Classic Cinema Capsules: “Sunset Boulevard” (1950)

A has-been ensnares a never-been in the sunset of her career. And while the doors have no locks, Joe Gillis finds himself very much trapped in her orbit. The first twist is that Norma Desmond is actually using Joe, not the other way around. The second twist is in Max’s reveal, which shows that stars may fade over time, but they never lose their gravitational pull. Billy Wilder successful creates an atmosphere of dread while Gloria Swanson proves herself worthy of a close-up in a necessarily over-the-top performance. A tremendous film.

 

Classic Cinema Capsules: “The Magnificent Ambersons” (1942)

Modernity is the worst, and so is spoiled little George Amberson Minafer. Orson Welles pulls off the impossible twice: first, he follows up “Citizen Kane” with no signs of a sophomore slump. Secondly, he makes us wish for Georgie’s comeuppance and then makes us feel terrible about it when it finally comes. A tragedy rooted in manners and possessive love, it’s depressing as hell yet incredibly watchable. Agnes Moorehead’s Fanny is deliciously over-the-top. Truly a classic, regardless of whatever studio shenanigans occurred.

 

The End of The Black Crowes/”Band” Review

On January 15, 2015 Rich Robinson announced that The Black Crowes were officially breaking up. There would be no more talk of indefinite hiatuses or potential reformations. After 24 years the needle was finally hitting the run-out groove.

It’s hard to capture all of the thoughts and emotions that surround the loss of one’s favorite band. I could talk about all of the personal moments: the first time I heard “Jealous Again” on the radio. The first time I saw them at a club in 1990. The time my Dad worked with some guy named Stan Robinson and asked if I ever heard of his kids’ band. All of the amazing shows over the years – from the ZZ Top tour to the festivals, from Jimmy Page to Warpaint live and beyond. Of course I could talk about getting to know drummer Steve Gorman (a true mensch), doing a podcast with him, interviewing him about the band, and getting to hang with the guys a little bit here and there.

Or I could talk about the emotional impact of the band that took me through my twenties and thirties. The only band that was truly MY band. For many of us raised on a steady diet of the Stones and the Beatles, the Byrds and Led Zeppelin – the Crowes were the last classic rock band. For some people they were throwbacks. To me they were a time machine – a current band that I could embrace and grow up with, as if I lived in the golden age of rock and roll. From college to marriage, from kids to adulthood, the Crowes have always been there, living at the center of moments and friendships, providing mystical sounds and positive vibrations.

And then there’s the musical story. The Crowes, through their originals, covers and associations, have become the torchbearers for traditional rock music. They broke through in a forgotten time – the small window between hair metal and grunge – providing a hit of authentic blues-rock in a time of rank artificiality. They wrote songs that were popular and classics that weren’t. They experimented and changed too many times to count. And they always knew how to bring it on stage. From the very beginning to the very end they had IT.

As fans we tend to put too much on our favorites bands. They’re just regular people, with normal struggles and relationship challenges. The nature of fandom, and life, is impermanence. All things must pass. All we can hope is that they understand on some level just how much their work means to us. How important those experiences were. How deep the associations between their music and our lives still are.

Perhaps the most fitting eulogy for The Black Crowes lies in the unpublished conclusion to The Black Crowes Album Project that Don Lane and I started back in 2009. After writing reviews for every Black Crowes album we found ourselves unable to publish our reviews of the great, lost album “Band”. Separately we both realized that the album – both it’s essence and it’s death – revealed everything about the band and their ultimate destiny. And while it was too painful to post back when the band was still playing, now it feels like the right time.

“If music got to free your mind
Just let it go cause you never know, you never know
If your rhythm ever falls out of time
You can bring it to me and I will make it alright
And if your soul is let go
Oh you never know, no you never know
And if your heart is beating free
For the very first time it’ll be alright

 The Black Crowes Album Project: The Lost Crowes/Band (1997/2005)

 Mitch’s Review:

Everything you need to know about The Black Crowes is contained in their lost album, “Band”. It is the Rosetta Stone of the science of Croweology. By studying this album all of the secrets of the Crowes, past and future, artistic and commercial, are revealed. Best of all, it’s a damn fine record. In fact, it might be their best.

First, let’s set the record straight: while many people believe that “Band” was recorded after the Furthur tour in the summer of 1997, the principle recording actually took place in April before the tour. Regardless, it was a tumultuous time in Crowes history – by the end of the summer they recorded an album, had it rejected by the record company, pissed off a bunch of still-grieving Deadheads by playing too loud too late, and lost both guitarist Marc Ford and bassist Johnny Colt, effectively ending the Black Crowes.

Yes, they would rise again several times in the subsequent decades, but they’d never be the same. The golden era of the best rock and roll band in the world came to an abrupt end and the seeds of their future were sown. Those very same seeds are still being harvested 17 years later.

Rock and roll bands are inherently combustible organizations. What makes them great is ultimately what breaks them apart. A rock band thrives on tension, the painful compromise of a group of artists subsuming their personal desires for a collective voice. When there is balance there can be perfection. When one voice starts to dominate the fissures manifest and grow.

“Band” is perfectly named because it represents a band in balance artistically, regardless of how difficult relationships were behind the scenes. Over the course of the album all sides of the Crowes personality are represented. In it we hear the blues roots, the southern swagger, the epic drama and the hippie Americana from the four preceding albums. There is a balance between light and dark, between riffs and melody, and between songs and jams.

Musically, “Band” is powerful. This comes directly from the bottom, with drummer Steve Gorman perfectly channeling his two primary influences: the swing of Ringo and the thunder of Bonzo. Bassist Johnny Colt turns his best and most diverse performance, sometimes in lock-step with Gorman and other times dropping snaky lines that elevate the songs. Chris is in perfect voice, a mixture of control and power, with the ability to modulate his instrument as the song dictates. Eddie Harsch layers on both organ and piano, creating a rich sonic landscape through his aural textures. Most interesting, however, are the two guitarists, Rich Robinson and Marc Ford, who are virtually inseparable, weaving lines together and playing in unison.

