Monday, May 28, 2012

NBA Conference Finals Quick Picks

I know one game has already been played (and it was a thriller, bodes well for a great series), but its outcome does not change what I would have predicted anyway.

The West
The Spurs and The Thunder are the best teams in the NBA. Whoever wins this will be the ultimate champion. The Thunder are like a younger Spurs in many ways. The team, especially in its organization, is trying to emulate SA's winning ways. But they don't have a Popovich. This Spurs team has surprised everyone, they are deeper than any of the previous championship Spurs teams. Spurs in 7.

The East
I dislike Boston, but I hate Miami. I root for anyone playing Miami. But I predict Miami in 6.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Dez's 5 Star Records Wrap-Up and Analysis

This is it. The end of the 5 star list. Next comes all of the 4 star records. Just kidding. As I said in the previous post, as I’ve gone through making the list, I would look back and regret not including a certain record. So this post is in part to rectify that and add 11 more records that should take their place on Olympus with the others that I have discussed. I made a long list of candidates, and then set an 11 record limit, and picked the 11 that jumped out at me the most as egregious omissions. (Well, I initially set it at 10, but couldn’t knock out that last one, so this entry goes to 11). Where appropriate, I also remind you of the other records on this list by that artist. Following these last selections will be some statistical analysis.

Count Basie – The Atomic Mr. Basie (1957): The stereotypes that Basie’s bands swing and Ellington’s bands had subtlety and complexity are only partly true, Ellington could swing and Basie’s bands, as shown here, could play with many shades and moods.

The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967): I’ll be honest, I have never really connected with this record as a whole (just some individual songs), but this will be the one place on this list where a record’s influence and importance is so great that it is just stupid to not have it, so here it is. And I do like it.

The Beatles – Abbey Road (1969): Early on when ANCIANT called me out for not having enough Beatles, I knew he was right; I think I started a bit more strictly than I ended up (just look at where these additions are, alphabetically), and I truly do love AR, it should have been there from the start, especially for the suite on the second side. And “You Never Give Me Your Money.” And the two beautiful George Harrison tunes. And “Come Together.” (Also on this list: A Hard Day’s Night, Revolver and The Beatles).

The Black Keys – El Camino (2011): Goes to show that you can take simple elements and old sounds and make them fresh again.

Black Sabbath – Vol. 4 (1972): I thought Paranoid was enough, but ever since the B’s, I’ve looked back at Sabbath's 4th record and knew it was just as strong and even grooves a bit harder. (Also on this list: Paranoid).

David Bowie – Aladdin Sane (1973): Doesn’t have the thematic coherence of its more famous predecessor (Ziggy Stardust…), but it rocks a bit harder and I like the songs and flow more. (Also on this list: Diamond Dogs and Low).

Duran Duran – Duran Duran (1981): A New Romantic landmark, the Durans’ debut has the requisite 80’s pop classics, but especially in the second half they stretch out for some very moody, synth-heavy epics. (also on this list: Rio).

Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited (1965): Dylan started playing electric on the previous record, but here he really bursts through all of the boundaries that had stood between folk and rock music, and he also burst through the three minute single orthodoxy with “Like A Rolling Stone.” (Also on this list: Blood on the Tracks).

Aretha Franklin – I Never Loved a Man The Way I Love You (1967): Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler was the one who understood how miscast Aretha had been on Columbia as a jazz singer; he set up a gritty soul session with the Muscle Shoals rhythm section and she finally found her true identity as our greatest female soul singer.

Dr. John – Locked Down (2012): In hindsight it seems so logical, pair the Dr.’s voodoo with the retro blues/funk of The Black Keys and you get this killer record. (Also on this list from Dr. John: Gris-Gris).

Elton John – Madman Across the Water (1971): I should have had more than one Elton record on the list from his prime period, and the next record has to be this one; the first side of this album is as perfect as a side can be. (Also on this list: Tumbleweed Connection).

OK, let’s break it all down by decade:

1920’s: 1

1930’s: 1

1940’s: 0

1950’s: 8

1960’s: 60

1970’s: 92

1980’s: 69

1990’s: 43

2000’s: 25

A total of 299 albums were honored by the Dez 5 Star Designation. No surprise that the 70’s reign supreme, and that the 60’s and 80’s are also well represented. As much as I’ve proclaimed the 90’s to be a musical wasteland, 43 albums is not bad.

Let’s look at who made the most appearances. We will start listing at three records:

3: The Band, Jeff Beck, David Bowie, The Byrds, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Miles Davis, Dire Straits, Genesis, Van Morrison, Radiohead, Tragically Hip, Yes

4: Peter Gabriel, The Kinks, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Who

5: The Beatles, The Police, U2

6: The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen

7: Neil Young

That all looks about right, with two rather important caveats. First, a four star record is still pretty awesome. Some artists that I really like put together many four star records. Take The Cars. They were here for two entries, but two other records would be four stars, and then three strong three star entries. Related to that point are artists from genres or eras that did not focus so much on the album format. I’m a big blues fan, but there were few blues albums on this list. Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, John Lee Hooker…love them all but they were definitely about the single vs. the album. Same goes for many soul greats like Sam Cooke. Such is the nature of the beast.

So, go out and get some of these! They have my highest recommendation. The list starts back in February if you need to click back to refresh your memory. I would love to see lists from some of you.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Dez's 5 Star Albums: X-Y-Z (Other Than Neil Young)

There will be one more post in this series after this one, a wrap-up post that will choose 15 additional records that, as I’ve gone through this project, I neglected to include but in hindsight wish I had. It is kind of a clean-up opportunity. So hold on to your seats, because if I have committed the unpardonable sin of omitting your favorite, perhaps I have seen the error of my ways and will include it in the Final 15. And what list would be complete without a statistical analysis/breakdown by decade, etc. I know how excited you must be to know that analysis is only a day or two away for your reading pleasure. But in the meantime, here’s “X-Z (Other Than Neil Young).”

Yes – The Yes Album (1971): Somewhat (but only somewhat) less ambitious than what was to come later in the decade, I really like this early record because while still featuring complex arrangements and intricate parts, it is still based in a certain rock and roll energy that their later works sometimes lacks.

