Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Peak: Fever in the funk house, Pt. 7 - Broken Boy Soldiers

Or: How I fill up 2 GB

(Being the continuing alphabetical series of the contents of my iPod)

Album: Broken Boy Soldiers
Artist: The Raconteurs
Released: 2006

Track listing:
1. Steady, As She Goes
2. Hands
3. Broken Boy Soldier
4. Intimate Secretary
5. Together
6. Level
7. Store Bought Bones
8. Yellow Sun
9. Call It a Day
10. Blue Veins review:
It's hard to call the Raconteurs a genuine supergroup since there's only one true rock star in the quartet: the White Stripes' eccentric mastermind Jack White. Sometime between the recording of the Stripes' 2003 breakthrough Elephant and its willfully difficult 2005 follow-up, Get Behind Me Satan, White teamed up with fellow Detroit singer/songwriter Brendan Benson to write some tunes, eventually drafting the rhythm section of Cincinnati garage rockers the Greenhornes as support. Lasting just ten tracks, their debut, Broken Boy Soldiers, doesn't feel hasty, but it doesn't exactly feel carefully considered, either. It sounds exactly as what it is: a busman's holiday for two prodigiously gifted pop songwriters where they get to indulge in temptations that their regular gig doesn't afford. For Benson, he gets to rock harder than he does on his meticulously crafted solo albums; for White, he gets to shed the self-imposed restrictions of the White Stripes and delve into the psychedelic art pop he's hinted at on Elephant and Satan. Both Benson and White are indebted to '60s guitar pop, particularly the pop experiments of the mid-'60s — in its deliberately dark blues-rock, Elephant resembled a modern-day variation of the Stones' Aftermath, while Benson has drawn deeply from Rubber Soul and Revolver, not to mention the Kinks or any number of other '60s pop acts — so they make good, even natural, collaborators, with Brendan's classicist tendencies nicely balancing Jack's gleeful freak-outs. Appropriately, Broken Boy Soldiers does sound like the work of a band, with traded lead vocals and layers of harmonies, and no deliberate emphasis on one singer over the other. Even if there's a seemingly conscious effort to give Brendan Benson and Jack White equal space on this brief album, White can't help but overshadow his partner: as good as Benson is, White's a far more dynamic, innovative, and compelling presence — there's a reason why he's a star. But he does willingly embrace the teamwork of a band here, dressing up Benson's songs with weird flourishes, and playing some great guitar along the way. If the Raconteurs don't rock nearly as hard as the White Stripes — there's a reckless freedom in Jack's careening performances when he's supported only by Meg White — they do have some subtle sonic textures that the Stripes lack, and a tougher backbone than Benson's albums, which makes them their own distinctive entity. And they're a band that has their own identity — it may be somewhat stuck in the '60s, but they're not monochromatic, showcasing instead a variety of sounds, ranging from sparely ominous single "Steady, as She Goes" and the propulsive pop of "Hands" to the churning Eastern psychedelia of "Intimate Secretary" and the grandiose menace of the title track to the slow blues burn of "Blue Veins." These songs, and the five other cuts on this album, prove that the Raconteurs are nothing less than a first-rate power pop band — but they're nothing more, either. They may not rewrite the rules of pop on Broken Boy Soldiers, but they don't try to: they simply lie back and deliver ten good, colorful pop songs, so classic in style and concise in form that the album itself is barely over in 30 minutes. It's brief and even a little slight, but it's almost as much fun to listen to as it must have been to make.

So yeah, that’s quite a long review from, and if you’ve read that, there’s probably not much more I can add. But I still like to talk, and I like music, and I really like this album, so I’ll still say a few things.

Yes, Broken Boy Soldiers is pop rock, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In college, I would have scorned a 30-minute record full of three-and-a-half-minute songs; since then, I’ve grown to appreciate fine song-writing, and this album has it in spades. We already knew Jack White could write a tune in the drum-guitar framework of The White Stripes; here we find out that the dude can write one hell of a rock number in the context of a full band. Songs like “Hands,” “Intimate Secretary,” and especially “Level” are brimming with a pure energy that reminds you how much fun rock music can be (which some of us might have forgotten after listening to The White Stripes too much).

And let’s not forget, “Steady, As She Goes” was used as the music for the Pirates 2007 commercial that featured “Steady Freddy” Sanchez (“Steady Freddy” is a nickname coined by “Voice of the Pirates” Greg Brown; I prefer Dirty Sanchez as a nickname, but they didn’t ask me).

I think that’s about all I have to say about Broken Boy Soldiers. I highly recommend spending 30 minutes of your time listening to the album, and then spending another hour watching youtube clips of The Raconteurs performing everything from their own material to the Gnarls Barkley rave-up “Crazy.” The highlight of the album for me is “Level,” and that’s the youtube I included in this post. The video is a live version, but it still rocks pretty good. Do yourself a favor and go find the original. If you’re my friend, e-mail me and I’ll make a copy for you. It’s just that good.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Gutter: Cheapskate update - 4/29

A weekend sidetrack created a five-day lull in updating the Cheapskate standings. Thank God I’m the only person who is actually interested in this wholly irrelevant system of ranking Major League Baseball teams.

Anyway, I still do find it interesting, so I’m going to continue updating the Cheapskate standings.

