Friday, August 29, 2008

McCain's First Important Executive Decision

ABOVE: The silver platter upon which John McCain just delivered the election to Barack Obama

Goddammit. I love John McCain, but dude, what were you thinking? Did you think that you could grab unhappy Hillary supporters just by picking a female VP candidate...who is outspoken about being Pro-Life, a gun enthusiast, anti-gay marriage, and who stated that she does not believe that human activity contributes to climate change? Based on her positions, she negates most of the advantages of being a chick. Hillary democrats are not going to flock to the republicans with those types of views.

She comes from a state that doesn't matter, so her popularity in the polar regions doesn't mean a thing in the lower 48. Maybe she can help to deliver Alaska's three electoral votes, though. Woo hoo. McCain could have picked Mitt Romney (who could have influenced Michigan and excited the conservative base) or Pawlenty, who is a well known, young, exciting and respected governor from a state that marginally matters more than Alaska. But instead he picks a woman who was not really on anyone's radar before today. And Palin even comes with her own scandal and ethics investigation (revolving around her firing of Alaska's Public Safety Commissioner because of his supposed refusal to fire her ex-brother-in-law from the state troopers).

The really baffling aspect of this pick is that it completely undermines McCain's strongest argument against Obama. McCain has been effectively making the point that Obama lacks sufficient experience to lead our nation in these troubled times. So then he picks a woman who has less than two years experience as governor of a state with the population of Austin, Texas. Before that she was mayor of a town of about 7000. Considering McCain's age and possible health problems, his pick for VP takes on more importance than your average VP selection. McCain was gaining ground with the experience gap argument, and he could have really developed it in the debates, but now it is moot.

Joe Biden should absolutely slaughter her in the VP debate. The only risk for Biden is that his own arrogance and that shit-eating grin he's always got might come across as patronizing. But what kind of foreign policy insights can she possibly have? About as much as most of my students.

Congratulations, President Obama.

ABOVE: Former beauty queen Sarah Palin wants to help John McCain lead our nation through these troubled times

Dez's Favorite Rock /Pop Records, #'s 40-36

40. Fine Young Cannibals – The Raw and the Cooked, 1989
This shortlived band (they only released two records) made a big splash when they were around. The first thing that jumps out at you are the amazing vocal stylings of Roland Gift, he could hit that falsetto like nobody else in pop. Secondly, the band had a fascinating combination of 50’s and 80’s rock styles. So many of their songs have a 50’s pop/soul feel and sensibility to them, but the music is firmly anchored by 80’s synthesizers and guitar playing. As the All-Music Guide boldly declared, “Mod, funk, Motown, British beat, R&B, punk, rock, and even disco are embedded within the songs…Never has music's past, present, and future been more exceptionally combined.” The big hits “She Drives Me Crazy” and “Good Thing” are outstanding, but the rest of this album is just as catchy and good. There is not a bad track here, and had MCA been so inclined, they could have released each of these tunes as a single. “Don’t Look Back” should have been a massive hit, and I am surprised that it wasn’t. This might be a band many people disregard as a one hit wonder, but I urge you to check this whole album out.

39. Love – Forever Changes, 1967
You know, even a music fiend such as I hear about legendary recordings over the years and for whatever reason it takes awhile to finally get around to checking them out. More often than not, these talked about “masterpieces” do not live up to the hype. #39 is one of those rare exceptions. I had always heard this album bandied about in reverential whispers, seen it appear on lots of critical Top Albums lists, and so forth. When I finally got around to checking it out, I was floored. It was one of those times where you actually just sit and listen to an album from start to finish, and are completely taken in by the sounds. I couldn’t even leave the car after I purchased it until I had gotten to the end, I just sat there in the parking lot listening. It is largely acoustic-based, but always interesting and turning down unexpected paths. Definitely a product of its time (with song titles like “Bummer in the Summer” and the easy to remember “Maybe the People Would Be the Times or Between Clark and Hilldale”), it also transcends them out of sheer musical goodness. Perhaps part of what makes it unique is that this was a multi-racial band (still unusual at the time). Arthur Lee was a black man who never quite fit in with the largely white hippie culture, yet he wanted to share in the sentiment of the times. Lee was a troubled soul, and struggled to complete this record because he was convinced he would die soon afterwards. But perhaps we should not analyze it to death, and just revel in this transcendently great piece of acoustic psychedelia.

ABOVE: Nothing else out there sounds quite like Love's Forever Changes

38. Fleetwood Mac – Rumours, 1977
#38 is one of the most successful rock records of the 70’s, just packed with hits and solid pop songs. Yes, Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie deserve much credit for the Mac’s success, but this is really Lindsay Buckingham’s show. A criminally underrated guitar player, great singer, songwriter and visionary arranger and producer, it is Buckingham who brings it all together. Much has been made of the personal turmoil within the band at the time inspiring the great music (Christine and bassist John McVie’s marriage was breaking up, Lindsay and Stevie were also breaking up at the time, Stevie and drummer Mick Fleetwood were having a fleeting affair). But whatever the tortured inspiration, they turned out one hell of a record where the majority of the tracks were huge chart and/or radio hits. Music may be a cathartic way to deal with your life issues, but it is something altogether different when your estranged ones are in the same band with you. It is hard to get away at that point. Stevie Nicks has since commented how difficult it was for her to sing back-up vocals on Lindsay’s song “Go Your Own Way,” when the lyrics were clearly addressed to her (“Tell me why everything turned around / Packing up, shacking up, is all you wanna do”), while Christine McVie’s newly ex-husband John McVie has to play bass on her exuberant “You Make Loving Fun,” which celebrates her newfound joy in moving on to a new lover. Soap opera material never sounded so good.