Yes – Close To the Edge (1972): Indeed, right on that edge of being ambitious and thrilling progressive rock vs. prog-rock parody; here they stay on the right side of that line and produce a landmark for the genre.

Yes – 90125 (1983): Left for dead in the dustbin of 70’s prog-rock, Yes reinvents itself for the 80’s by keeping some of the complexity that Yes fans love, but also injecting a healthy dose of New Wave via new guitarist Trevor Rabin, making for an unlikely rebirth and their biggest seller.

Pete Yorn – Musicforthemorningafter (2001): Multi-instrumentalist Yorn’s debut heralded a new and exciting rock artist with all the right influences, equal Springsteen and equal Smiths, who has not been able to live up to the promise of this wonderful debut, but who has come close a few times.

Pete Yorn – Nightcrawler (2006): Yorn’s third record comes the closest.

Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention – Freak Out! (1966): Zappa’s debut was only the second double album in rock history (Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde was the first); the first half brilliantly deconstructs pop music of the early and mid-60’s, reframing it in a cynical and witty way, while the second half really is, as advertised, an experimental freak out.

Frank Zappa – Hot Rats (1969): Many fans, including myself, prefer it when Zappa, to quote his own later series of records, shuts up and plays his guitar; HR remains one of the most exciting and influential fusion records ever made, and allowed Zappa to move into the pantheon of guitar greats.

The Zombies – Odyssey and Oracle (1968): Beautiful, baroque pop with touches of psychedelia.

Zucchero – Oro, Insenso e Birra (1989): America and Britain do not have a monopoly on rock stars, Italy’s Zucchero Fornaciari has been thrilling European audiences and selling millions of records for decades, featuring his gritty vocals and irresistible melodic rock and funky grooves.

Zwan – Mary Star of the Sea (2003): Billy Corgan’s shortlived band released just this one record, and it basically sounds like the best Smashing Pumpkins record you’ve ever heard.

ZZ Top – Eliminator (1983): To me, ZZ Top’s Eliminator is as great a reinvention as any other in rock, while keeping the gritty fundamentals intact, on the most memorable tracks they toss aside the bass guitar and instead fill the bottom with the thickest and lowest synths you’ve ever heard, creating greasy blues/rock music at home in the slick MTV age.

ZZ Top – Tres Hombres (1973): The photo on the inside gatefold sleeve of the LP describes the music contained therein better than anything I can write:

Monday, May 21, 2012

Dez's 5 Star Albums: The Neil Young Edition

Long ago JMW and I had a conversation where we more or less agreed on the premise that in rock and roll, no matter how great you are, you only have a decade (give or take) of sustained greatness and importance. You might recapture it with a random release after your decade, but it will not be sustained. That is true even for the Rolling Stones, who have been together for 50 years. The Stones really made their mark from 1964-74, and then briefly recaptured the greatness in '78 with Some Girls, but other than '64-'74 and the '78 fluke, at best they released some good records amidst mediocrity. Some may argue for others (and I'd love to hear the arguments), but for me, Neil Young is the rock artist who has defied that general rule. His first decade (if you include work with Buffalo Springfield), was about '65-'75. He was one of the most vital artists working during that period. But he kept going. The late 70's continued that high level of work. The 80's were very interesting, but unsuccessful (although I love Trans). Then in '89 came Freedom, starting another extremely successful period that fizzled out in the late '90s. Now in the late 2000's, he has released two excellent, daring records, and I am hoping for a third great one next month. Who else has been around as long as Neil, and still releases creative, vital, daring, relevant records? Who else of Neil's vintage still tours and still keep the focus on the new material, vs. just giving you nostalgia shows?

Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969): Neil's first record with his garage band Crazy Horse remains their most potent studio collaboration; Neil apparently wrote the epics "Down By the River" and "Cowgirl in the Sand" while waylaid by a high fever, if only we were all so productive when ill.

Neil Young - Live at Massey Hall 1971 (live) (1971/2007): Neil will often preview an upcoming album at his shows instead of focusing on the album that he is supposed to be out promoting (I was lucky enough to catch him in '89 doing that for the upcoming Freedom), this wonderful solo acoustic show finds Neil in a great mood during a peak period, his between song chatter is often very funny, and he happens to be previewing songs that would eventually become Harvest.

Neil Young - Harvest (1972): Neil's most popular record could have set him up for a comfortable Jackson Browne/James Taylor like career as a 70’s acoustic-based singer-songwriter type, but as Neil once said of the record, it put him in the middle of the road, “but the ditch is much more interesting.”

Neil Young - Tonight's the Night (1975): Here’s the ditch, and it is much more interesting.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Rust Never Sleeps (live) (1979): There is a theory amongst the Neil faithful that he is rejuvenated at the turn of each decade and creates some of his greatest music at those points (this holds with the end of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, but sort of falls apart with the 90’s, although he is having a mini-renaissance currently); RNS is split evenly between his two most enduring musical personas, esoteric acoustic loner and garage rocker, and features some of his most compelling compositions in both genres.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Live Rust (live) (1979): Panned at the time as a cheap grab for cash coming so quick on the heels of Rust Never Sleeps, in hindsight this live record may be the single best way (outside of the compilation Decade) to introduce the uninitiated to the greatness of Neil Young.

Neil Young - Freedom (1989): After a decade in the wilderness, out of nowhere Neil shows up with one of his best and most diverse records, it rescued his career from the commercial dumpster, and featured acoustic gems as sweet as Harvest and edgy rockers that outdid Crazy Horse for intensity.

ABOVE: It was a bold artistic move, and seen as possible career suicide at the time, but after the success of Harvest, Neil veered off the rails and released a harrowing trilogy of records (Time Fades Away, Tonight’s the Night and On the Beach) that together conjure nightmare and L.A. fatigue in equal measure. In hindsight, that brilliant and bold trilogy set Neil up as the unpredictable, exciting and respected artist that he is today.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

I'm Slaughtering Whole Civilizations

What follows is a wonderful excerpt from Stewart Copeland's (drummer for The Police) book 'Strange Things Happen.' It is sort of an autobiography, but it is more a collection of journal entries from various parts of his life. I've said many times that Copeland is my favorite drummer, but he's also had a really interesting life. He is the son of a CIA operative, so he grew up in Beirut and other exotic locales. He's been in many bands, not just The Police. He's scored dozens of films and TV shows. He is also an avid and apparently very good polo player. While all of this is covered in his book, I am still most interested in his Police adventures. He actually doesn't talk much about the eight years when they were active, but the whole last third of the book consists of a series of journal entries about the recent Police reunion tour. One of the intangible things that makes the Police so great is the volatile relationship between Copeland and Sting. This account of a show is so funny...

