Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Politics and Oscars

A few quick hits. First, I am relieved that Romney pulled out his victories in Arizona and Michigan last night. Santorum would be a disaster for the Republicans. I am a bit dismayed that he has painted himself in a corner, though, with his new vast tax cut promises. His original, detailed economic plan that he released last Fall was quite reasonable, and one of the reasons I liked him. But he seems to have tossed those carefully thought out plans to the wind to throw red meat to the Tea Party-types to prove his conservative bona fides in order to win a tougher than expected primary run. Disappointing, and in the unlikely event that he wins the real election, he has made it hard for himself to backtrack to a more reasonable economic position.

Did you watch the Oscars? I did, although my movie watching habits have fallen to the wayside these past few years. I had seen hardly any of the major nominees this year. As for the telecast itself, Billy Crystal was predictably a bit stale, as the movie industry desperately tries to hold on to a model that they fear is fading just as the music industry has changed. I enjoyed Meryl Streep's speach, though. She seems as tired of Meryl Streep nominations as many of us are. That was funny.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Dez's 5 Star Records, vol. II: B's, pt. 1

I usually get more response on political posts (previous post). Oh well, back to music.

One thing about this exercise to realize is that while it makes sense that my favorite artists will have many selections, that may not always be the case. Some artists who I really like were more about individual songs vs. great LPs all the way through. Or perhaps they had lots of 4 star albums (still great) but didn’t quite reach the 5 star level. Point is, don’t assume an artist's absense from this list necessarily means there is a lack of greatness. This is about individual outstanding albums, lightning in a bottle, not careers.

The B’s have got more selections, so I’ll split it up into two posts. Pt. II of "B" coming soon.

The Band – Music From Big Pink (1968): Mysterious debut that boldly avoids the clich├ęs and pitfalls of the times, and so it remains fresh and timeless.

The Band – The Band (1969): Earthy masterpiece featuring songs so deep in Americana soil that it feels as comfortable in 1869 as it does in 1969 (also, the Danko/Helms rhythm section is the funkiest, loosest white rhythm section in rock).

The Band (and guests) – The Last Waltz (live)(1978): The rarest of all-star affairs where the whole adds up to more than its impressive parts, and it serves as a eulogy for a certain musical spirit in the 70’s.

Band of Horses – Everything All the Time (2006): No new ground broken here, but masterful melodic rock.

The Beatles – A Hard Day’s Night (1964): Shimmering peak of their early period where all the pieces fall into place.

The Beatles – Revolver (1966): As great and groundbreaking as some of John Lennon’s songs here are, Paul McCartney proves himself an absolute master of the pop music form.

The Beatles – The Beatles (1968) (aka ‘The White Album’): A fascinating listen to the world’s greatest band falling apart that plays like four solo records jumbled together…four very good solo records.

Jeff Beck – Blow By Blow (1975): One of the greatest fusion records ever made from the rock side of the ledger, in part because it is extremely tasteful and one of the least bombastic of this often over-the-top genre.

Jeff Beck – Who Else! (1999): Jeff Beck kicks off his most exciting decade of music with this stunning comeback after sitting most of the 90’s out.

Jeff Beck – You Had It Coming (2001): The peak of Beck’s most fruitful and exciting decade, this loose, quickly recorded toss-off record (when compared to its decade in the making predecessor) is pedal to the metal shards of Beck guitar brilliance.

ABOVE: 1860's or 1960's? The Band.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Dez on Politics

I've been following the Republican race fairly closely over the last year or so. I've even watched a majority of the last 20 (20!!) Republican debates. I think that the debates have been good (would Rick Perry have been exposed as the dumbass that he is so quickly without them? Hermann Cain so clueless about foreign policy?), but they have also had some negative effects for the Republicans. There seems to be quite a bit of angst within the Republican ranks about the field, but I would argue that it is impossible to come through 20 debates looking great. These debates have driven this primary season unlike ever before. They have really been the driving force in the rise and fall of the frontrunners. Nobody is going to be on their game and gaffless over 20 debates. I argue that Obama would have some serious chinks in his armor if he had to sit for 20 debates over the last six months. So, I sympathize with and salute the four remaining candidates for having weathered an unprecedented blistering primary season so far, and we haven't even gotten to Super Tuesday.

As far as the field, Santorum is unelectable due to his outspoken comments over the years on social issues. Gingrich has many great ideas amongst many wacky ones. He is best as a thinker not in the lead. Gingrich tends to implode or become surly when he is a frontrunner, and it is telling that so many of his former colleagues in his own party who served with or under him when he was Speaker refuse to support him now. He is best as a conservative thinker proposing ideas from the sidelines for others to consider and implement. I like Newt, but he's too volatile to be president. Ron Paul has a movement, and is running to get his Libertarian ideas into the Republican agenda, not to really be president. He is unelectable. That leaves Mitt, whom I have supported most of this primary season (after Huntsman dropped out).

It is painful to watch Mitt try to act the strong conservative, when at heart he is really a moderate. But you've got to play these games in the primaries. Just as Dems have to track left in their primaries and then steer back to the middle in the general election.

