Saturday, May 27, 2006

It's...Nice? Cute? Not Overly Annoying?

Another free album crossed my path this week, a collection of lullabies punningly titled Unexpected Dreams: Songs from the Stars. The pun comes from the concept of the album, which the rather over-the-top liner notes describe as "unexpected voices doing unexpected renditions of songs with unexpected depth," but can be more succinctly described as "actors singing lullabies." Becca has this weird interest in actors who sing, so this one came right home and was checked out as quickly as possible. The album was produced by Eric Vetro, whom the liner calls "songwriter, musical director, and 'vocal coach to the stars.'" Yeah, it's going to be that kind of a spectacle.

As always, here I go track-by-track.

SUMMERTIME sung by Scarlett Johansson
Don't get me wrong, I adore Scarlett Johansson. She can outact almost any other young actress today. But I have to say, based on her sort of half-nasal/half-throaty low-toned voice, I didn't expect her to be able to sing. And actually, she can. Very well. This is a Gershwin song with a nice, tasteful string arrangement and lone trumpet accompaniment, with Johansson sounding assured and vampy, confident and very sexy. It's a little bluesy, a little chamber music. Very sultry, but somehow comforting, too. It's a strong opener that is almost never surpassed on the rest of the album.

THE SWEETEST GIFT sung by Ewan McGregor
Despite Becca's constant protestations to the contrary, Ewan McGregor cannot sing. The only Scotsmen who can sing are Brian Johnson and Donovan. This is a Sade song, and Ewan sings it alright for not being musically talented--he sort of acts his way through it. The arrangement is pretty, with a harp, violin and flute coming across as delicate rather than sparse. Light and airy, though not very lullaby-ish.

IN MY DAUGHTER'S EYES sung by Taraji P. Henson
I don't know who Taraji P. Henson is, and based on this track, I'm not missing much. I think the song is a little overdramatic, and Henson oversings it. It's too annunciated. Combined with the lame keyboard music, it sounds like a crappy Dionne Warwick song from the eighties (pick one, they all suck).

MY HEART IS SO FULL OF YOU sung by Jennifer Garner
My second surprise of the album; Jennifer Garner can actually sing, too. She has a voice as pretty and appealing as her graceful, genuine smile. Her confidence wavers a little in the very beginning, but rather than wrecking the song or making it trivial, it adds a bit of vulnerability to the song which nearly makes it touching. The arrangement is nice and restrained, only a cello and piano. The song is by Frank Loesser, from the musical The Most Happy Fella.

MAKE YOU FEEL MY LOVE sung by Jeremy Irons
I don't know really what makes this "unexpected." Irons has sung many times, and has a rather nice singing voice. This is a Bob Dylan song, and not one of his best; in fact, it's not even in the top 50%, which is really saying something for someone as prolific as Dylan has been in the last 40+ years (Billy Joel did a pretty uninteresting cover of it on his Greatest Hits Vol. III). The spare orchestration helps, but the song is dreadfully simplistic, and Irons seems to keep changing speeds for no reason. It's not notably deficient, but it's not an achievement, either.

LULLABY (GOOD NIGHT, MY ANGEL) sung by John Stamos
Not really unexpected (remember, Stamos was a Beach Boy--ooh, how my stomach knots at those words, even spoken in jest) so much as unneccesary. Stamos sings with that same smarmy self-love that he does everything with; it's just dripping with smug, like a self-satisfaction storm. Too bad, because this Billy Joel song could be quite beautiful (Joel didn't exactly make the best of it, either). At least the heavy orchestration saves the song from being a total embarrassment. But only just.

LITTLE CHILD sung by Lucy Lawless
Again, it's not really unexpected; Lucy sang on a few episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess and in a couple of other places. She has a lovely voice that, sadly, tends towards the nasally theatrical. This song was written by Vetro specifically for her to sing, so the lyrics are littly silly, a little too arch. But Lucy sings it with deep conviction, negligable though the song really is. The arrangement is delicate without being tremulous or tentative. It's the first song on the disc that sounds like a genuine lullaby, even with the lyrics being what they are.

