Thursday, October 26, 2006

New Look and Number 63

I felt it was time for a little change, so I've gone to a brighter template! I'm not exactly a computer genius so I find these things very exciting. Anyway, the brighter template makes the words a little easier to read and makes things a little more colorful. One band that would approve of brighter colors is Number 63:

White Stripes - Elephant (2003)

The sound of this band's buzz was heard for years before they finally broke big in 2003. The White Stripes are an unlikely band, a "brother & sister" act that are comprised of a guitarist / singer and a drummer. And that's it. No long list of sidemen or studio hacks playing bass or keyboards, no wall of sequenced synthesizers to make up for missing musicians, just bluesy alterna rock played in a raw minimalist format.

I haven't heard what's supposed to be their best album, White Blood Cells (2001), but Elephant delivers pounding garage rock with palpable force. Guitarist Jack White clearly leads the band with his cutting, feedback driven guitar riffs and strong sense of melody. Drummer Meg White has been made fun of for her drumming style, but you must remember a drummer can be as important in what they don't play than what they do. Between Jack White's meaty riffs and screechy vocals a more technical drummer would just get in the way.

The big hit song, "Seven Nation Army" is probably going to be on the list of the best rock songs of this decade. The pulsing beat, plaintive vocal and downbeat groove hits hard and the equally memorable video of the duo repeatedly coming out of the background to the foreground has been repeatedly mimicked in commercials since. The other hit, "Hardest Button To Button" fares just as well with a powerful stop/start guitar riff and some great drumwork (yeah, I said Meg White's drumming is great!) . The video of the duo repeatedly moving across the screen in stop motion increments has been copied (just recently this video was paid tribute to in The Simpsons) as well.

Elephant has a great mix of edgy garage rock, brutal blues riffing and odd ball Velvet Underground style left turns. Zippy, fast rockers like "Black Math" and "Girl You Have No Faith In Medicine" are balanced by slower numbers punctuated with bluesy outbursts like "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself" and "I Want To Be The Boy To Warm Your Mother's Heart". Two other stand out songs are the classic rock blues of "Ball And Biscuit" and the self motivational "Little Acorns".

The recent work of Jack White suggests there may not be a future for the Stripes, but Elephant will always stand out as a great garage rock album.

Monday, October 23, 2006

TNA Wrestling and Number 64

About six years ago, I became a big wrestling fan. Wrestling was about excitement, overhype and overkill in every way imaginable. It was great fun. Sadly, a few years back wrestling made a conscious effort to become boring. When I say wrestling, I mean WWE, the only major wrestling promotion left standing after the ratings wars between WWE, WCW and ECW ended. When I first started watching wrestling, it was a big stunt show with people running in all directions knocking into each other. They would jump off the ringpost, the stage, giant ladders and crash through tables or into dumpsters. In between, larger than life characters would run their mouth about how they were the best of everything. The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin and the Hardy Boys were the face of this style.

A few years back, WWE thought people did not want to see this type of action anymore and went to a more traditional, boring style of wrestling. This new/old style consisted of 20 minute matches where the wrestlers would grapple for 15 minutes. In the middle of the match would be a longggg sleeper hold which would take about 5 minutes and always ended with the hold being broken. On top of that, WWE thought it would be great to split their roster into two camps, RAW and Smackdown. They thought they were giving greater exposure to their talent, but they were really weakening their ability to put wrestlers over by showing them on one program instead of two.

At the end of the day, what was left? The only wrestler since the RAW and Smackdown split they have successfully put over fully is John Cena. Cena's a likeable guy who can do everything a wrestler needs to do well...except actually wrestle. His ability to talk and mouth off is first rate, but he only knows five moves and does them in the same order every match. With other wrestling promotions no longer able to stand up to Vince McMahon's WWE, it seemed this junk was all wrestling fans were stuck with.

Until WWE left Spike TV, then Spike signed up the only other wrestling promotion that could try to compete-TNA. TNA is led by wrestler turned wrestler/promoter Jeff Jarrett. In his prime, Jarrett wrestled for just about anybody that had a ring and a bell. TNA's initial approach was to pickup on what the WWE refused to deliver, fast paced mayhem and acrobatic moves. To take it a step further, Jarrett saw what used to work in WWE before the change and made bargin basement copies. Like Mick Foley / Mankind? Now there's Abyss, an enigmatic crazy guy with a mask. Like The Rock? Well, if the Rock got kind of fat, you can call him Samoa Joe. Like Sting? Actually, they got the real thing and Sting is with TNA.

