Sunday, September 27, 2009

Dez Reviews Keep an Eye on the Sky box set by Big Star

Rhino Records has turned the remastering, repackaging and anthologizing of great bands into a science. But most of the well known bands have already gotten the Rhino treatment, even if it was by their own record companies. So Rhino and other likeminded companies have had to move on to more obscure music. And thank God for that. Rhino has decided to give the royal treatment to Big Star, the best band you probably have never heard of. (Thanks also to my friend Quinn Bishop over at Cactus Records in Houston who was instrumental in pushing Rhino to turn their attention to Big Star).

Big Star is the classic story of what could have been, of dashed hopes and amazing talent that was squandered by an indifferent record company and band squabbling. Big Star was/is a band that was formed in Memphis back in the early 70's by former Box Tops teen star Alex Chilton and studio hound Chris Bell. Coming out of Memphis at the time you might expect some deep, Stax-influenced soul grooves, but these guys were much more influenced by 60's British Invasion bands and The Byrds. Optimistically (and ironically, as it turned out) naming their debut record #1 Record, they rightfully expected it to break them into the big time. Everything on that record worked: thrilling power pop songwriting, shimmering vocal harmonies, riffs galore, catchy songs, eclectic and interesting songwriting, hard rockers and gorgeous folk numbers. Except that the record was recorded at Ardent Studios and then leased out to Stax, who did not know how to promote the record properly. Stax then sold its catalogue to Columbia around this time, and Columbia had no interest in selling records owned by Stax but put out by indie studios like Ardent. The upshot: even though radio started to play Big Star's music and fans were interested, record buyers literally could not find the record anywhere to buy.

Bell, already a fragile soul, quit the band and Chilton and bassist Andy Hummell and drummer Jody Stephens soldiered on as a trio. Their second record was as great as their first and had a harder edge to it. But Radio City suffered the same fate as its predecessor. By now Chilton was starting to exhibit his excentric (and some would consider career sabotaging) ways. Hummell left, and Chilton and Stephens went into the studio to record a third record. Chilton was on the edge at this point and so disgusted with Big Star's lack of success, he threw all caution to the wind and made a purposefully uncommercial record. Columbia brass felt that it was unreleasable, so it gathered dust in the vaults for several years. It was finally released as 3rd/Sister Lovers and is now as revered as the first two pop masterpieces. Bell was killed in a car accident in the late 70's, and Chilton forged ahead with a strange, underground solo career. Chilton and Stephens reformed in the 90's with Posies frontmen Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, and the new Big Star continues to tour and even released a record in 2005, the well received In Space.

Above: One of Big Star's biggest non-hits, "September Gurls" from Radio City

Big Star's cult reputation has grown to worshipful proportions. Bands like REM swear by Big Star, and the list of well known musicians who claim to be influenced by them is a mile long. They are pioneers of the power pop sound, and their echoes can be heard loudly in today's catchiest rock music.

So, now on to the box. This set is perfect, covering the prime Big Star period of the 1970's (no 90's or 2000's Big Star is here). All three classic records are presented in their entirety, beautifully remastered and remixed. But the rarities are mostly top notch as well. Great alternate versions, gorgeous acoustic demos of some of their best songs that could stand alone as finished recordings, some early historical (and good) pre-Big Star recordings from Chilton and Bell bands like Icewater, Radio City, etc. Some previously unreleased tunes that could have stood side by side with their released material, as well as post-Big Star sublimely great Chris Bell singles where Chilton backs him up. And an entire 1973 live show that is ragged and fantastic. This is a one stop place for all of the prime era Big Star.

ABOVE: Here is the lovely "Thirteen" from #1 Record ("Tell him what we said about 'Paint It Black'"...what an awesome line)

***** out of *****

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Qadaffi's Back! (2 nights added)

In the past decade or so, we have faced some truly scary "evil-doers" who have sought to do us real harm. Bin Laden. Saddam Hussein. But what about one of the true classics? Today Muammar Qadaffi burst back on the scene by addressing the ever relevant United Nations for almost two hours.

During his tirade, he did the following:

* Demanded that the investigation of JFK's murder be reopened, because it was probably the Jews;
* Tore up a copy of the UN charter;
* Demanded that the UN headquarters be moved from New York because it causes him severe jetlag to travel so far from Libya; and
* Claimed that the veto power of the Security Council is "terrorism like the terrorism of al-Qaida"

Of Obama, Qadaffi gushed: "Now the black man doesn't have to sit in the back of the bus. The American people made him president and we are proud of that. We would be happy if Obama stayed president forever." I bet they would. Now that is publicity the White House can't buy.

