Sunday, February 24, 2008

Seriously underrated

A few months ago, I threw out a challenge to a number of friends. That challenge? Come up with your list of the "10 Most Underrated Albums in Your Collection." And with the weather, preschooler tantrums, flu bug battles and other events of recent days leaving me seriously uninspired, in lieu of fighting writer's block this morning I've decided to share that challenge here.

Here’s what I mean by “underrated”: Those albums that you believe never really got their due, the ones you rarely see in anyone else’s album collection, that rarely get radio airtime, or that were viewed as “somehow, a failure.” And yet, they keep finding their ways into your CD player or iPod, and you still utterly enjoy them 10, 15, 20 years later.

This should not be an easy task, mind you. If you're like me, you'll have to give it some serious consideration by digging into the old CD collection, or by getting your iPod off "shuffle play" and actually choosing a few more obscure albums to play. True music fans only need apply.

With all of that said, here’s my list:

10. Concrete Blonde, “Mexican Moon”: I know seemingly hundreds of people who own a copy of the band’s preceding album, “Bloodletting.” But it seems few made the leap to “Mexican Moon,” which was a “band ender” despite being a better album than its predecessor in virtually every way. Johnette Napolitano absolutely smoked the mike throughout this disc; the band called it quits immediately thereafter, and their years-later reunion went nowhere.

9. Warren Zevon, “Transverse City” or “Sentimental Hygiene”: Talk about never getting his due. He was once quoted as saying something like, “If you’re lucky, people will like something you do at the beginning of your career, and something you do right before you die.” For him, that’s exactly what happened. And the music world is lesser for it; those who tuned in only for the beginning or the end missed an amazing body of songwriting and performance, including these two works.

8. The The, “Infected”: Years ago, thanks to its pounding bass line and relentless percussion snap, this was simply the best album with which to piss off the neighbors. But two decades later, all most folks know of one-man-band Matt Johnson’s music career is limited to a cutesy M&M’s commercial. The sound and absolutely irresistible beat should have become an 80s-rock staple, but it just didn’t happen, possibly thanks to his then-controversial use of the word “scrotum” in a pop single.

7. Jesus Jones, “Perverse”: The band came off their career-making single of “Right Here, Right Now” and decided to record something a bit edgier, distorting and buzz-bombing virtually every note of the new album by running it through some primitive sound-editing software on a Mac. In the end, “Perverse” made their preceding release “Doubt” sound like pabulum, but its buzz-heavy sound shoved the band right out of the public consciousness. And as for the album's second track "Zeroes and Ones," who else could write a song about binary language?

6. Joe Jackson, “Big World”: Although similar in concept, Genesis’ “Three Sides Live” had nothing on this work by perfectionist Jackson, who despite wanting to record an album of original material live in front of audiences, was known to demand perfect silence from a theater-sized New York audience (and even kick people out for making noise!) while recording. “I’m doing a live album, so shut the hell up” seems a terrible way to proceed; yet this stuff is seriously sweet.

5. Billy Joel, “Streetlife Serenade”: Ah, the album even hardcore Joel fans fear most. Dismissed by many as “weird countrified sh*t,” “Serenade” actually features some of his best songwriting, as evidenced by the misleadingly titled “Weekend Song.” Someday, when your children dismiss Joel as the “Gen-X Perry Como” (Yes, upon hearing us play any Joel disc, our kids will roll their eyes in *exactly* the same way we did when our hopelessly out-of-touch parents parked Perry Como on the photograph), playing this one will serve as a fine, if disciplinary, addition to their musical education.

4. The Grays, “Ro Sham Bo”: These guys are so obscure, they’ve garnered only a two-line article in Wikipedia. In an attempt to form a “leaderless band,” they released only one album in the early 90s and subsequently fractured into nothingness. Oh, but *what* an album…

3. Mae Moore: “Bohemia”: This Steve Kilbey-produced alternapop disc should have cemented her in American consciousness, featuring amazing songwriting, incredible musical integrity, dreamy floataway sound and just enough edge to keep her interesting. But this one was released in the days of bullet bras, choreographed dance-line music videos and Janet Jackson getting felt up on an album cover, so as good as it was, it simply couldn’t compete. Being a sweet-voiced Canuck, she had more popularity north of the border, apparently.

2. Johnny Clegg and Savuka, “Heat, Dust and Dreams”: Forget the anti-Apartheid backstory, the honorary doctorate, the lyrics in Zulu, the worldwide peace lectures. This one is simply a great album. The sound is as if he took Paul Simon’s idea for “Graceland” and turned the amps up to 11. But that would giving credit in the wrong direction; Clegg’s sound came from being on the front lines of the Johannesburg “culture war,” not from some library research conducted in the Hamptons.

