Tuesday, September 30, 2008

I'm Not Going To Post About the Economic Crisis...

...because I don't really understand it. I've never understood why people on Wall Street act like such pussies all the time and panic and sell. It seems to me that if we all just calmly agreed to buy instead of sell, then we'd have a thriving economy. That seems simple enough.

I jest, of course. I reveal my ignorance fairly regularly here at GNABB when I discuss different issues, but I will not even pretend to try and comment intelligently on this economic crisis thingie we have going on. Although, a 500 point bounce today in the stock market doesn't sound too bad to me. Hardly the economic Apocalypse we were promised. Dammit, we were promised doom and despair! Where is it?

I have listened to intelligent people on both sides of the issue explain their positions. I guess I was initially impressed that the sitting Republican President, both the Democratic and Republican candidates for the presidency, and most Democratic congressmen all agreed that the bail-out was absolutely necessary. When was the last time there was a coalition of that sort? But then if Nancy Pelosi is in favor of it too, that gives me great cause for concern. House Republicans are silly, reactionary folk. They are generally the bottom of the barrel. There is a reason that the House of Representatives is called the Lower House. But 95 Democrat members of the House also voted against it.

I don't know. I don't do math. I am hoping some of you who fancy yourselves economic experts will chime in on the comments section here and give your opinions...

Saturday, September 27, 2008

RIP Paul Newman, 1925-2008

I am secure enough in my manhood to say, without reservation, that Paul Newman was a gorgeous man in every way. Forget James Dean or Brando. Newman had the ultimate anti-hero cool. With his piercing blue-eyed stare, he could have easily rested on his sex symbol good looks and played it safe; but he consistently picked daring roles to play decade after decade. He picked great roles despite his good looks, not because of them. Newman has always been my favorite of the classic Hollywood icons. His greatest films remain incredibly fresh due to his timeless appeal and substantial acting chops.

Newman's best roles were outsiders who were their own worst enemy. He seemed to harness an inner restlessness and anger and projected them onscreen in his best, doomed roles. "Cool Hand Luke," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and "Hud" are perfect examples. (You should really watch "Hud" if you've never seen it. Newman's acting is amazing in that film). But his greatest role was that of Fast Eddie Felson in "The Hustler." The brash, young Felson had all of the talent in the world at the pool table. But as George C. Scott's viper of a manager told Eddie, "you can have all of the talent in the world, but you're still a loser because you lack character." The scenes with Fast Eddie facing off against Jackie Gleason's Minnesota Fats are some of the best in movies. A lesser superstar would have balked at playing a loser and tragic figure like Eddie. But his little inner victory at the end of that film, and the price he pays to get there...wow.

ABOVE: Check this scene out. Newman and Gleason. Beautiful. (I apologize for the poor quality of the video, "The Hustler" is available on DVD in a gorgeous remastered version). One of the best exchanges ever: (Felson) "I didn't leave you much..." (Fats) "You left enough." Yes!

Later in his career Newman played more traditional heroes, but they were charming as hell and always had a loneliness and edge to them. Check out flicks like "The Sting" or "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." Even in cheesy 70's fare like "The Towering Inferno" or "Slap Shot", Newman's mere presence raised the material a notch higher. In the 80's and 90's he became a respected elder statesmen of Hollywood, but still put in bold performances, like the alcoholic lawyer in "The Verdict" and as the broken man trying to repair his relationship with his family in "Nobody's Fool."

Aside from his acting career, there was so much more to Newman. Newman had one of those rare marriages in Hollywood that lasted. This year marked the 50th anniversary for Newman and actress wife Joanne Woodward. Newman did all that he could to get away from the glitz of celebrity, preferring to spend his free time racing cars over walking the red carpets. In the late 70's he became a professional race car driver, and his team placed 5th in Daytona and 2nd in Le Mans. He started selling his salad dressing recipe as a lark as Newman's Own, a brand that now stocks shelves of grocery stores with salad dressing, spaghetti sauce, popcorn and other foods. From the beginning, Newman gave all profits from the Newman's Own brand to charity. To date, Newman's Own has given over $175 million to different charitable organizations.

I think I'll go pop in my DVD of "The Hustler" now. Or maybe "Hud." No, let's do "Cool Hand Luke"...we lost THE great one this weekend.

RIP Paul Newman.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Dez's Favorite Rock/Pop Records, #20-16

20. U2 – The Unforgettable Fire, 1984
Rightfully regarded as a transitional record and wrongfully often forgotten in the shuffle, #20 is U2’s most atmospheric record, where producers Daniel Lenois and Brian Eno became de facto members of the band. Pieces like “Promenade,” “4th of July” and “Elvis Presley in America” are little more than ethereal ambience. “Pride (In the Name of Love)” is the big hit here, and is one of their great anthems. But the rest is much less easily grasped. I love the sound textures of “Sort of Homecoming” and the brooding title track. U2’s greatest song is also here, the gorgeous “Bad,” a harrowing look at heroin addiction, but it is also a song infused with hope. Edge’s echo-drenched guitar lines, Bono’s emotional delivery, Mullen’s haunting rhythm…it is the perfect U2 song that was even made better subsequently on the live EP Wide Awake In America. It is also worth noting that Bono was never in finer voice, he had finally matured as a vocalist and had not yet lost some of his power or range due to the ravages of the road or age. It closes perfectly with the hymn “MLK.” This is the closest U2 ever got to ambient music, and it was a crucial step from their more straightforward rock period to their more experimental material.