THE WISH SONG sung by Marissa Jaret Winokur
The case for Winokur has yet to be proved, as far as I'm concerned. I don't like her condescending, music-hall singing voice. And, once again, how is it unexpected to have the star of Broadway's Hairspray singing on an album that sounds like the lamest high school musical ever? This song in particular, another Vetro original, sounds like an Andrew Lloyd Weber pastiche that thinks it's something better than it is. Like a Stephen Sondheim pastiche, I guess.

Again, I am surprised. McCormack can really sing; not only does his voice exude confidence, but he sings the song much better than its writer, Elton John, ever did. Since he can't really act, he should go into musical theater. More of the songs on this album should sound this good; it's the only one that comes (very) close to the quality of "Summertime."

NO ONE IS ALONE sung by Victor Garber
Unexpected... such an overused word these days. Not only has Victor Garber been in several musicals, he may have actually been in Sondheim's Into the Woods, which this song comes from. It's competently arranged, and Garber has a nice voice.

NIGHTSHIFT sung by Julia Louis-Dreyfus
I think I've finally figured out what it is that I hate about Julia Louis-Dreyfus. It's that she seems to resent having to be a comic actress. Like, she really wanted to be a serious Barbra Streisand-style star, but because someone found her unattractive, she had to go into comedy. Ever since Seinfeld mercifully came to a close, she seems to be hellbent on getting out of comedy and showing us all how wrong we were. The funny thing is, physically she's attractive; what makes her unattractive is this rotten attitude of hers that cames across as so venomous. Here she sings a song perhaps unsurprisingly written by her husband Brad Hall, and tries to do it as a torch song rather than a lullaby. Always showing off, never satisfied with the project at hand. The song itself is a so-so pastiche of typical Broadway flourishes, and she sings it in a so-so manner. Completely dispensible.

GOLDEN SLUMBERS sung by Nia Vardalos
Oh, crap, is she still hanging around? Pure campy musical theater, lame arrangement, sung by someone who is completely without talent. The Beatles have been put through a lot in the way of covers, but this is just awful.

LULLABY IN RAGTIME sung by John C. Reilly
Reilly has also sung before, but he's got a very good voice. This is a complicated song to sing (it goes up and down and up and down in a single lyric), written by Sylvia Fine for The Five Pennies. Reilly brings genuine feeling to it, despite the song's inherent potential for silliness (and a rather ham-fisted faux-ragtime arrangement--white men can never how to arrange ragtime without sounding all lame).

GOOD NIGHT sung by Teri Hatcher
Another Lennon/McCartney composition, this one a little bit overlooked (it closes the so-called White Album). The album is pretty short, actually, but because of its sleep-inducing theme and the lameness of a good half of it, it feels like it's been on for 20 years. As for Hatcher...well, she sings the song surprisingly well. She's not trying to sing scales, not trying to fly past the constraints of her fairly limited voice, and the result is kind of sweet and nice. It's a pretty close to an album that has had its rough patches.

So, in my opinion, there are (being generous) five songs on this mess that aren't completely disposable. The production is a little over the top; hell the whole damn enterprise is over the top. It smacks of those celebrity-driven projects that come out like clockwork; like when Jamie Lee Curtis or Maria Shriver think that their insight into child-rearing is unique and they have to write children's books because only they, the all-important Celebrated Personality, can teach the plebs how to feel and how to raise their simple children. This is some air of condescension around this thing. But there are at least five nice tracks that, should you accidentally find yourself with a free promotional copy, don't want to make you throw it in the trash.

I'll let the final summation stand with the liner notes: "For those without children...this may cause children."


Thursday, May 25, 2006

My Sexual Icons, Part 4

Yet another post dedicated to the women who helped me realize the direction I was going in before I turned 12.
















Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Give Us a Moo

So, tonight is the big finale of American Idol's fifth series. Even my mother, who has never shown any interest in Idol before a few weeks ago, called me and asked me which person I thought won the show. Although I had watched the program, which had only been over for three minutes before my mom called, my response was: "I think it's completely irrelevant."

"Oh, party pooper," she said to me.

But despite accusations of having shat all over the revelry of American Idol (and hey, someone has to), I still stand by my answer. I'm not remotely interested in who wins this series, because I don't think it matters. And I think anyone who watched the final round last night knows why. It goes like this: both Taylor Hicks and Katharine McPhee sang their debut singles in competition last night. They both have debut singles already? Then what does it fucking matter which one of them wins? They're both going to milk the show for fame, record albums, and then either disappear into a Ruben Studdard trivia footnote obscurity, or a Kelly Clarkson style of actually-really-decent-albums. They've already got the prizes; who cares which one America likes better?

