Sunday, June 28, 2009

Who Are You?

One of my earliest rock and roll memories was when my older cousin invited me to join other cousins in his bedroom to stand in front of his mirrored closet door and pantomime a band performance of "Pinball Wizard" over and over again. I think it was about 1972 when this happened. It was a lot of fun and we must have done it about three times before it got old. This made The Who one of the first rock bands I had consciously listened to. The memory isn't all gravy though, this same cousin told me Tommy had lost his sight because a fluorescent lamp bulb blew up in his face which gave me a paranoia about light bulbs for years. Funnily enough, when I used to work at a thrift store a customer asked me to test a Christmas light they were interested in and when I plugged it in the light did blow up in front of me while I was looking at it. Thankfully I wasn't injured or blinded, though this incident did not help with my paranoia.

Where was I going with this? Oh yeah, for decades I've seen snippets of a performance by The Who performing "Won't Get Fooled Again." Even before I liked The Who (my wife is responsible for getting me into this group) I thought the video clips from this performance looked awesome. I didn't know where the recording came from and when I would see the edited bits on a tv program here or there I would think it was amazing. After watching an episode of Classic Albums featuring Who's Next, I decided to search You Tube for this performance. And it is an incredible performance. It's everything rock and roll is supposed to be: A powerful and majestic adrenalin fueled rush complete with screaming and laser beams. The thrill of hitting a guitar to make beautiful noise with abandon. Crashing drums. Rumbling bass. And soul shredding vocals. That makes "Won't Get Fooled Again" my song of the moment! Keep on rockin' in the free world.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

So Much To Say So Much To Say So Much To...

What would you say? To a monkey in a tree?

I'm pretty sure that's how the tune goes, the first time I (and probably others) first remembered hearing the plainly named Dave Matthews Band. That song, "What Would You Say", was all over the radio. The barroom call and response gang chorus. That zippy harmonica solo. And an odd voice that seemed like a man struggling with a speech impediment, winsome with weird emphasis on the less obvious syllables. Over the next two years I would hear more DMB without realizing it, in the background at work or on the radio. It wasn't until a friend let me tape the first two albums off him that I found out how many songs I had heard. My wife became a bigger fan than me and we ended up getting a lot of DMBs albums.

Dave Matthews Band is a band that I like, but it's a more casual kind of like which should make this post interesting. I don't know a lot of trivia about the group and their music, just general stuff, and I wouldn't stake a lot of faith in the veracity of it. Still, I think it will be fun to sort through the DMB Cds I have blindly so I'm not going to look up any facts. I'm just going with what I think I know along with what I know I feel about their music.

Under The Table And Dreaming (1994)

When I heard a full Dave Matthews Band album (it was actually Crash) I thought it was pure genius. Having worked retail a lot, particularly in the '90's, I had heard a LOT of new age music. The natural instruments strumming and twittering and fluttering to a peaceful groove. It was very popular. And here was a group that put melody and some pulse to it yet retained that natural aesthetic. It could not miss. And it didn't. Their major label debut, Under The Table And Dreaming is my favorite of their discs. It has a lightness to it, maybe an innocence, that I felt faded with each successive release. The big hit "What Would You Say" is here of course. Other hits like the catchy "Ants Marching" and "Jimi Thing" were all over radio waves at that time. "Satellite" was a nice lilting slow song that was a precursor to "Crash Into Me" and I love that head bopping opener "The Best Of What's Around". Elsewhere on the album the group plays with dynamics whether it be softly ("Typical Situation") or more urgently ("Dancing Nancies") to strong effect. All of the groups elements play well, the dexterous rhythms, slashing violins and squirrely saxophone topped with Matthew's distinct voice. A really good album that reminds me of working and my first year of marriage in my 20s.

Crash (1996)

Crash was the first DMB album I had. I liked it and it contained my favorite Dave Matthews Band song, the hit "Too Much". It just works for me with it's high speed jittery groove and clattering percussion while Dave Matthews lists off the things that are just...too much! The other hit, "Crash" or later called "Crash Into Me", has become a modern standard of sorts and dominated adult contemporary for years. Pretty impressive for a song whose lyrics say something about asking for a skirt to hike up so a girl could "show your world to me". Much of this disc sounds good yet only a handful of songs stick in my head past playback. Hearing today I noticed how much Matthews likes childhood rhymes and onomatopoeia in this one ("Crash", "I'm the king of the castle and you're the dirty rascal", "monkey see monkey do", "Splish splash") which gives a sort of idiot savant effect. Fond memories of listening to this in the car while driving with my wife around this time though. The hits anchor a solid follow up to Table, the arrangements seem a little denser and the last part of the disc is a slightly darker in tone than their debut. A hint of what was to come.

Before These Crowded Streets (1998)

Often pointed to by critics as their best album, I can't say I feel the same about it. Becoming increasingly dark and dense, after the relatively happy sounds of the first two CDs this overplayed its take-me-seriously vibe for me. Fusing what I think are middle eastern melodies with their trademark limber grooves was a clever touch. And some of the brighter moments like "Stay (Wasting Time) and the jazzy "Crush" are terrific. The arrangements were more expansive allowing for the DMB to cut loose and add texture with a touch of dissonance, by many rights this is a very good disc. What didn't work for me is that some of the seriousness is overdone, like on the gargling vocal for "Don't Drink The Water". "Halloween"? Matthews tries for desperation but sounds like a man stuck in an elevator desperately trying to make it to the toilet on the next floor before it's too late. And longer instrumental breaks means a sacrifice in pop pleasure. The band's playing showed progression though, they come across even more supple and virtuosic than before - no doubt cementing their status as THE jam band of the 90's (though I'm sure fans of other groups like Phish would dispute that claim).

Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds - Live At Luther College (1999)

Dave Matthews unplugged? Is that possible, isn't his band more or less unplugged already minus the bass guitar? It turns out his songs could be stripped down more, pairing up with guitarist Tim Reynolds, Dave Matthews shows that his songs aren't just new age novelties by doing them with just acoustic guitars. This is a very good double CD with Matthews committed performance keeping together the structure while Reynolds solos all over like a madman. All of the various moods of Matthews shines in this setting. Too bad when I saw these two live at a Bridge School Benefit concert Matthews was in poor condition (he had a frog voice he said came from too much partying) which made hearing their performance of these arrangements a disappointment. Although Tim Reynolds kicked major ass that night. I'm still hooked on their rendition of "Tripping Billies". For some reason I think my wife lost interest in Dave Matthews after this album (which I remember her liking), the ones we got afterwards were picked up by me. I'll have to ask her what happened.

