30 November 2006

U2 + Green Day = Goodness

Scant time today, but I at least wanted to bring up "The Saints Are Coming," a Katrina charity single from U2 and Green Day. I'm happy to report that it sounds more like "October"-era U2 than current, bloated U2. I credit Green Day's influence.

Here's the video. What do you think?


28 November 2006

Idol Idol Everywhere

Hear this and take it to heart : There is only one Kelly Clarkson. She is the all-powerful Idol, and no others shall ever topple her.

Just below her, serving as her Chief Minister of Idoldom, sits Carrie Underwood, who deserves grudging respect for her utter dominance of the country music scene this year. Two number one singles and a major award from her field make for solid accomplishments.

And off to the side is Kelly's country cousin, Fantasia. She kind of embarassed the royal family with her Lifetime movie, but she still gets to come to Thanksgiving because her new single "Hood Boy" is pretty slammin' and "Baby Mama" is one of the best guilty pleasure songs of the decade.

Otherwise, though, Idoldom is just a field of vassals, each more disposable than the last.

Yet these vassals just keep buzzing around! A few weeks ago, it was Kellie Pickler--the poor man's Carrie Underwood... which is saying something, since Underwood came from a town called Chocktoo or something--debuting in the top ten with her off-key singing. And now it's Chris Daughtry, whose album is sitting at number one on the iTunes chart as I type this.

But, you guys? He's no longer Chris Daughtry. Now he's just Daughtry. As in, he's formed a band and named it after himself, like Bon Jovi or Van Halen. See how tough (and chunky) he seems in this picture? I mean, yes, he's a good singer for the type of music he's making, but overblown, inoffensive power rock just isn't my thing. If his album succeeds, I'll grant Chris a dukedom, but he will not be king.

Meanwhile, on December 12 Taylor Hicks unleashes his no-doubt monstrous album on the world (which is also the day Fantasia's second album drops).

Then I'll have to cross my fingers for December 19, when Katharine McPhee tries to climb up there next to Carrie Underwood. (But let's be real. Katharine's headed for a replacement role in a long-running Broadway show faster than you can forget Tamyra Gray.)

Really, I'm waiting for Kelly to come along and destroy all these fools. Or forJennifer Hudson to saunter up to the Oscar podium for "Dreamgirls" and become Kelly's ambassador to movie town.

p.s. -- Please don't think that I'm hating on all the Idol guys and loving only the women simply because of their genders. I think Mario Vazquez is pretty great, but he's not really famous enough to be part of the Idol court. No doubt most of the people from season 5 will be forgotten once season 6 begins, so maybe I won't have to think about Daughtry and Pickler ever again. Or maybe I'm kidding myself.

p.s.-- Those who love horror stories should go read this description of Kellie Pickler's potential sitcom. (Third paragraph down)


25 November 2006

Lost in the Sale Rack Jungle

Why is it that when I'm sitting at home, I can list about thirty CDs I want, but when I head to Tower's Going Out of Business Sale, I can't remember one? This happens to me in used CD stores, too. I look at the aisles brimming with copies of "Cosmic Thing" by B-52s and the "No Alternative" compilation, and I get overwhelmed. As was the case today at Tower, I wander aimlessly past shelves full of discount albums, and my brain goes numb.

This is why I prefer to shop only when I have a very specific item in mind. Otherwise, I get distracted by stuff I don't really want but still feel compelled to examine. Today, for instance, since i didn't have a goal, I allowed myself to study the track list of "Paula Cole's Greatest Hits" and an album by When in Rome.

Inexplicably, I also scoured Tower for CDs I already own. I was actually excited to see that they had a copy of Madonna's "I'm Breathless," which I've bought both on CD AND cassette. (ca-what? exactly.)

Why did finding the CD in a store make me genuinely happy? Sometimes, I'm a mystery to myself.

When I'm not seeking out my own catalogue, my approach in these cheap music environ-
ments often devolves into a vague hope for inspiration. I cast my eyes over the "rock/ pop/r&b" bins, believing that somehere... somewhere among all these Aaron Carter albums there is one CD that's waiting for me. If I can just see it, if it can just reveal itself to me like Excalibur rising from the water, then I will claim it and be changed.

