Tuesday, October 25, 2005

I love Ace Records

I'm always searching out new labels for old music -- record companies that specialize in hard-to-find or high-quality reissues of classic music. Rhino Records is a long-time fave, of course (latest purchases: the Girl Group Sounds boxed set and a limited-edition rerelease of Melanie's 1976 Photograph album), as is Wounded Bird Records. But my new discovery is Ace Records, a British reissue label. Not that they reissue British records (although they probably do); what I'm getting into are their reissues of classic American soul and girl group recordings.

On the soul front, Ace has a particular fondness for northern soul, in the form of various compilations: The Mirwood Soul Story, Shrine: The Rarest Soul Label (Vols. 1-2), Rare, Collectible and Soulful (Vols. 1-2), Northern Soul's Classiest Rarities, OKeh: A Northern Soul Obsession (Vols. 1-2), and New York Soul Serenade. Ace is also big on southern soul, straight soul, R&B, funk, and related genres, with a fondness for the obscure.

When it comes to the girl group sound, Ace is also big on the obscure. Their compilations move quite swiftly from well-known artists to little-known or "lost" recordings by a variety of one-hit (or no-hit) wonders. But, boy, are these great compilations. If the Rhino Girl Group Sounds box is a great place to start (and probably more than enough for the casual listener), Ace takes the exploration several steps further. I'm not sure that some of the artists included ever got heard outside of their immediate neighborhoods. Where Ace dug this stuff up is beyond me, but I'm glad they did. If you're into girl groups, you have to check out Ace's Where the Girls Are (Vols. 1-6) and Early Girls (Vols. 1-4) compilations, as well as their one-offs Boy Trouble: Garpax Girls, Playin' Hard to Get: West Coast Girls, Kiss 'n' Tell, Queens of King, and Girls with Guitars discs. There's good -- and very rare -- stuff here.

Ace also covers other genres -- folk, blues, doo wop, early rock 'n' roll, you name. Sound quality is generally pretty good, not quite up to Rhino standards, but still. Liner notes are extensive, although with a bit of a British spin. All in all, this is a small label definitely worth checking out. They're doing all of us classic music lovers a huge favor by bringing all this forgotten music to light.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Good reads

The past few weeks have seen a bevy of new books by some of my favorite authors. Here are some quick comments.

School Days is the latest in Robert B. Parker's Spenser series, and it may be the best Spenser book in fifteen or more years. In this one Spenser's lady friend Susan is away at a convention and Hawk is off doing who knows ahat, so Spenser is on his own for a change. By paring away the supporting characters (who we all know and love, but -- let's face it -- have become a bit of a crutch in recent books), Parker brings Spenser closer to the way he was written in the early books in the series. The plot also echoes earlier books like God Save the Child and Ceremony, in that Spenser's case takes him to a small-town high school -- in this case, to investigate the aftermath of a Columbine-like school shooting. The plot has an actual mystery for a change, and while I miss the Hawk and Susan banter (I could read an entire book of nothing but Spenser, Susan, and Hawk conversing over a gourmet dinner), Spenser is wittier and the action is grittier for not relying on the tired old cliches. Perhaps the best Spenser book since 1987's Pale Kings and Princes.

Cinnamon Kiss is the latest in Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins series, about a part-time black detective in 1960s Los Angeles. There's nothing extra special or unique about this entry, which doesn't lessen its readability; Mosley does his usual superb job of painting a picture that provides a vivid sense of place and time. And it's a good mystery, to boot, this one taking Easy up to San Francisco for awhile, then back to south central L.A., in a quest to find a missing woman and a briefcase full of valuable bonds. Additional tension is provided by the illness of Easy's adopted daughter, Feather; Easy is under particular pressure to solve the case and collect a handsome reward, in order to afford Feather's necessary and expensive medical treatment. All the familiar characters turn up, including Jackson Blue, Saul Linx, and Easy's homicidal friend Raymond "Mouse" Alexander. As with all of Mosley's books, this one is a very satisfying treat.