The Lillywhite Sessions (2001)

Controversy doesn't hit DMB often (except for that time they inadvertently dumped their crap from a bus onto a boat below) so there was a lot of talk when recording stalled while recording with longtime producer Steve Lillywhite. At this point, I can't remember what caused the sessions to fail. Bootlegs abounded of these sessions. The recordings do sound unfinished, which makes it even more of a curio (the vocals are dry, the drums way up front with the other instruments pushed down in the mix). The songs from these sessions seem very sad with Matthews yearning, moaning and moping to slow grooves. Many of the lyrics refer to rain and death and other hints of a cloudy day in Matthew's mood. It's almost funeral in parts (I'm listening to the ten minute dirge "Bartender" right now) and stands in stark contrast to the bulk of their recordings. The Lillywhite Sessions may have been the most famous ditched recording since Prince's Black Album. And like Prince, the unreleased album was shelved in favor of a sunny, happy sounding disc.

Everyday (2001)

When a talented band stretches out musically on record the next album often finds that same band tightening their belts. True to form, Dave Matthews Band reined in the arrangements from Before These Crowded Streets to emphasize pop song craft on Everyday. The renewed focus makes for their most disciplined album, the most traditional pop I've heard them do. DMB was rewarded with hits that would become VH1 classics (that now probably play on VH1 Classic). The scrambling "I Did It" I liked a lot and reminded me a little of "Too Much". "The Space Between" was another smash ballad for DMB in the same vein as "Crash Into Me" or "Satellite". And the loping title track had a warmth and lightness rarely seen since Under The Table And Dreaming. Beyond the hits, "So Right" heady hook stuck and the rest passes by pleasantly. Overall just an OK album for me, it plays almost like a solo album as the group is straight jacketed into providing accents to Matthew's tunes instead of enhancing them. At the time of release I liked it much more.

Busted Stuff (2002)

Like a scab that don't feel right until it's picked, Dave Matthews and Band returned to the songs abandoned from the Lillywhite Sessions. Given the additional time, the songs are tighter and more developed than the bootlegged recordings. It strikes a better balance between the mope and the tuneful coming across less whiny. No more lengthy moaning to a slow marching beat. Having said that, this is the DMB album I remember the least. I played it a lot (as I find I do with each one of their albums I get) and still can't recall much. The meditative single "Where Are You Going" (not from the Lillywhite Sessions) I remember liking. Also the instrumental "Kit Kat Jam" was a favorite track from this album. Listening to the Band be more involved with the music as opposed to the production heavy Everyday was nice too. But compared with the dragging depression from the Lillywhite Sessions, the music is less distinct even while it is more listenable. Did bootlegging hurt the reaction to Busted Stuff? Maybe. But the bootlegs showed a side to the band not seen elsewhere in their catalog, even if I wouldn't want to hear it often. (though I should note I haven't listened to their new disc yet, dedicated to their late saxophonist LeRoi Moore).

Dave Matthews - Some Devil (2003)

I don't have this album and haven't heard anything from it other than the single "Gravedigger", a song that didn't do much for me. Well, to be honest I hated it. So I don't have anything to say about this. Maybe I'll give this disc a chance some time if I spot it in the $3.00 bin. Combined with Busted Stuff this is the more fallow period for me personally, I wasn't digging his stuff as much.

Stand Up (2005)

DMB hooked up with a hip hop producer I think, if I remember right. At any rate, there's a definite focus on beats with Stand Up. There's also a return to the happy go lucky feeling they are great at (and may be why I didn't respond to Busted Stuff or "Gravedigger"). Singles "American Baby" and "Dreamgirl" both had hooks and uncluttered arrangements that shone brightly. The haunted ballad "Out Of My Hands" was a favorite of mine. "Old Dirt Hill (Bring That Beat Back)" also contained a smooth melody and sense of reverie. There seemed to be a mild political slant to the songs, "American Baby Intro" and "Everybody Wake Up (Our Finest Hour Arrives) paint a picture of pending chaos (the songs remind me of the Iraq War and suicide bombers) that people should "Stand Up" to. Some of the pop discipline of Everyday returns just not to the point that band members get squeezed out of their share of time. This also had Matthew's hookiest writing since that 2001 effort, many of the tunes are memorable and fun. I liked this album a lot and played it often in 2005 on the way to work, a car stereo favorite.

Dave Matthews Band released a new CD this year I have yet to check out, Big Whiskey and the Groo Grux King which is supposed to be pretty good. I'll get around to nabbing it sooner or later. I did get the free download of the first single (which means I get like a newsletter every week of what Dave Matthews does now) and "Funny The Way It Is" was ok. After spending a day listening to DMB, I think I like them a little bit more and will play them more often.

Friday, June 26, 2009

I'm Not Joking

With all the death in the news lately I went looking for some humor online and found this great spoof of the Joker interrogation scene from The Dark Knight. If you've seen the movie, I'm pretty sure you'll get the jokes here. This guy who has a You Tube name of Monkey and Apple plays both Joker and Batman really well. Fun stuff!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Fly To The Angels

Today is a date that will doubtlessly show up as a trivia question in the years to come because today two pop culture icons passed away. Both performers reached heady peaks in show business that only a rare few know. Both performers had a strong effect on our culture, affecting the way millions danced, dressed, wore their hair or defined themselves in their image. Both performers exhibited unusual behavior in the later half of their careers that at the least left people scratching their heads wondering what their idols were thinking. Today Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, and Farrah Fawcett, the 70's California dream girl, passed away.

Michael Jackson's death has been all over the tv nonstop and it is really shocking news. My wife heard the news on the radio while she was driving home on the freeway. What she describes sounds like a M. Night Shayamalan movie, everything moved in slow motion and she could see the other drivers shock, stunned expressions with both hands to their face, people screaming, people crying. All of the cars slowed down as people let go of the wheel and gas pedal. My wife later called me and let me know of what happened.

