Sunday, August 24, 2014

Hillbillistan

A friend of mine recently posted a picture of a 4th grade history test on Facebook, which I have to assume (if it's not a hoax) is from one of the Southern states where they are actively pushing to teach intelligent design as science. The questions included:

  1. True or false: The Earth is billions of years old. Correct answer: False
  2. True or false: Dinosaurs lived millions of years ago. Correct answer: False
  3. On what day did God make dinosaurs? Correct answer: the 6th
  4. True or false: Dinosaurs lived with people. Correct answer: True
  5. What did people and animals eat in the beginning? Correct answer: Plants
  6. etc. etc. etc.
For many years, I've been increasingly disturbed by the reactionary attitudes of the extreme conservatives in the country: anti-abortion, anti-science, anti-gay, anti-environment, anti-immigrant, anti-health care. I also continue to believe that race plays a big role in why many of them hate President Obama. To be clear, regardless of how much I clash with some of these views, I am very happy we have conservatives in our country and government. Further, I passionately agree with them on some key issues (e.g., anti-gun control, fiscal conservatism, and avoiding over taxation of business). Regardless of whether I agree or disagree with them, I'm glad we have their contribution to the public discourse. If nothing else, they balance out some extreme views on the left that I also disagree with. 

Bottom-line: By having divergent opinions in our country which must compromise with one another to form policy, we keep extreme views on both ends of the spectrum at bay. While no party 'wins' on most issues, the whole country wins because both sides influence policy-making. Sometimes one side has a little more sway; sometimes the other. In the end, it's not perfect but I feel we chart something of a middle course. That's what an active democracy in a country as diverse as ours is all about in my opinion.

What does bother me? I'm bothered by how radical conservatism repeatedly injects their religion and The Bible into everything. This has become a divisive theocratic element in our country that is uninterested in debate, democracy, or compromise. Given that it is largely centered in the South, it honestly makes me wonder whether the country just needs to be split in two. Here is a map I have devised for doing just that.

Again, my reason for splitting the country is not about power for Democrats or Republicans, conservatives or liberals. It's to separate two fundamentally different beliefs in how a country should be governed. I realize people in many states might not like where they land in my map. So, should this proposal ever become reality, we would have to manage mass transitions of population once the borders are drawn and the form of government in each country is made clear.

The United States of America is for people who believe in government by active democracy. In this country, we debate divisive issues such as abortion, immigration, gay rights, budget spending, government appointments, and global warming. We do not believe it's right to shut down the government or freeze it by constant filibusters in order to 'win'. On the contrary, we accept that we will not always get our way. Everyone has a voice and, if we can't persuade enough people to our position with reasoned arguments, then we simply do not prevail on that issue. This means we all 'lose' from time-to-time on issues that are important to us. However, even when we lose, we win because we believe that preserving democracy is more important than getting our way all the time. Besides, there's always a chance to fight for change in the future. Lastly, we believe in science and that the way to build a strong America is by educating our children about science, not indoctrinating them into one religious viewpoint.

The other country - Hillbillistan - is for people who believe in government by theocracy. In this country, Christian evangelicals, the Tea Party, the extreme right, and their blocs of voters can build a Christian country. Having a Christian country run via theocracy would justify basing all public policy decisions and governance on a literal reading of The Bible. This is no longer a democracy, since biblical texts are not subject to being questioned or flouted. That means the leaders of Hillbillistan would be free to pursue their course without being hampered by the opinions and beliefs of non-Christians. They could start every school day, business meeting, town hall meeting, and state of the union address with a prayer and not be concerned about whether someone finds singling out Christianity as a state religion is exclusionary. Non-Christians in Hillbillistan would have to "love it (that is, God) or leave it". The theocracy would also be empowered to pass any laws with the sole justification being Christian teachings. Abortion could be banned, homosexuality outlawed, and immigration set at zero without any notable debate. Lastly, schools can be used as surrogate Sunday schools to foster religious belief, and classroom content will not be driven by subject (e.g., science and philosophy) but by State-sanctioned religious dogma.

While my proposal to create Hillbillistan is obviously tongue-in-cheek, there is a serious issue here that our country seems to be increasingly faced with. The loud protestations of some groups that the US is a 'Christian country' and that our laws should be based on biblical text cannot truly fit within a democracy, since democracy is defined as the rule of the people. It is not the rule of any god. Religious views do influence our political beliefs, and that's fine. However, by pursuing a course that attempts to overtly justify policy on religious grounds and/or set one religion above all others, the evangelicals, Tea Party, and extreme conservatives in our country have goals closer to those of the leaders in Iran than to the founding fathers of our nation.

