Saturday, March 18, 2017

Montreal Alors!

"A vacation is like love; anticipated with pleasure, experienced with discomfort, yet remembered with nostalgia."~ Anon.

You know you've hit on the right Airbnb when this quote is posted on the door leading to your apartment. The skeptic might say, "Oh, sure, this is the owner's subtle way of warning us that the plumbing is cranky, the WiFi is spotty and you might have trouble opening the windows." But, if the truth be told, the whole idea of 'vacation', in fact, should have very little to do with comfort, ease and convenience. It should be all about the unknown, the unseen, the yet-to-be-found, and those of us who are perfectly comfortable with 'discomfort' fully understand that this is what makes a vacation truly memorable.

This concept becomes even more acute when you get that 'favorable' variety of anxiety in a city that you've visited often, over a period of 30+ years. For me, Montreal is that city. Yes, I can navigate my way around the Metro (including the sometimes temperamental ticket kiosks) in my sleep, and I can figure out the quirky parking regulation signage (just kidding, I'm still having trouble with that!) but every time we visit, something new awaits us, something exciting, something different. This trip gave us a record-setting March blizzard, delivering over 20" of snow over a 36-hour period, yet I could think of few other places one would rather be than a major Canadian city in a snowstorm. Nothing really changes much: schools remain open, your boss expects you to be on time just like any other day, and restaurants, pubs and coffeehouses are bustling. 

The whole place is blanketed in a thick layer of white, you put on your best snow boots, tuck 'le sac' under your arm and head to the market for lunch provisions and the boulangerie for a fresh baguette or two, stopping in the nearest SAQ to pick up a bottle of red wine on the return walk home. If the spirit moves you, duck into the old bar a few doors away for a local beer (or two). When you get back, the toilet might not flush properly and the radiators are still making that funny noise but you've been given just the right amount of discomfort to make this vacation even more memorable than the last. Montreal alors!

Friday, December 23, 2016

My Favorite Music of 2016

I am sorry to report that 2016 was yet another somewhat disappointing year for new/emerging artists and their music. The current list features new (and in one case, reissued) material from artists who have a combined 288 years of activity in recording and performing music. Put simply, these people are old, in fact three of them passed away this year. Another one went into virtual hiding for about 14 years (before reemerging with a live concert recording containing a lot of material that is more than 30 years old), and one other who made my soon-to-be-published "Honorable Mention" list might not even be considered an 'artist' at all because he's only a d.j. If that doesn't tell you what kind of year it's been, nothing will... well, that, and maybe a certain presidential election, but we're not here to discuss that. So, before anymore of them on the list up and die, here it is, faithful 'Scatters, my Favorite Music of 2016:

BOB MOULD: Patch the Sky
If there is another middle-aged artist out there who is aging both gracefully and crankily at the same time and at the same pace better than Bob Mould is, please let me know. Here's a genuine garage punk legend who has released three, count 'em three, spectacular solo records in the last five years that have offered us a naked window into his very soul. He's got nothing to lose, after all he's already earned his street cred with anyone who's followed American music for the last 40 years or so but that doesn't make his accomplishment any less riveting. The songs on Patch the Sky find him a little less angry, a bit more reflective and much more willing to accept life as it is. Which isn't such a bad thing, now is it.

FRIGHTENED RABBIT: Painting of a Panic Attack
Whenever I post an mp3 file or video of a Frightened Rabbit song, it is usually accompanied by my proclaiming, "I love these Scottish bastards". I'm not sure why that emotion rises up but I'm deffo sure that Scott Hutchison and company would consider it a fitting encomium. They have a certain raffish charm that quickly devolves into a full-blown need to call the nearest mental hospital and have them committed, and that usually happens within the space of one lyric. "You died in my sleep last night", or "Swim until you can't see land"? What's wrong with these pictures? Nothing, in my view. In FB's world, it couldn't get any darker until it gets laugh-out-loud funny. Add extra points for the cover art of "Painting", which suggests a post-apocalyptic "Who's Next" but without any sign of human life. I love these Scottish bastards.

LUTHER DICKINSON: Blues & Ballads, A Folksinger's Songbook Vols I & II
It's hard to talk or write about Luther Dickinson without mentioning the fact that he is the oldest surviving son of the late Jim Dickinson, the legendary Memphis- and Mississippi-based producer and artist (he played the piano on the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses", recorded at the also-legendary Muscle Shoals studio). That heritage can be heard in his voice and his guitar work (which is, in my view, awesome) and with Blues & Ballads, he's finally gotten his benchmark work after banging around in tons of bands and side projects for the last 20 years. His words describing the album put it best: "This acoustic collection of songs interpreted simply, recorded live, solo or with a small group of friends reflects my relationship between music, songs, the written word and legacy." Here's a taste of that legacy, with one of those 'friends' he mentions, Sharde Thomas, who sings along and plays the 'fife', a standard instrument brought down the years from the old Mississippi hill country.