For me, the death of Michael Jackson represents the passing of a childhood hero. As a boy I pretty much wanted to be Michael Jackson, to be able to sing and dance as the star of the Jackson 5. At family gatherings I would grab my plastic guitar and dance around (really more hyper flailing than anything else) and call it "Michael Jackson time". As I got older I lost interest in Jackson though I still liked his music generally. Even in that capacity his music was so ubiquitous that "Beat It", "Billie Jean", "Thriller", "Bad", "Man In The Mirror", "Remember The Time" and "Jam" became part of the soundtrack to my life. Though I was more cynical about the Gloved One in my adulthood, now really isn't the time to be critical. Because what may be the last musician of our time to unify not just people of different backgrounds nationally but world wide, is gone.

And Jackson's death has in the media overshadowed the passing of Farrah Fawcett. Fawcett was the image of all American beauty in the late 70's. She had the blue eyes, white teeth, toned body, high cheekbones and the famous feathered blond hair that guys loved and girls wanted . She became a star on the tv show Charlie's Angels and was the poster girl pin up on many guys bedroom walls. And while I was too young to really "get" her sex appeal at the time, I understood that Fawcett was pretty and revered for her beauty. I did like watching Charlie's Angels and would stay up late to watch (it was on after my bed time) when I could get away with it because I liked action shows. And I liked that she was in a sci fi movie called Saturn 3, though I was too young to see it. Plus she was married to the Six Million Dollar Man! Well, as a young boy that's about as exciting as a girl can get. In the 80's she became a serious actress and I was impressed with her performances in Extremities and The Burning Bed. To me, she was the girl who seemed accessible to everyone yet still had some mystery to her.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

I Live And You Die the title I thought was more fitting for James Bond's adventure Live and Let Die. The 2nd novel in Ian Fleming's seminal series, Live and Let Die takes 007 from the streets of Harlem to sunny Florida and across to tropical Jamaica. Reading this book, it seemed closer to the James Bond movies in scope and expanded on Bond's friendship with CIA agent Felix Leiter. Having said that, it differed quite a bit from what would become the movie that served as Roger Moore's debut (I often thought Moore looked the closest to Fleming's description of James Bond physically, minus the facial scar).

First, the pluses of Live and Let Die. Fleming does a great job of broadening Bond's character, his attitudes towards women (very sexist - women are to be desired, pursued and protected only), towards other races (pre civil rights benign racist) and food (one thing I have noticed in these books is every freakin' meal gets detailed. Dude loves his eggs in the morning). A slow tension builds throughout the story, the feeling of always being watched and worrying about every move being a give away to his cover is almost palpable.

At the same time the cause of the tension is troubling because the book has such a pre-civil rights attitude towards other races. This made the first half of the novel hard to get through because it's built on the premise that all black people know each other and form a network that leads to a Mr. Big who keeps authority through fear of his voodoo powers. I guess I shouldn't be surprised by this approach since the book was written in the '50's when people referred to each other in more openly racial tones, just from modern eyes it's hard to stomach.

The second half of the book is when the story gets cracking. A great section comes when Bond decides to sneak into an exotic fish warehouse maintained by Mr Big at the docks in Florida. After CIA agent Felix Leiter investigated the same place and was half eaten by a shark, 007 stealthily sneaks into the building and finds the hidden criminal loot he's after in a fish tank before he's spotted and dodges enemy fire. Though he is temporarily captured, Bond is able to overpower his holder and force the enemy into the shark pit. This whole part was adapted in the Timothy Dalton era Bond movie Licence To Kill (1989) and comes across even better on page then it did on film (which was pretty good on this part).

An even better section occurs with Bond's approach of Mr. Big's Jamaican base. He has to walk underwater through shark and squid infested territory to sneak up on the island. You can feel fear as every air bubble risks detection as squids and sharks swim around while Bond carries a large explosive with him. This part I don't remember being in any Bond film (though I guess Thunderball could get close) and is a thrilling part of the book.

Live and Let Die was used as a sort of general outline as Moore's first cinematic venture as the famed spy bears only slight resemblance to the source material. Because the movie was made in the early 70's it edged more towards the popular exploitation films of the time ("Did you mess with that?") and had bigger stunts of course (the book doesn't have record breaking boat jumps). Plus you can't hear a killer Paul McCartney theme song from a piece of paper. And I kept picturing Jane Seymour as Solitaire, she does fit the description Fleming gave of the virginal psychic. Still, the book is miles ahead of the movie, you almost can't compare the two. So for Live and Let Die the book, Dixie says:

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Happy Fathers Day!

It's the end of Father's Day so I thought I would give a shout out to all the Daddies in the house. I've been commemorating a bunch of stuff with Yes songs this year so I don't see why today should be different. So today's selection will be "Circus Of Heaven" from the Tormato album of 1978. Yes music can be a little twee sometimes and this certainly qualifies, though it totally mass retains a certain innocent charm. Happy Father's Day everybody!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Good Girls Go To Heaven, Bad Movies Go Everywhere

No it's not the local Hazmat team, it's Ninja Cheerleaders. Find out what happens when ninjas stop being polite and start being real.

Uh oh, it's that time again. Time to watch some crappy C level movie, just because it's a nice way to relax after a week of work. This week's winner is a film (if you can call it that) made just two years ago, I didn't think they made 'em like this anymore. The movie that answers the question: What if Mr Sulu owned a strip bar and trained his girly strippers to be ninjas? Well, you might have a crisis on your hands. Or you might have Ninja Cheerleaders.

Three girls bound together by friendship, genius intelligence, hot bods and pole skills are the ninjas / cheerleaders in question. Led by Trashelle, er, Trishelle Canatella of MTV Real World fame the girls run through every male fantasy in the book a la Charlies Angels. They're perky cheerleaders. They're pole swinging exotic dancers. They're smart enough to be accepted at Brown University after leaving Junior College. Oh yeah and they're ninjas too. And their mentor? Shields at maximum! It's Mr. Sulu.

