Wednesday, June 30, 2010

My Amazon Reviews: Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers "Mojo"

Tom Petty and The Blues Breakers
3 Out of 5 Hours

Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers step into jamming me mode and get all laid back on "Mojo." It's so laid back that I was wondering if they should have renamed it "Slo-Mo," but I decided to give it a few more spins. Given the chance to grow on you, "Mojo" is a pretty good groove record. It keeps a pretty even pace, and The Heartbreakers are their usual top notch playing selves. Much like 2008's "Mudcrutch" reunion/debut, "Mojo" has that 'friends gettin' together' feel about it.

This is also the Tom Petty album that seems to owe the most to his Dylan/Dead days, also like Mudcrutch. There's more jam here than structure, which makes for some great moments, like Mike Campbell's blistering lead on "Good Enough" and the drawling "US 41." The rocking moments, like "I Should Have Known It" and "First Flash Of Freedom" are also prime Petty.

On the negative side, some studio jams should have been more developed. Both "Candy" and "Don't Pull Me Over" are almost painfully bad. The faux reggae of "Don't Pull Me Over" clones Eric Clapton's hit cover of "I Shot The Sheriff" as Petty whines that he hopes the cops don't pull him over because he's smoking a joint in the car. Which might be cool if you're a 20 year old (or Willie Nelson), but just sounds silly from a near 60 millionaire. It's too easy a song for an artist of Petty's caliber. After the more challenging "The Last DJ" exposed Petty's indignation with the industry he's basically grown up in, the hazy smoothness of "Mojo" is Okay. Having become acclimated to many, many great Tom Petty albums, I was just surprised at just average this is.

Breakdown (Album Version)   Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers - Greatest Hits  The Last DJ

My Amazon Reviews: "Cyber War" by Richard A Clarke/Robert Knake

Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About ItKeystrokes to Catastrophe
4 Out Of 5 Stars

Richard Clarke has been there and done that. Appointed by Reagan, serving under Bush One and Clinton and then marginalized by Bush Two (the way the shoved aside anyone who dealt with Clinton), only to see his ignored expertise come to life as 9/11. So yes, he has something of an axe to grind. And "Cyber War" takes more than a few whacks at his final employers, and again exposes Bush/Cheney as agenda whores and the looming threat of Cyber War as something maybe we should all be alarmed over.

More frightening than anything else in this book are the examples that Cyber Warfare is already being practiced: The Russians bombarding Georgia and all but paralyzing that nation for a period, the Israeli's blocking radars with fake images while running a bombing mission, a viral triggered refinery explosion against the Russians after they got caught stealing software, so we planted destructive orders into a handed off "secret." As Clarke points out, the likelihood that China or Russia already has malware or 'logic bombs' buried inside our infrastructure isn't just a remote chance. It's probably already Fait accompli. It may even be in the home computer you're reading this review on, if you've inadvertently downloaded a botnet relayer.
Clarke forcibly argues for stepping up the game.

I found it astonishing that our government uses less virus protection on some of it's systems than most home computer users. Or that, in almost every exercise where the government attempts to test security (be it wall street, power companies, or the Department of Defense), the hackers always succeeded. The general thought is that - much like in the world before 9/11 - it's not a question of if a cyber attack will happen, it's a question of when. His many suggestions (a stronger Government R&D into tech security, actual international discussions into cyber warfare rules, more forceful regulation on ISP's) may seem like hubris to some, but more like common sense to me. "Cyber War" may not keep you awake at night, but it may ramp up your techie paranoia level.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Folsom, The Earth Moves, and Lights Out

The week went pretty well here until Thursday. Joel and I started out Sunday in NYC with Russ, the Rubber Rebel, holding a booth at Folsom East. The usual suspects were all about, and the day was perfect. For a change, no mad downpours to drive everyome off and make me lunge for plastic, book protecting tarps.

Live At The Troubadour [CD / DVD Combo]Two days later, we were swaying back and forth to the music of Carole King and James Taylor, who brought their reunion tour to Philadelphia. We had pretty nice seats and the revolving stage made the view perfect. While Taylor's voice remains as silky smooth as every, King's has gained a rasp, but still sounds great. They played for about two and a half hours and the band was legendary. Danny Korthcmar, Lee Sklar and Rusty Kunkle on guitar, bass and drums, respectively. If those names seem at all familiar, it's because just about every Cali-rock album of the seventies and early eighties probably had them on it.

