Monday, September 30, 2013

Baby Blue

The closing song from the last episode of Breaking Bad; a perfect choice since it was Walter White's blue meth that paved his rise.  The Ozymandias episode was the emotional peak for the series with the last two episodes, Granite State and the finale Felina (title from the lyrics of the Marty Robbins' song El Paso), calmer, at least by BB standards (except for the one mass killing), and focused on tying up of the story lines.  Everyone got what they deserved though Stevia sales may take a hit.

Badfinger was a British band signed to Apple Records by Paul McCartney (who also wrote their first hit, Come and Get It).  They had four consecutive Top 10 hits in the UK and US in the early 1970s with Baby Blue being the last.  Here they are performing on some TV show and introduced by, yes, Kenny Rogers!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

End Of The Season (Regular)

Baseball, of course.  A very entertaining year.  Most importantly the Red Sox improved by 28 games and tied for the best record in the majors.  Now on to the playoffs.  Time to get our magic lucky tablecloth.

The sport is in a good place with a lot of remarkable young players like Mike Trout, arguably with the best career so far for any 21-year old in baseball history (too bad he plays on the West Coast so THC doesn't see a lot of him) and Jose Fernandez, the rookie pitcher for the Miami Marlins.  The future looks bright.

Best managerial move of the year was Joe Girardi's decision to send Andy Pettitte and Derek Jeter to the mound at Yankee Stadium to take Mariano Rivera out in his final appearance.  What a memorable moment it made for all of us to remember the last player who will ever wear 42 in major league baseball.  And it turns out there is crying in baseball

For the baseball nuts reading this you can watch Mariano breaking bats here.  And here's the best gift from his farewell tour courtesy of the Minnesota Twins, The Chair of Broken Dreams, made from bats he broke.
View image on Twitter

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Useless Tools

Any blog whose motto is "The Value of Useless Knowledge" should naturally have a post on a film with a section entitled "Useless Tools".  The film, called Lost & Found, is about Blair Somerville, a Rustic Automator, who resides in the tiny village of Papatowai on New Zealand's South Island, a rather out of the way location where he settled in order to "try to keep the overheads down".

Give it a little time to grow on you.  It is best watched full screen on a PC.

From Blair:

"I get asked where I get my inspiration from a lot and it seems such a redundant question to be asked that when you are alive because there's so much going on everywhere"

Thanks to Mrs THC for spotting the video.
Lost & Found from Joey Bania on Vimeo.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Paris Anthropologie

We recently returned from a research expedition to Paris.  Although our full account is awaiting publication (after peer review) in the prestigious Journale du Voyages a la Recherche D'oeuvres L'Objects Extraordinaire (unfortunately available only in print for an annual subscription fee of 1150 Euros; approximately 1500 US dollars) THC wishes to share with its devoted readers a few initial observations.

Some of the inhabitants looked quite different from what we had anticipated.
                                                            (Musee du quai Branly)
The natives appear to be obsessed with green chairs and the planting of rows of trees in linear arrangements reminiscent of those found in the Atacama Desert of Chile, popularly known as the Nazca Lines (perhaps either adapted from, or sending messages to, advanced civilizations as hypothesized by von Danniken in Chariots of the Gods).
A tentative finding in support of the von Danniken hypothesis is the number of representations of creatures with predominantly human, whilst containing some element of alien, features found scattered around the metropolis.  Further expeditions are planned in order to try to confirm this hypothesis.

They inscribe their structures using a language that remains foreign to me.

The inhabitants seem to emerge at night for communal feasting and drinking rituals.  While many areas remain deserted during these hours we were able, by careful approach so as not to cause alarm, to obtain photographs of their nocturnal gathering places. 

Our previous expeditions had been undertaken in May and June.  We found it quieter and less crowded, with the natives more docile, during September.  This may be attributable to modifications of the traditional ceremonial entrance fees during the month (for a more in depth discussion see No Exit or Entrance Fees by John Paul Sartresky & Hutch (1977)).
    (Sartresky (left), Hutch (center))

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Countdown To Ecstasy: Steely Dan Guitar Solos Part 3

Part 3, and the conclusion of our series:  Part 1, Part 2

6.  Your Gold Teeth II (Denny Dias)

Throw out your gold teeth
And see how they roll
The answer they reveal
Life is unreal

Floating, almost ethereal, guitar from Mr Dias in some pretty weird time signatures.

