Saturday, February 23, 2013

Diamonds in the Pebbles

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog entry about bad songs on otherwise great albums. This week, I'd like to turn the tables. Even now and then, you'll hear an album that is putrid, utterly disposable, and deserves to be quickly forgotten... except for one track. Without much need for further explanation, what do you do when great songs happen to bad albums?

"The Only Place," The Only Place, Best Coast. Arguably the most disappointing new release of 2012 was Best Coast's sophomore effort, a disc that was part rehash of Crazy for You, part mismatch of band and producer, and overall a lo-fi snoozefest. The charm of Bethany Cosentino's lyrics somehow turned from quirky and dreamy to trite and inconsequential, and the sunny power-pop grows weary as the album goes on. The title track --also the leadoff track and first single-- is not a harbinger of things to come, a catchy single that holds it own against their previous work.

"Monarchy of Roses," I'm With You, Red Hot Chili Peppers. RHCP has a tendency to go four or five years without releasing new material, and the long wait after the commercially successful, somewhat bloated Stadium Arcadium magnified the flaws of their tenth album. Released in mid-2011, I'm With You was their first album with Josh Klinghoffer on guitar, and though he makes a valiant effort he's not John Frusciante. The album lacks a center, and most of the songs --including the #1 hit "The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie"-- feel recycled. The one genuinely original track is "Roses," which leads off with a thick Afro-Pop beat by Chad Smith and never looks back.

"Ava Adore," Adore, Smashing Pumpkins. Fifteen years on, do you remember anything about the Pumpkins' follow-up to Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness besides this mesmerizing track? Yeah, neither do I.

"Aeroplane," One Hot Minute, Red Hot Chili Peppers. Yes, they made the list again. Once again suffering from the lack of Frusciate, not to mention battling drugs and egos, One Hot Minute symbolized the wilderness RHCP found themselves in for much of the '90s. I almost didn't put this on the list, but "My Friends" doesn't really do anything for me.

"Creep," Pablo Honey, Radiohead. Twenty years on, there's little disputing Radiohead's first album depicts a band not yet fully formed. Even though the brilliant The Bends was just two years away, many fans wish that was Thom Yorke and the boys' debut, not the underripe Honey. Regardless, the disc's angsty leadoff single was their introduction to the world, a left-field hit that meshed well with grunge-happy alternative radio.

"Blue Jean," Tonight, David Bowie. For the casual Bowie fan, it's easy to assume this 1984 hit was on his previous disc Let's Dance. In a just world it would've been written and recorded a year earlier, but this track the end of the line for Bowie's remarkable winning streak dating back to the late '60s. Tonight is mostly a rushed effort where Bowie played no instruments and relied on awkwardly chosen covers like "God Only Knows" and "I Keep Forgettin'." "Blue Jean," on the other hand was a Bowie original and deserved the success it found both on radio and MTV.

Your thoughts? I was hard-pressed to think of '60s/'70s examples.


Saturday, February 16, 2013

Random Notes, February 2013

+ I might have been one of the few people that were not shocked by the Pope's decision to resign this week. When he succeeded John Paul II not quite eight years ago, the former Cardinal Ratzinger and the college both knew he was a short-term solution. For his hard-line conservative reputation, Benedict XVI's decision to step down is actually somewhat progressive; the Euro-centric notion that any title is yours to keep until you die is horribly antiquated. Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands made a similar move several weeks ago, and there is speculation Queen Elizabeth II might do the same. It's hard to fathom someone in their 80s or 90s "leading" a country or sovereignty  Pope Benedict's reign was short but concise, seldom straying from the traditionalist platform of the church's upper body. His legacy won't compare to the John Paul's 27 years on the throne, but I suppose he did a capable job of keeping the boat steady.

+ The GOP didn't like President Obama's State of the Union address? Wow, what a shocker. The Party of "No" just keeps doing their thing. It's one thing to be obstructive, and another to be obstructive and bring very few concrete ideas to the table. The President knows he bit off more than he could chew in his first term, he's working goal by goal and keeping expectations modest, and the Republicans still won't give him an inch.

+ Speaking of the State of the Union, I think that awkward Marco Rubio/water gaffe was thrown a little bit out of proportion. It was amusing for sure, though it distracted from Pollyanna-ish substance of the Republican response.

+ Finally, if anyone's looking for more proof that the people that regulate our banks are buffoons, look no further.


