Saturday, January 24, 2015

Ernie Banks

I just received the awful news that Ernie Banks passed-away last night. He was gracious, a perpetual optimist and Leo Durocher's least-favorite Cub.

When Durocher expressed his contempt for Banks' nice-guy image and seeming lack of grit and fire, it was pointed out to ol' Leo that Durocher had never grown up poor and black in the urban south and yet still managed to be one of the first African-Americans to make it to the Major Leagues.

"Don't think that took any balls, Leo?"

Durocher scoffed and stalked away.

Of course, Banks didn't "just" make it to the Major Leagues; he played the game at a Hall-of-Fame level and was, for many years, the only National Leaguer to win consecutive MVP awards. 

This while playing for dismal, last-place teams.

He was a hero to a generation of Chicago sports fans starved for them. On the occasion of his 500th home run, the dour junior high assembly I was at instantly took a wondrous turn when it was interrupted to relay the fact that Banks had, indeed, sent a Pat Jarvis pitch over the left-field wall.

For a few moments, it was happy, delirious bedlam. 

God bless you, Mr. Cub. 

I won't ever forget you.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

My Favorite CDs of 2014

Twenty-fourteen was not one of the all-time great rock and roll years. Not like 1965 or 1980 or even 2011. 

There were a passel of good releases, plus some noteworthy boxed sets and archival live albums. But nothing I played to the exclusion of sleep or even leaving for work on time.

On the other hand, maybe I'm just getting old. Or more responsible. Being that sixty is closer than fifty, one of these is a distinct possibility.

OK. On to 2014. 

First, the box sets.

I'm taking the road less-traveled and choosing the three-disc Michael Bloomfield collection From His Head to His Heart to His Hands.

The careers of other sixties guitar gods were certainly more celebrated and more thoroughly-chronicled than Bloomfield's. But I can't imagine they were any more deserving than that of this Chicago kid with the unruly hair.

His stinging leads informed some of the sixties most indelible albums, and helped usher the guitar into new and unimagined realms. This collection shines a much-needed light on the career of one of rock's unacknowledged masters.

Every once in a while, a tour attains legendary status. Such tours represent a watershed moment in the career of a band or artist. Examples would be the Rolling Stones in 1972. Bob Dylan in 1966. Or the Talking Heads in 1983.

Another would be Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in 1978. The uniform intensity of the band's performances (all 111 of them) was staggering. I've never heard a band play so hard so often. They were relentless.

Fortunately for us, several shows were simulcast on radio. And one of them, the August 9th date at the Agora Theater in Cleveland, recently received an official release by LeftField media on Bruce

The sound quality is excellent, as is the performance. Cleveland was an early stronghold for Springsteen, and suitably enlivened, he and the E Street Band turn in a charged performance worthy of release.

Now for 2014's favorites:

1. Hookworms – The Hum On their second album, Hookworms don't just confront the so-called sophomore jinx, they assault and batter it until it's the consistency of porridge. (Which isn't to be construed as an endorsement of senseless violence, but as the Square Peg's way of saying The Hum is really good.)

Dark, aggressive, eerie—The Hum might be how The Doors would've sounded had it been recorded today, rather than a half-century ago. Most amazing of all is that Hookworms are able to infuse the proceedings with melody and, well, hooks.

Who knows—I might just be late for work one of these days.

Check “The Impasse” and “Retreat”.

2. Mogwai – Rave Tapes The spare and austere beauty of Scotland oozes from this collection, a continuation of the work featured on last year's brilliant Les Revenants soundtrack. Call it Mogwai 2.0.

The rock-inspired crunch continues to give way to a subtler, more-nuanced music that is as resonant as it is unhurried. 

Only a labored spoken word piece mars the glorious mood. On planet LPG, Rave Tapes was the grower of the year.

Check “No Medicine for Regret” and “Heard About You Last Night”.

3. Jenny Lewis – The Voyager I wasn't cool-enough to tap into Rilo Kiley until Under the Blacklight, and by then it was pretty much over with. Thankfully, Lewis' solo career has been a fruitful one.