37. Nick Drake – Pink Moon, 1972
Talk about belated recognition. This record was virtually unheard during Drake’s lifetime, it was only three decades later that it ceased to be a cult favorite and broke into the mainstream (in large part thanks to the title track’s use in a Volkswagon commercial). That is a real shame, because Drake deserved better. This solo acoustic gem is one of the most beautiful and intimate record I’ve come across. Drake’s guitar playing is both warm and complex, and it complements his wistful vocals perfectly. Drake’s personal travails are inextricably intertwined with his music, as he is now celebrated as a doomed romantic. The truth is that he had serious emotional and mental issues that were exacerbated by drug use. His untimely death is still hotly debated as to whether it was an overdose or a suicide. #37 is about as personal as a commercially released record can be, and at a scant 28 minutes, it packs an unforgettable, succinct punch. He recorded it alone in the studio with only the engineer present over two nights, and left the finished tapes at the front desk of his record company without a word to anyone. The tapes weren’t even noticed until about three days later when a secretary finally looked inside the package. In fact, his company was unaware that he was even working on a new record. #37 stands as the last music Drake recorded before his death.

36. Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon, 1973
The most cohesive album in rock, #36 maintains a dreamy, dark mood throughout. You don’t even have to be high to get into it. So much has been said about this classic (such as its spot in the Billboard charts for a record breaking 14 years!) that there is not much I can add to the discussion. The production is of particular note, especially considering the time period, almost like it was anticipating the clean, cold CD age. The volatile team of Roger Waters and David Gilmour were never more in sync than here. Waters’ dark ruminations on insanity, death and isolation work perfectly with Gilmour’s searing guitar work. My friend Walter Evans and I tested the infamous ‘Dark Side of the Rainbow’ effect: where if you sync the beginning of this record to the third roar of the black and white MGM lion at the beginning of ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ the film and music have a strange trippy synchronicity. It kinda works, but it took us forever to get the start just right. Try it. (I found the most effective parts to be during the tornado scene “Great Gig in the Sky” works extremely well, and it is creepy how the Munchkins dance in perfect rhythm to “Money”).

Thursday, August 28, 2008

(Courtesy of File It Under blog)

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The New Deal

I read recently that Excalibur in Las Vegas will feature Sin City's first dealer-free poker room. The human dealers will be replaced by fully automated tables that will take care of dealing the hands and keeping track of your chip count. Lose a hand, and the computer simply moves that amount of money over to the winner's account, and so forth. No real cards, no dealers, no chips to stack.

ABOVE: The future of poker? The new fully automated poker tables at Excalibur

The upside? You get a lot more hands for your time at the table. The table can deal 50% more Hold-Em hands per hour than a live dealer, and double the Omaha hands. The table can switch games immediately, if desired. It can run efficient tournaments and even be adjusted for heads-up play. And if you are grossed out by holding grimy chips that that have gone through 2000 other pairs of hands before yours, that can be a thing of the past.

Excalibur is doing this in part because it can. Excalibur is not the first (or even the seventh) poker room of choice in Vegas, so this new move might improve the traffic there (even if for only the novelty value). It is also a good financial decision because the computers can work 24 hours a day and don't need breaks or a health care plan. Excalibur plans on laying off over half of its poker room staff. That being said, it is doubtful that Bellagio or Binion's will ever get rid of the dealers and chips.

Personally, I love the feel of the chips in my hand, raking in a big pot and haughtily stacking them in front of me for several hands after my big win. I enjoy a saucy or humorous dealer to chew the fat with over the hours. I've never been a fan of online poker, to me it is a very human and social activity. Call me old school, but I will always prefer to play at a table with real people with real dealers controling the play and throwing around those real grimy chips into the early morning hours.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Barry's First Important Decision

Obama made his first important executive decision known to the public on Saturday morning, and I must say that it was probably the best one he could have made under the circumstances. Picking Joe Biden as his running mate was smart on many levels.

Although he was never seriously in the running for the nomination, Biden consistently made the biggest splash in the Democratic debates during the primaries. Not only was he usually the one with the sharpest wit or quip, but he also blew the other candidates (including Barack and Hillary) out of the water on foreign policy matters. Seeing that one of Obama's weaknesses is foreign policy and the "experience" factor, Biden is the perfect counterpart on the ticket. Obama is young and relatively inexperienced, Biden has decades of experience, including as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, at the forefront of foreign policy issues.

I think Biden is as wrong as Obama is on Iraq, but I find it interesting that Obama picked one of the more hawkish of the Democratic choices. His original partitioning of Iraq idea has fallen flat, and he has since aligned his views with Obama's. Biden stresses diplomacy first like Obama does, but he has never shirked from advocating military action when he felt it was needed. For instance, Biden was one of the more outspoken supporters of military intervention in the Balkans in the 1990's.

Biden is a good choice. He balances Obama's youth and inexperience with age and decades in public service. He is a noted attack dog, so that may relieve Obama from doing something he has seemed uncomfortable doing, and that is going negative on McCain. Now Biden can do that for him. Biden is a respected foreign policy expert, so that may make voters a bit more comfortable voting for Obama in a year where foreign policy is an important issue. The only risk here is that Biden has a history of putting his foot in his mouth. It was Biden last year who said that Obama was a formidable candidate because he was one of the first black leaders who was "clean and articulate."

Friday, August 22, 2008

Dez's Favorite Rock/Pop Records, #'s 45-41

Most albums featuring multiple artists fall short of greatness. It is hard to keep that essential cohesiveness and still have everyone at the top of their game. Remember that compilations are not allowed, but I kinda made an exception for #45, since most of it is made up of new material from one band.

45. ‘Friday Night Lights’ motion picture soundtrack, composed and performed by Explosions in the Sky and various artists, 2004
Excellent book, good film, near perfect television show, and gorgeous soundtrack. This is the soundtrack to the film (the released soundtrack to the TV show, unfortunately, is not that good). Explosions in the Sky is an instrumental group out of west Texas, and their moody, cinematic music (two guitars, drums, bass) perfectly captures the wide open spaces, possibilities, disappointments, triumphs, hardships and emotions of the film. It is extremely melodic, and the intertwining guitars weave complex webs of sound, as the music dramatically crescendos and then falls to quiet. Explosions in the Sky is responsible for about 80% or so of the soundtrack, but the rest of the music fits in with the mood nicely, such as a Brian Eno piece and even the one song with vocals, Bad Company’s lovely, little heard gem, the acoustic “Seagull.” But this soundtrack belongs to Explosions in the Sky, and they are responsible for its placing in this slot.

