Monday, December 23, 2013

The Deluxe Edition: The Compact Disc’s Ultimate Legacy

For years now, the tech-heads have been telling us that the compact disc is dying. Assuming that to be the case — CD sales are down, used CD sales have flatlined, vinyl LP sales are on the rise, and on-line downloads continue to dominate the market — maybe its time to pay tribute to the CD before it’s too late, and acknowledge a relatively short but productive life.

CDs ushered in radical changes in music packaging and consumption, from the artwork to the sound, and eventually to piracy. The growing pains, at least from the first two, were offset in large part by the sheer capacity of the compact disc. A typical LP was about 20 minutes per side, meaning maybe 40 minutes of music per album. Maybe less. A standard CD, meanwhile, holds about 80 minutes of music, which allows double LPs to be released on single discs, but also allows single LPs to be expanded by adding outtakes and alternate tracks from the original recording sessions, all on one disc.

This bonus material ultimately grew from expanded single discs to a proliferation of box sets and deluxe editions. Box sets did not start with the CD, but the smaller packaging and expanded capacity enabled box sets to flourish in the CD age. Box sets allow record companies to release an artist’s entire catalogue, or huge chunks of it — plus outtakes, alternate tracks, rehearsals, demos, and live versions — all in one tidy package. Box sets often include video DVDs, plus books with photos and detailed liner notes.

For those interested in a less sprawling and more focused package than the box set, there is the deluxe edition, usually a single album expanded into two or more CDs, jammed with extra material, including expanded liner notes. The deluxe edition is probably the CD’s greatest contribution to record collecting. There are some absolutely incredible and essential deluxe editions out there, including, in alphabetical order:

At Fillmore East, Eat A Peach and Brothers And Sisters by the Allman Brothers Band
Blind Faith
Sweetheart Of The Rodeo by the Byrds
Eric Clapton and 461 Ocean Boulevard by Eric Clapton
Disraeli Gears by Cream
Layla by Derek And The Dominos
Copperhead Road by Steve Earle
What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On by Marvin Gaye
Benefit by Jethro Tull
Elton John and Tumbleweed Connection by Elton John
Burnin’, Catch A Fire, and Exodus by Bob Marley & The Wailers
McCartney, Ram, Band On The Run, Wings Over America and McCartney II by Paul McCartney
Damn The Torpedoes by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Exile On Main Street and Some Girls by the Rolling Stones
My Generation, Sell Out, Tommy, Who’s Next and Quadrophenia by the Who
Car Wheels On A Gravel Road by Lucinda Williams
Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. by Dwight Yoakam

That’s a very incomplete but extremely impressive list, all highly recommended, with new reissues being added all the time. In fact, two essential deluxe editions hit the racks this fall: Moondance by Van Morrison and Muswell Hillbillies by the Kinks.

Originally released in 1970, Moondance is Morrison’s signature album and one of the best rock albums of all time, a bouncy, jazzy contemplation of spiritualism, mysticism and personal redemption. Self-produced, Moondance was Morrison’s first commercially successful album, and the first he released after moving to Woodstock, N.Y., in 1969. A top-rank vocal stylist who’d already recorded iconic songs with Them (“Here Comes The Night,” “Mystic Eyes,” “Gloria”) and as a solo act (“Brown-Eyed Girl”), Morrison’s vocals on Moondance are especially powerful, soulful and evocative, maybe the best of his storied career.

The reissue of Moondance is available as a four-disc set with a DVD, and a two-disc deluxe edition, the second disc of which includes alternate versions of eight of the original album’s 10 tracks, highlighted by a 10-minute “I’ve Been Working.” The entire album was remixed for HD and then remastered. The resulting sound is as exceptional as the music itself.

Muswell Hillbillies is a great overlooked classic. Coming at the end of a remarkable creative arc by the Kinks — an arc that also included The Village Green Preservation Society in 1968, Arthur (Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire) in 1969, and Lola Vs. The Powerman And The Moneygoround, Part 1 in 1970 — Muswell Hillbillies arrived in stores in 1971, the Kinks' first album on the RCA label, and if anything it only raised the creative bar on its predecessors.

In writing the songs for Muswell Hillbillies, Ray Davies used a pastiche of American roots music to paint a Davies family portrait centered in the Muswell Hill suburb north of London. The Davies moved to Muswell Hill from the working-class inner-city neighborhoods of London when Ray was a teenager, and they struggled to fit into the more middle-class environs north of the city. Those struggles are the narrative of the album. Alcoholism, incarceration, eating disorders, the plight of the working man, mental illness, Davies addresses them all with his typical penetrating humor and satire.

The bonus disc from Muswell Hillbillies includes three outtakes from the original expanded CD, plus three alternate tracks, one demo, two 1976 remixes, and three live tracks from the Kensington House in 1972. Among the gems on the second disc is the previously unreleased outtake “Lavender Lane,” a second track featuring the notorious Rosie Rook from the album’s title song. As is the case with the remastered Moondance, the re-digitalized Muswell Hillbillies sounds immaculate.

So that’s two more deluxe editions to add to your collection, classic albums with lots of extra goodies to digest. And remember, it never would have happened if not for the compact disc.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Some Unexpected Love For Gene Clark

Of all the musicians who’ve fallen through the cracks over the years, few, if any, ever fell as far or as often as Gene Clark. During a career that spanned more than 25 years, Clark flirted with success often, only to find obscurity each and every time.

