29 June 2007

Say You, Say Freak

My friend Laura pointed me in the direction of this clip, and I felt like everyone needed to see it.

For those who don't remember, this is what Fergie looked like when she was on "Kids Incorporated." Imagine if this was the video for "Big Girls Don't Cry." The song would take on a horrifying new meaning.

But really, this is horrifying enough. I mean, what the hell is that clown doing with that broom?

Also, for those who don't know, Laura, our friend Stephanie, and I have a long-standing agreement that Lionel Richie is our mortal enemy. (It's a long story, but there really is a story.)

That makes this clip doubly delicious.


28 June 2007

December in the Summertime

Well, Kelly Clarkson released her third album, "My December," and nobody's head exploded. Which is kind of surprising, given the brouhaha that erupted over this thing.

A quick recap: Clive Davis, legendary head of Clarkson's record label, reportedly delayed release of the record because he didn't hear any hit singles on it. Clarkson wrote this one almost entirely herself, whereas her previous effort, "Breakaway," had her collaborating with some very seasoned pop songwriters (or sometimes just covering their compositions).

"Breakway" was an absolute smash... but you all know that. So obviously there's pressure on Clarkson to have another hit. She recently spoke to Entertainment Weekly about fighting to release the material she wanted--and that she crafted--even if it didn't sound radio-friendly.

Could the battle lines be more clearly drawn? Clive Davis is the evil capitalist pig, and Kelly Clarkson is the pure artist.

However, now that the album is actually out, the sides seem less clear. For one thing, as Greg Kot points out in this story in The Chicago Tribune, "My December" isn't exactly a radical departure from pop formulas.

But in Davis' defense, it doesn't exactly have any obvious hits on it, either. (I disagree with Kot there.) Witness the lackluster performance of first single "Never Again" (a song I really like), which hardly dented the radio. Often, these songs are a bit too formless or a bit too lyrically generic. ("There's a hole/inside of me/It's so damn cold/it's slowly killing me.") As plenty have mentioned, the music apes Evanescence and Pat Benatar, but it lacks the polish of those artists' best tracks.

And the good songs on "My December?" They may be too dark for pop radio and too pop for rock radio.

I'm not arguing that Clarkson should have been denied the chance to express herself artistically. As Kot says, doing the bulk of her songwriting helps her gain the credibility necessary for career longevity. I'm just saying that Davis may be right: There are no obvious masterpieces here on a par with "Since U Been Gone."

If anything, "My December" is like Clarkson's solid debut album. There's an obvious talent for songwriting here, but it's still being honed.

And you know what? Fine. "My December" is still a worthwhile record. It's just not a superstar record. That's a bit awkward, of course, since Clarkson is already a superstar, but what are you gonna do?

After all, the first Kelly Clarkson could have continued for at least a few more years, churning out other people's hits, but the first Kelly Clarkson obviously is no more. The second Kelly Clarkson--the one with her own musical perspective--needs time to grow. She may never reach the peaks of her predecessor, but she may become much more interesting in the long run.

(Also, I know lots of people have made this point, but it's interesting that Alanis Morrissette's career followed essentially the same path. Most Americans, though, didn't hear her first two pop records, so it was much easier for us to embrace the Jagged Little Alanis who burst into our brains. If Clarkson hadn't been a pop sensation in Canada, would they be eating up "My December" like a genius work of art?)


26 June 2007

Thoughts on "America's Got Talent"

So did you watch The Glamazons? Oh, don't try to be all "Glama-who?" I'm talking about The Glamazons! The plus-sized divas who just tore it up on "America's Got Talent." They combined their vocal skills with their ebullient personalities, clear marketing savvy, and brilliantly arranged music to become the hit of the night.

At the very least, they were positioned to be an act we care about, since they were the final thing we saw before the show transitions to its seminfinal rounds. (I think those rounds are next week, but maybe they're in two weeks. Whatever. Eventually, there will be a top twenty, and we're supposed to vote.)

But here's the thing: Even though "America's Got Talent" has been the nation's top-ranked television show for two weeks running--scoring ratings so high that NBC decided to expand this week's episode from one hour to two--it just isn't very cool.

On the contrary, it revels in being a great big backyard talent show where Grandpa and Cousin Doakie can get up and holler.

