Friday, August 30, 2013

Dez Record Guides: The Band

Something I said about CSNY awhile back also applies to The Band. Their reputation really rests on their first two phenomenal records. Everything that came after, and there was some good stuff, was viewed in the shadow of those two. The Band were always more beloved by their fellow musicians and critics than they were the general public. You don’t really hear The Band blaring from car radios very much. That’s a shame, they were such a unique group and had a profound effect on their fellow musicians. Eric Clapton has said many times that listening to The Band’s debut was one of the main reasons he broke up Cream. Their organic, earthy music that is out of time (not out of rhythm, but not of any era) hasn’t been replicated, although many have tried. The loose (to be generous) harmonies of Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel were the anti-CSN, yet it worked. Robbie Robertson’s economical yet always tasteful guitar work and songwriting (as much as Helm disputed Robertson’s copyrights) were the groundwork, and then add Garth Hudson’s multi-instrumental brilliance and the funkiest white rhythm section in rock (Helm and Danko), and you see why they earned the right to be simply known as The Band.

Music From Big Pink (1968) *****
From the mysterious, faceless name of the group (Robertson said they liked the name because it was both "humble and presumptuous at the same time"), to their cool factor of being the former backing group for Bob Dylan (who drew the picture on the album cover), people were already predisposed to like these guys. Yet MFBP came out of left field in 1968 and shocked everyone who heard it. It doesn’t sound shocking today because so many people since have followed their lead, but imagine this coming out in the middle of the psychedelic late 60’s. I still don’t know what “The Weight” or “Chest Fever” are even about, but they are awesome.

The Band (1969) *****
The debut was more mysterious and probably had a bigger impact, but this is their best record. From the subject matter of the songs (Civil War stories, dark rural adventures, farmer unionization) to the group photo that looks like it could have been taken in 1869 just as easily as 1969, The Band takes the listener deeper into American roots than anything I’ve ever heard. Not bad for a group of four Canadians and one Arkansas hillbilly (Helm). It is not the surface Americana that is so popular today ("let’s add some acoustic instruments, maybe a banjo or something, and then we can say we are playing roots music"). No, The Band still primarily used rock and roll instrumentation (although liberally augmented by a tuba here, a jew’s harp and mandolin there), the Americana is really in the feeling, the playing, the songwriting.

Stagefright (1970) ***
After the first two records, expectations were impossibly high. Stagefright was seen as a disappointment when it was released, but given the benefit of time and by taking it on its own more modest terms, it is a very good, although not great, record. Robertson is in firm control by this point (according to Helm it was his ruthless dictatorial nature that ruined the band democratic vibe, according to Robertson the group was starting to splinter and somebody had to step up). It is kind of ridiculous to call any record a disappointment when it includes songs like the title track, “The Shape I’m In” and “The Rumor.”

Cahoots (1971) ***
Cahoots is sort of forgotten, but it is good. I like a lot of these songs, and “Life Is a Carnival” lives up to its title with a funky and jubilant horn arrangement courtesy of Allen Toussaint, while the strange Richard Manuel/Van Morrison duet gambler tale “4% Pantomime” is a romp. (One of the more well known tunes is a cover of Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” but Levon Helm’s twangy singing about being in Paris…doesn’t really work for me).

Rock of Ages (live) (1972) ***1/2
A solid live set recorded on New Year’s Eve (even better now that it has been recently remastered and expanded) with some moments of greatness. The Band are in top form, and they are bolstered by a fantastic horn section with arrangements by the great Allen Toussaint. “Don’t Do It” is funky as hell.

Moondog Matinee (1973) **
Ominously, they follow a live (very good) placeholder with a record filled with covers. The well was running dry by this point. The musicianship is top notch, of course, and some of these are spirited and fun. But there is really no point.

Live at Watkins Glen (live) (1973/1995) NR

ABOVE: Performing with Bob Dylan. The Band (minus Levon Helm who took a break) backed Dylan on his first electric tour in the mid-60's. Folk purists booed Dylan and the group, but in the process the Band helped Dylan change the face of rock music.

Before the Flood (live) (with Bob Dylan) (1974) ****
Both Dylan and The Band were in slumps at this time, so why not join forces once again and try and bolster each other’s fortunes with a big tour and live record? Why not, indeed, when the results are this good. There is nothing new here, but the performances are incendiary in places, and the Dylan songs (with The Band backing him) are especially spirited.

The Basement Tapes (with Bob Dylan) (1967/1975) ***
Some time after The Band (sans Helm) had backed Dylan on his game changing electric tour in the mid-60's, Bob and the boys retreated to the woods of New York to hang out and loosely record. Before it saw official release in ’75, these sessions were perhaps the most bootlegged sessions in rock. In fact, it was the prevalence of the bootlegs that convinced the parties involved, “why the hell not, let’s put it out.” These songs are loose, fun, some are simply goofs, but with the people involved at this time in their lives, there are also some great songs here too almost by accident.

Northern Lights – Southern Cross (1975) ***
Hailed at the time of release as a triumphant return to form, I think it is merely a good record. There are some great songs that live up to their best material (the jubilant “Ophelia,” the devastating “It Makes No Difference,” which is Rick Danko’s finest vocal moment, and the Cajun historical epic “Acadian Driftwood”), but there is also a bit of well played filler here too. Part of the excitement was that it was the first set of original studio material released since 1971.

Islands (1977) *
Can you say “contract obligation?” They had already finished the huge Last Waltz project, but wanted to release it on Warner Brothers, but they still owed Capitol one more record. So with that inspiration came Islands. An odds ‘n sods collection of second rate, hastily assembled new material and leftovers.