Clark was a founding member and the original lead singer for the Byrds, one of the seminal groups in rock history, and was the primary songwriter on their first two albums. Clark left after the Byrds’ second album, mostly but not entirely due to anxiety over flying and touring. Following the Byrds, he embarked on an enigmatic solo career marked by critical acclaim and artistic achievement, but no commercial success whatsoever.

In the end, Gene Clark may have been incapable of handling success, and subconsciously kept it at arm’s length. He experienced stardom with the Byrds and handled it poorly. His reluctance to play the music-business game of touring and promotion always caused problems with the record companies. His self-destructive nature and alcoholism dogged him throughout his career.

Earlier this fall, Four Suns Productions released an exceptional biographical documentary about Gene Clark called The Byrd Who Flew Alone. Produced by Paul Kendall with editorial assistance from sons Dan and Jack Kendall, The Byrd Who Flew Alone covers the essentials of Clark’s life and career. Despite a dearth of video footage, the Kendalls adroitly tell Clark’s story through photos, audio clips, and voluminous interviews with friends, family members, and musical collaborators, including extensive conversations with the three surviving original Byrds.

There are few nits to pick with this otherwise standout film, but here are three. First of all, little is made of the constant and bruising ego clashes within the original Byrds, especially the alleged bullying of Clark by David Crosby. Second, little is said about Asylum Records president David Geffen’s angry reaction upon hearing No Other, Clark’s 1974 masterpiece. Reportedly irate that an album that cost $100,000 to produce yielded just eight songs, Geffen refused to back the album financially after its release, a devastating blow from which Clark may never have recovered.

Last and certainly not least, a little more in-depth discussion about the music itself would have been nice. Clark was an enigma, an artist who repeatedly created masterworks that failed, but we get far more here about the failures than we do about the masterworks.

That’s not much to quibble about. The Byrd Who Flew Alone is must viewing for Byrds fans, and it’s essential for Gene Clark fans.

The Byrd Who Flew Alone has limited commercial availability — it’s not available through Amazon, for instance — but can be ordered directly through Four Suns Productions. It’s well worth the approximately $28 asking price.

Watching The Byrd Who Flew Alone and pondering Clark’s career brings to mind an occasional debate over which former Byrd was better, Gene Clark or Gram Parsons. (In truth, Parsons was never really a Byrd but only a hired hand; as David Crosby so eloquently put it, there were only ever five Byrds.)

On the surface, comparing Clark and Parsons is an apples-and-oranges discussion. Where the two can be compared, however, Clark generally comes out comfortably ahead. Clark was by far the better singer. Parsons could deliver a great vocal performance when he was straight and sober, but he was seldom either. When he was tanked, his voice, thin and wavery to start with, often stretched to its breaking point. Clark’s voice was expressive, rich and full at all times, and he delivered countless mesmerizing vocal performances throughout his career.

Clark also was the better songwriter. Parsons wrote several great songs, but almost everything he wrote was a collaboration and he contributed less than he’s often given credit for on some of his best songs. Clark mostly wrote alone and was unbelievably prolific and poetic. His trademark mix of major and minor chords was usually the perfect vehicle for his eloquent and often spellbinding lyrics.

While both were self-destructive, Clark was more dependable than Parsons, a better bandmate, and is remembered much more fondly by those he worked with, and especially by those who worked with both. Parsons’ trust-fund background left him financially secure but also erratic, irresponsible and unaccountable. His work ethic was poor and he frequently let down those who depended on him the most, right up until his untimely death from a drug overdose in 1973. Clark, despite the commercial setbacks and alcohol issues, always soldiered on and continued to make quality music through the late 1980s.

This is not intended as an exercise in Parsons bashing. He created some brilliant music. He recorded some great tracks with the Byrds on Sweetheart Of The Rodeo (buy the Byrds box sets to hear them all). His early work with Chris Hillman in the Flying Burrito Brothers resulted in one of the first classic country-rock albums, The Gilded Palace Of Sin. His first solo album GP, is outstanding but suffers from weak vocals that undermine an impressive songlist. He corrects that on his posthumous follow-up, Grievous Angel, which includes some of his best vocal performances.

At their best, though, it’s not really close. Clark was more focused and consistent than Parsons as well as the better singer and songwriter. It shows in their recorded output. Clark’s No Other is the best record ever released by anyone credited with being a former Byrd. White Light, released in 1971, isn’t far behind. His first album with Doug Dillard, 1968’s The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark, was an earlier and better country-rock classic than The Gilded Palace Of Sin. His 1987 duets collection with Carla Olson, So Rebellious A Lover, is an overlooked gem.

Despite all of the above, 40 years after his death, Gram Parsons has proven to be far more influential than Gene Clark. Why? Several reasons, but none more important than Emmylou Harris. She was Parsons’ duet partner on both GP and Grievous Angel. That partnership launched her magnificent solo career in the mid-1970s. An iconic artist and a Country Music Hall of Famer, she’s beaten the drum for Parsons for four decades, and it’s paid off in a substantial and often noisy cult following.

Parsons’ influence is very real, yet you can’t be influential if no one ever hears your music. Harris made sure that people knew of Gram Parsons, and the world is better off as a result. It would be nice to see how influential Gene Clark could have become with a high-profile advocate as devoted to the cause as Emmylou Harris. Unfortunately, we’ll never know.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Book Reviews: The Beatles, Ryan Adams and Whiskeytown

Generally speaking, a new book about the Beatles is hardly news. There is such a glut of books about the Fab Four (there’s a bookcase full of Beatles books in the room next to where this is being written) that you’d think the story has pretty much been covered by now.

