Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Desert Island discs part two – The Beatles’ White Album

I knew that I had to have a Beatles album with me on my island but I've gone back and forth multiple times trying to figure out which one to put on my list. Sgt Pepper just had a 40th birthday and I've written before about how much I like that album. I've often said that Revolver is perhaps the Beatles' best album just because it is so consistently strong and inventive throughout. Abbey Road is wonderful with it's second side suite of songs, not to mention some wonderful songs in addition to that like "Something" and "Come Together" and "Here Comes the Sun." Then again, early Beatles are great too and A Hard Days Night is a great album with the wonderful chiming twelve string guitar that George had just gotten. (On a side note, I've just heard that the DVD of Help! will come out in a 2-DVD set before the end of the year - hooray!!!)

But because of the sheer volume and variety of music I picked the White Album (actually called The Beatles.) I've written about my love for this album before (both here and here) so I don't need to elaborate a whole lot but the writing, playing and singing on this album is simply remarkable. I don't know if any other band has ever produced anything so broad in it's scope in the history of pop music. Even though it is often considered the point at which the Beatles stopped working as a group and started working as individuals the interaction on some tracks is simply stunning.

Bethany started her desert island list today too!

Complete Desert Island List (so far):

Friday, June 22, 2007

Desert island discs part one – U2’s How to Dismantle and Atomic Bomb

I thought it would be nice to do a series here on Bob's Bloggery and, since I love to make lists, I thought I would start a series on my desert island discs – albums that, were I to be stranded for a while on a desert island with a CD player and the power to use it (a somewhat unlikely scenario,) I would want to have with me. I have no idea how long this series will last so this isn't a top-ten list but each week (or so) I'll list another cool album that would be good to have with me.

Some ground rules:

  1. For a while at least I'll avoid two albums by the same group. However, artists who are part of another group are not disqualified – for example, I can have both the Beatles and Paul McCartney albums.
  2. This isn't a best ever list – it's a personal list. So, while I might agree that Achtung Baby is probably a better album than How to Dismantle and Atomic Bomb I think I'd rather have Atomic with me because I happen to like it more.
  3. This type of list is always bound by time – my thoughts right now aren't what they would have been a year ago and they're not what they will be. I have the right to revise. For example, right now I'm tempted to put McCartney's Memory Almost Full on the list – I like it that much – but I don't know if I'll still be as excited about it in a year. So I reserve the right to revise at any time without penalty. I can even replace an album already listed with another one or I can change the rules to allow me to add a second one to the list. Hey, it's my blog so I get to play by my rules.

I'd like to challenge my frequent readers who also blog to join me in this endeavor. You know who you are, What would be on your list? You just have to add one every week and the writeup doesn't have to be long. Come on, you can do it. Who's in? I promise to link to you every week if you do.

So this week I'll begin with U2's How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. This album absolutely floored me when it came out. I had it in heavy rotation on my itunes, in my ipod and on my car stereo for months after it came out. You need to understand that I have a LOT of music and it is rare for an album to keep my interest as long as that one did but I don't think there is a weak track on that record from the heavy rock of "Vertigo" and "All Because of You" to the beautiful "City of Blinding Lights" and "Miracle Drug ." In this post I called it my top album of 2005 (even though it was released in 2004!) and in this post, written at the end of 2006, I mentioned that it had still probably one of my top current albums. Now, well over two years after its release I still think it is great and it's in my car again right now too. Seeing U2 in concert on the "Vertigo tour" and being in Ireland soon after it's release put it over the top for me. I especially appreciated how Bono continued allowing his faith to come through in his lyrics in almost every song on the album. I certainly don't want to dismiss other U2 albums of which I'm very fond (especially All That You Can't Leave Behind, Achtung Baby and The Joshua Tree – and all the other ones too) but this one has a special place in my heart.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Worship Renewal Grants Colloquium

