Sherlock Holmes – A Game of Shadows

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Being a fan of the first Sherlock Holmes movie, it should be no surprise that I also like the second. If you’re a traditionalist, the reimaging of Sherlock may be troublesome.  I’m past that.  I’ve read all of the Arthur Conan Doyle stories, I’ve seen many of the Rathbone/Bruce shows, and I’ve seen all of splendid the Jeremy Brett portrayals in the 1990’s. Rathbone brought a certain elegance to the role, and Brett a truer depiction of the idiosyncrasies of genius. In other words, Sherlock has been very capably portrayed already, so I’m not offended by a (not so) few liberties taken by other interpreters.

Which is what we have here.

There are three elements in A Game of Shadows which I’ll touch on – the plot, the presentation, and the relationship between Holmes & Watson.

First, it’s interesting that in terms of the breadth of Holmes material available, the two movies all but bookend the chronology of Doyle’s books.  The first movie set everything up and introduced a lurking greater evil in Dr. Moriarty.  The second follows up with that, jumping to the end game of Sherlock’s recorded life.  This isn’t to say more isn’t to come, but, essentially, they’ve avoided the frustrating halt found in the middle part of a trilogy.  That’s good.

On the other hand, Dr. Moriarty was never fully explained by Doyle.  A mastermind, yes.  The foil for Holmes’ intelligence, yes.  The director of London’s criminal activities, yes.  Here, though, his reach hints at European dominance before sidestepping to simple profit.  I was left unsatisfied as this being a worthy motivation for what should be as complicated a character as Sherlock himself.

Given a need to consider the impending nuptials of Dr. Watson, his necessary appearance throughout the story which might otherwise derailed by such an event, a motivating urgency to press Holmes’ actions, and a need for action in what is decidedly not a mystery movie, there is an overriding need for a plot device to make all of this happen.  However, to expect that Sherlock Holmes, in a tightly wound conversation with his ultimate nemesis, would attempt to define the the terms of combat with something akin to “I trust that Dr. Watson’s safety is outside the boundaries of our conflict” is silly.  In a movie replete with Chess references, Holmes surrendered his Queen at the start.  He’s smarter than that.  Sherlock knows that the boundaries of a conflict are determined by the party with the lesser morals.  The screenwriter did not.

The presentation is very similar to the first movie.  Robert Downey, Jr. carries on with his over-the-top portrayal of Holmes, Jude Law continues to redefine the Watson character as a sharp and capable partner, and Jared Harris casts the perfect foil – if only all movie villains were so well portrayed.  Casting… A+. 

Visually, computer generated graphics dominate.  Explosions, bullets shredding trees, fight scenes… Well, about that last.  Okay, Sherlock is smart, but can he truly predict the moment by moment sequence of events yet to occur?  On the one hand, it’s interesting.  On the other, it’s a heavy handed method to explain how this Holmes might be an expert fighter.  I’d rather he pull an Indiana Jones and shoot anyone who threatens with a knife.  In any case, it’s a really good looking movie, with enough action sprinkled in amidst the torrent of clue glimpses to move the pace quickly.

Costuming is particularly appealing to fans of Steampunk; there’s an abundance here.

The scene that struck us hoping that it was not a computer generated image was a Swiss castle, impossibly set on the face of a mountain and blanketed in snow whereupon Moriarty arrives in a horse driven sleigh…  Heck, like this:

Yeah, fake.  Sorry.  But the scenes had to be shot somewhere, right?  In merry old England, of course.   That said, it does provide a more picturesque setting for the climatic finale with Dr. Moriarty, certainly more so than:

Or, the real Reichenbach Falls, of which Doyle wrote in “The Final Problem” in 1891.

Finally, Holmes and Watson.  I sampled a few other reviews of this movie, and found a common trait, namely a homo erotic suggestion between Holmes and Watson.  Really?  There may be something to it for those who haven’t read Doyle’s books, but for those who have, this movie is consistent with their very odd friendship, one that defies Holmes’ very challenging nature.  When not out sleuthing, Watson is more of a caregiver, the healer for Holmes’ self-inflicted opium binges, self-absorption, and other manic depressive tendencies.  Holmes as a dance teacher?  Well, point taken.  But his need for Watson as a companion is consistent with the original stories, in which his disdain for his friend’s marriage is similarly depicted.

Earlier I mentioned Jude Law’s redefinition of Watson.  Watson is clearly the “every man” in this movie, the character with whom the audience can relate.  Nigel Bruce’s portrayal was more of buffoon, and David Burke/Edward Hardwicke’s portrayals in the series (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) was truer and more sensible.

Here, though, given his good humor, his intelligence, and his ability to get things done, the only thing that does work is a persistent dialogue thread that refers to past insulting remarks attributed to him by Holmes.  At each occurrence, I think of Nigel Bruce, not Jude Law’s Watson… and I think the screenwriter did, too.

All in all, I liked this movie very much, and I look forward to watching it again to better follow the clues.  And for those who take umbrage with the continual reinterpretations given to the Holmes story… you might at least join me in wishing The Three Musketeers would receive the same respect.

Simza: What do you see?
Sherlock Holmes: Everything. That is my curse.

4 of 5 STARS

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The Waterboys – An Appointment with Mr. Yeats

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An Appointment with Mr. Yeats is an oddly titled name for a CD, but in context, it’s fully appropriate. Mike Scott, leader and de facto owner of the group “The Waterboys,” has long admired the poetry of Yeats, notably including his poem “Stolen Child” which Scott set to music on 1988’s Fisherman’s Blues, their high water mark.  Yeats would continue to be an influence on some of Scott’s imagery and diction in later songs.  After a changing cast of band members, sporadic releases, various muses, and 23 years, Scott finally brings the sum of his songwriting and musical experience together for this “Appointment.” 

