Tuesday, April 29, 2008

American Idol - Diamond Vision


The Top 5 was mentored and played the music of the one, the only...Neil Diamond. Mr. Solitary Man. Mr. Red Red Wine. Mr. Livingston Seagull. The king of folky melodrama who love him or hate him has come up with some great songs ("Love On The Rocks") and like any enduring artist some hokey crap ("Heartlight" dedicated to E.T. The Extra Terrestrial). The Top 5 gets two "Diamonds in the Rough" to do their thing with. The results were for the most part a snoozefest.

Jason Castro sang "September Morn" and...I can't remember what the other song was but it was a big Diamond hit. Castro sang both like a cat doped up on tranquilizers, the first song seemed so long Paula Abdul thought it was two songs.

David Cook turned in two good performances of lesser known Diamond songs, one an 80's styled pop rocker and the second a ballad. The ballad won rave reviews from the judges, I thought it was good but not the "hot one" it was said to be. (I thought for sure he would do Urge Overkill's take on "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon").

Brooke White chose to lead off with a vapid "I'm A Believer" and end with a fair "I Am I Said". "Believer" was tentative and weak like Juice Newton: the declining years. "I Am I Said" got Brooke back into the Carole King groove allowing her to turn in her best performance in weeks.

David Archuleta went for "America" and some other well known song I can't recall. He got strong reviews from the judges, I thought his voice and vocal approach wasn't right for Diamond's muscular readings.

Syesha Mercado came second only to David Cook in consistency, the ballad "Hello Again" was pleasant while the upbeat second song was an OK rehash of last week's strong performance.

There was a definite feeling of boredom this week with Paula's scatterbrained nonsense providing the only moments of entertaining television. And that's only because it's fun to watch someone go mildly insane on live tv. If things don't start to turn around, I won't be surprised if this is the 2nd to last American Idol (because the rule of thumb for successful tv shows is it has to hang around at least one year after it's really done). It almost seems merciful that someone will be eliminated tomorrow night because whoever wins will probably do so on the lowest rated finale in the franchise's history.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Midnight Madness-Smackdown Edition 4/27/08


Degeneration X has two words for ya - Vote Now?

And now it's time for some Midnight Madness!

The Luck of the Irish - Carly Smithson's time ran out on AI this week as she was ejected following a strong performance of "Jesus Christ Superstar". Smithson took it well, one of the few to not bawl her way off the stage following elimination. As Randy Jackson said, this town needs an enema. Wait, it was Jack Nicholson that said that, Jackson said it looks like it was the popularity vote this week. With Smithson and Mercado delivering the best performances of the night and ending up in the bottom two, dawg was right. Carly finally got to clear up something post-Idol, her tattoo is not of Amy Winehouse...

I Told Ya I Was Trouble - ...because if it was the tattoo would jump off Smithson's arm, head butt David Archuleta and choke out Jason Castro with his dreadlocks. Amy Winehouse was arrested FOR BEING TOO REAL! Actually, Winehouse was arrested for hitting a man for getting in her way and head butting someone attempting to hail her a cab. The person I feel bad for is the guy, he has to explain to his friends that he got whupped by a 90 pound crackhead.

The Money Train - Meanwhile, actor Wesley Snipes was sentenced to 3 years in prison for tax evasion. You ever see that movie Jungle Fever? That was a good movie. It has nothing to do with Snipes' current problems, just wanted to say that movie was cool.

1987 Ain't Nothin' But A Number - Whitesnake released a new CD and Def Leppard have one coming down the pike too. In May, Dokken will have new material as well. I'll buy that for a dollar! Yeah, that's the ticket. The music scene is looking up!

No Air - Jordan Sparks had to cancel some concert dates due to vocal cord problems. Not good news, but a little ironic.


Velvet Revolving - The rumor is that Velvet Revolver is planning a website to audition new singers to replace departed frontman Scott Weiland. Couldn't they just get some hack from CBS Rock Star like everyone else? What ever happened to that Dilana girl? She was pretty good and I liked how she had lots of drama all the time. Meanwhile, Scotty boy is planning a solo album with producer Steve Albini which would have been big news if it was 1993.

Still Bleeding - On American Idol I finally heard that song "Bleeding Love" by Leona Lewis, it's been around for a while now and I kept ignoring it. Now that I've heard it, I can say I think the song is OK but can't believe it's causing a minor sensation. The music scene is looking down.

Situation #9 - Early 80's New Wave duo Yaz has reunited. Do I still have time to learn The Robot?

You Give Drunk Driving A Bad Name - Richie Sambora's slow downhill slide continues as he was fined for his March DUI. Something tells me Jon Bon Jovi will be recording a solo album soon. Bad Medicine indeed.

Politicians aim for the Chaingang Soldier vote? - I normally would ignore a meeting between the Presidential candidates on TV but then I found out they were on WWE Raw. I'm not going to say who I do or don't support politically, but since they are stooping down to talk my language this time Mr Mike will say this. Speaking only in wrestling terms, both Clinton and Obama come off stiff and genial allowing John McCain to steal the show. I never thought I would hear a politician quote Ric Flair, let alone do it convincingly. "To be the man you've got to beat the man"? Too funny. Somebody did their homework. I just can't believe they all passed up the chance to quote DX and tell the others to "Suck It!" following with a crotch chop, naturally.


The Dead Zone - One of the actors who I think has a truly original way of speaking is Christopher Walken. It seems he has picked up a cult of people who love to imitate his speech pattern. I'm a fan of Walken and his imitators (and do a bad imitation myself) so I thought I would include this amusing clip.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Artist Spotlight: Night Ranger

Like a yearbook photo, Night Ranger brings back cool memories of a simpler time when men were men, women were women and rock stars ate guitars.

Time to cover one of those definitive Mr. Mike bands, Northern California's very own Night Ranger. Originally Ranger until they found out there was another band with that name, Night Ranger ruled the mid-80's as Arena Rock Power Balladeers with a penchant for "guitar face" solos and sideways playing drummers. Jack Blades (bass/vocals), Kelly Keagy (drums/vocals), Jeff Watson (guitars), Brad Gillis (guitars) and Alan Fitzgerald (keyboards) took their experience built up supporting Sammy Hagar and Ozzy Osbourne and played the 80's rock market perfectly. When I first started listening to a lot of music I tuned in to America's Top 40 in about January of '83 and the song stuck for 3 straight weeks at Number 40 was "Don't Tell Me You Love Me". The fast beat, catchy chorus and twin guitar attack impressed me and I played my recording off the radio for about a month until my Columbia Records tape came in the mail, pink outlined spine and all.

Dawn Patrol (1982)


I got Dawn Patrol in the mail and quickly played it on my tape player. Side A was a perfect slab of 80's power rock. "Don't Tell Me You Love Me" still rocked out. "Sing Me Away" was a nice mid tempo pop song that they played on Solid Gold. "At Night She Sleeps" was a zippy piece of pop rock with a memorable synth hook. "Call My Name" was a dramatic ballad with ambulance sirens in the back ground. "Eddie's Comin' Out Tonight" let Watson and Gillis really cut loose with an extended twin guitar solo.

Like a lot of albums, Side B got a little less memorable except for their title song "Night Ranger" which alternated between a slow chugging groove and hard rock frenzy. A lot of summer days were spent sitting in my hot room listening to Night Ranger. I really liked how they attacked their music with the determination of a Football team. They ran, spun and crashed into each other with staged but effective abandon. Being young and having my last bit of interest in sports, I related to Night Ranger's athletic style of performance. And Brad Gillis' whammy bar based guitar style remains distinctive to him.


Midnight Madness (1983)


Night Ranger toured hard to build up interest in their act. After narrowly dodging oblivion when their label Boardwalk Records went under, the quintet moved to MCA for their second album. Branding was important in the record business at this period of time, so Night Ranger essentially made the first album over again with slightly sharper hooks. They even used the same producer as the first, the late Pat Glasser, who understood more than anyone who would produce the band afterwards the need to magnify the sound on every instrument and then balance them so every piece could be heard clearly without burying other parts.

