Friday, April 30, 2010

This month on the Baltimore City Paper's Noise blog (which has a new URL, if you need to update your bookmarks), I wrote live reviews of Ted Leo/Pharmacists @ the 9:30 Club, Rasputina/Prudence Teacup @ the Ottobar, and In Every Room/Lord Jeff/Truman Peyote @ Pet Cemetary.

“You Make My Dreams” and the Retconning of a Cultural Touchstone

Wednesday, April 28, 2010
As kind of an addendum to my post the other day about The Bird And The Bee’s new album, Interpreting the Masters Volume 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates, I thought I’d talk a little bit about another odd little wave of Hall & Oates revivalism that’s been popping up a lot lately. I kind of hate when people talk about the 'revival' of some huge pop group and act surprised or suspicious bout it suddenly being cool to like a band that’s basically a cultural institution that doesn’t really care whether you like it at this point. It was especially surreal for me, as someone who’s heard tons of Steely Dan his whole life, to see people cop an attitude about “oh they’re cool now." Because really, once you’ve had that many hits, the music is just floating in the air forever and people are free to forget about it and then remember or rediscover it, over and over and over. That’s just how it works.

I come from a little bit of a different perspective on Hall & Oates, though. They weren’t really represented on the classic rock stations and canonical rock mag lists I got my formative education on the ‘70s and early ‘80s from. And by the time I had MTV the only time they were on it was when Beavis & Butthead were chuckling at the campy “Maneater” and “Jingle Bell Rock” clips. I’m not even sure I heard “Rich Girl” until after it was sampled on a fuckin’ Young Gunz/Juelz Santana song. But I fully acknowledge now that that’s all a product of my own fucked up personal cultural blinders, and that I’m some kind of dumbass for not knowing “Private Eyes” or “I Can’t Go For That” or recognizing them as great songs until I was an adult. And over the past few years there’s been a lot of different people reclaiming them as something worth talking about or enjoying, from Pitchfork interviewing Hall and playing up that he made records with Robert Fripp, or emo rappers Gym Class Heroes at one point planning to do a whole record full of H&O samples.

“You Make My Dreams” is not a song I would’ve considered one of H&O’s signature hits a few years ago. It climbed to #5 in 1981, so obviously it was a major hit, but considering that the single before it and the two after it all hit #1 that year (the far more iconic “Kiss On My List,” “Private Eyes” and “I Can’t Go For That”), it can be seen as the weakest link of the incredible hot streak the duo were on. Again, I’m not the best judge of their catalog, since I was born in 1982, and didn’t hear a lot of their music growing up. But even when I worked the front desk at my old job and the radio was left on to the ‘mix’ station, I heard a lot of “Private Eyes” and “Sara Smile,” and never “Dreams.” But it’s had kind of a big year, or last couple years, and while the above scene from the po mo rom rom (500) Days of Summer, which was a moderate box office hit last August, is the most high profile example, it’s far from the only one.

The above video has racked up over a million views since December (apparently “lip dubs” are a thing? YouTube frightens me, to be honest). “500 days of summer” is one of the tags on the video, so I’m guessing it was at least somewhat inspired by the movie.

However this clip, one of the more popular of the many “Keyboard Cat” viral videos that were all the rage last year (and, to be honest, the only one I was ever really entertained by), made the rounds a couple months before Summer hit theaters last summer. But the weird thing is how many more examples of the song creeping into pop culture there have been the last couple years. In 2007, R&B singer Amerie released a Cee-Lo-written single “Take Control,” which was a big hit in Europe but flopped at home, that nicks a bit of “Dreams” for the vocal melody (although the similarity is so passing that I never would’ve noticed it if not credited in the liner notes). “Dreams” accompanied a montage in the July 2008 movie Step Brothers (not unlike the montage the song soundtracked a decade earlier in The Wedding Singer), and in October 2008, Will Forte and Fred Armisen sang a song to the tune of “Dreams” on SNL’s Weekend Update. Then, “Dreams” popped up in a February 2009 episode of “The Office,” a September episode of “Glee,” and an October episode of “Private Practice.” And bear in mind, only those last two examples came after Summer’s release.

Again, numerous Hall & Oates songs are virtually pop standards, and pop up in TV shows and movies and internet videos all the time. But no one of them pops up nearly as often as “Dreams,” even much more famous songs like “Maneater.” Even on the iTunes store right now, “Dreams” is the group’s #1 seller, and I’m pretty positive that wasn’t the case 5 years ago. This kind of thing happens all the time these days. A thread on I Love Music about “songs that weren't a band’s biggest hit, but have gone on to be their legacy song and biggest iTunes seller” quickly became a list of instances in which pop culture licensing trumped chart success. “Tiny Dancer,” previously one of Elton John’s lesser hits that missed the Top 40, has become one of his most played classic rock staples on the order of “Rocket Man” since Almost Famous propelled it back into popular consciousness a decade ago. ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” was used really memorably in a Volkswagen ad in 2003, and it feels like it’s been in a dozen movies since then. Even a contemporary artist like M.I.A. can have a song like “Paper Planes” in the trailer for Pineapple Express, a year after its initial single release was barely a blip on the charts, and throttle it into the top 10.