Just to refresh, here are the numbers.

Total salaries (according to this list published by the Associated Press):

Pittsburgh $49,365,283
Oakland $47,967,126
Tampa Bay $43,820,598
Florida $21,836,500

Cost per game:

Pittsburgh $304,723.97
Oakland $296,093.37
Tamp Bay $270,497.52
Florida $134,793.21

There have been some surprising happenings in the competition for best value-based mediocrity (or mediocrity-based value, depending on your perspective). Most notable is the Tampa Bay ball club, which has now won six in a row, including a 4-0 stretch over the past five days. And while the winning streak hasn’t been enough to push the Rays out of third place in the Cheapskate standings, they have drawn within $13,000 of the second-place Athletics; perhaps more importantly (although not to me), is that the Rays’ six-game winning streak has brought them into a tie for first place in the AL East.

At the same time, Oakland has gone 4-1 over the past five days to hold onto first place in the AL West and second place in the Cheapskate rankings. But it’s not enough to get over the Marlins, whose 2-2 record over the past five has been enough to stick them in first place in the NL East and the Cheapskates. Florida’s low total salary is going to require a complete collapse if Oakland or Tampa Bay hope to take over the top spot in the Cheapskates.

Oh yeah, the Pirates are in this thing, too. Dropping Matt Morris was a nice PR move, but they still owe him the 10 mill for this year, so it’s not going to help their Cheapskate ranking. Ditto for the 1-3 record over the weekend: that kind of winning percentage is not going to improve any standings, be they in the NL Central or the Cheapskates.

Record: 15-10
Standing: 1st in NL East
Games back: 0
Money spent per win: $224,655.35

Record: 17-10
Standing: 1st in AL West
Games back: 0
Money spent per win: $470,265.94

Record: 14-11
Standing: T-1st in AL East
Games back: 0
Money spent per win: $483,031.29

Record: 10-15
Standing: 6th in NL Central
Games back: 6
Money spent per win: $761,809.93

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Gutter: Cheapskate update - 4/24

Ordinarily I probably wouldn’t do a Cheapskate update two days in a row, but there is major moving and shaking going on with the four cheapest teams in Major League Baseball, as they combined to go 4-0 last night. And what’s more is that the two bottom-feeders in this group (Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay) have now each won two in a row, climbing out of the basements in their respective divisions in the process.

The Pirates have been particularly impressive, as their two-game winning streak consists of a win over the Cheapskate-leading Marlins (Tuesday night) and a win over the NL Central-leading Cardinals (Wednesday night). Pittsburgh took a half-game lead on Cincinnati in the NL Central in the process, vaulting the Reds into fifth place.

The Rays, meanwhile, have done the best kind of work over the past two days, taking the first two games of a three-game series from AL East foe Toronto and leap-frogging the Blue Jays in the process.

As it stands now, none of the four Cheapskate contenders currently sit in the bottom of their division, and Oakland and Florida continue to lead the AL West and NL East, respectively.

Naturally, all of this winning is having a positive effect on the teams’ costs per win, with the Marlins dipping under $220,000, the A’s right around half a mil, the Rays dropping down to $568,000, and the Pirates looking to get under $700,000. That’s the price of success, folks.

Record: 13-8
Standing: 1st in NL East
Games back: 0
Money spent per win: $217,742.88

Record: 13-9
Standing: T-1st in AL West
Games back: 0
Money spent per win: $501,081.09

Record: 10-11
Standing: 4th in AL East
Games back: 4
Money spent per win: $568,044.79

Record: 9-12
Standing: 5th in NL Central
Games back: 6
Money spent per win: $711,022.60

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Peak: Fever in the funk house, Pt. 6 - Bringing It All Back Home

Or: How I fill up 2 GB

(Being the continuing alphabetical series of the contents of my iPod)

Album: Bringing It All Back Home
Artist: Bob Dylan
Released: 1965

Track listing:
1. Subterranean Homesick Blues
2. She Belongs to Me
3. Maggie’s Farm
4. Love Minus Zero/No Limit
5. Outlaw Blues
6. On the Road Again
7. Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream
8. Mr. Tambourine Man
9. Gates of Eden
10. It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)
11. It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue review:
With Another Side of Bob Dylan, Dylan had begun pushing past folk, and with Bringing It All Back Home, he exploded the boundaries, producing an album of boundless imagination and skill. And it's not just that he went electric, either, rocking hard on "Subterranean Homesick Blues," "Maggie's Farm," and "Outlaw Blues"; it's that he's exploding with imagination throughout the record. After all, the music on its second side — the nominal folk songs — derive from the same vantage point as the rockers, leaving traditional folk concerns behind and delving deep into the personal. And this isn't just introspection, either, since the surreal paranoia on "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" and the whimsical poetry of "Mr. Tambourine Man" are individual, yet not personal. And that's just the tip of the iceberg, really, as he writes uncommonly beautiful love songs ("She Belongs to Me," "Love Minus Zero/No Limit") that sit alongside uncommonly funny fantasias ("On the Road Again," "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream"). This is the point where Dylan eclipses any conventional sense of folk and rewrites the rules of rock, making it safe for personal expression and poetry, not only making words mean as much as the music, but making the music an extension of the words. A truly remarkable album.

