Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Signs of Life in Wrestling?

This past weekend, I ordered the Royal Rumble pay per view. It's my wife's favorite wrestling PPV, one where you are guaranteed to see many of the superstars compete in one show. Although we have ordered and enjoyed the show over the years, I really was not expecting much from Royal Rumble because of the dull streak WWE has had over the past few years. Now that the brand extension is now three different brandnames (Raw, Smackdown and ECW) following the multiple wrestlers and storylines has become more work than its worth. To my surprise, the past few days have given me some hope for wrestling.

Royal Rumble started dull enough, with a disappointingly boring match between the Hardy Boys and M & M. The bordom continued with a meaninglessly empty title match between ECW champ Bobby Lashley and journeyman wrestler Test. It looked like we had spent a lot of money to see the same quality of matches that are on tv every week for free.

But, the World Title match between Batista and Mr. Kennedy surprised as Kennedy delivered an energized performance. Kennedy injected drama and realism in his futile quest to become champion. The Last Man Standing match between John Cena and Umaga was also well done, they hit the right pace and gave an all out performance that left each other bloodied and bruised. Cena has finally gotten playing the underdog down and I found myself rooting for him the way a major face should be. Then, the actual Rumble was well paced with few slow spots and ended with a classic matchup between Shawn Michaels and the Undertaker.

I came away feeling the WWE is just a crossover hit wrestler away from really getting it together as the storylines were engaging and interesting for the first time in eons. I checked out Raw the next night to see if it was a fluke. It was no fluke, on top of great matches they had a guest spot with Donald Trump putting down Vince McMahon and then proceded to drop actual cash from the ceiling onto the audience. A great move and excellent use of a guest star.

I also saw MTV's new wrestling program Wrestling Society X. This program is determined to bring back the big spot, reckless style of pro wrestling that the WWE has moved away from. The matches were fast, acrobatic and contained no promo interviews whatsoever. It was an exciting stunt show worth giving a second look to.

Finally, I have some hope for wrestling and hope the WWE can continue to up the ante and produce strong programming. I don't know what changed, they may be just getting lucky, but I hope they continue on the current path and can find a major crossover face to bring in a new audience (Like Hulk Hogan in the 80's or Stone Cold Steve Austin / The Rock in the 90's).

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Amores Perros and M

I watched two movies on TV recently, the one with the most impact was Amores Perros (2000). This film, made by director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, is a hard hitting look at a variety of lives in Mexico colliding at a traffic accident. The story is told in sections involving all the participants in the accident and their lives before and after. Specifically, it shows three main storylines: The first of a young guy trying to win the love of his brothers wife and escape the city by using his dog in dog fights. The second is a supermodel in a secret affair whose career is jeopardized by the accident. The third is a former guerella turned bum / hit man trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter.

Stylistically, the movie is told in intercut sections with the characters weaving in and out of each other's storylines. It is reminiscent of Pulp Fiction or Crash, but with more plausibility and realism. It is shot with a lot of handheld camerawork with that bright, washedout look that screams "Realism!" It is well acted by all of the actors. particulary Gael Garcia Bernal who was also great in Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001) and The Motorcycle Diaries (2004). This guy is showing remarkable consistency in delivering strong performance in good movies.

Overall, I highly recommend this film despite the long running time (2+ hours) and more dog abuse than you will ever see in this life again. I hope the dogs weren't hurt in the making of this film, it is so realistic it's hard to tell. As a dog owner, it was a little hard to take. Thematically, the dogs are crucial to the movie as they become symbols of the characters and relationships in the film. To the young guy, the dog represents his dreams of freedom and life. For the model and her man, the dog represents their relationship as it gets caught under the floor boards and gets stuck. The bum hit man's dog (same dog as the young guys) represents his capacity for love and lethal vicious instinct trained to perfection. This movie is not upbeat at all, but has a power and magnetism that holds your attention.

The second movie I saw was M (1931) directed by Fritz Lang and starring Peter Lorre. It tells the story of a serial child murderer and his affect on the community. I wasn't expecting much from a movie this old, but it is well made and involving. Most of the movie is about how the killer affects society, detailing the police's efforts to capture the criminal. The crime underworld becomes upset by the constant police presence and resolves to capture and kill the man themselves. Peter Lorre gives his best performance as a deceptively docile man driven by an inner impulse to kill children.