ABOVE: The music of Explosions in the Sky seems tailor-made for dramatic soundtracks

44. The Beatles – Revolver, 1966
#44 captures The Beatles in that magical middle period where they were beyond mere master pop songcraft and before the excess. It was a time of exciting musical experimentation where the four plus George Martin busted the possibilities of the studio wide open. Paul McCartney is a pop writer without parallel here: “Eleanor Rigby,” “Here, There and Everywhere,” “Got To Get You Into My Life,” “Good Day Sunshine,” “For No One”…each of these is pop genius songwriting from a man with arguably the greatest gift for melody rock has ever seen. John Lennon is the one to really push the boundaries, though. “I’m Only Sleeping” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” are on the vanguard of psychedelia, while “She Said She Said” and “Dr. Robert” are sly rockers referencing the emerging drug culture. George Harrison gets multiple tracks (finally) on a Beatles record, even opening it with the sarcastic rocker “Taxman.” Lennon and McCartney also throw Ringo a charming bone, letting him sing “Yellow Submarine.”

ABOVE: The Beatles at their peak

43. Radiohead – The Bends, 1995
Radiohead is considered one of the new saviors of rock and roll, and the praise and worship heaped upon them by both critics and rabid fans is indeed impressive. While I am not a Radiohead, err, Head, I have to concede they are one of the most important bands of the last 20 years. The Bends straddles the divide between Radiohead the mere rock band and Radiohead the new progressive gods. The guitars are still big, but the experimentation is already apparent. What impresses me about this album is that I hear bits of The Who, The Kinks and Pink Floyd, but they are not merely copying. They are influenced and then take those influences and use them in new and original ways. Listening to #43 all the way through in one sitting is almost too much, there is so much going on here, all of it great. “Black Star” is a personal fave.

42. U2 – Achtung Baby, 1991
The most successful reinvention in rock history. U2 pulled off the impressive hat trick of turning themselves from the ultimate band of heartfelt rock anthems to the ultimate band of ironic cool. Sensing they needed a change in direction before staleness set in, they took desperate measures. Bono announced that the band would have to “go away and dream it all up again.” What did that mean? Moving to Berlin to record and to soak up some of that Bowie/Eno late-70’s karma circa their Berlin Trilogy days, things got so tense that the band almost broke up in the process. Bono described the sound of the album as “four men trying to chop down ‘The Joshua Tree’.” But out of near disaster came one of the biggest records of the decade. With its dark Post-Soviet East European ambiance combining the Bowie/Eno avant-garde of the late 70’s with the more postmodern Madchester musical movement, Edge creates waves of industrial guitar noise, as the rhythm section of Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen pound away. But even here, U2’s earnest heart shines through (they can’t really help themselves), such as on the gorgeous “One.” This record gave U2 another 15-20 years of relevance.

41. Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, 1969
Neil’s debut solo record was rather timid, but he got it right on his sophomore effort, his first and finest with his garage backing band Crazy Horse. “Cinnamon Girl” and the title track are two tight rockers, and “The Losing End” is a fine rolling country number. But everyone remembers this classic because of the two extended jams that capture everything great about Neil and Crazy Horse, “Down By the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand.” Neil solos with such passion and abandon on these feverish jams, he establishes himself in the upper echelon of guitar greats, even though his actual technique is quite rudimentary. But that was really the point. I call them “feverish” not only because of how they are performed, but because Neil actually wrote both epics in the same day when he was bedridden with a high fever. If only we could all be that productive on our sick days! At any rate, out of Neil’s vast and impressive discography, #41 is one of every fan’s favorites. Many of these tunes are still deservedly concert staples.

ABOVE: One of Neil's finest

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The End Is Near...Are You Ready?

I’ve been interested in televangelists for many years. Not as a believer, mind you, but more as entertainment. I want to talk about two of the more interesting ones I’ve come across in recent years.

First, there is one Toufik Benedictus Hinn, better known as Benny Hinn. I’ve watched him on TV for years, always with a mix of amusement, horror and grudging respect for the balls on this bastard. What made me think of Hinn recently was a radio program I caught on a local evangelical radio station dedicated to debunking Hinn as a dangerous false prophet. Lest you underestimate Hinn, he regularly fills football stadiums around the world with his miracle crusades. At heart, he is an old fashioned faith healer. But he is also a shrewd and ruthless businessman. Watching the masterful pledge drives he hosts on the tacky cable channel TBN is a lesson in marketing genius.

On his many healing crusades, Hinn claims to heal AIDS, blindness, lameness, cancer and a whole host of maladies. He also considers himself a modern prophet, although some of his most outlandish prophesies have failed to come to pass (such as God wiping out the homosexual community, an earthquake that was to wipe out the East Coast of the U.S., and even a mass resurrection of the dead if only family members would put the hands of their dead relatives on the TV screen as they watched Hinn on TBN). I can talk about Hinn all I want, but you won’t understand unless you see Benedictus in action. In the clip compilation below (admittedly compiled by anti-Hinn forces), Hinn starts off trying to explain his powers, and then you see a series of clips where Hinn anoints followers with the “fire of God.” Make sure the sound is up so you can hear Hinn speaking in tongues. Watch through to the end, where he slays the entire choir with the fire of God…

Of course, Benny is not immune from being hit by the fire of God himself…

My other “favorite” evangelist is Jack Van Impe and his cadaverous wife, Rexella. I first caught this duo on late night TV (around 2 a.m.) while in law school. Van Impe specializes in End of Times prophesy. He has a rapid fire, dizzying grasp of scripture citations. His show is set up where Rexella reads the latest news headlines, and then Jack relates them all to prophesy about the end of days. No matter what happens, Jack can find a Bible quote that predicts it. If the convenience store down the street is robbed, somehow Jack can find something in Revelations that predicts it, and then explain how it means that the apocalypse is upon us. One of his preoccupations is that the European Union is the “new Roman Empire,” and that the antichrist will rise from the political ranks of the EU (I assume he will be French). Watch this clip below for an example of Jack's complicated logic…

Friday, August 15, 2008

Dez's Favorite Rock/Pop Records, #'s 50-46

The thing about making these lists is that they are never static. Over a period of 20 weeks, I am giving you a Top 100 list that I finalized a couple of months previous. But now already I might change a couple of things. This is not to say that this list is not representative of my favorite music. But still, you always want to go back and tweak. Where I put The Rolling Stones Beggar’s Banquet at #82, I might now switch that out for The Rolling Stones Exile on Main Street. Anyway, now that we are in the top half of the list, the remainder of these selections is set in more solid stone than the half you have already seen.