This week I was given the opportunity to connect with a number of people who received Worship Renewal Grants from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. This was an intense couple of days as somewhere around 250 people from all across North America gathered at Calvin College to either kick-off or give a "final" report on the grants that they received from CICW. As an associate of the Institute I was asked to hang out and talk with the people who were there and find out about their grants project and just generally be hospitable. A lot of my work involved hosting tables at meals which means I get to eat and talk with interesting people. It's tough work but somebody has to do it. It was a great time and it was good to reconnect with folks I had met before and to meet many others for the first time. These people represent an incredibly wide range of Christian denominations and ministries from Baptist to Methodist to Catholic to Reformed to many many things in between. More info on the grants can be found here.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Travelling Wilburys Collection

I snatched up the Travelling Wilburys releases when they first came out many years ago and I've enjoyed them every once in a while since then so when it was announced that their two CDs were being re-released I needed a pretty good reason (other than slightly better sound) to buy them again. Fortunately, I found that reason. Partly it was the price – Best Buy had a pretty good deal – but it was also the extras that were put on set. In addition to the two albums, Volumes one and three (there was no volume two), the set contains a DVD with a 25 minute documentary and the music videos that the band made when the singles were released. In addition, each CD had two extra tracks which made the set irresistible. So I didn't resist.

The real reason, though, why anyone should get this set is the that the two original CDs are simply too good to miss. Jeff Lynne's remaster is fine (although not revelatory) and the original tracks sparkle with the fun and enthusiasm of the five Wilburys; George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison. Of the five I am mostly a Harrison fan and, in reading the things that have come out about the set, I realize that this was very much George's show. He steered the group and made it happen. He and Jeff Lynne took the rough tracks that the Wilburys made over ten days and turned them into the album we know now. And it was his charisma that brought the five together in the first place. But the real joy for me in this set is Roy Orbison. Listening to him sing "You're Not Alone" is just wonderful. There are, of course, other great tracks, the most noteworthy being "Handle With Care," but I just love hearing Orbison sing these songs. It's too bad he died shortly after the release of Volume One and couldn't be part of Volume Three – it is a weaker album perhaps because of his absence. The extra tracks on both discs are nice but not essential. The documentary is a lot of fun and great for those of us who like to look behind the scenes.

But back to the main course. The fun that these guys had in making these albums almost leaps out of the player at us. This music is hardly the most important that any of them did – it's almost like watching home movies. So it should be listened to with that attitude. Don't look for great insight or lyrics that even make you think for more than a second. Instead, just close your eyes and smile.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Circa - the EP

A lot of new music by some old (and new) favorites of mine has been released within the last few weeks so I'm doing a little catching up today on writing a few thoughts on what I've been listening to lately.

Today I'll write a bit about the band Circa, which is made up of former and nearly former members of Yes: Billy Sherwood, Tony Kaye, Alan White and Jimmy Haun.

Yes offshoot bands have a bit of a spotty record. Chris Squire's Fish Out of Water is a great solo album by Yes' bass player and I've enjoyed having that one in my car again lately. But it took him over 25 years to make another album without Yes (Conspiracy, made with Billy Sherwood) and, while it was a fine album, it didn't set the make the kind of statement that Fish did. Guitarist Steve Howe and vocalist Jon Anderson have both made some interesting solo albums, some alone and some in collaboration with others. Remember the cool albums by Jon and Vangelis? But there is also the sometimes strange pop albums that Anderson made with L.A. Session players like In the City of Angels and The More You Know - this is an idea that doesn't even sound like it would work well on paper and, sure enough, it didn't work in actuality either. Howe's work in the band Asia is noteworthy, partly because their first album was quite good but mostly because they sold a ton of copies when their first album came out in the early 80's. Howe went from Asia to the totally forgettable GTR with Steve Hacket from Genesis, which only lasted for one album and tour. While Howe's albums are always listenable they tend to sound an awful lot alike after a while. Rick Wakeman actually left Yes in the first place partly because his solo career was taking off so well. The Six Wives of Henry VIII is a good record but, frankly, it does feel a little bit caught in it's particular time – it sounds just like it was recorded in the early 70's. He, too, has sound-alike-itis and a few of Wakeman's albums are really all anyone needs.

