Friday, April 27, 2012

Dez's NBA Playoff Predictions: First Round

After a very strange NBA season (I came in 2nd in my Fantasy League, which is the strangest thing of all), the playoffs are finally upon us. With the shortened season, it really is like a second season. My bold predictions for the first round...

The West

San Antonio Spurs (1) vs. Utah Jazz (8)
The Spurs shocked everyone this season. Most people in the know (and in this city) assumed that the window had closed for them, but they boldly grabbed the top seed in the West (for a second year in a row). But unlike last year, Ginobili is healthy, Duncan is playing like he is ten years younger, Parker is playing at an MVP level and they have the deepest team in recent memory, with a potent mix of solid verterans and exciting youngsters. Not only am I predicting they make it out of the first round (unlike last season), but I predict they make it to the Finals and possibly win it all.
Spurs in 5.

Oklahoma City Thunder (2) vs. Dallas Mavericks (7)
The Mavs don't look like repeat champions. OKC are the Spurs's biggest obstacle in the West.
OKC in 6.

L.A. Lakers (3) vs. Denver Nuggets (6)
Never underestimate a team with Kobe on it. Losing Metta World Peace (he looked more like Ron Artest last week when he clocked Harden) to a seven game suspension really hurts the Lakers.
Lakers in 6.

Memphis Grizzlies (4) vs. L.A. Clippers (5)
Never thought I'd say "Clippers" in discussing playoffs, and never thought the bastard step children Clippers would be more entertaining to watch than the Lakers. But they are. But the Grizz are tough.
Clippers in 7.

The East

Chicago Bulls (1) vs. Philadelphia 76ers (8)
I was impressed by The Bulls's play this season with last year's MVP Derrick Rose being injured for over 20 games.
Bulls in 4.

Miami Heat (2) vs. New York Knicks (7)
I hate Lebron and his Heatbitches. I never want him to win a title. But Carmelo Anthony ain't gonna stop them.
Heat in 4.

Indiana Pacers (3) vs. Orlando Magic (6)
Without the Dwightmare (and I don't mean that as a compliment to Howard), the Magic are almost a D-League team. They are the dream draw for any team in the First Round.
Pacers in 6.

Boston Celtics (4) vs. Atlanta Hawks (5)
Boston still has a lot of fight in them, and the Hawks always become wussies in the playoffs.
Boston in 6.

Your predictions?

Addendum: I posted this last night, and now in Game 1 Rose got injured and is out for the playoffs. I still think Chicago advances, but it probably won't be a sweep.

Dez's Five Star Albums: The Rest of the P's(-Q)

This may be the first entry with no 1960’s or 70’s releases (OK, there is one from the tail end of ’79). I doubt that will happen again.

Pearl Jam – Ten (1991): Their monstrous debut announced the arrival of what many people thought would be one of the most important bands of the next couple of decades; they may be one of those bands, but not for the reasons or in the way that was expected.

Pearl Jam – Vs. (1993): I actually like the follow-up to Ten even more; it was more daring, more diverse and more sonically interesting, but they were also still trying to impress, instead of being, shall I say, willfully perverse with their releases.

Pell Mell – Star City (1997): This instrumental group from Portland has recorded sporadically since the early 80’s; they are rarely flashy but quite melodic, many of these tunes have since shown up in films and TV shows.

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – Damn the Torpedoes (1979): His third release put him on the musical map, and granted there is some filler here, but the strong songs are so strong that it remains his most potent record; the “& the Heartbreakers” is crucial, what a great, great band.

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – Hard Promises (1981): If you married The Byrds to The Stones, you’d get prime-era Petty.

Liz Phair – Exile in Guyville (1993): Self-consciously tries to be a 90’s girl power version of The Stones’s Exile on Main Street, but the surprising thing is how close it comes to succeeding.

Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (2009): Great pop rock lives (even if they are French).

The Pixies – Doolittle (1989): This is when the Pixies strike the perfect balance between creating accessible rock and still maintaining their alt credibility.

The Pretenders – Learning to Crawl (1984): Chrissie Hynde is the coolest chick in rock, and LTC is their strongest set of tunes with a wide dynamic range.

Prince & the Revolution – ‘Purple Rain’ motion picture soundtrack (1984): Epic stuff here from The Purple One, he ads “awesome guitarist” to his long list of musical talents.

The Psychedelic Furs – Forever Now (1982): I could say here what I said above about the Pixies, the Furs maintain their underground credentials but allow some more pop sensibility into their music for a perfect balance.

ABOVE: The Psychedelic Furs’s biggest hit, “Pretty in Pink” (from Talk Talk Talk) was actually a song before the film was made. John Hughes was so inspired by the song that he then wrote the film from the song. Then the song itself became a bigger hit once it was used (and re-released as a single) for the film.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

RIP Greg Ham, 1953-2012

I guess it depends on where you live. Greg Ham died last week on the same day we lost Levon Helm. Helm’s passing was a pretty substantial news item that day (as it deserved to be), while Ham’s passing was noted on Yahoo or, buried in the links at the bottom of the webpage somewhere for about half the day. In Australia, however, it was front page news. So, this was a notable passing if you A. live in Australia, or B. you are a pretty serious Men At Work fan.

