Album Review: Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Phosphorescent Harvest (2014)

Editor’s Note: In the grand tradition of the Black Crowes Album Project we’ll be offering you two reviews of the new CRB album – one from me and one from my long-time partner-in-crowes Don Lane. In honor of the freaky nature of the CRB I’ll be writing the review from a metaphysical perspective and Don will be writing from a musical perspective, but then again, isn’t it all just one review with different words?

IMG_0543Mitch’s Review:

Precedence

Phosphorescent Harvest is the third studio album from the CRB coming on the heels of 2012’s Big Moon Ritual (review) and The Magic Door (review). The line-up is unchanged: Chris sings lead and plays guitar. Neal plays lead guitar and sings back-up. Adam plays keys and sings harmony. Muddy plays bass and sings harmony. George plays drums. Alan does the art.

I previously described Big Moon Ritual as a Jerry Garcia Band-esque album of jammed out blues-rock and ballads. The Magic Door tightened things up a bit and sounded like a psychedelic take on ‘50s rock and roll. The distinguishing characteristics were great songs, Chris’s soulful vocals, Neal’s tasteful solos, Adam’s trippy keys and beautiful harmonies.

Phosphorescent Harvest differs in 3 significant ways: 1) the songs were mostly co-written by Chris & Neal (as opposed to just Chris); 2) the songs were built in the studio over time, as opposed to being recorded live-in-studio; and 3) the sound is more spacey than trippy.

Ascendance

I realize that trying to distinguish between “spacey” and “trippy” may seem ridiculous, but to me there’s a notable difference that dates back to the heyday of psychedelic rock of the late 60s. The short-lived psychedelic rock era was reflective of two major developments. Primarily, it was an artistic manifestation of the youth society’s desire to reject establishment culture. This was accomplished by experimenting with the established structural form of songs. Secondly, it was representative of the technological advances in recording, specifically multi-track workstations. This turned the recording studio into an instrument in and of itself, taking it 2,000 light years away from merely capturing performances and into being an innovative creative tool (in the right hands).

As a Byrds-freak I credit America’s greatest band with popularizing psychedelic rock with the release of Eight Miles High in 1966. Now Eight Miles High is a trippy song, the trippiness coming from McGuinn’s playing an insane jazz guitar solo (inspired by Coltrane) alongside Hillman’s driving bassline. The trippiness is a product of the length and complexity of the tune as well as the unexpected jazz elements in a rock song.

By 1968 the Byrds had taken their psychedelic experiments to the next level with the release of The Notorious Byrd Brothers. Now that LP is more spacey than trippy. While the majority of songs are pretty straightforward at their core (including two Goffin/King compositions), the use of the Moog synthesizer and layered sound effects gives the album an unearthly feel. To listen to the The Notorious Byrd Brothers is to enter another dimension (a fifth dimension?) entirely. The experience is all encompassing, there’s a sense of place that pervades the entire album, an ethereal through-line that connects the songs. You don’t just listen to the album, you get lost in it.

That’s the difference between trippy and spacey. Trippy music surprises you with the unexpected. Spacey music transports you to another dimension. And that’s a long way of saying that Phosphorescent Harvest is a spacey album. Let’s call it the Notorious Byrds Brotherhood.

Dominance

Speaking of synthesizers, as McGuinn’s Moog dominates the sound of NBB, McDougall’s keyboards dominate PH. For me, I love the sound and I honestly think that there is no CRB without that crucial element. Then again, I love Ozzie Ahlers’ playing with Garcia in 1980 and I know that he was quite polarizing. My working theory is that fans from the blues-rock side of town have trouble accepting songs that aren’t driven by guitars. Sure, a roadhouse piano or a Hammond organ is nice, but those are used for texture. Adam’s keys are all over the place, the sound can be very weird, and either you dig it or you hate it. There’s very little middle ground when it comes to the keyboards on PH, you’re either going to get your freak on or freak out.

Influence

Let’s speculate on the influence of Neal Casal on the songwriting. Now, I’m no rookie when it comes to Neal as I’ve listened to his solo stuff for years and loved his stint in the Cardinals. And perhaps I’m reading too much into his Yes tee shirt, but the major change I hear in the arrangements is the addition of some serious prog-rock elements. I actually don’t hear much Yes in the songs (Yes to me is tight classicism) but I’m getting a dash of Traffic (more organic) and a smidge of Floyd, which is weird because I don’t get that from his solo stuff. But it’s definitely there on PH, the complexity of the song structures, the frequent changes, the unexpected turns. So, knowing that Neal co-wrote the songs, hearing the addition of progressive elements and seeing the Yes tee shirt is enough evidence for me to convict.

