Sunday, January 27, 2013

Class of '78: "My Aim Is True," Elvis Costello

Take a close look at that cover photo - does that look like the face of a man who, more than 30 years later, would host the likes of Tony Bennett and President Bill Clinton on a television program where they talked about (and sang) music?

"My Aim Is True" is rightly considered to be one of the greatest debut albums in the history of rock and roll.  It's as if this version of Elvis left the musical womb fully formed, ready and raring to go.  And even though The Divine Mr. C would up the ante less than a year later with the remarkable "This Year's Model," an album featuring a tougher sound provided by his own band (The Attractions; on the debut, the featured band was a Bay Area group called Clover), "My Aim Is True" is a great album in its own right.

Like many other albums of that era, I first learned about "My Aim Is True" from reading a Greil Marcus review in Rolling Stone.  I don't think I have a copy of the review in my collection, but I remember it being a "dual review," of both Costello's record and the new Randy Newman album, "Little Criminals."  Marcus saw similarities between the two, although he found the Newman record disappointing, and the Costello exciting, even groundbreaking.  Looking back more than 35 years later, you can see why Marcus was tempted to make the comparison, although Elvis' early records would eventually stray far from Newman territory.

For the most part, it is the music on an album that first grabs me, as opposed to the lyrics.  But Costello is an amazing lyricist, and it was hard not to pay immediate attention to gems like these:

"Welcome to the working week, Oh I know it don't thrill you, I hope it don't kill you..."
- "Welcome to the Working Week"

"Sometimes I wish that I could stop you from talking when I hear the silly things that you say..."
- "Alison"

"Oh, I used to be disgusted, and now I try to be amused."
- "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes"

"Well I remember when the lights went out and I was trying to make it look like it was never in doubt/She thought that I knew, and I thought that she knew, so both of us were willing but we didn't know how to to do it."
- "Mystery Dance"

"Though it nearly took a miracle to get you to stay, it only took my little fingers to blow you away."
- "Watching the Detectives"

Along with a handful of other artists, Elvis Costello helped to usher in an era of music that, no matter what you thought about it at the time, definitely gave the old rock 'n roll verities (as Robert Christgau would call them) a shot in the arm.   Listening to the album today, it evokes that time, but at the same time feels timeless - if it came out today, it would be hailed as a great work, which it is.

Oh Well... much for all of those posts I was going to write last week.  I did a lot of writing last week, it's just that none of it fell into the categories that would normally end up here.  But if you're really interested in the 1200-word piece I wrote on Thursday about capital appreciation bonds, just let me know.

But as long as I'm here, why not jump in for a couple of quick hits.

- "Hansel and Gretel?"  He's a great actor, but Jeremy Renner seems to be getting very close to Nicolas Cage territory with his choices.  Doing a Mission Impossible and an Avengers movie is one thing, but this new one just looks horrible.  On the other hand, I haven't seen it so there could be some point in the future where I am forced to eat those words.

- I've written about the moaning in women's tennis on many previous occasions, but the Sharapova/Azarenka double bill the other night was just excruciating.  I finally had to stop watching the Azarenka match.  Just ridiculous.

- On the other hand, the Australian Open is always one of my favorite sporting events of the year.  It's winter, it's dark, it's cold and/or raining, you're struggling to pull yourself out of the post-holiday season blues, and there's nothing quite like watching some great tennis from a venue where it's hovering around 100 degrees and everybody present is having a grand old time.

- And how about the current situation in the men's side of the bracket?  I can't think of a time when we've had a four-way rivalry like the one we've got right now.  And even though Nadal didn't make the trip this time, it would be foolish to write him off until we have further evidence that he deserves to be written off.  In the past, during my lifetime, we've had Connors/Borg, McEnroe/Borg, Sampras/Agassi, and a few others.  Every now and then a third would slip into the mix, but what we have right now - a point where in any given tournament, all things (especially health) equal, you could go with Djokovic, Federer, Murray or Nadal and no one will raise their eyebrows.  Fun, and (I think) unprecedented.

