27 March 2007

Let Claire Blow Ya Mind

Today, my mind was blown. An anonymous commenter right here on "I Totally Hear That" has sworn that the female voice on Positive K's "I Got a Man" is... wait for it... actually Positive K. For real! Read it for yourselves! This makes a certain amount of sense, considering that several different women rap the female part in the video and no woman is credited on the single (which I still have on cassette in Chattanooga).

But just because it makes sense doesn't mean I can wrap my mind around it. It also makes sense that Bjork is a human being and not an alien elf spirit sent here to amaze and delight us. But still... sheesh. You know?

And you want another conundrum? I don't hate this Gap commercial:

On the face of it, I really should hate it, if for no other reason than I think these so-called "boyfriend trousers" make the women wearing them look dumpy. It's the way they hang off the hips, I think. The fabric bunches up just below the hipbone, and it doesn't look as casual and saucy and "oh, look, I'm wearing the pants of the man I screw" as it's supposed to. Instead, it just makes the woman look ill-proportioned.

Laura tells me that the Gap recently sold a pant of similar style called "The City Cut" or something. Based on her experience of those trousers, she concurs with my dumpiness assessment.

And yet the commercial is so charming. First, who doesn't love that song, even if you don't know "Annie Get Your Gun?" And the line about "anything you can wear, I can wear better" really is a clever tie-in to the product, even if it pains me to acknowledge a whiff of artistry in advertising.

Then you've got the Patrick Wilson factor. The man is constantly taking off his clothes--it's not for nothing that he starred in the original Broadway cast of "The Fully Monty"--but why shouldn't he? Work what you've got, brother! This ad teases us with Wilson leg, which both furthers his reputation as Hollywood's favorite stripper and gives us a reason to keep watching.

But then there's the kicker, as it were. Claire Danes! Am I right that this is her best performance since "My So-Called Life?" She's so natural and charming, and she gets great extension on those kicks! Never mind that she was part of the evil plot to leave Mary Louise Parker abandoned and pregnant. She's delightful!

(Speaking of mind blowing: Patrick Wilson. Mary Louise Parker. Both in the cast of the "Angels in America" TV movie... playing husband and wife. And once, I sat right next to MLP at a cabaret being performed by her personal assistant. Was Positive K there? Maybe! It's all connected, people!)


26 March 2007

Life Through a Jens

You guys! Gmail is the best e-mail server ever.

Want to know why? Because each Gmail account has so much storage space that you can easily send Mp3s to your friends. And that has allowed me to form a special club with my fabulous friend Rachel.

Every Monday, we send a song that we don't think the other has heard. It's like getting a present every week.

So far, the hot hits from Rachel have included a creepy, brilliant song called "No Children"-- from an early album by The Mountain Goats--
and a kicky little pop song called "Knee High" from the group French Kicks.

Songs I've sent to Rachel include an old school track from Suzanne Vega (can't imagine why she was on my mind recently, can you?) and an alt-country number called "Like Her" from The Volebeats. And it's weird about The Volebeats, because I've had their album for almost two years, but I've never made it past the first six songs. I mean, I like those first six, but somehow I just get stuck there. Does that ever happen to you with an album? I remember how long it took me to discover that there were songs other than "Straight Up" and "Forever Your Girl" on my Paula Abdul tape. Imagine my surprise when I finally learned that "Cold Hearted" and "Opposites Attract" and "The Way that You Love Me" had been waiting there all along!

But Paula Abdul, in this one narrow instance, is beside the point. Without a doubt, the best thing about my song club with Rachel is the fact that it introduced me to Swedish singer-songwriter Jens Lekman. You guys, this man is amazing. The song Rachel sent me is a smoky, beautiful mid-tempo rocker called "Black Cab," about being drunk and embarassing yourself at a party and trying to get a damn ride home.

Lekman's voice is so effortless lovely. It has a rich lower register that can slide easily to creamy high notes, and every now and then it trembles with a sadness that makes everything he's singing sound like gut-punching honesty.