Midnight Madness led off with "(You Can Still) Rock In America" aka "Don't Tell Me You Love Me" part 2. The song served as Night Ranger's political manifesto, don't think just Rawk! But it was the power ballad "Sister Christian" that elevated the group to headlining status. The arrangement that moved from pristine piano to thunderous drums and a soaring guitar solo was a once in a career event capped by an emotional vocal via Kelly Keagy. Despite most people having no clue what the song was about (it was later revealed to be about Keagy's sister, Keagy would sing "Sister Chris oh your time has come..." and the other band members thought he was saying "Christian" hence the name change) the penultimate power ballad was a Top 10 smash. It has since achieved cult status, even popping up in movies like Boogie Nights. The album closing Keagy acoustic ballad, "Let Him Run", was never a single but held a "Stairway To Heaven" sort of status among my high school class.

The rest of the album rocked hard and was more memorable than the first, even album tracks like "Rumours In The Air" or "Chippin' Away" were popular among the rocker crowd. They became every one's favorite band for that brief time period between Journey and 80's Pop Metal. My friends ran into the band in a restaurant in San Francisco and got autographs which increased their "local band" standing with us folk in the Bay Area. This was one of the first Lp's I ever bought. A Classic and the band's first Platinum album.


7 Wishes (1985)


...And if remaking the first album worked well last time, then it was time to do it again! 7 Wishes was a predictable but effective follow up recreating the sound of Midnight Madness with a bigger budget and shinier production. Pat Glasser returned for a third time in the Producer's chair, guiding the band as they became more keyboard heavy. The lead single "Sentimental Street" followed the blueprint of "Sister Christian" and rewarded the band with a second Top 10 hit. Songs like "This Boy Needs To Rock" and "Interstate Love Affair" appeared on movie soundtracks to increase the group's career momentum (Explorers and Teachers were the movies, respectively). The band had achieved status as the "It" band of the moment. 1985 was theirs!

It may be a little unfair to say 7 Wishes was the same as the first two albums, only because there was a definite nod to the rising Pop Metal scene. "7 Wishes" lightly head bangs while members of Motley Crue were roped in for backing vocals on the anthemic "Night Machine". Naturally, the band's sound was softened by the increased presence of Alan Fitzgerald's keyboards particularly on "I Will Follow You". "Faces" was a local favorite, but it was the hit "Goodbye" that really caught attention. Though it only charted as a Top 20 single, this expanded version of "Let Him Run" became the most popular song off the album and helped push sales for the record to Platinum.

On New Years Eve of 1985 I saw Night Ranger play at the Cow Palace along with Eddie Money. They put on a phenomenal show and as it was no seating I was able to get within a few feet of the stage where I could see everything up close. Just before midnight the band stopped to countdown the new year and then dropped balloons from the rafters as they launched into "Four In The Morning". At the end of the show Kelly Keagy threw his drum sticks into the crowd where skirmishes broke out on the floor over them. I think I sensed it was the beginning of the end because I thought "In a few years no one is going to be fighting over these sticks." Turned out I was right.


Big Life (1987)


The band returned to the studio with two things in mind: First, try to avoid writing poppy songs and second- switch producers. Both moves turned out to be the death knell for Night Ranger's career. Tired of not being taken seriously as rockers, Night Ranger pushed to write songs a little differently than before. The guitar solos got longer and Jack Blades writing became jauntier yet in an odd move the band went with a slicker sound. Producer Keith Olsen encased the band's trademark guitar oriented approach in synthesizer carbonite. In some songs you can barely hear the guitar at all until the solo comes along. The steely synths took away much of the group's character making them sound much more generic.

The new writing approach meant fewer hit songs and that's exactly what happened. The power ballad "Hearts Away" was pleasant but couldn't hook an audience the way prior love songs did, even when they tied it in with a Shampoo ad. "Rain Comes Falling Down" became a fan favorite as did the drum heavy "Better Let It Go". One of my personal favorites, "Color Of Your Smile" appeared on this album and remains a song I play often. But fan favorites don't sell records and Night Ranger was forced back to reality with a Gold record this time around.

In the midst of the non commercial approach was a commercial move that was beyond comprehension. The lead single was a movie soundtrack song for a Michael J Fox movie called "The Secret Of My Success". Produced by David Foster who was clearly in Chicago mode, the song was a pop rock tune with a stiff arrangement and fake horns that both engulfed the band's personality and made them seem like guests in their own song. Blatantly commercial, the song failed to become a smash hit leaving the group compromised both artistically and on the pop charts.

I saw the band live a second time on this tour with Tesla at the Concord Pavilion that summer. Night Ranger put on a slicker but still exciting show proving they hadn't lost all their magic. But their were problems.


Man In Motion (1988)


Those problems culminated with the ouster of keyboardist Alan Fitzgerald. I don't know the official reason why he left, I just assumed he was blamed for the failure of Big Life. At this point, Night Ranger was finding their fan base shrinking amid the flurry of Pop Metal bands like Poison and Ratt eating up the market. With Fitzgerald gone, the group announced "The Guitars Are Back" for the new Man In Motion album. The lead single, the power ballad "I Did It For Love" was written by Glen Ballard in a desperate attempt to woo listeners. They tried to do everything the opposite of Big Life to keep the career going. They weren't successful.

I never bought or heard the rest of this album. My college roommate had it and said it sucked so I didn't bother with it. Night Ranger was done in my mind and they broke up shortly afterward. Jack Blades would team up with Tommy Shaw (ex-Styx) and Motor City Madman Ted Nugent for two albums with Damn Yankees. Solo albums by other members followed but it seemed nothing could resurrect them.


Feeding Off The Mojo (1994)


Nothing except Brad Gillis and Kelly Keagy who revived the band as a power trio with bassists/vocalist Gary Moon. I have yet to hear a single song from this album, the cover alone seemed like an embarrassment and how do you have twin guitars with one guitar player? Around this time I saw Jeff Watson, but not as a performer. He was observing his girlfriend Susan Z play a set at a Napa winery. Susan Z was ahead of her time in that she sat on a stool facing the audience in a skirt unintentionally flashing her Z to the audience.

Why they would try to compete with the Soundgardens and Pearl Jams of the world was beyond me. I guess everyone has bills to pay, even 80's rock stars.


Neverland (1997)


By 1997 Damn Yankees was long gone and Susan Z had not been able to convince anyone of her Jewel like charms so the original group reunited. Neverland featured a more mature Night Ranger. More ballads than ever before showed up and the song writing wasn't quite as strong, but there were good moments. The acoustic based "Forever All Over Again" and the frantic rocker "New York Time" were memorable as well as the Jack Bladesish "Slap Like Being Born". The lack of Pat Glasser meant the production was still a little too slick but that was OK. They had turned in a decent disc to herald their return.

Most of my memories of this disc have to do with playing the tape copy in the car while going to work or visiting our friends. Our friends lived in an area that was sitting on top of smelly water, I think it was sulfur water. Smelled like rotten eggs. While this album isn't bad, that smell comes to mind when I hear this album now and again.


Seven (1998)


This is the seventh album only if you don't count Feeding Off The Mojo, but Night Ranger made another return with this disc. Where Neverland was a little reserved and slickly produced Seven was the opposite. The guitars crunched and a renewed emphasis on rocking out took precedent on Seven. While this resulted in a more entertaining album, particularly on the opening "Sign Of The Times" and the closing "Revelations" the songs still weren't up to their peak level. Seven comes across like a former heavyweight champ who's a little punch drunk from too many shots to the head. The will and muscle is still there but the rhythm is slightly off.

Still, Seven provided me some fun Rawk moments at a time when there really wasn't any. I played the disc quite a bit, though I found the lead single "Panic In Jane" disappointing because it was one of the worst songs on the album.


Hole In The Sun (2007)


Not available in this country, I have yet to hear anything from this album. The reviews I've read say it is more modern but still has some classic elements. Alan Fitzgerald had left or been dropped again in the 9 year interim between albums. Jeff Watson was fired shortly after the release of the disc, making it even more interesting. Hopefully this will get released in the US so I can finally hear what may be the final Night Ranger album.

Night Ranger still tours as far as I know playing the classic hits for the balding rock fan crowd like me. They may never recapture the spirit of their early records particularly with the passing of Pat Glasser, yet just knowing somewhere these guys are knocking out "Don't Tell Me You Love Me" makes me feel better. A side note, last year Jack Blades reteamed with Tommy Shaw to release a covers album that was very nice. With virtually no shot at ever making a full comeback, Night Ranger will just have to rock on in our collective memories. Or on You Tube. Whichever you choose.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Swedish Erotica

Swedish Meatball Sandwich?