War at Home presents us with another part-time black detective, in the form of Kris Nelscott's Smokey Dalton. In her Smokey Dalton novels (this is the fifth book in the series), Nelscott has used the conventions of the genre mystery to detail race relations and the civil rights movement in the 1960s, by tying her plots with key events -- Martin Luther King's assassination, the 1968 Democratic convention, and, in this book, the burgeoning anti-war movement. In this book Smokey, his "son" Jimmy, and street-smart friend Malcom Reyner travel from Chicago to Connecticut and New York City in search of teacher Grace Kirkland's missing son, Daniel. The search brings Smokey into contact with a group of anti-war radicals, in the fashion of the real-life Weathermen, and a plot to bomb various establishment fixtures. What I find amazing is that this convincing and engrossing view of what it meant to be a black man during that turbulent era is written by a young white woman from Oregon. (I must admit, I had very mixed feelings when I discovered, about three books in, that the author was both female and white; I'd just assumed that Kris was a male name and that "he" was a black man, just like Walter Mosley, author of the similar Easy Rawlins books -- although, interestingly, both Nelscott and Mosley got their start writing science fiction, not mystery books.)

The Colorado Kid is Stephen King's first paperback original in what, forever? -- as well as his first true mystery (not horror) novel. It's published as part of the Hard Case Crime imprint, which specializes in hard boiled noir fiction, both reprinting early works from established writers such as Donald Westlake and Lawrence Block and publishing new works from younger authors. King's entry is bound to confuse both his traditional audience and loyal Hard Case Crime readers, as it's more soft boiled than hard. It is a mystery of sorts, told completely as a book-length conversation between the crusty old editor of small-town Maine newspaper, his equally crusty right-hand man, and a young female reporter. Though the book was nothing like what I expected, it was pretty good -- King is a very talented writer, after all. It's also a very quick read, more of a novella than a novel, easily finished in a single setting. In any case, I'm glad to see King try something new, and for him to lend his name to an up-and-coming imprint like Hard Case Crime. It's a quick, cheap read -- definitely worth the money.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

New cell phone

With all my ranting about public cell phone use, it might surprise you to find out that I just purchased a brand-new cell phone for myself. I never use the damned thing, but I always like to have the latest model. It's a tech geek gadget thing. But the guy at the Cingular store was a little thrown off by someone requesting the bare minimum service plan and the most expensive phone in the store. Ah, contradictions.

The new phone is a black Motorola Razr. It's really thin and tres hip, and does all the geeky stuff you'd want it to do. Not that I'll use it to do all that stuff -- no cockroach-sized Bluetooth headsets for me. I just use it to check my answering machine when I'm out. What a waste of technology. (But it is really cool!)

I switched service providers from Sprint to Cingular, because I hate fucking Sprint. My old phone, a Sanyo model, just plain sucked; I couldn't hear squat with it. (The Razr is noticeable improvement on the sound quality front.) But the back-breaking straw came about a year ago, when I got a promotional mailing from Sprint advertising a new, lower-rate service for infrequent callers like myself. Sprint thought I should switch, I agreed, and tried to do it. Then the fun began.

First, Sprint won't let you manage your service plans over the web. Annoying, yes, but not a deal breaker. So I called customer service, said I wanted to switch plans, and entered into thirty minutes of hell. The customer service rep led me down the long, convoluted path to changing plans (which should have been a simple checkbox on a web page), at the end of which was this interesting and unexpected revelation: To change plans, I had to sign up for another two-year contract. That's right, I couldn't just switch plans, I had to resubscribe to the new plan. This was unacceptable, to say the least; after all my hassles with Sprint, not to mention the sucky phone, I didn't want to extend anything -- especially when the suggestion to switch plans came from the company itself.

So I told the nice customer service lady to scrap the plan-switching paperwork, and to tell her supervisor that I would be switching companies instead, when my original two-year contract was up. Which it was this week, hence the new phone with a new company. Goodbye Sprint, hello Cingular.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Girl Group sound

I've been in seventh heaven this past week, listening to Rhino's latest boxed set, One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds, Lost and Found. I'm a long-time fan of the early-60s Girl Group/Brill Building/Wall of Sound genre (and of Rhino Records, of course), and this boxed set is perhaps the finest representation to-date of the Girl Group part of that equation.

