Thursday, April 25, 2013

Dez Record Guides: Buffalo Springfield

For many music listeners, Buffalo Springfield is remembered primarily as the launching pad for the careers of such notables as Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Richie Furay and Jim Messina. (In a similar way that The Yardbirds is remembered more for giving us the Holy Trinity of British Guitar Gods-Clapton, Beck and Page-than for their own work.) But in their two short, tumultuous years, Buffalo Springfield pioneered a true amalgam of rock, country, folk, bluegrass and psychedelia. Stills and Furay were probably the first, but by no means the last, to discover how thrilling and impossible it is to work for any sustained length of time with Neil Young. While Neil is the most important artist to emerge from their ranks, and he was also the wild card that made them so interesting, at heart this was Stills’ band. One of the great “what ifs” is what kind of music we would have had if they had been able to hang together for another three or four records.

Buffalo Springfield (1966/1967) ****
A wonderful set of American music-influenced rock, it was clear from the outset that this was a special band. The suits at Atlantic were uncomfortable with Young’s “acquired-taste” vocals, so while he was a major songwriter on the record, most of his tunes were sung by the more vocally pleasing Furay. BS was made much better when it was re-issued in ’67 with Stills’ haunting, generation defining single “For What It’s Worth” tacked on.

ABOVE: Neil Young’s famous 1948 Buick hearse, or one just like it (dubbed “Mortimer” by Neil). He used it because there was plenty of room for equipment and the slide-out tray that usually supports a casket was great for heavy amplifiers. Legend has it that Young and bassist Bruce Palmer, newly arrived from Canada, were stuck in L.A. traffic on Sunset. Going in the opposite direction were Stills and Furay. Stills recognized Neil’s wheels (they had crossed paths in Canada), made an illegal u-turn, and Buffalo Springfield was literally born on the Sunset Strip (they soon added session man Dewey Martin on drums).

Buffalo Springfield Again (1967) *****
Potential realized. This is one of the most exciting and diverse records of the 1960’s. Young delivers three of the best songs of his career with the Stonesy “Mr. Soul,” the gorgeous “Expecting To Fly” and the experimental “Broken Arrow.” Stills is at the top of his game here too, giving us the never bested folk-rock masterpiece “Rock and Roll Woman” and his crowning achievement, the genre-busting “Bluebird.” If that isn’t enough, Furay emerges as a major songwriting talent as well, with his catchy “A Child’s Claim to Fame” and the lovely “Sad Memory.” So much talent here that…

Last Time Around (1968) ***
…it couldn’t last. The Springfield were already disbanded by the time this hodgepodge was released, it is really a collection of semi-solo tracks played with various session musicians. The actual band never plays together on a single track. That’s not to say that there still is not some worthwhile music here, especially Young’s “I Am a Child” and his Furay-sung “On the Way Home,” as well as Stills’ “Questions” (a dry run for his later CSNY hit, “Carry On”), and Furay’s “Kind Woman,” which is one of the prettiest country songs you will ever hear.

Retrospective: The Best of Buffalo Springfield (compilation) (1969) *****
A bit on the short side at 12 tracks, but that actually makes it all the more potent. The Springfield’s most essential stuff is here (well, it is missing “Questions”), and it is a perfect listen from start to finish.

Buffalo Springfield (compilation) (1973) ****
Out of print double album compilation that is quite the collector’s item due to the part live nine minute version of “Bluebird.” But in all honesty, the studio version of the song is better.

Buffalo Springfield (compilation box set) (2001) ****
You would think that a four disc set for a band that only released three records would be able to cover all of the bases. At the very least, it should contain those three short records in their entirety (it can be done on one and half modern day CDs). Not when Neil Young is the archivist putting it all together. Instead you get the first two records twice (mono and stereo versions), a bunch of outtakes and demos (a handful of which are really worthwhile) and highlights from the third record. Why not include all of the third? Where’s any of the legendary live material that allegedly exists in bootleg form and in the vaults? What is here is great stuff and at times it can be a revelatory set, yet it is not completely satisfying.

ABOVE: Look closely at the Last Time Around album cover. Neil Young is already looking to go his own idiosyncratic way.