5.  Reelin' In The Years (Elliot Randall)

The Dan's second hit single (following Do It Again) and its first memorable guitar solo.  The story most often told is that after Baxter and Dias laid down the rhythm guitars they could not nail a solo.  Elliot Randall happened to drop by the studio (he was a childhood friend of Skunk Baxter) and they suggested he take a shot at the lead and supposedly he came up with the multiple solos on the first take.

, Randall turned down an invitation from Becker and Fagan to become a member of Steely Dan though he played on several of their albums.  He was well known for turning down such offers, also declining an invitation from John Belushi to be musical director for The Blues Brothers and to be a founding member of Toto.  Along with playing on a zillion studio sessions for everyone he's played, produced and written jingles for a wide range of business clients including Coca-Cola, Miller Beer, Burger King, MTV and Proctor & Gamble.

4.  Sign in Stranger (Elliot Randall)

And who are you?
Just another scurvy brother

Four years later, Randall returned for the guitar track on this tune.  It's a call and response with some nice keyboard interplay.  Some of the guitar work is very humorous and it's another one where you want to listen right to the end.

3.  My Old School (Skunk Baxter)

Sputtering, staccato phrasing that starts out terrific and gets even better as it goes along.  Listen to the last licks as it fades out.

2.  Kid Charlemagne (Larry Carlton)
Now your patrons have all left you in the red
Your low rent friends are dead
This life can be very strange
Perfect guitar tone and phrasing at the break and in the closing.  During the 1970s and 80s, Carlton played on up to 500 recordings a year.  Along with numerous Dan appearances he also recorded with Joni Mitchell, Billy Joel, Michael Jackson and Barbra Streisand among others.

1.  Bodhisattva (Dias/Baxter)

Sorting out which solos to include in the Top 12 and how to rank #'s 12 through 2 were tough and THC would not argue with anyone ranking them differently or moving any of the Honorables up to the Top 12 but deciding on #1 was the easiest part of this exercise which should come as no surprise if you'd read THC's prior post on this song.  Simply amazing guitar solo by Denny Dias in the extended break and great work by Skunk Baxter on the closing.

If you were keeping track both Skunk Baxter and Denny Dias appear 4 times in the Top 12 (that is, if Baxter is the soloist on Night By Night).  They had very contrasting styles with Baxter being the rocker and Dias the jazz guitarist.   Dias was there at the start.  According to Wikipedia, in the summer of 1970 he had a band in Long Island and placed an ad in the Village Voice reading "Looking for keyboardist and bassist. Must have jazz chops! Assholes need not apply".  Becker and Fagen responded and the band quickly began playing their material.  Dias fired the rest of the group and the remaining three became Steely Dan.  Dias remains a respected jazz guitarist and again according to Wikipedia is currently a computer programmer in L.A.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Buying A Thrill: Steely Dan Guitar Solos Part 2

You can find Part 1 here which explains the criteria and rules.  Today we'll countdown from #12 to #7.

12.  Peg (Jay Graydon)

Very sleek and sinuous.  For the back story on the six or eight guitarists Becker and Fagen tried out on this solo watch this video about the general process of making the Aja album.  The discussion about the guitar solo for Peg starts about 4 minutes in.  Jay Graydon is an L.A. session musician, producer and songwriter and also appeared in several Doonesbury strips in 1977 as Jay "Wah-Wah" Graydon.

11.  King Of The World (Denny Dias)

Any man left on the Rio Grande
Is the King Of The World as far as I know

This might have moved higher if it was about 30 seconds longer.  Unusual in that there is no lead guitar until the last 45 seconds.  Great jazzy sound - nice how it moves from lower registers to bubble up above the other tracks in the mix.  Listening to the guitar you'd never know how apocalyptic the lyrics are. 

10. Night By Night  (Dean Parks or Skunk Baxter)

When the dawn patrol gotta tell you twice
They're gonna do it with a shotgun
Yes, I'm cashing in this ten cent life
For another one

The solo is attributed to different guitarists in different sources.  The first attempt by the Dan to be funky.

9.  Chain Lightning  (Rick Derringer)

That's Rick Derringer, former lead guitar for The McCoys (of Hang On Sloopy fame) as well as owner of a strong solo career in the 1970s (Rock n Roll Hoochie Koo anyone?).  Sounds like they recorded the first part of the solo separately from the second part as there is a distinct tonal change.  Both are great.

THC read an interview with Donald Fagen many years ago in which he claimed that this song was about the Munich Beer Hall Putsch.  Now you need to know that you cannot take anything Becker and Fagen say at face value so this might be completely bogus.  On the other hand, if you know the history of the putsch and then listen to the lyrics  . . .  

