Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Boss?!?!?!? Why have you Forsaken us?!?

I know more and more artists are releasing CDs exclusively through corporate giant Wal-Mart, effectively hurting what little business is left for music retail and independent music stores, but I never though that Bruce Springsteen would do such a thing. Springsteen has made his career on being a blue-collar everyman. That's why it was surprising when I found that he was releasing a Greatest Hits CD exclusively through Wal-Mart.


The good news, though, is that it shouldn't sell very well. Almost all of the previous Springsteen collections are superior. The only thing this collection adds is "Radio Nowhere" which even most casual fans should have since it was available as a free download on iTunes prior to the release of Magic. The disc only includes a meager 12 songs, when many more could have easily fit. Furthermore, those 12 songs come off of only 7 albums, completely leaving out Nebraska, Tunnel of Love, Devils and Dust and other popular Springsteen albums. Hopefully it won't make enough to even return the investment.

Monday, December 22, 2008

2008 Supplement -- Best Male Songs Ever, Vol. 1

Along with the mix tape for the year in review, every year I compile supplementary bonus discs for my collection. This year I made two: my favorite songs by male artists and by femal artists. No artist can have a song repeated. Gender depends upon vocalist rather than songwriter or people playing, just for simplicity's sake. This is the playlist for the male version.

1. Bob Dylan - "Angelina" (Shot of Love outtake, 1981)

Mysterious and deep, this song is filled with magical images. Given context, I think it is about Christian Bob falling in love with a heathen of a woman and ready to do spiritual battle to keep her away from the hellfire. Whatever it is about, it is gorgeous and mind-blowing.

2. Barry Louis Polisar - "All I Want Is You" (1976, reissued on Juno)

This folksy love song is a series of light-hearted metaphors that seem inconsequential. The song's strength though comes across in its seeming honesty. It has that Walden effect, where simplicity comes through as authenticity.

3. Paul Simon - "Graceland" (from Graceland, 1986)

This travelogue about Paul Simon and his son takes a personal journey into America's heart of darkness -- the race-divided South -- in search of the racial unification that occured at Sun records, transforming the personal into a powerful metaphor of national significance.

4. Elvis Costello - "Sleep of the Just" (from King of America, 1986)

Costello has long been interested in writing songs dealing with issues of domestic violence. In this song, Costello, with shifting points of view, depicts a soldier leading a young girl on and engaging in a photographed one night stand with her. He shows the emotional impact this can have by implicitly comparing it to a gang rape in the final verse where her picture is "pinned up upon the barracks wall in her hometown while the soldiers take their turns with her attention."

5. The Band - "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)" (from The Band, 1969)

This may not be my favorite Band song, but my interest in it has grown exponentially over the last year. It's no "Up On Cripple Creek" yet, but the working man ethos and litany of crops makes this rural unionizing song a winner.

6. Brian Wilson - "Vega-Tables" (from Smile, 2004)

The brilliance of this song is the child-like wonder it exudes, the same wonder that led Brian Wilson to develop an arrangement that featured people chomping on carrot and celery sticks in lieu of traditional percussion.

7. ? and the Mysterians - "96 Tears" (1966)

I love garage rock, and this organ-pumped pop song is one of the most sadly forgotten hits. Once a chart-topper, it is still little-known and difficult to come by despite Cameo-Parkway reissues.

8. Van Morrison - "Caravan" (from Moondance, 1970)

This epic of blue-eyed soul just surges and ebbs with the wonderful nuances of Van's aformal voice.

9. The Beatles - "Here, There, and Everywhere" (from Revolver, 1966)

One of McCartney's best ballads, this love song is awash in lush melody.

10. Ben Folds Five - "Brick" (1997)

What hooked me on this was the piano figure. Having been familiar with the song for a decade, it wasn't until recently that I payed attention to the words, aching and wrenching, as I drove home for the holidays.

11. Prince - "Sometimes It Snows In April" (from Parade, 1986)

Proof of Prince's egotism, this song is an elegy for Christopher Tracy, the character Prince played in Under the Cherry Moon, the 1986 film he wrote and directed. In the film, Tracy is murdered by Craig T. Nelson (of TV's Coach), the racist father of the girl Prince falls in love with, who is played by Kristen Scott Thomas. Still, despite its egotism, this song boils over with pathos and passion.

12. Arrested Development - "Mr. Wendal" (from 3 Years, 5 Months and 7 Days In the Life of..., 1991)

This was one of the first rap songs I fell in love with, and that was before I realized the powerful social commentary contained within it. The song celebrates hoboes as people too, and explains the virtues of helping those less fortunate. You go ahead Mr. Wendal.

13. James Brown - "Mother Popcorn" (1969)

"Mother Popcorn" has the most post-modern bass line known to man. A funky tune about curvaceous ladies punctuated by ecstatic screams about a salty snack. Classic James.

14. Billy Riley and his Little Green Men - "Red Hot" (1957)

Billy Riley's gal is red hot, and, comparatively, other rockabilly ain't doodely squat.

15. Johnny Cash - "The Mercy Seat" (from American III: Solitary Man, 2000)

Cash's cover of this Nick Cave track is one of the mot powerful gems to be mined from his American Recordings series, and that is saying a lot. The song is a cryptic jigsaw puzzle, a Rorschack test of serial murder and apocalyptic salvation.

16. Thin Lizzy - "Don't Believe A Word" (from Johnny the Fox 1976)

Thin Lizzy may be the most underrated metal band of all time. Their melodies and hooks are fantastic. This song couples those ever-present qualities with a self-deprecation that strengthen's Lizzy's legacy.

17. Bruce Springsteen & the E-Street Band - "Jungleland" (from Born To Run, 1975)

This song is a true epic. When it reaches the midpoint, the song simmers down to a murmur. When it rises from its ashes, the slowly paced piano that restarts it provides a pulse, upon which every instrument imaginable builds, not least of which is Springsteen's tortured and chiseled voice, pushing the song beyond its imaginable limits.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

2008 -- The Most Underrated Albums

1. Scarlett Johansson - Anywhere I Lay My Head

I don't know how people dislike this albums so much. Johansson's not the best singer in the world, but her voice has a thickness which does make her a distinct vocalist. The song selection was also excellent, and the musical backing perfectly couched her voice. This is an album that I think will be reevaluated as a classic in the years to come.

2. Jakob Dylan - Seeing Things

Most critics tried to say that this album is completely different from his dad's music, and then they didn't know what to say after that so they just gave up. This actually has a lot in common with good old Bob, but it isn't anything that glares out as being extremely obvious, and its more like late-period Bob than his sixties heyday. There are stolen melodies, apocalyptic lyrics -- all trademarks of his dad's recent work. Jakob handles this material just as well, though, which is what no critic realized. This is a very accompolished album.

3. Flowers Forever - Flowers Forever

This is like garage rock nirvana revisited. The guitars drive and the organs plow. The rhythms rush like a freight train. The yowling is manic. The lyrics in your face and often political. It is a shame no one besides Daniel Johnston took notice of these talented folks in 2008. Check out "Golden Shackles" or "Black Rosary." Now if they could only quit dancing around the stage like indie kids on crack....

4. Hayes Carll - Trouble In Mind

I knew I had to get this when I saw a track listing. The song titles called out to me: "She Left Me For Jesus," "Drunken Poet's Dream," "Wild As A Turkey," "Faulkner Street," "Bad Liver And A Broken Heart." The titles had a certain humor to them, and so did the songs. They were great. "Drunken's Poet's Dream" is the "Up On Cripple Creek" of the 00s. As I listened more, though, it was the more serious songs that continually bowled me over with maturity and grace. This might be essential.

Honorable Mention: Guns'n'Roses - Chinese Democracy

It doesn't live up to 17 years worth of built up expectations, but Chinese Democracy is a really solid album and deserves more credit than critics trying to make a name for themselves are giving it.

2008 -- The Most Disappointing Albums

1. Hank Williams III- Damn Right Rebel Proud

I've never had a problem with Hank III's vulgarity, and it absolutely enhanced Straight To Hell, but I think with this album it really isn't working. I wanted so badly to be a fan of this collection of songs, but for the most part the ones that stood out only did so in a negative way, and all because he is taking himself to seriously. Just from the song titles alone, like "Candidate For Suicide," "H8 Line," and "Stoned & Alone," you can tell Hank has left the party behind and, rather than being social with good people, he is just stuck on seeing how anti-social he can be.

2. Van Morrison - Keep It Simple Van Morrison has been making the same album over and over, with some changes, since 1968's seminal Astral Weeks. On Keep It Simple, Van Morrison has made all of the possible variations of that album twice over, and is thus recording an album that shows how utterly bored he is. Many reviewers have commented on how Morrison spends a verse of one song repeating the non-syllable "blah" over and over again. Actually, it's two verses. What's sad is that, in his prime, Morrison could have made "blah" sound interesting for as long as he wanted to, working it over like those gutteral 70s howls that punctuated his epics, but now it simply sounds like stagnation.

