Highway/Waitin' on a Sunny Day/Atlantic City/Badlands/Born to Run/Seven Nights to Rock/Sweet Soul Music (with Curt Ramm)/No Surrender/American Land (with Curt Ramm)/Dancing in the Dark/Can't Help Falling in Love/Higher and Higher

Shake Those Monday Morning Blues

Bruce on Dave's last NBC show, June 1993. If this doesn't get you jump-started for the day, nothing will.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

A Top 25 Special - "13 Months in 6 Minutes," The Wrens

"13 Months in 6 Minutes," from an Honorable Mention album, "The Meadowlands."

Until I read the lyrics posted on the YouTube page (and I'm not sure they're entirely correct, but they're close enough), I really didn't care what they were - the song is that hypnotic. The snippets of words that you catch make it obvious that it's a breakup song, but what makes it special is the way the band slowly builds the intensity - the way one verse runs into the next, all while the instrumentation ups the ante.

Great, great song.

Cats Taking in the Sun on a Sunday Afternoon

Top 25 of the 2000s, #16 - "Kala," M.I.A.

When I first wrote about "Kala" upon its release in 2007, I wrote: "The best part of it is that it just sounds exciting – music that you want to tell someone about..."

Nothing since then has changed my estimation of the album. From the very first track, "Bamboo Banga," "Kala" establishes a level of vitality and intensity that just never lets up.

The album is as exotic as anything you'll ever hear - in terms of instrumentation and effects, everything but the kitchen sink can be heard on "Kala" - in his review, Robert Christgau identified "zooms and scrapes and grunts and whistles and kiddie voices and animal cries, weird Asian drums and horns, down-home melodica and didgeridoo," and even that leaves out the gunshots and cash register that make "Paper Planes" so memorable.

But the album comes down to the beats, and M.I.A.'s uncanny ability to wrap her voice (which, based on the live videos that can be found on YouTube, really isn't that strong) around them.

I wish I could rank it higher, but we're starting to get into some pretty head territory now.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Something You'd Never Hear on American Golf Coverage

So we're sitting here watching the HSBC World Golf Championships in Shanghai. Watching a golf tournament live, one that's taking place on Sunday morning on the other side of the world, is an interesting experience in and of itself. Watching Tiger play in the final group with Phil is always entertaining.

Tiger is playing quite poorly thus far, and as I've commented elsewhere, watching Tiger when he's not playing well is never a pleasant experience.

As good as some of them are, you'd never hear an announcer on one of the U.S. networks say anything of the sort. But since this tournament is being covered by the European Tour crew on the Golf Channel, it's a whole new ball game.

So you actually hear one of the announcers saying something like (and this isn't an exact quote, but it's close enough), "well, there's that look again, and when you're viewing Tiger when he's playing like this, it's not exactly what you'd call pleasurable for the viewer."

Your Handy Guide To Halftime Coach Interviews

The coach who is leading will say:

1. "We executed well."
2. "We made plays."
3. "They're a great team. We just have to keep up the pressure."
4. "There's a lot of time left. We need to make the right adjustments."

The coach who is behind will say:

1. "We just need to execute better."
2. "We're just not making the plays."
3. "We'll make some adjustments at halftime, and we'll be right back in this thing."
4. "There's a lot of football to be played."

What I'd love to hear them say:

1. "For Christ's sake, you don't honestly expect me to tell you what adjustments we're planning to make, do you?"

2. "Have you ever watched a f*cking football game?"

3. "My _______ (fill in position) is a f*cking idiot who shouldn't even be at this school. What do you want me to do about it?"

4. "What are you doing after the game?"

Top 25 of the 2000s, #17 - "Get Behind Me Satan"

You can say what you will about The White Stripes, but one thing no one will ever be able to take away from them is this:

Fans chanting “Seven Nation Army”

You can probably count on one hand the number of songs that have become synonymous with athletic events: “All Right Now,” “Rock ‘n Roll Part 2,” a handful of others. “Seven Nation Army” is on that short list thanks to European football fans, but now it’s starting to catch on in the U.S. as well – you hear it a lot at college football games, and I’m pretty sure I’ve heard snippets of that instantly recognizable chant at pro game as well.