Despite being produced by Simon Cowell and his "American Idol" cronies--and despite blatantly ripping that show off, right down to the supposedly acidic British judge--"America's Got Talent" is aggressively nice. It's the kind of program that insists anyone from anywhere can do something worth clapping about, even if that something is stuffing himself inside a steamer trunk or training a cat to do gymnastics. (Those have both been acts, by the way.)

Where "American Idol" positions itself as the arbiter of the year's single greatest undiscovered superstar, "AGT" is making the argument that there are lots and lots of people out there who can do cool stuff. That will never make it hip, but it will make it endlessly pleasant in ways that "The Colbert Report" can never be.

After three weeks of watching this parade of abilities, I am ambivalent about the up-with-catrobats spirit.

On the one hand, the show gives us acts like The Glamazons. I'm biased, of course, but there really is value in seeing women who don't fit the media's traditional notion of desirability storming the stage. More importantly? These women are talented singers and dancers; they have great attitudes; and they are hot, dammit. So good for them.

And good for all the non-white people, non-straight people, and non-adolescent people who got passed through to the next round. It's nice to see the show try to live up to its assertion that it is showing us "America." Bonus points for hiring two British judges--sweet Sharon Osbourne and pussycat-in-leopard's clothing Piers Morgan--yet still Yanking out with manic enthusiasm.

On the other hand, does "America's Got Talent" have to be so tacky? I mean, I guess that's American, too. In this country, why celebrate talent with polite applause when you can shriek while wearing naughty t-shirts? Why spin a plate on a stick when you can set a hoop on fire, jump through it, and then hurl the plate into the mouth of a semi-literate tiger?

But week after week, the absolute lack of restraint on "America's Got Talent" becomes embarrassing. It's like how I feel when I walk through Gatlinburg, Tennessee, with all its chain stores and Ripley's Believe It Or Not Museums and fake villages built to resemble small hamlets in Bavaria. Everything in the area is so obviously fake that it mocks the people it attracts. It's like the entire town is laughing at visitors who embrace cheap theatricality, gaudy merchandise, and grotesque recreations of concepts like "nostalgia," "hospitality," and "Europe." If the people behind this sham can make us pay for it, they win. Meanwhile, we lose our discernment, so we just keep coming back for more.

In spite of its good features, I fear this is "AGT's" primary function: It's crassly manufacturing inclusiveness. What's more, because there's no American Idol-style chaser for its often robotic sweetness--the saracasm of your Cowells and Seacrests, say, or the bizarre antics of Paula Abdul--you can gag on it.

Despite his off-screen drinking scandals, for instance, judge David Hasslehoff just loves to coo and weep over acts he likes, and the other two judges (plus host Jerry Springer) are right there with him.

So that leaves us with segments like tonight's performance by "Lazy Legs." He's a young man with a disability that leaves him on crutches, and he leads a dance troupe. He's pretty good, but the show didn't let us forget for a moment that he is "overcoming." His interviews were tastelessly underscored with the song "I'll Stand By You." All the judges kept saying he was an "inspiration." I'm pretty sure they tear-gassed the crowd so everyone would cry. It was so syrupy, you could mix it with bubbles and make Coke.

That mawkishness pervades the show, so it allows so-so talent to get an inordinate amount of praise. Everyone agrees to feel good about something, so they stop thinking critically it. It's like when "Crash" won the Oscar for Best Picture.

So there's my ambivalence. While I like the fact that a wide variety of people are being celebrated on "America's Got Talent," I wish the show didn't feel so flashy, cheap, and empty. I wish the truly interesting acts--like The Glamazons--could be elebrated in a context that seems as clever as they are. I'd wish America's biggest talent show could have a little elegance.

But who am I kidding, right? The remaining episodes are being filmed in Las Vegas, for God's sake. Elegance pales beneath a fake pyramid shooting a column of light into the sky.

Originally posted on PopPolitics

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Hey, Ryan. Long time, no see.

Generally, I'm a faithful guy. I've had the same best friends for over ten years. Andrew and I are just weeks away from our second anniversary. Even when she was getting lambasted for "American Life," I stood by Madonna, acknowledging that there were a few great songs on an otherwise terrible album.

