Thursday, December 31, 2009

21st Century Blues

Here we are, born to be kings we're the Princes of the Universe. I was not going to pick a favorite album of the entire decade because honestly I didn't think one album from the last 10 years could be good enough. I'm at an age where music just can't carry as much weight in my life as it had before (which if you read this blog you may be amazed to know this is the downsized version of my music fandom). For my favorite album I tried to think of an album that wasn't just enjoyable musically but summed up the decade for me personally. So I went through the usual suspects - Journey, Yes, Metallica, I'd say Van Halen but they didn't do anything in the way of new albums, Tom Petty, etc. and came up empty. My mind kept returning to a certain album. My internal dialogue went round and round to if I should pick this album because though I played it often it wasn't the most played album I've had either. When I ranked my Top 10 favorite albums in the year this was released I ranked this at like Number 7 or something, definitely not Number 1! But my mind won't quit on choosing this as the album that represents the last decade for me.

And so it goes, my pick for the album of the decade is a disc I didn't even pick as my favorite in the year it was released.

Sheryl Crow - Detours (2008)

The album was made at a time when Crow had been in the press a lot due to her increased outspokenness on politics, high profile break up with cyclist Lance Armstrong and bout with breast cancer. These themes are packed into the lyrics of the Detours album, grafted onto strong memorable melodies and smooth, tasteful production thanks to Bill Bottrell. By openly writing about her personal experiences and beliefs, Crow has pulled off a Jackson Browne - a disc that's relatable to others via introspection.

Detours basic message is easy to write off as hippie sentimentality, that if everyone looked in their pure hearts we would have world peace and equality. A pretty yet unrealistic point of view, but from that position Crow captures the feeling of picking up the pieces of disappointment and heartbreak on a personal, societal and political scale. The song that grabbed my attention was "Gasoline", written just before the big price increase on oil last year that voiced the frustration with getting gouged at the tank perfectly. From there I got into the deceptively carefree "Love Is Free" and the sad 70's singer songwriter pop rock of "Now That You're Gone". The rest of the album is just as good but I don't want to go on and on about every song (though I probably could). When I think of an album that says what it feels like to live in the 21st Century, this is the one I think of. So what the world needs now is some love and compassion, I guess the hippie chick has got it right after all.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Best Of The Rest Of The Decade

It's gotta be a strange twist of fate, Olivia Newton John has an important question to ask. No,it has nothing to do with getting physical.

Okee Dokee, time to start wrapping up this set of posts I haven't even gone over my favorites of '09 and the year's almost over. No cohesive theme to what's left just as Rush would say "Subdivisions"

One Nation Under A Groove

Dance sister dance, as Genesis said I can't dance but I do like dance music when it's done with a little funk. The kind of funk you get with real musicians not samples of real musicians or computer programming. So who was jammin' on the one this decade? The Red Hot Chili Peppers mellowed out a lot yet on their double disc Stadium Arcadium (2005) they mixed things up so you got the chill Chilis ("Snow"), the rock Chilis ("Dani California") and the funked up Chilis ("Tell Me Baby"). It took a little bit for this to grow on me but it has become a classic to me.

Fellow for 90's groove experts Dave Matthews Band shook off the need to sound like someone else on this year's Big Whiskey and the Groo Grux King. Groo Grux is the most natural sounding DMB release since Beyond These Crowded Streets (1998) and a fine tribute to their late saxophonist Leroi Moore.

While far from his best the Purple One started a comeback in 2004 with Musicology. A nice rehash of the type of melodies and beats Prince does so well.

All About Retro Soul

A wave of nostalgia hit pop music the past few years and some artists were able to hook up with a sizable audience by performing soulful music sans hip hop cool. Train wreck Amy Winehouse led the charge with her excellent Back To Black (2006) disc. That album contained performances by the Dap Kings who were with Sharon Jones for her outstanding '07 release 100 Days, 100 Nights.

That's Retro Progress

Progressive Rock has died a million deaths yet one band that keeps the spirit alive is Dream Theater. The New York band put out new music on a regular basis my favorite of which was their softest of the decade Octavarium (2005). The singles "I Walk Beside You" and "The Answer Lies Within" were OK but hid the real pleasures of the disc such as the knotty "Panic Attack" and the absolutely epic 24 minute title song.

Meanwhile standard bearers of the Prog name Yes mustered their last studio effort, 2001's Magnification. Recorded with an orchestra in between Wakemans, Magnification is shaping up to be the classic band's last shot of new material. Outside of the silly "Don't Go" it's a treat with some nice hooks and sweeping arrangements, you know, the stuff that makes Yes great.

Guitarist Steve Howe couldn't leave things at that though, reconciling a quarter century old grudge with John Wetton to reform the original lineup of Asia. Their '08 reunion album Phoenix was more mellow than I liked but no one...wait let me restate NO ONE can deny the power of original Asia! OK, a lot of people can and do deny it but not on my watch.

Have You Never Been Mellow?

Have you ever tried - that is the question Olivia Newton John posed decades ago. And the answer is yes, I have been mellow and to prove it I have to give props to Norah Jones jazzy pop debut Come Away With Me (2002) that goes down easy like - must resist dirty metaphor - hot tea on a cold winter night. Bluegrass experts Alison Krauss and Union Station were finger pickin' good on Lonely Runs Both Ways (2004). Then Krauss went and teamed up with Led Zepper Robert Plant for their Grammy lauded team up Raising Sand (2007). And the 21st Century kicked off with a tight reunion via Walter Becker and Donald Fagan a 'la Steely Dan. 2000's Two Against Nature was a return to their tastefully clean pop rock ways.

