Wednesday, 11 December 2013


I've discovered a new guilty pleasure. In these pages, some of you have read my reviews of music as wide in variety as Deep Purple and Avril Lavigne. This is one of those.

A while back I stumbled onto some Evanescence videos on YouTube. I had been pointed towards a single from the latest Avril Lavigne album, which I thought was a far cry better than her previous effort. Perhaps she's growing up. Unfortunately, her lyrics haven't. On the sidebar, sat a load of Evanescence tracks, so I tried one ... and another ... and another. I had always avoided them because they had been described to me as angry girl music.

I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, it is angry girl music, but the lyrics are all that I wished Avril Lavigne's would be. They are poetic and deep, and the music is far more complex than I ever expected. Amy Lee has been described as "the breakup singer", and I can see where that comes from, but she's more interesting than that. Granted, she sings more about dying than I would care for, especially on Fallen, their first album.

The self-titled third album is much more mature than that. Yes, it is about breaking up, but now she's learned that maybe it is worth soldiering on. It's still heavy, with some orchestral moments, and poignant piano work. I struggle for highlights because it is all so even and good. The lone exception is that I'm not fond of the last song, Swimming Home. I particularly like the tracks with the more complex beats, Change, Erase This, Sick, and Never Go Back, but I'm hard-pressed to choose one to take to a desert island.

If anything, that is the only disappointment of this album, there isn't a single song that is so amazing that it eclipses the rest of the album, like Bring Me to Life or My Last Breath from Fallen. What sets Amy Lee apart from Avril Lavigne, apart from the lyrics, is that Avril's albums have one or two 5+-star songs and the rest are 2-3-stars. Swimming Home might be a 3-star, but the rest are probably 4.5-5.

Because the album is so consistently good, I'll give it the full 5-star rating.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Double standards

I was just reading some Facebook chatter about someone slapping Beyonce's bottom. Almost everyone in the discussion blamed Beyonce for not dressing appropriately, that it was giving the wrong message to kids, etc. Only as an afterthought did someone, say, "Oh yes, and it goes without saying that, no matter what she was wearing the man shouldn't have touched her."

I chose to stay out of that discussion, because I knew what I had to say would be inflammatory, considering the political views of the participants. While most of them were male, all of them were white and Republican. (I would have said conservative, but conservative means preferring the status quo, and not tinkering with a system that works, or almost works. Republicans want to go back to a system that never worked - we are talking about free-reign capitalism of the early 20th century. They say Reagan, but they are so far to the right of Reagan, that he would be considered a liberal now.)

Anyway, Beyonce, if you are dressing in those skimpy dresses and showing so much skin, you deserve
getting spanked.

Hold on!

These people are the same ones that say, guns don't kill, people do.

Okay, let's couch that in the terms of this topic:

Skimpy dresses don't spank, people do.

Can you see the parallel logic? You are saying above that if you take away the skimpy dresses, men will stop spanking women's bottoms. But take away guns, and people will continue to kill others.

You could say that if you take away skimpy dresses, you might reduce groping. These "conservatives", however, refuse to believe that taking away guns will reduce gun violence. Instead, they cling to an out-dated second amendment.

They say that they should be allowed carry weapons equal to those of the government, so they can protect themselves from said government. In that case someone should be demanding that it should be legal to possess nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction.

We are told from our school days that the best antidote to bad government is the ballot box, yet we cling to weapons that are often misused for evil purposes.

Around the world countries with gun bans have had mixed results, mostly depending on how effective their governments are. The UK has one of the best records of those countries, with less than 1% per capita of the gun violence of the US. On the other hand, Mexico is in the midst of a drug war, and although they have a recent gun ban, their gun violence per capita is higher than the US. (Where do they get their guns? The US, of course.)

The bottom line is that men are going to grope women regardless of what they are wearing, and if someone is intent on killing, they won't need a gun to do it. If you can at least reduce the firepower, you can reduce the number of deaths. One single shot weapon is not going to kill as many as a semi-automatic in a short span of time.

It's time to make the hard choice: repeal or limit the second amendment. (I'm afraid skimpy dresses are first amendment territory, so unless you want to limit free expression, too, you'll have to live with seeing a little too much of Beyonce's flesh.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Miles Davis: Live in Europe 1969 (Vol. 2 from the Bootleg series) CD review

I picked this up, because I like Chick, Miles, and Wayne Shorter. It didn't disappoint. The sound could have been better, although it is pretty good for a video from 1969. The bass seems a little low in the mix. I've heard that Vol 1 of the series has a similar issue.

There are a few things that I would change. Firstly, there is little change of repertoire over the 3 discs and DVD. Granted, all the performances were noticeably different, but If there were other tracks available (apparently there are), I would have liked to hear them. I prefer the acoustic version of Nefertiti over the electric one, for example. Were there other acoustic performances?

On the DVD, there weren't any graphics to note when they started new charts. Sometimes the transitions are very difficult to catch, and the graphics might have helped.