Sometimes, I imagine I hear the fantasy CD whispering my name. It calls to me, muffled behind stacks of unwanted greatest hits collections.

And most of the time, I don't have the patience to answer its call. If there's too much stuff in a store, I get tired of looking around. Inevitably, I abandon all my expectations of finding the perfect disc and instead just look for interesting stuff that's immediately visible. Endcaps? Yes, please!

Today, though, that path of least resistence proved fruitful. Lazily scanning the "L" shelf, I spotted "The Essential Cyndi Lauper. At 40% off, it was only $8. RIng it up!

A few minutes after leaving, I realized I should have looked for Regina Spektor's new album. But it was too late, of course. I contented myself with Cyndi, holding her collection over my head like a warrior's prize.


24 November 2006

How Much Will You Pay to See a Musical (Film)?

One of the greatest lessons I took from grad school was the understanding that people had to be convinced their leisure time was worth paying for. It wasn't until the Elizabethan age of drama (when Shakespeare and Ben Jonson were at their peak) that the idea of paying for theater was invented. It seems so natural now, of course, that we fork over cash for the right to be entertained. Theater, television, even reading... it almost always costs something. But that was a notion that had to be invented, just like a light bulb or a toaster oven. Someone had to get the idea to sell tickets.

And in the forward march of evolution, some has now gotten the idea that a movie shown on a regular screen should cost $25. (IMAX tickets are already about that high.)

The trick? Call it VIP seating. For the first ten days of its release (December 15-24), "Dreamgirls" will be shown on only three screens--one each in New York, LA, and San Francisco--and every ticket will be $25. In New York, at least, the film is being shown in a one-screen house, so attending could very well feel like a premiere.

Along with an early peek at a movie that is rumored to be pretty good (one of my editors thinks so, at least), VIP ticket buyers also get a fifty-page, full color program and the chance to look at a lobby full of costume pieces and other "making-of" displays. Finally, because nothing says "elite" like spending more money, the film's website reports that "moviegoers will have the chance to purchase exclusive merchandise and the film's soundtrack in the lobby."

I am not so naive as to scream from my desktop that this manipulative ploy from Paramount Pictures will be jeered as the obvious bilking of consumers that it is. People made similar complaints when acts like the Rolling Stones started charging over $100 per concert ticket, but that hasn't hurt their ticket sales.

This effort to convince us that a movie is more valuable if seen on December 22 instead of December 29 may work. And if it comes anywhere close to being profitable, you can bet there will be special screenings of Hairspray or the next Harry Potter movie.

Personally, though, I hope this gambit fails. Though I can't really cheer about the idea of a $100 Broadway ticket or a $150 charge for a so-so seat at a U2 show, I can at least concede that in paying those prices, I am getting to see a unique event. Even if I'm in the back row, I'm experiencing a live performance that cannot be duplicated.

But why would I spend $25 to see the exact same movie I can see in two weeks for $10 or in seven months for a rental fee? Even if I think that seeing a movie on a big screen makes it feel like more of an event--and I do think that--why would I think that seeing it ten days before my co-workers was worth that much more money? Do I really need a souvenir program that much?

I'm sure there are some people who feel they do, and maybe there are enough to fill a week's worth of VIP shows. Maybe there's some cultural need this experiment will fill.

But what I see underneath this "event" is more than a studio's attempt to reach the core fans of "Dreamgirls" with a fanatics-only package. I see an attempt to make moviegoing seem glamorous again. Glamorous in the way it was when you could only see a movie at the theater, instead of in your house or on your computer or even on your iPod. Since the advent of that technology, it's become conventional wisdom that going to the movies is losing its luster, so studios and cinema owners are trying to get us out of our living rooms.

But while I love going to the movies, I don't think they're $25 worth of glamorous. Those people on that screen aren't really there. (Obviously, live performance is one of my major criteria for determining a ticket's value.)