Honorable Mention: Guns'n'Roses - Chinese Democracy

Nothing could live up to what Axl promised.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Best of 2008 Mix Tape

It is that time of year again; the time when I summarize the best new music that I listened to this year, compiling it onto a disc. These are twenty of the best.

1. Mudcrutch - "Shady Grove" (from Mudcrutch)

Mudcrutch, Tom Petty's original band, shares at least half of its genetic material with the Heartbreakers. In the Heartbreakers, though, it is clear that, while Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench often shine, Petty is always in control. Mudcrutch is a bit more democratic. The group is prone to instrumental bluegrassy jamming, the kind of stuff that wouldn't be out of place on an album like Workingman's Dead. This brings the players to the forefront. Also, Petty often shares the vocal mic or relinquishes it completely, giving even more prominence to the other members of the band. While their original songs are also great, their covers might be their best. Their take on Roger McGuinn's "Lover of the Bayou" sears it, but the real cake is their jovial jaunt on the traditional "Shady Grove."

2. Jakob Dylan - "Evil Is Alive and Well" (from Seeing Things)

Almost every review I read of this album pointed out that, while people expected an acoustic album from Jakob Dylan to be just like his dad's work, there couldn't be two artists more different. Hogwash. The problem is, critics are comparing Jakob to Bob's earlier work; what he really sounds like is Bob's later work. If Dylan ditched the cowboy band and stripped back his sound, this is exactly the kind of record he would make. The album is where Bob's Modern Times meets Springsteen's Nebraska. Several melodies borrow heavily from traditional songs and the lyrics are opaquely apocalyptic. No where are they more apocalyptic than on "Evil Is Alive and Well," a song personifying Satan in various contemporary guises. Haunting.

3. Hayes Carll - "Beaumont" (from Trouble In Mind)

Rather than one of the endlessly witty comic songs he has received a small bit of recognition for, "Beaumont" is perhaps Carll's saddest song; a song about a potential relationship that fails because of a series of missed coincidences. It begins with an implosion of pathos: "I saw you leaning on a dream." The line meets that perfect balance of the concrete and the metaphysical, and with descriptions of the bar he saw her in and the white rose he tried to woo her with between them, the line takes even on more emotional weight when it comes back at the song's end.

4. The Moldy Peaches - "Moldy Peaches" (from Juno)

Maybe I ust love this so much because its the closest thing my giral and I have to a song. Its filled with great little contradictions though, like "we sure are cute for two ugly people." It also includes the Konami Code (up, down, up, down, left, right, left, right, B A start), which is an accomplishment for any pop song. It references John Henry and Don Quixote in the brilliant amalgam of "Don Quixote was a steel-drivin' man." Despite having a late 2007 jump start, this song wasn't ubiquitous for me until 2008.

5. Flight of the Conchords - "Robots" (from Flight of the Conchords)

Futuristic meta-electronica about doing the robot. Not bad. This humorous number also features the only binary solo ever, chanting 1 and 0 in various combinations. The real winner though is the catchy melody that couches the phrase "we used poisonous gasses and we poisoned their asses." Also, it sounds like Kermit the Frog has a cameo when the dude sings "global robo depression." The last few seconds, though, may be the most annoying part of the mix tape.

6. Randy Newman - "Piece of the Pie" (from Harps and Angels)

Any song capable of getting John Mellencamp's panties in a bunch is okay in my book, especially when it calls him Johnny Cougar. I like Mellencamp alright, but I'm pissed off he'd take offense at a song so brilliantly witty. This song takes on socialized healthcare, celebrity ad spots, and Bono's humanitarian posturing while exposing the inherent problems with wealth distribution. This song is one of Newman's finest moments ever, and is easily the best satire of 2008.

7. Flowers Forever - "Strange Fruit" (from Flowers Forever)

This song starts off with horns, showing it, as all versions are, is indebted to the indelible voice of Billie Holiday. Once the drums start, though, it is off in a totally different direction. Almost mariachi in the rhythms and howled in an anguished yelp. After Abel Meeropol, the song's composer, got done being blown away I think he'd appreciate it.

8. Dr. John & the Lower 911 - "Dream Warrior" (from The City That Care Forgot)

This swampy funk haunts my dreams like a samurai warrior ready to take on the whole of FEMA, which is more or less what Dr. John is in spirit. He references "Strange Fruit" again, but recontextualizes it to the Ninth Ward rather than Southern lynching. This is among the best protest songs of the year.

9. Scarlett Johansson - "I Wish I Was In New Orleans" (from Anywhere I Lay My Head)

The piano softly plunks out a music box tinkle of a lullaby as Scarlett half-talks this breathy and deeply textured love letter. I don't know whether to take a shot of whisky, slow dance under a dixie moon, or do both.

10. Elvis Costello & the Attractions - "Turpentine" (from Momofuku)

This song is like Paul McCartney on amphetamines. The melody is great, the harmonies are better. The wicked organ and the driven drumming push it along, and the whole thing ends up feeling like a Victorian bender.

11. Guns'N'Roses - "Madagascar" (from Chinese Democracy)

The logical sequel to "Civil War," "Madagascar" explodes with excellent vocals form Axl before disintegrating into a post-modern mish-mash of sampled sources from films, speeches, etc. Part ballad, part rocker, it is so far my favorite of a host of great songs on Chinese Democracy.

12. Katy Perry - "I Kissed A Girl" (from One of the Boys)

I realize that she is just trying to, quite sluttily, capitalize on lesbian chic. I also realize that she may actually be an animatronic manikin. Still, even I don't really respect her, I respect the brilliance between the power pop of "I Kissed A Girl." It is an anthem, even if it stands for nothing but a desire on Perry's part to pocket a fat wad of cash.

13. Ry Cooder - "Spayed Cooley" (from I, Flathead)

Okay, so maybe Randy Newman has some competition in the satire category. "Well, you hear a lot of talk about Homeland Security. It sounds to me like someone's gonna make some seeeerious money out of the deal" starts out Kash Buk, the fictional narrator of I, Flathead. He goes on to explain how he has all the security he needs. It's called his dog.

14. Hayes Carll - "It's A Shame" (from Trouble In Mind)

Born from the same thematic ground as "Beaumont," but a bit jauntier, this song comes off bittersweet. There's little sweeter than "kissin' for hours beneath that sweet magnolia," but it just makes a line like "standin' at the window with a broken window view" all the harder to take when you realize circumstances just won't let the love be.

15. Hank Williams III - "The Grand Ole Opry (Ain't So Grand Anymore)" (from Damn Right Rebel Proud)

This song encapsulates the movement to reinstate Hank Sr. into the Grand Ole Opry. With righteous indignation, Hank III composes a one-man manifesto.

16. Scarlett Johansson - "Falling Down" (from Anywhere I Lay My Head)

The piano falls like rain onto a bed organ chords with plucked strings behind it. Scarlett sounds masculine and strong, and imagining that voice couched in her feminine figure makes her even more alluring. As gorgeous as anything Tom Waits has made.

17. Randy Newman - "Korean Parents" (from Harps and Angels)

Always one to accept responsibility, Randy Newman tells today's young parents that their "parents aren't the greatest generation." This song looks at the anxiety of influence in a realm out side of literary criticism, and how anyone under 70 uses their parents success as a reason for their failure. This is a useless strategy. To contravent it, Newman suggests hiring Korean parents to take care of the kids. As he points out, Koreans are good student not because they are smarter than other ethnicities, but because their parents force them to work hard on their schooling.

18. Jakob Dylan - "All Day and All Night" (from Seeing Things)

Jakob owes his dad for this one. This song is filled with those declaratives that come out of nowhere that filled Bob's "Love and Theft" in 2001 and The Basement Tapes 40 years ago. "Bees make honey. I'll make it mine." "Don't crowd me lady, or I'll fill up your shoe." "I do it big or don't do it at all." "I'm no pig without a wig." "Ain't got no baggage that I can't use." "My captain's decorated." "Got more good luck than I'll ever u se." Can you tell the difference? The peak of copying his dad comes with the line "Me and Delia -- we're more than friends" in which Jakob places himself in the context of the folk tradition. If you take Bob's version of "Delia" on World Gone Wrong seriously, Delia is more than a friend; she's the woman who drove his dad to suicide.

19. Bob Dylan - "Red River Shore" (from Tell Tale Signs)

This epic tale is full of mystery. A man who can bring people back from the dead? I've got some ideas on the language he used.... Most people interpret the ending as revealing that the girl from the red river shore is in fact dead. I'm not so certain. I think the speaker himself is dead. That reading would certainly be in keeping with the folk tradition and seems entirely plausible given Dylan. People who read it the other way point out that when he asks about the girl, "no one knew who [he] was talkin' about." Later, though, he says that he doesn't think "anyone ever saw [him] there at all, 'cept the girl from the red river shore." No one said they didn't see her; they said that they only didn't know who she was. The speaker could have already been dead when he saw her, and maybe that's why no one responded; they can't see him because he is but a ghost. The girl may be a ghost now too. At least one of them needs "that guy who lived a long time ago."

