Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Academy Awards

...And the award for biggest snoozefest goes to: The Academy Awards! The Oscars telecast from last Sunday was a long, dull bore of epic proportions. The movie's weren't that exciting (The Departed-Martin Scorsese films corrupt people) and the hosting was perfunctionary (Ellen Degeneres did OK). The only exciting moment was watching expected winner Jennifer Hudson win best supporting actress for Dreamgirls. When Oscar winning former Vice President Al Gore comes off like a live wire, you know you're in trouble.

Ultimately, the problem with the Oscars extend to modern film itself. The winner's just seem so predictable that it's hard to get excited or feign interest. This is one of the big reasons why the film industry is financially faultering, they aren't pushing to make great movies most of the time. I understand the appeal of heavily marketed paint-by-numbers filmmaking as I have seen both Just Friends and She's The Man in the past two days. Both movie's play it safe with story and let their young actors cut loose a little to keep things interesting. While they succeed on that level, it's hard not to remember the thousands of other movies I've seen just like them.

2006 will be remembered as the year of inspired competency. I mean, it's not like Scorsese hasn't made a mob film before. But film seems destined to follow music into a place of decentralization where one piece of media cannot hold mass interest. While niche market movies are usually the best ones, in the end it's sad because media is one of the few things that tie together the lives of different people. The Oscar's theme of memorable tag lines ("Do ya feel lucky, Punk", "Rosebud" and so on) underscores this.

Hopefully, some of this trend will turn around and some mass consumption entertainment will become popular. Even a resurgence of Transformers will be welcomed if this summer turns out well. Every family will go back to buying their kids robot dolls that turn into suitcases or end tables. After all, Autobots fight battles to defeat the evil forces of...the Decepticons! It will be annoying when it hits, but it will be nice to see some common ground in entertainment again.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The French are in Love!

Recently I have two French films about Love. Not love, but Love with a capital L. Now, it may seem like saying there's a French film about amour is like saying there's beef in hamburger but I can't remember a French film on the topic before. I've caught two films with similarities and differences but both are involving and effective.

The first is An Affair Of Love (1999) about a man and woman who meet anonymously through a newspaper ad. They don't trade personal information or even names, they meet on a weekly basis to have sex without any strings attached. The arrangement works for a while but the two begin to fall in love with each other. Sadly, the insecurities that led to their original meeting begins to take its toll on their relationship. The movie is cynical yet human and filled with regret.

The second film is Jet Lag (2003) starring Jean Reno and Juliette Binoche. The two meet in an airport during a plane strike and bad weather, a simple contrivance to bottle these two characters up together. Reno plays against type as an uptight frozen food entrepreneur (he usually plays griping, rugged spies). Binoche also plays against type as a superficial beautician (she usually plays passionate, caring women on the cusp of danger). The first half of the movie crawls along slowly with only the power of these two excellent actors to carry the film. But, once the two stop avoiding each other and begin to interact the emotional investment in these actors pay off. This is the first romantic comedy I've seen in a long time where I actually cared about whether or not they were together. Just goes to show what can happen when good actors are allowed to cut loose.

These movies go through similar motions but come to different conclusions. Both show a glossy, slighly upscale world where emotionally guarded people can come together. While neither film is particularly earth shaking, I recommend both of them.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

One Foot Out The Door and Number 56

The latest from the rumor mill is in...the Van Halen reunion is not confirmed despite the press announcement because no one has signed anything yet. So, instead of going back to 1984 we may end up in 1996 where Diamond Dave made a public appearance with the band at the MTV awards and found himself fired the next day. Officially, the tour with no announced dates is on hold but at least it's not cancelled. All I can say is I am looking forward to their tour, but if it doesn't happen then they just need to stay gone. Hmmm...I wonder if it's too late for Police tickets?

A few random items, Corrine Bailey Rae's new single "Like A Star" is an outstanding song! Filled with sensuality mixed with a R&B / Jazz sensibility, the song is touching even though I can't understand a word she says.

I've been re-examining John Mayer lately, for most of his career I've written him off as a hack version of Dave Matthews. Mayer's music mainly consists of jaunty acoustic guitars, loping beats and mush mouth vocals just like Mr. Matthews but without the jam band mentality. The lack of originality matched with the pandering to his largely female fan base via "Your Body Is A Wonderland" and "Daughters" made him very annoying. However, after hearing his guitarwork at the Grammys and CMT Crossroads I decided to pick up his Try (2005) disc. On Try, Mayer's jones for Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan serves him well with a rawer take on his borrowed sound including some exciting guitar solos. Coupled with his recent Curtis Mayfield wanna be hit "Waiting For The World To Change" has made Mayer an artist worth a second look.