Already, the rising cost of tickets has made me classify certain movies as being perfect candidates for Netflix, and I love going to the movies more than most people I know. I find it ludicrous that I'm expected to believe any movie is so special that it merits that much of a financial investment. To be really Southern about it, it's like the movies are getting too big for their britches. Even at their most avant garde, they are for the masses. Movies are mass-produced and shipped all over the world. They will never be exclusive. That's part of what makes them so appealing.

Trying to gussy films up with specialty tickets and lobby displays is like serving champagne in the first three cars of the roller coaster. No matter what, everyone's getting the same ride.

I also feel this way about certain theaters that charge extra for reserved seating or to cover the cost of the fancy art down by the bathrooms. I know I keep saying this, but no amount of frippery can make it more special to see mechanical images projected on a flat screen, any more than a gold-plated CD makes it more exquisite to hear a singer's recorded voice. (As a side note: I would pay more to see a movie at a theater where ushers really did their jobs and kicked out loud, obnoxious fools.)

That's why I hope this "Dreamgirls" thing fails, proving there are some prices we will not pay to be entertained. History is not on my side here, but I'm hopeful.


23 November 2006

Thanksgiving Mix

As Andrew and I sit in my kitchen, making various items for the Thanksgiving feast to be held here tomorrow, we've discovered that a mix of Postal Service, Madeleine Peyroux, k.d. lang, Rufus Wainwright, Patty Griffin, REM, Damien Rice, and (yes) INXS make for excellent inspiration.

I just thought y'all might be interested to know that.

What are we making, you ask? Well, the good people at Whole Foods sure did hook us up this year, providing everything from turkey to pumpkin pie, but A-man and I still whipped up a few goodies of our own. Currently, he's putting the finishing touches on some delightful deviled eggs with crabmeat filling, and I'm just about to clean the bowl that held the pre-baked ingredients for almond-chocolate dessert bars. I got the recipe off the internet.

The dessert bars, by the way, are in the trash can. The internet cannot always be trusted.

Except on this website. Sersiously, people. INXS is an excellent cooking soundtrack.

Happy Thanksgiving!


20 November 2006

Good Crazy, Bad Crazy : Regina Spektor and Nellie McKay

Today's topic: Crazy people.

More specifically, crazy musicians. Imagine my surprise today when I saw that Regina Spektor's song "Fidelity" was one of the top 100 most popular tracks on iTunes. "Really?" I thought, "Isn't she kind of a whack-a-doo?"

In the same way that fellow singer-songwriters Tori Amos and Colin Meloy (of The Decemberists) have left behind conventional reality, Spektor has her own way of doing things. Her music, though obviously steeped in pop and folk, gets seasoned by everything from cabaret to drum loops. Her resulting albums have a strange, arresting beauty that demands attention for being so smart and so unusual.

Check out that picture, for instance. See how she's rocking the 1940's vibe just like Christina Aguilera, but unlike Miss Former Hooch, she's not turning it into an overt performance? The story of that image is also the story of her general style. She's definitely cultivating a persona, just like any super-cool and super-skinny kid in grandpa's tweed pants who delights in reading tattered paperbacks through rectangular glasses on the subway. However, she's low-key about it. Her music and her image reflect a kind of settling in herself that makes her easy to believe.

Really, could anyone who didn't find herself cool create a song as frothy and trippy as "Fidelity?" That is the sound of a woman who's at peace with her world, even if she is lovelorn. Go here to hear what I mean. Or watch this video, which is a guaranteed mood-lifter:

Yes, yes... Spektor's signed to a major label, so there may be some handlers involved in that image. But a bigger budget didn't do anything to her music but give it better sound quality and make it easier for a broad audience to find. Spektor's crazy-awesomeness remains unsullied. I mean, no record company made her say the word "better" like that in "Fidelity's" bridge, you know?

I wish Nellie McKay would take notes. Because I really like some of her music--particularly on her new album "Pretty Little Head," which she famously had to release on her own after Columbia refused--but I find her persona to be obnoxious.

McKay is young, and she's given to loud, breathless protests about animal rights and vegetarianism. She seems like one of those people who's never lacked anything, so she gets exceptionally upset about causes that, while important, perhaps don't require her level of vehemence.