But these are all instances of one particular usage of a song creating an initial buzz that begets more buzz. With “You Make My Dreams,” I’m not sure where it started or how interrelated all the different examples are. Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” has popped in a similar diverse number of ways in the past decade, both before and after its infamous placement in the finale of “The Sopranos,” but that song has felt pretty ubiquitous my whole life. “You Make My Dreams” was born a year before I was, and it’s only suddenly in my late ‘20s that I’m really getting to know it. Maybe it’s just a great, incredibly joyous song (which it is) and people are unstoppably drawn to its buoyant energy, but I’ll continue to wonder if there’s something more to it.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Last month the Los Angeles singer Inara George released two very different albums with two different groups that were both kind of deliberately short and breezy (each only 30 minutes long), conceptually derivative, and both nonetheless very enjoyable. One was Interpreting the Masters Volume 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates by the duo she’s best known for fronting, The Bird And The Bee, and the other was Love To Live, the debut album from a trio of singers known as The Living Sisters.

Interpreting the Masters Volume 1 comes on the heels of years of coolness rehab for Hall & Oates, who were pretty painfully uncool for a couple decades after their initial run of pop hits, before people remembered how great those songs are. The Bird And The Bee aren’t really interested in making H&O hip or edgy, though; multi-instrumentalist Greg Kurstin was a member of ‘90s alt-rock footnotes Geggy Tah, and the electro pop that B&B release on Blue Note Records is so slick and plush it’s funny to think how up in arms people ever were about Norah Jones recording for the label. So the covers on Interpreting are almost as smooth and radio-friendly as the originals, with the cool calm vocals of Inara George making little effort to channel those of Daryl Hall, arguably the funkiest white man of the ‘70s (although my personal nominee for that title would be her own father, Lowell George of Little Feat).

But mostly Interpreting feels like a cool cruise through the oldies because there’s no air of diehard fandom, no deep cuts being rescued from obscurity -- most of the songs covered hit #1, and the only one that missed the top 10 was the early breakthrough hit “She’s Gone.” Instead, it's a straight up celebration of pop music, as indicated by the title and content of the album's one original song, “Heard It On The Radio,” which deserves some credit for the fact that I didn’t easily pick it out as not a H&O composition (although it's not quite a pastiche, or at least not a particularly accurate one), and that I get it stuck in my head as often as any of the classic hits here after listening to the album. I’m curious if the Volume 1 in the title is tongue and cheek and this is really a one-off, or if The Bird And The Bee will be doing more covers albums. My nomination for the next installment would be Van Halen, since the DLR tribute “Diamond Dave” was my favorite track on last year’s Ray Guns Are Not Just The Future, and George’s family probably received more royalties for 5150’s cover of Little Feat’s “A Apolitical Blues” than for most of her father’s actual records.

The Living Sisters are George’s side project with two other L.A.-based singer/songwriters, Eleni Mandell, who’s released several solo records including last year’s fantastic Artificial Fire, and Becky Stark of the band Lavender Diamond, who I’ve never heard. I wasn’t really sure what to make of them at first, assembling a vaguely retro harmony group and wearing matching outfits. And though the opening track “How Are You Doing?” camps it up a little bit, they mostly sidestep doing some kind of goofball Pipettes-type schtick and just sing really gentle, pretty doo wop and country balladry. Mandell’s smoky voice lends songs like “Ferris Wheel” and “Hold Back” enough character that they feel like more than genre exercies, and gorgeous harmonies on songs like “Blue” will probably make this an album I’ll continue coming back to over the next few months. I had a moment the other day listening to “Cradle” while holding my son in my arms that was kind of perfect. The bonus track on my copy, a cover of “Starman,” however, is so irritating that I hope George isn’t planning an Interpreting The Masters volume of David Bowie songs.

On top of the two group albums George just released, she also put out a solo album less than 6 months ago. Accidental Experimental is kind of a humble little collection of leftover songs and a few alternate versions of songs from her 2008 album with Van Dyke Parks, An Invitation. I haven’t heard the latter, but anyway this is really enjoyable too, and really if I’d heard it when it came out last October, it probably would have been higher on my year-end list than The Bird And The Bee’s album, “Bottlecaps” is just heavenly. And the fact that I’ve just recently quadrupled the number of albums I’ve heard by Inara George and am still curious to hear more is a pretty good sign.

10 Women Besides Betty White Who Should Host SNL

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The news that Saturday Night Live had given in to online demand for Betty White to host the show was interesting in and of itself, just as an example of the world we now live in: a deeply entrenched pop culture institution bending to the will of a Facebook group. The announcement that the Mother’s Day weekend episode next month would be a ‘women in comedy’ special, with a bunch of female former cast members showing up to share the spotlight with the host, struck me as a little odd, though. Maybe it was at White’s own request, since she’s 88 years old and maybe understandably apprehensive about carrying a 90-minute live broadcast on her own. But it also made me think a bit about how the show has featured women and chosen female hosts in recent years.

