Monday, December 12, 2011

The Best Albums of 2011

Just as the economy has started to make a comeback, so has the recording industry, and the wealth of new and interesting music has expanded greatly this year from the past two. Overall, I think of 2011 as the year of the female artist, and there are more women on my list than ever before. There was also a resurgence of interesting blues artists this year, and I have included a few on my list. But mostly, this list is populated by artists that have grown or changed for the better since their earlier releases.

As with last year, I have identified 100 albums, but it was hard to limit the list to 100—I really like the music on this list. As such, I have numbered and described the top 50 and listed the others as “Honorable Mention.”

My tastes tend to run toward alternative rock, R&B/soul, indie rock, and inventive pop music, so if you are a fan of Classical, Country, Death Metal, Rap, or Traditional Folk, you will probably be disappointed with this list. I also tend to like music that is up-front, rather than hidden by layers of production.

The numbering is somewhat random, because on any given day, I might want to hear one album ahead of any other, and each of the 50 “Honorable Mention” albums could easily have made the top 50. With that said, here is my list in ascending order:

50. Hugh Laurie, “Let Them Talk”
That’s right—I’m referring to the British comedian who is also the star of the TV show, “House.” On this album, he displays his piano and vocal chops on an interesting selection of blues songs. Key songs: “You Don’t Know My Mind,” “Swanee River”, and the title song, “Let Them Talk.”

49. Wild Flag, “Wild Flag”
Consisting of four women, each having experienced success with other bands, Wild Flag has put together a well-performed and well-produced post-punk album that benefits from repeated listening. Key songs: “Romance,” “Future Crimes,” and “Racehorse.”

48. Beyoncé, “4”
This is less amazing than some of her previous work—maybe we’re getting used to her outstanding talent—but Beyoncé’s latest album still shows why she’s the modern soul diva. Her singing is as purposeful and clear as it was the first time we heard her in Destiny’s Child. Key songs: “1+1,” “Best Thing I Never Had,” and, “I Was Here.”

47. Dawes, “Nothing Is Wrong”
This group is comprised of four young men from Los Angeles who have worked as Robbie Robertson’s backup band. However, it is most reminiscent of Jackson Browne in his early days, which is no coincidence because Browne actually appears on the album. Key songs: “If I Wanted Someone,” “Fire Away,” and “A Little Bit of Everything.”

46. Beady Eye, “Different Gear, Still Speeding”
In the mid to late 90s, the band Oasis electrified music fans and critics with comparisons to the Beatles and other great British bands of the past. However, their star soon faded amidst mediocre work and dissent among the members, particularly between the Gallagher brothers (Liam and Noel) who were at the heart of their success. Without Noel Gallagher, the band has re-formed into Beady Eye, and this is their first album, complete with the interesting hooks that made Oasis successful. Key songs: “The Beat Goes On,” “Four Letter Word,” and “The Roller.”

45. Lisa Hannigan, “Passenger”
This Irish singer-songwriter was a member of Damien Rice’s band before going solo. On this, her second album, she shows exceptional musical sensibilities and a lovely, subtle singing style. Key songs: “Home,” “What’ll I Do,” and “O Sleep.”

44. The Sounds, “Something to Die for”
The fourth album from this Swedish quintet features more of the offbeat pop for which the Sounds have become known, combined with a little more interesting instrumentation. Key songs: “Something to Die for,” “Yeah Yeah Yeah,” and the pleasant ballad “Wish You Were Here.”

43. Mayer Hawthorne, “How Do You Do”
Did you ever hear people talk about developing a “porn” name based on your middle name and the street on which you grew up? Well, that’s what Andrew Mayer Cohen did when he started recording classic-sounding R&B as Mayer Hawthorne. Three albums later, Cohen/Hawthorne has recorded this wonderful album, complete with the kinds of soul grooves that first helped the genre to cross-over into popular success. Key songs: “A Long Time,” “Hooked,” and “No Strings.”

42. Katie Costello, “Lamplight”
At 17, Katie Costello released her first CD, which was a peek into the potential of this introspective singer-songwriter. Now 20, this album begins to realize that potential. Key songs: “Cassette Tape,” “After Dark,” and the hauntingly beautiful “Stranger.”

41. TV On the Radio, “Nine Types of Light”
Although less ground-breaking than their earlier work, this album takes the fusion of musical styles that has made the Brooklyn-based TV On the Radio successful and applied it to songs about love. Key songs: “Second Song,” “You,” and “Will Do.”

40. Sublime With Rome, “Yours Truly”
At first, it seemed like an odd pairing—90s post-punk band Sublime recording with modern reggae/hip-hop artist Rome Ramirez for a new album…but it works on many levels. Key songs: “Panic,” “Lovers Rock,” and the outstanding “Can You Feel It.”

39. The Black Keys, “El Camino”
Following on the heels of their very successful 2010 release, “Brothers,” this Akron-based duo has taken a slightly edgier and less bluesy approach with “El Camino.” Key songs: “Lonely Boy,” “Gold On the Ceiling,” and “Little Black Submarines.”

38. James Durbin, “Memories of a Beautiful Disaster”
Before last season’s American Idol competition became a red-state referendum on juvenile country pop, the artist people tuned in to hear was James Durbin, who combines excellent rock guitar riffs with a soaring tenor voice. On this, his first album, he continues to demonstrate those talents. Key songs: “Higher Than Heaven,” “May,” and “Stand Up.”

37. Tori Amos, “Night of Hunters”
One of the less conventional popular artists of the past 20 years, Tori Amos has always taken chances. Some have worked better than others, but this one—a popular album based on classical influences—is a beautiful collection. Key songs: “Shattering Sea,” “Job’s Coffin,” and “Carry.”

36. Allen Stone, “Allen Stone”
Another white boy singing R&B, Allen Stone combines gospel riffs with soul sensibilities to fashion his own sound. On this, his second album, Stone has hit his stride with highly listenable tunes that will have you tapping your toes. Key songs: “Sleep,” “Celebrate Tonight,” and “Say So.”

35. Sarah Jarosz, “Follow Me Down”
This singer-songwriter from Texas draws on country, bluegrass, and other genres to deliver an album that combines her excellent banjo/mandolin work with lovely vocals and backing support from a wide range of successful artists. “Follow Me Down” deserve serious attention. Key songs: “Run Away,” “Annabelle Lee,” and “Gypsy.”

34. Indigo Girls, “Beauty Queen Sister”
It’s been a while since the Indigo Girls were on the radar, but this album is a return to the type of gorgeous melodies, thoughtful lyrics, and artful musicianship that has made Amy and Emily so successful. Key songs: “John,” “We Get to Feel It All,” “Making Promises,” and “Able to Sing.”

33. Everlast, “Songs of the Ungrateful Living”
Everlast (Erik Schrody) is an acquired taste. Listed (for lack of a better label) as hip-hop/rap, his gruff voice and intelligent lyrics are a far cry from the obscenity-laced rants that currently populate the genre. This album is one of his best. Key songs: “I Get By,” “Long Time,” and the Sam Cooke classic, “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

32. Telekinesis, “12 Desperate Straight Lines”
Michael Lerner is the brainchild behind Seattle-based Telekinesis, which burst onto the scene last year and continues its brand of infectious indie pop with this album. Key songs: “Please Ask for Help,” “Dirty Thing,” and “Gotta Get It Right Now.”

31. Joss Stone, “LP1”
Joss Stone could sing almost anything, and I would buy it. Her lush, emotional, bluesy voice is one of the true gems of modern popular music. Fortunately, this album returns her to the R&B roots which made us all first take notice. Key songs: “Karma,” “Last One to Know,” “Somehow,” and “Take Good Care.”

30. Paul Simon, “So Beautiful or So What”
Every now and then, Paul Simon releases an album that reminds us why we fell in love with and continue to revel in the talents of this amazing artist and individual. This is one of those Albums. While it may not be so Earth-jarring as “Graceland” (what is?), it still takes the kinds of musical chances for which Simon has become known. Key songs: “The Afterlife,” “Getting Ready for Christmas Day,” “Dazzling Blue,” and the title song.