19. The Rolling Stones – Sticky Fingers, 1971
The weariest damn record I know. They were almost to the point where their decadence had finally caught up with them, and they knew it. Sure, they still rock. Check out “Brown Sugar” (a hit single about a horny slaveowner sneaking out at night for some action with the slave women), the misogynistic rocker “Bitch”, and the killer jam of “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” (a rare instance where they jam on an extended groove, it makes you wish that they did this much more often than they did). But the weary songs are the ones that really stick, like the mid-tempo “Sway,” the haunting “Wild Horses,” the dead-on country of “Dead Flowers,” the harrowing “Sister Morphine” and the transcendent “Moonlight Mile,” which is both desolate and beautiful at the same time. It is interesting to note that second guitarist Mick Taylor would soon leave the Stones due to a conflict over songwriting credit here. The Jagger/Richards team continued to take credit for all original Stones material, but evidently Taylor had a lot to do with these songs (as well as the songs on the previous few records.) I think that the contributions of Taylor are often overlooked, he was not only a kick ass guitarist, but he also contributed more than he was given credit for during the Stones’ greatest period.

ABOVE: I'm the proud owner of the vinyl version of Sticky Fingers with the working zipper.

18. Jimi Hendrix Experience – Electric Ladyland, 1968
This sprawling double album masterpiece has something for every rock fan. Blues? The fifteen minute “Voodoo Chile.” Tight pop/rock tunes? “Crosstown Traffic,” “Come On,” “Gypsy Eyes.” Psychedelic experimentation? “1983 (A Merman I Should Turn To Be).” Cosmic soul? ”Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)?” “Rainy Day, Dream Away,” “Still Raining, Still Dreaming.” Political/social commentary? The blistering “House Burning Down.” Groundbreaking guitar work? How about the unmatched wah-fest of “Burning of the Midnight Lamp,” “Still Raining, Still Dreaming” and the otherworldly “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)”? The most famous cover in rock history? How about how Hendrix recasts Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” so definitively with cascading guitar lines that even Dylan performed it Hendrix’s way from then on. It’s all here. Each of these avenues would be noteworthy career peaks for most artists. The fact that he threw it all on one release? Astounding.

17. The Cure – Disintegration, 1987
Robert Smith at his most dramatic, melancholy and most languid. A phenomenal mood record, it was the holy scripture for millions of pasty goth kids everywhere. What is here is a grey soundscape ripped by dark crevices of sound for miles and miles. The opening line of the first song is “I think it’s dark and it looks like rain”…and it is all downhill from there. Smith has always been the most melodic of guitar players, and here he can go on for almost 7 minutes on variations of the same riff and keep it interesting (“Pictures of You”). A song like “Same Deep Water As You” takes you to the edge of despair, but it is not all doom and gloom. “Lovesong” is indeed lovely, and “Fascination Street” and the title track actually rock pretty hard. “Pictures of You” and the delightfully creepy “Lullaby” may be the quintessential Cure songs. Feeling bad never sounded so good.

16. Neil Young – Tonight’s the Night, 1975
Speaking of feeling bad, this is perhaps the most depressing record ever made, and it is also one of the sloppiest. Neil and band are clearly wasted, the band is out of tune, and the weariness permeates every moment. Why is this record so beloved? Because it is so raw and honest. Neil had just lost Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry to heroin overdoses, and here he is at the end of his rope with despair, and he lays it all out there on the record grooves. This was so raw and unpolished that the record label refused to release it for over a year after he presented it to them. Tunes like “Albuquerque,” “Tired Eyes,” “Roll Another Number,” the title track…they are all brilliant depictions of the lows of drug culture in Southern California in the early 70’s. A highlight is a blazing live cut with Crazy Horse, “Come On Baby, Let’s Go Downtown” featuring Danny Whitten on lead vocals, the perfect tribute to his departed friend. For me, the essence here can really be captured with “Borrowed Tune,” a desolate piano ballad where Neil steals the melody from The Rolling Stones’ “Lady Jane.” Neil admits:

“I’m singin’ this borrowed tune I took from the Rolling Stones
Alone in this empty room, too wasted to write my own
I’m climbin’ this ladder, my head’s in the clouds…I hope that it matters”

This was Neil’s darkest night, he would never travel this desolate road of the soul again, but it is also one of his several career peaks. This album is for those interested in honest expression from a talented artist who has boldly explored many musical avenues over the years; one who is much more interested in capturing the honest musical moment vs. putting together a pretty product for mass consumption.

ABOVE: Neil's Tonight's the Night is a strung out masterpiece of sloppy, weary grooves and brilliant songwriting

Monday, September 22, 2008

This Year's Rock Hall of Fame Nominees

Probably not surprising to anyone reading this, I have been somewhat obsessed with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ever since I visited the Rock Hall Museum in Cleveland a couple of years back. I have a lot of issues with the nominating and voting process (that is for another very long post), but today the nominees for the Class of 2009 were announced, so in this post I just want to focus on those nominees.

