For my upcoming gigs, check out the right hand margin.
Exciting news! I'll be playing with the classic rock group Second Time Around (like us on Facebook) on August 31st as we open up for Bad Company at Schaumburg Fest. Very cool. Lots of other gigs on the docket, so check out the right hand margin and see if you can make it out for any of them. You can also catch me most Sundays at 10:30AM at Elmhurst Presbyterian Church, 367 Spring Road in Elmhurst, IL.
Fiction: As always, I continue to submitted short stories to various publications and contests, and I'm busily reviewing submissions for http://www.sixfold.org/. You can still check out my most-recently published short stories in Volume 1 and Volume 2 of the YA periodical, Sucker Literary Magazine.
Song of the Week
Each week I feature one of my original compositions. Keep coming back, take a listen and enjoy. This week's is "Daddy's At Home," my song about early parenthood from my album Pause.
Real life is always more interesting than the worlds of dragons, gods, superheroes, magic and fairies. And I’m not even talking about life’s extremes of murder, war, leading nations, kidnapping and drug abuse – though to be sure, these can create some remarkable works of art. To me, the very mundane things that link most people's lives – hanging out with friends, meeting someone you like, working a job simply to pay the bills – are some of the richest veins for authors and filmmakers to tap into.
It isn’t surprising that films about the mundane should sail a bit under the radar, especially for a middle-age guy living in the suburbs, and that’s where journalism can come to save the day. I recently read a piece by the Chicago Tribune’s Christopher Borrelli about filmmaker Joe Swanberg, a guy I’d never heard of before despite his having directed fifteen films. Lo and behold, his movie “Drinking Buddies” is currently streaming on Netflix, so yesterday I checked it out.
It’s a gem.
Like much of Richard Linklater’s work, or the films of Noah Baumbach, Edward Burns, Whit Stillman, and – on occasion – Woody Allen, Swanberg’s “Drinking Buddies” is about capturing everyday life in all it’s fabulous glory: the modest slights that can turn a mood, the quips that buoy one’s spirits during a long workday, the small error that can become enormous or can be dismissed with a heartfelt kiss. With spot-on performances by Jake Johnson (of New Girl fame), Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston (remember him from “Office Space”?) and the captivating Olivia Wilde, “Drinking Buddies” is at its essence about nothing more than real life. No car chases. No murders. No emotional or physical abuse. No supernatural interference. It’s about the lives that most of us lead and that carry an infinite amount of laughs, tears, anger and joy.
Sure, I don’t really believe that women who drink as much as Kendrick’s and Wilde’s characters do could actually maintain their figures (I attended UW-Madison and witnessed first-hand the results of four years of drinking), but that’s about the only aspect of the film that didn’t ring true.
Swanberg – a Chicago resident – has another movie starring Kendrick out in theaters now called “Happy Christmas,” and as soon as I see that, I’m going to start in on his back catalogue.
Now tell me that newspapers no longer matter.
Begin Again, pairing Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, is nothing if not an ode to music, and I’m a sucker for films that reveal the inner workings of the music industry or the magic of composition. Even the remake of The Jazz Singer escapes a BOMB rating in my book since we get to see Neil Diamond sing “Love on the Rocks” in the recording studio. But when it comes to music in film, two terrific movie moments come to mind: Illeana Douglas's character singing the Costello/Bacharach tune, “God Give Me Strength,” in Grace of My Heart, and the moment in Once when the heretofore inattentive recording engineer finally begins to notice the magic happening in the studio as the band plays “When Your Mind’s Made Up.” I’m not sure anything in Begin Again quite matches either of these scenes (despite being directed by Once director John Carney), but many come close, and the film tells a terrific story with appealing characters to boot.
Ruffalo is a down-and-out record label exec who happens upon a little less down-and-out Knightley, who’s fresh off a breakup with Adam Levine. She sings a heartfelt song in an East Village bar prior to her return to England, and Ruffalo, desperate to find a performer who might end his streak of signed failures, immediately recognizes her potential. In a particularly effective scene, we get to hear (and see) what Ruffalo’s character hears: not just a woman singing on-stage to a guitar, but a song that slowly builds to the accompaniment of piano, cello, bass, guitar and drums. This works beautifully, and illustrates just how well a film can reveal the transcendental nature of music.
Through a series of well-done flashbacks, we learn the details of Knightley’s and Levine’s relationship, as well as that of Ruffalo and his ex, Catherine Keener, whose daughter Hailee Steinfeld provides the most contrived plot points in the movie (that she would take fashion advice from Knightley and that – lo and behold – she can play guitar well enough to record a tune on the first take). Levine does a fine job as a rising star who’s falling for the trappings of fame, and CeeLo Green provides the film some street cred. James Cordon, who plays Greta’s friend from England, is basically a more amped up Glen Hansard from Once, though a little less believable.
