Sunday, January 29, 2012

Dez Reviews "It Might Get Loud," 2008

I had been wanting to see Davis Guggenheim's 2008 documentary "It Might Get Loud" since it came out, but I finally got around to seeing it last night. The premise is fantastic: gather three electric guitar legends, each from a different generation, and sit them down so they can talk guitars, roots, influences, innovations, perspectives. The three legends here make for an intriguing trio: Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin, Edge from U2 and Jack White from White Stripes and The Raconteurs. There is no questioning the chops or resume of each of these gentlemen of the six string.

There are lengthy separate segments following the careers and styles and perspectives of each of them. And they are different enough, both stylistically and in their backgrounds, to make the contrasts interesting. Page grew up in England and became an uber-session man (I didn't know he played on the "Goldfinger" soundtrack!) before joining The Yardbirds and forming Led Zeppelin (really, from the ashes of the Yardbirds). Edge grew up in working class Dublin, and created his groundbreaking, effects-laden sound in part due to initial limitations in skill of all members of U2 (as he said, "when we started out, none of us could really play"). He had to create a new way of playing, in contrast to the session-man professionalism of Page. Speaking of limitations, Jack White seems to thrive on imposing them on himself. While he is the youngest of the three, he is also the most rooted in the past, especially blues music. While still innovative, he chooses to innovate by stripping away technology and struggling through those limitations.

ABOVE: A great scene where Page puts on a favorite record and plays air guitar. It is cool to know that even Jimmy Page can get excited about listening to music.

To me, one of the most interesting points of conflict should be between Edge and White. They could not be more different in their approaches and views, which is set up wonderfully. Edge with his massive effects cabinet and gear (he is always with his guitar tech, trying to work out new effects and sounds), makes the point that the progress had already been made through playing, he was not interested in playing 10 minute guitar solos, he wanted to take the sounds themselves in new directions and re-create the sonic landscape. White, in contrast, is shown making guitars out of driftwood and coke bottles, purposefully playing out of tune department store bought instruments, and wringing out naked, raw emotions uninhibited and undisguised by technology. Both are valid perspectives, and both are persuasively made by White and Edge.

So, I was ready for a clash. Some tension. I was waiting for the scene, once they got to the sit-down/jam session, for Edge to wheel out his effects cabinet and for White to go off on him, and then they could have a spirited debate over their approaches. Never happened. The sit-down was so cordial and deferential, there were few sparks. Where there should have been real tension between the Edge and White's viewpoints, instead there was an acoustic, campfire singalong of "The Weight." I did enjoy the scenes where each of them show the others how to play one of their classics. Kind of a guitar lesson by and for guitar legends.

ABOVE: Jack White rather self consciously makes a guitar from driftwood and a coke bottle

Also, each time the film started to really pull me into an issue, like Edge's effects, or Page talking about recording the fourth Zeppelin record, the film would then jump over to something else. I kind of wanted more on many of the topics they touched on. And I definitely wanted more of the three of them talking and playing. Most of the film followed the three separately, which was interesting, but I enjoyed it the most when they were together, asking each other questions, showing each other songs, etc.

Two of my favorite moments came when they were together. First was when Edge was showing the other two how to play "I Will Follow." Page, the only really professionally trained musician of the three, starts, albeit politely, questioning Edge on whether he really wants to go from a certain chord to another. As if this were a new song they were working through as opposed to one of U2's most beloved hits from three decades ago. I think that decision has already been made, Jimmy.

The other was purely visual. It was when Page was showing the others how to play the riff for "Whole Lotta Love." Generally, when one would demonstrate to the others a song, they were concentrating and working on learning it. But here, Edge and White's eyes get big, they stop playing their own guitars, and just stare. Edge has the same expression on his face that I would if Jimmy Page were suddenly standing in front of me showing me how to play Zeppelin songs. I mean, even Edge and Jack White have to be thinking "holy sh*t, this is Jimmy freakin' Page and he's playing "Whole Lotta Love" right in front of me." It was the only star-struck moment of the film, but I loved it.

ABOVE: Edge gives away some of his secrets

It was a good film, quite entertaining. But I also left thinking it was a lost opportunity to really explore different philosophies on how rock music should be approached. They are touched on separately, but I wanted more direct discussion and tension between the perspectives. Perhaps there was just not that much chemistry amongst the three involved.

*** out of *****

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Dez Reviews The Mermen's In God We Trust, 2010

It's kind of like a new release, since I just found out that it had been released. I've been preaching the Gospel of The Mermen for over a decade now. This remarkable instrumental trio from San Francisco has offered up their moody blend of neo-psychedelic noir surf music since the late 1980's. Equal parts Ennio Morricone, Dick Dale, Jimi Hendrix and Neil Young (of Arc/Weld period), The Mermen take all of these elements and create a cinematic soundscape. A friend of mine once commented that their music is so vivid and lyrical, that it sounds like little movies.

