Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Cosmos Rocks

"What planet is this? Hmmm?"

So begins the first Queen album since 1995's Made In Heaven, this outing with new partner and vocalist Paul Rodgers. The Cosmos Rocks is not an overstatement as to the content of this album.

Now, I'll admit a certain genetic predisposition to liking the music of Queen. I've had high expectations of all of their releases. A few times I've been disappointed. But for "Calling All Girls" and "Body Language," I really wonder why Hot Space was allowed to happen. "Radio Ga Ga" is one of the worst things I've ever heard. No kidding.

So, with Freddie Mercury gone almost 17 years, I wondered what could possibly go right with a new Queen album. Rodgers is beyond capable as a singer, but is he the singer to succeed Mercury? In truth, as I listed to this, I kept almost hearing Mercury's soaring falsetto. Almost, but not quite: Rodgers' powerful baritone doesn't seem to have the high end that Mercury did. Is this a problem? No.

The fist two tracks on the album demonstrate that, musically, Queen is right in form. "Cosmos Rockin'" follows the tradition of starting an album with an up-tempo rocker, replete with trademark big chorus vocals. "Time To Shine" is a showpiece for Rodgers' capabilities as a singer. The vocalizing is not without it's Mercury-isms, but Rodgers is not trying to be Mercury. Mercury's singing style was as much a fixture of Queen as Brian May's overdubbed guitars, so hearing them come from Rodgers, while something of a surprise, lends to the character of this as a Queen album.

It isn't until "Still Burnin'" almost ten minutes in that Brian May breaks into his first solo, at the very conclusion of which Roger Taylor gives us "We Will Rock You" drums. These first songs all share some of the elements of the album's first single. "C-lebrity" is of the same classic hard rock caliber as "I Want It All" or "Headlong."

As ballads go, "Small" is pleasant enough and the band clearly like it well enough to have it reprised after the last track. The beginning of "We Believe" harkens to "Is This The World We Created...?" and is a bona fide anthem with a statement advocating change. Also included in the package is last year's single, "Say It's Not True," a magnificent ballad that is as big and as small as "Love Of My Life." It features all three band members -- first Roger Taylor in sweet falsetto, then Brian May and, finally Rodgers -- sharing lead vocals. As the song was handled, it was a fine introduction last year to Paul Rodgers with Queen in recorded form.

Surprisingly, the gentle rockabilly of "Call Me" recalls Eddie Rabbitt's "I Love A Rainy Night" more than "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" and the first person I shared the song with asked me if Queen were employing a kazoo. I reassured him that it was in fact Brian's guitars and recommended an upgrade to his laptop speakers.

There is a happy near total absence of synthesizers on this album that is a cause to cheer. Now, I'm a lover of the synth, but I must confess that I thought that Queen's music was diminished by their addition on The Game and subsequent records. Also nearly absent is piano which, to my ears, doesn't make it's advent until "Some Things That Glitter," another big power-ballad.

I think this record is a strong statement that there were other influences in Queen than just Freddie. May's signature guitar work makes this a Queen album (and makes his solo work occasionally indistinguishable from Queen) as much as Freddie's piano or John Deacon's work on bass.

On my first listen through this material, I was expecting an oddity, of which there always seems to be at least one on a Queen album. There was "Delilah," for example, ostensibly about Freddie's cat, or "I'm In Love With My Car." Or "White Man" or "Life Is Real" or "Mustapha." On The Cosmos Rocks, it isn't until the very end that it turns up, as "Surf's Up...School's Out!" With "Now I'm Here" rhythm and heavily processed vocals, the song has the character of an outtake or b-side, and yet I still found myself bobbing my head to the beat.

Sadly, there isn't anything here that makes a latter-day Queen mini-opera. I guess those expectations were too high, even for a band that has had "Bohemian Rhapsody," "Innuendo," and "It's Late" as epic singles. Even so, I wouldn't be surprised if they make a stab at it with "We Believe." It catchy enough. It's uplifting enough.

Was The Cosmos Rocks worth the three year wait for a Queen + Paul Rodgers album? Most definitely. The album suffers a bit from pacing in my opinion: the elimination of one ballad might have helped with that, but it's hard to complain. As a first effort from veteran rockers, this album is as polished as one would expect and benefits from excellent songwriting and performance.

