Monthly Archives: November 2012

Orion: The Man Who Would Be King

The truth, it is often said, is stranger than fiction.  The strange tale of Jimmy “Orion” Ellis is one of the stories that’s so bizarre it can only be real.  Showbiz is a creepy place, filled with unsavory characters that basically earn a living preying on the dreams of vulnerable people.  This story begins with the death of a legend: on August 16, 1977 the King of Rock ‘n Roll, Elvis Aaron Presley died in his Tennessee mansion.

Jimmy Ellis was born ten years after Elvis in 1945, in Mississippi. Ironically, Jimmy’s mother was named Gladys—the same name as Elvis’ mother. Jimmy was blessed (or cursed depending on how you look at it) with a voice that sounded nearly identical to the King of Rock.  While Elvis was alive, Ellis struggled to make it as a singer who just happened to sound exactly like the world’s biggest music star.  One of his early single’s was actually called “I’m Not Trying To Be Like Elvis.”

A record produced named Shelby Singleton bought the legendary Sun Records in 1969 from Sam Phillips.  Sun Records is the recording studio/label where Elvis first hit it big.  In strange move, Singleton signed Jimmy Ellis to his Sun Records. The first thing Singleton did was to release two Elvis covers that Ellis had recorded back in 1972, “That’s Alright Mama” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”  Singleton was no fool, though, he knew that people wouldn’t really be interested in hearing some unknown singer from Mississippi re-record two Elvis songs—no matter how much he sounded like the King—so Singleton had the songs released with a question mark on the cover.  Thus neither Elvis nor Ellis was credited for the songs, though it was just an unsavory marketing gimmick, the releases fueled growing speculation that Elvis was, in fact, not dead. This trick was used again on a Jerry Lee Lewis duets album, in which Ellis sang with Jerry Lee on “Save the Last Dance for Me.”  Again, no credits were attributed to either Elvis or Ellis leaving many to think that the King had somehow magically come back from the dead to sing.

The biggest mystery surrounding Orion? Where he got that snazzy mask.

So far this is pretty incredible story, right?  Can you believe I haven’t even told you the weird part yet?  I often wondered why exactly people love to believe that Elvis is still alive.  I’m sure that a lot of it has to do with the disbelief that such an amazing talent could really, truly be gone.  When our heroes die it reminds us all of our own mortality, and some people can’t really handle that I guess.  But what I find so incredible about the myth/legend surrounding Elvis’ death is that all of these tales spread and grew before the Internet.  Mass media as we know it was still in its infancy, how were these tales of Elvis’ life-after-death spread? Unscrupulous businessmen like Shelby Singleton no doubt helped to stoke the fires of conspiracy enthusiasts/despondent Elvis fans, but can you believe it was a housewife from Georgia that kicked the Elvis-is-Alive phenomenon off?

When the king died in 1977, Gail Brewer-Giorgio wrote a book about a Southern rock singer who decided to escape from the limelight by faking his own death.  The name of the book? ORION.  In the book the singer wears a mask on stage to cover his face, which is what Jimmy Ellis started to do when he performed on stage under the name Orion. Putting on the mask was no doubt so that people in the audience were left guessing whether or not Ellis was Elvis, however the strange part is that Jimmy Ellis never said he was Elvis.  He also wasn’t an Elvis impersonator; the songs he sang were for the most part songs that weren’t Elis songs.  Amazingly, Ellis charted 9 times on the country music charts as Orion. In 1981 Cash Box Magazine (a magazine dedicated to the coin-operated music industry) named Orion one of three most promising country music acts.

By 1983, Ellis was weary of the Orion act and wanted to be taken seriously as an artist.  During a live appearance he angrily took off his mask and refused to put it on again.  Despite being a talented singer and having achieved moderate success in the world of country music, Orion’s career never recovered.  The cat was truly out of the bag: Jimmy Ellis was Orion not Elvis Presley.  Ellis left Sun Records and pretty much faded from the music biz.  On December 12, 1998 Jimmy Ellis was murdered in his Alabama pawnshop during a robbery gone bad.

I cannot believe someone has not made the story of Jimmy Ellis into a film because it has all the makings of a really great movie.  Perhaps there have been attempts to bring Ellis’ story to the big screen but they’ve failed due to the outlandish nature of his story.  I know I was skeptical when I first heard all of this.  Orion’s musical career had the negative side effect of helping to keep Elvis Presley off of US postage stamps.  The rule for celebrities/public figures to appear on United States postage is that they must be dead for at least 10 years—the uncertainty created by Orion and conspiracy theorists kept Elvis’ image from appearing on US postage until 1993.