20. Flowers Forever - "Happy New Year" (from Flowers Forever)

This song would have fit great in a late 60s art film. Garage rock, the holiday season and in-song spelling all come together here. The guitars and organ grow to a fever pitch of new year enthusiasm.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Harps and Angels

In my last blog entry, I commented on Randy Newman without being fully integrated into his schtick. I was assuming things based on reviews; never a good place to be. Having now heard Harps and Angels, Newman's brilliant new album, I understand his genius a little bit better.

Randy Newman's true genius is based in how he presents himself, which is as a dimwit. On his new album, Newman sounds like a bumpkin sheepishly misunderstanding the world, which is what makes so many of his jarring political insights endearing.

In "A Few Words In Defense of Our Country," Newman notes that it is so patriotic to be afraid that they came up with color codes for it. He then ponders.... "And what are we supposed to be afraid of? Why, fear. .... That's what terror means, doesn't it?" He comes across as artless, and his art is in that styled aloofness which makes you love him like a little brother who knows not what he does.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Labor Songs

I know its a little bit belated, but in honor of labor unions forcing the government to give the good people of the United States a day off of work, here are five songs that pay homage to the common man, the blue collar heroes of their day.

1. "Mr. President (Have Pity On the Working Man)" by Randy Newman

Randy Newman was born world-weary, and this track bears that out. The ploddy piano perfectly suits his plaintive voice as he begs the president for a little bit of empathy. Newman's not asking for a revolution here, not even asking for as much as he does on Harps & Angels, but he does it with such subtle honesty that you know he's really saying a whole lot more.

2. "Joe Hill," by Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson; performed by Joan Baez on Woodstock.

Joe Hill was quite arguably framed for murder and may have gone up before the shooting squad only because he refused to disgrace the good name of the married woman he'd been sleeping with on the night of the killing. The real reason he was so easily framed,though, was that he was a Wobblie, a member of the super-radical International Workers of the World, a socialist union. He was also a topical songwriter, which is perhaps why its interesting that there are so many songs about him. In this song, his ghost haunts the narrator, coming back to say that his spirit lives on in unions today. Some of his ashes are today enshrined at the headquarters of the AFL-CIO.

3. My Name Is Buddy by Ry Cooder

This album is the ultimate concept. Its narrative blends the fabled characters of Wind In the Willows with the setting of Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath and then cobbles the plot together from pieces of contemporary political context and tales of the I.W.W. Truly, when one imagines this album's scope it is one of the most underappreciated albums of the new century.

4. "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)" by The Band

From the point of view of a migrant farmer, probably a fruit picker, comes this love letter to the union. "I work for the union cause she's so good to me" croons Levon Helm. Later, the union boss says that when workers don't get what they want, then "that's when [they] gotta go on strike." High on the rhetoric, this slow burning rocker compresses many of My Name is Buddy's themes. In doing so, it loses the focus of everyone working together, but expertly illustartes what unionization can do for the working man.

5. "Union Sundown" by Bob Dylan

Now that the United States is losing jobs in the service industry to overseas locations, they call it outsourcing. In the 80s, it was manufacturing jobs getting moved, and that's what Dylan rails against here. Manufacturing jobs were often better paying and required at least some level of knowledge about the machinery those at the plant worked with. This meant that employees were less easy to replace and therefore it was easier for them to unionize. When Bob sings "its sundown on the union and what's made in the USA sure was a good idea till greed got in the way," he is opening up several possible meanings. The union is both the institution of the labor union, and the Union of 50 states. Bob is saying that as we move production overseas and enter a service-based economy we are going to lose not only labor unions but the nation itself. The ever-weakening dollar seems to bear this out. Also, with the brilliant line "till greed got in the way" Dylan is showing us the motive corporations have for doing something that will ultimately destroy their consumer base. "Greed" could be lots of things, but in this particular instance the similarity of sound with "green" makes it obvious that money is the only driving factor here, and it is that brilliant double-meaning that Dylan alludes to through sound that makes this song one of his most underrated.

Monday, August 25, 2008

100 Albums, 100 Words (30-21)

30. Prince – Purple Rain (1984)

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to praise an album that contains life; electric word, life; it means dancealicious grooves and a few scintillating ballads, and maybe some explicit lyrics. Prince exploded with this album, fusing his admiration for Carlos Santana guitar licks to his love of old-school funk beats. He took musical chances, from the bassless “When Doves Cry” to the hyper-technofied “Computer Blue,” and they just about all work. Despite being infamous for spawning parental advisory labels, “Darling Nikki” is gorgeous, almost as much so as “The Beautiful Ones,” one of the greatest singles that never was.

29. James Brown – Live At the Apollo (1963)

It is all here – everything that made James Brown the greatest. Even from this relatively early point, the groundwork has been laid for Brown’s mind-melting funk in this sweaty r & b workout. Start and stop rhythms punctuate James’ blistering exultations of joy and sorrow in the guttural space beyond words. Perhaps the strongest instrument on here is the crowd, and James knows how to play it like a master, calling and responding until he has to scream. If only we could watch him dance, then this album might be able to save the lives of everyone whose lost someone.

28. Afroman – The Good Times (2001)

Bob Marley he isn’t, but Afroman uses more reggae than just about any other rapper out there, and with skill. Afroman’s underrated raps also incorporate rock and gospel. Lyrically he’s an imaginative MC who is not afraid to push a few buttons. In “Crazy Rap,” Afroman raps about getting head from Colonel Sander’s wife. In “The American Dream” Afroman includes homosexuals and teenage mothers in his vision of a unified America broken free from the bounds of corporate slavery. “Because I Got High” cracks on Hitler. Varied as his subjects seem, they all refer to unity in a diverse world.

27. The Clash – London Calling (1979)

All those annoying little ska boys are a small price to pay for this landmark of jazz-punk fusion. Finally garnering The Clash the attention they deserved in America, London Calling blended horns and guitars more naturally than anything by the E-Street Band by making horns rhythm rather than lead instruments. The record showed the band’s deep roots, shown by “Wrong ‘Em Boyo”’s transformation of “Stagger Lee,” something most other punk lacked, allowing it to carve out new musical terrains. From “London Calling” to “Lost In the Supermarket” to “Train In Vain,” it made the world want to rock the revolution.

26. Jill Sobule – Underdog Victorious (2004)

A breakup in three acts with an epilogue. Act One: Jill is tired of being the poor person in her relationship and its really dragging things down. It’s not looking good for the couple. Act Two: Jill retreats from the relationship by engaging in activism, singing a series of political songs dealing with issues ranging from drug abuse to schoolyard teasing to child prostitution in Israel to the intolerance of fundamentalist religious brainwashing. Act Three: The Post-Breakup Blues. The album ends with a hint of future bliss as she falls in love with the female cop who pulls her over.

25. Prince – Dirty Mind (1980)

“Naked funk” is what Prince labeled the bare-bones, demoesque style he unleashed on Dirty Mind, and naked certainly seems to be his modus operandi here. “Sister” is a song about you-know-what with you-know-who. “Head” is about something that goes on below the shoulders, or below the belt. Many of the lurid encounters leave the narrator confused and alone, however, and the album ends on a serious note with the intoxicating dance groove of “Partyup,” a song that suggests late-night dancing as a way of escaping the paranoia created by Reagan’s Cold War policies. This is the first great Prince album.

24. Stevie Wonder – Innervisions (1973)

Falling in the center of a fabulous quintilogy, Innervisions is a massively powerful album, seamlessly blending political and spiritual concerns into a harmonic tapestry of funk, soul, gospel and jazz. “Living In the City” is one of the most powerful singles ever, and the thematic template for Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message.” “Don’t You Worry About A Thing” and “He’s A Misstra Know It All” are similarly powerful attacks on being self-centered. Between the white-hot funk of “Higher Ground” and “Jesus Children of America,” Stevie slips in some beautiful ballads, like “Visions” and “Golden Lady,” making this a very balanced album.

23. The Doors – The Doors (1967)

In April of 1993, this album changed my life. In the short-term, it inspired me to start collecting records, learn to play piano, write crappy psuedo-poetry, and listen to The Doors endlessly. In the long-term, it not only made me see pop cultu re as something serious, but as something worthy of serious study. It led me to discovering music beyond the Doors and real poetry that bore little resemblance to Jim Morrison's drug-addled ramblings. I'd never heard organ before, and the sound was a revelation. It played over and over at my thirteenth birthday pa rty. Adolescence still chills me.

22. Nuggets – Original Artyfacts From the Original Psychedelic Era (1972, 1998)

Few box sets can brag of being hitless, but this one can, and does. Originally twenty-seven tracks of exquisite acid rock madness, Rhino expanded the original two-record set to four cds, featuring three times the tracks that appeared on the original. The result is no less glorious for the distillation. Many songs sounds like dead on imitations of different artists – Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane – but the reverse seems just as likely after a few spins. From Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction” to The Standell’s “Good Guys Don’t Wear White,” this set is a treasure trove of underappreciated gems.

