Sunday, February 7, 2016

Special Effects, by Tech N9ne (Album of the Week)

Tech N9ne made the paper news (I just can't justify linking to the Star's awful website) yesterday by donating the bras that get tossed onto his stage to Hope House, a local domestic violence agency (answering the question undoubtedly on your mind, yes, he does have them cleaned first).  It's a kind and useful thing to do.  His mother had been hospitalized by an abuser when he was a child, and he remembers the fear and pain.  

Tech N9ne's mother - more specifically, her death in 2014 - plays a central role in this long (70 + minutes) and complex album.  Amidst Latin chanting, he ponders her slow and painful death and how a just god could allow it.  He raps about being absent from her side at the moment that she died. Instead, he was on an airplane to Colorado to perform at Summer Jam.

But there's also talk of him thinking of "chinnin' (punching) some underhanded women but I never hit a woman so I'm a fetch Sole'" - in other words, he doesn't want to hit a woman so he calls on a woman friend to accomplish the same goal.  Elsewhere in the album are jealous rages and murder threats over love triangles and such.

Like I said, it's a long and complex album.  It isn't a polished concept piece designed to deliver one carefully-thought-out message.  It's twenty songs and four skits.  It's rapper bragging and guest artists and rapid-fire lyrics and guns and drugs and sports cars and sex and a whole lot of fun.  Large segments of it are completely indecipherable to me, because of the pace of the language and the obscurity (to me) of the references.  

To enjoy this album you cannot do what I did at the start of this review.  If you're looking for a brightly lit moral stance and a messianic artist to offer a message of clarity, you are, in the words of one of the most enjoyable songs on the album, "Kansas City natives and we all a little coo-coo."

If you're a 55 year-old white guy who mostly stays in the wealthier and more segregated zip codes of the metro area, well, gosh darn it, Tech N9ne didn't really write this album with your sensibility and preferences in mind.  The best approach, in my opinion, is to enjoy what you like, ignore what you don't, and keep your judgment to yourself.  In my role as reviewer for an audience that probably leans toward my profile than Tech N9ne's intended audience, I'll sum it up as a wild ride with some truly fun tracks that I'll keep on my playlist without vouching for all the messages in the lyrics.

Take, for example, "Hood Go Crazy".  I'm sorry, but the song is as catchy as can be, with solid rhythm and outstanding percussion.  So, I wind up bobbing my head and following along as Tech N9ne appreciates waking with a "bad bitch so I ain't gotta jerk", B.o.B. drives irresponsibly (on the interstate doing 180 and taking a double shot, apparently to the delight of a diverse group of lady friends), and 2 Chainz suggests that he should procreate not for love, but to breed a singer, as he himself is so cool that his presence causes nipple reactions.  I'll admit that the world I wind up singing along with contrasts sharply with my reality (though I appreciate waking with my lovely wife of 33 + years, self-preservation alone would prevent me from expressing it in Tech N9ne fashion).

There are other great songs on this album that I cannot be held responsible for enjoying.  "No K" includes a soaring chorus which practically forces me to belt out "No-oooo-ooo-oo, can't get my money!" even though I rarely carry more than twenty bucks at a time.  "Bass Ackwards" is a fun collaboration, even though I'm not certain that the group of rappers performing and making fun of the less cool would allow me to hang with them.  

Robin over at Deliberate Obfuscation also enjoyed our musical tourism to a world probably ten minutes east of our house.  She retains her discomfort with language, misogyny and more, but we both really enjoyed finally giving a hometown legend a serious listen.

Next Up:  Anti, by Rihanna

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Hold My Beer, Vol. 1, by Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen (Album of the Week)

            This album is a turducken of happiness for me.  On the outside, it’s a fine (damned fine, actually) group of fun country songs with all the classic country accouterments of steel guitar, fiddles and calling your boss an SOB. 

At the next level of happiness, we first encountered it in a Texas truck stop in a rack near the cash register.  While we gutlessly wound up buying it online off Amazon a few miles down the road after checking a couple ratings, we saw it first in its natural habitat – a Texas truck stop.

The final level of happiness is that I encountered this on the way back from a road trip to Texas – and, more specifically and importantly for the purposes of this album, a walk to Donn’sDepot in Austin, where I saw that the honky-tonking, boot-scooting world still exists in a non-ironic, non-mythologized state where little old ladies dance seriously with big men in cowboy shirts.  If I hadn’t seen it for myself, I would have thought that Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers’ style of music was a tribute to a by-gone life instead of a good time reflection of a slice of reality.

The album title, “Hold My Beer”, is a reference to the old saw that a redneck’s last words are “Hold my beer and watch this.”  What follows is presumably a reckless act of foolishness and personal danger, resulting in a trip to the hospital or morgue.  In the liner notes, the explanation of what you have here is fleshed out a bit:
When this project started, we had absolutely no idea what we truly wanted, other than to make real, country music.  . . . It was an absolute blast making this album, going back to our country roots and just enjoying making music for the right reasons.  We sure hope you hear that when you listen.  . . . We love playing music for you and hope to do so for as long as possible.
 “Hold my beer and watch this, lil’ buddy . . . and in the next life, we wanna be ourselves again”
 This album is a warm, friendly, fun-loving good time country album.  There are none of the country clichés that annoy me (nationalism, misogyny, macho stupidity), but lots of the country clichés that fit as comfortably as well-worn jeans (heartbreak, friends, hanging out in bars). 

Through tricks of geography, city-living, musical narrow-mindedness and general ignorance, I had never heard of either Wade Bowen or Randy Rogers before we happened across their album off a highway in rural Texas.  It appears that they are big deals in that part of the country and elsewhere – in fact, moments ago, I learned that the Randy Rogers Band will be performing at the Uptown next Saturday, January 30.

Clearly, serendipity is afoot. 

            Over at Deliberate Obfuscation, Robin finds herself hooked by these good ol’ guys and shares my sense of good fortune at having stumbled across their music.  She takes the blame for not buying it off the rack, but I was there, too.  To make it up to each other, we'll have a date night at the Uptown next Saturday.

Next up:  Special Effects, by Tech N9ne

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Return of the Tender Lover, by Babyface - Album of the Week

I admit I chose poorly.  I had the whole world of music to choose from, and I selected Babyface's "Return of the Tender Lover".  The best thing I can say about it is that it is not to my taste.  Having been made to listen to it for a week, though, I cannot quite stop there.  It is shallow, artificial, boring and a bit embarrassing.  Let me explain . . .

The way Robin and I have set up this "Album of the Week" project is that we alternate choosing an album that each of us will listen to for a week, and then offer up a review before an in-depth discussion of the music.  In that we started this project as a reaction to what we both thought was becoming a calcification of our tastes and a falling behind in the world of music, we have a strong preference for new music.  We certainly give our favorite artists a listen, but we also try to branch out a bit and expand our horizons.

So, it was my choice.  I looked at the Rolling Stone recent album reviews, and found a 3 and a half star album by someone I've never listened to.  "Romantic", "smooth", "gentle" and "a new kind of groove that could work in the club or bedroom."  I was seduced by a laudatory review and a promise that it would be easy fun.

Instead, I found myself listening to an album that came close to self-parody.  From the opening sax and slick production of "We've got Love" to the oh-so-slow shimmering percussion and hilariously inept echoes of "Our Love", it projects pre-teen image of love as smooth-jazz and superlatives.  Here's a representative sample of the pap that gets served up on this album - chosen pretty much at random, because the entire album is filled with similar writing.

Your love is exceptional,

Born of a heart of gold
It fills me up to my soul
Then my cup it overflows

No rhyme is too tortured, no metaphor is unwelcomed, no sentiment is too trite to be smeared over with honey and stuck into a smooth melody and shipped out.

To be fair, the album probably doesn't deserve the hostility it provokes in me.  Or rather, the songs probably don't individually deserve the negative reaction that the album earns.  Individually, the songs could be written off as uninteresting and overly sweet bits that might serve as a slow dance once in a while during a more interesting mix.  But, taken together, they are like nougat wrapped in cotton candy and drizzled with honey - and you have to eat it for 42 minutes and 41 seconds.

Over at Deliberate Obfuscation, though, you'll read a completely different reaction.  Robin falls head over heels for the sappy stuff, and now expects me to lip-sync one of the songs on Valentine's Day.  She has a far better-humored take on this oh-so-silly album.

Next up:  Hold My Beer, vol. 1, by Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Fast Forward, by Joe Jackson - Album of the week

Joe Jackson is one of my odd-ball friends, dating way back to college days when he was a talented smart-ass, and up to today when he's willfully weird, but talented enough to make it all work.  "Fast Forward" is a perhaps too-clever-for-it's-own-good, perhaps self-indulgently non-pop, flexing of astonishing musical muscle.

Albums like this make me regret my musical ignorance.  In the New Yorker, Jackson observes about his title and opening track, "It’s a cycle, and it goes in minor thirds from B to D to F to A flat and back down again.  It’s a sort of a clever technical trick—one of those things that sounds simple, but it took a lot of work to figure it out.”  Sadly, that is complete mumbo-jumbo to me - but I'm an alert enough listener to hear that something thoughtful is going on in the music, and it definitely works.  Joe Jackson has always had a way of planting melodies in my brain that stick with me forever. I saw him live in 1978 and I can still recall the frenzy of notes that kicked off "Sunday Papers".  (As an aside, I am determined to learn more about the structure of music in 2016 - if you recommend any resources, please let me know.)

This is not the Joe Jackson from 1978 and "Look Sharp", though.  He's more of a jazz musician now - his sound is based on piano and voice.  There's not a rocking song on this album, and nothing even aimed at a big demographic.  It's like he's had his fame, and now he's content to play for the NPR audience.  At 61, he's matured along with his initial audience.

It's easier for me to talk about Jackson's lyrics. He's brilliant at putting words together in fresh ways.  Some complain, perhaps justifiably, that he is wordy, but I think it's justified by the gems you find each time you listen.  Here are a few that grabbed me:

  • And you and me age disgracefully/And have way too much fun. (Fast Forward)
  • If I could see your face/The face of the girl behind the veil/I'd ask you if it feels like a guarantee/To keep you down, or keep you safe/Or just keep you pale/But what makes me think you'd even talk to me (If I Could See Your Face)
  • God must think he's God or something/Lording it over us/Seems to like to make us feel/Ridiculous/Gives us just one life then he lets us/Think it's not enough/Where can we get a better deal (Keep on Dreaming)
There's more to enjoy - if you listen, you'll find your own turns of phrase that engage you and make you smile.

Robin's review of the album provides a lot more depth than my own - she breaks it down into the four sections recorded in four cities that Jackson originally intended to released in four separate EPs.  She's obviously quicker to return to top form in her music after a vacation than I was!

Next up:  Return of the Tender Lover, by Babyface

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Album of the Week: Something More Than Free, by Jason Isbell

The first time I saw Jason Isbell was at Knucklehead’s half a decade ago.  It was a heck of a show – he and Justin Townes Earle brought white-hot, coked-up energy.  They were both skinny, unhealthy looking, and incandescent with bad behavior and self-destruction.  It was a great show, though I’m a bit ashamed of the pleasure that I took in watching them thrash against whatever demons they were fighting.

At that time, it was pretty clear where Jason Isbell was headed, and it wasn't pretty.  He got kicked out of the Drive By Truckers, for Christ’s sake.   He was a crown prince of rowdiness.  

So what happens when your rowdy friend settles down? 

In Jason Isbell’s case, you come out with “Southeastern”, one of my favorite albums of all-time.  It’s a song of lonely roads that lead back to love.  Miserable nights that lead to a breathtaking sunrise.  Dangerous people who are more wounded than evil.  All set to beautiful guitar and gritty bass.  I love that album.

“Something More Than Free” is his next effort.  It’s a truly great album, though I don’t love it quite as easily as “Southeastern”.  If “Southeastern” was about finally heading in the right direction, “Something More Than Free” is more about figuring out how to live in a better place.  Frankly, the struggle to get there is a bit more edgy, a bit more threatening, and a lot more evocative.  At least it's simpler.

This album feels a bit calmer than its predecessor – fewer haunting guitar notes stretched taut.  Less intensity and more pensiveness.  It’s probably prettier than its older brother, but it’s harder to be sure exactly if that’s right.

The thing is, I’m not sure about where he’s really at, and that ambiguity makes a big difference in the way I hear the songs.  Take the first song, for example.  “If it Takes A Lifetime” can either be a barely-better-than-trite zippity-doo-dah song about living past addiction, or it might be a terrifying warning from a tortured soul.  I mean, “I don't keep liquor here, never cared for wine or beer/And working for the county keeps me pissin' clear/The nights are dry as dust, but I'm letting my eyes adjust/If it takes a lifetime” is a straightforward statement of sobriety and a determination to live a clean life, right?  But what about “Man is the product of all/the people that he ever loved/And it don't make a difference how it ended up/If I loved you once my friend, oh, I can do it all again/If it takes a lifetime.”  I’ve seen reviewers take that as making amends and a tip of the hat to the people he’s left behind  - but what if it isn’t?  I can see it also as a reference to his addiction as something that he’s loved, and he can do it all again.

The more I listen to this album (and that’s been quite a bit), the more I see subtle moral ambiguity and struggle.  It’s not as clean and sharp as “Southeastern”, though – it’s not about trying to get right; it’s about trying to stay right.  Maybe there’s a bit less urgency, but there might be more real struggle and soul.  It’s a haunting, important album by one of the country’s best songwriters.

Over at Deliberate Obfuscation, Robin is just damned happy to be listening to her Jason Isbell.  It's an understatement to say she appreciates him, but her review is a more straightforward appreciation of an album we agree is truly great.

Next up: Ryan Adams, 1989

Saturday, July 25, 2015

An Elegy for My Fantasy Baseball Team

My 2015 Fantasy Baseball team has not performed anywhere near the lofty expectations that were established on draft night. In the happy moments of draft night, "Melky Way Galaxy" seemed like a pretty sure thing. Solid pitching, strong bats, and a healthy blend of veterans with exciting rookies of untold potential. As owner of this freshly assembled group of athletes, I left the draft feeling confident and even, perhaps, a bit arrogant.

Now, well past midway in the season, my team stands in last place of its division, and nearly last in the league.  I don't think I am mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, but math isn't my strong point.

Of course, I take much of the blame on myself. At the beginning, I was an attentive manager, shifting players on and off the bench according to number of games to be played in the next week, hitting streaks, and strength of opponents. Perhaps the high point of the season came in the second or third week, when my managerial skills let us to a five point victory over a stronger, but less intensely managed team.  Bu then came managerial debacles like sitting in a Monday afternoon meeting and suddenly realized that I had not set my line-up, resulting in healthy players on the bench while red "DTD" or "DL15" designations adorned my starting line-up.

But not all the blame belongs to me. Lately, my team goes out and just doesn't show the hustle or love of the game that I expect of professionals. My rookies have floundered, and I blame my veterans for not giving them leadership. True, I may have deflated the team somewhat when I cut the eponymous Melky Cabrera and replaced him with a hot hitting outfielder who turned out to merely be streaky.

But what is going on in the clubhouse? How can Cody Anderson put up -5.5 points against the Brewers after having been on a streak? And why has Todd Frazier failed to help out David Peralta with some swing tips? It seems like my team goes out on their various fields every night without any sense of burning passion to win one for me and the Melky Way Galaxy.  When I see the members of some of the better teams in my league, such as Dick Howser M.D. and Gattis Great Gattis Good take the field, you can just sense that they know they are playing for a higher cause than their MLB team. They have a sense of spirit, because they are united to help a fantasy team in my league.  Sometimes, I think I see them winking to each other across dugouts. 

I won't give up. With a 4 and 10 record, I stand little chance of catching the leader of my division, L'Infante Terrible, but I can still bring up my total points past some of my fellow cellar dwellers, such as Not George Brett's Pants, and Moustakis Is Loose. My fantasy team has suffered much so far this year, but I hope that this experience will drive them to make 2016 a better year with an underdog spirit.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

A Sonnet - Kansas City Royals Lose the World Series, 2014

Kansas City Royals Lose the World Series, 2014

Two outs, ninth inning, down by one, game seven
Gordon’s line drive skips free in center field
One run would tie the game – our baseball heaven
Could still be reached, decades of loss be healed.

The city watched as Gordon rounded first
Then second, as the ball rolled in center, free.
He might or might not make it home!  Then fans cursed.
He stopped.  The next batter was out number three.

The forefathers of Kansas City fans
Boldly left the East coast for a fresh start
And opportunity in western lands
But only got half way, saw plains, lost heart.

When Gordon stopped, he opened an old wound.

Could they have made it?  Did they stop too soon?