Orion’s 1979 album REBORN is available on Spotify and I’ve been listening to it trying to figure out if it’s the single greatest or worst thing.  It’s one thing to be inspired by or influenced by a singer or band…but Orion is another thing entirely.  Musically, I guess you could call Orion a tribute act but even that feels wrong.  A lot of people have made millions of dollars off of Elvis and his tragic death; most of them are vultures, parasites of the music industry. I can’t really put Jimmy Ellis into that category though.  True he was complicit in a sort-of-conspiracy that in hindsight seems really tacky, but he was also a victim.  Dreams are a powerful carrot, and people will do strange and terrible things to achieve them.  I can’t fault Ellis for trying to make it as a singer, by any means necessary.

I think the ultimate irony would be if someone out there started performing as Orion.  But that would just be crazy, right?

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Classic Albums Revisited: The Greatest Living Englishman

I’m sure 99.999% have never heard of Martin Newell and The Cleaners From Venus.  They’re not household names.  Newell formed The Cleaners in 1980 and put out a couple of really fantastic, old-school 1960’s-esque British pop albums.  They were all released on cassette and put out via a West German label.  Here in the States, the Cleaners two RCA albums have been re-released on CD a few times, but with little fanfare.  I strongly urge you to seek out GOING TO ENGLAND, it’s a fantastic album.   England, that dreariest of islands, has an incredible ability to churn out super-talented songwriters.  Mr. Martin Newell is such a songwriter.  Though the Cleaners albums were all shoddily recorded,  I’m always amazed at how his songs pop and rise above the limitations of their production.

Ah! Just look at that healthy, British complexion.

It wasn’t very cool to like The Beatles in the 1980s, especially in England.  Punk and New Wave were all about going forward, not looking back.   I suspect that this is part of the reason Newell & The Cleaners From Venus were never able to hit it big.  Steeped heavily in 60’s pop, Newell worships at the alter of Lennon which is  evident the first time you hear his songs.  And just like Lennon, Newell is big on melody, wit, and cynicism.

By 1993 Newell had given up on The Cleaners of Venus and decided to start a solo career.  His solo debut, THE GREATEST LIVING ENGLISHMAN, got a major boost when XTC frontman Andy Partridge agreed to produce the record (and play drums).  Like Newell, Partridge was a Beatle-fan at a time when being Beatle-fan wasn’t in vogue, the two were musical blood-brothers. And while XTC was by no means the world’s most popular band, they’d had enough success worldwide that Partridge’s involvement in THE GREATEST LIVING ENGLISHMAN helped boost interest in the album get heard over here in the U.S.

THE GREATEST LIVING ENGLISHMAN is a fantastic record, dripping with catchy hooks.  The music is very Beatle-esque with a Kinks-like lyrical slant.  This is a very, very British record.  The album opener, the sublime “Goodbye Dreaming Fields,” recalls Ray Davies waxing nostalgic for the village green—although for Newell it’s a dancehall that he mourns.  The snappy “She Rings The Changes” feels like a long lost single from 1969, as one listens to THE GREATEST LIVING ENGLISHMAN the sense of musical déjà vu can become overwhelming.  These songs are so good and seem so catchy you’ll swear you’ve heard them before.

And  though it’s a very upbeat, fun album, I really appreciate the way Newell snarkily attacks aspects of the socio-economic inequality in England.  This is particularly evident on “We’ll Build A House” which addresses poverty and the inability for many young people to have something so basic as a home.  In a similar vein, “A Street Called Prospect” paints an incredibly detailed sound-picture of life on a very shabby English street called Prospect.  The first time I heard this song I laughed because there’s a street called Prospect in the town where I’m from…and it’s a piece of shit too.  “The Jangling Man,” like “We’ll Build A House” describes the gulf between the wealthy older class and the “poor starving children.” It’s a terribly bitter, angry song, and yet Newell’s pop sensibilities manage to keep the track from sounding bitter or angry.

“Before The Hurricane” tackles British country life, specifically the head-in-the-sand attitude of those living in rural British communities.  Bombs and hurricanes can come, but nothing really changes anything for them.   “Home Counties Boy” offers a glimpse into Newell’s country upbringing and disdain for working in the city.  Both songs remind me of the Kink’s in both their quaintness and  in the interesting duality of both their yearning and disdain for rural life.