EMERSON, LAKE & PALMER: Welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends, Ladies & Gentlemen (2016 Remastered Edition)
I would need a lot more room and energy to tell the story of ELP, the supergroup which defined the term 'progressive rock', but the story got a whole lot sadder this past year. We lost Keith Emerson, the keyboard virtuoso who founded the group, when he took a gun to his head on March 11 and ended a life that he apparently considered impossible to continue living (he had experienced a number of health issues in recent years including nerve damage which affected his playing). Then came the news on December 7 that Greg Lake, the voice and guitar behind ELP's majestic platform, lost a "long and stubborn" battle with cancer. Yes it's been a banner year for the grim reaper as he collects more greats for that band he's assembling in rock and roll heaven.

For those of you who own a well-worn copy of the massive three-LP "Welcome back...", and then the horrible first- (and second- for that matter) generation compact discs, the newly remastered 2016 edition is a godsend. Yes, you still have that lonesome distance from the stage, I mean there's only so much even the most talented engineer can do with tapes from a concert recorded in a cavernous convention center in 1974, yet we are given a new dynamic punch and some much-needed gain on most tracks. Even the unaccompanied acoustic versions of "Lucky Man" and "Still...You Turn me On" have been given a breath of new life. ... Here's a clip that should blow you away, taken from "California Jam", the 1974 concert at California's Ontario Motor Speedway, a few months after the performances that landed on "Welcome back my friends...". A 27-year old Greg Lake plays his Zemaitis 12-string effortlessly through the song, his voice is perfect and all the while he's got a wad of chewing gum in his mouth. RIP.

KATE BUSH: Before the Dawn (Live 3-CD set)
The venerable Kate Bush, CBE is a legend in her native England, but on these shores we mostly know her as the lovely, soaring voice behind "Running up that Hill", one of the 1980's new wave's biggest hits. She is so much more than that of course, but we did lose sight of her for a good while in the late 1990's when she pulled a mini JD Salinger on us. Rumours of declining health, then of secretly recording new material became the stuff of music industry headlines. But she restored hope amongst the most faithful of her faithful when she resurfaced in 2014, announcing fifteen live dates at London's Hammersmith Odeon. Promoters added seven more dates, and all 22 of them sold out within minutes. The result of those triumphant shows is this comprehensive three-CD set, which follows the shows' theme of Ms. Bush being lost at sea and the subsequent futile search for her body. In my view, the production and engineering could have used a bit of plumping and primping, but I suppose they wanted to 'keep it real'. It is truly a monument to one of the divas of English popular music, her voice is in perfect shape (phenomenal, in fact, especially given that she's almost 60 years old) and the music positively soars. If you don't believe it, watch this glorious take on her classic "And Dream of Sheep".

RADIOHEAD: A Moon shaped Pool
Yes, that Radiohead. The Radiohead who have done nothing but befuddle us the past several years with "music" that is mostly a collection of blips, farts, loops, scratches and other  noisy banalities. Thom Yorke and company in all fairness have been busy with other things, side projects, soundtracks and the like, and some of "King of Limbs" was actually very good. But "Pool" is without doubt a return to form, and a sorely needed one at that. The Oxford lads are back with one of 2016's more important albums given the themes they dabble in. "Burn the Witch" should make that abundantly clear.

SHEARWATER: Jet Plane and Oxbow
What is it about the Austin, Texas-based Shearwater's music that can so often affect me so deeply? I think it might have a lot to do with the genuine intensity of lead singer Jonathan Meiburg, who runs things with a velvet/iron hand, at times lulling us into a gentle swoon, other times hitting us over the head with his unique brand of basso-profundo drama. I don't always get the meanings of the songs, so I typically arrive at my own interpretations. At any rate, they are one of the only remaining 'new music' bands out there that matter, as well as one of the more literate (no band other than maybe The Decemberists could safely involve words like "nacreous" or "caul" in their lyrics).  Here's "Backchannels", which, along with David Bowie's "Lazarus", is one of my favorite songs of the year.