PS: New Orleans and the Keys are protectorates because I don't see how fun places like that could be of any use to the government of Hillbillistan!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Mumonkan, Koan 28: Ryutan Blows Out the Candle

Tokusan asked Ryutan about Zen far into the night. At last Ryutan said, "The night is late. Why don't you retire?" Tokusan made his bows and lifted the blinds to withdraw, but he was met by darkness. Turning back to Ryutan, he said, "It is dark outside." Ryutan lit a paper candle and handed it to him. Tokusan was about to take it when Ryutan blew it out. At this, all of a sudden, Tokusan went through a deep experience and made bows.

Ryutan said, "What sort of realization do you have?" "From now on," said Tokusan, "I will not doubt the words of an old osho who is renowned everywhere under the sun."

The next day Ryutan ascended the rostrum and said, "I see a fellow among you. His fangs are like the sword tree. His mouth is like a blood bowl. Strike him with a stick, and he won't turn his head to look at you. Someday or other, he will climb the highest of the peaks and establish our Way there."

Tokusan brought his notes on the Diamond Sutra to the front of the hall, pointed to them with a torch, and said, "Even though you have exhausted the abstruse doctrines, it is like placing a hair in a vast space. Even though you have learned all the secrets of the world, it is like a drop of water dripped on the great ocean." And he burned all his notes. Then, making bows, he took his leave of this teacher.

This koan is full of metaphor. Inside the room with Ryutan, there are answers and light. As Tokusan leaves, he finds total darkness. There is no value in light and answers which desert a person the moment they leave the side of a teacher. What we do not know in and within ourselves, what we cannot carry with us into the world is not knowledge. Further, light or answers that are given like the candle Ryutan gives to Tokusan can be taken away. That is not possible with true knowledge or insight.

While I do not understand the reference to the "words of an old osho", the meaning of Tokusan burning all his notes is clear. The notes are like the lighted room and are not needed. Everything in the notes Tokusan has either absorbed or not absorbed. The former will not be lost by burning the notes; the latter was never his to lose.

Extending this further, perhaps he also realized his teacher should not be needed either. Either he was enlightened (or perhaps he needed solitude for a while before returning). In a way, entering the darkness or leaving his teacher is a way to avoid staying in the lit room with given answers. It's a way to confront what he does not know rather than stagnate with the security of what he is told. Of course, the other side of this is that we should never view a teacher as exerting such control. We should be able to enter the darkness even while letting the light of a teacher point the way.

Perhaps that is the real meaning of the candle being blown out: "Despite whatever teaching I give you; you must ultimately find your own way."

Friday, August 22, 2014

Stevie Nicks - Crystal Visions (2007)

Stevie Nicks kicked off the new millennium with a unexpectedly resounding bang. Her solo album Trouble in Shangri-La shot to #5 on the charts and went gold within a month, then two years later she and Fleetwood Mac (sans Christine McVie) had their own triumphant return to the charts with Say You Will. After that, Nicks was largely busy with Fleetwood Mac's tour, which I saw during their stop in Chicago. It had been a long time since I'd seen Stevie Nicks perform (I saw her during the tours for Rock a Little and The Other Side of the Mirror), and she was in fine form and voice. I'm now looking forward to seeing the fully reunited Rumours-era line-up perform in Chicago this October.

In 2007, a few years after all this chart action, Nicks released Crystal Visions. Despite being a rabid fan, I resisted buying this release because I felt three compilations from Nicks in sixteen years was a bit much. What was the point? Timespace remains Nicks complete greatest solo hits collection since she had not charted any further singles. Meanwhile, Enchanted is her retrospective box set, and one career retrospective is about all most artists need or deserve. What could Crystal Visions possibly bring to table?

For a casual listener Crystal Visions is totally unnecessary, and does not supplant Timespace as the best compilation of Nicks' solo hits. For a fan, though, Crystal Visions is worth buying because it is an interesting take on combining her absolutely biggest solo hits with her most famous songs from Fleetwood Mac. This makes Crystal Visions the closest thing to a total career compilation that may ever be available for Nicks. It might even work better than an actual compilation of studio recordings since I'm not sure it makes much sense from a listening standpoint to set her Fleetwood Mac songs and solo work side by side. The sound of the material - and her sound - is really quite different. Crystal Visions solves the problem by creatively representing her Fleetwood Mac songs in a way that updates them and creates a more cohesive sounding album.

Admittedly, the approach works better for some songs than others. "Dreams" is represented by the appealing Deep Dish dance hit for which Nicks recorded a new vocal, "Rhiannon" comes to us as a rocking live performance. Ironically, the one song that appears in something like a vintage version is "Silver Springs" which was cut from Rumours. That said, Stevie's vocal coda on this take of the song has a tougher edge to it than the official version released on the b-side to "Go Your Own Way" in 1977. Considering the only other way to get an original version of "Silver Springs" is to buy Fleetwood Mac's patchy box set (The Chain), many may prefer to make the acquisition through Crystal Visions. In addition to the pluses, Nicks includes a wicked live performance of Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll". On the other hand, "Landslide" is recorded live with an orchestra behind Nicks and comes off a bit overdone. I'm also not sure anyone is a big enough fan to jump for joy over having yet another live version of "Edge of Seventeen" enter their music collection.