I’ve always loved British fatalism and Newell has it in spades.  My favorite track on the record, “Tribute To The Greatest Living Englishman” is about falling from the good graces of the public—and how much we like to see a public figure fall.  I like Newell’s song because the song’s narrator (it can’t be about him, he never rose high enough to fall) attitude towards the loss of his champagne wishes is a shrug and “it would have been mad not to try.”  I can certainly see how this sort of music would not be for everyone, but it’s like catnip for a pop-fan like me.  THE GREATEST LIVING ENGLISHMAN is the best Martin Newell record (solo or otherwise) and thankfully, it’s the easiest to come by these days.  I heartily recommend this album if you like cheeky, catchy pop.

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The Genius of Warren Zevon Distilled To 48 Seconds

I think I may have mentioned it a time or two, but I really love Warren Zevon.  I’m always trying to convince people that he’s amazing.  I’m like Johnny-Appleseed, but instead of apples I spread my love of Warren’s music.  And instead of walking across America (committing eco-terrorism) I say things like “Warren Zevon is my all-time favorite songwriter” at parties and I write on this blog about Warren, when I can.

Writing about Warren’s music is tricky without falling victim to clichés like: tortured genius.  Clichés don’t do much in terms of convincing people the songwriter they’ve never heard of is worth their time.  A lot of people write funny songs and a lot of people have heartbreakingly sincere ones.  One of the things that made Warren so special was that often his songs were both.

“He was a genius.”

I’ve been trying to figure out what is the track to play for people when I’m ranting and raving about Zevon.  There are so many really good ones, too many really.  The cheap shot or most obvious choice is “Werewolves of London” which, to be fair, was the first Zevon song I ever heard.  But I figure that most people have probably heard that classic rock staple (even if they didn’t know it was Warren) so I didn’t even consider it.  It’s a good song, but most people consider it, wrongly, as a novelty song.  Then there are his really lovely love songs, some of which are so heartfelt they can reduce you to tears…but without knowing the sarcastic-edge of Zevon I find that these songs don’t have the same impact.

Which brings me to “I Need A Truck.”

“I Need A Truck” was not issued as an album track.  In fact, the song is really just a 48-second demo that was recorded during the sessions for his third album EXCITABLE BOY.  I heard the track when it was finally released as bonus material on the 2007 reissue of the album.  There is no music, just Warren singing.  It’s a funny song about needing a series truck to haul away life’s problems.  Guns, women, bad thoughts, Percodan, and gin—all of these things need their own truck.  The song goes from humorous to philosophical when Warren concludes by singing “And I need a truck to haul all my trucks in.”

It’s a tossed-off scrap, but “I Need A Truck” is a perfect microcosm for all the best Warren Zevon songs.  There is no bullshit to the song, nothing to get in between the new-listener and Zevon**. There is nothing but Warren, his wit, and his demons. You want to know why I love Warren Zevon so much?  Listen to “I Need A Truck.”

 

 

** When you find someone to have and hold, don’t let nothing come between you.

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“So High” by Guided By Voices

Have you ever fallen deeply in love with a song?  I think we all have at some point in our lives.  I’ve been head-over heels in love with “So High” by Guided By Voices for months now.  It’s not on any of their albums, but rather was released as a B-side to the “Doughnut For A Snowman” single.  I found it one day while trolling around on Spotify, as I often do to kill time.

GBV is one of my all-time favorite bands, so it shouldn’t come as too big a surprise that I feel so strongly about one of their songs…but my love for“So High” feels strange because the song is less than one minute long.  If you know anything about lead singer/songwriter Robert Pollard, you know that length is not one of his strengths.  His tunes, which are catchy as hell, are nearly always tragically too short.  In fact, the rather tossed off, unfinished nature of the band’s songs is probably the #1 reason they’re not a household name.

“So High” indeed.

The A-side of the single, “Doughnut For A Snowman,” appears on the band’s first comeback album LET’S GO EAT THE FACTORY, which came out earlier this year (side note: can you believe has put out 3 awesome albums this year?).  That song begins with a gradual fade-in of what is actually the tail end of “So High.”   For whatever reason, “So High” didn’t make it onto the album.  The song seems to be related to “Doughnut For A Snowman,” so why was it left off the record? These are the questions that keep me up at night.

