Badly Drawn Boy–It’s What I’m Thinking, Pt. 1

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It’s been four year’s since Badly Drawn Boy’s (Damon Gough) last release, Born in the U.K.  Prior to that release, he had admitted going through a period where he lacked inspiration.  As that album gathered only passing interest, might the interim between releases suggest he has recovered his inspiration or collected, over time, a superior set of songs?

Alas, no.  As it turns out, his latest album came from a creative period during which he rushed to the studio to capture his inspirations, rather than refining good ideas later when he risked being flat.  This works for some, certainly.

BDB gained notice with his first release in 2000, Hour of Bewilderbeast, which remains one of my all time favorites.  If not a steady decline, his subsequent albums were comparatively a distant shadow of his first work.  Either the lyrics were ho-hum, the melodies sub par, or the instrumental mix too forced, but each paid homage to his greater work while falling noticeably short.  Both the critics and his audience noticed.  Even still, there were a few nuggets from album to album which pointed to a hope for something better next time.

It’s What I’m Thinking (Part One: Photographing Snowflakes) is a title that seems apt.  The lyrics do not seem to be overly word-smithed and read as if they might be an extenuation of whatever thoughts he had entering the studio.  They’re not embarrassingly shallow nor particularly enriching.  They might qualify as observational but not rising to the philosophical, or conversational without any intent of ever being spoken.  Lyrics are included in the CD, but they don’t really matter, because…

… they all fade away in the mist.  Or, rather, as soon as each song ends.  Why?  The first two songs are a fine example.  They can be viewed a couple of ways.  The charitable would suggest that BDB is restraining himself from his over-produced and over-complicated past errors, and this CD reflects a more mature approach that strips away the eclectic assault of any and all instruments in a studio.  Those opposed might offer that his vocal range is limited, he’s prone to use one of about 3 phrasings in all of his songs, and that the sparser instrumentation (keyboard orchestration and piano, mainly) only highlights the absence of memorable melodies. 

There are some decent melodies, and several decent songs (listed below) but when it’s all said and done, none of them fill an emotional need, echo any particular personal meaning, or strike the auditory nerves in such a pleasing manner that demands repeating.  Only “You Lied” might be considered a musical departure from the tried and tired, but, it too, doesn’t resonate.  The iPod doesn’t beg for anything here.

BDB has indicated that the next two phases of this proposed trilogy are likely to include a larger number of collaborators/artists.  That may help, or it may hinder. What he needs to focus on is finding the musical enthusiasm he first shared on Bewilderbeast.

Suggested Songs: “Too Many Miracles,” “I Saw You Walk Away,” “This Electric,” This Beautiful Idea”

2 of 5 STARS

 

 

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Street Preachers

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I’m constantly amazed at how music is intertwined with so many aspects of my life.

Recently, as I was entering the venue for what turned out to be a fantastic Jeff Beck concert, I was confronted by several zealous proselytizers shouting that I and everyone else will be going straight to hell.  Unless we repent.  They had accompanying signs, of course.

A friend was angered, resentful of being judged and found wanting.  I didn’t like it either, and I’m a Christian.  And I said as much.  But this incident keeps coming to mind, and, well, here’s my forum.

Regardless of religion, political fervor, or other dogmas, I do respect those who believe what they believe strongly enough to take a stand, regardless of whether or not I agree with them (the caveat is that those actions do no harm to others).   I get more frustrated with people who do not seem to think fairly deeply about the things that should matter in their lives.  In sorting the existential questions of origins, morals, meaning and destiny, I find my faith to be quite a reasonable thing, but “evangelism” such as this does not resonate as an engaging method of persuasion.  For me, at least.

My reaction, then and now, is that this type of confrontational “witnessing” does far more harm than good.  To give credit, such people do put themselves in positions where they risk very adverse responses.   It is notable that the Greek root for “witness” is “marturia,” from which the word “martyr” is also derived.  While my reaction, I think, lies within the majority, it’s at least worth asking why street preachers do what they do.  

For those acquainted only with the bumper stickers of the Christian faith, they should understand that churches are full of sinners.  There is no magic “belief” button that changes a person to be a good, virtuous person.  Over time, people who truly believe in Jesus are supposed to “grow in the faith” and sin no more, but it’s granted in the Bible that even believers will continue to sin.  The central belief is that God loves us enough to provide a way out of the many ways we fall short of His expectations, and once received, our response should be an attitude of gratitude.  Those who are forgiven much should likewise forgive.  Much.

On topic, how does shouting at passersby fit within a reasonable context of an abiding faith, or of a faith that anyone would want a part?

It doesn’t.  And yet it does. 

Watch any pro football game on TV, and there’s usually someone holding john_3_16a John 3:16 sign (curiously, usually in the end zone).  Great verse. If you aren’t familiar with it, Google it.  It promises the good news of Christian belief. 