As I said in a recent post, I just finished reading Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, and one of the interesting recurring themes of the book is seeing how various cast members, staffers and hosts have different takes on the show’s “boys’ club” reputation throughout its history. One of the consensus agreements is that things have been better since about the late ‘90s, both in terms of the gender balance of the cast and the writing for women. Tina Fey became the show’s first female head writer around that time, and is probably the show’s most popular alumnus right now, and Kristen Wiig is arguably the breakout star of the current cast (although last year’s firing of the promising Michaela Watkins and Casey Wilson, the latter reportedly over her weight, got the argument about the show’s handling of women fired up all over again). SNL is no longer accused of not thinking women are funny, or knowing what they think is funny, at least not as routinely -- the cast is still dominated by guys who have an ear for distinctly guy humor, but it’s nothing like the fratty peak of the Sandler/Spade/Farley years. And Lorne and NBC keep trying to make Molly Shannon happen (terrible spinoff movie Superstar, terrible sitcom “Kath & Kim,” letting her return to host, possibly the most unjustified “Best of...” DVD/special in the history of the show’s cast), so somebody must like her.

But SNL grudgingly giving a seasoned comedy veteran like Betty White the gig after several weeks of publicly hemming and hawing, and making her share the duty with others, just kind of brought to mind one of the main things that’s been bothering me about the show lately. White will be the 10th female host of this season, which is a huge jump up from last year, when only 3 women hosted. In fact, last season the lowest number of female hosts in a full season in over two decades (the ‘07/’08 season and the ‘87/’88 season each had 3 female hosts in runs shortened by WGA strikes). The only time that number’s ever dipped lower was the doomed ‘85/’85 season, in which Kathleen Turner and Pamela Sue Martin were the only women who hosted. And the only time the number was ever gone about 10 was in the 29th season, when 11 women hosted 10 shows (one was with the Olsen twins). But the problem with the current season is that more than ever, the standards for what women are fit to host have sunk far below that of the men. This was especially glaring last fall, when young starlets Blake Lively, January Jones and Megan Fox all hosted middling to terrible episodes, in which they mainly played the hot girl in sketches full of jokes about how hot they are. That might be more forgivable if any of them were major stars (Lively and Jones are on widely talked about shows that are hardly ratings juggernauts, and the weekend Fox hosted, her first major star vehicle without the aid of giant robots was a giant box office bomb). Add to that old standbys like Drew Barrymore and Tina Fey, and the SNL for some reason pretending Lopez still has enough of a career to be the host and musical guest, and it’s clear that those 10 shows were padded out with some pretty uninspired bookings. Not that SNL weren’t equal opportunity offenders, though; Taylor Lautner is basically the male equivalent of Megan Fox. To her credit, though, Taylor Swift held her own as the token pop star host, Sigourney Weaver was great, and I think Gabourey Sidibe’s episode this weekend has potential.

So as SNL’s 35th season heads toward its end, here are some humble suggestions for the 36th. I tried to keep the list pretty reasonable and plausible, people that are actually famous enough that they actually could host the show at this point in their career the next time they have a movie or major project to promote. There are a lot of other women I’d like to see host that aren’t really known well enough right now that I’d like to see host (Judy Greer, Maria Bamford, Lizzy Caplan, Sarah Chalke, Portia de Rossi, Aisha Tyler, Jane Krakowski, Alyson Hannigan, Elizabeth Banks), as well as former cast members (Joan Cusack, Maya Rudolph, Sarah Silverman) and past hosts (Christina Applegate, Glenn Close). But for now, I’ll focus on women who have never hosted:

Kristen Bell
The former “Veronica Mars” has a great ear for comedy, and even if her first starring vehicle When In Rome was a dud, she has been in hits like Couples Retreat and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and c’mon, she’s hotter, younger and more famous than January Jones even if that was the only criteria here.

Jane Lynch
After a decade of countless hilarious bit parts in Christopher Guest and Judd Apatow flicks, Jane Lynch is now the star of one of TV’s biggest new hits, “Glee.” This should be a no-brainer.

Sandra Bullock
It’s funny, early on in brainstorming for this list, I threw Bullock’s name on the list just as an actress who’s been in a good number of comedies and whose career is doing well at the moment. But now that her life is kind of a tabloid shitstorm, it would really be a great time for her to go on SNL, make fun of it all and blow off some steam.

Katherine Heigl
Heigl has starred in a lot of romantic comedies in the last few years, but as with a lot of female leads in rom coms, she rarely does much heavy lifting in the actual funniness department. She chose to point this out, however, in the worst possible way, criticizing her breakthrough hit, Knocked Up, for portraying women as “humorless and uptight.” That, along with throwing the TV show that made her famous, “Grey’s Anatomy,” under the bus, has kind of given her a reputation as being, well, a little humorless and uptight. And like Bullock, if she went on SNL to make fun of the situation, and actually proved she could be hilarious and have a sense of humor, it’d be a huge PR coup.

Wanda Sykes
This won’t happen anytime soon because her talk show is on FOX during SNL’s timeslot, but it goes without saying she’d be funny.

Susan Sarandon
Last year when Sarandon made a cameo appearance in the “Mother Lover” digital short, it was really odd to realize that the actress, whose career has lasted pretty much the entirety of SNL’s lifespan, has never actually hosted the show. I think she’d be pretty good at it, too.