- So Sports Illustrated has picked the Ravens to win the Super Bowl, 27-23.  That's fine - and things could turn out that way.  But I'm counting on the boys by the bay to ruin Ray Lewis' little party, and I'll be offering my prediction sometime before kickoff next Sunday.  I promise.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

"Zero Dark Thirty"

I suppose it's impossible to write about "Zero Dark Thirty" without acknowledging the politics that have dominated the discussion about the movie, so I might as well get that out of the way first.

Of course, there's the question of torture.  Does the movie glorify torture?  Does the movie tell a false story with respect to how it links torture (and the information gleaned from it) with finding Osama bin Laden? 

Then there's the question of Hollywood politics.  Was Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar snub due to the perception of Hollywood that she made her movie with the full cooperation of the C.I.A. and/or some other arm of the U.S. government? 

The whole thing strikes me as a little ridiculous, so here are a few personal observations.

1. I was expecting the torture scenes to be much worse than they turned out to be.  More than one of the scenes in "Django Unchained" made me squirm in my seat much worse than anything in "Zero Dark Thirty."  And the line between torture and the successful Bin Laden operation is somewhere between tenuous and indirect.  Information is obtained, but if I followed the narrative correctly, it was not always correct, and certainly not always helpful.  So I'm not sure how that translates into a glorification of torture.

2. One never knows what evil lurks in the minds of Oscar voters, but it is without question a travesty that Bigelow did not receive an Oscar nomination for her direction.  You can reasonably criticize the film's character development and even screenplay, but you simply can't criticize the direction, which is masterful.

And I'm no apologist for any of the foreign policy mistakes the U.S. has made during my lifetime, and I've read "Endless Enemies" so I know that many of the situations in which we've found ourselves on the world front resulted almost entirely from previous mistakes or errors in judgment that we made.   However, none of that stopped me from "rooting" for our side during the movie.

So with all that out of the way, I'll just come right out and say that "Zero Dark Thirty" is a magnificent movie, one that will likely one day come to be regarded as a masterpiece.  It's no small trick to construct a movie around an already known outcome and maintain the tension throughout, but Bigelow manages it while barely breaking a sweat.  Part of the reason for this is that the viewer knows how much is at stake, so even though the movie is "about" the Bin Laden operation, it always feel as if it's focused on something much bigger - nothing less than a war about a way of life.

Jessica Chastain was the perfect choice to play Maya, the intrepid CIA analyst who slowly but surely - through mind-numbing hours of data collections, and soul-numbing moments of "enhanced interrogation" - puts together the information she needs to pinpoint the location of Bin Laden.  Slight in physical appearance, she nonetheless is a force to be reckoned with - and it's no small matter that it is her larger and tougher colleague who ends up back in the States, weary of it all.  In a way, she and her colleagues are almost like the flight crew technicians in "Apollo 13" - not glamorous, but determined and with talents that from the outside are easy for some to miss.

But the entire cast is great - Kyle Chandler as the world weary station chief,  Mark Strong as the middle/upper level manager overseeing the operation against Bin Laden, Jennifer Ehle as Maya's tough-as-nails colleague and friend, Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt (!) as the badass leaders of the Navy Seal team that conducts the operation, even James Gandolfini as "the Director" - and all of them sprinkle their performances with a level of urgency that suits perfectly the material that screenwriter Mark Boal has given them to work with.

And a special shout-out to the movie's final 45 minutes -which depicts the actual operation itself.  This is film-making of the highest order, and when we saw it, the theater was so quiet that you could hear your own heart beating (well, at least I could).  Those scenes reach a level of intensity that have rarely been matched, but they would mean less if the almost 2 hours that preceded them hadn't set the stage so effectively.

Great, great stuff.

#26-50 of the Top 50 Albums of All Time

We're halfway through, so a recap seems to be in order.

You can find all of the individual reviews here.