Crystal Visions is more than just a set of tracks, however. It also includes a DVD of all Nicks' music videos, complete with audio commentary from Nicks. The commentary reveals a thread of dry humor that is rather endearing when you think about how she's relating stories around the recording and marketing of some of her biggest hits. A special treat on this DVD is the original big production video for "Stand Back", which Nicks famously - and expensively - rejected for a reshoot. The reshoot became the official video everyone has seen. In my opinion, while the original video isn't bad (for the 80's), Nicks was right to pass. The video she ended up for "Stand Back" has a lot more energy and visual appeal. Finally, the DVD also contains footage from the Bella Donna sessions which is interesting to watch.

So, while Crystal Visions is - as ever - a fantastic collection of songs with some great new-ish material on hand, it's really for a die-hard fan who doesn't mind dropping the bucks on an indulgence. One can't fault Nicks too much, though. She's worked very hard over the course of her storied career and accomplished a hell of a lot. If she wants to rest on her laurels a bit, she's certainly earned it.


Sunday, August 17, 2014

Stevie Nicks - Trouble In Shangri-La (2001)

Stevie Nicks released Trouble in Shangri-La in 2001, twenty years after her debut solo album Bella Donna. A great deal had happened in music - and to Nicks – during those two decades. That Nicks’ first album of original material in seven years (and her first of new millennium) could attract interest from an A-list of young performers is an accomplishment all by itself. And, while Nicks never took her hat out of the ring in terms of recording and touring, Trouble in Shangri-La generates an aura of triumphant comeback. Nicks had survived the rock and roll gristmill and emerged on the other side as an institution, readily acknowledged as a pioneer paving the way for many rock musicians, especially women. 

Of course, Nicks is no longer the "hot new thing" so to expect another Bella Donna or The Wild Heart from her is unfair and, if someone isn't a fan by now, there's not much that's going to remedy the situation. What makes Trouble in Shangri-La work is how comfortably it updates Nicks’ mystical take on rock into the current musical landscape. The album doesn’t sound like something by an old fogey, but it also doesn’t pander to trends either. Most impressive is that, while Nicks records some characteristic tunes from her backlog (“Sorcerer” and “Candlebright” are from the early seventies), the strongest songs turn out to be the ones she has written most recently. The title track is dramatic musing on the pitfalls of fame and/or love, "Love Changes" surges with hard-won hope, "Fall From Grace" is balls to wall rock that Nicks hasn't recorded since Rock a Little, and the lush ballad "Love Is" grows more emotive with every listen.

In every way, Nicks is in far better form here than she was on 1994's forgettable Street Angel. That said, she still hasn’t conquered some of her troublesome tendencies. Twangy "Too Far From Texas" is out of place amid the rest of the tracks. "That Made Me Stronger" is built around overwrought lyrics and comes off clunkity as a result. And, again, big production short-circuits the energy of otherwise solid songs (“Planets of the Universe”, “Bombay Sapphires”). As ever, Nicks shines brightest in simple surroundings (or at least surroundings that sound simple).

But this is beside the point. Nicks doesn’t have anything to prove anymore. Trouble in Shangri-La and the 2003 Fleetwood Mac studio album Say You Will both hit the top five, proving Nicks is still relevant. It’s especially notable that her songwriting on Say You Will (e.g., “Thrown Down”, “Silver Girl”, “Destiny Rules”) was one of the strongest reasons to buy the album. Where Nicks will go from here is anyone's guess. Personally, I'd love to see her go back-to-basics and cut an album of rough gems like the demos she released on Enchanted or at least stick to the low maintenance sonic surroundings Lindsey Buckingham created for her on Say You Will. Whatever she does, though, Nicks' place in the rock pantheon is guaranteed both as a member of Fleetwood Mac and as a solo artist in her own right.


Saturday, August 16, 2014

Stevie Nicks - Enchanted (1998)

With the seventies line-up of Fleetwood Mac reunited and on top of the charts again with their smash live album The Dance, Stevie Nicks was back in business after a decade of lean years in the studio. That made a new Nicks’ solo compilation a smart marketing move. The snag was, given Nicks lack of top 40 hits since “Rooms on Fire”, her 1991 greatest hits album (Timespace) needed no updating. And, to this day, it still doesn’t.

