Monday, December 14, 2009

My Favorite Albums of 2009

Well, everyone else is doing it. So, I guess I should weigh in as well. Take these with a grain of salt. I don't get to hear half as much music as I'd like, and I inevitably will find things that came out this year that should be on this list but aren't because I haven't heard them yet. C'est la vie, right? I've included a link to reviews of the albums on my list. I'll do a separate post (hopefully sooner rather than later) of other interesting year-end lists. If I feel inspired, I'll do a decade-end list, though given my track record here, don't hold your breath!

1) Lucero - 1372 Overton Park - Some are complaining about this band having sold out. It's the same thing we always hear when an indie band joins a major label. Sometimes the compaints have merit. Other times, it's just a pile of crap. Major labels can bring the best out of a band. This one is full of punky southern grit that comes straight from the heart of Memphis.

2) Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest - For a relatively unknown band, this album received a lot of hype. It made me skeptical. Then I heard it. And it gets better with age too.

3) Neko Case - Middle Cylcone - I mentioned how much I love Case's voice earlier this year. Her new album is her best yet. The songs are finely crafted, and she sings the hell out of them.

4) U2 - No Line on the Horizon - A terrific set, if I must say so. Bono sings his heart out, and man, can The Edge play guitar or what!

5) Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - This album took a very long time to grow on me. It's bold, operatic, big music. What else could it be with a song called Lisztomania?

6) Moby - Wait for Me - I loved Play, but I haven't liked a thing he has done since. This one took me by surprise, and it still gets me. Moody and thoughtful.

7) The Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca - Indie rock so often misses the mark by sounding too indulgent. The Dirty Projectors get it right with this finely crafted piece of work.

8) Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion - This one wanders all over the musical map, and from the journey, the band creates a rich sonic stew. The Afro-Brazilian hybrid Brother Sport is the song of the year.

9) Cass McCombs - Catacombs - Another one that surprised me. There are some striking Dylan-esque comparisons to be made. It's a warm, alluring album, fitting since it's supposed to be a love letter from McCombs to his wife.

10) Phish - Joy - The best Grateful Dead album not made by the Grateful Dead. Hell, it is even better than many of the albums that Garcia and company did make. Even Phish haters will have to give props for the first few tracks. You just can't resist them.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Odds and Ends

First off, thank goodness we dodged the Olympics. Every city that ever hosts things things gets saddled with mountains of debt. I didn't realize until after the fact that South America had never played host to the Olympics. It's all the more reason why Rio was the right choice. I just hope they manage to do it without bankrupting the city or the country. They really need to find a way of making these things less of a burden on the communities they invade. Having said all this, I'm disappointed that I won't get to see the Olympics in person. It'd be kind of cool.

Second, I can't say I'm surprised at all about what David Letterman did. He has a long history of drooling over his female guests. What I can't believe is that a respected, Emmy-winning producer could be so stupid. Then again, these days people think they can get away with anything. Letterman has always been great under pressure. He's handled interviews with some very important figures better than the people who are supposed to get it right. With this, he's turned a very bad situation into something heartfelt, personal, and funny, yet horribly painful. You can see it in his face as he talks about what happened. He genuinely feels like a buffoon, and he should. He also hasn't tried to brush it off. Instead, he has embraced it right up front, dealing with it on a very human level. What he did was wrong, but in the end, he handled it just right.

I'm not a huge Michael Jackson fan, but I have to say I'm very curious about the upcoming move This Is It. I don't know if the police will ever bring charges against his doctor, but after the autopsy results showed that he was actually pretty healthy when he died, I'm left feeling pretty saddened by the whole thing. I didn't think I'd care, but it just doesn't seem right that the people who were supposed to take care of him wound up killing him, maybe not intentionally, but definitely out of their negligent, misguided actions.