The Last Waltz (live) (with guests) (1976/1978/2002) *****
Certainly ambitious, Robbie Robertson decided that he wanted to call it quits at least as a touring band, and so put together this final live bash, complete with Thanksgiving dinner served to the fans. He got buddy Martin Scorsese to film it, and the result is, in my view, the greatest music documentary ever made. Some of the other Band members, notably Levon Helm, did not agree with Robbie’s decision, and the tension is clear in the non-musical parts of the doc. But the chemistry is still there onstage. Helm was also angry with how Manuel and Danko were portrayed, but you can argue that they knew the cameras were rolling and that was them being them. The fragile wreck that Manuel had become is certainly sad and disturbing, and Helm never forgave Robertson or Scorsese for exploiting Manuel’s condition for their “vanity project.” Regardless, the music is exemplary, with The Band roaring through their own classics and then backing an amazing list of guests on some of their own tunes, like Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Ronnie Hawkins, Muddy Waters, Neil Diamond, Paul Butterfield, Dr. John, Bobby Charles. That list of artists is a testament to the respect The Band had from their fellow artists. Getting such cagey artists as Dylan, Young and Morrison to agree to show up for anything? I love the stories of Neil Diamond talking trash to Dylan before he went on. The expanded box set released in 2002 is the one to get.

ABOVE: Troubled Richard Manuel could sing like a soulful angel, but he was not in good shape by the time The Last Waltz was filmed and recorded.

Jericho (1993) **
High on the Hog (1996) **
Jubilation (1998) **

Richard Manuel was dead (from a 1986 suicide in a Florida motel room) and Robbie Robertson was involved in his own solo career and not on speaking terms with Levon Helm, but Helm, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson decided to carry on in the 1990’s under The Band’s moniker. The result is, as always, well played, but fairly uninteresting. The high point, by miles, is an outstanding cover of Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” that even outdoes The Boss. Danko’s death in ’99 put an official end to any future Band activity, and Helm died in 2012.

Selected Compilations:
There are several available. The only one that was released during their 70’s heyday was The Best of The Band (1976) ****, and while it is a bit short and missing a couple of essentials like “Chest Fever” and “Acadian Driftwood,” it actually flows and works really well as a piece. The Best of the Band, vol. II (1999) ** focuses exclusively on the 90’s material, and is not necessary but a good place to go if you are curious. Just download “Atlantic City” and you are fine for the 90’s. Greatest Hits (2000) ***** is a nearly perfect single disc overview (although it is missing “Twilight”). But I would recommend diving into the deep end with the box set A Musical History (2005) *****, which is everything a high end box set should be. Five discs of music, a DVD of rare performances, and a beautiful book. Nearly forty of the tracks are rare or previously unreleased, and there are some real gems in there.

Solo Work:
All of the members released solo work or collaborated with others. Robbie Robertson is the only one that I have followed extensively, and I really admire him for not trying to recreate The Band vibe. In fact, sonically, it is about as far away from the gritty, earthy sound of his former group as he could get. Instead, he went down the route of being heavily produced, using extensive programming and synthesizer work, etc. I like his first two solo records the best, Robbie Robertson (1987) **** and Storyville (1991) ***1/2. His debut opens with a gorgeous tribute to Richard Manuel, “Fallen Angel,” featuring some otherworldly harmony vocals from Peter Gabriel.

Bottom Line:
The first two records are essential in their entirety. I would also highly recommend both the film and box set for The Last Waltz. After that, you can be much more selective, Greatest Hits would fill most of the rest of the holes. Or, you can just go grab A Musical History and Last Waltz and be done with it.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

RIP Winston, 2002-2013

ABOVE: Winston and my oldest daughter, a couple of years ago

My wife and I both came into our marriage with some baggage. My baggage was named Maurice, and long time readers or close associates of mine will recall Maurice as a feisty cat that I got right before I went to law school. My wife came with Winston, a ridiculously loveable and sociable, let me get this right, King Charles Cavalier Spaniel. As my wife would often say, they were carefully bred to play, sit in your lap and be cute. He fulfilled his genetic purpose remarkably well.

Whereas Maurice was never really integrated into the family unit (he tolerated my wife's presence at best, and when our first daughter came he had to go outside due to his unpredictability), Winston placed himself right in the epicenter. In his better days, he loved to run, chase balls, sit in your lap and watch movies, scour the floor around the dinner table for any crumb that may fall (we never had to vacuum around the table) and so forth. Winston became my dog as much as my wife's, and my older daughter got quite attached as well. He was fantastic with her, even when she was a toddler and did those annoying things (to pets) that toddler's do, like grabbing his tail, pulling on his ears, etc. He never snapped at her, and let her play and cuddle and run with him.

Winston loved his family very much, but there was something that he loved more. That was food. Winston had a passion for food that I have never seen matched in any animal. He wasn't overweight because my wife carefully managed his intake, but he was incredibly excited by anything edible. Not just dog food, but anything you would throw his way from your dinner plate. And he was a healthy eater. He was as enthused by a carrot or broccoli as he was juicy steak. He would sell out the entire population of the planet earth to intergalactic invaders if they offered him a chicken breast. And he was persistent. If he wanted something off your plate, he would sit next to you and whine incessantly until you capitulated. I would often hold out due to stubbornness, but my wife usually gave in.

Within the last year he was afflicted by some sort of nerve disorder that paralyzed the back part of his body. He lost the use of his back legs, and would drag himself around with his front ones. He still was generally happy, though. In fact, he would still play ball. You just had to roll the ball within reach of his front paws, and he would enthusiastically grab it. But in recent weeks things went downhill, as the vet told us they eventually would. So it was time. My wife said her goodbyes, and I took him this morning to the vet to have done what needed be done. That is the second one of those I have watched (the other was Maurice), and while always very sad, it was peaceful and quick. You don't have to stay for the "procedure" of course, but in both cases I felt I owed it to the animal to see them through the end. Tough to do, though.

Anyway, thanks to Winston for being a great dog in most of the ways a dog is supposed to be great. A beloved member of the family who was wonderful to all of us, but especially to my wife and oldest daughter. And with the loss of Winston, I also lost the only other testosterone in the house. I am now completely surrounded by women, without any back-up. RIP Winston.

Addendum. My wife and I were unsure of how to approach explaining to our three year old what happened to Winston. She was quite attached to him. So we did what everyone does these days when confronted by a difficult question, we Googled it. After reading the sage advice found through Google, my wife solemnly approached our daughter and said "we need to talk about Winston." As my wife was following the requisite steps, my daughter seemed unconcerned and wanted to continue playing. "Oh my God, we are raising a sociopath," she whispered to me. No, I just don't think a three year old fully comprehends the meaning of death. Adults don't even comprehend it. I tried to explain death to her once before when she saw me killing a bunch of ants that got in the house. It didn't really connect then either, although she is now my scout for any creatures in our home. Whenever she sees ants or a spider she will call me over and order me to terminate it. My wife does that too. I always have to do the dirty work.

