Tuesday, January 31, 2012

[AeroTuesday] "Aerosmith" (1973)

In some ways, this remains the most unique Aerosmith album.  It's their bar-band record, one step more professional than a studio demo, comprised of seven songs that never even imagined being arena-band fare, and one that never belonged anywhere but the enormo-domes of rock history.  The exception is, of course, the one song on this album you're guaranteed to know whether or not you've ever bought or downloaded a note of Aerosmith's music; it's the reason that, for years, this album was sold with a redesigned cover and the subtitle Featuring "Dream On".  Sure, it was probably the first modern power ballad and as such paved the way for plenty of crap to follow in its wake, but you can't blame genius for inspiring lousy imitations.  For many a foggy-brained early-teen, myself very much included, it was THE MOST PROFOUND FUCKING THING ON THE PLANET when we first heard it.  Twenty-odd years on it may not be quite that anymore, but it's still bad-ass in a way power ballads aren't generally supposed to be, and it's still great enough that I still generally want to hear it when it crops up, radio overkill be damned.

Aerosmith's other hit-in-retrospect is "Mama Kin", the track on here that holds the key to their future more than any other.  The version of Aerosmith that would fill the stadiums and conquer the world still hasn't quite arrived yet even on this track, but for the entirety of its 4:27 you can see their private chartered airplane heading for the tarmac.  The album's other hit-that-shoulda-been is their cover of Rufus Thomas' "Walkin' the Dog"; at fourteen years old, which I was when I bought my first copy of Aerosmith, I didn't know from Rufus Thomas, cover versions, R&B, or anything else.  I knew that the last song on that tape kicked ass and made me want to spastically move my body, likely groin first, and what more could an adolescent want from his rock 'n' roll?  Hell, all these years later it's still one of the few rock songs that makes me want to shake it.  (Should I have typed that where Rhea will read it?  Probably not!)

R&B, as it turns out, is the key to the rest of Aerosmith; it's what separates even the album's B material from other "heavy rock" of its time.  Led Zeppelin, Cream, the Rolling Stones and their ilk may have loved American R&B, may have been tremendously influenced it, but Aerosmith understood it in a way that their British forebears seemingly couldn't.  Aerosmith didn't study R&B, they played it, and it's exactly that distinction that elevates the likes of "Movin' Out", which otherwise would be fairly standard heavy blues rock of its time, above the pedestrian.  It's what makes Aerosmith still worth returning to nearly forty years after its release.  If Steven Tyler still sounds a bit more like the singer from Canned Heat than himself here and there throughout the record, if the guitars aren't quite amped up enough yet, if the rhythm section doesn't pound quite hard enough yet, well, give 'em time.  One year, to be exact.

In the beginning of this post, I mentioned that for years Aerosmith became Aerosmith Featuring "Dream On", complete with a somewhat redesigned sleeve (pictured above).  The second version was what was commonly available when I first became a fan.  Around that same time, my folks bought me one of those Rare Record Price Guides for some holiday or birthday or other.  In that book, they made reference to an "orange cover" that had two variations, the rarer of which had a typo in one of the track titles listed on the back cover.  Shortly thereafter, I wandered into one of our local used vinyl emporiums, and there it was up on the wall, for the then-astounding sum of $20.  I took it down and looked at the back cover: typo?  Check!  It hurt a bit when I parted with that twenty, but I had my first bona-fide collectible.  Since then, I've chased after and found plenty of far rarer records, but man...you never forget your first.  It's still in great shape, and it still makes me smile every time I pull it out for a spin on the turntable.  Dig this:

Monday, January 30, 2012

New Series: AeroTuesday!

Last year, I did a five-month series called Trick Tuesday, in which I discussed every Cheap Trick album in depth, one a week.  Picking that band as a subject was easy: they're my favorite band in the history of the rock and the roll.  In many ways, that entire series was just as much about me as it was Cheap Trick; theirs was the music I truly grew up with and to, and any discussion of their work was sure to be rife with autobiographical details for me.  The entire thing was great fun; writing it was a blast, and I got to correspond with a bunch of nice folks along the way.  Since its conclusion, I've been looking to cast a different band in a similar series.  This morning, as I was contemplating the fact that Valentine's Day is only a couple of weeks away, a subject that should have been obvious months ago loudly announced itself.