ABOVE: Qadaffi takes a quick drink during his almost two hour speech at the UN. Note the dude behind him.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Rating the Recent Rudeness

Much has been made this week about the coarseness of our society's manners, as represented by three publicized displays of rudeness. I will rate each breach, with * being "not that bad" to ***** being "reprehensible and unforgiveable."

Serena Williams at the U.S. Open

This is only *** at worst. It was the heat of competition and she was frustrated. Plus, there is a long tradition in tennis of blowing up at the officials and line judges. See McEnroe, Connors.

Rep. Joe Wilson during Obama's 1,567th speech about health care

I'd rate this a ****. While it is a long tradition in some countries such as Great Britain to have shouting matches in their legislature while the Prime Minister is speaking (or even fist fights if you are talking about South Korea's parliament), we don't really do that here. Plus, the President of the United States is a symbol of our nation as a whole in addition to serving as the chief of state who should be accorded a certain respect, regardless of political party. Since we don't have a King or Queen, the office of the president is the closest thing we've got. It is not in our tradition to have outbursts like that when the president is addressing a joint session of Congress. Now, the Dems did boo George W. Bush a few years back, which was also a **** on the scale of inappropriate behavior. Let's be fair. But it was quite rude of Wilson and not a good precedent to set. We are still a far cry from the Civil War days when one southern senator beat a northern senator to a pulp with a cane on the Senate floor, or when Alexander Hamilton was killed in a duel by Vice-President Aron Burr. But still, we don't really want to go back to those days, do we? Although, Wilson has recieved over $1 million in campaign contributions since his outburst.

ABOVE: Sen. Brooks beats the crap out of Sen. Sumner on the floor of the Senate right before the Civil War

Kanye West highjacking the mike from Taylor Swift to say that Beyonce should have won the award instead of Swift

I give this ****. Assuming that this was not a pre-planned stunt on the part of MTV to garner buzz for their anemic video awards show, this was pretty damn rude. Even President Obama called Kanye a "jackass." Now, when the president of the United States refers to you as a "jackass," you have probably done something pretty stupid. Even worse than the actual act has been Kanye's inevitable "I'm sorry" tour on the talk show circuit. I did enjoy Jay Leno asking Kanye whether his deceased mother would be ashamed of him, though. That was good.

Dez Reviews: The Beatles Rock Band video game

As a true convert to the Rock Band / Guitar Hero genre of video games, I looked to the release of The Beatles Rock Band game with much anticipation. I know I've discussed them before, but as a real musician, I initially scoffed at this line of games. Until I played them. Completely addictive, lots of fun with family and friends. And at least as far as the drums and vocal parts go, they can actually approximate the real deal. (The bass and guitar parts don't really help with your musical skills, other than perhaps with certain rhythms).

Anyway, The Beatles Rock Band takes the familiar Rock Band / Guitar Hero formula and makes it all Beatles. The remastered Beatles music is given the Rock Band treatment.

As a Game

It mostly follows the Rock Band format of guitar, bass, drum and vocal capabilities with Novice, Medium, Hard and Expert levels to choose from for each. Between 1-6 people can play at the same time, so there is great versatility with numbers and friends won't feel left out. Also, each player sets their own level, so I could play Expert bass while a friend who has never played before could play with me on "Tomorrow Never Knows" as a Novice drummer. You can just Quickplay certain songs if you want, or you can challenge yourself through the Story option (the same as the Tour option on the previous games), where you have to work your way through The Beatles' career. This is extremely well done. You work your way through various historical gigs/locations through the Beatles story, starting at the Cavern Club in Liverpool and finishing on the rooftop of Apple Studios for their last performance together in front of an audience. The songs you are required to play are also chronological, which makes sense. You start on the easier tunes like "Twist and Shout" and "I Saw Her Standing There" and wrap up with "Come Together" and "Get Back."

Generally speaking, this is a little easier than the traditional Rock Band. While some tunes are definitely challenging (I did fail out a couple of times), the hardest songs here are not nearly as difficult as the hardest tunes available on regular Rock Band. For instance, my wife being out of town this weekend, I played the game most of the day yesterday solo and already won the entire Story feature within about 4 hours. I hopped around from vocals to bass to guitar to drums just for variety, and was able to get through on either Hard or Expert levels on any instrument with little difficulty (granted I have put in more time than I would like to admit perfecting my general Rock Band skills). On the regular Rock Band game, getting through the Tour option (which I have done as well) took a lot more time and effort.

One other complaint is that the game only comes with about 40 songs. But as they do with Rock Band, they plan on having more Beatles songs available for download in the coming months. My understanding is that in each of the coming months, they will have an entire Beatles album available for download for Beatles Rock Band. I think the rest of Abbey Road (the tunes not already available with the game) is on tap for October. Whatever. I'll pay. It will be fun to be able to play the albums from start to finish. (One of the most fun times I have had with regular Rock Band was in Houston months ago playing with my buddies Jim, Louie, Bryan and Kyle as we worked our way through The Cars' debut album in its entirety).