But Ryan Adams? I just keep straying.

But, like... that's only because he keeps doing me wrong!

I mean, we had a great relationship at first. When he was still lead singer with Whiskeytown--a period I'll call "courtship"--I thought he was good for some laughs and a few late-night cry sessions.

Then things got serious. He released his solo album "Heartbreaker," and I was smitten. To this day, there are songs on that gorgeous alt-country masterpiece that force me to stop whatever I'm doing and give them all my attention.

"Oh My Sweet Carolina," especially, is a devastating ballad about homesickness, and the softly plucked guitar melody is the perfect fit for Adams' cracked-and-weeping voice. Plus, Emmylou Harris sings harmony vocals, and her presence always means something beautiful is coming.

With the release of his next album, "Gold," I was ready to call Ryan Adams my steady. Even though I saw him act like a drunken fool at a concert in Atlanta, I couldn't deny the toe-tapping pop of "New York, New York;" the nine-minute, lung-scorching majesty of "Nobody Girl;" or the melancholy beauty of "La Cienega Just Smiled."

(And for the record, "When The Stars Go Blue" is a Ryan Adams song. It's on this album, and it was not originally recorded by Tim McGraw, thank you very much, Ryan Seacrest.)

Ryan and I hit a bumpy spot with his next album, "Demolition," but I thought his self-indulgence was just a phase. A fear of commitment. I mean, when he dropped three albums between 2002 and 2003--"Rock and Roll" and "Love is Hell Parts 1 & 2"--I had to admire his gumption. It was cute! And how could I stay mad over "Demolition" when "Rock and Roll" was so freaking great?

Seriously, you guys. If you don't know Adams' song "So Alive," do whatever you can to hear it. It's the kind of effortless rock anthem that U2 used to make. In the chorus, he sings these long, wailing notes that make you want to stand on the edge of a cliff, throw your arms back, and belt out loud. That kind of bombastic music requires grand gestures, you know?

But after that long honeymoon, Ryan and I hit a major rough patch. He just kept releasing albums, and he was almost drowning is his self-regard. We all know the syndrome. Prince does it. Ani DiFranco does it. They flood the market with every note they've ever put on tape, and it gets hard to sift the quality out of the crap.

This was especially frustrating for Ryan and me. I wanted to yell, "Hey! Why don't you just release one album that's entirely filled with good songs? And why don't you give me back the sweater you borrowed two Labor Days ago?!?"

I'll admit it you guys: After that, we broke up. I needed space to heal.

But now Ryan Adams is courting me again. Today, he released "Easy Tiger," and it's fantastic. (listen to four songs here). Many of the reviews you'll read will liken it to "Heartbreaker," and that's a good comparison. The songs are back to being simple roots-rock, filled with harmonicas and pretty singing and occasionally catchy drum beats. And like he does on all his best songs, Adams submits to his vulnerability. On tracks like "Goodnight Rose" and "Two," it sounds like the music is a last-ditch fight against a permanently broken heart. Even more aggressive rockers like "Halloweenhead" have a Tom Petty-style ache. (The more I listen to it, in fact, the more I think "Halloweenhead" is a spiritual sequel to Petty's "Free Falling.")

The current issue of "Wired"--remember when I read that?--suggests that Adams' new album is focused and affecting because he used his website to release all his random, experimental songs. That seems possible, and I'm okay with it. If he needs to do his own thing a few nights a week, it's only going to make our relationship stronger.

So yes, Ryan, you can come over.

I've missed you, too.

And go ahead. Keep the sweater. It looks better on you anyway.

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She's a Girl... and a Robot

Before we take another step, I need to tell you about "Girl Robot." Credited as the "first internet-based musical," "Girl Robot" is a series of short films about a, well, girl robot, who goes on a new adventure every month. Each film is essentially a music video for a song that is co-written by Merideth Clark (who plays the robot) and Ricky Marson (who directs).

But here's the kicker: These things are great. The songs are catchy, Merideth's vocals are lovely, and Ricky has a real knack for filmmaking. Plus, these people are funny, and their humor give the clips a satisfying bite.

In the second segment, for instance, GR is singing about how she's learning to love the rodents in New York City, and she's subtly playing with a computer mouse. The pun is there if you want it. No pressure. No expectations. (But you totally want it. Admit it!)