Finally, I can't get enough of Jefferson Airplane's rampaging set at Woodstock. Yes, there are times when they fall into complete disarray. But Wooden Ships is so damn mind-melting I keep coming back.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Your GPS May Be Trying to Kill You

Oh, my, the machines really are out to get us. Exhibit A is this story from Yahoo Tech: Apparently, some guy was following his GPS a little too closely. Only a well-placed fence kept him from driving off a cliff. You have to wonder, though -- what was he thinking when the road became "increasingly perilous?" GPS is a great little device. I love mine. But you have to watch out or we'll all be playing a game of lemming. Fortunately, the GPS is still too dumb to know that if the car goes over the cliff, it dies, too.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

President Obama on Letterman

I caught President Obama on the Letterman show last night. As always, Letterman did a terrific job querying his guest. There was something about the appearance that bugged me, though. I don't know quite why it did, but it was just very strange to see a sitting president on the talk show circuit. It doesn't seem right to me, and it just felt wrong. I understand why President Obama did it. He's trying to reconnect with the average American to push his agenda and his health care program, all of which I happen to agree with. Seeing him sitting there, joking about a heart-shaped potato and just was too much.

They don't have the full interview up at CBS yet, but here's a segment that features the President and Letterman chatting about racism.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

One More Reason to Go Vegan

I've been vegetarian for quite awhile, but I've had a really hard time going vegan. I like cheese, and I like eggs. And I use milk products from time to time in baking. The food just tastes better. It's also very hard to go out to a restaurant for dinner, because most vegetarian options are not vegan, so this has always given me reason not to make the switch. For home use, I do try to use organic options from humane farms.

The recent video footage shot by Mercy for Animals has convinced me to, at least, give up eggs:

It's disgusting and vile what the commercial egg farmers are doing to dispose of the unwanted male chicks. The video footage is revolting. And I don't generally like this kind of shock-mentality to get people to change their minds. I also don't tend to like Mercy for Animals' in-your-face Sometimes, though, that's what it takes. It worked for me.

Here's the good news: Morningstar Farms, Boca, and Litelife Foods are taking steps to rid their products of eggs. It's of little consolation to all the little chicks that were massacred by being tossed into a grinder, though, but at least it will stop this ridiculous process.

What is wrong with people anyway? Whoever came up with using bones from cows to process sugar?? I'm still baffled by that one, but that's a post for another day.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

America's Economic Collapse

After America's economic collapse, there is plenty of blame to go around. News programs and magazines have levied numerous charges at everyone from Countrywide to AIG. One thing I hadn't really seen or considered before is the role that Goldman Sachs played in the whole debacle. As it turns out, Goldman Sachs has a history of pumping up the U.S. economy, skimming a ton of money from the pockets of everyday folks, and then crashing the whole system. It's a way of life, and they've gotten away with it, too, because the company has managed to insert its executives, past and present, into every aspect of America's capitalist society. They've taken over both parties, Democrats and Republicans, and while I'm annoyed to no end with Ralph Nader for the role he played in putting Bush into the White House by stealing crucial votes from Al Gore, the recent article by Matt Taibbi that ran in Rolling Stone last month makes the case that maybe Nader isn't so crazy after all.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Great Women Singers

Women vocalists knock me out. I really should do a post on some of the best bands sporting female singers, but in the meantime, here's a few killer CDs that have been issued in the past few months:

Neko Case's Middle Cyclone: Case has come a long way since her debut. She's got this overpowering voice that is hard to support, but she's found ways of doing it. This is her best album yet, and there's no reason to think she won't keep improving. She's gonna be around for a long, long time, which is great for all of us.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs' It's Blitz: Doesn't the egg on the cover look like a weird flower in a punk girl's hand? That just about sums up the disc too. Karen O has pushed her band to the pop-side of punk. It's synthy and disco-dance friendly but it packs a punch. This is the B-52s all over again, but it's made for people who didn't really like the B-52s all that much. Dig the basslines but watch out for those guitars...they bite.

Lal Meri's Lal Meri: Fans of Beth Orton would do themselves a favor by checking out this sterling debut. The group is fronted by Nancy Kaye, a jazz vocalist. Behind her the beats swirl and groove, switching from trip-hop to folk to gentle R& B. You can get completely lost in this seductive music. Perfect for a party, perfect for dreaming the night away.

Bye, Roland. Nice Knowing You...

Roland Burris has decided not to seek a full term in the U.S. Senate when his seat comes up for election in 2010. He could have saved everyone the trouble by not showing up for work in January and insisting he be seated. He was appointed by our infamous former governor Rod Blagojevich, and he forced the issue about joining the Senate rather than allowing the citizens of Illinois to have a say in who filled President Obama's seat. Now that he's there, he is deciding not to come back.