First, a bit about the boxed set. It's a 4-CD set, each CD with 30 songs each, for a total of 120 girl group classics. It comes with the kind of in-depth liner notes, in a separate booklet, that one expects from the folks at Rhino. And it's all wrapped up in what looks to be a 60s-era hatbox, very cute.

The recordings are all first-rate, fully remastered in glorious mono (in most cases). Many of the songs here are available on other collections (such as K-Tel's long out-of-print The Brill Building Sound boxed set), but the sound here is much superior to what I've heard elsewhere. Take, for example, the forgotten gem "My One and Only, Jimmy Boy" by The Girlfriends. This song first got rediscovered on The Brill Building Sound, then later was included on one of Ace Records' Early Girls compilation CDs. In both those instances, the sound was muddy, without a lot of headroom; it sounded as if it had been recorded in a trashcan. Not so on Girl Group Sounds. Here the sound is bright and clear, almost as if it had been recorded last year instead of forty years ago. (It first hit the charts in February of 1964, where it got swept away by the Beatles invasion.) You can hear every footstomping beat, every crack from Hal Blaine's snare drum, and all the glory of Steve Douglas' rockin' sax solo. The sound is so vibrant, so joyous, you just want to get up and dance along.

As I said, most of the songs on the Rhino set have been available in other collections, although you had to look hard for them. Rhino's mid-1980s The Best of the Girl Groups compilations offered some of these tunes, as did K-Tel's late, lamented 1993 The Brill Building Sound box. More recently, U.K. reissue label Ace Records had dug up several of these cuts for their Early Girls and Where the Boys Are compilations, although both the sound and the liner notes are superior in this new Rhino set.

My favorite tunes? There's a bunch. "He's Got the Power," by The Exciters. "You Don't Know," a rare solo singing turn by songwriter Ellie Greenwich. "Please Don't Wake Me," by The Cinderellas. "I Never Dreamed," by The Cookies. "Break-A-Way" by Irma Thomas. The Bacharach-like "Girl Don't Come," by Sandie Shaw. "The One You Can't Have," by The Honeys, written and produced by Brian Wilson in his best better-than-Spector mode. The aforementioned, "My One and Only, Jimmy Boy," by The Cinderellas, a rollicking Wall of Sound-alike by future Bread-winner David Gates. "Dream Baby" by a very young Cher, where producer Sonny Bono shows that he learned something when he used to work for Phil Spector. "I'm Blue (The Gong-Gong Song)" by the Ikettes, recently revived in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 1. "Peanut Duck," an irresistibly odd dance number by an anonymous singer billed as Marsha Gee. A somewhat obscure Dusty Springfield number titled "I Can't Wait Till I See My Baby's Face." A rare live version of Patty & The Emblems' "Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl." And too many more to mention.

The Girl Group sound was inspired by the popular female pop singers of the 1950s (Patti Page, Rosemary Clooney, et al), the burgeoning R&B genre (Ruth Brown, Etta James, et al), and various female doo-wop groups. The fire was lit by early rock 'n' roll, and the fuel provided by the era's best producers, songwriters, and studio musicians. Its birthplace was New York, but it quickly migrated to Los Angeles, Detroit, London, and beyond. At its best, the Girl Group sound mixed bits of Brill Building pop, Phil Spector Wall of Sound, sassy Motown soul, and the sound of swingin' London -- although it doesn't fall squarely into any of these camps. After all, Brill Building songwriters also wrote for male teen heartthrobs and manufactured groups like the Archies and the Monkees; the Wall of Sound powered hits by The Righteous Brothers and Ike & Tina Turner; Motown was at least as much Temps and Tops as it was Supremes and Marvelettes; and London pop eventually devolved into schmaltzy Tom Jones and Englebert Humperdinck. So the Girl Group sound was more than the sum of its parts -- it was its own distinct sound, whether fronted by a real group or a solo singer with backups.