But it doesn't stop there! Want a rocking, horns-and-handclaps rhythm to accompany a song about a guy who gets sent to prison and then uses his one phone call to dedicate a song to his lover on the radio? Then go listen to "You Are the Light."

Okay, really, the song is about absolute love tinged with cynicism, but it starts with that prison phone call image, which is awesome. It reminds of an updated Smiths track, with its swooping chorus and female backing vocalists.

In the course of writing this post, I've downloaded Lekman's 2005 album "Oh You're So Silent, Jens." What a great album title! If you have iTunes, listen to the sample of "Maple Leaves." Is that a drum loop? Am I dancing? Can this guy do everything, while sounding more and more like Morrissey every second?

Apparently he can!

(Plus, he's cute. Never hurts.)


22 March 2007


Get ready for some sidetracking, you guys. This post was going to be about one thing, and then it totally became something else. Rather than go back and change the beginning, I'll just leave my whole thought process on display.

It all started here...

Let's see... how to justify this on a music blog... Well, regular cast member Vanessa Williams had some big hits, and tonight's special guest Patti LuPone is a Broadway musical legend. That's reason enough for me to discuss "Ugly Betty!"

And there's so much worth discussing. I agree with all the scuttlebutt that this is a golden age of television. In the last decade or so, even amidst the crappy reality series and endless vehicles for "actors" like Pamela Anderson, television has proffered series after series that can rightfully be called art. Did you see the last episode of "Six Feet Under?" It's a beautiful, heartbreaking example of storytelling. Watching that show--and particularly that episdoe--expanded me as a person, much like an excellent piece of theater or an exceptional novel, because it unveiled something true about being alive. Wrapped up in "Six Feet Under's" best episodes were ruminations on how much we can help one another have a better time being human.
Even as we wound each other endlessly--and often unintentionally--we also can heal someone's wounds.

I think about the moment, for instance, in the final episode of the show when Claire offered to stay home with her mother instead of moving away to school. And her mother, Ruth, said no. No, don't stay here. And thanks to the writing, the acting, and the directing, I was able to see how much good both halves of that conversation did for those characters. For the mother to hear the daughter's offer to stay and the daughter to hear the mother's joy in her child's developing life.

I wouldn't have felt the depth of that moment--or understood the importance of gestures like that in my own life--if the series hadn't been so well constructed over dozens of episodes. I knew these women, and so I could feel the explosion of love in just a few sentences.

As a rule, I prefer small moments of love in art. They feel more real to me than those grand gestures, like Jack sinking into the ocean so Rose can live or even Juliet committing suicide. To me, those gigantic acts are the kind of moments that you can consciously perform because they *seem* like love. They seem like the things people in love are supposed to do, and they can be performed without much real feeling if you just understand our general cultural script of what romance and commitment are supposed to look like. (How do you think I "dated" girls in middle school? I just did what I'd figured out I was supposed to do.)

In my experience, the most honest love reveals itself in unconscious or barely expressed actions. Small things that come naturally, without an effort or a show, tell me love has sunk so deeply into someone's being that it has become a part of them. It's like how whenever I have good news, I always call my friends Laura and Stephanie. Because obviously if something good is happening to me, it means even more if I can share it with them.

Or take Andrew: When he walks by me on his way to get a glass or a fresh pair of socks or any mundane thing, he touches me. Even if he's on the phone, and I'm on the computer, and we're both doing things that don't involve the other, I'll still feel his fingers brush quickly across my shoulder or my waist. Just a quick touch as he moves through the room, like we're grounding each other. It's so small. It's so automatic. It's everything.

And you know what? Now that I've said that, I don't want to go into an analysis of "Ugly Betty." Suffice it to say that it's a work of art that can bring me around to gratitude for what I have in the real world.


15 March 2007

Where I've been hiding...

Hey all... I know the posts have been a little bit slower in the last two weeks, so I thought I'd show you an example of what I've been doing while ludicrously not blogging.