This puts the Democrats at a huge disadvantage since it levels the playing field for the next election. Incumbents always have a huge, huge advantage over their challengers. In 2010, since Burris isn't returning, there will not be an incumbent running.

The only good news is that Republicans in the state of Illinois are worse off than the Democrats. Believe it or not, they also are worse off than the national Republican party. We can only hope they can't resurrect themselves before the 2010 election.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Sears Centre Struggles to Survive

Hoffman Estates just can't seem to support a concert venue. Poplar Creek was a huge loss for the region, but it was forced to fold when the World Music Theater in Tinley Park was constructed way back around 1990. The World was and always will be a horrible place to hear music. It's not built for music. It's built for capacity. Yes, Poplar Creek wasn't perfect. But it was one of those old-style outdoor music venues with decent sightlines and a reasonably good sound system. It felt intimate, while The World felt corporate.

Logistically, Hoffman Estates and the World are (no pun intended) worlds apart, especially amongst the traffic congestion of an urban center like Chicago. So, there was no reason to think that the region couldn't support both venues. But the developers that owned Sears new headquarters wanted the space and owned the property, so it shut down Poplar Creek.

Cut to 2004, when these same developers were struggling to get anything going in the area. So, they proposed a new concert and sporting venue. It's actually not a bad place -- a mid-size arena, featuring 11,000 seats or so. In a lot of ways, it's akin to UIC Pavilion.

Unfortunately, according to a story in the Daily Herald, the Sears Centre isn't faring very well financially. The economy probably has a ton to do with it, and at least, at this stage of the game, it looks like the venue will remain open and won't be shuttered. The owners of the Sears Centre are buried in a mound of debt, and the village of Hoffman Estates might have to come to their rescue.

Here's the good news. The village of Hoffman Estates thinks that the Sears Centre ought to hold more concerts. The sports teams that play in the venue have been struggling to attract crowds, but music acts are selling tickets by the boatload. So we may actually get more and better shows up here, if they can steal some artist away from the city. Not a bad deal, and hopefully it will work.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Of Missing Fireworks and the 4th of July

Good lord. According to a story in the Daily Herald, a heap of professional-grade fireworks were swiped from an abandoned trailer, apparently by a bunch of lunatic teenagers. One kid had more than 100 of them in his closet. Considering the damage that one of these things can do, there's no telling the kind of destruction that a closet full of them can cause. As I've gotten older, I've gotten more and more nervous about the craziness that happens on 4th of July. When we were kids, we did our share of 'splodin stuff, but we mostly were messing around with bottle rockets and small firecrackers. Yes, we could get hurt, and yes, they can cause harm to people and property. But we shot them off in the middle of nowhere. These days, people living on top of one another in cities and suburbs alike are setting of charges with much greater force, apparently not thinking that they can burn down their neighbors houses. I hope they find these things before someone gets hurt.

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Critics Have Spoken...

Yes, I am alive and well. I've just been busy with work and trying to get my place in order. Not much of interest has been happening, so I haven't had much to write about. You know how it is. Now that summer is here, it's been hard to do much of anything, especially with the sudden onslaught of heat.

One thing I did stumble across recently was a new site (at least to me) called Musebin. It's quite a neat little site that features collections of reviews some of which rival Metacritic in breadth and scope.

It's amazing to me that no one has come up with this idea before. Here's the long story: The thing that has always bugged me about Metacritic is that it's a pretty closed society. They choose a handful of new releases each week, all of the big ones are represented, and then they post short excerpts and scores from a bunch of different sources. The problem, for me, is that they always use the same sources, and only the usual suspects are represented.

This is where Musebin fills a nice niche and improves tons and tons upon the Metacritic formula. Everything on Musebin is added by users. So regular people go out and find the most insightful reviews and then post very short, Twitter-worthy excerpts plus a simple rating categorization. Users can also add their own reviews, too, within the same abbreviated guidelines.

Yes, you get some reviews that are nothing more than totally inept and useless nonsense. But you also get some nice, concise summarizations. I should set up an account, as it would be fun to contribute. Then again, given how off-again, on-again I am with blogging, well...