Within the Crowes there are two foundational partnerships: the obvious duo of the two brothers, counterbalancing riffs and melody, songs and jams, hard and soft. But there is also another pair, the guitarists. Let it be said that the competition and cooperation between Rich and Marc is a game-changer. Neither has ever been as good without the other. On “Band” they are playing with one voice and it’s almost impossible to separate them and figure out who’s doing what.

Lyrically, Chris is in a very strong place. The songs are sincere and poetic, but more accessible than tunes from a few years earlier. It’s astounding to compare the lyrics on “Band” with the lyrics on “By Your Side”. The drop-off is clear and it’s obvious that Chris put his energy into his solo work after this period. Which lyric sounds more authentic: “If it ever stops raining/we can dry our eyes” or “when it’s giving and no taking/I will be by your side”?

Songwise, “Predictable” is the only weak spot, and even that is well executed filler. There are musical moments throughout the LP that are just magical. The breakdown in “Paint an Eight” that recalls the energy of “No Speak No Slave”. The bridge in “Another Roadside Tragedy” that feels like an oasis on a long journey. The guitar hooks and thumping bass line of “If It Ever Stops Raining”. The yearning slide on “Wyoming and Me”. The screams and dirty guitars on “Never Forget this Song”. The appealingly off-key background vocals on “Lifevest”. The infectious funkiness of “Grinnin”. The broken beauty of “My Heart’s Killing Me”. This is a record packed with strong songs.

Commercially, it appears that 1997/1998 was a watershed moment for the band. While the Crowes came out of the starting gate with a huge selling album, the challenge became that record companies don’t accept a decline in sales, regardless of how artistically compelling subsequent releases might be. The Band seems to have been the point where the suits exerted control and shelved a sincere artistic statement in favor of a demanding a facsimile of Shake Your Money Maker. In fairness to the record company a lot of casual fans really love By Your Side. Unsurprisingly the diehards did not fully embrace the new Crowes and the split between the two fanbases became irreparable.

From this point on the Crowes vacillated between trying to appeal to casual fans versus trying to satisfy the diehards. Unfortunately it’s a no-win proposition. Casual fans are fickle and it’s hard for any band to stay popular for multiple decades. Diehard fans demand purity and set expectations that limit creative growth.

When the golden-era Crowes finally reunited in 2005 it was under the moniker of “All Join Hands”, lifted from the Band’s “Wyoming & Me”. And while it appears to be a simple statement, to me it suggested something much more profound. It was an acknowledgement that the band (the Black Crowes) was killed when the Band (the album) was killed. Losing that album cost more than 10 great songs. It cost everything.

And so a great album will always be tinged with sadness. To listen to these songs is to hear the death of the greatest rock and roll band of the 1990s.

Magic and loss.

###

Don’s Review:

“Glory Beyond Their Reach”

By the time 1997 rolled around, the Black Crowes were in their 8th year. They’d grown from unabashed party crashers (Shake Your Money Maker) to swaggering chart toppers (The Southern Harmony & Musical Companion). Unsatisfied, they kept climbing, delivering the magestic amorica while barely holding it together. That record’s follow up, Three Snakes & One Charm, was a psychedelic hangover, frayed yet fierce and beautiful.

Along the way, they overcame sneering critics, even endearing themselves to the skeptical founding fathers of rock and roll. By 1997, they’d shared the stage with members of the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Grateful Dead, among others. They’d survived notorious infighting, and the wear and tear of constant touring.

Record company demands dictated another album. And so they went to work, endearingly naive and fearless as always. They had earned the right to survey their view and reflect on their lives. The record they made — Band — reveals men restless and still unsatisfied despite – and maybe because of – all they’d achieved.

A fresh listen, nearly 18 years after its recording, and with the context of all that’s transpired since, is eye opening. They were turning 30 at the time of it’s recording, still so young, yet wiser for their time together, still chasing something that may not have been all it was cracked up to be.

Side A’s highlight is Another Roadside Tragedy, featuring drummer Steve Gorman’s unmistakable shuffle and keyboardist Eddie Hawrsch’s organ. It’s the entire band in their pocket, a classic, care free road song with a glorious instrumental interlude. Guitarists Rich Robinson and Marc Ford are one and the same, so in touch that it’s hard to tell them apart — a striking hallmark of the entire album.

Every song seems to come easy, including “If It Ever Stops Raining,” which would have fit on virtually every record they ever made. What sets it apart and makes it so perfect at this time in their career are front man Chris Robinson’s lyrics:

People looking for fortune and fame
They don’t know it’s all the same
It’s like every other game
You know there’s got to be a loser, alright.
If it ever stops raining, we can dry our eyes.

To fans, it seemed The Black Crowes had achieved everything they set out to do, yet it wasn’t enough. The band wasn’t happy.

But Side B reveals a sense of acceptance and hope, best captured on two songs with twin, vintage Rich descending riffs.

From “Lifevest”:

Ship wrecked, life vest, you swim to shore or you sink away
Mistakes, bad tase, just spit it out and it goes away
How can I make something so wrong, something so right

And the triumphant “Peace Anyway,” which closes the album:

Giving up don’t make it right
You’ll find peace, anyway

Speaking for all those who love(d) The Black Crowes, as of this writing, January 16, 2015, the day after the band, ironically, broke up, let’s hope Chris remembers those words.

What a Band.