Often in this blog, I've mentioned Rhea, my darling fiancée/life-partner-in-crime.  Aerosmith are her Cheap Trick, the band that turned her from a music listener to a music fan, the band to whom she always comes home.  Why not then, as we head towards Valentine's Day, take on the large and varied catalog of my favorite's favorites?  With Steven Tyler currently plastered all over the media, and with increasingly true-sounding rumors of a new album on the horizon, this seems like a perfect time to make Aerosmith the subject of my second album-by-album series.

To give you a feel for where I'm coming from with this, I'm a fan - and was long before I met Rhea.  I began delving into the Aerosmith catalog around the same time as I was discovering Cheap Trick, which means my early-to-mid teens.  In many ways, their '70s catalog is the perfect hormonal match for a budding young rocker at that painfully adolescent age: ballsy, sleazy, and offering carnal knowledge by proxy to even the shyest of teen-dorks.  I ate it all right up then, and it remains dazzling all these years later.

You'll notice that I qualified my comments in that last paragraph with "their '70s catalog".  In many ways, there are really two Aerosmiths: the rock band that existed from their inception through 1985's Done with Mirrors, and the pop band that has set up an enormously successful shop ever since then.  From the very phrasing of that sentence, it's probably obvious that my allegiance largely lies with the band's earlier material.  My tastes are just much more "Rats in the Cellar" than "Cryin'", and that's true of both Aerosmith and rock 'n' roll in general.  So I'm admitting my prejudices clearly before we even begin this thing, but I'm also honestly looking forward to giving their later stuff a fresh listen for this series.  You never know what you'll hear with the benefit of hindsight that you may have missed at the time, and you never know what might just plain sound better to your ears at 37 than it did at 27 or 17.

And with that, I'll cut this intro short before I get too far ahead of myself.  That's AeroTuesday, every Tuesday here on Turned on Its Ear, starting tomorrow.  Now, if you'll excuse me, it's time for me to drape some scarves from my keyboard in anticipation.

Album Review: Craig Finn, "Clear Heart Full Eyes"

When I saw that The Hold Steady's front man had a solo album coming out, two questions immediately sprang to mind for me: why would someone whose vision seemingly so dominates his band need to make a solo record and will it be better than The Hold Steady's disappointing last album?  The short answers, respectively are as follows: because the music is much different than anything The Hold Steady would do, even if the lyrics are pretty much the same as ever and yes, thankfully.

Let's expand on those two answers a bit.  If you've ever heard anything Finn has been responsible for, be it The Hold Steady, Lifter Puller, or this solo album, then you're likely already aware that he's an extremely able, clever wordsmith with a frustratingly limited topical scope.  As ever, these eleven songs can be reduced to their thematic lowest common denominators of drinking/drugs/parties, the poor choices one makes as a result of drinking/drugs/parties, and religion.  As with the last two Hold Steady albums, I'll take this moment to register my running complaint: it would be refreshing to hear someone as gifted with words as Finn challenge himself to write about something different.  After all these years and albums, he's edging ever closer to shticky self-parody, and the brutally honest side of my brain knows that I may well have only included the "edging ever closer" qualifier to that sentence because I am a fan.