Bottom Line: Retrospective is crucial to any collection, but the rest of their catalogue is more for dedicated fans of these individuals. Buffalo Springfield Again, of course, should be owned in its entirety, but honestly Retrospective contains its most essential tracks as well.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Dark

At some point my daughter decided that the dark is something to be feared. I don’t remember exactly when it happened. She used to be completely fine in the dark. But now it terrifies her. In order for her to go from one place in the house to another, I must turn on the lights in each room along the path. She just looks up at me and says, “it’s dark” and I know that I must light her way. Maybe she got that from me, honestly I still get uncomfortable in the dark at times. Not surprisingly, as much as I love horror films, yearn for the thrill of a rollercoaster freefall, as much as I love studying history and its darker chapters…no wonder I get spooked easily. I have sought it out. But I don’t really want that for her.

Of course, that can be used to my advantage when she is delaying in a room and not following my instructions. For instance, if I tell her it is time to go to her room for bed, and she continues to play in the playroom, all I have to do is have the light on in her room and turn the light off in the playroom, and she will run to the light like a moth to the flame. I do warn her first, though.

We have a dog next door named Lady. She is a sweet collie, and my daughter adores her. But when she was a little younger, she was intimidated by Lady and Max (the other little white dog next door). One day they rushed at her with tails wagging and they wanted to play. She was a bit startled and I picked her up in the nick of time. For days afterward, she would say “Daddy kept me safe from Lady and Max” or simply “Daddy keeps me safe.” That may be my favorite thing she has said to me so far, and it intimidates the hell out of me. I tell her that I will always keep her safe, but I know that I can’t. Not from everything that is out there. I know I’m not unique, every parent wants to always protect their children. It is what ensures the survival of the species.

Perhaps it is just my pessimistic nature, but sometimes I get anxious for her knowing the hands that the world can deal you. The world can be exciting, thrilling, stimulating, but it can also be cruel, frightening and get very dangerous almost instantly. I guess the best thing you can do is try and teach them how to maneuver through the rapids, let them know that you will always be there for them and protect them as best you can, and hope that life is kind to them. I tell her almost every night that there is nothing to be scared of in the dark. But she already knows better. And so do I. Sometimes you do need to be careful in the dark.

Monday, April 22, 2013

NBA Playoffs: 1st Round Predictions

Miami wins it all. We know that. The only question is how do they get there. Here are my bold first round predictions...

THE WEST: or, the race to see who gets to lose to The Heat

Oklahoma City (1) vs. Houston (8)
I would like to say that my Rockets have a chance, but they don't. As if The Thunder didn't have incentive enough, sticking it to James Harden gives them even more.
Dez Says: OKC in 5.

San Antonio (2) vs. L.A. Lakers (7)
The sports media is paying more attention to this series than it deserves because it's the Lakers. And a Kobe-less Lakers at that. D'Antoni is a fool of a coach.
Dez Says: S.A. Spurs in 6.

Denver (3) vs. Golden State (4)
Two fun teams to watch. I wish Denver were at full strength, they are my favorite type of team, no big stars but just a real cohesive unit that fights hard and works well together.
Dez Says: Denver Nuggets in 6.

L.A. Clippers (4) vs. Memphis (5)
Experts say The Clippers are not built to go too far in the playoffs, but I'm not so sure.
Dez Says: Clippers in 5.


Miami (1) vs. Milwaukee (8)
This will be a nice warm-up for Miami before they hit a serious opponent in the second round.
Dez Says: Heat sweep.

New York (2) vs. Boston (7)
Even if Boston were at full strength, the Knicks would still win this. Boston will take a couple on grit alone.
Dez Says: New York Knicks in 6.

Indiana (3) vs. Atlanta (6)
Boring teams. Boring series. Boring cities, boring states. Who cares.
Dez Says: Indiana Pacers in 6.

Brooklyn (4) vs. Chicago (5)
I know the Nets won the first game, and I know the Nets have the better record. And I know Chicago is without its wuss of a star, Derek Rose. I don't care, Chicago will still take it.
Dez Says: Bulls in 7.