###

Album Review: Trigger Hippy, “Trigger Hippy” (2014)

(In the manner of The Black Crowes Album Project we’ll be featuring two reviews of the new Trigger Hippy album today. The first is by me and the second by our old friend Don Lane.)

Mitch’s review:

One of my favorite topics, when discussing music with other music obsessives, is the role of the album in modern music. Growing up in the 70s & 80s the album was the standard. Bands put out a new record every year or two. It was your only connection with them, unless you were lucky enough to catch a live show. Some albums were overt concept albums, but most were just a snapshot of a moment in time. The album was an artistic statement – the best 10 songs the artist had to offer at that moment. We’d pore over everything: the songs, the cover art, the liner notes, the labels and the inserts, all in an attempt to experience everything we could about the artist. It was all we had.

In the CD era “albums” became bloated, with most clocking in at 70 minutes and filler becoming all too common. Every album was a double. Do you realize that the Rolling Stones’ “A Bigger Bang” is the same length as “Exile on Main Street”? Guess what? I listened to “Exile on Main Street”. I loved “Exile on Main Street”.  “A Bigger Bang” is no “Exile on Main Street”.

So when digital downloads displaced CDs the culture moved from albums to singles, content to buy the song they wanted unbundled from the filler. Or more accurately, the culture returned to buying singles, which is where it all started, with 45s.

And so the album, the perfectly designed and curated expression of an artist, became a relic. But perhaps what made the album so wonderful wasn’t the vinyl itself (prone to scratches and warping) but the length? Perhaps 2x 20 minute sides is the exact right length for a musical journey? Perhaps there was some magic in the creativity required to pick and sequence the exact songs for your release?

*

The reason I ponder the role of the album in a singles era is because our old friends in Trigger Hippy have just released a full-length debut as a follow-up to their 2013 debut EP. Both are eponymously titled, so I guess we’ll have to go by the old Peter Gabriel rules and call the first one “rainy windshield” and this one “melty face” (or was “scratchy screen” #2? I forget.)

When I first heard that Trigger Hippy was going to release a full-length I thought it was unnecessary. Why not just release EPs on a quarterly basis, promote singles via streaming and radio, and tour, tour, tour?

But after listening to the album, really listening to the album 50+ times, I realized that my thinking was backwards. I was approaching it from a business standpoint, worrying about trends in sales and consumption. I wasn’t thinking about it from a creative perspective, from an artistic perspective. I saw it as a “release” instead of a “statement”. I fell into the dangerous trap of thinking of music as a commodity to be bought and sold, rather than the expression of 5 individuals’ souls.

The reason that Trigger Hippy made this album, and the reason you need to hear this album, is because it’s a wonderfully complete artistic statement. These 11 songs build upon the 4 we heard last year (all 4 songs from the EP are included on the LP). They add extra dimension and texture to our understanding of what this band is all about. They allow the band to paint a full picture of who they are, both as individuals and as a band, and I’m really grateful for that. There’s no filler here and there’s no song that I would cut from the album.

**

There’s nothing I like more than being proven wrong, and I’m glad to be proven wrong about the vitality of full-length albums in the digital era. There’s clearly a need for albums that are made for the right artistic reasons. There’s always room for art, even if there isn’t always room for product.

The other beautiful thing about a well-crafted album is that there’s an oft-forgotten space between singles and filler. There are always those wonderful songs, those B-sides that may not appeal to everyone, but will most likely be someone’s favorite song. As Trigger Hippy sings in ‘Heartache on the Line’: “it ain’t every thing we asked for but it’s everything we need.” In other words, sometimes we don’t always know what we need, sometimes it’s better to have a little faith and take what is given and be open to the unexpected. And maybe what we’ve lost in the modern singles era is an appreciation for the great songs that will never be singles.

I’ve written before about Trigger Hippy so I don’t need to spend much space talking about their virtuosity as musicians. Individually they’re all amazing players. Steve Gorman is the kind of drummer you want to build a band around, playing exactly what the song requires. Nick Govrik is a killer bass player, propelling the songs, plus he sings damn well (which has to be intimidating in this band). Tom Bukovac is my kind of guitar player, who know how to attack without overplaying. Joan Osborne has a seductive voice of strength and beauty. Jackie Greene is a prodigy on guitar, keys and harp, plus he’s got a great, soulful voice.

But what matters most is how they play together and how they balance their individual strengths. They’re clearly a band that respects and loves each other. They’re having a musical conversation that we’re lucky enough to be privy to.

The album consists entirely of originals and the songs are universally solid musically and lyrically. And while we’ve known for years that Jackie Greene can write a great tune, the real revelation on this album is Nick Govrik. When listening to the Nick songs I think of none other than Gene Clark. Like Gene, Nick writes songs that are deceptively simple but contain layers and multitudes. Some writers possess an innate skill to comment on the human condition, to turn phrases that ring true, that demonstrate a depth and wisdom that belie their accessibility.

Thematically, the song cycle speaks of love and loss, but from a mature perspective. These are songs written from the perspective of experience, of relationships of substance and time spent together. While there’s still plenty of passion there’s also a sense of satisfaction in understanding the importance of fidelity and living life together, of raising a family and weathering the challenges of life. This is rock and roll, but it’s not teenage lust or young adult angst. This is rock and rock with depth.

***

“Rise Up Singing” is a perfect opening number for the album. It’s like they dropped the soul gauntlet, announcing what you’ll hear – sweet organ, nice guitar (that little strum throughout is just perfect), supportive rhythm, and two intertwined voices. It’s the kind of song that feels fresh and timeless and is a beautiful invitation to the record.

“Turpentine” funks it up, with those twin guitars and that delicious Byrds-y chime in the chorus. (Please note that everyone loves chiming Byrds-y guitars. REM made a career copping that sound).