Meryl Streep
Streep’s someone else whose career has spanned most of SNL’s 35 years who’s never been on the show, and considering that she’s been doing more comedies, and having bigger box office success, in the last few years than she has ever before, it seems like the right time for her to do it. Maybe Abby Elliott needs to make her Streep impression a running character to set the stage for it.

Amanda Seyfried
Dear John and Mamma Mia!’s success have cemented her as fast rising star, but she hasn’t really gotten to be funny since Mean Girls, where she was hysterical.

Toni Collette
Collette is a talented and award-winning actress who’s currently showing off her versatility in “The United States of Tara,” a fucking awful series that uses multiple personality disorder as a backdrop for a ridiculous and stupid array of ‘characters’ inhabited by Collette’s titular housewife. If any/all of those personalities originated as an SNL sketch, they might be funny and impressive performances, but in the context of the show they’re gross and off-putting. It’d be nice to see her apply those talents to some straight up comedy.

Isla Fisher
No, she’s never hosted the show before. You’re probably thinking of the time Amy Adams hosted. Yes, I’m sure.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

As much as I love Ludacris’s 2000 debut Back For The First Time and his run of singles and guest spots early in his career, I’ll be the first to admit that he’s squandered his potential over and over, paradoxically falling into a rut by trying too hard. For 3 or 4 albums straight, he bogged down his albums with increasingly desperate bids for respect from the snooty old guard that ignored him for so long that by the time he finally got Jay-Z, Nas and DJ Premier on an album, he'd already been lapped by a ton of other Southern rappers. So his recent Battle Of The Sexes is encouraging simply for breaking out of that holding pattern.

That's not to say Battle totally breaks free of the doldrums of Ludalbumitis, though. Some of the R&B cuts on here are as worthless as those singles from Theater Of The Mind, and "My Chick Bad" is a serious contender for most miserable hit song of the year. "Party No Mo" is underwhelming both as a Gucci Mane feature and as the first Luda/Bangladesh collaboration in almost 8 years. On the upside, though, “B.O.T.S. Radio” brings back the goofy high concept vibe of early DTP posse cuts, “Everybody Drunk” is a banger, and “Feelin’ So Sexy,” one of the few remaining collabs with Shawnna, who was originally going to be on the whole album, is pretty successful at retaining the concept of the album without being too soft or too corny.

The 2010 Remix Report Card, Vol. 4

Tuesday, April 20, 2010
"I'm Ill (Remix)" Part 1 by Red Cafe featuring The LOX / Part 2 featuring Ryan Leslie, Lloyd Banks and Claudette Ortiz
If the moldy old trend of sampling Jay-Z's voice for hooks hadn't jumped the shark a long time ago, it would with this limp loop of some cringe-inducing ad libs from his "A Milli" remix ("I'm EWW, rrrrahhh"), and Red Cafe propping up so so semi-hits with all-star remixes never really had a shark to jump. Jada goes in on the first remix but it's kinda predictable and hammers home the boring nu-NYC rap vibe, whereas the 2nd one adds some new shit to the beat and lets R-Les give it a whole new hook. The intro by one of Wyclef's old B-list girls is kinda pointless, though.
Best Verse: Jadakiss
Overall Grade: C+

"Long King (Remix)" by The-Dream featuring Jeezy
I never really like Jeezy (still feel weird about him dropping the Young) on R&B tracks, unless he's like making fun of the track like on that J-Hud remix, but this sounded better than I expected it to.
Best Verse: n/a
Overall Grade: B-

"Nothing On You (Remix)" by B.o.B. featuring Big Boi and Bruno Mars
B.o.B. is such a brazen Andre 3000 soundalike that I feel like this remix was done on purpose to further confuse any pop radio listeners who thought it was a new Outkast song. Basically though this is just Big Boi tacking a verse on the original and there's nothing especially good or bad about it.
Best Verse: n/a
Overall Grade: C

"Pretty Girls (Remix)" by Wale featuring Chris Brown and Fabolous
This song has been on the radio 24/7 around D.C. for so many months now that I sometimes have to remind myself that it wasn't really a major hit all over the country. I really never get sick of that beat, though, as sick as I get of Wale's pained wordplay and forced rhymes, so it's great to hear some new twists on it, including a crazy synth line during Fab's verse. Wale does a little damage control for the 'controversy' of having light-skinned girls in the video by going "I like 'em all shades all races all figures," and the fucking despicable domestic violence poster boy continues to attempt career damage control, but fuck Chris Brown, this remix shoulda had Chuck Brown on it.
Best Verse: Fabolous
Overall Grade: B

"Rude Boy (Remix)" by Rihanna featuring Rick Ross
It was such a disappointment to hear that Officer Rawse was on the official remix on this, since you know they could've done a killer remix with some real party MCs or some cats with island roots. This is one of those rare occasions that I will admit Ross wasn't bad on this, though, especially the first verse.
Best Verse: n/a
Overall Grade: B-

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Since writing my top 30 Freeway tracks of 2009 post a couple months ago, I feel kind of like the unofficial curator of this ridiculously prolific stream of material he’s been releasing lately, and that I have some kind of obligation to continue to keep track of it all. And that hasn’t been easy, since in the first 3 months of 2010, he’s already released 4 full-length projects, albeit most of them as part of a collaboration.