Both movies are well worth watching, just remember they're not particulary happy and you may be a little bummed after seeing them.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Random items and Surreal Life

It's been awhile, so here's a few media odds and ends:

Wonderland (2003) starring Val Kilmer as porn legend John Holmes in a story about his alleged involvement with the Wonderland murders of the early 80's. The movie plays out like "CSI Gone Wild" with a choppy story, flashy direction and a lot of conjecture. Kilmer never really convinces as being John Holmes though he does bring the proper amount of selfish pathos to the character. Sadly, the movie drowns in a grimy, sleazy pool of LA jadedness that is more cynical and harsh than any movie the actual John Holmes ever shot. Boogie Nights this ain't.

Wild Strawberries (195?) is a classic film by Ingmar Bergman about an aging doctor who has a Salvador Dali dream about his death and decides to start living. The doctor takes a car trip to his ceremony, visiting his old haunts and building relationships with his daughter in law plus a few hitchhikers. A moving film.

Also, I have been revisiting the Red Hot Chili Peppers Stadium Arcadium (2006). The double CD took awhile to really dig into, but it has proved to be a strong CD over time. The grooves are sharp and memorable with enough left turns in the music to keep it from being predicable. Great fun!

But what my wife and I have been watching closely in a piece of reality tv that truly highlights the vanity of some people's egos. That show is VH1's Surreal Life Fame Games. Surreal Life veterans such as Vanilla Ice, Ron Jeremy, Traci Bingham, CC Deville, Chyna, Bridgette Nielsen, Webster, Mini Me and Andrea Lowell (I don't know who she is either) live in a lush house in Vegas. They compete with each other by performing contests for celebrity status and the loser goes to the "B-List", where they live like...normal people! The B List is a little tacky in its decor, but really it's sleeping in twin beds in a large room.

But, the B list is enough to unnerve these celebrities and cause them to unravel. This is where the magic of this show lies. It's really funny to watch these pampered celebrites who really aren't all that famous to start with become unglued because they have to play ping pong or open their own car door at a hotel. Chyna became so upset she started trash talking Mini Me in a van (what's more pathetic than seeing a former WWE wrestler insult someone no higher than her knee). Bridgette Nielsen (age has not been kind to her) keeps threatening to leave because it's too much for her.

What's better is the clips of the future episodes promise more! Vanilla Ice (the most grounded and human so far of all the celebs) gets into it with Ron Jeremy (and I don't mean in a "Ron Jeremy" kind of way). They trash their fancy rooms in anger. All the while host Robin Leach smirks his way to hell, loving every chance he gets to needle these people. While this show definitely follows the recent reality trend of emphasizing Jerry Springer like conflict, watching these king size egos take a hit will keep us watching for the rest of the season.

Monday, January 15, 2007

MLK Day and The Who

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Though I've known of MLK my whole life and know of what he generally stands for (Civil Rights, Equality, Non Violent Protest and the "I Have A Dream" speech) I never took the time to look at his life or work in any detail. But, with today being a national holiday I thought I would read a little about him today. I read a short biography on Wikipedia at:,_Jr.

which was very educational to me as to the struggles MLK went through as a leader in the Civil Rights movement. It's rare for me to see a national holiday as anything but a chance to skip work, but I've got to say this holiday worked in bringing my attention to a man I owe a huge debt to. If it wasn't for him, thousands of people including myself would not have the opportunity to experience freedom or opportunity in American society. So, thank you MLK.

The Civil Rights movement was one of the major changes in American culture in the 60's, a time of conflict when people fought to improve each others lives against the establishment. That spirit of the 60's also bled over to the music of the time of which rock music played a part. One of the crankiest people of the 60's survivors, Pete Townsend, recently released the first Who album in over two decades.