And so it has. But not the way Mark Lewisohn covers it in The Beatles: All These Years, Vol. 1, Tune In. Lewisohn, for those unfamiliar with his work, is the world’s pre-eminent Beatles historian. His earlier books about the Beatles — including The Beatles Live, The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, The Beatles Day By Day, and The Complete Beatles Chronicles — are essential volumes for the serious fan, meticulously detailed and exhaustive histories of various aspects of the Beatles’ careers.

Along those same lines, The Beatles: All These Years almost certainly will go down as the final word on the history of the Beatles. Running 803 pages (not counting more than 100 pages of footnotes and bibliography) and more than eight years in the making, Tune In is the first of three volumes of The Beatles: All These Years, and covers the Beatles’ history only through the end of 1962.

Lewisohn tells the Beatles’ story in incredible detail. He debunks urban legends and uncovers heretofore unknown anecdotes. He expands and illuminates facets of the Beatles’ early years that previous biographers and historians glossed over or missed altogether. Make no mistake, there are several excellent Beatles histories available. Volumes by Hunter Davies (his being the only authorized Beatles biography), Philip Norman and Bob Spitz come especially highly recommended, but Lewisohn goes where no Beatles biographer has gone before.

For instance:

• While everyone knows that the Beatles’ fortunes turned around when Brian Epstein became their manager, Lewisohn shows in vivid detail just how thoroughly Epstein brought order and discipline to their previously chaotic lives. It’s an easy call to say the Beatles almost certainly would have broken up had Epstein not walked into their lives in late 1961. Instead, he managed them to superstardom within 18 months.

• The Beatles’ home base through most of 1961 and virtually all of 1962 was the Cavern in Liverpool’s city center. They had a symbiotic relationship with their early fans there, but Lewisohn shows just how deep and how reciprocal those friendships were. As Lewisohn shows, when the band went to Hamburg for the third, fourth and fifth times, all in 1962, the volume and detail of their correspondence with their fans back home was revealing and extraordinary.

• Original drummer Pete Best was let go in 1962 by the band just as they were preparing to record their first records for Parlophone. Every chronicle of the Beatles has detailed just how unfit Best was as the band’s drummer. Lewisohn goes several steps further, however, demonstrating conclusively that Best not only didn’t fit the band musically, he didn’t fit personally either. Onstage he had trouble keeping the beat, but he also stood out for his sullen demeanor amidst the other Beatles’ charismatic personas. Offstage, it was John, Paul and George going off together, and Pete going who-knows-where, always by himself, always an outsider. Always.

• When the time came for Best to be sacked, John, Paul and George left it to Epstein, which is common knowledge. Because the band had signed a working contract with Epstein, however, letting Best go had legal ramifications that Epstein had to navigate. He eventually landed Best a job in another band, which didn’t last, but Best still threatened legal action against the Beatles years later.

• George Martin, A&R chief at Parlophone and producer of most of the Beatles’ recordings, has often been portrayed as primarily a producer of comedy records before hooking up with the Beatles. Lewisohn shows that this doesn’t give Martin anywhere near his due. A talented musician and songwriter, Martin was keenly attuned to the popular music scene in London, as far back as the mid-1950s. He produced several No. 1 pop records before recording the Beatles for the first time in 1962.

• Parlophone was no doubt Epstein’s last shot at landing a recording contract for the Beatles, which is utterly remarkable. Lewisohn lists some of the absurd records that Parlophone’s parent company, EMI, released over the course of 1962, and it’s astonishing to think that the Beatles could have been passed over for such crap, but such was the state of popular music, especially in Great Britain, in the early 1960s.

• Even more astonishing, George Martin was largely unimpressed with the Beatles upon first hearing them and had no intention of recording them. EMI wanted the Lennon-McCartney publishing rights, however, and when it came to light that Martin was having an extramarital affair with his secretary, he was assigned the task of producing their first recording session as punishment. Marital infidelity was strongly frowned upon at the time, and whereas Martin was much too talented for EMI to fire him, they punished him instead by making him producer of the greatest band in history. Adding to the irony, Martin then talked Epstein into selling the Lennon-McCartney rights to another publisher.

Previous reviews of In Tune have taken Lewisohn to task for his prose style and for his musical judgements, but such criticisms are off the mark. His writing style, while prone to occasional Beatles-related puns, is engaging and rarely verbose or stilted. His musical judgements are generally briefly stated and never get in the way of the story.

Tune In is not for the casual Beatles fan. If the extent of your interest in the Beatles is hearing them on oldies stations and maybe owning Past Masters or the Red and Blue hits albums, then this is way too much for you. If, on the other hand, you own all the Beatles albums, if you bought the 2009 remasters (in stereo and mono), if you also have a sizable collection of bootleg Beatles recordings, and if you already have a bookcase full of Beatles books and have read them all, then Tune In should be atop your Christmas list, the perfect stocking stuffer. Just make sure it’s a sturdy stocking because this is a hefty book, literally and figuratively.

*   *   *

The 1990s was a pretty fertile period in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill region of North Carolina for what was egregiously called The area produced several excellent bands, headlined by the Backsliders, 6 String Drag, and especially Whiskeytown. All three earned national recording contracts, all three produced critically acclaimed albums, but only Whiskeytown, fronted by Ryan Adams, went on to enjoy any kind of national popular acclaim.