The Voyager finds Lewis grappling with the questions biological clocks and boyfriends who won't take off their headphones pose. Paradoxically, it's all cloaked in a warm pop sheen, burnished by Lewis' oh-so-charismatic voice.

However deeply you choose to listen, The Voyager is a trip worth taking.

Check “Aloha & the Three Johns” and “Slippery Slopes”.

4. Hamish Kilgour – All of It and Nothing Brother David is better-known, but Hamish's solo debut is a smack dab doozy.

In that way a certain generation of Flying Nun alumni have, Kilgour's spare, talk-sung epics have an appealing understatement which is unlike anything out there. The shambling melodies and Kilgour's modest voice imparts an intimate, homemade feel.

Odd bits of instrumentation shine like stars in All of It and Nothing's vast sky, cementing its appeal.

Check “Crazy Radiance” and “Smile”.

5. Temples – Sun Structures Temples hit all the right notes on this, their debut album. 

Inhabiting a sweet spot somewhere between early Pink Floyd, mid-sixties Byrds and a bit of the Walker Brothers, they fashion a hook-laden nugget that's one of the freshest-sounding releases of the year.     

Check song of the year “Keep in the Dark” and “Sand Dance”.

6. Sharon Van Etten – Are We There When Van Etten asks if we're 'there', she's not referring to a vacation destination. 'There' is a place where, if you're really lucky, it might stop raining long-enough for sunlight to animate the particle of color in her endless night.

But with light comes shadows, and the haunted Van Etten can't help but wonder what romantic devilment lies within.

A snippet of lighthearted studio chatter closes Are We There, suggesting the possibility of a happy ending. Which is fine—as long as it doesn't preclude her master's thesis on the dark side of love.

Check “Our Love” and “Every Time the Sun Comes Up”.

7. Gary Clark, Jr. – Live Were it not for the smoldering, electric guitar goodness of this album, I'd be concerned this release masks a case writer's block, coming as it does two years after his last studio release and with no plans for another one anytime soon.

But when you have a talent like Clark who can sing like Marvin and play like Jimi, it's best to just enjoy the music however and whenever it comes. So what if it doesn't follow the prescribed path to success? 

Being on hold never sounded so good.

Check “Catfish Blues” and “If Trouble Was Money”.

8. The Faint – Doom Abuse I'd lost track of this Omaha, Nebraska outfit after 2004's Wet from Birth. Turns out it wasn't very hard, as following a year-long tour for Fasciinatiion they essentially disbanded.

Doom Abuse isn't the rusty release you could rightfully fear after so much time off, but a hit-the-ground-running collection that sounds like it came straight from the kinetic aftermath of a hot tour.

Check “Your Stranger” and the would-have-been Max Headroom favorite “Dress Code”.

9. Rodney Crowell – Tarpaper Sky On one hand, as perhaps one of three guys on this list who could recall the 1976 punk explosion, Crowell is a survivor.

On the other, that would be damming him with faint praise.

Albums like Tarpaper Sky are the reason Crowell isn't appearing at your local casino alongside Eddie Rabbit and the Oak Ridge Boys on those generic, pre-packaged oldies tours.

His remains a fresh and vital talent.

Check “Grandma Loved That Old Man” and “I Wouldn't Be Me Without You”.

10. Prince – Art Official Age September was twofer time in Paisley Park as Prince released a pair of albums, the better and more cohesive of which appears here.

Art Official Age isn't anything you haven't heard before, and it isn't going to replace Dirty Mind or Sign of the Times in your Prince pantheon.

But all of that's forgotten the first time you get up and pop n' lock.

Check “Breakfast Can Wait” and “Art Official Cage”.

Honorable mentions:

Wussy – Attica!
The Black Keys – Turn Blue
Jack White – Lazaretto

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Who Knew: Budget Cuts are Inconvenient!

Oh, you're a sly one, John Koskinen! Pulling the fire alarm and telling millions of American taxpayers their refunds could be delayed because of budget cuts was a brilliant and inspired move.

