Saturday, November 25, 2006

Number 59

And the countdown continues for my favorite CD's of all time. The next CD sort of went with a theme I've often had with popular acts, I get into them after their initial peak. I didn't like Prince or Bruce Springsteen until a few years after they had their signature 80's albums (Purple Rain and Born In The USA, respectively) probably because between MTV and Top 40 radio a successful artist became omnipresent for a while. As good as the music was in all cases I resisted these artists because I felt like their music was being rammed down my throat. It was the same way with the artist at Number 59...

U2 - Achtung Baby (1991)

The first U2 tape I ever had was a copy of War (1983). I liked it as well as the song "Pride (In The Name Of Love)" in 1984 but was not a literal fan of the band. Then The Joshua Tree (1987) happened and U2 hit the stratosphere both commercially and critically. They were everywhere on TV, on the radio and in magazines. They stood for everything that was right in Rock and politics plus their religious background made them popular with the Christian Rock crowd. They were perfect. Perfectly annoying from my view.

Apparently, U2 felt the same way and after the bloated Rattle and Hum album (1989) decided to do something about it. Bono downplayed some of his messianic tendencies by throwing on some sunglasses and playing the rock star in all its excess. The band altered their signature sound by adding distortion, feedback, drum loops and hip hop shuffle rhythms into the mix. Best of all, dropped most of their preachiness (in song at least) and added a dose of self effacing irony. U2 became human and was much better for it.

This is where I came into U2's music, the first single "The Fly" was unlike anything I ever heard. The distorted guitars and vocals, the shuffling drum track and the alternately crooning and spoken word chorus captured my attention. A local radio station played the entire CD and I was impressed. My friend (a longtime U2 fan) asked if I would like to see them live and I went. Live, they had that rare sense of charisma that can make a sports arena feel like a small club. The playing was intense and unique (The Edge's helicopter sounding guitar riffs ensure that) and the songs were catchy and anthemic. I realized what I had been missing all those years and became a fan of U2.

Achtung Baby will not be remembered as the greatest U2 record, but it is their most varied and the easiest to relate to. The big hit, "One", has become a rock standard over time and is a wonderful ballad about the need to overcome differences whether they be personal, political or spiritual. Bono's impassioned vocal and the band's empathic playing as they build from a soft beginning to a big finish seals the deal. This album would be memorable for this song alone.

But there's more! "Mysterious Ways" balances a catchy chorus ("It's alright, it's alright, it's all-right/ She moves in Mysterious Ways!") with a spare shuffling drum beat with the Edge cutting in (no pun intended) with bursts of guitar and synthesizer. Plus, live the song featured Bono singing to a belly dancer! Another hit, "Even Better Than The Real Thing" with it's ironic lyrics and driving rock groove became the template for future U2 songs ("Discotheque" and "Vertigo" followed a similar pattern). My personal favorite on the disc, "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses" finds the band doing an actual relationship song to a galloping beat and strident chorus.

Of course, even with relationship songs and irony U2 still has some of that political commentary they're known for. The apocalyptic "Until The End Of The World" with it's hard charging guitars is a great rocker with a distinct nihilistic feel to it. "Tryin' To Wrap Your Arms The World" shows Bono a bit worn but still worried about the state of the planet.

With Achtung Baby, U2 was able to drop their "holier than thou" act and play on a more human scale. They were also successful musically in adding a host of other musical styles and effects to their previously immaculate sound. U2 shows the passion and angst their known for but offsets it with humor and irony. This disc changed my opinion from annoying to a lifelong fan.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Number 60

Carlos Santana...legendary guitarist and new age flake that he is, has always seemed best to me in measured doses. Santana has been around since the late 60's and has delivered a variety of music through his career. Fusion rock, jazz, arena rock, pop and even subtle bits of hip hop have bore the Santana stamp marked with his screaming, stinging guitar lines and Latin based percussion. A sense of adventure and passion laid under an insinuating groove is his trademark. But, as great as he is, I can only take so much of Santana. There's nothing wrong with him or his music, it's just a gut reaction. That's why I'm well served by his CD at Number 60:

Santana - The Best Of Santana (1998)

Before his unexpected comeback with 1999's Supernatural CD, it seemed like Carlo's Santana was destined to eek out his living on the oldies tour circuit. Santana was mainly known for the early phase of his career, when the name Santana stood for an actual band. The Santana band of the first three albums, which included Chepito Areas (percussion), Mike Carabello (percussion), Mike Shrieve (drums), David Brown (bass), Gregg Rolie (organ and vocals) and Neal Schon (guitar) in addition to Carlos Santana played a style of rock that fused Latin rhythms and rock song style. It was a style never heard before and earned them a spot at Woodstock. Even now, 40 years later, these early songs still have a timeless majesty to them tied to indelible melodies.

