Tuesday, December 31, 2013

13 Favorite Albums of 2013

It was a great year for music; at least the music that I like.  In recent years it's been a chore to come up with 10 albums deserving of a Top Ten, but this year I easily could have stretched the list to 20 (maybe even 25).  But it being 2013, I'll settle for 13.

Later on, I'll designate the "honorable mentions" that didn't quite make the list - albums that I enjoyed a great deal, and would likely have cracked the Top Ten in other years.  And just think - in less than two weeks, the new releases by Bruce Springsteen and Rosanne Cash will be out.  Happy New Year indeed!

Without further ado...

13) Magpie and the Dandelion, The Avett Brothers.  I may have underrated "The Carpenter," the brothers' last effort, but this felt like a return to form, with the production slickness turned down just a notch and the quirkiness of the songs a little closer to the Avett standard.

12) The Diving Board, Elton John.  This was the kind of album from a seasoned veteran that makes you wonder, "what the hell have you been doing for the past 25 years?"  Elton was never one for making perfect albums, so the consistency of this is as surprising as it is welcome.  His collaborations with Leon Russell and T-Bone Burnett have clearly reignited his creative engine, and Bernie Taupin provides a strong set of lyrics.

11) Shangri-La, Jake Bugg.  I've written about Bugg on several occasions this year.  Early on, I caught up with his 2012 self-titled release, and in November he came out with this Rick Rubin-produced nugget.  My guess is that he'll be a presence for an entire generation.

10) Hesitation Marks, Nine Inch Nails.  I have to admit that this is the first NIN album I've ever bought, so for me there is no base for comparison. What I heard here impressed me a great deal - slow ones, fast ones, all blanketed under an atmospheric clarity recalling the best of Joy Division or New Order.

9) The Electric Lady, Janelle Monae.  The concept remains odd, and a great deal of the album has a distinct late seventies vibe, but that's part of what makes it so appealing.  I continue to believe, as I did on first listen, that her best work is ahead of her.

8) Fade, Yo La Tengo.  I'd call this the comeback of the year, except that they never really went away - I just drifted away from them.  "Fade" demonstrates why they, a small indie band that much of the country probably knows next to nothing about, have been able to make it work for nearly 25 years.

7) Wrote A Song For Everyone, John Fogerty.  This may sound silly, but what a delightful album.  It's a blessing to the world that Fogerty has fully come to peace with his old (best) songs, to the point where he's able to record a version of "Proud Mary" that owes as much to the Ike and Tina version as Creedence's.  Every time I listen, I have a new favorite song.

6) Reflektor, Arcade Fire.  This could continue to move up over time, but for now this seems about the right spot for it.  Ultimately, it feels like they tried to do a little too much.  But I once felt that way about Talking Heads' "Remain in Light," so only time will tell.

5) American Kid, Patty Griffin.  It's not likely that Griffin will ever top "1000 Kisses," her 2002 masterpiece.  That she could come this close, more than a decade later, is good enough.  At their best, Griffin's songs are a living manifestation of the Bruce Springsteen line, "Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart."

4) Wise Up Ghost and Other Songs, Elvis Costello and The Roots.  Holy crap, Elvis - I honestly didn't think you had it in you.  Credit "Spectacle," credit Questlove, credit the band - whatever, it all works - the album he probably thought he was making back in 1980 when he released "Get Happy."

3) Trouble Will Find Me, The National.  With (what I call) an "atmospheric" band, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.  "Trouble Will Find Me" captures a sound, a tone and a mood from the very first chords and maintains it over the course of an entire album.  Hauntingly beautiful from start to finish.

2) Random Access Memories, Daft Punk.  My wife focuses on lyrics a lot more than I do, and she thinks this one suffers from a lack of meaningful content on that side of the equation.  It's a fair point, because this is, pure and simple, a dance album.  But it's a dance album with smarts, one that creates a seamless fusion of the best of 70s disco with the best of modern-day electronica.  Any album that brings together Nile Rodgers and Pharrell Williams has a lot going for it.  But notwithstanding the hit that needs not be named, the album's two triumphs are "Giorgio by Moroder," a tribute/homage to the great seventies producer featuring the man himself, and "Touch," featuring Paul Williams (the short white guy, not the Temptations' bass voice) in a song that by all rights should not work, but does.

1) Modern Vampires of the City, Vampire Weekend.  Rolling Stone picked it #1.  Pitchfork picked it #1.  It's an almost certain lock to top the Pazz & Jop poll.  And it's deserved.  It's as close to a perfect album as has been released in...oh, lets say a decade.  Everything works - the ballads, the fast ones, and everything in-between.  There are a lot of people out there who can't stand this band, and when the album came out, a lot of those people were tweeting things like, "For a band that I hate, this sure is a good album."

It's hard to pick just one song, but if forced by gunpoint, I'd go with "Ya Hey," if nothing else for these lines:

Outside the tents, on the festival grounds
As the air began to cool, and the sun went down
My soul swooned, as I faintly heard the sound
Of you spinning "Israelites"
Into "19th Nervous Breakdown"

Perfect.  Just perfect.

Coming soon - honorable mentions.  Happy New Year, everyone!

Monday, December 30, 2013

2013 Songs of the Year - "Blurred Lines," Robin Thicke

No less an authority than Rolling Stone's Rob Sheffield called it the worst song of "this or any other year," and the NSFW video certainly spawned controversy (as well as a lot of thoughtful discourse), but hey, it sure was fun to dance to, and for this listener it felt more like a tribute to Marvin Gaye than an outright rip-off.

"Blurred Lines," performed here by Robin, Jimmy Fallon, and The Roots.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

2013 Songs of the Year - "Dance Apocalyptic," Janelle Monae

And this may very well have been the performance of the year.  Janelle Monae, doing her best James Brown imitation on the Letterman Show. 

"Dance Apocalyptic," Janelle Monae.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Kings Mania

So the Heat were without three starters, and in the midst of what is probably their longest road trip of the year.  Who cares?  We beat them, after a start that made me think that we'd be heading for the parking lot by the end of the third quarter.

And in the midst of the entertaining, come-from-behind victory, we were treated to this little gem from LeBron - who is amazing even when he's playing through a groin pull, as was the case for most of the second half.

When you see something like that, all you can do is smile...or just laugh out loud, which is what we did.

2013 Songs of the Year - "Blowin' Smoke," Kacey Musgraves

 I have a feeling that Kacey Musgraves is going to be around for a while.  Her 2013 album was consistently excellent, and this song seems destined for the country music pantheon.

Kacey Musgraves, "Blowin' Smoke."

Friday, December 27, 2013

2013 Songs of the Year - "Finger Back," Vampire Weekend

As has been the case for the past few years, I'm going to highlight some of my favorite songs of the year.  And on New Year's Eve, not only will I be announcing my Song of the Year, but I'll also review my favorite 13 albums of 2013.

We begin with a live version of "Finger Back," from the great Vampire Weekend album, "Modern Vampires of the City."

American Hustle: Missed it by that much

"American Hustle" has been getting some of the best reviews of the holiday season, and is an almost certain nominee for the Best Picture Oscar.  Acting nominations for Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and even Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner wouldn't surprise me.  I suppose even Bradley Cooper could pull one out of the hat, but we'll talk about that in a minute.

