Quickie Review: LOVE & MERCY (2014)

A very well acted biopic of legendary songwriter Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. A touch predictable, though. After all, (I don’t think this is much of a spoiler, but) whenever you have a character split between two time periods, you go into the film knowing that at some point they’ll at least metaphorically come face to face. At least the film tried to do this in a way that would almost make Alejandro Jodorowsky proud.

But the film had a tough task. How do you show the life of a rock legend with a storied half-century career in two hours? One is by using the kind of trick I just mentioned. Another is to avoid direct dramatic reinterpretations of (real or imagined) biographical events, and allude to them instead, which is a plus. (Cheeseburger, anyone?) Another involves making the delineation between the story’s heroes and villains as stark and simplistic as possible. The results on this score are mixed. You get Paul Giamatti’s awesome scene-chewing Dr. Evil, but you also get not very nuanced portrayals of Mike Love and Murray Wilson that serve only to make you rage against their toxicity to Brian’s creative spirit.

As enjoyable as the ride was, some questions nagged me throughout the film. It’s one thing to depict a person’s behaviors. But part of Wilson’s struggle was the fight to transfer what he heard in his head as faithfully as possible to tape. How could any movie deign to try depicting what’s in his head for a moviegoing audience? Was I being a little foolish for not realizing from the outset that this ride could only take me so far? On the other hand, if Wilson himself is happy with the film, what do I know?

Quickie Review: NOW: CHICAGO XXXVI

Now: Chicago XXXVI is probably as cohesive as you can expect an album recorded piecemeal on the road in hotel rooms and backstage green rooms can be. It’s a musical experiment with interesting results. Ultimately, it’s the kind of album that happens when you let the members of the band be themselves, instead of playing assigned roles. Cool things happen when you don’t force Jason Scheff to sing like Peter Cetera, or Lou Pardini like Bill Champlin. Or when Keith Howland and Tris Imboden don’t have to play like Terry Kath and Danny Seraphine.

They’ve actually tried the “be yourself” approach in fits and starts over the decades since the original lineup suffered the loss of guitarist Terry Kath. In that way, this record reminds me a lot of Hot Streets and Chicago 13–and no, that’s not a slam!! Sure, if you bought those albums in the late ’70s expecting Terry Kath, then Donnie Dacus was inevitably going to disappoint you. But if you listened with your nostalgia-brain instead of your ears, you wouldn’t have heard the (okay fine, the admittedly few) hidden gems in those albums.  Hey, I get it. I wanted to shout, “Blasphemer!” the first time I heard “Look Away” done without Bill Champlin, but I learned to live with it, but I didn’t want to quickly came around.

You can read the historical context of those two albums elsewhere. Suffice it to say that, better or worse, those albums were where Chicago was in the “Now” 1978 and 1979. A new guitarist and a different producer with different musical backgrounds and styles that had to be absorbed by the band. Problem was, they conflated their “Now” with whatever they hoped might keep them relevant and on the radio–which weren’t necessarily the same thing. But who could blame them?

The difference with Now: Chicago XXXVI is that it doesn’t feel like Chicago is cramming everyone’s style into a mold using a screwdriver and a plumber’s helper. Of course, it helps that the individual band members (along with Hank Linderman) were “supervising producers” for different tracks–guys with, collectively (especially with the two most recent additions Lou Pardini and Walfredo Reyes, Jr.), at least as much experience in the recording industry now as Phil Ramone had in ’78 and ’79. But this time, the album clearly embraces everyone in the band, and you can hear the difference. It end product really sounds like work from the sort of “musical collective” Chicago always touted themselves as being.

Instead of simultaneously trying to please the jazz-rock/oldies crowd while playing disco-, synth-, or country-pop, or whatever the hell “the kids” are into this decade, you’re going to hear musicians show you decades of writing and playing chops. And so you’ll recognize some of the old Chicago horn vocabulary, but you’ll hear new phrasings, too. You’ll be reminded of those old segues in non-4/4 time signatures and maybe a bit of a multi-part suite, but no 14-minute jazz/rock jams (although I’d buy a whole Chicago album of just that). You’ll hear a ballad, but no “You’re the Inspiration” knock-offs. You’ll hear different musical styles blended together, from hard rock to bossa, and a couple of spots with a tasteful hint of dubstep. Because a lot has gone on in music between 1969 and 2014, and they know all about it.