“Heartache on the Line” is a phenomenal mid-tempo ballad. I’ve loved this song from the first time I heard it and still can’t get enough of it. It’s tasteful, it’s subdued and it’s gorgeous. The lyrics are wonderful. And the fade out is aces.

“Cave Hill Cemetery” is a country blues tune with a gritty, dirty, fantastic lead vocal by Joan. The organ and guitar are sweet throughout but this song is all about Joan.

“Tennessee Mud” is a nice rocker but what really makes it is one little touch – Jackie’s little bridge at 1:50 – that just takes the song to the next level. Trigger Hippy is full of those little touches and moments that really help a tune reach lift-off and Jackie really brings it this time.

“Pretty Mess” is exhibit A in why I compare Nick Govrik to Gene Clark. How can something so simple be so beguiling? How can something so sweet be so affecting? Jackie and Joan both deliver perfect lead vocals. This is a truly special song.

“Pocahantas” is another rocker, this one with a funky “Trampled Underfoot” vibe. It’s a fun tune, featuring another strong Joan vocal, and some nice solos.

“Dry County” is the tour de force. It’s got the build up & release structure of a “classic” grunge tune but with a pure Americana vibe. The band shows incredible restraint on this tune, taking it slow and resisting the urge to explode until the right time. And when Jackie’s harp finally comes in at 4:30, he drops a perfect riff and the pay-off is intense. This is the most epic tune on the album.

“Nothing New” features…cowbell…and a robust workout for the guitars. It’s a rocker with twin lead vocals by Jackie & Joan. It’s amazing how well their voices mesh together, whether alternating leads, doubling leads or singing harmony.

“Ain’t Persuaded Yet” is another countrified blues, with a spooky vibe and a nice tale told by Joan. Nick lays down some really sweet basslines throughout, and this song has a nice sense of atmosphere. Tom’s guitar solo is a great example of how to use a solo to say something rather than just blasting out notes.

“Adelaide” is the perfect closing number for the album because it makes you want to start the whole thing again. Another Nick tune, he delivers an emotional vocal backed by Joan and some real nice banjo picking. This is another powerful ballad that burrows inside your skull, connecting with you, demanding your attention.

****

“Trigger Hippy” is a perfect example of what a great album can do. It can take you on a journey, alternating affecting ballads with energizing rockers and soulful blues. It can show you all of the dimensions of a band, highlighting the various talents of some of the best players and singers in the world. It can reveal heretofore-unknown talents, like Nick Govrik’s absolutely stellar songwriting. It can give you songs that will stay with you forever – songs that will attach themselves to future memories and become an indelible part of your life. Most surprisingly, it can restore your faith in the “music” part of the music business.

I love these players and I love this album. Listen to it for yourself and if you like it, buy it. The future of the music business is in our hands. It’s up to us to support the art that we want.

“Trigger Hippy” is definitely art that I want.

Final Grade: A

###

Don’s Review:

Trigger Hippy,” the self-titled debut from the modern day supergroup founded by Black Crowes drummer Steve Gorman, is the feel good album of the year.

Over the past three years, Gorman has recruited an all-star cast including fellow Crowe Jackie Greene, smoky-voiced Joan Osborne, Nashville guitar hero Tom Bukovac and bassist Nick Govrik. These are serious musicians who are clearly having fun with a strong set of road-tested, well-crafted songs finally properly released.

The uplifting “Rise Up Singing” gets things off to a great start. Gorman swings and the band gets out of the way of Greene and Osborne, whose harmonies go down easy. It’s a throwback sing-a-long that surely would have been a massive radio hit back when people, you know, listened to the radio.

“Turpentine” follows with the band in full throat. It’s the album’s best rocker, featuring Bukovak and Greene’s twin lead guitars supported by a driving, powerful rhythm section.

“Heartache On The Line” continues the strong start, one of several stunning ballads that surprisingly represent the heart of the record.

“Tennessee Mud” offers a hint of the band’s live prowess, stretching out to include a 70s vocal break you have to hear to fully appreciate. Every band member gets a chance to shine by the end of the tune. You just don’t want it to end.

Minor missteps like the white-funk of “Cave Hill Cemetery” and cheesy lyrics to “Dry County” seem – to this listener – to be beneath a band of this ability, but are redeemed by stellar musicianship and unapologetic performances.

Side B isn’t as consistently great as the first half, but it’s bookended by the stunning ballads “Pretty Mess” and “Adelaide.” Govrik takes lead vocals on the closer. It’s so good I had to double-check it wasn’t a Band cover.

In fact, Govrik just might be Trigger Hippy’s secret weapon. His songwriting is a revelation. But he is often mentioned as an afterthought in the quintet’s press clippings. This isn’t surprising, considering Gorman’s legendary career, Bukovak’s guitar brilliance, Osborne’s stature as one of the era’s great female rock vocalists and the irrepressible Jackie Greene, who should be a superstar given his frontmanship and multi-instrumental chops.

Trigger Hippy sounds like a group that has been around forever. Hopefully they will be.

Final Grade: A-minus

###

A Modern Guide to Elevator Etiquette

Lately I’ve been noticing that people seem to be struggling with basic elevator etiquette. Now I understand that in today’s post-recession world with folks working long hours that parents might not have the time to spend teaching their kids basic elevator etiquette, but it’s an important skill that I want to preserve, so once again, I’ll take it upon myself to help the youth of America.

#1: Don’t push a pushed button

I know that you’re important. I appreciate that you have places to be. But if you get to the elevator lobby and I’m waiting for the elevator you really don’t need to push the button again. Sadly, artificial elevator intelligence hasn’t progressed to the point where the elevator responds to multiple pushes. When you insist on pushing a pushed button you are basically telling me that I am an idiot that doesn’t know how to push a button. And that hurts my feelings.