21. Elvis Costello – This Year’s Model (1978)

A promotional poster for this album claimed it was “made in 1953 for 1983.” This album is thirty years ahead of its time, which means we’ve almost caught up with it. Rockabilly-fueled punk, this album paves the way for 80s New Wave. The Attractions are in top form here, playing every instrument like it is the lead. The bass in particular stands out, especially on tracks such as “The Beat” and “Living In Paradise.” The stop-start feel of many songs pushes the adrenaline. For being considered a forerunner of the punk movement, this sounds big enough to be arena rock.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Scurvy Love

Rihanna's ubiquitous hit "Disturbia" can be pretty annoying, but when I first heard it on the radio, I heard it as "Scurvy Love," an infinitely more interesting title.

Monday, August 11, 2008

In Memory of Isaac Hayes -- Shaft's 3 Best Qualities

Isaac Hayes will be remembered for many things -- voicing Chef on South Park, playing an aging gangster who comes out of retirement to teach the youth a less in I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, and for becoming a Scientologist and alienating everyone around him. What he will most likely be remembered for, though, is the music that defined John Shaft, street-smart detective and one bad motha..... watch your mouth! In honor of that great contribution, I would like to memorialize Hayes with a list of Shaft's three best qualities, as embodied by moments in his films (as portrayed by Richard Roundtree).

One thing that made Shaft unique among action heroes was that he not only fought bad guys, but you got the idea he also psychologically fought oppression. Between scenes of blown up bus and failed hi-jacking attempts, the Shaft trilogy (Shaft, Shaft's Big Score, and Shaft In Africa) inserted little nuggets of moral characterization where we'd see what Shaft stood up for. After all, if you stand up for nothing, you'll fall for anything and more than any other action movie hero I can think of, we know what John Shaft stood for. Here are his three greatest values:

3. Animal Rights

Shaft would have been PETA's most hardcore activist if he were a real person and around today. In Shaft In Africa Shaft befriends a stray dog. Later, Shaft is in a tough spot. When he gets hit, he just turns the other cheek, but when they kick his dog, Shaft pulls out a longbow and kills the bad guy, chiding him for hitting the dog right before delivering the final death blow.

2. Gay Rights

In Shaft, Shaft walks into an expresso bar and sips his treat out of a shot-glass sized coffee cup, preparing us to see him as the gentle giant. When the garcon comes by the audience notices at once that he is effiminate, which has long been the way Hollywood has stereotyped gay men. What makes this notable, however, is they way Shaft treats him back. He isn't taken aback at all, but jokes around with him and treats him with the utmost respect. The waiter tips him off to some bad guys, and Shaft just stays cool. The key moment though is right before Shaft leaves. The waiter offers to hook Shaft up with one of his friends, another guy. Most masculinized movie heroes would get squeamish at best, but Shaft just grins as though he takes it as a compliment before thanking the guy for the offer and then respectfully declining. You don't see this often enough in films now, and I can only imagine it was all the more rare in 1971.

1. Feminism

Shaft had more ladies than James Bond, but he always treated them with respect and acknowledged their power in the relationship. He comes out as a straight-up feminist though in Shaft In Africa when he is trying to seduce the king's daughter. As they lay in bed kissing and talking, she reveals to Shaft that her country's laws will soon force her to have a clitoredectomy as a rite of passage. When she says this, the mixture of disgust, outrage and compassion which comes over Richard Roundtree's face is all you need to know where he stands. When he suggests that as the king's daughter she try to use her influence to stop this horrible ritual and offers to do what he can to help, it only solidifies his position even more. Solid.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Dreamin' of You

So, Bob's got a new song out and despite a couple weak passages its pretty amazing. Winston Watson's drumming is impeccable, probably the best work he did at the Time Out of Mind sessions. According to a press release Edna Gunderson wrote up for USA Today, the lyrics were later used in other Dylan songs. Most notably, lyrics from "Standing In the Doorway" abound, but a few others show up as well. "Some things just last longer than you thought that they would" was tightened up into "some things last longer than you think they will" in "Cold Irons Bound" and "feel further away than I ever did before" was transplanted nearly verbatim into "Highlands."

Perhaps most interesting, however, is the line "I'm sleeping in the balance of man." This echoes the final couplet of "Every Grain of Sand" where Bob sings "I'm hanging in the balance of the reality of man." "Every Grain of Sand" is a song expressing Bob's faith, so is he renouncing it in "Dreamin' of You" by saying he is asleep? Is he saying that man has no reality and so his faith in humanity is asleep and he's gone completely into a spiritual realm?

Here are the lyrics as I hear them. I have placed portions I'm not sure about in (parentheses).

Dreamin’ of You

The light in this place is really bad;
It’s like being in the bottom of a stream.
Any minute now I’m expecting to wake up from a dream.
(Hurts) so much,
the softest touch.
On (the break of) some child
who neither wept nor smiled,
I (fathered my faith) in the rain.
I’ve been dreaming of you,
that’s all I do,
and its drivin’ me insane.

Somewhere dawn is breaking,
lightning streaking across the floor.
Church bells are ringing;
I wonder who they’re ringing for.
Travel under any star,
you’ll see me wherever you are.
The shadowy past
is so vague and so vast.
I’m sleeping in the balance of man.
I’m dreamin’ of you’,
that’s all I do,
but its drivin’ me insane.

Maybe they’ll get me
and maybe they won’t,
but (whatever they want me tonight).
I wish your hand was in mine right now;
we could go where the moon is white.
For years they had me locked in a cage
then they threw me onto a stage.
Some things just last longer than you thought they would
and they never never explain.
I’m dreamin’ of you,
that’s all I do,
and its drivin’ me insane.

Well I eat when I’m hungry,
drink when I’m dry,
live my life on the square.
Even if the flesh falls off my face,
it won’t matter long as you’re there.
Feel like the ghost of love
underneath the heavens above.
Feel further away than I ever did before,
(no) further I can take.
Dreamin’ of you
is all I do,
but its drivin’ me inane.

Everything in the way is so shiny today,
a queer and unusual fog.
Spirals of golden haze here and there in a blaze
like beams of light in a storm.
Maybe you’re here,
maybe you weren’t.
Maybe you took somebody
and got burnt.
The silent sun has got me on the run,
burning a hole in my brain.
I’m dreaming of you –
its all I do,
but its driving me insane.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Unsolved Mysteries of Pop: Coincidence , Reincarnation, or Faked Celebrity Death?

Are Jeff Buckley and James Franco really the same person? Examine the evidence posted here for yourself, and then decide.

Jeff Buckley:

James Franco:

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

I'm Not There

After its release on DVD, I was finally able to see Todd Haynes' I'm Not There. It managed to meet my expectation, and even exceed them in some areas. Here are a few of my first impressions:

Out of the whole movie, the song whose placement seemed most apt to me was The Monkees' "(I'm Not Your) Stepping Stone." This is far from the best song in the movie, but the way it is used speaks volumes. It is played at a party during Bob's hectic 1966 tour. Superficially, Bob is being used as a stepping stone to wealth by people like Albert Grossman. On a deeper level, the song, like all pop music, is a construction. Being the Monkees, this stands out even more as they were put together out of American Idolesque auditions. They didn't play instruments or write songs when they started. (To be fair, in their later years the Monkees did try to seize creative control and wrote their own material and played their own instruments, and it wasn't half bad.) "Stepping Stone" is a fantastic pastiche of The Who, which is made even more ironic by the doubling that comes from them singing "you won't find me in your book of Who's Who's." What makes this further intersting, is that this song is, out of all of the Monkees early work, their most anti-establishment song and, though it is a Who pastiche, it also has another dimension to the sound which is unmistakeably authentic in the sense of uniqueness. All of these, of course, echo the debates surrounding Dylan post-Newport. Thus, there are several layers to the song worth explicating in relation to the Dylan myth.

One thing I had hoped for was for the various Dylans to meet up, as I thought this idea as very fertile for creating all sorts of ideas. The only time this happened, however, was when Billy the Kid is riding through town and Woody Guthrie runs out of a saloon and begs for his help, right near the end of the sequence where Arthur Rimbaud is reading from "Advice For Geraldine On Her Miscellaneous Birthday." Unfortunately, this encounter was all too brief and ultimately unresolved. The camera cuts away, and so we don't know if one Dylan saves the other, so that a multiplicity of selves can exist simultaneously, or if the other Dylan cuts off self by leaving Guthrie there to die. Also, of course, due to constraints of time period, the film takes a more surreal turn than usual by placing Guthrie of 1959 in the same scene as Billy the Kidd in 1911, putting this dangerously close to losing the viewer altogether. (Had the times been blended more often throughout, the viewer would be prepared for it and it wouldn't be an issue; a good film teaches its audience specific ways to view it.)