This must be part of why the powers that be at her label, Modern Records, went with a boxed set. That said, the allure of boxed sets is somewhat mystifying. Fans already have all the music except for the one or two new songs included (which usually aren't anything special). Meanwhile, the casual listener must view a boxed set as expensive overkill. As such, even a life-long fan of Stevie Nicks (like myself), must approach the purchase of Nicks’ three-disc boxed set Enchanted with skepticism. Fortunately, this release is lovingly designed to appeal to Nicks’ fan base. It truly justifies the purchase, while also presenting the best of Nicks’ solo material to draw the less rabid but interested listener. Enchanted did very well upon release, suggesting people were ready for a tribute to Nicks who was – at this stage of her career – assuming her rightful place as a rock legend.

The first two discs of Enchanted focus on her previously released solo material. While the songs are not presented in chronological order, Disc One does draw heavily from her first two albums - Bella Donna and The Wild Heart - while Disc Two leans towards Rock a Little and the work that came after. The casual listener will get almost all of Bella Donna and six tracks off The Wild Heart. Four or five tracks are taken from her other albums but, since these efforts were not as consistent, that’s about right. In short, someone could purchase Enchanted in lieu of Nicks’ solo albums and miss out on very little (see next paragraph for some notable exceptions).

What will appeal to fans about the first two discs is that many of the tracks are alternate takes to the versions on the albums. Given Nicks’ appealing habit of rejiggering how she sings her songs over time, this variation is very welcome to a fan. Nothing strange has been done to the songs. They still have the same sound as the originals, but they have slight, yet notable, nuance. For example, “Leather and Lace” adds a few extra lines to a verse (it might be the single version). Three songs taken from Street Angel – as well as “Rooms on Fire” – are alternate versions. “Whole Lotta Trouble” is the single mix. Further, “Edge of Seventeen” is a live performance from Nicks’ long-lost 1981 White Wing Dove HBO special (it was also the b-side to the single), and “I Can’t Wait” appears in an extended mix lifted from the excellent 1986 maxi-single. There are also a couple b-sides (google the term if you’re a Millennial): “Garbo” was a lovely acoustic ballad on the flipside of “Stand Back” and “One More Big Time Rock and Roll Star” was the b-side of “Talk to Me”. All this makes the first two discs a lot more interesting to a Nicks fan than they would be otherwise.

Even so, what makes Enchanted worth the price of admission to a fan is the collection of unreleased and non-album tracks on Disc Three. Given that much of Nicks’ solo material was released prior to the advent of compact discs and Enchanted was released prior to the digital music era, Disc Three was a way for fans to reclaim all that lost vinyl material without spending piles of money on cheesy movie soundtrack CDs. And there is a lot of great Nicks material in the soundtrack category. Songs like "Blue Lamp", "Battle of the Dragon", "Violet and Blue", and "Sleeping Angel" are just as enthralling as her very best solo work. Even in retrospect, it’s impossible to fathom why “Sleeping Angel” wasn’t saved for The Wild Heart.

In addition to the soundtrack songs, Disc Three includes several demos. These stripped down performances offer a peek into Nicks’ creative process but are also complete enough to be enjoyable listens. It’s not hard to imagine Nicks including these demos to thumb her nose at rock critics who adore painting her as dependent on others (i.e., guys) to turn her musical daydreams into concrete songs. If so, she makes her point. The demos of “Sweet Girl” and “Twisted” are better than the recorded versions released after Lindsey Buckingham got a hold of them. Of course Buckingham contributed to Nicks’ work with Fleetwood Mac, as Nicks readily admits. However, Nicks also states that she is sometimes mis-produced (I’d add over-produced), so the simplicity and intimate energy of these demos is eye-opening.

Disc Three is rounded out with several other goodies. Her energetic performance of "Gold and Braid" from White Wing Dove is included; this is a song she never recorded in the studio. We also get both of her late seventies’ duets outside Fleetwood Mac ("Gold" and “Whenever I Call You Friend”), a Buckingham Nicks track, and her spin on Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’”. The Disc ends with her re-recording the demo version of “Rhiannon” on piano. All said, Disc Three is a powerful inducement to buy Enchanted even if you have all of Nicks’ solo work.

Stepping back, can one quibble with the selection of tracks on Enchanted? It’s a career retrospective so, of course, the answer is ‘yes’. So here I go… Her remix of “The Nightmare” or the b-side “Inspiration” would have been preferable to weak material like “Thousand Days” and “Reconsider Me”. I would have excluded “The Highwayman” in favor of The Wild Heart’s “Nothing Ever Changes”. Song selection from Rock a Little emphasizes material Nicks wrote alone – which makes sense given this is her boxed set – but “I Sing For the Things” and the convoluted “Rock a Little” were just nowhere near as well-written or performed as “Sister Honey” and “If I Were You”. Similarly, the inclusion of “Desert Angel” from Timespace makes sense from a Stevie-as-songwriter perspective, but it’s a weak track compared to something like “Ghosts” from about the same period. On a less subjective note, selecting “Rose Garden” over just about any other track from Street Angel is plain lunacy. “Love is Like a River” or “Listen to the Rain” would have been a much better representations of Nicks’ songwriting chops for a fan or a casual listener.