Colin Hay was the face and voice of Men At Work, which was one of those “they’re huge!/Whatever happened to…?” bands that seemed to come and go with such frequency in the 1980’s. But Greg Ham was as responsible for Men’s quirky humor and sound as Hay. Perhaps even more than Hay, it was Ham’s contributions that made Men At Work stand out as a different kind of 80’s band. Ham played the saxes, flutes, keyboards, harmonica and some occasional guitar, and anything else that was needed to fill out Men At Work’s sound.

It was Ham’s soaring sax lines and solos that helped make “Who Can It Be Now?” and “Overkill” such great 80’s singles that still sound fresh and interesting today. But if there is one indelible contribution that he made, it was the improvised flute part on Men At Work’s most beloved song, a song that has become the unofficial national anthem in Australia, “Down Under.”

ABOVE: Ham (left) and Hay grace the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine in '83 during the peak of Men At Work's fame

Unfortunately for Ham (and the rest of Men At Work), the triumph of “Down Under” has been tarnished a bit. Ham steadfastly claimed that he improvised the iconic flute riff in “Down Under,” but in 2009, music publisher Larrikin Music sued Men At Work for plagiarism. They claimed that the flute riff was nicked from the 1934 nursery rhyme, “Kookaburra,” to which they owned the rights. A court in Australia agreed, awarding Larrikin the modest award of 5% royalties on the song dating back to 2002. Men At Work and label EMI appealed the decision but to no avail. Since it was Ham’s riff, he took the judgment especially hard. In an interview, he felt that his reputation had been damaged and that “I’m terribly disappointed that’s the way I’m going to be remembered – for copying something.” I think that Ham was being a bit tough on himself there.

My guess, and this is pure speculation, is that Ham did not consciously copy the riff, but perhaps it was there in his subconscious somewhere, and so the similarity is nonetheless real. I imagine it is much like the case against George Harrison, when he was similarly sued in the 70’s for copying the Chiffon’s “He’s So Fine” for his own “My Sweet Lord.” The judge in Harrison’s case came to the conclusion that Harrison copied it “subconsciously.” I haven’t seen the reporting on the Men At Work case, but judging by the relatively minor award (only 5% based on earnings starting at a date decades after the song made the most money), I bet it was a similar deal.

Aside from occasionally reuniting with Colin Hay to tour as Men At Work, Ham’s life in Australia settled down a bit after their 80's heyday. He still played in regional bands, taught music, appeared on an Australian TV show in a recurring role…but his globetrotting days in a huge band were far behind him. The circumstances of his death are still somewhat hazy, he was found in his home in Melbourne by some concerned friends. He had fallen on hard times lately, especially after the “Down Under” court decision, and so perhaps drugs were a factor. Regardless, his work will live on in a handful of perfect 80’s hits. RIP Greg Ham.

ABOVE: A fantastic clip and tribute to Greg Ham. This is a New Year's Eve show that a modernday version of Men At Work played in Sidney for the turn of the millenium. It starts with a little interview clip featuring Colin Hay and Greg ("I always know he's there"), then you get the tail end of "Who Can It Be Now?", and finally a fantastic "Down Under" which features some excellent flute playing from Greg in the extended solo break. I love the clip because the New Year's countdown comes right in the middle of the song, and Colin throws it in, and just as the fireworks go off for the turn of the millenium they break back into the chorus of the song. Perfect.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Dez's Five Star Albums: The P's, pt. 1 (Two Bands)

JMW accused the last entry in this series of being “willfully perverse.” This entry should right that ship, as it features selections from two bands that should be no surprise. As I’ve said before, some bands excel with the single. But bands like Pink Floyd think in terms of thematic, cohesive albums, so naturally they will have an advantage on this type of list. Part 2 of the P’s will cover everyone other than Pink Floyd or The Police.

Pink Floyd – Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967): Pink Floyd’s debut is the greatest psychedelic record ever made, and it completely belongs to rock’s most famous acid casualty, the madcap himself, Syd Barrett.

Pink Floyd – Meddle (1971): After years of fumbling, Floyd finally find their sound in a post-Barrett world, on an album that includes their finest recorded moment (or 24 moments), the side long “Echoes.”

Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon (1973): Can’t say much about this one that hasn’t already been said, it is part of our rock and roll consciousness at this point – on the Billboard charts from 1973 to 1988.

Pink Floyd – Animals (1977): Often gets lost in the shuffle of their incredible 70’s streak, sandwiched in between Wish You Were Here and The Wall, but it has a devoted following, as evidenced by a group of my students with whom I discuss/argue music who all claim this as their favorite Floyd album.