29. Goapele, “Break of Dawn”
Goapele (pronounced gwa-puh-LAY) is a singer-songwriter from Oakland who is known for her superb R&B voice and her socially-conscious lyrics. Although this, her fifth album, tones down the social activism, it presents an outstanding display of her exceptional vocal talent. Key songs: “Undertow,” “Hush,” and “Pieces.”

28. Foster the People, “Torches”
Led by Mark Foster, this LA-based trio combines dance grooves with indie-rock to present a debut album that has caught on throughout a wide range of music circles. Every song reminds us that music should be fun to hear, hum, and/or sing. Key songs: “Helena Beat,” “Pumped Up Kicks,” and “I Would Do Anything for You.”

27. Ximena Sariñana, “Ximena Sariñana”
The daughter of Mexican film director Fernando Sariñana and screenwriter Carolina Rivera, Ximena Sariñana appeared in several Mexican TV shows and movies before releasing her first album in 2008. On this, her second album (her first English-language effort), she demonstrates her own brand of inventive pop music. Key songs: “Different,” “Echo Park,” and “Wrong Miracle.”

26. Tom Waits, “Bad As Me”
Having written and performed some of the greatest songs of all time over his 40-year career, Tom Waits’s always gruff voice had recently started to sound like sandpaper on a chalkboard. Then he released this beautiful collection of heartfelt songs, some of which are destined to become classics. Just as Adele had a huge hit with her gorgeous remake of a later Dylan song, I can envision some young artist covering “Back In the Crowd” from this album. In the meantime, you can enjoy what Tom Waits has done here. Key songs: “Chicago, “Back In the Crowd,” and “Last Leaf.”

25. Fleet Foxes, “Helplessness Blues”
With their first album in 2008, Fleet Foxes brought melodic harmonies back to the center of popular music. Three years later, the second album from this Seattle-based group expands on that approach. Sounding something like how Brian Wilson might construct a choir, they have built a beautiful tapestry of sound into a modern pop album. Key songs: “Montezuma,” “Helplessness Blues,” and “Lorelai.”

24. Sixx:A.M., “This Is Gonna Hurt”
The brainchild of Motley Crue bassist, Nicky Sixx, this is a hard-rock trio based in Los Angeles. They were originally formed in 2007 to record the soundtrack to Sixx’s autobiography, The Heroine Diaries, but with this album, they have become a bona fide rock band, and the results are surprisingly good. Key songs: “This Is Gonna Hurt,” “Lies of the Beautiful People,” and “Skin.”

23. My Brightest Diamond, “All Things Will Unwind”
As Monty Python used to say, “and now for something completely different.” My Brightest Diamond is essentially whatever founder Shara Worden wants it to be, combining elements of opera, chamber music, and offbeat rock. On the first two albums, the results were mixed, but this album brings it all together into a highly enjoyable musical celebration. Key songs: “We Added It Up,” “Reaching Through to the Other Side,” and “High Low Middle.”

22. SuperHeavy, “SuperHeavy”
It sounds like the billing for a benefit concert: Mick Jagger, Dave Stewart, Joss Stone, Damian Marley, and A.R. Rahman. Except in this case, rather than separate acts, they’re all in the same band, which they humorously named Superheavy. Combining a wide variety of styles and genres, the album benefits from the unique talents of its members. Key songs: “Miracle Worker,” “Energy,” “Beautiful People,” and “World Keeps Turning.”

21. Chris Pierce, “I Can Hear You”
Despite releasing four studio albums and touring with Seal, this artist is still relatively unknown. But the truth is that Chris Pierce is a joy to hear, and with this album, maybe more people will listen. His silky, classy voice and blues-based inflections make each song its own work of beauty. Key songs: “Let Yourself Smile,” “Meet Me In the Vineyard,” and “Hope She’ll Be Happier.”

20. Middle Brother, “Middle Brother”
The front men for Deer Tick, Dawes, and Delta Spirit have formed this trio and released an album that displays their individual and combined musical talents. There is nothing artificial or over-produced about this effort—just straightforward alt-rock being played by people who know what they’re doing. Key songs: “Blue Eyes, “Middle Brother,” and “Someday.”

19. Jack’s Mannequin, “People and Things”
Andrew McMahon left Something Corporate in 2004, and took several bandmates with him to form Jack’s Mannequin. A year later, he 2005, McMahon was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), which is currently in remission. In the meantime, the band has released three albums, and this is by far the best, combining a range of styles and artists. Key songs: “My Racing Thoughts,” “Release Me,” and “Restless Dream.”

18. The Script, “Science & Faith”
This Irish band’s second studio album is a delightful collection of songs that explore life and love through a combination of pop, hip-hop, and indie-rock. Everything works on this album, from the atmosphere to the lyrics to the beats to the inclusion of artists like B.o.B. Key songs: “For the First Time,” “Nothing,” “Science and Faith,” “This = Love,” and “Walk Away.”

17. Patrick Stump, “Soul Punk”
The creative force and lead singer of Fall Out Boy, Patrick Stump has fashioned his first solo album, which combines on the energy that is the hallmark of the band, with a clear, straightforward delivery and various musical styles. The songs are interesting, fun, and you’ll find yourself humming them as you walk down the street. Key songs: “Everybody Wants Somebody,” “When I Made You Cry,” “This City,” and “Spotlight (Oh Nostalgia).”

16. The Decemberists, “The King Is Dead”
While I always liked the Decemberists for their songwriting skills, I also felt that their music was too jangly and reflected a certain superficiality…until this album. This is by far their best work to date, and I hope it represents a new direction for this perennial indie rock band. There is a depth that the band was never before able to achieve and the songs seem truer and clearer, both lyrically and musically. Key songs: “Calamity Song,” “January Hymn,” and “This Is Why We Fight.”

15. Christina Perri, “Lovestrong.”
An unknown waitress until one of her songs (“Jar of Hearts”) was used on the TV show, “So You Think You Can Dance,” Christina Perri found 100,000 people downloading her song in a two-week period of 2010. There’s a good reason for that—the song, and the subsequent album—is very good. This is the kind of music that, when done well as it is here, is simultaneously entertaining and exhilarating. Key songs: “Bluebird,” “Distance,” and “Jar of Hearts.”

14. Beth Hart & Joe Bonamassa, “Don’t Explain”
Last year, I wrote in my blog about the guitar genius that is Joe Bonamassa, who combines blues and rock guitar into a tour de force. Here, he collaborates with Beth Hart, the pianist/vocalist who had a hit in the 90s with “LA Song” (the song with the reprise, “Man I’ve got to get out of this town”). Together, they have fashioned an album that makes the most their considerable talents. If you like honest blues-rock, this one is for you. Key songs: “I’ll Take Care of You,” “Well, Well,” and the Etta James classic, “I’d Rather Go Blind.”

13. Original Broadway Cast, “The Book of Mormon”
Every year, I try to determine the best Broadway album to include on this list. This year, there was no contest—“The Book of Mormon” is that good. Strangely enough, it was written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators and producers of “South Park,” who combined with Robert Lopez, (who wrote “Avenue Q”) to develop an irreverent but incredibly funny look at what it means to be Mormon. Key songs: “Hello!” “You and Me (But Mostly Me),” “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” and “Believe.”

12. Architecture In Helsinki, “Moment Bends”
Despite the name, this Australian ensemble has nothing to do with architecture or Helsinki. What they do have is a large number of instruments and people who know how to play them…very well. They have been described as idiosyncratic, but that could apply to many artists on the scene today. I think of them more as eclectic, but whatever term you use, just sit back and listen. Key songs: “Desert Island,” “Escapee,” and “Contact High.”

11. Tom Morello: The Nightwatchman, “World Wide Rebel Songs”
The former lead guitarist of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave, Tom Morello has adopted the moniker, “The Nightwatchman” for three albums with socially conscious themes. This is the best of those albums, and it shows a rock artist at the top of his craft, backed by a group of musicians he calls the Freedom Fighter Orchestra. It is reminiscent of vintage Bob Dylan, and it deserves to be heard. Key songs: “Black Spartacus Heart Attack Machine,” “Save the Hammer for the Man,” and “The Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse.”