Not the new Mr. Sulu that makes stoner comedies, the old Mr. Sulu George Takei himself. Takei enjoys his slumming, leaving the sensitive calm Sulu behind to be a flesh peddling martial arts guru who lets out girlish screams when tortured. When he's not screaming, Takei plays Hiroshi who does everything with a devilish glint in his eyes and a forced maniacal laugh at the end of every sentence A Ha Ha Ha Ha. An actor of Takei's caliber needs a foil, an enemy strong enough to fight off this experienced thespians acting skills. So they went to Hell to find one.

Hell being the Season in Hell, they've found Eddie Wilson - Mr. Streets of Fire himself Michael Pare'. Pare' plays a stereotypical Italian mobster with the New Joisey accent and everything. Eddie lives! Watching Pare' and Takei enter a battle of wills is as exciting as watching paint dry, yet like watching paint dry you do it long enough the fumes will make you dizzy. A Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha.

So what do you get with Ninja Cheerleaders? Gawd awful martial arts from people who look like they learned their moves five minutes before filming (except Takei who is kind of convincing and the ninjas when they're in full gear because stunt doubles are used). Sword fighting where everyone is scared of hitting each other (like Rashomon except without any motivation other than working with people who have never held a sword before. Again except maybe George Takei. Hey, I'm serious don't go THERE). Crappy exotic dancing from three girls who look great but move stiffer than the Johns they're entertaining. Cheerleading so lame it's not even worthy of a Bring It On sequel with whatever distant relatives Beyonce has left. ...And yet it sort of works. It works because it's supposed to be crappy and it knows it. They're all taking a piss except Ginny Weirwick, who portrays her ball busting brunette ninja hottie April with conviction like this is a real movie or something.

Ninja Cheerleaders revels in it's low rent sleaze and is the better for it. To wrap up you have Ninja black outfit fu, Cheerleader fu, crossbow fu, locker room fu, sailors in the parking lot fu, repetitive awkward stripper pole moves, nut crushing, enema threats and of course, George Takei A Ha Ha Ha Ha. Dixie says she just left something in the yard for this movie, she gives it:

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Hot Topic: the soundtrack

The enemy within

I don't know if it's a national chain, in California there's these stores in the Malls all over the place called Hot Topic. It's a gothy kind of place where you can shop for your teenage rebellion after eating a Wetzel Pretzel and browsing Bath & Body Works. Interesting how times change, in my day people into goth were outsiders. When I went to a Depeche Mode concert in '88, I saw all these other people with their homemade anarchy grafittied jackets and chains that were clearly done on their own. Some one saw money in that and now you have a safer place to buy your goth stuff Hot Topic. I don't have a problem with Hot Topic or goth, I'm just an old man observing the passage of time. Kind of like how you can buy AC/DC shirts at Wal Mart when 20 years ago their music was considered "Satanic". What once was considered a threat to a nation's morals are now playing in the background while you fill your basket at the supermarket.

One band that fits that demographic really well is Green Day, a band that had a reputation as lightweight punk poppers with a downtrending career until they took an artistic risk in 2004 on the concept album American Idiot. A punk opera didn't sound promising, yet it gave the Day the opportunity to show musical virtuosity and make pointed social / political commentary while retaining their punk energy. Idiot was an inspired record that revitalized and transformed the band's career as artists with something to say.

Which brings us to five years later with the proper follow up to Idiot called 21st Century Breakdown. I've had this disc for over a month to try to digest it all, this album is like American Idiot just bigger, longer and uncut. The album is cut into three sections and tells the story of Christian and Gloria who are rebels that...I don't know, I've listened to this album for a month and I still don't know specifically what they're against here. I get that they're alienated and mad and don't want to be part of the modern world-I just don't get much more out of it.

Still, there's good news. On the musical front, Green Day is still pretty inspired. They can still tie together memorable melodies to tightly packed punked out guitars to create a frenzy on cuts like "East Jesus Nowhere" or the single "Know Your Enemy". I like it when any group pulls out those Cars synthesizer moves so "Last of the American Girls" doesn't disappoint. Sometimes I get lost in the sprawl of the different segments and their extended arrangements, but Act III packs a punch with the rampaging "Horseshoes and Handgrenades", the quick "The Static Age", the steady beat of "21 Guns" (one of the best songs on the album), a strong two part punker "American Eulogy" and ending with the Simple Minds worthy "See the Light".

They've certainly gotten more polished with the concept album idea, the sections piece together cleanly held by glowing stately keyboards in between the taut punk rhythms. Producer Butch Vig gives the group the clean punch he gained fame for on Nirvana's Nevermind. What stops this album from being great for me is that it seems a little pat. Part of what made American Idiot great was that there was an enervated feeling of risk and relevance. It took 21st Century America and held up an outsider's mirror on a society it viewed as browbeating, fear mongering and conformist. The punk fueled rhythms matched the vitriol and verve of the concept. By contrast, 21st Century Breakdown feels like a pose - a sequel that pushes to further the musical ideas yet emptier in purpose.
That's not to say 21st Century Breakdown is bad, I'll probably play this one for a few more months as it does have tremendous energy, some powerful tracks and a terrific sound. Individually the songs are all strong, though lyrically they suffer a bit from having to cow tow to the themes. Green Day can still rock with the best of them, they just had less to say this time. Or at least less that interested me. I ran this by Dixie for final approval, she says:

and a half

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Puttin' Around

A haven in my teen and college years, the good 'ol video arcade. Back when you had to be out among other people and pay a quarter to get some good graphics in your game.

I was looking for lost 70's AOR classics because I was thinking of making some 70's CDs to continue my Arena Rock set for the car. In looking I ended up finding more forgotten 80's hits than 70's and now they're stuck in my head. The only way to get them out is to give them some air, so here we go!

The video arcade was a place where my friends and I would go to have fun on the weekend where I lived. In the neighboring town there was a Scandia family fun center which had mini golf, video games, go-kart racing and batting cages. We would go play some games and then practice in the batting cages for hours. I spent a good chunk of time and money at that place in my high school and college days. These memories were brought on by the first song on this Flashback.

This first song is called "Salt Of My Tears" by Martin Briley. It's one of those songs I heard a lot for a little while but never knew who did it. While fishing around for tunes I came across this and when I hit the hook - Blam! I was blown away. Brings back memories of going to the nearby miniature golf place to play arcade games and golf with friends. So many quarters spent playing Xevious, Star Wars (the one with the stick figure graphics while you attack the Death Star) and other shoot 'em ups (I can't remember the game, I also liked the one where it's a Police training simulator and a mix of innocent and criminal targets pop up for you to shoot). Cool ass stuff.

