Previous month:
February 2009
Next month:
April 2009

friday random ten, 1970 edition

The videos mostly suck this week ... the best ones are of poor quality, the ones of good quality in video and sound aren't much good otherwise ...  and it's late and I need to go to bed. So this will be quick.

1. The Temptations, "Psychedelic Shack." This video isn't so bad, and you get to see Ed Sullivan introduce the song.

2. George Harrison, "Isn't It a Pity (Version One)." Arguably the best song George ever did. He piled on the production, John did the same but made it sound like he didn't, and there you have All Things Must Pass vs. Plastic Ono Band. Funny thing is, this song could have fit right in with John, if not on the solo debut, then on Imagine. Minus the obtrusive production, of course ... make it sound like you didn't.

3. Aretha Franklin, "Spirit in the Dark." Terrific, if lo-fi, footage of Aretha and Ray at the Fillmore West.

4. Paul Kantner and Jefferson Starship, "Have You Seen the Stars Tonight?" I have no use for the subsequent Starship, and Blows Against the Empire seems silly forty years later. But this is a lovely little song, and I liked the album quite a bit in my wannabe hippie days.

5. Joni Mitchell, "The Circle Game." Video is suspect, but claims to be Joni in 1966.

6. Derek and the Dominos, "Layla." Interesting video ... Eric gets Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, even what looks like Mark Knopfler on guitar, and the entire batch isn't as good as Duane's overdubs on the original. One of the greatest songs in rock history, in any event.

7. Brook Benton, "Rainy Night in Georgia." Don't hear much about Benton these days, although he had plenty of hits in his day.

8. Led Zeppelin, "Immigrant Song." This video made the rounds a few years ago. Recently someone emailed it to me and I laughed all over again. The hammer of the Gods!

9. Mick Jagger, "Memo from Turner." In my wannabe hippie days, Performance was my favorite movie. In my film school days, Performance was my favorite movie. It's not my favorite movie in 2009, although I still love it. For some reason, this song isn't on YouTube, so I've subbed Mick channeling Robert Johnson ... perhaps the best video of this bunch.

10. Dave Mason, "Look at You Look at Me." As I have said many times, the loopy guitar solo that drips through the end of this track was my favorite thing to listen to when I was tripping ... it just sounds like the world is melting. I still love to listen to it, although once again, the video version is no match.

more bruce obsessive behavior

Charlie mentioned that he hadn't connected much with Bruce's original work since Tom Joad, and while I'm much more of a fanboy on the subject and thus have connected with a lot of that work, I agree with Charlie that Bruce's recorded peak, at least, was in the past. Still, I got to thinking ... how do I rate 21st-century Bruce Springsteen? So, here goes ... not including guest shots or reissues.

Live in New York City. Documents the Reunion Tour, which was wonderful, and features lots of terrific performances. Nonetheless, it's botched ... songs are out of order, and it matters.

The Rising. A solid album with no real duds, a handful of real winners, and plenty of songs that worked well in concert. We went to 3 shows on the Rising Tour, and they were all very good ... duh ... if not quite up to the Reunion.

Live in Barcelona. The best live Bruce available via official channels, and the best thing of any kind he has done since at least Tunnel of Love. The band is red-hot, the crowd even hotter, and for once, they didn't fuck it up ... the entire concert is right here, presented in the order it was played. Amazing that it took rock's greatest live performer 30 years to do it right.

Devils & Dust. Probably my least-favorite 21st-century Bruce. It's not bad, but I rarely return to it, and if, like The Rising, there are no real duds, unlike The Rising there are no clear classics, either. We saw him once on this tour ... it was interesting, when you've been to as many as we have it's good to get a different kind of show, and it was fun standing next to Robin Williams in the bar before the show. But if, for some awful reason, I had to miss a Bruce show, it would have been this one.