Lastly, I can finally resume the favorite CD countdown I started way back. Another commercially successful artist who took a chance while at their peak popularity is at Number 56:

Toto - Isolation (1984)

In 1984, Toto was riding high off winning six Grammy Awards in 1982 including both Song and Album of the Year. To highten their prestige, Toto wrote the soundtrack for the David Lynch movie Dune. It seemed Toto was unstoppable and had a great deal of momentum going into their follow up album Isolation, which at the time was more commonly known as Toto V. Despite this, Isolation ended up a Gold record with one top 40 hit. What happened?

Well, a change in Lead singers hurt the band a bit. Lead singer Bobby Kimball was fired from the band for rumored drug problems. After auditioning various vocalists, it came down to two singers: raspy voiced Eric Martin and multi octave wailer Fergie Fredericksen. In the end Fredericksen won, resulting in poor commercial sales and one of my favorite albums of all time.

Fredericksen struck me as the love child of Journey's Steve Perry and Yes' Jon Anderson ( I know, that sounds like one ugly kid). His multioctave voice soared over the songs with power and grace. But, like Jon Anderson the man had no sense of soul. Where Perry or Kimball used their R&B sensibility to punctuate feeling into their music, Fredericksen just wailed. On top of this, Fredericksen's arena rock sensibility replaced Kimball's pop R&B feel resulting in complete alienation of the Adult Contemporary crowd Toto captured with Toto IV (1982).

Ironically, Fredericksen is one of the main reasons I love Isolation. Hearing this band of accomplished musicians race through Arena rock anthems like "Angel Don't Cry", "Carmen" and "Change Of Heart" is downright thrilling. Particularly "Angel Don't Cry", a hard rocking track with scorching guitar from Steve Lukather and duelling keyboard solos from David Paich and Steve Porcaro. Through it all, new guy Fergie belts out the songs with style.

The problem was by 1984 there wasn't much of an audience for this type of music, it was already being replaced by Hair Metal bands from LA. Compounding the problem are the strong R&B numbers, "Lion" and "Endless". Fergie sings both soul ditties with a robotic style of phrasing that ruins any chance for the songs becoming hits despite the fine groove laid by the rhythm section of Jeff and Joe Porcaro. Encouraged by their #1 hit "Africa", David Paich sings lead on two silly songs. The bizarre "Stranger In Town" became the sole hit single peaking somewhere in the 30's of the top 40 chart. "Holyanna" doesn't fare much better, telling the tale of an 80's teen girl gone wild to the beat of Old Tymey music.

At least Lukather is consistent in delivering a fine power ballad, "How Does It Feel" complete with orchestra backing. While the flaws in the record put off many, I found these mistakes endearing. The stilted R&B and weird songs give the record real character and sets up the harder rocking tracks well. Toto would quickly retreat to an all Adult Contemporary album after Isolation with a new singer, but it was too little too late. And although they lost their audience, this album remains an all time favorite AOR record for me.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Growing Pains

One of my all time favorite TV shows is back on with a vengence...Growing Pains! Reruns of this classic series have been running on Ion and Nick at Nite on an almost daily basis in hour long blocks. Though often overshadowed by greater 80's family sitcoms such as The Cosby Show and Family Ties, Pains ran from 1985 to 1992 chronicling the life of the Seavers. The Seavers faced the typical family sitcom issues of first dates, bratty siblings and..well, you know, growing pains. The show exuded genuine family warmth while depicting an upper middle class brood (Mom's a TV reporter while Dad's a psychiatrist) with genial problems and a lot of free time to handle matters together. Kirk Cameron excelled as the slacker prankster pretty boy Mike Seaver until he became religious to the point he beat all the creativity out of the show. Tracy Gold also did well as girl next door brain Carol Seaver until anorexia became a real threat to her life. And Alan Thicke! What can you say?

The show's peak years from '85 to '90 represented a pleasant escape and a nostalgic look back to Reagan America. Big bold color clothes, record players and slutty Madonna jokes bring back the 80's in style. Future stars like Leo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Matthew Perry all made appearances. Although the show wasn't groundbreaking or challenging, Growing Pains knew how to play its storys with the right amounts of TV predicatability and post modern snarkiness (the best friend was named "Boner"!). Eventually the show sank under the weight of Cameron's restricitive moral demands and failure to replace him (even Leo DiCaprio failed to do this during his stint on Pains and no this was not an intentional Titantic reference).

Growing Pains' world of pleasant people with comical issues and financial comfort still has a great deal of appeal to me. Is it realistic? No, not even close. But the dream of rational, happy people who can face problems with pragmatism and care is still attractive (Alan Thicke was almost as sanctimonious as Mike Brady on the Brady Bunch, but funnier in a dorky way). The show's 80's approach of providing Middle American values with gentle humor stands out, particularly compared to today's TV family world of perverts, idiots and head cases (like The War At Home). Wow, I'm sounding more like Kirk Cameron every day. I guess TV can have an affect on people. Show me that smile again...or else you'll be Left Behind!

