Thursday, February 25, 2010

Forgotten Music: February 2010 - The Summing Up

Thanks again to all who wrote today.

Bill Crider - Hank Ballard and the Midnighters: The "Annie" Sequence

Ray Foster - Ken Thorne and His Orchestra: The Legions Last Patrol

George Kelley - Jack Nitzsche: The Lonely Surfer

Evan Lewis - Various Artists: "Louie, Louie"

Todd Mason - Bands in DC (Late 80s/early 90s): Jawbox, Trusty, Smart Went Crazy

Scott Parker - Genesis: Calling All Stations

Perplexio - Poco: The Last Roundup

Charlie Ricci - The Beach Boys: The Beach Boys (1985)


See y'all back here on 25 March 2010.

Forgotten Music: Genesis - Calling all Stations

(This is the February 2010 edition of the Forgotten Music Project. Here is the list of the other contributors.)

For any classic rock band, there is always one controversial question: how many members can the band loose before the remaining members don’t really sound or act like the band the general public came to know and love. In some cases, Chicago, for example, the number of original band members outnumber the new guys so you could make the case for keeping the band name. For others (Foreigner), the originals are outnumbered by hired guns with the end result being something akin to karaoke. Foreigner is a bittersweet example since the founder is Mick Jones, the guitarist, who hired the man (Lou Gramm) who eventually became the Voice of Foreigner.

For all the brilliance of original singer, Peter Gabriel, or the musical prowess of Tony Banks (keyboards), Steve Hackett (guitars), and Mike Rutherford (guitars), Genesis is known as Phil Collins’s band. His voice came to define the band in the late 70s after Gabriel left for a solo career. Later, after Hackett departed, the remaining trio gradually dropped their prog-rock sound in favor of an adult contemporary sound with an edge. Distilled down to Banks, Collins, and Rutherford (with Chester Thompson (drums) and Daryl Stuermer (guitars) for the tours), Genesis became one of the biggest hit-making juggernauts in the 1980s. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a year in that decade that didn’t have a Phil Collins song (solo or with Genesis) atop the charts.

But all things come to an end. In 1996, Collins left the band. Banks and Rutherford decided to continue with the Genesis moniker and hired Ray Wilson, former lead singer of the UK band, Stiltskin, to lead them. I can distinctly remember Banks speaking of their return to Genesis’s darker sound. As a advocate of the Gabriel-era version of the band, I remember being very excited. The New Trio entered the studio and the band’s fifteenth studio album, Calling All Stations, emerged.

As I pondered what album to focus on first with this Forgotten Music Project, I decided to pull out Calling All Stations (CAS) and give it a spin on the iPod and see how it held up, twelve years on. The title track leads off the album. I place a high level of importance on lead-off tracks. Some opening tracks (Chicago’s “Introduction” off their first album) serve as a mission statement. Others, like Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble” (Graceland) immediately alert the listener that something is different. For a band with numerous transitions and phases, lead-off tracks are important. “Dance on a Volcano” (1976) was Collins’s first lead vocal. It told the world not to worry, Genesis is still alive and sounded mostly the same. “Behind the Lines” (1980) proved to be the song that prog-rock enthusiasts dreaded but mainstream audiences found a sound they soon embraced whole-heartedly. The Genesis sound had changed and they didn’t look back.

But they gave their past a sidelong glance with “Calling All Stations.” A heavy tune in a minor key, ripe with Rutherford’s dark distorted guitar, this is a song custom-made for new lead singer Ray Wilson’s gravelly voice. In some ways, Wilson is equal parts Gabriel and Collins. Wilson has the earthy, breathy tonality of Gabriel in some places in the title track (think acoustic guitar). At other times in this song and throughout the album, his tone takes on the clearness of Collins (think synth keyboard). The subject matter for the title track is focused on relationships but the intensity Wilson gives to the vocals is striking. “Calling All Stations” is the mission statement song for the album of the same name. There are times, especially toward the end of the song, where you can forget Collins and Gabriel. I can’t help but wonder what the public’s reaction to the “new” Genesis would have been had they released this tune as a single rather than “Congo.”

The muddle and true schizophrenia of the album starts with the second track and released single, “Congo.” A strange and misplaced African chant starts the song until it segues into more dark and distorted guitar. The chorus is somewhat catchy and I could certainly see an audience raising its arms and singing in solidarity but it’s ultimately fruitless. It’s a relationship song (again), specifically a break-up one. I’ll admit that some of my favorite Genesis songs are break-up tunes (“Follow You Follow Me,” “Please Don’t Ask,” “Invisible Touch,” “In Too Deep,” and the gorgeous “Hold on my heart”) and these men, all divorcees, can write a damn good sad song. But there are other topics to discuss. It was those wider topics that made Collins’ last studio effort, “We Can’t Dance,” (1991) so good and interesting.