50. Uncle Tupelo – Still Feel Gone, 1991
Uncle Tupelo’s debut was the perfect hybrid of punk abandon and country weariness; on their second album, these alt-country icons stretched out a little more in the punk direction. The opening “Gun” announced Jeff Tweedy’s arrival as Jay Farrar’s equal in the band. (Unbeknownst to fans at the time, it was also the beginning of the end. After a mere four albums, this beloved band split, with Tweedy going on to form critic darling Wilco and Farrar forging parallel solo and Son Volt careers.) “Gun” is a rousing rocker with their signature stop-start electric guitar volleys, showing that although Tweedy was stepping out as a songwriter, at this point he still leaned heavily on Farrar’s style. “Postcard” and “Punch Drunk” both take the punk/country fusion as far as Tupelo ever would take it (arguably a little too far), but Tweedy’s “Watch Me Fall” and Farrar’s “Still Be Around” rank amongst the greatest acoustic tunes ever. “Still Be Around” is the clear highlight, with warm layered acoustic guitars underlying the type of desolate lyrics that Farrar does so well.

49. Led Zeppelin – Houses of the Holy, 1973
Zep released six absolutely essential records (and the other ones weren’t bad), but none better than #49. One of my favorite things about #49 is the variety and the looseness, which demonstrates an absolute mastery and confidence in their craft. While the opening “The Song Remains the Same” indeed reassures fans that they can still be the hard rock behemoth we all know and love, they then quickly move into more experimental territory. “Rain Song” is a gorgeous and expansive orchestral piece, showcasing Jimmy Page’s less appreciated arranging skills. “D’yer Mak’er” shows them rather clumsily trying to tackle reggae, but they are clearly having a great time and it is infectious, while “The Crunge” and “Dancing Days” are about as funky as Zeppelin ever got. “The Ocean” rocks hard with a guitar riff for the ages. The elegiac Norse mythology epic “No Quarter” is the type of thing only this band could pull off seriously and without irony, and John Paul Jones’ underrated keyboard prowess really comes to the fore and creates a haunting atmosphere. “Over the Hills and Far Away” is stunning, an acoustic folk / electric hard rock hybrid that has never been equaled, and with a killer riff to boot. Not only one of my favorite Led Zeppelin songs, but one of my favorite songs, period.

48. Dire Straits – Dire Straits, 1978
Nobody knew quite what to make of Dire Straits’ debut when it came out. It was released in the midst of musical turmoil, when punk was reacting to disco and when New Wave was emerging. But out comes this straight forward pub rock record with a guitarist who finger picks lightning yet fluid guitar leads and sings in a gruff, offhand Dylan-esque voice. Mark Knopfler has long been my favorite guitar player, mastering a striking finger picking technique and using a crisp and clean Stratocaster tone (at least in the early period). The classic “Sultans of Swing” is here, which remains their de facto anthem (a tale of an underappreciated hardworking bar band, albeit a jazz band in the song). Knopfler’s guitar solo on the song is deservedly one of the most recognizable from the period and highlights what was so great about his early playing style. One of my favorite songs is “Wild West End,” a lovely story-song that features Knopfler’s occasional use of National Steel guitars. #48 sounds as fresh today as the day it was released.

47. The Police – Ghost in the Machine, 1981
#47 is their “densest” record, sonically speaking. Following the almost skeletal Zenyatta Mondatta, they decided to lay on the sound textures, adding synths, strings, horns, steel drums…and Sting even allows Andy Summers to stretch out on a rare extended guitar solo on “Demolition Man” (showing why that was such a rare thing. Summers' forte was atmospheric rhythm playing, not soloing). #47 is also their darkest record thematically, taking on the dehumanizing effect of technology (even down to the computer characters on the album cover that create stark drawings of the band members). There are quite a few highlights here. “Spirits in the Material World” has one of Sting’s all time best bass lines, but I have always been disappointed that the relatively short tune fades out just as they start to really jam on it. I could use a couple more minutes of that. I have always held out hope that somewhere there existed an extended version. “Invisible Sun” is a haunting song of political protest, “Demolition Man” is a rare time where the three of them jam rather loosely, “One World” is one of their best reggae-influenced tunes, and “Secret Journey” is a musical dry run for “Every Breath You Take.” And I’ve always really dug Andy Summers’ ignored rocker, “Omegaman.” Amongst all of this darkness is the joyous, perfect pop song “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic.”

ABOVE: (From left to right) Andy Summers, Sting and Stewart Copeland.

46. The Hold Steady – Boys and Girls in America, 2006
The most recent entry on my list. I know it is often necessary to let some time pass in order to fully assess the greatness of a work, but I feel confident that ten years from now, this would still make the cut on my list. I have not heard epic rock and roll like this in a long time. This is epic in the sense of 70’s era Springsteen (just listen to opener “Stuck Between Stations”), street operas that capture youth rebellion and uncertainty in equal measure. It is like both 70’s Springsteen (prominent pianos and street stories) and top shelf Kinks (devastating guitar riffs); and that description doesn’t even do justice to it (it is near impossible to be completely original in rock anymore, so I bring up those reference points.) The best new bands take their influences, integrate them, and then make their own distinct music from it. First among equals for me are “You Can Make Him Like You” and “Citrus,” with my new favorite lyric “Lost in a fog of love and faithless fear / I’ve had kisses that made Judas seem sincere.” But there really is not a bad song here. I like the story of how this band came to be. Evidently friends Craig Finn (vocals) and lead guitarist Tad Kubler were hanging out watching the brilliant film about The Band, ‘The Last Waltz’, and Finn asked Kubler “Dude, why aren’t there any bands like this anymore? Let’s do this from now on.” And thus God created The Hold Steady, and it was good. I don’t really hear The Band in their sound, but it makes for a cool story.