The CD includes 14 songs, the lyrical content all but verbatim from selected Yeats’ poems. To tackle Ireland’s most famous poet is a challenging task, particularly working with such phrases as “Man-stealer Niamh leant and sighed by Oisin on the grass” or “How can I, that girl standing there, my attention fix on Roman or on Russian or on Spanish politics?”. It’s not always so difficult, but the lyrics do offer the opportunity for Scott to accentuate his pronunciations, a penchant which are too often lost when Brits start to sing.

To be clear, these are not pop songs. Each requires a weighty hand of compositional experience, and Scott proves himself up to the task. “News for the Delphic Oracle” is delivered with an appropriate sense of theater. “Sweet Dancer” offers up a catchy adaptation that fits the poet’s central observation while belying the tragic undertone. “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” is framed amidst a “fuzz fiddle” wildness surrounding Walden’s Pond setting.  Steve Wickham’s fiddle, by the way, is a blessing throughout this recording, as are the many other instruments that lend styles from Irish traditional to more conventional.

“Mad as the Mist and Snow” becomes somewhat repetitive in the refrain, but Scott gets it, allowing a brief jig to devolve into a rocker which speaks to the point of the imagery. Musical irony resurfaces on “September 1913,” featuring a bright piano and acoustic strum while lamenting the sacrifices of Irishmen for the current (circa 1913) state of the nation. Throw in “An Irish Airmen Foresees His Death” and you might understand a sense of the challenge.  Fortunately, Scott includes all of the poems, occasionally with notes, in the CD booklet.

Overall, this CD reminds me of the labor of love that Natalie Merchant captured in 2010’s Leave Your Sleep, itself a precious adaptation of children’s stories set to music. Mr. Yeats captures a similar love of the endeavor. 

Not all is perfect, though. “A Full Moon in March” was a difficult choice that eventually grows on you, vocalist Katie Kim’s beautiful voice is nevertheless blurry in the mix, and not every song necessarily keeps one’s attention. 

And that’s the challenge; this isn’t intended as background music. Like Merchant’s, this CD is best for an audience that wishes to concentrate on the artistry involved, both in the words and their musical interpretation, and to that end, it’s almost perfectly executed.

5 of 5 STARS

 

 

Note: Click HERE for Scott’s comments on each song.

 

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Attention Kids – My Christmas List is Short

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You can make this a joint present, and any color will do.

Love,

Dad

 

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Joe Bonamassa – Live at Cobb Energy Centre (Atlanta)

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On the way to this concert, I was in a “preparatory blues” mindset, specifically a Rory Gallagher bootleg from Kansas City in 1974.  Gallagher, today, is one of those unheard of blues guitarists who mattered back then, but never found widespread success due to the lack of songs with commercial appeal… as well as a heartfelt but lacking voice… as well as lyrics which meant something to him but often fell short on the listener (unless the listener had alcohol demons).  The second song in that set was a roaring “Cradle Rock,” imparted with an “of the moment” attitude played right from the heart.

The opening of song of Joe Bonamassa’s two hour set was… “Cradle Rock,” expertly played with fast fingerings and gotcha tones, delivered to the audience with Guitar Hero poses.  The guy can flat out play, but where was the soul?

I’m not a big fan of Bonamassa; in fact, the reason I went to this show was to go  with a friend who is very much a fan.  He had mentioned Bonamassa to me several years back, and I’m not exactly difficult to persuade to go to a concert.  To get a free download of a very good song off of his previous CD (“Dust Bowl,” I had to enter my email address (fair deal, btw)), after which approximately every two weeks came an offer for a Joe Bonamassa lithograph or other merchandise.   Fandom gone corporate, and, if guilty of judging by appearances, then I’m definitely convicted.

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The second song, “When the Fire Hits the Sea,” did nothing to change my opinion.  It’s a throwaway, big beat rocker designed to highlight Bonamassa’s guitar theatrics.  There’s definite showmanship, but where’s the emotion?

“Midnight Blues,” that’s where. Sure, every note is just as rehearsed, but “Joe”, as the crowd frequently shouted, slowed it down a bit, stretching his sound into nuances, sustains, careful note-bending expressions.  Mighty fine stuff.  “Dust Bowl,” the one song of his that I know, sounded, great, never losing it’s ol’ time roots while building to a rocking kill shot.   I’m convinced that Bonamassa sounds best when he starts a song slow, whether he builds from it or not.

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Bonamassa took a break before “The Ballad of John Henry” to talk to the audience a bit, mostly about the venues in Atlanta in which he’s played over the years.  The song itself (“the closest thing I’ve ever had IMG_5628ato a hit”) was very well done, with music paired to the lyric very well.

More so-so rockers (the songs, not the guitar) were included, but finally Joe dismissed the band to settle into an acoustic guitar (“Woke Up Dreaming,” expertly picking and ultimately rocking for over 10 minutes.  This was the best stuff of the show.

Otherwise, Bonamassa showed good humor, particularly when foiling against his entertaining drummer, and finally remarking how grateful he is to be where he is.

Do I think he’s still corporate?  Well, no, and though he’s always been predisposed to wearing sunglasses, the shorter hair and suits are relatively late in his 10 year or so career.  Still, it’s clear he, or is management, is very imagebusiness minded, further evidenced by cards with QR codes left outside directing traffic to his website.

The Cobb Energy Centre offered excellent acoustics and engaging lighting to off-set a relatively plain stage set.  The sold-out show drew a good mix of people, some dressed as might be expected for a performing arts venue, and others more accustomed to standing in front of a stage raising a beer, the latter veryIMG_5652a pleased to hear their own voices talking to Joe during quieter parts.   That’s why it’s called a performance and not a recording – artist’s get audience feedback.