In God We Trust is the long awaited follow-up to their 2000 masterpiece The Amazing California Health and Happiness Road Show. And while it does not match the greatness of The Amazing California... (few records do, that one appeared on my All-Time Dez Greats list a few years back), it still reaches admirable peaks on its own terms.

Songswriter/guitarist/head-Merman Jim Thomas clearly wants to continue mining the the longform epic structure, as the first four tracks here clock in at over 10 minutes each. IGWT opens with the almost 14 minute multipart "One Hundred Foot Lemon," which is a longtime fan favorite that is released officially here for the first time. While it is good, the record really grabs you with the second track, the lilting and lyrical "Trapeze," which sounds like a beautiful Explosions in the Sky song, but with more direction. It then moves into the driving and pulsating "More Wood Less Head," where Thomas fully indulges his experiments with a full range of effects on his guitar. Things do lose some steam with the impressionistic "There Is a Door, It Opens, Then It Is Closed," though.

From there they deliver shorter, more traditionally-structured songs. It's a mixed bag. Noise experiment "Righteous Punishment" and "Costo Knowone" don't really go anywhere, but "Jesus in the Sky" may be the most beautiful song of the record, "Apo Calypso" is the hardest rocker and most accessible thing here and closer "Last Forever (Current Sea)" is a moving, melodic tune that sounds like a piece of film music waiting to be used.

I would recommend getting the version with the bonus tracks, because the live 17-minute bonus cut "Drivin' the Cow" is a tour de force jam that has surf energy, but Allman Brothers level groove.

If you are new to The Mermen, definitely start with The Amazing California Health and Happiness Road Show, but after that you can move on to this one (or, if you are a bit more daring, the now hard to find A Glorious Lethal Euphoria is an experimental stunner as well, where Thomas masters feedback to glorious effect).

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

Saturday, January 21, 2012

RIP Maurice, 1998-2012

Nobody really liked Maurice. He was hard to like. He probably had some sort of psychological illness. Perhaps he was just a moody cat. But he was the best pet that I ever had. Because he wasn't a whore with his affections like so many dogs are. Sure, my dog loves me and shows me affection, but he would also curl up in the lap of Charles Manson if Manson pet him or gave him a treat. Maurice would have scratched the sh*t out of Charles Manson. Or the returned Jesus Christ. Pretty much anyone on this planet but me. (And even me every once in awhile, but not too much). He was not friendly to anyone else, but he saved his love and affection for me. He loved to play when he was younger, but mainly he was happiest curled up in my lap or next to me (always close enough where his back or paw was touching me) and just relaxing. In front of the TV, while I was reading or working, he just liked to be with me. And I loved being with him, in part because he was so loving towards me, but even more so perhaps because he was not loving with anyone else.

I picked him up at the animal shelter here in San Antonio in 1998. He was a cute little furball of an animal. A tiny little kitten who had been found abandoned somewhere. Perhaps that was his issue, he was separated from his mother way too young. I already had in mind that I wanted a gray tabby cat. And he was it. A little furrier than I originally had in mind, but close enough. I should have known he was a fiery personality early on, due to the fit he threw when I got him home and gave him a bath. He was no larger than my hand, but he was putting up a fierce resistence.

ABOVE: Maurice as a kitten, climbing on my mountains of CDs

All his life he refused to wear a collar. I tried to make him wear one once. I had it on pretty tight so he couldn't remove it. Later in the day I saw him without it on. What the hell? I eventually found it hanging from the faucet in the bathtub. I surmised that he figured out how to hook part of the collar on the faucet and then somehow pulled his head out of it. There it was, hanging from the faucet, still in a loop, as if to say "f*ck you, I'm not wearing that." Fine, I never tried it again.

I counted up how many places Maurice lived with me over the years, and it was eight. From apartment to apartment, from San Antonio to Austin to Houston and back to SA again, he always came along with me. Most cats are notorious for not liking for their environment to change, but I think he kind of enjoyed it whenever we got a new place. The pattern was always the same. He would first hide for a few days, just to make sure the SS weren't going to burst through the door or something. Eventually he would get comfortable, and then he would spend days running around, exploring every corner, searching out safe and secure spots to take a snooze. This might be presumptuous of me, but his home was less his geographic location than it was wherever I was.