David Menconi, the excellent music reporter for Raleigh’s The News & Observer, has chronicled the history of Whiskeytown in a nice little book called Ryan Adams: Losering, A Story Of Whiskeytown. Clearly an unabashed Ryan Adams fan, Menconi had a front-row seat for the band’s formation and its rise to cult status in the late ’90s. He also readily admits to understandable difficulty in maintaining perspective when it comes to Whiskeytown, and especially Ryan Adams.

On the one hand, as Menconi notes, Adams is about as naturally gifted a musician as you’ll ever find, an effective and expressive vocalist, an adept multi-instrumentalist, and an often stunning songwriter whose written output goes well beyond prolific. On the other hand, Adams was often an arrogant, thin-skinned, egotistical, narcissistic brat and drama queen whose on-stage meltdowns were legendary and whose off-stage demeanor was frequently insufferable.

More concerned with being a rock star than an artist, Adams played the part throughout Whiskeytown’s stormy history. Menconi, who wrote more about Whiskeytown over the years than all other music reporters combined, chronicles it all well. He fawns a little too much at times, but he admits to being a fan, and let’s show some understanding here. A music reporter in Raleigh, N.C., gets to cover a talent like Ryan Adams up close how often? Exactly. Adams may be a poser and a dickhead, but he’s still a remarkably gifted poser and dickhead.

But whereas Menconi somehow succeeds in separating the artist (or rock star wannabe) from the art, this particular artist’s personality, boorish behavior and in-your-face arrogance are way too much for this reader to stomach. Having worked in athletics and dealt with athletes for more than 30 years, I’ve learned to keep expectations low when it comes to celebrities. Still, there are times when an athlete, or in this case a musician, comes across as such a complete asshole that I can’t help but thinking what a shame it is that no one ever beat Ryan Adams to a pulp.

I had a rather low opinion of Adams before I read Menconi’s book — didn’t care that much for his music, even while respecting his incredible talent, and had heard enough stories about the trainwreck concerts and personal life to know that where there’s smoke there’s fire. I like him even less after reading the book. The fact that, after Whiskeytown broke up, he nearly went on to achieve real stardom — that he dated Wynona Ryder and Beth Orton and recorded and performed with the likes of Elton John, Gillian Welch and Emmylou Harris — seems like karma gone completely off the rails.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

AL Manager Of The Year: The Right Guy Won

Okay, Red Sox Nation, enough drama for one day. You can climb down off the ledge. Again.

Cleveland’s Terry Francona edged out Red Sox skipper John Farrell for American League Manager of the Year on Tuesday in a close vote. Francona and Farrell both took their teams from 90-plus losses in 2012 to 90-plus wins in 2013. Both managed their teams to the playoffs, with Francona’s Tribe earning an American League wild card and Farrell’s Red Sox winning their third World Series championship in the last 10 years. Both were deserving candidates for Manager of the Year.

Listen to the folks in Boston, however, and you’d think that by giving the award to Francona, MLB and the Baseball Writers Association of America were conspiring to take back the World Series trophy and ship it to Cleveland. One Boston writer went so far as to offer the vote as evidence of media bias against large-market teams. Seriously. To those of us who don’t live in the Northeast and have had the Yankees and Red Sox shoved down our throats the last 15 years by, you know, the media, this came as a bit of a surprise.

If you think giving the award to Francona was such a travesty, take this simple test. Look at Cleveland’s roster, especially the everyday players, and then look at the Indians’ 92-70 won-lost record. It doesn’t add up. That roster just screams 81-81. Take a look at the stats. Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantley led Cleveland in batting at .284. Nick Swisher (22) and Carlos Santana (20) were the only Indians hitters with 20 or more home runs. Kipnis led the Tribe with 86 runs and 84 RBIs. For you statheads out there, only Santana (832) and Kipnis (818) cracked the 800 OPS barrier.

The Tribe’s best player, Kipnis, has fewer than 1,300 career at-bats with a .270 career average and a 773 career OPS. The Red Sox arguably had five players in their everyday lineup better than that. With no stars pulling the wagon, the Indians still finished sixth in MLB and fourth in the American League with 745 runs scored. Clearly the sum in Cleveland was much greater than the individual parts, and that’s usually the work of the manager.

Compared to what Francona had available, the Red Sox’ everyday lineup looked like an MVP ballot. Start with three elite-level players in David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury. Ortiz is a Hall-of-Fame candidate right now, and Pedroia is on a Hall-of-Fame track to this point in his career. When healthy, Ellsbury is among the best leadoff hitters and center fielders in the game. Cleveland hasn’t had a player of that caliber since Jim Thome left following the 2002 season.

Ortiz (30 and 103) and Mike Napoli (23 and 92) hit more home runs and drove in more runs than anyone on Cleveland’s roster. Ortiz (.309), Daniel Nava (.303), Pedroia (.301), Ellsbury (.298) and Shane Victorino (.294) all hit for a higher average than anyone in Cleveland’s lineup. Four Red Sox hitters — Ortiz (959), Napoli (842), Victorino (801) and Jarrod Saltalamacchia (804) — had an OPS in excess of 800. As a team, Boston led Cleveland in OPS by a whopping 795 to 737. Boston was the only team in baseball to score more than 800 runs, scoring 853 times. That’s 108 more runs than the Indians scored. Compare the two everyday lineups and the Red Sox are better at every position on the field except left field and maybe catcher.

