Monday, January 04, 2010

Los Endos

I've come to a conclusion.

After more than six years and 3100 posts, I've decided that the Ranch has run its course. In short, this will be the last post I make here. I'll leave the blog itself up as an archive (and a collection of useful links), but the lights will go dark after this post, so to speak.

What's brought me to this decision? I blame jedi jawa.

OK, that's not really fair or accurate, but I couldn't resist the parting shot. Last month he blogged about the "ultimate blog question" - why do you do it? Among the answers he sussed out was the "I blog for myself" theory. That's the one to which I've always subscribed. I've never had a counter at the Ranch to measure readership. Outside of a comment, here or in the real world, I've got no way of knowing how many folks are reading, if any.

When I started the Ranch back in 2004, I did it for myself as a creative outlet. It was someplace where I could come and write about anything that struck my fancy. I'm lucky because I get to write for a living (gotta' crank out a couple of briefs this week!), but the scope of that work is kind of limited. Besides, making stuff up out of whole cloth is discouraged, to say the least, not to mention sarcastic broadsides. So the Ranch was a nice parallel to my professional writing.

At that time, the blog was the only outlet like that I had. In the past six years, things have changed considerably.

For one thing, I've started writing fiction with some regularity, if not necessarily any great skill. There's a finished novel manuscript on my kitchen table in need of editing along with another half-finished one on my laptop. That's not to mention the handful of short pieces in various stages of polish and the dozens of ideas I've got bounding around my brain. I want the time and energy to see those projects through.

For another thing, I'm much more musical than I was back in 2004. For "real" music I get to join jedi jawa and toot my clarinet in the Kanawha Valley Community Band. On the home front, I can deploy a growing amount of hardware to make all sorts of noises to annoy and entertain. It's a different kind of energy, yes, but just as creative as the writing stuff. I want more time and energy for those things, too.

So, going back to the "why I blog?" question, my answer has always been selfish - because it's a fun creative outlet. Now that I've got other creative outlets making demands on my time, the blogging just doesn't seem as much fun anymore. It's not that blogging takes so much time, but it blows a hole in every day and drains some of the enthusiasm I have for doing anything other than watching TV when I get home from work. Call them psychic opportunity costs. Shifting those from blogging to other things meshes better with the particular whims of my current life.

Simply put, all things run their course and the Ranch has run its. Thanks to everybody who has read, commented, and linked back here over the years. I appreciate all of it.

And now, the appropriate musical sendoff . . .

Thursday, December 31, 2009

You Aughta See . . .

While I wrote about music back in the days before blogs, I never really did the same with movies. It wasn't due to lack of interest. A lot of lonely weekends in law school led to my development into a film fanatic. Thanks to Netflix, I've got a treasure trove of great cinema, new and old, to work through these days.

As with the tunes, I do not claim to be any kind of an expert. Hell, I can at least make music, but I've never made a film! I won't argue that the ten movies below were the "best" of the decade (although some probably are), they're just the ones that stuck with me in a particularly ferocious way.

A word about the method to my madness - I took every flick that made my Year in Film & Video posts as well as things that got a 4 (out of 5) star rating or better at Netflix and threw them in the hopper. The plan was to narrow the list down to my top ten, but I had to include at least one more. Even that was a challenge.

Think of these as personal recommendations - if you haven't seen these flicks, you really ought to check them out.

Films of the Decade

Murder on a Sunday Morning (2001)

This has the double benefit of being a gripping, well made documentary (it won an Academy Award in 2001) that also happens to have public defenders as the heroes. Brenton Butler was a 15 year old kid swooped up by police in the wake of a brutal murder in Florida. Police coerced a confession out of Butler, who was rescued by a collection of lawyers and investigators from the local PD office. Not only did they clear an innocent man, they tipped police to the two real killers who were subsequently convicted. This story is the shot of courage I need when I get in one of those "why am I doing this kind of work?" funks.