Although it was enjoyable to watch at first--during the early stages, before the same cycle started repeating itself over and over--I've had serious problems with American Idol this year. The show was always a mildly enjoyable diversion, polarizing water cooler talk for those, like me, who like pop culture. But after two mostly bad seasons (that I couldn't even finish watching), America has taken to this fifth version like a duck to water. They've completely accepted Ryan Seacrest's dumbass assertion on this season's first episode that American Idol is "an integral part of American pop culture." They're running around and pontificating as if the outcome of American Idol really mattered in the same way as, say, a national election really matters.

And as a side note, quit telling me that this season's top 12 were the most talented contestants ever. Dude, they were just as mediocre as they always are. In what universe does Bizarro Elliott "Sloth Love Chunk" Yamin make it into the top three of a talent contest? Even Taylor and Katharine are pretty mediocre, when it comes down to it. Taylor is a decent Joe Cocker impersonator who is infectious because he's the only contestant in American Idol history who has actually looked like he was having a good time all the way through. He's talented, but he's not Mick Jagger or anything. He might not even be Levon Helm. Time will tell. And since when is anyone in love with Katharine McPhee? She's a cute, sexy gal alright, and I adore her on that level, but was anyone talking about her voice before the yellow dress with the tits? And the "accidental" upskirt shot? Because she's not a very good singer. She's energetic, sure, but she's offkey an awful lot. She could be a country singer; they don't really have to sing, they just have to be sincere in a really plastic, fake way that the hicks can mistake for genuine. When they both debuted their horrible new singles last night (both of which seem like they were built out of a kit entitled "Sappy Crap That Yuppies Think Is Meaningful"), I was shocked that Randy, Paula, and especially Simon didn't rip Katharine apart for her inability to even once be in tune with a song that was written especially for her! Of course, Paula was busy saying absolutely nothing of any relevance, while Randy was spouting so much bullshit in the way of nonsensical catchphrasing and fake attempts at criticism (get this man a Thesaurus heading for "pitchy") that actual shit was spewing out of his mouth and onto the table. Even Simon, one of the few people alive whose critical faculties I respect, was in bad form last night, alternating between "I love Katharine and want to cum on her" and "Taylor, yeah, whatever." So, last night wasn't exactly a festival of real criticism.

Maybe that's why the show seemed so unimportant and arbitrary; no one was treating it like a real competition. Katharine and Taylor both seemed so over it. Neither of them was taking it seriously, because, as I said, they've already got the prizes. And the judges, I think, knew that anything they had to say wouldn't register, because no matter how it turns out, Katharine and Taylor are tied for first.

Anyway, back to my original point, which is that I hate how seriously people take this shit, as if they'll even remember it a year from now, when a new series and a new crop of lucky ingrates with no sense of tone are harvested for national humiliation. It's a fun diversion, but it's not like it's important. In the new Entertainment Weekly, in the one section ostensibly dedicated to actual news of the entertainment business, useless TV critic Ken Tucker gets to fob off one why American Idol is the only show that really matters, why the show is really important. The fact that he never explains this bold claim, instead just listing some reasons why he likes the show, is apparently unimportant. And by the way, no points for guessing that he, like many space-fillers masquerading as critical thinkers, uses the adjective "patriotic" to describe the show. Because, you know, what's more patriotic than voting in a completely meaningless election instead of one that will actually affect your own life? Socialists vote, too; just because it's an election doesn't make it democratic.

One of the reasons Tucker praises the show is that it allows viewers to remain "pleasantly detached." And this is my problem. People getting worked up over something so unimportant may be "fun," as Tucker says, but it's also troubling. I'm not one of those doomsayers who hates that American Idol makes pop music trivial and takes focus away from the other democratic process that makes gas $3.00 a gallon and tells gays they don't have any rights. Alright, actually I am, but I'm not doing that today. But I am saying that American Idol doesn't matter in the long run, and people need to gain some perspective for a change. Could you kinda, maybe, get this worked up over, say, the war?