Disagree? Explain yourself.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Dez Record Guides: The Cars

I’ll stick with the underrated and underappreciated 80’s bands. The Cars are the ultimate New Wave band. Guitarist/singer Ric Ocasek’s songs are near perfection as far as what they try to accomplish. Tight, concise New Wave rockers with a cynical lyrical bite (with the occasional synth-heavy ballad thrown in for variety), the jittery guitars from Ocasek and Elliott Easton weave around the minimalist 80’s synth lines from Greg Hawkes. David Robinson provided the solid backbeats, while bassist/vocalist Ben Orr provided a smoother vocal alternative to Ocasek, as they split the vocal duties. This was Ocasek’s band, though. They were his vehicle for his unique songwriting that so perfectly defines a genre. Worth at least a Rock Hall nomination, don’t you think? The 80’s-hating Committee hasn’t thought so.

The Cars (1978) *****
Ric Ocasek once jokingly referred to the debut as “The Cars Greatest Hits,” and to quote Spinal Tap, “every song on here is a hit” (or could be). More than any other record (including releases from Talking Heads or Devo’s debut), The Cars is the ultimate New Wave album, the one that shows what is best about the shortlived (but influential and far reaching) genre, with pop hooks galore, clipped and jittery guitars, and a witty songwriting laced with a healthy dose of cynicism which still remembers to have a good time.

Candy-o (1979) *****
Seen by many critics as leftovers from the debut, real fans know better. They know that it is just as catchy, just as innovative, even more lyrically sharp and that you are cooler if you prefer to pop it in over the debut (since everyone has heard The Cars about five thousand times).

ABOVE: The Cars wisely figured out that their album covers looked better with hot chicks vs. their ugly mugs

Panorama (1980) **
What happened here? It starts off strong, with the first three tracks hinting that another five star record has arrived, but then the quality takes a nosedive. I like it, but only because I have forced myself to. Ocasek wanted to strip the sound down for a rougher edge, but when you do that, you better have the songs to back it up, because there is less window dressing to hide behind.

Shake It Up (1981) ****
Learning from the minimalist mistakes of Panorama, Ocasek goes the other direction here, dialing the guitars back and pouring the synthesizers on like a thick 80’s flavored neon sauce. At times, it sounds so early 80’s that it verges on parody in hindsight, but fortunately, he has a real strong and off kilter (in that good Cars way) set of songs.

Heartbeat City (1984) ***
Heartbeat City made them, briefly, one of the biggest bands in the world. While it does contain three of the defining singles of the decade (“You Might Think,” “Drive” and nothing says summer of ’84 to me like “Magic”), as a whole it is also their most dated sounding record, as it is drenched in 80’s era trappings, production and indulgences.

Unlocked: The Cars Live (live) (2006/1985) **
Live performances were never this band’s strong suit, as their songs are best presented with the precision a studio provides. They also had notoriously dull stage presence. Finally, the sound quality here sucks. For completists only.

Greatest Hits (compilation) (1985) ****
As an 80’s singles band, the Cars were probably second only to Duran Duran. For a single disc collection, this does the job. Just be aware that there is much more to hear.

Door To Door (1987) **
Much maligned and it is so eclectic sounding that it borders on chaotic (some tracks date back to before the debut in composition, while others are new), but I don’t think it is as bad as its reputation. It is clear, however, that they had reached a dead end and Ocasek was ready to move on.

Just What I Needed: Cars Anthology (compilation) (1995) ****
Superb double disc anthology which includes some worthy rarities, yet I can’t give it the fifth star as it is missing “Heartbeat City” and the demo version of “Nightspots” included, for one of their most essential album tracks, is inferior to the studio version. Those serious caveats aside, this is near perfect.

Complete Greatest Hits (compilation) (2002) *****
The best single disc compilation available, it is packed to the brim with killer New Wave classics.

Move Like This (2011) ***
Hell froze over. Ric Ocasek swore the Cars would never reunite, but he had a new batch of songs and they just screamed “Cars” to him, so to his credit he buried the hatchet and reunited the band. Although Ben Orr is missed (he died in 2000, and Ocasek freely admits that about half of these songs would have sounded better with Orr singing them), this is much better than most expected it to be. A friend of mine commented that it sounds the band procured a time machine and went back to about 1986 and made the real follow-up to Heartbeat City (instead of the haphazard Door To Door). It falls in seamlessly with the rest of their discography, as opposed to sounding like the different era coda that it actually is.