You sure know how to hit 'em where they live, Mr. IRS Commissioner.

But despite the standing O I gave you during last night's network news, I feel compelled to uncap the dreaded red felt-tip pen for just a minute.

You neglected to credit Republicans and their relentless pursuit of the small government ideal. You know, the one that stripped your agency of funding.

The wealthy can be made still-wealthier. The powerful still more-powerful. If only big government wasn't sucking up their money to, you know, protect and expedite their tax returns.

As one who believes strongly in giving credit where it's due, it's only fair.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Baseball Hall of (Kinda-Sorta) Fame

I'm kind of pissed. The Frambozen is gone. The end-of-the-year glow provided by the twin holidays of Christmas and New Year's Eve is also gone, replaced by the bitter, sub-zero, salt-encrusted ugliness of January.

If that weren't bad enough, the Baseball Writers' Association of America has again seen fit to dismiss the career of Lee Smith, a player as uncommon as his name is common.

Lee Smith was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the mid-seventies, which might be the only smart thing they did that decade.

After several years in the minors, Smith was called up to the major leagues in late 1980, the first of eight seasons he would spend in blue pinstripes. During that time, he reliably served as the Cubs' closer on those rare occasions they held a late-game lead in need of protection.

Built like a tight end, Smith would take the mound with Jheri curls glistening in the mid-summer humidity. He would glower at a succession of hitters from beneath a cap pulled low until they had, more often than not, surrendered to futility.

Sadly, in December of 1987 the Cubs saw fit to trade Smith to the Boston Red Sox for future Hall of Famers Al Nipper and Calvin Schiraldi. (For those of you not knowledgeable about baseball, I'm being a tad sarcastic. Really, seriously and totally sarcastic.) 

This despite the fact that between 1982 and 1988, Smith never ranked lower than fourth in saves, and finished first or second four times. Is it lazy thinking or just too easy to suggest the Cubs felt there was nothing left to, um, save? 

At any rate, Smith continued his late-game heroics in Boston for two years before being traded early in the 1990 season to the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for Tom Brunansky.

In St. Louis, playing for surprisingly mediocre Cardinal teams, Smith elevated his profile and recorded three successive forty-save seasons with just a single ERA over 3.20. He was rewarded with three consecutive all-star berths.

Following a late-season trade to the Yankees in 1993 and by then in his mid-thirties, Smith split time between four teams, enjoying an all-star season each with the Baltimore Orioles (1994) and California Angels (1995) before retiring in the summer of 1997 as a Montreal Expo.

It is significant that in the fourteen seasons between 1981 and 1996, Smith never finished lower than ninth in saves and led the league four times. Only once in that span did his ERA climb above 3.65, or his strike-outs-per-nine-innings average fall below seven.

He assumed the all-time lead in saves in 1993, and held it through 2006. He set a single-season record for saves in a season with 47 in 1991, and was good enough, long enough to be named an all-star with four different franchises.

And yet Lee Smith remains unelected to the Hall of Fame.

Smith set about his career with the same quiet intensity Henry Aaron did his. He never made headlines by feuding with teammates, managers or GMs. Armed with a fastball that burned like the heat in his native Louisiana, he merely excelled.

But low-key personalities without multiple World Series appearances for big market glamor teams apparently aren't sexy enough to warrant BBWAA attention. After being named on 50.6 percent of the ballots in 2012, Smith's support has shrank alarmingly.

In what must rank as one of the larger insults of his life, Barry 'Asterisk' Bonds and Roger Clemens have been named on more ballots than Smith in each of the last two years.

Really, BBWAA? Really?

To my knowledge, Lee Smith has never killed anyone. Never patronized a puppy mill nor introduced legislation that would consign millions to economic deprivation while enriching a tiny percentage of the population.

Then why should he be made to suffer the indignity of trailing self-important gas bags like Bonds and Clemens in the BBWAA's annual Hall of Fame vote?