#2: Wait for the next car

Once the doors have closed more than 50% you have to wait for the next car. Sticking you arm in to stop the doors from closing is a dangerous and rude game. Look, I waited for the elevator. I held the door open for the hot chick that was walking across the parking lot. I pushed all the required buttons. Don’t fuck me and my elevator buddies over by abruptly halting the process and forcing the doors open so you can stuff your fat ass in the car. Do you know why the elevator makes a loud and annoying alarm sound after you force the doors open? Because the elevator is sad and mad at you.

#3: No cock blocking the buttons

An elevator should be filled like a dishwasher: sides first, then the back, and finally, reluctantly, the front. The absolute last place anyone should stand is in front of the control panel. The control panel is communal space. We all deserve equal access. What if I want to pick up the emergency phone? Why should I have to fight with your crotch to pick my floor? It’s not 1953. You’re not an elevator operator. I don’t need your help pushing my button. But I do need your help not putting your dick in front of the panel.

#4: Never talk to strangers

Listen. We’re sharing an elevator for 45 seconds, we’re not hostages in a bank robbery conspiring to make a move on the smallest guy. Talk to your friends. Play with your phone. Discreetly smell the hair of the hot chick you held the door for. But don’t talk to me. I don’t want to make new elevator friends.

(The only exception to this rule is if I want to make a witty elevator-themed joke. Like for instance saying that my day is having it’s ups and downs. I can do that. I am an adorable and hilarious fellow. You probably are not.)

#5: Make the one floor apology

Elevators are for people traveling two or more floors. Stairs are for people traveling one floor. If you get on and push the button for the next floor, you are morally obligated to apologize to the rest of the elevator community. Valid excuses include: “I am pregnant”, “the stairs are locked”, “my gall bladder hurts”, “scary teenagers are smoking on the stairs”, etc. Please note that if you do not apologize I am well within my rights to audibly sigh in frustration at you.

#6: Readjust as people leave

This is a big one. As the troll-like people that inhabit the lower floors leave the elevator you need to readjust your position to maximize personal space. There’s nothing worse than starting in a full elevator and having the trip end with just you and the creepy IT guy standing shoulder to shoulder in an empty car. This is not a “meet cute” story in a romantic comedy. Your elevator position is not fixed. Unless you are going to make a move on me, you best move away from me.

Thus ends our helpful guide to modern elevator etiquette. I hope that this essay inspires you to spread the gospel and train others how to ride in an elevator without annoying me. Thank you.

###

Album Review: Ryan Adams, “Ryan Adams” (9/9/14)

I have a friend. He has a theory. His theory is that Ryan Adams is the ultimate cipher. He thinks that Ryan is great at creating new music that sounds exactly like his influence du jour. As a result he likes Ryan, but he doesn’t consider him to be an important artist.

I have a problem with this theory. First, I’m not sure if it’s true. Secondly, I’m not sure it matters even if it is true. This theory is predicated on the idea that originality is the most important quality in determining whether an artist is important.

I think originality is great, especially when considering someone’s legacy. But to me, the most important quality in a songwriter is how many great songs they write. The most important quality in a performer is how affecting their performances are. That’s enough for me.

And while his performances may have been (used to be) erratic, over the last 20 years Ryan Adams has written more great songs than anyone on the planet.

Yes, I really believe that.

A great song burrows into your mind and into your soul, demanding to be heard over and over again until it leaves an indelible impression on your consciousness. You can’t get enough of a great song. A great song makes you jealous that you can’t write like that and grateful that someone can.

So the question for us in 2014, after an astounding number of records, both released and shelved, solo and with various bands, is: does Ryan Adams have any more great songs left in him?

Sometimes it takes a year or so for great songs to fully reveal themselves, but after a half dozen or so spins I’d say that “Ryan Adams” contains two great additions to the canon: “My Wrecking Ball” is a nice sad bastard folk tune and “Shadows” is an atmospheric jam. The rest of the tunes are consistently good but not necessarily memorable.

Ryan is in great voice throughout and his guitar has a clear, medium-thickness sound that is quite enjoyable.

Stylistically, the new album hews pretty close to the mature sound of “Ashes & Fire” and late-period Cardinals with an occasional dose of “Rock & Roll”. For reference, this is my third-favorite Ryan sound:

1) Sad bastard country
2) Jammy americana
3) Adult rock
4) Alternative rock
5) Metal
6) Punk

Bottom line: “Ryan Adams” is a consistently good, but infrequently great, adult rock album that will largely appeal to Ryan’s mature audience.

###

It’s Time To Start A “Binge Listening” Movement

Much has been made over the last few year about the phenomenon of “binge watching” television shows through online streaming services. Personally, I never would have appreciated the brilliance of “The Shield” or “Damages” without my daily commute and easy access to the source material. Binge watching has been widely embraced throughout our culture, and aside from lack of sleep or temporary obsessions with Omar Little, there’s really no downside to binge watching.

It also appears that binge watching may have a positive effect on the viewership of current programs. “Breaking Bad” grew exponentially over the years precisely because people could catch-up between seasons after hearing the positive buzz.

Why can’t we do the same thing with music?

One of the challenges of the current music scene is that we’ve become a society of shallow listeners who consume singles instead of albums; music is everywhere so we take it for granted. Sales and charts don’t matter anymore, so only a few songs breakthrough the clutter and enter the collective consciousness. Record companies don’t support acts so they have no time to develop as artists. All in all, the cultural relevancy and importance of music has greatly receded in the digital age.

As an obsessive music fan it saddens me to see that music – outside of niche fan communities – doesn’t really seem to matter anymore. It’s a commodity, a disposable product to be consumed and forgotten.

But I think the answer is right on our beloved screens.