26.  Pretzel Logic, Steely Dan
27.  Late for the Sky, Jackson Browne
28.  Rubber Soul, The Beatles
29. Songs for Swingin' Lovers, Frank Sinatra
30.  Dig Me Out, Sleater-Kinney
31.  Kiko, Los Lobos
32. Rust Never Sleeps, Neil Young & Crazy Horse
33.  Horses, Patti Smith
34.  The Joshua Tree, U2
35.  Rumours, Fleetwood Mac
36.  Peter Gabriel (1980)
37.  August and Everything After, Counting Crows
38.  Tie: Siren and Avalon, Roxy Music
39.  Rocket to Russia, The Ramones
40.  Making Movies, Dire Straits
41.  Black Cadillac, Rosanne Cash
42.  Graceland, Paul Simon
43.  Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Lucinda Williams
44.  Life'll Kill Ya, Warren Zevon
45.  Decoration Day, Drive-By Truckers
46.  Actually, Pet Shop Boys
47.  Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, Elton John
48.  Los Angeles, X
49.  Madonna
50.  Some Girls, The Rolling Stones

That's not a bad list, if I do say so myself.


Well, I'm not sure where that week went.

Still in my first year back in the Capitol scene, I had forgotten how busy January could be. 

Some posts on their way:

- Might do a little live-blogging during the 49ers game, depending on how things go.

- Review of "Zero Dark Thirty," an amazing movie.

- A few words about the Pazz & Jop poll that came out a few days ago.

- Looking back at some old Pazz & Jop polls from the lens of the albums I own.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Top 50 Albums All Time, #26 - "Pretzel Logic," Steely Dan

For a while now, I've gone back and forth on the question of whether to select one Steely Dan album in this spot, or make it a three-, four- or even five-way tie.  Their albums in the 1970s were that good, and with the exception of "The Royal Scam" (parts of which I like, but which always struck me as too cold and uninviting for its own good), I could make an argument for all of their 70s album output:

Can't Buy A Thrill - a brilliant debut without a single weak song, and two hit singles to boot - both of which you still hear on the radio today.

Countdown to Ecstasy - the first hint that this band was perhaps a little bit different than your run-of-the-mill long-haired 70s rock band.  The songs were longer, making AM radio play next to impossible, and the lyrics...sometimes they were straight-forward, and sometimes they were pretty damn inscrutable.

Katy Lied - the first of their albums where they began to embrace the fact that they really weren't a band anymore, by featuring photos of a handful of the myriad session players who contributed to the work.

Aja - the transformation was complete, "Steely Dan" was now, as it would be to this day, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen and whomever they selected to accompany them on what some would denigrate as nothing more than MOR jazz.  Sure, the songs were smooth, one might even argue mellow, but to these ears it was a logical extension of what came before, and given the time I might even try to tie Steely Dan's evolution to what was happening around them during that decade.

The internal debate within my mind ended right where it began - with "Pretzel Logic," a logical extension of where they had been, but one with plenty of hints of where they would be headed in the future, with one song written by Duke Ellington and another paying homage to Charlie Parker.

There is a photo of the original band - Becker, Fagen, Denny Dias, Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, and Jim Hodder - on the inner sleeve, but the notes also credit 17 additional musicians, including such session luminaries as Jeff Porcaro, David Paich, Michael Omartian, Ernie Watts, and Dean Parks.  Clearly, this was Becker and Fagen's show, and they had come to the conclusion that the constraints of the traditional rock band - guitar, keyboard, bass and drums - was insufficient to achieve the musical vision that they were after.

If the collective memories of music fans were erased today and "Pretzel Logic" was released tomorrow, there's little doubt in my mind that it would fit right in to today's fractured musical landscape.  As a band, Steely Dan was always a little on the fractured side, and there's something here to please just about everyone - the magnificent hit single "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," the sly social commentary of "Barrytown," the Ellington homage "East St. Louis Toodle-oo," the inscrutable lyrics of "Pretzel Logic," and the downright weirdness of "Charlie Freak" and "Monkey in Your Soul."

Great stuff.

Pretzel Logic, Steely Dan (1974)
Produced by Gary Katz

Rikki Don't Lose That Number/Night by Night/Any Major Dude Will Tell You/Barrytown/East St. Louis Toodle-oo/Parker's Band/Through With Buzz/Pretzel Logic/With a Gun/Charlie Freak/Monkey in Your Soul

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Happy Birthday, Elvis


Just one of the greatest moments in the history of rock and roll.  That's all.