Now that TNA's on Spike, old WCW wrestlers and every WWE wrestler that has become disenchanted with that company's direction have been coming over. In addition to Sting, two big WCW names Scott Steiner and Kevin Nash jumped over. Disgruntled former ECW wrestlers who saw their hardhitting wrestling styles softened and their careers slowed in the process made the jump, such as Rhyno and the Dudley Boyz. WWE midcarders like Christian and underused divas like Gail Kim and Christy Hemme moved as well. And in their biggest coup, TNA was able to bring over former olympic gold medalist / WWE world champion Kurt Angle over because he was tired of being mistreated and misused.

The end result is that TNA, a smaller and hungrier company, is now packing more entertaining action in one hour a week than WWE can with six hours a week. On TNA, the action is fast and furious. The scripted storylines are lamer than WWE's, but they don't spend as much time talking about it which makes it OK. Best of all, TNA has held on to some of their original wrestlers to maintain an X division, where wrestlers pull acrobatic moves left and right . No lousy five minute chokeholds on this show. Just people flying and getting chairs to the face. That's how wrestling should be.

And what should be at Number 64 is:

Journey - Raised On Radio (1986)

Journey's Raised On Radio will always be a meaningful album to me, even though I can't say it was the album I was hoping it would be. A lot happened in my life in 1986, I graduated high school and then moved away from home to start college. This album will always be tied to that period in my life and Journey is my favorite band, so why is this at Number 64?

Well, although Raised On Radio is a good album it ultimately wasn't really a Journey album. Journey had made their name as the top arena rock band with anthemic melodic rock and soft, teary ballads. During the making of Radio, creative conflicts arose which resulted in the rhythm section getting fired and lead singer Steve Perry writing separately from guitarist Neal Schon and keyboardist Jon Cain. On top of this, Perry was riding on a professional high of a successful solo album and a personal low of caring for his terminally ill mother. Perry took absolute control of the project, minimizing the contributions of Schon and Cain.

On the way to a family vacation I heard on the radio the first new Journey song I had heard in three years. "Be Good To Yourself" was a classic Journey rock song with an uplifting chorus, shiny keyboard parts and Neal Schon's sizzling guitar solo at the end. It seemed all of the bad press was wrong, this was going to be Journey the way they had been before.

Then the album finally came out. I bought it the first day it was released, I bugged the record store clerk so much he tried to lie to me and say I was there the wrong day. I ran home and put it on the turntable. I was really pumped and the first song was..."Girl Can't Help It". While "Girl Can't Help It" is a fine song, it's a sort of midtempo song with a heavy dose of Oohing harmony vocals. It was confusing, I didn't know what to make of it. Didn't I buy a Journey album? The second song, "Positive Touch", was even more bewildering. "Touch" hopped along to an R&B beat and featured a saxophone solo. To this day, I consider this one of the worst Journey songs ever. The third song, "Suzanne", I thought was great except they stole the beat from A-Ha's "Take On Me".

Much of the rest of the album went the same way. It became clear to me that this wasn't a Journey album but really Steve Perry's second solo album with members of Journey guesting. With the exception of "Be Good To Yourself" and the excellent power ballad "Why Can't This Night Go On Forever", there wasn't anything recognizibly Journey on the album. Everything else downplayed the arena rock and replaced it with R&B and lightweight funk.

Still, by the standards of a Steve Perry solo album it was pretty good. "I'll Be Alright Without You", a sort of sequel to Perry's "Foolish Heart", is one of my favorite songs. I saw Journey play live twice on the Raised On Radio tour, both shows were outstanding. My friends and I stayed up a full 24 hours to see them perform their first live concert in three years. I sat through crappy bands like Device and Andy Taylor (of Duran Duran) and saw some mediocre sets delivered by Honeymoon Suite and the Outfield ("Your Love" is a great song until you hear an eleven minute version of it with eight minutes of crowd sing-a-long).