You're Getting Even While I'm Getting Odd

We now arrive at the potpourri category of Jeopardy taking random bands for $100. Kicking it off is the one hit wonder Los Lonely Boys whose 2004 album is a treat for fans of Latin inflected Texas blues rock (I know, such a large category). Aussie retro rockers Jet converted millions to IPOD listeners with their awesome advertisement hit song "Are You Gonna Be My Girl" from the feckless Get Born disc (2003). Really belonging to the Old Timers post, Tom Petty had a pleasant mellow ride on the Highway Companion (2006) album. And just for laughs, the amazing comedy duo Flight Of The Conchords served up a very funny EP The Distant Future (2007) which I played as recently as two nights ago.

That's almost all, next up I choose my favorite CD of the 2000's so far. A hint, it's a shocker. At least it shocks me and I'm the one picking it.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Old Timers Day

Classic rockers did their best to not let Rock and Roll die, spending the decade releasing new music to their shrinking fan bases. Some proved they still had something relevant to say while others looked like they were going thru the motions.

The Future Past Of Rock And Roll

Probably the most visible (and biggest following) performer to make my list is The Boss, Bruce Springsteen. He was prolific, putting out like five albums. Of those, the one to impress me was 2007's Magic where I felt he had a good batch of songs ("Radio Nowhere", "Livin In The Future" and "Long Way Home" were highlights) and recaptured some of the 'ol E Street magic (I thought they sounded stiff on 2002's The Rising which is otherwise a good disc). The Boss's idol, or The Bosses Boss if you will, Bob Dylan, issued the excellent Love and Theft in 2001. Dylan's album had a ramshackle well worn feel alongside vibrant material (like the relaxing "Sugar Baby"). Meanwhile, Sir Paul McCartney came up with a winner on his Chaos And Creation In The Backyard (2005) by having quality tunes and a nice homemade feel. "Jenny Wren" had a great classic Beatles feel to it.

Let Your Freak Flag Fly

More prolific was Neil Young who should win the award for most faithful recreation of a 60's event by spitting out a vitriolic anti war album in Living With War (2006) which doesn't make my list for song quality yet deserves mentioning just for intent. Maybe the only 60's liberal rock survivor I can think of that used his flower power era anti establishment cred for something other than a marketable cache of cool. Agree or disagree with him, Young showed guts to stand behind his established politics even as it just made him seem that much more like a walking antique. But in terms of the actual music, I liked the acoustic Prairie Wind (2005) on which Young muses on fleeting personal mortality.

John Mellencamp also went acoustic and a little somber on Life, Death, Love and Freedom (that's probably not the right title but too tired to look up right title) the disc that turned around decades of hatred...for me that is. I hated John Mellencamp's music since 1982 yet this album grabbed my attention. This disc made me feel like American values of fairness and freedom for all were slipping through my very fingers. Impressive album.

Jackson Browne (a personal favorite of mine) also went anti war in a more low key way (because he is Jackson Browne after all) in 2008's Time The Conqueror. Browne's songwriting was as eloquent and So Cal with its laid back urgency (oxymoron alert!) as ever in an enjoyable way. And though John Fogerty made an anti war statement on the weak Deja Vu All Over Again (2004) CD, he turned it around musically by reviving his Creedence sound on Revival (2007). By getting back to his old swamp grounds Fogerty's anti Bush rants like "Gunslinger" carried more weight.

Peaceful Easy Feeling

Speaking of laid back So Cal urgency, Browne's fellow scenesters also dished out plenty of harmony driven goodness. Fleetwood Mac's Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks had nice solo turns with Under the Skin (2006) and Trouble In Shangri La (2001) respectively, outshining their one Mac disc together the spotty Say You Will (2003). Buckingham went the acoustic route with rewarding results. The minimal instrumentation gave a break from Buckingham's usually dense production style adding freshness to head boppers like "Show You How". Ms. Nicks pumped up her resume' with a polished disc containing older songs written in her songwriting prime. Hence the outstanding numbers "Sorcerer" and "Planets Of The Universe" saw the light of day with strong results.

Meanwhile Hell froze over again thanks to The Eagles double disc smackdown Long Road To Eden (2007). While far from an astounding album, it's solid and a firm reminder of their best qualities.

Gotcha Covered

Because writing new compelling material is the ultimate challenge for every rock and roll artist, watching established performers turn to cover albums became a regular event. Of these, my favorite was the first Matthew Sweet / Susannah Hoffs team up Under The Covers Vol 1 (2006). They had a nice heartfelt vibe in paying tribute to power pop's past. Jack Blades (Night Ranger) and Tommy Shaw (Styx) also teamed up well on their paean to the early 70's with Influence (2007). Shaw / Blades had the best cover of Yes' "Your Move" ever (Sweet / Hoffs covered it in '09). In this list of Marvel Comics Team Ups I've got to throw in The Black Crowes with Jimmy Page Live At The Greek (2000) for tearin' it up on Led Zep covers. Let's face it, unless you were one of those Billionaires at the one and only Led Zep reunion show this is as close as you're gonna get to Valhalla. Bean town's Aerosmith rocked hard and well on their "blues" covers album Honkin On Bobo (2004) including a nice zipping take on "Baby Please Don't Go". Lastly, Def Leppard's best effort in the 21st Century was 2006's Yeah. Lep even got me to enjoy "Rock On", a song I personally loathe for just plain sucking in general.