8.  Aja  (Denny Dias)

A beautiful, glistening solo.  The first part of the solo starts just after 3 minutes in and the second part shortly after 4 minutes (see if you can hear the police whistle in between the two sections).  Stick around to listen to the section immediately after featuring Wayne Shorter on sax and Steve Gadd on drums (Gadd returns at the end to show some more dynamite chops).

This clip below includes a piece where Dias explains just how hard it was to play the solo written by Becker.   The guitar discussion starts 2 minutes into the video.

7.  The Boston Rag (Skunk Baxter)

Bring back the Boston Rag
Tell all your buddies that it ain't no drag

Oddly enough, the song is set in the borough of Queens in New York City and not Boston.  Moves along at a stately pace through the verses and chorus and then it changes into a stomp.  Skunk kicks in with moaning and extended single notes and then escalates to a barrage of multi-note fuzz distorted sounds which seems like it must be overdubbed but if you listen closely it's not.

Part 3 will be posted on Wednesday.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Twelve Against Nature: Steely Dan Guitar Solos Part 1

There are plenty of good rock guitar solos but for sheer consistency of fine playing it's hard to beat what Steely Dan achieved on its first six albums - Can't Buy A Thrill, Countdown to Ecstasy, Pretzel Logic, Katy Lied, The Royal Scam and Aja from 1972 to 1977 (the title of this post is modified version of the title of a later Dan album).  In the next two posts we'll count down THC's picks for the Top 12 guitar solos by the Dan.  In this post we'll go over the criteria, rules and talk about the Honorable Mentions. (TH
In selecting the top solos, THC has focused on three aspects; melody (as opposed to blizzards of notes demonstrating virtuosity but nothing else - sometimes Eddie Van Halen, a spectacularly good guitarist, can lapse into this), tone (THC does not like tinny, listless sounding guitar) and creativity; is it something you've never heard before or is it predictable like one of those songs that after you've heard the verse and they get to the break you can probably already hum the solo they are going to play?.  Here's an example of how this affected the Dan selection process: let's take Larry Carlton's solo from Don't Take Me Alive; just about the best tone you'll ever hear, good melodic flow but very predictable so low on creativity and doesn't make the Top 12.
With only a couple of exceptions, Dan guitar solos come in two varieties.  The most common is that the lead guitar makes its first big appearance at the break after the first two verses and then shows up again in the closing.  By the way, some of the best Dan guitar licks are in the last ten seconds of the fade outs so make sure to listen to the end of the songs.  The other form is where the guitar pops up throughout the verses and choruses and is found almost from start to finish.  To accommodate this the links in these posts are done in two ways; when the lead shows up at the break click on the link and the YouTube video will start at the guitar solo (but stick around and listen to the encore soloing at the end).  For those songs where the playing is scattered throughout the song the entire video is embedded in the post.

The last thing to mention before we get rolling is the sticky issue of identifying the guitarists.  THC didn't realize this for years, but the Dan were never a conventional band, except briefly during the Countdown to Ecstasy period.  The band was founded by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker who wrote the songs and they treated everyone else from the start as hired hands and increasingly over the years used flocks of studio musicians on the recordings. This also poses difficulties in figuring out who played lead on some of the tunes as you'll see in the next couple of posts.                                                                                        (Becker & Fagen)

THC used to think of Denny Dias and Jeff "Skunk" Baxter as the Dan guitarists.  Dias does occasionally play throughout this period but Baxter quit halfway through the third album because he could not longer stand Becker and Fagen.  Before joining the Dan, Baxter was the guitarist for Ultimate Spinach.  After leaving the Dan, he joined the Doobie Brothers, an experience he always said he liked much more than playing in Steely Dan (though his finest playing was with the Dan).  More recently Baxter has been a missile defense consultant to the Pentagon. THC is not joking, if you doubt it please read this article  and you can hear directly from Skunk about how a self-described "hippie guitar player" got started with his new career by listening to the first few minutes of this talk).
(Dias)               (Baxter)
As a result, you will hear the work of seven different guitarists on the twelve cuts.

Honorable Mentions

Fire In The Hole (Skunk Baxter).  Nifty pedal steel guitar at the end.  Good piano solo also.

Parker's Band (Denny Dias).  Unusual in that lead guitar is only at the start.  The Dan's tribute to Charlie Parker.

Throw Back The Little Ones (Elliot Randall)

Rikki Don't Lose That Number (Skunk Baxter).

Part 2 is coming on Monday