I see two issues that stand out amongst many. One is Iran and the other is the deficit. Mitt, Santorum and Newt all have a much better stance on dealing with Iran than Obama (Ron Paul would be a disaster for foreign policy). But Ron Paul is right on as he passionately argues that our spending and debt will be the death of this country unless it is addressed and addressed now.

Iran must not be permitted to go nuclear, and we need to back Israel if they decide to act to defend themselves against a leadership in Iran that has proclaimed that one of its goals is to wipe Israel off the face of the earth. Newt was strong and right in this week's debate when he said you cannot negotiate with Iran under the assumption that they are a rational regime. We support questionable movements in Egypt and Libya (yes, both had nasty dictators, but the alternative in both countries is still not clear and may be even worse for U.S. interests), yet we did not support the protests and movements, other than with words, in Iran last year? We will look back on that as a historic lost opportunity. We should also be more actively supporting the movement against leadership in Syria, who is Iran's most important puppet state in the region. Obama's Middle Eastern policy has been horribly misguided.

The deficit is tricky. If my stats are right, when defense spending is only 17% at this point and entitlement spending is 60%, then you know what really needs to be addressed. There is no other choice. We are going to have to do things that both Democrats and Republicans don't like. Entitlements and spending will need to be cut and sacred cows will need to be on the table, and taxes are going to need to be raised. We will go the way of the Romans or the British Empire if we cannot get our financial house in order.

Out of everyone who might be elected next November, I go for Mitt.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Dez's Five Star Records, vol. 1: #'s-A

New list. This will be fun. As the owner of a vast library of music, I have decided to list for you the records that I give my highest rating, five stars. You may be saying, "wait a minute, Dez. Didn't you already post your Top 100 Albums a couple of years ago? I consult your list religiously whenever I consider purchasing any music. Aren't these the same albums?" Or something to that effect. There may be some overlap, but this list is more. First, time has passed, so I've got additions and subtractions. But also I am free from ranking here, these are all listed alphabetically, and they are any genre (except classical, which I am not enough of an authority to make real recommendations). The criteria has to be both subjective and objective. I've got to personally love the album AND it must be truly great. Contrary to ANCIANT's accusations that I love everything, this is not true. It is difficult to get a five star rating from me. If you compare my ratings to, say, my favorite resource, the All Music Guide, I give a much fewer percentage of five star ratings than they do.

I am restricting myself to a single sentence as far as commentary. My music reviews tend to be verbose, so this will be a great challenge. And mainly, it is another chance to recommend great music to my loyal reader(s). Some will be obvious, but some are a bit more obscure. Go on iTunes or elsewhere and give some of them a try. Or better yet, head for the vinyl. Alright, so volume 1:

13th Floor Elevators - Easter Everywhere (1967): Murky, haunting psychedelic masterpiece from the dark heart of Texas.

King Sunny Ade & His African Beats - Juju Music (1982): Afro-pop pioneer's major label debut is an infectious, lithe, juju dance party record.

a-ha - Minor Earth Major Sky (2000): Surprisingly beautiful, moody and mature piece of work from former 80's pop stars.

Alice in Chains - Jar of Flies (EP)(1994): Just as compelling in an acoustic setting as they were with grinding electrics, actually moreso.

Allman Brothers Band - At Fillmore East (live)(1971) (or even better, the more complete The Fillmore Concerts released in 1992): Duane leads Les Brers to the pinnacle of rock and roll improvisation.

Allman Brothers Band - Eat a Peach (part live) (1972): Triumphant wake for Duane Allman that both looks back and looks forward with equal confidence and resolve.

ABOVE: Were Roky Erickson's 13th Floor Elevators the greatest psychedelic band of all time? They were definitely one of the spookiest.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Doing the Right Thing

As much as I (and many other rock and roll obsessives) rip the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for their decisions on various things, I need to give credit where credit is due. In addition to the inductions announced in December, the Rockhall has decided to rectify some longtime wrongs with a few additions to the Class of 2012. Many years ago, for reasons nobody seems to be able to recall, the Rockhall inducted Gene Vincent, Bill Haley, Buddy Holly, James Brown, Hank Ballard and Smokey Robinson alone as solo artists. Each of these artists made their biggest impact as leaders of groups or bands. Yes, they went on to do important things with other backing musicians, but their most important work was accomplished leading stable groups.

It is rare that the Rockhall admits to mistakes, but they have on these inductions. Therefore, as part of the Class of 2012, Vincent’s Blue Caps, Haley’s Comets, Holly’s Crickets, Brown’s Famous Flames, Ballard’s Midnighters and Robinson’s Miracles will all be inducted to join their leaders. Rock and Roll is a collective thing. James Brown would not have been as funky without his Famous Flames and Buddy Holly would not have been as groundbreaking without his steady Crickets rhythm section. Perhaps the Hall will continue to fix more of these omissions in the future. For instance, why was Tom Petty inducted as part of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, yet Bruce Springsteen was inducted alone without his E Street Band? Obviously it is a case by case analysis, but it makes sense that Van Morrison was inducted alone, as he never really had a stable band and changed personnel almost every record. He played with many fine musicians who made great contributions to his music, but nothing was stable enough to really honor anyone other than Van for the music released under his name. With Springsteen, his E Street Band has been relatively stable through his most celebrated work, the band is acknowledged as crucial to the entire Springsteen sound, and several members have justifiably reached a level of fame of their own. The E Street Band should be inducted with Springsteen.