Oh great. Sting's got a problem. Not much mystery to it, it's the usual. Me.

...First he starts waving his bass at me-often a good thing, but not this time...Instead of playing the damned thing, he's trying to conduct me with it. I've got nothing better to do than to figure out how I may cease to displease my beloved comrade, but you know what happens next.

In my mind I'm running through the lengthy list of displeasures. There's always the tempo thing, but right now he's rushing, not me, damn it. Then there is each and every instance that I hit a drum or a cymbal Go**amn it...

Andy takes a solo...When we get back to the song Sting has to snatch at the lyrics in the brighter tempo. Well, I know that's going to piss him off. And it does; now he's got Tourette's syndrome. He doesn't want to miss a precious word to his blessed song, so he's singing like a bird, but after every line of soaring beauty, his head twitches round to spit venom. There's an urgency to it. It's really important that he get his message across to me. It's vital that I not miss any drop of his outrage. Since I'm strenuously avoiding any outward sign of acknowledgement, he must employ ever larger gestures. I'm just focused on Andy...

But I fail to completely ignore it when he half turns, takes his left hand off the frets and starts to make whacking gestures to indicate when I should hit my backbeat. What?! Now we have eye contact for the first time all night. He's mouthing curses at me, as if he thinks I'll be persuaded by this to mellow out. Pumped up as I am by the show, this strikes me as the most heinous crime imaginable in stagecraft. Particularly since there are only three of us it's important not to frag your own team. I'm stunned. My body is strenuously engaged in sacred ritual and someone is shooting at me. What?!

I'm surging. Love and adore this you f*cking piece of sh*t! I actually have the perfect tools in my hands for this sentiment. Hard wood, strong drums, and 500,000 watts of amplified rage. The stadium full of screaming frenzy doesn't calm me down much, either. You f*cking - F*cking - F*ckkkkinnng bastard!

I'm in a whiteout of fury. My cymbals are flattened against their stands and the drums are clacking because I'm hitting them too hard. There are white and red flashes behind my eyeballs. Splinters are flying off my sticks, and I'm slaughtering whole civilizations.
This show was in Italy somewhere and was on Sting's birthday. Backstage before the show, Copeland had presented Sting with a present of a big tuba he had bought. They had a great time playing the tuba together before the show. After the show, and above, Copeland marches into Sting's dressing room and demands that he return the gift. Sting says he can't, he's already smashed it up.

I don't know why in the last ten seconds of this clip some dude is trying to get his cat into its cat carrier.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Dez's Five Star Records: The W's

We are nearing the end of this latest GNABB list. Makes me kind of sad, it has been a lot of fun. For instance, this installment made me listen closely to Swordfishtrombones (I knew its reputation and own it, but I finally needed to listen closely to see if it met Dez Five Star Standards), and I had not popped in Living With the Law for over a decade.

Tom Waits – Swordfishtrombones (1983): Nothing else out there sounds like this record (well, maybe Capt. Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica comes the closest, and some of Waits’s other albums), but it is an utterly strange record populated by misfits and outcasts, with his sandpaper voice telling strange tales of murderers and vagabonds amidst almost vaudeville instrumentation.

Whiskeytown – Stranger’s Almanac (1997): Ryan Adams’s prolific recording career has created a large discography but with somewhat static creative development; this sophomore effort from his first band is the peak of his writing, I think, and compares favorably to Uncle Tupelo in sound and spirit, although less punk and more country.

Chris Whitley – Living With the Law (1991): Houston’s own Chris Whitley made music that was uncompromising and verged on avant-blues/noise that established him as a cult favorite (he died in 2006), but I must profess to love his one shot at the mainstream, the Daniel Lanois-produced debut where Whitley attempted to make music with melody; it is a wonderful record that marries Whitley’s edgy guitar and songwriting to the moody soundscapes of Lanois, and honestly I probably like it so much because Lanois’s aesthetic dominates.

The Who – The Who Sell Out (1967): Pete Townshend wrote several famous concept albums for The Who, but none were as whimsical and fun (or pure pop) as TWSO, where they take on commercialism in music in an ambivalent way, even recording fake pirate radio commercials to link the tracks, and several of the songs are commercials themselves.

The Who – Live at Leeds (live) (1970/1995/2001): Good lord, Pete knows how to milk the Who catalogue for all it is worth, re-releasing each album with more and more material tacked on for us suckers who will rebuy them each time, but here the 2001 Super-Duper Deluxe Whatever Edition is well worth getting, as it presents the entire historic Leeds show, which may be the hardest rocking concert recording ever released, it is just fierce, and includes an entire run through of Tommy (or “Thomas,” as Townshend and Keith Moon cheekily introduce it) that blows the studio version out of the water.

The Who – Who’s Next (1971): To me, if you say “classic rock” and all that is good about it, I think of WN, a record with so much power but also that features groundbreaking experiments with synthesizers than still teach a master class in how synths can and should be used in hard rock music.

The Who – Quadrophenia (1973): While it may fail as a cohesive story, The Who’s Quadrophenia succeeds as some of their most dense, complex and stunning music (listen to John Entwistle’s bass in “The Real Me” or Townshend’s use of synthesizers in the title track or “Love, Reign O’er Me”…few bands have scaled such heights.)

Wilco – A.M. (1995): Wilco’s debut is probably the least daring of their records, where Jeff Tweedy stays close to his Uncle Tupelo roots (but I’m a huge Tupelo fan, so it makes sense that I love this record too) but now he has an entire album’s worth of space to use that he does not have to share with Jay Farrar.