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Dead at Allstate

The Dead were really good at Allstate, though it wasn't completely satisfying, not in the same way that the good old Grateful Dead was. I'm glad the Chicago shows were near the end of the tour, which gave the boys plenty of time to get it together. It would be great if they made this a regular thing, hitting road two or three times a year. It's the only way they'd fix the few problems that remain. The chemistry is there, it's just not complete. The only way to fix this is to play and play and play together regularly.

I also wish they hadn't wound up the second show with I Know You Rider. It was ridiculously predictable, after they skipped it on the opening night. For me, it kind of ended things on a bum note. I like to be surprised. Once they turned the corner into the song, I knew the show was over, and the Brokedown encore just made it worse. Dancin' and Weather Report Suite were the highlights of the second show. The China Cat/Born Cross-Eyed opener was the highlight of the first night.

All in all, not bad, but not the same. I suppose I need to get over it, but honestly, Ratdog has done more for me than any of the post-Jerry bands. It's not that the post-Jerry Dead is bad. They just don't play together enough to be really great.

Anyway, that's just my opinion. I'm sure there are many many Deadheads who disagree.

The Definitive Kris Kristofferson

Sorry for the lack of posts lately. I've been insanely busy with work, trying to hold onto a job that sometimes drives me nuts, but at least pays the bills. Overall I like it but with all the cutbacks and cost-cutting measures of late, it's been difficult trying to pick up the slack for the missing bodies.

Enough about that, though. I was catching up on my magazines last night, and I ran across an absolutely amazing piece on Kris Kristofferson that appeared in Rolling Stone a few issues back. Unfortunately, only a portion of the article is online, but you get the drift. It's worth seeking out the full article. It's written by Ethan Hawke, no less, who turns his super-fandom into a wonderfully entertaining article. It's great, too, that Rolling Stone saw fit to publish the piece, considering that Kristofferson, while still highly respected in some circles, has fallen back into the counterculture.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Pig Day!

Sunday is Pig Day. The celebration was founded way, way back in 1972, but I didn't learn of it until a few years ago. It has grown into a much bigger over the past few years, at least here in Chicagoland. Last year, I took my nephew to Brookfield Zoo. They do the whole Pig Day thing up in a big way there. It was a real hoot, too. Both the Hamill Family Play Zoo and the Children's Zoo are free for the day, and between those two places, you can get lost for the day. It was really something special to watch George interact with the other kids, playing zoo doctor and making crafts. This year, there is a Pig Demonstration at 1 and a parade at 1:30. If I weren't on my way to San Francisco, I'd take him again this year. I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Bruce Springsteen, Alice Russell, and Escaping the Cold!

Next week, I will get to go to San Francisco at the expense of my company. I haven't been west in awhile, and it will be great to go back to the greatest city in the world. It isn't the ideal time to go. I'd rather head to the Bay Area in the fall, when it's nice and warm and rarely rains. But it still beats Chicago. An ice storm is predicted for later this week, and next week the temperature isn't supposed to rise much past the mid-30s. Although it is going to rain in San Francisco all week next week, it at least won't be so cold. It's supposed to be in the mid-5os next week, which ought to be nice. Hopefully, I can get some sightseeing in, and hopefully, the showers will stop long enough so I can roam through Golden Gate park. I might do it anyway. Unlike those on the west coast, who seem to head inside when it rains, I'm not averse to bad weather. And there are enough places to duck into that it usually doesn't bother me too much if it rains. I want to see the ocean again too. How does the song go: "It's been so long since I've seen the ocean..." Anyway, if the weather did bother me, I certainly wouldn't live here where it's been particularly cold and snowy, the way it always used to be before global warming started messing things up.

Let's do a quick rundown of some music stories of interest:

- Springsteen used his website to lambaste Ticketmaster after fans in New Jersey were treated shabbily. Some were sent to TicketsNow where the cost was up to 50 times higher! TicketMaster is making amends to his fans, and Springsteen has since removed the note, but why did he and the state of New Jersey have to get involved in order for action to be taken? It's one more reason why TicketMaster and Live Nation should not be allowed to merge. TicketMaster already has a monopoly and does whatever it wants. Remember the whole Pearl Jam incident? Pearl Jam had to abandon its fight because TicketMaster was going to kill off the band's ability to earn a living since it controlled access to all of the good venues! That was more than a decade ago!

