26 February 2007

There Are Worse Things Than Apathy

Plenty of people have been saying the Oscars were fine. Not great, but not terrible either.

I agree.

Ellen had some pretty funny jokes (Taking a picture with Clint Eastwood for her MySpace? Genius.) and some of the winners really deserved it (Hello, Jennifer Hudson! Hey there, Forest Whitaker! Won't you and all your ancestors have a seat?).

Even better, the execrable "Babel" only won for its score.

But all in all, it's not like this was an Oscars that could inspire passion. Not like the soul-deep agony created when "Brokeback Mountain" lost Best Picture, or the swirling joy when Adrien Brody went to the podium for "The Pianist." (If you haven't seen that movie, you should. He really deserved it.)

Nothing better encapsulates how this year's ceremony ran unswervingly down the middle of the road than the surprise win for Melissa Etheridge. Her song "I Need to Wake Up" took home Best Original Song, trumping three good-to-great songs from "Dreamgirls" and one totally ass-tastic creation from Randy Newman.

If Newman had won, it would have been worth getting pissed. But Etheridge? You can't really get upset that a woman so obviously courageous and upstanding--she's an activist for breast cancer awareness and an unashamedly open lesbian--won a major award.

Nor is the song all that bad. But that's the point. Like most of Melissa Etheridge's music, it's sturdy and inoffensive, and if it comes on in a bar, few people are likely to walk out. However, it's not like the song is great. Respectability and awesomeness are not the same thing.

For me, Melissa Etheridge is part of a group that also includes Lenny Kravitz, Sheryl Crow, and The Fray. If their music comes on the radio, I won't change the station, and I might ask for their greatest hits collections for Christmas. However, I won't spend my own money on their songs, and I won't ever really care about them all that much. But it's not like they're hurting me, and it's really fun to sing "Come to My Window" at karaoke.

So in this topsy-turvy world, maybe it's okay for the Melissas of the world to sometimes win the big awards. If Ryan Gosling had been an unexpected winner--thus making me cheer--and Babel had taken seven Oscars--thus making me shriek--my blood pressure would be out of control, my vision would be blurry, and my world would be a little askew. And I don't need that kind of stimulus when I'm already in a tizzy about when Claire's going to meet her dad the Flying Man and whether "Lost" will ever become awesome again.


21 February 2007

Repeat Steps One Through Three

Last night, as the gents of American Idol were trying to make us love them, Jared Cotter gave me an excuse to talk about an old pop song. Now this may not be enough to make me like him and his crazy eyebrows, but it at least makes me like him more than, oh, Sundance. (Seriously, dude. Your dad had a hit single. If you're going to pimp the fact that you were raised around music industry professionals, you should demonstrate some kind of savvy yourself, y'know? Otherwise, it makes you look like you don't have the sense to learn by example.)

The song that Jared sang last night was "Back at One" by Brian McKnight, a song a like because it has an impossible chorus. By that, I mean it creates a system that cannot be completed.

See, the chorus has B. Mick following five easy steps to loving his woman. They go like this:

One... you're like a dream come true
Two... just wanna be with you
Three... girl it's plain to see / that you're the only one for me
Four... repeat steps one through three
Five... make you fall in love with me
If ever I believe my work is done... then I start back at one

But wait! It's impossible for Brian to get to step five! She can never fall in love with him! Because every time he gets to step four, he has to repeat steps one through three. The pattern loops forever!

I know it's probably unintentional, but that lyrical twist makes the song a proclamation of hopelessness. It's like Sisyphus wrote a love song, and that's cool.

In other news, does any movie look worse than "Amazing Grace?" First, there's the overwrought, white-boy-soul at the beginning of the trailer. Then there's the suggestion--once again--that the only people who can save those mixed up black people are the noble whites who take pity on them. Other movies that recently made that point include "Blood Diamond," "Freedom Writers," and "The Last King of Scotland." And then there's "Amistad," which clearly inspired the folks at "Amazing Grace" with its waistcoats and slave talk.

And really, I can't stand that kind of patronizing bullshit. It belittles everyone.

Just to feel better about the world, I'm going to go watch the top 12 women on "Idol." Nothing patronizing or reductive there, by God!