As often, there are signs that read, “Jesus Saves.”  The question that should arise is, “from what?”  The next several verses in John (and in other contexts and places in the Bible), point out that we (all humans) are judged already – our hearts are far from God or anything to do with Him.  It’s not a matter of a scale of justice where we hope the good outweighs the bad at the end of lives.  It’s a pervasive condition.  In about everything, we’d much prefer to do things our own way, thank you very much.  Adam and Eve take all sorts of ridicule by pundits who scoff at the simplicity of the story but miss the moral point.  A more straightforward story for demonstrating our desire to be autonomous (or a law unto ourselves) would be difficult to find.

Regardless of the Christian doctrine of God, many have their reasons for turning away from anyone’s “God” idea.   A few common objections include the presence of evil and suffering in the world, lack of visible miracles or presence, “believers” who are judged to be hypocrites, rejection of any notions of ultimate accountability, etc.  My suspicion though, is that most of these are secondary to an innate understanding that if there is a God, then he/she/it may actually have some obligations upon the way we live our lives.

For the Christian, this is okay.  God holds us accountable because we count.  In the grand scheme of things, I find that comforting.  I am not, however, a believer because I simply find it preferable to the implications of the great nothing to come.

Faith is life changing.  The Christian cannot boast of being a believer.  If it were not for God’s grace, we would never turn our hearts towards him.  His grace is in the little things – nature, the birth of a child, the coincidences of life that speak to love, charity, goodness, and the scriptures if they’re studied – that call us to recognize that something larger than our DNA is at work here.  Why do we have a conscience?  Why should anyone struggle with guilt for a transgression against another person?  Why does physical matter (humans) seem to be born with a built in moral compass?

Any truly held beliefs grow.  They have costs in some regards and benefits in others.  For Christians, faith grows, and it abides and ultimately becomes life changing.  And, at some point, it demands to be shared. 

Many get very frustrated with Christians who “witness” to them, regardless of the manner.  Some are just as offended when a friend mentions their faith casually as when they’re subject to the more confrontational curbside condemnation. 

The apostle Paul proclaimed the gospel publicly in the streets, but that was the customary method of the day to introduce and debate philosophies.  And Jesus?  The only judgmental attitude he demonstrated was for the self-righteous.  Otherwise?  He showed love and compassion for those in the lowest rungs of society and those who had moral failings, the same people that were shunned by the religious leaders.   Most modern churches have not forgotten this, but those that have make the news, in a bad way.

If faith (or any belief or non-belief system) is to be spread, it has to be talked about.  It has to be shared.  It’s not a burden, but rather a natural outworking of belief.  If the devil is in the details, it’s in the how.  St. Francis of Assisi said, “Witness at all times, and if necessary, use words.”  That’s not a biblical imperative, but the point is that no one should be surprised to find out when a person they know says that they’re a Christian.  Why?  Because the Christian message is best shared relationally and by actions, not at loud volumes to passing strangers.

But, you ask, who am I to judge the effectiveness of shouting the “saving message” of hell and damnation?  I would wager (not biblically approved, I know) that the corner “preachers” would consider it well worth the aggravation, the time, the derision, the stress on their vocal cords, civic fines and whatever other costs they incur if but one person is drawn towards their message.  Because they believe.

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The Beatles at the Washington Coliseum

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Reports today indicate that since becoming available on iTunes last Tuesday, Nov. 16, the Beatles have sold over 450,000 albums and two million individual singles worldwide.  That probably makes the whole advertising blitz worthwhile, but there were also comments that, by releasing their entire catalogue at once, sales might have been muted by too many spending decisions.

If you’re a Beatles fan, or if you have just a passing interest, I’d encourage you to go to iTunes while this opportunity lasts.  The banner features The Beatles, so go ahead and click on that.  On the next screen, shown below, is a link to a viewable movie at the left – “Live at the Washington Coliseum, 1964.”

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It’s free to view and well worth the time.  After all the fairly shoddy performances trotted out over the years (the horrible audio/video from The Cavern club in England, or the over worn Ed Sullivan show appearance, or the mass hysteria of the Shea Stadium recordings) it was quite a surprise to find that a complete performance had been captured, with excellent video quality (for the time), and as good an audio quality as can be expected.  It runs 41 minutes long, which includes an introduction before getting to the good stuff.  Added bonus:  It’s unedited.  It’s not just the music, but everything that happened between the songs.

My takeaways? 

1) McCartney was much more of the band leader, for this show at least, than I would have been led to believe based on various biographies that generally attribute that mantle to Lennon.  It’s surprising he relinquished virtually all of the audience banter to McCartney.

2)  Sure, there’s some cloying postures and practiced delivery, but there is more at work than playing because it’s a big moment or due to built up expectations.  They’re enthusiastic about what they’re doing, and it shows.  They wrote and sang great songs, and the commercial packaging certainly played a huge role in building their celebrity.  What packaging?  How about in-the-round staging (a boxing ring) and professional recording - of their first American concert?  But beyond all the interview quips and the “long” hair fascination, if they came off as being inauthentic or unlikable, they would have been a footnote in music history.  Watch.  They’re having fun.

3) Ringo has a very basic drum kit, and he may not have been the most imaginative drummer through the subsequent years, but I gained some respect watching him perform.

4) To see The Beatles move their stage equipment around wasn’t expected, and it certainly may have been borne of necessity.  But, they played for years before making it big, usually in dumps.  Their suits notwithstanding, you know they’ve done this before and they’re not above doing it again.  Beyond that, there’s a sense that they really wanted to give a great show to everyone, regardless of where they sat.