The second song was a big hit at that time and has become forgotten since then. Does the name Astrid Plane mean anything to you? If it does, then you were one of maybe five other people like me who grooved out to the mechanized New Wave meets mainstream rock of Animotion. "Obsession" was about as overtly sexual as you could get away with in mainstream music (and dated now considering what people get away with today) at the time. Loved to hear songs like these blast on the arcade speakers while playing games like Terminator 2 pinball ("Load the Kha-non") and the Addam's Family pinball ("Grreeeed"). So '80's it hurts. OK, T2 and Addam's Family were 90's but it still lumped together in my mind. Totally rad.

Nice to think about those hot summer nights at the batting cages or playing mini golf with friends. When I took my future wife to the miniature golf arcade when we were dating, this kid referred to her as my wife. Psychic, that kid was.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Escape To Rich Mountain

The masters of the universe own the Number 1 slot on my 100 favorite Cd countdown.

We're finally here, at the end of my 100 Favorite Cds list! It only took a couple of years to get here. So this is it, the album that I've played more often in my life than any other album. I've worn out multiple cassettes and vinyl record copies of this album (well, not worn out vinyl I lent them to people and would get them back warped or dusty) because it's awesomeness has to be experienced more than once. I bought this tape after liking what I was hearing from this group's entries into the Top 100 songs countdown of 1982 with Casey Kasem aka the radio broadcast that changed my life. Plus, they were a local Bay Area band. It couldn't get better than that.

Number 1: Journey - Escape (1981)

1. Don't Stop Believin'

I read somewhere this was the cornerstone of the Journey songbook, truer words have not been spoken. Like Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger", Journey's anthem struck a chord with everyone who wanted to feel hope was alive in '82. The magnificent song structure is the stuff people like me have blogs for, the momentous beginning, the Neal Schon guitar ramp up, the lurching Steve Smith drums and that killer chorus of Jon Cain and Steve Perry's soaring above a heroic Neal Schon guitar line. Many high school classes of '81 and '82 used this song as their graduation theme and a snippet of this was featured heavily in their video game advertisement.

That's right, because Journey was the first band to have their own video game which I proudly owned and played on the Atari. The game itself kinda sucked and was confusing as hell. Still, hearing Atari-ized versions of Journey playing while you move the block shaped dude around flying barriers and fans was...well, it was. That advertisement is burned in my memory though. "The concert's over and now you must help the members of Journey past screaming fans and reporters" or something like that. Oh, it was promoters. It's an awesome awesome commercial.

As time passed I thought the song would just be the highlight of their career among Journey fans, but in recent times "Don't Stop Believin" has taken a second life. It's become a cultural staple as it's been adopted by sports teams and television shows for demonstrating the power of the human spirit (yes I over exaggerate, but it's frickin' Journey!). Once it was used in the last scene of the HBO series The Sopranos, it's exalted place in modern pop culture was sealed.

As a huge fan, I was pissed at the end of 1982 when music critic Joel Selvin included this song in his list of Top 10 worst songs of the year. He more or less said "Don't Stop Believin" was an excuse to show off Steve Perry's vocal range. In my angry retort 27 years later I would like to say - America is a free country and you Joel Selvin are welcome to express it under the freedoms we cherish as Americans. There, after all these years I finally said it. Take that Joel Selvin!

For me, the song is one of my all time favorite tunes. During the Steve Augeri era, the band had a different ending where it sped up like a locomotive that I thought was really cool. It is a song that does exactly what it says it's gonna do, inspire to keep on keepin' the nnniiiiigggghhhhhttttttt!

And most importantly, when my later-to-be-wife wrote some of the song lyrics from "Believin" on a piece of paper at the place we worked at it drew my attention. Pretty lookin' and good taste in music. A win - win!

A killer song about being "in the heat with a blue jean girl", you feel the rush of infatuation with it's choppy beginning to it's gliding end. The Time3 box set liner notes said this song started with Neal Schon playing some guitar on a tape and labeling it "Stoned In Love". I like to know a bunch of useless trivia about music, yet this piece has permanently placed an image in my mind when I think about this song.

Now the guy was probably just as likely to smoke pot with or without the afro I would assume, so I guess I'm profiling Neal Schon because of how he looked (damn hippie!). He didn't even look like this during the making of Escape. Oh well, I don't care. Tell it to the judge, Schon!

Anyway, Schon's chopped up guitar riff drove the main part of this song which kicks into a meaty bass line for Ross Valory. It's cool how the rhythm section punctuates the lyrics, it's Stone in luh-u-wuv duh duh, duhhhh! I always liked how this song broke down and then built back up to the smooth ending. Live, sometimes "Stone in Love" would segue into "Keep on Runnin". One of my all time fave double shots.

3. Who's Cryin' Now

The addition of new band member keyboardist Jonathan Cain greatly deepened the songwriting. With "Who's Cryin' Now" the band came up with their first clear cut shot at Adult Contemporary. Steve Perry tears it up given the slower pace needed for him to really emote. On the Greatest Hits Live CD when he hits the bridge Perry goes into this delicately modulated vocal (...when the heartache is oouuvver) that's 10 times better than the already outstanding recorded version. It's hard to believe now, at the time rock bands felt it was risky to show the sensitive side of their bic lighter hearts. The band nails this with it's dusky portrayal of romance on the rocks. And Neal Schon has said he's received compliments for his sad, sad guitar solo at the end (at least that's what I remember him saying in interviews after deliberately playing a similar solo for "Signs of Life" from the Arrival album).

4. Keep On Runnin'

Driving power rock from the guys who do it best, like a motorcycle flying down the street "Keep On Runnin" revs up and takes off. In some ways a sort of cousin to "Any Way You Want It", "Runnin" is about a fast beat and fired up anthemic chorus. For years I didn't bother to listen to the actual words (something about bustin' free from blue collar work, even now I'm not sure) because it didn't matter. Once that racing groove matched up with that flying chorus, I was hooked. In concert Jon Cain would play second guitar on this, freeing Schon up to fire off even more ridiculously hot solos.

