Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Prediction and Coming Attractions

I'm back. Sorry about the days of quiet once my 30 Posts in 30 Days project ended in triumph. The summer is now upon us, and you know what that means, right? Another list!! I'm working on one. I've posted a movies list, albums list and presidents list in previous summers. This summer's list will start soon.

I just got Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West on Blu-ray. Came out today. That will be glorious in Hi-Def on our huge-ass TV. Can't wait to throw that in.

ABOVE: Henry Fonda's piercing baby blues in Once Upon a Time in the West. Oh, and any excuse to post a pic of Claudia Cardinale...

Prediction for the NBA Finals as the first game kicks off tonight. The Dallas Mavericks have been a great underdog story so far, with Dirk playing the best ball of his career and a deep team behind him. This is a better team than the one he had with him in their 2006 Finals appearance (also against Miami). But this is also a better Miami team than the one that beat Dirk in 2006. Miami wins in 6. I hope I am wrong. I dislike the Mavs. But I despise the Heat, especially LeBron and Bosh. Wade is alright. Miami will dominate for several years to come, and it starts this year. I'll say it again: The Mavericks will never win a championship with A. Dirk as their #1 option and/or 2. as long as Mark Cuban is the owner.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Dez Reviews Bela Fleck & the Flecktones's Rocket Science, 2011

Back in the early and mid-1990's, some of my friends and I were avid Flecktone fans. It started with a show at a small club in Houston in the summer of 1992. It was one of those magical shows that I can still see (and hear) vividly, and one that we will never forget. Goosebump stuff. This was the original line-up of the Flecktones, featuring banjo wunderkind Bela Fleck, bass virtuoso Victor Wooten, harmonica/piano master Howard Levy and Futureman on the drumitar (basically, an overhyped electric drum kit). Futureman aside, this was a band featuring musicians without peers on their respective instruments, and they had an incredible rapport. Everything just went together right. In those days when we had few responsibilities, it was not uncommon for us to drive across state lines just to catch the closest Flecktones show. They were that good. Kyle and I even slept on the floor of the DFW airport one night in relation to a Flecktones pilgrimage. This line-up recorded three records in the 1990's (two outstanding, one mediocre), and then Levy left for undisclosed reasons. The Flecktones continued on, but something was lost. They were a trio for awhile playing with various special guests, then saxophonist Jeff Coffin joined as a permanent member for a series of mediocre albums (not Coffin's fault, but he just didn't really add all that much, honestly). The playing was still superlative, but something was missing.

Well, Howard Levy has returned (supposedly for good) to the line-up, and a new, 4th Flecktones record featuring the original members has been released. I have not been enthusiastic about Fleck and his cohorts for some time, so my expectations for this release were, shall we say, cautious optimism. My first full listen through the record did not sweep me off my feet. But after repeated listenings, I hear some definite moments of greatness. This is complex stuff that requires closer attention.

ABOVE: The new/old Flecktones. Howard, where is your goofy mustache?

First, Howard's harp is all over this record, as he takes the bulk of the solos. His skills are still intact, just check out his jawdropping solo in the opener, "Gravity Lane." This is an old school Flecktones record. Gone are the gimmicks of recent years, the world music flavorings, the experimentation for experimentation's sake. In tone, it is closest to their debut. This is, more than anything else, a jazz record. Not many funk jams or melodic songs, it is mostly jazz improvisation and bold, complex playing. Many fans listen to these guys primarily for Victor Wooten's bass playing, he has probably become the most popular member of this band in the music community, even more than Fleck himself. Wooten doesn't have any showcases here, but if you listen closely to the bass, he will stun you throughout, but it is not as in your face as it often is. (Check out his out of this world playing near the end of "Sweet Pomegranates," and you can get your Wooten fix).

ABOVE: Longtime fans will appreciate the album cover for Rocket Science. All of the Howard-era album covers feature cartoon drawings like this one, and each one references the previous records. As you can see here, if you look closely in the background, there is the jumping horse of the debut, the cosmic hippo of their sophomore effort, and the UFO TOFU sign of the third record. Also, this features the horse in the rocket that was in the background of the debut's cover. A sign of starting over, perhaps?