I already talked a bit last month about the most high profile of those releases, The Stimulus Package with Jake One, which is by no means killer from front to back but is still pretty damn good. And the solo mixtape he released around the same time, which some retailers packaged as a bonus disc for people that preorder Stimulus, is Freelapse, featuring Freeway rapping over Eminem beats for reasons I still don’t really understand. A couple of songs from this that leaked a while ago were on my ‘09 Freeway list (the hilarious “Freeway’s Beard” and “When I Rap,” titled here as “Laugh At ‘Em”), and the rest of it is hit and miss but worth hearing. I’ve never been a big fan of the Aftermath production aesthetic, and it’s weird to hear a rapper who had his pick of the wildest Just Blaze beats of the early ‘00s look back on that era in order to rap over tracks like “Without Me” and “Sing For The Moment.”

In March, Free released two duo projects with other Philadelphia MCs, the more high profile being The Roc Boys, and independent album with his mentor Beanie Sigel. Obviously, the title is a bit of a jab in the direction of Jay, who Beans is still pissed at and Free still has no interest in running off at the mouth about. But it lives up to its premise about as much as Wu Massacre, feeling mostly like a short slapped-together collection of alternating solo tracks and maybe a couple actual collabs, including some songs that were released or leaked last year. And really, Beanie’s appearance on the Stimulus Package intro is better than anything he raps on there. The other duo record is the Defense, Offense mixtape by Free Money, which is a group comprised of Freeway and another bald bearded Philly dude, Jakk Frost. And quite frankly, even I am not a big enough Freeway stan to rep for his boring sidekick or listen to the guy’s solo tracks more than once, but the guy isn’t terrible and overall it’s not a bad mixtape.

After I posted my top 30 tracks piece, my friend Robbie, who hadn’t kept up with Free much since the Philadelphia Freeway days, asked me to make him a mix to get him up to speed. I ended up going all over the places with it, obviously weighted more toward the recent run Free’s been on, but also including some tracks from ‘04 and ‘06, a few things from Free At Last (including the awesome outtake “Step Back”), and some stuff from the new 2010 releases in addition to the things that were on my list for last year’s output:

1. “It’s Over”
2. “Never Gonna Change” with Jake One
3. “Errly”
4. “Parade” by Young Gunz featuring Freeway
5. “When I Rap” a.k.a. “Laugh At ‘Em”
6. “Freeway’s Beard”
7. “Cannon (Remix)” by DJ Drama featuring Lil Wayne, Willie The Kid, Freeway and T.I.
8. “Step Back” featuring Lil Wayne
9. “Walk Wit Me” featuring Busta Rhymes and Jadakiss
10. “Rap Spitters”
11. “Bank Rollz”
12. “North Philly”
13. “North Philly’s Finest”
14. “Forgot About J”
15. “Roc-A-Fella Billionaires” featuring Jay-Z
16. “What Would You Do” by Statik Selektah featuring Freeway and Cassidy
17. “Keep Yo Hands Up (Remix)” featuring Sheek Louch
18. “Rep Yo Click” featuring Lil Jon
19. “Attitude”
20. “She Makes Me Feel Alright” with Jake One
21. “Transporter”
22. “Love”
23. “Still Got Love”

TV Diary

Friday, April 16, 2010
a) "Treme"
As big a deal as a new David Simon series invariably is for me, I kind of am just assuming that anything he does not set in Baltimore will never have the kind of resonance for me that his Baltimore shows/books have had, even beyond the simple fact that "The Wire" is a tough act to follow. And as worthy as post-Katrina New Orleans is as subject matter, I have a hard time seeing this beyond nearly as complex or fascinating a show, just because there's such a singular event and problem to draw everything back to. Still, this is pretty damn exciting, especially given that it features several of my favorite "The Wire"/"Homicide"/"The Corner" actors alongside guys like John Goodman and Steve Zahn who are capable of great things with the right material. The pilot seemed to be more setting things in motion and establishing a tone than anything else, and I hope that a real plot kicks in in the next few episodes, but right now I'm enjoying just watching this cast & crew go to work.

b) "Tough Love: Couples"
The first two seasons of "Tough Love" struck a fine balance between reality TV sleaze and self-help cheese, and this incarnation looks to lean more toward the latter, but I'm kind of cool with that, and it looks like there are a few nutjobs and douchebags that will keep it interesting. My general interest in what makes couples tick and why some work and some ultimately don't is probably the same reason I'm one of the only people who doesn't seem to hate "The Marriage Ref."

c) "Justified"
It feels like this show is FX's attempt to repeat the success of "Sons of Anarchy," putting kind of anachronistic character(s) into a modern setting and trying to convincingly cultivate a lawless small town environment without straining plausibility too much (in that show it's an old-fashioned biker gang, in this one it's a wild west-style lawman wearing a cowboy hat). That show has a whole lot of interesting relationships going on, though, where "Justified," which was based on a short story, feels kind of spread thin from a shaky foundation, and the pilot establishes a dynamic between three main characters that is just not interesting at all. Plus Timothy Olyphant may be the movie star coming to TV here, but it's not like he's ever carried any especially good movie, and I'm not totally convinced in his ability to make this show work, likable as he is. But the show is slowly getting better after a slow start, as it gets into more procedural type cases for him to work on, and the last episode with Alan Rock committing a bunch of senseless acts of violence felt like a whole different world from the boring first couple episodes.

