Monthly Archives: December 2009

Made It Ma! Top of the World!

Don't worry - it's just an expression.

I’m not going to go all Cody Jarrett* on you, don’t worry.

A year ago today I decided to challenge myself to create and maintain a daily blog, where the main purpose was to write something every day. Distractions come and go, and it’s easy to push stuff to the back burner in favor of more pressing matters. But like the solo artist who enjoys the arrangement – because everyone shows up on time and always agrees unanimously – I only have myself to blame (or not) for these pages of ether.

Now a year has passed. The hits have grown every month (if this were stock we’d all be rich) and hopefully that will continue as we go forward. But I didn’t do it for hits or ads or Facebook/MySpace “friends”. I did it for much more basic reasons (see the Credo tab).

And now a year is in the books. Amazing! But just a baby step.

I’ve always been a club hound, a film buff, a voracious reader, an avid music listener and a staunch supporter of stand-up comedy. If I didn’t have to actually work for a living I’d wax more poetically about all of these subjects, but a topic a day – every day – seems pretty fair to me. Fridays have turned into a link fest called TGIF; I’ve unearthed old reviews and written new forewords, related how seminal albums still resonate and hopefully have turned you on to a few funny people.

For 2010, I want to improve. Despite my best organizational efforts, I’m putting one comic through what has to be the most protracted interview process in recorded history. But I love the guy, I think he’s brilliant – and I want the feature to be dynamic and hopefully get it published somewhere that has an audience a thousandfold better than here. Hopefully I can improve on that cycle and do more, faster, better.

I also want to try and cover more fringe Under The Radar bands; perhaps a shorter review would be easier to crank out than my more introspective ones. And more Blast From The Past stories that tie an album to the experience I lived through at the time. More DVD reviews. More live shows.

I dunno…resolutions aren’t due until midnight, right?

So as we say good-bye to this year and this decade (not the aughts; I much prefer the Uh-Ohs) I want to send a special thanks out to everyone who has shared a musical or literary or film or comedy moment with me, whether in person, through comments or just as a silent subscriber and reader.

I’m in for the long haul. I hope you are too.

January 1st is a Friday, so our first post of the year will be a TGIF for your dining and dancing pleasure. In the days after that,  a look back at the year in music and comedy…while we stockpile the first great artistic statements of 2010. Cheers!

(* White Heat was made 70 years ago.  Still.Kicks.Ass. )

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I Like To Watch

"Is there a TV upstairs? I like to watch."

So do a lot of people, apparently. Guess there is a bright side to an economic recession after all.

FOX is claiming its first-ever win in the Nielsen’s for the 4th quarter, as their viewership rose while CBS, NBC and ABC took a slight dip. Of course, FOX has a tendency to lie through their teeth stretch the truth on occasion, but with a lineup including heavyweights House and Bones plus the incredible success of Glee, I tend to believe this. (Plus the numbers came from the Nielsen Ratings…not that those or any other survey are any more accurate than an extrapolated small sample could be.)

And that’s before 24 starts revving its engine next month.

But almost as amazing is the rise in cable viewership and the number of channels setting all-time highs for ratings. FX lost The Shield and Nip/Tuck this year but has two big hits with Damages and Sons of AnarchyThe League also did very well, while It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia had its strongest season to date. AMC killed with Mad Men, of course, and has Breaking Bad coming back.

 USA in particular struck gold with The Closer and the final season of Monk, whose last episode now holds the record for the largest rating ever on basic cable. White Collar, the new series that rode Monk as a lead-in, seems to have charmed viewers as well.

But some disturbing news about one of my favorites, Better Off Ted, where ABC is burning off the remaining new episodes starting this Friday (a/k/a Television’s Graveyard) and then running double episodes on January 5th, 12th, 19th and 26th. Hopefully that’s just to clear the decks for Lost, which starts its final season February 2nd, and will occupy the same night and time slot. Glass half full over here.

Much more information at The Futon Critic.

30 years old this month; still prescient.

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Under The Radar: Rainer Ptacek

I can’t say that my friend Bill ever dragged me to a concert, since I trust his musical ear so much I get excited about anyone he insists that I witness. But let’s just say that on this particular Saturday afternoon fifteen years or more ago, I was ambivalent but willing. The artist’s name conjured up jazz or perhaps obtuse folk, and that wasn’t what I was hungry for that day. But it was Bill…so I saddled up without a second thought.

I don’t remember the event itself, but there was some sort of afternoon festival going on in Syracuse where Rainer Ptacek was playing, and I remember being equally bewildered by the booking as I was spellbound by his talent. I got a closer look that night when he played in a tiny club and blew my mind a second time. And after that my immediate mission was to get my hands on anything and everything he had released.