Next, I'll run a catch all thru the remaining genres before naming my favorite album of the new millennium.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Midnight Madness - Donny And Marie Christmas

I was talking to my wife and reminiscing about the old Christmas specials that used to be on tv as a kid and one title that stood out in my mind was Donnie and Marie. The toothy twosome were on tv all the time and I used to watch weekly to discover that she was a little bit country and he was a little bit rock and roll. I don't remember a thing about this Christmas special, but here's a tribute to all the old Christmas shows gone by into the forgotten heap of ancient memory. Sometimes I miss the safe patter, canned laughter and earnest cheesiness of the 70's.

Rollin With The Homies - Sad passing of young actress Brittany Murphy, who I knew mainly from her role as the outsider being made over in the teen movie Clueless and the voice of Luanne in King Of The Hill. I wasn't a huge fan or anything, just appreciated that she had talent and a likable presence.

Last Christmas - I thought the overplayed Christmas song this year was "Santa Baby" but in the past few days cover versions of the Wham! classic "Last Christmas" have overtaken it. In the last 48 hours I've heard four different versions of this song including one with a rap. A rap!

Desperate Times - Amy Winehouse has been arrested for assault. I swear every punch with her is just another career move at this point.

Tried To Send Me Back To Rehab - Steven Tyler boldly goes where he has gone before, rehab for his addiction to painkillers. Does this mean no more Brand Tyler?

Fantastic...Amazing...Unbelievable... - Tried to watch Snooze Along With Gordon Ramsey, the famously irritable chef's attempt to appear happy and friendly on tv. The only fun to be found was watching visibly nervous Ramsey fill in dead air with these random words in between the scripted segments. Agh, it's stuck in my head! Fantastic...Amazing...Unbelievable...

I'm (sob) Sensitive! - This won't win me any macho points, but I was a sucker for Tori Amos debut album Little Earthquakes. There's a great track by track dissection of the album by Tori Amos on Rolling Stone magazine's web site. If you like the disc it's a fine read. Now I'm going to curl up in a ball on the couch with some fancy tea and watch Oprah.

Tik Tok - This song by Ke$ha (yes, the dollar sign is in her name) is the #1 song in the land. I remember this was a free download on Itunes one week, the video was about being a drunk slut in front of your family or something. Not that I'm a prude, part of this track's appeal is probably the coarseness that puts me off it. Unbelievable...Fantastic...Amazing...

Super Friends - Def Leppard is developing a cartoon about themselves. No, that's not a joke they really are doing this.
By The Way - Guitarist John Frusciante has left the Red Hot Chili Peppers again though this time not abruptly. Judging from how they fared without him the last time, I don't think RHCP will be able to maintain the quality of their music now. And with drummer Chad Smith having another successful band to jump to if he wants I wonder about the future of the group. Because even mediocre RHCP is better than none.

Merry Christmas - I don't know if I'll post tomorrow, so Merry Christmas to all!

And now, because you didn't ask for it, the rap version of "Last Christmas"!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Indie 2000

Professor Jones searches for the decedents of college rock in Indie Jones and the New Millennium.

Each decade after the 70's has had a rock sub genre that supposedly contains the purity and creativity of the art form. In the 80's it was college rock, the 90's alternative and in the 00's it's indie. Indie has become a sort of catch all term for any rock music that is different from the mainstream in an arty sort of way, so I'm using the term in that same way. Now, on with the show this is it.

The New New Wave

The kids discovered the joys of Joy Division and Men Without Hats forming bands that sounded a lot like groups from MTV's birth. Franz Ferdinand's self titled debut (2004) had the angular guitars, Talking Heads style odd sparseness and dance grooves to set the world on fire for a second. Las Vegas' The Killers handed in two great albums that meshed the giddy feeling of synths and grandeur of stadium rock on Hot Fuss (2004) and Day and Age (2008). Meanwhile The National came across as a mildly depressed but not as down as Joy Division on their hypnotic 2007 disc The Boxer. All proof that even now kids still want their 1983.

Cool As Ice Ice Baby

What it comes down to is that the indie rock I listen to mostly come from major labels meaning its an attitude more than a literal term. Enter The Strokes, arriving with much fanfare as the supposed saviors of rock music following Is This It (2001). Oddly, it's their weaker follow up Rooms On Fire (2003) that I enjoy the most with its The Cars style synth twists such as on "The End Has No End". Deservedly or undeservedly The Strokes symbolized hype overkill because old folks like me wanted new music that reminded us of something good from the past. The poster child of this scene I would pick to be Jack I'll-Form-A-New-Band-Every-Time-I-Sneeze White. Elephant (2003) by The White Stripes was dynamite with sharp material to support heavy guitar riffage and bare bones drumming. I also will throw in the Stripes Icky Thump (2007) as being just as great. Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot(2002) famously took a circular route from major label to no label and back again with old fashioned strong songwriting and tasteful performance. Death Cab For Cutie was another buzz band that broke through embodying those weepy sensitive guy ways like the excellent Transatlanticism (2003). I feel so much closer.

More Accordion Pleaze

Some bands made their name on unusual sonic templates, like Arcade Fire whose disc Neon Bible (2007) I found dark and moving like an undertow at night. Just before they attempted to be Fleetwood Mac, Rilo Kiley had the likeably low key More Adventurous album (2004) anchored by the mild toned swipe at George Bush Jr and pressure to write a pop song on "It's A Hit". And who could forget the quirky funk of Spoon? The only Spoon album I have is Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga which was a blast of hip shaking weirdness.