Overall, I'm glad I bought it, and will order Vol 2 when I can afford it.

4 out of 5 stars

Friday, 26 April 2013

Chicago - The Nashville Sessions

I haven't reviewed a new CD for a while. I've got some new ones in the pipeline, but here is the first:

Chicago - The Nashville Sessions

When it comes to Chicago, I'm a bit of a complete-ist. I have all of the numbered albums, either on Vinyl or on CD, plus one "boot" of the Toronto concert that everyone seems to have released, as well as Live in Japan on MP3s. I also have several of the solo albums by Robert Lamm, Peter Cetera and the Howland-Imboden Project (and HLMP). I don't have any of the DVD's, but there are a couple on my wish-list.

The problem with Chicago is the lack of new music. Several years ago we got XXX (2005?), which I don't know how that was achieved except through counting some greatest hits and Christmas albums in the numbering. What are 27-29? Good question. What is 22? Another good question, since it was later released as XXXII (recorded in 1994?). What is 31? Apparently there is an album of new music in the works. What will they name that? 40?

The Nashville Sessions is un-numbered, so it avoids that issue (maybe). It is a re-recording of 15 of their mostly-Kath-era hits. (There are two lame Donnie Dacus-era songs, too, from Hot Streets.)

Why did I buy it? 

I was hoping it would be an updating of the hits like the live Chicago 26 album with the latest personnel, but it wasn't. Recorded in 2009, Bill Champlin is gone, but there is no sign of the two new guys, Lou Pardini, and Walfredo Reyes (who arrived later). I can live with that, but the premise of this album is wrong. What they have done is re-recorded the songs almost exactly as they originally appeared, attempting to even duplicate some inaccuracies.


Got me. You get the same solos, for the most part, and as much a re-creation of the original vocals as they could assemble without Kath, Cetera, or Dacus. You get the singles versions of Make Me Smile and More than Ever, crunched together to simulate the Ballet for the Girl in Buchanon, but separating out Color My World. They even further truncated the ending of More than Ever for no obvious reason. Was this an error in the editing room?

The sound is clearer than the originals, although I think the saxophone is further back in the brass mix, especially evident in the songs from Chicago VI. They might have tracked the brass individually, and that means they don't blend as well as in the old 16-track masters. The brass doesn't seem as full as in the original Chicago II recordings, although it is cleaner. The originals were noisy and slightly distorted, and very flat, even in the Rhino re-release. The brass in general might be further back in the mix, and are much drier.

Do I regret buying it (for $13.99)?

Well, yes, I suppose. For what it is, it is over-priced. You can only get it direct from the band through TopSpin Records, and the label is Chicago Records II, not to be confused with Chicago Records, who released 26, and some of the greatest hits albums. I don't know the story, but I assume they wound up that entity when they signed their deal with Rhino, only to reform after their Rhino contract was complete.

Chicago has yet to make it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and for me, it is easy to see why: Terry Kath. He was a great guitarist, but the band never moved on. Even with this release they are re-hashing Kath-era hits in order to solidify their HOF creds. He died over 30 years ago guys, get over it! You will only find new fans with new music by the new guys. That's what Deep Purple has done over and over again. Simper is gone, so is Coverdale, so is Bolin, so is Blackmore, so is now Jon Lord. They moved on and another new album is imminent. They are already playing the new songs in concert before the release. That's how you do it. That's how you build and rebuild your audience. Stop trying to sound like Chicago 1976. Be Chicago 2013. Chicago was envisioned to be a faceless brand, but has turned into a Terry Kath tribute band.

2 (out of 5) stars for me, because the originals were so good, but I don't need yet another rehash of the hits.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Pell grants

Today, a panel of experts determined that Pell grants were a waste of money. I didn't read the report, but I heard what they said about it on NPR. Apparently, they said that too many grant students dropped out of college. Why? They had enrolled in colleges with high dropout rates, or they had quit because they had to work.

Why should they have to work? The grant supplies them with ca $3750 for their studies. I can't remember whether the story said on average or maximum. Either way, my answer is clear.

The answer isn't to cut Pell grants, but to increase them. $3750 is nothing compared to what students pay for their education, when they could pay over $50,000 a year. If they go to a university that costs significantly less, they are likely to be in ones that have higher dropout rates. If they dropout to work, they are probably struggling to pay the rest of their tuition. If the grants were higher, that wouldn't be so much of a problem.

They also said some students weren't ready for college. Very few are, and in some cases, college is really just High School 2.0, a stopping place on the way to graduate school, where much of the real learning takes place. In many cases an undergraduate degree only provides the rudiments to enable students to step to the next level, and as such teaches little more than rote learning. It is in graduate school where students assimilate and apply that knowledge. Personally speaking, I didn't know how much I knew until I took my qualifying exams for my doctorate.