Even though her voice has aged a bit, King was the rocker of the pair. When she belted out "I Feel The Earth Move," she really came off strong. She also had a highlight of the show by singing "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman." James Taylor was almost a jukebox; "You've Got a Friend," "Country Road," "Sweet Baby James," "Fire and Rain"...he hit all the classics. There was one more pair of great duets, when they joined together for "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" and the lone unexpected surprise, highlighting King's songwriting legacy by performing "Crying In The Rain."

Jonah Hex Movie Poster Double Sided Original 27x40Little did I know that, as she was performing "I Feel The Earth Move," Teutonic plates somewhere in Canada and the northern USA where preparing to shift the following day. And the day after, a sudden storm would drop me and Joel off the grid for over a day. A storm system that ripped through the area in about 45 minutes, whipping up peak winds of 75 MPH and subsequently knocking out power to about 200,000 people. Including me. From about 3:30 in the afternoon Thursday until about 8:30 Friday night, the elements had us at their mercy.
Lights Out
Oddly enough, Friday morning and less than a mile away, the power was on. By 7:30 Friday, I got tired of sitting in the heat and went to a movie ("Jonah Hex" was the only thing starting within my arrival time, it was pretty dreadful, even with Josh Brolin and John Malkovich). The traffic light a block from my house was on, but not the one three blocks way. With all the uprooted trees and downed tree limbs, I guess the campaign was block by block.

But the electric was on when I got home, so a cooked dinner was worth the wait. Now on to catching up with the weekend.

Friday, June 25, 2010

My Amazon Reviews: Glee Cast "Volume 3: Showstoppers"

Glee: The Music, Volume 3 Showstoppers (Deluxe)Subversive Supreme
4 Out Of 5 Stars

There was a time when pop music and classic popcraft went hand in hand. The Beatles, The Jackson 5, The Fifth Dimension, all took assorted Broadway songs and mixed them with pop and rock. The Beatles did "Till There Was You," The Jackson's did "Corner Of The Sky," The Fifth Dimension took on "The Age Of Aquarius." After a couple decades, that seemed to be too square. Until The Who decided to turn "Tommy" into a Broadway musical - and now Green Day actually winning Tony Awards for "American Idiot" (!?!?), Broadway and modern rock/pop travelled very separate pathways.

Glee has taken that and upended it entirely. Here, they cover The Fifth Dimension AND Broadway in the same song. The medley of "One Less Bell To Answer/A House Is Not a Home" fashions itself in the mold of Barbra Streisand, who has appeared in song throughout the first season. Take songs from "Phantom of The Opera," "Gypsy" and "The Wiz" AND set them next to The Beatles, Kiss and Lady Gaga, and you get what is easily one of the most subversive albums to hit number one this century. Granted, the amount of Auto-tune here annoys me (these kids can sing, really...enough with the gadgets), but when I think of millions of kids being exposed to classic rock ("Dream On"), classic pop ("Hello Goodbye") and Broadway standards ("I Dreamed a Dream:), I'm secretly thrilled. Add that the show itself is one of the most positive on network TV right now, and I am happy to make these soundtracks the guiltiest of my guilty pleasure CD's.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

My Amazon Reviews: Devo "Something for Everybody"

Something for EverybodyMen on a Mission
4 out of 5 Stars

Sounding more invigorated and fresh than we should have expected at this point in time, Devo deliver "Something For Everybody," their market tested, fan voted and 80% focus group approved first disc in two decades. Given the state of the world and the state of the musical art, it sounds like they haven't aged a day.

From the pomp blare that blows open "Fresh" to the sythed-shouted call to arms of "March On," this is the irony drenched and jittery synth-rock these guys all but perfected in the 70's and 80's. There's even a snotty political broadside via the title track. And as they say on "Later Is Now," eventually everyone gets it right. The future really has caught up to Devo. There's plenty of humor, snark (both at once in "Don't Shoot, I'm a Man") and irresistible dance beats, even if you think you've heard it all before.

Well, you have. As they call their publishing "Recombinant Music;" you'll still dig it. At the same time, there's one song here that marks a high-water mark for Devo. "No Place Like Home" is, of all things, a piano ballad at its heart. Not just a piano ballad, but an honest to spud-pete "Save The World" song. While "Beautiful World" and "Freedom of Choice" were topical in a more underhanded way, "No Place Like Home" goes straight for the jugular, arguing that the pure devolution's endgame is extinction. It's also the song I heard didn't make the Song Study cut, but the band put it on the disc anyway. Pretty potent stuff, but the irony of all ironies is that Devo has grown up. "Something For Everybody" may have a few duds ("Cameo" is my pick for most replaceable song), yet I am still in awe that this album is as strikingly good as it turned out. "On with the show," the bellow at the close of "March On." And I couldn't agree more.

Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! Deluxe Remastered Version  Freedom of Choice Deluxe Remastered Edition  Duty Now for the Future

Sunday, June 20, 2010

My Amazon Reviews: Paul Simon "Graceland"

GracelandShining Like a National Guitar
5 out of 5 Stars

Paul Simon needed a comeback in 1986 for a number of reasons. His marraige to actress Carrie Fischer had come apart. His last album, the wonderful "Hearts and Bones," was not met well commercially. An attempt at reconnecting with Art Garfunkel had also come undone for the usual animosities. So he travelled to South Africa to visit the musicians he had been studying for a few years.

The result was "Graceland." In his quest to rejuvenate his musical spirit, Simon connected with a host of well known African musicians who pushed him into writing music that lifted his creative muse to a new peak. In addition to introducing American to Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Simon brought Los Lobos, Linda Ronstadt, The Everly Brothers, Youssou N'Dour and Adrian Belew on board to his unconventional brew. Simon found the music he encountered so intriguing that he married his lyrics to most of the tracks (making songs like "Diamonds On The Soles of Her Shoes" and "Homeless" into mini-masterpieces).

Simon's newfound joy in creation made for some of the more whimsical moments, like "You Can Call Me Al" (and the accompanying video with Chevy Chase) and "The Myth Of Fingerprints," in his solo career. The songs blended together as a cohesive whole, without a filler track to be found, and deserving of the slew of Grammys Simon picked up in its wake.

  Essential Paul Simon Hearts and Bones Simon & Garfunkel - Greatest Hits

Saturday, June 19, 2010

My Amazon Reviews: Duncan Sheik "While Limousine"

White Limousine (Dig)Such a Sad Ride
4 Out of 5 Stars

Duncan Sheik has been afforded the success of a Tony Award winning play and an early pop breakthrough, but his albums have maintained a cultish status. "White Limousine," with its hushed melodies and poetic lyrics, probably won't gather many new fans, but it is up there with his best works (the debut, "Phantom Moon'). And frankly, it's one of the saddest sounding albums I own.

"Hey Casanova, you don't look so good,
And I know that times are tough.
You never found your paradise like you said you would
and things are catching up."

The songs on "While Limousine" muse of the futility of love, the misplacement of faith, the disillusionment of leadership (the cruelly soft-spoken title track especially) and life's bummers in general. Like Nick Drake of Janis Ian, Sheik has delivered and album for those who contemplate suicide when downbeat albums are enough.

It's also beautifully done. Both "So Gone" and "I Don't Believe In Ghosts" are standout lost love songs, and "Shopping" is a catchy ditty about the follies of fandom. It's a biting look at how the artist sees himself at his worst and another highlight on the album.

"And you asked me, so innocently, of my inspiration
Why I write the songs I sing,
the reasons why I make them.
Well, nothing here is what it seems,
I'll risk the wreckage of your dreams.
It's so that you are always shopping.
To steal away the cash you're dropping."

It's heartbreakingly honest and funny is its own weird way, which is why the bulk of "White Limousine" works so well. Put it on and disconnect the phone. Go ahead and bum yourself out.

One from my Childhood....

Friday, June 18, 2010

Sunday in NYC

Anyone attending Folsom Street East, drop by my book table and say hello. I will be with Rubber Rebel Russ and the GuyzinGear gang.

My Amazon Reviews: Nada Surf "If I had a Hi-Fi"

If I Had a Hi-FiIt's a Jangle Pop World,
5 Out of 5 Stars
Like a few fans out there, I've had "If I had a Hi-Fi" since National Record Store day and have been talking it up to friends for a couple of weeks. Granted, a covers album is usually a kiss-of-death for most bands, but this is one of the rare exceptions to the rule. Nada-Surf takes on a batch of their favorites and breaks out the Rickenbackers. Frankly, this is Jangle-pop nirvana. It's "Garage Days" for power-poppers. It's really that good.

Part of the reason I dig this so much is that many of the songs are relatively obscure. Dwight Twilley is one of my all-time power-pop gurus, and NS goes for his "You Were So Warm." Bill Fox is one of those obscure guys that only alt-freaks would know about, and they unearth one of his songs for the opening track. "Electrocution" is given such a work-over that is sounds like a great lost Roger McGuinn song. Add a Spanish band's song "Evolucion" that absolutely haunts, and you've already scored three bulls-eyes.