Why do I think she's immature in this way? Really, it all comes down to one thing. While performing the role of Polly Peachum in the recent Broadway revival of "The Threepenny Opera," she changed a line from "the salmon is delicious" to "the zucchini is delicious" in order to uphold her dietary beliefs.

That, to me, is immature. Talking about salmon doesn't mean you support meat eating any more than playing Othello means you a support wife strangling.

Andrew saw this show, and he thought her little statement was annoying. I agree. If you take yourself that damn seriously, then maybe you need to take a nap. Or at least take clues from Regina Spektor on how to be awesome.


18 November 2006

Popism #19 : Let The Choir Sing

POPISM (N) : A musical or lyrical element used in so many pop songs that it becomes a cliche. Often known to evoke joy every time it is employed.

It's ridiculous, really, that Madonna, halfway through "Like a Prayer," underlines her commitment to her lover by singing, "Let the choir sing!" Then a group of gospel belters raises up underneath her like a cloud, shouting out the song's chorus with the passion they're supposed to be saving for the Lord.

It's ridiculous because this is a pop song about a woman in love. She's already had the gall to equate her particular experience of love with an apotheosis, saying that her lover "takes her there" like "a mystery." Presumably, this mean he/she elevates Madonna to the plain of transcendant awakening one normally equates with religious devotion. It's almost charming, how the Madonna of this track has that much faith in her own emotions. And when she succeeds in pulling a choir out of their pews and into her romantic abandon, she has proclaimed that her love is a celebration that can bring the masses to some kind of ecstasy.

Because that's what choirs are supposed to do. They're the sound of the human heart hurling itself up to God, rejoicing with enough fervor to carry all listeners skyward. When pop artists use choirs in their secular odes, they're committing a kind of sacrilege. They're are saying, to quote another heretical assertion, that heaven is a place on earth.

But how absolutely perfect! The genius of a song like "Like a Prayer" is that Madonna and co-writer Patrick Leonard know that romantic love can feel like a religious experience. Haven't all of us been so self-aggrandizing as to believe that what we feel for our lover is as pure as a message to God? Isn't that feeling part of what makes love so exciting?

"Like a Prayer" is a song that's brash enough to express that private feeling of fulfillment. It asserts that, yes, intense attraction deserves a choir. It's audacious and delicious when that choir comes in. Those robed singers become the aural equivalent of a human sensation that feels divine.

Personally, I revel in the moxie of a single that decides it's worth a choir. That over-the-top gesture--that insistence that whatever the singer's on about is just that important--brings me joy.

Plus, the sound of a choir moves me. All those voices hammer around inside my chest, making me feel more alive. Something in my brain is hard-wired to respond to their sound, so any song that provides them is going to hook me in some way.

The arrival of the choir certainly pushes Natasha Bedingfield's "Unwritten" from decent track to must-have single. And when the children's choir arrives in Pat Benatar's "We Belong," I get the rush of the converted.

I think I will always believe it's a little silly to feel so moved by a secular tune that apes religious music. But that conflict between the divine and the earthbound exists in a lot of great pop music. If it didn't, Elvis wouldn't have cut religious tracks right after recording "Can't Help Falling in Love." And Madonna wouldn't wrestle with her religious demons on a track like "Act of Contrition" on the very same album where she commands a choir to sing in celebration of true love.


14 November 2006

Welcome to My Random Thoughts

Welcome to the clearing house of my recent thoughts. Won't you have a look around? Everything with a blue tag is 60% off.

Thought #1: I knew it. Gwen Stefani is just a rehash of herself.

Imagine my sense of vindication when I saw this Billboard review of "Wind It Up," a song that I have already pegged as a hot, burning mess. And Chuck Taylor even informs us that Stefani's new album is just "leftovers" from her last! The record company isn't even calling it a "B-sides" collection. They're just tossing out table scraps like they're Thanksgiving dinner.

That makes the cookie-cutter uselessnes of "Wind It Up" so much more crass and offensive. It's not like Stefani went into the studio, tried to be creative, and failed. Instead, she dug around in her garbage can, dusted off a reject precisely because it sounded like "Hollaback Bridge" or "Promiscuous London Girl" and blithely hurled it in our direction.