The Who's Endless Wire (2006) is the first Who album since It's Hard (1981) and the first since bassist John Entwhistle's death a few years ago. In their prime, the Who were the loudest and most reckless band in rock. Their concerts were spectacles of showmanship and noise. Their songs were the counterculture anthems of a, uh, generation. But what happens when counterculture legends get old? You get Endless Wire, an album filled with moxie and verve but faded power.

The Who, now down to guitarist / songwriter Pete Townsend and singer Roger Daltry, perform music that is done half as a duo and half with a full band. On top of that, the album is half a collection of songs and half concept album. Given this split in styles and theme, the album seems a little disjointed and muddles the message a little. But in spite of the negatives against the disc, the strengths and abilities of the Who does stand out by the end of the album.

The first half of Endless Wire bounces back and forth between duo and band, with the band winning. The band driven songs hit with enough energy and authority to recall classic Who, particularly on "Mike Post Theme" with its bracing "Won't Get Fooled Again" style lurch that allows for Daltry's commanding bellow to take over. Unfortunately, the songs as a duo drain the momentum from the disc, particularly on the horrific "In The Ether" where Daltry is forced to sing in a register so low he sounds like a gurgiling gorilla. Lyrically, Townsend writes about evil women ("Black Widow's eyes"), Escapism ("Mike Post Theme") and a lot about religion and God ("A Man In A Purple Dress", "Two Thousand Years" and "God Speaks Of Marty Robbins"). To be more exact, Townsend seems to view religion as being in the way of him and his God which is never developed beyond a vague notion.

The second half of Endless Wire is more effective, a mini-opera called Wire & Glass. The Opera opens with it's most exciting track, "Sound Round" that hits with a big anthem and some of the pure Rawk with a capital R energy that the rest of the disc lacks. It is followed up by the equally strong "Pick Up The Peace" but in the case of both songs they end in a minute and a half. The story concept about the late middle age drive for meaning amid a warring world leading to rocking out for the immortals is a little grandiose but then the Who are not known for small measures. Despite the convoluted storyline, the short songs serving the greater story is surprisingly effective so that by the time you reach the epic conclusion of "Mirror Door" you're caught up in its drama, even though you probably won't know what it's going on about (I still don't fully get it).

With these modest successes, I can't say Endless Wire doesn't merit listening or releasing. Is it great? No. You would think with the amount of social conflict that exists in todays world and his own personal troubles (accusations of viewing child pornography) Townsend would have a more focused message to deliver. Still, Wire is just barely good enough to say, OK. And for the Kids, now in their AARP years, that will have to be alright.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and JJ Cale / EC

When the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame started, it sounded really exciting. But for years, the inducties were from the beginning of rock in the 50's which left little for me to get really pumped up about. Now, I'm officially old enough to recognize the names of famous people when they die and have bands I know of enter the Hall of Fame. The biggest honoree this year? Van Halen!

From 1978 to 1995, Van Halen was one of the biggest hard rock bands on the planet. They defined the adrenaline rush of hard rock with party anthems, whiplash speed guitarwork and outlandish showmanship. When they were young, drunk and high they were unstoppable. But, aging and a few sober periods led to ego battles that killed the band. Van Halen now has a chance to shine at the induction ceremony and I hope they rise to the occassion. If they do, it will be the rock event of the year!

Speaking of sober, Eric Clapton has put out a CD recently by partnering up with JJ Cale. Clapton has played Cale's songs for years, most notably on classics like "Cocaine", "Travelin' Light" and "After Midnight". Cale's laid back style of blues rock with his laconic vocals and deft guitarwork has been like the template for Clapton's best work. The combination of the two on a full album delivers everything that is promised.

The Road To Escondido (2006) features material that's just as strong as Cale's To Tulsa And Back (2004) disc. Cale's sharp songwriting gives the duo a lot to work with and the two veterans make the most of it. Cale and Clapton groove on each others performances, their voices doubling up on many parts and their guitarwork blending and intertwining with a comfortable ease. Clapton benefits the most from this, removed from his adult contemporary leanings and turning in some of his most inspired guitar playing in a decade. "Danger" and "Ride The River"are the most memorable songs on the disc, both songs armed with a strong hook and slightly up tempo beat. Cale flies his freak flag on "When This War Is Over" while Clapton delivers a pleasant acoustic ditty "Three Little Girls". Elsewhere, the relaxed blues playing takes over-occasionally working up a sweat on a hot solo to keep things interesting. The Road To Escondido is a relaxing ride with just enough curves to keep you interested.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year everyone! With a new year is a new beginning 2007 is a blank slate which I hope will be filled with personal happiness for all. To start off this year, I have a new review of the recent Lindsey Buckingham CD and will continue my countdown of favorite CD's. This is going to be a double shot of So Cal laid back 70's style rock starting with Mr. Buckingham.