1. Big Country, “Steeltown”: The follow-up to “In a Big Country” and “Wonderland,” this one simply bit the dust on the charts in the mid-80s. And yet, there’s such anger in the sound, even when they’re trying to be sweet on tracks like “Just a Shadow.” This really was the last hurrah for the band; despite releasing something like six more albums, they never did match the popularity of their first two releases. Massively underrated, indeed.

That's my list; feel free to come up with one of your own. And if you do, please share.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Seven-day stretch

I picked The Boy up from preschool last Thursday around the noon hour. He was fresh from his classroom's sugar-fueled Valentine's Day celebration, and I, fresh from a bout with The Bug That's Going Around, was feeling very tired anyway. I took his hand, grabbed his basket of little preschooler-appropriate Valentine cards, helped him climb into the car and headed north for a fish taco lunch.

Between my own level of tired and his sugar-laden morning, I knew it would most likely be a rough afternoon. But I rose to the occasion, comfortable in the knowledge Dad's Day Off would be just a day or so away.

Fat chance, Dad.

Friday: The Boy starts coughing. Nothing major, nothing sounding like that of a Camel smoker, just a simple little cough. Remembering he'd had his bout of The Bug even before I did, we elected to go to our favorite park anyway. Boy heads to his room for a now-rare afternoon nap, and awakens with a little fever. 99.5, nothing serious, just something to watch. That evening, Mrs. T comes home and announces she wants to visit an old friend in Bakersfield over the weekend, too. Solo. So that Dad's Day Off I needed was most likely about to evaporate.

No problem, I thought. All other things being equal, I can handle the extra Boy Time.

Saturday: The Boy's cough is worse, and the fever is higher. The cough is hacking, dry, sounding all at once like that of a Simpson aunt. We take it easy, remaining at home for most of the day to give him a chance to beat The Bug for the second time. Mrs. T briefly reconsiders her trip to Bakersfield, but I wave her off and tell her to have her day. We make a brief Target visit for more Children's Tylenol.

Sunday: The fever worsens. The Boy wakes looking red and feeling cranky. The handy in-the-ear thermometer reads an even 100 in the morning. Mrs. T packs an overnight bag and heads south. Thorne, still feeling overtired from his own Bug battle, battens down the hatches for what's likely to be a long day. Right before bedtime, and despite Tylenol, the fever hits 102.5.

Monday: The coughing is much worse, but the fever is down just a bit. But The Boy doesn't want to slow down, expressing most crankily his desire to go to the Park NOW. I keep administering Tylenol dosages and encouraging him to rest, but he'll have none of it. Needing something to hold his attention while keeping him resting, and knowing television just doesn't do it for him, I drop $65 at Target on a new Leapster. And it works almost magically, keeping The Boy interested and restfully couch-bound for stretches of up to 90 minutes at a time. Mrs. T returns from Bakersfield, and I get a couple of hours of Farris Time.

Tuesday: The fever's continued presence, back to 100, means I can't send The Boy to preschool. I'm exhausted, but with no preschool no break will be forthcoming. The cough still sounds like a sputtering '78 Pinto. We arrange a Doctor's visit, now because the fever has hung on for days, all after reverifying his pediatrician accepts our new medical insurance, which switched from full coverage to an 80/20 plan involuntarily on January 1.

Wednesday: No fever, but no preschool either, thanks to the "fever's gotta be gone for 24 hours before returning" rule. I'm running out of energy. The Boy's pediatrician finds no fever, but worrisome sounds in his lungs. She wants to rule out bronchitis, so out comes the nebulizer. And The Boy inhales it like a champion. His cheeks return to full pinkness, and I'm starting to waver. Boy throws a tantrum on the way home, because he doesn't want to go to Walgreens where his new prescription awaits. Despite the by-now six days of loyal fatherly services and care, while waiting at the pharmacy counter The Boy looks up and yells, "I didn't want to come here. You are an awful daddy." I need caffeine; instead, the Starbucks drive-through screws up my drink order once again; lately they're batting around .300 on making simple vanilla lattes correctly.

Thursday: The Boy has adapted to his nebulizer refill, but Dad is absolutely wiped out. No preschool on the schedule today; instead, we're able to return to the park where he interrupts some folks videotaping promos for a local youth-ministry function repeatedly. I think they'd have been upset had their seated narrator not blown at least 30 takes on a relatively simple script. We return home for a mac-and-cheese lunch, hang around the living room for a bit while a new rainstorm begins, and find ourselves in the late afternoon at Fresno's Fashion Fair, where my now-recovering Boy spends an hour or so climbing, jumping, running, yelling, and wreaking general havoc while I experience a seated coma.

In the end: A seven-day stretch, all while exhausted from my own flu bug, with a sick child, a busy wife, and nary a break. For today The Boy will likely return to preschool, while I'm scheduled to begin a week or so of client work that will keep me pointing and clicking through, say, the beginning of March.