Of course I mean “convict” in the most positive sense, because prog-rock was a big part of my early music education and I adored Genesis and Yes (thankfully I never got into King Crimson or ELP and was eventually allowed to marry and procreate).

The beautiful thing about prog-rock is that the structure of songs into parts and suites gives you the sensation of listening to one song and a hundred songs at the same time. Then again, we know that all music is one song expressed in different ways.

Confluence

You can believe in whatever philosophy or religion you like, but the only truth is that everything in the material world is a part of the same energy and it is only our false perception that creates a sense of individuality and separateness. 99% of our lives are spent inside our own minds, confusing our idiotic thoughts for reality. Even when we know this intellectually we still struggle with it experientially. That is our gift and our curse as humans. We embrace suffering as a cost of happiness, truly only knowing contentment when we stop thinking and start experiencing the present moment on it’s own terms.

There are many paths to contentment. You can reach it through meditation or exercise or drugs or sound or whatever allows you to exert control over the swirl of the mind stuff.

Music has the power to provoke many reactions. Some are overt, like the desire to shake one’s hips due to the presence of a strong beat. And some are subtle, rooted in the transference of energy from performer to listener. As we all know, energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can merely evolve and take on different forms.

When people ask me what kind of music I like I usually just say hippie rock or country-rock because the truth would be too off-putting. The truth is that I love head music.

Head music is music that is designed to take one out of their head – to provoke a cessation of the swirling of the mind stuff. Obviously this type of music is closely associated with the Grateful Dead, but it is not solely the province of the Dead or jambands. Actually, the reason I don’t listen to many jambands is because I think it’s the opposite of head music. They’ve taken the jamming part of the Dead and emphasized the mechanical aspect of the performance while losing the energetic transference part of the equation. Even the Dead had trouble sustaining this beyond the heady peak of Anthem of the Sun & Live/Dead. For example, I’d much rather listen to Jonathan Wilson than Phish. I can appreciate Phish on an intellectual level but I can connect with Jonathan Wilson on a much deeper, energetic level.

Obviously the CRB is head music, and good head music at that.

Impermanence

Over the many years that I’ve written about music I’ve felt compelled to rate and review the songs, as if I was providing some valuable service to the world and placing a numerical value on songs was part and parcel of music criticism.

The problem is that I’ve long stopped thinking of myself as a critic of music. I don’t like writing negative things. I write about stuff that I’m passionate about. The act of writing is really another way for me to connect with the art on a more personal level. It’s a way for me to process my own thoughts about the work.

And yet, I have an obsessive personality and feel a compulsion to keep on truckin’. So here are my song-by-song ratings:

Shore Power 3
About a Stranger 4
Meanwhile in the Gods… 3
Badlands Here We Come 3
Clear Blue Sky 4
Beggar’s Moon 4
Wanderer’s Lament 4
Tornado 4
Jump the Turnstyles 3
Burn Slow 4
Humboldt Windchimes 4
Star Crossed Lonely Sailor 4

Phosophorescent Harvest 3.6 (out of 4)

Don’s Review:

The Chris Robinson Brotherhood hatched in 2011 and immediately road-tested material that became the sister records Big Moon Ritual and The Magic Door, released months apart in 2012. In retrospect, each feels incomplete unless played together, which may be as Robinson intended. Combined, they are a two-set odyssey reflective of the band’s live shows, featuring throwback covers like Hank Ballard’s “Let’s Go! Let’s Go! Let’s Go!” mixed in with a few re-arranged Black Crowes songs and a surprisingly prolific range of originals. This was a band attempting something simultaneously familiar and original. Could it go backwards and forwards at the same time?

Phosphorescent Harvest is an emphatic “yes” – a fully realized manifestation of the CRB’s three-year trip. A proper album with lyrics exploring timeless themes of love and resilience floating over a kaleidoscopic, deeply layered soundscape. Like the band itself, the recording is carefree, confident and, at times unabashedly weird.

Robinson and his work have always been a conundrum, simultaneously brash and big voiced yet sensitive and reflective. “Harvest’s” songs run the gamut, from the opening “Shore Power,” a psychedelic sock hop jumpstarted by spacey keyboards, to the utterly gorgeous bonus b-side, “Star Crossed Lonely Sailor.” In between, as each track unfolds, the Brotherhood mine early rock and roll influences with a spin so fresh it’s as if they are making it up as they are going along.

But make no mistake, these are carefully crafted songs played by a band with chemistry that can only come from sharing a van for nearly 200 gigs during their first two years together. All but two were co-written by Robinson and guitarist Neal Casal.