Ararat (2002)

Director Atom Egoyan could have made a straight forward Schindler's List type movie about the Armenian Genocide. But that wouldn't be Egoyan's style. Instead, he uses the device of a movie about the making of that kind of movie to do something much more interesting. The result is a story that is about the power of the stories we tell, to ourselves and to others. It's a brilliant meditation on history and memory as well.

25th Hour (2002)

I've been pleasantly surprised to see this Spike Lee joint on several lists of the decade's best films. Most folks pick up on the fact that this was one of the first (if not the first) films shot in post-9/11 New York City that makes reference to the fall of the Twin Towers. Yeah, that's part of it, but it's not what resonated with me. Given my line of work, this story of Monty, a drug dealer, wrapping up his life before going to prison for seven years says a lot about the collateral damage of the "War on Drugs." Monty's a bastard, but you feel for him, maybe because he finally realizes how much of a bastard he's been all his life.

Shattered Glass (2003)

I'm drawn back to this movie again and again for largely the same reason I was fascinated by Forbidden Lie$, as it's a finely detailed examination of a fraud flailing about trying to dig himself out from underneath his artifice while actually digging himself deeper in. Stephen Glass was a hot shot writer for The New Republic back in the Clinton years when it still meant something. Turns out that Glass's reputation was built on the back of stories that were largely, and in some instances completely, works of fiction. When the bubble was pricked by a rival online magazine, it popped in spectacular fashion. The pop and the fallout are fascinating to watch. Oh, and it turns out young Anakin can actually act!

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

If it's true that we are all the sum of our experiences, then that must include the bad ones, right? Painful memories are just as important to who we are as good ones. That's the essential truth at the heart of one of the best sci-fi flicks of recent memory. "Wait a tic," you say, "there's no lasers or aliens or spaceships here - is it really sci-fi?" Absolutely. The plot is driven by a device that allows the targeted destruction of memories, a means to eliminate the nasty bits of your past. But the mechanics of the tech aren't as important as what its effects tell us about humanity. That's good sci-fi. It's also funny, inventive, sweet, and scathing in turn. That's just a good flick.

Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

Speaking of inventive, but in a much darker vein. It's hard to believe that a movie set during the days of fascist Spain in which the main character, a young girl, dies (after a fashion) can be so enjoyable. That's largely down to Guillermo del Toro's amazing visual style, but that doesn't really mean anything without a story and compelling characters to back it up. I'm very glad I actually got to see this in the theater, in addition to repeated viewings on DVD.

The Prestige (2006)

I won't argue that The Prestige is especially profound, like Eternal Sunshine . . ., or a unique visual treat, like Pan's . . ., but, damn, it was the most entertaining thing I saw in a theater this decade. A tale of deadly oneupsmanship between a pair of Victorian magicians, it really did keep you guessing up until the end. Or it kept me guessing, at any rate. One of the few DVDs I've purchased that's devoid of any real bonus material - it's that good.

United 93 (2006)

9/11 was the defining event of the decades, to be sure, and will be the "where were you when" moment for my generation. It was inevitable that movies would be made about the event and the people involved, but it was far from certain that they would be any good. Paul Greengrass succeeded in this flick by keeping it completely straight, simply telling the story of the "fourth plane", which crashed in Pennsylvania after passengers, alerted to what was going on by loved ones, stormed the cockpit. The moments before that occurs, when those on the plan make last calls to their friends and families is one of the most moving things I've ever seen. United 93 hurts so much because it's not been pumped up with Hollywood gimmicks. Sadly, there was simply no need.

The Lives of Others (2006)

Eavesdroppers, by definition, are a sleazy bunch. Those who hang around to catch bits of gossip are bad enough. Those who do it systematically for the government are on whole other level, though. Which is why a movie about one of them, working for one of the most oppressive states ever, is so fascinating. As much evil as Gerd does for the Stasi, he is not, deep down inside, a bad person. If he was, his job would be easier and wouldn't bleed over into the rest of his life. That's the story - how the listening impacts the listener. Made a great double bill with The Conversation when I saw them a couple of years ago.