Anyway, maybe it’s my love of cast-off, discarded things, but strange fact that a (very) small part of the song is on the record really piqued my interest.  So I listened to “So High” probably 10 times in a row, and before I realized it: I was in love with it.  The song has a cozy, campfire feel.  I love the cheap, plastic recorder/flute in the song, I think it’s adorable.

The lyrics, while nonsensical are also very charming and full of warmth.  As you’re hearing it, the song seems to be about something, something really philosophical and important.  But it’s not.  Which is pretty funny because that’s kinda what it’s like to actually be so high.

Dashed off in under a minute, Pollard’s “So High” is like a short hug from a long lost friend I never knew I always missed.   The song is like roasting marshmallows on the banks of a glow-in-the-dark lake with your best friend while John Lennon drunkenly plays you an unfinished Beatles song.  It’s chocolate cake on the beach.  It’s probably my favorite song of 2012.  It’s 43-seconds long.

Please take a listen:

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PSYCHEDELIC PILL by Neil Young & Crazy Horse

Short and sweet. There’s something to be said about a masterful economy of length.  Long things, whether they are books, films, or albums tend to intimidate us.  Our lives are all so busy and hectic, there doesn’t seem to be time for anything substantial anymore.  Short can be sweet, but sometimes you have to kick back and ramble.

Psychedelic Pill: like trippy Pony Express.

At 67 years old, Neil Young should be slowing down.  He should be basking in the glory of his recently published memoir, WAGING HEAVY PEACE.  Young should be doing greatest hits concerts for $150 a pop to a sea of balding, gray heads.  But Neil Young wouldn’t be Neil Young if he didn’t have a bit more on his agenda. I can’t believe it, but in 2012 Neil Young has released his finest record.

Note that I didn’t say perfect or most commercial or the record I’d recommend to my friends; but PSYCHEDELIC PILL is without a doubt Neil Young’s finest record to date.  It’s a wild and wooly album, full of long and intricate songs that manages to perfectly instill the very essence of Young.  I don’t think that one double-album can totally encapsulate an artist as varied and masterly as Neil Young, but PSYCHEDELIC PILL does an amazing job showcasing why he still matters.  These are not gentle, old-man-telling-you-a-story-from-his-rocking-chair songs.   Neil Young & Crazy Horse are not in grandpa-mode at all on this album; PSYCHEDELIC PILL is a rocker.

One of the reasons it’s taken me so long to write about this album is because it’s long and intimidating. The album opens with “Drifting Back,” a 27 minute-long song that’s acts as a kind of sonic air lock, decompressing the listener into the album’s atmosphere.   Or perhaps a better metaphor would be that’s a time machine.  I like that better because PSYCHEDELIC PILL sounds like lost 1970’s record, with the lengthy “Drifting Back” serving as a trippy time tunnel to the past.  I can tell you that this album is a classic and will stand the test of time because it sounds neither vintage nor modern.  Listening to PSYCHEDELIC PILL, it’s impossible to really get a feel for when it was recorded, that’s the very epitome of timeless.

Immediately following the long “Drifting Back” we’re treated to the title cut, “Psychedelic Pill” which serves as a short palate cleanser of soaring, fuzzy guitar tones.  It’s a welcomed gulp of pop before Young plunges us back into the lengthy “Ramada Inn.”   That song, which focuses on the later years of an alcoholic, veers off into long tangents of guitar that walks the fine line between sublime and hypnotic. You either have the patience for this sort of stuff of you don’t.  One wonders how autobiographical “Ramada Inn” is (Young is now sober after years of drug and alcohol abuse).

Speaking of autobiographical, “Born in Ontario” and “Twisted Road” are two really great songs in which Young sings about his beginnings both as a young Canadian and as a newly minted songwriter hearing Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone.” Both songs have a breezy, confident feel to them.  “Twisted Road” has my favorite lyric of the album in which Young describes Dylan as Hank Williams “chewing bubble gum.” It’s a great line that never fails to make me smile, no matter how many times I hear it.  “Twisted Road” is a bit odd because it’s strange to think of Neil Young as a Bob Dylan fan.  Young and Dylan are like Gods, the thought of them being fans is a strange concept, though ultimately it’s very endearing.