10. St. Vincent, “Strange Mercy”
Singer-songwriter Annie Clark has been performing under the name St. Vincent since 2007. This is her second, full-length, studio album, and it represents her best work so far. Clark has a special give for modifying her voice to reflect different moods, and her use of instrumentation helps to create a completely absorbing album. Key songs: “Cruel,” “Dilettante,” and “Year of the Tiger.”

9. Butch Walker and The Black Widows, “The Spade”
Formerly the front man of Marvelous 3, this is Walker’s sixth studio album since leaving that band. But here, he is backed by a new band—the Black Widows—and the result is a superbly played set of memorable, upbeat songs that remind us why we liked rock and roll in the first place. Key songs: “Bodegas and Blood,” “Summer of ‘89,” and “Synthesizers.”

8. Asa, “Beautiful Imperfection”
In 2009, Asa’s debut album appeared on my list, and this, her follow-up, is just as good. Born in Paris and raised in Lagos, Nigeria, this is an artist with a beautiful voice and a stylistic way with every song. Drawing on influences from around the world, Asa takes you on a journey with every phrase of every song. Key songs: “Why Can’t We,” “Be My Man,” and “The Way I Feel.”

7. The Civil Wars, “Barton Hollow”
Although they’ve been releasing digital music since 2009, this Nashville based duo has released their first, full, studio album here, and it is indeed a gem. The harmonies are beautiful, the melodies are lush, and the production is straightforward and unobtrusive. Key songs: “Barton Hollow,” “20 Years,” “Poison & Wine,” and the Leonard Cohen classic, “Dance Me to the End of Love.”

6. Terra Naomi, “To Know I’m Ok”
In the years since 2002, Terra Naomi has recorded 4 albums, but this one really finds her hitting her stride. She is perhaps best known for her 2007 single, “Say It’s Possible,” but even that lacked the depth she displays on “To Know I’m OK.” For the first time with this release, she seems like a singer-songwriter rather than a pop performer. Her voice here is beautiful and passionate and worthy or repeated listening. Key songs: “You for Me,” “Someday Soon,” and “I’ll Be Waiting.”

5. Matt Nathanson, “Modern Love”
Originally from Lexington, MA but now residing in San Francisco, Matt Nathanson has had a lengthy journey since his emergence as a solo acoustic artist in the early 90s to his latest release, Modern Love, which employs complex instrumentation, including a horn section, to support his 12-string guitar and expressive vocals. His lyrics reflect a sense of maturity—more certain and less angst-ridden than those of his earlier work. Overall, this is a very strong set of songs. Key songs: “Faster,” “Modern Love,” and “Run.”

4. tUnE-yArDs, “Whokill”
Connecticut-based artist Merrill Garbus has released this brilliant, offbeat album under the unusually capitalized moniker, tUnE-yArDs. Almost impossible to describe, the album employs various instruments, syncopations, and recording techniques to present a pastiche of sounds that come together into something that must be heard. Key songs: “My Country,” “Bizness,” and “Killa.”

3. Brett Dennen, “Loverboy”
Another artist that is finding his groove—Brett Dennen’s fourth album, “Loverboy,” is more upbeat and danceable than his previous work. This is an exuberant expression of how much Dennen really likes making music, yet it still draws on the expressive, soaring, tenor vocals that have been a hallmark of his music since his first album in 2005. Key songs: “Sydney (I’ll Come Running),” “Dancing At a Funeral,” “Comeback Kid (That’s My Dog),” and “Make You Fall In Love With Me.”

2. Zee Avi, “Ghostbird”
In 2009, I listed this artist’s debut album as the sixth best album of the year. Now, she’s moved up to second place with another unique set of songs that draw on a world of instruments and beats reflective of her upbringing in Kuala Lumpur and her schooling in London. Every song is wonderfully conceived and recorded to maximize its impact. Even the beautiful “Concrete Wall” is performed in a multi-track a capella style amidst a backing vocal of “boom she clack clack.” This is music that if you heard it in passing would make you take notice. If you give it an honest listening, you may be hooked. Key songs: “Swell Window,” “Milestone Moon,” “The Book of Morris Johnson,” and “Concrete Wall.”

1. Adele: “21”
If you peruse the lists of the greatest albums ever recorded, you will find very few acoustic efforts by solo artists. The two that instantly come to mind are Carol King’s “Tapestry” and Joni Mitchell’s “Blue.” And yes, I’m putting Adele’s “21” in that august company. In 2008, I listed Adele’s “19” as the third best album of the year, and I wrote, “she will doubtless be a fixture on the scene in the coming years.” However, I didn’t expect that two years later (the album was recorded in 2010), Adele would record a set of songs with this much depth, strength, and beauty. From the first guitar picks of “Rolling in the Deep” to the final, quiet sorrow of “I Found a Boy,” this album is as thoroughly enjoyable an album as you’re likely to see in the modern music environment. Produced by the legendary Rick Rubin and Paul Epworth, this is an ideal showcase for Adele’s vocal and songwriting skills. Her quiet cover of the Cure’s “Lovesong” only adds to the mystique, and “Someone Like You” is already a massive hit. I can only hope that there are no long-term ill effects from the vocal cord hemorrhage Adele experienced after recording this album, a condition that required surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital. After all, if she can make an album like this at 21 years of age, we can only look forward to her future efforts. Key songs: “Rolling In the Deep,” “Turning Tables,” “Set Fire to the Rain,” “One and Only,” “Lovesong,” and “Someone Like You.”

The following are all excellent albums that deserve Honorable Mention (alphabetically by artist):

• Alkaline Trio, “Damnesia”
• Amos Lee, “Mission Bell”
• Arctic Monkeys, “Suck It and See”
• Ari Hest, “Sunset Over Hope Street”
• Beirut, “The Rip Tide”
• The Belle Brigade, “The Belle Brigade”
• Ben Sollee, “Inclusions”
• Bjork, “Biophilia”
• Blink-182, “Neighborhoods”
• Bon Iver, “Bon Iver”
• The Chain Gang of 1974, “Wayward Fire”
• City and Colour, “Little Hell”
• Coldplay, “Mylo Xyloto”
• CSS, “La Liberacion”
• Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., “It’s a Corporate World”
• Death Cab for Cutie, “Codes and Keys”
• Deer Tick, “Divine Providence”
• Emm Gryner, “Northern Gospel”
• Feist, “Metals”
• Florence + The Machine, “Ceremonials”
• Girls, “Father, Son, Holy Ghost”
• Incubus, “If Not Now, When?”
• Iron & Wine, “Kiss Each Other Clean”
• Josh Rouse & The Long Vacations, “Josh Rouse & The Long Vacations”
• Kimya Dawson, “Thunder Thighs”
• Lenka, “Two”
• M83, “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming.”
• Mates of State, “Mountaintops”
• The Mountain Goats, “All Eternals Deck”
• Owl City, “All Things Bright and Beautiful”
• The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, “Belong”
• Panic! At the Disco, “Vices & Virtues”
• Pieta Brown, “Mercury”
• Portugal. The Man, “In the Mountain In the Cloud”
• Puscifer, “Conditions of My Parole”
• Radiohead, “The King of Limbs”
• Randa & The Soul Kingdom, “What You Need”
• Real Estate, “Days”
• Red Hot Chili Peppers, “I’m With You”
• The Revelations, “Concrete Blues”
• Seether, “Holding Onto Strings Better Left to Fray”
• Sondre Lerche, “Sondre Lerche”
• The Static Jacks, “If You’re Young”
• Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks, “Mirror Traffic”
• The Strokes, “Angles”
• The Summer Set, “Everything’s Fine”
• Teddy Thompson, “Bella”
• We Are Augustines, “Rise Ye Sunken Ships”
• Wilco, “The Whole Love”
• Yuck, “Yuck”

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Request for Republicans

Consider this:
  • There have been two wars that have drained the national budget and weakened the military.
  • The world is in financial turmoil, and the country has suffered considerable economic strife.
  • A new party has emerged, comprised mostly of White Christians who scorn the liberal leaders and lament their loss of power and influence to minorities within the country.
  • This party gains popularity among those who believe it speaks for the common man who wants change and is frustrated by the lack of such change.
  • Worried about losing the votes of this splinter party, the major parties in power start to make concessions and give its leaders greater responsibility and power within the government.