Day 6: 9/17/1796

What Happened:

It is tradition that a departing president gives some parting words of wisdom, a farewell address of sorts. Nowadays, they are generally padded resumes with the history books in mind, a self-serving ad for “look what I did for you” (or “it wasn’t my fault”). There are two that have really stood out, though, and have had a real impact. One was Eisenhower’s parting televised address where he famously warns the American people to beware of the “military-industrial complex.” I spend a whole class period in my AP U.S. History course reading and dissecting that great speech. The other occurred on September 17, 1796, when George Washington said goodbye to the country that he played such a crucial role in creating. Washington wasn’t a fan of public speaking, and so his parting address was actually published in the newspaper on that date rather than given as an actual speech. As usual, he leaned on some talented underlings to do the dirty work. It is believed that it was largely drafted by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton (not working together, as they were bitter political foes by this period), but the ideas and spirit were all Washington.

Why It Is Important:

Naturally it is important for what was said. When Washington spoke, the country listened. Some of the advice given in Washington’s Farewell Address was taken as gospel for at least a century, and it is still cited when it backs up one’s political position on foreign policy. But first it is important for the simple fact that it was given at all.

I’ve got a great powerpoint presentation I give to my APUSH class called “the cult of Washington.” The Bible warns this nation founded in Judeo-Christian ethics not to worship false idols, but we ignored that commandment from the beginning. We have deified our Founding Fathers, and George Washington is our Zeus. Don’t believe me? Check these out…

ABOVE: "The Apotheosis of Washington." This is on the roof of our Capitol building in Washington D.C. (George was instrumental in designing the layout of our capitol city, by the way. He was trained as a surveyor.)

ABOVE: Washington as direct link to the birth of democracy in Greece.

ABOVE: It is interesting that Washington's monument is an obelisk, with all of its ancient symbolism. You've got Lincoln in his chair, FDR in his wheelchair, but Washington's monument is quite different.

ABOVE: Washington doesn't die like normal people do. He is carried directly to the heavens by angels.

Washington was a god in his day too, and many in this country were urging him to run for a third, fourth, fifth term as president, to serve until death. He undoubtedly would have won repeatedly had he run. In fact, there was talk of making him our first monarch, King George I of America. Out of all of his great accomplishments, from commanding the Continental Army during the Revolution to keeping the fragile young Republic from falling apart during its first years through sheer force of will, his greatest act was in stepping down. Washington could have become a dictator, yet he believed in this new Republic. Truth be told, he wanted to step down after his first term, but decided to run again because he was the only one with enough gravitas to referee between the Hamilton and Jefferson factions tearing the new government apart. Therefore he established the two term precedent that only FDR had the stones to defy, and then after him it was enshrined in the 22nd Amendment.

Now to what Washington said. Throughout he is almost begging the American people to give this new experiment in Republicanism a chance. There are some warnings in his Address that were not heeded. He speaks at length about the dangers of sectionalism and the importance of national unity. The Civil War down the road proved that we didn’t (or couldn’t) listen to that warning, and that he was correct in predicting disaster if we succumb to sectionalism. He also famously warns against political parties (“factions”), but that horse had already left the barn, as the first political parties were formed within Washington’s own cabinet, Hamilton’s Federalists and Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans. He also argues for a balanced federal budget and warns of the dangers of too much debt. Interestingly, Washington also argues that religion is the basis of morality, and that we would be lost without strong religious convictions and traditions.

The most far reaching impact, though, is his advice regarding foreign policy. The crux is here:

“…nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations and passionate attachments for others should be excluded; and that in place of them just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The nation, which indulges towards another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave…Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another, cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other…the great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible…It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances, with any portion of the foreign world…we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.”

At the time, Britain and France were still viciously competing in Europe for dominance, and we were being pulled in both directions. Hamilton, ever the Anglophile, favored close alliance with Britain (even committing what today would be seen as treason when he secretly fed the British information to scuttle a possible treaty with France). Jefferson, on the other hand, favored equally strong relations and ties with France, as he was seduced by the bloody glory of the French Revolution. But Washington (and to his credit, John Adams after him) insisted on neutrality and staying out of European squabbles. Washington rightly believed that we must remain aloof and take advantage of our geographic isolation in order to survive and grow as our own independent nation. Trade is fine and should be encouraged, but that is all.

For much of our history after Washington, we doggedly followed an isolationist policy. Washington’s warnings and Address were the philosophical foundation of that policy. It wasn’t until Teddy Roosevelt’s imperialist adventures at the turn of the 20th century that we started to seriously engage the “foreign world” beyond trade. We got pulled into World War I, and afterwards retreated yet again into a cocoon of political isolationism. It wasn’t until World War II, from which we emerged the most powerful nation on earth, that we started to become a real player on the world stage. 1949 was the year that we permanently turned our back on Washington’s warnings when we formed the NATO alliance as the Cold War started to heat up.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Bad Influence of The Street

I was playing with my older daughter today, and she reminded me of how impressionable young children can be and how they learn things from television. One of her current favorite children's shows is Team Umizumi (I think I spelled that correctly), which is a great show that teaches little kids some math basics. It teaches them to recognize number patterns, count and some basic geometric shapes. She has started to look for repeated patterns in our home, like the knives and forks set out on the table, and she will explain the patterns and say "like Team Umizumi." That's cool. It's not like when I was growing up, when I had the insidious Sesame Street that turned me into a hoodlum. Watch this shocking vintage clip from the Street...

Can't you see what terrible things this might make a young, impressionable child do? No? Well back in my early days (late 70's, so I was about 5 or 6), I watched this clip you just viewed of Cowboy X. We were getting our house painted at the time, and I was playing outside in the driveway and noticed some paint cans sitting out by the painters' truck. I thought Cowboy X was awesome (I always have liked the bad guys), and so I decided that I would be Cowboy X too. I took a paint can and brush, walked down our street, and painted X's on the street, sidewalk, neighbors' cars. (ANCIANT recently posted on his blog about the juvenile delinquents next door throwing mud at his house...I wonder if he would have liked having a young Dez living down the street!)