5) How can they play so well when they can’t hear?  In addition from the audience noise, they rarely have their stage monitors set to where they can hear them. 

6) There is more than a little irony of playing “black music” to a very young, all white crowd (“Roll Over Beethoven,” “Twist and Shout,” “Long Tall Sally”).  It’s well known that McCartney’s vocals borrowed quite a bit from Little Richard.  His delivery of “Long Tall Sally” seems beyond his years.  Attention establishment:  You tried to contain Elvis.  Give it up.  Rock and roll is coming, and fast.

7) It’s no wonder that a generation of teenagers went out and bought guitars.  With that kind of energy, and that kind of fan response, would you rather be a pop star or go work in the factory? 

8) Fans had cameras.  I like that in a concert.

More about the concert, including the set list, can be found HERE.

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John McLaughlin – Live at the Rialto Center

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This was my first trip the Rialto Center for the Arts, a performance venue at Georgia State University.  The 833 seat theater literally does not have a bad seat in the house, and the acoustics are wonderful.  But, it has more going for it than just that.

As compared with the sterility of ordering tickets through Ticketmaster, the Box Office personnel were very helpful in recommending the best seats – on the wings down low left of the stage, or towards the middle but a good number of rows back?  My concert buddy and I were very pleased with the 4th row seats in the wing, which, as advised, had no site line issues at all to see the depth of the stage.  That said, we likely would have been nearly as happy anywhere in the venue.

The Rialto is also to be commended for their volunteers.  Their greeter was warm and friendly and made eye contact with us entering and leaving, and if very short impressions can be trusted, seemed like a very genuine person happy to be there and happy for you to experience the venue. 

But wait! There’s more!  The Rialto even provides complimentary parking arrangements in a nearby deck – a rarity in downtown Atlanta, or other places where there are bucks to be made. 

The lobby features some artwork as well as photos and information on songwriter Johnny Mercer.  As expected, the souvenir table was provided for T-shirts, CDs and DVDs, but, rather unusuallyJohn McLaughlin - Godin Guitars, McLaughlin’s guitar (likely a backup) was also on display.  It’s obvious that he’s promoting the Godin brand to anyone who who favors his playing and sound, and it was a beautiful guitar.

The only off-putting element was the ban on cameras… which, for once, I respected.  This was the type of venue where LCD screens are visibly distracting to others and just not appropriate. 

Oh yeah, this is a concert review, not a venue review.

John McLaughlin and the 4th Dimension opened on time and played for two hours.  This has been a very fortunate year in that my interest in McLaughlin started years ago upon the release of “Saturday Night in San Francisco,” featuring McLaughlin, Al Di Meola and Paco Delucia on very fleet fingered acoustic guitars.  Thirty years later, it is somewhat ironic to have finally seen both Di Meola and McLaughlin in the same year. 

McLaughlin is not a household name.  His career became highly visible in the late 1960’s with key contributions to Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew and A Tribute to Jack Johnson, among others.  He went on to contribute in significant ways to the “jazz fusion” form and has heavily influenced many other guitarists.

McLaughlin delivered pretty much what I expected – tremendously fast guitar technique and utter control over the sound of his instrument.  The music was what I had expected, as well.  Intelligent, versatile, complex, challenging and largely inaccessible to someone not schooled in music theory.  His beautiful guitar lived up to its looks, rigged very much for a rounder jazz tonal quality as opposed to the higher pitched expressions found in rock.

McLaughlin usually plays with his eyes focused on nothing, very intense on… method? math? leaps between scales?  I don’t know.  He visibly finds emotion in what he and his band mates are doing, but it doesn’t translate as well to someone who favors a melody for its sound rather than for its potential transitional directions.

And I suppose that is what jazz, in its higher forms, imageis all about.  Even though the music itself didn’t translate well, watching talented artists is always a pleasure.

Bassist Etienne M’Bappe was a treat.  There were no basic bass lines to be heard.  His fingers were, like McLaughlin’s, a study in movement.  Better, they were highlighted by wearing black gloves which, against the lighter wood of his 5 string electric bass, looked like an equalizer graphic.  He had some great solos.

Gary Husband played keyboards, primarily.  He provided texture to the band’s overall sound, and as much as anything, gave McLaughlin a break.  Again, in the absence of identifiable tunes, he’s obviously very gifted but, like the band leader, fails to keep a recurring tune in favor of too many notes.  Why too many notes?  Because they can.

Primarily coming to see a guitarist, I walked away with the greatest appreciation for drummer Mark Mondesir, who has played with many artists of whom I’ve heard.  He was a study in fluid kinetics, a seemingly effortless drummer who was both the anchor for what the band was doing and, I think, an inspiration. 

Keyboardist Gary Husband also plays drums and settled in for two extended drum jams with Mondesir.  His style was much more aggressive and labored, but these were the highlights of the night as they competed with variations of rhythms, sounds, and styles.