- For fans of classic soul music, Alice Russell may be the next saving grace. Her latest CD Pot of Gold is right on the money in terms of capturing the mood, the feeling, and the sound of the olden, golden days of R&B. I think The Music Box was right in that she hasn't really found her own voice yet, but I also think they were a little hard on the album. It's better than a lot of these types of CDs.

- I guess while we're on a Springsteen roll, I should point out the latest interview with him in Rolling Stone. Springsteen is notoriously shy, though he has found was of overcoming it. In a way, the early tales of how he wouldn't make eye contact and would struggle to talk about himself and his music is refreshing. So many artists have huge egos long before they deserve them. He talks about himself and his work a little more now, but Springsteen still retains his shyness. David Fricke put together a good interview with The Boss for the latest issue of Rolling Stone, though I wish Springsteen would open up just a little bit more. He sounds so reserved.

- Springsteen's latest album is Working on a Dream. Liking this album has not come easily for me. It's too polished and produced. Some songs don't even sound like anything Springsteen typically would have written and recorded. I suppose it's nice that he is trying new things, but I'll take Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town over anything he's done in the past 27 years (since Nebraska). The Music Box makes some good points about it, so I might have to give it another whirl. I know I plug this site a lot, but I think their commentary is frequently insightful.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Dumbest Band Name....Ever?

This morning I was looking over an e-mail I received that lists some of the concerts coming to town and the on-sale dates for tickets. With apologies to the band, I had to just burst out laughing. Supporting Lily Allen, apparently on all or most of her upcoming tour dates, is a group from Washington that calls itself:

Natalie Portman's Shaved Head

No joke. You read that correctly. The band calls itself Natalie Portman's Shaved Head.

Now, I'm not sure how far they expected to get when they picked this name, but I'm guessing it was some kind of joke that got out of hand. The name makes them sound like a novelty act, though in an attempt to move past it, they have taken to using an abbreviation (NPSH) to identify themselves. Incidentally, their music sounds like it was plucked from the '80s, which is another thing I thought we had moved past. Oh well.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Barack Obama's Inaugural Speech

Everything is on YouTube, including a lot of nonsense. Still, I easily found Barack Obama's inauguration speech, which likely will go down in history as one of the better ones. Great speeches do not make great presidencies, and it remains to be seen what Obama can do. He has a lot that needs to be accomplished quickly. Still, for those few who haven't seen it. Here it is:

Economic Stimulus: A Matter of Perspective

Those who know me have heard me kvetching endlessly about the proposed economic stimulus package, and specifically, the idea that simply slinging money at the problem prove to be its solution. In particular, the money to be distributed to the average taxpayer is no bigger than what outgoing president George W. Bush gave out a year ago. We all know how well that turned out. It didn't help the economy one bit, and things actually worsened considerably.

Well, the latest issue of the New Yorker features a column by James Surowiecki, who, for my money, is one of the smarter financial columnists in the business. In "A Smarter Stimulus," he makes a convincing argument that Obama's plan actually is a pretty decent idea. Yes, the infusion of money to the taxpayers alone won't solve the problem, but the way in which the rebate will be distributed (in smaller, weekly increments rather than a lump sum payment) is a far better proposal because people view the former method as additional income to spend and the latter one as wealth that should be saved.

It's all a matter of perspective, and in an age when no one trusts the government to get anything right, we need people like Surowiecki to set the record straight.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Frost / Nixon = Couric / Bush

So, I saw Frost/Nixon last night. I can't think of a movie that was better timed than this one. It's a fascinating story, and the film, which was directed by Ron Howard, is very well done. It got me thinking -- I wonder if 30 years from now we will see a sequel called Couric/Bush? Think about it -- there are a lot of parallels to be drawn between the presidencies of Bush and Nixon. And Couric is kind of like this generation's David Frost. Maybe in an attempt to prove herself, she'll get Bush to admit that he was drunk for 8 years (which is the only explanation I've ever come up with for that pretzel incident) and left Cheney in charge of everything.