Above and beyond the rosters, Francona took over an Indians team that was genuinely bad, with 93 or more losses in three of the previous four seasons, no major league-ready talent in the farm system, and a payroll that annually ranks in the lower half of the league. Yes, the Red Sox lost 94 games and finished last in the AL East in 2012, but they were hardly a doormat. The Sox averaged 93 wins a year, made the playoffs three times and won a World Series in the five years from 2007-11. Boston’s farm system is one of the jewels of MLB, and they have financial resources that only the Yankees and Dodgers can match.

What torpedoed the Red Sox in 2012 was bad chemistry and the toxic managing of Bobby Valentine. Compounding things, several bad contracts had stretched the payroll to the breaking point and stood in the way of a quick rebuild. Farrell was still in Toronto when general manager Ben Cherington cleared the payroll by unloading the contracts of Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford on the Dodgers. Farrell was still in Toronto when Cherington fired Valentine. And while Farrell no doubt had major input, it still was Cherington who went 7-for-7 in free-agent signings last winter, and that wouldn’t have happened had Cherington not made that deal with the Dodgers. For that matter, it was Cherington who traded infielder Mike Aviles to Toronto for Farrell in the first place. Cherington was named MLB Executive of the Year for a reason.

Farrell deserves full credit for the great chemistry the Red Sox enjoyed in 2013. He did a masterful job of restoring the broken trust in the Boston clubhouse, but thanks to Cherington’s offseason magic, Farrell took over a team that was ready to win big again. Yes, all the preseason magazines picked the Red Sox to finish last in the division, but so what? They also picked the Royals to win the AL Central and the Blue Jays to go undefeated. What do they know?

Yes, the Red Sox played in the American League East, the best and deepest division in the league. Yes, the media scrutiny in Boston can create considerable extra pressure on a team and manager. In the end, however, it seems clear from here that Francona did more with less and deserved to win the award. Period. The Red Sox still have the World Series trophy. Which do you think the Indians would rather have?

Friday, October 25, 2013

NC State And The College World Series: The Sequel?

NC State took 45 years after its first trip to the College World Series to make a return trip to Omaha a year ago. The plan in West Raleigh is to reduce the gap between trips two and three to just 12 months.

That’s certainly an attainable goal. The Wolfpack returns a talented and experienced nucleus from last year’s CWS team, led by All-Americans Carlos Rodon and Trea Turner. Rodon (10-3, 2.99 ERA, a nation-high and school-record 184 strikeouts in 132 ⅓ innings) and Turner (.368/.455/.553 with 13 doubles, seven home runs and 30 steals while playing most of the season on a broken ankle) are elite talents at critical positions — starting pitcher and shortstop, respectively. Both figure to be taken high in the first round of the 2014 MLB draft, with Rodon the likely first overall pick.

Beyond those two, center fielder Jake Fincher (.313/.399/.553 with 14 steals), catcher Brett Austin (.251/.333/.361) and second baseman Logan Ratledge (.250/.309/.307) return to provide veteran leadership and production up the middle. Fincher, Austin and Ratledge, like Rodon and Turner, are juniors and should figure prominently in scouts’ plans for the 2014 draft.

That nucleus alone is reason for optimism as 2014 approaches, but the Wolfpack has its question marks as well. In particular, how well can head coach Elliott Avent navigate the 2014 schedule without the incredible bullpen that pulled State’s fat out of the fire time after time a year ago?

How good was NC State’s bullpen in 2013? Consider: During one 18-game stretch, from March 1-27, Wolfpack starting pitchers failed to pitch the required five innings to qualify for a win 14 times. They failed to get out of the fourth inning 11 times, and failed to get out of the second inning nine times. The average outing by a starter in that stretch was less than three innings. NC State went 10-8 in those games. In games in that stretch not started by Rodon, the Pack was 8-6. That’s how good the Wolfpack bullpen was.

NC State’s bullpen was deep, versatile and talented. For the season, Wolfpack relievers were 31-5 with a 2.57 ERA and 19 saves. In 315 innings — approximately 4 ⅔ innings per game — they limited opposing hitters to a .210 batting average. Lefthander Grant Sasser (3-0, 1.03, 8 saves) and righthander Chris Overman (1-1, 0.33, 6 saves) anchored the back end of the pen and were money in the bank all year. Opponents batted .193 against Sasser, .110 against Overman. Setting up those two, Josh Easley was 7-2 with a 1.31 ERA and a save. He held opponents to a .228 average.

It wasn’t just those three. Andrew Woeck (6-1, 3.09) and Ryan Wilkins (4-1, 3.82) came up huge in long relief roles. Travis Orwig (3-0, 1.56) and D.J. Thomas (2-0, 2.89) were reliable lefty specialists. Ethan Ogburn was 2-0 and didn’t allow a run in 11 relief innings covering three outings, including the Super Regional-clinching victory over Rice. Whenever NC State’s starters got in trouble, which was almost every time Rodon didn’t pitch, or so it seemed, Avent was able to go to the bullpen and shut the other team down cold.

Not this year. Overman, Sasser, Easley, Ogburn and Wilkins all were seniors. Orwig had Tommy John surgery after the season and will not pitch in 2014. Woeck and Thomas are all that remain from that group, and both could wind up as midweek starters, a situation still to be determined.

The candidates to fill the many empty spots in this year’s bullpen are largely untested. True freshmen Ryan Williamson, Joe O’Donnell, Cody Beckman and Cory Wilder all came highly touted, but are untested freshmen. Ditto for redshirt-freshman Johnny Piedmonte. Sophomores Brian Donovan, Will Gilbert, Karl Keglovits and Jon Olczak combined to pitch 30 ⅔ innings in 2013.