First things first - I enjoyed it. The problem?  I didn't enjoy it as much as I expected, and the problems I had with it keep me from placing it in the "great" category.  For the sake of comparison, "The Fighter" and "Silver Linings Playbook," director David O. Russell's two most recent flicks, resonated more with me.  And that's a shame, because the material in "American Hustle" is ripe for the pickings, and I left the theater with a vague feeling that Russell had missed too many opportunities. 

Loosely based on the ABSCAM sting of the late '70s, the movie does a great job of evoking that era, and the "styles" and fashions of late seventies New York City and New Jersey. There's a lot moral ambiguity on display, not unlike that which Sidney Lumet explored in his magnificent "Prince of the City" (admittedly, one of my all-time favorite movies).  The FBI agent played by Bradley Cooper is a self-absorbed prick, and it doesn't take long for the viewer to begin actively rooting against his quest to make a name for himself by snagging some big names in his little caper.  All of the other protagonists are indeed breaking the law in some form or fashion, but none of it feels serious enough to warrant a full-scale FBI operation, a viewpoint well-expressed by the Louis C.K. character, Cooper's immediate supervisor in the bureau.  But again like "Prince of the City," the whole thing takes on a life of its own when someone higher up in the bureau, looking to make a name for himself, green-lights the deal.

All of the players acquit themselves well, but I was most impressed with Bale's rumpled con man, Adams as his partner, and Renner as a politician trying to do all the right things in exactly the wrong ways.  Cooper, I thought, was overwrought in his role, with his big moments screaming "ACTING!"  But for all the talent on display in the leads, it is Robert DeNiro, in a scene that can't last more than 5 minutes, who steals the show as a calm, truly malevolent mob veteran from Miami.  It's always nice to have a reminder that he still has it, and here he does, in spades.

Can you criticize a movie for not being as good as it could have been?  Perhaps that's not being fair, but that's where I am on "American Hustle."

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 24: Darlene Love!

And of course, the enduring classic closes out the calendar.

Darlene Love, "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)," from the Late Show with David Letterman, 12/20/13.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Candlestick Memories

Candlestick Park opened for business on April 12, 1960, exactly one week after I was born.  Since it's been the home of my two favorite sports teams, it should come as no surprise that I've got a lot of memories of the place.  A few of them come to mind:

- 1968, my first Giants game.  A night game in July, against the St. Louis Cardinals.  At that time, the park had not yet been enclosed, and as any Giants fan knows, there were few things in life colder than a night game in the middle of summer at Candlestick Park.

- 1971, seeing Hank Aaron hit a home run in person.

- 1973, watching a good but not great Giants team defeat the New York Mets in August, when shortstop Bud Harrelson couldn't handle a pop fly that got caught up in the wind.

- 1975, my first 49ers game, seeing a horrible team drop a game to the Houston Oilers, and watching Billy "White Shoes" Johnson almost break one on a punt return for a touchdown.  

- 1978, when grass once again reigned supreme, a classic Giants-Dodgers matchup that saw the Giants triumph in extra innings.

- 1981, 1987 and 1988 - Opening day games, back in the days when they opened up the parking lot at 10:00 a.m. for a 7:00 p.m. start.  In '87, it was a miracle that no one was killed.  Mike Krukow started the game, and it was the one and only time that I've seen two women in a fistfight.  And trust me, it was vicious.

- 1989, my favorite in-person memory: the Dave Dravecky Comeback Game.  Just 8 months earlier, Dravecky had undergone 8 hours of surgery for a cancerous tumor in his upper arm.  By sheer luck the tickets we'd bought months earlier turned out to be for the game that he would return.  Amazingly, after 6 innings Dravecky had a no-hitter going, and he left following the 7th inning having allowed just one hit.  The Giants prevailed 4-3, and it was one of the more emotional sports events of my lifetime.  In his next start, Dravecky's fragile arm shattered during a pitch, the last of his career.  Two years later, the arm was amputated.

- 2000, the last time I attended a 49ers game, watching Kurt Warner perform surgery on the 49ers overmatched secondary.

And of course, countless moments watching on television.  My favorite baseball moment?  Will Clark's game-winning hit in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series, 1989.  Favorite football moment?  Of course, The Catch.  Both called by the great Vin Scully.

As Dwight Clark put it, Candlestick was a dump.  But it was our dump.

Musical Advent Calendar, Days 21-23: Santa Claus!

The King, spitting fire.

The Crystals' indelible version.

And of course, The Boss.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Musical Advent Calendar, Days 18-20: Silent Night

OK, here we go again!

Done well, "Silent Night" is as moving as any song ever written or sung.  Enya comes through with this version.

Another gorgeous version, courtesy of Joanie Komatsu.

And of course, the great Andy Williams, from his classic Christmas album.

Almost home...but more to come!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Musical Advent Calendar, Days 13-17

It always happened to me when I was a kid.  A few days would go by, and all of a sudden I'd realize that the advent calendar had been forgotten.  So why should anything change in my adulthood?

So let's get caught up right quick.



Another great one from Nick's instant classic.

Great guitar player, but hey, the guy can sing too.

I'm not sure that any live performance videos exist of the great songs on the Phil Spector Chistmas Album, so this will have to do.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 12 - Scala and Kolacny Brothers

Being a Linkin Park cover, I'm not even sure this completely counts as a Christmas song, but the production quality on the video is outstanding, and as always the choir hits it out of the park.  And after all, it is called "My December."

Day 12 - "My December," Scala and Kolacny Brothers

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 11 - The Piano Guys

OK, now this is pretty cool.  I have to admit I'd never heard of these guys, but they look like they're worth checking out.

Day 11 - "Angels We Have Heard On High," The Piano Guys.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 10 - Jack Johnson

Heck, this one is worth it just to see Questlove in a Christmas sweater.

I've never heard a Jack Johnson song that I truly disliked, but on the other hand, a little Jack does tend to go a long way.  His saving grace is that he doesn't take himself too seriously.

Day 10 - "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," Jack Johnson and The Roots.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 9 - The Lennon Sisters

Now, let's jump into our way-back machine, to a simpler time when musical groups like The Lennon Sisters ruled the airwaves.  OK, that's a bit of a stretch, but I do remember them growing up, mostly because my grandma was a big fan of the The Lawrence Welk Show.

And you gotta love those outfits - proof that in 1968, not everyone was a hippie.

Day 9 - The Lennon Sisters, with "Christmas Waltz."

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 8 - Johnny Mathis

Speaking of awesome, may we present the great Johnny Mathis?

An all-time classic, made even stronger by the inclusion of the seldom heard intro.

Day 8 - Johnny Mathis, "I'll Be Home For Christmas."

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 7 - Jimmy Fallon and Friends

What distinguishes Jimmy Fallon from his late night competitors - and I love David Letterman and don't hate Jay Leno - is his enthusiasm.  He's having fun doing his show, where the others often seem like they're just going through the motions.

This clip is pure awesomeness.  Day 7 - Jimmy Fallon, The Roots and Mariah Carey (with a little help from some kids), "All I Want For Christmas Is You."