Quibbling aside, this boxed set was designed to be a fantastic value for the fan in the context of 1998’s music distribution/technology. The dozens of photos and complete lyrics compiled in a storybook format adds a visual and tactile appeal sadly extinct in the iTunes era. In Enchanted, Nicks has created a love letter to her fans as well as a testament to her solo career up to this point.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Stevie Nicks - Street Angel (1994)

The 90's were not kind to Stevie Nicks. First, Fleetwood Mac fell apart. Their 1990 album Behind the Mask was kicked-off with a successful Christine McVie single, but Nicks' work was still uneven and the album sank without a ripple. Although many critics attributed the band's fall to Lindsey Buckingham's departure, it should be kept in mind that his solo album of the same period (Out of the Cradle) fared far worse than Behind the Mask. The poor performance of both albums was due to the radically changing musical landscape of the time.

Given that context, it's not really clear why Nicks released Street Angel. Her career needed an authoritative work to reassert her relevance, and Street Angel is a mediocre album that could only appeal to her base. On the plus side, the production (by Thom Panunzio and Nicks) is clean and sassy, moving Nicks away from the overproduction of her previous two studio albums. Also, some of her lyrics are written with a clarity not seen since Bella Donna. Despite these positive changes, there's no getting around the fact that the album sounds dated and stale. Embracing the hip-hop or grunge trends of the time would not have suited Nicks at all, but resting on her laurels was not a much better alternative.

Ultimately, Street Angel stumbles due to a combination of poor songwriting (a shocking charge to level against a Nicks’ solo album) and a lack of new ideas. For example, "Blue Denim" would have been a great song in 1984 but in 1994 it just comes off as tired. "Destiny" actually recycles lyrics from "Enchanted," a song off The Wild Heart. Elsewhere "Greta", "Docklands", and "Jane" are Nicks at her most self-indulgent, and her dreadful cover of "Just Like a Woman" is painful to listen to. There are just enough solid songs to make the album passable, but many of the best ones come from outside writers. 

This brings us to another failing of Street Angel: the absence of Stevie Nicks. She sings authoritatively but few of the songs resonate with her witchy take on rock, likely because her role in the writing is relatively small compared to all of her other solo albums. This is odd given her track record as a songwriter but, when you also consider that two of the best songs on the album (the title track and "Love is Like a River") were penned solely by Nicks, her reluctance to include her own material becomes positively mysterious. No matter how strong the other material is - "Unconditional Love" and "Maybe Love Will Change Your Mind" are wonderful pop songs - there's just not enough Stevie to satisfy fans. As a result, Street Angel is easily Nicks' worst solo album.

Street Angel came and went with little notice, and is only to be purchased by Nicks' completists. Nicks rode out the rest of the decade with a hugely successful Fleetwood Mac reunion (The Dance) and a lovingly created solo boxed-set (Enchanted). These efforts cemented her status as an elder rock icon. 

Depending on how much you like Street Angel, it was either the final stop in Nicks' drawn out fall from grace or the first faltering step of her return to prominence. Whatever the case, the new millennium would find her assuming the mantle of a rock legend while at the same time producing much better work to a far more receptive public.



Monday, August 11, 2014

Stevie Nicks - Timespace (1991)


Most artists from rock bands that attempt solo careers don't end up charting enough singles to create a legitimate greatest hits package, but Stevie Nicks is one of the few who can. In fact, Timespace eschews some of her top 40 hits ("After the Glitter Fades" and "Nightbird" are missing) to include some of her best album tracks ("Beauty and the Beast" and "Has Anyone Ever Written Anything For You", the latter was a low charting single in 1986).

The truly striking thing about Timespace is not that Nicks has the hits to justify such a package but the strength of the collection. Timespace documents how Nicks truly grew through the 80s, lifting off from the ashes of the seventies rock sound that Fleetwood Mac helped define and ultimately rising to create her solo niche based on the new electronic sounds of the 1980s. And she did so largely without compromising her musical style or artistic vision.

Most greatest hits albums include a few new tracks, and Timespace has three. While they are mostly solid work, they are not required listening. It's always wonderful to hear Nicks tackle songs by other artists, but the hair-metal of Jon Bon Jovi ("Sometimes It's a Bitch") and Bret Michaels ("Love's a Hard Game to Play") is really more suited to Cher or Heart than an artist as unique as Stevie Nicks. The aforementioned songs are great listens, and "Sometimes It's a Bitch" was a moderately successful single for Nicks to kick off the 90s. On the other hand while I enjoyed the third new track, "Desert Angel", it's an example of the self-indulgent lyrics and overblown production that had begun to undermine the emotional immediacy and energy of her work.