The concert also gave me respect for Randy "American Idol" Jackson, who played bass on this album and tour. His bass playing is considerably stronger than Ross Valory, who he had replaced. This album was Journey at the end of their peak run and while it could have been better, it still ranks as one of my all time favorites. As Randy Jackson would say, Journey "y'know, did their thing dawg." Luckily for Journey, that's better than most people's best effort.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Battlestar Galactica and Number 65

Before I start the regular part of this post, I first want to rant about a recent rash of overacting in music videos. It started with Hinder, which has a video where the singer starts off by trying to flail about while singing. He's trying to evoke Joe Cocker, but his lame attempts at "soulfulness" look like a seizure instead. By the end of the video, he's so overcome with "emotion" that he starts tearing at his hair and pulling at his tie like it's a noose. The song"Lips Of An Angel" may be the best Aerosmith ballad in ten years, but this video is just embarrasing. Tonight, I saw the video for Jessica Simpson's new song. As if the video didn't already reek of desperation (she sings about "belonging to herself" while she tries every psuedo sexy pose known to the human race) her overacting borders on the insane. Simpson doesn't just tear at her hair, she cuts it short on camera. Then she tears at what's left, while straining her facial poses and over enunciating with the focused power of someone taking a big crap. There is a point where she gets caught up in the drama and her mouth dropped so wide open I thought she was one of those Aliens where the little mouth then shoots out of the big mouth and rips your throat out. Scary!

Now that my rants over, I can now talk about Battlestar Galactica. I've decided to start watching this show and I've got to say, it's pretty good. I was a little reluctant to see it as I was a big fan of the original series growing up and even watched Galactica 1980 (never doubt the power of Kent McCord! Never!!). I loved the original series with the Star Wars lite special effects, cast of cool dudes (Richard Hatch and Dirk "Face" Benedict) and hot girls (Jane Seymour and some blonde girl), and those Viper jets where the pilots wear Egyptian helmets. Plus, when I saw the original Battlestar Galactica in the movie theater the basestar explosion at the end shook the building. It was a wonderfully cheesy sci fi show until it ran out of ideas and money. When you started to see the exact same flight pattern scenes of the different ships over and over, it just got old.

Now, Battlestar's back but it really has nothing to do with the '70's show. Sure, the outline of the story is the same with the mechanical Cylons destroying most of the human race except for a rag-tag fleet led by a Battlestar searching for Earth. But, this Galactica is a grimmer, bloodier version. Taking the best elements of Sci-Fi from just about every show ever made, it evokes the real world commentary dressed up in space suits approach of the original Star Trek with some bits of Outer Limits thrown in. This show takes itself very seriously, using the situation to make social and political commentaries on Iraq (the humans try to settle on a planet only to be overrun by the Cylons and have a new government forced upon them. The humans resort to terrorist attacks and suicide bombers to fight for freedom) and America (the humanist president is ran out of office by blind, self centered idealist). It's heady stuff, but only by disguising it's comments in space can a television program get away with tackling these subjects. There are times when I wish this show would lighten up a little, but overall it's entertaining and lives up to its hype.

Speaking of hype and cheese, here's number 65:

Night Ranger - Midnight Madness (1984)

Now we're getting to the good stuff, most of the selections on the countdown are from the 80's at this point. I became a fan of Night Ranger from their first hit, "Don't Tell Me You Love Me", when I heard it on Casey Kasem's Top 40 show. The song was a fast rocking tune with a catchy chorus and blazing twin guitars. It's still one of my favorite songs to this day. I quickly ordered their cassette from Columbia House Records and wore side one out (didn't care as much for side two).

Night Ranger built a buzz on their hit and a rambunctous live show where drummer/co lead singer Kelly Keagy sat sideways at the end of the stage while guitarists Jeff Watson and Brad Gillis ran around bassist/co lead singer Jack Blades. Keyboardist Alan Fitzgerald sat on the other end of the stage with Entwhilian calmness. When Night Ranger released their second album, Midnight Madness, it quickly became the album everyone in high school had to have.

The first single, "Rock In America", was very similar to "Don't Tell Me You Love Me" with its fast beat, catchy chorus and twin guitar solos. Midnight Madness was one of the first records I had bought and I played "Chippin' Away" to death when I bought it. When they released their second single, "Sister Christian", everything changed for this band on what was for me the most confusing ballad I ever heard.