Wilco – A Ghost Is Born (2004): I really like Wilco, but the critical ejaculations for everything this band does are a bit much (kinda like with Radiohead), but, on this one, I agree with the adulation; ghostly acoustic tunes stand side by side with melodic rockers that feature guitar work that echoes Neil Young primitive (I have it here even considering the pointless 15 minute “Less Than You Think” at the end that grinds the momentum to a halt).

Steve Winwood – Back In the High Life (1986): Casting aside his jazzy, improvisation-heavy past, Winwood goes for the commercial jugular and strikes pay dirt with this masterful set of melodic and irresistible pop tunes that dominated the radio in the mid-80’s. There is no shame in pop music, as long as it is good.

Cassandra Wilson – Traveling Miles (1999): Jazz singer Cassandra Wilson’s wonderful concept/tribute album about Miles Davis combines covers of songs that he famously covered and were therefore associated with him (“Someday My Prince Will Come” and a gorgeous “Time After Time” by Cyndi Lauper), but even more interestingly she takes several of his own songs and presumptuously adds some lyrics to them, making them over, like “Run the Voodoo Down,” “Seven Steps,” “Resurrection Blues (Tutu)” and “Sky and Sea (Blue in Green)”.

ABOVE: In 1976, The Who officially became the "loudest band in the world," according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Their show in London was measured at 126 decibels. Subsequent bands such as AC/DC and Motorhead would eclipse the record. In 2009, KISS achieved 136 decibels at a show in Canada, but had to turn it down due to noise complaints from people living in the vicinity of the venue.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Dez's 5 Star Albums: U-V

Sometimes an intangible greatness springs from collaborating/struggling between certain people. Lennon/McCartney, Jagger/Richards, Chilton/Bell, The Davies brothers…I would add Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy of Uncle Tupelo to that list. Uncle Tupelo was shortlived (four studio records), and both men moved on to bigger success, Farrar with his solo work and Son Volt, and Tweedy, of course, with Wilco. But I think their synergy made Uncle Tupelo something really special. All of the pairs listed above were better together than separate.

U2 – War (1983): The culmination of their early period, U2’s heart-on-their-sleeve martial music was finally stadium ready; listen to this record today and you can still feel a rush of excitement and sincerity before Bono discovered irony.

U2 – The Unforgettable Fire (1984): I think the key to U2’s staying power is that they usually know when they have reached the end of a particular musical road, and they are willing to take chances and change course; this moody and beautiful record was their first collaboration with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois and an experimental break from the sound that they had finally perfected on the previous record.

U2 – The Joshua Tree (1987): I’ve written about TJT at length, recall when I did my favorite albums countdown list, TJT came it at #1 and it would remain there today; perfectly written, perfectly produced, perfectly performed, perfectly paced, it is an album that evokes so much and is unabashedly ambitious. (NOTE: The deluxe edition with the bonus disc full of b-sides and outtakes is worth getting, listening to that you realize that TJT would have been a killer double album too).

U2 - Achtung Baby (1991): This is the most successful reinvention in all of rock history; Joshua Tree was perfection, but Rattle and Hum had made them a parody of themselves, so U2 went to Berlin to capture that Bowie/Eno vibe (didn’t really find it, the real magic happened later in Dublin), put aside their American fixations and rediscovered that they were Europeans.

U2 – Zooropa (1993): I know that Achtung Baby is a better record, but I enjoy listening to Zooropa more, which is where they harness the Euro vibe and whimsy better than ever before or since.

Uncle Tupelo – No Depression (1990): Tupelo was a short lived band, but they left an impressive legacy and helped spark a new movement that borrowed equally from country/folk roots and punk; their debut is the purest distillation of that sound and ethos.

Uncle Tupelo – March 16-20, 1992 (1992): This is where Jeff Tweedy comes into his own as an equal partner with Jay Farrar, it is a modern folk masterpiece where perfect covers stand alongside some stunning originals; it was also the beginning of the end, since Farrar and Tweedy could not co-exist in the same band that started off as Farrar’s band but with the emergence of Tweedy’s talent needed to evolve into a more equal partnership.

Van Halen – Van Halen (1978): Eddie Van Halen is a d*ck, but you cannot deny the seismic shift VH’s debut caused in the guitar/hard rock/metal communities; David Lee Roth was the perfect tongue-in-cheek foil for VH’s bombast.

Van Halen – 1984 (1984): Van Halen using synthesizers? Hell yeah, and Eddie makes the synths sound heavy too on the most fun rock record of the 80’s.

Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble – Texas Flood (1983): Rarely does one album alter the entire music industry, but SRV’s debut resurrected a genre (blues) from the dustbin of history and infused it with new life and vitality, sparking a resurgence that is still going strong.

Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble – Couldn’t Stand the Weather (1984): Bringing some rock to his blues party, the title track is SRV’s greatest rock/blues fusion, and “Cold Shot” flashes some humor in a song that rocks and swings equally hard.

Eddie Vedder - ‘Into the Wild’ original motion picture soundtrack (2007): Vedder’s hopeful songs/fragments for this ultimately harrowing film are more vital than anything Pearl Jam has done in years, it might be time for Vedder to permanently move on from his band.

Velvet Underground (and Nico) – Velvet Underground & Nico (1967): A record that can shock and astound as much today as when it came out, Lou Reed and his Velvets couldn’t have been further from the period’s flower power ethos, instead swimming in urban gutters with “Heroin” and “I’m Waiting For the Man” or looking straight in the face of kinky sex with “Venus in Furs,” shifting from lilting pop (“Sunday Morning”) to avant noise (“European Son”).

The Verve – A Storm in Heaven (1993): Urban Hymns and Northern Soul have better individual songs, but I love the cohesive psychedelic influenced wall of sound from one of the best British bands of the 1990’s.