The Police – Regatta de Blanc (1979): After some faux punk posing on their still excellent debut, The Police find their “white reggae” rock/pop sound on their sophomore release.

The Police – Zenyatta Mondatta (1980): The most spare and skeletal Police album, it also distills the essence of the band’s sound to its core, with plenty of space in the songs; while Sting and Stewart Copeland consider it unfinished, it is Andy Summers’s favorite Police record.

The Police – Ghost in the Machine (1981): Reversing course, The Police follow up their most spare record with their most sonically dense, augmenting the trio’s sound with horns, synthesizers and even steel drums.

The Police – Synchronicity (1983): At least they went out on top, their final studio effort was also their biggest seller; they hit commercial pay dirt while still remaining musically interesting (a multi-million seller featuring two songs about Carl Jung’s theories, and another song with the lyric: “Caught between the Scylla and Charybdis”).

The Police – Certifiable (live) (2007): I’ve heard a lot of live Police material from each of their eras, and they never sounded better than on their recent reunion tour, they are all better musicians now than they were in the 80’s; this complete live show from Buenos Aires is Exhibit A.

ABOVE: Some bands have a sound that for whatever reason, almost everything they do hits you just right. The Police are one of those bands for me. Sting’s bass playing takes the strong melody while Andy Summers’s guitar work fills in atmosphere with brilliant use of effects and sonic textures (influencing such other sonic architects like U2’s Edge). Stewart Copeland is my favorite drummer, filling in that space that the trio format leaves open. Sting’s writing, at least with The Police, was always interesting, and he has such a distinct voice. The Police have the honor on my five star list of having the highest percentage of their albums appear, with approximately 75% of their discography reaching the five star level. I am sure they are honored.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Dez's 5 Star Albums: N-O's

In picking my "N" selections, I was confronted by two issues. First was Nirvana. I own their records, I understand the significance of Nevermind. I even like it. But I don't love it. I am constantly reminded that this list comes from two different considerations. One is objective and one is subjective. I start with the subjective by picking records that I love. Then I look at them through an objective lens and ask: beyond me just digging this album, can I make a reasonable argument for its greatness? If both criteria are met, then it makes the list. Then there is the New Order dilemma. I love New Order. But none of the albums hold together at the five star level, but they have brilliant dance and rock songs interspersed throughout their career. So they do not appear, yet I really like them.

Graham Nash – Songs For Beginners (1971): Ironically, it is the least impressive (but most likeable) member of CSN who delivered the strongest solo record of any of them, with this beautiful singer-songwriter gem from the early 70’s that hits the perfect pitch.

Willie Nelson – Red Headed Stranger (1975): Willie’s often beautiful and melancholy concept album about the mysterious, troubled and dangerous title character is a highlight in a long career full of highlights; this is one of the cornerstones of the 70’s country outlaw movement.

New Pornographers – Twin Cinema (2005): Power pop supergroup’s (well, sorta supergroup) best record is full of great melodies and hooks; if not completely inspired, it is the work of consummate pop craftsmen (and women).

Randy Newman – Good Old Boys (1974): Newman was one of the most exciting and controversial singer-songwriters of the 70’s, and this concept record about the Deep South is by turns brutal and coarse (“Rednecks”), tender (“Marie”), pathetic and funny (“A Wedding in Cherokee County”) and deeply rooted in Southern American history (a fantastic tune about the promise and promises of Huey Long called “Kingfish,” that is preceded by a quick cover of the actual campaign song that was written by Long himself); and I cannot think of a better written song than the devastating “Louisiana 1929.”

Randy Newman – Land of Dreams (1988): Newman’s 70’s records are more critically lauded (like 12 Songs, Sail Away, the one above and even Little Criminals), but I’m a big fan of this one, where he writes his most autobiographical songs (in the wonderful opening trilogy), before returning to more familiar territory of biting character sketches, observations of class and race, and pure pop craft.

Oasis – (What’s the Story) Morning Glory (1995): Who says retro-Brit Invasion worshippers can’t still sound fresh and vital?

Richard O’Brien – ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ motion picture soundtrack (1975): This cult classic film has lived on through the decades in large part due to the catchy, tongue-in-cheek, witty and referential music, which has surprising depth and emotion if you can get through the camp and humor.

The Orb – The Orb's New Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld (1991): One of the most important innovators in ambient music, The Orb’s wonderful double album debut takes the listener on a trippy journey.

Ozzy Osbourne – No More Tears (1991): Aside from always working with top-notch musicians, what makes Ozzy’s brand of metal so great is that underneath the volume, bombast and silly imagery lie solid songs with great melody and hooks; musically speaking, Ozzy’s songs are at root great pop songs with volume, distortion and flashy solos.