The Brotherhood is a B.A.N.D. with distinctive, irreplaceable players. The quintet’s rhythm section (Mark Dutton, bass, and George Sluppick, drums) hold things down with a backbeat shuffle or more purposeful gait, always just what the Good Doctor ordered. Keyboardist Adam MacDougall’s creativity is mind-blowing, equal measures shocking, funny and beautiful. Casal’s guitar playing has risen to MacDougall’s challenge with more bite than on the band’s earlier studio output.

But it’s Chris Robinson who has matured the most, almost surprisingly so considering he has the least to prove. His range never disappoints, changing character depending on the song, from the Dylan-esque sass of the first “Badlands Here We Come” verse to the rock and roll bridge in the middle of “Meanwhile In The Gods.” His voice is at its apex on “Wanderer’s Lament,” as beautiful and haunting as a harvest moon.

Black Crowes fans should be worried, because Robinson may never look back. As he strums his acoustic guitar to begin the coda to the album closer “Burn Slow,” it feels like he’s finally found not only what he needs, but what he wants.
Shore Power – 3
About A Stranger – 4
Meanwhile In The Gods – 3
Badlands Here We Come – 4
Clear Blue Sky & The Good Doctor – 4
Beggar’s Moon – 4
Wanderer’s Lament – 4
Tornado – 4
Jump The Turnstiles – 3
Burn Slow – 3
(Bonus “45 A-Side) Humboldt Windchimes – 3
(Bonus “45 B-Side) Star Crossed Lonely Sailor – 4

AVG = 3.58 (out of 4)

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Read lots more about the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, the Black Crowes and music in general here.

Album Review: Trigger Hippy (2013)

In his cooking memoir “Heat” Bill Bruford writes about legendary late-night dinners in New York City, where accomplished chefs would cook for each other and drink, smoke and tell war stories until the break of dawn. With no customers to cater to and no critics to sway the Chefs were free to just do their thing. They could experiment. They could impress their peers. They could fail. But most importantly, they could remember when the art of cooking was their passion, before it became their life, their business and their master.

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In today’s modern music scene, too many “artists” are using music as a means to an end. They want the fame. They want the money. But they don’t care about the song.

The song is all that should matter! The song that reflects our past, defines our present, and provides a signpost to the future. The song has nothing to do with genre or success and everything to do with sincerity and human expression. The song is why we love music.

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Individually the members of Trigger Hippy have nothing to prove.

Founder Steve Gorman helped to propel The Black Crowes to the top of the charts, produced one of the greatest rock albums ever (“The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion”) and proved himself to be one of the few living drummers capable of holding John Bonham’s sticks.

His partner in rhythm Nick Govrik is the band’s secret weapon, a funky bassist who writes songs that stop you cold and demand your attention.

Singer Joan Osborne burst on the scene by adding an entry to the Great American Songbook (“One of Us”), and then proceeded to bring her strong soulful voice to a variety of styles and songs. Whether originals or covers, Joan brings it every time, usually improving upon the template. And then she became a part of the Grateful Dead family and resurrected the long-neglected Pigpen blues tunes, literally blowing everyone’s minds and expectations.

Jackie Greene does it all. He can play anything with strings, plus keys and harp. He’s an amazing songwriter (cue up “Love Song; 2:00 am” sometime) but best of all is that voice. To listen to Jackie sing is to realize how rare truly brilliant rock singers are. His voice is smooth, it’s strong, it’s expressive, it’s soulful and it’s sweet.

Lead guitarist Tom Bukovac is a classic “you don’t know him but you’ve definitely heard him” guy. A musician’s musician, Tom is the hottest session player in the business, winning industry award after award, while staying in the shadows. His work with Trigger Hippy will shine some richly-deserved light on his skills.

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With the Record Store Day release of their self-titled debut, Trigger Hippy makes a great first impression. While only containing four songs (all originals) the EP shows many facets of the band while hinting at future possibilities and leaving us desperate for more.

The lead single “Turpentine” kicks things off with the band’s signature – the twin vocals of Joan & Jackie. Listening to them makes you wonder why more bands don’t explore the male/female vocal combination. Joan and Jackie blend together magnificently and the possibilities are endless. The song itself is a fun, upbeat tune with guitars both crunchy and ringing and a trippy summertime vibe. Best of all, you can hear plenty of space for this tune to explode in a live setting.

Next up is “Heartache on the Line” which is a gorgeous ballad. Even with a slow dance the band flexes its muscles, with Gorman hitting hard, a soulful organ, and layers of sounds that build into a cohesive whole. Of course Jackie & Joan deliver another stellar vocal performance.

Things get a little funkier with “Pocahantas”, which has a little “Trampled Underfoot” vibe going on and short but effective guitar and keyboard solos in the middle.