ABOVE: We may argue over the great American band, but there is no question that U2 is the great Irish band. In fact, they are arguably the most important band from anywhere of the last 30 years. If you have followed their career, you will notice several key points where they reached the culmination of a certain sound they worked on for several records, but instead of stagnating or repeating, they bravely veered in a new direction and reinvented themselves. That is the key to their long term vitality.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Two Quick Things

First, RIP Donald “Duck” Dunn (1941-2012). Bass player for Booker T. and the MGs, Dunn was in the house band for Stax Records, laying down the fat and groovy bass lines for Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and many others. Southern soul was anchored by the bass of Dunn. Booker T. and MGs also had some funky hits of their own, notably “Green Onions.” Dunn played bass as a session player on a staggering number of albums, for artists like Eric Clapton, Tom Petty, Freddie King, Neil Young, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Dylan…the list goes on and on and on. He was also in the Blues Brothers band and movie. I got to see him play at a great show when Neil Young toured in the 90’s with Booker T. and MGs as his band. RIP Donald “Duck” Dunn.

Speaking of Neil, I am quite excited about his new record coming out next month. Entitled Americana, it is comprised of traditional folk and protest songs. I know, we’ve heard this before, but not this way. Usually, artists like Springsteen, Mellencamp and others try to approach these songs with a certain reverence, often doing them acoustically, approximating their original format. Not Neil. He is running these tunes through the ragged glory garage of Crazy Horse. I’ve heard the lead-off track, “Oh Susannah,” and it is so great. Neil recasts the old folk tune as a rumbling, ramshackle Crazy Horse anthem. That is what I admire. Don’t just cover something, if you are going to cover folk or blues tunes, take them somewhere new. Can’t wait for this album. Crazy Horse steamrolling through the Americana folk canon.

ABOVE: Watch this creepy video for Neil Young & Crazy Horses's "Oh Susannah." I hope the whole album is this good.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Dez's 5 Star Albums: The T's

I've said this before, but I'll say it again. I have been enjoying this project immensely, in part, because it has made me go back and rediscover forgotten gems, or in a few cases, give a closer listen to something and really discover its greatness for the first time. I have been having a blast putting this together. Perhaps that explains the rather brisk pace. On the other side of the coin, it has forced me to re-evaluate some records and some that off the top of my head I would have said belong, I have ended up demoting to lesser stars upon closer listens. Of course, as it has gone along, I have regretted not putting a handful on there. So I will have a "clean up" post at the end, where I list a few records that I should have included but who's letters have already gone by. Feel free to strongly lobby for something (as ANCIANT has done recently for Sting's ...Nothing Like the Sun) to make the clean up post).

T. Rex – Electric Warrior (1971): No offense to you Bowie fans out there, but is this the definitive glam record? I think so.

Talking Heads – Stop Making Sense (live) (1984/1999): I know this release is somewhat frowned upon by Talking Heads fans, but I have always loved it and find it to be a fine (and wonderful sounding) overview of their most popular period, and the show unfolds in an interesting way, slowly expanding the sound song after song. (Note: I consider the 1999 remastered, expanded release to be the definitive version, as it includes all of the songs from the 1984 film and is the real, complete show).

Tears For Fears – Songs From the Big Chair (1985): 80’s defining tracks like “Shout,” “Everybody Wants To Rule the World” and “Head Over Heels” might disguise the fact that this is an ambitious pop/rock album that would sound fantastic in any era. (Note: the expanded edition is worthwhile, not only is the remastering job fantastic, but a second disc contains some experimental b-sides from the era and the remixes of songs from the album).

Television – Marquee Moon (1977): One of those definitive New Wave landmark records, but it doesn’t really sound too New Wave, honestly, due to the sizzling guitar interplay between Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd.

Richard and Linda Thompson Shoot Out the Lights (1982): Recorded and released as their marriage was crumbling, SOTL is the perfect record about love and loss, and of course it features the usual stellar guitar work from Richard.

Richard Thompson – ‘Grizzly Man’ original motion picture soundtrack (2005): On rare occasions, a film’s soundtrack is so good that it can stand alone as a beautiful piece of work, and Thompson’s haunting score for Werner Herzog’s fascinating documentary about grizzly bear nut Timothy Treadwell is one such soundtrack, where his music captures the wonder, beauty, darkness and danger of the film.

Pete Townshend – All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes (1982): Pete claims that he was so strung out during this period that he has no recollection of recording this album; too bad, because it is his most interesting (and at times impenetrable) set of lyrics, and the music has a subtle and nice flow to it; it is clear when you compare this and Empty Glass to the Who records coming out at the same time that he was saving his best material for himself.

Traffic – The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys (1971): Once Dave Mason left (or was pushed out, depending on who you believe), Traffic became Steve Winwood’s band, and as such moved into more jazzy, improvisational territory, especially with the remarkable epic title track, but Jim Capaldi’s contributions (“Rock and Roll Stew” and “Light Up Or Leave Me Alone”) made sure there were still a few straight rock songs in the mix.

The Tragically Hip – Up To Here (1989): Canada’s best band (sorry Rush fans) got the closest to breaking through in the U.S. mainstream with their debut (they had already released an EP only in Canada that is worth hunting down for Hip fanatics), a fine mix of snarling rockers and acoustic gems highlighted by Gordon Downie’s shaky delivery and fascinating stream of consciousness lyrics.

The Tragically Hip – Road Apples (1991): This is The Hip’s hardest hitting rock album and my personal favorite in their discography, it is also a favorite amongst Hip fans in the Great White North.

The Tragically Hip – Fully Completely (1992): Considered to be their best record by many (although does suffer from some production deficiencies that the band consider severe), quite a few of these tracks were Canadian radio hits.

David Troy – It Will Be (1989): This entry is for all of the unsung musicians who are out there creating great music, but for whatever reasons, never make it beyond the local or regional scene; I saw this guy and his band up in Colorado on one of my many trips with Johannes, they gave a great show, and I still pop in their promo tape I bought at the show. These are great songs and this guy should have gone places, like so many out there.

ABOVE: Traffic is one of those bands (and there are many others) that I really like, despite making only one appearance on this list. They rarely put together a classic record from start to finish, but most of their records included some stellar tunes. Traffic had an interesting evolution. On the first couple of records, Steve Winwood and Dave Mason struggled with eachother for the sound and leadership, making those records a bit interesting and diverse. Once Mason was out, Winwood's Traffic went into a more daring, jazz-influenced, improvisation phase.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Round 2 NBA Playoff Predictions

I hate it when they start the second round while there are still round 1 series to be decided. But I need to get my predictions up now since the round 2 games start later today.

