Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Dez Reviews: Bruce Springsteen, Working on a Dream, 2009

Let's address the most obvious issue with Bruce's latest release first. That would be the ridiculous album cover. As one reviewer on stated, it looks like a bad velvet Elvis. Worst Springsteen cover ever. OK, on to the music...

Here's the thing about Bruce Springsteen. He is at his best when he is upset, angry or restless. I have often argued that great art (even popular art), generally must come from darker places. Loneliness, anger, confusion, fear, angst. That is the root of great rock music. This is especially true of Bruce. His worst music of his career came in the early 1990's when his life was good. He had just gotten remarried, had kids, was content. And his music sucked. Fans like me wanted to hear more about the "Darkness on the Edge of Town," not about "Better Days" being here because he's rich, happy and a family man.

Unfortunately, it sounds like Bruce is happy once again. This is especially disappointing because he has had a wonderful resurgence in the 2000's. Starting with 2002's The Rising (a deep record that eloquently deals with 9/11), and on through 2005's stark Devils & Dust and 2007's wonderful Magic (which was his best record in almost 25 years), Bruce had something to complain about. Now that his man Obama has been elected, Bruce is "Working on a Dream" and singing about "My Lucky Day."

Most of these songs are indistinguishable from each other. Springsteen claims that he's into writing pop songs with great melodies lately. If that's the case, he's failed. Chugging along at genial midtempos, they make for sometimes energetic but ultimately forgettable rock songs. Most of it isn't bad, just negligible. The only terrible one is "Queen of the Supermarket," where he sounds like a third rate Springsteen impersonator stretching his working class metaphors to laughable proportions.

Four songs do stand out, which save the record from a terrible GNABB rating. The eight minute opener "Outlaw Pete" gives us false hope that this will be a great record. With its insistent strings, Bruce seems to be trying to revisit the epic territory of the mid-1970's, a la "Jungleland" or "Incident on 57th Street." It does not get to those peaks, but at least it reaches for it. "What Love Can Do" has got a great groove to it, and "Life Itself" has some depth to it, and not coincidentally is one of the few tunes with darkness to it. Thankfully, Bruce also gives us his title track to "The Wrestler" soundtrack as a tagged on bonus track. "The Wrestler" is more potent and memorable than any of these other songs.

Oh well. Even Bruce has said that this record was put together on the fly during breaks during the Magic tour. It does sound of leftovers. One very nice part of the record is in the liner notes booklet, where Bruce dedicates two pages to deceased E Street keyboardist Danny Federici, with a lovely photo and an excerpt of the eulogy that Bruce gave at Federici's service. I just wish that the record Bruce dedicated to Danny was worthy of the man.

Grade: B-

Monday, January 26, 2009

Being the Ugly American Does Have Advantages

According to a recently completed study, American passengers of The Titanic had a 12% higher probability of survival than the British passengers. This is odd, since the ship was a British ship with all British crew. You would think that the Brits would favor their own as far as allocating lifeboat space.

But the recently completed study found that the difference was due to the fact that while British passengers were more likely to politely get in line and wait for their turn to get in the lifeboats, American passengers were more likely to push ahead and cut in line.

The article about the study can be found here.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Oscar Predictions

I generally ignore most awards shows, but there is something about the Academy Awards that still grabs my attention every year. Not that I think they always make the right decisions, because often they do not. But they seem to have more relevance to the world of movies than, say, the Grammys do to relevant music or the Emmys do to good TV. This year's Oscar nominees were announced earlier last week, so here are my thoughts and predictions on some of the major races...

Best Supporting Actor
Josh Brolin, "Milk"
Robert Downey Jr., "Tropic Thunder"
Philip Seymour Hoffman, "Doubt"
Heath Ledger, "The Dark Knight"
Michael Shannon, "Revolutionary Road"

For some reason, year after year, the Best Supporting Actor category is full of great performances. Hoffman and Brolin are always great, but for me the race is between Downey and the late Ledger. Downey took a risk in "Tropic Thunder", because that was a role that could have easily backfired if not done properly. Very funny. But Ledger was a large part of what made "The Dark Knight" so memorable.
Should Win: Ledger
Will Win: Ledger

Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams, "Doubt"
Penelope Cruz, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"
Viola Davis, "Doubt"
Taraji P. Henson, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
Marisa Tomei, "The Wrestler"

Some strong actresses here, but to be honest, I haven't seen many of these. But that is never a barrier to predicting Oscar choices if you understand the politics of the Academy. The "Doubt" candidates will probably split the votes, so my frontrunners would be Tomei and Cruz.
Should Win: Don't Know
Will Win: Cruz

Best Actor
Richard Jenkins, "The Visitor"
Frank Langela, "Frost/Nixon"
Sean Penn, "Milk"
Brad Pitt, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
Mickey Rourke, "The Wrestler"

Would the Academy really embrace Rourke after his long decades out in the cold? The Golden Globes did, but I am not so sure about the Oscar crowd.
Should Win: Rourke
Will Win: Penn