So the lyrics are what they are, and are what they will likely always remain, and who needs 'em?  The music is Clear Heart Full Eyes' giant pleasant surprise, setting Finn's ever-improving speak-singing to a quiet, gentile, '70s inspired restrained-rock gait that sounds like a potential mismatch on paper but plays out wonderfully on record.  Where The Hold Steady posits Finn as a sort of post-punk Springsteen, here he reinvents himself as a sort of indie-rock Steve Miller, whose drug-addled protagonists take the money and run, ambling off into the earth-toned sunset of 1976 with Jesus as their co-pilot or maybe not.  Finn's backing band understand this music perfectly, injecting it with enough rambling grace to make the record warm and welcoming, but never generating so much heat as to upstage their star narrator.  I can imagine totally zoning out to this record come the summer, sitting on a lawn chair at a beach somewhere, cooler by my side, losing myself in the narrative no matter how silly and clichéd it might actually be.  This is a remarkably consistent record; Finn clearly had a sound and vibe in mind for it, which he and his band find within the first minute or so and never lose sight of.  If some of it begins to feel a bit samey by record's end, well, it also has no bad songs to speak of - and that's something that can't be said for either of the last two Hold Steady albums.  (Two?  Yup; while I adore Stay Positive as a whole, "One for the Cutters" is a terrible song.)

In many ways, Clear Heart Full Eyes is the polar opposite of Heaven is Whenever, The Hold Steady's last-and-least album.  Where that album attempted to disguise its diminished songwriting quality in a haze of spit-shiny production, this one makes both a virtue and a selling point of its casual, off-the-cuff feel.  It's a record of quiet confidence, and I hope that it leads Finn to return to his main band with its success under his arm, and from there that they might find a way to plug the hole in the shape of departed keyboardist Franz Nicolay in their sound and come up with something once again on the quality level of their first four LPs.  Not something that sounds exactly like them - they've already been there and done that, after all - but something as artistically exciting as them.  In the meantime, Clear Heart Full Eyes is a big step in the right direction.

Meta: February is the New January

Let's try this again.

The bad news is that Turned on Its Ear never really seemed to hit cruising altitude in January.  Blame it on the family, blame it on that post-holiday malaise, blame it on the rain.  Or, you could just blame it on me: without a plan or a series going into the month, there just wasn't that much that seemed to demand comment from me.  Joe Paterno's death?  Obama's State of the Union speech?  I shrug in the general direction of both, knowing that I've got nothing more than that shrug to add to the millions of words that have already been thrown at the page by others on both subjects.  I also don't care one way or the other about that Facebook Timeline thing.  And so on - you get the point.  January, schmanuary.

The good news is that February is right around the corner, and I've got some exciting things planned for the blog in the coming month.  For starters, we'll have two new series: a weekly one to begin tomorrow (more details on that later this evening), and a daily mini-series, sort of a scaled-down 31 Holi-Days , to run mid-month.  Beyond all of that, I also pledge at least one other substantial post per week.  You know, a real post, not just some Japanese folks mangling a Toto song or something called the Purity Bear.

A bit further into this year, Turned on Its Ear turns one year old in March; expect celebrations to follow.  Between then and now, though, I assure you that hibernation time is over.  As always, my deepest appreciation to all of you who continue to check in.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

"Look At Me, I'm Cuddly."

This is real.  It was not intended as a work of parody.  At best, it's what some group of holy-rollin' whack-a-loons considers "comedic" or "snarky" or "hip" or something.  At worst, it's the sort of uninformed rhetoric that reinforces the idea that sex is somehow dirty, something that only those kinds of teenagers even dare to momentarily think about.  Thank you, upstanding moralists, for making adolescence even more fun by telling kids that their urges - which occur naturally and are completely, hormonally unavoidable by the way - are IMPURE and, obviously, the first stop on the road to ruin.

Somebody needs to introduce The Purity Bear to Sexual Harassment Panda, stat!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Even the Wii Knows...

This was the very first question asked of me in the Music category of Game Party 2 for the Wii.  Sign of great harmony in the universe, or not-too-subtle hint that I need help?  You be the judge.

SOPA, Digital Piracy, and the Nature of Protest

In general, I'm not much of a join-the-protest kind of guy.  It's hardly that I don't have strong opinions about things, but joining someone else's protest always comes with accepting their agendas and their baggage.  That's where I generally get off the train: thanks, but I've got enough of my own.  It probably has to do with having come of political age in the '90s: listening to one too many dorks with a hacky sack ramble incoherently in slogan-speak about freeing Tibet when they probably couldn't find the place on a map is the sort of thing that will instill a deep-seeded aversion in a lad.  It's also essentially the reason I'll never give the music of the Grateful Dead a fair chance, but that's a different rant for another day.