This time period is well represented on Best of which includes the instrumental "Jingo", "Evil Ways", "Oye Como Va" and the Fleetwood Mac song that would become their signature tune, "Black Magic Woman". These songs and a few others on the disc dominate the Best of and show how powerful a band they were. Sadly, after three albums this version of the band broke up (maybe not too sadly, as the remnants of this band became Journey).

The other known phase of Santana came when he adopted an Arena Rock sound along the lines of Journey. The Latin percussion was downplayed in favor of sturdier, more predicable rhythms and blazing fast guitars over an anthemic chorus. This version of Santana is also represented with "Open Invitation", "Hold On" and my childhood favorite "Winning". Also included is "All I Ever Wanted", the first Arena Rock song my wife knew that I didn't (she was really happy about that).

When not in either of these phases of his career, Carlos Santana had a tendency to get ambient and jazzy as reflected in "Europa" and "Bella".

As much as I liked this CD and the hits included, I'm pretty satisfied with the songs I have here. Supernatural was a Grammy winning hit album and featured my favorite Santana song, "Smooth". He's had a few other pleasant hits since then, but for my money nothing can match his Best Of CD.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Casino Royale

James Bond is Bourne again in the latest installment in the longest running film franchise in history. Taking a nod from Matt Damon's Jason Bourne movies, Casino Royale focuses on characterization and a semblance of realism in its portrayal of a super spy. Many of the reviews of Royale have buzz words like "gritty" and "tough", the movie not only lives up to the early buzz but surpasses it. Casino Royale goes in the opposite direction of the Brosnan Bond films and benefits from the change. That's not a slam on Brosnan, he's still my favorite James Bond.

When Daniel Craig was selected to succeed Pierce Brosnan as James Bond, the world (myself included) did a collective head scratch. Craig was physically fit, but he was not a commercially known actor and had the face of a fifty year old. This plus the announcement by producers of going in a different artistic direction left a big question over the future of the franchise.

After all, serious James Bond films are historically the least popular in the series. The last Bond film to take itself seriously, 1989's license To Kill, was a commercial disaster that almost ended the film series. Also, Brosnan had repeatedly proven himself as an actor and star to the point he's was nicknamed the "Billion Dollar Bond". The previous actors in the role had all made a mark on the character's well, Sean Connery (original Bond), George Lazenby (lame Bond), Roger Moore (funny Bond) and Timothy Dalton (boring Bond) each had played the role. Even with the announced intention of making a serious film, Craig was an unknown quantity. What kind of Bond would he be?

Casino Royale takes 2 1/2 hours to answer that question, but the answer arrives with a resounding triumph. Daniel Craig is bloke Bond. He's less suave or stylish but enjoys the finer things and has a desire to prove himself. He's the Bond an audience can relate to as a person which draws them behind him in a way that I've never seen. In a scene where Bond resists excrutiating physical torture with humor, the audience roared in support. As an audience, we learn about Bond's conscience with murder and struggle as a government assassin. We learn about his background (he's an orphan) and what drives him to be a government agent. For the first time in years, Bond fails at missions and important events and doesn't laugh it off. This Bond is more of an everyman, capable of great things but also flawed as an agent and person.

Craig's performance is so strong it carries Casino Royale to the next level. The storyline is refreshingly small scale and direct: Bond is assigned to beat a high stakes gambler named Le Chiffe who launders and invests terrorist funds. To do so, much time is spent with Bond at the card table against Le Chiffe as a government handler (ably played by Eva Green) named Vesper Lynd ensures Bond doesn't exceed his spending limit. Green and Craig have an effective amount of chemistry to their relationship and their characters interact as people more than the predictable archetypes the series is known for.

The tone of the film matches the Ian Fleming books to a T. James Bond is confident but has occasional doubt, is intelligent but does not know everything and has concern over how killing effects his soul. The deaths in Royale are more brutal and graphic than any previous film (including Dr No, in which Sean Connery's Bond shoots an unarmed man and slits a guards throat with a knife). The gadgetry is kept to a minimum and the movie allows Bond to express a full range of emotion.

Not that all of the previous Bond movie traits are eliminated. Some of the action set pieces, such as a huge fight between Bond and a terrorist in a tanker truck at an airport is so large scale it felt like a different movie. The scene was highly remiscent of the Die Hard films and Raiders of the Lost Ark and didn't quite match the rest of the movie for me. Another action set piece at the end of film was also a bit overblown compared to the sleek simplicity of the rest of the film.

The movie came in second at the box office this weekend, being beat out by the penguin movie Happy Feet. That's unfortunate in that the opening may discourage the filmmakers from making serious Bond films in the future. Hopefully that won't happen, as Daniel Craig has proven himself to be an outstanding James Bond. Casino Royale is one of the best films in the entire franchise and entertains as a stand alone movie as well. My score for Casino Royale, 9 out of 10. Almost perfect.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Number 61

"It was a Sunday, day like any other day, with a small town another day" went the song "Long Long Way From Home." At least, that's how I thought it went but I later found out I didn't understand the lyrics to this song that well at all. Pleasant memories of harmless rocking out come to mind when I think of Number 61...

Foreigner - Records (1982)

Records was the first of many greatest hits collections for the British / American group Foreigner. Led by guitarist / keyboardist Mick Jones and raspy voiced singer Lou Gramm, by 1982 Foreigner had racked up four platinum albums and a gaggle of hit singles thanks to their classic AOR sound. Thanks to melodic songwriting and a musical style that is best described as Bad Company with a progressive rock bent, Foreigner rivaled Journey in arena rock popularity and influence.

I first paid attention to Foreigner when my friend let me copy his tape in the mid-80's. At the time, the only Foreigner songs I knew were "Urgent", "Hot Blooded" and "Waiting For A Girl Like You." I liked those songs so it made sense to copy the tape. After playing the tape, I was sold on what would become one of my favorite bands during my teen years.

The big selling point for me was how damn catchy these songs were! "Feels Like The First Time" was a classic rock anthem with its swirling keyboards and near disco beat driven by a meaty guitar riff. As ridiculous as the song lyrics are (They are the 70's equilvalent to "Like A Virgin") the hammering guitars and screaming vocals make it irresistable. Another rocker, "Juke Box Hero" with its pulsing beat and insistent chorus ("He's a Juke Box Hero / Got Stars In His Eyes!!!") also hit home. The aforementioned "Urgent" was about as loose and funky as I could handle in the 80's (which isn't that funky) anchored by Gramm's tense vocal and a killer sax solo by Junior Walker.

The outstanding ballad "Waiting For A Girl Like You" mangaged to be mellow without being entirely wimpy allowing for the band to maintain some rock cred. Thomas Dolby (of "She Blinded Me With Science" fame) provided some gorgeous keyboard parts to this classic ballad. For better or worse, the success of this song led to more ballads causing Foreigner to lose much of its rocker image.

But my favorite song was the very un-pc "Dirty White Boy". For Foreigner to risk offending people was very uncharacteristic of them. I often found it interesting that when I (a rock loving Asian) would discuss this song with others rockers (often white) they would become very uncomfortable. They were never sure if I was pulling their leg or not. This song came from the Head Games album (1979) where Foreigner tried hard (a little too hard) to toughen up their image. "Boy" is a hard driving, bluesy rocker with whiplash slide guitarwork and a menacing vocal from Lou Gramm. The reasons I love this song is:

1. It's a killer riff and vocal, maybe the perfect Arena Rock song delivered with real gusto and...
2. It's really funny. I mean, they thought after two platinum albums of polished pop rock they thought they could turn around and call themselves "Dirty White Boys"? And is this meant to be a compliment? Does it really sound tough? Is it racial self hatred?
3. The title "Dirty White Boy" just makes me think of some guy who doesn't bathe standing with a shirt full of holes and ripped jeans. Is this supposed to be cool?
4. The lyrics are really awesome in that silly, overstated way...He's a dirty white boy because he's so dangerous that only girls with low self esteem dare love him ("You want me to be true to you/don't give a damn what I do to you") and he doesn't buy into money, man ("Don't drive no big black car/don't like no Hollywood movie star").
5. And that second verse. It's like the ultimate mantra. it reads:

"Ive been in trouble since I dont know when/Im in trouble now and I now somehow Ill find trouble again/Im a loner, but Im never alone/Every night I get one step closer to the danger zone"

Yeah! The danger zone is where I live baby!!! I'm at least as dangerous as Kenny Loggins. Fear my footloose, danger zone living ass. At least meet me half way.

6. My wife often made fun of me singing this song, so it now has an added bit of sentimentality.

The icing on the cake of Records is the live version of "Hot Blooded" at the end. A corker of a live shot of Foreigner, this song is famous for Gramm's stage patter. Mid-song, Gramm yells for the crowd to sing along because "we've got the amps, but you've got the numbers...the strength in numbers! So I just want to hear you say, Hot Blooded! Hot Blooded!." In high school, if you started saying this bit you could bet someone else would finish it for you.

Cheesy rock that's cool as hell, that was the magic of Foreigner. I saw Foreigner in concert in 1985 and was impressed with their tight playing and professionalism. I saw them again in 1999, but sadly Lou Gramm had suffered some medical problems and his voice was shot. Foreigner had more hits and fine CDs after 1982, but Records remains a no nonsense collection of the band's best rock moments. Rock On (inoffensively)!

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Magnolia and Short Cuts

"Can't We All Just Get Along?" The much quoted and ridiculed statement Rodney King made during the LA riots of the early 90's following the trial of LA police officers that had beaten King came to mind a lot while watching Paul Anderson's Magnolia (1999) and Robert Altman's Short Cuts (1993). Both were movies I've meant to see for years but kept putting off. After watching these films back-to-back, I was reminded of two other movies: Lawrence Kasdan's Grand Canyon (1992) and recent Best Picture winner Crash (2005). Despite being made by different filmmakers at different times, each of these movies put LA under the microscope and seemed to come to the same conclusion Rodney King did: In the face of the cultural melting pot that is LA boiling over, empty sentiment is all that's left to cling to.

These four movies paint an ugly picture of life in La La land. If these four movies are to be believed as representative of the LA experience, there are certain consistencies between them that come to the foreground:
  • The perspective is told from the point of view of characters who are white middle to upper middle class. Most black people depicted are feared and possibly armed except for one couple whose function in the storyline is to represent bridging the racial gap. Oddly, in most of these movies Hispanics don't exist at all (except for Crash).
  • The thousands of people in LA all know each other or know someone who knows another that has a direct relationship to the first person. In other words, everyone in LA knows each other somehow
  • Infidelity and Murder happen all the time and is successfully covered up often (I guess OJ kinda proved that)
  • The Police force is corrupt and racist (again refer to Rodney King)
  • Everyone in LA is really stressed out and/or drugged up (common knowledge)
  • The only thing that can really bring people together is a disaster, usually an earthquake (though in Magnolia, the disaster was a rain of frogs! An original idea, but weird. 9/11 did prove this, as there was a great deal of goodwill among people across the country following that tragedy).

After watching these movies, it's hard to believe LA remains a popular tourist attraction. It's shown as stressful, seedy, amoral and desperate. All four movies do a great job of using huge, sprawling casts to show how the actions of one affects the other and how everyone bounces off each other in a societal microcosm resulting in the full range of human emotion. In each of the movies it first shows the miscommunication and frustration of people dealing with each other to wind up to the big finish where everyone helps each other. Forgiveness and redemption are often the universal themes of these films.

But, what does it all mean? Los Angeles is used in these movies as a magnifying glass to address larger societal issues affecting America in general. Many of these movies end with a tone of hopeful humanism, that everyone will see that we all are just human beings regardless of our faults and should be treated as such. And while that would be the answer I would wish for as well, I think it really just comes down to economics. As long as the majority of people believe they have gained or have the potential to gain as much wealth and comfort as others, they will tolerate each other. When they don't, such as in the early 90's during a recession, riots ensue. It's not a coincidence that much of the rioting in the United States ended when the economy picked up. This is the issue I felt was missing from all the movies.

When I saw the standard of living for many of these characters living in their sun splashed environment, I realized I wanted that too! So Los Angeles is representative of larger America, just not in the sentimental way filmmakers would like to think. A better ending to these movies would be: The sky rains a torrent of money and everyone is rich. Why? Because most of us desire gratuitous consumerism and not altruistic humanism. Is that bad? Probably. And I'm as guilty as anyone else. I think that's the ultimate lesson learned from these movies. Give us a burger and a big house on a hill and we'll like anybody.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Number 62

Back when I was in high school, there were certain bands you could always count on to populate the cut out bins all year round. There was Tom Petty, Air Supply and my favorite of the cut out bin rack at number 62...

Cheap Trick - At Budokan (1977)

I collected many Cheap Trick records at a low price because they were all 3.99 or 4.99 at the time. Dream Police, One on One, Next Position Please, Standing On The Edge, The Doctor...I owned a lot of Cheap Trick. And Cheap Trick could always be counted on for having one good song per album. It wasn't a very high ratio of good songs, but the good song would be REALLY GOOD!