5. Still They Ride

Jesse, how times have changed for you braw (sob). Journey goes back to working the sad groove with this sentimental, uh, journey about a guy named Jesse has outgrown his town. Do you know how bored you have to be to notice traffic lights keeping time? I actually had a friend named Jesse at the time, not that the song really related to him at all it was just one of those things where you hear a name in a song and think "Hey, I know someone with that exact NAME!". I don't think I ever mentioned this to him, since he was really sensitive about that whole Rick Springfield "Jessie's Girl" thing he got a lot of crap for (his nickname for Springfield was Dick Springfield for cursing him with that song).

Anywho, I liked how there was a lot of space in the song. Steve Perry delivers his best vocal, filled with nuance and longing. And the part where Schon goes from a stately solo to near shredding yet retaining the lonely dude in a car mood is magic. The 45 had this great cover of a ZZ Top kind of car driving on the road-because it's so lonely and sad on the road.

6. Escape

Journey is a band that likes to have a song with the album title (not all of them have it, but many do). "Escape" was the one with the cool little proggy bit. I can't help but get pumped up when I hear this jam as Steve Perry details fighting against...something vague...but it's holding him down man! You can't hold Steve Perry down!! He will escape you!!!

This song seemed to go in different sections that were pieced together giving it a panoramic effect. Jon Cain really shines in this one, his epic gliss at the intro and the synth stabs to enhance the rhythm break is genius. Seems like a good time to give credit to Cain for streamlining the band's sound (I don't think it was a coincidence that they got slicker after his arrival). While you can't hold Steve Perry down, my strongest memory of this song is my wife and I getting to high five Arnel Pineda during this ditty at a concert last year. Uh oh, I put the words Perry and Pineda in the same sentence. Let the haters begin!

Oh, and my second strongest memory was when my wife bought me a bootleg of the Houston '81 concert in the 90's before it was available for retail. The thrill of seeing the Escape tour in some form during the Clinton years was one of the best gifts I've had. Thanks Bunny!

7. Lay It Down

My least favorite song on the album, it took me a few years to get into it. A juke joint mid tempo rocker, it has that REO Speedwagon quality of packing a BIG rock performance into a slower burning song to create this effect of tightly controlled frenzy. Because it's my least favorite, it's the one I have the least to say about. So without much to say about "Lay It Down", let's take a moment to mention I thought at the time that Steve Perry played a big part of the muscle T shirt fad that happened at that time. In particular, the pink muscle T with black tiger stripes. After an exhaustive search of the internet, it would appear that I was wrong. No pictures seem to exist of this shirt which I thought I remembered so well. Guess I'm just getting old. I'm starting to remember crap that never actually happened. Maybe the shirt below was the one I was thinking of? I will say this though, I have my IPOD on shuffle and out of over 8000 songs this one popped on while I was typing this post. It's the spirit of Steve Perry at work (except of course, he's not dead. It's just a joke folks). Hey, and it does rock. La-la-la-la Lay It!

8. Dead Or Alive

On the other hand, "Dead Or Alive" is smokin'. Like a train coming off the tracks, this song starts fast and then gets faster and wilder as it goes. Really nice to have a total change of pace, this song about a hit man's life and demise is miles away from the rest of the album's romantic subject matter. My favorite part is when they mimic gunfire with blasts of rhythm after Perry sings "A heartless woman's thirty eigh-e-eigh-e-eigh-e-eight". Maybe the funnest song the Bay Area band ever did considering their usual repertoire. The only time I got to hear this live was when it was performed with Jeff Scott Soto on lead vox during the Def Leppard co-headlining tour. It sounded great. a real highlight to the show. Speaking of which, the clip linked above is from the band's legendary Day On The Green appearance at the height of their fame. I still remember the huge picture spread of the concert stage in the next morning's San Francisco newspaper (that picture is included in their box set booklet, so I know I didn't hallucinate that one!). When I say legendary I should probably say local legend, I missed both of the band's headlining Day On The Green concerts at the Oakland Coliseum :(

9. Mother, Father

At the time I first had the tape, this was my favorite song because it was very dramatic. Written with help on the music from Neal Schon's dad, "Mother, Father" had an almost movie-of-the-week feel wrapped in its melodrama of broken homes. It's sweeping orchestral quality brings class and power to the sad tale. On the live performance version included in their Houston live 1981 CD & DVD, it's a show stopper and when Perry hits that high note wail at the end "Mother Father" becomes almost operatic.

10. Open Arms

Though technically not the first of it's kind, "Open Arms" is sometimes credited as the beginning of the power ballad. Through all those ballads that would follow from other bands, none could match the intimacy of the original thanks to Jon Cain's great songwriting and Steve Perry's sincere delivery. Journey's biggest hit on the Billboard charts (it reached #2), it's success pushed Escape over the top and elevated the band to the status they've been at since. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if John Waite had not thought the song was so "syrupy" when Cain pitched it to him in The Babys. It's not like Waite had a problem singing ballads for his supper later in his career.

"Open Arms" has become a mini American Idol for Journey's lead singers as all of them must pass the litmus test of singing this song. There are a couple of comparisons on You Tube and it's fun to listen to the contrasting styles of the different vocalists though they are all working the same vocal style with the same arrangement. This is not a comprehensive comparison because I'm pretty sure Deen Castronovo and maybe Jeff Scott Soto sang "Open Arms" as well and are not included, but it's still fun. To summarize what the AI judges would say, Randy would say "You worked it out Steve Perry, you did your thing", Kara would say "whatever Randy just said but talking longer", Paula would say "I appreciate your heart, your spirit" and Simon would accuse them all of being karaoke singers even to Steve Perry himself. He's just a cheeky bastard that way.

I like all of the versions except for Deen Castronovo, not that he doesn't sound good (of all the singers to follow Perry, he sounds the closest to me to the original) but it just throws me off when the drummer starts singing in this band. For me, nothing tops seeing Perry live during the Raised on Radio tour. It just means more in the original text

Bonus Track. La Raza Del Sol

I call it a bonus track even though I don't think it was ever included with any printing of Escape. This song I found on the B side of the 45 to one of the singles back in the day. It's an interesting trip back to the band's Santana origins with a slightly Latin groove and of course, some lyrics in Spanish. Once it was included in the Time3 box set it became more available, up to then it was a rarity that many people didn't know about. I can see why it was left off in that it doesn't fit in well with the other songs on the record, but as an extra track tacked on the end it's awesome. When I would record the album to tape, I would throw this on the end for an extra kick.