It was obvious that others in the crowd were more in tune with live jazz and music theory, as heard by various laughs, giggles, or affirmative nods through the performance.  For me, it was an enjoyable evening to watch amazingly talented musicians do their thing – a good night, indeed.

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Roger Waters – The Wall Live, Atlanta, GA

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“Music to get stoned to.”  This was a friend’s answer to my English teacher’s question when asked to describe Pink Floyd’s The Wall, way back in 1980.  I have never been stoned, but if I was, I don’t know that the resulting “trip” from listening to this album would necessarily put me in a better place.  Themes of control, isolation, anger, exhaustion, repression, infidelity, withdrawal, androger-waters-wall-tour-2010-logo insanity (I won’t pretend to have deciphered them all) are challenging enough with a clear mind, never mind any artificial sweeteners.  In any case, The Wall, primarily an introspective outworking of singer/bassist Roger Waters’ mental breakdown, certainly invites interpretation.

And it has.  First was the 1982 live action/animated film starring Bob Geldof, followed by a live performance in 1990 in Berlin featuring cameos by other notable musicians.  Thirty years after its release, Roger Waters has determined that the time is right to reinterpret the work, again.

My first observation upon entering Philips Arena is that it’s unusual to see binoculars offered for rental ($10).  As a relatively modern arena, coupled with the technological sophistication available to concert producers (ex. Backdrops for videos for zooming in on band members), the question would be, “Why?”

The second is that while the ticket says clearly My HipstaPrint 0“no cameras or recording devices,” the sign upon entering the seating area (long after passing “security”) were “no flash photography.”  Aha! That is very much of a relief to those of us, and there were many, who brought their cameras anyway.

The third observation is one that I frequently ask: “Who chooses the pre-concert music?”  In this case, I’d wager that Roger Waters had a hand in it, as John Lennon’s “Mother” and “Imagine” both have themes which relate to this music more than tangentially.  Another inclusion, Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit,” I doubt would be risked by anyone without some authority, as the lyrics again relate but risk being politically incorrect anywhere, hopefully including Atlanta.  Not that anyone was listening.

To say that I’ve seen “The Wall” in concert would be misleading.  Rather, I have seen it performed live.  There are minimal nods on Waters’ part towards playing the role of himself in the songs, but the artistic reinterpretation is literally on the wall itself. 

Before the show begins, elements of the wall, large white bricks with presumably a lightweight plastic structure, form a foundation at the outer wings of the stage.  As arenas are not duplicates, one wonders about the art and mechanics of making stage parts fit correctly from venue to venue.

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The Wall is played in its entirety, with extended musical sections.  The band opens standing behind the line formed by the bricks, with video projection on a circular screen above them.  That circular screen does not, however, offer any views of band members.  It is used solely for visual effects tied into the subject matter of each song.  The wall, which is gradually completed through what is Warning: Do Not Fly Planes IndoorsDisk 1 on either LP or CD, becomes the defacto backscreen for the creative elements of the entire performance. 

Oh, except for the explosion.

This is quickly apparent on “Another brick in the wall (part 1),” where the lyrical focus on the loss of Waters’ father in the war is expanded to include a virtual wall of remembrance as pictures of combatant and civilian casualties are displayed.  On Waters’ website, he invites people to send photos of “Fallen Loved Ones” to be exhibited during his performances.  In addition to armed conflicts, this also includes the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. 

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At this point and elsewhere, visuals are tweaked in an anti-war (but refreshingly non partisan) commentary that fit the lyrics, though not as originally intended.  Waters moves beyond the war sentiment to social justice, reflecting on a quote from Dwight D. Eisenhower:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.

Visually, still images of faces projected onto the bricks was impressive, but this was only the beginning as the wall took larger form, showcasing five synchronized video projectors on a “screen” extending an estimated 150’ wide by 25’ high.  Amazing and wonderfully entertaining, to the point of you hardly notice the band.  Performance, yes.  Concert… not really. 

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The wall continues to be built during the songs, often providing just enough room for the intended graphic projections.  At the end of “Goodbye Cruel World,” the IMG_3781wall is complete, the band is hidden from view, and Intermission is declared… just long enough for one to use the restroom, buy a drink, or buy a souvenir (choose one).  

The opening of Disk 2, “Hey You” has to be one of the more ironic experiences in concertdom.  Sure, the band is playing, and, yes, Waters is singing, but darned if you can’t A wall closet, with functioning TV.see anything except a completed wall looking like a completed wall.  Still, it’s louder than you can play the music at home, and that’s something.

Shortly thereafter, the band migrates to the front side of the wall, and we arrive at “Comfortably Numb,” a great song featuring what is likely the fan consensus for “Favorite Pink Floyd Guitar Solo.”  The guitarist copied almost note for note the famous Gilmour licks, but… yeah.  Those $10 binoculars might have been a good option.  There were no frets to be seen from where I was sitting, or, as he played from atop the wall, likely anyone’s.

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The last quarter of the performance included many graphics from “The Wall” movie.  This is okay but was somewhat disappointing following the highly imaginative and fresh graphics for what preceded.  Still, some of the Nazi-ish symbols IMG_3857remain relevant for oppressive elements, and The Wall wouldn’t be the Wall without some familiar icons. That said, the trial and insanity segments were a bit stale unless, of course, you’ve never seen them before.