Even since signing up for the premium Spotify service I’ve found myself delving deep in the catalog of certain artists. Now, this started because I’m a little OCD and I like to do things in the proper order. But it turns out that binge listening has been eye (ear) opening experience.

Sure, I own all of the early Genesis LPs, but my collection is spread across CDs, cassettes and vinyl. What a revelation it is to listen through their whole discography, in order, and to hear the development of the band (well, “Lamb Lies Down on Broadway” is missing for some reason.) To really listen to what Steve Hackett added or to appreciate how Phil Collins stepped up, or to realize how much more logical and gradual their transition from prog-rock to pop-rock was in the grand scheme of things.

Same thing happened to me with the mid-period Pink Floyd albums. As a kid I kind of started with “Meddle” and went from there. I never bothered with the post-Syd, pre-classic era for some reason. But there’s some great stuff there!

Obviously this idea could work with more than progressive rock. In fact, I think the idea applies to every genre, for both classic and current artists. Think of how fun it would be to listen to Taylor Swift evolve from an acoustic country singer-songwriter to a full-on pop star.

Music lovers, let’s make this happen. Let’s make “binge listening” a real thing in our culture. Let’s write articles that critique an artist’s entire career. Let’s pick an artist and binge-listen to their whole discography together over the course of a week and vote for our favorite albums and get into fights on message boards. Let’s make podcasts that discuss the entire scope of someone’s artistry.

Look, crazier fads have taken place in society. Let’s make a concerted effort to get people to think differently about music. Let’s inspire them to engage deeper. Let’s get artists a few more pennies through the streaming services. And maybe, just maybe, we can restore music’s importance in our lives.

Are you with me?

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Day 4: The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get

Taking a two-hour train ride anywhere in the United States has a minimal impact on one’s existence. Perhaps you’ll cross from Red Sox country into the Yankee’s Evil Empire. Maybe a sub will be called a grinder. But by and large things are pretty much the same. The people, language and culture in America changes so gradually that you’ve really got to travel a long distance to feel like an alien.

A two hour ride on the Eurostar, however, transports you to another world entirely. Disembarking at Gard du Nord is like traveling back in time, from the thoroughly modernized City of London to the wonderfully stubborn ancien regime of Paris.

One’s first impression of Paris is of the amazing consistency of the Parisian streets: five-floor buildings wrapped in wrought iron, cafés on every corner and spectacular classical buildings rising up the skyline and down every street. It’s truly a breathtaking sight, and even the slightly grungy neighborhood around the train station can’t take away from how Paris is truly different, beautiful and amazing.

This old thing? I don't even remember what it was. (Really!)

This old thing? I don’t even remember what it was. (Really!)

(Actually, one’s first impression of Paris is of the filthy pay toilet in the subterranean basement of the dingy train station. They really set the bar low when you first arrive.)

Spoiler warning: I loved Paris. No disrespect to London, which is a fun, world-class city that I’d happily visit at any time. But Paris is on another level entirely. Paris is so magical that it’s almost unreal. I can’t wait to go back to Paris.

Fighting through traffic our taxi took us to our hotel in the Sixth district. We stayed at the Hotel Le Six which was great in every way. The staff was super-friendly and accommodating, the room was comfortable, the A/C was necessary given the heat wave, and the location was convenient – right off Montparnasse and a short walk to St. Germain, which kind of became our home base for our visit.

Well, it wasn’t a short walk when we first left the hotel and tried to find the Eiffel Tower. A bad map, a foreign language and absolutely no knowledge of the city found us walking in a circle for the first 40 minutes or so, doing that thing where you’re like “did we pass that cafe already?” But finally we found Invalides and stopped for our first taste of the cafe life, getting some wine, cheese and smoked salmon to reward our efforts.

Our first cafe

Our first cafe

Side note: yes, me, noted drink of shitty American beers drank wine while in France. I tried to find the most Manischewitz-y wine that I could find which pretty much meant sweet white and rose wines. I guess I’m sophisticated now!

Le Beast Mode

Le Beast Mode

As far as we could tell a day in the life of a Parisian consists of exercising, smoking, drinking wine, smoking, eating bread, smoking, sitting in the park, smoking, eating dinner, smoking and walking. It’s amazing how different the culture is when it comes to smoking. I mean the Brits smoke a lot but everyone smokes in France. Kids smoke in France. Dogs smoke in France. We learned that the key to a good cafe experience is to try to claim a spot among Americans and people with e-cigs, otherwise the secondhand smoke will be out of control – and that’s coming from someone who is generally fine with people smoking.

From there we hit the Eiffel Tower which was really impressive. It’s a nice looking structure and much bigger than you expect. I mean after seeing “Big” Ben we were a little worried that the tower wouldn’t be that big, but it was the perfect size. We didn’t have any tour tickets and weren’t going to wait 45 minutes to walk up it, so we gawked for a while and headed for the Seine.

It's an eye-full

It’s an eye-full

Quick question about the guys selling the mini Eiffel Towers everywhere: they’re pickpockets, right? There’s no way that many guys throughout the city could make any money selling the exact same chintzy thing, right?

Walking along the River Seine is as lovely as everyone says. There are beautiful bridges everywhere and as you walk through the city you see more and more cool stuff. There are so many incredible buildings that after a while you almost become numb to them. Buildings that would be landmarks in other cities are on every corner in Paris. It’s a city that definitely requires many visits to appreciate everything.

Our last stop for the evening was dinner on St. Germain at a place called Le Deux Magots, which we assumed stood for the delicious-sounding “The Two Maggots”. I had the veal and Lyn had the steak, both of which were very good. We couldn’t help but laugh when some lady sat next to us and smoked a cigar throughout her meal. She inhaled it too! That lady was definitely the smoking champ of Paris, and there’s a lot of contenders for that crown.