So first, I guess I should predict the outcomes of the two Game 7's today and tomorrow. Due to the injuries of Blake Griffin and Chris Paul (although both are still playing), and the overall tenacity and nastiness of The Grizzlies, I've got to give The Griz the series. Plus, it's the Clippers.

As far as that other L.A. team, what are they called again? Oh yeah, The Lakers. Denver has fought mightily to bring it to a Game 7, but I've got to think that experience, Kobe's competitiveness and the return of Metta Ron World Artest Peace take over and The lakers make it through.

So how did I do in Round 1, assuming my Game 7 predictions are also true? If my predictions here come to pass, I will be 6-2 on predicting the outcomes, and I also predicted the Heat sweep.

On to Round 2...

Spurs vs. Grizzles: As great as The Spurs are, I shudder at the thought of facing the Grizzles again. Recall last season, The Spurs were also a one seed and the Grizz were 8. They met in the first round, and the Grizzlies defeated them, in large part due to an advantage in the paint. The Grizzlies still have that advantage. But, Ginobili was hurt and this is a much better Spurs team than last season. It will be a tough fought series, but the Spurs win this time. Spurs in 6. (And if their opponent turns out to be The Clippers, I would still give it to the Spurs in 6).

Thunder vs. Lakers: I think the time has passed for The Lakers (at least in this configuration) and the time has arrived for The Thunder. Thunder in 6. (And if the opponent turns out to be Denver, then Thunder in 5).

Heat vs. Pacers: The Pacers are one of those lower seeds that nobody wants to face in a series. Still, Miami's path to The Finals is fairly clear now that the hobbled Bulls are out of the picture. Heat in 6 (The Pacers will genuinely win one and The Heat will give one away because that is what they do in each series they play).

Celtics vs. 76ers: The 76ers just aren't a good team. They beat a Bulls team that had lost its two best players and its mojo. Celtics in 5.


Thursday, May 10, 2012

Dez's 5 Star Albums: Part 2 of the S's

Springsteen used to be the end-all, be-all of rock music for me. At his best, he inspired such fierce loyalty and belief. Seeing him live during his heyday was an event, not just a concert. It was something people planned for, something you would drive several states to attend. He still gives a great show, but not like that anymore, not like his very life depends on it. As with all rock heroes who age, he couldn’t stay at that summit forever. His classic period, from 1973-85 (the two albums from that period not listed below, The River and Nebraska, were both solid 4 star releases) was nearly unmatched for quality in rock and roll. After the juggernaut of Born in the U.S.A., he almost had to come crashing back down to earth, and he did. Since then, he has put out some good albums and some great songs, but nothing to really match that 12 year streak.

Bruce Springsteen – Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ (1973): Bruce’s debut is a burst of pent up energy as songs so verbose that the lyrics practically tumble over each other come one after the other; it is also interesting/fun because he had not settled on his persona (not even an early one) yet.

Bruce Springsteen – The Wild, The Innocent & the E Street Shuffle (1974): This is the studio record that best captures the loose, jazzy spirit of Bruce’s early club shows (a key is that the personnel of his early band swung harder than the eventual E Street Band could), featuring epic favorites like “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” and “Incident on 57th Street”; my favorite Springsteen record.

Bruce Springsteen – Born To Run (1975): Bruce’s third outing landed him on the covers of Time and Newsweek in the same week, he went for broke and tried to make something truly epic, and it worked, the legend was born.

Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band – Hammersmith Odeon, London ’75 (live) (1975/2006): Long a favorite show of bootleggers until it was given an official release in ‘06, Bruce’s first overseas show finds him playing with breakneck desperation in a make or break performance, highlighted by an 18-minute romp through the jazzy “Kitty’s Back” (from his great second record).

Bruce Springsteen – Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978): In stark contrast to what came before, Springsteen strips everything down to raw essentials, tossing aside the epic escape fantasies of Born To Run and instead turns his attention for the first time to those who can’t or won’t run away, exploring working class frustrations and realities in what may be his most powerful set of songs.

Bruce Springsteen – Born in the U.S.A. (1984): Bruce was big before, but this record put him on a superstar level with the elite of rock history, featuring an impressive seven hit singles, it is the most commercial, concise and catchiest album of his career.

Stephen Stills – Stills Live (live) (1975): Recorded near the end of his peak period before a sharp decline in his songwriting and skills, it is great that Stills chose to release a live record when he did, one neatly divided evenly between a somewhat sloppy but spirited electric side and an often stunning acoustic side.

Sting – Dream of the Blue Turtles (1985): I admire Sting’s decision to make a sharp break in style once he left The Police, his solo debut features a jazz all-star band backing him, and his decision to use these jazz musicians on a pop/rock record results in often interesting and exciting moments.

Sting – The Soul Cages (1991): Sting’s solo career started off very strong, but this was the last great record of his before he put on the cruise control and decided to take less risks, it did not do well commercially but it is a lovely if somber affair ruminating on the recent death of his father and other such happy things.

The Stone Roses – The Stone Roses (1989): Sometimes those stars that shine the brightest burn out the fastest, and such is the case with this band whose debut announced a resurgence in British rock music; the resurgence did occur, but the band that was as responsible as anyone for starting it imploded soon after without reaping the rewards of the renaissance they helped inspire.

(Iggy and) The Stooges – Raw Power (1973): While maintaining that, err, raw power that made The Stooges the godfathers of punk, their third release shows just enough progression and structure to make RP an interesting step forward.

The Streets – Original Pirate Material (2002): Once you get beyond the novelty of a white British rapper (Mike Skinner) and dig into these tunes, you will find ruminations on modern daily life for an average English bloke that can be alternatively funny and often profound.

Strength in Numbers – The Telluride Sessions (1989): This one-off release by a supergroup of Newgrass virtuosos (Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Tony Rice, Edgar Meyer) is intriguing precisely because none of these songs are really bluegrass songs, but intricate compositions that are impossible to categorize and that just happen to be played on traditional bluegrass instruments.