Closing out the set is “Ain’t Persuaded Yet” a bluesy story-song that really lets Joan and the rhythm section shine. Nick lays down a sweet bass line, Gorman thunders and the guitar very subtly steps back to create an ominous atmosphere.

All four tracks are great and will garner multiple listens. Based on my own predilection for weepy country-rockers, “Heartache on the Line” will be in heavy rotation. I can’t hear that song enough, which is always the true sign of success for me.

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For a new band Trigger Hippy exudes an astonishing level of confidence and polish. There’s no holding back and no half-measures. They just go for it on every song. It’s the type of music that works as pleasant background music but also rewards careful listening. Focusing on the individual parts reveals just how perfectly constructed these tunes are, how they come together with intent and purpose.

I’m excited to see where Trigger Hippy takes us next. The blues as a genre has long been dormant, with much celebration of the past but little innovation. Yet here’s a blues band that is changing the formula by adding soulful voices, a funky bass, and a drummer that swings to the expected guitar virtuosity.

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In my mind there are musicians gathered around a table, late at night after the gig’s over and the fans have gone home, sharing a meal, a drink and a smoke and talking about music. Not about their careers, but about their passion, their inspiration and their ideas. They’re excited about music and remembering why they walked down such a crazy path in the first place. And at that table are Steve, Jackie, Joan, Nick & Tom, dreaming up a vision for Trigger Hippy, a band built on passion, love and mutual respect.

(By the way, I’m also at that table, spreading good vibes. Hey, it’s my dream after all).

15 Deadwood Actors Who Found Work at FX

David Milch’s Deadwood is one of the great TV dramas of the new Golden Age of Television. Running on HBO from 2004-2006 the show resurrected the Western genre through beautiful visuals, excellent writing, memorable characters and masterful cursing. But more than just being a classic show, Deadwood has served a far greater purpose as a virtual casting pool for FX.

1) Timothy Olyphant starred as Sheriff Seth Bullock…

"I hated Skyler White long before everyone else"

…only to become Marshall Raylan Givens on Justified

"I'll trim the 'stache, but I'm keeping the hat"

2) Ian McShane played the incomparable Al Swearengen…

"Don't call me Swidgen"

…before crazy-ing it up as Leigh Emerson on American Horror Story

"I've still got that Lovejoy mullet"

3) W. Earl Brown was loyal underling Dan Dority…

"Sigh, more blood to clean up"

…long before he was fugitive Cal Wallace on Justified

"I'll be back in the future with less hair"

…or Phil Critter on American Horror Story

"Yeah, that's me in the dark"

4) Paula Malcomson was Trixie the hooker with the heart of gold…

"Sol Star left me for the big screen"

…before returning to her native Ireland as Maureen Ashby on Sons of Anarchy

"Don't blame me for that shitty season"

5) Dayton Collie was deep-voiced messenger Charlie Utter…

"Aw, Jane, let me clean you up"

…before becoming Chief Wayne Unser on Sons of Anarchy

"Aw, Gemma, let me clean you up"

6) Robin Weigert was a mess as Calamity Jane…

"Anyone up for a drink?"

…before a quick guest spot as Cynthia Potter on American Horror Story

"No screengrabs for guest stars"

…and a recurring role as lawyer Ally Lowan on Sons of Anarchy

"Surprisingly, bikers are cleaner than prospectors"

7) Sean Bridgers was sweet, dumb Johnny Burns…

"I like working at the Gem"

…until he made the inevitable guest appearance on Justified as Virgil Corum

"I miss working at the Gem"

8) The great Jim Beaver was the most honorable Mr. Whitney Ellsworth…

"What you see is what you get"

…until he became Sheriff Shelby Parlow on Justified

"What you see is not what you get"

10) Kim Dickens played Madame Joanie Stubbs…

"I have a smaller hat under this hat"

…and parlayed that role into Madame Collette Jane on Sons of Anarchy

"Okay, maybe I look better without the hat"

11) Titus Welliver played creepy Silas Adams…

"One day I'll pass for Irish"

…before getting his Irish on as IRA boss Jimmy O’Phelan on Sons of Anarchy

"At least my fake accent is better than Jax's"

12) Peter Jason was Con Stapleton…

"I borrowed Joanie's hat"

…until he called old buddy Tim Olyphant for a spot as Owen Carnes on Justified

"No screengrab for me"

13) Who could forget Keone Young as Mr. Wu?

"SWIDGEN!!!"