4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007)

Black markets exist because the law can never really keep human beings from acting on their desires and needs. We have a robust black market for drugs in this country. The fact that it's illegal to sell or possess them doesn't make it go away. So to with abortion, in the pre-Roe days. That truth lurked in my mind all the way through this flick, about a woman who helps her friend obtain a black market abortion in Ceausescu's Romania. The plot make the film interesting, intellectually. What makes it excellent and emotionally robust is the attention to detail and the finely worked performances of all involved.

Man on Wire (2008)

Before the Twin Towers were symbols of horrific crime, they were symbols of progress, innovation, and wonder. It's those earlier impressions that caught the eye of Phillipe Petit, a French acrobat who saw a picture of the rising towers in a magazine in his dentist's office in 1968. He hatched deviously simple idea that required a complex scheme to pull off - stretch a high wire between the two towers and walk it. Man on Wire is the story of that scheme - the "artistic crime of the century" according to some - told with lots of enthusiasm by Petit himself. A great documentary in its own right, but also a wonderful reminder that the WTC will always be more than the sight of the nation's greatest crime.

There you have it. Update your Netflix queues as warranted!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

You Aughta Hear . . .

Back in the days before blogs, I wrote album reviews. Nothing all that substantive, just gut reactions to whatever passed through my world. Ever since I started this blog I've occasionally popped off about music. So it only seems natural, as we wind up the decade, to look back at the high points.

I am by no means an expert and won't make the argument that these are the ten "best" albums of the Aughts. They are simply the favorites of all the ones I heard. Think of them as personal recommendations - if you haven't heard this stuff, you really ought to give some of it a shot.

A word on methodology - I took all the albums released this decade that either made my Year in Tunes posts or that I gave ratings of 8 (of 10) or better in my music inventory program. I listened to them all afresh and took the top ten. Taking a page from The Onion A.V. Club, I've also included ten favorite songs from albums that didn't make the "best of" cut.

Albums of the Decade
Dancing, by Mike Keneally and Beer for Dolphins (2000)

A bit of a last hurrah for the Beer for Dolphins moniker, Keneally's big band album is probably his most accessible. That's not to say that there isn't a load of brilliant playing and general weirdness about, but its all wrapped around memorable tunes, from the playful "Live in Japan" to the elegiac "I Was Not Ready for You" to the full throated closers "Kedgeree." Even with a cut I almost always skip ("Only Mondays" gives me hives) it's brilliant.

Kid A, by Radiohead (2000)

I didn't know it at the time, but this was my gateway into electronic music, something that I've been exploring more and more over the years. I bought it largely because I missed out on OK Computer when it came out and didn't want to be behind the curve. I do vividly remember the band on SNL doing "Ideoteque," however, with one of the guys swapping patch cords on some massive modular synth all the while, tho'.

mei, by echolyn (2002)

echolyn's 2000 comeback album was a little less overtly proggy than their earlier works, although it's brilliant in its own right. Any worries that the guys might be "maturing," however, was put to rest with mei, made up of one 53-minute track (it's not even subdivided). Epics that long most often just don't work, much less work this well. It rocks, it floats, it wails. Brilliant from beginning to end.

In Absentia, by Porcupine Tree (2002)

The Aughts were good to Steven Wilson and company, who continued to build a following so passionate that 2009's The Incident made significant noise on the British charts. The groundwork for that was laid with In Absentia, where the band took their Floyd influences and acoustic shadings and slammed them headlong into metal riffage. This is the best sustained example of that formula.

The World That We Drive Through, by The Tangent (2004)

I was a little surprised to find that every album by The Tangent had made it onto my Year in Tunes posts (until this year, sadly). Not because they aren't one of my favorite bands - they are - but because I hadn't realized how good they had always been. I'm probably in the minority in ranking The World . . . as their best, but I think it's the most consistent example of their blend of classic symphonic prog and Canterbury elements.