Truth be told, if you don’t like Dylan, you probably wouldn’t like my iPod, as Bringing It All Back Home is the first (alphabetically, at least) of three Dylan albums currently loaded, and one of 13 that are readily available in my iTunes library. The beauty of having that many Dylan albums on tap is that his music is so wonderfully diverse: even on one album, Dylan can run the gamut from rock to folk, from mournful sorrow to jubilance, from twisted wordplay metaphors to stark realism.

And such is the case on Bringing It All Back Home. I wasn’t alive to hear “Subterranean Homesick Blues” when it first appeared on the radio, but I imagine it sounded just as jaggedly raw and purely rocking as it does today. From there, things never really slow down, even on the love songs like “She Belongs to Me” or “Love Minus Zero/No Limit.”

Really, I could spend this time talking about Dylan’s breaking-away that lies under the surface in so many of these songs, about how songs like “Baby Blue” and “Maggie’s Farm” seem to reflect his departure from the folk movement, but that context has been laid out many times before.

To me, Bringing It All Back Home is a collection of tremendous songs, with each one carrying its own weight, and I think the highlights lie in the weightiest of tunes, particularly the duo of “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” a pair of songs that close the album as strongly as any two songs have ever closed an album. Each is a complex and layered tapestry of images, emotions, and exquisite writing.

It’s no wonder Bringing It All Back Home is widely considered to be one of Dylan’s best works, if not the top overall.

Gutter: Cheapskate update - 4/23

Two days of action did little to affect the standings in the running for the first-ever Tired Huddled Masses Award, also known as the Cheapskate, presented annually to the Major League Baseball team that spends nothing and wins the most by doing so. In effect, we are recognizing the MLB franchise that does the most with the least.

According to this list published by the Associated Press, the four MLB teams with the lowest salaries in 2008 are:

Pittsburgh $49,365,283
Oakland $47,967,126
Tampa Bay $43,820,598
Florida $21,836,500

Through a tedious-but-not-complicated formula (which is explained in previous posts), the Cheapskate standings are determined by the amount each team spends per win; the team with the lowest cost-per-win at the end of the season will be named winner of the Cheapskate.

Based on the prevailing theory that money buys success in Major League Baseball, you could extrapolate that these four teams should be among the worst in the league. But that’s not exactly the case, as Florida and Oakland sit on top of their respective divisions.

Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh, on the other hand, suck terribly. They’re not even getting their money’s worth, as the crap the Pirates put on the field on a nightly basis is not worth $49 million.

Still, the Pirates do have some moments of success, such as last night when they halted their six-game losing streak with a win over the Cheapskate-leading Marlins. But that win did little to draw the mighty Buccos out of the basement, as Pittsburgh is still spending over $760,000 per win through 20 games in the 2008 season.

And the win also did nothing to draw the Pirates out of the NL East cellar, either, where they now lie comfortably. Rest easy, old man; you’ve had a long journey to the bottom over the past 20 games.

Elsewhere in the Cheapskate running, Tampa Bay took a game from Toronto last night to improve their cost-per-win, while Oakland lost to Minnesota to add a few dollars to their average.

Record: 12-8
Standing: 1st in NL East
Games back: 0
Money spent per win: $224,655.35

Record: 12-9
Standing: T-1st in AL West
Games back: 0
Money spent per win: $518,163.40

Record: 9-11
Standing: 5th in AL East
Games back: 5
Money spent per win: $601,105.73

Record: 8-12
Standing: 6th in NL Central
Games back: 6
Money spent per win: $761,809.93

Monday, April 21, 2008

Gutter: Cheapskate update - 4/21

The Florida Marlins continued their dominance of bargain-bin baseball, taking two out of three against the Washington Nationals over the weekend and maintaining their first-place standings in the National League East in the process.

More importantly, the Marlins held onto their decided advantage in the running for the first-ever Tired Huddled Masses Award, also known as the Cheapskate.

Obligatory review: the Cheapskate will recognize the Major League Baseball franchise that does the most with the least in the 2008 season. To wit, the four MLB teams with the lowest annual salaries (in descending order: Pittsburgh, Oakland, Tampa Bay, and Florida) will each have their salary divided by 162 to create a price-per-game; that figure is then multiplied by the number of games played to date to create a total spent to date; that figure is then divided by the number of wins to date to identify money spent per win.

Here are the numbers.

Total salaries (according to this list published by the Associated Press):

Pittsburgh $49,365,283
Oakland $47,967,126
Tampa Bay $43,820,598
Florida $21,836,500

Cost per game:

Pittsburgh $304,723.97
Oakland $296,093.37
Tamp Bay $270,497.52
Florida $134,793.21

At the end of the season, the team that has spent the fewest amount per win will be presented with the Tired Huddled Masses Award, aka the Cheapskate.

Through three previous updates, the Florida Marlins, with their paltry $21,836,500 annual salary, have held the top spot in the Cheapskate standings. What’s most impressive about the Marlins is that they have turned their Dollar General ballclub into one of the top teams in the league, holders of the third-best record in Major League Baseball and the top team in the NL East.

Oakland continues to be the No. 2 team in the Cheapskate, and after losing three in a row last week, the Athletics bounced back to take three-straight over the weekend, putting them in a tie for first place in the AL West.