In the 80's before there was internet, the listener had to rely more on personal interpretation of song lyrics unless the music video literaly translated everything. Although I thought the song sounded nice I really didn't get this song. The piano intro was nice, the chorus was pleasantly bracing and the soaring guitar solo was fantastic. But the lyrics about "motoring" and telling Sister Christian that her time has come was impenetrable to me. Why was a nun motoring and determining her price for flight? Where was she flying to and why write a song about it? Why should I care?

Well, the song proved to be a triumphant hit single and the defining Night Ranger song taking them to platinum record sales. The song has had an afterlife in movies (most notably Boogie Nights) and 80's collections for years now. And the internet has cleared up for me that this song is about the drummer's sister graduating high school (now the video makes sense). But that's now, for two decades I really didn't get into this song for the above reasons. Confuse me, will you Night Ranger!

The third single was recently selected as one of the most Awesomely Bad Love Songs of all time, "When You Close Your Eyes". Another case of misunderstood lyrics, I thought this song was romantic about a guy asking a girl if she misses him. VH1 clarified the song is about a guy thinking about the first time he got laid in the back of a car and wonders if the girl misses him years later. Talk about ego! Still sounds great, though.

Just goes to show somethings don't improve with age, but nonetheless Midnight Madness is an all time classic in my book. The killer duelling guitars of whammy bar specialist Brad Gillis and finger tapper Jeff Watson livened up even the weakest songs. Jack Blades and Kelly Keagy were interchanageable as vocalists, but both sang with fire. I saw Night Ranger in concert twice and were never disappointed by their energetic live show. This album will always bring back the few pleasant memories I have of high school, a time of playing football in the park with friends and then blasting Night Ranger while arguing over who was their biggest fan first.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Tae Guk Gi or whatever its called and Number 66

By chance, I happened to start watching Tae Guk Gi-Brotherhood of War. For some reason I can't remember, I keep seeing this title or DVD cover around so I thought I would see what the big deal is about. It's a Korean movie about the Korean War (suddenly a little topical) told from the perspective of two brothers: One strong and big hearted but of average intelligence and the other a little sickly but very intelligent. When the war starts, both find themselves involuntarily drafted into the South Korean Army and fighting in the front lines. The older, stronger brother makes a deal with his CO that if he can get a medal of honor he can send his younger weaker brother home.

The older brother wins the medal of honor but becomes ruthlessly partisan and cold as a result. The younger brother rebels against the older brother and things come to a head when they visit home between missions. I won't give away more in case you should decide to see this flick.

Tae Guk Gi is an involving film that borrows a lot from Saving Private Ryan (fighting to save a family amid an even bigger war plus gory detail in the shootings and explosions) and even Glory (chaotic battle scenes and a lot of fistfights and bayonnets in the trenches). Despite the obvious influences, Tae Guk Gi finds its own voice in the doomed melodrama between the brothers. Like any melodrama, plausability can get a little stretched but fine acting (that gets across even with the bad english dubbing job), confident direction and epic action scenes gets the story across.

Interestingly, the director of this movie may have out Spielberged Spielberg by revelling in tearjerking melodrama throughout the movie. Spielberg has tried to keep his mushy heart hidden in much of his recent "mature" work until its time for the BIG ENDING. This movie dives in and doesn't stop prodding you with tragedy until you're waist deep in it.

In the end, I kept thinking about how this is "the front" that MASH was always talking about. They were right, the front is hell. With recent political events, we may end up revisiting this place figuritively and literally. Let's hope history doesn't repeat itself for the benefit of everyone.

I can't think of a good transition, so here's Number 66:

The Smiths - The Singles (1995)

In the 80's, I didn't have any concept of what The Smiths were other than a few confusing posters with weird images that had no meaning to me. When I got to college, all my floormates could talk about was "Morrissey this or Morrissey that." I became so saturated by it that I actively hated the Smiths, even though I didn't know any of their songs. People talked about Morrissey like he was the last say in everything and I thought anyone who inspired that kind of behavior is...really annoying.