DAVID BOWIE: Blackstar
What was to become David Bowie's last recorded work, Blackstar spent a couple of weeks on my Amazon wish list prior to his death. I had listened to some pre-release samples and considered it to be quite good, maybe even up there with his greatest. I must admit to finally pulling the trigger precisely on January 11th, the day after his death was announced. This final chapter in an extraordinary life in music, art, style and cultural influence received an extra dose of gravitas on that day, but even without the shocking news of his passing, Blackstar is a masterstroke. It already had all of the elements of his best material, but it soon became a fitting epitaph for The Thin White Duke. Here's a very cool remix version of "Lazarus". RIP.

I do hope you enjoy reading this post and that you take the time to play at least a couple of the clips. As I mentioned, I shall be publishing a list of my top "Honorable Mentions" within the next week or so... in the meantime, keep your ears on and Happy New Year.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Shaving Chronicles, FINAL EDITION... finally.

Many of my followers, in fact all eight of them, have been anxiously anticipating the outcome of my personal struggle with the razor. I am sorry to report that I do not have good news for them.

I recently dropped out of the Dollar Shave Club, following the announcement of it being purchased by the monolithic personal care product company Unilever. The amount of the deal was reported to be $1 billion and the first thing I thought of was the wave of job cuts that would inevitably accompany the transition. I also didn't want to further line the pockets of such a giant corporation after enjoying a period of rebellion by going with an independent upstart with an attitude. So I quit.

I entered a period that can accurately be described as a "shave hole". I really liked DSC's shaving cartridges and as long as I remained diligent in the preparation phase of the shaving ritual...plenty of time with a hot-water-soaked washcloth on the beard and a thin layer of pre-shave oil...I could get away without looking like I'd been a customer at Sweeney Todd's. So I tried to hang on to the last couple of cartridges all the while knowing that I would need to find another source for a cheap, quality shave.

Enter Harry's. I fell victim to the barrage of advertisements for this DSC competitor on almost every website I clicked on. Their service is based upon the same basic principles of providing a less expensive alternative to the rows of $38 four-pack shaving cartridges from the Gillette-Schick 'duopoly'. Harry's product line had a certain hip appeal, not as cheeky (pun intentional) as DSC's anti-establishment, quasi-profane platform; the olive drab and orange color theme, the upscale packaging with minimalist fonts and smart copywriting, all of it was quite seductive and seemed a relative bargain at the introductory price of about $19. Too bad the blades aren't very good. I didn't have one session without at least one nick or cut. The engineering of the cartridge-handle interface is cumbersome and the shave gel can become a bit 'goopy' upon application. In the end-run, Harry's was a classic case of all-show-and-no-go. Exit Harry's.

Enter Dorco. Yes the name of the company is Dorco (hey, at least it's not "Dorko"). Highly recommended by a friend of mine (let's refer to him as "Greg" because, well, that's his name after all), I resisted placing my first order with them as I still had one remaining DSC cartridge. And even though they were slicing up my face as if I'd tangled with a couple of hoodlums in a back-alley knife fight, I also had a couple of leftover Harry's cartridges in the cabinet. If I kept piling up shaving cartridges, at this rate I would be spending as much as I would have had I kept with my megabuck Gillette Fusion system in the first place.

Dorco's approach is almost 'anti-hip'. Their website is easy to navigate, and it isn't populated with old-timey logotype and images of Williamsburg-bound millenials looking for another used LP record shop located in some red brick building that was once a factory for making car batteries. It features a spread photo of a smiling, happy and healthy family (not quite sure why they include the tween-age son and daughter, doubtful either of them are ready yet for the impending adult horror of shaving away unwanted body hair on a daily basis) as if it were a website for some anti-viral drug or something. Their theme is "we are family", supposedly the message being "we are not owned by the same company that just swallowed up one of our top competitors". Even their product packaging mimics the big guys, all blister packs and swoopy-modern engineering and lettering. No matte-finish sans-serif faux-vintage for Dorco, no sir, just the real deal, what you see is what you get.

And what do you get? I wish I could say that I have finally settled on a source of shaving products that meet all of my criteria, but I cannot. I am guardedly satisfied with Dorco (jeez, I hate even typing that name!), don't get me wrong. Now on my third cartridge, I've already had one or two minor, quick-to-heal nicks but I place partial blame on a lack of proper pre-shave prep (say that ten times fast). The blade head pivot angle is less than most other manufacturers' but that can come in handy when trimming tight areas and sideburns (yes I still have sideburns, don't judge). And, then we have the name "Dorco", very unfortunate indeed.