Bottom Line: Love this band, and they absolutely mastered a certain genre within the late 70’s and early 80’s. The debut is essential stuff, the sophomore effort is a personal favorite of mine, and the rest of their records each have essential songs on them (well, maybe not Door To Door). For a one stop, Complete Greatest Hits is hard to beat.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Boston and Beyond

One thing that struck me was that it has taken so long for another successful terrorist attack on American soil. Think about that, it has been almost 12 years since 9/11. There have been some attacks foiled that we know about (and I am sure others that we don't know about), but yesterday's bombings in Boston was the first successful one in a dozen years. Kudos go to our intelligence agencies under both Republican and Democratic leadership post-9/11. The price of living in a free society is that you cannot protect every target all the time. This country is just too large, and we have gatherings of people for too many events and celebrations to prevent some terrorist from getting lucky. Perhaps we have entered into a new era where we will have these bombings from time to time, similar to England and the IRA back in the day.

I don't want to sound insensitive, and the three deaths (especially the 8 year old boy) and the wounded and maimings are tragic, but the wall to wall coverage and the proclamations from the Boston mayor that Boston "shall overcome" and "survive" seem a bit much. In fact, it kind of pissed me off. It should not even be needed to be said. Of course Boston will "overcome." It was hit by two poorly made backpack bombs that did much less damage than they could have. I don't think anyone doubted that a city of four and a half million people would "overcome" the tragic and senseless loss of three lives, Mr. Mayor, but thanks for the reassurance. I am in no way trying to diminish the loss of those three and the changed lives of the wounded, but I just found that irritating, overly dramatic and weak. Am I off on that? It just didn't strike me as very Churchill to me. London shall "overcome" after the Blitz from the Nazis, OK. NYC shall overcome after 9/11, OK. This was not on that scale. We can solemnly mourn the dead and wounded without resorting to hyperbole, and by having to say that you shall "overcome" implies that there was a possibility that you would not.

Also, the 24 hour news cycle constant coverage does little other than give validation to the bomber(s). Obviously, report on it extensively that day and night, but wall to wall into today too? The bomber(s) want more than anything else to get the world's attention and instill fear in Americans. As the media continue to dwell on the event, the "evil-doers" (to use some W. language) are getting exactly what they want and encouraging others. (I know, I'm talking about it too. GNABB does have great influence on world events.)

We don't know who is behind it, but I was listening to an expert on terrorism on the radio last night, and he was saying that it was most likely Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. True, we don't want to jump to conclusions (recall that was the most likely perpetrator in the initial reports for Oklahoma City), but he made a good point. If it was homegrown Right Wing extemists, it would most likely be a federal government target. If it was homegrown Left Wing extremists, it would most likely be an economic/business-related target. The fact that the target was a very public event targeting civilians indiscriminately, that M.O. is more along al-Qaeda lines. (Although 9/11 was both government and economic targets, I think the main purpose behind 9/11 was to make the biggest splash, which they did).

Boston was tragic and we need to vigorously bring those responsible to justice. But, the crisis in North Korea and Iran's imminent nuclear capabilities are much more threatening. Suddenly North Korea is not news anymore? It was little reported, but there were Iranian "observers" in North Korea earlier in the month when they successfully detonated their nuke. North Korea is further along than originally thought in getting ballistic nuclear capability. North Korea desperately needs money. North Korean technology has already shown up in Iran, Syria and other such places. Are you starting to connect the dots, here? Forget homemade backpack bombs full of ball bearings. North Korea-Iran is what is scary. North Korea helps Iran go nuclear, Iran hands nukes over to terrorists...that is the real doomsday scenario and what should be keeping our government up at night and the media talking. At least Israel understands this, stating that they will bomb Iran if necessary to prevent them from going nuclear, even if we don't.

ABOVE: Jim Jong Un is a joke. But the people he is potentially doing business with are not.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Getting Ready

A month and a half. That is about all the time we have left until our family goes from three to four. Been trying to listen to plenty of Graham Nash's domestic bliss songs to get myself in the right mindset. The three of us are handling it in different ways.