Friday, December 06, 2013

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 6 - Ronnie Spector

Not quite the original with the Ronettes, but still pretty darn good.

Day 6 - "Sleigh Ride," Ronnie Spector.

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 5 - Siouxsie and the Banshees

Holy cow, now this is something you don't see every day - a band like Siouxsie and the Banshees singing a song like "Il Est Ne Le Divin Enfant."

But, it sounds pretty good.

Day 5 - Il Es Ne Le Divin Enfant, Siouxsie and the Banshees.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Musical Advent Calendar, Day 4 - Harry Connick Jr.

When it comes to Christmas albums, one could call Harry Connick, Jr. the Andy Williams of the 21st Century and not get laughed out of the room.  He's released three of them so far, and I have a sneaking suspicion we'll see at least one more before he hangs it up for good.

Day 4 - "It Must Have Been Ol' Santa Claus," Harry Connick, Jr.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Day 3, Musical Advent Calendar - The Williams Brothers

Now, everyone knows that you can't really have Christmas without a little Andy Williams, and as an added bonus today we're happy to present Andy and all of his brothers!

To be honest, I had no idea there were Williams brothers, at least not brothers in the entertainment business.  But one thing is for certain - I want one of those sweaters.

Day 3 - "The Holiday Season," The Williams Brothers.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Day 2, Musical Advent Calendar - Nick Lowe

That's right, folks - Nick Lowe has released a Christmas album, and based on this song alone, it's one that I'm going to seek out pronto.

It's hard to believe that it's been more than 30 years since Lowe was considered one of the leading lights of the New Wave era, releasing [at least] two classic albums ("Pure Pop for Now People," "Labour of Lust") in the late 1970s as well as producing Elvis Costello's first five albums.  In terms of musical style, Lowe was less New Wave than simply a great rocker who knew well enough to adapt to the times.  On the other hand, one could argue that the times adpated to him.  Either way, he deserves a spot in history, along with his mate Dave Edmunds and his bandmates in Rockpile.

Day 2 - "Children Go Where I Send Thee," Nick Lowe.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Big Games, Big Bucks

When it comes to college football, I'm a bit of a traditionalist.  I'd just as soon that we go back to the old bowl system, where we had intense controversy every once in a while but also had, I would argue, an overall better slate of games with more at stake.  The fact that most of the key rivalry games have moved after Thanksgiving also bugs me.

But, I get it - more games means more money, and it's silly for me to complain too loudly since all of this means more football (although another thing I miss is NFL games on Saturdays in December, which seems to have gone by the wayside with the proliferation of late season college games and early bowls).  And I can't argue with the fact that with gems like Ohio State-Michigan and Auburn-Alabama being played on a regular basis on the weekend after Thanksgiving, that four-day Thanksgiving holiday period may be the best football weekend of the entire year, including the NFL playoffs.

Of course, the particular games this weekend may be swaying my opinion.  But in all the years I've been watching college football, I can't remember ever seeing two games as exciting and dramatic as this year's OSU-UM and AU-UA games.  Seeing a coach go for two when trailing 42-41 against an undefeated team, in most years, would certainly go down as being the most dramatic moment of the weekend.  But thanks to the second miracle in three weeks at Jordan-Hare, that moment dropped to #2.  And after that moment, one that a lot of people in Alabama will remember for the rest of their lives as if it were yesterday, we still had Stanford-Notre Dame and UCLA-USC on tap.  The fact that those two games didn't come close to the drama that preceded them hardly mattered - they had their own storylines that made them worth watching.

All I can say at this point is that I hope they don't move The Big Game to that weekend - because I don't want to have to miss all those other classics.

The Seventh Annual Musical Advent Calendar

It's hard to believe this is the seventh year, and it's also hard to believe that it's already December.

This year, we kick off with a tune from Sufjan Stevens' "Silver and Gold," his second 5-CD Christmas extravaganza.  For those who don't know the story, for Christmas each year Sufjan creates a CD of Christmas music for his family and friends - sometimes originals, sometimes odd versions of old classics, and sometimes heartfelt versions of tunes you know you've heard before but can't quite put your finger on.

This song, "Happy Karma Christmas," falls into the first category.  Because of the dearth of record stores in Sacramento, I've yet to find the new set (actually it was released last year), so I may be resorting to Amazon sometime soon.

Day 1 - Sufjan Stevens, "Happy Karma Christmas."

Thursday, November 28, 2013

An Official Response to Mr. Keillor

My friend John, a proud Angeleno who lives in Long Beach, offers this reply to Mr. Keillor's estimation of folks in L.A.

Dear  Mr. Keillor,

I have been in Colorado in the winter at 30 below and the faces of the people were far from happy and healthy.  If their bloodshot eyes could have spoken they would have said, “get me the hell outta here!”  Methinks that you may have spent too much time with Hollywood-types if the only faces you have seen are brooding screenwriters.  I’ve always wondered why people stuck in geographic areas with “seasons” are so bent on looking down on those in temperate climates.  It can’t be jealousy . . . can it?


A 71-year-old beach boy

Happy Thanksgiving!

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 with chunks 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.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Echoes of Crows

I inadvertently left one album off of my late fall roundup, the latest from the erstwhile Counting Crows.

The Crows are a band that seems to be disliked by many, not to mention made fun of - SNL did just that a couple of weeks ago, including a pretty good sendup of Adam Duritz in a sketch about the worst cover songs of all time.  And hey, I'm not here to defend their version of "Big Yellow Taxi," but at the same time have to wonder how many people listened to last year's "Underwater Sunshine," comprised entirely of covers, including several by lesser-known bands who probably appreciated the attention.  It was a great album, quite possibly their best since the famous debut 20 years ago (!).

The new one is a live effort, and it's probably not going to win the band a lot of new fans, but for those who have been around since the beginning, it's well worth seeking out.  The Crows are a great live band, and on "Echoes of the Outlaw Roadshow" they cover most of the various eras of their long career, from "Round Here" (their all-time best song, and with a version that can only be described as epic) and "Rain King" at the beginning to "I Wish I Was A Girl" and "Up All Night" in the middle, and a couple of songs from last year's LP thrown in for good measure.  There are also some new covers, "Girl From the North Country" and "Friend of the Devil."