ABOVE: Epic rock lives on Boys and Girls in America

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Obama vs. McCain on Pop Culture

The latest issue of Entertainment Weekly has a great side-by-side interview with Obama and McCain on all things pop culture. Let's see who comes out on top here...

Music: Obama sort of cops out with the "I have eclectic tastes" answer. Now, as a person who has eclectic tastes, I can somewhat sympathize. But unless you are a music obsessive (like me), that response is meaningless. Obama is too busy to be a real music obsessive. Much has been made of Jay-Z being on his iPod, but then he also throws out names like Sinatra, Sheryl Crow, Coltrane, Dylan, "Javanese flute music," "a lot of R&B"...pandering answer. McCain is likewise all over the place. He tosses out Roy Orbison, Linda Ronstadt (yuck), Usher and ABBA.
ADVANTAGE: Slight advantage to Obama. (Ronstadt lost it for you, John.)

Movies: Both were asked what the first film was that they remember seeing. For Obama it was Born Free and for McCain it was Bambi. No points here either way, since they had no control over their movie choices as little children. As far as favorite movies, Obama doesn't really get to the answer, but he references the first two Godfather films. Kudos for knowing to leave out the 3rd, but those are obvious choices. Now, on McCain, his favorite was Elia Kazan's Viva Zapata! But what impresses me here is that McCain then launches into an analysis and comparison with Kazan's other more famous films, and then is able to explain why Viva Zapata!, at least to him, is the superior film. I am not so interested in his conclusion as I am that he is knowledgeable enough to delve into the film comparison and analysis in a meaningful way. And it is a good analysis.
ADVANTAGE: McCain, for clearly knowing enough to engage in meaningful film analysis and comparison.

TV: As far as television, the results really surprised me here. The only current TV Obama expresses any passion for is Sportscenter or various sporting events. He says that growing up, his favorite show was M*A*S*H (great choice). Then he says he and Michelle enjoy Dick Van Dyke Show reruns. Uh, OK. McCain blows Obama out of the water here. McCain says The Wire is a "great show" (McCain wins right there). But then he also says he's a fan of Dexter, Big Love and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
ADVANTAGE: McCain in a landslide.

Favorite Superhero: Obama says he has always liked the "Spiderman/Batman model" more than Superman because they have more "inner turmoil" and they "earn their superhero status." Superman has it "too easy." I agree, but you still didn't pick one, Barry. Avoiding the question. McCain, on the other hand, comes right out with Batman. No waffling there, and then he has a decent explanation as to why.
ADVANTAGE: Slight win for McCain for taking a stand, although I liked Obama's analysis more.

WINNER: John McCain.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Dez's Olympics, Pt. 2: Offensive? Really?

The Spanish Olympic Basketball team recently posed for a photo in an advertisement that appeared in a popular newspaper in Spain. In the photo, the team poses while making "slit-eyed" gestures (you know, pulling the skin around your eyes back to make us Round Eyes look more Asian). Nobody involved with the ad seemed to consider that some might find it offensive. And Madrid is trying to win a bid to host the Olympics in 2016 or 2020. Good move.

Monday, August 11, 2008

RIP Isaac Hayes, 1942-2008

First Toby. Now Chef. Is the Apocalypse at hand? I promise to lay off the obituaries (oh, RIP Bernie Mac, too), but I can’t let Isaac’s passing go by without comment. It is a testament to second acts that most young people associate Isaac with Chef and his Chocolate Salty Balls on South Park. But the real reason we should honor the man is for his groundbreaking work at Stax Records.

Soul aficionados (hell, American music aficionados) identify the Stax Sound out of Memphis, Tennessee as one of the most earthy and exciting sounds created on American soil. And it is a sound of the soil. With all due respect to the clean, smooth, sophisticated sound of Motown, I have always preferred the grittier, dirtier sound of Stax. Isaac Hayes was not only one of the most successful artists on the label in the 1970’s, but he was also a key songwriter and producer for other artists. He was one of the more important architects of the Stax Sound. He released popular soul records like Hot Buttered Soul and Black Moses, and he also helped to pen hits with songwriting partner David Porter for Sam & Dave like “Soul Man” and “Hold On! I’m Comin’”. Hayes’ most notable accomplishment was his groundbreaking and hugely successful soundtrack work for the blacksploitation classic, ‘Shaft.' RIP Isaac Hayes.

BELOW: Isaac performs the theme song to ‘Shaft’. He doesn’t even sing until about halfway into the clip, but his extended intro is awesome. Is that Jesse Jackson standing next to Isaac? Seriously, I’m asking.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

RIP Toby, 2006(?)-2008

I'll try and make this short. He was a mystery dog the day we got him, coming to us via the Animal Defense League shelter, and he came to them via the city pound. So I really have no idea how he spent most of his life. They told us he was about two years old. Toby came to us several months ago with many health problems, the most troubling of which was kidneys that were on their way to failing. We did everything humanly and financially possible to give those kidneys a shot at recovery. But in the end, his little kidneys were just too far gone to keep up. Even with regular fluids (doggie dialysis, basically).

Toby died early this morning out in the yard, in one of his favorite spots. It was a cool, breezy evening (his favorite weather). I know because I sat outside with him through most of the night. When dogs "know" they are going to die, they will often separate themselves from their pack and go off alone. Toby was the most social of dogs, but when he started going way off by himself for long periods of time, starting about the day before yesterday, I knew what was coming. Needless to say last night was not an easy night, the "no pain" part of his condition ended early last night, several hours before the end. Anyway, we gave him as much comfort and love as possible. Even though he was outside, it was clear he appreciated me sitting with him and petting him for hours in the wee hours of the morning.