Does this sound familiar? It's an overview of some of the conditions that led to the rise of the Nazi Party in post-WWII Germany. But it also sounds a lot like the rise of the Tea Party in the current US.

Of course, the situations are completely different; our government is much more stable and the Tea Party is a far cry from the Nazis. But things can change fast in this world, especially when the economy falters and people are angry. While Democrats are less likely to be swayed by Tea Party loyalists, I worry about the Republicans--people like Boehner and Romney, who formerly opposed the Tea Party but lately have begun to court its members.

The way the presidential primary system operates, an "outsider" candidate can gain momentum by winning primaries and caucuses in states where only 10-15% of the voters choose to vote. When such a small percentage votes, it tends to be disproportionately comprised of zealots. I ask that Republicans who don't want the Tea Party in control should make sure to vote, at every opportunity, for people who represent more traditional Republican values, and I hope that Republican leaders will resist the urge to kowtow to Tea Party voters. As history can show us, a great deal is at stake.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Last Dance: Sue Weiner's Final Year

“Stage four, small cell, metastasized lung cancer;” mention those words to a medical professional and watch his or her expression change and eyes divert. Those are the same words we heard one day in late September, 2010, in relation to my mother-in-law, Sue Weiner.

Prior to that day, Sue had been a remarkably active adult with an effervescent personality that made people gravitate to her. She loved to walk, dance, and be as physically fit as possible. At my son, Alex’s bar mitzvah twelve years earlier, she had danced with the teenagers until their feet hurt, while they cheered, “Go, granny, go!” She could find wonder and humor in the smallest things—a flock of seagulls, a store with a funny name, or a house surrounded by trees (she called them “houses in the woods”). When I was with her, I noticed things I would have otherwise taken for granted.

Sue consistently watched her weight (hoping to remain under 100 pounds), she eschewed matronly garb, choosing instead to wear the shiniest, glitziest clothing she could find at a reasonable cost, and she loved rings and shoes (mostly Sketchers). It was often those clothes that made people talk to her, and she relished in finding out about others’ lives. She used to sit at restaurants, looking at different people and saying things like, “Do you think they’re a couple?” or “He doesn’t look very happy.” It was not uncommon for her to utter those same statements to the actual subjects themselves.

As Alex put it, Sue “stood for what she believed in as a pinnacle of acceptance and love.” Joni and I will always remember the day that Alex told Sue he was in love with Angelo. “I was worried,” Alex said, “because I thought you might be confused.”

She replied, “Alex, I’m confused about a lot of things, but this isn’t one of them. I’ll always love you, no matter what, and I’ll accept whoever you love.” At the time, Sue was 85.

Joni (Sue’s daughter and my wife) saw her mother as her best friend, and they would speak every day, often as Joni drove to work in the morning. Joni’s students at the Rashi School loved hearing tales of Sue’s exploits. Even when she was mugged on her 86th birthday, Sue had everyone at the police station sing “Happy Birthday” in her honor. She radiated that kind of positive energy.

So when Sue was diagnosed with stage four, small cell, metastasized lung cancer, we were told that the average prognosis for a person with that disease is nine months, but that average included previously healthy, younger patients who could withstand multiple rounds of chemotherapy. Sue was 86, already had COPD (having smoked cigarettes for nearly 70 years) and significant osteoporosis, and it was doubtful she could even withstand one round (four treatments) of chemo, so our most optimistic expectation was that she would last a few months. However, Sue chose to fight it, opting for chemo as soon as possible. Her only caveats were that she did not want any treatment that would cause her to throw up or suffer from dementia.

So, an informal plan took hold: Joni, who had considerable experience as a patient (three spinal fusions), would oversee the medical treatment via phone from Massachusetts, while her older sister, Michele, who lived 20 minutes away, would stop by regularly to make sure Sue had everything else she needed. Michele does not drive long distances, so her long-term boyfriend, Bill, would frequently drive Sue to her appointments while Joni listened via cell phone.

Joni and I drove to Philly for the chemo treatments, then returned every weekend or two to be with Sue. My cousin Carol selflessly gave us a key to her home, which was five minutes from Sue’s apartment, and she generously allowed us to use her spare bedroom whenever we came to Philly.

Sue not only survived the chemo, but she thrived, astonishing all of the medical personnel. During her inpatient visits to Jefferson Hospital, she often could be found lining up the nurses and doctors and leading them in dance. At 4' 6", she was the tallest of cancer patients. On several occasions, she walked up to doctors and said, “You should smile more often,” while the overhearing nurses attempted to hide their chuckles. Along her many walks, she stopped in at other patients’ rooms and brightened their experiences. Her unlikely medical journey was inspirational.

To avoid nausea, the doctors decided to use the mildest form of chemo, and it worked. Sue never lost her appetite, and she enjoyed trying new foods. In her last year, she experienced cuisines including Indian, Chinese, Thai, Japanese (including cooked sushi), South American, Israeli, Ethiopian, Afghani, Spanish, a wide range of kosher-style delis, and an Italian restaurant in South Philly where the singing waiters serenaded her with opera. But her favorite food was still a good cheesesteak. She often asked me to get her a cheesesteak soft pretzel (a combination of Philly favorites), and once, we left the hospital after a chemo treatment and drove directly to Geno’s, where we sat in the car reveling in steak sandwiches and cheese-covered French fries.

Joni’s plan was to spend each weekend visit fulfilling a “bucket list” of field trips to places that Sue either relished or had never visited. Because Sue was tethered to oxygen, each of these locations had to be within 90 minutes of Philly, with the eventual goal of bringing Sue to Boston for an extended visit. During that last year, we visited Atlantic City (twice), Cape May, the Northern Jersey shore (Red Bank, Long Beach, etc.), Chesepeake City and Northeast Maryland, Hershey, Longwood Gardens, New Hope, Grounds for Sculpture, Wilmington, and countless other locations throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. She also loved her shopping trips to places like Haddonfield, Peddler’s Village, and the Cherry Hill Mall.

In July of 2011, we brought her back to Boston for a two-week visit that required tireless efforts by Joni to coordinate Sue’s medical treatment, prescriptions, and oxygen. Sue loved Broadway musicals, but found it difficult to sit through an entire show, so, prior to leaving Philly, Joni arranged a surprise visit to Ellen’s Stardust Diner in New York’s Times Square, where the singing waitresses and waiters specialize in renditions of Broadway melodies. There was a table in the middle waiting for us as well as a free shirt and baseball cap (even our meal was free), and Sue’s wide-open smile clearly displayed her thrill at the experience. The wait staff did not know her favorite song, Anthony Newley’s “Once in a Lifetime,” so they regaled her with “Defying Gravity.” Then, something amazing happened—one of the waitresses started singing the Donna Summer classic, “Last Dance,” and Sue stood up and started dancing. She was quickly surrounded by all of the waiters and waitresses dancing, while the other patrons stood up and cheered. After the song was finished and Sue acknowledged the applause, the announcer said that in his seven years of working there, it was the best moment he had witnessed, and several patrons walked over to express how inspirational the moment had been.

During the next two weeks, Sue experienced the best of New England, including sitting outside at Legal Seafood’s new flagship restaurant on Boston Harbor, a visit to Southern Rhode Island, Westport (MA), Fall River (where she had visited my parents many times), Newburyport, and Portsmouth, NH. She saw fireworks (up-close) and the sand sculptures at Revere Beach, and she was treated by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to the Chihuly glass exhibit. It was a marvelous culmination of a series of memorable trips throughout the previous year.

As soon as she returned home, so did the cancer…with a vengeance. It had been eleven months since the intial diagnosis, and Sue fought the disease until the last few moments, and in doing so, she demonstrated a bravery I had never before seen. She got her wish of avoiding dementia, and some of her last utterances were of concern for her older sister and brother-in-law, Jean and Milt.