Bonamassa is an artist I’ll keep an ear open towards, mostly for his guitar.  His voice and lyrics are better than Gallagher’s, and while his guitar playing doesn’t connect at a deep level, the preciseness, speed, and, at times, masterful tones are a beautiful thing to hear.

 

 

Setlist:

Cradle Rock
When the Fire Hits the Sea
Midnight Blues
Slow Train
Dust Bowl
You Better Watch Yourself
Sloe Gin
Ballad of John Henry
Lonesome Road Blues
Happier Times
Steal your heart away
Blues Deluxe 
Young Man blues
Woke up Dreaming
Mountain Time
Encore:
Bird on a Wire
Just Got Paid

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of cigarettes and smart phones

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As I was driving to work, I saw a man waiting at the bus stop.  He was dressed in business attire, with a laptop case.  He was the only one there, staring away in some personal reflection.  And, he was smoking a cigarette.

If blogging does anything, it reminds me that if I’m awake, I’m always thinking something.  At this point, I was thinking, “Why?”

Easy answer: nicotine addiction.  That may be it.  And how did he come to have that?  Peer pressure in high school?  A rebellious nature?  A need for self-expression?  A reward to oneself?  A sensory pleasure?  A need to relax?  A mating call? Or is it something to do while waiting… to pass the time doing… something?

That “something” invites speculation – particularly while driving (I have to do something to pass the time) – as to some of the things that people do to pass the time.

TV.  That’s classic.  Books.  That’s retro-classic.  A game of cards?  Ancient history it seems.  Sewing?  Gen-X doesn’t know what that is, but it still counts, although some might argue that creating something for future benefit is not just “passing the time,” which implies a pointless pursuit.  Like gardening.  And writing a letter? Puhleez!

How about online gaming?  Check.  Surfing the internet searching for cool new bands (oops, autobiographical comment there).

Anyway, you get the point.  Later that same day, a recurring observation tied neatly with the “cigarette smoking man,” that being the break during the lunchtime break when the cell phones come out, these conjoined observations thus meriting mental retention as “bloggable subject.”

Aside from all the negative societal pressures against smokers, and the fiscal penalties for smoking, and the declining venues in which one can legally smoke, there is now a competitor which sweeps the world.  Yep, my giveaway blog title spoiled the surprise.  Smart phones.

Write a letter? Text.  Watch TV?  Check.  Watch a movie?  Check.  Search for cool new bands?  Check.  Weather update?  Check.  Find out what your friends are doing?  Facebook.  Play cards?  Check.  Play Scrabble with friends while by yourself?  Check.  Surf the internet?  Check.  Learn a hobby find a recipe brush up on Bolsheviks is Beiber a dad pay a bill buy tickets to a movie what was that movie that Tea Leoni was in John 11:35 I bet I can get it for less on ebay what were the scores last night… 

All in the palm of one’s hand, and it does so much more than a cigarette.

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Quantum Levitation

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One day at work we were considering the term “jerry rigging,” that type of “just make (barely) do approach to making things work, hold together, etc.  Is it related to “jury rigging?”  That term has its own meaning, and though some people say “jury rigged” in the same context as jerry rigging, I think it’s likely they just never heard “jerry rigged.”  A little research on the ever reliable internet indicates that “jerry rigging” has sub tones of being politically incorrect.  My apologies to all the Jerrys out there.  My suspicion, with occasional support for people who bother to contribute to such online debates, is that it related to World War II, when Allied soldiers and civilians referred to a German as a Jerry.  On the other hand, Germans were recognized as being excellent engineers…

German engineering during WWII

While the necessity for out-engineering potential combatants remains, there have been more entertaining means of experiencing others’ prowess.  Regardless if “jerry rigged” is permitted in polite conversation, the meaning has all but been replaced with “MacGyver,” formerly a TV show – now a verb.

Fast forwarding a bit, next was a show that focused our ability to create from materials that we have at hand  – “Junkyard Wars.”  This show featured competitive teams trying to accomplish some particular end by “engineering” a solution with scraps in the junkyard, usually within one day.  It was interesting and entertaining, win or lose.

Recently, “Rocket City Rednecks” has put a new spin, that being NASA scientists who mix in “redneck ingenuity” to create solutions to various problems.  Interesting stuff, at least until someone decides that “redneck” is a discriminatory term that should be banned from common parlance.  But heck I reckon, if you got the smarts, use ‘em.

Which brings me, finally, to Quantum Levitation.  Maybe in 25 years, this will be a “junkyard” means of solving problems to heroes needing a derring-do, but in any case it points out that MacGyver, jerrys, or Alabama rednecks have to have a good base of scientific knowledge.

I’ve read a good bit about the below, and while I can comprehend what is being said, I’d rather encourage you to do so and enjoy the journey.

 

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Barker’s Red Hots – Roswell, GA

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I’m not in the habit of eating hot dogs.  My wife doesn’t like them, and, as she usually does the grocery buying, they rarely gain entrance to my home.  I’ve had the $1 hot dogs at “convenience” stores, and… it’s fuel of a different sort.  The price is right and gotta run...  But given a choice, I’d much rather have a hamburger.

So, on my way to Pint Night at a nearby IMG_2073Taco Mac, I passed Barker’s Red Hots.  I’d seen the sign before, but the name suggested cinnamon candy.  Or, whatever, because I’m driving and can’t pause to read the details.  This time, though I did, and decided it might be a fun add-on, especially as there were no dissenting votes in the car with me.

First, their menu has items other than hot dogs.  Hamburgers, sandwiches, and, well, that’s about it.  If you go to a hot dog restaurant, you really shouldn’t expect health food (they do have a veggie hot dog).  Also, sausages are available, as they’re presented in a bun, it’s just a different species of hot dog to me.