I've been thinking about this since last week. Becca and I go to breakfast every Friday morning, and we were seated behind four of NIU's finest jocks. So, of course, they were dumbfuck assholes, wearing their caps and paying separately, no matter how much of a delay it causes, so that no one think they're gay (come on, they're jocks, I already assumed they were gay). Anyway, they were football players, and a very old man came over to them to say hello and ask how they were doing. He showed them his championship ring and told them he played football at NIU in 1946, the first class to come back from World War II. He mentioned that he and his friends were pretty wild, too. Now, this all sounds like an invitation to hear some really interesting stories about a time in the life of America that is no longer there. Myself, I'd have been interested in it. But, with the typical my-generation-invented-bad-behavior swagger that only a jock or prom queen or anyone who peaks between 16 and 22 can muster, the boys were dismissive and brushed the poor guy off.

And I wanted to turn to those assholes and say something I've said a few times to similar people.

It doesn't cost anything to be polite. In fact, it makes life easier. One day, you're going to be the old, lonely human being sitting alone who just wants meaningful human contact or a kind word. And kids are going to treat you the way you just treated that man. The only thing that separates humankind from animals is our interest in things that happen outside of ourselves. In what happened before we were born, and what will happen after we die. So give us a moo.

And this is, overwhelmingly, why I don't think American Idol is such a big deal. It polarizes people, but not in a public way, like World War II did. It's not something that turns people into a community; it's something you can do from home, without any interaction, without any real consequences. And when you're the old, lonely human being sitting alone, I hope you have something more interesting to tell those smug little kids than who you voted for on American Idol.

That Psychedelic Jangle

I was about ten or eleven when the Bangles were making their first foray into Top 40 radio (hey, I was a kid, all my parents listened to was Top 40 radio). I fell in love with their sound right away. I was too young to really know anything about psychedelic rock, or about the Paisley Underground that the Bangles came out of. I just knew that they had an interesting sound, were heavy on guitars, and had one hell of a lead singer in Susanna Hoffs. Defiant without being growly, sultry without being slutty, I've always thought Hoffs had one of the perfect voices to front a rocking band. Years later, I heard some of the band's early music, back when they were the Bangs, before the AOR people came in and tried to turn them into some sort of live action version of Jem & the Holograms.

Hoffs and Matthew Sweet teamed up with Mike Myers to perform as the fictional band Ming Tea for the Austin Powers soundtrack. Apparently, their characters were called Sid and Susie, and they've put together an album of '60s covers with the same sort of sound. I always look forward to hearing Susanna Hoffs sing again, so I was really anticipating this album. Hoffs singing covers of psychedelic rock from the Summer of Love? Excellent.

The track listing is kind of inspired. Not all of these songs are natural choices for covers, and almost none of them have been played on the radio so often in the last decade that they've become tiresome. I've heard every song here before, of course, but Hoffs and Sweet make some interesting choices. Here's the track listing, and in parentheses are the original artists:

1. I See the Rain (The Marmalades)
2. And Your Bird Can Sing (The Beatles)
3. It's All Over Now, Baby Blue (Bob Dylan)
4. Who Knows Where the Time Goes? (Fairport Convention)
5. Cinnamon Girl (Neil Young & Crazy Horse)
6. Alone Again Or (Love)
7. The Warmth of the Sun (The Beach Boys)
8. Different Drum (The Stone Poneys, but written by Michael Nesmith)
9. The Kids Are Alright (The Who)
10. Sunday Morning (The Velvet Underground)
11. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (Neil Young & Crazy Horse)
12. Care of Cell #44 (The Zombies)
13. Monday, Monday (The Mamas and the Papas)
14. She May Call Tonight (The Left Banke)
15. Run to Me (The Bee Gees)

I don't like Matthew Sweet overly much (I think the little Girlfriend cult are kind of irritating, seeing as how it's one of the worst songs, albums, and music videos I've ever been exposed to), but if this is any indication, his instincts as a producer are pretty right on. The thickness of the sound is interesting; I prefer a separation of sound rather than the modern wall of impenetrable noise. Sweet finds a middle ground that is not really a compromise and not really a statement; it is what it is, which is a really fun album that I can't get enough of. The instrumentation is wonderful, too; no computer effects or sampling, no breakbeats or drum machines, just that psychedelic jangle of guitars, tambourines, and organ (occasionally played by Van Dyke Parks) that suggest Vanilla Fudge or Love were back and cranking out excellent music again.