It all builds to the deconstruction of the wall, which after some graphic trickery earlier in the show, literally collapses suddenly.  Funny how I didn’t notice all the band members and their instruments disappearing from the stage, so I guess the “old” animations must still hold interest.  It was another mechanical marvel as the tumbling bricks fell on both sides of the wall, but none appeared to even come close to falling forward of the stage.  Well done.

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After now having examined my many pictures, the ongoing filming of the performance by many cell phones, cameras, or video cameras is quite conspicuous by LCD screens scattered throughout the crowd… to which I contributed.  However, given the enormity of the set, I’ll be interested to see how Waters chooses to capture the graphic backgrounds, which change very quickly at times, whilst keeping some attention on a band which really wasn’t to be seen, but heard.  A tour Bluray/DVD is inevitable given the production costs involved (the local newspaper referenced $60 Million).  Ouch.

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Many additional photos can be viewed by Clicking Here.

If you have an opportunity to see Roger Waters perform The Wall

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5 of 5 STARS

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Paul McCartney – Band on the Run

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Pessimism begets cynicism.  I know, it’s a strange sentiment with which to begin a CD review.  My pessimism results from the retreat of physical music media in favor of digital media, from whatever sources.   Apple announced today, after years of negotiations, that they would begin selling The Beatles’ songs through i-Tunes.  I suppose that’s a good thing.

My cynicism is that it should be no surprise that the details have been worked out a year after the spectacularly remastered Beatles’ catalog has been available on CD shelves.  It is indeed the perfect time for artists to remaster their older works for a final push on cashing in on CD sales... 

….before they go the way of the 8-track tape.

Which brings us to Paul McCartney, who recently re-released Band on the Run, his 1973 album now digitally picked apart and rebuilt with the same meticulous care recently given to the work of his previous band.  For those that have an earlier CD version, is it worth buying a new copy?

Well, if you’re a McCartney fan, the answer is “yes.”  Whether you buy “just” the remastered album, the Deluxe edition (extra CD and DVD), or the box set (a book and other goodies), there’s enough to whet your appetite varying with your desire to part with money.

If you like his songs but haven’t tried one of his albums, again “yes.”  If you’re in any other category… of course not.

Those who have compared the new CD to the remastered 25th anniversary edition generally give this version an edge.  Whether it’s a noticeable one depends upon the equipment that you play it upon and how closely you listen.  I have an earlier release from when it was first converted to CD, and the sound is vastly improved.  Each of the instruments is more vibrant with fuller, richer sounds.  As expected.  And I’m very pleased. 

But, I can’t let the opportunity pass to comment on the contents themselves, as was an album that I frequently played, which may not seem like much, but I had plenty of options from which to choose.

Much has been written around the circumstances of the recording of Band on the Run(recorded in Nigeria, the drummer and lead guitarist quit before the recordings, the demo tapes were stolen…), and it seems that whenever someone mentions this album as McCartney’s finest hour, these factors are pulled into the equation…  overcoming adversity, that kind of thing.  Well enough.

The fact was that George Harrison and Ringo Starr were having more commercial success than either Lennon or McCartney after the Beatles ceased, the latter of which were handling their post-Beatles careers differently.  Lennon was political and bitter, and McCartney was lacking a partner or a band to give him honest feedback and save him from his saccharine tendencies.  He retreated from fame, and he underwhelmed. 

His initial release, McCartney, was an intentionally informal affair with the outstanding “Maybe I’m Amazed,” the very good “Every Night,” and a couple of nice tunes.  RAM was a fully produced affair, but one which didn’t satisfy expectations for hit songs (but one which I’m very much looking forward to in remastered format).  Wild Life was the first Paul McCartney and Wings album, and although it does have its charm, it remains a footnote in his catalogue (one critic called it “an audition”).  Red Rose Speedway featured the syrupy #1 hit “My Love” and elsewhere had an abundance of tunefulness, McCartney stressing his vocal chords in all the right ways, and some of the worst lyrics ever heard from a major songwriter.

Band on the Run, then, finally met public expectations with three hit songs, strong vocals, and passable to good lyrics.  It remains a prime example of why I fear the loss of albums in favor of “single” downloads.  Radio stations, back when they had DJs who played what they wanted rather than what they were told to play, often had “deep cut” hours when they would play the gems that were never intended for radio airplay. 

Band on the Road is loaded with these.   It’s one of those albums where the listener grows in affection for the “other” songs or the entirety as a set.  “Mrs. Vanderbilt,” surprisingly played on McCartney’s recent tours, packs a great tune, “Let Me Roll It” is a slow rocker, and “Bluebird” is a less poetic but worthwhile cousin to “Blackbird.”   The only suspect lyrical casualty might be “Mamunia,” but despite it’s title (an African word? Or nonsense?), the song is good and is a favorite of many. 