I haven’t worked downtown, but I’d guess that their menu is greatly expanded from their street vending operation that has continued since 1984.  This is their second “bricks and mortar” location, which opened this summer.

With some input from the guy at the grill, I ordered a Jumbo “All Beef” Barker’s Red Hot, with fries, and a small drink.  I’m not one who is into abundant toppings on a hot dog, so other than ketchup, I added their own hot sauce, a spicy mustardy blend with pickles (or relish?) included.

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The hot dog was grilled slowly and scored as it was cooked.  It was very flavorful and better than any hot dog I that I can rememberIMG_2074 having an opinion about (none).  The ridged fries were slightly over-salted, but were fried fresh and slightly crunchy, which I liked.  The only negative on the experience was the $8.53 price tag.

The environment?  Minimalist Jersey shore retro, perhaps.  With a 22’ ceiling without much sound absorption, I’d imagine it would be a very noisy place if it were crowded.  I suppose I went on a slow night, as they were staffed with a “Five Guys” (actually, 4 guys and a girl) team that each had their specific duties. 

Would I try it again?  In the right mood, sure, and, of course, with the right company.

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4 of 5 STARS

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Steven Wilson – Grace for Drowning

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This CD is a prime example of of how repeated listening is sometimes necessary to “get” a CD.  Almost always, when they appeal enough to keep listening more, they ultimately become favorites.

In any of his related projects (Porcupine Tree, Blackfield, others), there has been a certain acclimation period, so it’s expected that this CD would be a challenge.  To put the CD in some sort of context, two things are notable. 

First is that I intend to interpret music in two ways.  One would be expressive music, designed to entertain, possibly causing people to dance or laugh or easily agree to whatever the message, or lack of, may be.  Think of just about anything on the radio (well, in the old days), that has commercial intent, if not appeal. 

The other type would be music that is internally focused, both for the musicians and the audience.  It might suffer from an overly intellectual approach, but whether lyrically or musically, it comes from an artist that is interpreting whatever it is that they feel, generally regardless of any commercial intent.  “Progressive rock,” tends to the latter, and can include many instruments, time changes, classical references, and assembled sections to form movements, a medley, sections, a suite, etc. 

Wilson’s music belongs within this latter category.

Secondly, the CD notes the passing of Wilson’s father. 

The CD begins with the title track, a piano and choral piece that sets a somber tone, absent of any lyrics. This isn’t exactly a high energy kick start that I might prefer for a CD, but given the title, it foreshadows that the CD is unlikely to be judged on the merits of its tracks but rather a thematic whole… one that hopefully has sunnier spots.

“Sectarian” strums its way into typical Wilson territory – a noodling electric guitar, odd ambient songs, and complicated percussion.  Then it moves to “Starless” era King Crimson, with angry power chords, towering Mellotron (keyboards), and saxophone, loosely connected to the first song through the repeat of choral effects that suggest a religious ponderousness.    Changing styles, the song eases into an ethereal, organ based jazzy section before returning to the King Crimson aggression. What the listener is to make of this, I’m not certain, but the shifting certainly brings about abrupt changes in emotions, and, again, there are no lyrics to guide us.  And throw in a clarinet for a few ending measures to keep us off balance.

A guide piano introduces Wilson’s vocals (finally) in the third song, “Deform to Form a Star,” in comparison a pretty song that provides the thematic element that was suspected all along: loss.

Oh once in a while
I learn how to smile
Horse's shadows and rain on stone
No God here I'm sure
This must be the cure
For all this carrion and aimless drift
Retreat from the begging
And invites to the wedding
Revelation means nothing here
In time we forget our
Need to devour
All the stories of tortured souls

Crawl into your arms
Become the night forever
Coiled and close, the moment froze
Deform to form a star
Here on earth together
I got time to share and a well-used stare

This smile isn't pure
Certain or sure
Cold precision was never there

The way we uncoil
Return to the soil
Flaws are everything and chaos reigns

Following the metaphysical bleakness follows a fine distorted electric guitar solo that briefly rises before a return to more introspective keyboard musings, and perhaps hopeful.  

Following is “No Part of Me,” which offers a certain detachment on a personal level of the subject to another, read to be Wilson and his father. The song is very good (though not for singular replay value), transitioning from reflective vocals to a Porcupine Tree sounding rocker, although played with different personnel. 

I feel worn out
There's no point drinking
When life slows right down
And holds you up above the water line
So sleep will never come
One last time then
Before I lose you
You don't have to pretend
I know that love for you was just security
There's no part of me in you

“Postcard” is imaginatively titled piece, suggesting distance between the person expressing themselves and the receiver.  Wilson goes reclusive lyrically after the loss, shutting out life in his response to a relationship that no longer can be reconciled.  A hopeful piano arpeggio carries the tune, but cue the choral effects at the end for a spiritual question mark.

I think it's time that I got off the kitchen floor
But is there really any point at all?
Waking up this morning felt the same
Better sleep while life is so mundane

It could have been yesterday that I locked the door
I blocked the windows up so I can't be sure
Now I haven't even got the will to eat
I'm lame and self-obsessed, that I will concede

I'd like to light a cigarette but I cannot
The lighter's dead and the gas has been cut off
I'm the one you always seem to read about
The fire inside my eyes has long gone out
There's nothing left for me to say or do
Cos all that matters disappeared when I lost you...

The fire inside my eyes has long gone out
There's nothing left for me to say or do
'Cause all that matters disappeared when I lost you

“Raider Prelude,” falls to the deeper and darker tones of depression, a thankfully brief but none less effective instrumental.

This leads to “Remainder The Black Dog,” which is driven by a sustained, brooding piano line that mimics the lyrical content: neurotic.  Electric guitar, organ, Mellotron, sax, and clarinet are each offered solo space, each peeling away seemingly as part of a very conflicted mind.  It also features a tight, if relatively restrained, electric guitar contribution by former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett.