Shuggie Otis – Inspiration Information (1974): A forgotten gem from a forgotten musical genius, Shuggie’s masterpiece mixes R&B, soul, rock and psychedelia in a unique and entrancing mix; this is one of those records that many people haven’t heard of but is worth searching out (and unfortunately, I think it is the only Shuggie album NOT available on iTunes).

ABOVE: Shuggie Otis is one of those lost genius/burnouts that music snobs love to talk about. But he really is a huge talent, great guitar player and made some brilliant music when he was active.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

RIP Levon Helm, 1940-2012

The last voice of The Band has been silenced. Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and now Levon Helm are gone. I've got friends, good friends whose musical tastes I otherwise respect, who just never got The Band. I've tried to explain, but as with many things of this nature, you either hear and feel it or you don't.

Let's start with the voice. Levon Helm's voice was like deep, gritty, Southern soil. Within that soulful twang you can hear all of the birthing elements of rock and roll: country, gospel, blues, R&B. The only American-born member of the most American of bands (the other four were Canadians), Helm's Arkansas roots somehow grounded The Band, made them legitimately Americana. It was Robbie Robertson's songwriting, but it was the voices of Manuel, Danko and Helm that brought the songs to life. While Manuel was vulnerability and pain, Danko was a soaring and mournful tenor, it was Helm who brought the grit and Southern fried funkiness.

Then the drumming. The rhythm section of Helm on drums and Danko on bass was the grooviest, loosest white rhythm section in rock. Helm's drumming sounded so natural and casual, often laying just behind the beat for an extra funky feel. There are drummers who are more impressive technically or more bombastic and powerful, but there are few drummers that I'd rather listen to just for pure feel. He brought soul to an instrument that is hard to make sound soulful.

I don't need to give you the history of The Band here. I've discussed them before and you can read it in the many obituaries that were out today. But briefly, The Band (starting out as The Hawks, then moving to The Crackers, a great name they should have kept) were there near the beginning of rock and roll, backing rockabilly wildman Ronnie Hawkins on the Canadian circuit in the early 60's. They eventually hooked up with Bob Dylan, and were on tour with him during his earth shattering first electric tour where he and his Band were frequently booed by irate folk fans who felt he was a Judas (although Helm left for a substantial part of this period, tired of the hostile audiences).

The Band recorded two stone cold classics in the late 60's (Music From Big Pink and The Band, both of which have appeared on my five star list). While most rock stars of the late 60's were experimental, psychedelic or otherwise caught up with the times, The Band steadfastly took a different course and were outside of the times, digging deep into American roots music. They sounded more 1860's than 1960's. After their acrimonious split (just watch 'The Last Waltz' and you can feel the tension between Helm and Robertson), Helm played with a reconstituted Band (sans Robertson). More recently, while battling throat cancer, he put on legendary shows in his barn/studio in Woodstock, attracting many famous musicians who wanted to participate in his "Midnight Rambles" (he did these in part to pay his medical bills). By many accounts these were incredible shows, loose jam sessions steeped in American music idioms.

Helm also had a pretty successful film career.  Most notably, he was perfect as the narrator and sidekick during the Chuck Yeager scenes of 'The Right Stuff,' and he also gave a critically acclaimed performance as Loretta Lynn's father in 'Coal Miner's Daughter.'

I was interested to read that earlier this week Robbie Robertson visited Helm in the hospital, and they evidently talked for hours and finally buried the hatchet. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall in that room. The Robertson/Helm feud has been fierce for decades. One of the great rock and roll feuds, involving everything from accusations of betrayal, fights over royalties and songwriting credit, and even including Helm ridiculously assigning to Robertson part responsibility for Manuel's suicide in the 80's and Danko's death in 1999. Helm refused to show up for The Band's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame simply because he could not stand to be in the same room as Robertson. He skipped his dear friend Danko's funeral because Robertson was speaking at it. I was genuinely surprised and happy to read that Robbie and Levon finally reconciled in the end.

Levon Helm was an original. He was a connection to a musical past that is fading further into the haze of history. He was an original American. RIP Levon Helm.

ABOVE: One of Helm's all time great performances with The Band, singing "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" in 'The Last Waltz.' Even though Helm is on record as despising the film and album, he sure as hell gave it his all at the show.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Dez's 5 Star Albums: the M's, pt. 2

It is not surprising that the majority of selections on my list are rock/pop albums. That was my music growing up, and we are more influenced by music in our youth than at any other time in our lives. But I have developed an appreciation for jazz music over the years (I actually got into it during high school, and I have off and on pursued a decent jazz library). Jazz was our pop music before rock and roll existed. This entry in particular has quite a few jazz choices.

Moby – Play (1999): Moby’s overexposure at the turn of the decade gave us some Moby fatigue, but go back to the album that made his music so ubiquitous in the first place and you will find a bold, lovely record full of electronica moods and textures.