The Subdudes – The Subdudes(1989): The ‘Dudes’s unique instrumentation (especially using miked tambourines for percussion) and breezy sound perfectly evoke their hometown of New Orleans’s easy manner, open mind and open heart and the handling of life’s trials and travails with dignity and an upbeat spirit.

ABOVE: The members of Strength in Numbers constitute the vanguard of a pretty remarkable resurgence in bluegrass / roots music that started in the late 80’s. If you follow the music of each of these guys individually or in their various collaborations, they generally go way beyond the traditional and experiment within all types of genres. Bela Fleck (with his Flecktones) has found the most success, but all are worth exploring. On a personal note, the Strength in Numbers record is what first introduced me to Fleck and these others. If not for this record, I would have never agreed with Johannes that we should attend that Bela Fleck show one summer evening in 1992, and how my musical tastes would have been different had we not attended that remarkable show. It was one of those few shows that alter one’s whole musical perspective.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Dez's 5 Star Albums: The S's, Pt. 1

The S's are probably my lengthiest letter, so it will be split into two still lengthy posts. I'm moving Springsteen slightly out of order, since I would have to split his entries between the two posts if I had stayed strictly alphabetical. I like to keep the artists together within a single post.

Raphael Saadiq - Stone Rollin' (2011): A modern soul/funk classic that has a joyful bounce reminiscent of prime Sly Stone.

Santana - Santana III (1971): Out of the 463 people who have come through Carlos Santana's band, this line-up is the most exciting, featuring a worthy guitar foil to Carlos in Neal Schon and also featuring organist/vocalist Greg Rollie, both of whom would soon leave to form Journey.

Santana - Caravanerai (1972): Often overlooked but bold fusion record that alternates between In a Silent Way-like calm and burning rock improvisation.

Joe Satriani - Satriani Live! (2006): Out of all of the guitar technician noodler wankers (that's a technical term), Satch is the one who matches his stunning technique with great writing and melodies that you might actually want to listen to.

Paul Simon - Graceland (1986): Simon wasn't the first Western pop star to experiment with world music, but his smash record Graceland opened a lot of Western ears to new sounds by marrying infectious African pop with his usual set of masterful compositions.

Simon & Garfunkel - Sounds of Silence (1966): Pop folk just doesn't get any more beautiful or pure than this.

Smashing Pumpkins - Siamese Dream (1993): Billy Corgan's mix of melodic, melancholy songs with his wall of sound prog rock/psychedelic noise stood out in sharp contrast to the back to basics grunge movement of the time.

The Smiths - The Queen Is Dead (1986): While justifiably known primarily as one of the greatest singles bands of the 80's, TQID showed that Morrissey and Marr were also capable of making thrilling, cohesive records.

Alexander 'Skip' Spence - Oar (1969): What makes 60's acid casualty Skip Spence's (of Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape) only solo record so fascinating, beautiful and gripping is his immense talent still barely gets him through in these haunting, fragile songs / fragments recorded completely solo and just after Spence had been discharged from the mental ward.

Spinal Tap - 'This Is Spinal Tap' original motion picture soundtrack (1984): Yes, they were a joke band created for the brilliant film, but part of what makes the film so great and so damn funny is that these great parodies of hard rock / metal c*ck rock fit so comfortably (and affectionately) next to the real thing (try the "KISS lyric or Spinal Tap lyric" game sometime to see what I mean).

Dusty Springfield - Dusty in Memphis (1969): Taking the British perfectionist torch singer out of her comfort zone and making her record a soul record almost against her will, due to almost crippling insecurities, turned out to be an inspired move, to say the least.

Steely Dan - Can't Buy a Thrill (1972): Steely Dan was strong straight out of the gate, with this debut featuring classics like "Do It Again" and "Reelin' in the Years" (with some of the tastiest guitar work of the 70's), as well as personal Dan favorites like "Dirty Work" and "Kings."

Steely Dan - Countdown to Ecstasy (1973): While all of their 70's records up through Aja deserve recognition, I guess I prefer the earlier days when they were still a real band vs. a studio laboratory for Fagan and Becker.

Rod Stewart - Every Picture Tells a Story (1971): It is a shame if all you remember about Rod is cheesy late 70's schlock or lazy interpretations of standards, because there was a time when he was a gritty roots rocker destined for greatness (with a huge assist from Ron Wood).

ABOVE: Not only was Jeff "Skunk" Baxter a member of Steely Dan for their first three albums and later a member of The Doobie Brothers (he looks like a Doobie, doesn't he?), but he was also an in demand session guitarist. Baxter currently chairs a congressional advisory board on missile defense, and he has high level security clearance and consults for the Defense Department and the CIA. Really.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Biden Is Safe

The treasure trove of intelligence gained from our killing of Osama Bin Laden has been immense. I've been reading some of the articles about what has been released thus far for public consumption, and one thing I particularly enjoyed was Bin Laden's assessment of our vice-president. In one of the many letters from Bin Laden to his associates, he discussed how president Obama and Gen. Petraeus should be assassinated on one of their visits to Afghanistan. But vice-president Biden was not to be touched. Why? Because in Bin Laden's words, Biden "is totally unprepared for that post [the presidency]," and that if Biden were to take over for a slain Obama, it would "lead the U.S. into a crisis."
ABOVE: If Biden takes over, the terrorists win

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Dez's 5 Star Records: The R's, part 2

If you have been reading this list all along, you now know my personal answer to the age old question: Beatles or The Stones? The Beatles were the most important rock and roll band, I know that. But I think that The Rolling Stones were/are the Greatest (although not my favorite). From the beginning, they embodied the danger and decadence that makes rock and roll so seductive. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are absolutely ruthless in so many ways. Keith did more drugs and harder drugs than anybody. Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin…you can list all of the casualties of the era, but Keith outlasts them all with a sheepish grin on his face. Gram Parsons had a Stones fixation and partied hard with Keith, but Gram didn’t make it. Anyone who works with The Glimmer Twins understands the hierarchy. Keith and Mick may hate each other, but they stand united against anyone else. It may have started out as Brian Jones’s band, but Keith and Mick took control because they could write the songs. When Mick Taylor rightfully demanded writing credit on the songs he contributed to during the Stones’s peak period, the best guitarist the Stones ever had met the Jagger/Richards brick wall and had to leave. Keith Richards is the coolest, baddest cat in all of rock and roll because above all he has survived while he has been on everyone’s Death Watch shortlist since the 60’s. Mick Jagger is one of the most iconic rock stars, yet nobody can really give you any insight into who he really is (as Keith once said, “Mick doesn’t have any real friends”). Who that guy is underneath the prancing, preening cock of the walk is a complete mystery to fans, critics, bandmates and ex-wives. Keith and Mick are more rock and roll than anyone before or since, mostly because they are absolutely f***ing ruthless.