As you may have figured out, Ricky and Merideth are also my friends, which makes me even more excited to spread the word. So far, there are three "Girl Robot" installments, and I'd encourage you to start with number one, since they tell a loosely chronological story.


25 June 2007

Teach Me, TV!

So I've decided that when I don't have time to write lengthy, essay-style posts, I won't just post nothing. I mean, I prefer writing the longer pieces, but it's not always possible, you know?

For now, let me give you my third quickie in less than 24 hours. And I don't mean it like that, dirty.

Anyway... Andrew and I are going to Maine in a few weeks, and I know that the capital of Maine is Augusta. But do you know why I know? Not because of anything I learned in school. No, I know the state capitals because I once decided to memorize the song "Wakko's America" from Animaniacs. This was several years after I had supposedly learned the capitals in elementary school, but the mnemonic device that stuck was the one learned during my wasted middle school afternoons.

So in case you have a hard time remembering things like "Bismarck" or "Frankfurt," just take a few minutes to enjoy the following. It'll change you for the better, just like every cartoon ever made.


A New Way to Read "I Totally Hear That"

I am pleased to announce a new feature here at "I Totally Hear That." Now you can...

... search by subject!

I've finally gone through and added labels to all my posts, so now if you want, you can see everything I've had to say on the subject of, say, "Pop" or "Rock."

All the labels are listed on the right of the blog, so feel free to click away. And in case you're wondering, "Greatest Hits" are the posts I most enjoy.

24 June 2007

It's Glamazon time

Update: I'm not on jury duty anymore. Having not been assigned to a trial--or even called out of the juror's lobby--my involvement with our legal system will now once again be limited to living with an ADA and watching episodes of "Law & Order: Original Flavor."

Update the Second: Did you know that the current number one show on American television is "America's Got Talent?"

And did you know that you really need to watch this week's episode?

Why? I'll tell you why. Because of The Glamazons.

A New York-based quartet of singing divas who pride themselves on being plus-sized and fabulous, The Glamazons will make their first appearance on "America's Got Talent" this Tuesday, June 26.

And why is this exciting? Because Andrew--yes, my Andrew--is arranging all their music. I won't give away anything else about what's going to happen, but suffice it to say that everything the ladies sing on the show will bear the genius stamp of New York's finest vocal coach and arranger. Okay, maybe I'm biased. But really, I'm not. He's the best.

Plus, Andrew's brother Dave is doing all The Glamazon's orchestrations.

So get your DVRs fired up, because it's time to record this series, y'all.


22 June 2007

In Most Cases, I'd Sink

What's that smell? Is it peaches in autumn? Is it burning hair?

No... it's my civic duty!

That's right: I'm coming to you live from jury duty. I've never been called to do this before, but so far it seems like most government-related experiences I've had. Same waiting. Same uncomfortable chairs. Same person behind me with the loud, nasally voice.

To those of you who have been jurors, let me ask: Did you see the same video that I did? Because when I first arrived--at 8:30, having gone to bed at 3:30--I got to watch this amazing film about the history of the jury system. It starred Diane Sawyer and Ed Bradley of "60 Minutes." Even better, it also starred a group of actors who were recreating a Medieval "Trial By Ordeal."

The scene: In a perfectly ancient forest by a perfectly ancient stream, a group of peasants carry a bound and gagged man to the water's edge. Bradley's voice over tells us he's been accused of a crime, so he's being tossed into the drink. If he's guilty, he floats. If he's innocent, he sinks.

(Side note: Whoa! They just called another round of jurors to the empaneling room! I swear, my heart races every time they do that. It's like they're calling out the names of the people who have to kickbox with the grizzly bear.)

Anyway, they chuck the guy into the stream, and then there's a tense pause. We see the surface of the water, followed by extreme close-ups of nervous villagers.


And still, the guy stays submerged.

Then the head villager--the one in the three-cornered hat--gives an affirmative jerk of his head and... rejoice! Two chaps splash into the drink and rescue our innocent hero.

"Was this fair and impartial justice?" Bradley asks. "They thought so."

Aside from the word "awesome," here are some things I thought while watching this movie:

(1) I bet at least half of those villagers have M.F.A.s in acting

(2) Where was this filmed? Is that water clean?