Quick primer on eligibility requirements: you are not eligible for induction until 25 years after the release of your first album or single. The criteria is rather vague, stated as "influence and significance of the artists' contributions to the development and perpetuation of rock and roll." Whatever that means. There is a very political nominating committee (dominated by several factions, most notably Jann Wenner's cronies), and once the list of nominees are announced, ballots are mailed to about 500 voting members (critics, musicians, producers, and others in the biz). Nominees who recieve the most votes (and over 50% of the vote) are inducted. Generally, that means 5 artists per year go in, at least in recent years.

So, this year's nominees are:

Metallica, Run-DMC, The Stooges, Jeff Beck, Chic, Wanda Jackson, War, Little Anthony and the Imperials and Bobby Womack.

In my view, four of these are solid picks, two are questionable, and two are absurd. The solid ones are the first four I listed. Chic and Womack are questionable, but I can understand the arguments. War and Little Anthony are just stupid. There seems to be a still vocal contingent on the nominating committee that is determined to get every single moderately successful doo wop group into the RRHOF. I am dumbfounded that War is nominated when people/groups like Yes, Peter Gabriel, The Cure, Judas Priest, Rush, etc. have yet to even recieve nomination. This was the first year that Stevie Ray Vaughan was eligible, and most folks in the know were predicting a nomination for him. So that is a surprise. This is also the first year The Smiths were eligible, and it is ridiculous that they were not nominated.

If I were voting, and assuming five will go in, I would vote:
Metallica, Jeff Beck, Run-DMC, The Stooges and Chic.

The Stooges have been on the ballot six previous years. Perhaps the 7th time is the charm.

How do I think it will go? I think that Jackson will make it in. I am hoping in the place of Chic, but probably in the place of Beck. (He's already in with The Yardbirds, so this would be his second induction). For the record, Clapton has the most inductions (Yardbirds, Cream, solo).

ABOVE: Here's hoping Jeff Beck gets his due.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Hole in the Wall

This sounds really stupid, but the other night my wife and I watched an hour of the new game show "Hole in the Wall" on Fox. You could call it Human Tetris. This is the latest game show import from Japan to be Americanized. One team of three people dressed in silver spandex competes against another team likewise dressed. They stand on this line while a huge, styrofoam wall with strange cutouts races towards them. They have to conform themselves to fit through the holes, or else they will collide with the wall and get swept into a pool of water. That is the entire game. For an hour. Yet we kept watching, especially as a team of midgets competed against a team of female bodybuilders (the midgets won). And then in a surreal scene, the midgets essentially sexually assaulted the hot female commentator during their victory celebrations. There were three of them, so they were able to tackle her to the ground and roll around with her in jubilation as she screamed in an odd combination of amusement and terror. I think we will definitely be watching again next week.

Here's a taste...

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Dez's Favorite Rock/Pop Records, #'s 25-21

Here we go with the Top 25. Due to the three record rule for any one artist, some of you (ANCIANT) will be happy to know that this is the last Pink Floyd record to appear on my list...

25. Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here, 1975
Most may prefer Dark Side of the Moon or the overrated The Wall, but I think this is their warmest and most interesting concept album from their classic period. Taking a cynical look at the record biz and also serving as a heartfelt tribute to former leader Syd Barrett, they were emotionally invested in this material. Gilmour is given much room to weave his guitar magic, such as on the extended Barrett tribute “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” and the heartbreaking title track (which features some of the prettiest acoustic work in all of classic rock). The oft-repeated story, apparently true, is that Syd Barrett showed up unannounced in the studio just as they were working on “Shine On…” He was physically unrecognizable, and was by this time clearly out of his gourd. He was also oblivious to the fact that he was walking in on a majestic musical tribute to himself. “Have a Cigar” is one of the great cynical songs about the music industry. The “which one’s Pink?” line references the infamous story of a clueless record exec meeting the band at a promotional gathering and asking, “So, which one’s Pink?” Great stuff.

24. The Cars – The Cars, 1978
It was once said, only half jokingly, that The Cars’ debut record could also have been called ‘Greatest Hits,’ because in the words of Spinal Tap manager Ian Faith, “every song on here could be a hit!” Many were. The Cars were one of the best of the New Wave acts, led by the acerbic but pop-infused songwriting of Ric Ocasek. It opens with the brilliant pop trifecta of “Good Times Roll,” “My Best Friend’s Girl” and “Just What I Needed”…and never really lets up from there. Other highlights include “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight,” “Bye Bye Love,” “All Mixed Up” and “Moving In Stereo” (made immortal by its use in the scene with Phoebe Cates emerging topless in slow motion from the pool in ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’…good times roll indeed). If you were to pick a New Wave artifact to launch into space to get the aliens grooving, it would have to be #24.

ABOVE: The Cars' debut is the best that New Wave has to offer

23. Neil Young – Freedom, 1989
Out of left field, after a decade of head-scratching genre jumping that left even his diehard fans confused and discouraged, Neil delivered one of the best records of his career. #23 has its roots in the Japan-only EP Eldorado, one of Neil’s most uncompromising scorchers. It was a good clue that this was a major Neil release when he chose to bookend the album with acoustic and electric versions of the same song, just as he did ten years earlier on his brilliant Rust Never Sleeps. I was fortunate enough to see him live around this time, and he was actually touring for the mediocre album he put out before this one; but as he often does, he was more interested in playing his unreleased new material over what he was ostensibly out on the road promoting. What a dazzling set of songs, ranging from quiet acoustic numbers to jarring, blazing ragged glory. “Don’t Cry” is a favorite and features his fiercest distortion (I once blew out a car speaker jamming to this song). I love his gritty, roaring cover of “On Broadway,” where he turns it into a seedy, loud, drug-infused manifesto. On the other side of the coin, “Wrecking Ball” is one of his most beautiful piano ballads. “Crime in the City” is an epic screed about everything from the music business to relationships:

“The artist looked at the producer
The producer sat back
He said, ‘What we have got here
Is a perfect track
But we don't have a vocal
And we don't have a song
If we could get these things accomplished
Nothin' else could go wrong.’
So he balanced the ashtray
As he picked up the phone
And said, ‘Send me a songwriter
Who's drifted far from home
And make sure that he's hungry
Make sure he's alone
Send me a cheeseburger
And the new 'Rolling Stone’”

The great acoustic tune “Too Far Gone” finally makes its official appearance on an album after being performed live for two decades. Neil even had the rare hit with the now classic “Rockin’ in the Free World”.

22. Bruce Springsteen – Born in the USA, 1983
If I were an exec at Columbia Records, I would insist in my next contract extension with the Boss that a clause be inserted that requires him to use the word “born” in every subsequent album title. #22 is the juggernaut that catapulted Bruce from critical fave to superstardom. This is by far his most accessible set of tunes. With no less than seven hit singles (!), it is amazing that some of my and many fan favorites are the album tracks, not the hits. That is how deep this record goes. “Downbound Train” has a killer guitar riff, and is one of his great tales of the wandering loser. “Bobby Jean” and “No Surrender” are touching testaments to the bonds of friendship (both written for long time E Street guitarist Steve Van Zandt, who had recently left the band). But, it is the hits casual fans remember, check this slate out: “Born in the USA” (misunderstood title track), “Cover Me” (his most hard rocking hit), “I’m On Fire” (his first ballad hit), “I’m Goin’ Down”, “Glory Days”, “My Hometown” and “Dancing in the Dark” (the highest charting single of his career). The funny thing is, even that seminal 80’s pop/rock gem is actually quite dark and desperate. If you just read the lyrics without the accompanying infectious pop sheen of the music, you could swear this was one of his dour solo acoustic dirges:

“I get up in the evening and I ain't got nothing to say
I come home in the morning, I go to bed feelin' the same way
I ain't nothing but tired, man I'm just tired and bored with myself
Hey there baby, I could use just a little help
You can't start a fire, you can't start a fire without a spark
This gun's for hire even if we're just dancing in the dark
Message just keep getting clearer, radio's on and I'm moving 'round the place
I check my look in the mirror, wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face
Man, I ain't getting nowhere, I'm just living in a dump like this
There's something happening somewhere, baby I just know that there is
You can't start a fire, you can't start a fire without a spark
This gun's for hire even if we're just dancing in the dark…”

Do those lyrics look like the lyrics of a song many people think of as an 80’s party anthem? That is the greatness of that song.

ABOVE: The story behind Born in the USA's album cover is that of all of the pictures they took, Bruce decided that the picture of his ass looked better than the picture of his face.

21. Dire Straits – Making Movies, 1980
Amongst true Dire Straits fans, this is the favorite. Side one is perfect with three lengthy Dire Straits classics. “Tunnel of Love” may be my single favorite song of all time, and it shows all of Dire Straits’ strengths. The dynamic changes, the vivid storytelling, the tight band playing that alternately rocks out and gets quiet and moody, and stunning guitar work from Mark Knopfler…it’s all there. “Romeo and Juliet” is one of the great songs of lost love. Knopfler sings lines like “And I can’t do a love song / Like the way it’s meant to be” with such vulnerability. Finally, “Skateaway” is a great pop song. The second half is not as strong, but “Expresso Love” and “Solid Rock” are, well, solid rockers. “Hand In Hand” is a nice love song, while the closing “Les Boys” is the only misstep on the record, but is an interesting change of pace nonetheless.

Monday, September 15, 2008

I Was Wrong...

...about Palin. While I think my policy analysis was sound (as in, based on ISSUES, she should not be attracting many people that the Republicans didn't already have anyway), I underestimated the personality and thirst for something different factors.

More than anything else, I guess McCain's campaign needed a burst of energy. Obama has been on the scene for so long through the eternal campaign season that his novelty had worn off. So McCain comes along with the new and exciting Palin. Shrewd move, it turns out. It is now McCain that looks like the refreshing and different pick. He would not have created such excitement with Romney (who I initially thought he should have picked). More importantly, the Palin pick has seriously knocked Obama off his game. He doesn't like not being the only rock star in this race.

The 20% swing of white women from Obama to McCain since Palin joined the ticket is huge. Frankly, I don't understand it. These women don't seem to understand the issues. But I'll take 'em if it helps McCain. It has put McCain in front of or drawn him dead even with Obama in most polls, although it appears Obama may still hold the advantage in the electoral college math.

It remains to be seen how well Palin holds up under continued scrutiny and in the debate, but so far it seems that Joe Biden has turned out to be the bum pick. I bet the Obama camp now wishes they had swallowed their pride and asked Hillary to join the ticket.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Dangerous Hyperbole?

I've had more than a passing interest in the Hurricane Ike hysteria of the past week. First of all, its initial projected path was right at Corpus Christi and then up through San Antonio, where I live. But once it became clear that it was going through Galveston and then Houston, I of course became concerned for my many friends and family in the Houston area. (I may live in SA, but Houston will always be my hometown).