The Sane Day, by Beardfish (2005)

As I recall, these Swedes started their legendary Progday set with "The Gooberville Ballroom Dancer," the first line of which begins "he was a filthy mutherfucker . . .." Talk about an entrance! They've been fixtures on the prog scene ever since. While all of their copious output has its moments, I think this one works best as a whole. It's got a loose spacey feeling in spots that's lacking on later albums. It's a concept album, about a bizarre journey that teaches that you really can't go home again. I think. But who cares, when the music's so good?

The Hemulic Voluntary Band, by Ritual (2007)

More proggy goodness from Sweden, also with a skewed lyrical outlook. Based mostly on Tove Jansson's Moomin stories, the band weaves several tales spiced with intricate, organic, interesting music. It says something that this is one of my favorite keyboard albums and there's nary a synth to be found on it.

4th, by D.F.A. (2008)

As I said, I took all the "nominated" albums and gave them a listen. My intent with 4th was to figure out which tune would go on to be a "best of the rest" contender. When I couldn't do it, it dawned on me that this had to be on the album list. And why not? Jazzy Canterbury-esque prog, with crunchier guitars and an Italian accent, topped off with a track led by a trio of female vocalists updating an older folk tune. Great stuff.

The Hazards of Love, by The Decemberists (2009)

Colin Meloy and crew tell a tale that involves a shape shifting hero, his evil witch of a mother, his put upon lover, and, somehow, a sociopathic rake who murdered his own children (they interfered with his lifestyle, don't you know). Musically I think it's closer to the band's older stuff, (I've heard it described as a "folk opera") save for the epic scope of the whole thing. As I said in the Year in Tunes post, it's pretentious, overly bombastic in spots, and nonsensical in others, but I love every minute of it.

Scambot 1, by Mike Keneally (2009)

Mike Keneally is many things - an amazing guitarist, fine crafter of melodies, a crafty arranger, and an all around skewed personality. Over the years, he's worked in the confines of rock bands, classical ensembles, and improvisational projects. All those facets come together on Scambot 1, a tale of dastardly manipulation and . . . well, I'm still not quite sure. What I am sure of is that any album that can run through the catchy as hell "Hallmark" to the Grand Wazoo-esque "Chee" and onto the improvised "We Are the Quiet Chiildren" - all so different, but so good and working so well next to each other - is a classic.