The best song on the album, in my opinion, is the moody “Walk Like A Giant.”   Even though it clocks in at just over 16 minutes, I’ve listened to it dozens of times, and on each listen I’m blown away at how sonically diverse it is. In the song, Young sings “I want to walk like a giant on the land” as far as I’m concerned with PSYCHEDELIC PILL that’s just what Neil Young is—a giant, peerless and at the top of his game.   It’s one long, strange trip that’s already become one of my all-time favorite songs: how can this be? Maybe I wouldn’t be so over-the-moon floored by this album if I hadn’t long ago written Neil Young off.

Special mention should be made of Young’s famous backing band.  People have criticized Crazy Horse over the years as not being a very “good” band.  And to an extent I can understand that.  They’ve always been a loose, almost garage-band kind of entity that might not work for every occasion, but here the band fits the material like a glove.  I can’t imagine any of these songs without them, each track a beautiful sonic assault.  Crazy Horse may be a blunt instrument, but they’re an instrument nonetheless, and here they’re utilized to great effect.

Lastly, I’d like to encourage anyone reading this to give PSYCHEDELIC PILL a listen but keep a few things in mind.  This album is about as anti-iTunes as one can get.  This isn’t a take a few sips/try it out a little at a time kind of album, you need to commit to sitting down and listening to it.  Yes, some of the songs are really long.  Yes, it’s a bit indulgent in a few places (“Ramada Inn” and “Drifting Back” probably could have been trimmed a smidge).  But overall it’s a fantastic album that every rock fan should check out.  PSYCHEDELIC PILL should be heard in a dark room with headphones. There’s been much discussion of the lost art of album making, and I would argue that people have lost the ability to listen to an album.  This is life changing, earth-shattering rock; have the decency to give it your full attention.

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METAL MONDAY: Australia’s Barbarion Have A Pretty Funny Video

Australian metal heads Barbarion have released a very slick, funny music video for their song “My Rock.”  Never heard of Barbarion [sic]? Well, me neither but someone must really like them, because the slickness of this video screams major label.  It feels like the kind of video you’d see back in the heyday of MTV with it’s oppressed, angry young metal fan.  Watching it, I was reminded of the video for Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” or Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”

“My Rock” the song is inoffensive but mostly fun, I’m interested in hearing what the rest of their music sounds like.

Anyway, if you need smile (or just a good laugh) take five minutes and check out this video:

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Adele Achieve’s Double-O Status with “Skyfall”

I saw the latest James Bond movie, SKYFALL, this weekend and boy is it a doozy. After the disappointing QUANTUM OF SOLACE (stupid Writer’s Strike), the Bond producers wisely pulled out all the stops to make sure that SKYFALL was top-to-bottom brilliant.  Oscar Winning Director Sam Mendes brings his usual confident, steady hand (not to mention cinematographer) to the proceedings and manages to do the impossible: make a 50 year-old movie series seem fresh and relevant.

Mr. Kiss-Kiss Bang Bang.

There are a lot of criticisms one can lob at a Bond movie, but for me the first thing that either pleases or disappoints is the theme song.  The last two films in the long-running film franchise have had less-than-stellar songs…in fact, even though I’m a pretty big Bond fan, I had to go look up what the last two songs were in order to write this post.  CASINO ROYALE, a fantastic reboot of the Bond series was shackled with the boring, unimaginative song “You Know My Name” by Soundgarden/Audioslave-mope Chris Cornell.  Besides being overly-generic, the song had nothing to do with the movie.  I know that these films usually have ridiculous, impossible to use-in-a-song titles…but “You Know My Name” wasn’t able to tie in any way to the film: weak-sauce.

Speaking of ridiculous titles: QUANTUM OF SOLACE.  As a Bond fan, I like to pretend that this film doesn’t even exist.  This isn’t a film blog, so I’ll spare you all my armchair analysis, suffice to say during the middle of the movie I turned to my wife and whispered: “I am so bored right now.  This is boring me.” There is nothing worse that can be said about a film than it’s boring. “Another Way To Die,” the film’s theme song isn’t boring in the least.  In fact, a little boring might have been a good thing for the Alicia Keys/Jack White duet.  The song is pairing of two really great artists who really do not go together well.  The track is overstuffed and Jack’s fuzzy guitar, usually an asset, detracts from the proceedings because a Bond theme song is not supposed to be down and dirty or indie rock it’s supposed to be glamorous and high class.