Although at times it felt like a hardship, I will remember the last year as one of the best of my life. I had the opportunity to see things, some of which I had never seen before, through the eyes of someone who truly enjoyed the world around her and brought happiness into the lives of those with whom she came into contact. In awe, I witnessed Joni’s heroic efforts to provide her mother with the best possible experiences and how she and Michele melded into a cohesive, care-giving unit.

Included in the countless moments I’ll remember are sitting over the ocean at Caesar’s Pier in Atlantic City, walking among the flowers and holiday lights at Longwood Garden, standing in the Hershey parking lot while strangers regaled us with song, and a brunch served by an incredibly caring staff at the Hyatt at Penn’s Landing. But amidst all of the fond and wonderful memories, the one that will always stand out is that magical afternoon in Times Square and Sue’s last dance.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Gil Scott-Heron

Gil Scott-Heron died last week at the age of 62. Friends who have known my musical tastes for several decades have been contacting me with the news. Most people under 40 have never even heard of him, because he stopped recording from 1982 through 1994 and again until his release from jail last year (2010) on cocaine possession charges. Even in his prime, he was not a mainstream recording artist, and only a few of his songs ever received significant air play.

Back when he started recording, no one knew how to classify his music. It was generally listed as jazz because he was backed primarily by jazz musicians, most notably Brian Jackson, who played the keyboards and flute. But in truth, Gil Scott-Heron was inventing an entirely new form of music which is now known as rap/hip-hop. He did so by taking the cadences of beat poetry and combining them with the musical riffs common to jazz and R&B. Like modern rap, he spoke for the underprivileged and the downtrodden, but unlike today’s rap artists, he didn’t dwell on sex, and he was never derogatory toward women, gays, or anyone other than those who wielded power unjustly. As such, he is now known by many as the “godfather of rap.”

However, as with hip-hop, most of his songs were sung rather than spoken, and Gil’s voice was clear and melodic. He sang runs (stretching a syllable over several, distinct notes) long before Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera, or American Idol. In fact, he was the first person I ever heard singing runs on a consistent basis.

But all of this is irrelevant without an appreciation for the incredible words of Gil Scott-Heron, so rather than writing about them, I’ll let Gil speak for himself from a few of his hundreds of songs:

On media coverage of civil rights (his first song on his first album):

There will be no slow motion or still life of Roy Wilkens strolling through Watts in a Red, Black and Green liberation jumpsuit that he had been saving for just the right occasion.
Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Hooterville Junction will no longer be so god damned relevant,
and women will not care if Dick finally screwed Jane on Search for Tomorrow because Black people will be in the street looking for a brighter day.
The revolution will not be televised.

“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”

On children and the future:

We’ve got to do something to save the children.
Soon it will be their turn to try and save the world.
Right now they seem to play such a small part of
The things that they soon be right at the heart of.

“Save the Children”

On drug addiction:

A junkie walking through the twilight, I’m on my way home
I left three days ago, but no one seems to know I’m gone
Home is where the hatred is.
Home is filled with pain,
and it might not be such a bad idea if I never, never went home again.

Stand as far away from me as you can and ask me why.
Hang on to your rosary beads,
close your eyes to watch me die.
You keep saying, kick it, quit it, kick it, quit it,
God, but did you ever try
to turn your sick soul inside out
so that the world, so that the world can watch you die.

“Home is Where the Hatred Is”

On hope:

Why should I survive on sadness,
and tell myself I got to be alone?
Why should I subscribe to this world’s madness,
knowing that I’ve got to live on?
Yeah I think I’ll call it morning from now on.

“I Think I’ll Call It Morning”

On alcoholism:

See that sister, sure was fine before she started drinking wine from the bottle.
Said her old man committed a crime, and he’s doing time, so now she’s in the bottle.
She’s out there on the avenue, all by herself, sure needs help from the bottle.
Preacherman tried to help her out, she cussed him out and hit him in the head with a bottle.
And don’t you think it’s a crime
when time after time, people in the bottle.

“The Bottle”

On marital problems:

Sweet little old brown eyed girl,
Now that you’re sleeping,
I’ve got a confession to make
of secrets that I’ve been keeping.
Me and your mama have had some problems,
there’s been a whole lot of things on our mind.
but lately, girl, we’ve been thinking that we were wasting time
nearly all the time.

“Your Daddy Loves You”

On Watergate:

And the silent White House with the James Brothers once in command
see the sauerkraut Mafia men deserting the sinking White House ship,
and their main, mindless, megalomaniac Ahab.

McCord has blown, Mitchell has blown, no tap on my telephone.
McCord has blown, Mitchell has blown, no tap on my telephone.
Halderman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell and Dean,
it follows a pattern if you dig what I mean.
Halderman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell and Dean,
it follows a pattern if you dig what I mean.

“H2O Gate Blues”

On self-assuredness:

You alone consider mercy after it seems like all you get is pain.
It seems to me that you have found the courage that others could not find.
You alone have the wisdom to take this world and make it what it needs to be, wants to be, will be, someday you’ll see the day, the day you understand
That there ain’t no such thing as a superman.

“There Ain’t No Such Thing as Superman”

On President Ford pardoning Nixon:

We beg your pardon America.
We beg your pardon because somehow the pardon did not sit correctly.
What were the causes for this pardon?
Well now, they had phlebitis.
Rats bite us, no pardon in the ghetto.
They had national security, but do you feel secure with the man who tried to steal America back on the streets again?
What are the results of this pardon though? Because remember, when there are causes, there are results, and the results are always deeper still.

“We Beg Your Pardon (Pardon Our Analysis)”

On the erosion of democracy:

The Constitution—a noble piece of paper,
with free society, struggled but it died in vain.
And now Democracy is ragtime on the corner, hoping for some rain.

And I see the robins, perched on barren treetops
watching last-ditch racists marching across the floor.
But just like the peace sign that vanished in our dreams,
never had a chance to grow.

And now it’s winter.
It’s winter in America.
And all of the healers have been killed or betrayed.
Yeah, but the people know, people know it’s winter,
Lord knows it’s winter in America
And ain’t nobody fighting,
‘cause nobody knows what to say.

“Winter in America”

On South African apartheid:

They tell me that our brothers over there are defying the man.
But we don’t know for sure because the news we get is unreliable, man.
Well, I hate it when the blood starts flowing,
but I’m glad to see resistance growing.
Somebody tell me what’s the word?
Tell me brother, have you heard from Johannesburg?


On appreciation of beauty:

The flowers woke up blooming and put on a color show just for me
The shadows dark and gloomy, I told them all to keep the hell away from me,
because I don’t feel like believing everything I do is gonna turn out wrong
when vibrations I’m receiving say, “hold on, brother, just you be strong.”

Yes and all I really wanna say
is that the problems come and go,but the sunshine seems to stay, hey.
Just look around.
I think we’ve found a lovely day.

"Lovely Day"


On nuclear power:

Just thirty miles from Detroit stands a giant power station.
It ticks each night as the city sleeps, seconds from annihilation.
But no one stopped to think about the people or how they would survive,
and we almost lost Detroit this time.
How would we ever get over losing our minds?

“We Almost Lost Detroit”

On civil rights:

I was raised up in a small town in a country down South,
so I’ve been close enough to know what oppression’s about.
Placed on this mountain with a rare chance to see
dreams once envisioned by folks much braver than me.
And since their lives got me to the middle of a mountain,
well, I can’t stop and give up on them,
‘Cause their lights that shine on inspire me to climb on
from all of the places we’ve been.

“95 South (All of the Places We’ve Been)”

On rampant commercialism:

Make it all commercial.
There ain’t nothing folks won’t buy
New fuel to fire up the monsters of Free Enterprise.
Gizmos and gadgets, batteries to make them run.
Just give your check up at the first of every month.

And don’t wake up to the uselessness
‘til your whole life is overdue.
‘Cause if it’s so Goddamn incredible
you can’t believe it’s true,
it’s Madison Avenue.