Best Actress
Ann Hathaway, "Rachel Getting Married"
Angelina Jolie, "Changeling"
Melissa Leo, "Frozen River"
Meryl Streep, "Doubt"
Kate Winslet, "The Reader"

Some strong, popular actresses to choose from this year. Hathaway is very talented, and Streep is always a threat (she has been nominated more than any actor or actress in Oscar history). But Winslet had a great year with both "Revolutionary Road" and "The Reader." Oscar voters may want to reward her for both performances.
Should Win: Don't Know
Will Win: Winslet

Best Director
David Fincher, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
Ron Howard, "Frost/Nixon"
Gus Van Sant, "Milk"
Stephen Daldrey, "The Reader"
Danny Boyle, "Slumdog Millionaire"

The big question is always whether the Best Director and Best Picture will be the same, or will the Academy try to honor two films by splitting the vote in these two categories. Since this year doesn't have a clear dominating film (like "Titanic"), I think they may try and split the Director and Picture wins this year. Therefore, based on my pick for who will win Best Picture...
Should Win: Don't Know (I still need to see more of these)
Will Win: Boyle, "Slumdog Millionaire"

Best Picture
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
"The Reader"
"Slumdog Millionaire"

As I said above, there is no strong frontrunner this year. I've heard mixed things about "...Button" and have no desire to see it whatsoever. I really want to see "Frost/Nixon," but it does not strike me as a Best Picture winner. "The Reader" surprised a lot of people with the nominations it got, so that is probably its prize (just getting nominated). The two leaders are "Milk" and "Slumdog Millionaire," but Hollywood probably can't resist a biopic about a gay hero. Plus they love Sean Penn.
Should Win: Can't say yet, need to see more of them
Will Win: "Milk"

Your thoughts? Preferences? Snubs? I thought "Dark Knight" would slip in as the dark horse in Best Picture.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Coronation Day of King Obama I

Was it all that you hoped for? Did Barack deliver the goods? The absurd and detailed news coverage of this admittedly historic day was a bit much. This was more akin to a coronation of a new king vs. the inauguration of a president. It just sets the bar that much higher for him. I don't envy him.

I think he gave a good speech. It is difficult to tell how it will rank with the other great inaugural addresses, but it was good. The man can give a good speech. On my way to work I was listening to conservative talk radio, and as they were licking their wounds, they were replaying Reagan's inaugural addresses in their entirety. Which reminded me that he was a hell of a speaker too. At several points in the Reagan speeches I listened to on the way to work I found myself saying "hell yeah!" Now the Republicans understand how frustrated the Democrats must have felt in the 80's when the Right had such a charismatic leader.

I've been encouraged by some of Obama's words and appointments. He seems to be tracking more to the middle since his election. Some of his moves have made liberals downright angry. Good stuff. Perhaps he does think freely.

Am I the only one who has been fascinated by this series of exit interviews and press conferences given by George W.? If he had been this reflective and open to criticism over the past 8 years, he would have been much more successful. One thing W. has accomplished that many people did not think possible: he has kept the U.S. safe from another attack after 9/11. That is no small feat, and it is something for which we should be grateful to him. As he candidly admitted recently, "I never moved passed September 11th."

As far as the Obama hysteria, it was interesting at the high school where I teach. It was strongly encouraged by certain powers that be that teachers show the inauguration to our classes throughout the day. Not only that, but the auditorium was open all day to bring classes down to watch it on a huge screen. Had John McCain won this election, would the school make the same efforts? Probably not. But we now live in "Obamaha" and it is "Obamatime", as some of my more conservative students cynically said today in class.

I am encouraged and optimistic about an Obama presidency. I think he is reflective and smart enough to rule from close to the middle. And you cannot underestimate force of personality in leadership. That is one reason Reagan was so successful. Strong and optimistic leadership can help to lift a nation in a crisis of confidence. That is what Reagan did after the malaise days of Jimmy Carter, and hopefully that is what Obama can do for us now.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Class of 2009

Overall, I’ve got to say that I’m happy with the Class of 2009 for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Recall from previous posts, that the criteria is that the artist must have had a “significant impact on the evolution, development and perpetuation of rock and roll.” Artists are also not eligible until 25 years after the release of their first record or single. The Class of 2009 will be:

Jeff Beck
Bobby Womack
Little Anthony & the Imperials

In addition, Wanda Jackson will be inducted in the “Early Influence” category, and Spooner Oldham, Bill Black and D.J. Fontana will be inducted in the “Sidemen” category.

Other than Little Anthony, I’m quite happy with this year’s picks. The long suffering Stooges were nominated for a seventh time and passed over. (Black Sabbath holds the record for eight nominations before finally being inducted). I would have definitely given the Little Anthony slot to Iggy Pop and the Stooges.

If you recall when the nominees were first announced, this list of inductees matches closely my own picks.

You’ve heard it here many times, but Jeff Beck is the greatest living rock guitarist, and in the top three or four of all time. He has already been inducted once as a member of The Yardbirds, but I am so glad that his overlooked solo career is now getting some attention.