As a group, though, they have pretty consistently made interesting and enjoyable albums. These days, though, Yes finds itself in the strange position of still wanting to produce new music as a band but, at the same time, not being able to sell much of it. Their recent albums didn't sell very well but when they tour they can still sell out arenas around the country and, indeed, throughout the world. I imagine that the expense of making a Yes album and mounting a tour is pretty high and it might actually be easier and more cost effective for them to just work on their own. The five current members of Yes have all been in and out of the band a number of times for many reasons. Right now happens to be one of those times when Yes is inactive. They haven't actually quit the band but there really is no Yes right now that they could quit. So the members need to find something else to do.

Drummer Alan White is the member of Yes with the worst track record of solo work – although a stint in John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band in the early 70's before he joined Yes gives him a very high coolness quotient. Since Yes' last tour he has kept himself busy by getting together with some Seattle musicians to form the band "White" which produced one album and didn't last very long. But Alan White jumped right into a new venture. He has joined with two other ex-yes men and one sort-of yes man to form a new band, Circa. The driving force behind the music of Circa is Billy Sherwood, who toured with Yes as an extra guitarist and keyboard player, then produced Yes' Keys to Ascension 2 and soon after became a regular member of the group for album The Ladder and it's subsequent tour. That gig lasted for only a short time and Sherwood went back to making his own music. He also made two albums with bassist Squire in their group called Conspiracy. For Circa, he decided to be the bass player and he got together with original Yes Keyboard player Tony Kaye and White and began to make new music. The addition of Jimmy Haun, who's guitar appears on the poorly received Yes album Union (for reasons I've never really understood) completed the group.

They released and then withdrew a self-titled two-song EP on itunes that I was lucky enough to download during the three weeks that it was available and, I must say, I like it a lot. The music is clearly Yes influenced but doesn't sound like it's just trying to mimic that sound. It reminds me of the way Yes sounded on Open Your Eyes. No surprise there since Sherwood had a big hand in shaping that record. And Sherwood's bass playing has more than a little Chris Squire influence. I also find myself thinking that Jimmy Haun is almost channeling Steve Howe in spots. Alan White's drumming is the sort that doesn't usually jump out at you and say "hey this is Alan White" but it subtly reminds us that we are in familiar territory. In other words, this sounds a lot like a really good pair of Yes songs that you've never heard before. The release date for the full album hasn't been announced yet but it is promised "soon." This one might be worth looking for. You can find them and hear one of the songs on their MySpace page.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Acoustic Café – Phil Keaggy and Friends

There are few artists who have meant as much to me over the years as Phil Keaggy. For more than the past thirty years I have enjoyed his music. But it's more than that. Because his fan base is so much smaller than, say, Paul McCartney, I have actually met Phil on a couple of occasions and I know people who know him pretty well. So it's not just Phil's music but it's also him as a person that I have a bit of an attachment to.

So it has been a little difficult for me to write reviews of his albums on this blog over the past few years since his last few releases have been less than his best. While I generally liked Jammed! I was less thrilled with both Roundabout and Dream Again. So when I heard that Phil was making an album of acoustic versions of well known songs I thought that it might be nice and I ordered it from It arrived in the mail on the same day as the new Paul McCartney album so I had a bunch of new stuff to listen to all at once.

It might be hard to make a bad album when you've got Beatle songs like "Here Comes the Sun," "Here There and Everywhere," and "In My Life" sitting next to the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" and Bob Dylan's "If Not For You." On the other hand the songs are pretty iconic and the original versions are pretty definitive so you have to be careful to interpret these songs in a way that gives proper credit to the original but yet has some of your own personality in it. Otherwise, what's the point?

But Phil and Friends do a nice job of making these acoustic versions of these songs stand out by themselves. The biggest thing that caught my attention is that I even like the Billy Joel song, "She's Got a Way." Phil manages to make me realize that it really is a nice song – it's apparently Joel's performance that irritates me.

Phil adds one of his own songs, "You Have My Heart" which fits in nicely although, let's face it – putting one of your own songs on an album with songs by the Beatles, Dylan, James Taylor, and Brian Wilson is pretty tough! But it works. My favorite is his acoustic reading of Wilson's "God Only Knows." This is the song which is faithful to the original arrangement but yet does it with almost all acoustic guitars. It works very well.