The reason I place 1911 as the year is from a later scene with Billy the Kidd. In this scene, Pat Garrett is coming to town, but not to kill Billy because he has already (supposedly) done so. In Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, the Kid dies, replete with a hymn called "Knockin' On Heaven's Door." This movie sets up an alternate reality where Kid escapes and survives in seclusion, a ragged rebel forever on the fringes of a society that has rejected him. When Garrett comes to town, to build a railroad, the year is mentioned as Garrett and Billy engage in a hilarous showdown of wits that is among my favorite moments in the film.

On a final note, from reading literature surrounding the film's release, I was led to believe there were seven Dylans and that Christian Bale played Jack Rollins and Pastor John (the Revelator). I was pleased to find out this isn't true, but that Jack Rollins, as he ages, becomes Pastor John. I felt this was a fantastis move on Haynes' part because it shows the tradition of preaching which informed the folk movement and especially Dylan's early finger-pointing songs. In fact, "Pressing On" is the least preachy song Jack Rollins sings in the movie.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Theme Time Albums: A comparative review

Three compilations have recently been released in relation to Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour on XM radio. The first to be released was Chrome Dreams' Best of Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour. The other two were supposed to be released simultaneously on February 26: Hear Music's Artist's Choice and Ace's Theme Time Radio Hour, although I had difficulty finding the latter in the States until recently (thus this review's tardiness). I'm still not sure which is best, but as a relative buyer's guide, I hope to analyze each collections strengths and weaknesses. First, the tracklistings:

Chrome Dreams CD5019 The Best of Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour (142 min. approx)

Disc 1

1. Carter Family - Keep On The Sunny Side
2. Ruth Brown - (Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean
3. George Zimmerman and the Thrills - Ain’t Got No Money To Pay For This Drink
4. Sister Wynona Carr - The Ball Game
5. The Ink Spots - Java Jive
6. Bessie Smith - Send Me To The ‘Lectric Chair
7. Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell - Papa’s On The Housetop
8. Big Joe Turner - Married Woman
9. Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson & His Orchestra - Alimony Blues
10. John Brim - Ice Cream Man
11. Duke Ellington & His Orchestra - Tulip Or Turnip
12. Chuck Berry - No Money Down
13. Bing Crosby - Brother Can You Spare A Dime?
14. Gene Vincent - Race With the Devil
15. Chuck Berry - Brown Eyed Handsome Man
16. Freddie Bell and the Bellboys - Hound Dog
17. Little Walter - Last Night
18. Luke Jones and His Orchestra - Disc Jockey Blues
19. Blind Willie Johnson - John The Revelator
20. Percy Mayfield - Louisiana
21. Sonny Boy Williamson I - Good Morning Little Schoolgirl
22. Pee Wee Crayton - Telephone Is Ringing
23. The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi - Jesus Gave Me Water
24. Sleep LaBeef - All The Time
25. Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown - Midnight Hour
26. Al Dexter & His Troopers - Pistol Packin’ Mama

Disc 2

1. Screamin' Jay Hawkins - I Put A Spell On You
2. The Turbans - When You Dance
3. Louis Armstrong - When It’s Sleepy Time Down South
4. Slim Gaillard & His Flat Foot Floogie Boys - Matzoh Balls
5. Tampa Red & Big Maceo - Let Me Play With Your Poodle
6. Carl Perkins - Tennessee
7. Bill Monroe - Blue Moon Of Kentucky
8. Eddie Boyd - Five Long Years
9. Leadbelly - Christmas Is A-Comin’
10. The Chimes - Zindy Lou
11. JB Lenoir - Don’t Touch My Head
12. Joe Clay - Don’t Mess With My Ducktail
13. Roy Montrell - (Everytime I Hear) That Mellow Saxophone
14. Buddy & Ella Johnson - Alright, Okay, You Win!
15. Hank Williams - I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry
16. Jimmie Revard & His Oklahoma Playboys - Lose Your Blues And Laugh AtLife
17. Billie Holiday - Good Morning Heartache
18. Carl Perkins - Blue Suede Shoes
19. The Ravens - Deep Purple
20. Bob Downen - Blue Yodel # 1 (T For Texas)
21. Little Junior Parker - Mystery Train
22. Sister Rosetta Tharpe - This Train
23. Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers - Why Do Fools Fall In Love
24. Duke Ellington - Take The ‘A’ Train
25. Hank Penny - Taxes, Taxes
26. Dinah Washington - Richest Guy In The Graveyard

Starbucks Entertainment/Sony BMG artist's choice (45:39)

1. Pee Wee Crayton - Do Unto Others
2. Clancy Eccles - Don't Brag, Don't Boast
3. Stanley Brothers - My Fields Have Turned Brown
4. Gus Viseur - Flambee Montalbanaise (Valse)
5. Red Prysock - Hand Clappin'
6. Lol Hoopii & His Novelty Quartet - I Like You
7. Ray Price - I'll Be There (If YOu Ever Want Me)
8. Stuff Smith & His Onyx Club Boys - I'se A Muggin' (Part 2)
9. Charlie Jordan - Keep It Clean
10. Junior Wells - Little By Little (I'm Losing You)
11. Patty & the Emblems - Mixed-UP, Shook-Up Girl
12. Getatchew Kassa - Tezeta (Fast)
13. Flaco Jiminez - Victimas Del Huracan Beulah
14. Wanda Jackson - I Gotta Know
15. Billie Holiday & Her Orchestra - I Hear Music
16. Junior Parker - Pretty Baby

Ace CDCH2 1202 Theme Time Radio Hour

Disc 1

1. Grandpa Jones - Turn Your Radio On
2. Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell - Papa's On The Housetop
3. Paul Chaplain & His Emeralds - Shortnin' Bread
4. The White Stripes - Seven Nation Army
5. The Valentines - Gun Fever (Blam Blam Fever)
6. Al Dexter & His Troopers - Pistol Packin' Mama
7. The Hurricanes - Pistol Packin' Mama
8. Otis Rush - Homework
9. Jerry Butler - He Will Break Your Heart
10. Eddie Noack - Take It Away Lucky
11. Betty Hall Jones - Buddy, Stay Off The Wine
12. Charlie Rich - Tears A Go-Go
13. Li'l Millet & His Creoles - Rich Woman
14. Ernie Chaffin - Laughin' & Jokin'
15. Memphis Minnie w/ Little Son Joe - Me And My Chauffeur Blues
16. The Stanley Brothers - If I Lose
17. Jimmy Nelson - I Sat And Cried
18. Patsy Raye & the Beatniks - Beatnik's Wish
19. The Donays - Devil In His Heart
20. George Jones & Melba Montgomery - Let's Invite Them Over
21. Sister Rosetta Tharpe w/ Sam Price Trio - Don't Take Ev'rybody to BeYour Friend
22. Billie Holiday - Good Morning Heartache
23. James Carr - Pouring Water on a Drowning Man
24. Mary Gauthier - I Drink
25. Memphis Slim - Mother Earth

Disc 2

1. Aretha Franklin - Chain Of Fools
2. Joe South & the Believers - Walk a Mile in My Shoes
3. Alton Ellis & the Flames - Cry Tough
4. The Clash - Tommy Gun
5. Roy Montrell - (Everytime I Hear) That Mellow Saxophone
6. Patrice Holloway - Those DJ Shows
7. Lonnie 'the Cat' - I Ain't Drunk
8. Charles Mingus - Eat That Chicken
9. Bobby Peterson Quintet - Mama, Get Your Hammer
10. Slim Gaillard - How High The Moon
11. Sons of the Pioneers - Cool Water
12. Geraint Watkins - Only A Rose
13. Berna-Dean - I Walk in My Sleep
14. Jack Teagarden's Chicagoans - Stars Fell On Alabama
15. Merle Haggard & the Strangers - Mama Tried (The Ballad From KillersThree)
16. Dinah Washington - Big Long Slidin' Thing
17. Bobby Darin - Black Coffee
18. The Cats and the Fiddle - I'd Rather Drink Muddy Water
19. George Zimmerman & the Thrills w/ the Bubber Cyphers - Ain't Got TheMoney To Pay For This Drink
20. The Yayhoos - Bottle And A Bible
21. Jimmy Patton - Okie's In The Pokie
22. Louis Jordan - If You're So Smart, How Come You Ain't Rich?
23. Santiago Jimenez - Ay Te Dejo En San Antonio
24. Bo Diddley - Mona
25. The Modern Lovers - Roadrunner (Twice)

Technically, the Starbucks CD is a Dylan mix tape rather than a collection of songs drawn from his radio show. The CDs package is one big advertisement for the show, though, and Dylan has played many of the artists on his radio show. It seems like these songs could all be culled from episodes that have yet to air. I think it counts.

Below, the sets are judged on tracklisting, sound quality and packaging.

The Tracklistings:

The two strictly Theme Time sets would seem to have an unfair advantage here; they clock in at 52 and 50 selections as opposed to a mere sixteen, but not necessarily so.