To many critics, the post-Elvis, pre-Beatles era was a musical wasteland, but they just weren't listening hard enough. The best of the Girl Groups (and solo singers working with backup groups) transcended the factory-like approach to the music, working with the best songwriters, producers, and studio musicians to create classic tracks that bear their unique imprint. I'm talking about groups like The Shangra-La's, The Chiffons, and The Shirelles, and solo singers like Ronnie Spector (of The Ronettes), Darlene Love (of The Blossoms), Dusty Springfield, Petula Clark, Leslie Gore, and, of course, Diana Ross (and The Supremes). These are great songs, great performances, and great records. I can listen to them all day long -- and often do.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Flying the friendly skies

Last weekend I flew out to Pasadena for an old friend's wedding. It was not the smoothest trip I've ever been on.

The trip out was fine, Indianapolis to Denver to Burbank. (Burbank was the closest airport to my friend's house in Pasadena; actually a quick and convenient little airport -- to a point, as I'll soon discuss.) The wedding was great, held outdoors in the L.A. Arboretum, near where they used to film parts of the old Fantasy Island TV show. Lots of exotic flowers and peacocks, which can also be exotic -- unless you have dozens of them nesting in your front yard, as my friend does, in which case even exotic animals can become pests. In any case, it was a nice wedding, and I had a nice time.

If I had been smart, I would have flown back home on Sunday. (The wedding was Saturday evening.) But I thought, what the heck, might as well spend another day in sunny Pasadena. So that's what I did, intending to fly back on Monday.

Intending is the operable word. Come Monday morning, I drive to the Burbank airport, do a quick check in, and settle in for the wait before the flight. That's when I found out about the snow. In Denver. Which is where my flight back to Indianapolis connected.

First, my flight was delayed by an hour. No problem, I had two hours between flights in Denver. Then the flight was put on indefinite hold, due to a ground stop in Denver. (You'd think the folks in Denver might have learned how to handle a little snow, but noooooo...) That's when I trekked back to the counter to try and figure out another way home, one that didn't involve Denver.

Now we come to the first of many reasons why I hate United. The lady at the counter said that there was probably a flight from LAX to Indy via Chicago, but that she couldn't make the changes herself. Instead, I had to call the reservations desk. Why the hell couldn't the lady at the United ticket counter in Burbank access the United reservations system? Isn't that what they get paid to do? Don't they have Burbank on line with the rest of the system? Is Burbank that much of a step-child of an airport? Or is United's entire operational process totally fucked up?

It doesn't matter. I got on my cell phone and called the United reservations desk. Or tried to. United uses a particularly annoying, impractical, and unavoidable voice message system, where it's virtually impossible to tunnel through to a real live human being. After five minutes of pushing buttons and yelling "NO!" into the phone, I finally got hold of said real live human being. (Tip for future use: Just say "AGENT" at any voice prompt; too bad they didn't tell me that up front.)

Said real live human being was a male American, which is unusual these days, but what the hey. The male American on the phone told me that yes, there was a LAX-Chicago-Indianapolis flight that afternoon, but it left in about an hour and a half. There was no way I could get from Burbank to LAX, check in, and make it through security in time. So I decided to spend an extra day in sunny California, and reschedule my flight for early the next morning out of LAX. (No point testing my luck by trying to go through Denver again.)

After changing my reservation over the phone, I trundled over to the airport Hilton, where a gaggle of protestors wearing Ronald Reagan masks were mouthing off about some damn thing or another. I ignored them, checked in, and connected to the Internet to check my email and do a little work; no sense wasting the day. That's when I decided, just for chuckles, to head over to the United website and check out my new reservations.

Good thing I did that.

Monday was October 10th. My new reservations should have been made for Tuesday October 11th. Instead, the screen showed that my reservations were for August 11th. Big difference.

Time for another call to the United reservations center. After punching and screaming my way through voice message hell, I finally got a live human being. I explained my situation, and the person appeared to be somewhat flummoxed. Said he couldn't change the reservation. Said I had to talk to someone in customer support.

Fine. It only took me a half hour to get to this point; plenty of time left on my schedule.