Tampa Bay continues to hold the distinction of being better than the Pirates, as the Rays have lost five of the last seven. They now have a day off before starting 15-straight games against AL East opponents, including six-each against Boston and Toronto; in summation, the Rays aren’t likely to improve their standings in the division or the Cheapskate anytime soon.

But the Rays can probably feel pretty confident that they’ll stay ahead of the Pirates, who have now lost five in a row, including a weekend sweep in Chicago. Up next for Pittsburgh is a pair of two-game series against Cheapskate kings Florida and division foe St. Louis, so the losing streak could very likely keep growing. And if that happens, the Pirates could get back to their “million dollar per win” status from the first Cheapskate standings.

The Pirates even suck at being cheap.

Record: 11-7
Standing: 1st in NL East
Games back: 0
Money spent per win: $220,570.71

Record: 12-8
Standing: T-1st in AL West
Games back: 0
Money spent per win: $493,488.95

Record: 8-11
Standing: 5th in AL East
Games back: 4.5
Money spent per win: $642,431.61

Record: 7-11
Standing: 5th in NL Central
Games back: 5
Money spent per win: $783,575.92

Friday, April 18, 2008

Gutter: Cheapskate update - 4/18

Time for another update in the running for the first-ever Tired Huddled Masses Award, otherwise known as the Cheapskate, presented to the Major League Baseball team that does the most with the least. The contenders are the four MLB teams who decided to spend as little as possible this season. For further explanation on how the figures were reached, look at previous entries on the topic.

Here are the four penny-pinching gladiators, with their 2008 salaries (according to this list published by the Associated Press):

Pittsburgh $49,365,283
Oakland $47,967,126
Tampa Bay $43,820,598
Florida $21,836,500

The Marlins have continued their stranglehold on the Cheapskate in the early goings, with their Dollar General-esque $21 million payroll, which looks very nice next to their 9-6 record and top-of-the-division standing. At the same time, three straight losses have left the Athletics a bit behind after leading the AL West for much of the young 2008 season.

As for the Pirates and the Rays, they suck. Pittsburgh’s four-game winning streak over the weekend might have been the final sign of optimism in 2008, while Tampa Bay’s win over Minnesota Thursday snapped a three-game losing streak that is sure to be repeated.

Overall, not much change in the standings for the Cheapskate. In the last update (on Tuesday), the Pirates had passed the Rays for third place; after two losses to the Dodgers, the home team has fallen back into the cellar.

Record: 9-6
Standing: 1st in NL East
Games back: 0
Money spent per win: $224,655.35

Record: 9-8
Standing: 2nd in AL West
Games back: 1
Money spent per win: $559,287.48

Record: 7-9
Standing: 5th in AL East
Games back: 2.5
Money spent per win: $618,280.05

Record: 7-8
Standing: 4th in NL Central
Games back: 3.5
Money spent per win: $652,979.94

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Gutter: Cheapskate update - 4/15

Time for an update in the running for the first-ever Tired Huddled Masses Award, otherwise known as the Cheapskate.

To refresh:

The Cheapskate will honor the Major League Baseball team that does the most with the least (formula explained here). The contenders are the four teams with the lowest annual salaries (according to this list):

Pittsburgh ($49,365,283)
Oakland ($47,967,126)
Tampa Bay ($43,820,598)
Florida ($21,836,500)

Obviously the Marlins have an advantage, since their payroll is less than half of any of the other three; at the same time, one would guess that the paltry payroll should make it more difficult to amass wins.

Nevertheless, Florida got off to a strong start, taking an early lead in the initial standings by spending a mere $202,000 per win. But the Marlins went 1-2 in a weekend series against the Astros, which will up the cost per win. Oakland stayed hot, taking three of four games since Friday. The Rays split their four games in the past four days, while the mighty Buccos have now strung together four-straight wins after sweeping the Reds and taking game one from the Dodgers.

Here are the latest standings in the race for the Cheapskate:

Record: 7-5
Standing: 1st in NL East
Games back: 0
Money spent per win: $231,074.07

Record: 9-5
Standing: 1st in AL West
Games back: 0
Money spent per win: $460,589.67

Record: 7-6
Standing: 4th in NL Central
Games back: 2
Money spent per win: $565,915.94

Record: 6-7
Standing: 5th in AL East
Games back: 2
Money spent per win: $586,077.96

A few observations on the most recent standings:

- Two of the four lowest salaries in the MLB are currently leading their divisions, and none of the four are more than two games back.

- Three of the four teams currently have winning records.

- The Pirates' four-game winning streak cut their cost per win almost in half, from $914,171.91 to $565,915.94.

- Oakland continues to be the strongest team, winning six of its last seven, with eight quality starts through 14 games and a team ERA of 3.35, good for second-best in the AL. Sustainability is always the question, but the A's are off to a good start.