If I have a complaint, it is that several of these songs are hard to distinguish from each other (honestly, I feel the same about their debut record, as great as it is). They can occasionally veer into the realm of either jazz noodling (albeit of the highest order) or in a few instances, get close to mellow, smooth jazz territory ("Joyful Spring," "Storm Warning"). Oddly enough, the best songs are backloaded on the second half. The eight minute tour de force "Falani" shows why this original line-up is so good, with multiple sections, shifting tempos, parts for each member to step out and impress while playing off each other instinctively. Fleck's solo near the end is especially powerful. Howard Levy's Eastern-tinged composition "Sweet Pomegranates" is the highlight of the record, a thrilling, dizzy tune with an off kilter melody and outstanding playing from all members. The quiet "Like Water" is also wonderful. It is one of the simplest songs here, but it also has a lovely melody to it and does not veer into mere noodling. The closer "Bottle Rocket" has a funky groove, and features some of Wooten's funkiest playing of the record.

Fans of the original quartet have reason to celebrate with this return. The group is rejuvenated, has a serious focus again, and they are playing some challenging music. It has its flaws (but even their best records are not without flaws). Where does this fall within the Howard-era discography? It is definitely better than UFO TOFU, it is close to equal to Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, but does not quite match Flight of the Cosmic Hippo, which still remains their greatest studio effort. But their records, in many respects, are beside the point. Keep your eye out for a tour, because Bela Fleck & the Flecktones have become, once again, a must see live band with Howard Levy back in the fold. Welcome back, Howard.

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

Monday, May 16, 2011

Conference Finals

This has been an unpredictable NBA Playoffs so far. The #1 and #2 seeds are out by the time the Conference Finals roll around in the West? Dallas doesn't choke and the Lakers finally can't flip their legendary switch? What's going on here? Maybe the world really is ending on May 21st. My predictions on this round...

The East: Chicago Bulls vs. Miami Heat
I know I'm a little late (since one game has already been played). And I know Chicago won Game 1 convincingly. And I know Chicago has had Miami's number all season. But still. I think Miami has a lot to prove, and I think that Chicago is still a year or two away from being real champion contenders. Derek Rose has astounded, but Miami features possibly the two best players in the League (and basketball, more than any other major team sport, can turn on individual greatness). I hope I'm wrong. I do not want Lebron to ever win a title.
Dez says: Miami in 7

The West: Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Dallas Mavericks
This could be a great series. Durant and Westbrook are playing out of this world for OKC. But I think that Dallas has the depth and desire to make their last push. Like Chicago in the East, I think that the Thunder are still a season or two away from contending for the title. The question is: has Dallas finally gotten over the choke factor? For this series, yes. But they still won't win a title.
Dez says: Dallas in 7

Therefore, the Finals will be a rematch of Dallas and Miami, and Miami will dash the Metroplex's hopes once again.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Dez Reviews Move Like This by The Cars, 2011

Ever since I heard that The Cars were in the studio again after 24 years on hiatus (Ric Ocasek in 2007: "it will never happen, mark my words"), I've greatly anticipated this record. The Cars were (are?), in my view, the greatest New Wave band. From the late 70's through the mid-80's, they were all over the radio and MTV. Featuring the potent combination of impossibly catchy tunes and Ric Ocasek's oblique and cynical lyrics, they were part of the best that the 80's had to offer. Part of the soundtrack of my most impressionable musical years.

Ocasek had a new batch of tunes that he was preparing for a new solo album, and had the wisdom to admit that what he actually had was a killer set of Cars tunes. He just needed The Cars. So he contacted the other members who were only too happy to give it another shot. Four of the five original members are here, missing only bassist/vocalist Benjamin Orr, who passed away in 2000 from pancreatic cancer. But from dedicating the album to him to using one of his old bass guitars to play the bass parts on the album (handled by keyboardist Greg Hawkes), Orr's spirit was definitely present during these sessions. Ocasek also admitted in a recent interview that half of these songs would sound better with Orr's smooth vocals (on most Cars records, the vocal duties are split about 50/50 between Orr and the quirkier, jerkier Ocasek. I've always preferred Ocasek because his vocals are more idiosyncratic, but Orr had a killer rock voice, no doubt.)

The previous six Cars albums can be divided roughly into three groups. The classics (The Cars, Candy-O), the very good (Shake It Up, Heartbeat City) and the mediocre to bad (Panorama, Door To Door). This new one fits firmly in the middle category. Fortunately, it does not sound like an old band trying to recapture the past. Move Like This sounds as if it were recorded contemporaneously with their other material, yet feels alive and relevant on its own terms today. The band is tight, Ocasek's voice has not aged at all, and his writing, on the whole, is still quite sharp.