“Madison Avenue”

On illegal immigration:

Midnight near the border trying to cross the Rio Grande,
running with coyotes to where the streets are paved with gold.
You’re diving underwater when you hear the helicopters,
knowing it’s all been less than worthless if you run into patrols
Hiding in the shadows, so scared you want to scream,
but you dare not make a sound if you want to hold on to your dream.

Hold on, though it may not be a lot,
You got to hold on, ‘cause you know it’s all you’ve got
No matter the consequences or the fear that grips your senses,
you have got to hold on to your dream.

“Alien (Hold On to Your Dream)”

On the election of Ronal Reagan:

The idea concerns the fact that this country wants nostalgia.
They want to go back as far as they can—even if it’s only as far as last week.
Not to face now or tomorrow, but to face backwards.
And yesterday was the day of our cinema heroes riding to the rescue at the last possible moment. The day of the man in the white hat or the man on the white horse,
or the man who always came to save America at the last moment.
Someone always came to save America at the last moment, especially in “B” movies.
And when America found itself having a hard time facing the future,
they looked for people like John Wayne.
But since John Wayne was no longer available, they settled for Ronald Reagan,
and it has placed us in a situation that we can only look at, like a “B” movie.

“B Movie”

On international racism:

And still we are victims of word games,
semantics is always a bitch:
places once referred to as under-developed
are now called “mineral rich.”
And the game goes on eternally,
unity kept just beyond reach
Egypt and Libya used to be in Africa,
they’ve been moved to the Middle East.
There are examples galore I assure you,
but if interpreting were left up to me
I’d be sure every time folks knew this version wasn’t mine,
which is why it is called “His story.”

“Black History/The World”

On moving forward with your life:

Ain’t no way overnight to turn your life around,
and this ain’t the conversation of someone that never falls back down,
but no matter how long you’ve been on trial,
with the days and weeks of self denial,
and no matter how many times you’ve tried to make it
and found out that right then you just couldn’t take it.
If you are looking for a loser who found strength and success,
remember the spirit of brother Malcolm X,
and know that you can leave all your mistakes behind
the day that you “really make up your mind”
Come on brother… come on up
Stand on up and say don’t give up
Yes it’s time to stop your falling.
You’ve been down long enough.
Can’t you hear the spirits calling?

“Don’t Give Up”

On living in New York (from his last album):

And the gangs in New York are like wolves in sheep clothing.
Navy men off the ships in sidewalks strolling.
Ladies watching shopping stressing hard
with maxed out credit cards and her depressing job.
Grey skies, anekatips winter’s cold.
US Open Tennis, charity dinners for the rich and old.
Giving nothing to the poor to strengthen their soul.
I can see why some get up and go, and move where it’s slow.

Lord have mercy, mercy on me.
Yeah Lord, have mercy, have mercy on me.
Tell him to bury my body back home in Jackson, Tennessee.
Yeah Lord have mercy, have mercy on me

Yeah I need to be back home, need to be back home,
Born in Chicago but I go home to Tennessee.
Yeah I was born in Chicago but I...

“New York is Killing Me”

Monday, May 23, 2011

Driving an Evo

A couple of years ago, the lease on my 2006 BMW 330xi was thankfully coming to an end. I had previously enjoyed driving a 2003 version of the same car, so I re-upped for the newer edition, not understanding the negative effects that run-flat tires have on ride quality. So, when it came time to turn in the 2006 version and lease a new car, I decided to get one with more traditional tires. I still wanted a small, sporty car with all-wheel drive, which eliminated BMW, because only the 3 and 5 series have an AWD version and they both use run-flat tires.

After researching and shopping, I learned more about the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, commonly referred to as an Evo. When first introduced back in 1992, it was known as a “pocket rocket,” designed to compete with Subaru’s Impreza WRX STI. Back then and for many years, both cars were totally unrefined small sedans with completely outsized engines and drive trains, mostly for young people who wanted to race but didn’t want (or couldn’t afford) American muscle cars or European sports coupes. However, in the years since, both cars have added some top-notch performance components and a modicum of refinement, and both are staples at rally racing venues worldwide.

So, for my 2009 car, I test-drove the Evo, but was not sure I wanted that much intensity. I also wanted an automatic transmission (I prefer not to have to shift all the time), and the only automatic Evo was the MR, which is somewhat pricey and includes several expensive items that I don’t need, so I opted instead for the Lancer Ralliart. At the time, the Ralliart was a new addition to the line-up (a previous, underpowered version had been introduced years earlier and failed). It featured some of the performance of the Evo with a slightly softer suspension and seating, based on the Lancer GTS. I drove it for about a year and really enjoyed it. However, it looked much like the Evo, so everywhere I went, people would say, “nice Evo.” Being compulsive, I would always correct them, all the while wondering what was with this Evo subculture.

Toward the end of 2010, Mitsubishi contacted me with the opportunity to upgrade to an Evo with no charges for opting out of my existing lease. They also came out with an Evo SE, which stood for Special Edition. Unlike other cars with an SE designation, this version actually cost much less than the MR on which it was based, eschewing the 700-watt stereo system (overkill?), the onboard navigation system, and several other unnecessary add-ons I didn’t need, thereby reducing the cost by about $8,000, to $33,000.

So I did it…in September, I leased a 2010 Lancer Evolution SE. Its 4-cylinder, turbocharged engine provides 300 horsepower with 300 foot-lbs of torque, helping it to go from 0-60 in 4.5 seconds. It features a list of performance items with fancy European names—Brenbo brakes, Eibach springs, and Bilstein shocks—as well as AWD with advanced yaw control and the same transmission featured in the Lamboghini Gallardo. Technically, it’s a standard transmission with two automatic clutches (one for the odd gears and the other for the even gears) that also has tiptronics, paddle shifters, settings for tarmac, gravel and snow, and options for normal, sport, and super-sport (redline) driving. While still lacking some refinement and comfort features (I paid $1100 for leather coverings on the Recaro seats), it provides the most fun of any car I’ve driven. In addition, I got a little tag that says “6 of 340,” meaning it was the 6th Evo SE made out of 340 manufactured in 2010. How cool is that?

However, the funniest thing about the car (and in some ways the most unexpected) is the reaction it garners from other people…mostly young men. Being a 57-year-old, short, overweight guy, It’s odd to get stares of desire as though I were an 18-year-old, attractive, large-breasted woman, but that is exactly what happens. If I stop the car anywhere—parking lot, gas station, etc., people inevitably ogle it and/or ask me about it, and I am provided with countless opportunities to race from a stoplight (I hardly ever participate, but when I do, it’s rarely a contest).

Now, I could understand these reactions if it were a Bentley, a Porsche, a Ferrari, or any other of a number of expensive, performance cars, but this car costs about the same as a Nissan Maxima, Acura TSX, Audi A4, or a fully loaded Toyota Camry XLE, and while all of them are nice cars, they are certainly not exotic nor hard to find. Maybe it’s because every guy wants to think of himself driving a rally car, but other “practical” considerations get in the way of owning one. It’s like the incorrect perceptions that red indicates a sports car or that police give more tickets to bright-colored cars.

When all is said and done, the Evo is built on the Lancer frame, meaning it has four doors and ample inside seating for four people. It does not have many interior features like lighted mirrors and electric seats, and the trunk is quite small (they put the battery and windshield washer tank in the truck to help balance the front-to-back weight distribution), but those are minor inconveniences for a car that drives with such immense responsiveness. The ride is not soft, but it still handles bumps much better than the BMW with run-flat tires. The basic stereo system, although not 700 watts, is quite good, and I went out and bought a $200 removable GPS navigation system, rather than paying for the MR.

In the spirit of full disclosure, let me point out the negatives of owning an Evo:

  • It comes with summer tires, which are useless on ice and snow, even with AWD. So, if you live in New England, you need to buy winter tires, which cost around $1200.

  • The tires it comes with are designed for racing, meaning they have a sticky surface that doesn't last long...maybe 15K tops. You need to buy new summer tires too, unless you buy Nokian all-seasons as your winter tires, then leave them on all year (losing a little bit of performance).