As per the baby books, my wife is in extreme nesting mode. We just paid a ridiculous amount of money to have the carpets steamed, from top to bottom. Tonight she had me drag out all of the old baby gear and clothing from storage. Out kitchen is now crowded with boxes stacked upon boxes of baby crap. How something so small could require so much still amazes me. Glad we kept everything, though. Now she is having me clean every item, and she is washing all of the clothes. Do you know how tedious it is to take out clothing from the dryer for such a small person? Separating out socks that are two or three inches long? It's cool though. As I was pulling out the baby clothes from the dryer I had a Clark Griswald moment (in 'Christmas Vacation,' where he gets trapped in the attic for most of a day and starts going through the boxes and finds the super 8 films of his baby days). I recognized the little jammies and shirts and dresses, and remembered my daughter as an infant in them three years ago. Nice moment. Also kind of cool that I get to go through that phase one more (and only one) time. Anyway, the wife is nesting. She's a trooper, though. As with our first daughter, the plan is for an all natural birth. We will go to the hospital and have baby delivered by a professional just in case there are any issues, but she plans on going without meds. That's badass. She's awesome. I am "birth coach." Basically, I get to massage her for hours on end through labor and give encouragement throughout the process. And get her stuff when she wants it.

My daughter, as might be expected, is a bit conflicted by this turn of events. The books also tell you to be prepared for this. At times she is very excited about "baby sister," telling us how she will play with her, help feed her, help put her to bed, etc. She is aware of baby sister's current abode, saying that "baby sister is in Mommy's tummy." But at other times, she has stated in no uncertain terms that she "does not want baby sister to come out." I think my wife very much disagrees at this point. Tonight when I brought out all of her former belongings that are soon to be baby sister's, she got quite possessive. She sat in her old bouncy seat, grabbed the infant rattle toys. "These are mine," she firmly informed me. Perhaps she was just being nostalgic and going down memory lane, but I think there was something more sinister at play here. She'll be a great big sister once she gets over the initial shock of not being the only one. I did tell her, though, "don't be a cliché. Don't regress to your infant ways when baby sister gets here. We've come so far with potty training." She just stared back at me rather puzzled. The books all say that toddler sibling returns to some infant behaviors when new sibling arrives. There is plenty of advice on how to make the change easier, but some things are just unavoidable.

As far as I go, I guess I'm good to go. My biggest worry is finances. Even before my first daughter, I wasn't too worried about being a good Dad and all of that. My mother-in-law's suspicions aside, I knew that I'd be a fantastic Dad. Dumber people than me have raised many kids and done a good job, so I figured I'd be alright. But the money thing keeps me worried. But then, lots of people have less money than I do and have many more kids as well. So I guess it all works out. I remember when my daughter first greeted the world, I felt slightly numb, emotionally. Perhaps it was the almost 24 hours of labor that we had just gone through. Quietly I felt a little ashamed that I didn't have that immediate flood of emotion and overwhelming awe that the event is supposed to inspire. It took me a little time with her to get as attached as I am now. So I am prepared for that this time around. After talking to other fathers, that is not an uncommon thing. You have to invest some care and time before you truly feel connected to your kids.

Anyway, we're ready.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Dez Record Guides: Duran Duran

My friend JMW recently suggested that my next Record Guide should focus on a "less obvious" band. OK. While not exactly obscure, Duran Duran has had a hard road as far as critical acceptance and is a bit of a left turn after giving you The Stones, Who, Byrds, etc. Unfairly seen as just a pop band for teenyboppers in the early 80’s (in part due to their marketing, revolutionary MTV videos, and Tiger Beat looks), they were actually quite innovative and an important step forward from the work of Roxy Music, Gary Numan and his Tubeway Army and from some of David Bowie’s mid-70’s music. I think that critics have at long last come around, as you do hear acknowledgment now of their rather huge influence. Their secret weapon, and what separates them from much of the pop music today that they so influenced, is that they were also excellent musicians and pop/rock songwriters. Bassist John Taylor and underrated guitarist Andy Taylor, especially, should be listened to. Singer Simon le Bon, drummer Roger Taylor and keyboardist Nick Rhodes round out the classic line-up of the group. (Credit should also be given to guitarist Warren Cuccurullo for stepping in and helping them survive their more lean years, much as Trevor Rabin did for Yes in the 80’s). None of the Taylors are related.