It's a good mix, from what obviously was a good show.  Adam keeps his histrionic tendencies in check, and the band sounds great.  Here's hoping the next one is just as good.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Fall Albums, Part 2

"Shangri La," Jake Bugg.  Jake Bugg doesn't turn 20 until next February, but with the release of "Shangri La," he's already got two outstanding albums under his belt.  There probably isn't a single track on the new album that equals the amazing "Lightning Bolt," but there are definitely subtle advances, which shouldn't come as a surprise given that Rick Rubin handled the production duties.  The album is more consistent, with the biggest advance coming on the slow to mid-tempo tunes.  The best song on the album just might be "Simple Pleasures," and it's a song I'm not sure he was capable of writing a year ago.  On the debut the slower songs came across as earnest if a bit sappy, while on Shangri La they have as much verve as the fast tunes (of which there are plenty).  In fact, there isn't a weak track on the entire album, and Bugg is beginning to sound like one of those artists who comes across once in a generation.  Right now, the sky is the limit, not unlike a rookie of the year in baseball whose second season is even more impressive than the first.
"Reflektor," Arcade Fire.  Right now I'm still having trouble getting my arms around this one.  There's no question that at it's best (the title track, "Normal Person" and "Joan of Arc," for example) this is the most exciting music released all year; however, it's not entirely clear yet whether the entire album meets that lofty standard.  The band deserves a lot of credit for pushing itself out of its comfort zone (although after four albums, it's a little hard to tell exactly what that comfort zone is), but there's something about the entire enterprise that feels a little cold, a little calculated.  The last two Arcade Fire albums were my favorites in the years that they were released, and this one still has a chance, but I'm not quite ready to make that claim yet for "Reflektor."
"Lightning Bolt," Pearl Jam.  Solid and dependable, a perfectly fine Pearl Jam album that will satisfy longtime fans but which is unlikely to reach a crossover audience.  A good example of a veteran band doing its job well.
"Days Are Gone," Haim.  As they made pretty clear on Saturday Night Live last weekend, Haim is more than a slick pop band, although being a slick pop band would be just fine with me.  Songs like "Falling," "If I Could Change Your Mind" and "Don't Save Me" are about as good and hard-edged as great pop gets.  And this is great pop, catchy and intricate in a way that never comes across as overly sappy.  At times, reminiscent of someone like Todd Rundgren at his best.
"Magpie and the Dandelion," The Avett Brothers.  It always worries me when I read that an impending album is comprised of songs that were recorded at the same time as the previous album.  That really worried me in this case, because I was a little disappointed in the "The Carpenter," especially on the heels of the brilliant "I and Love and You."  Fortunately, my worries were unfounded, because "Magpie and the Dandelion" is definitely a return to form, with songs that are true to the "Avett sound" but without the slickness that marred a good part of "Carpenter."  Opening the album with "Open Ended Life" was a masterstroke, because starting off with a fast song reminds people right off the bat that the brothers are about more than just ballads.  And there are plenty of the latter, as well.  Good show.

Friday, November 22, 2013

President John F. Kennedy

The number of remembrances - on television, in print, and on other forms of media - of President John F. Kennedy's assassination has resulted in an almost equal number of media pieces expressing a combination of disbelief and disdain that the nation (and in particular, the baby boomer generation) can't seem to get over that traumatic day, now 50 years ago.

I have no problem categorically rejecting that level of cynicism, which to me says more about the persons writing such hit pieces than it does about the ongoing level of interest (and in some cases, despair) over that awful day.  Essentially, those pieces are saying that the feelings of those who still mourn the events of that day are invalid, that those feelings represent nothing more than misguided nostalgia for an era that never really existed, except in the minds of Madison Ave. marketing gurus, in the first place.

I was 3 years old on that day, and it is my first conscious memory.  When your mother cries all day and can't explain why in terms that a 3-year old would understand, that tends to stick with you.  And stick with me it has.  I look at the old papers my parents saved, I read the issues of LIFE Magazine, I look at the photos of that day, I see the Zapruder film - and even now, a sense of what I can only describe as dread comes over me, almost overwhelming in its power.  I can only imagine how much stronger it feels for someone who was old enough to understand and appreciate the gravity of what was occurring.

One's opinion of President Kennedy, either as a President or as a man, is irrelevant.  That was an awful day, one that I'm confident in saying scarred the psyche of an entire nation.  To discount that is simply not right.


"First examine our attitude towards peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it is unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable, that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. Our problems are man made; therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings."

"For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. And we are all mortal."

- American University Commencement Address, President John F. Kennedy, June 1963

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Long live the Kings

Last weekend, Pops Racer and I attended our first Kings game in almost two years, and it was like old times - mostly because they played about as poorly as they did in the final few years of the [Family Name That Shall Not Be Mentioned] era.

It was their second game in the span of 24 hours against Portland, which is always a tough gig.  But then again, Portland faced the same challenge, and certainly looked fresher and better organized on the court than the men in purple and black.

I absolutely agree that building the team around DeMarcus Cousins was the right move, but he still does a lot of dumb things on the court.  In the first five minutes of the game, he picked up a stupid loose ball foul, and then a second foul by moving into the lane at the last second on a shot that he had absolutely no chance of impacting, much less blocking.  Bam, bench time.  Grab some pine, meat!

All of which is to say that it will be a long road back, and from the early returns, a return to respectability is the absolute best we can hope for this year.

But on a bright note, we did see a fan make the half-court shot to win a car...only the second time we've seen that, and we've been to close to 200 games.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Stanford toughness

OK, now there's a blog post title that I never thought I'd write.

With their second consecutive drubbing of Oregon in the books (although the Ducks, to their credit, made it interesting at the end), there can be no doubting that the Stanford Cardinal are officially the best college football team in the west, and perhaps the toughest team in the country.  And remember, it was not so long ago that the Cal Bears had beaten them in The Big Game for the 7th time in 8 years.  Ah, the good old days.

If you were a fan of Stanford, you could not have scripted last night's game any better.  How does one beat Oregon?  Keep the ball out of their hands.  OK, how does about 42 minutes of possession time sound?  Sounds like you're going to win the game.  And I know that Marcus Mariotta (looks like that Heisman may have to wait another season) was not up to par last night, but given the way the Stanford defense played, it might not have made any difference.

So now the sports world is left to ponder exactly how Stanford lost to Utah a month ago, the only blemish on their record, and one that is likely to keep them out of the BCS Championship game.  They've got three games left, against a somewhat rejuvenated USC squad, a disastrous Cal team (but hey - I was there when the 1-9 Bears beat the 8-2 Cards back in 1986, so anything could happen), and then a Notre Dame team that seems to play better on the road than it does at home.  Will running the table be enough?  Not likely, especially when you consider that among the remaining undefeated teams, Alabama is probably the most likely to lose.

But a once-beaten Stanford squad against an undefeated Ohio State team in the Rose Bowl?  It would be like 1971 and 1972 all over again.  I'd certainly be watching.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

The NFL column I've been waiting for

And it's probably not surprising that it appears on Grantland, which over the past year become the one web site that I have to read on a daily basis.  I mean, seriously - it's like this site was invented just for me.  One day the lead story will be on sports, the next day it will be about a movie, and then the day after that you'll read a great piece about music.  I know that some people think Bill Simmons is too clever for his own good, but I'm not one them - for me, he's close to genius (we'll give him a little room to improve).

Titled "Man Up," the column is by Brian Phillips, and it does a fantastic job of eviscerating the mindset that I decried in the piece that I wrote yesterday - the mindset that defends "the code" within the NFL that is apparently more important to some than actually abiding by the law and the standards of human decency.

Please read the whole thing, but in the meantime, here is an excerpt:

There will always be locker-room assholes. They should be curtailed. And when a player says he needs time off for mental reasons — again: in a sport with a suicide problem — it shouldn't spark a national conversation on whether he's soft.