One funny change they made: yes, you can fail out. But unlike on the other Rock Band games, the crowd does not boo you off the stage when you fail out. You just fail out. Hey, you don't boo the freakin' Beatles!

The only real addition to the game format is the ability to sing harmony vocals. Instead of just one vocalist, the game allows you to have up to three vocalists who dare to re-create the harmonies of Lennon, McCartney and Harrison.

Last night I played a Let It Be-era set trying to play bass while also singing with a mike stand. That is challenging. I was able to stay alive playing Medium level bass and singing Hard level vocals. Pretty impressive, if I do say so myself. Lots of fun too.

For Beatles Fans

Now, for Beatles fans this is a wonderful goldmine. First, it looks beautiful. With thoughtful and thrilling era-appropriate backgrounds (from Hamburg to psychedelia) and cartoons throughout the game, it is a visual masterpiece. They unearthed rare studio chatter from throughout the band's career, and so as you are waiting for each song to load up to play, you get to hear all of this chatter that is related to the song you are about to play. Nice. As prizes for advancing in the Story game and for scoring high points on songs, you unlock rare photos and even video clips to view. The video clips are awesome. So far I've unlocked a rehearsal take of "I Want To Hold Your Hand" when preparing to perform on Ed Sullivan, some fun goofing on a train while on their first American tour and a rare, fan-club only Christmas record. Great stuff.

Also, if you want to pay for the deluxe set, you can get reproduction instruments to use (my favorite has to be the McCartney Hofner bass). You don't have to buy the instruments since the game works fine with the regular Rock Band instruments (and likewise, the special Beatles instruments will work on other Rock Band / Guitar Hero titles), but the true fan needs the Beatles instruments.

Gameplay: *** out of ***** (when compared to other Rock Band titles available)
As a Beatles tribute: **** out of *****

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

RIP Patrick Swayze, 1952-2009

By all accounts, Patrick Swayze was a great guy. While he won't be remembered as his generation's Olivier, he did carve out a substantial place in the popular culture with a surprisingly eclectic filmography. Mention some of his early films such as Red Dawn or Roadhouse and you can't help but smile. Dirty Dancing would have been a forgotten B-movie of the 80's but for Swayze's rare combination of masculinity, grace and charisma (he was the son of a famous choreographer). And in Ghost he and Demi Moore made pottery clay sexy. He also was willing to poke fun at his own image with his classic Saturday Night Live Chippendales audition skit, playing the straight man alongside Chris Farley.

While he evidently thought it was serious, Swayze provided laughs that rivaled Eddie Murphy's "Party All the Time" when Swayze made his own attempt at pop music stardom with the 80's power ballad "She's Like the Wind." To be fair, he did have a decent voice. My Dad was telling me last night that years ago, he and my Mom stopped to eat at some restaurant outside of Austin, and Swayze was there with some friends and family. Swayze entertained the restaurant guests by singing and playing the piano.

All of this is great and all, but for me his real legacy will be Point Break. Those of you who read my Top 50 Movies list might remember my fondness for this cult classic from 1991.

ABOVE: I couldn't find a great scene featuring Swayze on YouTube from Point Break, but someone had put together this set of skydiving and surfing clips from the film and set it to some nice ambient music. Swayze did all of his own skydiving and surfing stunts in Point Break, so it is a nice tribute of sorts.

And now, "She's Like the Wind"...

RIP Patrick Swayze

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Dez Reviews The Beatles Remasters

NOTE: This review is for the stereo remasters only, not the mono remasters.

So, is it worth it? That is, assuming you already own all or most of the Beatles on CD, is it worth it to buy these highly publicized remasters? Should you give Paul, Ringo, Yoko and George's family another $150? Answer: probably yes.

The remastering racket is tailor-made for music fanatics such as me. Often it is very difficult to tell the difference between an original release and the new and improved remaster. Remastering means going back to the original tapes and cleaning them up with modern technology so the result is much more detailed and usually brighter. Some bands continue to fill their pockets by issuing new Very Special Ultimate Deluxe Editions of their old albums every couple of years so people like me will rebuy what we already own. They will often also tack on a couple of Bonus Tracks to seal the deal. The Who are especially good at this recycling of material. Live at Leeds has been reissued in at least four different versions, each time adding more tracks from the show. I've bought every one of them.