“Blue Orchid”

“Seven Nation Army” isn’t even on “Get Behind Me Satan,” the subject of this piece and the #17 album on my Top 25 of the 2000s. “Blue Orchid” leads off the album and is probably the closest to a guitar anthem on it. But guitar anthems are not the strength of the record; there are several better ones on the albums that preceded it, “White Blood Cells” and “Elephant.” This one gains its strength from the slower ones; the acoustic tunes on which you hear little more than Jack White on acoustic guitar, or the piano. When it first came out, “Satan” reminded me a lot of the moments when Led Zeppelin would put away the bombast and Robert Plant would move into “dreamy” mode – and you’ll just have to trust me that I mean that as a compliment.

“I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet)"

In addition to the tune performed in the above clip, standouts include “As Ugly As I Seem” and “Forever For Her (Is Over For Me).” But overall, “Get Behind Me Satan” achieves a consistency that Jack and Meg have never reached elsewhere. The highlights of “Elephant” may be stronger, but overall the follow-up gets the prize – at least in my book – for the title of their best album.

Friday Night Lights

When Pleasant Grove High School opened in the fall of 2005, son #1 was a freshman, part of the first class that would attend the school for all four years. As with most high schools, Pleasant Grove opened with just two classes, which meant that their sports programs were strictly of the startup variety - undermanned.

In the school's third year of existence, the Eagles football team came out of nowhere to finish 9-1 in the regular season, and win a playoff game. Son #1 was a member of the marching band and mom was in the band booster club, so I'd attend some of the home games, but wasn't really into it that much. But with each game, you could see the attendance increase, and you could see the building of a community culture supporting the team.

Last fall, the Eagles proved that the previous year hadn't been a fluke. They finished the season 8-2, but really caught fire in the second half of the season, and rode a wave of momentum all the way into the section championship game - which they lost to perennial powerhouse St. Mary's of Stockton. By that time, I was a convert.

This season, the culture behind the team is in full bloom, and son #2 and I have been there at every home game (and one away game). Last night was probably the most exciting game we've seen yet, matching the 6-2 Eagles against the 7-1 Folsom Bulldogs. It looked like we might be in for a long night when Folsom scored on their second play from scrimmage, but the Eagles bounced right back with a TD of their own. Unfortunately, what would become the storyline of the night was foretold when a bad snap led to a missed extra point.

PG took a 12-7 lead into halftime, but what we didn't know was that quarterback Taylor Congdon had been injured late in the first half, and would be unable to return. Without Congdon's passing prowess in the Eagles' arsenal, Folsom was able to key on the run, denying PG again and again. But a combination of scrappy defense and Folsom turnovers kept them in the game, and midway through the 4th quarter, the score remained 12-7.

And that's when all hell broke loose. You could see that the defense was gassed, and Folsom was finally able to take the lead with about 5 minutes to play. In an odd decision, they went for two (sure, it would have given them a 3-point lead, but how often do you see field goals kicked in high school games?), and when they failed, the score was 13-12. I thought that was it, and when the Eagles faced 4th-and-5 at midfield at the 2:30 mark, that seemed to be it. The Folsom fans were all on their feet, and they were loud.

And then, a miracle - a screen pass which came within inches of hitting the ground, caught on a shoestring by Kenny Taylor, who rumbled all the way to the end zone. Bedlam on our side, and after a two-point conversion, a 20-13 lead. But now the defense was really gassed, and Folsom's offense is really good, and before you knew it, the score was tied at 20 and we were heading into overtime. I have to admit that I didn't know how high school games dealt with their ties - each team gets the ball at the 10-yard line, and has four plays to score (or not). Folsom had the ball first and scored their TD, and then on a great Wildcat play, Jalen Saunders scored for the Eagles.

And then, in what might just be the worst way to lose a game, we missed the extra point. Game over. Which is really a shame, because the Eagles' kicker is awesome - he routinely sends his kickoffs into the end zone, and I don't think he'd missed one all season. But something about that bad snap seemed to mess with his head, and...well, I hope he doesn't dwell on it.