It was as much how he played the blues as what he played – a unique finger-picking, pawing slide attack that wrung tears out of the steel guitar. But the man was quiet and humble, almost deflecting the enthusiastic reception back into the crowd…as if it was all part of the gift that they should take away with them rather than an accolade that he earned and deserved.

Sadly, he was soon diagnosed with a cancerous tumor, and like most musicians, had no health insurance. It came as a surprise to his friends who rallied around him and arranged benefit shos and projects. One result was a tribute album called The Inner Flame, which he participated on alongside several stellar artists. Only a few months later, Rainer passed away.

Here are my words from the magazine TransAction in 1997…

Rainer Ptacek is arguably an acquired taste, but it’s obvious that the music community valued his keen insight and marvelous introspective vision. Master of the steel guitar and dobro, his records with Das Combo are thrilling, and as a live performer he was both generous and unique. Sadly, Rainer could not overcome brain cancer and has left us, but this tribute (recorded before his recent death to help raise funds for his battle) is a great document.

You would expect heartfelt versions from people like Vic Chestnutt and Victoria Williams, two fellow musicians who know about physical suffering, but the surprise of the disc has to be Lemonhead Evan Dando’s “Rudy With A Flashlight”, which might just be the best thing he has ever done. Robert Plant, Emmylou Harris and Rainer’s partner Howe Gelb are among the cross section of first rate contributors.

I don’t know what made me think of this today, but once I did I knew I had to share it. Odds are you haven’t heard the man, and I hope you’ll at least be ambivalent but willing to give him a try.

Rainer Ptacek MySpace site

The Inner Flame available at Amazon

Live album from Rainer

Rainer on Jools Holland performing “Life is Fine”.

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Blast From The Past: Rockabilly Raveups

For all the countless repackaging that we are constantly drowning in, sometimes the major labels throw us a bone with brilliant anthologies. Being a fan of garage rock, the pinnacle for me might be the original Nuggets collection, although I’m certainly not sneezing at the various label series that have followed in those caveman footprints to issue regional and chronological; collections of little-known garage and punk singles.

Rhino and Sony Legacy have really stood out in this regard (although in fairness to other labels, their access to the entire Columbia and Warner Brothers libraries is a hell of a head start). When these efforts are done right, you get a great cross-section of material in its best available sonic condition combined with some entertaining and/or authoritative liner notes written with care. If there’s one major drawback to the digital download medium – and there are several – the loss of liner notes might be the leading contender.

I didn’t grow up an Elvis or rockabilly fan, but I did grow up loving rock’n’roll, and chasing the roots of an art form is a worthwhile exercise for any devotee. These collections are far from complete but are an excellent primer for someone wanting to know what the fuss was all about.

When I saw that Whistle Bait is on sale at Amazon for $6.99, I figured I should pay props to these killer anthologies once again. Here’s my original review from 2000 as it ran in PopMatters

Fifty—count ‘em—50 snips of rockabilly, America’s original punk rock music, collected on two CDs to awaken your latent juvenile delinquent tendencies. Rockabilly was the cross-cultural spawn of hillbilly country, southern R&B, urban blues and rock’n’roll (which, of course, was itself a hybrid of the previous three). If you think the ‘50s were all about American Graffiti and Happy Days, you’re as wrong as the people who think Pat Boone butchering “Tutti Fruitti” was the cat’s meow. This was rebel music, parent-scaring yelps from garages and small towns across America. In your town, it was that kid down the block who chain-smoked and had a pompadour seemingly held in place by 30-weight motor oil. Thirty miles away, some kid with a buzzcut and an attitude was making the “bad girls” swoon.

Whistle Bait and Ain’t I’m a Dog strip-mine the vaults of Columbia Records—who, through their strong country music associations had a leg up on these things—and their associated labels. Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash, in their post-Sun era, are just two of the stellar names among The Collins Kids, Johnny Horton, Link Wray and Marty Robbins. Perkins checks in with some pre-requisite sharp clothing titles like “Pink Pedal Pushers” and “Pointed Toe Shoes”, but cuts like “Jive After Five” prove who Dave Alvin spent a lot of hours listening to. Billy Crash Craddock might not have been the star that Elvis was, but “Ah Poor Little Baby” could fool many people in a blind taste test. For me, the revelations were Ronnie Self and The Collins Kids—it’s no accident that the first track on each volume comes from their catalogue.

Hard not to learn a few things along the way, too. I never knew that Ronnie Dawson cut tracks under the unlikely moniker of “Commonwealth Jones”, nor did I realize that Webb Pierce had a hand in writing both “Bop-A-Lena” and “Bo Bo Ska Diddle Daddle” (although now that I look at those titles side by side, I know why Mensa passed on my application!). Then there are the classic monikers like Ornie Wheeler, Ersel Hickey and Werly Fairburn; three names impossible to pronounce without a little twang in your thang. Many of these acts had one or two records and then disappeared; some (Cash, Perkins, Dawson) had long careers, and some wound up in unexpected places (how the hell did Larry Collins cut tracks like these and then later pen schlock like “Delta Dawn”?). Although the genre primarily existed for but a few years (the tracks here range from 1955-1961), there sure were a hell of a lot of great records, and you know there are plenty more where these came from. File these two right alongside Nuggets when not playing loud.