  • The wheels are 18 inches and the tires are low-profile, so if you hit a pothole the wrong way. You will bend a rim, which costs about $200 to fix. However this is the case with most sporty cars these days.

  • The gas mileage is not great--about 20 MPG highway and 17 city. In addition, the gas tank holds only 14 gallons, meaning that, at best, you can go about 240 miles on a tank of gas.
So, while every car has some negative aspects, if you want a car that provides endless adrenaline rushes and just as many gaping stares, and you can afford a mid-priced sedan, you should satisfy your desires and acquire an Evo. Let me know when you do, so we can compare notes and stories.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Joe Bonamassa

Eric Clapton, Jimmie Page, BB King, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Joe Walsh, Jerry Garcia, Vernon Reid--when you think of the best rock guitarists, these are a few names that come to mind. But they are all getting older, and their replacements are few and far between, the most popular of which being John Mayer.

Well, there's another name that belongs in the discussion, and that is Joe Bonamassa. If you read his bio on Wikipedia, you'll learn that he was born in 1977 and raised in Utica, New York, to parents that owned and ran a guitar shop, and that by age 7, he was playing Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix tunes note for note. Today, at the ripe old age of 33, he is one of the best performers I have ever heard.

My friend Nick and I had the pleasure of watching and hearing him play last night in Worcester, MA, and after two and a half hours of uninterrupted brilliance, we both left the theater overwhelmed by this unquestionable virtuoso. In my time, I've attended some outstanding concerts featuring guitarists including Joe Walsh with the James Gang (before he joined the Eagles), Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir with the Grateful Dead, Ron Wood with the Rolling Stones, BB King at the Paradise Club, John Mayal and Mick Ronson in their primes, and Steve Van Zandt with Nils Lofgren in the E Street Band. But last night's show may have been the best, most complete guitar performance I have ever witnessed.

Surrounded by a keyboardist, bassist, and drummer, Bonamassa displayed every type of artistry on the electric guitar, with incredibly original riffs while also occasionally duplicating some of Jimmie Page's most famous ones. At one point, he broke into a 20-minute solo on the acoustic guitar that was as good as any I'd ever heard. He also sang quite capably on most of his songs, but that's not why 2400 people showed up to the concert. It was to hear real music, played purely and elegantly, reminding us that rock and roll is first and foremost a guitar-based genre.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Obama's Mistakes

While I continue to support many of Barack Obama’s initiatives, there are two areas in which I have had serious misgivings: war and nuclear power. Both of those areas have come to the fore in the past week.


In terms of Obama’s war policies, I believe he has lingered in Iraq too long, and I disagree with his stepping up the war in Afghanistan, but these are policies I have been willing to accept. However, our recent incursion into Libya under the guise of a UN protectionist mission is dangerous and misguided.

In general, there are three circumstances in which we should go to war:
  1. If we and/or our avowed allies are directly attacked.
  2. If a genocide is taking place that we can stop.
  3. If there is a proven and unquestionable buildup of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction.
To my current knowledge, none of those is the case in Libya. Of course, some civilians have been fired upon, but the evidence of that is no more excessive than what is going on in Yemen or Bahrain. Should we attack those countries as well?

What is going on in Libya is a civil war, with rebels trying to overthrow the leader. The same activity is underway, with varying degrees of success, in countless nations around the world. The reason we have chosen to support the rebels in Libya instead of those in other countries is that while we were blocking investment in that country, allies like Britain and France were fostering such activity, and now they want us to protect those investments. Let us not forget that historically, both of these allies have often been on the wrong side of conflicts.

Let’s also not forget that it wasn’t so long ago that we supported rebel insurgents in Afghanistan in their war to oust the Soviet Union. Those rebels were the Taliban, and we all know how that turned out. In fact, historically, whenever we’ve tried to take down a foreign leader, the result has often been a worse leader or a long war that killed our soldiers and hurt our nation. As evidence, I suggest examining Cuba, Vietnam, Iraq, and the aforementioned Afghanistan.

The correct course of US action is to do nothing, unless one of the above circumstances takes place. While it may be risky to avoid conflict in some cases, we don’t have the right to attack countries around the globe, without suitable provocation, simply to enforce our will.

Nuclear Power

For years, the energy companies and many in the government have touted “safe nuclear power,” and our president has bought into that concept. But as has been proven many times although never so graphically as this week in Japan, THERE IS NO SAFE NUCLEAR POWER. To support this viewpoint, I point to two factors:
  • No one has developed an effective approach for dealing with the radioactive waste these plants produce. In this country, we have loaded it into containers designed to last 100 years and buried it underground in places like South Carolina and Nevada. The problem is that this waste remains radioactive for upwards of 10,000 years. So, we are forfeiting the Earth’s future so we can have electricity today.
  • No matter how safely we build these reactors, they can still melt down, and one such accident can be so catastrophic that it endangers the entire world.
It’s just common sense, folks. It’s as obvious as the sun in the sky. If we invest into solar power the kinds of funds we spent to fight in Iraq or to bail out the nation’s banks, we can have an endless supply of power. Nuclear power advocates claim that dependence on solar power is decades away, and they are right as long as we continue to invest so little in it.

The corporate incentive is not there…no one can own the sun. But if Obama and the Congress made a funding decision to develop solar power and stop wasting our time and money on unsafe approaches like nuclear and fossil fuels, I have no doubt we could solve the world’s energy needs in a relatively short period of time.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Best Movies of 2010

Maybe it’s the recession or just my own ambivalence toward watching another crop of incredibly depressing movies, but I found it hard to identify 20 films worth recommending from 2010. As I’ve noted in previous “best of” lists, my reviews often differ from those of traditional film critics, who look for movies that are unusual and unsettling, but may not be entertaining. That’s why I don’t include movies like “Black Swan” and “Blue Valentine” on this year’s list…I guess I want movies that don’t leave me black and blue (sorry, I had to do it). I’m also not a big fan of movies that paint a picture but don’t have much of a plot line, like “The American” and “Winter’s Bone.”

So, in inverse order, here are the films I currently consider the Twenty Best of 2010:

20. True Grit: While I respect this Coen brothers adaptation of the classic Western novel by Charles Portis, I’m not so thrilled with it as the Academy Awards nominating committee appears to be. Indeed the performances by Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and outstanding newcomer Hailee Steinfeld are worthy of merit, and the script is workmanlike and realistic for the time in which it is set, but the lack of emotional connection between the characters left me cold, as did the dour ending. It is definitely worth seeing, but I wish it had been more compelling.

19. Kick-Ass: There is something perversely entertaining about this film, which centers around teenagers who decide to become superheroes, even though they have no super powers. Directed by Matthew Vaughn (“Stardust,” “Layer Cake”), this film is raucous and quite violent, with an outstanding performance from Chloe Moretz as “Hit-Girl.”

18. Hot Tub Time Machine: Three, 40-something guys (played by John Cusack, Craig Robinson, and Rob Corddry), who are dissatisfied with their lives, decide to rekindle old times when they travel (with one of their nephews) to the winter resort that was instrumental in their lives one night in 1986. They jump into an aging hot tub and are whisked back to that fateful evening with a chance to relive those events. Such is the plot of this uneven but enjoyable film, directed by Steve Pink. While not as outrageous nor funny as last year’s “The Hangover,” it is along the same lines.

17. Red: As an acronym, RED stands for “Retired, Extremely Dangerous” in this movie directed by Robert Schwentke and starring Bruce Willis and Mary Louise Parker, and with an all-star supporting cast that includes Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, John Malkovich, Richard Dreyfus, Brian Cox, and Rebecca Pidgeon. This is just a fun, action-comedy which the actors appear to relish as much as the audience. Don’t think too much…just enjoy the ride.

16. Another Year: Although I generally prefer a little more plot, I will make an exception for the films of Mike Leigh, the British director of “Life is Sweet,” “Secrets and Lies,” “Topsy-Turvy,” “Vera Drake,” “Happy-Go-Lucky,” and this film. It shows a slice of the lives of a sixtysomething married couple (played by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) in each of the four seasons of a year. While occasionally disjointed and leaving some details hanging, it also boasts an incredible performance by Lesley Manville as the friend who has a crush on and some history with the couple's thirtysomething son. The movie’s final scene is incredibly haunting.