Yes, I've seen enough "Behind the Music" to know her record label was behind it, too. Maybe she's contractually obligated to let the material out there. After all, she's a businesswoman, and this is the product that she has to sell. But she must realize that she's not growing at all with this flotsam. She must realize she's turning herself into the embrassing joke that current high schoolers will tell themselves during their sophomore years of college. "My God! That's so lame!," they'll say, "What were we thinking when we liked that novelty crap? Oh shit, here comes the RA! Hide the beer!"

And don't think you're immune, Mrs. Rossdale, just because you're famous right now. Spice Girls were popular in my senior year of high school, and we mocked them in my freshman poetry class.

Thought #2: Rhett Miller's album "The Believer" is really, really great

A few months ago, I downloaded this ablum on a lark, mostly because iTunes said people who like Josh Rouse like Miller, too. I gave it a few listens, made a mental note that is was good, and then put the new Dixie Chicks back on.

In the last few weeks, though, I've gotten a full appreciation for "The Believer." Only one song from that album--the gorgeous country-rock heartbreaker "Fireflies," featuring Rachael Yamagata--is on Miller's MySpace page, but it gives a decent sense of what you get. Smart, striking power pop with barroom influences. That makes sense, since Miller's in the alt-country band Old 97's. (I'll admit, I don't really know their music. Meghann... didn't you tell me a few months ago that I should?)

My favorite thing about "The Believer" is how effortless it sounds. It rocks and swings as easily as your favorite hammock. It makes your head bop. Or it makes you close your eyes and nod in appreciation. You know, like, "Mmm... that's a great chorus. Let me nod so that people on the subway will know I approve."

Thought #3: Damn, I like Beyoncé's new song, "Irreplaceable"

I have a tortured relationship with Beyoncé. Sometimes she delights me, but sometimes she drives me mad. Like an ex-lover whose picture I still keep in my wallet, her career keeps me in its thrall.

And "Irreplaceable" proves why I keep coming back. It's great. It's a sassy kiss-off song, but unlike "Ring The Alarm," it features something like a melody. It also allows Ms. Knowles to prove that she can sing. She sounds lovely. especially in the chorus when she hits those high notes on the phrase "another you in a minute."

After months of having artists force their tuneless beats on me, it's a relief to hear a current pop hit that's--dare I say it?--pretty. But it's not pretty in the service of heartbreak. It's pretty in the service of declaring one's awesomeness. "You must not know 'bout me," Beyoncé croons, "I can have another you in a minute." Damn right! Everybody sing!

Maybe I'm feeling charitable, but I can even excuse the fact that the chorus rhymes the words "minute" and "minute." We'll call it repetition for emphasis. And then get back to singing along.

And as a final point in the song's favor, the video rocks. She's just so attractive! And she doesn't need to overplay her dismissal of this loser. Her disinterest says it all. Then she goes inside to rock with her all-female band, which is totally empowering.

I leave you with the video. Even if you don't like the visuals, see if you agree about the song. Are you singing along by the end?


13 November 2006

And in the real world...

... I just overhauled my website, trying to make it easier to navigate my writing samples. Plus, there's a new, more professional photo.

Take a look!


11 November 2006

Damien Rice Makes Me Sit Still

You guys, I am so excited that Damien Rice has a new album coming out next week. Have you heard his first album, "O?" It's so bizarre and so completely accessible at the same time. The heart-slicing emotion on a song like "The Blower's Daughter" or "Cannonball" astounds me. So many male singer-songwriters sound wimpy... or like they're afriad to feel the emotions they're singing about.*** But Rice sounds as though he's actually living the ache in the moment of singing. It's got something to do with the wail of his upper register, I think. It's like a sound that sneaks up on you when you're feeling something. I'm sure he's able to produce that sound at will, but his artistry is such that it sounds unrehearsed.

He reminds me of Sinead O'Connor in his immediacy and vulnerability, and also in his musical experimentation. Is it because they're both Irish? I don't know, but I can't think of too many other artists who could make accordions and bagpipes work. (Weird Al notwithstanding.)