Scintilla falling behind
Did you arrive at the place that you came from?
A cultivator of dread
The paranoia took root in your cold heart
Neurotic up with the dawn
Prescription pills to ignore, the map is useless
If you would dare to dissolve
You'd get the thing that you craved for so long now

Overall, Disk 1 is a challenging listen, which even if not thoroughly satisfying, has its instrumental moments and nuances that maintain interest.  If it could not have been handled as well by his full time band, at least Wilson brings in other enjoyable instrumentalists. 

“Disk 1,” which was titled “Deform to Form a Star,” implies a “Disk 2,” which is titled “Like Dust I Have Cleared From My Eye.”

The first track, “Belle De Jour,” is a short, acoustic and piano piece that suggests a rise to a less gloomy place, though still an unsatisfying one.

If that piece is a better place during the day, then second song, “Index” is definitely of the night, the sort of song that might be a favorite of Hannibal Lecter or John Wayne Gacy. 

Index:

I'm a collector, I collect anything I find
I never throw anything away that's mine
And I'd collect you too if I was given half a chance
And trap you under the glass and add my autograph
I catalog, I preserve, and I index
And file you into my collectable Rolodex
I keep the rubbish what other people give away
And keep all of the pieces in a metal tray

Hoard - Collect - File - Index
Catalog - Preserve - Amass – Index

I'm a collector and I've always been misunderstood
I like the things that people seem to always overlook
I gather up and catalog it in a book I wrote
There's so much now that I forget if I don't make a note
If I collected you and put you in a little cage
I could take you out and study you every day
It isn't easy being me, it's kind of lonely work
My obligation to collecting is my only thirst

Assuming Wilson isn’t disposing of odds and ends that don’t fit elsewhere in his catalogue, then this song and its placement is assumed to be reflective of one of the many paths possible when one ponders death and brushes against nihilism.

“Track One” (actually Track 3) is perhaps another direction, one that takes depression and enters a brief psychedelic escape… before bad things happen in the form of dark Mellotron washes backed by foreboding keyboard voices.

Fall of winter
Fall of all sundowns
The treachery of the coldness of your smile
Violator, among the trees they hide
Perambulator, fade into the night
Buzz killer stride, fall into the tide
Headlong
Twin sister stars, bouncing off cars
Headstrong

“Raider II” is not the penultimate prog-rock piece de la resistance.  It’s very, very good; it’s just not bright enough for a person to want to jump into it regularly.  It starts off with a stark nod towards Peter Gabriel’s “Intruder,” nod towards paranoia.  And from there, well, that’s what prog rock is all about when given 24 minutes to work itself out. 

A fist will make you understand intention
To raise alarm is underhand, so I cut off the phone
I bind you up with tape and catch some TV
It's getting late, the shadows in the street are watching us

Check for fibres in the gaps between the teeth, the floorboards
Check the fingerprints, go through the trash
Maybe I just wanted some attention
Compulsion seeks its own way in rejection of the light
Every story needs to have an ending
We might as well give up all this pretending and clear the air

The night is crawling closer to the action
Your mouth is driving me into distraction, you talk too much
Well every story needs to have an ending
We might as well give up all this pretending and clear the air

A plague inside your home, I'm raider
Defiling all you own, raider
A cat among the crows, I'm raider
The butcher and his prose, I'm raider

If, and I do mean if, the second disk is related thematically to the first, then the outworking musically in “Raider II” brings our subject to life, or, at least, out of the depths.  The jazz tendencies here and elsewhere serve well to add that effect, and possibly reflect Wilson’s familiarity with King Crimson’s Lizard.

The final song, “Like Dust I Have Cleared From My Eye,” is, even at 8 minutes in length, a straightforward song that reflects acceptance, even amidst what was a complicated relationship.

Well that's something that you're laughing at me
And I hope you know what it is that you're laughing about
Cos it wont be long now 'til they're reeling you in
The same situation, the same disappointment you bring
So I hope you're happy with the impression you made
Deep in denial, like you planned it this way
But you're lost to me
Like dust I have cleared from my eye
Your words have no meaning
So I stare up into the sky

Breathe in now - Breathe out now

Echoing the absence of a satisfying closure, there is an ethereal fade out musically, breathing in and out being the evidence of life.

Overall, this is a superbly conceived and orchestrated work, though it’s appeal will likely be limited to those who are already fans.  It’s a nice progression musically, and hopefully the jazzier elements will continue to make their way into his future work.

4 of 5 STARS

 

 

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Dabo Swinney – What’s Not to Like?

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Sure, football fans can question calls or decisions, but Swinney is the best representative of what I’ve always loved about Clemson – people who love Clemson.

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Wilco - The Whole Love

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Wilco’s The Whole Love starts off with a game changer musically. Gone are the rather passive, light and airy intro songs that have kicked, er, led off the band’s albums of recent memory (“Wilco – the song”… really?). Instead, we have an energetic reimagining of the band’s ability that suggests they found Radiohead’s (lost) muse.  “The Art of Almost” delivers band growth in one celebratory, funky package, from start to finish, and, almost as well, from restart to finish. Well, dang! This is going to be good!

Well, it is. But, inevitably with this band, not in the way I might have hoped from the leading track. Songs 2-11 all but alternate between tuneful pop leanings and the passive, light, and airy acoustic sketches of which we’re so accustomed.  What’s surprising is that there are no electronic jolts, no startling effects, no sonic hair raising intrusions into the mood.  Wilco may as well be known as a band that chooses to kill vibes in this way, either reminding the listener that it’s a Wilco album and not something you can relax with, or otherwise infuriate a listener who is enjoying the groove.  I like the new CD.  I’ll call it maturity.   Nels Cline, the talented lead guitarist who inserts “ersatz” guitar effects everywhere,  continues to do so here, but tastefully… adding more subtle expressions to whatever lead singer Jeff Tweedy is singing about (the tuneful songs) or deadpanning (the less tuneful songs).