(3) I wonder if they made the actor stay underwater for a really long time, just to see if he really was innocent.

(Side note: Man! Eric Quinones really needs to get to room 285. They've paged him a thousand times.)

Well, the battery on my laptop is running a little low, and in my rush out of the house at an unaccustomed hour, I forgot to bring the charger. I also forgot to bring a book. Hope that issue of "Wired" sitting on the radiator over there is a page-turner!

(Side note: Excellent. The beefy guy behind me is on his cell phone, and he just said, "That is so gay! That's the gayest thing I've ever heard!" He seems like just the type of sophisticate I'll want to befriend. By "gayest thing I've ever heard," I'm sure he's talking about an audio book of a mid-career novel by Gore Vidal. I'll chat with this gentleman and get back to you about his offerings to the culture.)

Anyway, I know I haven't really written about music in this post, but what can you do? Sometimes Medieval barbarism and Gore Vidal take precedence.


15 June 2007

Friday Flashback: The Traveling Wilburys

Yesterday, I noticed that "The Traveling Wilburys Collection"--
a remastered re-
packaging of both albums released by that late-80s supergroup made of Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, George Harrison, and Jeff Lynne--was the number one album on both iTunes and Amazon.com.

This made me smile, as I have a very clear memory of listening to the cassette of their first album as a ten year old.

Picture it...

I'm sitting in the first house I ever lived in, there in the den, playing with toys. Given that it's the late 80s, the toys are probably Transformers or Thundercats.
Anyway, I'm playing, and I've got my dad's old tape player, eating up the power of D batteries, blasting Wilburys songs. I particularly enjoy belting "Handle With Care," and I always make an "eww, gross!" face when the Dylan-led "Congratulations" comes on.

Foolishly, I thought that was my only TW memory. That is, until I started listening to the samples on iTunes. Turns out I clearly remember every single one of those songs, including the tracks from their second album.

I mean, damn. I don't think I realized how often my parents had that tape playing in the car when they were driving me to Pizza Hut to get that week's pair of "Back to the Future 2" commemorative sunglasses. Clearly, the Wilburys were the constant soundtrack to my life.

Here's a memory that just surfaced yesterday: There's this song on the first album called "Tweeter and the Monkey Man," and the chorus includes the line "The walls came down, all the way to hell." I remember being shocked--shocked!--that my mom sang along to that line in the car.

I mean... really? She just said "hell"? Because I could handle that kind of gutter talk from my dad. Not that he has a filthy mouth or anything, but he can occasionally... let fly.

I remember once he was lying on his back, half buried in the kitchen cabinets as he tried to fix a leak in the sink. I was watching TV in another room--randomly, I remember it was this show "Encyclopedia" on HBO--and I heard two things:

(1) A loud spurting sound, like water firing out of a hose

(2) My dad cursing in ways that would take the green off grass

It was a good three minutes before he was able to close off whatever gasket had exploded, so he had time to get to the more exotic expletives in his vocabulary. We were well past the "S" word, people.

I didn't see my dad until after he'd cleaned up from whatever mess had been created. I knew it would be a mistake to walk in and giggle while he was still sopping wet. But as I sat by "Encyclopedia," I conjured vivid images of what must have happened. In my mind, it was so... awesome. Possibly the funniest thing ever.

But it was also kind of scary, you know? I mean, this kind of cursing could result in random, unexpected deletion of my dessert privileges. Hence the reason I didn't go see what was going on.

Those of you that know my dad are probably thinking, "Really? Mr. Blankenship? But he's such a laid back guy!" And that's true. As I write it now, the story is kind of surprising.

But imagine how much more surprised you'd be to hear my mom cursing a blue streak. Those that know her probably can't even picture it.

Personally, I feel like I can remember every single time I've heard my mom curse, just like Ramona Quimby in that one book. For instance, a few Thanksgivings ago, I was eating pumpkin pie when my mom offhandedly mentioned that she thought Shania Twain seemed like "an uppity bitch."

Sputter. Gasp. Pie flying out of my mouth.

Say what? This sudden blast of judgment was inconceivable from the woman who festoons our refrigerator with laminated mottoes like "We can't all be stars, but we all can twinkle."