Next up...old timers day.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Battle For Heaven And Earth

Khan is taken aback by the never ending struggle of Mick Jones versus Lou Gramm.

Foreigner. Lou Gramm. Since the beginning of time...or 1987...these two forces that once stood proudly together became destined to fight for gravelly throated melodic rock superiority. This came to mind (in much less overblown dramatic fashion) while I was reorganizing my CDs and decided to redo my homemade greatest hits discs. I put Gramm's solo tracks on the same discs as Foreigner because to me there isn't a lot of stylistic difference between the two - some difference but not a lot. Then I noticed of Gramm's three solo releases, they all coincide with timing of a Foreigner release. He even matched the fifteen year gap from 1995 to 2009 by waiting to release a new solo disc until this year (Foreigner's last album before this year was 1994's Mr Moonlight - the last Foreigner album with Gramm singing also). Gramm's new album is called Lou Gramm Band (creative titling there!) while Foreigner (with singer Kelly Hansen) has put out Can't Slow Down (not the Lionel Richie record).

So here we are, 2009 as Mick Jones and Lou Gramm duke it out in the music scene once again. One ring to rule them all! Lou has upped the ante this time by calling on the big man (not Clarence Clemons) to help out as he has recorded a Christian rock album. Jones, not to be outdone, has called on the all powerful Wal Mart to back him up. Both sides are loaded for bear, as Khan said "To the last I will grapple with thee. With my last breath I will spit at thee..." He probably would have said more but Khan died at that point just before the Genesis device exploded (not the band Genesis). So here we go Lou Gramm's song "Baptized By Fire" against Foreigner's "Can't Slow Down" locked in a chart battle that doesn't really exist anymore since neither have been on the pop charts for decades. But hopefully it made for a fun post. And then for even more fun, a video clip from the classic Jones / Gramm years of Foreigner in the form of the awesome "Break It Up". The video is pure Foreigner magic.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Mr Mike's High School Record Collection: Genesis - Genesis (1983)

The latest round of inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame have been released and to my surprise Genesis is included this time. And Abba. Really? Really Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Abba?? Don't get me wrong, I like Abba generally and grew up enjoying "Take A Chance On Me", "The Name Of The Game" and "The Winner Takes It All" (killer divorce song) as much as anyone else but how this legendary pop group qualifies for rock and roll I just don't know. Why not induct Neil Sedaka too? Next year's inductee will be Bruce Willis for "Respect Yourself".

Well, back to Genesis. Prog rock usually gets short shrift from the Rock and Roll critic crowd because it was considered overblown, pretentious, to use a British term wankerish. I have to assume their induction is because Peter Gabriel was a member who established a ton of artistic cred after leaving the group. He had it with Genesis too but that respect for his art shot through the roof well before his breakthru So album. Because without Gabriel the Hall of Fame would have to admit they just let in a band fronted by Phil "Against All Odds" Collins. Which brings me to today's post.

I like Peter Gabriel and have heard some of his Genesis stuff (I have Selling England By The Pound somewhere in my CD collection) but for me Genesis is Phil Collins, Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford. That's just the lineup of Genesis I knew from the time I started listening to music, the idea of Gabriel or Steve Hackett being there was abstract to me because I hadn't seen or heard music from that lineup until a few years ago. It does form a favorite piece of music trivia for me though, because I can't think of another successful band that lost its lead singer and lead guitarist that became more commercially successful without replacing those band members. Usually the loss of either is a kiss of death for a band that has "made it". Not replacing them is unheard of.

Oops, off on a tangent again. The first Genesis record I bought was their self titled disc from 1984, just before No Jacket Required shot Collins (and Genesis) to the next level of pop stardom. Now we go back a quarter century in time to the Genesis of...Genesis (you know I was going to go there).

1. Mama

Spooky, smoky, atmospheric and haunting are adjectives. Adjectives that help describe this song that I could not figure out if the "Mama" in question was a 70's reference (back when men called women "Mama" the way they would say "Babe" or "Sugar t*ts" - wait, that was Mel Gibson typing) or his literal mother. Hopefully not the latter because "Mama" is psychologically tortuous, Collins alternately snickering and pleading with himself like the inner dialogue of Hannibal Lecter. All I knew was I liked how it sounded, it's creepy and weird with that mechanical beat and Banks heavy synths. Ha HA Ha...Oh.

2. That's All

Genesis' first Top 10 hit and a worthy one at that. Collins attributed the 80's success to the group's music becoming more emotional and hey, I'm sure he was right because it was love songs like this that catapulted him into super stardom. As far as Genesis ballads go, "That's All" was the first and least generic. It had that upbeat piano and a bit more beat than the other slow songs. My favorite part is the slow section where Collins goes "But I love you...more than I wanted to..." and goes all crazy with the drums in the background. He's one of my favorite drummers and to have that much drum work in a ballad and make it fit is pretty impressive to me.

This was introduced as a song about ghosts when performed live, no matter how successful they got Genesis never stopped showing love for the Prog. Probably a carry over from the earlier days of the band, Collins was good at acting a part inside a song. On "Mama" he was dark and psychotic, "That's All" he was wistful /resigned and here he's desperate on the verge of panic. Musically it has that cool distinctly 80's sound where you could visualize a Miami Vice montage happening as this plays in the background.