I decided to join (alright, well, at least publically acknowledge) the SOPA blackout for a simple reason: some things are so egregious that deep-seeded aversions need to be set aside.  Think about it for a second: this piece of legislation would put the ability to black out web sites - without any sort of due process or legal proceedings before the blackout - in the hands of two organizations.  Which two, you ask?  Large corporations and the government.  Personally, I can't imagine two organizations more likely to abuse such a power.  The whole thing is so perfectly cynical that it's nearly art: "If you give us free reign and validate it, we'll do the same for you!"  Mark my words: without rampant public outcry, there is no way SOPA would have failed.  It's a perfect win-win for those in power.  It's also a perfect loss for our Constitutionally-granted freedom of speech, but hey: in the past decade or so, both we the people and our leaders have made clear time and again that the silly old Constitution is a fairly negotiable document.

The vessel used to carry SOPA, to lend it the feel of authenticity, is the issue of copyright protection.  Unfortunately, the time to do something about digital piracy was about a decade or so ago, before easily manipulated peer-to-peer software and broadband connections became standard in a majority of American homes.  The fact that the RIAA, MPAA and other similar industry groups still speak of digital piracy as though it's something on their potential event horizon that they'd like to avoid rather than a revolution that both passed and planted some now-deep roots about a decade ago is hilarious to me.  Frankly, it's difficult for anyone with even a passing interest in the technology involved in file sharing and digital piracy to imagine any sort of panacea for it being developed at this late date.

But let's play pretend for a moment, shall we?  Suppose such a panacea existed.  It goes without saying that SOPA isn't it, but let's pretend that some sort of viable solution suddenly emerged.  Imagine that you awoke tomorrow to a world without the Pirate Bay, without Demonoid, without Rapidshare-style file sharing, without Russian pirate sites, etc.  Would the former record stores of America suddenly regenerate Phoenix-like from the ground where they once stood, emerging once again fully staffed and stocked?  Would Best Buy suddenly have to halve their stock of cell phone accessories and re-expand their DVD assortment?  Would Tower Records signs suddenly hang over a world once again forced to pay full list price for physical product?  The answer, in all of these cases, is simple: of course not.

The reason is also simple: pirated or paid, most Americans have happily adapted to the convenience of digital delivery of their entertainment media.  And why not?  Less hassle, less space, less - or no, depending on your personal moral viewpoint - cost.  Format shifts have happened many times before in the past century or so: a moment of silence, if you will, for wax cylinders, 78 RPM acetates, reel-to-reel tapes, 8-tracks, Betamax, Laserdisc, VHS, video game cartridges, cassette tapes, mini discs, and god knows what else I'm not thinking of off the top of my head.  The only difference now is that this particular format shift was forced by the end consumer rather than engineered by the content providers.  As such, the latter are twisting in the wind trying to figure out how to monetize this shift in their favor, as they have with all the previous ones.  Remember re-buying all of your old VHS movies on DVD about ten years ago?  That must have been a nice little catalog-profit windfall for the studios, right?  You bet, and what's more it's now time for you, dear end consumer, to move into the wonderful world of Blu-Ray and streaming.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

Of course, there's no reason to lather, rinse and repeat if there's no money to be made on the process, and that's where the excuse for SOPA comes in.  Were it to pass, I've no doubt that its first targets would be many of the ones I mentioned a paragraph back: goodbye Pirate Bay, Demonoid, et al.  With all of that out of the way, the fun would really begin: goodbye political opponents, pop stars signed to a different company, any sort of indie-label anything, and in one last, fantastic show of mutually assured destruction, all politically partisan thought from anywhere on the spectrum.  Lefties nuking righties and vice-versa in one big game of SOPA Space Invaders  until there is nothing left but silence and darkness where the internet, one of the greatest tools mankind has ever imagined for the exchange of information, used to be.