What you definitely won’t hear is the ghost of Terry Kath or the ghosts of “…the Seventies, Eighties, Nineties, and Today”.  You will hear guys who lived and learned their way through all of that, musically, and they’re going to tell you all about it.

You know, I almost wish they put the live version of their classic “Introduction” (a bonus download track) at the front of the album. It would’ve been as appropriate a setup for this album as it was for Chicago Transit Authority.  Because I was definitely put through the changes. Might’ve cared more for some than others, but the more I listen, the more I don’t feel this is an album of old guys out to show you young tone-deaf idiots with your Garage Band app how it’s really done. Or, if that is the intention, that’s just not my takeaway. The songs do strike me different. I do feel moved.
Okay, so maybe this review wasn’t so quick. Sorry.  Might as well go song by song at this point…

  • “Now” might be my favorite song. Clearly, Earth, Wind & Fire rubbed off on them during those tours.
  • “More Will Be Revealed” is a straightforward Robert Lamm joint, almost sounds like something from that album he did with Gerry Beckley and Carl Wilson.
  • “America” reminds me of Chicago XIV (as does like the cover). Okay, maybe that is a (loving, little bit of a) slam. I’m surprised they passed up a chance slip in the line “We can make it better.” Not quite the best of this bunch, IMO. I give it a pass, because 1) I do like America and 2) it was one of the first efforts of this experiment.
  • “Crazy Happy” is a nice rock/trip hop mash-up. Modern, without sounding forced. 
  • “Free at Last” has shades of the Howland/Imboden Projectfinally!  And, I love the mini-movements throughout the song.  It’s the closest to classic jazz-rock Chicago without sounding at all dated. Probably my favorite track.
  • “Love Lives On” is the only real ballad on the whole album, and where Jason Scheff shines as he sings in a much wider vocal range than I’ve ever heard him do on a Chicago album.
  • “Something’s Coming I Know” is co-written by Gerry Beckley and Robert Lamm. I could just stop right there; that should be enough. The best horn parts are here, too.
  • “Watching All the Colors” sounds like pretty standard bossa fare that left me feeling a little meh.
  • “Nice Girl” — Keith Howland on vocals, singing in his range and not trying to squeeze out “Old Days.” What a concept! I could take or leave the lyrics, but the playing is top notch. Didn’t care for the ending, though. 
  • “Naked in the Garden of Allah” — if this and “America” were meant to be callbacks to Chicago V, then this succeeded way more than the latter.
  • The title “Another Trippy Day” made me think two things: First, “What, not …in New York City?” and second,  “Oh, god, here comes the cheese… they saved it for the last track.” I was wrong. Well, mostly. 
I have one nit to pick, though: The downloadable lyric book could really use another run with the spell/grammar check.
Now to find out if my mp3 purchase qualifies me to be entered to win a trumpet signed by Lee Loughnane.  I would play the fuck out of that axe!

“Jumpin’ up, fallin’ down / Don’t misunderstand me…”

I knew this week was going to be bad.  It’s started off even worse.  But I’m getting by. My coping mechanism of the day has been playing this video on a loop.  It’s Joe Walsh playing “Funk #49” with Daryl Hall.

Yes, you read that right.  And your brain is short-circuiting at the cognitive dissonance, isn’t it?  It’s that short-circuit that keeps me from falling into a black hole of depression, because who can not get fired up hearing that guitar riff?

“Make a scene tonight, and read about it in the morning…”

The SF Signal Podcast (Episode 120) came out last Thursday.  I talked about the anthology Bibliotheca Fantastica for Dagan Books, and for which the edits are coming along very nicely.

I’m only getting around to putting this up now, since I’ve been busy with the edits, and with preparing for my first trumpet-playing gig in 8 years.  This is related, trust me…

And I don’t mean just getting my lip back in shape.  I had to get my ear back in shape too, since I was tasked with transcribing the horn line to Blondie’s “The Tide Is High.”  It’s been about 8 years since I’ve done anything like that, too.  But it was for a good cause — a fundraiser for the Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes.