The major criticism of this album is that Hoffs and Sweet can't ever create a definitive version of already-great songs. They are only covers, and that's all they can be. There is some truth to that, but at the same time, they've created an album that's highly enjoyable. And I think the sort of enjoyment, the sort of angst-as-hopeful-dream feeling of the psychedelic era is what's missing from music these days. Most of the music that comes out now is slick product or repackaged anger that is still very commercial. And on that level, this is a very, very good album.

The title of the album is Under the Covers Vol. 1. I hope that means we're headed for at least a second volume. May I be so bold as to suggest a few titles I think they should consider? "Good Morning Starshine" (Oliver), "Pictures of Matchstick Men" (Status Quo), "A Groovy Kind of Love" (The Mindbenders), "What Am I Doing Hangin' Round" (The Monkees), "Listen to the Band" (The Monkees), "Mr. Pinnodmy's Dilemma" (The Attack), "(Here We Go Round) The Lemon Tree" (The Move), "(Further Reflections) In the Room of Percussion" (Kaleidoscope), "Pools of Blue" (Barclay James Harvest), "10,000 Years Behind My Mind" (Focus Three), "Can't Help Thinking About Me" (David Bowie), "Love You Till Tuesday" (David Bowie), "Child of the Universe" (The Byrds), "Eight Miles High" (The Byrds), "5D (Fifth Dimension)" (The Byrds, "See Emily Play" (Pink Floyd), "You Ain't Going Nowhere" (Bob Dylan), "Positively 4th Street" (Bob Dylan), "Here Comes the Night" (Them), "Shapes of Things" (The Yardbirds), "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" (The Who), "I'm a Boy" (The Who), "Friday on My Mind" (The Easybeats), "Sorrow" (The Merseys), "Victoria" (The Kinks), "Supersonic Rocket Ship" (The Kinks), "Piggy Bank Love" (The Bonzo Dog Band), "I'm Not Sayin'" (Nico), "Feel Flows" (The Beach Boys), "Forever" (The Beach Boys), "Backstreet Girl" (The Rolling Stones), "Child of the Moon" (The Rolling Stones), "Memo from Turner" (The Rolling Stones), "Fire" (The Crazy World of Arthur Brown), "The Diamond Hard Blue Apples of the Moon" (The Nice), "(See the Little People) Gulliver's Travels" (Michael d'Abo), "If Paradise Is Half as Nice" (Amen Corner), "Bitterblue" (Cat Stevens), "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" (The Animals), "I'm Looking Through You" (The Beatles), "Run for Your Life" (The Beatles), "Lady Samantha" (Elton John), "Lies" (The Knickerbockers), "Castles Made of Sand" (Jimi Hendrix), "And More Again" (Love), "Always See Your Face" (Love), "You Didn't Try to Call Me" (The Mothers of Invention)...

...just off the top of my head.

Anyway, this album rocks, covers or no, plain and simple.

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

JESUS'S SON (2000)
Billy Crudup gives another great performance, this time as a junkie whose touch, as he says, turns everything to shit. The film traces his episodic journey from hated outsider to potential human being. It's entertaining but, as with most episodic narratives, it has moments of disengagement that aren't quite as interesting as the filmmakers think they are. A movie like this relies on the performances, and there are some very good ones. Crudup, of course, who is one of the most underrated actors working today, as well as the always-good (and amazingly hot) Samantha Morton, who provides something like a center for Crudup to revolve around. There are also some great cameos from Dennis Hopper, Jack Black, and Holly Hunter. It's good, but not great; it's like Requiem for a Dream, only watchable and not completely full of shit. *** stars.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

A Post on the Upfronts

Last week the networks sold their fall lineups at the Upfronts. I blogged the new schedules last year, but everyone already has the information by now, and I'm just not as interested in it this time around. I don't care. Last season was all Lost ripoffs, this season is all 24 ripoffs. But just for the hell of it, here are my snarky comments on what's coming up:

* One of the things I forgot to mention is that I was irked by the cancellation of The Book of Daniel. I was enjoying it, and not just because it pissed off the Christ people. It wasn't clever, and it wasn't compelling, but at least it was fucking trying.
* Shows officially cancelled: The Book of Daniel, Celebrity Cooking Showdown, Conviction, E-Ring, Fear Factor (finally!), Heist, Inconceivable, Joey, Surface, Teachers, Three Wishes, The West Wing, and Will & Grace.
* Is 20 Good Years a gay show? Because John Lithgow and Jeffrey Tambor living together sounds kinda gay.
* I'm not that psyched about 30 Rock, Tina Fey's new show about the behind-the-scenes life at a comedy sketch series. I mean, it's obviously her Saturday Night Live fan fiction, isn't it? Behind the scenes at SNL might make an interesting reality series (it would be more entertaining than SNL, that's for sure), but this just seems lame. I'm glad to see Alec Baldwin on a sitcom, though. Guy's a funny motherfucker. It's also the same premise as Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which is also airing on NBC, is created by Aaron Sorkin, and has pretty much the same title. Strip definitely has a worse cast, though. Matthew Perry?
* I think giving Andy Richter another show to be lame and unfunny shows an incredible amount of hope and goodwill.
* America's Got Talent? No it doesn't.
* My Name Is Earl and The Office are moving to an hour earlier on Thursdays. I'm telling you, move something too many times and people will just stop following it.

* Shows officially cancelled: Alias, Commander-in-Chief, The Evidence, Freddie, Hope & Faith, In Justice, Invasion, Less Than Perfect, Rodney (I STILL don't know what it is!), and Sons & Daughters.
* Everything coming on has a regular cast of about a dozen or so characters. What the fuck? Why is everything going to be such an ensemble? Most TV writers seem to find it impossible to juggle four regular characters, much less a cast of thousands.
* America Ferrera has a show with the unfortunate title Betty the Ugly coming on this fall; since my Fridays are bereft of Amanda Bynes and JoAnna Garcia, and I do adore America Ferrera, I may end up watching this one. I don't expect it to be good, but it is on Fridays...

* Shows officially cancelled: Courting Alex, Love Monkey, Out of Practice, Still Standing, Threshold and the crime against humanity Yes, Dear.
* CBS has decided to go the opposite route from ABC and put on shows about steely loners. The only one that sounds decent is Shark, which stars James Woods and another favorite young lady of mine, Danielle Panabaker.
* The Class is one of the two types of shows I really hate that, unfortunately, every programming exec loves right now. It's about members of a third-grade class who reunite as adults. Are people comforted by the idea that everybody remains friends with everyone else as they get older? Because I find it more comforting that people change as they get older.
* The other type of show I hate is, of course, the show about how cute it is that some antifeminist dipshit in his thirties is oh such a cad and can't get his shit together and settle down.

* Shows officially cancelled: Arrested Development, Killer Instinct, Kitchen Confidential, Malcolm in the Middle, and That 70s Show (which, by my estimate, should be taking place in, like, 1986 right now).
* Dude, it's Fox, who expects anything to be good?
* I saw a commercial for Hell's Kitchen two days ago and got really excited. What can I say? I love it.

* WB shows officially cancelled: The Bedford Diaries (did this even air?), Blue Collar TV, Charmed, Everwood, Living with Fran, Modern Men, Pepper Dennis, Related, Survival of the Richest, Twins, and What I Like About You (good night, sweet Amanda).
* UPN shows officially cancelled: Cuts, Eve, Half & Half, Love Inc., One on One, and South Beach.
* Neither one of those lists includes stuff that was cancelled over the broadcast year.
* CW only has three new shows coming on, all of which sound terrible. Runaway is The Fugitive with kids. Palm Springs is Dallas and every other show ripped off from that one all the way up to The O.C. and Dawson's Creek. The Game is a lame sanitization of Footballers' Wives.
* I find it interesting that all of the black sitcoms that weren't cancelled (all three of them) were moved to an early Sunday time (the supposedly acclaimed Everybody Hates Chris is on at 6pm Central, for example). What a token nod to the black audience, just before the inevitable cancellation of everything that doesn't interest the WB's single woman and comic book nerd audience.

Wow. No wonder I can't stop watching Soap reruns and HBO series On Demand.