Replacing seniors with freshmen and seldom-used sophomores is a tried and true way to keep coaches awake at night, but that’s the life Avent will have to lead this season. The less he exposes his bullpen with the game on the line, the better NC State’s chances of success. And the best way to protect his bullpen is for the starting pitchers to pitch deeper into games and for the everyday lineup to score more runs.

We’ll exempt Rodon from this discussion. He was not the problem. A two-time first-team All-American and the early favorite to win the 2014 Golden Spikes Award, Rodon is already the best pitcher in the country, and could be pitching in the big leagues before the season is over. It’s the rest of the rotation that Avent will have to worry about.

Logan Jernigan, a strong-armed but erratic junior righthander, was 1-1 with a most-deceptive 1.56 ERA last season. A potential high-round draft pick this coming June, he began 2013 in the weekend rotation and promptly pitched his way out of it. Despite a great arm and raw stuff comparable to Rodon’s, Jernigan’s failure to throw strikes dogged him early in the season. After failing to pitch out of the first inning of a start March 19 vs. UNC Greensboro, he challenged a cement wall in the clubhouse to a fistfight. The wall won, Jernigan broke his pitching hand, and Avent was short a starting pitcher for about five weeks.

Jernigan returned a humbled and noticeably wiser pitcher. Instead of trying to throw the ball through the catcher, umpire and backstop, he concentrated on making quality pitches. When he got in trouble, he threw softer instead of harder. Avent limited Jernigan’s innings as he made his way back from the injury, allowing him to ease into a more prominent role as the season went along. He responded with a 2.70 ERA in 13 ⅓ postseason innings, including an excellent start against eventual national champion UCLA in the College World Series. He limited hitters to a .196 batting average during the postseason.

Jernigan pitched this past summer at Harwich of the Cape Cod League and continued to harness his control and add polish to his game. It’s still something of a work in progress, but his command was better this fall than at anytime during his college career. If he continues that in the spring, the combination of Rodon and Jernigan will give NC State a 1-2 starting punch as good as, if not better than, any in the nation.

Freshman lefthander Brad Stone (3-2, 5.49) moved into the starting rotation March 10 in the finale of the Clemson series and steadily improved as the season progressed. He fashioned a 2.77 ERA in 13 postseason innings over three appearances, two of them starts. His stuff doesn’t overwhelm hitters the way Rodon or Jernigan’s do, but he keeps hitters off balance with a good assortment of pitches. He struck out 60 in 60 ⅔ innings and limited hitters to a .234 average. He was second on the staff in starts (13), innings pitched and strikeouts.

With a week remaining in fall practice, Rodon, Jernigan and Stone looked like an outstanding weekend rotation. The midweek spots were another story, with all the aforementioned bullpen candidates also hoping for a chance to start. That narrative most likely will have to wait until preseason practices open in February.

Scoring more runs shouldn’t be a problem either. In fact, it’s hard to imagine NC State scoring fewer runs than it did in 2013. The Wolfpack batted an anemic .277 as a team last spring, scored just 5.3 runs per game, and slugged just 29 home runs, fewest by a Wolfpack team in more than 30 years. This year’s team doesn’t figure to be power-laden either, but the returning nucleus of juniors, augmented by several newcomers and improved veterans, should have no trouble putting more runs on the board.

The best news is that Turner looks fully recovered from the broken ankle, which bothered him all spring and summer, and into the fall. He still had an All-America season but prior to the injury, suffered on the last play of the first conference game of the season, March 8 vs. Clemson, Turner was playing at a level that would have had him in the running for the Golden Spikes Award. For those old enough to remember, think Nomar Garciaparra at Georgia Tech in 1994, only with plus speed. The injury robbed Turner of much of that elite speed — he stole 56 bases as a freshman to lead the nation — and his defensive mobility, especially on plays to his right. He wasn’t the same player after the injury. With a week left of fall practice, he looked fully recovered, and that’s extremely bad news for the rest of the ACC.

Outfielder Bubby Riley, a transfer from Delgado Community College in New Orleans, has hit the ball with authority all fall. He’ll play left or right field. Chance Shepard, a sophomore catcher and outfielder, was the most improved player on the squad through late October, hitting for average and power. Sophomore outfielders Brian Taylor and Will Nance also showed flashes of power at the plate. With a strong veteran nucleus around them, true freshmen Preston Palmeiro and Andrew Knizner — the front-runners at first and third base, respectively — can develop at their own pace without any pressure to carry the team. Both look perfectly at home on a baseball field and should hit more than well enough to stay in the lineup.

The bullpen is an enormous concern, and it should be. There is, however, abundant reason for optimism at Doak Field. If Jernigan, Stone and the everyday lineup are as improved as they appear to be, NC State will feature strong starting pitching, speed up and down the lineup, adequate power in the middle of the order, and strong defense up the middle of the diamond. In other words, this team could be every bit as strong as the one that finished fifth in the nation and broke NC State’s 45-year College World Series drought.

Monday, October 21, 2013

End Of An Era In Detroit: Don’t Blame Jim Leyland

Detroit’s ugly exit from the 2013 American League Championship Series no doubt caused some of the faithful to second-guess manager Jim Leyland, especially some of the late-inning moves he made with his bullpen. But let’s be fair. Leyland, who retired as manager today after a terrific career that included eight exceptional seasons with the Tigers, didn’t exactly have many good options in that bullpen. In fact, he really didn’t have any. Detroit’s bullpen stunk.