That leaves PG in an "Iron Triangle" situation with their closest rivals, Folsom and Monterey Trail (Monterey Trail beat Folsom, PG beat Monterey Trail, Folsom beat PG). With one league game left to play, I think PG can still make the playoffs, but what was obvious last night is that their offense isn't the same without Congdon. If he can't return, that could be it.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Song of the Night

"Murder in the City," by the Avett Brothers.

I get most of my new music tips from a friend at work these days; this one looks to be a real winner. Listen closely to the lyrics, particularly in the second verse and the last lines.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009


A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that I couldn't imagine that Sean Penn's performance in "Milk" could have matched up to Mickey Rourke's performance in "The Wrestler."

What can I say - it did.

Penn's performance is the polar opposite of Rourke's. In "The Wrestler," it's impossible to separate Rourke the actor from the character he plays. Rourke's personality, and his history, fuel the performance. On the other hand, Penn completely disappears into Harvey Milk; he becomes Harvey Milk. Every moment that you see Randy "The Ram" onscreen in "The Wrestler," you're thinking about Mickey Rourke. But when you see Harvey Milk onscreen in "Milk," Sean Penn never crosses your mind. Is one performance "better" than the other? I have no idea. They're both great.

And "Milk" is a great film. Harvey Milk himself, no doubt, would be amused over the controversy surrounding Governor Schwarzenegger's signature on legislation designating May 22 as "Harvey Milk Day." While a man of great passion, he was also a man of great humor, and had the good sense (a trait so many modern politicians lack) not to take himself too seriously. I can't say that I'm an expert on the details of Harvey Milk's life, but I know enough about them to think that the details of "Milk" get just about everything right. And the film doesn't try to portray Harvey as a saint; for example, even his best friends and colleagues are mystified (and perhaps even offended) by Milk's relationship with Jack Lira, which quite obviously was based on nothing intellectual.

The supporting cast is excellent, but none is better than Josh Brolin, who manages to elicit a bit of sympathy for one of the least sympathetic human beings of my lifetime. Again, I don't know enough to know whether that's what Dan White was really like, but it certainly felt real.

All in all, a great movie.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Random College Football Notes

- I've got to give the Cal Bears a lot of credit for salvaging their season after back-to-back blowout losses against Oregon and USC. Three consecutive wins have taken their record to 6-2, and the Bears don't face a team the rest of the season that they can't beat. Win out, and they could end up in a pretty nice bowl game. On the other hand, none of the teams they're facing the rest of season is a pushover, and we could be looking at a repeat performance in the Emerald Bowl.

- It doesn't happen that often, so when USC gets blown out like they did at the hands (or the webbed feet, if you prefer) of the Oregon Ducks on Saturday night, it is an occasion to savor. And get blown out they did - their defense was atrocious, and faced with the pressure of having to keep up in a shootout, the offense just couldn't keep up.

- You can count me among those who wrote off Oregon after their disastrous opening night loss to Boise State, so now I have little choice but to bow down to the Ducks. Right now, there is no team in the country playing better, and even if the pollsters don't allow them to overcome that opening loss, they're almost a lock to make the Rose Bowl, where they'll likely annihilate whatever team the Big Ten sends out west (sorry, Iowa).

- Every year brings with it a unique BCS controversy, and every year you hear pundits saying that this is the controversy that will finally result in a playoff. Well, this year's unique wrinkle is that Thursday night game up in Idaho. I doubt there are many people in the country (outside of Idaho) who honestly believe that Boise State would win a rematch with the Ducks on a neutral field, but at the same time you can't take that win away from them. What's a voter to do? Right now it may not matter as much, but if the right teams lose at the right time, then the voters will have a very difficult decision to ponder.

- I really hate Florida.

- I watched the entire Iowa game Saturday, but I shouldn't have bothered - the 4th quarter would have sufficed. For three quarters, the Hawkeyes looked awful, and did very little to make viewers understand how the team could be undefeated and ranked 4th in the country. And then, in the 4th quarter - an explosion. Right now, I can't imagine them beating any of the teams ranked above them, but make no bones about it - they know how to win.