Modern Jazz Quartet – The European Concert (live) (1960): John Lewis’s European/third stream influences plus Milt Jackson’s unparalleled lyrical jazz improvisations make MJQ one of the most sophisticated and subtle groups in jazz which rewards close and attentive listening; this live set captures them at a peak and features a set list full of their most beloved tunes, making it a good introduction.

Modern Jazz Quartet – The Complete Last Concert (live) (1974): While the selection above is more the crowd pleaser with its generous fan favorites-heavy setlist, this show offers a deeper and richer experience in the long run. NOTE: This turned out not to be their last show, they reunited later and continued to perform and record for some years afterward.

Thelonious Monk – The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall (live) (1959): Idiosyncratic jazz genius Thelonious Monk is not the easiest artist to warm to, but his always fascinating, off kilter compositions and playing reward the patient listener, and this live recording is a particularly adventurous and lively show featuring Monk backed by a big, swinging band.

Wes Montgomery – The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery (1960): Indeed. This was before he watered down his sound with strings and tried to gain an audience beyond jazz, it is one of the great jazz guitar albums.

Enio Morricone – ‘The Good, the Bad & the Ugly’ motion picture soundtrack (1966): Morricone’s unique compositional style is as much a part of Sergio Leone’s epic western films as Clint Eastwood’s squint or Leone’s signature cinematography.

Van Morrison – Astral Weeks (1968): Guaranteed to start an argument amongst music fans (as it did recently with some friends in Vegas), this is either a brilliant jazz influenced (Connie Kay from Modern Jazz Quartet is the drummer for these sessions) stream of consciousness exploration unlike any in rock or it is an excessive bore (I obviously put it in the former category).

Van Morrison – Moondance (1970): After the impenetrable Astral Weeks, Van shifted course and delivered the most crowd pleasing, joyful (and successful) pop record of his career.

Van Morrison – It’s Too Late To Stop Now (live) (1974): Van is notoriously hit and miss live, but this live set catches him on several of those nights where he is fully invested and captures the muse.

Morrissey – Your Arsenal (1992): Morrissey’s third solo outing is his best, his wit is sharp as ever, but what makes this record pop is the gritty glammy production by Mick Ronson and the killer band Morrissey assembled for these sessions; a record that can stand side by side with The Smiths’ glory days.

Motorhead – No Sleep ‘Til Hammersmith (live) (1981): It’s Lemmy and it is relentless. ‘Nuff said.

Charlie Musselwhite – The Harmonica According To Charlie Musselwhite (1978): As advertised, Musselwhite gives a clinic in blues harp, traversing multiple styles, grooves and moods to wonderful effect.

ABOVE: Thelonious Monk was considered one of the greatest jazz composers, along with Duke Ellington. Whereas Ellington was responsible for over 1000 compositions, Monk's tally is less than 100. But he made them count, as many are now jazz standards. In his later years, his erratic behavior suggested to many mental illness, perhaps some form of schizophrenia.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

100 Years

One hundred years ago tonight the RMS Titanic sank two and a half miles to the bottom of the North Atlantic. Why has this tragedy fascinated us for so long? There have been other shipwrecks, but none have captured the imagination like The Titanic. I am guilty too, I will usually stop and watch if one of the myriad of Titanic documentaries is on the Nat Geo channel. I will tell you about a funny one in a minute.

The Titanic is so interesting because it was the perfect combination of many elements. It was the largest ship in the world at the time. It was state of the art, the culmination of Gilded Age progress. It was proudly promoted as “unsinkable,” daring to defy Mother Nature and God themselves. After all of this dizzying progress through the Industrial Revolution and ruthless Gilded Age capitalism (I know the ship was British, but close enough), had mankind finally overcome chance and nature’s whim? Had we become true masters of our own destiny? The luxury was unprecedented, you had the distinct class differences onboard, which was a real factor in determining who would survive and who would not. So, technology, class, hubris…all elements for some great drama. And it was the maiden voyage. I doubt we would be so interested if this had happened on her 23rd voyage across the Atlantic. It also marked the end of an era. The Imperialist Era was about to reach a stage where there were going to be consequences for the Imperialist powers, and the embers of the Gilded Age were dying out. 1912 was only two years before the world erupted into the chaos and slaughter of World War I. Titanic sank on the precipice of the Modern Age. I think it is all of these things, plus the real drama of the stories, both of the survivors and the dead. Stories of heroes and cowards at the inadequate lifeboats.