A few years ago, I decided to branch out into listening other bands than my usual Foreigner and Journey discs and gave the Smiths a proper listening. I found that I like the Smiths a lot. Not to the worshipping level of my dormmates, but at least I could relate a little. Morrissey's crooning, affected vocals over chiming guitars and a solid rhythm section created music that was both timeless and dated in that BIG 80's kind of way.

I enjoyed the odd perversity of the lyrics for "Girlfriend in a Coma" ,"Shoplifters Of The World Unite" and "Panic" (with the chant "hang the DJ!"). Finally, I saw what the big deal was about Morrissey. Morrissey comes across as, well, a self pitying drama queen though I mean that in a good way. The songtitles are filled with self lacerating shots like "Bigmouth Strikes Again", "I Started Something I Couldn't Finish" and "What Difference Does It Make". All sung in a 30's crooner vocal style with a touch of feyness. My favorite song, "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" features Morrissey singing about how happy he would be to die with his lover in a bus accident. It's perverse, it's funny and sad...that's the charisma Morrissey has.

Their biggest hit, "How Soon Is Now" (with that classic guitar riff that goes "da na-na-na-na-na" followed by a "Whir-errrrr" over and over again) is an awesome song about sulking in loneliness. Feeling a little weary but still have a sense of humor about your situation? Then the Smiths are playing the soundtrack of your life.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

As Time Goes By and Number 67

It's a little rare for me to review television on the blog, so much tv doesn't seem to hold up to scrutiny or have any sense of originality. But there is a tv series that is repeating on public television which I think is outstanding and that's As Time Goes By. A british television series from the early to mid 1990's, it follows the relationship of Jean and Lionel. The two had an intensely passionate relationship during what sounds like either WWII or the Korean War but had a falling out due to a lost love letter. They meet by chance some 30 years later and after a lot of manuevering they fall back in love.

As precious as the premise is, the reason why this show works has less to do with big ideas than with studied characterization. The series moves as an unusually confident pace allowing the two main characters time to relate to each others and a set of recurring characters around them. Jean is played by Dame Judi Dench in what is the first role in which I can see why she earned her acting title. Dench imbues her character with intelligence, wit and empathy with a touch of pathos. Geoffrey Palmer plays Lionel as a likeable curmudgeon playing off of Dench's energetic performance (The two also interacted briefly but memorably at the beginning of the James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies). The surrounding characters give the couple a sounding board for their other traits, such as the affable book agent Alstair, the disappointed romantic Judi and the even keeled Sandy.

It's rare that a television show doesn't talk down to its audience or pull cheap sweeps stunts to capture attention. As Time Goes By lays out its simple premise and characters and allows them to interact in a way that is realistic but with a sharp sense of wit. If you have access to public television, I strongly recommend watching this show. It's funny, human and touching in a way that most tv isn't.

Now, when I describe Number 67 the adjectives that come to mind are entirely different. That's because Number 67 is:

Def Leppard - Hysteria (1987)

On VH1 Classic I watched the making of this album and I've always been amazed that this album carries the stature it does. Hysteria was one of the first CD's I ever bought (I didnb't even own a CD player at the time). I thought if there was a band worth listening to in digital stereo, it was Def Leppard. Def Lep has always been a heavily produced band with all sorts of electronic noises, processed vocals and synthesizers to soften and sweeten their brand of pop metal. While this reputation had been established with High N Dry (1982) and Pyromania (1983), they took it to the next level with Hysteria.

In fact, when I first heard Hysteria in the summer of 1987 I didn't care for it much. Their previous albums High N Dry and Pyromania combined taut, catchy songwriting with polished guitarwork and AC/DC style rhythms. Hysteria kept the polish and memorable choruses but expanded their sound by removing much of their harder edged rhythms and looking for less obvious ways to rock.

For a fan of predicable music such as myself, Hysteria was a frustrating album. Much of the album moved at a midtempo pace. "Rocket" was way too long and confusing with a sound collage in the middle. It was 62 minutes long at a time when most were 45 minutes long. With the exception of the hard charging "Run Riot", nothing rocked with reckless abandon. It was weird and the difference showed in slow sales for the album.

