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Classic Album Review: Workingman’s Dead/American Beauty — The Grateful Dead (1970)


I know I am cheating by including two albums here but Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty were recorded about five months apart and in total clock in at just under 70 minutes, which today could fit on one CD. More importantly these two albums are quite similar musically as they cover folk, blues, Appalachia, as well as country and western in a way that is still fresh some 40 years later. Furthermore, along with The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, these albums ushered in a new era of country-rock that would flourish throughout the 1970’s and is still being felt today.

Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty were huge departures from the Grateful Dead of the 1960’s. Gone was the psychedelica that anchored the San Francisco hippie music scene and in its place the Dead explored traditional-flavored American music with lyrics that were more winsome than mind blowing. However it was these two albums that propelled the Grateful Dead into the mainstream and created a band personae that went way beyond the cult following of the Dead’s early career. The fact that at least four songs from these  albums can still be heard on classic rock radio station such as KQRS (and occasionally on The Current) is a testament to each album's staying power and popularity.

Workingman’s Dead came out in June 1970 and must have been a huge surprise to Dead fans. Uncle John’s Band kicks-off the album and although it is somewhat trippy, it was much more country than anything else previously from the Dead. This song has personal resonance too as it was played at my friend Bill Fadell's funeral. The second song, High Times, is practically Jerry singing acapella with just a bluesy guitar in the background. Cumberland Blues comes straight out of the West Virginny coal mines, while Casey Jones is an acid-washed, country-tinged bluesy train song.

If fans thought that Workingman's Dead was a one album fluke, American Beauty, which came out only five or so months later, quickly disabused them of that notion. The album starts with one of the singularly most beautiful songs ever written – Box of Rain – which was written and sang by Phil Lesh for his dying father. It’s a song about a son trying to understand the meaning of life in the face of his father’s death. Friend of the Devil, Sugar Magnolia, and especially Ripple (all of which became concert favorites of Deadheads for the next 25 years) are songs that could easily be found on an album from an old-timey folker or from a smart ass alt-country band from Austin, Texas. The songs are that timeless. The album ends with Attics of My Life and its beautiful 3-part harmony and of course the fan (and KQ) favorite Truckin.’ With Truckin’ the Dead look back and close the door on the 60’s with the now classic line “What a long, strange trip it’s been."

Don’t get me wrong, these aren’t musically spare country or folk songs with guitar and rhythm section consigned to the background. No, the songs are highly textured with most have at least three guitars, mandolins, etc., playing different parts. It’s pretty heady stuff and I think most Dead fans, then and now, could get their freak on with both these albums. Another highlight is the harmonies. Most of the songs on Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty have at least 2-part, if not 3-part harmonies and Jerry was never in better voice. Garcia’s guitar work is stellar and the rhythm section is top notch, especially during the “boogie” songs such as Cumberland Blues and New Speedway Boogie. These aren't two sides of one album either. Workingman is a little bluesier, Beauty a little more folk and country.

As I mentioned above, these albums, for better or worse, ushered in the era of country rock and bands such as the Eagles, Poco, Linda Ronstadt, etc., would shortly become mainstays on the American pop charts. However, these two albums are as vital and influential today as they were some 42 years ago and are one of the reasons why the Grateful Dead became such cultural icons. The Dead deservedly have earned their hippie jam band reputation and their fans can be a little much but if you can get past those stereotypes, I think you will find Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty quite wonderful albums.

Friday Fungoes: 10,000 Giant Steps

Photo by the author.
Suppose that, instead of moving his team to California with the Dodgers in 1957, that Horace Stoneham had brought the New York Giants to Minnesota. The Minneapolis Millers, the Giants' AAA farm club, had begun playing in new Metropolitan Stadium in 1956, so the Giants would have had a year-old Met as their new home. Though their historic ties to the Dodgers would have suffered, the relocated Giants would likely have found a natural rivalry with the Milwaukee Braves, and, adding in the Cubs and Cardinals, would have solidified the Midwest as the epicenter of great National League baseball.

Of course, this rules out the Senators moving to Minnesota. So, here's the fungo:

Do you think you would have grown up a fan of the relocated Giants? Who would have been your favorite player as a young fan? Who would be your favorite player on the current squad (assuming the roster would be the same), and why? Finally, do you think the team have kept the "Giants" name, or switched to something else?