Here I was all set to blog about anything than what came up tonight-Abba. A local PBS station looking for donations ran an hour long cut of a 1979 concert starring the Swedish quartet. Agnetha, Benny, Bjorn and, uh, the other girl represented everything great and gaudy about 70's pop. The music was distinctly European, pop with an Operatic flair and scampering classical piano runs sang by two sirens in matching spandex jumpsuits. They were loved in the 70's, trashed in the 80's and rediscovered in the 90's without any effort to further career past 1982.

Their music was as undeniable in it's catchiness as their image was in their cheesiness. A type of cheesiness that couldn't exist in the media saturated world we live in now, where people could get away with appearing wholesome, positive and earnest. Could a band get away with singing peppy songs about Fernando, Waterloo and Dancing Queens? I don't think so. And if such a band existed now, the media would research and hound them until we found out they were ego maniacal jerks who do lots of drugs and sleep with the Paris Hiltons and Kim Kardashians of the world (both the men and the women). But their music has stood the test of time as in their absence those songs and more have been transformed to a stage musical and soon to be motion picture.

As my wife mentioned tonight, millions of dollars can't get this group back together which is some serious hate. The men and women were all married to each other at some point so it's not like they don't know each other. But as it seems there will never be an ABBA reunion, in its place I'll post a video I found tonight.

The video is an aligning of soft rock superpowers that I have never seen before in my lifetime. ABBA, Olivia Newton John and Andy Gibb in their late 70's glory singing medleys of their big hit songs together. The power of castrato voices and flipped blond Farrah Fawcett Majors hair is blinding. Now I have to admit, liking this stuff is not the most manly thing I've done in my life. But gosh darn it, sometimes I gotta hear some squeaky clean pop. And when you hear Newton John sing "Hopelessly Devoted To You", it'll make you realize how weak this years crop on American Idol is in comparison.

All the nice memories of tube socks, tank tops with trucker slogans and skateboards with urethane wheels come flooding back with the sounds of the Swedish wonders. And just for kicks, I'm throwing in one of my favorite ABBA tunes at the end, "The Name of The Game".



Abba

Shout At The Oldies

Always changing, Motley Crue now sports the Vampire Hunters look. Watch out Lestat!

Another 80's reunion hitting the road this year is Motley Crue and to back it up they're releasing an album of new music-the first to feature the original four members since Generation Swine (1997). They've been back together for a little bit now, but it seems to take something more than a little money to bring them into the studio-that would be the promise of a lot more money. A LOT more money.

Despite the desperate attempt to generate buzz by getting cold cocked by Kid Rock (not so hott), even tabloid darling Tommy Lee couldn't grab much heat for this project (still fighting over Pam Anderson like it's still 1999. I'll save ya CJ!). At least he could get a little press though, it's been ages since Vince Neil or Nikki Sixx did anything noteworthy. Maybe they still think the key to a comeback is to get on the front page of Circus Magazine or Hit Parader and start some crap with Axl Rose for leading a band of young upstarts. Nope, this project feels like its DOA before you hear a note. Then I heard a note. And it was actually good. Respectable even.

"The Saints of Los Angeles" brings some fire back into the Crue's sound as it bashes along in a "Shout At The Devil / Dr Feelgood" kind of way. Unlike the stiff overproduced sound often heard from reunited bands that can't really stand each other but need to pay for their aging Playmate's retrofit plastic surgery, this music actually sounds like a full band. And to me, a guy who was only a casual Crue fan and haven't heard anything listenable from this group since "Primal Scream", I find myself mildly interested in this potential fiasco now. So Shout! Shout! Shout because I'm old and have lost 30% of my hearing! No really, it's not bad. Check it out.

Motley Crue "The Saints of Los Angeles"

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Cool Nights Listening To The Radio

Boom Box

When I first started listening to a lot of music, I used to sit down next to my Dad's 80's portable radio and listen to America's Top 40, 97.3 KRQR (The Rocker), 106 the Camel and K101. K101 was my Mom's favorite radio station, where I learned about theadult contemporary ways of Firefall, the heavenly taste of Ambrosia and the multitude of hits by Chicago. Radio was my roadmap to music, nice memories of listening in my parent's living room practicing my baseball swing. It was also where I heard Paul Davis, the master of the smooth ballad with smashes like "I Go Crazy" and "Cool Night". Mr. Davis passed away due to a heart attack today. So I thought I would post my favorite of Paul Davis' smooth pop, the doo wop diddy wop diddy wop do classic "65 Love Affair". I used to sit next to my radio and wait for songs like these to come on so I could tape them, commercial cut ins and DJ fade outs and all. It's another sad passing in pop music, Paul Davis made some great songs. RIP Paul Davis and thanks for the memories.

Paul Davis "65 Love Affair"

American Idol - Earth, Wind and Fire

The true American Idol

Today is Earth Day and Fox is determined to claim it as their own with endless ads. With that in mind, it's time to discuss music because this...is a post about American Idol (da na da na da na zzzoooooommm).

It's probably not good to write after drinking a beer, but I'm going to give it a shot. It's Andrew Lloyd Webber night-why? I don't know, but it is. The 6 remaining contestants get ready to go Broadway in one of the most flip floppy nights in recent memory.

Think Green: Brooke White continued to repeat her rookie mistakes of false starts as she struggled through "You Must Love Me" from Evita. As Simon commented, it was painful to watch. Meanwhile, Jason Castro tried to David Cassidy his way through "Memory" but all I could remember was how boring it was.

Recycle It: David Archuleta rearranged some song I've never heard before into an enjoyable adult contemorary tune. David Cook surprised by digging into musical theater for a nice vocal on "Music of the Night" from Phantom of the Opera.

Clean Burning Fuel: Carly Smithson got her hippie chick on with a fired up rendition of "Jesus Christ Superstar", a childhood fave of mine. Syesha Mercado finally blew the doors off the place with a sultry performance I think was called "You Don't Rock N Roll". Instead of pretending to be Whitney or Mariah she was a stage actress and was the better for it.

Despite the attempts by the super six to win votes, there was one clear winner this evening: That dude playing the guitar. He got a quickie solo in "Jesus Christ Superstar", led the acoustic arrangement in Archuleta's song and got a closeup eyeful of Syesha mid song. And no matter what happens, he'll be back next week. The dude can't lose!

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Heat Goes On

It's like the new state flag for Arizona or something, but I can't resist a Roger Dean cover!

Last week, fans of the First Supergroup of the 80's finally had their wish come true when the original lineup of Asia released their first album in 25 years. A quarter century ago, one of the first bands I ever became a fan of hit backstage drama that dissolved the founding members and led to a revolving door of musicians from all over the world. Once it was past 1990, it seemed these four men, bassist/singer John Wetton, keyboardist Geoff Downes, guitarist Steve Howe and drummer Carl Palmer, would never sit in the same room together at the same time. So it is with some sense of disbelief that I'm writing about the new Asia album, Phoenix. The original four founding members are back together and actually talked to each other long enough to record something.


All of the hallmarks of the original band have returned, the poppy anthems, the quicksilver instrumental breaks, the dramatic vocals-everything as it was. Well, almost everything. These guys are definitely older and a feeling of maturity shades all of the songs. Some of the Rawk intensity has fallen away to a more relaxed feel. And John Wetton's recent heart surgery has given a theme to the album that suits the group well-second life and seize the day.


Asia balances the different sides of their sound with skill. Even with a lessened edge, tunes like the "Never Again" and "Shadow Of A Doubt" hit like the Asia of old with Howe's angular riffs and Wetton's booming voice. "Alibis" updates a song originally started during the band's initial run with Downes and Howe trading licks throughout. Prog gets play on "Sleeping Giant/No Way Back/Reprise" and "Parallel Worlds/Vortex/Deya" where the band's level of musicianship shines. The age factor comes up with more ballads than prior Asia albums such as "Heroine" and "I Will Remember You".


The most memorable song is the album closing "An Extraordinary Life" which comes across like a TV show theme thanks to it's lifting melody and positive lyrics. It's been heavily touted by the band as their best song and while it's not that, it is pretty great.


Although for me Asia stopped after Then & Now in 1990, the band continued eventually with John Payne replacing Wetton as the main singer/songwriter. Payne's years in the band has resulted in two Asias now, one led by Payne and the other with the original lineup. There is only one Asia as far as I'm concerned, Phoenix is a restablishing of a legendary band not just a quick cash in. Phoenix is easily the best album I've heard this year so far.

Asia "An Extraordinary Life"

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Winwood and Clapton Find Their Way Home

You gotta have faith, faith, faith-Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton have teamed up again for a brief spate of appearances and a song.

A sort of reunion has taken place a little under the radar, Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton has played live together a few times and recorded the single "Dirty City". The song is for Winwood's new Nine Lives CD, it's got a strong number that leaves behind Winwood's Adult Contemporary approach of the 80's to return to a more classic rock sound. When you hear the cold organ and Winwood's piercing voice supported by Clapton's tasteful bluesy guitar you know you're in store for great music with some flava-and if they ever do another Miami Vice movie look for this on the soundtrack. It just has that "bad deal going down" style.

Steve Winwood w/Eric Clapton "Dirty City"

Midnight Madness 4/20/08

I don't know how good the movie is, but the movie poster kicks ass.


A crazy week has gone by with both my wife and I having some health issues, time for some midnight madness-

Cherry Cherry - My wife and I went to San Francisco's Cherry Blossom Festival and had a great time. We saw, dancers, heard music and ate at Benihana. It was nice to have my wife translate for me the language and traditions of the Japanese people. Did I mention I'm Japanese-American and my wife isn't? Just goes to show how smart my wife is as the only Japanese I know from my upbringing is sushi, sayonara and bocha. Love ya honey!

Screamin' Mimi's - This week's American Idol was coached by Mariah Carey. David Cook delivered another alt rock ballad but scores points for managing to do it with "Always Be My Baby". Jason Castro had a pleasant Latin flair for "I Don't Wanna Cry" while Syesha Mercado did another is-it-live-or-is-it-Memorex approach to "Vanishing". Archuleta did well enough as Brooke White rushed through her piano based take on "Hero". Carly Smithson did pretty good with Badfinger/Nilsson/Carey's "Without You". But it was Kristi Lee Cook who found her Tammy Wynettish version of "Forever" wasn't, just when it seemed like she could win the whole deal by making one bottom three appearance after another.

Should we visit the Forbidden Kingdom? - The first ever Jet Li / Jackie Chan movie has been released, Forbidden Kingdom. The movie seemed like a real exciting prospect until I found out neither one of them is the star of the film. Reviews so far say the fight sequences are great, so now I'm stuck. Do I want to see a movie where they're supposed to be great but the star is someone else? Or should I wait for the DVD where I can skip to the action scenes? Hmm..., have to think about that one.


Trippin' On A Hole In A Paper Head-Scott Weiland has found the importance to continuing his career involves rotating the people who put up with his drug addicted crap. He quit Velvet Revolver (a band I gave up on following their Van Halen tribute, if you can call it that) to rejoin Stone Temple Pilots whose other members are probably just now running out of grunge money from the mid-90's. They're embarking on a recovery, um, reunion tour undoubtedly scheduled around court dates and future arrests of Mr. Weiland. Too bad, when Weiland is clean long enough to record a CD he's pretty good.


Danny Federici passes away - The longtime keyboardist for Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band passed away this week. It's sad to see this talented performer go, I had just seen him perform in October of last year. He had a terrific solo on "Livin' In The Future" but I couldn't find any footage of him playing the solo so instead I've included a song that came at the end of Springsteen's Magic cd that was originally dedicated to someone else but fits for Federici as well. Always sad to see someone pass who I didn't know personally but brought some happiness to my life through their talent.


Bruce Springsteen "Untitled"

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Is There Justice For Super Heroes?

Is it a Bug Exterminator mascot convention? No, it's the Justice League of America.
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Recent news has been released putting the kibosh on the Justice League of America movie. After seeing a test still I can see why, it looks laughably bad. But the news made me reflect on my childhood, when you could get away with wearing a cape and underoos and not be labeled "insane".

When I was but a wee lad in the 70's comic books cost .15 cents and was one of the main sources of entertainment in my life along with television and Big Wheels. I used to wonder why the Comic Book heroes would only make occasional appearances on TV and Movies and why it would suck so much when they did. It always seemed like they got neutered once they left the comic book page, in my pre-adolescent mind I thought people just couldn't handle how "real" they were. Because one guy punching another guy through two buildings and wrapping a light post around him-that's real! At least when you're eight.

Now I'm all grown up and special effects plus the public's taste for the 'ol Ultraviolence is on par with my eight year old self. So I thought I would look at those heroes of yesteryear and see if and how they stacked up in the media after I outgrew my Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots and SST Racers.
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Justice League of America


With the movie on hold, the JLA has yet to be adapted. It has a great bunch of characters, Superman, Flash, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Black Canary, Wonder Woman, Batman and John Jonzz to name a few. I liked that they had a space station as their HQ, but with the emphasis on action over characters or story it was often a quick read and didn't hold my attention past a certain point. But as the 3rd X-Men movie proved, this approach can be effective in a movie. While Superman and Batman have had successful moves to tv and film, long running characters like Aquaman have gotten short shrift (except as a running joke, because as time has gone on the idea of a hero whose powers are only effective in the water is...lame). And Red Tornado! That was my favorite of that group, a red robot that can turn into a tornado. Everyone needs one of those.
However, there was as an animated series I grew up on the Super Friends and also found the recent Justice League Unlimited pretty sharp as well.
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X-Men


The X-Men had almost as many members as the previously posted Fleetwood Mac and I did read them into the mid-80s. They were Mutants, outsiders who lived at a private school and had abilities such as laser eyes, turning into ice and controlling the weather. As far as comics go, it was well written with a focus on characterization. The three movies that have been made do some justice to the comic, the first film was a nice start tying in the outcast racism theme with the world saving superpowers. X-Men 2 was the highpoint, the closest the series has gotten to the original comic by upping the ante from the first movie in both areas. X-Men 3 replaced substance with flash but was OK nonetheless.

In terms of living up to my childhood ideas, Wolverine gets a pretty faithful read except he's only killed about one person in three movies. Still, the rough animalistic nature gets some play in the movies. Halle Berry's underused Storm finally got to strut some stuff in the 3rd movie and who would have guessed Kelsey Grammar's Beast would turn out so well? Most of the other characters get a decent translation except for Rogue, who in the comics is a tough Southern gal who absorbed the powers of Ms Marvel giving her strength, flight and some invulnerability. In the movies, she's a depressed mouse who absorbs screen time. The only other real let down is what I consider the definitive lineup of the X-Men-Cyclops, Wolverine, Storm, Rogue, Colossus, Shadowcat and Nightcrawler will not make an appearance as a unit on the screen (they've appeared in some configurations but not at the same time). And where the hell's Gambit?

Superman

Superman was never my favorite, his powers seemed to general and broad. It was hard to get excited about a guy who can literally do anything. The man from Krypton has seen multiple renditions, the best of which were the Christopher Reeve era movies. The first two films were great, balancing characters, special effects and modern mythology into a shiny package. Reeve is the definitive Superman for my generation, able to capture both the forthrightness of Superman and the "human" side of Clark Kent. Superman Returns was sort of dull which marred it's good intentions to carry on the tradition of the first two Superman films. But that's not as bad as Supermans 3 and 4-which proved it's bad film making that kills Supes not Kryptonite.

Batman


I grew up on the Batman TV Series (Pow!) and was a huge fan of that show. Adam West ranks high on the list of ham actors from the 60's. I never really got into the comic itself except for Frank Miller's Dark Knight book. An extremely dark take on the Batman character, it eventually influenced the next set of Batman movies resulting in two good movies helmed by director Tim Burton. Michael Keaton was a controversial pick to play Batman but after he did it, no one could imagine anyone else. Burton left and director Joel Schumaker made two more movies undoing everything established before him. Bats has recently relaunched with director Christopher Nolan and is off to a good start returning to the dark roots of the Miller version.

Batman himself has translated well, particularly with the Michael Keaton and Christian Bale versions where his mental anguish is explored. The Joker has yet to have a definitive read, though Jack Nicholson's version had so much screen time people called the movie "Joker". Heath Ledger's take has yet to be seen but should receive a lot of attention following his death. Michelle Pfeiffer gave the best Catwoman to me (definitely not Halle Berry), though all Catwomen originates from Julie Newmar. But you just can't top Burgess Merideth's Penguin from the TV series, that was the best villian performance of the Batman bad guys. Uma Thurman runs a close second as Poison Ivy in the otherwise abysmal Batman & Robin.

Daredevil



I liked Daredevil, he was the poor man's Batman with a do-it-yourself philosophy. If Bruce Wayne was blind and not a billionaire, he would have been DD. In media, Daredevil got the shaft when he was given a cartoonish (read:cheap) adaptation into features and was portrayed by Ben Affleck. Affleck is an actor who on screen always seems a second away from asking where the nearest frat party is, he rarely convinces me he is any character except himself. The Man Who Knows No Fear would have had a reason to be scared if he saw this movie. Though I did like Michael Clarke Duncan as Kingpin.

Spiderman


The web slinger was another childhood favorite, though his comics themes often seemed to go over my head at the time. A story about a teenager who is bitten by a radioactive spider never gets old. The 70's TV show was pretty dull but I watched it faithfully anyway. Another great was the Spider Man cartoon with the repetitive animation and classic theme song. In the 80's Spiderman and his Amazing Friends was fun with Iceman and Firestar on as well. The recent Sam Raimi led films have been a boon, finally a director who understands the comic he's adapting! The Peter Parker / Spiderman dichotemy is well played as the character sacrifices his personal life to be the hero no one wants him to be. I haven't seen the 3rd movie yet, but the first two were great. Now everyone knows that "With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility".

The Fantastic Four


On the comic book page, the Fantastic Four were the harbringers of the technolgical modern age. Born out of science, these cosmic ray saturated heros had a scientist who could stretch (Mr Fantastic), a fire guy (Human Torch), an invisible girl (Invisible Girl) and a huge guy made of rock (The Thing). I used to really like the futuristic elements of the comic, how they would need to team up and build devices to defeat villians. So I was really disappointed when I saw the first FF movie, the characters were dumbed down, the special effects were weak and Doctor Doom was about as scary as Leonardo DiCaprio in The Man In The Iron Mask. Not even looking at Jessica Alba's pretty mug could save the film. I didn't even bother with the second movie. And it looks like they'll never film that ultimate super powered battle, The Thing versus The Hulk where they ripped up half of New York.

The rest of what's been made...

The Punisher was just another action hero by the time he got to the silver screen. Ghost Rider was a fave but I am discouraged by the fact that it's made by the same people who made Daredevil so I haven't seen it. I've seen parts of Elektra on Tv and can't make any sense out of it. The Flash was a pretty good TV series that I liked when it was on. The Hulk just isn't going to work being an all CGI character, Ang Lee's take was mediocre and Edward Norton's is promising to be more of the same. In the 70's a Captain America TV movie was made but nothing's been done for Cap since then. Wonder Woman was a great TV series, but nothing has been made since then making Lynda Carter the ultimate Amazon.

...And what's not been made

Thor was another favorite hero of mine that has yet to be made into a movie. The Man called Nova probably never will be a movie, I just liked the comic but it wasn't particularly good. Alpha Flight also will not be a movie either, it wasn't even that popular as a comic book because no one wants to see Canadian Super Heroes. With JLA biting the dust, it seems unlikely The Avengers will get adapted either. No sign of Heros for Hire: Power Man and Iron Fist either. Some magical weirdness with Dr Strange could be cool too.

With a promising Iron Man on the way, there may be another wave of super hero movies pounding on our doors. I guess I should be glad any of these movies got made, it seemed like an impossiblity when I was a boy reading these stories on my bunk bed. To me, Spider Man 2 is the best of the bunch so far though I was disappointed to see Doc Ock played sympathetically. Well, this has been fun but it's time to put the Comic Book Guy part of me away...Excelsior!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Mr Mike's High School Record Collection: Fleetwood Mac - Behind The Mask

What does this album cover represent? Fleetwood Mac is like a cool breeze at a jamboree just before it rains. I guess it's pretty accurate after all.

In 1990 Fleetwood Mac found themselves in a position they had been in so many times before-struggling to hold on. In the band's long history, Fleetwood Mac had been on the bottom of the heap just as many times as they had been on top. From 1975 to 1987, Fleetwood Mac was a soft rock juggernaut with sold out tours, Platinum albums and Top 10 hits stemming from their ability to tie Classic Rock themes, Singer/Songwriter vibes and So Cal harmonies into an attractive package. The five band members of the era, drummer Mick Fleetwood, bassist John McVie, keyboard/vocalist Christine McVie, singer Stevie Nicks and guitarist/singer/producer Lindsey Buckingham had come to define a band that had an army of musicians beforehand.

In 1987 Fleetwood Mac made a major comeback with the Tango In The Night album, the Mac's first album of new material in five years. The lead single, Buckingham's "Big Love", was a Top 10 hit. They were planning a World Tour to take over the planet one more time. Then the bottom fell out, Lindsey Buckingham quit (allegedly violently by Mick Fleetwood) to pursue his solo career (culminating in 1992's Out Of The Cradle album).

Fleetwood Mac's motto had been "the show must go on" so they recruited two singer/ guitarists to replace Buckingham, Billy Burnette (ex-Mick Fleetwood's The Zoo) and Rick Vito (ex-Jackson Browne, Silver Bullet Band). This lineup went on tour which I got to see at the recently spared Cow Palace in Daly City (and was one of two shows taped for the Tango In The Night concert video). The show was fun and professional but the chemestry that happens with Buckingham was missing. Still, it was great to catch Stevie Nicks in between meds and the addition of Vito allowed some of the bluesier side of the band to come out.

Following a Greatest Hits set that included an Adult Contemporary hit "As Long As You Follow", the revised Mac went to the studio with a number of questions. Could they maintain their chart dominating ways? Would Stevie Nicks stay without Buckingham? Was Buckingham irreplaceable in the studio? To find out, they recorded Behind The Mask with producer Greg Ladanyi and here are the results, track by track:

Skies The Limit - The second single from the album was a quintessential Christine McVie track. Midtempo relaxed beat, cozy harmonies and McVie's warm voice singing about the ways of love. I liked the sort of jauntiness the song had and it allowed the band members to show their strengths without being flashy. A great start.

Love Is Dangerous - The new guys tended to pair off with the girl singers and Rick Vito found a match with Stevie Nicks. This surging blues rocker is reigned in by a softer guitar sound than usually comes with this type of song. Nicks and Vito trade off and share lead vocals giving the song a he said/she said feel. "Dangerous" used to receive a lot of airplay on rock radio in the waning days of AOR. Nicks must have been impressed because she hired Vito as her guitarist on following solo tours.

In The Back Of My Mind - Billy Burnette gets face time with this arty slow moving pop tune. Unusually dark in sound and theme for Mac, Burnette does a good job of bringing some depth to the band. It had one of those rhyme scheme choruses to emphasize the disturbed mindset of the song. Burnette used to take exception that this was taken as a solo song as he had written it with the band in mind.

Do You Know - While Vito and Nicks connected, Burnette teamed up with McVie for four minutes of Adult Contemporary glory. A solid ballad, I never understood why this wasn't released as a single because it had "drive time love song" written all over it. If you like the soft side of Mac, "Do You Know" is a lost treasure.

Save Me - The lead single from the album and maybe a misstep in that sense. "Save Me" is a fast paced lite rocker with Christine McVie's laid back vocal at odds with Rick Vito's dazzling fretwork. A tasteful rocker, ideal for the Golden Circle set, was enjoyable but did not convince the public that the band could go on without Buckingham. Though I enjoyed listening to this cassingle on a car ride to L.A. at the time and it had a nice B side with Rick Vito atmospheric cover of "Stop Messin' Around".

Affairs Of The Heart - Stevie Nicks had concerns about staying without Buckingham, as his ability to wrap her songs in a soft gauzy haze was part of the band's appeal. Without him, Nick's song came across harder and firmer but less distinct. The song and performance were fine, but without the extra production the song lacked some of the magical qualities of her prior tunes. And yet, I'm such a fan that it doesn't really matter that much because I still love the song.

When The Sun Goes Down - Burnette and Vito pair off this time to do a rewrite of the Travelling Wilbury's "End Of The Line". Not bad and had a bit of a fun feel.

Behind The Mask - Lindsey Buckingham contributed some guitar to this song, a Christine McVie led pop song with that feeling of hushed seduction she excels at. Still, it's just OK though it broadens the scope of the album a little by adding a second "dark" song. Probably the edgiest song on the disc narrowly beating "In The Back Of My Mind".

Stand On The Rock - Rick Vito again struts his blues rock thang with a lighter than needed guitar sound on "Rock". Vito mentioned at the time that he felt held back from rocking harder to meet the band's soft rock jones. Not terribly memorable except that it was Vito's only full lead vocal in the album.