Toby was a very special dog. And I'm not saying that because he was ours. In our almost daily trips to the vet together this past month, whenever we would walk in, random customers, the vet techs, the receptionists...they all were immediately drawn to Toby. When discussing putting him down last week with the vet, it was almost as hard on the folks at the vet as it was on us. Everyone had grown quite attached to him. We were all rooting for the little guy. Our vet told us that there was nothing further he could do, and so in desperation we turned to an alternative, homeopathic specialist who tried several things as well. Sometimes there just isn't anything that can be done.

In the short few months that we came to know Toby, I can say that he was the sweetest and most loving animal I have ever come across. He absolutely loved people, loved to be pet and cuddled, loved to chill out on your lap in front of the TV or in the car. In a funny way, my special times with Toby were often in the car. I have spent many accumulated hours with Toby in my car, going back and forth to the vet. Those were great times, honestly. He always insisted on sitting in my lap. Early on, I tried to make him sit in the passenger seat, for safey reasons. But that just started a constant struggle of wills of him trying to make his way to my lap, me putting him back in the seat, him making his way to my lap, me putting him in the seat, etc., etc., etc. Toby won. Finally I said "to hell with it" and let him sit in my lap. From them on, he would sit up quietly in my lap, watching the sites go by through the window. Or, more recently, he would lay down and go to sleep.

Anyway, I'm sorry for the rambling and emotion, but I'm on about 2 hours of sleep after a tough night, but that is not what I want to leave off with. I want to remember Toby running around in the yard; shuffling his feet excitedly in anticipation of a tasty treat; sitting with me on our many drives; standing up to Winston in fighting for domination of cherished couch space...and most importantly, his almost impossibly and devastatingly sweet nature. That is the only way I know to describe it. We were privileged and blessed to have been given the opportunity to get to know and love him. RIP Toby.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Dez's 100 Favorite Rock/Pop Records, #'s 55-51

Congratulations, faithful readers. You have reached the halfway mark with this post. To quote someone who will not be appearing on this list: “Oh, we’re halfway there / Woa! livin’ on a prayer.” I got universal praise for last week’s batch of selections. Somehow I don’t think I will get the same approval this week…

55. John Mellencamp – The Lonesome Jubilee, 1987
You can say what you want about the influence and greatness of The Buffalo Springfield, Gram Parsons, The Byrds, The Band and all who created Americana/roots rock (which, loosely defined, combines country/folk/roots influences and rock and paved the way for Ryan Adams, Wilco, Uncle Tupelo and their ilk)…but for my money, the best hybrid of these styles before the arrival of Uncle Tupelo was #55. Mellencamp doesn’t get the credit he deserves, still weighed down by his underwhelming early days as Johnny Cougar and then being unfairly tagged as a Springsteen-Lite. His innovative blending of fiddles, acoustics, mandolins and accordions in a traditional rock setting is wedded to a batch of songs with devastating lyrics about the trials and travails of the common man. Hits “Paper In Fire,” “Cherry Bomb” and “Check It Out” are all top-notch, but I love the deep album cuts just as much. “Hotdogs and Hamburgers” has long been a favorite of mine. It is a tale of a brash young man driving along the highway who picks up a young attractive Indian hitchhiker because he thinks he can get a little action…

“’I’ll give you beads and wampum, whatever it takes to make you trade’
She jumped into the backseat and she kinda flipped her lid
She said ‘you’re tryin’ to get somethin’ for nothin’, like the pilgrims in the old days…’”

They have an interesting conversation about the history of the Indian nations and the treatment of the Indian peoples, and Mellencamp admits at the end of the ride…

“I realized it was sort of an honor being around this girl
I felt embarrassed about what I tried to do earlier that day
She was the saddest girl I ever knew…”

I firmly stand by #55; it is the best that this genre has to offer (its only fault is that it is a little too earnest at times), and it is often overlooked in part because it was so popular when it came out, which goes against the necessary underground credentials of the alt-country No Depression aesthetic. But give credit where credit is due, Mellencamp got it all right on this one.

ABOVE: John Mellencamp rudely ignores the old man sitting at the counter at the local diner. Fuckin' rock stars. Old man thinking: "he looks like a damn girl with all that long hair. I bet I could kick his ass."

54. The Pretenders – Learning to Crawl, 1984
Chrissie Hynde is one of the coolest women in rock, in that she perfectly balances a vulnerability with tough chick bluster. Plus she surrounded herself with a killer band. I love their third release, as it is full of both catchy rockers and beautiful moments. “Middle of the Road” is one of the great rockers of the 80’s, while “Back on the Chain Gang” features a memorable guitar hook (the song was later famously covered by tejano martyr Selena). Hynde captures the life of the common man (or woman) with the witty workingwoman anthem “Watching the Clothes,” and then addresses an abusive relationship head-on in their devastating cover of “Thin Line Between Love and Hate.” It is also interesting that as liberal and politically outspoken as Hynde is, none other than Rush Limbaugh uses the groovy opening of “My City Was Gone” as the intro music to his radio show.

53. Madness – Madness, 1983
Technically, this violates my rule of no compilations. But to be fair, #53 was not released as such. Madness were massive hitmakers in the UK, but still unheard of in the States. Most of their records were not even released stateside, so Geffen Records quickly put this odd hodgepodge together to capitalize on the surprise popularity of “Our House,” assembling it haphazardly with many tracks from their excellent The Madness Presents the Rise and Fall, and then adding several other random album cuts from previous albums (but not hits). #53 was released as their “debut” in America. Anyway, it was one of my first rock records as a kid, and I fell in love with this quirky ska band. 80’s hit “Our House” leads things off, of course, but then it moves into more obscure (but just as good) territory. The second half is especially strong, featuring some of the best deep cuts from The Madness Presents the Rise and Fall, which is considered a landmark of the genre in Britain. It is a funny circumstance of timing. I know that I should dislike this Geffen mercenary cheapie release and appreciate the original The Madness Presents the Rise and Fall much more, but since I became familiar with #53 over twenty years before I finally bought the proper The Madness Presents the Rise and Fall, it is #53 that sounds like the original to me.