Have you seen the James Cameron documentary they’ve been showing on Nat Geo this week, I forget the exact title, but something along the lines of “James Cameron’s Last Word on the Titanic”? It is genuinely interesting and well done, but what is so funny is what an egotistical ass Cameron is throughout. He assembles about a dozen experts on Titanic, from historians to naval engineers, and sits them down in a conference in order to definitively determine exactly how Titanic broke up and sank. Now, Cameron really is an expert. He has personally gone to the wreckage about a dozen times, and hearing him talk he does sound like an engineer. But still. I would say 80% of the time Cameron is talking, and whenever one of his experts tries to speak up and offer theories or ideas, Cameron interrupts him and either co-opts the idea making it sound like his own or he dismisses the idea and then launches into one of his own. It is like he gathered them all together so they could listen to his theories, vs. having a real conference of equals. One expert ruefully comments at one point, "Jim (Cameron) will listen to other ideas, but you better have all of your facts in a row, dancing in perfect rhythm" (or close to that, but it was funny). Like I said, the doc is interesting, but I enjoyed even more watching Cameron's ego overwhelm a room full of experts he had assembled ostensibly to exchange ideas.

Oh, BONUS anniversary. Not only did the Titanic sink 100 years ago tonight, but 47 years earlier than that tonight Lincoln was shot.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Dez's Five Star Albums: the M's, Pt. 1

The M's are a bit lengthy, so I need to split them into two posts. I'm really having a blast writing these up and rediscovering so many of these great records. I was hoping for a bit more discussion, though. JMW said it was tough to comment due to the subjectivity of the list. But I don't mind. Disagree, agree, tell me why you don't like a selection or why you also love it. Part of why the listmaking process is fun is the discussion that the list can foster. And with the death of the album, this is really like a preservation project. Anyway, more great five star records...

Baaba Maal – Firin’ in Fouta (1994): Senegal’s great pop singer Baaba Maal’s finest record bursts open with dance grooves and singalong choruses (even though I don’t understand most of what he is singing about), there’re also supposedly some politically charged lyrics too.

Madness – Madness Presents…The Rise & Fall (1982): A blip on the one hit wonder radar in the States, but one of the biggest selling bands in British history; Madness expands their sound from their ska roots to incorporate jazz and pop elements on this concept album that was favorably compared to The Kinks’s Village Green Preservation Society at the time (at least thematically), which in English circles is high praise indeed.

Mahavishnu Orchestra - The Inner Mounting Flame (1971): John McLaughlin and co. make a fusion record that combines the chops of jazz improvisation with the drive and beat of rock and roll, it is full speed and intense from start to finish.

Dave Matthews Band – Under the Table and Dreaming (1994): I have had no desire to listen to DMB for many years, but the fact remains that when they hit the scene in the 1990’s, they had a unique sound and the musicianship in the band (especially Matthews’s guitar playing and Carter Beauford’s drumming) is quite impressive.

MC5 – Kick Out the Jams (live) (1969): Forget the dated politics, is anything more rock and roll than the title track, which starts with the immortal command to “kick out the jams, mother*ckers!” and then proceeds to live up to the opening with brutal, nearly Neanderthal rock and roll?

James McMurtry – Where’d You Hide the Body (1995): Great writing must be in the genes, the son of author Larry McMurtry has carved out a respectable career as a Texas-based songwriter, and this is his most compelling record.

John Mellencamp – The Lonesome Jubilee (1987): Where Mellencamp finally forged his own sound and found his own rural/working class voice, breaking away from the “second-rate Springsteen” tag that had dogged him up to this point.

Men At Work – Business As Usual (1981): The first album (outside of KISS) that I ever really got into, it still holds up as a wonderful 80’s pop record featuring Colin Hay’s stellar and quirky vocals.

Mermen – A Glorious Lethal Euphoria (1995): Taking the surf music template and then obliterating the rules, Jim Thomas and his band create a thrilling blend of surf, psychedelia and Crazy Horse.

Mermen – The Amazing California Health and Happiness Road Show (2000): The creative peak of one of the most eclectic, melodic and creative instrumental groups of the last several decades; this is epic stuff here.

Metallica – Master of Puppets (1986): In the running for the definitive heavy metal album of all time, this is Metallica before they were tamed.

Charles Mingus – Mingus Ah Um (1959): A difficult and complicated artist in a musical genre (jazz) that is full of complicated cats, Mingus’s biggest triumph is also his most accessible and catchy, featuring such wonderful jazz/soul fusions as “Better Git It In Your Soul” and the lovely “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” (a tribute to Lester Young), but it really excels with the musical portraits like “Open Letter to Duke” (Ellington), “Bird Calls” (Charlie Parker), “Jelly Roll” (Jelly Roll Morton) and the wicked, savage takedown of segregationist Arkansas governor Orval Faubus, “Fables of Faubus.”

ABOVE: I am probably more familiar with Men At Work's debut album than any other record I own. It was given to me in 1982 or '83 as a birthday gift from a friend (along with Duran Duran's debut), and I fell instantly in love with it. Other than my KISS records in the late 70's, those two were the first rock/pop records I ever owned. (My first 45 single, by the way, was "Our House" by Madness, from the Madness record listed above.) I can still listen to the Men At Work album all the way through today and love it just as much.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Because It's Axl

It really had to happen this way, didn’t it? When dealing with Axl Rose, you almost expect something like this. As most of you know, Guns ‘n Roses will be one of the inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this Saturday night in Cleveland. Ever since their induction was announced last year, speculation has run rampant as to whether the original line-up would reunite for a performance at the ceremony. It is true that Axl is on tour with “Guns ‘n Roses,” his current 37 or so member line-up. But still, for the Rockhall, maybe he and Slash could bury the hatchet for a night and celebrate their accomplishments.