18 February 2007

Viva Las Vega

All in all, this was a pretty great Sunday. Here's what I did:

--Slept until 11:00 AM

--Ate a breakfast that someone else (namely, Andrew) prepared

--Played two rousing games of Boggle (In which Andrew and I both found the word gutting. I was certain that would be my mighty triumph word.)

--Read Entertainment Weekly's predictions about who will win the Oscars (And no matter what the naysayers may... um... naysay... I think Jennifer Hudson deserves to win. There are interviews with two anonymous Academy members who call her overrated, but I'd say that's just sour grapes about all the praise she's been getting. Forget those women from "Babel." Hudson rules.)

--Put new songs on my iPod.

And that last one is why I'm here tonight. Do any of you procrastinate about putting your older CDs on your iPod? Because I always find it kind of a chore. First, you have to dig through your dusty old CaseLogic to find the CD you want. Then you have to wait for a century as your computer loads it on to iTunes. And then finally you have to transfer the songs from your desktop to your iPod. Yikes!

Okay... so maybe this isn't the kind of brinksmanship waiting game played by spies on the verge of international warfare, but it's still tedious.

However, I'm always happy when I finally upload older albums. Though I still have a stereo, I almost never listen to CDs. If music isn't brought to me by Apple-created software, I don't hear it that often, so it can be a delightful trip through the past to find an album that's been getting ignored for years as I spin my click wheel. Sometimes, I'm shocked to remember that I actually own a song I almost bought on iTunes. (Hello, Belinda Carlisle! Saved $.99 on that one!)

Today's particularly welcome rediscoveries were albums by Suzanne Vega.

"Luka" and "Tom's Diner" obviously rule, but Suzanne Vega has recorded at least two dozen excellent songs. Do you know the song "Gypsy?" It's got some of the best singer-songwriter lyrics of all time. (So good, in fact, that Vega included them in a book of her collected writings. Sure, that's a touch pretentious, but if any recent writer can get away with it, it's S. V. Put her book next to Jewel's, you know?)

With odd, captivating details, Vega uses "Gypsy" to address a man she desperately loves who nevertheless will never treat her well. He's a beautiful, popular flirt, destined to steal your heart and then make you smile as he breaks it. The persistent movement of the music--a soft drum beat, a guitar line than never stops--suggests a person who will never stop long enough to be held. Ironically, though, Vega's mournful voice is just in front of the rhythm. The music is dancing behind her, and it can't be bothered to catch up to the woman who's singing with so much sadness.

And that's the point. The lyrics are about how she's leaving this man behind, and he's not going to notice. She says:

Please do not ever look for me
But with me you will stay
And you will hear yourself in song
Blowing by one day.

But will he even notice the song if he hears it? Maybe not. That drum beat never tries to catch up with Vega's voice. Sometimes, people never stop their life long enough to watch how other people are drifting out of it. They never notice how much they hurt people by allowing themselves to ignore the consequences of their flirty--yet ultimately detached and distant-- behavior.


Often, when people make folk music this good, I never want them to stop, particualrly when they prove not to be good with other genres. Ani DiFranco, for instance, got self-indulgent and annoying when she abandoned tightly structured, guitar-heavy folk rock in favor of endless jazz canoodling. She's never recovered from that self-conscious artiness, if you ask me.

But when Vega branched out in the mid-90s, she was brilliant in a brand new way. The entrance of industrial dance beats on the album "99.9 F°" allowed her to flirt with techno without losing her intelligence. A song like "Blood Makes Noise" is remarkable in two ways. First, there's the insanely catchy beat, which is built out of a clanging, sticks-on-a-can sound and a bass line looped over and over. Vega's voice gets filtered through a crazy fuzzbox, and the song sounds like the best club track that never hit it big.

Remember, though, how "Luka" sounded like a pretty little ballad until you noticed it was written from the perspective of a battered child? Same situation here. The narrator of "Blood Makes Noise" is a woman who is trying and failing to talk to her doctor about her medical history. The fear of whatever the doctor might say is so crippling that there's blood pounding in her head and ringing in her ears. She clearly thinks a terrible diagnosis is coming--or maybe one just came--and she's trying to explain her own incoherence.