The film requires us to suspend belief on a few points, as Ruffalo never fails to find ample parking in New York City, easily finds public places to record a band, and manages to attract superb string musicians willing to play for free. But whatever. It’s a good story, not reaching the height’s of Carney’s Once, but a perfectly enjoyable ride, and so much better than most movies in which music is a major character.
If there’s one thing I could change about the film, it would be the slick production of the songs themselves. Here we are, watching an ensemble record songs live on a New York City street, but we hear none of the natural flaws and ambient noise associated with such an endeavor: instead, everything’s perfect, from the local kids singing backup vocals to Steinfeld’s guitar solo. Such is the world we live in, as auto-tune and click tracks have taken over even some of the grittiest bands. But think of what made Once so magical: the belief that the characters were performing HERE and NOW. Why Carney decided to gloss things up so significantly after achieving such perfection eight years ago is perplexing.
Back in December of 2010 I wrote a blog about Ringo Starr’s signature drum lick: two sixteenth notes on the one beat, followed by a sixteenth rest, followed by four or five more sixteenth notes. Here's how it sounds:
Since then, I’ve heard this drum lick many times over from other drummers: some Ringo’s contemporaries, others more modern drummers who weren’t even alive when John Lennon died, much less when The Beatles were in full-throttle mode.
Consider this perfectly placed addition to the 2013 song “The Vampyre of Time and Memory” by Queens of the Stoneage:
Or the lick at 0:13 in Stone Temple Pilots’ “Plush”:
John Bonham uses a slight variation of the lick at 1:51 in Zeppelin’s “Thank You”…
…and Don Henley uses it ad nauseam in “Victim of Love” (but since The Eagles are and have always been about the money, their song isn’t up on youtube, and I’m not prepared to give them even one dollar of my money).
Ringo Starr may not have invented the lick, but he (along with Paul McCartney in “Dear Prudence”) certainly put it in the minds of drummers going forward. See if you recognize any of the songs in the following montage:
So there you go. Long live Ringo!
Well, it sure has been a fun journey. Rush is a band that for forty years now has pushed the envelope, evolved with the times, challenged themselves, and produced some terrific albums. Simply put, there isn’t one original album they’ve released that doesn’t have some redeeming qualities. Even the worst Rush (except for Feedback) is better than many other bands’ best efforts.
Comparing all twenty albums is a bit ridiculous, because it’s like comparing four or five bands in one. It’s like contrasting The Beatles of 1964 to The Beatles of 1968 (and that there’s only four years separating “She Loves You” and The White Album is absolutely mind-boggling to me). When I’m in the mood for progressive Rush, A Farewell to Kings is the ultimate album for me. A more poppy Rush? Presto fits the bill. Something in between, then Permanent Waves is just about perfect. A more rocking album, and you can’t go wrong with Counterparts or Clockwork Angels. And if you want down-home blues rock, then Rush ain’t too shabby.
Nonetheless, I will put in order all twenty albums, recognizing that moods and tastes can change on yearly, if not daily, basis. Suffice it to say that my top five albums will probably be more or less consistent, and my bottom five albums are likely to stay the same (and even some of those aren’t all that bad). Everything in between is open wide for debate depending on the day. Here goes…
#1 Permanent Waves. Aside from a few production quibbles, a perfect album, the ultimate blend of accessible, exciting rock and roll, thought-provoking ballads and complex, progressive pieces.
#2 A Farewell to Kings. Such an interesting, exciting album, full of intricatacies that keep the listener's attention, yet still melodic and accessible with some wonderful shorter pieces.
#3 Moving Pictures. Side two wavers just a bit, but side one is among the most perfect album sides ever recorded. It's also a standout for it's clean yet full production.
#4 Presto. An accessible album that still has a bit of an edge to it. Exciting and moving, with some especially poignant lyrics by Peart. The band wishes they could record this album again. I have no idea what they would change.
#5 Hemispheres. A close second to its predessessor for best progressive album by Rush. The band manages a couple of short pieces as well, along with their best instrumental (or is it YYZ? Close call).
#6 Test For Echo. Yeah, I could have picked Counterparts, and maybe should have. Both are great albums as Rush began to explore a harder-edged sound. This is an oft-overlooked album that deserves a second look
#7 Roll The Bones. Good almost from start to finish, with relatable lyrics about fate and chance. Don't think it belongs here? Think again.
#8 2112. The first side is almost as good as Moving Pictures' first side. A near-perfect epic. Side two not as much, but a terrific album that turned things around for the wavering band.