Continue reading Friday Fungoes: 10,000 Giant Steps

Friday Fungoes: The Best Defense is a Good Defense

For the next couple weeks I plan to post a little online water cooler fodder on Fridays, just to provide Citizens the opportunity for some fun, low-stress baseball-related commenting before things get serious and spring training is finally here. We certainly wouldn't want anyone Citizen to pull or strain anything diving into a spring training game log without having properly stretched his fingers. Below you'll find the initial installment of Friday Fungoes.

Occasionally I go drink beer at a neighborhood joint with a close friend of mine who is every bit the baseball fan as anyone on this site. Owing partially to an older family member who played minor league ball in the Pittsburgh farm system in the Thirties, he grew up a Pirates fan, rooting with youthful intensity for Roberto Clemente and the rest of the Buccos in the 1960 World Series. Originally from Colorado, these days he's a staunch Rockies fan. What follows is a fun thought experiment, which he proposed to me last week over our second or third pitcher of Alaskan Amber:

Your team is carrying a one-run lead into the ninth inning. As the manager, you need to construct the best defense you can put on the field, manned by players of any era, with the proviso that they must be players you have watched during your time as a baseball fan. Pay no attention to a player's offensive prowess - the goal here is to prevent the tying run from scoring, not to win the game in your next at-bat.

My defense:

C Ivan Rodriguez
1b John Olerud
2b Rey Sanchez
3b Gary Gaetti
SS Ozzie Smith
LF Barry Bonds*
CF Devon White
RF Ichiro
P Greg Maddux

*Unless Sid Bream is due up.

Obviously answers will vary depending upon the age of the individual supplying them, or the age baseball fandom set in, or both. Who would you send out to guard your lead?

EDIT: sean suggested also posting your worst defense, which I heartily second. In that spirit:

C Todd Hundley
1b Frank Thomas
2b Jose Offerman
3b Bobby Bonilla
SS Cap'n Dreamboat
LF Manny B Manny
CF Bernie Williams
RF Gary Sheffield
P Mitch Williams

Classic Album Review: Guided By Voices — Bee Thousand (1994)


Since it’s my birthday I just had to go with Bee Thousand.  Admittedly I was not one of the cool kids when it came to Guided By Voices.  God how I wish I was.  You know, one of those guys that just knew a band was awesome from the start, even though no one else knew of them or someone who would go to the record store for sole purpose of scoring a self-printed 7-inch.  Unfortunately when Guided By Voices hit the indy music scene, I was busy with raising little kids and fixing up an old house in SW Minneapolis.

I’m pretty sure I’ve related this story before but it bears repeating because I think it’s common with GbV fans. I didn’t hear Bee Thousand until 2006 and for that I have to blame/thank Mary Lucia (DJ 89.3-The Current) for turning me on to Guided by Voices. Sometime in the summer of 2006 Mary Lucia played the song Motor Away and made some quip that GbV was her one of her favorites. Now of course I’ve probably heard Motor Away and I Am A Scientist over 100 times but I thought to myself “now there’s a band that I really don’t know very well.” So I downloaded a couple of songs, liked them; started reading up on the band, and pretty much decided that Bee Thousand was the album to take the plunge. It took a few listens but six years later I am a total GbV geek with over five hundreds of songs on my I-pod and GbV-related CD's, DVD’s and books scattered around my house like a tossed-aside Robert Pollard lyric.  I regularly check the GbV websites, and am waiting for the day when I can actually buy one of those hand printed 7-inchers.

Call it lo-fi, indy rock, DIY, or just plain weird, Bee Thousand (rhymes with Pete Townsend?) is all that but so much more. Guitars drop in and out in the middle of solos, songs break off after one chorus, and the album sounds like it was recorded in someone’s basement on a four-track machine – which of course it was. Arcane lyrics, fuzzy guitars, and off-key harmonies predominate. Even though there are 20 songs…with the longest song only 3:09, and many more under 2:30... it clocks in at a lean and sublime 37 minutes.