d) "Ugly Americans"
Time and experience has proven that Comedy Central doesn't really know all that much about comedy, and that their great shows may have happened more or less by accident, but it still amazes me when they put on shows like this with virtually no comedic value at all. Like, this is barely even a show.

e) "Spartacus: Blood and Sand"
My line about enjoying "True Blood" has been that I just appreciate a premium cable show going balls to the wall with as much sex and violence as it can get away with, but this show (which could easily be called "Blood and Bare Asses" instead) pretty much disproves that theory by being completely amateurish and boring. My wife has been watching it a lot, but I think she might be enjoying it on the same level as SyFy original movies. It almost makes 300 seem artful and restrained.

f) "Parenthood"
I like the rhythm this show has been setting, where every character has one plot or arc they're dealing with and it just plays out in small increments in each episode and overlapping with other characters in ways that aren't too predictable or mechanical. That may not seem like much, but it's so easy in shows like this for the writers to get antsy and throw a bunch of crazy developments into the gears to make things more exciting, and instead they're being more patient about it. I still have a hard time buying the cast as a family -- I know a 17-year gap between siblings isn't unheard of but the idea of Erika Christensen, who's the same age as me, having Peter Krause as a big brother is weird to me. Plus noone looks alike, it's just central casting attractive white people central.

g) "Lost"
The last season has just been flying by, and while I'll withhold a lot of my criticisms depending on how the remainder pans out, I have been enjoying the last few episodes a lot more than the first few, pretty much since they got out of that boring styrofoam temple it's been getting consistently more entertaining. I wish they didn't keep stringing along the flash-sideways thing for so long, but it's starting to pay off, at least. I really want my mind to be blown by something big, though, and I mean soon, not just in the finale.

h) "American Idol"
I know there's only so many theme weeks they can do with this show that would actually work, but these guys are fuckin' killing me with the same shit over and over. Beatles week and Elvis week back to back? Please! I would love to be a producer on this show and try to bring the slightest bit of freshness to these song selections. I'm still just kind of half-heartedly watching this season, tuning in for the first half of episodes and then flipping to "Lost," so I don't really have much of an opinion besides rooting for Siobhan, even when she's not great or does the big notes too much, and not really buying the hype with Crystal. The guys are all different flavors of bland, pretty much.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

One of the music industry trends I've been giving a lot of thought to lately is the move toward making 'deluxe' versions of albums, usually the victory lap afforded to megasellers that have already been on shelves for a few months or a year, a more frequent consumer option for new releases these days. It's not really a new thing per se, there's been bonus DVDs and stuff tacked onto more expensive versions of new albums for quite a while now. But the difference now is that artists of all levels of popularity are getting deluxe versions, and more and more it feels like the deluxe version is the proper, complete album that the artist wanted, and the cheaper, shorter one that most customers get is the barebones compromise the label was happy with. A few months ago, I praised Robin Thicke's Sex Therapy: The Experience, which is only 11 minutes longer than Sex Therapy: The Session, but the difference is in several intro/interlude and solo tracks that form the connective tissue that make the guest-heavy Session tracks feel more like a cohesive album. The deluxe version of Raheem DeVaughn's new album The Love & War MasterPeace is a far more extreme use of the concept -- it's the 2-hour double album that he'd been talking about releasing for the past year, but the main retail version is simply the first disc, just over half the length of the real deal.

As much as I enjoyed DeVaughn's 2nd album, 2008's Love Behind The Melody, that one hour of music was such a meal of willfully eclectic R&B that it's really about as much ambition as I can handle from a guy who I ultimately think is only moderately talented and not terribly original. Its slow jams were lovely, its club songs surprisingly capable, but once "Customer" hit he seemed to think he was ready for the ringtone R&B big time, cutting a terrible new single "Text Messages" intended for a deluxe reissue of the album that was scrapped once the song justifiably flopped. And the first couple singles off The Love & War MasterPeace (ugh that title) took him even further off the course: "Bulletproof" featuring Ludacris aimed for Marvin Gaye and ended up with a "Runaway Love"-era Luda snore, and the Ne-Yo-penned "I Don't Care" sounds like something he scrapped off the bottom of his shoe circa In My Own Words.

It was Matt Cibula that convinced me I needed to hear not just MasterPeace but the whole deluxe version, if only for the 11-minute hip house throwback epic "Lose Control." And he's right, that song is incredible and incredibly fun, possibly one of my favorite songs of the year so far. And the 2nd bonus disc of the album also includes my other favorite song on the record, the dark slow burn of "Hopeless Romantic." Unfortunately, hearing those songs means hearing the whole overkill double album, which is even more indulgent and unrewarding than I'd feared. Having Cornel West host your album is a cute idea in theory, but if his interludes, which are mostly annoying and have zero replay value, end up taking up almost 12 minutes of the album (6 of the non-deluxe version) something is terribly terribly wrong. "Microphone" is kind of Raheem's deliberate attempt at writing an R. Kelly song after he kind of did it by accident with "Customer," and "B.O.B." (which stands for "battery operated boyfriend") is clever in a way DeVaughn really just doesn't have the balls to pull off -- Kells or one of his other more animated nu-R&B disciples would make it hilarious, but Radio Raheem just deadpans it. And then there's that whole Marvin-aping protest soul angle of much of the album, about which the less said the better. Unfortunately, I can't say that the deluxe package was a bad idea, because if his label had been forced to pare the album down to just their vague idea of its most accessible possible incarnation, we'd probably never get a chance to hear "Lose Control."

