Saturday, June 30, 2007

Strains of cynicism

News people are cynics. They should be skeptics rather than cynics, but they're not.

Sports people also are cynics. But they're very different. Here's how:

News people will follow anything political no matter how scummy the people involved might be. In fact, the scummier the better. A crook who speaks with little regard for truth and decency generates better stories than an amiable low-key representative. The most strident spokespeople get coverage for their organizations or their blogs.

Sports people are more willing to declare something -- a team, a game, a sport -- illegitimate or unworthy because they loathe the people involved. If they get sick of the NFL and NBA, they'll turn to something they deem less corrupt like Little League or Patriot League football.

I'm not sure which is worse. "News" has become much less useful as it descends into a mere catalog of extremists. Reporters and bloggers take seriously a lot of people who really should be ranting at ducks in a neighborhood park. That attention helps those people sell books and get elected, and that's a Bad Thing.

But the news folks are at least a little more open-minded than sports people.

What brought this on? This post, in which a guy a Blogcritics declares this summer devoid of interesting sports.

Here's a partial list of what's he ignoring:

1. An unusually competitive America's Cup
2. Possibly the best men's tennis player ever
3. The possible self-destruction of a golf prodigy
4. The emergence of an auto racing pioneer
5. International soccer all over
6. A scary-fast U.S. sprinter

All of which makes me glad I'm not a cynic, however uncool I might look.

Friday, June 29, 2007

The semi-intelligent guide to Rush, Part I

Two reasons I'm doing this. First, I've always wanted to do an "Idiot's Guide," Jefito-style. Second, Jefito recently took up a Rush song (Dreamline) and made me realize I had mixed feelings about the band's 1990s output. Third (because I can't count), I have mixed feelings about the new one. So I'll go on some self-exploration and sort out my feelings, but instead of venting about relationships (happy) or work, I'll riff on an often-great band.

Should be fun, right? Right? Aw, come on -- would it help if I told you I think the new one sounds a little like Primus?

I'm tackling the first three here. Enjoy. And see the whole catalog at Amazon.

Rush (1974)

It's easy to dismiss this album as a pedestrian clone of the blues rock on FM radio at the time. cranked out by a couple of Canadian 20-year-olds who happened to impress a few people on the bar-band circuit. AllMusic does exactly that, giving it a lowly two stars. It bears little resemblance to the rest of their output, simpler both lyrically and musically. It's the only album released with original drummer John Rutsey.

And yet a couple of songs live on after all these years, which is more than you can say for, say, early Alanis Morissette releases. Finding My Way is built on a couple of terrific riffs that have lasted in Rush shows to this day, with Neil Peart expanding on Rutsey's original drum parts. Working Man, which broke the band, shows up from time to time. For a couple of decades, the typical Rush encore included a gleeful rip through In the Mood, perhaps just for the irony of a couple of 40something parents singing about bad pick-up lines.

No, the other five songs don't offer much. But .375 isn't a bad batting average for a debut by a couple of guys who had just found their stage names and wouldn't be old enough to drink in today's America.

Fly By Night (1975)

AllMusic again gives two stars, but the review is kinder: "It showed that the young band was leaving their Zep-isms behind in favor of a more challenging and original direction."

Neil Peart's arrival -- Rush's only personnel change in 30-plus years -- changed the band in two ways. The lyrics were more interesting -- Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson would contribute a few more words over the next couple of albums but would eventually give the new guy free rein. And the sound was more ferocious.

Both traits were in full effect on the opener, Anthem. (See cheesy, badly synced, embedding-disabled YouTube clip.) Peart's power is a firm backdrop for Lifeson and Lee's riffs, which were already much more complex than what you heard on the debut. Lyrically, Peart was in his Ayn Rand phase -- I'd love to interview him today and find out how he reconciles this one with the social consciousness of current Rush work -- but it was eloquently expressed. Besides, a little libertarian streak isn't such a bad thing, right? It's not like he's Ted Nugent.

The titletrack also benefits from some propulsive Peart fills, along with a classic riff that is still the first thing I play when someone hands me a guitar to check it out.

By-Tor and the Snow Dog is as silly as it sounds, but it's a fun occasional listen and a worthwhile experiment in writing an extended suite.

Most of the songs here aren't bad -- Rivendell is a pretty change of pace and Beneath, Between & Behind is a good marriage of a clever Peart lyric and a shifty rhythm. Best I Can, with a Lee lyric, falls a little flat.

Caress of Steel (1975)

Like U2's October, you have to figure this is one of those albums they just, forgive the pun, rushed out. It's easily the least memorable Rush album to this day.

And yet it has one powerful song that lasted in live shows for quite a while -- Bastille Day. Good riff, sound retelling of the French Revolution -- not bad at all.

That's followed by I Think I'm Going Bald. Yes, you read that correctly. Rush recorded a song called I Think I'm Going Bald. (Funny thing -- Geddy Lee is nowhere near bald, 32 years later.)

Then it's Lakeside Park, a dreary look at the supposed good times they had hanging out in the park.

And then the first two attempts at breaking the 10-minute mark -- The Necromancer and The Fountain of Lamneth.

You could almost consider this an outtakes album with one gem and a couple of experiments gone awry.

But those experiments laid the groundwork for what was to come. (See, aren't you already looking forward to Part II? If not, I'll have other content here soon. I promise.)

Programming note

I don't usually apologize for long absences from the blog, but I figured it'd be worthwhile to let you know what I've been up to:

- Weekend trip to Boston
- This story
- This story
- Story to run in another week or so
- The usual blog
- Parenting

We resume regular programming now. Wait, no, I don't have regular programming. So in this case, I'm going to start a series on Rush. But I'll mix up topics so you're not reading about Rush until September.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Boba Fett obsession

What's the deal with Boba Fett? Is it the suit? The name? Why do people think he's so cool? Isn't he kind of an intergalactic jackass?

Friday, June 08, 2007

Why Spinal Tap rings true

"There's such a fine line between clever and stupid." -- David St. Hubbins, in This is Spinal Tap

"I don't know whether you'd call him a genius or just a complete idiot." -- Rick Allen (Def Leppard) describing late bandmate Steve Clark in a VH1 Classic Albums piece on Hysteria

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Song review -- Midnight Oil, "Feeding Frenzy"


The late, great Musician magazine once had a story on Midnight Oil that recounted how Aussie radio stations refused to play their early stuff because the band were "antisocial." Musician rightly noted what a crock that is, that Midnight Oil may sound angry but are one of the most socially conscious bands around. As I recall from various interviews, they're actually a fine bunch of Christian lads*, though they never recorded anything with a religious theme that I know of. (Maybe on one earlier work.) They're not yelling out of hate. They're yelling to make things better. And it's not Peter Garrett's fault he's tall, bald and a little intimidating.

Yet the Oils did indeed sand down the punk edges a bit as they matured. The breakthrough 1987 album Diesel and Dust -- a classic if there ever was one -- mixes up tones and textures with great skill.

But even after DandD, the follow-up Blue Sky Mining and the requisite three-year breaks in those days for bands that had "made it," Midnight Oil could still summon some righteous fury.

This is the opening track in Earth and Sun and Moon, which would prove to be something of a commercial swansong for the Aussies, at least outside their home country. (They recorded three more studio releases before Garrett went into politics full-time and got elected to Parliament.) It's clear from the first note they're not messing around.

Bones Hillman lays down a menacing bass line over Rob Hirst's shimmering cymbals. Once that's established, Jim Moginie takes a swipe at the organ, then slowly builds a chord from the bottom up and brings it back down. The organ fades, the bass keeps going, and then Hirst batters out a quick roll and a powerful fill. By the time Martin Rotsey (I'm guessing, barring some overdubs) announces his presence with a double-bend, you know you're about to hear something important, like a message from some musically proficient cousin of the Emergency Broadcast System.

Yet this is one of Garrett's more abstract lyrics. He's going for imagery here, painting a picture of our lives of consumption teetering precariously on the edge of a threatened Earth.

The bass line chugs through the verses, letting Moginie and Rotsey hint at the chord structure with a few ominous notes in the distance.

The band's dramatic skill shines most in the bridges, with swelling organ chords and the Oils' trademark Arpeggios of Doom. Seriously -- this band can take simple arpeggios and make it sound as if the flood is coming, and you'd better get moving on that ark. (Ah -- NOW we find the Christian themes.)

Not one of their better-known songs, but a good concise introduction to the band in case you haven't heard them before. On the album, it forms a potent one-two with My Country, which reminds us of the old saying about patriotism being the last refuge of the scoundrel. After that, it's not their most consistent album. The single Truganini and the acoustic-driven Bushfire are the standouts.

* -- if you want to read about Garrett's take on faith and politics, check his site for an eloquent speech.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Re-recording Sgt. Pepper

Fun videos from the BBC of several bands re-recording songs from Sgt. Pepper. Naturally, I gravitated toward the Stereophonics entry.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

To blog or not to blog?

Through Mindy McAdams' blog, I stumbled into some back and forth on why all journalists should blog. Or not. The last word for now goes to Bobbie Johnson of The Guardian, who wrote the initial "not" post in this conversation and, naturally, finds himself on the defensive.

That's the way things go in these discussions. As Bobbie puts it, debates over journalism and the Web tend to have a lot of "with us or against us" rhetoric. Scott Karp, who pushes the "all journalists" theme here, is actually a bit more receptive to Bobbie's argument than most Web hipsters I've seen. I've been in some conversations with people who have all the dogmatic zeal of a religious convert, and they don't appreciate even a gentle teasing -- say, being labeled as a "Web hipster."

Basically, there's a "cool crowd" in journalism these days, and it's full of early adopters of any Web technology you can imagine. You'd think I'd fit in with them, having spent close to a dozen years involved with the Web, but I really don't. For one thing, I've seen too many "latest things" on the Web fail. Web hipsters can gripe about newspapers all they want, but newspapers are still in business -- and quite profitable, though they're obviously not growing in the way stockholders would like.

I usually see where the Web hipsters are coming from. I often like the technology as much as they do. I'm just not as willing to posit my news-reading habits on the population at large, and I share Bobbie's aversion to sweeping generalizations.

In this case, Karp makes a convincing argument on the benefits of blogging. But he doesn't convince me everyone should do it. Here's part of the response I left on his site: "Blogging is just one of several skills you can develop as a journalist. A reporter who can blog is valuable, but so is a reporter who can edit. So is an editor who can create multimedia presentations. So is a Web content developer who can debug code."

That covers one half of the argument -- that blogging rounds out journalists' skills. The second half is that blogging teaches journalists how dive into the messy but rewarding world of interacting with readers.

But that assumes journalists weren't interacting with readers before "blog" entered some dictionaries.

Just as blog evangelists (including me) could argue that journalists could learn something about interaction via blogs, newspaper vets (also including me) could argue that every journalist should spend time with a small- or mid-sized paper, dealing with angry callers and getting yelled at by high school coaches.

And the feedback you get via blog is rarely representative of your readership as a whole. If you're out in the neighborhood and people know you're working for the paper, they'll often tell you what they think of the paper. Blog feedback is less random -- and frankly, less useful.

Because here's the funny thing about all the lecturing that Web hipsters love to give journalists: You can convince the journalists that they're supposed to be doing all these things. But you might not convince the readers the they're going to use the tools the way you've envisioned.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Live-blogging VH1's soft-rock countdown

I can't promise all two hours, but I'll go for a while.

40. Bertie Higgins, Key Largo -- Video starts with a guy leaning against a palm tree with an open shirt, smoking. I suppose someone once considered that sexy.

Hey, Godfrey's wearing a real shirt!

"Bertie Higgins had the look" says some guy I don't know. Someone else explains -- you need a beard, about 20 extra pounds. Yeah, but there's only one Michael McDonald.

Today, after rehab, he has a band called "The Pirates."

39. David Soul, Don't Give Up on Us, Baby -- Remember those weird variety shows in which TV stars would sing? In this day of cheap reality programming, no one's thought of reviving this idea?

I'll blog an interesting comment when we get one. The good news here -- Soul was in a musical about Jerry Springer!

38. Peter Frampton, Baby I Love Your Way -- You have to love his Family Guy and Simpsons appearances. Few people have aged quite this well. (Attitude-wise, anyway.)

Hey, the Donnas! The drummer and ... one of the other ones. They used to stare at the album cover.

Carlos Alazraqui: Frampton's so cool. Still is.

Dave Rhodes says he's no soft-rock Samson (referring to his current lack of hair) -- his power comes from within. That's kind of clever.

37. Leo Sayer, When I Need You -- They're going too fast!

The trivia from the unseen narrator is outstanding. He's named "Leo" because of his mane of hair? That's awesome.

He apparently threw a hissy fit on Celebrity Big Brother UK, saying something about a lack of underwear. Maybe it was actually Commando Big Brother UK.

(Phew! First ad break. Not sure how long I can keep this up. I plan to multitask during the ads.)

36. 10cc, I'm Not in Love -- GREAT song. Jake Fogelsang seems excited.

Chris Jericho, first sighting: If Pink Floyd had no balls, they'd be 10cc.

Brad Sherwood repeats the myth about how they got the name.

Wait -- it's true?? But didn't Pop-Up Video say it's a lot less?

(Mrs. MMM says this should be in the top 10.)

35. Extreme, More Than Words -- "I totally lost my v to this song," says some female comic. Andrea Rosen, apparently.

I guess Nuno forgave VH1 for the whole Bands Reunited fiasco, because here he is, bragging about how many people got laid to this reprehensible piece of crap. And yes, I've lost a little bit of respect for The Donnas' drummer because she likes this. There ... this special on soft-rock songs has made me cry, though not in the way anyone intended.

(Most people probably didn't notice this, but when I mentioned the Bands Reunited fiasco, I got a very interesting comment. Please check it out.)

(Mrs. MMM thinks this should be called the "shut up and blow me" song. Which is true.)

34. Dan Hill, Sometimes When We Touch -- Jason covered this one far better than the VH1 guys ever could.

Why does Chris Wylde look like he's auditioning to be one of Billy Crudup and Jason Lee's bandmates in Almost Famous?

But we must pause here to present VH1 Snark-By-Numbers Movement #4: The overly literal or out-of-context reading of a lyric, accompanied by a condescending remark that such a thing would be painful. (Fictional example: "Annie, if it feels like you're walking on broken glass, you should probably check out your shoes.") It's provided here by the aforementioned Rosen: "I don't want anyone to ever hold me until we both break down and cry. That's just too weird for me."

33. Cat Stevens, Peace Train -- No mention of 10,000 Maniacs removing this song from future pressings of In My Tribe after the Rushdie thing. Dolly Parton, bless her against-the-Nashville-grain heart, covered it in 1996.

(Before the ad -- smoothest soft-rock sax solos. It's Careless Whisper, with a couple of dorks pretending to play sax.)

32. Kenny Loggins, This Is It -- "The Bohemian Rhapsody of soft-rock songs?" Uh, Jake Fogelsang? Care to elaborate?

It's actually a prequel to Faith No More's Epic.

I believe this is our first Michael McDonald sighting.

Megyn Price! The rich man's Scarlett Johannson! She says he looks like Doug Henning. She's right.

Kenny himself thanks Footloose for re-establishing him as a rock guy. Yay.

31. Richard Marx, Hold On to the Night -- An indie record person says his voice is like Velcro -- scratchy on one side, smooth on the other, and it sticks. That's somewhat creative. Good for her.

Last person to wear a mullet non-ironically and have it work, says the same person.

Narrator says he has aged really well. And he has.

Chris Wylde thinks he's made a funny by calling him "Dick Marx."

30. Andrew Gold, Lonely Boy -- Ever hear a bleep and have no idea what was said? Comedian Lisa Arch calls it a "(bleep) ballad." Then she rightly takes him to task for griping about his sister stealing the spotlight.

This is a standout of the Worst Rock and Roll Records book. Not quite Metal Machine Music, but ...

Whoa ... whoa ... correction time. Steve Huey says Gold wrote the theme songs to The Golden Girls and Mad About You. No, no. Not Mad About You. Gold sang it, but Paul Reiser co-wrote it with Don Was.

29. Debby Boone, You Light Up My Life -- She apparently couldn't manage a follow-up and went back to Christian music. We all give thanks.

28. America, Horse With No Name -- Kevin Cronin, of all people, shows up to praise this.

Somewhere, I recently saw the quote "You're in the desert. Name your danged horse." Ah, here we go -- Corndog.

The song was banned for perceived drug references? Realizing that the band must have been high isn't really a drug "reference."

27. Lionel Richie, Hello -- As David Hasselhoff is to Germany, Lionel Richie is to ... Iraq? Interesting.

26. Harry Chapin, Cat's in the Cradle -- "Saddest soft rock song ever," says Rosen. Some truth to that, but Mrs. MMM just mentioned Wildfire, so I'll need to go into the shower and bawl for a while.

No mention of the Ugly Kid Joe cover. Probably for the best.

25. Anne Murray, You Needed Me -- Everyone says she looks and sounds like his or her mom or mom's best friend. Yeah, it's kind of difficult to picture her in some sort of relationship.

Chris Jericho says Canada is wacked out for having an Anne Murray museum but no Rush museum. I sense an opportunity here.

24. Phil Collins, One More Night -- This apparently caused my dog to freak out and sit on the remote. That's bad, because I was watching a few minutes behind on the DVR.

So I'll need to look up the songs I missed ...
23. REO Speedwagon, I Can't Fight This Feeling -- Ugh.
22. Roberta Flack & Peabo Bryson, Tonight, I Celebrate My Love -- Meh.
21. Orleans, Still the One -- Dang, I wish I'd seen this. I hope they got Stephen Colbert.
20. Captain & Tennille, Do That To Me One More Time -- Have I really never mentioned on this blog how frightening I find Tennille's request here? I mean, if you held a gun to my head and told me I had to spend time with a dominatrix, I'd opt for Jane Wiedlin.
19. Michael Bolton, How Am I Supposed to Live Without You -- How appropriate that he sounds like he's dying here. One nit-pick with a great In Living Color parody in which James Carrey does Bolton doing When a Man Loves a Woman -- they say Bolton was stealing a song from a "long-dead brother." But Percy Sledge still isn't dead.

18. Toto, Rosanna -- I'm back, and they're pointing out that this song actually rocks a bit. It does. Rosanna Arquette, object of the song's desire, says it's "embarrassing."

Mrs. MMM, who really should be doing this instead of me, brings up the great NewsRadio bit in which some ex of Lisa's writes a song: "Come back, Lisa ... Lisa Miller."

17. Juice Newton, Angel of the Morning -- Great misheard lyric: "Just brush my teeth before you leave me."

Alison Becker says one-night stands aren't really like this, and Lisa Arch says it'd be a little creepy to hear "angel" from such a guy. I wouldn't know.

16. Bread, Baby I'm-a Want You -- Arch picks up VH1 Snark-By-Numbers Movement #7, the grammar nerd. Yes, we know, it's not a sentence.

Brad Sherwood: "Baby I'm a sandwich." I like that.

15. Journey, Open Arms -- Association I have with this song -- middle school talent show in which I made the final cut with a decent piano solo. Among the other finalists was a girl who I just adored. She sang this. If I'd stayed in public school through high school, I would've made an idiot of myself over her.

That memory is so strong that I have no idea what any of VH1's panelists said. Sorry.

14. Seals & Crofts, Summer Breeze -- This is about as cool as it gets in the '70s. The melody in the verses is sublime, and I don't mean it's a crappy '90s punk band.

Megyn Price offers a misheard lyric -- something like "jazzbone in my mind."

13. Carpenters, Superstar -- Another song about a one-night stand? Apparently about a rock star, which makes Mrs. MMM do her Lois Griffin impression: "Chyam?" She's on fire tonight, folks.

12. Starland Vocal Band, Afternoon Delight -- Love the variety show footage of the crowd recognizing the song about halfway through the first line and suddenly breaking into applause. "Hmmm, wonder which song they were going to sing ..."

They mention the song was inspired by a restaurant appetizer. Clyde's in the house!

11. Olivia Newton-John, I Honestly Love You -- Brad Sherwood says he saw her singing straight into the camera and thought she was singing straight to him. That's sweet.

I'm not a fan of "Miss Info." Pick a name like that if you're going into roller derby, not radio and snarkdom.

10. Chuck Mangione, Feels So Good -- If these people were on the ball, they'd get the King of the Hill clip of Mangione asking the crowd, "Are you ready to soft-rock?!"

Godfrey likes the hat, saying he looks like a pimp. "The Ice-T of jazz!"

9. Hall and Oates, One on One -- Another song with a tremendous melodic hook in the verse.

Godfrey says they're the "Starsky & Hutch of music." Then who's David Soul.

They find the album cover a little amusing. It is. Why are they staring at each other, all sweaty?

8. The Doobie Brothers, What a Fool Believes -- Some comedian did a version of this that had me laughing so hard I ached. Not here, of course. Somewhere on Comedy Central. Godfrey gives it a whirl, though.

Alison Becker says she can't even hit those notes, and Michael McD's a dude.

So Loggins co-wrote this? Interesting.

7. Kansas, Dust in the Wind -- Lots of comments about the hair.

I maintain this is one of the great Christian rock songs, even if Kansas hadn't gone Christian rock at the time.

6. Air Supply, Making Love Out of Nothing at All -- All yours, Jason.

Lots of Megyn Price in this segment. She apparently loves it, which saddens me a little.

5. Chicago, If You Leave Me Now -- Nothing wrong with this song except that it seemed to embolden the Peter Cetera power balladeering that ruined this once-interesting band.

How many outfits is Chris Wylde wearing? When are they going to do another season of Stripmall anyway?

4. Barry Manilow, Mandy -- Megyn Price says this was the first song she ever memorized and played for a piano recital.

They showed a bit of the sheet music, and I happened to notice the Bbmaj7. Miles Davis once said he would play that chord if he was ever depressed, and he'd feel better right away. I mentioned this to my music theory class freshman year and found myself on the hook to play it as often as possible.

(Before the last ad break -- softsensational make-out songs ... Chris DeBurgh's Lady in Red? I call bullshit. They just wanted to get that song in here somehow.)

3. Rupert Holmes, Escape -- One of the goofiest bits of performance footage I've ever seen. He mugs around like he can't find the camera. Hint, Rupert: It's not between you and the curtain.

They found Rupert and offered him a pina colada. That's nice.

2. Styx, Babe -- As Mandy was to Megyn Price, this was to me. Sort of. I mostly did classical, but I managed to pick this one up as well.

They show Dennis DeYoung singing it in his living room to his wife, which would be sweet if I weren't so distracted by his living room looking like that of a late-middle-aged 1970s piano teacher. Seriously -- I can imagine being there, botching a couple of notes in Fur Elise while she cringes. They ought to do an MTV Cribs on this guy just for contrast with the hip-hop guys who have stuffed gorillas in front of marble fireplaces in the kitchen.

1. Christopher Cross, Sailing -- Hey, my misheard lyric is here -- "the candle can do miracles." It's apparently "canvas."

Why they don't play this on America's Cup broadcasts, I don't know. Trust me, they don't.

Hear Christopher Cross rip through a guitar solo at Jason's blog.

The version they're playing here omits the percussion (maybe claves, perhaps a couple of woodblocks -- sorry Jason) that it shares with Captain & Tennille -- it's the "we're breaking ice at the bar to freshen up your drinks" sound.

And it sort of peters out from there.

Phew! That's tougher than live-blogging the Olympics. Again, trust me.

Happy soft-rocking. Hope it inspired you to pull your sweetie close and turn off the TV.