Listen to clips from Whistle Bait

Listen to clips from Ain’t I’m a Dog

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Mad(?) Prophets

My daughter picked up a copy of Network the other day; we had watched it together years ago. I’ve tried to resist imparting my list of music and film “classics” on my kids because people need to get their own socks knocked off and not have pre-conceived notions (at least any more than they will get from the media and/or their peers). But since she is pursuing a career in television production, I made an exception, and apparently an especially valid one since we now know just how prescient Paddy Chayefsky was.

“I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore!”

I’m a big fan of curmudgeon comedy when it’s done well; few are better angst-ridden wailers than Marc Maron. His podcast series, WTF, is my favorite, and this recent bit with Eddie Pepitone just slayed me. Sure, it’s no Howard Beale going crazy, it’s just a hysterical rant from a comedian. But at the core it’s a rallying cry to see through the bullshit for what it is and realize that (in the words of Dean Vernon Wormer) “fat drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son“!

“Why do I have to be concious for the horror?”

Subtly – or perhaps not so muchMaron and Pepitone are challenging their fellow comedians to step up their game and honor their craft by holding a mirror up to society and telling the truth. Because no one else is.

Laugh til it hurts, folks.

Marc Maron WTF podcast

Eddie Pepitone website

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New Album! Cracker

As we approach the year end best-of lists, I’ll post reviews of a couple of more contenders for best of 2009. This review ran in the print edition of Bucketful of Brains.

The whole thing’s coming down”, sings Cracker front man David Lowery, “so let’s just get out of the way”. Like Cracker would ever be the deer in the headlights. Approaching the twenty year mark, the band is far removed from their initial reputation as indie critic darlings, but like the post-apocalyptic cockroach, they survived the implosion of a shallow industry and surfaced stronger than ever.

Lowery’s full blown rasp is in fine form, and allowing all the band members to collaborate on the material seems to have given them new life – this album smokes. It doesn’t matter what the subject matter is – confusing alien technology, time travel, a dozen sexual euphemisms – Cracker sells it with fire and passion. On one level, there are a few fist-pumping anthems like “Yalla Yalla” and “Hey Bret”, where power chords and repetitive lyrics lend themselves to seemingly mindless rocking. But underneath the surface, there’s a clear call out to walk away from the bullshit and get back to a simple and meaningful life. Musically, Cracker has done the same.

Johnny Hickman is a vastly underrated guitarist; he’s the Keef to Lowery’s Mick, the Woody to his Rod The Mod. His fills sweeten the gentle “Darling One”, turbo charge the punky “Hand Me My Inhaler” and (along with his harp playing) turn “Hey Bret” into a theme from a futuristic western. And when turned loose on his own, he’s equally twisted; the delicious country weeper “Friends” (featuring a duet with Patterson Hood) is as strong as other track on the album.

Cracker is more energized, hilarious and enthusiastic than ever. I won’t mind waiting three years between platters if they serve ‘em up like Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey. 

Go listen for yourself!

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T.G.I.F. – Ten For Christmas!

Merry Christmas, everyone!

When I was growing up in New York City, we were one of many families who did not have a fireplace in our home, but thanks to WPIX-TV, we always had a Yule Log! Yes, people would sit in front of the television and watch a log burn (and damned if it didn’t seem just a bit warmer there)! Now I have a fireplace…and great memories.

I wish all of you a Merry Christmas and a safe and happy holiday, however you do (or don’t) celebrate it. Take a moment to give thanks for your blessings no matter how small, and take the time to reach out to at least one person you haven’t been close with in a while. Life is short, as we constantly are reminded, and I’m pretty certain we only get this one shot. Make yours count.

For many of us the holidays can also be a time of sadness and a reminder of personal loss. If you don’t have someone to bring you comfort at this time, I hope you can find some from within.

Now for ten holidaythemed songs

Father Christmas” – The Kinks

2000 Miles” – The Pretenders

Run Rudolph Run” – Keith Richards

Christmas Wrapping” – The Waitresses

Little Drummer Boy” – Bing Crosby, David Bowie

Christmas Time is Here Again” – The Beatles

Happy Xmas / War Is Over” – John Lennon

I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day” – Roy Wood

Run Rudolph Run” – Dave Edmunds

and last, but not least, the annual classic…

Christmas, Baby Please Come Home” – Darlene Love

Peace...

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