We Shall Overcome. The Seeger Sessions album itself is good, not great. Bruce continues to try new musical directions, and those people who were turned off by this one and sat out the tour have only themselves to blame. But in the end, this album is just a warmup for:

Live in Dublin. Another great live album, blows the studio stuff away, and shows a looser Bruce than you've ever seen. Since Barcelona isn't on CD (it's just a video), Live in Dublin is the best album Bruce has made thus far in the 21st century. It's telling that his two best artifacts of this century are live performances (you could throw in the 1975 Hammersmith Odeon show while you're at it). We only saw one show on this tour, too, and it was a blast.

Magic. See The Rising, above: solid, no duds, handful of classics, worked well in concert. We saw four shows on this tour ... well, I saw four, Robin saw two. The last two were as good as any I've seen, and I saw him five times in the 70s (including Winterland), was at the famous "Roses and Broken Hearts" show in '88, and was at three Reunion shows ... all of those are highly-regarded, for good reason, but a year ago, at the tail end of the Magic Tour, everything was working. Not everyone agrees ... Robin thought they were strong shows but that they lacked a theme, which she looks for in his shows. But the whole stupid "crowd brings signs with requests written on them, Bruce pulls signs out of crowd and plays the songs" thing remarkably turned out to be great. You never knew what they'd play next, which to a certain extent has been true throughout his career, but here it added just the right goofy element (and I've always loved Goofy Bruce, and am always glad when he comes out to play). The last of the four shows saw, amidst the usual combination of warhorses and Magic cuts, "Trapped," "Incident on 57th Street," even the damn Detroit Medley ... the night before, we got "Spirit in the Night" and "Sherry Darling" ... even Rosie showed up, only the second time in 20 years that I'd gotten my favorite Bruce song of them all. At this point, you expect the E Street Band to be a well-oiled machine ... the requests kept them on their toes and threw them outside their comfort level a bit, which was for the best.

Working on a Dream. Won't know about the live angle until next week. A few songs seem like naturals for the concert hall ... "Good Eye" and "Outlaw Pete" come to mind, although there's nothing like "Mary's Place," which seemed kinda slight on The Rising but you could already tell how much fun it was going to be to shout "TURN IT UP!" I look forward to whatever song features Nils' nightly gee-tar workout ("Because the Night" took the honor on the first rehearsal show). We won't get Max's son on drums ... they're saving that for Europe, although I suppose he might sit in for a number.

So ... 21st-century Bruce? The two must-haves are the Barcelona and Dublin DVDs (or Blu-rays if you've got it ... not sure that Barcelona is on Blu-ray, now that I think of it). The Dublin CD is a reasonable alternative, but I think it plays better with visuals.

I've often said in recent years that we got lucky when Bruce fell into our laps as Our Favorite, because he's not just a dinosaur as he approaches 60 ... he still makes albums that are good and relevant, if not stone-cold classics, and his live shows are, if anything, better than ever, hard as that is to believe. And his recorded output over the past decade has been interesting even when it falls short ... The Rising sounded like classic Bruce, Devils & Dust returned to the soft sound, Seeger mixed Dixieland and bluegrass, Magic filtered classic Bruce through a different producer, and WOAD is very ambitious in its arrangements. Next week is gonna be fun.

Top five tracks from the primary studio albums of the 21st century, in alphabetical order:

Into the Fire
Long Walk Home
My City of Ruins
O Mary Don't You Weep
The Wrestler

working on a dream

Bruce's latest album has been out for awhile, and I haven't said much, if anything, about it here. Mostly this is because I want to hear the songs live, when I expect they will shine brighter than on the album (as is usually true for him). But since the concert is only six days away, I might offer a word or two.

Working on a Dream didn't grab me at first. The opening track, "Outlaw Pete," irritated me ... I didn't like the use of the word "pony" (honest, this really bugged me), thought the intrusion of the little-boy language (Bounty Hunter Dan) was unnecessary. To be honest, it still bugs me. But the music on "Outlaw Pete" is ambitious and successful, and that pretty much sums up my feelings about this album. The music carries it when anything else falters. I don't think the vocals are Bruce's finest, although in the quieter numbers, he's lovely.