My performance was far from perfect, though.  It’s my own fault, especially since I had to pull a Chet Baker because of my travel schedule — in 1988, he’d blown off all the rehearsals for his Last Great Concert in Hannover, Germany but showed up the day of the gig and rocked it.  However, smack-addicted Chet Baker was still a better trumpet player than I ever was on my best day.  Still, I was pleasantly surprised at the results.  People asked me if I’m inspired to play again, considering the dearth of trumpet players in the music scene in this town.  I don’t know.  I am inspired, however, to watch The Commitments again, since I’d been quoting Joey “The Lips” Fagan all week: “The Lord blows my trumpet.”

Anyway, this sort of brings up a personal issue for me, in that I’m not as anonymous as I used to be.  Not as compartmentalized.  Not so long ago few people knew “Don the Co-Worker” was also once “Don the Martial Artist,” or ever “Don the Jazz Trumpeter Wannabe.”  Now, some of them are finding out about “Don the Writer” and “Don the Editor.”

But now it’s all coming together.  I’m not as carefully covering those track as I once was.  I’m even opening the doors a bit, and maybe that’s a good thing. Besides, it’s getting so I can’t cover those tracks as much, even if I wanted to.  I’ve now been on the Functional Nerds podcast, as well as SFSignal.  I’ve been filmed reading.  Nope, no hiding it now.  I might have mixed feelings about it, but I’d better get over them PDQ.

Anyway, since the gig was an 1980s musical revue, the theme song for this post works on every level…

I’m taking a day to recover.  It’s been a helluva couple of months, and I’m totally depleted.

“Something tells me I’m into something good…”

I’m not complaining, but I’m just stating the fact that 2011 hasn’t been a very productive year.  Oh, I’ve produced things.  I pulled off my first academic presentation and am still awaiting word of what could be a huge publication score.  I have things coming down the pike in the next couple of months.  But you know, I think part of my damage is that for a couple of years now, I’ve been writing “made-to-order” stuff.  I think I need to write something for me.  But what?

I don’t know a lot about the Brill Building.  I have a sense about its place in musical history.  I have a vague notion of what they talk about when they talk about the “Brill Building Sound” (and of the controversy behind that term).  I kinda know some of the big names involved.

But here’s the thing: I know is that it’s the place where I want to set my next short story. 

I first learned about the Brill Building as I was looking up a bit of background on songwriter Laura Nyro.  I always knew I was going to write something inspired by her or her music from the first time I really started really listening to it. But this idea of the Brill Building really grabbed me.  Something about this music factory, this place that was (arguably) just as much about commerce as it was about art, where people competed to get their songs heard by an executive, published, and made into a hit record is resonating with me somehow.

Apparently, it’s the subject of a documentary due out soon.  Tell me this doesn’t sound more or less like the racket we writers are involved in, huh?

Anyway, I have no idea what this story is going to be about, or how much of it will actually involve the Brill Building, Laura Nyro, or her music.  I do know that this is the story’s playlist so far (all by Nyro):

  • “The Confession”
  • “Billy’s Blues”
  • “Stoney End”
  • “And When I Die”
  • “He’s a Runner”
  • “Wedding Bell Blues”
  • “Lu”
  • “Eli’s Coming”
  • “Timer”
  • “Stoned Soul Picnic”

“I’ve been one poor correspondent, and I’ve been too, too hard to find…”

Once again, I’ve let the good and the not-so-good (okay, mostly not-so-good) pummel me into radio silence.  It’s all kept me from Tweeting, blogging, and yes, even writing.  And I have deadlines, too!  Anyway, if I owe you a tweet or an email or (gulp!) a story, it’s on its way. 

I’ve at least worked my way up to “fake it ’til you make it” mode.  One way or another, though, you all knew I couldn’t shut up for long. 🙂

1
It’s been busy enough as it is with the new dayjob.  I work in the same place as a paper-pusher, but it’s a higher level of paper I’m pushing and at a higher pay rate, to boot.  Today, I got this…

2
This song has been on loop for a few days now.  I’ve been using it’s Zen-inducing laid back groove to get me back into the swing of things.  I think it’s working.