But my favorites are the final two tracks.  “Picasso’s Last  Words” puts together a hodgepodge of musical ideas to good effect, an aural translation of Picasso’s fragmented painting style.  The closer, “Nineteen hundred and Eighty Five” doesn’t exactly shine lyrically, put it remains a great example of McCartney doing his thing.  Beginning with perhaps “Hey Jude” or “Oh Darling,” Band on the Run had numerous examples of what he seems to have been working towards, an unleashed vocal showcase.  Unfortunately, from this point on, his recorded vocals would settle into Top 40 temperaments, with the good or bad that may imply.  (It should be noted that in concert, he continues to push his voice as far as it will go.)

If you should buy the Deluxe edition, an accompanying audio disk includes “Helen Wheels,” a popular single which was included on the US version of the album, plus songs from a TV show/studio performance, One Hand Clapping.  The songs here are stunning in that, compared to the current era of lip-synching and digital embellishments, McCartney nailed the vocals live.  The treat, though, is “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five,” a jaw-dropping version where McCartney plays solo piano for the first half and lets his vocals rip.  If only his later solo work carried that enthusiasm…

5 of 5 STARS

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Crowded House - Intriguer

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I really don’t know how professional CD reviewers have their reviews ready on the date of release.  Obviously get promotional copies in advance, but how far in advance?  Maybe they also get a full artist bio and talking points to help form their opinions of what is going on with band members, what inspired the music, what thematic elements can be found, etc.  But how many spins do they give a CD before they form their opinion?

Intriguer is one of those CD’s that I’ve listened to regularly since its release 4 months ago, and I’m only writing a review now to get it done by a self-imposed deadline of year end.  Neil Finn, the chief lyricist and songwriter, basically is the band.  I wasn’t a Crowded House fan back in their 1980’s heyday, but I became a Finn fan over the last 10 years on the strength of his solo releases.  When he resurrected Crowded House in 2005, I was okay with that, especially as the resulting CD, Time on Earth, was a “band” product only in the sense that the band accompanied what he had already worked out as a solo release.  I took to that one immediately.

Sounding definitely more of a band effort, Intriguer sounds like a more fully involved project in that there’s continuity to it in the way that it sounds.  Or maybe I only come to that opinion because I watched the band play the songs on the DVD that accompanied my copy.  I do know that I like it less, but I’m not certain how much Finn’s parodying moustache influenced that opinion.  Hey, at least I recognize the possible influence.  Dude, razor.

The CD opens with “Saturday Sun,” which begins with a plodding intro that somehow gets rescued by Finn’s propensity for musical hooks.  Still, it’s a failed single, and it was soundly thrashed by the hordes who downloaded it as an iTunes free single of the week.  “Archer’s Arrows” does a better job of exemplifying what intelligent pop can be, with a tune full of captivating turns but with lyrics that would defy pop radio interest.   “Amsterdam” is trademark Finn, telling a narrative story within a tune tailored to suit it.

Many of Finn’s observations are observational about priorities and the activity of living this life.  “Either Side of the World” is a good entry in this vein – “when you’re in luck / the world moves with you / whatever they want, you’ll turn yourself into / then you’re in hell / luxury and leisure never meant pleasure / we like it different / passion & commitment”

“Isolation” detours the musical direction, with shimmering guitars and an other-worldly sound before devolving at the end into something more raucous.  It’s a fine example of what is both the best and worst of this set of songs.  Finn has an abundance of melodic shifts that rarely let a monotonous section take hold.  On the other hand, there are a good number of passages that need those sparks. 

And after this realization comes “Twice if You’re Lucky,” the only song that strikes a great hook and works it throughout to a satisfactory ending.

Concluding the set is “Elephants,” a song that pokes at an impartial universe to those living in it.  This is indicative of the depths that Finn can mine in his lyrics, but it is hampered by the unfortunate inclusion:  “when elephants go down/ to the water hole at dusk / they feel the same as us about life / we’ll all take a drink / as the sun begins to sink.”  I’m not going to speculate about what elephants feel, but I can understand that they get thirsty.

It’s fair to say that this isn’t a CD that can just be played and enjoyed.  Aside from “Twice if You’re Lucky,” none of the songs have real traction after they’re heard.  They require close attention to the lyrics, or, better, reading the lyrics as you listen before you can really “connect” with them.  And, if you’re a download junkie, that’s too bad, because they’re included in the accompanying booklet.

Recommended Songs: “Archer’s Arrows” and “Twice if You’re Lucky”

3 of 5 STARS

 

 

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A Rose Without a Thorn

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Which came first?  The rose or the thorn?

This is the preoccupying question of someone who semiannually trims a rosebush (not a big deal) and then is forced to tend to the debris (a big deal).  I wore leather gloves rather than cotton (wise, borne of experience), jeans (ditto), and a T-shirt (foolish…).  With arms subsequently scratched and pricked, it’s no wonder that I would question the wisdom of combining thorns and rose flowers on a single plant.   I know I’m not the first, and I won’t be the last, to desire the idyllic “Rose Without a Thorn.”