Not so with “Calling All Stations.” It’s too much about broken relationships. “Shipwrecked,” the album’s third cut, is a much better song than “Congo.” True, it’s basically “Hold on my heart, Part 2,” but it at least sounds more Genesis-y than “Congo.” Wilson’s cracked vocals work quite well here. This song was the second single but, by then, the damage had been done.

Progressive rock fans love their long songs and mystical, magical narratives. Latter day prog-rock gods, Dream Theater, create entire story lines for their double-CD opuses. Gabriel-led Genesis had their share, too. The twenty-four minute “Supper’s Ready” is, to me, the epitome of Gabriel’s time as leader (not necessarily “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway”). Collins-led Genesis threw out some spectacular numbers as well (“Ripples,” “Home by the Sea”, “Domino”, and “Driving the Last Spike”). The thing is most of those longer songs needed the additional minutes to say what needed to be said or played. They were as long as they needed to be. “Alien Afternoon,” the first long song on CAS, is needlessly long and haphazardly written. It’s spooky for spooky’s sake and it’s images are weird for no other reason than to be weird.

The album is not without its stand-out compositions. “The Dividing Line” starts with a nice driving beat that morphs into a catchy keyboard riff from Banks that has echoes of “Duke’s Travels” from 1980. “Uncertain Weather,” with its 12-string guitar in the background, definitely calls to mind Hackett’s work from “A Trick of the Tale.” Here, the lyrics work well, evoking sepia memories as seen in old photographs, the narrator contemplating the people in the pictures. “There Must Be Some Way Out of Here” has a fantastic keyboard segment that changes from prog-rock to light pop and back again in the span of two minutes.

To coincide with the release of the album, Genesis hit the road in Europe. By 1997, they pretty much had to play most of the Collins-era hits but Banks, Rutherford, and Wilson dusted off some Gabriel-sung tunes as well. You put these songs all together with the main songs from the new album, a fairly balanced set list emerged. On the recordings I’ve heard, something interesting emerges. Wilson didn’t try to sound like Gabriel or Collins. He sounded like himself. Naturally, he sounds closer to Gabriel but, to his credit, he doesn’t try to sing like Collins. Now, if you listen to the Collins-era material as sung by Wilson, you can find faults here and there. But, given time, he would have made many of those songs his own.

Ultimately, “Calling All Stations” is a hit and miss album. A good half of the album contains some strong material that stands up well alongside Genesis’s wide-ranging catalogue. The filler material clogs up the works. There’s a slickness to the production that actually found it’s way to the reunion tour of 2007 (with Collins). These musicians are so good and so professional that all traces of spontaneity is gone. It’s like writing songs by the number from the Genesis playbook. When the number is good, you get a great song. When they’re off, you can feel it.

When Peter Gabriel left the band, it took the remaining members three albums (arguably four) before they completely figured out what kind of sound worked without their distinctive lead singer. It’s too bad Banks and Rutherford didn’t continue the Ray Wilson experiment. I think they--and the rest of us--would have been satisfied with the result.

Here’s the link to a series of videos from 1998. Have a listen to the then-new material and the other-era Genesis songs and see what you think.

Forgotten Music: February 2010

Welcome to the first Forgotten Music Project. Inspired by Patti Abbott's Forgotten Book Friday series, here we examine music that has fallen off the public's radar or other music that never made a blip. We're doing this on a once-a-month basis, the last Thursday of every month. Aside from my own entry, a few other music enthusiasts have joined in the inaugural reviews.

Paul D. Brazill

Bill Crider

Martin Edwards

Ray Foster

George Kelley

Evan Lewis

Todd Mason

Perplexio

Charlie Ricci

If I have missed your name or got the wrong address, let me know and I'll fix it here and for future months. Anyone can join: just let me know here in the comments section, by e-mail, or in the comments section of my entry that you'd like to join in next month and I'll add you to the list.

I've very excited to read everyone's entry. Thanks to all for participating. See you on Thursday, 25 March.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Forgotten Music: Overview

Fresh off the Forgotten Music Week Patti Abbott hosted back in January, I volunteered to spearhead future Forgotten Music reviews. I like once a month since it gives us all time to think about what we'd like to write about and time enough to write the review. My wife thinks "forgotten music" is albums that used to be known but have slipped under the public's radar nowadays. I tended to think of it as music the general public doesn't know about...yet. Either one works for me.