3
I’m going to finish up my ReaderCon posts soon, I promise!  It’s only one or two more posts.  Maybe by Friday Definitely before I go to Dragon*Con!

4
Oh yeah… I’m going to Dragon*Con!

5
I’m thinking of taking my social-networking home base for my writing stuff out of Facebook and over to Google+.  Seems like the right thing to do; at least in theory it would make my life easier.

6
There is NO RULE 6. 

7
My upcoming fiction and non-fiction deadlines are freaking me out.  I guess I better get to it…

One of These Is Not Like the Others

I was doing research down a line similar to this–I guess you could call it music video anthropology–and I stumbled on some live performances from the Tower of Power of their classic song “So Very Hard To Go,” performed by various line-ups of the band over 35 or so years.

Now, I’m not saying anything about quality.  Just that one of these is not like the others.


I’m just saying.

“They’re doin’ the Bump N Touch. They’re doin’ the Dap-Dip. EVERYthing.”

I’d been looking forward to seeing Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings since they were here two years ago.  It was less of a straight-up concert than it was a real soul/R&B revue.  It was a party!

Two nights ago, my evening started a bit early in a new(-ish) bar and on Facebook with my new “friend,” Binky Griptite

(Yeah, could’ve been a Daptone Records intern, but who cares?)

Binky and The Dap-Kings started off with one of my favorite songs of 2010, “The Reason.”  A couple of tunes later, Binky introduced the newest rising star in the Daptone soul universe, a “young voice,” Charles Bradley!  As in, 62 years young and still kicking ass!  I was too far away (and dancing) to get any decent shots.  But I did get him to sign his No Time for Dreaming CD I bought at intermission.

Afterward, the Dee-Kays warmed us back up.  By this point, I was down near the front!

After this point, I just remember a blur of funk and dancing…

Sharon & Charles showing us how it was done back in the day.

I got to hang around for autographs at the end.  I didn’t have anything for Sharon to sign (I already got her the last time she was in town), but I did get to thank her for coming back.  In return, she says, “Give me some sugar” and plants a kiss on my cheek!!

I will NEVER wash my cheek again!

And then, brother Charles did me the honor…

The Mrs. had the honor of becoming a 3rd Dapette…

…while I snagged autographs from Bosco Mann and Cochemea Gastulem, who were giggling uncontrollably for some reason.  Probably because some woman snagged my pen to get them to sign her ticket, and then I went, “Hey, as long as you’ve got my pen…”

I have to say, my con experiences have paid off.  I wasn’t half as fanboy-ish and starstruck as I could’ve been.  Of course, the Daptone Records folks always seemed like cool, friendly folk all around, and approachable, which made it easy.

“God give us the blood to keep going”

I’ve had a bit of trouble getting a handle on my current work-in-progress.  It had such a promising start, judging from the critiques the first two acts have received.  But I struggled with the third act, so I took some time away from it to write other things.

This story’s for a closed anthology, and it’s due in about a month.  Time to get cracking again!  So after doing another round of hack-and-slash copyedits, I decided the piece needed a soundtrack.  So I picked some songs to mirror the sort of mood evoked from the picture above, and a couple of songs for different characters’ motivations.

Take a listen:

  • Chicago, “Prologue, August 29, 1968”
  • –, “Someday (August 29, 1968)
  • –, “While the City Sleeps”
  • –, “State of the Union”
  • –, “Dialogue (Pt. 1 & 2)”
  • –, “All the Years”
  • Depeche Mode, “Walking in My Shoes”
  • Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, “Battle of the Species”
  • Manic Street Preachers, “If You Tolerate This, Your Children Will Be Next”
  • Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens, “I’ll Take the Long Road”
  • Sons of Champlin, “Light Up the Candles”

Yes, I know there are a lot of Chicago songs on here, but at least it’s their cool ’70s and/or Robert Lamm-written stuff.