I guess I got bored or ran out of paint, so I returned home and proudly told my parents that I was Cowboy X and showed them an example of my handiwork. I was a bit surprised and disappointed that they were not pleased. I don't think they even got angry with me, as this was beyond even that. It was more shock and then fear of financial ruin. They turned on the painters for leaving the paint out unattended. I remember me, my parents and the painters all sneaking around the neighborhood in a group. I had to point out each X that I had painted, and they did their best to clandestinely remove them.

I can't really recall any repercussions, as I already realized it was pretty bad and even as a five or six year old, I was apologetic. My parents and the painters didn't want to get sued, so they were more concerned with the work at hand than being angry with me. Fortunately I think I had confessed quickly enough to where the paint hadn't dried anywhere yet.

The lesson here is to be very careful what you allow your children to watch on television. And for God's sake, keep them away from Sesame Street.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Dez Record Guides: The Allman Brothers Band

ABOVE: This photo on the back of At Fillmore East shows the band laughing just after Duane Allman dashed back to pose for the picture after grabbing a delivery from his dealer.

There are two roots from which almost all jam bands grow. The Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers Band. The Dead were perhaps more adventurous, but the Allmans soared to higher peaks. For the Allmans, the root was usually the blues, although they were also influenced by jazz and country. (I am a big fan of their country-influenced material, which mainly came from Dickey Betts). Whereas The Dead had two virtuosos (Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh), the Allmans were blessed with at least six throughout their existence. Duane Allman ranks in the top five of all time great rock guitarists, and Dickey Betts proved his greatness by at least keeping up with Duane. Gregg Allman is the finest white blues/rock vocalist out there. Bassist Berry Oakley was really a third lead instrumentalist. Even more impressive is that in their latter years, they managed to pick up two of the finest guitarists of their respective generations, Warren Haynes and slide wunderkind Derek Trucks. It is really this superior musicianship that raises the Allmans above the rest as far as jam bands go. Whereas most jam bands are guilty of noodling, the Allmans never noodled. There is purpose in their flights of improvisation, even in 30 minute songs. As far as the records go, it is no surprise that they have a bevy of live offerings and most fans swear by those. But unlike with The Dead, they've got quite a few studio records that are highly regarded as well. With a couple of exceptions, the general buying rule for the Allmans is "Duane + 1." That is, every record Duane played on plus the first one released without him.

NOTE: Like with The Dead, the Allmans have opened the vaults and released many archival live recordings. I won't address them all, the live records in this Guide are only "current" live releases, that is, live records released as they happened and intended as real releases. They also have a ton of compilations, I will address the best ones to get at the end of the Guide.

The Allman Brothers Band (1969) ****1/2
Idlewild South (1970) ****
Beginnings (1969/1970/1973) (1st two studio albums re-released as a double) *****

The debut is simply one of the hardest hitting, balls out blues-rock records ever put out. It is relentless from start to finish, and displays their strengths in more concise form than the more expansive and adventurous live records. Idlewild South expands the sonic palette a bit, bringing in some jazz elements ("In Memory of Elizabeth Reed"), acoustic ("Midnight Rider") and country influences ("Revival"). One of the few critiques of the first two records that you can make is that they are both pretty brief in running times, and after the Allmans got huge with the Fillmore East record, they wisely repackaged their fine first two releases as a double record (or a single CD) for the price of a single record, therefore Beginnings is one of the great bargains of rock history.

At Fillmore East (live) (1971) *****
The Fillmore Concerts (live) (1971/1992) *****
At Fillmore East Deluxe Edition (live) (1971/2003) *****

These are not three different albums, but ever expanding versions of the same record. Any way you package it (and I suggest diving in the deep end and just getting the complete Deluxe Edition), At Fillmore East stands as rock's greatest live record, only challenged by The Who's Live at Leeds. It is rock and roll improvisation at its finest and most elevated, with Duane and Dickey leading the way. The Everest amongst the Himalayan tracks is "Whipping Post," 23 minutes of fury and then gorgeous respite. Oft imitated but never bested, you cannot blame the Allmans for the countless pretenders who think eternal jams equal greatness. AFE is a monument to the greatness and the tragic loss of Duane Allman.

ABOVE: Brothers on the road

Eat a Peach (part live/part studio) (1972) *****
Released in the wake of Duane Allman's death in a motorcycle accident, what is most remarkable about the double EAP is that even though it was assembled as a hodgepodge of tracks they were working on with Duane for the next record, leftover live recordings from the Fillmore shows and some new post-Duane songs, it is brilliant and cohesive and stands as a perfect eulogy for Duane. Most impressive and bold is that they lead off with the post-Duane material, and it immediately proves that however irreplaceable he may be, they will endure and carry on without him, as "Ain't Wastin' Time No More" and "Melissa" stand as two of their best songs.

Brothers and Sisters (1973) ****
After enduring the loss of Duane Allman, the band was then hit with the death of bassist Berry Oakley in yet another fatal motorcycle accident only blocks from the scene of Duane's. But yet again, they prove that they can carry on. This is the beginning of the period where Dickey Betts really asserts a leadership role (as Gregg falls deeper into substance abuse), writing the hits on the record and dialing back the blues while turning up the country, including on their biggest hit, the Betts sung "Ramblin' Man." It depends on how you like your Allmans, but I always like it when they go country.

Win, Lose or Draw (1975) ***
Wipe the Windows, Check the Oil, Dollar Gas (live) (1976) ***
Enlightened Rogues (1979) **
Reach For the Sky (1980) **
Brothers of the Road (1981) **

Justly the most forgotten period, they were falling apart as a band and as individuals, and here is where they were coasting and boring. Some nice individual songs here and there, but you can mostly skip this period. The live record does have its moments, though.

Seven Turns (1990) ***
Shades of Two Worlds (1991) ***
An Evening With the Allman Brothers Band: 1st Set (live) (1992) ***
Back Where It All Begins (1994) ***
An Evening With the Allman Brothers Band: 2nd Set (live) (1995) ***
Peakin’ at the Beacon (live) (2000) NR

A most surprising and welcome comeback. After almost a decade of silence, The Brothers come storming back. The ratings for these records can be decieving. None are brilliant from start to finish, they all have some filler and coasting. But they also all feature some top notch songs that stand up to their classic repertoire, and the entire band sounds rejuvenated. With the addition of the brilliant guitar playing of Warren Haynes to act as foil to Betts, they once again hit the road and were a must see live act. The compilation Mycology (addressed below) is a wonderful single disc overview of the 90's.