The autopsy of the 2013 Detroit Tigers should conclude with two questions:

1.) How do you spend $150 million in payroll on a Major League Baseball team and decide somehow that you don’t need to spend any of that on a bullpen?

2.) Who makes such a decision and thinks it’s a good idea?

Not the manager, that’s for sure. The answer to both questions is general manager Dave Dombrowski, an accomplished and highly respected baseball executive whose feet nonetheless should be held to the fire for the makeup of Detroit’s relief corps. Tigers closer Joaquin Benoit won’t be mistaken for Mariano Rivera anytime soon, yet he was easily their best reliever. The dropoff after Benoit was immense. If the Tigers had just two competent relievers to pitch the seventh and eighth innings and bridge the gap between their other-worldly starters and the often-shaky Benoit in the ninth, then St. Louis would be heading to Detroit and not Boston for Game 1 of the World Series.

The bullpen wasn’t the only glitch in the construction of the Detroit roster. The Tigers’ everyday lineup had to be the oldest and least athletic in all of baseball. Aside from shortstop Jose Iglesias, acquired from Boston at the trade deadline July 31, and center fielder Austin Jackson, the Tigers are slow and plodding. And aging.

Third baseman Miguel Cabrera, the best hitter in the game, is an unathletic 30 years old. He limped down the homestretch with some sort of leg or hip injury that serious compromised his production, and went 11-for-42 in the Tigers’ two postseason series, homering twice and driving in seven runs.

Right fielder Torri Hunter, 38 years old, was 9-for-45 with two RBIs in two postseason series. Second baseman Omar Infante was 8-for-39 and looked every one of his 31 years. Slugging first baseman Prince Fielder — 29 years old but going on 39, at least 50 pounds overweight and as nimble as a three-legged elephant — went 9-for-40 in two postseason series without an RBI or a home run.

In fairness, it should be noted that Detroit got production from two of its aging hitters. Designated hitter Victor Martinez, now 34, was 17-for-42 in the postseason with four doubles and a home run. Shortstop turned outfielder Jhonny Peralta, 31, served a 50-game sentence for his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal, but returned for the playoffs and was 11-for-33 with four doubles and a homer. And that was it. The rest of the Detroit offense was thoroughly punchless.

Given the makeup of an awful bullpen and a broken-down lineup, Leyland did a terrific job managing this team as far as he did. Sure, he had the best starting pitching in the American League, and starting pitching wins in October. But he also had a bad bullpen and a station-to-station offense that didn’t hit. Bad bullpens lose in October. So do slow lineups that fail to keep the line moving. The Tigers were fatally flawed and none of that was Leyland’s fault.

In eight years in Detroit, Leyland managed the Tigers to a pair of World Series. He might have won both if his team hadn’t clinched the ALCS so quickly. While the Cardinals in 2006 and the Giants a year ago played out a full slate in the NLCS and went into the World Series with momentum, the Tigers spent nearly a week each time sitting, watching and growing stale from inactivity. No amount batting practice, simulated games or scrimmages against your instructional league team can make up for not playing real games. The Tigers paid for it both times. Maybe they’d have lost anyway, but after buzzing through the ALCS without breaking a sweat either year, Detroit came out flat, played horribly in both World Series and got blown out.

Jim Leyland’s legacy in Detroit should have nothing to do with losing the 2006 or 2012 World Series, or the 2013 ALCS. Leyland should be remembered as the guy who took over an awful team and immediately made it a winner. In the three years before he took over as skipper in 2006, the Tigers lost an average of 100 games a year, including a horrific 43-119 season in 2003. They went 95-67 his first year. The Tigers had one losing season under Leyland, won three division championships and came within a game of first place twice. They averaged 88 wins a year and won a pair of American League pennants.

His eight years compare favorably with the best managerial performances in franchise history. That, and not this year’s ALCS flameout, should be Jim Leyland’s legacy in Detroit.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Reviews: McCartney’s New; The Band Live At The Academy Of Music

You can make a pretty convincing argument that no artist of his generation has made as much inconsequential music as Paul McCartney has in his post-Beatles career. It’s almost inconceivable, in fact, that a musician of his talent and stature could mix near-classics such as Ram and Band On The Run with birdcage liner like Wings Wild Life, Wings At The Speed Of Sound, Back To The Egg, Pipes Of Peace, and Give My Regards To Broad Street.

You can make an equally convincing argument that since 1997, McCartney has recorded some of the most impressive and creative music of his solo career, long after a great many Beatles fans stopped paying attention. Beginning with Flaming Pie in ’97, McCartney has been on a creative roll that includes such four- and five-star highlights as 2005’s Chaos And Creation In The Backyard, 2007’s Memory Almost Full, and 2008’s Electric Arguments, by his alter ego band, The Fireman. Ever creative and experimental, McCartney also has strayed from the beaten path with pleasing results, especially on Electric Arguments, the oldies rocker Run Devil Run in 1998, and the American Songbook collection Kisses On The Bottom a year ago. His latest album, New, released earlier this week, could rank as the best record of this late-life McCartney renaissance.

For New, his first album of new rock material in six years, McCartney employed four young, contemporary producers — Paul Epworth (Adele), Mark Ronson (Amy Winehouse), Giles Martin (son of legendary Beatles producer George Martin), and Ethan Johns (son of Glyn Johns, who produced Let It Be before it was given to Phil Spector to butcher) — and the result is a contemporary album that sounds more vintage than new.