Stay tuned for updated standings in the competition for the Tired Huddled Masses Award. Updates will be posted every few days.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Peak: Fever in the funk house, Pt. 5 - The Best of the Pogues

Or: How I fill up 2 GB

(Being the continuing alphabetical series of the contents of my iPod)

Album title: The Best of the Pogues
Artist: The Pogues
Released: 1991 (1986)

Track listing:
1. The Body of an American

This is the first of a handful of single tracks I have on my iPod. After hearing “The Body of an American” a few times during the detective wakes on The Wire (if you haven’t seen the show, you should stop reading blogs and devote that time to watching it; it’s pretty much essential), I decided I would go onto iTunes and pay 99 cents to have a copy of my very own. I made that purchase based almost exclusively on the allure of the song’s refrain (“I’m a freeborn man of the U.S.A.”) and its proud, defiant, Irish-drinking sing-along-ness.

But as I got into the song and listened to it a few times, I found that it contained some great lyrics to compliment the rather standard Irish arrangement. The song is set at the wake of a dead man, presumably a boxer, who led a life of pride.

Really, “The Body of an American” is just a cool song (dig this line: “He never threw a fight when the fight was right, so they sent him to the war”) (see note #2 below); that’s why I put it on my iPod. Not too much more to say about that.

2 notes:

1. “Body of an American” was originally released on the 1986 Pogues’ EP Poguetry in Motion; iTunes sold me the song off 1991’s The Best of the Pogues greatest hits collection. For the purposes of this blog, I’m referencing the song as originating on The Best of the Pogues.

2. The line I referenced above (“He never threw a fight etc.”) is listed on the Pogues website as “He never threw a fight unless the fight was right so they sent him to the war.” I have always heard it (and continue to hear it) as I typed it: “He never threw a fight when the fight was right so they sent him to the war.” To me, that choice of words means quite a bit; I think I’ll stick with the latter (and eschew the band’s official claims). As I was typing this I listened to the song several times, and still think they say “when.”

You can make your own call. The video below is a live version and the best I could find on youtube. Here is a link to the studio version of the song on The lyrics are a little clearer on that one.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Peak: Fever in the funk house, Pt. 4 - Beggars Banquet

Or: How I fill up 2 GB

(Being the continuing alphabetical series of the contents of my iPod)

Album: Beggars Banquet
Artist: The Rolling Stones
Released: 1968

Track listing:
1. Sympathy for the Devil
2. No Expectations
3. Dear Doctor
4. Parachute Woman
5. Jigsaw Puzzle
6. Street Fighting Man
7. Prodigal Son
8. Stray Cat Blues
9. Factory Girl
10. Salt of the Earth review:
The Stones forsook psychedelic experimentation to return to their blues roots on this celebrated album, which was immediately acclaimed as one of their landmark achievements. A strong acoustic Delta blues flavor colors much of the material, particularly "Salt of the Earth" and "No Expectations," which features some beautiful slide guitar work. Basic rock & roll was not forgotten, however: "Street Fighting Man," a reflection of the political turbulence of 1968, was one of their most innovative singles, and "Sympathy for the Devil," with its fire-dancing guitar licks, leering Jagger vocals, African rhythms, and explicitly satanic lyrics, was an image-defining epic. On "Stray Cat Blues," Jagger and crew began to explore the kind of decadent sexual sleaze that they would take to the point of self-parody by the mid-'70s. At the time, though, the approach was still fresh, and the lyrical bite of most of the material ensured Beggars Banquet's place as one of the top blues-based rock records of all time.

I can admit it: I was late to the party with the Rolling Stones. In fact, I would probably say that I’ve only truly come to appreciate how good the Stones are in the past few years, and Beggars Banquet has been a big part of that appreciation (as I’m sure it has for many a Stones fan). The album opens auspiciously enough with “Sympathy for the Devil,” probably the record’s most well-known song and arguably one of the Stones’ best-constructed tracks, from the tribal-esque use of congas and the slightly eerie backing vocals to the increasing level of self-aware rage in Mick Jagger’s rage and Keith Richards’ distorted punk-scat solo. And behind it all is the backbone of “Sympathy” in the piano work of Nicky Hopkins: driving, melodic, and substantial, the recurring deep echo of the grand piano turns a very good recording into a great one, and its constant presence heightens the impact of every other instrument’s entrance.

“Street Fighting Man” is probably right behind “Sympathy” in terms of well-known Beggars Banquet tunes, and it contains one of the more interesting rhythmic arrangements, as the acoustic guitar provides the flowing beat, akin to what you would expect from a hi-hat or ride cymbal; conversely, Charlie Watts’ drums beat out a sparse, occasional pattern replete with the rhythm of a street fight.

“No Expectations,” one of the record’s highlights, has a certain exhausted-with-life appeal in both its lyrics and its music; “Dear Doctor” and “Stray Cat Blues” both bristle with humor (the former being flat-out funny; the second proudly marching over the line of pedophilia with darkly comic results); “Parachute Woman,” “Prodigal Son,” and “Factory Girl” all have the American blues feel that is so often associated with the album; and “Salt of the Earth” was allegedly a “highlight” of the 9/11 NYC tribute concert back in 2001, although that seems slightly clich├ęd to me, especially considering that the song, while toasting the “hard-working people,” views that particular class of folks as “faceless.” (It bears mentioning, though, that there exists on youtube at least one video of the Stones performing “Salt of the Earth” with Axl Rose and Izzy Stradlin sitting in; it’s worth watching that clip just to see two quintessential rock frontmen share the stage as Rose and Jagger do.)