…not Sons of Anarchy, who cast him as crime boss Bohai Lin

"Feed him to the hogs, Wu"

14-15) Garrett Dillahunt played two different roles on Deadwood – Jack McCall…

"I went to the lazy eye school of acting"

…and Francis Wolcott…

"Yup, same actor, different guy"

…before appearing on Damages as Marshall Phillips

"You might also recognize me from Raising Hope"

In other words, Timothy Olyphant is an actor’s best friend.


Handicapping the 2013 ALCS, Private Investigator-Style

Today the internet will be bursting with sabermetricians breaking down this year’s ALCS, where the phoenix-like Boston Red Sox will take on the comeback Tigers from Detroit.

So while others will be discussing how many starts Justin Verlander will be able to make or whether Xander Bogaerts will ever get to pinch hit for Stephen Drew*, I wanted to focus on a less-visible but perhaps more important method for handicapping the series, namely, which team is represented by the better fictional private investigator.

(* Side note: Is Stephen Drew a masochist or is he just trolling Red Sox nation? Who in their right mind signs with the same team that their brother played for, after their brother was viciously ripped apart by the media and fans for 5 years? Aside from his playoff grand slam JD Drew was reviled in Boston. His biggest sin? Being perceived as an underachiever, the absolute worst crime in Boston, a town that values over-achieving dirt dogs who slap on the stirrups no matter how injured they are. Most shocking is that Stephen is wearing the SAME NUMBER 7 that JD wore. I vote troll. Well done, Stephen.)

SPENSER FOR HIRE (BOSTON) VS. MAGNUM, P.I. (DETROIT)

First, a little background:

Magnum, P.I. was a popular CBS television show that starred Tom Selleck as Thomas Magnum. Magnum lived and worked on Robin Masters’ estate in Hawaii, ostensibly as the head of security, but most episodes featured him taking on side gigs, usually to save a damsel in distress. Magnum was famous for his glorious moustache, his impossibly short khaki shorts, his Hawaiian shirts and his signature Detroit Tigers cap. The show ran for 8 seasons, 162 episodes in total, and averaged about 17mm weekly viewers. Selleck won an Emmy for his portrayal of the charismatic Viet Nam vet.

Spenser: For Hire was a television series based on the popular novels by the late Robert B. Parker. Robert Urich played Spenser, the tough yet intellectual detective who used his fists, his gun and his wits to thwart the local mob, random toughies and anyone who threatened underprivileged children. The television series only ran for 3 seasons, 66 episodes in total, and was cancelled due to the high cost of shooting on location in Boston. (4 TV movies starring Joe Mantegna were also produced). The Spenser book series was much more successful, with 40 books published until the 2010 death of author Robert B. Parker (who was probably murdered by someone from Detroit).

DEVOTION TO TEAM

Magnum is consistently portrayed as an avid Tigers fans, which was his grandfather’s favorite team. His favorite player was Al Kaline. However, it was also revealed that as a child he rooted for the Washington Senators. Living in Hawaii, Magnum doesn’t attend or watch any Tigers games. Even though Robin Masters is a billionaire he was apparently too cheap to spring for the MLB Extra Innings Package.

Spenser is a diehard Sox fan. He frequently references players both past and present. His listens to Sox games in the car, commenting on the announcers. He is constantly watching and talking about the Sox. Red Sox games and Fenway Park are occasionally featured in the mysteries. In many ways, the Red Sox are one of the key localizing elements of the Spenser series.

This one is an easy call…Magnum’s obviously a pink hat.

ADVANTAGE: SPENSER/RED SOX

SIDEKICKS/FRIENDLY ADVERSARIES

Now we’re talking.

On the one hand, Magnum hangs with Rick, who is not nearly as cool as he thinks he is. On the other hand, Magnum also hangs with TC, who is amazing. Plus, TC has a bad-ass chopper, painted in the exact same brown and orange color scheme as my childhood kitchen in the 70s. Magnum’s friendly adversary is Higgins, a prissy Brit who likes to dress like Bwana Jim with his pants pulled all the way up to his nipples.

Spenser has the coolest sidekick of all time, Hawk. Hawk was tough, Hawk was cool, Hawk kept it real. He was great with a shotgun and even better with the ladies. To be honest, I’m getting a little verklempt just thinking about Hawk, who was so great he got his own spin-off show.

Spenser’s friendly adversaries were Belson and Quirk from the Boston PD. While amusing enough (they had an Unger-Madison thing going on) they weren’t as important as Higgins.

So while Higgins bests Belson & Quirk, Hawk easily takes TC & Rick, chopper be damned.

ADVANTAGE: SPENSER/RED SOX

STYLE/SEXINESS

Spenser is pretty non-descript. When not working out at the boxing gym he likes to wear jeans, tee shirts and a leather jacket. He also dons a Red Sox cap when working undercover or battling the elements. While Robert Urich was an attractive man, Spenser is also portrayed as being more charismatic than handsome, with the face and hands of an ex-boxer.