Monday, January 07, 2013

BCS Prediction

Better get this in before the game actually starts, with the caveat that this is nothing but my gut talking.

And my gut tells me that Notre Dame, even though they're far from the flashiest team in the nation, is one of those teams that just refuses to lose, and will put it out tonight in a close one. 

Notre Dame 17, Alabama 14.

UPDATE: Well, that one didn't work out so well.  Not only was it off by a mile, but it was off by a mile before I even got home from work, with the score being 21-0.  I'm not sure that Notre Dame played their best game, but on the other hand I'm not sure it would have made any difference if they had.  So...SEC domination continues; there's just no other way to put it.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Divisional Round Predictions

Might as well get on the record early:

New England 38, Houston 21
Denver 30, Baltimore 17
Seattle 27, Atlanta 10
San Francisco 31, Green Bay 28

Houston didn't do much to impress me yesterday, and it's hard to imagine New England losing one at home, not with Tom Brady at the helm.

Frankly, I'm so tired of Ray Lewis at this stage of his career that I'd be predicting a victory for any team that was playing the Ravens next week.  The Broncos had the foundation for a great team last year, and you know, this guy Manning can play a little.

My gut tells me that Seattle is going to run the table.  I was a little surprised when they fell behind 14-0 today, but after that, they made it look fairly easy.  And I hope that RGIII fully recovers, and I hope the Redskins organization is embarrassed about that field.

And then, the 49ers.  At this point, I don't know what to predict.  Can Colin Kaepernick really take the team all the way?  Is Frank Gore healthy?  Is Justin Smith healthy?  But I'll be rooting for them all the way, although I fully expect them to take the lead of that other team in San Francisco, and make it torture for everyone watching.

Class of 78: "Excitable Boy," Warren Zevon

The beat up cover of my beat up copy of "Excitable Boy."
I'd been trying to think of a new blog theme to explore in 2013, and thanks to Thomas, one of my old high school chums who is a Facebook friend of mine, I've got one.  His idea was to review some of the albums that were released in 1978, since that's the year we graduated from high school (Del Campo High School, Fair Oaks, CA, Go Cougars!).  That works for me - it was a great year for music, and it will also provide an opportunity to gauge how my tastes have changed over the years.  For the first six months, I'll also include some late '77 albums, since they were also a part of that "senior year experience."

We'll kick things off with "Excitable Boy," Warren Zevon's second album, which was released in February '78.  It was the first album by Zevon that I bought, but little did I know that he would become one of my very favorite artists.  Back in those days I bought a lot of albums that got good reviews in Rolling Stone, which is something you could still do, because those were the days when critics like Dave Marsh, Paul Nelson, Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs were still a major force in the records review section.  Nelson wrote the review of "Excitable Boy," and he left no doubt where he stood, opening up with the bold statement that it was the best American rock album since "Born to Run," "The Pretender," and "Zuma."  Some of Nelson's other quotes:

"...[after the first album] there was some confusion whether he was just another sensitive (albeit unusually tough) singer songwriter or a Magnum-cum-laude rock & roller who ate gunpowder for breakfast..."
"...An intuitive artist, he's often both smart and crazy enough to shoot first at the most explosive subjects, then figure out the ramifications of whatever the hell he's bloodied later ("Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner," "Excitable Boy," "Werewolves of London," "Lawyers, Guns and Money"). This is a dangerous way to work—it isn't nice, and not everybody gets it—but you can claim some spectacular trophies when you're sufficiently reckless to risk safari on the dark side of the moon, where the gleam of the lion may look like the leer of the lamb..."
"...Almost without exception, Zevon's rock & roll songs command and demand your attention through the sheer strength of their creator's personality; they're not necessarily profound (though they can be), but they hit with such primary impact you don't have to think twice about them..."

Looking back at the album today, it's a solid A-/B+, but only because four of the songs - "Excitable Boy," "Werewolves of London," "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" and "Lawyers, Guns and Money" - are of A+ quality, enduring classics that would likely show up on any Zevon "best of" that you could possibly conceive of.  That Nelson singles out those four songs in his review is just further evidence of his astute critical ear.  The rest of the album isn't bad by any stretch of the imagination, but in comparison to those four songs, is fairly pedestrian.