In any case, Timespace is an excellent album for the casual listener who wants to own the best of Stevie Nicks’ solo work, which is well deserving of such a collection.


Sunday, August 10, 2014

Stevie Nicks - The Other Side of the Mirror (1989)

In the first half of the 1980's Stevie Nicks established herself as a rock and roll double threat. A powerful contributor to Fleetwood Mac's monstrous success, she also built an equally credible solo career on her own. However, after her third solo album (Rock a Little), she seemed to be in some kind of free fall due to drama in Fleetwood Mac and her own widely publicized drug problems. Whatever the issue, her output slowed and the quality of what was produced dropped radically. Her songwriting contributions to Fleetwood Mac's sleek 1987 album Tango in the Night, for example, were flat out embarrassments to both herself and her band mates.

On The Other Side of the Mirror it feels as if Nicks is struggling to regain her footing, and it may be that Rupert Hines was not the best producer for her to work with at such a time. I say this despite the fact that it could have been a magical collaboration at another time, as there are definite strengths on Mirror. Most of Stevie's songs are well-written, she produced an enthralling hit in "Rooms on Fire", and the overall sound of the album steps back from the synth-heaviness of Rock a Little. Vocally, Nicks sounds fresher and in better shape (perhaps a benefit of having kicked cocaine). 

However, there are also several recurring weaknesses that undercut the album: many of the tracks are self-indulgent and lyrically off the deep end. A generally over-produced feel ultimately creates a listless sound, which blunts Nicks' usual strengths as a writer and performer. Examples are plentiful.
"Two Kinds of Love" is a great duet with Bruce Hornsby, but it lacks a direct emotional connection that she usually delivers on such songs (e.g., "Leather and Lace"). "Whole Lotta Trouble" is a horn-blazing rocker that never manages to evoke high drama (a la "Edge of Seventeen"). "Juliet" rocks and
"Alice" menaces, but both are ultimately too unfocused to hold together for anyone other than a die-hard Stevie Nicks fan. Her lyrics on "Long Way to Go" - an otherwise propulsive track with fierce vocal commitment - are so oddly phrased that she sounds like she's imitating Jedi Master Yoda. The nadir is "Fire Burning," a mess of a song that takes three minutes to go nowhere.

Leading up to this release, Nicks may have been spending more energy exorcising her demons than writing songs. From that standpoint, Mirror would be a remarkably solid album. A certified fan will no doubt enjoy it (as I did), but it’s hard to imagine anyone not noticing there’s just less electricity in the wiring this time out. Her next release, the aptly titled Timespace, would be a "best of" effort. Its release may have been a stopgap as Nicks tried to regain career momentum.


Saturday, August 9, 2014

Stevie Nicks - Rock a Little (1985)

With Fleetwood Mac's future in question, Stevie Nicks forged on with her solo career. She was clearly the most successful Mac solo artist. For example, either of her first two efforts (Bella Donna or The Wild Heart) matched the combined sales of all five other Mac solo albums released by this time (two surprisingly strong projects from Mick Fleetwood, two grating efforts from critic's darling Lindsey Buckingham, and a solid offering from songbird Christine McVie).

Nicks' success was partly due to the fact that she made her band mates look like they were standing still. While Buckingham recycled his Tusk eccentricities and McVie continued making pure pop magic, Rock a Little found Nicks experimenting with new sounds. Notably, she completely embraced the synth-pop style of the mid 80s, as well as welcomed new producers and musicians. Although the changes suit her style very well, there's definitely a more trendy sound to Rock a Little. As a result, it hasn't aged as well as her first two albums.

Keeping that in mind, Rock a Little is an outstanding effort to blend Nicks' poetic drama with the synthesizer age. "Talk to Me" and "I Can't Wait" were big hits, although Nicks was not the primary writer on either track. In fact she only wrote three songs by herself, a major change from The Wild Heart and Bella Donna, where she wrote virtually the entire album. The smaller role for her songwriting immediately makes Rock a Little less compelling. Vocally, however, she's as impressive as ever if a bit frayed around the edges.

Beyond the hits, "Sister Honey" and "If I Were You" show Nicks bending her new soundscape to fit her needs. On the other hand, she's swallowed up in the over-production of "The Nightmare." Further, the record is hurt by some lyrics that are oblique even for Stevie Nicks, and there's a general lack of musical focus ("Imperial Hotel" seems to have wandered in from some Tom Petty album). Despite the cracks showing in Nicks’ skyrocketing solo machine, she closes the album on a powerful note. "Has Anyone Ever Written Anything For You" is one of her most beautiful ballads.