He went to law school with me, went through a trying time when I was close to vagrancy and out of work in Houston. He was with me over several career changes, an engagement and its disintegration, another engagement and eventual marriage, the arrival of my daughter. He has been there at every point and milestone in my life for the past 14 years. But it is less the milestones with him that stay with me. What I really treasure and love are those lazy days that were not milestones. Like the period when I was single and living in Houston and decided to watch a film from Netflix every night for a period of several months. After work, almost every night (unless I had a poker game with some friends), I would come home, grab some dinner and relax on the couch with Maurice and we would watch everything from Metropolis to Monty Python. I can still feel him leaning against me on the couch with that steady, deep, content purr.

He developed diabetes about two years ago, so I have been giving him daily shots of insulin since then. I remember when I first started, I was wondering how the hell I was going to get him to sit still for a shot every day. But he never even noticed it (I would deliver his food, and as he was eating I'd come up behind him and give him the shot in the back of the neck). About three weeks ago he stopped eating regularly and started to lose weight. My vet told me the end was near and I could bring him in to put him down any time I was ready. He seemed to rebound the last week and a half though, and I am glad that I waited. Knowing he was getting weaker, I spent a lot of time with him each evening for the past week or two. I'd bring a book or some papers to grade out where he was and we'd hang for sometimes hours. He was weak and tired, but not in pain. He would curl up in my lap in a tight ball and fall asleep and I would pet him and read or grade papers (I even brought the laptop out and watched a couple of movies with him, just like the old days). That was good. I felt like I was able to say my proper goodbyes this last week or so.

Still, last night was tough. Yesterday morning he seemed OK, but when I went out last night check on him and hang out I knew immediately he was dying. I took him to the 24-hour vet down the street, and they were so great. The vet let me stay in the room with him for over an hour before she did what had to be done. She talked through what was happening to him and gave me all the time I needed. I was in the room when they knocked him unconscious (he was almost there anyway), so appropriately the last thing he knew (if he was even aware at that point, he was completely immobile) was me stroking his head around the temples and behind the ears, which was always his favorite.

Anyway, I hope this is a proper tribute to my friend. RIP Maurice.

ABOVE: I always liked this one. He is being stealthy and thinks I can't see him as he is hiding at the top of the stairs.

ABOVE: I think this was on his first or second day home with me from the shelter in 1998

Friday, January 20, 2012

Dez Recommends Fairport Convention's Liege & Lief, 1969

It is a rare record that can successfully fuse seemingly disparate styles of music together into something new and exciting, while giving equal justice to the original styles. Britain's most revered folk-rock band Fairport Convention's 4th record, Liege & Lief, does just that. Not well known stateside, Fairport Convention is much beloved in the UK. Don't just take my word for it. The record tops several British music polls as one of the best folk-rock records ever made. After listening to it quite a bit of late, I'd have to agree. For what it tries to accomplish, it could not have been done any better.

What works so well is that it really is an equal balance between traditional British folk and electric rock and roll. The song choices (six daring rearrangements of traditional folk songs and two originals that fit right in) hit just the right notes. This is also the most celebrated line-up of the long living Fairport Convention, featuring the guitar/songwriting deity (amongst music critics) Richard Thompson and the angelic vocals of Sandy Denny. While Thompson's guitar playing is stellar (especially on the longer workouts "Matty Groves" and "Tam Lin") alongside fellow soloist, Dave Swarbrick on violin, it is the stunning Sandy Denny that steals the show. Her hauntting vocals inhabit these folk songs completely, drawing out all of the magic, mystery and foreboding that they possess. (Her vocals mesh especially well with Thompson's moody guitar work on the dirge-like "Reynardine").

It is so rare at this stage of life as a music fan to come across a perfect record that can move me so, but I have. I am a fan of cohesive records that stand together as a whole, even more so in this day and age of digital music where individual songs are once again the focus, like the 1950's, over the album format. This is a record that is perfect from start to finish, there is not a single misstep, not a single wrong decision here. And ANCIANT, this rating is the real deal. No need to use your usual Dez handicap for my ratings!

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

ABOVE: The rollicking opener "Come All Ye" is great. I could have picked any tune on the record, though, they are all fantastic.

ABOVE: "Crazy Man Michael" features the late, great Sandy Denny's gorgeous vocals.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Listening Back

For Christmas I bought myself a new turntable system. The turntable and sound is only so-so, the real selling point is that it can burn LPs, 45s, 78s and casettes to CDs, converting them to digital formats. I finally set it up this weekend and it has been so great. I forgot that I had so much valuable (to me) material in these other formats that are not available elsewhere. Here is what I listened to/converted this weekend:

1. I have a set of boogie/jazz 78's that my father had when he was a kid in the 1940's. These were for him what my favorite records in the 80's were to me growing up.