Zevon would struggle with the hobgoblin of consistency for much of his career, and one of the great tragedies of his untimely death in 2003 is that with his late-career resurgence, he seemed to have finally solved it, delivering what were likely his three most consistent albums (with the possible exception of the debut) in the four years leading up to his death.

But for a young kid looking for the next best thing, "Excitable Boy" was a great place to start.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Spielberg and Day-Lewis' Masterful "Lincoln"

Whether it is based on the biographies we've read, or the photos we've seen, or even seeing him "live" at Disneyland when we were kids, we all have a vision in our minds of what Abraham Lincoln must have sounded like, how he walked, how he talked, and how he struggled and ultimately prevailed over the crises of the day.

50 years from now, a generation of Americans will base their own mental pictures of Lincoln on Daniel Day-Lewis' performance in Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln."  This is not just the performance of the year - Day-Lewis' rendering of the beloved 16th President is a titanic achievement, and over time Day-Lewis as Lincoln will come to stand with actor/character portrayals like Scott/Patton and Brando/Corleone as the very best that cinema has to offer.  I didn't think it was possible for Day-Lewis to top his performance in "There Will Be Blood," but he does it here.

But a great performance alone does not a great movie make.  Fortunately, that is not an issue here, as the screenplay, the direction, and the supporting performances are all up to the task.  As I'm sure most have heard by now, "Lincoln" is set in the final months of his presidency, and focuses on his efforts to secure passage of the 13th Amendment.  It is a richly detailed and compelling story, and for someone who has spent the better of part of his life involved in or directly working in politics and government, it is also a feast for the mind.  For current pundits and others who decry the current lack of civility in modern-day politics, it reminds us that the American brand of politics has almost always been a coarse instrument, one shaded with gray.  No doubt, there are political theorists past, present and future who will take exception to Lincoln's "ends justify the means" approach to getting what he wants.  For the rest of us, it is a useful reminder that there are always exceptions which prove the rule.

Aside from brief scenes of battle and its terrible aftermath, Steven Spielberg does not try to overwhelm the story with spectacle.  His restrained, sure-handed direction may, in time, come to be considered his best.  Tony Kushner's screenplay does not try to paint the characters as saints or sinners - he just shows us these characters as what they were, and lets the viewer decide on his/her own how they feel about them.

"Lincoln" is also filled with great performances from actors who no doubt felt challenged to prove themselves worthy to share screen time with one of the masters of the craft.  The list is long - Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson as the era's version of lobbyists (well before the advent of bodies like the Fair Political Practices Commission), Hal Holbrook as Preston Blair, reminding us that as we walk through D.C. we are literally walking through the country's history, and David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward, whose relationship with Lincoln is strong enough that he can stand up to the great man when he feels he's gone or been led astray.  And Sally Field, who portrays Mary Todd Lincoln sympathetically (and even heroically, as she has no qualms in standing up to Thaddeus Stevens when the occasion demands it), but also in a way that makes it clear that the crises Lincoln was struggling with were personal as well as national.

It's all wonderful, really.  I have nothing negative to say about the movie, and urge everyone to see it.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Songs of the Year - Counting Crows

It seems like I do this every year - forget to include at least one song on my favorites list.  This year, it's two, but at least they're from the same band - Counting Crows.

So above we have "Meet On the Ledge," their cover of the old Fairport Convention song, and below we have "Amie," their cover of Pure Prairie League's classic 70s hit.

Listing: Movies of 2012

As should be obvious from my earlier post wrapping up Netflix 2012, most of my film viewing comes via that medium.  So what we have here are the movies that were actually seen inside a real movie theater.  There weren't any that I truly disliked, although "Rock of Ages" would certainly be at the bottom of the list if I were to rank them from top to bottom.