I'd like to help you doctor, yes I really really would
But the din in my head is too loud, and it's no good

We never really know what's up with this woman, but the dread is clear. The song is a dramatic sucker punch wrapped in a rave beat.

And that's probably the lasting genius of Suzanne Vega: She masters the sound of the most popular music styles, but her lyrical content is always dense and surprising. Her love songs are these lush anthems, filled with soaring choruses. But they're about people who imagine thesmselves in The Huncback of Notre Dame ("In Liverpool") and whores who have no regrets ("No Cheap Thrill"). Her rockers are about women questioning their morals ("Marlene on the Wall") or the hypocrisy of Western society ("When Heroes Go Down.")

There just aren't that many muisicians this challenging who are also this easy to listen to. If you're looking for a quick blast of Vega glory, I recommend "Retrospective: The Best of Suzanne Vega." Every album, though, has high points that aren't on this "best of" package. If you're inclined to folk , dip into "Solitude Standing" (that's the one with "Luka") or 2001's "Songs in Red and Gray." If you like folk laced with bold experiments in industrial rock, try the aforementioned "
99.9 F°" or "Nine Objects of Desire."

In all cases, you'll probably find songs you'll want to put on your iPod right away.


15 February 2007

Am I sweating? 'Cause I'm sure seeking heat!

Do you remember the scandal that erupted a few years ago because someone dubbing himself "The Masked Magician" was threatening to reveal all the secrets of stage magic in a television special? There were enraged death threats being hurled from boardwalks and dank cabaret theaters everywhere. "Don't you dare show them how this rabbit got here!" the magicians cried.

Well, change "magicians" to "music insiders" and "rabbit" to "hip new album" and you've got a sense of the curtain I'm about to draw back here.

In other words: Do you want to know a great way to find new bands before most people have heard of them? Go look at the Heatseekers chart on Billboard.com. It tracks albums by artists who have never appeared in the top half of theTop 200 Album Chart. The bands that do well on the Heatseekers tally--meaning they hit number one or linger in the top ten for several weeks--tend to be up-and-comers just breaking through. Often, these artists are making music that's riskier than most of what's on the radio. Sometimes, though, they're producing very pop-friendly stuff that just hasn't found its audience yet.

It's through this chart that I first learned about Regina Spektor, Scissor Sisters, Keane, and a country singer I really like named Mindy Smith. And then I got to feel totally awesome for knowing them a few months before they had hit singles. (Okay... Mindy Smith never had a hit single, but you know what I mean.)

This week's number one Heatseeker album is "Carnavas" by a group called Silversun Pickups. The Silver-wha? I know! I'd never heard of them either, but seeing them atop the chart led me to check them out on iTunes. And it turns out they're pretty good. As the iTunes review says, they're like the rebirth of Smashing Pumpkins. Same melodic-yet-fuzz-drenched sound. Same use of "S.P." for band initials. And the woman in Silversun Pickups? She plays bass. Just like D'Arcy Wretzky!

Anyway, they're absolutely worth hearing. I've enjoyed having their songs playing as I write this, and I think that's where their music fits... as interesting texture for the background. More challenging than Enya, less distracting than Cher. (Have you ever tried to write a paper while listneing to "Believe?" Nothing can withstand that song's command to start dancing.)

So I encourage everyone to take a Heatseekers tour. It can be an exciting way to discover new artists, and, really, discovering good new music can be so hard sometimes. It's always nice to have a new outlet.

(P.S.--Debuting at number 18 on this week's chart is Sondre Lerche. After listening to that album several times, I can say unabashedly that I love it. Every song is great. My favorite is this piece of ear candy caled "John, Let Me Go." Delightful!)


14 February 2007

The Secrets of My Shower

You guys... who is this guy Chris on American Idol? The one with the big afro and the pudgy hands and the wicked excellent sense of humor? Because he's awesome. Is it possible that someone as obviously intelligent and non-annoying could actually become our next American Idol?

Wait... what? Did you guys answer that question? I couldn't hear you over the braying sound of Taylor Hicks' laughter. And the shrieking cackle of Kelly Pickler. And the weird gurgling that Bo Bice carries in the back of his throat.