Then there's the not-so-obscure. The primary airplay is going to Depeche Mode's "Enjoy The Silence," which sounds like REM wrote it as opposed to manic depressive British Synth Dudes. Nada Surf turns the song completely on its head, which is no minor feat. Kate Bush's "Love and Anger" loses none of it's empathic qualities, also not an easy task, given her unique qualities. And finally, there's the revved up cover of The Moody Blues' "Question," which answers the question of what a jam session between The Moodies and The Byrds might have sounded like. That's probably my favorite track on "If I Had a Hi-fi," followed closely by the Twilley cover. There's plenty of other songs here, but suffice to say that Nada Surf has joined The Editors as one of my favorite albums for 2010.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

My Amazon Reviews: Paul Simon "Herats and Bones"

Hearts and Bones

They say the left side of the brain controls the right
4 Out of 5 Stars

It was the year of Flock of Seagulls, it was the year of The Clash, it was 1983, to paraphrase Paul Simon's best song on "Hearts and Bones." It was also the year of "Thriller," and the kind of music that was pushing old hands like Paul Simon off the radio. It was also the time he was in his final phases of breaking up with wife Carrie Fischer, and not long after the assassination of John Lennon. All these things filter into what is, in my opinion, Paul Simon's most overlooked album.

"Hearts and Bones" originally started life as a Simon and Garfunkel reunion album with a working title "Think Too Much." But the usual animosities came between the duo and Simon went solo. It may have to do with the extremely personal nature of the songs, like the title track that takes a sad look at 'one and one half wandering Jews' as their arc of a love affair comes to an end and the sublime "Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War."

Less obvious but still interesting is "Allergies," which was the first single. While Michael Jackson took Eddie Van Halen to light up a cross-over single, Simon lured in jazz guitarist Al DiMeola to let fingers fly across the frets. It's brilliant. I also found the presence of Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards on "Think Too Much B" as a cool move on Simon's part.

Most impressive, though, was "The Late Great Johnny Ace," which was also performed at the S&G reunion in Central Park. It ties Simon's musical growth over the years to the full-stop-shock of John Lennon's death. It may be the one song on "Hearts and Bones" that misses Garfunkel; his high voice would have added to the emotional heft of a song that's already a tear-jerker. Phillip Glass adds a moving instrumental coda to the song that closes the album with the kind of tug that most S&G albums were beloved for. "The Late Great Johnny Ace" is one of the best tribute songs ever recorded, and easily among Simon's finest works. 

There Goes Rhymin Simon  Still Crazy After All These Years  Graceland

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

New Traditionalists (Deluxe Remastered Edition) [Explicit]Old Traditions are New Again
4 Out of 5 Stars
The long awaited reissue and remaster of Devo's 1981 "New Traditionalists" is well worth the wait. I've had this CD in three different forms now; an early 90's Japanese import, stolen from me and replaced by the Infinite Zero version, and finally, this. I had also read the saga of the disintegrating master-tape a long time back, but this version is the best "New Traditionalists" has ever sounded. More punch, thicker bass and bottom, much better definition.

There's also the fact that Devo was on a creative roll at the time. They'd just had a major hit with "Freedom Of Choice," had done major TV shows and concerts, and this was meant to be the album that kept that momentum going forward, moving ahead. New Traditionalists" found DEVO in that precarious state. Their arty irony and brainy pop smarts had made them a flavor of the moment and suddenly the whole world was chanting "are we not men?" It both emboldened them and deepened their cynicism.

"Through Being Cool" rallied the alienated to rise against the ninnies and the twits at the same time "Beautiful World" wearily declared that it might have been a beautiful world for you, but "it's not for me." After all, how could you rail against the lemming/jock mentality when they were the ones donning energy domes at the football games and singing "Whip It" at corporate synergy rallies? But having been touched by the gold finger of hit making, DEVO did their best to fill an album with enthusiastic pogo anthems about their favorite topics, love sex and the willful decline of the human condition. "Jerking Back and Forth" and "Love Without Anger" are typical visions of human relationships ala DEVO. (The stop motion doll video for "L.W.A." is among the band's best.) "Going Under" had them tinkering with their sound a little.

While it charted about the same as its predecessor, none of the singles performed as did "Whip It" and the record was considered a commercial disappointment. (Oddly enough, "Working In a Coal Mine" came from the movie "Heavy Metal" and was inserted as a single into original album pressings, was a bonus track on the Infinite CD, and is left off here. Also missing, the "Devo Saves The Children" poster art.) The bonus tracks are nothing much to speak of, other than they show what molds "Super Thing," "That's Good" and "Patterns" were cast from. What I am really hoping for now is the ultimate remasters on the remaining Devo albums, even "Smooth Noodle Maps."