52. Kiss – Kiss, 1974
I am an unapologetic Kiss fan, a proud ranking officer of the Kiss Army. Any Kiss fan will tell you that the definitive Kiss album is Alive!, one of the most exciting and juvenile live albums ever recorded, but since live albums are forbidden on this list, I have to settle on their best studio effort. For me, that would be their debut. My allegiance to Kiss is perhaps a tad unreasonable, but they were my first favorite band. As with many kids growing up in the 70’s, I was first pulled in by the make-up and spectacle (and brilliant marketing machine) that was Kiss, Inc. But due to my permissive parents, I was also able to get many of their albums as well. The first rock songs I committed to memory were the unsubtle bombast of Ace, Gene, Paul and Peter…the Fab Four for the 70’s generation. (There is one year where many Christmas family photos feature a little Ace Frehley running around the otherwise normal family gathering, thanks to the Kiss Make-Up Kit that I got that year and my sister’s subsequent quick work on my face.) The tunes on their debut are big, dumb teenage hard rock. “Strutter,” “Deuce,” “Cold Gin,” “Firehouse,” “100,000 Years,” “Black Diamond”…all Kiss standards to this day. Sometimes rock fans and critics take music way too seriously. Perhaps an album like this; obvious, loud, juvenile, testosterone-filled, hooks galore...perhaps this is the true essence of what rock and roll should be.

ABOVE: The boys in all their early glory

51. Pete Townshend – All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, 1982
Townshend once said of this album that he was so strung out on drugs at the time that he does not recall even recording it. That is fascinating, because it is one of the most literate and intelligent records I’ve ever come across. Townshend thoughtfully addresses aging in a business that celebrates youth throughout the record. “Exquisitely Bored” would have made a killer Who track, but most of these tunes are so personal that they belong on a solo record vs. a record for his band. The best songs are at the end, “Somebody Saved Me” and “Slit Skirts.” In “Slit Skirts,” Pete addresses his inevitable march into middle age and his relevance as a rock idol, as well as the insecurities about keeping the flame alive in his personal relationships:

“Slit skirts, Jeannie never wears those slit skirts
And I don’t ever wear no ripped shirts
Can’t pretend that growing older never hurts…

Recriminations fester and the past can never change
A woman’s expectations run from both ends of the range
Once she woke with untamed lovers’ face between her legs
Now he’s cooled and stifled and it’s she who has to beg”

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Dez's Olympics, pt. 1

I will admit it: I'm a fan of the Olympics. I hope to watch as much as I can in the coming days. I will admit something else. I can't get enough of the coverage of Beijing's epic preparations for the event. They've got a lot of work to do.

ABOVE: Beijing's natural beauty and stunning skyline will only enhance the grandeur of the Olympic Games. Have you ever seen a more impressive skyline? Beijing's skies offer a wide spectrum of grays.

As recently as yesterday, the air pollution index (API) in Beijing was 91. Anything over 50 is considered high, while 100 is the official "unsafe" level. Of course the always reflective and honest Chinese officials dismissed the media hysteria over the pollution, calling what we see in the photo above "mist," not pollution. Beijing officials have tried all sorts of measures to get rid of said "mist." They have banned half of the 3.3 million cars in the city on any given day (license plates ending in odd numbers banned one day, plates ending in even numbers the next). The Chinese military even tried firing substances into the atmosphere from what look like anti-aircraft guns in order to make it rain to clear out some of the pollution. A forest twice the size of Central Park was created next to the Olympic Stadium in order to battle pollution, and factories have been closed for hundreds of miles around the city.

The Chinese government has spent a staggering $43 billion to give Beijing and its population a facelift in order to impress the outside world. While the construction has been impressive indeed, I'm more interested in the efforts to improve the population. Beggars and various workers in the sex trades have been removed from the city for the Olympic Games. Dog meat has been removed from restaurant menus. Pirated Hollywood movies have been temporarily taken off the shelves from video stores throughout the city. The popular Chinese pastime of spitting on the street is now a fineable offense. The often unintentionally funny English signs throughout the city have been cleaned up as well. One of my favorite examples, reported by the L.A. Times, is the once "Racist Park" that has been renamed the "Ethnic Minorities Culture Park."

ABOVE: cute Chinese girls are chosen and trained how to greet foreign guests to the Olympic Games

But the etiquette training has been my favorite aspect of this whole effort. On a recent newscast, I saw great footage of etiquette classes in Beijing that are all the rage. Students in the class role play, with one student wearing obnoxious wigs and glasses to play Americans, Italians or various other foreigners, while the other students practice greeting and conversing with them. I liked the "typical American greeting," where the Chinese student was encouraged to give a firm handshake, slap on the back, and say "hey man, what's up?" But I wonder how friendly those folks would be whose homes were demolished without compensation to make way for Beijing's historic new construction effort before the Games? Don't know, since many of them have been relocated from the city.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Acoustic Neil

Don't have a lot of time this week, so my posts will probably be pretty quick. Today I'll leave you with a great clip from 1971 from the BBC of Neil Young in his prime doing one of my favorite songs of his, "Don't Let It Bring You Down." Enjoy.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Dez's Favorite 100 Rock/Pop Albums, #'s 60-56

I am becoming more convinced that vinyl is the true music fan’s medium. It continues to sadden me as I watch the de-evolution of music's presentation (vinyl to CD to MP3). There are several arguments in vinyl’s favorite, but I’ll leave you with a seemingly superficial one. In the days of vinyl, the cover and inside artwork was an essential part of the whole package. It got reduced with the CD, and now with downloads and MP3’s it is all but meaningless. That is a real shame, because the excitement and complete world created by a great record used to start with the visuals, even before you got the wrapper off. For example, with this week’s selections, the iconic gatefold photo on #58 was as much a part of that album’s mystique and power as anything; while the artist at #57 took great care in creating interesting cover art for his early records.