I don't have much more to add. I haven't even allowed myself to listen to samples of his new record, "9." Some artists still inspire that kind of waiting in me. The kind where I sit down and listen to a record from start to finish without stopping, letting that first, unbroken wave be my discovery of the music.

Very few artists demand that kind of attention from me. Sometimes, though, it's nice to give myself enough time in a day to sit down and listen. To decide that I can afford 60 minutes of stillness and speechlessness in which an artist dominates my senses. And not with the visual dominance of a movie or play. But with the closed-eye intimacy of music. If I'm wearing headphones, it's such a private communication, yet it requires nothing from me but attention.

Those moments become rewards, and they're delivered by someone with the scope and feeling of Damien Rice.

So come on, Damien. Make it a winner.

*** I ended that sentence with a preposition. Seriously, it was Adam's comment on the last post that made me feel okay about it.


08 November 2006

Ain't No Other Ad But You

Today, while listening to Christina Aguilera, I was thrown into a philosophical quandary.

I was on the subway, bopping along to "Ain't No Other Man," when I read a wall of those new T-Mobile ads. You know, the ones hawking some feature where you get free calls to your top five friends. Or something. They're not terribly effective. They may not even be for T-Mobile. Do you know the ones I'm talking about?

Anyway, there are several versions of the ads, all of them posing questions whose answers are supposed to reveal the people most worthy of being in your Top 5. (I guess this club is even more exclusive than the "Top 8" on your MySpace page.) "Who gets your inside jokes?" "Who loves you?" That sort of thing.

But there's one poster that asks... "Who do you share your secrets with?"

And it makes me want to break something. I cannot stand national advertising with grammatical errors. I mean, I can understand it when the owners of the local restaurant post a flier advertising "Breakfast, Lunch, and Diner." Hell, I make about thirty language-based mistakes an hour. But T-Mobile? A company that hires ad agencies to scour their work? They should get it right.

Do ad folks think we're stupid, or do they just think that correct speech isn't important? Either way, it irks me.

Sure, maybe it sounds more like everyday conversation to make usage mistakes, but shouldn't these companies feel embarassed? Shouldn't they know that it makes them seem ignorant to say "Who do you share your secrets with" instead of "With whom do you share your secrets?" Again, a mistake in a national ad is not like a mistake in a casual conversation. The slip implies that lots of professionals either missed an error or were too lazy to do anything about it.

Other recent examples: There's this poster for Ironman watches that features the line, "Are you a man or a mouse?". However, "man" has been crossed out and "Ironman" has been written above it. So now the question awkwardly asks, "Are you a Ironman or a mouse?" Um, I'm an irritated man, thank you. Your slogan is cute, but do better.

OH! And the worst offenders are the damn colleges that advertise on the subway and have posters full of mistakes. I know colleges that need to advertise on the F Train are probably not high in the "U.S. News" rankings, but still... it's a college. There's got to be an English teacher around somewhere.

Most egregious offender? New York's School of Visual Arts. They have these rocking posters created in the style of the various arts they teach, but they all ask, "How bad do you want to be good?" I want to be good badly enough that I will enroll myself in a school with more concern for standards, thank you.


And... yes. Yes. I'm aware that many people would tell me to chill right out and get back to celebrating Rumsfeld's resignation. But pet peeves aren't rational.

Nor are they consistent. Because as I was clutching my pearls over the T-Mobile incident, I realized I was listening to a song called "Ain't No Other Man." That's a fake word and a double negative. However, when a pop star uses bad grammar, I don't twitch a muscle.

Artistic license? I guess that's what I'd call it. For artists, it's fine. But no matter how clever they are, I'm never going to think of advertisements as art. They're always manipulative tools, trying to mimic my authentic point of view in a way that will convince me to trust whatever company is doing the advertising. Ads are tricks to make me buy Pumas.

For an ad to feign artistic license is a mockery of art.

Obviously, there are plenty of people who don't get miffed by grammar mistakes, or the ads wouldn't exist. But hear me, Ironman, T-Mobile, and New York College of Visual Arts! You have lost at least one customer or student!