Hittin’ the Note (2003) ***
One Way Out: Live at the Beacon (live) (2004) ****

For reasons that are still unclear, original member Dickey Betts was booted from the band. From interviews I've seen, Dickey seems confused as to why as well. That being said, guitar virtuoso Derek Trucks was added to spar with Haynes. Trucks happens to also be the son of Allmans drummer Butch Trucks. This new line-up released the well recieved HTN, but the full power is on display on the live record. Haynes and Trucks manage to reach close to the Duane/Betts peaks from the Fillmore days, which is really saying something. OWO proves that there is still substantial fuel in the tank.

ABOVE: The ABB's current guitar heroes, Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes

Selected Compilations:
The most concise one that covers their most crucial period is A Decade of Hits 1969-79 (1991) *****. The box set Dreams (1989) (box set compilation) **** is superlative, as it includes some choice selections from Gregg Allman and Dickey Betts' solo work, as well as pre-Allman Brothers recordings that are worthwhile. Mycology: An Anthology (1998) **** almost perfectly covers the great 90's comeback.

Archival Live Releases...
Live at Ludlow Garage: 1970 NR
Fillmore East, Feb 1970 NR
American University 12/13/70 NR
Live at the Atlanta International Pop Festival, July 3 & 5, 1970 NR
S.U.N.Y. at Stonybrook: Stoneybrook NY 9/19/71 NR
Macon City Auditorium 2/11/72 NR
Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale NY 5/1/73 NR
Boston Common 8/17/71 NR

A Note on Solo/Other Work By Members of the ABB:
With musicians this talented, most of them have released solo work or have worked with other groups. Gregg Allman has had a decent solo career, as has Dickey Betts (with his band Great Southern). Duane Allman was a sought after session player as well, and his guitar can be heard on records by Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, and most notably as Eric Clapton's foil throughout Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, Clapton's finest post-Cream work. Warren Haynes also leads Govn't Mule, and Derek Trucks has the Derek Trucks Band.

Bottom Line: Do not forget the "Duane + 1" Rule. Everything Duane plays on plus Brothers and Sisters is essential. The 90's material should not be overlooked, and Mycology summarizes it perfectly. One Way Out captures the power of the latterday Haynes/Trucks guitar duo, although Dickey Betts is missed. A Decade of Hits is the best hits collection for the classic period.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Day 5: 9/11/1789

ABOVE: Alexander Hamilton, our first and most important Secretary of the Treasury

What happened:
One of the things that made George Washington such a remarkable leader was the fact that he recognized that he was not usually the sharpest guy in the room. At least in the company that he usually kept. But he was shrewd enough to find the men who were, and surround himself with them. The first presidential cabinet consisted only of four positions (as opposed to the current roster of 15 cabinet positions), but it was an All-Star Team that made every subsequent cabinet look minor league. Try Henry Knox for Secretary of War (later changed to the kinder and gentler Secretary of Defense), Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State and Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of Treasury. On 9/11/1789, President Washington appointed one of his favorite subordinates from the Revolutionary War days, Hamilton, as this nation's first Secretary of Treasury.

Why It Is Important:
In many respects, Alexander Hamilton was more responsible for shaping the direction of the infant nation than even Washington. Washington was hardly ever the brightest man in the room, but he almost always followed wise council. He listened to Hamilton on more crucial decisions than anyone else. It was Alexander Hamilton who basically created our national economy. So who was this guy?

Invariably when I teach about this early period, my students have the most passionate opinions on Hamilton over any of the other Founding Fathers. Love him or hate him, there is usually no in between in my classroom, and it was the same in Hamilton's day. I am amused when people say that today's politics is more divided and bitter that it's ever been, or that in the old days politics was so much more civil. BS. Alexander Hamilton was killed in a duel, shot by the sitting Vice-President of the United States, Aaron Burr, in 1804. Now that is serious political disagreement.

First and foremost, Hamilton was an elitist. He believed that certain men were born to lead, and he fought tirelessly for the elite East Coast business interests, for he thought they were the key to the success of the young country. He was one of the earliest and finest advocate for ruthless capitalism in this country. When I teach Washington's administration, I usually set up the dichotomy of Hamilton and his elitist tendencies vs. Jefferson and his populist beliefs. This rivalry defined the ideological divide of that crucial last decade of the 18th century, and in large part it was this personal rivalry that created the first two political parties in the U.S. Washington detested political parties, yet they were born in this country under his nose in his own cabinet. Hamilton's Federalist Party vs. Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans. Hamilton wanted a strong Executive and a weak Congress, and was a strong admirer of the British system. Jefferson was a passionate advocate of states rights and argued for a weak Executive (although, typical of Jefferson, when he himself became president he exercised more sweeping Executive power than any president in our history), and was an admirer of the French Revolution, an event which horrified Hamilton to his core.

But what fascinates my students so much is when I then reveal their backgrounds. Hamilton was an elitist and had a deep distrust of the "masses," and was probably a lesser fan of democracy than almost any of the other Founders. Yet, he knew the masses at a more intimate level than almost any of the other Founders as well, because he had been one of the rabble. Washington, Jefferson, Madison and many other Founders had been born into privilege and at least some level of wealth. They were born and bred gentlemen. Hamilton, on the other hand, was born a bastard child in the Caribbean who was orphaned at a very young age. He had to scratch, claw and earn everything he got, and even when he had reached the pinnacle of power, his enemies never let him forget his humble beginnings (referring to him as "the bastard of New York," NY being his power base). That is one of the questions I often ask my students: based on their backgrounds, shouldn't have Hamilton and Jefferson had each others' constituents, as Jefferson was a champion of the common man, whom he only knew from a distance and hopelessly romanticized. Perhaps Hamilton had a more realistic view of the masses, and after working his way up, had little patience for those who could or would not follow suit.