To me, the overlooked track on Beggars Banquet is “Jigsaw Puzzle.” Sure, it’s a bit Dylan-esque in its character descriptions, but rather than being simply a surreal mismatch of unconnected phrases in juxtaposition, the song seems to be much more a reflection of its recurring pre-chorus talk of misfits: the people portrayed in the song (even the 20,000 grandmas waving their hankies in the air) are pieces in a puzzle, while the narrator tries to make sense of it all. Jagger wants to know how this varied group of humanity fits together in a world where all the pieces don’t necessarily match up. And I think the song’s ascending intensity makes it a worthwhile listen, too, not to mention the (once again) excellent piano work from Hopkins.

I won’t get into talk of “importance” or “influence,” because I think everyone knows that the Rolling Stones (and Beggars Banquet) were important and influential. All I’ll say is that this record is a strong start-to-finish collection of tunes that, maybe more than anything, reflect the fun of making music: Jagger, Richards, and the rest were clearly having fun when they laid down the ten tracks on Beggars Banquet. And none of that fun is lost on the listener, either; whether it’s your first listen or your 1,000th listen, Beggars Banquet is a good time.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Gutter: Who's the best at spending nothing?

Hereby creating the MLB Tired Huddled Masses Award (to also be referred to as the Cheapskate), recognizing the professional baseball team that does the most with the least.

Here’s how it works:

I’ve taken the four MLB teams with the lowest 2008 salaries in the league (according to this list published by the Associated Press):

Pittsburgh $49,365,283
Oakland $47,967,126
Tampa Bay $43,820,598
Florida $21,836,500

Then I divided each of those salaries by 162 to determine the amount each team is spending per game:

Pittsburgh $304,723.97
Oakland $296,093.37
Tamp Bay $270,497.52
Florida $134,793.21

The next step is to multiply the per-game average by the number of games played; that number will then be divided by the number of wins to date, thus creating a sort-of amount spent per win. If I see this through to the end of the season, the team who has spent the least per win will be presented with the MLB Tired Huddled Masses Award.

Are we rewarding mediocrity? No; we’re rewarding the team that achieves mediocrity for the best value.

Now then, here’s the standings in the running for the first-ever MLB Tired Huddled Masses Award (to be updated every few days, or thereabouts):

Record: 6-3
Standing: 1st in NL East
Games back: 0
Money spent per win: $202,189.82

Record: 6-4
Standing: Tied for 1st in AL West
Games back: 0
Money spent per win: $493,488.95

Record: 4-5
Standing: Tied for 4th in AL East
Games back: 2
Money spent per win: $608,619.42

Record: 3-6
Standing: 5th in NL Central
Games back: 3.5
Money spent per win: $914,171.91

That's your Buccos: spending nearly a million dollars per win through 9 games. Root, root, root for our home team; a new Pirates generation, everybody shout "Let's go Bucs!"

Gutter: Hillary supports the drink tax

Vote Obama.

Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Monday, April 7, 2008

Peak: Fever in the funk house, Pt. 3 - Back to Black

Or: How I fill up 2 GB on my iPod

(Being the continuing alphabetical series of the contents of my 2 GB iPod. Previous entries include Duane Allman Anthology and Appetite for Destruction)

Album title: Back to Black
Artist: Amy Winehouse
Released: 2006
Track listing:
1. Rehab
2. You Know I'm No Good
3. Me & Mr. Jones
4. Just Friends
5. Back to Black
6. Love is a Losing Game
7. Tears Dry on Their Own
8. Wake Up Alone
9. Some Unholy War
10. He Can Only Hold Her
11. Addicted (UK Bonus Track) review:
The story of Back to Black is one in which celebrity and the potential of commercial success threaten to ruin Amy Winehouse, since the same insouciance and playfulness that made her sound so special when she debuted could easily have been whitewashed right out of existence for this breakout record. (That fact may help to explain why fans were so scared by press allegations that Winehouse had deliberately lost weight in order to present a slimmer appearance.) Although Back to Black does see her deserting jazz and wholly embracing contemporary R&B, all the best parts of her musical character emerge intact, and actually, are all the better for the transformation from jazz vocalist to soul siren. With producer Salaam Remi returning from Frank, plus the welcome addition of Mark Ronson (fresh off successes producing for Christina Aguilera and Robbie Williams), Back to Black has a similar sound to Frank but much more flair and spark to it. Winehouse was inspired by girl group soul of the '60s, and fortunately Ronson and Remi are two of the most facile and organic R&B producers active. (They certainly know how to evoke the era too; Remi's "Tears Dry on Their Own" is a sparkling homage to the Motown chestnut "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," and Ronson summons a host of Brill Building touchstones on his tracks.) As before, Winehouse writes all of the songs from her experiences, most of which involve the occasionally riotous and often bittersweet vagaries of love. Also in similar fashion to Frank, her eye for details and her way of relating them are delightful. She states her case against "Rehab" on the knockout first single with some great lines: "They tried to make me go to rehab I won't go go go, I'd rather be at home with Ray" (Charles, that is). As often as not, though, the songs on Back to Black are universal, songs that anyone, even Joss Stone, could take to the top of the charts, such as "Love Is a Losing Game" or the title song ("We only said good bye with words, I died a hundred times/ You go back to her, and I go back to black"). [The U.K. edition included "Addicted," an extra track that didn't appear on the U.S. version.]