2. There was a period in the mid to late 90's when I wrote quite a few songs. Many of them were working with my musical partner Dave, and others were either alone or working with other friends. In the mid-90's I bought a 4-track tape recording system so I could preserve my masterworks. I still look back on those days fondly, it was a time of fewer responsibilities, when I could hole up for days and nights at a time and do music 24 hours in a stretch. I pulled out all of those tapes and put them on disc today. What a trip back. ASWOBA, I've got you on vocals on a couple of tracks. Remember "Exchanges" and "When To Lose"? There are some songs there that I don't even remember, and some of them are pretty damn good! Dave and I were playing recently and were frustrated because we couldn't even remember some of our own arrangements. Now I've got them and we can figure it all out.

3. When growing up in Houston, some friends and I backed up a band called The Really Brothers in the summers. A couple of great guys who took some teenage musicians under their wing and let them play some laidback country every Sunday at their performances. I found their demo tape this weekend. I must have played those country tunes about 500 times. Larry is still one of my favorite guitarists.

4. While in college, I was able to host a blues show for a couple of hours every Thursday night on our college radio station that broadcasts in San Antonio. Fortunately, I taped a handful of my shows at the time. I transferred three of my favorites this weekend to CD. One in particular that really grabbed me was one that I co-hosted with an old friend, Brian. We have been estranged for many years for some complicated reasons, but listening to that tape last night reminded me how much fun we used to have. Listening to our Mardi Gras special that we did in February of '97, we had a great rapport on air and the show is a blast to listen to. I miss Brian.

5. FINALLY, I can have the holy grail of concerts for me on disc/iPod. I've told this story before, but my first concert was Dire Straits in Houston on their Brothers in Arms tour. That show was broadcast nationally on radio, and it has become a collector's item, acknowledged as one of their best available bootlegs. My brother in 1985 taped it off the radio, not knowing I was at the show. Later he gave me the casettes, and I have guarded them like I had the original Magna Carta for close to three decades. Now, at long last, I can listen to my first concert on my iPod. It still is such a kick ass show.

6. Then there's the stack of LPs, 45s and tapes that are not available on disc or iTunes that I am joyfully slogging through. From The Firm's second record (the long out of print and not very good Mean Business), to a stack of Bruce Springsteen mid-80's dance mixes, which he has wisely kept out of print, to Dire Straits's fun EP Twisting By the Pool (which they never released on CD), I've been having so much fun with this stuff.

ASWOBA, you aren't a bad singer, actually.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City (or, It's Hard To Be a Texans Fan in San Antonio)

My friends over at ASWOBA and ANCIANT (see links to your right) have embarked on another month of posting daily on their blogs. As much as I would like to join in, I already know that I won't be able to keep that pace. But I do commit to picking it up around here, let's try for several times a week again for starters.

Anyway, Go Texans! I figured that would be easy to express here in my current city of residence of San Antonio ("home" is reserved for Houston). Afterall, SA does not have their own team, so it makes sense that people here would pick the closest geographic NFL team to support. Right? Right? Like the rest of Texas outside of the Houston metroplex, SA is diehard Cowboys country. Nevermind that their owner is an arrogant turd and the organization takes their fans for granted. Nevermind that Houston is a three hour drive from here while Dallas is between four and five.

To support the Texans's innaugural playoff run I decided that I needed to get a Texans T-shirt. I already have a hat, but I wanted a t-shirt. So I drove over to Sports Authority (a sporting goods boxstore, kind of like Academy). I went over to their clothing section, and saw lots of UT and A&M gear, and four racks of Cowboys stuff. Nothing for Houston. There must be some mistake. Perhaps they have the Houston gear in its own special section. I went to the counter and said "I see all of your Cowboys crap over there, where is your Houston stuff?" The poor young girl behind the counter smiled meekly and said "we don't have any." Really? I felt bad afterwards, but I proceeded to take out years of resentment over Houston football (Texans or Oilers) being overshadowed by America's alleged team. I explained to her that The Cowboys were finished with their season, yet Houston had just won the Wild Card game last weekend. I explained that she better get used to it, because Houston will be the dominant Texas NFL team for the next decade. I told her that the Cowboys will never win [another] championship as long as Jerry Jones owns them. I explained that Houston craftily named their team "Texans" to be universally, well, Texan. They can represent all of us, not just Houstonians. She nodded and smiled.

So I drove over to the Mega-HEB store. Ostensibly a grocery store, they actually sell everything you need for the rest of your life (and the afterlife). I went to their clothing section, and I counted six full racks of Cowboys sh*t. They even had two racks of Saints stuff. After digging through about 15 racks of random sports-related clothing, I found ONE Texans t-shirt. One. It was on clearance. I bought it for nine bucks. I am wearing it as I type this. Go Texans!