Like the long version of "Abacab", "Home By The Sea" goes into an extended instrumental letting keyboardist Tony Banks and bassist / guitarist Mike Rutherford cut loose. Now without words you can really practice your Miami Vice with no singing to get in your way. I wanted to be like Edward James Olmos minus, you know, the face (sorry Commander Adama). Have that gravelly dramatic voice and all. Press play on this track and then in a Batman like voice say "The drugs are coming in from Colombia at 3:00. Ship is a freighter named the Santa Maria. Be at the docks in an hour." You won't regret it.

5. Illegal Alien

Proving that pre civil rights media did not have a monopoly on insensitive racial stereotyping, the trio takes a light hearted poke at illegal immigration. What makes this song semi offensive is that Collins (actor that he is) sings the song in a fake Spanish accent. Anyone who found Speedy Gonzalez or the Taco Bell Chiahuahua bad will not enjoy hearing Collins singing things like "Ah peenk one ah red one the collahrs u chewz." Genesis' sense of humor is hit or miss with me (I didn't care for "Anything She Does" from Invisible Touch but did like "I Can't Dance" from We Can't Dance) and this song does make fun of a situation that even back then was fatal for some. Just call me Buzz Killington.

Though "That's All" was the hit, it was this track that laid the template for future success. A classic Phil Collins soft ballad without much to get in the way of a sentimental melody. I don't recall this being released as a single but for years after I heard this on the radio of less talk more lite rock stations.

Funny, I thought nothing of this tune until it was used as a theme song for a short lived 80's tv series. I want to say it was called The Insiders but can't recall it, I think the show was about private detectives that were fashion photographers? Or were they spies that posed as photo journalists? I'm too lazy to look it up, it was some kinda Miami Vice rip off show right down to the Phil Collins atmosphere. Anyway, this jammin number with the rapid fire drums going bang became a favorite track for a while after I heard it on the tv show. The only version I could find on You Tube of this is a sped up recording so it is like the Chipmunks. Alvin!

What's the old saying, "You can take Peter Gabriel out of the band but you can't take the band out of Peter Gabriel?" No, that's not a saying actually...actually that sounds really wrong in so many ways. Nonetheless "Silver Rainbow" is Genesis in full on Gabriel mode and is a pretty dope track. By dope I mean fly. By fly I mean blowin' up. By blowin' up I mean...forget it, it's a good song.

Still in Gabriel mode with the epic keyboards and reptilian vocals. A nice almost spiritual uplift to this track.

The success of Genesis followed by the blockbuster Collins solo album No Jacket Required set the stage for the trio's complete cross over to pop on Invisible Touch. On this record, the group still retained a strong Prog sensibility and a more unique character. Should I go for it? Ok, I will. Like the album cover Genesis reaches for Perfection. Glad to get another bad pun off my chest. OK, to wrap up Genesis = Rock and Roll Hall of Fame = congratulations to a classic Prog band.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Joan Jett Jr.

I was weeding songs out of my IPOD to remove those tunes that show up under shuffle play that don't do it for me when I stumbled on this track that came from a PASTE sampler. After clicking on this not expecting much, I listened while scanning through other song titles and thought "Did I click on Joan Jett?". So I took a look at what I clicked on and it was someone named Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles. A quick look on the internet makes it appear that she's normally a little quirkier so I don't know if I'd like all of what she does, but this song "Do It For Free" is a sneering double barrelled blast of bar band hard rock!

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Bon Jovi - Man Or Machine?

Open for business - Bon Jovi's stock rises with The Circle. Who's in your five?


Jon Bon Jovi's latest creation, The Circle, is a deluxe package of a CD and a documentary DVD that brings us up to date with the Jersey legend. A much ballyhooed return to Rock (following the band's Country music excursion Lost Highway) finds Bon Jovi firmly back in the middle of the road pop rock pocket. It is consistently good, successfully taking bits from music's past (both his own and others) to take listeners on a pleasantly energized yet safe ride. Sort of like one of those virtual reality roller coasters where the vehicle moves up and down on hydraulics and a video screen makes it feel like you're really moving when in reality you're not. Is this a good or bad thing? For me, I like it though as with many long time fans it's another nail in the coffin of hope that they will return to their glitzy pop metal of old.

So now that I've criticized the album for what it's not, let's take a look at what it is. The "Born To Be My Baby" rewrite "We Weren't Born To Follow" is pretty good and while JBJ takes shots for cliched lyrics I have to admit to find this song inspiring. This song has been motivational to me, released at a time of personal upheaval the words "We weren't born to follow / c'mon get up off your knees / life is a bitter pill to swallow / you gotta hold on to what you believe" wrapped up in a familiar catchy melody worked wonders. Musically my mind screams "Rip off!" but in my soul it's one of his most meaningful songs for me. And it's that conflict that colors my view of the whole project.

Still an Arena rock band at heart, the rest of the album features rushing rockers (the Creed like "Bullet", or "Brokenpromiseland") and ballads (the Tim McGrawish "Live Like You Were Dying") as we've come to expect from the long running band. The choruses are designed to elicit 20,000 audience members to shout "Hey, hey, hey!" or "Yeah, yeah yeah!" in unison when performed live. Even the epic atmospheric ballad "When We Were Beautiful" has this type of chorus. A little bit of a Coldplay influence takes hold towards the end of the disc ("Fast Cars") with glowing keyboards. The highpoint of the album is in the first four songs with "We Weren't Born To Follow", "When We Were Beautiful", the "Living On A Prayer" styled "Work For The Workingman" and the U2 "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses" rewrite "Superman Tonight".