So, the guidelines:
  • The last Monday of every month, I'll send out an e-mail of the folks who participated in the previous Forgotten Music review cycle. This time, I'm drawing from the folks who commented on my first FM review back in January. That's eight commenters and one guy who e-mailed me separately. We'll at least have ten this Thursday. In the future, anyone who wants to join just drop me a line or comment on the monthly review and I'll corral your name into the big list.
  • Post your reviews on the last Thursday.
  • I'll post the complete list on my blog in addition to my own entry. I'm going to post them like Jeff Pierce does with the Forgotten Books Project over at The Rap Sheet. That is, one post for The Rap Sheet's forgotten book entry and a separate post of all the links.
That's it. No big deal.

Looking forward to remembering (or learning about) some great music this Thursday.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Forgotten Books: The League of Frightened Men by Rex Stout

I tried. I really did. With a renewed interest in traditional mysteries, I gave Nero Wolfe another go. I re-read the Sherlock Holmes novels in December and I've been working through the short stories in January so I thought coming back to Nero Wolfe now would be a good thing. You see, when I read the first Nero Wolfe story—Fer-de-Lance—I was in the midst of reading a lot of hard-boiled stories. As such, I didn’t think much of it. Now, with an idea of what Nero Wolfe really is, I decided to read the second book in the series, The League of Frightened Men.

In short, it might be my last. I just don’t get how these books are so popular. The set-up for League is at least intriguing. Well, if you overlook how it all started. Wolfe and Archie Goodwin (his Watson) are hanging around the brownstone when Archie points out an article in the newspaper. The author, Paul Chapin, a man who walks with a cane, is on trial for obscenity. The two men argue then Wolfe sends for a copy of the book in question. He reads it overnight and then tells Archie that a man named Andrew Hibbard had contacted Wolfe recently about a case. Hibbard wants protection from a man he didn’t name. After reading Chapin’s novel, Wolfe deduces that Hibbard fears none other than Chapin. Now, Hibbard himself has gone missing.

The reason Chapin is now lame is because of a college hazing prank. Chapin got injured and the rest of the college gang feel sorry for him. They name themselves the League of Atonement and give Chapin pity and recompense these last twenty years. After Wolfe has tracked down most of the members of the League, he learns that the group thinks Chapin is not only responsible for the deaths of two of their number as well as the Hibbard disappearance, but also the poem they each received all but claiming retribution against them all was written by Chapin. Got that? Well, it’s a bit flimsy to hang a story on and it didn’t get much better the longer the story progressed.

Archie as Narrator is the absolute best thing about this book (and the one previous). His wit, world view, and doggedness could easily carry his own series of stories. And I’d devour those in a heartbeat. But he defers to his boss, Wolfe, all the time. Moreover, Wolfe can be an ass. I understand that’s part of his “charm” and Holmes, too, can be abrupt. But Wolfe seems, at least in this book, to relish his brusqueness. At one point, he commends Archie for sound logic but then chastises him for being completely wrong. It made me want to reach into the book and slap Wolfe on the face hopefully with a glass of beer in his hand.

When you read a hard-boiled story or watch an action movie, boredom is something you don’t usually experience. Even your standard hour-long television crime drama can sweep you along without the need for gun play or violence. I can get behind that kind of storytelling. However, this entry in the Nero Wolfe canon bored me. I got to where I didn’t care who the culprit was. I didn’t care what type of logic Wolfe used to expose the bad guy. With Holmes stories, the great detective knows things we don't know and then presents them in a big, and usually satisfying denouement. Not here. I listened to this one on audio (8 CDs) and I had to struggle to get through it. You know, face Houston traffic with or without the audiobook. There were afternoons where silence won.

I’ve read all about how famous Wolfe and Goodwin are in the greater corpus of mystery literature. I understand why some folks appreciate these characters. Heck, I’d love to see Wolfe go to the sanitarium and keep Archie, Fritz the Butler/Cook, and Saul Panzer, one of the PIs Wolfe hires out. Those would be books I’d read. I’m not sure I’ll get to another Wolfe book. Wait, actually, I will. David Cranmer, a fan of Nero Wolfe and his creator, Rex Stout, has asked me to read his favorite, Some Buried Caesar, before I make a final judgment on Wolfe and Goodwin. This I shall do. Just not anytime soon.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

CSI: Miami - "Miami, We have a problem" - Review

My review of last night's "CSI: Miami" episode is now available at BSCReview.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Book Review Club: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

(This is the February 2010 contribution to Barrie Summy's Book Review Club. For a complete list, click the icon at the end of this review.)

