Friday, August 26, 2005

What's So Great About Big Star?

For most who've never heard of the highly influential 70s Memphis quartet, nothing. That's the way it works, right? Besides creating catchy and accessible songs that appeal to a wide range of music fans, popular bands are usually popular for another reason, whether it be clever marketing a la Kiss or masterful engineering and production like Boston. Big Star had neither. They also didn't have a hit or sell many records.

A victim of poor marketing and distribution, Big Star is one of those "lost" bands of the 70s that is both a darling of music critics everywhere and revered as a major influence of some of the most popular college rock artists of the 80s and 90s (see R.E.M., The Replacements and Matthew Sweet).

Influenced heavily by The Beatles, The Kinks and The Byrds, Big Star took pop-rock in a direction that nobody else seemed to be interested in going in the early to mid 70s. They made great power pop with an emphasis on loud guitars and catchy melodies.

And though I wasn't listening to Big Star in the first half of the 70s (I unfortunately preferred Kiss), I wonder how the band's leader Alex Chilton was perceived. Chilton, as you may know, was previously the lead singer for The Box Tops, who scored big hits in the 60s with "The Letter" and "Cry Like a Baby." The Box Tops had an R&B/folk sound, completely unlike the guitar driven power pop Big Star was creating. I think it's certainly possible that many Box Tops/Chilton fans were not sold on his new direction.

But enough history. The best thing about Big Star in 2005 is that their sound is still fresh. You could play most any track off of their first two albums on any college radio station in America, and it would fit right in. The "dated" quality of a lot of 30+ year old pop isn't terribly evident here. It feels new and raw.

Songs like "Back of a Car," "September Gurls," "Daisy Glaze," and "I'm in Love with a Girl" are all prime examples of a style of music more common today than it was in 1974.

I'd like to think that you'll read this, go out and buy a Big Star record (I recommend #1 Record/Radio City by the way) and become an instant fan for life. But then again, I doubt it. Music is too subjective. What sounds great to me probably won't to the next person. Just try it out. If you're the least bit interested in power pop, I think you'll find something of value in a Big Star record.

Friday, August 19, 2005

CD Review: David Pack - The Secret of Movin' On

For more than 30 years, David Pack has enjoyed great success as a songwriter, vocalist, musician, and producer. His years with progressive rock/soft rock stalwarts Ambrosia produced four huge hits (that Pack either wrote or co-wrote) that still enjoy frequent airplay on adult contemporary and oldies radio.

Pack has written big hits for others, too, including the mega-hit (and unfortunate) “All I Need” as sung by the one-hit-wonder Jack Wagner. On top of that, he’s produced many of the biggest artists of the past two decades like Faith Hill, Phil Collins, Brian McKnight, Amy Grant, and Michael McDonald, just to name a few.

David Pack’s third solo album, The Secret of Movin’ On, proves that he can belt it out just as well as he did in Ambrosia’s prime. In this release, Pack proudly carries the soft rock banner, infusing the sound Ambrosia perfected with smooth jazz influences. Pack’s smooth tenor delivery fits the adult contemporary sound of this album perfectly. You really get a sense of sincerity in Pack’s voice.

The production quality of each song is top-notch, as is the CD packaging. The CD sleeve incorporates some of Elton John lyricist Bernie Taupin’s abstract paintings, which are a nice touch to an already smart design.

Pack received some help on this album by some particularly talented artists, including “The Secret of Movin’ On (Travelin’ Light)” with Ann Wilson of Heart, “A Brand New Start” with Steve Perry of Journey fame, “Tell Her Goodbye” with Dewey Bunnell of America and “Where We Started From” with Timothy B. Schmidt of The Eagles.

My personal favorite from this album is the blues-tinged “Tell Her Goodbye,” which is also the most simple of the CD’s 11 tracks. This tune features dual acoustic guitars with Pack on lead vocals and Dewey Bunnell backing him up. Other highlights include “The Secret of Movin’ On (Travelin’ Light),” “Vertical Disbelief (That’s Not Me),” “A Brand New Start,” and the somewhat over-sentimental, but beautiful nonetheless “When Your Love Was Almost Mine.”

The only major flaw of this album is the inclusion of new versions of the classic Ambrosia hits “Biggest Part of Me” and “You’re the Only Woman.” Sure, these songs were great when they first appeared on One Eighty in 1980. And, in fact, the original recordings still sound good today. They don’t have that “dated” quality that much of the music of that era has.

So why the remakes? Maybe a marketing-minded associate of Pack’s pointed out that these songs are tailor-made for smooth jazz radio, with a few modifications, of course. It’s just a theory, but there’s something just a little odd about re-recording your own songs. mentions that these covers were originally meant to be “bonus tracks.” Putting them at the end of the CD as bonus tracks would have been a good idea. I’m just glad Pack didn’t remake the great hit “Holdin’ on to Yesterday.” That’s far and away my favorite Ambrosia song, and I really didn’t need another version of it floating around in my head.

I will say this, though. The remakes prove that Pack’s voice has lost nothing since 1980. His voice quality remains unchanged after 25 years. This 50-something year old man has a gift and it’s good to see he’s taken care of it through the years.