And what is Tweedy singing about these days? Well, relationships still, at least when it’s coherent. The second song, “I Might,” is a winner, if you hear Tweedy’s voice as just another instrument. But with lyrics such as:

You come on
Sentimental
If the
Solar Car’s coming
I’m home
The Magna Carta’s
On a Slim Jim blood
Brutha!
(etc.)

Perhaps I don’t share the same perceptive space that Tweedy relates. That would be because I don’t do drugs. Or, perhaps he subscribes to the McCartney school of song writing, finding words that sound like they fit until something halfway cohesive arises from the random. I think that’s actually part of it. But, I’m even more inclined to suspect that Tweedy, with all of Indie-music nation reviewers secured in his pocket, is just playing a joke to see if anyone cares.  After all, it sounds good enough, right?

So, amongst his happy acoustic guitar and the sublimated weirdness that the band brings, is there a sense of anything lyrically elsewhere on the CD?  In places, yes.  And the lyrics are conveniently included in the CD booklet, so one can (or can not) find a particular meaning.  Often, his vocal tone can be related to the moods suggested by his occasional word choices: “waiting forever,” “I was born to die alone,” “you wouldn’t like it here,” “I mope and I cry and I attack,” “an embrace at the wake” … Happy stuff.

However, that’s not the complete story.  First, there is a lack of Tweedy’s periodic cynicism.  I’m not sure if that is good or bad, but it’s different.   Instead, everything (the parts that make sense anyway) all have to do with how Tweedy is getting along in the world. 

There’s a certain hopefulness, if not optimism.  That’s a change. “Sunloathe,” one of the more pensive songs, doesn’t reach out to victory, but not losing is a forward step.  The catchy “Dawned on me” is as much a love song as Tweedy seems capable of writing, even if in the context of a long distance relationship. “Open Mind” finds him hoping of what could be, even if he’s certain it’s not possible. “Standing O” has a cheery musical flavor reflecting on his own growth, never mind that the special someone doesn’t recognize it. 

Well, so it’s not an optimistic album, but everything is relative.  I’m glad that I’m not living in the same world of inspiration in which Tweedy apparently finds himself. But that doesn’t mean that struggles do not lean to good art.

The bookend to the length “Art of Almost” is a very unusual long song.  It doesn’t linger forever with a chorus (“Hey Jude”) or tackle multiple music ideas (any Yes song).  Instead, “One Sunday Morning,” about the loss of someone’s father, strolls its way through 12 minutes of what, if one listens, is much greater than an extended breezy ballad.  In that it’s reenergized periodically by an excellent guitar riff, it doesn’t get tired… it just keeps on going. 

Wilco remains a little off-course for a larger audience. The tendency towards lyrical nonsense and the recurring habit of killing a vibe with obnoxious musical insertions can do that. Still, while unsurprising after the first track, this CD seems the most mature album for the band musically. All the parts are fitting together, benefitting the whole. If Tweedy would just find a Lennon to keep his effort honest…

Recommended Songs: “Art of Almost,” “I Might,” “Dawned on Me”

4 of 5 STARS

 

 

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Burger Mania – A Personal Journal

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Burgers.  First, let’s just set aside any of the normal fast food options (regional or national chains that have drive-thrus).  And, let’s rule out burgers in restaurants that don’t specialize in burgers – Chili’s, Outback’s, etc.  One notable exception was a brief period of time when a little drive-thru version of Backyard Burgers in East Cobb certainly drew my attention as a stand-out amongst its peers.  But it wasn’t convenient.

What I like in a burger includes meat that tastes like it’s been cooked on a grill, retaining moisture and not so saturated with spices that the meat loses its flavor.  Medium… medium well… and it should be served hot.  It’s juices should be present, grease that flows from each bite is certainly a no-no.

Now, I’m not so predisposed to advertising that I insist the every hamburger look like an advertising picture.  On the other hand, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and other garnishments should increase the vertical stature of the sandwich.  It shouldn’t be flattened, nor should the bread.  Similarly, things like pickles should be spread around the patty, not thrown on in a heap.  Ketchup and mayonnaise should be lightly spread across the bun, not flowing from it’s edges.  Ideally, you should be able to hold the burger in its entirety with good odds of keeping everything on it.

I think that pretty well sums it up, other than mentioning that red peppers are a favorite, but rarely offered.  Somewhere in the above are the elements of a grading system…

I never really paid much attention to the number of options that were otherwise left in the mix.  Rhea’s Burgers has been a long time tradition in the area, and I’ve always liked “hole in the wall” eating as long as there are no holes in the wall.  I can’t say the same for my family, and thus it’s an occasional “eat by myself” detour.  Their burgers in no way should be perceived as healthy.  Still, B-

Life was okay.

When Five Guys first moved to Atlanta, I had never heard of them.  I thought the name was sort of odd, because from the sign, I couldn’t tell what their business was.  Five Guys Hair Styling?  Five Guys Surf Shop?  Five Guys Dating Service? It wouldn’t take too long to realize that they were a nice addition to the area – better than average hamburgers amongst not much competition.  Good fries, but I’d rather buy a single portion at a single price.  B-  (But credit given for redefining burger expectations.  They’re a model of consistency).

Other options kept coming along.

Then The Counter showed up in Roswell, a mathematicians dream for possible combinations of ingredients.  One visit revealed prices that were a little too high, service that was AWOL, and fries that didn’t satisfy as the required complement to a burger must.  The burger was oFlip Burger Boutiquekay; I have no need to go back.  Did I mention it was extremely noisy?  No.  Well, now I have. 