And there ain't no gettin' around it.


06 November 2006

Kanye, Kudos, and Krankiness

He may not have been nude at last Thursday's MTV Europe Music Awards, but Kanye West definitely showed his ass.

Seems he was upset that his clip for "Touch the Sky" lost best video to "We Are Your Friends" by Justice vs. Simian. While the dance act was accepting their award, he stormed the stage and made all sorts of petulant comments, including, "If I don't win, the award show loses credibility."

That's just... sad. My impression is that West is massively insecure. In this interview with Entertainment Weekly's Karen Valby, he talks about how upset he is that "Heard 'Em Say," the third single from his album "Late Registration," peaked at an anemic #26. He goes on about how "Touch the Sky" has to be a huge hit in order to compensate.

"Touch the Sky" is a great song--one of my favorites of last year, in fact--but it didn't even crack the top 40 in America. And the video? It strains to be an Event. It features Kanye as Evel Knievel, and there are oh-so-hip 70s references like girls with afros and that grainy film stock you see in some blaxploitation movies. Too calculated in its satire too seem honestly funny, the video is the product of someone who has seen what awesome looks like and is now trying to copy it himself. Turgidness and overspending, however, are not awesome.

Granted, I'm not sure the video for "We Are Your Friends" is awesome either. Here it is:

I find this clip creepy. But I find "Touch the Sky" boring, and that's worse. (I would love to post a link to "Touch the Sky," but West's clips aren't on YouTube. Anyone know where I can find them?)

By storming the podium and saying such arrogrant things, West is crying out for approval. My guess is that he didn't take it so well that "Touch the Sky" didn't break through in America.

I know that boastfulness has always been part of his thing. However, charming arrogance quickly becomes whining when West proves he doesn't know how to handle rejection.

That frustrates me because I like his music, and I like that he's the rare hip-hop artist to champion gay rights and say snarky things about Bush. But artists can only be champions if they're willing to take their lumps with dignity. Now that West has revealed himself as immature, it reduces the relevance of some of his earlier statements. Bitchy children just aren't as compelling as angry yet reasonable adults.

This doesn't alter his music, though, and I hope he manages to make another great album. And if it doesn't have any hits or win any Grammys, I hope handles his disappointment in a more productive way.


04 November 2006

Have Yourself a Tragic Little Christmas

First, let me give a big shout to Molly, who is both a friend from college and a member of that CD mix club I was talking about last week. She recently said some nice things to the club about "I Totally Hear That," and she also remembers a time I sang an original song, a cappella, to a group of friends at the SPICE House. I was terrified and exhilarated, since singing is something I enjoy but hardly excel at doing. A wet kiss to Molly for remembering that moment fondly!

And now, on with our sad, sad mission...

While describing her new Christmas album, "One More Drifter in the Snow," Aimee Mann asserts she has made a holiday collection "reminiscent of the 40's and 50's, but without any retro kitsch" (sic on the apostrophes).

Did she really need to say that? Can you think of anyone less likely to be kitschy than Aimee Mann? I love her music, but girlfriend will never be confused for the life of the party.

To wit: "Drifter" is filled with gorgeous songs, but they're all steeped in melancholy. Follow that link up there to hear her version of "I'll Be Home For Christmas." She sounds like she's got a snifter and a cigarette in each hand.

For those of you with iTunes, check out her arrangement of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." I loved that song as a kid. To me, it sounded like a rock and roll Christmas carol. Also, my friend Morgan had this Christmas carol parodies tape with a version called "The Restroom Door Said Gentlemen." It was about a guy who--whoops!--accidentally goes into the ladies room!

I even remember the first bit...

The restroom door said gentlemen
So I just walked inside
I took two steps and realized
I'd been taken for a ride

Oh my God, you guys. Do not try to top that.

Now if Aimee Mann had put that song on her album, it would have been kitschy. Instead, she turns the carol into a dark sea shanty, complete with ominous tuba and bells. She takes two steps toward Christmas and turns left at the Decemberists.

And for levity? She covers "You're a Mean One Mr. Grinch." That's the perfect choice, since acid irony is the closest she gets to whimsy.