Duran Duran (1981) *****
True that their debut is the ultimate New Romantic record of the 80’s, but the reason it still sounds great as opposed to sounding like an artifact is that underneath the make-up, pin-up looks and hairspray there are fantastic songs, rock solid musicianship and a darker, moodier second side that goes deeper than just the hits.

Rio (1982) *****
From its glamorous Nagel-designed cover to the brilliant synth pop jumping out of the record grooves, Rio is the 80’s in all of its decadence, neon nightlife and sheen and, most crucially, the melancholy of the morning after. One of the most essential records of the decade.

Live at Hammersmith 82! (live) (2009/1982) ****
With only two records worth of material to choose from at this point, this release is a bit redundant, but the show is energetic and they do take their songs to some new places, especially the deeper album cuts from the debut that had not already been played to death on radio (“Night Boat,” “Friends of Mine,” “Careless Memories”). Guitarist Andy Taylor gets to add a bit of welcome muscle in the live setting.

Seven and the Ragged Tiger (1983) ***
Released at the peak of Duranmania, the classic sound is still present, but there is a noticeable dip in songwriting here.

Arena (live)(1984) **
Poorly recorded and uninspired live outing (compare it to the Hammersmith set). Didn’t stop it from selling a ton of product, but that is all that it is, product.

Night Versions (remix compilation) (1998/1981-1985) ***
Duran was notable for taking great care with their extended remixes (used at the time for dance clubs). Most groups would hand their original tracks over to a producer who would add some more beats and extend it a few minutes. Duran actually went back into the studio and re-recorded the songs with additional music composed for the songs with dance clubs in mind…so these “re-mixes” are really new versions of the songs and stand on their own merits.

ABOVE: Bassist John Taylor made the cover of many a teen mag in the early 80's. What is often overlooked, however, is that he is a great, great bass player. Listen closely to the bass line of "Rio."

The Splinter Groups: In 1985, the members of Duran were tired of each other and of the frenzy around the band at the time. Wanting to explore other musical avenues, they agreed to temporarily split and work on some side projects. The original line-up never reformed after this “break” (at least until the 2004 reunion). Le Bon, Rhodes and Roger Taylor formed Arcadia and released one record, So Red the Rose (1985) ****, a collection that further explored their moody synth roots to wonderful effect. John and Andy Taylor, on the other hand, wanted to rock out a bit more, and formed Power Station with drummer Tony Thompson and singer Robert Palmer. Power Station had substantial commercial success in its own right during its first run, releasing Power Station (1985) *** (and later Living in Fear (1996) **).

Notorious (1986) ****
Down to three members (Andy Taylor was kicked out, Roger Taylor quit) and largely viewed as yesterday’s fad by the mid-80’s, they smartly regrouped and retooled their sound into a sexy, more adult mix of Roxy Music, Chic and David Bowie’s plastic soul. This did not do well commercially, but it should have.

Live at the Beacon Theater (live) (2010/1987) ***
Good show, and interesting setlist, including tunes originally recorded in their two side projects, Arcadia and Power Station.

Big Thing (1988) ***
Duran was definitely out of fashion during the peak years of hair metal, but they were still making good music. BT was the logical continuation of Notorious, albeit not quite as strong. Wrongfully panned on release, it has had a quiet rehabilitation over the years amongst both critics and fans.

Decade (compilation) (1989) ****
Solid hits collection from one of the ultimate singles bands, but there is a better one.

Liberty (1990) **
Trying to rebound from the unjustly panned Big Thing, they throw a bunch of crap at the wall to see what sticks. Not much does. “Serious” should have been a big hit, and “My Antarctica” creates a great mood, but the rest of this is forgettable.

Strange Behaviour (remix compilation) (1999/1981-1993) ***
See commentary for Night Versions. This is some of those plus later remixes through 1992.

ABOVE: Simon le Bon wants you to sing along

Duran Duran (aka ‘The Wedding Album’) (1993) ***
A welcome and surprising commercial comeback on the strength of two of their best songs, “Ordinary World” and “Come Undone.” “Too Much Information” is also pretty strong, but the rest is just OK. Still, it was nice to see Duran Duran back on the charts.