All in all we managed to squeeze a nice full day out of a travel day and we were pretty beat from walking many miles in the hot sun, powered only by prodigious amounts of wine and butter.

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Day 3: Here Comes The Sun King

[note: Internet service is on strike in Paris so I'll have to add the photos later when I have a stronger signal]

Once again the day commenced with a trip to Lower Marsh for a cup of whatever they call the coffee over here – flat white? I went to a different cafe, The Four Corners, drank my coffee and wrote yesterday’s blog. When you consider the time difference that means that you’re actually reading a blog about the past that I wrote in the future. Pretty cool, huh?

Fancy foam

Fancy foam

From there I tubed up to St. John’s Wood to start the holy pilgrimage. St. John’s Wood is a weird area. It’s the home of the national cricket grounds and Regent’s Park is nearby. It’s also a center for Jewish and Islamic communities. Obviously a questionable move by the British putting those 2 groups together given their bad neighbor history.

My first stop was at Panzer’s Deli to pick up a picnic lunch. I was warned that the help could be surly, but British surly is different that Boston surly, so I found them to be fairly nice.

From there I walked over to Regent’s Park. It’s a large city park. In English “regent’s” apparently means goose shit, but it was still a nice spot for brunch. I ate my bagel and lox, orange juice and cucumber salad near the boating pond.

After a brief respite I went to Queen Victoria’s Garden. Or maybe it was Queen Elizabeth’s Garden? The garden was really nice but it must be a little late in the season because the flowers were coming off the bloom. It was still quite pleasant.

Here’s the fountain in the middle of the garden.

There’s also an open air theatre, but it was gated and I forgot my grappling hook so I couldn’t sneak in for a photo.

Look at these cute kids playing footie in the park (don’t worry, it’s still really boring to watch even on this side of the pond):

From there I walked back to St. John’s Woods High Street. Along the way I noticed quite a few Porsches and Beamers and figured it must be a swanky area. It was. The High Street reminded me of downtown Wellesley: clean and boutiquey. Luckily, they still had a pub and I could stop for a quick pint after walking a few miles in the 30 degree heat, which I think translates into 112 degrees fahrenheit.

Finally it was time to head to the main attraction: Abbey Road. It had been a Beatles day throughout, and I was able to listen to Rubber Soul, Revolver and the White Album during my walk. I timed the playing of Abbey Road to coincide with my trip to the crosswalk and the studio.

Side note: in a very Boston-like move there’s a tube station called Abbey Road that has nothing to do with the famous Abbey Road that everybody wants to see. If you want to see Abbey Road you need to go to St. John’s Wood. By the by, St. John’s actual wood was a cricket bat, which is why the cricket grounds are located in that neighborhood. I would have liked to catch a test, but those things last weeks and we only have a few days in London.

It’s easy to figure out which crosswalk is the famous one due to the crowd of people standing around. The weird thing is that Abbey Road is a busy road, with cars and trucks fighting tourists who try to recreate the photo of The Beatles crossing the street. Most people draw lots to see who gets stuck being Ringo.

The actual Abbey Road studio is on the left side of the street. It’s still an active recording studio so people aren’t allowed to enter the gates. As you can see, many people leave a quick message to commemorate their visit:

It was very cool to be at Abbey Road. While the crosswalk itself only has slight magical powers it is amazing to think of all of the people who have been touched enough by The Beatles’ music, even 50 years later, to make the trip. Are there any current musicians who are iconic enough to warrant such devotion? Will Kid Rock’s favorite Waffle House become a tourist destination? (Actually, I sincerely hope it does.)

It’s weird that there’s not more Beatles-related stuff in the area. Obviously it’s a key tourist spot and a Beatles museum would be perfect. I’m sure there’s a Beatles museum in Liverpool, but we’re not in Liverpool now, are we love? This coffee shop is literally the only place that exploits the Beatles connection:

I headed back to the hotel to pick-up Lyn and we went to Harrod’s via Piccadilly Circus. And when I say “via Piccadilly Circus” I mean that I took us to the wrong tube station, but that’s part of the fun of traveling with someone who just walks around and takes the tube without having an entirely clear idea of where they’re going.

Piccadilly Circus is very Times Squaresy in the way that Times Square is both cool and annoying. We hung for a few minutes and grabbed a taxi to Harrod’s.

My first black taxi and OMIGODWHYDON’TWEHAVETHESE??? Wow, they’re spacious and clean and efficient and fantastic. Seriously, why don’t we have these in America? Not that I have anything against old Crown Vics and smelly Prius’s, but we need these stat.

Harrod’s is a pretty crazy store and we couldn’t help but spend $45,000 on a Warhol and a Dali. I’ve never seen a department store that sells fine art but sure enough there was a gallery hidden in the Qatar section. The Egyptian escalator is outrageous and I like how they keep prams and fat guys off the escalator with these poles:

The weirdest part of Harrod’s was the statute and memorial dedicated to Lady Di and Dodi al Fayed. For the record, I think it’s terrible that the two of them were murdered and it seems like Princess Di was a nice lady. That said, I’m generally anti-Diana. When you accept the job of Princess of England it’s a lifetime contract and you take the bad with the good. Keep your dalliances discreet and do the job you’re being paid for. Charles was obviously a loser when she married him, but that was the deal. Don’t enjoy the riches and fame and then push for a divorce and discredit the magnificent institution of fake royalty of a former empire. That’s just wrong.

After Harrod’s we went to the Gloucester pub for a traditional meal. We split a scotch egg (interesting), Lyn got the fish & chips and I got the bangers & mash. (Have you ever noticed that all British food features an ampersand?) The Gloucester wasn’t as good as the Water Poet but it was decent. I do like the pub style of ordering at the bar – no waiting for servers or checks. I think I’ve had my fill of British food for the moment and look forward to getting down with the French.