Career wise, Escape is the album that changed Journey's successful rock band to mega stars. It's a peak the band would never reach again (though Frontiers got close). I followed everything this lineup of the band did as closely as I could with a Beatlemania like fandom back in the day. This is the most perfect record I've ever heard, obviously, and it's my favorite album of all time.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Up, Up and Away

This afternoon we went to see the new Pixar movie Up, the latest computer animated feature from a production company that can do very little wrong. Last year's Wall - E was a very strong movie which showed a continued increase in artistry and maturity in their fable like story telling style. The first part of Wall - E dealt with loneliness and isolation using almost no dialogue. After the success of Wall - E, it looks like Pixar felt bold enough to continue down that path. Which leads us to Up, the fanciful tale of an elderly widower who escapes the dreary prospects of old age by attaching enough helium balloons to his house to fly it towards his idyllic paradise. A boy scout type of kid named Russell unwittingly tags along for the ride as they head to Paradise Falls in South America - a place that time forgot. The place where an adventurer named Charles Muntz went to capture the equivalent of the Dodo bird and never came back. Muntz "Spirit of Adventure" is what bonded the elderly Carl Friedrickson to his wife while they were children. After arriving in Paradise Falls, Carl and Russell encounter adventure, mishaps and talking dogs non stop.

Up is almost a misnomer of a title, because the mood that Pixar works here is a melancholy sadness. The opening minutes show the relationship of Carl and his sprightly wife Elle, from childhood through their picturesque marriage save an inability to have children and then eventually Elle's death. It was surprising to see the mature subject matter of infertility and death handled in what could be considered a children's movie, yet it is handled sensitively and maturely. This segment was extremely moving and it powers the rest of the film as the memory of Elle and their dreams becomes the touchstone for Carl's adventure.

Again Pixar comes up with great characters like Russell, the innocent Asian boy scout who wants to earn his badge for assisting the elderly. Doug, the loveable talking dog who befriends Carl and Russell. And Kevin, the dodo bird with Roadrunner type qualities. The villains of the piece have the usual sort of personality characteristics (anger, pride, ruthlessness, indifference to others lives), yet steps are taken to lighten them up a little bit since this is intended as a kids movie.

The technical abilities of Pixar are never in question, the animation continues to be refined with enough detail and clarity that I actually forgot it was animated at times. At the start of the film is a computer animated short called Partly Cloudy that was very impressive visually as it relayed the tale of clouds making babies for the stork to carry. As for Up, from the concrete jungle to the, uh, jungle jungle the visuals are teaming with life.

What makes Up brilliant is its artistic ability, it's able to transition different moods easily and comfortably. Beauty, sadness, humor, adventure, and warmth come across vividly. Up's knack for tying together some dark feelings and fanciful whimsy without being forced is impressive for any film. Although advertised as a children's movie, Up takes another step towards breaking from that genre while still holding the core audience - the kids in the theater were noticeably quieter than normal while watching this. Not saying they were silent, the kid behind me was restless and kept saying something loudly and the mother had to promise ice cream after the movie to keep 'em in line.
Best of all, the ultimate message of the movie which could have seemed predictable or ironic felt sincere - Appreciate the adventure of life and the people you spend your time with. It's a sentimental message that's been used in other movies to lesser effect, in Up that message feels like a revelation.

Up isn't just great general entertainment, it's great filmmaking. My dog Dixie just came over to lick my face and tell me something. She says Up smells like a-squirrel!...winner, on a scale of one bark to ten barks ten being the highest, Dixie says:

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Time Passages

One of my favorite bands, Dream Theater, is set to drop a new disc in a few weeks called Black Clouds and Silver Linings. They have a new video out for the first single, the heavy rocker "A Rite Of Passage." Looking forward to some brand new Dream Theater!

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Rock A Little

Time to spend some time with my first girlfriend, Stephanie Lynn Nicks. At least that's how my parents referred to her, because I was hot for some Stevie Nicks back in the day. Stevie Nicks was da bomb, looking slammin' with her gypsy woman hotness. Sure she could get a little girly with her fantasy lyrics, ballet spins and preoccupation with shawls, but that just made her hotter. Fleetwood Mac's resident welsh witch Rhiannoned her way into a solo career by being the superstar of the band. After years of being paired up with Lindsey Buckingham's production touches, could she make it on her own? The answer was given swiftly by the public with the release of her debut album...

Bella Donna (1981)

Nicks had saved up a wealth of "A" material for her debut and wisely hooked up with Producer Jimmy Iovine. Iovine kept Nick's sound earthy and grounded with deft arrangements and meaty performances. Maybe taking into consideration how her voice was often linked with Buckingham, the album features two duets: The Tom Petty outtake "Stop Draggin My Heart Around" and the quiet harmonious "Leather & Lace" with Don Henley. The Petty song was a smash hit, combining the bare knuckle power of the Heartbreakers and allowing two nasal vocalists really go at it. A great sing along song. The other duet, the Waylon Jennings inspired "Leather & Lace", had a nice Country tinge and Henley's rasp compliments most singers.

Although I liked her music I also thought I liked it because of her looks, so I surprised myself in the early 90's by playing her tapes and finding it was really the songwriting and performance that drew me. Album tracks like the mysterious "Outside The Rain", the swoony "Kind Of Woman" and the large scale "Bella Donna" are all excellent. And of course I can't forget one of Nick's biggest hits, the rocker "Edge of Seventeen". That jittery guitar lick matched with a barking Nicks and a big beat amounts to big rock and roll thrills (and a memorable sample into a Destiny's Child song). Nicks had arrived as a star in her own right, her mystic combination of symbolism and personal emotions intact.