Here's a link to my story in this week's Village Voice. If you're in New York, pick up a paper copy. They're free, don't you know!


12 March 2007

R.E.M.ember them?

When the Police reunited at the most recent Grammy awards I was happy. Not, like, ecstatic, because they hit the height of their popularity when I was around four years old. My primary memory of the group is seeing one of their album covers pasted into the window of the DJ booth at Roller Coast Skate World, a then-awesome roller skating rink in Hixson, Tennessee. (Hixson's a little suburb of Chattanooga, y'all. I lived there until I was eleven.)

Anyway, it's hard to feel super nostalgic for a band that made less of a blip on my young radar than the theme song to "The Electric Company." The only song that I remember loving at the skating rink was "Let's Hear It For The Boy" be Deneice Williams. Oh my God, you guys. Even at the age of six, I would lose my mind when I got to skate to that. I can remember being crouched down, arms stretched before me in a Superman flying pose, rolling around curves at what felt like 90 M.P.H., and almost blistering my throat while singing, "Let's give the boy a h-a-a-a-nd!" Amazing.

So I guess if Deneice Williams released some awesome new song, I'd feel a little nostalgic.

However, the sweetest pang of musical longing I've had in ages came with the announcment that R.E.M. has reunited, however briefly, with original drummer Bill Berry. They only got back together to cover a John Lennon song ("#9 Dream," to be precise) for a Darfur Charity Album called "Instant Karma." Lots of great acts will be on the record, including The Postal Service, Regina Spektor, Christina Aguilera, and Green Day--I know! It's like they asked me to suggest the talent pool!--but I'm particularly excited about R.E.M.

Because back when they were still a foursome, their music kicked every possible ass. "Out of Time?" Don't even. "Automatic for the People," "Green," "Document," "Murmur?" My case rests all up in the face of U2.

Sure, there were some missteps (i.e. everything on "Monster" that wasn't "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" "Strange Currency," or "Crush With Eyeliner"), but the R.E.M. foursome made so much great music that I can forgive them a whole bushel of bad songs. I can even forgive them, say, a series of underwhelming post-Berry albums. Well, no need to forgive "Up." That's a really good record. But everything past then... um... is not on my desert island list.

So even if it's only for four minutes, I'll be glad to hear the old gang. If it wouldn't conflict with the chronology I've created in this post, I might even go roller skating to the sound of their reunion. But it does conflict, so I won't. But still... the joy.


08 March 2007

Okay, I'm posting it...

No sense in not posting Melinda's performance from last night. Contrast it with "My Funny Valentine," and you get a sense of her range. Plus, the end of this clip lets us hear Simon take a veiled swipe at Jennifer Hudson for calling "American Idol" a career stepping stone. But Simon? It was. No one shows up on "Idol" hoping that's where her career will end. It's supposed to be the first step.

And how funny is Randy in his comments? That last "what?!?" is so perfect. That's what I say about Melinda, too.


Winterpills and Melinda chills

Mucho thanko to AdamH for suggesting I listen to the Winterpills (check them out here). I've just toured through the iTunes samples of their new album, and my first reaction is that they're great. Vaguely spooky, very melodic pop with layered male-female harmonies and the occasional explosion of drums. I'm instantly reminded of The Shins, and that's a good, good thing.

And also, there's a hint of Cowboy Junkies in there. A similar relaxed lushness, as though the beautiful music were being made just after a nap.

Now let's turn our attention to American Idol. For those of you that don't watch it, consider me your lifeline to the most popular television show in America. The New York Times recently noted that the show could lose half its audience and still be in the top 10, so I think we all have a cultural responsibility to know a little about what's going on over there...