The dire predictions about the storm mounted through the week, and it reminded me of the similar Hurricane Rita predictions of several years ago. Remember Rita? Unless you live in Beaumont, Texas, probably not. It was the massive hurricane later in the same season as Katrina, and was supposed to level Houston. The one where most of the city tried to get out of town. I was living in Houston at the time, and I tried to leave town for San Antonio. After going three miles in three hours on I-10, I called my friend Walter Evans, got off the highway, and ended up hunkering down at his parents' place with his family to await the apocalypse that was sure to come. Then...nothing happened other than losing power for about three hours.

As Ike approached, the good people of Galveston were assured "certain death" if they remained on the island. Last I heard, there were four confirmed deaths as a result of Ike in Texas (less than from the commuter train collision in California on Friday), while there were estimates of 20% of Galveston's population that decided to stay put. Hardly the "certain death" we were all promised.

No doubt, Galveston is devastated. This looks to be the most damage for Galveston since the 1900 hurricane that killed up to 8000. And from what I have been able to see on the news, there does seem to be quite a mess to clean up in Houston. The power is still out and will be out for some time in most of the city. Lots of glass on the streets from blown out windows in downtown. Nothing to scoff at, to be sure. But still. With each of these dire, sensationalist warnings given ahead of each new storm, it makes it less and less likely that people will take them as seriously when The Big One actually does hit the Gulf Coast. I sympathize with the authorities, it is a kind of damned if you do, damned if you don't situation. And weather prediction is still not an exact science. But could they tone down the "you are guaranteed certain death" warnings until they are actually warranted? Am I off on this one? Or are they still that unsure of each approaching storm that they need to hedge their bets to that extreme? Some of the media (always eager to lap up predictions of death and destruction) even questioned that wording, and while the argument was made that if it convinces "a few" people who were planning on staying to change their minds, what about the next time?

On the other side of the coin, I get annoyed watching these yahoos on TV who decided to ignore the evacuation orders and stayed in Galveston, and then beg for help once it becomes life threatening for the emergency personnel to get out there to do their job.

ABOVE: "What's this? Nobody told me a hurricane was coming..."

On a lighter note, my two favorite moments of news coverage. 1. When Geraldo was reporting from Galveston as the storm came ashore, he was knocked on his ass by a wave like a quarterback getting sacked. Awesome. Later that night, he was hit by a piece of debris and he goes "shit, we gotta move out of this damn area," and then composes himself and apologizes for his language. 2. My other favorite was when Anderson Cooper was giving a very serious report from some location in Houston on the night of landfall, and behind him are several drunken revelers waving at the camera and shouting at him. He is visibly annoyed, and says "there are several bars still open here in Houston." They wouldn't leave him alone for the next thirty minutes of his reporting as the camera kept trying to change positions to get them out of the frame.

ABOVE: Geraldo gets undercut by a wave. I've got to hand it to him, he keeps reporting only seconds later. It is funny how YouTube has so permeated the culture that his first comment is "I'm gonna be a star on TouTube now."

Anyway, my best wishes to my friends and family in Houston. I hope you guys are all safe and your property is intact. Once you have the capabilities and have the time to check in with GNABB, as I am sure that it is top on your list of priorities, we would love to hear from you about your experiences and thoughts on this issue.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Dez's Favorite Rock/Pop Records, #30-26

My apologies for the length of some of the commentaries below, but I found I had a lot to say about several of them...

30. ZZ Top – Tres Hombres, 1973
The Little ‘Ole Band from Texas finally hit the big time with their third record. It is all about the tone of Billy Gibbons’ guitar…pure southern fried, greasy Texas. #30 is one of the most straightforward, kick-ass rock records you will ever hear, informed by a distinct Texas feel (not country at all, but from the muddy Texas blues side of the river). Opening with the 1-2 punch of companion pieces “Waitin’ For the Bus” and “Jesus Just Left Chicago,” (forever connected due to a happy accident on the part of the recording engineer who inadvertently spliced the two songs together) they immediately announce they are ready for business. “Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers” is as irreverent as the title suggests, while the witty “Master of Sparks” and the funky “Shiek” inject some voodoo mystery into the proceedings. Of course, most people remember this record for the John Lee Hooker-ish, boogie-inspired ode to Texas’ most famous whorehouse, “La Grange.” But in the true blues tradition of the sacred and the profane standing side by side, #30 is also graced by several unexpected gospel-inspired slowburners that are surprisingly spiritual, such as “Hot, Blue and Righteous” and “Have You Heard?” This side of the Allman Brothers Band, blues-rock don’t get any better than this, people.