The Replacements – Let It Be (1984): I place Paul Westerberg and his band on the same level as Big Star in many ways (“Alex Chilton” was a hero of Westerberg’s), a band that remained a cult act during its existence but whose reputation has justifiably grown and grown as the years go by; Westerberg’s weary voice would not win on American Idol, but expresses more than any of those pop tarts could possibly comprehend.

The Replacements – Don’t Tell a Soul (1989): The ‘Mats faithful see this album as the point where everything started to go wrong, but if you listen to much of Westerberg’s solo career, this more carefully crafted pop sound seems to be really where his heart is, and I love the slicker pop tunes with his contrasting rugged voice still slicing through them.

Robbie Robertson – Robbie Robertson (1987): What I admire most about Robbie’s solo career is that although he may lyrically mine some of the same territory as his Band days, it is about as complete a break from his past musically as is possible, with carefully constructed songs featuring meticulously produced synthesizers and layered guitars more akin to Peter Gabriel or U2 (who both appear on this record, by the way) than Music From Big Pink.

The Rolling Stones – Beggar’s Banquet (1968): Where the Stones stop trying to ape the blues of others and create some of their own.

The Rolling Stones – Let It Bleed (1969): Imagine an album opening with “Gimme Shelter” and closing with “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” and then the meat in between is just as tasty.

The Rolling Stones – Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out (live) (1970): A sloppy, brilliant, gritty mess from their peak period; all other live Stones albums should be used as coasters.

The Rolling Stones – Sticky Fingers (1971): The excess and lifestyle finally catches up to them and they sound incredibly weary here, making this the most arresting record of their career and my personal favorite of theirs.

The Rolling Stones – Exile on Main Street (1972): At a time and in an environment that should have resulted in a sprawling, unfocused, double record mess The Stones create a sprawling, unfocused, double record mess that is generally acknowledged as one of the greatest rock records ever made, while sounding like it was recorded in a gutter.

The Rolling Stones – Some Girls (1978): With Keith facing another possible jail sentence due to his continuing heroin habit, Mick takes the leadership reins and feeding off the musical energy of NYC in the late 70’s (punk, disco and New Wave), he helps the Stones take in all of those trends and creates the last great Rolling Stones record (although some good ones, like Tattoo You and Undercover, would come later).

Rush – Moving Pictures (1981): I know this is the Rush album that even non-Rush fans like, but come on, it is so great (just the opening synth/drum line of “Tom Sawyer” is iconic); I appreciate quite a bit of Rush actually (notwithstanding Geddy Lee’s vocals), but they just don’t get any better than this, where they make musical precision sound almost soulful.

ABOVE: After the prodigious amounts of drugs and fast living, one of the closest brushes with death for Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones was in 2006 when he fell out of a coconut tree in Fiji and cracked his skull.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Dez's 5 Star Albums: The R's, part I

I have one of my few soul selections in this batch. Echoing a point I have made before, the lack of soul albums does not reflect a dislike of the genre. To the contrary, I am a big fan of Sam Cooke, Smokey Robinson, Temptations, Otis, etc. As with many blues artists of that and previous eras, though, they were more about singles than cohesive albums. This list focuses on the album.

Radiohead – The Bends (1995): Before the much lauded experimentation, Radiohead released a kick ass rock record that echoed bands from the past but also featured a fiercely unique vision.

Radiohead – OK Computer (1997): The orgasmic critical and fan reaction to this was a bit overwhelming and created some backlash (at least from me), but enough time has passed to where I can listen to it without the surrounding hype and hear much that is great; although to be honest, I still more admire OKC than love it.

Radiohead – Kid A (2000): I like Amnesiac about as much as Kid A, but I’ll give the edge to Kid A since it has a more unified sound and it had the bigger impact coming first. NOTE: Even Thom Yorke has said that Kid A and Amnesiac should have been released together as a double. I agree. I view them as pieces of one work.

Red Hot Chili Peppers – By the Way (2002): How this band has progressed and grown over the years is quite impressive, BTW represents the peak of their songwriting and exciting sonic explorations.

Otis Redding – Otis Blue (1965): Sam Cooke was the greatest soul singer, but Otis was my favorite; this may be the best soul record ever made, Otis uses his gritty Southern-Stax sound on a mix of brilliant originals and outstanding covers (including three from Cooke[Otis absolutely owns “Shake”] and even one from the Rolling Stones).

Lou Reed – Transformer (1972): Lou’s best album features wonderful shots of glam, but also solid pop songs with subversive lyrics (listen closely to unlikely hit “Walk on the Wild Side”) and moments of real beauty (“Perfect Day.”)

Lou Reed – Rock and Roll Animal (live) (1974): Lou has mostly been willfully perverse in his strange career moves over the decades and often alienating albums, but here he decides to give the people what they want with a bruising, rocking live album highlighted by the glittering, glam guitar work of Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner.

REM – Out of Time (1991): I don’t even like “Losing My Religion,” but the rest alternates between great pop music and moody pieces that all work.

REM – New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996): I don’t know why this record made so little impact when it came out, but I stand by it as one of REM’s most complete records that shows all of their latter day strengths; also notable as the last record as a four piece and the last album before they started to suck.

ABOVE: Lou Reed makes my five star list, but Lou is also notable for creating what many critics consider to be the worst record of all time, 1975's Metal Machine Music. It is an album of modulated feedback and tape hiss. It was seen as a joke or a "F you" from Lou at the time, but of course, it has been reassessed by some as a revolutionary birth of industrial music. And it's a double. I own it, of course. It's bad.