Red Robin might come to mind.  They certainly have good burgers, but… the venue is just a bit overdone for something that should be served fairly simply.  Fuddrucker’s – not convenient, but consistently a good performer at a better price than the chains exploding around town.  They need to work on the “destination” feel; it’s feeling a bit tired.

If Red Robin is a little too fancy for a burger joint… try Flip Burgers, sorry… Flip Burger Boutique.  The name makes it okay to overspend.  I took my daughter and, $35 later, we had decent burgers from a rather odd (flipped?) assortment of options, plus fries, and a very unusual shake (Krispy Kreme made from… yeah, Krispy Kremes).  I would say that we each had a milkshake, but at $35 with tags, tax and title, no.  Sometimes, It’s better to share.  They cater to the “Go to see and be seen” crowd, but for the taste/dollar ratio clearly warrants:  C- (If they had ranked higher, I would have subtracted more points due to very cramped seating.  It’s difficult to hold a conversation.)

I at one point found my way to “gastro-pubs,” which, I have to say, can be pretty darn good.  The Bookhouse Pub continues to satisfy in every way, including some sleight of hand of building a beautiful, dark wood interior in what certainly qualifies from the outside as “a hole in the wall.”  Never mind the holes in the pavement.  Still, they get an A.

Inner city folks will point towards The Vortex as the final solution.  They’re admittedly very good, with a varied menu.  The decorationsIMG_2049 at both locations qualify as destination burger outlets… but I really don’t like cigarette smoke.  Still, A- and a nice walk on the wild side if in the area.

A Smash Burger just opened near my office.  It’s very similar to Five Guys in its interior.  The menu is a little larger, and the burger was solid.  Actually, maybe I had too many frills.  I ordered the Spicy Baja burger, which includes pepper jack cheese, guacamole, lettuce, tomato, spicy chipotle mayo, jalapenos on a spicy chipotle bun.  There was a 8 oz. certified angus beef patty in their somewhere, but it got lost in the sensory input. Still, paying $11.52 for a burger, fries and drink remains a little steep for a “solid” burger presented in a fairly Spartan environment, not to mention in this economy.  IMG_2056

I’ll try it again, but Smash Burger isn’t a burger destination.  but still rises above the closest convenience.  If you’re wandering what that means, how many times do you choose a national chain because they paid for the location that happens to be where you and most others find convenient?  They get a B.

Yeah Burger is decisively good, another chain that has made a savory splash in Atlanta, and is worthy of remaining on the “if in the area, eat there” list.  Their 50/50 fries/onion rings option seals the deal, though still a pricey one.

But my “best burger of the year” award has to go to Mugshots, in Vestavia Hills, AL.  I never said there were rules photofor geographic limits.  This chain, which started in Missippi (spelled the way it’s pronounced by residents) as a college town bar has been gradually expanding.  The Vestavia location borders on having the “chain restaurant” feeling, mostly due to its newness.  To its credit, the seating is not inordinately packed in, as Five Guys and others tend to do.  But the burger… quality.  Even cooking with excellent grilled flavor, with ample condiments to build it per taste.  Even better, it’s  bundled up in, basically, split yeast rolls that serve as the bun.  These add a certain sweetness, as well as, from an engineering perspective, a welcome cladding material to actually hold the juices, extras, etc. until the last bite.  That’s rare.  A+

Honorable Mention: Fuddrucker’s, which should nevertheless fear being passe in the current explosion of burger options.

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Portugal, The Man – Live at Variety Playhouse

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Obscure band, right?  With my son in tow, we arrived at the ticket office to find out that the show was sold out… “but they may release some tickets later.  You might want to go eat or something and try then.”  Within 5 minutes, 10 tickets were “released,” and we were in.  Really?  Sold out?  I’m hip and don’t even know it.

A thoughtful consideration is that with ticket prices at $15 in advance, the band smartly plays to a generation that craves quality live music but often finds it unaffordable.  Kudos.

The opening act, Alberta Cross, took the stage promptly at 8:30.  Beginning with a pounding beat by their drummer, the band quickly stepped into a continuing rock frenzy through their set.   Lead singer Petter Stakee has a high pitched voice similar to Neil Young, enhanced by My Morning Jacket type reverb effects.

A quick rerun of their videos reveals a bit different band from what I heard, much less amplified.  That said, I liked them both ways, and they’ll remain a band of interest, especially with a new CD arriving next year.

alberta2

After moving their kit off the stage, PTM’s stage was seen a little more clearly, with a somewhat whimsical look.  My son guessed correctly that the balls were internally lit, and, from a lighting standpoint, the show was different in that the stage remained very dim, as Variety’s house lights (which are ordinarily superb) were used sparingly in favor of a floor based system.

port1

The break also allowed the opportunity for the many who had not yet shown up to work their way to the seats and the standing area in front of the stage.  It was nice, for once, to clearly be on the elder side of the audience average age.  Most appeared to be in college or mid-20’s, with many couples.  Once again, how did they hear of this band?  Sure, PTM played at the Bonnaroo Music Festival twice… but whatever type of music PTM plays, I hadn’t really considered it to be “bring a date” music.  So, I’m not so hip after all.

port2

PTM is categorized sometimes as psychedelic rock.  I didn’t find that to be true, but they had a mix of progressive rock flavored keyboards, Beatles pop hooks, and indie flavor (interpreted: I don’t know). 

PTM took the stage and played with rarely a pause between songs in their hour and 45 minute or so set.  Disappointingly, this was also a rare occasion in that the opening act’s audio was superior to headliner.  What can you do?

An early surprise was the band’s take on The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter,” which was a rocking affair accompanied by a small blast of dry ice.