For the most part however it's been relatively drama-free. The quality appears to be at a high level and the price was agreeable at about $26 for the "System 7", which includes a handle and ten cartridges that feature seven, yes count 'em, seven, blades. That stockpile should get me through about 15 weeks or so of shaving, especially in the upcoming late fall and early winter when a manly man such as myself shaves less often.

I might be looking for something that just doesn't exist: the perfect shave. At least, it doesn't exist for me. I can count by using only one hand (preferably my non-shaving one) the number of times I've ended a session with the razor feeling as if I've reached every last whisker with nary a spot of blood or a smidgen of distress, leaving my mug as smooth as a dram of Johnnie Walker Blue. Until then, I'll stick with the independent, family-owned razor company known as Dorco. Yep, as of now, I'm a Dorco man. Or, you could call me a "Dor-cette", or a Dorcorian, Dorco-ist, Dorco-ster... or simply, a Dorc.

Friday, September 30, 2016

What it was, what it is, and what it shall be

I have recently attended a workshop for the study of hand massage and reflexology. The class was one of several offered to massage therapists to fulfill the requirements set forth by the State of New Jersey to renew our professional licenses, so attendance is mandatory. In other words, none of the 25-odd attendees wanted to be there, especially on a gorgeous, 70-degree, cloudless Saturday. Add to that the fact that it was a 14-hour session, starting at 7am and ending at 9pm (we sacrificed the hour-long dinner break so we could be liberated early) and we were all certainly facing what could have been a truly hellish experience.

On the contrary, the day turned out to be relatively effortless, due in no small part because the instructor, Rick Vrenios, was excellent, in every regard. He has over 30 years experience in reflexology, energy healing and other massage-related disciplines. Rick's calm, patient and gentle demeanor was perfectly befitting the subject matter, which is a very subtle approach to treating a range of health complaints.

Although there is no convincing evidence that reflexology and most of the other non-touch or subtle-touch therapies have any effect on the body, it has a long history of use; some devotees trace the timeline back to the days when men drew pictures on the walls of caves to communicate. Since that sort of claim is often met with skepticism because it is hard to prove, it is more logical to place the roots of what we now call 'reflexology' in the 1940's when it's use was pioneered by a few brave souls who introduced it to more clinical environments.

Rick is actually one of the leading authorities on the discipline, having co-developed the currently accepted "mapping" of the various reflex and pressure points on the surfaces of the hands, feet and ears, the three areas of the body on which the work is performed. He offered what is in my view a fascinating perspective of these three sensitive and energetically-charged areas of the human anatomy, using each as a metaphor for the past (the ears), the present (the hands) and the future (the feet). I've summarized his presentation here, along with a few of my own observations:

"The ears represent the past": The contours of the ear recall the shape of a human fetus, especially the central aspect of the outer ear. It hints to our development in the womb and the very creation of human life, each of our earliest 'histories'. ... (To this I might suggest that the shape also recalls the ancient nautilus, a member of the cephalopod family that is dated to some 500 million years ago. Also, the innermost, hidden structures are the 'secret' chambers of our lives, rich with the history of our unknown past.)

"The hands represent the present": The human hand is a highly developed structure. Our fingers are long and slim, and the thumb is a veritable workhouse of the anatomy. We use them every day, thousands of times, to perform countless tasks; to grasp, clutch, hold, carry, or simply to 'feel'. Our hands truly belong to the 'here and now', enabling us to remain productive, useful and valuable.

"The feet represent the future": In contrast to the hands, the feet are relatively under-developed. The foot bed is not completely evolved, the toes are short, stubby even, in comparison to the fingers, and most of us are not able to perform finer, more precise tasks with them. With time and training, our feet could one day equal the hand in motor function and usefulness. (Our feet also, literally, bring us 'into the future', when we walk, run or climb to our next destination, whether that be from the bed to the bathroom, or from the base of a mountain to it's summit.)

Thursday, January 14, 2016

This just in, first edition 2-0-1-6

::::: Folks, what you've got here is the 2017 Ford GT. This is the car that is now featured in my exotic-car daydreams, replacing various Ferrari, Lamborghini and Porsche models. They plan on producing annually 250 of these 600+ horsepower monsters, and the list price is expected to hover around $400,000. With all of this current Powerball hysteria going on (at press time, the $1.6 billion jackpot has been won), this is just the sort of recklessly vulgar purchase that financial planners warn instant millionaires against making.