And to prove how unusual it is for my mom to get potty mouth, I'll bet you a thousand dollars that when she reads this, she will blush, scrunch her face up, hunch up her shoulders in playful embarrassment, and vigorously shake her head "no." She'll possibly cover up her face with her hands. And then she'll tell my dad to stop laughing about it. She'll say, "Now hush, Gary. You say that kind of stuff all the time." Which will make him laugh more.

But then if I ask her about it, she'll staunchly defend her assessment of Shania Twain. That's why my mom is so awesome. She picks her battles very carefully, and she doesn't hurl insults for fun. If she calls you a bitch, you probably are.

Given this snapshot of my world, I'm sure you can imagine how my mom singing "all the way to hell" would leave me agog as I sat in the back seat of our black mustang with the dark red seats.

Clearly, any group of Wilburys who could make her turn obscene possessed strange and mystical powers.

Maybe that's why they were my playtime soundtrack. I was trying to absorb that power for myself.

Or maybe I'm just another one under their spell, since every song is obviously burned into my subconscious.

Another bizarre coincidence? As I was typing this, I took a break to call my dad. The first thing he asked is whether I want a burned copy of the "The Traveling Wilburys Collection" that he just bought.

And that's eerie.

Eerie all the way to hell.

p.s.--I had that exact pair of Pizza Hut/"Back to the Future" sunglasses pictured up there. Gnarly!

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12 June 2007

The Hidden Message of The Cop Car

Oh snap, you guys. I might have to revise my list of bad-ass songs. Because there's no way we can even have that conversation without mentioning the bass-thumping brilliance of "Party Like a Rock Star."

Now I know this song didn't exactly hit the airwaves yesterday, but sometimes I get behind. (Like how my friend Kerri came up to me in March and was like, "Have you heard that song 'Irreplaceable?' It's awesome!" Or how I once told my parents that I loved this new band Simon and Garfunkel.)

Anyway, brand new or not, this song rules. Is there any beat this year more likely to make you shake your booty? I doubt it. Take a look/listen...

I mean, you've got all the ingredients for dance floor genius...

(1)Mindless sing-along chorus? Yes! It takes less than a second to get your mind around the refrain of "Party like a rock/Party like a rock star/(Yeeeeeah!)"

That means the hearing-to-memorization ratio is so small it practically doesn't exist. You've learned this song before you've even heard it once, and instantaneous catchiness is key to any smash hit.

(2) Hot beat? See above

(3) Lyrics that give you a bit of socio-political poignancy to deepen your fun?

Just consider this...

Party like a rock star
Do it with the black
and the white
Like a cop car

Me and my band
Out on a yacht
with Marilyn Manson
gettin' a tan,

Too true. Too true. If we could all do it with the black and the white like a cop car, maybe there would be less need for actual cop cars to break up racially-motivated fights.

And if the rap-rock of The Shop Boyz can live in yacht-based harmony with the goth of Marilyn Manson, then we may find peace at last.

Someday, may we all party like this kind of rock star.


11 June 2007

Listening More Than "Once"

Hey everyone! I'm back from a fantastic trip to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where I participated in the annual conference of the Theatre Communications Group. TCG has given me a fellowship to become an affiliated writer with American Theatre magazine, and next month the first article I've written under that fellowship will be published. It's a piece I'm particularly excited to see in print, so I'll keep you updated.

Now as for music... have we talked about the soundtrack to the film "Once?" Well, I know we haven't, so let's do it.

First of all, the movie: It's an Irish film about a singer-songwriter (played by actual singer-songwriter Glen Hansard) who spends time away from his cruddy job by busking in the street. When we meet him, he's singing these beautiful, heart-tearing songs, but the only people listening are the drunks who want to steal the money from his open guitar case.

Eventually, though, the man--we never learn the characters' names--meets a woman (Marketa Irglova, also a real-life singer-songwriter) who loves the music she hears. That leads to a non-sexual relationship built on their decision to write songs together. As these shy, lonely people learn to trust one another with their music, they also learn to trust each other with their lives. The resulting film is remarkable because it depicts a type of love that is very real yet almost never depicted in art: the intense love of friendship.