Despite being derivative Bon Jovi is still a popular band as The Circle went to #1 on the album charts and being a fan I'm not complaining. Their ability to take familiar themes and adapt them to the modern market is Jon Bon Jovi's chief talent as The Circle places its weight behind the national mood of overcoming disillusionment. This talent is what gets the focus in an accompanying DVD When We Were Beautiful and answers once and for all my question: How does an 80's hair band whose last major hit song was 9 years ago stay at the top of the charts?

This glossy documentary shot in black and white includes interviews with all four members of the band as they wax on about what has brought them to this stage of their career. JBJ says repeatedly that they aren't supposed to be here, not supposed to be this successful at this point. And he's right, most of the groups that were their peers are playing county fairs or small clubs while Bon Jovi can play arenas like Madison Square Garden. The reason is Jon Bon Jovi's vision, making himself and his band as marketable as possible at any given moment. If the market suddenly shifted to a jazz revival, Bon Jovi's next album would add a horn section and rewrite Cannonball Adderley songs. His ambition is the main priority, the music's artistic value is determined by audience response over personal expression. The band is in this whole hog, all members in separate interviews refer to Bon Jovi as an "organization" rather than a band.

And it's real impressive to see the kingdom Jon Bon Jovi has created, essentially a self made CEO of a corporation that owns sports teams, does charitable works and provides a public service. That's also why the documentary is boring, it's really a corporate promotional video. Ironically, it's this format that may be the most honest representation of Bon Jovi artistically. I know I listen to Bon Jovi because epic rock anthems with fast guitars and banal lyrics hit me where I live, but maybe another reason for his success is ultimately he represents the current version of the American Dream. Capitalism that is as jaded as it is heartfelt, the captain of the football team that became a captain of industry. The rebel with a stock portfolio. OK I'm running out of cheesy metaphors now, I'm no Jon Bon Jovi I can't make you buy this stuff. But he can.

We may never really know Jon Bon Jovi in the artistic sense, he will always say and be how we want him to be. There may be bits of honest emotion mixed in here or there ("Wanted Dead Or Alive" for one) but I seriously doubt we'll get a Blood On The Tracks moment from the guy. I guess what's interesting to me is that I actually care about the artistic motives of Bon Jovi, maybe being a fan all these years I'm waiting for a Freewheelin' Bob Dylan in their music. Wow, this blog post is sure a long way to say what I just said in one sentence. Oh well, don't feel like deleting stuff now.
So here's to you Bon Jovi, a hook, an image and a 401k - the ultimate winner. Now go record a folk album!

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Star Trek: The Non Motion Picture

Damn, I missed the date I wanted to do this post by 3 minutes. Well, pretend this post was made on Monday December 7 because that was the date I was aiming for. Why the special date? Because it was 30 years ago today, December 7, 1979, that Star Trek: The Motion Picture opened.

A date I remember well. I became a fan of Star Trek in the 70's while the show was in syndication, viewing it religiously every week day at 5pm. When the news came out that Star Trek was returning it was the end all and be all of my existence. I talked my parents into taking me to see the film on opening night even though it was playing out of town. We drove through heavy rain to sit in a packed domed theatre filled with other Trekkers anxious to see the rebirth of Star Trek. It was warm and musty with the standing room only crowd. Then the lights went down. And the music started. And we saw Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

And it...was...BORING!

The film started off majestically enough, Jerry Goldsmith's graceful, exhilarating score backing expensive visuals of the Klingon warships being destroyed by a big blue swirlly thing. Then we caught up with the Enterprise and Admiral Kirk as they regroup to face the intruder. Some excitement for a second when a transporter malfunction kills science officer Sonak. Then, like Sonak, the excitement is gone. They try to go to warp speed but hey-it's a wormhole! More temporary thrills that ends with a confusing bang. Spock arrives and they go to warp and meet the big blue thingy.

This begins the INCREDIBLY BORING PART, where they spend what seems like light years (this is where someone should tell me a light year is a measurement of distance, not time) flying into the cloud. The bridge crew (and us) watches the viewscreen as we go over the hill and through the woods to V'Ger's house we go. Then the bald navigator gets zapped, but because she was a new cast member who cared? She comes back as a robot, so what? Spock goes on a 2001 A Space Odyssey trip into V'Ger which was OK...then that part ends. Finally the voyage ends with a bunch of pretty lights and that was about it.

It was probably just as boring to read me recap it than to see it. There was some applause at the end of the film but mostly there was weary silence.

Yet the Star Trek phenomenon could not be stopped and the film earned big box office (even though production costs that included the aborted tv series Star Trek Phase II made it one of the most expensive movies to make up to that point. And like Star Wars there were all kinds of toys that were released (I had this Enterprise that made warp engine noises that were louder or softer depending on how high you held it in the air) to make some bank.

And though it is dull, as a true fan that means I've only seen it about twenty times since 1979 (most recent time was two weeks ago). There were some cool things about ST:TMP, in addition to Goldsmith's outstanding score the USS Enterprise never looked better (or gotten as much attention thanks to a lengthy fly by of the ship while in drydock). Some of the shots of the ship are reminiscent of the flying sequences from Superman (which was released the year before). Starfleet Command gets a bigger presence including shots of San Francisco and director Robert Wise gives a futuristic 2001: A Space Odyssey feel to the movie. There is a feeling of the large vacuum of space and man's small place in it. The Shat is in full effect ("It is MY be ON THAT SHIP...following that meeting", "Would you puhleeeze...sit down", "Damn it Bones I need you. I - NEED - YOU"). Plus that cover art! Freakin love that cover art with the three multicolored faces (which I had once heard Deforest Kelley felt slighted by not being featured on it).