The larger selections both have problems. Four songs are overlapped -- "Ain't Got No Money To Pay For This Drink," "Papa's On the Housetop," "Good Morning, Heartache," and Al Dexter's "Pistol Packin' Mama." Furthermore, several of the selections are readily available elsewhere (White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army," Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?," Hank Williams "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes," etc.). Part of the joy of Theme Time Radio Hour is hearing the weird pecularities in the long-ignored masterpieces Dylan continues to unearth. Putting popular selections on compilations of music from the show sort of defeats the purpose. The Chrome Dreams unauthorized set is worse about this, but the Ace Records authorized version includes many songs which, while not played daily on the radio, are already in the hands of many collectors, such as Memphis Minnie's "Me and My Chauffeur Blues," Memphis Slim's "Mother Earth," and the Modern Lovers' "Roadrunner." All together, the Ace Records collection added 34 of its 50 songs to my collection, the Chrome Dreams collection added 32 of its 52 songs to my collection, and the Starbucks collection added 15 of 16 songs, giving it the highest percentage of fresh, collectable material.

Still, each set has something essential that the others don't. Chrome Dreams brings John Brim's "Ice Cream Man" and Slim Galliard's "Matzoh Balls" to the table. Ace Records' compilation contains the Yayhoos' "Bottle and a Bible" and Lonnie "The Cat's" "I Ain't Drunk." artist's choice has Stuff Smith and Sol Hoopii.

Sound quality:

Starbucks probably wins, followed closely by Ace records. Some of the stuff on Chrome Dreams is great, but other tracks sound phoned in.


When it comes to packaging, Ace wins out. Their extensive liner notes, plethora of archival photographs and cool cd labels take the cake. Chrome Dreams had some good liner notes, but a frankly boring package otherwise. Starbucks' offering held the interest of Dylan-penned liner notes, but, for the most part, gone were the cryptic parables of the notes to an album like World Gone Wrong. They were in parts unmistakably Dylan, but for the most part didn't stir the reader like one had hoped they would.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Trapped In the Closet

My curiosity finally got the best of me and I was able to find the time to rent R. Kelly's Trapped In the Closet. The rampant homophobia and midgetphobia, as well as stereotypes of overweight white women, that ran through the piece were exactly what was to be expected from a man who gets his thrills by pissing on underage girls.

Still, I found these twenty-two chapters worth of epic saga appealing. R. Kelly has taken on the role of the minstrel. I don't mean to say that he is rehashing Dust Bowl era minstrelsy such as black face. He is working in an older tradition, a bardic one that stretches back through Chaucer and Homer. His rhymed and sung narrative is cheesy, stupid, and self-absorbed, but something about it makes it an achievement that it is hard to turn away from.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Blazing Saddles

Well, I finally saw Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles for the first time since I had a real conscience. I may have watched parts of it out of curiosity over the years, but I remembered what I had seen quite differently. My overall impression was that it was hopelessly racist against so many different types of people. No group comes out of this unscathed, though whites are the least obviously stereotyped. This may be because I'm not accustomed to searching out white stereotypes, though. Needless to say, I was offended by various times by portrayals of Hispanics, Arabs, Native Americans, Jews, etc. The movie did have, potentially, two saving graces however.

The first was its wonderfully post-modern ending where Bart and the Waco Kid are riding through Hollywood and decide to go catch the ending of Blazing Saddles. Once they begin watching the movie, they themselves as characters are even more hyperaware of themselves as artifice than usual. My favorite touch was that on screen, the Waco Kid is eating movie theatre popcorn even as his doubled character is watching him from the confines of a movie theatre seat.

The other saving grace arose from the plot. While it is racist against everyone, it does save itself a little bit in regards to African-Americans by having Bart be a brilliant hero who thinks outside the box. This allows the film to create a situation where the whites who are stereotyped as racist (with a couple exceptions) are made into complete idiots. This allows Hedley Lamarr, the head-honcho of the jerks, to instruct his gang of criminals to "do that voodoo that you do so well." The line is of course stolen from Cole Porter, but what makes the line brilliant, and the movie's second saving grace, is that Hedley Lamarr, who abhors non-WASPs, is invoking a traditionally black, pagan belief system in order to cheer on his motley crew.

Monday, April 7, 2008


I get to share my birthday with some pretty kickass people. Billie Holiday, post-modernist Donald Barthelme, Romantic poet William Wordsworth, Will Keith Kellogg (who was a trusting enough capitalist that he let Mr. Post steal his recipe before patenting it himself), Ravi Shankar, Francis Ford Coppola, Janis Ian . . . hell, even James Garner is pretty cool. Before some late-career features that proved a little light, he was the badass gambler I got my middle name from (Bret Maverick); not a bad compendium of folks at all. Definitely enough to overshadow John Hall's contribution to the world.

If it wasn't completely obvious, I love music, and so I got to thinking today about The Beatles' song "Birthday" and its strengths and weaknesses. Its strengths are all obvious. It has a great guitar riff and some shredding vocals. Sir Paul gives it a real workout. Its weaknesses all stem from it being a birthday song.

Let's start at the beginning (a very good place to start). The joy of birthdays is their exclusivity; it is the one holiday of the year that is meant to celebrate you -- your own special day. The openings lines of "Birthday" are "you say it's your birthday. / Well, it's my birthday too, yeah." No one wants to hear that on their birthday. Who is going to come to your birthday party if they have the option of punch and cake with your parents or jammin' to the Venus and Mars rock show in London? Your own siblings would sneak out to go to Paul's party. I mean, maybe Matthew and Gunnar Nelson love this song, but unless you're a twin, sharing your birthday sounds like a nightmare.

Then you get a verse where Paul wants you to dance and take a ch-ch-ch-chance. That's great. I love to dance. But then at the end of the verse, Paul gives this gut-wrenching scream where he sounds like a mad scientist caught in a bear trap. It's a little scary. Bill Nye can come to my party, but Gargamel can stay home.

Still, Ringo keeps the beat rockin'. And, if today is your birthday, I'm glad it's your birthday. Happy birthday to you.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Dr. Pepper Sham

I'll eat my words if I'm wrong (I assume some of them, such as "Dr. Pepper," will actually be quite tasty), but anyone who automatically buys into this fraud about Dr. Pepper pushing for Chinese Democracy's release is too easily led. Ok, the NY Post covering it looks real, but if you go to nypost.com and search for the article title, anything on Axl Rose, etc. you come up blank. Also, it is appearing on their gossip page and, as a tabloid, the Post hasn't always been the most believable of New York's journalism institutions. I dunno, this just can't be real. More to follow ... ?

Even if this is a real promotion, I still agree with Chuck Klosterman: China will get democracy before we get Chinese Democracy.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Some thoughts on "Highlands"

Highlands” is a Bob Dylan song that takes place on Easter. There is plenty of evidence of Easter in the song’s setting. Physically, the song is not set in the Highlands as one might expect, but rather in Boston. Boston has a tradition, historically, of being a heavily Catholic town, lending the necessary religiosity. Dylan wanders into a restaurant and deduces it must be a holiday because “there’s no one around.” He sees people in the park wearing “bright colored clothes,” a bit reminiscent of the beginning of Spring and the pastels associated with Easter. The big piece of evidence, though, is that the waitress expects Dylan to order hard-boiled eggs.

In this context, the Highlands seem not to be the Scottish highlands that Robert Burns wrote of (and that Dylan steals from in the chorus), but rather a metaphorical highlands of the soul; one that is far away from the secular world. Potentially, this could even be read as heaven – especially given the line “big white clouds like chariots that swing down low – although I think that reading limits the song’s potential. As Dylan sings, “my heart’s in the Highlands, and that’s good enough for now.” If one reads it strictly as heaven, then the song is about death. Dylan is still alive, though. If the Highlands were heaven and he needed to get their, he could accept death. Death certainly is one aspect of the song, but it doesn’t seem to be the most important aspect.

The song seems focused instead on contemporary society’s focus on image and how that leads us toward vanity and away from the Highlands. In this context, the Highlands can be described as a mindset, a moral high road which will help lead one on a path through life which will help them reach a potentially more concrete Highlands in the afterlife. Certainly, this is not a new theme for Dylan, but he does a great job of expressing it here nonetheless. The most central summation of this theme comes in a conversation the narrator has with a waitress. She asks him to draw her, and the artist doesn’t want to. After trying to dodge the issue for several verses, he finally draws her on a napkin. She is horrified by the drawings ugliness, and he tells her that it looks just like her. What happened is, he drew her insides rather than her outside, and what he found there disturbed him. He didn’t want to have to draw her because he knew that she wouldn’t be able to face the truth of herself.

There are other intimations of image and wealth as well. The idea of image is alluded to with the line “wouldn’t know the difference between a real blonde and a fake.” Part of that is that there are so many people with false hair colors that it has gotten difficult to remember whose is real. The other important part of this line is that blonde is often seen as the ideal hair color. People are trying to make themselves match the ideal in their heads, and companies, looking to profit off of this, are making hair dyes so realistic that they cannot be detected. Similarly, those most interested in image get their hair recolored so often, again fueling the capitalist cycle of the whole thing, that one can also not tell they have dye in by examining their roots. Dylan at one point suggests that if he had a conscience he could “sell it to the pawn shop,” showing that everything has a price and that the moral high ground that has been represented for so long as the conscience has been traded away in exchange for more wealth.