That's not to say these two don't want to become lovers, but there are several reasons they can't. And instead of pushing the story toward predictable conclusions--affairs, guilt, betrayal--the filmmakers, including writer-director John Carney (a former bandmate of Hansard's), force the characters to deal with the terms they're given. Bound in a universe that tells them they can't sleep together, they find other meaningful ways of sharing their hearts.

By avoiding sex, the film finds surprising ways to tell its story. I'd say it's much more interesting and unconventional to see a "love scene" played out in a piano shop, where the man and woman sing a duet.

There's a similar energy here as in "Lost In Translation," another film with a languid pace that observes two people who care for each other but cannot sleep together.

The movies aren't the same, though, primarily because "Once" has moments of raw emotion supplied by its songs. Glen Hansard, who I'd never heard of before now but is fairly well known in Europe, is an arresting performer. The unguarded feeling in his face and especially in his voice snared me every time a song began. And Irglova offers a soft counterbalance. Her voice is pure and high, blending nicely with Hansard's, and while his screen presence is boisterous, she has a sly subtlety that makes her seem like a private thought you really want to hear.

Another crucial element of the music is how it affects the movie's tone. During songs, "Once" lifts ever so slightly out of realism, letting us know that these numbers are a representation of the character's inner lives. The effect gives the movie a touch of magic without making it overwrought.

For instance, when Irglova's character is listening to music on her Discman, she walks through a convenience store whispering potential lyrics to herself. Eventually, she starts singing the lyrics out loud, and even though she's meant to be improvising, a carefully structured song emerges. What's more, no one else even notices she's singing.

In that moment, it's easy to imagine that passers by just see a woman walking silently with a CD player. But we in the audience get to see what's going on inside her. We can see that she's moved by this music and that it is making her want to belt out with joy.

The impact of the film is retained in the soundtrack. Even without images, the music maintains its power, be it on driving rockers like "Trying to Pull Myself Away" or in Irglova's heartbroken solo lament, "The Hill."

For me, the most representative example of both the album's and the movie's success is the track "When Your Mind's Made Up." A elaborate, sweeping anthem that starts quiet and ends loud, it has a complete emotional journey, surprising turns, and authentic feeling. Hansard's wordless wail over the last minute, backed by crashing drums and Irglova's sweet harmony, is both ecstatic and devastating at the same.

That complexity makes "Once" one of the most satisfying experience I've had this year, both in the movies and in my earphones.

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06 June 2007

Buying In to Selling Out

So there's been this enormous brouhaha about Wilco "selling out" because the band's members are letting songs from their new album, "Sky Blue Sky," appear in ads for Volkswagen. Some people are just losing their minds that the band has gone all commercial. The feedback has gotten so intense and negative that Wilco has released a statement defending its credibility on its website, and frontman Jeff Tweedy's brother-in-law has posted a lengthy defense of the band on his blog.

I think the in-law's blog post does a fine job defending Wilco, so I won't do that here. But what I would like to consider is this notion of "selling out." I mean, I can completely understand why fans of a lesser-known band would be up in arms about their beloved rockers (or rappers or folkers or whatever) suddenly making themselves available to wider consumption. Surely the possibility of mass appeal will also result in the dulling of whatever edges made the band so cool and appealing in the first place, right? Lose your soul to make a buck and get played on Disney Radio. To me, that's what "selling out" means.

And because that's what it means to me, I don't think signing to a major label--or even letting your songs get used in commercials--necessarily constitutes selling out. To me, you've only truly sold out if, once you've broadened your exposure, the sound of your music fundamentally changes in ways that seem designed to court a new mass audience.

Take Liz Phair: She's like the queen of selling out. She went from slash-and-burn post-punk goddess to glitzy rocker to pop princess.

Or did she? Her approach to pop stardom always struck me as really intelligent, and this article articulates why.

Okay, okay. So if you can't say Liz Phair sold out without using some po-mo asterisk to explain yourself, what about the country group Sugarland? Total sell-outs. Jennifer Nettles used to be this indie folk-rocker from Atlanta who sang all these dark songs about her broken home and burning sexual desire. Now she's in a group that makes fun ditties with power chords. And you know what? That total, unabashed selling out upset me for a minute, because there's no denying that Sugarland's music is pretty vapid when compared to Nettles' solo work (or her work in the duo Soul Miner's Daughter).