Those Pell grants, as meager as they are, enable students to attempt college who might not otherwise have a chance. Even if only (say) 10% of the students go on to their degree, that other 90% at least took a stab at it, and might have found a love of learning that they wouldn't otherwise have realized. College isn't for everyone, but some won't know that until they try it, and who knows how much they might learn in that 1-2 years before they drop out.

Too many people these days have a jaded look at results. They must get an A, or they must finish their degree, and that degree must get them a high-paying job. Nothing is guaranteed, but you will never know if you succeed until you try. Not only is there merit in making the attempt, but there is benefit in gaining knowledge even if you don't complete the degree.

Don't cut Pell grants. Expand them into a program that will enable students to go to and finish college without crippling financial hardship. The opposite would dumb down the population, and while it might make Republicans happy (more under-educated people tend to vote Republican) and save money from the budget, it may cost us more in the long run.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013


Over the weekend, I watched the new British film Quartet, which was almost a who's who of British cinema over the age of 60. Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins, Billy Connolly.

I thoroughly enjoyed it, but not for the story. It was wonderful to see all the retired musicians taking cameos during the film. Apparently, all the extras were real retired musicians. I knew a few by reputation, but one I knew personally, the clarinettist (Colin Bradbury) who featured a lot, especially near the beginning of the film. He was one of my clients several years ago. (I visited his house on a couple of occasions to help him with his computer and Score.)

Particularly enticing was hearing Dame Gwyneth Jones sing an aria just before the ending. She still has it. I think I last heard her as Brunhilde in Die Walküre in the early 90's. There is some lovely music throughout the film. Dario Marinelli skilfully piece together familiar music, with his arrangements, and I believe a little incidental music of his own, although I couldn't be sure.

The story was predictable, and I won't even bother with it. The real story was that of the extras, the retired musicians, who, while struggling with the physical aspects of their profession, still exhibited moments of genius. (There was a trumpeter that did some jazz improvisation about half way through that really stood out.)

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Maybe it's time ...

I've been thinking about this for some time. Gun advocates worship the second amendment like it is their religion. Believe me, it is a false God. Jesus said live by the sword, you will die by the sword (paraphrased from Matthew, but it also appears in Revelation). Guns pervade American society, and people say the only protection is to have a gun of your own, like having an armed guard at Newtown. Unfortunately, if your opponent's gun is drawn, it is already too late for you. It would be better if there were no (or fewer) guns altogether.

Maybe it is time to repeal or limit the second amendment. It basically gives us the right to bear arms to protect ourselves from tyranny.  At this point, what could a single gun do against today's government, and what good have they done in the past? The Civil War cost thousands of lives. That was the only relevant conflict on home soil. Congress could do it. The states could do it, but neither will. Gun advocates say we should protect the Constitution, but this is an amendment, folks, not something that was put into the original document. There are three ways to amend the constitution. We can do it, and the Supreme Court can do nothing about it. Unfortunately, the political will isn't there. Our representatives have been bought by the gun lobby.

OK, what are the alternatives?

Yes, ban assault weapons and high-capacity clips. They aren't needed for hunting, and are too big to effectively protect you from a home invasion. Are you going to leave it loaded beside your bed? I hope your kids don't find it.

Yes, make background checks more thorough and mandatory. That will stop a few potential murderers. Require them for all sales or transfers of weapons.

Here is one thing that I think would be more effective: license guns the same way you license cars and trucks. License (and re-license) every weapon individually EVERY YEAR and through every transfer. Like cars and trucks, make the cost reflect the firepower of the weapon. A single load/single shot weapon would cost the least, up to semi-automatic hand guns which would cost the most (banning the powerful high capacity weapons altogether, or give them a punitively high license fee). That would discourage the ownership of multiple weapons and deter people from amassing an arsenal. It would also alert the authorities to those who do purchase more than a few weapons. Just like a vehicle, a person would have to carry the license for each weapon with them when they are carrying a weapon.

What does this do? As I said, it 1) deters people from purchasing multiple weapons. It also 2) helps the authorities keep track of the location of weapons. According to the Chief of Police in Chicago, that is the single most critical problem. They don't know when weapons change hands. Of course, criminals will still flout that law, but it does 3) make owners responsible for the location of their weapons and what is done with them. If you lose a weapon (or if it is stolen) and don't report it, YOU are an accessory to crimes that are perpetrated with it. As it stands, the responsibility is solely with the perpetrators of the crime. Of course, it should be that way, but the blame should reside with the irresponsible owner as well. Theoretically, the police should be able to trace every weapon through its licensed owner.

This simple change doesn't conflict with the second amendment at all, and it could be an additional revenue stream for the stressed federal budget. It is probably something that should be devolved to the states, but it wouldn't work as well. The ban on assault weapons doesn't conflict with the right to bear arms, only the type of arms.

You could also limit the sales of ammunition, but that would be difficult to enforce.

Why has no one proposed this? It seems to me like a simple effective answer.