Tomorrow we’re booked on the Eurostar for a quick trip to Paris. London has been great but I’m really excited to visit France. There’s a strike or protest going on, but Say La Vee, Mon Amee.

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Day 2: High Streets & Low Culture

“I’m going nowhere with nowhere to go”

- Al Stewart, Soho (Needless to Say)

Today was a work day for Lyn so my plan was to grab my map and my Walkman and check-out London. Unlike many travelers I don’t really have an agenda or an itinerary. I don’t really care if I see the famous stuff. I just like to walk around and immerse myself in the local culture. But first, coffee.

Coffee culture is weird in England because they don’t have regular brewed/drip coffee. Everything is espresso-based, which kind of sucks. So you have to choose between cappuccino (too foamy), latte (too milky) or Americano (too watery). Sure, I could just go to Starbucks and get a coffee, but that violates my two travel rules: buy local & never go to the same place twice.

Not too far from the hotel I found the Scooter Caffe on Lower Marsh Street:

No real coffee here

No real coffee here

From there I meandered over to the Waterloo tube stop (where I saw a British dude in a Larry Bird jersey!) to buy an Oyster card and make my way to Shoreditch in the East End. For musical accompaniment I chose Al Stewart’s Just Yesterday box set. It was perfect, listening to British folk while heading out of the city center.

The East End is purported to be the hipster part of town which promised a fun day of slightly seedy adventures – my kind of place. Getting off the train I saw this weird pop-up park where people were sunbathing and watching boring Euro sports (bicycling?):

They sure are pasty here

They sure are pasty here

Apparently it was part of a whole pop-up outdoor mall where each store was the size of a closet. It was pretty cool. I did not actually shop.

Real deals on name brands

Real deals on name brands

This graffiti mural captured the vibe of Shoreditch:

I like the graffiti but not the graffiti on it

I like the graffiti but not the graffiti on it

I then spent a while walking up and down Shoreditch High Street. In America we call them “Main Street”. There was a nice mix of seedy lots and upscale stores. I’m happy to report that a vinyl record store named “Sister Ray” was under construction. It looks like Lou Reed finally made it big in England.

Here’s the view down Shoreditch High Street:

Sure, I'll ditch work and hit the pub with you

Sure, I’ll ditch work and hit the pub with you

From there I needed to have breakfast (you people call it lunch – it was 3:00) and knew that a proper English pub would be the place. I used my beer divining skills to find The Water Poet:

Bury me here

Bury me here

I availed myself to some Camden Hells Lager (quite good) and a fish & chips. The key to surviving in London is just to pretend that the prices are normal American. So $16 sounds reasonable for a pint and a plate – much better than the $32 it really cost.

Cod? I've haddock.

Cod? I’ve haddock.

I limited myself to two pints (day drinking) and observed the locals. First, smoking is still very popular. But as a child reared by Bruce Willis I say “smoke ‘em if you got ‘em”. Secondly, they say “fuck” like every other word. Thirdly, they’re quite friendly but I can’t understand a goddamned word (besides fuck) they say, between the mumbling, the accents, the odd word choice and the general inebriation. Finally, what happened to British music? Somehow they made the best rock in the 60s and 70s but the current music is awful.

Reluctantly leaving The Water Poet I headed back towards the city and Liverpool Street. This is a view of the “famous” lipstick building (I never heard of it before so it can’t be that famous):

Find the bus!

Find the bus!

I made my way over to Spitalfields Market area which was quite lovely:

St. Swiggins?

St. Swiggins?

The actual Spitalfields Market is like a flea market surrounded by chain restaurants. As usual, I did not buy anything:

Where are the bootleg DVDs and ninja stars?

Where are the bootleg DVDs and ninja stars?

My last stop before heading back to Westminster was White Chapel High Street and the White Chapel Gallery. It was some crap modern art exhibit, but I’d much rather see some bad art than military monuments and stuff. Fight the power, mannnnnn!

After meeting up with Lyn we crossed over the Thames to the Embankment Gardens, which were lovely. The crazy thing is that the park was full of people just hanging out and boozing – the kind of thing you could never imagine happening in the Common or the Public Garden.

They should have taps built into the gate.

They should have taps built into the gate.

Fully embracing the spirit of pub culture I took Lyn to a real pub for some G&Ts. There’s not much A/C here so the locals escape the heat but getting their drinks in plastic cups and just hanging out in the street in front of the pub. It’s like al fresco dining without the food or tables:

I like this place!

I like this place!

Next, we walked through Charing Cross on the way to dinner. I don’t recall why Charing Cross is famous but I vaguely remember reading a book called 84 Charing Cross Road so I figured I should take a picture of it:

This might be famous

This might be famous

We went to a fun Mexican street food place called Wahaca for dinner, even though they serve small plates. The problem with small plates is that you pay twice as much for half the food and never have enough of the stuff you like and are stuck with too much stuff you don’t like. That’s how they get you!

After dinner we walked through the West End, Strand and the theatre district and Trafalgar Square. I don’t know who Trafalgar was, but that’s a huge ass statue on a tall column.

You can't see Trafalgar here, it was too dark

You can’t see Trafalgar here, it was too dark

Finally we looped back around to Westminster and passed this guy again. Tourists are legally required to take a picture of Big Ben every time you walk by him. It’s hard to capture in pictures or describe in words just how ornate Parliament and the Tower are. It’s really beautiful and impressive:

Hey kids...

Hey kids…

Last and least is the Eye of London. It looks cool all lit up at night but there’s no way I’m going on a boring Ferris wheel that takes an hour to go around. I’ve got maybe 15 minutes of Ferris wheel in me, tops.

Are there bathrooms on the cars?

Are there bathrooms on the cars?

Thus concludes day 2. Tomorrow…the Beatles!

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