If you were to ask readers with only a passing knowledge of Sherlock Holmes to name some of the famous tales, chances are good that more than one would be from the first collection of stories. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1891-92) brings together the first twelve short stories Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about Holmes and Watson. These follow Holmes's introduction in the first two novels, A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four. Indeed, in two listsfavorites of the author himself and the Baker Street Irregulars (the society of Holmes aficionados)no less than four stories from the Adventures make the list. Interestingly, the top two vote-getters are the same on both lists.

Of all the stories in the Canon, the one that strikes me as most interestingboth in its timing and its subjectis A Scandal in Bohemia. It leads off the Adventures and it's famous for being the one story in which Holmes is beaten and by a woman, no less. I suspect dissertations have been written about this story so I won't belabor the point here. Suffice it to say that this story has remained one of my personal favorites ever since I first read it over two decades ago.

Aside from Bohemia and the sole Christmas tale in the Canon, The Blue Carbuncle, (my take), I had forgotten many of the nuances of these tales. I remembered The Red-Headed League involved a guy transcribing the Encyclopedia Britannica but that was all. I remembered the Speckled Band involved a serpent. Other than that, it was like reading these stories again for the first time.

As a writer, knowing that these were Conan Doyle's first attempts at short story writing make this collection an nice testament to the man's skill with the pen. Most of the stories average out to 8,000 words and they follow a similar pattern. A person arrives at 221B Baker Street with an interesting problem. Holmes hears the facts of the case and, before he even arises from his chair, he's got half the problem solved. There are usually one or two little incidents and the case is resolved. It's a clever structure and one that loses nothing in the retelling.

What I had forgotten was how many stories didn't include a crime for which the perpetrator could be tried. A Case of Identity shows a dasterdly and selfish motivation for the problem but one that can't be prosecuted. The Man with the Twisted Lip has interesting overtones with our current economic situation but no villain.
Another trait of some of the stories is the ending. In a couple of these chronicles, we readers don't earn what we consider the villain's just desserts. Frankly, reared on books, movies, and TV where the bad guy always gets it in the end, having one set of criminals escape and another lost at sea makes the entire story rather unfulfilling. It's also bad for Holmes since the wet he set never produces a kill.

But these trifles do not detract in the slightest the pure enjoyment I experienced (again!) from reading these stories. Holmes and Watson come alive under Conan Doyle's pen and his excitement is palpable on the page. He may not have invented the detective story but he ran with it and made it his own. His descriptive powers are excellent and, barring a few Victorian colloquialisms, these stories are as fresh and modern as any you find today. Can't recommend them highly enough.

Note: if you've got the inclination, the New Annotated Sherlock Holmes provides scores of footnotes for every story, contemporary photos of places and people from the Victorian Age, and many of the original illustrations from the Strand Magazine, which first published the cases. However, if you just want to enjoy some great adventures, any edition will do.


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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Story Number Two

I have finished my second story of 2010. It's a 4,457-word suspenseful yarn that has elements of mystery, action, and romance. Yeah, you read that correctly. Romance. Not sure where that element emerged from my brain but it's there.

I started the story mid-January (writing this away from my files at home) and put the finishing touches on it Sunday, 31 January. The good news is that this story will be part of an experiment that'll be available soon. More details to come.

Stories Written in 2010: 2
Stories Left to Write in 2010: 10

Calvin Carter Meets Paper

In a wonderful announcement yesterday, David Cranmer revealed the line-up to the first ever Beat to a Pulp print anthology. If someone told me, a year ago, that I'd be published alongside Abbott, Ardai, Crider, Randisi, Reasoner, and others, I'd have slapped them. Now, it's me that's having to slap my face in disbelieve that I'll be among these greats.

My first Calvin Carter short story, "You Don't Get Three Mistakes," will be reprinted in the anthology. I know what'll be on my Christmas giveaway list this year!

Thanks David and Elaine for including me in such august company.

CSI: Miami - "In the Wind" - Review

My review of last night's CSI: Miami episode is now available at BSCReview. There was some good things and some whoppers of WTF moments. See if you agree.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Writing Stats: January 2010

I enjoyed reading JT Ellison's Annual Review over at Murderati and thought it might be fun to do something similar. I plan on doing it monthly. To date, I like the ratio since fiction beats non-fiction.

Total Words Written: 23,688

Fiction: 13,402
-Story #1 (i.e., Calvin Carter's Second Adventure): 6,910
-Story #2 (draft complete; editing): 4,627
-Story #3 (started): 1,865

Blogs total: 10,286
-DSD: 2,020*
-CSI Recaps: 2,412
-My blog: 5,854

*I didn't include the two reprints I posted this month.