As time went on, I liked the album more and more. The power ballad "Love Bites", despite the somewhat ridiculous lyrics (The idea of Love as a biting, bleeding thing never appealed to me) was terrific and the almost boogie of "Armaggedon It" with that great gliding guitar part (where the song goes Gimmie all of your lovin'/Gimmie all that you got/Every bit of your lovin/Baby don't ever stop). The lead single "Women" was a terrific, slow building rocker with a great instrumental breakdown at the end. "Gods Of War" was an awesome mid-album epic tackling that great 80's theme of nuclear holocaust and Reagan era politics.

Interestingly, a year after the album was out it finally caught on with the public. In the Summer of '88, "Pour Some Sugar On Me" was released as the fifth single of the album. The song, one of the original prototypes of rap-metal, caught on with its mix of T Rex and Run DMC. To this very day, "Sugar" is the definitive Def Leppard song and remains in the national consciousness to this day.

Other songs I didn't care for in the first year became more interesting later on. Until recent years, I didn't care of "Animal" because I thought it was too soft. Ditto "Hysteria", I couldn't see if it was a ballad or laid back rock. In fact, I didn't like the song "Hysteria" until this year. Go figure.

The best Def Leppard song from this time period wasn't even on this album. The B-side to the 45 for "Women" included a powerhouse rocker called "Tear It Down". An atomic rocker similar to "Comin Under Fire" from Pyromania, "Tear It Down" rocked harder than anything on Hysteria. Unfortunately, a watered down version of this song appeared on the next album Adrenalize.

Hysteria has grown to be a favorite album of mine and it continues to gain resonance as my wife has fond memories of this album as well. To many, this is the definitive Def Leppard album and marks a peak in their creativity and commercial sales.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Old Bob part 2 and Number 68

Growing up, my brother loved this Disney sci-fi movie called the Black Hole. In the movie, the best character was a rickety beat up robot called "Old Bob" that looked like a trashcan hung on strings. The robot was meant to represent the aged, down and out gunslinger who had one last good shot in him. Now, with both Bobs Dylan and Seger releasing new albums I am reminded of that character again. Dylan scored with an excellent album filled with wry irony and compassion. But how did the other Bob do?

Bob Seger is doing just fine, thank you. It's been over ten years since his last album, the misguided It's A Mystery (1995) where the only mystery was how the super consistent Seger make such a crap album. After a strong tour (which my wife and I saw) Seger disappeared. Now he's back, older and...well, just plain older! It's been so long since he's been gone he stopped dyeing his hair and got dentures! But unlike that other patron saint of heartland rock, Bruce Springsteen, Seger felt no need for reinvention and is all the better for it. On Face The Promise (2006) Seger delivers exactly what he is known for: a little country rock, a little fist pumping anthems and a whole lotta perspective on living life with two feet on the ground.

Face The Promise offers a smorgasboard of Seger's trademark sounds. There's wistful angst in the Against-The-Windish first single "Wait For Me". Bar Band rave ups on "No Matter Who You Are". 80's style workingman anthems with "Wreck This Heart" and "Simplicity" (the latter inadvertently steals the verse melody from Michael Jackson's "Bad"). Bluesy acoustic guitar on "No More" and "Won't Stop". And the list goes on, almost all of the tracks are well produced with a warm, earthy sound and the songwriting of a true craftsman.

There are only a few weak spots on the disc, mainly in the predicable heavy rocker "Are You". It provides nothing he hasn't done better on earlier albums. While not bad, the CMT-baiting generic new country of "Real Mean Bottle" written by country star Vince Gill and duetted with Kid Rock sounds stiff next to his regular material.

So, the other Bob passes the test of time, I give this disc a 7.5 out of 10. Now Face The Promise, damn you!!!

If you don't, you'll have to face Number 68:

AC / DC - Back In Black (1980)

This album has been praised and analyzed up and down for so long it seems pointless to write much about it. The most interesting thing I can say is that I got into AC/DC a little late, around 2000-2001. My wife bought Stiff Upper Lip (2000) and I enjoyed that disc a bit. We went to see them on tour that year and I was blown away by the best concert I had ever seen ever. Instead of seeing a band of old has beens, AC/DC rocked out full throttle as if their life depended on it for two and a half hours. They had flame breathing statues, cannons, giant bells and elevators. It was the most amazing live show I had ever seen in my life and I've seen over 60 concerts.