But there are two things I think the album does well. The arrangements, recalling sixties pop, are mostly excellent ... he's never hidden his roots in garage rock and junk R&B, but here he shows off his affection for the Beach Boys and the Byrds. And the lyrics, taken as a whole, are strong on their own, and especially poignant when compared to the more brash adventures of his 70s classics. Song after song features hard-won intimacies ... you wouldn't say there's a lot of celebrating going on, this isn't "climb in my front seat and let's ride" but "we rode and we're still here." The world in these songs is sad, if not harsh ... the singer and his partner in love are survivors, and the world isn't a better place because of their love, but their love makes the world easier to take for the lovers. Once you get past the spaghetti-western opener, it's these songs that I find most evocative.

A few other songs get my attention. "Good Eye" is a welcome blues-rocker ... I look forward to this one next week. "The Last Carnival" does a good job of saying goodbye to Danny. And "The Wrestler" is as good here as ever.

As for "Queen of the Supermarket" ... I don't know, sometimes I think it's his worst song since "Mary, Queen of Arkansas" on his very first album, other times I think it's pleasingly sweet. I'd almost think it was a joke if he didn't put so much feeling into the vocals. I mean, what are we to make of the last verse?

As I lift my groceries into my cart
I turn back for a moment and catch a smile
That blows this whole fucking place apart

Looking forward to next Wednesday ...

what i watched last week

A slow movie week ... too much time spent obsessing over the end of Battlestar Galactica.

The Fallen Idol. There's a lot of interesting subtext in this trim Carol Reed/Graham Greene film. Reed is said to have been "good with children," but I'm not so sure in this particular case ... Reed apparently struggled to keep young Bobby Henrey focused during filming, and the eventual performance led me, at least, to want to strangle the little brat by the film's end. Which I don't think is what Reed was looking for. More likely, it's just me ... most people think Henrey is fine. #671 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the 1000 Greatest Films. 8/10.

all earth, no quakes

Went to the Earthquakes opener Saturday night. It was rainy, the match was poorly played, the home team lost. If they had won, I wouldn't have minded about the rain or the poor play. Because they lost, the wetness sucked and the poor play was noticeable. This wasn't exactly Barcelona vs. Bayern Munich.

When everything is clicking for the team, and they are scoring goals and winning matches, it is great fun to go to Buck Shaw Stadium. When the team is losing, you are reminded that the level of play in MLS still has a way to go. Last night, they lost, and I was reminded.

there must be some way out of here

I am not a religious person, but I like to think I understand the impulse towards believing. My favorite religious movie of all time is Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which I take to be about the search for meaning that lies just beyond our grasp, with the benevolent aliens sitting in for god. In the infamous mashed potato scene, when Richard Dreyfuss is trying to explain his bizarre behavior to his family, and he says "this MEANS something" ... that is the religious impulse.

Battlestar Galactica was always a religious show. Even the original show had deep connections to Mormonism, which isn't to say the revision followed the same path, but points out that religion was at the core of BSG since its origins. The more recent series covered a lot of ground, politics, ethics, machismo (male and female), identity, the military ... and yes, religion. It was only one part of many, and the series was so complex, nothing took true precedence over anything else. Well, the show's emphasis on its characters was probably the central focus ... it was always more about the Adamas and Starbuck and the Cylons than it was about any specific topic. My point is that this was a religious show, and I am not known to obsess over religious television.