Metallica is a no-brainer and a pioneer in an entire genre of rock and roll. Run-DMC are rap godfathers, but they were also crucial in mixing rock and roll with rap, and were essential pioneers in the now common crossover between the genres. Bobby Womack is a triple threat of great soul singer, great guitarist and great songwriter. His influence on such rockers as The Rolling Stones and The Allman Brothers Band was pronounced. The Rolling Stones had some early hits covering his songs (“It’s All Over Now”, for instance.) Womack’s stunner “Across 110th Street” alone is almost justification for induction.

Little Anthony & the Imperials is the only marginal choice here. The old fogies on the nominating committee can’t let the 50’s go, even after they managed to get all of the truly important 50’s artists into the Hall already. But the fascinating politics and infighting behind the scenes in the RRHOF is for another post. Today, congratulations to this year’s inductees. It will be a fun ceremony to watch in April.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Amazing George

The story of George the lobster caught my attention this morning. Evidently, a New York seafood place had a 140 year old lobster in their tank, only days or hours away from certain steamed execution. But PETA stepped in and convinced them to release 'George' to a sanctuary where lobster trapping is forbidden. The whole story is here. What most interests me is the fact that George managed to live 140 years before getting caught. In the meantime, George has witnessed the Spanish-American War, the times before we had the automobile, the sinking of The Titanic, World War I, The Great Depression, World War II, the entire lifespan of the Soviet Union, 26 U.S. presidential administrations (he would have been born in Ulysses S. Grant's term), the dawn of the Nuclear Age, The 1960's...that's impressive. I would love to sit down with George and get his firsthand impressions of the Depression years, what he thought of the flappers and the hippies, whether he prefers the days before cell phones, computers and iPods. If he could talk. And think. And live outside of water.

ABOVE: George will live out his days in peace in a lobster sanctuary, thanks to the efforts of PETA and the pardon granted by City Crab & Seafood

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Why Ric Ocasek is a genius

Maybe it's the fact that The Cars peaked at a time in the early to mid-80's when pop music seemed to be at its most disposable. Perhaps some of it has to do with the fact that they made silly videos that aired incessantly on MTV, and the band (leader Ric Ocasek especially) looked so damn goofy. For whatever reason, The Cars are often tossed in with the flash in the pan group of 80's pop bands that are rarely taken seriously. But I am here to declare that Ric Ocasek is a genius of pop music. As sure as Beethoven proved to be the master of symphonies with his 5th and 9th, Ocasek is the master of the 3-4 minute pop single.

I’ve tried to spread the gospel of The Cars for decades, but I still get hit anew by some killer riff or great line. The whole band was outstanding, but The Cars were always Ric Ocasek’s band. He wrote all of the songs and sang many of them as well. While bassist Ben Orr would take vocal duties on some of Ocasek’s more straightforward ballads (“Drive”) or rockers, Ric always reserved his more biting and wonderfully cynical tunes for himself to sing in his idiosyncratic voice. (I dig his voice on most anything – I recently downloaded his version of Disney’s “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Da” off of some Disney tribute album that he turns into a Cars-like rocker).

A tight Cars Greatest Hits disc is about as tight as a single disc can get, but not surprisingly I’ve really enjoyed exploring the more obscure stuff as well. Songs like “Nightspots,” “Candy-O,” “Dangerous Type” and “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight.” Played in a row, those four deep cuts tackle vapid 80’s club culture beautifully. As much as I admire great lyrics, I always start with the music. Ocasek is a master writer of pop hooks and riffs. A song like “Nightspots” is phenomenal to me, as it is layered with three or four hooks that could have been untangled and used on three or four individual great songs. He can also write fantastic moody numbers, like “Heartbeat City,” “This Side of Paradise” (from one of his solo efforts), “Troublizing” (another solo gem) and especially “Dream Away” from The Cars’ Shake It Up.

The genius of Ric Ocasek is that he is able to write interesting, edgy tunes that are disguised in the most radio friendly hooks you’ve ever heard. Take the Cars hit “Since You’re Gone,” which received decent airplay on the radio and MTV. But if you listen closely, it is a rather off kilter tune, musically. Yet he fools you into grooving to it with the bait and switch of throwing in some irresistible hooks. For more blatant proof that Ric is not as mainstream as you might have remembered, just listen to most of the Cars’ Panorama album (like the title track and the killer “Gimme Some Slack.”) He accomplishes the difficult feat of writing radio friendly tunes by the dozen, yet throws in enough interesting twists to where music snobs can also safely declare their allegiance. The Cars were one of the few New Wave bands that punks could like, while they were also the cool, quirky band in the otherwise dull, average mainstream record collection.

Lately I’ve been hunting down all of Ric Ocasek’s solo efforts (several of which are hard to find and expensive to acquire). Not surprisingly they are much more experimental than The Cars heyday, yet he still manages to bring you in with those hooks.

The perks of being a rock star? Only through popular music could a dude like this…

marry a supermodel who looks like this…

Yes, that is Ric Ocasek’s wife (former 80’s supermodel Paulina Porizkova).

Tuesday, January 6, 2009