Wild Heart (1983)

I once read a book that said this was one of the worst album covers ever. Looking at it, I can't defend it too much. It's like a time lapse photo of watching a wiccan sit on the lawn. The sequel to the debut, Nicks lined up Iovine to Produce again. While not as consistent as Bella Donna, cuts like the rollicking "Enchanted" and the Fleetwood Mac-ish "Nightbird" were equal in quality. Yet in a sign of things to come, Nicks became more interested in synthesizers which paved the way to her signature solo hit, "Stand Back". You know, though I like the tune "Stand Back" is not one of my favorites of hers - I thought it was too dance oriented and the video reeked of Fame dancer cheese. The other hit song, "If Anyone Falls", was cushioned by even more synths as it more or less wafts on a keyboard line. One of my favorites off this album has been buried by time, that's the Tom Petty / Nicks sequel duet "I Will Run To You". I've never seen this one show up on best of comps for either performer which is too bad, its a good song. What really makes the album worthwhile is the opening title track, where Nicks lays out her "Wild Heart". I didn't play this one as much as Bella Donna, but it was still good.

Rock A Little (1985)

It's no secret that Stevie Nicks had a love affair with Cocaine and at this stage in her career she was cutting a bunch of white winged doves with a razorblade on a mirror. I'm pretty sure around this time she even fell off a stage while performing. Rock A Little was the next phase of "Stand Back", an album packed with synth rockers. The songwriting began to deteriorate, masked by a pile of electronic noise. Chas Sandford was brought in for "Talk To Me", hot off his success helping John Waite create the smash "Missing You". While it was a Top 10 hit, I found it disappointing and much of this album left me cold. Only the clangy rocker "I Can't Wait" held my attention with it's overkill arrangement and urgent Nicks vocal. For some reason hearing that song on the way to the ski slopes in Lake Tahoe has stuck with me over the years. Other than that, Ms. Nicks was rocking too little for me.

The Other Side Of The Mirror (1989)

Following a big Mac reunion in '87, Nicks returned to her solo career with an album that brought the attention back to plainer arrangements. She actually had some good songs too, the hit "Rooms On Fire" was on the radio a lot and I have nice memories of driving through the hot Sacramento weather listening to it. "Ooh My Love" had a strong melody and the low down rocker "Whole Lotta Trouble" had a nice bit of swagga. If only the rest of the album was as memorable, it drifts by pleasantly except for the over indulgent duet "Two Sides Of Love". Teaming up with Bruce Hornsby and saxophonist Kenny G, Nicks ballad felt stuffed with too much Hollywood to connect for me. And given her drug troubles, was it smart to give an album a title with the word "Mirror" in it?

Timespace...The Best Of Stevie Nicks (1991)
It was in...the liner notes of this CD...that I learned...Stevie Nicks loves ellipses...Her first greatest hits collection rounded up the usual suspects - "Edge of Seventeen", "Stand Back", "Talk To Me", etc. Like many greatest hits comps of that time, a couple of new tracks were recorded to try to give Nicks career renewed visibility. Bizarrely, Nicks decided to go hair metal. Recording songs written by Bon Jovi and Bret Michaels among others, Nicks went for the hairspray sound just as Grunge was coming in to wash it all away. The Jon Bon Jovi penned "Sometimes It's A Bitch" is supremely annoying when I hear Nick's voice on it. Just plain sounds wrong.

Street Angel (1994)

After that misstep and by her account struggling with anti depressants (the story was included in her tour program), Nicks returned to the limelight with the Adult Contemporary angled Street Angel. Notably, the song publishing dates had its widest range since her debut record - an indication of a lack of new material. Still, it wasn't too bad of an album. The midtempo "Blue Denim" I liked a lot as well as the searching "Destiny". Curios like a cover of Bob Dylan's "Just Like A Woman" and "Rose Garden", a song Nicks wrote as a teen, keep interest up. Maybe it was the lack of current pictures in the tape cover mixed with the older songs, there is a feeling of hiding within this album. I saw Nicks on this tour, she had noticeably gained weight (which happens, I've gained weight over time too) that may have explained the lack of new photos (at least they didn't seem new). She still could rock in concert though, seeing her on the big video screen croon out "Destiny"was a highlight.

Enchanted (1998)

Hot off the Fleetwood Mac reunion The Dance, Nicks doled out a three CD box set of her solo material. Given that her albums tended to be spotty in quality Enchanted may seem like a so-so proposition. Instead, the set mixes the big hits, good album tracks and B sides / unreleased material with flair. Previously unreleased tracks like the Warren Zevon written "Reconsider Me" and the lively "Gold and Braid" kick things up a notch. Even tossing in a track from the yet to be released in digital format Buckingham Nicks album boosts its value. Plus, my favorite Stevie Nicks song "Sleeping Angel" from the soundtrack to that landmark in American cinema, Fast Times At Ridgemont High, is included. Used to play these discs a lot while my wife and I lived in a smaller space, good thing she likes Stevie Nicks too. Enchanted is easily the best set of Nicks solo material outside of Bella Donna.

Trouble In Shangri La (2001)

After a creative dry spell that was the 90's, Nicks released a new solo album for the 21st Century. Shangri La showed a revitalized Nicks, the performance was sharp and had a feel of mixing the current with the past. Two songs written in the 70's, "Sorcerer" and "Planets Of The Universe" were high points effectively capturing the early magic. The single "Every Day" was decent while she rocked up a storm on "Fall From Grace". Trouble In Shangri La was a disc I played often that year, it was great to hear a good Stevie Nicks album again.

Crystal Visions - The Very Best Of Stevie Nicks (2007)

After another successful run with the Mac, Nicks dove back to the vaults for her solo career. This time it seemed to feature a lot of remixes and live versions to put a new coat of paint on the old warhorses like "Dreams" or "Landslide". Angled at fans Nicks may have picked up over the past ten years, I decided to skip this disc since I already had Enchanted. I did see her live at her tour kickoff in Concord and she put on a great show on a cold cold night.

Since then Stevie Nicks has been involved with another Fleetwood Mac tour in progress right now. Her solo career has seen its ups and downs, to me she'll always be that uniquely talented beauty who can warble with charisma and power. One of my favorite clips of her is what looks like a backstage shot of her practicing "Wild Heart". She recently released a live album that includes a cover of Dave Matthews "Crash Into Me", it'll be interesting to hear her on that song. I'm the king of the castle, you're the dirty rascal...