ABOVE: Buddy Holly didn't record "Peggy Sue" alone

Anyway, good for the Hall for at least starting the process of fixing some glaring past mistakes. One downside: members of these bands being inducted will add even more older voters to the voting induction pool, not helping the Hall address their deficiencies in 80’s, prog rock, metal and other underrepresented genres. But this was the right thing to do.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

RIP Cliff, 1942-2012

ABOVE: Dez (left) plays with Larry (middle) and Cliff (right) back in the day

Lots of deaths lately that I could comment on. I don’t want this blog to become an obituary page, though. I meant to write a nice obituary for soul legend Etta James awhile back, but then I wrote a more personal one for my cat, Maurice. This past weekend, the much publicized passing of Whitney Houston deserves comment. But again, a more personal passing demands my attention.

Love of music brings people together. Cliff was a beloved tennis pro at the tennis club in Houston that my family belonged to while I was growing up. I would occasionally take tennis lessons from Cliff, who did not look like a tennis pro at all. He looked more like a basketball player. A tall man who was thin as a rail with weather beaten features that always flashed a quick smile. Cliff would always want to know what was going on in your life, and he usually had a witty comment about most things. Cliff was a fixture at this tennis club, he worked there for almost 40 years. He was also a loveable eccentric in many ways. Like his refusal to drive on any freeways. Living most of your life in Houston, yet avoiding all freeways...that is really something. But it is not tennis or eccentric behavior that was the basis of my bond with this extraordinary man.

At some point in our many tennis lessons, Cliff learned that I played guitar. Another good friend of mine also took lessons from Cliff, and he was a bass player. Cliff invited us to play with him and his brother Larry one Sunday. They had a standing gig each Sunday during the summers at the club, playing out by the pool where food was served and many families enjoyed the day.

Cliff and Larry were called The Really Brothers, a rather humorous group name due to the fact that although they were brothers, they did not look at all alike (Larry was shorter and a bit heavier). As Cliff always loved to tell it, they got tired of answering the question “are you guys really brothers?”, so that became their band name.

For five or six summers of my youth, every Sunday me and two other friends of mine would back up The Really Brothers and their drum machine. We played simple country covers (with a few rock and roll, not rock, songs thrown in), rarely venturing beyond three chords in any given song. Cliff sang in his relaxed, sweet, breezy voice, while the backbone of the music was Larry’s simple yet full and spot on guitar playing. Larry remains one of my all time favorite guitar players, for his economy and brilliant ability to serve the song. (As for Cliff’s guitar prowess, his guitar was jokingly referred to by us as his “washboard,” as he turned it down so low that the rhythmic scraping of his pick on the strings was louder than anything he was actually playing). And since there were three guitars onstage anyway at this point, Cliff mostly set the guitar aside and simply sang, which is what he most enjoyed doing.

I was thinking back recently, and I would estimate that I easily played over 100 gigs with The Really Brothers. It may have been close to 150. The fact that these older guys allowed a group of teenagers to invade their musical space, and took us under their wing (and even took us on some paying gigs away from the Sunday afternoon standing gig)…that was a really special thing. Hell, they even gave our own band a slot in between their sets at the club on occasion. That was something they did not have to do (and if you had heard us in those days, probably shouldn’t have!) I learned a lot from playing with Cliff and Larry. The fact that simplicity can be beautiful in music, and that space and feeling can be just as meaningful as complexity and virtuosity. Now, Larry could really play, though. But he preferred to be the foundation, laying back and constructing the song on which Cliff could fly.

I am driving into Houston tomorrow for Cliff’s memorial service. My friend Johannes is flying in from Alabama. Kyle, Gillums and even the elusive Gaetano will be there. We will all honor the memory of this extraordinarily funny and kind man. I am also throwing my guitar in the trunk. I’ve got a feeling Larry may want to step out and pick a little for Cliff. At least I hope so.

ABOVE: The full Really Brothers Band

Friday, February 10, 2012


By request from Willis, I will address politics. I will just say that I agree with Newt. We should go to the moon and it could eventually be our 51st state. He had me at "moon," but when he then added the Imperialist tag there at the end...sold. I miss the Imperialist Age. But is it really Imperialism if there are no people to conquer? I'll say that I agree with his Celestial Territorial Expansion plan. Lunar Manifest Destiny.

OK, in all seriousness, I have thoroughly enjoyed the Republican political circus, so far. Better than the Michael Jackson Immortal show, or so I hear. I have been meaning to post about politics, but I just haven't had the energy to sit down and really think it all through. Posts about music are easier. But I will. Politics coming soon.

Meanwhile, the Moon will be ours!!