Unlike her previous albums, Rock a Little is not a classic. It's too steeped in 80s production values to endure in that way. Taken for what it is it's a great album, although the pace of her dual career was clearly starting to take a toll.

[An interesting side note: The remix of "The Nightmare" on the "I Can't Wait" maxi-single - for which Nicks is credited with additional production and remixing - is much better than the album version.]


Friday, August 8, 2014

Stevie Nicks - The Wild Heart (1983)

Coming off the massive success of Bella Donna, which easily overshadowed Mirage, Fleetwood Mac's well-crafted but tepid 1982 release, Stevie Nicks side-stepped the sophomore slump by topping herself with The Wild Heart. Although "Stand Back" was a smash that has become her most popular song, The Wild Heart is not as obviously commercial as Bella Donna. The Wild Heart is more of an artist's album, and Nicks' spreads her wings to command and fill the entire effort with admirable authority.

For a Nicks' fan, The Wild Heart is nirvana: longer songs with more passionate, imagistic lyrics than ever. The title track and the album closer are epics - each over six minutes long - that work the opposite ends of Nicks' spectrum. "Wild Heart" is a thunderous, passionate anthem with her most thrilling vocal work ever, and "Beauty and the Beast" is symphonic gothica for which the term ‘ballad’ is just inadequate. In between, Nicks indulges her mixture of rock and fairydust with alluring results. "Enchanted" and "Nightbird" are pure Nicks and would never have seen the light of day in the more structured programme of Fleetwood Mac.

The Wild Heart also finds Nicks updating her sound into the 80s with striking ease, especially when you consider how most 70s acts that tried to do this either completely sold out or made fools of themselves. She stretches herself well beyond the Fleetwood Mac sound (the torrid "Nothing Ever Changes") and even kicks out a trendy hit (the synth-pop confection "If Anyone Falls"). Tellingly, the one weak spot is the somewhat out of place Tom Petty duet ("I Will Run to You"). It's not a bad song but another Nicks-penned cut such as "Sleeping Angel" or "Blue Lamp", both of which ended up buried on soundtrack albums, would have worked much better.

If you are a hard core Stevie Nicks fan, The Wild Heart is superior to Bella Donna. For the casual listener, it would be a toss up between two classic albums. However, Nicks' vocal performances, expansive writing, and the way she sells these songs makes The Wild Heart the more personal, adventurous, and therefore better effort. Maintaining careers in Fleetwood Mac and on her own, however, was bound to keep her from burning white hot for long. Her next solo album, Rock a Little, would show the strain.


Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Stevie Nicks - Bella Donna (1981)

Stevie Nicks is releasing her new solo album 24 Karat Gold in October. She has been my absolute favorite performer, singer, and songwriter ever since I was ten years old and bought Rumours. The new album, as well as having started to learn her song "Landslide" on guitar, made me think to post reviews of her solo albums here on Zen Throw Down. So, for a little while, this blog will be transformed into a Stevie shrine! Let's start with her solo debut, Bella Donna.


Stevie Nicks' solo career was off to a strong start before the 1981 release of her first solo album Bella Donna. Nicks had major hits via a duet with Kenny Loggins in 1978 ("Whenever I Call You Friend") and John Stewart in 1979 ("Gold"). In addition, half of the hits from Fleetwood Mac's 1979 Tusk album were penned by Nicks ("Sara" and "Sisters of the Moon"). The songs on Bella Donna take these successes as their starting point and fill the rest of the album with Nicks' more typically output.

The result was a shrewdly crafted classic rock album that appealed strongly to both her existing fan base and the general listener. Top 10 duets such as "Stop Dragging My Heart Around" and "Leather and Lace" catapulted the album to the #1 spot, making Nicks the first (and ultimately the only) member of Fleetwood Mac to earn solid commercial success outside the group. So much for the question of whether she's a viable solo act.

However, Bella Donna was much more than a calculated star vehicle. "Edge of Seventeen" is Stevie in all her mystical glory and has become a rock standard outlasting the more standard fare such as "Stop Dragging My Heart Around." Other Nicks' songs, notably "Kind of Woman" and "After the Glitter Fades," are songwriting jewels proving she has the goods regardless of whom she partners with. "Outside the Rain" is a great track if you're a Nicks fan, but then a solo album for a star like Stevie Nicks should cater to her fans a bit.

Bella Donna was the perfect album to get Nicks established as a solo artist, and it does so without compromising her image or style. That Nicks could pull this off in the all-boys'-club of late seventies rock was no mean feat. As great as Bella Donna is, however, Nicks' next album, The Wild Heart, would be even better.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Acoustic Guitar Journal #2: The First Songs

Stevie Nicks' "Landslide" was the
song I wanted to learn first
For almost two months now, I've been taking acoustic guitar lessons. As mentioned before, we moved right into chords and finger picking so I could start learning songs as a way to acclimate myself to the instrument (and build callouses). This has worked out very well. I was able to get familiar with a bunch of chords, changing chords, and finger picking basics.