Magnum was the epitome of 80s sexiness. Shakespeare would have written sonnets about that thick, luxurious moustache of his. He also contradicts one of Homer Simpson’s most famous aphorisms (“There’s only two kinds of guys who wear Hawaiian shirts: gay guys and big fat party animals.”)

Obviously we’ve got to give this one to Magnum. They even named plus-sizes condoms after him, for God’s sake.

ADVANTAGE: MAGNUM/TIGERS

CARS

Magnum had unlimited access to his boss Robin Masters’ bright red Ferrari, obviously a show-stopper of a car. The only thing young boys dream of more than having a thick moustache is driving a Ferrari.

Spenser, while not driving a Ferrari, drives a sweet ‘66 Ford Mustang, reportedly as homage to Steve McQueen.

Now, while this one might seem like a home run for Magnum, let’s really think about it for a second. They’re private eyes. They need to tail suspects. In a loud, bright red Ferrari. Why don’t you just drive an ice cream truck blaring “Turkey in the Straw”, Magnum?

ADVANTAGE: SPENSER/RED SOX

CULTURAL RELEVANCE/SOCIAL ISSUES

Magnum was the first TV show to sensitively portray Viet Nam veterans in the years immediately following the fall of Saigon. While the media tended to portray Viet Nam vets as dangerous or unstable, Magnum and his buddies were deeply affected by the war but successfully reintegrated into society. Score one for Magnum.

Spenser was also a veteran (of the Korean War) but the show didn’t really contain any commentaries on war; However, the show did examine race relations through the friendship of Spenser and Hawk, against the backdrop of Boston. That’s pretty ballsy.

Culturally, Magnum is probably a better-known figure, benefitting from the longevity and popularity of the show. Plus, Magnum is a kick-ass Halloween costume. I do wonder if awareness of Magnum is starting to recede, as the show isn’t really something the kids are binge-watching on Netflix.

Spenser is probably a more enduring character as the book series is far-reaching and well-respected. Spenser books are still being written even after the death of Robert B., proving that people in airports across the country are still looking for breezy tales of investigators who drink three beers with every lunch and half a bottle of scotch each night.

ADVANTAGE: TIE

CONCLUSION

In a clear, decisive victory, Spenser takes Magnum down 3-1-1, virtually guaranteeing a win for the Boston Red Sox. Plus, it’s 2013: beards are much cooler than moustaches.

Thanks for reading. Enjoy the series!

[By the way, I’ve written about Magnum before. Click here to read: “Magnum, P.I.’s Short Shorts and the Golden Age of Television”]

False Duality & the Three Endings of ‘Breaking Bad’

For the last several seasons of Breaking Bad we’ve been living with a false duality: is the real Walter White the emasculated genius Walter Hartwell White or the cunning criminal mastermind Heisenberg?

With each successive immoral decision the scales tipped further in Heisenberg’s favor, culminating in the memorable scene of Walter lying on the ground in ‘Crawlspace’, having lost his money, seemingly having lost his mind, and visually framed as if in a coffin. It was presumed to symbolize the final death of Walter White and the permanent ascension of Heisenberg.

As the series finale “Felina” demonstrated, in actuality neither persona was the real Walter White. Both were merely masks: Heisenberg as the confident id who could bend reality to his will and Walter White as the subsumed ego, who swallowed his immense anger and pride in order to survive as an unremarkable family man.

The real Walter White was the same Walter White that we always knew: a toxic blend of genius and hubris, a master liar whose greatest victim was himself.

Walter White’s original sin, the fuel that powered Heisenberg, was the false belief that he was doing it for his family. This is the lie that allowed the Heisenberg persona to commit awful acts while retaining his innate Walter Whiteness. Immoral acts powered by a moral justification.

It was only when Walter White lost his moral justification that he was no longer able to tap into the power and confidence of Heisenberg. The death of Hank in “Ozymandias” crossed his one indelible line, as his actions directly led to the death of family (even if he temporarily blamed Jesse) and the rejection from his son Flynn in “Granite State” robbed him of his motivation.

Another feint: the show was always pitched as the transformation of Mr. Chips into Scarface. But while Walter’s actions changed the person never did. He was always just Walter White.

(Walter) White + black (Hat) = Grey (Matter)

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The biggest surprise in “Felina”, however, wasn’t the reveal of the inner workings of Walter White/Heisenberg. The real shock was the fact that the bad guys won in the end.