Monday, April 12, 2010
A few new Singles Jukebox blurbs:

Yo Gotti ft. Lil Wayne – Women Lie, Men Lie [2/5.25]
T-Pain – Reverse Cowgirl [5/5.29]
DJ Khaled ft. T-Pain, Ludacris, Rick Ross and Snoop Dogg – All I Do Is Win [2/5.67]
Usher ft. – OMG [3/3.43]
Waka Flocka Flame – O Let’s Do It [4/5.17]
Ludacris ft. Nicki Minaj – My Chick Bad [1/6.17]

Reading Diary

Friday, April 09, 2010
a) Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son by Michael Chabon
I got this as a gift a while back, and having never read Chabon's fiction didn't really know whether I was super interested in reading it. But pretty much as soon as I cracked the spine I got pretty well sucked in; this guy is good. Beyond that, the topics he's autobiographically reflecting on in these essays inevitably resonate with me big time, since I'm still settling into the whole reality of having a son and being married, and he approaches those subjects with creativity and warmth; to be honest some of this stuff really makes me misty and/or feel some deep shit. I guess I should check out one of his novels (although definitely not Wonder Boys, having seen the movie recently and having a hard time imagining finding a book version at all interesting -- it seems like the Kids In The Hall "Second Novel" sketch come to life).

b) Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, as Told By Its Stars, Writers and Guests by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller
I'd always heard this weighty tome was good, and it is; so many hilarious stories and weird revelations. Sometimes the format gets a little exhausting, one big block quote after another, and there are some people that are just so weirdly humorless or bitter or dull talking about their experiences with SNL that I wish they'd just cut out their parts instead of publishing bits of everyone they interviewed.

c) The Door by Mary Roberts Rinehart
One day at my old job, a co-worker came in with a box of old books they were cleaning out of I think a relative's house that were up for grabs. So one of the books I impulsively decided to take was a volume containing a few mysteries by Mary Roberts Rinehart, who was popular way back in the '20s and '30s, since, as I said last year after reading The Maltese Falcon, I'm kind of interested in old mystery fiction since it seems like such a basic building block of so much genre TV and cinema these days. It's neat to go to the source of a lot of the tropes and cliches that are now being deconstructed and parodied and modernized, and in this case The Door turned out to be the point of origin of the "the butler did it" cliche. Of course, I made the mistake of coming across that fact online before finishing the book, and I'm hoping nobody reads this blog in the middle of reading the book someday, but there it is. It really didn't spoil the story, though, so it was kind of more enjoyable as a journey than a destination, all the odd little accumulated details eventually unravelling and adding up, and there's an odd charm and dry humor to her somewhat antiquated writing style.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010
I'm a huge fan of the B-52's, and was extremely geeked to recently do a quick phone interview with Fred Schneider for Splice Today to promote his show in Baltimore this weekend.

Monthly Report: March Albums

Monday, April 05, 2010

1. Erykah Badu - New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh)
New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) was a tremendous record, but since the albums in this series are kind of designed as counterpoints to each other, I knew this album wouldn’t be full of the same kind of dark alien funk. But this slightly more relaxed, less daring record is still pretty awesome in and of itself, and even as “20 Feet Tall” and “Gone Baby, Don’t Be Long” hook me right off the bat, I could see the rest of it growing on me big time.

2. Ted Leo/Pharmacists - The Brutalist Bricks
My status as a Ted Leo stan should be completely confirmed by now, given that I recently called The Tyranny Of Distance my favorite album of the past decade and compiled a mix of all the covers he’s recorded, but I always feel a little out of step with the general opinion of his records. My two least favorite Pharmacists records are the popular breakthrough and consensus favorite, 2003’s Hearts of Oak, and the new The Brutalist Bricks, which has been getting a much warmer critical reception than the last 2 albums that I loved. But I’m still enough of a shameless fan that I really like this anyway, and I’m hoping that this Thursday’s show in D.C. will help me get into some of these songs more. I kinda knew this album might be a disappointment back when he was playing darker, punkier songs like “The Stick” and “Mourning In America” on tour in the last couple years, but so far those are actually some of my favorites, and in general the jangly power pop stuff just isn’t measuring up to his earlier efforts.