But oh what a glorious 37 minutes! If you can imagine infectious little songs with a Midwest twist on British Invasion-era pop you kind of get the idea of what you’re in for with Bee Thousand. If there was any justice in the pop music world, songs like Hardcore UFO’s, Tractor Rape Chain, Echos Myron, Queen of Cans and Jars, and I Am a Scientist would be as familiar as any song by the 60s/70s-era Kinks, Raspberries, Bad Finger, or from any Brill Building song writer. Alas, Bee Thousand will have to conquer the world one unsuspecting listener at a time. The good thing is that it is doing just that. A virtual cult has grown up around this album with books, blogs, listening parties, and groupies all dedicated to any and everything Bee Thousand.

Now I’m part of the cult and proselytizing on its behalf. If you want your music so slickly-produced that it can sell accounting services on TV with lyrics that are poll-tested and easily deciphered, well then Bee Thousand probably is not for you. However if you want to hear something that was written and sung for the love of music, that is both quirky and familiar, momentous yet fun, I implore you to check out Bee Thousand. Careful though, you might end up like me. I'll give the last word to Robert Pollard (from Echos Myron):

Most of us are quite pleased
With the same old song
And all of a sudden I’m relatively sane
With everything to lose and nothing to gain
Or something like that

Classic Album Reviews: Elvis Costello and the Attractions — This Year’s Model (1978)

My momma has always said that if your nom de punk includes the name Elvis, you better have the songs to back it up. After the solid debut of My Aim Is True, Elvis Costello was determined to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump so Elvis came out with both guns ablazin’ in this 1978 release and it is just as furious and fierce as anything the Clash were putting out at the time which is not bad considering that it’s most memorable instrument is a Farfisa Organ. In short, Elvis Costello did have the songs worthy of his name.

From its opening line of “I don’t wanna kiss you, I don’t wanna touch….. you” to the slamming “radio radio!" that closes the album, Elvis is spittin’ mad as his serpent’s tongue spews out song after song about fashion, relationships, and modern radio. Musically the album is spare with guitar, bass, that wonderful organ, and a simple drum backing. It’s Elvis’ first album with the Attraction and they provide nice background vocals and a tight midsection. Very little overdubs or studio tricks here. This album is lean, muscular, and cutting. And I loved every second of it.

When Elvis Costello made that famous SNL appearance in late 1977 I was watching at a friend’s house with his mom. Here comes Elvis with the nerdy Buddy Holly glasses, tight jeans, and a spastic, frantic stage presence playing Pump It Up. My friend’s mom thought it was a skit and was incredulous when we told her that no it was a real act. Later during the second song when Elvis stopped the first few bars of Less Than Zero and played Radio Radio instead, I was hooked. Unfortunately it took me a couple more years to finally buy this album. When I switched over to CD’s it was one of the first CD’s I ever bought. I probably have played it at least once a month for some 30 years and never get sick of it. Whatever other musical genre I was currently into, whether it be punk, country, folk, jazz, old school rock and roll, Gregorian chant, sea shanty’s, etc., This Year’s Model has always been there.

Radio Radio of course is a favorite. I saw Elvis Costello play at the Myth nightclub a few years back and he played this song perfectly.   Costello has probably played this song thousands of times over the past 30 years and to still just lay it down with such fury and conviction was just incredible. Unfortunately part of the reason may be that its words ring more true today than they did in 1978. Can you think of a verse that describes today’s commercial radio any better than this:

You either shut up or get cut up/They don't wanna hear about it/It's only inches on the reel-to-reel/And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools/Tryin' to anaesthetize the way that you feel!

For that line alone, This Year’s Model is deservedly a classic album and worthy of a place on your turntable, discplayer, Ipod, or Spotify playlist.

Classic Album Reviews: Lucinda Williams — Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998)

After spending the previous decade releasing spare country and folk albums, Lucinda Williams spent most of the 1990’s recording and re-recording one of the greatest country albums released by a female artist. Gone was the lone voice and guitar of her previous albums and in its place was a lush mixture of guitar, mandolin, accordion, dobro, piano, and electric guitar. The album is a showcase of Williams’ fine song-writing skills and emotive voice that can go from a growl to a purr in the blink of a song. It is an album that takes its sensibility not only from Nashville (country), but also from New Orleans (Zydeco), Chicago (Blues), and Los Angeles (Rock and Roll).