Breaking Bad has always been a moral universe – meaning that bad people were punished for their immoral actions. Even people who appeared to be innocent (Hank, Andrea) ended up dying due to their association with the blue meth (both were unwitting financial beneficiaries of the drug empire). This held true for about 60 episodes.

And then Walt and Jesse got away with it.

In reality, Jesse was a drug dealer and a thief. He killed Gale. Yes, he was full of remorse. Yes, he was more lovable than any Ed Hardy-wearing punk should be. But he was still a bad guy, who we cheered as he choked the life out of Todd and made his getaway. Score 1 for the immoral universe.

Walter was the devil. He committed unspeakable acts in service to his pride and ego. In the end he was able to enact revenge upon all of his (past and present) enemies, get the drug money to his family, reconcile with Skyler, say goodbye to his daughter, take the off-brand blue meth off the market, and get his family out of legal jeopardy while giving Marie closure for Hank’s death. Most importantly, he got to die on his own terms, by his own hand, and in the arms of his one true love (the lab), just like the song says. Score 2 for the immoral universe.

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I actually think the series could have ended after any of the last 3 episodes, with each one imparting a different meaning for Walter’s story.

“Felina” was the “redemption” ending, where all the pieces came together as planned and the bad guy gets away with it. In shows where the protagonist is an anti-hero happy endings are usually satisfying, as viewers identify with the anti-hero and want them to win. But what does this ending mean? It appears that the show is saying that Walter succeeds in the end as a reward for his finally being honest about his intentions. That once he embraced reality (instead of trying to define reality) he could go out on his own terms.

“Granite State” was the “purgatory” ending, where the protagonist gets away with the crime, but loses everything they hold dear and is left with nothing but regret and self-reflection. The scene of Walter, powerless, paying the disappearerer $10,000 for a game of cards would have been a perfect return to the powerless, emasculated Walter from the pilot. He started cooking meth when he thought he had nothing to lose only to realize that he had much more than he thought, but he was too bitter and blind to see it.

“Ozymandias” was the “everyone dies” ending, where the protagonist finally meets his match. There would have been some elegance to this ending, where Walter the genius – who bested Gus the meticulous crime lord – is brought down by a gang of sloppy, remorseless Nazis. This would have been the scientific ending – that once you start an experiment you lose control of the reaction.

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So, as it turns out, a show about Mr. Chips turning into Scarface wasn’t really about transformation. And a show about hard science turned out to be about spiritual redemption. Go figure.

Kibbitzing about TV: Breaking Bad “Blood Money” (S5E9)

Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan has long described Breaking Bad as a show about the transformation of Mr. Chips into Scarface. The reality, however, is that Scarface was there the whole time, lurking underneath Mr. Chip’s mild-mannered exterior. The drivers of Walter White’s behavior – arrogance, bitterness and hubris – have clearly existed from the Grey Matter days. It’s the viewer’s perception of Walt that is changing, not Walt himself.

Of course, the Scarface transformation happened long ago. You can pick your cataclysmic moment: was it when he watched Jane die? When he set-up Hank? When he pulled the Godfather move on Mike’s guys? (Sorry about the dropped oranges, Carol.) So what’s left for the show after all of the chemical transformations have occurred?

Resolution. And that’s what made this season’s premiere so enjoyable. The cold open flash-forward picked up where last season’s premiere left off: with a bearded Mr. Lambert packing heat and returning to ABQ. We quickly learn that Walt has been exposed as Heisenberg, his family is gone and the end is near. We also get quick confirmation of the return of Walt’s cancer. Best of all, we get the long-awaited showdown between Hank and Walt, culminating in the most-satisfying punch since Lane Pryce decked Pete Campbell.

The transformation in the garage scene was perfect. First, “good guy” Walt checks in on his brother-in-law Hank. Then Heisenberg takes over and confronts Hank about the GPS tracker. After 5 years of Hank being portrayed as the more powerful man the camera angles suggest a shift in perspective as Walt literally towers over Hank and warns him to “tread lightly.” But the end is coming, as Skyler hoped and we all knew it must.

Jesse’s arc felt repetitive, as we’ve seen him wallow in guilt before (reminiscent of Don Draper’s déjà vu season 6 arc) but the question remains: does Jesse kill himself, kill Mr. White or finally find a way past his guilt and shame? Either way, he’s the best paperboy ever.

It’s going to be hard for Breaking Bad to live up to the hype and expectations for this final season, but we’re off to a fast start. Walter may mirror Gus’s fastidiousness when it comes to placing towels in front of commodes, but he certainly doesn’t exhibit the patience of the man with the box cutter.

Seven.

(That’s how many pies Chekov ate.)