Once the often conflicting statements from the original members started flying and all of the dirt started to resurface, hopes of a reunion dimmed. The most one could hope for now was that they would at least stand next to each other at the podium. Afterall, Axl has participated before, giving the induction speech for Elton John.
But no. Axl fired off a lengthy letter to the Rock Hall, not only declining to attend, but specifically asking that he not be included as an inductee. This is a first. There have been no-shows before, like Van Morrison, Peter Gabriel (for Genesis), most of Van Halen (David Lee Roth refused to show when he could not agree with Velvet Revolver, Slash’s band, on which Van Halen tunes to play at the ceremony), and most notoriously the Sex Pistols, who sent a funny letter (calling the Rockhall a “piss stain”) that was read from the podium by Jann Wenner. But Axl is the first inductee to specifically request that he NOT be inducted. He states: “I strongly request that I not be inducted in absentia and please know that no one is authorized nor may anyone be permitted to accept any induction for me or speak on my behalf.” First of all, I am surprised that he knows the word “in absentia.” Secondly, what a little brat.

Undeterred, the Rockhall has responded that they regret Axl will not be present to accept his induction, so it appears he will be inducted against his will. The full text of the letter, in which he lays out his reasons, which mainly can be boiled down to the fact that he hates the former members of Guns ‘n Roses and they have done him wrong recently with all of their statements to the media and he feels his current line-up should also be inducted, can be read here. It is a link to the FutureRockLegends site, with the text of the letter and their usual excellent analysis.

My take is this. Axl has every right to do what he wishes with his legacy. He can burnish it to a fine sparkling finish or he can take a whiz on it (actually, the latter may be truer to the spirit of Rock and Roll anyway. I read one article about this controversy that supports Axl, saying he is the last real rock star). But this is bigger than just Axl, bigger than just Guns ‘n Roses. When you are honored in such a way, in a way that means a lot to the fans and people who helped get you there, you show up and accept the honor. You don’t have to play music with the guys again, but you can stand up there for a couple of awkward minutes, say “thanks,” pick up your statue and then gracefully leave. It is a moment, a night, to look back on what you accomplished and how what you did effected the history of this great music. Stand up and take your place, it is as much about honoring all of those already inducted as it is yourself, honoring the whole picture. This music gave you this life that you have now. Where the hell would Axl Rose be today if not for rock and roll? He does praise and congratulate his fellow inductees, and he even awkwardly ends the letter by thanking the fans and Rockhall for the honor, even though he has just finished rejecting it. Your actions speak louder than your words do, bud. He will never admit it, but I bet down the road, when tempers have cooled, he will look back on this as a lost opportunity to celebrate what he accomplished.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Friday, April 6, 2012

Dez's 5 Star Albums: The L's

One of the fun things about doing this list is that I have revisited many records that I had either forgotten about or had not originally given enough attention. As I was going through the “L’s,” I decided that I needed to revisit some of John Lennon’s solo work. All of the Beatles’s solo careers were somewhat disappointing. On a recent trip to Las Vegas with some friends who are also music fans, we got into a spirited debate regarding Lennon vs. McCartney, and some of the most contentious discussion came in considering their post-Beatles careers. I primarily wanted to revisit Imagine, but my initial feelings were confirmed, the weaker tracks hold it back from five star status. The pleasant surprise however was Plastic Ono Band, Lennon’s first real solo record (if you don’t count his avant-garde releases with Yoko). This record is viewed as a raw masterpiece in many circles, but it had never hit home with me. I decided to give it another shot in considering the "L’s," and I finally got it and connected with what he was doing. I’ve listened to it about three times through today.

Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin (1969): The blues are turbocharged and made heavier than ever on Zep’s explosive debut.

Led Zeppelin – untitled (aka “IV”) (1971): Ground Zero for classic rock fans, this record is the monolith.

Led Zeppelin – Houses of the Holy (1973): My personal favorite Zeppelin record, it is their loosest and most eclectic, with “Over the Hills and Far Away” standing as a brilliant folk/metal hybrid.

Led Zeppelin – Physical Graffiti (1975): Most double albums sprawl and need trimming, but the sprawl here is PG's charm.

John Lennon – Plastic Ono Band (1970): That an artist as huge as John Lennon would release a record so raw, honest, open and emotional is so rare.

Ramsey Lewis Trio – The ‘In’ Crowd (live) (1965): My Dad’s favorite jazz record and for good reason; the trio locks into a groove that is as much R&B as it is jazz on the first track and they don’t let up until the end on this boisterous club date.