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Grammy Awards

The other night I purchased Grammy Nominees 2007 on CD, mainly because it had many of the hit songs from the past year where I wanted the single but not the album. Grammy Nominees 2007 (2007) is an effective sampler of the best middle of the road music available. The disc highlights the trend of the last ten years or so, which is producer heavy dance pop mixed with a touch of adult contemporary to keep things from getting too wild. Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy", Justin Timberlake's "Sexyback" and Black Eyed Peas' "My Humps" all are featured. These tunes are offset by sappy ballads like James Blunt's "You're Beautiful", Daniel Powter's "Bad Day" and Pussycat Doll's "Stickwitu". The new trend is a welcome move to more old school R&B with Mary J Blige's "Be Without You", Christina Aguilera's "Ain't No Other Man" and John Legend's "Save Room". Elsewhere, some alternative / indie music shows up here and there with Red Hot Chili Pepper's "Dani California", Death Cab For Cutie's "I Will Follow You Into The Dark" and The Fray's "Over My Head". In all, the twenty five tracks give a great snapshot of where pop music was at in 2007... very enjoyable.

The renewed focus on music that had a strong melody, old school influences and vaguely edgy values carried over to the telecast. The Dixie Chicks, a country group that was shunned by their fans after making anti war comments in 2003, took all of the major awards with the song "Not Ready To Make Nice" and the album Take The Long Way Home (2006). I felt a little mixed about their sweep, not because I have anything against the Dixie Chicks (I enjoyed their cover of Stevie Nick's "Landslide" and that "Goodbye Earl" song) but because I couldn't tell if they won for their music or making a political statement.

While the song "Not Ready To Make Nice" is good and I have played it since buying the Grammy CD, it isn't exactly a mind blowing song. While the song's content is unique in stating their autobiographical view of the past few years, the music itself is just a pleasant ballad. In terms of bringing its message across, I thought the song was a little heavy handed. While I like the Dixie Chicks well enough and an album dominating the Grammy's usually results in big sales, their victories seemed more like the record business trying to rebuild a star act and make a political statement of its own than awarding the actual best music of the year. The Chicks even won Country Album of the year though their Country fans abandoned them and the Dixie Chicks no longer consider themselves Country. What should have been a music awards show felt like an attempt to force the public to listen to music solely for it's political bent. I consider that no better than if Toby Keith had won strictly on his political opinions (hey, maybe he had as I really can't remember). The awards should go to the best music of the year, regardless of politics.

To me, the song of the year should have been "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley. It's a song that is both catchy and original, a mash up of pop and hip hop with a terrific falsetto vocal and an insistent, thumping beat. But enough crying about the unfairness of awards shows, as I'll never forget that Shakepeare In Love beat Saving Private Ryan for Best Picture in 1998. The record business is saying "Listen to the Dixie Chicks! Damn you for leaving them!!" It will be interesting to see if America listens and re-embraces this once chart topping act.

A few other notes, The Police reunion was awesome and John Mayer finally proved his guitarwork is equal to his hype. Christina Aguilera tore it up with her fantastically overblown vocal style on James Brown's "It's A Mans World". And the Red Hot Chili Peppers won Rock Album of the year for Stadium Arcadium. Plus, that red stage was the best set design I have ever seen for the Grammys. The only real disappointment...No Prince Purple Rain medley. Oh well, I guess that's what the Super Bowl was for.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

The Police returns!

It seems the last of the rock bands holding out on reuniting are looking for a big pay day in '07, because a rash of them are regrouping for big tours this year. Among them are Van Halen, reuniting with original singer David Lee Roth for the first tour since 1984. And now...The Police are back. Sting, Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers have reteamed to play a series of concerts with their still distinct reggae rock sound. What's next? Will Michael Jackson return with the face he had on Thriller?

I've already written about Van Halen a few weeks ago, but I don't recall writing about The Police. When I first started listening to music, The Police were THE new wave band. They had great songs, a signature sound, artistic credibility and a modern look. My next door neighbor was in a big Police phase at the time and I copied all of his tapes. My summer of '83 included repeat plays of Synchronicity and Zenyatta Mondatta during a particularly hot weather period. Looking back, I guess I was the original "Sweatin' To The Oldies" listening to The Police in my room in between Journey and Duran Duran.

Synchroncity will always bring back memories of that summer, it was the last summer I really spent time with childhood friends playing baseball all day, trading music tapes and getting repeatedly killed off in various role playing games (never could get the hang of Dungeons & Dragons, too many damn rules and counterrules). To cap it off, I went to a Police concert that also included The Fixx, Oingo Boingo, Madness and the Thompson Twins. I'll never forget The Fixx playing "One Thing Leads To Another" three times in a row to try to kill enough time for the sun to go down. I remember accidentally getting kicked in the head by someone walking behind me when I moved my head back to stretch after sitting in the same seat for hours. And of course, I'll never forget the show itself where The Police played every hit song they ever had.

The Police broke up a little while later, stopping while on top and never recording a bad album as a result (Sting can't say the same for his solo career). I don't know if I'll catch their reunion tour, but it's totally gnarly that this seminal 80's band has reunited. Awesome.