Ever since Paul McCartney & Wings excellent “Live and Let Die,” the Bond producers have chased that elusive dragon: a theme song that’s both good for the film AND a massive pop hit. As a result, a lot of really cheesy bands have contributed theme songs over the years that now seem a head-scratch worthy.  How could we have grown as a culture had Lulu, Rita Coolidge, and Sheena Easton not been allowed the honor of performing Bond themes (?).  If you are a little fuzzy on who Lulu or Rita Coolidge are, it’s okay: they’re musical footnotes.

Sometimes flash-in-the-pan stars put out decent theme songs, like a-ha’s “The Living Daylights” for Timothy Dalton’s first outing as Bond (THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS).  And let me go on record as saying that Duran Duran’s “A View To A Kill” is 1,000% better than the film A VIEW TO A KILL.  But did we really need a Sheryl Crow or Garbage Bond theme? And do you even remember what songs they did?  I didn’t.

Which brings me to Adele’s song “Skyfall.”  SKYFALL has so many good things that by the time it was over I had (nearly) forgotten how good the theme song was.  “Skyfall” is a great example of how to do a Bond theme song right.   Just grabbing any popular artist of the moment and having them turn in a song isn’t the way to go.  Instead, a real singer was hired.  Adele is an amazing singer.  She’s also a very talented song writer!  Taking a glance back at Bond themes of yesterday, I can’t help but notice that many were written by composer John Berry and not the act performing the song.

Adele’s “Skyfall” works not only because she’s such a good singer-songwriter, but because her style of music fits with the elegant, glamorous world of the Bond films.  She’s a classy artist who’s song will sound just as classy tomorrow, or even ten years, as she sounds today.  Maybe the song is a little old-fashioned, but I guarantee it’ll hold up infinitely better than a song like Gladys Knight’s “License To Kill” or Madonna’s “Die Another Day.”  I’m not sure if “Skyfall” is going to be a smash #1 hit, but it’s a great song that isn’t boring to sit through AND just as important doesn’t embarrass the franchise. Which, let’s face it, has a lot to be embarrassed about (I’m looking at you Roger Moore). 

Oddly enough, all of this makes me think about Amy Winehouse.  Winehouse was the #1 pick of both fans and the film’s producers to do a Bond theme.  She was rumored to have been approached to perform the theme song for QUANTUM OF SOLACE, but it wasn’t to be.  I remember when Adele first broke a few years ago, the first comparison made was to Amy Winehouse.  The two are alike in many ways: both are women whose style is very much rooted in classic pop/jazz standards.  Both wrote really personal, really good songs.  Both were given amazing, powerful voices that don’t,  on the surface seem to really fit their bodies. But whereas Adele is down to Earth and grounded, Winehouse was a complete and utter wreck.

Winehouse and Adele actually remind me a lot of Bond and SKYFALL’s villain Raoul Silva.  Silva is a former MI6 agent gone bad, he’s essentially an evil Mirror Universe version of Bond.  I think that Adele is the white knight version of Amy Winehouse’s dark knight.  I don’t mean to say that Adele is good and Amy Winehouse is bad, just that they’re different sides of the same coin.   Adele is like the Winehouse who didn’t succumb to her fame: or Winehouse is Adele who did.

After the movie I had trouble thinking about anything else besides this strange irony.  Winehouse was never able to do a Bond theme, even though she seemed so well suited for it.  Then SKYFALL comes out and there is Adele, doing a theme song that’s the best one in years.   I feel like there should be a term for when art and life collide so perfectly.

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SUNKEN CONDOS by Donald Fagen

Duos are a funny thing.  A band is like the engine of a car; there are multiple parts working in tandem and all are needed for everything to work.  Solo artist are like trapeze artists, they walk the high-line naked and alone.  If they fall, they fall with all eyes squarely on them. Duos, however, are a bit tricky.  Good duos, the really successful duos, are not made by the merger of two good solo artists but rather the joining of complementary talents. The relationship falls somewhere between husband & wife and mosquito & a pulsing vein.

*Flush*

So what happens when a duo parts ways? Well sometimes it’s good.  And sometimes it’s very messy.  The best example I can think of as far as a messy breakup is Simon and Garfunkel.  When their duo ended it meant great things for Paul Simon…and pretty much the end of Art Garfunkel.  Maybe that’s cruel, but I can name 10 Paul Simon songs, but I can’t name one Art Garfunkel song.