I have read quite a bit of literature over my life, but absent a tune, I find it very difficult to quote passages.  If a catchy phrase is going to come toStill Burning mind, it would be in music.   “A rose without a thorn…” No, not Miley Cyrus or Poison, thank you.  The lyric I’m thinking of is, of course, a bit more obscure but far more rewarding than those two “artists.”  Mike Scott released a fantastic CD in 1998 called Still Burning, in my opinion far better than a much wider body of work he has released as the leader of The Waterboys and one that continues to provide as much listening pleasure as any I own. He’s at his best when he writes with humor, such as in “Rare, Precious and Gone,” where he is being a comfort to a friend whose girlfriend just left.

Here’s a sample:

She's a queen among women, a child among queens,
the finest thing that your lovesick eyes have ever seen
She's a rose without a thorn
She's a peach, she's a prize,
a gift in disguise
She's graceful and colourful
and when she grows she'll be wise
But most of all, my friend, she’s gone.
Gone gone gone!

Hey, what are friends for?

But the point is rather that the rose (with thorns) has long served as a metaphor for falling just short of perfection.  How many have waxed poetic of a beautiful woman who is flawless… except for a slight physical imperfection or an undesirable personality trait (cruelty, selfishness, condescension, arrogance, etc.)  

In life and art, we’re constantly reminded of imperfection.  If someone actually were perfect, we would risk being impossibly overwhelmed or feeling entirely inferior.  We’re more content knowing no one is perfect, after all. 

Mother nature spent gazillions of years putting roses and thorns together.  And what have we (modern plant breeders…) done?  We’ve made the thornless rose.  What are the implications (besides less painful yard work)?

Imagine, if you will, a rose bush, without any thorns.  Well, I know.  You don’t have to imagine it; you can buy one now.

But just go with it.  Pleasant isn’t it?  It’s sitting there in the perfect soil, moisture and sunlight, doing what a rose pedal does best.  Looking flowery.

But wait!  (insert foreboding music in background). The evil Mr. Rabbit comes hopping up, inhales of its sweet fragrance and decides that it’s suitable to eat.  And he does just that.  I know.  It’s very sad.

Now, imagine the opposite.  Call them briers or brambles, but give them ample prickly spires, only with no flowers or fruit to tantalize or tempt.  Yes, it’s a weed with malicious intent.  The evil Mr. Rabbit comes hopping up, considers his palate, and says, “No thank you!  You don’t appear very tasty or pleasant to digest!”  This is a much happier ending for subject (the brier, not the rabbit).

And this is the evidence of me having too much time to think.

Roses and thorns were smart enough to pair up, and what do we do?  We split them up so that they’re friendlier to beholders when stuffed into a vase.  Nicely done.

Consider what we’ve undone:  Some untold millions of years ago, an unfortunate flowering rose was found defenseless against the scavengers of the forest.  So it thought to itself, “Self?  If you want your progeny to live beyond the bloom, best set up a defensive network.  It’s time to reorder some DNA and make that happen.”

Presumably, some bumps grew on the formerly smooth stem after many years of self-help exercises and good intentions to do better, imagebut…  Mr. Rabbit still had his way.  The roses that somehow survived redoubled their efforts, and the bumps, in time, became knobs.  That’s real progress for people who demand change.  But, still, Mr. Rabbit was not deterred. 

Eventually, after exhausting all available self-help exercises, tutors and grand thinkers, a single remaining rose (one would have to imagine that all the others had been digested after millions of years of being DQ treats) finally sprouted appropriate siege defenses and passed the trait on to all its ancestors that we enjoy today.  I know it’s a lot to expect an unthinking plant without self-control over its DNA to just sprout thorns for self preservation, but what other choice do you have? 

Oh, of course, we can go the other way and start with the weed with malicious intent.  Briers were so despondent about their lots in life that they adapted, over millions and millions of years, to eventually produce flowers and their sweet aromas to otherwise adorn their meaningless existence.  As a plus, then they could also count on third parties to pollenate the new flowers so they could multiply!  Smart thinking! 

Got a better idea?

Well, here’s the rub.  However they came about, what if the birds and bees help our “improved” version of the rose replace it’s thornier cousin.  Oh, I know, it’s not likely.  But isn’t the concept of a rose without a thorn more important than a rose without a thorn?  Isn’t the metaphor precious?  Will it become rare?  Might it someday possibly be gone?

Roses need thorns.

Otherwise, let’s make a stretch goal of breeding roses until they grow naturally in clusters of twelve suitable for ready-to-cut bouquets on February 14th, thereby sparing man both the pain and the expense.

Bad video.  Good song.

Mike Scott – Rare, Precious, and Gone

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Belle & Sebastian – Write About Love

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I was initially disappointed with Belle & Sebastian’s Write About Love, but after repeated listening, I found much to like.  B&S have routinely assembled a wide variety of instruments to orchestrate songs that sound similar to all those 60’s pop songs that filled the radio but never made a splash. It’s reminiscent, tuneful, jangly stuff. But, after having achieved a state of “liking it better,” I started liking it less.

Why? Foremost is the disappointment of the band not picking up where they left off from 2006’s splendid The Life Pursuit, which finally saw the band put some step into their tunes after years of a narrow diet of aural cotton candy.  The layover, alas, was too great to sustain what seemed to be a new enthusiasm at the time. 