Hard Feelings - The most impressive song by one of the new guys, Billy Burnette turned in this lush Beatlesque pop ballad. More Adult Contemporary greatness, Burnette nearly made a case for himself as Buckingham's replacement with this track. I played this one on my CD player a lot back then.

Freedom - Stevie Nick's second lead vocal was this fast pop rocker that was equal to "No Questions Asked" from the Greatest Hits album. Again a decent but not spectacular song by Nicks standards, it was still as enjoyable as the white winged dove. Her familiar rasp gave some much needed star power to the Mac at this point. A welcome pace changer bringing some rock and roll thunder to the second half of the album.

When It Comes To Love - Burnette and McVie share the lead on this one, another midtempo soft rock opus. One of the weaker songs on the album.

The Second Time - Sort of carrying on a tradition, Stevie Nicks sings backed by an acoustic guitar for the album closer with the self referrential name. The most memorable song on the album for me, a nice ending. Though I would often get it confused with the theme song to a TV show called Anything But Love with Jamie Lee Curtis and Richard Lewis at the time. Guess it was the whole acoustic vibe.

Behind The Mask was a solid, consistent album at a time they needed to blow the doors off the place. The Partridge Family atmosphere couldn't compete with the volitile creativity of the Buckingham era and after the tour, this version of Fleetwood Mac called it quits. A Nicks-less lineup would return with Dave Mason (ex-Traffic) in tow but nothing could wake the beast until 1997 when Buckingham and Nicks returned. I just realized, I miss this album. Back to the $1.00 bin!

Pixar's Cars Runs On A Well Worn Road


While I was resting yesterday I decided somewhat lazily to see Cars, the Pixar movie from last summer. Like most Pixar movies, it was a computer animated adventure aimed at a family audience of both kids and adults. Past Pixar films like Toy Story and Finding Nemo were impressive in the level of sophisticated animation and heartfelt storytelling. Not having any kids of my own, I view these movies only as an adult and have often found them to be entertaining and technologically impressive.

Cars tells the story of Lightning McQueen, a rookie race car voiced by Owen Wilson. McQueen is a hotshot who dreams only of winning the Piston Cup race. He ties with two other cars for the title and has to travel to California for a tie breaking race. Along the way McQueen winds up at Radiator Springs, a small town that he wrecks in a panic after falling out of his transport truck. The Doctor / Judge Car (voiced by Paul Newman) sentences McQueen to repair the roads damaged during McQueen's run.

In the small town McQueen learns about the value of people, er, cars and friendship. The film also ties in some sympathy for the disappearance of small towns in the face of modernization. This story has been told before, Michael J Fox's Doc Hollywood comes to mind, so there is a bit of predictability to it. While it loses a little in story, Cars makes up for it in the animation. The computer graphics almost look real in the backgrounds and settings. The detail in the racing arenas and desert canyons are amazing. The cars themselves have the right balance of realism and cartoon.

I can't say this was the best Pixar movie I've seen as much as a strong reminder of the types of films they can produce. The movie has the expected quirky characters, race car action and feel good moments but doesn't quite transcend them. It ultimately is a kids movie. Cars isn't a classic, but does manage to beat most of the kids movie competition. A nice ride through undemanding well constructed entertainment.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Return To The Countdown

Breaking the girl: Kate Moss cuts a big one for the Countdown

It's been a rocky week with both me and my wife's health so I've been away for a little bit. My wife made a wonderful dinner for me today with home made sushi and pictures of some great business signs (Cutting Gas!). I thought I'd restart with a quick post to continue my favorite CD countdown:

Number 35: The Black Crowes - Shake Your Money Maker (1990)

I covered this album in a Black Crowes post a few months ago so I won't repeat much of it. Money Maker is a big blast of classic rock fire and southern rock attitude. A heavy debt to the Stones and Rod Stewart is paid but the band rises above its influences to create an explosion of bare knuckled blues rock.

Number 36: Red Hot Chili Peppers - Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991)
1991 was a big year for the Countdown as both The Black Crowes and RHCP were on the charts with the two albums listed here. Blood Sugar Sex Magik was the breakout album for the Chili Peppers, the album that took them from funk punk novelties to Serious Alternative Rock Artist. Produced in a dry, bare bones style by Rick Rubin the band's muscular beat and twitchy guitarwork came to the fore.

Magik captures the band in a variety of moods which makes the album seem longer than it is. The trademark funky punk shows up on the lead single "Give It Away" as well as the rambunctious "Suck My Kiss" and the mission statement "The Power of Equality". The Peppers reveal a softer side with acoustic based ballads like "Breaking The Girl" and their career peak smash "Under The Bridge" (who knew heroin addiction could be beautiful? Oh yeah, Kate Moss. Wait, that was Coke as pictured above). Other elements, such as pop reverie ("My Lovely Man"), slap happy rap ("If You Have To Ask") and sex sex sex ("Sir Psycho Sexy") get play here. The only element sorely missing is their goofball sense of humor (no "Magic Johnson" here) which manages to get tacked on at the end of the disc at the last second.

Flea is definitely the MVP of the band, his limber bass lines bump up well against Chad Smith's steady drums. Anthony Kiedis hadn't aged to the point his rap skills were beyond questionable while John Fruschante displays texture and energy in his guitarwork. I played this disc a lot that summer so it comes with a lot of memories, such as a friend who got me to listen to this band with an open mind due to his respect for RHCP. And now, one of the most overplayed videos of the early 90's...One More Time!

Red Hot Chili Peppers "Under The Bridge"

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Midnight Madness 4/16/08

Fruit from the Poisoned Tree - My wife was hurt while trying to get Oranges this week

It's been a busy week in Mr. Mike land, so here's to catching up:

Orange Tree Pain - My wife had an accident while picking Oranges this week and hurt her arm. It's still healing but at least it's not broken. It's been a painful week for her, hopefully it will heal faster than the Doctor said. Poor Bunny :(

Dream On, Michael Johns - Simon wanted Michael Bolton but got Steven Tyler instead and saw Johns suffer the fate most people who go on first with immediate elimination. Johns was given a double whammy in the fake out from Ryan Seacrest by being led to believe the Idol Gives Back no elimination clause would be enacted before the axe dropped.

Give 'Til it Hurts - American Idol's Idol Gives Back telethon was well intentioned but the performances seemed as scattershot as the regular show. Carrie Underwood gave a nice version of George Michael's "Praying For Time" while handing over her major hit "Before He Cheats" to...Teri Hatcher? Heart tag teamed Fergie on a charged "Barracuda" with Fergie doing everything she could to upstage the Wilsons. Towards the end, Fergie even resorted to singing while doing one handed flips across the front of the stage. Myley Cyrus played two songs aimed way below my age group and comedians Robin Williams and Jimmy Kimmel both tested my patience (hearing Simon Cowell's nipples compared to peppermills? I could have lived without that). Fortunately I recorded it so I was able to fast forward the boring parts and viewed about 15 minutes in total. At least you can't question the intent or the positive feelings that went into the telethon.

Wanna Be On Top? - With her hurt arm, my wife has been into watching marathons of America's Top Ego-I mean, Model featuring Tyra Banks. The show consists mainly of catfights and backstabbing in between pretty pictures. The best part of the show is when Tyra feels the need to recreate her model posturing as object lessons. C'mon Tyra you can do it, don't you know there's nothing to it?

Unskinny Bop - Rock of Love 2 just wrapped up with Bret Michaels finding the woman who loves his selection of headbands the most. He selected Amber, the level headed one who is actually closer to his age. In the first Rock of Love, Michaels chose his fallen angel only to be rejected on the closing reunion show. Will Michaels' rose have a thorn or has he found something to believe in? Can I work any more Poison song titles in? Talk Dirty To Me! Not really, just having Nothin' But A Good Time.

Left Turn Clyde - I finally saw the movie Harold and Maude (1971) on Tv, it tells the story of an alienated young man with a preoccupation with death falling in love with an 80 year old woman with a lust for life and survivor of a Jewish concentration camp. It starred Ruth Gordon who I know mainly from Clint Eastwood's Every Which Way But Loose movies. Harold and Maude lived up to its reputation, the characters felt real and the story got you caught up in their lives and unusual romance.