Steely Dan started out as a band and then devolved into the duo of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen.  Of the two, I’ve always liked Fagen better.  Fagen always seemed cooler to me.  When I found out that Donald Fagen had put out a new solo album this month, I was intrigued but not in any rush to hear any of the music.  I’m a pretty big Steely Dan fan, but I’ve yet to really venture into any of Becker & Fagen’s post-GOUCHO output.   I’ve heard nice things about TWO AGINST NATURE but I’ve been hesitant.  Steely Dan has always existed for me as a bit of a relic, a late 1970’s throwback.

But, someone forwarded me mix of Fagen’s solo stuff on Spotify and one track stuck out: “I’m Not The Same Without You.”  The horns.  The velvety groove.  The nasally sneer.  The chic, icy poetry.  Equally biting and mournful, “I’m Not The Same Without You” is everything that the best Steely Dan songs were.  In fact, had I not known it was a Fagen-solo track, I’d have just assumed that the song was from one of the two newer Steely Dan albums.

So I reluctantly dived into SUNKEN CONDOS (pun intended). And I’m here to tell you, that it’s good.  It’s really, really good. If you enjoy the acerbic wit and jazzy sensibilities of Steely Dan, you’re gonna love SUNKEN CONDOS.  Fagen’s album is everything there is to love about Steely Dan, but slowed down just a tad and with a bit more of a jazz-edge.

The album opens with “Slinky Thing,” which is a pretty good description of the album as a whole, actually.  It’s a classic bit of Fagen neuroticism, detailing the unease of dating a much younger woman (the titular “Slinky Thing”).  It reminded me a great deal of “Hey Nineteen.”  And that’s a good thing.

“I’m Not The Same Without You” is definitely the album’s lead-single and as I mentioned before, it’s really good.  As is the last track “Planet D’Rhonda,” about an insane (or insanely fun?) woman that you just can’t leave.  It has all the element of a Steely Dan song, but seems slower and feels a bit stripped-down.  I’m sure Becker could have gone nuts on this, and pretty much all the songs on SUNKEN CONDOS…but he didn’t.  He didn’t because this is the Donald Fagen show, and as such, the songs are a bit mellower.  Some might see that as a bad thing, or a weakness of the SUNKEN CONDOS, but I actually dig the laid-back mood of the album.

My favorite song on the record “The Weather In My Head” which compares the turbulent climate change-infused storms to the self-doubt and depression plaguing the song’s narrator: They may fix the weather in the world, just like Mr. Gore said, but tell me what’s to be done about the weather in my head? I think that’s a great line.  “The Weather In My Head” is a great blues song and it totally knocked my socks off the first time I heard it.  Usually Fagen’s writing is so damn obtuse and distant, that it takes a few listens before things sink in, so I was shocked when I not only understood the song’s meaning on the first listen.  I also found myself wholeheartedly agreeing with the song’s sentiment.

Solid songwriting, impeccable production and musicianship abound on SUNKEN CONDONS.  In fact, the only misstep is on “Out of the Ghetto” which sits in the middle of the album.  It’s (up) tempo feels off  compared to the rest of the album’s slower, unhurried pace. But the biggest problem I have with the song is in the lyrics: the talk of “discos” in 2012, even if Fagen’s being ironic, turned me off.  In fact, the song’s tongue-in-cheek take on race struck me as all wrong.  I think Fagen’s heart is (mostly) in the right place but I could see the song being…shall we say…misinterpreted by lesser minds.  “Out of the Ghetto” is definitely not the track I’d put on for someone new to Steely Dan or Fagen.

Overall I’d recommend SUNKEN CONDOS.  It’s a good album that’s inspired me to seek out more of Fagen’s more recent output, as well as made me interested to hear what Becker does when he’s not kicking it with Fagen.

 

EDIT: It was pointed out to me by a commenter on Facebook (seriously, why aren’t you friends with Defending Axl Rose on Facebook? Go “Like” it right now) that “Out of the Ghetto” was in fact a cover.  And in fact, they were correct the song is an Isaac Hayes covers, which not only explains the strange disco reference, but also adds all sorts of interesting shades of irony to the song.  Fagen is an interesting, complicated, cat.  My knowledge of 1970’s R&B/Soul music is laughably limited, so I would like to thank my friends over at Facebook for pointing this error out to me. 