The best "new" artist of the past five years? I'd be hard-pressed to come up with a candidate who exceeds the accomplishments contained on Back on Black, the breakthrough (but not debut) album from British songstress Amy Winehouse. I can admit it: I first became intrigued by Winehouse when I heard a snippet of "Rehab" during a commercial break on MTV. That's what the music on Music Television is relegated to these days: 45-second musical commercials highlighting a different band every week. I heard Winehouse sing that mesmerizing chant/chorus "Try to make me go to rehab/I said 'no, no, no'" and I was hooked almost instantly. I decided that song was reason enough to acquire the album; anything beyond would be bonus.

Well, it was certainly bonus time the day I downloaded Back to Black. Rather than a one-trick pony with all her eggs in the "Rehab" basket, Winehouse turned out to be a talented singer/songwriter with more than enough soul to cover for all of 2007 (when the album was released in the US). Back to Black is wonderfully eclectic yet linked enough to demonstrate that Winehouse has accomplished a goal that few new artists are able to achieve:

In 11 tracks, she establishes a sound so unique that it becomes instantly recognizable as her own. By the time you’re finished with the album, you find yourself to be cognizant of certain ticks in each track that immediately remind you of Amy Winehouse, even if you’re listening to Back to Black for the first time.

Really, it’s all good on this album: the opening power of “Rehab;” the no-less-strong follow-up of “You Know I’m No Good” with its shameful drums and horns; the cleverness of “Me & Mr. Jones,” where Winehouse introduces the term ‘fuckery’ into the vernacular; the tambourine-driven impending pain-caused relapse of the title track; and then there’s tracks like “Love is a Losing Game,” “Tears Dry on Their Own,” “Wake Up Alone,” and “He Can Only Hold Her,” classic super-throwbacks that improve upon, rather than merely imitate, the clear inspiration.

It’s hard to pick a single highlight off Back to Black, since so many tunes stick are exceptional. So I’ll just stick with the big single. Dig the horns and the hand claps; as a matter of fact, when you listen to it, only pay attention to what’s happening behind Winehouse. Without that arrangement, the song borders on stupid rebellion; with the arrangement, it becomes a neo-R&B/soul/groove anthem.

Peak: Fever in the funk house, Pt. 2 - Appetite for Destruction

Or: how I fill up 2 GB.

(Just to refresh, in lieu of any real creative thoughts to post on this blog, I'm going through my diminutive iPod (2 GB) album by album, alphabetically, and writing about each one. This is entry #2; #1 was Duane Allman: An Anthology)

Album title: Appetite for Destruction
Artist: Guns ‘n’ Roses
Released: 1987
Track listing:
1. Welcome to the Jungle
2. It’s So Easy
3. Nightrain
4. Out Ta Get Me
5. Mr. Brownstone
6. Paradise City
7. My Michelle
8. Think About You
9. Sweet Child O’ Mine
10. You’re Crazy
11. Anything Goes
12. Rocket Queen review:
Guns N' Roses' debut, Appetite for Destruction was a turning point for hard rock in the late '80s — it was a dirty, dangerous, and mean record in a time when heavy metal meant nothing but a good time. On the surface, Guns N' Roses may appear to celebrate the same things as their peers — namely, sex, liquor, drugs, and rock & roll — but there is a nasty edge to their songs, since Axl Rose doesn't see much fun in the urban sprawl of L.A. and its parade of heavy metal thugs, cheap women, booze, and crime. The music is as nasty as the lyrics, wallowing in a bluesy, metallic hard rock borrowed from Aerosmith, AC/DC, and countless faceless hard rock bands of the early '80s. It's a primal, sleazy sound that adds grit to already grim tales. It also makes Rose's misogyny, fear, and anger hard to dismiss as merely an artistic statement; this is music that sounds lived-in. And that's exactly why Appetite for Destruction is such a powerful record — not only does Rose have fears, but he also is vulnerable, particularly on the power ballad "Sweet Child O' Mine." He also has a talent for conveying the fears and horrors of the decaying inner city, whether it's on the charging "Welcome to the Jungle," the heroin ode "Mr. Brownstone," or "Paradise City," which simply wants out. But as good as Rose's lyrics and screeching vocals are, they wouldn't be nearly as effective without the twin-guitar interplay of Slash and Izzy Stradlin, who spit out riffs and solos better than any band since the Rolling Stones, and that's what makes Appetite for Destruction the best metal record of the late '80s.

The greatest hard rock album of all time? Personally, I think you'd be hard-pressed to find anything better. From the opening strains of "Welcome to the Jungle" (which is tailor-made for sporting events, particularly face-offs or third downs when your team is on defense) to the oft-overlooked but multi-faceted "Rocket Queen," Appetite just doesn't quit. In fact, Appetite is so good that even the "commercial" hits like "Paradise City" or "Sweet Child O' Mine" are great songs.

And it's always portentous when an album's initial cover art is denied by the record company. In the case of Appetite, it seems that the band's vision (which apparently features a robot rapist facing impending doom) was a bit too much for Geffen.