The First Heat of Summer - Amid the recently warm weather in California, the first barrage of Summer movie advertising has kicked in. Iron Man looks like a winner. Speed Racer still looks bad, at least they've added the nostalgia of including the booster leg sound (ch-ch-ch-ch) in the commercials. Made of Honor looks like junk, it appears to be My Best Friend's Wedding with Patrick Dempsey in the Julia Roberts role. Dempsey made a slew of failed rom coms in the late 80's, looks like history is about to repeat. Prom Night debuted as the #1 movie this week with Brittney Snow in the traditional Jamie Lee Curtis role (wasn't there a Prom Night movie in the early 80's? Seems familiar). One more reason not to go to prom. Forgetting Sarah Marshall has some potential except in a case of irony I keep forgetting about it. Street Kings also hit the screens starring my wife's least favorite actor, Keanu Reeves. Whoa.

No Life 'Til Leather - The posting earlier with Some Kind of Wonderful got me wondering if there were any videos of Metallica with Dave Mustaine before that fateful coast to coast van trip that led to his firing. To my surprise there actually were some. The one below is "The Mechanix", a Dave Mustaine song that Metallica rewrote after firing Dave and retitled "The Four Horsemen". The video and audio quality isn't great, but here's early Metallica in all their head banging glory.

Metallica "The Mechanix"

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Something To Crow About


Sheryl Crow lets her laid back freak flag fly on Detours

When Sheryl Crow debuted a little over a decade ago, she came across as a pop rock Hippie chick with a boatload of feel good songs like "All I Wanna Do" and "Everyday Is A Winding Road". Though she always wrote from a singer/songwriter perspective, Crow's music often seemed tailor made for Macy's White Flower Day sales and Wal-Mart price roll backs. Sure her music could get a little sad and depressing and some of those tunes were hits, but it was the peppy stuff that kept her afloat.

But like most modern artists holding onto an audience is a tenuous thing. Starting in the 90's, the number of one hit or one album wonders stacked up high and very few bands could muster more than one good year commercially due to shrinking attention spans and a cash in-cash out music business. Sheryl Crow has managed to hold onto her fans for a long time, but that grip is slipping.
Whether she has nothing left to lose or simply feels the need to assert herself creatively, Crow has released Detours. A new CD packed with her best songs in ages and a reteaming with original producer Bill Botrell. After years of dogfighting over music credits, Botrell and Crow have buried the hatchett and we're the better for it. Botrell instantly brings the warmth and syncopated percussion that was lacking from Crow's other work. But even without him, Crow seems more focused than ever.

Sheryl Crow ditches the rote boredom of Cmon Cmon (2002) and the experimentation of Wildflower (2005) to deliver what I consider her best album to date. Detours commits to a personal outlook, tackling politics, breast cancer, the end of her engagement to bicyclist Lance Armstrong and the adoption of her son Wyatt. Crow's politics have been in the press for over a year now between the one square of toilet paper rumor and the flare up with Karl Rove. Here she alternates her political views between hopeful (the Katrina inspired lead single "Love Is Free"), concerned ("Shine Over Babylon") and full on outrage (the Dylanesque "God Bless This Mess"). Through it all Crow manages a "voice of the people" angle that matches her personal views with the general mood of the country a la Jackson Browne (who's "Doctor My Eyes" is covered as a bonus track). The best track is "Gasoline", a sarcastic deriding of the oil industry that felt on the money as I drove up to the gas pump blaring this song.

The end of her engagement hits hard in the second half with the title song, the beautiful folk ballad "Detours" that almost ventures into Neil Young country. "Drunk with the Thought of You", "Now That You're Gone" and the particularly strong "Diamond Ring" details the crumbling relationship and guarded hurt that goes with it in heartbreaking fashion.

Crow's recent bout with breast cancer is included in "Make it Go Away (Radiation Song)" while her adopted son gets a shout out in "Lullabye for Wyatt".

Crow is tuneful and driven through the entire disc and like classic So Cal rocker Jackson Browne manages to work as both a personal portrait and a state of the union essay. Detours probably won't sell the bazillion copies that Tuesday Night Music Club did, but it will last longer in the annals of quality rock music.

Sheryl Crow - "Love Is Free"


Sheryl Crow "God Bless This Mess"

Artist Spotlight pt 2: George Michael 1986 - 1996


After writing the title line to this post it almost looks like an obituary, because I didn't hear anything I liked from 'ol George Michael after 1992. But for a few years he lived up to the promise he showed in Wham!. Now Ridgley-less, George Michael set out to make music with artistic integrity. He was going to prove he wasn't a joke! After kicking off his solo career with the hit "A Different Corner" he did a lot of guest appearances with the likes of Elton John ("Wrap Her Up") and Jody Watley ("Learn To Say No"). He then followed up with a star studded duet.

Aretha Franklin & George Michael - I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)



In 1987 Producer Narada Michael Walden could do no wrong and gave the Queen of Soul (I used the title right, don't hit me Aretha!) and George Michael a sparkly, thumping pop soul backdrop to let them do their thing. Sort of an update on "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" it remains a radio favorite. It also gave George a sort of "stamp of approval" to garner this team up as a legitimate solo artist. For me, hearing it on the radio at the same time as the other Walden creation Starship's "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" usually woke me up in the waning days of Contemporary Hits Radio.

Faith

Georgy boy followed with his first full solo album in earnest, Faith. Faith was Michael's manifesto, no more cow-towing to the pre teen set. Many people expected it to sell well, but what I think what surprised most people (including me) was the level of artistry packed onto the disc. All of the standard parts of late 80's pop show up: stiff drum machines, synths, sudden rhythm breaks to let you know you're listening to a dance song. But it's how it's pulled together, George Michael gives the songs a taut feel and avoids the production overkill of most dance music of the era (like anything produced by Stock, Aiken and Waterman). Add to the fact that George Michael was a pop hook machine at that time and you've got a great album.

The first single "I Want Your Sex" intentionally blew the door open to show Michael's intention of being considered an adult artist. He took his massive popularity and gave a gut punch to the bible belt with his pornoriffic beat and his Huh-Sex! lyrics. The title track became Michael's other contribution to the "best singles of the 80's" list and forced every music journalist on the planet to recite the story of Skiffle. "Father Figure", a dance track that morphed into a mid tempo exotic piece, remains a masters class in pop seduction. And then the unexpectedly jazzy ballad "Kissing A Fool" is not only an enduring favorite but features one of his best vocals.

Nearly every song on the album became a hit as the gospelish "One More Try" and the dance driven "Monkey" both received wide radio play. George Michael had completed his mission-he was a pop star and an artist.

The album had it's share of controversy, mainly for it's being considered an R&B album by the record industry. Sort of like Country music's reaction to Aussie Olivia Newton-John, the R&B crowd wanted nothing to do with the British Pop Tart. For me, I enjoyed the whole CD from start to finish. The only decision I questioned was that album cover-what's he doing, smelling for pit sweat?



Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1

To just about anyone, George Michael had accomplished the feat of being taken seriously. Anyone, but him it seems. The bombastically titled Listen Without Prejudice Vol.1 was released in 1990 with one of the most defensive and egotistical album titles in history. It just assumed you are prejudiced against George Michael, but he's going to tell you how to listen to his music and that this is only the beginning.

An almost relentlessly somber album consisting mostly of slow paced songs, Prejudice was like sitting through a mediocre European Art House movie. It was slow, ponderous and fully self absorbed. That's not to say it was all bad, the lead single was the Lennonesque "Praying For Time" which had a depressed but somewhat insightful world view about fake charity and global greed. The one song that kills is "Freedom 90" with it's gospel chorus and piano based groove.


Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me with Elton John

What kept George Michael in the pop spotlight following Prejudice was his half cover of Elton John's 70's classic. At this point George Michael was just about out of the closet, prompting morning shock jocks to record parody versions that changed "The Sun" to "Your Son". The star power at work was undeniable as this live version attested to when mid way through the song Michael shouts "Ladies and Gentlemen: Mr Elton John!" and a huge audience pop takes place.

Somebody To Love with Queen

At the Freddie Mercury memorial concert many singers tried their hand at filling in those big shoes but only a few came out winners. George Michael was one of them, taking on the Operatic ballad and adding a bit of soul to it. While these covers were adding to Michael's hit list, it was also showing his career was headed towards Adult Contemporary instead of the dance floor.

Too Funky



The last George Michael song I ever really got into, this early 90's tune tried to get back into the boogie with a club beat and a Anne Bancroft sample from the film The Graduate. Involved in protracted battles with his label, Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 2 never materialized and by the mid-90's his career had lost some steam. Still, I have fun memories of playing the cassingle to this song in my car on my way to work.

Older

In 1996 George reappeared with a new disc, Older. I didn't buy this CD but have found the singles "Jesus to a Child" and "Fastlove" to be pleasant and in line with his prior music. "Fastlove" would be George Michael's last Top 10 hit.