Friday, February 8, 2013

When the Ink Dries

I'm an autograph hound. It's something that piqued my interest in middle school, and the thrill of the hunt still riles me up. My style is frugal and somewhat scrappy; I've never coughed up more than $30 at a signing, and whenever I'm at a baseball game I'm the first behind the dugout and the last to leave. My strategy is a blend of advice that I've picked up from the Beckett magazines and tips from fellow hounds. Sixteen years on, my collection is a disparate mix of Hall of Famers and has-beens, superstars and benchwarmers. A lot of athletes treat autograph requests as an unwanted nuisance (and for more popular players, I sympathize) but for every sullen old coot like Hank Bauer, there's a Jerry Terrell that's just happy to be remembered.*

Sometime around Christmas, a buddy of mine asked for a favor. He runs a sports card chop in Naperville, IL (two towns over from Downers), and he needed extra help for an event he was holding on January 28th. Dean hosts autograph signings at his shop every now and then, generally a mix of current Chicago notables past and present, but this next event was going to be especially daring. Instead of just one guest or two --keep in mind, this is a little mom n' pop shop-- Dean was going to hold four signings at once. With so many ex-jocks signing, he needed additional assistance. Suffice to say, I jumped at the opportunity.

The four Chicago-based athletes signing that night represented four of the five major local sports teams. (I assume there was a lack of space or not enough money to bring in an ex-Blackhawk.) Four tables, single file, with a retired athlete and their assigned handler sitting in metal folding chairs. On the far end was Mike Hartenstine, a former All-American defensive end that played for the '85 Bears. To his left was Gary "Sarge" Matthews, a former Rookie of the Year and one-time All Star that played with the Cubs in the mid-1980s. To Sarge's left was Ron Kittle, another former ROY and a much-feared (albeit one-dimensional) power hitter for the Pale Hose. The last table belonged to Bob "Butterbean" Love, a three-time All-Star with the Bulls in the late '60s and '70s. I was assigned to Butterbean.

The event was supposed to start at 6, but the handlers were supposed to arrive by 5:30. I explained to Dean that I would be ten minutes late because of my temp job. Luckily for me, Love was stuck in traffic and showed up around 5:55. I had only met two other NBA players in my lifetime (Evan Eschmeyer and Ron Artest) so I gawked a little when Love's 6'8" frame crouched under the doorway and entered the card shop. Love was jovial but aloof, and I soon realized that he was almost completely deaf. When he sat down, Love told me that he left his hearing aid at home; I was afraid to ask why, but I assumed it was something he was self-conscious about. For those of you that know his life story, this wasn't the first time Love kept a secret from the public. People would walk past Love, ask him questions, and he would just stare and nod politely. In an attempt to bond with him, I told him that I would be his "ears" for the evening; he chuckled and said thank you, but I was reluctant to let people on to his disability.

The tone of the evening was eclectic, to put it succiently. Kittle has an older dog that had leg surgery that day; he didn't have time to drop the dog off at his house from the vet, so Ron brought the weary animal with him. Kittle was also the most loquacious of the four stars, sharing anecdotes and bantering with the autograph seekers. The pooch laid under the table, struggling to adjust himself with his bum front leg, never leaving Ron's side. Sarge was almost as talkative but decidedly grumpy; he was battling some kind of knee problem, and on the rare occasion that Matthews stood up he walked around with an uncomfortable limp. Matthews and Kittle were seemingly well-acquainted, so between autographs Ron would turn to Sarge to banter and keep the mood light. In contrast Hartenstine was relatively quiet, reserved and polite. His reputation as a workmanlike, stoic football player translated into his personality.

The signing went on until 7:30. The crowds had died down at least fifteen minutes earlier, which allowed the guests and handlers to nab some free pizza. Mr. Love had a prior engagement that evening, so his handler picked him up at half past seven on the dot. Before we walked out, Dean gave Butterbean a half-dozen or so photos from his heyday. Apparently, Love's wife took all his memorabilia in a recent divorce, and he had nothing basketball-related to his name. Butterbean turned out to be a modest and graceful man, if not aloof and a little incoherent. Sarge hobbled out about ten minutes later, followed shortly by Kittle and his dog. Hartenstine nonchalantly left last, but not before I shook his hand. I went home with two autographed 8x10 photos and two signed trading cards, my pay for a hard night's work.

I try to avoid idolizing professional athletes. I respect that beyond their tremendous physical abilities, they're Working Joes like you and me. Where the average person can hone their craft for fifty years, an athlete taps out at twenty (if that). They can be kind and humble or selfish and vainglorious. Respect is earned, not innate. The four former professional athletes I met that night couldn't have been more disparate. One was a nurturer, where another was nurtured. One smiled as another scowled. One embraced the spotlight while another stayed unperturbed. (The "one" was Kittle, obviously.) For ninety incomparable minutes I caught in a polytheistic cult of personality, one that I'm not sure I can duplicate or compare to again.

*I apologize for naming names, but if you ever run into either of these guys, now you know.