The album covers your typical country fare of love gained, hearts broken, and a  life that is not smooth like a highway but instead bumpy and worn down like a gravel road. From the album’s first line - "Not a day goes by I don’t think about you" - we are introduced to Williams’ reminisces about love lost. Highlights for me include the opening song, Right in Time, which is about a woman who literally aches carnally for her man; Drunken Angel, a song about/for Gram Parsons; Lake Charles, (love lost); Greenville (saying goodbye to a lover who is a drunken lout); and Jackson (thinking about a lover as she drives across the south).

I Lost It standouts as a country-rocker about falling in love but worried about getting ones heart broke. The second verse is classic:

I just wanna live the life I please
I don't want no enemies
I don't want nuthin' if I have to fake it.
Never take nuthin' don't belong to me
Everything's paid for nothing’s free
If I give you my heart
Will you promise not to break it?

Sweet.  If we could all have standards like that.

This album is southern, but Williams isn’t getting her Lynyrd Skynyrd on. It’s the south of cotton picking, humid nights, rutted roads, and beer guzzlin’ good ol’ boys who done their woman wrong. Lucinda Williams imbibes these songs with her voice, making them real -- your heart literally goes out to her and you curse the men who have burned her in the past. Top to bottom there isn’t a fill-in song or throw away line on the entire album and Car Wheels on a Gravel Road should be considered a classic alongside your Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and Jayhawks collections.

Classic Album Review: Nirvana — Nevermind (1991)


Hey did you hear that last week was the 20th anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind?  As usual the media tends to go overboard on these anniversaries but it’s hard to underplay the impact Nevermind had on music and popular culture. When Nevermind displaced Michael Jackson’s Dangerous as number one on the album charts in early 1992 there was a shudder in the time-space continuum of popular culture. The impact continues today. A while back I’m pretty sure I heard the Decemberists’ O' Valencia over the in-store PA system at a Home Depot. That plain and simple would never have happened without Nevermind.

Even though I was in my late 20’s when Nevermind came out, I still thought it absolutely rocked and I ate up every song. The first time I heard Smells Like Teen Spirit I was floored that something like that was actually being played over commercial radio. That song created such a buzz and you couldn't help either asking or being asked “have you heard that Nirvana album? It’s amazing, you gotta hear it.” Nevermind really did opened the floodgates to a popular acceptance of what became known as alternative music and drove a stake through the heart of hair bands such as Whitesnake, Poison, and Skid Row. Out the door was music that was sold as hedonistic party music and in came introspective, angst-ridden songs. Ennui became a word on every rock critic’s spell check.

But one could blather on forever on Nevermind’s “impact” and over the last couple of weeks just about everyone has.  However the number one reason Nevermind had such a big impact is that practically every song on the album was great. In most cases a band will release an album that has a huge break-out song on it but the rest of the album is flaccid at best. Not the case with Nevermind. From the opening song that everyone knows, followed by In Bloom and Come As You Are, you were hooked. Teen Spirit isn’t even the hardest rockin’ song on the album as Breed, Territorial Pissings, Drain You, Lounge Act, and Stay Away are fast, guitar-heavy songs that forcibly propel the listener to the end of the album. Breed and Territorial Pissings are classic punks songs that will still be exhilarating some 50 years from now.

Kurt Cobain’s guitar work is usually overshadowed by his songwriting but there are serious riffs on display here. Dave Grohl’s drumming really anchors every song along with Novoselic’s bass work. Like listening to Husker Du, I was surprised that such cacophony could come out of only three instruments. To the indiscriminate listener, it sounds like a bunch of noise. But if you take the time to listen, the melody is there and at times it’s quite complex.

Of course everyone knows the story of what happened to Kurt Cobain and it was only a matter of time before alternative music got co-opted by Madison Avenue (Heck a few years back the opening riff to Breed was used in a baseball video game commercial). But when Nevermind came out, not only was it thrilling to listen to, but it was also satisfying as finally decent music was considered popular and being exposed to a larger population.  And 20 years later, while I don’t play it nearly as much as I used to, I still get goosebumps when I hear those opening guitar chords of Smells Like Teen Spirit.