In fact, I think this entire album could be heard as an ironic statement. Because if my friends and I were killing time at a restaurant, waiting for our Thai spring rolls to come out, playing a game called "Name The Three Worst Artists To Release A Christmas Album," I think I would put Aimee Mann second, right behind Marilyn Manson.

The reason is that Christmas symbolizes to me a kind of effortless joy. Meanwhile, Mann's music feels like the wrought emotional expression of a mind spinning itself into frenzy. Again, I love the results, but it's not what I want to hear when I'm wearing green-and-red novelty socks.

Put another way: last night, my friend Craig heard about the existence of an Aimee Mann Christmas album and said, "God, that sounds depressing."

Which is why I think "One More Drifter in the Snow" has got to be ironic. It's what happens when an artist known for aching examines a holiday that's supposed to be filled with joy.

And I know that the holidays see a rise in depression and suicide, but most people don't make albums about it. By doing so, Mann subverts the expected notion of what Christman music is supposed to be.

Which, really, is pretty interesting. It's the kind of gesture--intentional or not--that makes Aimee Mann so fucking cool. You've got to love the woman who wears black to the wedding or weeps her way past the eggnog bowl.

But an interesting idea--even a cool idea--is not the same as a good one. Really, how morosely ironic can I be at Christmastime? Even listening to samples of this record makes me want to cut myself, and I don't think I can handle that for an entire holiday season.

Which is not to say I don't love some Yuletide irony. I just want it to be festive. Give me drag queens chasing Jingle Bells with Scotch! Give me "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus!" If we're going to arch our eyebrows, let us also kick up our heels!

Or, you know, let us listen to something sincerely. There are plenty of Christmas songs that I love because they are traditions in my family, even if they are kind of ridiculous. To this day, I get honest-to-god pleasure from them.

What are those songs, you ask? For clues, go here. And here. And especially here. Then go check the restroom door.

It totally says "Gentlemen."

Labels: ,

01 November 2006

In Search of Disasterpieces: Gwen Stefani

Would you consider it hyperbole if I said that Gwen Stefani's solo career is a plot to destroy us all?

How else to explain the existence of "Wind It Up," the first single from her forthcoming album "The Sweet Escape?"

Way back in July, I was wondering whether Rihanna or Janet Jackson had released this year's biggest disasterpiece, but now I realize their crappy songs are just servants to the dread lord emperor of crappy songs.

I know how old-fashioned it makes me sound, but I hesitate to call "Wind It Up" a song at all. It's even less a song than "Hollaback Girl," and that was just a mixture of random talking, occasional instrument sounds, and a spelling lesson.

With her new concotion, Stefani aims for a similar improvisational sound, as though she wandered drunk into the studio, half-rapped a few phrases, happily declared herself a party girl, and passed out. But just as Fergie's "London Bridge" was a step down from "Hollaback Girl," "Wind It Up" is a step down from "London Bridge."

Because now Gwen Stefani is just copying the people who copied her. Want a minimal beat? Of course! Want a nonsense cheerleader chant? Got it! Ooh, how about we rip-off another show tune, like we did with "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Rich Girl?" Okay! But now we'll use the goatherd song from "Sound of Music!"

The goatherd song? Sigh. It's just so self-consciously hip to yodel.

I'm all for stupidity in dance-pop. Sometimes you need it. There's this song called "Here (In Your Arms)" by Hellogoodbye that's about nothing in particular but whose light, happy spirit makes me want to boogie all the same.

But "Wind It Up," because it repeats the current female pop formula verbatim, sounds hollow. Flippancy doesn't count if you feel you must be flippant.

This utter repetitiveness also suggests that Gwen Stefani is not so much an artist as a marketing ploy. Her first solo album was hugely successful, which means she had the power to make her next record sound like anything she wanted. That she wanted to sound exactly the same discredits her.

And I don't say that lightly. No Doubt made some great records, and "Hella Good" doesn't sound like "Hey Baby" at all.

Hell, I'd even take "Don't Speak" over "Wind It Up," and that song has the worst lyrics of all time.

Disasterpieces will send you running to the strangest arms for comfort.