New crackles with energy. The love songs are anything but silly, the rockers have bite and kick, and the lyrics have unusual heft and depth. Of particular note, several songs on New harken back to McCartney’s days with the Beatles. Two jump out right away on first listen. The hook-laden toe-tapper of a title track bounces along like a modern-day “Penny Lane” with some tasty Beach Boys doo-wop thrown into the coda for good measure. “Early Days,” on the other hand, is a wistful look back at McCartney’s early musical partnership with John Lennon. McCartney is 71 now and at times his voice sounds frail, especially on this track’s many falsetto passages, but he wears it well. “Early Days” is a memorable track.

“Early Days” also is a bit of an admonishment to all those revisionist historians who’ve tried to denigrate McCartney’s true role in the Beatles. That revisionist history took on a life of its own after Lennon was murdered in December 1980. McCartney had to deal with it for decades afterwards as Lennon was needlessly exalted as a musical saint while McCartney was derided as unworthy, a usurper of Lennon’s great gifts. It had all the unbelievable elements of an Ayn Rand novel, but thousands of intellectual lightweights swear by Rand, and millions of serious music fans bought into the "Lennon was the Beatles" theory.

To prove McCartney’s unworthiness, the Lennonistas skewered his solo career for not measuring up to his legendary work with the Beatles. Well, of course it doesn’t measure up. What did you expect? The same can be said of Lennon’s solo output. In fact, the only Beatle who ever made an album that surpassed his work with the Fabs was George Harrison, whose first post-Beatles release, All Things Must Pass, will stand forever as the greatest Beatles solo album. George’s solo career was every bit as uneven as McCartney’s or Lennon’s, and he never approached the quality of All Things Must Pass again. Neither Lennon nor McCartney ever reached that height as a solo performer in the first place.

New is not the Beatles and not as good as the Beatles, nor was it intended to be. It will, however, remind you in places of the Beatles, and McCartney is the one person left on the planet with the musical credibility to pull that off. Even when New veers away from the Beatles references, it’s still a challenging and compelling listen. Even at 71, McCartney is still producing excellent music. Based on his track record of the last two decades, New should not be overlooked.

By the way, if you’re a Beatles fan and you’ve never seen McCartney in concert, do yourself a huge favor and go. He tours constantly so opportunity shouldn’t be an issue. His voice isn’t quite what it was 10 years ago, but he can still hit the note and can still carry a song. His touring band is fantastic, easily the second-best band he’s ever played with. His shows routinely last nearly three hours, without an intermission. Best of all, the set list is about two-thirds Beatles classics. It’s a high-energy, life-changing experience.

* * *

The Band was probably North America’s greatest rock group. Their first two albums, Music From Big Pink and The Band, rank among rock’s most iconic recordings. Blessed with three incredible lead singers and tempered by about a decade of constant touring, first as Ronnie Hawkins’ touring band and later as Levon and the Hawks, the Band was without equal on stage.

In 1972, they released their live masterpiece, Rock Of Ages, recorded the week of Dec. 28-31, 1971, at New York City’s Academy of Music. Exquisitely performed and recorded, and featuring a horn section comprised of some of New York's finest jazz musicians, Rock Of Ages ranks among rock’s all-time great live records, right up there with At The Fillmore East by the Allman Brothers Band, Get Yer Ya-Yas Out by the Rolling Stones, Live Rust by Neil Young and Crazy Horse, and Live At Leeds by the Who, to name a few. When the expanded deluxe edition of Rock Of Ages came out in 2001, an impossibly great album became impossibly perfect.

Or so it seemed.

Robbie Robertson, guitarist and self-proclaimed leader of the Band, always loved the performances but never cared for the sound on Rock of Ages, so he, his son Sebastian, and collaborators Bob Clearmountain and Jon Castelli went back and remixed and remastered every track from all four shows. The result is a stunning new five-disc box set, The Band Live At The Academy Of Music 1971.

The set’s first two discs include what the producers believe to be the best performance of each song the Band played during their four-night stand at the Academy. The third and fourth discs are the complete New Year’s Eve show, uncut and uninterrupted. The fifth disc is a DVD of 27 video tracks, two of them previously unreleased. The box set also includes a 48-page hardcover book and retails for a rather pricey $99. Luckily, the first two discs were released as a two-disc package for $20, a tremendous bargain that comes highly recommended.

The sound on The Band Live At The Academy Of Music 1971 is shocking, a significant and wholly unexpected improvement over Rock Of Ages. The performances on the two-disc set are not all the same as those used for Rock Of Ages — many are significantly better — but all are timeless masterworks of one of the great rock units of our time.

By the way, those of you who believe The Last Waltz to be the Band’s great live album, you clearly haven’t been paying attention. The Last Waltz was a great event and made for an interesting movie, but the Band was beset by internal problems by that point. In particular, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson were at loggerheads with Robertson over numerous issues, from songwriting credits and royalties to Robertson’s unilateral decision to stop touring and effectively break up the group. The mood within the band was acrimonious, and the plethora of guest performers on The Last Waltz was a distraction, not an enhancement.

The 1971 concerts at the Academy of Music, on the other hand, marked the end of a truly great era for the Band. They didn’t play live again for more than a year and didn’t release another album of original material until 1975’s Northern Lights-Southern Cross. They were never the same. Drugs, alcohol and group in-fighting took a steep toll, and that toll was clearly evident by The Last Waltz.

Live At The Academy Of Music 1971, by comparison, is the Band at their very best.
And their very best was very great, indeed.