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Celebrate No Shave November With These 10 Best Rockin’ Beards

Hooray! The temps are getting lower, the leaves are turning colors, and I’m all out of vacation time at work…which means it’s NOVEMBER! As I’m sure you’re all aware, it’s also “No Shave November.”  Now, the MAN would have you believe that having too much hair is a bad thing, but you know better, don’t you? Long hair and beards are the most rock ‘n roll thing there is.  I’m doing my part to let grow, as I do every winter.  Does my boss like my beard? I don’t know because I don’t ask.  A winter-coat is important to survive the harsh Mid-West winters…but it’s even more important if you’re gonna ROCK!

To celebrate No Shave November, I thought I’d count down my Top 10 All-Time Greatest Rock Beards.  Yes, ZZ Top is on this list.

10. Jim Morrison.  I know most of you like to think of Jim as a clean-shaven, sober, upstanding member of society…but not me.

9. Scott Ian.  The Anthrax guitarist is pretty much world-famous for his facial hair.

8. Dave Grohl.  The Foo Fighter’s frontman has the kind of beard you wouldn’t mind taking home to meet your mother.

7. George Harrison.  The quiet Beatle was an understated guitarist and an amazing beard-grower.

6. Jim Ford.  While not a household name, Jim Ford’s song writing inspired Nick Lowe, who covered his song “36 Inches High.” 36 inches was also his beard length (give or take).

5. Willie Nelson.  This man rocks. Plain and simple, as does his beard which is just as famous as Lincoln’s.

4. Paul McCartney.  The cute one got married an rocked an awesome 70’s beard.  It was good times.

3. Jerry Garcia.  I think we’re all grateful  for Jerry’s awesome bushy beard.

2. Frank Zappa.  Controversial, as Zappa is mostly known for his manicured mustache and soul patch, still a beard in my book.

1. Billy Gibbons.  Come on, who else?

For more beard-related fun, why not stop by and visit my friends over at Beards.org. And remember, shaving is for little sissy babies!

 

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The GnR Poster Too Risqué For Las Vegas

The Hard Rock Hotel & Casino has yanked down a city-wide ad for the historic (sorta) Guns ‘N Roses concerts taking place in Las Vegas this month after a bunch of anger/complaints from the citizens of Las Vegas.  The poster, which incorporates artwork from painter Robert Williams* bizarre sci-fi painting titled “Appetite for Destruction,” has a lecherous robot in a compromising position with a defenseless, splayed woman.  Oh, and her shirt is ripped open and her panties are around her ankles.  You know, typical Disney stuff.

This is not the first time that the band’s use of this painting has caused controversy.  Back in 1987, retailers refused to stock GNR’s debut album APPETITE FOR DESTRUCTION because Axl & Company wanted to use it as the cover art.  In the end, the band fell to label pressure and alternate artwork was used.  The painting is more batshit-stupid than rocking.  At least, that’s my opinion.  I don’t understand GNR’s continued insistence on using it to represent themselves, to be honest.

I’m astounded that the bean counters over at the Hard Rock actually agreed to run the ads.  What better way to convince people that your brand is fun for the whole family than a leering, rape-y robot?  To be clear, I hate this painting and I wish GNR/Axl would get over their massive hard-on for it...however Las Vegas is known the world-over as “Sin City.”  We’re not talking about Orlando, Florida or Branson, Missouri.  We’re talking about the smutty-ist, gambling capital of the country. A place where shady looking dudes hand out flyers of chicks you can legally pay to know (like in the Biblical sense).

I can’t imagine the ad was the most misogynistic thing the fanny-pack wearing masses of Las Vegas are being subjected to in a city where selling women is mostly legal.  I was recently in Times Square and that place was stuffed to the gills with super-porny clothing ads.  I know it’s not the same because none of the Gap ads were violent, but as we all know sex sells and this shit is everywhere these days.  Again, I’m not saying I think this ad should be plastered at the airport, welcoming families to Las Vegas (which it was), but I think Las Vegas needs to check itself.  I mean, this is Las Vegas we’re talking about.  And this poster is a drawing.  It doesn’t depict actual human beings, unlike the prostitute ads.

In the end, I can’t help but think that this is just a publicity stunt.  This controversy was not only foreseen  but wanted, I suppose to generate interest in the concerts and get us all talking–in which case: mission accomplished. Las Vegas should take a long look in the mirror and GNR should put “Appetite for Destruction” (the painting) to rest.

Lovely.

*Not that Robert Williams

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