ST: TMP was meant to be the pilot episode to Star Trek: Phase II and so it seemed like no mistake when I sat down with friends years later and saw this remade into the debut episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (episode Encounter At Farpoint). Many of the ideas from ST: TMP were moved to that show, such as the two bridge personnel with a romantic past, a giant nemesis that turns out to be a lifeform seeking ascension, and skin tight uniforms (which is really funny in ST: TMP because even as a kid I saw there would be scenes with Stephen Collins interacting with the late Persis Khambatta where he was blatantly bulgy right there on the big screen. I know she's Deltan but I think he was method acting if you know what I mean).

In the DVD age Robert Wise was able to go back and redo ST: TMP into a directors cut with new special effects and to be honest, it is a vast improvement. Even though little of the dialogue scenes that were reinserted into the tv movie version (something the movie lacked was the actors doing anything except react to what V'Ger was doing, these scenes broadened their relationships to each other) made it into the directors cut, the film seems to move better and the revised effects particularly at the end of the film makes a huge difference. Best of all, that distorted matte painting of the Enterprise hull when they walk on the outside of the ship is gone. I remember seeing that and thinking "what the hell is that?".

The first Star Trek movie is still kind of blah even with the recut, as a fan though I can dig it. Like Spock trying to reach Kohlinar, ST: TMP is a noble attempt at bringing the high minded themes of Star Trek to the silver screen minus chaotic human emotions that falls flat because of their absence. Even with that, it is a memorable piece of my childhood and one of those "bad movies" I will go back to seeing time and again. And its proof of a mass worldwide audience allowed for Trek to continue for decades to come. It was 30 years ago that the human adventure continued for a short lived low rated tv series.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Midnight Madness - Steven Seagal Edition

Lama on the loose: Steven Seagal takes to the streets for real in A&E's reality tv series Steven Seagal: :Lawman

Today's my birthday, I have successfully survived another year. It wasn't a great year in the sense that I've been laid off, but I am still alive eatin food and have a roof over my head so that's still going for me :). A lot of sad news out there in the entertainment world which inspired this post. On the upside, one of my action movie faves is attempting a comeback.

The Last In Line - Ronnie James Dio has been diagnosed with stomach cancer, certainly sad news. He's an iconic singer and as a fan I wish him well.

Standing On Higher Ground - While reading the blog Holland's Comet I found out that Alan Parsons Project singer Eric Woolfson passed away due to cancer. The Parsons Project was a favorite of mine in high school, particularly the Vulture Culture album. His vocals on the songs "Games People Play" and "Time" (not from Vulture Culture) were extraordinary.

The Samoan Bulldozer - Former WWE wrestler Umaga died of a heart attack at age 36. He was an effective heel who had a good gimmick, a big guy who could move quickly. No more Samoan Spike :(

Taken To The Wood(s) Shed - It was not a good week to have that last name, as both the golfer Tiger and the Rolling Stone Ronnie ran into high profile domestic issues. Maybe they should swap lives on a reality tv show just to make things that much more overblown.

Overexposed Movie Of The Week - Speaking of overblown, can we go five minutes without a tv advertisement for Armored? Like Grand Theft Auto: The Movie, it looks like Matt Dillon and some other dudes steal an armored car and then kill each other for possession of it. All I get out of the repetitive commercials is steal the car, some guy locks himself inside, Matt Dillon gets mad threatens dude's family and then someone is running away from the armored car threatening to run him over. I've been playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas the past week and have found this scenario much more exciting on my outdated PS2 than watching these commercials. Someone please turn these losers in for stealing too much tv time.

And The Grammy Goes To... - The list of nominees this year don't interest me too much, just for fun I'll pick my favorite of their top selection list:

  • Record Of The Year - I'd go with Lady GaGa's "Poker Face" not that I like the song, it's just the most memorable to me. P-P-P-Poker face.

  • Album Of The Year - The only one on this list I have heard is Dave Matthews Band, I liked that album so I'll vote for that.

  • Song Of The Year - I realize there are different criteria for this versus Record Of The Year but honestly I never saw the point between the two.

  • Best New Artist - I don't know most of these names. The Ting Tings would be my choice. Now shut up and let me go.

The Awards show usually has a good song performance or two so there's that to look forward to, otherwise this year's model seems kinda dull.

Shields Up! - This week I got to go to a Star Trek exhibit and sit in the Captain's chair on a replica of the Enterprise bridge. Oh what a feeling!

Out For Justice - I watched the first two episodes of Steven Seagal: Lawman on A&E. Seagal doesn't do a whole lot of actual law enforcement compared to his fellow deputies and the phony editing to make it seem like he has a sixth sense to spot crime which is ludicrous. What's more, Seagal starts every sentence with "In my years of martial arts training, I..." to the point of annoyance. Yet like everything else Seagal touches, the hubris is backed up with mad aikido / gun fire skills (even if it is only displayed in training) and I've got to give it up to a guy that does this as a side job. His commitment to law enforcement is commendable and comes across as sincere. Though nothing can top the liquor store fight at the start of Hard To Kill. "C'muh cut mah hart oute! Come uh kut my 'eart out!!!" (The scene, one of my Seagal favorites, is below)

Friday, December 04, 2009

Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Random Notes

What do you get when you mix a sub, a pea and a stone? The Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame!