I am here to hurt you, so I'll also say this: You're a warrior, cool. What the hell are you a warrior for? I'm sorry if this makes it sound like I have emotions other than anger — I assure you that I don't — but tell me this: What's the point of being strong if all you stand for is abusing a suffering teammate? Those guys who taught me that when you see a problem, you step up and solve it, all those anonymous sources foaming on about how to be a man — is that what they think "being a man" is? I mean, nothing about protecting someone who's struggling in your big gender equation, then? Nothing about, like, knowing right from wrong?

Here's what I can't stop thinking: There were so many tough men in that Dolphins locker room. The unwritten code of football is that you handle your business in-house. Any one of these men could have said something to stop Incognito and help Martin. Any one of them could have handled it. They're warriors, right? They're paragons of strength. And yeah, there are complex reasons why they didn't. But they didn't.

I know I'm repeating myself, but please go read the whole thing.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Martin, Incognito and...WTF?

The two biggest stories in the NFL this past weekend focused not on the games being played, but rather on two coaches who suffered possibly life-threatening episodes, and the Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin harassment case in Miami.  I'll comment on the former in a future post, but focus today on the latter.

I've read a ton of material on this case in the past few days - tweets, AP reports, columns, articles, comments from current and former players, comments from readers and fans of the NFL, and so on.  It's bothered me a great deal to see so many players, personnel men and fans lay the blame on Martin, generally for not "manning up," for "not standing up for himself with Incognito," and for the cardinal sin of taking a team issue outside of the locker room.  Andrew Sharp has a well-organized and well-written piece up on Grantland, and I want to focus on a couple of things that he writes because I think they're reasonable assertions, albeit ones that I think are dead wrong.  Writes Sharp, in two separate paragraphs:
Cheering hypercompetitve testosterone junkies on the field and then expecting civility everywhere else seems pretty naive, and judging the actions of Martin and Incognito as if they were two normal civilians is just as big a stretch. Cruelty isn't that unusual in Incognito's workplace, and most professional athletes respond differently than Martin. The guys who say we wouldn't understand are definitely right.
And then, later in the same piece:
There's a disconnect between people who play professional sports and people who watch them, and that gulf is probably a lot wider than we realize. Even if a world full of all-access shows and instant information allows us to know more about athletes and locker rooms than ever before, we may never actually understand any of this. 
Focusing on the first paragraph - yes, I've read my share of stories about how some players (sport doesn't matter) have used fear and harassment to "motivate" their teammates to achieve at a higher level. With some, it has worked, and in some of those cases, it's involved the player being harassed standing up to the bully and telling him, essentially, to go f*ck himself.  The problem I have with this argument is that it strikes me as nonsensical to treat Martin and Incognito as anything except "normal civilians," especially when the matter at hand is one of law.  I don't think you're going to find many football fans clamoring for legislation to set different standards of public behavior for professional athletes.

And here's the problem I have with the second paragraph.  To some degree, I agree that I'm never going to fully understand everything that takes place behind closed doors in a locker room.  I'm sure that there are many things said and done in the spirit of camaraderie that don't pass the smell test of how one is generally expected to behave around and act towards fellow human beings.  But I'm not certain that the professional sports locker room is unique in that regard, and I've yet to hear a reasonable explanation for why locker rooms should be above the law when it comes to workplace harassment.

And in the end, that's what this case is about - workplace harassment - though I understand why it's difficult for people understand why such protections are necessary for grown men who basically have the ability to kick the crap out of 98 or so percent of the general population.  And in a workplace setting, the supervisors, workers and offenders don't get to define what constitutes "harassment" - the victim does. 

It strikes me as odd that - unless I've just missed it - the commissioner has yet to comment on this matter, although given the ongoing investigation I suppose it makes sense.  This is going to be a tough one, but there's a lot at stake here.  It seems to me that the NFL needs to make a clear statement that they're encouraging their players to behave and act as responsible human beings, and not simply like brute force giants trained for combat on the field.

We shall see.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Lou Reed

I guess it was over a year ago now that I began to watch the episodes of Elvis Costello's Showtime program "Spectacle" that are available on Netflix.  One of his first episodes featured Lou Reed, in a conversation with the host that was entirely engrossing and fascinating.  In one of the many tributes to Reed published and/or posted in the past few days, the writer noted that Reed was famous for, as much as anything else, being one of the most public assholes of our time.  And while from all accounts Reed did not suffer fools (or anyone else, for that matter) gladly, he was great in his interview with Costello, and one of the best guests to have appeared on the show.  But for all the great conversation, the highlight of the program was Reed performing, with Costello, "Set the Twilight Reeling," in a performance that can be best described as shattering.  The title of one of Reed's live albums was "Take No Prisoners," and in his performance of the song with Costello, he certainly didn't.

That Reed meant so much to so many was clearly evident from the Twitter postings in the first hour following the announcement of his death, when everyone from Ann Powers to Rob Sheffield to Wil Wheaton to Bill Simmons expressed their shock and grief over his passing.  Like I'm sure was the case with many others, my introduction to Reed came with "Walk on the Wild Side," his fluke Top 40 hit from the early 1970s.  I remember reading about "Metal Machine Music" and being amused, without having any desire to buy, or even listen to, the album.  I remember reading Tom Carson's review of "Street Hassle," and even though by that time my tastes were moving more in that direction, it still didn't move me to buy the album.  No, the first Reed album for me was "The Bells," prompted by a Lester Bangs rave that frankly didn't make a lot of sense to me upon hearing the album.

Reed didn't really come into focus for me until the '80s, with a series of what I thought were outstanding-to-great albums, including several that are visible in the above picture.  This was also around the time that the original Velvet Underground albums were re-released, as well as some VU material that had never seen the light of day.  And while it's probably fair to say that I never became as obsessed with Reed as many others did, there was little question then (and there is none now) that in many ways, Reed was the very manifestation of what Robert Christgau once referred to as "semi-popular music." 

Lou Reed, in short, was one of the giants.  The kind of guy that you think is always going to be around.  If nothing else, just to figure out some new way to confound or confuse people.  Unforunately, things never seem to work out quite that way. 


Wednesday, October 23, 2013


So I see that the NBA has finally done the logical thing and reinstated the 2-2-1-1-1 format for the Finals, after nearly 30 years of using 2-3-2.  Frankly, the shift in the Finals never made sense to me, because wouldn't any possible argument you could make for it also apply to the earlier playoff series (all of which remained 2-2-1-1-1)?

But in the spirit of giving credit where credit is due, kudos to the NBA honchos for making the right decision.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013


There was a time when going to the movies implied that you would experience no small amount of magic.  It's a feeling that is difficult to describe and hard to quantify - but it's the kind of feeling that I got when seeing "Jaws" in the theater for the first time, or "Star Wars," or "The Empire Strikes Back," or even a more dramatic or "serious" film like "The Godfather," "Prince of the City," or "Hannah and Her Sisters."  The feeling that, for two or more hours of your life, you were going to be treated to something special - something that would stay with you for much longer than the time you spent seated in the theater.  I see more than my fair share of movies these days, both at the theater and at home on Netflix or on demand.  But that feeling of magic has seemed to be fleeting in recent years - the last time I truly felt it was during "Inglorious Basterds" - the notion that, as a viewer, you were seeing something new, something fresh and dynamic - and doing so in the hands of a master.