This album probably isn't going to win Keaggy many new fans. For one thing the guitar playing is great but not jaw-droppingly great like Phil can do when he wants to. But this album will make his fans (who have been clamoring for an album with some of these cover versions on it) quite happy because he not only gave them what they asked for but he did it with class.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

First Listen – Memory Almost Full – Paul McCartney

I picked up Memory Almost Full, the new McCartney today – no surprise there – and I also downloaded the three extra tracks on itunes because I was too cheap to pay $13 extra for three tracks and a 22 minute commentary at Best Buy. Plus, the special edition came in a DVD case so it wouldn't fit on the shelf with my other CDs so I really wanted the regular case. But all that is unimportant because the album is very very good. Is it up to the high standards set by Chaos and Creation in the Backyard? Probably not but it's pretty close in spots. I had Chaos and Creation in heavy rotation for over a year so it will be truly remarkable if this album has that kind of staying power for me.

I came into this album having been mostly unspoiled. I had read a lot about it but I purposely didn't listen to it on the internet because I seldom like albums that I listen to that way and I really wanted to have the whole experience. I have however heard the two openers, "Dance Tonight" and "Ever Present Past." One thing that I noted about both of those songs is that with repeated listening I liked them more and more. So now I'm on my third time through the whole album and I'm finding more and more to like throughout – even as I'm writing this with the album on I find more to like. McCartney songs have a way of burrowing themselves into my brain and sticking with me for a long time. There seems to be more than a couple of those on Memory Almost Full.

The theme of many of the songs is that Paul is looking back and thinking about his life. "The End of the End" is probably the most obvious example of this but it pops up in many other places as well, particularly in the five-song medley that closes out the album. This is pretty clearly not an album a twenty-year-old would make.

"That Was Me," "Feet in the Clouds," and "End of the End" stand out for me, along with the incredibly catchy "Dance Tonight" and "Ever Present Past." I have a feeling that this will change as I get to know the album better and find more to like. Overall I'm pleased with Memory Almost Full and I'm really excited about hearing new things as I listen with my ipod and hear this album over and over. I think that there will be a lot here for me to find.

One of the things that I read before getting this album was that this was more Wings-like than any other recent McCartney album. I'm not so sure about that. On my first listen I played the "what other Paul album would this song feel at home on" game and while I was able to place a couple of them (and yes, "Only Mama Knows" would pretty easily fit on Wings' Venus and Mars) I wouldn't say that many more songs would nicely fit on Wings albums. I could see "Dance Tonight" on Flaming Pie or maybe on Ram, for example and while "Ever Present Past" has a bit of a McCartney II vibe to it, it really wouldn't fit on that album. "See Your Sunshine" could maybe go on Flowers in the Dirt. But this game was hard to play with many of the tracks. "Gratitude" doesn't sound much like anything that he's done before – although it's clearly a McCartney song. The voice is unmistakable. But that's pretty amazing. How can someone release so many albums and continue to be fresh and new? I'm very impressed.

EDIT 6/9/07: Thanks to Father Ron Hatton for pointing me to this excellent review. (Scroll down to the All Music Guide review.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Most Underrated Beatles Songs

I found this post, which was actually from a few years ago, with a list of the top ten underrated Beatles songs. I thought – that's a cool idea – I'll make my own list and so I did. Here it is. I used the same criteria as the other poster – no singles or cover versions. Basically, these are songs that the casual fan probably doesn't know. It turns out that a disproportionate number of them come from the White Album. As I made the list I had 17 on it originally and I pared it down to ten not thinking about which albums songs came from at all. Six out of the seven I didn't use ("Taxman," "Long, Long, Long," "Things We Said Today," "I've Just Seen a Face," "It's Only Love," I've Got a Feeling," and "I'm Down") came from other albums.

I encourage comments and quibbles.