Best of the Rest - Songs of the Decade

  • "Certifiable #1 Smash," by Kevin Gilbert, from The Shaming of the True (2000): Shaming is the story of Johnny Virgil, a huge talent who sells out in pursuit of success. This is his blueprint for a hit song, complete with a vivid description of "the video idea." The lyrics skewer the idea of music as commodity, while the music rocks in a way that only something real and from the heart can.
  • "Serpentine Song," by Steve Hackett, from To Watch the Storms (2003): Quite simply, one of the most beautiful songs I own. Dedicated to Hackett's father, who sells his paintings on the weekends in Hyde Park, it takes Steve's more restrained acoustic style to its zenith, augmented by fantastic flute and sax work in the end.
  • "The Bachelor and the Bride," by The Decemberists, from Her Majesty . . . (2003): One of things that appeals to be about The Decemberists is that many of their songs, even the short ones, tell a story or present well drawn characters. This is my favorite of those tracks, aided probably by a very cool video (done in the same style as the one for "The Tain").
  • "Beat Box Guitar," by Adrian Belew, from Side One (2004): On his three Sides, Belew alternated between thumping power trio tunes and even more dense and layered one man band takes. This falls into the later category and is a brilliant example (it was even nominated for a Grammy, IIRC). Almost as brilliant, in a completely different way, is the live power trio version from Side Four, which uses the studio track as a jumping off point.
  • "The Invisible Man," by Marillion, from Marbles (2004): I was sort of surprised when I made the albums list and Marillion wasn't on it, since they are one of my favorite bands. Truth is, their releases this decade were hit and miss affairs in need of some editing. Nonetheless, when they're on their game, it's a thing of beauty. This is the best of the lot.
  • "Arriving Somewhere But Not Here," by Porcupine Tree, from Deadwing (2004): Everything I said above about PT's blending of styles on In Absentia applies in miniature to this track, where it all comes together most successfully. Plus, the middle section is the closest to head banging I'm likely to get!
  • "World Through My Eyes," by RPWL, from World Through My Eyes (2005): RPWL, which started off as a Pink Floyd tribute band, has a tendency to sound a bit like a second rate Porcupine Tree. On this album, at least, the infusion of some Eastern sounds and rhythms helped to spice things up. They drive this track, which includes a great synth break in the middle, and pushes it to another level.
  • "An Ode to the Spacemane," by The Mandrake Project, from A Favor to the Muse (2006): One of the musical highlights of my decade was finally making it to a prog festival, 3RP in Pittsburgh this year and last. The greatest part of those things is being blown away by a band you've never heard before, or even heard of (see Beardfish above for a good example). Last year at 3RP this local band absolutely blew me away, this tune in particular.
  • "In Earnest," by The Tangent, from A Place in the Queue (2006): The epic of the decade, in my book. I'm not much of a lyrics guy - as long as they're serviceable I don't pay them too much attention. But the story of Earnest, the ordinary man who flew Spitfires in World War II only to face a life devoid of future promise where nothing can live up to that life. It's very touching, particularly for a 20-minute prog epic filled with terrific Tangent music.
  • "The Way the Wind Blows," by Rush, from Snakes and Arrows (2007): Given Neal Peart's personal tragedies after Test for Echo was released, it was just good to see the band back and producing new material in 2007. That most of it was really good was a pleasant bonus. Many of the tracks on Snakes and Arrows take aim at religion and related issues. This track does the best job of melding the lyric with the music.
There you go. It'll be interesting to go back in another decade and see how the next ten years match up.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

2009 - My Year in Film and Video

In comparison with the year in tunes, it feels like I've hardly seen any movies this year. Maybe it's because, going back over my list, there wasn't anything I saw in the theater that really grabbed me. I suppose I should just delete "film" from the post title, then, but why mess with a tradition?

That being said, I managed to uncover quite a bit of good older stuff this year and catch up with some classics I'd previously neglected. It was a particularly good year for documentaries.

Without further ado, the most memorable movies of my past year:

Throne of Blood (1957): Akira Kurosawa does Macbeth, reset in feudal Japan, of course. It's as good as it sounds (if you like that kind of thing). The Criterion Collection essay that goes along with this version says many critics consider this the best adaptation of Macbeth and I see no need to argue.

Harakiri (1962): Harakiri is a form of seppuku, Japanese ritual suicide by disembowelment. That may give you some idea that things will not end well in this film, which begins with a disgraced samurai seeking permission from a noble lord to commit harakiri in his castle and, thus, with honor. But in this time, disgraced samurai are known to make this request hoping that the lord will take pity on them and provide some support. What follows is an unfolding of multiple tales of "honor," revenge, and the importance of perception. Brilliant, but bloody.

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985): I mentioned this the other day in a discussion of biopics, as this really doesn't fit the bill. Yukio Mishima is one of Japan's most celebrate authors. He also happened to be a hard right iconoclast complete with his own private army. Did I mention that he committed seppuku after taking over a Tokyo military headquarters? Amazingly, director Paul Schrader (better known for his scripts, including Taxi Driver) manages to explore what made the man tick, using a combination of styles including some beautifully rendered scenes from four of Mishima's books. This is not a "cradle to grave" biopic. Rather, it's a meditation on what the life of a particular man might have meant. Thought provoking and, in places, amazing to look at.