Such was the paradox of Cheap Trick, a puzzle that continues to this day. Their first three albums are considered classic albums though they all fizzled commercially. They recorded a live album intended solely for their Japanese fans and it became their defining American album. The followup album should have been a blockbuster but only went gold. They recorded an album with Beatles producer George Martin and managed to make a mediocre record. The only time things went as planned occurred with their "sell out" in 1988 translating into the #1 hit "The Flame". Despite their "sell out", they became revered alternative rock pioneers in the 1990's but could not use the buzz to their commercial advantage. Now that everyone has written off this band for dead, they turn around and record the excellent Rockford CD.

But in 1977, much of this had yet to happen. The first three albums were ignored in the US but inspired a Beatlemania response in Japan. Cheap Trick went to Japan and recorded At Budokan intending it for release in that country only. It became an in demand import to America which led to a domestic release and a smash album.

Why did At Budokan catch on? Because the record showed off Cheap Trick in the best light possible. The best songs from their first three albums are cherry picked onto one record. The Beatlesque melodies anchored by garage rock riffs gave the music both grit and grace. "Come On Come On" is a great example of White Album era Beatles colliding with Kinkish guitarwork. An unintentional bonus was the fact that it was a live recording. On vinyl, Cheap Trick utilized latter day Beatles production tricks like strings, piano and heavy reverb on the vocals. Live, Cheap Trick sounded raw and frantic like the early Meet The Beatles records.

The live setting and frenzied fans gave a huge boost to the solo heavy cover of Fats Domino's "Ain't That A Shame" and the rousing set closer "Clock Strikes Ten". Their two classic hits are the highlights, the first being the signature song "I Want You To Want Me". The half pleading vocal and steady beat combined with the wordplay heavy lyrics made for a memorable tune. The second classic hit is "Surrender", probably better known as the "Mommy's all right, Daddy's all right, they're just a little weird" song. The odd subject matter and almost punkish musical approach has made this song an anthem rock standard.

I played this record many times in my teenage years and still find it to be an engaging and energetic record. Although I bought the 2 cd complete concert, my favorite format of At Budokan is still the single record track listing. The consiseness of the track sequencing gave the record a thematic punch missing from the whole show. Cheap Trick has proven time and again they can never go back to 1977, but fortunately '77 has been recorded for everyone else for all time.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Plan 9 From Outer Space and Ed Wood

Ed Wood has historically been considered the worst director of all time and his film Plan 9 From Outer Space the worst movie ever. This past Halloween, I finally got to see the evidence. I can't honestly say Plan 9 is the worst movie I've ever seen (that would be Wise Guys, I paid a dollar to see it and still walked out of the theatre) but can see where the suggestion comes from. If this movie is to be taken seriously, it's horrible. But, if viewed as something made with honest intentions and failing so badly it becomes a joke, then it's pretty entertaining!

Plan 9 has to do with aliens resurrecting the dead to kill the living to keep mankind from creating a weapon powerful enough to destroy the universe...someday. The acting is uniformly bad and amateurish. The sets are made of cardboard and are reused repeatedly with very little redecoration. Bela Lugosi died before the movie was made and a blatant stand in is used to fill in for most of the movie.

On top of this, the flying saucers are plates on visible strings. The scenes switch from day to night and back to day in seconds. The pacing is leaden. The whole concept of the movie is ridiculous. So, what makes this movie watchable?

Two things. One is you keep waiting to see what will go wrong next. It's great to view this and tally all the errors in the movie. And secondly, appreciation of the moxie it took to get this movie made. It's not made with the intent of being bad, there's no self referential irony in this film. This lack of self awareness makes Plan 9 both funnier and more respectable at the same time. You've gotta appreciate the will to do something big acted upon, even if the result is disasterous.

This appreciation infuses Tim Burton's film Ed Wood, a biography of sorts about the director of Plan 9 from Outer Space. The movie is a fitting tribute, telling the story of Ed Wood's life with all of the trappings of Wood's movies. Johnny Depp plays Ed Wood, a cross dressing Hollywood studio grunt trying to become a director. Depp plays Wood as a nieve dreamer with an opportunistic streak. The Ed Wood depicted here wants his movies to be made, no matter what the cost in both finances and the quality of his own filmmaking.

Wood befrends an aging, dope addicted Bela Lugosi and is able to wheel and deal his way into making a few films. Through it all, Wood and his group of outsider friends ranging from wrestlers to psychics to drag queens band together to make his movies. If you see Plan 9, then see this movie to gain a better understanding of the whole thing. Tim Burton excels at making sensitive, whimsical movies about sociatal pariahs and Ed Wood is a great addition to his canon.