So I picked up AC/DC's back catalog after that including the legendary Back In Black album. Back In Black lived up to its hype with outstanding songwriting and a brutally raw performance polished up by producer "Mutt" Lange. It comes across like a greatest hits album, their best known track "You Shook Me All Night Long" debuts on this album (it would appear later on Who Made Who (1986) and other soundtracks) and features all that is great about this band. Screaming, sleazy vocals backed by a crunching guitar riff and a pounding rhythm section. AC / DC attack every song like a blunt instrument in the hands of a crazed lunatic.

The strutting, heavy riff of the title song "Back In Black" (currently used in Gap commercials) is here as well. The fast paced grinding guitars of "Shoot To Thrill" (from the XXX part 2 commercials) kicks the album into high gear. Elsewhere, they build their mystique in their most overt salute to deceased singer Bon Scott on "Hells Bells". The steady anthem of "Rock And Roll Ain't Noise Pollution" (featured in Tom Cruise's Jerry Maguire) closes the album with a bonding battle cry for headbangers everywhere.

Even the filler tracks are memorable on Back In Black, particularly the mega sleazy "Let Me Put My Love Into You" (love that line "Let me cut your cake/with my knife/Ow!") and the raunchy "Given The Dog A Bone".

While their is an AC/DC album that rates higher on this list, Back In Black is a true classic that is even better than what people say it is. If you don't own this album, buy it now!

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Old Bob part I and Number 69

Old Bob Dylan recently released a new CD, Modern Times (2006). I have a strange kind of fanship of Bob Dylan in that I'm not a huge fan of his earlier, seminal work. That's not to say I don't get a lot of enjoyment out of "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall", "Masters Of War" or "Lay Lady Lay" as I love those songs. It's that his music is so revered and iconic that I can't relate to it. Song like "The Times Are A-Changin", "Blowing In The Wind" and "Postively 4th Street" are so strongly tied to their timeperiod (late 60's) that I can't relate to it now. So, funnily enough I find I'm a bigger fan of his more recent work, such as the excellent Love And Theft (2002). Now, he's released Modern Times.

Modern Times is like the ultimate Eric Clapton album without the guitar solos. Loose, shuffling blues grooves dominate this album. The early media push highlighted two strong tracks, the IPOD commercial "Someday Baby" lightly boogies its way by with a good sense of fun. "Thunder On The Mountain" name drops Alicia Keys while it bounces along to its shambling beat. The Robert Johnson "Rollin' And Tumblin" strongly resembles the Johnson covers Eric Clapton recently delivered.

With Dylan, lyrics are important and the story is no different here. My personal favorite is the song "The Levee's Gonna Break", a humorously sardonic song with lyrical imagery remiscent of Hurricane Katrina. "When The Deal Goes Down" and "Ain't Talkin'" shows off Dylan's darker, more serious side.

The only song that didn't quite work of me was "Spirit On The Water" because its about 7 minutes long but I thought it should end at 4 minutes. Too much of a good thing I guess.

Overall, this is another strong late career album from Old Bob Dylan. I give it a 9 out of 10.

Another downbeat folk rocker comes at Number 69:

Tracy Chapman (1988)

When Tracy Chapman debuted in 1988, she exploded all expectations of a dead genre (folk rock) while being an african american woman who was talented but not particularly sexy. Like many debuts where the artist gets some good attention from the label, Chapman was able to cherry pick her best songs from a few years work and have a compatable producer. The detailed approach paid off for her debut album, which features strong songwriting, smooth flowing production and impassioned vocals.

Chapman's low, quavering voice gives emotional resonance to songs ranging from simple folk ballads ("Baby Can I Hold You") to laid back protest rock ("Talkin' Bout A Revolution). The subject matter varies from materialism ("Mountain's O Things"), the death penalty ("For My Lover") and ghetto life ("Across The Lines"). Her big hit song, "Fast Car", encapsuled everything Chapman did so well. The lyrics told an engaging story of a woman with too much work and responsibilities in her life slowly watching her options fade away with time. The feeling of being trapped is almost palpable in the verses while the strumming guitar in the lifting chorus give a sense of short lived freedom.