Grave of the Fireflies (1988): A caution: don't watch this movie at the end of a long hard day. You'll probably slit your wrists. After all, it's the story of a pair of orphans during World War II - dad's in the Imperial Navy and most likely dead, mom is killed during an American bombing raid. Yes, it's a cartoon. Yes, it's Japanese. No, it's not a kiddie flick (not even a little bit). Having said that, this is a sad, beautiful, heart wrenching, amazing movie. Exceptionally powerful, but I've' got no real desire to watch it again any time soon.

Grizzly Man (2005)/Man on Wire (2008): I think of these two documentaries as a set because they illustrate one of the unfortunate truths about how people react to docs - the often get so wrapped up in the person or persons depicted that they lose sight of the skill of the filmmaker. In both of these flicks, what you think about them comes down largely to how you feel about their subjects, both certified eccentrics.

Grizzly Man is about Timothy Treadwell, who spent 13 summers amongst grizzly bears in the Alaskan wilderness before being killed and eaten by one of them. Treadwell was certainly a lost soul, at sea in the human world. Depending on your worldview, his dancing with the bears was either a wonderful act of conservation and education or a stupid meddling with the violence of nature that ended up costing him (and his girlfriend) his life. How you feel about Treadwell probably matches up with what you think of the film.

Man on Wire is about Phillipe Petit, an ebullient French acrobat who, along with a team of assistants, strung a tightrope between the top of the then unfinished World Trade Center towers in 1974. Petit is the shining star at the heart of Man on Wire, a man so full of joy and wonder about what he did that he's really hard to resist. Or he's incredibly annoying and you want to smack him in the face. I found Petit a fascinating subject and thus loved the film, but I know he rubbed others the wrong way.

Deliver Us From Evil (2006): I blogged about this film, a documentary about the fallout from the Catholic church sex abuse scandal in a particular parish, here. Not really any more to say.

War/Dance (2007): As you know if you're a regular reader, I am not exactly a fuzzy "up with people" kind of person. I'm a cynic, a skeptic, and more often than not, a curmudgeon. But even I am not beyond being reached by an uplifting tale of the underdog making good. In this case, the underdogs are Ugandan school children, refugees from a war zone, who compete in Uganda's annual National Music Competition. The kids dance, sing, and drum their way through the film with great heart and skill. It is a great example of music being a therapeutic outlet for some very troubled souls. Not only is there a lot of great performance footage, there's also quite a bit of beautiful cinematography of the landscape. Highly recommended.

Forbidden Lie$ (2007): This is not a perfect documentary. In fact, over a couple of viewings, its flaws become more apparent. Notice, however, that I was compelled to watch it twice. Regardless of its flaws, this is a fascinating study of a hoax and the hoaxer, who just keeps digging and digging and never makes her way out. If you want to see what the "fraud personality" looks like, this is your chance.

Happy-Go-Lucky (2008): I blogged about this flick, and its aggravating protagonist, here, and my impression still stands - the fact that Mike Leigh makes me care about Poppy and even root for her is a testament to his skills as a director.

Sita Sings the Blues (2008): Back in March I blogged about this flick, a cause of Roger Ebert, that was sitting in distribution purgatory. I'm happy to report that while Sita may still be blue, she's now available on DVD at Netflix (and no doubt elsewhere). I enjoyed it immensely on the small computer screen, so I really look forward to getting it on the TV and seeing it "full" sized.

In Bruges (2008): A good flick, but a weird one. It has funny bits, but it's not really comedy. It has heavy bits, but it's not really drama. Oh, and there's a midget. Be warned - the two main characters are professional killers. If that fact alone will get your dander up, stay away. If morally ambiguity doesn't turn you off, it's well worth it. It sort of falls apart in the end, but that's a minor quibble. Dark comedy is hard to do well, and In Bruges does a lot more right than it does wrong.