Elsewhere, life is described as the “same old rat race, life in the same old cage.” The idea there is that the “rat race,” the rushed pace of always trying to better ones self, often financially or in terms of image, actually imprisons people. It makes them a slave to their image or to their bank account, a slave to their own base desires. Stuck in this cage, people feel unable to life freely. Later, the narrator “feels like a prisoner in a world of mystery,” furthering that sense of claustrophobia brought on by the contemporary, post-industrial age. Looking around at what has happened to the world saddens the narrator to the point where he has lost his conscience. He feels that he has lost it because he is no longer angry at the world. As he claims, “If I had a conscience, well I just might blow my top.”

This all sounds pretty hopeless, but the song is not without the potential for change. There are two possibilities for a return to grace that Dylan implies in the song. Early on, Dylan says “I wish someone’d come and push back the clock for me.” As with much of Dylan’s work, most notably the liner notes for World Gone Wrong, this calls for a return to a simpler time that has faded away. Judging from the World Gone Wrong notes, this seems to be a return to an agrarian society, one of the pre-industrial age. Of course, this change seems improbable at best and errs on the side of impossibility in truth. The other possibility seems to be the youth. Dylan describes “the young men with the young women lookin’ so good” and claims he’d “trade places with any of them in a minute if [he] could.” There are many readings to these lines. Dylan could want to erase all of the mistakes he has made in his life. He may just want a chance to do different things or to have the vitality to go out there and change the world. From the song’s overall tone, though, one would imagine that he’d want to be young again for reasons that reach deeper than “drinkin’ and dancin’ [and] wearing bright colored clothes.” I think Dylan may see some hope in the coming generations. Of course, youth turns into old age, and soon the young generation will turn into the old.

The young becoming old and being replaced by new young brings us back, in some ways, to the idea of resurrection, which is what Easter is all about. The spirit of a strong moral structure (though not necessarily a traditional moral structure) being reborn within America’s vibrant youth.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Queens Logic

I finished watching a movie called Queens Logic just now, and it struck me as a really brilliant and underrated movie for one main reason, which I'll get to later.

As an overview, its one of those nearing-thirty crisis movies where everyone seems to be coming to terms with who they are and where they fit in the world, if they fit at all. The cast was a great ensemble cast of people who were about to make it, some who were in a fallow period, and some who never did. It has Joe Mantegna and John Malkovich in possibly their finest roles, as well as Tom Waits, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Kevin Bacon. I don't usually like Kevin Bacon, but he played an asshole, so its alright. It had a few great lines. My personal favorite, for obvious reasons to those who know me, is when Kevin Bacon falls down and hurts himself dancing. Someone asks whats wrong with him and John Malkovich says, "oh, he's just a white boy who thinks he's James Brown." I also have to give kudos to the soundtrack, which was absolutely amazing. I have never seen Van Morrison, Marvin Gaye and Benny Goodman mix so eloquently together. Not to mention Sly & the Family Stone, David Bowie and Cheap Trick.

What really struck me about this movie, though, was its portrayal of homosexuality. The group basically follows a group of friends reconvening as the second member of the group moves towards marriage. Meanwhile, another member's marriage is falling apart. John Malkovich is the gay friend. Gays in films are often portrayed as a bit flaky and quite a bit feminine. There is a scene where John Malkovich explains why he is lonely; gay men fall into a trap of emulating otherness because society expects that of him, and he doesn't want to give up his sense of himself as being naturally masculine, and thus he is doomed to being alienated from relationships with either sex. Basically, he's a tough gay guy.

This was a pretty odd yet liberating image for 1991, but its still fresh. Here's why. The most memorable film about masculine gay guys in the mainstream public's mind is Brokeback Mountain. The problem with that is the two guys know their gay, and we see that they are gay when they are together, but they are in denial to the rest of the world. Along with their image of "straightness," namely their masculinity, they put up a front of being straight in public. What this means is that the movie is really saying that society isn't ready to accept masculine gay men. If society was, then they wouldn't have felt the need to repress their relationship in public. Queens Logic is built on an ensemble cast, though, and that means Malkovich's character is constantly surrounded by a variety of people, both straight and gay, but he's still open about it. John Malkovich's character is the most openly gay masculine character I've seen in a movie, which is what I think makes the movie worth one viewing. (I'm probably leaving someone out, but at the moment, he's the most mascuiline openly gay character I can think of, especially in an American film pre-1992.)

Overall, Queens Logic isn't a great film. In the end, it's rather predictable and none of its promising aspects (the cast, the soundtrack) carry it enough for it to fully succeed. Still, if you see it in a bargain bin (like I did) or at your local video store, it might be worth picking up.

Friday, March 21, 2008

On Monetary Denominations -- The Penny

I got my first new five dollar bill today, and they are more interesting than I expected, but I don't think they are as pretty as the orange ten or the red white and blue fifty (which I've glanced at just once). I'm curious as to what the hundred has changed to, but I haven't seen one of those in ages. It got me thinking about pennies.

Pennies are an annoyance, and every once in awhile as a diverison from more important issues there will be talk of eliminating them. I think it is finally time for the penny to go, but I think that if I were six years old I would disagree. When I was six, I loved pennies. I'd hear talk of the treasury getting rid of them and I'd freak out. I thought, "how will I ever make it in this world without pennies?" When you are a kid, parents let you use pennies like they are play money. They are about all you ever get. When I was little I thought that one day I'd collect enough pennies that they would amass to something. So, while old me is tired of pennies, the idealist in me thinks we should keep them around for the kids.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

We Can't Work It Out: The Fab War -- Round 10

"Old Brown Shoe" v. "Dear Prudence" v. "Rocky Raccoon" v. "The End"

"Dear Prudence" is among the most gorgeous songs ever written. It begins nearly funereal before working up too a fever about the sky being blue. Truly an amazing song. This was written for Mia Farrow's sister, if memory serves, as an attempt to get her to quit being a prude and have a good time with everyone else. I can't imagine it not working.

"Rocky Raccoon" is an amazing track as well, though. Paul decided to write this for the album after having heard Bob Dylan's John Wesley Harding, along with other country-tinged tracks like "Mother Nature's Son." The characters from Wind In the Willows walk into a Dodge City saloon. Beautiful. The nonsensical scatting over the ragtime piano is even a revelation.

Overall, "The End" is a better song than "Old Brown Shoe," but if I have to limit it to Ringo's contributions, even if it is one of his best the prize goes to "Old Brown Shoe."

This round:

John: 4
Paul: 3
George: 2
Ringo: 1

Totals thus far:

John: 30
Paul: 28
George: 24
Ringo: 18

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Wizard Rock

I recently attended my first mini Wizard-Rock festival. Wizard Rock is a new genre of rock where all of the acts are supposed to dress like Harry Potter characters and sing songs about the franchise. I went to see all the freaks in costume. Unfortunately, only a few band members dressed up, along with maybe one or two of the general public. One guy dressed up as Voldemort and danced onstage incessantly. In reality, he was just an annoyance in white face. It remained a mystery whether the bands brought him with them as part of the show or if he was just a nutty local. Personally, I suspect that he was an undergrad who felt thrilled at the idea of sleeping with a Hermione impersonator. Overall, I was a little less than impressed. Here was the lineup:

Ginny & the Heartbreakers
Ministry of Magic
The Moaning Myrtles
The Mudbloods
The Remus Lupins

To be fair, I missed the Mudbloods and the Remus Lupins. Here are my thoughts on the others:

Ginny & the Heartbreakers were totally diappointing. I listened to their MySpace and thought they were okay. They performed "Harry Potter Gets Naked" at K-State and I assumed that since they supported reading, they were against censorship. The song is actually about Daniel Radcliffee getting naked on stage in London. Their message, though, is that he should "get his pants back on," and that doens't sit too well with me. I had hoped that as warriors for literacy they would be a bit more open-minded. Also, with the name Ginny and the Heartbreakers, I had expected at minimum a red-headed lead singer. The band consisted of two brunettes and a redhead.

The Ministry of Magic took the stage like they owned the place. They didn't. At first, I thought they sounded like early Beastie Boys (pre- Paul's Botique), but I was wrong. As their set progressed, it became clear that they were very repetitive. This trio in sweater vests bounced around stage, jumping over each others backs and simulating a microscopic mosh pit. They were three guys rapping over sampled beats; unfortumately, they had trouble rapping more than their own name. "We're the ministry of magic, yo" seemed to be about all they could muster.

The Parselmouth, two slytherin girls, had the most promising samples on their myspace page, which is why I bought their CD. In concert, they weren't as impressive. I know one of them plays piano, but in concert one barely played guitar. I would have liked a little more musical variety, though they were better than the ministry. As far as theatrics go, I had expected more green. They were both rather tall and as I remember wore mostly grey, but the shorter one had on hot pink, high-heeled Chuck Taylor's (which we used to call All-Stars), and that was by far the most memorable feature visually. During "What Kind of Name is Hermoine?," the girls brought out a third girl to play the part of Hermoine. She should have switched out with one of the brunettes in Ginny and the Weasleys because, unlike Hermoine, she was a redhead.