What would be at the top?  Tough question.  If I were to pick a top five, it would probably be in this order: The Dark Knight Rises, Django Unchained, Argo, Silver Linings Playbook and Hugo.  But I might change my mind tomorrow, so take that with a grain of salt.
  • Les Miserables
  • Django Unchained
  • Silver Linings Playbook
  • The Hobbit
  • Skyfall
  • Argo
  • The Bourne Legacy
  • The Dark Knight Rises
  • Ted
  • Rock of Ages
  • Prometheus
  • The Avengers
  • Hugo
  • Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
  • The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (Fincher)

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Listing: Books of 2012

This is downright embarrassing, I know.  Six books read over the course of an entire year?  I've got to do something about that in 2013. 

In my (lame) defense, two of the books were really, really long: Stephen King's "11/22/63," and Ron Chernow's "Washington."  The latter was my personal literary white whale of the year.  I began reading it on Memorial Day weekend, with the goal of finishing by Independence Day.  July 4 rolled around, and the goal became to finish by Labor Day.  September 3 came a calling, and the goal shifted to Veterans Day.  A goal that I met - hooray!
  • Washington, by Ron Chernow
  • Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi
  • Stay Close, by Harlan Coben
  • Taken, by Robert Crais
  • The Drop, by Michael Connelly
  • 11/22/63, by Stephen King
I enjoyed them all, particularly the bookend epics.  King's take on the Kennedy assassination is right up there with the best of his works, and Chernow makes Washington monumental and human at the same time.

Listing: Albums of 2012

Committing to posterity the albums I purchased in 2012, with the Fab Five leading the way.

1. Wrecking Ball, Bruce Springsteen.  An obvious choice if you know me, but the right one.  It's definitely his strongest album since "The Rising," most likely his strongest since "Tunnel of Love," and possibly his strongest since "Born in the U.S.A."  The change in producers resulted in a different sound, the freshest his music has sounded in quite some time.

2. Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance, Patterson Hood.  The quieter side of Hood, reflective and never less than impressive.

3. Tempest, Bob Dylan.  Not quite at the level of his back-to-back masterpieces ("Time Out of Mind," "Love and Theft," "Modern Times"), but certainly within shouting distance.

4. Underwater Sunshine, Counting Crows.  When I opened this one up and realized it was an album comprised entirely of covers, I was disappointed.  I shouldn't have been; this is their strongest album in years, and many of the covers are so obscure that they might as well be new songs.

5. Blunderbuss, Jack White.  As I wrote the other day, the most impressive thing about this album is its modesty.  White knows he's a guitar god, but doesn't feel the need to prove it on every song, as it sometimes felt on even the best White Stripes records.  The focus is the songs, and the songs are good.

As for the rest, there were parts of each that I actively enjoyed, with the exception of Madonna's latest travesty, which was embarrassingly bad.
  • Psychedelic Pill - Neil Young & Crazy Horse
  • Living for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran - Jamey Johnson
  • Sunken Condos - Donald Fagen
  • Glad Rag Doll - Diana Krall
  • The Carpenter - The Avett Brothers
  • Sun - Cat Power
  • Handwritten - The Gaslight Anthem
  • Not Your Kind of People - Garbage
  • Americana - Neil Young & Crazy Horse
  • Banga - Patti Smith
  • Neck of the Woods - Silversun Pickups
  • The Idler Wheel... - Fiona Apple
  • Older Than My Old Man Now - Loudon Wainwright III
  • Chimes of Freedom - The Songs of Bob Dylan
  • Slipstream - Bonnie Raitt
  • Barton Hollow - The Civil Wars
  • Boys & Girls - Alabama Shakes
  • MDNA - Madonna
  • Voyageur - Kathleen Edwards
  • Hell on Heels - Pistol Annies
  • Nothing Is Wrong - Dawes
  • 21 - Adele
  • Wild Flag
  • Four the Record - Miranda Lambert
  • Mylo Xyloto - Coldplay
  • El Camino - The Black Keys
  • Chief - Eric Church

The Song of the Year (2012) - "We Take Care of Our Own," Bruce Springsteen

The song I'll always remember when I think about 2012 - joining "Welcome to the Future" (2010) and "Rolling in the Deep" (2011).

Happy New Year, everyone.