It is definitely stronger in the first half, starting with the instant Cars classic "Blue Tip," which should send any Cars fan into a frenzy of nostalgia and joy. The ballad "Soon" is quite beautiful, and while Ocasek does an admirable job singing it, you can just imagine Ben Orr's smoother voice all over this modern "Drive." "Too Late" is full of strong hooks and the rocker "Keep On Knocking" is strong as well, while single "Sad Song" (not sad or slow at all, by the way), is a direct link to their debut (think "My Best Friend's Girl," musically speaking, complete with crisp guitar lines and hand claps). "Free" also has killer hooks. From that midpoint the record sort of loses its steam and freshness, but nothing is bad. It does finish on a high note with the catchy rocker "Hits Me." (Also, if you buy it at Best Buy, their exclusive deluxe edition features some bonus Ocasek demo tracks of some very strong tunes that did not make the album proper, I would recommend them).

Move Like This is a fine addition to The Cars impressive legacy, and I certainly hope that this is a new beginning for them instead of a one-off reunion. With the exception of Ben Orr's absence, it sounds like they never left.

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

ABOVE: I know I posted this once before, but here is the video for "Blue Tip" once again

Friday, May 6, 2011

Day 30: Mission Accomplished

Thirty days ago I took up the challenge from my friend ANCIANT to revive my blog by posting 30 posts in 30 days. It has been a fantastic exercise for me, I don't know how much you have enjoyed it. It is a challenge to come up with something interesting to say each day. All that I have discussed in the last 30 days was of interest to me, I hope that at least some of it was of interest to my multitude of readers. Looking forward, I will not be posting daily, but my goal for the near future is to keep up a respectable clip of several posts per week. So please continue to stop by and read and comment. NOTE: ANCIANT, I responded to your Day 28 questions below. Sorry for the delay.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Day 29: Civil Rights leaders Penn & Teller

I found it rather irritating the other day when on Facebook, many people started throwing a purported MLK quote around, chastizing Americans for celebrating the death of mass murderer / most wanted man in history Osama Bin Laden. The quote started with this strangely appropriate line: "I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy." Sounds right on. Well, it is actually the words of civil rights leader / philosopher / Vegas magician Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller fame (the rest of the quote after that line was actually MLK). He claims it was an honest mistake. Read here. In the same spirit, I would like to quote Canadian conservative philosopher / political leader / washed up pop star Celine Dion, when she says "near, far, wherever you are / we will hunt you down and kill you."

ABOVE: Many people were inspired by the words of civil rights leader Penn Jillette after the killing of Bin Laden

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Day 28: Beyond Categorization

I'm sorry that this post is a little late. Recall awhile back I polled my loyal readers regarding which book I should read? I have gone with The Hawk and the Dove, which is fascinating so far, and The Happiest Toddler on the Block because my daughter is starting to push me to create some sort of coherent discipline regime. I continue to be interested in the exchanges amongst my Facebook universe between the hawks (happy that Osama met his maker) and the doves (throwing that same MLK quote around about never rejoicing in the death of others). Put me in the hawk category. I missed Hitler's demise, so this is the next best thing. God Save the Kinks. I have not played my PS3 in a long time. As I have been reviewing my students for the upcoming AP Exam (Friday) in U.S. History, I've been interested in how influential George Washington's Farewell Address (no foreign entanglements) was for the next 100 years or so on our foreign policy (isolationism). In fact, that is usually the only Washington question on the AP Exam. My 7th period pissed me off yesterday. They shall suffer the consequences today. I am preparing my own personal Greatest Artists list to counter Rolling Stone. Yesterday at Day Care, my daughter was battling with two other kids for the same toy. A three-way battle that set off a chain reaction of biting. She got bit by one kid, and she turned around and instead of biting back, she bit the 3rd child. The Day Care lady told me that she was acting like "a diva" yesterday. Probably not a compliment? I must read that book. I have not been to a movie theater in over a year. The new Stevie Nicks album is quite good. Review soon. I will post some good toddler photos soon too. Dammit, I think Miami might win the title. I am enjoying this season of Survivor. Outer Space is cool.

There, I have written a post using every one of my categories. But I was just informed the combined length of all labels for a single post must be 200 characters or less. So, I will list the labels here within the post: Apologies; Books; Cultural Observations; Dez Hall of Fame; Games; GNABB Cemetary; Great Speeches From American History; History; Kids These Days; Lists; Love and Marriage; Movies; Music; Photos; Politics; Polls; Space and Science; Sports; TV.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Day 27: We Got Him

I've been quite interested in all of the Osama Bin Laden coverage. First of all, that was a bad ass SEAL operation. Hats off to our military. Secondly, I know that our relationship with Pakistan has always been "complicated," but come on. Osama living in a huge house down the street from their West Point in an urban area about 50 miles from the capital? Not exactly caves in hard to reach mountainous regions, is it? There is a reason that we did not inform Pakistani officials until after the operation was already complete. If we had told them before, Osama would have been conveniently out at the movies at the time of the assault.