...but even if you disagree with that statement, trust me when I say we all need to know about Melinda Doolittle. It doesn't matter which venue introduces us to an artist this exciting: the point is that she's been introduced. She's phenomenal. Her vocal expressiveness and control, her charming personality, and her ability to impeccably inhabit multiple musical personalities make her seem destined for artistic brilliance. So far, she's excelled as a soul singer, a jazz thrush, and a blues belter. Just watch this performance of "My Funny Valentine:"

To quote the mom in that famous episode of "Good Times" where the dad's character dies, "Damn, damn, damn." She's just exquisite. The grace with which she sinks to the bottom of her range in the early riff is so sultry, and she exhibits no effort when she surges into the higher notes at the end. And her phrasing of the line "Don't, baby, don't change a hair for me" is filled with sensual affection. You can hear the smile in the way she sings it.

And I know I'm being effusive, but I also think I'm right. It's rare for a performer to make me feel this instantly electrified, so I'm going with it.

Let me know if you want me to post tonight's exceptional take on Lieber and Stoller's "I'm a Woman." Peggy Lee may have started that song, but Melinda finishes it, you know what I mean?


05 March 2007

Five Songs For... Staying Awake

Due to a long series of events not really worth repeating, I went to bed last night at 4:00 AM, woke up at 9:30, and have been working non-stop until right now... 11:24 PM. I'm beat.

But I'm also in that place where you're so tired that you circle right back around to being up, you know?

And that leads me to 5 Songs For... Staying Awake.

(1) "Girlfriend" by Avril Lavigne

Seriously, why fight it? Have you guys heard this song? (Listen here)

I didn't realize how desperately I missed the sound of the Go-Gos until this little bomb got dropped. No matter the time of day, this song's chorus makes me want to jump around, punching the air with my fist to match every syncopated syllable of the line "Hey! Hey! You! You! I don't like your girlfriend!"

And, true, Avril Lavigne has always pretty much been a poseur. Like, lose the "complicated" ties. You're not punk. But on this single she's not trying to be anything but a fun pop-rocker.

(2) "Birdhouse in Your Soul" by They Might Be Giants

The live version of this song on TMBG's "Severe Tire Damage" is my favorite. I'm compelled to stay awake so I can sing along with the chorus. It has such insouciance that it always makes me smile, and consciousness is better served by happiness. (Deep! Are my pupils really dilated? Am I typing this to myself? What time is it?)

(3) "When Tomorrow Comes" by Eurythmics

To my mind, this is the best song ever to make a greatest hits album that was never actually a hit. And why wasn't it? WHY?!?

It's a beautiful, uplifting song that features one of Annie Lennox's best vocals. Just today, I was singing this as one of my potential "Idol" audition numbers.

If you don't know it, I encourage you to drop the .99 at iTunes. Or at least listen to the sample. Joy may very well ensue.

(4) "Do You Want To" by Franz Ferdinand

Short, snotty punk-pop song with kick-ass beat, loud guitars. and reference to straight-
but-open lead singer blowing a guy keeps young man awake. Film at 11:00. (Or watch the video at any time!)

(5) Your turn! Which songs keep you awake? Can the keep me awake before I zzzzzzz


zzzz... mmmf... snort... wha?

Whuzzhappening? Oh... umm... how did all of you guys get here? And why I am still using boldface type?


03 March 2007

A Different Kind of Show Tune

So I talk about all kinds of music on this site. Some of it's sophisticated, some of it's trashy, but perhaps none of it--I said none of it--is more significant than the nuggets of musical genius I will be discussing today.

That's right: It's time to discuss television theme songs.

Right off the bat, I think we should mourn the loss of what I'll call "The Narrative Theme." You know... those 40-second songs that tell you the entire plot of a series, sometimes with animation.

As far as Andrew and I can remember, the last series to have a theme like this was "The Nanny." You can go here to watch/listen to the delightful tale of a gal from Flushing, Queens who wears red when everyone else wears tan. It's a fantastic opening--charming, sophisticated, and cheeky. If the actual show were as accomplished as the theme song, I might want to watch it. (Plus, it's sung by Broadway sisters Liz and Ann Callaway, which is just another point in its favor.)