Let me try this again: if being very good for a very long time is the criteria for entrance to the Hall of Fame, Smith belongs.

If being the first relief pitcher to amass four-hundred saves, or remaining solidly entrenched in third place on the all-time saves list nearly twenty-years after retirement means anything, Smith belongs.

If a career ERA of 3.03 or averaging nearly a strike-out per inning over an eighteen-year career in the pressure cooker of relief pitching is just a wee bit out of the ordinary, Smith belongs.

The stretch of thirteen consecutive seasons with at least twenty saves remains the second-longest ever assembled by a relief pitcher. The six-straight seasons with at least thirty saves remains third-longest, and the three successive seasons attaining at least forty saves is second.

Does it need to be said again? Smith belongs.

Lee Smith was a rock. Others might have posted more glittering statistics over the course of a season, perhaps even picked-up a Cy Young award. But Lee Smith was better longer than just about anyone not named Mariano Rivera.

At 107 years old, the Baseball Writers' Association of America clearly should know better: Smith belongs.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

My 20 Favorite Bruce Springsteen Songs

I've been listening to Bruce Springsteen for a long time. I'd like to say I didn't need 'Time' and 'Newsweek' to show me the way to 'Born to Run', but that would be lying.

He's one of a handful of performers who has stayed as relevant and as interesting after forty years as he was after four minutes. Like a classic movie or a great book, his songs hold up to repeated listening because there is always something new to be found in them.

Add that these songs were often rendered in front of an audience with as much fire and passion as they had been in a recording studio, and an indelible rock and roll icon was born.

Very few performers poured themselves into their concerts like Bruce Springsteen did. His concerts were hands-above-your-head celebrations of rock and roll; exorcisms of generational expectations and wage slavery which would crescendo into the orgiastic ecstasies of salvation and redemption.

It's not an abuse of poetic license to compare them to southern baptist church services—wild and unfettered.

Of course, all of this was a long time ago—I haven't been to a Springsteen concert since 1984. But the songs below live on. 

And unlike me, they remain ageless and undiminished.

1. Backstreets - Captures that sense of loss and regret when the wide-screen dreams of childhood give way to the tedium and obligation of adulthood.

2. The River – Moving portrait of a young, working-class couple expertly rendered and observed.

3. Badlands - Compelling statement of survival, will and purpose.

4. Born to Run – An anthem for anyone who ever loaded up their car in hopes of finding something better.

5. Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out - Razor-sharp tribute to the R&B of Springsteen's youth.

6. Johnny 99 - Composite of every end-of-his rope, down-on-his-luck character Springsteen ever wrote about, and sadly as true in '15 as it was in '82.

7. No Surrender - Picture-perfect reminiscence of how thrilling and influential rock and roll was to us, especially in our youth.

8. Born in the U.S.A. - Howling litany of a veteran's betrayal which unwittingly became example number-one in pop song misinterpretation.

9. Incident on 57th Street - The opus-highlight of an album rooted in beat poetry and soul music.

10. Rosalita (Come Out Tonight) - A wild and exuberant celebration of career and romance freshly bloomed.

11. Thunder Road - A song that captures the anticipation of striking out on your own.

12. Jungleland - A stylized street life ballet that rises and falls like sex.

13. Factory - This song moves like the factory clock. You can practically feel the weariness of feet in steel-toed boots.

14. Racing in the Street - A couple at the point where they realize the honeymoon is over.

15. She's the One - Glorious celebration of lust and sexual attraction.

16. Streets of Philadelphia - Haven't heard this song in years, but can still hear the haunting line "...and my clothes don't fit me no more."

17. Prove It All Night - Not for anything contained in the lyrics--just for the epic floggings it received on the 1978 tour.

18. Stolen Car - Thoughtful meditation on an album mostly dedicated to upbeat frat-rock.

19. Atlantic City - Another profile of people in desperate straits, set to a sober, haunting melody.

20. Tougher Than the Rest – An expression of eternal love, with a melody as pure and uncluttered as the thought.