Talk about your blackouts.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

SOPA Blackout

Those looking for my usual mid-week content are politely encouraged to check back tomorrow afternoon.  I'm not blacking out the entire blog - honestly, attempting to do that from the archaic library computer at my work that I'm currently posting from might blow up the entire internet - but I did want to raise my hand in opposition in my small way.

No idea what any of this is all about?  Check this out.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Great Transgender Girl Scout Cookie Boycott (or: Get Your Penis Outta My Bathroom!)

EDIT: Whoops, that was quick!  The original video is now "private."  Some protest, huh?  About three quarters of it has been reposted by a different YouTube user (at least for the time being), and that is what I've now embedded above.

Fun fact: this is second video that I've embedded on the blog that has disappeared within twenty-four hours.  The other?  Beavis and Butt-Head's take on "It's So Cold in the D".  There's some correlation to be drawn between the intelligence level of those two things, I think.  My original post begins with the switch to black text.

WHICH BATHROOMS DO THEY USE?  Truly one of the great questions of our time, an example of pragmatism at its finest.  (/sarcasm, as the kids write on YouTube videos that actually allow comments.)

If this video hasn't shown up on your Facebook feed yet, it's likely only a matter of minutes.  It's truly amazing to think about all of the things I didn't realize were actually problems or issues until some raving lunatic on YouTube brings them to my attention. Isn't modern social media just grand?

For me, there are two things to address here: the video, and the message it advocates.  Let's do the fun part first, and rip apart the clip itself.  I'm the kind of dude who's seen a horror movie or two (thousand) in his time, and I feel perfectly confident in telling you that I know a brainwashed face when I see one.  The blank expression, the robotic, narcotized style of speech, it's all classic.  GIRL SCOUT ZOMBIES IN 3-D, coming soon to a theater near you.  I mock, I sneer, and I'd probably buy a ticket.

I love the editing style, too: looks like someone just pirated some expensive digital editing software off the internet and is having FUN WITH TEXT AND FOCUS!  I've seen public access shows with better production values.   Seriously, upstanding moral crusaders: if you're not proficient with production techniques, you are truly better off just placing the camera, hitting RECORD, and realizing that less is more.

Then there's the script.  I'd like to acknowledge that my inner Beavis snickered every single time she said "a true all-girl experience" or some derivative thereof.  The part of me that wants to believe that the world is a better place than it is hopes that some snarky adult fed her that phrase to underscore the essential dopey-ness of the entire tirade.  The realist in me knows that, sadly, whoever wrote this script is as serious as a heart attack about it all, and that any resulting humor is unfortunately unintentional.

The issue itself - that of the place of transgenders in an organization like the Girl Scouts - is a touch thornier.  In theory, yes, I do believe that if a child should be able to participate in activities aimed at the gender with which they identify.  If there are truly a significant number of transgendered children already in the Girl Scouts and this particularly viral strain of YouTube idiocy is the first we're really hearing about it, then I fail to see what the problem is.  That suggests to me that the transgendered Girl Scouts have been accepted reasonably smoothly into the organization, and at that point no further debate seems necessary.

But what happens when that's not the case?  What if a reasonable, caring parent objects?  I'm not talking about the sort of raving whack-a-loon that would produce a video like this one.  I'm talking about a decent, possibly religious parent who simply doesn't want to have this sort of can of worms forced open within their family.  That parent and their daughter have rights, too - and while their viewpoint doesn't exactly match mine, I can wrap my head around it and acknowledge it as intelligent, reasonable, and non-hateful.  I don't know what the answer is, honestly.  Or maybe I do: maybe the lesson here is that you can't truly control what life throws at you, be you a person stuck in the wrong body or a good, well-meaning parent who's never previously had to even consider the implications of such a thing.  Perhaps you just have to accept that there is no good, one-cure-fits-all answer to a question like this, and be brave enough to face whatever new things you are confronted with with as much morality and open-mindedness as you can muster.

Where discriminatory tripe like this video is concerned, however, I absolutely have the answer: double my order of Girl Scout cookies for this year, please.  The idea that I can simultaneously gorge myself on delicious Tagalongs and flip the bird to hateful lunatics is the very definition of win-win.