Other hot narrative themes include "The Patty Duke Show" and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." (You have to scroll down a bit to find the 80s American version of the opening, but it's there. Plus, it's fun to check out the British version, where they're called "The Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles.")

Then, of course, there's TV theme songs whose words aren't necessarily about the show. Those are getting rarer, too. When was the last time a theme song became a hit single, a la "I'll Be There For You?" Or how about "How Do You Talk To An Angel" from The Heights? Guys, that song went to number one. Number. One. Ironically, it peaked on the pop chart in the same week its accompanying series was canceled, but that's another story. (I can't find a sample of this one. Anyone? Bueller?)

In fact, I'm not sure I can name five current series whose theme songs have words. There's "Scrubs."And like every other pop culture product that takes an ironic view of religion, "Big Love" uses "God Only Knows" by The Beach Boys. Apparently, the Grey's Anatomy theme is called "Cosy in the Rocket," but since I've never seen an episode, I'll just take the web's word for it. Katy, I remember, likes whatever song starts "Veronica Mars." That's four.

Hmm... Are there others?

Maybe not. Or at least there aren't that many others, which is kind of sad. I'd argue there's not a single current TV theme song that can equal the catchy brilliance of the openers to "The Golden Girls," "The Facts of Life," or "Growing Pains." I don't think they can even approach "Tossed Salad and Scrambled Eggs." Well... maybe they can. I really hate that song, unless it's in Spanish.

(And here's a fun fact: "The Facts of Life" was co-written by "Growing Pains" star Alan Thicke. Will his son be writing a TV opening soon?)

Of course, in the absence of great sing-alongs, I at least can enjoy the excellent wordless themes of current and recent series like "The Office," "Sex and the City," and "Six Feet Under." (HBO, man. They really know how to put together an instrumental, you know?)

But I have a theory: as commercials take up more airspace, themes will continue to dwindle. It's already happening. "Lost," "24," and "Heroes" run credits on top of actual scenes, thereby allowing them to squeeze more show into their 42 minutes. The theme to "30 Rock" sails by at light speed. How long will it be before "American Idol" drops the liquid walking man and the "ah-ahhs" that accompany him?

Too soon, perhaps. Too soon.

But in the meantime, what are your favorite TV themes? I obviously haven't named them all, and I'm sure there are few current ones with words that I've overlooked.

Do tell!

P.S.--Did you click on the link for "The Office" theme? Because it takes you to something much cuter than you're expecting.


02 March 2007

Take Me On a Magical Mystery Tour

First off, let me send love and cheer to "N," who just keeps posting the nicest comments here.

So... yesterday I spent the day with my friend Adam. We ate southern food in three different restaurants and talked about our experiences, and then I turned the entire day into a pithy little story about Dixie culture in NYC that will appear in the summer of issue of "Sights," the in-flight magazine for ATA Airlines.

But don't worry... I don't use any space in the article to describe how sick I felt after eating three meals' worth of fried. And yes, I do mean "fried" as a noun. Specifying that I ate "fried chicken" would imply that other things on my plate weren't fried, and that just wasn't the case. I think even the red velvet cake was fried. By the end of this little adventure, my brain certainly was.

As we were walking off some of the 8,000 calories we consumed, Adam and I started talking about music, and he threw down a bit of a gauntlet for me.

"Mark," he said, "You should really know more about The Beatles. Like their more obscure songs. They're great, and I think you'd enjoy them."

It's true. I don't know that much about The Fab Four. I mean, obviously I know "Yesterday" and "Paperback Writer" and "Hey Jude" and the other 20 Beatles songs you can't avoid if you grow up as a hearing person in the Western world. But the album cuts? Not so much. I've just never walked down that long and winding road, if you will.

However, I'm willing to travel. After all, if Elton John's old album tracks can be so awesome (and they are!), then the same might be true of the mop toppers.

Which leads me to a question for all of you: Where should I begin? I need, like, four or five songs to get me started. Suggestions? Anything I should avoid?

All your help in my Beatle-fication is greatly appreciated.