Wrong.

That actually would be the smoke from possibly illicit consumables from those standing in front of the stage.  And elsewhere.  In fact, towards the close of the show, they would reveal their hands with actual lighters, as opposed to the digital renditions on smart phones preferred by my age group.  Still, the band threw the old folks a bone with a cover of Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes” a short bit later.port3

The band played with energy, especially bassist Zachary Carothers, who appeared to love both the music and his profession.  It’s unusual for a bassist, even one who sings backup vocals, to have a fronting stage presence over a guitarist, but it was deserved. 

Keyboards and drums were always tasteful and, at times, very enjoyable, but the band’s role is basically to support lead singer/guitarist John Baldwin Gourley.  Gourley has a very high pitched voice, I believe altered at times through electronic effects.  It’s a bit tiring to me on record, but in concert sounded very good.  As an aside, Gourley should consider buying a guitar that doesn’t need tuning between every song, or even during a song, though it never interrupted the flow of his vocals or segues to the next songs.

PTM played a generous portion of their latest CD, In the Mountain in the Cloud, which were already crowd favorites as evidenced by many who sang along.  Overall, it was a departure for me as most shows I favor are guitar showcases of some type.  Though there is a lot going on instrumentally, this was more of an ensemble approach.  Still, a concert/quality time with my son or stay at home?  It was a very enjoyable evening that obviously pleased their many fans.

Photo of the crowd taken by drummer Jason Sechrist at the end of main set:

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Steve Hackett - Beyond the Shrouded Horizon

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On the heels of Hackett’s live CD capturing his 2010 tour, he’s released a new studio CD.  To be fair, I’ve set aside any fondness for the “old” Genesis days when evaluating this, his 20th or so solo release.

The CD begins with a sinister, earthly guitar growl, strangely augmented by a dramatic synth.  This is just the intro to a heavy beat, synth driven concoction of I’m not sure what to feature Hackett’s fine guitar work, which then yields to a Midlake toned Brit-folk vocals that sing of Loch Lomond.  It’s a winning tone, and it’s somewhat disappointing that this tone was used throughout the CD.  Add a military snare, and the song changes direction, again, into a rollicking electric guitar solo… with an entirely different vocal treatment to keep it all together. 

Or does it?

In the hour or so of music provided, Hackett includes so many disparate elements, generally desired in “prog rock,” that it seems more of a “throw everything at it and see what sticks” approach.

“The Phoenix Flown” is a beautiful instrumental piece with, of course, a blazing guitar solo, that serves as much as a postlude to the opening “Loch Lomend” than a stand-alone song.  But it’s a good one. 

From the electric ear candy, we move to short acoustic guitar intro, entitled “Wanderlust,” to a fairly emotive “Til These Eyes,” sung by Hackett in a Greg Lake tone.  It succeeds, in part, due to its simplicity.  Surprisingly, guitar pyrotechnics are absent.

“Prairie Angel” captures Hackett’s beautiful slide guitar with a gorgeous melody, which strangely devolves into a pedestrian rock riff that annoys before it finally segues into “A Place Called Freedom.”  Other than the heavy-handed effects-enhanced refrain, this is a beautiful piece, which reclaims the murdered slide melody from “Prairie Angel.”   As a bonus, an enthusiastic, McCartney/Fireman “Sing the Changes” vocal section is a nice touch.

“Between the Sunset and the Coconut Palms” refrains from prog-rock overindulgence, and for that matter, Hackett’s fiery solos.  It’s a pretty song, and, though not filler, per se, it is certainly sleepier than most.

“Waking to Life” begins with a sitar, which, while very much a George Harrison fan, makes a sound that generally causes me to cringe.  Layer on top of that a female voice doctored to fit the Indian tone, and I can’t help but hear, oddly, a dance era Madonna.  It’s interesting.  But… 

While in the East, why not skip a few time zones to “Two Faces of Cairo.”  This song takes a bit too long (1:20) before it starts to take form.  Then it takes another 20 seconds before it gets to the guitar solo.  Inspiration from exotic locales I understand.  Great solo, as usual. But the song withers away like a desert mirage.  And, given the arid environment, the solo dissipates as well, leaving one thirsty for something more substantial.

Next is “Looking for Fantasy.”  A classical styled plodder.  Up next is “Summer’s Breath,” an acoustic intro…  Say, why can’t intros be part of the main song?  Just

 

asking.  … to “Catwalk.”  As it’s name might suggest, this is a rocker, think 80s era Robin Trower… tolerable riff, irrelevant lyrics and well intended vocal passion

 

that are placeholders until the guitar beast is finally released.

The CD closes with “Turn This Island Earth,” a 12 minute prog-opera of sorts, in that every dart was thrown at the board.  Some of it sticks… and some of it loses interest (tired riffs, orchestral sections).  It’s worth a listen, at least, and it’s likely to be regarded as the next “big thing” by Hackett fans. 

The next big thing for me, actually, is found on the bonus CD.  Unburdened by prog-rock tendencies, the “Four Winds” pseudo-suite are efficient and very enjoyable presentations of four guitar styles.  My favorite is “East,” as the tune brings a sense of humor.   The other cuts are entertaining, but the most enjoyable is Hackett’s cover of Jan Akkerman/Focus’ “Eruption,” which displays his mastery of control of guitar tone and technique.

Overall, Hackett fans should like this CD.  I like this CD.  But despite what seems to be a lot of effort, the disparate parts rarely build to an enjoyable whole.  None of the songs beg to be heard repeatedly, though many are enjoyable for guitar enthusiasts.

Recommended Songs: “Loch Lomond,” “The Phoenix Flown,” “A Place Called Freedom,” “Four Winds,” “Eruption: Tommy”

3 of 5 STARS

 

 

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