Los Lobos – By the Light of the Moon (1987): The Lobos's attempt at heart on the sleeve Americana a la Springsteen or Mellencamp, but with a distinct Southwestern Hispanic bent to it.

Los Lobos – Kiko (1992): Absolutely brilliant and experimental, where every chance taken pays off.

Love – Forever Changes (1967): Nothing from the era sounds quite like this, a mysterious acoustic-based masterpiece with psychedelic touches throughout.

Lynyrd Skynyrd – Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd (1973): Helpfully titled debut from Southern Rock giants is already assured and packed with killer tracks, they are as adept at heartbreaking country-tinged epics (“Tuesday’s Gone,” “Simple Man”) as they are boisterous (and often humorous) rockers (“Gimme Three Steps,” “I Ain’t the One”), and it closes with the ultimate cigarette lighter anthem, “Freebird.”

ABOVE: As brilliant as Led Zeppelin was, there is one dark stain on their legacy. On their first two records, they covered and borrowed heavily from certain blues artists such as Willie Dixon, Howlin' Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson. Originally, they did not credit the blues writers. After lawsuits from Dixon and Wolf's heirs, it was somewhat rectified, changing the credits on subsequent pressings of the albums and settling on a percentage of royalties. This is particularly shameful since these blues masters were generally screwed out of royalties based on unconscionable contractual provisions with their own record companies, so later generations of musicians who were clearly influenced by them should not have engaged in the same practices.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Dez's 5 Star Albums: the K's

I'm a fan of the streak. Be it sports or music, a sustained period of excellence always impresses. The Kinks had a hell of a streak starting in the mid-60's to 1970. The four records by them listed below were there, and one more that is just as respected (Something Else By the Kinks).

Israel Kamakawiwo’ole – Facing Future (1993): Known to most listeners for his lovely and ubiquitous ukulele cover of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow / What A Wonderful World,” the biggest selling record in Hawaiian music history offers much more from the gentle giant of Hawaii.

Robert Earl Keen – Gringo Honeymoon (1994): Keen’s eye for storytelling detail shines on his most beloved studio release, a record that captures the unique attitudes and feel for Central/South Texas life.

Stan Kenton – Kenton in Hi-Fi (1956): Kenton’s brand of big band bombast was controversial in its day and remains so (harmony and power over swing), this record (outside of compilations) best exemplifies Kenton during a peak period.

The Killers – Hot Fuss (2004): Whenever I despair at the death of rock and roll, groups like this give me some hope for the future.

B.B. King – Live at the Regal (live) (1965): The King of urban uptown blues is caught at the peak of his powers as a master showman.

King Crimson – Red (1974): I love Robert Fripp’s edgy guitar all over this prog-rock masterpiece, it is prog yet with almost punk energy in places.

King Crimson – Discipline (1981): The intricate interplay between Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew’s guitars is a mesmerizing thing of beauty.

Kings of Leon – Only By the Night (2008): These guys give me even more hope for the future of rock and roll; Caleb Followill’s vocals especially draw a direct line back to classic Southern rock singing.

The Kinks – Face To Face (1966): I would put this wonderful collection of British pop up against anything of the era, including Beatles records; Ray Davies takes huge leaps forward as a songwriter here.

The Kinks – The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society (1968): In a period of psychedelic excess and angry protest music, Ray Davies will have none of it, instead releasing a charming set of English pastoral pop songs infused with nostalgia and wonderful lyrical details.

The Kinks – Arthur, or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire (1969): Forgotten, brilliant concept album that is much more successful as a conceptual work than The Who’s much more famous Tommy, released the same year.

The Kinks – Lola vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround, Pt. 1 (1970): The Kinks enter the 70’s with a muscular sound more reminiscent of their early garage days vs. their more recent baroque and pastoral pop, while Ray Davies’s eye for lyrical detail remains sharp as ever.

KISS – Alive! (live) (1975): Big, obnoxious 70’s stadium rock at its finest; this is the record that broke KISS as one of the most successful acts of the decade and also made the double live album a standard for any huge 70’s rock band.

Leo Kottke – 6 and 12 String Guitar (1969): Just as advertised, Kottke delivers a fingerpicking masterclass of acoustic greatness.

Leo Kottke – Great Big Boy (1991): Kottke puts the guitar flash on the backburner here, instead delivering a set of quirky story/songs sung in his languid, humorous style.

ABOVE: Israel Kamakawiwo’ole was a huge man, but he had a lovely, delicate voice that conveyed the beauty of the Hawaiian Islands

Monday, April 2, 2012

Disney's Propaganda

Below is a fascinating piece of propaganda from Disney from the 1940's. It is called "Der Fuhrer's Face," and features life for Donald Duck while living in Nazi Germany. I teach a little unit on propaganda for my classes, and we usually view and analyze this one. Notice the horribly racist depiction of the Japanese, which was common throughout our propaganda of the period (and before).