29. The Band – The Band, 1969

ABOVE: It doesn't get much more authentic than The Band (not the album cover, but I've always liked this photo)

The Band’s sophomore effort is completely of its time, that is, somewhere around 1863 or so. Never has there been a more authentic Americana record in rock, these four Canadians and one Arkansan capture an America preserved in aging black and white photos. They bring this time to life, and in doing so, make an absolutely timeless record. Just listen to the heartbreaking civil war tale in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” There is more understanding in that song than in many books written on the subject:

“Virgil Caine is the name, and I served on the Danville train,
'Til Stoneman's cavalry came and tore up the tracks again.
In the winter of '65, We were hungry, just barely alive.
By May the tenth, Richmond had fell, it's a time I remember, oh so well,
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, and the bells were ringing,
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, and the people were singin'. They went
Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na,
Back with my wife in Tennessee, When one day she called to me,
’Virgil, quick, come see, there goes Robert E. Lee!’
Now I don't mind choppin' wood, and I don't care if the money's no good.
Ya take what ya need and ya leave the rest,
But they should never have taken the very best.
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, and the people were singin'. They went
Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na,
Like my father before me, I will work the land,
Like my brother above me, who took a rebel stand.
He was just eighteen, proud and brave, But a Yankee laid him in his grave,
I swear by the mud below my feet,
You can't raise a Caine back up when he's in defeat…”

This would all be meaningless if the music itself didn’t also kick ass, but it does. Each member’s multi-instrumental and vocal talents are on full display here. Although Robbie Robertson is credited as the songwriter on all of the songs, this is very much a group effort. The distinct personalities of the three singers (Levon Helm’s expressive southern twang, Richard Manuel’s warm vulnerability, and Rick Danko’s mournful and lonesome tenor) each share space and combine in wonderful combinations. Robertson’s precise guitar lines cut through where appropriate, never overplayed, and Garth Hudson’s multi-instrumental brilliance is all over the place (check out his clavichord on “Up On Cripple Creek,” which is as funky as anything Stevie Wonder ever played). The greatness of the rhythm section of Helm on drums and Danko on bass cannot be overemphasized. They are the loosest, most natural and organic white rhythm section in rock. On top of the traditional rock instruments, they throw in a jambalaya of funky horns and accordions and harmonicas and mandolins…all played by The Band themselves. The loose Dixieland of “Rag Mama Rag,” the great opener “Across the Great Divide,” the funk of “Up On Cripple Creek,” the painful history lesson of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” the rocking doom of “Look Out Cleveland,” the lonesome pain of “Unfaithful Servant,” the funky terror of “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)”…this record is absolutely brilliant from start to finish, and nothing else out there sounds like this, although many have tried.

28. Van Halen – 1984, 1983
David Lee Roth’s swansong as VH’s flamboyant frontman (although he is now back in the fold) was a landmark in hard rock / heavy metal. Eddie Van Halen had tinkered with synthesizers before, but largely due to objections from other band members, he still kept them in the background. Here he is set loose, and he wisely does not substitute them for his guitar, but supplements it. The synths are heavy and full, and fit right in with VH’s driving heavy metal signature sound. Eddie also features his revolutionary guitar work to make the diehards happy. Finally, this is their best set of tunes, featuring megahits “Jump” and “Panama” (possibly the best hard rock hit of the decade), and fan favorite “Hot For Teacher.” One of the things that makes VH stand apart from many of their metal/hard rock brethren is that, at least with Diamond Dave, they always kept their sense of humor and party-hearty ethos. While they were superlative musicians, they never took themselves too seriously.

ABOVE: I always thought VH's 1984 had one of the cheekiest album covers ever

27. The Who – The Who Sell Out, 1967
The peak of their wonderful 60’s pop period. One of the first concept albums, The Who constructed this record to flow like one of those late night pirate radio stations that was so popular in Europe during that decade. They recorded witty commercial spots in between the actual songs, schilling for everything from acne cream to guitar strings. Even some of the songs themselves are obsessed with commercialism, the wonderful “Odorono” is the best example. It tells a touching tale of a young aspiring female singer, and she finally gets her chance when a handsome young record exec walks into her club one night to catch her set. He is so impressed that he shows up at her dressing room afterwards, romance and opportunity are in the air, he leans over to kiss her…but her body odor drives him away, and her dreams are dashed. The key tagline at the end of the song: “She should have used Odorono,” the same deodorant Pete Townshend is seen using on the cover of the record in a faux ad. This record is the Who at their poppermost, and it is a set of melodic and shimmering tunes. “Armenia City in the Sky” is their only attempt at psychedelia, “Is Our Love Was” is a great teen angst lost love tune, “Sunrise” is a gorgeous and ethereal acoustic tune rare in The Who catalogue, “Tattoo” demonstrates that Roger Daltrey, Townshend and John Entwhistle could combine for vocal harmonies as rich and complex as The Beach Boys when they wanted to, while the thunderous “I Can See For Miles” remains one of their angriest and greatest rockers. I highly recommend checking this out, it is brilliant 60’s era pop music but is often overshadowed by their better known classic rock period. The book by John Dougan about this record in the 33 and 1/3 series is an interesting read.

ABOVE: Pete and Roger hawk deodorant and baked beans, while Keith and John try to sell some acne cream and a workout program on the back cover (BELOW).

26. Tears For Fears – Songs From the Big Chair, 1985
One of those rare 80’s albums that would sound just as good and just as contemporary if it were released today. Well, almost. This group is quite underrated, the songs on #26 are so well constructed and arranged. They use synthesizers quite a bit, but it does not sound light and airy like so much of the other music of the period; it sounds big, full and even orchestral at times. One of the best produced records I’ve come across. “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” practically defined the Reagan era, “Head Over Heels” is one of the most melodic anthems of the decade, and “Shout” and “Mother’s Talk” were also outstanding and distinctive singles. This is 1980’s pop/rock at its best.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

An Alternate View...