Monday, January 9, 2012

General Update: Mom, Meta, Music (new Therapy? single/video)

First things first: Rhea's mom is home from the hospital and recovering according to prognosis.  You wouldn't call her comfortable by any stretch of the word's meaning; even with the surgery, she's still got a fair amount of pain ahead of her, unfortunately.  Still, it's far better to be uncomfortable at home with family and familiar surroundings around you than it is to feel that way and be an island in the stream on a hospital bed.  Her most common complaint?  "I just don't know where to put myself."  That probably sums it up better than any of my writerly musings can.

Meta-blogging: so, yeah, obviously some heavy family stuff going on.  As a result, my new mid-week/weekend schedule for new posts didn't quite launch as projected.  With everything normalizing, I should be back on track with it going forward: figure two new posts every week, one each by Wednesday and Sunday.  This doesn't preclude there being more than two posts in a week, but there will be a minimum of two going forward from here.

Last piece of random-ness: the tune that's been kicking my ass all afternoon.  Although they never made nearly as much of a commercial stir here in the States as they did in other parts of the world, Irish punk-metal trio Therapy? remain one of my favorite musical exports of the '90s.  Today, they posted to YouTube (embedded below) a video for "Living in the Shadow of the Terrible Thing", the first single from their forthcoming album A Brief Crack of Light, due February 6th.  It's very strong stuff: a veritable clinic in how deft use of space and an inventive, way above average rhythm section can make your punk-metal band that much different than all other punk-metal bands.  Admittedly, this is from the end of my listening spectrum that probably makes Rhea wish that I liked glam metal way more than I do - sorry about that, darlin' - but some of the rest of you might really dig this.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Insomnia fun with Toto! (Well, Sort Of...)

Ever find yourself awake at three in the morning and watching the weirdest shit imaginable on YouTube?  I've no idea how to even begin tracing back the trail of videos that landed me on this one, but it must be seen to be believed.  I'll let the video's description speak for itself: "Amateur rock band PRESENT performs famous piece of music 'AFRICA' of that TOTO by the recording with the studio."  Did I mention [sic]?  Did I need to?

I'll also issue you a challenge: you MUST watch/listen until the immortal lyric "sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti" gets mangled in a way I guarantee you've never heard before.  Have fun!

New Year, New Shoulder

So, how's your 2012 so far?  Actually, it doesn't really matter how you answer that little trick question: most likely, it's been better than Rhea's mom's.  One week ago last night, she fell at work.  She put her arm out to stop her fall, and broke her shoulder in short order.  Initially, she was told that there wasn't much they could do for it other than put it in a sling and wait for her body to work its healing magic on its own.  That's what they did, only the pain got worse and worse with each passing day.  Flash to today: as I post this, I'm sleepless with anxiety, given that surgery happens in a touch over four hours.  I'll be there to hold Rhea's hand through it; maybe we'll get some sleep next week.

I hate hospitals.  The antiseptic smell immediately reminds me of my mom's bout with diverticulitis a decade and a piece ago.  Without dwelling morbidly on the subject, her disease had advanced to the point where she was essentially given a 50/50 chance of walking out of the hospital alive.  She did, thank God, but that smell always whisks me back there on first lungful.  Just one of life's great grin-and-bear-it moments, I suppose: it hits hard, but not nearly hard enough to keep me away from my loved ones in moments of crisis.

As moments of crisis go, this one isn't nearly what the last couple have been.  Rhea's mom is a two-time cancer survivor, both within the last eight years.  Compared to that, even a horribly painful broken shoulder is...well, it's hardly nothing or a walk in the park, but it is not at all life threatening.  In my book, that's an improvement.

If you would, please take a moment to send a good thought, prayer, whatever you call it down the wire.  We'd all very much appreciate it.  Provided all goes according to plan, regularly scheduled blog service - new content by Wednesday and Sunday of each week - will resume next week.

L to R: Rhea's brother Alan and his wife Kristina, Rhea's mother Andrea and her father Jim, and Rhea's self and I - all feeling quite a bit less pain in Memphis this past October.