Kicking off the lessons, my teacher asked me about the music I like and my goals in learning guitar. Then out of the blue he asked what song I wanted to learn first as a way to get familiar with finger picking. I didn't know what to say, as I hadn't given this much thought. I know plenty of songs I wanted to learn but which one to focus on first? What song would grab me enough to play over and over? The first song that jumped to my lips was Stevie Nicks' "Landslide". As soon as I said it, I felt good about it. Stevie Nicks is my favorite songwriter, and she's the inspiration behind me becoming interested in writing poetry when I was a pre-teen and in playing music of any kind. Also, at ten years old, the first record I ever bought was Rumours and I pretty much grew up on "Landslide" (and all her other songs). It felt like my home turf.

After a few weeks, I got the hang of finger picking, finger picking while changing chords, finger picking while changing chords and messing with the rhythm, and the capo. Putting things together is the toughest part of all this, but finger picking feels natural to me now. In any case, "Landslide" sounds like "Landslide", so that my teacher has moved me on to working at the solo and also barre chords so I can start making chords up the neck of the guitar.

Barre chords are a challenge; I'm not gonna lie. Much tougher than finger picking. But the great thing about learning a musical instrument after you've mastered one is that you know from experience if you keep practicing, just about anything becomes doable. Fortunately, I've been very disciplined in practicing, sometimes spending an hour a day or more at it. Part of what helped me keep at it was adding extra material to practice. Really, no one wants to play one song over and over for thirty minutes or an hour, regardless of how beneficial it is likely to be or how much you love the song.

So here are the songs I've been working on, and what they are bringing to the table for me. I'm learning something different from each one:

"Landslide" by Stevie Nicks
I'm learning the Dixie Chicks version, however I'm inserting the Lindsey Buckingham solo from the Fleetwood Mac album. (How can I not do the Lindsey version in some way? The guy is a finger picking virtuoso. He also plucks two strings at once, which was a good thing for me to see. And there is also a steady rhythm to his solo that is helpful for learning because you can't really lose your place, even when the tab has no time notations.

"I Walk the Line" by Johnny Cash
I've always liked this song and Cash for some reason I can't quite pinpoint. Even when I was listening to techno or acid jazz or classical, there was always a part of me that could connect with a Johnny Cash song. I think it's that he sounds so earthy and straightforward. His sounds sound like he woke up and recorded a song in the ten minutes he had before heading out the door. Very effortless and unfussy. However, if you listen to his voice, under that deep guy's-guy baritone, there is always something dark and in pain. It grabs you and makes you listen and believe him. That kind of raw talent is something someone just brings to the music; you can't learn it. Plus, this song is fun to play because of the country-twang rhythm and all those low notes. It's almost like a bass line?

"Wildflowers" by Dolly Parton
I have always admired her songwriting ability, especially her power as a lyricist. There isn't a more poetic lyricist in country music (based on my limited knowledge of the genre anyway!). "Wildflowers" resonated with me so much that I can't recall anything else she, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt did on the Trio album. I play this song, strumming the whole thing throughout. This has helped me learn to play in this manner. The other nice thing is that it's G, C, and D7. This is important because I find that C and G are the harder chords to switch to and from while playing a song. So working on a song that makes me practice this change over and over and over is very helpful exercise. I also learned that I can find the song in the tab by playing to the rhythm to the lyrics as they are sung.

"Stolen Car" by Bruce Springsteen
Another great song that overshadowed a whole album for me (well almost...it is from The River after all). The lyrics to this song are deep, maybe even deeper than Springsteen realized as he was writing it (or maybe I suggest this because, again, the song comes off as effortless and tossed-off). The surprise here is that it works off two chords (G and C) which are also two of the three chords in "Wildflowers". So the immediate challenge for me was how to perform two song using essentially the same chords and yet have one come off peppy and country and the other dark and existential. This has taught me a lot about how to play, not just what to play. It also upset my 'playing to the lyrics approach' because Springsteen sings his lyrics with a conversational rhythm, with 'little girl's and "I guess's and extra syllables crowding in. Tougher for me to find the song, even though it's ostensibly as simple as dirt.

"Hotel California" by the Eagles
My teacher assigned this one to me last week as an intro to barre chords (it uses two of them). He gave me the sequence of chords to learn. When I came back the next week, I was happy to be able to play the song reasonably well because I'd worked out a finger picking pattern for the verses and a strumming approach for the chorus.

Of course, I cheated on the barre chords in my haste to learn the song. To play Bm and F#, I realized I really didn't need to barre anything but the first two strings so how could I resist that temptation! My teacher insists I do it the right way though, so I'm pushing at it for next week.