15. Secretariat: OK, so I’m a sucker for the Disney biographical sports films (“Remember the Titans,” “The Rookie,” “The Greatest Game Ever Played”) as well as for the estimable charms of Diane Lane. Add in the fine supporting performances of John Malkovich, Scott Glenn, Dylan Baker, and Dylan Walsh, and you have the true story of the greatest horse that ever raced and the housewife/owner who battled the odds in a male-dominated field. Even though you know how it turns out, you still find yourself cheering every time this thoroughbred rounds a turn.

14. The Book of Eli: Directed by the Hughes brothers, this post-apocalyptic tale stars Denzel Washington, with supporting performances by Gary Oldman and Mila Kunis (who seems to be in most movies these days). It combines occasionally excessive violence with biblical undertones to create a compelling tale of a drifter with a sacred book that some believe will allow them to rule others. Washington’s understated performance, combined with some interesting plot twists, make this a film worth seeing.

13. The Kids are All Right: If you’ve seen director Lisa Cholodenko, you will understand where Annette Bening got the model for her part as the more dominant member of a lesbian couple who sees her family slipping away. I left this movie underwhelmed by the plot, which, had it been about a straight couple, was quite cliché. But what makes it worth seeing are the acting performances by Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, and especially by Bening, who is jarringly perfect in the role.

12. Salt: Director Phillip Noyce is no stranger to the spy-action genre, having previously directed “Patriot Games” and “Clear and Present Danger.” That’s why it is no surprise that this Angelina Jolie vehicle is among the best of its kind. With an excellent supporting performance by Liev Schreiber, this one keeps you on the edge of your seat from start to finish, reminding you at times of an adrenaline-packed “No Way Out.”

11. Animal Kingdom: This Australian film, directed by David Michôd, is about “J,” a young man, played by future star James Frecheville, whose mother dies and is taken in by his grandmother and uncles, who are all criminals with varying degrees of intensity and sociopathic tendencies. Guy Pearce (who seems to be in all the movies that Mila Kunis missed) plays the detective who tries to rescue J from his family. As well as some intriguing plot twists, this outstanding indie features an amazingly disturbing performance by Jacki Weaver as the criminal matriarch.

10. She’s Out of My League: British comedian Jim Field Smith directed this surprisingly entertaining film, written by Sean Anders and John Morris (who also co-wrote “Hot Tub Time Machine”), about a rather homely TSA screener in Pittsburgh (played by Jay Baruchel) who meets the perfect woman (played by Alice Eve). Amazingly, this woman is attracted to him, and what ensues is a story about the insecurities we all harbor and how our friends can, sometimes unwittingly, play on those insecurities. This film is enhanced by a strong supporting cast and a script that makes some interesting choices.

9. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: A live-action combination of a video game and graphic novel, this is one of the few truly unique movies. Directed by Edgar Wright, the British filmmaker who brought us “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz,” this visually stunning film stars Michael Cera as the title character, who falls for a girl played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who has seven ex-lovers, each of whom Pilgrim must defeat, as one might in a video game. Wright clearly has his finger on the pulse of the twentysomethings, and this thrill ride is definitely rewarding.

8. Toy Story 3: If you are a young adult who grew up with the Toy Story franchise or a parent who has raised a child to adulthood, this Disney/Pixar animated movie is particularly poignant. For everyone else, it is just good moviemaking. Directed by Lee Unkrich, it features most of the same all-star voice cast as the previous movies (Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Don Rickles, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Estelle Harris, etc.) with additional voices by Ned Beatty, Michael Keaton, and Jodi Benson. Alternately beautiful, joyous, exciting, and sad, it is among the best animated movies ever made.

7. Easy A: Occasionally, a teen film comes along that humorously and sarcastically captures the underside of the high school experience. This category includes “Heathers,” “Mean Girls,” and the newest entrée, “Easy A,” starring the always delightful Emma Stone as Olive, who briefly lies about losing her virginity and then begins to cultivate her fame as the class slut. The film, directed by Will Gluck, references The Scarlet Letter and features fine supporting performances by Penn Badgley, Amanda Bynes, Thomas Hayden Church, Patricia Clarkson, Lisa Kudrow, Stanley Tucci, Malcolm McDowell, and Alyson Michalka.

6. Nowhere Boy: Directed by Sam Taylor-Wood, this British gem tells the story of a young John Lennon (played convincingly by Aaron Johnson) and his relationships with his aunt Mimi (played by Kristin Scott Thomas), who raised him and his mentally challenged mother, Julia (played by Anne-Marie Duff). Although the film does show the development of the Quarrymen (predecessor to the Beatles), it is not a typical rock biopic, focusing instead on the triangle involving John and his two mothers. Whether you like rock music or not, this film is worth your time, but if you are a Beatles fan, it is particularly satisfying.

5. The Fighter: Lowell, Massachusetts has long been a working class town with a diverse population that grew in the 1970s due to an influx of Cambodian immigrants. It is also the home of “Irish” Micky Ward, a junior welterweight boxer and former WBU champion who is the subject of “The Fighter.” However, this is not a boxing movie so much as a film about family, relationships, and addiction. Mark Wahlberg, Melissa Leo, and Amy Adams all turned in excellent performances, but the role of Micky’s half brother, Dicky Eklund, as played by Christian Bale, is this year’s standout male performance. Directed by David O. Russell, this is a very good film.

4. Inception: Some movies are eye candy or ear candy. “Inception” is brain candy—a movie that makes you think from start to finish. Directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, and Marion Cotillard, this film is about invading the subconscious during dream states. At one point, there are five different levels of reality operating simultaneously. In addition, there is a subplot involving Cotillard as DiCaprio’s late wife buried within his consciousness. Believe me, this movie is not about its plot…it’s about stretching the mind while drawing on intense visual images. In doing so, Nolan has created a film that begs for repeated viewings.

3. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Although this Swedish film, based on the first of the “girl” novels by Stieg Larsson, was released in 2009, it did not make it to US theaters until 2010. Directed by Niels Arden Oplev and starring Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace, this movie has been shunned by many because of the graphically violent rape scene near the beginning. In making that scene, the director stayed true to the book, as he did with the revenge scene that occurs later. With it all, the movie remains one of the tautest psychological suspense thrillers in a long time, reminiscent of some of Hitchcock’s best work.

2. The King’s Speech: Colin Firth will doubtless win a long overdue Oscar for this movie, although it could be argued that the Oscar is for his body of work, including last year’s “A Single Man.” Awards aside, this very well-made and heartfelt film, directed by Tom Hooper, is the true story of King George VI, who ascended to the throne as World War II was erupting and had to overcome his terrible stammer in order to speak regularly, on the radio, to his British subjects. The interplay between Firth and Geoffrey Rush, who plays the Australian-born, working-class, speech tutor, is superb, and Rush once again proves that he’s one of the movies’ best character actors. Don’t be fooled by the plot, which at its surface seems somewhat trivial. This is an excellent psychological character study and a clear examination of class and privilege.

1. The Social Network: What makes this the year’s best movie is not its acting, which is excellent in the form of Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, and Justin Timberlake, nor its direction, which is spot-on as usual by David Fincher. This is the year’s best movie because it has one of the most effective and dynamic screenplays ever written, by Aaron Sorkin. This script, about the founding of, is so good that if you staged it as a high school play, it would still be riveting. Sorkin is no stranger to great screenplays, having already written “A Few Good Men” (“You can’t handle the truth!”), “Malice,” “The American President,” and “Charlie Wilson’s War,” as well as TV shows including “The West Wing” and “Sports Night.” But “The Social Network” is his best effort to date, and it keeps you glued to the screen from the opening scene to the final frame. This is a thoroughly absorbing movie about the highest levels of geekdom in the business world. You may not understand the technological complexities (few can), but they are secondary in importance to the tale of rejection, success, and betrayal that this movie tells.