I watched the AARP, um, I mean Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert on HBO. The Hall of Fame is often a bone of contention in the blog world, probably because it presents what I would consider an elitist view of rock music. It follows a doctrine that considers R&B and hip hop as part of rock and favors punk and alternative (i.e. critics darlings) over commercially successful bands in the 70s and 80s. Only recently have groups that didn't start out as music critic favorites (Van Halen and Metallica) begin to make it in, presumably because they are running out of people they would prefer to let in before them. I'm sure if they could induct Bob Dylan every year, they would.

Anyway that's my Rock and Roll Hall of Fame rant, I'd love to see it if it weren't in Cleveland but that's life. I did see this Hall of Fame concert and found it pretty enjoyable. A nice format where a band would anchor a set that includes its own material and then back various stars on songs as well. The backing bands included Crosby Stills and Nash, Paul Simon, Metallica, U2, Bruce Springsteen and I feel like I left someone out but can't recall. Oh yeah, Stevie Wonder. I wrote down my impressions of the concert while I watched it and in honor of Rolling Stone magazine who seems to have put on this shindig I'm calling it Random Notes:
  • Hey it's Jerry Lee Lewis at the start, I saw him play at a concert a few years ago he still can put on a show.

  • So that's what Steven Stills looks like sober. I saw CSN&Y play at the same concert as Jerry Lee Lewis, Stills was so wasted he barely performed and spent most of the set wandering the back of the stage that evening. Here he's blasting through his vocals and reeling off burning guitar solos. I feel cheated.

  • Jackson Browne, one of my favorite artists singing one of my favorite songs "The Pretender"! With Nash and Crosby on background vox!! Holy crap, Browne has had plastic surgery and his face doesn't move!!! It's like Phantom of the Opera, his eyes and mouth moves but nothin else!!!!

  • Stevie Wonder pays tribute to Michael Jackson by performing "The Way You Make Me Feel", is it a crime that I like Wonder's version better than the original?

  • Sting, give Jackson Browne his raggedy beard back he needs it more.

  • Stevie Wonder is smokin' through his set, everyone brought their "A" game to this show.

  • Jeff Beck shaves his arm pits? Is this for more aerodynamic guitar solos?

  • The Spectre of Spector is all over this Brill Building montage as I don't remember him getting named in this segment.

  • Dion gives Paul Simon a fist bump. You know a trend is about to die when you see the elderly adopt it. Give them both Boost mobile phones while they're at it.

  • During Simon & Garfunkel 's set, my wife reminds me of that Flight of the Conchords episode where one of the Conchords is made over by a woman into the image of an Art Garfunkel sex slave. Too funny!

  • Oh cool, "The Boxer". Freakin love that song.

  • Aretha Franklin slays 'em in Madison Square Garden.

  • Sisters are doin' it for themselves again, Annie Lennox joins Franklin for "Chain of Fools"

  • Metallica! Finally some actual rock music in this show. Wow, is James Hetfield losing his hair? Never thought I would see that happen to a guy that used to look like the Lion King. "For Whom The Bell Tolls" sounding good. The audience reaction reminds me of when I saw Metallica open for The Rolling Stones, not a lot of movement out there just polite applause.

  • Metallica backs both Lou Reed and Ozzy. Guess with their legal battles there was no way Ozzy would show up with the rest of Sabbath?

  • I wonder if Ozzy saw Dave Matthews make fun of him on Saturday Night Live a few weeks ago?

  • Ray Davies jumps a lot through "All Day And All Of The Night" with those awesome crazy split leg poses that you used to see in mid 60's photographs like he's Austin Powers. Groovy!

  • "Enter Sandman". F*ck yeah!!

  • U2 follows Metallica? I've got "Vertigo".

  • U2, Springsteen and Patti Smith charge through "Because The Night" with spectacular results.

  • I like how Bono worked in a bit of Springsteen's "The Promised Land" at the end of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For"

  • Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas steals the show from Jagger on "Gimmie Shelter". Though they can't top the fiery rendition Keith Urban and Alicia Keys gave at Live Earth.

  • It's a "Beautiful Day"!

  • For some reason Jeff Beck's bass player looks like Chelsea Clinton or Fiona Apple to me.

  • Buddy Guy and Jeff Beck deliver some serious six string sting.

  • Jeff Beck plays a very cool instrumental version of "A Day In The Life"

  • Sam of Sam and Dave jams with Bruce and the E Street Band, PBS is going to have a field day when they get their hands on this. Pledge now!

  • I ain't no For-chew-nate-uh. That's John Fogerty speak for "Fortunate".

  • Tom Morello kickin' ass with Springsteen on "The Ghost Of Tom Joad".

  • Wow, it's "Jungleland". I did not see that coming, generous of The Boss to play a song that highlights his band :)

  • Billy Joel's limping, that's a bummer. "New York State Of Mind" trading vocals with Springsteen sounds great and Joel even brought sax man Mark Rivera with him. Joel sounds killer on "Born To Run" too.

  • The big finish! All hands on deck.

All in all, this was a good show. Each performer gave 110% in their performance (but wait, it's mathematically impossible to give more than 100%). If you're a fan of rock and roll or old school R&B, its worth seeing.