Thank You (1995) *
Hmm. How should we capitalize on the biggest hit record we’ve had since our early 80’s heyday? How about release a record of baffling covers. Yeah, let’s cover some Public Enemy. No thanks. Only a moody version of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” really works.

Medazzaland (1997) ***
John Taylor split after the debacle of Thank You, leaving them for the first time Taylorless. This is not as bad as its general reputation, and not as good as revisionist Duranies claim it is, as it has become a cult favorite amongst the devoted. Warren Cuccurullo is really given the reigns here and he delivers some interesting stuff.

Greatest (compilation) (1998) *****
Duran Duran were one of the most prolific and brilliant purveyors of pop music perfection with their singles. For a single disc overview, you can’t do better than this. If I were allowed only five CDs to best represent the 80’s, I would pick this as one. (That would be a fun game).

Pop Trash (2000) *
Truth in advertising.

Astronaut (2004) ***
After the nadir of Pop Trash (where they were reduced to touring state fairs and small clubs to support it), they needed to do something to get back to the arenas. A few phone calls later, the original line-up was back together. For the first time since 1984, all three Taylors were present and accounted for. They knocked out an album, and hit the road for a well-received and sold out tour. You can feel the energy as they deliver a good set of new tunes.

Live From London (live) (2005) ***
Nice live memento from what turned out to be a short reunion of the Fab Five.

Red Carpet Massacre (2007) **
After one record and a glorious reunion tour, malcontent Andy Taylor bolts/is kicked out again, and the remaining four enlist the talents of Timbaland and Justin Timberlake to help produce. What results doesn’t really sound like a Duran Duran album, more like an album influenced by Duran Duran.

All You Need Is Now (2010) ***
Now this sounds like a Duran Duran album. Dispensing with the outside help, they revisit the classic sound and shoot for Rio and make a record as good as Seven and the Ragged Tiger.

A Diamond in the Mind: Live 2011 (live) (2012) Not Rated

Bottom Line: Duran Duran represents the 1980’s so completely, and that is part of their problem. It is hard for many people hear them beyond their early 80’s heyday, which is a shame. Excellent musicianship, serious pop music writing and innovation carry through their entire discography. Their influence on today’s pop world, for better or for worse, is undeniable. That is why I continue to argue that Duran Duran remains one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s biggest snubs. They fit all of the criteria, but they don’t fit Jann Wenner’s worldview. If you want a good intro, go buy two records: Rio and the compilation Greatest. Then move on to the debut. Still interested? Check out Notorious.

Monday, April 8, 2013

RIP Margaret Thatcher, 1925-2013

What Reagan was to the United States in the 1980’s, Margaret Thatcher was for Great Britain. I use “Great” here purposefully because in the couple of decades before Thatcher took power, Britain was far from great. Britain of the 1960’s and 70’s was a Britain of perpetual decline, a Britain that had lost its Empire (listen to The Kinks’ 1969 Arthur, or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) and had not found another purpose. British economist Ruth Lea states that the role of government in Britain before Thatcher was “managing decline.” The rest of Western Europe seemed to be passing Britain by, as the unions had an unconscionable stranglehold on British entrepreneurism and economic growth, the future was bleak.

Along came The Iron Lady, Britain’s first (and so far only) female prime minister. She had the stones to do what no male British politician would do, attack the unions head on and bring on an economic revolution. It was painful, there was a serious recession early on, millions became unemployed…but it was necessary. She revived the economy and stood up firmly against opposition both at home and abroad. In Reagan she found her “political soul mate” (in the famous words of one of her aides) and in Gorbachev she finally found a Russian with whom “I can do business.”

I’m not saying she made all of the right moves (she opposed German reunification, for instance), but she brought Britain back. Maybe much of the population was kicking and screaming along the way, because her reforms indeed hurt at times, but she did what Reagan did for us. While both have controversial legacies, both took power in countries where confidence was low (Britain probably lower than the U.S.) Both were irrepressibly, possibly even delusionally, optimistic about the future. Both were master politicians, both believed in capitalism and the free market to their core. Most importantly, their optimistic (bordering on jingoistic, at times) attitudes were contagious. By the end of the 1980’s, it was good to be an American again, and it was good to be a Briton as well. In these uncertain times where strong leadership seems in such short supply that even a petulant child like Kim Jong Un feels that he can bellow at the United States with threats of nuclear weapons with impunity, it makes us miss leaders like Reagan and Thatcher all the more.