The big question is this: is The Cosmos Rocks a Queen album? While the album lacks the touches that Freddie Mercury would undoubtedly have given this material, most notably his flamboyance and irreplaceable voice, I deem the record worth the wait. It is a Queen album in soul and character, listenable, even danceable in places. It's a treat for the ears. But remember: your mileage may vary. I admitted at the beginning of this that I was predisposed to like it. And so I do.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Pursuing a career

For some odd reason, I'm suddenly motivated to change my employment arrangement.  What this means is that I'm starting to finally follow the advice of my friends and supervisors at work and actually pursue job leads with some ambition and aggression.   It feels weird to be honest.  I'm out of my element.

I'm also bored, bored, bored in my current role.  I've got more to give and it's time for someone to accept that and get me moved on.  My current boss, who reminds me a great deal of my dad, said in no uncertain terms to me in my last one-on-one that he would like to see me out of the department and that he would happily write me letters of recommendation to hiring managers if I land an interview.  

In reading that back, it sounds like my boss is trying to get rid of me, but that's not at all true.  He's just put me on a project that will have me making outbound calls for two weeks instead of taking cold customer calls.  He's also made me a subject matter expert for a new product roll out which will give me more visibility on my team and possibly within the department.

I had a feedback (I hate the word "feedback") session with a training facilitator to discuss why I was declined an interview for a new position in that department.  She's one of my favorite people in the department and, like my bff at work, told me that I need to be much more aggressive in getting my name and qualifications known.  She also told me that my resume was lacking in qualities that she would have liked to have seen.

So... one of my projects for this weekend is a massive resume update and to write a missive to one of the department managers detailing exactly why I cannot be passed over for one of the new positions being created.  While I was outlining some of my ideas and qualifications to the woman telling me why I didn't get an interview previously, she became actually excited by my enthusiasm and told me to go get in the manager's face and tell her that I was the guy for the job.

I'm energized.  About work.  I'm just positive that this is a sign of the apocalypse.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Gambling

Until recently, I'd never been to a casino. Gambling holds no interest for me at all. I tried to have a fun evening playing poker for dimes once and was so freaked out about losing my five-dollar stake that I had no fun at all. I've not gambled since.

This is not to say that I don't have a blast playing cards. Pinochle, poker, even that girly Texas Hold 'Em are all games that I enjoy. I just don't enjoy playing for money. Not at all. No way. Playing for points is totally okay. Money, never.

A friend of mine enjoys the casinos, particularly slot machines, in particular those with Egyptian images or themes. So, after my laundry is done today (in about an hour), we're off to the gambling establishment du jour for a little food and frolic. Now, I don't gamble, but I like the sparkly nature of the games. All of the flashing lights and cheerful music and sounds are a lot of fun. I love to be razzle-dazzled. I could do without the lingering smell of stale smoke though. Yuck.

As a not-very-rabid ex-smoker, I still don't like the smell of secondhand smoke. I didn't like it even when I was a smoker. What was going into my lungs was fine, but what came off the cherry-end of a cigarette, no way. So the stench of a casino reminds me of my old morning-after cologne: Stale Pub.

Casinos do have free beverages though, and valet parking for a nominal charge. Everyone who works there seems to be fairly friendly. Also, they almost all seem to be security types. Weird. It's not like there's a lot of real money on the gaming floor, at least that I've noticed, but there you go.

Here's something else: I cannot for the life of me figure out the rules that govern slots. After all of the reels stop, all of the screens look completely random to me, and yet some are winners and some are not. I've looked at the pay lines and the icons which are supposed to generate bonus rounds and tried to cypher out the logic that governs their operation. Also, I'm forced to ponder the randomization engines that drive these things. I've been informed that how often the machines pay is programmable. How can something that is programmable be random? I'm not sure I trust computers (or programmers) that much, but I'm sure that there has to be some higher power governing this. Somewhere. I think I'd be more trusting of the old mechanical one-armed bandits.

And that's the other curiosity about these devices: no arms.