Kibbitzing About TV: Mad Men Season 6: The Death of Don Draper

When I was in college I took a “Crime in American Film” class and wrote my final essay on The Godfather Part II. My thesis was simple: by ordering the death of his brother Fredo, Michael had committed spiritual suicide. He had turned his back on the path of light and was no longer the good man that Vito so desperately wanted to save.

I thought it was an interesting perspective but my professor disagreed and my brief career as a film critic went swimming with the fishes.

I was reminded of this episode after watching last night’s season 6 finale of Mad Men. As always, lots of crazy shit happened to everyone, but the most important thing to me was the death of Don Draper.

Now, obviously Don Draper didn’t die in a corporeal sense. But the lie of Don Draper was publicly laid bare during the Hershey’s pitch when Don committed personal and professional suicide and finally allowed little Dickie Whitman to emerge from the shadows and reclaim his primacy.

For six season we’ve watched as Dick would emerge at times of stress – going all the way back to when he wanted to run away with Rachel Mencken – and we always thought of Dick as the weak side of the cool, calm and collected Don persona.

In retrospect, Don was always the weak one – the false persona, the stolen identity that allowed Dick to overcome his shame of being a hobo raised in a whorehouse.

What Don finally realized – the result of hitting bottom, particularly with regard to Sally – is that he could never have a real life or real relationships until he accepted the truth of being Dick Whitman.

And so a season that seemingly ended in chaos actually represented a bright new beginning for Don/Dick and a host of other characters: some seeking the warmth of the California sun while others embracing the healing light of truth.

Going for The One: The Hidden Funk of the Grateful Dead

When people think about the Grateful Dead the last thing they think about is funk. Now, a real deadhead will point to Spring of ’77 tour as proof of funkiness, but the hidden connection between the Dead and funk is actually much stronger that a sweet Dancin’ jam.

It all comes down to “The One”, a concept invented by James Brown and executed by bassist Bootsy Collins:

“Bootsy’s bass fit perfectly as the new means for carrying the One, James Brown’s own pet name for the style of funk that found its emphasis on the one and the three beats—the upbeat rather than the downbeat, because “the upbeat,” as Brown once philosophized, “is rich, the downbeat is poor. Stepping up proud only happens on the aggressive ‘One,’ not the passive Two, and never on lowdown beat,” the four. Previously, the drums had instigated the One; now it was the bass.” [Source: The Faster Times]

Here’s a great video of Bootsy talking about “the One”.

So, what does that have to do with the good old GD? Let’s see what Jerry has to say about the One:

“Rhythmically, our policy is that the one is where you think it is. It’s kind of a Zen concept, but it really works well for us. It makes it possible to get into a phrase where I can change into little phrase spurts, spitting out little groups of notes that are attached fives-five in the space of four, or five in the space of two, is more common for me-and then turn that into a new pulse, where those fives become like a sixteenth note pulse. Then I’m inside of a whole irregularly rotating tempo in relation to what the rest of the band is playing, say, the original common time. It produces this ambiguity, but all I have to do is make a statement that says, “end of paragraph, and one,” and they all know where it is.” [Source: Gans, 'Conversations With the Dead', p. 67]

In other words, funk music starts on the one and Grateful Dead music uses the one as a home base during jams.

And that, my friends, is the hidden funk of the Grateful Dead.

Don’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart…

[Note: over the years I’ve reviewed quite a few shows by Phil & Bobby. If you’re interested, you can read all GD related content here.]

In Defense of Next Food Network Star

I’m not a huge fan of reality TV. I’m not a huge fan of Alton Brown. In my TV repertoire, Food TV has exactly one role: to watch Guy Fieri late at night when I’m literally too lazy to change the channel with a remote.

I do, however, respect Food TV as a brand. Sure, they’ve put most of the real chef talent out to pasture (Mario, Emeril) but they’ve created a strong property with a sense of place. It reminds me of the Might Marvel Comics Bullpen of the 1970s – a space full of compelling personalities that really only exists in the consumers’ minds.

The reason why I like Next Food Network Star is because the judging criteria and feedback is incredibly valuable to anyone who presents in front of an audience for a living. People like me – your friendly neighborhood ad guy.

Alton, Bobby, Giada and the gang demand that the aspiring talent demonstrate perspective and authenticity, the two key ingredients for truly connecting with an audience.

Perspective is having something unique to say. It’s the ability to introduce new ideas or frame existing ideas is a new way. This is the value that is delivered.

Authenticity is delivering your perspective in a way that is true and real for you. Consumers can’t connect with fake personas no matter how well constructed they are.

it’s fascinating the watch the process of someone realizing their public voice. Let’s just hope that voice doesn’t sound like Paula Deen’s.