Who’s up for a game of Werewolf?

Since the Twins' season is basically over and today's game is going nowhere fast, I propose we play a game of Werewolf. For those of you who have played Mafia before, it's basically the same game.

If you're interested in playing, send me an email. My email address is (mynamehere) I'd like to get around 7-9 players. Once we have enough players, I will declare registration over and send you your role via email. For those of you who are werewolves, I will also tell you the identities of your fellow werewolves. Here's how it works:

The goal of the villagers is to kill all the werewolves before they are outnumbered.  If they do so, the villagers are declared the winners (even the villagers who have been killed).  If at any point the werewolves outnumber the villagers during the day, they can simply come out and kill everyone, so they win.  The thing that makes this tricky is that during the day, everybody looks like a villager, so the villagers have no idea who among them is actually a werewolf.  On the other hand, the werewolves know who each other are.

The game consists of two phases--a day phase and a night phase.

DAY PHASE:  Debate begins between everybody in the village and everybody gets to vote for somebody to eliminate.  Once a single player has a majority, I will declare it to be NIGHT.  That player will be killed and his or her role will be revealed.

NIGHT PHASE:  Everybody in the village goes to bed (i.e. no posting is allowed).  The werewolves will select a villager to kill and send the name to me via email.  Once I get a name from the werewolves, I will declare it to be DAY.  That villager's name will be revealed and he will be dead.

Once a player is killed, they are out of the game forever.  So no posting when you're dead!   The game ends when all the werewolves are dead or the werewolves outnumber the villagers during the day.  There are other "special" roles that can be added which add intrigue and complexity to the game.

The actual game will take place over at Spooky's blog.

Classic Album Review: Johnny Cash — American Recordings (1994)


Johnny Cash has been one of my musical influences since I was a wee lad, basically because my dad was a big fan of Johnny Cash and the first albums I was exposed to were Johnny Cash recordings. My favorite was Live at San Quentin and I would listen to that album over and over. As a smartass teenager, my friends and I would goof on the fact that Johnny played the song San Quentin two times in a row on that album and how much it would suck if a band like Kiss would play a song like Beth two times in a row at a concert.  With his TV show and old hits, Johhny Cash was a big star in the 1970s.

However by the time American Recordings came out in 1994, Johnny’s career was pretty much tapped out. Of course he could’ve always just played the casino circuit, singing his hits and Cashing in on the nostalgia but a bearded rap producer named Ric Rubin would have none of that.  Rubin convinced Johnny to just play songs in his living room, accompanied by nothing but his own acoustic guitar. The result was not only stunning but resurrected Johnny’s career and brought a whole new legion of fans to his music.

On the surface, American Recordings was surprising more for its sparseness and “folky” tenor than for its subject matter. It was Johnny Cash stripped down to the bare necessities: that clear, deep voice and an acoustic guitar. Peeking underneath that surface, however, brought about another image – that of a man acknowledging his own mortality; worried about sins both past and present with the understanding that those sins have called into question his standing in the afterlife. Songs like Delia’s Gone, The Beast in Me, 13, and Down There by the Train tell the tale of a man who has grievously sinned. Cash is not proud of these sins – he doesn’t boast or shrug them off. Instead there is the sad recognition that sin is the price man pays for its humanity.

American Recordings kicked of a certain format that we would see throughout the American Recordings sessions. A few originals, one or two old standards, and a couple of offbeat covers that Johnny makes his own. The latter in American Recordings is a cover of the Danzig song 13. In the end the album is about sin and redemption. Johnny is telling us that we are all sinners but that there is a way out, we can seek redemption. Cash ends the album with The Man Who Wouldn’t Cry, a song that addresses the need for humility as it describes a hard-scrabbled man who lives a life of unsentimentalized failures and only finally through his tears is able to enter into heaven and gain all he lost on earth. Johnny would mine these fields even deeper in his next American Recordings Albums.

One can listen to American Recordings and dwell on the themes of sin and redemption or one can just listen to Johnny sing a bunch of old timey songs in a way that only Johnny Cash could do. It’s why these albums are so popular and why, when Johnny Cash dies nearly 10 years later, hipsters and old folks alike lament his passing and his preacher-like image graces the cover of Time Magazine.