But if Geffen was put off by that cover image, it's hard to think that they could have imagined the power lying in the record's grooves. You know all the cliches you hear about "Welcome to the Jungle" depicting the sordid underbelly of urban life? Those cliches are true: that's what the song does with wild, ruthless, concrete jungle poetry. "Nightrain" is even more charming when you know that the tune is a love song for cheap wine; it makes one long to sing "I'm on a Thunderbird!"

"Mr. Brownstone" has always been a personal favorite, with its metal-groove homage to narcotics, and for me "Paradise City" will always conjure memories of driving into Pittsburgh on the Parkway East, coming around the bend before the Oakland exit with the city appearing before you. Paradise city indeed...

"My Michelle" has some of my favorite balls-out G'N'R riffs, but nothing needs to be said about the riffs in "Sweet Child." That's just one of those songs that demands to be played loud at all times. It seems to me that even when G'N'R tried to be sappy on Appetite, they just couldn't help but rock like crazy.

Really, I could go on and on about Appetite, but there's no substitute for just listening to the thing. It's strong, angry, powerful, fearful, insightful, poetic, charming, and most of all, rocking. On occasion I have delved into a "who's better" conversation debating G'N'R versus Led Zeppelin, and while many have scorned even the thought of such a contest, I think that Appetite ranks damn close to anything Zep did. Maybe G'N'R can't quite top Physical Graffiti, but to produce something like Appetite in the midst of the nonsense 1980's speaks to how creative Axl, Slash, Izzy, and the rest really were.

I have a hard time picking a highlight on Appetite, so I'll just go with the longest track. And the next time you're driving into Pittsburgh from the east, just as you're coming around the bend and the city is unfolding in front of you, put this song on and thank God that cities like Pittsburgh and bands like G'N'R, past their prime as they may be, made you who you are today.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Peak: Fever in the funk house, Pt. 1 - Duane Allman Anthology

Or: How I fill up 2 GB

With nothing else to blog about (I mean, it's not like there's a presidential election going on or a power struggle in local government to write about), I've decided that a proper mismanagement of time would be to go through my iPod and elaborate on each album that I currently have loaded. Now, since my iPod is small (2 GB), this won't be all that difficult; right now, I've got enough material for about 30-some posts. I'm going to go in alphabetical order by album title, updating every few days or whenever I take the notion.

First up:

Album title: An Anthology
Artist: Duane Allman
Released: 1972
Track listing:
1. B.B King Medley
2. Hey Jude
3. The Road of Love
4. Goin’ Down Slow
5. The Weight
6. Games People Play
7. Shake for Me
8. Loan Me a Dime
9. Rollin’ Stone
10. Livin’ on the Open Road
11. Down Along the Cove
12. Please Be With Me
13. Mean Old World
14. Layla
15. Statesboro Blues
16. Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’
17. Stand Back
18. Dreams
19. Little Martha review:
Duane Allman's greatness was apparent on his recordings with the Allman Brothers, yet there was another side to the superb guitarist. For many years, he was a highly respected session musician, playing on cuts by Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, King Curtis, Boz Scaggs, Delaney & Bonnie, and Clarence Carter, among others. By including those session cuts, as well as a sampling of his brief sojourn in Eric Clapton's Derek and the Dominoes and a few rare solo tracks, along with a number of representative Allman Brothers songs, the double-album Anthology winds up drawing a complete portrait of Allman. He may have recorded plenty of other material worth hearing, but this has the bare essentials for an excellent introduction and retrospective.

The greatest slide guitarist of all time? Probably, and these 19 tracks give you a pretty good idea of what Duane Allman was capable of in the two years he was a “star.” There’s a handful of Allman Bros. tracks on here, including the always-fun “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’” and “Stand Back,” as well as the sublime “Dreams.” And “Layla” is thrown in for good measure, too, because what would a Duane Allman collection be without “Layla” (or at least one Derek and the Dominoes track)?

But the most interesting stuff on Anthology comes from the session work Allman did while he was on contract at Fame Studios. The Fame contract grew out of his playing with Hour Glass, an early incarnation of the Allman Bros. Band; Hour Glass was not a successful studio act, but the group had recorded at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., giving Allman’s playing some exposure, particularly on the B.B. King medley that opens Anthology.

The contract with Fame resulted in Allman playing with the likes of Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, and King Curtis, and the rewards of those collaborations are all over Anthology. “Hey Jude” is a Pickett concoction, and it pretty much sounds like what you would expect if Wilson Pickett sang “Hey Jude.” The instrumental “Games People Play” is a melodic King Curtis track that has Allman trading lead lines with a saxophonist, while “Shake for Me” is a groovy John Hammond Jr. take on a Willie Dixon tune that features some frenetic drumming.

Still, the highlight of the Anthology set is Aretha Franklin’s inspired rendition of “The Weight.” Already established in the pantheon of great songs, Aretha did to “The Weight” what she did to virtually every song she touched: she turned it to gold. Because no matter how much The Band tried to be soulsters, they could never get to the level of Motown-ness Aretha brought to “The Weight.” As is the case with every great cover, Aretha Franklin made “The Weight” her own.

Overall, Anthology is a worthwhile collection on a number of levels. There are a handful of blues workouts, some soul with integrity, and a nice sampling of Allman Bros. tracks, which are always welcome. Listen to the set, and you come away with a pretty good idea of Duane Allman's legacy, which is well-represented on Anthology.