The first person couldn't transfer me to customer support. I had to dial them directly, which I did. After another few minutes of punching and screaming my way through the voice message system, I was patched through to a nice Indian gentleman. He was very helpful. (No sarcasm here; he did a good job.) He listened to my increasingly lengthy explanation of my problem, confirmed what had happened, profusely apologized, said he'd send me a $50 travel voucher for my trouble, and then said I'd have to call back to the reservations desk to make the necessary changes. He gave me explicit instructions on how to bypass the voice message system (hence the "AGENT" trick), provided a magic number so I wouldn't have to repeat my story again, and told me to request a supervisor when I got through. Why customer service couldn't change my reservation, especially after the first reservation agent couldn't do it, either, I didn't question. Bureaucracy in action.

Okay. I redialed reservations, said "AGENT" at the first voice prompt, and got connected to a nice Indian lady. I asked for a supervisor, she said she was one (I didn't question that), then I gave her my magic number. The guy in customer service had done his job, my info was in the system already, and she made the correct reservation lickety split. She apologized for my problem and tried to get me to rent a car from Avis. Ah, upselling.

All in all, I spent over an hour on the phone trying to fix the problem that the first reservations agent had created. Not a good thing. Not a way I would want to run a business. Not the type of situation that would have me seeking out United for my future travel plans.

But my story doesn't end there. I got up bright and early the next morning for my 9:00 a.m. flight. The person at the hotel's front desk said I probably should leave at 5:30 to make it from Burbank to LAX, given the traffic and airport security and all that, so that's what I did. The cab ride took a brief half hour (no traffic at all on the freeways that early in the morning), there was no line at the check-in counter, and no one in front of me in the security line. By 6:15 I'm sitting at the gate area, primed and ready to board my 9:00 flight. It's not like I wouldn't have liked another hour's sleep or anything.

(To rub salt in the wound, I discovered that my original Burbank-to-Denver flight the previous day actually did take off, about three hours late. I would have missed the Denver-to-Indy flight, which really wouldn't have mattered as that flight was cancelled. However, a later Denver-to-Indy flight was operational and there was room on it for me, had I continued to wait in the Burbank airport instead of switching reservations to the next day. C'est la vie.)

The flight from LAX to Chicago was on a 767, which is a plane I generally like. I tried to upgrade to United's Economy Plus class, where you get an extra 4" or so of legroom, but this plane didn't have Economy Plus seating. They did have Business class, but it was all sold out, which meant I had to endure a 3 1/2-hour flight with my knees digging into the seat in front of me. Even worse, my seat was near the back of the plane, where the center seating area starts to taper off, and was offset from the seat in front of me; the result was that the tray table, which would have barely lowered anyway, did not lower into a perfectly horizontal position, instead hitting against my right armrest. This proved to be a bit of a problem when the Wicked Witch of the West, who happened to be moonlighting on stewardess duty, sat a cup of water down on my less-than-horizontal tray. The cup promptly slid forward, slopping its contents onto my lower legs. Cool, refreshing water. Good thing I hadn't asked for a Coke.

(By the way, the entire flight was completely sold out--like all my other recent flights. If the planes are always full, how come all the airlines are going bankrupt? How lousy a businessperson do you have to be to lose money when you and all your competitors are running at full capacity? Seems to me the simple solution is either to cut costs or raise prices. Something's wrong with the concept of capitalism when an entire industry can go under because their prices are too low.)

Chicago to Indy wasn't much better, stuck in a middle seat all the way. Fortunately, that's a short flight -- you barely get up in the air before you head back down again. We were delayed, however, for about 15 minutes because the plane was waiting to be refueled. (Or, as the pilot put it, "We're waitin' for that little ol' fuel truck to pull up alongside us.") I would have thought they'd have that whole refueling thing down to a manageable routine, but what do I know? In any case, I made it home in one piece, and they didn't even lose my luggage.

So that's why I don't like United all that much. Who'd of thought that do-it-yourself customer service wasn't really a good idea?