Also been interested in the reaction both abroad and here. I can't say that I was dancing in the street, but I did feel a deep sense of satisfaction. And I think that it was more than a merely symbolic act to finally get Bin Laden. I'm not the only one to say this today, but I liken it to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Yes, the Nazi movement existed before Hitler, and some remnants in some form existed on the fringes after his death. But the Nazi Party was so wrapped up in Hitler's own cult of personality, that it was Hitler who gave it so much strength and vitality. Bin Laden was similar. Al Quada will go on, and there are many other terrorist groups, but it will not be the same without Bin Laden in this world. He was one of those unique personalities who gave it life. And, though I don't often agree with Hillary, I like her message that this proves that it may take us some time, but we will eventually get you. No matter how long you run.

I'm also impressed with how we handled his remains. Dumping him in the ocean was smart. No place to make a shrine or pilgrimage site to galvanize his followers. It was also good that we prepared the body in the Muslim tradition.

As we discussed it in my classes today, one student asked a great question: "so what does this mean?" I think it means that in the short run we are more at risk due to angry reprisals. But in the long run, we are better off and have struck a blow to world terrorism. Like it or not, he was a galvanizing and unique individual. He cannot be replaced, and as long as he roamed this earth, he was a powerful symbol of evil and hatred. Glad we shot the bastard through the eye socket.

Someone got ahold of an MLK quote on Facebook and I've seen it about four times now. The gist is that I will not rejoice in another's death, even if it is an enemy. Hate begets hate, etc. Nice sentiment. But I think we can rejoice in the sense that justice long denied has finally been satisfied.

I recall when Gandhi (MLK's inspiration and philosophical forefather, along with Thoreau) was questioned about how we ought to react to Hitler. Still use nonviolence? He did not have an adequate response. Nonviolence worked in India against the British and worked here in the 1960's civil rights movement partly because it was used against rational people who were capable of being shamed. Osama Bin Laden and his followers are on an entirely different plane of thinking (as was Hitler). Shame does not work because you are not even working within the same set of definitions of words. We could have made Osama happy and have him stop his violence against us if we had done everything he wanted and withdrawn completely from the Middle East. Can't do that. Hitler would have not had a problem with other powers, if we had simply agreed to hand him all of continental Europe on a platter. Not going to happen. You cannot have a reasonable negotiation with Osama or Hitler. Not simply because they are evil. But because their mindset is not on the same level as the rest of the world. It would be like trying to talk in two languages but leaving the translators at home.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Day 26: Next Round Predictions

I know I've had a lot of NBA posts lately, but this is probably the last one during the 30 Posts in 30 Days. How did I do in the first round? I got 6 of the 8 winners correct, and two of the series I predicted the exact number of games. Nobody would have predicted the Spurs loss before that series got started. But it was clear which way that series was going after Game 1. Anyway, onward to the Second Round...


Chicago Bulls vs. Atlanta Hawks

This could be a tough series for Chicago, as Indiana gave them more trouble than expected in the first round. Maybe they are over their playoff jitters by now? Top seed expectations a little tough to deal with perhaps?

Dez Says: Hawks will make it interesting, but Bulls in 6.

Boston Celtics vs. Miami Heat

This is the series to watch. These teams do not like each other. I still recall the greatest tweet in the history of tweets, after Boston's regular season victory in Miami, from Paul Pierce: "I enjoyed bringing my talents to South Beach, now it's on to Memphis." Yes! It is Miami's raw talent vs. Boston's grit and experience (not that Wade and LeBron are newbies to this).
Dez Says: Perhaps there is also some hope in this prediction, but Boston in 7.


Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Memphis Grizzlies

Memphis showed incredible drive and poise in knocking off the #1 seed Spurs in Round 1 (only the fourth time that has happened in NBA history). But I have to say that OKC is a possible juggernaut in these playoffs. Two genuine stars in Durant and Westbrook, fiercesome presence down low with Perkins and Ibaka, and some great role players. Memphis will give a good fight, but OKC does not have the Spurs weakness up front.
Dez Says: OKC in 6

L.A. Lakers vs. Dallas Mavericks

This is about the time that the Lakers wake up, stretch, roll out of bed, have breakfast and start to take the playoffs seriously. In past years, they have been able to flip that switch at will. Will they this year? Will the Mavs continue to choke in the playoffs? My answer to both questions is yes. While the Mavs could push it to 7...
Dez Says: Lakers in 6

Day 25: Reason #43 that I Hate the Heat

Usually you win the championhsip first, then throw the party. Or as Stan Van Gundy said, "they were celebrating their championship before they had their first practice."