My list

  1. Rain – The flip side to the Paperback Writer single featuring a killer bass line, great drumming from Ringo and great Lennon backward vocals
  2. Martha My Dear – A great piano-based song from the White Album. I've always wanted to be able to play this on the piano but was never able.
  3. I Will – A delightful McCartney guitar song from the White Album.
  4. Dear Prudence – Another White Album song – this time one of Lennon's – with a great guitar figure.
  5. Mother Nature's Son – Yet another McCartney ballad from the White Album. The Beatles wrote a lot when they spent some weeks in India in 1968 and a lot of them are wonderful gentle songs. Composing in India was a good thing for them.
  6. Two of Us – a nice tune from the Let It Be sessions. Again, acoustic guitars to the fore.
  7. Birthday – I play this loudly every time someone in our family has a birthday. It's corny but I can't help it. Yet another White Album song. Not a great great song but certainly the best birthday song out there so it gets on my list for sentimental reasons.
  8. Drive My Car – The Rubber Soul opener. Fun lyrics with fun harmonies and a great "beep beep" hook.
  9. And your Bird Can Sing – One of the many fabulous tracks from Revolver featuring a double-tracked great guitar duet from George. Plus, if memory serves me, it was used as the theme music for the Bealtes cartoon show.
  10. Doctor Robert – Another Revolver song. For reasons that are perhaps obvious I find this song irresistible.

So, there it is. If I did it tomorrow I'm sure it would be different because there are just so many good songs. Over two years ago I wrote this post in which I considered just how cool the White Album is. I guess, based on this list, I still think so. For my all-time favorite Beatles songs you can go to this post where I have my top ten.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Sgt Pepper

I have been a fan of music for as long as I can remember. As a child I benefitted from having an older brother who occasionally clued me in to some really cool stuff. He went to the store to pick up the first Monkees album for me – in stereo! Our family had just purchased a new stereo – a big piece of furniture that sat in the corner of the room and I sat in the swivel chair in front of it for hours listening to music. He bought me great singles like "Incense and Peppermints" by the Strawberry Alarm Clock and "Bend Me Shape Me" by the American Breed. But the best present of all was in the summer of 1967 – I turned 13 years old and for my birthday John bought me the new Beatles album, Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. To say that this album sounded new and different is an understatement. I knew that I heard lots of instruments that I was pretty sure the Beatles weren't playing, like brass in the title track, clarinets in "When I'm 64," and sitars (whatever they were) in "Within You Without You." But it was more than just the instruments. The tracks all ran into each other – it felt like an album, not just a collection of songs.

But what a collection of songs! I remember as a 13 year old being especially impressed with the antiphonal nature of "She's Leaving Home." I remember enjoying the sound of the orchestra tuning up at the beginning of the album and how great the piano in "Lovely Rita" was. I also remember listening with the headphones. I spent a lot of time on the couch with the headphones on (for all the young people out there - this was back in the day when headphones had to be connected to the stereo with a long coiled wire.) The end of "Lovely Rita" has a section where John Lennon says something a couple of times that sounds enough like the way my mom said "Bob" that I pulled off the headphones and asked what she wanted the first few times I listened to the album.

It turns out that I wasn't the only person who thought that this was a cool album. A few other people did too and, in the forty years since it's release it has gone on to be listed among the top all-time albums. Ironically, it is probably not the Beatles' best album – I (and many others) think that it's predecessor, Revolver, deserves that title. But "best" is a relative term of course and, while Revolver might be better, it certainly didn't have the impact that Sgt Pepper had. Revolver came across as a really really good collection of songs where Pepper made us think that it was a concept album. John Lennon said that the concept worked because they said it worked. I think he's right. There really isn't much of a concept there once you get past the first two songs and the "Sgt Pepper Reprise." But packaging and attitude count for a lot. Plus, there is no getting around the idea that nothing had ever sounded like that before – or since really.

Frankly I find it hard to believe that the stuff that I thought was so cool when I was 13 years old still so cool. But there it is – I thought it was great back in 1967 and I still think it's great. When Bethany, my oldest daughter, was little I taught her to say "the Beatles" when I said "Bethany, who's our favorite?" That was nearly twenty years ago when I taught her that but it's still true.