Since this post is made up of other people's comments anyway, I figured it was OK that the concept was completely ripped off as well. My dear friend JMW, over at his blog A Special Way of Being Afraid, has been doing a concurrent Top 100 Albums list. For this week, he had the great idea of instead of waxing poetic about how wonderful his picks were, he would accompany his picks with negative Amazon.com reviews. I love it! So, I went over to Amazon and checked out all of the negative reviews for my latest picks on my Dez's Favorite 100 Rock/Pop Records, #'s 35-31. In the spirit of fairness, here are some alternate perspectives on the five records I discussed yesterday. And like JMW, I cleaned up some spelling and grammar..

35. Alice in Chains - Jar of Flies, 1994
I would swat six of these flies. They are no good. I know 2 hits came off of this: "No Excuses" and "I Stay Away," but they stink as well as "Whales and Wasp." It's a shame that they rushed this out after breaking through big time with Dirt but I guess the label knew best. The best on here is "Swing On This."

Dez: Or, alternatively, I liked this succinct review: "Don't buy this unless you are crazy."

34. The Tragically Hip - Road Apples, 1991
Dez: I am disappointed to report that there are no negative reviews of this record.

33. The Rolling Stones - Let It Bleed, 1969
The Rolling Stones suck. Always did and always will. Charlie Watts can't play, please. Let's be honest. He can't play drums. He's already dead sitting there. Keith Richard can't play lead guitar either. Mick Jagger just be quiet. Bill Wyman, go to sleep and Brian Jones, well he's ok. Unfortunally the only one worth it in that band died young.

32. Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, 1874
Am I the only one to believe that Peter Gabriel is a lousy singer? At least among the diehard prog rock fans who read these reviews, probably yes. But that guy was really terrible... Phil Collins was -still is!- so much better, but how can one say so without attracting a legion of pop hit ballad haters? Anyway, Lamb is lots of effect, little or no substance. I can picture poor bald Phil sitting behind the drums and thinking "man, I wish we would stop playing this crummy pretentious thing and play some good music for once, even if it does not have fifty chord changes per minute..."

31. Pink Floyd - Meddle, 1971
Lullabies for stoners. Man, this is a boring album. There's nothing offensively bad about it, but it's just all so achingly soulless. "One Of These Days." Oh! It's actually moderately catchy! For the first minute or so, that is. Dum badum badum badum badum badum etc... (and etc. etc. etc., and even etc.) I remember churning out something like this on the bass string of my guitar when I was 13. I didn't leave the tape running, though, so I didn't make millions from it..."Echoes." Oh! Duuuuude! A Floydian soundscape! Whooooaaaa! *toke* *toke* Well there were dozens of bands around this era who were doing better, bolder and stranger soundscapes and made PF's sonic wankery sound like Perry Cuomo in comparison...So overall it's hard to know what to make of this album. It's not melodic enough to be good pop, it definitely does not rock and as prog rock/ pyschedelia it's mediocre too. But still, you're not buying it for the music anyway but for the cool factor associated with this band.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Dez's Favorite Rock/Pop Records, #'s 35-31

35. Alice In Chains – Jar of Flies, 1994
This mostly acoustic EP has a remarkable consistency of mood; namely, ominous and melancholy. But it is also quite melodic and has wonderful production. Rarely have I heard acoustic guitars recorded so fully. It is no surprise that singer Layne Staley later died from a heroin overdose, his struggle is painfully detailed in this music. It is almost as if he knew what the ultimate outcome would be, because these are not optimistic songs. “Nutshell” is a highlight, while “I Stay Away” and “Don’t Follow” received substantial radio play. One of my favorite acoustic records; folk music for headbangers.

34. The Tragically Hip – Road Apples, 1991
While each of their records in their long career has great moments, I think this one is their strongest effort overall, and it is probably the most beloved by their legion of fans in Canada. Virtually unheard of in most of the States (although they are popular along the northern border), The Tragically Hip have been one of Canada’s most respected bands for almost two decades. And believe me, it is our loss that we have not embraced them. “Little Bones” and “Twist My Arm” are two of their most savage rockers, while “Long Time Running” is a beautiful and desolate ballad, with Gordon Downie’s shaky vocal matching the quivering reverb of the guitar. Downie’s stream of consciousness lyrics are fascinating as always. The Hip are equally adept at gritty rockers and gorgeous folkish laments, and they cover the spectrum of their styles throughout #34. I would start here, but then quickly move on to Up To Here and Phantom Power.

ABOVE: The Tragically Hip are probably one of the best bands that you've never heard of. Road Apples is their best album, but they've got lots of other great ones.

33. The Rolling Stones – Let It Bleed, 1969
What a powerhouse record. It is bookended by their two greatest songs: “Gimme Shelter” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” The first is an apocalyptic vision of the 60’s gone horribly wrong, while the latter is a soaring affirmation in the face of hard times. In between is their best blues cover (“Love In Vain”), sleazy rockers like “Live With Me,” the paranoid “Monkey Man” (used perfectly by Martin Scorsese in ‘Goodfellas’), and the serial killer fantasia “Midnight Rambler.” “Midnight Rambler” is a remarkably visceral modern blues nightmare. Over a seductive and greasy blues pulse, Mick Jagger sings with perverse glee from the perspective of famous serial killer Albert DeSalvo (aka the Boston Strangler):

“…Talkin' about the midnight gambler
The one you never seen before
Talkin' about the midnight gambler
Did you see him jump the garden wall
Sighin' down the wind so sadly
Listen and you'll hear him moan…
I'm called the hit-and-run raper in anger
The knife-sharpened tippie-toe
Or just the shoot 'em dead, brainbell jangler
You know, the one you never seen before
So if you ever meet the midnight rambler
Coming down your marble hall
Well he's pouncing like a proud black panther
Well, you can say I, I told you so!
Well, don't you listen for the midnight rambler
Play it easy, as you go
I'm gonna smash down all your plate glass windows
Put a fist, put a fist through your steel-plated door!
Did you hear about the midnight rambler
He'll leave his footprints up and down your hall
And did you hear about the midnight gambler
And did you see me make my midnight call
And if you ever catch the midnight rambler
I'll steal your mistress from under your nose
I'll go easy with your cold fanged anger
I'll stick my knife right down your throat, baby
And it hurts!”