The success of the album in 1988 underscored the public's need for music with some depth after years of empty synthesizer pop. Though Chapman herself has remained consistent in her work, she never sounded as good as on her first album.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Nobody Knows, Tao Of Steve and Number 70

Another long gap between some catching up to do! I'll start with a few random asides, love the revamped Star Trek-The Original Series with new special effects. I've seen two episodes and the facelift breathes new life into the classic show. So far, no "Greedo shoots first" incidents which is fantastic. Moving on, I like that new Hinder song "Lips Of An Angel". It's as if Nickelback decided to write an Aerosmith ballad. Best of all, it's a song that plays tricks on you. At first listen, it sounds like a bland love song - but on closer examination, the song is actually about how this guy is cheating on his girl with another girl and is really really happy about it. He can't quit cheatin' because the other girl has the "Lips of an Angel" but can't let his girlfriend hear the phone calls or she'll catch on. Great stuff! The last big fad for me is the video for OK Go's "Here It Goes Again". Gymnastic dance routines on a series of treadmills by four musicians makes for great video.

A movie that doesn't make for great video is the Japanese film Nobody Knows (2004). The movie tells the story of four children in Tokyo abandoned by their slutty mother and left to fend for themselves. This movie did score points for creating a realistic vision of their hermeted life (the children aren't allowed to leave the apartment) and insular world. The first half of the movie proved interesting in these terms. Sadly, the slow moving film fails to catch fire in the second half and the movie melts into a sort of bored mediocrity. By the time you get to the end, the movie seems so remote and ridiculous you're sort of dumbfounded by the amount of time you lost watching it. Sometimes it's better when Nobody Knows.

The Tao Of Steve (2000) is a lighter movie that I enjoyed much more. Starring Donal Logue (TV show Grounded For Life) as Dex, the overweight bong smoking slacker and part time kindergarden teacher, the movie follows its predictable plot faithfully but amiably. This movie has no pretentions, it's about this charming shaggy guy spinning his bullsh*t into gold. He scores with women and has an all around good time on his own terms, following the example of the three "Steves": Steve McGarrett (Hawaii 5-0), Steve Austin (the bionic man) and Steve McQueen (The Great Escape). Dex's life is uncomplicated and fun until he meets the girl of his dreams, Syd. He spends the rest of the movie re-evaluating himself to try to be worthy of Syd and has the standard detours while doing so. The performance of Logue and the simple execution of the ideas makes for a light, satisfying piece of entertainment.

If Dex were an 80's guy, his philosophies could be summed up by Number 70:

Van Halen - 5150 (1986)

I can't recall another album in my life with as much prerelease buzz as this one. When Diamond Dave left VH in 1985, everyone thought that was the end of the band. Then came the news: Sammy Hagar, the Red Rocker himself, signed up to be Van Halen's new singer. Rock fans across the nation became enamored with the possiblities of a more commercial singer backed by Eddie Van Halen's lightning fast guitar runs. They have a singer, not an entertainer was the running line. The first single, the great "Why Can't This Be Love" was a Top 10 hit thanks to the hype.

But the reason why it's Number 70 isn't because of the hype, but because it exceeded it's considerable hype. 5150 is an album stuffed with raging hard rock and steely power ballads combining the commerciality of Hagar's blustery anthems with the freewheeling guitar blasts from Eddie Van Halen. Fist pumping hard rock is delivered on the lumbering groove of "Summer Nights" and the contrasting guitar licks on "Best Of Both Worlds." VH wanders into ballad territory with shiny keyboard parts in the ET obsessed "Love Walks In" and the fan favorite "Dreams". My favorite track on the album is "Get Up", a song that has the famous Van Halen shuffle rhythm, a speedy finger tap solo from Eddie Van Halen and screaming vocals from Sammy Hagar.

Overall, it's really difficult to find a weak spot on this other than the throwaway ending song, "Inside". "Inside" is just a jokey sound mix to show the new Van Halen bantering with each other to underscore the comraderie of these fast friends. It seemed a little fake at the time because Sammy Hagar was attempting to be more of a party hearty kind of guy instead of the fierce rocker persona he had perfected up til then. Outside of some trying to hard by Mr. Hagar, Van Halen 5150 stands as one of the ultimate hard rock albums of the 80's