ABOVE: Hamilton was killed by Thomas Jefferson's renegade vice-president, Aaron Burr. Hamilton had been key in Burr's defeat in a run to be governor of New York (Burr already knew that Jefferson was not going to keep him on as VP, as Jefferson detested Burr). Burr demanded a public apology for Hamilton's disparaging remarks, Hamilton claimed to not know what Burr was talking about and refused, and a duel ensued. The specifics of the duel are still hotly debated, many believed that Hamilton purposely missed (as was common, therefore nobody would get hurt yet honor was defended). The only problem was that Burr did not miss. Burr is one of our most fascinating historical figures, killed Hamilton and also being involved in several treasonous plots to create a splinter nation with him as its leader.

At any rate, it was what Hamilton accomplished as our first Secretary of Treasury that is his lasting legacy. You think Ronald Reagan invented the idea of trickle-down economics? Hell no. Hamilton believed that if you create an economy favorable to business interests, then they will prosper and the entire nation will reap the benefits.

Many leaders wanted the young U.S. to declare bankruptcy, such was the burden of our debt coming out of the Revolutionary Period. Hamilton refused, instead funding the debt at par to maintain our credit worldwide. The individual states also had massive debts, and here is where Hamilton was a true genius. He pushed federal assumption of the state debts from the Revolution, thereby binding the states more closely to the federal government. He shifted the focus, especially of business interests, away from the states and towards the federal government. This was a crucial move to shift the balance of power from the states to the feds. Not all states agreed with assumption. Massachusetts loved it, because they were drowning in debt. Virginia not so much, as they had already paid most of theirs off. What would they gain? Legend has it that Washington invited Hamilton, Jefferson and Madison to dinner and ordered them to come to an agreement on the assumption debate, because as with almost everything Hamilton proposed, Jefferson and Madison resisted. Jefferson agreed to get Virginia to sign on for assumption, if Hamilton backed a plan to move the national capital from New York City to a site along the Potomac, the future Washington D.C. Done.

He also saw that for the new country to succeed, the business elites had to have a stake in its success. So he borrowed lots of money from them for the federal government. Although I am sure he would be horrified at our current debt levels, Hamilton believed that, within reason, debt was good. This was a revolutionary idea at a time when debtor prisons were still common. Why? As any creditor knows, if you want to be paid back, then you sincerely hope that whatever venture you have lent money to is a success. You do what you can to help it be a success. Hamilton tied the success of this new experiment in democracy to the business interests that would be its engine. The power interests in this country now needed the new federal government under the new Constitution to be a success.

While I'm not a fan of tariffs, Hamilton used them well in the early days to raise money to pay the interest on this debt (although most of the revenue came from sale of Western lands) and to protect the infant American industries. He had the foresight to see we would eventually industrialize, and he wanted our business class to be ready. He also taxed many domestic goods, most notoriously whiskey (which was basically used as currency on the frontier), which sparked the Whiskey Rebellion.

Hamilton also proposed a national bank, the Bank of the United States. His model, as usual, was the English with their Bank of England. He wanted the Bank to be a private institution, but with the federal government being the largest shareholder. The banking system was chaos, and he wanted a stable institution where the federal government could deposit its money and one that could really stimulate national growth. Jefferson, of course, argued against the Bank, claiming that there was no authority in the Constitution for its establishment and that it would favor the interest of the business elites over the little man. Thus was born one of the most enduring political debates in our history, how should the Constitution be interpreted?

George Washington, like any good CEO when confronted by talented underlings who disagreed, ordered both sides to submit a memo to him and he would then decide. Thus with Jefferson was born the strict construction argument for constitutional interpretation. He argued that the Constitution did not specifically authorize the federal government to establish a massive Bank, therefore that power was reserved to the states. The newly proposed 10th Amendment bore this out, plus the fact that the whole structure of the Constitution was to specifically outline what Congress could do. What was the point of doing that if they could then do almost anything they wanted? What the Constitution does not explicitly allow the Feds to do, it prohibits. Hamilton responded by arguing that what the Constitution does not explicitly forbid the Feds to do, it allows. Thus was born loose construction. He argued that the Necessary and Proper Clause allowed the government, which was charged with collecting taxes and regulating trade, to charter a Bank needed to carry out those functions. This was an implied power in the Constitution. The Founders were brilliant but they were not clairvoyant, Hamilton argued. They could not possibly foresee every issue that would come along, therefore there is much leeway imbedded in the Constitution, as long as what is done is related to one of the powers outlined in the Constitution and the action is not specifically prohibited. Washington went with Hamilton's argument, and the Bank was established (later to be killed by Andrew Jackson). Loose construction has won the day, historically, if you look at the decisions of the Supreme Court, from McCulloch vs. Maryland onward. Hamilton had a kindred spirit in Chief Justice John Marshall.

Many of Alexander Hamilton's ideas and policies endure. Too much democracy is a bad thing, the masses need checks. Rule by an enlightened elite, but also checked by the people. A powerful central government dominant over state power. Loose construction of the Constitution. Debt is not to be feared. Government should be a friend to business. Expansion of a powerful federal bureaucracy is to be encouraged. We need a strong military and need to be engaged with the rest of the world. There must be some restriction on liberties like free speech. You may not agree with all of his views (they are an interesting mix of modern conservative and liberal ideals, as an analysis of Jefferson also reveals about him, which is why both sides can cite these men as their champions on different issues), but Hamilton's influence is undeniable.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

RIP My Honda Accord, 2002-2013

It has served me well. But 185,000 miles later, with brakes going out in front and back, a leaky oil pump, the timing belt going out for a second time and, well, something vague wrong with the carburator, the cost of fixing it is twice the current value of the car. But that is not really what I want to write about.

These past two days my wife, my infant daughter and I have had the distinct privilege of spending our time in the rarified company of car salesmen. Fortunately, my older daughter has been either at Day Care or spending the day with her aunt, uncle and cousin (she came home from her cousin's house with pink hair, but seemed happy). Car salesmen get a bad rap, and most deserve every single bit of it. And then some. I won't bore you with a description of all of the cars that I test drove, because I don't give a sh*t about cars. But the salesmen are fascinating creatures. When you drive up to the dealership, they are hovering like vultures, although they have clearly worked out a system and take turns approaching each new customer.