In the Loop (2009): Satire is hard to do well, too, especially if you're satirizing a current event that is no laughing matter. Although it's never mentioned, the Iraq War is the subject of the scathingly vulgar and funny film. When a British cabinet minster casually tells a radio interviewer that war is "unforeseeable" the hawks and doves in his own government, as well as ours, line up to use the moment for their own ends. As a result, the most powerful nations in the world stumble into something that really shouldn't be stumbled into. Like I said, it's not really that funny, but In the Loop mines a lot of comedy gold from the serious subject, sort of like Dr. Strangelove. And if you love the vulgar put down, the master craftsman played by Peter Capaldi will give you oodles of new material.

That's it for the Year in Film and Video. Will any of these pop up as something You Aughta See later this week? Tune in to find out!

Monday, December 28, 2009

2009 - My Year in Tunes

Yes, dear readers, it's that time of year, once again. The time where I take a few minutes and talk about the cultural artifacts that particularly moved me over the past 12 months. And after that, a special treat - my top movies and tunes of the decade as we send out the Aughts.

We start, as always, with music. Holy cow I listened to a lot of tunes this year! It was a big year for several of my favorite artists. In addition, getting ready for and then shopping at 3RP this year really drove the numbers up. Bottom line, it was a very good year. And away we go . . .

New for 2009

  • The Hazards of Love, by The Decemberists: This was a hell of a year for concept albums/rock operas/whatever you want to call them. In an era of iTunes downloads and shrinking attention spans, quite a number of bands not only clung to the album as a format by proved why the whole thing works on that scale. Building on their proggier dalliances from "The Tain" and The Crane Wife, The Decemberists were first out of the gate (in my collection, at least) and one of the most successful. It's pretentious, overly bombastic in spots, and nonsensical in others. I love every minute of it. It was a blast to hear live.
  • The Incident, by Porcupine Tree: While repeating yourself is generally something to be avoided, there's something to be said for finding some inspiration in the deeper parts of the back catalog. After a disappointing Fear of a Blank Planet, Steven Wilson and crew spiced up the metal-tinged modern PT sound with some of the more Floyd influenced and acoustic sounds of the pre-In Absentia days for this year's release. Another concept album (although much looser than some of the others), it's their strongest in years from stem to stem.
  • Number Seven, by Phideaux: I reviewed this one back in July and my initial impression still holds true. That middle section, dubbed "Dormouse Escapes", is probably my favorite hunk of music from this year.
  • Scambot 1, by Mike Keneally: Mike Keneally has done so many things over the course of his solo career that it begged the question - what would happen if he could take a little bit of all those things and blend them into a single cohesive musical statement? Although it's only part one of two, Scambot 1 provides the answer - it would be fucking brilliant. Seriously, this is an album that has everything from guitar heroics and shiny pop gems to wild improv and big band Zappa stuff. Best experienced with liner notes in hand, in which the story of Scambot unfolds (sort of), this is the sum total of all Keneally has been over the years. Which, of course, is brilliant.
New to Me
  • Revolver (1966) & Magical Mystery Tour (1967), by The Beatles: The release of the remastered Beatles catalog this year was a good excuse to go back and plug some holes in my collection. No eye popping revelations on any of those discs, but these two stood out as the ones I would play again and again. Magical Mystery Tour just has some wonderfully crafted pop tunes on it (and, in the American version, a whole truckload of hits), while Revolver hints at some of the experimentation to come. If nothing else, they maybe helped remind me to not take the boys from Liverpool for granted quite so often.
  • Being, by Wigwam (1974): I keep a running list of albums I want to pick up (cleverly titled "Tunes I Want") where I'll note the name of a band and album that strikes my fancy. Often they linger on that list for years and I forget exactly why I put them there in the first place. Such was the case with Wigwam. But since Being was on my list and I found at copy at 3RP, of course I picked it up. I'm damn glad I did. Aside from some overly hippie leaning lyrical bits, it's a really excellent jazzy prog album. There's loads of fantastic keyboard work on it, in addition to some Zappa-esque horn arrangements in spots. That's why I keep the list!
  • Creatures, by Frogg Cafe (2003): I really dig 2005's Fortunate Observer of Time, but never got around to picking up any other Froggy things until this summer. This earlier effort is a little more stereotypically "proggy" than Observer but equally good. Smack in the middle is a bit of Ives inspired weirdness that acts as a bizarro palette cleanser. Good stuff.
  • Grötesk, by Mörglbl (2007): I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting when I picked this disc up at 3RP, but I think I imagined it would be a bit more "out there." Intense instrumental French jazz-tinged prog - what else could it be? How about amazingly well crafted and melodic instrumental tunes with more than a small dose of fun? "The Toy Maker" had me dancing around my kitchen - I'm not kidding. While these guys have chops to burn, they know how to use them.
  • Oblivion Sun, by Oblivion Sun (2007): Not surprisingly, this spin off project from the short lived Happy the Man rebirth sounds an awful lot like the mother ship, maybe with a bit less ambient/new age flavor (no Kit Watkins, after all) and a bit heavier guitar work. What is surprising is just how damn good it is, nailing that easy blend of prog and jazz that was HtM's hallmark.
That's it for the Year in Tunes, folks. Will any of these turn up as something You Aughta Hear later in the week? Tune in and find out!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Law Is the Devil