Last night, we saw "Gravity," and it felt like going back to those old times.  First of all, we were lucky enough to score some free tickets at the IMAX, thanks to the local newspaper.  The movie began at 7:30 and we were planning to eat dinner at a restaurant right across the street, but when we got there we saw that a line had already formed (unlike normal procedure for this theater, there was no assigned seating), so we spent more than an hour in line, which was a real throwback to the old days.  And even though the movie has been out for a couple of weeks, few people in the theater had seen it (the hosts asked that question beforehand), so it had a bit of that "opening night" feeling.

And then, of course, there was the movie itself.

"Gravity" was, suffice to say, spectacular.  It's hard to put it into words that don't end up sounding like one of those reviews where the "critic" is more in the business of having his/her quotes included on a movie poster than actually providing cogent analysis/criticism of the movie in question.  But through its 91 minutes, it is fair to say that there is never a moment when the viewer is not on the absolute edge of their seat, coupled with a feeling that you're out there in space with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney (just like you might have felt you were in the water with the young actor who played Brody's son in "Jaws" when the shark swam into the pond).

It's hard to talk about the story without providing spoilers, so let's just say that a team of astronauts is on a space shuttle mission involving the Hubble Telescope, something goes horribly wrong with another nation's attempt to bring down one of their satellites, which leads to a chain reaction that sends what amounts to hellfire careening towards the unsuspecting astronauts.  It's then a survival story with Bullock front and center - and like the unseen truck driver was the seemingly unstoppable nemesis for Dennis Weaver in "Duel," the space debris becomes the nemesis for Bullock's character, Dr. Ryan Stone (or, as others have commented, think Sigourney Weaver vs. the alien in the original "Alien").  Through a combination of guile, heart and sometimes sheer luck, Dr. Stone survives one obstacle after another in her effort to stay alive and get back home.

Visually...well, I don't know that any film, ever, has topped it.  James Cameron himself has said that this was the space film he has been waiting for all his life.  And notwithstanding the likely scientific errors that some have pointed out, this is the first time that I've ever seen a movie where I felt I was feeling what it must be like for those few humans that have had the opportunity and the privilege to venture out beyond our atmosphere.  If the film is even in the ballpark in its depiction of what it is like to be walking in space, then my admiration for what astronauts do is all the greater.

This, folks, is movie magic.  "Gravity" is what going to the movies is supposed to be about.  And when you go, you owe it to yourself to see it at the IMAX, in 3-D.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

October Baseball

There was really no way to lose with those four teams (Red Sox, Tigers, Cardinals and Dodgers) in their respective league championship series.  Four teams with a ton of history, all playing in beautiful, outdoor parks with mostly rabid fans behind them.  I'm happy the Dodgers will go yet another year without a championship, since with their payroll it seems almost inevitable that they'll capture one - it would be hard to avoid with that payroll.  They also have two of the most exciting talents in the game, both of who happen to be a little nuts - Kershaw and Puig.  But at least for now, I can keep making jokes about how many it's been since the Blue brought home a title.

We've seen the Red Sox face off against the Cardinals twice in my lifetime, but I don't have any memory of the 1967 Series - it was the following year, when St. Louis was defeated in 7 games by Detroit, that I have my first clear memories of a World Series.  But all baseball fans should remember the 2004 Series, when Boston finally broke the curse and swept the Cardinals just after completing a remarkable comeback from 3-0 down against the Yankees juggernaut.

I don't think I've rooted for St. Louis since the early 1980s, and I won't be rooting for them this year.  And I don't watch baseball closely enough anymore to make a prediction based on anything but sheer guesswork.  Based on what I've seen in the postseason it seems like a tossup, but just remember last year when Detroit went into the Series against the Giants as "overwhelming favorites" and ended up having their heads handed to them on a platter.  The Sox seem to have a "just can't lose right now" feel about them, but who knows.

And I'm glad that it's Joe Buck and Tim McCarver calling the games.  I've had my share of complaints about both of them over the years, but after being subjected to the TBS team in the past month, it's pretty clear that Buck & McCarver are the only announcers who appreciate the fact that these are playoff games, and that lending the proceedings a little excitement is the least they can do.  Ernie Johnson tried his best, but let's face it, he's not a play-by-play guy.  And coupled with Cal Ripken and Ron Darling, both with somnambulist tendencies, he was doomed to fighting a losing battle.

I almost hope it goes 7 games, because then we'll be treated to Halloween baseball.  Spooky indeed.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

On the bright side...

Without the shutdown, it's not likely we could have gotten a shot as good as this one. 

Or, it might just have been the rain.

Monday, October 14, 2013

This Site Is Closed

Me having fun with a sign that had blown away from where it was originally placed.

Nope, can't end any tyranny this week, because we're closed.

D.C. 2013 - The Shutdown Tour

Just my luck to book a [non-refundable] trip to Washington, D.C. for an autumn vacation, in order to show my wife all the great things I've gotten to see in previous business trips and the high school graduation tour with Son #1.  Naturally, almost our entire planned itinerary was impacted by the shutdown, which necessitated some hasty research in order to come up with interesting things to do and see.  Fortunately, there is enough to do and see to sustain a two-week trip, and that's without venturing far outside the D.C. boundaries.

This picture is my favorite from the trip - on a drizzly, misty day, walking around the National Mall and seeing what we could see.  Very few people were out, and we didn't see much in the way of barrier enforcement.  So we did what we felt was appropriate, which was to pay our Vietnam veterans respect by walking through the Memorial instead of abiding by a ridiculous, entirely avoidable shutdown and staying out.

And you know what?  The world did not come to an end.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Hey kids, I'm starring in a podcast!

In the "shameless self promotion" department:

Local legends Jack Gallagher (pictured at left) and Tommy Dunbar recently started a podcast called 5 Songs, with a very simple concept - they ask their guests to bring with them 5 songs, and be prepared to talk about the songs and the memories they evoke.

Having worked with his wife Jean for several years, Jack knew of my obsession with music, so I was very lucky to be among the first group of folks they invited to be a part the show.  Needless to say, it was really hard coming up with just five songs, but I did it, and after listening to the show the other night, think it turned out great.

Check it out: 5 Songs, starring Jack Gallagher, Tommy Dunbar...and for one week only, yours truly.

"You're the only one left"

Last Sunday, there was a great, albeit heartbreaking, moment during the FOX Sports NFL post-game show when Terry Bradshaw talked about the passing of L.C. Greenwood.  Speaking of his phone call with Joe Greene earlier in the day, Bradshaw teared and choked up when he told of saying to Greene, "Joe, you're the only one left."  The only member left of the great Steel Curtain, the seemingly invincible Pittsburgh Steelers front four of Greene, Greenwood, Ernie Holmes and Dwight White. 

Back in the mid-1970s, I hated that Steelers team, mostly because of a series of memorable duels they held with the great Oakland Raiders teams of the day.  Every year from 1972 through 1976, either the Steelers or the Raiders ended the season of the other in the playoffs, with the Steelers capturing two Super Bowl titles and the Raiders one during that period.  You could hardly call those matchups "games" - they were vicious affairs, with the two teams clearly doing everything in their power to pound the other into submission.  Rarely did one of their games end without someone having to be helped off the field.