Friday, April 5, 2013

RIP Roger Ebert, 1942-2013

I wanted to get this out sooner than I did, fearing that my perceptive commentary on Ebert’s life and influence would already be old news after the hundreds of obituaries that beat me to the punch. Alas, that is what has happened. But such was Ebert’s reach.

I guess the most impressive thing to me about Roger Ebert’s legacy is that he brought criticism and reviewing (of any kind) down to an accessible level without sacrificing intelligence, wit and perceptive commentary. I’ve read Pauline Kael and, in the world of music, Robert Christgau. While they are undoubtedly intelligent, I also find them full of horsesh*t about half of the time. Ebert was never full of horsesh*t. I may have disagreed with him, but he was never critiquing for the purpose of looking like the smartest person in the room, where he felt he was doing you a favor by even trying to explain great (or crappy) art. He was smart and knowledgeable about film, but he still came across as a regular dude who liked movies. A lot. I read some interesting articles this morning about how Ebert was a huge influence on internet writing especially, in places like this blog. Where average folks who have a passion for topics feel free to write about them. Ebert was far from average, but he crucially (usually) did not write from on high. Reading his reviews often felt like sitting at a dinner table talking movies with a smart friend.

Ebert was also influential in helping to establish point/counterpoint television. And just like you can’t blame ‘Jaws’ for the bloated summer blockbusters that came in its wake, you can’t blame Ebert and Gene Siskel for Fox News and Sunday Morning News roundtables. It is not Siskel & Ebert’s fault that most TV critics and pundits lack the wit, warmth, nuance and intelligence that they possessed. When they started their weekly half hour movie review show in 1975, it wasn’t expected to amount to much. It started locally in Chicago as a show where Siskel and Ebert (working for the competing newspapers in the Windy City) would review new films, but more importantly, spiritedly spar when they disagreed. Fortunately, they often disagreed. In fact, we all watched their show hoping, praying, that they would disagree. But it was still going strong decades later and nationally syndicated, right up until Gene Siskel’s death in 1999. Siskel & Ebert brought movie criticism out of the universities and away from Europhiles and into middle America. It is crucial, I think, that both were Midwestern guys themselves. They showed that you could be smart about art (or just movies) even if you didn’t live in New York.

ABOVE: Siskel & Ebert rip apart one of the worst movies ever made, 'Jaws: The Revenge.' Siskel: "I wanted to go up and punch the screen."

I own and love all three of Ebert’s ‘Great Movies’ books. Wonderful essays about films that I love and films that I still need to see. But Ebert was often most fun when he disliked a film. In fact, his book ‘Your Movie Sucks’ is a hilarious compilation of his most notorious negative reviews. I recall a war of words with Saturday Night Live alum/tool Rob Schneider. Never a good idea to challenge Ebert in public. Some other critic had eviscerated Schneider’s 'Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo' (I know, shocking). Schneider shot back in a paid ad, questioning the critic’s credentials and asking “what makes you qualified? Have you won the Pulitzer Prize?” Ebert came to said critic’s defense in one of his most famous reviews: “As chance would have it, I have won a Pulitzer Prize [which he won in 1975], so I am qualified. Speaking in my capacity as a Pulitzer Prize winner, Mr. Schneider, your movie sucks.” (To Schneider's credit, when Ebert first announced that he had cancer, Schneider sent him flowers with a card 'From your least favorite movie star.') Or this one for Tom Green’s ‘Freddy Got Fingered’: “This movie doesn’t scrape the bottom of the barrel. This movie is not the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn’t below the bottom of the barrel. This movie doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence as barrels.”

ABOVE: Go to 6:20 here and watch Siskel & Ebert play Nintendo Tennis against eachother. Siskel to his female avatar, "Come on, move over, Hon."

RIP Roger Ebert. The balcony is now officially closed. You and Gene can pick up where you left off in the hereafter, helping the angels pick out good flicks for movie night. And helping them avoid 'Jaws: The Revenge.'