But no matter. I can root for Chris and that beat-boxing guy and Lakisha, she of the soft-spoken dreams, and that girl who used to be a back-up singer. And I have someone to hate, too. That girl Antonella. The one who's best friend got kicked off. She seems like a smug little princess to me. Chris will destroy her.

Here, however, is the big topic of the day, framed as a question: Am I the only one who imagines auditioning for this show? I'm always thinking about which songs I would choose, and I even--wow, this isn't easy--pretend in the shower that my audition is happening at that moment. Lately, I've been wowing the judges with my rendition of Erasure's power-pop classic "A Little Respect." See, that song shows the full extent of my (imagined) range, leaping from thundering bass notes to a tear-inducing tenor.

And for my encore? Why, that's "Righteous Love" by Joan Osborne. Damn, you know? (If you don't know that song, please go listen to it. It's an amazing blues-rock song that sounds like a lost anthem from the 1960s.)

Now I'm not bold enough to imagine myself winning it all. For now, the fantasy stops with me getting through to Hollywood. But who knows? Maybe next year--if they extend the age limit by one year--I'll be the one working my way into some blogger's heart.


12 February 2007

Post-Grammy Haze

So it's pretty awesome that Dixie Chicks won all three of the major Grammys--record, song, and album of the year--for making music that actually merits awards.

And it's cool that The Police reunited to sing "Roxanne" at the opening of the show. (Ask me about my "Roxanne" drinking game. It's buzz-tastic.)

It's also groovy that Ludacris ironically thanked Oprah in his acceptance speech for Best Rap Album, thus referencing their previous argument. (And I love Oprah, but even I can't handle the controversty surrounding her school for South African girls. Asked why she didn't open the school in the U.S., she said, "If you ask the kids what they want or need, they will say an iPod or some sneakers. In South Africa, they don't ask for money or toys. They ask for uniforms so they can go to school.")

But back to the Grammys...

Do these triumphs make the Grammys awesome? Argh. It's so, so close. But then you get to the "Best Pop Performance By a Duo or Group With Vocal" category.

Here are the nominees that didn't win:

Pussycat Dolls, "Stickwitu"

Death Cab for Cutie, "I Will Follow You into the Dark"

Keane, "Is it Any Wonder?"

The Fray, "Over My Head (Cable Car)"

I think we can agree that Pussycat Dolls is a ridiculous choice. That song is pretty good as insta-ballads go, but the "group" quite publicly consists of one singer and five or six backup dancers. It's only the singer--Nicole Scherzinger--who actually appears on the record. The dancers just... dance. So calling The Pussycat Dolls a group is like calling four cherry Popsicles your recommended daily serving of fruit.

But look at the other nominees. Damn if they aren't all really good! In the case of the Death Cab song, maybe even great! What brilliant track could have beaten them all?

Um... how about "My Humps?"

Yes, that's right. That's the song that won. Fergie now has more Grammys than Death Cab for Cutie, and the Recording Academy has given us no advice on how to deal with that.


06 February 2007

I'd like to direct your attention...

...to two very worthy new albums that were released today.

In the mood for stripped-
down garage rock with just a whiff of an unwashed boy in a white t-shirt? Then check out "Phantom Punch" by Sondre Lerche. He's a Norwegian singer-songwriter who manages to sound underground without being over-the-top pretentious. I think it's because he occasionally makes a really pretty song like "Tragic Mirror," which sits in the middle of the new album like a pleasant conversation. And two tracks later you get "John, Let Me Go," which is deliciously sunny.

On the other side of singer-songwriter town (the blues-gospel side) is "Children Running Through," the new album by...

...Patty Griffin.

'Nuff said.

In other news, I'm taking a work-related trip to Colorado Springs, Colorado this week. And guess what: It's going to be in the 40s. Oh, global warming! You're so crazy! But that does sound better than the fourteen degrees New York is currently dropping on me.


03 February 2007

Oh, Renee.

So apparently, this is opera diva Renee Fleming singing "I Could Have Danced All Night."

And that's crazy. Would you guys applaud for me if I sang it like that? I hope so.