With due respect to the 1985 Bears, I'll stick to my guns with my belief that those Steel Curtain teams featured the greatest defense in the history of the NFL.  Not only did you have that fearsome front four, you also had the maniacal Jack Lambert at middle linebacker, and the amazing Mel Blount (at the time, I thought he was the best of them all, and I may have been right) prowling in the secondary, ready at any moment to punish Fred Biletikoff, Cliff Branch or Dave Casper coming across the middle for one of Ken Stabler's pinpoint passes.  That the Raiders were able to win any of those games (they took 2 of 5) is a testament to the fact that they were a pretty special team themselves.

The sadness of Greenwood's death also made me think about something Ray Lewis had said earlier in the day on ESPN, during a soliloquy on how the game "ain't what it used to be," with the now familiar refrain of "if they only let us hit today the way we used to hit..." as his theme.

Well, let's think about that for a minute - let's look at the Steel Curtain, and the warriors they faced across the line, the Hall of Fame - caliber offensive line of the Raiders:

- Greenwood, dead at 67
- Dwight White, dead at 59
- Ernie Holmes, dead at 60

- Gene Upshaw, dead at 63
- Jim Otto, alive at 75, but the veteran of 70 surgeries, hip and knee replacements, and ultimately the amputation of one leg.

Only Greene and Art Shell still among the living.

And that, Ray Lewis, is why the NFL doesn't want today's players - bigger, faster and stronger - to hit the way players used to hit.  That is why the NFL recently agreed to place almost three-quarters of a billion dollars in trust for former players, and that's just for the impact that multiple concussions have had on so many players.

Today, we are seeing the impact of the game on its former players - and keep in mind, all of those listed above were among they very best at their positions.  There's no other way to put it - they are dying before their time.  And for every Hall of Famer like Upshaw, there are dozens of lesser known players suffering from the very same things.  The NFL is doing the right thing when it cracks down on vicious, and mostly unnecessary, hits. 

In the meantime, we still have the memories.  R.I.P., L.C.

Fall Albums, Part One

Or, "let's see how all the old white guys are doing this year."

Kings of Leon, Mechanical Bull.  OK, it may be a stretch to call these guys "old," but they've been through a lot, and it's been almost a decade since "Aha Shake Heartbreak" put them on the map.  So if nothing else, they're old souls.

It may be a coincidence that there are songs on the new album titled "Comeback Story" and "Coming Back Again," but you have to wonder.  Their last LP, "Come Around Sundown," was such a desultory affair that to these ears, there was only one memorable song on the entire album.  The boys even bash it a bit in their current RS feature, which makes me wonder who I can write to in order to get my money back.

But all's well that ends well, so I'm happy to say that "Mechanical Bull" is a fine return to form, one of their strongest albums to date and perhaps even better than that.  The band doesn't cover a lot of new ground, they just go back to what they do best, and they do it very well.  Songs like "Rock City," "Don't Matter" and "Family Tree" jump right out of the speakers, with the familiar ringing guitars driving the way.  But there really isn't a weak cut on the entire album, so it's nice to welcome the Followill brothers back to the land of the living.

The Last Ship, Sting.  Caveat emptor: anyone buying this album expecting to hear something that reminds them of classic Sting or The Police needs to do a little research before plunking down the $9.99.  Better yet, I'll lay it out for you.  "The Last Ship" is a throwback to the days of the "concept album," a suite of songs intended for a yet-to-be produced musical about the heyday (and later, decline) of the shipping industry in Sting's homeland.  I wasn't sure if this was going to be my cup of tea, but I'm happy to say that as long as you accept the album for what it is, it's almost entirely successful.  Songs like "The Last Ship," "The Night the Pugilist Learned How To Dance," "What Have We Got?," "I Love Her But She Loves Someone Else," and "So To Speak" lay out the story in fairly easy-to-understand terms, and at times are surprisingly rousing and even moving.  Good show.

Elton John, The Diving Board.  Now, you have to remember that Elton was my first musical hero, to the point where "Honky Chateau" was the first album that I bought with my own money.  So, even though I've bought few of his records in the past three decades, I'm always disposed to like him, and in fact find it hard to understand how anyone could not admire what he's been able to accomplish.

Motivated by the success of "The Union," his 2010 collaboration with (and rescue of) Leon Russell, Elton is clearly trying to put himself back on the artistic map with "The Diving Board."  And the good news is that for the most part, he succeeds - while I'm not sure how much meaning this has at this late date, the new album is clearly his strongest effort in more than 35 years.  Producer T-Bone Burnett keeps things simple, and the sound is about as far from the Gus Dudgeon "throw in the kitchen sink" approach as you can possibly imagine.  At times, it almost sounds like the grandchild of "Honky Chateau," with driving, catchy tunes like "A Town Called Jubilee," "Take This Dirty Water," and "Mexican Vacation."  The ratio of ballads to rockers leans a little more to the former than I'd like, but several of the ballads, particularly the title cut, are among the strongest he's written in years.

So welcome back, Elton.  Very nice to have you back, indeed.

Wise Up Ghost, Elvis Costello and The Roots.  Elvis has certainly come a long way from that infamous night in 1979 when he got ridiculously drunk and, in an effort to be more obnoxious than members of Delaney and Bonnie's band, dropped the n-word on the world in the midst of an incredible monologue about the general worthlessness of American music.  That night impacted his artistic evolution more than one might imagine.  The first album he released following the incident, "Get Happy!," was clearly an attempt (albeit, a mostly successful one) to scream to the world, "I like American Soul Music!"  Right after that, released "Almost Blue," an entire album of country songs, just to hammer down the point that yes, he also liked other, whiter, genres of music from this side of the pond.  Given his efforts over the years, both artistic and otherwise, to support various causes and various diverse musical genres, it's hard to believe, almost 35 years later, that that night ever happened.

So why bring this up in the context of his new album with The Roots?  Because I think that, for the first time, Elvis sounds completely comfortable with the melding of genres, and can now make an album with The Roots, one with a very distinctive "American" sound, and not sound as if he's doing something to make up for past sins.  He can sit across from Questlove, as he does in a photo inside the album cover, and instead of thinking "look at that old white guy, trying to look cool," you think "Yeah, that makes sense.  Right on."

Put another way, "Wise Up Ghost" just might be the album that Elvis wanted "Get Happy!" to be.  It's an unqualified success, with some of the most memorable tunes I've heard from Elvis in many, many years - "Cinco Minutos Con Vos," "Walk Us Uptown," "Sugar Won't Work," "(She Might Be A) Grenade," and a "Pills and Soap" rewrite called  "Stick Out Your Tongue" all crackle with an intensity that reminds one of his first few classic albums.   A definite winner.

Bob Dylan, "The Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait."  When the original "Self Portrait" was released, I was 10 years old, blissfully unaware of Bob Dylan, except for those handful of songs ("Lay Lady Lay" comes to mind) that a young, impressionable kid might hear on AM radio.  To this day I don't own that Dylan album, scared away (as I'm sure have been many others) by Greil Marcus' now-famous comment about it, "What is this shit?"