::::: On David Bowie: I'm not one to ruminate nor mourn excessively the death of a rock star, but this one hit me. Not since the passing of Joe Strummer (that announcement, over my car radio, had me pulling over and sitting still for a few minutes) have I felt so sad about losing one of them. I admittedly own very little of the Thin White Duke's catalog, but he was nonetheless extremely influential in my musical world. His endless changeable personae and sonic adventures spanned many decades, his songs never sounded 'stale' or tired in that 'classic rock' sort of way. They are, and will remain, forever timeless. One of my clients told me that his dad thinks Bowie "was definitely born in the future". .... Bowie's last monument, "Blackstar" happens also to be excellent, so here's a taste of it for you; RIP David Robert Jones.

::::: And, finally... Let us start and end the discussion about New Year's resolutions, once and for all. I'm not sure if this was covered or not yet, but I think the reason why we have such a difficult time keeping them has a distinctly seasonal element. Some of the most common soon-to-be-broken promises are to "exercise more", "lose weight" or to "enjoy life to the fullest". I couldn't think of a worse time to attempt achieving these objectives than January, February, and, for that matter, March. Exercising becomes a real chore when you need to pile on three layers of gear to take a jog around the neighborhood. Losing weight is equally challenging, as we all naturally calorie-up more often in the colder months, in an effort to maintain warmth and conserve energy... not to mention we spend a lot more time indoors, which means we are lot nearer to the refrigerator, and more often. As far as that last one, well, it's kinda hard to enjoy life to the fullest when it's 16 degrees, the sun seems to all but disappear for days on end, and... you're trying to lose weight! Happy New Year.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Keepin' me ears on

Here's a little taste of what we've been spinning here at TSHQ. Admittedly, I've come late to the party for a couple of these artists...

Lord knows how I missed Kamasi Washington's "The Epic", and his sweeping, sprawling, majestic brand of modern jazz, but now he's in heavy rotation.

Quiet Hollers were featured on a music blog I discovered late last year, "The Beat Surrender", so snaps to them for that find. But as far as you people are concerned, it was I who found them. Their smart, 'stream of consciousness' brand of  songwriting and easy, jangly arrangements remind me of last year's indie sensation, Courtney Barnett.

My current musical obsession, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, have thirteen studio albums to their credit but it only took one spin of "Mary, Please" for me to get hooked, finally. Warning: their brand of psychedelic rock is truly addictive and might have you in rehab before the first snowflakes start to fall; listen at your own risk.

KAMASI WASHINGTON: "Change of the Guard", from The Epic (2015, Brainfeeder Records)

QUIET HOLLERS: "Cote d'Azur", from Quiet Hollers (2015, self-released)

THE BRIAN JONESTOWN MASSACRE: "Mary, Please" from Take it from the Man (1996, Bomp! Records)

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Top of the Pops Honorable Mention 2015

In yet another startling departure from previous years, TOTP-2015 edition features a short list of "Honorable Mentions", records that are really, really good but not quite good enough to make the Top Ten. I'm not a believer in giving out "Participation Medals" to the kids who came in 4th through 17th, but sometimes you gotta invite some other achievers to the podium, so herewith, my list of also-rans:

How's this for a concept: Ryan Adams, one of alt-country's most well-regarded and prolific artists, decides to record a complete covers album of Taylor Swift's top-40 blockbuster "1989". He claimed that he wanted to make it sound as if The Smiths made the record, specifically like their classic "Meat is Murder". That was enough for me to buy into it, and although I'm not so sure I can make that connection, the record is a success. His fifteenth album in as many years (told you he was prolific!), "1989" has enough ringing guitars and punchy arrangements to at least recall the lads from Salford, especially evident in his treatment of "Bad Blood", which also gets the TS vote for song of the year.

Do I seem like the kinda fella who's going to settle in at the end of a long day, open a cold one and settle in with an Adele record? Well, I'm not. But I am the kinda fella who every so often appreciates the big voice with the big album delivered in a big way, especially when your voice is as goddamned good as Adele's. This girl has a set of pipes bigger than a Hammond church organ's, plus she was born in Tottenham and for those reasons alone, she gets the nod.

CITY AND COLOUR: If I should go Before You
Dallas Green aka City and Colour deserves a wider audience, getting overlooked by the presence of similar artists who don't do what he does quite as well, that is, earnest indie folk-rock delivered with a soupcon of soul & blues.

THE ARCS: Yours Dreamily
Dan Auerbach, one half of the great Black Keys, is at it again, collaborating and inviting various and sundry folks to make music with him. His side project, The Arcs, provide plenty to like (and even some to love) for fans of that now very well established and regarded blues-rock duo. New ground? Not much, except for an odd arrangement here and there, but why fix what ain't broke?