Salesman #1: Laidback ex-college football player who blew out his knee. Nice enough, and not all that pushy at all. In fact, the opposite of pushy. As I test drove the car, he hardly said a word the entire time and did not try and sell the car at all. Generally, salesmen have a particular route they want you to drive the car, but he didn't care. I think I could have driven to Houston and back and it would not have fazed him. They are also supposed to take your drivers license and make a copy in case you try and steal the car or beat up the salesman while you are on the road. But this guy could have killed me with his left eyelid, so he also didn't bother with my identification. Yet when it came time to talk a deal, there was a quiet menace that fell over him. When it became apparent that his dealership did not have the color I wanted and that I was going to look elsewhere in town, a darkness came over his entire body for a moment, and then he went back to not caring. "You'll be back," he said. (Really).

Salesman #2: The next guy did not speak very much English. This is a disadvantage when trying to sell me a car. He was very excited to show me how the bluetooth worked (I don't care) and how my wife could sync her phone to the car's system (I also do not care). It started because I asked how I could play my ipod in the car. He spent 15 minutes on the side of the road showing us how to sync up a smart phone to the car and play music. It was very confusing, and did not really encourage us to want the vehicle. I kept asking, "but what about my ipod?" He kept replying, "I showing you, it great, let me show you, boss" (he kept calling me "boss," which I kind of liked). My wife asked a very good question, "by hooking up my phone, how does that talk to his ipod?" "Oh, plug ipod here." 15 minutes later. That is all I wanted to know. Where is the plug for the ipod, not how do I control the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.

Salesman #3: He was a recent immigrant from the Philippines, and way too nice to be a car salesman. On our test drive, I noticed that there was a massive wreck on the highway that would be a part of our return route. So I took an alternate route. I can see how this made him very nervous, since he was new to town and did not know his way around. I told him we could take some "backroads" to get back to the dealership and avoid the wreck. So I took charge and drove way off his route, and he kept acting very nervous, as if perhaps I was driving him to my hidden torture chamber or something. But he did tell me a bit about his life as a diplomat for 15 years, and he has an engineering degree. Now "I'm selling cars" in South Texas, he sighed. I felt bad for him and kept reassuring him that I really was taking him back to the dealership and not to a vacant lot where I planned to dismember him.

Salesman #4: The opposite of 1 and 3. Picture Jay Mohr, but more obnoxious. Super cocky and way too false friendly, where everything I said he overly agreed with ("oh yeah, most definitely!") Halfway through our test drive I really, really, really wanted to punch him in the face. If I did, I bet he would still be overly agreeable. He told me my daughter was beautiful about five times. She is, but f*ck you. She could have been a troll and you would have said the same thing. "What I'm really all about is getting you into the right car, the one that you are meant to drive..." When we started to walk out, he pulled out the big guns and called in his manager, who actually blocked the door in the office. "What can we do to make this happen?" he asks. You can start by not holding me hostage in this little office.

Salesman #5: This entire dealership was the most amateurish establishment I have ever been in. The salesmen we got looked like he was in high school, had borrowed his uncle's shirt and tie that was too big for him, and tried to make himself look older by greasing his hair back and growing a little man/boy mustache. He was showing us the car, and could not figure out how to put in the cover in the back that hides your belongings. My wife and I had to show him how to do it. We went inside, and at the desk next to us, the sleaziest salesman you have ever seen was trying to work over this poor young couple. My wife and I listened, transfixed, to his pitch. This was a scene that you think is only in the movies when they are trying to portray the most cliche, sleazy car salesman you could possibly imagine. The kind that you dismiss when they are onscreen, nobody is really like that. Yes they are. He pulled out every old trick, like looking at the young man and saying that he would not put his own daughter in the car they were considering, oh no, they need to be looking at this (more expensive) one over here. "I'm just bein' straight with you, I'm just telling you like it is." In fact, he said, his daughter "wept in gratitude" after he steered her to the right vehicle. This young couple reminds him of his own daughter, you see. My wife kept telling me to get out my phone and record this guy, he was that incredible. Then we go out to test drive our car, and our little salesman starts the engine and has to run back in and get something. The car dies. He returns. I told him the car is dead. It ran out of gas. The freaking car we were going to test drive ran out of gas in the car lot. He looked confused. We left.

Return to Salesman #1: Recall that he told us "you'll be back." Many hours later, I sheepishly walked back into his dealership and told him he was right. He just nodded knowingly. It is the patient fisherman who reels in the prize catch. My wife then proceeded to haggle with him for, really, six hours over everything imaginable. She is so awesome, I would have given in hours before out of boredom. They spent the last hour only $200 apart, but she got us a great deal. I did get to talk with him for awhile, and he is a former corrections officer. Of course. He then told me about some incredibly graphic crimes perpetrated by the inmates he used to guard. He told me that some tried to get chummy with him and said they would come to his house and hang out with him after they got out, and he told them "if you come within 10 miles of my house I will shoot you in the face." In his office, along the wall, he had about 20 different types of gun shells on display. I went out to change the baby's diaper, and when I returned I walked in to him finishing telling a story to my wife about some inmate who raped someone with a screwdriver. She was just nodding silently. He also told me that he was thinking of returning to the prison system. But we came to a deal and I bought a car from him. I liked him.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Dez Record Guides: Genesis

There are generally two types of Genesis fans: the ones who appreciate the Peter Gabriel prog years or the ones of the more pop oriented and commercially successful Phil Collins years. Hardcore fans of the PG years generally despise the PC years, the PC fans are often unaware that PG was ever in Genesis. It is a rare bird that can have an appreciation for both eras, but I am such an individual. If I had to pick between them, the Gabriel years are definitely the more artistically accomplished, producing, in my view, at least three of the greatest progressive rock records the genre has ever seen. In fact, Foxtrot may be the pinnacle of the genre, besting anything by Yes, King Crimson, ELP or Gentle Giant. While the Collins material may be less lofty, it has its substantial charms, and you cannot deny the commercial juggernaut that was Genesis in the 1980's. It is important to remember, however, that Genesis was a band in every sense of the word. Both Gabriel and Collins were band members, nothing more. Genesis has always operated as a strict democracy, so Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford (who had success on his own in the 80's leading side project Mike + the Mechanics) and Steve Hackett had just as much input as Gabriel or Collins. It is also important to remember that Phil Collins was in the band almost from the beginning, drumming on those crucial prog records during the Gabriel years. I have already written a vigorous Phil Collins Defense, and it is worth rereading.