Listening to this two-CD set, which I'd say is yet another worthy entry in the Bootleg series, it's almost impossible to reconstruct what led to Marcus' comment, and that led an angry Jon Landau to call up Robert Christgau to suggest that the latter give the album a "D" in his monthly consumer guide (he gave it a C+).  Because all of this music, either alternate versions of songs released during that era, or unreleased songs from that era, sounds pretty damn good, and it fits in right along with all the rest of the great stuff in the bootleg series.

In a master stroke of marketing if nothing else, Columbia hired Marcus to write the liner notes for this edition of the series, and reading them you get the feeling that he recognizes this as well.  And when you think about it, you can begin to understand it.  Dylan had released a series of the greatest rock albums ever released in the mid to late 1960s, but wanted to branch out and try some new things (not unlike what he did when he went with an electric band for the first time).  But the audience, even discerning folks like Marcus and Landau, wanted nothing of it.

Cutting to the chase, if you're a Dylan fan, you should buy this album.  You won't be disappointed.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Electrifying Lady

The album begins with a brief overture, inspired (according to the inscrutable liner notes) "by the idea of Ennio Morricone playing cards with Duke Ellington."  OK, whatever.  A more accurate description would have included John Barry, the great film composer responsible for, among many other accomplishments, the scores for the first couple of decades of James Bond films.  But that matters little because the bottom line is that, on first listen, you couldn't fault someone for thinking, a la Greil Marcus about Dylan in 1970, "what is this sh*t?"

And then, 90 seconds later, comes the sound of one of the nastiest beats and guitar licks you've heard in quite some time, followed by Janelle Monae's strong, confident voice:

I am sharper than a razor
Eyes made of lasers

At that point you stop wondering what it all means; all you know is that you're going to believe anything coming from this young woman's voice.  And after the first chorus, when you think the stakes couldn't possibly be raised any higher, you hear the Purple One himself, contributing both vocal and "background acrobatics" (I think that means guitar solo).  But this isn't the Prince of "Purple Rain," this is a throwback all the way to the Prince of "Dirty Mind," when there was but one thing on that young man's mind, that one thing prompting Robert Christgau to comment, "Mick Jagger might as well fold up his penis and go home."  No doubt about it - you don't need to understand the lyrics to understand that this is a dirty song, both in music and words.  It's called "Givin Em What They Love," and you can almost imagine Monae saying to herself, "Yeah, Robin Thicke, I got your blurred lines right here, buddy."

It's also the best song on the album, and the most exciting, but what makes "The Electric Lady" one of the best albums of the year is that there are quite a few other songs that almost match it in quality and tone.  And if you've seen the clip of Monae performing "Dance Apocalyptic" on Letterman, you know that she's also a performer cut in the James Brown mold, leaving absolutely nothing on the stage.

Throughout the course of the album's 14 songs, Monae manages to evoke memories of Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Anita Baker, and of course Prince, all the while sounding as if she made all this stuff up herself.  Not every song matches the quality (or the sheer vibrance) of the best songs (the aforementioned two, plus "Q.U.E.E.N.," the title track, "Can't Live Without Your Love," "Dorothy Dandridge Eyes"), but they are never less than interesting, and the "interludes" (which contain the album's narrative, which frankly makes no sense to me) are entertaining if completely nonsensical.

"The Electric Lady" is not a perfect album, and there are times when it seems as if Monae hasn't yet figured out exactly what her strengths and weaknesses are.  It's probably a little long, which hardly makes it unique in this era of hour-plus records.  But these are all minor quibbles, because this also most definitely sounds like a great artist trying to find herself, not unlike Prince back in the late 70s and early 80s.  And if it all comes together someday and she releases her "Purple Rain," well watch out - because that will be truly scary.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Well, that went fast...

After seven years of writing this blog, you'd think that I would have learned to avoid making any promises associated with things that are "coming soon."  But that would be too easy, right?

This time, it was the end of the legislative session that conspired to prevent me from focusing on extra-curricular (but essential, I would argue) activities such as this.  I'd forgotten exactly how difficult, frustrating and time-consuming the final weeks and days of the session can be, and in that regard 2013 went a solid three-for-three.  Bills rising from the dead, new bills resulting from the infamous practice of "gut-and-amend," and bills generally sucking up a lot more time than any reasonable person might expect.  But hey, it's the job.

So the plan to spend a few days offering tributes to Warren Zevon and Johnny Cash went by the wayside, and given where we find ourselves on the calendar, the 95 More Songs of Summer project seems to have run its course.  Luckily the next couple of months will be a little more manageable (he said confidently), and I'm hoping to throw some things up here that people might find of interest.

For those few who have stuck around and check in, I thank you!

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Zevon Tribute #1

We're coming up on the 10th anniversary of the passing of two great American artists, Johnny Cash and Warren Zevon.  So I'm going to do what I can in the next 10 days or so to pay tribute to each of them.  Wish they were both still here.

A few years back, I made a list of my favorite Zevon songs, and I'm pretty sure this ended up as #1.  I love this version, both for the way Warren looks, and the way he just nails it with the acoustic guitar.  This was on the first Zevon album I bought (was a senior in high school), so it also holds some sentimental value.

"Lawyers, Guns and Money," Warren Zevon, originally from the album "Excitable Boy," released in 1978.

To Be There, Or Not To Be There

New York Jets coach Rex Ryan once again finds himself in the headlines, this time over having chose to attend his son's college football game rather than be with the Jets staff on the day when they were making final decisions on who and who wasn't going to make the team this year.  Some have defended Ryan, others have excoriated him.

It's a tough call.  I understand that football is a billion dollar business, but the amount of time and energy that coaches put into the game (and the business) in the modern era is fairly ridiculous.  There's no way to be certain of this, but it feels sometimes as if coaches are working longer hours than the President of the United States.  Something about that equation feels a little off.  And I'm a strong proponent of carving out family time out of the work schedule, even if I haven't always done the best job of that myself. 

In the end, I think I side more with those who are criticizing Ryan - when decisions surrounding one's livelihood are part of your job description, I think you have a responsibility to look those people in the eye and be the one to let them know that, hard as they may have tried, that they're not part of the organization's future.  But having said that, the issue isn't one that will keep me up late at night.  Ryan has a bit (maybe more than a bit) of the buffoon in him, and there will no doubt be other transgressions this season that far exceed this one.

Play on...nothing to see here, folks.

Monday, September 02, 2013

95 More Songs of Summer - Everybody Disco!

As summer wound down in 1976, the disco phenomenon was beginning to pick up steam.  Some of the songs were great, and some were ridiculous.  But on that Labor Day weekend, the genre dominated the top of the charts, as it would for the next few years.

"Shake Shake Shake (Your Booty)," KC and the Sunshine Band

"Play That Funky Music," Wild Cherry

"You Should Be Dancing," Bee Gees

"Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel," Tavares

"Lowdown," Boz Scaggs.  I suppose you could argue that this one wasn't really disco, but it was certainly disco-influenced. Whatever you call it, "Silk Degrees" was a great album.

The Kings of Disco, from the summer of 1976.