ABOVE: Let It Bleed may be the Stones' strongest record, song for song

32. Genesis – The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, 1974
A rich, textured, interesting double concept album; this was Peter Gabriel’s brilliant swansong with Genesis before he bolted for his solo career. But what a goodbye it is. The story is the rather convoluted spiritual journey of Rael in New York City…or whatever. The songs are great. The title track rocks hard, “Carpet Crawlers” is lush and majestic, “In the Cage” pulses with menace and desperation…there really is not a dull moment over the two records, and it is sonically cohesive, even if the overall story doesn’t make much sense. Have Gabriel’s lyrics ever made much sense anyway? I feel that this is about the best progressive rock has to offer, and it avoids most of the excesses that mar most prog rock works. The entire thing can be taken together as a complex piece, but the individual songs are distinct and good enough that that they all work just fine individually as well.

31. Pink Floyd - Meddle, 1971
Often forgotten amongst the more famous Floyd classics, this record is seriously great. The menacing “One of These Days” (“One of these days, I’m going to cut you into little pieces!” being the only vocal line in the otherwise thundering instrumental) rocks hard. “Fearless” is a forgotten Floyd gem, while tunes like “San Tropez” (a silly lounge jazz piece) and “Seamus” (a blues ode to a dog) show a rare glimpse of humor from this usually dour band. But that is all prelude to the 23-minute opus “Echoes,” which may be Floyd’s finest (extended) moment. All of their strengths are on display here: the melodic mid-tempo pace that they perfected, dark lyrics from Waters, melodic guitar lines from Gilmour…the perfect Pink Floyd piece.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Dez Reviews 'Tropic Thunder'

I've been wanting to see Ben Stiller's new comedy 'Tropic Thunder' for some time. The trailers in the months leading up to the film's release have been brilliant, and I was encouraged by the generally excellent reviews. There is much to love about this film, but not all of it works.

The story is simple: a group of pampered, spoiled actors are attached to a Vietnam War film. In desperation, the exasperated director decides to film the movie guerilla style by putting the actors out in the real jungle and filming with camcorders. One thing leads to another, and the troupe of actors wander dangerously into the territory of ruthless druglords. All the while they think they are still acting in a movie. Great premise, and with a cast that includes Stiller, Robert Downey Jr. and Jack Black, it seems that it can't miss. 'Tropic Thunder' also has a great supporting cast, with Matthew McConaughey doing a wonderfully sleezy turn as a Hollywood agent. One of the wittiest parts of the film is the very beginning, before the credits, with faux previews featuring each of the actors.

A lot of the film is very funny. Director Stiller is clearly having a blast lampooning the entire movie industry, from self-important actors to mercenary producers to slimy agents to rappers-wanna-be-actors. When the film sticks to straight satire, it works beautifully. It only gets in trouble when it tries to have an actual story. The premise is really enough, they didn't need to try and add plot and character development. In fact, I think it would have been funnier had these actors not learned a damn thing from their experiences by the end of the film and remained as selfish and clueless as they were at the beginning.

ABOVE: Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.) tries to comfort a wounded Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller)

The real star here is Robert Downey, Jr. He's had a hell of a year. Downey plays actor Kirk Lazarus, a very serious, 5-time Oscar winning Australian actor who takes Method Acting to new levels. In order to play a black officer in 'Nam, Lazarus undergoes surgery to dye his skin black. Further, he refuses to break character no matter what happens. Downey delicately pulls off a potentially offensive role beautifully. There are some great ongoing exchanges between Lazarus and Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), a black rapper turned actor who is understandably annoyed by Lazarus' attempts at black authenticity. (Chino insists on trying to plug his energy drink Booty Sweat in every scene that he can, nevermind that this is supposed to be a Vietnam period piece.)

One of the best scenes is when Lazarus and washed-up action star Tugg Speedman (Stiller) are discussing the pros and cons of playing mentally challenged characters. Speedman had recently played a retarded character in a film called 'Simple Jack', which bombed at the box office. Speedman had delusions that playing retarded characters was a sure ticket to the Oscars. Lazarus launches into a hilarious lecture on how to win awards in Hollywood when playing disabled characters. He tells Speedman that the character must retain some sort of special skill desired by "normal" people ("like Hoffman counting cards in 'Rain Man'"; "never go full retard," he admonishes.

Like I said, the film works best when it is being a straight satire and lampooning the film industry. It runs into trouble when it veers off and tries to add real drama. They had already established these caricatures of actors so well early on, that it is hard to believe (and kind of disappointing) that these characters would grow up and become mature adults.

***1/2 out of *****