Secondly, the lyrics rarely excel.  Lead songwriter and singer Stuart Murdoch, now 42, remains somehow preoccupied with school age trials between boys and girls.  As the CD title suggests, there is a continuing theme of romance, and Murdoch’s voice remains perfect for it.  But the lyrics are often obtuse, and the disk is lacking in his trademark metaphors and pensive humor.  A master at creating characters to play roles within his songs, aging would suggest a transition to more adult observations of life.

He’s clearly capable.  The liner notes include some philosophical musings that could be translated to song, such as:

In moments of quiet I feel a sort of maturing.  I’m mature enough to realise that life is racing away, that it’s going to run out too soon, and that there’s nothing I can do about it except live now and contemplate later. And that’s gong to involve a degree of discomfort.

Or,

There’s a difference between what you want to do and what you have to do…

What you want to do is an illusion.  What you have to do is heavenly. Heavenly purpose, and therefore blessed…

What I want to do is… all over the place.  It comes thick and fast – as ideas, desire, and daydreams.  It’s inspired by lust, by pride, and by a false sense of entitlement.

But then want turns to must… it’s a fine line sometimes; it’s probably happened to you already today.  A fork in your own metaphysical road in which you are aware of the two choices.  You hesitate and listen for a small voice to whisper in your ear…"

The only hint of that is one of the more subtle songs musically, “The Ghost of Rockschool.”

I’ve seen God in the sun, I’ve seen God in the street / God before bed and the promise of sleep / God in the puddles and the lady’s sad eyes / I’ve seen God shining up from her reflection

But that’s not the focus here; writing about love is.

Love is like a novel / Read the blessed pages / Did I do my best dear / That is all you ask

All the songs here are listenable.  Sarah Martin sings on two of the better entries, “I Didn’t See it Coming” and “I Can See Your Future.”  Murdoch pens a strong lyric with “Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John,” but the surprise inclusion of Norah Jones on the one hand emphasizes how thin Murdoch’s voice is, and on the other changes the CD’s tone.  I like the song; it’s just misplaced here.  “I Want the World to Stop” is catchy, but lyrically fails to anchor.  “I’m Not Living in the Real World” is decent, but it tends towards the frenetic amongst the pop sensibilities of the remainder.

And how does it sound now?  I like it “okay.”  This isn’t my “go to” Belle and Sebastian album, but it has its moments.

Recommended Songs: “Come on Sister,” “Write About Love,” “I Didn’t See it Coming”

3 of 5 STARS

 

 

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Hereafter

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With enough previews seen to qualify as “might be interesting,” I went to see Hereafter yesterday.  The movie starts with a splash.  One of the three central characters, Marie, a French TV journalist, is concluding a vacation with her producer when the sea withdraws and rushes back as an incoming tidal wave.  The special effects capture what many probably tried to imagine what it would have been like to be on the streets when seeing the footage of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.  Despite making the most of her limited option (run!), Marie has a taste of the afterlife before being resuscitated, which alters her priorities and focus.

The second major character is that of George, played by Matt Damon.  His character has the gift, or burden as we are reminded, of being a reluctant psychic who can relate messages from the deceased.  Two issues are involved.  1) He can sense a depth of details and emotion from a casual touch of the hands and 2) it impairs or inhibits his relationships with the living. 

Another major character is that of a London school boy, Marcus, whose lot in life is already challenged amply before losing his twin brother in an accident.  His role is to tie the other two character threads together and to otherwise explore the world of “Talk to the Dead” specialists.  He gives cursory glances at mainline religions, but they don’t meet his need of talking to his lost brother.  The remaining options provide a comic look at the charlatans that practice within that trade while giving testament to a world that desperately seeks consolation by those or any means.

Firm answers to the hereafter are hard to come by, and the film doesn’t commit itself to any real answers.  Were it not for George, there would be no story other than the search.

What this translates to is a slow movie.  It should be telling that Marie’s character could have touched death by any number of tragic events, but without a tsunami, there would be very little to grab the attention of  prospective audiences. 

Matt Damon carries the movie by his understated portrayal, but acting vehicles to establish “range” can be tedious.  To be fair, all of the actors are likewise credible – as they should be.  In the absence of any plot demand for a pace, there is ample time for character development.   But tedious remains an apt description.  We don’t get to see the characters choose their clothes each morning or clip their fingernails, but one wonders if such details might have been left on the editing floor.

It’s not a bad movie, by any means.  The ending provides a long coming and appreciated resolution to the characters’ needs.  Clint Eastwood directs, but if there are any trademark clues to that (slow pacing?), I wouldn’t have known.  After all, the story doesn’t lend itself to energizing screenplay options.  In short, it’s done well for what it is.  But it’s slow.  Did I mention that? 

It’s also one of those movies that could be enjoyed just as well in 6 months over Netflix, as there is no real reason to see this in a cinema or to fork over cash for a DVD, never mind a Bluray.  As further discouragement, clocking in at two hours and begging to be a half hour shorter, I’d hope that the studio refrains from any “extended footage.”  When it comes to repeated views, this clearly falls under a worthwhile “one and done,” a philosophy with which Marie’s producer would agree in answer to an awkward dining topic, “What do you think happens when we die?”

Me? I trust in more.

3 of 5 STARS

 

 

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