And so ... and here I'm avoiding spoilers except in the most general sense ... when I say that the final hours of Battlestar Galactica showed how important religion was to the world on the series, and how serious they were about presenting religion as something unknowable and mysterious but also most definitely real ... no, that's not it, even an atheist believes religion is real, you can't argue that people don't believe, the atheist just claims what is believed is not real. But in Battlestar Galactica, it is real. What "it" is may not be explained, largely because none of the characters are sure, and it's about the characters. But I don't have to be a believer myself to appreciate the way this series showed how religion affects people's lives, and not just for the worse.

With each reoccurrence of "All Along the Watchtower," the "final five" Cylons and we in the audience were experiencing "Richard Dreyfuss" moments. This MEANS something, we'd say to ourselves, but it was just beyond our grasp. Knowing the meaning was there but not quite "getting it" was a sure case of hurts so bad it feels good.

And so ... and if you've read this far but haven't watched the finale, this isn't really a spoiler but if you're really picky about them, stop now ... one of the best parts about the finale was that the whole "Watchtower" thing that had made me ache with joy and anticipation finally resolved itself in a manner that was good enough for me, at least.

ron moore on battlestar galactica and "all along the watchtower"

The notion is that the music, the lyrics, the composition is something divine, it's eternal. It's something that lives in the collective unconscious of the show, it's a musical theme that repeats itself. It crops up in unexpected places, and people hear it, or pluck it out of the ether. It's sort of a connection of the divine and the mortal -- music is something that people literally catch out of the air... Here is a song that transcends many different aeons and cultures across the star, and was reinvented by one Mr. Bob Dylan.

[interviewed by Alan Sepinwall]

friday random ten, 1969 edition

1. The Edwin Hawkins Singers, "Oh Happy Day." Not a lot of gospel tracks make the pop charts.

2. Sly and the Family Stone, "I Want to Take You Higher." This seems kinda silly, but is it possible that people have forgotten Sly? This is one of the most important and influential bands in pop music history ... just for starters, without them, there is no Prince. But, and it's possible I just hang out with the wrong people, no one mentions these folks very often any more. Doesn't make sense ... I'm probably wrong.

3. Laura Nyro, "Save the Country." In her heyday, you either "got" her or you didn't ... not a lot of in between. Her fans loved her, that's for sure.

4. Mother Earth, "You Win Again." Tracy Nelson, forever doomed to be Not Janis. Too bad, she's a terrific singer.

5. Crosby, Stills and Nash, "Helplessly Hoping." Back in the day, I played bass in a garage band. About the only time we'd get any actual gigs was when we'd do folkie shows. At one of them, it was me, along with two singer/guitarists, a man and a woman (really a boy and a girl, I guess) who had actual talent in the vocal department. Me, I could carry a tune, that was about it. And while I'm fine with doing harmony, I have a tendency to sing the lead part. Well, this song was in our repertoire, and my job was to sing the third part of the harmony ... no bass guitar, just sing. But I'd always sing the lead part. Still, I was OK if I just got started in the right place. So, as the introductory guitar part was being played, I plucked out my first note on my bass ... boom, boom, boom, boom. It sounded pretty stupid. But when the vocals began, I'd sing that note, and my third-part harmony was just fine.

6. B.B. King, "The Thrill Is Gone." Hard to deny the man a hit single.

7. Joni Mitchell, "Both Sides Now." I like this video ... it's fun to see famous songs performed before they became warhorses.

8. Jefferson Airplane, "We Can Be Together." This really brings back memories of my wannabe hippie days. The Airplane were my favorite, and when I was 16, hearing Grace sing "up against the wall, motherfucker" gave me a real charge. Seems pretty stupid now. One of those great songs that makes me cringe.

9. Desmond Dekker and the Aces, "Israelites." A top ten reggae song. In 1969.

10. Brewer and Shipley, "All Along the Watchtower." OK, you non-fans can rest easy ... tonight is the last episode of Battlestar Galactica, and thus this is probably the last time I'll fudge the shuffle play to get "Watchtower" on there. This is the third year in a row, and it's easily the worst one I've posted. But it gives me an excuse to stick another BSG video on the list: