Monday, September 29, 2008

Live In Concert: The Dandy Warhols 9/27/08

Due to a few too many artistic detours that didn’t always pay the listener back, I put the brakes on my love affair with the Dandy’s a few years ago. It hit its peak in 2000 with the release of their third album, Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia, featuring the now ubiquitous song “Bohemian Like You”. “Thirteen Tales” was just about perfect and not only have they not reached those heights in the three albums since, they don’t really appear to be trying or caring.

Their live shows are among the best out there though. The Dandy’s have extreme reverence for the Velvet Underground, and by association, Andy Warhol, the Factory, androgyny, heavy drugs, and other bands that have followed in the wake of the VU like Spiritualized, the Dandy’s closest relatives. Their band name isn’t just meant to be cute, it’s practically a mission statement. They’re fully capable of covering a wide array of styles from old country, to straight up pop, to spaced-out psychedelia, or even all three, and then some, in the same song. Their greatest strength, and the thing most appealing to me, is what I call “space management”. They create a mood by filling the air with sounds that enhance said mood, whether it be an unsuspecting harmony, or a pregnant pause before a guitar strum, or a sustained note, or a keyboard blip. The songs that last seven minutes are usually more satisfying than the ones over in three. They kicked off the night with my favorite song of theirs, “Mohammed” and ended with my second favorite “Godless”, which are the perfect examples of what I’m talking about.

When I first saw them in 2000, they seemed embarrassed by the popular songs and chose to ignore them in favor of the more experimental stuff. Now, as their albums get more and more experimental, like this year’s extremely underrated Earth To The Dandy Warhols, their shows seem to embrace more comfortably their commercial leanings. They have 3 songs that most people know, whether they realize it or not, “Bohemian Like You”, “Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth” (sample lyric: “I never thought you’d be a junkie because heroin is so passé”) and “We Used To Be Friends” which was used as the theme to “Veronica Mars” among other things, and they played all three and played them emphatically. They weren’t just good to hear, they were good to hear from them. It seems to speak to a peace of mind that the band may finally be finding.

One moment kind of irked me though. This is a direct quote from lead singer Courtney Taylor-Taylor. “We just released our new album on our own label, so we are now officially an indie band!” A statement like that would only be made by a bunch of posers, which is a label that has plagued the Dandy’s since day one. Up until this new album, they were signed to Capitol Records and their songs were used for commercials and TV shows, surely lining their pockets in the process. The indie community sees a dichotomy in behavior with this. You can’t truly be indie, no matter how much you claim to be, if you’re on a major label and catering to the masses. I’ve never been bothered by this because I love them and want everyone to love them too, so if they hear them in a movie that’s a good thing. And, maybe being released from Capitol is what’s brought on the peace of mind they’re exhibiting. I just wish they hadn’t said something so shallow. I’ll forgive it though.

Like any worthwhile relationship, we’ve had our rough patches, but we’re soul mates. They’re the lover I’ll invite back into my life again and again because I need what they have. Coming to terms with this is a wonderful release.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Bill Clinton: The Larry Bird of Politics

Bill Clinton was on Letterman this week and it was almost making me weepy for the days when we were guided by a competent leader. (Here are links to the three segments in case you missed them - 1, 2, 3) Oh, to actually have his intelligence in the White House now. I dare say we’d feel like a totally different country. It wouldn’t solve all of today’s problems, but it might mute the blows a little.

He was so articulate and intelligent about the financial crisis and how we got into it. You just know he gets it in a way that few do, definitely more than the lay man (including Dave himself) and certainly more than anyone currently in office. I realize he was no saint when he ran the country, and he carried his own gaggle of detractors. It’s only in hindsight that we realize what we had, now that his likes seem almost antiquated.

He reminded me of Larry Bird. In the Bird vs. Magic show of the 80s, I was totally a Magic man. Bird was ugly and unsophisticated. He lacked any noticeable charisma. He could play like crazy, but skills on a white guy just don’t resonate. They’re boring. I hated Bird when he played. Hated just looking at him.

Now, when I see footage of him on ESPN Classic or something, my stomach aches for the days when players (white people!) played with fundamentals and downplayed the showtime. The closest player the NBA has to someone as fundamentally sound as Bird is Tim Duncan and he’s no fun to root for either! Soon enough, the day will come when Tim retires and it will usher in the absolute end of nuanced basketball played the “Jimmy Chitwood” way. The streets rule today and the streets are all about the individual. Pick up games are not a team concept, they are individualistic in nature. And SportsCenter, while being totally necessary, may be as big a detriment to basketball as steroids are to baseball and MTV is to music. It tips the scales in favor of the star and eliminates the team. This then leads to bigger individual stars, bigger contracts, no team loyalty, and horrible indulgences like Kazaam.

My point is, we don’t know what we have til it’s gone. Bill Clinton looks near to deity by today’s standards. Same with Larry Bird. They had their issues when they “played” and could be piggish, arrogant, and unlikable. But, damn if they weren’t fundamentally sound.

P.S. If you watch the links to the Clinton interview, check out Chris Rock's critique. He was the next guest. Hilarious and dead on. Like I said, Bill isn't perfect and Chris nails him.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Nothing To Crowe About

I was asked about 5 years ago who my idol was. This was in church, so I’m sure people were expecting me to say Jesus or Paul or Ammon or some other scriptural figure. My answer was actually Cameron Crowe. To me, no one’s career has mirrored my exact hopes and dreams like his.

Some background. He starts out writing for Rolling Stone at 15. Eventually writes the book Fast Times At Ridgemont High, then the movie. After it’s a success, he’s given carte blanche to begin writing and directing his screenplays, which have become some of the most beloved American films of the last 25 years including Say Anything, Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous. Not only are these films great, but they tap into the psyche of a generation, often putting words to thoughts that we all have but can’t articulate. He’s both smart and emotional and wears his interests on his sleeve (rock music, sports, girls, sex and rock music). He’s also married to a rock star (Nancy Wilson of Heart), an author (“Conversations With Wilder”) and an Oscar winner (Almost Famous). Yep, that’s the life right there. Cure cancer and you’re done.

However, around 2001 things started to come off the rails. That was the year Vanilla Sky came out. The remake of a Spanish film about a rich, womanizer starring Tom Cruise, who may or may not be dying after a car crash and being haunted by delusions, was a severe misstep. It made money and some applauded it’s daring, but it was so far removed from the “Crowe Style” that it left many fans confused, disappointed and lost.

So, he comes back with Elizabethtown which, if you can imagine, might be worse. With a flaccid lead performance by Orlando Bloom, “Etown”, not only stunk, it failed to make any money, making for his first big bomb (Almost Famous had been a financial disappointment, but was critically praised universally). From what I’ve read, the crush of “Etown” left him confused, disappointed and lost as well. If you check his website, it says he’s currently working on his next screenplay, but there is no sign anywhere as to what it is or how close he is to finishing it. My feeling is, he’s completely lost his mojo.

Which brings me to the real problem, which is that the “Crowe Style” has been improved upon by Judd Apatow. Like Nirvana did to bands like Poison, the “Apatow Style” of Peter Pan-like slackers smoking pot, hanging out and watching porn featured in films like 40 Year Old Virgin, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Superbad, and Pineapple Express speaks to this generation in a way that makes Crowe seem dated and out of style. Since the Crowe business model was already beginning to lapse, all signs point now that the one-time voice of a generation may be on the brink of irrelevancy.

What’s funny is that Crowe’s Jeff Spicoli, played by Sean Penn in “Fast Times”, is the blueprint for the modern day versions like Seth Rogan in Knocked Up. Seth could even be the grown up version of Curtis, Jeff’s little brother (“Dad says you better get up, you butthole!”). Still, the sad fact is Cameron is not likely to regain his former perceptive wit and writing because of a lack of confidence and, even if he was close, people don’t talk like him anymore. They’ve been dumbed down, yet enlightened. They know more and think less. This is not Crowe’s world. Adolescence will never change and always remain the ugliest part of life, but the way we talk about it will continue to evolve. Cameron Crowe may not be able to rejoin the conversation and, sadly, without anything profound to say, his films suffer mightily.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Lost Gem of the 80s #12: Malcolm McLaren - "Duck Rock" (1983)

Ok, pay attention. This one is special.

There are two incongruous truths about pop music. Blondie is mostly responsible for introducing mainstream America to rap music (thanks to “Rapture”, the first song ever in the top 40 featuring rap. Btw, look fast for Jean-Michel Basquiat as the DJ in the video at the 1:58 mark) and Paul Simon holds the same honor for world music (thanks to Graceland, of course), specifically African. The years that indigenous creators toiled with these sounds were not validated by the mass populace until white people showed it to them by repackaging it into something they could easily digest. Both of these artists did commendable jobs, and achieved it in a truly artistic fashion, but that doesn’t make it authentic. But, hey, that’s what rock music’s all about! We wouldn’t be here if white folks hadn’t done the same thing with their old blues records.

Well, what is ignored and forgotten is that McLaren, the impresario responsible for the Sex Pistols, nearly pulled of an almost perfect amalgamation of the two styles himself. Only problem was, not as many people were listening. Duck Rock remains an unadulterated classic of cultural mash-ups and combined styles that was WAY ahead of its time.

Here’s some background. After the demise of the Pistols, McLaren, taking himself entirely too seriously, felt the next fad (after punk) was going to be a sort of Afrobeat and ska mix. Take some of the guitar strums of punk, strip off the distortion, and add the ever necessary Burundi drum style derived by tom tom beats and traditional African ritual music, which he called "Duck Rock". This notion crystallized for him in the form of Bow Wow Wow, the band he managed after the Pistols. One listen to “I Want Candy” and you sense the exact style he’s going for.

While managing them, he put out his own album, Duck Rock, which served as an even wilder blend of sounds from the melting pot streets of New York City. Two singles from the album (the hip-hop influenced“Buffalo Gals” and Graceland precursor “Double Dutch” complete with twirling rope sound effects) became staples of the underground dance scene. So, while neither were mainstream smashes, they were embraced by their target audience and are still often played today.

McLaren almost takes a backseat to the performers on this record. He’s more of an orchestrator than a frontman. But, the evidence of what must have been swimming around in his head is startling. Each song practically recalls a different spot on the globe, whether it be downtown NYC, or the shantytowns of Soweto, or the isles of Latin America. Just because he can, he even ends the album with "Duck For The Oyster" which sounds an awful lot like that remix of "Cotton-Eyed Joe" they play at every dance. The listener is immediately transplanted to, not only the locale, but to the hottest club of 1983 within each locale where they're hearing the hottest music in the hottest club.

The one distraction to the album, which is only a distraction on repeated spins, is that it features snippets of the actual broadcast of the World’s Famous Supreme Team, a late night hip-hop radio show in NYC in the early 80s. While the time-capsule nostalgia of listening to what radio was like in ’83 (when DJs didn’t just play music, they influenced behavior and prompted action) is interesting, it’s really only interesting once. On subsequent listens, it would be nice to mute them and just let the music play, as the snippets play over the beginnings and ends of songs, just as they would on the radio.

One other interesting tidbit. Guess who was playing on this album? Trevor Horn and Anne Dudley. If you don’t know why I think that’s cool, read here. Trevor especially has had his finger in some of the best music of the last 25 years.

The Nugget - I've played the hits out, so I'm picking "Merengue", which sounds exactly as the name would imply, a song meant to be merengue'd to.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Thoughts On The Election

In a recent email exchange with a friend regarding politics, I managed to get down in writing some of the swirling thoughts I’ve had about the current election. I pass this along mostly because it’s more succinct than anything I’ve been able to come up with to this point, so I didn't want to lose it. I tend to make a lot of political decisions with my guts and emotions, so I can often flip-flop on some issues based on the situation. But, what is written here is not likely to change.

Here's my take. McCain seems like more of the same and Bush has made a mess of our country by, maybe worst of all, lowering our morale and our pride. What Obama has the power to do, above anything else, is restore some of that pride. He represents what should be a change for the better in the way we feel and think and act as Americans. He's so green and inexperienced that it may be the only thing he's able to pull off, but that is important enough for me to want to vote for him. McCain does not have that same cache. He has more experience in leadership, but I don't think he has the power to bring about the change in morale, or, if he does, it would take him a loooong time to achieve it. And, even if McCain could right the ship, most of us are so jaded by this point that it would be equally as long a time before we feel differently. Making important decisions like this based on emotion may not be the smartest way to proceed, but I think it’s the main problem. No one feels good. We want to feel better. Obama will be more successful at that then McCain will.

One thing I like about this election is that social issues are not in the forefront like Bush vs. Kerry (of course that's because it was largely Karl Rove's strategy and he's not around this time). We're finally talking about issues that matter like the war and healthcare and education, issues that actually affect us, not gay rights. Holding so firm to social agendas has put us where we are now and that isn't good.

Friday, September 5, 2008

This Week In Mormons In The Media

I’ve been meaning to start a series about this topic for months. So few members of the church represent me the way I want to be represented that I’ve been meaning to write about it, especially the more we creep into the public eye. Unfortunately, it’s usually something that makes us look stupid.

I’ve been an Intervention loyalist since it was first broadcast. Sometimes I want to quit out of frustration over the stupidity of people, but I power through. This week’s episode was a doozy.

Jenny is a 27 year old Mormon girl who is a heroin and meth addict. If you’re not familiar with the show, it always begins with the background and family history of the addict and then facts pop on the screen that tell the story of their descent. An example would be…

“At 16, Jenny found out her sister was actually her mom.”

Then the person will comment about it for a second and then….

“Jenny began shooting up heroin. She now shoots up at least 3 times a day”

Something like that.

Well, the impetus for Jenny’s addiction was a new one for the show. Apparently, she and her sister got their Patriarchal Blessings on the same day. Her sister’s was all positive about how she would have a big beautiful family and such, while Jenny’s spoke of struggles and challenges and did not mention that she would have a family in this life. Well, not being able to be a mom in the church is like working and not getting paid.

Shortly after the blessing, she found out she had endometriosis (sp), which confirmed for her that God didn’t love her (while also confirming the blessing). This sent her into a tailspin of drug dependency, which was totally out of character for her to that point.

To those who aren’t familiar with what these blessings are, let me explain. It’s basically a one-time blessing most members receive that map out their life. We believe the blessing is given by revelation to the Patriarch. It will usually tell us what we were like before coming to earth, what we can expect while we’re here, and maybe what God has in store for us. They’re pretty powerful, not to mention intensely sacred and personal, thus having one discussed so nonchalantly on a TV show about addiction is like seeing your mom in Playboy. Not something you want out there for all to see.

The show always ends with an update on their progress and this is usually the most annoying part of the show, as many of the addicts relapse. Jenny was one of those. After completing a couple months of rehab, she fell back into it. She’s also now pregnant, but it didn’t elaborate on with who or anything.

I had heard a few years ago that Utah was the nation’s leader in meth labs on a per capita basis. Does that suck or what! You know it’s mostly disaffected Mormons, squashed under the pressures of high expectations and creative oppression rebelling against the predominant culture. Too bad more people, especially Mormons, can’t come to terms with their spiritual conflicts in less destructive ways.

Finally, I wanted to quickly mention one other show I’d like people to seek out. A recent episode of 30 Days featured an LDS woman who is totally against same-sex parenting. She lives with a gay couple with like 4 kids for 30 days to learn how they live and she’s the only person I’ve ever seen on that show who never comes around to the other person’s way of thinking. I was sick to my stomach watching this woman use the church as her excuse to be bigoted to this couple just trying to give needy kids a home and some love. She’d rather the kids be in foster care. Shameful. You can watch the entire episode here if you’re interested.