George Michael then dedicated his life to making a mess out of himself and only recording occasionally to a shrinking audience. He remains a pop star though he doesn't record any new music, retaining a following to this day. But he also remains a proven talent and if decides to get himself on track he could make a comeback.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Artist Spotlight: Wham (U.K.)! featuring George Michael

Okay, is this picture supposed to sell music or...something else?

On a recent post I received a request from Frontrow to write a little about Wham!/George Michael following Carrie Underwood's performance of "Praying For Time" from the Idol Gives Back show. I thought that was a terrific idea for a post, as I enjoyed George Michael's music in the later half of the 80's until it seemed his ego got the best of him. Then public exposure in Men's rest rooms got the best of him. Then public intoxication on a Keifer Sutherland scale got the best of him. But before all that, there was Wham!

Now I've got to admit, growing up with friends that were into either Hard Rock or Rap I had to take a lot of crap for liking George Michael's music. And initially, I was not a fan of Wham! because I thought their music was too lightweight even by pop standards. But as Wham!'s career continued, Michael asserted more control over the music which brought a little substance to their sound. By the time George Michael released his first solo album Faith, I was a fan.

Oh yeah, Andrew Ridgley was the other half of Wham! He mainly served as inspiration to George for having an outgoing personality.

I usually write about the albums I had and I think I had most of Wham!'s output on cassette back then, but even with cassettes I mainly associate them with their singles so I will be charting their career through the songs that were key to my first hating them and then liking them.

Bad Boys (1983)

Back in the day a new radio station had debuted in the Bay Area called KITS Hottest Hits, a station in the then burgening Chart Hits Radio format. KITS (now modern rock station Live 105) aired in a countdown format 24 hours a day, repeating the same 15 songs in the same order until it got to number 1. Then the countdown would start over again, which along with the DJ less broadcast led to the running joke "Look, someone flipped over the tape". And if the station hit dead air, "Hey, someone needs to fix the tape."

On this station "Bad Boys" debuted Wham! U.K. to the Bay with relentless airings, usually sandwiched somewhere between Total Coelo's "I Eat Cannibals" and Duran Duran's "Is There Something I Should Know?". I really, really hated this song with its fake string synths, disco beats and British blokes dressing like The Fonz while coming off as tough as Richie Cunningham. It's not so bad now, but back then if I could have erased KITS's tape of that song I would have.

"Wham Rap" and "Young Guns (Go For It)" followed as singles but were ignored here in the States.

Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go (1984)


Wham! U.K. disappeared after "Bad Boys" which was a relief to me until they returned with a bigger and more annoying song, "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go". The song was a monster hit and flooded all media with "beach blond hair" and "Choose Life" oversized sweatshirts. Although I don't enjoy the song, even I can't deny it's catchiness as decades later a sentence that ends with the word "Go" follows with another "Go" in my mind. There was a noticeable change in image as well, gone were the black leather jackets and blue jeans and in were short shorts and blue blazers stolen from the yacht club. "Go-Go" placed Wham! (the "U.K." was part was dropped) in the same boy band league as Duran Duran and soon the mugs of George Michael and his air guitaring cohort were everywhere.

Careless Whisper (1984)

...and then they flipped the script and came up with a great song. "Careless Whisper" billed as Wham! FEATURING GEORGE MICHAEL or something like that was another monster hit with a difference-it was a really great song. A moody ballad with a melody so strong it can pull off lyrics like "I'm never gonna dance again /guilty feeling / got no rhythm" this song turned me from hater to tolerator in a week. As much as I wanted to hate them for the musical wrongs they had committed in the past, this was one of the best songs of the decade. The video tried hard to push George Michael as a straight sex symbol by having him get all hot and bothered with a blonde on a boat but my favorite part was seeing the shot of the guitar having one string plucked and thinking "I can't believe Andrew Ridgely makes all that money for that." The long version of the song with the airy synths in the prelude was killer.

Everything She Wants (1985)


The third single from the Make It Big (1984) album gave Wham! a trifecta of indelible pop hits with this mid tempo joint known for the A-ha-a (a-ha-a) O-ho-O (O-ho-O) doo doo doo La De Da De Da hook. One of the little things that used to irritate me about buying albums or cassettes in the 80's was that songs were often remixed to perfection for the single release. Because of this, every time I played "Everything She Wants" on cassette I would have to pretend the good parts from the radio single was there because I was too cheap to buy the 45. I've never owned the version I've wanted of this song, I think it's time to change that. Take that Columbia Records! Oh, sorry, you're Sony now.

Freedom (1985)


I used to really like this song a lot but it hasn't aged well. It was sort of Motownish and upbeat. Then it was overtaken by a different song George Michael did for his solo career ("Freedom 90") that completely supplanted this tune.

I'm Your Man (1985)


"If you're gonna do it do it right" ...any reservations I had about Wham! or George Michael faded away with this masterpiece of fake Motown. "I'm Your Man" had the beat, the hook, the vocal, it had it all. "I'll make you rich, I'll make you poor" with a great sax solo and George Michael's most soulful vocal to that point. The peak of Wham! for me and it sounded great on the radio next to Aretha Franklin's "Freeway of Love". The first sign to me that George Michael had talent that could go beyond catchy pop tunes. "I'll be your first, I'll be your last, I'll be anyone you ask!".

Last Christmas (1985)

Wham! continued their winning ways with this Holiday classic, one of the few modern Christmas songs to really endure past it's inital run. The cheap synthesizers and EQ'd drum sound hightens the feeling of teen anguish (dumped the day after Christmas! That had to hurt). Wham! seemed unstoppable at this point...except they were releasing a string of singles instead of an album. What was going on? Had George Michael figured out he was giving half his money away to Andrew Ridgley for racing cars and showing up to photo shoots? Like Anakin Skywalker to Ridgley's Obi-Wan, George Michael was ready to leave Wham! and start a solo career. "Once I was but the learner but now I am the Master".

A Different Corner (1986)

Which took surprisingly little time, billed exclusively to George Michael this ballad with the slowed down Chariots Of Fire groove proved his viability as a solo artist. A beautiful, wistful song about what might have been-it could have easily been directed toward Ridgley himself. Though Ridgley's solo career would crash and burn with his solo album Son of...something...it's hard to feel bad for him because he made all that money for pretending to play music and then married one of the hotties from Bananarama. Every time Andrew Ridgley turns a different corner, he stumbles on gold! Unbelievable.

The Edge Of Heaven (1986)


The last hit for Wham! (the final single "Where Did Your Heart Go?" did not make the Top 40) was their edgiest song with a dark groove and lyrics that hinted at S&M. Not my favorite Wham! song, it nonetheless gave the duo a nice close to their career and hinted at the sexual themes of George's solo career.

Wham Rap ('86)

The remixed version of the hit from their first album was what I listened too after the demise of Wham! It's a ridiculous curio now, just thinking that George Michael would rap (the benefit gang-the benefit gang-the ben-ben-benefit gang is gonna pay!) is funny enough but the fact he did it in reality is even funnier. Big "Rapper's Delight" influence, Wham! vyed for street cred busting rhymes about British unemployment. Wham! takin' down the man. Cold bust it George!

Bonus Track - Battlestations (1986)

One of my favorite Wham! songs wasn't a hit, it was "Battlestations" from the Music from the Edge of Heaven album. The jam rode a nagging soulful chorus over a bass heavy beat about a relationship gone wrong. When played in my friends' cars who had the huge subwoofers meant for rap music (you know, the kind where it shakes your spine to the point you get a massive headache and can't hear a lick of conversation. I used to joke that it reset my heartbeat every time I sat in one of those cars. No, it's not arrythmia it's LL Cool J's "I'm Bad" or Ice-T's "Four in the Morning".) it would get grudging respect. Respect my beats! Word.

After Wham! ended George Michael would perfect the bearded stubble look and would continue to make great music for a few more years as a solo artist. For better or worse, Wham! launched his career and simultaneously gave him a complex that no one would take his music seriously (But what doesn't seem to give him a complex is getting sloppy drunk and whipping it out in public?). I'll feature his solo career separately as George Michael often acts ashamed of his pinup boy past.

One last Wham! memory, I went to a singing show put on by my high school back then and saw two girls sing "Credit Card Baby" in harmony. It was a surreal moment, I wondered if they understood the song was a slam on gold diggers. Weird.