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Cronies and qualifications

Examining Harrier Miers' credentials for Supreme Court justice, one has to ask the question: How did the Bushies previously manage to nominate someone as qualified as John Roberts? Miers is obviously unqualified and just as obviously a recipient of rampant Bush loyalist cronyism, while Roberts was neither; they are the yin and the yang of all possible nominees. How did the Bushies get the first one so right and the second one so wrong?

First, to Miers' qualifications. She doesn't have any. Bush nominating his personal lawyer to the Supreme Court would be like me nominating my dentist to be Surgeon General. He might be able to do the job (or he might not), but there are tons of people a lot more qualified. When Miers' strongest points appear to be that she's "nice" and organized and makes a good cup of coffee, you know something fishy is afoot. When challenged as to the wisdom of his choice during a day after press conference, Bush said, "I picked the best person I could find." I guess he wasn't looking too hard. It just goes to show that Bush's circle of cronies and sycophants is actually quite small; I mean, isn't he running out of friends to promote to high places?

I'm not concerned with Miers' political or religious leanings, although others will be. (I admit, it's kind of fun to watch the hard-right social conservatives blow a gasket over Miers' lack of demonstrable conservative bona fides.) I'm concerned with qualifications, and the ability to do the job. We appoint nine whole people to rule as the highest court in the land; they should be the top legal and constitutional minds available. A second-rate lawyer who went to a third-rate law school and became a fourth-rate political flunky and memo editor doesn't qualify, in my book. John Roberts, in spite of his political views (whatever they turn out to be), is the kind of appointee that is hard to vote against, strictly on his extremely impressive resume and real-world experience. The guy's qualified to do the job; Harriet Miers isn't.

The Senate -- both Republican and Democratic members -- should unite to vote against Harriet Miers' nomination to the Supreme Court. We should demand more from our public servants than what Bush has given us this time around. (And why did Bush give us such a blatant crony? Because there will be lots of major court cases over the next 4-5 years having to do with the various misdeeds undertaken by the current administration; Bush wants a friend on the court who can be relied on to always vote in his favor.)

My prediction? Under increasing pressure and the likelihood of a strong "no" vote, Miers will withdraw her name from nomination. This is -- or at least it should be -- a non-starter, for all concerned.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Talkin' to myself and feelin' old

Earlier today I drove by some old guy with a scruffy white beard, standing by himself on a busy street corner. He was just standing there, talking out loud to himself, not another human being within earshot. Crazy old coot, I said to myself.

But then I caught myself. Maybe he's not talking to himself. Maybe he's talking on a cell phone. No phone to be seen, of course, but that didn't mean anything. Maybe he had a corded headset, and instead of talking to himself, he was talking to his sister in Des Moines.

Except I didn't see a cord, and I didn't see a headset. Still, he could have one of those cordless Bluetooth dealies, the ones that are no bigger than a cockroach and fit right inside your ear. Yeah, that's probably it, talking on his Bluetooth headset to his sister in Des Moines.

Although I looked really close as I drove by, and I didn't see anything sticking into or out of his ear. So maybe he really was a crazy old coot, talking to himself in the middle of the day on a busy street corner.

You see, you can't tell anymore who's crazy and who's high-tech. Mental illness has the same outward appearance as high-tech cell phone usage. You walk down any street or shopping mall and you see dozens of people talking out loud to no one in particular. They're either all a bunch of loonies or they're all talking to their sisters in Des Moines. One or the other.

This might be the biggest difference someone from the past might find if they awoke in our 21st century future. Someone fast forwarded from the 1960s would see all these people walking around and talking to themselves, and think either that there's been a vast outbreak of mental disorders or that we've developed some really good drugs. The concept of constant communication via cellular technology wouldn't occur to them.

Of course, maybe we are all crazy, even if we're talking on the mobile to our sisters in Des Moines. In my opinion, you have to be crazy to want to be in such constant contact with other people. What's wrong with a little personal time? Up until recently, that's all we had.

And, before advent of always-on cell phones and cockroach-sized earpieces, if you saw someone talking to himself, you knew he was a little tetched in the head. There wasn't any question about it.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.