From Genesis To Revelations (1969) **
Wherein they do not know who they are yet, recording a largely acoustic record of folkish ditties. That Gabriel dude is already really weird, giving the record an off kilter character.

Trespass (1970) **
OK, they think they know they are a progressive rock band now. But they still don't really know how to make great progressive music yet. "The Knife" rocks and "Dusk" is pretty.

Nursery Cryme (1971) ***
So, this is how to do it. Uneven, but "The Return of the Giant Hogweed" and "The Fountain of Salmacis" really work, and "The Musical Box" is their first stone cold prog masterpiece.

ABOVE: Peter Gabriel was a firm believer in live rock music as theater, and gained a reputation for wearing outlandish costumes onstage and portraying the various characters in the songs. Sometimes these costumes would get out of hand, and Phil Collins has discussed in interviews how sometimes Gabriel couldn't get the microphone close enough to sing clearly due to the costumes.

Foxtrot (1972) *****
Live (live) (1973) ****
Selling England By the Pound (1973) ****
The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974) *****
Genesis Archive, 1967-75 (compilation box set, live) (1998) ****

The peak for this band and also a high point for progressive rock in general. My friend ANCIANT once said he thought Foxtrot was their best, and I disagreed with him at the time. I was wrong. Foxtrot is absolute perfection in progressive rock music. From the mellotron goodness of "Watcher of the Skies" to the stunning array of characters Gabriel invokes in the fascinating class warfare study "Get 'Em Out By Friday" to the 23-minute opus "Supper's Ready," progressive rock doesn't get any better than this. Live is great, featuring some superior versions of already great songs, but cannot be definitive as it is missing "Supper's Ready." SEBTP continues the streak, "Dancing With the Moonlit Knight," "Firth of Fifth" and "Cinema Show" are all brilliant extended pieces, while "I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)" was the closest to a hit the Gabriel-era ever got. Only "Battle of Epping Forest" and the Collins lead vocal debut "More Fool Me" don't work. TLLDOB, like many double concept albums, makes little narrative sense. But no matter, the individual songs are just outstanding. Sometimes "Carpet Crawlers" is my favorite Peter Gabriel song. Gabriel shocked the band in the middle of the Lamb tour by announcing his immenent departure. This '72-'75 stretch is why Genesis is important. The Archive box set is mainly live material from the era and some rarities, uniformly excellent. It includes a complete live performance of Lamb.

A Trick of the Tail (1976) ****
Wind and Wuthering (1976) **
Seconds Out (live) (1977) **

And then there were four. Music fans often forget that between the Gabriel-led quintet and the Collins-led pop trio there was a quartet, with guitarist Steve Hackett still in the band. ATOTT is nothing less than a triumph, with Phil Collins stepping out from the drum seat and taking the lead vocals. They had auditioned a slew of candidates to replace Gabriel, but finally settled for someone within their ranks. This material is still firmly progressive rock. WAW has its fans, but I find it really dull.

ABOVE: And then there were three. And they soon made a lot of money.

…And Then There Were Three (1978) ***
Duke (1980) ***
Abacab (1981) ****
Three Sides Live (live) (1982) ****

Hackett soon bolted as well. This is the awkward transition phase between progressive rock and more straightforward pop/rock. I'm a big fan of the period, though. Duke is where it really starts to happen. It is the first time where the progressive tunes now sound more out of place next to the more confident pop/rock faire. That punchy, horns-laden "Phil Collins sound" first appears on the ridiculously catchy "Misunderstanding," while "Turn It On Again" is also an undeniable hit. I think Abacab may be the strongest Collins-era record, where most everything works.

Genesis (1983) ****
Invisible Touch (1986) ***
We Can’t Dance (1991) **
The Way We Walk, vol. 1: The Shorts (live) (1992) ***
The Way We Walk, vol. 2: The Longs (live) (1993) ***

By the 1980's, Genesis had morphed from progressive weirdos to pop juggernaut. As unlikely as it was, they were one of the most commercially successful bands of the decade. All the more impressive was Phil Collins' simultaneous solo career that was even more successful, rivaling, in record sales, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and Prince. I've got a real soft spot for Genesis, as it is where I originally got on board. "That's All" is one of the catchiest pop songs of the 80's, a real gem. IT sounds really dated now, but it was their biggest seller.

Calling All Stations (1997) *
Once Phil Collins decided to leave as well (temporarily, he would return for a reunion tour in '07 before the band retired for good), I guess you can't blame Rutherford and Banks for wanting to soldier on. But it was just a little late in their careers for a real reboot. New singer Ray Wilson gives it a go, and you can't blame him for this record, as most of the material was written before he signed on.

Turn It On Again: The Hits (compilation) (1999) ***
Genesis Archive 2: 1976-92 (compilation box set, live) (2000) NR
Platinum Collection (compilation) (2004) ****
Live Over Europe (live) (2007) NR

The Platinum Collection is the best compilation out there, three discs where thankfully one disc is dedicated to the hard to anthologize Gabriel era.

PETER GABRIEL solo, see here

I mentioned above that even though Genesis was one of the biggest bands of the 80's, Collins' solo career actually eclipsed them in sales and popularity. It started almost by accident. Genesis was on hiatus, Phil was separated from his wife (who ran off with the home decorator while he was out on tour), and so he had some time on his hands. He recorded a bunch of new songs by himself at his home studio, and passed the tape on to Ahmet Ertugen at Atlantic, almost as an afterthought. Ertugen insisted that it be fleshed out and released, and that was Face Value (1981) ****. My personal favorite of his is his overlooked sophomore effort, Hello, I Must Be Going! (1982) ***, and then there is No Jacket Required (1985) ***, the 5th top selling record of the 1980's. The rest of his solo work is negligible, though.

Bottom Line: The trilogy of Foxtrot, Selling England By the Pound and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway are absolutely essential for any progressive rock fan. A Trick of the Tail is great prog rock as well, and is one of the finest examples of a band stepping up to the challenge after losing a seemingly irreplaceable member. Abacab is the best of the Phil Collins years, and Genesis is worthwhile as well. Platinum Collection does a fine job anthologizing the band's many incarnations.