The Beatles have been fairly restrained in allowing their original albums to be tampered with in new formats. They are still unavailable on iTunes for download. They were relatively late to the CD format, and since the initial release of the Beatles records on disc in the late 80's, they haven't really been touched since (the Anthology series, Love, 1, Let It Be...Naked are all beside the point, I'm talking about the original Beatles records). This is an eternity ago in sonic technology.

So finally, their 13 British studio albums (plus non-album singles/b-side collection Past Masters) have been meticulously remastered. The packaging is fantastic. Great vintage reproductions of the look of the original LPs, new liner notes about each record. No bonus tracks. Each disc has a DVD documentary on the making of the album.

But how do they sound? Pretty freaking awesome. The remastering difference is immediately noticable. Everything is improved. The quieter acoustic songs that once sounded a bit muddy on the early generation CDs now sound crisp and bright (tunes from "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away" to "Julia" sound like new songs). Their sonic experiments can now be fully appreciated. I was listening to Lennon's confection "Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" this morning, and you can hear whole new sounds in the song that had been previously buried in the mix. The vocal harmonies shimmer even brighter on these discs. The horns on certain songs now pop ("Got To Get You Into My Life"), George Martin's delicate orchestration on so many of their numbers now sounds full and three dimensional where they once sounded flat. In short, these discs will open up the Beatles' music to your ears and take it to a new level.

The person who most benefits from these remasters is Paul McCartney. With the separation and focusing of each instrument in these remasters, Macca's bass just jumps out of these songs. He is so melodic, funky, subtle, virtuoso...whatever he needs to be for a particular tune. As I've been listening to these discs this weekend, I continually find myself focusing on McCartney's bass work. But then Lennon was always the spirit and revolutionary while McCartney was always "just" the consumate craftsman. Isn't that the party line? That's for a different discussion, I guess.

Typical Dez. I own all of the original Beatles discs, so I was hesitant to rebuy these. But I had to have a little taste. Just a taste. So I went out and just got Revolver, my favorite one. Wow. Hmm. I wonder how Sgt. Pepper sounds? I'll just go pick that one up too. Wait. What about The White Album? You can guess what happened. I finally said "screw it, I need 'em all" and to my wife's consternation, by the end of the weekend I had them all.

Bottom line: If you love rock and roll then you love The Beatles. If you are more than a casual fan, then you will want these remasters.

Please Please Me: **** out of *****
With The Beatles: ***
A Hard Day's Night: *****
Beatles For Sale: ****
Help!: ****
Rubber Soul: ****
Revolver: *****
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band: *****
Yellow Submarine: **1/2
Magical Mystery Tour: ****
The Beatles ('The White Album'): *****
Abbey Road: *****
Let It Be: ****
Past Masters, vol. 1 & 2: ****

Remastering job on all of them: *****

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Thursday, September 3, 2009

And Now Children, a Message From Your Leader

I've been somewhat amused by the strong feelings on both sides of this issue of Obama's planned broadcast to America's children next week. In case you haven't heard, Obama wants to speak to the kids of the country and has asked schools to broadcast the message during the school day. The White House has even provided some lessons and activities to go along with the speech.

Fears from the Right are that he will slip in subtle or not so subtle policy or political messages into the speech ("tell Mommy and Daddy to support universal health care!") The White House assures us that the contents of the speech are all about staying in school, working hard, etc. We won't really know until we hear it.

In the school district where I teach, we were told earlier this week that we needed to broadcast the speech to our students. I didn't like that. I'm not sure what it would accomplish to have all of the kids in the district stop what they were doing for a broadcast from The Leader. Seemed a little, I don't know, kinda Stalinish. But, for protection and as a counter measure, I do have a Ronald Reagan poster up in the back of my classroom.

Then today we get a flurry of e-mails instructing us that we are NOT to broadcast the The Leader's Address to the students after all. Apparently enough parents complained to cause the district to change its mind. As a listener of talk radio to and from work, I know where the impetus came from. Talk show hosts from Rush Limbaugh to Mike Gallagher have all been encouraging their listeners to complain to the schools and even keep their children home on that day if necessary. So we have another Right Wing talk radio-inspired uprising where the drones do Rush's bidding. This also bothered me. Yesterday I was bothered that I was being forced to broadcast The Leader's Address, and today I am bothered by the fact that the district caved within a day and now will not allow us to broadcast it. Again, it really depends on the contents of the speech. If he slips in something to the effect of "tell Mommy and Daddy that they need to behave at town hall meetings..." then it is objectionable. But if it really is a "stay in school" deal, then it can't hurt and the protest is just more knee jerk reaction in a polarized body politic.

I doubt it would inspire any potential drop-outs to change their mind, though. So either way the speech is a waste of time. But I get uncomfortable being told that I have to broadcast His speech. I am equally uncomfortable being told that I am not allowed to.