Though this album has flaws like the afore mentioned remakes, its strength lies in Pack’s strong songwriting, well written melodies, sharp arrangements, and smooth voice. Oh, and the album’s guests aren’t too shabby either. If you enjoy bands like Ambrosia, Air Supply, Player, and Little River Band, there’s a good chance you’ll like The Secret of Movin’ On.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

CD Review: Michael McDonald – The Ultimate Collection

I’ve always considered Michael McDonald one of the greatest R&B vocalists alive. From his days as a member of the Doobie Brothers to his recent tributes to Motown, McDonald has always contributed powerfully soulful performances to every song. And now, for the first time, all of his Doobie Brothers and solo hits are being offered together on The Ultimate Collection.

It’s important to note that Michael McDonald produced the album himself, so it’s probably safe to say that it represents the artist’s view of what an ultimate collection of his music entails.

For me, the highlights of this 19-track set are the six Doobie Brothers songs, which McDonald was a member of from the mid-70s to 1982. All of McDonald’s post-Doobie Brothers hits, including “I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near)” and “Sweet Freedom” are included. The minor hits “I Gotta Try” and “No Lookin’ Back,” co-written by Kenny Loggins, are here, too.

The collection also includes the popular duets with James Ingram (“Yah Mo B There”) and Patti LaBelle (“On My Own”). Though, truthfully, I cannot stand either of them. They are the type of songs that do not stand the test of time, and usually wind up on cheesy 80s compilations.

Speaking of music of the 80’s, McDonald’s non-Doobies contributions to this album from that decade are by far the weakest on this collection. I’ve always been stymied by the way his and other pop/R&B artists’ records were produced at that time, or should I say overproduced. With the introduction of so much new technology, including sound modeling synthesizers and drum machines, popular music of the 80s was victimized by over-utilization of that technology. For a guy whose voice exudes heart and soul, the music on some of those tracks from the 80s suck the heart and soul right out of the listener.

This album provided a pleasant surprise for me in it’s inclusion of two tracks from McDonald’s 2000 album Blue Obsession. Upon listening to the songs “No Love to be Found” and “Open the Door,” I took a chance on Blue Obsession and was really impressed. It’s got a Steely Dan feel to it, which isn’t too surprising considering he played on four albums with “The Dan.” I recommend Blue Obsession for even the casual Michael McDonald fan.

Like any “best of” compilation, if you like the artist, you’ll like the album. And for The Ultimate Collection, all the hits and radio songs are here. Sure, there are probably some deep cuts that hardcore fans would have liked included here, but anything short of a “complete works” box set would fail at that attempt. And while I’m not a fan of McDonald’s 80s era releases, I can accept the fact that he was very commercially successful during that time.

If you are looking to purchase one Michael McDonald “best of” album, I recommend you get this one for the fact that this is the only one with McDonald’s Doobie Brothers hits. And if you’re like me, those are the ones that really matter.

Monday, August 01, 2005

DVD Review: America’s Funniest Home Videos Volume 1

America’s Funniest Home Videos (AFV) is ABC’s all-time longest running comedy series. Its 16-year run is longer than Bewitched, Happy Days, Home Improvement, Roseanne, The Wonder Years, Three’s Company and every other ABC comedy you can think of. That’s 16 years of children flying off playground equipment, brides falling into cakes, teens with trucker hats lighting their body parts on fire and, everybody’s favorite, guys getting hit in the groin with a plethora of blunt garden tools.

In celebration of this longevity, and possibly because someone alerted ABC that not everyone in America has a PAX network affiliate (PAX, the all AFV, all the time network!) in their town, Shout! Factory has released America’s Funniest Home Videos Volume 1.

For those unfamiliar with the show, here’s a quick synopsis. Each one-hour episode is made up of a collection of funny video clips that are submitted by the show’s American audience. The clips’ subject matter varies, but the most common topics include babies doing cute or disgusting baby things, painful or amazing feats at sporting events, wedding disasters and, of course, getting hit in the groin. In fact, the 300th episode features a special segment entitled “Greatest Groin Hits” where viewers were invited to vote on their favorite crotch shot over the Internet (Thank you, Al Gore!).

To make each episode show a little more interesting, three clips are chosen to compete for a cash prize. How they are chosen, I don’t understand, but it appears to be at random. The “finalists” for the cash prize are announced toward the end of the episode. The studio audience then votes for their favorite and, finally, the winners are interviewed. So it’s kind of a game show, too.

This four-DVD set features the award-winning reality comedy’s 11th season, which was the first season for host Tom Bergeron of Hollywood Squares and Dancing with the Stars fame. The collection includes 12 full episodes on three discs and a bonus disc containing AFV’s 300th show in two episodes. All told, that’s over nine hours of entertainment.

Though the set is well packaged and the episodes are logically distributed among the DVDs, I do have one issue with the collection. Segues to and back from commercial breaks were left in each episode. These are unnecessary and get somewhat distracting after a while. It would have been nice if the editors could have pulled those out.

But even with that flaw, it’s exactly what you expect it to be. It’s mindless fun, pure and simple. If you enjoy the show, you’ll enjoy this collection. And if you’ve never seen the show, but you liked the films Dumb and Dumber and Airplane!, give it a shot.

Somewhere right now, a little league coach’s groin is about to get up close and personal with a line drive foul ball off his star player’s electric blue aluminum bat. I hope somebody brought a video camera.