3. Jaguar Love - Hologram Jams
It’s kind of funny to me how what little inroads Jaguar Love made to indie rock acceptability on their great debut, Take Me To The Sea, have been quickly reversed with their second album, which isn’t as good but is still perfectly enjoyable. The band fired their drummer and worked up a bunch of material with drum machines and more synths, and immediately Matador said “thanks but no thanks” and Pitchfork panned them. But really this album is neither a sellout nor particularly unexpected, and really just feels like a more amped up version of Johnny Whitney’s 2005 project Neon Blonde. “Up All Night” is really fun, “Evaline” is beautiful, and “Polaroids and Red Wine” might beat out Ted Leo’s “One Polaroid A Day” for the best Polaroid-related song released last month. Even the hopelessly uncool Janis Joplin cover that closes the album is pretty entertaining, and kinda makes sense given that Whitney is one of the only contemporary rock singers I can think of with the kind of crazy screech to pull it off.

4. Jimi Hendrix - Valleys Of Neptune
I’ve always loved Hendrix, he was really the first canonical classic rock artist that I went out of my way to buy CDs of when I started building my own music collection, but that petered out quickly once I realized how vast, inconsistent and largely inessential his posthumous catalog is beyond those 3 Experience albums. Lately I’ve been somewhat inspired to start sorting through all that stuff again, from the comination of reading the 33 1/3 book on Electric Ladyland, borrowing some CDs from my friend Mat to rip to my computer, and eMusic recently getting the Hendrix catalog. So this ‘new’ album comes at a good time for me that I’m a bit less cynical about it than I otherwise might be. And the really exciting thing here is that most of the recordings were actually cut with Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding, so you actually kinda get to hear what a 4th Experience album might’ve sounded like. The Cream cover and the retreads of familiar favorites like “Stone Free” kinda clutter this up, but the bulk of the album that’s mostly lesser known ‘new’ songs are a real treat.

5. Fabolous - There Is No Competition 2: The Funeral Service
Fab has done a better job than pretty much every other mainstream New York rapper of adapting to the times, working with R&B singers and Southern rappers in a way that’s still in his comfort zone and generally dropping hot lines even on the dumbest hits. It’s still a little jarring to hear him once again reaffirm his street cred with a mixtape of ‘real rap’ to once again appease the fans that hated on his last slick crossover-ready album, but punchlines are what he does and he sounds like he’s having as much fun here as on “Say Aah,” saying goofy shit like “I’m Paul Blart, n---a, all I do is mall cop” or singing “gone” in falsetto in the background after an N Sync reference. Freestyle mixtapes are often only as good as their beats allow them to be, and sometimes he sounds really strained over radio hits like “O Let’s Do It,” but for the most part he makes it work, like he always does. That “niiiice” ad lib really needs to go, though.

Monthly Report: March Singles

Friday, April 02, 2010

1. Paramore - “The Only Exception”
Paramore’s breakthrough album Riot! had one or two songs that could’ve been their big pop crossover third single (in tradition of girl rock crossover ballads like No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak” and Evanescence’s “My Immortal”), but they shied away from that and even the big Twilight soundtrack song didn’t go all the way in that direction. But this song was the big gooey shameless standout on last year’s brand new eyes, and after 2 uptempo singles that weren’t remotely as catchy as “Misery Business” they’ve finally unleashed this as a single with a really good video, although it doesn’t really be hitting at all, so maybe too little too late.

2. Pitbull f/ Sensato, Black Point, Lil Jon & El Cata - “Watagatapitusberry”
I still have no idea what this song is about or how it became some kind of meme before Pitbull made it into his own song. But it’s pretty hilarious and enjoyable, and DJ Class’s production has kind of turned it into the umpteenth iteration of “I’m The Ish,” which seems to keep on taking on a new life every time I think it’s over.

3. The-Dream - “Love King”
There’s a sect of critics who really love The-Dream and take him very very seriously and think the slow long-ass “Fancy” is his best song. And even though he wrote my favorite album of last year (the Electrik Red one, not his own), I still generally think he’s just a really prolific, effective hack, and enjoy him more in goofy “Take U Home To My Mama” mode. So this single is really working for me right now -- wasn’t totally sold on it when it hit the internet a few weeks ago, but hearing it on the radio for the first time recently it really worked.

4. Train - “Hey, Soul Sister”
I’ve known for over a decade that Pat Monahan is perhaps the most embarrassing, cringe-inducing man alive, since when I saw Train open for Ben Folds Five and he played a saxophone solo and did goofy little dances and sang “Ramble On.” According to his official bio, he’s 41 now and would’ve been only 30 then, which I totally don’t believe, because the leather-faced motherfucker looked like he’d been playing in cover bands for 20 years by that point already. I almost feel bad for a friend of mine who has the same last name as him. But whatever, Train are a pretty solid singles band, and though this song’s hook isn’t as irresistible as “Drops Of Jupiter,” I nonetheless have failed to resist it, even with jaw-droppingly awful lyrics like “my untrimmed chest” and “I’m so thug.” This amazing collection of YouTube remixes of “Hey, Soul Sister” is a testament to the song’s shameful, inscrutable appeal.

5. Lady Antebellum - “Need You Now”
I’m really late to warming to the year’s big country pop crossover hit, and in general I kinda gave up on following mainstream country well a few years ago not out of any dislike or indifference but just because it takes work. But yeah, this is good. I remember at the Grammys being totally confused that they came out and did this great Fleetwood Mac-sounding song, and then it was Taylor Swift who got to do the duet with Stevie.