#9 Counterparts. A great album whose middle sections loses it just a bit for me. "Double Agent" gets my vote for the worst original Rush song ever recorded. Holy crap.
#10 Clockwork Angels. That Rush can still produce an album of this quality is remarkable. A great effort, with shifting moods and instrumentation, with melody and riffs to boot.
#11 Grace Under Pressure. One of those albums that used to bug me. I still don't like "Afterimage," but oh well. A great bridge between guitar-Rush and synth-Rush.
#12 Hold Your Fire. A great poppy album with inspiring lyrics. The band may vote for "Tai Shan" is its worst song, but I accept it as a mild hiccup on a terrific effort.
#13 Signals. A better album that I expected, with some songs I'd forgotten about and perhaps didn't appreciate years ago. Men and boys rule the album - be them digital, analog or new world.
#14 Rush. A surprisingly good effort, with ridiculous lyrics but oh so sweet riffs and guitar solos. Better than most of the rock drivel that sold millions in the 70s.
#15 Power Windows. Some wonderful tracks that suffocate under the weight of exhausting synth-heavy production. I'm a keyboardist, and I know a thing or two about the synthesizer, but this goes way over the top. "Territories" is the standout here.
#16 Fly By Night. Yes, a few hiccups here and there, but some terrificly accessible rock songs and a few lengthy numbers that set the stage for what's to come.
#17 Vapor Trails. A tiring, endless album that sabotages its finest moments with terrible sections. The first two tracks save this album from last place.
#18 Caress of Steel. Some interesting parts, but ultimately an inconsistent release.
#19 Snakes and Arrows. I know several Rush fans who would put this album in their top five. For me it's an endless, morose, unvarying effort.
#20 Feedback. Absolutely pointless and unredeeming.
So there you are. Disagree? Chime in and let me know. After all, Rush fans can disagree. As Peart penned, "Everybody got to deviate from the norm."
DAY TWENTY: Caress of Steel, running time 44:59, released September 24, 1975
Caress of Steel, an album I’ve long considered to be Rush’s worst, is not as bad as I remember. In fact, it has a lot of things going for it, though I admit I won’t likely be listening to it again anytime soon. This is an ambitious effort, a full 7 minutes longer than Fly by Night, with the band’s first side-long song, “The Fountain of Lamneth.”
The opening song “Bastille Days” is basically “Athem 2,” a rip-roaring number that was a live favorite for a number of tours. The band shows its first signs of a sense of humor on the throw-away track, “I Think I’m Going Bald,” a song that would have been better suited on Rush despite it being penned by Peart, and the very accessible “Lakeside Park” is a pleasant tune, oddly out of place considering what’s to transpire (and the guitar is annoyingly panned all the way left during the verses for some inexplicable reason).
“The Necromancer” is Rush’s second venture into the land of extended, multi-section pieces, and it’s an effective one save for the warped, slow-tape narration. The first movement – the song’s best – is a moody, repetitious, minor-keyed movement reminiscent of a Pink Floyd jam, and the second section brings to mind “Cygnus X-1” with its sudden starts and stops. The growl of By-Tor come back briefly, but unlike on the Fly By Night album, Geddy wisely get’s out of the way of Lifeson’s solos (regrettably panned back and forth, an amateurish and unnecessary production trick), and the last section has a fine, three-chord outro (think “Sweet Jane”) that gives the song a melodic, positive lift.
Hearing “The Fountain of Lamneth” for the first time in years, I found it alternately brilliant and regrettable. The first section, “In the Valley,” opens with a beautiful descending acoustic guitar pattern and melodic lyric that would play very well live as part of a largely medley, but then Geddy screeches his way through the next part. The minute-long “Didacts and Narpets” is unfortunate in every way except that it’s only a minute long. “No One At The Bridge” recalls the first section of “The Necromancer,” with a moody, hypnotic verse and terrific guitar solo; the only issue is the bridge when Geddy sounds like he’s about to tear his vocal chords apart (and not in a good way). He takes it down several registers in the next two sections, and they are better for it. “Panacea” is a flowing ballad, and “Bacchus Plateau” is the album’s most accessible tune, a three-chord pop song at its essence; if this were separate from the rest of the side-song piece it might have been a modest radio hit, and if Geddy could still hit the notes, it would be a great live piece. “The Fountain” ends the album side where it began, offering the listener some familiar territory, a helpful bookend.
So where does it stand head-to-head against other Rush albums? It's hard to say. Comparing Caress of Steel to, say, Snakes and Arrows, is like comparing two different bands. In a way, they are two different bands.
Twenty albums in twenty days! Tomorrow, I’ll be summarizing my journey, and then I’m taking a week to listen to some other music.