But as I've written, I've gotten over it. The old Jennifer Nettles is dead, but the new one is great in her own way.

The other major sell-out I can think of is Nelly Furtado, but god knows I've written about her enough on here.

So apparently, I can't get that upset about an artist selling out, nor can I be quick to accuse them of having done so. How about you guys? Any artists that "sold out," thus forcing you to drop them forever? Or have you made the journey with them, perhaps embracing them as a mass market act and then replacing the indie hole in your heart with another obscure sensation?

(I feel like I've only brushed the surface of this topic here. There are so many more questions to ask and consider... but a blog post can't be a term paper. I'll think more about it and get back to you. But I'd love to hear all your thoughts. Anything you've think I've overlooked on this topic?)

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05 June 2007

A Hometown Shout-Out

So this isn't about music, but I couldn't pass up the opportunity to give big props to my hometown.

Y'all, Chattanooga is in today's New York Times. And the story? Is about goats. Word.


04 June 2007

Ode to Lil' Mama

Hey all... go over to Pop Politics to see my ode to up-and-coming rapper Lil' Mama.

And then tell me you don't have "Lip Gloss" stuck in your head for days!


01 June 2007

When Everything Cliks

Let's forget for a moment that The Cliks are a revolutionary rock group simply because of who their members are. Let's focus first on their exquisite music.

Take a listen to "Oh Yeah," from the album "Snakehouse." (video below). Why can't all rock anthems be this raw? There's a scraped-throat wail in singer Lucas Silveira's voice that makes his lower register sound just devastated, which fits a song about friends and lovers who don't treat each other well.

The anger of wounded pride is palpable in how Silveira sings "Oh Yeah's" verses, and that makes his performance on the chorus and bridge even more dramatic. In those sections, Silveira hits pure high notes, trembling through lines like "he's not listening" and "I want my baby back." Those notes are musical surprises, and they make the track even more dynamic.

And the music mimics those unexpected turns. For the most part, "Oh Yeah" is straight-up rock. The power of the drums and electric guitars keeps us chugging forward like a runaway train. It's the kind of tempo that makes me think of running, possibly throwing punches at the same time.

But during the bridge, everything drops away except Silveira's vocal, a soft guitar, and some light percussion.

Yet even though the volume drops, the tempo stays the same. Even in the quiet, there's still motion, like someone pacing the room and muttering. All these elements fuse into one of the most arresting rock tracks I've heard in a while.

But just when you think you know them, The Cliks come at you with a slow-groove cover of "Cry Me a River" by Justin Timberlake. And you guys? It works. They're not making fun of the song. They're digging into it and finding a musical core they can reinvent. Their version has just as much soul as J.T.'s, and it has twice the aggression.

(Want to hear "Cry Me A River," "Oh Yeah," plus two more great cuts from the album? Go to this particularly well-stocked MySpace page.)

If this great album were all The Cliks had to offer, they'd be offering plenty, but they've got more. For one thing, drummer Morgan Doctor, guitarist Nina Martinez, and bassist Jan Benton are all queer women. And how many kick-ass rock groups have multiple queers? Or multiple women?

Then there's Lucas Silveira: a transman fronting this group with swagger, power, and skill. (For those who don't know the lingo, a "transman" is a transgendered person who is born as a biological woman but realizes he identifies as a man. As with a transwoman, sexual reassignment surgery is sometimes--but not always--part of a transman's identity.)

And dammit if I don't find it really inspiring that Silveira and his band are out there doing what they do. Because with music this catchy, sexuality is beside the point. I think most rock fans can find an emotional connection with The Cliks' music. Like me, for instance. While I enjoy the ironic detachment of groups like The Killers and Fall Out Boy, it's nice to hear something so unguarded.

If we can connect to artists like this--feel like they speak to part of us somehow--it makes it easier to resist the barrage of homophobic hatred that keeps tearing through this country. It's harder to fear people when you know they can move you.

So listen to The Cliks: that sound they're making--loud, fierce, and amazing--is a sound that trans, gay, and queer people make every day. It's a sound most people make every day. It's the sound of fighting back against what's wrong-- in love or politics--with a wild burst of energy.

It's a sound I love hearing.