The Moaning Myrtles featured some of the simplest yet most effective costuming. The pianist had on navy blue knee-high stockings along with a gray skirt, which seemed both in keeping with the theme and also as though it was a conscious effort to be attractive. This would seem to me t be what you'd want to do if you were to mix Harry Potter and rock; keep rock's sex element while bringing in the wizardry. Their songs were all about one subject -- namely being a bathroom ghost -- but they brought some wicked piano riffs reminiscent of Nellie McKay and Fiona Apple. If they ever broaden their horizons, they have some real potential.

Like I said, I missed the last two acts. The others were ok, but I can only hope they improved. If my ticket sales hadn't have gone to help kids read I'd have been miffed. I had heard the music would be really good, just with limited lyrical content. I found limits in both. Still, I hope wizard rock expands and continues as a genre of its own in the years to come.

All that being said, I did buy a Parselmouths CD, appropriately titled Sssssss. Standout songtitles include "Let's Get Hagrid Fired," "What Kind of Name Is Hermione?" and "Kicking House Elves." Musically, they aren't half bad. Their songs usually are based on a few simple chords which make up a very basic riff, which they occaisionally supplement with drum machines.

The album opens with a spoken track called "Hey Guys," which consists of the girls thanking you for buying their cd. They break up laughing about halfway through, but its so geeky its almost cute.

"Eating Slugs" is perhaps the most melodic Parselmouths' offering while "Being in Slytherin Is Not Half Bad" is their funniest. The latter chronicles how the girls are slackers yet still make good grades in potions because Prof. Snape is too busy busting Potter's ass to care about them. "Daddy's Tattoo," about the mark of the Death Eaters, is both humorous and Potteresque.

Other humorous titles include "Life's Unfair," about a crush on an older professor. Another is "Two Classes," whose melody sounds lifted off a dozen 90s female singer-songwriters. Ultimately, the song is an open letter to their academic advisor about how they shouldn't be required to take "Muggle Studies" nor "Defense Against the Dark Arts."

The album isn't all great though. "Parselmouths Say Hello" is way too techno-y while "When You're A Parselmouth" walks the same line. When it comes to getting to teched out, I can only hope Hufflepuff and Gryffindor have some more musical authenticity.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Shameless Self-Promotion

Time for a little shameless self-promotion. Kansas State University released its intersession class list today, so I thought I'd post the description for the one I'm teaching.

It's a deal too. Only 612.50 for residents and 1,586 for non- residents. Sign up today! ;)

Bob Dylan's Literary Contexts

Engl 295

05/19/2008 to 06/06/2008

9 am to 12 pm MTWUF

3 Undergraduate Credit Hours

Recent years have seen an increasingly high level of academic interst in the work of Bob Dylan. As Dylan's oeuvre continues to grow it is important to consider his place in the American arts, and his contributions to language are just as important as his contributions to music. The main focus of the class would be on the text of Dylan's songs. Close readings of the lyrics would be supplemented with readings from critical articles, chapters from book-length studies of Dylan, and Dylan's own commentary, through both interviews and prose.

A course pack will be used.

Class #94511

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Why Mr. Magorium Couldn't Work his Magic for Ebert

When Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium was released, critics scathed it, and unnecessarily so. I saw it recently, and while it was no Neverending Story, it wasn't the worst children's film I've seen either. Here's my theory on why:

Critics have an imbedded loathing of kids films that aren't computer animated. The critics, jumped all over Ratatouille. I remember reading early reviews which suggested that it might be nominated for best picture, and, while I certainly enjoyed Ratatouille, it wasn't as interesting of a film as other Pixar-fare such as Meet the Robinsons or The Incredibles.

In the seventies and eighties there were loads of mystical, incredible live action and puppet films: Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Muppet Movie, Neverending Story, The Peanut Butter Solution, Willow, Labyrinth. Not all of those got great reviews either. Sure, the effects may come off as more hokey than inspired and realistic, but that just means these films require a little more of what makes them magical -- imagination. If people just came Mr. Magorium a chance, they'd find in it some of the same magic that makes these films so inspiring.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Jill Sobule Charity

Jill Sobule is an indie icon. Her music is smart; she's among the most affecting lyricsits I know and her words are carried along on gorgeous melodies.

I came to Jill Sobule's music relatively late, around the realease of her most recent album, Underdog Victorious. I saw the video for "Cinnamon Park," an early seventies power-pop throwback (it samples Chicago, but has the spirit of the Raspberries with Melanie sitting in). The song was wicked catchy and the video was wild, so I ordered the album immediately. It quickly became one of my two most-played albums of 2004 (along with Nellie McKay's Get Away From
Me). "Cinnamon Park" also soon became my least favorite song on the album. I didn't enjoy it any less; the rest of the album was just that tremendous. "Jetpack" is the best love song cum social-class awareness ever. It far surpasses runner-up "Workingman's Blues #2" (sorry, Bob), and that's saying something. Her musical range is astonishing too. The lounge-dance vibe of "Joey"is as accomplished as the rockabilly rave up of "I Saw A Cop." Now I have all of her studio albums and am a fan of every one.

The problem is, Sobule is in danger of not having another album. She has it written, but needs the money to properly record and promote it. Instead of trying to broker a deal with a label, she is taking matters into her own hands. Sobule is asking fans to sponsor her album, and is offering various prizes depending on their level of sponsorship. Check it out and lend her a few bucks:




By the time I posted this, Jill had exceeded her goal and is no longer accepting donations - go Jill! Hopefully, she will stop somewhere near Kansas (or wherever I might be living at the time) on tour. In the meantime, while we are all feening for her next disc, go out and buy whatever you don't have and give it a spin. You are bound to be impressed!

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Irish Jam

If you have ever wondered what kind of movie place traditional Celtic folk music alongside some bouncin' hip-hop, wonder no more. Irish Jam, which I picked up from the St. Patrick's Day dispaly at the local store Digital Shelf, has both. Eddie Griffin sends in an entry to a Irish poetry contest, the prize of which is ownership of a pub. Once there, he falls in love with an Irish lass who is promised to the local racist. Conflict ensues, but everyone ends happy. Is this a good movie? No. Is it the worst movie I've seen? Maybe. Still, I don't want those 88 minutes of my life back. The theme song, "Irish Jam," sounds like a 2006 update of "Men In Black," except instead of Will Smith rapping about aliens you have Eddie Griffin rapping about leprechauns decked out in bling. The melody of the chorus is the same, but "Jam" has a better backbeat which makes the movie bearable.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Flowers Forever -- The Next Big Thing?

I saw these guys a few weeks ago when they opened for Daniel Johnston in Omaha, NE. Frankly, I wasn't that impressed. They had a bass player who was obviously copying his every move off of the Who's John Entwhistle and their lead singer kept attempting making love to his guitar. He hopped around the stage like a kid too happy to be on exctacy and basically annoyed me. There were a few moments though where I took notice. One song, "Jealous Motherfucker" (these guys are semi-big on profanity) features a catchy chorus that goes "Are you high? Nooo. Are you loooooow?" My friend Tony aptly pointed out that it was the kind of thing I'd pick out at karaoke. Another strong point of their set was a tremendous revisioning of "Strange Fruit," the Lewis Allen-penned Billie Holiday classic. Truly amazing.

Still, I wasn't that impressed, but my friend Will was. He bought their album and begged to listen to it on the drive home. When we finally put it on, it was like the blinders were lifted. This band was amazing in the studio. They were like a garage raga version of the Arcade Fire. Unique and strangely powerful. Unfortunately, I thought I'd never get a chance to own their album. The next day I went by the local indie record store (Sister of Sound -- dig it!) and told the younger sister about the album. Went I went back today to investigate an order I'd made, they had it among the new releases with a note about them having opened for Daniel Johnston. I gushed with excitement and bought it immediately.

Listening to it anew, it still sounds as good as I had hoped it would. I got four cds today, and against heavy competition (Bob Dylan's Artist's Choice for Starbucks and Good For What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows, 1926-1937), I listened to this one first. The liner notes are among the most elaborate I've seen -- a fold out, diamond-shaped mosaic of drug-addled dementia. The lyrics are included, but its the weirdness of the photos that brands the brain with searing sensation.

Don't get me wrong; some of their stuff is the overblown suckage one might expect from arthouse rock. "Golden Shackles" is an overly didactic political song that ends with the chant "Some change better come! We ain't fuckin' around no more!" Sorry to tell you this, but what do you think you're gonna do if change doesn't come? It's not like you are Neil Young, and its not like he can do anything but make another album. Sorry, but your either fucking around or your whining; which do you prefer?

Still, despite the wining, I suggest anyone who finds this album to pick it up. It is a true gem to hear.