The Devil. It’s always the Devil’s fault.

It seems appropriate that in the same week that we bid good riddance to religious huckster supreme Oral Roberts that one of his followers makes the kind of base plea for cash that would have made ol’ Oral smile. Remember, he demanded millions in 1987 lest he be “called home” by the Lord.

Rod Parsley runs a megaministry in Columbus, one that is firmly in the “how intense I pray depends on how much you pay” school. You know the kind:

Turns out that Rod’s bottom line isn’t too good, leading him to beg for money on the air (via Ed and Pam, who both have the video):

The Rev. Rod Parsley has issued a desperate plea for money, telling his flock that he is facing a 'demonically inspired financial attack' that is threatening his ministry.
Parsley is asking for donations by Dec. 31, calling that date an 'unavoidable deadline' during an episode of Breakthrough posted yesterday on Breakthrough is Parsley's television show.

* * *

The headline of the appeal for donations reads: 'Will you help me take back what the devil stole?'

When asked to comment yesterday, Parsley's World Harvest Church issued a statement saying the recession caused a decline in member giving in 2009, which has led to a fourth-quarter deficit of $3 million despite a 30 percent reduction in the budget.
Now, $3 million is a pretty specific request. I wonder what the Devil did to cause Pastor Rod to part with his hard earned money?
This year, the church settled for $3.1 million with a family whose son was spanked at its day-care center in 2006, to the point his buttocks and legs were covered with welts and abrasions.

* * *

The [plaintiffs] said the payment was made this year. During yesterday's Breakthrough broadcast, Parsley referred to a $3 million check he had to write from the ministry.
Aha! So by “Devil” what Pastor Rod actually means is “the law” and by “stole” he means “awarded by a jury after a trial.” More appropriately, what he means is “one of my poorly supervised underlings who beat up a toddler and I’ve got to pay for it!” I’ll admit, that’s damned evil, but no Devil required. Sadly, it’s firmly within the scope of ordinary human behavior. Why is it that the religious base of the “party of personal responsibility” always tries to blame their sins on somebody else?

Of course, to be completely fair to Rod, the $3.1 he paid out was at one time collected from the gullible souls who bought into his earlier pitches for salvation by the dollar. It’s only natural that he’d go back to the well for another dip. Nobody ever said you’d go broke playing on the faith of the gullible religious.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

20 Years Ago Tonight

The nation first met this family (for the most part):

Hard to believe the show started before I was even in college! And that debut episode profoundly shaped my ideals of Christmas:

Ho ho ho, indeed!