Under The Skin is Lindsey Buckingham's fourth solo disc in his long running career. Mainly known as the guitarist / singer / producer of Fleetwood Mac, Buckingham has periodically popped out a solo album in between Fleetwood Mac projects. His last solo disc was Out of the Cradle (1992), a whole 14 years ago. Cradle was the definitive Lindsey Buckingham album and ranked at Number 98 of my favorite 100 CDs. Now he's back with another great CD.

Like many of his contemporaries, Under The Skin carries a theme of aging. Much of the tone is about settling down, appreciating what you've got while reminscing about the past. Amid the relaxed vibe, Buckingham also makes it clear he has more to offer and is not ready to retire. Musically, Skin also has some of Buckingham's most intricate guitar playing. While his other solo discs had a heavily produced studio sound, Under the Skin features many tracks focusing on Buckingham's voice and guitar. There is some additional percussion and instrumentation, but it's minimal. The stripped down approach and personal lyrics (plus tasteful covers) make this the most intimate album of his career.

Other Buckingham trademarks pop up during the song cycle, such as stiff rhythms and multiple vocal overdubs, but that's to be expected. Stand out tracks include the single "Show You How" with it's bopping overlapping voices in the chorus and the excellent "Cast Away Dreams" with it's atmospheric sonics and wistful style. "Down On Rodeo" is the obligatory Fleetwood Mac guest spot, though even with McVie and Fleetwood on board the rhythm is surprisingly light. Under the Skin is a fine CD that shows both maturity and adventerousness in it's concept and execution. I give it a 9 out of 10.

Another contemporary of Lindsey Buckingham comes in at Number 57:

Jackson Browne - The Next Voice You Hear (1997)

Jackson Browne, that's 70's Icon of laid back Southern California singer/songwriter navel gazing, has had a long and successful career at making personal albums with universal appeal. During the 70's, the quality of his songwriting and the tastefulness of his production were faultless. In the 80's, Browne changed his focus from the personal to the political. The change in the approach caused his music to change from personal and relatable to strident and condescending. Though Browne has since tried to reclaim his past sound, he had clearly missed his moment. Add to the fact that Browne tended to use the same melodies repeatedly made his albums a hit and miss affair. As a rule, I long held that if he released a greatest hits disc I would pick it up. In 1997, he did.

The Next Voice You Hear features Browne's biggest hits. Heard in this context, I found that the first 10 songs on the CD were some of the best songs I've ever listened to. Browne's lyrics gave a portrait of a person I could relate to, a guy who is well meaning, idealistic, selfish and cynical all at once. Jackson Browne, more than any other artist, wrote music that I heard and thought it sounded like me. If he had varied his song melodies a little more, he probably would have been my favorite musician. As it stands, he rates pretty high with me.

Voice features Browne's signature songs such as "Running On Empty", a song that evokes Fleetwood Mac's "Go Your Own Way", , Springsteen's "Born To Run" and Eric Clapton all at once. The lyrics about forging ahead while you are out of inspiration is, ironically, inspirational to me. "The Pretender" with its incisive wit about selling out on the ideal dreams of the 60's peace movement also grabbed me. And of course, "Somebody's Baby" will always bring back memories of adolescence and the movie Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982).

I hate to say it, but I do subscribe to the general notion that Browne hasn't done anything significant since the 70's (he joked about this during a Simpson's cameo). The last third of the disc which covers 1985 to present is just OK. Also, there were a number of hit songs missing, such as "The Load Out / Stay", "Boulevard" and even "You're A Friend Of Mine". A two disc set was released years later to rectify this oversight.