So much for next week's break.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

An afternoon in the atelier

Artwork: "Earthen Angles," 2008

Artist: B. Lennon Thorne, born 2004, California.

Medium: Flung mud on turquoise plastic.

About the artwork:

A noncommissioned work created in early 2008, "Earthen Angles" is a microcosm of color, energy, texture, and conflict.

Within, the stark artificiality of the human world -- represented by the well-worn turquoise plastic of a second-hand kiddie pool -- is interrupted by the reality of nature. Invitingly moist, fresh mud -- itself a confluence of fertile Central Valley soil and seemingly endless winter rains, representing the unstoppable and relentless forces of nature -- slashes its way across a blue-green expanse of the beautiful but unnatural.

The knife-like fling angles, the mud's kinetic impacts, all collide to reveal the artist's inner conflict; he is torn between the artificial and the natural, feeling confined between the man-made and the organic, the juxtaposition of which may ultimately represent man's inhumanity to man.

Artist statement: "I like mud art. I think I'll add some sand to my mud art. I need more mud."

(With all apologies to Mark B. for use of the "atelier" concept...)

Monday, February 4, 2008

When bowls collide

With yesterday designated as "Dad's day off," in lieu of watching Super Bowl XLII I spent most of the day catching up on a little household maintenance, swapping out our showerhead and toilet seat for newer models, and cleaning, to whatever extent possible, my at-home office. But when 5 p.m. rolled around, the time came to drop whatever I was doing with that day "off" and take over Boy Care, while Mrs. headed to the kitchen after watching the first half, forsaking the game in favor of creating some eggplant parmigiana.

So Super Bowl XLII remained on in the background while I spent a rainy late afternoon in my living room with The Boy. The halftime show was just ending as I entered the room, watching bemused as The Boy kept his back to the television, combining and recombining Legos into any number of fascinating configurations before asking to play a rousing game of Candyland.

You know me. Even though my couple of years in Providence made me a New England Patriots fan, I show about the same interest in the Super Bowl as a timberwolf does in shopping malls. To me, it's just a bad football game played in front of an audience of cocktail-quaffing private-jet elites, where commercials take center stage and fight for resonance, where "resonance" means "time spent rattling in otherwise empty heads."

But the game stayed on. I guess my Super Bowl aversion wasn't strong enough to get up and turn it off.

Our living-room Lego adventures continued until the eggplant parmagiana was ready, and after that hearty and tasty meal, we sauntered off once again to the living room, where we found the New York Giants had just taken the lead from the heavily favored Patriots. The Lego reassemblies suddenly degraded into a father/son tickle fight, and after the giggles subsided, The Boy stood up, headed for his train table, and while bending at the waist and holding on to the table's edge with both hands, he began jumping up and down.

Months of experience told me this was The Signal; The Boy needed to poop. And the Patriots, slightly behind on points, were trying to score on four downs with less than a minute left in the game.

Now, you must understand we've had nothing but trouble in the potty-training department since my Green Bay travel in late November. I pretty well had The Boy trained for both Number Ones and Number Twos before the Thanksgiving holiday, but with my mother-in-law stepping into the Boy Care role while I traveled -- and no, having raised three kids of her own, she doesn't like to take direction from a mere "dad" on anything we do for The Boy, including training methods -- something happened. I know not what, exactly, but suffice it to say while in the care of Mother-In-Law, The Boy reverted entirely to making messes in Pull-Ups, completely losing interest in and developing an active resistance to any semblence of toilet use.

In the intervening weeks we've had a devil of a time retraining him, achieving only a complete lack of success. Stubborn one, this Boy, preferring when "the feeling" comes to stay put and have what he calls "an accident," despite copious reward offers.

So, at the moment he began jumping, two clocks were ticking. One for the trailing Patriots, and one for potty-time success.

In the final minute, as the Patriots attempted to move the ball downfield, I attempted to move The Boy down hall, coaxing him into heading toward the bathroom and trying for his "first down" since November. As the Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady got sacked, The Boy looked to me from atop the throne and said, "Would you go away for a minute?"

I left the bathroom just as the Patriots offense ran out of downs, and for a moment, we believed all was lost.

But then, as Patriots coach Bill Belichick strode onto the field to congratulate the about-to-win Giants, the bathroom door cracked open. There, as the announcers spoke of the Giants impending win and the efforts to restore order on the field so the game's final second could be played, a triumphant Boy stood, grinning at me proudly. He opened the bathroom door and pointed to the toilet, saying, "Tah-dah!" and revealing a bowl-bottom lump of potty-time success that, in many ways, must have resembled how many Patriots fans felt at that moment.

To me, at that moment the Patriots loss was immaterial, and I couldn't have been prouder. After all, after a long season of ups and downs, my Boy had just won the Pooper Bowl.