60. Whiskeytown – Stranger’s Almanac, 1997
Although the much beloved alt-hero Ryan Adams releases a new album every five minutes to seemingly more and more orgasmic praise from fans and critics alike, I think he perfected his alt-country style with his early band Whiskeytown. Most of his material since has been variations on the same themes explored here. His albums are still good, don’t get me wrong, but none of them have really improved on #60. He delivers his usual blend of solid country-tinged rockers (“Yesterday’s News”, “16 Days”) and stark, gorgeous weepers (“Inn Town”, “Avenues”, “Houses on the Hill”). The exhibits on #60 are the best of both of his signature styles. And the fact that here he is still a part of a band and merely the first among equals means that Adams’ musical excesses are kept in check.

59. The Kinks – The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, 1968
Peter Townshend and The Who may get more credit for mastering the ‘rock concept album,’ but my money is on Ray Davies as the true genius of the form. This lovely pastoral masterpiece was overlooked when it was released, but in recent years critics and fans alike now look back on it as a milestone; as a truly great record from its era, but very much outside of its era. Ray himself cheekily refers to it as “the most successful flop of all time.” Townshend raved “For me, Village Green Preservation Society is Ray’s masterwork. It’s his Sgt. Pepper, it’s what makes him the definitive pop poet laureate.” Part of why it was not big at the time and yet sounds fresher today than many of its more famous contemporaries is that Ray Davies was not interested in hippie flower power BS or protest music. Or to be more precise, Davies’ music was a very different type of “protest music.” Davies’ best songs often are drenched in nostalgia for simpler and more prosperous days of yore in an England currently in economic decline; it is a theme he returns to again and again throughout his career. So this largely pastoral acoustic record looks back to an idealized Britain that probably never really existed. And I must stress: Britain. The Kinks are the most English of the British Invasion bands. Part of this was a matter of circumstance. Around this time, The Kinks were banned from touring the United States due to a nasty dispute between Davies and the musician’s union in the States. Davies commented, “The American ban had a profound effect on me, driving me to write something particularly English, in a way that made me look at my own roots rather than my American inspirations.” It is infused with warm nostalgia and sharp humor, such as the tongue-in-cheek cultural manifesto of the title track, where Ray makes his stand. The catchy “Picture Book” has gotten play in recent years in TV commercials, I love the line: “Picture book, of people with each other / To prove they loved each other, a long time ago.” This is one of those albums that you’ve probably overlooked. You shouldn’t. God save The Kinks.

58. Bruce Springsteen – Born to Run, 1975
The ultimate street opera record from The Boss. This was also an essential hit for him, because Columbia Records was about ready to drop him if he didn’t deliver a smash record on his third try. Boy, did he come through in the clutch. This was the last record where he created multi-part, complex compositions. After #58, he would streamline his sound for a more direct approach that was more effective in some ways, but also lost some of the early grandeur of life on E Street. “Thunder Road” and the title track are his two greatest anthems, and the former really captures his famous car/relationship/escapist imagery:

“All the redemption I can offer, girl, is beneath this dirty hood
With a chance to make it good somehow, hey, what else can we do now?
Except roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair
Well the night’s busting open, these two lanes will take us anywhere
We got one last chance to make it real
To trade in these wings on some wheels
Climb in back, heaven’s waiting down on the track…”

“Backstreets” is an epic tune about friendship. One of my favorite tunes is “Meeting Across the River,” a devastating story-song about the long shot, desperate hopes of one of the Jersey shore losers he captured so well in his early writing. Finally, “Jungleland” is Springsteen at his most operatic and grandiose, clocking in at almost 10 minutes, it realizes all of the promise that Bruce showed in his early days as the "rock and roll savior" (to quote a particularly famous review from the time). It also closes the door on the first era of Springsteen's music, he would never write something quite as musically ambitious as "Jungleland" again.

Above: Born to Run (complete gatefold shot shown) is rightfully honored in the rock pantheon as one of the all time greats.

57. Peter Gabriel - Peter Gabriel (aka 'III', aka ‘melt’), 1980
Many critics view Gabriel’s third solo effort as his best record, and that is hard to argue against (although I prefer some others, as you will see). This is where he really begins to indulge his love of world music (years before Paul Simon’s Graceland, by the way). Gabriel also instituted some other innovations that gave #57 its unique sonic textures, such as forbidding his drummers from using any cymbals during recording. But what it always boils down to with a great record is that this is a hell of a set of tunes. “No Self Control” and “Intruder” are effectively brooding, “I Don’t Remember” and “And Through the Wires” rock (at least by Gabriel standards), single “Games Without Frontiers” is a quirky classic, “Family Snapshot” is very interesting lyrically, while the majestic and skeletal “Biko” brings together everything he was trying to accomplish with this record in stunning fashion. Gabriel has always displayed a theatrical quality in his writing and performance, in that he tells interesting stories and enjoys taking unusual perspectives in many of his songs, such as “Intruder," where he sings creepily in whispers from the perspective of a burglar with a strong voyeuristic fetish. And then the dynamic “Family Snapshot” is sung from the perspective of Lee Harvey Oswald awaiting Pres. Kennedy’s motorcade. #57 is sonically groundbreaking, but the songs are also some of the most interesting lyrically of Gabriel's career.

Above: A typically striking album cover from Peter Gabriel. Gabriel did not title his first four records, preferring to just have his name and an image on the covers. He once said that he viewed them as “different issues of the same magazine.” The record company understandably wanted actual titles to promote, so Gabriel eventually gave in (sort of), naming later albums with short, one word titles (So, Passion, Us, Up, and so forth.)

56. James McMurtry – Where’d You Hide the Body, 1995
He definitely has the genes to be a great songwriter, McMurtry is the son of an English professor and writer Larry McMurtry. True to his heritage, McMurtry is a fantastic Texas storyteller, delivering his tunes in a deadpan talk/sung voice reminiscent of Lou Reed (but slightly more tuneful) and usually backed with an earthy band. “Iolanthe” is a southern gothic piece, while “Down Across the Delaware” is a devastating look at a relationship that has lost all fire and connection (“we communicate through post-it notes on the refrigerator”). The title track is an angry yet empathetic attempt to reach out to an emotionally distant lover. But the highlight among many is the moody “Rachel’s Song”, a tune about regrets, mistakes and bad habits handed down through the generations. If you’re a fan of Texas songwriters, McMurtry is one of the best, and #56 is his best effort.