Monday, June 14, 2010

My Amazon Reviews: Bruce Springsteen "The Rising"

The RisingMay Your Strength Give Us Strength
5 Out of 5 Stars

While many artists tried to pour their feelings about September 11, 2001 into song, few made it work. Alan Jackson, Yes. Paul McCartney, No. Toby Keith, double plus no. But only Bruce Springsteen answered his muse with an entire album built around his interpretations of the moment. Like his other American Epics "Born In The USA" and "Burn To Run," "The Rising" is an astonishing work. He looks for revenge ("Into The Fire," "Empty Sky"), redemption ("Further On Up The Road") and the return of hope at "Mary's Place," where the E Street Band bursts into the anthemic rock they're beloved for.

Yet unlike most performers who focused on the jingoistic aspects of the time, Springsteen, most controversially, looked into the souls of those who could perpetrate such a vile action and then wrote "Paradise." Like his look at the everyday people he has always championed, "Paradise" hits a bulls-eye in a sad and chilling way. On these shores, Springsteen also profiles the confused hero as he tries to sort out his part in the the morning his "life was forever changed in a misty cloud of pink vapor" in "Nothing Man."

While the population of "The Rising" have been dealing with this incredible sadness, Springsteen still makes it all feel cathartic. The title song is almost a call to gospel as it struggles to overcome the deep wound ("Let's Be Friends" tries, but doesn't meet the challenge.) They all still struggle with the shock and pain, but Springsteen managed to try and look forward even as each song's narrator dealt with the empty beds, homes and "the long black line of cars snaking through town." On "The Rising," Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band found a way to look into that "blood red circle on the cold dark ground" and hope that there could still be a future.

 Born to Run Tunnel of Love Born in the U.S.A.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

My Amazon Reviews: Sparks "Profile: The Ultimate Collection"

Profile: The Ultimate Sparks CollectionSqueezing Out Sparks
4 Out of 5 Stars

From their inception as Half Nelson to the current incarnation as avant-garde popists, Ron and Russell Mael have defied every convention, inspired hundreds of other bands, developed a rabidly loyal cult following (count me as a member) and yet, this is the only compilation of their work to date. While it may be hard to top this double disc set, I find that fact a little depressing.

However, over two discs and 40 songs, Sparks show why their fans are almost deliriously devoted to the Mael brothers. There's three decades worth of good music to be found here, and a chance to hear how the band and music itself has evolved through the years. Starting with the earlier singles, like "Wonder Girl" and the still astonishing "This Town Ain't Big Enough for The Both of Us," the band's mix of English theater and Glam took hold. Naturally, no one in America bought the act. So they headed for England and, just as naturally, become huge.

It's easy to see the qualities that made Sparks so influential at the time. Russell's vocals obviously had an influence on a young Freddie Mercury, and the quirky lyrical qualities seem to have filtered into bands like 10cc. Then you have the 'look' of poster-boy Russel with mustachioed nerd and keyboard whiz Ron, a dichotomy the likes of Cheap Trick doubled down on. Rick Nielsen obviously liked the kind of subversive glam Sparks put out, as their "Surrender" could have dropped out of a Sparks album.

But it was Sparks' lack of USA success that seemed to allow them the leeway to try anything. The thin sound of earlier albums led to bigger, funnier numbers like "Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth" and maybe the only pop song to ask about Albert Einstein's life as a kid on "Talent Is An Asset." When that got to be boring for the brothers, they did a complete 180 and asked Giorgio Moroder to produce the Munich Disco "No 1 In Heaven," a 1979 primer for the likes of Depeche Mode and The Human League.

History finally caught up with Sparks, as albums like "Angst In My Pants" and the song "I Predict" began to break through on MTV. The exaggerated focus finally paid off when Go-Go and fan Jane Wiedlin dueted on the sublime "Cool Places" and "Sparks In Outer Space" finally became a commercial sucess in America. While that was the band's commercial peak, it is by no means the artistic one. Such chucklefests as "All You Ever Think About Is Sex" and the seriously great "Change" continued Sparks' sting of creativity.

The collection goes up to 1988, but there are several Sparks albums since. You can still buy this set, thanks to Rhino, but the band continues their subversive streak on albums like Hello Young Lovers and Exotic Creatures of the Deep.