Another odd thing I've noticed about casinos is how, almost universally, the patrons look like they're having the worst time of their lives. They sit in front of these dazzling displays with dancing Pharaohs and animated Native American icons and pirouetting snowmen and look as if their life is being sucked from them an iota (or however a quantity of soul is measured) at a time. Not painfully though, more like the pain an hour after you've whacked your thumb with a hammer. Or a while after you've had a deep dental cleaning.

As an alcoholic, I understand something of the compulsion of gambling. I do. And I also understand that, while it seems like it should be fun, drinking to excess all the time isn't. It's like going to work, actually. Drinking is something that I had to do, like paying bills. So I understand the place from which the need arises.

Even though I suffered the nearly impossible to ignore compulsion to drink, I know that I had fun during the drinking. It does seem to me that the gamblers do not so much have fun during the gambling. They don't laugh. They just stare. They don't even chat amongst themselves that much. They just stare. Are they hypnotized by the spinning reels? Are they so intent on willing a jackpot that they can't crack a smile until that magic moment?

When we go to the casino, I have fun. I'm just watching the action, not partaking of it because that wouldn't be fun for me. My only wish is that the friends I'm with have fun too. If I have anything to do with it, they will.

That's why I gift them with computer slot machine games, so they can play at home. Now if I could just get some of that stale smoke, the in-home ambience would be complete.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Panic

There's nothing more important to me than having a refuge, a place into which I can retreat and feel safe or even isolated. The notion of being cut off from that sanctuary in any way causes great unrest and fear in me.

Even with the Republican National Convention happening a mere three blocks from my dwelling, I never figured that I would be at risk for being cut off from my home. Yet, Tuesday evening, protesters were herded up my street with tear gas and flash grenades. Where was I whilst this was occurring?

On my home from work.

A half hour or so before the end of my shift, I received a jesting email from my houseguest informing me that there were riots and blood running in the streets. I chuckled to myself and made a smart-allecky reply back. His follow-up email made it clear that things had gone from amusing to bad and that I should be careful coming home.

I called him at once when I was on the way to get the skinny: hundreds of people were fleeing up my street toward the Capitol building. The skyway that links the hospital across the street was lined with people watching the spectacle in both directions. Three or four vehicles were idling facing northbound into what should have been southbound traffic.

Thankfully, the longer we talked, the more things wound down. When I exited the highway and turned onto my street, it was nearly vacant, only a few cars moving in the proper direction. I pulled into the garage and went directly upstairs.

It would have been something to see from my seventh-floor apartment, all that bustle and panic. I wouldn't have had the slightest problem watching it all unfold. In fact, it would have been fascinating, even though it was happening on my street, only 80 or so feet below.

I called out from work the next day for a couple of reasons: if there were to be a recurrence, I'd like to watch. An event that draws such polarized people who are prone to almost anything isn't something that happens with regularity, not anywhere. In addition, the notion that I might not be able to get from work to my home for an undisclosed period provoked a feeling of panic in me. So home I stayed and it was a nonevent. Up until the traffic below started to congeal at about 10:00 into a solid mass, all was quiet. An hour later, even the traffic jam had dissolved.

But I made the mistake of watching part of the news last night. The protesters' representative stated that they would be starting at 5:00 tonight. The anchor just had to observe that their permit actually expires when they plan to begin.

I had figured that I would go to work today and leave early, in time to get home safely. But I'd have to work until about five and, after 30 minutes of commute, who know if I'd be able to get anywhere near my apartment.

So I'm calling out again. I shouldn't, but I have a need to feel safe too, more for my spirit than for any actual threat of harm. It feels foolish to say all of this "out loud" but the feelings of near-panic are really quite real and won't be denied.

Steve and I will walk over to the wall they've erected around the arena during broad daylight today, before any of the weirdness can start and, by protest time, I expected to be holed up, watching movies and waiting to see what happens next.

Thankfully, I learned a long time ago that the world revolves quite nicely without me. I don't feel like I'm letting anyone down by not going in to work, although it will limit my ability to call in sick later.

The way I look at this, it guarantees my attendance through the festive retail holiday season. They'll be grateful I elected to call out now. Seriously.